A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (2nd reading)

British writer Patrick Gale lives in Cornwall

I first read and blogged about this book in June 2016. It led me to add Patrick Gale to my list of literary favs. I had read his Rough Music (2000) years before and read it again in 2019. Having now read most, yet not all, of Gale’s twenty one books, these two stand out, for me, as his best.

Recently I watched an interview with him in which he mentions that the devastating opening scene was based on a news item and it was this first scene that he wrote without any idea what was going to happen next … except that the two characters, the perfectly good man, Father Barnaby Johnson, and a young man, Lenny, had to be connected in some, as yet, unforeseen way.

This to me is the essence of what novel writing is: a strong scene that just has to be written and then the writer in the privacy of his own mind, experience, and in a space (room) of one’s own (thank you Virginia Woolf) lets the subconscious out for a walk and writes down what he sees and hears. This is how most novelists work; they’re called pansters (by some): they ride by the seat of their pants. I’ve yet to meet or hear from a writer who plans every detail before writing begins, although I hear that Gustave Flaubert was one.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again: if you are surprised what you read on the page it’s highly likely that the writer was too.

For any would-be novelist this book is a must read. The idea of letting a strong novelistic event with only two characters and one setting plant the seed of the story of a man’s life spanning half a decade is tantalising. The timeframe of the action is segmented and re-arranged. Gale loves taking time and playing around with it. Hence chapters called “Lenny at 20” are followed by “Dorothy at 24” are followed by “Barnaby at 52” and finally, “Nuala at 52” is followed by the final chapter “Barnaby at 8”. This format makes each chapter not unlike a short story although all of them are preempted with known knowledge which allows the reader to understand and sometimes realise an important reason or revelation that is only known by the reader, and not by any of the characters. You feel privileged.

And that’s how you learn about the connection between Father Barnaby Johnson and young Lenny: it’s not stated, you work it out.

You can find many of Gale’s books, including this one, here.

In the Margins: of the pleasures of reading and writing by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante has always said that once a book is written it has no further need for its writer. She has never been seen in public. Some have even suggested that she could be a man, but the general consensus is that ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym for an unknown female writer.

This slim volume of essays is a very personal attempt to put into words what happens when a writer writes and a reader reads. No mean task. The first three were presented in November 2021 at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, Italy as the 2021 instalment of the Eco Lectures produced by Umberto Eco International Center for Humanities. They were read by the actress Manuela Mandracchia ‘in the guise’ of Elena Ferrante. The fourth and last essay, Dante’s Rib, concluded the conference Dante and Other Classics in April 2021 to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. It was read by the scholar Tiziana de Rogatis.

Ferrante vividly reimagines her early school days when she was compelled to write on black lined paper but between two vertical red lines, one positioning the left margin, the other the right. She was diligent to recognise the ease to honour the left margin but recognising “that if your writing didn’t stay between those taut lines you would be punished,” she found the right margin difficult to obey.

I was punished so often that the sense of the boundary became part of me, and when I write by hand I feel the threat of the vertical red line even though I haven’t used paper like that for years.

There is, and always has been, a mysterious element to the creation of fiction. If you as a reader are surprised by what someone does or what someone says in a book, the writer probably was too. Most writers are pantsters: they fly by the seat of their pants. You can begin a scene not knowing where it’s going until you get there.

By mysterious I mean that which makes a writer re-read yesterday’s work and think, ‘Did I write that? Where did that come from?’ When a writer is in the heat of creativity and the keys (or pen) are jumping with energy and excitement, and the little black marks – typos misspellings galore – are coming lickerty-split onto the pale background there isn’t time to think, ‘What did Stephen King say about this situation?’ ‘Passive or active here?’ ‘Maybe I should re-read that Ferrante lecture’ and ‘I’d better ask what’s-his-name? that YouTube guy’. No, there isn’t time. If I stop I’ll lose it. One has to hope-to-god that all that advice, those corrections, mistakes, answers, instructions, and trial & errors have somehow, by osmosis perhaps, made it into my subconscious and are now flowing creatively through my fingertips shoving those little black marks all over that pale background and will coalesce into something worthwhile, giving me a rich and productive resource on which to later manipulate, via several drafts, into a good book. What is that magical force? (muse? imagination? the holy spirit? creative fire?). I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s an amorphous product of our imagination that our measly 26 man-made letters – no matter in what order we put them – are just too limited, or too few in number, to give it meaning we can understand.

She quotes Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary (1953):

“And your novel?

“Oh, I put in my hand and rummage in a bran pie*.”

“That’s what’s so wonderful. And it’s all different”

“Yes, I’m 20 people.”

*a bran pie = a tub full of bran in which treats are hidden: a lucky dip.

Ferrante believes there are two kinds of writing, the first compliant, the second impetuous; the first from the ‘outside’, the second from the imaginary ‘inside’ which is by its nature fleeting.

The thought-vision appears as something in motion – it rises and falls – [it’s not unlike watching TV in your mind] and its task is to make itself evident before disappearing.

And fleeting it certainly is. Many times between being hit by an exciting idea and racing to my nearest device with its Note App – it’s gone! And when I try to retrace my thoughts to whatever it was that sparked the thought train in the first place – the caption on a photo, a news article, a phrase – it’s nowhere to be found. Many writers have expressed this mysterious aspect of fiction writing:

Alexander McCall Smith: (writing fiction is) allowing the sub-conscience to escape.

Wole Soyinka: (writing fiction is) a kind of creative reportage.

John Irving: writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean.

D. H. Lawrence: I am doing a novel which I have never grasped …there I am at page 145 and I’ve no notion what’s it about.

Jonathan Safran Foer: when writing non-fiction I always know in the morning what I’m going to work on; when writing fiction I get up in the morning NOT knowing what I’m going to work on.

Virginia Woolf again: writing is camping out in your brain.

There are quotable quotes in almost all of Ferrante’s paragraphs, ideas that will spark your own thought trains. If you are interested in this stuff please read it and re-read it as re-reading is wonderfully necessary; it will delight, amuse, and amaze you. If you’re not, don’t bother.

You can buy the ebook or hard cover edition here.

Short Cuts by Raymond Carver

American short story writer, Raymond Carver,
1938 – 1988

One of the enemies of sleep is an overactive brain, which is why there are many pieces of advice that all aspire to getting a light-sleeper ready for sleep: listening to your own breathing, concentrating on a mantra, counting sheep, or reading a book; give the brain one thing to do, and not let it buzz around thirty eight.

I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s latest, and third novel, To Paradise, but I’m reading an ebook edition on my tablet and since modern medical advice is that reading on an electronic device before sleep is not a good idea – it tends to inhibit sleep, not encourage it – I usually have a paper book by my bed for those many minutes of bedtime reading.

Note! I’m not at all advocating choosing a dull read for bed-time reading; not a book to put you to sleep but one to prepare you for sleep.

