Lost Gods author interview: Anna Smith Spark

I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.

What’s your writing name?

My name is Anna Smith Spark, author of the Empires of Dust trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying, The House of Sacrifice.

What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?

My story in Lost Gods is called ‘Water’. It’s a story about a selkie – a creature from Celtic myth who is both a woman and a seal. It can be read as the backstory to a woman who makes a very brief but significant appearance in The Court of Broken Knives and/or as a companion story to my story ‘Stones’ in Three Crows Magazine: Year One. Or it can be read as a story about women and motherhood in any time any place anywhere.

I’ve always been haunted by folklore about selkies, mermaids, fairies who form some kind of relationship with humans. Men who follow a fairy princess to the Otherworld and return to find a hundred years have passed and everything they knew is gone and dead; fairy women who live with a human family but are unmasked and forced to flee leaving it all behind. 

These stories have so any layers of meaning: otherness, cultural change, integration, immigration, xenophobia …  very obvious feminist readings about power and gender, a wife’s outsider status in a traditional patrilineal family structure, men’s fear of women’s sexuality …  and the universal fear of life change, moving on from the innocent time when your primary relationship is with your parents to it being with your partner, then perhaps with your own children, and you can’t go back from that, that time is gone, and then your own children too move on and you’re not their primary relationship any more, that too is forever gone … 

The story looks at all these things, and at the very basic experience of being a mother to young children, how hard it sometimes is. You do feel like an alien being, sometimes, frankly, and to your child you do have this terrifying terrifying role as a god. 

More specifically, the story was inspired by a stretch of the coast path between Gurnard’s Head and Zennor in west Cornwall. The ruined cottage and the stream are real places on that walk. Zennor has a mermaid legend – with a happy ending, interestingly, the mermaid comes up from the sea to the church because she’s drawn by a man’s beautiful singing, he goes with her to the sea, years later a fisherman meets him living happily as a merhusband with his merwife and merchildren. Zennor was where D H and Frieda Lawrence lived during the First World War, as written about by Helen Dunmore in Zennor in Darkness; Patrick Heron had a house, Eagle’s Nest, above the village. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, very isolated, a glorious suntrap with the sea beyond and the moors behind, and this incredible blazing white sunlight drenching everything.

The curd cakes mentioned in the story are a reference to a recipe that was created in honour of The Court of Broken Knives. You can find the link to the recipe on my website www.courtofbrokenknives.com. They’re delicious.    

Why do you write fantasy? 

Because of all the things in the Flecker poems quoted below.

The endless possibilities. Magic. Wonder. Beauty and horror beyond mortal ken. All the dreams and fears we have as children, the terrible cosmic awe we feel standing looking up at the vastness of the stars, the sea with the sun setting into it in fire, ancient ruins against storm clouds. The re-enchantment of the world, the yearning for something more than this: on Halloween the hollow hills will open; beneath the cold Atlantic the World Serpent lies drowsing; on another distant shore dragons dance on the west wind. Fantasy makes these things real. Makes life stranger and more beautiful. Makes the world a better, stranger place.  That oak tree might be the doorway to fairyland, that cloud might really be a castle in the sky – once you’ve read enough fantasy, you don’t quite know. On some deep level I really believe in fairies, selkies, dragons, magic. So obviously I write about them. 

But also I have no idea why I write fantasy. I wrote fantasy stories all the time as a child, I stopped writing completely, one day as an adult I started writing a scene without any idea what I was doing, no plan at all, and it turned out to be epic fantasy because … all of the above. But it wasn’t intended. Just happened. Turned out there was a vast fantasy world in my mind. (It was what is now the second chapter of The Court of Broken Knives. The twist at the end of the first section took me by surprise as well).

What’s your writing routine? 

I have two days a week to write, plus the occasional Saturday or Sunday. I write nine to five on those days and that’s all the chance I get, if I don’t use them that’s it for the week. So I tend to use them frantically. It’s quite good, actually, certainly motivates me.

I think about what I’m writing all the time, though. Listen to the cadence of the prose, think about the story and the characters, the setting, the way things are evoked … I live in the story while I’m writing it, I do see it as a whole thing before my eyes, sort of walk through it in my thoughts bending down to look carefully at details or seeing the whole and how it works as someone might look at a painting. 

How has coronavirus affected your creativity?

 Aha ha ha ha ha.  I was homeschooling two children through it, so … creativity? You don’t know what true creativity means until you’re simultaneous teaching fronted adverbials and short division while on a teams meeting with your child-free boss while realising you didn’t get a Tesco.com slot this week so there’s nothing for lunch unless you risk death and also nasty looks from an old git who refuses to wear a mask properly by going to the shop with the kids. I have never been so creative.

Read ‘Water’. I had no idea it would be quite so prescient. 

Which three books would you recommend everyone reads?

Just three????? 

M John Harrison, Viriconium. All epic fantasy is a mere footnote to Viriconium. As I said to Steven Erickson by the pool in LA. 

Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Wild, beautiful, mysterious all-ages fantasy.

 James Elroy Flecker, Collected Poems 

We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –

What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:


And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.

(From The Golden Journey to Samarkand) 

We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

(From The Golden Road to Samarkand)

Those lines are everything to me, and why writing fantasy is the highest and noblest purpose in life. 

What’s next for you? (use this space for self-promotion if you’ve new things coming out or have other projects that you want people to know about) 

Several things, but most of them sadly a deep secret that I can’t really talk about yet. As in ‘Water’, I’ m writing more and more about my own lived experience, complex, confessional book – just in a high fantasy setting because that’s the best setting there is.  Elena Ferranti with dragons!  I do feel a moral obligation not to flinch away from writing the bleak truth as I see it about power and political responsibility, but I’ve been consciously writing more hopefully about the world. Empires of Dust was about tearing down false narratives, critiquing everything, it is a very nihilistic, scorched-earth approach because human life is inevitably destructive. But I certainly believe that individual goodness is possible, that love and acts of kindness are indeed humanly necessary, and I’m shifting my focus more to write that too.

Less cryptically, I’ve got a short story for the Grimdark Magazine kickstarter project The King Must Fall, which is probably a last scorched-earth nihilistic hurrah to Empires of Dust (and features a cameo by Grimbold Books supremo, author of the amazing Anna (no relation), and general-force-of-good-in-the-world Sammy K Smith). I’m also down to write a story for Grimoak Press’s Unbound III next year. And God of Grimdark Michael R Fletcher and I have co-authored a serial for Grimdark Magazine that we’re finishing up, which took far longer than anticipated because neither of us plan anything, and that turns out to be more of a problem when you’re trying to follow on from something someone else wrote (Our editor: Guys, uh, did you, like, read the previous chapters before writing the next one? Us: No. Obviously. Why would we do that?)

Looking at the above – if you run a publishing house called Mundane but Ultimately Quite Pleasant, please feel free to get in touch.

Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed, multi-award shortlisted Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice (HarperVoyager UK / Orbit US) described as ‘game of literary thrones’ by the UK Sunday Times and ‘like early Moorcock and Le Guin’ by the UK Daily Mail. Her favourite authors are Mary Renault, R Scott Bakker and M. John Harrison. Previous jobs include English teacher, petty bureaucrat and fetish model. You may know her by the heels of her shoes.

www.courtofbrokenknives.org

Twitter: @queenofgrimdark

Facebook: Anna Smith Spark

 

Lost Gods author interview: Lindsey Duncan

I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.

What’s your writing name?

Lindsey Duncan

What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?

My story in Lost Gods is entitled “Hunting Fire,” and it began as a one-hour free write exercise on the theme of unseasonable weather.  As usual with these things, I didn’t finish it in that hour, but I developed the threads that would carry the story forward.  Also as usual with these things, I took the prompt and turn it on its ear.  I decided to write about a warm spell in cold terrain from the perspective that this surge of warmth was a bad thing, even a catastrophe.  The idea of making a bitter, wintry environment into something hospitable fascinates me; it’s not the first (or last) time I’ve written a story in this kind of setting.

But I knew that humans would struggle in such a place, so the Glaciads came into being.  I always try to avoid the “humans in fuzzy suits” approach to creating nonhuman peoples, so that led to different mores, social structure … and a daughter for the main character, who turned out to be integral to the story’s resolution.  The Glaciads have their own gods, of the core, of the ice, of the winds … and something else.

Why do you write fantasy? 

I write fantasy because I adore creating worlds, playing with what-ifs, and mixing up real world facts to suit myself … and also because it’s habit.  I have been writing fantasy since my fingers first touched keys, so I suspect that even if I tried to write a mainstream tale, magic would sneak in by the back door.  History and mythology have wonderful wells to draw upon, but I love the freedom to take it in a different direction. Something I particularly enjoy is taking an absurd idea and playing it straight, often to the point that the comic origins disappear.  My story in another Grimbold anthology, Unexpected Heroines, involves the concept of a tree who operates as a spy in enemy territory.

I’m still working on a way to play “it’s raining men” as a serious story.

What’s your writing routine? 

I write most days, but there isn’t a particular time or amount of time set aside for it; it depends on how tired I am after work, how many other things are going on, and whether I’m grumpy enough to want to stab all my characters and leave them for dead.  (Granted that I love writing about the afterlife and spirits, so that might make the good *start* of a story.)  

I usually cycle between 2-3 projects, stopping at a set point to switch to the next.  I’m an incubator, so that gives me the opportunity to let things simmer on the backburner … and I’m incapable of doing one thing at a time, anyhow.  These projects are usually of different types / different stages of process:  for instance, I might write in a novel WIP while editing a short story.

How has coronavirus affected your creativity? 

