Jersey Festival of Words, Day Two: Aren’t Women Inspiring?

I only attend one event on the second day of the festival because it’s a male heavy day, but what an event I attend. Clare Balding needs no introduction if you’re from or live in the UK. To most of us, she’s the most prominent female sports presenter on television. If you’re a child, she’s the author or two books about Charlie Bass and her family, which includes the horse Noble Warrior and the dog Boris.

Balding’s event is part of the school’s programme and I arrive at Jersey Opera House to find 600 very excited children. As soon as the lights dim and a promotional video for The Racehorse Who Disappeared begins to play, they’re all captivated.

‘Who’s got a brother or sister?’ Balding asks as she takes the stage. Most of the auditorium raises their hand. ‘Keep your hand up if your brother or sister is the most annoying person in the world.’ The majority of hands remain in the air, including those of the adults. [Soz, bro.] They know you better than anyone else which is why they can annoy you better than anyone else, Balding tells us by way of introducing the two brothers in her books, Harry and Larry.

On the screen are illustrations from the book and she asks the kids if they know who the illustrator is. Tony Ross is the answer and then the kids tell Balding where they’ve seen his work before: David Walliams’ books, Horrid Henry, The Little Princess and, apparently, a book called Who’s in the Loo? You can imagine how the mention of that goes down with 600 kids.

Balding says she writes about racehorses and a little girl with a close relationship with her dog because that was her when she was young. She talks about falling off her Shetland pony, aged two, and breaking her collar bone. Her father told Balding and her brother that you had to fall off and break your collar bone one hundred times before you could become a jockey, so they set about doing it. ‘If in life you see something that scares you, do it anyway,’ she tells the kids.

‘Has a female jockey ever ridden a winner of the Derby?’ The answer, it transpires, depends how you look at the question. During the actual race? No. But Balding rode Mill Reef, the 1971 Derby winner, after he recovered from the broken leg which ended his career. During his recovery, Mill Reef was kept at Balding’s father’s yard and she was one of the few people light enough to be able to sit on him without causing further damage to his leg.

The story which inspired the first Charlie Bass book, The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop, is based on another horse that was trained at Balding’s father’s yard; Loch Song got better at racing as she got older but more badly behaved in the yard, refusing to do the jumps. But then she fell in love with Balding’s father’s horse, Quirk, so they positioned him at the bottom of the gallops to encourage Quirk to jump them.

Charlie learns from Olympians in the books too. Balding displays a slide featuring Victoria Pendleton, Charlotte Dujardin and the Brownlee brothers on it. She tells their stories using one of the kids to demonstrate Alistair helping Jonny over the line in Mexico. The slide also includes a picture of Beyoncé. ‘Don’t let anyone tell you Beyoncé is not an athlete, she is an athlete.’ Balding tells of her own insecurities around her body when she was younger saying, ‘I now realise that is a ridiculous thing to spend your time worrying about’. She comments on the powerful thighs of Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Angela Merkel.

The latest book, The Racehorse Who Disappeared, is inspired by the story of Shergar. Balding tells the kids the story of Shergar’s disappearance before moving on to the athletes Charlie is inspired by in this book: Steph Houghton and the England women’s football team; the British women’s hockey team and Maddie Hinch, ‘who made goal keeping cool’; Nicola Adams, who became a boxer when she was told girls didn’t box; the Paralympian swimmer, Ellie Simmonds, with three Paralympic appearances at the age of 22, and Ellie Robinson, also a Paralympic swimmer, who approached the pool in the oversized jacket she’d been provided with, hood up, arms spread, turning an oversight into a statement. ‘You can wear confidence like a cloak,’ Balding tells the kids.

While the kids are fascinated by the stories of all these athletes, Balding’s barely got to Maddie Hinch before I realise I’m crying. To see all these women and girls on a huge screen, in a huge venue, having their achievements celebrated by a prominent female television presenter, in front of a group of school children, feels revolutionary. I buy both of the books for my 11-year-old stepson so we can read them together.

The Racehorse Who Wouldn’t Gallop – Clare Balding

The Racehorse Who Disappeared – Clare Balding

Jersey Festival of Words, Day One: Sensory Perception

It’s the third year of Jersey Festival of Words and the third time I’ve been invited. This year I’m delighted at the broadening of the program which is more inclusive and representative than in previous years. Just after I finish writing this, I’m going to see national treasure Clare Balding do an event for 500 school children. On Saturday, I’m chairing a panel which includes dystopian thriller writer Felicia Yap, which is followed by an event with trans woman, Rhyannon Styles. On Sunday, the romantic comedy author Ayisha Malik is here.

My time at this year’s festival begins with a panel event focused on books where the protagonist/the writer has difficulty communicating. The panel consists of Penny Joelson, author of YA thriller I Have No Secrets; Vanessa Potter, author of the non-fiction book Patient H69: The Story of My Second Sight, and Jem Lester, author of the novel Shtum. The panel’s chaired by broadcaster Sara Palmer.

I’ll briefly mention Lester because, as you know, I don’t cover books by male writers. Shtum is a novel about ten-year-old Jonah who’s profoundly autistic and doesn’t speak. While Lester says the father isn’t based on him, the son is based on his own child. I love his reading and what he has to say so much that I buy the book.

Joelson’s novel tells the story of Jemma, a 14-year-old with cerebral palsy who is unable to move or communicate. She is told the identity of a murderer but is unable to tell anyone else. In keeping with the theme of the panel, Joelson reads from two sections of the book which highlight what daily life is like for Jemma and the frustrations when a new carer assumes she isn’t intelligent because she can’t communicate.

Palmer asks how Joelson ensured Jemma’s voice in the novel was authentic. Joelson explains that she worked with children with disabilities although not specifically with cerebral palsy. She got feedback on her manuscript from people with cerebral palsy, people who communicate using alternative means, and from families of people with cerebral palsy. She says the feedback suggested that it did reflect the experience of people with similar difficulties to Jemma.

An audience member asks about the cover and she says she really likes it, it’s a striking image. [I agree, it’s great.] The same person asks if there’s anything that was left out of the book she really wanted to include. Joelson says that there was so much editing, she’d had enough by the end so hadn’t really considered it!

When asked what impact she hopes the novel will have, Joelsen says that she hopes it will help the carers who work with people with communication difficulties to understand their patients better. She also talks about an entire industry based around communication technology she didn’t know existed and hopes more people will discover it. There’s research and technology that desperately needs more funding and she hopes someone will come forward to help.

Potter’s book tells her own story of the day she woke up in October 2012 to discover that her sight had begun to blur and there was a numbness in the middle finger of her right hand. The numbness began to spread, her vision deteriorated and in three days she was blind and paralysed with no idea why. As a television producer used to being in control, she began to record a diary to document her experiences. The book is based on the recordings, the blog she began to write as her sight returned, and interactions with Cambridge scientists who tried to help her understand what had happened to her. She says, ‘If it was going to take something away from me – it wiped out my career – it was going to give me something back’. Her vision returned in layers which she describes as a ‘misty fog’ moving to lines which appeared to be moving around to contrasts to colours. She describes it as ‘like having David Hockney inside your head sketching things back in’. She experienced synaesthesia, describing the colour blue as fizzing and spitting.

