A couple of weeks ago I drove north to Redcar to put flowers on my father’s grave, the first time since my mother died last year. My father died when I was nine and my family moved away when I was twenty-three. I’ve only been back a handful of times since and I think that is why my memories are so very vivid. They haven’t been overlaid by more recent ones. So when I drove through Saltburn I could almost see myself sitting on the sofa with Joy, my best friend, at her house watching the moon landings almost 40 years to the day, could almost hear Stevie Wonder singing ‘My Cherie Amour,’ the soundtrack for that seemingly endless summer.
I drove round by our old house in Redcar and sat looking at it for a while. It’s a cliché I know, but it really did look smaller than I remembered. The stained glass in the front door that used to throw jewelled light onto the hall floor and stairs had gone. And in thinking of that I remembered that the stairs used to be one of my favourite places for reading.
And what years those were for books, my mid teens to my early twenties. I had a summer job some years, but still there seemed to be endless days, hours and hours, for reading, and my appetite for serious literature was endless. I did an English degree so I was meant to be reading anyway – PARADISE LOST was set as the task for the first Christmas vacation – but I read a lot on top of the set books. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, WAR AND PEACE (read mostly in the bath, believe it or not), ANNA KARENINA. I didn’t read Proust, but maybe that was the wrong age. I was in my thirties when I read the first third, and was bowled over by SWANN IN LOVE. I think I appreciated it more than I would have done when I was younger. Now my life has the wrong rhythm for Proust. I wouldn’t be able to take a run at it. Maybe one day I’ll give myself a sabbatical in France and read the rest.
And talking of sabbaticals, I’m taking a little break now. But I’ll be back in mid-August, so don’t go away.
The first book I remember buying in a book shop, or, more likely, having bought for me, is THE BORROWERS by Mary Norton. My memory is hazy – but I see the dark wood shelves (and paneling, too?) of the old W.H.Smith’s on Redcar High Street – which probably means I was staying at my grand-parents. It’s the feeling I remember most – of wanting and the thrill of possession. I don’t know how old I was. Seven? Eight?
We didn’t have a lot of books in our house, because we didn’t have much money, but when we lived in Ampleforth, my mother used to take us the bus into Helmsley once a week and we would get books out of the library. I loved the Norse legends and was frustrated because I was a good reader and had usually finished my book long before the next visit came round. However I couldn’t have been so very short of books, because there were enough for me to pretended to be a librarian and catalogue them: I see that ALICE IN WONDERLAND is number 10. That had been one of my mother’s books from her own childhood: so was ANNE OF GREEN GABLES which I adored. In my copy of WHAT KATY DID AT SCHOOL by Susan Coolidge I’ve written a date: I was six when I was given that. I read it many, many times and much preferred it to ALICE IN WONDERLAND – I think that is a book for adults. As a child I found it disturbing. Maybe my grip on reality wasn’t strong enough for me to enjoy the joke.
Later, aged around ten or eleven, I saved up my pocket-money to buy the Pullein-Thompson pony stories to fuel my own fantasies of one day owning a horse. Then a year or two later it was Gerald Durrell’s series of books about collecting animals: THREE TICKETS TO ADVENTURE, MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS and so. I’ve still got those. Looking back it seems to me now that a very wide of range of reading appealed to me and it wasn’t just a solitary activity. My friend Linda and I loved Biggles – how extraordinary that seems now – and my friend Pauline had a terrific collection of Superman comics. We used to pore over those together as well as over our copies of JACKIE.
Will today’s children have the same relationship with the printed word? My own children haven’t – there are so many other calls on their time, TV, the internet, DVS . . . I feel something has been lost. But then I would, wouldn’t I?
I love to browse in bookshops. One favourite is Scarthin books in Cromford, nr Matlock, which sells both new and second-hand. I used to go there so often with my small daughter that she got it muddled up with the library and used to call it ‘the library shop.’ Another is Heffer’s book shop in Cambridge to which I paid one of my regular visits yesterday. Now that Murder One, the London crime fiction bookshop, has closed, Heffer’s probably has the best selection of crime fiction in the country, thanks to the wonderful fiction buyer, Richard Reynolds. He can usually be found at his desk in the crime fiction section and I always ask him to recommend something. I’ve come across some terrific books that way – Rennie Airth’s THE BLOOD-DIMMED TIDE, Colin Cotterill’s series featuring the Laos coroner, Dr Siri – and yesterday came away with Louise Penny’s STILL LIFE. That personal recommendation can’t be bettered. And in a bookshop there’s always the chance you’ll come across something that you didn’t know you wanted until it sparks your imagination- and that can be gold dust for a writer.
