Coming round to the Dark Side

On Tuesday, I had the rather tremulous pleasure of visiting the British Library exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination‘. Indeed, there was a certain amount of trepidation involved – going up to That London – and not knowing what to expect. Would it be over in a flash and leave me at a loose end? Would it be tacky, or too full of jargon and conceit to enjoy?

poster by Dave Mclean

I had no need to worry. I shall try to avoid ‘spoilers’ – but if you want surprises, just stop here at the end of this sentence: it’s fascinating and diverse. I wrote over twenty pages of notes – but you won’t get all of them, I promise.

There is a chronological thread; you start with The Castle of Otranto. Don’t miss the curious Czech film – and try imagining what the transparencies would look like backlit with flickering candlelight. I am a bit of a fan, so many of themes were familiar. Still, it was a treat to see exemplars of the Sublime up close, as a for-instance. As long as I can remember certain places – gorges, mountains, waterfalls, ruins, castles… have thrilled me.

Lady Blanche crosses the Ravine… by Nathaniel Grogan

That’s none too weird, you might say. But then some frissons of pleasure I had mingled with concerns about what these said about me. I felt a surge of delight when I re-encountered old friends like Count Dracula and Carmilla. I wished I hadn’t got rid of my LPs, posters and books.

Was this stuff I should enjoy?

When prompted to think about the real Terror in Revolutionary France, I faltered. My vision of Gothic is one of disturbing beauty, of hidden desires. I cheerfully admit that it had much to do with my adolescent sexuality.

But extreme violence – where did that sit in my understanding? I have to say I felt nauseous contemplating the Jack the Ripper letter. Violence against women is not a matter for my entertainment. This was an ethical challenge.

Image by James E. Nicol

As you may know I am fond of dressing up. Perhaps my Gothic side is merely superficial, put on like the Blackpin veil ? But that doesn’t explain why this weird disconnect troubles me so much. There’s deep ambivalence here – I do love and yet I fear I should not.

It is not resolved. I have found some comfort in the thought that expressing the darker side can be, perhaps, cathartic. I believe, for example that Boris Karloff was a perfect gentleman – and I know Chris Priestley (talented artist and cracking writer) is a delight to engage with.

And after all, the Gothic Imagination deals with the two biggies Love and Death – like the best opera. [Lots of similarities there, now I come to think of it.]

Il Commendatore by Anna Chromy

The best resolution I have found to this debate comes in the words of Cornelia Funke, though she is talking about fantasy in general:

 If you cannot imagine another world, you won’t be capable of changing this one. The role of the writer is to ask the questions that others may not get round to asking, to fish for the unspoken truth.

 

full article here c/o David Almond

I really don’t have an answer – do you?

Gone – but not forgotten [quite]

Apologies if you were waiting to learn which character I chose for the SCBWI Agents’ Party. I went for Tolly.

Inside Tolly’s bedroom at Greeen Knowe

For those of who you have not had the pleasure, I refer to Toseland Oldknow in L.M.Boston’s truly enchanting ‘The Children of Green Knowe‘. He is a lonely boy – who makes friends with the ghosts of children long gone in his great grandmother’s ancient house.

I wanted so much to be like Tolly – and in some ways, I still do. Slipping in and out of time, finding companionship in strange places – that’s my world at its best.

Happily, you can visit Lucy Boston’s fascinating house and garden – and the 60th Anniversary of  the first of the Green Knowe books will be on the 9th November this year. There will be a celebration at Hemingford Grey. Do go if you can.

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Character Actress

I’d never make a Hollywood leading lady – but I can do character.

This evening I am braving possible thunderstorms and the rumblings of my own trepidation to attend  the annual SCBWI BI Agents Party at Foyles Grand Design of a new bookshop. Choosing what to wear was tricky enough – but archfiend Nick Cook has issued us with a second badge.

We have to select one character from children’s lit we’d like to be. Crumbs. Where to start? All of them is not an acceptable answer. One close to me seems good.

