Sunday, 9 November 2014

X Marks the Legacy by Julia Jones

'And closing her eyes she saw the Wren, filled with children, going down the river before dark. “Ghosts,” she thought. Putting her hand in her pocket she felt the sharp blade of her penknife. That was real enough. She smiled to herself and went into the house.' (from The Bellamy Bird by Clare Havens)

You know how you think you've had such an exciting idea – and then everyone else has had it too? Over the last few weeks I've read four novels by authors living in Tasmania, West Yorkshire, Australia, and South West France. All of us share the lowest common denominator that we've been inspired by Arthur Ransome's 'Swallows and Amazons' series to write versions of our own. The novels are: Those Snake Island Kids by Jon Tucker, Brambleholme Summer by Duncan Hall, The Bellamy Bird by Clare Havens, The Boat in the Bay by Alan Kennedy and my own, The Salt-Stained Book

This isn't intended as a collective review of the four novels – we have our differences, our individual successes and failures. What I found fascinating was the extent to which we were all drawing on a shared inheritance which was sometimes helpful and sometimes, frankly, not. Let me introduce you to these other members of the School of Ransome who I only know via the wonders of the web.

Duncan Hall was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire. He's a songwriter and musician and performs in The Hall Brothers, a popular UK acoustic band. His first book was an academic history of music in the Labour Movement and he's also written A2 textbooks on Government & Politics and on Citizenship.

Clare Havens grew up near Pin Mill, Suffolk, lived for a while in Manhattan and now lives in Sydney where her 9 year old daughter is learning to sail on the same waters where fictional Mrs Walker began. She's a fan of film noir and of murder mysteries (particularly the Golden Age writers such as Margery Allingham and D L Sayers). Her other books include the 'Bella Street' series of detective stories for children and the first of the 'Constable Country' Murder Mysteries for adults.

Alan Kennedy is emeritus professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, and research associate at the Laboratoire de Psychologie et Neurosciences Cognitives of Paris Descartes University, Boulogne-Billancourt, France. He has carried out research into eye movement control in reading and is the author of over 100 journal articles. (I cheated there and copied from his Wikipedia entry.)  He lives in the village of Lasserrade in South West France and is the father of award-winning writer A.L.Kennedy (pause for genuflection).

Jon Tucker describes himself as 'a Kiwi ex-teacher turned adventurer'. He and his wife brought up their five children on a 38' Herresschoff ketch, NZ Maid, then one of his sons, Ben, turned the tables by shipping his father as cabin boy on a low-budget sailing adventure to Antarctica where they became trapped in pack ice in the windiest location on the planet -- and survived (more genuflection here). This resulted in Tucker's first (non-fiction) book Snow Petrel .

All of us are honest about our inspiration: we acknowledge Arthur Ransome in our credits / we join the AR Society / introduce a Swallows and Amazons-reading child into our stories and in my case, at least, get our lead characters thinking desperately 'what would the Swallows do next?' I think I'm correct in saying that all the books listed above, except perhaps The Bellamy Bird, are first efforts in fiction and there's no doubt that any writer can learn a huge amount about the craft of writing from studying those who have gone before. AR did it himself.: I would say that his early engagement with the work of R L Stevenson was seminal to the S&A series and he makes frequent, explicit reference to Treasure Island in particular. In fact constant literary allusion is one of AR's most distinctive characteristics and one which is possibly treacherous when writing a story for children today. (I'll put my own hand up here.)

Which leads to the main problem – who are we writing these Ransome-homage stories for? Actual c21st children? Other Ransome enthusiasts who will understand our references? Ourselves? Ourselves as children? The Market? Ransome isn't much help here. First he claimed that Swallows and Amazons  was written for the children of his friends, then he denied this and said he was writing from his own childhood memories. As his confidence in the success of the stories grew he was more willing to insist that he was writing them for himself – and for anyone who might 'overhear' him. 

Most of us are small-published or self-published so may find this concept reassuring. 'Write the stories that you would like to read' is a comforting, if slightly glib, piece of advice suitable for the part-timer. We Ransome-aspirants forget at our peril that AR was a professional writer who had been earning his living by his pen since he was a very young man, and by the time he wrote S & A he was also a highly experienced journalist with the journalist's imperative need to write clearly and plainly to communicate with a large unknown, unseen audience.

