Meeting my writing hero

Some say you should never meet your heroes, in case they turn out to have feet of clay. But nothing was going to stop me going to hear Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. On a cold spring evening, the city’s Sheldonian Theatre was a suitably elegant and historic venue for a conversation between Barry – the author of seven novels, 13 plays and two volumes of poetry – and Chris Patten, an obvious fan.

Although there was a nod to his body of work, much of the discussion centred on Days Without End, Barry’s latest novel, and winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. In breathtakingly poetic prose the book tells the love story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two seventeen year-olds who sign up for the US army, to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.

The tale is narrated by Thomas, whose voice is a stunning achievement. But it took a while to find, said Barry. ‘It was frustrating.’ He would go to his workroom ‘dutifully’ every morning, feeling ‘stupidus’ – a Latin word meaning ‘thick’, just as it does in Ireland, he joked. He was nine months into the project before ‘the first sentence arrived, like a herald’ and the book was underway.

In the meantime, he read 300 books on American history. He discovered wonderful nuggets, such as the Native American tradition of braves changing into women’s dress when in camp, and back into braves’ dress when they went to war; one of the many facts seamlessly woven into the novel’s portrayal of the young men’s love. Barry was aware of the risks he was taking. ‘I thought, “No you can’t do that,” he said. ‘So I did that.’

He was engaging and honest on the story’s inspiration: a period of anguish in his family, resolved when his sixteen year-old son Toby revealed that he was gay. Because of the book, his son’s story is now well known. Asked how the young man had reacted to the publicity, Barry said that his children never read his work, but his son had read this book. He liked it. That affirmation, said Barry, was ‘the Nobel Prize, right there’.

Family is at the heart of his work, and relationships between generations – particularly fathers and sons. Even the difficult relationships. ‘You’re letting them in. You’re still in love with them.’ The searing historical detail he includes is part of the novelist’s duty to try to understand ‘the history through which they waded’.

He spoke movingly of his maternal grandfather, who told him wonderful stories of family members, although sometimes he only knew ‘half a sentence’. But ‘that’s enough for a novelist,’ said Barry. ‘You can make the rest up’.

The world of his novels, Barry suggested, was the country he had created for himself, where he felt at home. ‘You want to be a citizen of somewhere – sometimes you call your heart your country.’

Is it easier to be comfortable with an Irish identity nowadays, Chris Patten asked. Barry, who lives in a mixed Catholic and Protestant area of Wicklow, replied, ‘How I long to say yes.’ He was generous in his praise for politicians, such as Patten, who try to achieve peaceful change: ‘an act of magic similar to writing a book. Trying to effect something with love and sincerity.’WP_20180322_19_22_12_Pro

Love and sincerity: the hallmarks of a wonderful evening with my writing hero.

In the book signing queue, other fans agreed: we could have listened to him all night.

He was even gracious enough to let me take a selfie…




Reading Allowed

Anyone looking through the window of a first-floor room in Bloomsbury the other night might have been tempted to dial 999. Bodies littered the floor. Listening in, the observer would have noticed a strange noise: humming. Were these people the victims of a mysterious cult? An other-worldly sect? No – just writers. It was Bloomsbury, after all.

As one of the bodies I can explain: we were taking part in a ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop, with Miranda Roszkowski and Judy Marshall, to get ready for the Mechanics’ Institute Review Live reading events. Some of us had read in public before; some had not. The aim was to enable us to read confidently, but above all authentically. As writers we spend time crafting our work. It’s easy to forget that presenting it needs time and practice too.

Lying on the floor and humming was part of the preparation. Next we had to walk round the room, haphazardly, reciting the first line of our stories as we criss-crossed each other’s path like phone-reading commuters. A perfect exercise to practise in the rush hour. Then, Miranda showed us how to stretch and bend from head to toe. Even our faces didn’t escape: ‘Pretend your face is a toffee, being chewed,’ she said, helpfully. We gurned away obediently, like the best end-of-the-pier act.

