Review of My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante (Book 1 of the Neapolitan Novels series) translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

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Naturally we were improvising. In the course of that back and forth I tried to understand what was really going through Lila’s head, so as to be in tune with her goals.

Lila, aka Raffaella Cerullo, and Lenù, aka Elena Greco, have been best friends since they were small enough to believe their dolls were speaking to them. They grew up together in the same impoverished neighbourhood in Naples, with its overcrowded tenements, domestic abuse, and never-ending struggle of its inhabitants to survive.

Lenù and Lila are constantly in danger of being pulled out of school, their families needing the money that an extra worker could bring in. Early on, their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, recognises Lila’s intelligence, which enables her to continue her education. Lenù, jealous of the attention her friend has received and eager to please the teacher, aims to match her abilities, thereby gaining her place at the school too. And so begins a friendly rivalry which continues for the remainder of their lives, and which, ironically, enables them to thrive in this harsh, patriarchal society.

With a lively cast of characters–from the foreboding, mysterious and ever-dreaded Don Achille, who runs the grocery store, to that of Melina, a love-sick, hysterical widow, and even Marcello Solara, the local big-shot who is the first to purchase a car and parade it through the streets trying to pick up local girls–Ferrante imbues potentially depressing scenes with a sense of vibrancy and passion. While the story is told in first-person, from Lenù’s perspective, the narrative arc of all of her characters is shown. The masterful cohesiveness of this story, combined with Ferrante’s strikingly intimate and detailed prose, brought this small section of Naples to life for me. Indeed, Lila and Lenù’s struggles seemed to mirror that of their entire neighbourhood, which in turn mirrored that of Naples itself.

I look forward to reading the rest of this immersive and engaging series.

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Launch of new developmental editing service!

Announcing the launch of my new developmental editing service for writers of fiction and creative non-fiction. Are you a writer who needs a bit of extra help with your manuscript? Or are you simply curious as to what developmental editing involves? You can learn more about developmental editing, and how it can help your writing, by clicking here:  https://kendraolson.wordpress.com/development-editing-service/

Vilhelm Moberg, foremost chronicler of the Swedish emigration to America

Vilhelm_Moberg_1967 wikimedia commons photo

Arkiv 1967 – Vilhelm Moberg, porträtt, 1967. Foto: Okänd Fotograf Code: 190 COPYRIGHT SCANPIX SWEDEN (from Wikimedia Commons)

Happy Saturday! For today’s post I thought I would feature a Swedish author and journalist whose novels and memoirs both inspired my novel and assisted with the research required to write it.

That novelist is Vilhelm Moberg, one of the leading writers in twentieth century Sweden and well known throughout the Swedish-American community. Those outside of Sweden who know of his work have likely heard of his Emigrants saga, which follows a family of Småland farmers as they emigrate from Sweden to Minnesota in the mid-1800s. The series follows the family through their long, perilous journey until their settlement in a small Minnesota town. Moberg himself had lost several family members to American emigration, that ‘great divider of families’ as he calls it in his novels.

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In his autobiographical novel, When I Was a Child, Moberg talks about how America existed in every Swedish household, through the photographs relatives would send back—they were always dressed in much nicer clothes than anyone had in Sweden—and which became their most valued possessions, to be shown off when company came. He writes: ‘In the letters from America relatives asked “how was it in poor, old Sweden?” Children thought that America was rich and Sweden poor’ (Chapter 1). Moberg himself counted more relatives in America than in Sweden.

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It was during his research for the series that Moberg himself moved to America—spending time in both Minnesota and California.  However, he never fully settled there and moved back to Sweden seven years later. While he appreciated aspects of America, especially getting to meet his countrymen and seeing how their lives had played out on foreign soil, many elements of the culture failed to agree with him (particularly the conservativism and religiosity of some of the settlers in Minnesota)[1]. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that his formative experiences contributed greatly to his writing. His biggest success as a writer was in his empathetic portrayal of the underclasses of Swedish society– ordinarily ignored by literature. His stories were written from the perspective of poor crofters, ordinary soldiers, factory workers and farmhands. In Sweden, at the time Moberg was writing, this was a ground-breaking achievement. As, perhaps, it still is today when the stories of the middle-class, white, male, straight and able-bodied are still more likely to be read than those written by or about minorities, women, the disabled and the poor.

