Flash Fiction: The Necklace

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The necklace had lived in the velvet box on her Grandmother’s dressing table for as long as Rose could remember. After the funeral her mother lifted it out, the diamonds uncurling languidly, as if she were waking them from a heavy sleep.

‘She wanted you to have it.’ In the dressing-table mirror her mother smiled, eyes filling with tears.

‘I never saw her wear it.’ Rose touched the jewels at her throat.

‘That’s because it wasn’t hers. It was your Grandfather’s.’ Her mother paused. ‘And the sequined dresses, the high heels, the lipstick.’ She smiled again. ‘They loved each other so very much.’

*

This is a 100-word story written as part of the Friday Fictioneers online writing group, run by the wonderful Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Every week many writers around the world write a story inspired by a picture (this week supplied by SantoshWriter). Click here to join in or read other people’s.

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Delighted to let you know that my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, has just been shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction. More information.

Our Endless Numbered Days shortlisted for book prize

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I’m absolutely thrilled that my book, Our Endless Numbered Days has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novels. The shortlist of three (also including A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray, and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey) was decided from a longlist of ten books. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in London on 1st July.

You can read more about the shortlist on the BBC website.

The Letters in the Barn

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I’m a huge fan of the novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. In fact, it could easily be my (current) favourite book ever. And so I’m very excited about the biography of Jackson that Ruth Franklin is writing. Every so often Ruth sends out an email to subscribers about how she’s getting on (you can sign up here), and this week I received an update about Ruth’s search for some of Jackson’s letters. It’s a fascinating story, and I’m sharing it below with Ruth’s permission.

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Last spring, during an ordinary day of research in Shirley Jackson’s archive at the Library of Congress, I came upon a file containing about a dozen long, chatty, intelligent letters from a woman I’ll call Anne. A housewife in Baltimore (my hometown), Anne sent Shirley a fan letter after reading an essay she had written about the Oz books, and an intense correspondence ensued: a letter every month or so for about a year, from December 1959 to January 1961. Shirley rarely saved drafts of her letters, but from Anne’s responses I had a sense of what she must have written: there were stories of family life (both women had four children), recipes, and much talk about books: fantasy and science fiction (Tolkien), poetry (Dylan Thomas), children’s literature (Oz, the Moomintroll series, E. Nesbit). There were also details about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which Shirley began writing around the same time as the correspondence started. Poignantly, Anne wrote of her own struggle to write and her desire to carve out space for herself amid her obligations to her kids and her husband.

I closed the folder knowing that I had to find Shirley’s letters to Anne. Shirley’s diary-keeping was sporadic; with few exceptions, the only substantive letters of hers that still exist are to her parents and touch only briefly on her writing. Letters about her work on Castle, her last completed novel, would be invaluable.

A Google search turned up Anne’s daughter Nora, who responded quickly to my email. Yes, Nora remembered quite well her mother’s correspondence with Shirley Jackson; one of Shirley’s children had even come to visit the family in Baltimore. But Anne had died more than a year earlier, and most of her possessions were carted off in a dumpster.

I was saddened but not surprised. An occupational hazard of women’s biography is that one’s subject tends to correspond with other women — often non-writers whose papers are not preserved. I kicked myself hard for not having come upon Anne’s letters sooner, resolved to interview Nora at some point about her mother’s relationship with Shirley, and put the letters out of my mind.

A week ago, I received a surprise email from Nora. Her mother, it seemed, had owned a country house that would soon be sold. Nora realized that the letters might have been kept there, in an old animal barn. Those words galvanized me. We arranged to meet at the house — a four-hour drive from New York — the following day.

The barn, front view.

The barn was filled with a lifetime’s worth of detritus: old toys, clothing, knickknacks, and box upon box of newspapers, magazines, and letters. We soon were covered in dust and dirt. Mice had chewed through many of the boxes. An afternoon of searching turned up letters from various friends and family members, but nothing from Shirley. Nora had to leave, but I decided to stick around for another day: the barn contained easily a hundred more boxes. Feeling a little like Hercules before the Augean stables, I asked a friend to come and help.

Did I mention that all this was done by flashlight?

By the time she arrived, around noon the next day, I had already spent the morning taking apart the barn, with no luck. My friend wondered what was in the front half of the barn, which I had only glanced at: Nora thought the letters would be in the back. We opened the door to a room strewn with more boxes and old furniture — including a wooden filing cabinet. With some difficulty, we jiggled open the heavy top drawer. My friend reached inside and pulled out one of Shirley’s letters.

The elation we felt is hard to describe. There were definitely tears. After we calmed down, we went through the drawer carefully. Most of the letters were still in their original envelopes, with postmarks — important, because Shirley rarely dated her letters. Many were on her trademark yellow typing paper, which held up amazingly well over the last fifty-plus years. Anne had numbered the envelopes, so we could be sure we had found all the letters. In total, there were fifteen of them, and they are as extraordinary as I imagined them to be.

A small assortment of the letters.