Hermione? Well, I am a bit of know-it-all but she is too recent. If I included all the  children’s characters I have grown to love as an adult, it would be impossible. Also I suspect Hermione will be very popular – as will delightful bookworm Matilda.

Eowyn? I think that’s cheating. OK I read LOTR when I was still a child but she’s not really a children‘s character. So how about Alan Garner’s Susan? Could be – I was utterly convinced that a bracelet of my grandmother’s with blue tear-drop stones was a magical talisman – and I’d get two books to inhabit (three if you count ‘Boneland’).

What about the other Susan – Narnian queen and healer ? Well, putting aside The Problem of Susan for another day, she does get four books to go at – but she is a bit of a bystander. I feel like that with Jane Drew in ‘The Dark is Rising’ books – I don’t really remember her that well.

That goes for many others – and I won’t pick ones I only really know from films or TV. Princess Eilonwy from The Chronicles of Prydain is too pretty, and so too is Princess Irene. Never could  be doing with that. I will admit to fancying a few ‘baddies’ , though. Empress Jadis of Charn – who wouldn’t want to  be remembered this way?

But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman.

That’s grown up me speaking, I suspect. Still, I’m far more fond of Captain Hook than Tinker Bell or Wendy – though I do have soft spot for Tiger Lily. She used bow-and-arrows in my mind – and how marvellous was that?

Of course, I can gender-swap. That gives me Kay Harker and Eustace Scrubb. Yes I know – Eustace is a complete prig – but he gets to be a dragon and learns his lesson. I’ve always loved that. I can identify with the miseries and misfits – Eeyore, Puddleglum, Bard the Bowman [though he gets a bit grand].

Well, time has run out. I have made my choice. If you’re at the Agents Party, you’ll know. If not, I will reveal all tomorrow.

Of riffs, tweets and bees

white_bee_Kate_Long

Twitter can be a source of unabashed delight, I want to tell all the non-Tweeters out there. I spotted a lovely picture of a white bee posted by Kate Long – and alerted Joanne Harris to it. Those who follow her will know she starts every #storytime with

There is a story the bees used to tell, which makes it hard to disbelieve..

It seemed likely she’d enjoy it as much as I did. And then one bit of sharing led to a happy little exchange of riffs on the white bee theme. Joyous.

From that exchange, a little story has emerged in a flurry of wings and pale fur. I hope you enjoy ‘A Tale of White Bees‘.

In the Light of Day

By now, there will be plenty of reviews and critiques of Kate Bush and her concert last night in Hammersmith. Fans will chant a hymn of adoration: share, relive and adorn their experience. Detractors will mock and sneer to amuse their tribe.

My approach is neither of those things.

I write from my perspective – way up close to the deluxe beryl green art deco ceiling of the Apollo – for no such defined readership. Lucky me,  I have few expectations to meet.

Never For Ever by Will-O'Mailley - non-commercial reuse

As we waited for her first concert after thirty-five years, my husband wondered aloud what she might be feeling. I thought about that too. How I have so often read artists in different media say:

I wonder if I can do it again? Will I pull it off this time?

And the astonishing thing, at least to me as a beginner with so much to learn, is that the most established, practised and loved artists in any field feel the same. Over and over again truly creative people doubt themselves.

From what I have read and understood the hard way, there are two ways to get through this. Both require a particular kind of focus. Not straining, not blinkered, but a sort of yearning.

moon-morguefile-web

First is a deep involvement with the piece of art itself – for itself. Growing it, wondering at it as an entity with its own existence. Through nurturing the song, the story, the dance, you lose sight of any pointing, leering critics and the dark pitfalls of the ego. Putting the sculpture, canvas or poem at the centre of the process means all helpful suggestions can be accepted – from whatever source.

This also means waiting until the text is ready to be performed, until the oils are quite dry and the frame is gilded, until all the right sound effects have been sourced.

Secondly, when leading this precious new being out onto the stage, introduce it first to just one person. Read your opening chapter for that one listener who truly hears what you’re saying. Focus on delighting that girl with the open face, that boy with his head cocked, paying attention.

