Raising Sparks: an interview with Ariel Kahn about his debut novel

 Here is an interview with Dr Ariel Kahn. His book, Raising Sparks, published with Bluemoose yesterday. I read a proof copy some time and loved it. I’ve asked quite a range of questions here – not too many spoilers – and you’ll see that I’ve also asked him a little about the publisher and about indie presses. Both are close to my heart because over the past few years I’ve taken so much delight in making much of my own reading from small presses and writing for them. Also, my third novel, Saving Lucia, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020.  And my goodness they are doing well: amongst other things, author Ben Myers just won the Sir Walter Scott prize for The Gallows Pole. (Read now; the press bookshop is on the website listed at bottom!)

But back to you, Ariel. Congratulations and on with the questions.

Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa, where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.

RAISING SPARKS reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East. (From the publisher.)

raising sparks

For those who are about to read your book, tell me about its title and the beautiful illustration on the cover. It’s a tree which looks to be reflected and also part blooming, part aflame.

Hi Anna! Thanks for these very leading questions. So Raising Sparks is a concept in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which really resonated with me. It comes from an alternative creation myth expounded by Isaac Luria, the 13th century “Lion of Safed” from who I’m descended. The sections of my novel correspond to the stages that Luria describes, and articulate the journey of my protagonist. He argued that when the world was created, God held back to allow it to form – contraction, withdrawal – “Tzimtzum” in Hebrew. Divine light then poured into creation, but the vessels that were meant to hold that light shattered, scattering fragments of light throughout creation. This stage is known as “Shevirat Hakelim”, or the breaking of the vessels. Rather than a pessimistic portrayal of a flawed creation, Luria’s myth suggests that humanity are co-creators with the Divine – we are responsible for the Raising of the Sparks, and for healing of the shattered world, known as “Tikkun”. How? As one of my characters puts it:

“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”

The Tree on the gorgeous cover (designed by Stuart Brill) is the Tree of Life, a key symbol in Kabbalistic texts of the connection between the human and Divine. This always made sense to me, as trees are extraordinary beings, making food out of light, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching up to heaven. The tree is sometimes portrayed upside down, with its roots in heaven, reaching down to earth – suggesting that the trees we see are mirror or reflections of the Divine reaching down to us, or through us. So on the back cover of Raising Sparks, the tree is inverted.

Malka, my protagonist, is a young female kabbalist in contemporary Israel. She experiences this tree at several points in the novel, and it is bound up with her identity. As she changes, so does her perspective on the tree. Her own abilities initially terrify her, and the flame suggests the power of the repressed rage and sense of entrapment she has felt. Working through that, she reaches a more whole place, effecting “Tikkun” in herself and others. She flowers.

Malka; Moshe. Is there any significance to those names? And what about the black cat that leads one to the other and to the room and to the tree?

Indeed there is! Malka means queen in Hebrew – her full name is Malka Sabbatto, or the Sabbath Queen. An aspect of Kabbalistic writing that really resonated with me was the notion that the reason the world is in such a state is because the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Divine is in hiding, in exile – when we raise the sparks, we help return her to her Beloved.  Another One of Luria’s followers, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a deeply erotic poem to the Sabbath Queen which is still sung on Friday nights in synagogues around the world to welcome the Sabbath. Malka channels this feminist Divine energy, and challenges and disrupts the patriarchal structures she encounters.

Moshe, Malka’s would-be lover, is the Hebrew name for the biblical Moses – though it is fact an Egyptian name, given to him by the princess who pulls him out of the Nile. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and then must flee when he kills a slave driver after identifying with the Hebrew slaves on whom their wealth was based.  So the name is bound up with saving, being saved, and the challenges of displacement and loss. My character is a Russian immigrant to Israel, who has come with his mother after the breakdown of their family, the effect of a tragic loss which Moshe believes he is implicated in. Like his namesake, water plays an important part in his story.

I can tell you’ve read the proof version of my novel, as the cat changes colour and becomes a smoky grey in the final version. Thereby hangs a tale. When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we went to a cottage in Suffolk for a few days to write. A black cat walked along the wall, and suddenly I had the image of a young girl pursuing this cat through the crowded food market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. My wonderful editor at Bluemoose, Lin Webb, is a cat lover, and realised that there wouldn’t be a black cat in Jerusalem. So something was gained in transplantation.

What can you tell me about how this book came to publication? I have to say a few things first. One (and I haven’t told Ariel this yet) I was already aware of the book through a piece drawn from its manuscript which appeared in ‘The Arab Israeli Book Review blog’ and two that my own third book will be published by Bluemoose in 2020 and so we will be in the same stable.

