J K Rowling on Writing

On her website, J K Rowling has a page in which she answers the question, “Do you have tips for others trying to write?”

Ms Rowling says, ” I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing.

I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.

So forget the ‘must do’s’ and concentrate on the ‘you probably won’t get far withouts’, which are:

Reading

This is especially for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.

Discipline

Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.

Resilience and humility

These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she’d take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.

Courage

Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.

Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?

Independence

By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.

I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.

Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’”

Good Dialogue

Matthew FitzSimmons has an article on writing dialogue, dated September 1, 2021, on the Writer’s Digest website. He makes some points that wouldn’t normally be high on the last for a writing class, but nonetheless, I think they’re worth remembering.

Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of Constance, as well as the Wall Street Journal bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes Origami ManDebris LineCold HarborPoisonfeather, and The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, he now lives in Washington, DC.

Matthew FitzSimmons

Mr FitzSimmons says, “I was teaching English at a high school in Washington, D.C., when I wrote my first novel, The Short Drop. One of the perks of being a teacher is having summers off, and it took me a little over two years to finish the manuscript. At the time, I thought one of the book’s strengths was the dialogue. After all, I came from a theater background and so much of directing is thinking about the spoken word. Plus, and I don’t say this to brag, but at that point I had 40-plus years of practical, hands-on experience in “talking.” So how hard could writing dialogue really be?

Well, my developmental editor on The Short Drop, the wonderful Ed Stackler, got his ink-stained mitts on it and disabused me of the notion that a lifetime achievement award for best original dialogue was my destiny. After that, I stopped taking dialogue for granted and began to craft a personal writing philosophy on the art and artifice of dialogue. Here are a few of the guidelines I keep in mind each day I sit down at my desk.

1. No One Uses a Name Without a Reason

Ed’s first lesson was one that in retrospect should have been painfully obvious—no one says anyone’s name in general conversation. (Alright, not never, but rarely.) When a name is spoken, it has purpose behind it. A few examples to illustrate the point: 

  • When someone is trying to get another person’s attention: “Matt. What do you want from the bar?” 
  • When someone is attempting to dominate another person: “Isn’t that right, Mr. FitzSimmons?” 
  • When someone is showing off that they were paying attention when you met and actually remember your name: “Matthew, good to see you again.”

There are, of course, many others, but always for a reason. When was the last time you used the name of your best friend?

2. Hemingway’s Non Sequiturs (or, Not Everyone is Having the Same Conversation)

Whatever your opinion of Ernest Hemingway, the man was brilliant with dialogue. I strongly recommend his short stories—“Hills Like White Elephants”, for example, is a masterclass of elliptical dialogue. But it was a couplet of dialogue between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes from chapter IV of The Sun Also Rises that taught me that the most interesting dialogue is rarely a straight line. It goes:

“Don’t worry,” Brett said. “I’ve never let you down, have I?”
“Heard from Mike?”

Not a lot to it until you consider that Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett and that Mike is Brett’s latest husband. Read it again. Now what was merely an innocent non sequitur becomes a cutting, passive-aggressive barb more incisive than any five-page argument. How people answer, or don’t answer, questions is an incredibly useful tool for revealing relationship, character, and agenda.

3. Complete Sentences/Correct Grammar

Dialogue composed of nothing but complete sentences will sound false to the ear. Grammar also tends to take a backseat as well. A character who uses who/whom correctly in casual speech is revealing a lot about their background. More often than not, people use shortcuts to limit the number of words necessary to communicate information. One example: Personal pronouns are frequently omitted—“I’m running late,” often becomes “Running late,” and so on. Listen to, and become a student of, how people speak, and what it can tell a reader about your characters.

4. Multitask

I always aim for dialogue to perform more than one purpose. If a passage of exposition is absolutely necessary, I always ask, “What other jobs can that dialogue be performing in terms of character and story?” Small talk is especially challenging, because as a species we (sadly) depend on it to navigate almost every social interaction. In prose, small talk is deadly to a reader’s interest and less is definitely more.

5. Not Everyone Sounds Like Me

If you spent any significant time around me, you’d quickly pick up on my conversation style, my verbal tics, and my sense of humor. When I first began writing seriously in my 20s, there was a tendency for all of my characters to sound like versions of myself. What was pleasant in small doses (I hope) was catastrophic in large ones (the world really doesn’t need more than one Matthew FitzSimmons in any conversation). It was an incredibly important self-discovery. I realized that if all my characters sounded like me that I wasn’t putting in the work to fully realize each of my characters. A habit I’ve developed in the years since is to write “interviews” with my characters to think through how they speak and why. Once I understand their conversational posture, I have a much better insight into who they are as people.”

