Unravelling the Knot of Inherited Memory – Guest Post by Miranda Gold

I have visited two Memorial Sites to the Nazi death camps – Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Both had a profound impact on me. This is as it should be. If we are to learn from history, to prevent a repeat of such atrocities, we must both remember and reflect on how they were allowed to happen.

But what if memory damages the lives of not just those who experienced such evil but also their descendents? In her debut novel, Starlings (which I review here), my guest today, Miranda Gold, writes of a young woman whose life is stymied by her family’s struggle to cope with the effects of the Nazi holocaust. Although a work of fiction it is based on the author’s personal family history. In this guest post she shares with us how fact can inspire fiction, and how memory is often woven from both.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Miranda Gold.

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I was twelve that summer my parents took my brother and me to The Holocaust Memorial Museum. We didn’t need a prologue on the Amtrak from Boston to Washington D.C.; the narrative of my grandfather’s flight from Nazi Germany had underpinned our lives. Though ‘narrative’ is misleading – as though the story was singular and had a tidy, linear arc. Instead there were fragments that assembled themselves into a patchwork, something we’d only begin to see in retrospect, something I’m still trying to understand. I was given snatches sitting by my mother’s bed on the days when she wouldn’t get up – she’d ask me to stay with her, saying she was frightened of being alone. Or, some nights, a sudden burst about her father, the parents he’d left behind, a picture of the stripped bodies and the laughing SS engraved by her stop-start words. It was in the subtext of her threats, her cautions, always flickering beneath the surface like a lizard’s tongue. Yet we made our way to the Holocaust Memorial Museum as though it was just an item on an itinerary – though that should have been warning enough: we had never done itineraries before; holidays meant ice cream, squabbles and swimming costumes. This is what we expected and this is what we’d remember – and it would only be a few days before we’d be doing a relatively good impression of a family still in one piece. We’d get to Cape Cod and share a house with a couple who called each other bunny love and panda cub, who made their children silver dollar pancakes for breakfast and collected jingle shells. We played along for two weeks, never needing to be told what not to say. I always thought my mother behaved impeccably, her fears kept in check, her physical ailments joked off when they couldn’t quite be concealed. I wasn’t only grateful for the pretence, I slipped into it, and no one asked why my mother didn’t come along for bike ride and wouldn’t go in the sea, why we had to wait while my father disentangled himself from her attempts to keep him from coming downstairs – her stomach, her head – he couldn’t leave her, not now. The illusion didn’t crack until the mother of the other family pulled me aside to say, ‘Gee, I guess you’re mom is kinda sick,’ and squeezed my arm, ‘she gets kinda mad too, huh?’

Never forget goes the refrain. But what if the memories you have aren’t your own, handed down, told and retold like an inheritance that could never be spent? It was the silences that hung between the words that kept us listening, both anticipating and dreading what would come next – because something always did come next, it was never over; the telling remained compulsive because the story was never quite told, enclosing us in a terror that drew much of its force from remaining unknown. Perhaps it was this that made me feel, standing outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum under a perfect sky, that my head was being held under water. My mother would hear her father wake himself calling out for his parents; his nightmares became hers, hers became mine. Death never frightened me – but being caught did, it was the waiting that kept me up most nights, sure every sound was the Nazis coming for me. I dusted the nights off in the morning, put on my school uniform, tried to brush out the knots in my hair. Those nights didn’t lunge into daylight until we got to the museum in D.C. I felt the plunge in my stomach and knew I couldn’t go in – the atmosphere I’d grown up in dropped round me like a broken parachute.

My brother, then nine, went round with my father while my mother and I sat on the grass outside. I remember us laughing, her teaching me how to do different American accents – and that was the best version of her I’d ever met; just when we’d both come to the edge of our nightmares and closed our eyes she was suddenly alive. This must have been the woman people would tell me about after she died twenty years later, people whose words I would come to treasure and resent at once, conjuring a woman I’d had glimpses of but never known.

