World Book Day talk for primary school

My name is Alex and I have the coolest job in the world (or at least, I think it is). My job is to sit down at a desk and try and think of a story that nobody else has ever thought of before. There are lots of clever people in the world so it’s difficult to think of something that no one else has thought of but it’s very very fun.

The trick is to use your imagination. I can close my eyes and travel anywhere in the world. I love learning the names of new places and imagining who lives there – my favourite place at the moment is called Saskatchewan. I don’t know anything about it, but it sounds good. And I also like imagining what it would be like to live in a different time. It seems like life would be very different for a caveman or a viking or a queen. And it would definitely be very different to live in the future as a space pirate or a robot or an alien. Whenever I meet someone new, I ask them: what’s your story?

Everyone has an interesting story to tell. If someone doesn’t seem interesting to me, it’s not because they are boring – it’s because I haven’t asked them enough questions to find out the interesting bits. Sometimes, though, people don’t want to tell you what they are thinking about – maybe they’re shy – and that’s why I like reading stories too. Because with stories, you can see into other people’s heads. I’m not saying I want to see people’s brains because that would be gross. But once someone has written a book, they can tell you what they are thinking about without making a sound, across an ocean, or across a thousand years. When I write a book, it is like a little piece of me, and when someone else reads it, it is like we are becoming friends, even though we’ve never met. And I think that makes it a pretty cool job.

Tumbleweeding

One day in early November, 2014, I arrived at a little book shop facing Notre-Dame in Paris and sheepishly explained to a staff member that a friend of a friend had said that I could perhaps sleep here, in the book shop, while I researched my new novel, Let Us Be True. I half expected them to start laughing at me, but instead, they led me to the back, up the stairs, through a little library with beaten up leather armchairs, unlocked a door to a stairway landing, unlocked another door, and led me into a little staff room. There were lockers and a bunk bed filled with backpacks; books, everywhere; a photo of Walt Whitman stuck to a mirror; the ‘tumbleweed cookbook’, a work in progress decorated with coloured-in graph paper; a cactus with sunglasses named Karl; bottles of cheap wine from Nicolas; on the window was a painted cartoon of Virginia Woolf. In this room, I was initiated into the secret world of the Tumbleweeds.

It’s actually the second shop to have the name Shakespeare & Co. The first was run by a woman called Sylvia Beach who also operated it a private lending library and was a general shoulder to cry on for pretty much the entire Lost Generation of the twenties and thirties, even undertaking to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses when it proved too hot to handle in Britain and America. Her shop was closed down during the Occupation and never re-opened, but George Whitman, who owned another Left Bank book shop, got her permission to rename his own shop Shakespeare & Co after the war. Since then, first George and then his daughter (named Silvia in tribute to the first owner) have taken in vagrant writers, with only a few conditions.

First, you should read a book a day. You’re not there to smoke Gauloises, you are there to sponge from the library. You will sleep on camping mattresses among the shelves (one in the library, two next to the piano, one hidden behind a little curtain above the children’s books). In the morning, you get up, figure out the day’s shelf-stacking rota, empty the dehumidifier in the basement (no one likes rotting stock), and unshutter the shop. Boards are unboarded; shelves are wheeled out front. You may subsidise your income with money dropped in the wishing well, where a little sign says ‘feed the starving writers’. There is only limited access to the kitchen, so you’d better like cheese, meat and bread. When I was there, we were also trying to come up with puns for the café they were thinking of opening (‘Tender is the Bite’, ‘Mushroom with a View’, ‘Finnegan’s Cake’).

It was the perfect place to conduct my research: across the road was the Caveau de la Huchette, where my main character, Ralf, went to watch live jazz; down towards the Sorbonne were the roads where the fighting was most intense during the 1968 student riots; just across the bridge, on the Île de la Cité, was the square du Vert-Galant, where Ralf sat watching the Seine, shoulder to shoulder with the woman he was falling in love with. I spent the days wandering around these places, feeling as if I had climbed inside my own novel. And then in the evenings, I would chat with the other tumbleweeds that were sleeping in the book shop – we would read each other poetry, we’d talk about what made great literature, our eyes shining, inspired by the possibilities (and possibly also by the red wine). Those nights felt perfect and endless, which made it feel all the more unfair when I realised my time was already up, and I had to catch my train the next day.

The last thing you have to do before you leave is write a one-page autobiography, which everyone staying at the shop has had to do, apocryphally, for the benefit of the government, who rightly considered the shop a hotbed of radicalism. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to read some of the thousands of autobiographies in the archive there, including famous guests like James Baldwin. By the time I came to write mine, I was in love with the place. ‘Some things change inevitably and others we have a duty to preserve,’ I hammered out at the battered typewriter on my last morning, in a sentimental daze, glancing up occasionally at Notre-Dame through the window. ‘It is why I came to this place and why people queue to get in, why the library is filling with pilgrims, even as I type, desperate to confirm the rumour that there is still generosity and shelter here, and that the library which exists in the heart of every book lover is real.’

 

First published on Love Books

Q&A (with spoilers…)

The last book you read? (Inquisitive bookworms would like to know) I tend to consume books like tapas, so this is actually quite hard to answer. Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, or a selected volume of Voltaire, or Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, or Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

Books or authors who have inspired you to put pen to paper? Mikhail Bulgakov, Emmanuel Carrere, George Orwell, George Saunders, Michel Faber, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Gustave Flaubert, Joseph Roth, Albert Camus. I love writers who can fuse beauty and cleverness with social purpose.