Swallows and Amazons was however a  new beginning and a personal gamble. He said it was a story that almost 'wrote itself' which I interpret as meaning that he wrote it out of need, to articulate something that he could express in no other way. It was a book -- and then a series -- that had to build its own audience, as truly original books do. Today he may seem a reassuring role model because his books are read as frequently by adults as by children so, if we're not quite sure who we're writing for, we can allow ourselves to hope that there'll be someone there in the 0-100 age range who'll cotton on to what we're saying

Now I believe passionately in the virtues of shared, inter-generational reading. I genuflect most deeply of all to writers (like J K Rowling) who can be loved by grandparents as well as grandchildren and I yearn for people to be able to search the library shelves for 'family' reading as they might search for 'family' films. The truth, however, is that the organisation of book data doesn't allow this and if one has any aspiration at all to be read by children, then they must be the primary category. The greater flexibility of small publishing and internet book-selling may seem to blur these boundaries but the question of audience cannot be allowed to go away. Who are these books for? Ex-children or children now? 

All of us follow in the adventure mould – rescues, treasure hunts, the righting of injustice and recovery of lost inheritance – safe enough for any generation, you might think, though we School of Ransome writers have a delicate balance to strike between realism and imagination. We have an inalienable commitment to the challenges of the natural world and cannot remove our characters to the realms of magic. Ransome was extraordinarily clever at allowing happenings that are often intrinsically smallish, to be mediated through his children's consciousness until they become convincingly large to the reader as well as to the fictional characters. His children remake and re-experience their world both through their practical engagement with it as well as their imaginative approach to mapping and re naming it. All of us attempt this in our books but, speaking for myself, I found it almost impossible to achieve without introducing an awkward self-consciousness, a mannered quality, a lack of pace and grip.  

But as soon as one gives up and commits to the baddies being irrevocably bad and the natural disasters truly perilous, there is an inevitable loss of the Ransomesque quality of playfulness and a major change in the balance of safe and unsafe.  There are ways of ameliorating this – using time-slip (Clare Havens) or making it clear that these events come from a recollected past where the children are 'set in amber' (Alan Kennedy). We can make our children really rather superbly capable and knowledgeable (Jon Tucker) or we may need to make more use of adults as Duncan Hall does with his Ransomey 'Ancient'.

None of us banish adults from our world altogether – Ransome didn't -- but if the adults are any more than ciphers they will add appreciably to our casts of character which are already large. Not for us the single heroine or hero.  There were four (even five) Swallows as well as the two Amazons and most of us replicate those numbers. And we are usually talking team work here, not single combat – worthwhile but definitely tricky. We must steer our way between the characters merging into a blur of names or slotting far too neatly into pre-determined slots – the Leader, the Home-maker, the Tomboy, the Youngest. 

I'd intended to spend more time talking about specific post-Ransome problems of this nature but I realise that I've been chipping away at the question of audience because that's what's troubling me. The central character in my current novel has done what AR's characters didn't do, she's grown older. Not by much -- she was 15 in the SSB, she's 16 now  but in this story she has taken the lead and is demanding to act on her own. Yes, there are younger children in the story but they are as secondary as the adults. It's a complicated story too, however hard I struggle to keep it simple and accessible. I don't think it's going to work for the 9-11s which was where the series began, however pleased I am when the stories are read by adults.

If you knew the number of times I have told myself I should give up and start something new. Yet I can't. It won't let me. Ransome would not have been allowed to give up once the 'Swallows and Amazons' series was established -- he had a publisher and a tangible public to keep him at work -- plus the little matter of being the only earner in his household. 

Those things do not apply here. I know quite well that it would be more directly remunerative to go and shelf stack. The idea that I am spending hours struggling with this stubborn concept for an audience of myself makes me gawp with incredulity. Somehow writing this blog has served to convince me that there's another audience category -- one that isn't human or subjective or defined by age range. And that's the thing itself. Writing in the company of other Swallows and Amazons legatees reminds me that the treasure that was finally unearthed on Cormorant Island was a book. It might or might not have been a good book but the message of the story is quite clear, if you're convinced that there's something hidden under the rocks, all you can do is keep digging. 
Claudia Myatt's first drawing for the new book (if ever!) 



23 comments:

Dennis Hamley said...