When I first began writing Starlings I did not consciously set out to transcribe my story or my family’s – if I had done, I have failed abysmally. Instead bits of my history crept up on me and on to the page, mixing with the characters I’d met parts of and arranged into being. The question ‘Is it autobiographical?’ seems to me to have little value. Novels, like dreams, play out variations of ourselves, our lives – I know I can’t hide any more than I know I can’t, caught up in my own subjective experience, write about my own experience without slipping into fiction. Tell the truth but tell it slant. Is there really any other way to tell it? The truth often is slant – we are all seeing it from different angles and what catches the light today is rarely what we saw. There is also the more fundamental matter of just getting by, of muddling through moment to moment and then, later, withstanding the threat of memory – both its power and its fragility. Human kind may not be able to bear very much reality – but sometimes our survival depends on our instinct to keep it at a remove. Even as I write this I question how much an inescapable element of self-consciousness makes me stray.

Starlings had perhaps already been written before I’d started it, but I couldn’t know that until I’d found a shape for it six years later. The stories I’d been told had become the backdrop to my life; one I couldn’t see I’d been woven into, only one I could feel as it began to unravel – it couldn’t hold together because the few facts I had were always shifting; the contours of reality continually redrawn like a country carved and re-carved after war. Only fiction seemed to offer a space that might circle the instability of hand-me-down memories, containing without erasing the paradoxes, holding the lacunae, to unlock another kind of truth. Not a truth that could be verified against sources, but one distilled from the fear kept alive from what had been left unsaid.

Spliced with silence, ever shifting, the stories I grew up with had an elusive quality that made their pulse relentless; if they had held still they might have become objects I could have set down. Words have been set down now, though, I hope, not definitively – Sally’s story is not mine, even if it might have grown out of it. Reading and writing can sound the echo of ourselves – but there is also the invitation to go beyond that. Where that’s located is different for each of us, but between the words written and the words read, the strange and the familiar become indistinguishable and that’s when fiction ‘truly’ starts to find its shape.

Starlings may have been written before I’d started it, but it was, nevertheless, a matter of making marks in the void, thinking I’d discovered new territory only to find it was already inhabited.

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Miranda Gold is a writer currently based in London. Before turning her focus to fiction, Miranda took the Soho Theatre Course for young writers, where her play, Lucky Deck, was selected for development and performance. Starlings is currently being adapted for the stage. She is now working on her second novel.

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Starlings will be published by Karnac Books on 1st December 2016

Top 10 western/crime books and films that inspired The Long Count

JM Gulvin

Today I am delighted to be hosting a guest post by JM Gulvin, author of ‘The Long Count’. This book is the first in a new crime series featuring Texas Ranger John Quarrie. I review the book here.

As part of the blog tour, JM has provided a list of his top ten western/crime books and films that inspired The Long Count.

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10) IN THE ELECTRIC MIST WITH CONFEDERATE DEAD

The sixth book in the Dave Robichaux series, but the first James Lee Burke crime novel I read. Set in Louisiana it features the New Iberia detective on the trail of a serial killer, while a Hollywood film about the civil war evokes ghosts of the real dead. Not for everyone but the great thing about James Lee Burke is he’s never bound by what’s expected. He started life as a literary writer and, of course, it shows.

9) HORSEMAN, PASS BY

The book was written by Larry McMurtry, set in Texas in the fifties it deals with a dying ranch and a dying rancher. A tough but sensitive family story about the passing of one generation to the next, it was filmed in black and white as HUD, starring Paul Newman.

8) SHUTTER ISLAND

Perhaps a little far-fetched given one inmate is allowed the run of a mental asylum in 1950’s America, but brilliant just the same. The story of a man who killed his wife, he’s facing a lobotomy only we don’t know that and neither does he. Dennis Lehane wrote the book and Martin Scorsese made the movie.

7) THE HUNTER/POINT BLANK

The book was called THE HUNTER written in 1963 by Donald E. Westlake about a criminal called Walker seeking revenge on a fellow gang member who double crossed then shot him and left him for dead. It was filmed by John Boorman as POINT BLANK and starred Lee Marvin. Both the book and film are perfect examples of neo-noir. The film was remade later as PAYBACK starring Mel Gibson but it’s not a patch on the original.

