Writing


In my novel The Wings to Fly there is a scene in which heroine Midge is hauled over the coals by her Commanding Officer for reading “an obscene book”. He is furious that she should be reading The Well of Loneliness in full view of other young female pilots where they might be corrupted. His anger is something hard to understand in a modern context. It borders on extreme over-reaction, but is representative of the public attitude towards homosexuality before the long, slow ride to acceptability began – a journey that still continues in some societies. Midge is given the book by Rose the Land Girl after their “brief encounter” and I included it in my story as a historical artifact. The Well of Loneliness plays a role in my novel – almost that of a character – because in the past it was handed to female friends as a hint that there could be something more than friendship on offer. I also thought it was about time I reviewed the book. I read it about ten years ago and found it profoundly upsetting. It is a book that, like Marmite, is either loved or despised by modern readers. Here is my take on it:

It is quite a while since I read this book and I am still trying to understand why it was banned and why the ending left me so very angry. Angry, desolate and gutted to be honest. This book is a classic of LGBT literature and, once banned, I gather it was passed from woman to woman as a clue to sexual identity rather than a simple book loan but if you are looking for erotic content you will be disappointed. It is totally devoid of explicit content and the sentence “and that night, they were not divided” was cited as the reason for the ban. Wow! How much society has changed! On the level of literature, the heightened language is full of romantic yearning and tragedic musings that will not speak to many born after, say, 1985. That is an arbitrary date of course but I think it was not until the mid 90s that the stigma went out of being LGBT for young people. For those who are older, some will still be conflicted about sexuality and gender identity issues and that is something recent reviews about this book fail to take into account. In some communities it will never be acceptable and those who escape those communities will always seem quaint to young people today.

Firstly, I didn’t mind the flowery, old-fashioned language. Just as I enjoy Shakespeare and the good old King James version rather than Eastenders and the Good News Bible, I enjoy heightened and poetic language and this book is full of it. So, spoiler number one, if you don’t like poetry, cryptic language or romanticism you are not going to like this book at all.

Secondly, if you despise anyone struggling with a gender binary you consider no longer relevant, you are going to dislike Stephen intensely. I am not sure whether Stephen is trans or butch but in all honesty I don’t think that matters. She could never be happy as a woman at a time when being female had such particular expectations of dress, manners, behaviour and so few opportunities other than marriage, spinsterhood or teaching girls. When you get angry with Stephen, remember she does not live in this modern world where, it seems, any expression of gender is valid and when the restrictions on women no longer apply.

Thirdly, the ending is sad beyond belief and if you are looking for a lesbian happy ever after you should avoid this book. Seriously. There is little point in reading a book you are unlikely to understand with an ending that is depressing beyond belief. In its defence, the ending is sadly believable. People actually DID think that way. Some sick individuals still think that is the way it should really be for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people and that is where The Well of Loneliness STILL has a voice and a role to play even in our permissive world. It has a role because not everyone is inclusive, even those who say they are open-minded often fail when it comes to the crunch and it is not that long since the mere mention of homosexual love would have made most people’s hackles rise.

Bearing that in mind, you SHOULD read this book, if only to understand how the mildest allusion to sexuality could instigate a ban. You should read this book and wonder how the author could bear to live at a time when this discrimination was completely normal. You should read this book to remind yourself that in places the battle for acceptance has not yet been won and that nobody should ever be complacent about the changes that have taken place since the book ban was lifted.

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One of the things that always impressed me about the greatest novels of the past is how they crossed genres. They are not based on set characters or stereotypical behaviour but avoid genre tropes in favour of writing that is true to life. This is done whatever the nature of the story. They may be difficult books for the reader. Books like this are sometimes hard to get into but well worth the effort. They do not focus on one aspect which is easy to market to a particular type of reader. They are hard to classify.

