Finding The Right Title

I’ve not yet found the right title for my novel.

Opinions differ about whether at this stage this is a fatal flaw or not. Some advice is that even if you already have a name you love, by the time it’s been through an agent, an editorial committee and a publisher, it will likely have been changed. Others say agents won’t look at anything that doesn’t have a great title; but for the moment I choose to believe that they can’t possibly be that short sighted.

But still I would like, when people ask me what my book is called, to be able to say it with confidence. Instead I em and ah a bit before stuttering that at the moment the working title is……. And then I watch the slight moue of disapproval pass across their face, and say, ‘I wish I could find a better one’.

For a long time, the working title was ‘Scapegoat’ (sometimes alone, sometimes preceded by ‘a’, sometimes ‘the’). This felt right because one of my original inspirations was the idea of the Biblical scapegoat, the animal over which all the sins of the community were confessed before it was banished into the wilderness taking the sins with it.  Rose, my protagonist, is the carrier of secrets, confessions of her friends by which she feels weighed down.  Trying to escape them, she runs away to a place that is worse, a wilderness that is Moscow immediately post perestroika.  I even had fantasies of the book cover design, a sort of amalgam of Holman Hunt’s painting with a few onion domes in the background.

But there are already a couple of novels out there with that name; and generally my friends would frown and say ‘Well I suppose it’s OK as a working title.’ Not really the support I was looking for.

I tried ‘The Lightening Rod’ for a bit, but it didn’t sit comfortably for me, and others said I needed something that hinted at the Russian setting.  For a while now it’s been ‘To the Beat of the Little Bear’s Drum’, as a wooden toy, of a bear beating a drum, is a recurring image in the story, there’s the idea that Rose is marching to a rhythm that is not her own, and the bear is an image often used to signify Russia.  But it is the current fashion to have snappy short two word titles, so it’s too long, as well as requiring all that explanation to justify it.

A couple of weeks ago, after entirely revising the opening chapters I road tested  ‘The Aroma of Plum Jam’, as the smashing of a jar of the stuff is a metaphor for the mess left after the murder of one of the characters, but that idea wouldn’t stick(!)

I’d shelved thinking about this issue because it’s so difficult, but the importance of a good title was brought home when I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.  The cleverness of the title is one of the factors that contributes significantly to the sense of unease in the reader as they follow the unfolding of the narrative.  The recounting of the story told by the protagonist to a stranger over the course of the evening, at the beginning might appear to be simply the tale of a young man’s life; but with that title we are led to expect that something potentially terrible will happen.  It is also cleverly congruent with the ambiguous tone of the whole novel: which of the characters is the reluctant fundamentalist?

So all of this has set me worrying about my own novel again.  In my head I think of it as ‘Rose’, could I possibly get away with calling that, or ‘Rose Fleming’?

What do you think?

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Lucky 7 – Seven Lines From New Works of Fiction

I’ve been tagged by my friend Voula Grand in the game of Lucky 7.  As you’ll see, it’s a bit of fun, a displacement activity, and for those of us less well connected on Twitter, a source of a little bit of anxiety.

The instructions are:

  •  Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript
  •  Go to line 7
  •  Post on your blog the next 7 lines, or sentences, as they are – no cheating
  •  Tag 7 other authors to do the same
I can  accomplish the first three of these; it’s the fourth that’s a bit of a problem, as Voula has already tagged pretty much all the people I know who are fiction writers, who are on Twitter and who blog about writing.  If I don’t manage to ‘tag on’ a new seven, is it like one of those pyramid chain letter things that will threaten catastrophe if I break the chain?
I’ve decided not.  So what I can do is recommend  the writers whom Voula has mentioned……
Here is my excerpt.  It’s from page 7 of my novel with the working title of  ‘To the Beat of the Little Bear’s Drum‘.
Rose is an expat working in Moscow in the mid 1990s.  She has just witnessed the shooting of her colleague Ewan, and has been whisked away to safety by Nikolai, a driver who works for their employer.

So Nikolai knelt down and muttering, he undid them for her, tapping her calf to indicate she should lift her leg for him to remove the boot, first from her right, and then her left foot.

‘Ewan is dead.  Dead.  Ewan is dead.  Shot.’  The refrain kept repeating in her head, but it would never make any sense.   She watched Nikolai remove his own shoes and hang his jacket on a hook by the door, but wrapped her arms around herself when he tried to take hers.

‘I’m cold.’

Switching on the light Nikolai led her up a short corridor to a tiny kitchen where he pulled out a stool for her.  She slumped down on it and studied her fingers, remembering the first time she had shaken hands with Ewan beside the road from the airport. 

