Tuesday 26 January 2016

Reading for Happiness

January is a dismal month. With the recent storms, it’s becoming almost impossible to step outside the door without either being drenched, swept away or frozen to death. It’s a much more sensible idea to batten down the hatches, stay home, stay well, and read a book.

Painting by Marie Fox
As far back as Plato, storytelling has been a powerful way in which to mould the human mind. Think moral tales - told for the purpose of conditioning little brains, to warn us of the perils in life, the piggy house made from straw or the wolf hiding in grandma's bed.

If a story can influence a mind, create a set of moral rules for life, a list of rights and wrong, do's and don'ts. Can a story also take a mind that is broken or damaged and re-wire the brain, rewrite life and fix or heal something that was broken or at least provide understanding and relief?

This then is the one of the premises behind bibliotherapy, the therapeutic use of literature to help an individual understand and cope with an illness, or another problem.

This is not a new idea, bibliotherapy was first used in 1916 by Rev. Samuel McChord Crothers in Atlantic Monthly where he talked about a bibliotherapeutic process, literature, both fiction and non-fiction was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.

During World War One, Sadie Peterson-Delaney, a librarian, established one of the earliest recorded formal programmes of bibliotherapy when she prescribed literature to WW1 veterans to boost their self-esteem and "relieve the mind from malady and worry" [1]

In 1946 it was applied for the first time with children. Sister Mary Agnes, published a study on bibliotherapy for 'socially maladjusted children', stressing its use to help children overcome their problems. [2]

There are also Creative bibliotherapy schemes, the library based model, whereby readers self-refer or are referred by health workers to library based bibliotherapists, usually on a 1:1 basis. And the Reading Group model usually linked to the library though not exclusively, like The Reader Organisation who use novels, short stories as well as poetry as their tools for expression.

And there is Poetry Therapy. The focus being on poetry for healing as self-expression and growth of the individual rather than on poetry as art.

Read at the right moment in your life and a novel can—quite literally—change it, save it, and most definitely improve it. Recent neurological studies show that readers of fiction quite literally become the characters they are reading about. (I have always known this.) And this enables a more empathic connection with others.

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin use books to heal. In 2008 they set up the bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to patients all over the world. Their prescribing resulted in The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You. It is a reminder of the power books can have on the human mind. ‘Whether you have a stubbed toe or a stubborn case of the blues, within these pages you’ll find a cure in the form of a novel or a combination of novels to help ease your pain.’ 

The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892 in the New England Magazine, explores what happens when a young woman is not allowed to read or write. The story is a first-person account of a young mother’s mental deterioration and is based on Gilman’s own experiences of postnatal depression. The unnamed protagonist of the story is advised to abstain from any and all physical activity and not to use her imagination. The woman’s husband takes her to a country house where she is kept in a former nursery decorated with yellow wallpaper.

After reading The Yellow Wallpaper, you might just need a lift. The Reading Agency’s Mind Boosting Books scheme is a national promotion of uplifting titles, including novels, poetry and non-fiction. The books are recommended by readers and reading groups around the country. Classics such as The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim; A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr; Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro; and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce are just four of twenty titles listed.

'There they hang in the wardrobe of our minds, the shapes of books we have read like clothes we have taken off and hung up to wait their season.' [Virginia Woolf]

We wore that jacket, that book cover for a while, it went everywhere with us, on bus and train journeys, to the doctor's surgery, and back home. One day we came to the last page and in many instances there was joy, sometimes sadness and yearning for more. The story had reached its final destination, it was time to say farewell, to close the chapter and with a deep sigh, caress the book and place it back on its shelf or return to the library or friend.

[1] Jack and Ronan, 2008
[2] Agnes, 1946

Wednesday 20 January 2016

A Conversation with Julia Forster

Image courtesy of  Alice Hendy
Julia Forster was born in the east Midlands in 1978. Although she says she regrets never becoming a pop star – her early days were quite music obsessed – she has achieved success in the literary world.

Receiving the Derek Walcott Prize for Creative Writing, while studying Philosophy and Literature at Warwick University, gave an indication of Julia’s passion and potential for the written word. She also holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Julia has been in the publishing industry for many years and has received valuable experience in many fields.  She spent time ploughing through manuscripts at a literary agency in London and was involved in marketing and publicity for the literary magazine New Welsh Review.                                               
In a journalistic capacity Julia has written for many prestigious publications including Agenda, Resurgence and the Western Mail. Now working for Literature Wales she is involved in awarding bursaries to established and emerging authors allowing them the luxury of time to write their novels. Julia was fortunate, in 2011, to receive such a bursary enabling her to begin her debut novel What a Way to Go. Although her first novel, Julia published a book called Muses: Revealing the Nature of Inspiration in 2007.

