Before Normal… Remembered Voices

I was born at the beginning of the 1960s, just when everything changed. But I carry in me the voices of my elders – people born the century-before-last, even some people who’d been alive in the American Civil War. 

            And they all said one special thing to me. Often. ‘Wash your hands!’

            Honestly.

            All the dang time. 

            Once, I’d come in from school to find my great-grandmother there, drinking tea and eating coffee cake. I threw down my things and ran over to hug her and she shrank back. Voices rang out from all corners of the dining area, ‘WASH YOUR HANDS!’

            I trudged to the lavatory, muttering about the rejection, and looking at my perfectly pink fingers. They weren’t dirty. At all

            I’d just do the quick rinse and convincing wipe on the towel that I’d perfected. But no. Mom was there, watching. ‘Wash them right.’ 

            Our soap contained disinfectant – stripes of it in the bar, with milder stripes that stopped your skin from totally drying out. Granma’s hand soap was a brand called ‘Lava’. It had sand particles imbedded into it and practically removed a layer of epidermis every time you used it. Fancy smelling, non-medicated soaps were for grownup guests – and guests in our social circle generally knew to find the ‘real’ soap in the cupboard and use that, in order to keep the rose-scented stuff pristine for the next special visitor.

            I dutifully washed my already-clean hands with the ‘Lifebuoy’. I didn’t care about seeing my stupid old great grandmother or any of my other tedious relatives after that. I gave perfunctory greetings, ate my coffee cake and retreated to the sofa with a book. 

Pouting. 

            It was ‘wash your hands’ every time you came in the house and ‘wash your hands!’ before you ate and ‘for goodness sakes, go wash your hands!’ if you’d dodged indoors to grab a drink during a game outdoors. Slowly, my mother gave up the battle. She inspected me for visible dirt from time to time but normally just scrubbed me for Sunday Mass. 

            But my grandparents! They never let up. 

            It was always ‘wash your hands!’ and ‘open a window and get some air circulating in here’ and ‘cover your mouth when you cough’. They had rules that Mom and Dad knew but ignored and to me these rules made no sense whatsoever. They rigorously vacuumed cloth sofas and preferred cold, hard leather or leatherette because ‘I can wipe them clean.’ They shuddered at wall-to-wall carpets. ‘You can’t get under them!’ They had tablecloths that were washed after every meal, even when nobody had spilled.  

            Compared to Mom’s rather lazy housekeeping, where we stewed in a nice warm fug of central heating and washed things only when they looked dirty or smelled bad – my grandparents and great aunts and uncles seemed totally nuts. 

            But they had lived through the Spanish Flu. Tuberculosis. Polio. Rubella. 

Today, (in what I hope is) midway through the Covid19 pandemic, I begin to hear their voices again, inside my head, like a cheerleading squad from my DNA. I wash my hands, so properly that they would have smiled with pride. The heating has come on in these chilly mornings, but I’ve left a window in every room open a little crack.

            My normal has gone, but theirs has returned. Sixty years after I first heard their voices, I’m starting to understand. 

The depths of winter – Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

Photo on 10-01-2018 at 19.54

I frequently find myself in a classroom with seven or eight brilliant emerging writers, who don’t, read the kind of fiction each other write. That’s why I introduced the rainy B&B bath test. ‘If,’ I say, ‘You were in a B&B and it was raining cats and dogs outside, and you picked up a book to take in for a long bath and it was this book (here I wave the manuscript concerned) and you read the first page or so…would you take it into the bathroom or try another?

If you would carry in for your bath, it’s a good book (even if you wouldn’t have bought it yourself). If you’d put it back down, then there’s something either wrong with the book or too narrow about your taste.

This book came to me via a Secret Santa and it was very much that kind of experience. I’d heard nothing about it. I wasn’t sure it was my sort of thing. I looked up 150 pages later.

We find ourselves deep in Early Modern Russia, when Christianity still sits uneasily on traditional belief. Winters are hard and long and hunger is normal…starvation is not unknown. In the dark and cold, when you don’t dare stray far from the stove and pray you have enough wood to keep it fed, your mental resilience can be the difference between life and death.

