Claire King

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Truths and Lies

Posted on: August 17th, 2015 by Claire - 3 Comments

Every now and then I hear so many wonderful things about a book outside my usual sphere ( I tend towards contemporary adult fiction) that I have to read it. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is one of those books. It’s a children’s book, but really you can read and appreciate it at any age. Since finishing it a few days ago I have been trying to explain to people why it is such a good book without bursting into tears.

This is partly just my general temperament, but partly because it is such a beautifully truthful, beautifully human story. A story that happened to coincide with several other things I have read, watched or listened to in the last couple of weeks that have a consistency of theme – the kinds of stories we tell our children.

Stories wreak havoc

A Monster Calls tells the story of  how a young teenage boy deals with his mother’s terminal cancer. There’s also some bullying and a bit of broken family dynamics thrown into the mix. Not so much about having adventures in the fresh air and drinking ginger beer, then. Is this the kind of subject matter that our children really need to be dealing with at that age? The Danish think it is.  They actively teach empathy to children, and believe that we shouldn’t shy away from engaging children with stories that tackle tough topics. We all want to protect our children, but at the same time we want them to fly the nest ready to face the world, and by reading about different kinds of emotions – fear, sadness, anger – children develop their ability to connect with their own emotions and empathize with others.

This is nothing new. Most of the books we read our children contain dark elements (even Guess How Much I Love You if you look hard enough); the storytelling tradition is full of devils, wicked stepmothers, and wolves who eat children. Many of us grew up with the moral lessons of Aesop’s Fables, but also Hans Cristian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling and the Emperor with his new clothes, and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, so many of which have gone on to be sanitised by Disney (Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White…).

Fairy tales can teach us truths about foolishness, arrogance, selfishness and good versus evil, but what else are children taking out of these stories? For example, I listened to this broadcast from the excellent Radio 4 Misogyny Book Club series:  ‘Unhappily Ever After’  which discusses how such fairy tales portray male and female roles. If you think back to the kinds of stories you were read, and then later read yourself as a child, can you remember what they told us about how men and women behaved in the world? Which actions were rewarded and which warned against and how the world was described? There was almost certainly much less diversity than we try to insist on these days. And possibly the gender stereotyping was inconsistent with the way we would like our own children to think?

cinderella quote

In the broadcast, Rosie talks first about the fairytales she read, how they portrayed the ideal woman and her aspirations – for the “good” female character it usually culminated in marrying the prince. But interestingly she compounds this experience with her later reading as a teenager, notably Twilight, and talks about how she responded to that story and the relationship portrayed in it by entering into a string of abusive relationships.

I haven’t read Twilight, and I don’t believe that in itself it is a bad book that will turn teenagers towards abusive relationships, but as we grow up we do take our context from the stories we are told, and more and more these days there it seems harder to find a balance. As well as books, we are told stories by our teachers, our peers, our parents and other people we trust. We are also fed stories in the other media we consume, notably in commercial “storytelling”: The adverts that tell you how buying things will make you more popular. The TV shows that show kids how anybody can be a pop star if they want it 110%. The glossy magazines with their beauty essentials and airbrushed models. And the internet…which brings me onto the subject of pornography.

porn warning

Pornography is another kind of storytelling, I believe. Boy meets girl. Boy fixes girl’s washing machine. Fellatio results.

Something else I came across last week was this video on what our children are learning about sex from the internet. The children (16 year olds) talk about what they have ‘learned’ from watching internet porn and how it influences their thinking and behaviour with the opposite (in this case) sex.  It then shows the effect of bringing a Belgian sexologist in to a UK School to change the narrative. It might seem strange to include porn as ‘stories’ – on so many levels – but the children who are watching it seem to believe it is fantasy.

A Monster Calls has fantastic elements. Central to the plot is a walking, talking yew tree. Shaking off the boundaries of the real world allows complex ideas to be conveyed simply and poetically. In fantasy, magic and the supernatural can provide conduits for telling very human stories. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a wizard or a scarecrow, a sentient robot or a flying nanny, the characters are sympathetic and the story is one that the reader can relate to, and find truth in. Every story we write, fantastic or realistic takes the reader on a journey, asks them to consider a situation, empathise with the characters and wonder what they would do in a similar situation.

Yew Tree Monster

Yet the further our stories get from fantasy, from what we know cannot be true, and the closer they get to resembling the world around us, the harder it can be to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins.

Our children must learn to discern which stories are fantasy, which are fictionalised portrayals of events that could happen in real life and which hold no truth at all. And here is where the danger lies. We have a responsibility to tell the truths, as hard as they might be, because if we don’t then lies will take their place. At every age, from the first stories we read to them, to the books and magazines they read and the websites they visit during their teenage years, the stories we tell our children inform their view on the world.

____________________________________

Links:

A report from the YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) talking about whether sex should be included in YA books.

list of Young Adult Titles that get first sex (awkwardly) right.

My blog post on Why I think 5 part story structure is less important to kids than storytelling

 

The Proximity by Proxy of Writing Letters

Posted on: August 2nd, 2015 by Claire - 2 Comments

My 9 year old daughter has joined the Scouts. One minute she was in the car and the next we had pulled over half way up a mountain and she was stomping off to join her troop with 40kg of orange T-shirts and mess kit strapped to her back, calling back over her shoulder, “I love you. But you can go now.”

The camp is 10 days long, and there is no contact. No Skype, no time-limited calls from pay-phones, and no emails or texts obviously. But we are allowed to write to her, and she is allowed to write to us too, should she have the time and inclination. She has been equipped with SAEs (remember those?) and pencils. And a sharpener.

