Judgement

I carry my hardback of ‘In the Family Way’ around with me like a premature baby, wrapped in a scarf when I go outside (really!) and placed out of harm’s way in a companionable corner of the kitchen when we’re at home. I suppose it’s because it’s a pre-term copy, not properly due for another three weeks. I already feel the pangs of an over-protective parent when I hear that reviews are being prepared for it and talks planned. There’s also something of the vulnerability of having a real baby: one identity is shared between the two of us. Judge one and you judge us both.

But that’s where it ends. It’s tempting to get precious about the publication of a book. It’s my work, not my child. True, I gestated it (for over two years) and now it’s about to go into its little world to grow and flourish with all my hopes behind it. Yet in no time at all those hopes will be transferred to the new project. No author fortunate enough to attract national reviews would last long if they couldn’t dispel that vulnerability I was talking about pretty quickly.

If I tell myself that often enough, I’ll believe it.

I hope the book does well; of course I do. The reviewers must judge me as a writer because that’s what they do. But if there’s one thing I wish for ‘In the Family Way’ above all else, it’s this. That readers do not judge those mothers, fathers and children whose story it tells, but try to understand what they went through, are often still going through, and give them credit for doing the best they could in the circumstances. I’ve tried to celebrate the everyday strength of the human spirit in this book. If readers recognise that, and are as moved by it as I was, I’ll have done my job.

That sounds a bit heavy. So here’s a joke I found in a letter (included in the book) written in 1921. A young Scottish lad was courting, and asked his father for permission to get wed. ‘Father, I want to marry Janet McTavish.’ ‘Dinna do that, laddie,’ answered his father. ‘Ye canna, she’s your sister.’ Undaunted, he waited a few months, and then returned to his father. ‘Father, I want to marry Mary Findlay.’ ‘Ye canna, laddie; she’s your sister.’ The process was repeated once or twice, the boy always receiving the same answer. At last, he went to his mother. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I canna get wed, for Father says that every lass in the village is my sister.’ ‘Nay, laddie, dinna fret. He’s not your father.’

Forget-me-not

The finished book isn’t always enough. Each time I come to the end of a project, I look for a keepsake to remember it by; a physical emblem of two years (or more) of research and writing. For my first book, Wayward Women, it was an album of cartoons published in 1863 illustrating the perilous peregrinations of a spoof lady traveller who rejoiced in the name of the Honourable Impulsia Gushington. I’ll show you one of my favourite images (in a sophisticated Blog ‘first’ for me, if I can manage it). It’s such an exuberant book:

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‘Miss Gushington experiences a new sensation’

While I was writing about the Memsahibs involved in the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 (Angels of Albion), on one of my habitual fossikings around junk shops I came across an anonymous-looking scrapbook packed with cuttings from British newspapers breaking the sensational news in 1857 and 1858 of massacres and desperate escapes. I was thrilled. It’s unique; not only an invaluable resource for me, but a live commentary on unfolding catastophe. Whenever I read it I feel as though I’m eavesdropping on history.

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I visited the Crimea to research my biography of Mary Seacole and came home with a sprig of aromatic herbs from the site of her ‘British Hotel’ and clinic. I like to think the plant was a modern descendant of Mary’s own personal pharmacopoeia. It’s dried to a powder now, but someone in Balaklava gave me the cartouche or medallion from a bottle of claret (or something similar) also found close to Mary’s temporary Crimean home. Surely the wine came from the generous cellars of ‘Seacole and Day’? Here it is.

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As the faithful few who follow this Blog will know, the book I’ve just finished is called In the Family Way and is about the experience of illegitimacy for parents and children between the Great War and the Swinging Sixties. Will I keep a souvenir of this one? Nothing tangible, no. But there is an image described to me during my research that stays in my mind and will continue to do so long after the book is forgotten. It’s of a woman in her sixties taking a bundle of clean laundry from the airing cupboard. The bundle is warm, heavy, and smells sweet. This is something many of us do without thinking, several times a week. For my contributor, though, the act has painful significance. Holding that bundle in her arms reminds her of the last time she held her baby son before relinquishing him for adoption decades ago and quietly, she weeps. That’s her souvenir.

The death of fiction (and the birth of history).

As I write this, I’m waiting for the courier to arrive from Penguin Books, armed with the typeset proofs of ‘In the Family Way’. I’m absolutely terrified. I haven’t read the script since submitting it just after Christmas. What did I say? What if I can’t bear it? What if…? On the other hand, this is one of the most exciting moments in a book’s life: seeing it for the first time in a different form, all ready to leave me and live an independent life. That well-worn analogy between books and children is apt in so many ways. I feel proud and fearful at the same time, and a mixture of careful detachment and complete, ineluctable involvement. I hope the courier comes soon. I’ve gone all squirmy.

