The Weaving – Creative Non Fiction

This is a brief creative non-fiction piece I have been working on as I make sense of some significant life events.

THE WEAVING

This is how it starts, the push and pull and the rise and fall. In the centre, in the place where all rivers meet, you will find me. Standing and swaying and weaving with the music of the spheres. Gathering the strands of my life, leading outwards in all directions, from the past, the present, and the potential future, and plaiting them into the strand which is sewn together into the fabric of the world that I create for myself. This is my world. Music and the power to shape things for myself. I have built myself anew, time and time again, reshaping my life one way or another, bending with the varying tides of living and being, of connection and dissection and divergence. In this state of flux, the weaver emerges, with the vision of how warp and weft are meant to come together, an instinctive patterning based on experience, feeling and inspiration.

A new life born from the void; what is this aeon that shifts and sighs and labours without pain, forming without the noise and sweat and mess of bodily existence? What is this new world, this new pattern? Blind movement along unfamiliar paths, treading tentatively, tiny step by tiny step, trusting in a future that remains unformed and unknowable. This is faith, deep and abiding, the only certainty. Faith and trust that there is a pattern, a wider scheme and that this path is one of the threads of the greater whole. The consciousness of life, the universe and everything, that which some call Goddess, surrounds the traveller, the weaver, the woman who gives herself these names and labels. Unfurling, I walk through the darkness, feeling the edges of space and of my own shape, arms unfolding, shoulders lowering and spreading, contours of physical and psychic melding with the shadows that coalesce around me. This is my forward momentum, a path without light and with no guide by my own instinct. This is the moment of flux and the journey through the primordial chaos.

They call it a crisis. Midlife. As if life has a beginning, middle and end, definable waypoints and a predictable endpoint. And what is a crisis? It is the convergence of old paths, a concatenation of happenings and incidents that brings about a shift in consciousness? Is it the confluence of multiple streams in this river of life? It is, in my mind, the point when the threads and plaits of the life that was become tangled, and knotted, until the weaver must halt, unable to continue with the pattern and, knowing that she cannot undo what has been done, must move on and start a new weaving, a new pattern, knit up the fabric of her life with different colours, both new and old. How much she takes forward from the previous weaving is determined by her new perception, her new understanding of what is necessary and what is not, perhaps, or what feeds her soul versus those threads which have tightened, snake like, and brought about the knotted clot she must now make part of the new pattern.

How do we learn? From our mistakes, which translate into experience. The painstaking creation of a life from one action after another, this is the weaving. Action, reaction, consequence. Only by recognising how we have affected ourselves and others, only then can we work with those outcomes and recreate the life we feel is necessary for us. Grief floods the field, like a stain; grief for the life not lived, the choices not made, the time that can never be returned to us, the ways in which we have hurt and been hurt. We see life in one way because for us there is only was, is and will be. But the pain is real, the pain for what we have done to ourselves, to others, the actions that can never be undone. Once a thread is woven into the pattern, it cannot be removed, however imperfect it might be. We cannot unravel, we can only renew, start again, over and over, with better intentions and with trust that the view we now have, looking back, will enable us to make a better tapestry of our future.

This is now. Reaching for the bright threads of life, the greens of nature and life, the earthy browns, the flooding bloody bright red of passion and desire, the warm pinks and bronzes of family and security, the bright silver and gold of inspiration and learning. Love is the rainbow thread, all colours, all colours that have ever been or ever will be possible. But I am the weaver. The pattern unfolds with each twist and turn of the threads, each passage of the shuttle. I have to trust that I will create something better, that there is a new picture that will emerge from the vibrant colours that now lie in my hands. Faith in the future is faith in myself, and my ability to create. This is the weaving.

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Packing Light – a Writer’s Travelogue Part One

Packing Light – a Writer’s Travelogue Part One

I know a lot of people make a living at travel writing, and I must confess the thought crossed my mind as I set off on a week-long, midwinter family break to Lanzarote. I have never visited the Canary Islands, and as my partner is a sun-worshipper, we thought that a brief week away in the sun would be good for all of us. Based on other holidays, and on other reports of the Island, I envisaged long days on the beach and lazy mornings. I anticipated the long wait in the airport and the long walk to the plane, the stress over luggage weight and even a few challenges with food, but the whole experience was more acute and more impactful than I anticipated.

