the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Copenhagen, Stockholm and the Writers Festival

I don’t watch much television but David and I thoroughly enjoyed the Scandinavian noir crime series The Bridge.  With Saga Norén as the lead detective (it is suggested she has Asperger’s), audiences follow collaborative investigations between Sweden and Denmark.  Before this programme, I had never been aware of the significance of the Øresund/Öresund Bridge in linking the two countries and this seeded an idea for a visit.

It was from a tweet by writer Lizzie Harwood, that I became aware of the second Stockholm Writers Festival (SWF) scheduled for the beginning of May 2019. The programme included writers I was keen to meet and became the incentive I needed to book a trip to Denmark and Sweden. Once the flights were organised, we left it to the last minute to find accommodation in Copenhagen and by chance, we ended up in a good hotel located close to the Langelinie promenade. Each morning we took a run to visit the Little Mermaid statue, then followed a path along the ramparts of the fort then bought pastries for breakfast which we ate on the rooftop of the hotel.

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After four nights in Copenhagen, we travelled across the bridge by train to Stockholm and stayed at an airbnb in the city. The SWF began on Friday afternoon with a celebration of winning writers from the First Pages competition, followed by a literary quiz and mingling in a bar. The festival brought together English language writers in Sweden and participants from other countries. On Saturday and Sunday there were a range of workshops offered, panel discussions, talks, opportunities for networking and one-to-ones with agents. I attended two workshops that were particularly empowering and they have enabled me to revisit pieces of flash fiction and develop them for publication. (One of these stories has since been accepted by FlashFlood, the National Flash Fiction Day journal which will appear on the website on 15 June.) The first workshop was delivered by Jessica Lourey who shared strategies to identify powerful emotions from personal history to feed fictional stories. The other was a workshop on developing dialogue delivered by Cassie Gonzales which highlighted elements of the said, the unsaid and the unsayable. The two inputs dovetailed to create a valuable resource in plotting fiction.

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Now I’m back at home and I’m delighted to be able to apply the new skills I developed at the festival. I’m also thrilled to be part of a new writing community and have connected with many participants at the festival through social media. Thank to you to Catherine Pettersson, founder of the festival, and all those who have supported it to make the event so successful.

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The String Games, book launch

After five years of hard work, The String Games is to be published by Victorina Press. To celebrate this achievement, there will be a book launch at Waterstones in Dorchester. Please find an invitation from my publisher below:

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I would love to see you at the launch. Please RSVP gail@gailaldwin.com to confirm your attendance. (This will also ensure there’ll be enough wine/soft drinks and canapés to go around!) The launch is an opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved in bringing the book to print and to introduce family, friends and readers to my debut novel. I’ll be reading from the book, talking about the journey to publication and answering questions.

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I’ve also made some goody parcels to give away. I won’t describe exactly what’s included but suffice to say you will leave the launch with resources to play at least one string game.

If you can’t come to Dorchester, there is another opportunity to join the celebrations. There will also be a launch on 22 June 2019 from 18:30–20:00 at Housmans Bookshop in London. Details to follow. 

 

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Women writers! How do you relate to your female protagonist?

As part of the research for my PhD which accompanied the writing of my novel The String GamesI came across the work of Judith Kegan Gardiner who discusses female identity and writing by women. She suggests that where women write about female protagonists there is a special link and proposes the analogy ‘the hero is her author’s daughter’. When I first read this, the idea that I could regard Nim (my protagonist) as my daughter caused concern. While I recognised that other women writers may regard their female protagonists in this way, I resisted the idea of applying the analogy to my own situation. I was afraid that if I thought of Nim as my daughter, a natural progression would be to conclude that Jenny (Nim’s mother) represented me. This I did not want to think about. The character of Jenny is by no means an idealised mother: she is short-tempered, snappy, stressed, clumsy, resentful and all manner of other negatives. Her redeeming quality, however, is that she genuinely wants to try to be a good mother.

