The Writing Life

It took me a long time to dare call myself a writer. Even with two travel books published back in the 1970s, I still had a day job and then babies. I couldn’t claim writing as my occupation even though I continued to indulge in it whenever I could. All those novels – written over decades – that never quite made it to publication somehow didn’t count. After all, even my agent had given up on me.

It was only when, forty years after the publication of Kathmandu by Truck, I finally succeeded in bringing out a novel that I began, tentatively at first, to describe myself as a writer. By then I’d been writing regular features for a magazine for several years (one of a number of parallel jobs). Writing, I could truthfully say, took up a lot of my time. I could honestly call it my occupation. With my second novel published and, like the first, gaining good reviews, my confidence increased. I was a writer and no longer shy to lay claim to it.

But calling yourself a writer, I’ve realised, is not about whether you’re published or not. It’s about compulsion. About wanting to write more than anything else and giving in to that urge. About drifting lost and directionless when you don’t have a work in progress.

Being a writer means burning the food you’re cooking because you’ve rushed into your writing room to jot down a sudden inspiration – an idea or a phrase or the solution to a dilemma – and forgotten time and hunger. It’s happened to me over and over again; I don’t learn. 

It means turning down invitations because you’d rather be ‘boring’ and just stay home and write, thus risking being considered unsociable. It means hoping visitors will go off and do their own thing for part of their stay because writing time is precious and has to be protected from encroachments

It means panicking when you’re out and can’t find a pen or a piece of paper to scribble down an idea.

It means being obsessed by dread of losing what you’ve written (there should be a word for this) and constantly backing up.

Ian McEwan, talking about writing his latest novel in lockdown, said all he wanted to do was stay at home and write throughout 2020. “All novelists are locked down. Lockdown is what we do.” I can identify with that statement. On the other hand, as writers we need to live too. We need the stimulation of company and conversation, of observing the world and other people. I’ve just returned from a research trip to the locations where my current work in progress is set. I’m already sixty thousand words into my first draft: my fictional characters are more or less fully formed. But spending time in their locale made them seem real. It brought them to life in a new way. I returned excited and raring to incorporate my discoveries into the novel.

I’m aware I haven’t posted a blog for over three months and yes, I’ve been feeling guilty for neglecting it. However, I’m not going to make excuses. The reason, I can honestly say, is that I couldn’t tear myself away from work on the novel. I’m not yet ready to reveal too much about its theme (I gave some hints in my last blog post). The photos here will reveal its two main locations.

The Novelist as Impersonator

My current novel-in-progress is about a deception, about someone assuming a false identity, which it strikes me is not so different from what authors of fiction are doing when they write from the point of view of their characters. As a novelist, you are impersonating one or more of your protagonists, taking on their identities, inhabiting their lives, infiltrating their world in a way that deceives readers into believing in them – or at least suspending for a while their knowledge that all this is an invention. 

Just as the character in my novel is pretending to be someone else (in this case for dubious purposes), when writing fiction, you have to ditch your own nature, your sense of self, and ‘become’ your character (note: I am not implying authors have dubious motives!) You have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, someone else’s head – think as they think, act and react as they would, see everything through their eyes, whether or not you’re writing in first person. In my earlier fiction, I usually chose to write in close third person, while my last completed novel, Flying Blind (currently with an agent) is written in first person, as is the new novel I’m working on. It really comes to the same thing because either way, you are inside the head of your protagonist, writing from their point of view even if the pronoun used is she rather than I

Protagonists will have their unique backstories: formative influences and emotional histories that determine who and how they are. Personality traits, physical appearance, strengths and weaknesses, interests, likes and dislikes will differ from those of their creator and must be carefully built up. The characters may live in a different era or location; they may not be the same age or gender as the author. More dangerous territory for novelists these days is where a character is given another nationality, race or religion. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is an accusation to beware of. Likewise, stereotyping of a group to which you don’t belong.

If the novel has a long timespan, you may have to age with the protagonist. Flying Blind takes Margarethe from a young girl to very old age, in several different countries in a historical period of great flux in Europe, a period of two world wars and frequently shifting borders, not to speak of changing social mores. Not only the characters but also the world they move in must feel authentic. The story is based on the life of my grandmother but I knew her only in her later life in England, leaving scenes from her childhood and early years to be imagined. 