I have no idea if she will miss us – I suspect she will a little, 10 days is a long time when you’re that age – but I’m already missing her. I’m used to us being apart when I have to leave home for a few days to go to work, but I do get to speak to her every day, and anyway it’s somehow different when I am still here and she is gone. The mess she has left randomly around the house – drawing books on the kitchen table, sandals in the courtyard, discarded pyjamas on the bathroom floor – is much less annoying than if she were here for me to ask her to pick it up. Her absence has given it a sentimental value. And so I have already written my first letter to her (see below). Actually, I confess that I did also write one the day we packed her rucksack. While she hopped about fizzing with excitement, I was writing to tell her how I hoped she would have a brilliant time, and posting it so it would arrive after her first couple of nights away.

When I was younger I wrote letters all the time. To absent parents, to penpals, to friends I missed in the holidays, to people I saw every day. They provided a moment of concentration, of catharsis, of closeness in absence, of amusement and crafting. I loved writing letters in a way I don’t love writing emails. And in putting pen to paper today I realised that I still love the way that you have to let the writing flow. There’s no going back to delete bits, and there’s no spell check, but you can express yourself in handwriting in a way that type doesn’t permit. You can sidle off up the side of the page or add in drawings or flourishes. You can be more authentically yourself than in a well-crafted email. It’s closer to speaking than typing, except you can hold it and re-read it, if you were that way inclined.

My challenge to anyone reading this post is to get out a piece of paper right now and a pen of your choice and in one sitting write a letter to someone you miss. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too…

 

So, then, that’s the first day without her over with. Just nine more to go.

It’s OK, I have PLENTY of pens.

PS

 

Blurby be Kind (2)

Posted on: January 30th, 2015 by Claire - 15 Comments

In the Before Time, when my editor at Bloomsbury was sending The Night Rainbow proofs out to authors with little enthusiastic and hopeful notes, suggesting if they liked it they might consider saying something nice for the jacket, I wrote this post: Blurby be Kind (do have a read and then come back!)

The post talked about how I was feeling, which was anxious, mostly, and how I *would* behave in the future, should I be faced with the same request myself.

Three years on, and I am indeed getting quite a few requests to read novels, usually debuts, with a view to providing quotes for the book jacket or for PR releases.

proof

And when I say quite a few, well, I have read more of these proofs in the last six months than I have read books from my (very tall) to-read pile, because they often come with deadlines whereas my own reading does not. Some have come direct from authors I know personally or on social media. Some have come from my editor and the remainder arrive from other publishers.

In some ways I’m absolutely delighted about this. It’s an opportunity to pay forward some of the kindness I received myself. (An actual author giving up their time to read my book – amazing). But in other ways it is a tricky thing to handle because however much you want to love a book, sometimes you just don’t. And that’s sad, especially when you know the effort and the hope that are bound up in that little proof.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and have come to this conclusion: I’ve been reading for pleasure for decades now, and I tend to know what I like. When I browse books I flick through the first pages and when I find a voice that is going to grab me and delight me I just know it straight away. When I listen to others making personal recommendations, in reviews, on blogs or on twitter, I tend to get a good sense of if a book is for me. That’s how I choose what to read. So I enjoy the books I’ve chosen for myself more often than not.

But with the hopeful books lining up for a bit of cheerleading, there’s none of that. My personal taste in books is not usually a factor, and so many of the books I am sent, just as with many of the books in a bookshop, are simply not my cup of tea, no matter how well written they are or how successful they will go on to be.

Still, when I read one of those books that nevertheless found its way into my hands I get such a sinking feeling. Because I want to be that cheerleader, I do. I carry on with those books long past the point I would normally – either as a reader or as an editor – because I want the magic to happen. But to be honest I already know it won’t. It’s like a blind date with a lovely person that you just don’t fancy. So if you know your book has been sent to me hoping for some blurb-love, please know that I have given it my best attentions, whatever the outcome. And if I don’t fall in love with it, well,  it’s not you, it’s me.

And by the way, isn’t PROOF a weird looking word?

proof

 

 

Fallow Fields

Posted on: January 5th, 2015 by Claire - 13 Comments

The idea of a fallow field is thousands of years old. Farmers would let a field fallow for a year so that the field could regain its strength. If a field was used year in year out, especially for the same crop, the soil’s fertility was exhausted.

In modern times fewer and fewer fields are left fallow as it has a significant impact on farmers’ yields, and these days rather than grazing animals on the land for a year, letting the manure and the earthworms and the wild grasses do their work, farmers use commercial fertilisers instead.

I am not a farmer, but I do believe that this shift away from ‘resting’ a field and towards artificially stimulating the land to produce non-stop, must have an environmental impact. Just think how it affects the bee population, for example. There is also a theory that without fallowing, levels of carbon in the soil are reduced, releasing it into the atmosphere (see here if interested in this theory). I’m also convinced there’s  an impact on the flavour and nutritional value of the food produced.

ARS2009-fallowing-1_1

 

It’s quite easy to see, I think, how this example from agriculture is analogous to writers, and indeed to our lives in general. In Jewish teachings the concept of leaving fields fallow, or ‘shmita‘ gives us the idea of the sabbatical:

Sabbatical or a sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek σαββατικός sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in the Bible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year).” (from Wikipedia)

ARS2009-diversitymanagement-1_6

As writers, we are often told that we should write every day, and when I can I do. In recent years this kind of routine and discipline has been the thing that has kept my words flowing even when I was too tired or too busy or just not motivated. But recently I got to a point where I felt I was forcing my brain to write, but there was something missing – an energy or an inspiration – that left me feeling flat. And when you are prioritising writing above, say, spending an extra hour with your family, that decision becomes easy to question too.

