Five things you realise when you embark on writing a novel

Last week I announced my determination to complete my first novel, partly because if I say I will write something, then I will hopefully do the damn thing rather than making about 100 false starts (that is actually not an exaggeration.)

My dad, a writer, always says that writing is ‘one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration’ – a take on a Thomas Edison quote, where this was said about genius. He also likes to quote Mary Heaton Vorse – ‘the art of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’

Although now, I think the latter quote is less true (you also need to avoid the internet – the best procrastination tool ever  created.) While I’m used to journalise and blogging – often writing articles of up to 5000 words a novel (a real novel – the one I have dived into an am determined to finish) is completely different.

I’m hoping that my friends who dislike Buzzfeed style lists (Rebecca Boey) can forgive me, but here I have listed five things I have learnt in my first week of writing a novel

You start to steal things

You start to steal things, like weird shoes

See that woman near the counter of your work in the weird shoes, the ones which look like baby shoes, only stretched to their limit to fit the stocking’d vein-y legs of this lovely old lady; you’re going to have her.

Well, actually you’re just going to have her shoes, and her legs and the way they’re squeezed into them, and the way it makes you kind of sad that they are like baby shoes, and they’re on an old lady.

That’s right, you’re going to steal off this vulnerable old customer who calls you ‘dear’ – you will take from her to give to a fictional character – and she will never know.

You will also steal off friends, even your own boyfriend. “She smelt of expensive perfume and tuna sandwiches,” said my boyfriend last week.

Cut that out and keep it.

There’s no end in sight

And this is the utterly terrifying thing about writing a novel. With a short story, a long form piece of journalism, an interview you have to do the damned work, but there is an end in sight. Already the work has a shape, a beginning, an end – a formula.

Try as I might, I cannot plan my novel in this way – it is too big, too alive, already independent, not conforming to what I want it to be. In comparison journalism seems so pliable, and short fiction so neat.

It’s like swimming. I can swim fifty lengths in The Commonwealth Pool – it’s a long slog and hard – but at least it has order, an end you touch in at before somersaulting back, a number you can count. With my novel I feel like I’m in the middle of a cold ocean with no boats or islands to be seen, and the knowledge that it could get choppy at any moment.

It feels dangerous.

Where’s my applause?

It was not until this week that I learnt how reliant I am upon applause. As a journalist it is instant – you write something for a newspaper, and what do you know? – you have new followers on social media instantly – most of whom have lovely things to say. My Facebook friends are also predictably kind and encouraging with comments like ‘ ‘you’re so wonderful.’ Comments I don’t believe, but that buoy me up – which make me think, you know, this is worthwhile. I’m not that crap.

My need for applause/approval – or a reaction any reaction – has surprised me. Why this burning desire for a reaction? Have I been spoilt by the internet, or has it been ever thus even in the age of print? My mother likes to tell me a story about how as a young journalist she bought a cone of chips one night only to discover it was made of one of her newspaper features. The greasy reality of the chips sent her crashing back down to earth – a realisation of the impermanence of news journalism at that time.

Maybe, she thought, a novel is more enduring. And maybe she’s right. Maybe it is, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Maybe it’s a confidence thing, but without people telling me I’m on the right path constantly, I fear I could be lost. Maybe I should learn to trust myself.

Reading things back too soon is a terrible idea

When I read back what I have it sounds wrong, awkward, stilted, like hearing your voice recorded – ‘do I actually sound like that?’

Instantly I want to change it – , to fall into the same trap as all the other times I have started a novel – to begin polishing before I have a whole. I have often dismantled the opening three paragraph, running every word through a thesaurus again and again, until it is perfect then got not further.

I feel like Orpheus, walking back through Hades with silent Eurydice a few feet behind. The temptation is to turn back, just to check, but if you do she’ll disappear. You have to believe that she is still there and she is OK.

You can look back later.

People will have opinions

And they will be different to yours.

While it is important to have trusted friends who will read your work, don’t share too much too soon. You need feedback, but get it too early and it will kill your work. Your friends don’t know where your novel is going, and neither do you – but you’ll figure it out. You’re living it, swimming in it, breathing it.

Last week I changed my novel’s title, or rather it changed it’s own title. I was so excited I instantly told my boyfriend – ‘Really?’ he said, ‘You’re really calling it that?’