Mr FitzSimmons point about people not using names was brought home to me when the manuscript for my novel Nebrodi Mountains came back from the editor with many names deleted. And I particularly like Hemingway’s not sequiturs as a clever dialogue device.

How Not to Lose The Plot

James Gault has an article on the Voice of Literature e-zine in which he discusses the elements of plotting.

James says, “I write mostly political thrillers with a touch of humour, set in the present but sometimes with references to the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of my books are in the Scottish vernacular. Some are really comic novels. They always have references to social issues. I try to offer readers interesting and engrossing characters, and favour relatively complex exciting plots with more than one unexpected twist in them.”

James Gault

He says, “What is a plot? Is it just the series of events that occur in a work of fiction, what we might call the story? Or is it perhaps more specific than that? Words can be hijacked to mean whatever the writer wants, and in this case I am shamelessly going to do that and define a plot in a specific sense.

A plot is a story with certain characteristics. For my definition, I am borrowing from a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, in which he analyses and classifies the stories of works of fiction from different eras and from poems, plays, novels and films. You may not agree with all his classifications, but he puts his finger on what is perhaps the essential element of a fictional plot: a character is presented with a problem and has to overcome the challenges of solving that problem.

In a way, all fictional stories (and possibly all interesting real life ones) fit this model. The structure is obvious in certain genres: mysteries, thrillers, romance etc. Other genres do not at first sight appear to conform, and these I would call episodic genres. They include biographical novels, sagas, slice of life stories and so on. In these cases, there is no central problem to be solved, but a series of different problems which arise and are resolved.  So they are more a collection of related plots, tied together by a central theme. For me, this kind of book requires much more talent from the writer, who has to find some other narrative drive to pull readers through to the end of the work. 

Of course, the path to coming up with the solution to the main plot problem is normally long and tortuous. Other, smaller problems arise along the way, obstacles are put in the path of the protagonist, attempts to move forward are thwarted and misleading information is presented and misinterpreted with disastrous results. Unexpected plot twists make readers stop and re-evaluate their conclusions so far, and set their imaginations off in new directions. There is often a false ending, where everything seems to be resolved and then some forgotten fact or incident raises its head, plunging the reader back into the problem and looking again for a secure and safe answer, but with heightened suspicion now. Without a good helping of all of these ingredients, no narrative can expect to hold a reader’s attention to the end.

I’m going to risk an oversimplification here. There are other elements to novels, like writing style, atmosphere, accurate details, but I would contend that to be effective, the two main essentials are character and plot. So, for a novel (or play, or film, or TV drama, or narrative poem) to engage its audience. there are two essential  goals the writers must reach:

  • find an interesting and difficult problem for the protagonist to solve
  • create main characters with whom readers can identify as they try to solve the problem.

Achieving these goals may not result in a best seller, but I do not think any success can be achieved without them.”

Sex in Literature?

There is an article in Literature News dated 18 December 2020, written by an anonymous subscriber, which struck me as being quite indicative of the times. The article is subtitled: ‘Yes, it used to be classic but now it’s mostly crass!’

I have edited the article which appears below:

“Modern literature in English, the books published after 2010, mostly, have been popular because of many factors that have affected the sensibilities, choices, preferences and ideals of the masses. However, for a certain group of readers, increasing obscenity in casual literature is also a reason that has increased their interest in literature, frequency in buying and reading books and also took them away from what we can call sensible and meaningful literature. Well, all of it, most of the times, comes down to the description of sexual and intimate moments in literary work. For example, works like Fifty Shades of Grey have taken it too far, when we talk about the international literary horizon.

“I want to f*** your mouth, Anastasia, and I will soon,” his voice is hoarse, raw, his breathing more disjointed.”

This comes from E. L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the extract below may be said to be something more:

“Keep still,” he orders, his voice soft but urgent, and slowly he inserts his thumb inside me, rotating it around and around, stroking the front wall of my v*****. The effect is mind-blowing—all my energy concentrating on this one small space inside my body. I moan.”

So, anyone can read, the intimate moments have become intense (in the literature of the day) and their descriptions have become raw, direct and even more than what could actually be. And this may be called a sudden outburst because mainstream literature has been filled with such works by the novelists who have taken it to the next level while describing the sexual scenes. Authors have begun providing a special set of readers with what cannot be exhibited even in the inline content platforms.

“He kissed my nipples. He moved up and kissed my collarbone. He kissed my chin and then my lips for several minutes. He tugged at my panties. My heart beat fast. Was I really going to get fully naked in front of a man?”

