The Writing Process Blog Tour

The uncompromising and startling Heidi James, whose brilliant novel Wounding came out earlier this year, invited me to take part in the ‘Writing Process Blog Tour’ last week so here I am. It’s a tour of writers’ blogs, asking them to answer four questions about their work. You can read Heidi James’ responses here and follow back through the tour from there. Here are my responses:

1. What am I working on?

I’m working on four projects at the moment: a short, short story collection, Glitches, due to come out sometime this year with Andrews UK Limited; my second novel about two half sisters, one half-Malawian and one English, who swap countries; my blog in which I’m attempting to read and review a book a week; a children’s story, ‘The Magic Story Pot’, which will be performed by Storyspinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in August this year.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Whilst I understand the uses of genre to categorise books for certain readerships, I also find the idea of genre limiting. I love great books and some of those books fit neatly into certain genres and others don’t. My novel, Home, has been marketed as a horror novel, but it doesn’t really fit the conventions of the genre. I have been describing it as an unpalatable novel. In my mind the unpalatable borrows from all sorts of genres – slipstream, horror, speculative fiction – to create something that should discomfort the reader, not terrify them, but make them uneasy and ready to question the world around them. Of course, all sorts of writing does this, it’s just a label I’ve chosen for my own work.

Glitches is very much in this unpalatable zone. There is a story about a cancer ridden professor who forces his nurse to breastfeed him and another story about a woman who goes slowly mad when she can’t force the world to cohere into a conventional narrative – she begins to fixate on what doesn’t fit, the glitches in time or space that we all experience when we think someone is behind us only to turn and find no-one there.

My second novel, however, is something rather different. Whilst it is ostensibly a more straightforward literary fiction novel, the half-Malawian sister uses other people’s discomfort in asking about her heritage to pose as a man at university and the English sister spends a lot of time questioning what it really means to give aid to another country. It seems I can’t escape gritty or dark subjects. Whilst I don’t thing any of my practice differs dramatically from others, we each of us have a unique voice and I believe that none of us would ever be able to tell quite the same story.

3. Why do I write what I do?

This is a question I’ve asked myself a lot. It’s a question my family has asked me a lot and it’s something friends say when they get round to reading my work. ‘I would never have imagined you would write anything so dark,’ they say. Thinking about the unpalatable was one way to answer the question. I realised that I was drawn to writing about things that make me feel uncomfortable and as writing is the way in which I try to make sense of the world, it’s those things I want to write about. I see people – a man whose right hand has lost every digit from the second knuckle to the tip, say – and wonder what happened and who they are. Things happen in the world and I wonder why. Writing is a way of exploring those questions and hopefully taking readers along with me. I don’t know where human beings would be without the power of stories and one day it is my hope to create something that stops being my story and becomes a story that people start to tell as their own.

4. How does my writing process work?

I would like to say I have a routine. I would like to say that I write at a certain time each day and write a certain number of words, but that only happens sometimes. When I do write like that, it’s wonderful, but most of the time it really happens when I simply can’t hold the ideas in anymore. Something, a person, an event, sets me off down the path of wonder, and eventually, after a lot of thought, that something becomes a story shape that demands words. I’m not a writer who meticulously plans – though as I say, I do have a shape in mind – because I like to explore through the actual writing itself, the first draft being the best way I know to tell myself a story. Of course, after that, there is a lot of editing and cutting and adding and generally making the story more visible in places and more subtle in others, hopefully better.

Next week I’m passing the blog tour on to Emma Claire Sweeney and Melissa Bailey.

Emma Claire Sweeney’s fiction has won Arts Council, Royal Literary Fund, and Escalator Awards (for which she was nominated by Jill Dawson), and has been shortlisted for several others including the Asham, Wasafiri, and Fish. This year, Emma Claire and her writer friend, Emily Midorikawa, launched Something Rhymed – a website about female literary friendship that attracted over 3000 hits in its first month alone. Her debut novel, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, is inspired by her autistic sister.

