Where am I?

The literal answer is that I'm in Dorset, in southwest England. Normally we live in London, but many of the things that make it special - variety, diversity, theatre, restaurants, crowds, culture - we have not been able to enjoy this past year. And with lockdowns and high Covid numbers in cities, we've found it easier and safer to live the rural life, where social distance is the norm and we are surrounded by beauty.

But you are likely a reader and what you want to know is: where am I in the new novel? This morning I am outside of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a jewel of a church in Venice. It is foggy and my heroine Orsola is discussing men with Klara, a character who is suddenly becoming more important. It is the 18th century, time of Casanova and Grand Tours and Carnival and a certain loucheness. Venice has gone from being the centre of European trade to a party town.

I'm a little over halfway through the novel, and that is always a dangerous time, as you will know from reading plenty of them. Often novels sag 2/3 of the way through. The place and the characters and the situation are all set up, and the ending is clear, but there's time to kill before we can get there. Sometimes writers add new characters or twists or subplots. Sometimes the story just...plods along. I am trying not to let that happen, but push my heroine Orsola into situations that deepen her character and our understanding of her, without it being unnecessary filler. Hard. Next time you read a novel, keep an eye out and see what the writer does at this crucial point.

So, here I am, literally writing in Dorset. Cat and tea optional. Happy summer!

TC writing Plush

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My writing has come along slowly this past year, for obvious reasons. A few authors have written whole books during the pandemic. Most of us, however, have been plodding along, going through the motions while we await resolution/normality/the new normal.

I’ve written 1/3 of a novel about Venetian glass, and recently decided to reread what I’d written so far. This is always painful, because a first draft is so rough. What I read felt dull, amateurish, unsophisticated. Yes, after 10 books I still feel these things!

Then I turned to the question every writer knows must be answered: Who should be telling this story, how, and where do you, Tracy, stand in relation? In other words: first person or third person? Am I telling the story through the eyes and mind of my main character Orsola, or am I standing back and looking over her shoulder – or over the shoulders of several characters? And how far back am I standing?

First and third person narratives both have advantages and disadvantages. With first person you get a clear and immediate sense of a character through their thoughts and voice; you get to know them from the inside out. The language is simpler – more prosaic and less poetic, since people tend not to think in poetic terms. Two of my most popular books – Girl with a Pearl Earring and Remarkable Creatures – have been told in first person.

On the other hand, you’re also limited by your character’s point of view. You never get to pull the camera back and provide a wider, more complicated perspective. And being inside the same head for the whole book can be wearying.

With third person, you’ve got the characters, you’ve got the narrator, and you’ve got yourself the writer. What is the distance between these 3 elements? Is the narrator omniscient – knowing everything that’s going on – or limited, sticking very closely to looking over a character’s shoulder? Is the narrator looking over multiple shoulders and if so, how to make that transition from one shoulder to another? And where is the writer? Am I, Tracy, the same as the narrator or have I taken a step back? Does the narrator know as much as me?

Writing third person is all about managing the space between these things – and usually doing so without the reader noticing. It’s damned hard. I’ve always sensed that third person was a much more complicated tool, and thought that when I was finally able to use it successfully, I would at last take my place at the grown-up writers’ table. I think I controlled it reasonably well with A Single Thread; maybe that is my first properly grown-up book. But what I've written of this new novel is in third person, and it has not worked.

Recently I read two masterful novels told in first person: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue, and Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I recommend both, though I think both slightly fumble their endings. (OMG Endings! Hardest thing to get right. But that’s for another post.) They use first person in different ways: with the Donoghue I felt immersed in the character, pulling with her; with Ishiguro I was constantly standing back and going, ‘Wait, what?’ (The narrator is a robot, so that’s not surprising, and it’s definitely deliberate, and it works.)

It made me wonder if I was telling my Venetian glass story in the wrong way. So I did an experiment: I took 25 pages and rewrote them in first person. This was far more complicated than simply changing ‘Orsola’ to ‘I’, ‘her’ to ‘me’. It was about looking at each scene through different eyes. What Orsola sees and how she comments on it is different from what the narrator and I see and say.

Within 5 pages, I felt light, happier, more playful. I started looking at Venice, at glass, at life through Orsola’s eyes, and the whole thing became something I wanted to write. I am back in the saddle. Maybe I have been kicked back to the kids’ table of first person, but there is still a feast to be had here.

I had been waiting a few days into 2021 to post here, thinking there was plenty of time to wish people a better year. Then on January 4th, with Covid numbers skyrocketing in the UK and in many other countries, a new national lockdown was announced for England. Two days later the Capitol in Washington DC was stormed by Trump supporters, with five dead and democracy badly scarred. It is now hard for me to wish people a happy new year when it has started so badly.

At times in 2020 I questioned why I write historical novels when what is happening now seems so much more important. But I hold on to what a reader remarked when he wrote to me about the enjoyment he gets from my books. Kevin K. said, “Knowing that what exists today is an accumulation of what has preceded brings about a better appreciation of life as I am living through it.” Exactly, Kevin. Knowing about the past opens our eyes to patterns that both repeat and transform in the present.

