The Mars Room (reading-as-writer 14)

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The Forbidden Zone

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Mary Borden is one of those women who help make the early 20th century such an exciting, terrible time to be alive. Born in 1886 the daughter of a Chicago mining millionaire, Mary married a British missionary and moved to London where she raised three daughters. She started writing and had a brief affair with modernist writer and painter Wyndham Lewis (founder of the Vorticist group and a man who Hemingway described as having “the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist”). During most of the #FirstWorldWar Borden funded and ran a highly efficient field hospital caring for French combatants – and found time for a passionate affair with a British officer (who she subsequently married after divorcing the long-suffering missionary). All this – and a wonderful, lyrical, gritty writer and poet! (Her second World War, serving in Palestine and North Africa, was equally exciting.) The Forbidden Zone is a collection of short stories concerned with life in wartime France and caring for the wounded. Most of the pieces were drafted in brief respites from work; the whole is both a bewitching portrayal of the ugliness, ironies (and sometimes awful beauty) of war – and an intelligent and authentic description of wartime nursing. Perhaps the most powerful piece is Moonlight, in which the writer lies awake in her tent listening to the whimpering of a dying man in a nearby ward. “Pain is a harlot in the pay of War … she consorts with decay, is addicted to blood, cohabits with mutilations … She is shameless. She lies in their beds all day. She lies with the Heads and the Knees and the festering Abdomens … she lies beside them, to tease them with her excruciating caresses, her pinches and twinges that make them moan and twist in sleep … she lies there to spoil their dreams, when they dream of their women and little children, of their mothers and sweethearts … “ #amwriting #writinginspiration #amresearchingformynovel #WW1 #GreatWar #modernliterature

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The Lie (reading-as-a-writer 13)

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The Lie by Helen Dunmore (2014) is up there on my list of Top 20 #WW1 books (and that is not a place easily gained). Accolades abound elsewhere so I won’t reiterate; suffice to say it’s a book to which I will return. Three Gifts for the writer-reader: (1) A masterclass in first person, present tense narrative. (2) Another masterclass – in building tension and gradual reveal. (3) Vivid, accurate period and historical detail. And because The Lie is such a strong exemplar for a writer of historical fiction, I looked a little closer and identified three more useful techniques: Foreshadowing: The seeds of Dan’s destruction are sewn in the early part of the book, and reiterated with a memory from his childhood. Ambiguity: Is there something more to the old woman’s death? What is the significance of the revolver and bayonet references – and the dog scene? What exactly happened to Felicia? And is Frederick a ghost or hallucination? (And, no, it doesn’t matter!) Narrative voice: Impeccable match between character and his world view, all nicely constrained by the tight frame of his surroundings and experience. #amreading

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#100 days of writing 4

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Virginia Woolf (reading-as-a-writer 12)

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This is one of my Desert Island Books! Every time I read Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925) I gain some new nugget of understanding, spark of inspiration, fresh writerly knowledge. This most recent reading was prompted by a short course in #WW1 literature at The British Library. Oddly enough, I hadn’t previously thought of Mrs Dalloway as part of the WW1 canon, but of course it is: from the early mention of Lady Bexborough “who opened a bazaar … with a telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed” to poor Septimus Smith’s terrible breakdown. Three gifts for the writer-reader? Every sentence – every word – is a gift but if you insist: (1) Descriptions: What could be more perfect than “the leaden circles” of the chimes of Big Ben “dissolving in the air” – or the character of Lord Gayton, in whose hands “ponies’ mouths quivered at the end of his reins”? (2) Control: it may seem like a delightful, mad, meandering stream-of-consciousness but of course it’s not. Apart from the recurring motifs of Big Ben, the “strange high singing” of the aeroplane, and the baton-carrying continuity of the action zig-zagging across London, there is the full circle meeting of Mrs Dalloway’s first loves. (3) Enigmas: the singer (“the voice of an ancient spring”) outside Regent’s Park Tube Station – and the OTT repulsiveness of Miss Kilman (and her not-so-subtle name). What does she represent? Emancipation or repression? Should we pity her or fear her? I’ve also just read (for the first time) Jacob’s Room (1922) – and then followed this up by an overdose of online literary analysis. The central character is supposed to be based on Rupert Brooke, who Woolf described as “jealous, moody and ill-balanced”. (Search the London Review of Books archive for a review of three 2015 biographies and a photo of Brooke looking distractingly handsome, even by his standards). I’m not sure about the Brooke connection; I just know I read Jacob’s Room in 24 hours, I’m bewitched by the concept of a character known only in the fragments of other’s connections – and the beginning and the ending are (in turn) beautiful and heart-breaking. #amreading #amresearchingformynovel

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Regeneration (reading-as-a-writer 11)

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My interest – indeed, my passion – for the #GreatWar started with Jeremy Paxton’s Great Britain’s Great War (2014), after which Testament of Youth made me cry and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress (second and third volumes of Siegfried Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography) restored some balance. My fate was finally sealed To Fight alongside Friends: The First World War Diaries of Charlie May (edited by Gerry Harrison, 2014). I then tried Birdsong, hated it – and moved swiftly onto Pat Barker’s Regeneration (the first of her famous trilogy, published in 1991). Fellow writers will recognise the dread provoked by that bit in agent submission letters requiring one to suggest authors with whom one would align ones work – and doubtlessly be equally aware of advice not to put Dickens or Tolkien. I’m not sure if I have the nerve to write Pat Barker – even though her name is as synonymous with #WW1 as trenches and Tipperary – but I really want to because when I read Regeneration I had two thoughts: “I want to write a book like this” followed by “I think I could write like this – in 30 years’ time”. Three gifts for the writer/reader: (1) Sparseness of tone and earthiness of subject matter. (Barker hated any hint of “sensitive lady novelist” – but then don’t we all?) (2) A complex anti-hero in the character of Billy Prior (invented by Barker to counterbalance the upper-class beauty of Sassoon and the middle-class innocence of Owen); a pretty distasteful chap all round, but nevertheless one guns for him, which is no mean achievement and worthy of study. (3) Consolation. Regeneration isn’t perfect. There’s an odd scene of Sarah and her mum and another with her chums which really don’t add anything to the plot. (One imagines Barker’s editor: “I say, Pat – can I call you Pat? – I say, we really need a female voice here, not much, bit of chit-chat over tea or shell cases or whatever.”) And a few facts do land with a bit of a look-at-my-research clunk in the narrative – but maybe that’s just the picky prism of the intervening 27 years daring to post-judge a book that really did break the mould of #historicalfiction #amwriting

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#100 days of writing 3

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#100 days of writing 2

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Beauty and the Beast

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Another unexpected literary inspiration – and evocative image – for my story; the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast. Written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, first published in 1740 (as La Belle et la Bête), and endlessly adapted since for book, screen and theatre. The illustration above is by Warwick Goble from a 1913 retelling of the story (appropriate timing for my story is set in the #GreatWar, #WW1!) We all know the story: A ship-wrecked merchant picks a forbidden rose and is confronted by a hideous humanoid Beast. Fearing for his life, the merchant agrees to send one of his daughters to live with the Beast. His youngest daughter (“lovely, kind, well-read, and pure of heart”) agrees to fulfil this request and lives in luxury with the Beast, enjoying his company, engaging in long conversations but refusing to marry him. After a time, Beauty becomes homesick and the Beast allows her to leave provided she returns to him after one week. Beauty breaks her promise and lingers at home, encouraged to do so (according to the original tale) by her wicked sisters. When she eventually returns to the Beast’s palace, she finds him “lying half-dead from heartbreak” amongst his rose bushes. Beauty weeps over the Beast, declaring her love for him. As her tears fall on his broken body, the Beast is transformed into a handsome prince. The prince tells Beauty that long ago an evil fairy turned him into a hideous beast and that only by finding true love could the curse be broken. (The original tale has the evil fairy attempting to seduce the prince, but Disney glosses over that detail.) The pair marry and live happily ever after. My story reflects the redemptive power of my heroine’s love for a man made ugly by his experience of war. #amwriting #writinginspiration #amwritinghistoricalfiction #historicalfiction #historicalromance

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Shellshock in 1920

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