Melissa Bailey was born in Derbyshire in 1971 but grew up in Lancashire. She went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where she did a BA in English Language and Literature. Then she moved to London to study law and practised as a media lawyer for a number of years. The Medici Mirror is Melissa’s first novel. She is currently working on her second.

Look out for their posts next week.

Orkney by Amy Sackville

An aging Professor of literature marries a young ex-student with silver hair and webbed hands and feet. She asks him to take her to Orkney for their honeymoon. Orkney is the professor’s tale of their days there, the sea and weather blending earth and water and sky into a mythical, magical place of uncertainty.

Whilst the unfolding of the plot was nothing I hadn’t expected, Orkney is an absorbing read, a book that envelops you in the mists of a world out of time, a world of old stories, told with such precise language that you can’t help but long to go back to it and be lost some more.  It is a novel of Fantastical prose poetry. I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week, I’m reading The Light Between the Oceans by M. L. Stedman and the following week I’ll be reading In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield. I’m looking forward to more sea-swept tales.

Please do send in suggestions for future books you’d like me to read. I’d also love to hear your comments.

On Monday, I’m going to be taking part in the Writing Process Blog Tour. I was invited to do so by Heidi James, whose uncompromising and beautiful book Wounding I reviewed earlier this year and encourage you to buy and read if you haven’t already. You can read her responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour here. Do look back for my responses in my next blog.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged was considered by Ayn Rand to be her masterpiece, the best fictional expression of her philosophy of objectivism. Dagny Taggart, a woman of intelligence and purpose, runs the railroad built by her ancestor, Ned Taggart. She runs it regardless of private or public opinion about her right as a woman, or an individual, to run the largest railroad in America. But America is being run into the ground by a group of mindless bureaucrats who are looting the inventions and businesses of individual men for the so called good of the whole. Dagny and a series of male lovers, who seem to each outstrip the other in their heroic grandeur, stand against this destruction, ultimately by putting the thinking minds of America on strike.

As a tour de force for a heroic, righteous capitalism, the novel is both beautiful and excruciating. The idea that people can deal with each other in mutual respect, on the basis of merit, promised or earned, regardless of background, is a pleasing one. But, and there are several big buts, the novel has many flaws, for me at least: Rand is far too tempted to stray off into long monologues about her political ideals and as the novel goes on I had less and less stomach to read repetitions or rewordings of arguments already stressed many times previously (I should add that the children’s story, Denver, by David McKee, aimed at the under 5s, summarises her political argument in only a few pages with a few lines of text on each page – it leaves me equally unnerved by the simplicity of its assumptions about wealth and the lack of wealth); her capitalism and her objectivism fail to allow for humans to be anything other than heroic, which is admirable, but ridiculous, given that capitalism has always worked in practice with the looters, as she calls them – I feel that she sweeps aside the moral confusions that others have tried to explore in, say Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw; whilst I applaud Dagny’s sexuality as something that best expresses our mind and body as the whole that it is, it irritates me that the language of conquest and subjugation is the one Rand chooses to use and that Dagny’s intellectual rise is met in her choice of lovers – yes, I suppose you could argue she is the ultimate conquest, that gaining her favour is the best reward for a life lived in truth, but what about other women? Why would their intellect not excite sexual passion? She endures the struggle against a failing world the longest, but why should that make her desirable as anything other than an ally?

