This is my first blog post on my shiny new website. It’s all very exciting for me, and it comes straight after the launch period of my first collection, The Reason for Everything. This is a book which focuses on the lives of ordinary people who, through circumstances or due to their own memories and emotions, often find themselves driven to feel, or do, the most extraordinary of things. It also explores the ways in which people react to what they know – their version of reality and the truth – which may be very different from someone else’s as an outsider looking in.
Relatability and familiarity
Given these themes, ‘writing what you know’ became something that hovered in the background throughout the creation of this collection. In writing terms, not for one minute do I believe that writers should meticulously stick to only writing what they know, or where would be the place of reading and research and the sheer love of discovering things to write about? But I did find that, in all of the stories, somewhere, there’s an essence of something that I know, or have felt, or have experienced (now, there are a few murderers among my cast of characters, and I can categorically state that that’s pure fiction!). Put simply, there’s an empathy with the characters and their circumstances at some level. They are all relatable to me in some way. And I came to understand that, somewhere, there was always a reason for everything that happened to them.
I’m struggling to think of even one story that doesn’t have a personal connection to me in some way. Some are tenuous – ‘Little star’, for instance, is the story of a mother with her small son on Christmas Eve (I won’t spoil it, in case you want to read it), and it came about because I was staring at our Christmas tree, all packed away in the box and in desperate need of being shoved back into the loft. ‘In two minds’ was written using three pictures cut from magazines that I found one Sunday. I was playing Scrabble with the kids and… bingo! A story about two men playing the ultimate game of Scrabble. Similarly, others contain pinpoint observations I’ve made over the years, one way or another. After all, that’s what writers do – soak up characters, costume, settings, snippets of conversations and anything else we can squirrel away for later, which becomes eventually another way of ‘writing what you know’.
However, there are others in which I really have written from a depth of personal experience which has infiltrated the fiction. This is, therefore, the first in a short series of posts about those particular stories and the experiences which shaped the stories in which they occur. Some are comical, some uncomfortable, some heartbreaking, but maybe, just maybe, you might relate to them.
Jeff the travelling fish
To the first experience, then, and this is one I intend to keep light. It tells the story of a fish and its bizarre journey one May weekend in 2015…
My main character in ‘Joy is a bubble’ wins a fish at the fair, and it becomes integral to the story. This fish is, or was, in reality, a goldfish called Jeff.
The fair has always come to my home town during May. I loved it as a child and I can picture every part of it vividly: the painted swirls of colour, the aromas of candyfloss and hot dogs, the bustle and the music. I haven’t lived in that town for almost thirty years, yet I still really miss it.
The other year, while I was visiting my parents with my daughter, we took a trip to the fair. Amid the excitement and the chaos, we found a hook-a-duck stall, where, to my astonishment, one of the prizes you could win was a goldfish. I thought that kind of thing had been outlawed years ago.
My daughter was desperate to have a go, so she did. And what else but promptly won a fish! Without thinking (and, to be honest, to rescue the fish), I said she could have it, and we carried it around the fair in its little plastic tub, went and bought a tank, and… only then did I remember we had come on the train and now we’d got to get a fish home on it, too.
My dad tried to persuade my daughter to put the fish in his pond. Well, she was having none of that. So Jeff was duly named and my mum put him in one of those large cereal tubs (those ones with a lid that opens so you can pour out your cereal), we hid him in a plastic bag, and took him on a train ride.
When we had to change stations, we went to get something to eat. I’ve never been thrown out of a cafe before, but this was a close call due to our extra passenger, until I pointed out that the fish was unlikely to be much of a health hazard at it was unlikely to jump out of the water and into the sandwiches. At which point, the waitress left us alone.
Jeff seemed not to mind the train ride, and was oblivious of the conductor giving us a strange look, although he didn’t question our oddball travelling arrangements. Jeff lived happily in his tank for three years before old age finally got the better of him last year. My daughter came into the room to find him floating one afternoon. She was distraught and insisted he was buried in the garden, deep enough for the cats not to find him.
So… you can see that ’Joy is a bubble’ is grounded in a bit of unexpected reality! The rest of the story just snowballed from the notion that something as small and benign as the sight of a fish can imbue someone with such strong feelings of possession and empathy.
Where can you find the collection?