Tuesday 17 October 2017

It seems appropriate, after yesterday’s extraordinary red skies, to be writing about a novel which is set after an  apocalypse when cities have been razed, industry destroyed and the countryside blighted.
Amity and The Angel, Sharon Griffiths’ new novel has just such a setting. It is located, very believably, on a remote Scottish island. 

Here, the surviving population, in its efforts to rebuild itself after the catastrophe, has reverted to a mediaeval culture built on self-sufficiency, religious certainties and a rigid social structure where it is taken for granted that women should be submissive and are there to be of service to the men; any independence is frowned on.  Here, extraordinarily, singing and dancing is forbidden, as are books and musical instruments.

I feel that in the present day it is clear that these ideas are  not so much of a ‘fantasy’. Occasionally it seems we could be on the very edge of just such a  post-apocalyptic world.

Sharon Griffiths is ‘on trend’: the world of children’s and young adult literature reefs reflects this feeling. Young people and children are - if anything - more aware of such threats in this generation than in any earlier generation. So it is fitting that Griffiths’ future fiction is labelled a ‘young adult’ novel. I also think, well written and quite plausible as it is, people of any age will enjoy it.

Amity has grown up in this island community unaware of the outside world, listening to myths and stories about what real life used to be, compared to what it is now. Perpetually curious about the outside world, here on the island Amity feels like an outsider herself; she struggles with the mental and physical restrictions and yearns for a freer, more colourful physical and mental life.

Amity’s is aided on her quest in true fairy-tale fashion by her childhood sweetheart, who seems to be weirdly transformed into one of the ‘elders’ who dominate this regressive community. She also has the aid of memory of the tales of her grandmother who actually, ‘wore high heels and lipstick when she was young.

Then she encounters her ‘angel’ on the seashore:  another hunted outsider. From him she learns possible, more equal world where creativity is not wasteful and that singing and dancing can make you happy.

As well as taking us to into a logically imagined world Amity’s Angel falls into the category of rights-of-passage novels favoured by many great writers like William Golding, Mark Twain CS Lewis and JK Rowling.

I think this, her third novel, will delight, entertain and inform Sharon Griffiths’ wide range of readers - perhaps more used to the witty social and political commentary in her many columns and articles in the Eastern Daily Press, Northern Echo and the Guardian. I have a feeling that this novel fits her worldview in that it deals with her insight into the of politics and vagaries of family and society and the present concerns about human survival’

And Amity and the Angel isa very good and entertaining read! It does read like the first in a series of novels about Amity. 

I do hope so. 

 Highly recommended.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

David Almond and a Life in Short Stories

My highly literate reading friend Hugh brought in a copy of David Almond’s fascinating collection 
Half a Creature from the Sea; a life in Short Stories.

This will be discussed at the next meeting of Hugh’s Reading group in Spennymoor. I was instantly interested as David is an old friend and colleague of mine. (I remember seeing the first manuscript of his fabulous prizewinning novel Skellig.)’ In my opinions David is the most significant writer of his generation. Digging into the real, the surreal  and imaginative truths of children’s lives in the Twentieth Century.

 His writing workshops, like his stories, are simple and complex, ambitious and accessible.

I asked my friend  Hugh what he thought  of Half a Creature from the Sea; a life in Short Stories. He loved it. 'These stories are enchanting, highly  imagined; an  extraordinary  mixture of realism and magic. And  there is an invaluable accompanying narrative linking them to his life: how stories are an interesting blend of preparation and inspiration.'


Extract from David Almond’s book of short stories       Half a Creature from the Sea.harry miller’s run

I have quoted it here in full because it is an experience we shared when I was writer in Residence at Low Newton Women's Prison and I appreciate the truth of what he says here and his mentioning Avril and me. We had many visiting writers during my time there and he was the best.

