Becoming a writer: three mini-essays

Today, I’m republishing three mini-essays which give glimpses into how I became a writer–a process that I was hardly aware of as a young person and which even now still seems mysterious, in the big picture sense anyway. It’s only in these little glimpses that you begin to get a feel for it–at least, that’s so for me. Hope you enjoy!

In Sydney, aged about 7 (in front, on the left, with long hair: sister Beatrice next to me and Dad behind us.)

Becoming a writer: three mini-essays by Sophie Masson

One: ‘Write about what you know’

As an eager scribbling kid, being given that classic bit of advice,  ‘write about what you know’,  I felt like this was one of those rules that adults invent to keep children in their place. I certainly didn’t want to write about school and squabbles with brothers and sisters and trying to avoid parents’ washing-up rosters. I didn’t even want to write about flying across the world to visit our family back in Europe; didn’t want to write about family secrets. Nobody else would be interested, I figured. Heck, I wasn’t interested myself. I wanted to write about princesses and curses, criminal masterminds and dashing young musketeers, magic wands and priceless jewels handed down through royal generations. I wanted to write about the world in my head, the enchanted, exciting world of my voracious reading,  that made dull routine disappear and the limitations of being a child vanish in a puff of fairy dust.

So I did just that. I ignored the advice, and my writing went at its own pace and my writing worlds passed through childhood fairyland and adventure to teenage love tragedy and myth, hoovering up every influence going, from Russian novels to Tintin, Celtic love poetry to Norse saga,. Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Moomintroll to Bilbo Baggins, The Affair of the Diamond Necklace to Great Expectations, along with just about everything else I could pick up as I wrote reams of poetry, short stories, comics, songs, and embarked finally at the age of 17 on a major undertaking—a huge fantasy novel which would take in as many of the world’s mythologies as possible, and feature characters who came from the four corners of the world. I filled two exercise books and then ran dry unable to finish,but nothing daunted went on with many more, and at last finished one. And then two. And then three, and finally I was taking the plunge and sending my darlings out into the wild seas of publishing, trying to find safe harbour..which eventually appeared on the horizon.

But this is really about the gradual realisation over the years that ‘write about what you know’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean write about your everyday life. ‘What you know’ can mean what you know in terms of your family history, the rich freight of story and event, of comedy and tragedy, carries in the wake of its life down the generations. It can mean what you know in terms of your reading, just as I’d first instinctively deduced as a kid; it can mean ‘what you know’ from observation and plain old nosiness. But most of all it means ‘what you know’ from the inside. Your emotional life. The song of your heart. Of your soul. The emotions you share with every other human on the planet—and the ones you don’t. ‘Write about what you know’ was about that emotional heart without which every literary work, in whatever genre and however elegantly written, means nothing. It was about being true to the heart—because only then could you reach other people. Only then could your characters really live and breathe. It didn’t matter if you were writing about broken marriages or broken kingdoms; about office bullies or Dark Lords; that was merely a choice, an inclination. But the emotions had to ring true, whatever world your characters came from. You and your readers might never live the life of a young prince unexpectedly elevated to the throne; but all of us understand what it’s like to be suddenly thrust in a situation we weren’t expecting. All of us can sympathise with the nerves and doubts and excitement. All of us can feel what it’s like on the inside, even if we don’t all reach the same conclusions about it. Even if we feel differently about these things. It still feels real, and that’s what counts.

No, ‘write about what you know’ wasn’t a restriction; it wasn’t a hobbling, as I’d thought it had been as a rebellious child—but I still had to reach that conclusion in my own pace, at my own time, and the way I’d got there had been enriching in itself.

So that’s what I know now—that ‘write about what you know’ is indeed good advice. It is, indeed, true. But just as the best writing is understood with the heart as much as the head, then that’s how that classic little aphorism should be understood. Don’t restrict yourself—let your imagination soar. But write about what you know—from the inside.

 

Two:

A love song to libraries

I love libraries. Not only readers are nurtured there—but writers, too. This is a hymn of praise to those libraries, private and public, that have been instrumental in my own development.

