Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Thanks to John le Carré, I’m now aware that there is a Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a writer for a body of work, rather than for a single novel. The finalists for the 2011 award were announced last month in Sydney, and I’m very pleased that Anne Tyler is among them. She is one of my favourite novelists ever and I hope she wins.

For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she’s written eighteen novels:

If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
The Tin Can Tree (1965)
A Slipping-Down Life (1970)
The Clock Winder (1972)
Celestial Navigation (1974)
Searching for Caleb (1975)
Earthly Possessions (1977)
Morgan’s Passing (1980)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Breathing Lessons (1988)
Saint Maybe (1991)
Ladder of Years (1995)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass (2009)

With such a large body of work, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Luckily for you, I’ve produced this handy guide, which you can print out and take to your nearest library or bookshop:

For those who enjoy Southern Gothic:

'If Morning Ever Comes' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler is reported to “hate” her first two novels, but I think they’re both interesting books, even if they don’t quite work. If Morning Ever Comes is about a boy who abandons his studies in New York to rush home to North Carolina after his runaway sister shows up. There’s some very fine descriptive writing and the characters are fascinating, if a little too self-consciously quirky. Nothing very much happens, but it’s an enjoyable read.

The Tin Can Tree contains even more Southern eccentricity, but with slightly more narrative. It’s about an extended family that falls apart after their youngest child is killed. What I really like about this novel is the vividness of the setting – one “long, crowded” house inhabited by three families, surrounded by tobacco farms and dust. It’s hard to like these characters, but then, they are people weighed down with grief.

Earthly Possessions could possibly fall into this category, too, although it’s more of a Southern road trip novel than anything else. It’s about an unhappy housewife, who’s taken hostage by a young bank robber. They then head for Florida in a stolen car. Apparently, this was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, but I haven’t seen it.

For those who like Young Adult novels:

A Slipping-Down Life is probably the closest to a YA novel that Anne Tyler has written. A lonely high school girl, obsessed with a local rock singer, decides to carve his name into her forehead, and the attention she receives alters her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined. This is a coming-of-age tale with a satisfying conclusion, set in a Southern town so insular and isolated that you can understand why all the teenagers are desperate to escape.

Saint Maybe is absolutely wonderful, but doesn’t fit quite as easily into the YA category. It’s about Ian, a teenage boy who becomes convinced he’s responsible for his brother’s suicide and goes searching for a way to atone, ending up a member of the very odd ‘Church of the Second Chance’. Much of the story is told from Ian’s perspective, but there are also contributions from Agatha, Thomas and Daphne, his brother’s children, as they grow up. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel about guilt, forgiveness and the consolations of religion. I highly recommend it.

For those who like reading about really annoying men:

'Celestial Navigation' by Anne TylerCelestial Navigation is about Jeremy, “a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home”. Although the words ‘Asperger’s’, ‘autism’ and ‘agoraphobia’ are never used, they could all apply to him, so I was fascinated to read in a New York Times article that he’s “the closest Anne Tyler has come to writing about herself”. When Jeremy’s devoted mother dies, it’s difficult to see how he’ll manage, but he takes in lodgers and works on his art, and eventually falls for Mary, who’s just walked out on her husband. I loathed both these characters for their extreme self-centredness, but it’s a beautifully written novel, and the minor characters are very endearing.

Morgan in Morgan’s Passing is “a man who had gone to pieces, or maybe he’d always been in pieces; maybe he’d arrived unassembled”. He spends most of his time collecting costumes, practising accents and acting out roles – a street priest, a refugee without any English skills, and then, disastrously, a doctor. This leads to him delivering Emily’s first baby in the back of his car. He then wheedles his way into the calm, organised lives of Emily and her husband Leon. Morgan hopes they’ll help him untangle his own life, but all he does is spread the chaos around. I detested Morgan, but liked Emily and was fascinated by her Quaker upbringing. Apparently, Anne Tyler’s “early childhood was spent in a succession of Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina.

For those interested in an analysis of a marriage from the perspectives of both wife and husband:

'Breathing Lessons' by Anne TylerBreathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize, follows a day in the life of a seemingly incompatible middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira. As the summary in my copy of the book explains, “Maggie has an inexhaustible passion for sorting out other people’s problems: where happiness does not exist she must create it”. Her capacity for self-deception is extremely irritating, but Ira isn’t quite as perfect as he thinks, either. What I really loved about this book was how the author used a single day of their life to illuminate everything that both tears them apart and holds them together.

