Insomnia by Marina Benjamin

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Our autumn issue is inspired by dreams and sleep. Marina Benjamin’s fascinating new book explores the opposite state: Insomnia. Our book club editor Terri-Jane Dow takes a closer look.

Marina Benjamin’s slim meditation on sleeplessness makes for interesting bedtime reading. Maybe I’m leaning into the wakefulness, but I think it’s more likely that the directions Benjamin spins off into are too interesting for me to sleep on. Instead of reading myself to sleep, the musings in Insomnia keep my mind ticking over long after I have turned off the lights.

At just over 150 pages, Benjamin’s latest memoir doesn’t take long to read, but I go back and forth through it, making mental notes of sleep experiments, of theories on sleeping, of ideas of why we chase sleep so hard, and why it is sometimes so elusive. Living with an insomniac gives me an interesting perspective; I take on the sleeping role of Benjamin’s husband, only ever referred to – somewhat enviously – as Zzz, while my partner finds the snippets I read to him disarmingly accurate.

The list of sources at the end of the book is vast, and promises to keep me awake for many nights to come. Art, philosophy and science jostle together, the fragments flowing in and out of each other. Things that seem unrelated on the surface become entwined with one another. In the art world, insomnia is romanticised. Sleepless nights are full of stars and lovers, and the state of sleeplessness is evocative of something ancient and grand. Poets find a place here, as do many painters. In his early work, Edward Burne-Jones depicted ladies draping themselves all over the place, suddenly overcome by a need to sleep, and Benjamin writes about his pre-Raphaelite paintings beautifully, looping back to them at the end of the book. (Serendipitously, Burne-Jones’ paintings are the subject of a new exhibition – his first since 1933 – at Tate Britain.)

The intensity of each snippet of the book is not to say that it isn’t also very funny. Benjamin’s CBT group and attempts at sleep-aids are portrayed as torturous; exercises devised by people who have never had trouble sleeping. (“That, or they are sadists,” says Benjamin). She misses Zzz recounting his dreams to her because she has earplugs in. She refuses meditation, “terrified of the blankness”. Her book muses on her marriage, the early days of bed-sharing with Zzz, and the ways that they comfort and accommodate each other both in waking and sleep. There are many, many comparisons between sleep and love: falling, potions, and the hours of research into the science of both.

Early in the book, Benjamin writes that insomnia is as much to do with longing as it is to do with sleeplessness. “To be without sleep is to want and be found wanting.” Insomnia does not reach a conclusion, there’s no cure. Benjamin is no more able to sleep at the end of the book than she was at the beginning. Instead, she asks what it is that her wakefulness wants of her, what it is that writers and artists and philosophers have been seeking to express, and how we can find rest in restlessness.

Insomnia by Marina Benjamin is published by Scribe Books. More tales of dreams and sleep in the autumn issue of Oh Comely.



Elaine Castillo talks America is not the Heart

 Photo: Amaal Said

Photo: Amaal Said

words: terri-jane dow

Elaine Castillo’s debut novel, America is not the Heart, centres around Hero De Vera, a woman who has recently arrived in the United States to start a new life. She is undocumented and an ex-member of the communist New People’s Army. As the novel unfolds, she becomes part of the family, and part of the community, in ways she didn’t expect. America is not the Heart is one of our What We’re Reading picks in our midsummer issue, which you can pick up here. We spoke to Elaine about the inspirations behind her novel. 

Our latest issue explores identity – it seems to be a theme that runs through America is not the Heart.

I don’t know that identity is a huge theme – at least, any more so than it figures in novels that are about people living anything resembling a life, and thus about that encounter between the citizen self and the private self, where we’re at once emotional, animal, historical, political. Of course, there are certain communities of people whose lives get reduced to identity discourse, and people whose lives – and identities – get taken for granted; for neutral; for universal. How often are white authors told that identity is a huge theme in their novels? I certainly read books by white authors and marvel at how deeply white their worlds are, how alien they seem to my particular corner of America, how much a glossary would come in handy – and yet no glossaries get demanded for those books despite the fact that hyper-specific questions and assumptions around identity, particularly around the intersection between whiteness and class, whiteness and gender, impinge upon their characters’ lives on every page. But there’s often a silent coding around words like identity or community, as if these terms are dogwhistles, a racialised vocabulary that only applies to immigrant identity, people of colour identity, and so on. 

Did you always know you wanted to include languages other than English in the novel?

I never thought about it as anything other than perfectly banal and ordinary. It’s important for writers, especially writers of colour, to ultimately claim the space for their own banality. It never occurred to me that to write a largely English-language book that was inclusive of large portions of untranslated non-English language was in any way remarkable: I grew up in a majority-minority town, Milpitas, the town where most of the book is set. Something like nearly 70% of the population speak a language other than English; our mayors have all either been Filipinx or Vietnamese since the nineties [Oh Comely note: Filipinx is used as a more inclusive term than the gendered Filipino/a]. That’s an American reality. That we don’t see towns like that portrayed as American heartlands says nothing about those towns, and more about the paucity of our discourse around what constitutes as American.