Short stories are good. Raymond Carver’s short story collection, Short Cuts (1993), has been my recent and decent bedtime read.

The famed American filmmaker, Robert Altman, praised Carver for capturing “the wonderful idiosyncrasies of human behaviour … that exist amid the randomness of life’s experiences.” That paints a very general picture of what Carver wrote about; what he mainly wrote about was far more specific.

Carver was born and lived in the American North West and as a young married man – he was married and the father of two while still in his teens – he worked odd jobs, from picking tulips to sweeping floors to managing an apartment building. He knew all about unplanned responsibilities, the threat of unsatisfying work and unemployment and the mysterious chicanery of personal relationships. This is the stuff of Carver’s characters. They are lorry drivers, traveling salesmen, waitresses, the badly educated, disillusioned, the down-and-almost-out, alcoholics, quickly bored, easily distracted, and equally likely to be the betrayed as the betrayer. Their lives are beyond their control and since God has everything to do with it they don’t blame him since he doesn’t seem to care, but anyway, that’s okay because they aren’t that far away from believing they deserve everything they get.

Carver’s stories are usually cautionary tales, highlighting casual moments as the causes of distrust, treachery, and the erosion of tenuous human standards. His characters and situations may be dark and seemingly mundane but they contain a wealth of understanding and insight into the human condition and are told in bold and sparse prose.

Most fiction is told through an omnipotent unnamed third-person narrator who knows everyone’s, and the world’s, past, present and future; they know what everyone is thinking, needing, and planning and tells the reader what they say and do and what they think and want. Carver’s third-person narrators aren’t that powerful. His third person narrators have the same power as everyone else: they just report what is said and done, like his first person narrators. What the characters may be thinking at any one moment is either of no consequence or completely incomprehensible.

His writing is reader-focused: you fill in the gaps, the spaces for psychological insight that each reader brings to such texts which makes these stories so personal and endearing.

Short stories are not the most popular form of fiction but writers who do them well, Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W Somerset Maugham, James Joyce, Nam Lee, and Raymond Carver do them very well indeed.

These nine stories and one poem that make up this volume were the inspiration for Robert Altman’s multi-award winning film Short Cuts released in 1993.

Here is a feature-length documentary on Altman, the making of Short Cuts, the movie, and his reverence of the work of Raymond Carver.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

American writer Wallace Stegner 1909 – 1993

In this semi-autobiographical novel, a classic of American Modern Literature and set during the Depression at the University of Wisconsin, it isn’t surprising that the first person narrator, Larry Morgan, is a writer and so there are many references to the art, misuse, difficulties, and frustrations of such a profession.

Are writers reporters, prophets, crazies, entertainers, preachers, judges, what?

Is the gift, the talent, its own justification?

The process of writing fiction is an expression of  self-discovery: being free and relaxed enough to let the sub-conscious out. And when it comes out you grab it and write it down. All the experiences of the world, the good, the bad, the insignificant, and the inferred make up one’s past life and the sub-conscious arranges them into memories which may or may not be accurate and can sometimes be perverse.

From these memories, the talent springs – the activity of imagining – but most of us, when the ‘talent springs’, do nothing about it. Scenes, conversations, ideas, rehearsed retorts, and wishful decisions occur to everyone all the time but only the writers write them down. But to write it down, you need to be practiced at writing things down, putting the products of your senses into words, and knowing the difference between a gerund and the infinitive.

Writing takes talent but it also takes practice. You can teach the practice but you can’t teach the talent.

Crossing to Safety (1987) tells the story of the remarkable friendship between Larry (the narrator) and Sally Morgan, young, poor, intelligent, and curious and a slightly older couple, Sid and Charity Lang, already ensconced in the English Department, and to the Morgans, a wonderfully urbane, astute, fascinating, devoted, and wealthy couple who take the newbies under their luxurious wings.

It’s easy for a first person narrator to slip into the third – they could tell a story, just like Terry Hayes does in I Am Pilgrim, – just as it is equally easy for the third person to get so close to a character that it a-l-m-o-s-t becomes the first. That’s why this more usual knack is sometimes called close writing. In more literary circles it’s called free indirect discourse. I prefer the less formal.
What is unusual here is that Larry, Stegner’s  first-person narrator, has only just met Sid and Charity and knows nothing about how their past unfolded, nor do they tell him. This is not a problem for Stegner. He imagines the meeting and early courtship of Sid and Charity;

“Who is this boy?” I can imagine her mother asking. “Do we know him? Do we know his family?” Suppose they are sitting …”

Yes, an audacious technique but one that works given that imagining is what fiction writing is all about.

It’s also audacious to let a character, Charity’s sister, keep the name Comfort. It’s likely Stegner didn’t choose it; it just happened. Things like that often occur when writing fiction. I know of a novelist who, at 83,000 words, thought he had nothing but a pile of poo until out of the mouth of a young character came, out of the blue, the title of the thing. Not only did the phrase give the thing a name, and its theme, it also turned the pile of poo into a novel and out of relief and gratitude the author burst into tears.

It’s moments like these that one could easily believe that fiction comes unbidden, from another place, from another being: fate, a muse maybe, or even a spirit or god. It’s also the reason why you might hear young writers foolishly say, “Oh, actually it wrote itself.” That’s nonsense of course, but the feeling is real.

Being a semi-autobiographical novel, the events may be part of the writer’s past but the intimate moments, the conversations, and minute-by-minute thoughts must rely on imagination; imagined and written down.

The fulcrum of this quartet of characters is Charity Lang. She is forceful, controlling, opinionated, always right, passive aggressive, and never backs down. Two major scenes stick in my mind and will for some time to come. I can’t describe them as that would give too much away but the first revolves around preparation for a camping expedition and whether a packet of tea-bags was packed, or not. Seemingly a trite scenario but in the hands of Stegner it’s a pivotal moment in the building of Charity’s character. The second, the devastating climax, is about who should or shouldn’t go on a family picnic. Here the character of Charity is at its most prickly, unbending, and cruel. However, the reader understands her point of view, and it’s a tribute to Stegner that you also understand the three other points of view. It’s a shattering scene.

This is a book of rich language with a commitment to nature, happiness, and the human foibles that shatter or uplift our lives.

Here you can view an interview with Stegner from the early 1970s.

And here is an hour long documentary “Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life,” narrated by Robert Redford and produced only a few years before the writer’s death in 1993.

The book in various formats can be bought here.

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

Terry Hayes, English-Australian screenwriter and novelist

I think it was John Irving, the winner of both the National Book Award for a novel and the Oscar for a screenplay, who said that writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean. T.H.

I Am Pilgrim has to be the holiday read to top all holiday reads!