Ultimately, I wish I had read The Fountainhead instead: it’s shorter. That sounds cynical. Atlas Shrugged is a challenging novel that asks us to expect the best in ourselves, to love ourselves and to expect that of others. That is a beautiful idea. I’m just not sure that all the rest of it is as easy as Rand makes out or as beautiful. I understand how the world she depicts is destroyed, but I can’t decide if I have more or less faith in the expectations and hopes of most people on the planet. I’m also not sure that all of her ideas are consistent, but then again did I read the novel to be convinced of a political argument? Is that what novel writing is about? I would suggest not. I would suggest it should be about raising questions and Atlas Shrugged does just that. I would be interested to see how differently her arguments are expressed in her purely philosophical works. The fact that she chose to move away from fiction after Atlas Shrugged suggests to me that she realised that literature can’t really do the work of a philosophical tract; I think it should do more. Whether Atlas Shrugged does more, I remain unsure. Simply reading this book in a week felt like a challenge. I would probably do better to climb the summit of reviewing it in another week’s time, but that’s the nature of this blog. Reflection isn’t always an option.

Next week I’ll be reading Orkney by Amy Sackville. Suggestions for future reading and comments on the blog are always welcome.

In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know opens when an old friend of the narrator’s, Zafar, turns up on his South Kensington doorstep with nothing but a small bag and a story to tell. The narrator proceeds to tell that story in a first person narrative whose referent floats between the narrator and Zafar, using style as well as substance to question the nature of identity. Zafar was born in Bangladesh of a girl raped in the war with Pakistan and was adopted by relatives who brought him to England. His thirst for learning took him away from his life as the son of waiter, into the life of the intellectual elite. In what literary and cultural history does Zafar’s story find a home? Zafar may try to find a home in the world of the ideas, but it leaves him no less troubled. His is a voice of learning cut free from a sense of belonging. His is a story with multiple tongues.

In The Light Of What We Know suggests that all we can learn, any new experience or knowledge, can only be interpreted by what we already know, so that all perception is filtered by who we have been and what we have learned so far. What is beyond our horizon is viewed in the context of what rises to meet that horizon. Two people may learn the same things, but perceived from different angles that learning will be interpreted very differently. The main characters in the novel, the unnamed narrator, and his friend Zafar, may have originated from a similar part of the world – the narrator from Pakistan and Zafar from Bangladesh – but the narrator was born into an elite, well-educated Pakistani family and Zafar was born into poverty. They met at Oxford studying mathematics, but the way they choose to wield the power of their knowledge is very different. Class as well as race are shown to play a large role in both how we access and use knowledge.

Early in the novel, Zafar’s ex-girlfriend, Emily, an upper class English woman, asks him to go to Afghanistan.

“You could make such a difference to the lives of twenty-five million people.

Did she think that Afghanistan was the only place that mattered? And did she think that I might be flattered into coming? Worse still, did she think that anyone could make such a difference? She did. They all did, this invading force of new missionaries. They were an army in all but name, not the army carrying guns that cleared their path, nor one carrying food or medicine. But they came bearing advice and with the arrogance to believe that they could make all the difference. Yes, they mean well, but the only good that an absence of malice guarantees is a clear conscience. I knew Emily believed in their creed, and when I saw that she did, suddenly, as if a wire had been cut inside, I had in me a thought, not yet an intention, but a question, one set out in the languages of my childhood and in the perfectly clean lines of mathematics. I had a thought as powerful as an idea born in oppression: Who will stop these people?” (p34)

 In The Light Of What We Know is full situations in which we are made to question how people earn the right to make decisions about and for others, often without having asked those others what they know or what they think. We follow events in Afghanistan and we are privy to discussions on the finance behind the banking crisis, but the novel is also about the relationship between the narrator and Zafar, and their relationships with their families and with women.

Despite its syntactical and linguistic elegance – written to be quoted alongside the many works the novel itself quotes freely from – and its playful stretching of narrative form, there are things about the book that I found frustrating. The novel is as much a love story as a novel of modern times; yet love, in particular romantic love, is one of the few things the novel truly struggles to express. Perhaps the lessons of subterfuge learnt from the international stage of finance and war sabotage any hopes for meaningful relationships. Even the relationship between Zafar and the narrator is fraught with misconception and deception.