I grew up in a house where multiple languages were floating around, piecemeal, and the boundaries between those languages were porous: my mother had her own language (Pangasinan), my dad had his own language (Ilocano), they spoke the lingua franca of the Philippines to each other (Tagalog), as well as the second language of the Philippines (English). It was a mundane reality of my life for my mother to start a sentence to me in Tagalog and end in English or Pangasinan; most of my Tagalog had Pangasinan words sprinkled into it, which would confuse Tagalog-speaking friends – I would have no idea that some word I’d known all my life wasn’t actually Tagalog, but Pangasinan. And I was by no means an anomaly in my larger community. I didn’t include these languages in the book to “add local colour,” which is usually how the inclusion of non-English words in English-language fiction is described, fetishistically or disparagingly. This is simply how the community like the one in the book sounds. These are the material, sensual, granular facts of this particular American reality – and if we’re going to have American fiction that’s in any way deserving of that epithet, then we need to both write and read the fiction in a way that is commensurate to those realities, period.

The title of the novel is a play on Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart: A Personal History, [Bulosan was a Filipinx/American immigrant writer, and his semi-autobiographical novel was one of the first to show an Asian American working-class experience]. Could you tell me a bit about that? Would you say that your novel is an update to the Filipinx-American experience; a “Personal History” for your characters?

Haha, to be completely honest, the title came out of a year-long private joke I’d always told myself. Not to make wide cultural generalisations, but being a Filipinx kid, I like a pun – and so whenever I heard Bulosan’s title, especially pronounced with a Filipinx accent, I always misheard it as "America Isn’t the Heart"; it just made me snicker to myself, so I always thought I’d write a story or chapter title with that Isn’tone day, which is why the last chapter of the book still contains the conjunction. It wasn’t this big ambitious intertextual reference or staking out of a literary heritage! Just the kind of dumb joke that makes only you laugh.

But of course, Bulosan’s book remains a seminal text read in high schools and colleges all over the States, mostly in Filipinx American Studies and Ethnic Studies, though obviously I think it should be required reading for American history – for its stark depictions of the miseries and realities of early immigrant life, particularly Filipinx and Mexican migrant labour on the West Coast in the 1930s, its lacerating portrayals of white supremacist discrimination, racist mobs, police brutality, economic deprivation. It was also the first book I’d ever seen depicting the rural poor from Pangasinan, the same province from which my mother comes; Bulosan’s descriptions of the region ring true to stories my grandmother and mother used to tell (when they would tell stories at all; mostly they were silent for years around the subject of their abject poverty back in the Philippines). To read books about Filipinxs that were not necessarily wealthy or educated, or Manila-based, or cosmopolitan – that was a gift. But the dubious accompaniment of that gift is the profound misogyny that is threaded throughout the book: scene after scene of women brutalised, beaten, raped, disappeared. Bulosan’s autobiographical narrator often expresses sympathy and pity towards these women, in a kind of ‘Nice Guy’ fashion, but there’s a conspicuous failure to connect the oppression of those women to his own, and that failure needs to be discussed and indicted more than it is. 

So in some way, sure, the fact that America is not the Heart [AINTH] expressly centres the granular details of women in their fullness – immigrant women, undocumented women, queer women, women who exist in the narrative not merely to be tragic foils or victims of brutal violence – in a way that AINTH simply doesn’t could be considered the beginning of a conversation. But luckily there’s a healthy community of Filipinx American literature that doesn’t need to be “updated” per se – that would sound pretty presumptuous! The history there is long and rich and various, thankfully (though perhaps less known by the wider reading population than it ought to be); and let’s work so it continues in that vein, so we can keep reading different types of Filipinx stories, from different people, classes, genders, regions, universes.

How does America is not the Heart’s relationship to the idea of ‘family’ play into those stories? 

There are a handful of genres that are usually spoken about dismissively, as if they occupy some lower rung of the artistic echelon: the family epic, the immigrant saga, the domestic novel, the romance. No surprises that these genres are often written by and about people in some of our most marginalised communities; no surprise that they’re also often genres, especially the latter two, that centre people who identify as women. It’s always funny to me how quick literary discourse is to absorb certain genres into critical discourse – works of science fiction and fantasy adopted for their larger metaphors around dystopia, state brutality, marginalisation, etc. Or even in AINTH, the parts of the books that often get politicised tend to be the episodes of what we might call legible historical weightiness, things like dictatorship, the NPA, the American genocides in the Philippines at the turn of the century, all of which are of course at the core of how we think about both Philippine and American statecraft, but they’re also not the only sites for thinking through characters as political animals as much as emotional, historical, social.

I often think of both love stories and family dramas as being the sites for some our most urgent and radical political dramas – and yet we don’t offer confer that kind of critical analysis or legitimacy on those types of stories. But why not think through the ways in which a queer undocumented woman meets another queer working-class immigrant woman and gets introduced to romantic manga? What might she think of those stories? Why not think through the ways in which a bi woman who’s been disowned by her parents would have to learn how to be a decent family member to a younger cousin; what the love of extended family members might mean to someone with as fraught a relationship with family as Hero?

One of the things I always say is that for me, I’m not interested in the portrayals of trauma that function as portraits, rather than landscapes. Which is to say, one person in the story has trauma, and everyone else is a handmaiden to that trauma, in the classical sense of literary tragedy. That’s just fundamentally not how I grew up – everyone in my family and extended community had their baggage. And I think that’s how I necessarily come to write love and family and queerness: that people live at the vectors of all these parts of their lives, and all those parts inform the whole. To write about a bi woman, who is also undocumented, who is also living in political exile and has lingering disability from her time in a prison camp, who also has to show up and be responsible for a younger cousin, who also has to be there for a new girlfriend, who has been disowned by her parents, who has to have an adult reckoning with a relative she loved in childhood – who has to be a person in the world, in other words. I think it’s particularly vital to think through those vectors – love, family, queerness – when you’re writing about this kind of community embeddedness, because I’m also, fundamentally, writing about queer suburban people. In my burgeoning youth as a bi kid of colour, I read and loved a lot of queer fiction that mostly centered suburban flight: that you had to leave the town, the community, in order to be fully realised as a queer person. It’s a flight I know well in my life and have huge, abiding love for: but I also know it’s not the end-all be-all of queer stories. 

