It was a real joy to give this speech on Tuesday 31st of January 2017 at the Ohrstrom Library at St. Paul’s School, Concord, New Hampshire.
A warm welcome and a big thank you for coming out tonight. Moving from the mild winters of Old England to the more challenging climes of New England, has made me appreciate the effort it takes to leave a warm cosy home on a cold, dark night.
It’s wonderful to have you here and to feel like I’m building a readership on this side of the Atlantic.
A particular thank you to librarian extraordinaire, Karla Kittler, who organised this evening. I wish every school library had someone with her energy, enthusiasm and commitment.
Tonight, I hope to:
- Give you an introduction to my style, preoccupations & motivation as a novelist;
- Share some readings from my first two novels, What Milo Saw and The Return of Norah Wells;
- Then there’ll be a Q&A session in which you can ask me questions about my novels, my life as a writer or anything else that takes your fancy. As I used to say to my students: all questions are allowed.
- At the end I’ll be delighted to sign your books.
So, first, a little insight into my writing style and my preoccupations as a novelist.
(1) I write contemporary fiction
The word novel means ‘new’ and I’ve always felt that fiction is one of the best artistic forms through which to explore the world in which we live today. Novelists have always done this, from Jane Austen who wrote about marriage in Regency England, Dickens who exposed the poverty in Victorian London to your very own local author, Jodi Picoult, who tackles some of the greatest issues facing modern America.
And so, my hope is that when a reader opens my books, they’ll see the world in which they live reflected on both on a domestic and a global level. That what they read might be immediately familiar in the sense that it relates to something in their lives or familiar because it’s something they’ve seen, heard or read about.
Through my stories, I want to offer a glimpse of what it means to be alive in the 21st century.
I turn to novels to help me understand myself and the world better; I hope that my books do a little of that for my readers too.
The world is a complex and challenging place: stories help us to navigate that complexity through the microcosm of individual lives.
C.S. Lewis, the wonderful theologian and children’s writer who lived in my hometown, wrote:
We read to know that we are not alone.
The modern world can make us feel lonely and alienated at times – fiction helps us to feel connected and understood.
(2) I tackle social and ethical issues
This is connected to the fact that I write contemporary fiction.
In my senior year at high school, I had the most wonderful ethics teacher. Mrs Carol Anelay would bring in articles she’d cut out of newspapers on a vast range of issues from the notion of a Just War, abortion, restorative justice, genetically modified food and euthanasia to surrogacy and gay rights.
As a teenager, I loved grappling with these pressing, contemporary issues but there’s something else I loved: reading and writing fiction.
I believe that I found my voice as a writer when I brought these two passions together.
And so, today, whether I’m writing for adults or teenagers, I tackle strong contemporary issues but in the form of fiction rather than through non-fiction or journalism.
The news is a wonderful thing. I’m someone who listens to the radio all the time: BBC Radio 4 in England and NHPR in the US. The news informs us and helps us to understand the world.
However, there’s a down side. The news is now so omnipresent that, after a while, we become numb to the plight of others. Our phones and computers and television screens feed us, every moment of every day, with information about our troubled world. As human beings, our minds and souls aren’t designed to process that; we may be being fed cerebrally, but our souls and hearts remain untouched.
What human beings are designed to process, however, are individual stories. Through the private, intimate and deeply personal act of reading, we become re-sensitised: we understand with our hearts and not just our minds.
This is why I love to tackle important moral issues in my fiction: in my novels I translate those big issues into the microcosm of individual stories and thereby hope to reach readers on a deeper level.
- In my first novel, What Milo Saw, I tackle the issue of abuse in nursing homes; what it means to be a child living with a disability; coping as a single mum and striving to find a new home in a new land as a Syrian refugee.
- In The Return of Norah Wells, I write about a mother who walks out on her young family – and the implications of her return six years later.
- In Before I Was Yours, my third adult novel coming out in the summer, I write about infertility and international adoption.
- And in my first Young Adult novel, Wishbones, coming out here in May (I’ll be launching the book in this very library), I write about a teenage girl living with a morbidly obese mother who hasn’t left the house in years.
