Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Books are the Thing that Makes Us

Until I was four, we lived near a big red brick library which was in the centre of a park; St George's Park in Bristol. My father was the one that would take me into the library, rather than just to the swings and duck pond, and I can recall  the way the high bookcases loomed over my head, and the smell of the place, which I believed was the scent of bookworm. Dad would let me chose my own books from the children's section because he’d be busy picking his selection from the grown-up fiction. He loved authors like  Howard Spring, Neville Shute, George Orwell and John Steinbeck. I liked Milly Molly Mandy, the tales of Little Grey Rabbit and anything by Beatrice Potter. When we got home, he’d read the books to me. 

When I look back, the strangest, most obscure storises have left the biggest impression. One of the most loved books I actually owned was called Unicorn Island. My father read to me when I was little, but very soon I’d learned to read on my own and then I reread it a million times afterward. A coastal village of disparate animals are in fear of the offshore island, where white flashes of the dangerous unicorn can be seen circumnavigating the mountain.When the hero’s little brother falls dangerously ill, he and his friends take it upon themselves to brave the island and come back with a healing herb. They discover all manner of wonderful things there, and the unicorn turns out to be the most marvellous of all. There is a slightly sinister atmosphere to the story and a gravity you don’t often find in picture books now…a precursor (but with a far longer story) of Where the Wild things Are.

Not long after I’d started to read on my own, I realized I wanted to be a writer.

My first infant school teacher, Mrs Marsden, read a story to the class. It might have been the fable 'The Mouse and the Lion', but I can't really remember.

Mrs Marsden finished reading aloud and then asked the class to write a story themselves. It was then that I had my early epiphany. I was dumbfounded. For the first time, I realized that the books I loved had actually been written by real human beings. Before that, I thought they must have fallen from some sort of story heaven. It was a revelation. I haven't looked back.
It was Mrs Marsden that turned me onto full-length fiction. I was going to borrow yet another Milly Molly Mandy from the class bookshelf when she accosted me, grabbed a thick volume from the shelf above and said, “You’re past all these baby books. Try this that one, Nina.” She handed me Mary Poppins, which I can remember taking to bed because I could not put it down. Maybe I read it too young, though, for when I read it aloud to my children thirty years later, the only things that rang a bell was the marvellously flavoured medicine and a strange man on a ceiling.

I was often in bed with asthma, when I was small, and liked a stack of books beside my bed. There were books I’d return to time and again as a small child. The Adventures of Manly Mouse was one – Manly lived in a world where mice who went about their human-like endeavours in a little mousy town. Manly was a deliciously flawed character, often losing his job or breaking with good friends. He drove a dilapidated car and was easily duped by more suave mice. A phrase our family uses to this day came from the lips of one of Manly’s posh employers who had put Manly to work cleaning his posh car (he turned out to be a poor mouse in scam disguise)…and when I say shine, I don’t mean shine, I mean gleam. And when I say gleam, I don’t mean gleam, I mean glitter

I can’t pretend I didn’t grow up on Enid Blyton, but the works that made the most impression were the magical Narnia stories, the weird adventures of Alice and the tiny world of The Borrowers. By the time I was twelve, I’d read all of the Anne of Green Gables series. I loved the way Anne hurtled through life. Her ‘modular’ way of learning (by making every mistake in the book – literally) suits me to this day. But, as the books watched her grow into a woman, I also (creep!) loved her commitment to duty and her attitude to life, which reminds me of that quote from Man for all Seasons, when Richard Rich asks… 'If I was, (a teacher) who would know it?' And Thomas Moore replies…'You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that…’
I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen. Well, okay I started to write a novel which I never finished. I wrote it by longhand and asked my friend to type it out. She was doing exams in typing at the time, so she was quite pleased. Every evening, I wrote in one corner of the room, while she typed at the table. Blissful silence until Maggie looked up and said, 'it is a bit old-fashioned, but it's really nice.'

'Thanks,' I simpered. I'm hoping people will enjoy it.'

'Nina,' she said, 'I was talking about my new dress. I've been talking about my new dress for the last five minutes.'
I do believe I've got better since then, both at writing and listening to criticism! I can remember bursting with pride when I received the first copies of the first book I had published; a children's novel with HarperCollins (still available from Amazon).