My day job is in catering, so there was a lot of stress and anxiety about the survival of the business, coupled with the necessity of changing tactics to stay afloat … a move away from the elaborate desserts and appetizers we specialize in, and where most of the creative joy in cooking resides.  Add to that I also play the harp professionally for parties and events, and that business understandably dropped off a cliff.  I very much felt like I was creatively useless.  Sometimes, I was overwhelmed and just had to hibernate for a while.  Overall, though, it didn’t harm my writing:  if anything, it focused me, because it was the one thing I could still do, a creative escape that no one could cancel.

Which three books would you recommend everyone reads? 

Everyone’s reading tastes are so different, I couldn’t begin to suggest a book (or three) for everyone.  Good fantasy anthologies are hard to find, though, so I thought I would suggest three to check out:

Fantastic Companions – edited by Julie Czerneda

Not just traditional familiars and talking animals, but a wide variety of companions, including ancient gods and constellations personified

Murder by Magic – edited by Rosemary Edghill

Stories merging magic and mystery, written both by fantasy and mystery writers.  Surprise:  some of the best fantasy comes from the mystery professionals.

Beyond The Woods:  Fairy Tales Retold – edited by Paula Guran

A wide spanning anthology that takes fairy tale inspiration from dystopian science fiction to urban fantasy and even historical fiction.  The first few stories were too dark and tenuously connected for my tastes, but the quality climbs steadily throughout.

What’s next for you?

I don’t have any major projects about to come out, though you can check out my forthcoming short story and poetry at my website:  http:///www.lindseyduncan.com  I’m currently shopping a fantasy-mystery novel called Unnatural Causes, in which a snarky familiar tries to unravel the secrets behind the death of her enchanter.

My soft science fiction novel, Scylla and Charybdis, is still available from Grimbold Books:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07B54QJYL/ 

 

Lost Gods author interview: Kerry Buchanan

I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.

Author Kerry Buchanan with a horse

What’s your writing name?

Kerry Buchanan. Never felt a need to hide behind a pseudonym!

What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?

Shades of Perdition.

I’ve always been fascinated by mythology, and grew up reading the Odyssey and the Iliad as well as everything I could find about the Greek and Roman gods. Throw in a dash of C.S. Lewis, and you have the makings of a story. My main character breaks a few moulds (and not by sitting on them, although that would also be a possibility). Cassie (Cassandra) is not your usual slim, sylph-like hero with ninja skills – that would be way too easy – so instead I decided to make her middle-aged, overweight and I gave her creaky joints and bosoms that would go into orbit if she spun too fast. Once I had my scene set and my character larger than life (in every sense), all I had to do was make her life even harder.  

Why do you write fantasy? 

I don’t just write fantasy (Knife Edge, the first of my crime series set in Northern Ireland, was released in April 2021 by Joffe Books), but until recently fantasy was almost all I wrote. I guess it’s back to those legends again. Plus, I decided at a very early age that dragons were the coolest creature ever, except maybe unicorns (but I’d grown out of unicorns by around five years of age). Almost all my stories have a dragon in them somewhere. I love the freedom within fantasy to let your imagination really fly, and I love the idea of magic.

It’s not that there are no rules when writing fantasy. I think it’s important to design a magic system, or a world, that is consistent. I won’t let my characters escape peril by suddenly allowing them to discover a new and hitherto unsuspected talent for (as an example) chucking fireballs at their enemies. It’s just that I get to write the rules and police them myself. That’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, because who doesn’t, but at least I try for consistent world-building.

What’s your writing routine? 

Until very recently, I didn’t have one. For many years, I’ve been a full-time carer for someone with dementia, and that led to unpredictable days and a lack of routine, as I had to fit in with someone else’s randomness. Just over a week ago, my father went into residential care, so now I have free time during the day, and I have no idea what to do with it! In theory, I work for a couple of hours every morning and another couple every afternoon, but sometimes my muse refuses to dance to my tune, so I end up being struck by inspiration at the exact moment when I should be starting to make dinner or feed the cats. Cue irritated husband foraging in the fridge for something easy to cook. Once I’m lost in my writing, time has no meaning.

How has coronavirus affected your creativity? 

If anything, it has improved it. Under stress, I tend to write more not less, so I’ve been hammering away. During the first lockdown, I edited North Star, an all-female anthology by Northern Irish female writers, as well as contributing a story to it, and I’ve been editing another all-female anthology, Femmes Fae-Tales, for my wonderful friends from www.sffchronicles.com as well as writing my own fairy story for the anthology. This has brought home to me how much the pandemic has affected many other people’s creativity. So many people are finding it much harder to write these days. Some are trying to home-school children whilst also working from home (all on the same ageing laptop); others are just so disheartened by the sickness and death around them that they can’t get their minds on their writing at all. For myself, I run away into my fictional words. My safe space. I’ve completed another crime novel and almost finished a third one since last June. 

Which three books would you recommend everyone reads? 

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is an epic read, and a real eye-opener. Apart from being a great book, it really makes you think about the future of species and how humans try to manipulate them. 