The journey of Raising Sparks to publication had some surprising twists. I wrote it as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Roehampton, where I teach, supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. Then I had lots of rejections by agents. I was just ready to give up and put it away in a drawer, when Leone posted on Facebook that there was a competition for debut novelists based on Pop Idol. Called Pulp Idol, it was run by Wowfest, based in Liverpool, and had heats in cities all over the country. The heats were all on Saturdays, which as an Observant Jew, meant I couldn’t attend one. Then I saw on their website that if you were not able to make the heats, you could record a short YouTube video instead, reading a few minutes of the opening chapter and answering a series of questions. My kids were not yet up, so I sat down, recorded the video, sent it, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, Wowfest got in touch to say that I’d been put through the heats and was one of the national finalists for the final in Liverpool. A was more than delighted. All ten finalists would have our first chapters edited and collected in a hard copy which would be sent around agents and publisher, so I already felt like a winner. The local Jewish community hosted me for meals, and the the Wowfest team led by Mike Morris made me feel at home. The final was in the Black-E, a converted church now a theatre space on the edge of Chinatown. We were each meant to read from our first chapters, before a panel of judges and a live audience. I read first, and Kevin Duffy, now my publisher, was one of the judges. I came runner-up out of the ten (writers, publishers, agents do check out the other finalists in Pulp Idol 2018, available as an ebook and in hard copy – they were all amazing). He liked what he heard, and asked me to send a hard copy to Lin, his editor. She liked it too, and on my birthday last year, Kevin wrote to say they were publishing me. I danced.

I love the rich evocative detail of the book. The pizza, water, tea, the cooking of fish, the doughnuts for the street boys and the layered sensual elements of the way in which you describe the bakery. Not just the smells, but the textures, processes, the pantry…Tell me about food in the book. Why there is so much emphasis on it? I was very taken with the glass of water which Moshe offers Malka so early on because it seemed so much more than the sum of its parts. With the bowl of peas remembered by Mahmoud that carries such resonance and recalls, for him, both beauty and intense pain. I’d quite like a recipe, too. How about something mentioned in the book?

Delighted that this sensory element speaks to you. One of the few written teachings of Isaac Luria is to do with raising sparks through cooking and eating, that this too can be a spiritual experience, which led to mystic pizza in my novel! I think cooking is an everyday kind of creativity, which we can do either mindfully or mindlessly. It feels very akin to writing in the way we combine ingredients which can become something more than the sum of their parts. Food encodes personal and cultural histories, and their mingling and development. Helen Goldrein, a friend of mine is a food blogger, and interviewed me about this element of the novel. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I said:

“Food creates community. It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.”

For more on food in the novel, see the full interview at: https://family-friends-food.com/raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

I’m so glad you connected to the glass of water, and the “Middle Eastern Peas” in Mahmoud’s coming-out story. I think our relationship to food is symbolic of how we see ourselves, and is full of personal symbolism. Both of these very simple foods have layers of meaning, both for the characters, and hopefully, in the novel. Much of the first draft was written in notebooks while sitting in a garden hammock, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, right next to the herb garden belonging to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents.  I love his food and approach to cultural connection in his restaurants, set up with his Palestinian Business partner, Sami Tamimi. I’m hoping the reader of Raising Sparks will experience the way words and foods combine in my novel to similarly transformative effect.

You asked for a recipe, something mentioned in the book. How about this? A brief extract from Raising Sparks about Jerusalem Kugel, then my translation of a recipe for it from Sherry Ansky’s brilliant cookbook, Food, which we often use at home (my wife Noga is Israeli and a brilliant cook – how people feel about food is an indicator for me about how they are about people too, and she’s the biggest-hearted person I know).

‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’

‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’

From Raising Sparks p.247 Copyright Bluemoose Books

Jerusalem Kugel from Sherry Ansky’s Food, Keter, Jerusalem 2003, p. 144

Translated by Ariel Kahn

Ansky always tells a personal story about each of her recipes. Here she writes:

One of my sweet childhood memories is the kugel which I would eat on Shabbat morning at synagogue. Close to the end of prayers, an Ultra-orthodox woman would appear at the corner of the road, pushing an old baby buggy at great speed, almost running. It contained aluminium pots full of giant kugel, covered in wool blankets, which she would distribute in the synagogues of the city. I would push through the congregants and watch in amazement how her giant pots were upended over trays, and with the help of string, cut into slices. The caramelised kugel was sweet and oily, but crucially, spicy.   In one hand I would hold Kugel, in the other a pickled cucumber, chewing, sweating from the pain of the spiciness, and from the pleasure of the taste. From the silence that prevailed in those sweet moments in the synagogue there arose only the cries of pleasure from the kugel devourers.

Recipe:

Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick

One cup of corn or sunflower oil

One cup sugar

6 eggs

Three teaspoons of ground black pepper

Salt

Baking parchment

Method:

  1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
  3. Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
  4. Heat the oven to 90-100 C. Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. If you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.  Eat with pickled cucumbers.

Tell me about the significance of the sea and of water more broadly in the book? Even the title of the restaurant where Malka comes to work is of the sea – ‘The Leviathan’ (which you can also comment on if you like!)

When I was studying to be a Rabbi I was in an all-male bubble six days a week, studying from early morning to late evening. So on Fridays, which is the day off in Israel, I would head for the Tel Aviv beach whenever I could. Only an hour away by bus from Jerusalem, but a different world. The contrast was eye-watering. Then I started to notice little rituals in this supposedly secular space, and thought that maybe Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv were not so far apart. I loved the sea, and found its rhythm, colour and scent magical. Malka longs for water – she’s grown up in arid Jerusalem – while Moshe, with his traumatic history involving the sea, fears it. Water is also a bridge between them – he offers her a glass of water when they first meet, and she uses an ice cube in a key scene in the novel too. The Leviathan is my adaptation of a real restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith (after the mythic story of Adam’s first wife – there are two creation stories in the Bible – in the first man and woman are created equal, in the second Eve is subservient. The first woman becomes Lilith in Jewish folklore, challenges Adam, and becomes a kind of femme fatale for the rabbinic tradition – the dangerous, empowered woman  –  this fed into Malka’s identity too)  which trains street kids of all faiths and ethnicities to work in the restaurant trade, a lot like Jamie Oliver’s place in Devon. I decided to combine this with my love of Ottolenghi – only flip it so I had a Palestinian chef and an Israeli backer. The Leviathan is of course the great sea beast mentioned in the Bible, and Malka has some striking experiences in and around the sea. It is also the medium through which Moshe confronts his fears. Water is an agent of “Tikkun” or healing in the novel.

