Well, it's a rainy Saturday today, but for once I'm not sulking about the weather and am instead focussing on enjoying the weekend! I've spent the morning in bed drinking tea and watching Diagnosis Murder, I've had a leisurely lunch, and now it seems like the perfect time to (finally!) write a new blog post.
"At least it's good for the plants" -- rainy weekend vibes ^
I can't believe how long it's been since I last did an update. For the past nine months, I've been busy in my writing cave, avoiding social media in a bid to get my novel written. There have been highs and lows. In January, I found out the first draft of my novel had been longlisted for the Mslexia 2020 Children's and YA Award. This was probably the most exciting email I've ever received, and I spent the following week skipping around the house like a hyperactive pixie. Some months later, I heard that I hadn't made it onto the shortlist. I was having a bad day anyway, so probably moped more than I normally would. Eventually, however, I danced around the kitchen a bit to 'Tubthumping' by Chumbawamba, ate some chocolate, and felt better. Never underestimate the healing power of Cadbury's.
Anyway, I've made some big revisions since that first draft I sent to Mslexia, and I'm now at a stage where I'm ready (I think!) to start approaching agents. I'm excited about this, but also a bit apprehensive, as I've been here before with my previous two novels, neither of which was successful in finding me representation. I think this novel is better than the others -- I've spent longer on it, and have had some mentoring through the Professional Writing Academy -- but I know there's never any guarantee of success. I'm dealing with the uncertainty by focussing on planning my next novel (a ghost story set in early 20th-century Cornwall) and reminding myself that the only thing to do is keep writing. Being a novelist has been my absolute #1 goal in life since I was in primary school, so I feel I owe it to myself to just keep trying, trying, trying, however long it takes.
As well as writing, I've been doing lots of comfort-reading. I find the winter and spring months a bit cold and tedious (especially during lockdown), so I've been clinging onto books that make me happy: books by writers like Jessie Burton and Stacey Halls (at the contemporary end of the scale), and Elizabeth Bowen, Daphne du Maurier and M.R. James (at the more vintage end). I even re-read Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite getting enraged by all the casual sexism (did Quincey Morris really need to keep calling grown women "little girl"? Ugh!).
Another thing that has kept me going over the past months is listening, reading and watching all sorts of things about writers -- particularly debut novelists. These have included the Riff Raff podcast (sadly no longer running), the Sunday Salon podcast, the Tea & Tattle podcast (also sadly no longer running), and the Diary of a Debut Novelist videos. I've listened/watched certain episodes/videos dozens of times, usually while exercising, baking or cooking. Possibly this is dangerous -- I realise it can be unhealthy to fixate too much on the dream of getting published -- but these interviews have brought so much joy and hope to my days. It's just so wonderful to know that it can happen: people really do sometimes turn their writing ambitions into reality.
Well, that's my update on my writing life! I hope that everyone reading this is doing well and hasn't suffered too much from the pandemic. It's been such a tough year or so, but we do seem to be gradually coming out of the worst. My husband and I are excited to be seeing our families later in May, for the first time since August. Right now though, I'm off to bake a cake, hang up a bathroom mirror and do some housework -- definitely embracing the rainy Saturday vibe today!
[Firstly, I realise that I haven't posted for months and am now posting something completely unrelated to fiction (the main focus of this blog), but this is something I've been thinking about a bit recently, and my blog seemed the best platform for a long piece of writing! So, here goes ...]
It was 2003 when I first realised that my natural hair colour was a problem. I was 13, and had spent the day at an ice rink in Plymouth with two friends. We weren’t really there to skate, of course: as we went to an all-girls school, any trip out into the world meant an opportunity to meet boys. Though we weren’t brave enough to actually strike up a conversation with any of the boys at the ice rink that day, my friend skated up to a group of lads and passed them a note with her name and phone number – yep, we were classy. That night, when we were in our sleeping bags on my sitting-room floor, the boys called her. Overt flirting ensued. I don’t remember much of what was said, other than there was talk of meeting up, and my friend asked if the two girls who had been with her that day could come too. The boy’s reply hit me like a bucket of icy water: “Only if the ginger one puts a paper bag over her head first.”
