Saturday, 23 March 2013


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!

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Fictional Characters from the Inside Out

Do they look like they are from the inside out is a question I try to ask as I create a new character. I feel it's important (but not imperative) to start with how a character is inside, rather than  how they appear in the flesh. Mind you, don't get me wrong, if you see a girl on a station, and the way she stands makes you want to write about her, or if you see a shot of someone's life in a Sunday supplement, and the same strong urge is generated, or if you recall a family member from your childhood – the way they wore their hair or the way they they always scratched their nose – then that's as good a starting point as any. But if your story starts at some other juncture, so that the characters are not so much an initiation into it but a continuation of your thinking about it, then I think it's a good idea to build the character from the inside out. Say you're writing about two people in a restaurant (Okay, I confess, I'm writing at this moment about two people in a restaurant), and you know the story, and the outcome (which I'm lucky enough to do...I think), then you may already have a fairly solid idea of what those people are thinking, what their life is when they're not in the restaurant; what they hope and fear; even what their back history is. So now, you can start looking at how to describe them from the outside. Sometimes, it's not even necessary to do this; readers really prefer the inside story when it comes to characters. But if you are going to do some describing, start by asking 'how would this person look outside, now I know how they feel inside? Creating symbols, so long as they are not too obvious, can be a good way forward. For instance, in my story, my male character is doing a PHd in ancient history, so when he first sees the girl, it's her dark eyes that attract him; and so I made her someone that uses a lot of black eye make-up.

If you do physically describe, your words should trigger a strong reaction – first in you, then in your readers. The more vivid the description, the more powerful that reaction will be. If you're new to writing, as a lot of my followers are, it’s a good idea to practise writing about people you know or that you have observed at first hand.  It will help you to develop a writer's eye for detail and will mean that eventually you will be able to create fictional characters much more convincingly. There are many ways of describing characters. Here are four:
  • Physicality and mannerisms
  • Clothing and possessions
  • Action
  • Speech
All of the above can be represented on the page in one of two ways – mundane (Sally was a red-haired girl with attitude), and extraordinary (‘My eyes aren’t really green,’ Sally admitted, ‘the contact lenses accentuate my hair colour.’) Both are relevant when building character. By the way, the first example was physicality and the second was speech. Below is an excerpt from early in the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor  (A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories 1953) How are the four basic methods of description used and where did the author use simile and metaphor?

Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied round with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbits ears.  She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “you all ought to take then somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.”
The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
“She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,’” June Star said without raising her head.

I didn't say that the four categories above are in anyway definitive. I can think of further categories, and if you put your mind to it so can you. If you're still new to writing, it's a good idea to note all this sort of thin down, wherever you make such notes (for my writing clients, we call this our 'Progress Pages'). Add any notes, or snatches of writing (yours or other writers'), that supports the list. And why not start to compile an ongoing list of eye-catching  similes and metaphors, so that you've always got one – at least one you can rejig – to hand? 

Sunday, 10 March 2013

In the Moors; finally the cover revealed!

Here it is, the wonderful, understated and atmospheric cover to my new book. The photographer has really achieved what I'd hoped for and the strap line...A Shaman going to pull the punter in, I'm sure.

It should be available from late autumn of this year, from Midnight Ink, and you'll be able to buy in as a paperback or as an e-book.

Sabbie Dare walks between worlds...trying to help her shamanic clients while living a self-sufficient life in the sleepy town of Bridgwater. She wakes from a nightmare to find it has come true – a fox has raided her chickens. She’s hoping new boyfriend Ivan will help repair the hen-house, but he’s wants to shoot the fox. So when a detective called Reynard arrives at her house, she’s suspicious of the coincidence. Rey is the archetypal humourless, maverick policeman, and their relationship begins like an upmarket cocktail – bitter and full of ice, but with a sparkler fizzing at the edge.  Rey likes to play his hunches and expects Sabbie to help him finger her new client, Cliff Houghton, for a horrific child killing. Then a second boy goes missing and Cliff is implicated in the kidnap.Cliff’s shamanic otherworld reveals dreadful secrets to Sabbie and although she’s sure of his innocence, proving it becomes a threat to her own survival. Sabbie needs to visit the dead child's shallow grave, out in the Somerset moors. She is so determined to find the truth, she hardly notices that she’s hurtling towards a dark and certain place of death…