Monday, October 07, 2013

Being wined and dined


I'm writing this in the pause between two sections of my work-in-progress - I've been pretty much immersed in it recently, and simply haven't had the time or headspace for anything much else, which includes everything from blogging and social networking to shopping and cleaning, or even, some days, getting dressed.

I did recently have two wonderful moments of being an out-in-the-world Writer, however. It's a fair while since I've been wined and dined as a writer - the best times for that were when I was writing TV novelisations, and I have been taken out to dinner a couple of times by Radio 4 producers - but in the last three weeks it's happened twice! Firstly, I was interviewed for the local lifestyle magazine over lunch in Didsbury's Cibo Italian tapas restaurant (delicious!) and secondly, I was invited to the reading group based on Gert Vos's Oren restaurant in Caernarfon - an event that was postponed from the summer because of the fall I had in London. While I'd say that the reading group I belong to is more of a drinking reading group (!), this is an eating one, and Gert served up the most delicious chicken soup made with the unusual vegetable pictured above, tomatillo, a member of the nightshade family (to which tomatoes and spuds belong), a lovely warming casserole with pumpkin, and a fantastic chocolatey cake made with local bilberries - all while we chatted about my books and other things.

It really is a privilege, I think, to have a chance to find out people's reaction to your work, whatever they say. In fact, they paid me the loveliest compliment as far I'm concerned: one of the members asked me if I also wrote plays (which of course I do), because she felt there was something vivid about my writing which made her feel as if she was really there in the story, seeing it all through the characters' eyes and feeling all the emotions and everything, and the others agreed. She wondered if that was because I was accustomed to describing the scene, etc. I explained that actually you're not really supposed to write in a lot of the scenery in playwriting, as that's really the director's job, and you're definitely not supposed to spell out what the characters are feeling, as the dialogue should indicate that clearly to the actors. But I was thrilled that she felt like that - it's one of the things I set out to achieve when I write: to bring readers under the spell of the experience I'm trying to recreate. The group said they also thought it was unusual: most novels and stories they read keep you at a slight distance from everything. That did in fact make me wonder if what I'm trying to achieve is in fact a good thing: if in fact many readers want not to be drawn in, not to have to undergo any emotional disruption. Indeed, one of the members said that the story 'Compass and Torch' (in Balancing on the Edge of the World and on the AQA GCSE syllabus) had affected her so deeply she had had a sleepless night: it had brought back memories of her own divorce, and had made her wonder if her own daughter had experienced it in the way the little boy in the story does - and I felt the need to apologise! It's not the first time someone has said this sort of thing to me: one friend, a widow, said that after reading Too Many Magpies she wondered if her marriage had been as happy as she had thought, and I really did feel bad about that.

John, who was there with me, laughingly mentioned the fact that some city schoolchildren have thought that at the end of  'Compass and Torch' the father and son are trampled by the wild ponies. I've written about this before as an instance of our sensation-seeking culture affecting what we expect of literature, and our loss of interest in and awareness of the subtly psychological, but now two members of the group said that they too had wondered if something terrible and physical like that had happened - rather than the psychological and emotional death I'm intending. I guess I now do really have to wonder if I have in fact got quite the right balance, quite the right wording at the end of that story, and I think it really is invaluable, this kind of feedback, in making you scrutinise your own work and the way you work in future.

One interesting moment was when I mentioned that the story was actually set (in my mind) on a hillside very near Caernarfon (that was where I witnessed the incident that sparked the story). One member expressed surprise: because I'd used the word 'moor' or 'moorland' (can't remember which, and I don't have the book on me), she had assumed it was set in Yorkshire - an interesting lesson in the power of diction and the connotations of words. (Hillside being more appropriately Anglo-Welsh, I think.)

One of the members said she was particularly struck by the flash fiction 'Conundrum' (also in Balancing), which I found interesting, as I don't think anyone has picked it out before, and she said she's used it with a group in her work as an occupational psychologist.

One question they asked me was how I write, in the physical sense. In the past I have always replied to this question that I write the first draft by hand, that it has always been linked in my head with drawing, the sweep of the wrist recreating patterns in the brain. As time has gone on I've got quite fetishist about it: if I haven't had my Silver Cross fountain pen and my bottle of Lamy ink and my pile of Pukka Pads with their beautifully silky paper, I've panicked and felt I couldn't write. Yet, for the first time in my life, I am now writing something directly onto the keyboard. I'm not sure how it happened. I do remember that I started out writing it by hand, and then got annoyed - with my own handwriting (which has got worse and worse, especially when my thoughts are running away more quickly than I can write neatly) and the consequent lack of clarity when I glanced back over what I'd written - and the next thing I knew I was rattling away on the laptop! Whether this will be a permanent state of affairs, I don't know: possibly I can do it this time as the thing I'm writing is very linear and the plot is unfolding in a logical way - and maybe other, less linear things would be less easy this way. But as it is, I'm finding it much, much easier to edit as I go along - there's yesterday's work all neat and clear in Times New Roman - and I'm thrilled that for once I'll be spared my traditional several-week typing-up stage.

We discussed many things, bookish and non-bookish - including the very interesting topic of writing as therapy, which all of the members felt they had done at one time or another, and whether any writing, from a writer's point of view, is ever not therapeutic in some way (I don't believe it is).

When we'd finished eating, I read some snippets to the group, including what I thought an apt section from Too Many Magpies, about food and cooking.

It was a lovely evening. Thanks so much to the members for inviting me into their lovely warm and intelligent company, and thank you to Gert for my delicious dinner!
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