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.

Autism Awareness and the Power of Stories

I’m passionate about the power of stories to transform attitudes. That’s why they’re used by politicians, religious leaders and advertising moguls when trying to influence our choices. But a good book goes much deeper than this. It allows us to immerse ourselves in another person’s reality, inhabiting their mind and their world for a few treasured hours with no intermediary but a piece of paper.

Novels stimulate our imaginations. They show us the lives of others and enable us to enter into the sufferings and joys of a stranger. Whether you are a writer or a reader, fiction offers the possibility of going inside the Other to experience vicariously a little of the strange and wonderful and terrible thing it is to be human. That’s the power of story.

27 March – 2 April 2017 is World Autism Awareness Week. According to the National Autistic Society, there are more than 700,000 people in the UK on the autistic spectrum. People don’t grow out of autism. Autistic children become autistic adults. At one end of the spectrum, there are those with severe learning and communication difficulties. At the other end, people with Asperger’s Syndrome suffer from high anxiety and sensory overload triggered by social situations.

It’s encouraging that autism is more widely understood than it used to be. One sign of this is that writers and programme makers are recognising the unique outlook and experiences of autistic people and think these are worth portraying and celebrating.

A few examples:

  • The A Word, a family drama with autism at its heart, was aired on the BBC last year.
  • The Undateables on Channel 4 often features singletons with Asperger’s or autism.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock highlights the autistic traits of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s detective, and then there’s Saga Noren, the autistic detective from The Bridge.
  • Something of a literary sub-genre is developing, instigated in the public’s mind by the excellent Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon.
  • The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, depicts the experiences of a 13 year old autistic boy from Japan. The book includes an introduction by the novelist David Mitchell who has an autistic son himself.
  • Romantic comedies such as The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion introduce a man with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome into the world of commercial fiction.
  • My personal favourite at the moment is Schtum by Jem Lester. It’s the heart-breaking account of the struggles of a father and grandfather to obtain the right school placement for ten-year-old, non-verbal, Jonah.

These stories depict in varying ways the lives of autistic people, giving a voice to those who find communication with others fraught with pitfalls and failures.

And that’s why I wrote my debut novel, The Girl at the End of the Road. I wanted to give a voice to those who find it difficult to tell share their experiences. Ironically I prefer to hear disabled voices directly, rather than having others speak for them, so it was with some trepidation that I introduced a woman with Asperger’s into my novel. My only justification is that most of the stories portraying autism depict men on the spectrum rather than women. Thus in literature, as in life, autistic women are doubly overlooked.

Autism is a hidden disability. You can’t tell by looking at someone whether or not they are autistic. This in itself can fuel misunderstanding and a lack of compassion. Far more boys than girls are diagnosed, possibly because girls are better at masking their difficulties. They also present differently from boys, and professionals don’t always adjust their diagnostic criteria accordingly. As a result autistic women and girls have a higher mountain to climb to receive a correct diagnosis and support, and often end up with mental health issues as well.

So, how might a woman make the most of her life while living with Asperger’s?

Reluctant to narrate the story as if I were an autist myself, the novel unfolds through the eyes of high-flying financier, Vincent Stevens. He has lost everything in the economic crash – smart London flat, trophy girlfriend and champagne lifestyle. Humiliated and depressed, he returns to the backwater Suffolk village of his birth to live with his parents. He wants his old life back at any cost, but when he meets Sarah, an enigmatic girl from his past, everything he believes and values is thrown into question.

I’ve worked with autistic teenagers and have had direct experience of the condition with a family member. I know it’s easier to remain fixed within one’s own limitations and expect the autist to change their behaviour rather than to enter into their world and change yourself as a result. But autistic people can’t enter the neurotypical world without help, and to help them we have to connect on their terms. It’s another step of imagination. It’s no accident that parents and professional use social stories to help teach autistic children the social skills they need to survive the neurotypical world.

Autism is a horrible disability, but autistic people themselves shouldn’t be demonised or viewed in a negative light. Each one should be recognised as an individual, not lumped together as a collection of deficits. Without their unique take on life, their creativity, personal integrity, focus and intellectual abilities, our world would be a poorer place. Although evidence is inconclusive, certain character traits suggest that Amadeus Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein and Andy Warhol might have been on the spectrum.

‘Autism’ literally means ‘selfism’. We live in a culture that values success, appearance, achievements and possessions above all things, a world where the drive for personal fulfilment and individual self-expression can sometimes end up imprisoning us in a self-centred community of one. Let’s not judge those who are socially isolated through no fault of their own. It’s only by opening our minds and our hearts, making ourselves vulnerable to each another and using our imaginations, that we can truly grow in our relationships and develop truly inclusive communities.

 

This post is brought to you by K A Hitchins.

