faber & faber
It’s a lovely warm night, a night for rosé wine and sitting on the steps admiring the tulips. Spring is most definitely here because nine year old Joe has resumed his seasonal mountaineering practice and is climbing in and out of the front window. But the Divine Ms Anna, dressed all in black, has darker things in mind. No vernal frolics for us - the guest of honour at tonight’s literary salon is Helen Fitzgerald, whose affable exterior and laconic manner hide a seething mass of twisted preoccupations. No wonder the soup tonight is deep red borscht, curdling in the plate like blood.
Last time Helen came to talk to the salon it was about The Cry, a piece of domestic noir that became a bestseller. Her latest novel, The Exit, falls into the category of dementia noir, a sinister tale of Alzheimer’s, danger and unspeakable sexual proclivities promulgated on the internet. She decided to write it when she came back from Australia after the death of her own father two years ago. ‘Then I discovered everyone was writing about dementia,’ she says, laughing.
Her initial thought, she admits, was to write about elderly people being sexually abused. A shudder goes round Ms Anna’s living room at the very idea. ‘I know. No-one wants to read about that,’ says Helen, whose publishers did however agree to her writing about an equally esoteric form of sexual abuse, no less repellent, though I won’t reveal it for those who haven’t yet read the book. Suffice to say that the ways of the publishing world are mysterious to the point of incomprehensibility. Religions have been founded on less gnomic principles than the book industry.
From dementia to sexual abuse may seem a strange leap of thought to those unfamiliar with the Fitzgerald oeuvre, which is dark, taut and deals with the very worst of human nature. This nihilism is clearly a family trait. Helen’s sister Ria, stylish in short dress and cowboy boots and as blonde and slender as Helen is dark and slender, confesses that she has frequent mental rehearsals for the day she has to get out of the back seat of a car sinking in the river. ’You don’t want those electric windows. They could just stop working altogether if water gets into them,’ she insists. Those of us without the Fitzgerald gene for imagining Gothic life events would clearly be at a distinct disadvantage in case of vehicular flooding.
Helen’s first encounter with dying was the death of her grandmother when she was 19. Visiting her in a Melbourne hospice left her shaken.
‘I was young and frightened of old people. I felt I was in there forever but it was only five minutes probably.’
Her grandmother confided that the staff were poisoning her, something Helen dismissed as the fantasies of a demented old lady at the time. It was only later that the thought began to emerge. What if it wasn’t?
Perhaps because of her own family history, her sympathetic portrait of Rose, an elderly lady with Alzheimer’s, is one of the triumphs of the book. Rather than showing the disease, she shows the person - who she was both as a child, when she suffered a traumatic experience that she is forced to re-live now, and as an adult, when she was a writer and illustrator of children‘s books.
Helen has herself published ten books, with another out next year, a level of industry that is in itself staggering - until you learn that she also works part-time as a social worker in the criminal justice system, helping offenders.
One of her great preoccupations in The Exit is the way the internet facilitates sexual offending, which leads the salonistas into a discussion of the problems of controlling how younger generations use computers.
We’re technologically outsmarted by our children,’ sighs Ms Anna, recalling an occasion when Joe, then only seven years old, wanted her to fix his i-Pad. She forgot to re-set the parental controls, and by the time she realised her mistake he’d already downloaded an app called 100 Best Sexual Positions. Although this now provides fertile material for blackmail - If you don’t eat your Weetabix/ stop climbing through the front window/go to bed this minute, I’ll tell so and so what you were watching - it does fill her with anxiety. ‘Young people’s brains are developing neural pathways differently,’ she sighs.
Joe is clearly more interested in obtaining a second piece of Ms Anna’s delicious courgette cake (one of your five a day, really, according to the cook) than in renewing his study of anatomical adventures, so she may be worrying prematurely. Maybe it’s just that the Fitzgerald family penchant for contemplating the darkness of human existence is infectious, though The Exit is more hopeful than the salonistas - its most touching element is the alliance achieved between the young and the old, between Rose and the other central character, Catherine, a young, thoughtless woman who lives her life through social media. When she has to, she grows up fast, as Joe and his generation undoubtedly will too.
