Here is what I am up to next year. Or rather, here is what I can tell you so far. Now look, readers and writers: things have got most tricky at Bookworm Towers. It happens. But, you see, never feel that if life is difficult, if you experience illness or are bereft, your creativity will wither alongside. Take heart; nurture it and believe in it. Make things. That is what I am continuing to do. In the midst of sadness I am writing another book.
What’s coming? In April, you can read my new novel, Saving Lucia. Here she is above. The book that started with a chance sighting of that photo above – the one where the elderly lady is feeding the birds, so very tenderly. She was the Honourable Violet Gibson and, in April 1926, she went to Rome and tried to kill Mussolini, She shot him in the nose. She got closer than anyone else. Lady Gibson was knocked to the ground, put in prison and, eventually, deported; thereafter, she was certified insane and spent the rest of her life in St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. Later, a fellow patient was Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. What if…and do you see the other women above? That’s Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics at the Salpetriere and that’s Monsieur Charcot demonstrating what happens under hypnosis. She is most remarkably responsive. To her right is Bertha Pappenheim, a prominent Jewish social worker, whose institute was razed by the Nazis. It was not until twenty years after her death that she was also revealed to be ‘Anna O’, in Freud and Breuer’s On Hysteria. These women have an extraordinary story to tell you, so stick around. The book is published on April the 24th, but Bluemoose Books is starting a subscription service, where it will be available to subscribers from (I gather) late February. Follow all news here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ Saving Lucia is part of Bluemoose’s all women catalogue for 2020.
Below is a gallery of images pertinent to what I have been writing about; from a bookshop of towering shelves, an old asylum window, Victorian portraits (the first one has a memento mori which has been added subsequently, but I liked it!), a devil, a baptism in 17th century Virginia, shades of grief, my late grandmother’s house on the Cleddau in Pembrokeshire (the setting for two books now), the holy well of St Non’s near St David’s and Walton West church on St Brides’ Bay in Pembrokeshire, fictionalised in the book I have just sent to my agent…(see below)…
In June, I have an essay in Dodo Ink’s Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health; it’s called ‘In Order to Live’ and is about reading and the imagination in my life, kid up, in the face of trauma. Reading as survival, in fact. http://www.dodoink.com/blog and – details when they are up – I also have some weird fiction in a new anthology by Unsung Stories; it’s a really interesting concept and one very important to me: weird fiction exploring mental health themes but also hopeful uplift on these themes. You will see!
In September, my first short story collection is out. Here.
This is already available for pre-order as part of Influx Press’s subscription service. https://www.influxpress.com/famished Hit the subscription button.
‘In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes. Famished: eighteen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.’ Oooh and ugh.
Ah but that is not all my bravehearts. I have also, thus is the way these things work, submitted a second novel – witchery in mid 17th-century Somerset and Virginia called The Revelations of Celia Masters – and a second short story collection called Ravished. And if there is news, you will be the first to hear it.
I have written my first magical realism and handed my work in to the literary agency who this year signed me: Mackenzie Wolf, NYC and one of the best girls in the world, my agent Kate Johnson. I think I am allowed to say that this is called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I have been asked by a few people why I am with an American agency. This is partly because we are an Anglo-American crew at Bookworm Towers and I try to split my time as much as I can, partly because they also have a presence here and partly because of my literary interests and ambitions and where. And because of Kate. The best girl. I am desperate to tell you more about this book, set in Wales, London and Ethiopia during WWII – but I cannot. x
When we have had a meeting about it, I will tell you more about a thing which I am over the moon to be able to do: for September 2020 I am offering at least partial fee remission for an MFA (in creative writing) for a student from a disadvantaged background. I have asked if there can be a focus on someone whose life has been circumscribed by mental illness. This is because mine has been – and that’s really why I wrote a novel, Saving Lucia (back to top) about this theme, too. And I am building a writing retreat and teaching room in my garden. I do mean I am building it. With a bit of help, When I am up and running, I will tell you all.
Oh, there will be a lot to share. We will bring you events and news on Saving Lucia – here she is again and note the four windows and the bird on this beautiful cover, below – and I shall share them here and on social media and tell you about everything else that is happening. Saving Lucia is my third book, with the first two Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost no longer with their original publisher and on the move. We will bring you news on this all in good time; you can find copies floating about though!
