Real lives

When my novel Uncertain Light was published, I started a blog which my friends were kind enough to occasionally read. It followed me on my travels, and by some means I never quite understood, in a couple of years it acquired over 1,000 readers. Then, like a once-loved old building, it fell into disuse. (‘Fell into’,  like, it just happened. As my students in Zambia used to say if they arrived late to school, ‘The bus left me.’)

Surveying the remains a couple of years later I realised that what I’d actually been doing was wondering out loud how I came to write fiction in the first place. The answer, in essence, is Real Lives — other people’s lives, which inspired my own, lighting a way, asking to be shared. 

I can pinpoint the moment when this realisation came to me. It was several months before any of us had heard the words Corona or Zoom. I was having the pleasure of a day’s session working with my friend Becky, who years earlier had designed my website — I now hardly ever get to see her because she lives hundreds of miles away and is a mother of three. As we sat at my computer looking at what needed updating, there staring at me were twenty old blog posts. What to do with them? Ditch them? But there was so much life in them, my own and other people’s. Comments from readers flashed up on the screen. Definitely couldn’t ditch those. 

‘You could save the whole series,’ Becky said. ‘Make them into an e-book.’ 

Great idea! Becky knows how to do everything, she could do the techno stuff.  I said, ‘I’ll just go through them first. I might want to rearrange bits.’

Ten days, I said, and I’ll send them to you.

Seven months later I was beginning to see the shape of a new book emerging. 

Then Covid took over our lives. Amidst the anxiety, adjustments, deprivation and disasters, I was one of the privileged — enough to live on, in good health, blessed with a loving partner. My biggest concerns were about the effects on others, and my only real adjustment, not being able to see my daughters and grandchildren. But that also created unaccustomed time for my own creative projects, and unwisely I started three simultaneously. All were stimulated by real lives.

The first was a children’s on-line magazine — I hoped it would give my grandchildren and others a chance to connect while stuck at home, and (naively) I imagined it soon being run by children themselves. Trying to get it going was immensely time-consuming, and though I was inspired by what the children came up with, I’m not sure any of them were.

Obviously I should never have started anything else at the same time but the next one just happened. I had asked my mother when she was in her seventies to write some of her childhood memories. I had thought one day I would write it up for my grandchildren, but I hadn’t got further. Now, with pandemic reactions dominating life, I remembered that she had given a short description of her experience as a child during the 1918 flu. I put it up on Facebook, and was amazed at the interest it evoked. I followed it with a short piece about her early life, and got a similar response. Here were my friends, all dealing with the adjustments of lockdown, several living alone, some with real anxieties, all welcoming a little distraction, and it seemed that this hit the spot.

So I started sharing vignettes about her childhood, 100 years ago. In between each instalment I was exploring the history of the places she moved through, finding old photos to illustrate them. I felt connected to 19th century novelists whose books were published in journals chapter by chapter. There’s a charm in a serial story, getting involved in the characters but having to wait to find out what happens next. At first I kept the instalments short, thinking that suited the attention span of people dealing with difficult changes. Readers said, ‘Why are they so short?’ So they got longer. Older friends heard about it and wanted not to be left out, so I started sending out each instalment to a growing email list. For really elderly friends, they went to grown children or carers to print out for them (large font.)  Soon several hundred people had told me they were following it and waiting eagerly for the next instalment. I asked a few to tell me why it worked for them. One wrote, ‘The appeal is in knowing it’s a real story, the mix of hardship and bravery, and parallels for our time. The way you have structured it is so appealing, the parcelling out in a serial. A lot of people are struggling to read at the moment. Right story, right time, right structure!’

So I kept going. 

And all the time there was my emerging e-book, full of other real lives, waiting. Bizarrely, I got it into my head that I needed to finish it immediately, so that people could read it while stuck at home. I pressed ahead, each day juggling three projects. For a while I didn’t explain to Robert what was keeping me at my computer so long each day — like a child reading with a torch under the bedclothes, I didn’t want anyone suggesting it was lights-out time. Becky was home-schooling, working, doing hours for me on the children’s magazine, yet magically she also turned my text into an e-book. Never before had I had the heady experience of sending a book into the world without the slow-grind of trying to get it noticed by agents and publishers. It emerged just as everyone was coming out of lockdown, their minds on booking their getaway holiday. Anyway, I was discovering that most of my friends don’t do e-books. I sympathise. I don’t either. They’re wonderful for crossing continents and getting to friends in places where postal delivery is dicey, and a few of my environmentally-advanced friends now only read e-books. But on the whole I and the people who usually like my books are a throw-back lot, and we like to hold a book in our hands. Perhaps I needed to rethink ….

The Second Lockdown happened.  I took this unexpected gift of more time and got stuck into revising. This time we all understood we were in for the long haul and I was not in a hurry, so it got the don’t-part-with-it-till-I’m-totally-satisfied treatment. By December it was with the publisher, one that makes life easy for people like me who have a story to tell which mainstream publishers aren’t likely to think a commercial proposition. So it’s coming out in June, new-minted, illustrated, paperback and e-book: Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life.

Meanwhile I’m celebrating by re-starting my blog, which, unsurprisingly, will be all about Real Lives. People whose lives have inspired mine, and whose spirit I want to capture, so that it is not lost. “Writing,” said a 14th century Persian scholar, “is the offspring of thought, the lamp of remembrance, the tongue of those who are far off, the life of those whose age has been blotted out.”

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For information on my new book: https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/autobiography/journeys-without-a-map/ 

My thanks to Nichole Beauchamp for her comment on my mother’s story, Becky Joynt for the e-book, Greg Lanning for editorial support on the final edition. The quotation is from Muhammad ibn Mahmud al Amuli. The photos are some of the real lives that feature in my new book: (1) My mother with her parents, 1905 (2) Somali girls studying; source: ‘Teachers & Writers Magazine’  (3) Tajik NGO workers: photo by Eric Gourlan, OSCE (4) My grandchildren.

