Relatable: writing the real world, and The Real World

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Last week I told my faithful beta reader Sam that I would have something ready for him to read fairly shortly, and gave him the blurb (at least, as far as I could remember it off the top of my head).

He said,

Well, there’s a story I can relate to! Not the being a lesbian part, or the doing the PhD, or wanting to talk to a dead person… just the real world being a bit of a confusing mess! And that seems like it might be the joy of the story. Personally, I can’t relate to anything you just said in that blurb other than the real world being a crazy place, but I do feel I can relate to the whole thing still. So something’s right with it all!

And this strikes, albeit at something of an angle, at something that has been worrying me a little bit about my book. It’s something that worries me a little bit about every book that I write: what if X reads Y and thinks it’s about them?

I don’t mean the deliberate things. I borrowed the wheelchair conga line in the last book knowing exactly what I was doing. (I still have very fond memories of that party!) This time round I emailed somebody to ask, ‘Do you mind if I appropriate your church’s backstory?’ I don’t mean things like that. I mean the occasions when I go, ‘hang on, that thing happened! to X! I wasn’t thinking about X when I wrote it! oh shit! what if they think it’s about them and then they hate me?’

It’s usually something that was quite an obvious way to take the story, something that was quite easy to write. It hits me when most of the plot’s nailed down and I can’t easily take it out.

The thing is, whatever Y is, it probably also happened to several other people.

One’s early twenties are a confusing, difficult time. It’s the combination of having to deal with money, large amounts of money, or the lack of large amounts of money when one needs them to survive, and coming to understand that one’s parents are human and have human failings and are mortal and will eventually die, and wondering what on earth one’s going to do with the rest of one’s life, and encountering failure, and learning how to deal with serious relationships, and, and, and…

For some people it happens earlier; for some, it happens later. Personally, I spent the year after I turned 21 letting go of what I thought I was meant to be doing, and 22-23 just about clinging on to what remained. There are whole chunks of time that I just can’t remember at all. (This is a little irritating, because some of them would have made good material for this!) I look back at diary entries from that period and think, goodness, I really should have talked to somebody about that. And of course some people have more going on, more to deal with, than others.

But it’s very likely that what I’m writing about is going to match up with somebody’s history more closely than I’d intended. And on the one hand that’s good – as Sam points out, I’m trying to write things that people can relate to! And on the other I am hoping and trying not to inflict needless hurt.

Which brings me on to something that was originally going to be a separate blog post, but what the hell.

Yesterday the House of Bishops released some ‘pastoral’ guidance responding to the fact that opposite-sex civil partnerships are now possible in the UK.

It didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, but it said it in a spectacularly insensitive fashion, which has inevitably and deservedly been reported as ‘sex only for opposite-sex marriage, say bishops’. And there are a lot of LGBT+ Anglicans who are feeling pretty hurt and angry, and a lot of allies who are being very vocal too. It hurts. I have dodged a load of bullets and it still hurts. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are right in the firing line.

Meanwhile, lit Twitter was talking about American Dirt, which I don’t think I shall bother reading. I was particularly struck by this piece, which actually predates the current kerfuffle, but which got linked to illustrate the point that books about marginalised people don’t need to be trauma porn to be important. Life isn’t, and literature doesn’t have to be, wall-to-wall misery for immigrants, for queer people, for anyone. And the message that you’re doomed to unhappiness simply because of who you are is… not one that I would wish to endorse.

This is a balance that I’m trying to strike.

One of the major points of conflict in The Real World is the fact that ordained ministers in the Church of England are not allowed to marry someone of the same sex. This is a source of grief and pain in the real world; it’s destroying relationships and distorting lives. I have done my best to work with this and still write a book in which the richness and beauty and joy and delight of queer relationships can be discerned.

Whether I have succeeded… is the wrong question. Whether I will have succeeded, we’ll find out. It still needs work. I’m still filling in holes in the text, even as Sam looks at what I’ve done so far (‘seventeen pages of red marks’, he says). It is a way off being finished; a long way off being as good as I can get it; further away still from being as good as it can be.

(And then sometimes I think that all I’ve done is written a less posh, more liturgically accurate, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But that’s another story.)

December Reflections 17: I said hello to…

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‘Ello, Vera!

Terrible puns aside, this is the first aloe vera plant I’ve ever owned. I brought it home from the pub, the day that Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament. It was one of those informal arrangements where you stick a quid in the charity jar and pick the pot you fancy; except this was the last in the tray.

Often in recent months I’ve been saying to myself, And yet I will not despair. I said it on that evening, when I claimed the aloe vera plant.

And yet I will not despair.

A few weeks later, Lady Hale pinned on her spider brooch and announced that, legally speaking, it had never happened.

I will not despair.

It’s an attitude that works for me: acknowledging the fact that the news is often depressing, often overwhelming, that often I can’t see how things can get better – but I can still trust that there’s a reality that’s bigger than my current perception.

Friday’s election result was the opposite of what I’d hoped for. So many people, believing so many lies. Actually, I don’t know what I’d hoped for, apart from a miracle.