I have chosen my FREE READ for 2020. I usually do four a year, but 2020 sees all this work on top of my day job (I am an English teacher, tutor and mentor for young people) and extra care for my two eldest boys who are in exam years and have additional needs. This is going to be a rollercoaster year, isn’t it?
I hope we get to meet and I wish you a Happy 2020 and much wonderful reading, perhaps writing. Oh – and I mentioned that I was writing a new book. Here is how it started. The image is of me with the two Shirley Jackson books which are the biggest influence on what I am writing at the moment. It’s called We All Live in a House on Fire -and have a Welsh cake for knowing that the title comes from Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. And I can’t tell you anything about what I am writing either. Except that I am a third of the way through and very excited. It’s strange how ideas bubble up. I was upset one night and couldn’t sleep. I started re-reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle and there we were. By 4.a.m. I had started writing chapter 2. I anticipate that I will have finished this new novel by the end of March. I write quickly; it’s just how I roll. I have written all my books in 3-4 months, but I wrote my two short story collections in three crazy weeks a pop. Everyone is different and, anyway, I’d say it’s not the writing that takes the time, it’s the editing. Imagine that, when your book goes to your editor – aside of what you have done yourself – it’s about half-way there. But you may feel differently!
But for now, it’s all about Saving Lucia. I hope you like it xxx
‘But what do you know, who has not been mad?’
So, rather wonderfully, the proofs of my new book, Saving Lucia, are out and about. Bluemoose will be putting its new subscription service into action soon too; do watch out for that because, if you have liked the sound of Saving Lucia so far, as a subscriber, you’d get to read it two months early; in February, rather than April.
There is something I thought I would share with you today, though. As I have said elsewhere, the idea for Saving Lucia came from a chance sighting of this photograph.
Who was this? Elderly and (perhaps?) frail-looking; facing away from the camera; arms in a beautiful pose and look how she is covered with birds! It caught my eye. This lady was a Lady. She was The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson, an Irish aristocrat, and she loved the birds of the air. I found out that there were pouches sewn into her clothes and that these were to be filled with birdseed. Actually, I interviewed one of the nurses (now in her nineties) who cared for her – again because of a chance sighting of an article on psychiatric nursing – and gradually a book took shape. In 1926 Violet Gibson went to Rome and shot Mussolini. She missed, grazing across his nose – but she came closer than anyone else. Imprisoned, then deported, she was certified mad in Harley Street and sent to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton where she remained for the rest of her life.
I will not say more of her story now, because we, as a team, will reveal and discuss things over the coming months – and of course I hope you will read the book.
But here is the thing I mentioned I wanted to share with you.
The book is about sanity. About madness. Our shifting definitions of what this is.
The book is about the imagination.
About its power and ability to sustain and transform a world. Yes, in the books we read which have sprung like fresh miracle from others’ imaginations, but also in that landscape inside our heads. The stories we tell ourselves and our reveries and daydreams and also the detailed imaginative freewheeling that may occur when circumstances press in on us and circumscribe our physical and psychological freedom. The latter is something I learned in very early childhood and have written about elsewhere: because I did not feel safe in the world I inhabited, I invented a lot of imaginary friends with whom I would have dialogue. This was not madness, but survival and company – and in essence it lasted into adolescence because the impact of early and sustained experience had catastrophic effects on my sense of identity, coping skills, resilience, responses to stress and on my mental health broadly. So, I have coped with OCD, depression, generalised anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks and dissociative episodes for large parts of my life. These seemed to grow from complex trauma. I feel like I would not have survived these things – and sometimes it has been a close thing; those of you have received crisis care from our mental health teams will know what I mean – without all the worlds inside my head. Stories, reams of poetry, landscapes I would invent and populate.
So you see, Saving Lucia sprang from a chance sighting of a photo. Then I realised that Lucia Joyce, daughter of the novelist James Joyce, was a co-patient of Violet Gibson. And that was someone whose well-explored – and circumscribed, thanks (I am sorry if this is too harsh) to the efforts of the keeper of the Joyce estate – life and truths I longed to ponder. And there were other women, too. And poets, dictators, theosophists, priests, neurologists – and many more I wished to think about.
