Friday, December 26, 2008

Happy New Year


The New Year beckons. Our main physical adventures of the last two days, beyond feasting, have been walks on Hampstead Heath. Tomorrow, on the 27th, trains in Britain begin to run again after the rather sweet Christmas shutdown. We're heading for our village in France. A weak broadband signal seeps out from the church tower, but France Telecom denies all knowledge of it when we enquire so we make do with a feeble and slow connection through the copper phonelines. I look forward to a period of diconnectedness, from technology and the news agenda at least, tuning in to the hills, the sky, the weather, the river and the wildlife, and a few fine books instead.
This blog may go quiet ... but if you have a good web connection yourself, you might try this link in the meantime, to a story by Le Clezio our new French Nobel Prizewinner. Intended for children, it's a new year present from the magazine Archipelago in a brief resurgence from its dormancy.
Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 - some pictures

Ugo the dog ... our walking companion in the French hills. Providing he's made it through early winter we'll be walking him again soon, heading for a New Year's break in the mountains as the weather forecast turns to snow.
My writer's window in France, staring out at the hills while composing my new novel in the early days of September.
Mont Canigou
From the back route, walking above our village in France (Pezilla de Conflent, in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees), the distinctive summit of Mont Canigou in the distance.
A self-portrait, me in cap and gown staring creatively into my little Olympus digital. I'm in Lancaster's PhD regalia, before the annual awards ceremony for Plymouth University, held this year on the Hoe.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On reading


I watched a man reading a novel all the way from Plymouth to Reading the other day, turning the pages as the blackness of a winter afternoon sped by the train windows. Admirable, I thought. As he got up to leave I saw the book was a killer-thriller. Ah well, at least he was reading.
Whoops. Am I becoming a snob? I don't think so though. I often love a good thriller myself, but the act of reading has become something like frontline action in trench warfare. Reading is research. I dart into a text, find what I need, then run out again. I'm in search of nuggets of information to bring my own new novel to life. As the story ranges beyond the scope of my immediate interests, I set the book down and move on.
Teaching creative writing enforces a peculiar kind of zealous reading. From mid-January into February I'm set to read 321,000 words of new fiction - closely, marking the texts, plus 75 pages of my own written reports - as the next weight of student marking slams onto my desk. In addition, teaching published texts renders me, perforce, a patient reader - it takes me about four times as long to read a book, working out how to teach it, filling the margins with notes, pausing and retreating when I've grown tired and skipped the meaning of a paragraph. I'm limiting myself to three such texts over Christmas. My pleasure in Richard Holmes's Footsteps has become diluted. On my own, having snaffled his recreation of R.L.Stevenson's travels with a donkey, I'd have tired now and put it down. I wilted when asked to become fascinated by the love correspondence of Mary Wollstonecraft among the post-revolutionary barricades of Paris. It seems like an esoteric form of celebrity gossip, Britney Spears for intellectuals. I'm fine with celebrity gossip but not just now please, I'm busy, there are more important things going on in the world.
I'll delight in the book again, I'm sure, it's an engaging read with lots I could do with knowing. I'm simply tired. I'm off to France on Saturday so the book can gain an extra dimension by being read in situ.
Last night I surprised myself, picked up a novel (Joseph Olshan's In Clara's Hands) and simply read away past bedtime. Phew. Reading-magic, reading for pleasure, is still out there.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Gold-dust - and mentoring (as against MAs) for writers


When I was interviewing for The Write Guide, the first guide for mentoring creative writing, Jill Dawson gave so much valuable information that her material threatened to overwhelm the whole book. We had to work harder to give her wisdom a broader context.
Jill had taught on the flagship MA programme at the University of East Anglia; for her mentoring, from both the teaching and learning side of the business, is a positive alternative to taking an MA in Creative Writing.
Jill has now set up her own mentoring organization, Gold-Dust, with a tally of great writers who I reckon will all give valuable mentoring guidance. (They've ditched the terms 'mentee' and 'emerging writer' for the sleeker 'new writer' though I don't see why these writers can't give a welcome boost to someone who's been plying the trade for a long whie and maybe seeks some fresh approach.) A programme involves five one-on-one sessions with your writer, plus the writer engages with ten hours of preparatory reading of your work. You'd need to be able to get to one of the regional bases of these writers. A good extension of the scheme might be to offer distance learning, and so an income source for writers who choose to live remotely as well as an option similarly remote 'new' writers.
I do think mentoring is a very effective way to learn (and anyone considering it would learn from that Write Guide ... a briefer version of it to download for free comes from Literature Training). At £2000 it comes in at about half the price of an MA. An MA typically comes with forty contact hours in groups, plus one-on-one supervision of the final dissertation. The MA brings a sense of writing community with group workshop practice, which I've only ever known my students at this level enjoy, but then they are writers who have selected such a group process in an academic context. I spoke to one member of a writer's group in Plymouth who literally sprinted away from me when he learned I taught writing at the University, so clearly that route isn't for everybody! If you have a sense of a specific writing project then quality mentoring is a sound route. (I've stopped 'mentoring' myself, choosing instead to accept people able and ready to commit to a fiction or creative non-fiction PhD route.)
For me mentoring works much better than manuscript appraisal, since it is constructive, aimed at making you a better writer, rather than seeking to disillusion you (a tendency I've found with the Literary Consultancy). For new writers, scrimping to gather in that two grand when you're stuck, care for your writing project, and Gold-Dust want to take you on, looks like a worthy life-enhancing option.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Footstepping one's character, alongside Richard Holmes