I began to voice my focus-on-the-work-in-hand theory to my husband. Then the first stirrings on the stage led to joyous tumult all around us – fans standing and calling and waving their arms. There was no chance of discussion.

ticket fish painted on it.st

Even the tickets were art.

In the interval, I read the programme. It’s more of a work of art tracing the blooming of the stage show than any practical guide to what happened  on stage. What struck me, though, was how the project had become an entity in Kate Bush’s experience – an ‘it’.

As for focusing on one person, I have no idea if she did that. What I observed was a woman surrounded by a creative hive and its outpourings. Protected perhaps, yet at the heart of the events. As the music and drama and stories burgeoned, it seemed to me she loosened. The stories the music told began to dance through her and that lovely voice soared free again. Older and different in timbre, certainly, but recognisably hers.

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Something I long to do.

I do not have the body of work in my past that she has – but to see a mature woman create something so idiosyncratic, risk it all in the public view and then triumph on her own terms is a joy.

 

Before the Dawn

I tried to have a nostalgic wallow – a warm sound-bath of memories from the 70s onwards. We had the snacks, we had the beer and we watched two hours of Kate Bush on BBC4 – her career and her performances.

It turned out quite differently.

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That voice split open my carapace. The notes burrowed somewhere behind the centre of my ribs and gave my heart room to swell. How could I have forgotten how much those songs meant to me? The words gave me no chance to appreciate their cleverness in some filtered way – they swooped in and demanded to be loved again.

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I wonder, does it hurt hermit crabs to creep out of their too-small homes? It hurt me to be excavated like that but – ‘what a lovely feeling!’ 

Those songs draw me into other worlds I desire to experience – so many lyrics I have learned by heart. And they dance in my mouth, they move me literally. Her passionate vulnerability rouses mine. Like dry moss in a downpour, it twists, stretches, grows green and fresh again.

Exuberance is Beauty – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell, 1790 – 1793

She sought her voice in her first recordings, tried out all manner of characters – and adolescent me went along for the ride. Alone in my attic bedroom, my shadow was Kate’s. It spread long fingers over the postcards of Pre-Raphaelite beauties on the sloping walls, and swirled amongst the incense trail and cobwebs. It became the woman in The Warm Room, clawed at Heathcliff or flew off In Search of Peter Pan.

dancers-shadow-CC

Kate Bush’s songs are full of narrative; poetic, sometimes impressionistic, but still they tell stories or fragments of them. I recall that in one of her rare interviews she echoed this sentiment from one of my favourite writers:

I am far more interested in other people than in talking about myself – Joanne Harris

They both want to give the stories themselves a voice – I admire that so much.  I am in very good company: Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry are amongst the writers who treasure that literary spirit. How could I not adore a singer whose first hit was based on Emily Brontë?

My adult self does not wish to be her, but I’ll have a shot of that engaging weirdness. I’ll knock back a tincture of esoteric flavoured by a dash of out there and infused with the dark and ethereal.

Magical-green-glass-bottle-Pixabay

I rejoice that her songs and voice and their meanings have deepened over time. It takes more musical power to crack open scar tissue and release that spinning, yearning girl of the Seventies. So many moments of pleasure, jugsful that refresh and sometimes chill the jaw with a rush of pain.

I will take long inspiring gulps on Tuesday, even if my eye-teeth howl like banshees – and there will be no barriers between us if I can help it.

kate-bush-live-on-stage-promo-2014-636-380

I will be at the Hammersmith Apollo on Tuesday 26th August. Please do say hello.
[Heaven help anyone whose I-Pad, phone or any other gizmo gets in my way, though!]

