'TELLING THE SEA' - A New Novel And An Old One: Pauline Fisk on revisiting the past
In 1990 I started writing a novel called ‘Telling the Sea’. I’d had success with my first novel, Midnight Blue, and my publishers were on at me to write a sequel. I’d sketched out some rough thoughts, then gone on holiday. I had a young family of five children, a weary husband and a hyperactive, far-from-weary dog. We took ourselves down to the cottage where we always went on holiday, in Pembrokeshire. Only a three-hour drive from home, it was the easiest thing to do. We knew the place. We knew where to find the best baker, butcher and fish & chips. We’d been going down there for years, which meant the unwinding process didn’t begin on Day Three – it began on the journey. We only had to get over those Cambrian Mountains, heading in the direction of Aberystwyth and the long road down the Welsh coast, and the unwinding would begin at our first glimpse of the sea.
I was there in the same cottage last week, working on the kindle version of ‘Telling the Sea’. Twenty-two years ago, I didn’t have a laptop, and the idea of bringing my buzzing Amstrad would have been unthinkable – as indeed would the concept of an ebook.
The world has changed, but not at Cwm Dewi, the cottage I immortalized in ‘Telling the Sea’. That’s one of its charms. The flowers growing in the garden are unchanged, the same trees spread out their shade, the same shabby but much-loved armchairs decorate the living-room, set around the same wood-burning stove. And the same standard lamp still illuminates the scene with the same blue plastic shade.
This is a place where I feel safe. My life has had its ups and downs, and has the scars to prove it. And Cwm Dewi, too, could say the same. It’s withstood fire, flood, summer heat, winter storms, infestations of moles under the living-room floor – even my husband, Dave, and I, and our family. But every year, as we drive down its bumpy track and park next to its stone-slab bridge, it stands unchanged - a memorial to durability as well as to our family’s growing up, so that now it’s grandchildren toddling through the door, not little ones of our own; a whole new generation making Cwm Dewi their home-from-home.
And here I am with ‘Telling the Sea’, all these years later, editing it afresh not only for a new generation in my family but new readers too. I’m sitting in the same living-room where Nona’s fragile mother finally freaked out. I’m up at the window-sill where Nona sat looking down the common, all her secrets locked inside her, not knowing what to do. I’m cooking in the kitchen where Owen’s rabbit was gutted in real life, courtesy of a friend who knocked us up one midnight with road-kill in his hand, knowing I wanted to see how it was done.
Those people could be with me now. I see Nona’s mum at the sink, having taken as much as life could throw at her, head bowed as she finally loses her grip. I see her five children screaming and leaping all over the house, each with the face of a different dad, none of whom is still around. I see oldest child, Nona, aged beyond her years from trying to be sensible, feelings welling up inside her that can only be told to the sea. And, up the village, beyond the common and the trees, I see the Lark family, whose sad son Owen becomes Nona’s friend, and Harry Llewellyn, who lives in a secret caravan and sculpts fairground horses, and Griselda camping in a tent she’s been living in for years.
So much I love is in that book. I never wrote that sequel to ‘Midnight Blue’. Returning home from Pembrokeshire, a new story started writing itself. The notebooks which I always carry when I’m in ‘new book mode’ kept filling up with it. ‘Telling the Sea’ is a story that insisted on being written.
And I loved the entire process. For the year it took to write, I was captivated to the point of obsession. We visited the cottage in the autumn and again at Christmas, to see how much was changed down there by the winter months. A friend charted the common for me, between the cottage and the beach. She recorded every plant that died that winter, and when, and where; every plant that survived; when new life started creeping into the common; when the sun reached down it too, lighting up Cwm Dewi after the winter months when it stands in shadows, with just the common for company and the beach.
I’m often asked which of my published books I care for most. Over the years there have been eleven of them, so this is a difficult question to answer. Usually I say it’s whichever book I’m working on now, caught up in the creative process. Certainly all of them have claim to my affection for their different reasons, but the one I loved the process of writing most was ‘Telling the Sea’. It was sheer joy. I’d written ‘Midnight Blue’ to prove to myself that I could write a novel. Now this second novel had nothing to prove. It could just be.
When I dropped the manuscript into the postbox [yes, that’s how long ago it was; back in the days when there was no access to the internet] I felt as if it was on fire. I didn’t want to post it. Writing is its own reward, particularly when it's going well. I wanted to keep on at it and never stop. Perhaps that’s why I’ve had a gentle go again, here in Cwm Dewi at the kitchen table while my husband and grown-up children sleep upstairs and the house waits for the grandchildren to come bursting in. I felt the book needed brushing up for a new generation of readers, but perhaps, as much as anything, it needed brushing up for me.
It’s a better text now. A tighter text. I haven’t cut out stuff, nor have I added, but I have most definitely tidied up. If you’re a writer you’ll know what I mean. I expect nobody who’s ever read the book will see the difference. But I can see it, and I feel as if, by bringing it out in kindle for the ebook market, I’ve not just given the book new life but a whole new set of clothes.
The process isn’t finishing though. I have my cover artwork, courtesy of good friend and Shrewsbury artist, Pete Jones. But my manuscript still needs formatting for kindle at a time when the coming weeks and months are scheduled to be busy with other things.
But do look out for it. Remember that name - ‘Telling the Sea’. At a guess, I’d say October will be its month. But July’s been my month, going down to Cwm Dewi, that good old, same old place, and working on my good old, same old book, which I never wanted to let go - and here it is again.
Buy Smarties award-winning 'Midnight Blue'
Buy Pauline Fisk's gap year novel, 'In the Trees'