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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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Writing an Unfamiliar Place

In This is the End of the Story, Catherine seems to establish an identity that will, with a measure of flexibility, see her through life. But in A Remedy for All Things, when events unravel, Catherine revisits events in the previous novel and becomes less confident of the ‘normalcy’ and new relationships she has tried to re-establish as she questions the boundaries between fact and fiction and re-asses issues of perception and identity.

But the internal drama happens in a context. In the first novel the politics and culture of 70s Teesside is as much an omnipresent pressure as Miriam’s epilepsy and Cassie’s (Catherine’s) willingness to believe and be defined by others. So, in this one, questions of meaning and identity are impacted not personal contexts (including mental health issues and neurological conditions such as migraine and aura), but also by political events that sweep individuals along.

I grew up in Teesside in the 70s so the research was heavily reliant on memory backed up with lots of Internet fact checking. (It’s amazing what memory invents and interchanges.) I feel like Catherine is someone I know. I’ve lived with her for a few years now. I dream her dreams. But not only have her problems changed and become more complex, but they are located in an unfamiliar place.

I know of excellent novels that are set in places that the author has never visited. Any historical novel of necessity has an element of this since even if we can visit the historic houses and sites, see artefacts, travel to the places, read the histories, we can’t go back in time. But some authors can convince with research alone write novels as though they had lived in Mongolia when what they’ve actually done is read widely and surf the net endlessly. We live in a world of information – a great deal of it spurious, but much of it rich. In addition to endless travel guides and blogs, books in translation, films with subtitles, websites for even the smallest locations and a plethero of information on cultural mores, we also have Google Earth and Maps to allow us to walk (virtually) around far away cities at the click of a mouse. So why travel?

My current novel has two characters from Budapest – the poet Attila Jozsef in the 30s and a young woman in prison after the 56 Uprising. Before arriving in Budapest I read everything I could find on Attila Jozsef – all the poetry that’s translated into English, every website I could find (including those in Hungarian that I could persuade Google to ‘translate’ for me) and a biography that took some tracking down. I read books about the 1956 Uprising, both novels and non-fiction and others about wartime experiences in Budapest (even though this was background rather than part of the timeline of my novel). I found locations and walked the streets on my computer. I wrote the 55 chapters in outline and then, using the research, expanded each outline into a full chapter. I wrote a great deal on trains in the last week travelling from Paris to Budapest (a journey that both of my Hungarian characters made) and finished a first full draft of the novel not long after arriving here.

It’s very much a ‘first draft’ and as I settle into this unfamiliar place I’m more and more OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAconvinced of the need to experience as much as humanly possible as part of creative practice. My research left me in no doubt of the enormity of suffering that Hungary has experienced with the twentieth century seeing atrocities from both the Arrow Cross and the Communist regime. But to see buildings still scarred by bullet holes; to see memorials at the Great Synagogue, bombed by the Arrow Cross, taken over as a German Radio station in WW2 and then hemmed into a ghetto, where thousands died of cold and starvation, their bodies piled in the synagogue garden; to eat the local food; hear the language; begin to feel something of the character of the place and people … all of this can only be done in the flesh.

The last two mornings I’ve begun to do second drafts of the early chapters and also to add in details to key scenes across the novel that have arisen from visiting sites in Budapest. On our first day we walked to the river to the statue of Attila Jozsef, cut flung aside, huge and brooding, a facsimile of lines from a poem beneath him on the steps:

Mintha szivembôl folyt volna tova Zavaros,

bölcs és nagy volt a Duna

 

As if it flowed straight from my heart

Troubled, wise and great was the Danube.

 

or perhaps:

 

As if my own heart had opened its gate:

The Danube was turbulent, wise and great.

It’s a metal statue, but the mixture of melancholy and longing was palpable.

We’ve been to the photographic museum where the photo-images of Budapest in the 90s (when my character Catherine is visiting to write about Joszef) have dramatically changed my ideas about the place at that time, despite all the reading I’d already done.

We’ve visited the Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagoue – so bright and alive, full of folk design and with windows of painted glass – flamboyantly Art Nouveau – Secessionist. And also the Dohány Street Synagogue of the Neolog congregation in the Erzsébetváros district. It’s the biggest synagogue in Europe and takes nearly three-thousand people. It looks more like a cathedral with an organ and choir – staffed by non-Jews in a wonderful bit of theological casuistry.

It’s beautiful, Moorish-style building full of ochres, deep pinks and dark wood polished like mirrors; the glass opaque and lots of it coloured – mustard and cobalt with flashes of scarlet around the creamy white stars of David. It feels sombre, but it’s seen a lot of tragedy. After the war it survived as a prayer house through the Communist era, but wasn’t renovated until the early 90s. There’s an exquisite memorial in the garden that was erected during the renovations. A weeping tree in silver; each slender leaf has a name inscribed on it – so simple and poignant. A tree of life in the face of death.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I could read about any of this and I’m aware that in tiny, finite lives reading and other ways of accruing information that makes us more empathic is vital. I’m a novelist because I know the power of narratives to inform, to inspire, to get under the skin of what might make us human. But I also know the power of place and Budapest is communicating that powerfully. As a writer, the urge to travel, to be touched by a sense of place, has never felt more urgent and I hope the unfamiliarity will make me push at the boundaries of what I think and write as the work progresses.

 

 

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Writing of Politics and Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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