Friday, September 25, 2015

Writing For Joy

25th September 2015

"For what is story if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?" Mona Van Duyn.

Well, that's a pretty bleak analysis. Sort of Jean Paul Sartre meets Sylvia Plath. I would like to speak up for joy here and say that sometimes you read (and write) for the same reason you eat creme brulee - just because it is delicious.  When I was a serious philosophy student in Edinburgh and then in Oxford, I read things like Sartre's Nausea, Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Mann's Death in Venice. I loved the gravitas and thought them very profound. I was all into existentialism and deep meaning. I wasn't so much looking for relief from pain as to wallow around in it.
But youth is like that: you have plenty of time to navigate out of the doldrums. These days I am inclined towards literature that is less self-absorbed. I'd rather be delighted than nauseated. The world is quite capable of gloom without me plummeting the depths of its dysfunction in fiction.

There is a tradition of dystopias in literature, starting with the 1923 Russian book "We." Authors don't seem to have much faith in the human being to evolve upwards instead of down. The alternate present I am writing about in my third and final book in the Veil Of Time series presents a better landscape than our current one: people live at peace in small self-sufficient townships run by women's councils instead of by male hierarchies. Well, we gave men their chance and look at the mess!

We can do better than this, and I am optimistic that we will get there.  So this future literary projection of mine is a utopia of sorts (where utopia means one hell of a lot better than it is now - not perfection.)   Our imaginations can run in any direction, so why not direct it towards the good and hopeful? By this I don't mean opting for stupidity or unfounded glee, but rather looking at things through a different lens, one that doesn't mark its time against the dirge.

PS: The interview I gave to booksgosocial last week will come out on October 1st, so I will give a link to it in next week's blog. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Close Call

18th September 2015

I gave a mini Skype interview this week about my book Veil Of Time on a site called I will post it on my website (, press page) when it becomes available. Not trusting anything to chance, I had prepared a spiel about how I came to write the book and what it was about, so when the interviewer asked for the "elevator pitch," I skipped over the "elevator" component and launched into my monologue. About fifteen minutes later, my interviewer jumped in: No, I just need the elevator pitch.
So I started over: "In  my book, Maggie escapes a bad divorce by moving to the ancient fort of Dunadd in Scotland and...." If you don't know what the phrase Tabula Rasa means, it's what happens half-way through your elevator pitch. Blank. The kind of blank I would like around two o'clock in the morning when my mind is doing back flips. I needed one of those Monty Python brain surgeons to step into the frame and hit me over the head. Good thing we weren't going live.
I tried again, but she said I wasn't looking at the camera. I was staring off, as I so often do, into empty space. It goes with the job.
So I trained my eyes on the little red dot and struggled on: "I embarked on Veil Of Time despite the fact that I don't normally write historical fiction..."
She stopped me again. She sounded shocked. "Was that an airplane?"

Are you conducting this interview in the middle of a runway? I had to admit then that I live in the flight path for Aspen Airport. This is where they put you when you belong to the wrong caste in a city of billionaires, when you don't have a private table at restaurants where they charge you $25 for a bottle of water flown in from Bora Bora. It was probably just such a shipment that was flying over my roof in the middle of the interview. This is one of the few places where a lowly waiter can you make you feel like scum.

All you have to do is ask for a glass of Rose when they show you the wine list. "Madam, we don't even count that as a wine." You have to supply the French accent, but, as God is my witness, I was told this once in an Aspen restaurant. I was told on another occasion that a beer I was contemplating was positively wine-esque. I didn't order it.
I got through the interview, awkward as a hippo in a tutu.
"No worries," said my interviewer in the face of my profuse apologies. "It usually happens this way."
That's because you're talking to writers. We don't hide away in our offices for protracted hours for nothing. In my next life, just so you know, I'm going to be an actress. Interview me on Skype then. I might even manage a pirouette.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Like the Corners of My Mind

11th September 2015

When I was in my early teens, I was taken by my mother to visit her ailing father in hospital. This was no cuddly Grandpa, but someone who had remained distant to both his children and his children's children. He was sitting in a wheelchair in a common area when we arrived, and as we stood there making conversation, he started to fumble with his dressing gown. He was trying to close it, but only managed to open it further across the gaping fly of his pajamas. The point is: the sight of my grandfather's white hairy testicles is emblazoned on my memory, and I will never forget it (though I have tried, believe me.)

(That's not him.)
Same goes for this day in history. 9/11 has only one connotation around the globe. The very mention of 9/11 conjurs images of those planes hitting the Twin Towers and it always will. This is the way memory works, and it's a good thing for us writers that it does.

When I was eight years-old, my father, in an unusual move, took me and my best friend into the center of Glasgow where he had some business, and there in a very fancy sweetie shop he bought us each a bag of any sweetie we chose from the many jars sitting on the many shelves. I chose a confection that seemed impossibly magical: different coloured lozenges with actual writing on them! They didn't taste that good, but that doesn't seem to spoil the memory.
When you think of all the things that happen to you as a child, relatively few stand out, but the ones that do have a certain force, a sort of floodlight behind them. These stand-out memories, if you're artistically inclined, are like little booster points that urge you to self-expression.

(Just for the record, the all-important Battle of Bannockburn happened on September 11th, in which the Scots sent the English King Edward back to London tae think again. That was their first and last ouster of English interests.
And September 11th is also the birthday of DH Lawrence, who showed us the working life of Nottinghamshire and gave us the wonderful Lady Chatterly's Lover, which the BBC has just re-filmed with Richard Madden as Mellors. Can't wait to see that!)

So, apart from all the towers and the battles and epiphanies, what I want to say is, cherish your memories. Unlike your darlings, don't kill them. Hold them in your hand and feel the weight of them. And then write about them. Even the bad ones.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Too Much Original Sin

4th September 2015

A young man, over whom I languished in my youth for longer than was respectable, eventually told my best friend that he could never go for a girl like me because I was too emotional. In my late teens and at the height of my emotionality, I could make little sense of this assessment. I wasn't given to thinking I could be too anything. That he ended up in market research could be seen as par for my  course, but I have since had pause to consider what he might have meant and why he viewed this as a killing epithet.

I have just put down Tobias Wolff's terrific memoir "This Boy's Life," and it seems that people distanced themselves from his youthful self for similar reasons: too suffering and self-destructive, too rebellious, too emotional to hide all that very well behind a veneer of bluster. But perhaps this is the stuff of writers. Too much. Too much. People who knew me in my childhood and youth still shake their heads and think she's just a bit much. Not that I have ever had any bluster. My own Christian upbringing in the shadow of Original Sin put paid to that.

I do have a habit of being sure that I am right. This is a fault, I admit, and yet, if I didn't feel that, would I bother to put my thoughts down on paper? Would I flinch so severely at outright injustice and want to speak its name?

People have a problem with the ungilded truth.  I have a problem with spinach. It's tastes awful. I am quite sure of that. Just as sure as I am of the fact that being too emotional is not a sin. And might even be helpful.