‘Well, yeah’

‘Isn’t that a little, well, flimsy?’ he said, ‘I really liked your old title.’

Don’t reveal too much, too soon. You may be lost in your novel, but it’s still your novel, and you don’t need to ask for help to navigate it. (Really, you don’t)

Working Title … Summer

Lux Lisbon

I want to write a summer novel; a novel sow dipped in honey like one of those pale wooden twisty things they place on tables in the south of France alongside cheese and ripe figs, one which captures the infinite feeling of being young and anything being possible, which harnesses in words that feeling which creeps up on you sometime in late May and opens clean and fresh as a furry pod, revealing the polished crunchy beans within.

I want to write about the feverish freshness of these months, the lazy urgency – the way in which summer is full of possibilities and contradictions, the way that things happen in summer – as though accelerated, or seen through a heat haze.

Summer is referred to in songs and novels as a time which stands alone, where reality is temporarily suspended and magic is allowed to happen. Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with it’s blue black woodlandy enchantment which reconciles mortal and fairy enemies alike – creating, however temporarily an Arcadian harmony.

“Whither wander you?” Puck asks a passing Fairy.

She replies –

“Over hill, over dale,

Through Bush, through briar,

Over park, over pale,

Through flood, through fire,

I do wander everywhere”

To me, this nameless fairy epitomizes the youthful courage of summer – the world is hers to wander through lightly as she chooses. She – like so many before and after her – is infected with a feeling of endless possibility which comes from being young. Summer is a time of innocence and opportunity. A time when the fairy king’s young assistant can of course “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.”

This innocence is so well known as to have been parodied by filmmakers in features such as 500 Days of Summer, where Joseph Gordon Levitt’s love interest is named evocatively, and ironically, for the headiest time of year. Summer, here a pretty girl, represents idealism, youth, and transitoriness – and herein lies the sadness of these exhilarating months.

The long, light days cast longer shadows and the naive intoxication cannot last. The chiaroscuro nature of summer is exactly why I want to write about it. I think we have perhaps all had a summer (or several summers) where things changed, where we met someone exquisite, or several exquisite people – their beauty thrown into relief by the easy light of July.

Charles Ryder is already half in love with Sebastian  when he visits Brideshead for the long university holidays, but it is over a summer that he falls in love with the entire family, the house and the idyllic way of life, soon to be destroyed. The title of the first half of the novel – Et in Arcadia ego –  tells us this. Even among these golden people, death prowls but the sunlight blinds us to him.

Another summer novel (and film) is The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides soft-focused prose captured perfectly by Sofia Coppola’s cinematography. Over a long hot summer in the Detroit suburbs, a group of boys watches a family of beautiful girls, gleaning what they can about these sun dappled beauties through what they see.

Trees and greenery are central to this novel, and the girl’s desire to save the tree in their backyard, perhaps reflects the boys fruitless desire to preserve that summer when the girls were alive and the boys were still young and knew too little.

The light soundtrack including 70s classics such as  Magic Man, Hello it’s me  and The Air that I Breathe –  captures perfectly the dreaminess of being young and having a summer gifted you, spread out at your feet.

This summer is for you, it whispers, you are young and the warmth will liberate you, will send you on adventures, will shed light on golden people who you shall love, and you too shall be tinted gold.

You don’t know what these summers mean, how the  freedom you hold so lightly will one day become the very thing of which potent memories are made. It doesn’t even occur to you that it won’t last forever, and that is how summer should be, when you are young.

In my novel, which has the working title ‘Summer’ – though this will change – my protagonist is a girl of nineteen, so enchanted by a beautiful young man, and her own sapling beauty – that she fails to notice her life as she has known it crumbling around her, until summer is over, and it is almost too late.

There are older characters too. Characters less young, less self-absorbed, less romantic – characters who have seen many years and know too well the spell summer weaves.

There is a dying man, who knows this will be his last summer; an old woman, beginning to face up to her frailty, and a famous author who feels he’s seen too much world already, but at the centre is a young girl who doesn’t even realise that she believes the summer will last forever.

