New year, fresh inspiration (I hope)

My latest manuscript is with an agent; for the time being all I can do is wait for news. I’m well aware that even if my hopes of a publishing deal are realised, there will be a fair amount of rewriting to do at some stage. If no deal is forthcoming, the need for revision will be equally important, if not more so. But in the meantime, these months of waiting give me the perfect opportunity to make a start on my next project.

After a mostly solitary Christmas and New Year, I can’t claim to have been too busy, so what is holding me back? I can reveal that for this author (and I can’t be unique), it’s one of the toughest, most frustrating and torturous stages in the process. It makes me want to shout, cry and fill the page with every single one of those unhappy emoticons. Matt Haig describes perfectly the brutal reality of that first step in the creation of a book:

The Writing Process
Have an idea. 
Start writing.
Write 20,000 words.
Have new idea.
Start writing.
Write 30,000 words.
Give up on both ideas.
Feel defeated.
Lose your mind.
Have new idea.
Feel it makes no business sense.
Start writing.
Keep fucking writing.
Know it is the one.

I’m at the stage between feeling defeated and losing my mind. In the last three months or so, I’ve made attempts on three potential projects, rescued from the back of my mind where they’d been lurking for many years. For the first I already have notes but fail to drum up the necessary enthusiasm to take the idea further. For each of the other two in turn, I embark with some vigour on the tasks of researching, making notes, imagining characters, constructing rough plots, only to discover I’ve wasted my time. The first idea, based on a historical character, has been covered already in a similar way by another author some years ago. The second, a story based on a long-running scandal, is the subject of a book soon to be published, written by the victims themselves.

I give myself a couple of days off before trying again. A story idea has to ferment, which is why I’m revisiting old ideas, while remaining open to any new ones that come along. The right inspiration must surely be waiting for me out there somewhere if only I could locate it. Writers are often asked where they get their ideas. The answer is anywhere – from the snippet of a story read in the news, an imagined dilemma, a what if? thought, the hypothetical development of a situation or incident… Too many ideas can be as much of a problem as too few. My mind flits from one to another instead of persisting with one until I’ve fully explored its potential. But I have to feel passionate about or at least deeply engaged with the story, the underlying themes and the characters. After all, I’ll be living with them constantly for months or more likely years.

I’m now starting to explore a fourth idea with a protagonist entirely of my own invention. This one is a project I began in the early 2000s and abandoned at 5,000 words. Last year a moderately well-known author brought out a novel that used a similar concept. Must I consign yet another idea to the scrapheap? No, on further investigation, I find hers to be sufficiently different. Does this latest idea of mine make business sense? Probably not. Can I make something of it? It’s too early to know. Is it the one? Ditto.

Past, present, future: choosing your time

Considering what kind of novel I might write next, it strikes me that writing a contemporary novel in these unstable times is a risky venture. With the inevitable lapse of months or more likely years between writing and publication, the chances are that a novel set in the present will appear out-dated or irrelevant long before getting into print. In fact constant revisions would be needed even while writing. The pandemic has changed our day-to-day lives and routines, creating uncertainty about everything – far more than ever before, except in wartime. We are living in a kind of limbo that makes plans impossible more than a few days ahead; a state where nothing can be taken for granted. Assumptions about next month, let alone next year are reduced to pure guesswork.

‘Cosy’ crime and ‘cosy’ mystery are doing well, I hear. Which suggests that for many readers, immersion in more of the painful or frustrating reality they’ve been living through is the last thing they want. Cosy, uplifting stories with happy endings may offer comfort in these challenging times when it often seems we have lost control of our lives. No surprise then that they’re popular at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean the demand is for a whole diet of feel-good escapism. Because alongside the comfort reading, its direct opposite, dystopian fiction is thriving too. The precarious state of the world is actually fertile ground for the imagination. For imagining a future where the worst of the present can be developed in numerous directions, whether it’s more deadly pandemics, the breakdown of democracy, economic meltdown or technology with scary capabilities: artificial intelligence, 1984-style surveillance or a whole gamut of other developments ripe for invention. And that’s not to speak of climate disaster with the resulting conflicts over food and water, migration on a massive scale, species extinction and/or nuclear war, all terrifyingly conceivable. Confronted with these multiple threats, it takes some effort to imagine a future that is other than dystopian.  