6) LONESOME DOVE

This is a sprawling novel by Larry McMurtry. He’s a native of Texas and owns a bookshop in the small town of Archer City. It’s an epic western about the first cattle drive from the tiny town of Lonesone Dove, Texas all the way to Montana and features two of the best western characters ever created: Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call of the Texas Rangers. It was filmed for TV starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones.

5) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

This is one of those rare pieces where the book and movie are almost identical. The book is tough, brutal and uncompromising, as is the film. It’s depiction of how Texas was changing in the eighties is brilliant, a local man gets caught in a drugs war and suffers the consequences at the hands of one of the most ruthless assassins ever to grace a page.

Book by Cormac McCarthy – Film by Joel & Ethan Coen

4) THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

The book was written by Ron Hansen and (as with “No Country”) book and film are pretty much the same. Hansen is a hugely underrated and immensely talented writer. The film stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. Affleck’s performance as Bob Ford who shot Jesse James in the back when he was 34 years old, is astounding. One scene is worth the whole movie alone, where a fearful Garret Dellahunt encounters the vengeful Jesse. It reeks of unspoken fear. The voice over from Hugh Ross captures the atmosphere exactly and the cinematography by Roger Deakins is brilliant.

3) LONE STAR

No book only a film. Made in 1996, it’s set in a small town close to the Texas/Mexican border. Three stories all rolled into one, the main thread is the murderous exploits of an old sheriff called Buddy Deeds as discovered by the current sheriff, his son. The ending comes from nowhere and by the time it’s over you feel you’ve witnessed something very special indeed.

2) COOGANS’ BLUFF

A Clint Eastwood classic movie made in 1969 about a deputy sheriff from New Mexico who goes to New York to bring home suspect James Ringerman, only Ringerman gets away. A chase through the city, it’s simple but brilliant fare and if anyone wants to get an idea of how John Q might appear, look no further than this.

1) ALL THE PRETTY HORSES

The first novel I read by Cormac McCarthy. 1930’s Texas and a way of life is dying away. Two young cowboys leave Texas and go in search of that same life south of the border in Mexico. John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins, they cross the Rio Grande on horseback and what follows is a spectacular adventure, both beautiful and brutal. The book put McCarthy on the map at the age of 59. It’s a love story, an adventure, a coming of age; but it’s the sheer quality of the writing that will leave you breathless and wanting more.

They made a film starring Matt Damon but I’d avoid that altogether and just read the book. It’s followed by THE CROSSING which is arguably better but it was reading ALL THE PRETTY HORSES that set me on my way.

LONGCOUNT_blog   The Long Count

The Long Count is published by Faber & Faber and is available to buy now.

Random Musings: The fiction writer

It started with NaNoWriMo. Write a book in a month they said, so I did. It was rough, incomplete in places, and in need of a ruthless edit throughout; but it was a 55,000 word story with a decent enough plot and some interesting characters. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. More to the point, I realised that I loved writing fiction.

That story will never see the light of day, but it served its purpose as my launch pad. I may use some of the ideas, develop a few of the personalities, but I will not attempt to turn it into a book. What winning NaNoWriMo showed me was that I get a buzz from writing fiction, that it is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right.

From there I moved on. From there I started to think about writing stories for others to read.

I had been blogging for about a year and had picked up a following that I was unconvinced would welcome my foray into fiction. I decided to create a new blog for my stories. Inspired by a Bring Me The Horizon song, Can You Feel My Heart, I called it Dreams and Demons. I have learned the hard way over many years that I cannot drown my demons, but my writing now helps me to let them swim alongside.

Having created my fiction blog I wished to find readers. I looked around the internet for sites that publish other’s work and found Tipsy Lit. They liked the story that I submitted for their consideration and my career as a writer of fiction was born. Although a few of my stories have been published on other sites by submission, most have been written for open challenge grids. For several months I took part in the weekly Tipsy Lit Prompted (now sadly no more) and then the Yeah Write Speakeasy. When Yeah Write introduced the Gargleblaster (42 word fiction) I discovered that I enjoyed crafting micro fiction and joined 99fiction.com. My success in all of these has been mixed, but in putting myself out there I have found readers.

