Stories of people who live far from the spotlight

Illustration by Ben Jennings for George Monbiot's article in The Guardian.
Illustration by Ben Jennings for George Monbiot’s article in The Guardian.

In an insightful article by George Monbiot in The Guardian entitled, Our cult of personality is leaving real life in the shade, Monbiot points to the ‘spectacularisation’ of the news and the world. “This is a world of make-believe, in which we are induced to imagine we are participants rather than mere gawpers”, he says. He talks of all those that are not in the spotlight and the long shadow cast over key issues. He concludes, “The task of all journalists is to turn off the spotlight, roll up the blinds and see what’s lurking at the back of the room.” He urges us to pay attention to “(…) the story of people who live far from (…) the spotlight (..)”

Untold stories are a central theme of my latest novel, Local Voices, where Annie, the young heroine,  is championing a drive for people to speak out and tell their stories. One of her friends says, “By empowering people to tell their stories, you empower them to break out of their isolation and take a more active part in society.”

In a lull in the action, a group of young woman are discussing the message behind Local Voices. Annie gets to her feet as if she were about to make a speech and says. “We are more and more cut off from the community and the world we live in. That isolation can be traced to the loss of control over our lives, our work, our politics, our health, our education and more. We have chosen to hand over that control to others to free ourselves from the burdens it entails. But the resulting isolation and the feeling of not belonging, not to mention the impression of powerlessness, are at the heart of many problems we face today: exclusion, intolerance, disrespect, injustice, ill-health, depression, addiction, lawlessness and violence. We urgently need to reconnect to our local community. What better way than by giving voice to the stories of our community and the people in it, those stories that draw us closer together and improved mutual understanding and tolerance.”

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system

Growing in the cracks in the publishing system
Source: The Guardian. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian reports that French booksellers have called on the judges of literary prizes to ignore self-published books available only on Amazon. What sparked such a reaction? Marco Koskas’ Bande de Français is one of the contenders selected for this year’s Prix Renaudot. The Guardian article states that the book has been self-published using CreateSpace, a print-on-demand service which is a subsidiary of Amazon, ostensibly making it unavailable to bookshops. The booksellers campaign lays bare the cracks in the publishing system.

On the one hand, bookshop owners are angry because Marco Koskas’s book is available only on Amazon, although, as it is printed by Createspace, it could be made available to bookshops. When Payot in Geneva wanted to stock my novel, Boy and Girl, they had no problem ordering copies even though it was printed by CreateSpace. On the other hand, no editor wanted to take Kostas’s book, so self-publishing was the only avenue for the author. Note, he is no beginner. He’s already had a number of books published by the ‘traditional’ channels.

By petitioning to have this book removed from the long list for the Prix Renaudot, bookshop owners are saying that only those writers published via agents/editors should be considered for prizes because including self-published books would be tantamount to granting Amazon exclusive rights to the book (*). First of all, this is not necessarily true. Secondly, commercial models in other industries, like that of films, do have distribution players with a monopoly on some prize-winning films. Just think of Netflix.

What’s more, agents and mainstream publishers, as gatekeepers to ‘traditional’ publishing have a great deal of power already. For example, self-published or indie-published books are generally barred from getting reviews on most specialised websites because they have not been granted the approval of agents and established publishers.

That Kostas chose to use print-on-demand is not a ploy of Amazon. It is a dynamic of the publishing industry in which CreateSpace and Ingrams offer a viable alternative to traditional publishing at a time when that gateway to readers is getting ever narrower. If anything, bookshop owners should be looking to include the best independent books in their selections for customers. That would contribute to providing a rich diversity of books. In addition, it would fuel a demand for quality reviews that would encourage sites to review independent books.

On the other hand, that bookshops want to do battle with Amazon is understandable. Having an independent bookshop, not only as a place to find books but also to attend readings or to meet other readers, is a clear enrichment of a local community. But it’s an uphill battle. The plight of bookshops is also part of the shifting landscape of publishing. Those changes require a rethinking of the role of indie bookshops. One promising avenue might lie in reconsidering the place and role of the bookshops in the local community. How can they offer an enriching face-to-face experience that Internet-based services cannot rival with?

