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

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The Burning Ground

It's an exciting moment when the cover for your next book arrives. (Actually, it's a bit agonising opening the jpeg – just in case you hate it. Luckily, I didn't – not least because the publishers used my photo!) And when the proofs come, and the book's existence in the world is about to become a reality rather than a dream and you have to reread the typescript with one eye to the public, it's quite a trepidatious experience. 

When I write, I write because I'm passionate about the content; I don't write for a particular audience. However, of course it's not true to say I don't think about a readership – every writer wants to be read. But my focus is on what I want to explore, even as I'm trying to make my writing the most engaging, and fluid, that it can be to convey my subject and entice a reader.

I wrote Imago, my first novel (see and three other posts), hot on the hooves of my first commissioned book, Riding the Dragon. It was an easy write, but it then took 17 years to find a home. After writing it in the early 1990s, I collected the prescribed number of rejection slips; some of our major publishing houses asked to see the whole manuscript (instead of the usual 3 chapters and synopsis), which is always a heartening sign. Several of them wrote a personal letter telling me how much they liked it, so thanks – but no thanks. The general consensus was that it was too minority-market; too esoteric for a general readership. Then Labyrinth and The Da Vinci Code made erstwhile esoterica more mainstream, and I eventually found a publisher. It's out there, and some people like it.

However, back in 2000 when I was about to embark on a new novel, and had a whole shoebox full, nearly, of rejection notes and letters for Imago, I thought that maybe I'd focus more on plot and less on character; make it more 'saleable'. I knocked ideas around with a friend and my daughter, and the plot gradually came into focus. I was, and am, pleased with it. I think it's strong, gripping, engaging. It takes place partly in Brittany (Imago was also partly set in France), but mainly on Dartmoor (Imago is partly set in Devon too).

This is part of what the blurb on the back says:

Take two brothers. One secret. One woman, two lovers. Add in two deaths, and the trauma of foot and mouth on a small Dartmoor hill farm. Under such pressure other older secrets emerge, with devastating consequences.

But then, of course, I discovered I had no interest at all in writing a plot-driven 'genre' novel for the sake of more sales.

What I'm interested in is character and relationship (in its broadest sense); and ideas. I'm interested in exploring the age-old dilemmas of the heart, of how we live and might live, in choices, consequences, responsibility, of the impact of our actions on self and other, and of the places, literal and metaphorical, choices take us.

I'm interested in what it means to live authentically, and what it means when our need to be ourselves, and to act with integrity, compromises consensual morals or our own desires; what happens when what we need is in conflict with what someone we love needs; I'm interested in the 'hero's journey' towards individuation. (I suppose both books explore the quest to be more nearly one's truest self.)

I'm interested in the fact that the heart can hold apparently contradictory truths, and can love more than one person.

I'm also passionate about how we might live in relationship with other species; and, as a lifelong countrydweller, I'm deeply interested in rural issues – so misunderstood by Government after Government, and so under-represented in fiction (unless you count the so-called 'aga-sagas').

Just as I was writing my storyline and putting people in situations where they would be tested close to the limits, foot and mouth broke out around me. I was living at the time on the edge of Dartmoor, and we were in the epicentre of the first outbreaks. It was a truly appalling time; it became the norm to pass farm entrances sealed off with government officials sitting in parked cars at the gateway to make sure no entry or exit was happening. We all walked or drove through straw 'baths' of disinfectant.

Eventually our movements were restricted; footpaths and bridleways closed, and most of us limited our driving. The Government were in hysteria. It became the norm, horrifically, to see white-coated figures moving through fields of cattle and sheep; it became the norm to scan the horizon for new pyres. I find it hard to express just how grim it all was.

Once movement was permissible again, I drove the 60-odd miles across-country to North Devon to see my parents. The worst thing was seeing the lush pastureland of Devon, normally nearly all home to cattle and sheep, completely – and I mean completely – devoid of farm animals. There was a dreadful silence to it all, literally but also metaphorically.

I have farming family, and some of my farming friends were directly affected. Farmer after farmer went out of business; pedigree herds generations-long were culled. One of my friends manned the Farm Crisis Network helpline, and was fielding incident after incident of suicidal callers.

 As a writer, I was documenting it. It was a disaster, a tragedy, and I didn't know what else I could do. Gradually it became clear to me that with so much obfuscation, dithering and mishandling on the part of the Government what was happening needed to be out there in the public domain. A more unconscious part of my brain was registering the tension and conflicts inherent in the crisis. Slowly, I found myself incorporating the material in a fictional form into the climax of the book. Such a trauma can completely tear a family apart, and I stirred that into my book. I discovered hidden issues in the storyline that I didn't consciously know about, but which, under such pressure, I could see were bound to erupt to the surface.

And then there was 9/11, and the run-up to the war in Iraq also became a backdrop.

And so the book was written. And didn't find a publisher. And then, it did – the same publisher as Imago and my last poetry collection. I'm pleased with it, ten+ years on; and I'm also a different person now, so the story I'd write now would be different. Nonetheless, there are similar themes in this book to some of the themes in Imago; most are psychological, as above; and, well, there's a 'love triangle'. Sort of. And I suppose there's also a kind of persecution: in Imago that was of a minority 'heretical' sect from the C13th; in The Burning Ground, the 'persecution' is more to do with our collective attitude towards animals as being dispensable where profit is concerned, and the imposition, via the Ministry of Agriculture, of urban values and requirements on a rural population.

If that all sounds a bit worthy, fear not – there's plenty of love, sex, loss and death – and I'm only partly joking when I say well, what else is fiction made of? There's also a great deal about land, and place, and our relationship to these and the natural world and of course to each other. And I had fun, too, gently sending up a New Age centre; I share many New Age ideas and beliefs, and worked thick in the heart of New Age ideas for many years – and can also see the ridiculous side of some of them. (I have what I hope is a healthy dose of scepticism whilst also appreciating so much that the New Age has brought.) So I hope there's also a little humour...


The Burning Ground is due on October 14th, from IDP.

And you can also order it from your bookshop, or from the dreaded A-word online company...

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