Wednesday 29 October 2014

Harriet Evans Writes about Dorothy Whipple for Persephone

I have bought several novels published by Persephone Books for myself or as presents either by ordering online or visiting their exquisite shop in Conduit Street in London. They make marvellous presents for reader- and writer-friends.

This publisher - dedicated to reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction mid twentieth century books, mostly by women - must be unique on the contemporary publishing scene in that they show high respect writers and readers and have a brilliant sense of the aesthetic and physical nature of books.

This was brought home to me when I came across a copy of their  2014 winter catalogue called The Persephone Biannually, It is truly a beautiful object featuring paintings and images from the 20th Century art and essays by contemporary writers which serve as forwards and afterwards of the re-published novels.

I was particularly delighted to read Harriet Evans's* passionate and iconoclastic essay introducing Dorothy Whipple's novel 'Because of The Lockwoods.' It is worth getting hold of  Persephone Biannually just for this essay alone. Like me you will be movedo to buy Dorothy Whipple's Persephone novel. 

In her essay of appreciation Harriet Evans says 

'... the world of Literary London, for want of a better expression, is today perhaps more sexist and snobbish (especially geographically snobbish), almost unbelievably, than it was when she was writing, than in the time when she was writing and the cultural tide of opinion and the cultural tide of of opinion, is these days against her. Another reason why Whipple has been disregarded by the literary mainstream is that we still live in a sexist world and in addition one where writing from the North of England is undervalued.'

Looking back on a lifetime of  writing from the North of England I can heartily endorse this.

*Harriet Evans, now a very successful novelist, was once my own very much appreciated editor. W.

Friday 24 October 2014

A Novelist’s View of the Emerging Characteristics of the Novella

 All  novelists have their own vision of the nature of the novel,

Me? As a novelist I come from a lifetime of reading hundreds, probably thousands of novels and writing a couple of dozen , I guess I have taken
Reading, writing, research -
all part of embarking on a novella
the novel form for granted. 

On reflection, in addressing the task of writing a novel I have seen it as a long piece of work: a story of between eighty and a hundred and twenty thousand words - with a distinctive range of characters; set in an authentic time in history up to the present day;  in a recognisable place or moving between recognisable places in the world.

I would see the novel  as having a core group of varied and characters with one or more probably two characters at the centre of this group, one of whom may be the narrator. In the action of the novel the spotlight might fall on different members of the core group at different times, often to illuminate the life journey, the transformation and the quest of the central character.

Of course this is a lot of stuff , but the length of the novel allows elbow-room to explore and illuminate all these aspects of a narrative. I like the form because in many ways it fits the size and hyperactive nature of my imagination. A novel can be leisurely, exploratory, urgent and illuminative in part and in turn. It can explore different points of view and leave space for the reader to join the narrative with her or his imagination and link it all together into a shared fictive world.

Tension has greater or lesser a part to play in the long novel – it informs the strong forward movement of the narrative and the character development. Tension can be evident more strongly in the thriller, adventure or crime genre – sending the reader hurtling through the novel alongside the hero or villain figures. Other novels allow themselves a more leisurely approach to their heroes’ journeys, allowing psychological exploration and thematic speculation more space for the reader to enter the action.

So what might the novella – sometimes called the ‘short novel’ - lose of all this in a form that only runs to a length of – arguably - thirty to fifty thousand words?

One might argue that it should lose nothing  - except perhaps bodies. As one studies this form with its long history in European literature and its hidden history (for reasons worth exploring) in English language literature –one begins to realise that where the novella is concerned, anything goes. Having recently read novellas in some numbers it seems to me thar the only common denominator between novellas is that they are short.

Brainstorming my new novella 

Read some of my  initial thoughts in relation to JL Carr's Month in the Country. HERE 

And  log in for  further thoughts on the Novella on this page after our exploratory Workshop at the Lafkaido Centre in Durham City tomorrow. Look HERE for Avril's take on our event.

Friday 17 October 2014

Mara and the Bombardment of Hartlepool.

Venue:  Central Library Hartlepool 21st October 2-4pm
Join me in Hartlepool at for my talk about my novel Children of the Storm. This story starts one morning with pupil teacher Mara Scorton, walking to school in Hartlepool  on December 18th 1914, the day Hartlepool was bombed by the Germans. Her pupils are coming from another direction. He headmaster, the fearsome Mr Clonmel, is in the school, preparing for his day,

My novel re-imagines these events through the eyes of young Mara.   Extract :
‘Mara turned a corner by one of the shipyards and nearly tripped over a man in working clo thes. He was kneeling by another man who was lying white and still in the road. Beside him stood a much younger man nervously clutching his cap. The man in the ground croaked something, but the man tending his shook his head. ‘Ah canna make out a word he’s sayin’, Tadger,’ he said,
‘The gadgie’s a Frenchie,’ said the younger man. ’Ah seen him down the dock, unloading, working like fury. The lads telt us he was a Frenchie, like.’
‘That’s what he’s talking,’ said Mara. ‘French.’
‘D’yer ken that crack, hinney?’ said the old man. ‘A bairn like you?’

The Bombardment
Hartlepool was the first place on mainland Britain to be bombed by the Germans. In the bombardment  over 100 people died as more than 1,000 shells rained down on the town for about 40 minutes from the three heavy cruisers Blucher, Seydlitz and Moltke which emerged from the mist shortly after 8am on December 16 1914. Amongst the casualties was Theo Jones, the first soldier to die on British soil in the Great War.
At dawn, six miles east of Hartlepool, shots were exchanged between them and the destroyers of the Local Defence Patrol who left to raise the
alarm. No-one in the town heard anything. The ‘Seydiltz’, ‘Moltke’ and ‘Blucher’ continued to steam towards the nearest target and the rest headed for Scarborourgh.
At 8.10 a.m. as the inhabitants were readying themselves for the day’s work, the first shell was fired. They were aiming at the shore batteries and the Lighthouse. The shell cut all the lines of communications between the batteries throwing them into confusion.
By 8.25 a.m. most of the ships had come as close as four thousand yards and had begun to pour their fire into the gun emplacements and the docks. Some of the armour piercing shells had delayed action fuses and a number bounced off the batteries into the town.
Henry Smith Terrace was dangerously close to the action. There were hundreds of people milling about, taken totally by surprise, the coastguards were doing their best to evacuate everybody safely. The air was filled with black smoke, the screams of shells passing overhead and the cries of children separated from their families. For about three quarters of an hour the bombardment continued, 1,150 shells were fired into the area killing 112 and wounding over 200.
 Amongst the casualties was Theo Jones, the first soldier to die on British soil in the Great War.

Note:  Children of the Storm is the middle novel in
Wendy Robertson's Kitty Rainbow Trilogy.

Details of Event:
Date: 21st Oct 14
Location: Central Library, 124 York Road, Hartlepool, TS26 9DE
Phone:01429 272905
Time: 14:00 - 16:00
Cost: £2.00
From the brochure.
‘A talk with local author Wendy Robertson.
Wendy Robertson is a renowned local author of historical family stories, she will be talking about her work and reading from her early novel Children of the Storm, which opens with the Bombardment of Hartlepool.'

Refreshments will be provided.
Copies of the novel will be available

Tuesday 14 October 2014


The central character Derek, around whom Peeling Oranges  is built, is reading yellowing letters from his mother, a heroine of revolutionary Ireland, to the man Derek thinks is his father, then in post-Civil War in Madrid:
‘…an initially neat hand succumbing to a spidery scrawl. A gush of words, impatient for ink, flying in many directions, trying to find something to stab. Written in Irish, Accent marks land randomly, surprising letters not used to stress.’

 We in England might think we share a history with Ireland. But in reading this absorbing novel I understand again what I always suspected: it is not the same history. As I read on, it dawned on me that we have more in common with the French, our fellow world Imperialists. Only the different languages divide us,

       Yet we think we share a language with the Irish. In fact we donated this English language to the Irish by force and they cleverly imported into it elements of their own and –as we know from the eminent writers in English emerging from that tradition -  transformed it into a thing of music and beauty.

