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

2017: reading, writing, learning and awe

As 2017 ends there will be a lot of this sort of thing around. Let me join the club with the ‘best’ books I’ve read this year, ranked:
1. Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher
2. A Secret Sisterhood by Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa
3. Is There Anything You Want? By Margaret Forster
4. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
5. The Tin Can Tree by Anne Tyler
6. Solar by Ian McEwan
I would like to include Heaven’s Rage by Leslie Tate in that list, because it’s brave, often gorgeous, deeply reflective and strikingly original in its mix of writing styles. It’s also impossible to categorize. However, as Leslie is my husband I don’t suppose I can!

The list reflects my habits. I do read more books by women than men, and these days my diet is mostly contemporary. I know when I see the above names on a cover that I am investing in quality. There’s an odd one out at number two, because A Secret Sisterhood is not a novel but a hugely absorbing exploration of female literary friendships and as such the product of revealing research, but the writing is novelistic and borrows some of the elegance of its subjects. I relished it. The other title that could be seen as the outsider here is Solar. It’s different from the rest in many ways – in its satirical and sometimes slapstick humour, the science it packs in and the author’s emotional detachment in spite of his evident opinions. It’s the most serious of cartoons and the verve of the writing left me breathless at times. Plot-wise it’s inventive too, with plenty of surprises. I was impressed, but it made me wonder whether McEwan has any faith in humanity. And it’s humanity that for me, the novel lacks.

Continue reading

What it means to be a refugee? Imagine…

I was stewarding the People not Borders exhibition one evening this week and nobody came. I read Anne Tyler with great pleasure for an hour or more and then, feeling a little jaded by the Christmas pop and schmaltz playing in the café, I longed for my favourite, very sad carol, In the Bleak Midwinter. Soon I found myself rewriting the lyrics with refugees in mind.

 

 In the bleak mid-winter
They’re sleeping on the streets,
With shoes that we discarded
Hard around their feet.
Snow has fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
On abandoned people
With nowhere safe to go.

 

 In the bleak mid-winter
Bombs break homes apart,
War ensures cold comfort,
Seals unfeeling hearts.
In the bleak mid-winter
The camps are sharp with snow.
Behind the wire we trap them
In worlds we’ll never know.

Continue reading

Grannima – a free story to enjoy

I spell Granny Fatma ‘Grannima’. Her legs are wobbly but she dances without them. Her arms start to curl and float like her starry dupatta. I bet the music smells of sherbet and turmeric.  I’m a good reader but my letters are big and people can’t find the words in them. So I show Grannima what I mean.

For ‘police’ I arrest her round the wrist. For ‘doctor’ I lie on the sofa and open up my tummy. I know when Grannima is joking because she winks. It means she’s only pretending. Once when I ate a banana she sat the skin upside down on the table and signed ‘squid’ – and pretended it nipped her. Then she winked and her mouth went wide and wobbly. I can’t wink yet. I’m nearly five but you have to be six for that. Grannima’s very old and she forgets little things. But once she drew me the girl inside her who wants to skip. It’s the same girl who’s barefoot under a Neem tree in an old photo she keeps by her bed.

In the summer we went to the park and saw lilies on the pond but not Indian ones. She pretended to pick one from the water and put it in her hair. We found a bush full of roses to sniff and I saw a baby butterfly as small as my thumb because I have eagle eyes. Then I went up and down the slide nearly fifty times and made friends with a boy while Grannima was swaying to her secret music on the bench. In the end she signed that we’d better go before I rubbed my bottom away like a bad drawing. I don’t know what her laugh sounds like but it makes her eyes melt like chocolate.

 

When we got home Grannima couldn’t find the key. I signed wait and went round the back. The kitchen window was wide open so I pushed my dumper truck underneath it. I did some good thinking. I even put rocks by the wheels so they wouldn’t roll. Then I pulled myself up to the window ledge and swung right over onto the worktop.

I bowed to Grannima when I let her in and she hugged me and signed, ‘My hero’. But Dad said the key was a big thing to forget and the house felt sad and crotchety.

Now I have a nanny called Julia to take me out. She can sign better than Grannima but she’s got no girl inside her. Julia won’t let me do high jump with Grannima’s stick and she never lets me push the wheelchair.

If Grannima’s legs are really naughty she stays in bed but if she’s awake she still dances. My signing is speeding up so I tell jokes. The girl inside Grannima seems to like them but Grannima’s fingers get too muddled to talk. Signing makes her tired anyway.

I had a dream last night that Grannima’s eyes wouldn’t open but I looked out in the garden and the girl inside her was skipping. She smelt a cobra lily and threaded it into her hair. Her salwar kameez was red and gold and her dupatta danced in the breeze.

So I gave Grannima a kiss this morning to make sure she woke. She still looked sleepy but she sat up when I fluffed her pillow. I asked her what she wanted and she wrote, To be best friends forever. I know we will be, because she smiled but she didn’t wink.

 

Illustrated by Stu McLellan:

https://www.facebook.com/stumclellanart

If you enjoyed GRANNIMA, you might enjoy I AM ME  and ALIENS AND ANGELS.

On literary connections: risks, lists and disappointments

I can’t be the only author who sometimes sees on an online bookshop that, ‘Customers who bought this also bought…’ and wonders, what? and why? My local library used lists at one time that suggested authors readers might like to try this if they enjoyed that… But writers like me could be accused of delusion if we linked ourselves to those we admire. I’m not the kind of reader who fixes on a particular genre and can search accordingly, whether online or on shelves. I look for novels with deep psychological characterisation and rich, distinctive or elegant language – regardless of context or category. Try that on a search engine!

I sometimes think our reading friends make the best recommendations. I am grateful to Nat when she said she thought I’d love Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Because she knows me, I believed her and she was so right. She even said there was a paragraph that was the most beautiful she’d ever read. With no clues whatsoever, I knew when I’d found it – and that shared recognition meant a lot to us both as a new, additional bond between us. Continue reading

PROCESSING