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BOOK LOVE: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Set some time in the future, the main character, Offred, has been designated a Handmaid, and her function is to endure mating rituals in order to bear a child for the couple she belongs too.  The Gilead society is cruel and swift to exact punishment on those who disobey its rules. But Offred remembers a life before this, where she had a husband and daughter. Unable to forget the freedom she has known, she makes dangerous choices, and is slowly drawn towards disaster.

This book is right at the top of my all-time favourites, and just writing about it makes me want to go and find it again. I haven’t read it for years, but I can still hear those names called out in the darkness at the end of the first chapter, the brave reassertion of identity under a monstrously repressive regime. Atwood’s writing is mesmerising, and the dystopian world that she has built, where women have no rights and have become classified according to their purpose in relation to men, is both terrifying and heartbreaking. I could contemplate many of the sentences in this book for hours. I was so disappointed when I saw the film – but I think it’s just because there’s no way to translate Atwood’s writing, you need to read this story in its purest form.

 

 

 

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The big picture – and what’s next

I’m still pinching myself that now I have two books out in the big book-buying world. Friends keep asking me how it feels, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve really taken it in. What with the busy promotional blitz and caring for a toddler, I’m usually doing something work or child-related from the moment I get up until I go to bed, and when my head hits the pillow it’s lights out pretty quickly! But the publication of Beneath the Shadows marks the end of my first two-book deal in Australia, and already I am thinking about what I want to do next. I have two firm ideas that seem to be developing in tandem in my head, and I’m really excited about both of them. I don’t like sharing much of my writing until I’m finished – I’m a bit secretive like that – but my overall plan is that the first will be a complicated love story set around a passion for the sea, and the second is a family mystery with photography as an underpinning theme.  

It is both daunting and exciting to be very close to moving on from projects that have consumed the last few years of my life. I can’t wait to write something new, but thinking about what I hope to achieve next has led me to some reflection on what my overall goals are in my writing. Many aspects of my writing lend themselves to lots of other books too – most of us are touching on universal themes of love, friendship, journeys, psychology, freedom, fears and longing in one form or another. But I’m very interested in examining the psychology of traumatic events, and the different ways people try to cope with what fate deals them. I want readers to grow attached to my characters – not necessarily agree with them, but certainly relate to them, and recognise aspects of them in themselves or others.

I love to tell stories through the medium of suspense, with compelling chapters and twists and turns, because it’s what I want to read –there’s nothing better than a story that grips you. All that drama! The biggest compliment you can give me is saying you couldn’t put my books down – I want to grab my readers, pull them into the world I’m creating and completely absorb them until we’re finished. I hope I’ve achieved that in my first two books, but there is still plenty more to come.

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There’s nothing wrong with being popular!

I was very excited this morning to read Jessica Rudd’s blog on Mama Mia, speaking out in defence of chick lit and commercial fiction. Go Jessica! While my books don’t fall easily into the chick lit category (they are a bit too dark, although they usually have at least one female chick-lit-style character doing her utmost to lighten things up) they are certainly commercial. And I’m very proud of that. I want everyone, and I mean everyone, to read them!

The joy of reading is that it’s such a personal experience. We form relationships with the characters we read about, and we have our own reactions to the journeys they are on, which are interlinked to our own feelings and experiences. Stories are places of freedom, of escape, and of personal interpretation, so it’s a sad state of affairs when any kind of snobbery begins to try to dictate our reading passions. Besides, sweeping whole genres into generalised definitions is plain daft. I’ve read some brilliant chick-lit that has had me crying with laughter – Watermelon by Marian Keyes springs to mind. I’ve also read plenty of books in the same genre that I thought were a load of old rubbish (and will therefore remain nameless!). It’s the same with ‘lit fic’ – I’ve waded my way through a few prize-winning, critically acclaimed doorstoppers wondering why I felt compelled to waste my time; and yet other books have had me in awe – Swimmer by Bill Broady, and Beloved by Toni Morrison are two of my all-time favourites. But I should add that I did my dissertation on Beloved. It was by studying it that I got such a lot out of it. In fact, I think I gave all my friends copies of Beloved for Christmas that year, and, in hindsight, since most weren’t doing English degrees they would probably rather have had the latest Bridget Jones.

Wouldn’t it be great if all types of writing could simply co-exist and try not to squabble? But it’s unlikely, isn’t it. Life just isn’t like that, at least not yet. In the meantime, I have made a conscious choice to try to write the kind of books I love to read. And there is nothing I enjoy quite as much as a spine-tingling mystery with characters you can’t stop thinking about. If that makes my stories your guilty pleasure, then so be it. I promise you’ll get your money’s worth!