Wednesday, November 28, 2018

To Look for America

"Jo in Wyoming, Painting" Edward Hopper, 1946

[This is a repost of a personal essay that was first posted on February 6, 2013.]

In 1981, I had just moved to London from Scotland to take up my first job after graduating from university. One February day, I went to an Edward Hopper exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank and I found myself standing in front of the picture above. The image was like an electric shock to my hippocampus – suddenly I was once again looking through the eyes of my six-year-old self. For the first years of my life, I’d seen the world from the cave-like interior of a big old American-made car just like the one in Hopper’s painting. That steering wheel planted like a tree in that mahogany dashboard, the window cranks, the couch-like seatback separating me from my parents in front – it was all as familiar as if it were playing on a monitor in my brain instead on a canvas on a wall.
Of course this was before a great big ship, its hull rising sheer from the dockside as we boarded in New York harbor, took me away from everything I’d known. As the Queen Elizabeth I sailed slowly across the vast blank of the Atlantic, it could not have been clearer to me that my old life was gone for good. If the ocean was five whole days wide, how would I ever be able to find my own way home?
So it was not surprising that I took some time to adjust to my new country. The words “uprooted” and “transplanted” were exactly how it felt to be pulled up from the comfortable soil and exposed to a new earth and a new light, with no guarantee I would thrive. Never a particularly nervous child before, I became clingy and wouldn’t let my mother out of my sight. I started sleep-walking and, worst of all I had a recurring dream from which I’d wake screaming in terror.

In the dream, I was in the back seat of that car, my father at the wheel and my mother beside him, when suddenly with no warning at all, they both evaporated, leaving me utterly alone in the car as it continued on its relentless way through time and space.    

But the nightmares faded, and life in rural Scotland became the new reality. Glimpses of America on TV or in photographs would stir something primordial in me – a yellow school bus, a fire hydrant, a billboard along a highway. And then there was music. Simon and Garfunkel singing, “‘Kathy, I'm lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping, ‘I'm empty and aching and I don't know why,’ Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, They've all gone to look for America.” And Joni Mitchell, the eternal traveller, singing, I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel, To shower off the dust, And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust, I dreamed of 747s, Over geometric farms, Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.”

And when I read John Updike’s story collection, Pigeon Feathers, yet more inchoate images surfaced like some deep water fish –

“The windshield wipers beat, and the wonderland lights of the Newark refineries were swollen and broken like bubbles by the raindrops on the side windows. For a dozen seconds a solemn cross of colored stars was suspended stiffly in the upper part of the windshield; an airplane above me was coming in to land.”
Even as I read the passage, I already knew how it felt to be inside that Hopper-like car with the wipers creaking as the rain lashed down on the New Jersey turnpike. I'd already been there.  

And then came the day when I stood in front of that Hopper painting and saw again with the eyes of my American childhood. By that time, I was in my early 20s, and the country had taken on the quality of a myth, rooted in early 1960s Technicolor. A Camelot of the brain, a conglomeration of other people’s visions and stories. I had been back to the US once – a month-long odyssey into my past in New Jersey and Pittsburgh and then onto pastures new in San Francisco – but an idea had seeded within me that I needed to go back for longer.

A few years later, I made it happen. I only planned to stay for a year, but as of last August 2, I have been here for a quarter of a century. Once more, my world was cut in half, and there are times when I think that my bifurcated life has left me permanently wounded, neither here nor there nor anywhere in between. Though I feel at home in both my countries, wherever I am, I’m always homesick for something or someone.

But then another memory surfaces, a very early one, of being with my parents in the parking lot of a roadside diner somewhere in America on a fresh sunny morning. I remember looking up at the diner’s roof and seeing the Stars and Stripes snapping against a blue, blue sky and knew beyond a doubt that there was nothing better in the world than that sense of possibility before you set off on a journey, even when you have no idea of what is ahead of you or when, if ever, you’ll arrive.   