What is it about travel? It always makes me want to write, to record my impressions, but the bitter irony of travel is that there are often fewer opportunities than usual to indulge. The anticipation of a week off with plenty of time to write first affected my packing. I packed my work-in-progress, with the notes from my first edit, and my notebook computer, thinking that I might work on it in the airport or during the slow mornings and hazy evening, perhaps sitting on the balcony of the apartment with a glass of wine, watching the evenings deepen. I packed my diary, a spare notebook, six pens, and plenty of books to read. Reading is my greatest pleasure when travelling. I brought four novels, a book on Jung for research for my next book, and my Kindle with several new books downloaded. I also packed my ipod and of course, the chargers for all the electronic equipment. As for clothes – I packed light – vest . Due to the exorbitant prices for hold baggage, we took only 1 case between the three of us, and otherwise had everything in the hand luggage. I checked and triple checked everything. My teenage son wanted to bring his skateboard, which went into the hold bag, as did a selection of dried food packets to suit my diet (we had planned self-catering so as not to be tied to any timetables).

We rose in the very early hours, shivering through the February night into our clothes, grabbing a quick hot cuppa before checking everything and piling into the car. I have a strange ambiguity about travelling. I hate to leave the cats at the mercy of a visiting cat-sitter, and regret leaving my hoe comforts, but I also long to travel and to explore. I hate the airport, and I hate flying on budget airlines with little space, crammed in with a bunch of strangers and their perfume and assorted noises. But I love to explore new places; it’s a kind of restless hunger for new experiences.

I suppose for the writer, every experience is an opportunity to capture a moment, a sensation, and turn it into fuel for their work. I reconcile the negatives of travel with this concept, which aids me in not only coping with the travel itself but allows me free rein of the imagination, when possible.

After a drive on eerily quiet roads, we arrived early, and waited for check-in. I am a real fan of printing your own boarding pass, but we still had a bag to check. I had tea while we waited, and tried to grab a moment to scribble, but my son was tired and demanding attention. Even at 16, it seems, they need their mothers to help them cope with the early start and the vagaries of airports.

Security feels like an exam, a life-test that everyone must pass; a hurried gauntlet of veiled threat. Having passed this particular test, we convened at some seats in Departures and took turns to go shopping: food for the teenager, drinks for my partner, and for me . . . you guessed it. Books. I glean a particular pleasure from perusing the bookshop at the airport. Titles are displayed differently, and hidden gems can be discovered rapidly. Buy one get one half price never fails to work its magic. In deference to our ‘packing light’ ethos for this holiday, I only bought two books, both novels, chosen rapidly yet surely. In the airport, somehow, my mind focuses in a uniquely peculiar manner, and I never fail to enjoy the rapid selections made at the outset of my journey. With my booty in hand, I settled down to continue reading the pulp sci-fi I had brought with me and started the evening before, ignoring the crowds and quelling the rising tension within me that comes from waiting to hear about the gate, boarding.

Although I could not write at that point – no table, too much stress – my writer’s mind was active, taking in and observing and cataloguing everything around me. The woman who watched me reading, as if fascinated by the way I hold a small paperback, or perhaps by the speed with which I was devouring the book. Yes, I read VERY quickly. I get accused of not reading properly, not absorbing the words. I take in everything about the book, but the better the book, the quicker I read. I’ve always had the capacity to process information rapidly. I wonder if this is perhaps a writerly skill, the ability to put things together with speed and ease.

The general noise of the airport, the horrid smells wafting from the perfume shops, the closeness of so many strangers, all make for an uncomfortable time. Yet I think about characters, about plot, about whether I should give my work-in-progress a predictable or unpredictable ending. I think about the ways in which people behave in public, and this filters through into questions about aspects of the dialogue in writing. During that time, I found myself considering the nature of dialogue in the novel. Do people recall whole conversations as accurately as books suggest? They do not. It is a novelistic falsehood, albeit permitted, to have people recall entire conversations in retrospect. At best we recall a portion of what was said, and how it was said. What we remember most is how we felt, I think, how we reacted to what was said. This makes me think about the ways in which I could represent conversation in my writing.