Let me know if it piques your interest to know more…..

Chess Playing and Diversionary Tactics

The recent showing of a  documentary about Bobby Fischer, the chess player, and in particular about his World Championship match in Iceland against Boris Spassky in 1972 reminded me of how, in the Cold War period, so many things were viewed through the prism of the power struggle between the US and the Soviets:  the race to the moon, any Olympic games, and even chess.  Whichever was the winner proved the physical and intellectual superiority of that political economic system.

It looks like another world, seen from the contemporary perspective when what we see of Russia is now largely characterised by the extreme wealth and opportunism of the exiled oligarchs.

The 1972 chess World Championship was also about the behaviour of individuals, though, and in particular the waywardness and unreliability of Fischer, who, although he managed to aggravate and alienate everyone he met, still managed to win the contest, watched by a world still totally invested in the symbolism of the Cold War.  The various talking heads interviewed in the programme maintained that Fischer, despite the appearance of gamesmanship in his delaying antics, was largely struggling with himself, rather than his opponent, throughout his matches.

Everyone agreed that in order to become good at chess a person has to spend a lot of time practising it, and that can make it very difficult for some already withdrawn intellectual people to deal with the world in a ‘normal’ way.

I’ve only known one person who was very serious about playing chess, and he too was a rather difficult character.  It was while I was working in Russia in the mid 1990s.  K, a Brit, was already working at the firm when I arrived in Moscow.  I subsequently learned that he had sought out the opportunity to work in the city so as to be able to study with a particular Grand Master.

In the office he was theoretically meant to report to me, but I never quite managed to make that happen, as I so rarely saw him, and when I did, he was in a rush, late for a meeting, or in such a bad temper that it was politic to leave him alone .  Most mornings when I arrived at the office, his jacket would already be on the back of his chair, a file would be open on the desk, but otherwise there would be no sign of him.

After some weeks I discovered that he was getting in about 10 minutes before me and then going into the Gents toilet to play chess on a handheld game device ….for hours.  It was an open secret amongst the staff members who used those particular facilities.

I’ve never quite removed that visual image from my mind’s eye and will, I think, be wary of the player of chess forever.

Ireland’s Export

Not an Irish Bar......

Is it true that any town of any size, anywhere, has an Irish bar?

It was certainly the case for Moscow when I was living there in the 1990s. There was the bar at Sheremetyevo which was referred to generally as ‘The Irish Bar’, so much so, that I can’t honestly now remember if it had any other name, and then there were the related establishments of Rosie O’Grady’s and Sally O’Brien’s relatively near my office, as well as another generically named one on the Novii Arbat, near the ‘Irish supermarket’, and once again my memory has let me down on any other proper names (and fond as I am of a google internet search, there are limits).

And what made them Irish?  The dark wood fittings, the scuffed wooden floors, the festoons of shamrocks and Guinness advertising, the barmen, the stout on tap?  The craic?

Are there any pubs in Ireland itself that are like that, or has a blueprint of a collection of clichés been exported, while local establishments in Dublin and Cork have moved on into other design trends?

Barbados has its own Irish Bar, McBrides, in The Gap, the party area of the island.  Venturing out of the quiet of Speightstown on Saturday night to hit the hot spots of noisy bars and cocktails in frozen glasses, was a culture shock in its own right, before I’d even arrived at the late night hang out.

Conducting the inventory: Guinness signs? Check.  Dark wood bar? Check. TV on the wall showing English football results? Check.  Pictures of people dressed in green? Check.  Greatest hits from the 1970s and 1980s?  Check.  Bouncers on the door? Check.

I’m not sure the style of dancing would go down well in the old country, though.  Although participants were fully clothed, modesty forbids me from describing the main moves; suffice to say that locally, they call it ‘grinding’, and there were some remarkably bored expressions on the faces of some of the female dancers as they leant forward, their elbows resting on a ledge, taking occasional sips from their drinks…….

But then, the music was so loud that conversation wasn’t really possible.

One Woman’s Junk is Another’s Treasuretrove

I’ve just been struggling with the lids of the recycling bins outside.  There are separate green plastic wheeley bins for a random selection of refuse, and I do my best to be a good citizen; to sort and keep tin cans, plastic bottles, paper and cardboard separate, but in a small kitchen it can be a challenge to store it, so I’m forever taking bits and pieces out.  And the lids get me every time, falling back on my hand, no matter how speedy I think I’m being.

