Review David Almond talk Bath Spa University

Image of David Almond

David Almond

In the darkness of the television studio at Bath Spa University the children’s author, David Almond, sat behind a table patiently waiting for the audience to abandon the wine table and the event to start.

I knew Skellig of course, but wasn’t aware of all his other novels and plays. Julia Green, who runs the MA in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa, led out a dizzying list of publications. My Name is Mina, The Savage, The Tightrope Walkers, A Song for Ella Grey were mentioned as well as his four doctorates and numerous prizes.

He grew up in the North East, in a small place called Felling. The sound scape was the Latin of Catholic mass, women who could reduce a room to laughter or tears by the stories they told, steel seams being smoothed by pneumatic hammers rising from the Tyne so the ‘ships were as tight as a drum,’ and above David’s council flat on the hill, the ripening call of skylarks.

At a young age he fell in love with print – his Uncle had a print shop – and he still delights to see black ink on white paper.

But as a young man with working class roots, writing from the regions, he asked himself what could he write about? Others asked that too. Literature seemed to belong to the London elite and the way forward seemed to be to emulate them, to change himself, to move but he resisted and eventually the stories that wanted to be told came through.

The answer of what to write about, for David, lay within. He explained how he found his voice by echoing the voices of those around him in Felling. He began to write stories about where he was from – it almost sounded as if writing being channelled through him. After initial set backs and being dismissed as a Northern writer again he sent off some stories to his agent. But as he walked back from the post box the first line of Skellig came to him, directly into his head and that seemed to mark the turning point for him as a writer.

‘Writing is about being brave, saying yes,’  he said. This was in the context of writing using the beauty of Geordie phrases – one example being ‘nowt’ and ‘bliddee’. He pointed out that tastes and traditions vary. His American editors were sympathetic and accepted all the words in the book while the UK counterparts and reviewers were less enthusiastic. He mentioned Huck Finn and pointed to a greater acceptance of place and respect for regional voices in America. His point was that the current wisdom is to shy away from using dialect, but it was the right thing to do for him as a writer and gained critical acclaim in the U.S.

He cautioned writers not to abandon their roots, ‘if you’re not writing in your own voice, where is it going to come from?’ He asked us.

‘Accept the story knows better than you,’ he said. This was becoming almost mystical but I knew what he meant. It’s that magical moment as a writer, a little like dreaming as he described it when the writing takes over, roars off and races onwards.

I asked him at the end what happens if your story gets stuck and although I was hoping for an answer that was magical and mysterious he said, like countless other writers before him, ‘keep going’. He described how one of his books was hell. He hated writing and editing it but ploughed on, day by day, as writers must, to get it finished. It was only months later that he thought, ‘that’s not so bad.’ I was encouraged by this as even great writers, like Almond, have books that do not come easily.

He explained when someone asked him about his working process that when he’s working on a novel he has a spreadsheet and writes down how many words he’s done on a given day and tallies up the word count each week.

The conversation moved onto writing for children. While he never set out to write for children the genre allows him to be experimental in the way other genres aren’t. He touched on the qualities that children have – he’s clearly passionate about working with them and enjoys their innate creativity. He showed us some of his working notebooks and they were covered in pictures drawn in coloured pencils. He tapped his head. ‘Writing isn’t about the brain,’ he said, ‘it’s far more. Kids don’t see the boundaries that we do between plays or books.’

The things I responded to from this insightful evening was that stories want to be written, they come from a place deep within so finding your writing voice is the key to success, so give yourself permission to write about stories that come from within yourself. Mix what you know with your imagination.

For working class writers one of your greatest assets is the experience you have. He said he realised that what might be thought of as disadvantages were, in fact, privileges. He described a job he’d had cleaning the inside of a steel ship, and how he could use that experience in his writing. These are the things that make him unique. I was reminded of a similar talk I’d listened to recently –  with the Australian writer, Tim Winton, who writes so beautifully about small town experiences. Both writers find universal themes in the small details of life.

The evening ended with an evocative reading about a childhood walk with his sisters visiting his sister and father’s grave. It was full of humour, warmth and love.

Flash Stories: It had something to do with…

Overhead conversation:  

I used to get a lacing when I was young. Yeah, a regular beating, because I was on fire, but, you know what? It kept me straight.

One time, brave I was, running around the sofa. Mum went one way and I went the other. There was the big spoon hanging up in the kitchen, as long as my arm, she took that down and had it in her hand, cold as fury.

I was faster than her and she wouldn’t have got me, but Grandma came in and pushed the dusty sofa back so I was trapped in the corner. I tried to vault the back of it  but Mum caught me and thwacked that spoon right down on my knee. Man, it hurt. And that night we went to my Uncles and he said, ‘Why’re you limpin?’ and I said nothing but Mum told him and he nearly walloped me again for getting her so upset.