But there was something else that it sprang from, and this was my feeling about the power of the imagination to provide for us when we are laid low; when we are, in one way or another, confined. That is partly the reason why I have Violet, who has extraordinary adventures in the book, say, ‘For those who are confined have the best imaginations.’ I didn’t mean it lightly.
Ah well, I hope we can talk a lot more about this book in the coming months. In the meantime, here is the beginning of an essay I have coming out also in April. It’s a book about art and mental health and my focus here, as you see, is on the imagination and very specifically about reading, without which I doubt I would have survived. Trauma: Art as Response to Mental Health, from Dodo Ink edited by Thom Cuell and Sam Mills. I hope you will read that, too.
‘Do not read, as children do, for the sake of entertainment, or, like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.
And read, read, read in order to build and rebuild. Listen, too, to stories; to new words and worlds. This is how it was for me, reading to set the darkness echoing and to know that I was not alone. You may think (as Flaubert) that young children do not feel this way about books, but even as a young child, I read both for entertainment and safety, because I could find spaces with characters, or just linger with the feelings that words gave me when I ate them or jumbled them about in my mouth. I would talk to the characters in books and ask their advice; tell them how I felt. Or read passages again and again for security; they were as a private talisman to me. I think, looking back, that I savoured scansion or the weight of a line for its mnemonic qualities and the comfort that afforded.
In bed, as a kid, I would hear shouting or groaning; diffuse sounds. Arguments. Later, my father whimpering and screaming, because he went mad before he died, though no-one spoke about it. I would hear stertorous breathing and feel frightened, but there was no-one to tell. And I think that the sounds outside my room got mixed up with the sounds in my head. When I was very young, I also began a series of rebarbative and ruminating thoughts, the roots of obsessive compulsive patterns I suppose, in which I imagined that if I thought something bad, then it would happen to something. That if I thought something unkind or even allowed the words egress into my mind, then those words will billow out and do things. This was, I knew even then, because my mother had instilled in me an idea that I was bringing of bad things. Looking back, I don’t know why she did this; I don’t know why she wasn’t prevented. Even now, if I am not careful, I slip into this position if someone is particularly caustic to me because I may struggle to believe, despite the pressing of my rational mind, that it could be them, and not me. I turn to reading. Every time.’
I thought, as I am about to go into hiding for a bit, that I ought to update my writing news. This isn’t my day job, but my goodness there’s a lot happening with me, books and writing.
Before Christmas, we hope to give you information on events for the launch of my new novel, Saving Lucia. This is an extraordinary adventure, starring Violet Gibson, the Irish Aristocrat who tried to assassinate Mussolini in 1926…Isn’t this a beautiful cover? Note the bird. It’s a passerine. Note the four lit windows. I LOVE IT and pretty soon will tell you why it has this design and whose windows they are.
We have been working on final edits and book has now gone to proof. I hope that I might see you at London or Bath launches in April and there will be events during the year.
This is a very busy year for me. In addition to teaching, tutoring and mentoring young people, I am also a volunteer and I need to see my two eldest boys through exam years and also…in September…my first volume of short stories is out. You can even pre-order now as part of the subscription service from Influx: https://www.influxpress.com/famished
It’s wonderful to see such different cover styles; this brilliant edible plate that gets weirder the more you look at it. 18 stories: weird fiction, bit punky, lots of Welsh, terrible feasts, gothic pop shops, killer sweets and some funny bits of consumption. It’s very different to Saving Lucia, but I will be so interested to see people make comparisons and find links. Because, there are some. To discuss later, I hope. And next year, we will bring you details of launches and maybe lascivious lunches and oooh.
I have an essay – a memoir piece – called ‘In Order to Live’ in April’s Dodo Ink Anthology, Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health and towards summer, you can see my weird fiction, ‘House’, in a new anthology from Unsung Stories. I hope that, during the year, I will have the opportunity to write further pieces connected with the two books I have out next year.
