Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Florence, Fiction and Historical Fact


On Saturday evening, a little after five, I walked down through the streets of Florence to the Ponte Santa Trinità. Indian summer blasted over the terracotta rooftops, the sun’s last apricity sending crowds out to bask along the Lungarno, to loll on parapet walls. I made my way over the serene cobbled curve of the bridge and along the via Maggio. There, at number 16, in a discrete palazzo that once belonged to the Machiavelli family, stands the English Church in Florence, St Mark’s. It was where the hero of my novel, In Love and War, took refuge as first Fascism, then Nazism, drew their pall over the city. It was here, from the ‘30s to his death in the mid-‘60s, that Frederick Bailey, who features in my book, was chaplain. He was also a secret agent.

I’d been invited to St Mark’s, for many years the centre of Florence’s English ex-pat community, to speak about In Love and War and to open an exhibition celebrating the book. In the upstairs salone, arranged alongside other objects and artefacts of the time, there was the church register for the 1940’s, with Frederick Bailey’s scrawl noting the numbers in church one fateful day in 1941, the collection for that morning’s service, and then, chillingly, “Chaplain Rev FJ Bailey arrested & sent to Concentration Camp.”


The exhibition, put together by archivist Penny Mittler, also contained a photograph of Bailey, newly come to light. He looks softer and more sinister than I’d imagined him and I’m rather glad that I hadn’t seen it when I wrote the novel. This got me thinking about the intersection of fact and fiction in historical novels, and how often it’s what we don’t know that is the engine of narrative, the imagination going in to illuminate the darkness, to fill out the missing spaces.


In Love and War came about through the work of admirable women. Penny Mittler and I had lunch at the Midland Hotel in Manchester in August, 2011, when she told me about Frederick Bailey, about the British involvement in the Florentine resistance. I’d been working away at the novel for a few months by this time, but it was Penny who lit the fuse of my imagination. Then Alyson Price, archivist at the British Institute in Florence, guided me through the Institute’s extraordinary collection of manuscripts and historical documents. I felt like I’d been handed my hero, a foppish Englishman, and his mentor, a dashing spy-priest, fully-formed, already living and breathing on the page.

The most admirable and inspirational women, though, were the heroines of the Florentine resistance whose courage in the face of extraordinary danger struck me again and again as I trawled through documents of the time. Young women like Tosca Buccarelli, Anna Marie Enriques Agnoletti, Andreina Morandi-Michelozzi carried out daring raids, assassination attempts, acts of sabotage under the noses of the Nazi occupation. The stories I came upon were so rich, so astonishing in their against-the-odds heroism, that I almost decided to put away thoughts of a novel and write a factual account of the city’s fight against first the Fascists, then the Nazis. Then I remembered that the novel is the best vehicle we possess into history, into the lives and minds of other humans, that fiction tells a deeper truth than dry historical fact. I took those factual stories and I wove my novel around them, with my fictional hero the envoy of the reader into this world of daring raids and looted art and dashing spies.


I spoke at the Small Wonder festival at Charleston in Sussex the week before coming to Florence. A member of the audience there asked me why there wasn’t an author’s note at the beginning explaining that so much of the novel is based upon actual historical events. I may indeed place one in the paperback edition of the book, but it seemed important to me, and part of the novel’s project, that it oughtn’t to differentiate between what actually happened, and what might have happened, should a young man like Esmond Lowndes have found himself in wartime Florence. My greatest challenge in writing In Love and War was to give those relatively few sections of the book that are purely invented the same note of authoritative authenticity as those I’d lifted from Florence’s rich history.


On Saturday night, as dusk fell over the city, a large audience filed into the womb-like interior of St Mark’s. I read a passage in the book in which Esmond and his lover, Ada, make exactly the trip I’d just made, across the Ponte Santa Trinità and into the church. I then spoke about Tosca Buccarelli and her attempt to assassinate the villainous head of the Florentine secret police, Mario Carità, and how I’d taken the web of different, often contradictory stories about her capture in February of 1944 (although some sources claim it was in July) and knitted them into a single narrative, and how I’d placed Esmond inside that heroic moment outside the Caffè Paszkowski. I was joined for the end of the talk by Neil Gower, who designed the extraordinary maps and illustrations that do so much to bring the world of the novel to life.