The Amateur Marriage is about another mismatched couple, Michael and Pauline, but this story begins at their fateful meeting during World War Two. They spend the following decades in vicious conflict, their children reduced to unhappy bystanders. I’m not fond of this novel because I dislike both Michael and Pauline, and the structure of this book didn’t quite work for me (or for this reviewer). However, some readers love this book.

For those interested in reading about an unhappy wife:

'Ladder of Years' by Anne TylerIn Ladder of Years, Cordelia is on a summer holiday with her unappreciative family when she decides to walk off down the beach and not come back. I was fascinated by the notion of a woman leaving her husband, without any preparation or even conscious thought on the matter, and then setting up a completely new life in a new town. Could she truly abandon everything from her past? Would she simply end up repeating the old patterns of her life? I must admit, I was disappointed with the conclusion to this novel, but I enjoyed the journey.

Back When We Were Grownups is my least favourite Anne Tyler novel – in fact, I gave away my copy of this book, because it irritated me so much that I didn’t want it sitting next to my proper Anne Tyler novels. However, I include it here for the sake of completeness. There’s a good review here, if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in reading about complex, dysfunctional families:

Searching for Caleb is a rich, rewarding family saga stretching from the 1870s to the 1970s. Justine Peck elopes with her rebellious cousin Duncan, hoping to escape the dull, dry “Peckness” of her family. However, it isn’t as easy as she or Duncan predict, because they’re soon joined by their grandfather Justin, who’s been searching for his runaway brother Caleb for decades. This novel is utterly engrossing and has a wonderful ending. I loved it.

'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' by Anne TylerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those rare, absolutely perfect novels. Anne Tyler thinks it’s her best, too (she also said it was “her hardest novel to write” ). Pearl is abandoned by her husband, left to bring up three children in her own angry, bitter fashion. Then the children grow up to wreak havoc upon their own spouses and children. I realise this does not sound like a very enjoyable read, but it’s so funny, moving and wise. I can’t recommend it too highly.

The Clock Winder probably fits into this category, too, but I don’t think it’s one of her best books. Here’s a thoughtful review if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in unsentimental portraits of old age:

'A Patchwork Planet' by Anne TylerA Patchwork Planet could probably fit into the ‘dysfunctional families’ category, but one of the many delights of this novel is thirty-year-old Barnaby’s job at Rent-A-Back (or Roll-A-Bat, as his socialite mother scornfully calls it). Barnaby and his friend Martine do chores for the elderly, ranging from decorating their Christmas trees to taking out their trash cans and disposing of their late husbands’ law books. I admit that Barnaby’s voice isn’t always plausible for a young man, but his cluelessness is hilarious. This is another deceptively light-hearted story with a powerful ending.

Noah’s Compass is Tyler’s most recent novel. It’s about Liam, a solitary, introspective man who’s been retrenched from his teaching job. He settles down in a resigned fashion to contemplate the last years of his life. However, on the first day of this new life, he’s attacked by a burglar and he wakes up a few days later with no memory of this event. His attempts to discover those lost moments throw him into a relationship with a younger woman, who seems as though she might revitalise him . . . or perhaps not. This is certainly not an optimistic book, but this reviewer admired it, and so did this one.

For those interested in a multicultural view of the United States, post 9-11:

'Digging to America' by Anne TylerI love Digging to America, which tells the story of two very different Baltimore families, who each adopt a baby girl from Korea. The description of the rigidly politically-correct Dickinson-Donaldson family verges a little too close to caricature, but I adored the Yazdans, originally from Iran. Maryam, the grandmother of the adopted baby, is a wonderfully astringent observer of American customs, and her independence and intelligence make her one of my favourite Anne Tyler characters. This reviewer agreed.


'The Accidental Tourist' by Anne TylerI can’t quite categorise The Accidental Tourist, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out. Only Anne Tyler could turn the story of a man destroyed by the murder of his child and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage into a story so incredibly moving, hilarious and hopeful. I love this book, and I also enjoyed the film version, which starred William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner and some very clever corgis.