Now, do you have anything you could share on specific stimuli for events in the text or inspiration for any of the characters? If you would like, do explain for readers the significance of the book’s inscription?

Well, I’ve spoken about the black cat that inspired the opening sequence in the novel. After I had this image, I wanted to find out more about who this girl was. I was wrestling with the nature of Malka’s character and gifts. Growing up in a patriarchal family with four sisters, I was fascinated by the thought-experiment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as he was. While staying in my sister in law’s home in Nataf near Jerusalem, I had a dream in which I was Malka, in which she goes down to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, now a bit of a political football. In the dream, all of the prayers which people write and press into the cracks between the stones started to pulse like hearts, or sea anemones, and cry aloud the words written on them.  Malka could hear them. She could hear the music behind speech, the longing that underpins it. She would understand the language of silence. I realised Malka would be a mystic, a kabbalist, someone who could release these charged presences to powerful effect.

As well as a space to question and explore a feminist spirituality, Raising Sparks is also an act of remembrance. When I trained to be a rabbi in Israel, I discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. I up a writing group in yeshiva (theological seminary) with Matt Eisenfeld, my chavruta (study partner – texts are learned together, through discussion, to tease out their multiplicity of voices). Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. This tragedy had a traumatic effect on me, and made me realise I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I came back to the UK and looked for answers in literature instead, gradually growing towards a different kind of engagement with my faith, one which stressed the more universal, mystical elements, while seeing ritual as a kind of embodied poetry, waiting to be filled with personal meaning, a way of expanding my experience of the other. If each person or situation I encountered contained a spark of light, how might I liberate that? The ultimate other is the Divine, which means so many different things to each of us through our lives. I wanted to write a novel that explored the nature and meaning of faith in the modern world, from a range of perspectives, something I had often discussed with Matt. I was determined that the love and vision Matt and Sara shared would not perish with them. Their relationship is the seed of the love story in my novel. It was also behind the formation of the Arab Israeli Book Club, which I set up in London, on the basis thatthat fiction is an empathy machine, enabling us to experience all kinds of “Other” without fear or prejudice, and wanting readers to have the opportunity to go deeper than the headlines. The Guardian called it “a roaring success”. Brief plug: This book club is relaunching as The Middle Eastern Book Review at Daunt Books Hampstead on September 28th, when I will be interviewed about Raising Sparks by Ian Black, the Guardian Middle East Editor. All are welcome!

The epigraph, taken from Job, is all about the way these sparks sometimes seem like trouble and distress, but are often the inciting incident to a different, deeper life. Job is also a great questioner of God, like Abraham and Moses –which is why God calls him his true servant. Faith is never about certainty. It is about asking the right questions, challenging authority.

While the book does not shy away from pain, unpleasant events, intolerance, brutality and violence, please will you talk a little about the ways in which it is a resolutely hopeful book? I do believe it is. I’ve told you that at a difficult time in my life, I have personally found it consoling and inspiring.

That’s moving to hear. Books have always been a consolation and a tool for engaging more deeply with myself and others, for feeling the things which connect rather than divide us. Faith is all about doubt for me, not in a debilitating way, but in a way that constantly enlarges our frame of reference and understanding, something which good fiction and art in general do too. Malka is a deeply optimistic person, despite everything she goes through. She believes in a shared humanity, in the ways in which all of us are connected. She tries to use her gifts as a tool for positive change, standing up to the forces of oppression and domination which seek to limit and define her. She questions received truths, and suggests that it is precisely by listening to the silenced other within and around us that we become most fully ourselves. She is a wise person but at the same time extremely naïve due to her sheltered upbringing – the modern world crashes in on her full force, so she uses religious myth to critique and engage with it, and create a new, personal kind of fusion/integration between them in the process.

Hard one. Define magical realism. You’ve used it about your book so go on then…

I’ve always loved the kinds of book crammed in under this label, from Rushdie and Marquez to Borges and Bashevis Singer. For me, it means books that enclose multiple ways of seeing, from the mythic to the modern, side by side, and often show how congruent they are. We live by myths – the challenge is to make them the best ones we can, open, fluid and welcoming.

Do you – and I appreciate this might be hard because you made it – have a favourite part of the book?

That is a tough one. I like the hard-earned moment of rest Malka has on the beach in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. That quiet moment was one in which she reached a new self-understanding and accommodation. It feels like a turning point in the story, and the challenge for me, as for Malka, is to make these quieter moments speak as powerfully as the more dramatic ones. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Beyond the book: where next for Dr Ariel Kahn?

Well, I love teaching, cooking, and writing, so hoping to do more of all of those. I’ve got the seed of a new novel with a historical strand calling to me – looking forward to having the headspace to heed that call.

Independent presses have had a stunning few days, haven’t they? Three prizes for three brilliant authors. Might you comment on this in any way? 