A lovely, thoughtful post, Julia. I found myself responding to it at many levels. Ransom is a model for me too. I have never, and am not qualified to anyway, written with his sailing background, which I envy you all for. But Ransom taught me how to be both detached from and involved with characters and, pricelessly, the virtues of the plain style which, simply because it's plain, can handle such a wide ranger of feeling with complete clarity. And as I've often said, it was finding Swallowdale in the pillowcase as my main Christmas present in 1944 which turned me into not only a voracious reader but started the first stirrings of wanting to be a writer. My debt to him is immense.

Dennis Hamley said...

By the way, can't wait for the new book!

julia jones said...

Thanks Dennis but wow, if you want sailing expertise try Jon Tucker! He may also speak to you about the new area of the world that you are learning to know. There is however the Ransomey danger of telling people to much, trying to instruct as one goes. I did an awful lot of crossing out of those sorts of scenes when I was revising the SSB.

julia jones said...

I should also mention that I deliberately scheduled a repeat of my Nick Green Firebird trilogy for today because I feel that there is much in there (vol 2 especially) that has a Ransome survival spirit - teamwork, coping in the natural world etc. You may think I'm wrong but you'll have a good read proving it! http://authorselectricreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/the-firebird-trilogy-by-nick-green.html

Jon Tucker said...

What a thought-provoking and honest post, Julia - worthy of genuflection in itself ! So often we feel as if we're writing in a vacuum, so it's refreshing to consider that there are others with similar backgrounds and issues.

In particular the pigeon-holing of books into narrow target audience categories is one which fascinates me too. Book-shops, libraries and even Amazon seem unable to embrace the concept of a g-rated book.

I struggled with this while writing Snake Island Kids, only to discover that a multi-layered book can appeal to children on one plane whilst successfully attracting mature age readers on a very different level. This gave me the confidence to develop Eco-Pirate Kids with even stronger adult-children interrelationships in which the whole concept of parental responsibility Vs youthful freedom can be explored on two levels.

Your new book sounds well worth the soul-searching Julia.

Jan Needle said...

nothing sensible or useful to say, julia, but thanks. i enjoyed every word, as i do every word of your books. if it's any help, i try to look at it this way: when he was alive, bill shagsper was a litigious capitalist theatre owner and actor-wannabe with a dubious relationship with his wife and a son named after a brand of cigar. and look how he ended up! I've even got some of his books.

no, it wasn't any help, was it? ah me

julia jones said...

Thanks Jon - have bought Snow Petrel and am looking forward to Eco-Pirate kids at a later date

julia jones said...

Yup - and thanks also Jan - it's always a comfort to think Billy the Bard, though not exactly cmparing like for like (or even measure for measure)

Dennis Hamley said...

Jon, as an honorary Kiwi I will be in NZ for January and February with my real Kiwi wife. We'll be variously in Christchurch (not so good these days) and Queenstown (always brilliant). If you're down that way it would be great to meet.

CarolS said...

Agree about this being a deeply thoughtful post and especially with your desire to keep digging, it'll be another very interesting book and I'll pre-order now! No pressure then - sorry.
As I'll be in both Sydney and Tasmania soon I'm grateful for the introduction to Jon Tucker, on my kindle now to join other such themed reading.

julia jones said...

Carol - you're too kind and I hope you'll enjoy Jon's story as much as I did. I'm planning to read his non-fiction next (probably clutching a nice hot water bottle!)

Alan Kennedy said...

Thanks Julia for a setting out the Ransome options - wonderful stuff! Can one of your selected band of authors have a say, because you might have missed an option. In my case I wanted to tackle a question Ransome didn’t get round to – one that I don’t think interested him much. How did his children turn out in the very long run? Susan the home-maker, for example: what on earth would she have been like as an adult? What would all that fretful cooking bring her to? I’ve not written all of my “equivalent’s” adult life yet, but enough to see that it can be an interesting question. I made my (very approximate) version of Titty a precociously talented artist. In this case I can say whether this was a curse or a blessing, because I've actually written much the rest of her life. Ransome for me has to work backwards.

Lydia Bennet said...

you can read the real life children's autobiographies/biographies which are fascinating. In Aleppo Once, and Chimes from a Wooden Bell by Taqui Altounyan (the eldest who became captain john though a girl - though she might have become part of nancy) to find out what became of them as real people, and of course Roger distinguished himself in war service and inventing the spinhaler for asthmatics. Titty in real life was a rather sad character, I like to think she'd become a famous author of historical fantasy adventures like Rosemary Sutcliffe.