But are dystopian and other types of horror fiction popular because they make our own pandemic problems seem minor in comparison and enable us to maintain some equanimity in the present? Or are they written to serve as a warning call by focusing on a small group of characters we can identify with, thus bringing closer to home what are often vague menaces that are less likely to engage our emotions and are therefore easier to ignore? That was my intention back in the 80s when I wrote a novel set in the near future, imagining an accidental nuclear attack. It focused on the lives of four characters in a town prior to it being targeted by one of the bombs. At the time, my lack of experience led to some basic mistakes like setting it far too close in years.

Now, with all the perils we’re facing, I think I’d find it too depressing to write a novel set in the future. And although I’ve no doubt some brilliant contemporary novels set during the pandemic will emerge (a few are already being published), I don’t feel I want to take the risk of early obsolescence. ‘Cosy’ isn’t my thing either – not as a writer nor as a reader.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that historical fiction is the answer for me. It seems safer to set a novel in the past, whether very recent or more distant, to set it at a time when I know broadly what happened and can research the background with some degree of confidence. The future is ‘an unknown country’ while the past – though open to interpretation – is still rooted in fact. Human nature doesn’t change all that much so even in a novel set centuries ago we can recognise the emotions and personal dilemmas of the characters. They can feel familiar to us despite the differences in way of life, social norms and conditions. And as I’ve found through writing the story of my grandmother’s life, they can bring the past closer on a personal level too. I understand better now the forces and events that shaped previous generations of my family and especially my mother; even how that has influenced me.

Human stories often reveal universal truths, relevant across time and place. A historical novel may throw light on our current dilemmas in a thought-provoking way – even with fictional protagonists, even when the challenges of the 21st century seem entirely new. Alternatively, it can – like ‘cosy’, like futuristic – offer an escape from current events.

Fire in the Sierra: one more tragedy for the earth

At last rain has fallen on southern Spain and brought the terrible forest fire that was devouring the Sierra Bermeja under control. It had been raging for almost a week despite the efforts of a thousand firefighters, aided by the military. One firefighter was killed. It destroyed 7,800 hectares of protected zones and caused about 1,600 people from several villages to be evacuated from their homes.

One of those villages was Jubrique, a village with which I feel a personal connection, having spent two weeks there in August 1990, closely involved with the local community. The fire affecting Jubrique has been headline news in Spain for the last few days and even made the British media but prior to that, it remained almost unknown outside Málaga province: a small village of a few hundred inhabitants (1,000 at the time of my stay but now much reduced as younger people have left to work on the coast). It lies north of Estepona in the Serranía de Ronda, a typical mountain village with whitewashed houses, tree-shaded squares, narrow alleys and strong local traditions. 

I remember the verdant countryside of chestnut trees, fragrant pines, the rare pinsapo fir, cork oaks, olive and fruit trees; the clean sparkling rivers with oleanders lining their banks and deep pools perfect for swimming; the eagles and other raptors circling overhead, bee-eaters winging past, a flash of vivid colour; the limestone crags standing out prominent against a deep blue sky. How much now survives of that landscape, of the thickly wooded Genal valley where Jubrique is situated? Cork trees take nine years to regrow the cork, how many years to plant new trees and wait for them to grow? The chestnut harvest in Jubrique yielded 300 tons, with similar quantities in each of the ten surrounding villages working together as a cooperative.

I was in the village as a guest of the Benamonarda cooperative, an initiative set up in the late 1980s by Chantal and Peter, a Belgian-English couple. They had searched for a suitable village in the area, one where the inhabitants were keen to become involved as members of the cooperative. Their aim was to promote direct contact between visitors and inhabitants, introducing tourists to local crafts, agriculture and the environment by integrating them in the way of life on a small scale and so helping to sustain and improve the local infrastructure.  

There was no tourist accommodation in Jubrique at that time, no tourists except for those visiting through the cooperative – never more than twenty at a time and usually far fewer so as not to swamp the village. I stayed in the home of Isabel and her family, one of seven families who offered lodgings and some meals. Like many of her generation, Isabel was deprived of an education by the Civil War and ensuing poverty, and remained illiterate. No newspapers or magazines were available in the village. Its inhabitants received their news more quickly and easily via television. When a letter arrived for Isabel, she asked me to read it to her. A government programme to promote literacy was attracting more women than men, we were told. The men preferred the bar to the classroom, machismo being still very prevalent.

Jubrique had twenty shops – most of them unsigned and undetectable behind their bead curtains – and thirty bars where the walls were decorated with religious pictures of saints and virgins interspersed with nude pin-ups. At one of the two village discotecas, we danced with a multi-generational crowd of villagers. I was struck by the mixing of children, teenagers, parents and grandparents, all enjoying themselves together in a way unheard of in the UK at that time. The village silver band played every Saturday in the Plaza; every child was offered the opportunity to learn an instrument.