In Defence of Mondays


Monday is the most maligned day of the week. ‘Can you believe it’s Monday already?’ people will ask in the office; or on a Sunday evening someone glancing at the clock will sigh, ‘Oh God, tomorrow’s Monday,’ before regretfully dragging herself off the couch, away from red wine, crumpets and the company of her friends towards a rumpled bed, which will carry her through the night to a morning of pressing the snooze button as many times as possible, before resentfully clambering out of bed, away from any pretence which ties her to the friendly shores of the night before, into the cold morning world of commuters, of school children, office-workers, traffic (So much bloody traffic.)

The only consolation one can find is that soon it will be Friday. Five days hence this hell will be over, and you can once again sink into the comfortably boozy embrace of the weekend.  This only applies if you are employed in a Monday to Friday job, of course, and you envy those who aren’t, madly coveting the extra hour in bed, the ability of freelancers to work from home in an old torn ball gown (What? It’s comfortable, OK.)  But as someone who has had both office jobs, and freelanced or been unemployed, you know what I miss most when I’m not going out to work?

I miss Monday mornings. I miss the feeling of the city waking up, en masse, hurrying through crowded streets, dodging in between people, figuring out the routes where there won’t be too many people, rushing past the coffee stands with the smell of espresso and baking croissant dough, being swept up in a great tide of humans all heading to different destinations which are essentially the same; to offices which will slowly fill between eight and ten in the morning, their computers blinking hazily into life, like a sleepy child raising its arms to be lifted by a returning parent. Sure, maybe this herd mentality is not the healthiest thing to like. It reminds me uncomfortably of fascism, of the crowds cheering on Hitler – were they not also caught up in something they felt was exhilarating, full of promise? Does my love of Monday mornings make me a sheep, a follower like they were, someone who shares a crowd mentality? The thought is kind of disturbing, but Monday mornings offer us a commonality which is not political, which covers all those who are employed or have some place to be, and in that respect I think it is OK to love Monday mornings.

Me, I love the feeling of being a small girl in a big city, of slipping in and out of line, of running up escalators on the tube, of dashing through the city, and of the promise of the week to come. Sometimes, since going freelance, I have walk through the city on a Monday morning just to get to a coffee shop on the other side of town where I can write, I set a time I have to be there and imagine I too have somewhere I have to be. A desk waiting for me after its lonely weekend.

Hire young writers – an open letter


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Dear Editor,

You edit a magazine, a newspaper, a section of a newspaper, a blog. Whatever your platform does it’s damn good at it, whether your schtick is politics, interior design or irony. Lots of people turn to you daily – you’re an authority in your sphere and your content is good – reliably, consistently good.

You have writers who bring your readers back again and again, relishing the next installment of their wit, or vitriol or effortless prose. You have figured out your stance, the timbre at which your publication’s voice will sound. Maybe it’s been sounding for centuries. It has a reassuring familiarity among your audience, they know you, they like you, they’ll click back soon.

But you need fresh blood. Sure, it’s great that you are distinguished, that your voice is known, that your readers trust you, but don’t you want more? There are so many talented young writers out there, our voices as yet unknown, our prose-styles untested – I am asking you to take a risk on us. These remote writers, at the moment peripheral to your scene – the bloggers, the tweeters the kids who try desperately – will bring your publication a freshness and vigour.

True they are inexperienced, as were you once, as were all your regular writers, but they are also keen, determined and hungry to write. In this they will sparkle.

Do you remember when you had your first writing assignment? You were so eager to get everything right, you invested all your time in it. Not a word out of place, this piece had to shine. The task was a gift – it had been entrusted on you to write something for publication – and you were going to do it brilliantly. There was nothing of the workaday world about this job, it was not just another one of many, another day in the office – it was the best damn thing that had ever happened to you.

I remember grabbing the phone, hands shaking to tell my parents that I had actually had something accepted in The Independent, The Guardian, The New Statesman, The Awl. The feeling is exhilarating, and the adrenaline courses through your body and brain, causing you to write the best damn thing you can, and edit as much as is asked, even if this means staying up all night. This has to be perfect Dammit.

Sure, a young writer will make mistakes, as will anyone starting out at anything, but mistakes can be pointed out, corrected, and young writers are quick to learn. Do you not want this sort of passion in your journalise, the unusualness of a voice not yet versed in the ways of journalism yet different and beautiful for this?

