A darkness rises up

I have a bit of writing news coming next week – but first a personal update:

On Thursday I left the house early to board a train from the south coast to Manchester, where I had a medical appointment. Obviously I had good reasons for this, or thought I did. I was also planning on travelling up to the north-east of England after the appointment to visit my mum, who recently started having chemo (again).

Some context: we moved house in September. July and the first half of August were spent (literally spent, since train travel in the UK is expensive and buses didn’t go where we needed to go) zipping up and down the country to look at flats that were much more expensive than the tiny house we rented in Manchester.

Two days after we found and applied for a flat, I learned that my mum’s cancer drugs had stopped working. My mum, as you may have noticed above, does not live on the south coast; in fact we are moving even farther away from her right when I want to spend as much time with her as I can.

She started chemotherapy in September. We moved house in September. In the past few weeks I have worked long hours on a work project that is one of the least rewarding in my twenty years of experience, both financially and emotionally. I am dealing with some pressing matters in my voluntary role as board member for a national arts and wellbeing organisation. Our living room is full of books in boxes, because we have no bookshelves; we’ve been sleeping on the floor for three weeks because we didn’t have a bed…and first thing on Thursday morning, I set off for Manchester.

Once I was on the train from London I pulled out my laptop and tried to work (because holidays aren’t a thing when you’re a self-employed person who has just moved house), but the wifi wasn’t good enough. I received some feedback from a client. I drafted a reply and drifted closer to Manchester, feeling sick with panic/exhaustion/stress/worry/those ridiculous tilty trains and hoping I wouldn’t actually vomit.

I got to the hospital. My blood pressure was much, much higher than it usually is, and when the nurse questioned me I waved it away by saying I was stressed.

Then it was the doctor’s turn. It was all going smoothly, until suddenly, at the very last second, it wasn’t. They couldn’t do the procedure, and she asked me if I could come back in a few days.

And finally, the flood. The tears I’ve been unable to cry because I had too much to do, because I couldn’t afford to let myself feel too much, because I can’t have a proper break, because I’m working on a big project (and then another big project, and another one), because I have voluntary responsibilities and things need doing, because climate change is a thing and I’m not even doing much to help fight that, never mind look after myself and write my book and do things that make me happy. All of those tears spilled over as I lay on the couch, half-dressed, and the doctor and nurse tried to get me to explain why I was so upset. I pulled myself together enough to escape into a toilet to cry in peace, and then found a cafe in which to while away some time before my evening train.

I have been trying so hard to do everything. My sense of self has been pushed so out of kilter by the past few months, I’ve lost sight of any semblance of prioritising. In fact, I’ve become a little too proud of my get-things-done approach. If something came up, no matter how big or small, it got added to the list of tough shit I needed to deal with, until getting a train from the south coast to Manchester for something I could have dealt with a few weeks later on the south coast, and then continuing from there up to Newcastle to see my sick mum, became just one more day to get through.

So clearly, my mental health is not great at the moment. I still have a mountain of stuff to get through before I can relax, but I am starting to think about what needs to change again so that I can look after myself. I need to stop telling myself that I will relax once x is out of the way. There will always be y and z to get done as well, and after that the whole treadmill will start again at a, and my mum will still have terminal cancer and I will still have to find a way to live with this. At the other end of the country.

(My mum, now I’m up here and can see for myself, is doing better than she could be doing.)

I am lucky, though. I’m lucky to be able to recognise this before I reach the point of barely leaving my bedroom for six months (which has happened in the past). I’m lucky  to have the resources and the experience to look at myself and 1. think about what I can do and 2. know I can help myself. I’m lucky to be able to see that my current state of mind is a direct result of a really stressful period which was mostly not self-inflicted. I’m lucky to have a loving partner who has done enough work on his own stuff to know how to support me. Lots of people are not this lucky.

As I zipped around the country on Thursday having my own little mental health crisis, the internet was full of posts about World Mental Health Day. I’m glad it’s a thing now, and I’m very glad that, at least among the people I know, we are kinder to ourselves than we used to be.

But it’s a tough world out there, isn’t it? It’s really hard to put ourselves out there, to allow ourselves to care enough to try and make things better, and yet also protect ourselves from the inevitable slings and arrows.

I don’t have a pat way to wrap this up. Part of me is terrified to post it at all, but I feel like we need to talk about this stuff, and I don’t have anywhere else to put it. So: this is my mental health at the moment. Hopefully I will be in a better place soon. And if you’ve read this far (thank you!), I am sending love your way, and hoping that we all keep moving in the right direction – towards better self-care and more kindness for ourselves and everyone around us.