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The more I thought about the possible link between my protagonist and me, the more I came to realise that I was not her fictional mother – Jenny takes that role in the story – but I was her author-mother. This realisation enabled me to approach later drafts of the novel with deeper understanding of my characters and my role as an author in “mothering” my young female protagonist. It also brought into play the idea of separation–individuation, the process that girls and mothers go through in order that children can go onto to become unique, independent adults. I came to understand that by the end of my work on the novel, I needed to separate from the character of Nim I had created, so that she, as my protagonist-daughter could continue her life in a fictional context through the minds of my readers and I, as the author-mother, am free to go on and create other characters in new fictional writing.

As this is a special post to mark Mother’s Day in the UK, 31 March 2019, I wonder, how do other women writers feel about their female protagonists? Do the theories of Judith Kegan Gardiner chime with you? I’d love to know what you think – please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you.

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Jacob’s Ladder: how to reach for a better future

This is the third of three posts sharing information about the title of my novel The String Games and includes information about the different parts contained within. If you missed the earlier posts, click the links to read part one and part two.

The third part of The String Games deals with the legacy of loss for the protagonist as an adult. Following manipulation as a teenager, she reinvents herself by returning to her given name, Imogen. Still swamped by issues of unresolved grief over the murder of her younger brother when she was ten, Imogen decides to return to the place in France where she last saw Josh in order to get to the truth of what really happened. This part of the novel is called Jacob’s Ladder.

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This illustration of Jacob’s Ladder by Fiona Zechmeister appears in part three of The String Games

Jacob’s Ladder is a string figure made by a single player that produces an intricate pattern of crossed strings. Used to name the final part of the novel, Jacob’s Ladder illustrates the way Imogen is able to reorder her life, with greater understanding and confidence, by re-engaging with aspects of her earlier years. The pleasing pattern of linked diamonds represents how Imogen is able to pull the threads of her personal history together creating a ladder to a better future. Thus, the metaphor of string continues to the final page of the novel.

You’ll have to wait until May 2019 to read The String Games but it is available to pre-order from Victorina Press, Waterstones and Foyles. Alternatively, if you fancy dipping into my debut poetry pamphlet, adversaries/comrades (based on the theme of siblings), this is available next week. Do come along to the launch to celebrate my first step into the world of published poetry.

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At the London Book Fair 2019

The London Book Fair is an annual event that this year took place from 12–14 March. I was lucky to be offered a ticket to attend by Victorina Press the publisher of my novel The String GamesThe fair was held at Olympia and the sheer scale of the building, crammed with stalls from publishers around the world, gives a sense of the enormity of the publishing business.

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One small section on the ground floor was occupied by the IPG (Independent Publishers Guild) where Victorina Press had a stall. It was great to meet other authors published by Victorina Press and celebrate bibliodiversity. This is a term coined by independent publishers in Chile and adopted by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers. Bibliodiversity provides an opportunity for independent publishers to promote a different outlook and voice from the standardised content offered by major publishers. Victorina Press is an excellent example of bibliodiversity with a broad range of publications including adult novels and children’s fiction, practitioners’ guides, poetry and short fiction. You can read more about bibliodiversity on a blog post written by Danielle Maisano here.

Although the London Book Fair is primarily for industry, there are growing opportunities for writers to enjoy input. I attended several sessions at Author HQ including advice on how to market and promote your work. (You may see some of this learning put into practice as the launch of my novel approaches.) I also had the opportunity to meet friends, put faces to names I knew from social media and approach publishers I had met online. I loved the whole experience and was pleased to see uncorrected proofs of The String Games displayed on the Victorina stall.

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I also grabbed a few freebies at the fair and brought home three further proof copies of The String Games. 

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These are now winging their way to book bloggers who will post reviews as part of my blog tour in May.

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There are lots of exciting events happening prior to the launch of The String Games including the release of my debut poetry pamphlet adversaries/comradesIf you fancy coming to the launch of adversaries/comrades please find the details below:

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So, that’s a round up of my very busy week. How are things going for you?

