Tuesday, February 23, 2021

On Writing 'The Words He Said"

In addition to my podcast extract of 'The Words He Said', there's now a short piece by me on the Lonely Crowd Press website on the composition of the story. As I said when I first placed the story, I felt it was a bit different from the other stories I was writing at the time, which to me were linked by contemporary issues, but, as I say in the piece, it very much echoes some of the overriding themes of my wider work.

Reading Group: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Warning: plot spoil

Doug suggested this prize-winning Norwegian book, first published in 2003. Set around the millennium, it's the first-person narration of Trond, a widower in his late sixties, who decides to retire to an isolated part of Norway, the kind of place he has always longed to be 'even when everything was going well, as it so often did', where 'there was only silence' and time could be 'something I live inside and fill with physical things ... and does not vanish when I am not looking.'

Unfortunately, the hoped-for mental peace is immediately shattered when he meets his nearest neighbour, an event that unexpectedly takes him back to a momentous summer three years after the second world war when, at the age of fifteen, he stayed with his father in his father's cabin near the woods in another rural area, away from his mother and sister in the city, and momentous events in his life occurred. From this point the novel then becomes a series of vivid and extended flashbacks to that summer, alternating with the snowy present as Trond settles himself into his cabin for the winter and tries to comes to terms with that past.

Doug said he really loved the book, and all of us agreed that it was beautifully written (and presumably beautifully translated, by Anne Born), moving and hauntingly atmospheric. John noted that the beginning of the novel is composed in very short sentences - and Mark agreed, commenting that the novel was Hemingwayesque - but in fact as the past takes over for Trond, this careful, measured prose gives way to a more fluid style, at times becoming stream-of-consciousness. My only problem with that, I said, was that it made me read quickly (and voraciously), and I felt at times I was reading too quickly and missing things, in particular clues, and John said he had the same experience.

There is indeed an air of mystery over the whole novel, which is partly a result of Trond's only slowly awakening  realisations. In the present there are the difficulties of a past buried by psychological necessity and by time, and in that past Trond is an adolescent from whom important truths are being hidden. When the present-day Trond first meets his neighbour, who is out in the dark looking for his dog, Trond is strangely disturbed by him, in particular by his nervousness, especially when the neighbour says he may have to shoot the (disturbingly fearful-aggressive) dog and, seemingly compulsively, tells him about once having had to shoot another dog.

He had lost his confidence, it was clear ... I suddenly felt desperately sorry for him. The feeling welled up from I don't know where, from some place out in the dark, where something might have happened in a different time entirely, or from somewhere in my own life I had long since forgotten...

However, in spite of this vague feeling of recognition, and even though the neighbour has given his name, Lars Haug, Trond does not immediately realise that they are connected by that long-ago summer, and in fact, we will discover, much more. It is only as the first flashback unfolds that the reader can begin to make the connection.

That first flashback begins when, early one morning, the fifteen-year-old Trond is invited by a neighbouring lad, Jon, to go 'out stealing horses' - Jon's phrase - and is mystified by Jon's undergoing what seems to be a kind of nervous breakdown in which he becomes alien and potentially violent. Only the next day will Trond learn that the day before the 'horse-stealing' incident, Jon, who had been meant to be looking after his ten-year-old twin brothers, had left his gun unattended, and ten-year-old Lars had picked it up and accidentally shot dead his twin. And only slowly, over the course of that summer, will Trond realise what is going on between his father and Jon's mother, has in fact been going on for years, and how that phrase 'out stealing horses' connects the two. There are early indications in the novel that that summer of his fifteenth year was the last time Trond ever saw his father, but it will be fairly late in the novel that a major fact - a fact of which the present-day Trond would be acutely aware in the presence of Lars but clearly can't face broaching - will be confirmed for the reader: that Trond's father became stepfather to the ten-year-old Lars.

Jenny said that her one problem with the novel was that there were too many gaps - we never know about that life that Lars lived with Trond's father before Lars left, aged twenty, never to return (Jon, who had run away to sea immediately after the shooting, having returned to claim the farm that Lars had been working); we never know exactly what happened in the relationship between Trond's father and Lars's mother in the war years; we know little of Trond's past career and life with his wife and daughters. The rest of us felt on the contrary that it was these gaps that created the poignancy of the novel and were psychologically acceptable - both Trond and Lars are blanking painful pasts, and Trond's intervening life, which he makes clear was successful and happy, in psychological terms falls away in significance once the unresolved nature of the past comes to dominate.

