Thursday, 29 May 2014

Fiction, feminism and old flames

As anyone who knows me will attest, I am fascinated by romantic relationships. It's my favourite topic of conversation and the inspiration for pretty much all of my poetry, so it makes sense that I would choose to write fiction about the subject as well. And I have done, twice.

My first novel, Once Upon a Pony Tail  was written when I got divorced at the tender age of twenty-six. It's a kind of intelligent (I hope!) chick lit novel about a young woman rediscovering herself as a single woman post-divorce. Not autobiographical at all ;) Interspersed with the narrative of the main protagonist are various revisionist stories about fairytale heroines. The myth of the one true love/handsome prince rescuing his victim, erm princess, and locking (looking after) her in a tower or castle is another aspect of romantic relationships that has interested me since the days when I discovered feminist criticism at Leicester university.

My friend and fellow novelist, Stacey Sampson, described me as a paradox (with "oceanic depths" no less) the other night and back then, I probably embodied some of the same paradoxes that I do today, one of which is the romantic, heterosexual feminist. In those days I floated around like some kind of nostalgic Bronte-esque figure in petticoats, hats and pinafores, with my only nod to feminism being my steel toe-cap Doc Martens. Nowadays I've swapped my Doc Martens for my Fly boots and my petticoats for slightly shorter, pretty dresses but I'm still basically a girly girl on the surface with a steely independence underneath. Regardless of my tutor's opinion that I couldn't be a feminist without wearing trousers, I believed it was okay to be a pretty feminist back then and I still do; feminism has nothing whatsoever to do with the length or existence of skirts or hair in my humble opinion. I was then and still am, desperately independent and just a tad eccentric, but at the same time I longed to be rescued by a handsome prince and, whilst I vehemently rejected the misogyny of my family background, I still spent most of my university years passively dreaming of  my own handsome prince (aka my lovely archaeologist  friend from the veggie table of Digby halls) hoping that he would notice me. In the spirit of not buying into those fairytale cliches, he ran off with a different princess to whom, I have recently discovered, he is still married, damn him!

Everybody has somebody that they never quite got over and he is mine, although I was oblivious to this fact until recently when I realised that I'd named the male character in my young adult novel, Tag, after him. I recognise him now in the description of Tag walking away from Lorna who is, to some extent, my eighteen year old self. And, it is the joy of being a fiction writer, that, in that novel, Lorna gets to kiss Tag (and then some....) whereas the object of my real life affections came within inches of my lips in 1992 before pulling away and telling me about the girl who is now his wife.

I know she's still his wife because I foolishly contacted him via social media recently and embarked upon a long and tortuous discussion about love, life, marriage, monogamy and fulfilment. It is a conversation which has been fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure. I haven't done a word count on our messages but it is probably nearly long enough to make a novel and the subject is certainly interesting enough. So, I've decided to reincarnate him as a character in a second novel which, this time will be for adults. It will be a novel about what happens when the one who got away comes back and about how the decisions we make at pivotal points change the course of our lives forever. It will also be about the relative merits of monogamy and marriage versus freedom, autonomy and variety and somewhere in there will be the exploration of those grey areas of when flirtation becomes infidelity and how much our morality is fixed or subjective.

Although I've seen myself mostly as a writer for children and young adults in recent years, that first book that I wrote in my twenties was very nearly picked up by Ali Gunn at Curtis Brown who said that she believed it could be a bestseller. She phoned me and said that she was only interested in the kind of novels that could make her 'hundreds of thousands of pounds' and, eventually, she got too busy with those kind of projects and forgot about my little beginner's novel. But, as a person who had that kind of encouragement, who is still fascinated by love and marriage, it makes sense to go back to the subject.

I'm 43 now and single again for the first time in a decade and, whilst I haven't stayed with one man for as long as many people, I've had experience of lots of different kinds of relationships and I've had a lot of thoughts on the subject. I'm still not sure if I'm any wiser about how to make relationships last but I'm certainly more experienced. I've still got no idea if the free spirit in me (the part that is the writer) can function in a traditional relationship and yet the romantic in me still wants to believe that there is someone for everyone and still has to hope that the person for me didn't marry someone else back in the 1990s because that would really suck. So, I'm investigating the subject and writing the novel and hoping that I might work it out whilst having some fun along the way. I've started by chatting to men I know about their relationships and their views on marriage. I'm targeting men because I already talk a lot to women about this kind of stuff and I'm figuring that getting to understand men better might help me choose more compatible partners in future.  So far, I have the conversations with my long lost love and I've now added to them with the musings of a random stranger on the train to London and a friend who is in an open relationship. All very interesting stuff.

If you want to talk to me about your own relationships and your views on marriage, freedom, monogamy, fidelity or anything else, please get in touch and I will buy you cake! If you don't want to talk about this subject and you are my friend, you might want to lay low for the next six months because I could become even more single-minded than usual.

Friday, 2 May 2014

How do writers write?

I've just started a new novel. It's exciting for me because I've not started a new novel for a while. I love setting off on a voyage of discovery with the characters. I have a vague idea of the theme of the book and a vague idea who the characters are but, for me, the process of writing fiction is very similar to the process of reading it. I write in order to work out what will happen, in the same way that anyone who knows me will confirm that I talk in order to work out what I think. Which doesn't always go down well with some people!

This morning I dropped my six year old at school and the tables were already set out with today's story-writing task. The school employs Pie Corbett's WALT system which, when I read about it, sounds like a really effective way to get children writing, but I couldn't help feeling faintly depressed when I saw the grid of writing prompts. What is your setting? Who are your characters? What will happen? If I saw that, I would immediately have writers' block. I didn't know where the male protagonist of my book lived until I described his garden. I didn't know where the female character worked until she walked through the door of the library that, it turns out, she manages. If I had to know everything about what's going to happen in my story, I wouldn't get off the starting blocks.

Lots of writers I know do plot their novels carefully and maybe it works for them but the joy for me is setting out with an unknown destination. And maybe six year olds need a bit of structure for their writing sometimes. But when I watch my daughter with a pile of cardboard and scissors, glitter and glue, she doesn't have any idea what she's making and she's utterly enthralled by the process of creative discovery. Writing doesn't have to be any different. All you need is the material of words, the glue of grammar and the glitter of imagination. It would be nice to see a bit more of that in schools.