Palmer asks about the use of humour in dark times and Potter tells of the stories that were told, retold and expanded during the sixteen days she spent in the hospital. They were needed in the middle of a desperate situation. She goes on to say that the situation she was facing when she returned home meant that roles within the family were reversed and her daughter became her carer. Her children pushed her though. Potter was walking with a stick and if she put it down, they would steal it to force her to walk unaided. Her daughter also made Potter feed her, in order to use her muscles in her hand to grip the cutlery. ‘They were little sods!’

Unusually, Potter designed her own book cover which is based on the Snellen eye chart. She came up with it after spending a lot of time squinting at the bottom letters. In terms of what was left out of the book, she says 90% of what happened isn’t in it and a lot of the science was left out.

She had a lot of dealings with the NHS and says that documenting and writing about her experience has been useful for rehab and neurological specialists as the condition she had affects 0.0004% of people. ‘The NHS was amazing but they were scratching their heads.’

An audience member asks if she misses anything about the experience and she says the acquired synaesthesia. She says the exploding blues were ‘the most incredible, frightening, curious experience. So unique and very much mine’.

The panel was so fascinating that I kept forgetting to take notes and I bought all three writers’ books after the event (which I very rarely do).

The second event of the evening, I was much more sceptical about. Prior to it, all I knew about Deliciously Ella came from her association with the clean eating movement which I think is joyless, dangerous bullshit (and I’ve been vegetarian for almost twenty-five years).

Ella describes her success as ‘an amazing accident’. She had no interest in cooking and was ‘a complete sugar monster’. However, at the end of her second year of university she was diagnosed with a condition which meant she was unable to control her heart rate. This led to problems with her digestion, chronic fatigue and her immune system. Bedbound while her university friends were out enjoying themselves, she began to take some responsibility for herself starting with reading the stories of others online who’d successfully gained some control over their health by changing their diet. [Now, this I do have time for: my best friend’s husband has Crohn’s Disease and changing his diet has made huge improvements to his life. However, as someone who can eat what they choose – lucky me – his diet looks utterly joyless to me and not something you would choose out of anything other than necessity.] Ella started cooking as a hobby, thinking she had nothing to lose and it might help her both physically and mentally. In early 2012 a friend suggested she set up a blog. In 2013, she opened an Instagram account. She replied to everyone who commented and built a community which has translated into a business.

‘I wanted to turn a negative into a positive.’ She wanted to build something useful with a social conscience and says the community element is the most important part. She still personally replies to comments and emails.

Paul Bisson, who’s chairing the event, asks whether the blog had a definite voice from the start. Ella says that English was her worst subject and that she achieved a U in her first piece of GCSE coursework, which her brother then rewrote for her and achieved an A. However, she loved art and thinks this translated to the way she communicates through Instagram. She says she brought herself completely to it. Her mum commented on how often she uses the word ‘awesome’ and the number of exclamation marks. She says her style was very colloquial and she overused superlatives. She describes it as a ‘very open and transparent brand’.

Bisson asks about the BBC documentary she took part in and her association with the clean eating movement. Ella says she wants to be honest. ‘I believe in food, I believe in the power of it.’ She goes on to say that nothing in life should be that conflicted and that we need to elevate broccoli, cauliflower, lentils but not at the expense of pizza and so on. ‘We’ve got to make broccoli cool.’ Bisson says that vegetables are her passion and she replies, ‘How sad does that sound?’ She says there’s a stigma related to healthy eating which is linked to diets and calories and bland food. She says she wants to move us ‘totally away from that rabbit food scenario’ to delicious food presented in an interesting and exciting way. ‘If we’re ever going to get people eating fruit and vegetables we need to make it part of our lives.’

Ella discusses the style of her cookbooks saying they describe and celebrate ingredients and flavours. She makes them as accessible and friendly as possible, avoiding a sense of ‘If you don’t do it like this, you are doing it wrong’. She repeatedly mentions that no one has to commit to this way of eating full time. ‘Take, adapt and include in your life. Dip in and out.’

I leave without being won over but agreeing with more than I thought I would. I do think we should eat a balanced diet and that eating one should be accessible to everyone. I do think making vegetables tasty is relatively easy and we should do more to make them delicious and interesting. However, you’re not going to find me rejecting processed foods in their entirety: coconut oil for butter? Only if it’s really going to make a difference to your health.

I Have No Secrets – Penny Joelson

Patient H69 – Victoria Potter

Deliciously Ella with Friends – Ella Mills

Part of the Territory – Caroline Lea

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Last year, I reviewed Caroline Lea’s debut novel When the Sky Fell Apart, which looks at the occupation of Jersey in the Second World War. When Caroline appeared at Jersey Festival of Words, along with local historian, Ian Ronayne, it was the story of the women, of those accused of being collaborators, that really interested me. To celebrate the paperback publication of When the Sky Fell Apart, I’m delighted that Caroline’s written a guest post on women in the war.

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War is very often a male domain, or so history would have us believe.  The narratives about war—taught in schools and retold around tables—routinely focus on stories of male heroism and sacrifice.  But this is often not the case in occupied territories, where it is usually women who remain to resist the invading forces, however they can. The fight on domestic turf can be quieter; the strategies are more varied, but the struggle is just as heroic.

Jersey was occupied by German forces from June 1940 to May 1945. 12,000 soldiers invaded—for every four islanders, there was a gun-wielding German.  Many of the local men had joined up to fight on the mainland, so the population primarily comprised of those who were too old, too sick or too weak to fight. Women were plunged into caring for their children in a world that was horrifyingly unrecognisable. Food became scarce, and the familiar routines of domestic life were increasingly constrained by the occupying forces.

When I was writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was struck by the way in which the idea of collaboration (particularly when it involved women) was referred to with a sneering contempt and embarrassment. Sometimes, this was directed at instances of actual betrayal (anonymous letters, informing the Germans about illegal radios owned by neighbours, or extra rations in someone’s cellar), but often what has been condemned as ‘collaboration’ was far more nuanced. Many women accepted washing for the soldiers, or undertook other domestic tasks, in exchange for rations to feed themselves and their children. Other women formed relationships with Germans: sometimes from necessity, but often from a genuine emotional bond.  These women were labelled as ‘Jerry Bags’ and, even today, there is a certain degree of local shame about the women who betrayed their island by sleeping with the enemy. It is easy to apply our twenty-first century moral compass to these alliances and to roundly condemn them as unpatriotic, as acts of betrayal.  But to do so is to assume that we can empathise with the sense of powerlessness, fear and horror that these women must have endured on a daily basis. This is something I’ve thought about a lot since becoming a mother: I would do anything to feed my children. Anything.  And in war, the moral absolutes that dominate peacetime must become subject to our instinct for survival.

