From today, the book is serialised on Radio 4's Book At
Bedtime.The Still Point
is a compelling story of, and poetic meditation on, an ill-fated Arctic
expedition, and the hidden cracks in relationships and family myth that
lurk just beneath the surface.
Here, Amy talks about her fascination with the Arctic -
"I seem to incline to wilderness" - not minding about messy first drafts and
the importance of reading at breakfast...
PJ: The details of Edward's Arctic expedition are so vividly
imagined - the goggles, the anorak, the diary entries, food rations, bears,
sleeping conditions etc - did you have access to a collection of objects or
records of such an expedition?
AS: No, but I spent many hours reading and researching
historical accounts and contemporary texts, as well as collecting images of the
Arctic. The first book I read was Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, which fed into
my fascination with the region and my first imaginings of the ice and the light
as they change through the seasons. Several incidents in the novel are modified
versions of real events lifted from various turn-of-the-century accounts - I
restricted my historical reading to that period for the most part, for the sake
of accuracy and also to get a sense of the tone for Edward's diary. Nansen's
Farthest North, which is cited as an immediate influence on Edward's journey -
he sets out to emulate and better Nansen using the same techniques - was
essential reading, both for borrowed detail and for his style, wistful and
ambitious by turns.
PJ: The Arctic sections are powerful; this feels like
'necessary writing' - what is your relationship to such a landscape?
AS: I regret to
say that I have never been there. I am interested in imagined spaces, in mental
landscapes. I was drawn to the region, initially, as a space which resists
mapping - which shifts and deceives - and the idea of two different responses
to that, embodied in the dreams of a couple - a feeling of liberation and awe
opposed to frustration and fear. So Simon and Julia's characters, from very
early on, were conditioned by those fundamental, opposing frames of mind.
The only comparable
experience I have to draw on is of being in the Alps - a very different
landscape, of course, but it certainly helped to have a sense of how snow
behaves, how light behaves when reflected by snow and ice.
PJ: Your omniscient
narrator is necessary in order to hold in view and move between past and
present. How did you settle on that voice?
AS: That voice emerged from a short piece
of writing, an experiment with the notion of the omniscient narrator, in which
the reader was invited to observe a couple sleeping, at close range. It was
when I worked out that the couple in that story were the same as the couple I
had been thinking about in relation to the Arctic material that things began to
click into place - much of that experimental piece went into the first chapter,
including the opening line. As the story developed, the narrator became, as you
say, an essential element, allowing me to move between time periods, between
perspectives, and also through the empty house; but it was really an
instinctive impulse in the first instance. The voice enabled the story, rather
than it being a process of working backwards from the material to find a way to
PJ: Did you ever consider making the narrator a minor
character or one of the main characters retrospectively telling the story?
the workshop [the MA at Goldsmiths] people asked if it might be Edward's ghost.
I did hear it as a male voice. It's quite domineering and intrusive at the
start but once that's established it phases out and, at times, overlaps with Julia
imagining Edward's story. Also, given the historical element of the novel, it
made sense to draw on the 19th Century tradition of addressing the reader.
Towards the end there are things that the voice doesn't know, the voice admits
that there are things that are unknowable. One of the first thoughts when
writing the book was the idea of how we know each other, the extent to which
its possible to know each other; and the way we tell stories about ourselves
and each other. I wanted to find a way to tell the story that addressed
PJ: You finished the MA in 2008 - was the novel finished at the end of the course?
AS: I started the novel at the beginning of the course, and it was substantially
finished by the end. It takes me a while to get around to writing, but once I
do, I write quite quickly; I think I do a lot of the composing in my head. Once
I'd worked out two key elements - the circadian structure in the present day on
one hand, and Edward and Emily's story, on the other - the details of the plot
came easily for the most part. So by the end of the course, all the notes were
more or less there, but not necessarily in the right order. The hard part was
the structure, and that was what I worked on with my agent and editor for
almost another year after the course ended - it took several edits to get it
right, to ensure that the balance between past and present was working, and the
shifts between them. It was difficult at first to tear the whole thing apart -
it was initially in three big sections, and has been cut up and reshuffled into
six. But every time I took the plunge and made a massive structural change, I
had a feeling of drawing nearer to a pre-existing shape, a rightness that I was
trying to discover rather than create. It can never be perfect and perhaps
there are other ways I might have done it, but I'm more or less happy with
where everything is, now.
PJ: How did it feel to finally realise the project?
