The Power of Stories

‘Writers sit down,’ Ali Smith said, in her talk on the weekend. ‘But books make books. This is one of the freedoms I have inherited.’

Ali in her garden in Cambridge

Ali is one of the wisest people I know, and she gave a brilliant performance at the wordfest, discussing her new book, Artful, a series of essays on literature that were originally lectures given in Oxford. Only being Ali, she wrote the lectures in and through short stories, ‘giving herself permission’ as she put it, to do something very different with the space of a lecture:

I think fiction is authority, fiction is truth. To go directly to the source of truth that is fiction allows us to question and to be held, to be suspended in time. There is a root and a route between art and mortality; fiction becomes an obvious way to hold many things at once.’

What I think Ali was getting at here is that stories are the only way we have of making sense. They are also extremely familiar to us, given that we use stories everywhere, in the way we explain ourselves, what happens to us, how we account for the world to children, how we envisage new futures. Stories organise every aspect of our lives, from start to finish, but they also give us a timescale – narrative time – by means of which we can hope, anticipate and fear. By means of consequence and causality, the two axis of fiction, we imagine that this event provokes this result, which leads onto that event, and so on. So stories manage the paradox of taking us out of our immediate experience, transcending it to view it more clearly, and they embed us in our lives allowing us to hold the threads of any number of ongoing plots and subplots as if we had some control over them. Fiction and its truths tell us what has happened, what is happening and what will happen.

Ali was talking about how she realised she only had a couple of weeks to write her lectures in, and she didn’t know where to begin. So she went to the shelf and took down Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, and started to read it. That reading sparked off an idea, and she decided to read the novel over the course of writing the lectures, and to use something in the novel as a guideline or a springboard every time she had a new lecture to write. She spoke of the way that the reader can feel Dickens thinking and planning as he writes. This was a story that began its life as magazine installments; Dickens was creating his story without knowing the end, placing things in the narrative as he went along, hoping they might be useful or helpful later in the story. Ali decided to write her lectures on the same principle: ‘It gave me a way of trusting the serendipity of art; of trusting in the thing beyond us that organises art.’

This made me think of the Norwegian writer, Knausgaard that I had heard talking the previous day, and the way he had written his memoir by sitting down every day, taking a shameful incident from his past and writing about it, allowing himself to follow whatever energy arose from the narration, aware that he would remember more and more about the event the more he wrote. For both Knausgaard and Ali Smith, writing was about trusting the process of writing to fuel its own internal creative engine.

What also struck me about these two authors was how honest they were, how authentic as individuals. I know Ali quite well, and she is admirably straight, always. As the chair of the session introduced her and listed all her achievements, she was shaking her head, and I know she feels that all this glitter of art has nothing at all to do with the writing she does, or with who she is. She is the least pretentiously starry person I have ever met, although she has every reason to rest on her accolades. I was struck also by the way the Norwegian writer kept refusing the glib and conventional stories that his chair wanted to place over his experience. Several times she hoped to encourage him towards saying that writing his memoir had been cathartic in some way, or that it had improved the quality of his life or simply provided some therapy, but he refused that orthodox storyline every time. No, writing the book had not solved his problems, becoming a famous author was not the route to happiness. Life was one thing, storytelling was another.

I think that storytelling has tremendous power, far more than we realise, and for this reason, when it comes to life, we can abuse it. Or maybe not abuse it, but lean on it too hard, rely on it too much. What these two authors said to me was that it was one thing to trust to the unfolding of events to turn into a story eventually, quite another to take a story from the shelf, readymade, and try to make real events fit it. I think we do the latter far too much in our culture at the moment, leaning too heavily on stories of triumph over adversity, of achievement and success, of catastrophe and tragedy, when life is very unlikely to conform to such neat and tidy plots. We see the outside of people and assume stories about them that take no account of their messy insides, we enter periods of uncertainty and insecurity and rush to find some narrative –any narrative – that will fit, rather than trust to the uncertainty to gradually resolve itself, or even present brand new twists, new thoughts and ideas and possibilities. In other words, we let a few clichéd stories to dominate, rather than allowing the enormous range of potential stories out there to take shape of their own accord. Life is too rich and complex and difficult, really, to be treated this way. I’ll leave the last word to Ali, who when asked about the playful, multiple-storied approach she took to writing said: ‘I don’t have a choice; if there’s a story then there’s another story. There’s always another story.’ I think her latest book is going to be glorious.


