The Grand Tour 6: I’ll take you home again (north)

(Part 1: can’t you hear that whistle blowing?)

(Part 2: rise up so early in the morn: north and east)

(Part 3: I spent cities like a handful of change: south)

(Part 4: you’re so ambitious for a juvenile: west)

(Part 5: I walked alone: west again)

4 May 2018

I was still limping the following morning, and my foot had come up in a spectacular bruise across the base of my toes. However, movement was less painful than it had been the day before, and I made it down to the station with only a token amount of wincing and cursing.

No train this time, though. I was taking the OuiBus – a very convenient service, which I’d booked online on John’s recommendation the previous day, and which would take me to Geneva airport. This was a much quicker way of getting back into Switzerland than retracing my journey to Martigny, spectacular as that had been.

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Mont Blanc came out from behind the clouds just as John was waving me off. It seemed to be my luck with mountains. The OuiBus ride was a pleasant run through the foothills of the Alps, all green in the sunshine, and put me down in Geneva at an entirely sensible time to buy lunch before the next train.

French-speaking Switzerland was less mountainous than the parts I’d travelled through so far, but was still lovely. I let it slip past the window – Neuchâtel, Lausanne – lakes, narrow, pointed buildings, and a gentle green landscape.

At Basel I changed onto a train going north into Germany, and found myself in a compartment littered with newspapers and food wrappers. The landscape outside was not much more inspiring: cuttings lined with dusty concrete, with a few half-hearted trees here and there. We were approaching the Black Forest, though I had to say I couldn’t see anything of it. Why am I sad? I asked myself, and came to the conclusion that it was time to go home. I reached Karlsruhe, just as rush hour was getting going. I checked and rechecked the map: I had no desire to walk in the wrong direction on my injured foot.

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It was the last night of my three weeks abroad. I’d been comparatively frugal up to this point. I couldn’t walk far on this foot of mine. For all these reasons, I’d booked a room in the Schlosshotel, and hadn’t flinched when the price went into three figures. The area in front of the station entrance formed an oblong, with the station and the zoo forming the long sides, and the hotel one of the short ones. I checked in – entirely in German, to my gratification – and took the lift up to my room. The lift was, I understood from a sign, an historic monument, but it still seemed to work all right.

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My room was on the top floor, and looked over the square – which meant that I had a fantastic view of the trams. It seemed appropriate for the last night: they’d been a running theme of this trip. I took a shower and had a look at my foot. The bruising had come up in an even more impressive purple, but it wasn’t hurting so much.

[warning: after the picture of the tram, there is a picture of my bruised foot]

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Then I took the lift downstairs again and limped a little way around the square, peering through the gates of the zoo to see what I could see (flamingoes, mostly) and looking for somewhere to eat. In the end I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant: a celebratory meal of pancakes with the local asparagus, and a glass of fizz. I enjoyed my own company, as I had, I supposed, most of the time.

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5 May 2018

For the last day of my journey I’d planned to head north via Mannheim and Cologne, taking the slower route along the Rhine. Getting to Mannheim was easy enough. I tripped getting onto the train, but didn’t sustain any further damage to speak of. When I got there, however, I discovered that the train I had my eye on was running late, and if it got much later then I wasn’t going to have time to do things the interesting way.

I hung around on the platform, watching other trains, and tried to dislodge the earworm that the name Mannheim installed. Many hymn tunes are named after places, and I’ve spent enough time in church choirs to be able to match them up without really thinking about it. Aberystwyth: Jesu, lover of my soul. Wareham: Jesus, where’er thy people meet. Much closer to home, Coe Fen: How shall I sing that majesty? Mannheim is Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us.

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My train got later and later. I realised that I was not going to get the leisurely journey alongside the Rhine. Not if I wanted to catch the Eurostar I was booked on. No, it was going to be an express train dash to Frankfurt. I dragged myself grumpily onto the ICE and resigned myself to a boring journey on a boring fast line. A complimentary packet of locomotive-shaped gummy sweets mollified me a little.

When I got to Frankfurt, I realised. In my end is my beginning. Of course I had to go back via Frankfurt. The towering glasshouse of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was where it all started, over a decade ago when I was an au pair in Germany. Back then, I was mostly using the Hauptbahnhof for the S-bahn. I only went outside the city by train twice, once to see a friend who lived in Würzburg, and once on my first great continental railway journey, back to England for my future sister-in-law’s wedding. But that wasn’t really the point. The first time I’d looked at a departures board and saw trains listed to Fulda (another hymn tune), Bruxelles-Midi, Stuttgart, and realised that I could go anywhere, that was Frankfurt. And the book that had won the prize and funded the whole trip, that had begun here, too. The first map of Stancester, the first diagram of the different relationships between the six characters at Alma Road, those were drawn out on my aunt’s dining table in Ober Erlenbach.