AS: I don't
remember having a moment when I thought 'it's finished!' I had the last
paragraph written quite early on, and when I got to the point of pasting it in,
I knew there was so much still to be done on the book that it didn't feel
complete. And then it went through so many rounds of editing and proofing that
when I came to the last check on the page proofs, it felt quite detached from
me. Having said that, I saw an advance copy for the first time this morning,
and am still having trouble believing that it exists at all and isn't just an
unusually substantial hallucination. It has a map. I'm very pleased with the
map. And the design is absolutely beautiful. Portobello have been fantastic
throughout the process and I'm delighted with how it's turned out.
PJ: Given your academic studies [MPhil, Modernism, Exeter
College, Oxford], obviously key Modernist writers - Joyce, Woolf, Nabakov - are
your 'mentors'. How did you make the shift from critical, academic writing to
such a fully imagined piece of fiction that is so strikingly your own?
AS: I have
never found reading other writers while I am in the process of writing to be an
impediment - quite the opposite; I find it invigorating to return to texts that
I love. I went back to T.S. Eliot again and again while I was writing, I wanted
to work in references in an organic, instinctive way. In some ways my academic
training is helpful; I turned to that way of thinking as I read over what I'd
written, to clarify broad thematic concerns and realise implicit connections
that are not overtly stated (the role of women in the book, and the importance
of surrogate feminine relationships, for example). But I also have to put this
analytical part of my brain to sleep while in the process of composition. When
the book is a finished thing, it goes out into the world to be subject to a
hundred different critical and ideological interpretations. If I attempt to
anticipate and answer every one of those interpretations while I'm writing, to
approach my own work from an academic perspective before it's finished, I'll
drive myself mad.
PJ: So, for you, reading is an organic part of the writing
process? Can you say a bit more?
AS: I'll sit over breakfast and read for half an
hour, an hour, before writing. If I didn't read I'd be alone with what I'm
trying to make and I'd lose sight of what the point of that is.Largely it's a style thing, partly
reminding myself why I want to write in the first place. I go back to key
passages I've read hundred of times, to remind myself what writing can
do.Also, reading on a daily basis
everything feeds in, regardless of whether its directly relevant. It's
interesting how those random choices affect what you are working on.
PJ: Life after
MA - the framework has gone - what new framework have you constructed for your
AS: I am still in contact with my fellow students from the MA; we meet
monthly to exchange and discuss work. This for me is one of the most invaluable
things to have come out of the course. Aside from that, I fear I haven't yet
found a new, entirely successful framework. Completing The Still Point imposed
one - there were deadlines, and specific tasks to be achieved. Now I'm trying
to start something new, and to find that rhythm again, the discipline and
courage to create from scratch, which is so different from the last editing
stages where you're honing what's already there. I have always kept a journal,
where I think through what it is I'm trying to achieve, and that is useful. I
still use the techniques I learned in your seminars; working in short bursts,
creating exploratory fragments which I may or may not use, and remembering not
to not beat myself up if I don't get it right first time.
PJ: Has getting published changed the way you see yourself as
AS: Absolutely. Perhaps it shouldn't, but I'm an insecure
soul and I need validation. I'm also quite career-minded, so when I gave up
having a full-time job a few years ago to focus on writing, it was a scary
decision for me that I can now feel is justified. But I'm also now feeling the
pressure to write another one.
PJ: What surprised/delighted/shocked you about the
process of getting published and getting the book to readers?
AS: I worked in
publishing so the process of actually making a book was quite familiar to me in
some ways. My first meeting at Portobello was a rather overwhelming experience
- before going in, I think I had sort of been expecting to have to convince
them of my worth, so I was somewhat taken aback by their enthusiasm, and by
suddenly being the centre of attention.
The idea of strangers reading my work terrifies me. The
idea of my family and friends reading my work terrifies me. The idea of critics
reading my work terrifies me. I am considering becoming a hermit.
PJ: Are you still working in publishing? How does the day job
fit in with the writing?
AS: No. When I worked in publishing it was a small company so
I had a hand in everything from commissioning and devising new book projects,
sub and copy-editing, proofreading, working with designers, picture research,
occasionally contributing bits of text where needed... I learned a lot about
how a book is made, but it was hard work. There was no way I could do a job
like that and have space left in my head to create something of my own.Since then I've worked in various
part-time temp jobs, mainly doing general administrative stuff, and mainly in
the third sector. It keeps me in pocket, means I don't spend all my time alone
with myself, and it's something I can leave behind at the end of the day. I
also started teaching Creative Writing this year with the Open University,
which I'm finding really useful as a way of staying engaged with the processes
and techniques of writing; and it's hard to go on at your students about
discipline if you don't have any yourself, so it keeps me working. I'm hoping
eventually to move into more teaching and leave the temping behind.
PJ: Can you
tell us a bit about the new book you are working on? Does it have a title yet?
