Friendly Fire – Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2012

“To be of interest to me, people have to expose themselves.”

This is what Marieke Hardy, author of the collection of autobiographical stories You’ll Miss Me When I’m Dead, said last Saturday at Friendly Fire, a Melbourne Writers’ Festival event. She was of course talking about memoir and about how much of the personal lives of yourself and others you can safely reveal.

This is something I’m very concerned about at the moment. I would never want to hurt anyone I know by writing about something they consider to be private, but it’s very difficult to tell my own story without reference to the stories of those round about me. I used to be very cautious about writing about others, but gradually I’m casting off my inhibitions in favour of telling the truth. Although this is difficult for me, I can see that revealing more of my thoughts and feelings about the people and events in my life makes my writing more interesting. And ultimately I think I am exposing only myself, my own flaws and weaknesses.

Nevertheless I am constantly worried about offending people, especially when I write about humorous situations. I’d hate for the people I’ve written about to think I’m making fun when the reality is that I have the utmost respect for them.

There’s no doubt that relationships can be destroyed through memoir writing. Another speaker at the event, Sloane Crosely, revealed that she had been uninvited from a wedding following something she had written in one of her books of personal essays. She admitted to exaggerating the characters a little since she was writing about them in the context of being suspected of having shat on her bathroom floor during a party.

She wouldn’t go back and change what she’d written though, stressing that “anything that happened to you, that’s true and strikes you as important” has a place in memoir.

Benjamin Law added that “Writing memoir it’s not a journalistic act. Memoir is your take on things and it’s not about getting everything right on everyone.” He gave the example of recreating dialogue when writing about events from his childhood in his book The Family Law. Of course it’s not possible to remember anyone’s exact words. The goal is to “get to some sort of emotional truth.”

Before publishing his book however, he gave his family copies of the manuscript to read and check if their memories roughly matched up with his. Hardy included in her book letters and e-mails written in response to her stories by some of the people featured.

Would I be brave enough to show people what I’d written about them if they’d come off a bit negatively? Probably not. At least, not at the moment, which makes me ask myself, do I have any business writing about these people if I’m not brave enough to show them?

Hardy’s advice was not worry about this until the editing stage. “I don’t know if I want to write thinking I don’t know if this should be there. It puts a bracket round your writing which I don’t think should be there.”

The Value of Art vs Writing

A couple of years ago I went to see a Damien Hirst exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. I was was really taken by The Last Supper series of screen prints which showed images of pharmaceutical style packaging with the names of the medicine replaced by names of food. I would have loved a print of Sausages, but unfortunately for me, Hirst does not allow prints of his work to be made.

I totally understand why he might feel that his artwork would be devalued by me hanging a photo of it on my kitchen wall. What’s interesting to me is that as far as an author is concerned, the more copies of their work that are made and bought, the better.

Is it a question of accessibility? One artwork in a gallery will be seen by thousands of people; a book will only be read by thousands of people if they can physically get their hands on a copy. But then, what if an artwork is bought by a private collector and only a select few people are able to see it? Does the artist care as long as s/he gets paid for it? There is a cover price on a book so the only way for an author to make a living from their work is to shift a lot of units.

This preoccupation with the value of art and writing was triggered by a recent trip to gallery Rhubaba, where there is currently an exhibition by Hannah James. Three of the works are slide projections which feature pots. According to the gallery directors, James found one of the images in a cupboard in a school where she teaches art. It shows two pots, most probably made by school pupils, side by side against a blue background. So she didn’t take the photo and she didn’t make the pots, but James is still recognised as the author of the work because she came up with the idea of projecting it onto a wall to a backing track of a purring cat (the exhibition is called Pots Purr).

Can you imagine if I found a short story written by someone else and posted it on my blog? It wouldn’t be called art, it would be called plagiarism. So the value of art and writing seems to be further complicated by the idea of ownership. The pots made by the pupils are valuable only to their parents. The photo of the pots lay forgotten in a cupboard for who knows how many years. The projection of the photo of the pots, as envisioned by Hannah James, is a work of art.

I don’t think any writer would thank you for reproducing their work uncredited, but I suspect that if a little kid were to visit a gallery and see their art project illuminating a wall, they might be very happy indeed.

Little Writing Distractions

I really enjoy having short writing challenges to turn to when I need a break from a longer piece. Last month I spent a few mornings working on this haiku for the Scotsman Hogmanay Poetry Competition:

Wings brushing wire mesh,
sharp beaks spray seed, pockmark snow
Birdsong in winter

I loved playing around with the words, exploring different sounds and rhythms. I think experimenting with different writing structures every now and again can give you the bit of creative energy you might be missing if you’ve spent a long time working with only one form.

