Ghost Stories

When I was a kid there was nothing more annoying than having a birthday on Halloween. I mean, other kids were always stealing my sweets. On my birthday. But now I’m not a kid, this time of year is my absolute favourite. October, November and December for me are misty mornings, long evenings, yellow leaves, the smell of bonfire smoke, great costumes, delicious treats (like this cake), floorboards creaking, dogs barking, atmospheric music (think Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain), goosebumps, candles flickering and spooky stories and cartoons – or even charmingly unspooky cartoons like this one:

I love being spooked (a family holiday isn’t a holiday if it doesn’t involve visiting a cemetery), and Halloween might be the start of the spooky season, but luckily for me it continues right up to Christmas. The Victorians were all about gathering around a fire on Christmas Eve and telling each other spine-chilling tales about shipwrecks, dead lovers, murderers, faces at windows and lost children (there’s no better oral story-telling tradition than the ghost story, and that’s a fact).

People had been telling ghost stories long before the Victorians, of course, and around Christmas too (apparently just before Christmas 1642, a number of shepherds reported having seen the spectre of civil war soldiers battling in the skies), but so many of my favourite ghost stories come from that period:

  • MR James (any of them, but maybe especially Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book)
  • Poe (again any of them, but my personal favourite is The Pit and the Pendulum, which isn’t strictly a ghost story, I guess)
  • Dickens (and especially The Signalman)
  • Bram Stoker (The Judge’s House)
  • Henry James (The Turn of the Screw)
  • W.W. Jacobs (The Monkey’s Paw). 

And, of course, The Call of Cthulhu (not Victorian, very un-Christmassy, but a great story). Make yourself a mug of something hot, turn down the lights and freak yourself out.  

Advertisements

Father-Daughter Relationships in Literature

Family relationships have always been a goldmine for authors, but it occurred to me when I started writing my own novel that the father–daughter relationship is one of the least commonly-explored dynamics in literature. In fact, it seems to get short shrift in most areas (education, social science and mental health studies, to name a few). Historically, this could be due to the unfair expectation that a father’s contribution to the family will, or should be primarily economic, which in turn leads to a less communicative and less intimate relationship between parent and child (although strangely father–son relationships are less negatively affected). The relationship between Tallie, my protagonist, and her father certainly follows this pattern, although hopefully for a more complex reason than just adhering to a stereotype.

What it doesn’t mean is that all father–daughter relationships are poorer than father–son or mother–daughter relationships, or that fathers don’t play an incredibly important role in their daughter’s life even if they are the breadwinner (hardly a given now either); the way in which fathers interact with their daughters has a far-reaching impact on both parties, especially on the woman as she grows up. We should pay this all-important relationship more attention. With that in mind, below are my top ten portrayals (good and bad) of fathers and daughters:

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It’s impossible to talk about fathers and daughters without mentioning Atticus and Scout and this beautiful, seminal, coming-of-age narrative. Atticus is a perfect example of a father who not only provides financial security for his daughter, but also social, moral and emotional capital. He spends time with Scout, gently imparting life lessons along the way (‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win’), and he makes her feel safe and loved (“I crawled into his lap and tucked my head under his chin”). Some critics have accused him of one-dimensional saintliness, but although he understands his daughter perfectly (see the conversation Scout overhears between her father and her Uncle Jack), he also makes the mistake of letting Aunt Alexandra try to re-mould her, putting her in a dress and forcing her to take tea with the ladies of Maycomb County. Even Atticus is second-guessing himself, unsure of the outcome of a father raising his daughter with no mothering element to temper his influence. Nonetheless, if our retrospective-narrator is anything to go by, his fears seem unfounded: adult Scout is warm, funny and whip-smart.

