Seductiveness of the Blank Book

What is the seductive appeal of a blank notebook?  Whenever I see them offered for sale, whether in a traditional legatoria in Florence or on the shelves of that discount store ending in Maxx, I have to stop myself, remind myself that I already have at least ten unused ones at home. (Actually, on the one occasion in my life so far that I found myself in a bindery in Florence, with marbled papers and leather spines and age-old craftsmanship all around, I did not in fact stop myself. I bought, after ages of agonizing decision between ravishing marbling here, or tooled leather there, a notebook which is, of course, too beautiful to use. So it is more truthful to say that when I see them on sale, I am tempted, always. And manage to resist, usually.)

It's to do with several things.  First, the shape of the book itself, the codex form. The way lifting the covers is like lifting the lid of a treasure box. The way the pages are nested, with the gatherings stitched safely into the spine, yet the leaves are free to move. They can be turned, forwards, backwards; when reading a book, you can see from the stack of pages ahead, how much longer you have to remain in that world. You can turn back to an earlier part of the story, re-enter the past, or anticipate the future, as we cannot do in life. The book holds past, present, and future in a capsule. 

And there is more, there is so much more one could say; I have said some of it in an essay exploring the evolution of the codex from the book-roll, and the importance of nursery rhymes, and the delights of early reading, and why we love books, their physicality, their heft. An essay rather longer than is usual in these sound-bite days (it's available for publication….anyone out there interested? Anyone?  Ah well….) because there is so much richness in the subject of the codex book.

The essay is a love letter to the codex book, and so is my novel Inscription. So it's ironic that I am currently in an agony of impatience because it is taking longer than expected at the printer's for the words to undergo the transformation into a physical volume, on paper, with pages, that you can hold and read, and pass (in my dreams!) from hand to hand.

Part of Inscription's story takes place at the end of the first century AD, around the time when, in Rome, a new object appeared in the shops: a gathering of parchment pages, literature on leaves of skin instead of in the traditional scroll. As Martial said, this made a good Saturnalia present; easy to travel with, long works compressed into a small space. Before that, there had been (it seems, though the mists of history obscure all this) parchment notebooks used by artisans; but a scroll was the proper place for any decent bit of writing. The codex did not catch on immediately, but over the next few centuries it grew more and more popular. (All this refers to the story of the book in Western Europe, of course; elsewhere, it is different). Now the codex has been our preferred book form for almost two thousand years. But for how much longer?

To return to the blank book, it's also seductive because it invites the act of writing. Writing by hand. There is such a physical pleasure in taking a pen, forming the letters, the little curlicues and upstrokes and dots and loops that mean something; in making something, in progressing through the pages. But the unwritten book, the book of the imagination, the book I think I will write when I contemplate the porous blank field of the page, that unladen ship that is a blank book, is always far superior to any scrawlings I actually produce. In fact, quite often I hesitate to mar the pages at all.  I open the book, riffle them a bit, and then (as I say in a poem about that moment, which, since this is an informal blog post, I can shamelessly, or almost shamelessly, haul into the discussion) I let the covers scallop shut.  Which is why I have so many unused notebooks.

 

 

Check out      here    my earlier blog about France, language, living….

 

 

 

Ponza: island of history, and mystery

Off the coast of Italy, in the Tyrrhenian sea, there is a small archipelago: the Pontine Islands. They are Ponza, Ventotene, Zannone, Palmarola, Santo Stefano, and Gavi. The largest is Ponza. I first visited it in 1979, when the man who soon became, and still is, my husband planned a surprise trip there from the central Italian city where we lived.

I hesitate to tell what a magical place this is…..even to my small but loyal (!) readership. White volcanic cliffs, clear blue-green waters; pale-washed houses climbing the steep rocks, church with its cupola at the heart of the main town clustered round the harbour.

We returned many years later, along with two of our children, now almost grown up. On this second trip, I was looking at it differently. By then I was thinking about a book.

