Between events yesterday (I ran the free workshop during the afternoon and then taught in the evening) I had a little time to kill and ended up picking up the library’s copy of The Giving Tree. I’d never read it before (how??). It’s stunning. It’s beautiful and it is, I think, the perfect story. Enjoy! Weep! Be happy!
So, the free event I did for Adult Learners’ Week on Tuesday went well. I’ve done a couple of events like this before (I’ve just noticed, to my horror, that the last one was five years ago), and always end up coming out of them thinking what a good idea they are; giving people the opportunity to learn something for free is, for me, absolutely what libraries are about. And, probably, what life’s about too, to an extent.
So yep, I enjoyed myself. I talked about writing a lot and I answered questions about writing, and all was good. And the one thing that stuck out during the course of the afternoon, the best advice I gave, was, I think: that if you want to write you just should. You should just sit down and do it, trust your story, and not worry about where you’ll end up – because that discovery and that journey is where the magic is.
The other bit was not being daunted. I think that it’s so easy, when we start out, to feel hopelessly unqualified to write and that’s, from personal experience, a really scary thing (and let’s not forget that I don’t even have A Levels). But every writer started somewhere, and they got where they are by writing. Even when it was scary. Even when they might have thought they weren’t good enough or qualified enough, or anything like that.
So if I was going to give any advice to anyone just starting out, for this week at least, it’d be this: Just do it. The fact that you WANT to puts you in a very, very good position before you’ve even started. And that’s a bit magic too.
Just a quick note to say that I’ll be appearing at the fabulous Bollington library next Tuesday (21st of May) to talk about writing and publishing and helping with people’s work and all that kind of thing. I’ll be there from 2 until 7, so if there’s anything you’d like to know or like help with or ask me then pop in at any point between those times. It’s free and there are tickets available but feel free to just pop in – it’ll all be very informal, which is how I like it best. And there will be tea and biscuits and perhaps even cake.
Hope to see some of you there.
When I first started blogging, way back in 2006, Aliya Whiteley’s was the first I remember reading regularly. If memory serves, both of our first books came out at about that time. She also accepted a short story I wrote when she was the editor over at Serendipity. I like her. She’s ace.
And she has a new book out. A short story collection. It’s called Witchcraft at the Harem and it’s a bit different to the other things she’s written (funny crime novels). I’m delighted to welcome her here today to talk about that and, why writing isn’t a straight line.
AND, if you pop a comment below I’ll put you into a draw to win a copy of the book. Do it. It will make you happy. (I’ll make the draw at the end of the week.)
Over to Aliya…
Why Writing is not a Straight Line
Once upon a time I wrote two comic crime novels, and was lucky enough to get them published. That led to a contract and an agent. I thought my writing life was about to become plain sailing.
I like comedy writing, and I like the crime genre. They’re not the only types of writing I like. Commercial or literary, romance, fantasy, horror, science fiction – I’ve written them all with varying degrees of success. When comic crime paid off I told myself and my agent that I’d only write in that genre from that moment on, and my agent told me I was making a wise decision. She wanted me to build a brand. But as I attempted to write only in one direction, strange things began to happen in my novels. Just telling the story from A to B had never held any interest for me, but now monsters from hot countries and strawberry pickers from outer space started to turn up. I had great ideas for short stories, too – challenging ideas, nasty ones, peculiar ones.
Basically, it began to occur to me that didn’t want to write crime after all. My brain was not interested in thinking exclusive thoughts.
I fought it for a couple of years. Wrestling with your creative subconscious is like wrestling ghosts in the dark with your hands tied behind your back. You don’t win. As soon as I admitted defeat, I felt so much better about myself and my writing, and I hit a really production period of short story creation that could loosely be called literary fantasy writing. A lot of the stories in my new collection from Dog Horn Publishing, Witchcraft in the Harem, spring from that period.
It’s not that fantasy writing is new for me – I’d say the fantasy genre was my first love as a reader. From Diana Wynne Jones I progressed to Piers Anthony, and then David Eddings, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Michael Moorcock. I loved those books before I discovered George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte, or thought about trying to write for myself. I think the genre of fantasy allows me to feel free in my writing and my imagination after a period when I felt contained; anything can happen, from a head appearing in the cabbage patch to a cloud of butterflies sweeping you out of a hot air balloon.
So it’s not so much that I changed genre. I only stopped fighting what was there all along. I don’t know if I’ll ever write crime again, but if the ideas come to me I won’t push them away. And I won’t apologise for my imagination or my writing. Witchcraft in the Harem contains stories that are disconcerting, dark and lyrical – sometimes funny, sometimes not. But they’re all mine, and I’m proud of them.
