Thursday, 27 June 2013

Orphans, Bastards and Unwanted Children

Over the past few months I have been researching stories about orphans, unwanted children, and bastards, possibly for a PhD proposal. There are loads of children's books out there that have orphans as protagonists. Presumably because it is easier for them and unwanted children to have adventures. I totally believed in the worlds created by the authors. At 8 years old, after reading Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Konigsburg (1967), where Elizabeth has to eat raw eggs, raw onions and other concoctions to become a witch, I too began drinking raw egg in milk. A slimy concoction that felt like I was swallowing a toad, and I believed I could fly. I spent many happy hours flying round and round in the garden on my magic broomstick. I loved all the Famous Five, Secret Seven, and Mallory Towers books by Enid Blyton, all abandoned children left alone to have adventures. As a child I remember becoming totally lost in children’s books especially those about orphans and spent most of my spare time reading. Books were my medicine and they saved my sanity. 

Having suggested to Emily Benet, Andrew Bradford, Wendy Shillam and Lindsay Bamfield that we write about our favourite books, I decided to put my research to good use and list my top ten books about Orphans, Bastards and Unwanted Children. I've included a mixture of children's books, fiction and non-fiction. Andrew and Wendy called their lists, 'summer reading' but some of these books should be read in winter, when it is dark, stormy and cold outside - oh hang on, it is! So here is my wintery summer collection:

1. Island by Jane Rogers – Mainstream Publishing 2000 

This is one of my all time favourite books. Nikki Black (her third name) is a bastard who has been shunted about to and from various foster and children’s homes. And now she has decided to murder her mother. At this point Nikki is stereotypical of an adult with a care background (often portrayed as bad, mad, or sad in crime dramas). Rogers takes this stereotype and turns it on its head. This book has everything I love; magic, fairy stories, myths, legends, bad - rude characters, love, detecting and a sort of happy ending.

2. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Geoffrey Bles 1950

A childhood favourite of mine. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were sent away from home. And so they are included in my list because they were temporarily unwanted. They were sent to live with a mad, old professor in a wonderful house with a magical wardrobe through which the children enter into a wintery world. I have an old Puffin edition of this book with the illustration of the two girls putting flowers around Aslan, Lord of the Wood. A truly magical story that took me from dreary old London into a world of magical beasts and scary witches.

3. The Secret Garden by F Hodgson Burnett – William Heinemann 1911 

No orphan list would be complete without The Secret Garden. I knew this story was for me from the very first sentence, ‘When Mary lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.’ I was an ugly child, disagreeable, and like Mary cross, very, very cross with the world and everybody in it and especially social workers. Having a character I could identify with was very important, I inhabited the fictional world for a while and escaped the madness all around me.

4. White Oleander by Janet Fitch – Virago Press 1999 

Astrid, another bastard, brought up in children’s homes, foster homes and remand centres, who had a mad poet for a mother. The language reflects this and is beautifully written. Astrid’s mother murders her lover. When she is imprisoned for life, Astrid’s life turns to shit. The novel has a dreamlike quality so that the reader seems to float above the narrative only falling with the protagonist when the bad stuff happens.

5. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce - Oxford University Press 1958 

Another childhood favourite. Tom is not an orphan but he is sent away at the beginning of the summer holidays because his brother has measles. He goes to stay with his aunt and uncle who don’t have a garden. This book was possibly inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) as in the hallway, there is an old clock that strikes thirteen. Tom like Mary in the Secret Garden, is bad tempered and rude. And of course for me it had all my favourite ingredients, nasty children who were really rather lovely inside, magical places, best friends and even time travel.