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, because it’s such a lesson in world building. Even down to the languages he’s created and the different races and customs. Many are nicked from the very mythologies I grew up with, but none the worse for that. It is, however, a story of its time. If you’re looking for a book that passes the Bechdel test, this is not it!

The Elderings Series  by Robin Hobb. Yes, I’m cheating here because there are more than 15 books in this series, but they’re sooo good. 

What’s next for you?

I still love writing fantasy, and will go on doing so, but currently I have a three-book contract with Joffe Books for my crime series, so that’s keeping me pretty busy at the moment. Knife Edge is doing well, and the second novel, Small Bones, should be released around June of this year. The third one, Close Hauled, won’t be too far behind. I’ve also been commissioned to write a story for another international anthology, and I run online writing classes, groups and sessions all the time. My Ulster Dedicated Writers meet four times a week, and these sessions are when I get most of my writing done.

 

The Fox Spirit Book of Love

The Fox Spirit Book of Love edited by Chloe Yates

I love writing for anthologies. There is always a central theme that ties a book together, and as a writer it’s actually pretty interesting to write within constraints. Every single writer interprets the theme in a slightly or completely different way. That’s what makes anthologies great.

My submission for the Fox Spirit Book of Love was quite random. I almost didn’t do it. I had this story that I really loved, but I had no idea where it was going to find home. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea in both style and substance. But I’m glad it turned out to be Chloe Yates’ cup of tea – the estimable editor of the Fox Spirit Book of Love. This anthology has stories by several writers who are well-known names in the British SFF indie scene, so I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Recently, Alasdair Stuart did a full review of the anthology in his weekly newsletter, The Full Lid. If you aren’t familiar with it, I highly recommend it. It covers all things pop culture. For my story, The Holy Waters, he said:

The Holy Waters’ by Dolly Garland packs a book’s worth of history and background and tragedy into one short story. As a pair of monarchs struggle to deal, in very different ways, with the loss of their children, the story pulls back and back until we get if not comfort, then context. If not understanding, then acceptance. It’s intensely ambitious and one of the best pieces in the book by some distance.

That certainly made my day. Reviews are subjective, of course. And you may hate the story that someone else likes. But as writers, when we put our heart and soul into a story, we hope that at least one person out there gets what we’re trying to say. This particularly applies to this anthology, which is all about love. Different kinds of love that speak differently to each of us.

If you are interested in some heart warming stories, do check out the Fox Spirit Book of Love.

 

Gollancz/Rivers of London BAME SFF Award Shorlist

It’s been a while since I posted here. I’ve been pretty rubbish at writing blog posts. This return hopefully means that I will rectify that. We’ll see.

When you try to be a professional writer and start sending things out in the world, one of the best ways to cope with rejections is to send things out and forget about them – because let’s face it, rejections outnumber acceptances in the publishing industry, especially when you are not an established author.

In January, I submitted the first few chapters of my novel, Kali’s Call to Gollancz’s contest for BAME SFF writers, which is supported by Ben Aaronovitch and NaNoWriMo. I didn’t exactly forget about it, but I didn’t obsess about it either.

Then in May, I first received an email saying the short-list date was pushed back due to current situations. So then the shortlist and the nervous anticipation was back in my mind. And about a week later, I received another email that included words “I’m thrilled…” and I just stared at it for a few moments.

BAME AWard

Gollancz is a pretty solid name in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and so is Ben Aaronovitch. So the fact that my novel, Kali’s Call, was included in the shortlist is nothing short of astounding.

The first few chapters of Kali’s Call were actually workshopped at my first Milford in 2017, and the feedback I received from everyone there was immensely useful. My intention to finish that novel soon after Milford didn’t work out, and the book has actually progressed a lot slower than I’d planned. In fact, I ended up not touching it for over a year. Lots of reasons behind it, including non-writing reasons. But sometimes books just take you on a weird journey. I wrote other things in between, but this book just sat there.

When I first started writing this book, it was with a complete pantser approach, because I just wanted to see where the story would take me. Shivani, one of the main characters in the story, came to me first when I wrote a short story for Fight Like a Girl anthology. In this book, Shivani’s journey continues. But it was Avantika, who came to me solid as a character, and it was her story I started to write.

The pantser approach was great, until the story took me to the middle, and just left me there. So when I returned to it, I wanted to be a little more methodical. I have plotted novels before, and this was an experiment in just going with the flow. If there is anything I should have known about my general personality is that I am totally not the sort who goes with the flow. People telling me to relax stresses me out more than whatever actual stress I might be experiencing. The same thing happened with this book. There is a room for free form exploring the story, but I think for something as big as a novel, I have now learned my lesson that I like to know where I am going.

As Isaac Asimov said, “Knowing the beginning and the end of the story before you start writing it.” So I figured out my exact end, and got bit of a handle on how the characters were going to get there. I don’t have all the details yet, and some parts are still really frustrating, but I have a general direction.