Sure, there is a lot to be said for the weight of experience, the authority of knowing your craft, but not enough is said for youth, for inexperience, for the yearning to write and write brilliantly which a young writer can bring. And the young will be experienced soon enough, if you give them a chance.

And one last thing – please do not take advantage of young writers and their naivety and eagerness to please. If you pay most writers then please pay the young ones as well, they need it to keep doing what they are doing. Enthusiasm is captivating for you and your audience – remember this and pay for it as you would for experience.

Love and thank you for all the chances so far, a young writer

The first commute


Found on google images, kind of sums up a feeling of being excited and scared in a new city

Today I was late for the first day of my Internship. There was a person under a train and the Victoria Line was closed.

When I reached Manor House tube I saw the massive queues and thinking maybe it was just that station I turned and sprinted towards Finsbury Park, getting soaked by rain which seemed determined to remove my makeup, to drench my hair, coat and the hem of my new grey dress, a Christmas present, which I had saved for this day, keeping it in its box wrapped in pink tissue which rustled deliciously and smelt of heady feminine perfume.

People crowded at a bus stop making it impossible to get past without stepping onto the road, a car beeped, a bus splashed me, then I saw Finsbury Park station around the corner, the artificial blue of the snack cafe jarringly bright against the backdrop of the grey day. Then I saw the queues, there were so many people, more even than at Manor House, with makeshift railings containing them. I joined the back and soon felt people pressing behind me, pushing me forward so I pressed up against the people in front. I wondered if this was how people got crushed.

A girl was talking on her mobile phone – ‘they’ve all stopped, I don’t know what to do’ she said.

‘What’s happening?’ I asked the queue

‘Person under the train’  man said, grimly.

I felt resentful, irritated, my foundation was sliding down my face revealing red blotchy skin and the clock was ticking away second by painful second above the station entrance, each a little closer to making me late. Then I felt cross with myself; petty, selfish, mean.

Someone may have died or seriously injured themselves and I was concerned about lateness, about the way I looked, about lots of little things – yet this person had perhaps thrown away everything. It was sickening to think of them standing on the side of a platform and just stepping off – such a small movement, but irreversible. I remembered visiting London as a seven-year old, playing on the yellow line you aren’t supposed to cross in case you got sucked under a train, hopscotching along Paddington station until my Mother grabbed me and pulled me back with reprimands and threats severe enough to make me cry.

I wondered if the person had planned it, or if it had been a split second decision, a whim almost, if you and use that  word for something so dark, so desperate. Maybe they wanted someone to stop them?

The crowd pushed closer around me, then suddenly there was a man pushing the other way, fighting to get out. ‘The trains are just going straight through’ he said. I glanced at the clock. The queue had stopped moving. I wondered if it would be socially acceptable for me to ask a well-groomed stranger, apparently untouched by the rain, if she had a comb I could borrow to sort out my hair.

*Since writing this in the morning I have read in The Independent that the person under the train was treated at the scene and taken to hospital. I hope they’re OK.

Why I wish I could skate


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One winter my Mother gave me a waistless black dress of finest wool which fell above my knees and had sleeves like bells. When I wore it people asked if I was a dancer. I wanted a scarf to go with it; a soft slim rectangle which would loop twice about my throat in the right shade of red.

I would wear this scarf with my dress and then I would skate, not on the ice rink they put in the town square every first of December and took away every January when it was grey and all cut up, but on some superior ice rink lifted from the winter gardens of pre-revolution Versailles or the pages of literature. On such an ice rink you would see me from the sidelines, the black and red and blonde merging perfect as a chime as I skated towards you.

There was little thought about how I would bring about such a happening. Perhaps a friend would invite us to skate at Somerset house and you would come along reluctantly, shivering into your turned up coat collar, the tiny fibres scratchy against your lower lip and that little indent below it. Your eyes darting about, taking in the smooth Ice and the fluent architecture and the wooden mulled wine stand with it’s cinnamon promise or warmth.

You would queue up, ask for a cup, wait for the girl to get it for you, notice that she’s pretty but too thin. To her you would be just another ordinary man who she served quickly to keep the queue moving. You would thank her and hold your drink between gloved hands letting the heat rise under your chin. Then you would walk towards the edge of the rink, find a space amid the watchers and lean your elbows on the side.