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Introducing Danielle Maisano and her novel ‘The Ardent Witness’

I am really pleased to welcome Danielle Maisano to The Writer is a Lonely Hunter. She is also a Victorina Press author with a debut novel The Ardent Witness to be released on 9 March 2019. It is available to purchase here.

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I was lucky to receive a copy of the novel ahead of publication and really enjoyed reading it. Here’s a short review of the book:

Danielle Maisano’s The Ardent Witness is a character-driven novel set in Togo where the exuberance and camaraderie between young volunteers is shared and in Detroit (before and after the placement) where Lily’s personal development is explored. I particularly enjoyed the chapters set in Togo which included the frustrations, challenges and triumphs of trying to make a difference to the lives of people in a developing country. When tragedy hits, Lily reflects upon her own actions and her resolve to make a success of her placement is strengthened. This is a worthy debut novel. Thank you to Danielle for introducing me to Togo, a country I knew very little about.

And now, here is Danielle who has agreed to answer a few questions.

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Why did you decide to write a book, Danielle?

I don’t really think I decided to write a book, I just sort of started doing it. As I mention in my author’s note, I honestly never thought I would write about my experiences in Togo. I always wanted to write a novel but I never thought it would be about that. But when I moved to London after having spent my two years in a tiny village in Togo, I felt a bit lost. I was so homesick for the life I had left there. So I began to write about it and it was therapeutic. A way to remember. At first, I wrote about things as they had actually happened, but then I began to see a different story taking place.  Which sort of leads to your next question…

What is the inspiration behind your novel?

I moved to London to study International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies and as I was becoming more educated in things like historical materialism, dependency theory and heterodox economic models a lot of what I experienced in Togo was beginning to make more sense to me. So I wanted to find a way to write about what I was learning theoretically in a more human form, connecting it to what I had experienced as a development worker by writing a novel.

How did you decide on the title?

I took the title from an English translation of a poem by Pablo Neruda entitled “It Means Shadows” and I do think it sort of sums up the motif of the story –

“Let what I am, then, be in some place and in every time,

an established and assured and ardent witness,

carefully destroying himself and preserving himself incessantly,

clearly insistent upon his original duty.”

The narrator, Lily, is constantly looking for ways to do something meaningful with her life. She is young and idealistic and believes that she can make a difference in the world but she is struggling to find a way to do so. I don’t want to give too much away, but in the end I think she chooses a path that sort of embodies this sentiment. To be an ardent witness. It is both active and passive at the same time. To have a passion for life, morals, an ethical code, to want to do good, but at the same time to accept the fact that you may not always have the ability to change things, to right every injustice. But there is a power in seeing and sharing what you have seen. I think that, in a sense, is the duty and desire of every writer, artist, or poet. It’s what drives them to create.

Do you have a day job? If so, how does working in a different context affect your writing?

When I started seriously writing the book, I had just finished my studies at SOAS and I was looking for work so I had a lot of time to write. Then, in the year that followed I did an internship at an NGO, which was part-time. I worked in a coffee shop and also did a bit of freelance writing. So my schedule was much more flexible than doing a 9-5 job and that was really when I completed most of the first draft. When I finally did find a full-time job at a homeless charity in North London, that was a very unproductive time in regards to the book. Luckily, after about a year there, my husband and I decided to take off and spend some time with my family in the US and then his family in Chile. We were gone for about 8 months and that was an amazing time because I was able to really focus on nothing else but the book. If I hadn’t had that time I would probably still be writing it. Working  9-5 thing is very difficult when you are also trying to do something creative. But then, when I was looking for work, I also had a lot of guilt that I had so much time to write when I should be working or looking for work. Chile was different because that time had been specifically set aside to write and I was very fortunate to have had that, plus a very encouraging and supportive partner. Since returning to London, I’ve been able to do part-time and freelance work which I find the most conducive to writing but I realize it’s really a privilege to be able to have that option, one I still sometimes feel very undeserving of. But then again, I guess there will always be reasons or excuses not to write and half of the job is overcoming them.

Are the names of characters important to you? How did you choose them?

