Thursday, 13 July 2017

A Five-finger Exercise for Writers

When I was  a small child, just starting school, my favorite moment in each day was the one, after we’d finished our tea, when my father went into the front room. He’d say to me, ‘don’t pull the curtains and don’t switch on the light.’ Then he’d sit at his piano in the last of the evening light and play; Chopin waltzes, Mendelsshon’s Songs without Words, Beethoven sonatas and pieces from the shows. I would dance around the room for hours, my skirts twirling, my arms doing what I thought might be pointy ballerina movements. 
Then the big day came, when Daddy said he would begin to teach me the piano. I was so excited; as far as I could see it would be no time at all before I would be playing like him. Why, I did so already, racing my hands over the keys and swaying my body like a professional pianist. So it came as a bit of a blow when I realized even five-finger exercises were baffling and onerous. It took me a long time to play my first Song without Words; three decades to be exact.

Writing a novel is a bit like learning the piano; a lot harder than you might think. Bill, a writer who I'm mentoring at the moment, wrote to say...When I started the journey, my initial objective was to write a novel. I, like many people, didn’t understand how difficult this task was. I originally thought that having a good idea and a vivid imagination was all that a person needed. The rest was just a matter of course and would happen naturally and with the minimum of effort. I now appreciate how just what a difficult task it is to write a novel. Anyone who completes a novel, let alone has it published, has my total admiration.
Spot on, Bill. Writing a novel is like inventing an entire new life...many people’s lives, actually. If you’re into fantasy, you’ll be inventing new worlds, as well. How could that possibly be easy? Certainly, having a mentor who can support you in those first stages when it all seems a complete mess - when even the five-finger exercises of writing feel onerous - can help enormously. Bill wrote; When you are placed with a tutor there is initially, a certain amount of natural apprehension. You’re faced with another lengthy and unknown learning process. My initial feeling was that the way ahead seemed insurmountable. I’d spent a few months standing still and had reached a non-constructive plateau without any end in sight. It felt I was drowning in a sea of uncertainty. You reassured me that I was not alone with this problem and that most novice or indeed many professional writers suffered this at one time or another during their writing career. The way through this dilemma and off the plateau was to keep on writing. 
Naturally, a writing student should expect a little more than simple words of encouragement I hope to give practical, technical and creative advice that will move the student’s work properly forward. They should be able to see through the confusion in a way the poor old writer can’t - they’ll be too busy looking at the wood, while the tutor will be viewing the trees and hopefully recommending a better planting and growing order for the forest. 
But it’s important for the mentor to stay enthused and energetic, as it’s likely that the writer will sag and droop, especially around the middle of the novel. 
Your enthusiasm for creative writing is infectious...Bill said in his letter...and I can honestly say it rubs off and has bolstered my failing spirits. Creative writing is not the easiest thing in the world to study but having an excellent tutor has made it a bit easier. Many thanks for your time, advice and patience over the last year or so.
Awnice of you to say so, Bill. I’m just so proud of the way this student’s writing developed, which is far more to do with the concentration and energy he gave the project; it’s the writer who needs the time and patience, to be honest. Without that, it’s unlikely they’ll get further than playing chopsticks.

I'm lucky enough to have a wonderful set of mentors; the literary agency I'm with. They don't just turn my work around, and send it off to editors with a hopeful covering letter, they constantly work with me to get my novels to a perfect pitch. Like Bill, I'm no better at seeing the trees in my own writing…I fancy almost all professional writers find it hard to find a navigable path through the thickest parts of their novel's woodland – at least during the first drafts. Maybe this is the reason many second novels get slated by critics and readers alike; 'just not like the first, great book', they'll cry, and I'll be thinking, 'didn't their agent read it over and comment on it, offer some advice?' That's when I know I'm so lucky to have great agents. 
Bill (and I) make this process sound so arduous, so hard to achieve, that novice writers reading this may wonder if they’re not put off trying, just a little. Bill says, The journey, I feel, has been an exceptionally hard but enjoyable one. I’ve tried to put into practice everything that you have suggested and I feel that my writing has not just moved forward but taken a considerable leap…
Bill hasn’t quite finished his novel yet, but now he’s got the confidence to write by himself. My final advice to him was to stop redrafting and get on with the writing. Working through a writing course always results in a lot of redrafting. It’s the quickest way up the learning curve. But once the foundations and basic skills are laid, I suggest that people tackling a long project just get on with word, then the next, then the next until the next two words you write are ‘the end’. Only then can you redraft with any clear understanding of what the book looks like and says.

