“You know it’s been a great writing day when it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten”: Benjamin Wood on writing The Ecliptic

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

The EclipticIn Benjamin Wood’s second novel, The Ecliptic, we delve into the story of Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conroy, a passionate, though somewhat lost, painter. Her desperate pursuit of truth and capturing it in her creations leads her to flee the commercialised 1970s London art scene. Refuge awaits off the coast of Istanbul in the form of Portmantle — the secret retreat on the island of Heybeliada which houses an eclectic group of creatives, from painters to architects and writers.

Will Ellie reconnect with her muse? What exactly was she fleeing from? And is this Turkish haven really everything she thought it would be? All come to light in Benjamin’s book, a fascinating journey into the mind of a passionate artist and her quest for creative authenticity.

The frequently thrilling and consistently moving story was sparked by Benjamin’s own experiences in Istanbul during a three-month artist-in-residence cultural exchange programme which the 34-year-old, Southport-raised writer was selected for by the British Council. Set up with an apartment in Istanbul for the duration, he was handed a simple mission: explore.

Here, the senior lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, discusses his Turkish adventure, crafting his novel, and the pursuit of authenticity in art.

Hi Benjamin. How was the Istanbul experience?

I was so absorbed by it. There’s something about the city itself­ — it’s a meeting place of continents, and it has an innate sense of history, but equally there’s a certain manner to the people there that I enjoyed. It was quite a levelling experience. I felt that there was a frenetic energy to the city, but also an astounding natural beauty. I could wander alone and feel quite a part of things even though it was a different culture from the one I grew up in. But actually, I don’t know if it was the people or the landscape that I found most inspiring. I think it was going back and forth from the mainland to the islands on the ferry that gave me the strongest connection to the place.

That’s where the idea for the book really came to mind, wasn’t it? What sparked it?

It was visiting the island, Heybeliada, and discovering that a Turkish author Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar had lived and worked there. That set my creative head spinning, wondering about the possibilities of how far I could extend this idea of a reclusive artist at work on the island, and how I could use the landscape to hypnotise the reader.

In the book you go into beautiful detail about the process of painting and creating art in general. I believe you went to art college for a while in your youth, but beyond that, what research was involved?

A mix of book learning, extrapolation and some imaginative projection, I suppose. A lot of the stuff about Ellie wandering around Paddington with her sketch book is something I do as a writer. If I’m looking to write about somewhere, I go there and try to memorise the scene and convey that in language — these are things a painter does, it’s just that my medium is different.

How did you come to flesh out the central character, Ellie?

I tend to read a lot of life stories of artists or creative people who I find inspiring. With this, I was reading about Alasdair Gray and Francis Bacon and John Craxton. I tried to find ways to appropriate elements of their lives and create a viable character of my own.

I try to build a character out of found materials and my own personal reflections, to mould them into something that’s believable and authentic — as authentic as fiction can be, anyway.

Ellie goes through some very dark times. Do your characters take you down a dark path personally when you’re writing them?

I tend to be drawn to characters that are solitary and autodidactic, and who feel both compelled towards the world they inhabit, but also repelled by that world too. My characters tend to be only children with few friends who have a very active interior life.

It does make you go to places you wouldn’t wish to go to in your own life, but when you imagine your character in situations like that, it’s one of the most affecting things you can do. You really feel like you’ve been there yourself and, even though you haven’t experienced that particular thing, somewhere you have access to the truth of what it feels like. I’m not saying there aren’t inconsistencies, but when you go into that inner darkness of the character, you realise that it exists in you as well.

Does it feel cathartic?

Yes, it’s saved me a ton in therapy. (Laughs) I’ve always been an aggressively creative person. I think it’s because I work out so much of my anguish that way.

A photo of Istanbul taken by Benjamin during his writing residency

A photo of Istanbul taken by Benjamin during his writing residency

Do you miss the characters once the book is finished?

I miss being in their headspace. It’s an odd thing, because they’re always with you, in a way, but equally you move on to the next project. It’s like being an actor going from one role to the next; you give up so much of yourself to get it on the page, but the character gives you so much in return. But you forget so much of them as soon as you send off the draft. You have to do that otherwise you would go completely mad.