Afterwards, we swilled negronis in the very room that Esmond inhabits in the book, a teeming crowd of expat Brits, local Italians, American tourists and scores of others drinking and talking and admiring the exhibition until well into the night.


It was a magical moment – to stand there and breathe Esmond’s air, the most moving and spine-tingling of my writing career so far. I felt I was standing where I wanted the book to stand, between the present and the past, between fiction and historical fact.

St Mark's

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Letter to A Young Writer

In July, 2014, just after the publication of In Love and War, I was asked to speak to students on the Creative Writing Master’s programme at Oxford University. I read them a letter that I wrote to my younger self. Here it is, with a few illustrative pics.


Dear Alex,

I’m writing this in July 2014, which must seem impossibly distant to you back there in 2009. You’re standing, thunderstruck, in front of Faber & Faber’s old offices in Queen’s Square (they’ll be moving to Great Russell Street in early 2010). You’ve just had a meeting with your – and this is the first time you’ve thought of him as such – editor, Walter Donohue. Pinned to the wall of his office is a facsimile of T.S. Eliot’s note on Ted Hughes’s ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ – “I’m inclined to think we ought to take this man now.”


Well, Alex, Faber are taking you now, taking your first novel, This Bleeding City. Details will be thrashed out with your agent later, an advance agreed, some edits suggested. But in this moment, as you stand in the Bloomsbury sunshine, it is enough to know that you’re to be published, and by Faber & Faber no less. As a Faber author will put it to you later, those ffs are a hell of a monogram to have on your cufflinks.

Alas, Alex, that buzz will fade, and there’ll be disappointments ahead (as well as great joy). As an author you’ll leap from one rock of good news to the next, but there’ll be periods when the ground opens up beneath, and you feel like you’re windmilling your legs, Wile E Coyote style, over a gaping abyss. That’s why I’m sending this letter back from the future, with some words of advice and cautionary tales about the peaks and pits of the writer’s life. If it’s of help to you, and any others that might be listening in across the years, then maybe all those white nights of panic, the worrying and the heart-ache, will have been worthwhile.

To start off, some advice for the most important part of all, the writing. There’s a lot of guff talked about how to sell books, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Twitter or not, whether you’re a networking genius, whether you look like George Clooney or something from Hieronymus Bosch – write a good book and success will come. So here are my top writing tips:

1)                      Don’t make a fetish of your writing. Don’t say you can only write with quill on vellum, or only in a suite at the Waldorf or in the turret of a twelfth century castle in Murcia or Mercia. Write whenever you can, wherever you can, because the more you write, the better you’ll get.

2)                      I’ll say some more about the Internet later, but as far as this part goes, the Web is your enemy. Freedom will be the best $10 you ever spend. It blocks access to the internet for a predetermined time (you could also, like Jonathan Franzen, gouge out the ethernet port on your computer with a screwdriver). I do chunks of an hour and forty-five minutes hard writing, and then allow myself fifteen minutes to vegetate in the shallows of Buzzfeed and Facebook.

3)                      Don’t try to be too clever. Don’t put ideas before plot. Don’t be tricked by the avant garde. Georges Perec, Roberto Bolaño and Lydia Davis are still telling ripping yarns, they’re still giving us the traditional satisfactions of storytelling, they’re just finding new vehicles for those satisfactions. Read Laurent Binet’s wonderful HHhH, which will be published a year from now in French. He serves his avant garde cake with lashings of plot, tension and all of the traditional trappings of the novel.

4)                      What are these traditional satisfactions we looks for? Above all, plot, which is character, as Fitzgerald tells us. Give us vivid, sharply-drawn characters who, put under pressure by the events of your story, change in ways that tell us something profound about what it is to be human. The American novelist John Barthes put it like this: the fundamental question the reader of a novel asks is not, as we might suppose, what happens next, but rather the more fundamental question, “Who am I?”

5)                      Place. Describe the world of your novel clearly and carefully, picking significant details and rendering them in ways that make us see them with clear, fresh eyes. Remember what Richard Russo said: that it’s one of the essential writerly paradoxes that the more intimately and particularly you describe a place, the more universal it will seem to the reader.