Especially when you’re writing about someone like Hero, for whom the family is at once a source of absolute abandonment (her own parents) and profound life-saving refuge (her uncle Pol and his family, whom she comes to live with in Milpitas). It’s not as easy to cut ties with family or community when, in a purely practical sense – Hero has no papers – her survival is also dependent on the kindness and material aid of certain family members, the larger consequences of which she has to eventually reckon with. Certainly that was true of my own family; when you don’t have the larger support system of a functioning social welfare state, the people that help you make rent, pay for hospital bills, post bail, are usually your family members.

The relationships in the novel felt cautious and tentative – perhaps especially the relationship between Hero and Rosalyn. I felt that becoming a big sister to Roni was the push Hero needed to overcome some of her caution.

That Roni might be the one who pushes Hero out of her caution around Rosalyn is also part of that idea: that the love story in the book isn’t singular, isn’t just about one woman falling love with another (though of course it’s hugely about that), but also ultimately about things like: how do we even learn to be tender? When do we step up to care for other people, particularly when we’ve been through so much shit ourselves? What does it mean to come through for someone else? I think the reluctance you’re picking up on in Hero has so much to do with a larger reluctance that is probably the book’s real subject, one which most of us will have to encounter in our lives: how searingly difficult it is to be loved and known; to love and know others. And yet how absolutely, earth-shatteringly transformative; how plain; how like nothing else in the fucking world. That goes for our lovers, our friends, our family members. 

America is not the Heart is out now. Buy a copy here

 

 

Well-Read Black Girl

 Glory Edim photographed by Elena Mudd

Glory Edim photographed by Elena Mudd

To help others discover the work of black women writers, Glory Edim started her bookclub Well-Read Black Girl, a safe space for honest discussions about literature and beyond.

Marta Bausells speaks to Glory in the autumn issue of Oh Comely: “There isn’t a lot of room for black women to really see themselves in a very honest and pure way,” she told us, “and when you enter the book club you know it’s a safe space. You know it’s other people that look like you and appreciate you and aren’t judging you. […] You don’t have to pander to anyone, or posture – you’re just yourself. I think “ that’s what makes it unique.”

The group has become a support system where its members can just be, without judgement or comparing themselves to anyone else. She adds: “In this group we’re setting the standard – that these are our books, our inspirations, our suffering, whatever it is – we can all read it on the page and experience it in real life, too.” 

We asked Glory to share some of her favourite Well-Read Black Girl bookclub picks: 

 

Pick up a copy of our autumn issue of Oh Comely to read the full interview with Glory, or you can go to wellreadblackgirl.com to sign up for Glory’s newsletter, and follow her on Instagram @wellreadblackgirl.

 

 

#ohcobookclub Dana Spiotta's Innocents and Others

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We're reading Dana Spiotta's Innocents and Others for the next #OhCoBookClub – join us in London on the 8 November for cocktails and book chat!

Meadow Mori and Carrie Wexler grew up together in Los Angeles, and both became film-makers. 

Meadow makes challenging documentaries; Carrie makes successful feature films with a feminist slant. The two friends have everything in common – except their views on sex, power, movie-making and morality. And yet their loyalty trumps their different approaches to film and to life. 

Until, one day, a mysterious woman with a unique ability to cold-call and seduce powerful men over the phone – not through sex, but through listening – becomes the subject of one of Meadow's documentaries. Her downfall, and what makes her so extraordinarily moving, is that she pretends to be someone she is not.

We're utterly gripped and can't wait to discuss it with you! 

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Buy the book herehere, or here (links aren't affiliated), or from your favourite local bookshop.

If you're not in London, and you'd like to host an #OhCoBookClub group, get in touch with our Book Club Editor, Terri-Jane, on twitter @terrijane or by email terri-jane@icebergpress.co.uk. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the book, so don’t forget to tag @ohcomelymag and #OhCoBookClub on instagramtwitter, and facebook

What We're Reading: Forever by Judy Blume

words: Terri-Jane Dow

When I was ten, my mother innocently bought me a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever. Voracious young reader that I was, I was working my way through Blume’s back catalogue, and it was one I didn’t have. In case you’ve never heard of it, Forever is Blume’s foray out of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and into what can only be described as soft erotica for the Young Adult market. I don’t think ten year olds were Judy’s target audience. It’s a coming-of-age novel about two 18 year olds, Katherine and Michael (and, let’s be honest, Michael’s penis, affectionately named “Ralph”, which might be the least sexy name ever).

With regard to the naughty parts, I obviously took it to school and read them aloud to wide-eyed girls in the playground. I’m certain that none of us had a clue what was actually going on, or why we just innately knew that we needed to keep it a secret. I then lent it to a friend who was already at secondary school, where it was confiscated after she sat at the back of the classroom and passed it around to all the other girls.  