Ouch. I cried in my sleeping bag later that night, while my friends slept beside me. Like most 13-year-old girls, I was sensitive about my appearance – I couldn’t just tell myself the boy was an idiot. Before then, I’d been vaguely aware that ginger hair wasn’t something coveted by my schoolmates, but secretly I liked it: it made me special, it was different. In the novels I devoured, ginger characters were the jokey sidekicks or the fiery tricksters, often sidelined but never ridiculed. That night, however, I suddenly understood that my DNA made me officially ugly, and that my teenage experience was going to be different to that of my friends. That sounds overdramatic, but, in fact, I wasn’t wrong.
Over the next few years, comments at school increased, until I got them on pretty much a daily basis. There were the girls I barely knew who would come up to me and ask, “Why don’t you dye your hair?” (I remember telling one of them “My mum won’t let me”, to which she replied, “Just tell her you don’t want to look like such a freak!” before clapping her hand to her mouth and giggling “Oops, sorry!”) There was the group of popular girls who briefly toyed with making me their project, trying to get me to go to their houses so that they could dye my hair (and eyebrows, and eyelashes … I’m one of those gingers). There were the friends who sympathetically said “I feel so sorry for you”, “I’m so glad I’m not ginger”, and “You’re quite pretty for a ginger person”. There was the repeated question, “Does the carpet match the curtains?”
It wasn’t bullying in the traditional sense. I wasn’t unpopular, and a lot of the kids who said these things were otherwise friendly towards me and, I think, liked me. My class at school was small and tight-knit, and I was fond of nearly everyone in it – I didn’t blame them. It was just accepted that “ginger” was synonymous with “ugly”. Many of the comments weren’t even directed at me: for instance, there were girls who fretted loudly that their blonde dye had made their hair look “a bit ginger”, while their friends reassured them that it hadn’t. These remarks hurt just as much as those aimed deliberately at me. I never let on, though. If anyone said something negative about my hair, I would laugh and quickly change the subject. Sometimes, if a friend defended me, the perpetrator might reply “Lorna doesn’t mind, do you, Lorna?” and I would say no. Looking back, it seems spineless of me not to have stood up for myself, but it felt as though to challenge people would make me seem even more of an outsider. Plus, in my head, they were right: I was hideous. I was the one at fault, not them. My self-esteem plummeted. I believed I was less important than those around me, my opinions and feelings less valid. "Ginger" felt like my whole identity, eclipsing everything else.
I began dyeing my hair when I was 14, initially with wash-in-wash-out stuff, and then with semi-permanent dye. At the beginning, I used a darker shade of auburn, before moving on to brown. My mum hated that I was doing this. We used to argue about it, and I would lie and pretend I hadn’t dyed my hair when I very clearly had. One day, I came home from school to find my secret supply of home-dye kits spread across my bed, in the same way that other mums might expose their teenage daughter’s hidden stash of cigarettes or condoms. She would tell me my obsession with my hair was silly, that I shouldn’t be so concerned with my appearance; I would reply that it wasn’t me who had a problem with how I looked, but other people. Older relatives tutted at me for “spoiling” my hair, but I didn’t care: for the first time, I resembled those around me, and a few people at school told me I looked much better for hiding my natural colouring.
When I was 16, I moved to a larger, co-ed school for sixth form. Dyeing my hair shortly before my first day there, I was determined that my new schoolmates would think of me as a brunette. That illusion didn’t last long. During my first week, I discovered a note in my pencil case that simply said: “ROOT HAIRS”. Semi-permanent dye tends to quickly wash out at the roots, and I’d been rumbled. I started using dark brown, permanent dye every time I washed my hair, but it still somehow wasn’t enough to hide the orange. A boy in my drama class asked me why I didn’t dye my hair, not realising that I already did – that it was much less ginger than it would be naturally. I remember this incident because I was tired and, for once, let my guard slip, allowing myself to look a bit upset. The boy said “Are you crying? But, come on, you must be used to hearing this kind of thing ...?”
