Sunday, 31 July 2011

One Day/contemporary love stories

A teacher of mine once said that a good love story always needs a reason the lovers can’t be together, otherwise it’s not a story. That’s why it’s hard to write powerful love stories set in the contemporary west. If a boy and a girl like each other, they just go to bed, right? End of story. Writers have to be inventive to create interesting love stories these days. Like Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife where one of the lovers keeps disappearing into a loophole in time – clearly a barrier to any romance.

This week I read David Nicholls' One Day. It’s a great contemporary love story, and I’m so glad I neglected my kids (sorry kids) to read it this week. Most of my reactions are similar to this review at Savidge Reads

As a writer, I admire this book because at first glance there isn’t such an insurmountable barrier between the would-be lovers. Yet there is a real struggle towards love for both of them, which makes a compelling read. The barrier between them isn’t so much physical – the novel starts with them in bed together, shortly after they’ve met, but the real story is about how (and if) they will ever stumble towards a real relationship, when they seem to want different things and inhabit different worlds. 

Nicholls’ story examines how they develop and change, how the balance of power delicately tilts between them and truly illustrates William Faulkner’s belief that good writing can only be based on “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself”. Go read it.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sherlock Holmes/Bridesmaids

This week I watched the BBC's fabulous Sherlock. The TV adaptation sent me straight back to A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, a novella, and to my Sherlock Holmes Complete Short Stories, an edition of all 56 stories first printed in Strand magazine. Would the originals feel as pacey, witty and engaging as the version I'd just watched by talented writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss?

I am not, I confess, a huge fan of the short story form, but all of these more than hold their own because 1) Sherlock is such a fantastic character, and 2) they have clear and engaging plots.

My problem with short stories? When you start reading a work of fiction, you take a leap of faith into an unknown world. The 'getting-to-know-you, am-I-going-to-like-you-stage' is so fragile and tentative, so much like a first date - the stakes are so high, I suppose - that it's my least favourite part of reading. With a good thick novel, I leap in, and once I'm committed, the pay-off is being immersed in another world for a week or two. A long term love affair. With a short story, I leap in, I commit, and it's all over in five minutes. Then I have to start again with another one. It's a series of one night stands. Same effort in, less result.

Yes, the reason I'm not all that keen on the short story form boils down to laziness. But the Sherlock Holmes stories get round the problem by taking me back to the same world each time.

Last night I went to see Bridesmaids. Whatever anyone says, it's just another rom com. It's also the reason why my discussion of the short story above has descended into a sexual metaphor.

Going to a film turned into a late night: I'm tired today. Kids and husband are off at grandma's, so for the rest of this afternoon here's my plan: go to bed with Sherlock Holmes. My guilty pleasure.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

News International/Vanity Fair

As murk and more murk are exposed by the News International scandal, it strikes me that the story so far wouldn’t be out of place in a good thick novel. The phone messages of a murdered 13-year-old girl are hacked. A hapless editor is scapegoated. Tongues wag. A more glamourous red headed editor is arrested. Characters from the criminal underbelly of the media sit in pubs and count their pay. The chief of police resigns. We get rapidly, via resignations and arrests, to a system that is rotten at the very heart of its institutions. And the cause, apart from human vanity? The single minded rise from obscurity of a self-made antipodean man. It’s Dickens' territory, or Trollope, or Thackeray ( Vanity Fair, of course). So who will transform all this murk and scandal into an 800-page doorstop? Someone to do for 2010s London what Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did for 1980s New York. Who will be the writer that steps up to the plate?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Hungry, the Stars and Everything/The Thirteenth Tale

I just read Hungry, the Stars and Everything, by Emma Jane Unsworth, having heard the author at Bury Literary Salon last month. I was intrigued by a question someone asked: why does the novel reference Jane Eyre? More specifically, why does a main character eat pages from that book when he’s finished reading them? Emma replied simply that it was a book that everyone knew.

Very true, so when Jane Eyre popped up in another book I was also reading - The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield – I shouldn’t have been surprised. The two novels couldn’t be more different – Hungry is a coming-of-age story that turns into a romance with a feisty anti-heroine and a dash of magic realism; The Thirteenth Tale is an ambitious attempt to recreate a classic nineteenth century novel – think Jane Eyre with a dash of Wuthering Heights, a pinch of The Woman in White and a good few others in the mix. Jane Eyre is there physically – a page from the novel is amongst a character’s most prized possessions – and in the structure of the novel. (Both Hungry and The Thirteenth Tale are first novels, and I should say I would be proud to have written either.)

Jane Eyre is of course, a literary beacon which adds a little sparkle to these two novels and many more: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea are the two most obvious examples. 

Perhaps there's a literary game here - the literary equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. How many degrees of separation are there between the novel you are reading (or writing) and Jane Eyre?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Glamour mag/Puss in Boots

A piece in Glamour magazine (July issue) caught my eye as I stood in the overheated spectators' area of our local pool, watching my daughter struggling to complete a width without armbands.  GAFFs – “guys after fame and fortune” are a new phenomenon, the article claimed - these are men looking for riches and success by having a relationship with a female celebrity. Think Jesus Luz, Madonna's ex. These men have spotted a fresh way to become rich and famous: they are prepared to reinvent themselves to get their woman, to lie and deceive, to twist the truth to their own advantage, in short to make a great deal out of not very much, all to win their girl and the lifestyle that goes with her.

After the swimming lesson was over, my daughter picked a story from the box of battered books in the corner of the spectators’ area: Puss in Boots

Straight after the Glamour article, Puss in Boots shines out as a blueprint for how to social climb and get rich by hooking the right girl. Perhaps men have been marrying into wealth and status for a lot longer than Glamour imagines. 

Puss's endgame is the same as the GAFF's: to gain influence, status and riches for a poor nobody - the youngest son of a miller.  And he's hugely succesful - the King's daughter falls in love with the miller's son (possibly after she sees him naked in a river - having a buff body helps), and unlike Jesus and Madonna, they live happily ever after. 

Would-be GAFFs would do well to read this tale before devising their gameplan.


Thursday, 7 July 2011


It's rude to jump right in, I think. So hello and welcome to you, and thankyou for hovering on this page. What's this blog about? Well. I am a writer with a fairly full life. Ideas have to sneak into my consciousness as I'm usually doing other stuff: the day job, being a mum, and the rest. So I read, I listen to the radio, eavesdrop on conversations in the course of my day and inspiration comes when two ideas collide. This blog is a place to share some of those inspirations. I believe that to be human is to tell stories, to make patterns out of our seemingly random experiences. I want to explore how putting two disparate items together can lead to a pattern, a picture, perhaps even ... a story. Enjoy.