Under Pressure

22 11 2012


I spent most of last weekend driving up through Somerset, Gloucestershire, Birmingham and across to Leicester and then out the other side to Rutland, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire before motoring my way back to the South West.

It was a very long journey. I used the motorways. Picking my way through A roads would have been beyond me. I took what I thought would be the quickest, easiest and most efficient route. Before I set out on my epic journey, I topped up my battered old car – part VW Polo part tractor- with oil, water and screen wash. I adjusted the tyre pressure and even gave the mud-splattered headlights a wipe. When I got underway I felt confident I would make my destination in five hours.

Three hours after I thought I’d be enjoying a nice glass of cold cider with my sister, I was still trying to cross Leicester. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a map. I did, but I couldn’t see it in the dark. My sister had given me precise directions – several times – I had visualised her instructions and knew that all I needed to do was to find the big roundabout in the centre of Leicester with the Holiday Inn bang in the middle of it and head out of the city towards Peterborough and then pick up the road to Uppingham and I’d be on my way to Oakham.

Why then did I keep heading towards Hinckley? Why could I not access the part of my brain that knows how to navigate?

I’m good at finding my way around. The way it usually works for me is that I get into the car with no preparation whatsoever – I don’t really believe that my tractor-hybrid needs petrol as it does seem most of the time to run quite happily on mushed-up leaves – and I drive around and then I’ll find it: the place I’m supposed to be heading for.

This point and shoot method of going anywhere has worked for me for years. I’m not saying that it is efficient or quick, it’s not. But it is interesting. I’ve become so blasé about ‘getting lost’ now that I factor it into all my journeys, especially ones in the dark.

But on Saturday night getting lost in Leicester was not fun or interesting. I tried to convince myself that it was, that I was enjoying the cinema show of groups of young people swaying on high heels under glittering lights, but after the third trip around St. Nicholas Circle I was ready to give up.

The trouble is that when you are really lost you can’t give up. You can’t turn around to yourself and say: right let’s get home. You have to keep going.

I kept driving on Saturday night. At one point I was worried about my state of mind because I really did think that I had lost the bit of my brain that understands roundabouts and slip-roads and multiple signs. It reminded me of being eleven and having to do maths homework and not being able to: the terrible stifling feeling of being buried under a carpet of numbers and symbols that might have been Japanese for all the sense they made to me then.

But I have come to understand that it’s not numbers or even brackets (I found these particularly worrisome as a child) that causes some areas of my brain to fold in on itself, it’s having to use this part of my brain when I’m under pressure.

Under pressure I literally cannot think straight. I go round in circles. This is what humans do when they are lost.  If I had been in a desert instead of central Leicester I would have been circling the same thorny bush instead of the taxi rank just off the lanes. Going around in circles is an instinct, and if we are not careful it could prove fatal.

What I learned on Saturday night is that there is another part of my brain that works when I need it. I was aimless and unfocused in my drive around the roundabout because I was hypnotised by the whole drama of being lost again.

 I broke the spell. I concentrated properly, shifted my focus and on the next roundabout I found the exit. Nothing to be proud of: most people never go through such convoluted journeys, they travel smoothly from A to B.

I came to the conclusion that heading out with no plan is not romantic or interesting but wasteful. My next question is: does this apply to writing?

It does, but rather than plunge in with something fast and ill thought-out – my energy tank is running on empty – I’ll think about this over the week and make it the focus of my next post.  

By the way, the cider tasted wonderful. 

Listening to the book group

8 11 2012

In Darkness.

 Scene from In Darkness. Photograph: Jamin Marla Dichant

I enjoy visiting book groups. I love the informality of sitting on a sofa with my stripy socks on show in a room full of animated people whose reason for getting together once a month is to talk about books. There is something very heartening in the effort that people put in to make the reading of books a social event rather than a solitary one. Every book group I have visited so far has been meeting for years and it is fascinating to see how much books unite people, even when they vehemently disagree. There is solidarity in being devoted to books, in making proper time for the power of words.

It fascinates me, too, to hear people talk with familiarity and insight about a group of characters that for so long lived entirely in my head. It intrigues me to discover which characters appeal and the reasons why. One woman told me she felt sympathetic to the character of Dominic in The Beautiful Truth because ‘I was married to him.’  A male reader identified so closely to the wartime story of Krystyna that the experience of reading became in his words ‘hallucinogenic.’ This feels like such privileged information.

When writing as my characters, however, I never think of how readers might experience them. The characters need to convince me first, and if they don’t, if I’ve been lazy in my animation then I nearly always have to delete them. This is different from killing a character. I really have to psyche myself up to arrange the death of someone I become close to even though that is only in my mind. I feel no compunction in taking out characters that haven’t yet become anyone. The deleted ones quickly turn to dust whereas years later I might still think of a character that for some reason had to die.