Don’t forget to enter the draw now…
I first ‘met’ Liesl Jobson a few years ago on a writing forum. That was back when I wasn’t very good (she was). It was back when I’d do embarrassing things like Not Understanding Things Properly (I remember, very clearly, NOT getting a metaphor – good one; (it was not an ACTUAL fish, Nik, it was a penis).
But things change. I got better, for one.
And Leisl has a new book out. It’s called Ride The Tortoise and it’s a short story collection (there’s an eBook edition too). And to celebrate I invited her over here. We decided to do something a little different. We decided she’d take The Proust Questionnaire. I love it.
Liesl Jobson Answers the Proust Questionnaire
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being able to create without anxiety. That, however, is a state that comes and goes, more the latter than the former. That said, not writing causes more anxiety than writing, even if the subject of my endeavour gives cause for misgivings.
What is your greatest fear?
Being discovered as a fraud.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Which living person do you most admire?
Some days my mother. Some days my father. They are such fine people, kind, smart, whole-hearted, and unafraid to show the world their true colours.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
The seemingly relentless tendency towards self-sabotage. So often I find myself very close to completing a task over which I have laboured for hours or years – like this questionnaire – and I dither and dawdle till I drive myself (and those who love me) quite mad.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Bullying – from the lowliest playground thug to the presidents of nations who disregard the humanity of those who are littler in strength and stature, financial capacity, social standing or personal resilience.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Designer heels. I can’t help it. They are terrible for your feet, damaging to your spine, ruinous of the wallet. They are so politically incorrect but they feel so damn good to wear and they are never pedestrian.
What is your favorite Journey?
The ride to Zeekoevlei where my scull rests on a rack in the Alfreds Rowing Club boathouse.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Charity. It is too often an unconscious attempt to placate one’s own conscience.
On what occasion do you lie?
When it is prudent to do so.
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
My bitten fingernails – see self-sabotage above…
Which living person do you most despise?
A southern African head of state who has committed a long list of atrocities perpetrated against his own people.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘To be sure, to be sure…’ which I can’t resist analysing as an attempt at garnering a secure foothold in a shifting landscape. Surely? My beloved says I use “certainly”… more of the same affliction, probably.
What is your greatest regret?
Je ne regrette rien.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Books and boats. Stories and sea. The embodied imagination.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to hold big narratives in my head and write novels. They are in my heart, but while that is a good place from which one must write, the head is where the big narrative is constructed. And mine is far too disorgnised for that.
What is your current state of mind?
Growing in confidence.
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I would have them all much taller and sturdier of limb so that I might have inherited the genes that would have made me an ace rower, rather than an average one.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Winning the women’s race of the Melck Run last year. I was so anxious before this 22km race down the Berg River in the middle of winter that I would fall out and freeze to death that I sat in the car beforehand weeping in terror. My main ambition was to stay in the boat and finish the race. To my great astonishment I, who had until recently been a card carrying member of the Couch Potato Association, was the first woman home.
In my theology, which I concede is a watery thing, I will come back to learn that which my soul most needs to become enlightened. My deepest held belief is that in my last life I died by my own hand. I view it as the task of this lifetime to learn to negotiate the hideousness that life inevitably delivers without resorting to suicide.
If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
This question is as incomprehensible to me as asking an infant what language he or she would like to speak when the time comes to acquire speech.
What is your most treasured possession?
My late mother-in-law’s diamond ring. She was an actress in her youth and exceedingly beautiful and she deeply loved me. It features in a story I wrote where the narrator, faced by a gunman, swallows the ring. I have told my family that if I die a violent death and the ring is missing they should insist on autopsy to find it.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
There have been moments when reality buckles and I have had no language to articulate the horror to which I have been party. There are no words to describe the things I wish I had never seen.
Where would you like to live?
The Albert Falls Game Reserve where I could breakfast with zebras and then row on the Albert Falls Dam while eagles swoop across the sky.
What is your favorite occupation?
Rowing. Or reading? Hard to choose… Or eating, or sex, or sleeping??? Are these occupations?
What is your most marked characteristic?
A spirituality that encompasses sexuality, creativity, compassion and devotion to personal integration. But how narcissistic is that? My long hair that has earned me the name Rapunzel is probably the most visible thing.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
The willingness to take responsibility for his own consciousness whilst not trying to fix or sort out mine.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
The courage to be vulnerable and to put down shame.
What do you most value in your friends?
They accept my eccentric silences without taking umbrage and have the remarkable grace to remind me what is truly important in life when I lose my way.
Who are your favorite writers?
Etgar Keret, Miranda July, Diane Awerbuck, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Jeanette Winterson and Ivan Vladislavic.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Eh… every author named in the previous answer has at least five narrators who gripped my mind while I read their words. No way to select a single hero(ine).