Ann said little about this book, but did say that she found it oddly ambivalent, with which I agreed. It's a book about a man's relationship with his father, a father he had looked up to and who had schooled him in a tough physical masculinity but then abandoned him, and as such it seems to me strongly to examine and question the issue of masculinity. Trond's father encourages him in the toughest processes of haymaking, he instructs him in the felling of trees, he takes him on a rite-of-passage horseback trek; he tells him that 'you decide for yourself when it will hurt'. But his father's own masculinity fails: he chooses the wrong time of year to fell his trees and send logs down the river (in order, it will turn out, to earn money to send to the family he is planning to abandon), and there will turn out to be an ulterior (and real) motive for the horseback trek: to check on the progress of the logs, of which they will find too many stranded in the drying river, never to make it to Sweden where they would have been sold. There is too a suggestion that the cowardly way in which he abandoned his family is an ultimate failure of masculinity. Trond's retirement retreat to the 'outback' is perhaps a way of returning to that unresolved masculinity and there are poignant moments when he finds he knows how to do certain tasks because his father taught him, and others when he doesn't, because his father didn't. On skimming through the book to write this report, I came upon a moment when he watches Lars expertly cutting wood, which, having read the whole book I found particularly poignant, as Lars would of course have been taught by Trond's father. I have to say however that on my first reading that poignancy was lost on me, as it's not entirely clear at that stage in the book how things ended up between Trond's father and Lars's mother. In fact, I feel that the initial encounters between Lars and Trond would be more strongly charged if the reader had the information that is withheld.

I did find it all very moving, but couldn't help reflecting on finishing the book that there was nevertheless a certain fundamental ambivalence about masculinity on the parts of both narrator Trond and possibly the author. It struck me that the women in the novel get short shrift: they are either dead (Trond's wife and sister) or forgotten (Trond has difficulty at one moment in remembering his wife's face; he has gone away without even telling his daughters where he is, and makes no mention of them until one of them turns up looking for him; he refers to his other daughter as 'the other one' and we never learn her name), or they are sex objects (the milkmaid and Jon and Lars's mother). Trond remembers that when his father returned to Oslo after the war, his sister and mother ran down the road to greet and embrace him, but Trond's father looked over them at Trond with 'a secret smile', and Trond 'realised that from now on it was all about the two of us, we had a pact.' Trond says that he was fond of his sister, but she remains in the very background of this story. All of this may well be authorial comment on Trond's former training in masculinity, but for me the fact that there is no sense for the reader in the narration of the experience or inner life of these women makes the present-day Trond, and the book, ambivalent.

Doug agreed that the treatment of the women was the one weakness in the book, but Mark rigorously defended it from this criticism, finding its focus, as a book about a father-son bond, acceptable. He pointed also to the character of Jon's mother who is physically strong, working with the men at the haymaking and tree-felling and also heroically brave as a resistance activist during the war - although I would still contend that Trond views her, however inevitably, from the outside. Mark also, rightly, picked out the fact that when Trond's visiting daughter suggests that perhaps he wants her never to come back again, he realises that he doesn't want that at all, and that he should, as she suggests, get himself a phone - in other words, not completely bury himself away in his macho outback. Mark did conclude by saying that he accepted that it was a male book written for men. I didn't get a chance to say so at the time, but I profoundly disagree with this: speaking for myself, as a woman relating to men and with sons, I find masculinity, and the kind of questioning of its macho version that we encounter here, of huge interest and importance. 

The ending, as we commented, is curious: the book concludes with an episode in which the fifteen-year-old Trond accompanies his abandoned mother to Karlstad to collect the money from the timber. It turns out to be a paltry amount, and can't be taken out of Sweden back to Norway. Trond's feelings towards his mother on this trip are indeed ambivalent. He looks at her sleeping on the train as they travel there, and is clearly repulsed:

Her eyes were closed, and the heavy lids rested on the round cheeks as if everything save sleeping was unnatural to this face, and I thought: for Christ's sake, he just disappeared and left me with her.

Oh, I did love my mother, I'm not saying that I didn't, but what future I could read in the face before me was not what I had imagined. Merely to look at that face for longer than three minutes made the world push at my shoulders from both sides. It made me short of breath.

Here he is replicating the presumed attitude of his father, and as they wander the streets of Karlstad looking for the bank he becomes unreasonably aggressive to a stranger who is unable to tell them the way, on the point of hitting him, and it is clear that he sees this as connected with the training he has received from his father that summer: 

I was as tall as he was and in good shape after that summer, for I had used my body for all kinds of things. I had bent it and stretched it in all directions and lifted and pushed just about everything and hauled and tugged at stone and wood and rowed the boat both up and down the river... Now I felt strong and invincible, and this man did not exactly look like an athlete ... [I] felt one hand clenching automatically. It felt warm and good and tight in all its joints...

