Half term at Ashworth Towers (and elsewhere, so I’ve heard) which means not so much new writing being done this week – but preparation for the second half of my creative writing course at UCLAN, a bit of manuscript appraisal and the finishing touches for my Blogging for Beginners workshop (I believe there are a couple of places left, still, if you’re interested).
Yesterday, the Rainy City Stories Panel event for the Manchester Literature Festival – Nicholas Royle, Clare Dudman and me chatting to each other about the way we use ‘place’ in our stories. Despite the fact that it’s going to be a little while before Cold Light is available, I read from it and that was exciting.
Clare talked about her travels – the way she prefers to visit places alone to soak up the atmosphere and find out things about a place you’d never pick up from books or the internet. For one of her books, she traveled though Patagonia on her own. I talked (less impressively) about my trips into Fleetwood on the bus with my then-toddler Small Fry for A Kind of Intimacy. Cold Light is set in Preston, where I’ve almost always lived, so the only travel I did was into my memories. I joked that I set all my fiction in places fairly near to me because I’m a lazy researcher, but now I’m starting work on book three (still no title) which is primarily set in Chorley but with one of the characters having spend significant time in the US, I am thinking a trip ABROAD to Utah might be in order.
And of course my interest in the North West is not because I am a lazy researcher. But I’m not a faithful, truth telling one either. One question from the audience made me think – I’d mentioned that for Cold Light, I’d had to do a little bit of re-jigging of what Preston looks like to serve the plot, and that I’m expecting some local readers to gleefully point out these ‘mistakes’ to me at some point in time. I shrug in response to this – it really, really doesn’t bother me because novels aren’t maps and I think we turn to fiction for other kinds of truth than the factual. Although I know that errors in fact are irritating to some readers when they find them, for me, unless we’re talking wilful ignorance, stereotype etc, it really doesn’t upset me as a reader either.
Something that we touched on during the discussion (we were only there an hour, but once we got going felt like we could have gone on much longer thanks to Nick’s excellent chairing) is the difference between evoking and depicting a place. I’m interested in conveying atmosphere and mood. In writing about what it is like to come from somewhere not very trendy, not very well known, and fairly hard to get out of. In writing about how disappointing, inward looking places impact on character and what it is like to grow up bored and disappointed. In paralysis, feeling trapped, not quite realising that in other places, it might be possible to do things a little bit differently. In giving anonymous, and frankly, sometimes fairly ugly Northern towns to readers who haven’t met them before. De-Preston. Not in writing a guide-book or a travelogue.
I think the difference between depicting and evoking is the difference between facts and fiction. I push what I know and what I see into a story and it becomes something odd, something that doesn’t exist anywhere except my book, and yet references Preston and hundreds of other towns. I hope that people who want to find out what Preston feels like find something useful in my book. They certainly won’t be able to use it as a road map.
On the train home, watching Deansgate, Salford, Bolton, Horwich and Chorley slide by the window, I was still chunnering about this question – remembering my bookseller friend who tells me that my book sells much better when they don’t market me as a ‘local writer’ and another very experienced poet who let me in on the secret that ‘local writer’ is (often read as) shorthand for ‘crap writer of interest to no-one other than their friends’. Regional writer? Is it possible to write about where you come from in a way that’s going to be interesting and illuminating to people who are not from that place? I think it is – after all, there are unfashionable, cut-off feeling towns all over the world: I am just writing about the ones I can write about without being a tourist.
I know from my stats that many of the people who read this blog are from Elsewhere and might have first read my writing in one of the overseas editions. So if you haven’t commented so far on the blog, now is the time to weigh in. I am interested in what these places look like to readers who might never have visited them before.
In other news, I’ll be checking the proofs of Cold Light next week AND I’ve seen what the cover is going to look like AND the book has recently sold in the US, and will be published with William Morrow. Which is all very good. And I’m investigating plane tickets for Salt Lake City.