Monthly Archives: December 2009
There was only one comic-book I could begin this series with. I borrowed a copy from a friend as soon as I heard what it was about. It was not enough, it was a book I needed to own. Trouble is, it had been out of print since the mid 90s. With life leading me astray in various directions, I was forced to abandon my search. Then this year, out of the blue, One Bad Rat found me. As I took a break from Nottingham’s FantasyCon, there it was, sitting there in the full glory of its 2008 hardback edition. Page 45 had just gotten another happy customer.
And it was still as glorious as the first time I’d read it. That’s the thing with a masterpiece. It does not date or grow old but accompanies you as life changes you. But enough about me. Let me tell you about Talbot’s Rat.
The story is a young woman’s journey. She is first introduced to us as a homeless beggar, the owner of just the clothes she stands up in –and a pet rat. Rats are a key reference point. Her attachment to them is a constant in her life. When her flesh-and-blood pet is killed, she acquires an imaginary rat-companion and leaves the city for a new life. A physical journey in one sense, in which she travels from the streets of London to the landscapes of the Lake District, but a more important one in an emotional sense. Helen, our heroine, is a survivor of child abuse at the hands of her father. Through her journey she learns what she has to do to rid herself of a past that haunts her: confront her abuser.
Helen’s past, however, also holds the key to her redemption. Through her reading of the works of Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories, she finds the courage to defeat her demons. It is why she travels to the lake district, to be near a woman she admires and the tales she told of brave little animals winning the day against all odds. The book itself has the look and feel of a large Beatrix Potter storybook. Quite fitting for an adult fairytale.
Initially published in the early 90s, a decade when the word “intertextual” was bandied about to describe any sort of layered narrative, One Bad Rat is the real deal. The protagonist slips in and out of Potter reality and into the cold, dangerous contemporary world. As Alan Moore puts it, it “interweaves the charming, whimsical, and above all, the English version of Beatrix Potter with a vision of England as it has become; the soft juxtaposed with the savage; Peter Rabbit in Cardboard City.”
When Helen confronts her father, telling him how she had been hurt by his abuse, she does it in the hills that Potter’s books made their own. She draws courage from the landscape, the example of the author’s life and her new friends, but most of all she uses the narratives of the children’s stories to build herself a new reality. We leave Helen after her confrontation, finally able to put her life back together. To paint, write stories and leave behind the victim she once was.
An impressive feature of the book is the painstaking level of research. Not only did the author read about the subject of child abuse, but he spoke to many survivors and counselors, paraphrasing Helen’s dialogue from the transcripts of abuse survivors’ own stories. In terms of visual style, the research is also immaculate. All the settings depicted are taken from real life locations, all the characters drawn from live actors (and rats). He even consulted a hairdresser to ascertain how far Helen’s hair would have grown in the time it took to tell the story!
If you only ever buy one comic book in your entire life, make it this one. Do it because the narrative is outstanding, because it is so good at what it does that many countries use it to counsel the victims and survivors of abuse. Do it because it’s beautiful object. In your shoes, I’d do myself a favour. Go down to a comic-shop and get it. Don’t fuck about on Amazon, go to a real shop and have a real experience buying a real thing. It might be one of the most precious books you will ever own, so make it’s purchase an event you will remember. I’d try Nottingham’s Page 45. It did the job for me.
So here it is! My first ever guest-posting. It’s a good one too. Judith Allnatt is a superb writer who seems destined for a big breakthrough in the literary/commercial area of fiction. In this post she has some good advice for any writer: its about the imagination, dammit! [my cursing, not hers]
Her next novel, The Poet’s Wife (Out February 18th on Doubleday) , will –with any luck– provide that breakthrough. Set in 1841, it tells the story of Patty, the wife of the poet John Clare as he descends into madness. A must-read for next year.
Write what you don’t know.
Fledgling fiction writers are often advised to ‘write what you know’. This advice is no doubt intended to persuade them to draw on their own experiences, in the interest of producing something unique, rather than falling into the trap of producing a re-worked version of their favourite read. But is there a danger in this approach? If we stick too closely to what we know, where is the excitement of the explorer, the curiosity that makes us want to imagine in the first place?
