The Answer

The road across the moor was spectacular, but not one where you’d want to break down or have a puncture. Something about the wildness of it, the brackish water of the marsh on either side, and the trees shrouded in mist. Nice to admire from the warm interior of the car, and Colin was glad that his Volvo, though getting on, could be relied upon to see him safely across.

“Looking for an answer, they say.” The landlord’s words came back to him. The tale of the missing travellers – amusing enough in the bar of the Brigands Inn where he’d slept, not very well, the night before. Out here, the story felt different.

“Answer to what?” Colin asked.

The landlord scraped the froth from the top of his pint. “It was a long time ago. Seventeen something.” He raised his glass. “To your good health, Sir.”

Colin switched on the radio. Any Questions. “Does the panel think that it’s time for Queen Elizabeth to abdicate?” He smiled. Ah, the comforting questions of the present! And of course, everyone had an answer.

In the distance, by the side of the road, was a car. As he drew closer, he saw the bonnet was open. He slowed. A man stepped out onto the road, waving him down. Colin turned the radio down. “Having trouble?”

“Something electrical.” The man came closer. “Any chance of a lift to the nearest garage?”

“Haven’t you phoned?”

“Out of battery. Typical.” He was young, well dressed, with a northern accent, Lancashire perhaps, he’d learned to keep in check.

“Hop in.” Solidarity. Must be a salesman too. “Not the best of places to break down. Lucky I came along.”

“Very lucky.” The man turned slowly towards Colin. “I’m sure you can tell me the answer.”


A little story in response to Izzy’s May I: The Write post about open endings. Sometimes it really helps to know the answer.

Writing the Other

Izzy May I: The Write always comes up with some great topics – the latest is about what makes a ‘strong’ female character. And as usual, she covers the topic very thoroughly and one can’t but agree with her assertion that “the strong female character has become a stereotype.” Indeed, as Judy Berman puts it, “we’re now suffering from a dearth of weak female characters — complex, well-written women who happen to also be meek, feminine, neurotic, or otherwise imperfect.”

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Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina (http://flavorwire.com)

Naturally, all this got me thinking about Magali, the main character in One Green Bottle, and worrying she might be a stereotype. Although she’s not strong, and doesn’t kick ass either figuratively or literally, she’s stubborn and resourceful. So while being fairly meek, she does have an inner strength that keeps her going even when beset by doubts. Hopefully, that’s not a stereotype.

When workshopping OGB on Book Country, a message I received from Renee Gravelle, whose writings about women I much respect, particularly pleased me: I love Magali, and speaking as a woman, I think you’ve done a great job portraying her man’s world from her psychological viewpoint. That was reassuring, because there’s always a slight trepidation when you set out to “write the other”. Usually that means the opposite gender, though there’s nothing to stop it being anything we want. David Duchovny has written a book from a cow’s point of view, though not, apparently, with wonderful results. I haven’t read it myself, but Emma’s review at Bluchickenninja was less than flattering.

A neat conclusion is provided by another Book Country writer, D.J. Lutz:  “The cliche gender roles have blurred so much now, I like to think I write for the human condition instead of delineating male vs female.” Of course, one can also write for the bovine condition, but in that case I humbly suggest one should first consult Mabel Moo. 🙂

Non, rien de rien… Cheer up!

A few years back, we attended the wedding of our friends’ daughter, quite an enlightening experience as we were seated at a table with eight communists. Despite the festive occasion, they were uniformly glum, which, to be fair, is understandable for members of an endangered species. Being the only Brit, I was slightly uncomfortable, knowing what French communists think of all things Anglo-Saxon. But although they stuck to their glumness, they weren’t actually hostile, and indeed perked up a bit when I expounded upon the superiority of France over Britain in food, wine, climate, countryside, health care, social security, public transport – basically everything that makes life worthwhile. ‘But,’ I said, expecting general agreement with this universally recognised truth, ‘The opposite holds in one area. Music.’

Silence. The glumness turned to indignation. ‘Do you actually know French music?’ one of them demanded.

‘Well, yes.’ (I omitted to add, ‘unfortunately’). For the next ten minutes I was bombarded with the names of French singers, some of whom I do indeed appreciate – Nino Ferrer or Alain Bashung are perfectly good to listen to. ‘No, all I’m saying,’ I argued, ‘is that, you know, The Beatles? Or The Stones or Dylan or Joni Mitchell, I mean, it’s not quite the same league.’ More silence, heavy now with a barely concealed outrage.

‘Wow,’ I said, ‘this strawberry cake’s delicious, don’t you think?’