Chico took us to his farm and led us on a mule trek through the chestnut forests to the neighbouring village of Genalguacín; on another occasion he took us on a walk up the Genal river, negotiating slippery rocks and boulders or fighting our way through tangled vegetation on the banks. We visited Providencia’s finca 4km outside Jubrique, where we had a go at milking goats and watched her making goats’ cheese. At the esparto workshop we learnt about the traditional craft of esparto weaving. We explored the Pileta caves, Ronda, Bobastro and the gorge of El Chorro, scrambled over the limestone rock formations of El Torcal with views across to Morocco, took part in an all-night fiesta in Algotocín. As a guest in Jubrique, I learnt more about rural life in an Andalucian village than from all my previous visits to Andalucía as a tourist and all the books I’d read, all my Spanish lessons in England.  The experience is still vivid in my memory after thirty years, more than twenty of them living in Andalucía. 

The population now, as in so many rural villages, consists of mainly older people who have spent all their lives there. The effect on them of seeing their cherished forests and farms in flames and of having to flee their homes to reach safety must be devastating. So much destroyed in a fire almost certainly started deliberately. I think of Isabel (if she is still alive) and Chico with his farm and his passionate care for the environment, of Domingo whose enthusiasm for preserving the local crafts was transmitted to the younger generation. How they must be weeping now.

Novel Endings

As I approach the end of a first draft of my current work-in-progress, endings have been much on my mind. With the provisional title Flying Blind, the novel is based on the life of my grandmother, a life which ended at ninety-one with her leap from a fourth-floor window. Obviously there can be no happy ending for this story. But can an ending be sad without being depressing? Can a novel (I’m talking generally here) leave you feeling uplifted without having a conventional happy ending?

The feelings of a reader may not reflect those of the main protagonist(s). As a reader reaching the end of a story, you might feel thoughtful, emotional, disturbed, sad, uplifted, angry, disappointed or a range of other emotions. A surprise twist may leave you stunned or shaken. There may be a wow factor in response to a satisfying but unexpected ending; there may be a feel-good factor at the happy conclusion of a romance beset by problems along the way, the triumph of persistence over adversity or the successful outcome of a quest. 

The ending of a novel is almost as important as the beginning and as difficult to write. It has to feel complete even if not everything is resolved. For most novels, the ending shouldn’t be totally predictable but there are exceptions, including my current project, where my grandmother’s suicide is revealed on the first page. The end can lead you in a kind of loop back to the beginning, the pages in between having revealed what led to that conclusion. In his satirical novels, George Orwell produced some powerful endings. Animal Farm ends with the sentence: The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. The chilling final sentence of 1984 consists of only four words: He loved Big Brother. Both these endings are predictable: they follow inevitably from what preceded them but are no less potent for that. 

The surprise factor, an unexpected twist close to the end can also be very effective, especially if clues have been left along the way. But both twisty and easy-to-anticipate endings can be thought-provoking and satisfying. Some novelists deliberately choose ambiguous endings that allow space for the reader’s interpretation – implying rather than stating the outcome or leaving it open to their imagination. 

A non-genre novel doesn’t need to fit into a rigid formula, making all kinds of ending possible. But even for genre novels, there may be more flexibility than there used to be. For example, romances no longer need to end with a wedding as they once did though they should probably end on a happy note. In crime fiction, justice should be done but maybe not entirely. Heroes and villains don’t need to be so black and white when in real life there are shades of good and bad. Almost everyone has some redeeming features and equally, flaws can be found even in the most saintly. 

Unreliable narrators can result in endings that deceive or disappoint, as in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, where the narrator reveals that the events she described took place in her imagination. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles offered three alternative endings for the reader to choose from. Kate Atkinson did something similar in Life after Life. She experimented further in A God in Ruins, with a surprise twist that negated the whole story in a similar way to Atonement. I can’t say I found these endings satisfying. In the case of A God in Ruins, I felt not just disappointed but angry. Having loved the story up till then, my pleasure was snatched away when I reached the final pages. It was like being hit with a shower of cold water. 

Some novels set up a conflict or question, to be resolved at the end. In Secrets of the Pomegranate, one of the questions I set up at the beginning was whether Deborah, the main protagonist (in a coma after being caught up in the 2004 Madrid train bombings) would survive. The other was the secret she shared with her sister Alice. I escalated the tension right up to the final denouement and for some readers at least the ending came as a surprise, bringing feelings of hope as well as sadness. The dilemma facing Alice had a resolution, if not exactly the one she had wished for. “I loved the ending of Secrets of the Pomegranate,” one of my readers said. “I felt that you were very merciful to the reader, with the mounting sense of threat and dread as the book progressed and then, at the end, that all evaporates and there is a triumph of human decency!” 

