Saturday, 8 November 2014

Narrative Focus

We spent last week at our house in Leitrim. I needed a break from looking after grandchildren, helping people write novels and trying to find time to write my own. I'd spent a week in which I found myself constantly having to explain about narrative focus to people who seemed never to have thought of it before.

Leitrim was as magnificent as ever. Autumn was raging around the countryside, driving the rain before it and tossing great handfuls of leaves into the air. Once we reached our house I spent most of my time sitting beside a roaring fire, reading, with a cup of tea and a buttered scone at my elbow. On the opposite chair sat my wife, similarly occupied. The only sound was the crackling of the logs as the fire slowly devoured them.

We went to bed early each evening and slept late. Nights in Leitrim are as dark as at any time in the history of the world. And they are entirely silent. Going to sleep felt like embarking on some great sea voyage.

Sometimes I would wake from confused dreams in the the small hours and it felt as though our ship had put into port to take on more supplies. Up on deck the crew were busy loading and unloading but there was nothing for me to concern myself with. Satisfied that all was as it should be, I would tumble back into sleep once more.

On the Sunday we went to the little town of Strandhill on the Sligo coast and walked out along the dunes, watching as the great grey sheet of the sea constantly unmade itself. Far out to sea a little group of surfers were dancing across the cold white foam with extraordinary skill. Now that's narrative focus, I thought to myself.

Too late we saw the the squally clouds racing across the sky towards us. We turned for home but were soaked to the skin long before we got back.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

My Symbolic Life

Yesterday, I had to go into hospital for an operation to repair an inguinal hernia. Today is one of the days my wife and I look after our grandchildren. My daughter emailed me to say that she had explained to two year old Noah that they wouldn't be going to grandma and grandpa's today because grandpa was poorly.

Naturally, Noah wanted to know why. With admirable matter-of-factness my daughter told him that my 'guts were coming out' and I 'needed an operation to put them back in again'. He replied, 'Oh, is that grandpa's hernia?' He had been hearing with interest about this hernia for some weeks. (He is completely fascinated by the workings of the human body.) When my daughter confirmed that this was indeed, the much-discussed hernia he wanted to know whether Grandma also had a hernia and was most disappointed to learn that she didn't.

I can clearly recall how I spent all of my childhood and young adult years in a furious battle to be seen as an individual, someone with his own distinct identity who would be taken seriously as a person. Now I find I am delighted to be regarded as part of a 'set', like one of a couple of senior dolls with matching repairable hernias.

For me, being a grandparent means existing in a state of barely-subdued ecstasy and not even being cut open with a knife and then used as an example in an Early Years biology lesson can diminish that.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Do You Go To Dublin?

I spent last week in Ireland at our family house in Leitrim. The drive down from Belfast was wonderful, the gorse blazing away on the hillsides, the hedgerows frothing with cow parsley. Then we left the main road and made our way across the border via a road like a green tunnel, through the little village of Kiltyclogher where you could safely lie down in the middle of the road without worrying about the traffic, up the hill to Straduffy, where there is no TV, no landline, only intermittent mobile reception and no internet, and where each morning and evening a hare comes lolloping around the house, grazing on the snow-in-summer that grows beside the path.

Our days and nights were silent except for the birdsong, the bewildered cries of sheep and cattle in nearby fields and the frenzied buzzing of bees in the sycamores. On occasions we wandered down around the broken stones of the old house where my father was born, following the stream that runs through our land in a series of waterfalls. On all sides the bluebells were running riot and here and there orchids peeped shyly from the grass.

It was a blissful few days until, towards the end of our stay, I was obliged to drive into Sligo town on an errand. I like Sligo with its old grey stone buildings and its ridiculous over-supply of bookshops, but it still felt like a betrayal of something to venture back into the busy world we had so briefly and willingly left behind.

As I was leaving, my business conducted, my attention was caught by a man in his late forties standing outside the supermarket. He was smartly dressed but in a strangely unfashionable way, so that he looked as if he had somehow materialized from the early nineteen sixties. There was an unreadable look on his face: anxiety and hopefulness, eagerness and embarrassment, innocence and guile. I couldn't place it.