 

 

 

The child in her eyes

With apologies to Kate Bush

close up of Kate Bush's eyes

On Sunday 6th July, I had the pleasure of boating along the Avon with many members of the Golden Egg Academy. It was a lovely day, sprinkled with vintage frocks and floral china. There were ducklings and VERY low bridges to be negotiated too. Unsurprisingly there was lots of chat – but also talks from Barry-The-Hat-Cunningham, Ben-Kill-the-Granny-and-we’ll-talk-Illis, Imogen-Beaded-Bag-Cooper and Kirsty-aka-Stormboy- McLachlan. Fun was had as can be seen by the monikers, – but I would like to take a more serious theme from Literary Agent Kirsty’s question-and-answer session.

Indeed, this theme came up in our impassioned discussions atop the barge. We debated The Bunker Diary, The Carnegie and what it is we are trying to do. everything came back to focus on our readership. Barry Cunningham picked up on this in his address, speaking with the same wonder and optimism and joy in young people as David Almond.

Lovely inspiring stuff.

a pool in a cave

But what gave me pause for thought, plonked into my mind like a drip from a stalactite and spread ripples from then till now, was something Kirsty said:

Write for one reader – one reader who is not you, not even you as a child, but one contemporary child.

[I believe I have quoted her accurately - please correct me if you know better.]

The first suggestion is clearly wise advice. It’s no good trying to please hypothetical swathes of readers – there are far too many tribes out there. You might as well try writing for a focus group or draw a Venn diagram of sub-cultures and aim for the intersection.

Secondly, we need to have that reader in our sights with every revision – and so it just can’t be to please ourselves. That way lies self-indulgence. We’re not the audience – we have to be the director, set designer, lighting technician and all the rest. It’s the last idea that causes me to consider deeply.

…not even you as a child…

Now I absolutely see the dangers of nostalgia. The lure of painting a Hovis ad of the past and photoshopping your characters in there. Some of my earlier work has had the taint of that, I admit. My world as a child is not their world now – fairly obviously.

I can’t help being older.

BUT I have thought hard about this . There are two points I want to make in response.

First of all, I have to sink down inside myself to write. I have to become the child-I-was to create honestly. When it all goes well, I revisit all those emotions and passions. Thank goodness there is no webcam in The Garret. No-one needs to see me weeping or giggling or cavorting as I enact part of the story. I create through the child-I-was – and I write to console and delight that odd, lonely child.

At least that way, I please one reader.

Jessie Willcox Smith ‘Picture-Books in Winter’ (1905) from “A Child’s Garden of Verses”

Secondly – and this may seal my fate – I cannot write as if I were a child-of-now. This is a skill some of my friends who write realistic fiction have. I admire it enormously. From me, it would be patronising fakery. There are few things more embarrassing than an adult straining to be ‘down with the kids.’

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Kahlil Gibran The Prophet

What I can do is share interests and enthusiasms and passions – the same as I would with any other human being. I don’t talk down about sharks and ghosts and gargoyles: I swap notes and chat and engage. [I hope] When adult-me reads and reviews contemporary children’s books, watches films and TV, or visits intriguing places, I also respond with my child-like self. What would thrill the child-I-was now?

a sandcastle

Where I live, I often see children on the beach jumping the waves and squealing. They construct major sandworks, fall out of boats deliberately and throw things for dogs. The way they talk is different but what I see at West Wittering would not look so out-of-place on Scarborough North Beach forty years ago. Just change the clothes.

Is my readership so very estranged from the child-I-was? I have to believe it is not.

image of a child at the beach

I would be genuinely interested in comments on this topic. Should I be more up-to-date with mainstream culture? I wasn’t then, and it seems bogus to start now. Or is that an absolute given for a children’s writer – even for one of the fantastical persuasion?

Honesty is the best policy?

Honesty_(Lunaria_annua)_-_geograph.org.uk_-_635791

I don’t like the word ‘policy’ in there. It reeks of stratagems and pre-consideration and artifice. Any reader who knows me in 3D will probably acknowledge that’s not very me. I am on some spectrum somewhere that means I haven’t got the intelligence to lie much. The only-opens-mouth-to-change-feet sliding scale seems particularly appropriate.