What a Way to Go follows twelve year old Harper Richardson as she seeks her identity growing up as a child of divorced parents. It is 1988, a time of great experimentation with clothes, hair and just about everything else. Harper, as she moves between the homes and lives of her parents just gets on with life as best she can.
Julia has captured, with great observation, the emotional journey of a teenager whose parents are caught up in their own traumatic circumstances after the divorce. They leave their daughter without many of the boundaries they would normally have set. It is a moving story told with humour and wit and we wish Julia every success with her debut novel.

1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

I began writing in 1998 when I was nineteen and at the University of Warwick. I chose a module in my second year called composition and creative writing. The author who was leading our very first session, Russell Celyn Jones, asked us to write about something traumatic; nearly twenty years later, I’m still responding to that brief in What a Way to Go.

The Warwick Writing Programme had only been running since 1996, and as such office hours weren’t well attended. I would sign up for a ten-minute session on the tutors’ doors, but I’d wind up getting a full hour of one-to-one tutorials because the other students hadn’t yet cottoned on to how useful they were. My office hours were mostly with the poet David Morley, who still runs the course at Warwick. I credit David with putting me on a poetic escalator; by the end of the first ten-week term, I had written a poem about the death of someone close to me. Not long after that, I walked past his office door, which was wide open, and he called out ‘Julia Forster! Poet!’ That anecdote still makes me giggle today. My husband calls me JFP for short now.

Funnily enough, although I went straight on to study creative writing at St Andrews after graduating, I never studied how to write novels, so I’ve learnt how to write longer pieces of fiction by picking up tips from all kinds of different text books, including books on screen-writing such as Story by Robert McKee, but mainly from reading widely. I read a lot of contemporary novels, but also plenty of classics.

2. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I think it differs depending what I’m writing. In the case of What a Way to Go, I had a strong conviction to write from a pure, emotional place about what it feels like when your parents divorce. The story took me to places that I couldn’t have anticipated. I most enjoy that I get to follow my intuition with writing. Although I have done many other jobs in the past, mainly in publishing but also in the environmental sector, this is the job which I think both stretches and surprises me the most.

3. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

That question about the act of empathy is an interesting one. In What a Way to Go there is an elderly lady who is prejudiced and narrow-minded about her son’s sexuality (he’s gay), and there’s also a mobile librarian who patronises young Harper when she goes to borrow Forever by Judy Blume. I see it as my job to inhabit all the characters’ psyches while I write them, and to see the world from their unique perspectives; even if it’s just for one or two scenes, and even if I’m writing from a different point of view (in What a Way to Go, all the action is seen from the perspective of twelve year-old Harper). As such, I think it’s vital that I can empathise with the characters’ world views while I write them so that they feel authentic, but it doesn’t mean I share their outlook – in both cases that I mention above, I don’t whatsoever.

4. GW recently organised #diverseauthorday: do you think literature accurately reflects the diversity of culture we have today?

No, I don’t. We live in a richly diverse country and I don’t see that reflected on the bookshelves in shops. One of the characters in my book, Cassie, is adopted. She’s also black. However, I don’t make a big thing of this in the book because the story is seen from Harper’s point of view and Harper doesn’t notice skin colour until it is pointed out to her. That was exactly how it was for me, living in a diverse suburb of an east Midlands town: it was my experience that you didn’t question or even notice people’s skin colour. I take my hat off to initiatives like #diverseauthorday and bloggers like Naomi @Frizbot and Dan @Utterbiblio who are spreading the word about books by authors from different backgrounds.

5. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

Twice in my twenties, I saved up my pay checks and then booked a week’s writing retreat on my own. Both times, I chose cities: the first time, Paris; the second, New York. In the latter case I stayed one cold January in a beautifully bohemian apartment which was just off 42nd Street, and it was run by artists. The cost of accommodation was kept artificially low so that artists and writers could afford to stay; I got an awful lot of writing done (I was working on a book which is still under my bed), but I also had a lot of fun.

It snowed so heavily that on the very last day of my retreat, a Sunday, my flight was cancelled. About five feet of snow had fallen in just a few hours. Instead of flying back to London, I went out for a beer with another artist who was staying there along with the son of the man who owned the apartment. We walked down the centre of the snow-filled Fifth Avenue. The whole city was choked by snow. Driving was impossible. We had a snowball fight and our laughter was muffled, as if we were playing in a sound-proof city.