As I watched, he approached a woman in her twenties who was coming out of the supermarket pushing a trolley. 'Do you go to Dublin?' he abruptly asked. She looked at him in confusion. 'No, I don't,' she said. 'Why do you ask?'

'I just thought, you know, you looked like you might,' he mumbled, crestfallen. Then the eagerness returned to his expression. 'Where are you from?'

'Round here,' the woman said, but she was beginning to edge away from him.

People are friendly in the West of Ireland. It's very common for someone you don't know to speak to you in the street but I realised, at about the same time as the young woman, that the smartly-dressed-but-strangely-old-fashioned man was not just being friendly. He was either slightly unhinged or, more probably, 'going to Dublin' was a euphemism, for what exactly, I leave to your imagination.

It spoiled the picture for me, but it also made the picture. The serpent in paradise – it's peaceful without him but there's no story.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

This Is The Why

I was in Ireland in November, driving down from Belfast to our house in North West Leitrim. Everywhere I looked the countryside was ablaze with colour – the yellow gorse flowers, the golden leaves of beech and maple, the skeletal orange larches, the vivid hawthorn berries and the occasional outlandish splash of purple from some imported prunus. It was a magnificent sight.

When at last I arrived, I opened the door of our house and stepped inside. The air was as cold as in a tomb. No one been there for months and in the meantime the radiators had filled with air. But we soon had a fire going and for the next few days we did little else but sit in front of it, reading books and only getting up to throw on another log.

The house stands on an isolated spot. My father grew up on that land, though not in that same house. When he left it as a young man to come to England the old house tumbled down and later on the new one was built.

He and I did not often see eye to eye and whenever I asked why I should carry out some order, my father was fond of raising his right hand and saying, 'That's the why,' meaning that I would feel the weight of that hand if I didn't do as I was told.

I was thinking of this as I wandered down a little path that leads away from the house, seeming to end up nowhere at all. The path was spread with golden leaves and when I reached the end I suddenly felt as if I stood upon the brink of that Other World of which so many stories have been told. I could almost see it trembling before me like a picture painted on silk.

All my life I have looked for such a path. As a child growing up in London I searched for it in deserted places wherever buildings conspired with their shadows And here it was at last.

'This is the why,' I said to myself and to my father too, in case he was listening.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Inside The Mind Of A teenage Girl

During July and August I teach Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge. Students come from all over the world and they’re mostly pretty wealthy. Last week in a tutorial we were looking at a short story one of my students had written. In places her English was a bit shaky.

‘I didn’t know what word to use here,’ she said. ‘What do you call the person who is responsible for looking after the children and does some of the cleaning in the house?’ She didn’t mean the mother.

One of the things that I like about being a writer is that it’s a very democratic business. Being rich and powerful doesn’t necessarily help. My first published stories were based on my own life. One of them was about working in a pie factory. Another was about labourers on a construction site. I didn’t need to do any research because I’d done it already in real life.

In the middle part of my career I wrote a series of novels with teenage girls as the protagonists. People were always saying to me, ‘Mr Keaney, how do you, a man, manage to get inside the mind of a teenage girl so successfully?’

The answer was simple. As the father of two teenage girls I was exactly the person my wealthy student was trying to describe. I cooked for them, cleaned up after them and ferried them around. I was effectively their servant. And the servant always knows exactly what’s happening in the house.

Monday, 17 June 2013

There Is No Such Thing As An Ordinary House

One of my students asked whether she should describe the ordinary house in which her character lives. She could see that somewhere exotic like a fairy kingdom needed describing but the house in her story was more or less like her own childhood home and she was afraid to bore the readers with it.

Whenever I get a practical question like this, I try out the solution before offering it. It’s surprisingly easy to tell people to do something and then find you can’t do it yourself. So I looked around at my own house to see how easily it could be described.

It is some years since my children left home. In their absence the house became very neat, very tidy, very professional-looking. The walls were all painted in Farrow and Ball colours, a grandfather clock ticked comfortably in the dining room. There were flowers in a vase on the bureau.