I recently worked as a visiting writer in a primary school. The children’s task was to write about a person, or creature, that lived in a rubbish dump. First we imagined objects, the soggy pizza boxes, old hoovers, vegetable peelings and broken bikes: the children were drawing on what they knew and it helped us to set the scene and think about the sights and sounds (and smells). Then I left them to come up with a description of the inhabitant of the tip on their own. There were monsters and aliens, a little girl who had lost her ballet shoe and a rubbish-eating robot. I asked a boy who wasn’t writing if he was stuck. He said that he was ‘trying to think of something that would feel right.’ I asked him to close his eyes and see what picture came. After a few moments he said, ‘There are miles and miles of black bin bags and there’s a unicorn standing chained up, with his head down. He wants to be clean again.’ This stark black and white image of dirt and cleanliness, corruption and purity was vivid and compelling and opened up a whole range of questions. Why was the unicorn there? What had it done? How would it escape? My point is that it was when the kids moved from what they knew to what they didn’t that the results became interesting – became creative. And for that one lad it was the point at which he made an intuitive leap and got that holy grail of writing – a good idea.
A famous writer, whose name eludes me, once said ‘I write what I want to find out’, the exact opposite of ‘writing what you know.’ And how much more interesting it sounds: like a journey that will lead to some enlightenment, a person feeling their way with open hands for the shape of a story that will satisfy, make sense, and feel emotionally true. Wanting to find out, through writing, is exactly how it feels to me. In ‘A Mile of River’ I wondered what would happen if the pull of family ties were at odds with a young girl’s emerging identity. In ‘The Poet’s Wife,’ I wanted to find out how far love might stretch when a loved one changes beyond all recognition and about the blurred boundaries between love and madness. Questions are good prompts to the imagination and trying to answer them provides the underpinning of the story.
Of course we inevitably draw on what we know: to provide details of setting, characters’ voices, the way it feels to be scared or lonely or in love, but a good helping of what you don’t know will power your work. It will at the very least encourage research and at best will result in you finding and exploring themes that interest you. Maybe that’s what inspiration is – the moment when you stumble across something that you want to find out and that can only be found out by the creative act of imagining and writing.
[Many Thanks to Judith for her posting. My next guest (January): Keith Large]
It was the oddest-looking fountain pen I’d ever seen. Then again, you had to expect a certain quotient of oddness from the sci-techs. Always messing around with stuff: Eternal fidgets. Today it just happened to be a writing implement designed to work inside a black hole, tomorrow it might be some sort of deep-sea diver sling-backs. Perfect for ballroom dancing on the ocean floor. The scientist unveiling this marvel delighted in explaining the scientific laws that had to be broken in order to make it.
I had to ask. “Does it, you know, work at all outside of the influence of a black hole?”
“Ah, well, you see… when a force of over a gazillion Earth gravities is not trying to pull this pen apart, it’s quite hard to draw the ink into the nib.”
“So it’s of no real use, then.”
“I wouldn’t say that. The technologies we had to develop to get this thing built in the first place were absolutely mind-blowing. First we had to build a bigger hadron collider.”
I started to get the feeling that this scientist was totally Southend –by which I mean a long way past Barking. “You… built a new collider? Bigger, like, than the one in Switzerland?”, I inquired.
“Oh, yes. The one at CERN was way too small. OK for a pencil or a felt-tip pen on a dwarf star, but not capable of replicating the stresses that a black hole brings to bear on writing materials. Had to have a new collider. Essential really.”
“So, after trillions of dollars spent on producing this pen, what sort of benefits can we expect from its development?”
“Well the good news is that, even if scientists were, by some freak accident, stuck all the way inside a black hole, they could still sign off their expenses forms. Even there! A most impressive fountain pen.”
“Would you say that this is a great day for science?”
“And mankind, boy! Don’t forget them, now! Truly it is, a great day for us all.”