And, I still limp from that spoon. See, I could’ve been in the first division, I was up for selection to the football team but that knee did for me, burnt my football bridges. She feels so bad about it now, but you know she kept us straight. Taught us the line and what would happen if we went rocking the wrong way.


Prompt from Meg Pokrass for Nanowrimo

Flash stories

Expectations not met

You don’t want to cross Mary when she’s in a mood.

She was polishing bones until they were bleached white and suitable for stuffing into the Damien Hurst. When that was done the waste intestines were thrown into a large plastic drum. They landed like spent Durex, still knotty and silken with unnameable fluids.

Fancying a cuppa she cleared the sink of debris. The trap had collected lumpy gristle and nests of hair. She tugged gently at the waste with a blue gloved finger. Slowly, the tangled fibres came up from their death bed bringing with it a sour stench of drains.

She ran clear water in the sink and anointed the enamel with Fairy to clean the surface before she dared wash her cup.

This was no way for an arts graduate to live.


This story was based on a prompt from Meg Pokrass, and contains the words: tangle, waste, lump, trap, mood.

Jonathan Safran Foer on writing and literature

Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer

Last night I clumped over to Bath on my crutches to see Jonathan Safran Foer. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights were hosting the author interview in the austerely grand setting of a methodist church on Argyle Street. (cream painted pews, gilded organ, lofty ceiling).

Whilst I haven’t read any of his books I wanted to find out more from the author who can produce such beautiful titles – Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and of course, his latest novel, Here I am.

One of the joys of beginning my MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa is the reading list and he’s on it. The second joy is to have your writing pre-conceptions turn upside down. I was delighted that the interview style gave Jonathan the opportunity to talk about his writing methods.

He began by talking about book tours and how often an audience will ask questions about his work that he’s never considered before.

He explains, “writing is not intellectualising, it’s being open to intuition.” Whilst writing, Here I am,  he didn’t talk to anyone about what he was doing; he sat in a room and let the writing emerge. He continued, “I try and repress questions – I’m not even thinking about what what I think about something. I couldn’t say I’d put something in the book intentionally.”

“The shallowest type of fiction is when you try and make sense of the world. I don’t think about the function of literature. I try and write for its own sake and liberate writing from utility – books are one of the last refuges where you can do something for it’s own sake.”

What I would have loved to have found out is how many drafts his work goes through. He went onto say that once he has the manuscript he sits down with his editor to go through it. At this point, “editing is intellectual – we shape it to be accessible and to conform to the form of the novel – but that’s the last 5% of the work. I’m just steering the ship beforehand.”

I found this staggering – all those ‘how to write novels’ book I’ve been devouring over the years where you lay out plot and theme and  write endless drafts and redrafts. Authors I know who say that when pitching ideas within a two book deal within genre fiction you have to pitch three or four story ideas which have to conform rigidly to that genre. But perhaps that is the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.

Writing in this way must be liberating – but how does he achieve it? Scribbled in my notebook I’ve added these words from him.

“Submerge yourself in the writing – allow your sub-conscious to surface.”

“Ask yourself, is the character good company in the book?”

and,  “I like books that are primary. Books have to be perfect unto themselves and a book has speak for itself with nothing left out.” He gave, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison as an example.

and finally I’ve written, “Let the book go where it wants to go.”


Further reading: Guardian interview 

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights for events and to purchase the book

 

On starting an MA in Creative Writing

Decades after my first degree I have the freedom to study an MA. Both children graduated; one with a job and the other just setting out on finding a path in the world

Corsham Court

Corsham Court, Bath Spa Unviersity

Corsham Court Campus at Bath Spa University is very Jane Austen. Hobbling on crutches up the long driveway as peacocks squawked and sheep gazed beyond the ha-ha I felt as antique as the surroundings.

As a mature student I wasn’t in the minority; there is a great mix of ages though with any gathering of writers there are egos and anxieties to be managed. I was surprised at the distance students were travelling to the campus; London, Taunton and someone from Moscow – who suggested that I should have Gucci crutches or at least decorate them. I said I’d think about it.

We met in ‘the Barn’ around the back of the building, and to my delight Fay Weldon was there – one of the first writers who challenged and gripped me as a reader.

The grand piano was full of lecturer’s books – I was in the right place. These academics are writers who have grafted and worked and lived their craft combining this with teaching others. One by one they spoke about their first memory of writing and read from current work. We heard extracts from Fay Weldon, Gerard Woodward, Richard Kerridge, Nathan Filer, Gavin Cologne-Brooks and Tim Liardet.

I’ve written down scraps of insights/ discussions which I won’t attribute as my notes aren’t good enough to be accurate.