 

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I was a big Mr Bennet fan when I was younger – he’s got a wickedly dry sense of humour and appreciates the strong-minded Lizzie, one of my favourite characters of all time – but I’ve come to realise how lightly he takes his paternal responsibilities. Sure, he gets that Mr Collins isn’t good enough for Lizzie, and strongly discourages her from marrying him, but on the other hand he doesn’t seem to have a high opinion of women, describing his other daughters as ‘all silly and ignorant like other girls.’ That’s not going to do wonders for their self-esteem, is it, Mr Bennet? Neither is shutting yourself away in your study all the time, or laughing at your wife instead of engaging with her. No wonder Lydia sees marriage as a joke and runs off with that dashing Wickham without tying the knot first.

 

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Smell the pine trees, feel the breeze coming off the Mediterranean… And say what you like about Raymond, 17-year-old Cécile’s father, but he certainly knows how to have a good time in this dark, sultry tale set on the French Riviera. The experienced, amoral type, changing mistresses every six months, Raymond’s probably not a great role model for an impressionable young girl, and God knows what kind of relationship with men she’s going to have in the future, but I have a soft spot for anyone who quotes Oscar Wilde to justify their bad behaviour, as he does.

 

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare did bad fathers like no one else: Juliet’s father tries to force her into a marriage with a man she doesn’t want, Prospero is a mega-manipulator, but Lear is probably the best example of a father screwing his daughter(s) over. The King makes his first mistake by openly preferring one of his children, Cordelia (very likely the reason that Goneril and Regan resent him so much, I’d say); his second mistake is demanding a profession of her love, and his third is throwing a hissy fit when she gives a perfectly reasonable answer that although she loves her father, she loves her husband too. And it’s downhill from here; natural law is subverted, the common good ignored, all because a father feels insecure.

 

Dido and Pa by Joan Aiken

From one of my favourite series as a child, Dido and Pa is set in a pretty grim alternate-19th-century England. Dido is clever and brave and loyal, but God knows where she gets it from, because her ‘Pa’, Abednego Twite, is a callous, self-serving monster. He uses Dido for his own ends, abandoning her and endangering her life at several points, but there’s a seductive quality to him that Dido finds hard to resist – until he plots to kill her friend, that is, and she finally turns against him. Definitely not a role model.

 

Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier’s painfully-atmospheric short story was successfully turned into a film that put me off going to Venice for a good few years. John and Laura are in that city trying to escape the memory of their daughter Christine’s death (from meningitis in the story, by drowning in the film). Each is coping in their own way: Laura openly mourns, whereas John is in denial. Christine is never physically present in the story; we never see her interact with her father – although the couple encounter a medium who claims Christine is trying to warn John of the danger he’s in – but du Maurier perfectly captures the psychology of the father’s grief and, try as he might to hold himself together, that shocking finale would never have taken place if John hadn’t equated a small, hooded figure with the daughter he’d been unable to protect.

 

Electra

The daddy of daddy-issues, in neo-Freudian psychology the Electra complex describes a situation in which a daughter feels she must compete psychosexually with her mother for possession of her father. It’s so named after the princess of Greek mythology who was unable to forgive her mother (Clytemnestra) for murdering her father (Agamemnon). As the story goes, Clytemnestra hid Agamemnon’s body from Electra, who was therefore unable to bury it; it being the duty of the oldest surviving daughter to look after her father’s death rites, Electra is bound to spend years mourning at Agamemnon’s tomb instead of making a new family for herself. Eventually, she plots with her brother to kill her mother in revenge. So far, so devoted. However, given that Agamemnon had previously sacrificed Electra’s sister Iphigenia to allow his ships to sail to Troy, I can’t help but think that he wasn’t a contender for World’s Greatest Dad in the first place.

 

“Daddy” by Sylvia Plath

Plath may never have admitted that the poem was autobiographical, but many critics have been unable to stop themselves identifying it as such. Certainly, Plath had a complicated relationship with her father, Otto, who died when she was young, just as the girl’s ‘daddy’ here “died while she thought he was God”, according to Plath’s introduction to a reading of the poem on the radio. And while she’s attempting to do away with, or ‘kill’ the idealisation of this father figure, shedding the babyish talk (chuffing, gobbledygoo, achoo) as the poem progresses and moving towards the hard, vehemently adult last line, the very title suggests that his hold over her, and her little-girl feelings towards him, aren’t so easily cast aside.