Alongside all this, I have a further short story collection on submission – ‘Ravished’ – and another novel, The Revelations of Celia Masters, which is historical fiction, waiting to be read. And I am working with my agent, Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf http://www.mwlit.com/ on other things. She is in actual fact the best agent in the world. You might have noticed me tweeting questions about all kinds of things from zebra feet to The Holy Grail. I tell you no more about why. But I can say that what I am working on is Magical Realism and I was lucky enough to have a brilliant beta reader for this that I’d love to name…but will embarrass at a later date. I am small fry compared to the folk this chap has worked with!
As to my first two books, Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost, these are on the move so not with their original publisher and we will give you news on these all in good time.
You know, I have only been writing for four years and next week I am going to be handing in my seventh book. I just rocked up, daft and loud as I am; I assumed that I could not do this, though I have spent my life around books. Reader, writer, doubter: I was wrong. Publishing and writing have, I know, got a way to go in terms of access and possibility. We hear about gatekeepers and you have to understand why. But I also want to say, consider this: is the gatekeeper YOU, mired in so much self doubt that you cannot move? Doubt is normal and healthy and proves you are self-reflective. You will be a better writer because of it.
If, over the coming years, I can encourage you to get the books you want to write out into the world, then you tell me, okay?
Here’s a picture of me so you recognise me. One of my kids took it; no filters; nothing fancy.
In the past few weeks I’ve been paying particular attention to people’s comments on twitter (mainly) about the impossible odds of getting a publisher for a book, or of getting an agent. I also see writers frustrated not only at rejection but at not getting a reply. Moreover, about perceived barriers to finding an agent or publisher and about not being listed for competitions. I thought I would write in response to this because I have launched and had to relaunch. Let me know if you have found this in any way helpful. Oh – and when it comes to competitions and applying for things, I’m going all out here. I BET I HAVE FAILED* MORE THAN YOU.
*TRIED; STUCK MY NECK OUT; WAS NERVOUS BUT DID IT ANYWAY….
- I started writing long-form in late 2014 and wrote a memoir. I can’t quite remember whether it was this year or the following but I submitted it in the Mslexia memoir competition and it was not longlisted. I remember being gutted and crying a lot. I wouldn’t now, but at the time….
- In early 2015 I completely rewrote the book and changed it into autobiographical fiction. I submitted it to six agents and three replied with a no; one didn’t reply (with a clear statement that if no reply in…however long it was…it was a no) and the other two didn’t reply at all, even after chasing.
- I decided I would send it to an independent publisher and there it was accepted. This memoir went on to be my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, published in 2016 and, although, there were some bright spots and I had many lovely responses because it was about mental illness and resonated with people, was profiled and used as a teaching resource (still is), this book was otherwise pretty invisible. Somehow I hadn’t quite banked on this; probably because I was still really ignorant of how book publishing and marketing worked. And also, I do tend to be wildly optimistic about things!
- I wrote a novella right after that, The Life of Almost, and I had two full requests from agents. One never wrote back at full, the other, who had seemed extremely keen, rejected it but asked for my next book. Because I was completely naive, I wrote that to time for them and they then rejected it with a form rejection and I never heard from them again. My previous publisher then took it and it sank pretty much without trace, mood lightened by some wonderfully supportive booksellers and reviewers and readers. This was tough. On my release and book launch day I was crying and feeling wretched, pulled up by a lovely bookshop and some truly great people in the publishing industry, including a really nice agent who had rejected my work but was just a good egg. BUT
- …do you know what you do when you finish a book, or it’s out and about? Or when your book sinks? You get off your sorry arse and you write another one! This was my third book, Saving Lucia. I did have an agent meeting (we are now in the summer of 2018) about this one, but I want to tell you – and I am not going to name any names in any of this – that particular agent is someone whom I am proud to keep in touch with because they are so blinking nice and supportive and ethical and that is something to bear in mind. Someone may not be a good fit for you, but that doesn’t mean you cannot maintain really wonderful links with them. This is friendship and community, but it is also commerce. Where was I? For this past year or two I had been reading more and more books from the indies presses in the UK and beyond and it changed my life. It was so exciting. I got to know them, and their work and tried to develop an understanding of their vision; I sent Saving Lucia to seven independent publishers; two were a no with nice comments and I had three requests for fulls. Two didn’t reply at all. Still haven’t, you little buggers. But let’s say there was a fair bit of interest there. Saving Lucia is being published by the awesome Bluemoose Books next April. YAY. And did I say that while I was waiting I wrote another book, a work of historical fiction? It would be wrong to tell you any details now because all in good time…generally publishers will want first refusal on your next book so… (should I get rid of this bit? No, I think it’s ok.) I also met the person who was, in future, to become my agent around this time; just chatting through things, even though I had nothing to offer them right then. Because DO YOU KNOW WHAT? This doesn’t always work how you think it will work. Actually, we talked about hats and reading and what was the best kind of cake and America and Britain and ranging between the two (as we both do). But mostly about reading. And a bit about writing and what I might be up to.
