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Serendipity. Books Penzance Literary Festival 2015

The Penzance Literary Festival 2015 was under way when I glanced into my programme. My eye was drawn to an author I had missed:

Uncertain Light: a journey through unknown territory with Marion Molteno.

‘In the mountains of war-torn Tajikistan, rebels abduct a UN peace negotiator. The lives of those closest to him begin to unravel… The latest novel from award winning writer Marion Monteno takes you to places you have never been, alongside people you can identify with. It’s also a personal journey…. ‘

I had to go and listen.

Marion, a South African, spoke seamlessly about her life travelling Asia and Africa on educational projects and working with Save The Children. Her life was fascinating as a subject all on its own.

As she talked about Uncertain Life, I wondered if she had based her novel on the kidnap of five British Military Observers in Sierra Leone in 1999. My son, working with the UN at that time, was one of five unarmed soldiers taken at gunpoint and held for five days.

That day in 1999 had been an ordinary summer afternoon.I had been out buying plants for my garden…

As I draw up to my cottage I see two men in uniform standing by my front door. The day shivers to a stop. I was an army wife for seventeen years. I know what uniforms on a doorstep means.

I open the car door. Climb out. The men in uniform glide towards me; check my name; my son’s name.

‘He’s dead?’ I whisper as the world disappears into a pinprick. There are just the uniforms, the doorstep, me. They shake their heads; reassure me. ‘No. No. Your son is not dead. Please… let’s go inside.’

The senior officer unrolls a sheet of paper and reads out a prepared statement. My son, along with four other Military Observers is missing, kidnapped by rebels while trying to rescue a group of kidnapped children. Nobody knows where he or any of the hostages have been taken…

‘But they’ll be found? ‘They’ll be rescued?’

The two officers stare at me, kind, compassionate. ‘Every effort is being made to secure the whereabouts of the hostages. Every effort will be made to rescue them, but I am afraid we cannot pretend this is not a very serious incident… British government ministers are flying out to Sierra Leone as I speak…’

I realize then. See it in their eyes. My son may not come out of this alive.

The officers warn me that the story is going to break on the 6pm news. They leave me contact numbers. I will be assigned a welfare officer.

I watch the kidnap of five British soldiers unfold on television. It feels nightmarish and surreal. The Military leap to support me. The village closes in around me. Friends arrive round the clock so that I am never alone.

I am protected from the press, given a special phone line with a liaison officer with a beautiful, calm voice. His name is Simon. He assures me he will be on the other end of the line day and night. And he is. Without him I would have survived those five days

Sometimes, I have to ring just to hear his voice. He offers me snippets of news that is kept from the media. He tells me how well trained my son and all the kidnapped solders are. How well versed for this very real threat of abduction… they know how to survive. His gentle voice gives me hope when I think I cannot bear another moment.

At night I obsessively listen to the World Service. I wonder if the foreign correspondents, reporting on the cruelty and barbarity of the drugged and armed Sierra Leone rebels ever give a thought to the sleepless wives and mothers listening in terror as they describe, in detail, all the shockingly brutal ends their loved ones might meet.

Simon talks me through the political negotiations that are happening in the background. When the rebels begin to let the hostages out, slowly, one by one, I  become terrified the rebels will not release all the hostages; that it is some macabre game they are playing.

As the end unfolds I watch a dark and fuzzy screen on the television. Ambulances wait in a clearing for the hostages to emerge from the jungle. I tell Simon, on the other end of the phone. Bizarrely, satellite is faster than his information and he cannot verify what I think is happening

I can see blurred activity round the ambulances then a sudden ribbon of words across the screen. ‘The five British hostages are out…’

A news correspondent is shouting. ‘They are safe. All the hostages have now been released…’

Many years later I ask Marion Molteno if she had based the idea for her book on the kidnap of British soldiers in Sierra Leone. I am taken aback by how hard my heart is thudding as I speak as the moment on the doorstep comes flooding back. I am  unaware of the reaction of other people in the room until I am told later.

I go and sit in my garden with Uncertain Light, unsure whether I am going to be able to read it. I open it and scan the first few pages. The prose is lovely. It is not my son’s story. It is a novel conjured from imagination and knowledge of a particular region.

Even so, I find I am reluctant to read this book, as if somehow, this story that is imaginary might, under my fingers, turn into the story that was real. I am unnerved by little flashbacks, of buried memory. Of how fast loss can come.

Writing this blog has taken me sometime. I could not make it the moment, the immediate aftermath of a chance encounter. As writers we often cannibalize other peoples lives. Weave them into our own fictional story. This is not my story. It is my son’s.

A writer imagines a plot for the kidnap of UN observers in Tajikistan. In the basement of a tiny theatre at the other end of the world another writer steps out of the pages of  informed imagination to make her plot all too real…Art mirrors life in strange and serendipitous ways. Disparate lives connect for a moment. It is disturbing.

