As I write this bit, it’s February and I am in Grasmere, in the Lake District. It’s raining and has been for much, but not all, of my stay here so far. At times the sun has broken through the clouds (and it’s Wordsworth country so I’ll leave any description of that to the experts) and revealed the peaks of hills in their isolated beauty.
The weather hasn’t stopped me exploring the daffodil park, the Wordsworth family graves, the narrow lanes, the hills, the edge of Grasmere itself, in my search for a clearer head and a calmer heart. And when I’m not out in the wind and the rain and the occasional sun, I’m in a beautiful hotel room, sleeping in a four-poster bed, or I’m in the jacuzzi in my bathroom (really. No, really) with a glass of wine, reading E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and Julie Orringer’s astonishing short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater.
Doctorow has crept up on me to become one of my favourite writers. Ragtime is only the third novel of his that I’ve read, Homer and Langley and The Book of Daniel being the others. These three novels take as their starting points the landscape that characterises America in the 20th century (the jazz age, the McCarthy trials, racial tension, personal retreat from the actual and perceived terrors of this new world), and weave real people (the Collyers, the Rosenbergs, Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman) into historical fictions that are so close to where we are now that their themes and subtexts can easily stretch out to tap us on the shoulder; remind us of who we really are while we are pretending to be someone else.
The short stories are patchier, but the best ones are as dark and complex and as full of psychological insight as the novels. In ‘Wakefield’, a man leaves home for work and instead takes root in the apartment above the family garage where he stays, unknown to his wife and child, while they try to learn to live with his disappearance. In ‘Edgemont Drive’, a man visits his childhood home in order to commit suicide there. Life, Doctorow shows us, is precarious and messy. And the world he shows to us is not always worth living in. At his best, Doctorow leans into me and whispers knowingly in my ear.
I’ve also been editing some of my own stories: going line by line through feedback and suggestions, adding and expanding, or removing and reducing. A word here; a sentence there; description, characterisation. Spotting errors in plotting (such as it is). I’ve done the laborious work of transcribing my handwritten drafts of new stories written on previous trips, editing as I go, working through the links to my collection, working out how characters that are peripheral in other stories could move centre stage to star in their own. To this end, I created a story about David McIntyre, the boy who is set on fire in ‘10.17 pm’. Whilst one could argue that McIntyre is a central character, providing as he does the focal point of the plot, that story is, of course, about its unnamed narrator – not just because it is told in the first person from her point of view, but because it is about her actions, their long-lasting, seemingly hidden effects, as they continue their increasingly relentless rampage through her memories. But McIntyre is one of many characters in my growing collection who deserves his own voice, and I let him speak in a (still untitled) draft. We learn more about him, and in doing so we learn more about his tormentors, specifically the ringleader from ‘10.17 pm’, now given a name – Jane M. Bailey.
Nearly two months later and I am reading that draft to my writing group. As usual they are full of useful things to say. One is unsure about the point of view of the story – the opening seems more omniscient than the rest of it. This may not be a problem, of course, but it is something to look into as the story goes through more drafts. Another didn’t quite believe the Marc Bolan vest worn by Jane. I countered with a link to ‘10.17 pm’: she wears it in that story and mentions it in relation to David McIntyre. And in discussing that I easily solve it – it can be a hand-me-down from an older sibling. This narrative explanation also functions to add detail to the character’s working-class background and precocious behaviour. As I was reading the draft out loud, I realised that once again I had relied too much on reported speech rather than dialogue, and knew that I needed to have David and Jane talk to each other, directly. They also needed to do more together, stuff that demonstrated a burgeoning friendship. When I come to write this dialogue and the scenes of action, it is important to me that I normalise them and avoid writing anything that could give Jane an obvious and potentially crass motive for her actions in ‘10.17 pm’.
One of the group asked about the fire in that story: ‘Why does she do it?’ Her motives are never clear to the reader and that was a deliberate decision. Jane has ideas about why she did it, of course, and the truth is she has probably grown to know exactly why, for all her claims to the contrary.
The follow up question was interesting to me: ‘Do you know why she does it?’
Is it important for a writer to know why a character does something, even if the character doesn’t know, or even if that motivation is never revealed to the reader? I do have an idea of why Jane did what she did, because in writing what I hoped was an emotionally truthful account of her memories and the way those memories crawl insistently to the forefront of her mind, I had to have some idea of why she might have lit a match that started a fire that changed some lives. At the same time, though, I am fascinated by the idea of ‘why not?’; of there being no obviously understandable reason, no easily identifiable purpose that would help us to pin down an individual’s complex psychology. And it is that balance that I tried to communicate in Jane’s story and must be careful to consider when working on David’s.
There will be more editing of something different to come, soon, too. A new piece of work – a love story set in Crystal Palace Park in the late-1960s – has been accepted for the next book to be published by Smoke: A London Peculiar. The book’s co-editor, Matt Haynes, will have something to say beyond his initial, ‘Lovely, and not what I expected – in a good way’, when he returns to London and back to work. He’ll definitely sort out my tenses. He’s a careful editor, and he won’t let any old sentence through. But if something in a story is worth fighting for, I’ll stand up for it, fists as clenched as they have to be. And as this new story has more swearing than anything I have ever written before, I figure there might be a lot to stand up for. Like the McIntryre piece, the story remained untitled for some time; an unusual problem for me. Titles are of great significance when I begin a story; it’s once I have a title that I truly know what the story is about. An example is one of my older pieces: I knew what I wanted to do with the story; I knew it was about the betrayal of a friend and lover, by her friend and lover; I knew that there was something in the messy entwining of the three characters’ limbs and lies that I was grasping at but couldn’t quite articulate. But it wasn’t until I read a Paul Morley piece about Howard Devoto, wherein Morley takes the meaning of the musician’s adopted surname to the extreme of being ‘bewitched’, that I had my title – Devoto – and, as a result, could work through the problems I was having with the story. I knew, finally, what the story was really about.
And now it’s April, and because this year is all about short writing trips, I am currently in Bristol. I’ve had an early morning swim in the hotel pool, drunk tea overlooking the harbour and watched the crows hop about on the grass next to the cathedral, the sun sparking off their beaks. I have some Bristol Tips courtesy of friends and family and a well-planned long weekend ahead. It’s important that I spend some time writing and editing, giving a life to other characters in the existing collection of stories; showing that moments of happiness, of contentment, of hope, existed in them all at some time, for however long, before life – and the difficulty of living in the world – snatched it all away.