That was a common refrain: You must be used to it. In other words, they couldn’t help that I was ugly and that they were compelled to comment on it – it was my responsibility to grow a thicker skin. Hmm.
Being around boys brought other challenges. I remember, for instance, overhearing a guy getting teased by his friends for kissing “a ginger girl” at a party, while he protested that her hair hadn’t been ginger and, anyway, he’d been really drunk. Another group of guys sent me an email from their mate’s account, pretending to be him, hyperbolically describing my “ginger beauty” in words that dripped sarcasm. On top of this, if I ever learnt that a guy fancied me, aside from being incredulous and immediately too shy to speak to him in person, I would tell myself that his feelings would change if he discovered my true hair colour. At 16/17, I desperately wanted to feel attractive, but it seemed impossible.
Ginger-related comments became frequent at that school, and I developed physical reactions to them. If I was in the common room and overheard the G-word, my heart would race and my hands would shake, and I’d find an excuse to leave the room. This escalated to the point where I would react in the same way to the word “hair”, just in case it led to disparagement of gingers. Consequently, I was unable to talk to anyone about it all. I’d always had quite a self-deprecating sense of humour, but I couldn’t joke about my hair colour. The subject was too painful. In my final term of sixth form, I ate most of my lunches alone in the library, and avoided social events, in case the topic of hair was mentioned. Of course, these years of my life weren’t all bad: I still had some fun times and made friends, but I always felt ashamed and apologetic about the way I looked. My mum spoke to one of my teachers, who “had a word” with me, asking if I was OK and if it was true that people had said nasty things. I denied everything and said I was fine. What could he have done, anyway? It’s not like he had a magic potion to turn me blonde.
In general, teachers were ignorant of the situation. Being ginger seemed to be one of the few remaining things that it was allowable to tease someone over, and teachers turned a blind eye to any comments they overheard, in a way that they wouldn’t have done had the comments related to weight or race or any other physical aspect. Some of them even joined in: I remember an English teacher using “ginger” as a negative description in a poem he wrote, and a history teacher jokingly condoning the way Hitler treated redheads.
In case anyone who wasn’t at a UK school in the early- to mid-2000s is reading this and feeling baffled, let me assure you that this attitude was not unique to the two schools I attended, but seemed to be ingrained in teenagers across the country. OK, there were some ginger pupils at my school who didn’t feel the need to dye their hair: perhaps I was more sensitive than them. Then there were others who, like me, went brunette. Compared to many, I got off lightly: there have been awful cases of teenagers in the UK committing or attempting suicide due to being bullied over their red hair. Then there was the infamous “kick a ginger day” inspired by an episode of South Park, which led to a lot of schoolkids being attacked (this occurred mainly in the US and Canada, so perhaps it isn’t just a UK-based problem after all. Fellow redhead Amber McNaught has blogged about it here). Nicola Roberts of Girls Aloud fame has spoken publicly about the hate she received over her hair colour and how it affected her mental health, but in general it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about – or, if it is talked about, gets treated as a joke.
Things got infinitely better when I started university. Suddenly, I rarely seemed to hear any negativity about ginger hair, and, although strangers still occasionally yelled things at me in the street (this was usually done by men, and was often something like "ginger bitch"), I felt much better about myself. By the time I turned 20, I’d stopped dyeing my hair altogether. The Lorna of today doesn’t deserve (or want!) any pity: I’m very happy and lucky, with good health, a wonderful husband, supportive family, lovely friends, a nice house, and a job I like. It’s been years since anyone said anything bad about my hair (not within my earshot, anyway!), and I like it again now – in fact, I wouldn’t want it any other colour. I can talk about being ginger easily, without having a panic attack, and can look back on that difficult period in my life with detachment. The only annoying thing I still encounter is people telling me, “You’re the spitting image of *insert literally any red-headed female celebrity here*” – half the time, the woman they mention has a completely different face shape, eye colour, and body shape than me, but because we both have ginger hair we’re apparently indistinguishable.