One thing I can reassure him on – and all the writers who are in his position that read this blog – it does, slowly, get easier. Tiny step by tiny step, you start to work things out on your own, spotting what's wrong in time to get it right, learning to take that step back and look at the forest, see how it's growing.
Thanks, Bill, for letting me quote parts of your letter in this post, and good luck in your forward endeavours...may your words always sound like songs.

To learn more about my mentoring programme, go to KITCHEN TABLE NOTEPAD PROGRAMME

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Questing your Plot

I've been writing for the Open College of the Arts Creative Writing Degree again.

This time, I've been looking at plotting stories.

Plots are sometimes defined as quests, but you can invert that; your first quest is to find your plot.

All good quests need a map, and so do you. Not just any map, either – a treasure map, which will hide the plot secrets, lay the clues, and guide your reader through the dangers and dramas of their journey to a wealth of satisfaction at the end.

I have a foremost tip in the quest for the next plot idea…

But you'll have to read the original blog to find out what that tip is, and the other practical, questing suggestions I've found useful myself, such as wall charts…

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Midsummer Solstice at Gors Fawr Stone Circle

Gors Fawr

We met at Gors Fawr stone circle in time on midsummer’s day. The views that confronted us were magnificent. The summer solstice, June 21st this year, was a clear, hot, bright day – the hottest in 40 years – and being there was powerfully invigorating.

 We were in a bleak, but strikingly beautiful place – a moorland full of gorse and reeds and sheep, lying quite flat for a mile or more until the hills suddenly loom up as a backdrop. We’d come to hold a ritual at the very place in Pembrokeshire where Neolithic worshipers also gathered, to watch the sunrise on the solstice. 

We were at Gors Fawr Stone Circle.

Bedd Arther
Gors Fawrs dates from the Neolithic. It is part of a surprisingly large and active sacred landscape at the foot of the Preseli Hills called the Glandy Cross. This is an area rich in Neolithic burial chambers, Bronze age settlements, barrows, standing stones and a chambered tomb. There were once three stone circles, but one is lost. The smaller of the remaining two, Bedd Arthur (Arthur’s Bed), is a small, boat-shaped horseshoe of stones high in the hills, while at the foot of the hills on the flat plateau of moorland is the larger circle – Gors Fawr, whose name translates as 'great wasteland'. 

The inner bluestones against the
Stonehenge Trilithons
The circle has a very special atmosphere. It consists of 16 small remaining stones about 22 metres in diameter. They are small stones, unprepossessing on the north side of the circle, but getting bigger towards the south until they’re about a metre in height. Eight of the stones are composed of local glacial erratic boulders, but, very excitingly, the other eight stones in this circle are bluestones, the same stone as the smaller stone arc inside that far more famous circle…Stonehenge. 

We were here to hold a ritual on the summer solstice, which is called Alban Hefin by Druids and Litha by Wiccans. The solstice is the peak of the power and radiance of the sun. It’s union with the earth at its zenith. Over the last week, the sun had shone above us, strongly and brightly.

It had been so hot, records were being broken. In fact, the 21st became, the hottest day since 1976. I recall that summer very well, as I was pregnant with my first child, so ‘hot’ was what I remained most of the time.

Carn Meini, the Dragon's Back
As we prepared the circle, and met up with the people who had been here for the sun’s rising in the very early morning, I looked up to the hills above us. I could see a  short area of jagged rocks running along the ridgeway of the Preseli's. This is the Dragon’s Back –  the peak of Carn Meini, a natural outcrop of Blue Spotted Dolerite – the place where the Stonehenge bluestones originated.