And so to the plane, to the long, agonising wait for boarding. I hate standing around doing nothing. Standing and reading my book is ok. I put my bags down eventually and sat down, as we were delayed somewhat, going nowhere. I hate that feeling of being stalled. I realised then, as I continued to consume the sci-fi novel (which was surprisingly good), that there were many aspects of travelling that I loathed with a vengeance. Was the end worth the means? Really?

I can view this as an analogy for writing. The initial planning, the excitement, is akin to the first germ of the idea blossoming into a story. The anticipation, the rush, that comes before the hard work. The endurance of the journey itself is like that of the writer, plugging on through difficult conditions, keeping up the energy to continue, somehow, by motivating oneself with the idea that regardless of the difficulties along the way, the end product will be worth it. I wonder if this is harder now, for writers struggling with an almost impossible publishing industry. I fully understand those who take a slightly easier way out by self-publishing. But there is no easy way out, not for anyone, regardless of the end point. There are still steps on the way to beginning the journey, tests to be endured, obstacles to be overcome. And periods of time when nothing happens, there is no forward progress. Yet this is still travelling, this is still writing.

As for packing light? I think I eschewed many of the comforts and luxuries I usually take on holiday, but did not skimp on the essentials. Another good analogy for writing. No luxuries, no indulgences, but don’t skimp on the essentials. Quality rather than quantity. And if that means packing two or three times, repacking, reconsidering, weighing up options, but keeping within the limits specified. I guess setting out on a journey is about discipline and endurance, planning, and having a clear direction and end point. Apply those parameters to writing, and you might just get where you want to go.

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My Funny Valentine

My funny Valentine

I wonder if it has always been the case that love is the focus of most fiction. Creative, twisting plots, thrillers, tragedies, romance . . . all seem to be focus on the concept of love. Getting it, keeping it, betraying it, falling in, falling out, falling for . . . love appears as this all-encompassing power that causes more human tragedy than any other force of nature. We puny humans have moved beyond our fear of the great darkness of nights, ceased to wonder at the magic of the wheeling heavens and starry constellations, even lost our fear of a wrathful, vengeful God. Now, it seems, our main concern has become love.

St Valentine was brutally tortured and murdered. I wonder how many people realise this as they buy roses and chocolates for the one they love, or the ones they love, depending on their inclinations and proclivities. I know women, particularly feminists, who eschew the idea and practice of the Valentine’s day ritual because it is both heteronormative and fundamentally flawed, sexist and based on false ideals of romantic love and ignoring the stark realities of relationships and life in the everyday world. We buy into the fantasy, and we authors perpetuate that fantasy by the very act of writing.

Think of any plot, in a film or book. Then find the love angle. Love is the key to tragedy, to change, it motivates us. In fact, it is the most commonly cited motive for murder. It is the writer’s bread and butter, but love is a fiction. To me, love is the story we have been told, the story that we tell ourselves to give us hope and purpose and meaning, in the absence of other, deeper reasons for being. So much of our time is taken up with love: dreaming about it, looking for it, mourning its loss, even perhaps defining it. But what the stories most often don’t tell us is the unfolding narrative of how love is kept alive by our continuing belief in it. Like any god or idol, love is what we choose it to be. It is he dream we call into being, the thought form created by the common focus of two or more minds. We are the engineers of our own desires, the programmers of our particular love-game, creating its landscape and its identity out of our own minds, which in turn are shaped by the world around us, by the hundreds of other love stories and ideas and the shape and nature of love as defined by the stories that we imbibe from everyone else.