25 thoughts on “Real lives

  1. Thanks Marion. Really interesting. And I’m with you on e-books. I have a kindle which I charge occasionally but rarely use! I like to have a book to hold.
    Look forward to the next post.

  2. Wonderful Marion. So pleased to hear from you and that there is a new book (let alone blog) in the offering. Worked with you years ago at SCF and your books have always had a closer relevance and connection.

  3. Thank you Marion. So so glad your new book will be a ‘real book’ to hold and savour the page turning. I love to hold a physical book, caress it and turn each page lovingly!!! So I shall look forward to it immensely. I had reader block throughout the first lockdown and have only recently been able to enjoy a book again. It was a huge sadness not to be able to read but I realise I was not alone!

  4. Hi Marion

    Wonderful! It resonates with some of my thoughts / actions during this period. As well as re-finding my stamp collection I have been reading [probably for the 1st time] the diary I wrote when doing VSO in Tanzania 1980-1982. The ink was fading so I have typed it all up!

    On family stories you have got me thinking – we have two sort of diary / biographies in the family – one of my Grandmother which was written by an Aunt and serialised on Radio Leeds many many years ago. And the other that surfaced only recently – written by an Uncle who I never met and talking of the times when he lived in Czechoslovakia, France, Algeria, Spain and Chile.

    Both of these would lend themselves to being serialised and I think would be appreciated by family members if not wider – so I need to think more about this! Thank you

  5. Thank you Marion. I always open an email from you with great expectations and wow, I’m never disappointed!
    Your mother’s and then your father’s stories were totally engaging….maybe in part because so much of it was so familiar. I look forward to reading both your book and your blog.
    Keep going, you are an inspiration, especially in this time of confusion.

  6. Hi Marion

    Lovely to hear from you again. Have been reading an enormous amount – with a real book in my hands!. Am looking forward to your new one. Hope you and your family are all well and able to spend time together very soon.
    Sending love

  7. Dear Marion,

    Lovely to read this and look forward to your new book. I think used to read a lot of fiction but recently find real lives are so riveting, so am reading lots of legacy and memoir writing.
    Wonderful wide world feeling from this, thank you so much

  8. So lovely to read this Marion. Full of creative ideas, as ever- which you then translate into reality! Always an inspiration. Love from Singapore xx

  9. Hi Marion. Thank you for including me in your email list. Looking forward to reading your latest book. I really enjoyed ‘If you can walk, you can dance’. Well done for all your achievements. What a wonderful gift you have with words.

  10. Hi Marion,

    It was so nice to share your journey in the email and look forward to holding your new book. l only wish l documented as much as my mother, father and grandparents lives if only to pass on. Looking forward to more blogs and lockdown has been strange for us all. Reading a book was hard for me but happy to be getting inspired again by you. Keep writing keep safe. Louisina (Bonnie Scotland) x

  11. Dear Marion,
    Thank you so much for including me in your list of persons to receive your blog . I agree that real people are fascinating and everyday life descriptions worth litteratur. E-books are foreign to me, paper is my medium.
    I should love to follow your blog.

  12. Thanks, Marion, for letting us know about the revival of your blog – great that you caught the bus this time before it left you. We love reading your books and blogs. Reading blogs online is fine, as long as they are reasonably short – and ideal for a serial story. But there is nothing like curling up with a genuine book (especially of yours!) and settling in to read – such a blissful feeling of Gemütlichkeit and expectation. We will make sure to order “Journeys without a map” so that we can finally read it (we did buy the e-book but never downloaded it!).

  13. A book to look forward to! I am currently struggling with my memoirs so it helps to know there can be light at the end of the tunnel?
    Good to know the blog is back!

  14. Really interesting to read your blog, Marion. The best of luck with your book full of other people’s lives! Sounds great!

  15. Thank you for this Marion – your commitment and dedication to writing are inspiring. I loved Journeys Without Maps and look forward to having a real live (sort of!) copy in my hands.

  16. I’m delighted it is coming out as a book as I loved reading it in draft form. I wonder if it has changed since then? It filled out gaps in my many conversations with you about your life and your writing. Inspiring.
    And I look forward to more blogs. I think at our age we are all delving into our pasts and discovering wonderful , as well as challenging, things. As you say we must remember too that our children will become increasingly curious about us so the project carries on

  17. I admire your energy and courage to continue writing. I look forward to reading your new book when it comes out. I too like to feel a book in my hands and also my knowledge in technology is not very good!

  18. Thankyou Marion. I too appreciated the Persian quote (14th Century – Wow!).

    It appears that I am in a minority in actually liking e-books – so much lighter to hold to read in bed, and I have to say mine hurts my nose less than a heavy book falling on it when I fall asleep before putting it down! But oddly, when I read poetry, that has to be in a ‘real’ book with real paper!

  19. Hi Marion,

    Lovely to hear from you and glad that you are reviving the blog. And glad that your email reached me this time as the previous one did not.

    Looking forward to your next book – the paperback!! – in June.

  20. Thank you, Marion. You write with such clarity and directness. I really look forward to seeing Journeys Without a Map: A Writer’s Life.
    Great title by the way & a perfect description.
    I’ve read quite a few e-books during lockdown but there’s something missing for me. I miss seeing the physical book waiting for me. I miss being able to flick back and forth and I particularly miss knowing where I am in the arc of the story. Can’t remember where I read about the weight of pages passing from right hand to left as we read, but I think that’s what I miss most of all.

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