Friday, May 22, 2015

Writing & Place with Melissa Harrison

It's been a while since I've invited anyone to fill in my Writing & Place questionnaire, but when Melissa Harrison's new book came out, I realised that it was the perfect thing to ask her to do - her novels are so much about place and nature, and I wanted to delve a little deeper! (Ok, to be honest, all writers have something interesting to say about writing & place and I am always wanting to delve a little deeper! More W&P guest blogs coming soon...) You can catch her in person at the Hay Festival this Monday, May 25.

Mel and I met as writers-in-residence at Gladstone's Library just over a year ago (and I believe I introduced her to the delights of flash fiction, which she proved rather good at!) Her first novel, Clay (Bloomsbury, 2013), had just won the Portsmouth First Fiction award and was chosen by Ali Smith as one of her Books of the Year, a rather ringing endorsement, eh! It was because of Mel that I started thinking about reading more nature writing, something that I think I'd not been attracted to - and this led to me reading/devouring H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which I am immensely glad about.

Mel's second novel, At Hawthorn Time, has just been published by Bloomsbury, and listen to what the Financial Times said! “Her skill is such that she has produced a vigorous and affecting hybrid… If Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald were to co-author a book with John Burnside and Adam Foulds, it might end up something like At Hawthorn Time." Nice, eh? So, here's the lowdown on this beautiful book, before we get to Mel herself:

Four-thirty on a May morning: the black fading to blue, dawn gathering somewhere below the treeline in the East. A long, straight road runs between sleeping fields to the little village of Lodeshill, and on it two cars lie wrecked and ravished, violence gathered about them in the silent air. One wheel, upturned, still spins. 

Howard and Kitty have recently moved to Lodeshill after a life spent in London; now, their marriage is wordlessly falling apart. Custom car enthusiast Jamie has lived in the village for all nineteen years of his life and dreams of leaving it behind, while Jack, a vagrant farm-worker and mystic in flight from a bail hostel, arrives in the village on foot one spring morning, bringing change. All four of them are struggling to find a life in the modern countryside; all are trying to find ways to belong.

Building to an extraordinary climax over the course of one spring month, At Hawthorn Time is both a clear-eyed picture of rural Britain, and a heartbreaking exploration of love, land and loss. It is out now, published by Bloomsbury, and has earned the admiration of Helen Macdonald, author of the multi-award-winning bestseller H Is For Hawk.

A limited-edition 10″ record is also available, featuring two pieces of music produced in response to the book and with an individually silk-screened and stitched sleeve by artist Lucie Murtagh.  Buy a copy here -->>

So, I asked Mel to respond in any way she liked to my four standard writing and place questions, and this is what she said:

Tania: Where are you?

Mel: I’m sitting in my garden in
Mel's Garden in Streatham
South London, in the sunshine, with my laptop on my lap. There’s a blackbird singing in the sycamore above me, and a smart little goldfinch helping himself to my bird feeder. My dog Scout is lying on the grass behind me, soaking up the sun. In a few minutes she’ll pick herself up reluctantly and move into the shade for a few minutes, then she’ll collapse again in the sun.

Although my rented flat is a little ramshackle around the edges, having a garden – being able to plant things and see them grow, being able to feed the birds and see them nest – has been transformative for me. It also meant that we could get a dog, which got me out exploring London’s green spaces – something that really fired me up to write my first book, Clay.

T: How long have you been there?

M: My husband and I have rented this flat for a decade now; I’ve lived in London for 18 years, always, with the exception of my first six months in the city, south of the river. I much prefer south London to north; there’s less money swilling about, which feels healthier to me, and by and large there’s a good mixture of nationalities and social groups, which to me is important. I’m worried that this is changing right across the Capital, though; Brixton, just up the road from me, is undergoing very rapid and very depressing gentrification.

I go through periods of wanting to leave London and live in the countryside (wherever that is) and then realising I’d miss the city. I grew up in a semi-rural area, and I spend a lot of time walking in places like Cumbria and Dartmoor; I write about nature, so I suppose it’s inevitable from time to time. I don’t think I idealise rural life, at least I hope I don’t; my second novel, At Hawthorn Time, is about the clash of narratives that we can fall prey to when it comes to “the English countryside”, which is a very complex, very powerful and often quite exclusionary idea: the dream of country living that a lot of people have is in stark contrast to the reality of a lack of jobs, lack of affordable homes, rural pubs closing and farms going under at a terrifying rate. But I would like to live among woods and fields and hear owls in the evenings and see water voles and adders. Each August I look after a friend’s house in Dorset for two weeks where I can do exactly that, and while I’m there the idyll can seem close enough to touch. But I know that I’d miss London, and I’d probably talk about it all the time. Being a Londoner is part of my identity now.

Being pulled in two directions, though, can be a productive state for a writer. Balancing differing ideas (and ideals), learning not always to look for certainty or resolution but to tolerate doubt, is a good exercise for the imagination. Life isn’t simple, and people are full of contradictions.

T: What do you write?