I didn’t get a miracle. I can’t see the way out of here.

And yet I will not despair.

The aloe vera seems to be putting out tiny little leaves.

I will not despair.

Christian Union kerfuffles: some useful questions to ask

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‘You write one little book about a Christian Union kerfuffle,’ I remarked earlier this week, ‘and every time there’s a Christian Union kerfuffle everyone goes all, I saw this and thought of you.’

This is perhaps unfair. Christian Union kerfuffles can happen at any British university, at any time, and anyone who happened to be even tangentially involved – on any side – will shudder gently to themselves at the memory and consider pouring a stiff drink. Many readers have told me, ‘Oh, I remember something just like this happening at __________ in the mid ____ies…’

On the other hand, perhaps it is fair. So far as I know, nobody apart from me has written about them in fiction. I can’t imagine why. (Other than the fact that they turn out to be very difficult to get published, I mean.) They generally attract enough drama, misunderstanding, and deeply felt and opposing idealism to fuel an epic.

It’s easy to understand why. Universities are full of people who have time, energy, and deeply held beliefs, who may be homesick or lonely or vulnerable, whose horizons have been suddenly and forcibly widened. There’s always a kerfuffle waiting to happen.

The most recent one happened at Balliol College, Oxford, earlier this term. I am not qualified to make a specific comment on the events at Balliol, for the following reasons:

  • it’s over a decade since I graduated
  • I went to a redbrick university, not Oxbridge
  • I live in Cambridge these days

What did I do when I read the story, then? I shuddered gently at the memory and considered pouring myself a stiff drink. It’s a general response to a general occurrence. As is this:

Over the years that I’ve been keeping an eye on these events I’ve developed a set of questions that I ask when I read stories like these. This is the big one:

  • Is this a simple question of secular versus sacred?

Because the story almost always appears to be about the Students’ Union versus the Christian Union, and it’s almost always a whole lot more complicated than that.

  • Whose voices are we not hearing?
  • What voices from other faiths?
  • Come to that, what about other Christian voices? Do we have a Roman Catholic take on the situation? Quaker? Orthodox? No? Well, what about the college chaplain?
  • If not, why not?
  • Is this particular Christian Union representative of all Christians?
  • Who’s affiliated to what? Do those affiliations tell us anything about the approaches, beliefs, or behaviour that can be expected?
  • Is everybody who they say they are? Are they as immediately involved as they claim to be?

I tried to give a fuller answer than we usually get to all of those questions when I wrote about a fictional kerfuffle at a fictional university. No, Stancester isn’t real, and nor is anything that happens there. But for all that it’s a familiar story, and it could have happened anywhere.

On Tim Farron

I’m Christian. I’m bisexual. I’m a member of the Labour party. And I am finding the tone of the commentary surrounding Tim Farron’s resignation somewhat upsetting.

I am not qualified to make pronouncements on Tim Farron’s beliefs. (Not that this seems to be stopping anyone else.) And so I’m just going to make a couple of observations, in what’s probably a pointless effort to introduce some nuance to the debate. One:

  • In Church language, ‘We’re all sinners’ is usually code for ‘I wish to describe some other group of people as sinful, but know that this will be frowned upon.’ Usually, but not always. However, even if one is inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt, this was at best a massive error of judgement.

Two, and I fear I’m going to be saying this for the rest of my life:

  • The assumption that LGBTQ and religious identities are mutually exclusive does not make life easier for those who happen to have both.

That’s it. Carry on.

Getting the timing right

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The next book – after A Spoke in the Wheel, I mean – looks like it’s going to be the sequel to Speak Its Name. I like knowing what the next thing is, and I like having a first draft to turn to when I’m fed up with editing, and vice versa; but on the other hand, there are some things I am going to have to think about pretty sharpish.

The big one is this: Speak Its Name is set at a deliberately vague point in time. It’s set after same-sex marriage became legal in the UK but while the Church of England is still being obstructive. So that would be any point between 2013 and now, really. And that works, because student politics are somewhat detached from the real world, and what happens in Speak Its Name really could happen in any year. But my characters are going to have to grow up and go out into the real world, and so the sequel is going to have to be more firmly tied in to wider Church of England politics. Not just the Church of England. The Anglican Communion.

Some interesting things have happened there this week.

For those of my readers who weren’t frantically refreshing the #pisky feed on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, and who missed the news in the general General Election hoo-hah, the Scottish Episcopal Church voted to allow same-sex weddings. That’s the sort of thing that my characters would have opinions about. I don’t think anybody would be moving to Scotland (Lydia’s far too low church to cope as a Pisky) but it would definitely come up in conversation.

Other things have happened this year. There was the finale of the Shared Conversations, a vote Not To Take Notice, another depressing chapter in the Jeffrey John saga, the tired old question of whether one can be an evangelical Christian and behave decently to LGBT people (spoiler: yes), and now, God help us all, a Tory/DUP coalition. I have strong opinions on all those things, and, my characters being who they are, most of them will have to as well.