I realise this has been a bit of a self-indulgent “poor me” rant, but I do have an aim in mind, I promise! I’m not sure what the situation is in schools nowadays. In general, it seems today’s teenagers are more tolerant, and there’s less pressure to conform to physical ideals. Having said that, the results of a Google search for “ginger suicide” (see my earlier link) indicates that there’s still a dangerous problem. Every day, I see people doing fantastic things to raise awareness of mental health, of discrimination, of bullying. Body positivity is having a moment, right? It’s made me wonder if sharing my experience can help raise awareness of something which, I think, still needs more acknowledgement. Please do let me know in the comments if you've got a similar story.
I know there are people out there who have compared “gingerism” to racism. This, in my opinion, is ridiculous. Ginger people haven’t historically been kept as slaves or mass-murdered or treated as second-class citizens without rights. Please, let’s keep things in perspective: if gingerism is the size of a tennis ball, racism is the moon. However, it is something that deserves to be recognised as a problem and taken seriously. My cousin’s five-year-old daughter has beautiful curls in a richer, more vivid red than my hair. I hope she will never have to hear negative things said about them, and that, if she ever does, she won’t feel like she has to treat it as a joke. So please, let’s talk about this a bit more. Let’s make gingers one of the groups of people we’re kinder towards.
^ Jessica Fletcher looking smug after tapping out another bestseller. (Photo from Pinterest)
I hope you’re all having a splendid weekend.
Today, I thought I’d blog about the three writerly challenges I find myself grappling with most often, and how I try to deal with them.
Writing fiction has been my passion for as long as I can remember, but I only decided to focus seriously on it and make it a priority a few years ago, after completing my PhD. My vision of writerly life was far too idealistic back then: I thought I would spend hours every evening and weekend typing away at my desk, surrounded by plot outlines and character charts, sipping a cup of Earl Grey and chuckling at the witty scenes pouring from my fingertips (à la Jessica Fletcher), while having plenty of time left to do my day job, spend time out and about with my boyfriend (now husband), socialise, and generally live my life.
Whoops! Turns out it’s not that simple. There are many challenges to completing works of fiction, and most of these (for me) tend to relate to mindset and motivation. In particular, there are three “problems” that I find recur when I try to sit down and write …
Challenge no.1: “I’m tired / I have a million other things to do / *other forms of procrastination*!”
This is my commonest obstacle. Most days (when we’re not in a lockdown period), I get home from work around 6 p.m., feeling exhausted (I’m on medication that makes me drowsy, which doesn’t help!). I exercise three evenings a week, which can take up to an hour, and then either me or my husband (or both of us) needs to make dinner and we need to eat it … after this, I try to write for an hour or so, but often I give in to tiredness / wanting to spend time with my husband, and we end up watching TV instead. I get up at 6.30 a.m. for work, so there’s no time to write in the mornings. I almost always get some writing done at the weekends, but am nevertheless dogged by the feeling that I should be doing housework / gardening / going for a run / reading and giving feedback on my friends’ writing / doing some of my TEFL course / etc.
However, I have come to realise that the problem isn’t so much lack of time / energy, but more the fear of sitting down and not being able to write. Deep down, I’m scared that what I write won’t be any good, or that it will be really really difficult and draining, or that I’ll just start getting into it when it will be time to stop ... so I tell myself “There’s no point writing now. I’ll wait until I have enough time to do it well.”
My solution has really been to acknowledge that I do this, and to rationalise with myself. Yes, I only have a few hours and I’m tired, but I’ve never sat down to a Word document and not been able to write anything. In fact, once I start writing, I always really enjoy it; it is sometimes difficult, but in a rewarding sort of way, not a depressing one. Yes, there are other things to be done, but once I’ve done a bit of writing I always feel better, which makes it somehow easier to then do those other tasks. Writing should be my priority.
I also try not to beat myself up if I go a day or two without writing. There’s no point in this: it’s stressful and turns writing into a chore. Since I’ve started being kinder to myself, life has become easier, and writing has become more enjoyable.
Belonging to a writing group has also really helped. I meet with two other writers (via Zoom) every month, and we read and critique one another’s work. It’s a great source of motivation to know that someone is waiting to read my material, and I always leave our chats feeling inspired to go and write something immediately.