All this was to loosen us up, to stop us feeling tension and reflecting it in our voices. Judy showed us how to find our pitch: to start high, and take our voices in a swoop, as low as we could go, then come back up again, to a comfortable level.

We were practising to read extracts, not whole stories, which in most cases are a few thousand words long. So what makes a good extract? Keep it simple: not too many characters. Humour is always good. Not too much dialogue. Leave your listeners wanting more. Choose a piece that’s self-contained, but feels like it leads on…

It sounded straightforward. Being writers, we had to make it complicated. What about foreign words? Accents? Only if you really can pull it off, said Miranda. No need to make unfamiliar words too pronounced.

We were aiming to speak for a minute or so: roughly half an A4 page. Everyone speeds up when they read, was the advice, so keep it slow. But vary the pace. And you can breathe half-way through a line, if you want to.

Then it was time to hear our words – in our own voices. ‘Readers love hearing writers read their work,’ said Miranda.

She was right – reading aloud added an extra dimension to the stories. It was also helpful to get colleagues’ feedback: where a sentence was unclear, or an idea too hard to grasp on one hearing.

It was powerful to hear each writer speak to the room. There was something magical about being invited into the world of the story. When I went back to the anthology, I could hear each unique voice.

The next MIR Live is at the Brick Lane Bookshop in London on 17 November, followed by dates in Birmingham and Manchester. Details will be on the MIR website: or check out @Editors_MIR.

Come along and be part of the world of our stories! Just don’t look in the Green Room – there may well be bodies on the floor…


Listening to Ghosts

In early September I found myself walking through an elegant square in London’s Bloomsbury. I watched russet leaves drift along the pavements, thought of all the feet that had walked there before me, and allowed myself to embrace the joy of being part of a world I’d always dreamed of.

I was on my way to the ‘open the box’ event for the 14th issue of the Mechanics’ Institute Review, the annual publication from Birkbeck, University of London. MIR 14 is a beautiful book, showcasing new short stories from a range of voices across the UK. The subjects are topical and relevant, ranging from immigration to social media. There are new pieces from Jenn Ashworth and Alan Beard, and a brilliant foreword on teaching creative writing from Julia Bell. And there is my story, ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand.’

It’s a story I’ve been trying to pin down for a while. ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is set in Beijing, in 1980 – a very different place from the city today. Then, the only cars were the lumbering, Russian-made vehicles used by Party officials. The roads were clogged – but with bicycles, ridden by people wearing identical clothes, in muddy colours. There was not a designer outfit in sight. There were no skyscrapers. There was no metro. There were no glitzy bars; no restaurants serving international cuisine to a jet-setting clientele. Everything closed in the evening, in a sort of unofficial curfew.

That world has gone, but the people who grew up with it have not. Now in their sixties and seventies, they are a kind of ‘lost generation’ in China. They have endured every convulsion of the State, from the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, when industrial production took precedence over normal life, to the famine that succeeded it when untold millions died. Then came the Cultural Revolution, and the unleashing of the terrifying Red Guards. Education and learning was suspect; teachers were humiliated and persecuted. Many killed themselves to save their families further suffering. Ancient monuments, including Confucius’ birthplace, were smashed. In 1980, the one-child law was passed, with its terrible and far-reaching consequences. When China opened up to the world, many of that generation dared to ‘invest’ their savings in stocks and shares, and lost everything. They have no money for designer clothes and cars. Their homes have been destroyed to make way for the new China. In their old age, they have only one child to look after them. If they have outlived their child, they face a lonely future.

Back in 1980, the world looked different. For people prepared to take a risk, like Liu, the main character in my story, there was a feeling that this might be a chance to grab what we in the West take for granted: the freedom to think and question, the right to improve our lot in life, and to try to make things better for our children. The right to dream.

‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is fiction, of course. But if Liu’s ghost were walking with me along that Bloomsbury street, I hope he would feel that something of his story is being told at last.