As a children’s writer, I am bound to be influenced by the books I read as a child.I’ve even tried to rewrite some of their ideas into my own work, although that has rarely worked, and most of those early stories were never published. They were my apprenticeship, I guess, and although almost all of them are gone from my hands, I will never forget their stories and characters.

In some ways, the books I read made me the person I am. They were probably more influential than my textbooks or my teachers…or even my parents.

I think that’s true of a lot of people. Books are the thing that make us, when we are young. Finding ourselves inside those marvellous adventures gives us hope, fires our dreams and helps us cope with the things life throws at us. 

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Queue Here for the Best New Novels for 2017!

I’ll let you into a little secret. I’ve just sent a complete draft of the next Shaman Mystery to my agent…and she loved it. So now I’m polishing it up with a rag, some spittle and a tin of beeswax, in the hope that, sometime in 2017, FLOOD GATE, will start to become a book.

In the meantime, I wanted to know which great writers already have a book in the new year pipeline, and can reveal that the news is exciting.

I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, even though I knew there were flaws in the plot, because I firmly believed in the main character and her descent into alcohol hell. Paula Hawkins’ new book Into the Water, is out in 2017, and I wish her all success with it. She’s  sticking to the psychological thriller genre, using, I hear, themes of truth and family secrets. Definitely one to try. 

It always puzzles me, why some first-time authors with huge success, don’t write a second book, while some churn out one every year. I loved Arundhati Roy’s Booker winner, The God of Small Things when I read it in 1997, and now, 20 years after its publication, her 2nd book, The Ministry of Utmostherppiness (Hamish Hamilton) is due out. The one thing I now know, is that she’s still good at titles! I do hope it’s worth the long wait.

Colm Toibin only came to my attention when someone recommended Testament of Mary. I was impressed with his take on a New Testament character, and also with his ability to get deeply into the female mind. In May 2017, he’s releasing House of Names, telling the story of how Agamemnon orders the sacrifice of his daughter, to gain good omens for the Trojan war. When he sails home victorious at last, he’s faced with a family filled with hate and the need for vengance. The last book I read about the Illiad was THE SONG OF ACHILLES by Madeline Miller, which won the 2012 Orange Prize. I loved that book, and I hope that this one proves as exciting. 

One of my favourite writers, Neil Gaiman, has also chosen to weave mythology and legend into modern storytelling in his latest offering, Norse Mythology, due out in February. Gaiman’s ability with words, and his subtle understanding of how to use symbol and allegory, will surely promise this to be a great read.

Right this moment I’m reading Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a book of essays about reading and writing, but he’s most  famous for Wonder Boys, one of my favourite books and also a great movie staring Michael Douglas as a washed-up author who discovers the next wunderkind
in his creative writing class. I’ve always had a theory about Wonder Boys; surely it started life as one of those writing exercises where you take various crazy items and have to work them into a story – in this case – Marilyn Monroe’s jacket, a dead dog, a tuba-paying transvestite and a squashed boa constrictor. Will Moonglow, (Fourth Estate) be as inventive and funny as Wonder Boys? I sincerely hope so.

Later in the year, lovers of William Boyd will have a treat with The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth. Last summer, I read his story of an early female photographer, Sweet Caress, and I’m ready for more.

I’m ‘into’ The Hogarth Shakespeare Project at the moment, which is asking bestselling novelists to retell Shakespeare's works. "Hogarth" was launched in October last year, with Jeanette Winterson's take on The Winter’s Tale. I’ve just finished Margaret
Atwood’s Hag-Seed and loved it – laughed all the way through, while marvelling at her brilliantly woven analysis of The Tempest. Read a full review of the book hereSince reading it, I’ve watched Helen Mirren as Prospera in the DVD of Julie Taymor’s version of The Tempest, and have booked up to see the Royal Shakespeare version which is on now in Stratford on Avon.  

I can hardly wait for the 
next book in the project’s series, written by Tracy Chevalier, famous for Girl with a Pearl Earring. She has rewritten Othello. In New Boy, the story of Othello is set in a Washington school, with 11-year-old friends Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi being the key players in the tragedy.

