In the woods: hope, healing and stories

 

Painting by Franz Marc described by Jeth in The Judas Deer

You can call it forest bathing, therapy, time out or exercise. For me as a Quaker it can feel like Meeting for Worship in open, inner stillness. Because we’re together, holding hands when the path allows, it can be romantic, a renewal of what bonds us. And we don’t talk about war, climate change, refugees or Fascism. Just for a while the crises we face as a species, and on our screens, seem distant and implausible. Woods are particularly dreamy on a warm Sunday morning in summer when few humans are awake but the sunlight softens and fragments through leaves. This morning my husband Leslie and I stepped instantly into the immersive green, and an almost pristine quietness. Sometimes we talk about what we’re writing, or what fiction does and means. Sometimes we need silence. Today I was ready to receive, and the great thing about trees is that they keep giving. I felt a lightness, and a child’s fascination with the mysterious detail that can seem so ordinary to modern homo sapiens wired for sound. A sense of deeply connected peace is with me still. It’s a kind of healing. Continue reading

Not a relay but a book, or what teaching taught me about Year Four

I loved Y4. I taught that year group more than any other through my nineteen years at three London schools and two in Herts, and they were mostly, in a three tier system, the top class or leavers – which earned them special privileges including a residential trip away. They probably ‘grew up’ faster that way, and showed that they could, with a few exceptions, take responsibility with enthusiasm. Ian was foreman in charge of young gardeners when the Wild Garden was born; Alec was my technician, troubleshooting with I.T. problems. Every summer, being an emotional softie, I truly hated to see them go, and some of the tears shed in my classroom were usually mine. During their year with me they experienced stories by immersion, and books led into art, drama, dance and music as well as P.S.H.E. In questionnaires sent round by the head, my Y4 classes put Poetry at the top of their favourite subjects chart.

What did I learn about children as they turn from eight to nine? How imaginative they are. They no longer actually believe in a little dragon I pass from hand to hand even though there’s nothing there, but they will suspend disbelief for the fun of it.  I initiated a game on playground duty which involved a group searching for mini aliens, bringing them cupped in their hands and describing them in excited detail. Their imagination has a wild, free, elastic energy that embraces creativity. They enjoy discovery, and that includes new words they can’t wait to use. Enthusiasm in Y4 can be boundless if not obsessive, but they don’t fake it. However well behaved they were, I could always tell when they were less engaged than I liked them to be. If a Story Time book didn’t compel them into still, wide-eyed silence then it wasn’t good enough. The best had them leaving at 3:15 reluctant to wait another twenty-four hours, talking animatedly about what might happen next. A great story meant faster clearing up to make it onto the carpet for the next instalment. Clearing up doesn’t seem to be an obvious Y4 strength, but walking briskly back from the swimming pool (to allow their poor teacher enough time for a coffee before break ended) seemed, year on year, an objective that would never be achieved. Y4 children don’t progress beyond dawdling. Continue reading

Empathy and charity: longlisted for a prize!

The publisher, the author and the illustrator at planning stage

This really is news! The picture book I wrote for People not Borders is up for the People’s Book Prize and anyone can vote (once) and comment. I’m a Trustee for this small but committed group of women in my home town (awaiting charitable status for some time now) and was excited to write the text and find Paula Watkins, textiles and mixed media artist, to illustrate in a way that’s colourful and original. All profits are being used to support projects with young refugees. It’s very much an empathy-developer, though, as well as a fundraiser. We hope it will help anyone who reads it to imagine, and therefore begin to understand, the experience of a child coming to this country from a war zone, but the text is gentle and the pictures beautiful.

With love: the spectrum and the page

My husband Leslie and I were talking with a friend about gender and sexuality. Like me, my friend is cis-gender and straight. We grew up with scant knowledge, understanding or experience of anything else, and while I have learned fast since meeting Leslie, she wasn’t familiar with much of the vocabulary. Leslie explained LGBTQIA, and my friend and I agreed that we were glad to be Allies. Then Leslie added that technically, as a straight but rather intermediate cross-dressing man, he doesn’t belong on that spectrum in a tick-box sense, even though ‘trans’ is how he feels and who he is. To which my friend looked at the initials he’d listed for her with explanations and said, “Then I think there should be another letter on the end: L for Leslie.”

I love that. I love him and his honesty and complexity, courage and vulnerability. I love her for saying it. And I love the truth behind it: that we are all of us different and individual, whatever group or category we choose to embrace and however others define or label us. My Leslie, like everyone else on the LGBTQIA(L) spectrum and outside it, is a unique human being.