Then the grandchildren arrived. Very soon there were crayon marks on all those white-with-a-hint-of-posh walls, hand prints on the windows, face-prints on the mirrors. Alcoves where reading lamps had stood were now stuffed with garishly-coloured plastic toys, wooden bricks poked out from under sofas. Children’s beakers littered the sink.

The house could very easily be described, I realised, though it would not necessarily make the kind of picture I had aspired to when I had imagined the calm waters occupied by those happy individuals whose children have reached maturity and are at last able to arrange their own affairs.

I stood in my living room recalling the way our youngest grandchild had repeatedly puked up her milk in her first few months and I knew exactly what I would tell my student – that every carpet has its own stains, that even the hieroglyphs that decorate the Egyptian pyramids do not have a richer story to tell than the crayon on the walls of my hallway, and that, however familiar it might seem to you, there is no such thing as an ordinary house.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Hold Your Nose!

At this time of year I do a certain amount of teaching. One of the things that always strikes me is the preconceptions that people bring to the courses. As one student put it when I asked him why he was there, ”Creative writing is a form of writing that has no restrictions and that’s exactly what I’m looking for – no restrictions.” Unfortuately for him, that’s not what I’m teaching. I’m only interested in writing for an audience so, actually, the restrictions are what it’s all about.

So much nonsense seems to be believed about writing. On a social web site designed for aspiring writers I recently saw this post that really summed it all up: “Writing is not what I do. A writer is what I am. Share if you agree.” Frankly, that’s ridiculous. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer – period. Being a writer isn’t some sort of abstract state, like being a saint.

In my experience writing is like raising children. There’s lots of work to do and a lot of boundaries to set if you want to get the job done properly. Of course, if you choose to bring your children up without any rules then that’s entirely up to you. Just don’t bring them anywhere near me while you’re doing it.

At the moment one of my grandchildren is being potty-trained. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he’s not being potty-trained. His mother is beside herself at the lack of progress. I’m a little more philosophical about it. She would say that’s because I only look after him for two days a week and, of course that’s true. But it’s also true that this is not my first time clearing up poo. I spent a lot of years doing it. And fifty per cent of that poo was hers. So I’ve seen poo come and I’ve seen it go and I think my grandson will get his act together in his own time.

I was reflecting on this as I lay awake in the early hours of this morning (something I have in common with my grandchildren is that we both wake up too early.) I was feeling very pleased with myself, applauding my ability to look at the matter objectively, when suddenly a terrible thought struck me. Maybe the person who posted that comment on the site was right. Maybe it’s not what you do that counts, maybe it’s how you define yourself. So perhaps poo is not what I clear up, after all. Perhaps it’s what I am.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Garden For The Blind

I have had no less than five emails in the last two days from different commercial organisations to inform me that ‘the most anticipated book of the year’ is now available for purchase. They’re talking, of course, about Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Now, as a matter of fact, I would rather gnaw off my own arm than read one of Dan Brown’s books. There’s more than one reason for this. For a start, having grown up a Catholic, been educated by Jesuits, and known people in Opus Dei, I find the premises of his works utterly ludicrous. For another, his prose continually strikes me as clunky as this piece in the Telegraph illustrates

But the man shifts product! It cannot be denied. He sells more books in five minutes than I will sell in my lifetime. So is this just sour grapes on my part? Maybe, but I think there’s to it than that. It reminds me of a time when I was very young and my mother took me to a nearby park in which there was a garden for the blind. As we were walking through this garden I told my mother that I couldn't understand the point of it because the blind wouldn't be able to see the flowers. My mother laughed. 'The point is all the lovely smells,' she said.

I didn't reply because I couldn't smell anything at all. As I eventually came to understand some years later, I have almost no sense of smell. (Indeed, I once woke up to find my duvet on fire but it wasn't the smell that had woken me up; it was thirst.)

I think I'm missing some sense when I read, also, and probably when I write whereas Dan Brown has that sense in spades. So when I try to read something like The Da Vinci Code I only get an overwhelming feeling of frustration because I can't smell the part of it that's likeable. I can only smell the bit that's terrible. I'm always trying to smell the bit that's likeable. I know it's there but I can never catch even the faintest whiff.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Writing For Il Duce

I have been teaching some classes in Writing For Children recently and one of the things I keep noticing is how many people bring a great deal of sentimentality about children along to the class. It’s one of the first things I try to get them to jettison.