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Between finding a postbox and feeding another euro into the lavatory gates and buying a cheese roll and dragging myself and my suitcase along platform 18 to zones D to F, I thought of my twenty-two year old self and wondered whether she would have believed that we’d actually get here. She might have done. She dreamed big. She wasn’t necessarily so good at making things actually happen, but that’s fine. I’ve learned how to do that over the years since.

On that first Frankfurt-London journey, back in the autumn of 2007, I went all the way from Frankfurt to Brussels. This time I had to change at Aachen, and get a rail replacement bus to Welkenraedt. Back through the Ardennes, back through Liège, back to Brussels.

On the Eurostar, I got out my diary, and I wrote:

I’ve just been sitting watching the northern French landscape go by, all lush and green, and golden in this evening light. When I came out the trees were more or less bare.

This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.

The couple opposite me are celebrating 44 years together and (I think) 38 years of marriage. Four children, six grandchildren. They’ve just been in Bruges. Loved it.

People say I’m brave, coming out and going around on my own, but it’s never felt like something I couldn’t do. My confidence with regard to specific tasks has improved (today I went to Sam’s Café in Bruxelles-Midi, which I didn’t have the nerve to do three weeks ago) but I always knew I’d find a way around it all.

Little moments of luxury elevate the whole thing. Last night at Karlsruhe, today getting a meal in the Eurostar, and the stale rolls and decaying tomatoes, the frayed carpet and cracked washbasin at Hamburg, don’t seem relevant. I’ve had my fun. And how. Another time I might… but that’s the thing; there can be another time.

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Q & A Tag: The Debut Novel

Good luck to everyone attempting NaNoWriMo!  I haven’t been able to make NaNoWriMo work for me since I started working full-time, and also I’m in the middle of a non-writing fortnight, so I’m not taking part. I’m reading instead.

And what I have been reading, among other things (Ankaret WellsAnna Chronistic and the Scarab of Destiny came out yesterday, just saying…) is Speak Its Name. This is partly in search of details I’ve got wrong in The Real World (Rory never went to St Mark’s! Gabe has always had a surname, and it isn’t Murtagh!) but mostly because I happened to pick it up and start flicking through, and then decided I might as well keep reading…

Then I remembered that an early draft had an epic ecumenical argument about Hallowe’en, which might have made a good deleted scene. I couldn’t find it. I did find that all the early drafts meandered all over the place (which I had remembered) were quite unbelievably camp (which I hadn’t).

So all in all this seemed like a good moment to answer a Q & A that I’ve been meaning to do for a while: Niamh Murphy‘s ‘The Debut Novel’ Q & A tag.

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What is the title and genre of your debut novel?

Speak Its Name is a contemporary f/f novel about a Christian student finding her way out of the closet against a backdrop of student politics.

What gave you the idea to start writing it?

Originally I wanted to tell the story of an episode of the great Christian Union wars of the early 2000s. If you weren’t at university in the early 2000s, or didn’t get involved in student politics if you were, then you may well have missed these entirely, but they still crop up from time to time. There’s almost always more going on than makes the press. This was certainly the case in the kerfuffle that I got involved in, and I wanted to tell what really happened.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) ‘what really happened’ was actually quite boring. Looking back, I feel like Lord Palmerston:

“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

How long did it take you to finish?

A long time! I wrote the first word of the first draft in November 2007, having spent much of the summer planning. By the summer of 2014, I thought it was more or less done. I eventually published it in February 2016.

What was the biggest challenge you had when writing it?

The moment when I realised that actually the whole thing needed to be written in the point of view of a character who at that juncture had absolutely nothing. And who wouldn’t come out even to herself until half way through the book.

This development had its advantages, though: for one thing, it made it much easier to incorporate the political storyline. And it made the book much better overall, much tighter, and less susceptible to in-jokes and digressions.

How did you get it published, indie or trad?

After spending a summer trying to interest agents in the book, I gave up and decided to self-publish – a decision I’ve never regretted. Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize in 2017, after which I did get some more interest from the traditional publishing world, but we decided pretty much simultaneously that it wasn’t an avenue that any of us wanted to pursue.

What was the most important thing you learnt from the process?

How to write a novel. That might sound flippant, but I’m serious. I started with a string of real life events and a handful of characters. Over the years I learned: to let my characters make their own mistakes; how to harness my own emotions to make my characters’ reactions convincing; how to get characters to drive plot; what to leave out; what to take out; how much I really enjoy editing.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on the sequel. It’s called The Real World and it picks up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name. As the title suggests, the characters are having to adjust to life after graduation, and none of them have picked a particularly easy path (if such a thing even exists). There are difficult decisions to be made and challenging situations to work through.

