Every seven years, so it is believed, we undergo a full molecular transformation. Short of shedding skin, we find different things funny and get up in arms over different issues, we drop our old habits (even those that once amounted to an insurmountable thirty-a-day), we swop our likes and dislikes, we lose our strengths and acquire new weakness, and we emerge on the other side as someone else. As writers, we do it with even greater frequency.
If we add to it changing personal circumstances, births and deaths, marriages and breakups, house moves, job redundancies, intrepid journeys and other cataclysmic events, God knows what multitude of personalities we carry inside us! As writers, we kill and resurrect those personalities round the clock, we store them at the back of our notebooks, we chop them, mix and match them, pick and choose, buy two for the price of one, adopt them and disinherit them at a whim…
Many of them make it into our stories. They are much more realistic if we had an opportunity to live inside their heads at some point in our constantly morphing lives. They turn up on the page with ease and we are able to switch between them, dash from one to another in dialogues in which we take sides, try to talk reason and simply cannot deal with the other character’s pig-headedness. In Life Without Me I had to feed on my assertive, professional, no-nonsense self when I stepped in Georgie’s shoes and had to starve myself of any common sense whenever Paula tottered in wearing her high heels and little else. While writing the opening chapters of Swimming with Sharks I lived in my pyjamas, hiding under the bed whenever there was a knock on the door, but when Gillian marched onto the scene, I lost the pjs, got in the car and let the road rage take me to my destination (because, let’s face it, the world is full of fools I don’t suffer gladly and someone has to let them know that).
There are times when characters get under our skin. They won’t listen and they are not particularly likeable, and you really want nothing better than to kill them off. But, like I said, they don’t listen. They won’t go away. They won’t let you write them out of the story no matter how many traps you set for them. They can be exhausting, but you have to deal with them. I like to take breaks from them, offering them the traditional excuse of ‘Look, it’s not you – it’s me.’ Today I’ve been writing about Reggie, a South African mercenary with a heart wrought into a nugget of steel. I just had to throw in his way young Bella – a delicate flower of a woman who brought back tender memories – to soften the bastard up a bit. And so it goes. Sometimes I have to switch between stories, leave one to sulk in the background and reach out to another one, make new friends and remember myself to old enemies.
I know some of my characters, some of my multiple personalities, are pain-in-the-arse, incorrigible wastrels, but God forbid, someone should say that to my face. It feels like a slap, and I have to fight the urge to slap that someone back. Because my characters are my babies. Not all of them are good, or decent, or agreeable, but they are mine.
Time for a third instalment in my series dissecting the secrets of great writers.
I read The Remains of the Day because I was inspired by an interview with the author following him receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ishiguro sounded like such a thoughtful, collected character. In short, I liked him as a person and wanted to find out more about him as a writer.
In The Remains of the Day, Stevens takes respite from his butler’s duty to undertake a short excursion into West Country to visit Miss Kenton, a woman who once worked with him as Lord Darlington’s housekeeper. On his travels, he reminisces about his life dedicated to serving his master, proudly and faithfully and, somewhat on the margin, about the ups and downs of his volatile relations with Miss Kenton, about his father and about his tiny life in the grander scheme of things.
The mastery of this book lies in how Ishiguro manages to superimpose Stevens’s ordinary, little-man’s life onto the bigger picture of the malfunctioning class system and the politics of appeasement preceding the outbreak of WW2. Or perhaps, it is the wheel of history that is superimposed on Stevens’s life. The distinction isn’t clear. None of them seem to be favoured by the author as more significant. Stevens narrates the story and to him the detail of everyday etiquette and silver-polishing is equally important as Lord Darlington’s anti-Semitic antics and top-secret meetings with influential if disingenuous politicians. Stevens doesn’t judge his employer. He knows his place and doesn’t resent it (unlike the reader). His unconditional loyalty is to his job. It takes precedence of his own father, over his undoubtedly deep but supressed feelings for Miss Kenton and over his better judgment in relation to Lord Darlington’s treacherous politics.
Ishiguro has captured Stevens perfectly: through his tone, his language, his actions. Stevens is more aristocratic than the lords he is serving; he is more dignified, more stiff-upper-lip and more complex, despite his self-deprecating efforts. His little holiday exposes him to the world at large and the reader watches him squirm on the hook of the unwelcome reality from which he has been detached for the best part of his life. Yet, despite his aloofness and dogged devotion to a rotten aristocrat, one finds him very human, very fallible and very worthy of having his own say before the day is up.
I’ve always felt this natural affinity with Russian culture and literature (not the most popular thing to say in the current climate, I admit, but culture has nothing to do with the present regime in Russia; regimes come and go, culture endures despite their efforts to thwart it). Ever since I discovered that Anna Legat, the greatest prima ballerina of all times, happens to be my namesake, I have been having this irrational fantasy that maybe – just maybe – my dad’s ancestors hadn’t arrived from Germany, but from the glitzy St Petersburg, wearing tutus and humming tunes from Swan Lake. And that may explain why I felt so at home with the characters from Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida.
There is nothing to rival the breadth and the depth of the Russian soul captured by some of the greatest of Russian writers. You feel swept away and carried into the depths of every story, only to come up for air at the end of it and be instantly pulled in again by the next one.
There are several master strokes to each story one can only hope to emulate.