The idea of ‘collaboration’ as a dirty little word, focussed on dirty little relationships, also ignores the fact that many of the women fell in love.  They were isolated and afraid, and had no idea when—if ever—the Occupation would end, and, contrary to expectations, many of the German soldiers were not evil or monstrous.  In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith describes them as just boys. Boys with guns. In many cases, the soldiers were almost as lonely and hungry and frightened as the islanders themselves. There is a harrowing true account of a woman who sheltered her German lover when he decided that he would no longer be part of the army.  When they were discovered, he was put in front of a firing squad and she was shipped to a concentration camp. As the soldier was led out to face the bullets, his lover could be heard sobbing as she waved her handkerchief from her cell window.  Her behaviour was roundly condemned, with much of the criticism focussed on her lack of sexual morals.  Indeed, it seems to be women’s sexual behaviour in times of war that summons the most contradictory of responses: war often sees women being used as sexual objects—part of the victory ‘booty’, and yet, women who willingly engage in sexual relationships are vilified.

The narrative of occupation, as we have seen it enacted time and again—from the expansion of the Roman Empire, to the current war in Syria, from the systematic rape of women in Berlin in 1945, to Boko Haram’s deliberate use of girls as sex slaves—is that women are conquered as part of the territory. Their homes are seized; their bodies are possessed. The conquering army’s ‘right’ to rape local women is a tragic and horrifying consequence of invasion. And, hideously, reportage and history seem to provide us with two opposing archetypes for sexual interactions with women in occupied territories: the woman is either judged to be an unwilling victim or a wilful whore.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of this dichotomy is the way in which these denigrations of sexual behaviour often involve women passing judgement on each other—a common problem both in and out of war zones. The concept of ‘slut-shaming’ is a familiar beast in the modern media, but it is particularly tragic when the same attitude seeps through the consciousness of societies that have been systematically occupied and oppressed. Surely times of hardship should encourage female solidarity, not create a breeding ground for a particularly virulent form of misogyny? In France, after WWII, women who’d had relationships with German soldiers were stripped in the streets, their heads shaved before they were tarred and feathered. After the occupying forces left Jersey, the ‘Jerry Bags’ faced similarly harsh treatment, as well as social exclusion—small communities run on rumours, and the gossip machine turned these women into social pariahs.

Our judgment over women’s behaviour, clothing and sexual mores is deeply embedded into our psyche; it is entrenched within our language.  I spent many years as an English teacher and worked with some wonderful young people: they were intelligent, curious and, in many cases, keen to challenge their own prejudices. Yet still, the older boys would berate each other’s sexual behaviour with the term ‘man-whore’ or ‘man-slut’. The ‘insult’ was delivered with grudging, arm-punching respect, and with a total lack of recognition for the way in which, for a woman, the term ‘slut’ is impossible to separate from its shameful roots.  The difference, as I explained to the boys time and again (much to their delight, I am sure), is the question of women’s ownership of their bodies: if a woman enjoys and freely engages in sex, she is ‘giving’ her body away—she is cheap, dirty, damaged. Perhaps she is a ‘slut’ because she is emotionally scarred in some way—what else could possibly lead a woman to want to devalue herself so? But this is the problem: we still see women’s bodies as objects of value, to be taken or given or exchanged or possessed. Men are the purchasers, the possessors who set our price. And this is seen clearly in war, where women, devastatingly, are still part of the conquered land, and are taken and owned along with the territory. In WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, Edith, describes how the island is in her blood. I was conscious of creating a female character who felt inextricably tied to the landscape, because so many women are. In many war-torn countries, women are unable to leave their homes, and so they, too, are occupied.

And this is just as true now, in the twenty-first century, as it has been for hundreds of years We can attempt to convince ourselves that we are enlightened, that women have been empowered by a modern transformation of social values, but we don’t have to look very far to see the ways in which, even outside of war zones, women’s bodies still provide the landscape for political and moral battles.  The rise of Islamophobia has found a convenient focus in the form of condemnations of the burqa. The question of whether women should be allowed to wear something that conceals their bodies has been met with violent opposition.  In some cases, this antagonism has taken on the form of women’s head coverings being ripped from them.  Defenders of this violent (and violating) action argue that women who choose to wear the burqa are being oppressed, and that the concealment of the woman’s body is somehow offensive. The irony: that we live in a culture where the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies is the norm, yet a woman’s choice to conceal her body somehow makes her morally repugnant.

Unfortunately, this use of women’s bodies as the landscape for battles doesn’t seem to be losing momentum in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s recent attempts to place constraints on overseas funding for birth control also reveals a disturbing trend, whereby male power-struggles can be executed on the territory of women’s bodies. The message is clear: women’s bodies, their minds and their choices are canvases for political point-scoring.

While writing WHEN THE SKY FELL APART, I was surprised by how many relevant and pertinent issues it raised: I had assumed, I think, that seventy-five years would be a large enough gap for the concerns faced by the islanders to seem very much in the past.  But, as I wrote, I thought again about how times and beliefs might change, but human behaviour and emotions often remain the same.  We will always fall in love, sacrifice ourselves for others or betray them; we will always find that the world around us conflicts with our inner values.  And I think this is one of the things which makes writing (and reading) historical fiction feel so rewarding: the past helps us to hold up a mirror to the who we are today, and reflects the myriad possibilities of the people we might become.  For the sake of my nieces and my sons, I hope our treatment and judgement of women’s bodies is something that can change.

Thanks to Caroline Lea for the guest post.

 

Jersey Festival of Words: The Non-Fiction

I tweeted on Saturday afternoon that one of the things I love about Jersey Festival of Words is the number of non-fiction writers who also happen to be female who are hosted by the festival. In 2015, I saw Rachel Bridge, Irma Kurtz, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr Gilly Carr. This year, it’s Anne Sebba, Cathy Retzenbrink, Kat Banyard and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

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Kat Banyard takes to the Opera House stage along with former sex worker Diane Martins on Saturday afternoon. They’ve come to discuss the ‘uncharted territory’ society finds itself in following the ‘huge and unprecedented expansion of the global sex trade’.

In her book Pimp State, Banyard discusses each area of the sex trade but for this event, he focuses solely on prostitution, looking at ideas around power, money, equality and policy choices. She states that ‘the global sex trade affects everyone’ as the trades weave themselves into the fabric of society. This promotes a message about the ways in which it’s acceptable to treat another human being.

Banyard reiterates much of the ground covered in the book with regards to sex buyers and their views; the women who become sex workers; those who control the trade, and the different legal stances, from legalisation to the Sex Buyer Law.

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Diane Martins supports women exiting the sex trade and campaigns to end demand for sexual exploitation through implementation of the Sex Buyer Law. She tells us her story, which you can read here.

She has some interesting things to say about the work she does with women exiting the trade, in particular. She talks about the disassociation she felt and other women often feel from their bodies, ‘My vagina’s not attached to me by velcro’ and how powerful words are, ‘The power of words is so strong. You’re worth nothing. You’ll do as I say. This is what your life is’. But she hopes that her words can help impart hope and change ideas.

Both Martins and Banyard comment on the Home Affairs Select Committee they were asked to give evidence at with regards to prostitution laws. The committee was chaired by Keith Vaz, who was later revealed to be a sex buyer himself. Diane talks about how vulnerable some of the women who gave evidence were and how difficult revelations like this make it for them to talk about their experiences.