It was this idea of immortalising the lives of common folk which led to my writing The Forest King’s Daughter as I felt that there were plenty of historical fiction stories out there about royalty and famous personages but few about the poor, and even fewer about poor women, especially poor women who dared to disagree with the establishment at a time when women’s place was in the home. If it weren’t for all the research Moberg put into his work, my novel may never have been written, as I drew on his sources and the details he provided both in his fiction and in his history series. So, thank you Vilhelm Moberg! 🙂

Which writers have influenced your work? Are there any writers you’ve read for research whose work you’ve later come to appreciate in a greater context? I’d love to hear, so please leave a comment in the box below.

[1] Introduction to The Emigrant Novels, Roger McKnight, Gustavus Adolphus College, Borealis Books/ Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995 edition

Books by Vilhelm Moberg published in English (from Wikipedia):

The Emigrants (1949), ISBN 0-87351-319-3.

Unto a Good Land (1952), ISBN 0-87351-320-7.

The Settlers (1956), ISBN 0-87351-321-5.

The Last Letter Home (1959), ISBN 0-87351-322-3.

Memory of Youth

Ride This Night

A Time on Earth, ISBN 1-56849-314-2.

When I Was a Child, ISBN 0-8488-0302-7.

Nonfiction

A History of the Swedish People, Vol. 1: From Prehistory to the Renaissance, ISBN 0-8166-4656-2.

A History of the Swedish People, Vol. 2: From Renaissance to Revolution, ISBN 0-8166-4657-0. Both volumes translated by Paul Britten Austin.

The Unknown Swedes: A Book About Swedes and America, Past and Present, ISBN 0-8093-1486-X.

Sources drawn on for this post:

Introduction to The Emigrant Novels, Roger McKnight, Gustavus Adolphus College, Borealis Books/ Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1995 edition

When I Was a Child, by Vilhelm Moberg

http://www.kulturparkensmaland.se/1.0.1.0/752/2/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilhelm_Moberg#Works_in_English_translation

http://www.vilhelmmoberg.com/english.html

 

 

Happy publication anniversary to, well, me! A reflection on my journey to publication.

Just over one year ago, my novel, The Forest King’s Daughter, was published by Pilrig Press. The publication of the novel was a tremendous achievement for me. Prior to sending the manuscript to them, I’d done the rounds of numerous literary agents and was just starting to think about making changes to the story when a friend recommended I try small publisher, Pilrig Press. After sending through my initial query letter, synopsis and opening chapters, I quickly received a response: the publisher enjoyed what he read and wanted to see the full manuscript. To say that I was elated would be an understatement. I quickly read through the manuscript again (just in case I had somehow introduced a typo when opening the document for the umpteenth time), attached it and pressed ‘send’. This happened in summer 2014, and prior to this I’d spent almost four months sending the manuscript out and receiving rejections (at the time it had never occurred to me to self-publish).

I then waited several weeks before sending a gentle follow up email. I held my breath, expecting yet another rejection. But, soon after, I received a reply to say the publisher was interested in obtaining the novel and would be sending me a contract. I read their email several times over, unable to believe what I was reading—had my novel really just been accepted for publication? It had. I broke into a series of loud cheers, shouts and hurrahs, thereby amusing my neighbours and baffling my cats. I’d done it! My novel would be published! Woo hoo, three cheers for me (and even more cheers for Pilrig Press for agreeing to take it on). This was in November 2014.

Of course, once the novel was accepted, there was still work to do. For one, I needed to set up my author platform—something I’d been putting off doing as the prospect intimidated me. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy reading online, but the vastness of the internet and my near-phobia of technology didn’t help matters. I decided to start with a blog, as that made the most sense to me—I knew people who had blogs and enjoyed them, and a blog would surely be the best place to showcase my work as it would be my space alone. So, after doing a bit of research (which included invaluable reference to the lovely Molly Greene and Belinda Pollard’s ever-helpful blogs, which were recommended by Marianne Wheelaghan), I decided on a free WordPress site. After several days of trial and error and much online research, I managed to have the site up and running–possibly an even bigger achievement than my novel 😉 .