6)                      Finally, and most importantly, give credit to the intelligence of your readers. They’re smarter than you think, and if you give them a good book, they’ll do a lot of your work for you. “Show don’t tell” is a subset of this, but it’s a much broader point. Not only do readers not want the writer to do all of the thinking for them, to tell them what to think and feel – Stanley Kubrick described this kind of writing as like going to a dinner party where the host chews up the food for you and regurgitates it into your mouth; more than this, though, one of the real pleasures of reading is to make imaginative and intellectual leaps into the narrative, to flesh out the world of a novel with material from our own minds, our own lives. When we do this, we are making an investment in the novel, an investment that pays dividends.

But let’s go back to you, Alex, standing there in 2009. You’ve already made some serious choices about your career. And that’s a big one there – the fact that you’re calling it a career. I don’t only mean that in a couple of months, once you’re clear that this really is happening, and not just a beautiful dream, you’ll hand in your notice at the job which, let’s be honest, you were never really cut out for. I mean also that extraordinary things happen once you respond to the question “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” One of the most difficult things in this new world will be taking yourself seriously as a writer, and persuading other to do so. Even now, five years on, there will be people around you who want to treat your writing as a kind of glorified hobby. So do tell people that you’re a writer, and let the people you care about know how important it is to you.

So, Alex, now you’ve quit the job, and you’re sitting at your desk with the rest of your life stretching bleakly ahead of you, how is it that you’re supposed to earn a living again? Faber will end up paying you a decent advance, but it’ll be paid in instalments – some now, some when you deliver the final manuscript, the rest on publication. And after 15% to your agent and a slug on tax, it suddenly won’t look like much.

The average salary for professional writers in 2013 was just over £25,000. This mean is skewed upwards by the JK Rowlings of this world; the median is perhaps the more accurate figure: £11,000. Still sure you want to quit that job? And what about your chances of earning that advance back, of seeing actual royalties? Even when this does happen, the royalty cheques that come in subsequently will hardly keep the wolf from the door. You’ll earn around 75p from every paperback sold, meaning you’ll need to shift thousands, even tens of thousands, to make a decent living.

Now, Alex, you have a baby boy back there in 2009, and a little girl will be born in 2010 (in fact, you’ll go straight from the launch party of This Bleeding City to the labour ward).



You have mouths to feed, and so you need to get used to the idea that you’ll need to do something other than just writing novels in order to make ends meet. You’ll need to have – oh ugly phrase! – a portfolio career. But don’t lose track of the novels. They are the most important thing, and anything else you do must be subservient to the books.

In the end, the sidelines that work for you, that feed rather than frustrate your novel writing, are teaching (first English Literature, then Creative Writing) and journalism. Book reviewing will be a struggle to start off with (and you’ll look with no little shame at some of the early attempts). Just remember Updike’s rules for reviewing: “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast… The communion between a reviewer and his public is based on the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should bend towards that end.”

Mainly, with journalism, just say yes. If it seems like a tough assignment, and you’re not sure you’ll be up to it, that’s good: it’ll make you a better writer. Saying yes will lead to bottlenecks when deadlines pile up until you have to work all night, and it feels like you’re back at Oxford eating spoonfuls of sugar at 4 a.m. to fight your way through an essay crisis. Always remember, these weeks of hard slog are better than the weeks when you don’t earn anything, and you wonder whether the world has forgotten you, and you’re only bailed out by a surprise royalty cheque from Slovakia. God bless the good people of Slovakia, who will take to your work with inexplicable enthusiasm.


Be deeply suspicious of people who ask you to write for free. Not only because you wouldn’t you ask your plumber to fix your loo in exchange for an Amazon review, but also because the world needs reminding that words have value.

I said earlier that in order to sell a lot of books, you’ll need to write a good book. Well let’s say you’ve done that Alex. Here in 2014, you’re feeling not entirely disappointed with your third effort. You’ll still need to get out there, to plunge into the grubby world of promotion, to tour the bookshops and speak at every literary festival that’ll have you. And make sure you stay on top of all this. Early on in your career, Alex, you can’t afford to leave it to agents and publicists (great though they are). No one will care about your book as much as you do.


