Still life, what an odd expression. Life is constant movement. We cannot escape it, even if we sometimes long for peace and quiet when the agitation becomes too much. Stillness, the absence of movement, comes only when life is no more, when our heart ceases to beat.
Symbolically this dried-up bouquet, its desiccated flowers falling to the floor as the water that maintains a semblance of life evaporates, really is a ‘still life’, an incarnation of death in life. Even the colours are washed out and fading fast. What more appropriate place than (the hotel) Eden, the paradise outside life with its once untapped potential waiting to be released now in the last throes of decay, to house such a paradoxical work of art.
Despite knowing there can be no life without death, we cling to life in our fear of death. The final moment when we pass from one to the other is a line our current consciousness cannot cross. For all our imaginings, both reassuring and terrifying, the other side must remain unknown till we traverse that frontier. Maybe that if why this still life, for all its beauty, is so terrifying.
“When I look at a girl, all the girl’s in the choir, for example, what strikes me is that being a girl comes natural to them. They don’t have to think about it. It’s what they are. If I were a girl like them there would be nothing special in dressing or acting as one. But for me there is something special about being a boy who dresses as a girl. I’m attracted to girls, I identify as a girl, I feel like a girl, especially when I’m dressed as one, but I am not prepared to go the whole road and become a girl. In a strange way, that ambivalence is an important part of who I am.” – Peter talking to Kate in the first chapter of Girl or boy? Why choose?
As I embark on a third book in the Boy & Girl series, Girl or boy? Why choose? I cannot help but revisit the way the ineluctable pair boy-girl or male-female necessarily orients all questions of gender, even for those who refuse the division. I hesitated a long time about writing a follow-up to In Search of Lost Girls. Why? Because the older Peter gets, the greater the pressure on him to chose between girl or boy when in fact he would prefer to put off that choice for ever. Unlike his namesake, Peter Pan, he has no NeverNever Land to fly away to, outside time, where he can remain eternally young, basking in the gender ambiguity that pre-adolescence affords. He has bought some time by living with the Lost Girls in Lucern and by the use of experimental hormones, like magical fairy dust that spares him from becoming a man. But that borrowed time cannot last. Especially as other forces conspire to oblige him to return to England, to cease using hormones and to conform to the male body he was born with. In 1960, when the story takes place, people were even less tolerant than today. A boy became a man. That was that. A boy who dressed as a girl was not only an ‘aberration’, but a threat to the unchallenged certitude of every man about his gender.
A brief detour via China
The left hand is cupped, palm upwards. At a casual glance it appears empty, neglected, insignificant even, yet, rather like the silence that whispers all secrets, it is full to the brim, pregnant with energy. The right hand is raised, in motion, slicing through the air, powerful, dynamic, determined, the fruit of intention. It attracts attention. It makes a statement that forces admiration. Yet, paradoxically, in that assertion it is spent and in need of replenishment. In Chinese lore, the former is yin, the latter yang. Female and male. Neither can exist separately. Without the overflowing energy of stillness, the arrow of movement cannot fly. Returning to the Western world, the vision is different. Male and female lead no such inseparable coexistence. On the contrary, they are distinct if not antagonistic.
The words we use
Female and male. The two permeate our way of seeing the world. They underlie our language, our thoughts, our being. In Western thinking, we see them as separate, distinct. She or he. Certain religions make a doctrine of what they see as the god-given distinction between the two. They even go so far as to use brute force or torture to ‘rectify’ any confusion or ambiguity.
Language gives us only ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’. However, the word ‘it’ conjures up not so much the ‘in between’ or ‘indeterminate’, an alternate, multiple gender, rather the inanimate, the neutral, the neuter, the genderless. Various recent linguistic constructs seek to propose alternatives, but they lack the adhesion and ease of use of the existing personal pronouns. Like water, language invariably flows in beds born out of long use and as such work against change and transformation. In addition, the paths followed often depend on the language spoken.
The other side of the Channel
In French, every object, every noun is either masculine or feminine. A dress is feminine, ‘sa robe’, whether it is worn by a boy or a girl. The gender of the object masks the gender of the wearer. In English, the word dress is associated with the gender of the wearer, ‘his dress’ or ‘her dress’. However, the word ‘dress’, despite the absence of an article to flag the gender, is associated with girls and women. This is also the case in French, although the gender ascribed to words is often arbitrary.