As I writer, I have never set out to tell a love story, but love creeps in and is the essence of every story that seems to come into mind. But instead of romantic love, person-meets-person, falling in love type of love, my stories seem to abound with other, perhaps deeper and more real types of affection. The love of a mother for her children, that is the kind of love I can most easily explore, the inevitable love that seizes a woman, grips her, and challenges her for life. It is the inexplicable unconditional positive regard of the mother, the love that continues regardless of how the child behaves, of what they do to others. It is, in fact, the truest form of love. The love of a child for their parent, that is a similar, almost inevitable affection, particularly for the mothers who bear us, as if we absorb something of their essence in the womb, and are forever attached by that most intimate of relationships.

What most seems to excite the author, the reader, the television viewer, the cinema goer, it seems to me, is not love happening, or existing, but love turned upon itself, the darker side of love. We have created our own Gods, and alongside them it seems we are bound to create our own Demons. And what is a demon but a fallen angel, what is a plot but the moment when love twists and becomes something else? When we think of the cultural meta-narratives of our time – Star Wars, Twilight, Dr Who, Spartacus, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice – or of the never-ending braided threads of the Soap Operas – love is the one abiding common feature of the human condition.

But what is the nature of the love that we find most stimulating and fascinating in our preferred narratives? Is it the pure love that we imagine for ourselves as our goal and ideal in life? Is it the unstained love that springs from innocence? Of course not, that kind of love is too easy, too sweet. It is not the love that makes headlines or sells newspapers, it doesn’t feed the hungry masses who sit in their simulacrum living rooms devouring a diet of pre-processed artificial fodder of every possible variety.

The love that sells, the love that fascinates, intrigues, the love that binds – it is the twisted, deformed love of the tragedy, the horror story, the moral dilemma, the personal challenge. It is the love of the ghost for the living, the soul ripped from life too soon to linger, seeking vengeance or relief, or release from earthly bonds through haunting. It is the love of the maiden for the vampyric attacker, the darkest subtext of violation as the alternate face of love. It is submission, resistance, perversion of the purity towards the unspeakable, the undesirable, the undead. Love gone wrong. Love and its absence. Loss and the bitter darkness that rushes in to fil the gap. Desire gone awry, passion run amok. This is what we know, this is what we crave, as much as the happy ending. It is the twist in the tale, the lovers’ meeting disrupted by the cataclysm, the madwoman in the attic who embodies the ultimate hump in the path towards true love. We frame love as something wonderful, something desirable, something which fuels life, without realising that love itself is the darkest power, and love gone wrong the most terrifying plot twist of all.

This is what I think of when I see the bunches of roses in the shops, the red hearts and the cards stamped with messages of love. I see the bleeding body of a mutilated saint, the rictus of pain and death on the face of a friend, the bitter weeping of a broken heart, acid hot tears bleeding from the source of all pain. Without love, without the failed promise of the love we have created and fictionalised, the love that never fails to disappoint, would the world be a better place? Without love, I fear, there would be far fewer stories, and the stories themselves would be almost unrecognisable, limiting us to a meagre pool of sanitised storylines. Do we want the real stories, the ones that happen after the happily ever after? Do we want to know what happens when Prince Charming has a beer gut, or how he leaves his toenail clippings on the side of the bath? Do we want to hear about the Princess’s frustration as, against her better judgment, feminist values and beliefs about love and relationships, she finds herself keeping house and realises she is the only person who even thinks about cleaning the fridge? Do we want to hear about the death of passion, desire and spontaneity in the face of daily intimacy, of sharing a bathroom, of morning breath and night time flatulence?

Of course we don’t. We want the fairytale, the romance, the promise, the dreams. We want the fantasy. And that is what we writers keep feeding our readers. Even writers like me. I set out in my first novel to give a stark, unequivocal insight into one woman’s mind, experiences and struggles. In my second book, my current work in progress, I am equally explicit. But even I find myself unable to avoid the desire for the happy ending. In my first book, I had a choice of two endings, one ‘happy’ and one tragic. In this work in progress, I have a choice of THREE endings, and I am still debating which way to go. I love a happy ending as much as the next reader, but I also love the idea of not following the herd and twisting my story out of the grasping, tenacious hands of the traditional story arc.