I can’t say too much about the ending of The Red Gene without giving it away but again I built up the suspense through many chapters, leading my readers to root for a particular outcome. If some were disappointed, I think they all agreed that the ending I wrote was the right one. “You defied the reader’s hopes and expectations and it worked because it could have easily become corny and melodramatic,” one reader said. Another expressed a similar feeling: “I was so disappointed they… (deleted). But I don’t think it spoils the story at all, it’s more realistic this way.” The ‘right’ ending is not necessarily the happiest. Bittersweet endings are a personal favourite of mine.

Letters in the Loft

When I wrote my September 2020 blog post, Fiction or Biography: Imagining the life of my grandmother, I had no idea of the treasure trove of material lurking in my brother’s loft in Oxford. After the death of our mother, the three of us trawled through box after box, folder after folder of photos from both sides of the family. The constraints of time, the other demands on our lives, put limits on the endeavour. I had to get back to my job in Spain. So after days spent looking through as many of the photos as time allowed, we divided those we had seen between us and what remained – the cases stuffed with letters, documents and more photos – got shoved into Tony’s loft for another day or, as it turned out, another year: thirteen years to be precise. It was my decision to embark on this new novel based on our grandmother’s life that spurred my brother into investigating the contents of his loft, which we had all forgotten about. Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for what proved to be a mammoth task.

Up till then, my main source apart from my memories was the taped conversations with Oma (as we called her) and with our mother. Oma had never talked to us about her past, perhaps because a large part of it was too traumatic for her to recall, as she hinted on one of the tapes, so this hidden bounty was for me an absolute gift. For most of February, Tony was ringing me up or sending me messages detailing his amazing discoveries. Every couple of days there would be something new. The letters between my grandparents, their children, friends and relatives, in German, French, Italian and English (fortunately not Bulgarian!) revealed a huge amount about their personalities and relationships as well as events in their lives. I had wondered what my grandfather Heinrich called his wife Margarete. The letters answered my question: Gretl in some, Gretchen in others – both diminutives of her name. In those days – the twenties, thirties and early forties – people wrote so many letters. When my grandfather was away on business, they wrote to each other almost every day. He wrote to the children too, and they to him. The international post, despite using rail not air, must have been much faster than it is now. The letters proved what a close and loving family they were. For all his faults, Heinrich was a devoted husband and father. 

A copy of their marriage certificate confirmed the family story of an elopement. They married in a civil ceremony in the town of Brassó, located in the state of Transylvania. At the time it was part of Hungary; now it’s known as Brasov and belongs to Romania. Another fascinating find associated with this and dated a few months earlier was a tattered residence certificate from Nagymarton, just over the Austrian border with Hungary. It attested that my grandfather was a resident of Brassó, far to the east. In fact he lived in Vienna, as did his wife-to-be. I wonder how much he paid in bribes to the Hungarian official who signed it. My research indicated that marriage laws were less strict in Transylvania than in Austria.

There are sad letters from Paris where Heinrich died of cancer in 1938, the last, written shortly before he died, in a scrawl that has yet to be deciphered. He was only fifty and had been wrongly diagnosed with an ulcer. By the time his wife arrived from Rome, he was already unconscious. Her anguished letters to her children and my mother’s in reply are heartbreaking to read. There are letters from a camp on the Isle of Man, where my grandmother and one of her daughters were interned for nearly a year as enemy aliens in England. I had no knowledge of this until the letters turned up. And then there was Oma’s poignant suicide note along with a coroner’s report.

The photos too are immensely revealing. There are studio portraits of Heinrich’s birth family: his parents and four siblings. His father had the most magnificent handlebar moustache. My grandmother described one of Heinrich’s brothers as the most beautiful boy she had ever seen and the photos bear this out. What a heartthrob! He was gay and a socialist, which didn’t exactly make his life easy but it gave him the underground contacts to escape fascist Italy, which later enabled him to arrange for Oma and her children to enter Britain. Another photo shows Margarete and Heinrich with their four children, also posed in a studio.

I can’t wait to get my hands on this stash of letters, documents and photos but the UK is out of bounds for me at the moment and there are far too many to send, so I will just have to wait. Meanwhile, the new cache means I have a fair amount of rewriting to do. Already I have enough to make a good start, even before seeing the bulk of the material. 