And despite living up to the hype slashed all over its covers, it is also not what I expected. But it is long: 888p.
It begins traditionally enough with a baffling crime seemingly unsolvable and then several chapters of interconnected back stories. Then in Part 2 another novel begins: the development of a young jihadist, simply known as The Saracen, and his decades long quest to bring down America and so similarly destroy its ally, the Saud family, rulers of Saudi Arabia, whose leaders murdered his father.
It reads like a film script; not surprising since Hayes is a noted screenwriter, with short chapters, each like a single-set scene with usually a stinger of a last line; I call them waterfalls: they link smartly into the next scene, or, in a writing trope, they lead you to hastily turn the page. Lines like, ‘I was in the North Tower when it came down’ and ‘It was time to enter the dark and brooding house’ and ‘… it was a terrible thing I ended up doing to him.’

And then there’s the simple lists of what he plans to do and the outcomes he expects, to be followed by another page turning device: predicated hindsight – lines like “but I couldn’t’ve been more wrong” or “I should’ve taken more notice of the photo but I didn’t.” And the interest level goes up a notch or three.

The plot is international: Manhattan, Bodrum, Berlin, Jeddah, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The threat is not nuclear, or extraterrestrial, but, ironically for the times, viral. Firstly there is the murder in a sleazy hotel in Manhattan: a woman’s body is found in a bath full of acid, face down but because of the acid she has no face, and her fingertips have been removed as well as all her teeth. She is unidentifiable.

There is the first-person hero: a spook, an intelligence officer, a spy, a detective, and all-round nice guy who isn’t adverse to doing unspeakable things but only because he has to. He has many names so you are never sure which name is real. The villain, The Saracen, you know as a teenager and understand why he becomes the deliverer of evil; you almost like him. However, his unspeakable deeds are worse.

But then there is a death in Bodrum, Turkey, which the local authorities are convinced was due to misadventure. Our man knows it’s murder but needs to prove it. And all the while we jump back to The Saracen who is consolidating his self-manufactured weapon of mass destruction, starting with medical school. His is a very long term plan.

The faceless woman in Manhattan. The Saudi teen with revenge via mass-death on his mind. And a drug dazed tourist falling over a cliff to his death in Bodrum. Are they linked? Of course they are but for most of the book it’s hard to see how. But the deadly virus is manufactured, tested, packaged into 10,000 vials, and posted; the Saracen’s job is done. Our man’s task is to find out how and where the shipment is and when it will land. The climax is unputdownable!

Terry Hayes was born in Sussex in the UK but his family moved to Australia when he was five. As an adult after working as a journalist and investigative reporter he was hired by George Millar to do the novelisation of the original film, Mad Max (1979) and then subsequently several other Mad Max reincarnations and worked as a producer and/or screenwriter for TV shows like The Dismissal (1983), Bodyline (1984), Vietnam (1987) and Bangkok Hilton (1989) and several movies, including The Year My Voice Broke (1987), Dead Calm (1989), Payback (1999), and From Hell (2001). I Am Pilgrim (2013) is his debut novel and his second The Year of the Locust is yet to be released. MGM has acquired the film rights to Pilgrim with Hayes as writer but I wouldn’t be surprised if the project is re-done as a TV series; a far more suitable format for such a sprawling yarn, in my opinion.

Here is a very interesting, although over an hour long, interview with Hayes about writing I Am Pilgrim and where the inspiration came from.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

Winifred Falls

A recent short story, part of the collection Social Distancing & Other Stories available here

‘So where are ya off to today?’ Jennifer asked. Marian’s next-door neighbour was sitting in her usual place, on her porch. She dropped her right hand out of sight; Marian did not approve of smoking.

Marian was a stylish woman. She dressed and groomed herself immaculately, not in the latest fashion, which had gone off the rails as far as she was concerned, but in a style, a rather expensive style, suitable for her age. She was proud of the way she looked. Today she wore a pale blue summer blouse with a blue and grey tartan skirt. At her front door she had looked at herself in the full length mirror, turning this way, then that. Fine. She had walked out of her front door to wait for the car.

‘Elsbeth and Mal are taking Mia and me on a picnic.’

‘A picnic!’

‘Yes. Is that so strange?’

‘Have ya ever been on a picnic?’

‘Of course.’

‘Dressed like that!’

‘Of course not. Don’t be silly. I think I was thirteen when I last went on a picnic. Why? What’s wrong with how I’m dressed?’

‘Well, first of all, Luv, those shoes! You can’t wear heels on a picnic.’

‘Why not?’

‘Luv, you’ll be walking through grass and stuff. You’ll sink in. Don’t ya have a pair of nice flatties?’

‘But then I will have to change my dress.’

‘And that too. Won’t ya be sitting on the grass?’

‘Why ever for?’

‘That’s what ya do at a picnic.’

‘Oh, I don’t think so. We’ll be on one of those wooden outdoor settings. The ones with the seats attached and supported on a slab of cement, installed and maintained by the local council.’

‘But ya still have to get to the thing. What about those beige trousers I’ve seen you wear?’

‘My gardening clothes!’

‘Well Luv, you’ll be far more comfortable in a pair of trousers, I reckon.’

Marian always thought of Jennifer as over friendly, but the kind of over friendly that could be construed as common. ‘I’ll be fine. Mia likes to see her Grandmother looking smart.’

‘Suit ya self Luv. How’s Mia’s leg?’

‘Oh, Jennifer, you keep mentioning that. That was ages ago.’

‘Was it?’

‘Yes. She’s almost ten now and not so clumsy. Quite the little lady.’

‘Jeeze she made me laugh!’

‘I’ve never seen the need for humour at someone else’s expense.’ Marian would’ve chided herself if she had been aware of the corners of her mouth sliding down in hoity disapproval.

‘Oh, I know. It’s just that when someone is being so serious like and then falls on their mush, it just cracks me up. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a sucker for a banana skin.’

Neighbourliness sometimes forced Marian to invite her neighbour into her apartment, although she would always try to arrange things so that it was Jennifer’s they chatted in, but when it was her place she would always, once Jennifer had left, use a soft disinfecting cloth to wipe down everything Jennifer came in contact with especially if she had used the bathroom. Marian knew it was snobbish but that wasn’t a problem as long as other people didn’t see or hear it.

The little round table and two chairs that sat on all the little verandahs in the line of self-contained units came with each unit. They were identical; Marian thought that was a pity. On Marian’s table was a pretty blue and white ceramic pot on a matching saucer, containing a large blooming red gerbera; on Jennifer’s there was a black plastic pot full of dirt.

‘Ah! Here they are!’ Marian exclaimed as Elsbeth, Jamal, and Mia pulled up in their car. ‘Bye Jennifer!’

‘Bye Luv!’ She waved at the car.

Marian walked down her little path past her neat beds of carnations – she had a lovely crop this summer – well aware of her tartan skirt swishing as she went. All women need to know exactly what their skirt is doing at any given moment, she liked to think.

‘She looks like she’s going to a party, not a picnic,’ Jamal said quietly behind the wheel. Elsbeth smiled at her husband.