6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte - Smith, Elder and Co 1847

This is a classic orphan story, a Cinderella tale set against the backdrop of the wild yorkshire moors. For some reason I always thought that children born at the turn of the century behaved themselves. So when I read of Jane being dragged away kicking and screaming to be locked in the haunted red room, I was transfixed. Here was not a docile child, but one who spoke her mind and when at last cannot stand to be bullied one more time, fought with her fists. Jane is an orphan, living with her cruel aunt who tells her she is less than a servant because she does nothing for her keep. After her temper tantrum, she is sent to a boarding school, she gains an education which allows her to become a governess to the ‘dark and sardonic’ Mr Rochester and falls in love with him. Love, passion, disappointment, (not in that order) Jane Eyre is one of the best-loved British novels of all time.

7. Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum - George M Hill Company 1900

Although this was orignally a book, most of us know this story because we saw the film and so I am going to include it as this story had such a profound effect on me and still has to this day. Apparently, The Wizard of Oz, is one of the most popular films of all time. So it only stands to reason that there must bits in it that appeal to us all. I remember being taken to see this film when I was 5 years old. It was to be many years before I could work out why the film had such an effect, why it felt like part of me, why I learnt all the words to all the songs and would sing them over and over again, driving everybody up the wall. In his introduction to the story, L.Frank Baum said he was writing to please children, ‘a fairy tale in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.’ He has done that and will continue to do so for as long as children read the book or watch the film.

8. The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt – Mainstream Publishing 2003

This book is not a novel but reads like a story and because it is so well written it found a place on my ‘favourites’ shelf. I’ve done a lot of research over the years about children in care and I’ve read a lot of misery lit, memoirs about awful lives. But this book is different, there is not one iota of Hewitt feeling sorry for himself. His mother whilst married gave birth to another man’s child – Paolo, in a Mental Hospital, and that is only the start of his story. As soon as you start reading this book you feel safe, in the hands of a seasoned writer who knows how to use language and create an authentic atmosphere.

9. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – Pandora Press 1985

This autobiographical novel is filled with God and doing things we’re not (according to some parents) supposed to do. As a child I had to attend Sunday school and church and after lunch, we were forced to read the bible all afternoon. I spent the first part of Sunday mornings with nuns who passed their belief of hell, purgatory and sin onto me before running up Muswell Hill to our Lady of Muswell church and communion. Communion was always hell in its own way if I hadn’t been to confession to confess all the sins I’d committed that week. I hate so and so. I stole this or that. I was rude, I was bad, I swore and so on. Then the added of sin of communion without confession would be a bad start to any week. Winterson was adopted by an evangelical mother and father, her dead-pan Northern humour brings the book to hilarious life and yet at the same time there is a sadness from a child who loves her mother and just wants to be loved in return. It is a book filled with knowledge and wisdom of how it feels to be different.

10. The Seven Sisters By Alex Wheatle – Fourth Estate 2002

My final top ten book is a book I read recently. It’s set in the 1970s, in a children’s home where four boys, best mates, decide to run away together. A sort of Lord of the Flies story but with the horrifying reality of what some children in care have had to face while being looked after by their supposed carers. It is a time when children roamed the streets and played outside all day. This story has you biting finger and toenails, a truly emotive narrative that has you crying one moment and laughing out loud the next. Wheatle has capured the era and it is the little details as well as the strong friendship between the boys that brings this book to life.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Writing in the Digital Age or just Old Age?

As a co-ordinator, founder, tutor of Greenacre Writers, I find my writing time is severely limited because when I'm not at my day job (working in a medical library) I am always doing some sort of admin work and this eats into creative time. Last Sunday I attended the Literary Platform, 'Writing in the Digital age'. And what a pleasure it was not to have to organise the event. All I had to do was find a way to get from Finchley to Stoke Newington and this let me tell you, was not an easy task. It’s just under 8 miles from my house to the Babble Jar in Stoke Newington High Street where the event was being held. I checked with TFL and it seemed I would need to take 5 trains and 10 buses to get there. I spent ages trying to decipher the quickest route. In the end I decided to stay out of central London and skirt round the edges, I got a bus to Arnos Grove, met a friend and let her tell me which way to go.