We have had terrible leaders before and we have gotten past them. We have had pandemics before and survived them. I’ve been researching the various plagues that swept through Venice over the centuries, weaving one of the pandemics into the novel I’m writing, and was surprised to see that many of the responses we’ve had – quarantines, self-isolation, track and trace, special hospitals – were exactly what Venetians were doing 500+ years ago. What they didn’t have was a true understanding of how the virus spread, nor the possibility of a vaccine. And yet the city survived and recovered. We will too – from plagues and civil unrest and everything else this year throws at us.

I tend to think of my life being woven into a giant tapestry that extends backwards through my ancestors and forwards into the future. I am merely one small part – a single thread, if you like. That perspective makes me feel more hopeful about the future – about 2021 and beyond – because the tapestry has existed for so long. And so I hope we approach this year with our eyes open to the broader picture we are all a part of. Because in it we can see the way forward. 

Candle flames contain millions of tiny diamonds

 

I am writing this on the Tuesday after Labor Day, which was when I used to go back to school as a kid in Washington DC. The night before, I would lay out my clothes for that first day back. Often there was something new - a dress, a top, some shoes. I often had new stationery too - notebooks, pencils, a ruler, maybe a new pencil case or backpack. Even as an adult I have had that back-to-school feeling in early September, of fresh starts, new clothes, a blank notebook ready to be filled.

2020 is different. The usual milestones of a year and of a life - birthday parties, weddings, vacations, graduations - have been swept away, and I feel a little discombobulated. However, the other day in London I saw kids emerging from schools at the end of my street, laughing and larking about in their uniforms, clearly delighted to be back with each other and with some kind of structure in their lives, and I took heart. I have let myself slide a little bit over the summer, but now is the time to crack open that fresh notebook and start writing again. And so I begin...

I finish by sharing something that my Italian publishers Neri Pozza brought out a couple of days ago. Girl with a Pearl Earring came out in Italy 20 years ago, and to celebrate 20 years of us working together, Neri Pozza repackaged my backlist with gorgeous new jackets, and made this video. It's not how I would ever have pictured my books being publicized, but I love it. Enjoy, and Happy September.

 

 

I have made a career out of looking back. As an historical novelist, my relationship to the past is that of a forager, searching through the foliage for the hidden nut, the unpicked berry, the mushroom that has sprung up. I take that nut or berry or mushroom and make it into a story that gives us a way to relate to the past.

Normally I take the long view, visiting a period far enough back that it has context: we know what came before and after, and how important (or not) that place and time and person and event were.  For instance, my recent novel A Single Thread is set in the early 1930s, when the characters don’t yet know that a second war is on the way. Readers and I know, though, and that knowledge profoundly affects how we think of the story and the characters.

Now, though, we are all consciously living through a major historical event whose social, political and economic fallout is likely to be felt for a long time. But we have no perspective yet: no idea what comes after, or how we might view the coronavirus pandemic in a year, ten years, 100 years.

As a writer, I could just ignore the crisis and stick to the distant past. I am currently working on a novel about Venetian glass beads, set on the glassmaking island of Murano and spanning the 15th to the 21st centuries. Is that any longer what people will want to read, though? As a reader, I am struggling to stick with any novel right now. Historical novels make me feel like I’m looking through a telescope, while contemporary books seem irrelevant. Both are locked in their own worlds and trivial concerns, and can’t possibly touch our unique set of circumstances. While the coronavirus is drastically reshaping our lives, writing about 1490 Murano feels out of step. Instead I keep thinking about the contemporary section of my novel. How are the Muranese doing now? How would my characters cope with this lockdown? Is it crass to use the situation, or impossible not to? How can anyone write now without Covid-19 becoming a part of the world being created on the page?

On the other hand, if I do write about it, will it date? Are things changing too fast to maintain the longer view a novel requires? My feelings about what is happening now change from day to day; what I write on Friday feels banal on Monday, because I’ve already moved on. How can I possibly get a handle on history when it is so slippery right now?

And should I even keep writing? Maybe I should just set down my pen. Many of us are humbled by the “essential workers” list, and look at delivery men and corner shop clerks with new respect. They are our immediate lifelines to the outside world; not novelists, at least not at the moment.

Nonetheless, I write, if only as self-help. I may not be able to control the virus, but at least I can control my response to it. With my novel I’ve abandoned the 15th century, skipped hundreds of unwritten pages ahead, and begun working on the contemporary section, with my heroine responding to the pandemic at the same time as we are. For now I am treating the present as if it’s the past, putting a frame around it to bring order to the chaos. None of this may stick. In a year or two, once we have a bit of perspective, this part of the book may be inappropriate or naïve or irritating. I may bin it. That’s ok. There’s something powerful and cathartic about kicking Covid-19 into the past tense, turning now into then.