Sentimentality is a very natural emotional response. I’m a sentimental man myself. For weeks after my younger daughter went off to university and the house was left empty by day except for me and my computer, I was to be found wandering from room to room, picking up random objects that belonged to her and staring at them with tear-filled eyes as though I had just received a telegram from the front line to say that she was missing in action.

And these days I am a figure of fun in the family for the way my grandchildren have me twisted around their little fingers. When he can’t get his own way, the older one performs a fake crying act that everyone else just laughs at but that somehow wins me over, even though I know perfectly well it’s phoney.

But my sentimentality is of absolutely no use to me as a writer because children’s literature is about the child’s experience; and that means not looking at your child characters but seeing the world through their eyes.

Children are not sentimental. What they are most concerned with is power. Entirely understandably, because they have none. They don’t wake up and think, ‘I wonder what I should do today.’ They get told they’re going to nursery or they’re being taken to the supermarket or (if they’re lucky) they’re going to the park. That’s why they spend so much time trying to subvert the adult agenda. If they’re being difficult it’s nearly always an attempt to wrest some sort of control from the grown-ups.

The stark truth is that however much you love them, there’s a little bit of Mussolini inside every child. So forget the sentimentality. You are writing for Il Duce. Just make sure it's good.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Whispering To A Boy Who Imagines He Is Clever

Once upon a time, if I were at a party, someone might say, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ and I would say, ‘I’m a writer.’ They would look very interested and say, ‘Really? What sort of thing do you write?’ to which I would reply. ‘Children’s books.’ Whereupon they would immediately look disappointed and change the subject.

This reaction changed completely after the success of J K Rowling. Nowadays everyone always wants to know everything about the business and, above all, how they can get published. I am constantly coming into contact with people who are consumed by the desire to be a successful children’s writer.

What surprises me is how few of these people have actually read any children’s books since their own childhood. I’ve taught courses on writing for children only to find that ninety per cent of the students, who have usually paid substantial fees to be there, have scarcely read anything except the first Harry Potter title and one or two of the Narnia series. So what is going on here?

It seems to me that people are seduced by the glamour that has somehow attached itself to children’s writing. This is laughable since if you were to be a fly on the wall at a meeting of children’s writers you would witness a singularly unglamorous bunch of people. For the most part we aren’t young or sexy or well-dressed. We are people with holes in our sweaters, people in need of a decent haircut.

So where does this illusion of glamour come from? I think it arises from two sources: firstly, there is the glitter of wealth; secondly there is the mystery of creative fulfilment.

The notion that writing children’s books might be a way to get rich quick is, as anyone who knows anything about publishing will tell you, entirely ridiculous. The truth is that only a very small proportion of children’s writers even make a living out of their work.

The promise of creative fulfilment is a more substantial attraction and it’s undeniable that fulfilment is to be found in practising any art from. But you have to ask yourself this question: why children’s books? If you’re not already reading them then possibly that’s an indication you’re not really interested in this field - and you won’t get fulfilment from trying to succeed at something that doesn’t interest you.

I am a children’s writer because childhood is the place where I reside most naturally. I watch as the youngest of my grandchildren begins to learn to crawl. I see her rocking back and forth on her hands and knees, practising the movements that will soon allow her to move across the room and I find myself propelled back into my own childhood, recalling the way the paving stones rolled away before me as I sat in the push-chair.

Or I do some drawing with my older grandchildren and out of the corner of my eye I see the tall, shadowy figure of a nun standing over me, regarding my clumsy efforts with disdain. I know what she thinks of me. She thinks that I am a boy and, a such, an entirely undesirable object. Worse than that, I am a vain, talkative boy who imagines he is clever and does not listen to what he is told. This understanding renders the drawing that had pleased me so much a moment ago, nothing but a worthless scribble.

I want to reassure that boy. I want to tell him that one day this woman’s disdain will not matter so much; but even as I stand beside him and whisper, I know that he cannot hear me.

For me, therefore, writing is not primarily about money or about creative fulfilment. It is a story being told to a child who no longer exists.