The Lost World of the Reclusive Bestseller Author

JK Rowling has said, I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen, being able to sit at home in the parsonage and your books would be very famous… I didn’t think they’d rake through my bins. I didn’t expect to be photographed on the beach through long lenses.

JD Salinger and Harper Lee were famously reclusive. Never seen in public, they just quietly wrote novels that became iconic in the 20th century and ended up on every school syllabus. Dan Brown too was reclusive before his plagiarism trial brought him out of the woodwork; now his face is familiar.

Today, authors engage in a Kindle-sales feeding frenzy, blogging their sales figures and Amazon rankings, and spreading in equal measure envy, despair and a mania to replicate their success amongst all the flocks of self promoting self publishing ebook authors. I realise that indie authors are striking back against the publishing establishment, and many enjoy the work of promotion. I applaud them for it.  But my instincts tell me this isn’t what authors were meant to do.  Authors were meant to write, and to do what JK Rowling imagined – sit in the parsonage like Jane Austen. Then they handed their finished manuscript over to a publisher who did all the dirty work of marketing, promotion, sales techniques and strategies, and all the devices and desires of publicity.

I recognise this is a totally unrealistic picture, not in tune with today’s world at all. And I’m well aware that the relationship between authors and publishers has long had its difficulties. The rural poet John Clare (1793-1864) had troubled dealings with “booksellers” who were then the equivalent to today’s publishers. He wrote in his Journal: I would advise young authors not to be upon too close friendships with booksellers…their friendships are always built upon speculations of profit like a farmer showing his sample…if a book suits then they write a fine friendly letter to the author…if not they neglect to write till the author is impatient and then comes a note declining to publish mixed with a seasoning of petulance in exchange for his anxiety.   And I do know I really ought to let down my golden hair from this small room in a tower where I write these words.

Authors are often introverts, shy, retiring. Now they cannot be allowed the luxury of being an INFP on the Myers Briggs Personality Type scale. Accuse me of languishing in my ivory tower if you will. But allow me to post a promotional video (made by my daughter) beneath these words and thus negate the point I am making. And cherish the lost world of the reclusive author.

SC Skillman

Elizabeth, Dudley and Happy Times in Ruined Castles

A view of Kenilworth Castle
Kenilworth Castle

Castles always make me happy. I’m lucky to live within a short distance of two of the country’s greatest – Kenilworth and Warwick.

I’ve visited both many times but it’s Kenilworth that most captures my imagination. Is this because it lies in ruins whereas Warwick is still intact and has a Tussauds exhibition in it? When I consider Kenilworth, from the time Geoffrey de Clinton built the Keep with Henry I’s money in the 1120’s, right through to when Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth blasted it after the English Civil War and then moved into Leicester’s Gatehouse and set up home there, I think of the castle’s history blended with all the happy times I’ve spent in it.

As I wander round Kenilworth Castle I wish I had a virtual reality CGI device that I could hold up to the ruined chambers and see superimposed over them exactly how this room looked in the castle’s days of glory. Instead I have my imagination.

With it, I can see John of Gaunt’s great hall in its prime, the walls covered with vibrant tapestries, blazing logs set in the grand fireplace, and the table regularly laden with banquets. I can experience the kitchens as they were, full of heat and  toiling cooks and servants, when Leicester’s Building was used to accommodate Elizabeth I and Sir Robert Dudley’s party of guests in 1575 . I can visualise the great mere that surrounded the castle, and picture the tiltyard when it was in full operation. I can replace the floor of the great hall in the Keep, and restore it to how it was when Edward II was forced to abdicate in it. 

As for the Elizabethan garden, I imagine it seductive, scented, densely-planted with shrubs in full bloom, with its four obelisks and central marble fountain, and a gemstone-studded aviary filled with lovebirds – for that is how it would have been when Sir Robert Dudley ushered Elizabeth I into it, hoping to persuade her to marry him (she still refused, but I’m sure she enjoyed herself there).

Castles make me happy – to the extent that I only have to glimpse battlements above trees to feel that surge of joy. Why, I wonder? Castles are associated with prisoners thrown in dungeons to die; massive social inequality and injustice, arrogant lords feasting in their halls wth the social elite of the land while the masses labour and starve; wars, battles, sieges, boiling oil, death-holes, trebuchets loaded with rotting animal carcasses… and yet castles make me happy. I suggest this is because they are all bound up with story, and story is all about meaning, and we value meaning above all.