Next on the list was Twitter—ugh. My only knowledge of Twitter was through the much-publicised News International scandal. To me, it seemed like something gossipy journalists and celebrities used, nothing a writer should ever have to go near. But, after much discussion and advice from writing friends, especially Ruth Hunt, I gave it a go. How else would I let anyone know about my amazing blog posts? 😉

And, you know what? It wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was kind of fun. I got to ‘meet’ and chat with other writers, and I found out about all sorts of amazing literary goings-on as well as discovering new authors, and books, and book blogs. I tweeted my blog posts–and got retweeted! And I retweeted and shared others’ content in return. Of course, this all took a bit of time, and I quickly discovered just how much time–but that didn’t stop it from being a useful tool (not so much for selling books as for networking with other writers, for more on this, read: http://www.smallbluedog.com/why-emerging-authors-need-twitter.html ).

And then the big day came—publication. Of course, having a small publisher means there are no publication day parties (thrown by the publisher anyway). Still, the hubby and I had a drink or two to celebrate, and, perhaps, a chocolate brownie (or two). On the day of the launch, I did an author interview with Ruth Hunt on her blog, The Single Feather,  to help promote the novel.

So, what have I learned from my publication process?  Well, for one, that it takes time to find the right publisher and then to prepare a manuscript for publication. This is something that can’t–and certainly shouldn’t–be rushed. Also, I’ve learned to try to be more understanding of the potential benefits of technology, which includes the innovative ability to meet people from all over the world without ever leaving the comfort of my own living room. But, most importantly, if I could do it over again, I would have gotten started building my platform much sooner. I think if I had, it may have helped me to better promote my novel in the run up to publication. Having a book published is only the beginning. You still have to market it, and the better understanding you have of this and the less shy you are about telling others about the wonderful book you’ve written, the easier it will be (who’d have thought that things like Amazon categories, metadata or how many friends you have on Facebook could influence how many copies of a book are sold?).

I remember attending a literary event last year in which one of the panellists likened publishing to entering a giant funnel. Once you’ve published your novel, you come through the end of one, small(ish) funnel only to enter a second, much larger one, through which very few authors ever emerge. My advice to unpublished novelists: persevere but be realistic in your expectations. Celebrate every small victory, because you’ve worked hard for it, but then move on and write the next novel, not only because research shows that novelists with more than one book sell better (http://annerallen.com/2015/03/how-do-i-sell-my-book-6-tips-for-new.html ) but primarily because writing is what writers do (or what they should be doing anyway). Also, be eternally grateful for your friends and those who’ve supported you along the way, be it by helping with research, reading and commenting on your drafts, retweeting your blog posts, or even giving you the space and time you need to write. I know I am. Because, without them, novels can’t be written, let alone published and promoted through social media.

Are you a published novelist? If so, what was your experience of being published? And, if you’re not yet published, what do you expect from it?

Literary Laryngitis by Poppy Peacock

Today I’m pleased to welcome fellow writer and blogger, Poppy Peacock, to the blog.

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I have a confession. Well, two actually… I didn’t spend my, ok arguably misspent, youth with my nose in a book. I did read, from rib-tickling escapism to rousing expeditions but sporadically rather than emphatically.

I haven’t yearned to write since being knee-high either, as many writers often profess; I was more of a talker. Writing was mostly formal and confined to official documentation & business reports; any creativity only leaked into odd letters & emails to far flung friends and relatives in a voice very different to my work one. When writing about my news & happenings I tended to write the way I spoke – strong regional accent laced with local dialect & idiolect of the North East of England – and definitely NOT always grammatically correct.

Then sudden, severe illness all but silenced me in 2004. For cognitive rehabilitation – and to keep the gibbering-n-twitching at bay– I began studying with the Open University. Initially I stayed in my medical-background comfort zone; then I ventured into Literature & Creative WritingReader, I was hooked!

During my first three years with the OU I did 3 Creative Writing modules: A174 Start Writing Fiction, A215 Creative Writing and A363 Advanced Creative Writing and thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

My creative voice was very much being formed from extending my correspondent, not professional, habits. I certainly got the best feedback – and marks – when I used my native tongue, rather than a strained RP narrative, and characters with familiar social backgrounds.

Here’s an example of one of the first pieces of life writing I fictionalised for an activity:

Chapter 1 : I am born

            ‘Dimples to die for’ Nana S sighs wistfully.

            ‘Fat as butter, just like her mother’ spits Nana P; Dad’s mam obviously.

            ‘Missed nowt’ chuckles me Dad.

            ‘Humph, I wouldn’t know’ huffs me Mam.

It is with these comments, rung out religiously with the habitual presentation of the one – and only – faded Polaroid,  I can deduce how I appeared on my big outing; and according to old Mrs Edna next door – neighbour and fiercesome midwife – did them all out of a good Co-op Ham Tea. Her prediction of my demise was premature.