The first library I remember was my father’s, in our beautiful old house deep in the countryside of south-western France. This was a hallowed place, a place of light and shadows, cool in summer, warm in winter. There was a fireplace and a large winged chair beside it, a desk made of fragrant Indonesian wood, quills and silver inkstand and leather-bound blotter at the ready; blue toile de Jouy curtains featuring scenes of 18th century country life; a Persian carpet decorated with birds alighting in trees; and of course, books. Books in large wide open shelves of beechwood, built by a local artisan; books in a large antique bookcase with doors that were like fretted screens, so that the books behind them looked as if they were in a kind of beautiful prison; books behind glass and in sandalwood chests. You weren’t allowed in on your own; but sometimes Dad would call you in, sit you on his knee and read from some old collection of Perrault’s stories, or the fables of Jean de la Fontaine, illustrated by Gustave Dore. Other times, he would take down the huge volume of reproductions of Hieronymus Bosch’s art, and point out to his quaking offspring the hellish consequences of misbehaving, or else, driven by another mood, pull out from the sandalwood chests bound copies of 19th century magazines and read out ancient faits divers, or human interest stories.

We children had our own ‘library’ of books elsewhere in the house, shelves crammed with the pink-backed children’s classic hardbacks of the Bibliothèque Rose, and the green backs of the more modern Bibliothèque Verte; dogeared paperback collections of traditional stories from all over the world, and magnificent illustrated editions of mythology; well-thumbed copies of Tintin and Asterix, and, later huge 19th century novels: by Balzac, Hugo, Feval, Gautier. On those shelves were journeys and escapes and spells; but they weren’t what we called the library. That word, spoken in rather overawed and excited tones, was reserved for Dad’s library. In that room was all the mystery and strangeness and ordered beauty of another world; a world you had to earn a place in, through patience and the gaining of wisdom, a world that beckoned, whose enchantment made time stand still. It is an image that stayed with me, and every time we went back to France as children – which was at last every two or three years – after having rushed around to rediscover toys and bedrooms, it was always the threshold of the library that drew me, to stand dreaming and hesitant looking in at the books, waiting for permission to be invited in.

In Australia, Dad had a room full of crowded bookcases, but it was not the same. The books were much less glamorous, there was no atmosphere in the room itself, and besides, I’d discovered another enchanted place. For the other world that drew me in Australia was our local public library. The children’s section was probably not very big, really, but in my memory it was huge, an enchanted kingdom, far away from the dull routine of school. At the rather modest Catholic parish primary school I went to, the only ‘library’ was a couple of sets of glass-fronted bookcases in the senior primary room. Insatiable reader that I was, I’d soon have dessicated from the need to imbibe stories if we had not discovered the local library. That was my real education in English, the library; left alone by Maman to make my own pathways through English-language children’s books, I made wonderful discoveries, but also missed out on some marvellous things. Magic and fairies and giants and trolls and other worlds and mysteries always attracted me; anything that smelt of mundane routine I cast aside, and thus it that was I met, and loved dearly, Tove Jannsson and CS Lewis and Alan Garner and Patricia Wrightson and Leon Garfield and James Thurber and a host of others; but missed out as a child on Laura Ingalls Wilder because I was sure a book with ‘house’ in the title must be about housework! (though I read the books as an adult, to my kids, and both they and I loved them).

I loved my high school library too. It was new, bright, sunny, airy, and the librarian was a very keen reader who did a lot to extend my reading range. Because in an earlier high school, I’d been severely bullied, I’d also taken to the library as a refuge from harshness and cruelty.  Libraries had always been associated with pleasure for me; now they also became islands of calm in the turbulent seas of

Aged about 16, in fantasy finery with my sister Camille, aged 14 (she is on the right, in the hat)

adolescence.

The first novel I ever wrote – for I had written lots of poetry, short stories, plays and illustrated tales before, but not novels, thinking I could never finish one – was started thus, at the age of 16, in the library. It was a vast fantasy novel – I’d discovered Tolkien and his ilk by then – in which I tried to incorporate as many of the mythologies of the world as I could manage! I never finished it, but I still have it, and I still remember those afternoons in the school library, bent over my notebook, lost in another world.

When I finished school, I left home after one too many arguments with my fiery father, and struggled in poverty for quite a while. I was trying both to meet the requirements of a tough university degree specialising in Middle Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, medieval romances, and Icelandic sagas, and to keep food in my mouth by doing all kinds of odd jobs, from folding clothes in a laundromat (where once a customer, seeing me read in a quiet moment, said to me, What! You work in a laundrette, and you read a book!) to delivering junk mail to looking after kids to trying to clean flats (me, the least domestically adept person ever!) to working in cafes and restaurants and in a candy factory. None of these jobs ever earnt more than a pitiful amount, and I was really quite poor. But I never felt poor in our local public library, which I had joined as soon as I could. There were many days when I felt very much like giving up the struggle and crawling back to Papa; but the library always put new heart into me. Not only was it free entertainment; but it also provided information on all kinds of literary possibilities. I entered many competitions advertised on its noticeboards, and spent many happy hours continuing on with my various enthusiasms. The library reminded me that there was a world beyond flat wallets and gritty pavements and people who thought laundry assistants must be illiterate. It gave me heart, too, by reminding me that somewhere, sometime, people had cared enough about literature and about their destinies as writers to struggle through even the most difficult periods of their lives. No way did I want to follow the safe and dull careers of routine that had been proposed for me; in the reckless way of youth, I wanted to do what I felt I was born to do – and the library, so quiet and demure in appearance, but with such a multi-chambered, raging heart of tumult and vision and destiny and heartbreak and magic and joy, gave me the courage to continue, and not to lose hope.