M: So far, I write long-form contemporary fiction. I have written a few short stories – and I love reading them – but I’m not convinced they are my natural métier. Perhaps with practice mine would improve.

I’ve also written a short non-fiction book about rain, which is in the pipeline. And I do quite a lot of journalism; I’m one of a team of five that writes the Nature Notebook in The Times each Saturday, and I review books for The Times and the Weekend FT, and do some other odds and sods.

In my twenties I worked as a copyeditor and proofreader, and now I am a production editor and sub, so the critical part of my brain is overdeveloped when it comes to being creative; I find it very hard to let ideas just flow, as my sentences are already being critiqued on the journey from brain to page. But it has a few advantages, one of which is that I’m good at the sort of focus and discipline writing for newspapers requires. And I turn in a very clean manuscript.

T: How do you think where you are affects what you write about and how you write?

M: What I write is steeped in place, and also in the seasons. I couldn’t start something without knowing what time of year it was, because that would affect everything that was living and growing, and would fundamentally affect the setting. As for place, I need to know things like the soil type (so I know what kinds of woodlands it will have, or example, and what kind of agriculture). But I don’t have to be in a place at the time when I’m writing about it; it can be somewhere I know well, like Devon or Shropshire, or somewhere I have visited specifically in order to write about it, for instance the Cambridgeshire fens; I take a lot of photos when I’m out, and use them to put myself back in a landscape. Clay, though, was mostly written in south London, and very much inspired by the streets around my home – though I decided not to specify which city it was in the text, because I wanted people to imagine it taking place in their city, wherever that was, so that the book’s underlying message about the value of nature could have the widest possible reach. And it seems to have worked; I had people asking me to confirm it was set in both Birmingham and Manchester.

I write a lot at my desk at home, which is in our bedroom (I dream of a room of my own!) I also write on my laptop, sometimes at The Social in central London, just for a change – though when it’s fiction I struggle to write outdoors: it’s just too distracting! When I’m really wrestling with a scene I’ll often abandon computers altogether and sit with a notebook and pen and write out my thoughts longhand. It slows my brain down and forces me to focus; it also feels less ‘serious’ and more jotty, which can sometimes free me up.

Shilling Cottage, highly recommended by Mel!
I go on writing trips a couple of times a year, as my day-job allows (I work in-house at a magazine for three weeks a month, but every so often I get a two-week break because of how the calendar works). As well as the housesitting arrangement in Dorset there’s a tiny cottage in Devon that I
’ve rented three times now, off season when it’s cheap. Being totally alone for two weeks is intense. Sometimes it’s gone really well, and been incredibly productive; at other times I’ve found myself in an unpleasant mental state. I was at the Devon cottage in January this year, trying to start something set in that actual location. The work petered out and died, which was painful; but the time I spent there was valuable in other ways, and the things I did – climbing a hill at 5.30am to watch dawn rise, visiting a dairy farm and watching the milking – are turning out to be useful for something else.

As research for At Hawthorn Time I walked a section of the A5 north out of London, alone, for four days and three nights. It’s a trip one of my characters, Jack, who is a vagrant, makes, and I wanted to see what it was like – which turned out to be very different from how I’d imagined it. It was also a really valuable insight into how exhausting it is always to be an object of curiosity, never to fit in. One of my jobs, as I see it, is to defamiliarise the English landscape (which includes cities); to help people see places anew, and to jog them out of the anthropocentricism which we’re all of us guilty of, and which presents the world to us only in terms of human priorities. Relating differently to the natural world is key in finding ways to protect it, as well as being personally transformative; so for me, not fitting in – not taking place for granted – is vital.

Thank you so much, Mel - and for some more inspiring words, here she is giving the recent Coleridge Lecture for Bristol's Festival of Ideas, which got me thinking about my surroundings  - that tree in front of my house, the birds - in a way I am ashamed I never had before.

You can purchase At Hawthorn Time (Bloomsbury, 2015) at all good bookshops, in hardback, and Clay, in paperback. Mel is very active on Twitter, follow her at M_Z_Harrison, and check out her website & blog!And go say hello to her at the Hay Festival this Monday, May 25.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

new writing...

There is shortly to be some non-me-me-me activity on this blog (I hear you cheer!) but for the moment, sorry, still me, in brief - delighted to have had a poem longlisted for The Rialto's Nature poetry competition! Also delighted to have a new piece of oddness up on Visual Verse (which is such a lovely 'zine, why don't you have a go?), another outing for an older flash on and four stories on MexicoCityLit in advance of my work trip to Mexico (more on that soon!) - and, for the next 30 days (perhaps?) me reading newly-commisioned food-related flash fiction and poetry -  in the fine and wonderful company of Simon Panrucker and Barny Houghton -  on Michael Rosen's Radio 4 show, Word of Mouth!

Monday, May 04, 2015

Some soundcloud recordings...

I do love reading my own work, and have recently discovered the delights of SoundCloud, where you can upload recordings... I've just added 3 new ones, including two poems that have just been published in Shearsman magazine, here they are below, in case you fancy a quick listen, and my SoundCloud Page has a load more!