Saturday, 28 February 2015

Trespass - Rose Tremain – The Kitchen Table Crime Review.

Rose Tremain has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. So what is she doing, writing a crime thriller? Because you can hide the fact that Trespass, published in 2010, is a novel about murder. 

Maybe she didn’t realize that’s what she was about. Perhaps she thought this terrifying and bleak story documenting the cultural clash between rich, cultured English people and a provincial French family was the usual contemporary literary fiction that is expected from Tremain’s pen. After, the narrative is beautifully written, the language deeply satisfying.  But I don’t think so. She knew what she was doing. After all Tremain is now in her seventies and so just the right age to take over the Crime Writer’s Crown from P G James. And her take on a crime thriller is edged with noir. Each character is filled with deep psychological pain and the opening is classic crime fiction;  a young schoolgirl sees something in the waters of the river. She runs, screaming. The book then takes us from the beginning of the story that leads up to the event which made her scream.

Don’t suppose she’s going to listen to me – why should she – but I think Tremain should keep going with crime. The late PD James said that A detective story can give a much truer picture of the society in which it’s written than a more prestigious literature.” And, interviewed, would you believe it, by Amazon Books, James is quoted as  saying “Murder is the unique crime, the only one for which we can make no reparation, and has always been greeted with a mixture of repugnance, horror, fear, and fascination. We are particularly intrigued by the motives which cause a man or woman to step across the invisible line which separates a murderer from the rest of humanity. Human beings also love a puzzle and a strong story, and mysteries have both”.

So go for it, Miss Tremain. Your exquisite prose and consistently dark themes are perfect for creating crime noir, and I for one enjoyed Trespass as much as Music and Silence and Restoration. The characters are filled with real existence, despite being to a person damaged by their troubled histories. There is no sympathetic protagonist to latch on to, but even so this is a compelling story.
Novelist, Rose Tremain

The novel centres around Mass Lunel, a crumbling, ancient family farmhouse in the Cevennes in southern France, the home of Aramon Lunel, a man who is so ridden with guilt at the crimes he has committed  in his past and now sickening from a very unhealthy lifestyle. He hits on the idea of selling the house and land, which would net him more money than he has ever imagined. But he needs the help of his half-sister, Audrun, who has suffered a lifetime of abuse at his hands and is now exiled to an ugly modern bungalow on the edge of the land. She is horrified at the idea of selling the family home, especially as her home, and the forest land she inherited with it is threatened by the sale. Alongside this fear, she is already festering with long-term hate and resentment towards Aramon. 

We have already met  Anthony Verey, an elderly antiques dealer with a penchant for young men. When he hits financial trouble in London, he visits his sister, who is living in the Cevennes with Kitty, her lover. Kitty has never been able to stand Anthony and is suspicious of the close bond between the siblings. She know that Anthony would be pleased to break up their French love nest and his horrified when Anthony announces he’s going to buy a property in the area. It’s not long before he claps eyes on Mas Lunel, and he loves it from the start. But he does not love Audrun’s bungalow. He covets her land, too. 

Tremain makes this story a forensic study of the way the shadows from the past always catches up the present until the climax mingles loss of justice with issues of identity and the philosophy of what happiness really is.

This is a troubling book, because it takes crime seriously, examining it for what it really is; messy, dirty. No one comes out of the events within the novel very well. The complexities of all the various relationships and their secret agendas, flare up, as we reach the denouement of the story, and as the book closes, real flames flare, leaving the reader gasping with the strength of the symbolism within it. Tremain wants you to go on thinking about impasse she’s created, long after you close the pages. 

So, even though Tremain writes literary, prize-winning fiction, I recommend that you read this book as if it were a psychological thriller, and then you won’t be disappointed at all.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Mood Board; a different way of plotting a novel

       There has got to be a thousand different ways
of gaining the inspiration to breathe life into a new writing project.