Carn Meini has a very strong radiant quality. On some level it feels like the yang counterpart to the Yin Gors Fawr. It’s not surprising the bluestone found there was used and loved so much in the Neolithic. As well as being used for the building of an early stage at Stonehenge, ‘crystal-sized’ pieces have been found in Neolithic burial chambers around the Salisbury Plain area, as if people kept these beautiful stones close as talismans, perhaps for healing. I constantly find it amazing that bluestones found their way from a very powerful and ancient site in Pembrokeshire to another very ancient and powerful site a couple of hundred or so miles away. How they were moved is still debated, but around Pembrokeshire, the story goes that in ancient times, the ceremonial route of the bluestones from Carn Meini to Stonehenge followed the streams down the hill and past Gors Fawr. 

The two Outliers
There are two outlying stones to the north-east of the Gors Fawr circle. These align to the sunrise on the summer solstice. As you walk towards them from the stone circle, the first you meet is about five feet high, much larger than the stones in the circle, and this makes one think it must have been of importance. The larger of these, a few metres on, is around six feet in height, and is known as "The Dreaming Stone". Some accounts suggest that they were originally part of an avenue leading off from the circle. The dreaming stone has been shown to be strongly magnetic, especially where one’s head would rest if one sat on the little seat. And the seat itself does not look inviting – one imagines one would slide off, but once there, it’s wonderfully comfy, and I have sat there for twenty minutes and more.

We gathered outside the circle. Some of us had been there all night, to wait until the dawn came up on the solstice day, while other of us had arrived for this ceremony.

As everyone walked towards it, the Spirit of the Stones came towards us, and challenged us…what was our purpose here? This is how our Herald replied…Spirit of  this place! We come in peace at this time of the summer solstice, to honour the spirit of these stones and to honour the spirits of our ancestors. We come to work in peace and love.” 

The Spirit of the Stones replied. “Then know this –  as you step beyond the boundary of this circle, you will enter the magic of Gors Fawr, where time itself has no meaning and experience is unlimited, for this realm is full of spirit and is interconnected in every direction. These stones wash a blessing over each being who works within it. So  enter this place in peace, and you shall leave renewed and refreshed.”

Once we’d set up our ritual circle, and passed an oaken branch around to each talk about how we felt about this time of the year, we called upon the Lady of the Land, who represented the landscape itself. She spoke  thus; 
“All ancient circles like this one have a fay presence which is a lovely summer bonus, but do not forget how careful you need to be when dealing with faeries; they need to be given due respect or they can play tricks. Here in my basket I have the blossoms of the Elder Tree. Celtic lore indicates that if you stand near an elder tree at Midsummer's Eve the land of the fairies will be revealed to your searching eyes. The blossom of the elder protects from fay trickery yet helps those who use it wisely to come closer to the world of Celtic faerie lands. It can also induce vivid dreams, particularly of the Faerie realms; why not take your spray to the dreaming stone and see what happens. “

The Lady of the Land then walked around the circle of people, handing out the sprays. Everyone had brought something to entertain us with, pipes to play, poems to read, and stories they wanted to tell. By the time we took our circle of ritual and celebration down, we were all starving and laid out our picnics in the circle to share. 

The sun stayed hot, but luckily the breeze coming from the coast kept us cool. Even so, after eating, some of us lay in the circle and closed our eyes. But we had to take care not to fall to sleep, as it is said that if you fall asleep inside a stone circle, you will wake to find yourself in Fairyland, and none of us wanted to drive home still enchanted by the fay…

If you live in West Wales, you can find Gors Fawr Stone Circle just outside the village of Mynachlog-ddu, Pembrokeshire,  OS Map Ref SN135294
OS Maps - Landranger 145 (Cardigan & Mynydd Preseli), Explorer OL35 (North Pembrokeshire)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Holiday Poems

Did you notice I'd been away? I've just got back from France, nicely tanned and full of thoughts on poetry. Holidays are such a good excuse for writing a poem – loads of new things to see, feel, taste, hear, and think about…plus all that extra time on your hands with nothing better to do than sit in the sun and write. Here are a few of the poems I have written as I holidayed around the UK and Europe. I hope you enjoy them, and that they inspire, or re-inspire you to write your own holiday poems.