Challenge no.2: “What should I be working on?!”
This has only recently become an issue. Last year, when I was doing the Faber Academy WIP course, I knew exactly what to work on: my novel, The Witch Hunt. However, since finishing The Witch Hunt, I’ve been consumed by an anxiety of wasting writing time. Should I write another draft of the completed novel? Or, should I focus on writing some short stories, with the aim of getting more publications to add to my cover letter when I submit my novel to agents? Or, should I work on the new novel that I’ve only recently started writing, which will surely be stronger than the last and have a better chance of being published?
Very often, this has a rabbit-in-the-headlights effect, and I end up writing nothing.
I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that no writing time is “wasted”. Doing something you love isn’t wasting time. When I was 16, I spent a summer writing my first “novel”. I think it ended up being only around 35,000 words long, but it was the first lengthy story that I’d written (I can’t really remember the plot, other than it was about three sisters who had gone missing, and the vicar turned out to be the villain (and the sisters turned up safe at the end)). I never even considered getting it published, but I wrote it because I wanted to. It felt good to create something, to express ideas I’d had for characters and events. This, I now remind myself, is evidence that the dream of publication isn’t the only reason I write. Yes, my goal in life is to have a novel published, but even if I somehow knew there was no hope of this ever happening, I’d still write.
This helps invalidate the idea that I’m investing time on the “wrong” project. I work on a bit of this, and a bit of that, and I enjoy it and have faith that hard work will ultimately be rewarded.
Challenge no.3: “I’m getting old and I’m still not a pulished novelist!! Time is running out!”
I think this is also at the core of challenge no.2. I grew up as the youngest in my family, and my late-August birthday meant I was always the youngest in my school year and in my group of friends. It was drummed into me that I was young, that there was plenty of time to do everything I wanted to in life.
Now, suddenly, I find that I’m thirty! Blimey! How did that happen?! I’ve read so many interviews in which published authors explain how they knew they had to get their debut novel out before they hit thirty, and an increasing number of novelists nowadays seem to be in their twenties. It’s easy to be discouraged by this – to feel like it’s time to put the dream aside and just focus on career and family.
Obviously, this is a load of utter rubbish. Rationally, I know it’s rubbish. Many, many writers don’t get published until later in life. Muriel Spark, Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt, J.R.R Tolkien … all of these could be said to have been past their youth when they embarked on their literary careers. There should be no age-limit when it comes to writing, and I hate the idea of prescribed “stages” in life, the idea that people have a “prime”. Women in particular seem to face a lot of social pressure to achieve everything while they’re still young.
So, when I start to get down or anxious about this, I tell myself to stop being stupid. Who cares if I have a few wrinkles by the time I need to pose for an author photo? I love that the stress of my teenage years and my twenties is behind me, that I’m a more experienced writer now, and that I potentially have the excitement of getting my first novel published to look forward to. Why rush to get all the fun stuff over with? If I have to wait until I’ve eighty, so be it – it’s always nice to have something good ahead of you!
How about you? What are the biggest mental challenges you face when it comes to writing, and how do you tackle them?
Currently reading: The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (I was in the mood for an old-fashioned detective story, and this one is quite chilling.)
Currently writing: Last week I finished a short story for The Bristol Short Story Competition, so it's back to the novel now!
Happy Star Wars Day! I hope you're all waving your lightsabers and telling people named Luke that you're their dad.
Today, I thought I'd share the three books that I've found to be most useful in improving the quality of my writing.
There's always a debate over whether creative writing can be taught or whether it's just something that people either can or can't do. Personally, I think that it is absolutely possible to learn how to write well, although, as with any subject, some people will find it easier to learn than others. The two fiction writing courses I've undertaken (a Master's degree in Creative Writing and the Faber Academy WIP course) have both been incredibly helpful and made me a much better writer. I also enjoy learning from books about the craft, but these can vary in their usefulness and often have conflicting advice, so it's difficult to know which ones to trust. Therefore, although this list is of course subjective, here are the three books I'd recommend reading if you're looking to improve your writing.