Ponza and Ventotene (then called Pontia and Pandateria) were, in Imperial Rome, places of exile, where emperors sent family members who annoyed them, or political enemies. Today, an island in the Mediterranean is a holiday dream, but in ancient Rome these were dreaded destinations. To be banished from the Empire's heart, in utter disgrace, living on a parched and primitive rock with fishermen, under supervision of soldiers, fearing every moment the emperor's assassins—this was a terrible fate. Augustus sent his daughter Julia to Ventotene; Caligula's mother Agrippina the Elder and his brother Nero (not the emperor) were exiled to Pandateria and Ponza respectively, and died on those islands, probably murdered or forced to starve themselves to death; and the list goes on. Among the names of famous exiles in the ancient world is that of Flavia Domitilla.

But there is confusion about Flavia Domitilla; ancient sources contradict each other. She is variously a mother of seven children sent to Ventotene, a young girl sent to Ponza, a Jew, a Christian; exiled for this reason, or for that. And from some kernel of historical truth there arose, over centuries, the hagiographical romance of Saint Domitilla, virgin martyr, one of Ponza's two patron saints, still celebrated with festival and flowers and the loyalty of the islanders. A loyalty that is recorded since at least the fourth century AD, and probably goes back to the first.

On Ponza, you can still see Roman ruins; parts of the old imperial villa, the remains of the fish-pools where the Romans raised fish (interconnected with sluice gates that could be dropped and lifted between the ponds), cellars that were once Roman houses, and Roman tunnels, including one that goes right under the island's rocky spine, at its wasp-waisted narrowest point, from one side of the island to the other.

Climbing the island's narrow paths, for it is a steep place with the main town clinging to the cliffside, I tried to imagine myself two thousand years ago, when Domitilla was sent here by an emperor who hated her, for reasons history has not made clear.

To walk down the Roman tunnel under the island's rocky mass, seeing on the tunnel walls the diamond-shaped traces of Roman brickwork, opus reticulata, reticulated or "net-like" work, is to dive back into the the past.

For years I traced the interconnected filaments. The book that came out of all this probes the places where history and hagiography meet, explores the gaps, and finds a way to reconcile the conflicting stories of the two exiled Domitillas. And from long ago emerges a companion for the exiled Roman girl, a woman with strange blue tattoos and unusual green eyes, a woman originally from distant Britannia. She has worked as a scribe (for there were some female scribes who took notes and acted as secretaries in ancient Rome.) On Ponza, in the heat and dryness of exile, she writes for comfort's sake, using parchment pages, an early version of the codex notebook.  And what she writes has survived…as the Nag Hammadi codices survived...or as the lists and letters written on thin wooden tablets were found two thousand years later in the mud of northern England at Vindolanda.

The scribe's parchment pages are read two thousand years later by a modern person, a woman who had also been to Ponza; a tiny scrap of land in the blue Mediterranean connecting them across the centuries. And as the modern woman reads the story of that long-ago scribe, she finds there is much more that links their lives. So much more that the voice from two thousand years ago has power to change her now.

A place can, sometimes, be a catalyst, even years later. One day I will go to Ponza again, and give thanks for the twisting paths—narrow, rocky and difficult, like those of the island itself—that finally led to a finished book, Inscription.

                     

Covered in Glory

Well, perhaps that's an overstatement. But it is undeniably an exciting moment when the cover of your book (especially a first book, especially a book you've worked on for more years than you care to admit) is ready, at last. 

Here it is, and I am delighted with it.

Being published by a small press has meant, for me anyway, that I've been involved in the cover design and also in the internal design of the book.  Of course, the process was in the hands of experts, in this case Miriam Seidel for the cover, and Douglas Gordon for the internal design; but I was able to make important choices. I've known of writers published by big houses whose books have had covers conveying completely the wrong impression, so I count myself lucky.

There's so much more to a book than I, bibliophile that I am, had ever thought about. For example, what is written at the top of each page?  Often, it's the book title and the chapter heading alternating. But what if your book (like mine) doesn't have chapters? Book title on both pages? Or your authorial moniker on one and the title on the other? These are matters I'd never even considered before.  