The Red Gene also has a span of nearly eighty years. We first meet Rose as a young woman in her twenties and follow her life till its end at over ninety. I had to envision her at different ages and in different situations, taking into account the changes in society over those years. Consuelo starts as a girl of six, continuing through marriage and motherhood to late middle age. Two of the three main characters, each of a different generation, were born in Spain: I had to get inside the heads of Spanish protagonists in changing political and social settings. Twenty plus years of living in Spain as well as my interviews with Spanish people were invaluable in making this convincing. 

In Secrets of the Pomegranate, as well as portraying the two sisters, Deborah and Alice, I was writing in the voice of Deborah’s son Mark, an immature twenty year-old dropout living in a cave in Granada’s Sacromonte; reacting to events as I imagined he might. My current work also has an immature (and troubled) teenager as one of the characters – a girl this time, growing up in England in the 80s. 

Authenticity in fiction has become a bit of a hot topic recently. Is it fraudulent to write as someone you are not? I don’t think so. I love creating characters different from myself. I love having to use my imagination, backed up by diligent research. As Monica Ali said when discussing the issue at this year’s Hay Festival, “Imagining other people’s lives and allowing people to empathise with them is what fiction writing is all about.”

Ten Attributes you need to be a Novelist

Writing a novel is hard. Putting it out there is hard. Waiting for a response is hard. Dealing with rejection is hard. Achieving publication is hard. Promoting it is hard (unless you have a very proactive publisher with a big budget). Living on the meagre proceeds is impossible for all but a few authors. The inventory of qualities you need to succeed is long. Here, in no particular order, are ten (some of them closely related) that I think are important. 

  • Persistence. With no boss standing over you to ensure you keep at it, motivation has to come from you and you alone. You can’t give up no matter what obstacles bar your way, whatever discouragement you face, however stuck you feel. 
  • Patience. In my experience, it’s rare that words gush out in an effortless stream. More often it’s a case of sticking at it, forcing yourself to summon the language, experimenting, playing with the words till you’re happy with them. A sentence can take a whole morning. A novel is the work of months if not years. Then there is the waiting to hear from agents and publishers you’ve contacted. They warn you: we are inundated with manuscripts: three months/ six months/ if you don’t hear, assume it’s a no. Meanwhile, the agony of waiting – not exactly helped by the odd rejection – goes on. 
  • Drive. Moving forward, whether by giving yourself a target daily word count or just writing something every day, writing even when you feel uninspired or think you do. You never know until you try.
  • Endurance. You have bad writing days when no words come or none that satisfy you. Days when even tasks you normally hate (cleaning in my case) tempt you away from your desk. Days when you question why the hell you’re devoting years of your life to writing words that may never be read, never reach beyond the confines of your computer. To carry on regardless requires massive reserves of stamina. 
  • Resilience. Without a thick skin and the ability to bounce back after criticism, after rejection, after setbacks of all kinds on what is usually a long and rocky road, you’ll never make it. In my limited personal experience, I’ve had to contend with an agent giving up on me, cancellation of a contract and my publishers folding, as well as hundreds of rejections. Over a period of thirty-five years, I completed six novels that went nowhere before finally achieving publication with the seventh.
  • Passion. If you don’t feel passionate about what you’re writing, it won’t work. Why struggle on when the rewards are so elusive, so uncertain? Few novelists make serious money; few achieve fame. The writing itself is your only sure reward. For the time you’re engaged in it, nothing else in your life matters as much. 
  • Imagination. To create fictional worlds and characters to inhabit them, you need imagination. Research is important too – of a historical period, a location you’re not intimately acquainted with, factual details – but ultimately the story, and its protagonists are creations of your own mind. They may stem directly or indirectly from your life experience, but not necessarily. Either way, they are unique to you, products of your imaginative powers. 
  • Empathy. Whether or not you like your protagonists, if you’re representing their point of view you must write from inside their minds, view the world as they do. If you lack empathy in the real world, with the people you interact with in your own life, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to feel empathy with the characters in your novel. You have to feel their pain and joy, frustration and grief as if it were you. Even if you’re writing from the point of view of a villain, an anti-hero, you need to see the world as he or she does, in order to understand their motivation. 
  • Perfectionism. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph matters. It’s not enough to have a good story. I play endlessly with my words, refuse to give up until I’m satisfied. It helps if you love language. I edit as I go along, constantly making changes to what I wrote the day or week or month before. I’m sloppy with most other tasks but in my writing I’m a perfectionist. 
  • Self-belief. You need confidence to share your work with others, to send it out into the world. When you’ve finally knocked it into shape to your own satisfaction and it’s time to convince others, you have to believe in it.

