Tuesday, 31 May 2011

How Writers Research #2

So, back to the conversation I had with Ian Hocking about how he conducts research for his novels. We discussed how he gets started, and to what lengths he'll go to inject a sense of realism; it turns out Ian is prepared to learn to speak Russian, and also to give and get information from other novelists. Writing is not quite the solitary pursuit it's made out to be. The second and last part of the interview starts with how to find relevant sources:

A: You mentioned 'broad sweep' books and how there's a danger there in homogenising the writing, (putting in a perspective that couldn't possibly exist for the character?) - but first hand accounts are more helpful. Where would you go to track down these first hand accounts? A library, or the internet, for instance?

I: Well, I probably would have benefitted from talking to a librarian but I decided to start with Amazon. I know that they have lots of used paperbacks that I could search easily. That's how I came up with 'Five sisters: Women against the Tsar'. However, I did use the library here at Canterbury Christ Church to find books on communist theory (...which reminds, I also downloaded audiobooks from Audible.co.uk on Marxism and long-term Russian history stretching all the way back to the Russ).

A: Does most of your research get conducted at home in front of your computer, say, or do you go elsewhere?

I: Largely in front of my computer or in my office. I picked up a couple of books from the library at Christ Church, but in the main everything came to me.

A: And to go back to talking to Roger Morris about Russia - can I ask, does a conversation like that take the form of an email conversation, or did you meet him face to face first? Is it a case of him recommending sources to you, or giving you information directly? And would you find that information (from another writer directly) more or less trustworthy, do you think, than from a textbook, say, or a first-hand account?

I: This was partly an email conversation but we also chatted at the launch of hot new book from a Devonian author. Then it was mostly email. I asked Roger for some recommendations - he came up with Orlando Figes's book, 'Natasha's Dance' - and also recommended 'Five sisters' to him. He didn't give me any information directly, though he probably would have if I asked. I think Russia itself is too vast a topic to bother talking about it other email - particularly when you're not sure what will turn out to be useful.

Over to the Devonian author...

A: When do you feel satisfied that you've done enough research?


I: I don't think I've ever felt satisfied with research. There's always something that you've handled wrong. With specific regard to a novel, where you're dealing with the representation of lived experience, there's no way everything is going to ring true. A phrase might be wrong; or a train line that you thought was there in 1904 wasn't built until 1910, or some such. I'd go as far as to say that if I ever had that feeling of satisfaction, I'd be losing my grip on reality. ...Unless the novel was heavily autobiographical, of course.

A: So when might you stop researching, even though there's no moment of satisfaction?

I: Hmm, that's a good question. I would never stop volitionally. It would come when the book is published. Since the book we're talking about is not yet published, I haven't really stopped researching it even though the book has been mellowing on my hard drive for a year. There's always something rattling around my head and that I realise I can put it in. Typically, I realise it would be cool if I could include a particular fact - such as the bridges of St Petersburg rising in unison during the night, or the horse-drawn taxi drivers standing up and bowing to the road-side shrines as they clatter past - and then go back to the book and drop it in.

A: And what would you recommend to a new author as a method of conducting research?

I: Zoinks - that's a difficult one. I think research is a battle on many fronts. You need to use physical and nonphysical sources, curated and non-curated...but the most important thing is to start broadly and get narrow later. Follow your interests because these will probably be informed by an idea of where your story will go, even if you've not consciously aware of it. In terms of research in general, you must do it - because of all the things that might lead to writer's block, running out of 'road' will be the thing that inhibits the writing more than anything.

Again, many thanks to Ian for being my guinea pig, and best of luck with the new Saskia Brandt book, Flashback (available now on the Kindle).

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Veggie Books: Mirrors

Eduardo Galeano, the author of Mirrors, is one of those writers who has an overtly political agenda. I don't think there are many left (not that get published, anyway...), but the few you'll come across tend to not be from Europe or the US. There's a strong argument here about financial dissatisfaction breeding political dissent - after all, when do we pick up our banners and march? When somebody suggests there's not enough money for all the things we take for granted any more. Make more money! we cry. Or take money from somewhere else in the budget! But what if there never was any money for you in the first place? And no freedom to complain about it either? I can see how the purest application of the ability of the writer is to name and shame injustice, and I will forever admire writers such as Galeano for doing that. I'm just too well-fed and middle-class to get stoked up about politics. For me, politics is about other sheltered people making speeches and occasionally saying the wrong thing, causing unintentional hilarity. I wish it were different. Maybe one day I'll write a book about that wish instead.