Marian stopped at the car’s back door and waited for Mia to open it for her. ‘Morning darling, Mal, and you, you pretty thing!’ she cooed, smoothing her skirt under her as she sat.

‘Morning Grandma! Morning Marian! Good Morning Mum!’ they all chorused.

‘You must always open a door for a lady, Mia,’ Marian chided kindly.

‘Sorry Grandma.’

‘Aren’t you a little over-dressed for a picnic, Mum?’ Elsbeth said as kindly as she could manage.

‘Oh, you know me, Elsbeth. Doesn’t she, Mia,’ and she tapped Mia on the nose. Mia smiled. Elsbeth and Jamal shared a look. ‘So where are we off to today?’

‘To a pretty little spot on the banks of a creek in the Royal National Park, Winifred Falls,’ Jamal said as he maneuvered out of the drive-way and into the traffic.

‘Oh! Is it maintained by the council?’

‘I suppose so,’ Jamal said.

‘Didn’t you check?’

‘It’s where Jamal took me for our first date,’ Elsbeth said.

‘We want to show Mia.’

Oh, so I’m just along for the ride, am I? ‘How sweet,’ she said. ‘Look at all this traffic!’ She commented on the traffic five times before they got to the park turn off. ‘I thought your first date was to see that film, you know, something about chocolate.’

‘That was Chocolat,’ Jamal said realising too late that he seemed to be correcting her pronunciation. He made a sorry-face meant only for his wife.

‘Oh, sorry,’ Marian said turning to look out the window at the bland and uninteresting suburbs.

‘No, Mum. That was our second date.’

‘Dad was expecting there to be other people there, but there wasn’t,’ Mia said cheekily. ‘They were all alone,’ and then added, ‘Ooooooo!’

Marian turned sharply to look at her grand-daughter. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Mia ground the backs of two fingers against her lips and closed her eyes, ‘Mmmmmm.’

‘Oh stop it, Mia! You don’t know anything about it.’

‘I do so too,’ she said with confidence.

‘You’re only ten,’ Marian said looking askance at Jamal in the rear-view mirror.

‘I’ll be eleven soon,’ Mia countered. ‘Nearly a teenager.’

‘But not yet!’ Marian said. ‘You’re too young,’ she added while frowning again her disapproval at the back of Jamal’s head.

‘So, how is that neighbour of yours, Mum? Jenny, isn’t it?’ Elsbeth asked to change the subject.

‘Jennifer,’ Marian corrected. ‘She’s fine. Still smoking.’

And that seemed to be the end of the conversation as Marian returned to the nondescript view of grey-green bush now that they had left suburbia behind. Elsbeth rested her hand on Jamal’s thigh.

Marian Schiller, a third generation German Australian is fifty eight and a grandmother for the first time. Her daughter, Elsbeth (Elly) at twenty two married a journalist, Jamal (Mal) Aboud, a handsome second generation Lebanese Australian.

Marian had said nothing about her disappointment at her daughter’s choice of a husband, just like she chooses a hat, she thought, she fell in love and just had to have it; but she was self-aware enough to know that she had to control this feeling and that it was possible that other similar feelings might be lurking in her subconscious and that surfaced, like twinges in her lower back, when she least expected them. She wanted to be good. She had not been so good in the past, and at each slip the disapproving look from her daughter cut her deeply. Such looks were meant to only come from parents to children.

It wasn’t long before Jamal pulled into a small, graveled parking area.

‘Are we there?’ Marian asked with some alarm. The bush didn’t look anything like the park she was expecting.

‘Almost,’ Jamal said. We’ve got a little walk to the falls.’

‘A walk! How far?’

‘Only a few hundred meters,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Come on!’

‘Will we see a kangaroo?’ Mia asked as they all got out of the car.

‘We might,’ Marian said.

‘They’ll be asleep,’ Jamal said, opening the boot. ‘Pre-dawn and dusk are the best times to see them.’

How would you know? You’re not even Australian. ‘Where’s the path?’ Marian asked instead.

‘There,’ Elsbeth said, pointing across the road to a low gate. Jamal took the esky out and handed a bag of supplies to Elsbeth. ‘We might see some deer.’

‘It’s closed!’ said Marian with some hope. ‘Are we allowed to go down there?’ Recent summer rain made the path look extremely uninviting.

‘Just no car access,’ Jamal was carrying the esky and picnic bag. ‘I can help you over it, if you like.’

‘No, thank you. You never said we were going bush-walking.’

‘I said there’d be a little walk to the park.’

‘This isn’t a park.’

‘It’s the Royal National Park!’

‘I was expecting a park with grass, Mal, and a normal cement path not a bush-track. It’s just rocks and mud.’

‘I could piggy-back you.’

‘You will not!’

‘Come on Gran,’ Mia said. ‘It’ll be an adventure. Like explorers.’

‘It’s Grandma, young lady. One shortening is more than enough. There’s no need to shorten it again.’

‘Come on Mum,’ Elsbeth said with the rug and a bag of supplies. ‘We don’t have to hurry. We don’t have a train to catch.’

The four picnickers crossed the tarmac and stepped over the low gate. ‘If I break a heel ….’ Marian said with some force but then she needed all her concentration to navigate through and over, mud filled furrows, caked ruts, puddles and patches of gravel, leaf litter, and deer dung. The two adults and child had to wait for her many times.

‘Mum, take it easy’ Elsbeth said more than once.

‘Don’t you worry about me,’ Marian called back with eyes fixed on the treacherous ground. ‘You just keep your eyes open for snakes.’

‘Look Grandma!’ Mia shouted as she crouched by a layered clay bank at a patch of mossy soil. ‘There’s lots of sundews here.’

‘What!’ shouted Marian from a few meters back.

‘Insectivorous plants, Grandma! Sundews!’

‘That’s nice, dear,’ Marian said without looking up.

‘Can you see Dad?’

‘Yes, you’re right.’

‘But, they’re so small.’

‘And delicate. I wonder what they eat.’

‘Come on you two!’ Marian said having caught up with them. ‘If we don’t get there soon we’ll get there and have to turn around and come straight back again.’

‘You’re doing very well, we’re nearly there,’ Jamal said.

‘I’d believe you if it wasn’t for that smirk on your face.’

‘It’s just around the next bend, Mum,’ Elsbeth was ahead.

‘So is Christmas.’

Less than fifteen minutes later they came to a clearing overlooking a creek running over a low cliff of layered granite ledges. Little waterfalls cascaded into a wide, clear, and still pool, soft looking and tea-colored from the surrounding melaleucas and leaf detritus in its shallows.

‘It’s beautiful!’ Mia exclaimed.

‘We knew you’d like it,’ Jamal smiled at his wife.

‘Look Daddy! Caves under the waterfalls! Can I go look!’

‘You be careful Mia!’ Marian cautioned. ‘There could be things in there. And don’t get wet!’

