Meet Me in Budapest

Hand of Miriam on the wall of the Toledo Museum of MagicCharacter is endlessly fascinating. When I’m writing fiction I can get lost in the people I’m writing, even begin to dream their dreams. The mysteriousness and opaqueness of others is endlessly intriguing, but so to is their context. Who we are, the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us, arise from a matrix of particular factors, amongst them time and place. In This is the End of the Story, Cassie comes of age in 1970s Teesside and her context helps to shape her: the industrial landscape, the decline of employment, the cultural expectations of a class, time and place, are all issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background in large measure, though heavily fictionalised, but memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research – songs I thought I’d heard at one time often turned out to be from a couple of years ahead; fashions and news items similarly. Despite that, there was a familiarity of place that informed me and gave the writing a significant grounding. When it came to Toledo, though, another main setting in the novel, I was on very different territory.

There was no way to visit eleventh century Toledo so I had to rely on archival material, translations of texts about Toledo at the end of a cultured and flourishing Muslim rule, and a novel I’d read as a child, Casilda of the Rising Moon. Books and the Internet were invaluable, but it was only after I was given a trip to Toledo as a birthday gift that I felt really confident of this part of the writing. When I stood in a tiny mosque (later made into a church, Cristo de la Luz) that Casilda might conceivably have stood in 900 years earlier or when I visited The Museum of Spanish Magic, housed in a tenth century Islamic cave-house, complete with an ancient hand of Fatima (or hand of Miriam) talisman imprinted on the wall, I felt a sense of place that I hadn’t experienced from any textual research.

I was recently corresponding with Cinnamon Press novelist, Landeg White. Landeg was lived and worked in the West Indies, Malawi, Sierra Leone, has been a professor of African Studies and has lived for a considerable time in Portugal, where his poetry output has included a translation of Luís de Camões, published by Princeton University Press in 2008. He is someone who knows a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place, and remarked that going to a place to do in situ research is ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola, admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of just sitting in her attic making it all up.

Places are characters and to some extent we can fictionalise them and imagine them, but if the real place is to be the jumping off point, complete with an atmosphere, a history, a complex culture of food, sounds, smells, rivers, architecture … then immersing ourselves in it can only enhance the writing process. Moreover, moving ourselves as writers so that we are out of place, out of our small comfort zones as we write, pushes at our boundaries, makes us more porous to influences larger than ourselves.

In 2012 the ‘Writing Britain’ exhibition at the British Library captivated me. There is something so powerful about an original manuscript or early proofs spattered with corrections; something intimate and epiphanic at once. All the books in the exhibition were united by a strong sense of place. I saw the hand-written last page of Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm; Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (one of my favourite books from childhood and still one of the most powerful retellings of the Blodeuwedd story from the Mabinogi), a first edition of ‘Little Gidding’ — ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started‘ — and Kathleen Raine’s Northumberland journals in her own hand, ‘those abiding essences, the rocks and hills and mountains’ raising their voices to ‘utter their wild credo’ next to a bit that reads like my own journal, talking about cold rural houses in winter with no central heating and managing the logs.

I came out awed, dazzled and dazed. I had entered a trance in there among runes and spells, within the song lines of connection. When I left, the world felt too bright and sharp. This is why we write — surely — for this extraordinary intimacy with strong magic, the reverie of words that make worlds. And in this enchantment, why is it that place features so dominantly? Because location — whether it is the ‘nowhere’ of utopia, the precise smells and sights of a Paris street, a Welsh mountainside, an Indian market, or a Birmingham canal — and story are essentially linked. Writing takes us to a place – real and visceral, imagined and strange, dream or nightmare, anchored on a map or found only in the interior of a mind. Good writing takes us ‘somewhere’ even when the place is called ‘nowhere.’

Because it is in a place that we begin to narrativise our lives, and the lives of our characters. We tell stories to reconcile ourselves to time — to the huge events of cosmology, to the big and small and hidden events of history and to our personal journeys — and in doing so we inevitably locate those stories — somewhere, someplace.

Travel for research or to write in another location seems to me vital, but it can also be difficult to achieve – busy lives, constraints of time, money and commitments make such ‘writing away’ time incredibly precious, so I feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to do some writing in Budapest for the sequel to This is the End of the Story.

