My interview with Clare Fisher about her debut novel, All the Good Things.

Thanks to Penguin for including me on the blog tour of Clare Fisher’s stunning debut novel All the Good Things. Do look at other blogs too!

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Ali: Thank you, Clare for agreeing to speak to me about your writing, and the publication of your debut novel All the Good Things. What I find compelling about this novel is the voice – completely original, down-to-earth and engaging. How did you develop Beth’s character? I know writers hate being asked this, but readers are always curious, so how much does Beth reflect any particular person you know?
Clare: It’s funny you mention the voice, because that is exactly where this novel began: I was going to sleep one night and I just heard it. I told it to please wait until the morning, but it refused, so I got up, scribbled it into my notebook, and Beth grew from there. I wrote the first draft quite quickly but I had to go back and rewrite to make her character more nuanced and detailed, sorting her reactions from my own. Beth isn’t inspired by a particular person — I can’t imagine writing any convincing fiction that was — however, growing up in south London and then working with young people in education, I came across many young women like Beth, and was always struck and bothered by how little they were represented in fiction.

Ali: How did you come up with idea of the diary of ‘good things’? It works particularly well as a structure for a novel. It could so easily have been a depressing read which it definitely isn’t. Instead, although desperately sad, the novel left me feeling uplifted.
Clare: The idea of the good things came quite early on — it was what kept me going back to Beth. The list also enabled me to find the universal in what is a very particular experience; trying to find hope in life is something we all will struggle with from time to time. I also think a lot of women — myself included — really struggle with self-esteem, constantly criticising and doubting themselves. If Beth can learn to see herself as good, surely we all can.

Ali: You paint the intensity of child birth and bonding with a new baby very realistically, and your evocation of prison sounds frighteningly authentic. How did you research the novel? How much of it is based on your own experience?
Clare: Beth’s life is a long way from my own life. Although I was born in south London and brought up by a single mother, our similarities end about there. I’ve never given birth, however I’ve always been fascinated and terrified by the whole business; growing a creature inside you, getting it out into the world, looking after it… How do we just keep on doing it? This was what drove me through these sections, although I also did a lot of Googling and talking to women I know who have gone through it, to make sure of the details, not least my own Mum, who has always been very open with me about this and many other things. The prison sections were developed hugely by reading books written by those in prison, speaking to some very helpful researchers and people who’d worked in both the prison and the care systems, and visiting a women’s prison myself. The prison visit was really valuable, both for showing me the physical details I could never have imagined, as well as the wide variety of women who are in there —- women who are so much more than the label ‘prisoner’ would lead you to believe. I also got the sense that being in prison had forced many into a kind of reckoning with themselves — the kind it is so much easier to avoid in everyday life. A majority of women in prison have histories of abuse as children and of domestic violence; for many, prison is the first chance they’ve had to understand their journeys, heal and grow. I hoped to capture this atmosphere of emotional intensity and immediacy in the novel.

Ali: I’ve worked (in education) with vulnerable children and families like Beth’s. I love the way you’ve given a voice to the people on the fringes of society, the ones many novel-readers might only encounter on say the Jeremy Kyle show, and easy to dismiss in a glib way; but you give her a strong individual voice as well as dignity, pathos and a sense of humour. The novel raises question about society in general: the social care system, how people with mental health issues are supported and how women are treated by the prison service. All very big issues. What made you want to tackle these in a novel?                   Clare: Thanks! Having worked with vulnerable children in education, and grown up in an area of south London which was incredibly diverse, I’ve always been aware that there’s this vast area of society which is little represented in contemporary fiction. When we do hear about young women such as Beth, it’s often in a derogatory, moralising, sensationalized way, as you point out. When I write fiction, the starting point is always the character, their voice, and trying to make them as real and nuanced as possible; I hoped that in doing this with Beth, I could show how the structural inequalities and injustices you mention impact on a person who is not the monster of tabloid headlines and ‘freak-show’ style TV documentaries but an individual with strengths and flaws, just like any of us. I like to read fiction that takes me to places, be they psychological, cultural, geographical, that I would not normally go; Beth’s story gripped me from the moment I started writing because it felt, at last, like I’d found a way to do this myself.

