A Literary Novel for Teesside

Jan reading to an audience

‘Literary’ can sound pretentious, but is it any more than simply owning the influences that have helped to shape it? Nothing comes from nothing. This is the End of the Story is unashamedly Quixotic – but the characters are not cyphers, they are young women coming of age in a specific place at a particular time – the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside are as much influences as an archetypal Spanish novel. Nonetheless, Cassie plays a role akin to Sancho, whilst Miriam resonates with Quixote – the pursuit of truth and justice, even when the fight cannot be won; the power of perception, imagination and dreams; the reality of giants who would destroy us; the grace of religious and ideological tolerance and the harm of hatred and prejudice all feature, but, I hope, always lightly.

This is a novel of characters who are self-conscious of their influences. Miriam suffers from epilepsy, but looks to Dostoevsky to articulate the experience of her episodes, drawing on his diaries to give a visionary edge to her suffering. Like Quixote, she despises popular romance novels and romantic bards (steering Cassie away from the Canadian folk singer she listens to in favour of high opera, but with only partial success – so each of the chapters is the title of one of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs), but she will overlook her dislike of romance when it comes as French literature – and so Madame Bovary, itself influenced by Don Quixote, features as a metaphor for Miriam’s fear of betrayal.

And then there is Casilda of the Rising Moon, a novel for young teenagers, written by the Catholic writer, Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino – a novel that brims with knights and princes, saints and healers, unrequited love and religious fervour – an interpretation of the life of Casilda, about whom we know only a few ‘facts’. The facts and the story have merged and it’s impossible to know where one begins and the other ends.

So it should be with a literary novel – the news of the day, music once heard, books once read, great novels, intimate diaries written by literary masters and paperback romances go into the melting pot as ingredients to make something different – something also influenced by a time and a place, by memory or invention or something between the two.

What the literary novel asserts is that it’s never the end of the story.

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February 8, 2017 · 7:14 pm

Writing of Politics and Religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the UK, an island that suffers from not being continental, as demonstrated so resoundingly in the Brexit referendum, we are known for not talking about certain subjects — religion and politics are taboo at a dinner table in polite company. But life is not polite — it is messy, and ideology and belief are inescapable.

This is the End of the Story is set in the 70s, an era of strikes, the three-day week, and rising unemployment; an era of hot hot summers, droughts, psychedelic clothes, the Yorkshire Ripper… Life is so often both the best of times and the worst of times and I wanted a fiction that would reflect that. How? I have a lot of sympathy with Keats in hating poetry that has a palpable design on us and similarly with fiction — the overly didactic can be wearing (despite being able to think of wonderful exceptions), so I didn’t want rants or great expository lumps intruding in a novel that is essentially character-driven. I opted instead for a device that is used in the film version of The Children of Men (better than the original P D James novel in my opinion) — that of backgrounding the politics. In the film the dystopian devastation, protests and bombings take place behind the main action, slightly off-screen, and go uncommented. Anne Clarke does a similar thing in her excellent poetry collection, In the Margin, using events from the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign as asides that are barely noticed by the persona and her lover, caught up in an affair.

A Quixote-inspired novel with a major character bent on the pursuit of justice can’t ignore political realities, but I’ve used vignettes, interleaved between the non-liner chapters in which the coming of age story plays out, to hint at the ambivalent attitude towards political engagement. And in each of these vignettes there is a report on the current music charts and, of course, the weather, partly because the weather is used as a metaphor for the story of the main chapters, but also because we live in a society that constantly undercuts the seriousness of world or domestic crises by placing them alongside the frivolous; in itself a political statement.

And religion? Cervantes is remarkable for his sympathy with Spain’s Moors. Towards the end of writing This is the End of the Story I went to Toledo to look for traces of Casilda, a young Moorish princess who later became a Christian saint buried at Burgos, in Northern Spain. Casilda is fascinating as someone who converted from Islam to become a Christian saint, whilst her unrequited lover, Ben Haddaj, reputedly returned to the religion of his fathers, Judaism, Casilda’s faithful nurse remained a loyal Muslim whilst staying with Casilda, and her brother and father were devout Muslims who had alliances with Christian princes. There are times when belief and tolerance live together, but that didn’t last in Spain, as in so many other places.