With significant recognition like the Walter Scott Prize for Ben Myers outstanding The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose and the Indie scene are having a renaissance. They publish edgy and interesting things mainstream presses are wary of. They work together, in constructive groups like the Northern Alliance of publishers. Bluemoose have a close, nurturing relationship with their authors – Kevin talks about the Bluemoose family, (note from Anna: as you know, Ariel, my own third book, Saving Lucia, is going to be with Bluemoose and Kevin sent me a note when I signed my contract: it said, ‘Welcome to the Bluemoose family’: loved that) and it is more than a phrase, it is something I’ve experienced, with the way other authors within the imprint support one another. As a debut author, the care and attention to detail Bluemoose have lavished on my book, and my inclusion in every aspect of the process including choosing the cover have made this an empowering and pleasurable experience.

And finally…tell me about your reading. Any recently published books you’d particularly like to recommend, say? Or could you name a few favourite authors or books?

I love David Grossman. He’s been a huge inspiration, as a novelist and a deeply ethical person engaging with his own trauma, the loss of his son, while remaining present and powerful in his use of writing as an empathy machine. Given my love of trees and their significance, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Overstory by Richard Powers (Heinemann), which looks at humanity from the perspective of nature on a compelling and moving way. I love comics and graphic novels – the way they blend the visual and the verbal fees deeply true to my experience of the world, and stimulates my own prose, which often starts with a visual image. Recently, I’ve enjoyed two amazing graphic novels. Tumult by John Dunning and Michael Kennedy (Selfmade Hero) is a deeply unsettling noir about a woman with multiple personalities, beautifully rendered, subtle and teasing. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) is a tour de force – ostensibly a journal by a young girl who sees herself as a monster and investigate the strange death of an upstairs neighbour, it expands into a mediation on the saving power of art, human resilience in the face of tragedy, and the long shadow of World War Two. Finally, as I mentioned my wife writes YA. She introduced me to the amazing writer Philip Reeve, who writes Steampunk SF and is an incredible world-builder.  He writes strong feisty heroines which you root for, and a fascinating engagement with the meaning of technology and culture for our individual and collective identity. I’ve just finished his Railhead trilogy, a future where people travel between galaxies on sentient trains. It is also a moving love story and a meditation on difference and choice. The first novel in his Mortal Engines series is being released a film shortly and that should bring him tons of well-deserved new fans.

MOOSEKETEERS! Thank you Ariel, and I hope you take a good deal of pleasure in interacting with readers of your book over the coming weeks and months and good luck with Raising Sparks events.

Here are some first reviews. .

https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/book-review-raising-sparks-1.466439

http://www.skylightrain.com/book-review-raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)

https://www.waterstones.com/events/raising-sparks-book-launch-with-ariel-kahn/liverpool

This is the Daunt Books event Ariel mentioned above: https://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/product/ariel-kahn/

And you might like to read this, too. Ariel’s book is part of this survey.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/sneak-preview-independent-publishers-top-reads-for-2018-1.3357461

https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Follow Ariel Kahn on twitter http.//www.twitter.com/ArielKahn2 and the press http://www.twitter.com/ofmooseandmen

 

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Saving Lucia. Why this book?

I have been compiling my notes, bibliography and acknowledgements for the back of Saving Lucia. Writing this book is not a therapeutic exercise, though I know someone will say that! So what follows is (partly) an account of its stimulus and of my interest in this area.

‘Part of the stimulus for writing about mental illness comes from my own jagged experience and from my own shifting notion of what constitutes sanity and who it is defined by. Society? The DSM? Is it culture bound? Sometimes, even an excuse to rid civilisation of its undesirables, whether it be from eugenics, being round the bend, up a curved drive, or having your records burned and your letters unsent so that you can be contained?

My own first novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press 2016) draws on many experiences of mental health problems in my own life. I have had many different and multiple tags, from GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) to postnatal depression, to low mood, OCD, clinical depression, mood disorder, and a bipolar II query to other less specific things, such as confusion, a response to complex trauma (this from from a psychotherapist in a talking cure—thank you Bertha Pappenheim!), and a description of poor coping skills in the face of stress. I have experienced symptoms of sustained low mood, auditory hallucinations, frequent nightmares, protracted insomnia and anxiety since childhood. I know what it is to self harm and what might lead you to try and take your own life; I also know what it is to be shamed for problems you did not choose and tried your level best to control. Families have a vital role to play here; were you to be categorised, put away or, through disgust or misunderstanding, denied what is your pressing reality, the outcome could be tragic. The last thing in that list happened to me, but had I been born earlier, I might well have been somewhere different and never got out. And even now, where this choice and admission to hospital may be (it is not always, of course) voluntary, then as the great psychologist Dorothy Rowe puts it in Depression. The Way Out Of Your Prison (Routledge, 2013), the decision to go into hospital is (still) a difficult one because once you start going down this route, it can be hard to get off it. But go elsewhere for my story, or do, please, feel that you can ask me about it @bookwormvaught or at http://www.annavaughtwrites.com if I’ve written a post you might care to comment on.

I will always be drawn to the case of Lucia Joyce. And to the cases of Violet Gibson, Bertha Pappenheim (otherwise known as Freud and Breuer’s Anna O) and Blanche Wittmann.’

 

Anna xxx

Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

For writers starting out. Do comment, discuss and contribute your thoughts!