What my grandmother went through – two world wars, years of semi-starvation, life-threatening illnesses of her children, daring escapes from debtors and Nazis to new countries with new languages to learn, her husband’s typhus in an internment camp, backstreet abortions – puts our pandemic woes in perspective. I’m calling it a novel, but whether it’s classed as fiction or biography, her story – the hair-raising adventures she suffered (and suffering is an appropriate word for most of them) – risks being considered too unlikely, too dramatic, a wild exaggeration. It is not.

Six years, seventy posts

Exactly six years ago I set up this website and wrote my initial blog, posted with a photo, taken from my terrace, of a fiery sunrise. I chose that picture to signify hope and new beginnings. My first novel was on schedule to be published in April of that year, 2015. The launch of Secrets of the Pomegranate, set in my adopted city of Granada, marked the start of a new career as a novelist. I’d been published before (travel books, journalism) and I’d written novels (six of them) but this was my first novel to reach the wider world. The launch was celebrated in various locations in both the UK and Spain. To say I was excited would be an understatement. Years of work were finally bringing some reward. By this time I was already well into writing a second and more ambitious novel. Four years later, The Red Gene was published and once again launches and presentations were held in both countries. I felt proud of my books, as feedback and reviews started to come in, the vast majority highly favourable.

For me, however, the value of writing is measured not only in critical success – and certainly not in earnings (or I’d be hopelessly depressed). The creative satisfaction is at least as important. Never has this been clearer to me than now when the pandemic has meant confinement at home for long periods and a life of relative isolation. With all my usual social activities stopped, being able to focus on writing has made all the difference. It has kept me sane, given me a purpose, enabled me to get through the day – the endless days that roll on one after another, each indistinguishable from the preceding one. When the first lockdown started, I was already engaged in writing a memoir, which I completed in late spring. I don’t think it’s destined for publication but it absorbed me and gave me inspiration for the novel I’m currently working on with great enthusiasm – a novel based on the extraordinary life of my grandmother. 

Looking back on the seventy posts I’ve published (an average of almost one a month over the six years) and accompanying photos reads a bit like a running account of my life during those years and particularly of my writing life. But some of my posts focus on experiences much further back in my life: my travels in the 1970s, subject of Kathmandu by Truck and Trans-Siberia by Rail; on my early days in Spain around the millennium. I’ve written about places and people and events, good and bad times. I’ve also used some of the research for my books to write about topics such as the legacy of the Moors or censorship under Franco, and addressed more general issues like the way fiction is categorised.

When I skim through previous posts, captive as I am (as we all are) in the stagnation of lockdown, I’m amazed by how much has happened in my life since I moved to Spain. Setbacks like the sudden onset of deafness, the robbery, the fire in my house; but also the joy of grandchildren, new enthusiasms like biodanza and tango, travels to Mali, India, Cuba, cycling trips in Portugal and Italy as well as other regions of Spain. I’ve seen the changes in Granada over time: the massive increase in tourism and now its almost total (if temporary) disappearance. 

For the first time in 22 years, I’ve passed a full twelve months without leaving Granada. I’ve experienced it in all its seasons – and more intensely thanks to the limitations imposed by the pandemic. As for almost everyone – and I’ve escaped far more lightly than many – there has been a cost. The loss of freedom, the long separation from my family, the absence of touch (a whole year when the only people to have touched me are the hairdresser and the dentist – how sad is that!), the reduction in social life as contact is largely reduced to email, phone or Zoom, the submission to routine – all these have been difficult at times. 

We’re not out of it yet and the vaccine is still some months away but I’m grateful to have come through up to now in good health and reasonable spirits. Without writing, I know I would have been in a much worse place.

Astrology as a tool to create characters

When I invent characters in a new novel I often turn to basic astrology to kick-start me on the construction of their personalities. I admit to not having an in-depth knowledge of the subject and I believe sun signs (and astrology in general) are only one influence among many on character but my own personality and those of the people I know best conform surprisingly well to the traits associated with our sun signs. I’m well aware too that astrology is much more complicated than just the sun’s position on the date of birth. The exact time and place of birth have to be taken into account; the position of the other planets and the way they interact with each other also has an effect. However, as a basis, purely as a point of departure for my imagination, I find it helpful. Then I can add in the other important elements: the influence of their upbringing and experiences; their genetic inheritance – as well as giving them particular quirks that make them more interesting. We are all – in fiction as in real life – complex beings. A protagonist who fitted into a simple formula would be flat, lifeless and boring.

