In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….

As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

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What I’m writing now…

Since the restrictions of lockdown, we dream of a time and a place before Covid where we could travel freely without risk of a virus. We have no idea, however, how things will change in future months and years, whether travel as we knew it will become normal again or whether it will be subject to changes. As a writer, I’ve always enjoyed giving my characters the opportunity to travel. Evie travelled through France; Nanny Basham visited Brighton; the Hens went to Paris; Barbara and Bisto visited Pauline in Somerset and Billy and Dawnie zoom around North Devon on the Harley.

I have to decide how far to allow the virus to intrude upon what I write, and that means to what extent my characters can travel. We all watch the future with interest. I’m setting the novel I’m writing now in the Highlands. Last year I visited Loch Ness for the first time and, enchanted by the magical atmosphere, the warmth of the welcome and the breathtaking scenery, I decided to set a novel there and I went back again – just for research purposes, of course.

Meanwhile, a few months ago, I wrote a novel in which the main two characters visit Spain: I booked a holiday there a while ago for April 2020 and, like many other people, I couldn’t go. I still wrote the story, though.

So, now I’m writing about the Highlands, and it’s another story of second chances for both characters, a woman in her late eighties who used to be a chorus girl in London in the 1950s, and a woman who is on holiday near Loch Ness, who is almost sixty, independent  and rootless. The characters’ lives intertwine and their ultimate destinies come from their interdependence.

I’m writing chapter sixteen already, thirty-eight thousand words in, and I’m enjoying the characters and their story. The time line is from August until January: the setting is so important as the Scottish backdrop changes dramatically during this time: the vibrant colours and the cooling temperatures are all intertwined with the action.

I don’t do spoilers but, interestingly, both characters’ journeys are parallel, in terms of love, loss and self-discovery. The fifty-nine-year-old character isn’t looking for what she finds: she’s happy enough as she is. The eighty-eight-year-old is lonely and lives her life in the past, immersed in memories, but the present brings both women surprises. Of course, events change both characters’ outlooks, expectations, and they both discover a new chance, although not necessarily with similar outcomes.

One thing I love about being over a third of the way through a novel is that it will still surprise me and it will still change as I write it. The novel I want to write will develop considerably from my current plans and it will be improved by the end – if not, I’d file it away and forget it. I have a structure, a plan, but it’s not set in stone. My ideas are changing already. I know how it will probably end for one character and for the other, there are several options.

In terms of the story’s timeline, we’re well into September as I write. There has already been sunshine, mist, a thunderstorm, rain. In October, there will be a balmy trip to the Isle of Skye. November will bring autumn leaves, deer frolicking in darkness. In December, there will be ice, snow-capped mountains. I’m looking forward to writing about Christmas and Hogmanay.

I expect to finish writing this story in October, although I’ll walk away at intervals and come back to the story afresh, to check if it works. Then, when it’s finished, I’ll leave it for a fortnight, then read it through again and decide what needs to be changed and developed. A week or two after that, I’ll give it a thorough edit, then another. I still won’t be finished with it as a story. Some things will be wriggling in the back of my mind: inconsistencies: the need to develop a scene or a character some more; an idea which can be improved or altered to make the whole thing more cohesive. I have to walk away and think, then come back.

I’m so glad I enjoy working this way, with ideas and a loose plan in place but also ready to fly by the seat of my pants and realise new ideas: I have several friends who are painters, poets and artists, and I’m often aware of how similar our working pattern is. We sketch stuff in, rub it out, improve it, stand back, make alterations, paint over, fuss over details, cross out and then fill in the spaces with colour. It’s great fun to see how something develops, but only when I’m confident that it works.

Of course, what makes it ‘work’ or not is based on a complicated journey and many ports of call. It takes time for a novel to change and develop before I’m happy; I ask reliable friends to read it as I progress and I request feedback. I have an agent and editors whom I trust, who will tell me honestly if something needs adjusting, from a character to a simple phrase. There’s a lot of work by a team of people before a novel reaches the reader. And when it does, of course, that is the ultimate test we writers all hope to pass.

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How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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Whatever music you need, Escapades hits the right note.

I know some people like to work in silence: writing a novel, a dissertation or doing homework means that concentration must continue uninterrupted and they prefer no noise at all. Others like the buzz of a radio playing music in the background, or the friendly hum of a voice on Radio Four.

I like the pace, the ambiance and the motivating mood of loud music.

I wrote an entire novel while listening to Rory Gallagher playing the blues. Another novel was written with Planet Rock constantly bustling in the background. Once, I changed the music I was listening to as I changed the mood from chapter to chapter; Gogol Bordello for the lively moments, Nina Simone for the tender moments, the scenes of pathos.

At the moment I have started a novel set against the backdrop of the Scottish lochs and that’s where Jack Gardiner’s Escapades comes in. I’ve discovered his album and it’s perfect for when I’m writing.

Jack is from Liverpool, only twenty-six years old, but he’s been playing guitar since he could sit up in his cot. A consummate musician, composer and technically-brilliant teacher, he cut his teeth playing guitar with China Crisis and he has toured with many more maestros in his short but productive time.