Publishers’ nights are spent dreaming of one thing: the word of mouth success. It’s what Robert McCrum calls the Holy Grail of book publishing, the novel that spreads like a virulent disease, pushed from one friend to the next, leaping like ebola from book group to book group. It’s tantalising for publishers precisely because the science of word of mouth successes is so inexact. It’s striking that McCrum illustrated his article on the subject with reference to James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, whose sales were underwhelming. But know this: to even have a chance of taking off, people have got to read your book. So get out there and sell yourself and your novel. Get on Twitter, set up a Facebook page for your book, engage with readers on Goodreads. Be apologetic in the emails you send to friends begging them to buy your book, to press it on their friends and colleagues, but send them all the same.

And if this all sounds disenchanting and sordid and commercial, what Hopkins called “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” then go back and work in a bank, and have writing as a hobby, a writing career as another might-have-been.

A few final thoughts before I go, Alex. Don’t read your reviews. And because I know you won’t follow that advice, then read all of them (your publicist will only send you the good ones). And when there’s a bad review, try to learn from it, work out why the book didn’t engage the reviewer and next time, do better. And when there’s one real stinker, and it gets personal, name a grotesque paedophile in your next novel after the reviewer.

If and when you find some sort of success, don’t forget how hard it has been (and continues to be). Be generous to other writers. Give of your time and experience and remember how you were helped (and will continue to be). Be a mentor, offer blurbs to books you believe in, be honest, but be kind.

Finally, and this is a lesson you will learn – painfully – over the dark winter months at the end of 2013, push yourself harder and further than you ever thought possible, both in the effort you put into your writing, in your use of language, in the depths you plumb in your  heart. You won’t get all that many chances, Alex, so make this one count.

Oh, one last thing, that Evening Standard photoshoot you’ll do in 2011? Just say no. You’ll look like a chubby undertaker in tight leather pants.

Book Clubbers

Good luck!

Lots of love,

Your future self,

Alex xx.

P.S. To show you’ve been listening, post a link to your new book at the end of this letter, and urge people to buy it. It’s far and away the best thing you’ve written.

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Stoner by John Williams


I’m occasionally accused of being too enthusiastic about books on Twitter. Firstly, I think it’s an peppy medium, feeding upon shared pleasures, the web that the love of a good book can knit between people. Secondly, I’ve been on a good run recently. 2013 was the year I discovered Shirley Hazzard, whose novels (particularly The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire) I loved so much I named my kitten after her. World, meet Shirley Hazzard.


I also read great new books by Evie Wyld, Richard Ford, Laurent Binet, David Leavitt and Kate Atkinson, wonderful older books by J.L. Carr, Natalia Ginzberg and Katharine Burdekin. I hit one of those purple patches where every book you read opens up into another, and all of them glitter.

I rarely write about books I dislike. On occasion, it has seemed like a public duty to let the world know of a real stinker, but usually if I get sent something I don’t enjoy, it is slipped quietly round the corner to the pile outside Kensal Rise Library.

Laura Hassan, the editor at Vintage (now at Guardian Faber) who rediscovered and republished Stoner last year, is one of my favourite people. We’ve known each other forever: she introduced me to Richard Yates, William Maxwell, Lydia Davis, John Jeremiah Sullivan. She even named my first novel over a boozy dinner some time in 2008. Before Laura, This Bleeding City was called After the Crash.

I was prompted to write this when Stoner won the Waterstones Book of the Year Award.  There were – as I’ve said above – some stunners out in 2013, and it pains me that a novel as colourless, as disheartening, as soulless as Stoner should be held up as the year’s best.

Then Julian Barnes wrote a (for him) gushing piece in the Guardian, calling it “the must-read novel of 2013.”


I don’t mind depressing novels. My all-time favourites, from The Brothers Karamazov through Life and Fate to the aforementioned The Transit of Venus are hardly slapstick. But there is something unutterably drab in the gloom that mires Stoner, something so hope-sapping about the smallness of William Stoner’s life, the narrowness of his dreams. I was reminded of  Barnes’s Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, with its dreary and defeated narrator. No wonder he enjoyed it so much.  Stoner gives you the breadth of a life but, rather than making you feel the variety, the richness, the peaks and troughs of that life, we get nothing but failure after miserable failure. We don’t even get an Ivan Ilych-style redemption in death. William Stoner is as bad at dying as he is at living.

