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Friday, 17 July 2015

Between Rocks and a Cliff

I thought I would share an extract from the talk I gave at last week's launch. This section is about how writers must often force their characters to suffer.

The Grand Canyon - not a bad cliff from which to throw your character.

While authors can sometimes be caretakers, nurses, peacemakers and friends to their long-suffering characters, they are also megalomaniacs, killers, poisoners, stirrers, tormentors and nit-pickers—sometimes to their editors as well.

Vladimir Nabokov said:

“The writer's job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

In Tying Down The Lion, although Nikita Khrushchev had already done quite a bit of rock-throwing for me, I still felt a surge of power. Shrinking violet I may be, but perhaps I have the roots of a dictator.

In the evenings, when my family ask about my day, I have, at various times during my short story writing days, been able to confirm that I have given an old man with dementia a trip in a car without him leaving his living-room; I have awakened Benito Mussolini’s mistress from the dead and transported her to Becontree station; and I have transmogrified a brash young salesman into a red-necked ostrich.

I once wrote a story called The Journey to Everywhere—which is where I go every day from my desk in a corner of the living-room.

Writers observe people—mentally writing even when socialising. It can be quite menacing. After meeting me for the first time, one daughter’s terrified boyfriend said to her, "OMG, it was like she was peering inside my soul."

The author, Meg Rosoff, said that a writer should travel to the edge of experience and then stretch even further beyond it. I imagine she meant: hang your characters from a cliff by their fingertips, but force them to take in the view.

The text-books say to write what you know, but I like to take what I know and—this might not be the most highbrow term—dangle it. Watch it hang over that edge, stretched to absolute breaking-point, until it becomes something I don’t know—something I want to write about; to go up to the border at which I meet myself as a stranger, so that I am never in the writing, only what is beyond me.

Berlin was my ready-made ‘edge’ and I could use it like a factual rack to stretch the fictional Bishop family to their limits.


  1. That's a very interesting thought, about getting characters up a tree! I am so looking forward to reading your novel - which I have ordered from Waterstones this very day!

    1. Thank you so much, Joanne, both for your kind comment and for ordering! It's fantastic to think of you reading it. I hope it doesn't take too long from Waterstones. They have been a little slow at sending out orders and their website keeps showing it as out of stock - which of course might be a good sign that it's selling, I suppose!
      I hope you enjoy it and really appreciate your support. xxx

  2. They said it would be a week to ten days, Joanna. That's fine, as I would still prefer to buy from an actual shop than from Amazon. (Am I allowed to say that? Oh well, I just did!)

    1. That's fantastic, Joanne. I'm so relieved they didn't say it was out of stock. Thanks so much for letting me know. xx

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  4. Love the way you look at this, Joanna, and I'm sure that's what makes your writing so special. Can just imagine that poor boyfriend of your daughter!

    1. Thank you very much, Rosemary. I think that when I'm writing, that's the time I really feel I can assert myself, sometimes to extremes that take me by surprise.
      Oh yes, that poor boyfriend - he was glad to go home and we never saw him again! xxx.