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Hopes and Fears: The End of the Writing Line?

Dear lovely Blog Readers

This week I was preparing to go to one of my Writing Groups – one that encompasses writers from a Christian faith tradition, whether our writing is faith-based or otherwise. Our co-ordinator sent an email reminding us that:

‘The subject chosen was Hopes and Fears in the hope that you might be inspired by Christmas, Advent, personal events, or political upheavals.’

Well, I thought, my biggest ‘Fear’ at the moment is sharing my news with the writing group – and with you dear blog readers – the news that I delivered my new novel Westminster Bridge to my agent and that she does not engage with it enough to pick it up.

When I found an agent who believed in my book after nearly two decades of trying (in this case my previous novel Out of Silence) I felt like I had somehow ‘arrived’ as a writer. Out of Silence was a book that wrote itself, one that felt like a ‘coming of age’ of my writing – as one of my lovely friends described it. It developed from a strong simple idea that grew organically as I wrote. I felt that the quality of my writing had moved on in some way. I never for a moment thought that the next book would almost take me backwards.

Writing Westminster Bridge felt, at times, like the proverbial pulling of teeth. I worked through this and grew to love my characters and their story and yet still something would not fully hang together like it did in Out of Silence. I wondered whether part of this was writing it knowing that my agent was, at some point, awaiting its delivery. Another question all along has been the storyline. When I first started Westminster Bridge I was encouraged by my agent to provide her with the ideas I was working on so that she had this information to give to the publishers who she sent Out of Silence to. I sent my ideas – quite fluid and not developed into a full story yet – for a book that was going to be called Starfish Edge. My agent felt there was not enough substance so I developed more ideas and a stronger and somewhat different storyline; I added more backstory for one of the characters at her suggestion. Eventually this developed into Westminster Bridge.

I wrote and researched Westminster Bridge for 15-20 hours a week on top of my paid job for over a year and now I have to ‘park’ this book and accept that it is simply not good enough. My agent wrote a very tactful and kindly worded email to give me a chance to absorb the news before we spoke. She said:

‘I’ve now had a chance to read Westminster Bridge, and this is very difficult to say, because I know, as with everything you do, how much time and thought you have given to it, but I am afraid I just didn’t connect with it at the level I was hoping to.’

A week later we spoke and both realised something had gone awry in the translation of the way I was working on this book, the effect on the quality of my writing, and the expectations my agent had. In addition, despite much praise from publishers, Out of Silence has not found a publishing home. I finally have to accept that I am unlikely to become traditionally published in the way that I’d hoped.

My feelings are so mixed, dear reader. I feel a deep sadness that all my ‘Hopes’ with respect to my writing have now reached what feels like the end of the line, but I also feel a great freedom that my time, and in some way my life, has been handed back to me. I realise now that what was driving me was more a need for ‘recognition’ of my writing than any kind of financial reward. I intend to stop writing for the moment, and to have breathing space for life and other endeavours.

My friends say: you will always be a writer, you can do it for yourself in the way that suits you. Maybe they are right, but my standards for myself are high and in Westminster Bridge I have failed to meet them. I’ll never say ‘never’, but I can’t imagine writing another novel while so many (four to date) sit on the shelf unread. Maybe I’ll return to a shorter form, like poetry, or simply go back to the pleasure of having more time to read. My agent has agreed to keep me in contract with her and should I write another book she is willing to look at it. The door is still ever-so-slightly open…

In the meantime I have the inclination to put Out of Silence into a public arena where it is available to an audience, however small. I don’t fancy self-publishing, or all the marketing and self-promotion palaver that goes along with it, but I think that I might serialise the book on this Blog from the new year. Available to all, free, waiting for those who find it by chance.

 

© Anne de Gruchy

 

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Championing Children’s Reading

A Round Robin Post

This month, dear followers, we have been asked to address the following question:

How do you encourage reading in your children?

Despite my age and the impact technology has had on the formats that children read in, I have decided to begin with myself. A little self-indulgent, but somehow looking back at my own reading as a child feels like a good place to start. It also gave me an excuse to dig up some very old and sentimental books!

The very first book that I recall absolutely loving is An ABC for You and Me. It wasn’t just that, on the very first page, ‘Ann has an Apple’ (no matter that my name was spelt without an ‘e’, this book was clearly about me, even if in the form of cute mice, rabbits, squirrels and birds), it was also beautifully illustrated and an initial introduction to my future love: calligraphy. Learning the alphabet seemed secondary, as was probably intended, and the cute rhyme on the last pages (‘XYZ went off to bed at the end of the ABC’) perhaps also set me up for a future love of poetry.

