A Piece of the Mosaic

Thank you to inspirational talent Kimberly Sullivan who lives in Rome and has written ‘In the Shadow of the Apennines’ set in the mountains of Abruzzo. She tagged me in the ‘Be Inspired’ blog hop hosted by ‘Page After Page’:

All of our stories come from somewhere, whether it be a dream, another book, a life event…So, I thought why not give people the chance to talk about their inspirations as well as their stories?

To participate, I should answer 10 questions about my novel and then tag 5 writer’s:

1. What is the name of your book?

‘A Piece of the Mosaic’

2. Where did the idea of your book come from?

It started with a prompt in a creative writing class at the Groucho Club in Soho; the tutor asked us to spend 5 minutes writing about a character. It was the scariest part of the class, that compulsory, time limited plunge into the unknown with others furiously scribbling away.

Paralysed, I had a vision of the back of a young man standing on a pier smoking a cigarette, gazing out to sea . He was wearing black trousers and a black leather jacket, observed by two schoolgirls giggling on a bench. After the class finished, I could not get that man out of my head.

3. In what genre would you classify your book?

I hate labels, I hope this book crosses as many genres as possible, but if I had to guess I would say it is contemporary, cross cultural fiction.

4. If you had to pick actors to play your characters in a movie rendition, who would you choose?

I don’t know any current Italian actors, so I would suggest a young man of Mediterranean origin to play Alfredo and because this question is too hard, I’m going to adapt it and say I dream of music composed by Ennio Morricone and the film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore director of Cinema Paradiso and Ba’aria. Authentic it must be.

5. Provide a brief synopsis.

Alfredo’s home village – Liguria

Angry with his father after his mother’s death, young Italian chef Alfredo, abandons the fishing village he has lived in all his life and travels to England, eventually finding a job in the seaside town on the South Coast. In return for low rent, he agrees to an unorthodox request from his spinster landlady Claudette, to help her find the sister she has not seen for 30 years since she and her husband immigrated to New Zealand.

Alfredo discovers more than a long-lost sister and the search soon becomes his own, to find Claudette’s niece Amber; the journey leading him towards everything he has tried to avoid in order to learn the truth.

6. Is your book already published/represented?

The synopsis and first three chapters have been read by 3 agents in London, with encouraging responses but declining representation and the full manuscript was requested by the fiction editor at Penguin NZ, who enjoyed it and suggested I seek representation in the UK.

 In order to establish some credibility with my writing, I decided to write a blog before I send it out again, so here I am blogging away, sharing my passion for the written word.

7. How long did it take you to write your book?

The actual writing part probably took about a year, but I wrote it in two bursts, the first half when I lived in London and on a whim travelled to Liguria to spend a week in a fishing village imagining and writing of lives other than my own.

I finished it in the first six months of arriving in France unable to speak French – the best excuse in the world not to have a proper job and to finish a first novel.

8. What other books within your genre would you compare it to? Or readers of which books would enjoy yours?

There are many books about people from the English-speaking world going to live in a non-English speaking country, both fiction and non-fiction, Alfredo isn’t leaving to see the world, he is escaping.  It is a story that questions identity and confronts issues of adoption and family.

I think it will appeal to people who like books that take them to places they dream of visiting and that introduce them to issues from different cultural perspectives, if anyone has any suggestions as to any other book this sounds like, let me know.

9. Which authors inspired you to write this book?

Two authors come to mind immediately, ironically Stephen King influenced this book, because I read his excellent slim masterpiece ‘On Writing’ midway through writing.  After reading it I changed a few things, I stopped writing longhand, I set a 1000 words/day word count (his is 2,000 words/day) and I stopped editing as I was writing, I just wrote it out until the end – terrified it would be crap, but discovered how to create pace.

The other author who spent some time residing in my subconscious was Italo Calvino, it took me a while to figure out what he wanted; now I know – but it’s a secret.

10. Tell us anything that might pique interest in your book?

Here are two extracts that survived that very first writing exercise, sitting in the Groucho Club in London, searching the recesses of my mind for inspiration.

Looking out over the swollen sea, Alfredo smiled knowingly at how her moods changed, one moment bright and sparkling in her refinery, phosphorescence glittering like sequins in the moonlight, the next as she was now, irascible, dark and brooding, like a young lover scorned, beauty transformed into bitterness. He watched a fish jump momentarily from her clutch, as if trying to escape her volatile and uncompromising mood, then witnessed the force of gravity, the sea’s ever-trusting accomplice, toss the cold-blooded vertebrae back into the maelstrom from which it had tried valiantly to escape.