A Darkness Rises Up – Broken Records

 

Sour Fruit: Interview with author Eli Allison

I loved Eli Allison’s Sour Fruit when I read it recently; it’s a fantastic eco-dystopia set in the north of England (waves tiny northern flag), in which orphan Onion finds herself kidnapped and sold to the ominous-sounding Toymaker. Left in the charge of Rhea, herself just a hairs-breadth from death at the hands of the gangsters who run Kingston, the pair have three days to figure out which of them, or both, will escape.

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My full review can be found here. I was fascinated by the way the novel handles some interesting political points, while also painting a vivid world that’s very different to, and yet a logical extrapolation of, our own world, and Eli very kindly agreed to answer some questions for me.

1. The pace of Sour Fruit is breakneck for long stretches of the story. There’s so much action! How did you manage that level of plotting, and was it tiring to write?

EA: I love a good page-turner and wanted to have that kind of energy for my first novel… But I had no idea what I was doing so Sour Fruit was very much an organic writing process, hence the time it took to write. *Cough* three years and six months and er…*cough* another six months on top of that plus maybe a few more months to make sure. I just wrote until things started to slot together but it did nearly break me. So much had to be cut away.

Writers are so up close to the structure of everything it can be hard to see the plot for the ink so to speak.  So when it came to pacing I listen to my beta readers when they said certain parts were boring or too frenetic. You don’t have to take advice, but better to have suggestions and not need them than to need suggestions and not have them.

2. Rhea is a highly unconventional guardian/mentor figure, and I loved her. Was she always a soft foil to Onion’s furious mardiness? How did their relationship evolve, for you?

EA: Rhea is also one of my utterly favourite characters; I originally wrote Sour Fruit from her point of view. She was far more like Onion and Onion was more like her but I realised switching those personalities around and having Onion defy the young girl in peril stereotype was far more interesting.  It did mean I had to re-write Rhea’s character into something more nuanced and having to dump 60,000 words of that draft wasn’t easy either but it was worth it in the end.  Sometimes you have to let go to make room for better ideas. As for how their relationship developed I always knew I wanted to explore the more unusual bonds we can sometimes find ourselves in. Romance can be great in dystopia but I think we could be missing a trick.  There are so many strange, amazing and scary ways we bond with other human beings, I love delving into those odd corners and see what I can find.

3. Why did you pick Hull as the location? (I love that you picked Hull as the location!)

EA: Well Hull is a brilliant city of course, but I did need a river city that was ‘up north’ so that hedged it. It’s close enough for research purposes I’m a Yorkshire lass and Hull has such iconic buildings and a great layout, the main shopping street of Hull, was perfect for the Light Market. I wanted to explore climate change and the hard choices we’ll be forced to make.  Every small town and city on the coast won’t get a Thames barrier and what will happen to those cities that are left behind? The second book will explore the city after a huge flood which is exciting to write if a little tricky, no dashing off into alleyways and hiding in doorways when the water level is up to your chest.

4. When we were chatting earlier, you joked that you don’t really do subtle, but I think you did a brilliant job of weaving clear messages into your novel without making it one-note or pure didacticism. Would you like to talk a bit about how you managed that?

EA: Brace yourself this is a big one.

First thing I did was create a core statement for my book.

Sour Fruit’s is: ‘Being poor is like being invisible.’ I then built everything from that point. Themes, ideas, questions raised by this statement.   I built my locations to best highlight the point I was making. Trapping people in one place because the government deems them unworthy of help, shows what I’m trying to say without hitting the reader over the head with monologue or info dumps.

I created characters that would also represent either side of the statement. I gave Onion the opinion, poor people deserve to be treated as second class citizens because they’re all criminals or lazy.

I gave her this because;

  1. She can change, gotta love a character arc.
  2. So she can have ‘genuine’ conversations with characters of other views.

I wanted to avoid the moral crusaders agreeing how horrible the government/world dynamic and instead focuses on the grey. Asking questions that don’t always have a right or wrong answer.  People do bad things to survive but does that mean they’re bad? In a world of limited resources, how do you choose who gets what? Is morality a sliding scale or a hard line in the sand?  I tried to make it so Onion faces these questions organically by action and dialog, placing her with characters that think completely differently to each other and to her. Which brings me to…

Characters. I like to flesh out all of my characters. I never just create a flat character to serve a purpose, although they all should have a purpose. Characters should be there to test your core statement for AND against. When you create rich backstories and realistic personalities that will help with interactions that feel honest and fully formed rather than just academic. It also makes it easier to slip by high concepts and ideas because it’s the characters talking and arguing with themselves and the reader figuring out what they think. It’s not the author telling the reader what to think.