Visiting The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, one of the few buildings in Toledo that would have been there exactly as it is now in Casilda’s life time, the breakdown of tolerance is recorded in stone — an apse built onto the beautiful little mosque, painted with Christ triumphant, a crucifix surveying all. Similarly, the exquisite synagogues in Toledo were taken over and ‘christianised’ as the Jews were later expelled from Spain. The move from Cosmopolitan to myopic, from tolerance to hatred was often swift and brutal. A familiar story.

I wanted to reflect that tension in This is the End of the Story so Miriam is the only Jewish girl in an otherwise homogeneous school, whilst Cassie is Christian, but stands out for being Catholic. They encounter intolerance from anti-Semitic bullies and a well-meaning, but insensitively evangelical, Anglican curate; the nature of belief — not only in any kind of deity, but in humanity or in goodness of itself, is a key theme in the book. It’s a theme I will return to in the second book, when Cassie, now Catherine, dreams the life of a Hungarian Jewish young woman imprisoned after the 1956 uprising, but, as I said in the last post, that’s another story, which begs the question — is this the end of the story?

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When life becomes fiction and fiction life…

is the

inside the RestauranteLife and fiction are rarely hard and fast boundaries; far from being readily demarcated they blur into one another, are subjective and slippery. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho desperately tries to make it otherwise, not by keeping these two ‘categories’ apart, but by trying to make fact and story congruent – for him a story has to be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’; a story has to be told in a certain way and it has to not invite trouble –

…the ancients didn’t begin their stories just as they pleased … your worship must stay quiet and not go anywhere seeking harm, … turn up some other road, since nobody is making us follow this one, where there are so many terrors to frighten us.

Quixote will have none of this. Seeking truth (rather than fact) and justice makes him live ‘as if’ these things were already the way of the world, an extreme utopian vision that changes reality through perspective, but inevitably leads to conflict – the windmills are, after all, giants (corporations, media, war-machines…) bent on destroying what is humane and hopeful and visionary. But while the fearless imagination belongs to Quixote, it is Sancho who lives in this interior, quixotic world. Sancho is not only loyal, but an enabler. Despite constantly struggling to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, he believes in Quixote, and enters into Quixote’s inner world so fully that he supports its continued existence, making it so.

These are areas that fascinate me –

how fact and fiction constantly collide and interweave;

how one person becomes so immersed in the fantasy life of another so as to enable and support it…

Children do this with great fluency – using make believe to build abstract thought, to imbue the world with symbolic meaning – but somewhere along the line most of us ‘grow out’ of it. Most, but not all – and in This is the End of the Story I wanted to explore the kind of enabling that requires immersion in another’s fantasy (a quixotic, visionary fantasy that is determined to act as if there is justice in the world) and I wanted to explore how this changes the enabler – the effects of the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.

And so – belief is Cassie’s gift. Growing up in 1970s Teesside, Catherine Anne McManus, a clever, but naïve teenager from a dysfunctional home, believes herself to be whoever others tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, or even, at the insistence of her quixotic friend, Miriam, Casilda – an 11th century Muslim princess who later became a saint, a ‘real’ person whose story is shrouded in myths and romantic legend.

Cassie and Miriam are united by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world and Cassie’s belief, despite Cassie’s frequent pleas that Miriam should avoid trouble and choose another road, and despite a traumatic incident on a beach in Scotland. Miriam, however, constantly predicts that Cassie will betray her and persistently tests Cassie’s loyalty – including using her epilepsy as a tool to manipulate Cassie. No major plot spoilers – but Miriam is not blessed with belief and when an act of betrayal so small, but so profound propels Cassie towards Liam, someone also eager to tell Cassie who she really is, then it may be the end of the story. Or is it? Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagines and even when she eventually visits Toledo in the footsteps of Casilda, is this the end of the story?