In A Remedy For All Things, Cassie, now using her full name, Catherine, will be undertaking her own research and writing trip to Budapest in the footsteps of the 1930s poet, Attila József, who died in what may have been an accident, though is generally thought to be suicide. Set in Budapest in November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine’s will interweave with the story of Selene Solweig Virág, a woman who, if she ever lived, took part in the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and was subsequently imprisoned in horrific conditions; a woman who seems to have had her own strange connections to Attila Jozsef.

I can’t travel to the Budapest of the 30s, 50s or 90s, but I’ve been given the chance to soak up a sense of place for a month, writing, talking to writers and archivists in Budapest, visiting museums, walking the streets that my characters walked, in fact and in fiction. Place and political context make a huge difference to personal stories. The stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us are shaped in no small measure by where we find ourselves. Meet me in Budapest as the story unfolds…

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It’s never the end of the story

This is the End of the Story raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty and the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, but coming of age in one period of political turmoil, Teesside in the late 70s, Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she might be and how she wants to live.

What really happened was that I was slow to learn. Belief wasn’t so much my gift as my curse.

Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine and when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Miriam insists she may have lived in a former life, it is far from the end of the story.

After writing: This is the End of the Story, a novel by Catherine Anne McManus, she is adamant that she will never again be ‘Casilda’. No more Cassie. No more Kitty Brennan.

And when Cassie, now insisting that she be called Catherine, meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life – a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and untimely death of the 1930s poet, Attila József. But once in Budapest during November 1993, one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams about the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising. As Catherine begins to investigate whether the woman, Selene Solweig Virág, ever existed, she becomes more deeply drawn in to another life, one that has a strange and inexplicable connection to Attila Jozsef.

As the month progresses, the dates tracking the last twenty-eight days of József’s life and Selene’s increasingly desperate imprisonment in 1959, Catherine once again begins to question her own identity and to question the stories Miriam had once told her. As her life becomes increasingly improbable she remembers Miriam’s insistence that ‘the unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.’

The questions of perception and identity only become more intense when Simon joins her is Budapest and as the date of József’s apparent suicide approaches. But will this be the end of the story? ‘There’s a remedy for all things except death,’ Quixote tells us, but what of the next life and the next?

A Remedy for All Things is the sequel to This is the End of the Story – I’ll be finishing the first draft in Budapest in June and blogging about the writing process… the power of poetry… how political contexts impact on personal stories… the stories we tell ourselves and allow others to tell about us…

 

 

 

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A Literary Novel for Teesside

Jan reading to an audience

‘Literary’ can sound pretentious, but is it any more than simply owning the influences that have helped to shape it? Nothing comes from nothing. This is the End of the Story is unashamedly Quixotic – but the characters are not cyphers, they are young women coming of age in a specific place at a particular time – the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside are as much influences as an archetypal Spanish novel. Nonetheless, Cassie plays a role akin to Sancho, whilst Miriam resonates with Quixote – the pursuit of truth and justice, even when the fight cannot be won; the power of perception, imagination and dreams; the reality of giants who would destroy us; the grace of religious and ideological tolerance and the harm of hatred and prejudice all feature, but, I hope, always lightly.

This is a novel of characters who are self-conscious of their influences. Miriam suffers from epilepsy, but looks to Dostoevsky to articulate the experience of her episodes, drawing on his diaries to give a visionary edge to her suffering. Like Quixote, she despises popular romance novels and romantic bards (steering Cassie away from the Canadian folk singer she listens to in favour of high opera, but with only partial success – so each of the chapters is the title of one of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs), but she will overlook her dislike of romance when it comes as French literature – and so Madame Bovary, itself influenced by Don Quixote, features as a metaphor for Miriam’s fear of betrayal.

And then there is Casilda of the Rising Moon, a novel for young teenagers, written by the Catholic writer, Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino – a novel that brims with knights and princes, saints and healers, unrequited love and religious fervour – an interpretation of the life of Casilda, about whom we know only a few ‘facts’. The facts and the story have merged and it’s impossible to know where one begins and the other ends.

So it should be with a literary novel – the news of the day, music once heard, books once read, great novels, intimate diaries written by literary masters and paperback romances go into the melting pot as ingredients to make something different – something also influenced by a time and a place, by memory or invention or something between the two.

