A spirited audience of writers gathered at the Tea House Theatre Cafe recently for our February salon, Recovering Voices and Stories Lost From History, with guest writer Alice Jolly.
Alice Jolly is a novelist and playwright. Her memoir Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, published in 2015, won the Pen Ackerley Prize and one of her short stories won the 2014 V. S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, awarded by The Royal Society of Literature. Four of her plays have been professionally produced by the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. She teaches creative writing at Oxford University. Her fourth novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was published by Unbound in 2018, and Between the Regions of Kindness will be published in April 2019.
Alice believes that writing fiction set in history can offer tremendous opportunities for the writer and the reader, but it’s important to ask what historical fiction can do that non-fiction doesn’t or can’t do. Fiction can show a historical event from a different perspective and take us behind the scenes. For the writer this means finding the back door into the novel. As a teacher, Alice will advise her students to question what the core of their novel is really about.
Alice’s forthcoming novel In Between The Regions of Kindness is set in Coventry during the Blitz. During the course of her research she found it odd the extent to which people’s everyday lives continued despite monumental historical events taking place. When writing about the past, it’s worth remembering that people go about their everyday tasks without any wider sense that they are participating in history. In other words, history does not feel like history when it’s happening to those involved.
The challenge for the writer is to link the bigger things happening at the time without heavy-handed historical references. Alice was inspired to write Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by the view from her Gloucestershire home across a valley to a cemetery. Initially she thought she was writing a short poetic novel about the lives of so many working-class women who had tedious domestic jobs. She soon realised this would make boring reading, and needed a bigger story. Her main character, Mary Ann, was a poor working-class woman without power or agency - although she teaches herself to read and write. Attitudes in the past were very different; for example, poor people didn’t think they mattered. They were also more familiar with the Bible too, and could quote from it. It would have been unrealistic to portray Mary Ann as a radical figure which is why it’s the people she works for who are involved in the bigger historical events.
What are the creative challenges in voicing unheard or erased characters from the past, especially without primary accounts or evidence to draw from? How can a writer fill in the missing pieces and create an authentic character? Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is set in the 1830’s, but the earliest recordings of working-class voices date back to the 1880’s. Alice’s research led her to the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies at Brunel University. It’s near impossible to find and hear dialect, because those who were literate were largely self-educated and careful how they wrote, taking a lot of trouble to use ‘correct English’. You can’t hear their true voice. To write your own story back then you had to lose your tongue. Alice referred to the travel writing of HV Morton to find interesting and lost English phrases like “blobbed mouth” and “crooked elbow”.
We talked about how to develop a distinct character’s voice? Try showing verbal tics, or repeating certain words and favourite phrases to distinguish voice (read Julian Barnes’ novel Talking It Over for lots of first person voices.) Vary sentence length and play with grammar. Part of the knack is teaching the reader the rules of your book and how to read the voice or story. Mary Anne Sate’s first-person account is a ‘found document’ - her voice is unvarnished. She comes from a very poor background and her story, firmly rooted in a specific place, looks back from old age to childhood. Alice imbued Mary Anne’s voice with poetry and rhythm by drawing on the ballad form, and to help colour and develop the voice Alice also read the poetry of John Clare, the son of a farm labourer and a nineteenth century poet. Even though there may be references in the narrative that people don’t understand, Alice decided against her publisher’s offer of a glossary. You can’t enter the past that easily, said Alice, either as a writer or a reader. You’re creating and entering a completely different world. It’s not a BBC drama! When playing with voice, point of view is a big decision. Using 1st person can be a big risk but when it works - it really works. Alice asked her agent and editor for feedback on the voice and vocabulary, asking when is strange too strange? It’s a matter of judgement whether your choice of language is adding something to the story or putting people off.
Researching and writing a novel is a bit like somebody wanting to learn to swim. To begin with you hang on to the edge of the pool, but at some point you have to push off and (hopefully) make your way to the middle. A leap of faith is required. At times it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the material. There’s also a danger that you’ve done all this research, so you better slap it all down on the page. Careful editing is required. It can be brutal at times but if it’s not moving the story on it has to be cut. Using a 1st person singular viewpoint can ease the process and simplify decisions - tying us to what the character knows.