Where are you from?

It’s the most innocent of questions, and yet, I am almost always stumped by it: ‘Where are you from?’

Do I say, ‘Just outside London’ (where I have lived for almost two decades and which is now my home)? Or ‘South India’ (which is where I grew up)?

I suppose this is why I write, why my characters tend to have the carpet pulled out from under them, why they grapple with identity, who they are. I am trying to answer this fundamental question of who I am, where I belong, what is home, via my books.

I had an idyllic childhood, growing up in a picturesque village nestling by the Arabian sea, spending the endless, sugarcane scented summer afternoons playing cricket and lagori in the fields, running amok among the fruit orchards, stealing mangoes and guavas from neighbourhood gardens, getting bitten by ants and hounded by the posse of stray dogs that roamed the village. I suppose those torpid, lazy days have been branded in my memory as they make their presence felt while I am writing my books and an echo of those somnolent, carefree afternoons weave a thread of nostalgia into the prose I am composing.

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The village where I spent my childhood was a hotbed for gossip and secrets. I used to eavesdrop on conversations and discover intrigue, snippets of gossip thrumming with undercurrents which I never fully understood until I was an adult. And, as I grew older, I also began to comprehend that secrets are most prevalent in families, that we tend to keep confidences from the people we love the most, fired by the misplaced conviction that we are protecting them.

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When I sat down to write my first novel, I looked up all the advice that new writers are given. The one which stuck with me was, ‘Write about what you know.’

Okay, I mused. I can do that.

I spent a few days pondering and finally decided to address the strange ailment that strikes me mute when people ask: ‘Where are you from?’

And this is how my first novel, Monsoon Memories came into play. Shirin, the protagonist of Monsoon Memories, wants to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ with India, but she cannot, for she is no longer welcome there. For her, home will always be the one place which has shunned her, which she has run away from and yearned for ever since.

We all do things we regret, but the choice Shirin has to make is one that changes the course of her life forever, alienating her from almost everyone she holds dear and the country she loves.

Home, I have come to understand is where you feel comfortable, rooted. Where your family is; your loved ones, all those who matter to you. Home is where you are happiest, where you are most yourself, the place you keep returning to in your memories. Shirin, the protagonist in my debut, Monsoon Memories doesn’t have that luxury. She is bereft floating in a no-man’s land, denied the memories that are rightly hers because to access them she has to face the thing she did, the thing she cannot get past.

Home, for me, is in one sense, the wind-battered, rain-kissed house in the suburbs of London where I live now. It is also, in a wider sense a sun-warmed, bustling, multi-hued, multi-faceted country of contrasts, the constant warmth of a benevolent sun matched only by its sunnier people.

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Both these places have shaped me, India in growing me up and London in forming the adult I have become.

Where are you from? What do you think of when you think of ‘home’?

 

This post is brought to you by Renita D’Silva.

That time of the year

It’s that time of the year when the crocuses are sprouting, the snow drops nodding their heads in the breeze. The evenings are getting lighter. The weather…okay, perhaps we won’t focus too much on the weather right now but we know warmer days, sunnier days, are on the horizon.

Crocus

 

Spring is here, and my thoughts turn to…Christmas.

If you’re a writer, you’ll be nodding your head in understanding. If you’re not, you’ll be thinking I meant to type Easter. And of course March is the month when the sane amongst us begin to picture fluffy bunnies and baby chicks. Gambolling lambs and chocolate eggs. I, on the other hand, will be imagining pine trees, fairy lights and reindeer. Because I’m about to write a Christmas novella.

Sax reindeer

A more organised writer would have started this book a few months ago – perhaps actually during Christmas. I was too busy finishing my last book, too busy juggling my other (medical) writing work. Now I’ve left myself just a few months to write my story so that by the start of the summer it can be edited.

And by November it will hopefully be published.

Is it hard to conjure up Christmas in spring? Actually no, it’s not. You see, I’ve lived through a lot of Christmas’s – far more than I’d like to admit to – so the atmosphere, the feeling, the spirit of the season is firmly embedded in my memory bank. Easy to draw down on whenever I need it. I’d find it much harder to write about something I’ve never experienced. I am in awe of those who create new worlds, different species. Who go beyond the human, into the supernatural. I don’t have that creativity.

Thankfully, when it comes to dreaming up characters and how they might meet, interact, in particular for me (as I write romance) how they might fall in love, my imagination is fully on board. Just as well, because writing a Christmas book isn’t about describing baubles or pretty snow scenes in perfect accurate detail. It’s about creating compelling characters people will want to read about at any time of the year. Their story just happens to occur around Christmas time.

