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How to write historical fiction in the face of contested history

 

visigoth.jpegGoing over the details of my novel set in Toledo I revisited the museum of magic, set in a tenth century cave that was an Islamic dwelling during the time of Casilda, a Toledan princess-cum-saint, whose story weaves through the trilogy. Back in the city after two years, spending time checking my memories of places, has raised several questions of how to do justice to the historical threads in my writing.

Weaving story from fragments or overwhelm

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Much of the novel, For Hope is Always Born, takes place in the present, but a significant strand goes back to Moorish Spain. It’s a period that has proved difficult to research.

There’s a great deal of writing on the broad brushstrokes and there are certain characters who have captured imagination, like the slightly later El Cid. But there is a paucity of detail about ordinary daily lives, particularly in English. Despite the enormous amount of historical record across centuries and locations, it’s always the quotidian that is missing. Most history concerns the elites, whether of class or gender.

Internet searches on the history of this amazing tenth century home, with its two surviving hamsa images beside the slender entrance pillars, yielded nothing. I could only discover that had two-storeys, a well and courtyards. More ironically, two of Google’s top hits on this building were from blog posts I’d written myself on my last visit to Toledo.

At other points the problem has been in choosing the details to include. I’ve read several books on Islamic advances in learning, from alchemy to botany, from geometry to the best time and way to dig wells. It’s tempting as a writer to want to show off all this reading, but putting in too much detail is boring and distracting for a reader of story. The art is to get a sense of authenticity, to conjure the time and place with all the senses working, but not to let the skeleton of research show on the body of the narrative.

Weaving story from contradictory histories

Visigoth Museum, Toledo, Adam Craig

Where there are descriptions of social arrangements, the accounts differ widely.

Some historians view Moorish Spain as a golden age paradise. In these accounts there was universal education, for girls as well as boys; well-lit paved streets; multicultural scholarship, religious tolerance and a high standard of living. Such is the view of historians such as John G Jackson and Ivan van Sertima.

The controversial Cordovan princess, Wallada bint al-Mustaki, is a prime example. Her dates overlap with Casilda’s and she was similarly a daughter of one of the last Umayyad caliphs. A poet who inherited her fathers estate when he died without a male heir, she had a reputation for teaching poetry and literature to all and sundry. Criticised for her unconventional dress-style, including a refusal to wear a veil in public, and for her outspokenness, as well as for taking many lovers, Wallada epitomises a golden-age history.

Other historians view the Moors as barbarous invaders who destroyed an existing civilisation. This view accuses the Moors of stealing from Visigoth culture and taking credit for its advances. Dario Fernandez-Morera, for example, claims:

under Islam the art of the Visigoth capital decayed, as the conquerors wiped out the traces of Catholic grandeur.

Such historians seem much less concerned when the Catholic church later persecuted Jews or turned architecturally exquisite mosques and synagogues into churches.

I hope you will read on at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ and leave feedback. Thank you for reading.

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How to use the fascinating twists of writing process

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Mezquita Bab al-Mardum, Toledo – Adam Craig

I’m currently writing book 3 of the Casilda Trilogy.

Through the lives of Catherine, Selene and Miriam, the Casilda Trilogy explores the distance between myth and reality: the myths we live in, whether of personal fantasy, dreams or the political realities that exert stresses on individual lives. What is the nature of truth and where do we find it?”

It began with This is the End of the Story

Belief is Cassie’s gift, so much so that she believes herself to be whoever those in her life tell her she is — Cassie, Kat, Kitty, even Casilda, as her friend Miriam insists, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who later became a Catholic saint.

Bound together by Miriam’s extraordinary internal world, Cassie’s belief and a traumatic incident on a beach, Cassie’s loyalty only strains when an act of betrayal propels her towards Liam, also waiting to tell Cassie who she really is.

But Cassie may be more resourceful than either Miriam or Liam imagine. And when she eventually visits Toledo, tracking down places where Casilda might have walked, is this the end of the story?