But then:

...It dawned on me that from that small patch of cobbles I stood on there were lines going out in several directions ... the different roads I could take, and having chosen one of them, the portcullis would come crashing down, and someone would hoist the drawbridge up...

He chooses not to take that destructive macho step.

He remains 'sullen and ungiving' towards his mother, but when she comes out of the bank with the news about the money, there is a shift. 'She laughed out loud ... all of a sudden she was wide awake.' She  decides to spend what little there is on a new suit for  him:

It was a perfect fit. I stood there looking at myself in the mirror ... I did not look like a boy at all ... I could swear my mother blushed when she saw me... my mother put her arm in mine, and we went on like that, arm in arm like a real couple... It was like dancing, I thought.

This is extremely moving, and the implication I take from it is that this time with his mother has turned Trond into a different kind of man from the one his time with his father could have turned him into. The ambivalence does return:

We were never to walk like that again. When we came home to Oslo, she fell back into her own weight and remained that way for the rest of her life.

Even so, the novel ends by returning to the memory of that moment of lightness, and, reporting that his hand had felt 'swollen and sore where the nails had pierced the skin when I clenched it so hard', the adult Trond makes the final comment, 'we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt' with, I take it, a new meaning for the phrase, referring to the choices to be made between different kinds of masculinity.

This is perhaps linked to the twinning theme of the novel that Mark pointed out: not only are there twins in the Haug household, one of whom dies and the other of whom lives, Trond's mother had twin brothers, one of whom was shot by the Gestapo, another of whom survived. In both cases the surviving twin's life is shadowed by the loss, as Trond is perhaps shadowed by the alternatives for how to live as a man.

There were a few other, more random comments. Near the start of the meeting John had said that he hadn't much liked the long passages describing haymaking and woodcutting. He called them 'long-winded' and said they were boring and obvious if you'd actually done those things yourself, but I think he also meant that their length and detail were a rather macho aspect of the novel itself. (Personally, however, I was fascinated by the description of the now-disappeared traditional Norwegian method of haymaking, having experienced our very different British and now also discontinued traditional method.)

Some people said that they found it too much of a stretch that Trond's present-day neighbour turns out to be Lars - as Ann said, Norway is a huge country. Trond does in fact comment on the fact that this is the kind of coincidence you'd find hard to accept in modern-day fiction: 'if this had been something in a novel it would have been irritating'. I really liked that - the truism that some things that do happen in life would seem just too strange for fiction, but others found it simply an excuse that they didn't buy.

I said that one thing I found utterly admirable was Petterson's ability to describe emotions and the shifts in the adolescent Trond's alignment with the world, as in the section above describing his reaction to his mother, and in the following passage in which Trond finds himself sexually attracted to Jon's mother:

Jon's mother ... smelled of sun and resin as I no doubt did myself, but also of something more that made me dizzy and on the verge of tears, and I did not want her to be the mother of anyone, living or dead.

And that ability is surely anything but macho.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Reading from 'The Words He Said'

In a post in March 2019 I wrote about having a story taken by the The Lonely Crowd, the acclaimed Welsh literary magazine edited by John Lavin. Unforseen circumstances delayed publication of the issue in which it was due to appear, but it came out in December and turns out to be a bumper five-year anniversary issue with lots of wonderful content. 

John Lavin is doing a fantastic job of spreading the word about the issue, and he has invited us contributors to write about our pieces and to do readings, all of which can be read and heard on the Lonely Press website. My reading from the beginning of my story, 'The Words He Said' - a story about communication and non-communication, and the long-term consequences of a single pivotal moment between two lovers - can be listened to here.

If you would like to read the rest of the story, and all of the other great content, the magazine is available here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ailsa Cox reviews Astral Travel in Litro

It's a particular thrill when a writer whose work you admire - Ailsa Cox writes accomplished and moving short stories - and a literature professor to boot, praises your book. Reviewing Astral Travel for Litro Magazine, she calls it 'riveting,' 'wonderful' and a 'page-turner'. 

Astral Travel is a story about a painful history, but I like to think it's told with a light touch, and to my gratification Ailsa corroborates this:

Astral Travel is written so vividly, in such a freewheeling style, that the narrative twists and turns are navigated with ease. Despite the underlying anger, and the sadness, Jo is a likeable narrator with an ironic tone of voice and a comic sensibility. 

(I have to return the compliment: this is a lucid, beautifully written review).

