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Environment is hard to overcome, even in fiction

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Part 2 of Writing a novel trilogy

Character is 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 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.

Where we are is who we are

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 issues that she has to face in forming any sense of identity.

Cassie shares my own background, though fictionalised. But memory is a tricky thing so I still found myself doing lots of research — songs I thought I’d heard; fashions and news items. 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 major 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 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 travelled to Toledo that I felt confident of this part of the writing.

When I stood in a tiny mosque that Casilda might have stood in 900 years earlier, or visited a tenth century Islamic cave-house, I felt a sense of place that I couldn’t experienced from books.

One of Cinnamon Press’s novelists, Landeg White. who passed away at the end of 2017, was someone who knew a great deal about ‘place’ and the writing of place. He remarked that going to a place to do in situ research was ‘absolutely necessary’. He was re-reading George Eliot’s Romola at the time, and admiring the way she took the trouble to find out things instead of making it all up.

Places are characters …

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There’s a remedy for all things, except…

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Part 1 of Writing a novel trilogy

This is the End of the Story is not the end of the story.

It’s the first book in a trilogy — a novel that raises questions about perception and identity, about friendship, love, loyalty. About the stories we tell ourselves or allow others to tell about us. Belief is Cassie’s gift, and for some time she believes others when they tell her who she is. But Cassie reaches her own resolution about who she is 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 is more resourceful than those who try to tell her who to be realise.

A remedy for all things

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In A Remedy for All Things, my protagonist, Cassie (who now uses her full name — Catherine) has come a long way. This is how the book blurb puts it:

Belief is Catherine’s gift. Or it was once.

After a miscarriage and marital breakdown, her life is on course. Her new relationship with Simon is flourishing and she has a commission to research a novel about the poet, Attila József.

But when Catherine arrives in Budapest in winter 1993, she begins dreaming the life of a young woman, Selene Virág. Imprisoned after the 1956 Uprising, Selene finds she is dreaming Catherine’s life in turn.

Obsessed, Catherine abandons her research to find out who Selene was. Why does Selene believe Attila József was the father of her daughter, Miriam, when Attila died in 1937? And what became of Selene?

Most importantly, how do the lives of Catherine, Selene and Attila fit together?

Disquieting and compelling, A Remedy for All Things challenges our ideas of time and identity, as truth, fiction and political realities collide.

When Catherine meets Simon, she appears to be in a new phase of her life. She’s a confident writer and editor, about to undertake a trip to Budapest to research the life and death of the 1930s poet, Attila József.

But once in Budapest, during one of the coldest winters on record, Catherine finds herself disturbed by dreams. In them she relives the life of a woman imprisoned at the end of the 1950s after the Hungarian uprising, Selene Virág. As Catherine begins to investigate the woman, she becomes more drawn into this other life; one that has a strange a connection to Attila József.

As the month progresses, tracking the last days of József’s life and Selene’s imprisonment, Catherine again begins to question her own identity.

The questions of perception and identity become more intense when Simon, Catherine’s new partner, joins her is Budapest. And as the date of József’s suicide approaches, the tension mounts.

Will this be the end of the story?

I hope you will read on at Medium and also take a look at the book offer on A Remedy for All Things and This is the End of the Story.

Thank you.

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Draft after Draft after …

I’m endlessly fascinated by how various writing process can be between one writer and the next, but however idiosyncratic these processes might be there are certain stages that have to be negotiated. It has to begin with ideas. For me, these often come from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce – the link between walking and writing, the process of flaneurs like Baudelaire and Benjamin makes complete sense to me. These ideas begin to assume more and more shape – notes and jottings, bits of research, character sketches, hopes of something amazing and doubts that it is ever going to take shape.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this stage, some of it starts to form. Maybe you write a timeline. Perhaps you write chapter summaries. You might be someone who writes detailed character sketches or even has a list of questions to ask each character. For me, it’s all about research at this stage. I look up the weather of the time and place I’m writing about. I research the politics, the social climate, the architecture of the streets, the landscape, the local food, historical characters who might turn up in the novel. Before beginning to write This is the End of the Story I read several academic tomes on Don Quixote and several novels that has a Quixotic structure. For the current novel, A Remedy for All Things, I read everything I can find about Attila and all of his poetry that’s in English translation. I also unearthed several interviews with Attila’s family members and with the sculptor who made the most famous statue of him. Then I read several books about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and as much as I could find about Budapest in the early 90s. From these copious notes some rough sketches of actual story began to be written and the opening, which had been in my head since the first dreams of my new protagonist, Selene.

From the mass of dreams, ideas, characters, places and research notes, something new has to emerge. Writing This is the End of the Story, I had several vivid incidents that needed to be written. I had them clearly in my head so I didn’t outline anything and I didn’t think about what order to write them in. Each piece emerged and only later did I order and re-order and then go over the whole to make sure the way they fitted together was consistent, even though the narrative was non-linear.

Writing A Remedy for All Things has been completely different. I’m juggling three characters each in different time periods – 1937, 1959 (with flash backs to 1952-9) and 1993. What unites them is that the two main characters, Catherine (Cassie from This is the End of the Story) and Selene are dreaming each other’s lives on successive days in November to early December, days that were the last 28 of Attila József’s life. So the dates impose an essential framework on what would otherwise be a chaotic narrative and each date has two short chapters – one in 1993, one in 1959. With this framework it seemed sensible to outline early so I wrote summaries of each chapter and this enabled me to wrangle a sprawling plot into something manageable and accessible. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all way to write a novel, but certain stories let us know what they need – form and content begin to match if we attend to the material we’re working with.

In this case, with an outline in place, I wrote a first full draft. It was full of typos and inconsistencies. It was too obviously researched at some points (it’s skeleton showing through its skin), but lacking in detail at others. The prose was clunky and some of the chapters were little more than bridging passages, but I had a whole novel. It was time to get a clearer vision of what I might be working towards and to do that demanded that I stop for a while.

With the constant programme editing, events to organise for Cinnamon Press and admin to keep the press running, taking time off from my own writing isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write at all, which is why having writing blocks courtesy of the Arts Council, has been such a blessing with this novel. But whether we have scraps of time or luxurious amounts of it, there are interludes when we need to stop and stand back. Time to get some distance from the first intensely immersive process. Time to dream and wander again. For a week or a month or however long you need (but not so long that it becomes remote from you), let it rest. Don’t read it and don’t let anyone else read it. It’s too early in the process and too vulnerable to being derailed at this stage. (If you have a trusted reader or a mentor, bounce ideas off them, talk in broad terms, get ideas about overall process, get encouragement and support, but don’t second guess the fragile first draft just yet).

I did keep reading everything I could find about Budapest in the right periods while I was letting the first draft settle. And I also had fascinating conversations about the place and events, about Attila József’s poetry and about some of the bigger ideas I was exploring, but I didn’t open the files.

I started the second draft once I knew I was going to be able to visit Budapest to hone the research and really bring the book to life. My aim was to revise the narrative so that any thin passages were fleshed out, so that the research was carried by story, dialogue and character, rather than cluttering the surface. I wanted to improve the prose, kill any darlings, rid the story of inconsistencies, smooth the pacing and keep the conflicts tense. The second draft is a good point to address any structural issues, and for me a key issue was how to use particular objects that revealed connections not only in this novel, but also pointed back to the first novel and potentially forward to the next, For Hope is Always Born.

When I finished the second draft, not long after arriving in Budapest, I immediately went back to the beginning and started editing again. The third draft saw a mixture of changes. Having gone through the structural issues I could concentrate on finer details. But, being in the place where the novel is set and with access to generous people who’d lived through some of what I was writing about and knew Attila Joszef’s work so much more deeply in its original language, also meant I could revisit some of the key ideas. In the third draft I completely changed my mind about one of the most pivotal events of the book, thanks to a conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Publishers. And I was able to add details about József’s life and about the places that Selene would have known only because I was able to visit important museums and sites and talk to people.

The fourth draft was a thorough edit of all of this, again reading for consistency as well as for every stray comma, typo or missing word. Drafts two, three and four came hard on the heels of each other because I had an intense time set aside to work in Hungary, but there were breaks, even if just for a day, and lots of conversations, as well as long walks and plenty more dreams to fuel the process.