What the literary novel asserts is that it’s never the end of the story.

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February 8, 2017 · 7:14 pm

Writing of Politics and Religion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the UK, an island that suffers from not being continental, as demonstrated so resoundingly in the Brexit referendum, we are known for not talking about certain subjects — religion and politics are taboo at a dinner table in polite company. But life is not polite — it is messy, and ideology and belief are inescapable.

This is the End of the Story is set in the 70s, an era of strikes, the three-day week, and rising unemployment; an era of hot hot summers, droughts, psychedelic clothes, the Yorkshire Ripper… Life is so often both the best of times and the worst of times and I wanted a fiction that would reflect that. How? I have a lot of sympathy with Keats in hating poetry that has a palpable design on us and similarly with fiction — the overly didactic can be wearing (despite being able to think of wonderful exceptions), so I didn’t want rants or great expository lumps intruding in a novel that is essentially character-driven. I opted instead for a device that is used in the film version of The Children of Men (better than the original P D James novel in my opinion) — that of backgrounding the politics. In the film the dystopian devastation, protests and bombings take place behind the main action, slightly off-screen, and go uncommented. Anne Clarke does a similar thing in her excellent poetry collection, In the Margin, using events from the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign as asides that are barely noticed by the persona and her lover, caught up in an affair.

A Quixote-inspired novel with a major character bent on the pursuit of justice can’t ignore political realities, but I’ve used vignettes, interleaved between the non-liner chapters in which the coming of age story plays out, to hint at the ambivalent attitude towards political engagement. And in each of these vignettes there is a report on the current music charts and, of course, the weather, partly because the weather is used as a metaphor for the story of the main chapters, but also because we live in a society that constantly undercuts the seriousness of world or domestic crises by placing them alongside the frivolous; in itself a political statement.

And religion? Cervantes is remarkable for his sympathy with Spain’s Moors. Towards the end of writing This is the End of the Story I went to Toledo to look for traces of Casilda, a young Moorish princess who later became a Christian saint buried at Burgos, in Northern Spain. Casilda is fascinating as someone who converted from Islam to become a Christian saint, whilst her unrequited lover, Ben Haddaj, reputedly returned to the religion of his fathers, Judaism, Casilda’s faithful nurse remained a loyal Muslim whilst staying with Casilda, and her brother and father were devout Muslims who had alliances with Christian princes. There are times when belief and tolerance live together, but that didn’t last in Spain, as in so many other places.

Visiting The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz, one of the few buildings in Toledo that would have been there exactly as it is now in Casilda’s life time, the breakdown of tolerance is recorded in stone — an apse built onto the beautiful little mosque, painted with Christ triumphant, a crucifix surveying all. Similarly, the exquisite synagogues in Toledo were taken over and ‘christianised’ as the Jews were later expelled from Spain. The move from Cosmopolitan to myopic, from tolerance to hatred was often swift and brutal. A familiar story.

I wanted to reflect that tension in This is the End of the Story so Miriam is the only Jewish girl in an otherwise homogeneous school, whilst Cassie is Christian, but stands out for being Catholic. They encounter intolerance from anti-Semitic bullies and a well-meaning, but insensitively evangelical, Anglican curate; the nature of belief — not only in any kind of deity, but in humanity or in goodness of itself, is a key theme in the book. It’s a theme I will return to in the second book, when Cassie, now Catherine, dreams the life of a Hungarian Jewish young woman imprisoned after the 1956 uprising, but, as I said in the last post, that’s another story, which begs the question — is this the end of the story?

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When life becomes fiction and fiction life…

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inside the RestauranteLife and fiction are rarely hard and fast boundaries; far from being readily demarcated they blur into one another, are subjective and slippery. In Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Sancho desperately tries to make it otherwise, not by keeping these two ‘categories’ apart, but by trying to make fact and story congruent – for him a story has to be ‘true’ or ‘authentic’; a story has to be told in a certain way and it has to not invite trouble –

…the ancients didn’t begin their stories just as they pleased … your worship must stay quiet and not go anywhere seeking harm, … turn up some other road, since nobody is making us follow this one, where there are so many terrors to frighten us.