There are many new authors who are coming up with even ‘better’ versions, even more explicit details. It makes things aroused for a moment or two, an hour or two and may meet the sexual fantasies of readers (especially teenagers and youths for whom things are all new). However, in this process, what we forget is ‘fiction’ and the target readers of these authors seldom judge such books on merits. Problem for none and a win-win situation for the novelists.

In those days, when the authors like Lawrence and Hardy tried to portray sexual actions on the pages of their novel, things were very different and everything was almost ‘beautiful. Things were suggestive, narrated wonderfully and also felt good to read. This may be coming out of my bias for classics and against the modern nonsense which is served in the name of realism. However, you can realise more if you read these lines by Lawrence which detail a scene of love-making between Paul and Miriam in Sons and Lovers:

“She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him.”

And you can feel the sentiments in the extract below but you cannot find that obscenity:

“And afterwards he loved her—loved her to the last fibre of his being. He loved her.”

Now, the readers may have their say on what they want to enjoy and to which extent. There is nothing that I would ask them to leave or accept. However, as a critical thinker, I find modern description of love-making rather elaborated to the naughty sides of our conscious. It is, however and somehow, doing great with the time.”

I agree with the sentiments of the writer. For me, literary fiction (as distinct from generic fiction) should employ the imagination of the reader. When characters engage in love-making, it is enough to set the scene and concentrate on revealing the emotions of the couple. This defines their relationship. ‘Mechanical’ details of the interaction, while possibly of peripheral interest to the reader, distract from an understanding of the relationship.

Review: Freezing Order

I bought this book on a whim, knowing nothing about Bill Browder or his earlier best seller, Red Notice. Browder is an American-born, British financier who made his name and fortune in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russian companies were being privatised.

Bill Browder

Starting with $25 million in seed capital, he was able to grow Hermitage Capital to $4.5 billion in assets held. In 2005, Browder was blacklisted from Russia as a ‘threat to national security’. He claimed that his activist investor work was interfering in the flow of money between corrupt bureaucrats and their businessmen accomplices. In raids by corrupt Russian officials in 2007, the corporate seals of Hermitage were stolen, allowing the thieves to apply for and receive a corporate tax refund of £230 million. Remaining in Russia to look after Hermitage’s interests, Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, charged with tax evasion and died in prison after mistreatment. In retaliation, Browder persuaded the US Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which provides for Russian human rights activists to be sanctioned. A similar act has been passed by the European Union and other countries. Browder testified that President Putin is “the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world”, building a fortune by threatening Russian oligarchs and getting a 50% cut of their profits. He said, “I estimate that he has accumulated $200 billion of ill-gotten gains from these types of operations over his 17 years in power. He keeps his money in the West and all of his money in the West is potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation. Therefore, he has a significant and very personal interest in finding a way to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions.”

The book covers the period 2008 to 2018, but it begins with Browder’s attempted arrest in Madrid in 2018 by Spanish police on a politically motivated Interpol arrest warrant which indicated that Browder was wanted in Moscow for ‘fraud’. At the time, he was in Madrid to meet with Spain’s top anti-corruption prosecutor. Through the rest of the fast-moving book, one is introduced to dozens of corrupt Russian officials and intermediaries, their actions and their photographs. There are many instances of Russian citizens who die under suspicious circumstances after becoming a threat to the official Russian line. One also meets the sleazy Western lawyers and intermediaries, who will do whatever Russia asks in exchange for a big payday. During his travels to testify and to promote the Magnitsky Act, Browder had to deal with constant interference, kidnapping threats, honey traps, defamation, threats to his family, and counter suits. Russian officials often turned the truth on its head to counter a threat. For example, a claim was made that Browder was actually the one who arranged the $230 million tax refund and took the money. Russian laws are ignored and contravened by officials.

As one reads the book, the reader feels that he is reliving what happened in real time. There is minute-to-minute detail of crucial events and the play of emotions.

After reading this book, and observing the events in Ukraine, I believe that the Kremlin and Putin are a major threat to Western democracy and the welfare of the Russian people.

Writing Backstory

There is an article on the Writer’s Digest website written by Jenna Kernan in which she says, “How much backstory is too much backstory, and how do we know when we haven’t given enough?”

Jenna Kernan

‘Bestselling author Jenna Kernan writes gripping domestic thrillers. Her 2021 release, A Killer’s Daughter, won the bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards in the popular fiction category and her next release, The Adoption, arrives in May 2022 and features a couple whose adoption goes from blissful to terrifying when a dark secret and menacing stranger threaten the baby.’

Ms Kernan says, “My upcoming domestic thriller, The Adoption, has a complicated backstory. That got me thinking how best to weave all those interesting, life-changing events from the past into the book. These experiences proved pivotal in the thriller, but how to reveal the past for the biggest punch in the present?