SO WHAT DO THE LETTERS SAY? you ask. Well, for now that will have to wait. Soon, they will go to Shirley’s archive at the Library of Congress, where they belong. But first I plan to enjoy touching them for just a little longer.

It now feels like an anti-climax, but I have an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review about Shirley’s two hilarious household chronicles, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. I also spoke about the books on the NYTBR podcast (my segment begins around 19:00). A few years ago, with my two small children in tow, I went to get Raising Demons from the library. The checkout clerk peered over the desk at my children. “Is it a how-to manual?” he quipped.
Wishing you a week of happy surprises and discoveries,
Ruth

Flash Fiction: A Bucket of Ice

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This week for Friday Fictioneers (the 100-word flash fiction group) we have something slightly different. Because our trusty leader, Rochelle, is busy getting her books published, we’re revisiting a photo prompt from July 2012. Then I was right in the middle of writing my first novel without any idea that it would one day actually be published by Penguin and several other publishers around the world. I used many of these picture prompts to write scenes, some of which actually made it in (although slightly altered) and this was one of them.

So firstly, here is the original flash fiction piece I wrote inspired by the photo above in July 2012:

“A winter like this I have not known since I was a child in Germany,” said my mother, her mouth still full of z’s and v’s even after all these years. She shivered and took her gin and tonic back inside.

Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick ice that had risen like a soufflé out of the garden bucket. Its tap dripped an icicle.

“Would you like some ice with that madam?” he laughed. Oskar turned the handle, twisting hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off.

I cried – for the cold, for the homesickness, but mostly for the waste of a bucket.

 

And here is the scene that made it into the book:

Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognized it; it was the bucket my father and I had used, with a tap attached to the bottom so we could brush our teeth with running water. In the frozen garden the tap dripped an icicle.

‘Would madam like something to drink?’ Oskar laughed and turned the handle, twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too, with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of bucket.

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To write your own 100-word piece click here, or to read other people’s click here. The picture this week was supplied by Madison Woods.

And I’m excited to let you know that Our Endless Numbered Days has just been released as audio book. You can buy it at Audible.com or Audible.co.uk

Novel Naming*

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I’m currently revising my second book. Like my first, it’s had many working titles, but finding one that will stick seems to be harder this time around. I’m a bit of a title collector** and keep a running list on my laptop of existing book titles I like, alongside a constantly shifting list of possible titles for what I’m writing.

The title of my first book, Our Endless Numbered Days came from an album by Iron & Wine. I listened continually to his music as I wrote – all the 100 songs I own – and the title slipped into my subconscious one day and was perfect. I like the way it rolls off the tongue in its lovely oxymoronic way. I was very lucky because the title I chose has stayed with the book for the English speaking countries it has been published in.

According Juliet Annan, my Editor at Fig Tree (Penguin) about 60% of her books keep the title they are submitted with. But of course, even these might not be the author’s choice – sometimes agents are unhappy with the original title and the name gets changed even before the manuscript reaches the publisher.

Jo Bloom, author of Ridley Road had The Meetings as the original title of her novel: “At my initial meeting with my agent before I signed with her, she talked through what changes she felt the manuscript needed. She also said she didn’t think the title worked. I wasn’t welded to it so I agreed to change it but didn’t come up with another until just before submission to publishers. I had a long list of terrible, potential titles and it came out of that. It was a collaborative decision and a good one. It works on lots of levels.”

The thing that really does amaze me is when writers say their title came before the story or the characters. How wonderful to be able to create something as big and complex as a novel from a few words, and then be able to keep them right through to publication. Iona Grey, author of the recently published Letters to the Lost, says, “My title was actually the first thing I came up with and sparked the idea for the book, which was written around it. Luckily my agent and publisher liked it and didn’t want to change it, so we were all in happy agreement.”

If a writer loves the title they’ve come up with and thinks it’s perfect, I imagine it can be very hard if their publisher wants the title to be changed. Writers can and should push back of course, and as Juliet Annan says, publishers and writers have to agree on the final title, it’s no good if a writer is unhappy with the publisher’s idea. But it also has to be right: “The title of a book is incredibly important,” she says. “It’s a promise — it’s got to entice and intrigue.  Title, cover image, copy — those are the three things that start the ball rolling with our sales department and then reviewers, the media and booksellers. And they’re the things a buyer looks at whether they are shopping in a bookshop or online. I’m not shy of asking writers to change the title if I think their original one doesn’t work. It’s the publisher’s job to be opportunistic in the best possible way, and getting the title right is part of that.”

As for my second book, I’m not sure yet which category it will fit into, perhaps it will be one of the few delivered without a name at all; although in between edits you’ll still find me fiddling with those lists.

 

* I can’t tell you how long it took me to come up with the title of this blog post. (Okay – not very long)

** Here are some titles I love of existing books (I’m not brave enough to put up the list of my working titles). I would love to know what your favourites are.