Quixote will have none of this. Seeking truth (rather than fact) and justice makes him live ‘as if’ these things were already the way of the world, an extreme utopian vision that changes reality through perspective, but inevitably leads to conflict – the windmills are, after all, giants (corporations, media, war-machines…) bent on destroying what is humane and hopeful and visionary. But while the fearless imagination belongs to Quixote, it is Sancho who lives in this interior, quixotic world. Sancho is not only loyal, but an enabler. Despite constantly struggling to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, he believes in Quixote, and enters into Quixote’s inner world so fully that he supports its continued existence, making it so.

These are areas that fascinate me –

how fact and fiction constantly collide and interweave;

how one person becomes so immersed in the fantasy life of another so as to enable and support it…

Children do this with great fluency – using make believe to build abstract thought, to imbue the world with symbolic meaning – but somewhere along the line most of us ‘grow out’ of it. Most, but not all – and in This is the End of the Story I wanted to explore the kind of enabling that requires immersion in another’s fantasy (a quixotic, visionary fantasy that is determined to act as if there is justice in the world) and I wanted to explore how this changes the enabler – the effects of the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us.

And so – belief is Cassie’s gift. Growing up in 1970s Teesside, Catherine Anne McManus, a clever, but naïve teenager from a dysfunctional home, believes herself to be whoever others tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, or even, at the insistence of her quixotic friend, Miriam, Casilda – an 11th century Muslim princess who later became a saint, a ‘real’ person whose story is shrouded in myths and romantic legend.

Cassie and Miriam are united by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world and Cassie’s belief, despite Cassie’s frequent pleas that Miriam should avoid trouble and choose another road, and despite a traumatic incident on a beach in Scotland. Miriam, however, constantly predicts that Cassie will betray her and persistently tests Cassie’s loyalty – including using her epilepsy as a tool to manipulate Cassie. No major plot spoilers – but Miriam is not blessed with belief and when an act of betrayal so small, but so profound propels Cassie towards Liam, someone also eager to tell Cassie who she really is, then it may be the end of the story. Or is it? Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagines and even when she eventually visits Toledo in the footsteps of Casilda, is this the end of the story?

This is the End of the Story, is of course, completely made up – at the same time it’s the kind of narrative pretence in which life and fiction is irrevocably blurred. Once upon a time in Teesside I had an extraordinary relationship that the fiction resonates with. I could list a thousand ways in which the characters are purely fictions; a thousand ways in which x or y didn’t happen in the way the novel describes or ever happen at all – that would be true, but under that truth is a more complex one – one that fascinates me still because who can say for certainty where the story and the fact reside? I tried to reflect on that conundrum within the narrative by having Cassie revise the story of her coming of age in later life, only to make it more tangled than ever.

I also wanted the sense that Cassie, as she becomes less naïve, takes on Miriam’s quixotic legacy. In Don Quixote, the truth that is discovered in dreams is powerful; and in the second novel Cassie, now Catherine, begins to live someone else’s life in her dreams, but that’s another story, which begs the question – is this the end of the story?

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January 6, 2017 · 11:03 pm

2016 – or why write fiction in an insane world

2016 has been an extraordinary year. Having celebrated its first decade, Cinnamon Press hasthis_is_the_end published some extraordinary poetry and fiction this year and put gorgeously designed books into the world. We’ve had a bumper crop of mentoring students making it very hard to choose who we will go on to publish. We’ve had well-supported competitions with winners whose books we’re enthusiastic to develop, publish and promote. We’ve even been privileged to have some international launches and have enjoyed  opportunities to write, think, walk, cook… in between editing and mentoring.

In all these respects, 2016 has been good – very good. And yet it’s also been a year of loss and turmoil. The political landscape looks grim: Brexit – an ‘advisory’ vote has become synonymous with the ‘people have spoken’ – even whilst many of those people are crying out that they had no idea what they were voting for; the terrifying move to the right in many European countries ;the election of Trump in the US,  a sign of the ascendancy of confusion, anger and nihilism and a dearth of political education or hope and horrific humanitarian disasters, especially in Syria.