And finally, I’m looking forward to Tessa Hadley's next book of short stories. She was my tutor on my creative writing master’s degree, and I’ve admired her work every since. Brilliantly observant of the human condition, and a lyrical writer, she’s particularly great at the tricky form of short fiction. In Bad Dreams, the stories focus in on crucial moments of transition, and the blurb is enticing me to put my pre-order inreal things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.

In the meantime, while we’re still waiting for these books to arrive from Amazon, or at our chosen bookshops, I’ll wish you a very happy, prosperous and healthy 2017, and get back to putting the finishing touches to my latest novel, in which I delve into some shocking secrets that Sabbie Dare discovers in her past…

Tuesday, 20 December 2016



When Graeme Macrea Burnet was interviewed on radio news, he was asked how he felt about being shortlisted for the 2016 Man-Booker with his crime novel.
“It’s not a crime novel,” he replied. “It’s a literary novel about crime.”
I have to confess, as a crime novelist, that did put my back up, a little bit. I don’t believe it’s for writers to announce they’ve created a literary novel…that’s for posterity to decide. In my view, ‘literature’ is something that lasts and grows as it ages…books like Homer’s Odyssey, Orwell's Animal Farm or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bibles which I blogged about here. But it got me thinking. His Bloody Project (Contraband 2015) cannot yet, in my view, be literature. So is it crime fiction? 

The great P D James said that a good crime novel should also be a good novel. All human life is found in the killing of one human by another. So writing about murder surely is always crime fiction! I’m going to look at three recent books that I loved reading to find out if that’s true.

Belinda Bauer
Belinda Bauer doesn’t seem to have any qualms about calling herself a writer of crime fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her work on my blog, and here she is again, with her 6th novel, The Beautiful Dead (Bantam Press 2016). I loved her first book, Badlands, but I did feel the end was a bit weak, a bit unbelievable. This time, no worries about that! I loved the way Bauer took a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of a pair of handcuffs, which the main protagonist, TV crime reporter Eve Singer, has become obsessed with as she’s tracked and taunted by a serial killer she’s featuring on her news items. I expected them to be used in some way to secure her life when it was eventually under intense threat, as I knew it would be! But when those handcuffs were put to use on pg 319 of the book, I stood from my seat and crowed in joy. What a twist! What a perfect ploy! A great, twisting surprise is essential in a crime novel. But Bauer also delivers elegant description, strong metaphor and deep investigation of the human condition. She examines what being a killer is – how close each of use could get to murder. A crime novel? Decidedly, but great, contemporary fiction, too. 

Helen Dunmore is known for her lyrical poetry and her award-winning fiction, including the best-selling The Siege,  which is set during the Nazis' 1941 winter siege on Leningrad  So I wasn’t surprised to find that in her most recent book she turned her hand to a cold war thriller, set in England in the early 1960’s. In Exposure Penguin, 2016)  Although she uses three points of view…the hardened old double agent, the fresh, young candidate pushing a pen in the office of MI6, and his wife, mother of two young children, a typical stay-at-home mum, but a woman with a sharp mind. The shock of the killing towards the end of the book demonstrated for me that  one of our most outstanding writers (Good Housekeeping review) can
‘do’ murder and do it well, focusing on the victims, both of the spying industry, and of the machinations of corrupt individuals.  Is this literary fiction? Or a spy thriller? I can’t honestly see why it can’t be both.

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project didn’t win the Booker in the end. But Burnet’s book is the one that I enjoyed the most from the shortlist. I enjoyed it so much, that I now have a little more sympathy with his comment about literary fiction.
His novel is centred around a vicious triple murder – a man, his teenaged daughter and his baby son – by an angry young boy who lived in the same crofting community in 19th Century northwest Scotland. Burnet uses several point of views to create the novel, starting with the gripping account by Roderick Macrea as he languishes in jail, waiting for his trial to begin. This account is the gruelling and bitter story of his short life as a crofter. Although he shows promise at school, he leaves early to start working with his widowed father, who is perhaps a bit lacking in the smarts department, unlike his son. Life is backbreaking, crushing. And the powers who own the land turn a cold, heartless face away from the punishing routine to put meagre food in the crofter’s mouths. Very soon, as the story is related, it becomes clear why Roddy kills. He is drawn to do so, from the moment he has to batter an injured sheep to a humane death. The second half of the book are accounts from the defence lawyer and the early 19th psychologist he’s called in, and from newspaper articles about the trial.

I could not put this book down. Firstly, I needed to know why and how the murders happened. Lastly, I needed to know if his kindly lawyer managed to secure Roddy clemency from the gallows.
Is His Bloody Project a piece of crime fiction, Mr Burnet? I would say so. A piece of beautifully written, deeply investigated book into the nature of murder, yes, a book that may stay loved over generations and thence become ‘literature’, but at the moment, it’s crime fiction. Fiction about crime.

A romping good read, but also, like Bauer’s and Dunmore’s latest fictions, it’s about murder. They’ve all written about the deadliest of crimes, and I cannot see what is wrong with admitting that they’ve ended up with great stories that are crime fiction.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Using Your Rhythm Section; Writing with the OCA

Using Your Rhythm Section, image courtesy of OCA and Katherine Jasven
This week, I'm guest blogging again for weareOCA.com, the blog for artists and writers.

The Open College of the Arts offers courses on all kinds of creative work, including painting and drawing, photography, music and creative writing, as well as things like art history.

I'm a writer, tutor and assessor for the OCA, and love its deep commitment to engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds, who want to improve and connect with artistic endeavour

One of the first things you may have taken on board, as a new creative writer, is that it’s not only poets who need to pay attention to a beat or metre: all prose must have a rhythm – the rhythm of the words, sentences and paragraphs.

Good dialogue is vital. Handled with energy, it can turn a good story into a winning story and it is one of the best ways of creating living characters. Its generous spacing eases the reader’s eye and lends itself to a poetic shape. But getting it to work on all levels can be an overwhelming difficulty, especially at first.

Even if you're not a part of the Open College, you can access my blog about getting rhythm into your dialogue by clicking here...

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Gold-Starred Rules for Shy Networking Writers

Nina Milton, speaking and reading at the Wells Literary Festival
Blogpost fans who know me personally, would probably say I’m a bit of an extrovert, and can happily walk onto a stage and address a crowd, especially if it’s on the subject of books…especially if it on the subject of my books. 

Click to see more
In public, or among friends, I come across as bubbly, gregarious and confident. But actually, folks, I’m not an extrovert at all. Like many writers who love their own company and that of their characters, I’m actually a bit of a trembling flower. But I can do a conjuror’s magic trick which allows me to walk into a company of strangers and look outgoing, which I learned at the age of fifteen. 

As a kid I was painfully shy, which I blamed on my first name. In an age when unusual names were not common, I was teased mercilessly about mine. My mother had called me Nina – not after the famous Nordic singing duo or the ‘high priestess of soul’, but after her friend’s daughter, who for no reason I can fathom, pronounced the name to rhyme with nine, rather than teen. From my earliest memories, I hated my name. Kid’s called me ‘nine-o’clock instead of Nina Crane, or counted up across the street at me…’one-a, two-a three-a… 

Me at the Carmarthen Book Fair
When I took my first part-time job, I swore to change all of that. I went to work behind the sock and tie counter in a local department store. I was asked what my name was and I simply introduced myself as ‘Nina’  pronounced as in Nina Simone. Now, instead of bizarre and laughable, my name was singular and cool. A tiny alteration in pronunciation which did wonders for my ego, and taught me an interesting lesson…we can pretend to be more remarkable than we really are.

I’m telling you all of this because it’s Christmas Fayre season again, and I’m off to events  all over Wales to promote the Shaman Mystery Series. Last Saturday I was at Carmarthen library to promote my books and myself as a writer.

And on Saturday December 10th, I’m in the pretty town of Llandeilo, at the Llandeilo Book Fair.
Landeilo is tucked at the foot of the Black Mountains in South Wales, not far from Swansea, and is packed with lovely shops, as well as holding a book fair. 

Book events are not only great for selling your books, it’s also a place to meet other authors.goint to share them with you!
NIna at the Llandeilo Book Fair
I put on my ‘Neena, not Nine-a’ face and pretend to be fearless and undaunted, despite still being that trembling flower inside. To help me, I use my gold-starred rules for shy networking writers, and I'm

Here are my gold-starred rules of networking for the writer who is shy at heart. I find they help a lot.