I know there are a lot of people out there writing books and a lot of people submitting said books at the moment. I know or have met people who now have stunning commercial success, writers who are agented but yet to have their first book sold, those who work with the small presses and who are not agented, those who are what we might call a hybrid (I am thinking this is likely to be me) – by which I mean agented but also finding publication routes on their own, perhaps with a small press, those who are disconsolate because everything is a flat rejection or they have received no answer at all and those – including recent MA in Creative Writing students – who are, for various reasons, too scared to submit at all. That’s just for starters.

It might come quickly; it could take years. I do think the key thing is not to take rejection personally (while accepting that, maybe, you need to write a different book if nobody at all is biting); also, if you are floored by rejection and delay and disappointment, then this might not be for you. And that, OF COURSE, is fine. Because there is a life beyond writing.

Here’s where I am. I started writing a book, Killing Hapless Ally, a novel, which originally began life as a memoir, in July of 2014; by the 1st of May, 2015 it had a publisher and it was published in March 2016 by the small press, Patrician. I only sent this manuscript to five agents; two rejected it, three didn’t reply at all. I read an article about the press in ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I liked the sound of it, corresponded with its charismatic founder and there we go. I was, I should add, realistic about how visible the book would be, but I have relished the experience and, ever since, the bonds I have made with its readers. Is it a bestseller? Good God no, but it has been important to its readers and the engagement I have had with them has been life changing. With Patrician, to whom I now feel rather bonded, I also published a poem in Anthology of Refugees and Peacemakers (just back from an event at Essex Book Festival on that) and will be co-editor of next year’s anthology, My Europe and editor of its Tempest, which is a book, by various authors, on (Trump) America. And my poetry has been published by the brilliant indie Emma Press, too.

Way leads on to way.

Meanwhile, I spread my wings and wrote another book, a novella, The Life of Almost. I began sending this out before Christmas 2016. I’m a quick worker, apparently. Two agent rejections (one the day I sent it!), three small press rejections (but read on for that and for more on agents), waiting on two further presses and an agent so still out on submissions. BUT during this process, another agent had read a section from Killing Hapless Ally and admired my writing; said agent asked me to send what I was currently working on (as in, The Life of Almost) in partial then in full; told me they thought I was a brilliant writer but that this book was not, though they admired much about it, for them. To their taste, for example, it needed more pace. But I had also told them about my plans for the next book (I actually have four more books sketched out: is that crazy sounding?) and the agent asked me to send them the full manuscript for that as soon as it was ready because they absolutely loved its concept. This was my third text, Passerines.

Meanwhile, one of the other agents told me (having read three chapters of Almost) about how they loved my writing style. That there was much to like; it was innovative and compelling but in the end the book was not right for them. Keep sending! And of the three small presses who rejected me, one said that though they would not be taking this one, they were confident it would be placed and would I send them future work? The other told me there was some lovely writing and they were impressed, but that this text was simply too innovative for them and, on that basis, they would simply not be able to shift enough copies to make it financially viable. I do know that the small presses – whom I adore and champion, by the way – are often those who DO champion the innovative book, but clearly that is not always the case.

So you see, there’s a lot of encouragement in that pile, just as there is a lot of rejection. The rejection is part of the experience and of the learning.

I have almost finished my third novel. So that’s three books – from the first word, I mean – in three years and this is not my day job. I run a a company, teach, have three young boys and I’m a volunteer and mental health advocate, too.  I don’t have a great deal of time so I’ve got to want to do this.

Do you? Take your time and don’t give up.

I may not have hit a super stellar advance just yet and obviously I may never, but I am playing a long game. May those who find later books go back and read my first, for example. We are three years in and I have met so many fascinating people, read hundreds of books – I read a great deal anyway, but I am so much more alive to different presses and sources of reading; it has been such an adventure. I’ve made a film about mental health, presented at a literary festival, had a packed book launch at a wonderful bookshop, spoken to, had dinner with, corresponded with, interviewed and had my work read by – it is happening now – writers whom I admire. I’ve also published poetry and articles and guest blogged. To boot, I think I am a better teacher because I am a better reader and writer and what is more I am able to share my work with students. Right now, I am commissioning those in years 10-13 to write for the two anthologies I have mentioned and, through my company, I felt inspired to set up a year-long bursary so that I could help someone who had had – this is the icing on the cake for me – long term mental health problems (as I have had myself) to evolve and complete a creative writing project.

So that’s where I am now. In the peculiar position of having one book out on subs and another being waited for and…without giving too much away…being discussed. At the weekend I had an offer of publication for my second book, but I am taking my time.

And now I have to make the tea because the kids keep coming in and rooting through the cupboards. Not having the time forces me to write when and as I can and I mull at other times, which I also regard as working. If you wait for your perfect writing environment or space or time, it may never happen. So why not write something tonight and get started – even if it’s just a paragraph?

Do tell me about your experience and about how you are getting on.

Anna.

Killing Hapless Ally: Patrician Press (2016)

The Life of Almost (TBA!) and Passerines (ditto)

Passerines

Here she is again, the Honourable Violet Gibson. She’s feeding the birds in the garden of St Andrew’s Hospital, Northampton. That’s where she ended her days. Because in 1926, Violet shot Mussolini. She wasn’t a great shot. She’d also previously tried to shoot herself and failed at that. She was beaten by the crowd, that day in Rome, when she shot Il Duce. She experienced prison, lunatic asylum, then deportation, not realising where she was going.