Either way, Meena, the narrator’s wife, and Emily, are central figures in the novel and yet we barely hear a word from either of them. Important moments of emotional crisis are gestured towards but ultimately left seething in an uncomfortable silence. It has not escaped me that this may be intentional – what is not said or written is as powerful as what is and perhaps the potential replaying of the circumstances of Zafar’s own conception are best left unvoiced – but it leaves me frustrated.

The one chapter that does try to write about love is the story of Alessandro Moisi Iacoboni, Chapter 13, and its sentimental tone would, had I been the book’s editor, have made me mark it for deletion. It does however, highlight the importance of lost mothers who seem to be the true vehicles for love in Zafar’s life, but as they are lost they can only cast shadows over romantic affairs that are anything but sentimental or romantic. If anything love affairs between men and women are charged with frustration and self-loathing. There are women in the novel who are viewed in a favourable light, but the main thrust of the story is mostly concerned with the male milieu. It depresses me how easily a novel of international affairs can dismiss women, though the blame for that does not lie entirely with the author, and it makes we wonder about why so much of what we consider to be literary has such a dominantly male tone.

Despite these quibbles, In The Light Of What We Know is a profoundly engaging novel, full of provocation and intrigue. I admire the writing and the conception of the novel immensely. Sometimes I was unsure of how knowing the author was in his use of quotation. Whilst it is ostensibly the narrator who chooses to ground his story in multiple quotations from great writers and thinkers, Zia Haider Rahman is having his cake and eating it. He is asking us to question how knowledge is accrued and delivered, he is asking us to question intellectual posturing, and yet he is also able to wear his very great learning upon his sleeve. This confliction is very typical of the kinds of knots the novel presents. There is something delightful about this kind of provocation, but In the Light of What We Know, never lets you forget that the pleasure comes at a cost.

In The Light of What We Know is a novel full of the pain of wanting to belong. A novel of and for our time, this is book that everyone should read.

Next week I’ll be reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Please do send in suggestions for future weeks.

The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

In The Language of Dying an unnamed narrator talks through the last days of her father’s life. She speaks to him of events unfolding around him, of the past, of how she experienced the past. She is generous about his alcohol addiction and his bouts of ambitious enthusiasm for new life experiences. She reassures him, that through the waste of cancer, she can still see him.

All of this is beautifully written. The way that families adhere to their own well-rehearsed patterns and, but for the occasional surprise, act predictably albeit understandably. Like all families, this family has its secrets, its dysfunctions, but it is still a family and regardless of old wounds they cling to each other in the strange intensity of their father’s dying hold over them. The narrator’s observations of her family and their relationships are depicted with the clarity and bias of truth.

Alongside the life of the family, is the story of the narrator herself. At times of extreme stress, beginning with the night her mother abandons her, all of her unexpressed emotion manifests in a creature of darkness, a magical beast both fierce and forlorn, calling to her to lead some different wild life alongside its gnarled, mystical, muscular being. Whether it springs from the fiery bubblings of her own molten emotion, whether it is a psychotic vision, or whether it exists alongside our reality flitting among the shadows of our lives, we never know, but it breathes down through the narrative with nostrils flared.

Whilst I’m sure that the author does not see these narratives as two halves, it is quite easy to view the book in that way. On the one hand, the precise and painful tale of a father’s passing; on the other, the fantasy of a dark Arcadian alternative to contemporary life. It almost forces a debate about genre fiction. Should there be such clear divisions between what we consider to be literary fiction and what we consider to be fantasy? The living pulse of story will always have routes in the miraculous. But I think I would have liked more room for uncertainty in the ending. I won’t tell you why though, because I think this is a book that deserves a wider readership.

Sarah Pinborough’s prose feels almost effortless. She is very well known in the world of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, but she should have wider recognition. There are resonances with Angela Carter amongst others. I would be quite happy to offer The Language of Dying as an alternative candidate for the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction. What makes Eimear McBride’s novel more prize-worthy? Read them both and let’s start a debate!

Next week I’m reading In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahmen. Please do send in suggestions for the following weeks.