However I do have enough nous – or possibly self-deception to think that anyone notices – to reckon that being anything other than relentlessly cheery in the children’s book is likely to get a smudge by your name. You know the sort – where you try to erase it but the mistake only becomes ingrained, dark and tinged with pink rubber.

Still. I want to say how I feel at the moment – and perhaps someone else might feel a little cheered to know they are not alone. So here we go:

I can’t be doing with praise.

 

a person looks shocked

I know – what an odd statement. But the truth is, receiving approval about my work recently from people who know what they are talking about has floored me. I don’t know how to deal with it. I find it difficult to write creatively or even edit right now.

Both alarm and you-can’t-mean-my-stuff slosh round inside me like storm-driven breakers in a fjord. I’m rationalising if I say it’s disbelief or even fishing for compliments – the panicky sensation is far too incoherent. I wanted this feedback so much – and now I’ve got a taste, it’s all grit and bitter herbs in my sandwiches.

the word grim spray-painted on a bridge

Now it may be my miserablist Unlucky Alf northern genes, but I won’t be doing any chicken-counting. I seem to have been here before with ‘Selkies’ – and I cannot allow myself to tempt Fate. Fine words butter no parsnips and all that.

On the other hand, it may even be fear of success. What if I did have a book to promote and another to write, and also deal with contracts and  tax returns and sundry other forms of  jollity?  Could I cope?

[Calm down dear - it's only your imagination.]

Finally, the only thing that matters is whether I understand what I am doing better. That I grasp those tiny spangles of improvement and stash them in my storytelling chest. I have to pick through any feedback like my Nana at a jumble sale, and find the silks and satins I can adapt.

Then shut the door of The Garret – and carry on writing.

an ancient door

 

 

 

All fuss and fairytales

There has been quite a bit of uproar about Richard Dawkins supposed opinions on Fairy tales and their effect on children.

Do listen to https://audioboo.fm/boos/2226602-richard-dawkins-fairy-tales-can-be-beneficial-for-children to hear what Richard Dawkins actually said on Radio 4 and if you want some silly fun, follow  on Twitter.

I don’t intend to comment on over-simplified reporting or whether Mr Dawkins stirred up controversy for the sake of notoriety – whilst these are interesting topics, this is a blog about writing after all.

What I do want to do is to celebrate the love for fairy tales and fantasy I share with thousands of others – and to think about why this is a good thing.

First of all, stories must entertain – and stories with magic of one sort or another can absolutely enthrall both children and adults. The glorious inventiveness of, say Catherynne  M.Valente or Frances Hardinge, uses enchantment to engage. We delight in sheer ingenuity  – and that I think has much to do with Einstein’s point of view.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” EINSTEIN

Secondly, all stories that last act as settings for things we hold precious. They let us experience the results of hope and courage, love and steadfastness for example. They teach, more or less obviously through fable, and the wonder of the fairytale world helps us remember what we learned all the more.

Of course, realistic fiction can do this too – but for those with a taste for the extra-ordinary, characters like Iorek Byrnisson or Eowyn thrill us more. There’s more connection with these invented characters, their largeness and other-worldliness gives us space to explore ideas and emotions.

fairy-tales-are-more-than-true-not-because-they-tell-us-that-dragons-exist-but-because-they-tell-us-that-dragons-can-be-beaten-GKChesterton

My third and final point is more contentious. The first two could be agreed with by the most ardent rationalist – unless they regard all fiction as irresponsible lies.

However, I do hold with ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’. It is the storyteller’s role to leave room for the numinous. My experience is that the deepest, most treasured parts of human life cannot be measured, weighed, dissected or rationalised  – and the wisest stories allow for this.

It should remain for the reader to explore how much is metaphor or magic – and how much is ‘real’.

I leave the last word to Joanne Harris via Katherine Langrish’s excellent blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.

A story can bring down a government; or steal away a child’s heart; or build a religion; or just make us see the world differently. Storytellers come and go, but stories never die. And if that isn’t magic, then I don’t know what is.

 

Black & white engraving of a beautiful enchantress

The Enchantress by Howard Pyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons