Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

Wheat from the Chaff – is it possible to differentiate an author from their books?

Some years ago, I read a book by a big name famous author and was fairly unimpressed by it. I’d read pretty much everything else by this author and enjoyed most of it but this one fell short of even the least enjoyable of their books. I mentioned this sense of meh (there’s no other word for it) on Twitter. Now, bear in mind I don’t follow this author, nor the author follow me, but within an hour or two, they tweeted back rather aggressively. This suggests that said author has various alerts set up for mentions of their name and their books and may well do searches randomly on Twitter to see what’s being said. You can tell by my use of a neutral pronoun that I am keeping the identity of this author very quiet because I really don’t want to have them come after me again. Subsequent observations have shown that I am not alone in being targeted by this author on social media, and that it’s surprisingly common behaviour, even among the big names.

I get it: it’s never nice to get unpleasant, negative reviews. But I didn’t review the book; a quick scan on Amazon showed I was far from alone in my opinion of that book. It’s a rare occasion when a book by a hugely popular and almost iconic author has almost as many 1 star reviews as 5 star ones. To go searching for the people who didn’t like your book seems to reveal a vast insecurity that is shocking considering the numbers who did like it.

This post isn’t intended to be solely about this sort of behaviour but a wider issue instead. How much can you separate an author’s character and behaviour from their books? Having recently published Little Gidding Girl, which is partly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, I am acutely aware of Eliot’s feet of clay. His treatment of his wife (who shares my name, oddly enough) is not edifying (in brief, when her mental illness became too much for him, and he declared their marriage over, her brother apparently had her shut away in an asylum and Eliot never saw her again https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivienne_Haigh-Wood_Eliot ). There are many criticisms that can be made of Eliot, for certain, but I still revere his poetry. Yet the dissonance makes me uncomfortable at times.

It’s the same with a lot of authors and poets whose work I have been enthralled by; some have held opinions and beliefs that I shudder at, yet which I can ignore or not even notice within their works. It’s quite rare that an author is a completely nice guy or gal; I wonder also if the tension of personality flaws, weird beliefs and a history of trauma and difficulties may be a large part of what drives creative endeavours? Of Eliot, it was said that Vivienne ruined him as a man but made him as a poet.

In these days of instant access to authors via social media and the ‘net generally, it’s pretty hard to hide from your readers. Authors are required to have a public presence and a public persona; it’s part of the deal, especially with traditional publishing contracts. You are encouraged to find your USP (Unique Selling Point, for those, like me, who don’t speak Marketese) of things that will draw an audience to you, whether that’s an interest in shoes, cupcakes, animal welfare or whatever. Potential authors who cringe at the concept of putting yourself out there will usually remain just that: potential authors. Refusal to accept this side of things is almost always the end of your career before it even starts. It’s intrusive to the author and it can create intolerable pressures and tensions. You cannot be a completely private person and an author, unless you have created a completely “other” identity that is used for your author profile. This is far harder than you would imagine; if you interact with fans, your real nature will eventually slip out because lies are harder to maintain than truths.

My own author persona has been cobbled together from useful scraps, rather like the way a caddis-fly constructs a shell of bits and bobs to protect itself from being eaten. I’m definitely a soft-shelled sort of person, easily hurt, but the bits and bobs are true reflections of the nature within the armour. When I first began to get my books out there, I was naïve but thankfully I was also intellectually aware that one should not take things personally. A 1 star review is, after all, solely the opinion of one person, and cannot outweigh the dozens and dozens of 4 and 5 star reviews. I’ve cried at negative reviews. I’ve raged, but I’ve (mostly) done it privately and unlike many authors, I’ve never gone after the reviewer. They, like anyone, are entitled to their reaction to a book, but I do sometimes wonder if they realise that authors do read reviews (even though some would suggest we ought not, even the good ones) and have feelings and can be gravely wounded by the personal attacks that some reviews employ.

Some authors refer to their works as their book babies, and the analogy is quite an accurate one. They are the products of our hearts, minds and imaginations and our aspirations, as well as of long hours of hard labour. But once those book babies are out in the world, they can and almost always do take on a life of their own, and while we may own the copyright, in subtle ways we no long own the soul of that book. People who read find their own understanding of the story, of the characters. We as authors cannot control that or dictate what readers can and can’t do or feel. Some books take on a life that is distinct from that of the creator, so distinct that on reading them you can’t help wonder how someone like that could create something like this. It cuts both ways: unpleasant or even evil people writing inspiring, powerful, poetic and life changing books, and deeply good, kind, decent and caring people writing books that are disturbing, frightening and altogether horrible books.

One can never entirely predict how one’s off-spring, whether flesh or mere words, will turn out. This makes the process of creation so much more chancy and ultimately more exciting, because you cannot tell how something will develop, both in the writing and in the reading.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

Too Fast. Too Furious. Too Far. Too Much.

No, I’m not reviewing the latest offering in the Fast & Furious franchise (incidentally, they are quite good escapist fun that pay no attention to either geography, the laws of physics and a variety of other things; if you can cope with that, go for it)

I’m at that point of complete overwhelm with life where I fear not only breakdown but total burn-out. The entire world seems to be intent on going to hell in a handy hand basket, singing all the way about such guff as sovereignty, taking back control and how experts are stupid and don’t know anything. In the mean time, they’re kicking the underdog, and demonising anyone who disagrees with them, and all the while economic turmoil & political strife create further unrest and disorder.

It’s not a nice time to be alive, quite frankly. I grew up during the Cold War, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland which spilled over into mainland Britain, during the Three Day week with strikes, power cuts, shortages and so on. I used to have nightmares on a regular basis about nuclear war. Despite being a child during much of this, I read the newspapers and I watched the news. There were bomb threats made against schools and public buildings of all sorts; there was even an actual bomb in my school when I was 18.

The information overload is such that unless you completely unplug and detach from the world (no internet, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, not even talking to people) it pours into your psyche in an unending torrent of awfulness. And as our entire culture is now rooted in the use of the internet, even those of us who don’t have a smartphone, cannot escape the 24/7 exposure to literally EVERYTHING all at once. I regularly take days off internet use; since I only use my main computer for internet, this is relatively easy. But my work is online. To completely drop all my online connections and obligations would mean that I would vanish very, very quickly. I have had online friends say, “Stuff this for a game of soldiers!” and deactivate all their social media profiles and disappear. Some have explained beforehand but many don’t. They just stop being there; and it can take a while to notice, because everything cascades past you at such a rate that it can take weeks or longer to think, oh whatever happened to old so-and-so. I try to care about my friends beyond my computer screen but I know I have been dropping the ball of late.

I’ve also noticed that alongside the paring away to virtually nothing of the mental health support system, has come a rise and rise of a culture of shallow, one-size-fits-all organised “self help”, often using the label of mindfulness, CBT etc. I bought a magazine the other day (for research) called Breathe. It’s new, and deliberately not glossy, but its tag-line is WELLBEING MINDFULNESS CREATIVITY ESCAPING. I’ve flipped through and skim-read the articles, punctuated by lovely pictures and it scares me. It’s the escaping part of the remit that worries me most. That’s because I want to escape. I want out. I want to retreat into a comfortable haze of nice things around me. When I started using colouring as a means of removing some stress, a friend commented disparagingly that she felt it was infantilising people. At the time, I filed the comment away for future thought, and since then, as colouring books became ubiquitous, they also became simpler, more focused on prettiness and light, sweet, NICE things (like cupcakes, fancy shoes and flowers), I realised the movement has been towards an infantilising rather than a form of creativity that allows the mind to engage with quiet while the body works on something gently absorbing but not terribly challening. It was the arrival of dot-to-dot colouring books for adults that I freaked and began to feel very uncomfortable. We all need R&R to step out of the fray and recuperate, but the very juvenile nature of some of the R&R that’s thrust constantly under our noses bothers me. There’s a massive and growing industry that keeps churning stuff out to keep us happy, and quiet and submissive to everything. So many people are saying “Oh I’m bored with politics now; let’s just ignore it all!” and retreating into whatever comfortable corner that they feel safest in. And I understand that; I really do. I’m so uncomfortable with life that my whole being aches with it, aches to walk away and completely and permanently tune out the dark, the dangerous, and the difficult things that are going on around me. I’m not living with war, but there’s a lot of things happening in my land that are secret wars that have real victims, and the insane decision to leave the EU is going to create a lot more as prices rise and poverty and shortages increase and this country isolates itself from her European allies and friends.

Every day I wake up, and within a short time, EVEN WHEN I DON’T LOG ON, I am hit by a wave of fear, of despair, of confusion and I think, Stop the world, I want to get off. But I can’t. There is no Planet B and as we systematically trash this one, we’re shitting in our own wells and pissing on our own food. I can and I do take a variety of actions towards conservation, helping the poor, creating havens for wild-life in my own garden and a lot of other things. But my mind is close to cracking and my body close to shutting down. I’m pulled in two opposing directions at once: to retreat, give up on being a responsible adult citizen, or to stand up for what I believe in (but where to start? There’s so much I want to defend) and be that solitary figure standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square (that’s what it feels like, frankly, but then perhaps we are all standing in front of a tank)

I’d like to end with something cheerful but beyond a plea to buy my books (go on go on go on) I can’t think of anything I can say that isn’t also me trying to be falsely cheerful and horribly fake. I’m doing my level best every day to do that thing of lighting a single candle rather than cursing the darkness but it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So, sorry for being a miserable, pessimistic moaner (a remoaner, even. Don’t get me started on THAT little insult) and perhaps soon I can be a tad more cheery.

Little Gidding Girl launching at the Summer Solstice

Little Gidding Girl launching at the Summer Solstice

After much work and heart-searching, I decided that I’d choose a date for the launch of Little Gidding Girl, and since the story starts at the Autumn Equinox, the launch is going to be midsummer, around the Summer Solstice. I’ll be blogging more about the significance of the equinoxes and solstices but there’s good but hidden reasons why these dates are important.

The paperback is out already, giving those who prefer paper to digital a chance to get a copy in advance of the launch of the ebook, because a paperback has to find its way via whatever postal system is in place and can take days or even weeks to arrive.

I’ll be sharing various blog posts over the coming weeks, but this is the blurb:

“At seventeen, Verity lost the future she’d craved when Nick, her enigmatic and troubled poet boyfriend, drowned at sea. At thirty-five, in a safe, humdrum and uninspired life, she finds that snatches of the life she didn’t have begin to force their way into her real life. This other life, more vivid and demanding than her actual life, begins to gather a terrible momentum as she starts to understand that her un-lived life was not the poetic dream she had imagined it might be. Doubting her own sanity as her other life comes crashing down around her in a series of disasters, Verity is forced to re-examine her past, realign her present and somehow reclaim a future where both her own early creative promise and her family can exist and flourish together. Exploring the nature of time itself, the possibilities of parallel universes and the poetic expressions of both, Verity searches to understand why and how Nick really died and what her own lives, lived and un-lived, might truly mean.”

‘From the unknown spaces between what is, was, and will be, messages and sendings break through into Verity’s life: are they nightmares of a parallel reality or projections from a love that has flown? Vivienne Tuffnell keeps us guessing with utmost artistry as we trace the interweaving way-marks in pursuit of the truth. Little Gidding Girl kept me enthralled until the very end.’ – Caitlín Matthews, author of Singing the Soul Back Home, and Diary of a Soul Doctor

The UK link is here for the paperback:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Little-Gidding-Girl-Vivienne-Tuffnell/dp/154460016X/

I’ve set up a cyber party on Facebook here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/134936727080106/

 

A cyber party involves discussions, pictures, music, laughs and chats and is a chance for people to show support and encouragement while not having to have a physical party. That way people from all around the world can attend, in their pjs if they wish! There’s no pressure to buy, just to have a bit of fun.

That said, I DO want folks to buy. That’s part of being an author: you want folks to buy your books.

I can’t emphasise enough also how vital early reviews are to the visibility of a new book.  I hate asking and I don’t want to be that annoying author who pesters, but it does make a difference. Nor do reviews have to be complicated or long, just as long as there’s no spoilers. I’ve read reviews over the years (of many books) where the reviewer is basically doing a book report the way they did for books at school; that usually means they contain content that can spoil the book for others.

So if you’re on Facebook, do invite yourself along (I can only invite a certain number) or you can always sign up on my Amazon page to be notified when new books are available.  Or you can simply wait for another blog, announcing the birth of a new book.

It’s exciting but also terrifying.

W is for Woman

W is for Woman

I am woman – hear me roar,”

is what I hear so many say.

I do not roar,

I sometimes squeak

Or squeal or even growl.

At times I even purr.

In truth, mostly I am silent,

Unable to find a voice

Or words that fit

The needs that change

From day to day.

Sometimes I whisper

Into the void

Until my throat is sore,

As much as if I’d screamed.

It is not this lioness who roars.

(edited to clarify: have changed the to THIS. I know lionesses do actually roar. )

L is for Lists

L is for Lists

I like a list, me. Not useful ones like shopping lists where each item is carefully inscribed onto the back of an envelope; no, most of us know what we need when we go to the supermarket. You know how it goes: bread, milk, cucumbers, cat food, loo roll... the same old same old. I only tend to make lists now for things that are not bought each and every time a grocery shop is done: hot pepper sauce, Gentleman’s Relish, wet wipes for the car, shoe polish, memory stick.

When I am packing to go away, I make a list of the things that need to be included, the things that it would be disastrous to forget: underwear, sufficient changes of clothes, medication, phone charger, passport. You know the drill. When we used to go camping on a regular basis, I’d make lists in the run up, of things that needed to be done before we left, clothing to be laundered, or equipment that needed to be disinterred from the loft, then when that list had reached a certain size and half of the items/tasks were ticked off, I’d make a second list (List, son of list) and repeat the process. We usually got to great great grandson of List by the day of departure.

Some folks have a To Do list. I often do this but one important thing that is very useful if, like me, you are not 100% well. Make sure that the first items on the to do list are things you have already done (get up, shower, brush teeth, drink tea) because there’s a lift to be gained from ticking several items off the list before the day has really got going. You’re more likely to do some of the other tasks if you feel you’ve already accomplished something that day. On a bad day, seeing that you’ve ticked off four things on a list of ten, can sometimes make the difference between going to bed beating yourself up and going to bed feeling you did something that day.

Which brings me to the next list. This is the Ta Dah* list. Instead of making a list of the things you have to do, make one of things you have done. You can do it daily, weekly or whatever. Just as a To Do list accumulates masses and masses of things as you contemplate the enormous mountain of stuff you feel you have to do (believe me, it becomes a snowball rolling down a hill, the way it just gets bigger and bigger), so to does the Ta Dah* list. If you find yourself feeling despondent about how useless you are (I frequently feel this way) a Ta Dah* list soon puts it into perspective. A couple of years ago, I started making a monthly spreadsheet where I filled in each day how far I’d walked, how many minutes at the gym doing which exercise, if I’d done any writing, or other creative activity. It gave me a bit of a shock after a few months, because even when I thought I was doing nothing, it turns out I was doing rather a lot, and far more than I gave myself credit for.

I’m not going to do Hit Lists…we’d be here all day.

*Ta Dah is meant to be said with a flourish and an exclamation mark and that gesture with the hands that goes with magicians extracting weary tame rabbits from top hats.

G is for Grief

G is for Grief

Many of us have heard or are subliminally aware of the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as postulated in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross‘s famous book On Death and Dying. The book was published in 1969 and was the result of her work with the terminally ill.

Kübler-Ross noted later in life that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. Rather, they are a collation of five common experiences for the bereaved that can occur in any order, if at all. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model)

As a result of this misunderstanding, people seem to feel that grief is both a linear and a limited process that can be “got through” in a set amount of time; it then seems to legitimise the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that people encourage those grieving to move on, to put it behind them, and to cease grieving.

There is no hierarchy of grief. Some will grieve for losses that others consider negligible. The loss of a beloved companion animal is as painful for some as the loss of a parent; it all depends on the relationship and on the circumstances. Having seen others say, “It was only a dog/cat/guinea pig; get over it!” I can testify to the cruelty of such speech. We all feel grief in different ways and for different things.

Every one of my novels is about grief and grieving in very different ways and for different people. Antony in The Bet is buried under a heap of grief, so unable to process it that he has become numb and detached and so lost and vulnerable in his need for comfort that he mistakes the attentions of the predatory Jenny for affection and love, and so descends into a further hell. His journey back out of that hell is the story of one journey through multiple griefs. Strangers and Pilgrims focuses on the journeys of six people through loss, grief and unhealed hurts. Square Peg starts with a funeral and the loss of the only stable, loving person in much of Chloe’s life, just at a time when the loss of her previous way of life and the start of a new and very alien one has destablised her and left her at risk from loneliness, grief and confusion. Away With The Fairies is primarily Isobel’s exploration of the loss of both parents.

Yet grief has a single unspoken component that Kübler-Ross’s work points to, that all grief returns to a single point, that of our own mortality, best summed up by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poignant poem Spring and Fall, which I tend to remember as Goldengrove (another G)

Spring and Fall

(to a young child)

Márgarét, áre you gríeving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leáves like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! ás the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you wíll weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It ís the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

( I blogged on this poem before:  https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/endings-and-beginnings-why-you-need-to-grieve-for-the-past-before-you-can-begin-anew/ )

E is for Enough

E is for Enough

It’s a funny word, enough. Look at it long enough and it starts looking all wrong. That -ough ending is always a killer for someone with English as a second (or fifth) language. It doesn’t make sense that it’s pronounced ENUFF.

The meaning of the word itself is also difficult. It is ambiguous. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/enough We use it to mean sufficient but it carries shades of meaning that are confusing.

When I sat down to write my post for today, I started by writing a poem. I stared at it and hated it; it wasn’t good enough. It had a umpty-tumpty rhyme scheme, and an obvious theme that wasn’t right. It’s tucked away in the poetry file now, probably never seeing the light of day. I’ve seen a lot of very bad poetry written by people who cannot see how poor it is and I don’t want to ever fall into that category, letting myself down.

You see, the question I ask is whether who and what I am is enough; enough for the world, for my friends and family, for myself, for whatever is out there. As the demands of the world grown ever more complex and my heart becomes sick with those demands, I conclude that I am not enough and never will be.

I think I have had ENOUGH, thank you very much indeed. <Pushes plate away> <Wipes mouth> <Leaves the table>