But I’ve actually got to the stage where I put it away for a few months and try to ignore it, so that I can return to it with fresh eyes.

In the meantime I’m writing some shorter pieces, a couple of which are also set in Stancester. One is a prequel to Speak Its Name – Becky’s first term at university – which I’ll be offering as an incentive to sign up to my email newsletter, when I actually get around to setting that up. The other is more of a standalone, and I’m aiming to submit it to the Reconciling the Rainbow anthology.

 

Q & A Tag: The Debut

Degrees of stuckness

The Real World is currently sitting at 83,000 words. This ought to be enough words, but of course not all of them will end up in the final version.

At present I’m wondering whether I’ve got to the point where I put it away for three months. I probably have. At the beginning of the year I told myself that I was aiming to have a first draft in October, and, apart from a few [insert science fact here] notes, I’ve filled in most of the gaps.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with its two predecessors – not in terms of word count (that wouldn’t take long) or in terms of what precisely I was panicking about, when (that’s a question for another post), but in terms of what you might call the emotional arc.

Thus far, I have always written about what one of my friends called ‘people sorting their heads out‘: characters who are stuck in their own assumptions, their own worldviews, and how they get unstuck.

What makes The Real World different is the fact that I show much more of the process of getting stuck.

Here’s a diagram:

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Speak Its Name chugs along for the first hundred pages or so with Lydia operating within the same narrow constraints that she’s known all her life. When she takes a long, hard, look at herself, everything suddenly opens out – and keeps opening.

What we can’t see, of course, is how the increased exposure to people outside her own social group is affecting her without her knowing it.

In fact, all three diagrams show only what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, and only what they’re conscious of (or would be, if they thought about it). They don’t show the external circumstances or other characters’ decisions that are working on them. Nor do they show all the little accumulations and releases of tension that drive a story. Just the perceived stuckness, if you like.

In A Spoke in the Wheel, the most stuck part is actually before the opening of the book. When we meet Ben, he’s not quite at his lowest point: he’s just coming out of it; he’s made a major change in his life. He still has a very long way to go, and the process isn’t quite as smooth as the diagram implies, but the only way is up. Or, to put it another way, it’s all uphill from here.

The Real World starts out in Colette’s head with a reasonably broad worldview, and then compresses and compresses things until it’s almost intolerable. But, as you see, it finds a bit of space right at the end.

I’m a bit apprehensive about what people will make of it. Will it all be hideously depressing (or, worse, boring) – or will the increasing stuckness drive the tension up?

The answer is, I honestly don’t know, yet. It’s difficult to tell when I’ve been buried in the text. That’s why I’m putting it away until the new year. I’ll let you know.

The Page 69 Test

Messing around on Twitter a while ago, I came across the Page 69 Test. Apparently this has been popularised by John Sutherland’s book How To Read A Novel, and originates in advice from Marshall McLuhan:

Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.

But why does it work? I suspect that it’s because by the time you get to page 69 you’re past all the introductions and scene-setting, but not far enough to encounter any meaningful spoilers.

Actually, it’s often that section of the book that I find most difficult to write. There’s something about managing the transition out of the set-up that causes me a whole lot of trouble, and I end up with an awful lot of square brackets saying: [link] [expand!] [something about the parents] [but why?]

I was therefore a little hesitant to look up my own page 69s (pages 69?), but actually I was quite pleased with what I found.

Here’s page 69 of A Spoke In The Wheel:

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To make it easier for him to remember who he was actually meant to be dealing with, I turned my back while Polly told him what she needed to do. After a little while she wheeled herself off after him and I was left standing in the middle of the floor. I found an armchair and picked up one of the complimentary newspapers – though it wasn’t particularly complimentary. THE FRAUDSTER NEXT DOOR was the headline. I expected it to be about a conman raiding some poor old couple’s pensions or something, but it turned out to be some self-righteous hysteria about people claiming benefits they weren’t entitled to. Personally, having seen the hassle that Polly had to go through to get the ones she was entitled to, I couldn’t see why anybody would bother. I turned to the back page in disgust and wished I hadn’t. It was mostly taken up with a picture of a tennis player with her head in her hands. NO HOPER? NEW DOPE BAN FOR HOPE.

After that I gave up on the paper and sat there twiddling my thumbs and composing cutting replies to the woman on the bus, in case we ever had that argument again, until Polly came out.

I got up. ‘Sorted?’