A favourite time as a youngster was sitting at the piano by an open window, playing my mother's favourite tunes as she sat in the summer garden shelling peas. The music, the summer, the safety, allowed images of places I'd visited to propel themselves into my mind, a waking dream sequence composed of memories (I'd been travelling since ten years old, first stop Tangiers).
Reading Richard Holmes's Footsteps, his book about becoming a romantic biographer, has been leading me into a similar state, flashes of memory stirring from some sunlit past as I follow Holmes, who in turn is following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in a brief walking tour from Holmes's own youth.
It's true that travel becomes curiously warped when it's laced with biographical purpose. 'Footstepping' your biographical subject, going where s/he went years before, you imagine yourself into their being, note elements of the landscape they might have noticed, your body perhaps straining up a gradient as your muscles seek to inhabit that original journey.
Holmes writes (p67): 'This form of identification or self-projection is pre-biographic and in a sense pre-literate; but it is an essential motive for following in the footsteps, for attempting to re-create the pathway, the journey, of someone else's life through the physical past. If you are not in love with them, you will not follow them - not very far, anyway. But the true biographic process begins precisely at the moment, at the places, where this naive form of love and identification breaks down. This moment of personal disillusion is the moment of impersonal, objective re-creation.'
For Holmes, with Stevenson, such a moment came when he found a bridge that Stevenson had crossed was in ruin.
I don't know that I've had the same such moments. I wrapped my own journey into my biography of the Indian holywoman Mother Meera, a huge process of detachment, achieved through drafts that were written in fire and then discarded with consideration. I don't know that I am engaged with my biographical characters in an emotional way [though of course that's wholly untrue and love is a vital part of it ... at the end of a recent talk on Haldane, possibly my last as my own life moves on, I was welling up, going all teary, voicing my appreciation for all the man had given me]. My passion is more for the discovery of story, for revealing all those moments that build a rounded life.
I invoked a biographical character once, climbing the sacred mountain Pedernal in northern New Mexico and throwing Birds custard powder (the version I had to hand of Native American cornflour) into the four winds, calling on Carlos Castaneda's support as I wrote my I Was Carlos Castaneda. With my biography of J.S.Haldane, a moment of connection came when I was strolling the grounds of his family home in Oxford, Cherwell. It's been demolished and is now the site of Wolfson College, but as I crossed the bridge across the river to the water meadow beyond, all of which would have been recognizable to Haldane, I felt the wash of his presence touch the side of my face and knew my journey had connected, that this story would now be gathered and told.
A couple more biographies are now stirring. I gather details into a box, waiting to see if a story emerges, looking for the characters to call.
With Haldane I walked the hills he knew, visited his childhood and adult homes in Scotland and Oxford, climbed Pikes Peak in Colorado, donned ancient diving gear to walk the seabed, went down Welsh coal mines and Cornish tin mines and followed his steps around his favourite part of Cornwall's coastline. For me, footstepping my characters is vital.
And indeed, I do the same for my fictional characters. I need to know, and have walked, the locations into which I place my characters. For my novel Slippery When Wet, this meant trips to Bangladesh and Thailand as well as visits as a private guest to stately homes. My new one is set in a home I know well in Big Sur ... but while I know Vienna well enough, another of the novel's settings, the new year will see me set off for Dachau. I can't bring myself to simply invent Dachau, even on the back of research. Since it's important to my character, I have to have been there myself. It's visceral. Visits give me the human scale of a place. Writing is a hugely physical activity. Place needs to be absorbed by my senses, in my body, before it can find its place in the story of another life.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Buchenwald, 14/12/1938 - in memoriam