Moving on to books with a few more words and a proper story, we come to the wonderful Molly Brett. A theme is already emerging here of how important pictures and illustrations can be in helping a child to engage. I just loved Molly’s beautiful pictures of nature and wildlife, and the stories just fitted in a very satisfactory way around the edges.

I didn’t move on far for my next memory, and predictably these books also featured animals as their main characters: come in Alison Uttley and the Little Grey Rabbit stories! I think that non-human characters are still very popular with children but perhaps the trend now days is for central characters to be human (perhaps more identifiable) – maybe on some kind of a quest. Of course that doesn’t stop an author going to town on an array of non-human characters – just consider J K Rowling and Harry Potter.

Alongside books with stories, I have always loved poetry. I was lucky to be given anthologies of poems when I was young, and who can resist the humorous poetry of people like A A Milne and Spike Milligan? I think you can see from the state of my copy of Now We Are Six just how much it was loved and read.  Humour and children – well that is definitely the winning combination!

My love of beautiful illustrations and wildlife (or perhaps my mother’s, as she was the purchaser of most of our mini-library of books) continued with books like the haunting Rustle of Spring. Nature and how it works allows difficult themes of cruelty and competition and survival to filter into children’s reading, and several of my books that had central animal stories brought me to tears.

Sadly I can’t bring you more photographs as I move on – the books themselves are now lost to me. Longer stories and novels that I remember clearly include the old but timeless Gobbolino: The Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams. I really identified with the struggles of the little kitten to find his true nature and identity. I clearly enjoyed all things Witchy (although many of the traditional fairy tales were a little too scary for me), because another book that I recall loving was The Witch’s Daughter by Nina Bawden. What young girl could resist a heroine with the name ‘Perdita’? Mythology and history were also strongly appealing – especially Mary Stewart’s series of books about about Merlin.

It’s hard to say what helped most to encourage me to read. Books that engaged both the eyes and the heart, and time spent with my mother who would read to us at bedtime. The sense that my mother also valued these books was important, and the gradual movement from illustrations with a few words to words with a few illustrations. In fact, the feeling that I was growing up and moving on and actually making ‘progress’ from one thing to another probably helped me to grow naturally into new reading challenges.

My mother would also make up stories for us. It felt magical and personal and gave me the knowledge that reading and writing was something that I myself could do, not just an unknown author scribbling away in the ubiquitous attic somewhere.

Not every child, though, has such a positive route to reading. My own son is dyslexic. He loved being read to as a child, but became resistant once he was given longer books to read himself. Once he was diagnosed the need to experiment with different formats became clearer, and for a while more visual-based materials like magazines and cartoons were a help. It was a minor miracle when we discovered Lemony Snicket and the A Series of Unfortunate Events books by Daniel Handler. They were quirky and fun and digestible, but more importantly they were printed with wide spacing onto cream coloured paper – much more readable for a dyslexic child. Briefly, my son loved reading again.

It is interesting that, much later in his life when he had reached adulthood, my son began reading again because he acquired a Kindle electronic reader. I was sceptical about how much use it would get when he asked me to buy him one to take away with him on his campervan adventures, but within weeks he had devoured several books. So: don’t make assumptions, experiment with format, and never forget that words can be shared verbally as well as on paper!
___________________________________________________________________
See the suggestions other writers have for encouraging reading in children:
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ly
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com

© Anne de Gruchy

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 7: Winter Hours

Book Number Seven: Winter Hours – Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems by Mary Oliver

(Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Book Cover - Winter Hours

I was introduced to this book, and to Mary Oliver, by an American friend. Since then I have read a lot of Mary Oliver’s work and every piece has been just beautiful – she is so engaged with nature – so observant – and her prose and poems are simple with a real love at their heart.

I love the varied material in this book. The way we get an insight into the author and her world and how she sees things. We watch as she is unable to clean the stairs of her house because a spider is building its web there, we see turtles travel to the beach to lay their eggs, we are allowed into the secrets of how she came to write her poem ‘The Swan’.

Mary Oliver talks about poems needing to have ‘sincere energy’ and ‘a spiritual purpose’ and I think these are the qualities that I love in her work. Here is gentleness and insight alongside the raw realities of life.

Just beautiful.

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 6: Even the Dogs

Book Number Six: Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

(First published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury in 2010)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Book Cover - Even the Dogs

Oh, this is such a good novel!