I remember the Ice scenes in Orlando. Sitting on stools in the union coffee shop, papers spread, highlighter pens in fluorescent yellow, the dog-eared penguin book held open with a pepper mill on one side, a sugar pot on the other. Diamond paned windows throw their shadows on the table top. Discuss the difference between Fantasy and Reality in Orlando?

Outside it is summer. We becry the cruelty of exams falling in June, but on the page it is The Great Freeze of 1607 and the King has set up court of the frozen Thames. A young noble man, Orlando skates on the river watching the frozen world glisten before him, a world of heightened senses, of pigs roasting on spits, of lanterns and revelry and rich velvet capes swooping round the ice. It is here he sees Sasha, beautiful, androgynous, glistening darkly in pine green.

How does Sasha change Orlando? You write ‘Irrevocably.’ I take the pen and draw flowers, swirls, trees on the paper.

I want another chance. I want you to see me as Orlando saw Sasha, skating inevitably towards you as you lean on the side of the rink, and then our story can begin. But maybe you were Sasha and I was Orlando, the wrong way round, a girl dazzled by a boys angular beauty.

‘What’ I ask ‘if they were to meet again, in summer?’

Jephthah’s Child

I don’t normally post poems on my blog but this is one I wrote a while ago, and on re-reading I thought well, why not? It was inspired by a story in the Book of Judges in the Old Testament which Linda Bandelier at The Scottish Storytelling Centre told me about, when I interviewed her about folklore last year. The story of Jephthah struck me as desperately sad and the voice of his daughter kept recurring to me. I wrote this piece a day later.


Jephthah’s Child

When you returned potent from your battle
the Herald had told me
who came before, his head unbowed
with jewels on his sandals playing the light from our lanterns
like fingers on a lyre

I waited by the window the spring night through
while the messenger slept in your chair,
his light breaths peaceful
after the consolation of our sylvan wine
I suspected all was not as well as he had told
But did not ask
Knowing you would wish me screened from battle

I saw you in the morning
Four fields away on foot
Ushering your donkey on a string
Letting her bend her nose among the cornflowers
I loved you so much then
Wanted to kiss your darling forehead
Prepare you wine and bread and baths

I ran and dressed in my finest habit
Glittering skirts which twirled about my legs
My sapling limbs felt long
And I seized my jangling hoop of wood
Flitting through the door
Daddy’s Flibbertigibbet
I danced in our courtyard
As you drew near

And did not register
The look of sickness on your face
‘til you stood before me

On Longform

I recently wrote a piece on Longform Journalism for Ideastap. I like working for Ideastap as it gives me a chance to interview writers, artists, editors and journalists  about their careers. I’ve interviewed Holly and Rhiannon from The Vagenda, looked at how to find ‘pegs’ for feature articles and interviewed writers and producers about writing for radio. All of these pieces were interesting to research, and writing them trained me in how to choose words for maximum expression, clarity and power – important when a piece cannot be longer than 800 words.

Yet the piece on Longform grabbed me and seemed to pull me in deeper, beyond the 800 words I wrote for Ideastap. Don’t get me wrong, the piece on Ideastap is good and I’m pleased with it, but I feel that I need to write more about longform, that after researching longform and speaking to people about it it has somehow entered my consciousness as a writer, and it is demanding a different sort of piece – one which, like longform itself, has a narrative thrust, telling the story of my research into the piece and how I came to understand and even love longform writing.

In May I pitched to Ideastap saying I’d like to write a piece on literary essays and the ways in which they differ from academic ones. I had noticed more and more the disconnect between the two – the slow unspooling of the literary essay by writers such a Joan Didion – delicious but teasing, always holding something back – and the straightforwardness of the academic one where everything is stated in the first paragraph leaving no feeling of mystery, no deep desire to keep reading, to stay with this thinker as they explore and toy with the idea given – you know the type of thing –

‘in this essay I will explore whether Shylock is a victim or a villain, I will look at the following scholars and further I will explore X historical context. I will conclude that Shylock is in fact a victim’

As many young writers are graduates, we have been trained to write essays in the above manner – and this is something which I have struggled to unlearn in my own writing. Rachel Segal Hamilton, Ideastap commissioning editor, couldn’t take the piece as she was already writing about essays that month, however she suggested that I pitch – ‘How to be a longform journalist.’

