Interview with The Sender

My novel, The Sender, follows the journey of a mysterious and inspiring unsigned card, interconnecting the lives of four women from different backgrounds and cities who are all facing unique adversities. The card instructs each woman to hold it in their possession for six months before choosing another woman in need to send it to, and invites them to meet in Edinburgh two years from the date of its inception.

The card seems to hold an extraordinary quality that helps the women face their challenges head-on, though none of them can imagine who the anonymous sender is or why they were the chosen ones.

This interview is with the instigator – The Sender.

 

Toni: First of all, it’s a pleasure to meet you and I’d like to say I wish there were more people like you in the world. What was the reason behind your decision to send the card?

The Sender: I watched my friend going through a terrible time in her life and I felt helpless. She was devastated by what was happening to her and I knew she felt scared and vulnerable. I just wanted her to know she was strong enough to get through it and that she had someone looking over her.

Toni: Why did you decide the card should be anonymous?

The Sender: I thought it would be more meaningful that way. I think there’s something special about receiving a gift from someone who doesn’t want to be thanked for it. It has an air of mystery about it and that means the thought lingers longer.

Toni: Did you have the idea of ‘paying it forward’ in mind when you decided to send the card? Is that why it was to be sent on again and again?

The Sender: That’s right. Not only would those receiving it experience the feeling of being in someone’s thoughts, they would also get to pass that gift on to someone else. That’s a win-win situation and I hoped the message would spread.

Toni: Was there any significance in having four women meet two years after the card was first sent?

The Sender: Firstly, the card has a four leaf clover inside and each woman is asked to take a leaf from the clover before they send it on. It was symbolic of the good fortune I hoped they’d be experiencing since receiving the card. And secondly, I thought that having the card for a six month period might be long enough to help their healing process take hold. I then wanted them to meet to celebrate the good deed they’d done for each other and to let them share their stories. That worked out to be a two year timeframe.

Toni: Why did you instruct them to choose another woman to send it to and not include men? Surely anyone would be touched to receive this card?

The Sender: I did ponder that one for a while. I settled on women because I wasn’t sure the card would necessarily be sent on as I intended. I thought it was more likely that women would do it. Next time I’ll include men. It would be interesting to see if that works.

Toni: Does that mean you intend to do this again?

The Sender: That’s the plan. I think small acts of kindness can have disproportionately large effects on people and the more of that we have in the world, the better.

Toni: Thanks for your time. It’s been great to chat with you.

The Sender: My pleasure. I’m only too happy to spread this message.

 

This post is brought to you by Toni Jenkins.

Happily Ever After

Some years ago, I fell out with a friend over whether Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces is a redemptive novel. I tell you this not to demonstrate that I take these things far too seriously – we eventually made up – but to show that people find redemption in strange places.

The reaction to my first novel was a case in point: some readers thought Being Someone lacked a happy ending, or at least an insufficiently unhappy one for a certain character; but even so, I maintain that it is a wholly redemptive story. True, all the characters end the book considerably worse off than at its start; a couple of them end up dead. But none the less, the seeds are sown for some kind of future happiness.

This seems particularly relevant to contemporary fiction: all fiction tells us something about the human condition but unlike some other genres contemporary fiction floats in unknowable transience: there can be no happy ending, because there is no ending. The characters, should they survive, will wake up tomorrow, beyond the reach of either the author or the reader, where any number of calamities lie in wait. We just don’t know.

We may tell ourselves that we want fairy tale endings, precisely because they are not possible in the world we inhabit. In real life, we’re all too familiar with things going wrong, with good people being brought low. In our fiction, we want to see how sometimes, maybe, the dice can fall kindly for characters for whom we have come to care. Show us their miseries for sure, but let us also see their salvation. For all the injustice piled upon her, Cinderella must been redeemed.

But, princess or not, we all know that the day after the wedding will bring its own challenges. Happy endings are impossible not because happiness is rare, but because (except for one) all endings are simply beginnings; all success the precursor of failure; each joy, the counterpoint to sadness. I can’t be the only person to have watched the end of the film Logan’s Run, as the bright young people emerge into the light from their banal captivity, and wondered how many forest nights they’re going to survive, dressed like that.

Speaking at the London Literary Festival earlier this month, Margaret Atwood made the incontrovertible observation that fiction set in a dystopian future is inherently optimistic, regardless of its miseries, simply because it implies a future. This I think is the heart of redemption in literature: that in telling stories of human endurance, we learn something of our own resilience. That there are humans struggling against almost impossible odds in the far flung future of HG Wells’ The Time Machine is a reason for optimism, not despair.