AS: No title - I didn't have one for The Still Point until very late, when it
suddenly seemed blindingly obvious that that was what it should be. So I'm not
too worried about that. It's very early days, but I think it will be very
different - which is making me a little nervous. It's first person, there's no
historical element, it's a much narrower focus. And it's set in Orkney - I have
a grant from the Arts Council to go up there for a research trip. I seem to
incline to wilderness.
PJ: What are
you reading at the moment?
AS: I'm reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
which was a Christmas gift - I don't know her other work at all. It's wonderful
- a memoir of sorts, drawing on her observations of the natural world and her
reading and all sorts of apocrypha and philosophy. Her descriptions are
beautiful, accurate, startling - she describes a gibbous moon as being 'softly
frayed, like the heel of a sock.' I love that.
PJ: What advice would you give to
someone just embarking on a first novel?
AS: I'm not sure I'm qualified to be
dispensing advice, but I suppose I would just say, you will get bored and
frustrated and you will have stodgy patches and days of self-doubt and despair,
but remember what it's like when you find just the word you wanted, when you
write a line that sings, and keep going - and remember it's easier to work with
something than with nothing.
Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Poetry Live are to present 20
leading poets at Westminster Central Hall on Saturday January 30th 2010 at
2.30pm in a fundraising event for the people of Haiti.
Poets include Carol Ann Duffy, Roger McGough, Andrew
Motion, John Agard, Dannie Abse, Brian Patten, Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker,
Grace Nichols, Elaine Feinstein, Daljit Nagra, Ian Duhig, Lachlan Mackinnon,
Owen Sheers, Glyn Maxwell, Jo Shapcott,Robin Robertson, Colette Bryce, Maura
Dooley and Robert Minhinnick, along with the musicians John Sampson and Andy
Short story writer, Tania Hershman, has done an amazing review of all the mags in UK and Ireland that accept stories. Poets might also want to check this out. She's generously posted her findings here. Thanks, Tania.
Clearly I've a long way to go before becoming a reliable
predictor of prize-winners; better to listen to what the Chair of the judges,
Simon Armitage, had to say at last night's ceremony.
In the grand courtyard at
The Wallace Collection, after an hour of drinks and canapés and speeches,
Armitage finally took the stand to announce the winner. He said he was proud of
"the inclusive and plural" nature of this year's shortlist [several
small presses; strong, but not mainstream, poets - no Motion, no Paterson].
"It has been a rare privilege to read and re-read the books at
every opportunity." [Even in the bath.] "Some of these poems will stay with me for the rest of my life."
"The English language is a wonderful
substance ... such a variety and range of utterance
from the same 26 letters... It's almost bad taste to choose just one."
was selected because, "this is a mature and determined book, dream-like in
places, but dealing ultimately with real questions of human existence."
To the T S Eliot Prize preview event at the South Bank
yesterday afternoon; then, in the evening, along to the Queen Elizabeth Hall to
hear the short-listed poets read their work.
Penelope Shuttle, one of the judges this year, prefaced
the afternoon discussion with a quote from part v of Eliot's "East
Coker."Here, Eliot meditates
on the struggle involved in writing poetry, aware of all that has already been
written but countering his doubts with:
'... but there is no competition -/ .../
For us, there is
only the trying. The rest is not our business.'
So, no competition then. And yet, and yet: 'Competition
is the way the world works' said Shuttle with quiet resignation, pointing out
that poetry is full of paradox.
As far as literary prizes go, this one seems fairer than
some. All 10 poets get a cheque for £1000 anyway; 1000 people filled to the QEH
to hear the poets read - a record audience for any poet - and the Poetry Book
Society's bookstall was doing a brisk trade. Hopefully, the books they sold
will be read. And, with a well established Shadowing Scheme and now a Reading
Group Scheme, the spotlight provided by this event shines a light on poetry
beyond the prize.
So, how will the judges pick one from the ten?
As we embarked on a close reading of a single poem by
each poet, Shuttle reached for Elizabeth Bishop's essay, "Writing Poetry
Is An Unnatural Act." Bishop suggests that, for a poem to be successful it
spontaneity accuracy mystery
Shuttle gave nothing away about where her preferences lay in the ten poems we read,
but held the ring on a rich couple of hours of discussion.
By four o'clock we were
all reshuffling the pack and struggling to get it down to say, five.
On to the readings.
Simon Armitage, chair of the judges, opened the evening by
reading Eliot's 'Journey of The Magi.' Valerie Eliot, who seems hardly
to age, was in the audience, looking lively in a bright pink - fuchsia? -
It has to be said that the readings were uneven. Were
some poets intimidated by the venue and the size of the audience? Is there a correlation between confidence in the reading voice and the confidence of the voice on the page?