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The Novels We Love and Carl Jung’s Theory of the Collective Unconscious

Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “the Collective Unconscious”. This “collects and organises personal experiences in a similar way with each member of the species.”  If we consider a book to which millions have responded in a similar positive way, for instance Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, we may then see that the story touches upon areas of human experience which are universal. This may be described as an author “touching the Spirit of the Age.”

Recently (and probably through the workings of synchronicity!) an explanation from Quantum Theory fell into my hands, from a scientist who told me he spent a lot of time in the past with a group of fellow-scientists discussing “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  He concluded that we have free will but are limited in what we do; using the analogy of a chess game, each piece has a limited freedom of movement. We are not aware of the existence of the laws which infuence our every action, and each individual in limited in a unique way.  Tolstoy understood this principle perfectly, reminding us in “War and Peace” that when we  learned the earth orbits the sun we had to surmount the sensation of unreal immobility in space. In just the same way he says, we must renounce a freedom that does not exist and recognise a dependence of which we are not conscious.

How can we see this working out  in some well-known stories? Let me suggest a few examples from my own fiction reading. 

1.  A thirst for truth – as exemplified by Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Winston Smith is a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth; truth is the central issue in this story and the reader instinctively knows it is being subverted. And that is why Winston Smith’s struggle to undermine the Party’s monopology on Truth has struck such a deep chord with so many.

2. A craving for intimacy – the 5-year old boy narrator of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room shares an intimacy with his mother which is ultimately broken after their escape from captivity. To me this paradox is central to the power of this novel.

3. A fear of death or the unknown: It is the unknown we fear when we look upon death and darkness, nothing more, says Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter. It is worth noting that JK Rowling said she could never have written the Harry Potter books if it wasn’t for the fact that she loved her mother, and her mother died. This was clearly a persistent theme throughout Harry’s story.

I believe authors achieve this kind of power in their stories by working with the limited freedom of movement in their own lives and trusting themselves to the unconscious.

SC Skillman

Spaces, Holes and Boundaries in Creative Imagination

In the Birmingham City Art Gallery I found an artist whose work conjured up for me an imaginary conversation between two people meeting at a party: “So what do you do for a living?” “I tie threads round holes.”  As I imagined the likely response, I gazed at a series of photographs of various holes in fences – barbed wire, timber, whatever – on private or official property – which the artist had woven around, decorated, defined, and given meaning with thread.  The thought sprang into my mind, This could only be done secretly and without permission. Then I read in the artist’s note that was exactly what she did. I loved it.

The exhibition Lost in Lace showed me how holes, spaces and gaps concentrate meaning within themselves.  The artists, inspired by lace, had shown this in various ways. They had built networks and connections, by creating boundaries and structures – like an inverted crystal cathedral hanging from the ceiling, or After the Dream, a room filled with a disturbing and sinister network of black embroidery wool, enclosing four long white dresses. A glittering rose pattern punched on a wall seemed to have been created with sequins, or glass beads, or crystals. But they were only holes. Behind them a large window let in natural light; and the holes defined the pattern.

I entered a room A Thin Line Between Space and Matter which plunged the viewer into darkness and only threads of light could be seen, curving around, above and through space,  given meaning by the hole of darkness at the centre.  Recognising this put me in mind of another kind of space – the alleyway.

When I was a young child, an alleyway opposite my house was the way through to colour, adventure, romance, magic. This was because it led to the road along which the local Mayday Carnival processed. The amount of excited anticipation that I concentrated on that alleyway lent it a significance that would haunt my dreams of years. The reality of the alleyway may be weeds, delapidated concrete, a weathered gate, broken paving stones. But in my imagination that alleyway is a portal to another world.

So it is in creative writing. Gaps are essential to great story: the gap that opens up between the expectation of the reader, and what actually happens. And from that gap pours a flood of insight.

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Sherlock Holmes And Creative Writing

Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft tells Watson in the latest BBC recreation of this much-loved character, has the mind of a scientist or a philosopher; yet he chose to be a consulting detective. When he was a child he wanted to be a pirate. And Conan Doyle tells us Holmes is also a consummate actor. He will disappear into another room, don a completely different outfit, and emerge “in the character of” somebody else. This enables him to mingle with like characters and listen to their conversations and gather information. Of course, as Sherlock tells us airily, most of it will be irrelevant; but his genius is for alighting on exactly the details he needs, and filtering out everything else.

Scientist, philosopher, pirate, detective, actor: there are times as a novelist when you employ skills which would probably feature in the Person Specification for every one of these jobs.

A Sherlock Holmes story usually involves a conundrum for the great detective to unravel. His talent is for changing one in a set of presumptions. Then several obstacles and caveats disappear. Removing one notion can immediately cast several other scenarios as feasible.

In Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’s reinterpretation of  Sherlock for the BBC, the great detective is shown to display certain features of Asperger Syndrome; i.e. he’s not good at the nuances  involved in personal relationships. Yet he works always to restore balance and legality and order to people’s lives.

A line I love from the end of Conan Doyle’s story “The Dying Detective” is: Good evening Inspector. All is in order and this is your man. Holmes had appeared to be dying of an Asian disease, in order to trap the killer into a confession. The need for order and balance is inextricable from human relationships – otherwise there can be no warmth, compassion, or responsiveness. These are the keys to a good relationship: rewards for and recognition of relational goodness. And this is the paradox: Sherlock rewards Dr John Watson in this way. Thus he demonstrates his friendship which intermittently lifts him out of his habitual way of relating to people.

Conan Doyle himself may have struggled to like his own creation; but we the readers and viewers love Sherlock Holmes. This is because he presents one of those archetypal relationships (see my post on Archetypes:https://scskillman.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/how-can-carl-jungs-theory-of-archetypes-help-you-in-your-creative-writing/; above all we love his relationship with Dr John Watson. And a key relationship which the readership loves is one critical element of successful fiction.

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Learning From David Hockney

On a recent visit to David Hockney’s exhibition “A Bigger Picture” at the Royal Academy, not only was I uplifted and enthralled by his art, but also I took away with me several insights for creative writers. Here are five highlights that apply to novelists as well as artists:

1) Working From Memory Frees the Imagination

Hockney does a charcoal sketch in situ, then paints in studio; or he observes landscape, then paints it from memory; or he paints wholly from his imagination. Working from memory sets the imagination free. I can see close parallels here to the work of a novelist; over-reliance on research may produce an interesting novel, but not one which touches the spirit of the age or haunts the imagination for years.

2) Notice the Changes in One Subject Over Time

Hockney went back again and again to exactly the same fixed position in Woldgate Wood, East Yorkshire. He painted the wood in May, July, October and November – each time capturing a different spirit. The same place – transformed over time. This is an essential task of the creative writer; to show the changes in one protagonist made by varying pressures of time and plot and circumstance.

3) Be Alert to Seize the Opportunity That Will Quickly Vanish

Hawthorn blossom appears overnight and can disappear in one downpour of rain. Hockney was alert to the  moment the blossom would appear. He called it Action Week. He would instantly be out to paint with urgency. So must we as story-writers capture the opportunity that the creative imagination presents – whether that be a thought that comes during the night or on a long train journey, or in any other solitary moment. It must be captured with urgency or it will vanish.

4)  Focus Intense Concentration on One Well-Defined Area

Hockney filmed the landscape through 9 cameras mounted on a grid on the front of his jeep as it moved slowly along. Each frame makes the viewer see the whole differently, by focusing intensely on the details within that frame – helping us to see as an artist sees. This is what a great novelist does in exploring the psyche of one character who touches the spirit of the age.

5)  Harness the Power of Rediscovery

Hockney came back to the environment of his childhood, having spent many years away from it, living in California.  Separation from a loved landscape only serves to feed the mind as it imagines and reflects. During the four year period spent living in Australia (notwithstanding the inspiration I found in the Australian landscape, the Red Centre, mountains, coast, islands and rainforest), I often dreamed of the English landscape, particularly my childhood county of Kent, or of the familiar streets and locales of my childhood. This is so in creative writing too. If you spend much time apart from something you can now only apprehend through memories, dreams, reflections, your expression of this in any art form will have much greater depth and intensity.

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An Answer to Prayer, or Just Good Luck?

Often traditional Irish / Celtic prayers travel cyberspace, packaged as good luck messages inspired by folk religion and treated as if they’re magic words – giving luck and chance greater respectability to our way of thinking than the idea of prayer to a God who is listening and answering. So, today I ask: ‘Why pray?’ and ‘Does it work?’  Many do pray – although quite often they may not know to whom they are praying.

When people talk about answered prayer it may be so personal it cannot easily be shared in a way that’s meaningful or convincing to others. Also, stories of answered prayer can sound like synchronicity – see my post on the subject: https://scskillman.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/how-can-carl-jungs-theory-of-synchronicity-help-you-in-your-creative-writing/ The obvious answer is that God created synchronicity. And He can and does use it to answer prayer.

Additionally, when people find their prayers are answered, often they’re amazed – and immediately seek some rational explanation as if afraid to attribute it to God and thus betray a naive supernatural outlook – which of course is anathema to the post-modern mind. But I suggest that the post-modern outlook is not the best barometer of truth.