In my new book, The Cursing Stone, once again most characters end up ostensibly worse off (although this time only one of them actually dies) and again I see it as a redemptive book. The characters endure (apart from one, naturally) and in so doing they set themselves towards a future of possible happiness, greater than that promised by their original certainties. As an author, I do not seek to rescue any of them, but nor do I condemn them (OK, apart from one).

Stories about bad things happening to good people might not seem like ideal holiday diversion, but it is the core of pretty much all fiction, contemporary or otherwise. We seem drawn to it, perhaps because it seems to say more to our lives than relentless happiness. Living through adversity, even if the sunny uplands are never quite attained within the book itself but only hinted at as a future possibility, is enough. Maybe the word ‘happily’ is not the most important part of the promise contained in the ending, ‘happily ever after’.

 

This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.

Emotional Exploitation in Contemporary Fiction

The bulk of my creative time recently has been taken up writing factual material for documentary film. In that mode, whilst structuring and de-structuring sensitive and often complex narratives, I have been striving to find a balance between taking the audience to the intimate core of the story, without emotionally exploiting the memories of the contributors whose journey I have been sharing.

It’s a tension that I’m now beginning to recognise in my fiction, increasingly so as the ownership of my second novel shifts back and forth between my characters and me. My characters, despite being my own creation, are taking control and pushing that balance further and further in the direction of emotional ‘exploitation’. In some instances they are hurtling towards crippling outcomes at an urgent pace and I’m struggling to haul them back and temper the journey with a more methodical approach.

I wonder though, instead of trying to moderate their course, should I be listening more carefully?

Perhaps this breaking free is an indication that I need to stop trying so hard to direct the proceedings. This is not documentary; this is freedom. It’s supposed to be energetic, spontaneous and fun.

Unlikely the way I approach non-fiction work, I don’t plan as a novelist. Allowing the story to unfold as I write is integral to my creative process. I do, however, shape a rough outline, maybe half a page indicating my ambitions for a beginning, middle and end. But for me as a fiction writer, maybe even that is too restrictive.  Suddenly, the shackles of formality feel uncomfortably restrictive.

The strongest works, be it in novel writing or onscreen in film and television have engaging characters at the root and tips. Outcomes and adventures in various overarching arcs are only of relevance if we care about the characters undertaking the creative journey.

In my current writing I honestly don’t think my characters are going to let me go to the place I originally intended. They are telling me they aren’t who I thought I wanted them to be. Not even close. I’m obviously influencing the process; my own emotions have been battered relentlessly since I began this journey so if the very heart of me has changed then surely this must influence my writing?

Write what you know, write what you don’t know, push your boundaries, go where you have been before, go where you’d never imagined you would…

I guess one thing is true. One of the above may or may not apply to you. The trick is understanding what does.

In a moment of clarity, I have submitted. I have agreed to be swallowed by pain (not all pain has long-term negative consequences) and driven by the voices in my head that are shaping themselves not as I anticipated them to be but as they need to be.

It’s a very different experience from my debut. In that writing, my characters took their shape from the off. Whilst the narrative journey developed they changed tact and altered off course, but they never changed who they were to me.

Interestingly, that’s not the case with Rathlin and Barra, the twins in my novel. They are facing a family crisis that is testing their relationship, and the external relationships they have built on their fastidiousness around an event from their past.  I thought I knew what the outcome of the chaos was going to be but in actual fact I don’t and that is the sheer joy of writing fiction. For a while my twins felt distant, but through their own perseverance they’ve brought themselves back to the community and culture that I know and understand and as a consequence they are closer to me and easier to write.  There is a tremendous intimate energy to them and that’s exciting.

Is this why we write contemporary fiction? To be of the people and of the place, our emotions exposed, and dare I say it, exploited?

I think I hope so…

 

This post is brought to you by Margot McCuaig

 

Typofuckituptis – The Writers’ Curse

A couple of years ago, when I was preparing my novel The Changing Room for publication it finally dawned on me why most writers are mad. Of course, I’d heard stories about writers who imagine aliens and psychotic wide-eyed rabbits peering out of bushes at them but I’ve never considered myself one of them because, as anyone who knows me is aware, I am completely normal.