As I write, the judges are making up their minds, but
I'll stick my neck out - having looked at all ten books with the PRG, and on
the basis of the readings last night the following gave me accuracy,
spontaneity and mystery in spine-tingling proportions:
All this snow, spread out like a blank page, feels to me like an invitation to write - to start something completely different.
At the beginning of the new
writing year are you ready to get going on a brand new project - to follow this snowy path and see where it leads?
Perhaps you'll take a fresh look at your work-in-progress, get
fired up to finally finish your novel or complete your collection of poems.
Returning to my notebook and computer after the wonderful
lazy days of Christmas I'm excited by the sight of clean white paper and a
bright blank screen. There are doubts too - aren't there always? Starting
something new tends to induce a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
The exciting bit is fine. That's when you don't notice
the time passing. Not so good is when the doubts creep in, when that fresh
white sheet starts to look like slush with so many crossings out: Will
this mish mash of scenes ever make a novel? Yeah, great description but is it a
So, you stop. What - giving up so soon? As Jane reminded me recently [see her comment's at the end of the interview with Bronia] Alan Bennett says, "you're only a writer when you're
writing." I remember Zadie Smith telling an audience that she says, "I
write," rather than, "I'm a writer."
Yes, it's getting the words down that
counts.So, how to dump the doubt
get the words flowing again?
Why not take a short break [I know, you're now not
writing, but stick with this, you soon will be] and seek the company of a
fellow writer? Before Christmas I had a cup of coffee in the company of Paul Auster. After less than half an hour, having listened to what he had to say, I returned eagerly to my desk.
Oh, yes, and Zadie Smith bucked me up no end last week.
I keep the
company of writers close to hand in the form of books by writers about writing
and their writing lives. 'Writerly comment' as opposed to literary criticism.
Insights from the inside of the writing life and the writing process. The gold
standard classic for me is A Writer's Diary: being extracts from the Diary of
Virginia Woolf, Edited by Leonard Woolf.
If you had book tokens in your Christmas stocking you
might want to spend them on some good company. Here are a few titles I can
The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. "I tell
every writer they must read this book," said Margaret Atwood during a Q
& A session at the ICA more years ago than I can remember. It was
pre-email, pre-Amazon. I scribbled down author and title but found it was only
available in America and gave up. For years the scrap of paper with the details
was pinned to my corkboard. In 2006 when Canongate - urged on by Atwood it
seems - published the book here I finally bought it. Though written in 1979 its
message is more vital today given the way the recession has hit publishing. Hyde shows that there is value in all of the
writing you choose to give out and, perhaps, a price to be paid if you hold it
back. It's no self-help or 'how to' but a thoughtful book on the implications
of choosing, or not choosing to write.
Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith. Smith, one of many
authors who gave a glowing recommendation on the cover of The Gift, has
recently published her own collection of essays.Reading the piece called 'That Crafty Feeling' was how I got
to be cheered up by Zadie last week. There's also a wonderful section on the
work of the late David Foster Wallace. It includes some inspirational quotes
from interviews with him. This book is definitely one for the 'good company'
shelf. Smith is intelligent, witty but above all so readable.
Page After Page and Chapter After Chapter, both by Heather Sellers. If you want
something a bit more hands-on then try these two titles. Sellers has taught for
years on university creative writing programmes in the States. These books are
pitched at that market, so you might find yourself, like me, biting your tongue
at her use of the word 'sucks' as in, "you think your writing sucks." But get
beneath that and these are gems - part memoir, part meditation on the art of
writing, part motivational manual. Each short chapter lasts a cup of coffee.
The Paris Review Interviews.These are also published by
Canongate and there are now 4 volumes. The interview with Paul Auster that I
mentioned is in Vol 4, just out. These include interviews with poets too.
They're packed with wonderful insight into some of the most remarkable writing
lives of the last fifty years and more.
Writing Poetry: the expert guide, by Fiona Sampson. This
is a recent addition to my shelves, published last year. Despite its somewhat
grandiose sub-title [well, Sampson is a prolific poet and editor of Poetry
Review so we may forgive her] this is a series of thoughtful, intelligent and
entirely approachable chapters that speak from the inside of the process of
writing poetry. I particularly enjoyed the chapter 'Creative Disobedience' - has your page turned to slush because you are trying to be too polite, too rule-bound in your writing? Another Alan Bennett gem comes to mind: he's talked of wanting be more "vulgar" in his writing instead of "timidly toeing the line."
A cup of coffee, and dip into one of these and you'll soon
be back at the keyboard. Or, why not try unpacking the suitcases in the new writing prompt I posted yesterday?