I'm not sure why Litro have chosen to illustrate this review with a picture of a church door, but perhaps it's because Ailsa picks up on the crucial theme of identity that is at the novel's core and what she calls 'the multiple allegiances that [protagonist Jo] inherits – Welsh, Irish, Jewish, Methodist, Catholic and more ... just part of her struggle towards self-definition beyond patriarchal control.'

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Annabel Gaskell reviews Astral Travel for Shiny New Books

It's hard to describe how on top of the world I feel when I get a review that so understands what my work is doing, and at the same time really likes it, as does this fabulous review of Astral Travel by Annabel Gaskell for Shiny New Books.

She says of Astral Travel:

This book is beautifully constructed... At three short of four hundred pages, Astral Travel is a longish book, but it never dragged; nor was it a purely sensational read. This fine novel was, however, emotionally gripping, Baines shows great empathy towards her characters and I was totally engrossed by it, especially in Jo’s search for the truth. A book to lose yourself in – heartily recommended.

It did happen to be a beautifully sunny morning when I woke to this review (so different from some of our recent gloomy days), but everything does seems touched with magic as a result: the frost on the low roof just below my upstairs window is sparkling with rainbow colours and all the light on the bare sycamore across the road looks golden. And the first of the sweet peas I planted a fortnight ago has popped up a shoot!

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

neverimitate reviews Astral Travel, and a podcast interview for The Wormhole.

I so admire the industry and application of book bloggers. Jackie Law has a very busy blog, neverimitate - I don't know how she manages to read as much as she does, and write about it all. I'm very grateful that she's given Astral Travel a detailed and thoughtful review, and thrilled, I must say, that she says it's 'a lingering and recommended read.'

Charlie Place, whose blog is The Wormhole, conducts podcast interviews with the authors whose books she has reviewed - that must be such a lot of work! - and last week she interviewed me about my story collection, Used to Be and Astral Travel - with a little bit, too, about writing drama for radio. I realised I'd never done an interview like this before - via telephone or zoom - previously, it's always been in person or via email. We did it via audio zoom, and I wondered beforehand if I'd miss the visual cues/clues of an in-person interview, but in the event found it worked very well. You can hear the podcast here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Reviews of Astral Travel and Joachim Boaz on The Birth Machine

It's the first day of February, and there are snowdrops up in the garden, a bit of hope in these dreadful times!  

Astral Travel has had a couple more nice reviews. The Mole at Our Book Reviews Online says he 'couldn't stop reading' and he 'loved this story', and calls it 'highly recommended'. (Full review here.) And an appreciative review comes from Nakisha Towers on Everybody's Reviewing, a website/blog of Leicester University's Centre for Creative Writing.

And I came belatedly across this nice review of The Birth Machine by Joachim Boaz in a blog survey he recently made of medical science fiction. It amuses me when people classify The Birth Machine as science fiction - it is actually listed in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction - since, as far as I was concerned, I was writing about social reality. The 'birth machine' of the title (which also relates to the alienation of the birthing mother through medicalisation) refers to a device for inducing labour that was actually introduced into labour wards in the early 70s, when the book is set. At one time I found the assumption that it was science fiction frustrating, as it seemed like a potential negation or at least continued overlooking of the re-life social experience of women. 

I know that Margaret Atwood has said the same about the Handmaid's Tale, that in fact nothing in that novel had not already happened to women somewhere in the world by the time she wrote the novel. The Birth Machine is not even set in a speculative future, as is The Handmaid's Tale, so would seem even less prone to being pushed into the science-fiction category. I'm more relaxed about it now, though, and think that if people want take The Birth Machine as metaphorical (as surely science fiction is), a metaphor for certain dangerous ways of thinking, then that's fine - and is better than its being taken as a simple plea for natural childbirth, which at times it has been, and which as far as I'm concerned it definitely is not.

I'm happy to say that, after a long period of being unable to write - of having no creative room in my head beside preoccupation with our strange new circumstances under coronavirus - I've begun to write again. (As I've said, I found I need to know what I'm writing into, and now I do: lockdown has become normality!) I've actually got a new novel brewing (nothing written down yet) and I've completed a new story which I realised, when it was finished, was a stepping stone towards the novel in terms of theme. It wasn't exactly a flash of lightning kind of thing as writing a story so often can be for me, and I abandoned it twice. I had a basic scenario with a compelling image which seemed to resonate deeply, but which seemed somehow too big to handle, to unpick and take further, and so the story kept going nowhere. Then one day it came to me what was wrong: the scenario with which I had begun was actually not the beginning but the end of the story, its culmination. Sometimes what seems like a complete writing block can be dispelled by a simple solution, in this case structural.