Now he’s made a solo album and it is heaven to write novels to. Jack has fingers that spider across the frets at a speed you wouldn’t believe, producing spiky atmospheric sounds, ideal for me when I’m imagining dawn over Loch Ness or the winding roads of Skye. But there’s so much more to Jack’s music than that.

From a musical family, (Jack’s father is a consummate bass guitarist, his brother plays a mean bass and drums and his mother has published articles as a music journalist,) Jack was always destined to perform. The track, 1993, which I guess is named after the year of his birth, is rhythmic, celebratory, with a spacy atmosphere, the guitar playing of a virtuoso. But Jack is no flash-in-the pan exhibitionist; his music comes from astute intelligence and empathy. There is a melodic, echoing tenderness in track 6, Until Next Time; track 4 Lark Lane, is mischievous and funky while track five, Cereal Killer, is more heavily percussive.

Jack is a huge talent. He wouldn’t be out of place playing in any band, and he has the potential to become a big name alongside Bonamassa and Page. He would wow in a traditional rock band with bass, guitar and vocalist – he has done this many times before – and he has the skill to stun in a duet with another musician or a singer, but it is this solo album that currently steals the show, that surprises in its confidence, a maturity beyond his years, credibility and the sheer impact of one man and his guitar creating a range of skilfully-played and produced tracks.

Escapades is great for me as a writer; it bubbles in the background like a lively stream as I match the pace and mood with my own ideas and words. But the album offers so much more. I’d listen to Escapades with the lights on low, lying on soft cushions; I’d fall asleep and wake up to it; I’d serve the music up with a meal for my best friends; I’d use it to cheer people up and to soothe the troubled soul.

It is an album that satisfies, that draws the listener in and that impresses. Jack is a young man who will go far; I believe one day his name will spring to the lips as quickly as Clapton’s or Gilmour’s when people are discussing great virtuoso guitarists. And this new album is a gem. Listen to it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Listen to Jack’s album Escapades on Spotify or buy it here: Jack Gardiner Official Bandcamp

Jack

The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

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Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network 

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsley Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though.

There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.  

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How does lockdown affect creativity?

I read something a few days ago about a writer who couldn’t work during the Coronavirus lockdown period because she couldn’t think straight with all the current change and restriction: basically, she said, her brain was in ‘flight or fight’ mode. She said that it was hard to concentrate on creating something new and exciting with her thoughts all over the place, anxieties about Covid-19, wondering how long the self-isolation will continue and what might happen next. 

That is very understandable: I can see how the writing process might be affected by anxiety. Her situation led me to wonder how the current situation and the separation and lack of social interaction might affect other people who work creatively. How much do we need to interact with other people beyond our households to be better creators? Is it possible that some people work best in isolation? Will our period of lockdown, however long it may last, result in a glut of exciting new novels, poems, art of all kinds, or should we be prepared for a dearth of them? (I heard from someone connected with the writing industry that there will be so many novels about lockdown romances and murders emerging in several months’ time. Why am I imagining gritty inner city crime thrillers about people visiting the local Morrisons twice a day?…)

Many of us who are writers or artists tend to work from home in isolation. There is an old stereotype of a writer wearing glasses, perhaps perched on the lower bridge of the nose, bent double over a clanking typewriter, typing away in a garret with a small slice of light seeping through the window. Complete the image with a wine or gin or whiskey bottle not far from view. It seems quite normal for writers and some other creative artists to work alone, to use what’s in their heads as inspiration for their work and from that place create something innovative. Should the lockdown change anything?

I have several friends who are painters. One of them has joined a national artist’s group to share her work on a website that helps to sell paintings; it’s a great idea, to support artists to make a living during these difficult times and to profit from the solidarity of a group of like-minded people. Another friend was finding stimulation difficult, being home alone, but by joining a scheme online in which a group of artists painted at the same time every day, she was able to respond to a schedule and she has produced some wonderful work. What both of these artists have in common is that a collective group has given them the encouragement or structure to work towards a common goal, despite being alone.

For writers and novelists, although many wonderful and encouraging collective groups exist, we find it easy to work in isolation once we have our initial idea. Editing and upgrading work requires focus and a clear mind but it is, for the most part, easy to do that type of work alone. Creating a novel from scratch, however, demands energy, enthusiasm and the belief that an idea can readily transpose itself on the page to something substantial, entertaining and satisfying.

For me, being outdoors is a great aid to writing. Ideas come quickly and blow through my mind as new and exciting thoughts when I’m outside; being able to roam around, surrounded by nature, is where I think best. And many of my novels involve travel or journeys; I like to be on the road, in the camper van, going to old places or new places, talking to people I’ve never met before, experiencing different locations. Ideas come from new things.

I’m sure some people will say that their ideas come from inside their head, from wide reading, from past experiences, from who they are, from dreams. All that’s probably true. But, for me, the richest resource is beyond that, the resource of new experiences and interactions.

I don’t have the necessary background in psychology or anthropology to understand what effect the lockdown will have on the creative mind of any individual. I am aware that enforced isolation will bring about loneliness, anxiety and all the ensuing problems for many people: we are all naturally social animals. But it’s interesting to consider what effect it will have on our potential to think, to innovate and to create.