Galeano may be rubbing off on me.

Okay, so, Mirrors is not a novel. It's a collection of very short essays, one paragraph or maybe two, about historical events. It covers the entire range of human experience, and pretty much every time period in our not very illustrious history. It shows how we make the same mistakes, over and over. It concentrates on war and discrimination. You'll only need to read a few pages before you start to feel bad about yourself.

Don't attempt to read more than a few in one sitting, or you'll start noticing the themes of the condemnation of America and religion and white men in general (which is fair enough, maybe) over the insights into the past. And some of them are great - I kept thinking this could be a historical novelist's dream. So many times I could have written a book about some throwaway piece of history, and it actually becomes quite frustrating to not have a longer story about them. Here's a veggie one as an example:

Doomed By Your Past

Corn, sacred plant of the Maya, was given several names in Europe. The names recast geography: they called it Turkish grain, Arab grain, grain of Egypt, or grain of India. These errors did nothing to rescue corn from mistrust and scorn. When people learned where it came from, they fed it to the pigs. Corn had a higher yield than wheat and it grew faster, resisted drought, and produced good food. But it was not proper for Christian mouths.

The potato was also a forbidden fruit in Europe. Like corn, its American origins condemned it. Worse, the potato was a root grown in the depths of the earth, where hell has its caves. Doctors knew it caused leprosy and syphilis. In Ireland, if a pregnant woman ate a potato at night, in the morning she would give birth to a monster. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the potato was fed only to prisoners, lunatics, and the dying.

Later on, this cursed root rescued Europe from hunger. But not even then did people stop wondering: if not food of the devil, then why are potatoes and corn not mentioned in the Bible?


See what I mean?

Mirrors is a fantastically interesting book, and I would like to have some of the passion that inspired such a huge undertaking. But would I like to get that passion at the expense of my soft white upbringing? No. I'm thinking not. I'm sorry for all the terrible things that happened throughout history, and I'm glad that there are novelists out there who can tackle such things so that we don't forget them. I'm also glad I'm not one of them.

Monday, 23 May 2011

How Writers Research #1

I'm currently tackling my dissertation for my MSc in Library and Information Management and I've chosen to complete a collective case study on the subject of how novelists approach the task of researching their novels. It's very interesting to chat to the writers involved about how they find and use relevant information: what sources they use, how they decide what to record, and what they think and feel about the process.

Ian Hocking has been kind enough to help me get to grips with what sort of questions to ask (well, he is a Psychology lecturer as well as a bestselling novelist...) and at the end of our chat about methods of research we thought it might make interesting reading for a wider audience, so he gave me permission to post some of our discussion on my blog.

For those of you without a Kindle or any interest in sci-fi I should point out that Ian's novel Deja Vu has been riding high in the Kindle charts for a good month or so, and the sequel, Flashback, was released yesterday. They're both jolly good reads, and very well researched, too. Of course.

It's a long interview so I'll split it into a few bits. Here's part one. When Ian talks about the book in progress, he's talking about the new Saskia Brandt book he's been working on, the one after Flashback, so you can get some idea of what that book is about into the bargain...

A: How do you approach the task of researching a new novel?

I:The research for a novel is typically quite secondary to the story - that is, what the characters are going to do to each other and have happen to them. But it is central to the feel of the book. I tend have the feel sorted out first; there might be a period in history that I'm interested in and that period creates a certain effect. The most recent novel I wrote involved a time traveller ending up in Russia towards the end of Tsarist rule. The effect of that is decline, ending, sadness, and a sense of disgust (in me) that fabulously wealthy individuals partied while other starved.

In terms of a timeline, the research took place at the same time as the writing in this case. This is something I try to avoid generally because typically leads to immature, half-baked prose full of anachronisms, and this is precisely what happened with this book! I got about a quarter of the way into it and had to stop because I didn't know what I was writing about.

The research for this novel has involved learning Russian, finding oral histories written by women at the turn of the century, and watching contemporary movies.

A: That's really interesting, that you researched and wrote at the same time and found it was a weaker book because of it - does that mean you usually like to build up a full picture of the time/place before you start - and that makes the novel more coherent in some way?