Some readers of this post will, understandably, scoff at my attention to star signs – both those who know more about astrology and those who dismiss it as superstitious nonsense. All I’m saying is that it works for me. To take as examples the main female protagonists in my novels: 

In Secrets of the Pomegranate, the two sisters, Deborah and Alice, have very different character traits despite sharing genes and family background. Deborah is Sagittarius, an exuberant fire sign – adventurous, freedom-loving, restless, risk-taking, confident, passionate, scatty, irresponsible, sure of her opinions and at times dismissive of other people’s and with a thirst for knowledge. Alice is Taurus, an earth sign – home-loving, practical, cautious, responsible, reliable, warm-hearted, caring, placid, a good friend who loves to do things for others but can be stubborn with a tendency to self-righteousness.

In The Red Gene, my nurse, Rose is Pisces, an intuitive, emotional water sign – sensitive, compassionate, kind, selfless, sympathetic, idealistic, generous, open and capable of loving deeply. Consuelo is Virgo, an earth sign. Modest, kind, hardworking, conventional, a worrier, timid and lacking in confidence – though this is probably due more to her upbringing in a cold, adoptive family. Marisol is a fiery Leo – a natural leader, generous, warm-hearted, loving, with a sunny personality but a tendency to be bossy.

I don’t always use this astrological approach. I may already have a clear idea of a character’s personality – perhaps based on someone I know or a composite of different people I’ve come across in my life. Often the story I want to tell dictates the nature of the protagonist. And of course there’s something of me in all my characters, including the males. As their creator, it’s inevitable, whether or not I’m aware of it.

One could equally well use the Chinese horoscope or any other classification of personality types. It’s a blunt tool, no more. My knowledge of the Chinese horoscope is superficial to say the least but from what I’ve read, I can imagine Deborah might be a horse, Alice a dog, Rose a sheep or a pig, Marisol a tiger, Consuelo an ox. My grandmother Gretl could be a rabbit, her husband Heinrich a rooster.

In my current ‘work-in-progress’, I don’t need to imagine the personality of my protagonist as she’s based on a real person, my grandmother, whom I knew well, though only in her later life. She was, incidentally, a Cancer – a water sign like me. I never knew her husband – he died long before I was born – so I’m writing from what I’ve learnt of him from his wife and daughter (my mother). Without knowing his birth date, I imagine him as a fire sign, an Aries I would guess – a natural optimist always brimming with ideas and a tendency (often disastrous) to take risks. He’s ambitious and hardworking but spends easily, delighting in big gestures and spontaneous generosity. He can turn on the charm and his energy is attractive, making him popular wherever he goes. Living with him is another matter. He can be sulky when crossed, selfish and needy of attention.

Some readers of this post will, understandably, scoff at my attention to star signs – both those who know more about astrology and those who dismiss it as superstitious nonsense. All I’m saying is that it works for me. To take as examples the main female protagonists in my novels: In Secrets of the Pomegranate, the two sisters, Deborah and Alice, have very different character traits despite sharing genes and family background. Deborah is a Sagittarius, an exuberant fire sign – adventurous, freedom-loving, restless, risk-taking, confident, passionate, careless and scatty, sure of her opinions and at times dismissive of other people’s and with a thirst for knowledge. Alice is a Taurus, an earth sign – home-loving, practical, cautious, responsible, reliable, warm-hearted, caring, placid, a good friend who loves to do things for others but can be stubborn with a tendency to self-righteousness.

If nothing else, it’s fun!

Fiction or Biography? Imagining the life of my grandmother

After taking time out to write a memoir, I am now 12,000 words into a new novel. This one is different in more than one way. For a start, it’s not pure fiction but a story based on the incredible life of my grandmother. And unlike my two previous novels, it’s not set in Spain but in various central and eastern European countries where Oma (as we called her) lived before arriving in England in 1939. Stories about her life intrigued me already as a child: her elopement with a Jew, his escape from prison and subsequent leap from a bridge onto the roof of a train; the family’s midnight flit from Bulgaria to Vienna in the late 1920s, followed by six years of hand-to-mouth existence in a village on the Danube, which then gave way, thanks to some shady deal, to a life of luxury in Rome. As I began to engage in a bit of superficial family research for the memoir, I found myself drawn in to my grandmother’s life story. 