Ali: I understand that you’re planning to publish a collection of short stories later in the year. How much of a resurgence do you think there is in the shorter form?
Clare: Yes, that’s right, I will publish a collection of (very) short fiction, How The Light Gets In, in early 2018 with Influx Press. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to talk about the resurgence of the shorter form in general; but I certainly love it myself! I still don’t quite understand why reading short fiction has yet to become a widespread national habit the way novels have; it’s so much more suited to modern lives, bisected as they are by busy jobs, commutes, Smartphones, etc. But there is certainly a growing interest in the shorter form, and the rise of spoken word and live literature events is definitely providing a lot of new and exciting avenues for this infinitely shareable form. It’s exciting!

Ali: Which writers do you admire and emulate most (living or dead)?
Clare: Oh wow, where to begin? There are so many. Just so many. I like writing which shakes me, which really delves into difficult places, places I’ve not been before, and which will change how I experience the world from the moment of reading onwards. A few writers who have done this for me are Zadie Smith, Elena Ferrante, Eimer McBride, Lydia Davis, Warsan Shire, Leonora Carrington, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Kate Tempest … I could really keep going for a very long time, and I’m sure some male writers would emerge, eventually, but I’ll leave it there, I think.

Ali: You talk about the importance of ‘letting our stories grow’ and listening to others – do you think we’re losing the capacity to listen and to tell stories, with our obsession with information and addiction to social media?
Clare: I think social media prioritises a certain kind of story, which is not really a story, but a very superficial kind of information exchange. Inevitably — and I say this as someone who spends more time on social media than I should! — this eats into time where people might otherwise engage with something more nourishing. However, I think the hunger for complex, satisfying stories is one that will never go away; the internet and social media can also be a great way of discovering new stories, books, places, etc. It’s when it becomes an end in itself, that the trouble starts… But I have faith that people’s real appetites will always win out, eventually.

Ali: You grew up in South London and now live in Leeds. I read that you see London as ‘edgeless; you can dive into it and swim around, coming across new people, new places, new ideas and movements seemingly forever.’ Do you find the same in Leeds? And do you feel as if you belong to both equally?
Clare: When I first moved to Leeds I was struck and quite disturbed by the obviousness of its edge: even from the centre you can look out and see vast stretches of green. You only have to go a few miles out to find woodland, unclaimed land, even the occasional stray horse. It is, of course, a far smaller city; it would be unfair to expect the same metropolitan buzz as London. It does, however, as I have discovered in the years since I moved here, have its own and very special beat. There is more space and, seemingly, more time; I doubt I’d have written a novel whilst working full-time in London, for example! There are all sorts of thriving arts scenes and people are friendly and supportive of one another. It’s easier to try out new things even if you don’t have a ton of money — which, sadly, seems less and less the case in London. I’ve come to love both cities in different ways and feel very lucky to be able to call them both home.

Ali: Thank you very much for answering my questions, Clare and good luck with your amazing book.

All the Good Things is available from all good bookshops and from Amazon: http://amzn.to/2q1zWY8

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar’

My rating *****

My review

A stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G invites a retired judge to watch his show. Afterwards he wants to know what you saw…What do people know when they look at me…the thing that comes out of a person without his control. But it’s hardly an evening of comedy: even when he laughs, his look is calculating and joyless; the jokes are tasteless and cruel, and the slapstick is violent. No one is exempt – those with disabilities and even victims of the Holocaust: she had a lot of experience with camping…although her camps were more of the concentration variety.

Soon, as the jokes are dropped and the show becomes more autobiography than stand-up, members of the audience start to walk out. But, like the judge, we can’t turn away or avert our gaze. We want to know why – what has happened to the funny kid with glasses and prominent lips that the judge once knew as a child forty years previously, to turn him into this monster? As Dovaleh’s show spirals down, and the judge experiences increasingly gloomy and often angry memories, we gradually piece together a version of the story. The final scenes are stretched out to an almost unbearable breaking point as we witness the trauma that has marked Dovaleh for life and is constantly in his dreams. Such dirt on me, such pollution… God, all the way to my bones…We watch like voyeurs, but we still can’t look away. We’re gripped until the end.