The internet is full of advice for writers and I wanted to continue to improve. I enrolled in an on line Creative Writing course where I got my first slap down from a critic who objected to the structure of a story and my use of commas. Despite my best efforts with Google I have never quite grasped the finer details of comma usage. Structure though? My writing style is my own and I had no wish to conform to someone else’s ideal.

I wonder now if that was arrogant of me. The Yeah Write site introduced moderation and my submissions were rejected. I got a note explaining that one had significant grammar issues, the other was rejected without comment. It would seem that the moderator has the same views of my writing as the critic on my course.

Grammar matters and, as a result of this feedback, I have ordered a writer’s handbook recommended by a lovely author friend who runs writing courses for young people so knows her stuff. I will do what I can to overcome my comma usage blindness. In the meantime, the wind has been taken out of my creative sails.

Writing is always going to contain ups and downs, positive comments from some readers and rejection by others. We each come to a piece of writing coloured by our individual experiences, looking for something different.

On line communities ebb and flow. It can be hard to walk away from one that I respect and felt a small part of, but if I am unable to be what they want then I believe it is best to bow out. I find that I can be more honest in my writing than in any other aspect of my life. I do not wish to compromise the therapeutic value of that, even if it would make me appear ‘better’ in some people’s eyes.

How boring it would be if all writers were the same. As a book blogger I am presented with a plethora of works from a wide variety of authors. I do my best to be eclectic in the genres I request to review as I want to be exposed to different writing styles, to appreciate and to learn from them.

Perhaps the biggest issue with my own writing is my sensitivity. My stories are my babies and, when they go out into the world, I want them to be loved. If the cool kids will not accept us then it may not be necessary to radically change, but I suspect we will be happier finding somewhere else to hang out.

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CoolKids

 

 

Not good enough

grammar

Grammar matters. The rules of writing are there for a reason and should be adhered to. Just as with the law, lack of knowledge is not a valid defence. Grammatical errors grate like a nail on a blackboard when encountered by those in the know. By definition, good writing does not contain bad grammar.

I am not an English scholar. My primary degree is in Computer Science, a discipline that also requires attention to detail. Programmers need to be careful, methodical and stick to a strictly defined language and structure. I never was much good at programming.

Where I excelled was in analysis and design. I could come up with ideas and communicate them to the staff who used the systems. I understood that experts speak different languages, and that these differ more radically than just commonly used jargon or acronyms. What one considers intuitive another will need to have explained from first principles. I was a bridge between departments, writing clear proposals that the users could understand and detailed specifications that the programmers could work with. Creating precise documents for others to refer to was a big part of my job.

Where does fiction writing fit into all of this? I have so many ideas for the stories that I create over on my Dreams and Demons blog but am being pulled up on my execution, on my grammar. Readers are kind enough to give me positive feedback on the micro and flash fiction that I write, but under new moderation rules at one of the sites that I submit to it is being rejected for falling foul of language rules.

This site is known for the quality of its writing. If standards are to be maintained then somebody has to weed out the submissions that are not good enough, the participants who have no idea what a comma splice is and who play fast and loose with their comma usage in general. Contributors know from the clearly stated rules that this can happen.

For me it is not about rushing a piece or neglecting to proof read. I read and reread my work until I can barely see the words. I Google the rules and try to understand, run my work through on line grammar checkers in the hope that they can help. Still it seems those pesky errors slip through. My lack of knowledge is no excuse, but I am at a loss as to what to do next.

Do I seek out another fiction site to play at? Do I keep submitting entries in the hope that one week my random scattering of commas will pass muster, that my sentence structure will improve? To those of you who feel irritated that I don’t just go away and learn the rules, I have been trying to do that all my life.

This week I was rejected by the two grids (micro and flash fiction) that I tried to enter. I won’t pretend that this didn’t hurt, although I appreciate why it was done. If you would like to read the submissions that passed muster check out The Speakeasy for flash fiction and yeah write weekly writing challenge for micro-stories and non-fiction. If you read all the entries on a grid then you can vote for your favourites. These writers are good.