Firstly, each story has something to say, something to contemplate, something to register at the back of the reader’s mind. It is usually a deep philosophical question which is very cleverly reduced to a small, everyday occurrence that somehow manages to burst out of the straight jacket of triviality. It leaves you deep in thought.
Secondly, the plot yields to the character. People come to life in these stories. They are all sorts of them – such richness of personalities and their quirks and secrets; their delusions and their simple-mindedness, their vulnerabilities and their killer-instincts. It’s all there, throbbing and competing for air. The landscape – the famous Russian landscape – isn’t a setting; it is a character too. It plays its part to perfection.
Thirdly, humour. It is only ever so subtle. It lives in the undertones of the language (excellently captured by Chandler), in situational comedy and in the characters’ minds. It also lives in the shadow of the darkness and fear that are never too far, squatting in that bigger, grander house next door.
Fourthly, the silence and the understatement have their role to play too. The stories don’t quite end. It’s up to the reader to conclude them in her mind. The stories rely on an intelligent reader who can take them further.
Bobok is probably my favourite, but then I am biased towards Dostoyevsky as one of my idols (no, not as the flawed, prejudiced human being he was, but as an amazing writer). It is a story of a little man overhearing the dead in a graveyard. The dialogue brings them all to life! This quote makes you think, The wisest person of all (..) is the one who calls himself a fool at least once a month – an unheard of ability in this day and age. In the olden days a fool understood at least once a year that he was a fool, but nowadays – not a hope!
My First Goose by Babel left me covered with goose-bumps! Try it to learn about the survival of the fittest in Bolshevik Russia – read it.
Whilst Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog made me think that life was too short to waste it, Lermontov’s The Fatalist made me reflect on whether any of it really mattered because as he put it, After all, the worst that can happen to you is death – and death is inescapable.
But then again, just contemplate the afterlife for a minute, as in The Greatcoat by Gogol, and that may put even death in its place. Perhaps revenge lives just that little bit longer than death? And if revenge does, then why not everything else?
Life Without Me is just about that – Georgie is trying to take a grip on her life that is slipping away from her. But taking a grip when you’re in a coma is easier said than done! Then again, there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of…
Striving to become a better writer, I am going to put some of my favourite masterpieces of popular fiction under a magnifying glass to hopefully learn something from them. I’ll kick off with the phenomenon of Stieg Larsson.
What makes a book into a runaway success? The Girl Who Played with Fire is a triumph: it grabs you from the word go and holds you tight until the last page. It repeats, possibly surpasses, the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in the Millennium trilogy. I expect that the third one will be equally irresistible.
So let’s see what the main ingredients are.
Firstly, there is the utterly mesmerising heroine, Lisbeth Salander. She is a walking contradiction. A damaged and vulnerable woman in the big bad world; a mathematical genius; painfully antisocial; brutally uncompromising, but also highly principled and moral. Immoral… I could go on. She is absorbing. She draws you into her psyche, but only as far and as deep as Larsson allows you to go. And then you hit a brick wall, and you must tunnel your way through to her past, to what makes her tick.
Secondly, all other characters are fleshed out, living and breathing, preoccupied with their own agendas. Their paths cross and intersect; then diverge, only to align again. The narrative perspective shifts between them rapidly, but they are so distinct and so well drawn that you will never get them confused. The relations between them are complex and multi-layered.
Thirdly, the plot is a masterpiece. Seemingly unrelated events feed into each other like tributaries of a violent, unbridled storyline-river. Deeply-seeded secrets are alluded to at first, then slowly teased out of the characters’ past.
Fourthly, the prose flows easily, unobstructed. It is subservient to the plot and characterisation. It never takes the driver’s seat. You don’t feel the burden of reading – instead, you just absorb the story through your skin.
Fifthly, the background knowledge is impressive. You know you’re dealing with an expert. Whether he is taking about computer hacking, weapons or publishing procedures, Larsen knows his stuff.
Lastly, you are on Salander’s side. She has to win. Good has to triumph. The lines between right and wrong are clearly drawn. That’s not to say that Larsen is politically correct in his portrayal of Salander or her methods. All that matters is that your gut instinct tells you that she is damn-right and so you read on, rooting for her to the bitter end.
It was time for crossing the North-South divide and following the grand old Duke of York to the top of that hill. We travelled to York ready for a frosty reception and the War of Roses. But it was friendly and warm place, and it offered peace to the world on all fronts. For a […]
My gorgeous bestie back from the ancient days of our primary school visited me this month, all the way from Canada. Naturally, we concurred that we had not changed (or aged) one bit: me – still deliciously chubby and pale, her – still tall, slim and gorgeous. First thing first: Dog had to be […]
I am interviewed on Love Books blog about life, books, words and my latest release, Nothing to Lose.
The second installment in the gripping DI Gillian Marsh series. Perfect for fans of Angela Marsons and Mel Sheratt.
After a head-on collision resulting in four deaths and a fifth person fighting for his life, DI Gillian Marsh is sent to investigate.
Nothing seems to add up. How did four capable drivers end up dead on a quiet, peaceful country road?
As Gillian unpicks the victims’ stories, she edges closer to the truth. But will she be able to face her own truth and help her daughter before it’s too late?
Interview with Anna Legat
Hello Kelly and thank you for having me on Love Books. I feel a strong affinity with you as loving books is the precise reason for my desire to write them. I love books, too!
My writing journey began as soon as I was able to read well enough to tackle the small print…
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