Exploring how one person might support the fantasy life of another, the novel is in Quixotic tradition. 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.

Like Don Quixote, the novel is in two parts. Part I has 8 main chapters interleaved by vignettes. The chapters follow Cassie (who eventually reclaims her full name, Catherine) and Miriam, both a coming of age narrative and an exploration of identity. The vignettes give insight into the political and cultural context of the story, the end of the 1970s in industrial Teesside.

Part II revisits and finished the story from Catherine’s perhaps unreliable viewpoint. Looking back, she is trying to make the facts as she sees them fit the story as she felt it.

Writing it, the process was one of creative chaos. At the core was a story I had lived with for thirty years, but I wrote the scenes rather as memory works — via all kinds of random associations and circuitous routes.

Piecing the individual scenes together was an extraordinary undertaking. I knew it would not be a linear novel, but how the parts fitted together was crucial so that the right clues came at the right times. And to ensure the reader could navigate the time switches. The process felt sometimes like making Frankenstein’s monster and getting the head under the armpit. It took several attempts, but suddenly it fell into place.

In addition to mirroring themes and structure in Quixote, I also wanted to work in allusions to Dostoevsky’s journals, as one of the main characters suffers a similar form of epilepsy.

And I added a further cultural allusion in the chapter titles. Cassie (Catherine) is somewhat out of step with her context. She doesn’t listen to the popular music of the day. She’s not much of a ‘joiner’. I signalled this by using song names from a Canadian folk singer who other teenagers weren’t following at the time, but Cassie was. Each title and the song it refers to says something about the events of the chapter.

The other literary allusion of this book is Elizabeth Borton de Trevino’s Casilda of the Rising Moon. Cassie’s close (and strange, Quixotic) friend, Miriam, is certain that the two of them have lived before, most notably as Casilda, an 11th century Moorish princess of Toledo, and Ben Haddaj, apparently a Muslim prince of Zaragoza. Casilda converted to Christianity and was later beatified and finally canonised.

In her life she became a hermit living near healing springs in the Castilian mountains and several miracles were attributed to her. Trevino’s children’s book, which I read in the 70s, is a marvellous sweeping romance that treats the Muslim, Christian and Jewish populations of Moorish Spain with great sympathy. It’s a story that had stayed with me and fascinated, but I wanted to write a more mystical and complex Casilda.

In the first book of the trilogy, the notion that Cassie and Casilda might be the same person across a century of history is ambiguous, but I dipped into Casilda’s story and it was a delight to do some research in Toledo. There is little trace of her, but there is a cave house from her time and a beautiful tiny mosque (later a church), Mesquita de Bab al-Mardum.

If this sounds complicated, I wanted the end result to be accessible and the reviews seem to support that I managed this. It was a lot of fun to write and the freedom to simply write scenes in any order and worry about how they fitted the shape later was liberating.

It moves on to A Remedy for All Things

I hope you will read the rest of the post on Medium – the trilogy ends with For Hope is Always Born and the post discusses the challenges of writing  trilogy, the power of place and objects in writing and moving on from the trilogy… Thank you for reading and for your support here and on Medium.

Becoming a Different Story

I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.

 

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The Objects that Speak of Us

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Part 5 on writing a novel trilogy

Researching A Remedy for All Things in Budapest, I was been aware how vital artefacts can be in communicating something about a person. The thought struck me on a walk along the Danube, confronted by a simple and heart-breaking installation along the bank — pairs of shoes in memory of Jewish citizens herded to the river in 1944 and 1945. There they were made to take off their shoes by members of the fascist Arrow Cross party, and shot. Their bodies washed away by the river while the shoes remained, empty.