Contrary to what one crossdresser said, many clothes have gender. It is the inherent feminine nature, culturally speaking, of certain clothes that makes them attractive to the crossdresser. ‘His dress’, as Peter calls it in Boy & Girl when he dons his sister’s clothes, immediately signifies a transgression which if translated into French would require a circumlocution to express. To what extent do these differences in language colour our attitude and understanding of gender? More generally, how does the deep-seated division perceived between what it means to be a man or a woman influence our perception of the world? Does it not engender an either-or, black-white logic that carves a hard and fast line through a world that, in reality, is a multitude of shades of grey or rather a rainbow of brilliant colours? Much of the confusion lies in mistakenly thinking that gender is synonymous with sex as defined by genitalia.
A binary strike
I can’t help feeling uneasy about the idea of a women’s strike, like the one that took place recently in Switzerland. Not that I question the need for political action to redress the balance between women and men. There is an absurdity if not a violence in the feeling of superiority that many men bask in and the advantages they take for granted. Yet all those for whom the clear-cut division between male and female is problematic must necessarily feel uncomfortable with a women’s movement that gets its identity from that very division. One of the participants at the demonstration had put on his best dress, high heels and makeup to support the cause. What better way to show your solidarity than by dressing to celebrate your womanhood? Yet, in reality, her presence was frowned upon by a number of women present, or at best ignored as an unfortunate embarrassment. Why? Because that ambiguity is seen to challenge the clear-cut division between man and woman on which the movement is founded. When you are trying to make a point, as the women’s strike was seeking to do, clear-cut arguments and easily identified divisions are more readily communicated and defended. Nuance and ambiguity are necessarily weaknesses in a polarised political landscape. The would-be woman completely misjudged the situation. What she saw as an occasion to proclaim her attachment to femininity, was in fact a political movement opposing men and women in a struggle for domination which had no time and place for expressions of gender ambiguity.
“…you can’t sit around and wait for someone to discover you…”Olafur Arnalds, composer.
As an independent novelist, one of the major dilemmas – rather like the young Arnalds seeking to get his compositions played having not followed the traditional channels for a would-be composer – was that her novels only made sense if they were (widely) read. An ‘unfortunate’ corollary of which was that she couldn’t just bask in the pleasure of writing, but had to step out and get people to read them.
There were so many novels out there, some brilliant, others less so, begging to be read. She didn’t want to join the hoards clamouring to sell their wares. Not that she thought her novels were unworthy, on the contrary, but mercilessly plugging them would not only belittle her, she reckoned, it would devalue the books she had worked so hard to write and publish.
She had tried several times to court an agent and go down the traditional publishing route, but she’d had no success. So few authors were chosen and the curt replies, if ever she got them, were demoralising. She didn’t want to be discouraged from writing. It was her biggest joy in life. She told herself she’d be better off without an agent. She didn’t want to have to shoe-horn her work into pre-defined formats or toe the line to anticipated market trends. What’s more, she was impatient. Going through an agent and a publisher would mean delaying the release of her books for several years.
She maintained an eager online presence, as all aspiring authors were encouraged to do, and she was proud of what she’d achieved, but it rarely sold any of her books. In reality, she came to realise that platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter were stacked against her. They were only interested in locking users in while garnering as much saleable information about them as possible. Understandably, when every other post was a disguised promotional message, people’s engagement was rarely more than superficial as they shied away from all attempts to sell.
She sighed. The whole prospect was so gloomy. Whichever way she turned, the path was blocked. Suddenly she gasped, slapping the flat of her hand against her forehead with a resounding clack. She’d taken her experience of publishing at face value. What if she were telling herself a story? ‘Just’ a story. The thought had her feeling giddy. If it were a story, that would mean she could rewrite it…
Chimera, a novel by Alan McCluskey. 412 pages, published May 2019.
Imagine you awake to find yourself sharing the body of a twelve-year-old boy. It’s bad enough that you are a girl, but, what’s more, he is autistic, cut off from the world, unable to coordinate many of the simplest movements, let alone express himself. Not that he is inarticulate. He’s a real poet, a wordsmith in his head. He showers you with colourful abuse in an attempt to drive you out. Luckily, you do not suffer the same handicaps. Instead, you are plagued by vivid dreams of the fall of Atlantis and a painful sense of failure, as if it was your fault you couldn’t save that world.
As you ward off the boy’s attacks, you are forced to survive in a world ruled by giant pharmaceutical companies where all natural food has been banished, replaced by government-approved pills. The sinister food police scour the land in search of those growing food and summarily execute them. And they are after you. Not that you have planted crops, but there’s a rumour that you might be a long-awaited saviour come to set the world right…
Find out more about Chimera, get sample chapters or buy a copy here.