Re-drafting and Sweet Peas

Kill your darlings; cut, cut, cut; start in the middle of the action, get out early… all great advice for short-story writing. And I know it works. But for a couple of weeks I’ve been stuck on a draft, and I can’t see a way through. Each time I cut a paragraph, or re-write dialogue, the new version looks better; until I realise I’ve made it worse. I might as well delete the page numbers, throw it all up in the air and start again.

I know this is how I work, but I hate this bit. When I start a piece, I have only the slightest idea where it will end; and no clue what will happen on the way. One of my writer friends, on the other hand, waits to start until she knows where she’s going, and how she’ll get there. I just have to get it down – then try to work out what I’ve got.

So I try to cheer myself up by looking at old stories and drafts. On my pc are over a dozen versions of one piece, that I began five years ago, and which only recently achieved its ‘final’ shape. It’s encouraging to look at the end result and remember the struggle to get there; but it’s also strange – as if it happened to someone else. And surely it wasn’t as painful as the current one is proving to be? (My pain pales into insignificance, though, beside that of US author Richard Bausch, who turned an 800-page novel into his short story, All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona. How? ‘Just like a kidney stone is passed,’ he told interviewer Carole Burns, for her brilliant book ‘Off the Page’: Norton 2008).

I make tea, pace about, and stare out the window, where the garden path has disappeared under a sweet pea vine. Not the ladylike, scented sort, but the hooligan variety that rampages across everything and has no scent at all. Every time I go out I feel the splat and crunch of flowers underfoot. I’m cross with myself, cross with the flowers and bored at the thought of tackling the job. I’m busy! I don’t have time. And I’m meant to be writing.

But something is niggling at my writing brain…

Before I know it, I’m kneeling on the path with my secateurs and twine. I untangle the main vine stems. In places the stalks are knotted together; some of them snap, and can’t be kept. Tendrils are getting in the way, or connecting to the wrong stem. Too much flowery growth: not enough structure. Is my story the same? What does my main character want? What’s his secret, that drives the narrative, and reveals his motivation at the end? On the vine there are lots of shoots going nowhere: I pull them out. I find the four strongest stems, and tie them in. I cut off the extra flowers, and put them in a vase.

I go back to the story and try to look at it afresh. I wield my story secateurs – the Delete button. Cut, cut, cut. I find the structure, and clean it up. Everything must serve the story. Give it room to breathe.

Not there yet: but it’s reading better. There’s clarity, and forward movement.

Outside, the garden path has re-appeared. The vine is covering the ugly fence. And on my desk, there’s a vase of sweet pea flowers.

In Praise of Writing Friends  


The email pings into my inbox and I can’t help smiling. It’s from my writing friend: in the subject line, ‘Work for next week’. At the end of her email, where she’s attached her work for me to read, are the magic words: ‘Looking forward to reading whatever you want to send.’ In other words, get a move on and send me some new stuff.

Writing is such a lonely business. There’s nothing like the feeling that someone is waiting to read my work to get me motivated. Competition deadlines are great for finishing a piece – but like every writer I know, I crave feedback. My regular deadline with my writing friend isn’t just motivating – it’s encouraging too. And her thoughtful comments give me plenty to work on.

There are other benefits too. Reading her work sharpens my eye for my own – although why is it so much easier to spot the unnecessary word or clunky sentence in her prose, than in mine?

We remind each other of competition deadlines – and are genuinely pleased to hear of each other’s success. It’s not just writerly generosity; if we’ve worked on a story together, it’s a testament to both our writing and editing skills. As well as the hits, it’s great to have someone to share the misses; and to commiserate on yet another ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. I’ve read of published writers who still share their work with their writing group. Interestingly, I only have experience of working with women in this way. Arrangements with men seem to peter out – my fault or theirs?

It doesn’t always work, of course. I’ve been in groups where writers, instead of critiquing constructively, have dumped their prejudices on others; confused the work with the writer, and allowed criticism to become personal. But that’s thankfully rare. Another problem can be competitiveness. I once met a writer on a course who had left a high-profile City job to write. He wanted to share work, but only on his terms; and he was unwilling to spend time on anyone else’s writing. He was confusing his high-powered, competitive career with the collaboration and trust needed for successful workshopping. We weren’t colleagues, we were the competition.

