Wednesday 23 September 2015

My Notes on Ian McEwan’s Views on Writing

I thought I would like to share with you my notes on watching Melvyn Bragg’s conversation with Ian McEwan on the South Bank Show Originals series. In the interview Melvyn himself comments on Ian’s ‘focused zeal’ for and on writing. I was struck again by how relevant his words are for any experienced and aspiring writer in the modern world of writing and publishing..

Here are my notes verbatim

‘Writing tells you how the writing it fitted into the novel.’
(Melvin comments on McEwan’s ‘focused zeal’.  They talk about ‘the facts of the streets.’)

Ian talks of being the only student on the first Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. His weekly tutorials consisted on meeting Professor Malcolm Bradbury (‘a superstar professor who gave me a sense of readership.’)Bradbury would read this week’s story and simply ask Ian for the next. 

In this year Ian McEwan wrote twenty five short stories* which were the launching pad for his literary and professional success.

Ian mentions, in later times, of ‘writing himself into a corner.’ And ‘having closed down for years.’  And feeling ‘locked down’. He mentions ‘writing myself into silence.’ And 'The act of writing demands that one ‘Engages with the world.’

 In later years he began to free his voice in writing libretti and screenplays before beginning his more recent novels.

Writer and critic DJ Taylor shares his views in the programme. He says - talking of the short novel Yesterday’ - ‘It’s quite an old fashioned book – an issue novel.’ But he admires his writing. ‘He writes brilliant sentences.’

Some brilliant thoughts from Ian McKewan on Writing

 ‘Happiness and anxiety rubbing along together.’
‘How does matter become conscious?’
He speaks of the material view of life being rich and human.  ‘In the material view of life there is a beauty and grandeur.’
‘It is the actual, not the magical that should be challenged.’
‘We have not yet bettered a device like the novel to find out what it might be like to be other people.’
‘Even poetry cannot tell you what it’s like to be an individual moving through time.’’
‘Think of novels like minestrone soup…’

*One would like to see such high literary productivity among the students emerging from the plethora of Creative Writing MAs now being commodified and pushed across Britain these days.  One hears troubling accounts of the lack of literary product in the maze of sub-Eng Lit exercises, and of promising writers who stop actually writing their short stories and novels for years after completing their degree. Of course the graduaes might ‘teach’ Creative Writing, or nibble the edges of literary journalism with reviews and criticism. Good luck to them.
But I think Ian McEwan had a much better deal, sitting in the pub talking to Malcolm Bradbury knowing he had an audience for the next short story. And the next.

My Own Advice to Aspiring Writers Regarding Further Study
Option One
I do encourage writers to study for further degrees if they fancy that. But urge them to make it history, politics, art, physics: any field that makes it an authentic academic experience that toughens the mind and develops the senses.

During that time, I will say, you can write your novels and short stories in the evenings and week-ends. After a year or so you will have a Master’s Degree in a valid subject with substantive content which could inspire a body of creative work that reflects your unique writing self and will find its readers.

Option Two.
Equally I might say to these aspiring writers - go off and work on a building site, in a factory, in a café in a forest or a bank. Or go travelling for a couple of years. And still write your short stories.  poems or novel at the evenings and weekends. In this way you will have enriching, valid experiences and a body of creative work that has substantive content emerging from your working life.  This will reflect your unique writing self and will find its readers.

There is a good argument for each of these options.

Option One will furnish you with an alternative career while you are making your way in the challenging world of writing and publishing. It might make a hole in your bank balance but ultimately it would be worth it.

Option Two will not leave you in debt and allows you to live in the real world as you develop your writing. You will move among people outside the slightly precious world of acadême. It’s always a good thing for a writer to get inside the lives of people different to yourself.  As Ian McEwan says, ‘We have not yet bettered a device like the novel to find out what it might be like to be other people.’

Any of these experiences will develop your material view of life. As Ian McEwan says   ‘… the material view of life [is] rich and human.’ And also:   ‘In the material view of life there is a beauty and grandeur.’


Sunday 20 September 2015

'Writing a cookery best-seller is easy.' Maybe.

I  have remarked here several times that  the art of writing a novel or short story is close cousin  to
 the art and craft  of painting. Now, after a delightful week spent in the company of  the very creative @licked spoon  I would include the art and craft of gardening and cooking for their  relevance to the art of writing fiction.

And now I feel this even more so, having read Jane Middleton's visionary Guardian article    Want to write a best-selling cookery book? Don’t worry about making it any good.

Middleton is very good at irony. To quote her directly: Above all, remember that anyone can write a cookbook. Writing a cookery best-seller is easy. Why else would there be so many of them? But writing a good and original one – well, that would just spoil the fun for everyone else.'

Much of the witty critique in Middleton’s article seems to me to apply directly to the sometimes bizarre situation today in the world  of modern fiction.

I think all fiction writers, whether they cook of not, would relish the implications of this article by a great cookery writer for their own writing.

What do you think? 

Tuesday 15 September 2015

The Paradox of the Continuing Attraction of Fiction Inspired by World War One

Iconic Image of World War One

Like many of us, this year and last,  I’ve had World War One on my mind. Like many of us, as a child growing up in the after-shade of World War Two, I absorbed the heroic legends of the First World War into my inner story-scape to the extent that I ‘knew’  the truth of that war and this second World War,

As time went on, this possibly illusory inner certainty was hauled into balance by my political and historical studies of the first half of the Twentieth Century - to the extent that my first properly researched published adult novel Riches of the Earth involved both the home front and the battle front in those First World War years.