I wonder, can you really force creativity to work non stop? If you look you will find plenty of advice on how to keep going. But is that the right advice? I don’t think it is, at least not for everyone. I think sometimes our imaginations also need to be left fallow for a while. It doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, that the time isn’t productive. Far from it. Great things are taking place below the surface.

Daniel J. Levitin, the director of the Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University explains why in his post in the New York Times on taking a real break. It seems that for our brains, stopping focusing on a task is exactly what we need sometimes to be truly creative. And writer Rachael Dunlop describes the process in action in this post about her taking a conscious decision not to write.

I am convinced. Not just for writers, but for anyone trying to produce creative work, every now and then our minds need a restorative sabbatical. It might be the best investment of time you could make.

My lovely editor sent me this link to the Wapping Project Berlin a ten week residency in Berlin for artists (aged 33+) photographers, writers, musicians etc. The residency is ten weeks accommodation in the heart of creative Berlin, and the one condition is that you do NOT use the residency for work. Instead, you take the time for “rest, recreation and reflection”. Perfect, right? (Well, perhaps when you have got over that part of you that’s protesting “but imagine how much writing I could get done in ten weeks!”)

I’m not in a position to be able to apply for this residency, sadly. Even while on writing sabbatical I still had to carry on with the rest of my life as usual – earning a living, being a mum and so on. But maybe YOU could – you have until 14th February, so follow the link and good luck!

My two-month writing sabbatical comes to an end today. My notebook is bursting with jottings and prompts and I’m feeling full of momentum again. I’m ready to sow the seeds of the next novel. Wish me luck…

Book News, or How my Writing Process is like Monty Python.

Posted on: January 1st, 2015 by Claire - 9 Comments

Back in February last year, Science Fiction author Una McCormack tagged me in a blog chain for writers about our current projects. Here’s her post, so do head over there to find out more about her and her new Star Trek novel which will be published this month. Yes that’s right. Star Trek!

In accepting her tag I had four questions to answer: What am I working on?  How does my work differ from others in its genre? (I’m not going to answer that one, by the way) Why do I write what I do? and How does my writing process work?

I didn’t want to reply immediately because I wasn’t ready to talk about the novel I’ve been working on. In fact I’ve discovered in the last three years that in fact being asked about a book I’m writing, especially if it’s tough going, makes me pretty grumpy and defensive.

Effectively, in 2014 I was silenced by this book. I wrote just 9 blog posts in 2014 and only one of them was about writing or editing, the one from January: The Order of Things. Even that was a post about not actually being able to write because, well, life. When I posted that blog I thought I was close to finished. In fact I didn’t finish until nine months later. So many times I thought I was ready to submit it, but then I’d fall into a pothole of confidence and set off again on ‘just one last edit’. So I guess this is the part where I talk about how my writing “process” works:

I spent 2014 wrestling with my own editing process. The more I edited, the further I seemed to be getting from the end. And then suddenly, in autumn, it finally came together. A bit like this:

With hindsight I think a lot of this was to do with the fact that I had no experience at what stage a first draft was good enough to show to an agent or editor. I wanted it to be clear exactly what I was trying to do with the book and for the writing to shine, at least in parts. With your first book you are always told to polish your novel as much as you can before you send it to agents. But with a second one? When is it good enough to share?

Times are still tricky in publishing. Just as getting an agent doesn’t mean the novel she took you on for will get published, so getting that first book published doesn’t automatically mean your publisher will want your second (unless you are contracted for it). And the novel I had chosen to write was pretty ambitious. I felt a huge pressure to get it right.

Funnily enough, by the time I thought it was good to go and finally sent my agent my manuscript in October, I was so drained by the effort of getting to that place that I was starting to wonder if anyone would ever actually love this book that had caused me so much heartache…

But they did (joy!), and because they did I now feel positive and confident about it again myself. Oh the roller-coastering of it all. Now I am really looking forward to (my editor) Helen’s edits this month. I’m convinced that she will be able to illuminate things I can work on that will turn this book into what I want it to be for readers.

Meanwhile, in the last two months I’ve been having a writing break, I needed to read, spend some time with my neglected family and get my writing groove back again. I’m starting 2015 feeling refreshed and raring to go.

 

So what is it I’m are working on?

Firstly, it’s my second novel, Everything Love Is, which is now scheduled for publication in 2016. I’m delighted that it’s no longer just me that’s working on it, but me the team at Bloomsbury too. It’s set in France on the Canal du Midi, and is a love story wrapped up in a mystery, about memory and the happy endings we conceive for ourselves.

I’m also starting the first draft of my next novel. My plan is to use the very early mornings for this, before the rest of the family get up for breakfast, as I find that’s when my brain is at its least polluted and most uninhibited. I’ll save the editing work for later in the day when I’m more analytical.

I also plan to try and squeeze in at least one short story in January/February. It’s a form I’ve neglected lately and I do get a lot out of writing short stories, both creatively and from a satisfaction point of view. And I’ve promised my daughters I will write them a children’s book we’ve been talking about, which is a great fun thing to pick up on difficult days.

It looks as though in January I won’t have much day job work on, which is just as well really, given all the above.

 

Why do I write what I do?

I always seem to struggle to describe my novels in terms that don’t make them sound bleak. The Night Rainbow, I would tell people, is about a little girl whose pregnant mother is too depressed, following the deaths of her husband and a previous baby, to look after her. How gloomy does that sound?!

And Everything Love Is, well it’s about a man who discovers he has early onset dementia just as he meets the love of his life. It doesn’t sound like an uplifting read, put like that (but I promise it will be).

And if I told you about the new book I’m working on (which I won’t, sorry!), the elevator pitch would be similarly jolly.