1. Use the four-pronged approach. First brought to the fore by Dale Carnegie, just remember to…
  • SMILE, 

2. Be interested. Being actually interested in the other person stops the stench of desperation coming across and keeps that smile in place…naturally. It will also allow the right questions to pop into your mind – questions like, “what brought you here today” and “what sort of writing do you do”, and remind you to listen to the answers while getting that person’s name into your head (asking for their card really helps!)

3. Have no agenda. This springs naturally from being interested in the people around you. Concentrate on finding out about them, look keen to know more. No one wants to be in the same space as the ‘hard-selling, self-obsessed person’ for long.

4. Sort your plan. This is essential for hiding shyness and projecting confidence. Before you leave the house, get your ‘one minute blurb’ for your latest writing project clear in your mind. Look at my blogpost on elevator pitches to help you with this one. Remind yourself of your particular talents and strengths. It's important to map out what you want to talk about, because (rightly) be concentrating on rules 1-3 may take such things out of your mind. With rule 5 in mind, tell yourself all the ways your writing is wonderful – get your list prepared.

5. Be your passionate self. Having sorted your plan, you won’t need to look pushy because you’ll have more confidence in yourself. You’re smiling, so you’ll already be feeling happier. So now you can drop any artificiality and allow your lovely self to show through and demonstrate what you feel passionate about – I promise you, that’s always a winner. 

Do not say sorry. Okay – if you tip your wine over the books on your neighbour’s table, you might have to ask their forgiveness, but you should never apologise for your writing or make excuses for your books, or admit that you’re not sure how good they might be. Your stories have value. When you sort your plan, put these values in the list. If you are selling your book, whether to a punter or a publisher, do not start with ‘sorry, but…’ That makes it sound like you’re asking for a favour, when in fact, you're offering to show them some marvellous work.

Have your cards ready. All writers should have some sort of business card. If you already have a book in print, there are fun alternatives, too. I like to use bookmarks, with the covers of my books, a short blurb and my contact details. Other writers use postcards. I have also seen greeting cards using the jackets of novels, but these are too costly to give away and should instead be there to raise revenue.

Try for generosity. You’ll be wanting people to be generous to you, to give your work a chance by stocking, reading it or publishing it! So you can afford to offer something in return, even if it’s only turning up an hour early to help put out all the tables.

Follow the leads. You’ve come home with a dozen cards from other writers, agents, booksellers and publishers. Follow them up, even if it’s only an email to say how nice it was to meet them. Keep those links going, as you never know where they might take your writing. And they'll remind you just how much you enjoyed the event, even though you're a shy networking writer

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Costa Book Awards – the shortlists are out!

Another year, another book prize announced. This is one of my favourite book prizes, which has afforded me unbelievable reading. Novels like The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, How to be Both by Ali Smith, Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. 

Costa offers several awards each year, Novel Award, First Novel, Biography, Poetry, Children’s Book, and Short Story, and I already have several of the shortlist for each of these on my own ‘to read list’. 

I’m keen to get Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve love Tremain since she began to write, which is many moons. She has won the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Award, the Sunday Express Book of the Year and been short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I recently read her book Trespass I was thrilled to find she’d written a novel about murder. Was Tremain writing a crime thriller? My review of Trespass can be found here This new novel is set in Switzerland where the second world war is still a long-ago echo coming off the mountains. It’s described as “a striking portrait of friendship” 

There are four books in the First Novel shortlist, but I’ve heard of each of them Francis Spufford is already on the list as Golden Hill became the Waterstones Book of the Month, and Kit de Waal, shortlisted for My Name is Leon is know as a short story writer. But I’d never heard of Susan Beale’s first book The Good Guy and Guinevere Glasfurd’s The Words in My Hand. . These are set in the US and long-ago Holland respectively, so on my beg, borrow or buy list they go.

Biography is not my favourite writing form, but this year I’d love to read Hisham Matar’s memoir The Return, It was  five years ago,as tension increased during the harrowing situation in Libya, that I read his Booker-shortlisted novel, In the Country of Men

 It felt a very pertinent and current read at the time, and is partly his memories of his childhood, during the time Colonel Gaddafi's regime took hold in the seventies. A boy of nine watches his father taken away for questioning and does not know what to think, or whom to trust. The novel is writing in such deceptively simple prose, but powerfully examines themes of conflict, family ties, and betrayal.