I'm starting a new novel and I need to stimulate my creativity to bring the infant story to life.
I thought I’d tried  all the different methods of finding ideas and fusing the ideas together to make the story work; wall charts, notebooks, time-lines, character sketches, brainstorming, web-making. But I’ve been motivated by all those interior design programmes on the TV to try a mood board.
Nina's New Novel - the Mood Board
This simply is a cork board onto which I’ve pinned, glued and wedges all the things that are exciting inspiration for the story I’m writing at the moment. 
I’d love to tell you more about this story, but I do believe in the old writers’ maxim; Careless Talk Wrecks Your Plot. So I’ll just say that, yet again, I’m turning to a life of crime. I love examining what happens when people are put in extremis, as both the victims of violent crime and because they are driven to commit atrocities like murder. 
I’ve recently spent time in the East End of London and, in a  lot of ways, I loved it; the vibrancy of the community there feels dynamic and vital. But it is a place where there is a lot of poverty...and a lot of crime. So part of my book will be set there. Another part will be set locally. I’ve been bursting to use the wonderful landscape of west Wales, and I’m heading slightly north to Aberystwyth (the recent home of the TV hit Hinterland) to take advantage of the grey, angry seas, the murmuring starlings over the pier, the infestation of holiday makers, and the rising cliffs with the Victorian Cliff Railway set central. It’s a mixed community, a university town with an Arts Centre and the National Library of Wales, but it also knows poverty. Alongside all this is the long-standing farming community and the bustle of the tourist trade. And, away from the coast, is the windswept raw beauty of the Cambrian mountains and its lakes, which feed the River Teifi.
Trying to gain the right mood for a book is a subtle thing, easily lost as you think up characters and engineer the plot, and I’m really pleased with my mood board. I can easily picture my character's faces; I know about their clothes, their pets, their hobbies and their past stories.
I’m gaining a real sense of my central characters; their lives, their feelings, decisions, flaws; their hopes and fears. In fact; the mood board is helping life inside their worlds. 

Monday, 16 February 2015

Austerlizt by S. G. Sebald; my Author of the Month

Fifteen years ago, WG Sebald suffered a heart attack while driving and was killed instantly in a head-on collision with a truck. He was fifty-seven years old. He was a writer and lecturer, born in Germany but living in England. He has been describes as ‘one of contemporary literature’s most transformative figures’ – he might have won a Nobel if not for his early death.  I have only read one of his four novels, “Austerlitz”, which is a simple enough story, and one told many times before; a Jewish child, sent to England through the Kindertransporte, begins to retrace his roots.

I found it difficult to read; the structure is unsettling, making you feel disorientated, but the narrative voice is richly rewarding. Sebald has a ground-breaking take on structure and storytelling, which felt utterly unique in its breadth. In Austerlitz (and all his novels, I believe), he combines fiction with memoir, essay, psychogeography, biography and history. This is a strange fusion, and it took me a while to get my head around the figurative and literal ramblings of the novel, but in the end, after thinking the oddness through alongside the atmospheric mood of the book, I had to agree with Susan Sontag, who, in the Times Literary Supplement in 2000, was asked if literary greatness was still possible. Her reply; “one of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald.” And in the New Yorker, his work was described as moving the boundaries of narrative fiction as radically as anyone since Borges. 

Reading him is a disorienting experience, partly because of this fusion of forms; I kept wanting this to ‘just be a novel’, but Sebald was not going to let me off the hook that easily. Quite a lot of the narrative is taken up with Austerlitz,  who, having been brought up in Wales as Dafyyd Elias  during and after the war, discovers his real identity and tries to piece together his first, lost four years. As he moves across the continent, he is constantly encountered by the author and at each, apparently random, meeting,  talks deeply of what is in his mind at that given time; long, winding stories, opinions and discussions on philosophical dilemmas, which slowly move things towards the heart of the matter; that his parents put him on a train before being taken to a concentration camp.. 

One of the most disconcerting areas of the book are the photos. These grimy, black and white images are dotted throughout the book and relate directly to Austrelizt's life, as if the real man had handed them to Sebald for publication. I poured over them, and their reality haunted me because, although thewriter makes it clear that he met Austrelitz and is recording their (extremely one-sidedº conversations, it is generally accepted that Austerlitz is a work of fiction. 
As Vertigo, a Sebald-themed blog, points out; The mysterious cover photograph has almost taken on a life of its own. The photograph of a young fair-haired Aryan boy in an all-white costume and holding a white tri-cornered hat…It’s an image that seems to me less connected to the character Austerlitz himself and more to Germany’s pre-World War II nostalgia for a glorious past.(Could that actually be the young Sebald or is it just one of his flea market photograph finds?)