This profoundly moving novel holds up the conflict inherent in using human suffering for art, the relationship between the performer and the audience, our complicity and the uncomfortable space where these all meet. We witness both the inner glow. Or the inner darkness. The secret, the tremble of singularity of ordinary personal loss (the judge) and the loss that never stops and colours a whole life (Dovaleh). We see how we tell the story of our own lives to ourselves and what we choose to forget.

The overarching question raised by this deeply sad but often very wild and funny novel, is the question of anti-Semitism, the ‘Jewish’ question, whose echoes continue to reverberate down the generations since the Holocaust.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is not an easy read – it is harrowing, poignant and powerful. But it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and now a worthy winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2017, shared between the author, David Grossman and his English translator, Jessica Cohen.

David Grossman & Jessica Cohen

Review: Conversations with Friends

Conversations with friends

published by Faber & Faber, 2017

****

Well I’m gay and Frances is a communist.

Frances and Bobbi, both twenty-one and very bright, are university students in Dublin. They’ve had a gay relationship but are still best friends; Frances is an aspiring writer and she and Bobbi perform spoken word poetry at night. When they meet Melissa, a photographer in her thirties who wants to do a profile on them, Bobbi is attracted to Melissa and Frances begins an affair with Nick, Melissa’s glamorous actor husband.

Everyone labels Frances as cool, but it is more that she is guarded and reserved – there’s a history of family instability and, in spite of her political beliefs, she’s financially dependent on her father, a sad shadowy alcoholic. Seen through Frances’ eyes the world is flat, colourless and cerebral. She’s detached from her own emotions and, as she and Bobbi analyse their lives, without becoming emotionally involved, the language of the novel reinforces this sense of distancing.

I had a headache, I hadn’t eaten. My body felt used-up and worthless to me. I didn’t want to put food or medicine into it anymore.

At first Frances hardly knows herself – she is young and naïve; it’s only by observing her own actions and reactions that she comes to a level of understanding, as she tries to reconcile her intellectual beliefs with the messy reality of relationships. She falls in love with Nick but, of course, he comes with his own baggage and vulnerabilities – a complicated backstory of depression and his wife’s infidelities.

Frances keeps the affair secret and ultimately runs the risk of alienating everyone she cares about: her father, Nick and Bobbi. She uses her ‘coolness’ as a shield to hide behind and when everything starts to go wrong, both emotionally and physically, she starts to fall apart and takes it out on her own body.

By the end of the novel Frances is beginning to grow up: she has learned that it’s impossible to live in a completely cerebral way; like everyone else, she is subject to the limitations of her body. If she wants to be happy she will have to compromise.

You live through certain things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.

In this intriguing novel. Sally Rooney shows how precocious intellectual brilliance can mask ordinary vulnerability, and she has achieved a rare feat in letting us observe the complex process of Frances coming to terms with how to live her life.

Review: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

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Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017

Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra

 

This slim novel from Dorthe Nors and published by Pushkin Press, is a witty and moving depiction of the disconnect between contemporary urban life and the human need for wild, natural places. A study in alienation and loneliness. You can never get back to the place you come from, because ‘it no longer exists’… ‘and you yourself have become a stranger.

Sonja is taking driving lessons, and her teacher won’t show her how to change gear. Brought up on a farm, her mother always told her: ‘it’ll work out’, but, living in Copenhagen as a translator of graphic crime novels, Sonja is in her 40s and still doesn’t fit in. There are too many demands on her and, ‘if you’re not careful, you stop getting it all to fit together, and then suddenly you’re a helpless piece of meat trying to catch up to your driving instructor.’

There has always been a problem with ‘the things Sonja says and the way she says them’. Even as a child she was ‘complicated’ compared to her ‘approachable’ sister, Kate who is always too busy to speak to her. Sonja attempts phone calls and letters to her sister and mother but ‘it’s hard to find words to fit the people you love.’ She is always rejected.