The book is a fantasy, but a fantasy based on the the various tales and spiritual concepts that the characters need for this mammoth task of survival. The interior lives of the characters  – a wild young girl called Vasya and her family, the people in her father’s fiefdom and the golden-haired priest that comes among them – are shaped by their beliefs. When an unusually hard winter hits, for Vasya it is an evil folklore spirit that walks among the benign ones she has befriended. For the priest, it is a sign that the people have sinned. Interior beliefs become a threatening reality, and everyone’s survival depends on Vasya.

There is an evil stepmother, a brutal suitor, gorgeous horses, the sweep of the Russian countryside, the glittering court of late Medieval Moscow…it’s quite a ride. And Vasya is a heroine to adore. It’s beautifully written and terribly atmospheric.

Don’t wait until you find it on the shelves of a remote B&B on a rainy day. Read it now. I understand the sequel will be available soon, so if you end up loving the world, you can live in it even longer than the 456 pages!

Why We Need To Fund Libraries 1/3

image1

Let’s start with the basics. What is a library?

A library is not a collection of books. Above you’ll see why it’s not. This is The Ship’s library. The Ship is my local pub and this is their book corner. It started off well, but in the three years I’ve been…erm…monitoring it every Friday evening (with a pint or two), it’s gone right downhill.  All that’s left is old tat.

That’s because there’s no librarian. Any fool can bring books onto a shelf – any fool can buy all the latest books the reviewers say are good and stack them in alphabetical and Dewey Decimal order. But librarians don’t just know how to do that…they also know what to throw away.

Librarians are trained to curate information; trained to gather information (yes) but also to evaluate it, decide if it’s still valid and get rid of the bad stuff. They’re Snopes  in real life. Only they don’t just evaluate the worth of internet memes and rumours and fake news…they can monitor and evaluate EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION ON THE PLANET. They can also store it, manipulate it, find it, file it, retrieve it and archive it and will know when to do all those things.

Let’s look at another example: A friend of mine was at the dump/tip the other day and saved a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 from going in, not even the book bin (which gets picked over by charity shops) but the paper recycling.

Librarians also know what to keep.

Libraries aren’t stacks of books: they’re the repository of a society’s knowledge. In good libraries, everything on the shelves is of worth; good fiction, up-to-date and verified non-fiction, poetry worth reading, how-to books that actually teach you how to do something, reference materials that are collections of the latest and best thought humanity has to offer.

They’re the intellectual hub of our communities and librarians are their maintenance crew. Trying to have one without the other is like trying to run an airline without any mechanics. The planes might look very pretty. But I wouldn’t like to fly in one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing the Magic

1170717_10151537898267657_406675264_n

Books may be the only true magic.

Alice Hoffman

The last time I wrote, I wanted to explain that even successful books, don’t, for most people, make a great deal of money. I intended to follow that up with another post, about how satisfying the writing life actually is, despite the fact it doesn’t make you rich…but my day job got very busy and I never had the chance.

I’m actually quite good at making money. I could make a great deal more if I wanted. I’ve got four business ideas right now, for where I currently live and the capital I’ve got available.

But instead, I continually decide to keep spending my time making magic.

Right now, I’m writing a timeless story as true as stone. It feels as if I’ve heard it before, a hundred times, as if I heard it as I went to sleep every night for a thousand years…but it’s really brand new. My characters – a feckless dreamer of a poor boy and a spoilt brat of a rich girl – are stereotypes…but you’ve never met these extraordinary people before.

Their incredible journey of love and hope and their impossible love is inspired by the true story of my engagement ring. Andy and I found this ring at an antique stall in The Angel, Islington in North London. We sent the money back to friends in London, who bought it for us and posted it to Yellowstone National Park. In Bozeman, Montana, we found the stone had been substituted with glass. In my hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, Goldmaker’s Jewellers cut another stone to fit the setting.