With my mother

It has to be a novel because I’m familiar with only the bones of her story: the origins and religious background of her parents, the main events of her life including her marriage, the dates of her movements from one country to another and what motivated them (few were of her own choice). I know rather more about her life in England, first as housekeeper to a refined older lady in Surrey and then, at far too young an age, in a residential home – years when I saw her fairly regularly. My brother recorded an interview where she talked about her life; my mother shared a few stories. I know too the details of her horrific death. The rest will have to be conjectured, the lengthy gaps covering her day-to-day existence through the years filled, the framework of known facts incorporated into a coherent whole. The last of Oma’s children, my Aunt Inge, died only last month at a very advanced age. Any childhood memories she might have had are now lost. So it will be fiction certainly, but my intention is to follow as closely as possible the trajectory of my grandmother’s ninety-two years of life.

I can imagine conversations, guess at emotions (aided by the recording and my memories of her), but the background details that would make her story come alive: the ambience of fin-de siècle Vienna or pre-1st World War Bulgaria or pre-2nd World War Rome might just defeat me. Researching the background to her peripatetic life is a huge challenge – even more so in these times of restricted travel. I can’t visit museums in Vienna or Ruse (the town in Bulgaria where my mother was born) or Rome. My German is rusty, my Italian was never that good and my knowledge of Bulgarian is non-existent. Only so much can be sourced from the Internet. As I construct scenes from my imagination, I am constantly stymied by my lack of detailed knowledge. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to investigate such varied topics as corsets and bust bodices, the marriage rules of both Calvinists and Jews in early 20th century Austria, the type of German shorthand used in 1910, the history of elevators, socialist parties in 1930s Austria, Gustav Klimt’s paintings and attitudes to them, the Hispano-Suiza luxury car… And I’ve only just started.

Oma with my mother

How can I make my novel authentic in the face of so many unknowns? It was far easier to create vivid, true-to-life backgrounds for my novels about Spain, a country I’ve lived in for over twenty years and where I speak the language. I could use my own knowledge, read Spanish sources and interview Spaniards who have lived through similar experiences to those of my characters. Previous unpublished novels were set in the familiar geographical and cultural landscape of England, where I was born and lived until 1999.

So this project will certainly be challenging. However, despite the difficulties, I intend to carry on researching and writing, because the story of her life is truly remarkable. No one, on meeting her in her later years could have guessed that this quiet, modest woman, fond of pottering in the garden or knitting for her grandchildren, had lived a life so full of drama. 

With me

Following in my characters’ footsteps – almost

When I arrived, after a long drive up a dusty track, at my friend’s finca high up in the Sierra Nevada, I had a strong sense of déjà vu. I knew this place – or so I felt, though I had never set foot there before. It struck me as slightly uncanny because what I was seeing was a scene I had invented: the setting of a part of my novel, The Red Gene. The part where Rose and Miguel, shortly before the end of the Civil War, head to the mountains and join with other fugitives and guerrillas to lead a precarious life in the wild. They sleep in makeshift shelters under the trees, washing in rivers or waterfalls, moving on every few days to evade the Civil Guard.

They were in hilly country now, making their way through vegetation of holm oak, juniper and pine. Above them, rocky outcrops stood out against a deep blue sky while below, narrow river valleys threaded the landscape with silver. The walking was harder here and several times Rose stumbled on a rock or tree root or missed her footing on loose earth and stones. Although Eduardo said nothing, at times she sensed his impatience. They were heading towards his village of Beas de Segura. He knew people there, they would be safer, he said.

Often they saw no one all day. At night they slept on beds of dry leaves in hollows between the trees, wrapping themselves in blankets and huddling all three together for more warmth. They washed when they could, in rivers studded with boulders. One afternoon they stopped at a waterfall where the cascade gushed into a deep clear pool. The men stripped off and stood for a few seconds under the full force of the torrent. After dipping her feet in the pool, Rose washed the rest of her body as best she could without immersing herself. The water was icy.”

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The finca where I spent the weekend extended to 5,000 square metres of land among chestnut woods at an altitude of 1,700m. Rose and Miguel were in the Sierras of Segura and Cazorla, further north in Andalucía and not as high, but with much in common in terms of flora and fauna. In this part of the Sierra Nevada, chestnut predominated, along with walnut, wild cherry and other deciduous trees, especially holm oak, but also evergreens like Scots pine. Blackberry and hawthorn grew wild everywhere, as they do in the other sierras of Andalucía, though the berries I gorged on this month would not have been ripe for Rose and Miguel in the winter and early spring of their exile. Owls and large raptors like eagles and vultures are common in all these mountainous areas. Among the small animals to be found are squirrels, rabbits, hares, weasels and foxes; wild boar are rarely far away. We walked – or rather – clambered up steep slopes of loose earth to a waterfall that could almost have been the one I described above.