1. Don’t relate more than the briefest backstory in the first chapter because you need to create momentum, and backstory will stop progress dead. Too much too early can halt the main plot. Also, the reader won’t care about all those details until you’ve established empathy for and curiosity about your protagonist.

2. Do avoid dropping a block of backstory as introspection, where the protagonist is deep in thought. Consider dribbling in backstory, drop-by-drop, like a drip coffee maker. I know of one popular author who writes out the entire traumatic experience of each protagonist in real time, including dialogue. After she has this all-important, pivotal, life-shaping, worldview-shifting scene, she breaks it into tiny pieces and inserts it as internal thought at critical times in the first half of the story. It works and keeps the narrative moving. So, consider breaking up the flashback and weaving it into several scenes for greater impact.

3. Don’t forget that introspection is only one way to introduce backstory. Other options are dialogue and action.

4. Do use actions to present core beliefs forged in the past. Does your character repeatedly check the front door lock as they recall a traumatic experience with a home invasion?

5. Don’t skimp on the use of discourse to reveal backstory. A conversation or argument is an interesting way to reveal a character’s past. Dialogue amps up the conflict more effectively than a slap. Who can forget the plot shifting backstory dialogue, “Luke I am your father?”

6. Do show a character holds a certain mistaken core belief because of a past trauma or life-shaping event. Such backstory details can make irrational actions believable. In fact, if you want a character to adopt a particular conviction, creating the right past experience is critical. Your characters come to situations holding certain core beliefs and assumptions and will respond accordingly. A person attacked by a strange dog might assume all big dogs are dangerous unless additional life-experiences oppose this belief and cause the character to change, for example, by meeting several lovely, gentle big dogs.

7. Don’t make the backstory more compelling than the forward story. The backstory creates the character’s worldview, their belief system, and the mistaken belief which will change as they experience their journey. But the past isn’t the story, or it should be told in real time.

8. Do consider using a flashback for a longer backstory incident which relates to the forward narrative. Some writers avoid flashbacks, others use them to great effect.

9. Don’t create details which do not affect the narrative or aren’t needed to understand the story or your protagonist’s motivation and beliefs. Remember, not everything which happened in a protagonist’s past applies to the main plot. If there is no dog in your story, you don’t need to have the protagonist mention he hates them unless this is the reason for the fight with his dog-loving girlfriend.

10. Do relate backstory naturally, avoiding contrived reveals. You know, those scenes when one character explains something which another character already knows for the sole purpose of disclosing this information to the reader. “Remember when we were attacked by that bear, and it tore your arm off?” The reader might be thinking, “Oh, so that’s how that arm came off!” and then, “Wait a minute, that other character should definitely know that without being reminded.” Two characters talking about stuff they clearly already know is an awkward way to deliver backstory, so avoid it when possible.

11. Don’t let anyone tell you backstory shouldn’t be in your story. It might well be the most important part of your characterization.

12. Just do be conscientious about how, where, and why you include backstory.

This all very good advice. Backstory can be vital to a vibrant story, if just enough is revealed. Too much becomes a distraction. I should add that there is another way to tell backstory apart from introspection, dialogue and action. It can also be told through research on the Internet or the media.

Review: Me and White Supremacy

I was attracted to this book by a favourable review and by it having been on the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was written by Layla F Saad, “who is a writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change. As a East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born in and grew up in the UK and currently lives in Qatar, Layla has always sat at a unique intersection of identities from which she us able to draw rich and intriguing perspectives.”

The book cover

You’ll notice the subtitle, “How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”. Before I opened the book, I didn’t expect to learn a great deal from it, but I do recognise my privilege, having grown up in an environment of private education. And I think it is fair to say that my mother and grandparents were racist. I never accepted my mother’s views, or the views of my Navy colleagues who were white, Southern officers. I felt they were wrong, but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t ‘call them out’.

Ms Saad’s book is very well organised. After several chapters which lay the groundwork very clearly and well, the book has a chapter-a-day format for four weeks. In each chapter, a particular aspect of white supremacy is described in depth. There is a chapter, for example, on white fragility in which the action is explained, examples are given, when it shows up, why it’s important to understand it, and some searching questions for the reader on his/her experience and understanding of white fragility. The reader is asked to write their answers in a journal. For me the number of actions which make up white supremacy is astonishing. Many of them, like tone policing, I never heard of before, but I could see how each action contributed to the white supremacy structure.

Toward the end of the book, Ms Saad begins to move the reader gradually toward action, with chapters like, You and Your Friends, You and Your Family, You and Your Values, You and Losing Privilege, You and Your Commitments. She lists a number of possible commitments. One, for example, is “I am committed to my lifelong antiracist education by . . .” There is also a section toward the end of the book that deals with how groups should work through the book together.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its persuasiveness. Ms Saad’s tone is friendly, factual, clear and certain. She knows what is wrong and how to correct it. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It should be required reading for every sensible white person.