Snowdon, Wales

When we set off
The sun was settled hot over the castle ruins
And the lake, agate-thin, had a rhinestone surface.
Halfway up, 

Not fluffy cotton wool puffs,
Just unrelenting mist.
 We saw no more than
The crumbling path
 And our worn walking boots.
The peak arose, unexpected, 
Catching us short – shocked – 
A final scramble. We reached the summit.
I put my hand out to touch the cairn – yes!

The terminal made us weep fog-tears. 
   Tiny trains lifted their sardine loads, 
Shedding them straight into the concrete caf.
We were wet through to our aching thighs
Starved for the sandwiches  
Crushed and damp from their momentous journey,
But the staff stalk between the plastic tables
Alert for contravention of cafe rules.
We bought thin coffees,
 Gobbed our illicit food
With jerking eyes,
 Like mountain birds.

Mediterranean Storm

All night, the silent storm 
Has flickered across the horizon,
Silhouetting the perfect geometry of the earth.
Lightening running in lines and sheets, 
Proving the world is round.

All night the storm is an on and off parade,
Flickering like a silent film with erratic highlights
Or the boy with a torch under bedclothes that promise glossy dreams of breasts.
The slashing of heaven, the deadly spear of a fierce god sent crashing down, 
To puncture the sea as he will, when he chooses.

All night it persists,
Clouds tossing war at each other, 
Hurling insults as quiet as white noise,
While above, the stars blink,
Tiny statements of unaffected continuity.

All night – will it never stop?
Somewhere, thunder deafens ears and children scream their fear. 
Waves take the fishing boats until they are mountain goats, 
All hands to secure their harvest of ancient things,
The men shiny with rain in their scale skins.

But here, the storm is soundless,
A punctuated brilliance that illuminates the clouds
That dance like grey ghosts,
Phantoms that change their shape, 
Conjoin as they please, become one, or many,
Unravel or thicken or slide away, silent like the storm.

I watch until dawn.
I sit silent in my tower by the sea until the sky pales, 
The slow expansion of light sucks away the noiseless force, 
Until, diminished by the day, the flash is no brighter than the flicker of an oiled wick.
Blinded by the sun, 
It is gone.

In the Dublin Museum, Ireland

In the Dublin Museum,
Among the cornucopia of treasures,
The late Neolithic spear-head,
Honed to perfection,
Carved with utmost care.
Each flint dislodged to form
Lethal edges of symmetrical
And a polished point
Bitter as a needle.
When the knapper stood back
To examine his work…
Elegance combined with utility,
Speed combined with precision…
Did he fear the first beads of molten ore
As they ran together and set hard?
Did he long to own the newest feats of engineering – 
The golden torc,
The bronze axe – 
Or did he lament the passing of this craft 
As the relentless pulse of technology move on.
Did he join with others of his trade
And protest the disappearance of their trade?
When did the last apprentice graduate
In the benign skill of 
Knapping flint?

Skara Brae, Orkney Isles

Whether I am in the hills
Hunting boar,
Or on the sea
Hunting fish
Or in the fields
With the barley or the beasts,
When the sun moves down,
I begin to think of Cadd,
Too heavy now with our second child
To stray far from the house.
I think about how the fire will be blazing

Before I reach the outer wall,
How, as we crouch to share out the shellfish catch
She will be heating the water and tearing herbs.

The day has been cloudless across the sea.
My face is burnt with sun and wind
My hands chilled as stone.
I stride through the passageway and Nitta comes running,
Grasps my knee, hugs and giggles.
She is the one that swells my heart.