I’ll be away from the Reading Room for about a week, as I’m in great danger of missing my deadline for an essay on Simone de Beauvoir and blogging takes up too much writing time. A case of a story here preventing any other story from happening, alas… See you all soon.

The Norwegian Proust

Saturday was a day of filthy weather here, and by the time I had battled my way through the endless rain from sepia skies and the Christmas traffic to the town centre and fought through the churning crowds at the literary Wordfest – streams of people dithering in front of you, stopping abruptly, meandering across the whole of the passageway – to get to the library in the Union, I was more than ready to hear a melancholy Norwegian giant reading from the first of his six-volume novel/memoir entitled with a nod to Hitler, My Struggle. Struggle was clearly the word for the day. Karl Ove Knausgaard is one of those interestingly wrecked people, a war weary Viking of a man in crumpled jeans and leather jacket, with artistically long hair that he ran his hands through, sighing. If you were a woman with a rescue complex, this is the sort of man you might love to distraction, although he may be, I hazard a guess, a nightmare to live with. Talk about courage, though, as he conducted the interview and reading in an English that was charmingly broken although not in a way that marred the sense. I could so imagine attempting something similar in French and leaving an audience perplexed and confused.

A Death in the Family is the first volume translated into English of his huge work. It was a succès de scandale in his native country because of the coruscating honesty of his writing, in a tale that deals with his troubled relationship to an overbearing and ultimately alcoholic father. Below are edited highlights of his talk:

I was a father, three kids, in my 40s and it was a real mid-life crisis, you know? What could I do? I could have shot myself, left the family, or written the book. I felt my life had no meaning, no joy, and I wanted to understand why when I had my children and my wife, I was a writer. I wanted to live a life full of meaning and so that had to be through art, where meaning is compressed.

I had a hard father, authoritarian, he dominated my life, I was afraid of him, I always knew what was on his mind, where he was. I hated him, wanted him dead. Then when he was dead I experienced such deep sorrow. After his death everything changed, everything was intense and I wanted to make that feeling into a novel, even if it meant scaring the reader off.

I knew I wanted to write the story of my father and I tried four years writing it as fiction, but the story, I couldn’t believe in it. But I had to continue. By accident I started writing about myself, I began revealing the most shameful incidents of my life. And there was genuine energy there. This was something I could write. I was writing about the banality of being 16, going to a party with a friend and we were denied entrance, we go home, nothing happened. Yes, nothing happened. But I had written one hundred pages in telling this. And I thought if I have written one hundred pages about nothing then I can write about death, about nothingness, about meaningless.

I wrote everything blindly, hoping it would make sense. It was terrible writing about myself. Such self-loathing. No I don’t revise or edit my books. Four years without results and then after that it was easy. The job is done before the writing. I knew the final sentence: ‘I’m so happy I am no longer an author.’ I was turning away from life into literature and I kept doing it when I grew up. I didn’t want to confront life, I wanted to turn away from it. My wife and children they are different, they want to drag me back in. So I have to learn to live, by writing. This is an existential search into a life, I know that sounds pompous, but that’s what it is. I couldn’t write an autobiography, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t write for anyone. If you do that, you’re dead as a writer.

The hardest thing to do was to write below my standard of writing. My whole life I wanted to please, to make people love me, not to tell people what I really think, I was afraid of conflict. If you do that in writing, you want to show everyone how clever you are. I wanted to avoid that, be as honest as possible, and as brutal as possible. It is for me, I never thought anyone would be interested in it, it’s boring, everything detailed to the absurd. It’s not an interesting life, nothing interesting ever happened to me. So what happened with the book was a total shock for me. Now everyone knows all about me,

I was very naïve. I didn’t tell anyone about what I was doing, I was just free. I sent the manuscript to everyone I wrote about. Then all hell broke loose, my family threatened to stop the book. I changed all the names of everyone in the family. The problem is we are the only family in Norway with my name, it’s an unusual name! But it’s very sensitive, no family wants these things published [about his father’s alcoholism]. Then I thought, who can stop me from writing about my own father? So I can publish this.