The fact that my own grandfather was killed in that war gave me a personal link that I share with many writers of my generation. The blood in our veins helped us channel experiences both at home and in France into rivers of fiction.

World War One continues to be an area of fiction that continues to fascinate both

French Soldiers in Eastern France

readers and writers, not least because we still have to work out what we feel about the nature of war that still seems to permeate the air  around us. These days war is not being slogged out blow for blow in mud and blood in nearby France and Belgium. Still, broken bodies and despairing families stare at us from our screens. There in the comfort of our sitting rooms, as well as seeing innocent victim of war, we witness 
graphic images on our TV and computer screens, of soldiers who have fought in our name in the Middle East,  physically and sometimes mentally disabled by devastating war experiences.

As an aside: Pat Barker’s Booker Prizewinning novel Regeneration, as well as being a top-notch novel in literary terms, taught the reading public a great deal about the devastating nature of what was then known a Shell Shock, and what we now label as Post Traumatic Stress  Disorder. We continue to learn.*

For some there can be a self-generated light at the end of the tunnel. One of my
lifetime highlights was the day I spent at the 2012 Paralympics where athletes with disability  – some of them ex-military - proved themselves equal to mainstream athletes in sporting dedication, discipline and supreme ability.

The Reading Groups

So you will see from all this how inspired I felt to agree when Dorothy Mason, Durham City ex-librarian asked, me to lead two discussions at Belmont Library on World War One fiction with two writers’ groups to discuss World War One fiction on October 21st and October 22nd.

My idea is that these discussions will not just be a critical introduction and discussion of one novel. Rather it will be a wider ranging discussion of the approaches of many writers to devastatingly rich inspiration of the events and backgrounds to those years
between 1914-1918

I feel that readers can bring to this discussion their reading of any novel that reflects their feelings about World War One. In the process we will all gain new insights,

The List

To make this happen Dorothy and I got together and made a list of forty possible novels that will be available to readers  at Belmont Library in Durham City. You can see the list HERE if you are curious. Our  list includes English, American and European texts and includes remarkable examples of children’s fiction.

Questions for Discussion.

Our idea is that those coming to the discussion will have read at least one of these novels  so they may add their opinion to the discussion which could circle around certain  questions:

Why is World War One such and ongoing theme for writers?

What do these varied novels have in common?

What do the writers have in common?

How does their writing  differ?

Do you recognise World War One Stereotypes in these novels.

What role do they play in the novel(s) you have read?

Do we focus too easily on the Engish experience of this war?

Other questions will apply of course. If you yourself have suggested questions let me have them here and I will add them into the mix.
If you have any other views on this generic and ever-lively theme, you can comment and share here.

The Books

I have read a number of the novels on the list and look forward to hearing from other readers about novels with which I am not yet acquainted.

At present I am re-reading some or my own preferred titles and fresh reading others. This week my choice is One of Ours by Willa Cather and The Lie by Helen Dunmore.

More about these two novels and writers in my next post.

*NB Avril Joy and I are looking forward in the Spring to running writing workshops in Durham with army veterans under the auspices of the war veteran’s charity Forward Assist.

Happy Reading


Sunday 6 September 2015

Wonderful Reviews: The One True Path

I could not resist sharing with you these two Amazon readers' reviews of The Pathfinder. It is very touching to find  readers who can so well access the heart of one's story as well as the unique challenges of writing a novel.

1] Amazon Five Stars 'The one true path' 4 Sept. 2015

 ...'I have just finished this spell-binding book, rationing out the pages towards the end, so that I could savour every word.

Wendy Robertson is a consummate practitioner of the crossover novel, one foot in the 'now' the other in the 'then' but with this book she has planted both feet firmly on the same historical path and the results are wonderful.

'The Pathfinder' has allowed me to bury two of my reading bête noirs. One is that I don't like historical fiction, the other is that I avoid books that make me cry. However this book has confounded both of these prejudices. I loved the story, part fact, part fiction and I was genuinely moved - not manipulated- by the beauty of the writing and the incredibly sad but uplifting ending.

I don't hesitate in giving this book five stars. I'd give it more if this were possible! Other reviewers will give you in depth details of the story but if I were you, I'd just read it (very slowly) and enjoy every single moment.'...

2] Amazon 5 Stars. What a Remarkable Book!

Find on Kindle or in Paperback

' ...The past has never felt so real as in the last days of Roman Britain and the uneasy peace between natives and conquerors portrayed in Wendy Robertson's 'Pathfinder'. Heroine Elen is a beautifully drawn character uniting natives with the conquerors.

Pathways lead in two directions and fey Elen's 'honeycomb' mind leads back centuries into the mists of time. But she is young and resourceful and her ordained path leads from her beloved coastal marshland of West Briain into Roman Gaul when the Roman leader of Britain Magnus Maximum falls I love with the native girl, drawing her father and warrior brothers into his military schemes.
The book is filled with believable,fascinating characters. including Aunt Olwen a drowned spirit, song-writer brother Lleu, and Quin the faithful Roman devoted to both Elen and Magnus Maximus.

It is a delightful, thought provoking read and I could not put it down. So many questions answered, so many tantalisingly left. Elen has a future in her homeland and I want to know more.
 I love it. What a remarkable book! ...' 

The Pathfinder:  

PS I have written HERE before about the importance of reviews. The  commentaries above  show how readers' words  can lift the heart of a writer, inspiring her  to continue to produce original, authentic stories for insightful readers.



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