Who are your heroes in real life?
The people I love who have suffered greatly and who forgave me for having a hand in their troubles; in particular those who didn’t quit when they really wanted to and could have done.
What are your favorite names?
Jemima and Pearl, for the daughters I never had. My father still calls me “Big girl”…
What is it that you most dislike?
The modern shopping mall is a version of Hades I can live without. The only reason to frequent such a place is to say goodbye to your money whilst acquiring stuff you don’t need and eating food that probably never grew in the untrammeled light of day.
How would you like to die?
After I’ve turned 100 I wouldn’t mind saying farewell from a single scull. However, it would be inconvenient for those left behind to sort out the matter of my corpse somewhere in a lake. The headline would make a splash, I guess. A psychic once told me that I will die in public so I’m trying to get used to the notion that I won’t die alone with the attendant quietude that a private demise grants one.
What is your motto?
There are acres of diamonds in your own back yard.
There are a couple of spaces free on my online short/flash fiction course, as a couple of people have completed it. (And, talking of the course, it’s been a lovely thing to see a couple of those who’ve taken it reaching long and short lists recently – huge congratulations to them.)
If you’re interested in signing up (you can see all the details here) I’m going to reduce the price to £99 until the end of the May bank holiday weekend.
If you’ve any questions you can contact me via the form here.
There’s clearly going to be a little bias when I talk about The Drowning of Arthur Braxton. It’s written by Caroline Smailes, whom I co-wrote Freaks! with, and it’s published by the magnificent Friday Project. But let’s not talk about bias or let than get in the way of what is truly a remarkable and brilliant novel. I love Caroline’s work (as you probably already know) and I think this is her best yet.
It’s a story of love and its power and it’s the story of loss too. It’s a fairy tale. It’s heartbreaking, and touching, it’s funny and it’s brilliant. It’s sweary too – very sweary. It’s also a book that features an awful lot of erections.* I read it in one sitting (pretty much) and I fell in love with it. I know the word ‘masterpiece’ is used a little too often but I genuinely think that that’s the only way to describe it. It’s wonderful. You should read it.
* I was going to say something along the lines of ‘It’ll be a hard one to put down’ but thought better of it. Clearly.
Apologies for the blogging silence of late. I’ve been very busy and, to tell you the truth, I’ve not really had all that much to say. Seeing this review on Amazon of Not So Perfect, however, made me happy:
“I love this book and have read it over and over and I never read a book morethan once. I love the book’s squareness, its feel in my hands, its spare, cartoon squiggles, and of course, its stories. Much as I like short stories, a lot them are quite bleak these days, whereas these stories are simple and tender and although they can be quite surreal, somehow they are completely believable. Great stuff. I can’t wait for the next collection.”
And while I’m talking of book reviews, if anyone would like to befriend me over on Goodreads, then here I am.
I was a little later in getting to Andrew Kaufman’s wonderful Born Weird than was planned (things happened, as they do, and life gets in the way of things, as it does – which means that I didn’t read anything in a couple of months). I rectified that last week, gobbled up, wide-eyed and grinning – Mr Kaufman’s latest. In short I loved it.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge Andrew Kaufman fan (and that’s not only because he said such nice things about Freaks!). I loved The Tiny Wife and All My Friends Are Superheroes. They’re playful, they’re mad, they’re bizarre and they’re brilliant. Touching too. This may just be his best yet.
It’s a story about a family. It’s a story about blursings (blessings + curses) and it’s a story about having unusual abilities and how you cope with them. How would you feel going through life instantly forgiving anyone and anything? How would you cope with constantly keeping yourself safe? Would it really be such a great thing if you were constantly living in hope?
This is the kind of story you really shouldn’t help but love. Do have a look. You’ll thank me for it. I promise. It’s wonderful.
Every so often a book comes along that’s different. There’s something about it that changes me as a reader, as a writer and, often, as a person too. It’s a magic thing, I think. Willful Creatures did it. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, did it. The Tiny Wife, Slaughterhouse 5, Olive Kitteridge, Dear Everybody, and Perrault’s Fairy Tales all did it too.
It’s a short story collection which, as you’ll see, kind of reminds me of what I try to do in telling stories. It’s beautiful. It’s touching. It’s terrifying. It’s ridiculous in all the right ways. It is dazzlingly written – the stories sing and soar and leave you with a lovely warm glow of admiration and a hunger for more. It left me with a feeling of friendly jealousy too; I wish I’d written it.
Like I say: magic.
So, what did I do after reading it, I hear you ask? Well, naturally, I got in touch with Marie to tell her just how much I loved it. And, as she’s the lovely sort of writer, she very kindly agreed to answer some questions. I love this interview. It’s a belter. I hope you do too.