But I do like buying books on the internet too – and especially through Abebooks. The names of the shops and places are so evocative. Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Poisoned Pen in Phoenix, Arizona . . . I’d love to do a road trip touring mystery bookshops in the US and maybe I will one day. In the meantime it is magical to me that I can order a book from a shop in Pasadena in the evening and find an e-mail the next morning that tells me it has been sent out. And the things that are sometimes sent out with the books . . . but that is a story for another day . . .
You know how it is sometimes with a new friend. You really get on, you see a lot of each other, and then, you’re not sure why, you can’t seem to get round to ringing her, she doesn’t ring you either, and you can’t put your finger on it, but the spark’s gone. Maybe after a while you’ll pick up where you left off – and maybe you won’t. That’s how it was with me and Kinsey Millhone. But last week I read Q IS FOR QUARRY and all the old friendly feelings came flooding back. What a pro Sue Grafton is and I mean that as high praise. She never short-changes her reader. Her novels are rich and satisfying, full of characters who step right off the page. I particularly enjoyed the two old-timer police officers who employ Kinsey to help them identify a murdered girl long dead. Now that I’m back I’ll read the other ones I’d missed.
Two things led me to pick up Q IS FOR QUARRY. I’ve got my mother’s copies of Sue Grafton’s novels now, so they are right there on the shelf, where I can see them if I turn my head. My mother really loved them, read them all, and and looked forward to the next one. The other is that Sue Grafton received the CWA Diamond Dagger last year in time for me to tell my mother that I’d be meeting her at the reception which in the end was a month or two after my mother died. I told Sue how much my mother had enjoyed her books. Of course she was pleased and said so. Another writer might have left it at that, but she drew me out about my own work, said sympathetically ‘writing is bloody hard’ and made me feel better when I was struggling a bit.
So yes, writing is hard, but good writers make it look easy, and that’s what Sue Grafton does.
I’ve at last finished THE HABIT OF BEING, a selection of her letters. It took me weeks. There are 600 pages, I only have a certain amount of time and energy for this kind of reading, and it took me a while to get into them. In particular it was hard for me as a Quaker to enter into her devout Catholicism and the racism of some of her attitudes, though common for that time and place, was still hard to swallow. But I am glad I keep going. As I got close to the end, I kept looking anxiously to see how many pages there were left, knowing that she was soon to die young and sorry that there wasn’t going to be any more. It reminded me of when I read the MEMORIALS OF EDWARD BURNE-JONES years ago in the library of the Barber Institute in Birmingham and found myself in tears when I got to the end. It is a curious thing, reading about someone’s life as it unfurls and all the time knowing what they cannot know: when it will end.
What I particularly enjoyed -in addition to the salty humour – were her thoughts on writing.
‘When you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself . . . you have to present it and leave it alone.’
‘You can suggest something obvious is going to happen but you cannot have it happen in a story. You can’t clobber any reader while he is looking. You divert his attention, then you clobber him, and he never knows what hit him.’
‘It appears I have finished my novel . . . someone said you don’t finish one you just say to hell with it.’
She also once wrote something along these lines: ‘a writer can do anything that they can get away with, but no-one has ever got away with much.’ I like that.
I think she would have been wryly amused to find her short story, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ in THE CRIME LOVER’S CASEBOOK, which is where I first read it after picking it up in a remainder bookshop.
I’ve got more books on writing than I can bring myself to tell you. There’s some justification. They’ve been essential tools in learning how to write. And then too writing is a solitary occupation and it’s good to have a few old friends handy on shelf to turn to when I grind to a halt. But do I really need to have so many? In truth they are something of an addiction.So here are a few favourites. For inspiration, rather than technique there’s Dorothea Brande’s classic BECOMING A WRITER (first published 1934) and Brenda Ueland’s IF YOU WANT TO WRITE (first published 1938). I wish I’d known Brenda – the biography in the front of her book notes that she received an international swimming record for the over-80s and was knighted by the King of Norway. As for her book, what woman writer wouldn’t warm to this chapter heading: ‘Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing.’ Now that I’ve got it down from the shelf, I want to read it again. Also good when I need a pep talk are James M Frey’s HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL II and Stephen King’s ON WRITING.
Plot and structure are what I have always found most difficult and in the early days Robert J Ray’s THE WEEK-END NOVELIST and Robert Mackee’s STORY: SUBSTANCE, STRUCTURE, STYLE AND THE PRINCIPLES OF SCREEN WRITING were constant companions. I still go back to them. And then there’s Lawrence’s Block’s books on writing, one of which has the great title, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT and . . .But you get the idea.
And do I find myself reading about writing instead of actually writing? What do you think?