Home?

No. She was incarcerated for life.

But what if…

What if she had had help, that day in Rome? What if she had not missed, had not only grazed the nose of Mare Nostrum?

What of Lucia Joyce, similarly abandoned by her mother and brother, in the same psychiatric hospital? How would it have been if she got to do things differently; could go back and forward? Now, how would any of that be possible?

What has this to do with Anna O or Blanche? With Dr Freud, Dr Breuer, Dr Charcot? With Vienna, or the Salpetriere in Paris. And why did Violet’s father, Baron Ashbourne, meet James Joyce, Lucia’s father, before he left Dublin for Trieste? And if Violet shot and  didn’t miss, then history is changed, as well as the lives of women whose freedom was radically curtailed, whose madness was…questionable; who were abandoned,derided, or turned into exhibits.

I will publish a proper synopsis very soon, but it is one hell of a road trip, this – and what happens has much to do with the birds, the passerines…Some of this is true; some of it is imagined, but the latter for the sake of adventure and sweet liberty.

From the end of chapter one, where Violet speaks of Lucia,

‘I know that was a long sentence. I made like Joyce. Oh but Oh God and the snotgreen sea, I am determined. I’ve made her dance, just a little. And here’s a shorter sentence: so keep up.

“Come to us, passerines. Soon enough, we will come with you.” ‘

‘Where are Violet and Lucia, Nurse Archer? Are they accounted for? It’s not exactly scientific, but at my desk just now I thought…I sensed…a disturbance.’

‘They are in their rooms, doctor, and night medicines administered. Both seemed agitated; we have given extra, as per notes.’

Dr Griffith finds he cannot concentrate, takes up a bible. Remembers birds of childhood.

Let him see.

Remembers.

As a boy, turn of the century thereabouts, his father made him go to scripture memory competitions. Welsh Baptist family. Now his eyes are moist. He was good.

Psalms.

Even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest.

Proverbs.

Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Down the corridors of the asylum echoes a turbulent commotion and alarms fly. This was the bit the staff heard. They’d missed the whispers, glissando of the winged helpers no louder than a heartbeat through a greatcoat; rustles of paper and scratches of soft pencil; tremendous change: you couldn’t stop it now.

*********

The Life of Almost,a breathless Killing Hapless Ally and choosing your ending.

I have written a strange little second book. I suspect I will always write strange books. Big ones and little ones. The first, Killing Hapless Ally, was placed with a small press. As such, it is not, naturally, going to fall into so many hands. And yet and yet…I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been to discuss the book with its readers.

I know it is a challenging book; it is busy and breathless and constantly allusive. It is a work of fiction, but this rush through a history, through a mind, was deliberate. Its publisher understood and supported this; loved its density and fragmenting quality: its form was part of the effect, you might say. But to other readers it will be too busy, appear too dense and poorly edited. I took a risk – and my hope with Killing Hapless Ally was always that this was a long game. What I wanted was to write at least a book a year; to establish a catalogue and, gradually, for more and more people to find it.

But back to the discussion with readers. It has been read by people suffering from mental health problems and those who seek to understand what they might look like – as such, I have had many raw and challenging conversations about the book. It has been read by psychologists and academics – very recently, one who feels it will be instructive in their work, in addition to finding it entertaining. It is, after all, a black comedy! But at the moment the thing I really like is that some of my older students are reading it, which has meant that I felt I should mention to parents the book’s graphic content. It does not flinch in its illustration of depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. I am laying myself bare here, aren’t I? But you see, there is a foreword to the book which reads rather like a mission statement. The book is based on episodes in my own life; to my mind it reads like a memoir, rather than a novel (again, this hybrid will irritate some readers because they do not recognise the novel form in it – more on which another day) and, in telling a/my story, I said that if I were not upfront about the mental health problems I have suffered from repeatedly since childhood, then that would be “to do a disservice to those who are yet to recover or find appropriate help.”

Now, back to that second book. The Life of Almost. Who is he and what is he? Is he alive or dead? What is his purpose? Well I like ambiguity and grey areas. If a book promises a twist at the end, you can bet I’ll have guessed it on page three; I’m that sucky person who shouts out the answers not long after it starts, which is why I am bound to silence when watching films  or telly with my husband. Like a kid at panto. “It’s binary and he’s the ghost!” (Interstellar.) “It’s his sister and I bet Moriarty’s helping her!” (Sherlock Holmes). I’m happy to know the ending or not to have things promised to me. Anyway, The Life of Almost has, at present, two different endings. Casuistry. Pick one. “What do you want? What do you expect?”, to quote Owl Eyes in the library in The Great Gatsby. And also, because the book is also a reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the two ending recall what happened with that book, a note of explanation being underneath. I think I can get away with setting text out here. If the book gets commissioned, this bit of the blog post might have to go!

But you know – this is relevant, I promise! –  I am struggling at the moment: depression, sadness, they have the better of me; I wake, frightened, at night; I start at noise: my mind races, thoughts collide and crash and back come the hauntings of early experience. I cannot bear bright light or loud sound; sometimes, I hear sounds when they are not there, a constant auditory disturbance; sometimes music, often quotation. This has always been a feature. No-one’s experience of depression or mental health problems is quite the same. Mine is jangling and mult-coloured; fast fast slow. But I can do this. I CAN. There is no miracle. I rebuild my mind with books and thought and friends.