‘Eventually,’ she said. She lowered her voice. ‘Come on, let’s see if we can get out the same way.’

We performed the previous manoeuvre in reverse, which was a little bit scarier because neither of us could get our heads under the top tape without Polly’s front wheels first being well onto the downward slope. I had visions of her sailing off down to the street below, clotheslining herself as she went, but she was too skilful to let that happen.

‘Right,’ I said when we were safely back at street level. ‘What a palaver. Library?’

She looked up at me, backwards, and I saw with a sudden shock that she was slumping in her chair, and her face was tense with the effort of controlling her fatigue. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And that had probably better be it.’

This comes in the middle of a chapter in which Ben accompanies Polly on some errands, and begins to appreciate some of the practical difficulties of life with a chronic illness. I think it would work well as a representative sample. There are quite a lot of ableist microaggressions in this book, and if that wasn’t what somebody needed to be reading about (and I couldn’t blame them!) then page 69 would be a reasonable warning. It also gives an idea of Ben’s personality, a more sympathetic and probably more representative one than the first page (he’s had time to unstick himself a bit). He’s well-meaning but clueless, clueless but willing to listen.

And here’s page 69 of Speak Its Name:

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Tim Benton’s a Catholic, isn’t he, and nobody seriously tries to claim that Catholics are really Christian. I mean, they pray to Mary, that’s idolatry for a start…’

Lydia wanted to say that nobody was praying to Mary at the Vigil, but judged it best not to draw attention to her own attendance. Instead, she ventured, ‘I’m beginning to wonder, actually – whether any of us actually have the right to claim that somebody isn’t a Christian when they say they are…’

Ellie sent the surviving portion of the STANdard the same way as the Letters page. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s perfectly obvious with some people, isn’t it? No, Lydia, the Devil is at work on campus. This isn’t the only sign of it. Jake told me last week that you hall officers won’t be allowed to live-in next year. It’s all very worrying. I think we should pray about this.’

‘We what?’ Lydia exclaimed in horror.

Ellie, intent on praying, did not answer. Instead, she shifted her chair so that she sat directly opposite Lydia and grabbed both her hands painfully tightly. ‘Father God,’ she intoned, ‘we see Your people under attack, we know that the Enemy is moving on this campus, we pray, Lord, we just pray for Your help and guidance today.’ Squeeze, squeeze. ‘We know that You are in control of all things and we ask that You would show Your power here today, Lord, we ask that You would reveal Your truth, that You would convince those who are doubting,’ squeeze, this time with nails digging in, ‘that You would complete Your great work at this university, so that every student here will know that You are Lord. Lord, we just ask this today. Lord, You said that whoever is not for You is against You. We ask You to protect us all against these attacks from Satan, by these people who claim to speak in Your name but who are working to undo the great things You have already done here. Amen, Lord, Amen!’

This one I’m not quite so comfortable with. It’s cringey, and it’s meant to be, and I suppose that it’s good for anyone with an active embarrassment squick to know that this passage exists. In fact, this is peak cringe. If the reader can cope with this, they can cope with the rest of the book. And it is a reasonably good picture of the dynamics in the wider book: Lydia advocating for a wider understanding of the word ‘Christian’, and experiencing a more violent pushback than perhaps she expects. Ellie doesn’t appear in The Real World: we’ve moved away from the (Evangelical) Christian Fellowship and on to the Church of England. I miss her. A bit.

One thing I can guarantee is that this will no longer be page 69 by the time The Real World comes out, but what the hell. This is Colette talking to postdoc James about his upcoming wedding, and, in its combination of marriage angst and science angst, it’s fairly representative. It’s missing the Church of England angst, though.

… they couldn’t get it in the right size for one of them, so the whole idea gets written off and we have to start all over again from square one.’

‘I suppose you couldn’t get away with having one of them in something different and calling it a contrast?’

‘I think that’s the point of the bride,’ he said drily.

Colette shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, you’re the expert.’

‘Of course, the other problem is that they then have to get the flowers matched up with the dresses, and Giselle really wants irises, because it was her grandma’s name.’

‘That’s a really lovely idea,’ Colette said.

‘In theory, yes, it is. In practice, it’s yet another thing that we have to work around. Apparently it rules out a whole slice of the colour palette.’

‘Oh,’ said Colette, who had never thought about it.

The lab door opened with a gentle swish. Just in time, James closed the window on his computer with the Science Today story and maximised the one in which he was writing his own report.

‘Good morning,’ Barry said.

‘Morning, Barry,’ James said, in a remarkably natural way.

‘Morning,’ Colette mumbled.

He glanced at her. ‘You told me last week that you wanted to ask about something?’