(3) My motivation as a writer: to build compassion
We all have different motivations for doing what we do: the purpose that drives our days.
Of course I love to craft stories for the sheer enjoyment of being creative, of working with words and of watching worlds come life on the page. But I have a deeper motivation to: one that gets me up in the morning and that keeps me sitting for long hours at my desk.
I believe that novels have a huge role to play in deepening our empathy as human beings.
We live in polarised times. We vilify those who are different from us and are left stunned by their outlook and their decisions. Art bridges those gaps by allowing us to step into the shoes of others and to see the world through their eyes.
A number of prominent figures have recently talked about this.
In her Golden Globes speech, Meryl Streep said that:
An actor’s…job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.
I believe that’s a writer’s job too.
In his book, The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, the outgoing Chair of the UK Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette writes something very similar:
Arts and culture are, at their core, the telling of human stories which allow us to put ourselves in other’s shoes.
Bazalgette believes that plays, dance, music, art and, of course, fiction, create more ’empathetic citizens’ – something we need now, more than ever.
I hope that my novels contribute a little something to that wonderful cause.
(4) I love to write from multiple points of view
This is connected to two of the other aspects I’ve discussed: tackling social issues and my belief that fiction builds empathy.
We know that for every story, there are hundreds of perspectives.
Put ten people in a room, have them share the same experience, and narrate it later – and you’ll have ten different stories.
Each of us comes to the world with our particular character, set of genes, beliefs and background: these shape the way we see and understand and interpret our experiences.
I find this idea hugely stimulating on a creative level. I mentioned that, in my second novel, The Return of Norah Wells, a mother comes back to the family she walked out on six years ago. My novel narrates this return – over the course of one long holiday weekend – from the point of view of each family member:
Norah, the mother who left; Adam, her abandoned husband; Willa, her little girl who was a baby when she left and who doesn’t know that Norah is her mother; and Ella, Norah’s teenage daughter who does remember her mother but, in her absence, has idealised her to such an extent that she can’t cope with the flawed reality standing on her doorstep.
To add even more spice to the mix, I include one other, crucial viewpoint: that of the ‘mother who stayed’ – the woman who’s been holding the family together for the past six years.
In Norah Wells I also experimented with writing bird’s eye view chapters in which you get a little glimpse into each character’s head. It’s how the novel starts and ends. I’ll read you the opening to give you a flavor of this.
Reading: Opening bird’s eye view chapter of Norah Wells
I love how readers respond to the technique of writing from multiple points of view – how they often side with one character of another but how they also come to have a deeper understanding of views other than their own as they walk around in the shoes of different characters.
(5) My stories are a little ‘quirky’
Because I often tackle quite hefty issues, I believe it’s important to have some light to balance the shade.
We know that humour exists even in the bleakest of times and that every day life is filled with the quirkiness seems intrinsic to our lives as human beings. Through my child characters, the animals I love to include in my stories and the touches of magic I alway include in my fiction, I hope to create a little that light and so to make my stories both more fun and more realistic too.
The novelist, John Lanchester put it brilliantly when he once said that:
The fabric of life is tragic but its texture is comic.
By this he means that although the big narrative arc of our lives and the themes that dominate our lives are often ‘tragic’ – most of us must, at some point, face illness, loss and death – the way in which we rub up against each other every day, our small, domestic experiences, are often deeply funny.
And so, in my novels, I try to capture both the tragedy and comedy of modern life.
If The Return of Norah Wells is defined by it’s multiple points of view, What Milo Saw is perhaps the best illustration of how I try to balance tragedy and comedy. The book opens with the point of view of a child and the quirky world in which he lives – and it also hints at the tragic direction his life is about to take.
Reading: opening of What Milo Saw
So now I’d love to invite you to ask questions. As I said at the beginning, all questions are allowed – you can ask me a specific question about a particular novel or character or about one of the aspects to my writing mentioned above, or about having my books translated, being a writer in a new country, my writing life and habits…Over to you.
If you would like me to sign some of your books, I’d be delighted to do so.
The beautiful Ohrstrom Library at St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH