It’s more than domestic. What follows is a dialogue with my husband, author Leslie Tate, about his new novel VIOLET and being married authors sharing a commitment to writing as well as each other.
Leslie: Sue Hampton and I are lucky. As ‘Authors in Love’ we encourage each other, give joint presentations, discuss ideas and edit each other’s books. We work at our ‘author relationship’, recognising that each word has emotional weight and impact, giving each other time and attention, and sharing our ups and downs. It’s good to have someone there to talk to; it counters author isolation and makes it easier to take risks and stay creative. So Sue and I write for writing’s sake, read the classics and try to retain our integrity in a book world where authors are often dropped or pressured into major revisions in favour of so-called ‘market forces’.
Honesty is also a vital part of a relationship. So when Sue gave a forthright opinion of my latest novel ‘Violet’ it was a gift. And because ‘Violet’ touches on experiences we’ve shared (‘touches’ because Beth and James in the book develop their own story) what she wrote had real impact…
Sue: How can I review a novel by my husband, when I edited it, contributed to it with a couple of stories and a poem, and in a sense, inspired it?!! Not that I’m Beth. She has a serenity I lack along with a free-spirited openness towards the wild. Her history isn’t mine, and James isn’t Leslie either, but VIOLET began as a way of exploring our late love story by adapting from life. It took off, of course, as great stories do, in directions neither of us expected, but in it you will find the love of the natural world, of the mystery we might call God, and of imagination and story, that we share together as a couple and as authors.
Leslie and I are different personalities and different writers. He loves Joyce; I can’t quite get through Ulysses. Otherwise we are mostly, in a literary sense, in synch. But I have more reading stamina these days, and if the writing is good enough, I manage very little emotional distance. In fact, the less distance I manage, the more I value the writing, so I’m never happier than when, as an expression of the most powerful kind of engagement, a novel makes me cry – as VIOLET did, pretty much continuously from around halfway, but at times before that too. Not because I saw myself in it, but because I believed in James and Beth implicitly, as ‘other’ as they are. Leslie ensures that we know and understand them from within, soul-deep where even they can’t find each other.
I know Leslie cares even more about the language through which he creates his characters and their worlds than he does about these people on the page. His delight in words and styles is perhaps more evident than ever in this novel, which some would call experimental or daring. It’s a tribute to literature and creativity as well as love. I could call VIOLET a slow-burner; if it begins as a candle flame with an open door, it flickers to a blaze. And ends with what? Perhaps a sparkler: patterns playing in the dark. Does Leslie offer us real life in all its stops and starts, vacuums and repetitions? Of course not. But he does offer the kind of truth, for all his art and design, that’s bigger and stronger than any of us. Hence my tears. If PURPLE and BLUE are fascinating, troubled, adventurous and often exquisite, VIOLET is warmer, and much more tender in its mature humanity. It’s full of loss but like Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending, holds the kind of hope we long to reach. ‘Beautiful’ is such an emotive and overused word, but this novel does it justice.
Leslie: As I read Sue’s words I remember how she cried. She’d been busy editing my work all day, focusing hard, so I knew her tears were part of a critical response. I felt guilty about ‘putting one on her’ and was unsure what to say, but mostly I was surprised that my words could move anyone that much. At the same time, knowing that Sue reads and reviews fiction of the highest quality, it was a boost. It told me that ‘Violet’ had more power than I’d realised….
Sue: For those who wonder how much of the events in the novel actually took place, well, we did meet in an Indian restaurant (near Leicester Square) and I was early. There was no dance, but we did kiss at the station that night. We wrote letters and sent texts of the old kind. Like the lovers in the story, the other characters are fictional, but the feelings and dynamics will, I’m sure, seem authentic. There’s no alopecia and no cross-dressing. It’s for everyone.
Leslie: Looking back, it seems to me that the issue raised by this dialogue is: ‘can an author (or author’s supporter) review his/her own book’? I’d say yes, because authors revise their own work all the time, and because they usually have a sense of their best work – in my case, thanks to Sue, I rate ‘Violet’ as my best. But any author’s review takes its place alongside the others: it’s one point of view, certainly worth listening to, but less than the full story. What do you think, Sue?
Sue: I think authors who care about writing as an art form strive to improve, to learn from the greatest, and to evaluate critically what they write themselves. That’s the kind of author and reader I try to be. So yes, I think I know what needs to change because it doesn’t measure up. I know when my writing feels as good as I can make it. Sometimes I look back on a title published years ago and feel confident that I could deliver something better now. But a review, for public consumption – without prejudice? Not without risk of appearing boastful or deterring readers with excessive self-criticism. It was different with VIOLET because that’s yours; I only helped, and would have written a different book because I’m a different human. I offered my review because I wanted people to know that, aside from my love for you, I believe it – rationally, analytically, with as much detachment as I could find but emotionally too – to be both fine and powerful. Hence the unbridled weeping. I’ve read novels about love, death, loss and grief that have left me unmoved because the writing simply hasn’t been good enough. Yours is.