I am very glad that I did it because it was so difficult. It couldn’t have been done under any other circumstances. If I started to write it now, it would be totally different. I am glad I captured that feeling in these books. But I am ashamed of them. So it is very strange, when I get praise for these books.

It is better to live now, but not because of these books. I didn’t learn anything from them. You write because you are broken. Writing is healing because the process is healing. But once you stop writing, you are broken again.


I now have my signed copy of A Death in the Family (I was my usual hopeless self in the face of an author I admired, gabbling away about nothing at all), and am most curious about it. Expect a review in due course….

The Circus Comes To Town


I thought it was very exciting news to learn that Bloomsbury is launching a new imprint next month, Bloomsbury Circus, which will specialise in literary fiction. After all the doom and gloom in publishing and the insistence that literary fiction doesn’t have a market any more, or not one that justifies a proper publisher’s time, I gave a big cheer to think that a mainstream business like Bloomsbury is daring to venture out into this territory.  I asked if I could submit a few questions about the new imprint and was honoured to have them answered by Alexandra Pringle herself, one of Bloomsbury’s top editors and the driving force behind the Circus imprint. Here are her answers:


1. When every other publisher is reducing the number of literary fiction titles they produce, Bloomsbury is bringing out a new literary imprint. I can’t tell you how wonderful I think that is but how did you get it past the accountants?

We don’t need permission from accountants to publish anything at Bloomsbury.  We did get a profit and loss account done to see how it might look in a couple of years.  But all of publishing is gambling in the end.   We work by instinct as much as anything.   And at 26 years old, we felt it was time for Bloomsbury to branch out a bit.


2. ‘Literary’ is a word that provokes much debate. What does it mean in terms of the novels selected for the new imprint? 

It means that novels which take more risks would naturally find their way into the imprint – like the work of Lucy Ellmann, for example, whose new novel Mimi we will publish next spring.  Whereas those more traditional novels would be published under the regular Bloomsbury imprint, like, for example, the work of Sue Miller and Georgina Harding.  But we have no hard and fast rules, we shape the list by touch as much as anything.


3. I noticed that several of the novels are by writers from Australia and New Zealand. Will a feature of Circus books be this more international flavour?

Yes it is in the intention of the list to be very international. We already have a lot of American fiction, as well as novels from Australia and New Zealand, but there will also be work from Iran, Africa, India, Pakistan – many different continents and countries.


4. The actual books themselves look gorgeous: smaller than a hardback, bigger than a paperback, lovely weight and heft to them. They make me think of Persephone novels (although they are by no means identical). What was the thinking behind the design?

We wanted the books to have the beauty of a hardback with the price and readability of a paperback.  We also wanted them to look distinctive, unusual, collectable and modern. We were thrilled to be able to have those deep flaps, which in the past have been prohibitively expensive, and colour printing on the inside of the covers.


5. What does the future hold for the Circus imprint? Is there any particular direction in which Bloomsbury wishes to develop the list? When you look back in a year’s time, what would you most like to be able to say about the books you’ve published?

Who knows what the future holds, particularly in such a rapidly changing market place?  We hope that people will want to collect these books, rather as they collected Picador titles in the early days.  We want it to be a truly international list and to be a list that can take risks.  When we look back in a year’s time I hope we will have a prize shortlist or two under our belts, a sense of having broken some established authors out of the ‘midlist’ as well as having launched some exciting new talent into the world.  What more could a publisher wish for?


If you’d like to learn more, do have a glance at the new website.

The Art of Writing Biography

One of the best things about blogging are the lovely people you get to meet, geographical proximity no problem. Towards the end of last year I reviewed a new biography of the Rossetti family by Dinah Roe and we ended up chatting online. What a delightful woman she is! Dinah was kind enough to agree to an interview, in which I could ask her all the questions that fascinate me about the complex and tortuous process of writing a biography. Read on to hear all about it, as well as the importance of family life, the benefits of being an American in London and Dinah’s love of librarians and black-and-white cookies…..