New Novel: Grand Uncle Bertie

My tenth novel “Grand Uncle Bertie” has just been published by Austin Macauley.

The synopsis of the novel is: Granduncle Bertie is the story of a frightened but determined man’s struggles to live a life that has value for him and others in the face of death.  It is set in contemporary Wandsworth, London.

Sarah, a gay, free-spirited artist in her late twenties, accepts the assignment from her granduncle, Bertie Smithson, to write his memoir.

In her first interview, Sarah discovers that Bertie has a morbid premonition of his own death brought about by his father’s remonstrations against God during his fatal illness.  During his mother’s funeral, Bertie reveals his own agnosticism, and his brother’s partner tells him that the fear of death can be overcome by a combination of faith, a deeply satisfying vocation, and meaningful family relationships.  Bertie has none of these.  With the death of his mother, Bertie must also become the patriarch of the family.

Bertie and his wife, Jo, move into his parents larger, memory-filled home.  During a holiday in Seaford, Bertie is shocked by the sudden death of a close relative.  This reinforces his own fears that his life may be cut short.  Bertie turns to his Catholic wife, Jo, for solace but Jo tells him that for his faith to be real, he must develop it himself.

Later, Bertie is shocked to discover that Jo had an affair with another man.  He confronts Jo who confesses her ‘dreadful sin’ in agony.  Bertie weighs the alternatives and forgives her.

Confronted with a series of family misadventures, including an incipient affair, theft, and selfishness, Bertie learns that a patriarch must be a disciplinarian as well as a wise leader.

Bertie is unable to relieve his younger brother Jason’s depression. When Jason commits suicide, Bertie fails to understand Jason’s death.

Sarah recalls Heather, Bertie’s granddaughter, who dies of leukaemia in spite of a stem cell transplant. Bertie wishes he could have given up his life to save her.

There is an argument between Bertie and Jo about whether their youngest, Elizabeth, should have an abortion as a result of a failed liaison, Bertie accompanies his daughter to the clinic.

In chance meetings with the ‘Professor’, a black mystic-philosopher, Bertie is introduced to the idea of a ‘fourth dimension’, a spiritual universe which parallels the matter-space universe.

Later, Bertie, in his struggle to find faith, discovers the Jewish concept of Emunah, a commitment to God. In debates with a Catholic priest, he acknowledges the role of the devil in human tragedies. 

Determined to start a meaningful second career as a writer of children’s books, Bertie overcomes obstacles and enjoys success with Sarah as a writer-artist team.  He learns that Sarah is gay.  Despite her fears, Bertie accepts her.

 Bertie discovers Hindu concepts of an infinite universe. He tries to reconcile the events of his life, concluding that life comes from God in the form of a spirit.

Enrolling on the Alpha Course, Bertie experiences awareness, completeness and asylum that never leaves him.  With Jo, he discovers the delight of teaching year four Sunday school.  He learns that he has an incurable brain cancer and dies in his sleep, surrounded by family and friends.

When I first drafted Granduncle Bertie, the narrator was the protagonist, and one literary agent told me that the story lacked tension. In order to increase the temperature of the narration, I re-wrote it to make Sarah, a young woman with a different view of life the co-narrator. This allows for disagreements and different interpretations of events.

Publishing in a War Zone

There is an article on The Bookseller website if April 8, 2022, written by Kateryna Nosko, a Ukrainian publisher, who describes how colleagues and peers continue to write, publish, sell and salvage their work in the midst of war. At the top of the article is this photograph of an empty Ukrainian stand at an international book fair:

The Ukrainian strand at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Ms Nosko says: “It is the 42nd day of the war, and we continue living in the traumatic landscape. Sometimes this landscape shakes even more, such as when we and the whole world witnessed the photos of the Russian crimes in Bucha and Irpin, the Kyiv suburbs. After this, words become powerless. What arrives is a state of numbness. 

In this sense, the Ukrainian stand at the international book fairs manifest this desolation. The organisers say the idea of the empty stand in Bologna shows that Ukraine is at war, and the publishers are saving lives: their own and the ones of their loved ones. Indeed, today such a thing as a trip to an international book fair is blocked. Still, there is a feeling that publishers and cultural agents, who continue working or are already abroad, should turn the empty stalls into a platform for loud Ukrainian voices that represent the contemporary Ukrainian cultural and book publishing sectors. 