I’m lucky – my next novel is out in June. I have already written the subsequent one; I’m editing the one after that to improve it and I’m 20,000 words into the one after that, so I’m well ahead of the game. I’m also good at working for long periods. I’m very focused and I seldom procrastinate. If I wake at four in the morning and end up planning for three hours, it’s not a problem – it’s part of the writing process. Similarly, if I take a day off and go for a walk in the woods to get an idea in focus or a character into perspective, it’s part of my working day. I never feel guilty if I do nothing at all if I’m allowing thoughts to ferment: it’s all part of the working process.

The lockdown has given us a chance to rethink who we are and what we do each day, to evaluate the times we used to enjoy, to look forward to appreciating the future when normality is restored. More than that, I think we are emerging with a better sense of the people we can be and, most importantly, the social animals we are meant to be. And that involves sharing with others, including them in our plans and considering their well-being more than perhaps we did before the virus.

Twelve protagonists? Why not?

Recently an author-friend of mine said a novel she’d written had been refused by a publisher because there were four central protagonists, which they said was three too many. There is a template in romantic comedy that requires one heroine, someone with a problem that needs to be solved, one handsome male who might do something to resolve it, and other interesting or quirky subsidiary characters that help to make up a full and well-rounded story. I suggested to my friend that, although we have much more chance of success if we stick to the rules, they are there to be broken. 

When I wrote Five French Hens, I was aware that readers would have five characters to get to know at the beginning of the book, rather than the standard one or two, and I introduced them carefully so that differentiation wouldn’t be too problematic for most people.

I do have sympathy with readers struggling to assimilate a large number of characters. It happens all the time in books and in films. I adored The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham but I had a hard time telling who was who among the townsfolk at the beginning of the novel. After a bit of perseverance, it all became clear. It was the same with the TV series Peaky Blinders: there were only so many men with variations on short-back-and-sides appearing on the screen before I had to ask, is he the brother or the son? But it doesn’t detract from what is a cracking series.

Lots of novels have multiple main protagonists, from Little Women to The Famous Five, and confusion is usually avoided because the characters look and behave differently (one could even be a dog?). They are often introduced separately or they interact together in smaller numbers at different times, which helps.

So when I started to read Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, I was intrigued by how she would introduce a cast of some twelve women without confusing her readers. The answer is, she does it very well, with a great deal of skill and panache.

The novel probably isn’t for everyone: I read reviews of it and some people were confused by the large cast of women. Others thought the scarcity of punctuation was difficult but I found it really easy to assimilate: after the first two pages, I didn’t need it and I didn’t look for it. In fact, the absence of full stops and capitals adds something to the style and the rhythm of the novel.

Initially, I wasn’t hooked; the character of Amma and her daughter Yazz were interesting enough but there were lots of peripheral characters to take on board and a lot of ‘telling’ about their pasts. For the first two chapters¸ I wasn’t engaged with the protagonists, although they were characters I felt some sympathy for, but there wasn’t much to distinguish them from lots of other people in the world and make them stand out for their own qualities.

But Evaristo’s master stroke is how she mingles the characters with each other throughout the novel, introducing one at an early stage as a subsidiary character and then putting her on the spotlight later to fill in gaps and then she develops each one as a flawed but fascinating individual. Suddenly, the novel clicked for me and became absorbing; the ‘telling’ of backstories became central to understanding the character and how she relates to others.

Characters such as Carole, LaTisha, Shirley, Penelope, Bummi, Winsome, Megan/ Morgan and Hattie are cleverly interwoven, each other’s mothers, daughters, friends, grandparent, so that by the time each one has her own chapter, we know her from a different context already and so her story comes into sharp focus, important and relevant not just to the other characters but to what she contributes to the world as it is now. Bernadine Evaristo shows that attitudes to race, gender, sexuality and culture have changed over many generations and are still changing. She makes it clear that change is ongoing and her observation of these changes and developments in women’s lives is pin-sharp.

It is an important novel on many different levels. Firstly, it reveals something about women’s lives, how experiences of the world have improved over time and how women are perceived now in a fairer and more equitable way: things are changing; they needed to change; the change is not yet complete; things are not perfect yet for these women but they have, over time, achieved a little more in the way of independence and they have been assigned some measure of higher status; at times they have been listened to and their needs have been addressed. Change is good, but there is still a long way to go; there are still difficulties that need sorting out.

It is an important novel because it tells us about the world as it is now for each of its contrasting protagonists and their story is told freshly, honestly and with style. Furthermore, a novel with multiple protagonists tells the story of many women who, for their own different reasons, deserve to be listened to. It’s not just a simple story of one women whose problems will be easily resolved by a new partner and, while that can in itself be a very valid story, Evaristo’s insistence on defying heteronormative expectations and telling the stories of a dozen strong and exceptional women defiantly living their own lives is to be applauded, celebrated and read. 

She’s come a long way from Mr Loverman (which I adore) and produced a winner of a novel which is remarkable and ground breaking. Evaristo proves that when it comes to protagonists, less isn’t necessarily more.

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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