Goodness knows how you cope if you are a tourist in this country and google TFL. You get all sorts of junk appearing first which a tourist wouldn’t necessarily know was junk advertising. Plus TFL never give you the quickest and most direct route, they always seem to take you round the houses. There must be loads of tourists who spend their holidays riding round and round in circles on public transport feeling confused.

I often feel confused these days and wonder if I’m spending too much time on the Internet or I’m just getting old. Trends change so quickly, I could spend 24/7 online and still not feel any the wiser. This is because there is so much online, one of the subjects spoken about on Sunday by Niven Govinden, noise rather than quality, and a lack of quality control. I tend to look at writerly things, like authors websites, Twitter, Facebook, writing competitions, writing courses and each thing can take up a lot of time. It’s like a thousand trillion mazes, I start at the entrance of one and before I know it, I’m lost.

Emily Benet
But as writers, surely, we have to be online, have to have a digital presence otherwise nobody will know who we are. As Emily Benet, who was on the literary platform, said, it is all about the pitch, and building up your readership. Which was how she became published with Salt Publishing, a small but now much larger small press since The Lighthouse by one of their authors, Alison Moore, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The publishing world has changed beyond all recognition, Chris Meade, also on the literary platform told us, 85% of Americans want to write a book. What this also means is that unlike newspapers or writing magazines that used to review or critique a relatively small amount of books, there is an awful lot of writing bilge online that one has to swim through before finding something worth reading. A lot of hit and miss tweets that might sound enticing but once you get to the website can be utter crap.
Chris Meade on the left, Niven Govinden on the right

Chris also spoke about collaborative projects, such as three people who hired a cottage and sat in separate rooms all writing a story together. It's all wonderful and very creative and I want to be part of it. However, on the one hand my creative conscience says, isn’t it fabulous that so many people are being creative, and the devil within says, no, I wish they’d all just stop so we could have some control and order back in our lives instead of all this online chaos.

And of course, the 85% can now self-publish. I have said before and I’ll say again, I do not want to publish my book on Kindle. I don’t own a Kindle, I don’t want one, and I will never use one. I like, no love, the feel, smell and look of a real book.

But, says the clever-dick within, you use your phone as a Kindle, and sometimes you read stuff online, ner-ner.
The internal money-grabber pipes up, with the million-dollar-question, what if a publisher offered you a deal, a kindle deal, what would you do then? Say No, I don’t think so.
Okay, so supposing one day, when I’m ready to publish, I consider using a self publishing tool. What then?

I found these 7 tips listed by Mark Edwards at The Creative Pen which I thought were very useful: 
1. Design a cover that tells the reader exactly what kind of book this is and that looks professional.
2. Write a book description that makes the reader desperate to read it.
3. Write a marketing plan and carry it out – adapting it as you go along to do more of the stuff that’s worthwhile and none of the stuff that isn’t.
4. Instead of sending out endless links to your own followers on Twitter, try to get retweets – reach your audience’s audience.
5. Contact, in a friendly and professional way, every single person and website you can think of who might want to give you exposure – and give them a good reason for doing so.
6. Associate with successful writers – learn from them and get in front of their fans.
7. Be prepared to work damn hard!

I really like the idea of designing my own cover, (actually I already have) and a marketing plan. But, I would also add to the list: 

8. Get yourself a damn good editor!

There is nothing worse than reading a self-published book that is full of spelling and grammar mistakes. I know of one self-published author who had to take back all the books sold because there were so many mistakes in the novel and people had been complaining and demanding their money back.

And of course when the 300,000,000, three hundred million (the mind quite literally boggles and explodes), people are writing their novels in the US, Chris Meade reminded us and all us other writers, to question:

What do you think matters?
Who do you want to be read by?
Discover your point of difference.
And lastly, Do what you’re passionate about.

