Wednesday, 29 August 2007

In Memoriam Rene Latournerie

I know that my last blog had a sad theme, but I'm afraid this one has too. Yesterday we heard of the death of our French friend, Rene Latournerie. He'd had colon cancer for several years and died on Sunday at the age of 69.

During the first half of the nineties, we had a half-share in an old French house near Bergerac. Rene and his wife Liliane befriended us and many were the mornings lost to the invitation to an 'apero' or two, many the afternoons fogged by the heat and the after-effects of too many Ricards.

When I was writing 'The Chase', Rene was immensely helpful. He was curt but with a twinkle in his eye, he had rarely stirred outside his region, he was a man who knew how to build things and who understood nature and who, we always felt, was entirely content with his lot. He was lean and solid as oak. He was also at times bigoted and narrow of view and he was bloodthirsty, priding himself in an extensive armoury of weapons with which to shoot the local 'gibier' - but he also believed that the game should always have a sporting chance to survive. He possessed no false sentimentality, no squeamishness: he came from a peasant culture where you did what you had to do to survive.

Many of his phrases and memories (like hiding in a cornfield when the Nazis arrived) entered my book. When I needed to write a crucial chapter about a boar hunt, Rene took us one day into the woods, while Liliane looked after our then-toddler son, Jack. The walk was utterly memorable and I was fascinated by everything he knew, everything he noticed, which we, poor clumsy city-dwellers, would have failed to spot. There was a secret life all around us and he provided the temporary bridge to it. Afterwards, I wrote the boar hunt chapter in one glorious burst and scarcely needed to tamper with a word of it afterwards. So thanks, Rene, for the information and for the experience.

We hadn't seen him for a few years, but believed, as you do, that he would be as permanent as the landscape he inhabited. We felt shell-shocked last night. But even stalwarts like Rene, landscapes and ways of life such as in the Perigord, all are vulnerable, in the end.

'Jean-Jacques, child of the land, tramps ahead of him in brown corduroys and a checked shirt, half-open. He carries his gun, his knife and a stout stick he uses to prod the ground or hold branches back for their passage. His voice is deep but low, his accent so strong that it loses Gerald and Edouard has to translate. Here, he says, the tracks of roedeer. There - that circle of white mouldy dots in the soil? - a mushroom is coming up. Up in that tree - nest of a buzzard. By your foot - the droppings of a weasel. He knows the names of everything, the significance of every sign, and dispenses information casually. He takes it all for granted. Gerald feels at the same time privileged and patronised. If ever I was stuck on a desert island, he thinks humbly, I'd be dead meat. Provisions could be right under my nose - I'd never see them. I know about mobile phones and how to set the video. Mother Nature didn't foster me. From time to time he asks a question: he asks Jean-Jacques to identify something for him, and the man gives him a measuring look, like a doctor in an asylum assessing how much the patient is capable of assimilating.' ('The Chase')

Salut, Rene.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Done and undone

I've just been crying my eyes out for a woman I never met.

Read the news this morning that the writer and humanitarian campaigner, Siobhan Dowd, had died of breast cancer at the age of 47.

I was aware of her because of her recent successful forays into children's fiction, A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery - and also, rather absurdly, because we shared the same dentist, who a few months ago, after his obligatory enquiry about how my writing was going, mentioned that she was a patient of his.

Two and a half years ago the writer and broadcaster Humphrey Carpenter died. He'd been suffering from Parkinson's disease and yet his death came as a shock. I had more of a connection in that he had been my supervisor when I first came to Oxford to study and on rare occasions we met thereafter, he was always enthusiastic and helpful and great fun to be with.

What these two people have in common, apart from premature death and the ghastly injustice of that, about which we are all going to feel revulsion, pain and anger, is the concept of the life well lived. Reading Siobhan Dowd's obituary in The Guardian, one sees how much she crammed into her life - and Humphrey was the same: an extraordinary human dynamo.

It's the John Donne moment again, the 'no man is an island'. It's also a kick up the backside for those of us who have the aspirations and yet somehow, don't seem to be able to get things done. It's the perilously-close-to-a-Hallmark-card sentiment that you should live your life as if each day is your last etc. Certainly, you need to focus on your priorities, decide what is truly crucial to you, so that when your time comes you don't cry out 'But I didn't ...! But I haven't ...! Could you just hang on while I ...!'

So says the woman who's in the midst of a mad cleaning binge because we've got people coming to dinner tomorrow. Why should it matter that the windows are clean and the cushions are straight and the air is gently scented by an Aveda candle? It doesn't matter at all. but still I am in thrall to my mother's and grandmother's standards, to the tyranny of judgement by other females (a tyranny my husband can't for the life of him understand). Absurd. Absurd. I should be writing.

I'll read Siobhan Dowd's books - fewer books than she would have liked to have written no doubt, but two more than there might have been if she hadn't had the energy and commitment she had.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

What do you want to be when you grow up?

The Guardian yesterday discussed a YouGov poll in which it turns out 10% of us want to be writers, more even than those who want to be sports personalities, pilots or astronauts! Those over 50 are most prone to this desire - the younger lot are keener on being a Beckham or Lewis Hamilton. This just demonstrates the halo of glamour that adheres to the concept of the writing life - along with the delusion that there's always gold in them thar literary hills.

This led me to think about the numerous courses, handbooks and articles all of which have at their core that enticing message, that lure - 'You too can be a writer!' 'Why not be a writer!'

I myself contribute to this, in that I have my own small involvement in creative writing teaching. Often the people I teach have a burning urge to do it, often they've proven their motivation by writing stories and novels, by entering competitions, by, quite simply, sticking to it. However, all too often, people claim they want to be writers in the same way that lanky sixteen year old girls want to be models - they do it by steadfastly ignoring what is actually involved.