Page 106 “… to prepare to write the story I went to watch the run. That morning I’d arranged to give a writing workshop at low Newton women’s prison in Durham along with the writers Wendy Robertson and Avril Troy who ran the (creative writing) program there.
When I arrived I was guided through a series of gates and doors by uniformed prison officer. Each one was unlocked, opened, then shut and locked again. Keys jangling steel clanged.
I was taken to a library and with a few arm chairs and tables and it. Then the women came in. They were shy at first, may be suspicious, but they soon relaxed. I talked about my life and my writing.
We did a couple of quick imagination exercises, made a a few first scribbles. Some of the women began to tell me about their own lives in childhood. They hinted at the difficulties deprivation and abuses they’d endured they talked about the constriction of being in this place, about the fellowship they try to develop with each other, and the inevitable frictions and fights. Many of them wanted to write about themselves, set to to somehow turn their lives into coherent stories.
 I said that fictionalising in your life can make it seem more real and can make difficult personal experiences more bearable. We scribbled again, and began to shake the scribbles into narratives. Before I left one of the women suddenly said,  ‘ I’m like you David. My childhood was like yours.’
She laughed.
’And look where I’ve ended up!’ she said.
I was led back through the clanging doors. At the exit Avril told me that there was much more the women could have said.
‘ They’ve had some awful journeys,’ she said. “

  Afternote: My book  Paulie' Web  is the  creative outcome of mytime in Low Newton  over three years, as Writer in Residence

Book on Amazon

Saturday 7 October 2017

The Paradox of Researching for fiction

  Researching a substantial novel set in a certain time means reading, checking out,  exploring the unavoidable facts of those times - a world war for instance, or  the eruption of a volcano. Unless you're writing parody. These substantial and real events have to be right,  fixed and immovable. To ignore them, exaggerate them or fantasise with them or create fantasies from them requires a different process. Perhaps an a-historical process  

But what about the more fluid cultural social and sensual world which existed around these immovable moments of historical fact? These are elements which will make your historical account or your historical novel unique and at the same time universal to your reader.

If I were making a story about say Pompeii I'd be referring to myth and song as well as to to the destruction of a stone built environment. I did this with The Pathfinder my  novel about post-Roman Celtic Britain. To build a real world where people lived and breathed I had to take note of poetry, song and myth and the many artefacts and articles that characterised  those times 

I hope I succeeded.

But in more recent times the monuments of fact and history are embedded in our meta-world of fiction story speculation personification poetry and the personal fiction of diary memoir and now film and expansive, often exaggerated, press content.  

I like to access  the perceptions and the sensibilities of a certain time is through its art and – a favourite of mine – it's popular fiction.

As my present novel Lifespan  takes place from 1941 to the year 2000 I have a multiplicity of twentieth century sources in terms of pure fiction and biography and autobiography. It has been said many times that biography and autobiography - being selections from lives - are in their own way categories of fiction. It can  be said that they are also categories of history and in that carry a certain kind of truth. So the selectivity and possible bias in such sources as biography and autobiography and even diaries make a kind of meta-fiction which is still important to my kind of research

Of course this means for people like me the piles of books to be read and noted  grows day by day. Add to that key Internet sites and this adds up to a lot of research to absorb in order to imagine and freely write historical novels that have the ring of truth about them.

Such books and sources a allow the researcher to access the distinctive subtleties of social context and the sensibilities, the assumptions and attitudes of the varied characters she is imagining and growing within the narrative.

Julian McLaren Ross

 In some places the line between fact and fiction blurs rather satisfactorily,  leaving an historical trail from fact to fiction. I have just discovered that Julian McLaren Ross, whose book  - Memoirs of the 40s - I am reading alongside his  biography  Fear  and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willettsthis is the man who was  -  in terms of distinctive, louche manners and mannerisms - mimicked by  Olivia Manning  for her dissolute character Prince Yakimov in her Fortunes of War Trilogy. This means, of course that I have to re-read these books...The jury is out as to whether this is a true portrait rather than a caricature.

Olivia Manning

Even so it does demonstrate  how that the true nature of unique characters has impact  on the imagined characters in the literature  of their contemporary world.  This can happen with fiction writers writing in and of their own time like Rosamond Lehman, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elizabeth David, Elizabeth Bowen and many more can give us clues to contemporaneous habits, standards, speech modes and values  of a time even if our own invented characters  emerge from a different inspirational source. 

Rosamund Lehmann

In this lies the imaginative freedom of historical fiction which allows present-day readers with their own modern  habits, standards and values, access to the minds of and lives of people in earlier times. So they enjoy reading fiction in a different way from the way they enjoy reading history. 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...