The final results of the Gollancz contest will be out any time now. Of course, I am nervous. I have no doubt that other shortlisted writers are very talented, and I know one of them personally from a London writing group. But I am certainly keeping my fingers crossed for me.

However, one good thing that has already come out of this, is it’s given me my writing mojo back. I was struggling to write when the lockdown started. Like a lot of us have been. There is an illusion of more time, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a sudden creative outburst. But once this result came out, it really inspired me. I thought if others can see the potential of this book, then I owe it to myself to finish it. So I promised myself that I will finish the first draft of this story by the time the results come out in July, and since then I’ve been sticking to it.

It’s certainly not easy, and sometimes it is like pulling teeth. I am also currently doing a very busy day job, so that means I am writing in the evenings, trying to meet my daily quota. I know, there are people who write under far more challenging circumstances, but like anything, it’s relative. But getting back into daily writing, meeting my self-imposed word counts, and seeing that progress bar is giving me all sorts of productive feel. But more importantly, I am finally seeing this story shape take on paper (or screen) as I had seen it in my head, and that is the most important thing.

I don’t like leaving stories incomplete. Whatever ends up on the page never quite measures up to what is in one’s head, but you can’t edit the blank page.

So I’m really thankful to Milford for seeing the potential of this story in the first place, and to Gollancz for seeing that now. Now I better get back to that word count.

 

Live blogging from Milford writing retreat

It’s my first time at Milford’s writing retreat, but second time attending Milford altogether. My first was in 2017 when I won a bursary to attend the Milford conference. That experience was so productive and energizing that I was determined to come back.

When Milford started doing these writing retreats from 2018, I was immediately interested. But 2018 was one in freezing February so I chickened out and signed up for much milder May 2019 retreat instead.

I’ve been here a day and already I feel the writer in me taking the centre stage as rest of the life, chores, to-do lists fades away into the background.

My plan for this week is to edit (basically re-write) a short story and edit my novel. There is, of course, reading involved, because when you are done writing, you want to be inspired by good words. Hanging out with fellow Milfordians is awesome as ever. It’s amazing how close you feel to people you barely see when brought together in a right (write) setting.

It also happens to be my birthday today, and of course, whatever you do on your birthday is what you will do for the rest of the year. So this seems like a good day to be productive as a writer.

 

What makes a better writer – deliberate practice or writing for a purpose

I read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. The book sucked me in. Goldberg’s voice, her passion for writing, combined with practical exercises makes this one gem of a book.

It also inspired me to read another popular writing book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. In my opinion, the popularity there is misguided. It’s about twenty pages of good stuff mixed in with a lot of waffling. So we will forget about that, and focus on Writing Down the Bones. 

Goldberg says: 

Writing practice embraces your whole life and doesn’t demand any logical form…it’s a place that you can come to wild and unbridled, mixing the dream of your grandmother’s soup with the astounding clouds outside your window. It is undirected and has to do with all of you right in your present moment. Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, write our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.

[Kindle Location 296]

That made me wonder about writing practice. Those of us who are writers, we write. All the time in many cases. I, for example, write blog posts, essays, work on freelance assignments, create courses and guides for Kaizen Journaling, and work on my fiction. Emails and letters too if we count those. But what about writing practice? I journal, so that includes a little bit of writing practice as Goldberg describes it, but even journaling has a purpose. 

So I don’t really practice writing any more. Not consciously anyway. Because I’m always trying to write something that has a purpose. That will contribute towards a project I want to complete. 

That is my practice. Because no matter how often we write, we have to keep doing it to improve. 

But what if we listen to Goldberg, and practice as she says. Practice for its own sake. We write, without purpose, without rigidity, without boundaries – mixing fact with fiction. Just deliberate practice. 

Would that help me become a better writer than writing practice that contributes to specific projects? I don’t know. 

Would it be different from journaling? Perhaps, but I’m not sure. 

Because I don’t know, I am going to try it. I’m going to do what Goldberg suggests, and set up regular time, just to practice writing. I will let you know how it works out for me. 

What about you? Do you think writing practice for its own sake is better?

 

Are money and comfort necessary for the writing process?

An Essay based on A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf 

I first met Virginia Woolf at Mrs Dalloway’s party. She was a stranger – an aloof, sharp, beautiful woman with whom I didn’t feel an immediate connection. Relationships with books and authors are the same as relationships with people. With some, it’s an instant connection, recognition of a kindred spirit. But with others, it takes time. Virginia and I are still growing. The more I learn about her, the more she fascinates me. 

 A Room of One’s Own seems an apt place to start, with its focus on what a writer needs to be able to write. Woolf comments upon various interconnected issues, but the undercurrent running throughout the whole book is the importance of money that provides for one’s basic needs so that one can focus on writing. That is as relevant today as it was in 1928. Except that today, this is no longer an issue for just women.