In the past, the Poetry Award has sent me rushing to read current poets. Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees won five years ago, a short book I love to return to. Bees are central in this collection,…bees / are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them … and while doing that recalls bitter memories of what we have lost,This year, it will be Falling Awake  I read first. I’m already in love with Alice Oswald’s poetry, especially Dart, a shape-shifting epic poem about the river Dart, and the people who live around it. In the White Review, Oswald said; I’m interested in trying to push against my own principles. Each book I make marks a frontier, and then I move into the next country. You can hear Oswald read here.

Who doesn’t love Francesca Simon’s Horrid Henry books? Now she’s on the Costa Children's shortlist with her first novel for older children: The Monstrous Child, described as a black comedy focusing on Nordic myth. This is the one that I want to read, it sounds scrumptious and long-awaited.

I have a very soft spot for the Short Story award, which hasn’t been going for very long, because in its inauguration, my Open College of the Arts student, Guy Le Jeune, came third with his story Small Town Removal, which I’d read in its very early stages. The Short Story Award shortlist will be announced soon, and all the shortlists will announce their ultimate winner on Tuesday 3rd January. From these five the Costa Book of the Year is selected. Fireworks will explode, Champagne will pop its cork and one writer will be very pleased…and a lot richer. 

Friday, 18 November 2016

Patron of Hares, Saint Melangell

I love discovering something hidden and special that I never knew about. So when friends asked me to go with them to the shrine of St Melangell, I jumped at the chance. I’d never heard of this saint, even though she is the patron hares, which are my totem animal

Her shrine is still kept in beautiful condition, in the small northwest Wales village of Pennant Melengells, It's one of the most remote shrines in the UK, located in the Berwyn Mountains. It’s only a short drive from St Mylin’s well, a far better-known shrine to a well-loved saint, who was probably Bishop of Wales at around the time Saint Melegell was born.

Melengell lived in the 7th Century CE, in what then would have been an independent Wales, still more Iron Age than Medieval. The Romans had long gone, and the old, local tribes called refi had taken over the rule of the land once more, led by a warrior aristocracy. The people would have spoken Old Welsh and held that powerful blend of belief; Celtic Christian, fused with a remaining underbelly of pagan belief, still clinging around the edges of this new religion. They'd only recently been converted to the powerful message of this still-new faith by saints like David and Mylin.

The tarn of Llyn Cau
We arrived at the youth hostel, for our one night stay in Dolgellau, which is sheltered under the most southern tip of the Snowdonia mountain range. 

 Rising above us was Cader Idris. Myth and legend have echoed around this high peak  for many a century and began with the fabled Welsh book of folklore, The Mabinogion. It’s said than anyone who falls asleep for the night at the foot of the Cadir Idris wakes, the following morning, either dead, mad, or a poet. We were about to lay our heads down is just that place, and I was hoping to wake with the latter quality!

The following morning (seemingly neither dead nor mad), we motored northeast to the village of Pennant Melangell. The far west of Wales possibly still looks, in places, very much like it did when the saints and the war-lords ruled the head and heart of early Wales.  As we travelled, my friends told me what they knew about St Melangell. 

She was the daughter of an Irish monarch, who had determined to marry her to a nobleman of his court. The princess fled from her father, across the Irish Sea, and took refuge in the isolated Tanat valley. She lived as an anchorite, walled into her shrine for most of fifteen years, without seeing the face of a man. 

The legend has it that one day Brochwel, prince of Powys, was hunting a hare with his dogs. In its desperation, the hare found this beautiful young lady wandering through the countryside, and took refuge under her cloak. The pack of hounds refused to go anywhere near the saintly Melangell, some howling and turning tail, some whimpering and lying down before her feet.

The prince was amazed to find a virgin of surpassing beauty, engaged in deep devotion, with the hare he had been pursuing under her robe, boldly facing the dogs. The Prince gifted her the valley of Pennant Melangell and she lived there, offering sanctuary and retreat to all who came.  She founded an abbey on the spot, and died abbess at a good old age.  Her tomb was in a little chapel, or oratory, adjoining to the church. 
I loved the carvings inside the church, especially the 15th Century oak screen with carvings that tell the story of Melangell and Prince Brochwel, and a fabulous series of stone carvings of the hare by the sculptor Meical Watts. 