(*) As Matthew Wake, owner of Booksbooksbooks in Lausanne, points out, bookshop owners “… do not want to support Amazon because it poses an existential threat to their livelihood. ‘Amazon…wants to become the market itself by eliminating its competitors, organising unfair competition, avoiding tax and replacing publishers, distributors and bookshops in one fell swoop'” He goes on to say, “As far as I can see they are not questioning the worthiness of the book.” I agree. Unfortunately, the person who gets harmed is the author, who might merit that prize, not Amazon. I question the bookshops’ strategy, not their motives. It is not because a cause is ‘just’ that the methods employed are adequate or have the desired effect.

Article first published in a shortened form on the Geneva Writers Group Facebook page.

Shhhhh! Writing. Local voices.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book.

Shhhhh! Writing. New book. Follow-up to Stories People Tell. Annie promoting local voices. Seventy-five chapters so far. Eighty thousand words. Coming soon.

Writing local voices. Sneek peek!

A feral chant greeted Annie as she threaded between the barriers separating the platform from the concourse. A pack of guttural voices growled “Witch!” or was it “Bitch!” repeated over and over. Alarmed, she dropped Kevin’s hand and squeezed in front of her girlfriend, her eyes darting this way and that in search of trouble. The train had been packed and a throng of panicked commuters elbowed their way forward as if the station were on fire. Borne by the flow bursting from the gates, there was no turning back. If only her bodyguard, Xenia, had been there. 

Annie spotted a dense knot of women brandishing placards some yards away when something hard struck her in the face just below her eye. Smashing as it did, a viscous liquid trickled down her cheek, letting off a foul smell of rotten eggs. She sank to her knees, instinctively putting up her hands to protect her head. Kevin screamed and ducked, cowering behind her.

Sensing danger, the crowd stampeded, bowling over the two crouched figures and would have trampled them to death had not firm hands grasped the girls and heaved them to their feet. Xenia. Thank heavens. No one would dare jostle her. All the same, Annie couldn’t stop trembling as the woman summarily wiped the mess from her face before wrapping her in a strong embrace. Nearby, Kevin was blotted in the arms of Leonor, sobbing. “…like animals…” Annie heard her mutter. (…)

Writing a Sequel to Stories People Tell

Of course, I couldn’t resist. I began a sequel to Stories People Tell. It starts in Waterloo Station, in the press of commuters under this clock where an unpleasant surprise is awaiting Annie and her girlfriend Kevin.

Not all innocent causes are as well-intentioned as they might wish to appear. Under the banner of self-righteous indignation and professed sanctity, many a powerful woman has been branded and burnt as a witch…

See Shhhhh! Writing. Local Voices. for an extract

The art of letting a story write itself

The writing of a novel brings together a wealth of experience and know-how combined with an ability to surrender to a story and let it lead you.

I am very much an advocate of following the story when writing, rather than precluding its course by drawing up an outline before beginning. I generally start with a scene or a place or the action of a character without having much of an idea where the story will lead me. I discover what happens as the story unfolds almost as if I were the first reader. I can even get within walking distance of the final pages and still not know how it will end. 

I might do research or I might sketch out what I know of a character or a place when I can’t move forward without it, but not before I start. Stories People Tell was a striking example of this. I went to London after I’d finished the draft, to check I’d got it right. There’s a very good reason why I couldn’t have done otherwise. It was only as I reached the end of the manuscript that I realised the story had to be more solidly anchored in London. It was the first novel I had written that took place almost entirely in a real setting. 

A lot of writers describe how, from time to time, they get stuck in their novel and detail their strategies to surmount the obstacle. The unspoken fear may well be that the blockage will perdure and the story will get stranded and go unfinished. In such circumstances, persistence is often presented as a virtue, especially in the face of procrastination. But pushing forward may not be the best strategy. What if being stuck is the story’s way of telling the writer she’s going the wrong way? It just happened to me. I wanted my character to win a fight with a thug that had deliberately waylaid her. Her situation was pretty hopeless. Not only did she not have the build to triumph against such a hardened nut, but she was an ardent advocate of non-violence. Try as I would, I couldn’t write the scene. I kept searching for a clever slight-of-hand that would enable her to win, preferably without fighting. It was only when I resolved to let her lose that the blockage dissolved and I was able to finish the chapter. I’m not sure yet, but I suspect she had to fail for her story to move forward.