But the thing is that none of these books are dismal books. For me the common thread in the novels I choose to write is the resilience of the human spirit. The challenges that I throw at my characters are not burning buildings, but burning hearts. I am convinced of our extraordinary capacity for strength of character and hope in the face of struggles and that’s what I want to write about. Those are the stories I want to tell.

 

Who next?

I’m also allowed to tag one or two other writers to write a similar blog post. I am going to tag Alison Wells, a writer who leaps across genres with great skill and tenacity, who writes some of the most beautiful prose, both in her novels and short fiction, and who I hope will soon be snapped up by an agent and a publisher.  No hurry, Alison, obviously!

 

 

On not being the most anticipated…

Posted on: December 29th, 2014 by admin - 13 Comments

I was reading my twitter feed this morning, which suddenly seemed to be flooded with links to articles listing the Most Anticipated Debut Novels of 2015! the 10 Authors to watch in 2015! and What’s going to be hot in 2015! and whilst I’m always happy to see authors being bigged-up and their books recognised and given a leg up in the sea of new releases, I couldn’t help but feel for the many debut authors who might be hoping to see their books on those lists and who are now feeling the pangs of disappointment because they are not.

I remember how, as a debut novelist in 2013, at the end of 2012 these lists were coming out and I came to the realisation that even though the launch of my first novel was MY most hotly anticipated moment in 2013, I wasn’t going to be making much of a splash in literary circles. At least not in that way.

I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years, and I made a comment on twitter to the novelists not on the lists about how it doesn’t really matter at all…and ended up having a lovely (backstage) chat with author Sarah Perry, whose debut novel After Me Comes the Flood was published this year (to much critical acclaim, by the way).

The thing is, MOST new authors go through this. MOST of us are not the most anticipated. But if your pool of debut authors is limited to you and the ones everyone is shouting about on twitter and in the newspapers it’s very easy to feel like the poor relation. It’s very easy to have your perspective skewed and your excitement diminished by things that, quite frankly, don’t really affect you that much at all.

Other people, family and friends, may unwittingly add to this feeling, because they are excited for you and they too don’t see how your book is, in fact, a drop in an ocean. Hopefully you are able to have an honest conversation with your agent and your publishers, because they have done this all before with other debuts before you, and are face to face on a daily basis with the vagaries and the difficulties of the publishing industry.

In 2013 I was lucky enough to have other authors to talk to, like Vanessa Gebbie whose debut The Coward’s Tale had been launched the year before mine, and Kate Worsley whose debut She Rises launched the same time The Night Rainbow did, also with Bloomsbury. But you’ll still need to find a way to manage this yourself.

I was going to say you can’t compare yourself to other people, or compare your book to other books, but of course you can and you probably will, in all these ways and more:

World of buzzwords

The list goes on and on and on and you can let it drive you crazy. In fact you probably have to take a conscious decision *not* to let it drive you crazy, not to diminish the pure unbridled joy of signing that book contract a year or two before (I can hear all the unpublished writers out there yelling, “Seriously? You got published! Be grateful!”).

In the end – in publishing just as in life – the noise and the superlatives and the LISTS and the rankings, they detract from what is important. From what is important to YOU.

Do you really care if you didn’t make a top ten list? Does that spoil it for you? (Because it’s not necessarily an indication of how well your book is going to sell, you know?) Does it truly matter to you if someone else’s book has more buzz around it than yours, or more marketing budget? Would those things have mattered to you when you were pitching your novel for publication? Have your publishers let you down? Have you let yourself down? Has Lady Luck let you down? Or is it, in the end, just buzz and fluff that can be the icing on the cake for those who get on the lists and win the prizes? It’s not as if you still don’t have the cake itself.

For all the debut novelists of 2015, I have three pieces of advice:

1)  Don’t lose perspective of where you are, what you have achieved, the dreams that you have brought to life.

2) Keep on hoping, but focus on the things you can affect: Writing the next book. Reading other people’s books. Improving your work.

3) Talk to other people. Talk to other authors about their experiences, because all of this is the tip of the publishing iceberg and after all this launch business dies down, what you are left with is this – you’re a writer, and somewhere, some readers are already anticipating your next book. You need to sit down and write it.

Happy New Year to you all, and may 2015 be wonderful for you in a myriad of unexpected ways. xxx

Party Lifesaver: Top 10 Responses to *that* Question

Posted on: December 16th, 2014 by Claire - 16 Comments

It’s the party season. The time when authors can look forward to experiencing the excruciating blurring of social boundaries when discussing one’s work.

Most authors I know have told me that they have experienced this, in particular the one, very un-British, question at its zenith. There you are at a perfectly lovely party, chatting to perfectly lovely people, who (when they discover you’re an author) ask, “So what kind of books do you write?” So far so good. But hot on it’s heels, more often than you would imagine, comes, “So how much money do you make?”

I’ve done various jobs in my life (and still do) and no one has ever asked me about my salary or earnings in them. I mean not ever. Yet there I was again at a really lovely little party this weekend, mingling away, and before long there it was. “But really, do you sell many? I mean, how much money do you actually make from writing?”

Even though I’ve been asked this before, and usually by complete strangers, it still took me aback. I found myself standing with my mouth agape, wondering what the most socially acceptable way was to extricate myself from this line of enquiry. Fortunately someone in our group changed the subject on my behalf, but it got me to thinking I really should have a ready answer to deal with this more seamlessly.

Here are ten I’ve thought of so far. Do you have any to add? I’d love to hear them.

“How much money do you make?”

1) Oh millions. I honestly can’t keep up. And you?