If you want an experience beyond the norm in your reading; if you want to see where novels can go when writers are this brave, read Sebald. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Omnisicient Point of View; Can You Be Omnipotent?

out from Midnight Ink Books
available on Amazon and Waterstones

They say, and in my opinion they’re right, that the
 omniscient Point of View (POV) is the hardest
perspective to take as a writer.

It’s oh, so much easier to get inside a head, as I do with my protagonist Sabbie Dare (In the Moors and Unraveled Visions) and write in the first person, or to keep close to that character’s psyche by writing in the ‘limited third person’. But the omniscient has always been there, from the very beginning. It may even be the first real fictional perspective, used by ancient story tellers and used today by writers who want to retell folk stories. Early novels, when they weren’t in diary form, were mostly in the omniscient POV, informing the reader of everything that happens in a god-like manner. Victorian authors, such as Wilkie Collins and Trollop, revelled in it. Children’s authors sometimes return to it – Lemony Snicket’s marvellous 'Series of Unfortunate Events’ being such a recent success. Literary novelists love to have a go, notably Fay Weldon (The Wife’s Revenge) and The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.  John Fowles used an active, present, author-voice in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Italo Calvino  And in The Book Thief,  Markus Zusac chose a clever version of the omniscient; the narrator is death itself; I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary.  You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables.  It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible…You will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up).  You will be caked in your own body…a scream will dribble down the air
Are you reading this because you’re  thinking of using this Point of View? Worse; are you struggling with it in the story you’re writing at the moment? Have you turned to writing advice on the internet because you’re wondering if you’ve made a mistake, choosing the omniscient, when there are so many other ways – easier ways – of narrating a story?
POV answers the question: whose voice tells the story – gives us the information we need – tells us what is happening? Does one character control our understanding of events, or do we have an omniscient narrator who gives us facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? How does the voice or consciousness that acts as the point of view shape our interpretations? What might happen if another point of view took charge?    POV is the hidden camera though which the reader perceives the fact all the story… and I think at this point it would be good to refresh ourselves on the subject of POV generally.
  1. First Person…A character tells their own story – they are the narrator. It is distinguished at all times by the use of the pronoun ‘I’ and the narrator must be in every scene. 
  2. Second Person…the writer addresses a third person at all times, using the pronoun ‘you’. Not a popular choice, but works well in short stories, as in the anthology You, Me and a Bit of We (in which on of my own stories appears)
  3. 3rd person Limited…sometimes called the 3rd person subjective, we only see inside one character’s head. The narrator seems to sit on his shoulder, but it’s fairly clear that the character and the narrator are not absolutely the same. It’s a straightforward POV, but because we are only inside on character’s head at a time we are definitely not allowed to wander into others, or view scenes the narrator is not in.
  4. 3rd person Deep While using the 3rd Person Limited, above, the writers dips deeply into a single person’s head, until we read what David Lodge describes as  Free Indirect Discourse, which is a bit of a mouthful, so I usually refer to this as filterless monologue The convention that the reader is witnessing the narrator’s thoughts gives the narrative a rich, inner feeling of attachment to the narrator. There are no secrets, everything is exposed. In extreme cases, this might be said to be stream of consciousness, 
     a literary POV best served in fairly small doses.
     Filterless monologue is hard to maintain, but that’s less of a worry because you don’t have to maintain it – you can move in and out of this deeper perspective, because the two 3rd Person POV’s are so close in construction that it is possible to allow a single piece of work to move between them at will, without having technically gone outside  the 3rd Person POV…i.e. use of the pronoun ‘he/she’.  
