Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Book Review: Some Kind of Fairytale by Graham Joyce

As some of you will know, I'm a regular book reviewer on The Kerry McLean Show on BBC Radio Ulster. Today I reviewed Some Kind of Fairytale by the late and much-lamented Graham Joyce. If you missed it you can listen here for the next 4 weeks (from 43 mins in) but here's a written review.

This book is perfect for anyone who loves a modern fairy story; the kind that has a twist and a sting in the tale. It opens on Christmas day in the East Midlands, England. Mary and Dell Martin are just about to eat their Christmas dinner when there’s a knock at their door. When they open it, it’s their daughter Tara. Nothing unusual here – until we learn that Tara disappeared 20 years earlier and hasn’t been seen since.
When her brother Peter gets the phone call he hurries to his parents’ house and finds his long-lost sister physically unchanged. She still looks like a fifteen year old and swears she has only been gone for six months. The rest of the book explores not just what happened to Tara in the intervening years but the impact her disappearance had on her family and her then teenage boyfriend Richie.
If you're familiar with Joyce's work, you'll know he's a really deceptive writer. He tells his stories very simply but he manages to talk about some really profound stuff without ever seeming pompous. I think this is because all his stories are rooted firmly in the characters he creates. A theme he returns to again and again in his books is just how thin the veil is between ‘normal’ life and what we could call ‘the other’. So in Year of the Ladybird and The Silent Land he writes about the thin line between life and death; in this book it’s about the line between our world and the fairy world, if we believe Tara’s account of what happened to her. His books work well on either level – you can read them as fantasy or you can read them as being wholly set in our world.
The fairies themselves certainly aren’t winged critters at the bottom of the garden; they’re like very attractive, unfettered versions of us, living in communes, driven by their appetites and pleasure (so there are some fairly earthy sex scenes in the book and some equally earthy language). Some ideas are borrowed from Irish fairy folklore – the idea of beautiful but spiteful fairies, living in a realm where time moves differently. Hiero (pronounced 'Yarrow') is incredibly attractive for all his dark side (if he'd offered to take me away on his white horse you wouldn't have seen me for dust so it's impossible to blame Tara). Interestingly Joyce weaves in real court transcripts from the trial of Michael Cleary, convicted for the murder of his wife Bridget Cleary in 1895 because he believed she had been taken by the fairies and a changeling left in her place.
Still, fairies aside, Joyce never loses sight of the fact that the real action of the book is set in this world. Yes, there may or may not be another realm but he is interested in what’s going on in this one and how the characters cope with Tara’s return; how she tries to make amends. One of the most interesting characters is Richie, Tara’s boyfriend at the time of her disappearance, and blamed for it by most of the community. He’s nearly 40 when Tara returns and his life is in ruins. He was a talented guitarist but now he’s a heavy drinker, suffering agonising headaches and a bad case of arrested development. In his own way he has lost twenty years too and has to rebuild his life, just as Tara has.
No writer is perfect and Joyce hits two jarring notes. There's an occasional clunky line of dialogue. Ninety percent of the time his characters rings absolutely true; then every so often there's a throwaway line so wrong that it makes me wince. 
More seriously his endings don't always live up to the start of his books. I've had this experience with both The Silent Land and Some Kind of Fairytale. I think it might be because his books are so enthralling and atmospheric that we expect something absolutely staggering at the end and he doesn't always pull it off. In this book the last few pages went a bit awry for me – there was a whole ‘unreliable narrator’ twist that jarred me right out of the story. I've decided to forget about the last 4 pages of the book and hold on to the rest! Similarly I didn't like the overly neat end of The Silent Land but so much of the book was haunting and beautiful that the best bits have stayed with me. I've managed to hold on to the feeling behind the book; a testament to the power of Joyce's ability to create mood and character.
Joyce was a beautiful writer – a storyteller who prided himself on writing from the heart, not from the thesaurus (he had an online debate with Will Self on this very topic). His legacy is in his books – they are about love, loss and how magical our lives are, even in the most ordinary of moments. And yes, there are other worlds behind the veil but for Joyce the real magic is in our loves and hopes in the here and now and what we do with them.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Clutter, clear space and creativity...