Sonja longs for her childhood when she could escape to her own ‘hidey-hole’ deep in a rye field to be alone, and where ‘the sky is endless’ and ‘whooper swans lifted the landscape up’. One of her happiest memories is when she collected wild oats growing in her father’s field of rye ‘like a little field mouse’ and her father ‘placed his warm hand on her head.’ Now she’s literally out of touch. Her existential malaise manifests itself in physical symptoms: her tense jaw and aching neck (eased by regular massages), and positional vertigo – a condition in which sudden movements can make her dizzy, where the tiny stones in her inner ear move like ‘a murmuration of starlings’ and she faints.

In what could easily be a bleak novel, Dorthe Nors gives us some wry, funny moments: Sonja muses on the fact that she’s never come across any of the ‘mutilated women and children’ depicted in Svensson’s novels ‘lying and rotting everywhere on Scandinavian public land’. And men lounge around on holiday, slapping on sun cream and reading Swedish noir: ‘a crossword puzzle with sperm and maggots.’ Nors also pokes fun at the fashion for mindfulness – on a country walk Sonja and a group of women and are instructed to ‘open our senses to nature. Touch the moss. Pluck the grass… make yourself heavy in the pelvis.’

Her failure to learn to drive is a well-used metaphor for life, but in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal the approach is subtle and fresh. Sonja stands up to Jytte, her female driving instructor because she won’t let her ‘take any responsibility in the car’ and rejects the male owner of the driving school’s clumsy attempts at a relationship. Eventually she realises she can change: ‘you’re allowed to flee the blows you’re being dealt,’ and she makes a bid to escape. On her way to a concert Sonja impulsively gets off the train to help an older woman who is in Copenhagen to visit a niece and seems lost. Her kindness is rewarded with kindness and, at the end of this excellent novel there is at last a sense of hope – if Sonja goes back to the village where she was born, there’s only one traffic light so she doesn’t even need to be able to drive.

In this wonderfully subtle translation by Misha Hoekstra, the language is extraordinary. Funny, sad but moving. A strong contender for the Man Booker International prize.

 

Review: All the Good Things

All the good things by Clare Sita Fisher

published by: Viking (Penguin UK) on 1 June 2017

all the good things by Clare Fisher

What is the truth hiding behind her crime? Does anyone – even a 100% bad person – deserve a chance to be good?

My review:

‘Of all the good things that have ever been in me, the first and the best is you. Every single part of you… Remember that.’ On the first page of Clare Fisher’s debut novel we are lulled into the joy of ‘smelling a baby’s head right into your heart’. But the mood is immediately subverted when the narrator’s distinctive voice breaks through: ‘Remember it when the dickheads say you’re a bad or a so-what thing’, and we know we’re far from the cosy world of new motherhood.

Bethany (Beth) is twenty one, has had her own flat, a boyfriend and a baby, but now she’s angry, scared and in prison for a terrible crime she can hardly bring herself to think about. Her therapist, Erika asks her to ‘write down the good things’ about her life. For the first time in three weeks her hands stop shaking and she doesn’t’ mind the ‘blank space where the handle should be on the door’ because she’s thinking about her baby: ‘your eyelashes…the way you’d murmur in your sleep…the delicious smell of your head…’

Beth has a complete lack of confidence in herself and the lowest self-esteem possible. By being challenged to remember and to write down the ‘good things’, she gradually comes to term with the story of her life so far, which initially doesn’t look great: a mother with a severe mental health issue, a series of foster homes and an ongoing lack of stability. Each chapter is subtitled with one of the ‘good things’ in her life: when she goes running she feels the ‘real you rises up… you’re free’; she describes her friends and lovers, of happy successful times: sharing silences with Foster Dad No. 1, or flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesdays. But she still always has a sense of a terrible loss, and of being lost, waking up feeling as if there’s ‘a heavy person, who you don’t love or even know – lying on top of you.’ Beth talks about how difficult it is to control her emotions ‘I feel like there are all these bricks inside me… melt down into this… muddy river… spills out everywhere and makes a mess…’ Her life experiences have damaged her and she has a constant battle with ‘the bad voice… snarling at me’ that she will always fail. So why not make things fail.