For example, last year I was suffering from a prolapsed disc which caused intense pain in my leg. The doctor could only suggest surgery, had prescribed strong drugs for the pain and referred me to a neurosurgeon. Although I was taking the painkillers they only had limited effect. I asked for prayer at a local Christian healing centre. A week later the pain suddenly vanished. It never returned. I stopped the painkillers at once. An MRI scan later confirmed the prolapsed disc had receded.

There’s no proof that this was not coincidence but I believe it was an answer to prayer.

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How Can Carl Jung’s Theory of Complexes Help You in Your Creative Writing?

Among the writings of Carl Jung, we find the psychological concept of  “complexes”. A complex may be defined as “a core pattern of emotions, memories, perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organised around a common theme such as power  or status.”  Many of us have probably heard someone described as having an inferiority /  guilt / martyr complex.  And this can be fruitful for a creative writer; though it has to be handled with care.  

1.  An inferiority complex may lead your character to interpret everything in the light of this set of notions: “I’m not good enough,” “my opinions don’t count”; “I’m afraid to put myself forward”.  The comic writer P.G.Wodehouse makes good use of this complex in his stories, for example  Jeeves and The Inferiority Complex of Old Sippy. Those of us who love Wodehouse’s stories are well-used to the shy young men attempting to battle those who are louder, bigger, better-looking, more powerful and more self-confident, to win the girl they love.

 2. Often,whether a fictional character displays a certain complex can be a matter of interpretation by the reader. I suggest the martyr complex may be illustrated in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess behaves like a heroic martyr sacrificing herself. Many might feel, in reading this book, that Tess casts herself in the role of victim.

3. The guilt complex is used extensively in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many characters experience intense guilt; but the exception to this widespread guilt complex is Smerdyakov who murders Fyodor yet does not blame himself; despite the fact that he’s the only character technically guilty, he feels the least liability for it. Thus Dostoyevsky sheds light on some of his own religious questions and doubts.

4) The power complex may operate in any area of life where someone is at the top of a hierarchical structure.Take, for example, pitiless schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, who uses his power over young minds to fill them with facts and to stamp out all colour,adventure and magic from their lives; or even Aunt Reed in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as she exercises what little power she finds in her life, over her vulnerable young niece.  

So there’s plenty of inspiration here for fiction writers, as we create characters who inspire love, pity, fury, fascinated horror, or even self-searching in our readers.   But be warned. Not too many characters with complexes, please (unless you are of the calibre of Dostoyevsky).  These characters must be balanced with at least one person who is calm and centred – in the interests of giving your novel authenticity!

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Dramatic Conversion Experiences, and the Mystery of Love versus Willpower

This is the second in my series of posts reflecting upon recent conversations with others about their beliefs. And this question came up: Is faith about emotion or the will? Quite often you may hear people say, “It’s all very well for you. You have faith. I wish I had faith – but I don’t.”

So where does this mysterious thing called “faith” come from anyway? Using Christianity as an example: some find they can take it on board intellectually, but it has never touched their emotions. For others, that rush of joy in the knowledge of God’s love is very important. 

I felt the presence of God on a mountain in Australia. But not everyone can have such experiences, wants to, or would even see mine in the same terms. Others might stand there and just think it’s a nice view.  We’re all different. Some have even had similar experiences crossing London Bridge in the rush hour. In his poem “Upon Westminster Bridge”, Wordsworth says: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty. (Interestingly enough, whilst on a Poetry Walk along the South Bank to Westminster, I learned that Wordsworth wrote this poem several months after the experience, going back to recapture it and put it into words. It had happened to him ‘by chance’ as he was crossing the bridge unusually early one morning).

I believe it’s wrong to suggest a major experience of this type is necessary, in order to be a “proper Christian”. CS Lewis’s conversion to Christianity was not a sudden experience. He always claimed it was logical and rational, not emotional. His influences were, as always, books and a few close friends.

Thomas Merton, the most prolific spiritual writer of the 20th century, wrote to one of his many correspondents: Beside the Spirit there are also hard external facts and they too are ‘God’s will’ but… may mean one is bound to a certain mediocrity and futility; that there is waste, and ineffectual use of grace… and we are restricted and limited to this. He understood this despite the fact that he himself had had a dramatic conversion experience before he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to begin life as a Trappist monk.

Ideally intellect and emotions should have a perfect symbiotic relationship in a fully balanced human being. But few among us are perfectly balanced. And if God is God, He can come to us wherever we are, at any time, and however imperfect and unbalanced we are.

SC Skillman