I love Jon McGregor’s work. I love his descriptions and the way he gets to the heart of small, everyday things and unpicks them so that they open up like a flower. I love the way that he brings us a thousand small insights that make a greater whole.

But this book, this is so different from his other work. Its subject matter is perhaps what you might call darker (a community of people immersed in a culture where drugs and homelessness and marginalization are the norm) but the book just fizzes with energy and love. Here are characters we can engage with, here is urgency in living life even though the story centres around a man’s body lying in a ruined flat.

Read it! I think you absolutely need to…

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 5: Quaker Faith & Practice

Book Number Five: Quaker Faith & Practice

(Published with regularly updated versions by The Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Book Cover - Quaker Faith and Practice

This book is both a personal indulgence and inspiration. The subtitle is ‘The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Sociery of Friends (Quakers ) in Britain’, but this does it no favours. Originally there were two books – one looking at the ‘Faith’ side, and the other at how this is ‘Practiced’ by Quakers.

But this is not dry or religiously heavy material. It contains inspirations and insights into the working of God/Spirit in the world from many people over many generations. If you want to know anything about Quakers, read Chapter One which contains 42 succinct ‘Advices and Queries’. ‘Take heed, dear Friends,’ says the first one, ‘to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’

I love this book. In here I can see how others have dealt with death and divorce, with politics and people who are very different from ourselves. In here I can learn how a ‘Meeting for Worship for Business’ might be conducted, or how the testimonies of Simplicity, Equality, Truth, Peace and Sustainability/Stewardship of our earth might impact on me. In here I am always redirected to the Light – the divine – that is at the heart of every person and situation.

There is an online version too. Do check it out at: http://qfp.quaker.org.uk/

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 4: Cry, The Beloved Country

Book Number Four: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

(First published by Jonathan Cape in 1948)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: Book Cover - Cry, The Beloved Country

This book is subtitled: A story of comfort in desolation.   Perhaps I need say no more. It is a wonderful novel that reads almost as the most poignant documentary – the story of a Zulu parson’s search for his son in a Johannesburg immersed in the racial problems of South Africa at that time.

There is a sense of inevitability about where the search will lead. The landscapes are beautifully described – realized as places carrying the emotion of the people and burdens of the country and its history – and it feels like a eulogy to this ‘beloved country’ as well as to what the love of a father can overcome. So achingly sad. Get the tissues ready.

 

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 3: Birthday Letters

Book Number Three: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

(First published in 1998 by Faber and Faber Limited)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: book cover - Birthday Letters

If I absolutely had to pick a favourite book of poetry, this would be it.

It’s not that Ted Hughes is necessarily my favourite poet (he isn’t), but more that it reads like a cross between an autobiography (which it is) and a novel. Intensely personal, and charting so much of his relationship with Sylvia Plath, the beauty of this book is how it is so fiery and emotional – how it gets under your skin and makes you feel that it is you who is reliving an event or activity through each poem. You feel like you are in each moment, the prose is so immediate, yet it is so personal that you almost feel embarrassed that the moment has been shared with you, a stranger.

This is a book that takes you on a journey through a relationship – more poignant for it being a famous one where we know the sad outcome. In every poem there are brilliant and brightly lit moments – the ups and downs, the intensity, the passion and the frustrations. It is a book with a journey in it, and you move inexorably to the end – carried on a big tide and unable to jump free if you wanted to.

 

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 2: Wonderland

Book Number Two: Wonderland – A Year of BRITAIN’S WILDLIFE Day by Day by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss

(Published by John Murray (Publishers), 2017)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: book cover - wonderland

My son bought me this book for my birthday, and it is just the most wonderful Treasury. Each day has a little piece of writing by one of the two authors (you can spot their individual styles as you go!) on some creature, or bird, or plant that might be spotted at that time of year.

Apart from an achingly beautiful cover, there are no illustrations. But this is a brilliant collection of encounters – with both rarities and the everyday – and the authors just bring such joy and knowledge to the table that you can’t help but smile. They take you into the world of nature and share their insights and enthusiasms so that you feel you are there with them as they make their discoveries and connections with the living things we share our world with every day but often miss.

Something to dip into and enjoy, not just day-by-day but year-by year.