So, what does it take to be a writer? First of all, bloody hard graft. Forget airy fairy notions of the sensitive writer at the desk, chewing the quill pen, furrowing the brow, then being struck with the white heat of inspiration and scribbling furiously through the night, scribbling his or her way into immortality. This is not to say that inspiration doesn't work like that - it can and when it does it's a wonderful trip. The point is, it doesn't work like that all the time. The Muse, as Stephen King says, is a basement kind of guy - not an ethereal Greek spirit wafting down from Parnassus. You need to beat your Muse with a stick. You need to get it out of bed - and it's usually as reluctant to do so as my teenage son. And that's Reluctant.

Not only is it hard graft but long drawn out hard graft. You have to commit yourself to the long haul, to the ups and downs, to the supercharged enthusiasm followed by the long dark night of the soul, to the wrenching of precious time out of the daily confusion of thoughts and activities, and most of all to the lack of understanding, open hostility, or cold rejection of others. When I was young there was an advert for toys called Weebles and the jingle was 'Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.' You've got to be a Weeble.

You've got to be your own best friend; nurture and comfort yourself with pride in what you've done and faith in what you want to do. You've got to be your own worst enemy, your harshest critic, subjecting everything you write to fierce relentless scrutiny.

You've got to be honest. You've got to let projects go if they're not working out. You've got to focus on your own capacities as a writer, not eat yourself up in envy of others. Honesty may well mean facing up to the fact that ultimately, this is a race you can't run, a goal you can't reach. The biggest honest favour you may have to do for yourself is to admit that you don't actually have the talent. However much books can advise and teachers can coach - and they can do a lot - there are times when, whisper it, the aspirant just cannot write for toffee. Here again, writing seems to have its own uniquely perverted way of selling itself as a profession - nobody thinks they've got a godgiven right to be a brainsurgeon or a concert pianist or even a painter. Often people will reach their mature years and retire from the day job and say blithely 'I'm going to be a writer now' - as if it's a switch you can flip. To those people I'd say - yes, you may well have a talent which has been bubbling within you all these years and now's the time for it to bubble up - but then again you may not. Wishing isn't doing. When I was a student my best friends were around a size 10 and I starved myself to try to get down to that happy state, and certainly I got thin, but I couldn't get thinner than my bone structure would allow, I couldn't look boyish for the life of me. I had the body I had and still have (only more so now!). Being a writer comes from a germ within, and the nurturing of that with industry and practice and the recognition that that's a process that ought never to end. You can always be better.

When I was a little girl and was asked 'Little girl, what do you want to be when you grow up?' I'd answer, primly and no doubt revoltingly, 'An authoress.' It's all I've ever wanted to be. It's always mattered, it still matters, through all the dilatoriness, the self-doubt, the despair. It's what I am and what I always aspire to be. It defines me. I hate it, I'm burdened by it, but I love it and relish it and wallow in it all the time.

If any of this has made you go 'Ouch' I'm sorry - but then again I'm not. It was an honest lecture, honestly meant.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Busman's holiday?

Some of you may well have harboured the suspicion that I've been away on holiday - well, you're right. I've been back a few days now, but it's been a manic week with so much to catch up on, so I haven't got around to blogging till now. My apologies for neglecting you, if you're regular readers.

We went to Cornwall. Last year, we went to France, down by the Spanish border. It was boiling there - but then, it was boiling here too, and like so many others we took last year's hot summer as a sign that global warming was going to give southern England a Mediterranean temperature from now on. Ho ho.

However, although it was raining when we arrived in the far West, near St Ives, we ended up blest with good weather on the whole. Having fled from flood-threatened Oxford, we felt extremely lucky. Three times now we've gone down there and each time the locals have commented on how lucky we've been with the weather, so we're in danger of thinking that it's always fine.

I am so in love with that place. My husband and I idly talked of moving there - and there's a lot to be said for it. Don't want to sound too much like an incipient Druid or Goddess worshipper, but it is a place that speaks to me. Like Oxford, it's imbued with history. Like where I came from in the north of Scotland, it's got sea and cliffs and wildness. Unlike Oxford, it's got fresh air! My lungs felt like they'd had a good scouring out - all of us were yawning all the time. It was a detox for soul and body.

However, I don't think in all reality I would move there. In Scotland I was only too familiar with the sense of being cut off from the world at large, and don't think that after the first fine careless rapture I would much enjoy it again (then again, there's the internet ...). In Oxford there's all the facilities of a city, there's access to London and Heathrow, there's hospitals close at hand ... there's also noise, street-crime, traffic ... Oh dear. I need to get rich enough to have a foot in both camps - that's the answer. Then one of the Cornish nationalists will no doubt set fire to our Cornish retreat ...

It was a great, great holiday, but it was also a working holiday for me - I was researching for my children's series. Back in the days when I was writing The Chase, which was set in France, I was exactly the same - never off duty. It's exhausting - you carry a notebook at all times, you spend too much on books (my husband would argue that's a year-round fault), take hundreds of photos, try to imprint everything on your memory, 'in case it might be useful' - that's my mantra. There comes a point when you wish you could be normal, just lie on the beach or look at the view or go on the jaunt, without trying to catch things in the net of your imagination. Where a fact could be just that - an interesting fact, and not a lump of ore from which a nugget of story can be extracted. The thing is, I can't help it. I can't switch off from 'That would make a good story' and 'What if?' - it's the way my brain works. Damn tiring.

Here's a quote from James Thurber on this: 'I never quite know when I'm not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says "Dammit, Thurber, stop writing." She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph.'

Does that strike a chord with any of you?