- Well, so…I have done another book, I have now got a wonderful yes on Saving Lucia and I seem to have sort of got ahead. It was at this point that I started tinkering and ended up writing two short story collections. This was in very late 2018 and early 2019. I did this for stimulation and pleasure and it made me so happy. Again, this didn’t happen how I thought it would. I hit upon the idea of two themed books: the first with the theme of food and feasts and consumption (as in consuming, not TB) and that is Famished, out with Influx Press next September and while I was hanging around on that – request for full very quickly – and just after I had a decision – YAY – I wrote the other collection, and I am not telling you much about that other than to say it’s positively macabre but I hope you will find it funny too, one day. Oh – and I am also now agented. WHOAH.
- Right. So that’s books three and four coming to you in one year (2020) and that means that, in under five years, I have written 7 books (I have just finished number 7 now; it’s another novel and this time, magical realism, currently hanging out with a beta reader the pedigree of whom…well…maybe I can tell you about that if he doesn’t hate my book) and I am not entirely sure how this has been done with the kids hollering and my teaching and dusting and looking after chickens and cats (and see below) and volunteer work and physical and mental health challenges (you get the picture), but I think I took so long to start that once I had, well I was not going to give up. Plus I loved it.
- There have been some properly shit bits. The rejections; the no-replies. There are going to be more I expect when someone hates one of my books. Or lots of people do; it’s part of the business. But you MUST move on rather than feeling persecuted as well as rejected because your creativity will, I think, dwindle. That has happened a couple of times. Also, I mentioned relaunching. My first two books are now, as they say, between publishers. It wouldn’t be kind to comment on any of that because sometimes things go wrong, of course they do, but it is sad. Suck it up though because I have a new notebook. And on no replies – especially after a request for a full – not good enough, I feel. Plus, it causes people real upset.
- I have not mentioned an absolutely key thing. During this period, first word to page when I knew absolutely nothing about the writing and publishing industry, I have worked my tits off to make sure that I do know things. Maybe that’s how you beat the odds. Clearly the writing has to be there and you MUST listen to constructive criticism and advice and at least give it the time of day, but while you are working away, learn about the industry. Network. Well I didn’t know I was networking, because I call it HAVING A CHAT and I LOVE A CHAT. Expand your reading. Read as much as you can and diversely. Challenge yourself. When you submit, you really should know plenty about those to whom you are submitting. It has been bloody marvellous to do anyway, but I had read lots of books by Bluemoose and Influx and others I submitted to. That’s one example. Put the work in, because they did. Also, meet people and talk to them (HAVING A CHAT AGAIN); engage on social media if funds or your health or caring commitments mean you cannot get about; take an interest in others’ work – it is so life-giving and rewarding. Learn what an agent is, a publisher, and indie publisher, an editor (and the different types of editing); learn about book publicity and marketing, bookshops -especially our wonderful independent booksellers – and book marketing. And I was doing all this while I was writing; I also submitted various poems, short stories, creative non-fiction and short memoir, most of it, to my surprise, was published, though mostly not for money: for that reason, it had to be work I could do in pockets of time. I edited a couple of books and reviewed various books for online journals. I wrote a poetry collection which I submitted for Mslexia’s poetry anthology competition with Seren books and it didn’t get anywhere. You can tell I’ve been busy because I only just remembered about that. I also put together a comical parenting book based on diaries and blog posts I had done for various sites and submitted that to Unbound, where it was a no. Yep. I worked my tits off. I also tried, surmising I might be starting to look at least a bit credible, to help others forward. I have managed complex mental health stuff for a long time and I’ve got a couple of wacky health problems which aren’t always much fun, but that’s NOTHING compared with what many suffer; add to that the structural inequality which means that funds and resources preclude someone from writing. This is why I do four free manuscript reads a year: I think that life revolves, or ought to, around community and love. And chatting to people. Some people are twats, usually because they are (argue as you please) experiencing pain or threat in some way.