When I went to find a stone for my mattock,
Nitta followed, singing to the flowers,
Gathering purple, yellow and white.
Cadd sat with her and named their gifts –
Which plants ease pain, which brings up a fever.
She spoke them after, like an echo of the cliffs,
With such clear intent 
It brought more water to my eyes
Than the passing of the Old One
Five moons ago.

The sun will go down red tonight,
As if bleeding into the hills.
After the fish is baked on the stones of the fire
And we are warm and replete,
I will take Cadd out.
We will lie on the soft heather and stare at the sky.
I will tell her the stars 
Are like the flowers of the land.
Both are scattered and purposeful and named.
And when she speaks them in her voice,
High as a bone pipe,
I will not mind if water comes again to my eyes

Spanish Song

 Heat virgin olive oil in a heavy pan,
Chop onion and gently fry
Crush garlic, but add later in case it might burn.
Heat the grill for the sweet peppers to sear…

 To sear in thirty degrees, 
Lay out the tropical towels 
Smear with factor ten in case we might burn
Add four thin bodies to the heat-swirled beach.

Add four thin pork boneless steaks to the pan.
Seal juices while peeling red peppers
Once they have blistered. Slice finely. 
Grind in black pepper, oregano seasoning…

Season for the murmurs of summer, 
For the glitter of the wide sea,
The screech and splash as the children leap,
For the sleepy Spanish tongue; those sun-dried sounds…

Drain and slice a jar of sun-dried tomatoes
Toss into pan the tomatoes and the peppers. 
Cover and simmer for twenty minutes
After which add twenty olives to salt the dish…

Salt in your hair and the feel of sand
Where the bar of your flip-flops grinds between your toes
Coming up the hill from the beach, stepping over wild thyme
Under the acacia trees into the marble chill of Los Arcos.

Chill the wine in the marble cooler,
As you lay out the ceramic you bought in Valencia.
Sweet pepper skins lift; gift-wrapped in scarlet tissue 
Spoon out the cerdo espanol and fluff up the rice

Long evenings, filled with fast guitars,
Smells of ceno from the next apartamento 
Twirl round the table to Flamenco,

Fast guitars and Spanish song.

Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland

Out of the flat, black sea
Strides Fionn Mac Cumhail
His massive head 
Rises from the waves,
His vast shoulders
Shine with sea-brine.
In his one hand, he carries the sword of his people.
In his other, the spear.
Taller than two men, he is, 
As he emerges from the ocean 
And takes long steps across the Causeway,
Each hexagonal pillar lightly taking the ball of his foot.

It is said that he left his boot 
On the shore strand,
And his eye on the cliff,
But I think that Fionn lost his head 
At the Giant’s Causeway.

Only an old fool in love 
Would dream that
The fairest maid in all Ireland
Might choose him,
For all his wealth, prestige, power
And might on the field of battle,
Above Dairmuid,
The young upstart bound by geis and honour.

So, Finn reaches the cliff and 
Roars his displeasure on his land,
Scanning the horizon.
But the lovers have vanished,
And already sleep on their stony bed.

Faro Island, Portugal

She said; 
It’s a long road, straight, you can’t miss it once you’ve turned the roundabout.

She said;
Go over the bridge. That’s what makes it an island. 

 She said;
You’ll see where to park. You can buy an ice cream.

She said; 
 No one stays long.

She didn’t say;
Walk along the leeward side, facing the mainland, you won’t see a soul all the way.

She didn’t say; 
Climb over the brackeny dunes and walk back along the beach with an Atlantic wind in your     hair.

She didn’t say;
The moored boats are like jewels and the birds are wishes that can fly.

She didn’t say; 
You’ll think the little houses are shuttered against the winter until someone cries ‘Carlos! Comida!’

 She said to tell her what we thought of Faro island.

 We told her we liked the ice cream.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Russian Dolls – A Novel Structure

Recently I read the US/Turkish author Elif Shafak  (Viking 2010)  for the first time. The Forty Rules of Love is a complicated, multilayered and deliciously flawed story set both now and in the thirteenth century, and across several countries. I would describe its structure as Russian Doll.