‘Yes,’ Colette agreed, her mind blank. ‘I – I can’t remember what it was now.’

He looked distinctly unimpressed. ‘Hmm. Well, if you remember before about three o’clock, give me a shout.’ He disappeared into his office. James and Colette glanced at each other.

‘What did you want to ask him about?’ James asked. ‘Or can you really not remember?’

Colette wriggled uncomfortably. ‘I couldn’t put it into words in the moment. It was that weird [thing] that I asked you about…

As you see, I’m still in the [square brackets] phase. I’ll be back in a few months with the real page 69.

Titled.

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The sequel to Speak Its Name has been coming along very nicely in recent months. It’s now standing at 75,000 words, with only a few holes left to fill before I can move into the editing phase.

But I’ve been having to refer to it in just those terms, because I have had dreadful trouble coming up with a title for it.

At first I was thinking of it as Scandal and Folly, but I had to admit that this sounded too much like a bodice ripper. I thought of doing something with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but no variation on that seemed to work. Later I came up with Truth and Power, but that sounded too much like a political thriller. In between times, I’ve just been calling it ‘the sequel’.

On Tuesday I had a rather varied evening. First I went to the pub with some people I used to work with, and a few people I still work with, and ended up spending most of the time I was there talking to the boyfriend of someone who’d only just started working with the people I used to work with. Then I dashed off to catch a train and then lead a session on the Holy Spirit with a small group from church.

And through the evening there was one phrase that kept coming up. The real world. Trade union employees tend to be pretty much resigned to the idea that people think they don’t live in the real world. One of the church group felt that it was very important to live in the real world. In actual fact, it’s a phrase that I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with: unless this is the Matrix, all of us live in the real world.

Anyway, I was walking home at the end of the night and thinking how many times I’d heard the phrase the real world over the course of the previous few hours, and wondering whether it held any particular significance for me, or whether it was just coincidence.

And I realised: that’s my title.

The Real World

It works across several of the themes of the novel (we are picking up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name, with the characters in their early twenties and trying to work out what they’re doing next) and it has a good few layers of irony, too. Not least, of course, the fact that this isn’t the real world at all. It’s fiction.

But nobody in it knows that.

Back on the Book Bus (where do you get your ideas?)

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Last week I was back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I had good intentions about selling a lot and writing a lot. As it was, I sold very little and immediately spent all the proceeds on other books. I finished a short story (submissions deadline was today) and managed to get the current novel about a thousand words further forward and a little bit tidier.

Apart from that, I sat in the sun, and listened to and watched other people doing their thing. Poetry. Music. Theatre. Comedy. I looked for lizards (and found them) and drank Belgian beer.

In between times, I did quite a lot of thinking, and I noticed how my best ideas seem to come from thought experiments of the ‘What if?’ variety. For example:

I know the Society of Authors aren’t expecting a novel inspired by the three weeks of foreign travel their award funded, but, if they were, what would it look like?

(Answer: a modern Ruritanian adventure with ice dancing!)

Or, this week:

If I were going to write something that I could sell at a price point of £4 or under, so that buyers aren’t going to be put off it in favour of the cheaper, and excellent, second-hand books around it, what could that be?

(Answer: a little book that can double as a souvenir!)

So that’s two projects in the pipeline. I’m also attempting to write more short stories. Some of those I’m submitting them to other people’s anthologies and magazines; others, I have other plans for. For example, I’m thinking of setting up a mailing list, and I’d like to offer an exclusive short story as a thank you for joining it.

At the moment, though, my main focus is still the sequel to Speak Its Name, which is currently standing at just over 62,000 words. It still doesn’t have a title. I thought of Scandal and Folly (sounds too much like a bodice ripper). I thought of Truth and Power (sounds too much like a political thriller). I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something before it’s finished. And that’ll be early next year, at a guess. I’ll keep you posted.

How to tell if you’re in a Kathleen Jowitt novel

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How To Tell If You’re In A Kathleen Jowitt novel*:

You’re not nearly such a terrible person as you thought you were. A red-haired activist from the North is trying to make your life better whether or not you wanted her to. You have devoted your life to this institution and it isn’t thanking you for it. You’re going through hell, but you come out the other side. Your friends spend their lives arguing on the internet. You can’t make any assumptions based on someone else’s religion, but you do anyway.

Oh, and you were never interested in the politics, but that hasn’t stopped the politics in being interested in you. And your parents are appalling.

The reader can also expect to find:

  • a fictional location
  • politics
  • a bisexual character
  • a reasonably optimistic romance which might or might not be the focus of the story

 

 

P. S. I’m trying to write less appalling parents.

* preserved from Twitter, and expanded slightly.