Five months have passed since my last post. It’s the fiction wot did it: I tried my hand, and thoroughly enjoyed the sense of liberation it gave me, but the pull of reality was too strong to resist. I had work to do on the script of ‘In the Family Way’: going through the copy-edits, selecting and captioning the illustrations, checking and re-checking permissions, facts, infelicities and blunders; and as soon as all that was done I found myself not turning back to my novel, which managed strangely to be turgid and excitable all at the same time, but looking for a new history to write.

Actually, it’s not so much looking as listening. There is usually a small voice in the back of one’s mind, once a book is finished, calling the next one to attention. That sounds pseudy. What I mean is that something will lodge – often unnoticed at the time – in my brain during my research, a little nugget of tangential interest, and sit there quietly until the task in hand is finished and everything else is cleared away. Only then do I notice it: the insistent suggestion of a new book, a new enthusiasm to keep me engaged for the next two years and send me straight back to my research completely invigorated.

That’s what’s happening now. The cycle is turning again: idea, research, write, publish. Idea, research, write, publish. This will be the tenth revolution. I can’t say yet what the subject will be: superstitiously I need a dotted line to sign on first. But watch this space – although if you’ve been doing that for the past 5 months, I owe you a pint.

Advice for a fictional virgin

In my previous post I mentioned that I was going to have a go at fiction – in fact I’ve been banging on about it for ages – and now, dear reader, I’ve done it. One of my lifetime’s ambitions is coming to fruition: I’m writing a novel. It’s quite probably arrant rubbish. As a fictional virgin (if you see what I mean) I feel I have no way of knowing. But it’s so much fun. I started a couple of weeks ago with the intention of writing a few pages now and then, just to keep the wheels turning until I need to prepare the illegitimacy book for the copy-editor. I’ve done a word-count this morning: 16,000. Four chapters.

The most difficult part of the whole process, I find, is keeping track of time. As a historian, I am well used to doing that; real-life chronology lends an unassailable structure.  As a novelist (if only!) the chronology is in my own head, where times and dates have a habit of suddenly changing when I’m not looking. Numbers have always swum around my mind like fish; maybe that’s why my characters can’t seem to remember what day it is. Consistency is a real challenge. I can cross-check things quite easily now, while the book is relatively short; how shall I do it when I’m halfway through or nearly done? I’m such a novice.

The problem would not arise, I suppose, had I planned out all the action in advance. The fear of accomplishing this is partly what stopped me attempting a novel before: how could I conceive of the finished object before I had written a word – yet how could I begin without knowing what was going to happen, and how it was going to end? This has been the greatest revelation of all: that in writing fiction, you don’t need to know what happens. Stuff doesn’t happen; it evolves. And it can only evolve if you start writing. So if you, like me, feel you lack the courage to try, give it a go. Don’t have high expectations; try not to judge yourself; just do it.

History and invention

I have always been terrified of attempting to write fiction. Fiction’s what real writers write; people who can think of plots and characters and don’t need to hide behind facts. Apart from doubting my ability to invent things – which is a good deficiency for historians to have, surely? – I assumed that fiction would be too personal. The Q and A sessions at the end are often the best bits of any speaking engagement, but I find myself a little bewildered by questions about me: how do I work, why do I write, what does my family think, who inspired me, and so on (so why does she indulge herself in a blog, I hear you mutter; she’s a solipsistic hypocrite…) But it’s true: in a professional capacity I shy away from talking about my role as an author, preferring instead to concentrate on my subject. The people I write about are genuinely so much more interesting than I am. That’s why I write about them.

What I have failed to appreciate all these years is that writing fiction doesn’t necessarily involve writing about yourself. I mean it probably does on a subliminal level – of course it does – but if you are a novelist it doesn’t follow that you have nowhere to hide. I hide behind history at the moment; if I were a novelist I could hide behind invention. Think how liberating that idea is, especially to those of us with a responsibility to get things right, and to do our best by other people (alive or dead). There is no ‘right’ when you’re a novelist. There is only truth, and that’s a movable feast. How tempting is that?

So: I’ve decided that while I wait in agitated trepidation for the first editorial responses to come in about the illegitimacy book, I’ll try teaching myself to let go of fact and have a go at fiction instead. I’ll just write a couple of thousand words a day, say, and see what emerges. Surely that’ll do me good, both in a mechanical sense – to stop me rusting, as I suggested in my previous blog – and creatively. But what then? What part does creativity play in non-fiction? Especially history? This is dangerous ground, I feel. But sometimes, danger’s good.