‘Oh, Marian, I don’t think a little water will hurt,’ Jamal said as bright-eyed Mia headed for the shadowy caves.

Marian looked at her son-in-law askance. ‘Well, there’s definitely no picnic tables.’ And no grass.

‘Look Mum!’ Elsbeth said. ‘Over there’s a low ledge in the shade. You can sit there quite comfortably, I think.’

‘That’s a great spot!’ Jamal confirmed.

‘Getting there is the problem.’

‘Marian, you may have to take off your shoes,’ Jamal said.

‘What?’

‘Stay here. We’ll take everything down and Elsbeth can come back with my walkers for you.’

‘Your feet are much bigger than mine.’ And your walkers aren’t the cleanest either.

‘It’s just to get you down to the ledge. You can’t do that in heels.’

Marian waited. ‘Mia!’ she called. ‘Don’t go too far.’ She had to say something.

Elsbeth laid out the rug on the ledge and emptied the esky: chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches, drumsticks, bottles of juice and water, a container of cherry tomatoes, half a watermelon, cheese and crackers.

Marian sat on the edge of the ledge fanning herself with a plastic plate.

‘Mia!’ Jamal called. ‘Lunch is ready.’

‘Coming!’

‘Elsbeth,’ Marian whispered. ‘I can’t see any toilets.’

‘No,’ Elsbeth said. ‘But I‘ve bought a toilet roll.’

Marian stared at her, then at the surrounding bush, and back to her again. ‘You can’t be serious.’

‘M-u-m,’ said Elsbeth. She handed her mother a drumstick wrapped in a napkin.

Marian lowered her make-shift fan and glanced around for the cutlery but saw none and so let Elsbeth put the drumstick on her plate. Marian picked it up like a non-smoker taking a cigarette.

‘Isn’t this wonderful!’ cried Mia as she joined her family on the rug. ‘Can we go swimming later?’

’Oh n …’ began Marian.

‘Sure,’ Jamal said.’

‘You can see right to the bottom,’ said the excited girl.

‘Do you know what creatures live in that water?’ Marian asked to suggest caution.

‘Fish and small crustaceans I expect,’ Elsbeth said.

‘There may be glass,’ Marian continued. ‘You know how people can be.’

‘Don’t worry, Grandma, I’ll leave my shoes on. They’re made for water. You can use Dad’s and come in with me.’

‘No, thank you very much!’

‘Would you like some juice, Mum?’ Elsbeth asked.

‘No thank you.’

‘Water?’

‘No thanks, Mal.’

Elsbeth smiled at her husband. ’Do you remember where we sat?’

‘In that cave, I think.’

‘Did you bring a picnic like this?’ Mia asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘I think we had a bottle of wine, though’.

‘That’s right. Koonunga Hill Shiraz. It was your favorite, remember?’

‘I certainly do. Still is my favorite. But,’ he said to Mia, ‘we made sure we took the empty bottle back with us.’

‘You drank a whole bottle?’ Marian’s raised eyebrows were at their limit.

‘Between the two of us.’ Marian caught the cheeky look he shared with Elsbeth and then checked if Mia had seen it.

There was silence for a while as all four people took in the surroundings.

‘Isn’t it gorgeous, Mum?’ Elsbeth said.

‘Yes, it’s very nice,’ Marian said to maintain the peace.

After everyone had eaten enough Elsbeth packed away the left overs while Mia took off her shorts, she had red swimmers underneath, and leaving her sneakers on she waded into the water.

‘You be careful now, Mia,’ Marian warned. “Shouldn’t she wait at least half an hour after eating?’

‘That theory was debunked years ago.’

‘I think, Mum, that only applies for physical exertion. She’s just cooling off.’

‘Ooooo!’ shrieked Mia, ‘it’s so cold and so soft. It’s like silk,’ and she ducked under the water.

Marian stiffened but took some comfort as both parents were watching their daughter. All three had that shaky investment in an only child. After about five minutes Mia came back and lay spread-eagled in the sun on the ledge. ‘That was great!’ she said.

‘Shouldn’t she have some sunscreen on?’ Marian suggested.

But Mia preempted any reply by jumping up and asking, ‘Can I go for a walk in the bush?’

Marian, tight lipped, looked at her daughter.

‘Sure,’ Elsbeth said. ‘Do you want us to come too?’

‘No. I can manage.’

‘You can walk around the pool,’ Jamal said, ‘just keep us in sight.’

‘As long as you can see or hear us,’ Elsbeth added.

‘Goody!’ said the girl as she jumped up and picked her way across several ledges and into the grey-green foliage.

Marian looked concerned. ’Shouldn’t she be wearing a hat.’

‘She’s in the shade,’ Jamal said.

All three adults kept their eyes on the flashes of red through the distant foliage. ‘I can’t hear you!’ the girl called from the undergrowth.

‘But we can see you!’ her father shouted back.

‘You look like an explorer!’ added Elsbeth.

‘You know, Marian,’ Jamal said, ‘we’re so proud of her and how she’s recovered from that silly accident.’

‘She’s regained all her confidence and then some,’ Elsbeth said. ‘She’s been chosen to captain the netball team. Six months ago that would’ve been impossible.’

The chat continued with proud parents explaining the advances and set-backs of Mia’s fall outside Marian’s apartment almost a year ago. Each parent occasionally checked on Mia as they talked.

Mia had got to the head of the pool where another little creek entered but she couldn’t get across because of the steep drop to sticky mud so she took a fallen and jagged tree truck to get over the creek and jagged rocks some meters below.

Marian had only taken her eye from her grand-daughter for a second to find a napkin and take a piece of watermelon but when she looked up …. it was her sharp intake of breath that alerted Jamal who, in an instant, turned, clasped a firm hand over Marian’s open mouth and forced her, with both hands, onto her side onto the rocky ledge. He held her down keeping her silent – her eyes bulging with surprise, shock, and indignation – as both parents held their breath as they watched their daughter, deep in concentration, maneuver her way over the rickety log to the safety of the other side.

When Marian felt Jamal’s grip on her weaken she struggled against him; he let go of her, and she staggered to her feet and with all the outrage she could muster growled, ‘How dare you!’

‘Mum…’ began Elsbeth.

She turned to her daughter and spat, ‘Shut up!’

And all three watched Mia pick her way back to them on the opposite side of the pool but before she got there Marian retreated as quickly as was possible to a flat rock away from the family.

‘That was great!’ Mia said. ‘I saw a lizard! Where’s Grandma going?’

‘You need a medal,’ said her father. ‘We don’t have any gold, but we have some watermelon.’

Mia laughed and took a wedge.

‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ Elsbeth said and headed off after her mother.

She found her leaning against a boulder brushing her clothes down.

‘Mum,’ Elsbeth spoke in as conciliatory a tone as she could muster. ‘Just a minute.’

Marian turned to face her daughter. Her face pink with rage. She had a twig in her hair. ‘That man attacked me!’