2) Oh, no one makes any money out of books these days. Well, not many people. Well, I don’t. *Short melancholy pause* How do you think I could sell more books?

3) My therapist says that I shouldn’t answer that question at any cost. It always sets me back months.

4) I’m so glad you asked that. Would you excuse me? *Leave to mingle/get a drink/etc*

5) Have you tried the mini-kievs?

Party Nibbles

6) Is money important to you?

7) Have a guess! *Produce a small notepad* I’m running a sweepstake.  Go on, guess! What’s your name again?

8) Well we only have a couple of hives, so really only enough for our own consumption, maybe a few pots for gifts, but with the bees’ habitat being destroyed I do think anyone who has room could think about keeping just a few, don’t you?

9) *Roll eyes and laugh maniacally*

10) Percy asked me that at a party last Christmas. You know Percy, of course? Wasn’t it terrible what happened to him?

 

The Fallacy of a Ukrainian Language Divide and more…

Posted on: March 13th, 2014 by Claire - 25 Comments

As someone with a strong attachment to Ukraine and its people, I have been aching for weeks to speak out. I am not Ukrainian, but I know a lot of Ukrainians, and – in the mass of media opinion and some very half-hearted reporting – I wanted their voices to be heard. A writing blog didn’t seem like the ideal place, but the papers already have a lot of column inches filled by others, so I’ve decided to talk about it here. I trust you’ll understand this diversion from the usual topics.

About me and Ukraine

Twenty years ago I worked for a big consumer goods company. I went out to the newly independent Ukraine to recruit and train a national salesforce. People thought it was a little crazy at the time, but I received the warmest welcome you can imagine. Here we are in 1997, that’s me in the middle.

Ukraine_1997

I’m not even sure, before I got the assignment, that I could have placed Ukraine on the map. Geography had never been my strong point. In the 1980s what we needed to know was that the sharp edge of the Cold War ran through Germany. In 1990 I visited Poland which by then had become a kind of buffer zone between Europe and the Soviet Union. Now of course it’s all different. Ukraine is now what stands between Europe and Russia. The word Ukraine  – Україна in Ukrainian – means the Borderlands, as appropriate now as it ever was.  

So, back in 1996 I recruited a team from around Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv to the West, Odessa and Crimea to the South, Kharviv and Donetsk to the East and for the next two or three years my days were largely spent travelling to their cities and regions, to understand the market there and to train them on the job. These were young professionals who had been born into the Soviet Union, and as young adults found themselves citizens of a free Ukraine. Only five years after independence there was no doubt that they considered themselves Ukrainian. In the light of the ongoing crisis, I asked them what they really want now.

 Let’s talk about language first.

I’m a writer. Language is important to me and I’m particularly sensitive to how it is used. I’m also an expat, currently in France, and I’m aware on a daily basis how foreign languages can include or place barriers between people. There has been a lot of talk in the media about a “language divide” in Ukraine. Ukrainian speakers versus the Russian speakers. Can we stop that right now?

When I moved to Ukraine I learned Russian, not Ukrainian. Why? Because the majority of people (the notable exception being the far western region) in Ukraine in 1996 spoke Russian. Russian was the language on all the road signs, shop fronts and packaging. It was the language that everybody understood, whether they wanted it or not. Why? Since the 17th century the use of the Ukrainian language has been regularly proscribed or limited by the policies of those in power. Ukraine has a long and complicated history, click on the link if you want a flavour of that.

It had already begun to change while I was there, and over the last two decades use of Ukrainian has spread. Not extensively, as you will have read, to the ‘eastern’ and southern parts of Ukraine, but then imagine how long changing the language of a nation takes? Fortunately the two languages are relatively close, and use similar alphabets. But still, unsurprisingly, some people will never want to make the switch. (In fact, one big mistake that the interim government made earlier this year was to push through a law making Ukrainian the only official language. It was perhaps meant to be symbolic, but it was ill-considered and focusing absolutely on the wrong thing at the wrong time. There was an outcry from Russian speakers, which subsequently formed the basis of much propaganda about their ‘persecution’.) But being able to correlate the uptake of Ukrainian to either side of a physical map does not make it a political map. Language does not divide Ukraine.

What about an ethnic divide?

Have you wondered what the difference is between “Russian speakers” and “Ethnic Russians” and “Pro-Russians”? I’ve seen the terms used often in newspaper reports, and slipped in by Putin as a proxy for the “Russian citizens” he allegedly wishes to protect.

It’s quite simple. For “Russian speakers” read “Ukrainians”. For “Ethnic Russians” read “Ukrainians”: All those with Russian roots that I spoke to do not “fear for their safety” under the new interim government. They are shocked to hear how the reporting in Russia is shaping the perceptions of their relatives in Russia on the situation in Crimea. If they fear at all, it is fear of the advances of Putin on the territory of their country, and uncertainty as to when and how the international community will step up to help.

And for “Pro-Russians”? Take care. Are they ‘pro’ the language, or ‘pro’ the country? If the language, see above. If the country then ask first, are they Ukrainian citizens? Many “Pro-Russians” demonstrating in the East and South of the country are actually “Russian citizens”. Of course others are not, but the waters have been muddied so much it’s hard to judge where the balance lies.

Now there’s a way to divide people with language.

So, do Ukrainians really want to join the EU?

Some do and some don’t. But that’s not what the revolution was about. It’s true that the first protesters we saw on our screens were students protesting about Yanukovych backing out of closer ties with the EU, but that was just the spark in the powder keg. 

So where did the revolution come from?