  • Keep your reader in mind at all times. Surprise them. Keep them hooked (Fay Weldon)
  • In your novel have a cosmic statement. What is it really about?
  • Are you writing about your father or your mother?
  •  It’s important to read aloud, to pace your novel, and to hear that (Nathan Filer)
  • What do you need to say in your novel?
  • (When thinking about subject matter for a novel) What do you care about ?
  • When writing get’s hard that when the work starts – and you need a great deal of hard work and application (Tim Liardet)

On re-writing: The essence of re-writing is being able to see why and clarify again and again and again.

On poetry: When poets try and put a collection together sometimes they have enough poems to fill a book, but that doesn’t make a great collection. ‘Poems need to hear one another, to run as a smooth sequence. Be aware of silence and how it is used in a book of poems. (Tim Liardet)

Favourite quote of the day; When Flaubert was asked where he got his ideas for Madame Bovary he said: “I thought of a woman in a dress the colour of a woodlouse” He didn’t think of the great sweep of things. But I think writer’s work in different ways and that’s allowed.

This quote led our seminar group to a discussion of observing precise objects and how we could use these in our writing. In our group we looked at black and white photographs from August Sander. Everyone spotted something different but the quality of the observation marked some students out. My old anxieties returned. The students who had just come from the BA course being good at this game.

Overall a very satisfactory first day, despite the hobbling up the myriad staircase.

 

 

Choosing titles

The Wish Bone has been the title of my novel for years and I’ve driven that title into the heart of the text like a brand. But, like sheep marked with a blue stain on their wooly white coats it now looks out of place.

The grand plot arc was to include ‘wishes’, but the novel pulled away from the 20 point plan on it’s own sweet journey with my character’s refusing to blindly follow me.

And in any case, looking through the titles of other books using the word bone they are mostly psychological thrillers or murder mysteries. My book is neither of these and for this reason the title, like a favourite armchair or comfortable but worn coat,  must be sent for recycling.

I don’t have any ideas for a new one but one must emerge as I prepare for this last bout of editing following my review from The Writers’ Workshop. 

A cupboard-full

You’re hungry again for knowledge, the sort that will shrink-wrap your tongue, leave your nose in a book for hours, wrinkle your brow, set coffee spoons stirring.

Cupboard’s not bare; there’s beans; lots. A rind of cheese and flour. Christmas pudding if you’re desperate to entertain.

The garrett is stirring with hope and itchy fingers.Get set for your Masters. Freedom to write and confidence to be.

No monthly pay-cheque to worry over, squander or save. Bills now scythe through your bank account. Something will happen; cupboards full, keyboard’s busy.

 

 

A late Valentine

Roses he supposes are for love; chooses thornless plastic-sheathed ones for his love. Purchases three chocolates in a box lined with William Morris design.  Hadn’t guessed she hated flock; what she wanted was meadow-sweet, a finger-tip trace on her face, garlic’s starry flowers.

Gadgets she imagines so his oil stained fingers can work through sweet grooves of tin, something practical to put in his pocket, to turn over and hold in his palm. He looks at it. Nods and places it on one side. Wonders why women never understand. Pats her back to steady her.

 

Giving up the day job for self employment

I’ve resigned from my well paid job !

So, I resigned; last Friday colleagues and friends (sometimes they’re both the same) joined me for a pint in the pub on my last day in Swindon. I was quite overwhelmed with the messages of support, encouragement and excitement that people expressed when they heard that I was going to try self-employment and to start an MA in Creative Writing.

The voice of doom

So many people were cheering me and the only negative cautious voice was my own trotting out tired vicious comments such as, what about your pension? What if you fail? What if you get depressed working alone? You haven’t got the right skills  / personality / sticking power to see this through.

Strategy?

Over the years this vicious internal voice has stopped me doing many things. Through practising Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques I’ve learned to recognise this voice more easily but it still crops up like a nasty dog nipping relentlessly at my heels.The first thing is to recognise that it’s only one version of my life, but as a novelist if I can create narratives, then surely I can create a ‘success narrative’ for myself? So, that’s what I’m doing; focusing on ‘doing’ ‘creating’ and practising counter arguments when I’m filled with doubt or worry.

Do what you love

A few years ago I started a ’30 day challenge’ to try out an idea I’d had for a long time – to create a literary event for novelists in Bristol. It didn’t exist so I created Novel Nights, putting into practice my years working in marketing and PR. Nearly three years later it is a roaring success and has taken over my life. I’d return from work in Swindon, have some food and then  feed the beast of Novel Nights, often up until midnight to finish some task.

Clearly something had to change as my energy was draining away and my health was suffering. I could have chosen to given up the thing that wasn’t making any money – Novel Nights – but I chose to give up work.

Income streams

As I see it, I am the same age as some women who are already retired. If I can find a sustainable income or income streams from different activities then that feels more secure to me than a salaried job which could end shortly, especially given the current climate. And, I need to find an income to support me during my MA.i don’t want a loan, so some other occupation seems a good plan.

Read my next blog to find out about my first week of self-employment