It sounds precious but here goes: only another writer really understands this mad obsession. It’s great if family show an interest, but they can be unsettled by the result: who is this stranger? Is that how you really feel? The effect must be even odder, I can see, when they recognise a setting, or snippets of conversation. Do we all, deep down, possess Greene’s famous ‘chip of ice in the heart’?

My writing friends aren’t icy: we’re just dedicated. And we trust each other – because good writing is revealing, of oneself – and, as a tutor advised me once, when you give your writing to someone else they will always see something different in it; something you didn’t intend at all, which will surprise you. You have to put treasured images aside; kill your darlings. And who better to tell you that than your writing friend?


Hearing Voices

A few years ago I was on a writing course with a scarily famous tutor. Some of us were new to fiction writing. We were working on different pieces: novels, short stories, poetry and memoir, but we had a common aim: how could we discover our writing voices? ‘Read, read, read; write, write, write,’ said our tutor. But we’d be influenced, we said. We’d end up sounding like Margaret Atwood, or Dickens. ‘Be influenced!’ she boomed. That was the end of the discussion.

Perhaps we were naïve. But it was a serious point. Finding your writing voice is the holy grail of good writing: it’s what agents are looking for; as a reader, it’s what makes me pick up a book, or put it down. An original voice leaps out from the page: pulls you in from the first sentence. We all recognise a voice that speaks to us: makes us want to keep reading. We may not always like it, or agree; but we want to hear more.

We weren’t the only writers aware of the difficulties. I’ve read AS Byatt saying she reads no fiction when she’s writing her own, for fear of being influenced; and Zadie Smith confessing that the style of whatever she’s reading creeps into her writing. And of course out-and-out plagiarism is not to be recommended.

And there’s no shortage of writing advice: from Orwell’s famous ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’ to my favourite: Elmore Leonard’s brilliant ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’.

But I’ve realised that studying – not just reading – beautiful writing only benefits my own. One of the best writers on this topic is Francine Prose, whose book ‘Reading Like a Writer’ (Union Books) uses a range of narratives to illustrate different aspects of writing, from creating dialogue to showing gestures. There’s even a brilliant chapter on ‘Reading for Courage’: because as she says, ‘most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery [but also] failure of nerve’.

The benefits of being alive to other influences came home to me at choir the other night. Our numbers keep growing so the different sections, from basses to sopranos, sit close together. At first I made sure to sit away from the next section – otherwise I lost my part, and started singing theirs. Then after a few weeks, something odd and lovely happened: instead of just trying to keep up, I heard the voices around me. I could enjoy the harmony we made, and hang on to my own melody.

Maybe writing can work in the same way: I can take what I need from other writers – how they tackle dialogue, setting, character – and use it for my own writing. I can look objectively at their work, instead of worrying about reproducing it.

Just like singing in the choir, that needs other magic ingredients: practice, confidence, and self-belief. That’s what I could have told our group of new writers, all those years ago: finding your writing voice means having confidence in your ability, and believing in what you have to say.


But it’s True!

‘You couldn’t make it up’ is an overused phrase in these days of TV reality-show politics. But we writers make everything up. Don’t we?

Well… yes and no. Of course stories come from real life: an overheard conversation, an image, a sentence on a page sparks an idea which has weight – that chimes with what I know to be true. Then the process of turning it into something else begins: of pushing and prodding and waiting it out, until it grows to inhabit its own world.

A while ago I was struggling with an idea that refused to grow. For a long time I couldn’t understand why. It had the right ingredients: an intriguing setting; risk; conflict. Historical detail. Characters who had everything to lose; and little in common. The added benefit was that I knew the setting well – I’d lived there, and witnessed the events I was writing about.

After many attempts I managed to get the shape of a story on the page. I carefully set the scene: from the weather to the politics, food and local transport. It was all important. Then there was the history, to put it all in context. No one would understand it unless I included that. The story grew and grew, until I recreated the scene I remembered.