It’s been coming for a long time. A great deal of hope arose with Ukrainian independence in 1991, even when the harsh reality of economic disparity between Ukraine and her neighbours to the west had become clear. But in the years that followed it has not been growth and a better quality of life that has emerged in Ukraine, but corruption, lawlessness and stagnation. Just like the occupying countries who came before them, those who have won political power in an independent Ukraine have creamed as much money from the people as possible and pocketed it themselves. In the last three years billions of dollars have disappeared from the state budget under Yanukovych. Ukrainians were still getting beaten down, just with a different stick.

For a long time, people didn’t speak out and that’s not surprising. For generations Ukrainians have been afraid to open their mouths. Even if the knock on the door in the middle of the night has fallen out of fashion, there are plenty of ways of dealing with people who refuse to fall in line. Crippling pressure can come from any corner: in the form of new ‘tax’ demands, from employers, from the police…anywhere.

But this time last year, small cracks started to appear. The often bitter Ukrainian winter was gripping the country but people were not receiving help from the authorities. A public solidarity rose up where people helped others in the community. They used social media to ask for and offer help. Warm food and clothes, shelter, transport assistance etc. By the way, this is the kind of people that Ukrainians are. When I lived there I never saw one person pass a beggar on the street without giving something. Not one.

Then at the end of 2013, the promised trade agreement with the EU was not signed. Yanukovych seemed to be turning away from Europe and deepening financial links with Russia. It was the students who raised their voices first – peacefully – on the Maidan. Students who saw their only hope of a prosperous future coming from the West, as part of Europe. 

It would probably have burned itself out if left to itself. But the response from Yanukovych was brutal. Students were beaten by the police. And that is when things turned.

Many more people came out to the Maidan, not to protest about the EU but to say that a regime that beats their children, their brothers, their friends, is one they could no longer accept. There was no left or right split in those protests. On the contrary they united diverse and sometimes radically opposed forces in a common aim: to end a regime – now an effective dictatorship – drenched in corruption, where people lived in fear. They came to protest peacefully, but I’m sure you have seen the outcome.

The cost of what happened next has been too high in lives and serious injuries, but there is a newfound pride in their ability to come together and take control of their own country where normal democratic means have failed them. The Maidan has brought the people closer together because they now feel stronger together. They are rising up with dignity in the face of years of corruption and abuse of power.

What do Ukrainians really want?

Now:

  • For us to hear their voices, to know that Ukrainians have solidarity and hope.
  • For people, both in Russia and the west, to understand that the propaganda they are hearing is far, far from reality.
  • An end to fear. People are afraid a war is coming. A war they want no part of. Some I spoke to are already prepared to leave their homes with their families at a moments notice.
  • Support from the International Community: A clear message that the interim government of Ukraine is legitimate, and that the occupation of Ukrainian territory and the upcoming referendum on Crimea joining Russia is not. Insistence that Russia to conforms to International laws and removes its troops from their territory. Support for Eastern and Southern Ukraine – the most vulnerable areas to further encroachment. Yesterday’s statement of the G7 leaders is a fine start, but will it be enough?
  • Whatever support can be given at all levels. Whether it’s diplomacy, sanctions, UN peacekeepers, boycotts, even just spreading information and giving moral support. Show that there is power behind the Ukrainian people.

And in the future:

  • Change in their country by legal means. Full and fair re-elections in May.
  • To stay in Ukraine and to speak whichever language they choose. Russian, Ukrainian, or both, free from bribery, injustice and corruption.
  • Help in establishing an effective, democratic government and a stronger economy. Ukraine is weak, but the people are strong and determined to build the country they want.

 

Let’s stop talking about what divides Ukrainians and talk about what unites them.

The people I spoke to speak Russian, Ukrainian and English. They are of all ethnic backgrounds. They are entrepreneurs, historians, directors, architects, translators, CEOs, engineers and parents. They want a free and modern Ukraine. They are asking for your help.

We need to stand by Ukraine, not just stand by. 

 

Further Reading:

Please do read Timothy Snyder’s truly excellent articles in the NY Review of Books. Amongst others:

Putin vs. Reality

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda

Fascism, Russia and Ukraine

And look here for a timeline and photographs of what is happening.

What is really happening in Ukraine

On the Maidan now – is this what fascists look like? (This is a blog written in Russian, I have linked to a Google-translated version but to be honest the pictures speak for themselves.)

Food

Posted on: August 12th, 2013 by admin - 6 Comments

Summer Food

Food has been on my mind lately. (This is not unusual).

I love food. I love the colour and smell and taste of it. I love how tactile its preparation is and I like eating with my hands too. Food is one of the simplest human necessities that is also one of the finest pleasures, and you can do it three times a day. Sitting around a table to a meal can bring us together and it can nourish us. Of course food can also divide us, make us miserable and destroy us.

There’s little wonder, then, that food slips into fiction a lot. It certainly features heavily in my own writing

In The Night Rainbow, food is central to Pea because she’s having to source a lot of it for herself. She picks ripe peaches straight off the trees, waits for the morning baguettes to be delivered by the breadlady, and is very happy to take the biscuits that Claude offers. Her mouth waters at the pans of paella at the market and she tries to improve her mother’s mood by preparing food for her.

Food is also prominent in my next novel, although in a very different way, and I often use food as a metaphor in my flash fiction. Here are a couple of examples up at Fictionaut:

Anything Again

Flesh & Blood

Here is tonight’s supper, cooked and photographed by Mr King:

Since we moved here to France, our relationship with food has changed, and I was recently asked to write a magazine feature about our experience – the way we shop, prepare and eat French food. This week a photographer was sent over to shoot pictures of me with the family, as we took our weekly trip to the market, made meals and ate together. It’s was quite a surreal experience, and a very tiring day, but at the end of it, seeing how we eat through the eyes of someone else made me appreciate more than ever just how fortunate we are.