I: In the case of this book, what happened is that because it was not plotted in advance (I tend not to do this), then I found myself moving towards an area for which I had no information. I believe it was the day-to-day life of St Petersburg in the early 1900s; I also needed to have some detailed plans of the Great Catherine Palace, a huge building near St Petersburg that contains a feature called the Amber Room - that Amber Room was also something I knew I had to research because some important scenes would be set there. I didn't know which scenes at the time, though.

A: You think the reader can tell when the research has not been done thoroughly beforehand rather than as/when your information needs pop up?

I: Hmm, that's a good question! I think that any writer can probably shape the impressions of a reader so much that the lack of research probably won't be noticed. At the end of the day, the writer is like a magician - you have to distract and glitz things up so the audience doesn't twig to the fairly mundane secret behind the trick.

A: Can I ask - in the case of your last novel, where did you look to find the information you needed? So where did you go to learn a bit of Russian, read oral histories, etc? How did you decide that was what you'd need to know?

I: For the Russian, I signed up for a local evening class. I studied Russian for two years. I didn't expect to learn it very well, but I felt ridiculous writing a novel set in Russia without knowing anything about the language. The oral histories showed up on Amazon. The book was out of print - 'Women Against the Tsar', I believe it's called - and described the lives of several women anarcho-bolsheviks in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Another source of information was the writer Roger Morris, who was in the process of writing novels set in the same period of history (though a little earlier). I spoke to him about oral histories and sent him links to some websites...which reminds me, the web was a very useful sources of information. I popped into one or two forums related to Tsarist Russian military uniforms to ask the experts questions about materials, colours, etc. I also looked on memorabilia sites for clothes that had been owned by people in the time period of interest - these were very good quality pictures with lavish descriptions including the correct terminology (sometimes in Russian as well as English), which is quite important when writing prose.

A: I love the fact you learned Russian - very immersive! So that's the kind of research that doesn't necessarily make it into the WIP so much as flavours it, if you like, would you say? Or in some way makes you feel more prepared to write convincingly about it? Is it the feeling that's the important part of the process there?

I: I think you hit the nail on the head with 'immersion'. I don't really trust myself to set an interesting story in a place or a time without becoming somewhat expert in it. I'm using the term advisedly, of course - there's no such in which an English bloke in 2010 is going to become an expert on pre-revolutonary Russia overnight. But I do need to get a sense of how things work, what a person would see walking down a street...In one sense, I have an advantage because my viewpoint character is a time traveller. Her perceptions, therefore, and what she finds interesting or surprising, will somewhat overlap with mine: the constant smell of gas, the disease in the streets, etc.

That said, I do have my own theory about stories. I think they exist - and should always work - if they are completely abstracted from their setting. So I think that my book should work wherever it is placed because it's a story about a person who is lost and trying to get home.

A: And also - you mentioned using books, web sources and also Roger Morris - do you have a type of source that you prefer to use, or think of as more trustworthy? How would you decide that a source is useful to you, or what reasons would make you disregard information from a source?

I: The sources I find most trustworthy are first-hand accounts because I want the details. What kind of matches are used to light a lamp? What time of day is breakfast? A detailed, pedantic diary is perfect. Books like 'Natasha's Dance' by Orlando Figes are useful because they give a broad sweep of social trends etc., but I'm not sure I want to know too much about those. Nobody in pre-revolutionary Russia knew they were about to experience Soviet rule; some even doubted the revolution would ever come. There's also a danger that history has a homogenising effect. Just because it seems very linear and inevitable today, doesn't mean it felt that way at the time.

Thanks to Ian. Top job.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Veggie Books: Atomised

Shall we do a veggie book? Yeah, let's go for it.

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq is a very French novel. Is there such a thing as a French novel? I'm thinking there is, but my description might differ from yours. I find a lot of French novels to be clinical. There's something cold and objectifying about the gaze of a French novel. Camus and Sartre and Houellebecq make me feel detached as their characters commit suicide, fall passionately in love, or murder a few family members.

So in Atomised, half-brothers Michel and Bruno share a severely selfish mother. They grow up to be very different people, but neither of them can achieve any level of intimacy. Michel shuns human contact. He becomes a molecular biologist and an idealist. Bruno becomes a sex pest. Or he would be, given the chance, but he never quite seems to get his way.