When my English teacher assigned me to a group read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover back in the 1970s, I can remember my mother being quite horrified that he asked us to read what she considered to be porn. This was because the book had once been labelled obscene and was banned until the 1960s. I asked my mother if she would please read the book and then, if she felt I shouldn’t, tell my teacher why. My mother’s curiosity was aroused and she went on an enthusiastic search for “the rude bits”. Soon she was engrossed in the novel itself and found it gripping because of the social commentary, the history, the moving story line and D.H.Lawrence’s great writing. Yes, Mum found that the sex scenes were explicit and used what she considered crude words, but she loved the story, descriptions and settings and told me to go ahead and read the book with her blessing. This ignited my love for books that do not conform; a love for historical novels that contain explicit love scenes, for science fiction or horror with elements of philosophy or poetry, for adventure books with lyrical descriptions and for literary fiction with a humorous slant.

Whatever we read affects our writing. There is no way around this as writers. We are all affected in unconscious as well as conscious ways by the authors we read and they affect our own writing in direct proportion to the emotional impact they have on us. We are not just affected by books, but also by plays and films we have seen as well as our own life experiences. This is something I find in my own work. I am influenced by all this including the cross-genre writing of the past that I have enjoyed but I am also influenced as a musician and poet. To throw all of this off in an attempt to write commercially is something I find difficult. I plead guilty as charged, Your Honour, I write the sort of stories I would like to read.

One opinion I hear all the time is that writers should self-censor and conform to genre and tropes in order to succeed. From a sales point of view this might make sense. Authors should not cross genres, they should use different pen names if they do and they should definitely not upset people who buy their books. In life though, just as in the best fiction, good people have bad things happen to them and they cope with those bad things in many ways. As a writer I am guilty of being more interested in how my character is moulded and changed by experience than how I can water things down. For example, I may have a lesbian character who enjoys her first experience of sex with a boy but then goes on to realise it was purely physical and that her true romantic feelings are for a woman. There will be those straight readers who are upset by having a lesbian leading lady and there will be those lesbian readers who wish the straight sex just hadn’t happened. This sort of thing is a very real dilemma for a writer.

Another character might experience rough sex and be turned on by the experience whereas for the sensitive reader, or a victim of rape, this can be a horrible trigger. I know there is no way these things are going to pass a “sensitivity reader” without a deep edit and, quite possibly, a brutal emasculation. To be truthful, I don’t feel this is the main criteria for good writing though. Brutal honesty might upset some readers but it is more realistic and respectful of individual differences in the long term. In my opinion, and I admit it is only my opinion, characters should not always be cardboard cut-outs who experience love and emotions in safe ways or speak in acceptable language at times of crisis. This is why I would not attempt the traditional publishing route and why I will never be mainstream in my reading choice either.

Benjamin and the Frog. Hmmm… Sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, having recovered from a really sleepless night and an exciting day in The Out, I thought I would tell you all about my meeting with poet, Benjamin Zephaniah at Blackfriars Arts Centre in Boston, and a meeting with a little frog the night before.

I was very excited that I was going to read my poetry to Benjamin Zephaniah. He is someone Colin and I worshipped from afar in the 1980s, those heady days of alternative cabaret and comedy. Tadpole and Co majored in disasters set to jazz and poetry, such as Herculaneum and the Titanic. These were surprisingly popular considering they were in very bad taste. Those days in the mid-eighties were brief but happy times brought to a premature end by the surge in interest in samba bands and the desertion of our percussionist, Richard Bett, aka Riccardo Thunderfingers. He was the only man I have ever met who was capable of sustaining a rhythm on congas whilst simultaneously being thousands of people going down with a ship or getting buried by volcanic ash.

Yes, we certainly did some crazy back stuff then. We performed music and poetry in gigs and literature festivals from Hastings to Edinburgh. Some of it was even quite good but it was the comedic disasters that earned us our Yorkshire bookings, courtesy of Wild Willie, and the opportunity to share the stage with such worthies as Henry Normal and Jo Brand. We never performed with Ben, but he was “Up there!” and when the opportunity came to meet him at Boston, read some serious poetry and discuss it we leaped at the chance.

The night before recording the interview I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous, excited and in that terrible place where the more you try to sleep the less likely it is to come. Add to that an annoying tune that kept running through my head courtesy of an advert on TV… you get the picture. Eventually I must have dozed off and about three thirty to four in the morning I was woken by a cat coughing. Now, when said cat is a Himalayan and there is a history of heart murmurs in the breed you worry, so I got up to check on him.