(EO: Thank you, Eli, this is such a brilliant answer!)

5. Which came first: plot, character or world?

EA: The main characters first, (even if there were a few missteps, to begin with) then the world. The idea of how to build a place where people survive without rights was fascinating.

Plot last.  Which now I know more wouldn’t be the way I’d do it again. Re-writes I curse thee! This book has made a plotter out of me.

6. There’s a framing device, but for long stretches of the novel, it’s easy to forget it’s there. Why did you include it?

EA: I liked the intimacy of telling a story by conversation but it also adds another level of mystery to the whole series. What are they doing in that room?  It will also be a way of exploring the world outside of Kingston for the second and third books. (Cheeky little spoiler for you there.)

7. Your writing is really interesting at sentence level. I would imagine you have to write quite slowly to achieve that level of inventiveness – is that true? Any tips for keeping your writing fresh?

EA: You’re making me blush!  Creating Onion’s distinctive voice was one of the hardest parts, but knowing how to balance it was really tricky. Should I go more extreme or tone her down? I was riddled with doubt, until my editor said, ‘go more, go bigger’ so I did. Sometime you need someone to give you a little push. I could have gone with a paired down easier to read voice, but Onion feels real to me because she’s easily distracted, vulgar, flawed. I’ve ‘known’ Onion for nearly six years now and hundreds of thousands of words later writing in her voice feels natural. I struggle to ‘turn her off’ when I write anything else.

Tips for keeping writing fresh… gosh…

1: Be bold, try new things,  you can always take it out later.

2: Avoid stereotypes by going in the opposite direction to your first thought. We’re all guilty of lazy thinking, I created a robust nurse character for the new book, and without thinking I made her a woman but then I realise how much more interesting if the nurse was a robust man. Instantly the nurse is more compelling with a tiny tweak. The same goes for family dynamics, locations, dialogue, outfits, everything!

3: But also play with reader’s preconceptions. Introduce a hard-boiled detective but really he’s a well-adjusted health nut who’s never drunk in his life. Or a plump 60-year-old grandma who’s baking cookies and the house gets shot at, and it turns out she’s really a mafia boss. Or a bond girl who’s actually the main villain all along and used Bond’s lusty behaviour against him to find out all his secrets and he had no idea.

The world is so much more than the tropes we’ve stuffed ourselves into, break free.

Thanks so much for your interesting questions and for listening to my strange rambles!

Please visit Eli’s website for more information about her and the book. Thank you for your fantastic answers, Eli!

April reading round-up

1. Love/Pride – Ellipsis Zine. There are some lovely pieces of flash fiction in here – my favourites were She’s Not There by Rosie Garland Repetitions by Laura Clay and How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbour Reporting You to Child Services by Christopher Allen.

2. The Overstory – Richard Powers. I was daunted by this, and a little frustrated by the stop-start nature of the first hundred pages (essentially around ten short stories about individuals set at various points over the past two hundred years). The writing is gorgeous, though, and the tree theme kept me at it long enough for the stories to start coming together, at which point the novel really took off. A beautiful, compelling book; my only criticism is of the ending, which didn’t, to me, live up to its promise. It also left me feeling worn down about activism/the planet in a way that David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth (March reading) didn’t.

3. America is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo. I enjoyed this lesbian communist Filipino story, and if that summary hooks you in any way, you probably will, too.

4. The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben. For various reasons, I’ve been reading this for months and months, in little snatches. It was especially lovely to finish it alongside The Overstory, since Powers has obviously read work akin to Wohlleben’s. Highly recommended.

5. There There – Tommy Orange. I really, really enjoyed the set-up for this; multiple character narratives that come together in something bigger is exactly my kind of book. IMO it didn’t quite follow through with the ending, but I really want to see what Orange writes next.

6. Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone. The second in his Craft Sequence – enjoyable and thought-provoking, but it didn’t grip me the way the first one did (that may be my fault, as it was my bedtime reading).

7. Speak No Evil – Uzodinma Iweala.

8. Murray Constantine, aka Katherine Burdekin – Swastika Night. Because women have always written prophetic utopias and dystopias, too, and damn, this one is terrifyingly grim. Seven hundred years after Hitler died, he is revered as a god, Germany and Japan have divided the world between them, and women are regarded (and treated) as subhuman. Doughty Englishman Alfred encounters a Knight (named, intriguing, von Hess) who unburdens himself of a secret: not only was Hitler short, dark-haired and dumpy, but women were once beautiful and the equals of men. The book is long on philosophical discussion that’s sometimes utterly chilling, but still very worth reading. Btw, this book was published in 1937! I find it both fascinating and horrifying that Burdekin could extrapolate to that extent – but I also see it as proof that many of the discussions in our public discourse today were also playing out in the 1930s. Hmm.

