A Peak, a Trough, and now.....?

October already….This is the season of the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, a fixture in my calendar. It’s increasingly focused on media personalities, but there are still many excellent literary writers reading from and talking about their work. I’ve heard, among others, the brilliant Sarah Perry, who has published two books about the 19th century since I began my still-in-progress one; and Geoff Dyer, whose genre-straddling work I very much admire. In his talk, Geoff Dyer, who grew up in Cheltenham, mentioned Bob Beale, the English teacher who inspired him to become a reader (and thus later a writer). This name is haloed for me: two boys in the art club I belonged to as a teenager were at the same school as Geoff Dyer, and said that once in class Bob Beale read out, and praised, a poem of mine! The poem had won a local contest, which is how, at fourteen, I’d learnt about this club where we sat around in blissful nerdiness talking about poetry. You can laugh; but it was life-changing. Now, after Geoff Dyer’s talk, at the very end of the questions, I saw an elderly man near me raise his hand, too late. Somehow, I knew who he was, though my (admittedly unreliable) memory says I never met him before. Indeed, it was Bob Beale, and he said he’d actually judged that contest, which I don’t think I ever knew; so I was able to tell him how grateful I was that he chose my poem, all those years ago. He still remembered the boys in his class back then. Apparently Geoff Dyer has kept in touch all this time and gives him a copy of each new book.

This encounter was, obviously, a peak, small, but significant to me. Then, a couple of days later, yesterday in fact, I was strolling in the Festival area, which is in one of the town’s prettiest parks, and found that the historic bandstand has been turned into a comfy space to sit and read, with sofas, and shelves of books. Lovely idea. Examining the titles for something to read as I rested, I saw one I recognised: Inscription. My book. Nearly three years ago, I’d applied to the festival to be included among the local author presenters, and had dropped off a copy. Of course I understand why an unknown book published by a small foundation in the States might not have been picked; in their place, I wouldn’t have picked it either. Now, they’d donated unneeded books to this charming spot. Fair enough. But it was a bit of a blow to see, still tucked inside, my own letter of application, there for anyone to find, complete with home address, email address, phone number, and my rather cringemaking attempt to explain why my book and I should be considered worthy. That I should come upon this letter seemed a wittily cruel stab of Fate: a reminder, as if I could forget, that our writerly fortune is borne in the frailest of barks. I doubt the letter was ever read, far less the book, which I left there: maybe someone will dip into it. (Hope springs eternal).

That was the trough. But. I’ve been looking at my notes from things I saw in Italy that connect with my new book. I’ve been working on the novel’s structure (an elusive and essential quarry, for me). I’ve heard more writers—this field of language is so rich to work in. Perhaps, under the sunshine of this new October day, I can hope for an upswing.

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The Abundance

I’ve been away, and came back, but failed in my intention to post a new Scrip immediately on my return. However, I haven’t been completely idle; I have been trying to stitch myself back (to continue, and mix, the textile metaphors!) into the warp and weft of my new book.

But I still dip into other people’s books. Recently I looked into Annie Dillard’s essay collection, The Abundance (Canongate, 2017, foreword by Geoff Dyer).  I’ve loved her work for many years, her wild, detailed, surprising, poetic voice. I am sure I’ve mentioned her before, probably quoting from her book The Writing Life, but she can bear mentioning again and again, until you read her, because the flavour of her writing can’t be described, only experienced.

I read the last essay in the book, “An Expedition to the Pole.” This blends polar exploration with church. She attends a Mass with one shambolic moment after another, and a motley singing group, The Wildflowers. “Alas, alack, oh brother, we are going to have to sing the Sanctus.” Dillard is very funny describing the stumbling ways we try to encounter God, clumsy as dancing bears. But then somehow the most ludicrous church gathering is at the same time a “search for the sublime,” like the search of polar explorers for the austere beauty of the pristine land, the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility. Others might draw this parallel, but her genius is making it come alive in the details, so one minute you are crunching over ice, and the next you hear mismatched voices struggling with foolish hymns.  The ideas too sweep from the sublime to the ridiculous, and back. And then it all overlaps: “We are clumped on an ice floe, drifting in the black polar sea. Heaven and earth are full of our terrible singing.” 

There is so much more, such richness in this essay, and the brilliance of her lucid, free-wheeling, beautiful writing simply can’t be conveyed. At the end, I felt breathless, ravished, wrung out, and limp with admiration and gratitude.

Cell by Cell

I’ve been reading a brilliant essay in the compilation Write, edited by Claire Armitstead (Guardian Books). It’s by A S Byatt, and it’s about the writing of her novel Possession.

Possession has been, since it appeared, a key text for me—because of its story, its subject, its brilliant interweaving of times and materials. And because of the way it made me cry at the end, touched by the story itself, but also by the frisson of potential the book gave me, a feeling of possibility for and excitement about my own writing that I can’t define. This was one of many streams that, in some invisible underground way, watered the terrain of my first book Inscription.

Something Byatt says in this essay strikes me:  “Formally my novel needed the presence of real poems…..” Her editor, poet DJ Enright, said she shouldn’t use Ezra Pound's poems, as she’d planned, but should write some herself. So she did. “When the book was finished, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were troubled and dubious. They begged me to cut out the poetry, to cut down the Victorian writing…..I wept in the early mornings. Then it won the Irish Times Aer Lingus Prize, and the Booker prize, and to everyone’s astonishment—including my own—became a bestseller.”

I have the inevitable reaction, not for the first time: “So what do publishers know?!”  (Dear publishers, obviously this apparently blanket scorn does not apply to any astute publisher who is interested in my book!) Byatt was already a well-known writer with a respected reputation when the publishers told her that her instincts for her book were all wrong. What chance for the rest of us?

This triggers a negative whirlpool of thoughts. Instead of being stuck there, I’ll try to take Byatt’s experience as a gift. I’ll add Possession to the heap of wonderful but unusual books that have captivated readers, once a brave publisher took the chance. Books that give me courage. Books that cross boundaries, like those of Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald, Eimear McBride….

But there’s another thing. Publishers were scared by the poems in her finished novel, but Byatt had originally intended to write something even more experimental. Then she read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which gripped readers while drawing them into medieval theology. “The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story…."   That strong storyline is probably the reason for Possession’s wide appeal and runaway success.

Since the book I'm writing is partly about the nineteenth century, I should say that, far from aspiring to imitate Possession—and who could?—I'm trying to do something very different. Luckily, the nineteenth century, like Heaven, is a mansion with many rooms. 

I’m trying to grow a book, cell by cell. The cliché of comparing book-writing to pregnancy is a cliché for a reason. As I talk about my project, and think of revealing its working title, I feel the hesitancy of a newly expectant woman who hardly dares mention her condition, far less give the child a name.  Yet like the embryo growing unseen, my book does have, ate least for now, a small life; I pray it will continue to grow, metamorphosing, becoming stronger….

Maybe soon I will be able to speak its name.