He seemed fine, but was scrabbling around his water bowl. Then he pounced on a blanket I had hanging over a box full of stuff I really ought to sort through, donate, throw away… you know the sort of thing. I lifted the blanket and in the semi-darkness of my Pusheen nightlight, I saw what looked like a pile of poop.
“Urgh”, I said, turning the main light on, but it wasn’t poop, it was a frog! We have an empty vegetable container we use for trapping and releasing flies so I grabbed it quickly and, with the aid of a piece of card, I easily caught the sleepy looking frog.

By this time Colin was up and about and wandered into the bathroom.
“You wouldn’t believe what I just caught in my bed room,” I said.
“Just a minute,” he grumbled.
He must have been half asleep because the surprise of finding a frog in the house didn’t register. Nor did he offer to do the gentlemanly thing and put it out for me. So here I was, standing in my nightie and slippers in the twilight before dawn, trying to unlock the front door while Froggie got more and more excited and jumped up and down in his box. He was released to the water feature by the pond (I know frogs hide in there). I was surprised that he made no attempt to escape after the first hop. I guess he is a very laid back frog and in my experience frogs are not scared of people.

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Now, I have no idea how a frog came to be in my bedroom, nor do I have any idea how long he was in residence. All I know is that he certainly seemed settled under the blanket and that one of the cat water bowls showed signs of dust-bunnies and what I assumed was a frog poop right in the middle. Cue vigorous cat bowl scrubbing and changing of water… I then went back to bed and caught about three hours sleep before I had to get up for an early start and our journey to Boston where we were due to read poems and discuss immigration, Pilgrim Fathers and Boston amongst other things.

I suppose I was a bit ring-eyed and stupid for my interview with Ben. It took me a long time to relax and come out of my shell, but he is a lovely, genuine man and seemed interested in my poems and Colin’s too. When it was all over the three of us chatted for a little while about the eighties, alternative cabaret and the parallel universes we seemed to exist in. Somehow we never shared the stage with Benjamin Zephaniah back then. Hopefully when the programme comes out, we will finally get that wish.

Boston Calling airs on Radio 4 at 4-30pm on Sunday 20th August. I can’t guarantee the Tadpoles will feature, but I can promise you a good programme if you enjoy poetry, politics or Benjamin Zephaniah.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter. Possibly (very likely) more than I should and that is possibly counterproductive in terms of time management, but I have grown my following by being real and interactive. Occasionally I am tempted to schedule tweets and I do find they can be effective for reaching people in the middle of the night. If I do, I always respond to follows and retweets as soon as I can.

Lately I have been seeing a lot of relatively small accounts growing their own followers by offering random retweets and telling you this is the way to go. It is almost like a follow train (another thing I won’t do) and while still within the rules it is only a matter of time before Twitter reacts to it and makes it harder to do. Already it is impossible to access your own likes for pinning to your profile later, you used to be able to keep them for years, now the limit is days. Favourites have been replaced by “moments” and I am not even sure what “moments” are. (Perhaps someone who is a real person can tell me in the comments?) That has been done for a reason, most likely to stop automation of this sort. It is very annoying when measures taken to discourage automation stop the user from sending real messages that quote your own old tweets… but there you go… It is the price we pay for these cheating Autotweet apps.

I know lots of people who used to interact personally and reciprocate RTs are now using random apps instead of spending time on Twitter. They no longer respond or reciprocate so I no longer retweet them. In my limited time I want to interact with real people, not be overlooked by third party apps. So, that is my curmudgeonly musing for the day. If you ARE a new retweet app user you are losing the impressions my RTs would have given you. I prefer the real deal!

There was a time, not too long ago, when to have a well-rounded liberal education was considered a good thing. I grew up in such a system. My education in areas of health, careers and financial management was non-existent but I could read and speak a little in three languages, knew a little Latin and dabbled in music and poetry while studying towards maths and science A-levels. That was the point at which things started to change for me.

I was blessed with a Maths teacher who was somewhat of a genius mathematically but not very gifted as a pedagogue. He expected us all to understand instinctively what was needed to solve problems. For the A* students that was no problem but most of us struggled. For me, it fell apart with integral calculus and that, I was told, was essential for A level Chemistry. Without Maths and Chemistry my best subject, Biology, had to be dropped much against my protests and those of Mr Howard my Biology teacher. Why? Well, in those days one science A level was apparently no use to anyone when it came to University entrance so when I dug my heels in and refused to give up A level Music and have extra maths homework I was reassigned to taking English and French midway through my second term.