Anne Tyler is famously reclusive, but she has given one interview about her writing process (unfortunately, you now need an account with The New York Times to read this), one about The Amateur Marriage, and one about Digging to America. The Observer has also done an interesting profile of her.

Extra note: The book cover images I’ve used are all from the Readings website, which is selling a collection of Anne Tyler novels with snazzy new jackets, published by Vintage. Inexplicably, Saint Maybe is not included. This is very sad, especially as Readings doesn’t even have an old edition of the book in stock.

Spot the Difference

Look at this beautiful cover for the new UK paperback edition of Consequences of the Heart by Peter Cunningham. There’s something strangely familiar about it . . .

'Consequences of the Heart' by Peter Cunningham
'Consequences of the Heart' by Peter Cunningham, UK paperback, released in May, 2011

But it’s just one of those odd coincidences of publishing, that two book designers on opposite sides of the world would decide to use the same obscure 1930s photograph. It seems to happen fairly often. The Peter Cunningham book comes out next month, and sounds really interesting.

I must admit, though, that I prefer The FitzOsbornes in Exile cover, because it cuts out the dorky guy with the moustache, crouching on the floor. Also, that poor girl looks most uncomfortable, perched on the end of that sofa. In ‘my’ cover, she simply looked enigmatic.

Thank you to Daisy, whose comment at The Story Siren initially prompted me to investigate this. And by ‘investigate’, I mean, ‘spend sixty seconds on Google’. Or possibly slightly more than sixty seconds. How distracting is that adorable Earth Day Google Doodle, with the ticklish pandas and the koala climbing the tree and the bear eating the salmon? Very, very distracting!

In other news, The FitzOsbornes in Exile has received a starred review from Kirkus. Vicky Smith from Kirkus then asked me some thoughtful questions about the book and I did my best to answer them. The Australian edition has also been shortlisted for the 2011 Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature and was named a Notable Book for Older Readers in the 2011 Children’s Book Council of Australia awards. Congratulations to all the Australian authors whose books were shortlisted or named as notable books in these awards! You’re all awesome!

I promise my next blog post will not mention the words ‘FitzOsbornes’ or ‘Exile’.

The FitzOsbornes in Exile

The FitzOsbornes in ExileHooray! The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the second book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, has just been released in North America! Hundreds of copies of hardcovers, e-books and audiobooks are sneaking their way into bookshops and libraries as you read this . . .

There has been some discussion over whether The FitzOsbornes in Exile is a stand-alone “companion” (as it’s described on the inside jacket) to A Brief History of Montmaray, or a sequel (implied on the front cover, which says “The Montmaray Journals, Book II”). Of course, readers can read The FitzOsbornes in Exile by itself, but I think it makes more sense if you’ve read the first book in the series. There are quite a lot of characters, and it helps to know something about their histories and relationships. However, at least one reviewer enjoyed the second book without having read the first. On the other hand, she read the Australian edition, which includes a two-page summary of the first book (the American edition has only a one-sentence summary of the first book). I’m hardly a good person to ask about this. Are there any readers with any advice on this?

Contest Winners!

Thank you to everyone who entered the Montmaray contest, and provided such thoughtful, creative and entertaining suggestions for casting the (imaginary) film version of the book. Congratulations to Gwenyth, Chelsea and Divya, who’ve won copies of A Brief History of Montmaray. To everyone who entered and didn’t win this time, don’t despair! I’ll give away some more books this year. If you’re quick, you may also be able to enter the latest Adventures in Children’s Publishing give-away, which includes copies of both A Brief History of Montmaray and The FitzOsbornes in Exile.

Fifty Books A Year


The British Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has announced that school children should be reading fifty books a year. Leaving aside the irony of this coming from a politician whose government is slashing funding to libraries, the proposal raises a number of questions. Does forcing reluctant or poor readers to read a book each week really make them more enthusiastic about reading? What does Mr Gove mean by ‘book’? I’m guessing (and I could be wrong) that he isn’t counting graphic novels, comics or picture books towards the total. And why fifty books, and not thirty, or a hundred? Is quantity more important than quality? Do they have to be fifty different books? If so, does that mean a child who chooses to read and re-read a beloved book isn’t getting any benefit from the experience? And how many books has Mr Gove read this year?

