Last week, I had a pleasure and privilege of reading from Ready to Love at Polari, a regular evening of readings celebrating different representations of LGBT literature, held at the Festival Hall at the South Bank. It was lovely to go back to the book, with which I’ve had very little to do recently, on account of other reading and editing and writing.
I was one of five readers – the others were Emma Flint, reading from Little Deaths, Paul Flynn, reading from Good As You, Susan Wilkins, reading from The Killer and Allie Rogers, reading from Little Gold. We were introduced by our amazing host, novelist Paul Burston, who does so much to support other writers.
We had to choose a ten-minute extract and to introduce our books sufficiently so as not to leave listeners floundering.
I chose an early excerpt, which I felt would interest the audience. More to the point, I felt it represented the book well. (Although there are many things I’d change within the book, I was pleased to find I still very much liked the idea and overall effect of it.) When I describe the book to people, I generally talk about the characters, Minna and Jeff. But because I was going to let Minna speak for herself, I talked about the themes of the book.
The age-old question: what is the book about?
I mean, really about?
In my prep for the reading, and with the benefit of distance – it was published a year ago – I realised that the book is actually about telling people to BACK OFF. I added my polite version, too, which is exploring the difficulty of knowing your own mind when everyone else seems more experienced, more knowledgeable, more assertive or just more confident than you. The bald version seemed to connect with the audience immediately.
What are books about?
What is the author trying to achieve?
We’ve looked at this before on this blog, I know. But then, at the weekend, I read something that cut through months and years of reading about writing in my exploration of the question.
The answer came from none other than Ann Patchett, who I think is the wisest woman on the planet when it comes to writing advice.
On her blog this weekend, she introduced her good friend Maile Meloy’s new novel, Do Not Become Alarmed. Ann Patchett generously speaks of many writers, often friends she’s met through book tours or through the bookshop she co-owns, Parnassus Books in Nashville. She shared her admiration for Meloy’s earlier work – which you may share as I do, because an early book, Liars and Saints did very well here in the heady days of Richard and Judy’s book club. The new book is something special, apparently. Look out for it.
At almost the end of her blog piece, Ann Patchett writes: I feel a deep connection to this book, in part because it was written by one of my closest friends, and in part because its origins can be traced back to a conversation the two of us had in Australia in 2011: we were both obsessed with the Robert Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica, and while we were talking about it we decided we both wanted to write a book in which children are in peril without realizing they’re in peril. That’s where I got the idea for Commonwealth, and that’s where she got the idea for Do Not Become Alarmed. Essentially, we wrote two books with the same root.
Commonwealth was my favourite novel of 2016, and I’ve read everything I could find online about its craftsmanship and origins.
I read about the way it was structured to span fifty years. I read about the way that each character is based on one of Patchett’s siblings or step-siblings. I read about the way it emerged after she’d published memoir, fearing her family’s wrath only, when it didn’t materialise, how she felt liberated to write more.
But I never read that.
Not this beautifully simple idea. Which isn’t on the blurb. It isn’t even stated in the book, so far as I recall. It’s not really the plot. But it’s entirely what the book is about. It’s the firm foundation which supports every character, every story twist, every scene.
Last year, in writing about the new book I’m working on , I talked about wanting a kind of amplification in my work. But now I see where I went wrong: I wanted a bigger canvas but was still going to furnish it with specific ideas. Because feeling like you’re trailing behind everyone else is a specific state of mind. I loved exploring that in Ready to Love but I didn’t want to do it again. And I realised the way I was seeing my new book is … well, doing it all over again, writ larger. Only not large in the way I wanted. Hence my dissatisfaction.
What I want, I now see, is a simple but substantial, all-encompassing idea. I won’t mind if nobody sees it in the end result. I might never mention it myself. But it will reassure me while I’m writing – and it will shore up the writing itself.
I want to be storyish, too, remember? I want to bring both elements together. And I think I know how …
It’s coming …