I have to say that I can choose an ending here because an ending is also a beginning, isn’t it? As Dorothy Rowe would tell you, “Even the worst day does not last forever.”

Casuistry. Which ending, for Seren and Almost, would you rather? The other person in the text is Catherine, who begins the book. And it is Catherine who begins summer 2016 in a state of welling despair. That is why Almost appears, from the sea-coast, off-world, whatever you like (as I said, I like ambiguity) to begin a bitter magic.

Here.

Pick.

‘The two endings, Catherine. Listen and choose. I begin with a poem. For her. Everything is for her.

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights—

A mermaid Terpsichore, sand-snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheenif I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider thiswhy should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen—

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

I met her out there. I felt her, thoughts carry: I always knew where she was. I walked beyond St David’s to look at the Blue Lagoon, turned back and walked and walked to Abereidy, then through the bluebell wood, by the mud and stream to the fierce mouth, Abermawr. Skimming stones into the sea, she was. Oh God, aflame. I could hardly stand her beauty. She saw me and walked slowly my way as I cupped a pebble and steadied my thoughts and tried to control my tears.

Seren. Star. Always her. A mermaid I trapped on land and who never forgave me.

She said this: ‘Boy. Always boy.’

I said, “Age does not wither her” though I knew I was lying and I saw I was fresher and new, still.

“Roland is dead. I am…I am different, Almost.”

Oh she wept and howled into and out of a fierce mouth and hurled the rocks across the breakers and I went to her and held her while she told me of her life with him; of the spite that held, the jokes that cracked and broke; resentments, brutal, scorning others just because they had a better boat; a finer cast of house or leg or anything. He hated the world and everyone in it, handsome damned man who had fooled her. I said, ‘I will find him dead and flay him for you, Seren, for you, my love’ and I meant it, brute like daddy, down under the sand in another sea and time. My howl was elemental; perverse. We clung to each other.

He, Roland, touched her wrong; he did not cradle her at night, not understand that her own beautiful scorn was from her pain, sea girl trapped, and if he had, what would it have mattered? He had her to set on his arm and place where he should and that was enough. He used her roughly; cursed her barren; not a mother, nor a soft gentle thing. He cast her out, within her home. I could not stand to hear it all and howled again and she clung and my God I cannot tell you how beautiful she was because it would be like…it would be like trying to beat the heart of a star with a warped broom; like lifting up prayers with dirty hands and biting mouths. That is something like it was.

We walked out through the woods and I gathered bluebells, pressed them upon her in a fever.

“Forgive me, Almost.”

“I already have” I said; I fell on my knees in the stream and mud and the bluebells were crushed with I and her and us together, tremendous.

Her heart was opened then. I saw it.

Afterwards, I took her hand and I knew that there would be no shadow of another parting from her. I thought, also, that one day we might find her garb, as for Derian out at Oystermouth; as for Miss Davies, somewhere in her wild garden, under the fingers of creeping moss and the care of the kind willow. There might, yet, be a way back to the sea. For her and, in growing magic or the charms of the englynion, because poems carry, for me.’

Chapter 17. Or a star dies

‘But then again, is this how it was? Catherine, do you prefer this ending?

I begin, as I often do, with a poem. This one is about endings, when we come to recognise they have arrived, that is.

So,

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff;

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail—

I’d prove to you against our childish tiff

That there was treasure to be found that day—

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand—

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm—

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

I knew where she was. I felt her. I walked there, out beyond St David’s, the lovely harbour at Abereiddy, turquoise of the Blue Lagoon, then through the bluebell woods to Abermawr. She knew I would find her, of course. Out there, hurling stones across the breakers and howling her pain. She did not stop me taking her in my arms, drawing time-stopping kisses from her. Too late, too late, though, Catherine.

For this is what happened.

Everything I said of Roland was true, but when he died, consumed by his own acid and pride, Seren married a quiet local man. Not rich, but comfortable, like, and they lived in a house looking out across Ramsey Sound. This is the road she had taken, my beautiful mermaid girl. And she had a child, too: how could I claim her now? Oh Catherine, do not laugh: she called the boy ‘Nearly’ and he was her joy. I could see that. How could I claim her now? She seemed old, though she was not, and greatly changed and sad.

What could I do? My heart was broken.

I reached down and picked up an auger shell, she cupped it in her hand with tears in her eyes and then she turned, picking her way across the pebble beach to the bluebell wood and she was gone.

And that is the ending, almost. Which ending did you prefer? Which shall we have? And really, all I want to ask you, Catherine is this: did any of this happen? Was any of it true? And am I really here, June two thousand and sixteen, in your kitchen. Now, what do you think?’

Then I wept, cried until I was dry, not comprehending the world. I felt his fingers brush my arm: electric. Then he was gone, too, and had ended his story.

An explanation of the two endings.