Both Michel and Bruno have had horrible childhoods. For instance, Bruno is raised mainly by his grandmother, who feeds him up constantly, turning him into a 'fat, fearful child':

One morning in March 1967, while she was making deep-fried courgettes, the old woman knocked over a pan of boiling oil. She managed to drag herself into the hallway where her screams alerted the neighbours. When Bruno came home from school, Madame Haouzi, who lived upstairs, met him at the door. She took him to the hospital where he was allowed to see his grandmother for a few minutes. Her burns were hidden beneath the sheets. She had been given a great deal of morphine, but she recognised Bruno and took his hand in hers. Some minutes later the child was led away. Her heart gave out later that night.

For the second time, Bruno found himself face to face with death, and for a second time, he failed to grasp its significance. Years later, when he was praised for a composition or a history essay, his first thought was to tell his grandmother.


Later, Bruno finds a free-love campsite and desperately tries to get laid by attending massage groups and creative writing workshops with lots of naked women, who steer clear of him. I couldn't help but think that an English novelist would have to work really hard not to turn Bruno into a Benny Hill clone at this point, whereas Houellebecq manages to avoid it. Sex (or lack of it) is described in such stark, biological terms that Bruno's need comes across as real. This is the form of human contact he wants, possibly the only one he can deal with. He needs sex and he's not getting it. It's funny, at times, but it's not derisory.

I enjoyed the read, and the overtly philosophical questions is raises about how self-obsession infects the world, making us all flawed - how can we be fixed? Michel, the molecular biologist, can answer that question in the astonishing final pages. If you're feeling clever and alienated right now, Atomised is your book.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The hermit emerges: on Calvino and Ezra Pound

Guest post by Neil Ayres. A normal service will resume next week.

You were possibly expecting someone a tad more exciting than me when Aliya indicated a guest might drop by whilst she's on her hols. Sorry about that, but here I am.

Anyway, I'm raising a well-trodden subject that’s on my mind a bit at the minute. How well do we really want to know our authors? Perhaps slightly ironic, given I'm posting this on an author's blog. 

Agents and publishers are keen for their authors to have a public profile (as are plenty of authors themselves.) And as a recent NYT article demonstrates beautifully, this cult of self promotion isn't exactly a new phenomenon.

But what about the drawbacks of this style-over-substance approach when it comes to reading the books themselves? I've read plenty of books and manuscripts by people I know, and it'd be disingenuous to insist this knowledge of the person behind the story had no influence on how I would experience the story.

Why am I thinking about this? Two reasons. Firstly, I've just finished reading Italo Calvino's Hermit in Paris, a loose collection of autobiographical writing and interviews from the fifties through to the eighties, with much reflection on his earlier life.

As well as much of his later fiction, I've read some of Calvino's non-fiction before (and mentioned on this blog years ago that his Six Memos for the Next Millennium is my favourite book on writing), but in these his voice was always present -- a big part of the enjoyment of reading them, of course -- yet the man himself was not. The meat of Hermit in Paris (given how much of an influence it appears to have had on him in later life) is Calvino's travel diary of his time spent in America, and more importantly, in New York. This he wrote when he was around thirty seven, as a series of letters to his colleagues at the Einuadi publishing house in Turin, where he worked as both a publicist and editor, so I think it's safe to assume they give as honest representation of a writer as you're likely to come across, in that he was writing to people who knew him well personally, as well as knowing his writing.

The thing is, although I rather liked the Calvino I got to know in this diary, he was rather at odds with the author I knew before starting out on the book. I was aware that this alteration of perception was likely once I embarked on the journey of reading the book, but he's one of the few authors I really feel the urge to know well. The good news is by the time I got to the end of the book, this new Calvino (from the American Diary) and the one already established in my head had merged satisfactorily for me, thanks to the other pieces included in the book. Calvino's note for the pieces in the book (which was published posthumously) stressed the point that his opinions and beliefs were of the moment, which is a given, but it was useful to have the author's reminder there in front of me.

Calvino maintained that an author's distance was a crucial factor in the appreciation of the work, but although he went to reasonable lengths to maintain this distance himself, as a personality, for anyone with more than a passing interest in his output, even now he's no longer alive, he is by no means an anonymous factor when considering his books.