Dennis Hamley said...

Val, surely the author in the Ransome gang was Dorothea of the Ds. Writing the 'Outlaw of the Broads took up a lot of her time in Coot Club. I wonder if it was ever published. I always liked Titty but she seemed to me a dreamer, not a potential writer. I didn't know she ended up a sad character. The thought quite distresses me.

Lydia Bennet said...

I always thought of Titty as a potential writer, her imagination was so powerful and she created stories and guided the others' 'mythology'. She was sensitive, and from what I gather, their mother (in real life) was totally undemonstrative to the children and this may have resulted in low self esteem and depression despite the in other ways enviable childhoods they had.

Julia, your conclusion is after my own heart, sometimes the ideas come and demand to be written, things like markets, genres, sales are secondary. Work is never wasted though and I'm sure your new book will be fabulous in every way.

Kathleen Jones said...

A lovely, thoughtful post Julia. Much to think about. Thank you.

Jon Tucker said...

Sorry Dennis - I'm based in Tasmania this summer (lots happening - Aus Wooden Boat Festival, Aus Children's Authors/Illustrators Festival) but if you're interested, there's a TARS AR Birthday event in Akaroa near Christchurch in Jan - Cheryl Paget would be delighted to have an hon Kiwi Ransome enthusiast attend I'm sure !

Dennis Hamley said...

We'll think about that. We love Akaroa.

Jenny Watson said...

Hi Julia

I'm so excited to have found your post and discovered other AR-inspired books to check out! Swallows and Amazons was the first book I read when I was a kid that really inspired my love of reading. I wanted to be those characters, and I spent many happy hours sitting in my tent at the bottom of the garden reading all the Arthur Ransome books I could get my hands on. I've written my own ode to AR, a children's book called Prove It, Josh and my husband is building us a sailing dinghy so we can sail and camp in the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. I'm looking forward to reading your book!

Jenny : )

Peter Dowden said...

Ransome on writing:

"Unless I am writing something that is good fun FOR ME, not for somebody else, I cannot write at all. ... They merely overhear me larking about for my own fun, not for theirs."

"Writing is a form of living. Readers, overhearing, as it were, an author muttering to himself, share his experience in so far as they are capable'

Anonymous said...

Wise and thoughtful as ever Julia. On the subject of who reads these books, I can only speak about Julia’s own books, having avoided the task of investigating the others for fear of disappointment. (I’ve looked at some fanfic and found it enjoyable in its way, which means only if one suspends the usual standards and expectations of literature, ie I expect it was more enjoyable to write than read). I suspect I’m going to have to get round to repairing the omission in respect of the titles/authors Julia covers.
But back to who reads them. The reason I admire Julia’s books is because, at an early stage, I could see that they deliberately set out to explore dilemmas, conflicts, situations etc that present-day children could recognise and engage with. The presence of the Ransome references was an additional benefit – a sort of puzzle which those who wanted to could explore, with the reward of discovering the Swallows and Amazons series. This might be much as Ransome would have led his readers back to Stevenson etc, though they perhaps didn’t need as much leading. In Julia’s case the hidden Ransome references (not all that hidden) are an added pleasure for adult AR-familiar readers.
Whether the series has in fact succeeded firstly in engaging young readers and secondly in leading them back to Ransome I have no evidence. Julia?? I’d hope so, but they’ve certainly given a great deal of pleasure to a lot of after-a-fashion-grownups.

Peter Willis said...

Sorry, didn't mean to post the above anonymously. The website sort of jumped me

Peter

Duncan Hall said...

Sorry for the very delayed comment on here - but I really enjoyed this blog. In terms of who I wrote (am writing...) the Brambleholme stories for - it's a tricky one! My stories are dedicated to "the Coot Club" which is not Tom, Port & Starboard and the Death and Glories, but my own band of Swallows and Amazonsy childhood friends, some of whom find themselves reshaped as characters in the stories. But I wasn't really writing for them, just thanking/acknowledging them. The immediate audience I had in mind were "the next generation" - children of my student friends (a few of whom - Miranda, Rosalind and Beatrice - leant names to Brambleholme characters) as well as that imagined wider audience. However, most feedback I have received has been from adult Arthur Ransome fans and adult readers who aren't especially Arthur Ransome fans. I would love some feedback from children who aren't related or nearly related and therefore feel they have to say they loved it whether they did or not!!