 

The Big Sleep

Be warned, fathers, if you find your daughter pulling the wings off flies, this is exactly the kind of gateway-to-villainy behaviour one of the Sternwood girls exhibited as a child in this seedy, yet glamorous noir. General Sternwood is a rich, sick old man, not far off the ‘big sleep’ of the title. He was wild in his day, and his daughters, cruel, beautiful Vivian (I named one of my characters after her) and unstable Carmen, are wild and dangerous too, maybe because they’ve inherited the tendency, or maybe because they’ve been spoilt. But Sternwood has a sentimental side that Vivian and Carmen lack (Chandler was notoriously wary of the fairer sex), and doesn’t see the full extent of his daughters’ immorality, or more likely he’s been sticking his head in the sand all these years. And who knows what the general taught his daughters (or didn’t) about sexuality and age-appropriate behaviour, but Carmen still ickily sucks her thumb as a come-on. Could have done better, General Sternwood. Could have done better.

 

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Jean Valjean, the former convict in this 19th-century epic, is certainly devoted to Cosette, the orphan he rescues from the abusive Thénardiers, and credits her with keeping him from descending once more into criminality. But he doesn’t always understand his ward; he doesn’t initially see that she’s fallen for Marius, and when he does, his overriding wish is that his rival for Cosette’s affections might die in the barricades, thus neatly removing himself from the equation (although you get the sense this would definitely upset Cosette). You could argue that Valjean is justifiably paranoid and protective after years of having to evade recapture, or he could simply be jealous and controlling. Furthermore, as you read the book, you have to wonder whether he really is outstandingly moral or just plain humourless. In the end, he sacrifices himself for Cosette’s happiness, so I suppose on balance he’s a good father figure, if a flawed one.

 

Adventures in Jam-Making

Unlike Evelyn and Tallie, the mother and daughter in The Artificial Anatomy of Parks, my mum and I never made jam together. It’s not that my mum can’t cook – the woman makes a mean bobotie, and my favourite ever meal is one of hers that as a family we call ‘The Bacon Dish’ (I found out several years ago everyone else knows this as spaghetti carbonara) – it just wasn’t how we spent our free time. But I know that her and my granny used to cook all sorts of things after school, and since there’s a jam making scene in the book, I thought we should give it a try.

I went for rhubarb and ginger jam (not very summery, but it was a pretty cold, miserable day when we got down to it). I also roped in a friend of mine because really, everyone needs a jam-making fairy-godmother.

First problem was converting grams into lbs and oz (we have the oldest scales in the world). You need 1kg of rhubarb, or 2.205lb.

jam

So pretty! This then needs to be cut up into 2cm pieces, like so:

jam 2

Then your jam-making assistant/fairy-godmother will need to empty a 1kg bag of jam sugar all over that:

jam 3jam 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, take a blurry photo of some crystallised ginger. You’ll need 50g, or 1.76oz of this chopped up very finely.

jam 5

 

That goes into the mix, as well as the zest and juice of 1 lemon and a 4cm piece of root ginger, finely grated. Make sure you use a grater that will be particularly difficult to scrape all the excess shavings from.

jam 7jam 6

 

 

 

 

 

Give the mixture in the bowl a good stir, cover loosely with cling-film, and leave it for two hours. TWO HOURS???? (I’ll admit I didn’t read the recipe very closely before starting on this project.) Maybe you and your mum can pose awkwardly with the bowl while you wait

jam 8

Beautiful. Now, two hours later, it’s ready to go in the pan (the recipe called for a preserving pan, but I don’t know what that is, so I used a normal pan). It should be kind of juicy now (the sugar should have broken down the rhubarb a little). Stir on a medium heat until all the sugar is dissolved, then bring to the boil and stir continuously. After a little while, it should go from looking like the photo on the leftjam making (celery soup?), to more like the photo below:

 

 

 

 

 

jam in the pan

Now, put some saucers in the freezer. These will be important later on. Keep stirring the mixture for approximately 10 minutes. You’re almost ready to pour it into the sterilised jars (OBVIOUSLY HAVEN’T STERILISED ANY JARS. It’s okay though, because your jam-making fairy-godmother looks up how to do that, and it’s easy. Wash the jars in warm, soapy water, rinse, and put in the oven at 140 degrees until they’re dry), but first you have to test whether it’s jammy enough. Take out a frozen saucer, scoop a little bit of the jam from the pan using a teaspoon, drop onto the saucer and let cool for 30 seconds. Then prod it with a finger (preferably one with chipped nail polish); if it wrinkles, it’s done!

jam test

 

Now you just need to take the pan off the heat, let it cool for a few moments while you check on your now-sterilised jars, then ladle the mixture in and seal immediately.

jam end result

You’ve made jam! And it’s delicious. Thanks to the BBC Goodfood recipe here which I (sort of) followed.

Soundtrack to The Artificial Anatomy of Parks

A few weeks ago Legend asked me to come up with a soundtrack to the book, and it was genuinely one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever been given. It reminded me of being a teenager again, and going on dates where the guy would ask what my favourite song was (oh the sweaty palms, the jacked-up heartbeat). Your music taste says so much about you, doesn’t it? These songs had to mean something to Tallie – they had to be ones she would listen to, or ones that resonated with her character. I wanted her to be cool, but not too cool. So many sleepless nights. Below are the final ten songs I managed to cobble together, with a little explanation for each:

JXL – A Little Less Conversation.

This one was easy – it’s the song that’s playing on the radio when Tallie gets the call about her father’s heart attack. It sets the book firmly in 2002, when this was No. 1 for almost an entire summer. I remember being sick of it back then, but you know, it’s actually kind of fun.

 

David Bowie – Golden Years

The song title speaks to Tallie’s childhood, but the lyrics resonate more with how she’s living her life at the start of the novel (static, lost). Plus David Bowie is very cool, no?

 

Fleetwood Mac – Go Your Own Way

Tallie inherits this record from her mum, but I think the title is so perfectly about her, too. It’s also a pretty catchy tune.

 

The Beatles – You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

Tallie and Toby listen to this when he visits her at home. It’s probably my favourite Beatles song, and something that Tallie does very well (hiding her love).

 

Aerosmith – Dream On

This is all Tallie. She’s obsessed with Aerosmith when she’s younger, and wears an Aerosmith t-shirt. At that age I liked Eternal, but then she’s not actually me.

 

Erik Satie – Gymnopedie No. 1

This is for Malkie, who teaches Tallie piano and is an all-round good guy.

 

Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Such a beautiful song. And although a lot of people love Tallie, they can’t stop her falling apart (maybe she even falls apart because of the way they love her), so the lyrics are pretty apt too.

 

Destiny’s Child – Survivor

Tallie is a survivor. Fact

 

Michael Jackson – Man in the Mirror

By the end of the novel, Tallie realises she has to change herself too, come out from where she’s been hiding since she ran away, so it’s relevant in that respect. Plus I think she’s a big MJ fan, she mentions him quite a few times throughout the book.

 

The Kinks – This Time Tomorrow

This sums up the ending of the novel – no one can know what will happen now between Tallie and her family. Where will she be tomorrow? (Probably the hospital again, seeing her dad, but you know what I mean.)

Promoting The Artificial Anatomy of Parks

My friends joke about how I take my time over everything (read: I’m slow), whether it’s cooking (by now they’re used to being invited over for dinner and served at 11pm), tying shoelaces, applying sun cream, writing notes, walking, responding to texts, etc. This is completely true (except for reading, I’m a very quick reader. And I can finish a packet of Jaffa Cakes in a matter of seconds). So it shouldn’t really have been a surprise that it took me so long to write all the guest posts, or to answer all the Q&As I’ve been doing recently.