I suppose I had these difficulties because I was a bit of a polymath which was fine up to year twelve (sixth-form we were called then) but afterwards you had to think about University and careers. Had my Maths teacher been more imaginative I could possibly have conquered the little block I had on integral calculus; at that time I could do it mechanically but didn’t understand its application to real life problems. I would have completed my science courses as planned, but I didn’t. In such circumstances I would probably have gone on to study music therapy, which needed science and music, or psychology which fascinated me then and still does – or even both – but as it was I was left with arts subjects and no ambition.

The whole experience was demoralising and I dropped out for a while after passing those exams. What followed was two years in the retail trade, then a four year degree in teaching and a lifetime drifting through the education system in various incarnations, cover teacher, class teacher, college lecturer and peripatetic music teacher. It was a good career but it never set me alight. I spent my free time variously scribbling poetry, stories and scripts, making musical arrangements for guitar, writing songs and composing my own serious “classical” music.

So many years later, I regret nothing. I did what I had to do and followed the paths I was told to follow by my elders and betters. Now I find I am still torn by many interests; history, politics, science, the environment, animals and nature – not to mention a spiritual side I usually keep under wraps. I am content if not happy. In this life nobody can be completely happy if they are aware of the plight of others. We all experience loss, which we learn to accept, and horror at terrible events, which is perhaps harder to cope with. I have fans who listen to my music on internet radio. I sell musical arrangements and compositions worldwide. I have just published my second novel which, until last week, was selling and being read. I have four books of poetry under my belt and I am working on several projects when the cats allow me some free time.

Why do I write this now? Well, as an author, I am daunted by the importance of genre and tropes. I see specialism is not confined to the sciences now but has filtered through into the arts too. Authors are expected to use pen names when they write in different genres. This is a process that is all about selling and targeting readers. The great writers of history did not confine themselves in such an unnatural way. Shakespeare wrote tragedies and comedies. He toyed with history and the paranormal. Edgar Allen Poe dabbled with detective fiction, science fiction and poetry although he is remembered for horror. Oscar Wilde dabbled in horror, moral tales and poetry although he was best known for satire, wit, and the theatre.

Take a look at my page at Author Central if you want to see diversity:

Lisa Gabriel on Author Central

If you travel over to iTunes and look me up there you will see my music is not particularly specialised either:

Lisa Marie Gabriel on iTunes

It’s just that sometimes creative people need that bit of freedom just to BE. The selling is something we would hope, often in vain, that others with entrepreneurial abilities might do for us and in this day and age that becomes less and less likely. So please forgive the polymaths of the world, the multi-genre authors and the fusion musicians. We are not trying to deceive you, we are just who we are. I hope you all had a wonderful Easter, Ostara or whatever else you like to call it and may your God/dess bless and keep you whoever He/She is.

There is a dubious mindset that winning is all, to the victor come all the spoils, that it doesn’t matter how you win so long as you do and all the world loves a winner. That way lies madness. A certain billionaire has just found to his cost that while money can buy prestige and position and incitement to hatred can win votes it can only bring a Pyrrhic victory. One billionaire is much the same as another in my book and you can’t force people to love and respect you in this life but I have to confess to feeling just a little bit sorry for this one. I’m sure it wasn’t what he was promised by his backers nor did he expect such a huge reaction against his victory. Here is a man who wants to be adored by millions and yet the streets are empty for his biggest ever moment and full of pussy power demonstrators the day after.

I am also saddened by the way some people I thought I knew have embraced a philosophy of hating those who disagree. Of course those people are not presently marching in protest. I don’t know if they would be marching had the outcome been different and I don’t think they will ever understand why millions are. To call everyone who disagrees with his method of winning or with the madness of hatred a “loser” or a “dangerous leftist” and maintain that you despise “leftists” loses sight of the fact that many of these people are not adherents of the left wing at all. They may be disillusioned conservatives, some are even Republicans; they may be Democrats who feel that what amounts to an act of treason robbed their own candidate of victory; finally, they might even be centrists appalled by unholy alliances of religion and politics on both sides.