Thanks to past links with Russia, I’ve got several of these gaudily painted Babushkas that nestle one inside the other, and I watched my children play with them when very small – the thrill of breaking them apart and the comforting certainty that they would all fit together perfectly in the end. That may be that’s why I’m intrigued by their literary equivalent. Readers of fiction have perennially loved the ‘Russian Doll’ structure – the tale that fits within the tale that fits within the tale.
How many layers does a story need before it can qualify for my classic Russian Doll shape? It must have onion-like layers; after all, there are never just two Russian dolls. 
So I’m not talking specifically about Mise en abyme, the French term for a ‘frame’. This literary device, with one story narrated or imbedded around a further story, includes Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where a party losing its sparkle turns into a ghost story told by a fire. And I'm excluding books that build a single story in a complex way, for instance by use of fractured perspective or flash-back. And – sorry, disagree if you might – I don't believe that stringing a set of shorter stories together count as ‘Russian Dolls’. 
Jennifer Egan's  A Visit from The Goon Squad  is very clever, as is the more recent Booker short-listed All that is Man Is by David Szalay, (Vintage 2016) a beautiful examination of the male mind and the seven+ ages of man. Both are worth a read, but their stories don't nestle, they move along, linking together in various ways. 
So what about Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, a gloriously surreal story about the hunt for a mysterious book? Mostly categorised under the post-modern definition of metafiction because the story plays with self-awareness and the writing conventions of authorship. Certainly, the story is complex and layered. It begins with a reader (the reader...), opening Italo Calvino's latest novel, If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, only to have the story cut short. Turns out it was a defective copy, with another book's pages inside. As the reader tries to find out what book the defective pages belong to, he meets Ludmilla, a fellow reader who also received a defective book. Calvino's novel broke ground and created a storm in fiction, but I don't think it qualifies for the Russian Doll structure – but then, it doesn't need to do anything it doesn't want to do – it's a marvellous read.

Cloud Atlas,(Sceptre, 2004) by David Mitchell, begins with a rollicking story of Victorian exploration and missionary zeal.  It consists of six interlocking, stylistically distinct novellas spanning 500 years and begins in 1850 with extracts fromThe Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The narrative breaks off suddenly on page 39 at the half-way point with no warning, and we’re in the1930s, where a new character arrives solely via his intimate letters to a certain Sixsmith, and onwards, into the future and the centre of the novel, a four further tales later, to find connections and learn outcomes. Mitchell has a delight in creating puzzles in his novels and Cloud Atlas  bends time, structure and genre. Mitchell trusts us to keep reading although each narrative is unfinished, using links such as birthmarks and documents, to complete each individual story and the novel itself. This builds up a satisfying narrative structure that shifts across genres and styles, and the distinct voices of many protagonists… I do recommend the book, but I haven’t seen the film, so I’m not entirely sure how these Russian dolls are slotted together for cinema. David Mitchell tells the tale of how he was skyping with Hollywood executives at his home in Ireland. "I kept a pretty straight face while I was skyping and then I ran downstairs and told my wife, 'Hanks has said yes! Can you believe it?' I did Maori victory dances around the house." Mitchell never imagined his book could be adapted for the screen, and neither can I, loving the narrative and the voice on the page too much.  Halfway through the book, the goatherd stumbles across the ruins of a defunct civilisation and reaches the novel's climax, after which each story is resolved one by one.

I snowed a hid cave by Mauka waterfall an’ to here it was I took us for what’d be Meronym’s final night on Big Isle if ev’rythin’ worked as planned. I’d hoped Wolt or Kobbery or ‘mother goatherd may o’ scaped an’ be hidin’ there but, nay, it was empty, just some blanket and what we goatherds stashed for sleepin’… pg 317