The imprint on objects

Another author, Nigel Hutchinson, who is an artist as well as poet, remarked that shoes are particularly affecting because of the way a foot shapes a shoe to itself, so that each one bears the unique imprint of the wearer. This is certainly the case. And other artefacts can also speak volumes as I noticed when I visited the Attila József Museum. Not only were examples of his hand-writing on display, but other personal objects. The retractable pencil that he wrote with. A facsimile of a rocking horse that was his only toy as a young child and which he gave to his mother for firewood when they had none. And a small change purse.

The purse went into a scene when the Attila of my novel first meets Selene:

No, don’t think that, she reassures. I can’t explain how I’m here, but I am real. I was about to make dinner for my mother. I sat down for a moment and thought I was getting a migraine, but then I heard a train and … I heard a train last time too.

You are still feeling sick?

No, the pain didn’t come. I get this phantosmia — of oranges usually — then lights and darkness over half my vision, but both times I’ve met you … the symptoms have started, but no headache — I hear a train and … here I am.

Phantosmia, Attila repeats, as though savouring the word. You are hungry? There’s a taverna on Szoladi útca with good food. I might even have a few worthless pengő with me.

Selene smiles, reaches into a pocket for her small purse. If we eat it will have to be you who pays, she says, holding out coins — forints and fillérs. My currency that will be meaningless in 1937.

He pulls a well-fingered, small, square change purse from his pocket. It’s stiff brown leather creaks a little as he eases the flap from underneath the cross-strap and peers inside. He nods and smiles. So, I will buy you dinner.

But you … I don’t think you can afford …

A special occasion, he insists.

He holds an arm and she links it as though they are old friends.

Objects as connection

picture by Adam Craig

And other objects assumed even greater importance in communicating themes through the novel. Catherine wears a small necklace that first appeared in This is the End of the Story. She find is by her bed when she is in Toledo searching for traces of the 11th century Casilda and dreams that her friend Miriam is with her:

When I step out of the shower, the flow of blood has ceased.

Here, Miriam says, enfolding me in a white towel. And this, she adds. She holds out a white knitted shawl that I’ve never seen, but know from the pages of Casilda of the Rising Moon, pulls it around me. It’s a cold night, she says, get under the blankets. I’ll make you some mint tea.

I slide between white cotton sheets, drowse.

When I wake, the sky is dark, sharp stars dazzle through open shutters. On the bedside table of dark wood and mother of pearl, a silk cord of palest blue, strung with a tiny hamsa: the hand of Miriam in damascene black, silver, gold. Beside it a turquoise glass of mint tea has cooled.

The hamsa becomes Catherine’s link back to Miriam and to a time of a more visionary sense of the world. And later it also becomes a link to Selene, who, imprisoned at the end of the 1950s, seems to be in possession of the same talisman, carefully hidden.

… I hope you’ll read on over at Medium – where you can also ‘clap’ for the post. Thank you for reading and for your support.

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Returning to the Novel

A Guest Blog from Paul McDermott

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Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

I’ve always found the Novel an easier framework than shorter pieces. I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who can write ‘Flash’ fiction effectively, and even the thought of writing a pithy, graphic Haiku brings me out in a cold sweat of panic. Maybe I’m just an unrepentant windbag …
The 80,000++ word count format of a Novel is more my style. When I write for children, I tend to aim for a maximum word count of about 50,000, as a younger reader is likely to have a shorter attention span: for the Adult market this would likely be classed as “Novella” length.
Every November I enjoy the challenge of National Novel Writing Month, and to date I’ve achieved the target each time. Two of my published novels started life as NaNoWriMo entries, which I expanded to word counts of c. 90,000++ at a later date.
My first Adult Novel was based on research into my own family history. Nobody was more surprised than myself when the publisher, Whimsical Publications [Florida, USA] listed it in their Romance section, as I hadn’t considered it as a Romance while writing it.
However, there was so much interesting historical background in the Clan records. Written records date back to the early 1300s and a further 500 years of ‘Oral Tradition’ predate them. I realised very early on there was too much material to condense into a single volume. The Trilogy was inevitable before I was halfway through writing the first book, decided by the wealth of Celtic myths and legend I found in the written records. The Clan McDermott were one of the seven Royal Families of Ireland. The Ancient Kingdom of Tara covered most of modern day Roscommon and Meath. Oral History claims the honour title of Ard Rhi, High King of the Seven Realms of Ireland, and kinship with Brian Boru.
When you have such extensive historical material to work with, the only real problem is deciding what to include and what to omit (or possibly ‘save’ for later introduction). Reaching the target 80,000 word count isn’t really a problem! For the record: Volume One The Chapel of Her Dreams has sold reasonably well since publication, and I intend to release Volume Two The Island of Her Dreams later this year. And yes, the Chapel and the Lake are real locations, on Lough Key in co. Roscommon!
The often-heard advice, write about the People and Places you know holds good. In one way, this is especially true when writing for children.
My first attempt at writing for younger readers was a humorous yarn about a crew of fairly incompetent Pirates, sailing out of Liverpool in a deliberately ‘vague’ time setting. There’s plenty of room for fantasy, a touch of magic, talking animals and ‘time slip’ scenes which taps into the reader’s imagination. One (published) book of about 47,000 words led to a planned series. Book 2 is complete, currently being prepared for release and I’m working on Book 3. These all use the same central Characters.
Locations are another guide for a series. I’m working on a second series of childrens’ books, each one a ‘stand alone’ book set in one of Liverpool’s parks, using the geography and history of each park which (hopefully!) the reader will recognise as somewhere they have visited and played in.
One of my Adult books is a 13th Century Historical thriller, which leads naturally to a Sequel, another of my Works in Progress. At the moment I’m not sure if this will expand into a Trilogy, I’ll have to let the Plot decide that while I’m writing.
I’ve written another historical fantasy, 11th Century this time, about a troubadour with a magic lute. This will also be published later this year, and a Sequel is under way – but I’m fairly sure there won’t be a third book in this series. Time will tell …
Novel writing is great fun! There are hundreds of opportunities to dig deep into your imagination and combine historical Fact with your own creative skills. Basic research is very rewarding. I’m constantly amazed at what I discover about how we used to live. I really couldn’t imagine writing ‘to order’ with an imposed ‘word limit’ of e.g. 2000 words of ‘Short Story’ for a magazine or Anthology. I’ve had work accepted for these markets as well, but I wouldn’t be comfortable working with these limitations every day.
I’ve tried a number of genres, including poetry and writing scripts. I’ve enjoyed these forms of writing too, although my poems frequently become the lyrics to songs (I dabble in writing music as well). Some of the scripts I’ve cobbled together have also been performed on stage, mostly in the form of pantomimes with a Liverpool “twist” to them.
I always seem to return to the Novel as my preferred format. I don’t suppose I’ll ever ‘invent’ a James Bond or Jack Reacher character who will be the inspiration for an unending series of best-sellers, but two books or a Trilogy is a comfortable target to aim for.

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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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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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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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At the Attila József Museum

Yesterday we took a tram to the south of the city to the IXth District. It’s the most run-down area we’ve visited and a shock after the picturesque tram-ride along the Danube. It was a blazing hot day and we were glad to find the museum after only ten minutes walking. The opening hours are long and articles I read about visitors in the days before it was refurbished and made more interactive and informative told me that it was well attended. Yet the door was locked and there seemed to be no way in. I looked up the telephone number and the curator, while assuring me that she understood even though she couldn’t speak much English, clearly didn’t get that we were on the pavement outside. I tried explaining using words of Hungarian from the notice-board outside (which was in English and Hungarian) and she so wanted to help, but we weren’t making progress until I realised that one of the other notices, written only in Hungarian, must contain the intercom code. I rang that and she politely asked if I could hold the phone  while she answered the intercom. It was a huge relief to both of us when she understood it was me on both lines and we were let in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe weren’t charged the entrance fee and had the museum to ourselves for nearly two hours. Before 2015 the museum was basic, with a few pictures and artefacts in the two rooms that had once been the apartment where Attila József was born into an impoverished family. Having been able to sometimes live from his writing during his lifetime and achieving some important critical acclaim, József went on to be recognised as a major voice of the twentieth century after his death and not only did academics and fans visit the museum in the early twenty-first century, but people also regularly left wreaths of flowers at its door to commemorate this extraordinary man who took his own life at the age of 32.