And then I came home, got back into work and didn’t look at the manuscript for several weeks. Another rest is no bad thing and having worked on redrafting, editing and editing again, it was useful to get some distance. The hardest work to see objectively is always our own. I can spot tics and flaws in other people’s writing that I’m oblivious to in my own. If you get to this stage and want another view on the whole thing now is a good time to hand over to a trusted reader or work with mentor.

After all of this, it’s time to hone. This is where I am now – going over every chapter very slowly, realising that even in a fifth draft, there are typos, missing punctuation, phrases that don’t quite work, some glaring bits of overwriting. I’m in the last stages of honing, maybe a week to go and then it can go off for a full overhaul by an objective and very trusted reader.

When it comes back from that, I’ll be onto the final draft (or drafts) and then it will begin the editing process ready for publication. And, of course, the last stages of writing are only the first stages of having a book that needs to make its way into the world … a whole other process.

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Emerging from the Rapture

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Kafka apparently had a large sign over his desk that said: WAIT. It’s good advice – putting a novel away and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes a huge difference. So, having worried about the hiatus in writing after returning from Budapest, I’m now glad of having taken that space and I’m slowly making my way through the final draft, amazed to find that, despite thinking that draft three was almost ready to go, there are a myriad tiny details to deal with as I go.

What is interesting in this read-through, is that the book feels like it arrived in the universe from who-knows-where, with very little reference to anything I did to make it happen. I’ve been talking to a writer friend who feels the same about her poetry pamphlet coming out next year – wondering where it all came from and did she really write it. It’s a sensation that seems common among writers. But what is it that makes us feel that our own writing simply happened, that we can hardly reconstruct the process in retrospect?

While I was putting together a writing workshop today, it occurred to me that this sensation of discontinuity is related to what John Berger recognised when he talked about writers as witnesses. When we write, we become porous to other places, other lives. If the writing is working, we are totally immersed in a process that is ‘other’ so that we emerge into the quotidian blinking and surprised. Virginia Woolf described writing as rapture and I’ve heard poets, when asked why they write, say they write for the trance.

No wonder we have to wait. Having been in a dreamlike-world of our own creation, we surface into a different atmosphere – one in which every comma and space has to be right; in which every sentence has to be weighed and measured in case it is found wanting. It’s a very different aspect of the writing process and it needs a different kind of concentration and attention, one that is certainly assisted by having taken some time away from the novel after the initial magical process of writing in Budapest.

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From literary to historical to …

This is the End of the Story is, amongst other things, a literary novel for Teesside. Cassie and Miriam are immersed in the politics, weather, music and mores of the 70s; the culture and geography of 1970s industrialised Teesside, but they are also Quixotic – Cassie playing Sancho to Miriam; a ‘Quixote’ who pursues truth and justice even when the fight cannot be won, and who insists on the power of perception, imagination and dreams.

There are other literary and artistic influences in this first novel in the trilogy – from Dostoevsky to Madame Bovary; from Elisabeth Bourton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon to the Canadian folk music of Gordon Lightfoot. The literary novel is a melting pot of ingredients, and so too is the historical novel, which A Remedy for All Things is, at least in part.

The last month of Attila József’s life is well documented and the ‘forradolam’, the ‘boiling over of the masses’ in the twelve days of uprising in 1956 has inspired many books, both fiction and non-fiction.

So once again there has been lots of research, this time involving not only delving into Cervantes, E.M. Forster and poets like Endre Ady as well as Attila József himself, but also into articles, interviews and works of non-fiction, from Thomas Kabdebo’s Attila József, Can you take on this awesome life? to Victor Sebestyen’s Twelve Days, Revolution 1956. All of the reading has been essential, but unlike 1970s Teesside, Budapest, in any era, was completely outside of my frame of reference.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATravelling there made a real difference, thanks to a generous grant from ACE, but even that would have been less effective without some key conversations with people who are part of the place. Conversations at the Hungarian House of Photography, and at the Attila József Museum were crucial. Similarly, meeting Lászlo Kunos, Director of Corvina Press, not only gave me a much more nuanced perspective on life in both 1950s and 1990s Budapest (something I wouldn’t have picked up from books or even from visiting merely as a tourist) but also helped me make key decisions about how my character, Catherine, thinks about Attila József’s final days and state of mind. And meeting the novelist and poet, Gábor Schein, again enriched my perspective on this remarkable city, which has been through so much, and yet is a relatively young city, with Pest in particular becoming populace only at the end of the nineteenth century.

There is an element of writing that is essentially solitary, especially working though draft after draft of a novel or sifting through other novels, essay, interviews, non-fiction works and newspaper reports to find exactly the right details. But there is another element that demands not only activity, but immersion. A Remedy for All Things is part literary novel, part historical novel, but above all it is a novel of characters – of people and of a city that lives and breathes and to write it has demanded that I share a tiny bit of that breath.

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When Writing Stalls

Just over a month ago, the daily routine began in our local café, Póharszék, with a large bottle of water, black coffee and, occasionally, cold porridge or a croissant. If the day didn’t involve a trip to a museum or a meeting, we might be there till early evening, barring some time to walk, or we’d go off after breakfast for a research foray and arrive back for a coffee before dinner. It was our favourite place to work – homely, welcoming, a place of chance encounters and local life; a place with lots of regular patrons so that we felt part of the area very quickly. Writing a book that is embedded in Budapest, the local research and conversations and this sense of place gave me a connection that fuelled the writing. It was heady stuff. I arrived in Budapest with almost a first draft and left with draft three comfortably completed.

And in the last month? Nothing.

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This was partly deliberate. After being so immersed in the novel, I knew I’d need some time not looking at it so that when I read it again I see the glitches. But I’ve also noticed that I have hardly journalled since arriving home, something that I normally do daily and which is intrinsic to how I process life. And finding the time to next write at home feels elusive.

Mario Petrucci recently had an interesting thread on his Writing into Freedom page about how or whether TV prevents people from writing. We don’t have TV, just a screen that we can watch films on some evenings, so the distraction of apparent endless choice isn’t one that occurs here, instead the ubiquitous distraction is work. My home and my workplace are the same. It’s work I love, helping extraordinary writing to become books in the world, but it’s also highly consuming and, of course, emergencies crop up to add themselves to the constantly self-renewing ‘to do’ list.

The house is an ideal place to write – one that could be used for retreats – it’s quiet, has beautiful views and plenty of corners to sit in and lose oneself. But the study, which is the hub of Cinnamon Press, has a siren call and even at weekends, when I promise myself I’ll just do an hour of work, or just tidy the email folders, the whole day will suddenly vanish in work. Similarly it’s all too easy for dinner to get a bit later and later each day when there are deadlines or to feel pulled back to work late in the evening …

After a month of not being immersed in writing my novel, I feel ready to see it with fresh eyes and to work on a final draft, but the reality is that there’s a novel that needs to be published early for very good reasons and two mentoring students suddenly without a mentor that I need to take on (again with very good reasons and no one’s fault) and there are nine pamphlets that need editing and laying out and fifteen titles that need author biographies, pictures, descriptions and bibliographic information pulling together and we need new leaflets and postcards printing and the stock taking needs to be done and there is admin to do for the competitions and … Giving myself permission to write feels much harder at home than away from it, which is why, for me, my most intense creative periods happen when I am in another environment.

I’ve been reading a book about Morita recently, Playing Ball on Running Water, by David K Reynolds. I’ve read only a little about, but the key elements are accepting emotions as they are, but not allowing them to control our behaviour. We feel, but then decide what needs to be done (a purpose) and do it.

‘Morita therapy advises the patient to focus on behavior sequences, to persevere regardless of the mental interruptions of anxiety or fear, to be responsible for living a constructive, interdependent, non-self-centered life, even if beset by emotional difficulties.’

Koschmann, Nancy Lee.  Morita psychotherapy.  Monumenta Nipponica

Western critiques often see this as highly conformist – a way of getting individuals to suppress their own feelings and needs in favour of fulfilling society’s functions. Yet Morita himself was an eccentric by Japanese standards and Moritists object that the feelings are not suppressed, but transcended in favour of an outward approach.

Getting on with what needs to be done feels familiar from my perspective of keeping Cinnamon Press going, but the devil is always in the detail. What is it that NEEDS doing? The work? The writing? The housework/cooking…? The maintenance of relationships? In the crush of pressing and important ‘needs’, it’s easy for writing to fall off the edge of the list.

So what do writers do to maintain the creative energy and to actually write? Writing process is endlessly fascinating. Mine stops and starts. Sometimes it includes writing time every day, even if it’s an hour grabbed after midnight. Most often, it’s all or nothing (journaling excepted), which is why periods away from home are vital. How do you keep your writing process going and what do you do when writing stalls?

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An Extraordinary Tour

The six weeks of travelling and researching have been exceptional – discovering new places, meeting writers and publishers in Europe, particularly in Budapest, and having intense time to write completely away from work and from my normal environment have enabled me to put lots of creative pressure on the next novel, which follows on from This is the End of the Story. It takes place during the timespan of the first novel, during one month in 1993 (a month we don’t hear about within This is the End of the Story even though its last chapter is set in June, 1994). It follows the protagonist of the first novel, Catherine, and is set in the early days of post-Communist Hungary, specifically in Budapest, where Catherine is researching the poet Attila József for a novel based on his life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut during her time there, her sense of confused identity comes back to haunt her. Having worked to establish her perception of reality as linear and quotidian, she begins to dream the life of a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Moreover, in alternate chapters, this woman, Selene Solweig Virág, dreams Catherine’s life. Selene’s life is further complicated by a relationship she has on only one day in each of six successive years, a day when she slips through time to find herself with Attila József. (Whether the dreams — either Catherine’s or Selene’s — are ‘real’ and whether Selene (if she exists) actually moves into another time period or only imagines it as part of a stress breakdown in her life is of less concern than the interweaving of periods of political turmoil and personal perspectives on reality.)

It’s not a novel about time travel or reincarnation (is Catherine merely dreaming about Selene’s life or did she once live it?), but about alternative notions of identity as a metaphor that challenge insularity and the institutions that imagine they can crush people. Running under the narrative is an insistence that governments and power brokers cannot crush the soul of life and humanity and all that connects us. It’s also about alternative perspectives on time.

Einstein wrote that the ‘past, present and future are only an illusion’ and in Greek there are two words for time — Chronos is the everyday, linear sense, the time of clocks, but Kairos has a more qualitative sense — it is the right moment, the Now. In this vein, the existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, distinguished between living temporally and finitely and those rare moments when we suspend finite living and become aware of existing so that for an instant we are outside of time and ‘stand in relation to the eternal’. And Spinoza similarly talks of ‘timeless moments’, as John Berger points out in his brilliant book of radical essays, Hold Everything Dear. These are moments when the ordinary is made luminous, not in some showy fireworks-and-flashes way, but by providing a transcendent vision of the everyday so that eternity breaks into the present.

Such moments can be found in mediation, on a walk in a beautiful place, or simply in some unlooked for instant going about routine tasks and they can also be found in art and literature. Proust and Joyce both wrote about epiphany in this way and Proust’s notion of an involuntary memory containing the past has this sense of the eternal breaking in, of another kind of time that is qualitative and belongs to an eternal present. The best poetry contains this transcendence — as Berger points out, every pause in an Emily Dickinson poem is redolent with eternity.

The impulse to write something in which the transient and the contingent becomes one with the sublime and numinous, with all that connects us and all that takes us beyond the illusion of past, present and future, occurs constantly — and if anyone achieves it there will be nothing left to say. What more can be added to such epiphany? But, as exquisite and profound as some literature is, no one has yet taken us to this place of silence and so writers keep writing, keep circling the Kairos.

It’s something I’m striving to negotiate with in A Remedy for All Things — how do we make the life of poet who despaired enough to kill himself, the lives of those who took on an unwinnable fight in the Hungarian Uprising (many losing their lives), the life of a writer who struggles with personal loss and grief, the lives of anyone who resists living the life handed to them by institutions and powers, matter? One way is perhaps to use fiction and imagination to mess with the notion of linear time, assert with Cervantes’ Quixote that ‘The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction’ and we will resist the unreasonable, limiting, conventional world in favour of timeless moments.