And my other reason for thinking about this at the moment? Well, it relates to a project I'm working on as part of the day job. A tie-up event between Creative Review (my employer) and Tate Britain's forthcoming exhibition of Vorticism. (Vorticism was a short-lived Futurist-inspired British avant garde art movement that born shortly before the First World War.)

The movement's key figure was Wyndham Lewis, who was much influenced (and supported) by Ezra Pound. Pound and Lewis took Pound's Imagism guidelines and applied them to visual art, with Pound coining the term Vorticism to represent the resultant work.

I knew little about Pound (and less about Wyndham Lewis) before starting work on the project, save that he was a challenging poet, and a fascist.

Interestingly it was reading Hermit in Paris (Calvino grew up in Italy under Mussolini and it is well documented that he fought for the Partisans during WWII), that gave me the impetus to learn a bit more about Pound, and for pretty much the first time in my life, attemp to understand how such a large swathe of Europe could have fallen under the sway of fascism in the lead up to WWII.

WWII, certainly up until my generation (a generation whose grandparents and older relatives have firsthand adult experience of the war) generally has a kind of in-built default position of anti-Nazism (let's be clear: this is a GOOD thing), but I would argue that this blanket education of why Hitler wasn't good news obscures the social causes of what led not only to its political rise, but to such a huge number of people tolerating fascism as part of their everyday lives.

I think most Europeans have some kind of innate understanding that WWI provided the breeding ground for WWII. But, oddly, I've only just begun to make explicit connections about how this occurred. Many people may just view this as personal ignorance on my part, but I'd lay money on there being huge numbers of reasonable, intelligent people whose knowledge is as unexamined as my own.

Pound was of course a hugely fallible man, but he was also no idiot. He helped launch the careers of TS Eliot, James Joyce and many others, before becoming disillusioned with London after WWI and moving first to Paris and then on to Italy, where he supported Mussolini's fascist regime (which Calvino by the time of WWII was of course actively opposing). Calvino meanwhile become a militant Communist following the war, and has an interesting, incredibly honest essay about how he squared his Communism and support for the USSR with Stalin's atrocities. (Calvino did not leave the Italian Communist Party--and political activism--until 1957.)

As with Calvino, Pound's life can be viewed as one of stages. Just to round out my picture, I'm going to read some of Pound's selected poetry. I'll no doubt struggle to keep at bay the idea that it's written by a deplorable fascist, but I'll give it a go. After all, it's what Calvino would have wanted.

If you didn't know, Neil has a site for social media and digital stuff now.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Veggie Book: Shadowmagic

Plants have feelings too.

At least, they do in John Lenahan's Shadowmagic, which is a magical fantasy rompette (too short to be a full romp, although maybe once you put the whole series together it'll qualify for romp status) through Tir-Na-Nog, a land of immortals, and the kind of place you wish you could get to on a short haul package deal. It sounded fabulous: alive, and fresh, and interesting. I think that's an achievement for us jaded fantasy readers who've seen it all before.

And the characters are interesting in fresh ways too: there may be leprechauns and imps, but they're quite different from what you might expect. Nobody capers or says twee things. I liked the whole bunch of them. And speaking of bunches, here's the fruity moment where Conor (our teenage hero who has been transported to Tir-Na-Nog; I won't give anything else away) arrives at Castle Muhn for the first time. It shows a pacy, straightforward style that sidesteps high language and pages of description for something a lot more engaging and relevant to a Young Adult reader:

This place was spectacularly elegant. We were no longer strictly in the castle but in the Great Vineyard, a football-pitch-sized courtyard adorned with fountains and huge black and white marble statues. The statues were like oversized chess pieces strewn about in a haphazard manner - some upright, others on their side. It was as if the gods had just dumped out a giant chess set before they set up for a game. Roofing the courtyard was a black trellis that supported grapevines with fruit as big as plums. What was left of the day's light filtered through the leaves, giving the room a majestic green hue.

Remembering the incident with the apple, the first thing I did was place my hand on a vine and ask nicely if I could have a grape. 'NO YOU MAY NOT!' The answer came back so clear it made my head hurt. These were proud plants.



The speedy adventure carried me along very nicely and didn't ask anything too difficult of me. I see there's a sequel out now, so that'll definitely be worth a look. Yeah. Very enjoyable stuff for a quick read. My metaphorical feet didn't touch the ground throughout.