As an adult — and as a woman who went to an all-girls’ school, and still finds teenage boys utterly terrifying — I have hilariously fond memories of that book. Re-reading it now, it’s far tamer than I remembered, and far cheesier, but I’m actually impressed at how little Blume shies away from. The issues the novel deals with – Katherine and Michael’s fumbling first sexual experiences, Katherine going on the Pill, their friend Artie’s depression and suicide attempt – are confronted head-on, evidenced by the fact that the book has seen varying levels of scrutiny from censorship advisors since its publication in 1975.

I’m still not sure if my mum knew what it was about, or if she was just super savvy in my sex education, and decided that Ralph was the least embarrassing way to go about it.

 

Terri-Jane is a publishing assistant and writer. She lives in London, where she alternates writing short stories and drinking gin. Follow her on Twitter

 

We explore more coming of age books in issue 36, Awake. Pick up your copy here

What We're Reading: Matilda by Roald Dahl

words: Aimee-lee Abraham

 

When I was small and relentless, my mother would occasionally threaten to call up Agatha Trunchbull, enquiring about vacancies at The Chokey. Sometimes, she’d get as far as punching the “special number” into our landline – slowly and deliberately, for added suspense. It never proceeded beyond that, though, because I’d melt into a teary, hot heap of sorry on the floor by the time she hit the third digit, hysterical at the mere mention of her name. In case you have never read Matilda (also known as The Gospel for Bookish Girls Everywhere), let me explain. Trunchbull is the fictional headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, where Our Saviour Matilda is imprisoned. A fine educator, Agatha is also a heavyweight athlete, and likely a psychopath. In 1972, she competed in three separate Olympic events – Shot Put, Javelin, and Hammer Throw – skills she is still perfecting decades later, swinging innocents by their pigtails, chucking them into “Chokeys” of nails and smoke – a child’s incarnation of Dante’s inferno, hand-built with care.

What makes Trunchbull so enduring and terrifying is the maelstrom of pain she embodies, representing every childhood injustice we have collectively experienced distilled into a single dictator. She represents mushy vegetables piled high, and is probably to blame for the existence of frogspawn tapioca. She stands for every premature bedtime – for the loneliness of being banished to a single bed, listening to grown-ups laugh and live beyond the forbidden glow of the hallway. She’s in every sibling squabble that was somehow your fault, even though they started it. She’s in every toy ripped from your helpless grasp, in every summer holiday cursed with rain, in every privilege inexplicably removed.

To revisit Trunchbull is to remember how it feels to exist in a world so impenetrable and vast it makes your head hurt, where adults insist they know best, but behave in ways that seem spiteful, nonsensical, or both. Trunchbull is big and you are small, Trunchbull is right and you are wrong. There is nothing you can do about it. In that sense, she is a lot like the US President, but even more sartorially challenged. To this day, I occasionally dream of her, directly or indirectly. Sometimes she appears as a phantom, bearing coffee breath and spinach wedged between teeth. Sometimes she manifests in enclosed spaces and closed minds, in visions of stunted growth, shards of ruined potential cutting my feet. Her power is timeless and strange. It clings to ambitious girls like tar. 

 

Pick up a copy of issue 35 to discover three more books with strong characters that have stuck with us – for better or worse.

Meet the author: Emma Flint discusses Little Deaths

If we’ve got dark circles under our eyes, it’s because we’d been staying up all night to read Emma Flint’s compulsive debut novel, Little Deaths. It’s a story of love, morality and obsession set against the backdrop of 1960s New York. We spoke to Emma to discover more about the book and her experience of being a debut author, as well as gleaning some advice for aspiring novelists.

 

Could you tell us a little about the plot of Little Deaths and why you wanted to tell this story?

It’s set in suburban Queens, New York and is based on the true story of a woman who was accused of killing her children in the summer of 1965.

My narrators are Ruth Malone, recently separated from her husband and juggling single motherhood with shifts as a cocktail waitress, and Pete Wonicke, a rookie reporter from Iowa who’s desperate for a big story to make his name in New York.

One hot July morning, Ruth wakes up to discover a bedroom window wide open and her two children missing. After a desperate search, the police find the body of her four-year-old daughter the same afternoon, and then the body of her five-year-old son weeks later.

The police take one look at Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty bottles and love letters that litter her apartment – and leap to the obvious conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip. Covering the story as his first big break, Pete Wonicke at first does the same thing – but the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and press, and the more he begins to doubt everything he thought he knew: about Ruth and about himself.

It’s a book about love, morality and obsession: I wanted to explore the capacity for good and evil in everyone, and how most people have a sense of morality that isn’t clearly black and white.

What drew me to the story was the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and my impression that the real-life Ruth was condemned for who she was, rather than what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on a great deal in that respect over the past fifty years: I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance and their sexuality more than anything else.

 Emma Flint

Emma Flint

 

With the true story in mind, how much did you feel you had to stick to ‘the facts’, and how much did you allow yourself artistic freedom?

I stuck to the true story as much as I could, and the basic facts of the case are the same as in Little Deaths but I’ve condensed the events between the murders and Ruth’s arrest into four months. In reality, the case stalled for over two years as two grand juries failed to indict her for murder. Then in November 1966, one of Ruth’s neighbours sent an anonymous note to the prosecutor’s office, saying she had witnessed relevant events on the night of the children’s disappearance. When interviewed by the police, she gave essentially the same story recounted on the witness stand in Little Deaths.