The stone was lovely, but kept falling out because the Edwardian setting had poorly-made prongs. In Bond Street, back in London six years later, Andy had the shank of the ring mended and sorted out the prongs that held the stone, as well. He also had assay marks put in.

Ten years after that, it was stolen from our tent as we slept with our four-year-old daughter, twenty miles from Paris, France. The thieves were Eastern European youngsters, exploited by an Italian gang-master.

The insurance provided another ring. I hated it. I sold it and bought a new garden shed with the money and got another vintage ring. The stone fell out of that one and was lost forever. The insurance gave us more money…I bought a silver one. I didn’t like it, either.

For seven years, I kept an Ebay search running. Every once in a while, I would look for my ring. And one day, I saw it.

I phoned Andy. We had very little money at the time, but he said, ‘Buy it. Buy it right now.’ I did. That’s when I discovered it was in Stroud, a town about twenty miles away from where we live. I felt like it had been trying to come home.

Still, I couldn’t quite believe it when I opened the box. But yes, there was the chip on the side from rock climbing in the Tetons. There were the ever-so-slightly wonky prongs. It was my ring. Impossible. But true.

So, Alice Hoffman was both right and wrong. Writers do make magic when we sit down and create a story. But that’s not the only magic in the world. There is magic all around us in love and hope and improbable kindness and coincidence and happenstance and…and it’s all as true as a blue-stoned ring.

On Still Not Being Famous

wry me

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.

–Virginia Woolf

I’ve written a book that lots of people love. I’ve been nominated for big prizes. I’m doing literary festivals. I’m going into schools. I’ve been interviewed by lots of magazines.

But I’m still not famous.

In films, when writers write a good book, they become famous, almost immediately. In real life, not so much. People squint when they meet me at cocktail parties and say, ‘Should I have heard of you?’ I have to spell my name three hundred times when I sign up for a new service. At the bank, when the machine ate my debit card and I was trying to prove my identity, they weren’t all that impressed with what ID I had in my pockets. In desperation, I went to my car and pulled out a copy of Dreaming the Bear. It has my photograph and name. The bank clerk wrinkled her nose. ‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘Books aren’t on our accepted list.’ Nobody is all that impressed that I’ve written a book people love.

And the thing about awards is that many are long-listed but few get the actual prize. If you hang about, hopping from one foot to the other, hoping for validation, you’re going to have a long wait and might not win in the end. If you look back and see what won and lost in a given year, you’ll see the prizewinner sometimes wasn’t the book you still remember…or sometimes isn’t the book that’s still in print.

The fact is, it’s a long game. You can’t second guess yourself. You keep learning and writing and hoping you’ve done good work. If you are very, very lucky, you’ll get some recognition in your lifetime. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women twenty years before she died. She knew it was popular. But she had no idea we’d still be reading it – nearly 150 years later. Big names fade. Obscure authors suddenly pop up into our notice…sometimes years after their deaths. If you try and measure your worth as a writer by recognition, you will probably not get it right.

Much better to be in it for the game than the fame. And to take it easy on minding the opinions of others.

 

 

 

 

…and then a year had passed

photo-on-05-02-2017-at-16-34-3

You are a writer. The ‘normal’ ship sailed without you long ago.

Terri Main

A great many things have happened since I last posted here. Dreaming the Bear has been nominated for many awards and is just about to come out in the USA. Coyote Summer will be published in June and Hospital High comes out in September.

It’s all go.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m having a marvellous time. I love all my books. I love my editors and publishers. I’ve met some amazing people and I get to hang out with my writer friends again. I go into schools and talk to young people about how reading and writing can change their lives. They call me inspiring…I think it’s the other way around.

But there’s no doubt about it. I’m working very hard. I lecture half time at one university, have a Royal Literary Fellowship at another and have done guest lectures at four more in the last few months. I also do writing training for other kinds of people – social workers, engineers, long-time unemployed, business people, PR professionals. It’s what you have to do these days to make a living from the writing…and my living is the main income for the family.

So, everything is lovely. But I looked up, and then a year had passed. I won’t let it happen again. From now on, I’ll keep you in touch.