Monday 28 December 2009

Writing in the Arctic Circle

If you are a writer who craves silence, there is nothing quite like the silence of the Arctic Circle in winter. Night falls by 3.00pm and then it is pitch dark until ten o'clock the next morning. Morning is no different to dinnertime the day before. It is a strange existence hovering between perma-night and daytime activities and all the time, outside, nothing moves. Even the wind does not sound in the trees because the trees are too heavy with snow to rustle their branches.

Snow covered trees on the fells

I spent a week in northern Finland, a part of Lapland, just before Christmas. We experienced temperatures as low as -30C and could only cope outside in special thermal suits and boots. I needed a balaclava to keep the tip of my nose from freezing over! The only part of our bodies exposed to the air was around the eyes. Remarkably, with the correct equipment, we were outside for hours in both daylight and at night. Our hope was to see something of the Northern Lights. To do that we had to stand out on a frozen lake between from 11.00pm - midnight and stare at the northern sky. We were extremely lucky to see the so called 'quiet' lights, on one night only.

But the Lights were not the main event of this holiday. To me, as a writer, it was the extraordinary silence and beauty of the Arctic and I felt that the extreme cold was part of that beauty. This was a landscape unlike any other I had ever experienced. In my notebook I recalled all the accounts I have read about the great polar explorers."How did they endure the wastes of the Beardmore Glacier? 9,000 feet high and Scott writes, ..huge drifts collected, and the sledges were quickly buried. It was the strongest wind I have known here this summer. Their endurance comes home to me just trying to cope outside even without blizzards and snow drifts.Our week is truly Arctic. Last week there was fog and temperatures hovered around -4C. How disappointing that would have been. Thank Heavens we are having a true Arctic experience. But the cold is really hard work!"

Miriam and cousin Val in full thermal gear.

Standing in the doorway of an igloo. Its only -17C and so I can manage without my balaclava and gloves. Feels almost warm!!

Our guide for the week was an experienced outdoors Lappi guide, Antti, who often quoted his grandfather. Dress up warm, he urged us. My grandfather says, "Warm doesn't break the bones." Antti led us through the forest, showed us all the different animal tracks from reindeer to mice, taught us how to make kindling from logs, made sure we could always tell north - ants build their hills on the south side of trees - moss grows on the south side of the trees, facing the light. And what should we do if we get lost in the forest? "My grandfather says, If you are lost, walk back home."

Pages from my notebook

Our guide, Antti, heating berry juice over the fire in a wooden Teepee. There are reindeer skins on the benches and the berry juice has traditional cloudberries, picked in the Lapland forest. It kept us going all week.

The morning is as dark as night and we had to set out alarms to know which way was up.Daylight is rationed to less than four hours by late December and the sun never appears. But gradually the sky changes from deep midnight black to Stephenson blue by 9.00am.; the colour of the ink in my old school fountain pen. By ten on a clear winter's day the sky is powder blue and the clouds are tinged with rosebud pink. It is a beautiful invigorating light and gives you the energy to set off and explore before the dark sets in by three o'clock. We don't realise how lucky we are in a London winter having 8 hours of daylight and the wonderful sun blazing sometimes in the sky. I didn't realise how much I had missed the actual sight of the sun until I arrived home and saw it blazing over Hampstead Heath.

I always collect found objects from the ground when I travel. In the picture below are two stones from the amethyst mine we visited. They contain glimmers of the purple amethyst and also quartz. There is also a piece of bark and cone from a conifer tree. I found them in a cluster lying on the snow and when I returned nothing had moved, been blown around or covered up. The forest floor remains as motionless as the trees. It is almost eerie.

To live without the sun would be to die, piece by piece, a little every day. But spending time in the great, pure silence of the Arctic was a gift and a privilege and will inspire my writing for a long time to come. Andreas Alarieston, a wonderful artist who recorded the life of the traditional Sami people says, "The reindeer are excellent predictors of the weather." In the paintings below you can see a reindeer with his Sami herder and also a painting of the old post office in the trunk of a tree. The life of the Sami people is changing but we were given a peek into how to survive in the Arctic forest no matter how harsh the weather. My notebook and pen were my survival tools.

The Reindeer Driver Rests and The Post Office at Hankankama. Paintings by A.Alriesto.

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Tennis and the marathon author

Tennis Masters, O2 Centre, London, 2009

I have been a fan of tennis and the British tennis players in particular for the last ten years. My son, who is an excellent player, got me interested and now he says I'm a better commentator than the professionals! I have really enjoyed the careers of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski and also followed less well know British players such as Arvind Parmar. In the last two years I have watched the rise of Andy Murray with great pleasure. But we also have some interesting teenage British girls to look out for, such as Laura Robson. And of course the great players keep on astonishing us, such as the one and only Roger Federer.

Federer ahead of Verdasco and looking cool.

Many Brits grumble that our home grown tennis players are useless because they don't win Grandslams,especially Wimbledon. But our tennis players have shown true grit, determination and perseverance in the face of an onslaught of criticism. What does this have to do with authors who are writing novels?

Taking a break : end of chapter?

As a novelist who has been through the ups and downs in the last three years of trying to get my novels published, I have often been inspired by the tennis players. Young people in their teens and early twenties show an ability and inner strength to bounce back from deep disappointment and failure often not seen in adults twice their age. In the middle of the long hot grandslam season, I have watched Andy Murray crash out in the quarter finals when he was expected to be a finalist, face the cameras for a gut grinding interview within minutes of huge disappointment and humiliation and then come back in the next Slam, more determined than ever.

Slouched on my sofa, with the latest rejection in my hand, or worse, total silence after waiting for weeks or months for an offer from an agent or a publisher, I have found myself taking heart as Rafa, Murray, Federer and Dojkovitch pull themselves up by their Adidas laces, shut their ears and eyes to the taunts and humiliations and get back on the court.

Writng, writing, writing.

The singles tennis court is one of the loneliest places on earth. No team mates to support you, a crowd that may well be baying for your blood and all you have between triumph and failure is the tension on your racket and your determination to persevere and win.

So it is with the writer's attic, wherever that may be. Ultimately all of the support falls away  - Facebook, critique group, trusted writing partner, tutor and the family. In order to progress along the marathon of writing a novel, the end of which may be months or even years away, with no sure promise of reward, the writer has to be able to sit alone and motivate herself to write and write and write. Just as the singles player must stand alone for the long hours of the grandslam match with only his lonely thoughts to sustain him, so must the long distance writer be able to maintain their pace and their wordcount, alone and inside their own head, hour after hour, after week, after month, after year. Little wonder that so many fall by the wayside, unable to sustain the merciless self belief.

Is it all worth it? Ask Rafa and Andy. But I think that the reward for all the hard work is worth the journey and the journey alone is worth the setting out. Happy Writing.

The launch of my first novel, 'Secret Territory,' a novel for adults which took three years to write.