Every time I go out to those green bins  it reminds me that organised mandatory  recycling, under threat of penalty, as we are in London, is a feature of a wealthy, prosperous society.  People who live with less, have less to throw away and they use and reuse everything they have until it is impossible to use it any more; not because they prefer to be ‘green’ and ecologically responsible, but because they can’t afford to waste anything.

I like to think I keep waste to a minimum, but it remains a fact that if I threw nothing away I’d soon be crowded out of my home.  So I sort my rubbish, take things to charity shops and try not to acquire more stuff that needs ‘management’.

It’s  a couple of years since I went on a big trekking holiday, but when I was a regular on high altitude trips there was a routine that at the end of the trek everyone would leave a piece of equipment or clothing for the local support team.  When the group leader first suggested it, I always felt a bit embarrassed offering up something that, after a couple of weeks up a mountain, might not even be that clean, and was invariably told not to worry and hand it over.

At the flat I lived in in Moscow in the mid 1990s the communal rubbish bin was a huge battered green open topped skip with sides so high that some of the smaller residents had to stand on tiptoe to empty their buckets of waste over the side.  I soon learned that I was rare in lining my kitchen bin with a plastic bag; most people didn’t waste such a valuable item when all you needed to do was wash out the bin after you’d emptied it.

Only true waste went into the skip; anything that might have a future life was left lying beside it: small pieces of furniture, old bags, general bric a brac, and in no time it would be gone, spirited away by someone who had a use for it.

When I left the city I gave away all the fully functioning things I had acquired during my stay in that expat roundabout exchange of table lamps, fans and generally ‘useful until you find something better’ stuff that I’m sure goes on the world over.  But I was still left with a pile of wonky, broken things: a suitcase with a big hole in the side, shoes ruined by snow, a winter jacket that had frayed at the cuffs; I packed them all up together and left them by the bin and rushed back inside, fearing that someone would run after me to tell me off.  Of course no-one did, and when I went out again, a couple of hours later, it was all gone.

I sometimes wonder who took it, and what they did with it.

Money Money Money

A comment from one of my friends in relation to a post a few days ago about buying things in a dollar only shop in Moscow set me reminiscing about the change in what was and was not allowed in Russia in the period I spent there.

By the time I made my first visit to Moscow in December 1994 the dollar only shops had already disappeared.  Anyone could have dollars to spend; the restriction against Russian’s holding US currency had been repealed; it was just a question as to how one might get ones hands on them.

It was a period of such rapid change that I recall that when I tried to research guide books before my trip, the only ones in the shops still recommended taking cigarettes as gifts for local contacts.  I didn’t know much, but I knew that Philip Morris and BAT were already trading extensively in the newly opened market.

In that period of late 1994, early 1995, many transactions were conducted exclusively in dollars; rouble inflation was rampant, so the only way to set a stable price was to use the trusty buck.  Prices in the restaurants I went to, in the supermarket I shopped at, were all quoted in USD.

You had to have nice new, shiny bills.  Any crumpled or less than pristine notes would be rejected.  I became so accustomed to seeing only crisp new notes that when I went to the USA for a visit, I was astonished how scruffy the money was there.  Over the years I developed a relationship with a bank teller in the Clydesdale Bank at Piccadilly Circus and would go to her every time I needed currency, as she understood the ‘fresh bills’ requirement.

Some time in 1995 the Russian law was changed to prohibit the use of American cash in any transaction.  Infringements would result in a 100% penalty.  Showing true Russian flexibility most establishments complied.  The prices on the menus and on the shop shelves were still in dollars, but there was a sign over the door that disclosed the applicable exchange rate.  As nothing had been done to control rouble inflation, the rate changed daily.

If you paid in cash, you could calculate the number of roubles that would be required; if you paid by credit card you might be charge in dollars, deutschemark or finmark depending on some whim that was never apparent to me.

Then the authorities stepped in again and forbid the use of US dollars to price anything.  And once again, natural ingenuity found a solution: the introduction of the universal currency unit.  Entirely coincidentally the exchange rate for the ECU to USD was 1:1.  After a little bit of reprinting of price lists, everything carried on as before.

Just to show, there’s a way around most obstacles.

Myth Making and Story Telling

Writing my post yesterday reminded me of all the tales and mythology I heard from my Russian friends about shopping; or really, about all the stories I heard from people.

In my novel set in the Moscow of the mid 1990s, Rose Fleming, my protagonist learns a lot about the country through listening to tales told to her by her friends.