Well, a lot of the names of American characters were just names that were always floating in my head, like Sonia and Lily. They were always sort of these archetypical characters that I had named some time ago that were waiting to pop up in my writing. The names for the Togolese characters were more sentimental. Like the character of Fati, there was a little girl that lived near me, she was only about one or two years old when I moved there and her name was Fatima and everyone called her Fati. Her brother brought her over almost every day, we played together and she would cry when it was time to leave. She was the sweetest little girl and I will always wonder what her life is like now. I wonder if she remembers me? Am I some weird sort of memory to her? Also the name Gladys, there was a young girl I knew who was from Ghana and I could see she was very isolated and alone and some of the other girls made fun of her for not speaking French well and I felt a sort of connection to her. We were both outsiders. So in the book, there is a connection there.

What were the challenges in writing The Ardent Witness?

Basically the main challenge was just to keep going. Having the confidence to finish what I started and believe that no matter what came of it, it was worth doing. I think that was the hardest part in the end.

What’s next for you, Danielle?

I think I may have started writing my next novel. I guess only time will tell.

You can find out more about Danielle by visiting her website. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.

 

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The String Games: what’s with the title?

I’ve used rainbow strings many times in my teaching career with adults and children. It’s a good form of kinaesthetic learning where students make string figures as a way to generate stories. The idea to use The String Games as the title for my novel came from the characters. There were instances where characters were strung along, they were puppets on a string and there was a need to cut the apron strings. String became a controlling metaphor for the novel and the title embedded within the story.

When the novel developed into three parts to reflect the development of the protagonist from child, to a teenager and then into an adult,  I decided to name each of the different parts of the novel after a string figure. This post considers the significance of the title of the first part of the novel, ‘Cat’s Cradle’. Following posts will consider the other two parts of the novel.

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This illustration of Cat’s Cradle by Fiona Zechmeister appears in part one of The String Games

Cat’s Cradle is one of the oldest games in recorded human history, and involves passing a loop of string back and forth between two players. As part of the game, different figures are produced including diamonds, candles (straight strings), and an inverted cat’s cradle called a manger. Cat’s cradle is played in cultures throughout the world including Africa, Eastern Asia, Australia, the Americas, and the Arctic.

In using Cat’s Cradle as the title for the first part of my novel, it expresses the intimacy of a  relationship enjoyed by a child in close proximity with a caring adult. In The String Games it represents the relationship my child protagonist develops with her mother’s lover, Dee. When Jenny (Nim’s mother) is too traumatised by the abduction of Josh to care for her ten-year-old daughter, it is Dee who steps in to offer support. The idea of a cradle is indicative of the love Dee offers at a time of crisis.

You’ll have to wait until May 2019 to read The String Games when it will be published by Victorina Press. In the meantime, if you’re interested in short fiction you could always try reading Paisley Shirt

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The FABULOUS wider writing community

It was Nina Killham who first recommended I read The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard. This is the debut work by a novelists who has gone on to write ten further books for adults plus others for the young adults and the children’s markets. As a first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean gained much attention and acclaim and was the first title chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 1996. It is a powerful novel, full of suspense as the protagonist, mother to a missing boy, struggles to come to terms with what’s happened. It’s a very moving story that teaches about resilience and compassion in circumstances that are a nightmare to every parent.

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As there are parallels between my novel The String Games and Jacquelyn’s work (in terms of a focus on a lost child) I decided to get in touch with Jacquelyn through the contact page of her website. Imagine my surprise when minutes later a reply from this best-selling author popped into my inbox. Jacquelyn kindly agreed to  read my novel with a view to offering an endorsement. Although delighted with this response, I did feel rather impertinent even asking. As a child, my Grandma frequently used the reprimand ‘askers don’t get’ whenever me or my siblings became demanding. But if my Grandpa was within earshot he’d pipe up ‘don’t ask – don’t want’. This memory of my grandparents convinces me there is no harm in asking.