I've always been a bit messy. I don't like clutter but I seem to attract it, mainly because it's too boring to deal with while it's still manageable and after a while it's like a tsunami of stuff threatening to swamp me so it's easier to run, screaming, preferably in the direction of a coffee shop.

So far, no problem (other than the odd angry exchange with my long-suffering husband). But can clutter affect your writing?
There are different schools of thought on this. Traditionally people maintained that an orderly desk is the sign of an orderly mind. Mess was bad, a reflection on the mental state or work ethic of the person working there.

I prefer to go with the (apocryphal? Who cares...) Einstein-ism above. Well-publicised research suggests that messy types are more likely to be creative and take a chance on new things - essential skills for any writer. [Disclaimer: In the interests of honesty, messy people are also less likely to take care of themselves  - which I suppose gives the ultimate win to the neat freaks peering into our graves and whispering, 'You shouldn't have finished all those half-eaten chocolate bars you found under the clutter...']
Mess doesn't always stop me working. Sometimes chaos brings its own energy and leads to manic bursts of productivity. When I'm working on a well-established book or project, I seem to be able to block it out and focus on the world in my head. In fact, maybe there is something about the mess (that powerful combination of chaos and stimulation) that makes me link characters and story strands together in unexpected ways, finding solutions to maddening plot problems.
There's one time when my theory falls down: when I'm writing something new. That's when the messy desk starts bugging me. Today I had planned to work in the library; for various reasons (including an interview, 8 gazillion emails and a laundry mountain) that hasn't happened. So, I find myself at my desk. And I have to tell you, it is making me itch sitting here. The books, the papers, the photos, the peanut butter jar (don't ask), the clutter. There is no possible way I can write from scratch at this desk.
Writing something new, making a new world, bringing new characters into focus means starting with a blank slate. It means space to spread out and plan and stare at clear wood and see the big picture. 

So, grudgingly, it's time to get cleaning because then I can get writing. Consider these the last words from the mess.
Until next time...

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

"That difficult second book..." (and third book... and fourth book...)

Those were the words I heard a lot when I was writing the second book. It's a line oft-repeated by agents, editors and authors alike. The first book is still a hobby piece; an act of hope and faith; an expression of joy. When you finally land a 3 book deal it's balloons, silly hats and champagne all round. You pat your first book cover fondly and giggle when you see it on a real shelf in a library or book shop.

And then comes Book 2. This time, you're a professional writer. This book isn't just a bit of fun - someone has paid you actual money, trusting that you will write it. This brings a certain responsibility. My life had changed a lot by the time I was writing The Mortal Knife, mainly because I had become a mum. I had always been an evening writer; now I had to learn to sit down during the day and treat writing like the job it was and is. It wasn't easy but having a deadline on the horizon is a mighty effective combo of the carrot and stick. Maybe this is why writers find the second book tough - up until now the writing has been all carrot.

Which brings me to Book 3. I'm not sure why I thought it would be easier. Maybe all that 'difficult second book' stuff implied 'that stupidly easy third book!' Except it isn't easy. It's difficult. And finally I am beginning to get it. Writing 80-90,000 words of gripping, funny, consistent, warm-hearted prose is NEVER going to be easy. No matter how many times I do it, I will never be able to describe it as easy. The day I can describe the process as easy, I'm not growing. I'm not stretching myself.

But - and there is a but - one thing does get easier and it's the thing that gets me past all the other difficulties. No matter how hard it gets, I can tell myself: 'I've done this before.' As I limp towards the finish line of Book 3 I know I've been here and lived to tell the tale. For years I was the queen of the half-finished novel - but no one will ever read your half-finished novel. It will languish on a long-defunct laptop or memory pen - or even a floppy disc (revealing my age. Remember those?)

So, if there is one thing I have learned about writing in the last few years, it's this: FINISH SOMETHING. Because the power of finishing something - be it a poem, a story or even a book - is that once you've done it, YOU KNOW YOU CAN DO IT AGAIN. And even if your first or second or tenth efforts don't get the reception you want, that's okay. Next time you'll do it better.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've a book to finish.

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