Wednesday, 4 December 2013

This Is The Why

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 July 2013

Inside The Mind Of A teenage Girl

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 17 June 2013

There Is No Such Thing As An Ordinary House

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Hold Your Nose!

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Garden For The Blind

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 April 2013

Writing For Il Duce

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 March 2013

Whispering To A Boy Who Imagines He Is Clever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 March 2013

Waiting For The Roar

Looking after my grandchildren is sharpening my understanding of story structure. The current craze around here is Hide And Seek. It works best when I hide and they seek because they’re terrible at hiding. Another adult has to help them find a hiding place but they can’t stay put in it for longer than a few seconds.

So most of the time they seek and I stand behind the door or crouch behind a chair. (I don't have to hide very well - they're not much good at seeking either.) Then I suddenly spring out and roar like a lion. This is the bit they love best. They know the roar is coming, they know I’ll be the one roaring but it still scares them silly.

It seems to me that the same principle is at work in that dependable genre of fiction, the thriller. It's just Hide And Seek for adults without actually having to get out of your seat. I’ve just finished reading Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson and it’s as fine an example of spine-tingling story-telling as you could look for. The architecture of the plot depends on that old literary chestnut, amnesia. In this case a trauma has left the protagonist unable to form long term memories. So she wakes up every morning with no idea who the man in bed next to her is and has to learn her life story anew each day. But it’s more complicated than that, of course, because the life story she is being told is neither complete nor accurate.

It’s a terrific piece of writing, all the more impressive because it’s a debut. It always cheers me up when someone writes a novel that is beautifully crafted. It reminds me that stories are meant to be enjoyed not endured. I’m not saying I learnt anything new about myself from reading it, or about other people for that matter. It taught be nothing at all about the meaning of life. But it did keep me awake until the small hours desperate to find out what would happen next, waiting for the villain to spring from his hiding place and roar.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Stop Thief!

The other day somebody asked me to look at his manuscript. But when I agreed, he got anxious about showing it to me, worrying that I might steal his work. I was insulted, of course, because it's as if he'd invited me into his house and then asked, as I stood on the threshold, 'You won't steal anything, will you? However, I wasn't particularly surprised. It happens a lot.

I don't know any author who writes for money. I don't mean that we don't all like getting paid. I'm as good at spending money as the next man or woman and I'm always pleased to see royalties being deposited in my bank account. Nevertheless, I don't do it for the money. I write because I'm compelled to, and that's true of every author I know.

If I were to examine my compulsion more closely, I could point to a whole series of drivers located almost exclusively in my childhood. I could say that I write to make sense of who I have become and how that happened, and that this is true even when my stories appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with me.

I could add that I'm fifty nine years old, I look after my grandchildren two days a week, and the other five days are a furious scramble to fit everything else in; but the older I get, the more urgent the need to unravel the tangled ball of string that is my inner world.

That's why I'm not interested in stealing anyone else's narratives. I have my own obsessions. If I don't write them down they keep me awake at night. In fact, they keep me awake at night even when I do write them down. So there's no need to chase after me crying, "Stop thief!" My pockets are empty. It's my head that's full.


Friday, 30 November 2012

Happy Endings

When I was at school my favourite activity was writing stories but we were often given very uninspiring titles to work with. One that has stuck in my mind, down through the years is An Unfortunate Accident Is Narrowly Averted. It made me groan at the time but thinking about it now, I have to admit that it does sum up the plot of an awful lot of novels.

At least it suggested a happy ending. I've always preferred writing stories that end without blood on the carpet and with all the cast still intact. The trouble is, stories often refuse to turn out this way because the characters insist on making up their own minds about what they do. No matter how you struggle to keep them from harm, they simply will not cooperate.

This is as true in life as it is in books. I have some really good friends who seem to spend enormous amounts of energy sabotaging their own contentment. One or two of them even realise they do it; they just can't seem to help themselves.

My grandson has recently begun fictionalising his world. He will look up brightly and say, 'Let's go to the park, said Mummy' or 'Let's go to the café and have some hot chocolate, said Daddy'. It's not just his mother and father who feature in these optimistic little vignettes. His four month old sister might suggest that they go to the library or his Grandpa (me) might suddenly suggest that he has a biscuit. There is absolutely no limit to the happy endings of these micro narratives.

More than anything else my wish for him, and for my other grandchildren, is that this is the way it stays, that he will always be the hero of stories that end happily – even if it can't be hot chocolate and biscuits all the way through.