Most of the key characters – including Ruth Malone and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. The police officer, Charlie Devlin is a composite of several officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke and a few others are my own inventions.

I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer, you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.

Of course, I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the real investigation that my editors felt weren’t believable enough, which I then had to leave out and work around!

 

The book finishes (without giving too much away) without the satisfaction of justice done. Why did you want to end on a note of ambiguity?

Partly because that’s how I felt about the real case on which the book was based. Although there was a conviction, there were three trials before a final verdict was reached, which indicates in itself that the evidence wasn’t cut and dried.

And also, that’s how real life is: it’s rare that all the ends are tied up neatly, and it’s rare that the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys live happily ever after. Whatever the legal outcome in a murder case, the family of the victim are still left dealing with their grief and with the absence of their loved one: I imagine that any feeling of justice is always tempered by that sorrow.

 

You capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of a New York summer in the 1960s perfectly. Can you tell us about the research you did to get the period right?

Thank you very much. I read two excellent books about the original case, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.

I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.

 

The public hear about the murders – and by default Ruth – via newspapers and gossip. How would you think the judgement on her would play out today, with rolling news and the internet?

I imagine it would be similar, but more intense. News changes more quickly now – we can see photos within minutes of them being taken, or hear news as it happens. I think you only have to look at how Kate McCann or Amanda Knox have been judged on social media to see what would have happened if this particular story had played out fifty years later.

 

Little Deaths is your debut novel. How did you fit writing it around ‘regular’ life? What does it feel like to have it out in the world?

It took a long time and a lot of sacrifices. I started writing in 2010 and I gave up my permanent job in 2013. I was lucky that I worked in an industry with a lot of contract opportunities, so I could work for 5 to 6 months, then take time off to write. I didn’t have a holiday for six years, and I had to pass on a lot of evenings out and weekends away. It was hard. Writing can be very isolating – you’re the only one living in your fictional world for a very long time.

Seeing Little Deaths out in the real world is incredible – and quite surreal. I never believed it would be published, but I was determined to finish it. I knew if I gave up I’d regret it. And now it’s out there, existing independently, and being read and thought about by people I’ve never met. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t imagine ever getting used this feeling.

 

On your blog, you write about the experience of being able to declare yourself ‘a writer’, and the associated insecurities in doing so. What gave you the confidence to believe that about yourself?

Recognition and acknowledgement from other people whose judgement I respected: other writers, my agent, and then my editors.

 

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?

Read, read, read. Read as much as you can, as often as you can. Find writers you love and work out why you love them. Find writers you don’t like, and work out why. Read other books in the genre you’re working in, and read outside your area of interest. Read poetry to find new ways of using language. Read drama to understand dialogue. Read non-fiction to give your fiction credibility and authenticity.

Find a writing group. It’s impossible to write a first novel in isolation: you need support and you need feedback from readers you trust. I also needed the accountability of writing a certain number of words for my writing groups by a certain date. Most people write a first novel about something they’re passionate about, and you need the objective judgement of others to tell you whether that passion translates to the page.

Find a routine that works for you – whether that’s writing 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 words a week, or spending ten hours a week with your novel. Work out when you’re most productive. Set aside lunchtimes or two evenings a week or find childcare for half a day each weekend – but carve out the time and then use it.

And don’t give up. Writing is a long slow process – it took me three years to write a full first draft, and there were eleven more drafts before it was finished. To make time for that amount of work, you have to believe in what you’re doing and that you feel you have a story to tell that only you can tell. That belief will get you through the rejections and the lack of free time and the slog and the utter exhaustion. Belief in what you’re doing will also help you decide whether the criticism you’ll get is fair or not: only you can know if changes that others suggest are right for your book.

 

There’s a long tradition of women writers being the masters of the crime/thriller genre – Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and through to today – do you have any thoughts on why that might be? Why are you drawn to it as a genre?

Recently we’ve seen a rise in domestic psychological thrillers, which are mostly written by women, and I think this is down to two things: firstly domestic settings and events are now seen as ‘valid’ subjects for novels, and secondly, I think women are becoming more open about the fears and threats they experience. We now have spaces where we can talk about how it feels to walk down the street and be catcalled, or how it feels to be stalked, or how it feels to be afraid to end a relationship. We’re all more aware of the existence of domestic abuse, and most people know that two women are murdered every week by a current or former partner (ironically, awareness is increasing at the same time that refuges are closing down and domestic violence charities are losing funding). Of course men are abused and killed by women as well – but specifically in relation to female crime writers: more than 80% of crime novels are bought by women, so it makes complete sense that a lot of crime novels focus on the deepest fears of women – being hurt or killed by someone close to them.

I think most of us like to experience extreme emotions ‘safely’: whether that’s terror when we watch a horror film, or falling in love / lust when we watch a rom-com, or a creeping sense of unease when we read a psychological thriller. It’s the same for writers: a lot of us choose to explore extreme emotions, or emotion in extreme situations, and I happen to like writing about the darker stuff! I’m interested in the point where love becomes obsession, or fantasy takes over real life, or when someone chooses to act on one of those moments of fury we’ve all had. I guess I’m interested in how someone gets to that point of no-return – and what happens afterwards.

 

Who are some of your favourite writers?

My favourite writers are ones who write about crime and about history: those are the subjects that interest me most, which is why I read about them and why I write about them.