Since that time, libraries have continued to be amongst my favourite places. These days, I am a regular of the public library in our high cold university town in northern NSW, and I have a large and messy library scattered in all of the rooms in our house. I also love trawling through the vast virtual libraries that one may find on the Internet. I continue to follow overgrown, wild, exciting pathways through magical lands and undiscovered countries; many of my novels have started from something seen by chance in a library book. I have had a great deal of very pleasant interactions with librarians, and admire their great dedication, erudition and kindness to me who is often a rather disordered and awestruck traveller in their domains. Though I still love magic and mystery, I have come to understand, as I’ve grown up, fallen and stayed in love and had children; built a house of our own with my husband and cherished the garden we have made, that the world within the world incorporates all those things, that the flesh and the spirit are tightly woven together, and that the spell cast by the library, the spell that seems to stop time, is the spell not of old paper or old magical formulae, but of imagination, that greatest of all qualities, which makes us both fully human, fully mortal, yet immortal too. The library is the record, the garden, the house of souls; but it is also the place where the soul is helped to emerge from its chrysalis, to spread its wings and be truly free. And there is no price that can be put on that.

 Three: Other people’s books

Enjoying a good book in a perfect setting!

You sometimes hear writers say they never read the work of other authors, especially writing in the same genre as they are, and especially if they’re currently in the process of writing a book themselves. The reason given is usually that they are afraid of being influenced, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the other writer’s work. There’s a kind of fear that originality may be somehow diminished, and that your pristine work may be contaminated, as it were, by foreign authorial bacteria, or that a kind of helpless plagiarism may happen, which will then destroy your own literary integrity. Underlying this is a deeper fear: that you may discover that those other writers’ books are actually vastly better than yours, leading to a major paralysis in imagination and the feeling that as they’ve said it all anyway, why bother?

It’s a fear that is common in modern times—writers in Elizabethan times, for instance, rarely seemed to harbour such insecurities. And I understand those feelings—the writing life is quite often competitive, stressful, and prey to many fancies and fears–but I don’t share them. Partly, it’s because of the way I write: a process of complete and utter immersion. When I’m writing, I’m completely in the story, nothing else figures or intrudes, I’m away with the fairies. It quite blanks out anything going on around me–to the great frustration—and delight– of my children when they were growing up. My daughter says she could have asked for a huge rise in pocket money when I was in the middle of writing and I’d have said, Yes, dear, whatever you want, vaguely; and my youngest musician son loves to tell the story of the day he’d spent an entire morning practising drums loudly upstairs, and when he came down for lunch, and I emerged blinking from my work, I asked him brightly what he’d been doing all morning! Equally, though, it seems to blank out what I’ve been reading—perhaps because writing is such a different process to reading, perhaps because that’s the ‘safety switch’ that clicks on in my mind when I start to write.

But it’s only partly my experience of writing itself which makes me feel that those common writers’ fears are not only unfounded, but actually dangerous. Because how on earth can a writer not be a reader too? Though they are so different, the two things go together. Wide and frequent reading of other people’s work leads to the enrichment of a writer’s mental furniture, the deepening of their emotional range, the texturing of their intellectual potential. Whether that be classic authors or  modern ones, reading what other people have written, thinking about it, engaging with it, makes all the difference to the strength and power of your own writing. An author without ”influence”–if such a mythical beast can truly exist– would write merely hollow, navel-gazing books which would most likely fail to click with readers.