However, what I have discovered whilst proofing The Changing Room is that these crazed writers are not just authors of science fiction, fantasy and obscure meaningless poetry as I imagined. They are not even affected by booze, drugs and mental illness. (Well, not all of them.) They are just poor unfortunate writers, such as myself, who have been cruelly afflicted by a terrible disease called
Typofuckitupitus. Now you may not have heard of Typofuckituptis before but let me assure you it is very real and very dangerous. Here’s the definition from the Turley English Dictionary:

Typofuckituptis (Ti-poe-fuck-it-up-ti-tis)

A disease afflicting mainly authors whereby the writer develops an inability to spell even those most common words whislt under pressure. The disease can spiral out of control so that in the advanced stages the author will become delusional and imagine mispleled words leaping of the page and slapping him around the face with a wet mackeral. In recent years, the disease has spread from the author community to the journalistic community. Daily Mail Journalists are particularly affected and a recent outbreak at The Guardian caused The World Health Organisation to issue an international health warning to journalists the world over. There are three stages of Typofuckiyuptitis:

Stage One: The author, usually under pressure to meet a deadline, starts to spel homofones and and random lenghty words wrongly. It is, however, sometimes difficult to diagnose in American writers as they spell things wrong on a daily basis. Therefore, caution must be exercised in diagoinsing American authors as they can be highly volatile when accused of spelling things incorrectly. It should allso be noted that most American authors sleep with a gun under their pillow (in case anyone tries to steal their manuscript) so editors, proofreaders and medical practioners are advised never to ring thier clients late at night.

Stage Two: The auhtor begins to spell even more words wrongly. Theise include simple words lik 2, free and fore, fhe and fuk. This inablity to spell even fhe most simpl off words cuases the writer to become mentaly unstable. Soem off the wurst cases have led to authors riping up their manyouscripts, senfin letter boms to literary agnets or microwavingt their rabit. During this stage jounrlists at the Guardian will usually be fired but at the Daily Fail they will be promted to senior columnist.

Stage Three: Thise stage is the most sevear. Auhtors beging to see typos that don’t even exist. The delusons become staedily wurse until they r comparable to a heroin trip, accompanied by a bottle oaf whiskey and a large joint. When the delusions are a tthei peak auhtors beginn to to read Fift Shaeds of Grey an stab themselves repeatedly and cry “If only I had writon ths mastrepeice!” At this stage, if the auhtors’ wpunds have not proved fatal they are incarcervated in a mentall institution.

So there you have it – Typofuckituptis which as those of you ahve read my blog The Witty Ways of a Wayward Wife might already know – I have been afflcited by for quite some considerbale time…

 

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This is what happens to writers with Typo Fuckitupitus. As the author of children’s picture books, this writer thought she was immune from the illness – until she found she’d spelt her own name wrong on the front cover. She collapsed on the way to the library on her way to pick up a copy of Fifty Shades.

 

This post is brought to you by Jane Turley.

How and why I chose a pen name

One of the fun things about being a novelist is inventing names for your characters. You can let your imagination run free, stripped of caution and compromise. But choosing a different name for yourself is personal and heartfelt, challenging your identity and family history. When I got a publishing deal with Hodder I sat in my editor’s office, brimful with excitement, as she outlined the company’s marketing and branding plans for me. ‘There’s one problem,’ she said. I froze, worrying that there was a plot issue I had overlooked. She looked uncomfortable. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s your name. It’s just not right. We need to change it. Your first name and your surname, I’m afraid.’ Ouch.

We may spend our lives escaping our parents and their influence, carving out our own identities, but our name is given to us and most of us never change it. Even if women marry, they have no choice over the surname they take. Alison Potter – the real me – had served me perfectly well for decades, until now.

Authors live in an age of search engines, social media and crowded markets; it’s a fight to be seen and heard. Sharing a surname with Harry Potter, the most successful book and film franchise of recent times, and Beatrix Potter too makes life harder for a writer trying to carve out her own space. But I was dealing with more than that.

Age and class are nebulous things, but they are powerful. I never thought of Alison as indicating very much at all: its not unusual; it’s not a Greek goddess or a city in eastern Europe, and it’s not a noun turned into a name so beloved of pop stars (Cello, Tiger, Peaches) – but that’s the problem. It’s boring. It’s safe, dependable, middle-of-the-road and middle-aged. And for a thriller writer, that’s fatal. Our job is to entertain, excite and captivate the reader, and that starts with the front cover. Marketing books is just like marketing cereal or face cream or tights: image is important, and middle-aged just won’t do.

So I set about finding a pen name. Literary novelists almost never change their names, but at the commercial end of the market authors are doing it with increasing frequency. I knew I was in good company: Lee Child, John le Carre and Nicci French are just a few pseudonyms used by thriller writers, and there is a tendency for writers (often men) in the psychological thriller genre where I work, to use initials to disguise their gender, such as SJ Watson and TR Richmond. This seems to be to appeal to the large bias towards female readers in this genre. Everyone does what they can to gain an edge. But the process itself was harder than I imagined.