Beth reads the devastating reports from social services and school teachers which show how her mother’s health impacted on her. But she realises that her mother loved her, and, writing about her own pregnancy, she recognises that the baby is ‘someone you’re not afraid of because they’re already as deep inside of you as it’s possible to be.’

By coming to terms with her own story, by retelling it in her own words, Beth finds that there have been, and are, good things in her life; and she finally allows herself to hope. Ultimately it’s her mother’s love and the love she feels for her own baby that save Beth. ‘We’ll let our stories grow.’

In this profoundly moving but surprisingly funny debut novel, Clare Fisher has given voice to people on the fringes of society, people with a story like any of us. She has given them pathos and dignity. Beth could be any young woman given the most difficult of starts in life.

This is a wonderful debut by a fantastically talented young writer with a social conscience. I look forward to her next novel.

 

Clare Fisher.png

Biography:

Clare Fisher was born in Tooting, south London in 1987, has a BA in History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Creative and Life Writing from Goldsmiths. She now works as a bookseller in Leeds.

An avid observer of the diverse area of south London in which she grew up, Clare’s writing is inspired by her long-standing interest in social exclusion and the particular ways it affects vulnerable women and girls. All The Good Things is her first novel. (from Amazon)

Notes: Clare blogs at www.clarefisherwriter.com

Look out for my interview with Clare for ‘All the Good Things’ blog tour on Saturday 24th June 2017.

 

Three book reviews

 

Ghachar Ghochar           *****

 

by Vivek Shanbhag

 

Pub Date 27 Apr 2017

 

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Translated from the Kannada language, Vivek Shanbhag’s short novel is a fascinating but disquieting tale of family rivalry and marital upheaval set against the background of a successful business exporting spices. It is a darkly compelling read and throughout there is an uneasy sense of loss, occasionally lightened by moments of great humour. ‘Ghachar Ghochar it turns out is a made up family word (in the novel) to describe a situation that has become tangled. Exactly what is happening in the novel. There are elements of the modern short story: compression, understatement and a sense of the surreal that suggest a whole world being withheld from the reader, outside the claustrophobic setting of the novel. Shanbhag has published widely and successfully in his own language and I would certainly be happy to read more like this.

 

 

 Sympathy          ****

 

by Olivia Sudjic

 

Pub Date 04 May 2017

 

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An intriguing story about obsession and stalking in the virtual world of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Alice is fascinated by the beautiful, half Japanese Mizuko who she first sees in ‘multiple miniatures’ on the internet.  Travelling from the UK to New York she tracks her down and engineers a relationship with her which starts as friendship; but Alice wants to be her lover. Everything goes wrong as ‘the solid world around me, the reality of it, [was] starting to slide away, like wet sand sinking beneath the water.’ As Alice is caught in a web of her own making, she loses friends, family and a boyfriend. After a drug-fuelled gang rape she spirals into a breakdown. This mesmerising story holds a mirror up to our contemporary world and questions our reliance on ‘the life-starting-over sound’ of our mobiles and all the rest of our fascination with ‘virtual reality.’ A little too long but worth the read.

 

Anything is Possible       *****

 

by Elizabeth Strout

 

Pub Date 04 May 2017

 

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Intricately linked short stories based around a single community and following on from the very successful ‘Lucy Barton’. Occasionally we see people who have reached a state of contentment in life, but on the whole in these nuanced and moving stories we are given privileged access to the sadness, disappointments and pain of men and women who have found that life has let them down. Lucy Barton herself seems to have bucked the trend: she’s the only one of her family to have survived the horrific abuse and neglect they all suffered as they grew up. We glimpse her through other characters’ eyes, signing her books as a successful writer. However, when she comes back to visit her family the veneer of happiness cracks in a terrifying panic attack. No matter what we do to come to terms with our upbringing it doesn’t ever go away. Elizabeth Strout is a fine writer, with an uncanny ability to paint the nuances of mood and feeling and to make great story-telling of the often painfully inadequate way we all attempt to communicate. Recommended.