I can’t begin to estimate just how important other writers’ influence has been, and is, to me. From the very beginning, when as a non-English-speaking migrant child newly arrived in Australia, I was introduced to English-language children’s books, I was off and away on an extraordinary journey through the world of literature. I devoured books as fast as I could get them off the library shelves. I read in both English and in my native language, French, racing through CS Lewis, Hergé(Tintin books) ,Tove Jannsson, Leon Garfield, Alexandre Dumas, Roger Lancelyn Green, Jean de Brunhoff(Babar), Patricia Wrightson, Philippa Pearce, Louise May Alcott, Jules Verne, Enid Blyton, and lots lots lots more. From early on, I wanted to emulate my favourite writers, and wrote little comic strips a la Tintin, fairy stories, school stories, all sorts of bits and pieces, totally influenced by what I read. Later, when, as a teenager, I got into poetry and plays, I also tried my hand at writing in the styles and forms of those poets and playwrights I loved best: Shakespeare,  Yeats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Tennessee Williams, William Blake, Robert Browning, and so on and on.  I counted sonnet lines and tried my hand at shoe-horning verse into ancient bardic forms, tried to write snappy dialogue and tragic scenes. I devoured Russian novels and Gothic novels and swashbuckling French novels and tried to create characters in their mould. And my writing was  highly influenced, highly coloured by what I’d read. But not only was I enriching my mental furniture by reading, I don’t think I could have found a better way of practising to become a writer. Challenging and extending myself, not staying within the narrow world of home-school-home that  I lived in as a kid but roaming the wide worlds of my, and other people’s imaginations.

And so, unconsciously, as I grew up, I came to understand a very important and liberating thing, which has stood me in good stead all my writing life. And it’s this. Voice, which is really where a writer’s originality lies, does not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, like Nature, it abhors a vacuum. Instead, it comes straight out of that rich mix of individuality and influence.

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2017 Book Discovery 5: Yvonne Low’s pick

In the latest in this blog series, Yvonne Low is presenting her book discovery of the year.

Pirate Hunters, by Robert Kurson, is a gripping read about real-life modern day divers, who are passionate to the point of obsession, about undersea diving and searching for sunken treasure.  The pirates of the old swash-buckling days have always held an interest for me from childhood when I used to love reading comic-strip stories of the pirate Blackbeard and other buccaneers.
The action takes place in the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea and details the tireless search for a long-lost pirate ship from the 1680s, during the Golden Age of Piracy.  The book was a real eye-opener about the lengths people will go to, to find the ultimate treasure and the fascinating historical research which helped the divers in their quest.
I love to travel and enjoy reading travel memoirs from exotic locations, so Pirate Hunters was the perfect book to take away with me on a recent beach holiday.  I could gaze out to sea and imagine what sunken galleons and buried history might be waiting to be discovered…
Yvonne Low is a writer and illustrator, whose illustrations have appeared in Christmas Press books, most recently for A Christmas Menagerie.  Yvonne is currently working on illustrations for another Christmas Press middle-grade novel, set in space!

Mermaid’s treasure, by Yvonne Low

2017 Book Discovery 2: Kathy Creamer’s pick

Kathy Creamer is writing about her 2017 book discovery today.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

 It was a world full of glass, sparkling and motionless. Vapours had frozen all over the trees and transformed them into confections of sugar. Everything was rigid, locked-up and sealed, and when we breathed the air it smelt like needles and stabbed our nostrils and made us sneeze.

I first discovered Cider with Rosie when I was fourteen, and I was immediately hypnotized by the glorious visions that Laurie Lee’s deliciously descriptive language created in my mind. Through his words, I can go back to the Cotswolds, re-enter childhood and remember the taste of snowflakes on my tongue, glimpse the shimmering icicles that once hung down from thatched roofs, smell the enticing spices of Christmas and touch the gentle face of my long departed grandmother.

I’ve read all of Laurie Lee’s other works, As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning, A Moment of War, I Can’t Stay Long, Village Christmas, and most of his poetry, but Cider with Rosie has remained one of my favourites, a feast for the senses, and it’s a place I like to go to for comfort. I’ve never been without a copy. This Christmas I shall be re-reading, and remembering that long ago, there was once a place as sweet and intoxicating as apple cider.

Kathy Creamer is an illustrator and writer whose work has appeared in numerous books, in Australia and overseas. Most recently, she has illustrated the new edition of Max Fatchen’s A Pocketful of Rhymes(Second Look, 2017) and her work has also appeared in the anthologies A Toy Christmas(Christmas Press, 2016) and A Christmas Menagerie(Christmas Press,2017).

The Crystal Necklace–a family history piece

A few years ago, I wrote this piece about my paternal great-grandmother, Irma Mazars, starting with a meditation about the lovely rock crystal necklace, which along with a beautiful ebony cicada brooch, is something I inherited from her. I thought it might be interesting to revisit it here, slightly revised. And this time, with photographs..