Banyard ends by saying that men take experiences of the sex industry into other areas of their life: work and home.

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Photograph by Yasmin Hannah

On Saturday evening, the Opera House plays host to Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum, who’s interviewed by some blogger from the north of England. It’s difficult to talk about an event when you’re the person on stage asking the questions, but Turner’s fantastic: funny and honest. Her audience of 300 parents (mostly mums) roar with laughter as she talks about wanting to put the kids up on eBay, not having a kitchen with an island, the milking incident and What Would Ruth Do?

The two events everyone was talking about though, happened on Saturday morning at the same time – Michael Morpurgo in the Opera House and Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Arts Centre. Obviously, I was at the Arts Centre (although I did run the length of St Helier to get a signed copy of Morpurgo’s latest book for the ten-year-old).

Rentzenbrink’s interviewed by Paul Bisson, Vice Chairman of the festival. I mention this because Bisson’s first question is about interviewing as Rentzenbrink often interviews writers and chairs panels (she chaired both the thriller panel and the history panel at the festival this year). She says she’s become a better interviewer now she’s on the receiving end of it. She used to accidentally be a little bit casual, not wanting to gush over writers. Now she tells them if she loves their work. She also comments that not everyone who interviews you prepares and sometimes you realise twenty minutes into the interview…

Bisson says there’s an irony in her saying in The Last Act of Love that she didn’t want to be known as ‘coma girl’ and now she’s known for her memoir about it. She says there’s dealing with the thing and dealing with how to communicate the thing and she feels a great sense of relief now she’s on the record about what happened and who she is. ‘I’ve wrestled it into a book,’ she says. She jokes that if anything were to happen to her husband and she has to return to dating she can use the book as an introduction, ‘Read it and see if you can be bothered to take me on’.

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How big Rentzenbrink’s book would be if it contained the whole truth.

She talks about the truth of the events, saying that ‘the written version becomes the true version’ and that although ‘there’s nothing in [the book] that’s not true’ there are omissions. These fall into two categories: people involved who didn’t want to be written about and things that were removed during the editorial process.

One of the reasons Rentzenbrink wrote the book was the misunderstandings around comas. She says they’re very clean on television, you either wake up or die. She quotes Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm, who says that it’s easy to save someone’s life with emergency brain surgery but that they’ll almost never recover. He uses the phrase, ‘The collateral damage to the family’. Rentzenbrink says that she used to think she was crazy and mad but has since realised she’s not, it’s the events that happened to her.

However, there are many moments in the book which are funny. ‘Tragedy is funny because if you couldn’t find funny you’d die on the spot,’ she says. She tells us that she got the giggles at Matty’s funeral because she thought his friends were going to drop the coffin in an Only Fools and Horses type moment.

She talks about living and working in the family pub. How people who drink in pubs are very funny but that measuring your drinking habits against them when you’re seventeen isn’t advisable. However, she credits the pub with preventing the family from the isolation they might have suffered on bringing Matty home if they’d been living in a house. She also comments on how many people seem to miss the class element of the book. ‘I love my journey from Snaith Ladies Darts Team at sixteen to the main stage at Cheltenham Literature Festival.’

On writing Rentzenbrink says, ‘I think all of writing is about self-doubt management’. She mimics herself typing, squinting at the keyboard. She says it’s only in the editing she thinks about the reader but because of her work in prisons with men who don’t read well, she’s aware of a need to make books accessible for a wide audience. She wanted to take something complex and make it simple. While editing The Last Act of Love she became very aware of the lack of books on the subject of persistent vegetative states and pictured a builder who’d never read a book reading it. This led to her editing for clarity and deleting a whole thread about her response to a range of books. ‘That man does not need to read me twatting on about Julian Barnes.’

It’s so easy for memories to be overtaken by a decaying body, she says. Writing the book helped her to remember what Matty was really like. ‘I remember new things about him all the time. He feels completely real to me now in a way I thought I’d lost him. He sort of talks to me. It might be him, wouldn’t turn that down. I think it’s my memory having a conversation with itself.’ He’s encouraging, sweary and gives career advice. He’s fondly critical and calls Rentzenbrink to account with comments like, ‘What the fuck are you worrying about that for, you crazy bitch?’

There’s a theme of religion running through the book. Rentzenbrink describes herself as ‘a hopeful agnostic. I like a bit of smells and bells. I like married clergy, love being the answer and all’. She wonders why she doesn’t allow herself to go to church and thinks religion hasn’t caught up with medical developments. She was scared that religions people would be angry about the book and the decision her family took.

Rentzenbrink says that she considers herself a case study but doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for euthanasia. ‘Almost all of those arguments reduce the human.’ She says raising awareness is a great thing but, ‘I like the book to do that’. She says more cases have gone to court because of the book, people didn’t know it was an option.

She’s currently editing her second book, a non-fiction work called A Manual for Heartache which is about loss and grief more generally. She says if you remain silent people think you’re alright but when you’re honest, people say ‘me too’.

She’s also writing a novel. Doing so has liberated her from the need to tell the truth. She ends by saying that thinking about other people’s books, which she does for her Contributing Editor role at The Bookseller, ‘keeps me sane’.

Jersey Festival of Words: Myth, Legend and Historical Fiction

On Friday, I spend the morning legging it between my hotel and the Opera House, collecting signed books for the 10yo from the children’s authors he’s picked out of the programme. My favourite is Jim Smith (apologies to the others) purely because he draws every kid who has a book signed, in the style of Barry Loser. He does the 10yo from a photo on my phone.

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I make it into the auditorium in the afternoon to see Erren Michaels talk about the local legends she writes about in her short story collection, Jersey Legends. She jokes about having only an hour and 800 years’ worth of legends to cover.

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She tells us she became interested in the myths and legends of the island when she wanted to include some in a novel she was writing. She was surprised how many existed that she’d never heard of before. She thinks some were lost because of the change from the oral tradition to writing and the change in language on the island from Jèrriais to English.

During her research, she discovered that Jersey is rumoured to be the last refuge of the fairy population and this is a myth unique to the island.

A lot of the stories Erren brought to the page were from footnotes and fragments, rather than already existing stories, which meant she had to invent the story to go with them. She talks about how this fits into the fairy tale tradition, quoting Marina Warner on how fairytales don’t remain fixed stories. They have different roots in different parts of the world and they change over time and the form in which they’re told.

The White Lady, for example, is a staple of Jersey’s folklore but sometimes she appears as a ghost and others as a fairy queen. The Legend of the Black Dog, which is one of the island’s best known legends – there’s a pub named after it! – has become a violent creature in recent times but it began life as a benevolent spirit, a storm herald. She calls her own version of the legend, ‘a bit of a shaggy dog story’ as she attempted to incorporate the different versions of the legend. She shows us a map which has had all the places which have a black dog legend mapped on to it: the UK is covered with them and it expands into parts of Europe too.

Michaels is also an actress and she shows us part of the spoof television show, Hit or Myth? she co-wrote and performed in. (You can watch it on the link, it is entertaining and if you haven’t been to Jersey you’ll see a little of the island.)