Last Saturday I went to a book sale in the Methodist Hall in the next village. It was in aid of an African charity and the books had been donated (I’d given a bagful myself). Pricing was simple. Hardbacks £1, paperbacks 50p. Thus it was that I acquired World’s Classics editions of JANE EYRE, THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, CRANFORD and a collection of Father Brown stories for far less that I’d have paid in a second hand bookshop. Don’t I already have other editions of these works? Yes, I do, except for THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, but it’s always worth having a World’s Classic edition. They are the epitome of portability. These little blue hardback books, published for decades by Oxford University Press, measure about 6 by 4 inches and are printed on thin paper. They combined legibility, elegance and lightness. My copy of MIDDLEMARCH weighs 9 ozs, Beat that. They are such convenient little books, so small they are easy to read in bed – no propping up unwieldy volumes. They are perfect for taking on holiday or on any long trip. The first time my husband went on a working trip to China I put Trollope’s THE WAY WE LIVE NOW in his suitcase and it kept him going through long evenings in his hotel room in Harbin and through sleepless jet-lagged nights. The next time it was PHINEAS FINN.
I often pack one at the last minute just as backup. Who knows, I might get held up at an airport or – horror of horrors – simply run out of things to read and why risk that when I can slip a World’s Classics edition of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE or PORTRAIT OF A LADY into a corner of my bag. It’s the reader’s equivalent of the hiker’s slab of Kendal Mint Cake.
First: my book group chose A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON and I am pleased because that is the one I really wanted and I am looking forward to rereading it.
So, series characters, or should I say detectives, as I’m thinking mostly of crime fiction here. On the whole I like them. If you are reading for pure pleasure and relaxation it can be nice to know what you are getting into. It’s like meeting up with old friends: Morse, Travis McGee, Kinsey Milhone, we know some of their history, we’re look forward to seeing them again and finding out what they’ll get up to next. There are advantages for the writer too. You have done the spade work and have brought your fictional terrain and its characters into being, you’re at home there, and you too want to know what these people will do next. Now that I’ve nearly finished a stand-alone, I can’t wait to get back to my Cassandra series.
But there are disadvantages too. Sometimes the readers go on loving Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes when the writer is heartily sick of them and could happily murder them and of course that’s just what Conan Doyle did. It is hard to maintain the same high standard in novel after novel and perhaps it’s more obvious in a series novel when you don’t. I read a couple lately that were a little disappointing, though I am a fan of both writers. In Donna Leon’s THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS and Qui Xiaolong’s THE MAO CASE, Commissario Brunetti and Inspector Chen retain their old charm, but in the first the plot was a bit thin and the second was paced too slowly.
To end on a positive note one series that is going from strength to strength is Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series. THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE is terrific and shows that he was just getting into his stride with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
Next week it is my turn to offer the books for the group to choose from and this always involves some pleasurable musing. It is a bit like assembling a cheese board. Everything should be good of its kind and there should be a variety. It’s good to choose something recent and this time it is Patrick Gale’s NOTES FROM AN EXHIBITION, which I’ve been meaning reading to read for a while. It’s been very well reviewed. And then an all-time favourite of mine, one of the collections of Raymond Carver’s short stories – choosing just one is hard, but it will be one of the later ones, ELEPHANT or CATHEDRAL. And then something I’ve been wanting to re-read for a while, Muriel Spark’s A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON, which I first read about twenty years, soon after publication. It’s stayed with me and I’d like to revisit it. And lastly, I’ll throw a classic into the mix – CRANFORD, I think – or maybe Jane Austen. I’ll let you know which one comes out on top.
I know I’ve been neglecting my blog. I’m very busy at the moment trying to get this novel off my hands, but I’ll soon get back to blogging on Monday or Tuesdays every week, I promise.
. . . I hope. The end of my novel that is. Another couple of weeks should do it. I have yet to decide on that very last sentence and it has set me thinking about how to end a novel. It’s almost as hard as starting one, even though the crime writer has the edge over other writers in that certain things are more or less a given. The mystery will be solved and the wicked brought to book (unless you are Patricia Highsmith). Even so, it is easy to paint yourself into a corner. I read somewhere that William Golding had no idea how to end LORD OF THE FLIES. He mentioned that to his wife. She was sick of him retreating to his study every night and said ‘Oh, why don’t you set fire to the bloody thing?’ So he did – the island, that is, not the novel. Can this really be true? I’d like to think so.
But even when you know just what is going to happen it’s by no means easy to end on exactly the right note, so that the reader closes the book with a sigh of satisfaction. Apparently Truffaut, however gloomy the content of the movie, liked to end on an up note. I’m not sure that he always pulled that off, but I think it is a good idea.
Suggestions of great last words would be very welcome. I’ll try to come up with some for next time.