Of course, as a reader and a writer, I’d love more children to be exposed to the wonderful world of books. However, this proposal seems designed to suck all the joy out of reading by reducing it to quotas and ‘learning experiences’. If reading some arbitrary number of books is essential for a well-balanced life, then all adults should be doing it, too. I decided to examine my reading from the first twelve weeks of this year and determine what I’d learned from the experience.

Total Books Read: Sixteen. This doesn’t include the two books I started, and didn’t finish. One of those was a book I’d read before and decided to re-read to find out if it was really as bad as I’d thought (it was). The other was a contemporary YA romance that I hated so much, I had to stop reading about a third of the way through. I made two further attempts at it, then decided life was too short to waste any more of my time on it.

Number of Novels Read: Ten.

Number of ‘Memoirs’ Read: Three. (I’ve included in this category any book written by someone about their own life, even though one of the books probably wouldn’t be labelled a ‘memoir’.)

Number of Other Non-Fiction Books Read: Two.

Number of Anthologies Read: One.

Number of Books Read That I’d Previously Read: Five. (For various reasons, I didn’t feel up to tackling any new books during the first few weeks of the year, so I re-read some old favourites.)

Number of Books Written By People Who Are Dead (But Were Alive When They Wrote Their Books): Four.

Number of Books Written By Australian Authors: Five.

Number of Books Written By British Authors: Nine, if I include the editor of the anthology. (What? I’m writing a book set in England, okay?)

Number of Books Written By American Authors: One. (I revere you, Susan Faludi.)

Number of Books Translated from Swedish: One.

Number of e-Books: One. It was a free download because it was out of copyright, and I read it on my computer, because I don’t own any e-readers. I’d rather have read it as a paper book, but then I’d have had to pay serious money for it because it’s out of print in Australia – and frankly, it wasn’t that good.

Five Things I’ve Learned As A Result of Reading Approximately 1.3 Books Per Week This Year:

1. Vampire novels don’t have to be sparkly and anti-feminist. Sometimes, they can be scathing critiques of modern Scandinavian society that manage to combine extreme horror with a poignant portrayal of friendship between outsiders (Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist, for which I have not included a link because I couldn’t find one without plot spoilers).

2. I really like novels that combine information about an unfamiliar aspect of history with clever plotting and endearing, plausible characters (Small Island by Andrea Levy).

3. Novels about Victorian clergymen don’t have to be dull and worthy. Sometimes they can be witty, hilarious and unputdownable (Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope).

4. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas isn’t anywhere near as groundbreaking or perceptive as the hype suggests, and its publishers should have spent some of its advertising budget on more thorough copy-editing and proofreading. It was okay, though, and at least now, I can say I’ve finally read it.

5. I should read more anthologies, because they’re a good way to sample a range of writers. Also, I should now read everything Patrick Ness has ever written, because Different for Boys is the best short story I’ve read in years. Four vibrant teenage characters, a school that feels completely real, great dialogue, droll jokes, a boy with a crush on an Irish golfer, frantic sex, a devastating fight, a heartbreaking kiss and some snarky references to YA book censorship, all in only forty-four pages (in the YA anthology, Losing It, edited by Keith Gray. The other stories in this collection were fine, by the way, but they just didn’t hit me the way Different for Boys did.)

One Other Thing: If politicians want children to read more, they should provide adequate funding for libraries, teachers and learning disability support in schools, and remove taxes on sales of books.

One Further Thing: The Montmaray give-away is still on, till the 5th of April. If you win a book, you could count it towards your fifty books for the year.

That is all.

Dogs and Books

If I were asked to list my favourite things in the universe, dogs and books would be near the top of the list, so I’ve been pleased to see lots of both of them about lately.

Firstly, Inside a Dog, the website for the Centre for Youth Literature, was relaunched last week, with a new blog and loads of useful, interesting features. Go and have a look at the gorgeous photos of dogs reading books! I also liked the article about a greyhound who helps children learn to read. Children love reading aloud to Danny, because he

“does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”

It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.

I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.

I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:

1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals
'My Family and Other Animals' - 2005 BBC production
When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”

(Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)

2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as

“gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”

Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.

3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:

“I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”

Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.

4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist

There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:

“During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”

In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.

5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David

Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).

Hmm, I didn’t plan to end on such a sad note. Look, here’s a hilarious comic about a dog with . . . um, intellectual challenges and another one about the same dog having difficulties adjusting to a new house.