Having said that, letting a story develop is not without discipline. Experience shows that some things work, others don’t. This applies to word choice, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, the overarching narrative,… Just to give an example of one such ‘artful’ constraint – for which I am grateful to MJ Holmes – concerning what could be called ‘narrative distance’. The depth and breadth of a novel can be greatly enhanced by moving in and out from an intimate perspective to a much wider societal or historic anchoring of action. Now, this distance necessarily shrinks when the action heats up. You want the reader to be engrossed in what is happening, not distracted by background descriptions. So doing, you enhance the telling and the impact of the story, but do not constrain or dictate its direction.

In other words, a wealth of experience, know-how and knowledge conditions and enhances a story as it naturally grows and develops following the path it alone can dictate.

Beyond difference, a fiery oneness

What essential commonness, uniting one to all, lies beyond the differences that distinguish each from all others? 

When you see an apple, the speckled colours around its stalk and the hint of a bruise on one side distinguish it from all other apples. Yet you know it belongs to a category of objects all English-speaking people would recognise as an ‘apple’.

When you look at other people you also see, first and foremost, what sets them apart, what makes them different, the marks of singularity, of individuality, of separateness. A fading tattoo on the woman’s right shoulder that changes form as she swings her arm. The musical lilt of boy’s voice that stumbles and cracks as puberty takes its toll and the blush of embarrassment that colours his cheeks at intimacy revealed. The stubble bristling around a birthmark on the side of a man’s face that he nervously tries to conceal by constantly rubbing his chin. A tiny rent in a girl’s tights just below her left knee, that bobs in and out of view behind her hemline as she skips along the path. Each person a different being.

These individuals are identified by a name, but that name is not the person. It is both a restrictive and restricting label and a convenient receptacle in which we stock all our impressions, our knowledge and our preconceived impressions of that person. A composite picture that can be slow to adapt. Then come all those adjectives that categorise. Male, female, tall, fat, skinny, gay, effeminate, hairy, butch, sexy, black, white, brown, green, lecherous, strange, shy, angry, disgusting,… And combinations of these.

These colourful descriptions coalesce into larger categories that are often linked to whether we value or like or distrust or fear or detest the person in question. Love, trust, community but also racism, sexism and homophobia, amongst others, lie down that road.

But I suspect, and here lies the driving question behind this article, that beyond the multitude of differences that separate us, there is an underlying presence that unites each and every one of us. In other words, we are both separate and one at the same time. Distinct and indivisible.

I have tried, but so far failed, to look beyond the differences that spring to mind at the sight of a person and perceive the commonness that unites that person to every other, including me. Not some banal categorisation like ‘human being’. Rather, a splendid fiery essence that burns in each one of us.

Coming out of the publisher’s closet

Promoting Boy & Girl

I wrote a book called Boy & Girl in which Peter discovers that dressing like a girl is not at all akin to being in a girl’s head. Writing the novel was a real joy. Publishing it was tedious, but not so difficult. However, promoting it was much more of a headache. Till now…

As with all my published books, it is Secret Paths that publishes Boy & Girl, using Createspace to provide on-demand print copies through Amazon, in bookstores as well as from Secret Paths website for those living in Switzerland. Ebook format is provided by Smashwords, Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore.

So what about promotion? Secret Paths has a rich collection of websites covering both my books, but also my short stories, my artwork, book reviews and political and social commentary. There’s also a Secret Paths Facebook page along with accounts on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Despite this web ‘presence’, promoting an English novel when based in Switzerland, with a very tight budget, seems an impossible task. A common reaction here is, When will you translate it into French. Groan.  Yet I am convinced there is a considerable audience for the book. People who have read it are full of praise. One person writes, This book is brilliant. I’ll be thinking about these characters and this plot for a long, long time. Another writes This book was a wonderful read. (…) I read it as a parent of a child who is considered “different” and found it great for many reasons… So how can I reach my audience?