Of course, that’s assuming the action of the sequel is happening this year. Last year the picture was different; next year it will be different again.

Another minor problem might arise from the fact that I’ve probably overwritten the Bishop of Bath and Wells (the real one, not the baby-eating one) by putting a cathedral city down on top of Ilchester. Can Somerset support that many cathedrals? Quite possibly not.

At the time of writing I’ve got about a thousand words down. Before I can go much further I’m going to have to make a firm decision about when things happen. I couldn’t do a Catherine Fox and write in real time – I’m too much of a chopper and changer for that – but I do need to have a better idea of how the plot fits into current affairs.

On one level it really doesn’t matter. I know the basic arc of the plot, and that won’t really change. (Is that a spoiler? It might be a spoiler.) On another, it’s integral to the whole thing. The obstacles along the way are going to change depending on precisely when I set it, and, unless I move it to another universe entirely, I have to take current affairs into account. Things are happening that I can’t ignore, not if I want to write a novel that has anything to say about what life’s like in the Church at the moment. And I do.

 

While I’m here, a couple of links. From my alma mater: Alumna author shortlisted for award. And from me: the book giveaway for Speak Its Name is open until 20 June.

Good news

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Speak Its Name was a finalist in the 2016 North Street Book Prize for self-published books (scroll down to the bottom of the page – then scroll back up and read about the actual winners). I’m very pleased about this indeed.

News from the Church of England is also good, though I find myself less excited than I might perhaps have been a couple of years ago. This time around, I got so frustrated by the bi erasure from both sides that I never managed to get into the debate. And I can’t help feeling that things have come to a pretty pass when Synod opt not to note a report that was so dreadful that the Bishops felt that they had to apologise for it and we feel obliged to be grateful for this.

I’m thinking a lot about the Syro-Phoenician woman, thinking about the tables that I sit at and the ones whose legs I prowl around hopefully. Some time over the last few years, it seems, I started wanting more than crumbs.

Art, time and change

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Tomorrow evening my church choir will be singing Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem. It’s an oddly appropriate choice for Remembrance Sunday, and it feels even more so given recent events: it was commissioned by the Vichy government in 1941, but Duruflé only finished it in 1947, after the war was over and the world was picking up the pieces.

Part of that, I suspect, is because Duruflé had a tendency to drag his feet on things he didn’t want to do. Only one of his works, the Notre Père, is not based on Gregorian chant, and that is because he only finished it after his wife had started writing it for him, having been requested repeatedly to set the Lord’s Prayer in the vernacular.

But part of it is the simple fact that art takes time. To create, to perform, to consume art, absorbs our attention for long enough to give us a new perspective. The six years that it took Duruflé to write the Requiem, the forty minutes that it takes to sing or to listen to it – that time makes space for things to change, for us to change.

For a couple of years I had a habit of picking up The Count of Monte Cristo in about October, when the days were getting shorter and my mood was getting lower. It’s about 1100 pages long; by the time I got to the end, something would have shifted.

One of the greatest gifts of art is the way that it takes us out of what we think is our own timeline; shows us – sometimes quite literally – the bigger picture; allows us to step back from the overwhelming emotion. Sometimes that feels like a betrayal: how can we possibly feel any less angry, any less hurt, any less scared, than we do at the moment? Surely this devastating news deserves nothing less than everything we have?

The last news story that made me cry was the murder of Jo Cox MP, just before the referendum in which the UK voted to leave the European Union. After that, nothing has really surprised me. Disappointed me, yes, but not surprised me.

The one before that was the General Synod decision in 2012, the one that voted against the appointment of women bishops. That was a November vote, too.

From where I am now, I am thinking, gosh, was that all I had to cry about in 2012? But it only seems trivial now because I know what happened next. When I’d cried about it, I wrote a blog post. Having written the blog post, I found that I was still hurt and angry, still feeling rejected because of a fundamental part of my own identity, and the only thing I could think of to do with that was write fiction.

Lydia choked, rolled onto her side, and sat up. ‘I never realised,’ she said wonderingly, ‘how much it was going to hurt. It goes right into the heart. They don’t want me. They were OK with the person they thought I was, so long as she stayed in her place, and was happy to teach the approved version of events and not rock the boat, but they don’t want the person I really am. I always knew, in theory, that I was only there on sufferance, that as soon as anyone worked out who I really was I’d be out on my ear, but it didn’t hit me until today how terrible it was, when you understand the reality that nobody wants you.’

That was where I began with the final draft. It went on from there: a year of writing; a year of editing; a year of becoming brave enough to put it out under my own name. I burned up the anger that had first fuelled it; I put it all into the text.

By the time I published Speak Its Name on 2 February 2016, six women had been consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. While I was writing, things had changed.

I’m not saying that things will magically become better if we can only wait it out. For some people it is, indeed, already too late. I am not saying that art can fix everything. There are some things that are just wrong. Nevertheless, it is the best tool that I have to make something good, something useful, perhaps even something beautiful, out of emotions that, left unchecked or harnessed for ill, will destroy the world.