Except it wasn’t just that I’m so slow but that I got involved in all the ideas and the questions. They made me think about the book (or at least my part in it) in all kinds of new ways.

First up was my post for SkyLightRain on how to play with time creatively. Writing this made me realise I’d never articulated to myself why I decided to juxtapose the two timelines (past and present-day), or why I chose to write about Tallie at all these different stages of her life (I just knew I wanted to follow her from childhood to adulthood). They were instinctive decisions made at the start of the novel, but luckily they worked for me, for exactly the reasons I give in the post.

 

Anatomy Blog Tour Banner July 2015

For Sharon’s Book Blog I answered a quick Q&A (and loved having to describe Tallie in three words; it’s so disciplined, I might use it as a test for any new characters I create from now on).

I was given the freedom to write posts about whatever I wanted for Portobello Books and Tony Riches’ The Writing Desk. For Portobello I decided to do a close comparison of a paragraph from the first draft with the same paragraph from the final draft. Again, it made me think about the whole process, and how I sketch out scenes and plot the story from a certain angle, and only later do I fill in everything else (see the actual post for a less cryptic description). For Tony, I wrote a blog on what inspires me. I could have gone on for pages and pages; it’s like a dam, guys.

Reviewed the Book wanted a short post about coming of age narratives; this started me thinking about how they’re dressed up differently nowadays (YA fiction), and why YA is so popular now (for the efficient writing and storytelling, because we spend less time on reading? This could lead me down a whole other path…). I tried to keep my digressions to myself.

A video (video!) answering questions for Legend Press was exciting, although desperate to find the right background, I wandered our flat for hours trying out different rooms until I decided on the bedroom (with lurid pink and green wallpaper showing scenes of muscular horses and little children crying. Seriously, it’s very weird wallpaper).

I’ve already written a post titled “Top Ten Reasons Family Secrets Make for Great Storytelling” that’ll be coming out later in the year, and an interview about my writing day routine and another about my research process. They’ve all been so much fun but yes, my friends are proved right again. Even this post was supposed to take me five minutes and I’m checking my watch…. Definitely longer than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How my book came about

books

I always wanted to be a writer (since I was five, anyway. Apparently before that my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I said “a chocolate mouse”. They were slightly concerned).

When I was really little I used to dictate stories to my mum, and she’d write them out for me. I can still remember how impatient I got when she couldn’t keep up with my speed or digressions; I fired her shortly afterwards.

At primary school I put together three short books: The Enormous Carrot, The Hungry Giant and Beowulf (I was shocked when at uni I discovered some poet had beaten me to the latter, but it turned out the original wasn’t as concerned with listing all the food that Beowulf ate as my version was – “chocolate cake with orange sweets” is my particular favourite). As evident from the photos, I was also a budding illustrator of some talent.

beowulf food list cropped     the hungry giant     illustrations 2
At secondary school I turned my hand to poetry instead. (If only my parents had only saved all the word documents from their old computer! I’m sure I’d be poet laureate, at the very least, by now.)

I never actually started writing a novel until the third week of my Creative Writing MA. I was due to hand in ten pages the next Monday, and the weekend came around and I still hadn’t thought of anything. Two of my friends were (and still are) nurses, and lived together that year, and I spent nearly all my time at their flat (because I liked them, and because they were both amazing cooks). They were talking about the heart one evening, and it was all so fascinating (I had no idea that if you cut out your heart it can, in theory, continue beating), and I knew right then that I wanted to talk about medicine in my novel, and use the body as a metaphor for my characters’ emotional experiences. So I picked my friends’ brains that night, then went away and wrote my ten pages and handed them in on the Monday. And that’s how The Artificial Anatomy of Parks began.