I’m not claiming this list is exhaustive. Comments on which attributes you think are most important and/or any I’ve omitted would be welcome. I should also add that hard though it is to write a book of any kind and see it through to publication, in the end it’s worth all the slog, the monopolising of your time, the inevitable disappointments and blows to your self-esteem. Otherwise, why would anyone do it?

The Joy of Reading Groups

Last summer I ploughed my way through Middlemarch. The last time I’d read it was more than fifty years earlier when studying English at York University. I had chosen for my finals to write a special paper on George Eliot. What made me decide to read it again in 2021? My reading group picked it as a ‘summer read’. After some initial reluctance (I had a growing list of books I wanted to read over the summer), I confess to having enjoyed it – though perhaps with more reservations than I had as a student.

Reading groups have their pros and cons. I’ve made some wonderful discoveries – books I’d probably never have found otherwise. The most recent was The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts. Earlier examples that come to mind are Stoner by John Williams and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. (The ‘stone’ theme is purely coincidental!) In turn I’ve introduced other members to books they might not have considered reading. We’ve experimented with different methods of choosing the year’s books but all involve members’ suggestions and usually a vote. Being based in Spain with mainly but not exclusively British members (currently the group also has Spanish, German and Swedish ones), we come up with a diverse selection that has a distinctly international flavour and usually includes at least two Spanish language books each year. Russia, China, India, Ethiopia and Chile are just some of the settings for novels we’ve read and discussed in the twelve years we’ve been meeting in Granada. 

Sometimes the book I’ve proposed is pulled to pieces by some of my fellow readers but I don’t remember many occasions when nobody liked the selected book. The range of opinions is fascinating, reminding me how subjective are reading tastes (as any other kind of taste). The same book can be loved or hated – and for a variety of reasons. Characters can be loved or hated, writing styles equally. The same story can intrigue or bore, enthral or disgust different readers. And that’s what makes the meetings so stimulating. 

The downside of a reading group for me is that it leaves me little time to read other books. I read reviews or have a book recommended to me and immediately want to read it but the book group choice always has to take priority. It’s true I can drop out some months if I want to. I did decline to read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. At over 800 pages, I knew I’d never manage it in four weeks. But I’m reluctant to miss the meetings, especially as so many other activities have been curtailed since the pandemic and our meetings are so enjoyable! The trouble is I’m a slow reader, always reading as a writer, noticing what works and what doesn’t, how different authors tackle plot or character or setting, the kind of language they employ. My work as an editor also slows me down by bringing to my attention every element of grammar and punctuation. Some e-books are full of formatting errors. How I wish I could skim. I might miss details but it would enable me to get through many more books, not just the ones chosen by the group. 

The social contact is – as for most reading groups – an added attraction. We met on Zoom through the long period of Covid confinement but it wasn’t the same. Being able to meet (outdoors) again for the last few meetings has been a great joy. Food and drink have always featured strongly (except on Zoom) but only after an hour or more’s book discussion. The host provides wine and we each bring a dish to share. With many good cooks in the group, we enjoy a veritable feast each time.

Exposing my own books – first Secrets of the Pomegranate and later The Red Gene – to the critical eyes of our group was daunting but they were kind and their enthusiastic appreciation buoyed me up, increasing my confidence as a writer. I felt honoured to have my books discussed alongside more illustrious authors. Friends and contacts in other regions and countries have recommended my books to their own reading groups. Some invited me to attend their meetings virtually by Skype or Zoom so that I could answer questions about my books and writing. Listening to readers’ views – what they enjoyed or didn’t – has been an enriching experience and one I hope I can learn from. 

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.