There’s a flushing out process in between novels when you need a year — well, I need a year — to get over the last one and ruminate on the next one and find the right voice.

When doing her best work, Ellie becomes completely absorbed in her work and time seems to stand still. Do you crave those moments in your own writing?

Yes! You reach this plane of consciousness where you’re not aware you are writing and creating. You’re just in this…it’s like when you look at a heat shimmer on a hot day. It’s like that shimmer is all around you. Those moments come rarely, so when they come to you, you go until you are exhausted.

You know it’s been a great writing day when it’s 4pm and you haven’t eaten. You come out of it and suddenly you’re hungry, then you look back and you have written 5,000 words. Those days rarely come at the beginning, they tend to come at the end when everything is coalescing and words just seem to flow.

It’s a physical rapture that you feel when it’s going absolutely as well as it can. And those moments usually need the least amount of retouching afterwards. Because it’s like the tap has opened up and it’s clear water rushing out.

Benjamin Wood (photo credit Nicholas Wood)What’s next for you?

I’m writing my next novel. I’ve got the research behind me now, and I’m entering the writing stage. I’m in the foothills of the thing. Actually the thing that takes me the longest isn’t the writing; it’s all the formulation of the character and finding the voice. It takes a long time to find the right framework and the right voice to it all. Once I’ve got that, it gets much easier to commit the words to the page.

How do you find striking a balance between writing and your teaching work?

It can be exhausting but you learn to manage. I tend to be a ‘compartmentaliser’ anyway, so when I’m at Birkbeck I’m doing Birkbeck stuff, and the days which I’m allotted for research are my writing days and nothing really interrupts them.

I also find that I get into a bit of a funk when I’m not teaching and I’m solely working on a novel. Teaching keeps me in the real world, and gives me purpose beyond churning out a creative project. I find I bounce off the energy of this place.

I find teaching really rewarding. It allows me to think about my own craft continuously, to look at the work of great writers and see how their stories function. You’re teaching yourself as much as you’re teaching others.

The Ecliptic is available now in hardback and Kindle. His first novel, The Bellwether Revivals is also available across print and digital formats

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Where are all the grandparents in modern fiction?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel,Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart is out now from Halban Publishers. This article was originally published on The Guardian‘s books blog.

Grandparents-in-contemporary-literatureConsidering how important grandparents are in many modern families – plugging the gaps and picking up the pieces when the stresses and strains on working parents get too much – isn’t it surprising that we don’t find more of them in contemporary fiction?

There is, of course, no shortage of memorable grandparents in children’s literature, beaming benignly – or occasionally malevolently – from the bookshelves: from the four grandparents in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, via Grannie Island and Granma Mainland in Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag series to David Walliams’ Gangsta Granny, grandparents seem a far richer source of inspiration than boring old parents.

But look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at 60 and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfilment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply. One rare exception is Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson’s magical The Summer Book. Jansson (of Moomintroll fame) here turns her shrewd gaze on the interaction between an elderly grandmother and her six-year-old granddaughter, spending the summer together on an island in the Finnish archipelago. The book is beautiful, astute and tells us a lot both about childhood and about old age.

When my novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, which examines the relationship between a grandmother and her young grandson, was published at the end of 2014, my expectations were low: I hadn’t published a novel for 20 years, my (excellent) publishers are a small independent house and a number of mainstream commercial publishers had previously rejected the book, telling me that it didn’t fit on their lists. So I was quite unprepared for the extraordinary reactions that began almost as soon as the book came out.

front coverIn Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart, Sylvia’s bond with her grandson is threatened when his parents split up, driving her to extreme measures. I was invited on to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4, together with Jane Jackson of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group, which helps those denied contact with their grandchildren after family breakdown. I was quite panicked at the thought of my fiction side-by-side with real-life heartbreak. During the programme, I learned that a million British children have no contact at all with their grandparents because of some form of family rift. After our discussion, Woman’s Hour received so many emails from listeners with their own stories that they opened the programme the next day with a family therapist talking about the issues raised.