Recently I’ve come across two mini writing challenges I thought I would share with you, in case you also like the occasional distraction. The first is A River of Stones, which I read about on Rachel Fenton’s blog. The idea is to write a “small stone” every day in January, which means taking a moment to observe something in precise detail and capturing what you see in words. The observations that Rachel has made in her stones are beautiful.

The second challenge is Next Best Page, a competition which aims to produce an innovative piece of theatre by uniting 52 different writers in the creation of one script. Every Monday a new page is added and you have until the following Saturday to write and submit the next page. The project will run throughout 2011 and resulting play will be staged in 2012. Page 8 was added today so check it out and see if you’d like to continue the story with your own page 9.

How do you like to take a break from your main writing projects? Are there any mini writing challenges you would like to recommend?

Interview with David Wishart

Meet the historical crime writer who has made a career offering alternative solutions to Roman mysteries 

David Wishart is a cooking enthusiast. Dried herbs are strung across the ceiling of a kitchen bursting with pots and pans and other cooking paraphernalia. As we sit down to a delicious meal of homemade fish soup and pizza, he tells me enthusiastically about his pasta making machine and tarte flambée board. When he is not writing or experimenting in the kitchen, he is out on long walks with his two dogs, a pastime that gets his creative juices flowing. Aside from cleaning, which we both agree is a waste of time, the one thing you won’t find him doing is promoting his novels. “It’s something I’m ashamed of, but I don’t like networking or marketing. I’m not an author, I’m a writer. A writer just writes.”

After graduating from university with a degree in Classics, Wishart spent several years abroad teaching English, a role he describes as “the best job in the world if you like travelling.” It was while he was living in Greece that a strange dream inspired him to write his first novel, a mad sci-fi adventure where a six foot high table lamp, a giant bottle of aspirins and a teenage girl go in search of a powerful energy transformer masquerading as a pomegranate. “It’s off the wall and it’s fun,” he says. “I thought that I was a children’s writer and I would write science fiction or fantasy.”

His first published novel, however, was an entirely different beast. The inspiration for I, Virgil, a fictional autobiography of the Roman poet, came from an essay he had written as a student at the University of Edinburgh. “It wasn’t a crime book but it did have an historical puzzle and that’s what interested me.”

Wishart began to seek out other historical puzzles that would make interesting novel plots and the next one he came up with was “Why was the Roman poet Ovid sent to the Black Sea and never allowed back?” His novel Ovid was the first to feature Marcus Corvinus, the Roman nobleman sleuth who would go on to star in a whole series of historical crime novels.

“Corvinus started out as a real surprise to me. I had a sort of character in mind – middle aged, certainly, and very straight down the line – but I couldn’t get him to come alive.” Wishart spent three days in front of the computer unable to write until one day, while slumped in his chair in a dressing gown with a glass of wine in his hand, the character suddenly started talking to him.  “He wasn’t the person I had thought he was at all. He was 19 for a start, and he was this total immature, yuppie, spoiled brat. It was so surprising but he was absolutely right and I was chuckling. And after that the book wrote itself.”

The books in the Marcus Corvinus series are humorous, with the characters speaking in modern dialogue. The complex plots can generally be divided into two categories: political mysteries and whodunits. In both cases, Wishart likes to base the story around a documented historical event, using the facts to come up with a new, fictional solution. “It’s a bit like doing The Times crossword: you’ve got to produce an answer that covers all the bases. In crime novels you can’t finish up with the accepted explanation, otherwise it’s just an historical novel.”

Wishart works out the solutions to the historical mysteries he is writing about in much the same way Corvinus does. “I’ve got a list of characters and I imagine how and why each one could have done it.” Wishart, and correspondingly Corvinus, work through the list of key players, formulating theories and eliminating suspects as new information comes to light. “It’s almost like a checklist. At some point you’ve got to put a cross.”

Corvinus is kept on track during his investigations by his sharp-as-a-tack wife, Perilla. “He’s very clever but his enthusiasm and cleverness carry him away beyond the point where he thinks. He’s impulsive. Perilla is a lot more logical. She’ll be looking for flaws and problems. I can let Corvinus take the reader down the hypothetical path and then let Perilla stop that and take them back to reality. At end of the day it’s got to make sense. Perilla is a brake on fanciful plotting. She keeps me, not just Corvinus, on the right line.”

By unravelling the mystery in this way, Wishart ensures that the reader and Corvinus are always at the same level. He confesses to hating crime novels where the writer is purposefully withholding clues from the reader. “That’s why I like writing in first person: you get to assume the reader is fully apprised of what the character is thinking.”