I love Megan Abbott and Tana French, who write novels about crime, but who I don’t think are crime writers in the traditional sense. And I’m a huge admirer of Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel who both excel at recreating history and making it immediate and real.

 

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m working on my second novel, which is set in England in the 1920s, so I’m reading lots of fiction written in that period and non-fiction about that period. I’m trying to immerse myself in the social conventions and language of a very different time, and understand a society that was still reeling from the aftermath of the First World War. 

Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Emma. 

 

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is published by Picador. 

What we're reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

 Photo: Liz Seabrook

Photo: Liz Seabrook

In issue 34, four writers shared the books they like to dip into, again and again. Here Jason Ward shares why, for him, December always means returning to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

 

It’s surely not a coincidence that our most ebullient rituals occur during the bleakest days of the year. As winter batters its fists upon the windows, tradition is a friendly face at the door, a comforting visitor to help us ignore the darkness outside. Without even noticing, Christmas rites accumulate naturally around us. We listen to the same songs every year as we put lights on the tree, make the same biscuits we always make, watch the same Christmas specials that we could recite by heart. For the satisfaction they bring, we observe these events as closely as if they had been ordained.

Here’s a ritual of mine, then: every December I listen to a different audiobook of A Christmas Carol. An unabridged reading takes around three hours, so I’m able to get through it over a couple of crisp, lonely walks. In keeping with the oral tradition that fomented literature, A Christmas Carol is not a story you’re meant to read, but rather one you’re meant to have read to you. Dickens himself did this for 127 audiences during his lifetime, including his final public reading.

Like a bicycle or the zip on a jacket, we take A Christmas Carol for granted because it works perfectly. Possessing the quality of a fable, the story unfolds with such pleasurable inevitability that it’s difficult to imagine someone actually sat down and toiled over its nouns and verbs, that Ebenezer Scrooge and his misery didn’t always exist somewhere. Not wasting a moment, its elegant narrative works like a machine: there’s a reason why two centuries later we’re still telling the story to ourselves, not just through adaptations but versions starring everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone.

Despite the Bob Cratchit in my head bearing a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog, however, I am helplessly, joyfully drawn to the original text. I love how its opening line – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – manages to be spooky and witty at the same time. I love that it’s written with a noble purpose and yet Dickens can’t resist showing off how clever he is. Most of all, I love the meaning of the tradition in my life. Every year, wandering the same city as Scrooge once did, I’m provided with a reminder that change is achievable, and that it is always possible to be one’s best, most compassionate self. 

 

For more tales of Return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

Culture Monday

 Georgia O’Keeffe,  Abstraction White Rose , 1927.  Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 (91.4 x 76.2). Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of TheBurnett Foundation and Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation ©Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose, 1927.

Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 (91.4 x 76.2). Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of TheBurnett Foundation and Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation ©Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

The nights are getting longer and the days cooler so even more good reason to throw yourself into all things cultural. To inspire you, here are our pick of events happening this week, ranging across art, film, music and books. One strong piece of advice, if you can get yourself to London - don't forget to visit the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition before it closes at the end of the month - as the curator told us in issue 30, it's a once in a generation chance to see the artist's work in Britain. Enjoy! 

 

Art

Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern, London (Until 30 October). Read our interview with the exhibition's curator in issue 30

Jeff Koons @ Newport Street Gallery, London (until 16 October)

Lie of the Land @ Gallery 40, Brighton (until 22 October)

Girl Town @ St Margaret’s House, Bethnal Green, London (until 1 November)

 

Music

Wild Beasts @ The Junction, Cambridge (10 October)

Sussex Songfest @ Snape Maltings (15 October), featuring issue 33 interviewee Anna Meredith. 

Hackney Wonderland @ various venues, Hackney, London (15 & 16 October)

Mystery Jets @ Coventry, Cambridge, Bath, London (11 to 15 October)

 

Film

London Film Festival @ various venues, London (until 16 October). Our associate editor, Jason, recommends: 

  • American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold @ Odeon Leicester Square (11 October)
  • Certain Women, directed by Kelly Reichardt @ Embankment Garden Cinema and Hackney Picturehouse (12 & 13 October)
  • Prevenge, directed by Alice Lowe @ Haymarket and Picturehouse Central (13 & 16 October) 
  • A United Kingdom, directed by Amma Asante @ Curzon Mayfair (11 October)
  • Heal the Living, directed by Katell Quillévéré @ Prince Charles Cinema (14 October)

The Greasy Strangler @ general release (requires a strong stomach!)

Books

London Literature Festival @ Southbank Centre, London (until 16 October)

Birmingham Literature Festival @ various venues, Birmingham (until 16 October)

Waterstones presents Vivienne Westwood @ St James’ Church, Piccadilly, London (14 October) 

 

Workshops 

Plant Life Drawing @ Ace Hotel, Shoreditch, London (11 October) 

Wool weaving workshop @ Wool BnB, De Beauvoir Town, London (12 October)

 

Show us where you've been and tell us what we should include in next week's round-up via our Twitter or Instagram.

Filling in the Blanks with Laura Olin

From annoying flatmates to secret crushes, there's always someone you'd like to say something to. In issue 32, we enlisted the help of Laura Olin's brilliant new book Form Letters to do the hard work for us. Out now, it's a book of blank letter templates that can be applied to almost every person and event. Laura - who is behind the cult Everything Changes newsletter and handled social media for Barack Obama's (and now Hillary Clinton's) presidential campaign - knows a thing or two about effective communication. 