Du côté de chez Irma ; or, The Crystal Necklace

The rock crystal necklace best shows its sheen and beauty on the skin, glittering in the hollows of the neck like raindrops lace the grass. A hundred years ago when it was new, there were little shards of bright bronze set in between the crystal stones, but these have long since dropped off, leaving patches of moss-green verdigris so subtly worked in that they look as if they were always meant to be there. When I take the necklace off at night, the skin-warmed stones run through my fingers, cooling as they splash into my palm: the lucent streamings of memory.

Once, the necklace had lain against the violet-scented, rice-paper neck of my great-grandmother, Irma Mazars, and I loved it much more than the diamonds she wore on her fingers. She had been given the necklace by my great-grandfather Louis Bos, long ago when she was young and he was her older, married lover. There was something rarer, more precious about the string of crystal than the harshly-sparkling rings: I called it “le collier de pluie”, to myself– “the necklace of rain.”  Unlike the banal diamonds, which had no imprint of time, it seemed to speak of its vanished age, the shining age spoken of so longingly by my haunted father; Irma’s world, the world known as la Belle Époque.

Irma as a young woman

La Belle Époque: the words themselves, in their nostalgic closure, made of that period an era beyond history, somehow: the last beautiful, stifling gasp of the nineteenth century before the dark twentieth had yet made its presence really felt. A luminous bubble, we imagined it as; a time when we could dream that neither national nor personal hatreds marred the steady harmony of people’s lives.

There was never any fighting at Irma’s place, nor any reheating of the high-smelling old quarrels which for several generations had made of my father’s paternal family history a space of both tragedy and comedy. Irma’s family, her space, seemed to me different: neither comedy nor tragedy, but something solid, well-planted, yet not smug or even respectable. There was peace and a kind of predictability, but of the kind that exists in enchanted places. It did not matter if we arrived early or late at her apartment; always, waiting for us on her nests of little tables would be pastel paper-lace boxes of sugared violets, candied roses, tiny icing-gilt cakes and syrupy sweet marrons glacés, crystallised chestnuts; and tin cups for us children, standing by slender-throated bottles filled with grass-green Sirop de Menthe and scarlet Grenadine cordials. For my parents and Irma herself, there would be the indulgences of eternal tipsy summer: either a potently home-made cherry Ratafia, a peach Rinquinquin or her favourite, Confiture de Vieux Garçon, Old Boy’s(or Bachelor’s) Jam: a layered confection so sugar-heavy with summer fruit and fiery brandy that the adults moved like stunned bumblebees after just a whiff of it. But always, something lovely for us: she was wonderful with children–kind but never patronising, full of indulgence but tough when she needed to be. She adored my father, her favourite grandchild, who had lived with her for a couple of years during the war; but she also loved his sisters, and she loved having us visit her. (And as I lived in early childhood with my grandmother, her daughter Zou, she had been quite a presence in my early life too) .

Her Toulouse apartment, bought with her own money and shrewd business sense, was full as a Fabergé egg: deep gold and scarlet curtains, comfortable furniture upholstered in fabric that seemed both old-fashioned and curiously modern; paintings of voluptuous deities and dark pictures of unknown harbours; lampstands shaped like flower-slim dancers,  varnished mahogany beds with naked cupids carved into the bedheads, and naked nymphs of all sizes on every available surface .In fact, there was more nakedness in her apartment than I’d ever seen anywhere, even in the museum: blandly beautiful limbs sculpted in the fine-grained white material Irma called ‘biscuit’. It rang like baked glass when you rapped a knuckle against a bare white thigh or surreptitiously slapped a smooth cold bottom. Our father would frown at us if he saw us lack in such respect; but Irma would smile, and tap his punitive hand with a bejewelled finger: “Georges, they’re children, after all!”

Irma pin-up!

There were more nymphs in the attic, packed away in boxes. Ah, the attic! Home not only of nymphs but troves of vanished splendour: camphor-and-lavender-scented chests full of hobble-skirted muslin dresses and rustling evening gowns, pale pink high-heeled kid shoes, silk stockings and cartwheel hats in round boxes, and we stared and laughed with excited joy as we rummaged through them and tried them all on. They might just as well have been relics from the age of Louis XIV, for all their exotic, strange magnificence; we simply could put no imaginative boundaries to a period when such fancydress was commonplace. In the chests were also menus and dance lists and old letters, done up in bundles with fine lacy ribbons tying them; the others ignored them, finding them dusty and dull, beside the rutilant rivers of rags, but I pored over them, imagining I would find an old ticket for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, or a secret letter from a lovesick prince. Once, we found Louis’ elegant sepia recipes for prize-winning cordials and tonics and punches: his family had made their solid fortune from the making and selling of drinks of all kinds, and in one corner, shrouded in dust, was a collection of engraved soft-drink bottles from the Bos factory. In another chest was a collection of old L’Illustration magazines: the first ones from 1900, the last just before the First World War. I savoured them all: the fashion parades, the travel notes from far flung colonies, the reports of train crashes and automobile shows and aeroplane trials, the excited reports on cinema and phonographs and electric light and forensic detection. L’Illustration was sure that progress was inevitable; it also showed me why Irma loved technology and gadgets, devoured articles on the space race and watched television devotedly.