  5. Omniscient….At one end of the range is the god-like perspective, where almost no character is examined closely and there is no ‘dropping down’ into anyone’s consciousness. This is also known as  ‘legitimate authorial standpoint’ and probably the most tricky POV for the 21stC writer. The ‘hovering above the characters’ aspect can feel cold and unaffecting, but allows an ironic overview which achieves a detached, humorous tone.                                                                                                                                 At the other end of the omniscient range is the constant fluctuation between intimate viewpoints, even within the same sentence. Navokovich called this latter approach propelling the reader into a new angle. E.M. Foster called it ‘bouncing’. Excellent for stories in which a richer effect would be created by knowing what several characters think, this gives a ‘lifted’ tone to work.                                                         Because the Omniscient offers a complete range of vision over the narration, the narrator must know everything. You have all the power; you can shift in time and space at whim from character to character, inside thoughts, feelings and motives. It’s your choice as writer what glimpses the the reader will have into any character’s head.                                                                                                                        All this is devilishly difficult to achieve well – most of the examples of omniscient I see as a tutor are errors of judgement on the writer’s part; they’ve moved outside their chosen POV without realizing it. Julia Bell warns that you should avoid ‘headhopping’…An uncontrolled third-person point of view is something I encounter all the time in creative writing workshops, sometimes accompanied by a grumpy writer…every character in the room gets a POV – even the dog. This is just bad writing…
  6. 3rd Person Wide-ranging. One way of achieving the effect of an omniscient viewpoint is to approach it casually. By taking a step away from the intimacy of the limited and deep 3rd Person, described above but staying mostly with one character, you’ll gain a more flexible canvas to work on. In this format, a single character is often still the central point of the narration, but the author can tell us what goes on outside their range of vision, even moving into scenes they don’t inhabit. This is used a lot in books where a narrator tells almost all the story themselves, except for some limited scenes – J K Rowling uses it all the time in the Harry Potter books; few readers notice there are scenes that are not in Harry’s 3rd Person POV.               This ‘take’ on the Omniscient allows you to further experiment with style and can be a lot of fun as you move back from being right inside a single head, but it needs professional handling or it can lose its ‘thread’ and become muddled – the writer must be absolutely sure they understand, and are in control, of their perspectives, especially knowing how to tackle ‘chill’ of the Omniscient, because once you move away from that central narrator, you’re not offering the reader the one thing they’re craving; that deep intimacy with a single character they identify with.                                                                                              
  7. Plural Viewpoints…the ‘we’ form (2nd person plural) and the ‘they’ form (3rd person plural) are not often used in fiction. For a start they are fiendishly difficult to maintain successfully. But Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is written from the perspective of a group of boys who grow up fascinated by the Lisbon family and their five daughters, we do not get the sense of one person narrating on behalf of a group.  Instead, a strong collective voice comes through; it could be any one of the boys, or they could even be taking it in turns to narrate…We climbed up to the tree house the way we always had, stepping in the knothole, then on the nailed board, then on two bent nails, before grasping the frayed rope and pulling ourselves through the trapdoor…The oblong window we’d cut with a handsaw years ago still looked onto the front of the Lisbon house.  Next to it were five spotted photographs of the Lisbon girls, pinned with rusty tacks
  8. Multi-viewpoint…This is a popular format, where all the changes of viewpoint are at specific moments in the text; usually the changeover of scene, chapter, etc. Perspectives can also be alternated with other points of view.This is not an Omniscient POV; most multi-viewpoint books don’t touch the Omniscient, they simply move through different viewpoints.  Margaret Atwood uses this technique in The Edible Woman.  To reflect her protagonist’s growing sense of detachment, Atwood starts the novel in first person, switches to third part way through, and changes back to first for the last section of the book. ; i.e. write your chosen piece mostly in a wide-ranging 3rd person, becoming authorial on necessary occasions.
So, how do you choose the right POV? Luckily there is no reason (other than it is somewhat time consuming) why you cannot change POV at the end of a first draft.Almost by definition the reader will perceive the POV character as the most important in a scene and will remain sympathetic to that character. This is a crucial point when deciding which POV to use, especially if you’ve chosen multi-viewpoint. 
You might like to ask some of the following questions about the project you are undertaking at the moment:
  • What do you want the reader to know, and therefore, who is the best character to reveal these things…or not?
  • Whose voice would tell the story in the most gripping manner?
  • Which voice gives us the crucial information we need to understand what is happening? 
  • Do you want only one character to control our understanding of events, or would it be preferable to have an omniscient narrator furnishing facts and insights that the characters themselves do not have? 
  • Do you need a second perspective to allow the reader to see things a single POV will not cover?