9. Hunger – Roxane Gay. I love Roxane Gay, and this book made me so sad. On one hand, as someone with disordered eating I recognised a lot of her thinking about food and the way she uses it. On the other hand, I’m not a plus-size person, but her beautiful writing made me feel acutely and in many different ways the pain of being in her body. Then there’s the horrific story that precedes her first period of weight gain – and again, I understand why she would be fascinated with the perpetrator of her pain. But the point at which I burst into tears and couldn’t stop for ten minutes came as she related the time her worst fears came true at a literary event in NYC. I don’t know why this upset me so much, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Roxane Gay is a beautiful human and an amazing writer, and this book is well worth your time. Everyone’s time.

10. Strix Issue 6. I ordered this thinking I was getting a little local publication, and was blown away by the first few poems by Jane Burn and others, plus the story Foundations by LC Elliott. Then again, they had a thousand submissions for this issue, so it’s not surprising that the standard is so high.

11. To Love and Be Wise – Josephine Tey. I’ve been gradually picking up Tey’s Alan Grant books (having read The Daughter of Time in my teens as every good Ricardian should), and this one was a gem.

12. Sour Fruit – Eli Allison. I loved this eco-dystopia set in Hull! Onion has been snatched. She wakes up chained to an armpit of a river city, earmarked for a skin-trader called The Toymaker. Surrounded by a creeping rot she has just three days to escape before the sold sticker becomes a brand.

It’s Onion’s anger that propels us through the disorienting opening scenes, as Onion is thrown from one crisis to the next (think out of the frying pan into the fire and then into the volcano, followed possibly by the sun) and the reader tries to figure out what’s going on. Onion’s voice is hugely compelling: furiously teenagerish in its bravado without ever quite hiding the fact that there’s a scared kid underneath.

But a book doesn’t stand on one character alone, and thankfully we also have Rhea, appointed as Onion’s unwilling jailer until she’s handed over to the appropriately ominous-sounding Toymaker, to guide us. Ostensibly a frightened mouse, Rhea takes everything Onion throws at her and basically gets on with doing the best she can in the circumstances. It’s as she leads Onion around the streets of Kingston that we really start to get a sense of the world behind the breakneck action – a world in which people who aren’t deemed worthy of citizenship are dumped in flooded Kingston (upon Hull, for those wondering) and left to fend for themselves.

While the evolving relationship between Rhea and Onion is the true high point of the story (for me), Eli Allison has also done a magnificent job of reimagining Hull as a flooded disaster city in which kindness can still flourish. It’s impossible to miss the fact that we’re in a dystopia, but Onion’s descriptions paint the crowded world in technicolour detail, while also making time for quiet beauty, like “The last of the light had turned the estuary bruise-purple, and the sky blood-red. If I squinted I could just make out the shadow of the bridge. I’ve always loved suspension bridges.”

The writing is always interesting: characters don’t jump, they “jack-in-the-box jump”. The deckchair “looked like a debutante’s fart could do it in” (Onion’s voice is truly a joy!). And I’m delighted to know this is only the first book in a trilogy, because if the first book packs this much in, I can’t wait to see what the next two will do.

13. The Half-God of Rainfall – Inua Ellams. A fun, moving story of clashing gods and a demi-god who just wants to play basketball. Oh, and it’s in verse. Well worth a read!

14. The Secrets of Ghosts – Sarah Painter. I really enjoyed the previous book in this series, The Language of Ghosts, and this was a good follow-up. It took me a while to get into it, but it’s excellent escapism.

15. Everfair – Nisi Shawl. This was such a beguiling, intriguing book. Set during the time at which Leopold of Belgium was ravaging the Congo (the repercussions of which are still felt today),  various disparate groups (Fabian socialists, Black Americans, Congolese natives) attempt to create their own utopia. Told from multiple, often marginalised points of view, we watch Everfair’s progress over twenty or so years, from its inception through the buffets and storms of World War I. While the politics are fascinating, I was most interested in the relationships that ensue and the ways in which these challenge the bigotries and preconceptions of many of the characters, from French Lisette and English Daisy, spurned lovers who become lovers themselves, through Fwendi & Matty and George & Martha (different races, disparate ages), to King Mwenda and his favourite Josina. It’s a hugely interesting book, and I’m looking forward to Shawl’s next full-length outing.

16. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters. This book took me three goes, unusual given that Waters is one of my favourite novelists. It is a very slow start, full of intricate detail of Frances’s new life of drudgery. She and her mother have been left penniless following her father’s death and in the wake of her brothers’ deaths in World War I. When they are forced to rent out rooms to the paying guests of the title, lower class but more moneyed, Frances forges an unexpected friendship with the female half of the couple. Once the action hots up (er, in more ways than one), I was worried that I could see where the story was headed, but thankfully Waters steers it into more thoughtful, less melodramatic territory over the final hundred pages or so.

Books by people of colour: 6

Books by women: 8

Favourite: The Overstory

The care and keeping of a writer

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It happens every few months, or weeks, or years. I get busy, which means I get tired, and then I get sick. I rely more on junk food. I stop exercising. I withdraw from friends and social situations (not always a bad thing; see also the care and keeping of an introvert).

At some point,  I stop writing.

Does this sound familiar? I suspect most of us, whether we have a history of mental health problems or not, will recognise some of what I’ve just described.

It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve realised how crucial writing is to my mental health. If I’m not writing, I’m not matching up to my mental image of myself, and that’s the perfect recipe for self-hatred – which, of course, further contributes to the downward spiral.

(Side note: since I started thinking about life as a series of spirals, my mental health has been much better. I don’t descend into the pit in which I once found myself, realising belatedly that I’d barely made it out of bed for six months. Instead I drop down a couple of loops, realise what’s happening and take action.)

I caught myself in one of these spirals in late March. I was still writing, but it had dwindled to the odd half hour here and there, and I could barely look at my novel in progress. The last time I journalled was in early February, and I stopped then because I couldn’t handle the pressure; I didn’t want to face myself. If I took an honest look at how I was feeling, I’d have to do something about it, and I didn’t feel able to.

So towards the end of March, after working up the courage, I did my usual “sit down with a coffee and force myself to write about what’s wrong”, and came up with my usual “put routines in place to meditate, journal, and so on”. I also made some decisions about things that have been stressing me out generally. And reminded myself that yes, the world is a shitshow, but I am privileged not to have to live with that on a second-by-second basis (thank you, Leechblock, for saving my sanity on Facebook and Twitter).

I made all of those decisions…and then I got sick. Well, truthfully I’ve not really been well since mid-February, but things came to a head and I found myself on two different kinds of antibiotics for two separate infections.

I’ve only really started feeling better over the past week or so, after being truly out of sorts for a while. Mostly, all of those good habits I decided to implement have fallen by the wayside again – to some extent with good reason, since I’ve spent a lot of time in bed.

Aside from the basics (earning money, feeding myself, doing the minimum to get by), the only thing I’ve focused on has been writing.

Despite this, I’m feeling SO much better than I did a few weeks ago. I guess writing really is crucial to my mental health.

I reprioritised so that writing gets done before my paid work, even if all I do is show up and stare at a blank screen, and even if it means working on paid work until ten at night. Last week I passed a milestone on the work in progress, one I’ve been aiming at since I returned home from Sweden. Today I started on a new story, one that’s been nudging at my subconscious for a few months. My fictional worlds are expanding again, filling my mind with wonder and possibility.

It turns out that, while all those other positive habits help, the One True Habit for me is simply writing.

It made me curious about others – do we all have a One True Habit? What’s yours? Is it writing? A wander through a bookshop or your local park? Shutting the world out and reading a good book? Let me know in the comments if you feel like sharing.

March reading: sci-fi, climate change and comfort reading

I’ve started keeping a reading log on here, so am going to throw up the odd post where I talk about all the books. Because books, yes?

1. Ink – Sabrina Vourvoulias. A thoughtful, moving and harrowing look at an America not too distant from the current climate.

2. Red Moon – Kim Stanley Robinson. When did this guy become my safe space for reading? It’s such a relief to read something that’s on my wavelength politically and ecologically.

3. Cold Granite – Stuart MacBride. Excellent writing, good start to a series that’s nearly, but not quite, too dark for me.

4. An Inconvenient Death – Miles Goslett. I’ve been haunted by the death of Dr David Kelly for many years, and this was an excellent review of the reasons why.

5. & 6. Killer Plan and Murder Ring – Leigh Russell.

7. Snap – Belinda Bauer. I’ve seen Bauer recommended so many times over the years, and was glad to finally read something by her. This wasn’t quite what I expected, although very readable, and I’m sure I’ll seek out her other books at some point.

8. Ack-Ack Macaque – Gareth L Powell. This was SO MUCH FUN. And also moving and a tiny bit sad, and there’s an excellent intrepid reporter heroine, and yes. All the good things.