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Saying Goodbye to Attila József

We’ve eaten a couple of times at a local restaurant that takes enormous pride in its food and service (Kispiac) and went there for our last evening meal before leaving Budapest. The owner asked us about our time in Budapest and whether we’d like to return. Just before we left, he came out with a bottle of Hungarian sparkling tokaji as a going away gift. Whilst Hungarians are reserved, we’ve also found them helpful and generous – I can’t imagine that kind of gesture from a London restaurant after a couple of visits.

Budapest is an extraordinary place – there’s a quiet kindness in so many people – unshowy, but vital. There’s also deep melancholy here – a history replete with suffering and ongoing political corruption and extremism. It’s a place where beautiful Art Nouveau buildings are sometimes fading and uncared for, where architectural gems are so in need of restoration that chunks of masonry fall into the street (we’ve seen two passers-by nearly felled by stone falling from peeling facades in just a few weeks). And yet there’s also pride in good service and good food, in art and architecture, in just being humane.

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When I arrived, one of the themes in my novel was the debate over whether Attila József committed suicide or died in a tragic accident. The preponderance of opinion has always been that his death was by suicide, but I initially wanted to leave the question open, to stay with the ambiguity. A conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Press convinced me otherwise and, sad as it is to finally believe that this exceptional man chose to kill himself, the more I read the poetry and biographies and think about this extraordinary poet, the more I realise that there is an internal logic to the life and death.

This is a scene when I’ve explored this in the novel:

She walks back slowly. She will go to the place where he wrote when editing the magazine, Beautiful Word, another day, but the statue on the Danube near the Parliament building is only a short detour on the route to her apartment.

József sits, coat thrown down beside him, hat in his hand, watching the river, the epitome of contemplation and lament. He looks as though he’d spent the day walking across this city searching for something, Catherine thinks. The lines from ‘By the Danube’ are in a facsimile of József’s handwriting: Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros, bölcs és nagy volt a DunaAs if it flowed straight from my heart / Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

How was it that Székely translated those lines? Catherine asks the statue.

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

She thinks of the conversation with Margit and András, how a thing mutates between languages, but even in one language how every action, every nuance is open to interpretation.

Catherine sits on the bottom step beneath Attila, looking towards the Danube with him. When she begins to feel stiff and colder she walks towards the figure, touches his hand.

There is such melancholy here, she tells him. Suicide seems to be everywhere, your language is unlike any neighbouring country’s, your borders have changed, to say there has been one too many invasion is an understatement and even your national anthem talks of pity and sorrow. So much sadness and I have endless questions for you that you can’t answer. Did you kill yourself? I’m minded to agree with Margit and András that you did. Why didn’t you take another route? And the strangest question of all — Did you know a woman called Selene Solweig Virág?

After our final dinner at Kispiac, we walked to the Danube, sat by Attila’s statue and read some of his poetry, including ’By the Danube’. I very much hope it’s au revoir, and not goodbye, but until next time in Budapest …

By the Danube

1.

As I sat on the bottom step of the wharf,
A melon-rind flowed by with the current;
Wrapped in my fate I hardly heard the chatter
Of the surface, while the deep was silent.
As if my own heart had opened its gate:
The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

Like a man’s muscles when hard at his toil,
Hammering, digging, leaning on the spade,
So bulged and relaxed and contracted again
Each single movement, each and every wave.
It rocked me like my mother for a time
And washed and washed the city’s filth and grime.

And the rain began to fall but then it stopped
Just as if it couldn’t have mattered less,
And like one watching the long rain from a cave,
I gazed away into the nothingness.
Like grey, endless rain from the skies overcast,
So fell drably all that was bright: the past.

But the Danube flowed on. And the sprightly waves
In playful gaiety laughed at me again,
Like a child on his prolific mother’s knee,
While other thoughts were racing through her brain.
They trembled in Time’s flow and in its wake,
Like in a graveyard tottering tomb-stones shake.
2.

I am he who for a hundred thousand year
Has gazed on what he now sees the first time.
One brief moment and, fulfilled, all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.