I’ll wait and see. And let the lingering cynicism and disillusionment of the warped commercialisation of Valentine’s day pass before I make a decision. This is the life of the writer, I guess, making huge decisions that no one else sees, struggling with dilemmas without recognition. I love it. This is love, the unconditional kind. There is never a moment I am not in love with writing, with being an author. Stick that in your box of chocolates, St Valentine!

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Taking it to the Next Level

Taking it to the Next Level

Well, this has been a roller-coaster of a week. It started off with a January low, the post-festive energy dipping and the darkness and cold shrinking my world to the daily necessities. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, it felt as if the tasks ahead – including working on the next novel, finishing and writing up research – seemed more like insurmountable mountain peaks than simple life tasks. Add to this the continuing shock of the daily early morning start, and you end up with one struggling author.

Then came the bright star in the dark night of winter. This week, my novel Inshallah was a Kindle daily deal. I was not allowed to advertise it beforehand, so rose early on the 15th to start sharing it on social media. At work, I engaged in some shameless self-marketing by sending an email to my colleagues informing them of the good news. This elicited a couple of comments from colleagues who had read, and enjoyed, the book. And that was when it began, the realisation that the book is really a book, not my book any more, but out there, on its own, grown up and living its own life in the wider world.

The next level came when another writer messaged me several times to give me tips on how to maximise my experience of being the daily deal, showing me how to keep track of the position of the book in the Kindle chart, and suggesting I keep screenshots of this information for my own records. I had had no idea that this would be such a significant experience. In between meetings, admin and teaching prep, I popped on to Amazon and watched my book climb and climb. By the time I got home in the evening, it was number 68, in the top 100 kindle books, a significant achievement by all accounts. I celebrated alone, but felt so enthused that I whizzed through some research work and then got stuck into some writing. When I went to bed, it was still number 68. Breaking with my usual habits, I took my notebook computer to bed and when I rose at 5.30 the next day, switched it on to find my novel was number 16! Number 16 in the Kindle chart, where it stayed for much of the morning.

Suddenly, I’m a bestselling author.

The first five months of being published have been wonderful. I have spoken at a literary festival, blogged, give talks at libraries and bookshops. But still, it has felt as if the book would stay in limited circles, the province of a small cadre of readers from Wales or within the sphere of literary fiction. Not that I’m complaining – far from it! I am delighted that anyone, anyone at all, is reading the book. The reviews have all been wonderful, people enjoying it and saying they can’t put it down. It’s a delight. The book works. The hard work I put into it seems to have paid off. The fact that people are moved and affected by the book matters to me.

The timing of the daily deal did disturb me somewhat – coming so close after the incidents in Paris, in the midst of a new tide of anti-Muslim sentiment. I have written a book which presents Islam as a faith, a positive, supportive, helpful influence in one woman’s life. I made a distinction between faith, and the Arabic culture that my character, like me, struggles to understand and come to terms with. I made no judgements in the book about this different culture, recognising my own status as outsider, as alien. But I do understand faith, and in a life dominated by women and women’s issues, I enjoyed the chance to explore one woman’s perspective on her life. In the face of the tragic happenings on the news, I sat in fear. As a writer, I feel a solidarity with the people at the magazine who died in the name of free speech. But as an individual, a person of faith, who respects those who are truly Muslim, I also felt terrible that their belief system was again being used as an excuse for extremist violence and terrorism. On the day my book was launched, at my first launch event, a Muslim woman accused me of being insensitive releasing a book with the title Inshallah during Ramadan (a coincidence). She had not read the book. She assumed that as a Western, non-Muslim writer I would not be presenting a positive view of Islam. This is understandable. I hope I reassured her with my responses to her questions. But at the same time, I realised then what has been forcefully reinforced now – that this book takes me into a critical, monstrous reality where none of us is safe.

It’s just a book, a novel about a woman and her struggle to survive.

But now . . . now it’s out there and hundreds of people across the country are reading it. I’ve let it go and it must make its own way now, without my input. And it feels good. It feels like I can concentrate now on the next book.