So enjoy the spring. Enjoy the warmth of the sun on your face (when it finally decides to show up). Enjoy watching the buds begin to blossom. Enjoy those Easter eggs. And I’ll enjoy tucking into my mince pies.

mince pies

 

This post is brought to you by Kathryn Freeman.

 

Expressing the Inexpressible

I’d been writing and publishing for twenty years when I was brought to a juddering halt by depression. That was ten years ago, and through my recovery I have discovered a different side to writing which has helped me discover different aspects to myself.

I am not the first to posit the healing powers of writing and words. We could go back through the centuries and the human use of charms, spells and prayer (Mazza, 2003). In more recent years, experiment, research and experience have come together to give a grounding to the idea of writing as a therapy (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008; Nicholls, 2009; Evans, 2011). For those interested in this way of working there is a national organisation www.Lapidus.org.uk

Personally, it took a while for me to gather enough of my resources to be able to write for publication again. I spent years writing for myself, exploring aspects of me, my experiences, my relationships and my story. It may sound self-indulgent, but it was also my life saver. In addition, during this time, I had therapy and trained as a counsellor. All of this, I believe, has fed into the writing which I now choose to share with an audience, it has added layers and textures which were not there before.

I am struck by writers more famous than me who have also used writing to ease them through emotional turmoil. Colm Tóibín explains his task in writing his recent novel Nora Webster (Penguin, 2015), was one of working out the truth of what had happened when his father died. ‘You’re pulling this out of yourself. This is sometimes very difficult material.’ But ‘it’s an anchor, in a way, all this pleasure [I experience] would mean nothing if this pain, if this working out the pain wasn’t there and I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t doing it.’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

Jackie Kay says that it is not just in the writing, but in the crafting that the healing can be found. When she was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in her novel Red Dust Road, Picador, 2011) she replied, ‘By writing. … By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and in the business of doing this in itself gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’ (Kay, 2016.)

When I came to write my first novel for publication (The Art of the Imperfect, long-listed for the Crime Writers Association debut novel award, 2015 https://goo.gl/JrGat2) I wanted to write about my journey through depression in a way that would both express something for myself and open it up to others. In order to do so, one of the techniques I used was to show the mismatch between the external ‘reality’ and the internal monologue of the character Hannah. Some readers have said they have found this disturbing and uncomfortable, others have said how it echoed their own experiences.

I live with depression. I still write every day in a journal. Some of what I write is about dealing with my emotional landscape and existence. I wouldn’t share what I write in my journal in its raw state. However, I do believe it gives me a greater understanding of what it is to be human which can augment the writing I do for publication.

 

This post is brought to you by Kate Evans.

 

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References

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky

 

Hanging At Hemingway’s

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Writing and particularly finishing a novel is never easy (not for me, anyway), and I’m always interested in any snippets of information or clues from the greats about how they did it, and that’s one of the reasons why I love a literary pilgrimage. As far as I’m concerned all holidays are improved by the inclusion of an excursion to an author’s house.

In the UK, there are many houses with literary connections open to the public such as: Jane Austen’s house near Alton, Dickens’ Portsmouth birthplace, the Brontés’ parsonage in Haworth, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, Thomas Hardy’s Max Gate, Agatha Christie’s Devonshire hideaway and Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse and writing shed.

Last summer, however, a literary trip took me further afield. After the full on, money-draining, sensory overload that is Disney, Orlando, I headed south on a road trip to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

This was the place he shared with his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. It’s a beautiful French Colonial style mansion full of six-toed cats (descended from Hemingway’s own polydactyl cat, Snow White). The house was a wedding gift from Pauline’s uncle (nice uncle) and it came with a carriage house, the second floor of which became Hemingway’s writing room.

An exterior metal stairway takes you up to the somewhat gloomy writing room that now overlooks the pool. Originally, there was a boxing ring below and Pauline had the pool built at huge expense while Hemingway was away reporting on the Spanish Civil War.

So, what’s to gain from visiting such places? Does it help to see where Jane Austen or the Bronte’s lived? Yes, I think it does. Jane Austen worked at a tiny writing table squished by the window. She could watch the world go by, but was far enough from the creaky door that she would be warned of any imminent disruptions. And, similarly, it was fascinating to see where the Brontés workshopped together (perhaps the most successful workshop ever).

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However, these houses are usually preserved in a semi-realistic way. For instance, I doubt that Pauline Pfeiffer lined the walls with framed posters of all the film adaptations of Ernest’s books once he went off with Martha Gellhorn. And yet the house gives a sense of a writer’s life, the domestic set-up with kids and pets and the complications that arose from Hemingway’s appetite for wine, women and macho pursuits.

The Key West house was only a small part of his life and yet it offers insights into how he lived and more importantly it made me want to read more about him.