Sorry for the slightly grubby covers ... That's what happens when you read books in the bath / put mugs of tea on them / fold down the corners of pages.
1) How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark
This is my number 1 book on writing. As you can probably guess from the title, it's presented as a guide on how to write a terrible novel – or, in other words, on common mistakes to avoid if you want to write a good one! (There were times when I flinched while reading it, as I've definitely been guilty of one or two of the clichés!) As well as being super-funny, it offers very practical techniques on everything from plot and character to dialogue and description to setting and research.
How Not To Write A Novel might not be everyone's cup of tea: I can imagine that some people probably won't appreciate being given explicit dos and don'ts when it comes to writing. While I concede that there are bound to be great novels out there that go against Newman and Mittelmark's advice, I'm a firm believer in "You need to learn the rules before you can break the rules", and think that this book is an excellent starting point for those interested in writing fiction.
2) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
This is another funny book, although very different in style to the one above, being partly a memoir of Lamott's own experiences of writing. Like How Not To Write A Novel, it offers a broad range of helpful insights into the technicalities of writing, but what makes Bird By Bird unique (and what I like most about it) is the personal element. Lamott reflects with humour on the emotional highs and lows of novel-writing, and provides guidance on how to deal with things like perfectionism, writerly jealousy and false starts. A lot of people praise her chapter on "Shi*ty First Drafts" as being liberating. I'd recommend this to anyone who is feeling dispirited about their writing or who needs a boost of motivation.
3) Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose*
I was required to read this book for my MA, and am so glad that I did, as it really changed the way I read novels. Prose provides close-readings of many successful works of fiction, analysing their sentence/paragraph structure, word choice, use of detail in description, characters' gestures and unique ways of speaking ... and much more. This book really helps you think about the "nitty-gritty" aspects of writing, and is (in my opinion) invaluable if you want to become a better writer. I ought to re-read it, as I'm sure I've forgotten bits. Ultimately, it's a reminder that the best way to learn how to write fiction is to read fiction – but, importantly, to read it in a mindful way in order to develop an ear for the rhythms and complexities of good prose.
* I love that someone whose surname is Prose has written a book about writing fiction!
So, that's the end of my list.
However, it's worth noting that these three books tend to focus (in general) on the technicalities of writing itself, rather than on the broader topic of plot structure. This definitely reflects my own writing tendencies ... I pay a lot of attention to detail and sentences, but I struggle when it comes to plot (in fact, in most things I do I'm overly concerned about the little things and fail to see the big picture).
Therefore, I've recently bought two books specifically on plot structure: How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson, and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.
I haven't read either of these yet, but I've heard good things. If you're reading this and you're familiar with either of these, please let me know what you thought. In the past, I've tried writing with a very tightly mapped-out structure, and I've tried writing in a "making it up as I go along" sort of way, and each of these has had its own disadvantages (though I think the latter approach produced a better novel in the end), so I'm hoping to find a method that works for me.
Are there any books on writing that you would recommend? Do you agree/disagree with any of my suggestions? I'm keen to hear!
It’s a strange and frightening old time at the moment, with coronavirus sweeping the globe, and here in the UK we’re being told to stay at home as much as possible. While it’s challenging having to isolate from friends and family, I find that disappearing into fiction definitely helps pass the days and ease the anxiety. Here, in no particular order, are ten books I’d recommend retreating into.
1. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
I love a debut novel (I think some of the author’s excitement rubs off on me), and am also a sucker for plots in which tricksy protagonists manipulate their way to the top (Vanity Fair, House of Cards, etc.). In Alys, Always, resourceful newspaper sub-editor Frances Thorpe schemes her way out of her downtrodden existence towards the glamorous life she’s always coveted. I’d have liked Frances to encounter a few more obstacles on her way, but otherwise was super-impressed by the writing and plot. Part thriller, part social satire, this is a quick read and one that has stuck with me.