1. When and how did you first become interested in the Pre-Raphaelites?

When I was an undergraduate, I studied Art History along with English Literature, and the two interests became intertwined. Pre-Raphaelitism intrigued me because it didn’t view the visual and the literary arts as belonging to two separate categories. Poetry and painting are my two first loves, and studying Pre-Raphaelitism means I can have my cake and eat it too, so to speak.

When I came to London from America to study for my PhD, my original project was about Christina Rossetti’s relationship to Pre-Raphaelitism. But as I began my research in earnest, my work took me in a different direction entirely, as I became increasingly fascinated by her devotional writing, in particular her books of religious prose. By my second year of study, I had changed my topic to Rossetti’s devotional work. Yet I never lost interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, which was why it was such a pleasure to compile the Penguin Classics anthology of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. It felt like I’d finally been loyal to my original project, if that doesn’t sound too sentimental.


2. What made you decide to write a book about the family rather than any individual member?

Sometimes, I find it difficult to write about individuals, because in some ways, I don’t think we really exist as individuals. We are all a part of a community, of the people around us, and we cannot help but be influenced by this. Whether that experience is positive or negative is of course an open question and different for everyone, but I don’t believe we exist in isolation. I felt that the most distinctive thing about the Rossettis is the absolute centrality of their family life to their creative lives. They consulted each other and collaborated on every single project. Many families nowadays end up living continents away from each other (as in fact I do) but the four Rossetti siblings never lived farther than walking distance.

Also, I wanted to take the focus off the Rossetti siblings’ love lives, which (while undeniably intriguing) is not the beginning and end of what there is to say about them. People have all kinds of important relationships which are not sexual or romantic, yet are no less important and influential for that. I think, as a culture, we over-emphasise romantic relationships at the expense of other, perhaps more important ones. This is particularly the case with women artists and writers. If love lives do not exist for them, they are invented, as if being unmarried is something that has to be explained away or justified. Friendship is another important area of human relations that is sometimes underplayed, and is one I’d like to explore further in future work.


3. I can’t begin to imagine the research that must have gone into this biography! How did you set about gathering your information?

One of the most frustrating things about writing biography is the amount of research you have to leave out. It was so hard to cut certain stories because of length, or because they detracted from the narrative, or concerned characters and incidents too minor to be entirely relevant.

In terms of research, I first spent time reading everything I could get my hands in terms of secondary source material. I worked as a librarian for three years, and that helped familiarise me with how to search efficiently for information from all sources. The British Library was of course very helpful it terms of tracking down obscure books and journals. I also found the London Library very helpful here; the oldest existing lending library in London, it is also one of the best for researchers of the nineteenth century. Also, you can take the books home with you – even the beautiful first editions. During my research, I took home a first edition of original Pre-Raphaelite Brother Thomas Woolner’s poems only to find that they were signed by the author himself!

After gathering all I could from secondary sources, I also visited various research libraries, kindly supported by research grants from Arts Council England and the Royal Society of Literature. Archival research is very emotional, because you are dealing with a subject’s handwritten letters, diaries, notes, etc. It helps make the subject more real, more personal to you as a writer. Research visits are also  really fun because you get to meet other writers during the day. You hear about their projects and bond with them, sharing your triumphs and woes. I was also privileged to work with several excellent special collections librarians, whose efficiency, helpfulness and intelligence are second to none. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think librarians are among the heroes of our time. It breaks my heart to see so many libraries closing, and I pity a generation who may grow up without access to these keepers of the flame.


4. And how on earth did you manage to keep your notes organised while you were writing it?

It was an uphill battle! But lessons I’d learned from my time as a librarian really came in handy here. From the start, I was very careful to file articles and notes in appropriate boxes and files from the very beginning. My academic work taught me the value of keeping track of references as I went along, so that I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time chasing down sources when I came to the end of the process.