Then, do you have a line separating that running title or chapter heading from the text below, or just a space? Where do you put the page numbers—at the top or bottom, on the right or on the left? Do you want any little squiggly symbols separating the sections of your immortal prose? 

Of course, as soon as these issues were drawn to my attention, I started looking in a new way at the books I have around me, and noticing the effect of different designs. Often a book is visually satisfying and harmonious, but as we turn the pages, we're only subliminally aware of this, and don't even realise why. Yet the design affects our aesthetic experience.

For the cover there is even more so to think about, from the main image to the typefaces to the layout.  All the elements involved, and the way they work together, are more complex than I'd ever realised. In fact, the whole book design thing is a specialised world, and I'm so glad the professionals were there.

Anyway, it's done.  I've had visions over the years of what might be on the front cover of the book, if it ever achieved a physical life: leaping dolphins from a first-century mosaic; an ancient Roman ink-pot; a stylus (antique, not the kind you use with some modern hand-held devices); Odilon Redon's painting "The Mystical Boat";  a notebook half-bound in leather with a marbled paper cover, like the one my modern protagonist writes in; an very early codex, like the Nag Hammadi books, leather-wrapped and with trailing thongs; and more. But in the end I am very happy with this cover as representing—hinting at? echoing?— my double-stranded story of two women connected across two thousand years.

 

 

 

 

 

Never Lose Hope!

While writing my book Inscription I kept a notebook about the process. In it I thrashed out with myself ideas for how to proceed, recorded the many, many times I was stuck, agonised about how the thing was utterly impossible, followed myriad false starts and twists and turns and ideas for the structure, and wrote many times that I simply couldn't see how to do it and was on the verge of giving up.  The notebook spans years. A lot of them.

Years later, the novel was complete. It's incredible to be able to say that. Often, I thought it never would be, I thought I couldn't manage it. Not only that, but the book is on the verge of publication. The proofs are done, and the cover design, which should very soon be unveiled to the world (!). This too was a moment I thought might never come. My wonderful agent submitted the book to many publishers (a process we began just as the economy started to flounder badly!) and despite complimentary comments from editors, and optimism at first, in the end no-one felt able to go to bat for it against the publishing house bean counters.

It was never quite the right time and place…eventually I submitted the book to two contests: in the UK, the Cinnamon Press Novel/Novella Award, and in the USA the Eludia Award run by Hidden River Arts. The book was long-listed for the first award, and it won the second. Part of the prize is publication, and so the book is now being published by Sowilo Press, one of the Hidden River Arts imprints. 

I've read accounts like this by other writers, and, while they did help me to keep going, I could never really grasp that they had actually ever been in that place of almost no hope, of being unable to visualize the ending of the book and the writing of it, far less a published volume.  That place of rewriting the whole book over and over and over again. Of being in a labyrinth with no visible exit.  Of waiting and waiting for an editor to take it on.  And of course, there is a tendency in us to want to make it look easy. The tightrope walker runs lightly across the rope, as apparently easily as walking down a lane, and the art is in not letting us know how many falls and failures and practices there have been. Vladimir Nabokov said that showing anyone else unfinished work is like passing round samples of your sputum. 

But I was there in the midst of it, in that labyrinth.  Already deep in the process, I wrote things like "I feel I am back to square one" or "I feel such fear that I can't do it at all. Then I realise that I must just try anyway…"  I really was in that place, over and over, and I am here to say that it is worth it to carry on regardless, to persevere.

It's a difficult tightrope. You have to find a balance between humility and self-confidence. Enough self-belief to keep going, even when no-one cares whether your book lives or dies; enough modesty to realise finding an agent is hard, a publisher even harder, and accolades hardest of all. Self-confidence that you can do it; humility in accepting that (speaking for myself) I am not Nabokov, and the input of others during the process—though not too early—is really helpful. 