On old photographs, Irma has a polished glamour: melting gaze, heavy hair, figurehead bosom under sculpted blouses, shapely body under her draped skirts.  Though the photos aren’t in colour, her eyes were blue, her hair as a young woman a rich, deep gold. There are no photos of her childhood; her

Louis Bos, successful businessman

parents, Aveyron dairy farmers, never took to photography, although she was their cherished only child. They had ambitions for her that went well beyond the farm; they ‘bled their four veins’ as the French saying has it, to buy her off-the-peg versions of Illustration models and braved chilly teachers to get her elocution classes. But she still grew up knowing how to milk cows and stuff geese and sell and buy land as well as powdering her face and decorating pretty hats and showing a trim ankle and speaking in a flutingly vulnerable voice. Much later, she was to slightly shock us children by her sharp irony and her readiness to return to peasant skills: I can see her with her soft white arms deep inside the cavity of a chicken, fingers deftly working away, releasing fugitive rumours of violet and lavender fragrance as she moved to and fro between the table and the sink, her rings and jingling bracelets in a glittering pile on the dresser. She never lost ‘le nord’, did Irma; she had no sentimentality and few illusions.

Irma was an eighteen year old apprentice milliner when she met Louis. He was nearly thirty years older than her, very much married, very much a paterfamilias. His social standing was very high, much higher than hers: not only was he a prominent member of a long-established wealthy business family in Decazeville but its Mayor for a while, then regional councillor and aspiring national politician (though he never made it to the national stage in the end, most likely because of his scandalous love life).

On Irma’s wall hung some old tinted photographs of Louis, in large, ornate Second Empire frames, like paintings: as a child, in a velvet suit, by his rocking-horse, his stare imperiously blue, his hair brushed painfully down; and Monsieur Bos, very much the respectable nineteenth century businessman in neat beard and smart suit, but still with that imperious blue gaze. Fashionably freethinking, a member of the Radical Party (which despite its fire-breathing name was more what people might call centre left, these days), he was also agnostic and a Freemason—at least until his deathbed. As well, though, Louis indulged the sentimental Catholicism and highly burnished respectability within his family.

Irma with her and Louis’ daughter, Marie-Louise

For him, Irma must have been both a breath of heady new century’s air–and the continuation of a well-upholstered tradition. He had soon safely installed her as his mistress in a smart new apartment in faraway Toulouse and bought her the lease on a millinery shop so that she could hold her head high and have no-one gossip about her as a ‘kept’ woman.

We may imagine that single motherhood was a heavy cross to bear in such a time; but Irma never showed any bitterness or regrets, and there was certainly nothing of the victim or the statistic about her. Her history was no shameful secret but was openly talked about. And she accepted it with humour and practicality; indeed, she took my mother aside, just before she and my father were married, and said to her(much to Maman’s sardonic indignation), “My dear Gisele, you must remember the nature of men, and not see too much!”

Irma’s and Louis’ only child, my grandmother Marie-Louise, familiarly known as Zou (and Mamizou to us children, later), grew up as the enchantingly pretty blond only child of a union that despite time and Louis’ incorrigibly-roving eye, never faded away. Louis visited his second family frequently, and idolised his pretty daughter. Every time he came, he brought the child and her mother boxes of pretty dresses and jewellery and flowers and comfits, and paid for many expensive studio photographs of Zou at every conceivable age, sometimes alone, sometimes with her mother, exquisite yet robust decorations that he kept with him. He was rewarded with Zou’s letters, written in unsteady curly writing on scented pale paper, which always began: Mon cher petit Papa. . . But all that time, Irma and Louis stayed unmarried to each other; Monsieur Bos had a respectable family and business life to maintain. In fact, some years after Zou’s birth, Louis’ seventh legitimate child was born! It was not until after Zou’s marriage to the glamorous and wealthy Robert-Rene Masson, my grandfather, that Louis’ long-suffering wife finally tired of his doings, threw him out and divorced him, and he was finally forced into dissolving his double life. So finally he became Irma’s lawfully wedded husband.