I see what they could not for their daily toil,
Killing, kissing as duty dictated,
And they, who have descended into matter,
See what I do not, if truth be stated.

We know of each other like sorrow and joy,
Theirs is the present and mine is the past;
We write a poem, they’re holding my pencil
And I feel them and recall them at last.
3.

My mother was Cumanian, my father
Half-Szekler, half-Rumanian or whole.
From my mother’s lips sweet was every morsel,
And from my father’s lips the truth was gold.
When I stir, they are embracing each other;
It makes me sad. This is mortality.
This, too, I am made of. And I hear their words:
“Just wait till we are gone…” they speak to me.

So their words speak to me for now they am I,
Despite my weaknesses this makes me strong.
For I am more than most, back to the first cell
To every ancestor I still belong.
I am the Forbear who split and multiplied,
Shaped my father and mother into whole,
My father and mother then in turn divide
And so I have become one single soul.

I am the world, all that is past exists:
Men are fighting men with renewed anguish.
Dead conquerors ride to victory with me
And I feel the torment of the vanquished.
Árpád and Zalán, Werböczi and Dózsa,
Turks, and Tartars, Slovaks, Rumanians
Fill my heart which owes this past a calm future
As our great debt, today’s Hungarians.

I want to work. For it is battle enough
Having a past such as this to confess.
In the Danube’s waves past, present and future
Are all-embracing in a soft caress.
The great battle which our ancestors once fought
Resolves into peace through the memories,
And to settle at last our communal affairs
Remains our task and none too small it is.

Translated by John Székely

 

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Connection and the Unfamiliar

Writing my last Budapest blog for this trip at the wonderful little café, Pohárszék, I’m struck by how different the city feels after only a few weeks here. In the first few days it was quickly apparent that Budapest is not like anywhere I’ve ever visited – the impenetrable language, which has nothing in common with the surrounding languages and the sense of deep reserve and privacy, despite a high level of politeness and helpfulness, and the feeling that melancholy is a deep vein here, made us wonder if we would settle in to a writing period. Finding a place to work has made a huge difference to that process, particularly since the clientele of Pohárszék are a wonderful mixture of Hungarian regulars and local ex-pats – a friendly American screenwriter, and a young American couple with a collie dog at home amongst the many dogs that sup the water here daily, for example. This café; a couple of encounters with a generous locals, particularly a Hungarian publisher and a writer/academic; a local baker and the wonderful staff and pianist at the Spinoza café in the Jewish District, have given us just enough sense of connection to fall in love with Budapest, and to be feeling nostalgic for it as we prepare to leave.

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Some kind of connection has felt vital for the writing practice, particularly as I’m working on a novel set here in three key time periods (30s, 50s and 90s), but there is also a reverse side of this, in which the writing has been assisted by being out of my natural environment – a city rather than the foothills of the Moelwyns in North Wales; a language I’ve still only mastered a few words in; a political and cultural context that is far removed from my own. We’ve been aware of political slogans (and of some resistance with rather witty defacing on the posters); of the tiny Occupy presence on Andrassy utca; of the denial that there is a Romany population on the one hand, yet an interesting photo-exhibition of Romany life in the House of Photography and details of the project that the Massolit bookshop-café owner volunteers with, and of the campaign to save the Central European University from being closed due to political intervention, but there is a remoteness from these issues for us as observers and outsiders.

Meanwhile, we’ve also been aware of dire events back in the UK – the attacks in Manchester, Borough Market and Finsbury Park; the awful loss of life and homes at Grenfell Tower; the fiasco of the General Election and the insanity following it, including the vile Brexit negotiations. And although we’ve been worried about people living in areas affected and have felt the impact of mad politics, it has also felt much more remote than it ordinarily would.

So we’ve been able to find a sense of connection, yet simultaneously feel that we’re living in a bubble – outsiders to both this extraordinary city that has nurtured the writing and to the home we’ve travelled from. It’s an extraordinary combination – one which has given us a rare opportunity to step out of our ‘normal’ lives for a few precious weeks and to write and write … I’m eternally grateful to the Arts Council for making this possible – and to Budapest for being a gracious, unfamiliar place.