Because of the impossibility of talking about war when it unfolds in one’s country, images with short captions seem helpful. A week ago, a comic strip was released by Borys Filonenko and Danyl Shtangeev called “How to protect yourself and save others when you are a terrorist leader” The comic has 10 pages and resembles an instruction manual. All images are low-quality and grainy, as if from soviet handbooks. Filonenko wrote the text in an hour and a half after seeing the stage during a concert rally in Moscow’s Luzhniki where Putin spoke on 18th March. The scene resembled a cage and became a key element of the comic. The work took a week in total, but only because there is not enough time for making a comic nowadays. While the authors were working, the missiles fell on Western Ukraine: Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Khmelnytskyi. Shtangeev’s mother called him for the first time in two weeks, but the call was only eight seconds long as she was in Rubizhne, right on the frontline. During this time, the Mykolaiv Regional State Administration, where some people were staying, was bombed and destroyed. Our friends – artists from Mariupol – from whom we’d heard almost nothing since the beginning of the war were finally found.

Meanwhile, with help our publishing team has managed to rescue some book stock from Kyiv and Kharkiv. In particular, we rescued copies of art book KYIV by Sergiy Maidukov, by an artist who often creates illustrations for the New Yorker. He likes to draw from life in the city, but now it isn’t easy to manage. On the streets of Kyiv, as soon as you get a camera or a tablet out, the Territorial Defense comes up to you to identify who you are and why you are recording. This is necessary to determine whether you are working as a saboteur or enemy reporter.

Our office, where some of the books by Sergiy Maidukov are stored, is located in the Kyiv historical city centre, in Podil, on the right bank of the river. On a regular day before the war, we would put a key from our office in our pocket, and we would take the number of books needed for delivery and bring them to the post office – a straightforward set of actions. During the war, all of this doesn’t seem as clear anymore. Firstly, only one team member remained in Kyiv – our designer Dima Frolov. However, he didn’t have a key. Apart from a neighbour on the left bank, no one did. This made the task even more difficult since the bridges are blocked, and those that remain open are dangerous to cross. Still, this hadn’t stopped Frolov from going to the left bank, spending three hours in traffic while all the block-posts checked the documents and the car tank several times. The next day he managed to send the books to Western Ukraine. 

When we published KYIV by Sergiy Maidukov last year, Maidukov said that the book was his declaration of love for Kyiv.

Several days ago, the Russians were pushed away from the Kyiv region. So, Kyiv citizens are gradually returning to the capital, even though the government says there is a significant death threat. The people are coming anyway, a remarkable testament to their love for Kyiv.

Summing up this story about the evacuation, I want to say that when the books finally arrived in the west of the country, in theory to a “safer place”, that night, not far from the storage where we put them, the missile struck an oil depot. Neighbours’ windows flew out, but no one was injured. A few kilometres from the explosion, the books were also not damaged. I realised that wherever we looked for quiet places, it was still dangerous everywhere. 

Yet, people keep ordering books online, and there are some open bookstores. We, in turn, began to send the orders where delivery allows. However, in my last column here I wrote that we were not planning to deliver the orders yet. We decided to transfer the proceeds from the book sales to two charitable organisations: the Social Adaptation Complex, where adults with mental disabilities live, and Sirius – the biggest dog shelter in Ukraine. 

For the first time during the war, we managed to print a stock in Ukraine. Brave printing staff in Kyiv have finished printing and stitching our new book Conversations about Architecture with Oleg Drozdov and Bohdan Volynsky, which was interrupted by the war starting in February. Unfortunately, the most powerful printing houses are located in Kharkiv, which is in the East of Ukraine, and they cannot operate since the city is constantly under shellfire. Recently, the world-famous Ukrainian poet and writer Sergiy Zhadan came under fire in Kharkiv, which he announced on Facebook. Yet, this hasn’t stopped him from volunteering and going to the city’s most dangerous areas. He writes about Kharkiv nearly every day. One day, he said that Kharkiv residents were cleaning around their houses, raking glass and bricks, because they were used to the cleanness of the city. In the same way, we in the publishing industry, strive to continue doing what we are used to.”

The Ukrainians are amazing!

Great Villains!

Marc Chacksfield has a post on Shortlist.com in which he identifies the 40 worst (or best?) villains in literature.

“As Editor in Chief of Shortlist, Marc likes nothing more than to compile endless lists of an evening by candlelight. He started out life as a movie writer for numerous (now defunct) magazines and soon found himself online – editing a gaggle of gadget sites, including TechRadar, Digital Camera World and Tom’s Guide UK. At Shortlist you’ll find him mostly writing about movies and tech, so no change there then.”