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Seven Day Book Challenge – No 1: The Bone People

A friend of mine took up a ‘Seven Day Book Challenge’ on Facebook recently and suggested that I might follow suit. This seemed to involve recommending a different book every day for a week. I was a bit tardy in following this up, but it got me thinking about the wonderful range of books that have spoken to me over the years and it occurred to me that it would be a lovely thing to share through my blog – so here goes! I’ve cheated a little in not sticking to the single sentence I was meant to use to introduce the books…

In no particular order:

Book Number One: The Bone People by Keri Hulme
(First published in Great Britain 1985 by Spiral in association with Hodder and Stoughton)

annedegruchy.co.uk image: book cover - The Bone People

This book is my all-time favourite novel. It won the Booker McConnell Prize in 1985 and I recall that it divided opinion at the time. It is an intense book, with intensely poetic and beautiful prose.

Set on the South Island beaches of New Zealand it has the sense of a timeless fable, immersed in nature and Maori myth, but at its heart it is the story of three people – Kerewin who sets up home in an isolated tower by the beach, a boy who befriends her, and his father, Joe. I don’t know Keri Hulme managed to write such heart-achingly personal prose – so deep and intense and embedded in each character and their troubles – but it’s absolutely why I Love Love Love this book.

8

Killer Voices: Violence and Danger in Writing

I am back on a Round Robin post today, and we have been set the following topic:

How do you handle/use violence, or any type of danger, in your stories?

This is a fascinating topic for me because my most recent novel, which is currently going out on submissions via my agent, is about a serial killer. Not only that, it is definitely NOT a crime story!

But thereby lies the dilemma – I have written a literary fiction book that focuses on the internal world of someone who kills, and the friendship he forms with a woman who was born profoundly deaf. They share a very internalized sense of the world and a common love of the Lincolnshire fenland landscape where the book is set. The writing is descriptive, but the subject matter is harder hitting than is normal in ‘literary’ work.

This is a book that I am proud of. I believe I have written something with integrity and I want it to find an audience. Its origins stem from the well-loved Quaker phrase: ‘that of God in everyone’. It got me thinking: as we can find ‘that of God’ in all people, what is it in some people that allows them to kill or to commit awful crimes?

This is the question that the book tries to answer in some way.

So: I did my research. I read about ‘types’ of sexual offenders and serial killers and the different ways and means that aggression is expressed. In rape, for instance, patterns of behaviour may be based on anger (sexuality becomes a hostile act), power (an expression of conquest) and sadism (where anger and power become eroticized). I probably ducked the difficult options in choosing that Michael, my character, would be an anger killer – it’s easier to see the humanity in someone who loses control without pre-planning anything, and where there are trigger events to explain it. It also meant introducing backstory to show how he came to be the person he was – and I based this on research and reading interviews with real rapists and killers.

The other thing I decided with this novel was to let the reader know from page one that Michael had killed in the past. This brought in a sense of jeopardy for the other characters that he met and it meant that his own journey was about trying to control his anger and not to kill again. His crimes involve sexual violence, and I did write the scenes fairly factually – the reader sees what happened and it’s hard to tell how an individual reader feels in reading these scenes. Each crime shows the lead up and what triggered Michael’s loss of control – and the randomness of who becomes the victim. Because the land and cycles of nature are central to the book, I also show how the bodies of Michael’s victims decay and become a rich source of nourishment to the landscape – a sense of the earth reclaiming its own.

All this is brilliant, except…. I appear to have shot myself in the foot by crossing traditional genre divides. This is literary fiction but it features a serial killer. Crimes are committed but the focus is on the reaction of the community and the characters involved, not police involvement or solving of the crimes. Feedback from publishers has been extremely positive but the book does not ‘fit’ their normal categories and it is hard to find it a home. One editor put it this way: ‘having a serial killer as a main character [in a novel that is clearly literary in nature] will put it into a certain category that will alienate some readers and potentially appeal to the ‘wrong’ readers in other cases, who will expect something more narrative’.

Another dilemma posed by writing storylines that involve violence from both a perpetrator’s and a person-centred perspective is that people are not always comfortable with being asked to treat a serial killer as a human being. One editor expressed discomfort at the feeling that they were being asked to sympathise with a serial killer – not my intention, but perhaps it shows that I did manage to get across my character’s humanity despite his capacity to kill.

I have dealt with violence in other novels – self-harm and domestic abuse, an overheated argument leading to death by dangerous driving – but Out of Silence retains a very special place in my heart, and will continue to do so whether it finds a publishing deal or not.

See how other writers deal with danger and violence in their work:

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1i2
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Anne de Gruchy https://annedegruchy.co.uk/category/blog/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Judith Copek, //http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com

© Anne de Gruchy