- Here is my summary catalogue of additional failure, because I see people getting upset that they do not make lists for competitions. I BET I HAVE FAILED MORE THAN YOU. I have never (other than Not the Booker) been longlisted. For anything? Let’s break this down. I didn’t make the Mslexia memoir list, my books were not longlisted for Rubery (that cost me £37!!!), Wellcome, Bath novel (twice!), Goldsmiths, Ondaatje, Exeter or Yeovil prizes; my complete poetry anthology didn’t make the Seren Books/Mslexia anthology; my short fiction and single poems have not made Fish, Costa or Bridport and WHAT IS MORE I didn’t get a Gladstone Fellowship or Society of Authors Funding; because I didn’t, I a. got up at 4 in the morning to write and b. taught more and it was tough. But what are you going to do? Do you want to do this or not? Are reading and writing your lifeblood? Then there’s your answer.
- AND MAYBE THAT IS HOW YOU BEAT THE ODDS. You ignore them. You just write good stuff, as good as you can, keep talking to and meeting people; none of this has happened as I thought it would. A lot of things have happened because I met people and before anyone interprets that as schmoozing in inner circles, no: I mean I like chatting to people (apologies for the HAVING A CHAT repetition) and seeing what they do, asking them about their reading and so on. I am quite shy. but I love to talk to people (if that makes sense) and I think this has held me in good stead. When things go wrong, feel sad and let them go. Yes, there are clearly real things that need to change. Speaking as mum and English teacher, for example (there are other areas and fantastic people shining a light on access and unacceptable dead ends), it’s pretty clear that the industry needs to up its game on BAME books (and you too, exam boards!!!) – but for lots of other things, be sure it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy; avoid feeling resentful and persecuted because that’ll stymie your creativity. Women: I won’t even engage with this stuff about ageism because, as I have been saying this week, unless I am about to get a horrid shock – my eldest son is nearly 18 so clearly I am 318 – I think we need to crack on and I have never experienced it and am not at all keen on its being used as positive marketing tool on the whole, because it’s reductive and I’d be lying. I’d say, ‘I’ll get my coat’, but I wrote that only to encourage and maybe make just one person less fearful. AND I HOPE THAT, OVERALL, YOU’VE FOUND THIS LITTLE POST HAS MADE YOU FEEL BRAVER.
You may have seen news today on Meghan Markle’s decision to tale action against a British newspaper and Prince Harry’s rush to defend her. I am not a fan of the royal family at all, but I dislike the way the press has treated her and I might also understand his response. No-one has any right to pass judgement on estrangement and the prurient interest in it here, plus a tabloid rush to pass judgement, seems to have led to what has happened. You simply do not know what someone’s actions have cost someone else and you do not know what that former relationship has effected in terms of psychological damage. I don’t know the ins and outs of what has happened here, but I certainly think it is a private matter in public people. And, more to the point, I know about estrangement and why we might choose to make decisions to sever ties. And I simply do not agree that blood is thicker than water though I have heard this all my life. Family is beautiful, but if elements of it hurt you badly, you should not feel you need to maintain contact with those elements. In my case, it was a calamitous nervous breakdown when my youngest was eight months old that clarified a decision and a better process; when things came to a head again shortly before I was discharged from long-term therapeutic support, I thought that my need to stay away and our need to keep our boys away would be fully understood, but it was not.
Let me tell you a bit about that.