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The Vioge is Erren’s favourite monster. The demon scarecrow came from a paragraph in an old academic book and has no mythological archetype. The same applies to the Crooked Fairy who she sees as the kind of monster who lives under the bed.

The tales are concentrated on the north shore of the island, she thinks, because there’s a cliff and they serve as a warning. Telling a child there’s a monster is often more effective than telling them not to go to the edge.

She shows us footage of The Venus Pool aka The Well of Death which has two legends attached to it. The first is that it’s the fairy’s bathing pool and if they caught you looking you would be struck blind; the second is that there was a siren-like prince and princess who drew ships onto the rocks. If there were any survivors, the prince would hold a fake court and sentence them to death. Corpses would be put into The Well of Death.

Erren ends by telling us about two more legends – The Water Horse, who was a sea kelpie, which is unusual as versions that exist in other places are fresh water. Because there were lots of versions of this tale, it made it difficult to write one coherent story. And the shipwreck of La Josephine which happened in 1865 or 1866. The figurehead of the devil was washed up into a cave. There’s no proper story to go with the figurehead or its position nd this used to annoy Erren as a child, so she created a story for her book.

She tells us there’s a second book on the way, this one containing the ghost stories of the island and that she hopes her work gives people access to the legends.

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On Sunday morning, at my penultimate event, I see another local writer, Caroline Lea, discussing her novel When the Sky Fell Apart and Jersey during the occupation. She’s part of a panel with local historian, Ian Ronayne, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink.

Caroline tells us that she’s interested in the silences in historical accounts of the occupation and the different experiences people had. When she started writing the novel, the voices of the characters came first. She made copious notes, from which the plot emerged.

She worried about the local reception as she had fictionalised a subject which was in living memory. She made the commander far more vicious than the one present on Jersey at the time and worried about causing offence to relatives of those whose stories she used and changed. She comments on the possible tensions between creating a book to be read and enjoyed and respecting life events.

The panel discuss collaboration, ‘whatever that dirty little word means’, says Caroline. She says it’s difficult. People seen to be collaborators were quite often ostracised but she sees it through a lens of what parents will do for their children and that there’s a conflict with the moral boundaries of the 21st Century where it’s easy to look back from and judge. She says it’s a rich field for exploration, fascinating and complex. There’s a discussion between the panel as to how the punishment of collaborators by men immediately after the end of the war was to do with men’s feelings of impotency. They refer to ‘the battleground of women’s bodies’.

Caroline also links this to ‘the gossip machine’ which she says is fascinating under occupation. It creates a hierarchy: who’s taking a stand? Who’s using gossip and sly letters to settle old grudges?

She says she writes historical fiction because it’s where her writing voice seems to sit most comfortably. She likes the feeling of settling into a world where you know the framework and the boundaries. She quotes Kate Atkinson, ‘History has these silences within it’, before telling us that her next novel is set in 17th Century Iceland. There’s safety in historical distance, she says.

She ends by discussing the character of the English doctor in her novel When the Sky Fell Apart. She says he presented problems initially. Because he’s reserved and emotionally restrained there was a danger that readers would think he didn’t experience emotions. But he has the biggest moral dilemma. He’s ‘totally isolated in this place of total isolation’. She refers again to ‘the silences that have to happen during occupation’. In the first draft, all the voices were in first person. This didn’t work for the doctor because she couldn’t show the lies he tells himself. She did a complete rewrite in third person which opened up his character, creating a distance between the internal and external portrayal of him. She says her editor ‘asked the right questions’ about the doctor’s background which allowed her to make him more sympathetic. There’s a fine line between the space to ask questions in order to get to know a character and explaining too much.

 

 

Jersey Festival of Words: The Crime Panels

My intention was that I would blog about Jersey Festival of Words while I was there. However, that was derailed partly because I had my own event to prepare for and partly because I was having far too good a time to sit down and write. What I’ve decided to do, as I’m now writing in retrospect, is to group events by theme, rather than do a day-by-day commentary. First up: crime.

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I attended two crime panels on the Saturday of the festival. The second, which I’ll come back to in a moment featured two male writers, JS Law and John Samuel, along with Louise Doughty. The first was at 10am and was a fascinating discussion between Antonia Hodgson, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown and author of a series of three historical crime novels which begin with The Devil in the Marshalsea, and Rachel Abbott, self-published author of six novels (Kill Me Again being her latest) and the fourteenth best-selling author (whether traditional or self-published) of the last five years.

Both writers say they got started by thinking about ideas on their commutes. For Rachel, this was plotting a murder in her head stemming from the question, what situation would be so bad a woman would murder a man? She says most of her books have a dilemma at the heart of them. She likes her readers to think about what they would do in that situation. She researched her latest novel, Kill Me Again, by sending her retired sister out in Manchester with a camera. When she went to the Pomona wasteland, near the canal, she asked the builders working there, ‘Can you tell me, is there anywhere decent to bury a body?’.

Antonia fell in love with the 1700s as it’s a period we don’t read or hear about as much, partly because George II was ‘the dullest king we’ve ever had, a ridiculous man!’. She finds the street level fascinating though. ‘I love a good plot, a good mystery, I love a good twist.’ She did her research mostly in the British Library, although for the third book in the series she also used the West Yorkshire archives. She describes the joy of looking at pamphlets that have been tucked away for years and finding personal notes on them. She hasn’t had anyone tell her that anything in her books is wrong but says she included the note about swearing at the beginning of The Devil in the Marshalsea after her American editor questioned whether people really swore that much at the time the novel is set. She says writing about a historical period reminds us how little human nature has changed.

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Bored in Italy, one snowy February, Rachel began to write for her own pleasure. She had no intention of trying to get her writing published but after mixed reviews from her family, she decided to give it a go. She sent the book to six agents. The first one wanted to take it on but didn’t think it was the sort of book that would sell. Because Rachel was 59 at the time, she decided to put it on Kindle instead.

To begin with, nothing happened. The book was published on the 15th November 2011 and sold 16 copies on Christmas Day, which Rachel thought was exciting at the time. However, her marketing background told her, ‘You need to get noticed’, so she put together a twenty-seven-page plan. She worked fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for three months, gaining two-stone from subsisting on biscuits! It took six weeks to get Only the Innocent to number one in the Kindle chart, at which point it was selling 3500 copies a day.

Antonia says, ‘I do think that talent will out, almost always, but it is a slog’. She thinks the industry needs to be more open about the process and describes sending a book into the world as ‘absolutely terrifying’. Her first novel wasn’t published. She says she knew it wasn’t right but was encouraged by agents who told her she could write. She didn’t self-publish ‘because I know so much about the industry: you have to be a brilliant writer and a fantastic entrepreneur’.

She talks about the idea of the ‘gatekeepers’ of the publishing industry, saying that these people are incredibly committed, enthusiastic, creative people, looking for books that will sell well. Although she does say that there is work to be done in terms of diversity. A range of people will lead to a range of tastes in the books bought.

Rachel says the problems in self-publishing are the lack of editing, the low pricing, sock puppets and buying reviews.