9. Rosewater – Tade Thompson. I really enjoyed Thompson’s interview on Death of 1000 Cuts recently, and bought Rosewater on the back of it (as I did with Ack-Ack Macaque, come to think of it). It’s fab – loads of fun, but with serious undertones, plus good writing and a SEQUEL that’s just come out, so yay.

10. & 11. Streets of Darkness and Girl Zero by A A Dhand. These are too dark for me but still excellent, compulsive reading, and it’s such a treat to find a really good crime series set in Bradford. I probably won’t read more (because too dark), but if you like this sort of thing you should definitely try him.

12. Ghost Wall – Goddess Sarah Moss. Oof, this hurt to read, and it’s so good, so terrifying, I’m still breathless after finishing it.

13. MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood. OMG,  so many tears. It’s my second time through this trilogy, but the first time I’ve read all three books in quick succession (I originally read them as they came out). Reading them the way they’re supposed to be read, all three books fit together beautifully. I cried at the end (and at intervals through the last hundred pages) not only because it was sad, but because I didn’t want to leave the characters. I wanted more Toby, more Zeb, more Blackbeard, more everyone. More Amanda, such an interesting character whom I feel we never quite get inside – which is maybe the point. Also, this is a novel that really rewards listening to as an audiobook. Blackbeard’s narration, in particular, was so perfectly pitched, I basically cried whenever he was talking.

Rereading the first two novels, in January, I was struck by how prescient they are, when even a decade ago the future they depicted felt fascinating but remote (to me). Now it feels much, much closer. This third novel concerns itself less with the mess we as humans have made of our world, and more with how a new civilisation might make its own future. And the ways in which humans will inevitably shape this future, by violence, potentially, but also through well-meaning interference (not to mention creation at the hands of Crake). I see from GoodReads reviews that this novel splits readers into “yay” or “meh”. Count me among the highly satisfied campers this time.

14. The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells. This book has been billed as “terrifying”; it opens with the words, “It is worse, much worse than you think.” It pulls no punches, and I think that’s important. Climate change isn’t just coming – it’s here, in the wildfires of California and the cyclone that just hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, not to mention the increasingly desperate and recurring floods in countries like Bangladesh, and also (to a lesser extent, but still visible) in the UK.

I’ve been trying to envisage what our globally warmed world might look like for so long, it’s oddly comforting to see the potential future laid out in stark detail in this book. Drawing on a wealth (heh, the irony) of scientific research and resources, the author breaks down the factors by category: “Heat death”, “Hunger”, “Drowning”…and those are just the first three chapter titles. Cheerful it’s not, but there is something to be said for knowing more about what we are facing in order to act.

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein vividly describes her desire not to look climate change in the eye. It’s so vast, so nebulous, so terrifying, and so frustrating to be aware of it, and yet to watch successive governments in most parts of the world fail to act, for fear of short-term losses.

Like Naomi Klein, Wallace-Wells is clear that neoliberal capitalism is behind our inertia, our failure to combat this existential threat to humanity, or even in some quarters to accept that it exists. Aside from this the two books are very different; Klein is concerned with political systems, Wallace-Wells with the specifics of what might happen to the planet and to those who inhabit it.

The real message of this book is that we. can. still. act. The 2018 IPCC report gave us twelve years to avoid climate change “catastrophe” (I’d argue that catastrophe has already hit many parts of the world due to climate change, but in this context they’re talking about the globe). Fatalistic attitudes, a shrug of the shoulder, comments like “we’re f*cked” – all responses I’ve encountered from friends – are understandable, but premature, at least in much of the privileged West.

The power to save our future generations is still in our hands – just not for much longer.

15. Cast in Silence – Michelle Sagara. I recently discovered this series, and they’re great for switching off at night.

16. There’s a Witch in the Word Machine – Jenni Fagan.

17. Everything Under – Daisy Johnson. This is the first thing I’ve read by Johnson, and for some reason I was expecting it to be “hard”. You know, cerebral, difficult structure, maybe not much of a story. My expectations were completely wrong – this is a compulsively readable novel of loss, lost people and identity. Fascinating, beautiful, and brilliant!

18. Vigil – Angela Slatter. I do love a good urban fantasy crime novel, and the writing in this one was gooood. Not surprising, since I see Angela Slatter’s been winning awards all over the place in her native Australia. Will definitely be picking up the sequels to this.

*NB: For some reason, crime fiction comes under the heading of comfort reading, for me.