It’s still early days, and time might prove me overenthusiastic, but I may have found a possible solution. Facebook ads. Now I know Facebook is getting a lot of heat at the moment both for the algorithms that drive it and how the data collected and the algorithms used have and can be abused. There is clearly an urgent need to address those issues and the future evolution of the platform. See Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk. However, concentrating solely on negative aspects fails to see the advantages the platform offers. 

When trying to reach multiple communities concerned with issues raised by Peter’s story, having a Facebook page is not enough, even if you have a relatively wide circle of acquaintances. Using Facebook ads for my books connects me to those people worldwide in one convenient place. Without it, I would have no feasible way of reaching them. It does so in a way that draws the attention of people potentially interested in my book but leaves them free to move on, should they wish, or buy it and discover the story.

Men writers in women’s shoes

Men writers in women's shoes

In response to the claims of a man on Twitter, a number of women insist male authors can’t create authentic female characters. But is their generalisation right?

Their point of view was echoed in a Huffington Post article quoting a series of Twitter posts in which women authors describe themselves as they imagined a male author would. Here’s an example.

I had big honking teeters, just enormous bosoms, and I thought about them constantly as I walked down the street, using my legs (thick, with big shapely calves), but never not thinking about my enormo honkers,
Talia Lavin on Twitter

For the most part, the examples given appear exaggerated, employing caricature in a desire to drive home a point and get a laugh. So saying doesn’t contradict the fact that a lot of men sadly fit the bill with their limited and limiting depiction of women. Perhaps it is the implicit generalisation that includes all men which needs to be challenged.

That said, the underlying statement that many male authors can’t write from a female perspective had me doubting. I hurried to check my own books and how I wrote from a female point of view. Here’s an example of a seventeen-year-old character in my latest novel, Stories People Tell, describing herself shortly after escaping from a well-known politician who tried to force her to kiss him.

Standing in her bra, pants and socks, she stared at herself in the tiny mirror inside her wardrobe. What could any man see in her? She was neither tall nor short. Ayana, her best friend, told her she was model-size which was probably Ayana’s way of saying she was too skinny and looked odd. She was a late developer she told herself. Her breasts were barely formed and her hips had not filled out like all the other girls in her class. Ayana, in comparison, with her unblemished chocolate-brown skin, her deep brown eyes and her long pitch-black hair, was all curves and didn’t hesitate to flout it,…
Annie looking at herself in the mirror in her bedroom in Stories People Tell.

I had an opportunity to explore the challenge of a man speaking ‘as’ a woman when writing my novel Boy & Girl. In it, a boy, who enjoys dressing in secret as a girl, is startled to find himself in the mind of girl (in another world). He is aware of her thoughts and feelings but has no control over her body. Below is his description of how he experiences her body as she runs through exercises in preparation for combat training.

Her body felt different from his in many ways. He hadn’t noticed before. There was an unfamiliar tension between her feet that were firmly planted on the ground as if they were about to grow roots and the crown of her head that pushed upwards trying to reach the ceiling. When she moved her hips, tracing circular patterns in the air, he felt a freedom of movement that he had never known himself. It filled him with joy, her joy, no doubt, but his too. There were also her breasts, bared now, that had her balancing differently as she stretched up on tiptoes. Even her shoulders moved in ways he had never experienced as she raised her arms sideways and turned her palms upwards…
Peter in Kaitlin’s mind in Boy & Girl

The underlying premise in the criticism levelled at male authors by these women is that men can’t think and feel themselves into the body and mind of a woman. Such a claim is troubling for someone who spends much of his time as an author seeking to do just that. It is as if inherent maleness would irremediably taint the thoughts of any man who attempted to imagine how a woman feels and thinks. And that the male mind is itself tainted by a caricatural vision of women. Such a charge ignores genuine empathy and careful observation, insisting that the very nature of being male overrides any such sensitivity, stamping a sexist male mark on everything. Although many men deserve to be taxed for their stereotyped visions of women, these criticisms, in their generalisation, smack of a similar sexist vision, but of men.

That this ‘fun’ exercise was not quite so innocent is laid bare if you consider the thoughts and feelings of those who were born in a male body but who feel themselves part – if not wholly – female. Of course, for reasons of their own, some men play out a caricature of women in their behaviour and their attire. That is their choice, but it is not the case of most gender fluid people. Are they to be deemed incapable of feeling like a woman and describing those feelings?