2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
A classic. This is my favourite Agatha Christie novel – the first time I read it, I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it, and then was too scared to sleep. It’s the claustrophobic atmosphere that makes it so gripping: ten strangers stranded on a tiny island start getting killed off one by one, each desperately trying to work out who the killer is before their turn comes. If you need a distraction from everyday life, this is one to go for – but, perhaps don’t read it alone at night.
3. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)
This novel has some of the most remarkable prose I’ve ever read – I’m in awe of both Ferrante’s beautiful writing and Goldstein’s brilliant translating. Set in Naples in the 1950s, My Brilliant Friend is the first of the ‘Neapolitan Novels’ series, and its portrayal of the complexities of female friendship – the insecurities, the jealousies, the love and ugliness and loyalty – is subtle and astonishing. It’s not a book you’ll zip through in a day, but it’s certainly one to get lost in.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ – surely one of the most iconic opening lines to a novel. Rebecca was the first ‘grown-up’ book I read, aged 11, and I devoured it – I remember lying reading in bed (hours after I should have been asleep) and being shocked by the many revelations that come towards the end. That first time, I was wholly on the side of the narrator, and took things at face value. Re-reading it as an adult, in a post-#MeToo world, I realised how problematic the narrative is, which I think was intentional on du Maurier’s part: we only get one side of the story, the eponymous character having been silenced before the novel begins. The night before my wedding, unable to sleep, I picked up Rebecca; I finished it on my honeymoon. It’s a book I associate with extraordinary times.
5. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
I’ve always been mad about historical ghost stories set in big Gothic houses, and The Little Stranger is probably my favourite of these. I read it over Christmas 2017, curled up in the little guest bedroom of my parents’ house, late into the nights. Who or what is haunting Hundreds Hall? I didn’t figure it out until near the end of the novel (the book’s final sentence is a key clue, if you haven’t got it by then), but when I did it made me view everything that had happened so far in a completely different light. I kept thinking about it obsessively for months afterwards. It might be one to avoid if you’re easily upset by sad things happening to animals, however (I cried for at least half an hour).
6. Diving Belles by Lucy Wood
Another debut, but this time a volume of magic-realist short stories set in Cornwall. I love Lucy Wood’s writing, the way she blends Cornish myths and the supernatural (think pixies, witches, people turning to stone) with the mundanities of everyday modern life (arguments with exes, visits to nursing homes), and, as I went to school in Cornwall and spent much of my childhood exploring its coast, these stories have a special resonance for me. I can’t recommend this book enough – you should read it!
7. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
I have three friends who adore Georgette Heyer, and they’ve lent/given me a lot of her Regency romance novels over the years. I completely get the appeal: her stories are frothy, fun, and offer total escape from the real world (which is what we all need at the moment). The Grand Sophy is one of my favourite Heyer novels – the protagonist is a confident woman who upturns social norms and has a pet monkey. What more could you want?
8. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
In my late teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman’s writing. His imagination seems to know no bounds: his stories are fantastical and weird and intricate and full of vivid characters, and can leave your heart racing. I think The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably the darkest of his novels – there are scenes in it that are really frightening – so don’t read it if you’re not a fan of horror. If that sounds like your thing, however, you should definitely get hold of a copy: it’s a book that will suck you in and keep you up at night.
9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows
I’ve only recently read this novel, after a colleague lent it to me, but I really enjoyed it and it definitely made me feel better about the current lockdown situation. An epistolary novel set in 1946, it follows writer Juliet Ashton as she befriends the members of a Guernsey book group and learns of their experiences during World War Two. I can see how some readers might deem it a bit twee or predictable, but at the novel’s heart is a story about community and friendship, and I found that a real tonic.
10. Loitering With Intent by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark is one of my heroes (did you know she only ever wrote one draft of anything? Amazing!), and this is possibly my favourite of her works. It’s a short novel, narrated by writer and secretary Fleur Talbot as she sets about exposing the nefarious dealings of her employer, and, as well as having Spark’s usual touches of metafiction and autobiography, is extremely funny. It’s one of the few novels that I’ve read multiple times, and I may well return to it yet again during the lockdown period, when I need a laugh.