We asked Laura to fill us in on a few of her communication secrets...

 

How did you come up with the idea for the Everything Changes newsletter? What did you want to achieve with it?  

I work in politics as a digital campaigner, so I've run a lot of email programs, written emails signed by the President (no, he doesn't write his own emails), etc. A few years ago I was thinking about all the cool things you can do with email that you can't really explore in politics because political email usually has the very focused goal of fundraising. So I thought a newsletter that changed every week would be a fun way to experiment with the form and give myself a creative outlet at the same time. The name comes from the Twitter profile of a friend of mine, Tim Carmody. He has a couple sentences in there that I've always loved: "Everything changes. Don't be afraid."

 

Tell us about some of the different themes. Which did you especially enjoy? 

I think my two favourites were what I called a "Thought Clock" - I asked people over the course of a few days, at different times of day, what they were thinking about right at that moment. Then I compiled everyone's answers into a 24-hour catalogue of thoughts for every hour of the day - Thought Clock! My other favourite is when I asked people how they've made, or are making, the decision whether or not to have kids. People sent in such thoughtful, amazing responses. 

I also have a lot of fondness for the week I did form letters, because that led to my book! One week, I thought it would be fun to apply the idea of filling in the blanks in a standard form letter to something you actually want to say to someone in your every day life - maybe helping people find the words to say awkward or hard things, and have a bit of fun with it.

Do you have a favourite letter in the book?

I think my favourite is the "To my dog"/"To my cat" spread.

Do you know of anyone who has used them yet?

A friend of mine actually used one to get one over on me on Twitter about a friendly argument we were having. That was humbling. 

 
 

Tell us about the RTW newsletter. We love the tagline of “For women who want a more equal world”!

Thank you! As I work in politics and I'm a woman, I have a lot of thoughts about the place of women in our society and how we can improve it. RTW is a little step toward getting people information that might help them make concrete positive steps toward gender equality in their own lives, and unite people for that cause.

How did you get the gig working on the Obama campaign?

Luck and timing. I happened to know the people who had the job of running the digital team of the 2012 campaign thrust upon them rather suddenly. I was a competent person they could call on and was in a good place to take that job - I was actually living in London at the time so it meant moving across the world to Chicago at short notice, but it was very worth it. 

Are there any moments that you are particularly proud of?

My favourite part of the campaign was actually not dissimlilar to what I regularly do on the newsletter - asking people what they think about stuff, then sharing their stories (with their consent of course). That bread-and-butter stuff was part of the heart of our digital campaign, I think - reminding the country of the real people around the country who had an enormous stake in that election and its outcome.

What are the main differences between the Obama campaign and the Hillary one?
The dynamics are so different because she's the first woman, and Trump is the first… Trump. After 10 years of working in politics, this year has just been unbelievably surreal to see. On any given day, something happens that we'd be talking about for a month in any regular campaign cycle. It's like the 2012 election was on earth and the 2016 election is on Mars.

Back on earth, what newsletters should we be subscribing to?
I really love Julia Carpenter's A Woman You Should Know, which introduces you to an amazing woman from history every day, and Carrie Frye's Black Cardigan, which is lovely and literary and doesn't have anything to do with politics at all. 

What do you think is the secret to getting people to pay attention to what you are trying to say?
Having something meaningful to say that no one's said before, or said in quite the way you're saying it.

Seeing as you used to live in London [Laura did her Masters at London School of Economics], do you have a secret about London that we may not know already? 
I'm sure Londoners know about this already, but whenever I have an American friend who's visiting, I tell them to go to Sir John Soane's Museum near Lincoln's Inn Fields - a preserved house of an odd and lovely man who lived there 100 years ago. It's like walking through someone's amazing, artistic, curious brain, highly recommended.

Thanks Laura! Form Letters: Fill-In-the-Blank Notes to Say Anything to Anyone by Laura Olin is published by Abrams Image. See more Form Letters in issue 32 of Oh Comely

Culture Monday

With the aim of brightening up your Monday, we bring you a selection of delightful cultural offerings for the week ahead. Diaries at the ready...

Art

- Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond @ Wellcome Collection, London (15 September to 15 January 2017). Read our feature 'Putting Pen to Paper' in issue 32 of Oh Comely.

- Prints Charming @ Hamilton House, Bristol (14 to 19 September)

- Hurvin Anderson: Dub Versions @ NAE, Nottingham (until 18 September)

- Maria Lassing @ Tate Liverpool (until 18 September 2016)

- Metamorphosis @ Morley College, London (until 22 September), featuring Oh Comely contributor Eleni Kalorkoti

 

Film

Station to Station @ Hoxton Square Bar, London (12 September)

London Fashion Film Festival @ Courthouse Hotel, London (14 September)

 

Music

Sunflower Bean on tour @ Bristol, Brighton and London (13 to 15 September)

 

Books

In Pursuit of London @ Waterstones Piccadilly, London 

 

 'Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond' opens at Wellcome Collection on 15 September. Photo: Lara Watson

'Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond' opens at Wellcome Collection on 15 September. Photo: Lara Watson

 

Events

Roald Dahl Day @ nationwide (13 September)

Estuary Festival @ Various venues, Essex (17 September to 2 October)

D.I.Y. Art Market @ Copeland Gallery, Peckham, London (17 September)

Open House, London (17 & 18 September)

 

Show us where you've been and tell us what we should include in next week's round-up via our Twitter or Instagram.