This is the next level, a writer grappling with the unwieldy mass of a first draft, with all its omissions (‘oh, I’ll put that bit in later when I can get my head around it’), flaws (‘I’m sure that character has a different name in the beginning’ and ‘that character/plot shift is too unexpected, I need to write them into the book earlier’), challenges (one-dimensional characters) and dilemmas (mainly the ending – at present, I have three options). There are brief moments of pleasure, such as finding a particularly well written segment and feeling that rare but familiar rush of feeling at a job well done. There are many, many moments of frustration at the sheer donkey-work that I must undertake to shift things around, fill in the gaps, build layer after layer, and wrangle unwieldy characters into place. And there is the constant, nagging and unnecessary fear and doubt, that maybe the first time was a fluke, and I’m not really a writer, and I won’t be able to do it again. This is my biggest fear, but it gets squashed and sat on, on a daily basis, as I hold true to the knowledge that I’ve made it to the end once, and created a book that works, so I can definitely do it again. I don’t think I can recreate the particular conditions that forged Inshallah over a seven year period – and I don’t think I want to. Life has moved on, and just as my first born is out in the world, so my writing has moved on to another level. I’m ready to attack this next manuscript with confidence, and with the hope that my readers will enjoy this new offering (if, by the grace of all the gods, the publishers like it too).

Now, just to get to grips with these three different endings . . . .

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Writing About Islam – Questions about Paris, Art and Freedom

I never expected to be getting into a political cataclysm when I started this harmless blog about my writing, but today I find that only grasping the nettle works in relation to addressing my ongoing writing life. In the light of current political, social and media debate about the recent events in Paris, I find myself more and more disturbed by the continuing rhetoric and representation of Islam.

I am not a Muslim. But I wrote, and published, a novel about Islam. I spent seven years writing this novel, as a means of exploring how women make (and stick to) inexplicable choices. I wanted to explore the idea of faith, and of how this can result in people making decisions that seem simply ludicrous to the outside world. To me this was the story of any woman who sees her fate laid out for her. In my novel, Inshallah, my character Amanda converts to Islam and marries the man who has got her pregnant. She believes this is the ‘right’ thing to do, that she is being shown what to do with her life. It is clear that she feels a higher power is guiding her to making these decisions. As one of my reviewers puts it, she leaves one emotional wasteland of a life for another, but makes this decision believing that she is following some kind of divine direction. She believes she is doing the right thing. During this time she is challenged in almost every way a woman can be challenged, but her faith remains constant. I aimed to represent Islam as a faith like other faiths, one which is full of beauty and spiritual wisdom. I took great pains to distinguish between Islam and Arabic culture, which are different, and to emphasise the cultural elements of her life that restricted Amanda, as distinct from her religious faith. I also took pains to emphasise that the abusive husband is just that – abusive, unhinged, violent and out of control – and that this had nothing to do with his religion. In fact, it is clear that he is not a person of faith.

During the process of researching the book, I discovered many things. I found that the Koran is beautifully written, with many powerful passages about life and the world. Reading sections of it often moved me deeply. I could understand so many people finding grace within its pages. I talked to Muslim people, and explored their faith and their perspectives, and again, found beauty, peace, eloquence, passion, and in many cases, a commitment to living a spiritual life that I did not find in my more secularly-oriented friends. I felt, by the end of writing Inshallah, that I had learned, and grown, through this journey, much as Amanda did. I could only claim a small increase in understanding, a tiny insight into a vast world of religion, but it brought about a new kind of respect for people of this faith.

And then the world turned, and the news began to show the atrocities of people using Islam as a supposed justification for acts of violence and terrorism, and my new-found insight was shaken. Now, almost six months after my novel was published, I wonder at my audacity in undertaking such a task. I see no real relationship between the religion I saw in the Koran, and in the words, hearts and faith of the Muslims I talk to, and the current public opinion on Islam. I see violence and murder and upheaval and uncertainty, and I realise that there are two kinds of religion. There is the personal faith of the individual, and there is the wider institution of religion which can be subverted for political ends, means and outcomes. Just as in the Middle Ages, when the whole of Britain was bled dry to fund the Crusades into the Holy Land, in the name of religion, we see a division between people, and their rights to live as individuals, and quasi-religious/political movements which use religion to oppress people.