They both talk about having to be tough and taking expert advice. Rachel has an agent (Lizzy Kremer, who is also the agent of Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train). She talks about ‘When I first took her on…’ and that she did so because Kremer told her of one of her books, ‘I thought it was pretty good but you can do better than that’; because she guides her as to what to do next; because she reads and edits her work, and because she’s sold Rachel’s books into twenty different languages. There’s a great moment when she says about Kremer, ‘She’s the professional, she knows what she’s talking about. My agent’s very hands on. She’s quite fierce’.

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Antonia confesses to rejecting a book, in her capacity as an editor, that went on to become a bestseller, but that the book wasn’t for her. She says there’s room for both traditional and self-publishing. They discuss the things traditional publishers do that a self-published author would need to do themselves, or simply doesn’t have access to. For example, it’s difficult for self-published authors to get their books into book shops as retailers don’t have time to see each author rather than meeting a rep from a publishing house; traditional authors receive an advance from the publisher; self-published authors bear the costs of producing and distributing their book; self-published authors aren’t eligible for many competitions (although this is beginning to change) and aren’t part of promotions, whether Richard and Judy or Buy one get one half price.

Rachel says if you want to self-publish, you need to have your books professional edited, copy edited and proof read. Marketing is your responsibility. ‘Whether you’re a success of a failure, it’s down to the amount of effort you put in.’ She says you need to be bloody minded, determined, consistent, analytical and to persevere in order to raise awareness of your book.

If you’re going for a traditional deal, you need to have an honest conversation about expectations when the deal is signed, says Antonia. ‘You do have to go into it knowing what questions to ask’ with regards to the level of marketing your book will receive. ‘The role of the author is becoming far more central,’ she says, describing them as ‘a partner in the publication’. Writers don’t have to be on social media, but it is seen as a bonus if they are when launching a new writer.

Neither writing wants books to disappear and Antonia thinks that the apocalyptic warnings about the death of print are over and things are stabilising. Rachel says the number of ebooks you have to sell to reach number one in the Kindle chart is slightly lower than it was when she started out.

Interestingly, both writers end by saying the ‘essential’ thing you need as a writer, whether traditionally or self-published, is an agent.

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Cathy Rentzenbrink, JS Law, John Samuel, Louise Doughty

Late-afternoon, I was at the Opera House for ‘The Voice of a Thriller’. A discussion between three crime writers, chaired by Cathy Rentzenbrink. Because of the nature of this blog, I’m only going to cover what Louise Doughty, author of Apple Tree Yard and Black Water contributed to the discussion, but the whole thing was fascinating and I think it’s well worth looking up the other writers and their books if this is your genre.

Louise begins by reading two passages from near the beginning of Black Water. She tells us she loves reading from her books because it’s easier than writing them and she’s a frustrated actress, she wanted to be Glenda Jackson in her teens! She reveals that she wanted to do the audiobook for Apple Tree Yard and then her publisher told her they’d got Juliet Stephenson, so she had to relinquish that one!

The idea for Black Water came when she was at the Bali Writers’ Festival in 2012. She was hideously jetlagged, might have had a cocktail too many at the parties and was staying in a hotel above the Ayung River where the nights were noisy. As the monkeys, geckos and monsoon rain kept her awake, she had the image of a man lying awake, mortally afraid. He believed men with machetes were coming for him. He was afraid of something he’d done and Louise knew what was going to get him really was his own ghosts. She wrote the first 2-3000 words and then got stuck for a year.

She talks about how all her books have been different and that makes life hard for a publisher. It was her sixth novel, Whatever You Love, which was first described as a psychological thriller. She says the writer’s ‘only duty is to write the story that’s in your heart to the best of your ability’, it’s up to the publisher to place it within the market. She though Apple Tree Yard, which brought a new audience to her work via the marketing of the book as a psychological thriller, was ‘a feminist indictment of criminal justice’ but it would be ‘churlish’ to resent the way the book was marketed.

Black Water is more overtly political. Louise describes Harper, the protagonist, as a metaphor for a country: can he find love and redemption after a mass killing? She says she wants the book to form a bridge into an unknown world as well as entertaining the reader.

She felt she was ready to write from a male point-of-view for this book. The previous two had been female, first person, present tense. She kept Black Water in third person even though it’s from Harper’s perspective as she wanted him to be unknowable. She spoke to a lot of men when creating the character but, ‘I do fundamentally believe we are all the same’. She said it was the language that caused her a problem: how would Harper have a thought to himself? She uses the line, ‘to do a bit of shopping’ as an example. She says this implies a leisure activity and probably isn’t the way a man would express this. She changed it to, ‘to pick up one or two things’, although she kept a line about flip-flops being unflattering which a man did pick her up on. She liked the line though so it stayed.

Harper is mixed-race (Indonesian and Dutch) and uses his ‘floating ethnicity’ to his advantage. However, in the Netherlands, at school, he is bullied for being black; in the US he is bullied for being Japanese, and in Indonesia, where he works for a large, powerful organisation, he is considered to be white. Louise says she wanted him to be a comedian: he is constantly asked ‘Are you part something?’ in the novel, and that she wanted a man who is a perpetual outsider as ‘outsiders are observers’. She says writers consider themselves to be outsiders, it’s the one thing they all have in common. She ends on the intriguing note, ‘Harper is my most autobiographical character’.

Jersey Festival of Words: Day One

I arrived in Jersey on the same flight as poet Jo Bell, which was fantastic as I had someone to talk to/try not to get lost with. When we got to the hotel, we met writer Tania Hershman, who had already sussed out cake opportunities. We went for afternoon tea and chatted about writing and the sessions we’re doing during the festival. Jo and Tania are part of tonight’s cabaret evening at the Arts Centre and are doing a session together at 5pm tomorrow in the Arts Centre. Jo is also doing a full day’s workshop in La Hougue Bie on Sunday. Their plans for the sessions sounded fantastic.

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I went to two events yesterday: Anna Sebba and Victoria Hislop, both of whom have a love of recent history in common. Both sessions took place at Jersey Arts Centre, which is a new venue for this year and is a lovely addition.

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Anne Sebba talked for an hour of the stories she discovered about women in Paris during the Second World War. These stories, and many more, form her new book Les Parisiennes.

I warmed to Sebba immediately when she said that the book isn’t a women’s history book, it’s a mainstream history book that happens to be about women. She described the book as ‘unashamedly’ a story about the women of Paris, a city which became feminised during the occupation. The book includes stories about resistors, collaborators, milliners, singers, dancers and more. The spectrum of women in Paris at that time is shown here.

Sebba questioned throughout the talk why it had taken so long for these women’s stories to be told. Her answers included that these women were self-effacing and they wanted to return to normalcy. They were also told by DeGaulle to return to their families, have babies and return their chequebooks. Women in France did not get the vote until 1946. Even after their part in the war, society thought they should return to their places. There were also the women whose romantic lives meant they didn’t want their stories known – Catherine Dior, for example, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his children – and those whose romantic lives wouldn’t be accepted by society – Claire Simone, who despite her portrayal by Cate Blanchett in The Momuments Men where she flirts with Frank Stokes played by George Clooney, was a lesbian.