As an author I’m looking to connect readers with people on the page who are unlike anyone they’ve met in or outside a book and yet recognisable, familiar and absolutely convincing. But I’m not talking here about those mysterious, eccentric supporting acts portrayed by observation, however memorable they may be. They’re much easier to pull off with aplomb, perhaps because the distance involved is the same kind that exists between us in life; by eccentric and mysterious we really mean different from us as well as unknown. I am thinking of characters that are equally distinctive but created with insight.

Continue reading

When Harry married Meghan: change, but not nearly enough?

 

Politically – rationally – I don’t agree with royalty. I believe that in spite of our differences, we’re all equal by virtue of our humanity. So I didn’t watch Harry and Meghan’s wedding ceremony yesterday afternoon, and this morning the phrase ‘A List’ rankled when MSN offered me pictures of what those supposedly superior humans on the guest list were wearing for the occasion. As an opponent of the currently relentless assessment in school I don’t enjoy hearing the language of ‘success’ in social terms outside the classroom. Like many, I was saddened and angered to see that rough sleepers were being cleared form the streets of Windsor or relieved of their sleeping bags, because they are as fully human and valuable in their humanity as any celeb or prince. And an expensive, champagne-fuelled, deluxe wedding highlights the gaping inequality that shames our society – a differential between rich and poor that has grown under the Tories and been shown to create or exacerbate just about all the social problems you or I could identify in modern Britain. I could throw in the ‘bread and circuses’ idea that the ruling class manipulates and distracts with pomp and partying, or I could claim that with an NHS in crisis there are just much better, fairer and inclusive ways to spend all that money. Factor in my Quaker (Pacifist) convictions and Harry’s military identity – come to think of it, the Church of England’s military identity – along with my belief in simplicity and keeping one’s carbon footprint as low as possible, and I had many reasons not to turn on my TV at midday on Saturday 19th May. There’s a BUT coming… Continue reading

Taking the author out of the fiction: mission impossible?

There’s speculation, with many love songs, about which lovers inspired them. Art can be more or less personal, and as audience how revealing we want it to be will depend on individual make-up. Maybe all authors expose themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, in their fiction. I discovered when I read Barbara Kingsolver’s compelling novel Flight Behaviour that she is both well informed and deeply concerned about climate change. The phrase is there, in the dialogue and thoughts of the characters and the storyline of butterflies arriving in their millions in the wrong country. I’ve only just seen the parallel with refugees, also displaced by destructive human activity. Sometimes the beliefs or attitudes of the writer are less explicit. I connect with the work of Susan Fletcher at a fundamental emotional level, so it shouldn’t surprise me to find her liking my Tweets about how we relate as fellow humans to one another and the natural world. This leaves me wondering whether I could love the work of a writer whose opinions are the opposite of mine. Would I sense such a world view underpinning the narrative even if there was no intention, within the fiction, of sharing it? I’m inclined to think so. Maybe, in fact, when I’m drawn to certain authors, part of the attraction is a like-mindedness I detect, if only subconsciously. If I’m right, even the fiction we choose as readers can reinforce our political positions.

Because my husband Leslie Tate has written in Violet a novel about late-life lovers who meet like we did, people ask how much real-life is exposed in the fiction, and how close he is to the male characters in his trilogy, since he adapts his own experience. I’m asked, with my alopecia novel The Waterhouse Girl, how much of the story happened to me and I say, “Only the hair loss – but Daisy is the person I wanted, when I created her, to be.” But I didn’t know that as I wrote the book.

A didactic intention is as dangerous to a novelist as an emotional splurge, and one can morph into the other. At the same time, it’s impossible to take the novelist out of the novel, and doing so results in the kind of distanced exercise that holds no interest for readers like me because I need connection. Without the kind of authenticity that characterises intimate friendship, I don’t really care. That doesn’t mean that authors need to write about themselves, but that if they explore feelings they’ve known in order to create a character they understand in depth and detail, the character will feel real. At the same time, writers must apply a carefully measured, analytical control of style and register, voice, pace and rhythm, continuity, shape and sequence. They must know and relate to their characters as separate and other. Without such self-editing, a cathartic exploration of intense experience will be therapy but not literature.