I hadn’t heard of longform journalism – but a quick google search, combined with the link Rachel sent me to Aeon, showed that longform journalism was completely different to what I knew journalism to be. I am from a generation who see journalism as something very of the moment, it is there, you read it quickly and then it is gone. Even features are often broken down into sections or lists, making them easy for the eye to skim and the brain to take in. It’s all so ephemeral – a world of tweets and lists and sound bites. Longform is a counter to this – the prose is muscular and robust, and crucially, it is long. It demands more than an instant, it asks to be read and considered. It enters your mind, and it wants to change you.

Long however does not mean dry, in fact longform writing needs to be strong, gutsy, urgent – it has to keep the momentum going all the way through so as not to lose you along the way. As Serena Kutchinsky, Digital Editor of Prospect said when I spoke to her for Ideastap, “Longform is the premium content.”

She spoke about how longform writing could become an immersive storytelling experience, something which pulls the reader in so they can experience a fire storm or an avalanche such as the one reported by John Branch in The New York Times – the piece begins at the moment of ultimate danger, then pulls us reluctantly away, telling us the stories of each of the people on the feted skiing expedition. We must not only know that this thing happened, we must also care – and that is what differentiates longform from spot news.

One of the best longform writers I came across was Luke Dittrich, an award winning journalist who mainly writes for Esquire US. I’d read one of his pieces in back in March when I bought a book of The Best American Magazine Writing from Shakespeare and Co on a trip to Paris, which included a piece about a powerful tornado in Joplin. At the time I didn’t know this was called longform, but I found the narrative gripping, beautiful and honest. When I began to research the piece in late May, Luke, was one of the first people I contacted.

We organised a chat on Skype, and ended up talking about longform journalism for about half an hour in which Luke answered many questions about his work. His stories about the pieces he’s written are almost as interesting as the pieces themselves, and he told me how he found his subject matter, stumbling on the Joplin Tornado Beer Cooler story almost by chance. The story of how he came to write about Joplin is recounted on Ideastap, however he also spoke about the way he engaged with the community once he was in Joplin – staying in a Baptist Church and volunteering with Clear-up stuff.

With Luke you get the idea that he immerses himself so completely in his subject matter that he is able to transport the reader there too.

I asked Luke if perhaps longform is a reaction against the instantaneous nature of our culture, a foil to twitter and link bait – but he doesn’t see it like this – longform is not competing with spot journalism, rather they feed off one another saying –

“Almost all my stories originate in some piece of short-form journalism of one sort or another. I think some people might make the mistake of thinking that if something has been, you know, written about, in any form, then that story’s been done…I think if you’re looking at a story and it seems to you fascinating  but inconclusive, that’s where sort of, where longform journalism I guess can step in, and, and fill in the gaps and you know, broaden the scope. when you’re doing longer features you’re looking for something that doesn’t just have shock value isn’t just a horrible event, it is a horrible event, I mean but then it says something horrible or something good or something wonderful about human nature or something. I don’t want to get too hifalutin but you are looking for something that has a deeper resonance”

Serena Kutchinsky says something similar when she talks about “human stories, to bring hardcore subject matter to life.”

This piece by Serena, on Fabergé eggs and her Father’s ambition to make an egg even more elaborate than those by the celebrated jeweller, is a lovely, personal piece of longform bringing together history, ambition, pathos and childhood memories. The link is paywalled – however if you go to your local library you should be able to access The Times from there, or if you are a student you can probably access it through your University interface.

Serena, who used to be digital editor of The Sunday Times, talks about the value of longform, saying that well written, well researched pieces are what give a title “a stand out intellectual edge. It is about having time and space to research and it shows that there is an alternative to SEO led crap.”

She believes that one of the reasons longform has become popular now is the rise of devices such as tablets and other portable devices on which people can read longer pieces of writing, and she sees it as journalism which definitely has a future.

Aaron Lammer, who runs agrees that now is a brilliant age for longform due to tablets, mobile apps – “The stories are big enough to really draw you in, but short enough that you can easily read a dozen in a week. That gives enthusiasts lots to talk about and share with likeminded friends which creates a sense of community.”