I should like to write very freely in this post, but I can only do so to a certain point. This, in itself, speaks volumes. It’s because I grew up with a lie. And it wasn’t even entirely a lie. Some bits of it were true and beautiful and kind. And the bits that were not true and beautiful and kind spun me into dissociation, sent me mad or provided, latterly – and God knows why I didn’t see, hadn’t grasped it before – some dark materials for writing. And through that, I came to see that I might have made my way through some things with a pretty sturdy imagination, plus I had the utter blessing of reading – because it was my escape and how I found my way through a world I did not understand.
And the reason I can only write freely to a certain point is that the lie was and is upheld by others. Sometimes they should do better and have done better; not entirely fail to believe someone because they didn’t see it with their own eyes. But a lot of the time the lie is upheld because it’s only a lie to the person who was on the receiving end of it. All they saw were the bits that were beautiful and true and kind.
When a person or people are systematically cruel to you in such a way as you are short-circuited in some manner so that your brain doesn’t work properly; when you flick awake, posed and ready for action as others groggily come to; when you have repeated nightmares, dissociative episodes, panic attacks and when you develop severe depression and an OCD which is predicated on atoning in ritualistic ways for some terrible crimes you believe you have committed and to atone in some small way for the terrible person you think you are; when all this happens and you know in your bones, the taste in your mouth, what you hear and the very colours behind your eyes, what is behind it, then this is a response – and baby I get the multi-sensory version and very tiring it is too – that is not normal. And it didn’t come from nowhere. This is a sustained and complex trauma and it has informed everything that has come after it. My shaky decisions, perilous lack of self belief, running away from rather than to something – the opportunities I have missed and denied myself because I thought I was not good enough or, frankly because I was too crazy to cope.
And yet the sources of this trauma may have been good parents, friends, colleagues, siblings, members of the community and all those things because people don’t tend to be one thing. Unfortunately, as a young child, if you see those you are frightened of routinely praised, loved and respected by others, then you believe the problem must be you.
For me, the problems were upheld – I suppose it was like an accidental gaslighting really – through my adult life and it is only comparatively recently that I have distanced myself from those who still praised and upheld those I was scared of and who reduced me, in my head, to nothing. I found I simply couldn’t listen any more. From the person who decided it would be a good idea to tell me on my wedding day what a disappointment I was, to those who, again and again, urged me to allow my three sons to have relationships with certain people when I knew, Mr Bookworm and I knew, that they meant them no good. It should have been radically obvious and yet, somehow, it was not.
So, when you hear about those who choose to estrange themselves from people, don’t make assumptions as it’s not generally a decision borne lightly. I doubt very much that it will have been this way with Meghan Markle. A latter day intense privilege must not cauterise your nerve endings; surely it cannot remove troubling memory or pain. So treat someone who has chosen to estrange themselves with compassion and don’t intrude on their decision. And also, if it is something you need to do, and you go ahead, I wish you all the love in the world. Anna x
So, I want to tell you how it feels to be writing what I am writing at the moment. It’s a strange time, because it is also a time of waiting. News of my first short story collection is out and I am receiving edits for my third novel, which is out next April. I have just written some notes for the latter – Saving Lucia, Bluemoose – and some thoughts on cover images; not, that is, what the cover image is to be, but concepts and thoughts I might want to be represented there. There is a further volume of short stories to be read (that is on submission), I have a novel waiting to be sent, and I have been gathering in time for my ongoing project; a new novel, the idea for which began germinating in spring when, quite by chance, I saw a newspaper article for autumn 1940 about London zoo…I can share some details, but not many. I want to tell you what I have been doing and how exciting it has felt, as well as delineate a few of its low points.
- Yesterday I wrote a new chapter. In that I vividly imagined myself in St Nicholas’s Church in Deptford. Here lies Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, a huge favourite of mine, buried in an unmarked grave in 1593 and with a commemorative plaque: its plangent quotation from Dr Faustus made me shiver. Now, I hadn’t actually intended to visit Marlowe, but one of the young characters from the book goes to visit the grave of his father in the churchyard there and his mother tells him, not for the first time, about Kit Marlowe and his untimely death in a Deptford Tavern. There is a great deal in this novel about memory and grief and suddenly, with another shiver, I began to make some connections with the poet and playwright and some of the themes in the book. I can share those with you at some later date. Also that St Nicholas’s church turns out to have been badly damaged by an incendiary bomb on the very night the (true) event on which this novel turns occurred.