If I could be transported instantly to anywhere in the world to write, I would go back there. But, sadly, I think I would also have to go back in time, as I am pretty sure the little bohemian slice of paradise in the centre of Manhattan no longer exists…

6. What is the one book you wish you had written?

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

7. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

1. Silence your inner critic; there will be enough of these in the outside world.

2. Enjoy all your attempts at writing your novel – whether you fail or succeed.

3. Surround yourself with ‘can do’ positive people from all walks of life.*

*One of the people who inspired me to give this novel a go was a good friend who works for a forestry organisation. She had three children under 18 months at one stage, and yet despite spinning so many plates, she always has a positive attitude. She leaps over physical and emotional hurdles with the grace of an athlete and with an infectious joie de vivre. Novel writing is about solving one knotty problem after another; if you can get into the right mind set for that kind of challenge, then I really believe you’re half way there.

8. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have just finished a full-length radio drama which is on submission at the moment, and I am limbering up for a second novel. I’m not sure yet what it will be about, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

Thank you so much for having me to visit your blog!

What a Way to Go is published by Atlantic Books (January 2016)

You can follow Julia on Twitter: @WriterForster

Saturday 16 January 2016

Book reviewer: Brown Books & Green Tea

As part of our #diverseauthorday Greenacre Writers want to continue the trend and will be posting interesting books and linking to book reviewers. This one is perfect for #ReadDiverse2016 a new initiative via Twitter.
Han Kang was born in Gwangju in 1970 and moved to Seoul at the age of ten, later studying Korean literature at Yonsei University. She made her literary debut as a poet in 1993 and has since published collections of short stories including Love in YeosuA Yellow Patterned Eternity, and The Fruits of My Woman as well as novels including Your Cold HandBlack DeerGreek Lessons and The Vegetarian. Her writing has won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. The Vegetarian is published by Portobello Books.
Deborah Smith translated The Vegetarian and the latest novel by Han Kang, Human Acts. published by Portobello Books. She is currently finishing a PhD in Korean Literature at SOAS, and has recently founded Tilted Axis, a not-for-profit press which will publish translations from non-European languages. 

The following quote is from a review written by Whitney, for her blog Brown Books & Green Tea:

“The Vegetarian is a book that requires a bit of thought after reading it. You physically put the book (or in my case, my Kindle app) away, but your mind still tries to make sense of what you just read. It was something very different from what I’d been reading recently....A book in three acts, The Vegetarian’s first chapter begins with Yeong-Hye’s decision not to eat meat. The decision, resulting from a series of graphic dreams, has a surprising affect on her family. Her husband, for example, is livid that she has interrupted an otherwise average lifestyle when she says she will no longer cook meat or allow it in their house. Similarly, her father is irate that she refuses to eat meat at his behest. As they continue to provide unsolicited direction, she becomes less and less responsive to her family’s interventions, which climaxes in abuse and self harm (I think at this point, its appropriate to provide a warning for spousal rape). She is unfazed as she loses everything. This is just the beginning of Yeong-Hye’s decent into madness.”

Whitney, is a 25 year old, with a love for multicultural literature and hot tea. She has bachelor degrees in Philosophy and International Studies, and an MA in International Security. Since graduation, she has been struggling to regain her adolescent love for reading. And thus, BB&GT was born! Her hope is that the blog will be a place for her to read with friends and family. many of whom have also expressed an interest in reading more. Visit the blog for book reviews, critical analysis, and deeply steeped tea!

Once you've read The Vegetarian, try Human Acts (2014) Han Kang, has said they are like a pair. Tr. Deborah Smith (2016), Portobello Books paperback

You can follow Deborah Smith on Twitter: @londonkoreanist
You can follow Whitney on Twitter: @BBandGT

Monday 11 January 2016

My favourite reads from 2015

Everybody seems to be putting up lists of books they enjoyed reading in 2015. It's what a lot of readers and writers like to do. Here are ten of mine, in no particular order:

The Gap of Time (2015) by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s cover version of The Winter’s Tale is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, celebrating 400 years since the Baird was born. This fast-paced story is about a foundling, a stolen child, an abandoned child, and fits in perfectly with my obsession and PhD research about orphans and care leavers in fiction.

Half a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I'd put off reading this text as I remembered the starving children from my childhood and was too frightened to read about the horrors of the Nigeria-Biafra war. Yet, once I'd started, and from the first page, I found myself transported and immersed in Adichie's vivid landscape and characters.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (2015) by Katarina Bivald

This is a book that I shall read again in a few years. It is a clever book and still has some way to go in being recognised as the future classic it will become.

But We All Shine On - The Remarkable Orphans of Burbank Children's Home (2014) by Paolo Hewitt

This was one of the first books I read last year, and that I had been anticipating for some time. It was worth the wait. After a childhood spent in care at Burbank Children’s Home, Paolo Hewitt embarks upon a personal journey as an adult to discover whatever happened to his close childhood friends.