Total: 18

Books by women: 10

Books by writers of colour: 4

Post-residency wrap-up

It’s now a month since I left Sweden after my February residency, so I’ve had time to get back to normal life, and also to reflect on the experience.

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The good stuff

I gained some huge benefits from my stay in Strömstad. The very obvious one is also the most important: I was given the time and space to write, and some money for doing so. At home, I share a desk in a room that is also a thoroughfare. I’ve wanted to go on a writing retreat for years, but my financial situation hasn’t allowed for it. Instead, I’ve trained myself to carve out time: usually in the mornings before work; sometimes if I have the energy (which I don’t often) in the evenings. Which is all very well, but it’s truly difficult to hold an entire novel in your head and keep up momentum with it when you’re working on it in spare half hours or the occasional hour before work.

What the writing residency enabled me to do was build up a good basis for a novel. So much about novel-writing in those early days is about having the confidence to keep going with it – especially if much of your world-building is done, like mine, on the fly.

I did more planning for this novel than I have for any previous ones, but inevitably, once I started writing, things changed. Back home, back to squeezing in my writing before work, I’m navigating a constant crisis of confidence, so having those words, those characters, those settings, already in place is invaluable. I can remind myself: I’ve written 20,000 words on this story; today I can do another five hundred, or another thousand.

Also, receiving a bursary for the residency made the decision to leave my paid work behind for a month much easier.

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Immersion in Swedish culture and landscape was another huge benefit that I wrote about in my previous post. As well as wandering around the gorgeous little town, I was also privileged to visit the local museum and spend a couple of hours listening to two amazing local historians tell one story after another about past residents and their lives. There was even a literature festival that took place during my stay.

The tough stuff

These were both self-imposed, really. Firstly, I put way too much pressure on myself to write all the words while I was there. After the first week I was exhausted, and decided I needed to figure out a better approach. I gave myself a minimum word count target each morning, and once I hit it I was free to do other things, like go for a coffee (where I often carried on writing, but the change of scenery was important), or a walk in beautiful surroundings, like this:

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Lovely, yes?

The other issue was also mostly internal: I’m an anxious, shy person by nature, and I was in a different environment, speaking another language, away from my partner, family and friends. Way out of my comfort zone, in other words. As the days went on, I found it increasingly hard to write. This may have been partly due to grief, as alluded to in my last post, and I was also sick for some of the time. I did push through (timers came in extremely handy here), but it was complicated. I wanted to highlight this because mental health is a very real factor in writing success, and I’m still learning how to look after mine.

The advantages definitely outweighed the disadvantages, and I’d recommend the experience to anyone if you can manage it! If you fancy applying for this particular residency, go here.

Plus, I enjoyed a month of gorgeous sunsets; this was the view from the apartment:

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I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s done a writing residency – were your experiences similar to mine?

Life as a writing resident

This month I’ve been given the amazing opportunity to stay in Strömstad, on the west coast of Sweden, and write. This is thanks to the generosity of Air Litteratur, to whom I applied last September without much hope of acceptance – and here I am. I’ve left my paid work behind until March, and am aiming to survive on the bursary that comes with the residency.

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It’s been a strange and beautiful time in many ways. My dad was half-Swedish; his father came from Åmål, about 50 miles inland from here. When I was a child, we spent several holidays in Grebbestad, about 50 km down the coast. Part of my reason for coming here was to do location research, because Grebbestad was the mental setting for the novel I recently completed. It’s been affirming to learn that my memories rang true, but also helpful to put more specifics in place, and to fill out the colours and nuances.

February is also the anniversary of my dad’s death (the 24th) from motor neurone disease, and his birthday (the 28th). It’s generally a horrible month. I don’t sleep well; I get sick; I stumble around as if my limbs were made of stone. My body remembers the horrific ten years that led up to his death, even after sixteen years.

So I was worried about being here for this month. Away from my partner and family. Alone with my grief. Alone with my writing – and the aforementioned novel was very much a tribute to my dad. Alone with certain themes I can’t seem to get away from, like the desperation of a child trying to connect with a distant parent, or vice versa.

And I am feeling it, especially as those dates loom nearer. But this month has also brought extraordinary gifts. For so long, my memories of my dad as a healthy, lively man – a man who taught me everything I know about compassion and consideration for those who have the least power in our society – have been subsumed by the last ten years of his life. The neural pathways laid down by that experience were so awful, they obliterated almost all my memories of him from the first twenty years of my life.

Here, in the country he loved so much, I am finding him again. In a walk around a lake, or on a mossy forest path, even amid the snow and ice, he is here, teasing me, taking me and my sisters swimming or jogging, sitting outside a log cabin with my mum and listening to stories of our day. On the soft, pine-cone-strewn paths, or over the granite slabs by the sea, my family amble happy, together, in a time before banal tragedy invaded.