Life is made up of stories. The ones we are told. The ones we tell ourselves. The ones that tell themselves. But above all, the ones we live. They are the building blocks with which we make sense of ourselves and the world. They govern our waking day. They people our dreams. They range from highly personal to overarchingly collective. As light as wisps of mist, they creep up on us, curling around our thoughts, surprising us, alarming us, delighting us. Or as stubborn as a brick wall, they stop us in our tracks, astounded, infuriated or at a loss about what to do next. Try to imagine a world without stories. That in itself would be a story. And what a story! Or would it? How on earth do you tell a story of a world without stories?
Modern media are feeding us stories, trying subtly, or less so, to affect the way we see the world, the way we act and above all, what we buy or what we vote. The star newscasters. The television hosts. The help-yourself streaming sites. The friendly web platforms where our friends congregate. The familiar podcasts. The drooling advertisers. The fervant opinion makers. The political pundits. The technical advocates. The all-knowing experts. A glorious cacophony echoed in the chatter of our neighbours. our colleagues and even the passing strangers. As the credits scroll up at the end of the series and we hesitate about what to watch next, doubt creeps in. A rogue story in the making. What if? What if this plethora of stories told for our benefit by others were a barrage to the emergence of our own stories. Like a constant noise that drowns out our troublesome thoughts but also stops us piecing together our own tale.
And when we do get to develop our own stories, what is to stop us sliding off the rails? Cut off from the so-called real world. Told only for ourselves, stories can be pretty paltry if not downright dangerous. Stories scaffolded in isolation are a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Pushing your story out there for all to hear is risky too. Intolerance and judgement abound. And what if your story really isn’t well told? We might all be, by nature, storytellers, but stories, like language, have structures, codes, internal organisation. Most of the time we are unaware we are telling stories. We take it for granted. It’s self-evident. Like thinking. Who would need to learn to think? In reality, few people are good at telling stories. Just listen to two kids on the bus describing a conversation they had.
So where does that leave us? Aware that stories are omnipresent and make sense of the world. Knowing that the many, many stories we are told seek to influence us. Realising that the battery of stories constantly flung at us tends to cut us off from our own stories. Our stories only become meaningful when we risk telling them to others. To tell stories well requires critical thought and practice but also the ability to listen for the essential in the stories of others.
Girls can and will save the world. Such was the conviction that inspired Chimera, a tale unfolding against the real-life backdrop of anxiety about the disastrous impact of increasingly unhealthy industrial food and the rampant abuse of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, antidepressants and painkillers. The scene set, giving form to Chimera took unexpectedly long. I embarked on the book in February 2014 only to decide, a third of the way through, to retrace my steps and begin again. A tough decision when you have already written over forty-thousand words. In my approach to novel writing, being convinced of the story is key. It is the force that motivates me to continue telling it.
I enlisted the clear-sighted advice of Emjay Holmes about the initial chapters and I am very grateful for her input. A few chapters were read and discussed in critiquing sessions in the Geneva Writers Group. Thanks go to those members who attended and particularly to Susan Tiberghien for chairing the sessions. I finally finished the first version a year and a half later, in September 2015.
Editing the draft was halted by health problems. Heartfelt thanks for their care and attention go to the staff at the Inselspital and Pourtales Hospital as well as Dr Nathalie Calame, our family doctor. Ill-health, however short-lived, brings with it a feeling of vulnerability. It heightened the urgency to make my stories available to readers.
What is a literary ‘genre’? Simply put, a convenient label that groups together a number of literary works that have common characteristics. Initially descriptive, those labels progressively become explicative and then prescriptive. They carve out literary creation into recognisable chunks and dictate how those can be perceived, marketed and distributed. Literary agents proclaim they are looking for this or that genre. Publishers specialise in certain ‘genres’ and channels of distribution index books according to a rigid set of genres with certain categories enjoying widespread popularity. Many readers gravitate to specific genres and are disappointed by novels that don’t fit the mould. This compulsion to shoe-horn novels into a set of pre-determined boxes glosses over the fact that novels don’t let themselves be so easily categorised. Despite commercial pressure and academic influence, the creative process of writing tends to lead to ambiguity when it comes to genre, if not outright promiscuity.