However he does remind me that “this kind of writing has existed for the better part of a century, so it’s not like the writing itself is changing profoundly”

Longform writers of old include Gay Talese, and Truman Capote, and Aaron says that the thing which unites all current longform journalists is that “all of them are students of masters of the past.”

Remembering Miranda Grey


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The Collector, Miranda Grey drawn by illustrator Kate Willis Crowley

The Collector, Miranda Grey drawn by illustrator Kate Willis Crowley

This summer it was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of John Fowles’ The Collector. I first read the novel in 2005, when I was twenty, the same age as Miranda Grey, the protagonist, a beautiful art student who is kidnapped and kept in a cellar by Frederick Clegg, a socially alienated young man who collects butterflies.

The story is horrible – with Fred’s nasty, twisted voice telling the first half, attempting to justify his actions whilst stirring the readers disgust and pity.

What makes the book live is the voice of Miranda; fresh, young, idealistic and desperate to survive. Without her The Collector would be unbearable, a straight forward horror story with no light, as stuffy as the crypt-room in which Miranda is kept. It is Miranda’s voice which gives air, light and life to the novel. She is desperately, vibrantly alive and she fights against the injustice of her captivity at every moment.

‘It’s the seventh night, I keep thinking if only they knew, if only they knew.’

‘Share the outrage’

And we do share the outrage. Rereading the book I was struck by how horrific the events actually are – had I missed this at twenty or had I simply forgotten? I don’t know, but like Miranda I hate Fred – or Cailban as she calls him. I hate his petty selfishness, his meanness, his deep seated misogyny which leads him to hate and objectify all women. He disgusts me, but I am compelled to pity him, as Miranda is.

Yet what really strikes me about the book is how young Miranda is, how innocent and maybe even slightly naive and how full of ideas. Reading The Collector as a twenty year old I didn’t see this. I admired, and still do admire Miranda, but at twenty I wanted to be like her – to share her clear views about everything being real, and true and not for show.

At one point in the book she writes a list of things which George Pastor, an older artist who she may be in love with, has taught her about life. I copied this list down and kept it folded in the book –

‘1) if you are a real artist you give your whole being to your art. Anything short of that, then you are not an artist, not what GP calls a ‘maker.’

2) You don’t gush. You don’t have little set-pieces or set-ideas that you gush out to impress people with.

3) You have to be left politically because the Socialists are the only people who care, for all of their mistakes. They feel, they want to better the world.

4) You must make, always. You must act, if you believe something. Talking about acting is like boasting about pictures you’re going to paint. The most terrible bad form.

5) If you feel something deeply, you’re not ashamed to show your feeling.

6) You accept that you are English. You don’t pretend that you’d rather be French or Italian or something else. (Piers always talks about his American grandmother.)

7) But you don’t compromise with your background. You cut off all the old you that gets in the way of the maker you. If you’re suburban (as I realise D and M are – their laughing at suburbia is just a blind), you throw away (cauterize) the suburbs. If you’re working class you cauterize the working class in you. And the same, whatever class you are, because class is primitive and silly.

8) You hate the political business of nationality. You hate everything, in politics and art and everything else, that is not genuine and deep and necessary. You don’t have any time for silly, trivial things. You live seriously, you don’t go to silly films, even if you want to, you don’t read cheap newspapers, you don’t listen to trash on the wireless or the telly, you don’t waste time talking about nothing. You use your life.’

In 2005 Facebook was just taking off in a huge way at my university, and so much was be about impressing people – rehearsing new and interesting things to say so you could sound clever at parties or the pub. Wearing a hat, ironically. Smoking cigars, not because you liked them, but because a small girl smoking a cigar looked interesting and artsy.

It all felt very false, which is perhaps why Miranda’s list chimed with me so much. It felt wrong to share it with too many people as then it would have just been for effect and that would have cancelled itself out, by becoming something hip, different and ironic.

So I kept it i  the book, and once asked a boyfriend who was a writer what he thought of this list. He looked at it for a long time and then said – ‘I mean she’s lovely, but I do think she’s a bit of a prig.’ He too had read the novel and it hurt me that this was what he saw in the list – but I, like Miranda was twenty, and wanted to embrace all the dreams, hopes and convictions which, for me, came with that age.