I’d be interested in any of your ideas, experiences or comments on this post, and the struggle writers have with POV. Do let me know through the comment box, please!

Monday, 2 February 2015

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh; the Kitchen Table Crime Review

Usually, when I discover a new author, I like to start with their first book, but I’ve just read A Lovely Way to Burn, (John Murray 2014), Louise Welsh’s most recent crime fiction. I was attracted because the book promises to be the first in a trilogy, The Plague Times, and as I’ve just completed a crime trilogy myself (The Shaman Mysteries, Midnight Ink Books, 2013/4/5) I’m interested to see how other writers approach this form. 

Welsh is a Scottish writer, living in Glasgow
(c) Steve Lindridge
and although I’d never read her before, I knew about her. I’d read reviews of her books as I poured over my weekend papers. The Observer suggests…Welsh mixes a heady cocktail of death, desire and illusion in quick, sharp prose (The Bullet Trick  2006). 
The Sunday Telegraph said of Tamburlaine Must Die…Utterly engrossing. Elizabethan England has never seemed more beguilingly immediate. 

I also know that, like me, Welsh writes short stories, including one for The Erotic Review, (my agent's magazine) as well as essays for Radio 3, reviews, plays and librettos. She’s won awards, and even more interestingly, gets involved with projects such as residencies and collaborations. 
This intrigued me, and brought me to A Lovely Way to Burn, which I initially heard described as a ‘dystopian mystery’. But what is particularly shocking is that the setting could be now; this London, this year. Her descriptions of a city collapsing under the weight of a pandemic virus is thrillingly awful, immediately reminding me of the images I’d seen on the TV News of Ebola violently taking hold in so many African countries. In her Acknowledgements, Welsh explained how she’d been influence by her childhood memories of the threat of the A bomb, and by TV classics such as Threads and Survivors. All writers begin a work by being influenced in some way; they take those influences and compost them until they create their own ideas, allowing them to drive a pathway through their own imaginations. A Lovely Way to Burn is not just a book about Doomsday or Armageddon and that makes it fascinating and a gripping read.
At the outbreak of the virus colloquially called ‘the sweats’, Stevie Flint finds her boyfriend dead. She’s on a bit of a downward path; she used to be a journalist but now she’s a presenter on a TV shopping channel.  Stevie falls ill directly after discovering Simon’s body; a day passes during which she’s sure she’s going to die, but she recovers and assumes (rightly) that she’s now immune to the sweats. The police tell her that Simon, who was doctor at a London hospital, died of natural causes, but she finds a letter he’d written, asking her, in the event he ‘disappeared’, to take his laptop to a colleague. 
Do not entrust it to anyone else, no matter how polite, kind or authoritative they are...conceal it in your most frivolous bag...
With this letter, I was hooked. Stevie does as she’s bid, but it soon becomes clear she can trust no one. While people are dying in their beds and in the street, and the healthy are fleeing London, she moves around the catastrophic city, amassing her information, investigating her boyfriend’s death.  The institutions are in disorder and it’s hard to get anyone to talk, not only because they might want to hide the truth – “keep your distance,” is the perpetual cry – “don’t come near me!” At one point, masked men stop Stevie from entering a residential street. They want to preserve their loved ones from infection, and seem prepared to kill if needs be.
Welsh says about A Lovely Way to BurnAll my novels are quests, but their central characters and locations are very different from each other. I truly hope she can stick to one setting and one protagonist to complete this trilogy. I know how gruelling writing three books on the trot can be. I was aided by Sabbie Dare, a central character who is bold and sassy, compassionate and funny. Welsh will be similarly aided by Stevie Flint. As Simon says in his letter to her…you are clever, persuasive, persistent and resourceful and have enough nous to know that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean doing the obvious thing. I’m sure Louise Welsh can’t wait to write about Stevie Flint again.