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Pt 3: the FABULOUS wider writing community

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I entered a travel writing competition in 2016 and as runner-up, I was offered a bursary to attend a fiction retreat at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s creative writing centre. One of the tutors on the programme was Elizabeth Reeder who writes novels, essays and stories. Her debut novel, Ramshackle, was shortlisted for the Saltire Literary Award in 2013 and she’s gone on to write further novels.

The narrator of Ramshackle is fifteen-year-old Roe who one wintery day finds the man she thinks of as her father has gone missing. In the week that follows, Roe finds out more about herself and her father. At this point in growing up, Roe is an expert of her own experience but anything beyond causes anxiety. Roe’s voice is a mixture of confidence and vulnerability and this is something I wanted to explore in The String Games. Advice from Elizabeth was invaluable in moving forward with the middle part of my novel.

When it came to thinking of authors to approach to endorse The String Games, Elizabeth was at the top of my list. She’s an excellent writer so I’m delighted she felt able to offer the following words:

Gail Aldwin’s The String Games debuts her talent in an intimate portrayal of family, love and loss, and one that gives a glimpse into how crisis might shape each of us.

Elizabeth teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow. I was fortunate to catch up with her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017 where she facilitated a wonderful readers’ workshop. Keep an eye out for other events Elizabeth is involved with. If you’re able to attend one of her workshops, seminars or talks you’re bound to enjoy it.

The String Games will be published in May 2019 but if you can’t wait until then you could always dip into my short fiction collection Paisley Shirt. It is also available from Waterstones in Dorchester and Bridport, The Bookshop in Bridport, Gullivers in Wimborne and Serendip in Lyme Regis.

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Pt 2: the FABULOUS wider writing community

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Credit: Grafik Mekanik, Flickr

When it came to seeking endorsements for The String Games, I turned to the authors of novels with child narrators or child protagonists that I had read and enjoyed. Amongst them was a debut novel called Not Thomas by Sara Gethin. I like to read debut novels because it’s good to notice any trends in publishing and to check out the competition. Sara Gethin uses a five-year-old narrator, Tomos, who lives in poverty with his mother but who has experience of another life with his grandparents.  Tomos’s voice displays his innocence and optimism while the implied reader knows more about his mother than Tomos.  Using a young narrator allows the action to  take place beyond the child’s full understanding and this is a strategy I employ in The String Games. 

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Careful use of patterned language and repetition perfectly captures the experiences of Tomos:

I am going up into my bed now. I’m climbing my ladder. I am pulling some tee shirts over me and some towels and jumpers too. I’m trying to get warm. I am thinking about the pictures in the book. I’m thinking about other pictures too like the ones in Charlie and the  Chocolate Factory. That is my favourite book. I had it last week from the library in school. It’s my favourite because of the film me and Dat used to watch. We love the film. We used to sit on the settee and watch it in Nanno and Dat’s house.

This extract cleverly shows how a resourceful little boy operates in challenging circumstances and how he is able to distract himself from his current situation. Use of the child’s interior monologue identifies books that spark memories as a pivot to remembering happier times. The contrast reinforces the precarious nature of Tomos’s life with his mother.

Not Thomas was shortlisted in The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017 and the Waverton Good Read Award 2018. It is published by Honno. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Not Thomas and urge others to step into the shoes of Tomos and see the world from his perspective. It is an illuminating experience.

Sara Gethin has kindly endorsed The String Games. This is what she says about my novel:

This is a gripping novel, where Gail Aldwin skilfully explores the dynamics of a splintered family coping with a truly awful event, and sensitively explores the repercussions of a burden of guilt unfairly shouldered by a child. Aldwin delves into the murky world of teenage manipulation, questions what makes a bad mother and asks whether forgiveness for a horrific act is ever possible. An insightful, engaging novel, The String Games breaks the reader’s heart and leaves them turning the pages ever more quickly to get to the truth of what really happened.

I’d like to thank Sara for her support and the wonderful endorsement.

I’ll be posting again in December with two other endorsements to share. Thank you for dropping by to read this.

 

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