Reading the book again as a twenty eight year old I feel sad for Miranda – she was never able to grow, never able to be twenty eight, or older. If she was not fictional, and had survived, she would be seventy by now – how would she have changed, how would she have grown? She says she is madly curious to see how she will grow, how she and the world will change. This is desperately cruel but necessary for us to feel the pain of her situation. Fowles wants to show us a girl who is living – who will never be understood by her petty and delusional captor.

Maybe Miranda is a prig, but she is twenty and at least she has convictions and ideas, strong passionate ones.

Looking back I feel sad not only for Miranda but for the twenty year old me who devoured her list and ideals. Who consulted them, and tried so hard to not be silly and gushing, and often failed and ended up reading the cheap newspapers which Miranda would reject, and watching the crappy tv programmes to chill out in the evening, and hating myself for it. For not being a proper ‘maker.’

When did I stop thinking about Miranda’s list? When did I discard it, if ever? And are the points she makes still relevant? I feel I have grown up and left Miranda behind, but this  makes me really sad – I want to cling to the ideals Miranda had, I want to be a maker, I want to not believe that she was, like my old boyfriend said ‘a bit of a prig.’ I want to remember Miranda when I write – but I do wish that she had lived, that I could have seen what would happen to an older, less naive Miranda.

‘It was a dark and stormy night’ – On pathetic fallacy


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What do Sin City and The Highwayman have in common?

 ‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon silver seas.’ –

I would thrill at these words from The Highwayman and cling close to my duvet listening to the rise and fall of my Father’s voice. Long after he had tucked me in I would lie in my bed and listen to the wind groaning against the windows of our small cottage. I knew nothing of literary terms, but I did know that wind was a portent for tragedy, adventure and a passion I as yet could not understand. Storms too were prescient, as were full moons, blood red sunsets and pouring rain. I knew the cues and loved them for the shape they gave the stories and poems which were read to me nightly.

It was not until years later when I was doing GCSEs that I learnt that this concept has a name. Pathetic fallacy is a literary device where the elements are in sympathy with the torments, passions and events of a character’s life. I was struggling with Tess of The D’urbervilles which my class was had to study, but here was something my imagination could attach itself to. I could see the importance of the changing seasons, the blossoming of love in spring and the chill of abandonment in winter. After Tess is raped by Alec she walks through a garden ‘now rank and damp with juicy grass.’ The passage is nauseous, filling the reader with a feeling of lecherous overload, the sticky overripe heat of the garden reflecting Tess’ inner turmoil.

After this I started noticing pathetic fallacy everywhere. In films, in books, in paintings. I began writing stories where a downpour heralded the consummation of first love, a thunderstorm rumbled almost inaudible in the distance as a couple discussed their plans for their ‘perfect’ future. Shakespeare and Hardy both made it work, so I could too, right? But the truth is I could not do it well. My early attempts at using pathetic fallacy now appear stilted, awkward, I would say laughable, but that seems too cruel a term to use against my 16-year-old self, especially as I felt all my writing acutely and meant it all 100% without the censorship of my inner critic, who I now hear whispering constantly in my ear.

Soon, however, I abandoned pathetic fallacy. I dismissed it as cheap, trite, a sledgehammer of a device, but still it turned up again and again sometimes with a subtly barely perceptible, sometimes referring back to itself, as at the beginning of Sin City – ’The night is as hot as hell. It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of town. I’m staring at a goddess, she’s telling me she wants me.’

‘It was a dark and stormy night’ may be so cliched as to have become a trope, the exemplar of purple prose, a satire of itself, but the words still conjure an image of being inside on a dark night and listening to the throes of a storm, whilst you sit warm and cosy, looking out at the rain chucking itself against the window. If heard for the first time it would be a good start to a story, beckoning listeners to huddle close. There is a place for pathetic fallacy, and handled with care it can be say something that nothing else can – it can be gentle, sad and surprisingly beautiful.

When my Father read me a story and we reached the blank white page at the end, he would run his hands along it as though under invisible text only he could see, and he would say ‘and it snowed.’

I remembered this when studying Irish Literature at University where I read the following passage by Joyce – ‘Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the bog of Allen and, farther westwards, slowly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furley lay buried’

Snow is an ending, gentle, understated, unlike the frenzy of a storm, but both have their place in writing, and should not be overlooked.