Also – don’t forget that the Montmaray give-away is open till April 5th, if you’d like to win a book.

Win copies of A Brief History of Montmaray!

'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American hardcover
'A Brief History of Montmaray', North American hardcover
The paperback edition of A Brief History of Montmaray comes out in North America next week, and to celebrate, I’m giving away some copies of the hardcover and the audiobook. Each winner can choose either a signed hardcover edition or the lovely audiobook version on CD, read by Emma Bering. To enter, leave a comment below saying who you think should play the characters in A Brief History of Montmaray, if it were ever to be made into a film. You don’t have to have read the book (it’s probably funnier if you haven’t), but you will need to know who the main characters are. Please don’t feel constrained by practical considerations, such as whether the actor is the right age or still alive.

To start you off, here are my ideas:

Veronica: Does Penélope Cruz have a much younger sister who went to boarding school in England? Because if so, Penélope Cruz could play Isabella and the younger sister could be Veronica. That would be awesome.
Sophie: Maybe Saoirse Ronan? I’ve only seen her in Atonement, but she was very good in that. Or Romola Garai, if she were ten years younger?
Toby: When I first started writing this series, I imagined Toby as a young Jude Law, but now . . . What about that blond guy in the TV series, Merlin? I haven’t seen it, but the actor’s very pretty, and I guess he’s British? Can he act?
Simon: Needs to be someone tall, dark and broodingly handsome. How about Ben Barnes?
Henry: I bet there’s a little Fanning sister who could play her. Those girls can do anything.
Rebecca: If only Helena Bonham Carter was about a foot taller, she’d be perfect. Who else is good at playing homicidal maniacs? Meryl Streep doing a Montmaravian accent? Miranda Richardson?

I’m sure you can do better than this. Off you go. Oh, here are the conditions of entry:

1. This is an international competition. Anyone can enter.
2. Make sure the e-mail address you enter on the comment form is a valid one, so I can contact you if you win (no one will be able to see your e-mail address except me). Please don’t include your real residential or postal address anywhere in the comment. However, it would be nice if you could mention which country you’re from (just to satisfy my curiosity about who reads this blog).
3. You can talk about one character or lots of characters.
4. Skill plays no part in determining the THREE winners, whom I shall choose using some random process I have yet to determine. If fewer than four people enter the competition, then “Everybody has won and all must have prizes”, as the Dodo said to Alice.
5. Entries close on April 5th, 2011, the day The FitzOsbornes in Exile goes on sale in North America. Winners will be e-mailed then, and I will send off the winners’ books or CDs as soon as possible after that.

Good luck!

How To Write A Novel

The Saturday edition of The Sydney Morning Herald has been running “a series about how to write”, which I have been reading with increasing irritation. First there was Sue Woolfe, who stated that anyone can write a novel, provided they “don’t stick to a subject, a character or, worst of all, a plot”. Her advice is not to read what you’ve written until you have a hundred thousand words “about anything”, whereupon you add “some narrative techniques and suspense” and, voila, “you’ll have the novel you knew you could write”! Oh, and you mustn’t use a computer – that’s death to creativity.

Then there was Debra Adelaide, who insisted on “total extermination” of adverbs. She isn’t keen on adjectives, either – they’re the “cockroaches of prose”.

MERCIFULLY (I intend to saturate this post with adverbs), most of the other articles in this series have been wiped from my memory, but they were EQUALLY ANNOYING.

Phyllis BnF Francais 874, Folio 11v
The author resolutely ignores all those urging her to delete her adverbs
Here’s why they annoyed me. They imply that all you have to do to write a good novel is to follow a set of simple rules that apply to all writers and all situations. I agree that a writer needs to know about grammar. However, blanket statements, such as “Adverbs are evil”, make me bristle. Yes, deleting all the adverbs in your prose may make it sound cleaner and more contemporary. But if you’re writing a series about, say, posh British people in the 1930s, your prose (and especially your dialogue) will sound inauthentic if you delete all the adverbs. I’ve studied English grammar and I think about it constantly as I write. But sometimes I start my sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions – because that’s what works in a novel written in the first person, narrated by a teenage girl. Every writing project – and every writer – is unique. Some writers need to do detailed planning before they begin a first draft; other writers work best by jumping into the project feet first. Some people find it efficient to edit as they write; others find this slows their writing down. Telling writers that there is ONLY ONE TRUE WAY TO WRITE A NOVEL is wrong and silly. Writing is not brain surgery. If you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re not going to kill anyone. Just press ‘delete’ ON YOUR COMPUTER and try again.

