The scene was set. It was a dark wintry night, the curtains were pulled tight against the cold, the fire was burning bright, and my cup of tea was hot and steamy. Ahhh, I can relax into some dark reads for these closed in nights. I like a good bit of bleakness in winter.
My first read was a new book The Cellar by Minette Walters. I have read previous psychological thrillers by her and like the questions that come when reading this genre. Are psychopaths born or created? Who is the perpetrator? Who is the victim? Is it nature vs nurture or both?
The Cellar is an interesting fast paced read. The main character Muna is the victim as well as the perpetrator of violence in this story. She has been “adopted” by the Songoli family yet has never been outside the house, her bedroom is a dark windowless cellar, and she cannot read write or speak English. The story begins when the youngest son goes missing after school and the police are called the next day. Why the delay? What happened? This is a dark and suspenseful read.
My next read was Our Endless Numbered Days, a first novel by Claire Fuller. The book reminded me of a fairy tale with powerful themes and intense characters. This was the story of family drama with the tension held between the reality of life and the fantasy of a return to nature.
Peggy is the victim as she is abducted, as a young child, by her obsessive survivalist father. He takes her “die Hutte” and tells her they are now the only two people left in the world. The story, told in flashback by Peggy, held me as a reader as I wanted to discover how she returned home and what happened to her along the way. An impressive story from a first time writer.
Two bleak and dark reads for these even darker nights.
The Press Christchurch Writers Festival event A novel idea at Christchurch Arts Festival was a corker. Author (and Christchurch Writers Festival literary director) Rachael King talked to novelists Stephanie Johnson, Sarah Laing, and Carl Nixon.
The authors read from their latest books. It worked well; each author was quite different in style and personality. They also had a lot to say about the creative process of writing.
Here are some quotable quotes:
There are more people writing novels than buying the bloody things. (Rachael)
Writing novels is like being a piece of fly paper. (Sarah)
Novels enable you to inhabit another person’s space … your own personality becomes richer and more informed. (Carl)
It is good to be struggling to find time to write. (Stephanie)
I have the rhythm of stories in my head. (Sarah)
Writers should have a really good bullshit detector. (Stephanie)
How about a quote from a character in a novel? Here’s Merle, from Stephanie’s novel The writing class:
The beauty of the novel in full sail will never be lost even though we are choking in a plume of electrical soot.
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“I never considered doing anything else but writing. It was all I ever wanted to do.”
When I saw the name Anita Desai on the AWRF 2013 programme, I knew I’d move heaven and earth to get to Auckland to see her. I first discovered her work in my 20s and have pounced with delight on any new title that’s appeared since. I find her gentle wisdom captivating and her point of view intriguing. To think I’ve had the opportunity to talk in person to one of my favourite authors still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so in awe of her!
Anita Desai was born in pre-Partition Dehli to an Indian father and a German mother. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, her home life was different to others around her. She listened to music from around the world and there were books on the shelves. She describes Indian culture as ‘rich, loud and complex’ with a strong oral tradition of storytelling in which it was considered rude to withdraw with a book.
She learned English when she was at school and chose to write in the language she considers more flexible, more elastic than other languages. English contains many different influences and can be adapted to suit an author’s needs. When she started to write those around her saw this as ‘a harmless eccentricity, a nice quiet thing to do, not like being a dancing girl.’
And thank goodness she was given the opportunity to write. Anita Desai has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, with Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1994) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). She has set the bar high for new Indian authors who are receiving attention from the western publishing world today.
The Artist of Disappearance is the author’s latest work. It contains three novellas and proved to the ‘the most intense writing process I have ever been through’. The stories came to her virtually complete in themselves.
The novella form enables an author to take a section from the lives of the characters in which they undergo change. Unlike the short story, the form requires no neat conclusion. Novellas are like a slice of time from which readers draw their own conclusions.
Western literature is often preoccupied with the triumph of the individual over circumstances. The work of Anita Desai tells a different story. Her characters are not in control of life and her stories contain the awareness that ‘one is swept along by the tide of one’s own temperament and of history which is more powerful that you or I.’
My conversation with Anita Desai will follow.
National Novel Writing Month kicked off on Thursday and so far things are progressing well. I’ve set my characters in motion. They’re about to embark on a perilous journey across the high seas once the wind turns favourable.
Creative writing is an interesting process. You set the scene and the characters turn up to inhabit it. They’re kind of like self-generated Sims. You get to know them as the story unfolds. My main character is losing my interest at present as her excitement potential seems low – she’s just too nice. Her rambunctious sister has taken over and is demanding most of my attention. However, the mysterious servant of an eccentric doctor wants me to take notice of her, and then there’s the boy who hides in dark corners and talks to rats, and the woman with the child who has no past … Hmmm.
(I do realise I’m beginning to sound a bit like a crazy person. I think that’s a good sign. Apparently, it’s when you don’t realise you sound crazy that you’re really in trouble!)
I’m hearing comments from my fellow Christchurch Wrimos who are in turns excited, frustrated, on a roll, in the doldrums, drinking coffee, typing furiously, staring hopelessly into space and/or munching chocolate but they all have one thing in common – they’re all committed to writing and they’re in it for the long haul.
So, hang in there, Wrimos! The only way to climb a mountain is one step at a time and the view from the top is going to be brilliant. If you need some moral support or just want to get together with some people who truly understand what you’re going through, there’s a write-in tonight at Upper Riccarton Library.
I can’t wait to get home and discover what my character are up to. Looks like takeaways for dinner tonight.
Alexander McCall Smith is following in the footsteps of Dickens, Thackeray and many more classic authors by serialising his novel Corduroy Mansions on the Daily Telegraph culture pages. The serialisation began on September 15 and will appear each weekday for 20 weeks until February 13. You can get your free daily dose by email , RSS feed or podcast or just visit the website and read or listen to the novel episode by episode.
Andrew Sachs, best known as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, is the reader.
McCall Smith has had huge success with a several series of novels – the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, 44 Scotland Street, Sunday Philosophy and Von Igelfield. Corduroy Mansions will be available in book and audiobook form in 2009.
Looking around for other authors who have ventured into serialisation I came across Wilkie Collins The Moonstone and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stephen King wrote The Green Mile and The Dark Tower as series and also The Plant and Michael Faber allowed the Guardian to serialize The Crimson Petal and the White.