Here is a picture my husband snapped of me in the kitchen between shoots, wondering what to make for lunch:

Claire in the kitchen

And here is the photographer, Tom Parker, in our very shabby kitchen, taking photos of our pickles and preserves! You can bet when his photos turn up in the magazine feature it will all look very French and glamorous. (UPDATE: And here they are!)

Food_Photographer

But food isn’t really glamorous at all, is it? Certainly around here, the people who produce it work extremely hard for very little pay. If anything, the attitude we tend to have in our family towards food is one of gratitude and respect. Gratitude because we have such good and plentiful food, and respect in terms of our understanding of how it is produced and limiting waste.

This summer we crossed the Pyrenees over into Spanish Catalunya. We stayed at a lovely gîte there, owned by a family who have a few arable fields nearby, plus a farm with fruit, vegetables, chickens and pigs. They also have a Michelin starred restaurant. The farm is called Tancant cercles, which means closing circles, and their philosophy is that they produce the food they serve in their restaurant from start to finish, including growing the grain for their livestock. The owners were happy for us to take our children to have a look around the farm. There they showed us the harvested grain in the hoppers, which they feed to their pigs, they showed us the vegetables they grow and the free range chickens, and let the children go in and collect eggs. They showed us the pigs out and about, and the pregnant sows and those suckling the new litters. Then the owner took us and showed us the fridges, where they hang the pigs which have come back from the abattoir, the sausage and ham making processes and the cuts of meat, ready to be sold, or to be used in their restaurant. Later, we ate in the restaurant, and our children could point out pretty much everything on their plates and how they had seen it at the farm.

I know that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do feel strongly that when many children and adults don’t have a clear understanding of how the food gets to their plates, seeing the end to end process is an important part of having respect for the food you eat. My children are still young, but they can now make the link between the piglets they petted and the ham they ate. As they grow up, I hope that they can keep that in mind, and never justify eating food produced in a way that they would not be happy to witness for themselves.

If you are ever in the area, the hotel/restaurant is Els Casals and the gîte (which sleeps 14) is La Rovira. They are all within a few minutes of each other, not far from Berga in Northern Spain (Catalunya, about an hour North of Barcelona).

Also, I’m thinking that maybe next year I might run a little writers retreat there, so let me know if you’re interested.

Old farmhouse in Spain



The best thing about publishing a book…

Posted on: April 17th, 2013 by Claire - 10 Comments

Reading a book

…is readers.

Forget the other things you may dream of. Forget the beautiful covers and the thrill of being on the shelves of book shops. Forget the congratulations and the celebrations. Forget royalties and rankings and reviews. Yes, all of these things are good things. But the best thing, the very best thing about publishing a book is readers.

Because you are the storyteller. Your story has been aching to be told. And now by some kind of miracle it is being told far and wide. Being heard. Being appropriated…by readers.

It’s only two months since The Night Rainbow was published, but I’ve heard back already from so many readers, and honestly, every time it makes my heart sing. When readers take the time to write a letter or a tweet or a review to say what they thought about my story, it’s a gift. And this week I had the chance to actually chat with a reading group for the first time. We did it by Skype and although we had a couple of technical issues overall it worked really well. I would love to do it again. I could get hooked.

What surprised me most was the kind of questions that the readers had to ask. In particular:

  • Questions about events that happened before the story starts. What led the characters to the point where the novel opens?
  • Questions about what happens after the book ends. Do I foresee happiness for my characters?
  • Questions about characters’ motivations for certain actions or comments they made. What were they thinking?

Aren’t they amazing questions? Not questions about structure or voice or writing techniques. But questions about the characters. As though they were real. Because just as for the writer, for the reader those characters were real too for a while. Their story was told, and the readers listened.

 

Readers: The absolute best thing about publishing a book.

 

Photo via flickr creative commons (c) Thokrates. Have a look at some of his other beautiful photos too.

Great Expectations

Posted on: February 21st, 2013 by Claire - 7 Comments

A week on from the publication of The Night Rainbow and lot of people have been asking me the same question – how do you feel?

I suspect the expected response is something along the lines of “Amazing!” But in practice for me the answer is much more complicated than that. I’ve heard some authors say that upon publication they’ve felt numb, or scared, or nothing at all. That’s certainly not the case for me. I have felt elated, thrilled and joyous. I’ve also felt anxious, a bit stressed and possibly a little obsessive. And I’ve felt grateful, a lot of grateful, for those who’ve supported me, knowing that what is to many just one more book out there in the world is to me the realisation of years of ambition and work and hope.

Rainbow in a meadow

Hope?

A lot has been said about hope:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)

“Hope is a good breakfast but it is a bad supper.” (Francis Bacon)

and my favourite,

“I am prepared for the worst but hope for the best.” (Benjamin Disraeli)

Yes, that’s the one. That’s how I feel now – hopeful, but in a realistic sort of way. I hope that things will go well with The Night Rainbow. That it will sell well and people will love it. That it might even get nominated for some kind of a prize. I probably should be being bashful and saying “Oh no, not my little debut, I’m just grateful it’s been published at all.” But let’s be honest, that’s not true. I do hope for still more good things. And I’ve felt this way at every step along my writer’s journey:

  • The sharing of a piece of writing with someone and waiting for their reaction, hoping for a positive one.
  • The submitting of a poem or a story into a competition and hoping for a placing or even a win!
  • Submitting work to a journal and hoping for acceptance.
  • Submitting to agents and hoping every the ping of every email is a request for a full.
  • Hoping that the publishers will want to offer a contract.
  • Hoping for foreign rights deals.
  • Hoping for a nice cover quote or two and then later for good reviews…

It’s not greedy to hope, it doesn’t mean you’re not very happy with what you already have. It’s simply picturing the road ahead in a positive light. Despite the inevitable rejections and disappointments along the way, we dare to hope in all aspects of our lives because if we didn’t, what would the future look like? We have hopes for our loved ones and for others around us, for ourselves and for our societies and beyond. And the fact we perpetually experience things not working out as we’d hoped doesn’t – or shouldn’t – teach us we were wrong to hope.