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Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards – On Writing a Trilogy

This is the End of the Story is a novel that germinated for over thirty-five years before it was ready to be written. Writing it was an act of memoOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAry and imagination in equal measure and it was a fascinating journey. It wasn’t until I went to Toledo to do some final research on Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess who became a Christian saint, an antecedent for the protagonist Cassie (later Catherine), that I began to realise that it really wasn’t the end of the story, making the novel’s title all the more resonant, but rather was the first part of a trilogy.

I have a tendency not only to dream about my characters, but also to dream on behalf of my characters once I’m deep into the flow of a narrative. This is the End of the Story was no exception and I also began to dream a new character, somehow linked to Catherine, but not obviously so. All I knew about her at first was her odd name, Selene Solweig Virág, and that she Hungarian and in prison after the 1956 uprising.

It wasn’t much to go on, but, in addition to layering in details from what I found in Toledo, I had time to add a few tiny details that would forge links between the first and subsequent books and also to highlight objects that would carry forward a freight of memories for what might come next.

Writing the second book has been a very different experience. I’ve been constantly aware not only of the need to ensure that the A Remedy for All Things maintains continuity with The is the End of the Story, but also of how important it is to plant seeds that will come to fruition in For Hope is Always Born, the final book in the trilogy.

When I was a child I used to plait my hair and can remember learning to do the long braids for myself. Getting each section of hair even and straight so that the final plait would be neat and not pull on my scalp was a bit of an art, something that gradually became second nature. Writing a trilogy feels a bit like that and, like plaiting hair, there is also a degree of happenstance as well as planning. Some days a plait just knots, or one section of it is too thin and the whole thing twists unevenly. Other times it flows perfectly.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriting the middle book, it wasn’t until I got to the second draft that I realised that the hand of Miriam pendant that Catherine wears after her visit to Toledo in search of Casilda could become a vital link between the characters in A Remedy for All Things. Catherine realises that Selene carries an identical talisman in Budapest in the late 1950s. Getting events to synchronise so that hamsa could be in the right place at the right time took lots of juggling with dates and characters from the 1920s to the 1990s across Europe, but the act of retrofitting allowed me to ‘discover’ a familial link that tightened the narrative and that I hadn’t previously thought of making. A wonderful piece of happenstance. The hamsa will have further importance in the third book, but it’s been easier to sew the seeds for that now that I’m aware of the possibilities.

Maintaining a Chekhovian cohesiveness to a narrative in which everything has a part to play, whether it is to create mood, authenticity, character or move on the story, feels much more complex with three novels to juggle, particularly as the whole narrative will range from the 1920s to the present, and take in England, Wales, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain and France along the way. Yet it’s an exciting and rewarding way to write, making me question every detail, how it might be used in future, what possibilities it opens up or shuts down.

In planning A Remedy for All Things I had one key character who I was certain would not make it out of this section of the narrative alive. I wrote the first draft that way and it was working. I worked on the second draft, adding scenes, filling out details, strengthening links between this novel and the previous one, setting up threads to be played out in the next and whilst the death scene changed it was still there. Then I discovered that if I allowed this character to live I could add another familial bond into a new strand that is planned for the third novel and that this would be much more convincing and also much more in keeping with the tone of strange events that underpin the story, raising questions about perception and the nature of reality, a vital theme in the trilogy. The problem was that if this character lives, then crucial events that needed to stay the same at the end of A Remedy for All Things couldn’t happen – the death set off an important chain reaction and without this catalyst my story might have been left hanging.

How was it solved? You’ll have to read the novel, of course, to find out, but I can reveal that I was able to keep the character alive AND have the chain reaction by introducing another ‘Chekhov’s gun’ – in this case a letter. So now I’m beginning to look forward to how that character will reappear in For Hope is Always Born.

I’ve just completed draft three of the middle novel and it’s taken three full workings to feel confident that the continuity is right with the first novel and that sufficient details are in place to give rise to the third novel, but there will be more drafts to follow in order to ensure that this novel is as rich and as tight as I can make it. I’m also hoping soon to do a full outline for the third novel so that I can once again revisit this pivotal middle narrative of the trilogy with an eye to detail …

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