What about genres with escapist appeal? I would have said, until recently, that I didn’t do those. Then I agreed to write Avatars of the Intelligence, the first Lucy Wilson Mystery ‘from the world of Doctor Who’. The category is science fiction in the sense that the enemy – the Great Intelligence – isn’t human, and surreal things happen as a result (making it liberating fun to write). But the fantasy is never jettisoned from real human experience because the characters root the story in relationships and emotions we recognise. It’s only recently that I’ve considered how much of me I invested in Lucy and Hobo. He has alopecia and tries to front it while refusing to allow it to define him. They represent and champion diversity in various ways. Lucy is mixed race; I’m not, but used to be nicknamed Jimi (Hendrix) because of my thick curly hair and full lips. She has a gay brother; I’m married to a cross-dressing man. We both have Muslim friends. Hobo shares her commitment to social justice and equality. I share Lucy’s only fear, but I have many more! We are both imaginative and impulsive; although I can be equally determined, Lucy is feistier. But they have their own individual identities. Unlike Lucy, I was hopeless at gymnastics! Unlike Hobo I don’t have a brain for Science and Maths. As a peace and climate activist myself, I have given them some of my values. They never use violence but resist the dark force which for me is a metaphor for all kinds of controlling powers in our world today: the social media invasion, newspapers that stir up division and hate, Cambridge Analytica manipulating our emotions, government denying us the truth, materialism fed by marketing… all of it trying to shape our thinking and influence our behaviour.

Candy Jar lured me into this project with alopecia. Inevitably I’ve brought to it my own passions and style, both of which are more important and personal to me than the hair I’ve lost. Doctor Who episodes have their own distinctive tones, and the Lucy Wilson Adventures that follow will doubtless be the same, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to create in Lucy and Hobo their core or heart. Like all my characters, they are precious to me, and like my own children they’re influenced by me but somehow very much themselves. I hope to be creatively reunited with them one day.

Guarding our minds: sci-fi and the invasion of the real world

Sometimes I write something and life catches up with it.  Below the surface or storyline of my Lucy Wilson adventure, Avatars of the Intelligence, lie themes that are very much with us in 2018, having surfaced for all in the last week before publication. Through my mixed-race heroine with a gay brother – already set up by Candy Jar in the Lethbridge-Stewart books – and her best friend with alopecia, I reflect modern values among today’s young who embrace diversity of all kinds. And then there are the phones. As a young reader remarked in his review, “The students are taken over by their phones which is kind of funny because students are.” But when I wrote it, the manipulation of data by Cambridge Analytica and Facebook was yet to be exposed. I could argue a case for a pretty close parallel with the Great Intelligence, and when Hobo warns Lucy, “Guard your mind”, that’s not bad advice for all of us in a media-manipulated age – if we can only work out what’s real and what’s not. Reality TV already blurs the boundaries. What people share as real on various platforms can be maliciously or more innocently faked or just distorted, posed or photo-shopped – whether to embellish a personal narrative or to change minds. Like the heroes at the centre of my adventure, we don’t know who to trust.

#Resist is a hashtag I’ve used a lot since Trump was elected over the pond, and it’s something I do, with my physical body as well as on the page and screen. I resisted, for example, at Stop the Arms Fair and outside the Saudi Embassy, because I believe that making a business of selling weapons that will be used to commit war crimes is simply immoral. The force we were resisting is hugely powerful and hard to name. It’s not one nation but a cynically detached view of war for profit. It’s about the rich white West controlling and exploiting countries where people have darker skins, and it’s about cold, ruthless power masquerading as respectability. The arms trade as practised by the British and American governments is in my opinion vastly more evil than the Great Intelligence with Daleks as back-up, and it must end. But my resistance is peaceful; that’s the point. And Lucy and Hobo ‘fight’ with their brains, their strength and agility, their courage and their imaginations. There’s no violence; I couldn’t have written that.  I was challenged enough, as a Pacifist Quaker, by the military identity of Lucy’s famous grandfather, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. (I told myself he was never gung-ho, or careless of life, never motivated by ego or money, but an old-school gentleman soldier, an idealist who aimed to protect. He might have walked alongside me on the Iraq War demonstration, or indeed outside the Saudi Embassy, if he hadn’t already met his fictional demise.) For me, the love between Lucy and her granddad is as strong a force as the Great Intelligence. It powers her. And love, for any reader, is as real as it gets. It’s the universal connector. Continue reading

From author to readers: feeding back on the feedback

Dear students,

Firstly, I’m delighted that so many of you enjoyed Avatars of the Intelligence very much. “This is one of the only books I have been interested in for a while. I used to hate reading but ever since I read this book I have loved reading.” “I don’t think it could be any better.” Most of all I’m happy that you like my characters. People said some positive and perceptive things about Lucy – “I love Lucy’s character because she is strong-willed and determined (although a bit stubborn)” – but on the whole Hobo seems to be the favourite. “Hobo is a unique and original character who teaches us loads about alopecia and people who might not look like other people but are still really interesting and do good things.” “I particularly like Hobo. He is a character that shows how you can face bullies with a smile. Instead of shying away from comments about his alopecia he faces them head-on which makes him a really strong character in the book.”