An elephant and a cuckoo

I remember a Victorian woman traveller I once wrote about – I think it was the indomitable Flora Annie Steel – vowing that she would far rather wear out her life, than die of rust. I feel horribly rusty right now, but comfort myself that it’s not really due to laziness. We had a family bereavement shortly before Christmas which, though expected, was and is none the less upsetting. More happily, the boys were home from Uni; we all went to Berlin for five days, and I had to read through the ms. of my illegitimacy book again before finally summoning up the courage to press the button dispatching two years’ work on its ethereal and irrevocable journey to my agent and my editor. All this means that I haven’t tweeted, and certainly haven’t blogged – haven’t even written anything – for about a month.

As I suggested in my previous post, it’s a bit of a weird time, this post-book period. I have suppressed the anxiety of wondering what impression the ms. will make on its first two readers (apart from me) by sorting out and redecorating my study. Now it’s sugared-almond pink. So pink, in fact, that it makes me feel faintly nauseous. I still haven’t managed to tidy away the whopping great elephant squatting in a corner of the room, however. He’s looking at me reproachfully, and will continue to do so until I decide what to choose for my next project.

Meanwhile, I found a forgotten treasure whilst re-organizing my bookshelves. It’s a timely discovery: about 15 years ago in a Yorkshire charity-shop my mother found a short, hand-written diary, running from September 1914 to August 1915. There’s no name, but it seems the author served in the 10th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He wasn’t a reflective chap – probably couldn’t afford to be – and most of the diary entries are terse accounts of who has relieved whom, and where they all are.

In Spring 1915, he becomes a little more expansive. Here’s his entry for 22 April:

Rose at 2 am, duty till 3-30. Worked at cover in communication trench for 1 hour. Breakfast at 5 am. 2 aeroplanes up before 6 am. A mine exploded. Some amount of rifle fire in vicinity of explosion. Heard cuckoo for 1st time this year. 2 aeroplanes up jusrt after 8 am. Factory set on fire by shell-fire of Germans. Paid out 10 francs. Duty 8 pm until leave for billets. Leave for billets at 10 pm.

Brave cuckoo.

I should perhaps give this diary to the National Archives, who are doing such a brilliant job digitizing the diaries they already have (http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war). I need to live with it a while first. Maybe try to find out who wrote it, and what happened to him. The diary returned from the trenches, but did he? And why did such a precious document end up being sold to a stranger in a thrift shop for 25p? Time for a little meditation, I think, on the nature of value and priority. Move over, elephant.

Thinking Allowed.

So now what do I do? I wrote the final word of the final section of my new book – the Introduction – last Wednesday. Went to work at my part-time job in Oxford on Thursday (taking a celebratory half-bottle of champagne to share at coffee-time), did lots of unaccustomed housework on Friday, and now here I am sitting blankly at my desk on Monday morning with a big shiny question-mark shimmering over my head.

I say I’ve finished, but actually I have yet to choose the illustrations. How I would love to have photos of some of my contributors, but I can’t ask them for any more than they have given me already, and confidentiality is too important a part of the whole undertaking to risk compromising with family snaps. I’m sure I’ll discover some interesting possibilities: migrant children arriving in Canada or Australia, perhaps; one of those lugubrious Edwardian villas in the suburbs that served as mother-and-baby homes in the 1950s and 1960s; early publicity material for the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child… Any suggestions for pictures relating to the stigma of illegitimacy gratefully received, by the way.

When I’ve finished that I’ll really be done. Except that I need to prepare a weekend course I’m teaching at Cambridge next year. And a lecture based on the new book. Oh, and respond to copy-editors and type-setters (or the digital equivalent) and think about possible features to accompany its publication.

Somehow I don’t think it’ll be long before I’m on the trail of another big project, though. I can never even contemplate starting another while I’m still finishing the one in hand: my enthusiasms would get the better of me, tempting me down all sorts of dangerous paths, and I’d get hopelessly lost. But if I consciously try to relax and think of nothing for a while (only a week or two) I usually find lying among the newly-settled detritus of my mind a little glinting idea that when picked up and carefully examined, proves to be the currency of another book. That’s what’s always happened before. I’ve no reason to think it won’t happen again this time.

Right now, however, it feels like every reason. Because, as any writer will tell you, this stage is the most terrifying part of the whole process. Two years of research and writing lie behind; no-one else has seen the product, and there’s no proof that it’s any good at all. True, anything is possible at this stage, but that thought isn’t always a comfort. And what if this time there’s nothing worth finding in the mud after all? Aaargh – who’d be a writer?

Me, please. I love every moment of it. And if all I’ve got to do is relax right now, I think I can probably cope with that.