The Exit, by Helen Fitzgerald, Faber and Faber
Pictures by Ria Fitzgerald
DOMESTIC NOIR AT THE DIVINE MS ANNA'S
'The pork pie is v.v.good,' said the Divine Ms Anna. Those of you with a literary bent will recognise the quotation, from the Helen Fielding masterpiece, Bridget Jones. But then that's the sort of high quality allusions you get at Ms Anna's literary salons.
There's also roasted red pepper soup, loads of wine and sparkling conversation—
a focus group with soup, as Mark Douglas-Home called it when he was the featured writer, just doesn't cover it.
We gathered in Ms Anna's high-ceilinged flat in Glasgow's West End to hear the Australian writer, Helen Fitzgerald, whose book The Cry struck a nerve with every woman in the room. A crying child on an aeroplane to Australia, an overdose, a cover-up—
the ingredients sound like those of a thriller, but The Cry is a psychological study of guilt, of motherhood and of women's immersion in the world of the men they love.
Although the book's subject matter is dark, it is so compelling to read that most of us devoured it immediately we got it. The unsinkable Maggie Lennon (her discreet hair colour offset with a pair of large earrings), identified so closely with the characters that she was up at eight in the morning to finish it off. 'How did you know all about me?' she demanded. Her life, it transpired, had contained similar patterns to those of the book's central character, Joanna—
affairs with unsuitable men and crying children who she claimed to calm down with brandy in her breast milk. 'I had the only children on the planet allergic to Kalpol,' she said.
This may have been poetic licence, it being a literary evening. There was certainly no criticism, only laughter, from the other women there. Many of them had been through the crying baby on the plane nightmare which starts off The Cry, one of whose major themes is the way people sit in judgement on women's motherhood skills. 'If it's a man they just say, Oh, what a good daddy he is, but women get blamed,' said Sara Hunt, publisher at Saraband Books.
Helen Fitzgerald, tall and austere looking but with a fine turn of wicked wit, said she hadn't done many events like this. She'd been invited to a book group in one of Glasgow's leafy suburbs after her first novel, but the good ladies of Netherlee uninvited her once they discovered that Dead Lovely dealt with 'adultery, weird sex and madness' during a hike along the West Highland Way. 'Clearly such things don't go on in Netherlee,' noted the Divine Ms Anna, wearing a bright red cardigan with a black and white polka-dotted dress tonight. Unusually for her, this did not seem to match any of her household accoutrements.
Discussion of the book moved into discussion of the characters, whose traits most of us recognised in ourselves. 'I always use the things about myself that I dislike,' confessed Helen, though all the female characters in The Cry are feisty, thoughtful women whose only flaw is that they fall in love with manipulative men. (Not the case for Helen herself, who is happily married to screenwriter Sergio Casci.)
The Cry, it appears,falls into a new category, domestic noir, though Helen said that her publishers, Faber & Faber, wanted her to make the next book more 'thriller-y,' a requirement that the focus group (now on to almond cake and wine) found quite unnecessary. Faber gave her a two book deal after she submitted a half page synopsis of the novel, which came to her suddenly one day in Beanscene, but they were not so keen on her next idea, a novel about the sexual abuse of a dementia sufferer. Not willing to take their word for it, she consulted several other publishers, who were all equally unkeen. She seems to be going ahead anyway, incorporating the storyline into a wider plot. It's not hard to see where her feisty characters come from.
Having published ten books since 2007, she is now, unsurprisingly, fed up with writing. But those of us who have become fans of her mordant wit, penetrating psychology and taut writing style are going to try and tempt her into Beanscene soon. Who knows where her clever, funny imagination will take her next?
LOSING WITH STYLE
I've been a loser at award ceremonies before and it's always difficult. They can say what they like about taking part and everyone on the shortlist being a winner, but you can bet every nominee is as desperate to win as I always am. My previous losses have been at journalism events, where the drill is that you all get drunk and behave badly (including the winners.) But the Gordon Burn Prize, in conjunction with the Durham Book Festival and Faber & Faber, offered a more graceful experience, the chance to lose with style.
The announcement of the shortlist had been in the mediaeval grandeur of Durham Castle; the finale was in the equally splendid Town Hall, whose hammer beam oak roof, richly coloured wooden wall plaques, and magnificent stained glass windows provided a dramatic backdrop for the shortlisted writers to talk about their books and read from them. This in itself was unlike journalistic events, where it's considered too dangerous to let the writers actually speak. The newspaper industry's attitude to writers can be summed up by the Christmas party I once attended at a national magazine. It was held in a trendy warehouse, thronging with double-barrelled Camillas in little black frocks. 'We nearly didn't invite the writers,' said one editor. 'All they do is stand in the corner, getting drunk and talking to each other.'