Where I could, I got digital files and typed up my notes. Then I created folders which contained sub-folders. For example, I had one labelled ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, which then contained sub-folders called things like: ‘Critics’; ‘Patrons’; ‘Painters’; ‘Poets’; ‘Models’. Then it was simply a matter of filing new notes in the appropriate sub-folder. Of course I also had folders in the ‘real world’, which were a bit harder to manage, but much more of a pleasure to look through. I really preferred reading hard copies of notes. Hard copies also lead to ‘happy accidents’, where I would be looking for one article, and would come across another in the same file that I’d forgotten about entirely, but which turned out to be really useful. At the same time, when I was looking for a particular passage or quotation, it was much simpler to search a digital file than to sift through a pile of papers.


5. What part of the book did you enjoy writing the most?

I really enjoyed writing all of the chapters, and one of the greatest difficulties was moving from one chapter to the next. That transition was always difficult, although it was helped by a little preparation in the beginning. I had planned all the chapters before I started writing, so I always knew what was coming next.

But to answer your question properly: I enjoyed writing the chapter on Maria Rossetti the most, and was terribly pleased with myself when I came up with the title: ‘Half-Sick of Shadows’.  In many ways, I find Maria one of the most fascinating of the Rossettis, probably because she is the least noticed. Yet her career was as original and interesting as that of her other siblings. She was a respected teacher of the Italian language, a dedicated charity worker, a Dante Alighieri scholar and an Anglican nun. None of these paths was particularly common in her era. Like her brother William, who I feel is another unsung hero of the Rossetti family, she didn’t possess the genius of Christina and Gabriel, but she didn’t let that stop her from leading her own life. When she made the break from her family, committing herself to the All Saints Sisterhood, she showed a courage and independence that her better-known brother and sister never possessed. Christina and Gabriel struggled with romantic relationships, and never successfully created their own families. Joining a Sisterhood was a way for Maria (who clearly was never going to marry) to make her own family. Instead of resigning herself to being a spinster and sibling of a more famous sister, she went out and surrounded herself with more sisters than she could count. I admire her enterprising spirit, her intelligence and her drive. Whether or not one agrees with her religious beliefs, her commitment is impressive.

Reading William’s diary recording the days leading up to her death was very moving. The stories of her aunt Eliza bringing her lemons and oranges to suck made me think of Christina’s ‘Goblin Market’, and the way in which the goblins’ poisonous fruit was transformed into an antidote by family love. Right up to the end, Maria  was still trying to get her brothers to convert, yet the agnostic William didn’t seem at all irritated by this, but rather stuck firmly to his own beliefs. You get the sense that the siblings really respected one another, even when they disagreed. Open-mindedness was a leading characteristic of the family, and existed in delightful contrast with its stubbornness. But how else could you have a family containing both hardline Christians and bohemian social butterflies?


6. What do you think makes a really good biography? Did you have any particular role models in mind while you were writing?

I think a strong sense of narrative and place makes a good biography. When teaching, I always notice that an anecdote from an author’s life really gets my students’ attention, and is often the part of the lesson they remember best. Humans love stories, and we love stories about each other. When we gossip about one another, for example, it is not simply malicious; we want to hear how the story continues from where we left off, and we are curious to see how it ends!

Good biographies are as much about place and time as they are about individuals. I love biographies which evoke a sense of place, which was why I did so much research on Victorian London. I wanted to tell the story of a city as much as a story of a family, or rather, I see the two as inseparable. Hilary Spurling’s Burying the Bones: Pearl S. Buck in China does this brilliantly. She really makes the case for how important China was to Buck’s writing and to her identity. I had thought of Buck simply as an American writer until I read this book, and then suddenly I realised how wrong-headed this had been. Spurling evoked the place so beautifully that I felt I was right there with the missionary community in China. She also does a nice job of balancing the discussion of the dark and problematic nature of this proselytizing mission with a sensible consideration of time and place, and an allowance for the behaviour and psychology of the individuals involved. Sweeping generalisations are not for her; she always keeps the story in mind. I also love her economy of words. Spurling has relatively brief chapters, and she only tells her readers what is most important. From reading Spurling, I tried to learn the art of selection – the important detail rather than the kitchen-sink approach. She also writes very well about art, and if you haven’t read it already, her biography of Matisse, Matisse: The Life is unmissable.

Another great biography which has a great sense of place is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, where the American Midwest is as important to the story as the horrifying events at its heart. The stark Kansas landscape, and the character of its people, are so skilfully drawn that it takes my breath away every time I read it. Capote himself claimed to have invented a new style of journalistic prose with this book, but I think it’s really just another kind of biography.