My thanks to Joy Manne for pointing to the article on Facebook.

Stories people don’t tell

Who is going to speak the names and tell the poignant tales of those that don’t get told? We are! When fiction and reality reach out and link hands.

Naomi Wadler, 11, Virginia, March for Our Lives, Washington

I am here today to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news.
Naomi Walder, 11, a speech during the March for our Lives.

As an author of stories depicting the awakening and empowerment of young people, it is an immense pleasure to see fiction written over a year ago and today’s reality reach out to each other across time and link hands.

To the seventeen minutes walkout of students across the US to mark the deaths of seventeen students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Naomi and her friend Carter led their elementary school classmates in an additional minute to remember Courtlin Arrington, an African-American girl who died in a school shooting in Alabama. By her act, by her determination, she drew attention to those victims not in the forefront of media coverage. All the speakers at the March for Our Lives in Washington were both victims of gun violence but also chose to be the voice for other victims.

Annie, the main character in Stories People Tell, is driven by a similar motivation to Naomi Walder to name and give voice to those who are not normally heard. In a world where, to quote Annie, “there is a raging battle with each side drumming up the hardest hitting story at the expense of those caught nearby”, the strongest story wins out. But not every group of people make it into the spotlight and even those who are singled out for coverage are often little more than a pretext.

Emma Gonzales, at the March for Our Lives, Washington

Propelled to the forefront of media attention, rather like the astounding Emma Gonzales, Annie becomes a figurehead for a movement. And like Emma, her judgement, her audacity and her courage earn her recognition as the leader she has become.

Unlike a journalist, Annie does not go in search of untold stories. Rather, they come in search of her just as unbidden violence sought out Emma and her fellow students. In Annie’s quest to end violence against girls and women and the adventures that befall her she meets those whom main-stream media have passed over. She listens to those people and, with the help of her friends,  coaxes them to tell their story to the camera.

The Internet is Annie’s main avenue when it comes to making these neglected voices heard. There is also a certain press. Something like The Guardian or DemocracyNow! for the young people of Parkland. These media recognise the promise of the young people and actively support their cause as a positive force for democracy. Annie has struck up a solid friendship with some of the staff and the editor at one of the rare national papers, The Daily, to cover such questions.

Fenchaw, the editor of The Daily in Annie’s story, says “I like the idea of short eyewitness reports. At a time when truth is being challenged, the use of multiple perspectives from people who were at the scene gives solidity to the acts portrayed and enriches the narration without being difficult to read.

To return to the reality a moment, the fact that Emma and her fellow Florida students were in the classroom when the shooter opened fire, who lost dear friends to that violence, makes their story so compelling. It is also their determination and their ability to articulate a coherent vision of the future that gives their stories the hope we yearn for. As Annie says, disagreeing with advice given by an adult about the telling of stories, “Sure, there were necessarily upsets and things didn’t always go as planned, but what readers really wanted was a story that made sense of the world around them and gave hope.”

When Annie’s friend Riya in Stories People Tell suggests setting up a dedicated website to publish these short eyewitness reports, Annie refuses. “I don’t want to be cornered into making more. They are good because the moment was right and people had something to say. But if we feel obliged to continue, we might lose that spontaneity and urgency.” Annie is no doubt right. Herein lies the difficulty of Emma, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and all the others in their nationwide movement as they move forward. How do you pursue the impetus without getting trapped by the routine of ineffective ways and means that adults use?

Stories People Tell
Order it. Read it. Talk about it.

Musical awakenings

Got woken at six by the incessant round of a snow plough. There was me imagining the workers of the municipality were doing needless overtime to annoy us, till I pulled aside the curtains and looked out… I suppose I should be thankful. I managed to finish another chapter of my book People of the Forest. Now back to sleep and the sound of quiet snoring against the backdrop of snow falling…

You wish! It’s the anniversary of the Neuchatel revolution, March 1st. So we are treated to a brass band celebrating the occasion. Exceptionally, due to the snow, the musicians were bussed in this time.

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