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

From Virginia Woolf’s diary – Richmond, Monday November 11, 1918
“Twenty five minutes ago the guns went off, announcing peace. A siren hooted on the river. They are hooting still. A few people ran to look out of windows. The rooks wheeled round, & [had] for a moment the symbolic look of creatures performing some ceremony, partly of thanksgiving, partly of valediction over the grave. A very cloudy still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east; & that too wearing for a moment a look of something floating, waving, drooping. We looked out of the window; saw the housepainter give one look at the sky & go on with his job; the old man toddling along the street carrying a bag out of which a large loaf protruded, closely followed by his mongrel dog.  So far neither bells nor flags, but the wailing of sirens & intermittent guns.”  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Welcome to my new website! It was designed and built by my talented brother, Andrew Mackintosh (Little Po Design) who – conveniently – does this kind of thing for a living. We’re still fiddling with the details and eventually there will be a brand new blog/newsletter and Midatlantic will become an archive, but, for now, I hope the website will serve as a handy introduction to me and a showcase for my published work with links to all of my stories that are available online along with a gallery of pictures of me reading my stories at various events.

As some of you know, 2018 has been a red letter year for me in terms of writing. In April, I found out to my utter astonishment that I’d won the 2018 Fish Flash Fiction Award with a story called The Chemistry of Living Things. And at the end of October, I was equally thrilled to discover I’d won the October 2018 round of the Bath Flash Fiction Award with a story called Siren

These wins along with other competition placings and journal publications this year have been immensely gratifying after many long years of toil, and these successes feel every bit as good as I'd hoped. But ironically, I’m glad they haven't come till now. I believe I’m a better writer because of my many years of practice and, particularly, these recent years of writing flash fiction. My prose is now tighter and more disciplined in form but looser in terms of vocabulary and image. Sometimes it just takes a person this long to be good enough.  

Many years ago, I was working with a young Korean guy who offered to throw the I Ching for me. It’s an ancient Chinese method of divination based on a text that is around 3,000 years old. He said, “Think of a question you’d really like to be answered and hold it in your mind. Don’t tell me what it is, even after I give you the answer.” So I asked myself the question, “Will I ever have any success as a writer?” He assigned values to three coins and then threw them six separate times until he’d created a hexagram. Having added up the values of the hexagram, he consulted the text and said, “The answer to your question is ‘Yes, but late.’”

I know I still have far to go, but this year has taught me to have faith that, late though this clearly is in my life, the potential is there, and now I have to earn it. So the work goes on - which is ultimately the greatest satisfaction of all. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Waking the Dead

I’ve decided it’s time to bring back my poor neglected blog. The last two years have been a welter of flash fiction writing and novel revisions so Midatlantic’s definitely had to take a back seat, but I’ve really missed it. I still get emails from people around the world about my Tahiti research, which is another task I’ve been neglecting. But then there’s just so much one gal can do in 24 hours and earn a living too!

Anyway, enough guilt. My intention is to check in via Midatlantic more often from now on to share the latest news about what I’ve been reading and writing with you all. In the meantime, here’s an update on what’s been going on since my last post over a year ago.

2017 started with a bang for me when I had a short story, Interstate, longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize. The quality of the other longlisted stories was very high so I was thrilled and gobsmacked to be alongside them. You can read it here.

I had an additional nine flashes published over the course of the year. I am proud to say one of them, The Shape of Things to Come, has been nominated by The Nottingham Review for The Best Small Fictions anthology for 2017. It probably doesn’t stand a chance of making the final cut, but it really is true what they say – it’s an honor just to be nominated! You can read it here. And some of my other published flashes from last year can be read here, here, and here.

My total of publications for 2017 wasn’t as high as in 2016 because I was getting to grips with the revision of this neverending novel of mine, The Virgins of Salem. I had some good news on that front as well when the first chapter of the novel was shortlisted for the Retreat West First Chapter Competition in July. The judge, literary agent Laura Williams, praised the scene setting and vivid description of early 20th century India, which was very encouraging. In historical fiction, it’s always tricky to maintain the necessary accuracy without sounding stilted or cliched. I have struggled to avoid making my protagonist, Celia Mapperley, sound like a plucky young Edwardian girl straight out of Mary Poppins. I see her as much more complex – a young woman trapped in a life where the only escape seems to be marriage to a man she is ambivalent about, while her depressed state makes her passive and too easily influenced by the stronger characters around her. If I can do justice to her complexity, then I think the rest of the novel will work. All 21 chapters are in place and I am slowly working my way through them, with major rewrites where necessary. As God is my witness, it’ll be done by the end of the year. Watch this space!