By all accounts I certainly wasn’t; I kept them waiting just short of three weeks. After days of Mam writhing and kneading that starchy bed, my best effort produced a solitary foot; as if dipping in a toe and deciding against any further venture. The painful recollection never dims with time. She still describes the inhumane suffering, heels and palms rubbed raw, the howling, until they finally conceded to a quick abdominal exit. Rudely levered and yanked from my cocoon the forceps bruised a nerve so for the first few days I slept with one eye open.

‘A flock of hair, rich like any coal face’ crows me Dad.

‘Like the wether of a prize ewe’ simpers Nana S.

‘Aye, but a black sheep, nevertheless’ prickles Nana P.

But like Mam said – she never saw that. Wrung through and spent, she was left limp in that bed whilst I was whisked off to another bubble four floors up.

‘That’s why we never bonded,’ Mam’s favourite retort; aired at every disagreeance.

I got a great response and encouragement to continue in my own everyday voice, although it wasn’t always grammatically correct and I used certain colloquial words, odd sentence structure and even made-up words: ‘disagreeance’ caused a mini-storm! Many agreed it sounded natural but some couldn’t get past it should technically be disagreement.

At the end of Year 2 I adapted and grew this piece into a complete short story (Frontline, which you can read over on Poppy’s blog:  http://poppypeacockpens.com/) keeping the narrative very much in my natural regional tongue. After receiving a distinction, I was encouraged to submit it to a competition – I chose The Yellow Room: a women’s literary magazine edited by Jo Derrick – and was chuffed to bits to get 3rd place and see it published!

I also submitted two other short stories and got one win and a highly commended… the first published online.

During the Advanced Course in Year Three, my strengths were again nurturing my natural voice while learning about various other media forms too – such as short films & radio plays – I knew then I really wanted to persevere with my own writing.

Now came the crunch bit… although I only joined the OU for cognitive physio I was loving the learning environment and passing assignments & modules was a great boost to my morale and self-esteem; being stuck at home due to ill health is very isolating and through studying I was meeting like-minded folk online who have become great friends (though I’ve still yet to actually meet most of them).

At 17, I dropped out of school during ‘A’ levels to nurse where there was very minimal classroom time; at the very least 80% of the time was spent working 45hr weeks in placement. With the OU the new world of academia was appealing and I succumbed to further literature modules – to attain a degree – but mainly believing it would enhance my appreciation & aptitude for writing.

And I have no doubt it has helped; through these modules I’ve learned so much about different authors through the ages for many genres, styles of writing and narrative techniques. But my creative writing dwindled due to the demands of studying and writing critical essays; by the time I finished Uni in 2013, I hadn’t written any fresh stories for quite a while.

By the end of that summer I missed the routine of study – having M.E. I have to try and do some kind of cognitive activity every day to battle brain fog. Interested in possibly pursuing a career in writing/editing etc I wanted to explore the industry and a friend suggested Twitter… WOW! What a fantastic find!

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these last 18 months; Twitter is a brilliant resource for meeting so many good folk and being introduced to so many good books I never really appreciated existed, but it can be very time consuming, not to mention expensive! My book buying habit has excelled!

As for my own writing, I keep starting new pieces and rehashing old pieces but really struggle to get anything I’m truly happy with. I’m finding it hard not to be influenced by all this reading and question what my own voice is actually like now. It’s definitely a case of my academic voice – sitting on my shoulder like some stuffy old crow – nagging and pecking at my creative voice; the latter being far more laid back and colloquial but definitely muffled. Spookily, as Kendra and I talked about this, there was an excellent post from Tara Guha on the very subject:

http://lindasbookbag.com/2015/10/15/guest-post-by-tara-guha-author-of-untouchable-things/

I certainly don’t want to stop reading but I do want to find the right balance so I can write again, comfortably! So, I set up my blog poppypeacockpens.com to record and review what I’m reading, document what I’m writing and best of all liaise with like-minded folk for companionship; it feels like the perfect way to strike the right balance between developing academic skills but most importantly, nurture the return of my natural storytelling voice.

Thank you, Poppy, for a fascinating post. And I have to admit I found it very interesting that you don’t come from a writing background–I would never have guessed it from reading your work. 

You can find out more about Poppy by reading/following her blog: http://poppypeacockpens.com/ 

She is also on Twitter and Facebook.