 The theme of language is a strong undercurrent in this novel – almost a character in itself. English is the tongue of the oppressors and yet is universally if unwillingly used. Derek is scolded by Sinead for not speaking to her in Irish. Irish words and names (and Spanish words and names …) are scattered through the novel like a teasing code for the reader. 
        I was interested to learn that the Irish language was used as a diplomatic code to thwart the English who, during World War Two, had broken the Enigma Code but in four hundred years had never bothered to learn Irish and had even punished children for speaking it. This was especially important during and after the Spanish Civil war when Ireland officially recognised the Franco regime. believing that this gave Ireland a separate identity and and international recognition. This also made way for the declaration of Irish neutrality in the Second World War.
         Patrick, an Irish Diplomat at the court of General Franco in Madrid, is the clearest and most unambiguous character in this novel. We hear his voice through his letters and diaries, and get to know him through a visit the young Derek makes to Madrid and Barcelona.
In Peeling Oranges we move in time from the 30s to the 60s  when the revolutionary war had moved to the North of Ireland and the IRA and its heroes and heroines are still bedded in a narrative that goes back four hundred years.  This is symbolised in the persisting theme of oranges in this novel – eating, peeling them at home, picking them in Spain – the theme eventually echoed in the bitter taste of the Orange marches in Belfast.

So far, so much information and insight. This might too much to take in, if it were not for the fascinating narrative at its centre, where Derek, the lonely, neglected son of a Revolutionary heroine, and in love with such a girl of his own generation, struggles within a confusing mix of identity, history, psychology and nationhood to discover just who he is as an individual.

Derek is confused. His mother, once beautiful, is now old, becoming senile. She continues her life- long habit of being cold, cruel and rejecting towards him. Then he begins to read his father Patrick’s diaries and papers. So Derek begins to create an image of an unhappy man, madly in love with Derek’s mother, the Irish revolutionary heroine. Then there is the IRA hero lurking in the shadows of his life. And then there is the girl Sinaed - clever, committed and brave, determined to match her heroism to that of Derek’s mother.
            But Derek is tentative, not made of such heroic stuff. He struggles in the matrix of his parents’ history, hating the English, honouring the Irish and trying to become his own self. In the process he is driven unwillingly to kill and to witness the maiming of one close to him.

This novel is a fluid mass of symbolism, ideas, opinions and historical insights held together with literary efficiency by Derek’s tentative journey through his parents’ pasts into his own present. Effectively an orphan of the Revolution, he moves on just into the post-revolutionary phase of an Ireland not secured by rusty chains to the skirts of England, but emerging into the a-historical materialist world as an independent nation in the European Community.

On the cover: ‘A book to lose oneself in. Highly recommended.’ Gabriel Byrne

I certainly lost myself in it. It is a great read. 

Highly recommended. w.

Thursday 9 October 2014

J.L.Carr's Novella: A Month in The Country,

The Novella Form
At present I am transfixed by thoughts about contemporary fiction in the form of a novella, although buried under the optimistic label of a novel,
       The reading has been interesting. ‘Novels’ by Henry James, Truman Capote, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Mann – all have won great praise for books which have been labelled ‘novels’  but which in their length (30 to 50 thousand words) and form (focused, singular, obsessive) clearly meet criteria for the novella – or what is now being called more neutrally, ‘short fiction’.
         The novella form has been something of a Sleeping Beauty up till now but has been kissed into visibility by the widespread emergence of eBooks where length is an invisible factor.

A Month in the Country
Knowing my present obsession my friend Pat steered me in the direction of A Month in the Country by J. L Carr. This is a real treasure - an outstanding 'novel' which won the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, as was another of H.L. Carr’s novels.

The Small Tale
In his forward Carr quotes a definition by Dr Johnson. ‘A novel - a small tale, generally of love.'