‘Because of the mystery and ambiguity of the book, the uncertainty of its endings, or rather that Catherine should have some choice in how it ends (including, I would say, in what she does about her own sorrow after Almost has passed on elsewhere), seemed fitting to me. But there is another reason. Great Expectations is very important to this book for The Life of Almost is at least a partial reworking of it and that book had its ending changed at the last moment. Edward Bulwer Foster, Dickens’s friend and a fellow novelist, had been keen that Pip and Estella were united at the end of the story. The account goes that Dickens felt his friend argued such a good case that he subsequently agreed to make a change. “I resolved…to make the change…I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” George Bernard Shaw published an edition of Great Expectations in a limited edition run with his preferred ending: the one Dickens had written first and which he argued was, in fact, “the truly happy ending.” Some have argued that this was a perverse argument, but I prefer the sobriety of the original and find it more fitting for the brooding, disillusioned narrative tone through the book. So,

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

OR, the former, when Pip, walking along Picadilly, is told a lady in a carriage wishes to speak to him: it is Estella:

“…I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

But now, if you wouldn’t mind making tea and trimming up some Welshcakes but without a recipe and with one hand only, I shall offer you my last. Do you know that, sometimes, stories have two endings? Of course you do. In old books, sometimes the author wrote an ending that was too sad and his publisher demanded it more palatable; a triumph. Triumph is sometimes untrue, of course, but what would you like? What do you expect and how may I help?

Almost Derian Llewhellin, all time a room in which to roam.’

Anna Vaught, Wiltshire, two thousand and sixteen.

Passerines: some epigraphs for a new book

I find I vary how I write. With this book – Passerines, a series of interlinked stories about Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Marie (‘Blanche’) Wittmann and Bertha (‘Anna O’) Pappenheim  and of psychiatry – I have tinkered with the beginning because it began life as a short story – and have now lunged into what is sometimes known as the ‘Frankendraft’! So I have 50,000 words to write and I will not read the book back now until it is all done. Then I will attack it with some vehemence.

BUT I have allowed myself two things to help me think. (In addition to the ongoing reading for research).

Although I have a rough plan sketched out, I have decided to write a proper synopsis, even if this is chucked out later – inspiration invariably striking not before but while one is writing. And also, it helps me to look at other books. That is, dipping into things, beyond what I might read for pleasure or research. I read all the time…but it is like magic.

There are lots of books in our house; the house is heaving with them; only yesterday, a cat was almost squished by a tumbling tower of books yet to shelve (or rather as we are waiting for Pete The Shelves to come and shelve for us). But as I was saying, I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. It is magnificent; its beauty makes me cry – and this rarely happens – that I will find a book so affecting. And there it was: the description of boy Eugene, who is Wolfe himself, bounded in by his imagination, knowingly so, and living lonely in its country. And projecting what is required onto the world. I copied it. This is a key theme in Passerines. When you are someone else’s subject or subject to someone else, what might happen to your interior life?

Then…my hand brushed against William Empson’s Collected Poems. I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an utter tosser (‘Ooooh – my hand brushed against a book and it was the very book I needed…’), but this is exactly what happened. I was getting Some Varieties of Pastoral down because I need it for an A Level class on genre. And I suddenly thought of ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’ and its startling pairing of the girl who ‘can’t go on laughing all the time’ with the image of the tortured Christ after this mischievous villanelle. And you see, Passerines has both spirited girls and women and those same people encaged by madness and circumstance – in two cases incarcerated for life and in one almost erased from records  – and a study of both faith and imagination. It begins with Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, was almost lynched, then pardoned by Mussolini (who himself drew his life as if it were the Passion of Christ and spoke of the prefuguration of his death) and then sent to St Andrew’s Asylum (as it would have been known) until the end of her life. The one picture we have there of Violet is unbearably touching: in her greatcoat in the grounds, feeding the birds, her stance reminding us of Giotto’s St Francis.

So, I realise this will not make total sense. Bear with me. I am fleshing things out. I know this is a rather a WTF sort of post. (Very literary, along with ‘tosser’: apologies.)

As I write, I’m still doing bits and pieces on mental health connected with my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and that has only been out eight months. I have sent my second book, a novella, The Life of Almost, out on subs to a small selection of presses and agents. Has it had rejections? Well, of course. Interest? Oh yeah. So I am a bit tense. And while this is happening, I am writing a third book, a novel, using the ‘Prolifiko’ app and setting my target to 3,000 words a day. I am told this is a lot, but if I don’t make it, the app is at least a prompt and very encouraging: a little cheerleader for me. In other news, I am thinking about applying to pitch at the London Book Fair (dependent on what happens in the next week or so, I think – as deadline’s approaching), I’ve applied for Womentoring  ( a fine free mentoring service, where an established author guides one at an earlier stage) and asked for Antonia Honeywell (am I allowed to say that?) because I feel passionately that I will find nurturing in such a project and she seems utterly delightful, a wonderful writer and frankly, I thought she might ‘get’ me, also managing a large family! Does that sound odd? And up ahead, Essex Book Festival in March to read my work in Refugees and Peacekeepers (a Patrician Press Anthology) and there’s a Birkbeck day I’d like to go to in May…

Back to the epigraphs. Synopsis follows soon: did you know there’s good money in Mills and Boon? More on which another day…I write well on hospitals, sex, Horlicks from the trolley and death. You’d be amazed at the categories extant in M&B!

‘The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination – he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion.’

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, 1929, chapter fifteen.

‘Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?

All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.

A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture, who was slaked in lime.

No star he aimed at is entirely waste.

No man is sure he does not need to climb.’

From William Empson, ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’, 1937.

‘The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-Biblical legend popular in the Middle Ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead. In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.’

From ‘The Goldfinch.Signs and Symbols’, notes in web text from the Ftizwilliam Museum, Cambridge.