Identifying the genres of my novels
Identifying the literary genre of any of my novels has always been a pain in the neck. As was the pressure to ‘fit in’. I relish crossing boundaries and toying with ambiguity. Why should that surprise anyone when one of the central themes in my work is gender fluidity? My novels necessarily reflect several genres. Take Stories People Tell, for example. It has affinities to chick lit because it is about powerful young women and their relationships, although it has little of the sardonic humour that often permeates such fiction. It has magical elements and parallel worlds that come straight from fantasy, or rather supernatural fiction, as those elements are not central to the story. The novel has gay romance, relating, as it does, the lesbian relationships of the main characters and the difficulties of the LGBTQ community in society. At the same time, the novel is political in that it deals with democracy and empowerment especially in healthcare in the UK.
In service of telling a story
Revolt is always tempting if not salutary in circumstances involving institutions and set ways of thinking. One avenue, especially for the autodidact, might be to argue in favour of an ‘outsider’ literary category corresponding to ‘art brut’. Where such artistic work is produced by someone not versed in art history or au fait with current tendencies, someone who harnesses the creative force of being free of literary tenets. While thinking ‘outside the box’ is a key ingredient to novel writing, undoubtedly what has gone before is also an essential part of the mix and cannot be ignored. The anger of revolt might blind us to the arbitrary nature of such labels. I suspect the main lesson to take from the exploration of literary genres is not so much the need to align with or fight against the boundaries of a fixed genre, but rather to be able to recognise those elements that make up a recognisable genre so as to better employ them in all manner of combinations in the service of telling a story.
For the second voice I seek to echo, I have chosen a more challenging author, Erin Morgenstern and her debut novel, The Night Circus. There are a number of different approaches in Morgenstern’s work, so I have chosen one, the section entitled, Wishes and Desires (Pgs 160-161), in which Marco confronts Isobel about Celia’s new Wishing Tree. Written in the present tense and the third person, the point of view is omniscient, telling us about both Marco’s and Isobel’s thoughts and reactions. There is a narrator, but little divulges who he or she is, lest it be the confident, knowledgeable voice and the way the information is made known to the reader, but withheld from one or more of the characters.
Isobel’s responses to Marco are both trusting and naive. True. She loves him. But she expresses openly what she thinks, making her vulnerable compared to Marco whose thoughts are disclosed to the reader, but which he deliberately conceals from her. Yet all the same, by revealing his inner thoughts, albeit only half understood by him, he is presented to the reader as vulnerable, not towards Isobel but rather his opponent, Celia.
The Knight’s Sword (359 words)
When the door ghosts open sighing like an vagrant wind, it is Julia who sweeps into the tiny cubicle filling the space with her presence. Martin raises his eyes from the charm he’s concocting and almost swoons at the sight of the young girl.
“I wasn’t expecting a visit,” he stutters, his heart pounding.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” she asks, making no allowance for his evident agitation. She extracts a poster from her satchel and holds it out for him to see. Despite the dimness of the lantern, he discerns a sword impaled blade-down in a rock, the diamond-studded hilt quivering as if an unseen hand had just released it. Unlike the fake blades that often hang limp from the waists of knights on the stage, this one looks real and deadly. It is almost as if he can smell the fresh blood emanating from it.
“The Knight’s Sword,” he whispers, awed. “The dress-rehearsal was a wondrous affair.”
“Now you tell me,” she snaps. “Why didn’t you inform me?”
“It hasn’t opened yet,” he explains, unable to prevent himself from flinching, “and I’ve been so busy with my own performance. What’s more, I wasn’t sure you hadn’t had a hand in it. The illusion is so convincing. It tells a story all on its own. Just like your work does.”
“It’s his,” Julia whispers, half to herself, as she stands absorbed in the poster.
“Are you certain?” Martin asks.
She does not reply immediately. Instead, her eyes devour the sword as if it were a potent draught she could drink.
“I can sense the magic,” she muses. “I feel the power rippling from it. It penetrates to my very core.” She shakes her head. “I imagine a person not versed in deep magic could not perceive that power.”
Dismissing the insult just levelled at him, an idea strikes him, making him feel bolder. “Do you think he can sense your work like you do his?”
His question catches her off guard. She’d never thought of it from that angle. That the other might be aware of her through her work appeals to her. She smiles. (…)
At some point, this task ceases to be an exercise and becomes a challenge. Telling the story takes over and ideas come that are no longer in the style to be imitated, additions and improvements that present themselves unbidden. The turning point, I suspect, was when Martin stutters in response to the sheer power of Julia’s presence. As a result, the reinvented story moves away from the near-disastrous, but tender love affaire as portrayed by Morgenstern to a more manipulative, darker tale.