It's an impossible balance really, and I found myself ricocheting between extremes. As for accolades, I don't expect my book to be widely read (though I'll try my best!).  Outside family, friends, my agent Julia who loves the book and had faith from the start, and my publisher Debra, I may never have an accolade that means more than the one from Kevin Crossley-Holland. This poet, memoirist, author for adults and children (The Hidden Roads: a Memoir of Childhood; The Seeing Stone; Pieces of Land:Journeys to Eight Islands) picked a poem of mine for first prize in a contest years ago. He's a writer I've long admired. Out of the blue, I asked him to read the book, and not only was he kind enough to do so, but he wrote this:

"Clean, lean, superb prose; the quality of research; thoughtfulness; the subtle interweaving of the stories of two women divided by two millennia but drawn together by circumstance.  It's not difficult to praise many components of this unusual and deeply moving historical novel, but what is less obvious, and in the end more profound, is Christine Whittemore's conspicuous achievement in writing a novel about both the consolation of fiction and of writing fiction."

 Gosh. In the heart of the labyrinth, I may have dreamt yearningly for a response like this, as one dreams of winning the lottery or inheriting a castle; but I could never have imagined it actually happening. That my book not only somehow got done, but touched a chord like this with a reader of this calibre, makes it all worth-while.

 

 

Rediscovering the Music of Poetry

The 2015 Cheltenham Poetry Festival, held in the spring, was an exciting event in these parts. The tireless volunteer directors brought some amazing poets to Cheltenham. Listening to some of these poets and their work, I was captivated all over again by the power of poetry; by the force of language to move me, enthrall me, make me laugh or cry.

I was honoured to be in the line-up too, reading with Sue Johnson.  It was very rewarding to be reading our poetry to a smallish but nonetheless apparently appreciative group of kind souls who came to listen. 

My novel, Inscription, took many years to write, and during that time I didn't write very much new poetry, especially towards the end. The actual composition involved some of the same creative functions that poetry does, but in the latter years I was concentrating more on revision and structure and similar issues, and using the editorial bit of my brain more than the intuitive.

Now, for the last year and a bit, I've been working on rediscovering poetry and making it once more part of my life as a writer and as a reader.

How to do this? Well, poetry prompts with other poets can help—giving each other a small exercise and a deadline.  Also, a workshop can trigger all sorts of creative impetus. I was so lucky last year to be able to do a weekend-long workshop with fiction writer Amal Chatterjee and poet Jane Draycott. It was inspiring, stimulating, and reconnected me with myself.

Sometimes I enter contests, as I find (procrastinator that I am!) that the deadline marvellously focuses the mind. 

Going to local readings and short workshops is also worthwhile, and I enjoy doing that and participating in the local poetry scene.

And then there's reading poems in books! It's embarrassing how easy it has been for me to slip out of the habit of reading poetry regularly.  The new books I bought at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year and at the Poetry Festival this year have really helped here. Poets I've been especially enjoying recently are Robert Peake, Michael Symmons Roberts, Daisy Fried, Jo Bell, and Sue Rose….to name but a few.

And of course you don't need to buy books to read poetry. So much classic and contemporary poetry is available online. For new work, there are now many well-respected online poetry journals, like Antiphon where my first poems to be published online (instead of in print) appeared.

 I've found out about some journals from unexpected sources. For example, I didn't think Twitter would lead me to poetry, but it has. Just today, I saw (because of the kinds of accounts I follow) an announcement about the online journal The Compass. Browsing around in its "pages" I found a lovely poem called "Against Hate" by Pippa Little. I haven't read the whole journal yet, but I'm sure there's more to enjoy there.

What I'm finding is that it's just a question of nurturing the poetry mindset. That used to be a place I lived in; but I drifted away from it. Now I am coming back.

As for the actual writing of poetry, I have been finding, as I return to it, that it's important to remember the sense of play, the delight of making something. This can be such an important part of the process. In all the endless revising and editorial work on my book, I'd lost sight of the actual joy.