We have come far enough in gender equality that this issue applies to both sexes. If there are any fortunes to be inherited, it is no longer only men who inherit them. When Woolf said,

A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

[Kindle Location 37, Chapter 1]

she wasn’t talking about the importance of money for its own sake. She didn’t say a woman must have thousands of pounds, a big house and a bunch of servants if she is to write fiction. It’s about what money gives you. A sense of comfort and security of knowing you have a roof over your head, bills are paid, and you have somewhere to write.

The physical comforts cannot be overrated. Whatever lofty heights your soul may aspire to, it is framed in a corporal body. As such, it has basic human needs like every other person.

Woolf was right when she said,

The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

[Kindle Location 237, Chapter 1]

We have not yet gotten to a stage where science can separate heart, body and brain in different compartments. However inconvenient it may be, it’s probably a good thing for our writing, enabling us to tap into not just intellectual but also our emotional capacity. However, attempting to tap into your inner muse when you don’t know where your next meal is going to come from is rarely successful. The image of a starving artist may sound romantic, but in reality, it has no more romance than the lives of millions of other starving people.

Woolf asks,

What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?

[Kindle Location 329, Chapter 2]

Necessity is too definitive, for it would change from person to person. Some people are able to bear discomforts more than others. Yet, it would be logical to say that comfortable conditions of living would be more conducive to the creation of works of art, and the availability of that comfort is dependent upon having money. Even if the impact of gaining some money is not as momentous as it was in Woolf’s times.

The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women…of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely the more important.

[Kindle Location 486, Chapter 2]

Woolf was an intelligent, socially conscientious woman. She knew the importance of being able to vote, the tide of change it represented for women, yet it was the £500 per year that she found more valuable. For it was the money that bought her independence, without which, political rights mean very little.

Food, house, and clothing are mine for ever.

[Kindle Location 503, Chapter 2]

These basic needs were her security. They gave her the freedom to be a writer. These are the very basic needs that prevent people today from blossoming into their inner artist.

Woolf raises this in a reflection about women who lived during Shakespeare’s time. 

For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.

[Kindle Location 541, Chapter 3]

It wasn’t a puzzle. Woolf knew the answer to that too.

What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached  to life at all four corners…But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in mid-air by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in.

[Kindle Location 543, Chapter 3]

That is the same concern we face today. The environment nurtures creativity, but it can also distract. There is a reason people pay small fortunes to attend writers’ retreats. The reality that was true then and is true now.

Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.

[Kindle Location 676, Chapter 3]

Art available in abundance is not perceived as a necessity, and yet take it away – every book, every film, every painting, and every play – and the world will mourn its loss, and be changed forever. However, until that happens, complain about being a struggling writer, and people will tell you to get a real job.

The very people, who look down upon and give “practical” advice to the struggling artists, hero-worship successful ones. Just think about a mile long queue for book-signings, midnight book releases, and intensity of fans for success stories such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Eat Pray Love. As Woolf said,

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.

[Kindle Location 845, Chapter 3]

She is not the only one who’s being honest about the importance of money and comfort in a writer’s life. She references Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who said,

The poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance…a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.

[Kindle Location 1406, Chapter 3]

In today’s society, we are not absolutely ruled by the circumstances of our birth. Education is available to people of all backgrounds. With the long reach of the Internet, more and more opportunities are available for those with a vision and a drive. While a poor child in England today does not have as hopeless existence as a child of an Athenian slave, he also does not have the ease with which opportunities are available for the rich child. Intellectual freedom is still difficult to achieve, for it requires time to study and to reflect. One can only find that time once the bills are paid, and there is a place – a room of one’s own – to sit down in.

 

The humanity of taboos: explored through Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

Note: I first submitted this essay with my MA in English Literature application. I received the admission offer, and so now I can publish it here. 

The humanity of taboos
Explored through Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

It is not the most common thing to associate Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita1 with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things2. Published forty-two years apart, former by an established Russian author relocated to America, and the latter by an Indian author who has produced no other work of Fiction, Lolita and The God of Small Things are two masterpieces with one thing in common: they show us, as we will see throughout this essay, that taboos are taboos not because they are against human nature, but because they are a side of human nature we would rather feign ignorance too.

Nabokov didn’t write Lolita to be scandalous. He wrote it because it was a story that called to him and he felt that if he didn’t finish it, “the ghost of the destroyed book would haunt my files for the rest of my life.” [Nabokov, 310]

Roy felt a calling too, but of a different kind. Her story is semi-autobiographical, set in the world of her childhood. When asked about the book’s focus on the caste system and attitude towards women, Roy said, “I never set out with the intention to write about it. I think one of the saddest things that’s happening to literature is that it’s getting over-simplified by this diet of simple political ideas.”3

By remaining true to their fiction, they managed to pinpoint unpleasant truths of our reality more effectively than any political statement or philosophical argument could ever have done. Through the lives of their very human characters, both Nabokov and Roy showed us the immorality of our humanity.