I visited at a time when I was struggling with the umpteenth rewrite of my latest novel, My Life as a Bench, and it helped to read about Hemingway’s perfectionism and his reluctance to give up his novel A Farewell to Arms until he was entirely happy. Apparently, he rewrote the ending as many as seventeen times. And reading this spurred me on to once again tackle the ending of My Life as a Bench. I don’t know why, but somehow it helps to know that even the greats have struggled with endings.

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Next stop, Hemingway’s house in Cuba … or more likely Dickens’ London residence.

 

This post is brought to you by Jaq Hazell.

 

What inspires you?

‘What inspires you?’ is a question I am inevitably asked on those occasions when I tell people I am a writer.

When asked the question, I mumble something about being inspired by surroundings, the news, nature. It is only afterwards, when it is too late, that I find I have the perfect answer. I just, ironically, couldn’t put it into words when put on the spot.

This is what I would have said:

I am a snoop. A people watcher. A lurker. An eavesdropper.

When I was little, I would hide behind the kitchen door, with my ear pressed to the wood – the smell of damp and sawdust (woodlice had got to the door) tickling my nose – my eye positioned at the slit at the hinge, listening to my grandmother gossip with her friends.

They had a routine, which I got to know very well after a few spying sessions.

First, they would all sit cross-legged on the cool cement floor of the kitchen and apply themselves to the serious business of eating: spicy potato bondas, onion bhajis, powdery yellow melt in the mouth laddoos and jalebis: crispy tubes filled with sugar syrup. (I grew up in a small village in India where food was the currency of love, second only to religion and sometimes, when religion could not provide answers, the go-to panacea for tribulations and celebrations alike.)

Once they had had their fill of the sweetmeats, they would sit back, their sari pallus awry now that they were relaxing, their hair escaping tight coconut oil massaged buns, and sip sweet, milky, cardamom flavoured tea. After this, they would much on paan and get to the serious business of the day – what they had all come for: gossip.

In retrospect I realise that they were intelligent women, bored with their lot now that their children and grandchildren were grown. With no job to turn their mind to, they channelled their considerable intellect into the comings and goings of everyone in the village.

‘Jillubai hasn’t been to church in four weeks,’ I would hear. ‘Did you see the size of her stomach? The rest of her thin as a reed. And her husband slogging away in Kuwait – he last visited a year ago. Do you think…’

This was why I waited patiently behind the kitchen door, my stomach rumbling as I watched them eat, even though I was missing out on the game of cricket with the neighbourhood kids out in the fields, which inevitably ended in war and of which I was, generally, the arbitrator.

For me, even now, this is how gossip looks: frothy and bubbling, red and fermented, spitting out of eager mouths. It smells tart, of spices and betelnut and it tastes pungent, paan flavoured and fermented with intrigue.

After her friends left, my grandmother would swivel round and look right at me, meeting the eye that was pressed to the slit of the door-hinge. ‘Come away from behind the door now, hasn’t anyone told you eavesdropping is bad for you?’

I should have known that nothing ever escaped her notice.

She would sit me down on her lap and tell me a long winded story about a little girl who listened to what she wasn’t supposed to and the horrid things that happened to her. I would listen agog, while trying to stuff a jalebi surreptitiously into my mouth, replying earnestly when she asked me for the moral of the story – although it didn’t stop me snooping the next opportunity I got.

All that overheard gossip, all my grandmother’s stories, permeated in my head, marinating and maturing, and they are effervescing out of me now, in my books.

I write about small villages in India, steeped in prejudice, pickled in rumour.

I write about women, like my grandmother’s friends, who want to study, to work, to better themselves but are denied the opportunity because they are women; their job to procreate and be good wives, meek and obedient to their husbands who more often than not treat them like possessions.

Growing up, I hated the unintentional injustices against women, the way we were side-lined as a matter of course, so ingrained in village culture that nobody even noticed anymore, weaved as they were into the fabric of society. I knew it was wrong but I couldn’t articulate it then – I was (still am) quite shy and the anger and upset I felt then is coming out now in my books. I write about strong women who speak out against the casual dumbing down they are subjected to, treated as if they are secondary to men.

I write about Indian women trying to stretch their wings while facing the constrictions of a restrictive culture; how they define themselves in a world that tends to impose stifling limitations upon them, how they try and find themselves, constraints notwithstanding.

I am riveted by the interactions, feuds, secrets, lies and intense bonds prevalent among families. The complex ties between family members seem rife with hurt, hate, so many seething emotions, so much love and angst and anger and grudges nurtured over the years. The complicated dynamics of relationships, whether within families or cultures, religions, states or countries – that is what all the stories I love share in common and what I gravitate towards in my own stories.

So, this is what inspires me. This is why I write.

What inspires you?

 

This post is brought to you by Renita D’Silva.