Thanks for reading - it’s good to be back!     

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Keep calm and carry on - Holland House Library after being bombed in the London Blitz

In early November, I’d just begun revising the difficult first third of my novel and I was looking forward to working for a week with no distractions at a North Carolina beach house. Election day fell during our week away, but I had no expectation that the result would disturb my flow except for my anticipated delight that a woman would finally have been elected President of the United States. Back in 1979 I was elected as the first female Senior President of the Edinburgh University Students Association just one week after Margaret Thatcher had become the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Glass ceilings were being shattered all over the place, but it had taken the US another 37 years to be on the brink of breaking that “highest, hardest glass ceiling” as Hillary Clinton called it.  

You know what happened instead. Because of an anachronistic electoral system, 63 million voters fueled by anger and manipulated by cynical hawkers of falsehoods were able to produce a political bombshell. And the shock brought my novel revision to a screeching halt.

As the many far-reaching implications of the result have become ever clearer, I’ve continued to struggle. I can’t help but wonder what point there is in my scribblings, my imaginary characters in their imaginary story arcs, when the world itself has become an alternative reality?

And it’s not just Trump, it’s Aleppo and Cairo and Istanbul and Berlin. Innocent people blown up in the street. Desperate migrants drowning at sea. Children starving, alone and afraid. How does one maintain empathy and still stay sane? And above all, how does one carry on writing in the face of all this awfulness?

I ask myself what did writers and artists do in the worst times of the 20th century – during the Somme, the rise of fascism in Europe, the firebombing of Dresden, the discovery of the concentration camps? Did they wither on the vine from the sheer horror of the world around them or did they keep their heads bowed over their easels and typewriters? And did anything they produce make any difference to a world gone mad?     

In 1940 even as German bombs dropped in the fields around her Sussex home, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “For the hundredth time I repeat – any idea is more real than any amount of war misery. And [it’s] what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make – this little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff of shot in the cause of freedom.” 

I take comfort from this. Yes, I’ll give money to beleaguered causes and human rights organizations this Christmas, and I’ll wrap up warm and march on Washington the day after the Inauguration, harking back to my activist youth. But mostly I’ll carry on doing what I was “made for,” firing my little whiff of shot into the heart of our nasty brutish world. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Long Time Gone

Oh Midatlantic, how I’ve neglected you! I’d feel ashamed except that I’ve been so productive in other ways this year.

This year the time I used to spend on blogging has given way not only to the writing of flash fictions and short stories but also to submitting them to literary magazines. That process is a million times easier than it used to be in the days before the internet when each manuscript had to be sent out separately complete with a stamped self-addressed envelope. Instead of the need to make lots of trips to the Post Office, these days I can send out all of my submissions online from my desk.

However, it can still be quite time-consuming, especially if you have as many submissions on the go as I usually do. Each magazine has its own strictures about how to format your submission – font types, font sizes, margins, headers, footers, page numbering, you name it. Some want you to put your name and contact details on the document, some don’t. Most want you to include a writer’s bio, but the specified length of the bio varies widely. So you can see that the submission process still requires quite a bit of time and attention.

Having said that, the expenditure of that time has undoubtedly paid off for me. In the past year, I have been lucky enough to have had 12 stories published and a further four accepted and forthcoming. They have been almost evenly split between online and print publications. Many have been very short – flash fictions of only 150 words – but a few have been as long as 5,000 words. Four of my flash fictions have even won prizes (See previous blog posts), and one of my short stories was longlisted (one of 40 chosen from among 2,160 entries) for one of the most prestigious writing contests in the UK, the 2016 Bristol Prize.

So you can see it’s been a very good year!

However, I’ve missed blogging about what I’ve been reading and other cultural experiences and connections so I will attempt to post more here on Midatlantic in the year to come. But first I have a month free to devote to revising my novel, the first in what I hope will be a five-book series called Albion’s Millennium. I’ve carried this story around with me for many years, and the first volume is almost completed but is in major need of radical cutting and a thorough edit to make sure everything that’s in there is needed and germane to the storyline. I worry that I may have forgotten how to write in the longer form, but in my more optimistic moments, I hope that the lessons I’ve learned from this year of writing shorter stories will stand me in good stead with Albion. We shall see.

Wish me luck!