One aspect of first person narrative that sometimes causes difficulty is that the reader must be able to empathise with the character. “Some aspects of Roman life would be completely alien to us and would break the empathy. For example, the real Marcus Corvinus wouldn’t have had an issue with slavery at all. Slaves were ranked below domestic animals. They weren’t people.” In the novels Wishart sometimes has to “blur over reality” so that modern day readers can identify with the characters.  The fictional Marcus Corvinus has developed a camaraderie with his slaves, putting up with his temperamental cook’s mood swings and concocting plans with his wife to help his major domo get a girlfriend.

On the whole, Wishart likes to portray Roman life as accurately as possible. He admits to already having a comprehensive knowledge of Roman history thanks to his Classics degree. He supplements this by further reading into the background of each novel. “The most useful source of research has been the 19th century Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities, two solid volumes of everything you ever wanted to know about Roman and Greek background.” He researches his topic thoroughly before starting to write. He stresses that “you have got to let the character tell the story” and for that reason he has to know everything he can about the background history so that the character doesn’t “walk in a direction you don’t know about.” He likens his theory to seaside binoculars: “you can turn them any way you like but when the money runs out the shutter comes down and you’re blind. If you think your character is going to turn right because you’ve researched that area and he turns left instead, it’s like the shutter coming down.”

He warns against letting the extent of your research show in the writing. “I find that very annoying because it breaks flow of plot. Research is a bit like an iceberg. One tenth of it appears in the book but the other nine tenths aren’t lost, they give the one tenth stability. The reader should think that if they got the author into a corner and said ‘tell us a bit more about this,’ the author could do it. It gives you street cred as an author.”

As well as schooling himself on the historical background, Wishart studies maps of Rome for place names and geography. Surprisingly, he did not actually visit Rome until after he had published several books in the Corvinus series. “Until comparatively recently my only source for the topography of Rome was an early 19th century classical atlas.” Although he planned several trips to Rome, he was always thwarted at the last minute by a series of disasters, from sinking ferries to outbreaks of farming diseases.  His sixth attempt to reach the city was successful but, “two days before we left the pope died. I feel personally responsible for that.”

While in Rome, he felt more connected to his characters, noting that they seemed to “come alive”. He describes an instance where “Corvinus almost took over.” While travelling on the underground with his wife, he noticed someone trying to pick his pocket. “I got him by the throat and I wasn’t letting go. The door opened and he kicked me and took off. I took off after him, grabbed him and I literally lifted him off his feet and slammed him against the wall.  He thrust this bag at me. He didn’t get anything and we won, but it wasn’t me, it was Corvinus.”

Having a strong relationship with your characters is, according to Wishart, the main advantage of writing a series of novels. “They’re all friends. You don’t have to get to know them as you would new characters. You’re straight in there and you can watch them develop. At the beginning, Corvinus had only his own opinion and that was it. Now he can see other people’s points of view, which is good.”

After fifteen years and as many books with Hodder & Stoughton, Wishart has moved to a small print-on-demand publisher with the latest novel in the Corvinus series, Bodies Politic. Being a “small fish” at Hodder, there was little money for marketing his books and he describes his frustration at seeing them disappear into a “publishing black hole”. He is much happier now that he is with PlashMill Press, who have recently launched a blog dedicated to promoting their authors and showcasing their work. Visit the blog now to find out more about Bodies Politic and to order a copy.

Blogoversary 2

fireworksOnce again it’s NaNoWriMo eve which means I’ve been blogging for precisely two years.

It’s interesting for me to look back on my first ever post and to remember how determined I was to succeed, how much was at stake. Completing NaNoWriMo 2008 meant that my decision to ditch seven years of study to pursue a career in writing was somehow justified. Reading that post again now, I can see that I was writing it just for me, not really expecting any one else to read it (hardly anyone did). In the beginning, the blog was just a way for me to chart my NaNoWriMo progress. I remember the cold feeling I got in my stomach the first time someone left a comment. Who had been reading my blog? Did they disagree with what I had written? Now I absolutely love it when people comment on my posts. I’m disappointed when they don’t. And I check my stats regularly, always hoping to beat the previous day’s hits.

It’s funny, the posts that I like the best are not necesarily the ones that draw the most traffic. By far my most popular post, alarmingly, is How to Poison Someone. My Interview with Daisuke Takahashi is also frequently viewed, but I suspect that that is because there was an ice-skater by that name competing in the Winter Olympics. I do like all my Interview with a Star posts though, and also the posts about various book festival events. (I’ve also written about some Edinburgh International Book Festival events at Suite101.)