It was my experience that, in Russia, there is nothing prized more highly than a good story, and I decided to try to use a bit of that in my novel.  So I was very gratified when I read ‘Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika’ by Nancy Ries to see that there is some cultural authenticity to that impression.

Ries is an anthropologist; the hypothesis of her study was that Russian people may derive a great deal of their sense of identity out of the tales they tell about themselves, both individually and collectively.

I was not making a study, but I would often ask questions simply to hear my colleagues out do each other with the comedy or the tragedy of their stories.

Shopping was always a good subject to get them going; it wouldn’t take long for the idea of the hunt or the chase to be raised.  It was more than a metaphor in times of shortage the effort of finding food and then queuing to buy it in shops where often you had to wait in one queue to pay, before then waiting in another to actually get your hands on your purchase.

Everyone had a story of some extreme shopping adventure experienced by their Granny.  I remember one of my colleagues telling me her Granny had bought so much soap a couple of years before that they had it stored on the top of every cupboard in their flat.  It would likely last a lifetime, especially as since she bought it, much nicer things were available, so no-one wanted to use the glut.  They would however never throw it away, as you never knew when there would be another shortage.

I copied one story wholesale for my novel.  Sasha had participated in a school exchange programme and his family played host to a child from the  UK for a week.  For the six months leading up to the time of the exchange Sasha’s mother and grandmother had shopped tirelessly so that the flat was full of food for the week of the visit.

‘The British boy must have thought it was like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in our flat.  There was food everywhere, every cupboard was stuffed, and yet outside in the street there was nothing to buy.  But he just ate everything while we watched.’

Everyone laughed, but I felt embarrassed for that British school boy who ever he was.  I didn’t have the experience of the terrible shortages in the early years of perestroika, but I understood something of the shopping struggle as well as the tremendous generosity of a Russian host.

Transfixed and Bemused by Choice

I was inspired by the photos on the Art and Life blog to think about shopping and one’s perception of excess and choice.

This is a photo of a shop called something like ‘Elysian Fields’ near Pushkin Square in Moscow.  I must have taken it in 1996, and given what the people are wearing it must have been late Spring or early Summer.

It’s not typical of the places I did my shopping when I lived in Moscow; the elaborate decoration make it as different from the usual as Harrods Food Hall is to shopping in Londis.  There aren’t many people there, because despite the chandeliers and giant vases, there is really anything you would want to buy, on sale.

In my first few months in Russia in early 1995 it took me a while to accustom myself to the way one had to shop there.  There was no guarantee of a regular supply of anything, so if you saw something you liked, you bought lots of it.  We all adopted the thrifty Russian practice of always having a carrier bag in our pockets, just in case.

I became particularly fascinated by the merchandise on offer in the Dieta shop in my block on Tverskaya.  One day there might be a surfeit of German ketchup, and the next day the shelves would be filled with Burtons chocolate chip cookies.  Further down the road a Danone shop sold nothing but yoghurts with Polish labels.

Even in Stockmann, the Finnish supermarket with the most reliable supply chain, there was no point having a list.  You went to the shop and you bought what they had.

During the years I lived there and then visited afterwards, what was available improved immeasurably, but in my first three to four months grocery shopping required a degree of dedication I would never previously have thought I had in me.

I made my first trip back to the UK after nearly five months of being away.  I stayed with a friend in London and one day went with her to Sainsburys.

I will never forget that feeling of being assaulted by choice.  I stood transfixed in front of the the array of lettuce, utterly incapable of making a selection.  The only salad things I’d seen while I was away were aging bowling ball iceberg lettuces tightly wrapped in plastic.  To be presented with all shapes and sizes of lettuces as well as bags of mixtures, rendered decision making impossible. I wanted to look at them all before I picked one; I wanted to choose exactly the right one.

Eventually my friend came to find me, picked a bag up and threw it into the trolley with barely a second’s hesitation.  I realised I had lost my tunnel vision; that focus on only the thing you really want that makes shopping in a large supermarket possible.  You have to be able to ignore most of the options in order to escape with your sanity in tact.

When I moved back to the UK, I quickly re-established my shopping defence.  It returned quite quickly, probably of necessity.  There are whole aisles in the supermarket that I never have to visit; my eye can scan rapidly over the produce on offer, to boil down the choices without my brain becoming engaged.  Mostly, I know if I forget something, it will be there and available when I go next time.

It does no harm, however, to recall the effect of that over abundance had on me, that day.

Numbers – a Photo

It may not be an obvious step from Numbers to a graveyard, but it’s not that much of a stretch.