The year is 1920. Recovering from shell shock which persists as a facial twitch, Tom Birkin arrives in a sleepy Yorkshire village to restore ancient murals in its tiny church. As he slowly uncovers the medieval images of heaven and hell he is imbued by a sense of the medieval painter who first laid paint on these walls. Outside the church he meets the archaeologist Moon who is digging a portentous hole outside the church. Moon another man constructing his own survival after savage war experiences. Further into the shadows are the sour vicar and his beautiful wife both shell shocked by the exigencies of daily life. On the lighter edge are Mossop the stationmaster – the voices of kindness and reason - and his daughter.
          This complex work with its elaborate over-weaving of character and story and under-weaving of universal themes is told in clean prose which extends to a powerful evocation of weather and landscape that binds man to the world and can make a man’s spirit whole.
        In the introduction in my edition Penelope Fitzgerald says, ‘Carr is by no means a lavish writer but he has the magic touch to enter a re-imagined past.’

Size Isn’t Everything
A Month in the Country is only thirty five thousand words long. But there is nothing small  about this tale where Tom Birkin uncovers the painting on the wall and intuits some deep truths about the man who painted them, at the same time waking from the long nightmare of fighting in the trenches,
           Seen through Tom Birkin’s eyes, structurally near perfect, very readable and drenched with powerful meaning, this tale even has an intriguing revelation towards the end which, on examination, has been bedded into the story so far.
            Some writers might need a hundred thousand words to weave this amount of meaning and literary magic into a story. H.L Carr managed it on thirty five thousand words. That is the potential power of the novella. No small thing.

The Writer
H L Carr was a stubborn anti-establishment autodidact who disliked London ways. He was a teacher, traveller, small publisher and writer who knowingly and sometimes mischievously wove his own life right through his fiction and published novels right into his late seventies. His own life - find out from  Byron Rogers' insightful, affectionate biography  The Last Englishman - has the slightly manic tone of a picaresque novel.

The Novella
Thank you Pat for pointing me in the direction of A Month in the Country - no small thing but a very fine – I now insist - novella! Having read this great story I now have a brilliant benchmark for what may be adjudged a fine novella.
We will be discussing all this and approaches to writing your own novells at our Novella Workshop in Durham City on 25 October. 
Perhaps you might like to join us?

Thursday 2 October 2014

Brilliant RTW Celebration of our Winning Writers

Laughter and  great conversation  at last night's Room To Write celebration for the winners and shortlisted writers in our

Room to Write Short Story Competition.

Today, from Ruth Henderson, short-listed writer, to us at  'Room to Write':

Dear Avril, Wendy and Gillian. Thank you for a lovely time last evening, it was good to talk to all the short listed writers, there's always a new friend to make. Listening to why the judges liked a particular story was so interesting, I'm looking forward to reading them all. ...You were all so kind to me, seeking me out to talk about my work.  it was obvious all the judges really had read every story, and, although I'm sure Pat Barker was kind to all of us, I was thrilled when she spoke to me with such knowledge and understanding of my story. so once again, many thanks and i wish success to you all and continuing prestige for Room to Write'                                           Ruth

Sally Wylden - , short-listed writer - talking to Pat Barker

Writers Eileen Elgey and Liz  Gill celebrate in style

Our Winner Christine Powell in the peace garden
at  the Lafcadio Hearn Peace Garden at Lafkadio Hearn Centre
at Teikyo University at Durham

Novelist Pat Barker who presented the prizes talking to two winners
Christine Powell and John Adams

rachel cochrane in earnest conversation with writers. Rachel
 will record the winning stories for her broadcasting website   

Ruth Henderson - short listed writer - in conversation.
Behind her Mike Daley Bursar  of  

Teiko University of Japan in Durham. 

In the centre here writers Kitty Fitzgerald and Carol Clewlow . With her, hand chin, middle distance, is short-listed writer Isabel Costello,

Me taking a breather  
(I am smiling inside, honestly!)


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