Marc Chacksfield

Marc says, “To have a hero, you need a villain. And in the annals of literary history, there have been some downright scoundrels, to put it mildly – as this best literary villains guide showcases. No deed is too dark, no action too despicable for this list of utter reprobates. You should feel very very glad that these dastardly characters are confined to the pages of the books that contain them.

1. Shere Khan (The Jungle Book) Author: Rudyard Kipling He had a tough start in life, being born with a crippled leg, and given a derogatory nickname by his own mother (“Lungri – the lame one”), but that doesn’t excuse Shere Khan becoming the villainous creature that he did. Scheming to disrupt the Wolf Pack and claim the life of young Mowgli, this evil tiger will stop at nothing to obtain his prey. A tough upbringing is no excuse you know (his Dad was probably quite nice).

2. Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem) Author: Arthur Conan Doyle The good detective’s arch-nemesis ruled the criminal underground of London and this evil mastermind was one of the few who actually rivaled Sherlock’s intellectual capacity. Ruthless, vindictive and remorseless, he will stop at nothing to destroy Sherlock. One critic has epitomised Moriarty as “crime itself”, whilst Sherlock himself describes him as the “Napoleon of Crime.”

3. Norman Bates (Psycho) Author: Robert Bloch A woman is found dead in Bates’ apartment. Bates is convinced it is his mother, but it is revealed that Mrs Bates committed suicide years earlier, taking her lover with her. In actual fact, Bates’ villainy is revealed in a dark secret: he was the one who killed his mother and her lover. His dissociative personality disorder causes him to assume the identity of his mother, Norma, who was the one who murdered Mary. Here’s the kicker: he stole and preserved her corpse, dressed up in her clothes and spoke to himself in her voice. Psycho indeed.

4. Count Dracula (Dracula) Author: Bram Stoker Vampire lovers of late might contest this one, but Count Dracula is the ultimate blood-sucking villain. Different from traditional Eastern European vampires, Dracula’s charm is what makes him all the more villainous; enticing victims by seducing them, only to inflict a fatal bite.

5. Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon) Author: Thomas Harris Not only a psychotic murderer, Hannibal Lecter took it one more step too far by sinking his teeth into cannibalism. Having been consulted as a psychiatrist by the FBI on a series of murders, Lecter helps agent Will Graham through the case before revealing that it was him who committed the crimes. Following a lengthy incarceration in a mental facility, Lecter is approached by Graham to catch another culprit by the name of the Tooth Fairy; Lecter finds him and leads the murderer to Graham’s home, with an order to kill him and his family.

6. Captain Hook (Peter Pan And Wendy) Author: JM Barrie He’s got a hook for a hand, he’s a pirate, and he hates Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. There you go. Apparently, he’s also apparently the only man who Long John Silver ever feared. He loathes Peter Pan for hacking off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile, as well as for Peter and the Lost Boy’s innate moral goodness. He captures Wendy, challenging Peter Pan to a final duel. He gets an ending that is well and truly deserved.

7. Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda) Author: Roald Dahl Children’s books get all the best villains, and Roald Dahl created more than most. The worst of a despicable bunch is Mrs Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. A cruel sadist who hates children (ideal for a teacher), tortures them in a glass-and-nail-filled cupboard known as “The Chokey” and torments her nicest member of staff, Ms Honey, Trunchbull is a true bully, and a fantastic villain.

8. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) Author: Ken Kesey A true monster of a woman, Nurse Ratched is every hospital nightmare rolled into one ultra-villainous character. Ruling over a mental institution with absolute power, she uses fear, humiliation and brutality to abuse her vulnerable patients – at least, until Randle McMurphy arrives. Next time you have a slightly cold, unfriendly nurse remember – it could be a whole lot worse.

9. Annie Wilkes (Misery) Author: Stephen King Mentally unstable Annie takes Paul Sheldon in after he breaks both his legs in an accident. As the writer of her favourite novels, Wilkes’ reveals a psychotic obsession for him and his books, taking him hostage, subjecting him to psychological and physical torture and forcing him to write his latest novel how she wants it. It’s also revealed that she’s an infamous serial killer. She stabs a state trooper with a wooden cross and runs him over with a lawnmower, after having chopped Sheldon’s foot off with an axe, setting it alight with a blowtorch.


10. Bill Sykes (Oliver Twist)
Author: Charles Dickens A cruel and vicious man, a criminal and murderer, Sykes’ lawless behaviour leads him into a life of destitution and immorality, taking up with a prostitute and carrying out petty crimes. Despite Nancy’s love for him, Sykes brutally murders her when he thinks she has betrayed him. The murder is especially graphic and gruesome, especially for a Dickens novel.