Alice’s background as a playwright has helped her process as a writer. Her first two published books took a long time to write. She then was commissioned to write a series of plays within a short time scale of three months. It forced her to make creative choices up front and stopped her from going over things too many times. Paraphrasing the novelist Tracy Chevalier, Alice said that writing a novel is largely a process of closing down things, shutting doors and making decisions. Alice played around with Mary Anne Sate, Imbecile for three to six months before writing a quick draft of 50 - 60 thousand words. She then stopped to replan, rethink and redraft - repeating the process four times. In the first draft, the voice, plot and characters are done in a loose way. It’s important to push on to the end. Even though the initial draft might be terrible, if you finish it you can see the whole more more clearly. Don’t be tempted to tinker. Alice keeps a post-it note by her desk saying, “Don’t argue with the process!” At a certain point she’s always convinced that there must be a quicker way to do it. But as she’s matured as a writer she’s accepted the long-winded nature of writing - it is what it is. Turn up and do the work. Don’t beat yourself up! Don’t worry too much about the language in the early drafts or labour over detailed descriptions (all of which may be cut later anyway). Early drafts are for discovering the narrative thread. Once you’ve found the spine of the story everything else will fall into place. Redrafting is for growing, layering and adding research as you go along.
An audience member had a query about some letters they’d discovered (written by someone not in the public domain and who’s now dead) and wondered about the ethics of using them as material. Emma reminded us that you can’t libel the dead. Alice suggested it worth finding out if they have any living relatives or descendants that might be affected. We talked about ways in which other writers, like Colm Toibin, Margaret Atwood and Jill Dawson, have used real characters from the past as the subject of fiction. If you’re writing memoir or creative life writing consider looking at the work of Anne Lamott, Blake Morrison and Alexandra Fuller.
We veered toward the issue of cultural appropriation; be respectful, as novelist Kit de Waal has said, “don’t dip your pen in other people’s blood”. We talked about this in a previous salon with Courttia Newland who said, “Just because we can write about anything doesn’t mean that we should. It can be done but with care. It’s a question of craft. If you’re going to attempt it - do it well. Be respectful. Get feedback from those who understand the culture or world that you are attempting to write about. There’s so many ways to slip up, (food, music, language and more). Decide what point of view you can take and check with insiders.”
We talked about Alice’s experiences with the crowdfunding publishers Unbound versus traditional publishing. She’d published two novels via mainstream publishing houses when her next two projects were turned down. She then published three books with Unbound, including her prize-winning memoir. Unbound have been prepared to publish something a bit different. Literary fiction is undergoing a difficult time. It’s more a comment on the mainstream, risk-adverse industry. Consider approaching the small presses, which are publishing interesting books. It’s liberating to be uncompromising. Make a decision to write a book that you want to write and be proud of it.
With thanks to Alice for her wisdom and insight into recovering voices and and stories from the past! Our next salon at the Tea House Theatre Cafe on March 25th is The Art of Failure: Resilience and the Writer, with Emma Darwin in the guest seat. Writer and former Words Away guest Caroline Green will join me as co-host. Emma recently published her new creative non-fiction book, This is Not Book About Charles Darwin, which draws on her experience of failure, from her six unpublished early novels to the catastrophe of trying to write fiction about her embarrassingly famous family. So if you’ve ever wondered how to pick yourself up after it’s all gone horribly wrong - come and join us!
Links and References:
Alice Jolly, Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies: Brunel University, In Search of England by HV Morton, Talking It Over by Julian Barnes, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, John Clare, Tracy Chevalier, The Master by Colm Toibin, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson, Words Away Salon: Writing Fiction Using Real Characters with Jill Dawson, Anne Lamott, And When Did you Last See Your Father by Blake Morrison, Words Away Salon: Process and Practice: Exploring Poetry and Prose with Blake Morrison, Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, Don’t dip your pen in someone else’s blood: writers and ‘the other’ by Kit de Waal, Words Away Salon: The Power of Place with Courttia Newland, Are there multicultural boundaries we must not cross in historical fiction? by Emma Darwin, Unbound.