Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This Story is Yellow - by Kathleen Jones


I've always thought about things in terms of colours - the days of the week came up technicolour even as a child - Saturday was white, Sunday pink, Monday a kind of dirty beige, Tuesday blue, Wednesday green, Thursday grey and Friday black.

When I was very small, four or five, I used to have nightmares that were all colour and sound.  Purple was a particularly awful screech that went straight through every nerve like finger nails on glass.  I've never been able to stand purple since.

Words, like sounds, have colours too, mostly - though not always - associated with their meanings and images.  The word 'home' comes up a kind of warm pink (psychologists please don't bother to comment!), 'trunk' is brown unless it belongs to an elephant, 'harmony' is blue - a kind of lavender blue - 'excitement' a kind of electric blue, and if you just said 'velvet' to me without qualifying the noun I'd hear a rich medieval red.

The ultimate notebook for a colour fetishist! 
A few years ago, I was in Cambridge for a literature festival and was approached in the park by a young post-graduate doing research into personality.  He asked Neil and I if we'd be willing to do the Luscher colour test.  I'd never heard of it, but it's a psychological test invented by a Swiss doctor called Max Luscher.  He believed that colour preferences were the key to fundamental personality traits, because they were unconscious, and that they revealed people 'as they really are, not as they perceive themselves or would like to be perceived'.

I happily did the test, which was great fun and entailed having to put shades of colour in order of preference. But I was knocked out by the result.  Someone had discovered all my hidden secrets! There's a lot of controversy over Luscher's test, but it gives some interesting results.  And it made me think - not just about my relationship with colour, but what it could tell the reader about my characters too.  The colours they liked, wore, bought, would tell a subliminal story about their personalities. It also made me aware of the relationship between the notebooks I use and what I write. I'm a notebook fetishist.
Katherine Mansfield was red. 

When I was a child I used to buy exercise books with pictures on - decorated covers that reminded me of the kind of thing I was going to write in them.  Finding the right notebook was, and still is, very important.  Katherine Mansfield was red;  Norman Nicholson was recycled paper with green leaves on the cover.  The Piazza, my current Work In Progress, is yellow.

I'm working on a series of linked short stories that tell the story of a year in a small Italian town.  There are 12 stories.  Each one belongs to a particular person who lives and works there.  Inevitably they all walk in and out of each other's stories and there are ongoing threads of narrative that net them together, like episodes in a soap opera.


Watercolour, Alexander Kleinloh - The Piazza
I must admit I've been influenced by European story-telling traditions;  French sagas of rural life - like Claude Michelet's 'Firelight and Woodsmoke', and the German serial Heimat set in a small village in the Hunsruck.  In these stories the details of individual people's lives adds up to the feeling of a very real community seen against the background of national  and international events. But I'm not writing an epic, more a series of cameos.

In my little Italian town there's a pizza chef with a failing marriage who is slipping into alcoholism, an itinerant busker who is able to see the colour halos of passers by, a couple of illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe and Senegal, and two ageing sisters who run a shoe shop.  There's a young Canadian sculptor who is there on a scholarship and doesn't want to leave, an elderly midwife trying to save the lives of the pigeons in the piazza, a Lebanese priest who no longer believes in anything much, fascinated by the Black Madonna in the chapel, and a middle aged Italian divorcee (who has a rebellious dog called Fidel) struggling to live on hand-outs from her stepson.

The working title is The Piazza and it's taking shape in a series of notebooks which, of course, are colour coded in notebooks of bright yellow.  The post-it notes, the pen and the box file I keep them all in are also yellow.  One more symptom of obsessive, (creative?) madness!


Individual stories have their own colours too. This is an excerpt from the (red) story of the two elderly sisters, Olimpia and Marina, who run the shoe shop.  It's called 'The Pope's Red Shoes' and the action takes place on the day when the town experiences a minor earthquake.

"Olimpia has never once, in all the years that they have been here, told Marina how much she hates shoes – their yawning mouths, protruding tongues, the laces that remind her of the corsets they had to wear when they were young.  She has never told how much the smell of leather, of tanning chemicals and dead beasts, makes her nauseous. And the white boxes like little coffins where the shoes lie together, facing each other, like lovers.  And how she dreams sometimes of disembodied feet laced into shoes of vicious colours, tip-tapping their sinister dances up the stairs, through the sala into her bedroom, right up to the bed, before she manages to wake.

But how could she have refused, when Didi sent the money from America and the letter, saying that he had heard that old Salvatore was giving up the shop and he thought that it would provide for his sisters?  And he would send the rent every month until they were making money.  A home for Marina, a roof, a way of putting bread on the table, with Marina looking at her with those dark, blank eyes, afraid of a shadow, afraid to look at a man, unable to work, or even face going out into the street alone.

And it is at this moment that Olimpia feels a tremor under her feet, as if the ground is shifting.  Then a shiver seems to run across the floor and the shelves begin to shake and rattle. At the moment of greatest intensity, when the light fittings are swinging and the shoe boxes begin to topple from the shelving, suddenly the mirror falls, as if hurled down, like a sign or a revelation. Where the mirror had been on the wall is a naked patch of stucco, cracked and peeling, in a strange reddish colour, as though the wall had bled into the plaster. . ."

Anyone who wants to read more will have to wait until I've finished the series, but I'm hoping to have them out as an E-book in a few months time.  It's a good excuse to spend more time sitting around the piazza swigging prosecco and scribbling in my (yellow) notebook!

Kathleen Jones blogs over at 'A Writers Life'
You can find her website here at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
Kathleen writes fiction, poetry and biography - you can find her latest novel, The Sun's Companion, on Amazon and in all good bookshops.



5 comments:

madwippitt said...

There's a neat idea - colour coding post-it notes so that you know which bit of paper belongs to which WiP! Thanks!

Susan Price said...

A wonderful blog, Kathleen - I really enjoyed reading it. And your WIP sounds great! - I'm already a big fan of 'The Sun's Companion.'

Nick Green said...

Synaesthesia is a fascinating phenomenon. A lot of people seem to have it to varying degrees - there are some who literally see colours as they hear sounds etc, and others like you who just have overwhelming colour associations with other senses and concepts.

I think every instance of skewed wiring in the brain can and should be exploited creatively! Each crossed wire can light up a bulb that no-one's noticed before.

Lydia Bennet said...

I'm a colour fetishist too, looking at colours, especially two side by side which produce some kind of vibration in my brain, make me feel very happy or tearful or high or all three! I tend to use synaesthesia in poetry, smells in particular usually have colours for me. Your piazza stories sound fabulous Kathleen! and the setting too. And the research is tax-deductible! a lovely post.

julia jones said...

Bally fascinating. I envy you your responsiveness - and for what it's worth I thought that possibly the greatest strength / most outstanding feature of The Sun's Companion was the artist character's response to colour and form. Can't at this moment remember her name but can remember wishing that I had the talent to convey that type of perception in words.