11. Sauron (Lord Of The Rings)
Author: JRR Tolkien Tyrannical ring bearer Sauron’s insatiable lust for power provides the foundation for his villainy in the Lord of The Rings trilogy. Desperately seeking the tenth ring in order to bind the magical power that surrounds it, Sauron will stop at nothing to achieve his evil goal, including torturing the little critter Gollum to find the missing ring’s whereabouts. He’s the all-seeing eye and a source of true evil and villainy to the arbiters of good.

12. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) Author: Bret Easton Ellis To call Patrick Bateman a villain is probably underplaying it a little. A wealthy and successful investment banker yes – but also a violent psychopath, whose hobbies include drug addiction, murder, rape, cannibalism, mutilation and necrophilism. Of course, whether or not any of the violent acts described actually happen or are just figments of his own imagination is open to debate, but this is his story and he is the undisputed villain of it, so in he goes to the list.

13. Humbert Humbert (Lolita) Author: Vladimir Nabokov Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, uses wordplay and humour in his writing, whilst also seemingly expressing regret for many of his actions, but the fact remains that he is a paedophile, taking the young 12-year-old Dolores, aka Lolita, and leading her into a life of abuse at his hands. Nabokov’s genius lies in making us almost sympathise with him – but he remains a undisputed villain.

14. Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) Author: J.K. Rowling A foe so fearsome that people are scared to say his name out loud. ‘You-Know-Who’, ‘The Dark Lord’ and ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ are some of his more snappy nicknames, but we shouldn’t joke, for Rowling herself described him as “the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years” – that’s pretty evil. Harry Potter’s nemesis and a psychopath with a skull-like face, red eyes and snake-like slits for nostrils, he’s unlikely to win any beauty contests: a vile and villainous creature all round.

15. Iago (Othello) Author: William Shakespeare Iago, the scoundrel, hates Othello so much that he tricks him into believing that his wife is having an affair with his Lieutenant. The sneaky devil plans a vendetta against him, driving Othello to kill his own wife. Noted as one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, Iago possesses carefully nurtured qualities of deception and manipulation. You might not shake in terror if you met him in a dark alley, but if you’ve wronged him, you’d pay.

16. Alec D’Urberville (Tess Of The D’Urbervilles) Author: Thomas Hardy “I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad, in all probability.” Evidence: he takes a liking to innocent, country bumpkin Tess, entices her into his home and forcibly steals her virginity in the mist, branding her impure. He then manipulates her into thinking her one true love isn’t returning to her. But it’s fine because Tess gets her own back in the end. Doesn’t make him any less of a bastard though.

17. Long John Silver (Treasure Island) Author: Robert Louis Stevenson One legged pirate Long John Silver was the first man to instil fear in Captain Flint. A manipulative and fearful pirate, Silver gains the trust of protagonist Jim Hawkins, only to reveal himself to be the leader of a mutiny, planning to murder the ship’s officers once the treasure is found. Jim catches Silver murdering Tom, one of the crew’s loyal seaman. Gives pirates a bad, if not rather fitting, name.

18. Kevin (We Need To Talk About Kevin) Author: Lionel Shriver That Kevin is the sociopath behind a school massacre should be evidence enough for his villainy. He also hates his mother, manipulates a girl into gouging her eczema affected skin, and it’s implied that he is behind an accident in which his sister loses an eye. Not exactly the makings of a President. His remorselessness is eerie as his mother visits him in prison, trying to understand why he killed all those children. His lack of justification is chilling – a testament to his truly villainous qualities.

19. Nils Bjurman (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) Author: Stieg Larsson This guy could possibly be one of the worst (or best) modern super villains. After the guardian of Lisbeth Sander becomes seriously ill, Nils Bjurman is assigned as her new guardian. He is a sexual sadist who manipulates Lisbeth, only allowing her access to her funds if she performs sexual acts. After a horrific rape scene (which Lisbeth tapes as collateral), Lisbeth gets her own back by tattooing “I’m a sadistic rapist pig” on his stomach. A loathsome villain at his best.

20. Cathy Ames (East Of Eden) Author: John Steinbeck Described in the novel as a “psychic monster”, and having a “malformed soul”, it’s safe to say that Cathy Ames is a high-ranking villain. From a young age, it is clear that Cathy is sexually depraved, causing harm to anyone she holds a relationship with. She manipulates men by using her promiscuity and sexual identity against them; she accuses two young boys of raping her as well as leading her Latin professor to suicide with her wily ways. Perhaps one of the worst events is Cathy’s attempt at a primitive abortion using knitting needles. When she fails and gives birth to two sons, she feels nothing for them. She poisons her beneficiary and turns her brothel into a sadistic sex den.

I suppose we might want to revise the order in which these villains are presented, maybe dropping some and adding a few others, but this list makes an interesting starting point.