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In contrast to my protagonists, we enjoyed relative luxury, with tents to sleep in and running water. A showerhead, connected by hosepipes to a water barrel, hung from a tree. Cooking facilities consisted of a wood oven built of brick and a hob with bottled gas, while a campfire kept us warm on cold evenings and early mornings. A natural spring gushed from the rocks, providing us with the purest drinking water. But although we had these comforts and were not living in fear of the Guardia Civíl, we were, like Rose and Miguel, living an outdoor life surrounded by nature in what seemed a timeless environment. As I sat by the campfire listening to the rattle of the cicadas (the Spanish word grillo is much more onomatopoeic), I thought of them and their maquis companions, unable to take the risk of lighting fires, constantly having to move on.

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At one point we had a conversation about bird calls and my friend’s imitations reminded me once again of a scene in my book.

“Now Rose and the two men were on the move again, better armed and provisioned, more cautious. News had reached them of the rebels’ entry into Madrid. Any day now, Franco would be in control of the whole country; the war would be over and their situation infinitely more dangerous.                                                                                                                                                 

‘We’ll have to move by night,’ Eduardo told her. ‘In silence. No talking, no coughing, no snapping of twigs underfoot. During the day we stay hidden. Do you understand?’                         

Catching the tension in his voice and demeanour, Rose nodded. ‘I understand.’

‘You need to learn the signals,’ he said. Putting his hands to his mouth, he imitated the call of an owl, followed by that of a hoopoe. Even the birds would be deceived, Rose thought, impressed.

‘Practise until you get it right every time. And make sure you can recognise them too.’ She listened carefully as he explained their interpretation: how many repetitions, how long the interval between them… ‘Getting it wrong could mean death,’ he added.”

A weekend in such an environment, isolated from the world with no mobile signal or internet, none of the usual trappings of civilisation, far removed from all my familiar routines, away from the eternal talk of coronavirus and its accompanying anxieties, a weekend outside time, enveloped in the peace and beauty of nature brought a kind of euphoria, an immense sense of relief. And yet, adjusting to such a change wasn’t easy. Learning to do nothing and just be demanded concentrated effort. And then, all too soon, it was time to return to ‘normal’ life. Normal life, but with some essence of what I had experienced, a nourishing peace, remaining with me.

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For Rose and Miguel the ending was very different.

Isabel Allende and me

For our last reading group meeting, we chose Isabel Allende’s recent novel, Largo Pétalo de Mar (in English, A Long Petal of the Sea). I knew very little about it before I started reading – only that the main characters were among the many Spanish Republicans driven to seek exile in France towards the end of the Civil War when defeat by Franco looked inevitable, and that the setting later moved to Chile where they found refuge and rebuilt their lives. I knew also that the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda played a part in the story.

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I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to such a renowned writer as Isabel Allende, but as I read, I was amazed time and again by the similarities with my own novel, The Red Gene. Both books were published in the same month, April 2019; there was no question of one influencing the other. So it seemed to me almost uncanny how much the two novels had in common. Hundreds of novels have been written about the Spanish Civil War. I’ve read a few of them, both before and after writing my own, but none bore any resemblance to The Red Gene in terms of plot or structure, only in general background. Largo Pétalo de Mar did. Several members of our reading group had already remarked on it independently before we met to discuss the book.

The Red Gene Amazon

I can’t go into too much detail without giving away spoilers, only to say that both novels were partly set in the Spanish Civil War; both had long time-frames spanning three generations of two contrasting families – one on the Republican side, the other of rich, right-wing landowners; both combined the personal and political in a similar way with a love story at the centre. In both books, a baby girl was stolen and given away to a ‘good’ Catholic family while her mother was told the baby had died. In each case, many decades passed before the crime was discovered and some kind of reunion became possible. The main protagonist in my novel was a nurse, in Allende’s a doctor. In addition to these general resemblances, one or two scenes had quite remarkable parallels. Some striking coincidences can be found even in the detail. Allende’s musical main character had the name of Roser, while mine, also musical, was Rose.

Opinions of the book in our group varied, as they always do, but I’m a big fan of Allende and I loved this one as much as any. It lacks the magic realism of some of her earlier novels, having more in common perhaps with Hija de la Fortuna/Daughter of Fortune and Retrato en Sepia/Portrait in Sepia. She is a wonderful storyteller and I found this new novel easy to read, hard to put down. War, exile and belonging are important themes, along with love, destiny and how the course of our lives is often determined by political events beyond our control. The history and politics are seamlessly interwoven with the lives and loves of her fictional characters so that it never feels heavy. I highly recommend it and would welcome any comments from those who have also read The Red Gene.