We can’t give up hope because it keeps us moving forwards, keeps us living.

I titled this post Great Expectations because some people have said things like ‘You must have great expectations for your book!’ But I don’t. Expectations are another matter. If your hopes are not met then there’s a twang of disappointment and you move on. But if have expectations, and they are unfulfilled the disappointment is much more profound. You probably don’t have a fall-back. Expectations don’t allow for being prepared for the worst.

So here I am, hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst, since there’s not much else I can do for this book. However, there’s a lot I can do for the next one, and hope won’t fix my edits… I’m putting my attention to those now so I can hand the new novel into my agent and start all over again…

A canicular, French, late summer morning.

Posted on: August 22nd, 2012 by Claire - 10 Comments

There is a canicule in France at the moment – a heatwave. Municipal Lidos are full of people trying to cool off. Only the bravest, or the most determined holidaymakers take to the shadeless beaches between 11am and 4pm. Meanwhile the countryside is parched and forest fires are regularly taking hold, even in the higher mountain areas.

There are two weeks left of the summer holidays, and just as with the end of season peaches and nectarines – although we have already had our fill – we are gorging on the remainder, while it is still good, before the time has passed.

Even as dawn broke this morning the air was hot and by mid-morning it was pushing 35°.

I made pancakes (crêpes) for breakfast, to cheers of delight. We ate them with fresh lemons, syrups and jams and cold watermelon from the fridge. It’s amazing how pancakes for breakfast can make an ordinary day seem like a holiday.

Then the neighbour came round, as he does most years at this time and brought us tomatoes. They have stewed and frozen as many as they can, and still his plants keep on giving. He tours the neighbours with baskets and boxes and bags of the ripe-to bursting fruit.

My 6 year old and I took our dogs out for a walk, to let them cool off in the irrigation canal that keeps the fruit trees and fields watered on our side of the valley. We also took a bag in the hope of hunting down some blackberries. My daughter, who is enthralled by insects, spiders, lizards and in fact any kind of local flora and fauna, found this little creature on one of the bramble bushes. We think it might be a crab spider.

 

As we walked home the farmer was turning hay in the fields. The air was heavy with its sweetness and the warm scent of figs from the trees nearby. We dillied and dallied until we were parched with thirst, then ran home fast for cold water.

This is late summer, in the canicule, in southern France. This place is inspirational.

 

 

Website make-over

Posted on: July 22nd, 2012 by Claire - 11 Comments

I’m having a make over.

The plan is to have an author website where news, book info etc can be found, as well as a link to my blog for those that are interested in my ramblings. The address will stay the same.

Here is the homepage work in progress. It’s based on a new wordpress theme that my clever husband has made. If you’re on your phone the blocks should appear in a column, on a tablet perhaps in a double column and on a computer in 3×3 format. But otherwise none of the links etc work yet and the text is placeholders. What do you think?

Is there anything that bugs you about author pages or websites that we should take into account? All thoughts at this stage gratefully received!

Thanks!

 

Very Inspiring Blogging

Posted on: June 25th, 2012 by Claire - 2 Comments

Thank you to two lovely and talented writers Anna JG Smith and Jessica Patient who this week have both presented me with the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. Hurrah!

The idea of these awards is to recognise blogs we appreciate, and a side effect is to have to tell you stuff about ourselves. Well…in the last two years I’ve already posted twice. Please do check out the blogs I suggested and read the ‘fun facts’ if you must!

  • When Martha Williams gave me the Beautiful Blogger Award in May 2010 I posted here.
  • When Oscar Windsor Smith gave me the Versatile Blogger Award in May 2011 I posted more dirty secrets here.

So for 2012 I don’t propose to add another seven interesting things about me.

However I have added one more or less interesting comment to each of their blogs, so if you’re really all that curious you’ll have to go and have a look!

I will definitely take the opportunity to point you at a few more interesting blogs though.

Do have a look at:

Peggy Riley for original and fascinating posts on writing and researching novels

Suzy Joinson for wonderful inspiration and fascinating illustrations

If you want wry and witty from a writer, do go and read Stephen May‘s blog.

Rachel Carter‘s blog always comes from the heart and hits a nerve.

If you’re hungry, go have a look at Kerry’s French revolution food blog

And if you’ve not seen it yet, go and support this VERY inspirational 9 year old girl’s blog about the quality of school dinners

 

Bloggers beware – “Top Blog Award Nominations”

Posted on: January 7th, 2012 by Claire - 14 Comments

 

This week I received an email congratulating me on my nomination for a ‘Top Writing Blog Award’.

Woo-hoo, eh? Great. I’d never heard of the organisation that nominated me though, so I Googled them. They seem to be a broker for online education. So far they have a dozen different categories of these “awards”

Top 115 parenting blogs!

Top 70 foodie blogs!

Top 75 music and arts enthusiasts!

Top 50 Wellness Guru!

In total 735 blogs have won their awards…and that’s 735 blogs who have put this website’s award badge and *link* to their site on their blog. Can you imagine how that boosts their search engine rankings?

This feels like an opportunity to take up space on my own blog with a badge that means nothing to most people and provides a link to a site I don’t endorse.

Right then…

 

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