Louis in old age.

Louis died long before his daughter’s brilliant marriage shattered into a thousand wounding pieces after the traumas of World War Two. The last years of his life were spent held in the sweet protection of Irma. He no longer had any money of his own. So he was dependent on the tidy income Irma had made first from the millinery shop, then, when that was sold, from the cunning real estate investments she made. Louis was proud of Irma, as he was proud of Zou; perhaps he recognised in both of them the sound business sense he lacked himself. But he also considered himself tamed, not broken; and Irma’s final years with him were full of the comfortable irritation of his attempts at further gallant adventures. But he was also a devoted father and grandfather; my father speaks of him very fondly.

Irma’s parents had been heartbroken at first by their daughter’s state of sin. This was not what they had intended for their golden girl. But they were peasants, not vaporously respectable bourgeois; continuity, whether legitimate or not, was the important thing. So they welcomed first Zou, then Zou’s children. My father, escaping from the painful ambiguities of his parents’ later history, for ever after saw the holidays he had spent on the little Aveyron farm as not only his personal golden age, but a glimpse into a vanished national golden age. They were representatives of the true France, for him, eternally patient, enduring France. But Irma herself never spoke of them; she did not contradict her beloved grandson Georges when he waxed lyrical about the feeling of fresh pump water on his head in the morning, and the warm smell of milking cows, but tilted her head just like in the photos, that look I had thought of as showing the peasant toughness under the sculpted polish.

Now, I wonder if it was not that; but a kind of crystalline tenderness that lived à fleur de peau in my great-grandmother: just under the hollows where her raindrop necklace lay.

 

Postscript: Some years ago, after I wrote this piece, my father was contacted by an unexpected family member, whom he had never met before: a cousin on the Bos side who was the grand-daughter of Louis and his first wife! Curious about her grandfather’s double life, Françoise had done some research and found my father–and so he, and we, began to know something about Louis’ ‘other’ family.  As did she, in her turn. Old wounds had healed, and now it was time for the two sides of the family to get to know each other. 

Five Favourites 22: Meredith Costain

Today’s five favourites have been chosen by Meredith Costain.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, with illustrations by Ruth Gervis

I have read this book so many times over the years it is falling apart. It made me long for a life in a genteel inner-city London, one of the three little ‘Fossil sisters’ tenderly cared for by a guardian and a no-nonsense and very proper English nanny, and earning their keep on the stage. The scene where they vow to get their names in history books has stayed with me forever (and set me on the path to becoming a writer). I devoured the rest of her books one after the other.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I suspect I loved this book so much because I identified so strongly with Jo. She spent every spare moment she could reading, writing, crunching apples up a tree or acting out plays with her sisters. I also admired the family’s dogged insistence on making the best out of every situation: the scene where the four sisters are hand-hemming a bed sheet (hemming being something I hated doing myself) and imagining each seam was a new continent to be explored is wonderful.

When We Were Very Young by A A Milne, with illustrations by E H Shepard

We recited a lot of poetry in our house when I was growing up – and this book (along with Now We Are Six) contained some of my favourites: ‘Disobedience’, ‘The King’s Breakfast’, ‘Happiness’ and ‘At the Zoo’. All his writing had such wonderful, matter-of-fact rhythm that went marching through your head. The perfect companion to the perfect Winnie-the-Pooh.

A Book For Kids by C J Dennis

I went to a tiny two-roomed country primary school where our wonderful teacher shared his love of rhythm and rhyme (and the new kids on the block – The Beatles!) with us every day. He introduced us to the poetry of C J Dennis and I still know most of the poems off by heart, particularly ‘Hist!’, ‘The Ant Explorer’, and ‘Triantiwontigongolope’.

 

The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs by Darlene Geis, with illustrations by Kenyon Shannon

My brother and I fought for ownership over this book (I’m happy to say I won – it’s currently sitting on my ‘beloved books’ shelf). We spent hours poring over the words and images and had fun trying to pronounce their unpronounceable names (so different to the names of animals we had first-hand knowledge of: cow, dog, chook, rabbit, horse). The blend of hard facts and narrative and its conversational tone made it perfect for young readers desperate to find out more about these fabulous beasts from another world and time.

Finally, just want to add some ‘near misses’: I feel like I will have betrayed these lovely books if I don’t give them a mention as well!