My point about book groups is that they remind me what my characters are for. At my last book group visit, one of the ladies asked whether I ‘deliberately’ made the opening scenes of Hotel Juliet and The Beautiful Truth hard-hitting. ‘Did you want to grab the reader’s attention by shocking them?’ She admitted that she had found both openings tough to read, and there were murmurs of agreement.

Hotel Juliet opens with my character Max waking up in his hospital bed after his left leg has been amputated following a shooting. I describe the hospital scene, the smells, the sounds, the images from his internal point of view. I do not describe the amputation itself because Max would not have been awake to witness it. I do not describe the wound or go into detail about his pain, but still many people have remarked on the starkness of this opening: one review called it ‘grisly.’ I have wondered whether it was too brutal, but too brutal for whom? My character has lost his leg. He is in agony not only physically but also mentally. He has suffered his deepest loss. In order to be faithful to his experience (not my own feelings about it) I must not flinch from describing it exactly how it is for him. That is my first duty if I have any business writing fiction. If I can’t face my characters’ worst experiences and record them plainly then I cannot truly get inside them.

That answers the question I’m often asked at book groups: How do you get your characters to seem so real?

The opening scene of The Beautiful Truth has been described as ‘brutal’ and for this I make no apology. It is impossible to write a novel about the occupation of Poland during the Second World War and not emerge with a narrative that shocks and stuns people. Poland survived near annihilation not just in the Second World War but several times in history, and I wanted to show how refusing to give in to brutality strengthens the spirit. The determination not to yield was the one clear value that kept the Polish people united throughout the resistance.

I never intentionally write to disturb people: there are plenty of authors who do write brilliantly about the darker side of human nature, but my work moves in another direction. What compels me is the human impulse toward dignity no matter how desperate the circumstances. I have learned a lot from film makers who have dramatised the Second World War. Studying powerful films such as Roman Polanski’s The Pianist made me appreciate just how much research goes into making a period film look and feel authentic.

In Darkness, Agnieszka Holland’s film about an opportunist Polish sewer inspector, who shelters for payment a group of Jewish people hiding in the sewers of occupied Lvov, is without a doubt shocking. The claustrophobia of enduring for longer than a year dark, choking, filthy rat-infested conditions without light or clean air or adequate water or food is so convincing it is difficult to watch, but the images that will stay with me are not the darkest. When I think of the film, I see the characters and not the conditions. I see their desperation; I see their courage; I see their loneliness, their greed, their need, their fear and their determination; I see them trying to live decently in the most inhumane of places.

I watched this film only a few weeks ago and still think about it. It is more than a film about the Second World War – it goes much deeper than that. It is more than a story (based on true events) of survival. It asks a bigger question: how should we treat one another when it is easy to exploit? The turning moment in the film comes when the central character Leopold Socha is told by the leader of the Jewish group that there is no more money left to pay him. He hesitates. The Germans were offering rich rewards to Poles who turned in Jews and it would have been easy for Socha to make on this situation.

He reaches into his pocket and hands over some money to the astonished leader. ‘Pay me next time and make sure the others see you. I don’t want them to think I’m doing this for nothing.’ Risking his own life, he returns time and again with food and water to keep ‘his Jews’ alive even leaving his daughter’s confirmation to rescue his charges from rising flood water which prompts his wife to leave him. His self-interested acts are transformed into acts of altruism.

Why does he change so radically? Not because he wants to be good or unselfish, but because he understands that in being true to his responsibility to other human beings he has found dignity.

Wasted Words

3 11 2012

One of the frustrations of writing is that it is so wasteful. If writing a novel is like firing up a generator, it is in my case a most inefficient machine. I generate many words, but these alone are not enough. Words do not create a book.

A few years ago I might have been tempted to say that characters create a novel. It is true that without believable characters, many novels would fall flat. The characters in a novel are the actors in a film. Without character there is no point to action. But a good character alone is not enough to make a book sing.

Themes and ideas are important, but a self-conscious novel of ideas does not invite curling up by the fire on a chilly November night. When the evenings draw in my literary taste buds want something rich and concentrated. All summer I have flitted through nature writing, alighting on descriptions of woodland, river and seascape. I now want to retreat inside, close the curtains, light candles and read more deeply.

My winter reading nourishes me and feeds my writing. I’ve found, though, that I’m impatient with many contemporary novels. Perhaps it’s because I know too much – I have insider knowledge – and the magic is lost. While researching the Beautiful Truth I relied on memoir and wanted to create the effect of reading fiction that felt as natural as a journal.

I tried out many ideas. I thought of including diary entries, letter extracts, screenplay notes, but these techniques felt tricksy and attention-seeking. I wanted nothing to detract from the power of the events described. In the final edit I cut thousands of words. Some of the excised passages I had worked on for days. Weeks. I cut and pasted these wasted words into a document that grew each day like a ghost novel. One day I might go back and do something with it, but I doubt it. Offcuts often prove disappointing. I know this from baking.

One thing I learned is that it takes courage to peel off all the insulating layers and reveal the heart of what I write. Clinging to words because I happened to write them is the real waste.

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