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I can’t have him back. But being able to recapture some of those memories is priceless.

Me and Dad

The Knife Drawer

A drabble (a story in one hundred words), because apparently I can’t get current events out of my head.

The Knife Drawer

I did not forgive you. I did not forgive you for the hard lines you left among us; the divisions and the separations.

I did not forgive you for stealing my sons on the border between home and hell.

I did not forgive you for the edict forbidding my cousins from flying to help me.

You drew the knife between us all. You scattered us this way and that, chopping until enough of us were cut away from your world. You left my sons in the desert without water, with only soldiers to succour them.

I will not forgive you.

(Copyright: Elizabeth Ottosson)

(I’ve never actually posted any of my writing up here before. It’s possible I may chicken out and take it down soon.)

 

Catch-up: Two stories and a novel

It’s been quiet around these parts. Not because I haven’t been writing (I have), or because I haven’t had news to share (I have). I’ve just not been feeling like sharing, due to a combination of industriousness and anxiety.

So a couple of quick pieces of news: my story, This Time, was published last week in May You, the Walter Swan Prize Anthology from Valley Press. It’s a gorgeous-looking book, of which there are only 30 hard copies left; I believe an e-book version is planned for later in the year.

I also have a piece of flash fiction on this shortlist from Retreat West, which is exciting and lovely, and I am looking forward to the announcement of the results on Thursday!

Aside from this, as I resolved in December 2016, I have been focusing on getting a novel ready for submission to agents. Not the novel I planned on submitting (that one has been bottom-drawered, probably for good). The other one, of which I’ve finally found the courage to finish multiple drafts. Thanks in no small part to the lovely folk at Writers’ HQ, whose Plotstormers II course helped me hold my nose long enough to get through draft 1.5 and beyond.

So this novel will be going to beta-readers in about a month, and I’m looking forward to writing something new, quite frankly!

Goals, goals, goals

This time last year I was meditating on writing goals amid the realisation that life had thrown me another curveball. That particular curveball turned out to be, first, worse than I could have imagined, and then better than I feared. At least for now. And for that I’m grateful.

Still, my conclusion was basically, “write, damnit”.

Write while I’m drowning in work. Write while I’m facing a scary set of new students. Write while travelling up and down the country to enjoy time with and take care of loved ones. Write when I have a blessed day off. Write when I have a week filled with catch-ups with friends I don’t see often enough. Write as well as live.

I mostly did that, although it’s not terribly measurable. (I guess you can measure it by the fact that I am now in the habit of writing before I do anything else when I sit down at my desk.)

I also set a couple of more specific goals:

To achieve those things, I set myself a target of entering one writing competition or submitting one piece of work each week. In the end I didn’t get anywhere near that…but I did achieve my goals, and that’s meant an awful lot to me.

It also took much less effort than I expected to get results. By which I mean I was expecting to send out twenty, maybe thirty, fifty or a hundred submissions in order to get one success. Actually (if you count success as any kind of recognition, e.g. longlisting) I got results approximately half the time. This is mindboggling. I’ve had all this writing sitting on my hard drive, when it could have been out there in the world.

That said, the one thing I really wanted this Christmas was to have a novel out on submission to agents. I don’t have that (although I’m much closer to that stage than I was last year)… and coincidentally, I didn’t set a specific goal for this last year, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it hasn’t happened yet.

I don’t regret setting the other goals. Getting my writing recognised was something I needed desperately. It’s all very well (and helpful and much appreciated) to have writer friends praise your work, but at some point you (or at least, I) need to know that someone out there objectively thinks your work is good.

I know I would write even if there was never any hope of being published, because I have that conversation with myself approximately once a month, but still, the confidence that comes from external validation has been invaluable to me this year. It got me back to my YA novel when I was ready to shelve it, and I’m now halfway through an exciting new draft (draft 4 I think. I’m losing count). And it allowed me to be up front with people about my writing, and that meant a lot to me. For example, I felt I could finally tell my mum I wrote things! I don’t know why I never dared tell her this before, but such are the quirks of family relationships.

All the same, this year when I set my goals, I’m going to have an eye on that submission-ready novel that I intend to have by this time next year. 🙂

Did you set goals this year? How are you feeling about them now? Are you planning on tweaking your approach for the coming year? I’d love to hear your writing-related goals, if you have any!

 

*Btw, if you’re of a certain age and have had a weird earworm since reading the title of this post, the song you’re thinking of is probably this one. You’re welcome.