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The book came from an interest in Reneé, formerly Rachel, Van Cleef who killed herself in 1942 following the Aryanisation of businesses under occupation. Sebba’s interested stemmed from the disparity between the darkness of the period and the growth in couture and culture in Paris.

Sebba mentioned a lot of women, whose stories I’m not going to repeat here because they’re told in the book, but they include Elsie de Wolfe, Odette Fabius, Beatrice de Camondo and Irène Némirovsky. Many of these women showed enormous courage, carrying out work that went unrecognised until recently. Sebba praised the grandchildren of these women who she said were determined that their grandmothers’ stories would be told.

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Victoria Hislop is also interested in telling unknown stories. In her case, these are stories from and about Greece. Last week, she published her fifth novel Cartes Postales from Greece which her and her publisher are describing as ‘the first book of fiction in full colour’.

She told the audience that the book was conceived as a novel with photographs and that she travelled around Greece with a photographer with no preconceptions as to what she wanted him to photograph. As he took photographs and then drove them around, Hislop wrote the stories that make up the book.

The book is about a broken-hearted man called Anthony – because ‘I’ve never met an Anthony I don’t like’. (She reveals later that he’s named after and looks like her friend and neighbour in Crete, Anthony Horowitz.) The book begins with Anthony waiting for the love of his life at a small airport in Greece, with an engagement ring in his pocket. She doesn’t show up and provides no explanation as to her absence. He can’t face returning to London so travels around Greece sending her a postcard from each place which ends with the sentence, ‘Without you this place is nothing’. But the postcards land on the mat of someone else…

Each of the sections are told to Anthony by other people. They are stories about the people who tell them and about Greece. Hislop said she wanted to express the duality of Greece, the beautiful, picture postcard side and the shadows behind it.

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She said it would be disingenuous of her to set a novel in contemporary Greece and not acknowledge the difficulties the country’s faced. She spends 30% of her time in Greece and says that there are lots of angry young people who leave because they can’t get work and then don’t return.

Some of the stories told to Anthony are real and others are fictional. Hislop said she’s leaving it to the reader to decide which category they fall into but she does reveal that the story about Lord Byron is fictional. She wanted to look at Byron from a Greek point of view, where he’s more famous for his sexual exploits than his writing, so created a maid in the household who theorises as to what ailment causes Byron’s death. ‘Writing is so much fun!’ Hislop said of the creative licence which allowed her to do this. She said some of the stories move into genres she hadn’t written in before: Gothic and horror, in particular, although she’s keen to point out that there’s humour in the book too. ‘I don’t read Gothic or horror stories. Ever. I don’t like them. I was quite disgusted with myself.’

Hislop said she reads her reviews and that ‘criticisms are usually right’.

The evening ended with a discussion about her debut novel The Island. ‘To me it’s like it’s been written by a child. There’s nothing pretentious about it.’ She told us she didn’t want to be a writer, in fact she actively avoided it having friends who are published novelists. She said it’s only with this book, which is her fifth, that she’s felt able to refer to herself as a writer but not a novelist. ‘That sounds so cringe-making. Ian McEwan is a novelist’. But visiting Spinalonga inspired something that she knew would need more than the articles she was writing as a travel journalist at the time.

Her daughter, Emily, is her ‘ruthless’ early reader but she said it was her husband, Ian (Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News for You), who told her to remove a joke about leprosy from The Island.

Someone in the audience asks about the television series of The Island, which was made by and for Greek television. At 26 episodes, she said she doubts it will ever be shown in the UK. She was involved in it ‘like a maniac’, she said, due to her concerns that the characters would be treated ‘like monsters’.

Hislop will continue writing about Greece. Although she confessed to an interest in Norway in the 1940s, she said she won’t write anything very different. ‘This is what I do.’

Jersey Legends – Erren Michaels

By the time you’re reading this post, I’ll be on my way to the airport to catch a flight to Jersey, so I thought it would be fitting to review a book which includes some of the legends told about the island.

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In Jersey Legends, Erren Michaels includes eleven tales. Some are rewrites of stories, others incorporate two legends into one new story. In the introduction, Michaels writes:

The island of Jersey is a singular place of great natural beauty which lends itself well to fairy tales. The dramatic cliffs of the north coast are as beautiful in their rugged majesty as the sand dunes of the western shores and the golden beaches that surround the island. Jersey’s patchwork of green farmland is interspersed with rich woodland, and medieval castles are juxtaposed with the bustling hub of the town.

The landscape is evident in all of the stories in the collection. Indeed, many of the tales are set around Jersey landmarks.

In ‘The Vioge’, Alicia makes her way up La Ruette à la Vioge, nicknamed Crack Ankle Lane before finding herself weary. When she wakes, she finds she’s been sleeping on bones…

In ‘Sacred Ground’, Tom Grondin tries to build a new church in a peaceful glade but finds that all the equipment keeps being moved. It couldn’t be fairies, could it?

While in ‘Devil’s Hole’, the figurehead of a ship, shaped like the devil, ends up in a cave on the coast.

As you might expect, ships and the sea feature heavily. In ‘Witches’ Rock’, Madelaine’s fiancé, Hubert, walks along the coast towards Witches’ Rock or Rocqueberg.

The rock was only a stone’s throw from the beach, and had been carved by nature into exquisite beauty. It was bigger than Hubert’s fisherman’s cottage and formed of jagged, peach-coloured granite. In daylight the colour stood in warm, glorious contrast to the green glade surrounding it.

No prizes for guessing who Hubert encounters there but this story does have a particularly excellent solution brought about by Madelaine who’s smarter and more adventurous than we’re led to believe at the beginning of the tale.

Three stories in particular stood out to me: ‘The Crooked Fairy’ tells the tale of Amory Harker, ‘That’s not my name’, who’s bullied by the kids at school who think he’s a changeling. The joy of this story comes with the ending and a little twist in the tale.

‘Sir Hambie and the Dragon’ has a knight determined to slay the dragon that’s landed on Jersey, despite his wife’s concerns. The battle with the dragon is exciting but it becomes the wife’s story and it was great to see a woman with agency in this type of fairytale especially.

But the story that’s absolutely worth buying the book for is ‘The Black Dog of Bouley Bay’. The black dog is one of those creatures that everyone claims to have seen or heard – it reminded me of The Beast of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall – but no one’s ever managed to capture it. In this case there’s a very obvious reason:

Had anyone chosen to follow the erratic path of the black dog down the steep slope to the shore, they might have seen that, as it crunched onto the pebbles and drew near to the water, its rear end stood up and said firmly, ‘Right that’s it, Pierre, I’m sick of looking at your backside. I want to be the head on the way back up.’

Jersey Legends is a good introduction to the folklore of the island. There are some interesting tales here if fairy stories, myths and legends are your bag.

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Erren Michaels appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Friday 30th September, 3.30pm, in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

 

 

Two Short Story Collections – Tania Hershman

Jersey Festival of Words begins this Wednesday – hurrah! I’ll be flying out on Thursday and coverage of events will start on here on Friday, although I’m sure I’ll be doing some tweeting before then. As final preparations happen, I’m covering short story collections this week beginning with those of Tania Hershman.

