from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 1 September 2011

the lives we live & the ones we don't

Many people have written to me about my novel Imago – thank you; you know who you are. And a question people often ask – and don't we all, of novelists to some extent – is how much one's novel is autobiographical.

This is a hard one because fiction, although belonging to the imagination, can only be convincing if in some way it parallels our experience of life, though this might, perhaps, be more relevant to the ideas we form about life as a result of living it than to the actuality of lived events.

It seems to me that one function of writing is to record, explore and maybe manage the meanings of events in our lives, and to try and understand important ideas about the world from this exploration. So yes, we are maybe trying to make sense of our lives on this small planet hurtling at speed through space and time, whatever those two concepts mean.

But also we are living out lives we haven't lived – doing things differently, taking different paths, crossing other thresholds, exploring other ways of being, having other people, other events, in our lives, shaping our future differently in some ways (and of course because we bring ourselves with us maybe not as differently as we sometimes imagine).

So this is the 'what if?' aspect of our lives, that question so loved by novelists (well, me, anyway) – that we play out in our imaginations and which, at times anyway, can certainly be as compelling and maybe more so than the actuality of our daily lives. (And I don't think this is a 'sad' thing, or that it suggests we live sad lives – I think it's a kind of inwardness that our soul perhaps needs us to explore to enrich our life.)

It is certainly a way of working things out, at least on paper; and finding a solution, some resolution, or a different way of managing our urges and impulses, and the dilemmas and paradoxes of human life. I know, for instance, what it's like to be pulled between the apparently contradictory poles of intimacy and solitude – living with another or living alone (this is a big one for me). I think of the difficulty of holding head and heart together. I recognise that there's part of me that wants to be settled, forever, with one person, living a rich life, growing our own food, and with all the commitment that entails. And part of me simply wants to be off following the flight of a bird, or birds, nomadic at core, going where the winds blow me, even to the edge of the world; doesn't really give a stuff for external security or material wellbeing – never has.

I have been betrayed, and I know what it's like too to betray. And I know, too, that the heart can beat in more than one place simultaneously, and hold contradictory impulses very deeply; and it can love more than one other, for love comes in many colours. And I know how these contradictions in the outer world can make for a lot of distress, in oneself and others, as one attempts to make choices, stakes everything on them, lives with the consequences. And I see, looking at my fiction (three novels under my belt; one with IDP for publication next year or 2013) that the twin themes, overtly contradictory at times, of love versus responsibility, or following one's heart versus doing what one 'should' do, are big ones for me.

So yes, these are questions I raise and explore in my fiction.  In Imago, some of the present-day events didn't actually happen for me (for instance no partner of mine has shown me the physical violence in the opening – nor vice versa! And no partner of mine has been killed, and gods willing, never will be.)

And in that book, much of me has gone into the male protagonist, Alex – and he is of course also in some ways (or was then when I wrote the book in my late 30s) my 'fantasy man' – in Jungian terms my animus, representing the masculine principle in myself. Although others also see me in Annie, the female protagonist, I see much less of myself in her – she is cooler, more inward, more remote, more poised than I am. But yes in her struggles in the seeming conflict between self-determination/following one's own path and loving another, deeply, which at times seems to compromise her own empowerment, I recognise my own struggles, and that I think of many contemporary people, especially women. No, I didn't run away to the Pyrenees with a married Alex-figure – though actually it's only recently that I've realised there's a bit of Alex in the man I did go with (and I came back here later with someone else; but that's another story and I wasn't my best self in some aspects of that).

But yes I did have my first 'out-of-body' experience in the Pyrenees, in my young teens and over the border in Spanish Catalonia – I was very seriously ill for three days. And then later, in the French Pyrenees, several more – there are places where the veils between worlds are thin. I also encountered in Ariege in the Pyrenees for the first time Cathar history, and the arcane truths that are still alive there in some pockets. These things had a very profound and lifelong effect on me.*

So autobiographical? No. But yes, a little.

And the ending is significant for me and my own journey: how to be able to truly live alone and relish it, whilst choosing to live with another out of love, not dependency.

So there we are. Thank you for 'listening'!

* See also my three blog posts on the Cathars and the Pyrenees from February and early March


  1. And thank you for posting! I have just started reading your blog and I love it. Such an inspiration.

  2. What a kind and lovely comment, Sophia. Thank you – that means a lot.


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