The posts that have generated the most comments are the ones that don’t really have much to do with writing, St Ives and Cyberpunk for example. Posts that I liked that I wish had been more popular / commented on are Notes from the Continent and Carry a Poem.

After all this analyisng of post popularity I guess I’m going to have to think about how I approach blogging over the next year. I guess my strongest posts are the anecdotal ones, the less popular ones are the ones where I’ve tried to give writing advice. I’ll try to bear that in mind when writing future posts.

As for NaNoWriMo, that is just as much on my mind now as it was this time last year and also two years ago. What I learned last year was that the “reckless approach” absolutely does not work. Only thorough planning will get you to the 50 000 word mark by the end of November. This year my mum is going take part in NaNoWriMo so I felt that I should do it too to support her. Unfortunately I have left the thorough planning to the last minute. Luckily we got that hour back today; I know how to put it to good use.

Family Legends

Robinson Crusoe Book CoverToday Scottish Book Trust launched Family Legends, a new reading and writing campaign, in partnership with Lottery Heritage Fund and BBC Radio Scotland. Family Legends invites you to write a true story of between 100 and 1000 words inspired by a character or event in your family history. Stories can be submitted online and will be published on the Family Legends website. A selection of the stories will be published in a book (previous projects have seen the publication of The Book That Changed My Life and Days Like This) and five will be broadcast on BBC Radio.

I’m thinking about who I’m going to write about. Apparently I had a great-great-uncle who sailed to the Antarctic (I think. May have been the other pole. I’ll need to check that out). Or my grandmother was pretty well known for her mean sense of humour: when my uncle was a small boy she pushed his face in a trifle when he leaned over to admire it. (What kind of mother does that to her own child? Or ruins a perfectly good dessert that she has made herself, for that matter? It boggles the mind.) Or I might write about the time my dad found the tip of Robinson Crusoe’s compass on the island where he was marooned (the real Robinson Crusoe that is, Alexander Selkirk. I think it would be cooler to be related to Selkirk than to the chap who found his compass tip but hey-ho, you can’t have everything).

Who is a legend in your family?

Some People Swore That The House Was Haunted

(I wrote this in response to Tsuchigari’s recent post about a Three Minute Fiction competition.)

Some people swore that the house was haunted. John had looked round the building, heard the wind howling through the broken windows and felt the timber framework shift and groan with the weight of the centuries

Belief was a matter of choice. He knew the strange noises could be explained by the house’s age and derelict state. If the villagers chose to believe in ghosts, that was all the better for him. He snapped the property up at a bargain price and began work to convert it into a hotel. He would make a killing from his investment.

But getting planning permission proved to be a frustrating process. While paperwork was shunted from desk to desk, his funds were trickling away: the roof of the house had to be repaired, the rot removed and damp dried. His golden opportunity was turning into a lead weight around his neck.

One evening when he arrived home, there was a message on his answering machine from a council inspector who had been to view the property that day. “There’s a complication,” the message said, “which may delay building works.”

That was it. He’d had enough. He drove out to the house, emptied a container of petrol in one of the ground floor rooms and tossed in a match. From the edge of the road he stared at the house, the fire a glowing red heart pulsing within its walls. A white flash in an upstairs windows caught his eye – for one icy moment he thought it was a face – then there was a roar as the flames ripped through the building and he realised it was just smoke that he had seen, smoke and debris which were now rushing into the cold night air.

Even when it had been reduced to a smouldering heap of charred wood and stone, the villagers still believed the house was haunted. Two boys claimed to have heard groans coming from the ruins; they were sure it was a ghost mourning the destruction of its home.

It was clear the blaze was deliberate, which meant the insurance company wouldn’t pay up. John didn’t care; at least the building was no longer a drain on his finances. And that would have been the end of it, if the council inspector hadn’t phoned a second time, three days after the fire. “It was probably that squatter who burned the house down,” he said. This was the first John had heard of a squatter. “I’m sure I must have mentioned it,” the inspector said. “Evicting a squatter’s tricky business. It would have set back building work by quite a bit; a real spanner in the works.”

It was with a sick stomach and an aching heart that John returned to the ruined house. “Is anybody there?” he called. Nothing. Silence. Relieved, he started to walk away but stopped when he heard a horrible, gurgling moan. “Is there somebody there?” he called again, but this time the words were a dry scrape in his throat.  Now the moan came more loudly and was followed by a frantic scratching from somewhere deep under the rubble.

The boys had said it was a ghost, but what if it was a man, burned and crushed by the ruined building, slowly suffocating to death? The implications of what he had done were too much to bear.

Belief is a matter of choice. John chose to believe in ghosts. He turned his back on the house and walked away a haunted man. Nothing was ever the same again after that.