In 2015 there was a significant investment in the museum and the photos and artefacts were matched with audio guides – the one in English was extensive and superbly done – a mixture of biography (told first person) and poetry with details I hadn’t previously found in any of the English language accounts I’d researched. There are first edition copies of his collections, the pencil he wrote with, notebooks, letters, a copy of his birth certificate and an extraordinary interactive digital screen shaped like the base of a felled tree, marked with tree-style life rings, each one with points that could be touched to flash up life events on the screen. One screen also made a ring of women’s pictures – the important women in József’s largely unrequited and always difficult love life.

The curator was endlessly helpful and clearly delighted to have visitors. All this investment and care and no-one there. It made us think seriously about how poetry can so easily become distanced from people’s lives, even poetry that is integrally linked with lives of struggle.

Today I’ve used the notes from the visit to rework one of the early chapters – an excerpt from which is given below. Attila could fall in love in minutes and does so with my character, Selene, who never appears in the histories or photographs as she is not from the same time as Attila, and perhaps is imagining her relationship with him during the trauma of her imprisonment after the 1956 Uprising. Or perhaps not? Either way, she fits the pattern …

Catherine sets out with a map marked with sites. She will start at the little apartment on Gát útca 3, where József was born. She heads towards the river to the tram stop near the parliament buildings, diverts to say good morning to József’s statue, solid and sad. She notices how she is constantly comparing this unfamiliar, melancholy city to Paris, but there too poets have ended their own lives. Margit has told her it’s too far to walk to Gát útca, more than an hour across the city, and too cold to walk so far in November. Even for the short walk to the tram Margit has told her to make sure she has layers of clothing beneath her wool coat. She has put her cashmere jumper over a vest and long-sleeved shirt, but pulls open the coat as she walks. The air has no bite and there is only a gentle breeze. Despite the clouds, it feels almost spring-like. The yellow tram takes her along the riverfront, past the beautiful Erzsébet Bridge and later under the Szabadság bridge, traffic rumbling overhead, the Corvinus University on her left before the cityscape changes to riverside warehouses. It’s a ten minute walk from the stop on Haller utca to Gát útca in District IX, where József was born. With each turn the next street is more dowdy and tired. Lenhossek utca is strewn with litter, the windows of apartments covered in chipboard beneath broken glass , the facades of buildings crumbling. She feels uneasy and conspicuous, wonders how run-down it must have been when József was born here, in poverty, in 1905. She turns left onto Gát útca and the location is signalled by a wall plaque beside which are bunches of flowers and wreaths, as though someone had recently died here. The inscription proclaims, in socialist-realist style, that József was the ‘great poet of the Hungarian proletariat’. Catherine smiles, thinking of József expelled from the Communist Party for his liberal views, but he was certainly from an impoverished home. She rings the intercom next to the green door.

Ah, Catherine? the curator asks. I am with you.

Márta Tákacs appears moments later and Catherine holds out her hand to shake. They walk through a small courtyard and into the ground floor two-roomed apartment, Marta tall and elegant, her fair hair held behind a blue band that matches her eyes.

People come from everywhere, Márta says as they enter.

The walls are covered in black and white photographs. Catherine notes the picture of József’s father in military uniform that she has a copy of and one of his mother that she has not seen previously. Borbála is young and pretty, with soft features. Another image shows a house further along the street where the family lived when József was a toddler – It says: Papa disappeared from this flat, Márta says, translating legend.