On December 14th 1938 (so 70 years ago today) two prisoners escaped from the concentration camp Buchenwald, near the German city of Jena. The other prisoners were forced to stand through the night, nineteen hours in thin clothing and sub-zero temperatures, till the escapees were returned. More than sixty died.
Details appear in several accounts, cited in Paul F. Cummins biography of Herbert Zipper, Dachau Song.
The conductor Zipper was one of those detailed to carry away the corpses. He survived the ordeal by concentrating 'upon the blood flowing through his body, becoming conscious of each muscle, each part of his body and through sheer mind and willpower of his mind to keep his circulation flowing. He also concentrated on making slight movements in each part of his body, keeping his toes, fingers, every muscle in regular movement in ways that could not be detected by the guards who were moving about and clubbing people. In this manner he survived the ordeal without injury,' the only person not to succumb to frostbite.
Between the prisoners' kitchen and the laundy in Buchenwald grew the 'Goethe Oak', the tree under which Goethe had written his poem 'Ein Glieches' which starts 'Uber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,' ... above all the summits there is peace.
Lest we forget.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

'Theo' by David Eggers - a sacred mountain story


Mountains are often seen as having human form. For some years I lived beneath the Pap of Glencoe, named for its similarity to a female breast.
Well, the pert breast of a giantess perhaps. Such a being would entrance young males. 'Groups of young men gathered on the mountain called Toto-Hesker, at the level of her chest, and watched her wash herself in the waterfall; they were willing to watch her do anything. Most important to them was that a 200-foot woman had 35-foot breasts, ten-foot-tall lips, legs eighty feet high.'
Such is the giantess in Dave Eggers' story 'Theo' (in the collection The Book of Other People). The giant Theo loves this Magdalena, but has to watch her and the giant Soren, 'who by then slept side by side, unmoveable, their bodies connected in a dozen ruthless ways.'
(I love and admire the efficiency of that 'ruthless'.)
Theo, who like the other giants rose from the earth, started wandering. 'One day, while traveling west, through an ochre-colored canyon, he saw something ahead, something odd. There was a low mountain range rising from a flat tundra. It was a solitary thing, without foothills, without reason. All around was plain flat earth and so he felt himself drawn to it.'
I have long been drawn to sacred mountains (and indeed wrote a book about them), and this is a clear description of a typical one (shown in this illustration by Arunachala in Tamil Nadu, India) ... they are often pyramidal, not awesomely high, rising from a flat landscape.
'Theo' captures the essence of a sacred mountain in a magically fine way. I've introduced the story to students who don't share my view of mountains, and it evokes some sacred magic for them too. It's a modern classic of a fairy story, with some deep and tender truth as its essence.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Going down in a Fairey Battle



In teaching the short story here at Plymouth, one exercise sprang from local news items. A touching one from Exeter's Express & Echo (24/11/08) told of an Exeter couple's 67th wedding aniversary. Harry Dolling, now 87, had sweet things to say of his wife and their first meeting. What struck me though was the power of story in people's lives; the fact that he used the anniversary as a chance to look back more to a separate vivid incident of more than sixty years:
Harry: 'One of my best mates, Greg Gregory, who came from North Devon, was a gunner on a Fairey Battle and I remember how one day his plane was coming in to land and we looked up to see a German fighter launch an attack. It shot up Greg's plane and it just fell out of the sky in flames.
'We looked up to see Greg standing up in the rear cockpit. There was nothing he could do to get out and he just stood there with both thumbs up until the plane hit the ground and blew up.'

Monday, December 01, 2008

An emerging writer

It's winter, many of the paving slabs of Plymouth were iced over on my way to work this morning, but I'm getting a sense of emerging. These last few months have been a blizzard of work. Last Christmas I counted my sessions of 'creative' writing over the previous term. It came to nine. The count so far this term, save for periods editing stories, has been zero.
I asked Philip Hensher the other day how he pulls off quite as much as he does. His novels are thick and Booker short-listed, he's omnipresent with his reviewing work, he also teaches creative writing fulltime in Devon and has a similar regular London-plus commute to me. He joked that he had a rare condition which meant he never slept. And home in Devon means no broadband, no TV etc.
He also doesn't seem to have a website. So here I am, pattering away at the keyboard on my broadband connection at home. Mistake number one maybe.
A new novel is COMING though ... I'm working through the reading matter that has been collecting on my shelves for years now, building up a steam of research. Music is its theme. Saturday's research was watching how the young lead cellist with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra held his body around his cello. The current book is Andrzej Panufnik's terrific autobiography. I wrote the early chapters in the final two weeks of the summer break, and haven't yet managed to re-read them. Soon, soon. It's coming.