This is the End of the Story, is of course, completely made up – at the same time it’s the kind of narrative pretence in which life and fiction is irrevocably blurred. Once upon a time in Teesside I had an extraordinary relationship that the fiction resonates with. I could list a thousand ways in which the characters are purely fictions; a thousand ways in which x or y didn’t happen in the way the novel describes or ever happen at all – that would be true, but under that truth is a more complex one – one that fascinates me still because who can say for certainty where the story and the fact reside? I tried to reflect on that conundrum within the narrative by having Cassie revise the story of her coming of age in later life, only to make it more tangled than ever.

I also wanted the sense that Cassie, as she becomes less naïve, takes on Miriam’s quixotic legacy. In Don Quixote, the truth that is discovered in dreams is powerful; and in the second novel Cassie, now Catherine, begins to live someone else’s life in her dreams, but that’s another story, which begs the question – is this the end of the story?

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January 6, 2017 · 11:03 pm

2016 – or why write fiction in an insane world

2016 has been an extraordinary year. Having celebrated its first decade, Cinnamon Press hasthis_is_the_end published some extraordinary poetry and fiction this year and put gorgeously designed books into the world. We’ve had a bumper crop of mentoring students making it very hard to choose who we will go on to publish. We’ve had well-supported competitions with winners whose books we’re enthusiastic to develop, publish and promote. We’ve even been privileged to have some international launches and have enjoyed  opportunities to write, think, walk, cook… in between editing and mentoring.

In all these respects, 2016 has been good – very good. And yet it’s also been a year of loss and turmoil. The political landscape looks grim: Brexit – an ‘advisory’ vote has become synonymous with the ‘people have spoken’ – even whilst many of those people are crying out that they had no idea what they were voting for; the terrifying move to the right in many European countries ;the election of Trump in the US,  a sign of the ascendancy of confusion, anger and nihilism and a dearth of political education or hope and horrific humanitarian disasters, especially in Syria.

Politically 2016 has been bad – beyond bad and has instigated decisions that will go on having negative repercussions and sewing divisiveness. And the downsides of this year have not only been political, though the connections between personal and political realms are never absent. It’s been a year when great thinkers, actors, singers have died – of course any year might be that, but it’s ‘felt’ more acute in 2016 – the loss of people like Umberto Eco, Ornette Coleman, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, George Martin, John Glenn, Elie Wiesel… has gone on and on, whilst I’ve known at least five close personal friends battling cancers this year, felt helpless for several gifted young people who, despite god degrees and hard work, can’t keep up with their rent in minimum wage jobs that squander their talents and leave them exhausted and dispirited. I’ve celebrated with friends who’ve had triumphs – a publishing contract, a new relationship, an extraordinary creative project, but more often cried with those who are mourning terrible illness, the end of a long relationship, the loss of a child, one too many rejection.

In the midst of such a strange year, brimming with celebration and loss, but coming to an end in so much political uncertainty and anxiety, I’ve finished a novel. It’s a book that has been simmering slowly in me for over 30 years. The actual writing began much more recently, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots. I’ve finished a novel and of all the books I’ve written it’s the one I feel most passionate about because it’s a novel that says the personal and the political are not disparate but intertwined and it’s a novel that says when the world is going to hell, when culture is being harried, when divisiveness is on on every corner , then we need other ways of seeing – ways that sometimes only story can provide.

It can feel self-indulgent to write while people suffer, but shutting up artists – whether visual or of the word would ultimately assist the tide of insanity; downing pens and paint brushes and cameras would let the rise of hatred and suffering overwhelm us and have its way. My novel is not salvation. One exquisite photograph, one exceptional poem, one inspiring sculpture will not save the world – but each of these acts of art is something – something that has the opportunity to say, with Cervantes:

When life seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams – this may be madness … – and maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.

2016 has been the best of times and the worst of times. 2017 might be the same. We can resist madness where we see it, mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice, refuse to be dumbed down; above all make art and literature that will not accept the way things are. This is at least one good reason to write fiction in an insane world.

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December 22, 2016 · 11:43 pm

Experiencing Poetry

What does it mean to read poetry? In Beautiful and Pointless, the poetry critic for the New York Times, David Orr, argues that there is no ‘ought’ in reading poetry; there is no answer to the question of ‘Why read poetry?’ except that if you do read poetry you will find that it is worthwhile; it makes a difference not only to how we respond to the world, but how we negotiate the world. Rather than arguing about whether poetry is alive or comatose, Orr is concerned with how people experience poetry.