By the door a map shows another nineteen apartments that the family lived in after Attila ran back to his mother from the foster family at Öcsöd, who set him to work as a five-year-old swineherd.

They were constantly thrown out for not being able to pay the rent, Márta tells her. Attila was lucky that later his brother-in-law paid for his education so he didn’t have to go on sell newspapers for a living. In his childhood, he’d already known work – collecting coal, selling paper whirligigs that he made from scraps to better-off children. In the war he’d queue all night to buy food for the family, only to find that the cooking lard had run out and there was nothing to be had by eight in the morning. He was only fourteen when his mother died and Makai sent him to the Makó boarding school. They tried to send him to a seminary too, but he left after a week, telling them he was Orthodox, not Catholic. He got good grades at school, but he was already suffering with depression and tried to kill himself when he was only sixteen. I will leave you to look, she says finally, but I’m in the next room if you have questions.

There are copies of József’s poetry collections on a small table, beginning with Szépség koldusa, Beauty’s Beggar, written when he was seventeen. Catherine lingers over each picture, each book, but feels no sense of Attila in the rooms.

After a while Márta reappears with a set of pictures. These were his women, she says. This one was the daughter of the director of his boarding school – Márta Gebe. He was very young, but she inspired several poems. Then Maria Esprit, this time his landlord’s daughter. And this one is most interesting.

The black and white picture is of a beautiful girl, aquiline features, large eyes, her close-cut bobbed hair under a fashionable cap.

Luca Wallennsz was the daughter of Gitta Genes, a very fine artist and ceramicist. There are beautiful works in the National Gallery. Her husband wrote novels and poetry. Very refined Jewish family. They gave salons and many famous names were there, but Gitta met Attila first in the park. He sat next to her on a bench and declared his love five minutes later. He was only nineteen and she was a mature woman, beautiful, but thirty-six. They became close – not what we would call an affair, but a relationship still. He wrote poems for her, of course, like ‘It was summertime’ and then her daughter, Luca, became interested in the salons and Attila fell in love once more. He wrote her many excellent poems, mostly in ’28. Very beautiful – ‘I bless you with sadness and happiness’ is best known of them, set to music often.

He fell in love often, Catherine notes.

Indeed. And he loved Gitta and Luca at the same time too.

Ah, Catherine says, thinking of Attila loving Flóra and Selene simultaneously.

You will know this one, of course.

Catherine holds the picture of Márta Vágó. Yes. The first serious love of his life, perhaps.

Márta nods. They wrote every day when she first went to London, but the distance was too much to sustain. I think that’s what her parents hoped for. They were wealthy intelligentsia, he was the son of a soap factory worker and a peasant, after all. Márta pauses. And this one –

She hands Catherine an image of Judit Szánto.

I always think the most sad, Márta finishes. She lived with him six years, tried to make a place of security for him. He was very broken after the relationship with Márta Vágó ended. But he said it was ‘not love, but an alliance’. Particularly harsh from a man who loved easily. He wrote one poem, ‘Judit’ and a few scraps that never became poems, that was all. While he was with Judit he met Edit.

Márta hands her the photograph of Edit Gyömrői. She was his doctor and he became … she searches for the word … fixated on her so that another doctor, Robert Bak, had to take over.

And then one day he saw this girl, Márta Márton –

Catherine studies the beautiful young face.

He didn’t know her. He saw her and decided he was in love. He wrote the poem ‘Ode’ for her, an exquisite love poem, and when Judit realised that she was not the muse of this poem, she tried to kill herself. They’d already tried to part earlier, but broke apart after this.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And finally –

The last picture is of Flóra Kozmutza. No picture of Selene, Catherine thinks.

They met at Anna Daniels apartment in February ’37 and were engaged by April, but it was never to be of course.

Catherine nods. Thank you. They’re all so beautiful.

Yes, lovely and sad, Márta adds.