I’m not saying I need every novel to fizz with magical realist fireworks, or to lift me up on some sublime cloud. But the blurb on the back – from the New York Times – tells me that “Stoner will take my breath away.” It didn’t. It didn’t make me care about the characters, who are one-dimensional stereotypes, seen only from the outside and seemingly lacking coherent motivation; it didn’t make me shiver at a perfectly-turned sentence, the way Hollinghurst can or Lorrie Moore or Henry James; it didn’t make me marvel at the depth of imagination, the brightness of the fictional world, the way Rushdie can, or Borges or David Foster Wallace; it didn’t describe nature, or towns, or politics or sex in a way that made me see something new, or alive, or as if for the first time. Instead, we get a small life described in a small, precise way: the dead hand of realism.

Half-way through this dreary novel, we read the following passage, which I think is worth quoting in full:

He had come to that moment in his age when there occurred to him, with increasing intensity, a question of such overwhelming simplicity that he had no means to face it. He found himself wondering if his life were worth the living; if it had ever been. It was a question, he suspected, that came to all men at one time or another; he wondered if it came to them with such impersonal force as it came to him. The question brought with it a sadness, but it was a general sadness which (he thought) had little to do with himself or with his particular fate; he was not even sure that the question sprang from the most immediate and obvious causes, from what his own life had become… He took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge: that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.

Let us look at the style here: dead prose, letters stacked like bones in a crypt. The repetition, the cumbersome sentence structure, the snag that makes us feel as if we are gargling as we read it. Those semi-colons! Yes, this is supposed to be the close-third person voice of a sad and defeated little man, but a man who has studied the canon, who knows his Shakespeare. I have seen the novel praised for its simplicity, and I can see this, but simplicity works when it illuminates, stripping away the baggage, rather than being merely empty.

From the start, William Stoner is a distant, passionless type, unwilling and unable to enter into intimate relationships, to take his place in the social world (a comment on class? Probably, but not new, or particularly interesting). Because of this, we get passages like the one above, where feeling is described as if from a great distance, with no sense of immediacy or energy (it’s important to note that it is “general sadness” – nothing specific or distinctive about it and that his revelation hits him with “impersonal force”). And what adolescent philosophical musings – surely a professor of literature, a professor who we presume has read his Tolstoy and his Eliot, would have a richer vocabulary of sorrow than this pap.

With each of Stoner’s defeats, he backs further and further away from us, his voice becoming more distant, his character less alive on the page. At the start of the novel, I was yelling at him to grow a pair. By the time he lets his wife sacrifice their daughter on the altar of her motiveless malignancy, I’d given up on him entirely. I read through to the end because I wanted to see if, perhaps, as with Richard Ford’s magnificent Canada, there would be something elegiac, a note of quiet redemption in the final passages of the book. There wasn’t.

Other things I hated: Williams’s personification of Edith – a shameful hotchpotch of Victorian stereotypes of the hysterical woman. The way that no women in the novel are given independent lives (or minds) but are rather subject to the whims of their menfolk, destroyed before they are given the chance to breathe. Walker’s disability as an indication of his warped mind seemed cheap and base. I also thought it  strange that Williams doesn’t use Stoner’s teaching of Renaissance literature as a way of delivering some kind of interior life to his character (as Coetzee used Wordsworth and Byron to defrost David Lurie in Disgrace). Stoner’s academic pursuits are kept entirely separate from the blank misery of his life.

In the end, the thing that distressed me most about Stoner was that so many of those I love and admire have enjoyed it. That I have heard it compared to Richard Yates and John Updike and Richard Ford, those other great chroniclers of bourgeois American disappointment. It has been pressed upon me urgently by Laura and others, and I just can’t understand it. The novel helped me identify something that I need in literature that Stoner doesn’t deliver: life in all its hopeful/hopeless bustle. William Stoner’s existence is winnowed away with every passing page until we read, barely two-thirds of the way through, that “he knew, somewhere within the numbness that grew from a small centre of his being, that a part of his life was over, that a part of him was so near death that he could watch the approach almost with calm.” Stoner is dead almost as soon as he is born – this is not a tale of great promise stifled or a high-shot arrow falling fast to earth. This is a middling life of little ambition told in gutless prose. The misogyny (and no, I don’t think that’s too strong a word here), the snagging narrative voice, the sense of perpetually being on the outside of his characters, all of these are symptoms of a wider malaise: Stoner the book reflects the soul of its protagonist and never comes to life on the page.

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