Hi Marie! I’ve just finished reading your excellent collection, Safe as Houses, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it – it really is something special. It’s always cool to find someone who, it feels, is trying to do the same kind of thing with stories as me (do people think that you’re on drugs too?). For the benefit of the readers here, could you tell us about the book in your own words? Who’s it for? What’s it about?
Thank you for the kind words, Nik! I am very glad you enjoyed Safe as Houses, which I would describe as a collection of 8 stories set in Philadelphia where the idea of reality and even Philadelphia is, at times, debatable. It is for anyone who wants to read it. Specifically, carnival folk.
What does the word ‘story’ mean to you? And what do you think one needs for it to be great?
The word ‘story’ goes very deep for me. I battle with it. It guides me. I take great delight in messing it up. I have written and read many character sketches and witty conversations masquerading about as stories. It took me forever to learn, and I am certainly not finished learning, a few of the necessary ingredients to change the latter two things into a story. But please remember I don’t write like Flannery O’Connor, that is to say, capably. That is to say, with normal structural conceits. So, armed with that proviso, allow me to delve into just one of the terms I had to learn, then translate into what I wanted to do with it: Conflict.
Everyone tells you that conflict is required to have yourself a story, but what is more difficult to explain is that it doesn’t necessarily mean: MAN WITH GUN ENTERS STORE OF KITTENS. I thought it did, so I would try to get a man with a gun into every story. It doesn’t help that Hemingway is taught in every damn high school class and he is like the eternal MAN WITH GUN. Take a relatively normal story like “Hills Like White Elephants.” The conflict is: She’s pregnant. He wants her to have an abortion and she doesn’t want to. Their evocative, well-written argument is set against the backdrop of a wild terrain that can be compared to the wildness of life and procreation. Done. Good job, Hemingway.
So, conflict was always a watery and scary idea to me, and I didn’t think I could write a story unless I had been to war or had something epic to say that involved a lot of drape describing and morality tales. Then I read Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Miranda July and Amy Hempel. Conflict means; anything that disrupts the stasis, while pushing the action forward and I realized that, and here is where it gets fun for writers like me, the happy/hard reality is: What constitutes “stasis,” plus the “anything,” is up for interpretation! Take a relatively less normal story, “Celia is Back,” by Amy Hempel, where the mental state of the narrator becomes more harrowing and questionable in three pages, and the conflict is: What on earth is up with this guy and is he a danger to these kids? This is a different kind of conflict that creates tension between the author and reader, and Amy Hempel is able to do it because she is Amy Hempel. Just as a modern dancer learns the rules of ballet first then deviates from them, a writer working outside the realm of normalcy is double charged—to not only know the rules, but to have the know how and skills required to break them. When I realized I was a modern dancer, there was room for me at the table. Everything got very, very fun.
What does it take to make a story great? When I find out, I will certainly let you know. My gut says it has something to do with conviction, originality and balls.
What’s the story (see what I did there!) behind this collection? Was it always going to be that or did you just write one at a time and then find, later, that you had enough good stuff to start thinking about assembling it into something book-shaped?
I wrote these stories over the course of nine years. There are a few others, b-sides I like to call them, that didn’t make it in. I always had a collection in mind, but the process of writing stories that swayed and fit around each other took I think a necessarily long time.
What’s the Marie-Helene Bertino writing process? And are there any tips, snippets of advice, you’d give to those who aren’t yet published?
Please allow me to borrow Cormac McCarthy’s words: “I only write when I’m inspired, but I’m inspired every day.” The Marie-Helene Bertino writing process involves checking in with myself, paying attention to the ebbs and flows of inspiration, knowing when to go hard on myself and when to cut myself some slack. Especially since I tend to err on the side of being hard on myself. I am not a fan of forcing myself to write. Maybe that’s because I think everything is writing. Maybe that’s also because I’ve always worked full time, and I just plain didn’t have six hours a day to sit in a chair. That said, sometimes I sit down to write and six hours pass like two minutes.
My very abbreviated advice is: Keep writing. Swing for the fences. My not abbreviated at all advice is here (scroll down):
Are you a fan of Pomeranians?
There’s not a dog on this earth I don’t love. It’s genetic–every member of my family is a sloppy-hearted dog lover. I grew up with dogs and cats, big and small. Last year, I adopted a little rescue Papillon, named him Fantastic Mr. Fox after the Roald Dahl story, and he is my sable-colored gentleman hero.
What’s next for you?
The novel. God help us all.
Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to say thank you, Nik, and I hope this helps. And if anyone reading this has lost hope, please know that the fact that I was able to get Safe as Houses published is proof that dreams come true, if you work hard and long enough at them, and if you ignore anyone and anything that tells you otherwise.