I proudly showed it to a writer friend. Back came her response: cut the details. Less is more. Trust the reader to understand – to fill in the gaps. Advice I’m happy to dish out when I’m reading other writers’ work.

I wanted to say, But I was there! It was just like that! And I realised – that was the problem. She was right. The fact that it was true didn’t make it relevant – or mean it worked as a piece of fiction.

I was thinking about this when I read Margaret Wilkinson’s analysis of Deborah Levy’s short stories in the latest Mslexia ( ‘Short Story Heroes’, Dec/Jan/Feb 2017, p69). Wilkinson writes that ‘almost everything in Levy’s stories, however inconsequential, may become consequential’. For Wilkinson, Levy’s stories are enriched by ‘a whisper of journal keeping’. Details ‘become meaningful because they have been isolated and written down’.

The problem with the real-life event of my story was that I was trying to lift the whole thing, instead of starting with a spark and waiting to see how it developed. I went back to the text and cut, looking for details that would bring the scene alive for the reader. The story had to be shaped, pulled about – the background seeded in: all the things I would do with an imaginary setting.

Something else was getting in the way. Who was telling it – me, or my characters? They weren’t doing what I wanted them to do because that didn’t work in the story. It really happened. But maybe not like that? Maybe like this?

At last a story began to appear. Just a pinch of ‘real life’ was enough. Too much and the mixture became clotted and indigestible.

The story is still work in progress, but I’m learning to take a back seat. To let readers inhabit the space, and bring their own understanding to it. I don’t have to get in the way, tugging their sleeves, saying: Believe me! I was there. That’s how it was.

Writing to Understand

The ‘Other’ has been in the news a lot recently. It seems that fear of the Other, or of becoming the Other, has driven some of the most momentous political events of our times – not least the unstoppable rise of a ‘reality TV’ star to president-elect of the most powerful country in the free world.

The Other, of course, is often the writer; or the perspective represented by the writer. Making this perspective believable and engaging calls for one of the most valuable tools in the writer’s toolkit – empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Trying to achieve this – to tell someone’s story – is what motivates me to write.

I don’t like all my characters: some aren’t very likeable. Yet I feel a connection to each one. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if they wandered out of their stories and into my kitchen, and parked themselves at the table – a bit like reading one of those ‘who would you invite to your dream dinner party’ answers. In the case of many – if not all – of my characters the dinner party would soon become a nightmare. We have a strange relationship: I can’t work out if they are somehow part of me; or are they just themselves? But each one has surprised me with his or her view of the world.

I’ve always struggled with the idea that a writer can ‘create’ a character. I was aghast once when a tutor told me to work out what I needed for my story, and make up a character to fit that. To me, characters emerge organically on the page – the angle of a shoulder; a lock of hair; a polished shoe, lamplight reflected in the leather. Bit by bit, they reveal something of their lives. But it can take a while.

In her brilliant book, Searching for the Secret River, about the process of writing her novel of the same name, Kate Grenville admits that it was only after circling her protagonist, Solomon Wiseman, and seeing him come in and out of focus, that ‘I could ask myself cold-bloodedly, What is [his] function in the story?’ But it still ‘felt a little disloyal to step back from my personal relationship with him, as if I was turning my back on a family member I’d only just discovered’. I know that feeling.

I recently had the pleasure of leading a workshop for Creative Writing A level students – some of the lucky few still able to study the subject before it disappears from the curriculum. And I learned from them: one of the exercises we tried was building a character, from the colour of their eyes to the contents of their pocket. (Having to use the ugly pronoun ‘their’ – so as not to identify a gender – was a small price to pay for creativity). It was fascinating to see who emerged. Children, babies, women and men of all ages came to life in front of us as we thought about the stories they brought with them. The students produced exciting work. It was inspiring to hear their interest in – and empathy for – these imaginary people’s lives.

Creating empathy must be one of the most valuable aspects of writing. In an increasingly fractured and angry world, taking the time to imagine the Other’s point of view is a generous and human act: a vital ability. We lose it at our peril.