But what we’d come to see, and be tranquil within, was the 12th Century shrine of Saint Melangell. Its stones are carved with Romanesque and Celtic motifs, and it contains what is said to originally have been the saint’s cell bed. Bones said to be those of the saint were deposited within the shrine. This was all were reassembled in the last century but it took a lot of fund-raising to eventually get the entire thing to be re-erected in the chancel at the back of the church. 

The church is now a Grade-I listed building. But more interesting to me, is that it sits in what is believed to be a Bronze Age site. In fact, Neolithic bones have been found on the site, which shows, as often is the case, that this sacred place had been used throughout time. I was overwhelmed by the ring of yew trees, planted before Christ was born, by people of the Iron Age...local druids, perhaps… These surround the churchyard. I spent a lot of meditative time in both saint's shrine, and under the trees, too.

Southey, when he visited the church in the 19th century wrote; 

And now I shall tell you why
It was proper that I 
Should go thither to spy
The place with mine own eye.
Tis a church in a vale,
Whereby hangs a tale,
How a hare being pressed,
By the dogs and much distressed,
The hunters coming nigh
And the dogs in full cry,
Looked about for someone to defend her,
And saw just in time
As it now come pat in rhyme,
A saint of the feminine gender.

To be honest, I don't think he'd had enough opium, that time…maybe he failed to sleep at the foot of Cader Idris!

For information about St Melegell's church and shrine, Click here for website

Monday, 7 November 2016

Creating Great Character Voices; Barbara Kingsolver's The Poinsonwood Bible

In the summer of 1959, the Price family carry everything they need on a lumbering plane and fly to the Belgian Congo to take up a missionary post in a village called Kilanga on the Kwilu River.

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, (1988), follows three decades of their lives in postcolonial Africa. This, her fourth book, sold more than four million copies, was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club, and was voted an all-time favourite of reading groups in Britain. 
Barbara Kingsolver spent time in the Congo as a small girl "We were there just after independence, but I had no idea of the political intrigue of that era," she says. For Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible is an “allegory of the captive witness. We've inherited this history of terrible things done, that enriched us in the US and Europe by
pillaging the former colonies. How we feel about that is the question in the book.”

Writers talk a lot lately about ‘personal voice’.  Creating the voice of characters (often called 'persona') who feel realistic, authentic and engrossing is one of the most difficult parts of writing. Kingsolver says,… “Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. Literature sucks you into another psyche. So the creation of empathy necessarily influences how you'll behave to other people…” It is, she adds, a "powerful craft; there's alchemy…"
Kingsolver has five independent and distinctive voices within this book. Each female member of the family narrates their story in turn. The magic trick Kingsolver achieves as a writer is to make their voices entirely original and independent of each other. When I read the book, this was the remarkable thing that struck me hardest. It was as if Kingsolver truly knew the five women whose stories she will tell.

Nathan Price is a fanatical missionary, with a rigid but simplistic religious code. Although devoted to saving souls, he’s abusive to his wife and daughters.
He first encounters the Poisonwood tree – the bangala – in his garden. Ignoring warnings from locals not to touch the plant, his arms painfully swell. But he has linguistic difficulties with this tree, too. In the native language the word "bangala" can mean "dearly beloved" if spoken slowly. If said fast, it means Poisonwood Tree. Nathan’s unwillingness to learn anything about the language is a symptom of his general cultural arrogance. On a weekly basis, he preaches that Jesus is a poisonwood tree which can cause intense pain and even death. His congregation sniggers, but Kingsolver seems to be saying that in the hands of people like Nathan, religious beliefs are poison, and that his missionary zeal did cause intense pain and even death.