It’s a norm in Western society to paint paedophiles as monsters. Yet, as we go through Humbert’s narrative, and feel disgusted as we’ve been conditioned to feel by the moral compass of our times, a trace of sympathy sneaks in when we see him suffer, and know that however taboo, he loves. “…I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” [Nabokov, 275, 276]

We don’t believe him merely because he says so. We believe him because we’ve witnessed his journey, and also because even he is relieved by the awareness that it wasn’t just “the foul lust.” [Nabokov, 281]

Humbert’s relationship with Lolita is a taboo because the rules of our society say so. If that wasn’t the case, the reaction to this novel would have been different. As Humbert pointed out, “Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces. Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds.” [Nabokov, 19]

The taboos in Roy’s world are labelled different, but the crimes are similar. All the central characters break rules, and suffer the consequences, though some pay a price much steeper than others. “Perhaps, Ammu, Estha and she (Rahel) were the worst transgressors. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others too. They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tempered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.” [Roy, 31]

Roy shows us humanity’s fear of any threat to its order. The society creates layer upon layer of structure, each with its own set of rules, embedded in the very consciousness of people from the time they are born. Very few people, like Ammu and Velutha, manage to escape this inherent conditioning. The majority, like Vellya Paapen, merely struggle on, accepting their lot in life.

Humbert knew he was breaking the rules. He doesn’t ask for or expect forgiveness. Though he claims his preference for young girls a natural inclination, he knows that it is a violation of legal and social rules, and accepts his due penalties. What he insists on, is making the world aware that he loved, and loved truly. “…how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still grey-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine…” [Nabokov, 276]

It is not just Humbert towards whom our emotions are inverted. Lolita, the victim by the standards of our society, should have been the one a reader would root for. However, though we can see that she is largely a product of her circumstances, there is also an element of her inherent nature that does not generate sympathy. Lolita, as a person, as a child, does not fit neatly into the victim mould. In her relationship with Humbert, she was more often the one with the power. Humbert knew it too. “…I was weak, I was not wise, my schoolgirl nymphet had me in thrall.” [Nabokov, 181]

When Estha is abused, we feel the emotions we are supposed to feel, because both characters meet our moral expectations. Estha is a good boy, a victim. The man who abuses him is someone we can easily envision standing in a corner, looking out with a predator’s eye for vulnerable children. “The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’s hand closed over Estha’s. His thumbnail was long like a woman’s. He moved Estha’s hand up and down. First slowly. Then fastly. The lemondrink was cold and sweet. The penis hot and hard.” [Roy, 103]

Lolita is not frightened of Humbert, though perhaps she doesn’t see another way out. When we see her manipulating him, using his lust against him, while we can’t blame her, it becomes a clash of two taboos. Humbert is wrong by our moral standards for having sex with a minor. Lolita is wrong by our moral standards because she behaves like a prostitute, demanding things and money for her favours. “Her weekly allowance, paid to her under condition she fulfil her basic obligations, was twenty-one cents at the start of the Beardsley era – and went up to one dollar five before its end.” [Nabokov, 181]

Estha, on the other hand, is terrified that “The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man could walk in any minute.” [Roy, 194] The fear drives him to find a refuge away from home, to discover, “The boat that Ammu would use to cross the river. To love by night the man her children loved by day.” [Roy, 202]

The relationship between Ammu and Velutha is one of the two main taboos in The God of Small Things. It is this relationship that offers hope of finding one’s own happiness, even in the world made of rigid rules. “And on Ammu’s Road (to Age and Death) a small, sunny meadow appeared.” [Roy, 337] It also sprinkles sorrow that seeps through the lives of all the central characters. Everyone is somehow left broken, and alone.

The second main taboo is when the twins, Estha and Rahel, have sex. Technically, it is incest and like Humbert’s love for Lolita, based on the rules of our society, we are expected to show disgust. Yet, as we travel with the story, we can see that “…what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.” [Roy, 328]

For Estha and Rahel, the fraternal twins with “the single Siamese soul” [Roy, 41] there was an intimacy that went beyond their individuality. The events that destroyed their lives, made them accomplices in the deaths of Velutha and Sophie Mol, and the slow disintegration of their mother’s life, connected them further. For two people, so intertwined that there was no clear distinction between where one person began and another ended, the sex was merely an attempt to find solace in the company of the only other person who knew everything, could understand everything, was a part of everything – and was essentially a sharer of soul.

The characters and the scene make us think about – even if we can’t quite gather the courage to challenge – the taboos as defined by our civilised society.

Despite the seemingly destructive themes, both novels end on a hopeful note, highlighting that no matter how rigid the rules, no matter what the consequences of breaking those rules, humans will strive to capture the fleeting moments of joy. In The God of Small Things, the hopeful note is highlighted in an impactful manner by ending the story, in the middle, when Ammu promises to meet Velutha, “Tomorrow.” [Roy, 340]

In Lolita, the hopeful note comes from Humbert’s acknowledgement of his crime. “I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape.” [Nabokov, 307] His regret is not for loving Lolita, nor for having sex with her. His regret is because he caused her pain, and destroyed her childhood. However, he also convinces us that his love for her was genuine, in his own way, and ends his memoir wishing Lolita only happiness.