"You need to rediscover the music,"  as one of my poet friends said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introducing myself

Thank you so much for visiting this website.

Here's a personal note, a sort of "who I am and how I ended up where, in various senses, I find myself" piece. It may—indeed should, as it's called "blog"—be the first of several conversations I'll have with whoever might happen to drop in. But, knowing myself as I ought to by now, I make no promises.

And so:  I was born in England, and I was lucky to grow up with nursery rhymes, songs, and books. Reading was my great pleasure.  A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Prince, the Narnia books, the stories of E. Nesbit, The Eagle of the Ninth and all Rosemary Sutcliff's books, A Dog so Small and others by Philippa Pearcethe work of Leon Garfield,  Alan Garner….others who once were bookish children will have many of the same favourites.

As a child I wrote poems. In my teens I joined a young people's arts centre, a formative experience where the love of language was encouraged and nurtured, and we could read and discuss poetry. I will always be grateful to the centre's director, the late Elizabeth Webster.

Going to university, living in Italy, teaching English, getting married, starting a family, moving to America, teaching English some more….in the business of life, writing sank away into the background. I rediscovered it in my early thirties. At home full-time, with two, and then three, children, I began snatching moments to write: essays first, and then I returned to poetry.

It wasn't only because of the demands of living that I had let writing slip away. It was also because I knew I could never hope to emulate the writers I admired. But now I came to recognise the truth of what Jean Rhys said to David Plante, as he records in Difficult Women, though I think I first saw it quoted by Madeleine L'Engle in Walking on Water: 

"All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

Since then, I have published poetry, essays, creative non-fiction. And I've written journalism about the arts, and about local history. I also enjoy teaching and have led writing workshops in schools, community colleges, and at writing conferences. I like giving talks, too. On one challenging occasion, I was asked to talk about poetry to a group of business people during a networking breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. It seems they liked it. 

I am very excited about the forthcoming appearance of my novel. Inscription will be published this year by Sowilo Press and will be available in the US, UK, and elsewhere. I will be keeping you updated here and on the Home and Books pages.

What a strange journey it was, being immersed in a book-length project for so long (longer than I care to admit to). Especially a project that took me into another time and place, or places—ancient Britain and ancient Italy, two thousand years ago.

The book isn't a "historical novel," though. It's a novel with a historical strand. It is told in  the voices of two women, one living and writing in the first century AD, the other in our own time (or almost; the end of the twentieth century). Their stories interweave across two thousand years.

I've also co-written, with Harriet Dronska-Feitelberg, the memoir of her experience as a hidden child in World War II. My Father's Promise: a hidden child survives the Holocaust is an extraordinary story. Almost all the Jews of her city were killed. Thanks to her father, to a Catholic neighbour, to her own chutzpah, and to luck or providence, she survived this traumatic time disguised as a Catholic child, living under an assumed name. Exposure meant death.

Today she is in her eighties, like the others who are left of her generation. She has found it painful to think about her past, far less to tell her story, until now. But at last she has been able to remember. These stories must be told before it is too late. I've been honoured that she entrusted me with hers.


After twenty-seven years in the States, and three in France, I am now spending more time in my native England.
I keep on trying to feed the lake. There is always so much more to know and to discover about working with and celebrating language, in all its mystery. 

Some tutelary spirits, in no particular order:  
W.G. Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Metcalf, Denise Levertov, Virginia Woolf, e e cummings, George Herbert, Sylvia Plath, Philip Larkin, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Jean Rhys, R.S. Thomas, Madeleine L'Engle, Penelope Fitzgerald, David Markson, Charlotte Mew…. .

Some living writers whose work I love—an ever-changing and incomplete list:
David Malouf, Julian Barnes, Geoff Dyer, Colm Toibín, Kazuo Ishiguro, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Richard Wilbur, Derek Walcott, Jeanette Winterson, A.S. Byatt, Linda Pastan, Frederick Buechner, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard…...

That's enough for now. More soon.