He threw his half-finished cigarette into the sea and she hissed at him in reply. He had never been a regular smoker in Italy and wished he could kick the habit, cigarettes had become a comfort since he came to England, he liked to roll them as much as he liked to smoke them, it gave his hands something to do when his mind was restless. Thoughts extinguished, he walked down the length of the pier, eyes front, not looking at two giggling teenage girls to his right but sensing their eyes following his footsteps, over the wooden planks, where if one’s gaze was concentrated enough, you could see the pregnant swell of the waves below, as the tidal ebb carried them to and from the shore.

And now to tag 5 writers, all of whom are an inspiration to me:

  1. Brenda Moguez – Passionate Pursuits
    – Brenda is a prolific, unique and inspirational blogger with a rich family and personal history to draw on, not to mention a gigantic imagination, it’s just a matter of time before we will be reading her novel, now doing the rounds of agents.
  2. Juliet GreenwoodJulietGreenwoodAuthor – Juliet lives in a traditional Welsh cottage between the romantic Isle of Anglesey and the majestic mountains and ruined castles of Snowdonia, she is living the dream, a published writer and avid gardener; she is an inspiration.
  3. Patricia SandsEveryone Has a Story to Tell
    – Patricia has published a book about friendship, fun and the complexities of relationships among women, drawing inspiration from her own experiences. Every Friday she blogs about France and her current WIP (work in progress) is set here.
  4. Julie Christine Chalk the Sun
    – Julie is a Francophile, she is a reading writer, travels often and writes a fantastic book review. Just waiting for her to plunge right into writing that novel, a WWII star-crossed romance between a young French girl and a German POW, inspired by true events.
  5. Jen ThompsonChronicles of Jen
    – Jen is another writer who loves to read and shares her thoughts when she does, she’s a talented writer, lives in a caravan and is out there observing characters and seeking inspiration while serving hotdogs and popcorn. She may not be able to participate because her idea is so great, someone might steal it J
  6. Nelle NelleWritesI’m going to add one more, because I couldn’t have a list of writers without including Nelle, who not only is a great writer, but is a loyal follower and comments on all my reviews, even though her book budget is severely restricted.

If on a winter’s night a traveller

If you have never read Italo Calvino this may be a misleading book to start with, it’s certainly not reminiscent of his short stories and I believe it is unlike his other novels, but it has a kind of cult status in that it is was an original and much talked about experimental work.

‘If on a winter’s night a traveller’ starts out as a conversation, Calvino entering and leaving the exchange within the pages of his novel in an unpredictable fashion. This is not a book to lie back and lazily escape into, it requires your attention and concentration to stay with where you are at and to understand what is going on and then just as you are spirited away by his seductive prose and enjoying the ride into the depths of one of his stories, you turn the page and Monsieur Calvino is back.

I enjoyed the diversions, although I was disappointed that he was unable to find a way to leave the sex of the reader neutral, having been almost convinced he might well be speaking to me, it becomes clear he is speaking to his male readers, political correctness not in full swing in the early 1980’s when this was published. But I readily forgive him, especially when assured by Lorna Sage, author of the memoir ‘In Bad Blood’ who wrote in the Observer:

‘devastating, wonderfully ingenious parody of all those dreary best-sellers you buy at the airport…It is a “world novel”: take it with you next time you plan to travel in an armchair’

Chapters are interspersed with stories, the titles of which are referenced in each preceding episode, the stories are the beginning of novels and you the protagonist are searching for the rest of the story while listening to Calvino expound on readers, reading, and writing. Best described in an extract from one of the stories themselves, where he writes:

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion…I see something like a forest that extends in all directions and is so thick that it doesn’t allow light to pass…so it is not impossible that the person who follows my story may feel himself a bit cheated, seeing that the stream is dispersed into so many trickles, and that of the essential events only the last echoes and reverberations arrive at him…’

Playful, impossible to label, is it a…, it is a question, a poem, a collection of stories, a novel and a conversation with Italo Calvino. The author imposes himself and his voice within the pages and we as the reader also become involved in the action as Calvino switches into the second person narrative. If I were an academic I would probably be littering this text with a lot of technical terms describing the literary tools Calvino plays with, literature students are likely to come across it, or at least they did in the past, as David Mitchell, author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ reminisces about here, when he rereads it for a second time.