Writers do tend to talk to each other, having a mutual belief in the importance of words. I was proud to be on the shortlist with such amazing authors—Anthony Cartwright, as gentle in person as his moving novel about growing up in the 80s, How I Killed Margaret Thatcher, is powerful; Ben Myers, dark and saturnine, with a reserved demeanour unlike the linguistic fireworks display of his novel Pig Iron, about generations of violence in a travelling family; Duncan Hamilton, whose formal suit made him look like the sports journalist he once was, though his The Footballer Who Could Fly goes beyond mere football writing, using the beautiful game and its characters to illuminate his relationship with his father. I'd have loved to meet Richard Lloyd Parry, author of the brilliantly forensic study of the death of Lucie Blackman, People Who Eat Darkness, but unfortunately he was back in Japan, where he's Asia editor of The Times.
We sat together, sipping wine at one of the cabaret style tables arranged round the main hall. (The more appropriate word at journalistic events is guzzling.) For me, the most wonderful part of the evening was that each writer had incidental music specially composed in honour of their book by Dave Brewis of Field Music. Mine was strange and unsettling, beautiful in spite of the fact that it evoked Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, my novel which takes the premise that Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley, didn't die when the authorities said but was released to a secret life and identity. Afterwards Dave told me he'd done the music three times, unsatisfied till he realised that the Myra Hindley of the book was blank. It was exciting to realise that he had so sensitively related to what I'd written. I look forward to more literary events, entering to my own theme music like Rocky coming into the ring.
I know some of my fellow authors hated having to perform, but I was relieved to be there for a purpose. My reading had some elemental help. I was reading a chapter where Myra and her lover, upper class Sophie, are together while Sophie's cat is dying. Myra tries to persuade her lover into a mercy killing. Just as it got to the point where people were realising, Myra wants to kill the cat, a storm started up behind me, thunder and lightning suffusing the stained glass windows with electric white. I may not have won but I had the best lighting effects.
The announcement of the winner, Ben Myers for Pig Iron, was made without ceremony. I couldn't raise even a smidgen of Vidalish venom—Gore Vidal famously said, Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little—as Ben's book was brilliant and I could only be happy for him. Claire Malcolm of New Writing North said all of the judges had shortlisted the same five books, and that each one had been ahead at some point. While I'd have liked the clock to stop on the day I was winning, I thought Pig Iron was extraordinary, as indeed were the other books.
I don't know what the others felt, but I had a sense of us all being in it together and of representing something different from the usual literary shortlist. Gordon Burn was an unusual writer in that he managed to survive while casting a cold intelligence and unflinching eye on human behaviour. This makes editors of all kinds uneasy. While none of the writers on the list were quite like him, we all had a determination to follow our own path. and I know a number of us, including Ben, had a difficult road to publication—I'm personally indebted to Rod Glenn and everyone at Wild Wolf Publishing, a small independent in the north east, for bringing Myra, Beyond Saddleworth to fruition. As Ben himself said, it's not a competition between competitions, but the Gordon Burn prize shortlist was just as interesting and accomplished as the Booker. It was also braver, spikier and more challenging, in keeping with the writer in whose honour it has been set up.
The day after the ceremony, a party of us went up to Gordon Burn's cottage in Longformacus in the Scottish Borders, where his partner, the artist Carol Gorner, hosted a riotous and joyful lunch. Gordon Burn apparently said the best parties were given by artists and it turned out to be true. Cassoulet that had been lovingly prepared all week by Richard and Chantal, a cauldron of flames permeating the garden with woodsmoke, delicious crumble made by nine year old Esme, and the busy sound of water from the river running like song underneath all our conversation. Best of all was the company. It was worth the white knuckle ride back to Berwick at ninety miles an hour on winding roads with the deliciously crazy Richard to be with people so full of life and fun. Thank you to Carol, Phoebe and Dan, Martin and Zoe, Ben and Adele, David and Jane, the above mentioned cooks and drivers, and the delightful eccentrics from neighbouring cottages for making losing so much fun.