In terms of gracefully incorporating research into the narrative, I looked to Jan Marsh, biographer of Gabriel and Christina. Marsh has a way with a turn of phrase, and is able to communicate a vast amount of information with clarity and elegance. She gave me some valuable advice when I began writing about remembering to keep shifting the focus from one family member to another.

Strange as it may sound, Edith Wharton was another inspiration for this biography. I love the way she writes about highly sophisticated New Yorkers as if she were an anthropologist. She studies the behaviour of her own social circle in terms of tribal psychology, and often uses the language of anthropology to describe their behaviour.

When thinking about the Rossettis (and Victorians in general), I tried to see what was going on underneath their rituals. What else is happening beyond crinolines and calling cards? What are these behaviours communicating beneath the surface?


7. I notice you are an American in London – what motivated you to come over here?

I wanted to come to London to study Christina Rossetti. My PhD was supervised by Professor Daniel Karlin, an authority on Victorian literature, and one of the sharpest and most sensitive of poetry readers I’ve ever met. I was studying at University College London, and my department was steps away from Christina and Frances Rossetti’s house in Torrington Square. I would pass it on an almost daily basis. While I know it sounds corny, studying Rossetti in the city where she lived and worked made me feel closer to the project, more emotionally engaged and involved. I think emotional connections are easy to underestimate, but for me, that sense of environment is important. Of course you can study anyone from anywhere, as long as you bring your imagination to the table. But, as I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to research Rossetti in her native city, I couldn’t turn it down.


8. What do you miss from home and what do you like best about London?

For someone who writes about family, it is ironic that I live so far from my own. Perhaps writing about families is my way of dealing with this. When studying family dynamics, you can’t help but think about your own, and I have secretly cast different members of my family as members of the Rossetti family. It’s a good game. There’s a Christina, Gabriel, William and Maria in every family.

Aside from family, I probably miss food the most. I was back in New York recently, and I kept eating black and white cookies, which are special round cookies, one half of which is iced in chocolate, and the other in vanilla. Heaven! But not good for the waistline. I suspect that the second semester of teaching will help me work it off.

What do I like best about London? Great question! I think it’s the sense of the city as a living being. It changes all the time, and yet is so utterly, recognisably itself. I love the juxtaposition of old and new. For instance, one minute you can be shopping on Oxford Street, and then you turn off onto Margaret Street, and there you are standing in front of All Saints, where Maria Rossetti was a Sister. The street is usually completely quiet, and I always like to look up at the windows of the adjoining buildings, where I know the Sisters lived, and imagine Maria looking back out at me. I know that’s a little bit silly and fantastical, but that’s the kind of thing that London encourages. I think that’s why so many writers and artists are drawn to the city. It is stoical and no-nonsense, yet almost despite itself, it stimulates the imagination.


9. Who do you read for pleasure – who’s on your list of favourite authors?

To my great delight, this is a list that changes all the time. And one that is now being delightfully refreshed by the Litlove blog itself! For instance, I have started reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which I’m really enjoying.

I also love it when I rediscover a writer whose appeal I missed the first time(s) around. In this category are currently: Jane Austen; William Wordsworth; George Eliot; Dante Alighieri

Old favourites are: Richard Russo; Francine Prose; Isabel Allende; PG Wodehouse Emily Dickinson; Milan Kundera; Charles Dickens.

The best new discovery for me this year was Skippy Dies, by Irish writer Paul Murray. Hilarious and profoundly moving, it was the kind of novel I found myself reading very slowly, just to eek out the pleasure.


10. Do you have plans for the next book? What might it be about?

I do have plans for another book, but I believe it is bad luck to discuss a project before it has taken shape. I’m cringing as I write this because I know how precious and silly this sounds. But you develop a superstitious nature when you spend your childhood being told by your Irish-American mother never to break a mirror or leave a hat on the bed. You can see how I ended up writing a biography about family dynamics!

Thank you, Dinah!

Thank you so much for interviewing me, and for asking me such insightful questions. This is one of my favourite literary blogs, and I feel truly honoured to appear here.