It’s an oeuvre that defies categorisation, which plays with the reader and will entertain some while annoying others, myself I am content that it has now stopped taunting me from the bookshelf, my curiosity sated, it can now be talked about with some knowledge of its interior. That curiosity won’t rest long however, no doubt it will soon find another dusty volume to settle on, another book I haven’t read by that author I have often read about but have yet to enter their imagined world.

Why People Don’t Read Short Stories

Publishers have difficulty persuading readers to buy short story collections.  Many readers love them, but more readers avoid them, preferring the novel.  Why is this?  Fiction writer Tessa Hadley suggests it is because in our culture, readers have grown used to the habit of the novel, we can pick up a novel and put it down time after time, when it opens we re-enter its world, escaping our own for a while.  There’s something discontinuous about our reading relationship with short stories.  At the end of each story we are thrown out of that world created by the chosen words of the author enhanced by our imagination, back into our surroundings without leaving a thread; we then enter another story and begin to build a new picture of characters, place and situations.

Reflecting on this now, I wonder if that is why I liked Alice Hoffman’s ‘Blackbird House’ so much, because of the subtle connection between the stories which kept me wanting to go back for more.  Or was it the writer’s style? I love this book, a unique set of short stories that traces the lives of various occupants of an old Massachusetts house over a span of 200 years, witnessing change in each family through their loved ones and the lives they live inside Blackbird House.

I like reading short stories, especially in between reading novels or other more lengthy works of non-fiction.  There are some short stories in particular that I adore, like the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s ‘The Enchanted Garden’ from his collection of short stories ‘Difficult Loves’.  Giovannino and Serenella discover an opening in a hedge leading them into a quiet garden of flower beds, eucalyptus trees and gravel paths, it’s like a mini version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden, still a favourite today.  And then there’s A.S.Byatt’sStone Woman’ from her ‘Little Black Book of Stories’ the haunting tale of a woman witnessing her own gradual metamorphosis into stone; befriending an Icelandic stone carver she returns to East Iceland, the place that will become her final resting place.

Mini-gateaux, Bechard, Aix en Provence by Maki

For me, an avid reader, short stories are like the contents  of extravagant chocolate boxes or the pick n mix gâteaux at Béchard on the Cours Mirabeau here in Aix en Provence.  When I’m into reading short stories, I don’t just take one collection, I take three or four and then read a story or two from each collection, so I sample more than one writer at a time.

Why do I do this?  Well firstly, because for me short story collections are like ‘1001 Nights’, I don’t want the collections to end, so I slow down the process to savour the stories.  Secondly, I like to sample writers from different countries, so today I might read from Nigerian writer Ben Okri’s collection Stars of the New Curfew’ set in the teeming street of Lagos, or ‘Sandpiper’ Egyptian writer Adhaf Soueif’s collection about women finding themselves in countries other than their own, where language, culture and love create confusion.

The collection I have now remind me that I love to travel through books both to foreign destinations and through the minds of writers from different countries and cultures as well as returning to the familiar vernacular of my country of birth.

In addition to those mentioned I might dip into Elliot Perlman’s (Australian) ‘the reasons I won’t be coming’, Alice Munro’s (Canadian) ‘Friend of my Youth’; Janet Frame’s ‘The Lagoon’, Keri Hulme’s ‘Stonefishand ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ (New Zealand writers), Indian writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘Arranged Marriage’ and Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ or Raymond Carver’s ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ which reminds me I want to read the Japanese writer Haruki Murikami’s ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’. Then there are the slim classics Dubliners’ by James Joyce who needs no introduction and Grace Paley’s ‘The Little Disturbances of Man’.  And I’m happy to say, I’ve almost managed not to finish any of them – except Hoffmann’s ‘Blackbird House’ which reviewers describe as “not quite a novel and not quite a short story collection’ so I guess that one doesn’t count.  And I plan to read it again anyway.

In this time pressed world, one would think that short story collections are poised for a revival; after all, what better antidote for the tired, overworked individual who remembers nostalgically the enjoyment they used to get from a good book – short stories are perfect!

As writer Jonathan Falla said “Good stories are not literary fast food, made on the cheap; they are intense with a flavour that expands to fill the mind.”  The short story allows us in a short space of time to understand and consider momentous things, grand dilemmas.  Short stories pull us into their world and shake us up.

Do you read short stories?  What’s your favourite collection?