A new name is also a new opportunity. I had the most trouble with a new Christian name, it felt like I was cutting out the guts of who I was. I wanted something short and memorable – it had to be Ali. The sale of books in international markets is also something to consider – Ali felt like it could be male or female, something I felt might help in foreign territories where my books would be sold.

I began to trawl my family for surnames. My husband’s name is Upstone. I suggested Ali Stone to my editor. ‘Too heavy,’ she said. ‘You could use Rock,’ my agent suggested. ‘Too Outer Hebrides,’ was the reply.

The problem is that all names conjure up other people and they are intensely personal. ‘Ians are always ginger,’ a friend said emphatically. Another added: ‘You need to think what the name means in other languages.’ It felt as complicated as rolling out a new car launch across multiple territories.

Having exhausted every family name I wrote down a shortlist of around 10, mainly collected from my regular runs through the local graveyard and film websites. In the end we chose Knight. It sounded strong and confident, it felt ‘crimey’. It tied me to my genre.

Four books later, Twitter and Facebook and on-line book communities have mushroomed and I have sometimes struggled running two online identities, the ‘real’ me and my thriller me. But that is a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing your name – real or fabricated, on the front cover of books in English and many other languages to boot.

 

This post is brought to you by Ali Knight.

On location

The question I’m most often asked by readers, budding authors and befuddled guests at dinner parties is: ‘Where do you write?’

When my stock replies of ‘on paper’ or ‘on the walls of public lavatories’ have been merrily laughed away my answer is ‘on location’. Now after stating this the amused faces are sometimes replaced by furrowed brows, at least until I explain, succinctly, what I mean by this phrase.

Even through this digital, virtual, mire I can see, dear reader of blogs, your brow too is furrowed. So I shall explain to you exactly what I mean by writing ‘on location’, and why I choose to do so.

Twenty-nine years ago, to my surprise, I saw Alan Bennett sitting on a wall in the Yorkshire village of Heckmondwike. He was wearing his customary tweed jacket, slacks and a comfy pair of shoes, I’m sure you can picture him, this is Alan Bennett after all – one of our national treasures. Mr. Bennett was not sitting on the wall just to pass the time until the pubs opened or merely soaking up the glorious Yorkshire sunshine. No. He was actively and intensely staring at passers-by. In one hand he had a notepad and in the other a pen. He was writing on location! Now he may have been actually taking notes rather than constructing a cohesive comic narrative, but at this juncture let us not argue the toss. As I strolled past, with my father – two southerners exchanging comments about the place with the strange sounding name, he scribbled in his pad! It would be immodest of me to believe that I made it into one of his pieces, but one can but dream.

Years later, and without at the time making the connection to Alan (I’ve mentioned him several times now, so feel we should be on first name terms) I found myself doing the same thing – writing on location. Except I wasn’t sitting on a wall in Yorkshire rather I was on the terrace of a Kyiv café sipping chilled vodka and watching the ‘new Ukrainians’ strut by. Like Alan, I had too discovered that I preferred to ‘write on location’.

Me writing Kyiv

“Hang on,” I hear you say. “Isn’t this ‘writing on location’ business just note-taking? An aide-mémoire? ”

Yes, it is and more. For the non-writer (I’m sorry, I agree that title makes me cringe too, but please bear with me), who is not surreptitiously making notes it is called ‘people watching’. For me, however, it’s writing on location.

When an artist, painting a landscape, starts to sketch out their idea as to how they will interpret the panorama in front of them they usually do so with light pencil strokes, until the basic shape of what they will paint has been formed or if they dive straight into the painting the pencil strokes have been visualised in their mind’s eye.

As an author, an artist using words to colour his page, I look at the world around me and do the same. I try to create an authentic narrative by inhabiting the setting of my writing. I may sit and ‘notice’ that in this street, opposite the café I am camped in, there is a jewellery shop with a black door, or that a fish mongers is incongruously located three doors further on. Perhaps I’ll write this down, or I may just make a mental note. I’ll sit for a while and watch the comings and goings at the chosen location. This part of my process appropriately equates to note taking, and like the painter once I have a general idea of how I will interpret the scene in front of me I put pen to paper (I’m not one for dragging a laptop around or tapping away in a coffee shop as I find this insular), and start to physically write. And in this writing, I may mention that a certain character entered the jewellery shop via its black door, and the character I am writing about may, or may not be a real person I have seen do that very same thing. They could very well have gone directly from the fish mongers to the jewellers. And this throws up questions that I can explore. Why would they do this, what were they carrying, is there a link, is something fishy going on?

Stories are all around us and it is up to us to interpret them. The beauty of writing is that we are free to use as little or as much of our personal experience and observation as we dare, legally and morally.

Of course, sometimes it is just not practical to actually ‘write’ on location and note taking prevails. This could be for a myriad of reasons including time, the weather, finances or security issues.

I’ve been lucky enough to undertake a large percentage of my writing on location. I’m primarily a crime thriller writer. My hero is named Aidan Snow and is a former SAS man turned MI6 operative. Aidan Snow’s published adventures to date, three novels, a novella and several short stories, have taken place in part in Ukraine. I myself lived in Kyiv during the mid and late 1990s and now return several times a year. I’ve sat, as mentioned above, in cafes writing about what I see and I have also physically walked routes that characters have taken, noting details which I hope enrich my writing.

Occasionally I get a follow-up question, “what are some of the strangest places you’ve written in?’

Now I want to say, ‘read the books and find out!’ But I don’t. I rattle off a few places: Moscow’s Gorky Park, The Westin Hotel Dubai, Morristown New Jersey, Barbados, Worthing Pier, and at a bus stop opposite Kyiv’s SBU (KGB) headquarters (well in this case just note taking). And they nod and or raise their eyebrows before telling me about their most recent holiday escapades. You see unless you are a writer you can come across to everyone else as being a tiny bit ‘mad’ when you talk about craft, location and narrative etc.

BUT sometimes I just make things up.

When I’m in the UK, I’ll sit on my settee, in my lounge, watching odd daytime telly and tapping away merrily. You see if my reply to ‘Where do you write?’ had been ‘In my underpants on the settee’, this blog post would have been both shorter and less appealing to you, dear reader.

 

 

This post is brought to you by Alex Shaw. Alex can be found at Newcastle Noir this weekend.

The place of place in contemporary fiction

Sometimes it seems as though there are only two types of books: those that can be described as plot-driven, and others that are seen as character-driven. But what if still others are as much driven by place, in which character and plot emerge fully formed from the landscape?

I’m halfway through Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. Neither British nor contemporary – any longer – it does deal exceptionally well with place. In fact, I would go so far to say that the story is a story of place above all else. The human and ovine characters (there are a lot of sheep) feel transient, incidental. They are formed of the black peat, and their stories are rooted in the marshy turf. Their hopes and tribulations meander on the sticky beck at the valley’s floor. The valley itself has a history, and previous events, centuries old, cling to the stones, ominous and foreboding. The menace that drives the book lurks under the cairn marking the pass above the perennially dismal Summerhouses; menace hangs from the blue mountains that fade into and out of view with the weather.

Iceland

The evocation of place is one of the most direct routes into a novel’s universe. This is unsurprising: all stories take place (the word is everywhere) in space as well as time. When we visualise a character, the ground they stand on is solid. Every dark and stormy night rages somewhere.

That is not to suggest that good novels are always set in real places, either now or in the past; just that the ground on which they play out should be able to bear the reader’s weight. Nor does it equate good writing with lengthy descriptions of landscape, any more than strong characterisation can only be achieved through the detailed description of a protagonist’s face. As with character, we need to recognise a place, either from our memory or our imagination; as with plot, place needs to be solid, believable.

From sweeping landscapes of Icelandic moors to the more mundane environs of a West Midlands shopping centre: in Catherine O’Flynn’s 2007 debut, What Was Lost, place is almost indistinguishable from character and plot. The characters do not simply occupy the space, they are occupied by it. The missing girl ghosts through the darkened arcades and service corridors as if buried in the foundations. But while the evocation of a space I occupied relentlessly in my own teenage years was powerful enough, it is the ghost of the derelict industrial space that lies beneath it that stays with me most powerfully. To this day I do not know to what the title refers, what it was that O’Flynn most feels was lost.

Grounding stories in place, rooting them in landscape and the myths they hold, has been a central concern in my own writing. My first novel evolved from a story told to me amid the dust and noise of a city street in India; my second, out in May, began as an attempt to discover anew my own city, but in the end emerged from the weathered stones of a small Scottish island. I took a trip up to the Small Isles in search of my eponymous ‘cursing stone’ and, while I didn’t find it, the landscape of Canna did give flesh to a hitherto minor character and also sparked an unexpected plot twist.

Place is no substitute for character and landscape cannot replace plot. But nor is it an also-ran, simply a setting for people and action. The best fiction – or at least, the fiction that I want to read – makes place an active participant in the story. It is how memory works. Madeleines might have been enough for Proust, but for me it is the light on the hillside, the glugging of the brook, or a glimpse along an empty city street that takes me to the heart of a story.

 

This post is brought to you by Adrian Harvey.