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Hershman has published two collections, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012). Part of what she does is combine science and creative writing, often in interesting and less obvious ways than you might expect.

Many of the stories in The White Road were inspired by pieces in the New Scientist. Hershman begins these with a quotation, showing where the idea came from. For the title story, it’s one about the completion of a road to the South Pole. Hershman imagines the ‘Last Stop Coffee’ place, run by the story’s narrator, Mags.

Today is one of them really and truly cold days. You’re probably thinking cold is cold is cold, either everything’s frosty or you’re sipping margaritas by the pool in Florida, but let me tell you, there are degrees of freezing.

Like many of the characters in both collections, Mags’ tale is one of loss and longing. It’s also notable, in The White Road in particular, that many of Hershman’s women break stereotypes: there’s the bride who lifts her husband over the threshold, the woman who had to give up studying physics and now makes scientific cakes:

The Sun: chocolate cake ball made in Christmas pudding mould, orange icing with brown smudges for sunspots, angel hair spaghetti mesh for the solar clouds, blue-dyed pasta as plasma shooting out from the solar storm.

The woman on a first date on a spaceship:

‘I’ve heard of men being hard to pin down,’ said Agnes, ‘but this is ridiculous. Didn’t you read the gravity section in the manual?’

Bill floated helplessly above her.

The woman who plays roulette and the one who knows how to keep a secret. If you’re wondering how some of those break stereotypes, you’ll have to read the stories!

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While The White Road is an enjoyable, varied and interesting collection, for me, My Mother Was an Upright Piano is where Hershman really finds her voice. The book is a collection of fifty-six flash fictions ranging from a paragraph to two or three pages. The scientific theme continues but is often less explicit than in The White Road. This leads to more experimental pieces and often an element of magical realism.

He meets a girl, it could almost be an accident, the way she slides into him, tips his cheek with her elbow, makes eyes at him, his whole body quivering, noticing her. It could almost be an accident, at a bus stop, or a train station, or the line for the launderette change machine, or an ice cream vendor, or someone making fresh crêpes, the egg swirling, hardening into solid substance. It could almost be an accident but it isn’t; this is what she does. She is a spy, The Devil pays her well for sliding into him, tipping his cheek with her elbow, making eyes, and she slips the cash into her bra, not trusting pockets, knowing how easy it is to finger ways inside, like electricity, and extract.

There are some fabulous single lines:

When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid.

“If you sell your soul, can you buy it back later, even if it costs more?”

 A wonderful piece about Art (and science?):

We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out.

 Which makes an interesting contrast with this woman’s story:

She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

Hershman also writes perceptively about relationships. In ‘my uncle’s son’ the narrator realises:

I did not know then that sometimes you just need to give and keep giving until you pull the other person with you, until they are pulled over the edge and you are flying together.

And in the title story, music becomes a metaphor for passion:

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

The stories in this collection are a joy to read; when they really work – which many do – they soar. Hershman’s skilled at creating a whole tale in a very short space. She has a third collection coming early 2017 and I’m already eager to read it.

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Tania Hershman appears at Jersey Festival of Words with poet Jo Bell, Saturday 1st October 5pm in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Black Water – Louise Doughty

It came to him then, what was going to happen. They were going to kill him. Take a break for a while, Amsterdam had said. Go up to the hills, we have a little place outside of town, it’s been used before. Have a rest, you’ve earned it. When we’ve talked to the West Coast, we’ll let you know. He had wondered, at the time, why they had to talk to the West Coast at all. If Amsterdam was certain he was finished they should have recalled him immediately. Why send him up to the hills – unless they wanted him out of the picture if the press ran with the story? Well, that was what he had thought at the time. Now, though, in the dark of night, the decision to send him here took on a different meaning.

We meet John Harper in the hills on an Indonesian island, waiting for the boys he is convinced are coming to kill him. The only person he has contact with is Kadek, a servant who brings him food and performs some basic housekeeping.

Harper has been to Indonesia before; to Jakarta in 1965 when he witnessed some horrific moments in the anti-Communist riots. The story that were are told about him is punctured by these moments of violence.

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Near the beginning of the novel, Harper decides he’s going to go into the nearest town for a few things. There he meets a woman, Rita, who he drinks cocktails with and then spends the night in a local hotel. The following morning, she leaves without speaking to him. But Harper’s feelings about her are somewhat different:

Christ, he thought, I survived a rioting mob in Jakarta not long ago and then began to wonder if my life could be in danger from the people who have employed me for three decades – yet one encounter with a woman and I’ve turned into this. He realised he was enjoying this image of himself: the hard-bitten man on the veranda in the jungle with his whisky and his cigarettes.

But it’s not over for him and Rita – he bumps into her in the marketplace a few days later and a relationship begins. This is partly a device (albeit a very well-constructed one) to allow Harper to tell his story. Doughty avoids it seeming like a device as the reader is unaware initially that Harper is relating his story to Rita at the same time he tells us.

We’re told when he meets Rita that he’s an economist working in Jakarta. We’ve already had several hints that there’s much more to Harper’s job than analysing figures, however, and it soon becomes clear that he works for some sort of intelligence service although not a government based one.

The story we’re told in the second part of the novel goes right back to Harper’s childhood and to me, is the most compelling part of the book. Possibly because it’s the only section which feels as though it may be the whole truth (whatever the truth is in a work of fiction). Harper was born Nicolaas in a concentration camp. He’s Dutch, of mixed heritage. His father was beheaded by the Japanese and his mother spends her life trying to escape the horrors she’s endured. His childhood focuses on his mother’s marriage to an American black man called Michael, the time they spend living with Michael’s father, who Nicolaas calls Poppa, and the death of his younger brother, Bud. It’s the insights into Harper’s childhood that show us why he’s become the man he appears to be.

The power of transience: in motion, you could be whoever you wanted to be. When had he learned this? On that solo Atlantic journey, with the label around his neck? Or earlier, at the age of three, watching his mother cadge cigarettes from different passengers or sailors, varying the details of who she was according to whether she was talking to a man or a woman, a sailor or a fellow passenger? Whatever lessons were learned then, chief amongst them was this: if you don’t want people to know who you are, keep moving.

If you’re expecting something similar to Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, you might be disappointed with Black River. In many ways, it’s a different beast. Doughty considers identity, the West’s ignorance of the East, how the past can affect the future. This is very much a character study, albeit one driven by violent disruption in both a personal life and a country. However, the novels do share some similarities: what affect love can have on someone; what people are driven to do to save themselves, and a narrator who may or may not be reliable.

Black River is an interesting, fear-driven novel. Doughty poses many questions about Harper and the part he’s played in events. The question for the reader is, how much you do you trust him?

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Louise Doughty will appear at Jersey Festival of Words with fellow thriller writers JS Law and John Samuel for a discussion about the thriller genre. The event takes place on Saturday 1st October, 17.45 in Jersey Opera House. Tickets are available here.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.