Writing in the Gaps

I recently went to a wonderful LitLive open mic event in Frensham, near Farnham, Surrey. We listened to a wide range of writing, from flash fiction to novel extracts, poetry and short stories.

What struck me was how often, when responding to questions, writers would say how useful they found structure in their work. A poem was framed by the countdown to an exploding bomb: a novel took as its backbone the characters’ choice of films. And when listening to a story, a clear structure made for ease of understanding. It got me thinking about structure, not just in my writing, but in my writing life.

Like most writers I know, I never seem to have enough time. There’s a novel draft to edit, short story ideas to work on, competition deadlines to aim for; and in the real world a job to do, home to run, family commitments to be organised. And the pile of unread books next to my bed grows ever higher.

So I was excited, earlier this year, to spend a week at a writers’ retreat. There would be nothing to do but get up in the morning and write all day, eat and look forward to the next meal. So much creative time!

My desk was fine: the chair was comfortable. The room was lovely. I even had a view. The first morning was great. But by the second day I realised what was missing: I needed something else to do. I would have loved a path to weed, or dishes to wash. I was missing the bones of my day: the framework of daily tasks which allowed me to write in the gaps. It was harder to face the loneliness of my desk – and the prospect of an eight-hour shift – than the thought of trying to draft half a chapter in the gap between a meeting and a train journey. Without my usual structure I was flailing.

During that week I understood how time can be an enemy as well as a friend; and how too much time – for me, anyway – can be more of a hindrance than too little. In those long, empty days, time seemed to crawl; yet back home at my desk it was five o’clock before I knew it (and I still hadn’t got anything for dinner).

I’m envious of people who can disappear, alone, to a remote eyrie and write, returning a week or month later with their new work. It seems that the interruptions and diversions of my day are the fuel for my writing process: they give me the space, and distance, to think – and chew over problems. Chopped-up time is the structure I crave.

I just need to remember that, next time the doorbell goes.

Note to managers of isolated retreats: save the weeding and washing up for when the writers arrive.

Is there anybody there?

Many years ago, on the first day of my Creative Writing MA at Chichester Uni, our tutor, the wonderful Stephanie Norgate, welcomed us as writers – the first time anyone had called me that – and said, ‘You’re all here because you want to be heard.’

I’ve thought about that many times since. Is being heard my only motivation, and if so, who do I hope is listening? I’m lucky enough to share my work with a writing friend, who reads my early drafts. I often imagine her reaction when I knock out a clumsy sentence, or – worst of all – dump a load of information, instead of working harder and showing it. And getting her constructive feedback is priceless.

But who else am I writing for? I never had an imaginary friend as a child and I don’t have an imaginary reader. When writing’s going well I’m not thinking of how it will be received – I’m trying to hear the characters’ voices, and get their experiences down on the page as quickly as I can before it disappears. When it’s going badly, I’m well aware of who’s listening – the critic on my shoulder, the voice in my ear that says it’s no good, it’ll never be any good, why not just give up? I’ve heard other writers say that they write for no one – they write for themselves, and the thought of anyone reading it is too terrifying to contemplate.

But ultimately most of us want to be heard – or read. And we all crave feedback; otherwise, as a writer friend said to me, writing can feel like ‘shouting into a cupboard’. The original joy of story-telling must have been just that – to look up from your tale and see a circle of spellbound faces illuminated by the glow of the fire.

While poetry readings are a familiar fixture on the writing scene, it’s harder for fiction writers to find an audience. Recently I listened to some amazing writers read their stories, at a Rattle Tales event at the Brighton Fringe. You can find my review here.

Writers read their work, and the audience members responded with applause – and questions. What gripped me when I was listening to the pieces read aloud was how the story tellers drew us into their worlds: how visual the process was. A concrete image, a clear phrase, made the story come alive. And between the reader and the audience a whole world was created – living, breathing characters appeared before us.

What else could it be but magic? And it made me remember: stories are for telling, not for keeping to ourselves. So keep going – and don’t forget to share.