I do not yet know how Uncertain Life will end, only that the people within it will never be the same. Life is fragile, transient and precious. A reminder never to forget that. Nor take the world for granted.

 

 

These are some of the authors I enjoyed from Penzance Literary Festival 2015

Sadly, I was not back from London in time to catch the launch of Laura Barnett’s novel The Versions Of US at the Edge Of The World bookshop. Or to listen to Tim Hannigan talking to Phillip Marsden about his new book Rising Ground.

I much enjoyed Susimita Bhattcharya talking about her book, The Normal State Of Mind. I also enjoyed listening to Lesley Hawden in conversation with Joy Salisbury. Her book Jakob’s Colours is about the largely unknown gipsy holocaust.

I found Sarah Winman in conversation with Patrick Gale impressive and moving. She is an exceptionally honest writer and this comes across eloquently. Helped by the fact t she is an actress and has a winning and charismatic presence.

This singled her out for me. She struck me as a writer who, within the confines of having to be commercial to sell her books, is disinclined to be pigeon holed into any particular direction or pushed into deadlines before she is ready. She does not  have a Facebook or twitter account to promote herself.

As one who happens to think the constant promotion by authors of their books can be counter-productive this is both unusual and refreshing. Winman doesn’t need to over promote. She can jump into the bestseller list because she has a distinctive, original and quirky voice. As you can guess, I’m a fan!

I loved When God Was A Rabbit. It affected me deeply in the same way that

Helen Dunmore’s, A Spell of Winter did. I think it is something to do with the integrity of the author.

 

 

 

 

 

This week I spend a wonderful couple of hours spending a birthday gift voucher in Waterstones, Truro,

I felt familiar excitement as I breathed in the scent of books from the doorway. As always I viewed the laden tables in dizzy wonder. So many books, so many writers, so many stories. So many lives, memories, heartache lying between covers. So many hours of work and waiting, disappointment, exhilaration, satisfaction, fear and pride. And there the beauties lie, finished. Each a little miracle to its author. A work of art made good.

So much emotion and intellect invested in each and every book. They lie before me temptingly. Choose Me! Choose Me!

Like a child in a sweet shop I pick up, pause, pick up. Peruse and read. Author I know; unknown author with a beautiful cover. Good review. Old favourate. Terrifying crime writer…but a page turner… I make my choices, conscious I should, maybe, push my comfort zone, that I may miss a gem… But I am thrilled at my choices as they are packed and handed over.

So what did I buy?

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. (Reading and loving)

A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

 

 

 

Is it just me who finds the ending of many recent crime novels totally implausible?

It is so disappointing to be gripped throughout a book and then, in the last chapter, the main character, bewilderingly, bizarrely and deliberately puts herself slap bang into the danger she has been fleeing from for the whole book.

In one gripping bestseller a woman who has just worked out who her would be killer is makes her way straight to him. It was like a sudden discordant note in a symphony. Yeah, it was scary but why would she do that in the light of all the horrors he had already inflicted? She wouldn’t. No woman would.

Even when this psychopath was distracted by his unbelievably, unbelieving wife neither women used their mobile phones to get help though they had ample opportunity as the killer could not kill both of them at once. Though he had a go.

It made me wonder if endings for thrillers are sometimes determined for visual impact, by publishers with an eye to the book being filmed.

I was heartened to read a regular reviewer for a weekend paper who felt exactly the same as me about improbable endings.

 

The plot of an audio book, by an author I had previously enjoyed, was so ridiculous, the characters so one dimensional that I just kept listening, (I did have flu) thinking it must get better. It did. The last few chapters turned into something else altogether and concentrated on a subject the author obviously felt strongly about. It rang true in a way the rest of the book did not. I pondered on her editor. It could have been an interesting book on a subject I knew nothing about… if she had not got seduced into setting her book in an exotic location she possibly had a holiday in, but knew little about. My disbelief was not helped by the fact that I had lived in that particular country. There seemed to be two separate books masquerading uneasily as one. The location and subject did not marry up. The ending of this book was the only thing that felt real.

Improbable plots and endings made me look more carefully at my own writing. What we do for effect, to heighten tension. The constant checking in the far reaches of the night. Would he or she really have done that? Reacted in that in that way. Said that. The fascination we have with certain words, the fall of a sentence, the lilt and texture of a piece of prose we feel proud of. None of this necessarily makes the words coming out of our character’s mouth sound natural or real.The reading aloud test will trip you up or vindicate you every time. The voice cannot obscure pretension or the false note that jumps out at you like a cat.

Luckily, all opinion and enjoyment of books is subjective and interesting. How often have we raved about a book to find it leaves a friend cold or bored to death?

How often have we wondered if we have missed something essential in a universally acclaimed book that we just did not get?