Sobered, I went about my business (including getting on with my next novel). A couple of weeks later, I was interviewed by a journalist who told me her own story of a family breakup triggering a loss of contact with grandchildren. Then a neighbour who had enjoyed the book told me about the predicament of a close friend, denied contact with her beloved grandchildren after their parents divorced. Real life, it seemed, was starting to outstrip fiction.

Last month I gave a reading at JW3, London’s new Jewish community centre. Grandparents were invited to come along and join a discussion of the themes raised by the book. Although the weather was cold enough to deter a much younger audience, the room was full and one after another the audience opened up with their own experiences. One woman, a grandma to 11 grandchildren, reduced many of us to tears with the desperate story of how her ex-son-in-law had denied her access to his children following the death of the children’s mother, her own daughter.

My humorous look at a warring mother-in-law and daughter-in-law suddenly felt rather light-hearted. It was a relief when another member of the audience spoke up: “You know the bit where Sylvia gives her grandson ice cream even though her daughter-in-law doesn’t allow it? I’ve done that.” There was a ripple of recognition around the room.

Other posts by Helen Harris:

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Can creative writing be taught?

Helen-Harris-Jul-2014-0366-smaller-versionThis post was contributed by Helen Harris (MA Oxon), associate lecturer in creative writing in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. Her new novel, Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published by Halban Publishers on 13 November.

Creative writing lecturers are used to the scepticism – occasionally tinged with downright hostility – with which some people react when they reveal their profession. “Do you really believe you can teach someone to write?” Well yes, personally I believe that with patience and imagination it is possible to teach anyone to do anything.

What is more disturbing is when a successful writer who also teaches creative writing loudly announces – as Hanif Kureishi did earlier this year – that creative writing courses are “a waste of time.” Cue uproar. Even as he spoke, creative writing courses were proliferating in universities up and down the country.

What is perhaps even more puzzling is that this scepticism seems to be shared by a number of students who enrol on creative writing modules. Some of them insist to me, for example, that the marking of their coursework must be subjective, that their friends thought it was brilliant and if I have not given it the high mark it so obviously deserves, that is just because my taste does not coincide with their friends’. Reminding them that all the coursework is second marked has little effect; creative writing is an imprecise individualistic business they seem to believe, certainly not an exact science with its own measures and its own criteria.

I could not walk into the classroom, certainly not at 7.30pm on a wet and windy November evening, if I didn’t believe I was teaching my students anything worthwhile. But what do I think I am actually teaching them?

For the past three years I have been delivering an introductory creative writing module which is part of Birkbeck’s BA English: “Writing Fiction”. My students are second to fourth year undergraduates. I begin the module by outlining what I believe I can – and what I can’t – teach them. The “can’t” list is actually quite short. I can’t teach them what to write; the story comes from them. Similarly, just as they all speak in their own voice with their own accent and vocabulary and mannerisms, the voice in their writing will be their voice. I tell them that within a few weeks I will be able to identify which student has written which piece of coursework even without names attached.

What I believe I can teach them is essentially craft. I run through the list of topics we cover in the first term – character, beginnings, plot, dialogue, point of view – and I explain that I am here to instruct them primarily in technique, not in how to write but how to write better. It is, I sum up cheerily, not much different from plumbing. (My all-time favourite student feedback form read roughly as follows: “I was a bit taken aback when Helen said at the beginning she would be teaching us to write in the same way that you might be taught how to assemble an IKEA bookcase. But as an approach I found it worked.”)

Of course it’s not quite like assembling an IKEA bookcase (something of which I am incidentally incapable.) But my students – and I expect most creative writing students – finish their course with a deeper understanding of what makes good fiction and how it works. Some of them lament that the way they read has changed; they fear they have lost the simple pleasure of enjoying a ‘good read’ without watching carefully to see what the writer is doing and how he/she is doing it. I tell them that this is in fact an encouraging sign of their progress.

front coverThe last session of the year was payback time. My new novel Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart will be published in November. Over the year, we have spent many evenings workshopping their writing. For our final class I put my money where my mouth is. I emailed them the first chapter of Sylvia Garland’s Broken Heart and asked them for critical feedback in our evening workshop. They set about the task with evident relish. As I listened to their feedback – “Is this really Jeremy’s point of view here or is it actually Sylvia’s?” “You told us not to include too much descriptive writing but you’ve got loads” – I could tell how much they had learnt over the year about writing fiction. And although I may have winced a couple of times, I am confident some of them will go on to write their own novels one day.