As a writer, the events in recent days sadden me as well as filling me with outrage, anger, and grief at the impact on individuals, families, communities and nations. It angers me that once again extremism has destroyed so many things – lives, security, peace, and the sense of freedom which is a prerequisite for a Western lifestyle. There are many things wrong with our own political and social systems, and as a writer I can challenge these and raise questions – as writers have done for centuries. I can’t imagine a world in which I cannot exercise that particular freedom securely.

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The Books in my Life – Old Favourites are Old Friends

I don’t know how it is for other authors, but my love of writing stems from my love of reading. I devour books, like a greedy child grabbing for second and third helpings, and like a child, I have little self-control and no concept of satiety. In fact, it has been many years since I finished a book and thought, ah, that’s enough! That’s not to say that books have not gripped me and moved me – these are the books I long for. I long to be lost in their depths.

But this blog is not about the new reads, this is about those books that you love so much you read time and time again. There is no greater pleasure than to feel the call of an old, familiar and much-loved friend, and to open its faded pages and battered cover and feel the pleasure of old acquaintance.

People ask me what my favourite book is, and it is difficult to say. My feelings about the best books on my shelves vary from day to day, relating to my mood and my current state of mind. I have some ‘core favourites’ that will always be in my top five – the Lord of the Rings, The Fifth Sacred Thing, the Handmaids Tale, Little Women, Jane Eyre . . . but then there are others which also blow my mind. I love classic children’s books like What Katie Did, and new classics like A Tale for the Time Being and The Fault in Our Stars. These books have affected me profoundly, and I return to them like returning home to visit family – a family that loves me unconditionally and will always be there when I need them. Other books that have moved me have taken me away from the most difficult times of my life – from grief and loss, from relationship breakdown, having a teenager in the house, struggling with work. I am never far away from my favourites, but they all mean something different.

I have been obsessed with books for so long that I don’t know any more if anyone else lives and loves through books in the way that I do. Way back in my younger years, I discovered that I could learn as much through fiction as I could through non-fiction. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books taught me about family, and a lot of practical survival skills, whilst science fiction taught me to dream beyond the boundaries of the world. Pagan and magical novels taught me a lot about the history of ritual magic and Wicca, and other novels taught me about relationships, people, other places in the world, honour and valour and determination and how to be the person that I’m supposed to be. Oh, how I longed to write a book that would have the same effect on other people! How I longed to affect people the way in which these authors affected me!

And it seems that my life goes in phases, day to day, week to week – from reading only new books, to suddenly seeking solace in my old friends. I can reach for the book on the self and find myself back in the familiar arms of a comforting embrace.

How has this affected me as a writer? I think it has taught me a lot about what stories work for me, and the kinds of characters I prefer to engage with. I think that loving books this much has had many benefits, including an innate belief in the capability of the author to engage and absorb the reader. That’s all I ever wanted, I guess, from my own work. I wanted people to engage, to feel something, to not be able to put the book down. I wanted to write something that people would fall in love with, and would have to re-read. But when I am writing, I’m not thinking like that. I don’t think about engaging the reader until I’ve finished the first few drafts. I’m more obsessed with finishing the story and feeling satisfied with it myself.

When writing Inshallah, I wanted to give voice to my love of immersion in the world of someone else. I wanted to give voice to the character who emerged during the development of the narrative. When I read the final draft, I thought, did I write that? I had found a voice, and written a book that seized my imagination. And so far, I have only had one bad response to it. Most readers are caught up in the plot, in the urgency, and understand that Amanda’s character is a challenging one. Most understand the unique personal perspective which means that seeing everything through Amanda’s lens does not allow for any other view of the other characters. Most understand that a limited and flawed character is often fundamental to a plot that involves a journey of self-discovery. But it is only in retrospect that I can see my work in these terms. I have become the reader and that is how I understand my own writing.

Inshallah is available from www.honno.co.uk or from Amazon

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This Writing Life

Like buses, it seems, you wait all your life, and then several come along at once. I don’t know if there is some kind of universal formula, perhaps amount of time demanded by work, multiplied by time spent dreaming, plus the cube root of perseverance, equals too many ideas at once.