That’s right, many of them are centrists like me; conservatives with a little “c”, liberals with a small “l”. In my country the word liberal is not yet an insult although I will happily wear the insult “Libtard” as a badge of honour because it means I reject the politics of hatred and division. We have a fine liberal tradition in Britain dating back centuries and we are justifiably proud of it. We are also proud that we have stood up to hatred and racism in the past – as the underdogs and on our own for several years I might add – and we don’t want to see the sacrifices of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents forgotten. Many of them suffered or even died to maintain Europe’s freedom from a Third Reich that thrived on hatred. We honour them for it. That does not make us “leftists” or “losers”.

I think there are so many emotionally charged issues that any incumbent lawmaker needs to address and for any one political party to lay claim to personal moral viewpoints is simply WRONG. It doesn’t happen here. Maybe it would if we were a nation of proselytising evangelicals, but we are not. We respect freedom; we do not take arms up against people whose morals we might find lacking or whose religion is different from ours. We do not take away choice from desperate women – whatever our personal views – because we know the alternative to choice is something far worse for society; criminal behaviour, neglect, death and people in abject poverty. There are a lot of things wrong in this world, but they will not be changed by screaming abuse or sanctioning violence and exclusion of whole groups of people different from ourselves in some way.

I could go on and on but I won’t because it saddens me too much to see people sinking to such depths of anger. All I ask is that we just pause for a minute and think about the refugee crisis and terrorism. Where does the money come from for terrorists? Where do the arms come from that they buy with this money? Who suffers most in any war? Who profits most from war and division? Why are there so many refugees? Why are civilians consistently being bombed? Who stirred up a hornet’s nest by declaring a war on terrorism in the first place? What is that one word that is at the root of the West’s obsession with the Middle East? Can we actually do without it? If not, why not?

I want to finish by directing you to an article written April 29th 2013 by Janice Harper Ph.D. in Psychology Today:

The Fertility and Futility of Hatred – When hatred fills our hearts, it grows, but to what end?

Please read it, whichever side of the divide you stand on. It might persuade you to drop that hot stone before it burns your hand badly…

The other day one of my readers said:
“I enjoyed The Wings to Fly but there’s a lot about flying in it, isn’t there?”
“Yes, there is.” I said.
“It’s different. It’s not often you read a historical romance with much history in these days. They tend to about the chase and the catch and the good sex at the end.”
“Well, that’s your standard romance isn’t it? Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, things happen, boy gets girl back, happy ever after?”
“Yours isn’t like that though.”
“Why? What do you mean? Apart from the girls of course…”
She went on to explain that she felt this was more about a group of people, real people and their lives. Romance was a strong element but not the main one and there were boy/girl romances everywhere, plus a couple of girl/girl ones and not too much action between the sheets. I asked her if she was OK with that.
“Isn’t that what life’s like? It’s not just about two people between the sheets, it’s about all of us, our friends and what happens around us,” she replied.

I had to admit that was true; that we don’t all fit into convenient pigeon holes anymore than The Wings to Fly fits into a convenient genre. Life is full of awakenings, discoveries, disappointments, tragedies and, in time, true happiness when we eventually find love.

“But what about the flying? Why was that so important to you?”
“I suppose it was the flying that brought the whole thing about. The book I mean. Without feeling the inspiration of those early aviation pioneers, the tragedy of war and the heroism of combat and ferry pilots I confess I’d just have finished my second vampire novel instead.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, I’m not too keen on horror, but that enthusiasm certainly comes through in The Wings to Fly . I really wanted to be up in the air with Midge in the Tiger Moth – and touch the clouds with John Magee in his Spitfire – I loved Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart. I could almost feel the wind in my hair in that biplane.”
“Really? That is just what I wanted. I can think of nothing more wonderful than flying a plane like that. Not a big commercial plane though. To me that’s like being on a bus in the air and it’s a little scary being out of control. But to feel the response of a Spitfire or the lightness of a Tiger Moth in the wind? Now that’s the romance of flight, that overwhelming sensation of freedom most of us only get when we do truly fall in love.”

The Wings to Fly is available on Kindle and in paperback and you can read it free with Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Prime. I hope you will and that you will enjoy it.

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