The four daughters in the novel echo my favourite childhood read – Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (also loved by Kingsolver, of course!). In the erstwhile novel, the lives of Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth are investigated deeply, especially their relationship with each other and their parents. In The Poisonwood Bible something similar, but darker and more penetrating, is explored
Orleanna Price married Nathan Price when she was seventeen and gave birth to three children in the space of two years. As they are shunted about the missionary world, she loses her spirit. By the time we meet her on the plane to Kilanga, it seems to me she’s entirely a passive vessel for her husband's will – although she hates the Congo.
First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason...The breathing of monkeys. The glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains...The forest eats itself and lives forever…
Rachel is her first-born daughter. From the extract below, which comes early in the novel, we can tell that Rachel is an unadulterated egomaniac, just as her father is, except she’s focused on the state of her appearance and her comfort, not her soul.
.…Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we set foot. We are supposed to be calling the shots here, but it doesn’t look to me like we’re in charge of a thing, not even our own selves. Father had planned a big old prayer meeting as a welcome ceremony, to prove God had ensued us here and aimed to settle in. But when we stepped off the airplane and staggered out into the field with our bags, the Congolese people surrounded us – Lordy! – in a chanting broil. Charmed, I’m sure. We got fumigated with the odor of perspirating [sic]bodies. What I should have stuffed in my purse was those five-day deodorant pads…
Only slightly younger, and very gifted, are the identical twins, Adah and Leah. At birth, the left side of Adah’s body was paralyzed. She limps and is almost speechless, but her mind is acute, and it’s through her voice that a considerable amount of the book’s political scenes are related.
Our Father, who now made a point of being home to receive Tata Ndu, would pull up one of the other chairs, sit backward with his arms draped over the back, and talk Scripture. Tata Ndu would attempt to sway the conversation back around to village talk, or to the vague gossip we had all been hearing about...but mainly he regaled Our Father with flattering observations, such as ‘Tata Price, you have trop de jolies filles – too many pretty daughters…Nelson, as usual, was the one who finally took pity upon our benighted stupidity and told us what was up: Kulwela. Tata Ndu wanted a wife. 
‘‘One of the girls, you mean,’ Mother said. She pulled on the nape of  Nelson’s T-shirt, extracting him from the stove so she might speak to him face to face. ‘You’re saying Tata Ddu wants to marry one of my daughters.’…
Compare this voice with that of  Adah’s healthy twin sister, Leah…
I prefer to help my father work on his garden. I’ve always been the one for outdoor chores anyway, burning the trash and weeding, while my sisters squabbled about the dishes and such. Back home we have the most glorious garden each and every summer, so it’s only natural that my father would bring over seeds in his pockets; Kentucky Wonder beans, croookneck and patty-pan squash, Big Boy tomatoes. We planned to make a demonstration garden from which we’d gather a harvest for our table and also supply food and seeds to the villagers. It was to be our first African miracle; an infinite chain of benevolence rising from these small, crackling seed packets, stretching out from our garden into a circle of other gardens, flowing outward across the Congo like ripples from a rock dropped in a pond. The grace of our good intentions made me feel wise, blessed, and safe from snakes…
Ruth May is the youngest of the sisters, nine years junior to the twins. She is an impish child,  easily able to get into trouble. Kingsolver concentrates on penetrating the little girl’s mind, so that, although her thoughts are lisping and playful, we can glean a lot of the story's subtleties from her voice…Sometimes you just want to lay on down and look at the whole world sideways. Mama and I do. It feels nice. If I put my hed on her, the sideways world moves up and down. She goes; hth-huh. hth-huh. She’s soft on her tummy and the bosoms part…Sometimes I tell her; Mommy Mommy. I just say that. Father isn’t listening so I can say that...
Each voice has a further distinctive aspect. Ruth May invents her own language, Adah can read backward, Leah uses language to mimic her hero father, and Rachel consistently and unapologetically ‘malaprops’ her words.
When I opened the book and been to read, I imagined this would be a story about four young girls battling against their father’s growing madness and the alien world they’ve been thrust into – Little Women for the 21st century. But the story moves on and on…Ruth May dies from a snake bite and Orleanna finally musters the strength to flee from Nathan with her remaining daughters, although for the rest of her life she is overwhelmed by guilt. Meanwhile, her surviving daughters flourish, in various ways.                                                                                                                      Although idealistic Leah worshiped her father, unlike him she is intelligent and compassionate. The realities of the Congo wears away her strong Christian faith. She marries a local man and throws herself into the fight for African independence. Rachel, you won’t be surprised to hear, chases  her dream of wealth and beauty. My favourite sister, Adah, has a surprising outcome, turning her life around after facing death one night. The three girls go in very different directions, but each of them remains haunted by their early life in Kilanga.
Go to Kingsolver's website to find out about her other books