The last book you read, which you felt left a mark (in your heart, soul, wallet…you name it) The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Everyone has been talking about her for years so it’s not exactly a hot tip, but that’s the honest answer.

Are you more of a movie night or series-binger kind of guy? (Combinations are possible) Movie night. There are enough hanging plot threads in my actual life – I want to be able to sit back and look at the whole story. I don’t need Scheherezade feeding me cliffhangers every night forever. It’s like asking if you’d rather have limbo or a quick death.

Which famous person (dead, alive, barely kicking) would you most like to meet? Not probably any of the people I most admire. Marcus Aurelius was objectively a top guy, but would be a terrible date – after two drinks he would leave citing moderation in all things. You’d want someone with a wicked sense of humour who knew how to live. Hunter S Thompson would probably kill me, but maybe Angela Carter or Ernest Hemingway. Or Obama. Everyone wants to meet Obama.

All of the above questions are actually a pretty elaborate pysch evaluation disguised as random questions. Have no fear here come the real ones. Let’s talk about Let Us Be True.

Where did you get the inspiration for Let Us Be True? Probably a question you have been asked before, but I am genuinely interested in the inspiration for the story of Ralf and Elsa. It’s strange, because what I have ended up with is really a character novel – one that devotes a lot of space to investigating the particular psychology of two particular people – but I first conceived it as a novel about the moment after the Second World War that is rarely written about, after the initial reconstruction efforts but before the individualistic, consumer-driven sixties was in full swing. I wanted to write about what it was like to find yourself on the very cusp of the modern era.

Why Paris? Did you pick this particular setting because you know it well or because it made sense logistically, culturally and from an historical point of view? I wanted to write about a place very like our own, but different enough that people could judge it for what it was – a bit like the way Shakespeare tore into society by setting everything in Italy. But Paris in 1958 was also a fascinating place in its own right: the Fourth Republic was collapsing; the communists were still one of the biggest parties, but there was a fascist fifth column in the police; French Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle was returned to power in a military coup and suspended the constitution; France was effectively at war with its own Muslim population; there were peaceful protests, but people were still being guillotined. Parts of Paris were already petrifying into an eerily timeless postcard city, and at the same time some of its residential neighbourhoods were ‘îlots insalubres’, dirty islands of slum housing, where no one owned a fridge and tenants shared a squat toilet. I can’t think of a better (or more intense) analogue for the conflicts we are worrying about here and now.

***Spoilers ahead***

Although you don’t play on the underlying theme too much, do you think Ralf and Elsa connect in such a monumental way because they share a common denominator in their home country and war-trauma? Absolutely – it is a part of why they connect and also one of the reasons why they clash. But the war itself can’t be spoken about directly, because it simply wasn’t done. It could be referred to, or implied obliquely, but very few people who were involved had any desire (or perhaps even ability) to talk about what they had been through. It is an elephant in the room – the clearest metaphor in the book is of Ralf and his mother sitting at the dining table, painfully aware of the father that isn’t present. Ralf eventually opens up about some of his childhood experiences, but Elsa doesn’t reciprocate, and we implicitly understand why.

Does Elsa accept the negative aspects of her marriage, because she feels guilty and believes she deserves to be punished? Is her separation from Ralf a form of penance? I don’t know if I could be that specific, but sadly it wasn’t uncommon for women to accept physical abuse as a fact of life at that time (which is not to say we have resolved the problem now). Whenever we make choices, we weigh them up relative to our life experience. Elsa’s life with Theo isn’t the worst thing that has happened to her, and its great virtue is that it’s secure and predictable. She has never had that before – for me at least it becomes hard to judge her choice, even if we wish she could make the leap.

Unbeknownst to Ralf Elsa represents the root cause of why his life changed in such a drastic way. Does Elsa make a choice against Ralf because she believes the truth about her past would be an insurmountable hurdle between them? Yes, I think so. But more than that, in order to reveal her past to him, she would have to give him access to parts of herself that she hasn’t shared with anyone, including her husband and family, and it would make her vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been since she was a young girl hiding in a forest, muddy, shivering, terrified and alone. The war didn’t end when the last shots were fired. There was a whole generation of survivors whose lives were irrevocably scarred by what they saw and did, and they were out there, walking in the world, for the best part of the twentieth century. We’ll never know whether so many of them remained silent to protect themselves or to protect the rest of us.

One could argue that Elsa presents a certain coldness, a lack of emotion even, and one could suggest that her experiences in childhood, and as a very young woman, have defined her personality and the choices she makes. However that specific sense of survival and ability to detach herself from emotions was already evident at an early age. This information in combination with the actions of many Germans during the Nazi era begs the question whether Elsa really is the lovable enigma who has managed to enchant Ralf like a personal Mata Hari or is she a woman who is a ruthless survivor? In some sense Elsa is, if not the Nazi ideal, at least a Nietzschean ideal, a forceful, self-directed character. She can’t or won’t be absorbed into a group mentality, which exposes a fundamental contradiction in Nazi ideology: they simultaneously exult exceptional individuals and demand people subsume themselves to the herd. Are some people more valuable than others, or are we all interchangeable members of a group?

I did also really want this to be a story about love, and I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that love is one of the best answers to some of the questions posed in the book. But I wanted to resist this idea that’s very common in romance, that the underlying purpose of women’s behaviour can always be explained with reference to sex. Perhaps she is not stringing him along; perhaps it has nothing to do with him.

Thank you for answering all of my questions, even the odd ones! It was a pleasure – thank you for reading it with such care and attention. I think all writers dream of having careful readers!

 

First published on Cheryl M-M’s blog.