Things we have in Common (2015) by Tasha Kavanagh

The novel describes a creepy tale of loneliness and teenage obsession. Poignant and darkly humourous, it was at times overwhelming - in a good way. Tasha was a guest at last year's Finchley Literary Festival*, little did we know at the time that not only would the book be shortlisted for the Not the Booker Prize, but also the Costa Book Award.

The Paying Guests (2014) by Sarah Waters

Greenacre Writers was selected as one of 12 book clubs who were shadowing the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015. We were given The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and some very nice Baileys!

The Girl with all the Gifts (2014) by Mike Carey

For the first half of this book I couldn't read past 6.00pm because I was absolutely petrified. The story seemed so real and I don't usually read books about zombies. When Mike appeared at the festival, some of us dressed up as zombies. He got us reading parts for the soon to be released film. I was Melanie, a young 'hungry' zombie, though in reality I was probably fifty years too old! Still, it was such fun and I can't wait to see the film.

A Month in the Country (1980) by J. L. Carr

On one of my recent trips to Waterstones, in North Finchley, my local bookstore, I got chatting with one of the lovely bookish assistants. We were discussing favourite books and he told me one of his was A Month in the Country. I decided to nominate it as the Greenacre Writers September Bookclub. It is the fifth novel by J. L. Carr, first published in 1980 and nominated for the Booker Prize. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1980.

The Ship (2015) by Antonia Honeywell

Antonia is one of those writers who light up a room. She attended the Finchley Lit Fest and I found myself truly inspired and moved by some of her writerly observations. The Ship is her debut novel but not her first. She has been on her writing journey for some years. In some ways, The Ship is scarier than zombies because the financial apocalypse could happen at any moment.

Liccle Bit (2015) by Alex Wheatle

Another FLF favourite guest. When I read this YA book, I was so impressed by the use of language I began raving about it immediately. It's both funny and heartbreakingly moving. It takes as its subject, the dangerous ease with which young boys can get involved with gangs. At its heart is family, or the lack of it and the dangers this can bring. Liccle Bit has recently been nominated for the 2016 CILIP Carnegie Medal.

All that is left for me to do now, is wish you a very healthy, creative, and booky New Year.

*We were thrilled that Finchley Literary Festival was awarded 'Best event of the in Barnet' by the Barnet Eye Community awards. For all the other categories and winners see The Barnet Eye Community Awards.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Seriously though … you really want to write a memoir?

Have you got a story that needs to be told? A big event from your life? Do you want to explore how to plan it, write it, print it and sell it? Do you want to know how to become an author, with a book for sale?

Anna Meryt is running a Life writing/memoir course: 

Starts: 6:30 pm on Thursday, February 11th 2016. There’ll be 7 one hour sessions, the venue will be in North London.
Venue: The Penguin Music School (ground floor - easy access), 584 Green Lanes , N8 0RP
Nearest tube Turnpike Lane (Piccadilly line), buses from there 29/141 - 3 stops or walk 7-8 mins. On street parking free after 6.30 pm.

Each week Anna will cover a different aspect of memoir writing – topics will be:

1.     What’s your story about? Anna will give you an exercise to write it out in 500 words. Then you'll look at how to plan it. Chapter by chapter.  We’ll examine how to create a framework.

2.     This week you’ll bring your plot framework and we’ll look at who are the main characters.  What part of the story do we need to keep, what part to discard in the interest of the story.

3.     Let’s look at genre this week. Yes its memoir, but what’s the time frame?  Is it set in the past?  The distant past?  Is it a tear jerker or an adventure or a comedy? Is memoir writing therapy (you will be asked that frequently, so let’s deconstruct that).

4.     Character and description
How do you describe your main characters – what they look like and what are their main characteristics – bringing them to life. We’ll do some exercises and get feedback.

5.     Timeline.  Where is your story placed in time?  eg.  who was prime minister, what world events were happening, when did someone die, give birth, have that terrible accident etc?

6.     It’s not just libel.  If there are living characters in your story, what will they think?  How will they receive your story and what will they feel about it being published? How will you deal with these challenges … and then there’s copyright.

7.     Getting published.  Becoming an Indie (self-published author).  Will you get someone you know to edit, self edit or pay someone? Publishing options. 

Do you really want to face the challenges of writing a memoir? Seriously?  You’ll find out by the end of this course, you really will.

Anna is a poet and an author and used to teach undergraduates at London Metropolitan University and at Birkbeck University of London. She has an MA in Professional Writing.

Anna Meryt
Blog/website:  www.ameryt.com
Highgate Poets: www.highgatepoets.com
Email: ameryt@hotmail.com (Make sure you Put Memoir course in Subject line)
Mob: 07852229655
Twitter: @ameryt