This kind of structure is reminiscent of A Thousand and One Nights, where  Scheherazad tells a story, then breaks off and begins again at a later time…to save her own life, of course…but the structure of Cloud Atlas is more complex, perhaps best described as ‘reflecting mirrors’. It well suited not only Mitchell’s characters and plots, but one of his reoccurring premises, the circular and rippling nature of history.This was, for a novelist  in his mid-30s, an astoundingly accomplished performance. But I don't think it's a Russian Doll, although you can disagree with me if you like. So if I’m not talking about any of these different, and equally complicated stories, what am I on about? Do I even know myself?
I’m searching for ways in which multiple narratives might nest within each other. The intent, or story, is then peeled away by layers. Short stories can employ in this format, and certain kinds of memoir are perfect for this slow revealing of their core.
Also described as Chinese Box, this structure is found in the 1984 film version of the story by Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves, screenplay by Carter and the director, Neil Jordan. You can watch the film here online; and the original short story can be found in Carter’s 1979 collection of magical realism, The Bloody Chamber (Gollanz). 
There is a Russian Doll plot in the almost impossible House of Leaves by Mark Z Daneilewski, and you can try gently pulling the next Babushka out of the bigger one right to the end of  Philip K Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, where every character interacts with a book that seems to tell an alternative story parallel to their own. 
Margaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin is a novel-within-a-novel within a novel. Iris, now an old woman, recounts how she and her sister Laura grew up motherless in Ontario. Within this story we encounter excerpts from a novel attributed to Laura but published by Iris. Embedded in this novel is a science fiction story, Blind Assassin.  As Atwood unfolds The Blind Assassin we learn pivotal events of Iris and Laura's lives in the ‘40s, and understand that the novel-within-a-novel is inspired by real events. Before the end, Iris dies, leaving her granddaughter to discover the twists of truth in an unpublished autobiography. Another novel that use this shape became a great cult hit across the world in the noughties. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated into English by Lucia Graves and first published in English in 2001 by Penguin Books) begins with a young boy being asked to choose any book from the Library of Secrets. The novel he takes away haunts his childhood, and as he grows into adult he begins his search for the author. The investigation leads to the telling of many tales, including his own and that of his small, Spanish town. Finally, he confronts the truth, which turns out to be more dramatic than the original childhood book.
Published in 2006, Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale handles the Russian Doll structure masterfully. The themes of the book; truth, secrets and the making of myths, weave their way through the stories like a golden thread. Margaret Lea is a biographer, who works in her father’s rather arcane bookshop. She is summoned to write the life story of Vida Winter, an author who is infamous for weaving a fiction out of her own past every time she is interviewed about a new novel. She tells Margaret that, now she is dying, she really does want to tell her true life story, a darkly gothic tale that echoes unsettlingly in Margaret’s own past.

Which brings me back to Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, where two parallel narratives, contemporary fiction and an account of a real thirteenth century Dervish mystic, dive further and further into an original understanding and philosophy. This is a Russian Doll novel with many layers. The story starts with Ella, an unhappily married 40-something, whose first assignment with a literary agency is to read Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written Aziz Zahara. Like Ella, I became mesmerized by the tale of a whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz and his relationship with a Persian poet called Rumi, Ella is also taken with Shams’ rules, which offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, creating a further layer. What I didn’t realize, until I Googled them, is that both Shams and Rumi were real people, living in Persia 800 years ago. Ella feels driven to contact the writer of the book she's appraising, and discovers that he strangely mirrors Shams in looks and philosophy. He tells her his story, she tells him hers, that the connection sets her free.
I’ve described the classic Russian Doll tale as both deliciously flawed and nesting imperfectly. This, for me is a crucial part of the structure, and the major reason such books often take on cult status, and become loved across the globe. We recognise in them our own, complex, horribly layered lives, of which we are trying, but mostly failing, to make sense. Sometimes, it’s reassuring to read fiction that is tightly plotted – in which every strand is tied by the end. But it can be equally illuminating and heartening to know that other people’s lives are disparate, random and full of stories that don’t quite end or make perfect sense. 

I’d be interested to hear what other readers and writers think about this; do leave a comment about your favourite Russian Doll novel or tell me if you disagree with either my interpretations above or my theory of the Russian Doll structure. And if you’re in the middle of writing a Russian Doll story, do tell us about it; if you have the strength!