That experience is at the heart of Cinnamon Press’s goal to publish poetry that is innovative and independent, whether in our collections and anthologies or in a poetry journal like Envoi. Many of the poets we publish write about ordinary life events – a seaside holiday, birth, death, relationships, the impact of economics or religion on everyday life… Many of the poems that don’t make it to publication are on exactly the same subjects, but what distinguishes those  that do make it is that they help us to negotiate this everyday world. At its best poetry assists us to pay attention to our perceptions and expectations so that the quotidian does not simply remain ordinary and familiar, but becomes the context for moments of epiphany or ecstasy; moments when we step beyond the familiar to gain new insights. At its best poetry allows us to experience the deep connections between language and seeing, a point eloquently made by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei in her fascinating book, which I’m currently reading – The Ecstatic Quotidian: Phenomenological Sightings in Modern Art and Literature.

I have also just been finishing off the selection and editing for Envoi 163 and reading The Ecstatic Quotidian has no doubt influenced the choices I’ve made, going for a diverse and rich selection of poetry that pushes us to see differently, to find strangeness in the everyday. It’s a pleasure to include poets like Susan Richardson, whose linguistic deftness takes on environment, mythology and personal identity; at once familiar yet strange; to immerse myself in David Olsen’s ‘Seaside Nocturne‘, a commentary on language itself,  and the failures of language, in a beautifully controlled single metaphor that is resonant of the everyday, yet takes us deeper with wonderful phrases like ‘I invigilate the dark’; to admire Ted McCarthy’s struggle with the gap between language and objects, the subtle playing out of William Carlos Williams’ ‘no ideas but in things’ in the poem ‘Underfoot’, in which ‘each thing answers itself’; to join Roger Elkin, flying a kite with his dad, so everyday, yet so resonant with what is other and yet to come; to explore the universe with Daphne Gloag and Jonathan Taylor or journey with Bob Beagrie to unfamiliar cities that shift our perceptions not only of place, but of self.

Sadly, the reach of poetry may be small, but for those who experience it there is so much to delight in and be stretch by.

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The Author’s First Book

The Author’s First Book.

thoughtful review of Mark Charlton’s excellent non-fiction debut, Counting Steps

Counting Steps

find it at

http://www.cinnamonpress.com/counting-steps/

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Lacking a heart without dichotomies

I’m on my travels again for Cinnamon Press. Last Thursday the launch of Sue Hubbard’s exquisitely lyrical novel, Girl in White, a fictionalised interpretation of the life of Paula Modersohn Becker told through her daughter’s search for her mother on the cusp of Nazi Germany (Paula died of an embolism six weeks after giving birth to Mathilde). It’s a story full of human contradictions – the clashes between loyalty and betrayal, the flashes of integrity and the accommodations that are made along the way. Above all it’s a highly particular story and I was reminded of that forcefully, reading the last third of Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist on the train on the way to the launch. Leo, an academic mentor to the main character makes the point that,

As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify, but to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction … to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in.


Literature disturbs the organisation … because it is not general …the intrinsic nature of the particular is to fail to conform … Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalising world — that’s where the battle is joined.

Leo sees the world in clear camps, and I would want to nuance some of his own certainties, but I resonated with his analysis that the antagonism between political solutions to suffering and narrative treatments of suffering often revolves around this dualism (perhaps false like so many dualisms) between the general and the particular. In particular the main character, Nathan Zuckerman, who appears in several Roth novels, is unable to make the final leap to side with left wing influences in his life and join the revolution because, as he says of himself,

I lacked …a heart without dichotomies.

Of course a heart that is over-abundant in dichotomies can be reduced to a murky pool of liberal guilt and sentiment unwilling or unable to take any stand, but a heart with none would be ill equipped to empathise with Paula Modersohn Becker’s story or any human story. As a writer and publisher I hope to go on lacking a heart without dichotomies.

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