FORTUNATELY, Gabrielle Carey restored some sanity to the series in today’s Herald by saying:

“There are many things one can get out of a writing class: advice on character, structure, grammar and punctuation. But that leap into the creative realm is something you can only do on your own.”

EXACTLY! She also talks about teaching creative writing to rich, successful adults, who, having achieved all their other goals in life, decide they’re going to bang out a novel:

“They pay exorbitant prices for creative writing classes but by the end they often come up to me and say, ‘Well, it’s been interesting. I’ve learnt a lot. But I’ve realised it’s just too hard. I’m going back to law.'”

It’s true, writing a novel can be hard work. It takes concentration, good language skills, persistence, an ability to exist on limited sleep and funds – plus a mysterious, amorphous element called ‘creativity’. It’s tempting to try to get around all this by persuading an author to surrender what Ms Carey laughingly calls “some secret code or some magic advice”. But I agree with her – there ISN’T a secret code.

Of course, I’ve never actually done a creative writing course, so what would I know? Group instruction for a solitary pursuit like writing just isn’t my thing, but I’m sure some writing courses are great, especially the ones that take place over a long period of time, have a small number of students, focus on a particular type of writing (say, ‘writing a short story’ or ‘writing fiction for children’) and are taught by someone with both writing and teaching expertise. You don’t need to do a creative writing course to become a published novelist, but if you like the sound of a particular course and can afford it, why not?

What I can recommend from personal experience is working with a mentor. A mentorship is for writers who’ve committed themselves to hard work – who’ve sat down and written a draft (or several drafts) of a novel and realised they need help with the next stage. Mentors can give specific advice on your manuscript, once they’ve talked with you about what you want to achieve. Some of them also know agents and publishers, which is useful if you feel your novel is complete and you’d like to try to get it published. Your local writers’ centre may have a mentorship program, and free mentorships are awarded each year by the Australian Society of Authors and the Children’s Book Council of Australia.

Of course, you don’t need a mentor to become a published writer. You don’t need a literary agent, either – at least, you don’t if you live in Australia. But that discussion is probably best left for another post.

Letters of Note

One very nice (and unexpected) result of becoming a published writer has been that I now receive letters from readers. Yes, actual letters, written in pen or pencil on pieces of paper, sealed inside fancy envelopes and delivered by my friendly postie. Of course, it’s lovely to receive readers’ e-mails, too, and I must admit it’s much easier and quicker to reply to e-mails – but there’s something special about a personal letter, perhaps because they’re so rare now. When I open my letter box these days, I generally find electricity bills and reminders about dental appointments and pamphlets from politicians who are desperately seeking my vote in the upcoming State election – but hardly ever do I receive letters.

The lost art of letter writingThat’s why I so enjoy browsing through Letters of Note, an on-line collection of letters to and from famous people. It includes adorable letters from J. K. Rowling and Dr Seuss and David Bowie to fans; an indignant letter from Enid Blyton to Robert Menzies demanding that he stop calling her books ‘immoral’; a completely illegible letter from King Henry the Eighth to Anne Boleyn; a hilarious ‘personal letter’ from Steve Martin; a letter from an exasperated schoolboy to President John F. Kennedy and much, much more. Go and have a look, it’s fascinating. It’s like finding a dusty box of letters in your attic – assuming you’d lived the same house as Albert Einstein, Yoko Ono, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Freddie Mercury.

P.S. As much as I adore receiving letters, I can’t answer them unless they include a return address. Harriet, thank you so much for your lovely letter, but you forgot to include your address. If you contact me by e-mail or post, I promise I will write back.

Happy Birthday, Jules Verne!

'20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' by Jules VerneHappy birthday to Jules Verne, the author of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (or Twenty Thousand Legs Under the Sea, as one of my friends used to call it). To celebrate, go and have a look at the best Google Doodle yet! A little submarine that you can manoeuvre up and down and across the sea! Check out the treasure chest on the sea bed, and the shark, and the divers! So cool.

(If you missed it on the 8th of February, you can still read about it at The Guardian.)