Politically 2016 has been bad – beyond bad and has instigated decisions that will go on having negative repercussions and sewing divisiveness. And the downsides of this year have not only been political, though the connections between personal and political realms are never absent. It’s been a year when great thinkers, actors, singers have died – of course any year might be that, but it’s ‘felt’ more acute in 2016 – the loss of people like Umberto Eco, Ornette Coleman, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, George Martin, John Glenn, Elie Wiesel… has gone on and on, whilst I’ve known at least five close personal friends battling cancers this year, felt helpless for several gifted young people who, despite god degrees and hard work, can’t keep up with their rent in minimum wage jobs that squander their talents and leave them exhausted and dispirited. I’ve celebrated with friends who’ve had triumphs – a publishing contract, a new relationship, an extraordinary creative project, but more often cried with those who are mourning terrible illness, the end of a long relationship, the loss of a child, one too many rejection.

In the midst of such a strange year, brimming with celebration and loss, but coming to an end in so much political uncertainty and anxiety, I’ve finished a novel. It’s a book that has been simmering slowly in me for over 30 years. The actual writing began much more recently, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots. I’ve finished a novel and of all the books I’ve written it’s the one I feel most passionate about because it’s a novel that says the personal and the political are not disparate but intertwined and it’s a novel that says when the world is going to hell, when culture is being harried, when divisiveness is on on every corner , then we need other ways of seeing – ways that sometimes only story can provide.

It can feel self-indulgent to write while people suffer, but shutting up artists – whether visual or of the word would ultimately assist the tide of insanity; downing pens and paint brushes and cameras would let the rise of hatred and suffering overwhelm us and have its way. My novel is not salvation. One exquisite photograph, one exceptional poem, one inspiring sculpture will not save the world – but each of these acts of art is something – something that has the opportunity to say, with Cervantes:

When life seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams – this may be madness … – and maddest of all to see life as it is and not as it should be.

2016 has been the best of times and the worst of times. 2017 might be the same. We can resist madness where we see it, mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice, refuse to be dumbed down; above all make art and literature that will not accept the way things are. This is at least one good reason to write fiction in an insane world.

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December 22, 2016 · 11:43 pm

Experiencing Poetry

What does it mean to read poetry? In Beautiful and Pointless, the poetry critic for the New York Times, David Orr, argues that there is no ‘ought’ in reading poetry; there is no answer to the question of ‘Why read poetry?’ except that if you do read poetry you will find that it is worthwhile; it makes a difference not only to how we respond to the world, but how we negotiate the world. Rather than arguing about whether poetry is alive or comatose, Orr is concerned with how people experience poetry.

That experience is at the heart of Cinnamon Press’s goal to publish poetry that is innovative and independent, whether in our collections and anthologies or in a poetry journal like Envoi. Many of the poets we publish write about ordinary life events – a seaside holiday, birth, death, relationships, the impact of economics or religion on everyday life… Many of the poems that don’t make it to publication are on exactly the same subjects, but what distinguishes those  that do make it is that they help us to negotiate this everyday world. At its best poetry assists us to pay attention to our perceptions and expectations so that the quotidian does not simply remain ordinary and familiar, but becomes the context for moments of epiphany or ecstasy; moments when we step beyond the familiar to gain new insights. At its best poetry allows us to experience the deep connections between language and seeing, a point eloquently made by Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei in her fascinating book, which I’m currently reading – The Ecstatic Quotidian: Phenomenological Sightings in Modern Art and Literature.

I have also just been finishing off the selection and editing for Envoi 163 and reading The Ecstatic Quotidian has no doubt influenced the choices I’ve made, going for a diverse and rich selection of poetry that pushes us to see differently, to find strangeness in the everyday. It’s a pleasure to include poets like Susan Richardson, whose linguistic deftness takes on environment, mythology and personal identity; at once familiar yet strange; to immerse myself in David Olsen’s ‘Seaside Nocturne‘, a commentary on language itself,  and the failures of language, in a beautifully controlled single metaphor that is resonant of the everyday, yet takes us deeper with wonderful phrases like ‘I invigilate the dark’; to admire Ted McCarthy’s struggle with the gap between language and objects, the subtle playing out of William Carlos Williams’ ‘no ideas but in things’ in the poem ‘Underfoot’, in which ‘each thing answers itself’; to join Roger Elkin, flying a kite with his dad, so everyday, yet so resonant with what is other and yet to come; to explore the universe with Daphne Gloag and Jonathan Taylor or journey with Bob Beagrie to unfamiliar cities that shift our perceptions not only of place, but of self.

Sadly, the reach of poetry may be small, but for those who experience it there is so much to delight in and be stretch by.

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