Near misses: A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter, Ash Road and Hills End by Ivan Southall, What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff.

http://www.meredithcostain.com

An interview with Sandra Teles of City Writers Room

STeles_miniFinding opportunities to connect with readers, and overcoming a feeling of isolation, are twin challenges in the early stages of a writing career, when you are still finding your feet–and your voice! Recently, an informal writers’ group formed in London(of which my son Xavier is a member) launched an enterprise to rise to the challenge of both those things: City Writers’ Room, a curated blog site showcasing their writing, starting with narrative non-fiction. Today, I talk to Sandra Teles, one of the City Writers Room group, who also administers the site.

Sandra Teles is an actress and writer based in London after relocating from Los Angeles. Having worked with award winning actors and directors in Hollywood in areas of film, theatre, commercials and animation, she continues taking her experience to the field of writing. Sandra is currently working on a series of short stories.

First of all, congratulations to you and the other editors on the launch of City Writers Room! How did it start? And what were the challenges–and discoveries– you faced along the way to launching the site? 

Thank you for talking to us about our new venture. We attended a narrative non-fiction writing course at City University London last Summer. Many of us said we’d keep in touch, as most people hope to after they finish a course. Amanda Riddick took the initiative and got everyone together. Some of us continued to meet once a month to discuss our writing. Few months later, we talked about putting our writing on a kind of writers’ forum to critique it, giving each other feedback, etc. It very soon snowballed into creating our own blog. We discussed why we wanted to do this, who were we writing for, what were we going to write about? And finally, we settled on writing about city living — people, places, the challenges, the insights, topics hidden that we tend to deflect because they may not be mainstream.

Setting up the blog wasn’t too hard initially. However administering a site is proving to be a project in itself. The big challenge was finding the headroom to write consistently, and it still is. Many will agree the hardest part about writing is the discipline to write, actually sitting down patiently and being able to face a blank screen and not have anything coming to you — until it does.

You could also have viable ideas but they vanish quickly if you don’t write them down. There’s something to be said about scribbling on paper an idea that crosses your mind, or taking a photo of something that captures your imagination. It could give rise to a topic worth exploring. Ideas are abundant, but it’s a numbers game as only very few stick. So getting involved in this venture together has made us more attentive to those seeds of ideas.

DSC_0456City Writers Room is particularly focussed on narrative non-fiction writing about cities, in all kinds of aspects. Can you tell us more about that?

Since we worked on the narrative non-fiction course at City University, we’ve started with non-fiction, but intend to include fiction at some point. We’re still exploring topics that interest us like travel, history, politics, people, even film; and their relation to cities. I write fiction mostly; but it’s been a fruitful exercise reading and writing non-fiction. Both feed off each other so it would be a shame to not include fiction. The other writers in the team, (Carole Allsop, Xavier Masson-Leach, Ellen O’Hara and Amanda Riddick) have a strong point of view with regard to the non-fiction topics they choose to write about.

Can you tell us about how City Writers Room works, as a writing showcase?

We talked about City Writers Room being a forum for ideas, writing about people and places. In that we have the freedom to be as creative as we want so we can fine tune our craft as writers. We all have a voice and finding it takes time. We’ve all been writing in one way or another for years, but all of us felt ready to publish at this point in time. It does leave us feeling exposed but there’s comfort in knowing that we support each other in the endeavor.

And that we extend to other writers who would like to get involved with City Writers Room.

Your writers are all very different in their approach to writing. Can you expand on that?

We’re very lucky to have come together on this venture. All our styles are different which showcases more variety. We’re a team that has a similar ethos but our exposure is diverse. Interestingly, we’ve all traveled and lived in a number of cities. And although we have different interests, our strengths don’t clash, only complement. A couple of us really enjoy writing character profiles, so it might even lead to a further collaboration of some sort. For the time being, we are keeping things flexible. It’s an exciting time for all of us. There’s no expectation to be a particular kind of writer. We can stay true to our sensibilities and explore all kinds of writing styles if we want.

What’s the reaction of readers been like so far?

The feedback we’ve gotten has been hugely positive. We already have writers who’ve approached us to write articles for City Writers Room. That’s a big deal — when you get people excited to collaborate. Everyone has a story to tell and hopefully they see this as a platform to express those stories.

What does City Writers Room hope to achieve in the future?

It would be fantastic to bring together a community of writers (local to international) who are willing to share their stories. City Writers Room aims to uplift, entertain and even question the status quo. It would be great to build a space where writers can feel passionate about their work, feel like they can test their material to see what sticks. We’re taking small steps to get there and for now, we’re keeping an open mind as to the direction it might lead.