Culture Monday

Each Monday, we bring you a selection of the best cultural happenings, compiled from the suggestion of the Oh Comely team and our readers. We hope that our tips will inspire and entertain - do let us know where you've been and what you've seen. 

  Ragnar Kjartansson,    The Visitors    ,  2012   Nine channel video, colour, sound. 64 minutes Commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors, 2012
Nine channel video, colour, sound. 64 minutes Commissioned by the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst
Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and i8 Gallery, Reykjavík. Photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir

 

Art

Ragnar Kjartansson @ Barbican Art Gallery, London (until 4 September 2016)

- Resident @ City Gallery, Peterborough (until 28 August)

- Fashion on the Ration @ Imperial War Museum North (until 1 May 2017)

Music

- Bath Folk Festival (until 16 August)

Green Man Festival, Brecon Beacons, Wales (18 - 21 August 2016) 

Film

- Nomad Cinema showing films including Casablanca, Orlando and, yes, The Goonies @ London venues ranging from Coram Secret Garden to Queens Park

Books

- Edinburgh Book Festival, Scotland (13 - 29 August), including Lionel Shriver on 20 August (read our interview with her in Oh Comely issue 19)

Workshops

- Flower press printing and woodcarving workshops @ Farmopolis, Greenwich Peninsula (13 August)

Show us where you've been and tell us what we should include in next week's round-up via our Twitter or Instagram.

What we're reading: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

In our adventure issue, we wrote about books we read while visiting the place they were set: London, The Cairngorms, the French Riviera and Toronto. But there were plenty of loved tomes we couldn't squeeze onto our pages. Here's one said outtake. Not read where it was set, but read on the move. Which is, more often than not in the busy city we're based in, where we do the bulk of our reading. Our lifestyle editor Liz Seabrook shares her thoughts on Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

It took me a little over four months to read Midnight’s Children. I realise this doesn’t sound overwhelmingly positive, but let me explain. I can only read when in transit, and – as I usually cycle – sitting still with nothing to do is a rare luxury. My time spent with my nose among pages tends to be limited. 

Midnight’s Children tells the story of three generations of a family, starting with the conception of the protagonist’s parents, to his own conception and his life up until it catches up with his present day. The history of India and Pakistan are charted alongside personal histories, journeys are taken, houses are moved out of and people are lost. The plot – though for the most part chronological – is dense and interwoven with heady descriptions that conjure each and every scene in technicolour. 

In the course of reading the book, I broke up with my long-term boyfriend, saw my sister graduate, travelled through the Alps to Austria to visit an old friend and made new friends who I’ve since lost touch with. For those four months, I had a much needed travelling companion in the shape of a midnight blue, 500 or so page paperback. In that time our stories intertwined; as I sat curled up in a train carriage in Austria with Sigur Ros playing in my ears, my mind was transported to watching a boy in Bombay cycle about trying to impress a girl six months older than him. 

As I turned the last page, my heart sank; I was losing a friend. I didn’t start to read another book for a while after that. Partly because I was back in London, riding around, but partly because I was scared nothing would measure up. I’m still unsure if anything has. 

Image and Words: Liz Seabrook

 

To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here

 

What we're reading: Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

For the adventure issue, four of our writers shared reflections on books set in the very place they read them. Frances Ambler fell in love with London decades after Colin MacInnes did so in Absolute Beginners, but found very little had changed in the years since its publication--the city streets still paved with grime and gold.

 
books-9101.jpg
 

Frances Ambler on Absolute Beginners

Written in 1958, and set over that year’s hot summer, Absolute Beginners shows London’s stiff upper lip and seedy underbelly through the eyes of a 19-year-old photographer. As a fresh arrival to the city, the book captures the thrill of experiencing London for the first time. 

Spending hours mentally cataloguing the style of those strutting the streets around me, I loved the book’s descriptions of “grey pointed alligator casuals” paired with a “pink neon pair of ankle crepe nylon-stretch”, and the city cool of its slang and its coffee bars. I escaped into music and I discovered that in the 1950s it was jazz clubs where “not a soul cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re boy, or girl, or bent or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door”.

The city gave me space to be different. In Absolute Beginners, the unnamed narrator has left his family’s home in a run-down corner of Pimlico for an even more dilapidated bedsit in Notting Hill. His neighbours are those who are on the fringes of society in the 1950s – whether
for reasons of sexuality or race – who can find a relative liberty amid the poverty. Except, as violently demonstrated by the final section set in the Notting Hill race riots, London isn’t always that tolerant. 

I’m amazed how Absolute Beginners – at almost 60 years old – still captures London. It’s always shifting – like the narrator, I find myself marvelling at yet more “big new high blocks of glass-built flats” going up – fed by a constant influx of people. Even now, after over a decade of living in the city, I sometimes catch my breath at the cinerama of the Thames – where the “show’s never, never twice the same” – and the realisation that I call this place home. I’m with the narrator as he affirms, “My god, I love this city, horrible though it may be, and never ever want to leave it, come what it may send me”.

 

Image: Liz Seabrook, Words: Frances Ambler

To read about literary adventures from Canada to the Cairngorms (via Fitzgerald's French Riviera), and find out why on earth we were reading 50 Shades of Grey in 2016, grab a copy of Issue 31 here