Chris after writing the The Nearly Writers Guide all about being a nearlywriter, also has a webpage of Nearlyology where you can list your nearly moments. Mine was the nearlyvideo in the 80s with David Bowie, my nearlyfamous moment.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Greenacre Writers Literary Festival - Six Men And A Piano

Saturday May 18th began with a mad dash to the festival hall not the one on the South Bank but the one at Trinity Church Centre, Finchley. All was well until Joe, the caretaker, suddenly announced the baby grand piano would have to be moved between 1-2pm.

What? Lindsay and I both gasped.

Well, it will take six strong men to move it and that's when they're arriving.

But, I squeaked, Our festival starts at 1.30pm.

Joe shrugged, said he'd try and get them there earlier and walked off.

I made a pleading phone call to one of our muscley, male writers, Mark, who said he was happy to help.

We then walked the streets to find a few more fit men, alas, they were all over 85 with bad backs. Lindsay grunted a bit but on the whole stayed surprising calm.

People were beginning to arrive for Josie Pearse's excellent workshop 'Life Writing and the Writing Life', so we showed them into the room that would double as our Green Room and Book Room. Once they were safely settled, we began organising the chairs in the main festival hall (leaving a huge gap for the piano), as well as flowers, tables, and posters on the walls. 
Our Mic man arrived and not only did he safely set up an excellent microphone and speaker, he also rearranged the curtains so we had less light in the wrong places and also organised the removal of the piano. And what fun that was, six men and a piano, it's certainly was the stuff of fiction. Legs and bottoms were removed and the poor baby grand was tipped on its side whilst being manoevred outside into the lobby where it was tipped back and rolled into the main church hall. Phew! 

CJ Flood
By this time the workshop had finished, Robert and Elisabeth Newton had arrived to help, Greenacre Writers, Liz and Linda were sorting authors' books, and our guest speakers CJ Flood, Leigh Russell, Gina Blaxill, Alex Wheatle, and Sarah Harrison had arrived. Luckily, Lindsay and I had changed from rags into our ball gowns - unlike last year when some of our guests were greeted by a one-sock-tucked-into-trouser-legged me. As a cyclist, I often forget to untuck said sock.
This year we decided to have a theme for the festival, Truth and Fiction. Our guest speakers linked their own writing to the theme, talking about how they had been inspired by real life characters, events and incidents, such as a body in the park (not truth).

CJ talked very honestly about her real life family and how they had inspired some of the characters in her young adult fiction Infinite Sky. It was fascinating hearing how she had made certain decisions, setting the landscape in a real-life farm and using parental moral boundaries for one of her characters.
Leigh Russell

Leigh Russell, frightened us out of our wits with her superbly acted, 'something really did happen to me, something I haven't talked about before', and how a real walk and a real creepy man in a park, had inspired her first crime thriller Cut Short.

We then had readings from some of our Greenacre Writers. Lindsay, made the audience laugh with her reading and acting from the work-in-progress, a comedy novel, Do Not Exced Fifty, and Linda Louisa Dell read from her recent novel, Earthscape: A Long Way from Home. 

During the introduction I had introduced the theme of the festival by 
Linda Louisa Dell
explaining that whenever I started any new research I always began with individual words, in this case Truth and Fiction - Truth being, the state or quality of being true or factual; and fiction: literature, e.g. novels or short stories, describing imaginary people and events. Albert Camus said, 'Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth'. Stephen King said, 'Fiction is the truth inside the lie. James Frey on the other hand, wrote lies and called it Truth. Frey said he never considered whether A Million Little Pieces was fiction or nonfiction- and anyway, before the memoir craze of the nineties, it would have been published as a novel.