A lot of you are interested in alopecia and the way I used my own experience of hair loss. “I really like how Sue takes something that happened in her life and turns it into something great.” I never thought of it that way when I was writing it but I’m happy for anyone to see the book in that light. Here, having already written two novels in which alopecia is the story, I wanted to introduce a clever, funny and individual character who just happens to have no hair. I also wanted to show that alopecia has made him stronger, kinder and wiser. As Ambassador for Alopecia UK I’ve met many young people with alopecia and that’s what it seems to do. Like all challenges it teaches people a lot about themselves and being human. “The book demonstrates how outcasts face challenges. Hobo is an extremely interesting character because he doesn’t fit into society’s expectations.”  Continue reading

Out of my comfort zone and into the world of Doctor Who

When the BBC announced the #13thDoctor as a woman I had my own reason to smile. Having been one of those children who hid behind the sofa in the black-and-white Lethbridge-Stewart days, I never ventured back to Doctor Who – even once latex and dodgy sets were replaced by CGI. But recently I’ve returned to sci-fi and it’s taught me more than I expected. In the week of the earth-shaking announcement from the BBC, I was proofing AVATARS OF THE INTELLIGENCE, the first in a children’s series called the Lucy Wilson mysteries, ready for a preview run. Like its publishers, Candy Jar, I celebrated a female Doctor, and hoped that my own action heroine will mean something to girls who meet her on the page – but to boys too, and their mums and dads and grandparents. Lucy Wilson’s world may not be as real as ours but it’s not so different either, and we need girls like her. We need boys to respect girls like her. And we need other girls to respect her too.

I’ve explored almost every other genre. Each one has its register and, to a greater or lesser extent, its rules in the form of expectations (even though I sometimes like to push those a little). Being a form of fantasy with a credibility built on science – often undiscovered but already imagined – sci-fi offers a heady freedom but also parameters. The idea is to develop something fresh within a tradition readers recognise and demand, and there’s a limit to how much this can be achieved through language and style. But in any case for me the characters always carry the narrative and make it matter. The rest is context. At the core of any good novel, whatever the genre, are the central character’s feelings and relationships, needs, strengths, weaknesses and unique, complex wholeness. Cue Lucy. Continue reading

Inside VIOLET: the review (it’s personal)

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.

You can buy signed copies of ‘Violet’ here if you live in the UK. If you live outside the UK and have a PayPal account, message Leslie here and a signed copy will be yours!

Grief, memory, Dad and flashback – or the happiness problem

Between about five and half past this morning, I lay in bed crying for my dad, and picturing him in scenes that remain vivid. He died in 03. Some who live on without a parent mourn the love or understanding they didn’t share. I’m lucky enough to carry that love and understanding  with me, along with the knowledge that they – or he – shaped me. He’s with me, not as a ghost (much as I enjoyed Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye) but as part of who I became, and am still becoming. As a writer I like to explore identity and what accounts for it, so in my adult fiction in particular, I use flashback. But in novels a character’s memories have clarity that outside the page we can’t muster – except when the images we rerun are sharpened by grief, loss, pain and fear. Or is that just me?!

This morning I recovered the dramatic sequences: not just my father slowly dying in hospital but the bright blue, bitter day of his natural burial as I took again the same steps towards the grave. I heard my daughter read the end of his last poem beside me; I echoed the words I told him when he was unconscious; I was back in the school office where I took the call recommending that I go at once to his bed in the John Radcliffe. I have lived sixty-one years but these memories are acute – like two other deaths, both too soon and both hard to witness in dear friends. They feel complete and resist the fictionalisation that comes naturally when we tell our daily stories. This is different. This is action replay, and it happens inside. Continue reading

Author in school: what’s not to love?

Since I’ve taken ten school bookings in the last week – some for this term, some for next and one for World Book Day 2019 – it seems a good time to reflect on what I love about being an author in school.

The students. I won’t call them children because although more than half my bookings are primary, I also run workshops for teenagers. I love it when they’re excited before I even speak and I hear my name in stage whispers around the corridors as they arrive. I love it even more when they become enthused in my sessions, especially when I can see it before they verbalise it. There’s nothing more heartening than that awareness of a high voltage, big-smiled, lit-up face, and if there are more than a few of those in a room, it’s bliss. There’s no age limit on that kind of illumination but each face counts double over twelve!

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I love some of the answers they give, and their insights into my books. I remember an assembly when a five-year-old asked, “How do you get the stories so shiny?” and a Y8 boy who told me in a letter, “You made me a better person.” That sums up the sheer range and variety of my school visits. I go to tiny village schools and big urban primaries, poky private schools and others that are gracious mansions in pristine, landscaped acres, inner city comprehensives and girls’ grammar schools in country towns. Although I’m always focusing on character and language, I plan afresh each time and try to find new angles and examples.  Continue reading

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