Elsbeth’s face lost all its attempt to pacify. ‘What do you mean ‘that man’?’

‘Your husband!’

Elsbeth matched her mother’s vehemence. ‘Yes, he’s my husband, your son-in-law, the father of your grand-daughter and he has a name.’ The two women glared at each other. ‘Well, go on!’

‘ … what?’

‘What is his name?’

Marian just stared at her daughter. There was fear and uncertainty in her eyes.

‘His name is Jamal,’ Elsbeth said.

‘I know that.’

‘Then why don’t you use it?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You call him Mal. No one calls him Mal, except you. And I know exactly why you call him Mal: because it sounds more white!’

Marian stared at her daughter and she could feel terror creep into her veins. She turned and headed into the bush. ‘I’m going back ….’ she began but her throat closed up and deprived her of air and fight.

‘Is Grandma alright?’ asked a worried little girl.

‘She’s a bit upset,’ Elsbeth said as she started to tidy things up and repack the esky.

‘I explained a little bit,’ Jamal said.

‘She’s gone back to the car. We’ll have to go,’ Elsbeth said.

‘But, what …?’

‘Darling. We’ll explain when we get home. Let’s just pack up and save all your questions until then. You know we’ll answer them all, don’t you?’

‘Alright.’

‘And, Mia, that means not asking in the car,’ Jamal said. ‘It will really upset Grandma. It’s going to be a very quiet trip home.’

And it was. The atmosphere in the car was tense. Elsbeth turned the radio on but it didn’t help. Mia glanced over at her Grandmother who stared out the window, and saw her hair in disarray and a brown smudge on her cheek. She only glanced at her Grandmother once.

As soon as the car came to a stop outside Marian’s unit she opened the door and said with great difficulty, ‘I have to go to the bathroom. Thank you for a lovely day.’ She left the car door open and hurried to her front door, fumbled with the keys, opened it, left it open, and disappeared inside.

Jamal turned off the engine. ‘I’ll go and talk to her.’

‘Is that wise?’

‘I think so.’ Jamal got out of the car.

‘I don’t understand. Why is Grandma so cross?’ Mia began to cry.

‘Oh, darling,’ Elsbeth got out of the car and into the back seat to comfort her daughter. ‘It will all get better. Bad things always get better.’

Jamal entered Marian’s unit, closed the door, and waited in the middle of the neat living room. There was a framed photo of a smiling Mia and Marian on a little lace-covered table beside her chair. A bud-vase held a red carnation and next to it a pile of books whose spines were arranged in ascending order of size and all aligned with the table edge. He heard the toilet flush and then waited to hear the bathroom door open and close.

Marian appeared in the doorway and stopped. Surprise and then anger flashed across her face.

‘I want to explain,’ Jamal said.

‘There is nothing to say.’

‘Yes, there is. Will you let me try?’

Marian sat in her chair.

Jamal sat on the couch. ‘You were going to warn Mia.’

‘She was in danger.’

‘She was managing on her own. Concentrating.’

‘She could’ve fallen!’

‘Yes, if she had been distracted.’

‘I was only thinking of her.’

‘I know. So was I. I wasn’t thinking of you, Marian. Like you, I was thinking of Mia, maintaining her concentration.’

‘You attacked me.’

‘Yes. Because I was thinking of Mia.’

‘So I did the wrong thing.’

‘… yes; about to do the wrong thing.’

‘I see. I’m a danger to my own grand-daughter now, am I?’

‘Today. Yes, you were. Had you had time to think about it you would’ve remained silent. I’m sure of that; and hoped like us, that she would make it. But there wasn’t time. Reaction always comes before reason. Your reaction was wrong. I had to stop you. I had to. I hope I didn’t hurt you.’

‘Not that anyone can see.’

‘Mia is safe. No harm done. Not to her. Now, my focus is on you.’

Marian flashed a look at him.

‘I’m very sorry I did what I had to do. If I had time for reason I would’ve done it differently. But, like you, I reacted before thinking. We both reacted before thinking.’

Marian looked at him again, but only briefly.

‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Marian, for what I did to you. But I don’t regret it. I was only thinking of Mia.’

‘So you’ve said.’

‘As you were. And I don’t want what happened today to be like a never-healing sore on this family. So, if there is anything I can do to make things right; like they were. I will do it.’

Marian looked at him. And looked longer this time. And her back slowly straightened. Finally, she spoke. ‘Yes, there is something you … something I would like you to allow me to do.’

‘Anything.’

She stood.

Jamal stood as well.

She walked over to him and slapped him hard across the face.

As Jamal closed the door on Marian’s unit, Elsbeth and a much calmer Mia, watched him walk down the path, around the car, and slide into the driver’s seat.

‘How did that go?’ Elsbeth asked.

‘ … fine,’ Jamal said without looking at his wife. ‘Everything’s fine.’

‘Well that’s a relief. Let’s go home.’

‘… naeam.’

The Novel Game.

The Novel Game - Aussie Rules pic
Australian Rules Football

After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.