- I realised, after sensible advice, that in this book, I had to stretch out the action and give it room; I made it first as a novella, but it didn’t work because it was too rushed. I had to allow more time for relationships between characters to develop and that the plot was not tight enough. I’d say that the two biggest flaws in my writing (your view may be different if you read my work) are that I over-express ideas because I love luxuriating in language and consequently a perfectly respectable idea gets lost underneath clusters of these over-expressed phrases which would be HIDEOUS for a reader. The second thing is that I describe too much – particularly about sensual detail, texture, landscape and the nature of a place – and advance the plot too little. I am learning to be flexible on all this. I have to be! I am not precious about my work, but I do tend to be stubborn about keeping long, poly-clausal sentences because I personally love them; sentences of many clauses held together by a range of punctuation. Work in progress, that one. I also have a really irritating habit of using archaisms and I’ve also had a couple of bitchy reviews about having to read my books with a dictionary on the side. I thought that sounded great, but again, work in progress! You want to be you, but you don’t want to irritate your readers, either. Is that a good maxim, do you think?
- I am not a very confident person. Tricky background and so on; lots of truly unhelpful thoughts. I fake it; propel myself into a room. The teaching background has helped in this way. However, I am easy to crush (there’s an antidote or two to that, though). Now, I was told only the other day (and not for the first time) by a member of my extended family – sorry folks; I know you didn’t mean it like this, but it hurts – that when my next book comes out, it’s really hoped that no-one knows we are related. And someone else asked me to tell them what happens in what I am writing and what I am editing, then said, ‘Well I won’t be reading any of that. I don’t think I’d like that at all.’ People, I would rather stick pins in my eyes than say this to a member of my family, but it is not meant to hurt; it’s an expression of disapproval or a lack of interest because if I wrote it, it can’t possibly be good – or it will contain stuff that people would rather not associate with. What can I say? Sometimes we are swatted back to our earliest pathology. Sometimes, when people say such things, I am afraid that I hear my mother’s voice mocking and criticising: it is full of horrid triggers and can spin me into dissociation if I am having trouble coping more generally. (And I don’t mean this in term of criticism of my work by readers, because that is part of the process.) BUT my bravehearts, I want to say that although I had a jolly good cry the other day, by teatime I was in Ethiopia meeting a Grevy’s zebra, by late evening, I was watching Haile Selassie get his photo taken on Brighton Pier (when he was in exile) and by late at night I was back in Deptford again, by way of the Cleddau Estuary and I thought, oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination, (forgive the pink doughnut and the sprinkles, which truly don’t go with the plaque of Kit Marlowe and the sombre comments…no: fuck it. I LIKE pink doughnuts and sprinkles so…), oh book, oh reading, writing, imagination,
- Writing a book is a daunting prospect. Here’s something that really helps me. It’s something Hilary Mantel said. That she ‘will do a little scene…then another little scene and try not to think of the enormity of the task ahead.’ That’s very much how I am getting this current book written. I know that, when I have written this post, and before (or after) I have cooked tea for the kids and sorted out domestics and helped with an English homework, I will be writing a ‘little scene’ about some evacuees arriving on St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire in 1939. I know that there is one particular lad called Ernest (he’s the boy from Deptford, if you remember that I was there, in the churchyard, regarding Kit Marlowe!) and that he is lodged with a family that I have based on what I know of that of a distant cousin of my maternal grandmother’s, she whose stories have, my whole life, affected by imagination so much. I have been imagining him all day, though: his life, the times, the details of the very stones and the sea wall around places I know well. So, when I come to write this scene, it will seem at least partly familiar. As if it were a figment of memory that has come forth, filling out a story for me. Again, that feels like magic; a gift.
- I hope that, whatever you are writing and despite its ups and downs and the ups and downs of your life, you find solace and happiness as you are absorbed in the rich world that you are creating: something that did not exist before you made it. I hope that it is also so with your reading. Anna x