Humbert also shows us another side of Lolita, which in turn makes her a more sympathetic character. “She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom…” [Nabokov, 283]

Neither of the authors set out to convert us to change our moral compass, but they show us that like nearly all the elements of humanity, the definitions of monsters and victims are not always black and white. Their works and their worlds challenge us to look at our own morality, at the taboos of our society and consider the reasons behind them. People who don’t like that challenge are the ones who call for banning of these books.

Oscar Wilde4 said it long ago, “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” Both Roy and Nabokov shame the world, by showing us the humanity of taboos.

 

Bibliography

1.    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Penguin Books 1997, ISBN 0-14-026407-8
2.    The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Flamingo 1998, ISBN 0-00-655068-1
3.    Small is Beautiful – An Interview with Arundhati Roy, Harper Collins Australia http://www.harpercollins.com.au/author/authorExtra.aspx?authorID=50000537&displayType=interview
4.    The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Chapter 19

 

While the world sleeps

This essay is the first in a collection in Ben Okri’s book, A Way of Being Free. The book is seemingly based on creativity, and yet really about life, dreams, authenticity, and so much more.

While the World Sleeps sets the stage for the rest of the book, the very title turning on the imagination. Think about being awake while the world is sleeping, literally and metaphorically. Think about the silence, the aloneness, and the possibilities. This essay uses that metaphor to offer both hope and a reality check.

It uses poets as its vehicles, but the truth of it applies to anyone who is attempting to seek out the truth in the world, and not be limited by the external boundaries. There are plenty of external boundaries. Even if we see the beauty and the limitless potential of what the world could be, the world doesn’t allow us to just retrieve that beauty. It doesn’t allow us to just embrace our vision.

“In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the moulding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.” [Pg 1]

We must snatch what fragments we can, and then put them back together like a puzzle. We must then continue to work at this puzzle, refining the rough edges, fitting it into a cohesive whole until it resembles our original vision.

To do this, to snatch these fragments of our waking dream, we must remain awake to see the world for what it truly is, in all its glory and hideousness.

“The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don’t care to look, and they need to do this because if they don’t they can’t sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives.” [Pg 1]

Only by staying awake to see the true nature of the world, we can also see “the fluid nature of reality.” [Pg 2] We can see what most people are terrified to admit: “each individual reality is different. Laws do not bind our perceptions. There are as many worlds as there are lives.” [Pg 2]

The hope is that if we are courageous enough to acknowledge and accept our dreams, to go after them, then we can extend the boundaries of the world offered to us. We can alter our reality.

But courage is a must because most people are afraid of people who have that kind of courage. By altering our own world, we may also alter theirs, and that frightens them. “…the dreams of the people are beyond them. It is they who have to curb the poet’s vision of reality.” [Pg 4]

If you choose to stay awake while the world sleeps, if you choose to notice the things the world is uncomfortable you noticing, you may be seen as set against the world because you “cannot accept that what there seems to be is all there is.” [Pg 3]

The reality is that we are expected, in this world of rules and regulations and political correction to sing “only of our restricted angles and in restricted terms and in restricted language.” [Pg 4, 5]

To go beyond those restrictions to the limitless means of expression available to us is seen often as sowing dissent. However, you don’t need to be frightened of people who are frightened themselves. You don’t need to submerge yourself in what the world seems to be, because “[the world] carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher.”[Pg 6] Use your dreams, the truth you see while the world is asleep and keep going where your dreams lead you. 

“The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely awaits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself.” [Pg 6]

When you seek the truth while the world sleeps, don’t just look into the outward nooks and crannies. Look for the truth within yourself. Dig deep.

“The deeper poet feel, the deeper is their exploration.” [Pg 7]

If you feel the fire within you, if you feel that what you see and what you get is not enough, then you must go after what you wish the truth to be. Don’t let the “ghost of your possibilities” [Pg 12] hang around your neck. Don’t murder the possibilities of all that you could be. Don’t murder your dreams.

There will be people and institutions and government who don’t like your unconventional ways; who don’t approve of you extending boundaries of their world, but “it’s from the strength of your antagonists that you derive your greater authority. They make it absolutely necessary for you to be more than yourself.” [Pg 15]

Therefore, be more than yourself. The world actually wants you to be authentic, to be unconventional, and to create more realities. The difficulties that come your way are there to test you, that you can stick by your beliefs, that you can see your dreams through the completion.

Towards the end of the essay, Okri offers us hope and a challenge. “Don’t wait till you are dead to know that in reality the whole of life is on your side.” [Pg 15]

We don’t have to be caged in other people’s reality. We can choose our reality. We can tailor it to our dreams; modify it to resemble our vision. However, to do that, we must keep our dreams alive, by not suppressing “the poetic into our waking lives.” [Pg 13]