But then, I found an old note on my Notepad App called The Owls of Kensingtown. The idea was to chart the reactions and romances of a small group of queer-minded people after the sentencing of Oscar Wilde in 1895. I changed the name to Arcadia Lane, but the title is still up for grabs. Actually Up for Grabs isn’t such a bad title itself. The Owls are metaphorical (“Who is that?  Who? Look at them, Who is that one? Who? The one in the hat. Who are you? Who? Who? Who? ….” a chorus like a parliament of Owls. Oh, and A Parliament of Owls isn’t a bad title, either).
As I read through my very brief sketch a scene occurred to me, a scene that has become the opening of this new work, a scene that also sets up a need, which in turn will become the narrative. I have no idea, yet, where the story is going; I only have a direction, not an outcome.
Because of the first scene one of my characters, I’ve called him Henry, leaves his employment. I have no idea where he’s going, but a quick look at Google maps of rural England leads me to a village of Cockley Cley in the east – very obscure, very small – so Cockley Cley becomes his destination, where his peasant parents live.
Along the way he helps a farmer fix a broken down dray and gets a lift from him (This scene isn’t written yet, just mentioned, but as I write this I’m beginning to understand that it needs to be fleshed out. Later). They spend the night at a hogsman’s barn. I don’t know if there was such an occupation as hogsman, but a quick ask of Ms Google tells me that it’s a family name, so an occupation it could’ve been; anyway, I like the sound of it, so hogsman it is.
I don’t believe that a potential reader will stop and Google ‘hogsman’ and then complain that it’s an occupation that doesn’t exist, and has never existed. The sound of it alone fits the times (late 1800s)  and it’s also self-explanatory. It is within the realm of possibility and so I believe a reader will accept it.
With the intention of Henry continuing his journey in the morning, I open the next scene early in the morning
with him pissing behind the barn. As he is returning a small girl comes running around the corner and almost knocks him over. I did not plan this. It was as if I was watching this scene, like an audience, and then the little girl appeared. She is strange, precocious, and manic. She is followed by the hogsman, a character I had not intended to draw. The relationship between the hogsman and the girl is ambiguous, and even a little sinister. The hogsman attempts to get the child back into the house with the help of Henry but the child bites Henry on the arm and screams, “He’s a prince!”. This also wasn’t planned. But, serendipitously, (and serendipity plays a very great role in novel-making) a reason for her outburst occurs to me. Henry, a gentleman’s valet, has left his employment because he was having a sexual affair with his gentleman employer, a very satisfying and loving relationship, but the morning paper’s reporting of Oscar Wilde’s sentence of two years hard labor scares the young man and he leaves, leaving the gentleman bereft and without anyone to cook his breakfast. Henry is therefore dressed and groomed very well, courtesy of his employer/lover and his appearance, especially to the little manic girl, seems that of a wealthy man, maybe even a prince!
I continue to ‘watch’ the scene and write down what I ‘see’. The hogsman invites Henry into his house to tend to the wound, shoving the girl into a room where the voices of other young girls can be heard. As the hogsman tends to Henry’s wound the young man looks around the house and notices its two fires, one in the sitting room, one in the kitchen, its heavy wooden and polished furniture, and its decorations, rugs, and paintings. This is not the house of a lowly pig farmer, unless my unnamed hogsman has a very lucrative side business.
The hogsman tangentially suggests a deal: he is willing to pay the young gentleman a tidy sum for his silence about the presence of the little girl/girls in his house. He knows his guest doesn’t look like he needs it, but a deal is a deal and an exchange of money between men who can afford it is as good a deal as most. Henry remains silent, a little character trait I just happened to give him earlier when he saw the wisdom of remaining silent when the truth, which is his usual trope, might do more harm than good (serendipity again). Henry takes the £5 silently, money he, now unemployed, sorely needs.
Understand that this scene may not make it into the final cut.
What has occurred to me since beginning this novel, if that’s what it is, is the similarities between writing prose and playing football. Writers take courses and listen to experts and go on writers’ retreats – players listen to coaches and go on training camps; writers read other writers – players watch other games; writers hone their skills, trying out ideas, different voices – players go to training, honing their skills; writers are disciplined – players are disciplined; writers know and understand grammar – players know and understand the rules of the game; but when it comes to doing the work, writing the thing, playing the game, there is no time to think about rules, advice, examples, and should I write this, should I tackle that; you just write it, play it, and hope to kryst that all the rules, advice, examples, and shoulds have oozed into your intuition, become your default mechanism, and what comes out is eventually a readable novel, a win. 
 
I’m not yet convinced about the veracity of this work but I keep ‘seeing’ scenes, and as long as the scenes keep coming I’ll keep writing. Wish me luck. 

Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee

Coetzee pic
South African born writer, John Maxwell Coetzee, relocated to Adelaide, South Australia in 2002 and became an Australian citizen in 2006. 

J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Life & Times of Michael K is a short novel in three untitled chapters: a long one, a short one, and an even shorter one. It is literary, not in the writing, which is simple, stark, and unadorned, but in its ideas.

The first long chapter begins with a very short description of Michael K’s undistinguished birth and the subsequent disappointment of his mother because her baby has a cleft lip. It is told in the third person by an unnamed and omnipotent narrator. Michael K’s early life is uneventful and he works in a mediocre job as a gardener. It is clear that the novel is set in a very violent and war-torn South Africa with curfews, gangs, and uncertainty. It seems to be always raining. His mother is desperate to leave Cape-town and return to her hometown of Prince Albert many hundreds of miles to the north. Without money, or the necessary papers – unattainable for Kafkaesque reasons – he attempts to push his mother in a homemade pram all the way north to Prince Albert. His mother dies on the way but Michael K finally manages to arrive at what he believes to be the farm, now deserted, where his mother was born. He tries to live off the land; for his own security he learns to sleep in a hole during the day and to work in his garden at night. He grows pumpkins. He is discovered and abused, escapes to the mountains where he tries to live without leaving a trace. He is hijacked to work for a road-gang, is interned in a work-camp, escapes and is taken to a hospital where he sparks the interest of a doctor.

The second chapter is told in the first person by this unnamed doctor and we see how Michael K, now identified as CM (coloured male ?) but referred to as Michaels, is seen by others. He is an enigma. He refuses to eat, talk, or co-operate. The doctor is tormented with the urge to help him but to no avail. The doctor comes to think that Michaels may have the real answer to living in this particular country at this particular time: living in order not to exist. The doctor is eventually thwarted in his kindly efforts as Michael K escapes.

The last, and shortest chapter, is a return to the third person narrator. Michael K eventually returns to the building in the city where he and his mother used to live. He is befriended by a group of nomads; one of the women has sex with him and he thinks he might even like her, but he continues to reflect on his time in the wilderness; all he would need in the wilderness was his garden, a shaft in the ground, and a teaspoon and string with which he could gather water. Then, “he would say, one can live.”

A happy and fulfilled life need only be concerned with what it is you need to survive, and nothing else. Life isn’t so bad if all you are doing is marking time.

This book is bleak, fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding – if you stay with it   – but a very different book to the mainstream literary works of today.

Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”

J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus and Late Essays: 2006-2016 are now available from Viking.

A new short story …

A work in progress …

I was curious about writing in the second person. The first person (“I went to ….”) and the third person (“She went to …”) are common, but the second person (“You went to …”) is not. It is hard to maintain since the narrator is either talking to the reader or to another character, and in either case eventually the narrative takes over. Elliot Perelman begins his excellent novel Seven Types of Ambiguity with the second person and it has a disquieting effect. I thought I’d give it a go.

I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered what the hell they were doing there.

I added the word anyway, “Anyway, remember that fear …” to make the tone more friendly, more intimate, more conversational.

However, if there is anything I’ve learnt from reading it’s that writers want their readers to believe that what is being written is true. Such truth, created truth: verisimilitude, is achieved with the use of detail, among other things; so let’s do this again:

I’m sure there must be somewhere in your past, a person, a place, that screwed out a little knot of fear in your little child’s mind: the old man with the cleft-lip who lived in an old bus, spoke to no one, and ate nettles on toast – so the story went; the falling-down shop-front, boarded-up and silent since a little girl had her throat cut by a mentally deranged greengrocer all those years ago. It was in all the papers. You know what I mean; where a young child’s untamed immigration is let loose by an overheard adult conversation in hushed tones with shaking heads. Anyway, remember that fear and let it mingle with another memory I’m sure you have; of an adult that was introduced, innocently enough, into your family but that you wondered: who is this person? What are they doing there.

I wasn’t sure where this was going but I kept on

So, now that you have these two mingled memories you may understand how I felt when …

I needed to tie it all up and have it lead to something, someone; so I found myself writing …

 … Mum brought home a bag-lady one day and told me I had to call her Auntie Marge.