Like every writer I have smarted at a snide review while secretly acknowledging they have a valid point. This makes me wonder how we dare write anything at all and offer it up to scrutiny. Even this blog. Terrifying. Or is that just me…

 

 

August Blog

Penzance held its Literary Festival in July. For a few days the streets and parks were full of people happily wandering between events, listening to visiting writers and poets and steadfastly supporting local writers. Writing workshops for aspiring authors of all ages and numerous children’s events were a great success.

None of this could have happened without the vision, imagination and dedication of a few, who give up much of their lives to organising this event as well the endless hard work of many volunteers.

Penzance is lucky to have a wonderful, thriving bookshop that contributes hugely to Penzance and wholeheartedly supports the Litfest. It loyally promotes local authors as well as visiting ones by consistently having buzzy little launches in the shop in the evenings.

For those of us who spend most of our lives shut up in a small room with a computer it is exhilarating to be reminded, if we needed it, of the armies of readers in love with books, with words, with communicating with the writers taking part in festivals. That sheer joy of reading and talking about the books they have discovered or are about to discover.

I was also warmed by the generosity of writers towards each other. It is a joy to get together and share experiences of our current work, as well as the good and bad luck stories about agents or publishers. Hilarious and self-depreciating jokes over put downs or run ins with the egos of well known authors unite us all in a mutual love of what we do and the sometimes hard realities of commercial publishing.

Communicating face to face is the oxygen that breathes fresh life into the necessary solitary life of a writer and literary festivals remind us of the abiding satisfaction of interacting with discerning readers.

Writers are people who spend their lives building a world other than their own, developing, slowly, step by step characters that become more real than real life. Immersed in our own imaginations we become obsessed with the thrill of a plot unfolding in ways we had not envisaged or rising from the subconscious in weird moments to startle us. We want our books to be populated with characters who are believable, who jump off the page and lodge in the memory.

The drive and excitement of creating a story is like weaving a tapestry and being unsure how the completed work will turn out. Writing is not a precise science. Writers control the narrative. Confront and drive and conjure from imagination and intellect a chosen world, a spread, a family of people.

We choose a place and a plan for these particular lives as they make their way through joys, sadness, violence or cruelty towards some sort of resolution. We know them. We are protective of them. We don’t want to leave them. We are fearful we have not done them justice or have left them to their fates at the wrong moment.

Then we write The End and hand them over. We give them up. They are no longer solely ours. Agent, Editor, Publisher carries our newborn away for inspection. They will suggest slashes of brilliant prose; ask us to cut our excesses and beloved descriptions.

Questions will be asked about character, plot and motive. We will be reined in and asked to examine in detail words that have flown or stuttered out of our head and heart. Our created world is swivelled and turned and angled with expertise, examined for a false note, a longueur, a pointless chapter.

Initial indignation and outrage, as we cut and paste and lose a thousand words, are lost as we acknowledge the flaws and gaps and applaud the editor we trust. Those important, vital experienced pair of eyes that make a re-write bearable. We sigh; we battle and despair until slowly, with renewed excitement, a subtle, honed deeper story emerges from the original. We experience the exhilaration and exhaustion of a book completed.

There have been many possible twists. Many possible beginnings and endings, but this is where the story starts and ends. It is now up to readers, maybe at some book festival, where, hopefully, they will peer down at our cover and carry our imaginary lives away with them.

 

Outside the rain is lashing against the windows. The sea through the rooftops is white capped and irritable. A small tanker is holed up in the lea of the land. My latest book is finished and with an editor. Now I must wait

Winter has been ferocious, endless, sodden and here we are longing and waiting for the late spring. The cliff tops are still closed and brown with few green shoots emerging but the gardens are alive with Camellia and Magnolia trees with swathes of late daffodils lighting up the grass.

Yesterday, the sun shone in a clear blue sky that made the day icy but delicious. I am unable to garden at the moment as I have my arm in a sling so I take off to look at all the wonderful gardens around me.  Frustrated by the limitations of what I can do with one wing I turn to all the things that bring me joy and a quiet continuation each day. The beautiful local pottery bowl and mug I use every morning made by  local potter Lincoln Kirby-Bell. The fallen magnolia bloom I found yesterday, blown by the wind into a rhododendron bush. Looking at my tree ferns out of my sitting room window. The sound of the school bell and the sight of small children scurrying past the kitchen window towards the small school. Lying, reading in a warm bed as the rain hits the window.

The euphoria of finishing a piece of work can be replaced by sudden doubt and dark thoughts. Concentrating on small everyday things is like a small meditation on what has value in our lives and makes a whole life, not just a body of work. Something us writers holed up in a room with our imaginations sometimes forget.

Smart phones with good cameras now give us a canvas that need no words to paint and catalogue the seasons and our part within them.

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