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Twitterfiction can work, but David Mitchell’s story is a bit of a flop

BiancaLeggettThis post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities. It was originally published on The Conversation.

When an author who insists he is “not really a social media animal” writes a Twitter story, we should at least raise an eyebrow. When that same author goes on to say he wrote the story at his publisher’s instigation, we might question what the point is in reading on. You wouldn’t catch a novelist promoting his new book of poems by announcing that he never really liked poetry but, you know, he thought he’d give it a go.

But then, David Mitchell is an author who can afford to take risks. Since the publication of Ghostwritten in 1999, Mitchell has won, not only a succession of awards and a huge and ardent readership both within and far beyond academic circles. I can think of no other author who has won a Richard & Judy Book Award and also been the subject of two academic conferences and an essay collection.

Mitchell’s novels are typically of a genre which Douglas Coupland termed “translit”, made up of a vast number of narrative threads which are interlaced across space and time, sometimes extending into the realm of supernatural or futuristic. The reader is challenged to “join the dots”, not only revealing a skillful patterning at work in Mitchell’s writing, but also an ethical message about the interconnection — and interdependence — of all life. Twitter, itself a vast dot-to-dot playing out across time and space, ought to hold some promise for an author of Mitchell’s inventiveness.

The Right Sort, which began on July 14 and just culminated, is one such dot. Tweeted in a succession of twice-daily bursts for a week which leaves the reader hanging, it is itself a kind of teaser. The story is apparently set in the “same universe” as Mitchell’s upcoming novel The Bone Clocks, but until readers get a look at the novel when it comes out in September, we won’t know quite where in that universe it fits.

It’s 1978 and Nathan Bland, a sensitive teen struggling with his parents’ divorce, is being dragged to a “soirée” by his mother. On reaching the strangely out-of-the-way house, he is abandoned to the company of Jonah, a boy with a strange confidence and peculiar turn of phrase. Nathan’s senses have been skewed by the valium he sneaked from his mother’s supply that morning. This gives some elasticity to our reading of his following narration as it turns more macabre and fantastical. If the story begins by recalling Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, Black Swan Green, it soon steers us into darker territory, a place in which time begins to behave in a thoroughly unsettling manner.

In interview, Mitchell has gamely suggested some of the literary possibilities of Twitterfiction which he has tried to harness in this story. He has spoken of the creative possibilities of the “straitjacket” form of 140 characters, citing the famously obscure Oulipo movement as a parallel. The “pulse-like” quality of each Tweet, meanwhile, allowed him to mimic Nathan’s valium saturated perceptions.

Fair enough, but none of this suggests that Mitchell has actually read any Twitterfiction, nor really begun to appreciate some of its unique possibilities. He’s been missing out.

Ideally, tweets should be able to stand alone or be read together with equal fluency: Teju Cole’s sharply satirical Seven short stories about drones or Jennifer Egan’s futuristic spy story Black Box achieved this.

Twitter’s rhythm best suits a description of the present or imagined future and can be turned in on itself, as Cole and Egan use it, to question the direction in which we are moving. Hurtling by in a fragmentary form, tweets remain potentially intimate and can accumulate power by being played out over time. Jonathan Gibbs’s beautifully written @365daystory was being told over the period of a year and described the story of one woman’s life from birth to death. The project has now been handed over to new authors, suggesting another of the possibilities which Twitterfiction has opened up: collaborative authorship.

The noise surrounding Mitchell’s story suggests it has been well received, but appreciated in the manner we gulp down a taster at an ice cream stand. We were going to buy the full-sized portion anyway, but a little free sample has generated our good will and whetted our appetite. The Right Sort is a rich short story in itself, but remains, in essence, a Twitter story for people who don’t like Twitter. Its multiple cliffhangers frustrate more than they delight and will surely have confirmed for many first time Twitterfiction readers what they already suspected: that they’d rather curl up with a book.

The Conversation

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