 

  1. What happened to Sophie Wilder
  2. Silence of the Lambs
  3. The Grapes of Wrath
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird
  5. The Spy who came in from the Cold
  6. The Day I Sat On the Sun Deck with Jesus and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.
  7. By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept
  8. Waiting for Godot
  9. The Catcher in the Rye
  10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  11. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  12. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone
  13. Canada
  14. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
  15. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  16. The Deep End of the Ocean
  17. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  18. In the Sea there are Crocodiles
  19. Started Early, Took My Dog
  20. Legend of a Suicide
  21. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  22. We were the Mulvaneys
  23. Everything is illuminated
  24. Behind the scenes at the museum
  25. All our spoons come from Woolworths
  26. Who was changed and who was dead
  27. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
  28. A short walk in the Hindu Kush
  29. Love in a Cold Climate
  30. Love in the Time of Cholera

 

Flash fiction: The Beacon

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The word had come when she was sleeping. A hammering on the door, loud enough to wake the dead. She was already dressed, only her boots to pull on, the flambeau leaning in a corner. Outside, she ignored the advancing cliff-face of sea-mist, refusing to think about the horrors it must contain.

Three tries to light the flambeau; four agonising minutes for the bonfire to catch. But as the flames surged upwards she saw smoke rising from the neighbouring headland, and the next and the next. And she thought that maybe there was still time for them to be saved.

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This is a 100-word story for Friday Fictioneers brought to us by the wonderful writer Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. I didn’t see observatories when I first looked at the picture, so I went with my first impression. The image this week is supplied by the amazing writer, Doug Macilroy. Click here to join in with Friday Fictioneers, or here to read other’s.

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This week Dawn Landau’s (a fellow Friday Fictioneer) book group is meeting to discuss my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, which they’ve been reading. Because of the time difference, I won’t be able to Skype with them, but I have answered their questions by email. If any other book groups are interested in reading Our Endless Numbered Days, I’d be really happy to get involved in the same way. Let me know!

Short story: Not Searching

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First I knew, text didn’t send. Searching, phone said. Nothing to worry about, right? Then someone’s conversation cut out.

Five minutes later damn train slowed and stopped. Took a while for even that to register. I learnt that people will sit in silence for a long time before complaining.

‘Daddy, why we stopped in the middle of nowhere?’

Guard didn’t come. No announcement.

Three hours ‘til we broke into the driver’s compartment.

After a day buffet car’s kitchen was as empty as the scenery.

Two days – search party left; didn’t never come back.

Took us a week to finish the water…

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This is a 100-word(ish) story for Friday Fictioneers brought to us by the wonderful writer Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, and the picture this week is supplied by the writer, Jennifer Pendergast. Click here to join in with Friday Fictioneers, or here to read other people’s.

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Last week I was delighted to learn that my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize – a UK prize for debuts novels.

A book blogger at Word By Word is running a competition to win a copy of Our Endless Numbered Days. Anyone anywhere in the world can enter and it closes on 12th April.

Our Endless Numbered Days is longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize

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I’m absolutely delighted to let you know that Our Endless Numbered Days has been longlisted in the Desmond Elliot Prize. This prestigious prize is awarded annually to a UK debut novel. My book is up against some stiff competition though, including Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and The miniaturist by Jessie Burton. The shortlist is announced in May.

More information about the prize and the other longlisted novels can be found here.

Short story: Oboe solo for two players

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The sound of the oboe carries through the evening, a melancholic invitation to come now. He has told his mother that he must be in the bandstand; something about fresh air and breathing technique. His mother likes that he is practicing.

At the first note, gliding in through her open window, she stirs and tells her mother she’s going to the meadow with the old portable gramophone, to dance. Her mother likes that her daughter is imaginative.

At the bandstand, in the dusk, she winds up the gramophone. And while Bach’s Partita for solo oboe plays out into the night, they practice, together.

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This is a 100-word(ish) story for Friday Fictioneers brought to us by the wonderful writer Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, and the picture this week is supplied by the fantastic writer, David Stewart. Click here to join in with Friday Fictioneers, or here to read other people’s.

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Until Sunday readers in the US can win a signed copy of the UK version (left) of my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days; and readers in the UK can win a signed copy of the US version (right). The competition is running on Twitter and Facebook. Click the links and follow the instructions to enter. Good luck!

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Flash fiction: Talking with the dead

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I rise early and go down through the forest to your grave. Moss has grown over the stone I placed there and a snail has left a map of its convoluted journey as if it, alone, plans to return.

I sit on the ground, soft and damp with the autumn’s leaves and eat sandwiches. Egg and cress; your favourite. I tell you everything: who she is, how much I love her, why I must leave.

I listen for your arguments and tears, but for the first time I hear nothing, just the mist condensing and dripping from the trees.

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Finally this week I’m two words under my 100-word allowance (that should make up a little from last week’s over-spend). Friday Fictioneers is brought to us by the wonderful writer Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, and the picture this week is supplied by the lovely writer, Rachel Bjerke. Click here to join in with Friday Fictioneers, or here to read other people’s.

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On Tuesday my novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was officially published in the US by Tin House.