After the name on a gravestone, the next thing you look at is the dates, when was this person born, when did they die.  You can build a story around that information; maybe they died very young, or for their era they lasted a long time.  How extraordinary would it be to see the resting place of a person from the 18th century living into their 80s or 90s?

These photos were taken on one of the cemeteries in  Ashfield, Mass.  In its past Ashfield was a Puritan town, and the stones reveal that history.  There’s nothing fancy about any of them – just the basic information, name and dates, maybe a family relationship, and a resigned little aphorism – ‘My work is done’.

There are some splendid names on the stones, although many are worn away after years of exposure to the harsh weather; but they reveal the Puritan heritage, like Thankful, Humble, Clemency and Comfort, indicating either the frame of mind of the parents, or their future expectations at the delivery of a child.

Every society has their own way of commemorating the burial places of their dead.

One of the places I found endlessly fascinating when I lived in Moscow was the Novodevichy Cemetery.  It is the burial ground for the great and the good from the Soviet era (and some from a little earlier) who weren’t quite important enough to make it into the Kremlin Wall.

Chekhov is there, near Shostokovich, across the way from Molotov. Khruschev, the only Soviet era leader not to die in office is commemorated by a headstone which is half white stone and half black.

Graves are grouped into sectors and it is possible to see that a spirit of fierce competition survived most of the interred.  In the military section the slabs of marble grow in size as one progresses down the path, the carving more elaborate.  Every one appears to have wanted the military hardware over which they had command in life to be there with them into eternity, so many have tanks or planes depicted on the stones.  My particular favourite had a rocket launcher on top.

I used the Cemetery as the setting for a couple of key scenes in my novel set in Moscow, and I have had to address feedback on the implausibility of there being military hardware in a graveyard, and all I can say is, you’ll have to take my word for it.

One of the reasons that the gravestones and monuments are so elaborate is that together with the competition of the Soviet elite, it was one of the few ways in which sculptors and artists could get paid work, so one can only imagine the escalation of artistic ambition in each commission.

There are myriad stories of artists wreaking sideways revenge against their clients, by adding obscene or unpleasant features, which could only be observed from particular angles, to their work, but I was never able to confirm them.

Airports

I’ve probably spent more time than is healthy thinking about airports, or one airport in particular, in the last few months.  The opening chapter of my novel about Rose Fleming and her adventures in Moscow takes place in the arrivals hall at Sheremetyevo airport.

I’ve been very attached to it as a setting for the opening as it stands in as a metaphor for beginnings, a first impression of the country, and it presents Rose with a litany of challenges for which she is not well prepared.  But it has also been like a rod for my own back.

It was the first section of the novel I wrote, it was discussed in workshops while I did my Masters, I rewrote it for submission for marking, for an application for a mentor, based on her feedback and a couple of times since.  There are whole sections that I know off by heart, word for word.  Simply looking at it has, once or twice, reduced me to tears of frustration, as I know that it wasn’t working as well as it should.  When people who were trying to be helpful asked me ‘does the novel have to begin at the airport?’ I would barely manage to swallow a screaming ‘YES.’

All of the struggles Rose experiences happened to me  at Sheremetyevo, not all on the same occasion, as she has to endure.  I say that with the smug assurance of a person who passed through the hell-hole that it was in the 1990s probably a score of times; and then I start to wonder.  I have spent so many hours conjuring up the place in my memory that I am now wondering if I can tell the difference between what I remember really happening and what I have made up for the purposes of the novel.  Either way, in my pretentious moments I think it will reflect the truth of the experience(!).

Refuelling at Kathmandu airport

Airports are hideously fascinating places however you approach them; especially as the first experience of a country.  The things they have in common may out weigh their differences, but there are individual characteristics about each, and I always arrive with a mixture of dread and excited anticipation.

For a number of years I travelled a fair amount for work.  I made one trip to Brazil.  Before I went, the colleague who asked me to go said ‘I know you’ve travelled a lot, but be very careful in Sao Paulo.  Don’t walk anywhere by yourself.’

I like to think I’m pretty careful wherever I go, but, with the extra warning ringing in my ears, I had a disturbing dream on the flight.  It was commonplace for me to be met at the airport by a car sent by the office I was visiting; I would get into a car with a complete stranger, solely on the basis that he was at the airport with my name written on a piece of card.  In my in-flight dream the ‘real’ driver was lying unconscious by the rubbish bins, while the man who had left home there drove me off into the pre dawn chaos of Sao Paulo.

Cursing my over active imagination, I have never been so relieved to arrive unscathed at a hotel.

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