Now I have a possible title: Auntie Marge. One of my father’s sisters was called Marge, and I called her Auntie Marge. She wasn’t scary but it was the first name that sprang to mind. I hardly ever spoke to her. Maybe I was scared of her. But now I have a character that I need to flesh out a bit.

I don’t know why I thought of her as a bag-lady, she didn’t have any bags with her …

This is another ‘trick’ I’ve learnt from reading: the admission by the narrator that they don’t know something or don’t remember something. It adds verisimilitude.

… but it was the first time I had ever seen a woman with uncombed hair so I thought that’s what she was. I got a slap around the legs for using the term so I only said it once but that’s how I always thought of Auntie Marge; a bag lady.

I first of all had Kathy Bates (from Misery) in mind.

Kathy Bates Auntie Marge

 

 

I googled “scary aunt” and found this,

Scary Aunt Marge.

 

I think this is Geraldine Page. The hair is too neat, but the look is perfect. So with a mixture of these two images, but with messier hair, I had my look: Auntie Marge.

When she first looked at me she smiled down, unclasped her fingers and held out her hand and when I hesitated just for the briefest moment her face changed ever-so slightly like she suddenly knew exactly what I was thinking and I saw hatred in her pinched little eyes. I took her hand – I held my breath, I distinctly remember holding my breath – and she shook my hand and gave it a squeeze.

I thought my narrator should say something innocuous here, like “Nice to meet you” to which Auntie Marge could say, or say with a look of “Oh really?” However, my narrator is locked into only speaking when spoken to – and they were not alone, so I was left with a description of, of, her hand:

It was dry and scaly.

Now, I wanted to describe an event and an event when they were alone: something that upped the scary tone a bit. I’ve never written anything like this before.

I kept out of her way, which wasn’t difficult as I had been taught to keep out of everyone’s way. Adults didn’t like children hanging around; but one day when I was sitting at the big dining table, I had just installed a little electric engine into my lego windmill and I was trying to fix a jam-jar rubber around a little pulley so the silly thing would at least go round and round. I heard the door into the kitchen close behind me. This door was never closed, except in winter when there was a fire in the living room fire-place. This was summer and all the living-room curtains were drawn to keep out the heat so the room was gloomy but I had my desk-lamp plugged in and I was working in its light. I heard the door close and then nothing. I knew it was her. I knew she was there looking at me with her hands clasped together like she always did. I also became aware that there was no other sound in the house. My Dad was always out doing farm stuff but there were no other noises. Mum was out too. We were alone, Auntie Marge and me. In the house. Just us. And then she spoke:

“You don’t like me very much.”

That’s what she said, nothing else.

I didn’t know what to say. I had been taught to only speak when spoken to, and to never lie, of course, but this wasn’t a question. What was I meant to say? I didn’t know. Besides, I didn’t know what to say to something that was true, I didn’t like her. So I said nothing. Then she said, still just standing there, she said, “Are you sure you’re allowed to have a light on in the middle of the day?” Now, this was a question and a question deserves an answer, I knew that, and I did know Mum didn’t like lights on in the daytime but my lego town was too big for my desk in my room and it was too hot to play outside so I had to play with my lego town on the dining table in the living room and yes the curtains were drawn to keep the house cool so I had to have a light on. Again I didn’t know what to … and then she added quickly, “I could tell on you.” That’s what she said, just like fatty Raelene does when I pick my nose in class. I thought of turning off my desk lamp but then I’d be in the dark, all alone with Auntie Marge in the dark! And then she said it again  “I could tell on you,” adding “and I think I might.”

I’m not sure what happens next. Yet.

How I write.

A story starts with a jump.

When something makes me jump, a line in a book, a caption in a magazine, a phrase overheard, a tone of voice, a dream; a beginning. Short form stories are more personal than long form. I write most days but it can be on my notes page on my phone when I wake up at 3.46 am; on my iPad as I’m watching the news with a G&T at 6; on my desktop after staring at the screen for god-knows how long. Sometimes I’ll experiment. One of my current projects, a short story, I’m writing as a woman. I’ve tried this a few times but this time the woman is very unlikable, in fact she’s awful; the challenge is to make sure the reader understands that she’s awful. The reader has not to be on her side, yet is, in a way. That’s tricky, and more so as it’s in the first person. I test myself like this sometimes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At a New Year’s Eve party a friend told me a little anecdote about his piano lessons as a boy. I now don’t remember exactly what he told me because I turned it into a story and now, in my head, that story, Prelude, has become the reality of the anecdote. It’s no longer John’s anecdote, it’s Michael’s story.

I’m writing when my partner catches me talking to myself. I’m writing when I don’t answer him because I don’t hear him because I’m wondering what Robert will say when he sees his dead mother. “What? Sorry.” is a common phrase of mine at home.

I spew it onto the screen. I try not to worry about where does this fit or what can I do with this or how do I spell …, I just let it out. I usually write chronologically, but not always.

I’m always aware that I have to trust myself, my imagination, my ideas, my abilities. It’s no good second guessing; I’d get nowhere. What comes pouring out in the white heart of creation I have to trust that it’s right, correct, apt, necessary, true. It’s later when the white-heat is down to warm, in the cool light of next morning that decisions have to be made.

I write on an online publishing platform (Tablo); while the piece is labeled ‘draft’ no-one can read it. I have four or five projects going at once; two novels, three short stories, I think. One of them is dormant until I come across a really fail-safe murder plan. Once it’s finished I ‘publish’ it on Tablo and anyone can read it. I also have the option of posting it to iBooks where it is for sale. Regularly I email my notes, from my phone or iPad, to myself and cut and paste them onto the respective Tablo page. I have an iMac and don’t have Word; Tablo has all the editing tools I need.

When I’m trying to go to sleep at night it’s important to think about only one thing, not 247 things. That’s why counting sheep works. It’s one thing. I also concentrate on one thing: what Robert might do when he sees his dead mother, or any other character or snippet. These stories, half in my head, half on my screen, over time develop their own reality and they always get to a point where it’s imperative that I write them down; I have to write them down because they are the closest thing to the truth I know. If I don’t write them down they just sit there taking up space. Getting in the way. Writing them down is like getting rid of them.

But writing them down has its own responsibilities. I must think of the reader. I must get the process right. The process: my story, my descriptions, my ideas, my images being transported accurately, truthfully from my imagination to the reader’s imagination via little dark marks on a pale background, with no loss of information.

Once it’s in the imagination of the reader, it isn’t mine any more, and it means whatever the reader thinks it means. I have no say in it once it’s there, in your head. If you read the short story linked above, what was John’s anecdote, became my story, becomes your reading experience; and if you seek me out and ask me what did I mean by something, I won’t answer. It’s not my place to answer: it’s not mine, it’s yours now. It’s now you that has to trust your abilities.