 

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Of Terror, Memory and Controversy

Writing in an unfamiliar place where the language is impenetrable (I’ve mastered ‘thank you’ – kösönöm) is giving me a huge amount to process and making the second draft of the novel much richer in detail and atmosphere. But information is never neutral and it’s a difficult and fascinating exercise to sift for particular perspectives in a culture that I’m an outsider to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of days ago I visited the House of Terror at Andrassy utca, 60. This infamous building was the home of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross. In power for a relatively short time, this fascist national socialist party with ideals of racial purity benefitted enormously when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 after losing patience with their allies for being too moderate. In just over a year the death toll and deportation of Jews, Romanies and other ‘undesirables’ soared, with atrocities mounting. After 1945 and the Soviet regime, the building was taken over by the indigenous arm of the communist secret police, the AVH, and became the nerve centre of purges and terror campaigns against the population.

In my novel, Selene is briefly held in the basement cells of this building (where many were tortured, sometimes dying of their injuries) so it was somewhere I wanted to visit, but it’s a controversial ‘museum’. Péter Apor argues:

The Budapest House of Terror is one of the most notorious examples of abusing spectacular new media audiovisual technology to exhibit a politically and ideologically biased historical narrative. … the institution is not only an eloquent example of how the careless use of ‘public history’ is able to manipulate the ‘consumption’ of history, (but) … represents another important agenda: many new ‘public history’ museums call themselves memory museums. Such claims often contain an epistemological distinction between ‘object-based history’ and ‘collective-mentality-based memory.’ As the case of the House of Terror demonstrates, it is however a dangerous strategy: the idea of an ‘alternative epistemology’ based on ‘collective memory’ is basically a denial of any rational way of obtaining knowledge about the past.

Whilst agreeing that memory is a slippery concept, I wouldn’t wholly follow Apor’s argument. Memory can be a tricky and fraught concept, but is also ‘existentially rich’. Like Christian Karner and Bram Mertens in The Use and Abuse of Memory, I think it possible to find a theoretical position in which memory is neither co-terminus with nor inimical to historical ‘fact’, not a compromised middle-ground, but a genuine dialogue that allows a new perspective between ‘evidence’ and ‘experience’.

But, whatever the epistemology we adopt in examining past atrocities, those that attract cultural tourism whilst also being laden with the political stances of their current creators and curators, are particularly difficult places to interpret. Moreover, the House of Terror has been highly involved in political controversy. Its wholesale backing by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, especially its opening during an election period in which the socialist opposition was subtly linked to the extreme Soviet past, so warning voters not to vote socialist. Additionally, whilst the house (and its highly effective joint logo that unites the Arrow Cross and Soviet star symbols) claims to examine both Nazi and Communist atrocities, the balance is much more skewed to room after room on the evils of Communism. Clearly the terror and suffering in that era was considerable, but they are not the whole picture and Jewish communities have objected that in massively concentrating on the Soviet era the Holocaust is down-played. (see Tamara Rátz, ‘Interpretation in the House of Terror, Budapest’ in Cultural Tourism in a Changing World, Melanie K Smith & Mike Robinson)

A further problem is that the exhibit not only makes it appear that there was no ‘normal, daily life’ in Hungary in the Communist era, but also locates the ‘evil’ as ‘other’. Whilst those who collaborated with the two regimes or worked for them are named with photographs on a ‘wall of victimisers’ (itself controversial given we don’t know the level of involvement from names and photographs and given that heritage sites do not normally set themselves up as judge and jury) there is nonetheless an overall sense that ‘evil’ came from outside the indigenous culture.

I’m glad to have experienced this first hand and been exposed to the controversies and questions, but most of all the visit was ‘fruitful’ for simply walking through the largely empty basement cells: chilling and inhumane, the atmosphere there was palpably horrifying without need of interpretation boards or video screens.

In the meantime, I’ve got lots to think about as I write a novel in which terror is not a spectacle, but an everyday fear for at least one of my three main characters, and in which memory and it’s slipperiness is central.

 

 

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