This writing life, it seems, is a conglomeration of what everyone else sees and the crazy mind-world of the writer juggling various stages of different books. So Inshallah is on the shelves, and I am gratified and happy to get the feedback. Readers love it. They can’t put it down. They tell me how they stayed up all night to read it, and how much they wanted to shake Amanda for her decisions, and how angry they are at her husband, and how mystified they are about the actions of other women. They tell me that it feels as if they are really there, living and breathing the tastes and sounds of Saudi Arabia alongside her, chopping onions and learning Arabic and getting sick at the smell of tripe stew. This is wonderful. It’s clear that the book I spent so much time on is making a difference to people, giving them that sense of pleasure and escapism that I long for as a reader. Great feedback, and I hope the book goes from strength to strength.

So here I am an author, and attending events and talking about the book, and smiling when people tell me they’ve read it – this is the persona I have longed to be able to adopt for so long. But at the same time, I’m a writer, and that means writing. And writing means finding time to concentrate on the current project, which is now at the editing stage. I finally finished its first incarnation a couple of days ago. My new baby is, like all newborns, weak and dependent, needing maternal love and nurturing to grow and stand on its own two feet. It needs a lot of work, a lot of shaping, feeding, trimming, and dressing up to make it acceptable to the outside world. In order to do this, I have to be both mother and father, teacher and custodian. I am like the perfect parent in that I must be firm and unrelenting in shaping and socialising this beast so that it is ready for company. But it’s still my baby, so I worry about it and whether it will ever be ready to cut the apron strings and face the outside world.

In the midst of this shift into parenting mode, after (ironically) around nine months of gestation and creation, I have to deal with the kind of plot twist that authors should be accustomed to, the emergence of a sudden change, an obstacle, this time, in the form of more ideas. I have to treat these like fertilised embryos, allowing them to coalesce, honouring the moment of conception, then freezing them just after that point, and storing them until the point when I can devote a period of my life to letting them implant, grow, and be born in their turn.

My family of books and stories. My firstborn is out in the world, and my second creation is growing, and may find a place out there too, although nothing is guaranteed. And meantime, I’m writing academic chapters for textbooks and trying to write essays for collections and competitions. And the sequel to Inshallah is sitting there in a test tube in the freezer, waiting for the right time to be brought into being.

Meanwhile, everyone I know seems to be writing a book as well, and here I am, published, and they are asking for my opinion on their work. I’m happy to give it. I’m happy to hear that other people I like and admire are writing and creating. But in the midst of all this reading and commenting, and my teaching and marking and student support, and cooking and cleaning and shopping and filling in forms for school, and paying bills and planning Christmas, I wonder, where’s the room for writing?

Does it matter? Some might see this as a hobby. But when someone asks me about my book, and my writing, or when someone demands a sequel (who’d have thought they’d want to know what happens next), I feel like this is who I was born to be. I love books. I could talk about them all day. I could talk about my books forever.

So I sit and look at my next book-to-be. It’s nothing like my first, except for the moral dilemma issue, which is at the core of the story. Or is it a mystery? Or an identity crisis? These are all good questions. I’m still not sure. I don’t think writers are. I don’t think we go into writing a book saying it will be a ‘tour de force of Orwellian proportions’ or any of that bullshit that you see in the reviews and on the covers of the best sellers. We don’t sit down and say, today I will write an insightful critique on modern family life, or anything. We write stories. We get ideas, and the ideas start to live inside us, and the characters start to talk, and once they get their voices heard, they often won’t shut up. But it takes perseverance commitment, pragmatism and a certain degree of blindness to keep on writing. It’s not easier once you’ve been published, quite the opposite. When people tell me how good my book is, suddenly I’m frozen in fear, halted by self doubt. What if this one isn’t as good? What if nobody likes this one? What if I picked the wrong story, the wrong characters, the wrong setting?

And then it comes down to the question of why am I writing? Am I writing to be published, or am I writing because I have a story that simply has to be told? I’ve gone with the latter. After all, it worked the first time round.

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