In the quest for a better understanding of one’s voice as a writer, Neil Gaiman suggests writing in the style of someone else. So I did. I found the exercise challenging and would willingly have skipped it. While I can recognise the voice of different authors, I have little experience of imitating them, at least not consciously.
I chose Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, picking a page at random (67). What makes this short passage so typical of her style? The touch is light but intimate. She reveals Liza’s thoughts and feelings for Annie by her acts, by her words. The title functions as a leitmotif, especially in this extract, stressing Liza’s continued preoccupation with Annie. Liza can’t concentrate. She can’t read. And when she tries to listen to music, her thoughts circle back to Annie. She tries to fill her time, knowing full well what she is doing is not necessary. The narrative centres on Liza, her acts, her feelings, her thoughts and very little attention is paid to her surroundings. The words chosen are simple enough. The sentences are often short but vary in rhythm. There’s gentle music to the words.
Maud dusted off her husband’s photo and replaced it on the mantelpiece. Reclined in her armchair, she closed her eyes and wished for sleep, but none came. Instead, memories of their times together drifted through her mind. Unable to silence her past, she flicked through TV channels but found nothing of interest. There never was. He’d always been the one for telly. Not her. She picked up the unfinished scarf from her knitting basket, its colours his favourites, and ran her fingers over the wool then laid it back in its place. Her eyes were too weary to knit. What had he said? “I’ll be with you always.” Maybe I should let you go, she thought not for the first time. She shook her head. I know what you said, she continued, but… She sighed, glancing at her husband watching her from the mantlepiece. Struggling to her feet, she crossed to the photo, lifted it to her lips and planted a kiss on the cold glass. She gritted her teeth. I should move on, she thought, but her hand trembled as she brushed the tears from her eyes. How can I possibly let you go?
It is interesting how, in writing this short piece, the story takes on its own life. Writing ‘you’ rather than ‘him’ in Maybe I should let you go... changes the rest of the narrative. She is addressing her dead husband as if he were present. It suggests the idea of him watching her through his photo. I wanted to end by saying, She lifted the photo to her lips and planted a kiss on his face. Goodbye, my love. Then turned the picture face down and left the room. The passage from Nancy Garden’s novel feeds on the unending yearning of one girl for the other, so I stuck to that lack of resolution.
Alan McCluskey describes himself as an inspirational writer. Rather than following a pre-determined plot, he is the very first reader, discovering the story as he writes. It is the acts of the characters, rather than the author’s intentions, that dictate the direction of the story. The doings of the characters inspire him and drive the story forward. At the same time, he explains that he needs to be reassured that what has been written so far offers a solid basis for what is yet to come. To achieve this, his chapters are increasingly short and he revises them as he goes along. As he puts it, “The trick of inspirational writing is to remain in constant contact with the story while staying confident that the story is convincing and worth telling.”
Undoubtedly the central theme in all Alan McCluskey’s novels is the empowerment of young people, girls in particular. Despite their difficulties, and often as a result of them, his characters go beyond what they thought was possible. That transcendence often takes the form of abilities that might be called magical. However, in his latest novels, Stories People Telland Local Voices, magic has become much less preponderant, leaving more room for such abilities as leadership, comprehending complex situations, expressing thoughts in writing, organising large-scale events, speaking in public or doing creative work. As the author puts it, “The challenge is to make such abilities as exciting for the reader as wielding magic.” This shift away from pure fantasy has gone hand in hand with anchoring large parts of the story in real-life, identifiable contexts rather than an imaginary world. The setting and the reader’s familiarity with it plays a greater role in the story.
Unlike those novels that are based on a unique theme, his work is characterised by the presence of a number of themes that intertwine. “I like to think my novels reflect something of the complexity of the real world,” he says. The fluidity of gender is an example of another theme that traverses his novels. In the Boy & Girlsaga, a young teen struggles with his desire to dress as a girl and in so doing seeks to come to terms with who he is and what he wants to be. The author does not shy away from challenging issues. In the Storyteller’s Quest books, one of the main characters, a young shaman, shapeshifts into a young girl. The ambiguity of his identity obliges him to explore life and sexuality from an unusual and sometimes disturbing perspective.
Beyond the identifiable themes in his writing, it is the story and the telling of stories that is paramount. In his first novels, storytelling vied with formal exploration but as time went by, his focus shifted more and more to telling the story. As part of that increased investment in the story, more attention was paid to the relationships between people as revealed by their words and acts. It was almost as if there was a shift from storytelling centred largely on action to stories in which the action is grounded in relationships.