I had intended to talk about the Truth and Fiction in my novel but was worried about time. I had
started writing the fictional, Ways of Remembering, on the MA in Writing at Middlesex University. But only because I had been told I could not write autobiography. Go somewhere else if you want to do that, said the tutor. And because I have an unusual background, I stupidly thought I would be recognised in a fictional autobiography and unlike one other writer, who took absolutely no notice of the published tutor and continued writing her autobiographical short stories. I, as was mentioned at the festival, did as I was told for the first and only time in my life and began writing fiction. At first I was really annoyed but then the characters began to grow, I had images in my head and bits of dialogue. I began writing, notes at first and then drafts of the first chapter, then the second and so on. And what I discovered was the amazing freedom that writing lies, untruths, fiction, brings with it. That is not to say that bits of truth, bits of my life, did not make an appearance, they did. Real people that I had loved and lost suddenly appeared wanting a relationship with me, not one we had had in real life but an imagined one, with obstacles even in fiction that prevented our unreal lives going forward. 
Mark Kitchenham

One of the aims of Greenacre Writers is to support new writers, Mark Kitchenham, made his first appearance at this festival, closing the first session with one of his short stories.

Gina Blaxill
After the break and book signings, Gina Blaxill, a local writer who grew up in Finchley, and also making her first appearance at a festival, spoke about her writing. Not that she hasn't had lots of experience speaking about her YA novels, Pretty Twisted and Forget Me Never, at schools and so on. She gave an excellent and interesting performance, explaining how books she had read as a child like The Secret Seven, always had kids being detectives but if that was going to be believable in 2013, she would have to create a world and a young detective, that her young readers could believe in.

Sarah Harrison
Sarah Harrison, author of over 25 novels talked about the real-life research behind her novel Flowers of the Field which was published in 1980 but has just been re-issued.


Three more readings from Greenacre Writers followed. Liz Goes read from the third of her fictionalized memoirs The Not Quite English Teacher, Mumpuni Murniati read her short story rooted in her native Indonesia and
Wendy Shillam
Wendy Shillam completed the section with a reading from her most recent novel, just completed the day before, The Vining Plant.

Liz Goes

Members of the audience
Alex Wheatle MBE, and Dr Josie Pearse joined us for the afternoon to take part in the panel, Truth and Fiction, with Allen Ashley facilitating. Leigh Russell and Sarah Harrison also took part. 

Truth and fiction panel discussion.
They discussed such questions as how much truth should there be in fiction? What things must we stay true to as writers? What does fiction teach us about truth? And questions were taken from the audience. What all the writers seemed to agree, was that regardless of the fiction or truths of novel writing, the important thing was the emotional truth at the heart of their writing. 

We were also very pleased to announce that Alex Wheatle will be our judge for this year's short story competition. You can find out how to enter here: Greenacre Writers 2013 Short Story Competition

Emily Benet, a speaker last year
Andrew Bradford in the book room

Emily Benet and Andrew Bradford speakers from last year, were in the audience, as was Morgen Bailey who did an in-depth write-up of the afternoon. 

It really was a fantastic two days, only made possible by the generosity of our Greenacre Writers who worked hard behind the scenes, Robert and Elisabeth Newton (bouncer :) and bow-maker), Mark and Elaine Kitchenham who persuaded Waitrose to donate some delicious food, our lovely Chris who provided a delicious supper at the now famous Friern Barnet Library Open Mic and who somehow baked hundreds of cakes, Linda and Liz who managed the book tables, the kindness of our speakers without whom we would not have had a festival, Murni who made the most delicious spring rolls, our audience and finally Lindsay, who despite being unwell managed to co-host in her usual professional manner.

Next year we are hoping to launch the first Finchley Literary Festival, so if you're local to Finchley and the surrounding area, published, and would like to get involved, let us know. (David Nicholls?) But first, I have to Start That Novel all over again - the six week course that ran earlier this year will be running again in September, as will the first Greenacre Writers Retreat, oh and I have two Finish That Novel's, and a short story, goodness me, and something else - September 5th, the launch of The Library That Wouldn't Close: the story of Friern Barnet Library. Where? In the famous library of course! 7pm - see you there.

To read more about the festival see: Greenacre Writers
For a really detailed account, read Morgen Bailey