***

I actually have a story on the go where one of the characters is called Fabien Chansonnier, which means singer or songwriter (it’s not quite the same as chanteur because for a chansonnier, the lyrics, often satirical or political, were at least as important as the music). Fabien isn’t a singer himself but the story takes place in the war in Marseille, when communists were plentiful and la chanson française was thriving. This prompted me to look at what was popular at the time. In 1942, when the Germans occupied Marseilles, the big hit was Mon Amant de Saint Jean, sung by Lucienne Delyle.

And of course, Edith Piaf had by then started her eventful and illustrious career. I was delighted to tell my companions at the wedding that Je Ne Regrette Rien may well have unconsciously influenced my move to France. Bought by my parents in the 50s, it was our first record, which I listened to constantly (I didn’t have a lot of choice – for a long time it was the only record we had). Everyone round the table agreed that Piaf was unique, and amicable relations were restored. I would have liked to report that by the end of the evening, they’d emerged somewhat from their gloom. Sadly, it wasn’t the case.

Words, more or less

In this week’s Izzy May I: The Write on the topic of word counts in fiction, Izzy does a great job of discussing word counts by genre, allowing me to see that One Green Bottle is at the upper limit for mystery / suspense. Maybe a little pruning is in order. Her post is so thorough, I was left with little to do but wonder about the number of words, not in a book, but in a sentence. The shortest, obviously is one, but what’s the longest? Well, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé, if you prefer) by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal has a good claim, being a single 130 page sentence. Jonathan Coe was inspired by this to write a sentence of 13,955 words in his excellent novel The Rotters Club. In comparison, Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses comes in at a piddling 4,391 words. Huh!

All of which leads me on to TheBookBloggers Flash Fiction Foray, which asks for a story in 100 words at most, based on the title of a song. Last week’s prompt was American Pie.

ussrdumplinguspie

And the rest is history…

‘Everything.’ Anton handed over the roll of film. ‘Anti-missile sites, nuclear codes – the lot.’

‘Well done.’ Ivan glanced round. The car was waiting. Diplomatic plates. Chauffeur. All according to plan. Soon he’d be boarding at JFK, the future of the USSR guaranteed. He slipped the film into his pocket. ‘Operation Dumpling is a success.’ He walked to the car, where the chauffeur opened the door.

‘What the…?’ Ivan yelped as the door slammed shut on his arm. A pistol came to rest against his head.

‘Dumpling?’ The chauffeur chuckled. ‘Tasty, I’m sure. But nowhere near as good as American Pie.’

Dead, or Alive (again)

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It is with a heavy heart that I sit at my laptop to announce the death of Mabel Moo, whom I interviewed just last month. Optimistic to the end, she went to the slaughterhouse believing she was testing a new milking facility. It was no doubt better that way. RIP, Mabel, we shall miss you.

Izzy’s May I: The Write this week is about the death of fictional characters. As she gives a good list herself, I shall only add a couple here (apart from poor Mabel). Perhaps the death which caused the greatest trauma was that of Sherlock Holmes, in the 1893 issue of The Strand Magazine. ‘It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen,’ writes Watson at the start of The Final Problem, before going on to reveal that Holmes had fallen to his death at the Reichenbach Falls, pushed by his old enemy Moriarty. Having lost its fictional mainstay, The Strand Magazine promptly lost 20,000 devastated subscribers. Unlike his readers, Conan Doyle was relieved to be rid of his creation: “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” Eventually he relented though, revealing ten years later, in one of the most famous examples of retcon (retroactive continuity, or altering an established fact) that Holmes hadn’t died after all.

Very different is Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I’ve just finished. If you haven’t read it, do (no excuses, I’m afraid, that’s an order). It’s no spoiler to tell you the heroine Ursula dies. In fact I lost count of the number of times she dies, but she springs back to life again and again. You might think it’s a tiresome device, but in Atkinson’s masterful prose it becomes a delight.

So there you have one of the joys of fiction. Though death in novels can often be harrowing and atrocious, it also sometimes loses its sting. Speaking of which, it appears the stun gun at the slaughterhouse didn’t work – Mabel is back in her field!

Shot in the Foot

izzy

In response to the Izzy May I the Write: Shot in the Foot blog event: As a writer have you ever shot yourself in the foot, and what advice would you give to avoid it?

Dear Mr. Bausse, As a literary agent I have better things to do than waste my time in a Post Office collecting – and having to pay for – a letter on which there is no stamp. Please reimburse me immediately. And no, I do not want to read your novel.

Oh no! Am I really that absent-minded? Was I drunk? Not at all: a couple of days later, on a different envelope, the truth became clear: self-adhesive stamps that don’t adhere! Maybe, I thought, I can sue the Post Office – a literary career come unstuck. My advice? Avoid agents who don’t accept email submissions. Or buy a tube of super glue.