I’m delighted to be visited today by Katharine Johnson, author of Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings, and now of The Silence. She’s going to talk about her fascination with secrets, so, over to her.

KatyJohnsonI know publishers and bookshops like books that have clearly defined genres. It makes them easier to market and display which in turn makes them easier to sell. The trouble is not all readers are as easy to categorise. I’m sure there are people who only buy romance or historical novels or detective stories but I’m not one of these. I like books from lots of different genres. You’re as likely to find me reading a family saga as a thriller and some of my favourite books don’t fall into any genre that I can identify. But I suppose if I had to find a common thread to the novels I love it would be secrets. I’m drawn to stories where things are not as they first appear, and where a long-held secret is threatened with exposure and the effect it has on people when it is revealed. 

 

SecretsI hadn’t really noticed that this was the case until someone recently pointed it out. My favourite book about a long-held secret is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. To me secrets are what make people interesting. We all have them to some extent but I’m curious about how people deal with having a big secret in their life, how they feel about it and to what lengths they will go to hide it. Perhaps it’s because I’m so bad at keeping secrets myself – I’ve come to the sad conclusion that I’d make a terrible spy – that I’m fascinated by people who can do so successfully for years.

 

I suppose the first person you need to convince is yourself. George Orwell said in 1984 “If you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.”

 

SunflowersInTuscany

In my novel The Silence which is being published on 8th June the main character Abby has a secret that goes back 25 years to a summer she spent in Tuscany as a teenager. Now in her thirties, she loves her job and is happily married with two lovely little girls – but she knows that if her secret gets out her perfect life will implode.

 

TuscanVilla

Villa in Tuscany

She has driven the details of what happened during her last day at the villa to the very back of her mind and has done this so successfully that she has almost convinced herself it never happened. How else could she have got on with her life, got a degree, got a job, married – all the things normal people do? But when human remains are discovered at the villa she realises her secret is no longer safe.

 

The other thing about having a secret is that you can only be sure of keeping it if you are the only person to know about it. But Abby wasn’t the only person at the villa that day and now someone else wants the truth to be told.

 

Special Offer

TheSilenceThe Silence will be published on June 8th in eBook and paperback versions and is available on this link  Amazon – The Silence

Grab the eBook at the special pre-order price of 99p (after publication it goes up to £1.99). 

Message me (or email katy@espressomedia.net) with proof of order and you will be entered into a goodybag prize draw which includes prosecco and chocolates, an Amazon gift card and a signed paperback of my first novel Lies, Mistakes and Misunderstandings

 

Come to the Party

I’m having an online book launch for The Silence on 8th-9th June. There will be fun and games, information about the book, visiting authors and prizes to be won. Please come along! Click on this link for more details: The Silence launch Party.

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About the Author

Katharine Johnson is a journalist with a passion for old houses and all things Italian (except tiramisu). She grew up in Bristol and has lived in Italy. She currently lives in Berkshire with her husband, three children and madcap spaniel. 

 

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I’m so glad I decided to write these posts about memoir writing. I learned so much from them – first while writing them, looking up information and organising my thoughts, and then from the lovely comments, which enriched my knowledge and provided much encouragement.

As promised, I have summarised below what I learned from this challenge.

A is for Are you sitting comfortably

Out of the many lovely, encouraging comments, I chose this one:

“Memory is the grist to our mill as writers.” David Rory

B is for Beginnings

“Just as with writing a novel you can begin at a dramatic or crucially important point in your life and then go back later to show what led up to that point. Look at the way other memoir writers have done it, but then decide what you feel is right for you.” Jean Davison

C is for Craft

Angela Brown and Rosalind Adam added to my list of qualities needed to write a memoir, making:

  • Memory
  • Detachment
  • Insight into the past
  • Story-telling
  • Humour
  • Ability to draw the reader in
  • Order
  • Logic
  • Understanding
  • Perseverance
  • Honesty
  • Self-belief

Nick Wilford gave me some great advice on writing the memoir:

“How about placing a memoir in a historical context, of what was happening at the time; even if the author was not directly involved in those events it helps to build atmosphere.”

D is for Detachment

“I actually wrote a journal for a while in third person, which made me detach myself from everyday experiences, I learnt a lot from doing that.” chicaderock

“I found it easier to gain a healthy detachment when doing the editing rather than the first draft…. I think my early drafts were a necessary part of the process, and then when I was ready to put on my editing hat, I was better able to step back and decide how to shape the material.” Jean Davison

E is for Empathy

There seems to be a new sort of spam comment, which can appear to be a real comment because it pastes a sentence or two on the subject of the post. I think that’s what this is, because it seems to be part of a sentence and because the website in the link no longer exists (although searching for the string didn’t bring up any results):

“empathy is yes, in the details. Not the telling.”

Nevertheless it makes an important point. The details create empathy: the quiver in his voice, the stain on her dress, the empty glass.

F is for Feelings

“If… you don’t know what your feelings were then ‘sad’, ‘confused’ or even ‘emotionless’ are still appropriate adjectives.” Ann

“I think that the writing itself does generate feelings…. My experience is that when I write about something difficult in the past, there can be two results: either I become depressed and stuck (cause I haven’t really worked through this thing yet) – in which case I wouldn’t let anybody else read it – or I write myself to a better place.” Krina

“I think the fact that you felt you had to suppress and block out your feelings speaks volumes in itself, if you can get that feeling across to your readers.” Gill Downs

“Extracting feelings can be a tricky task. I’ve found that the best way to recall the feelings or emotions from a particular time, free writing worked well. No standards of what to expect when I wrote, simply me, a pen, a piece of paper, or three, and the release of the scene in all its horrible grammatical glory.” ~Angela Brown

H is for Humour

“Humor is so important! It’s not fair to just be intense and not allow the reader a chance to catch their breath.” AJ

I is for Insight

“When writing my memoir, sometimes I had to ask myself, could I be certain that my memories of how I felt about an incident then weren’t getting mixed up with how I feel about it now? Not always easy (though my old diaries helped a lot). I suppose this is where insight is linked to detachment, truth, memory and other aspects of memoir writing.” Jean Davison

J is for Journey

As everyone remarked, our whole life is a journey and so is the writing of it. What wasn’t said here, but was said in other posts in different ways, is that they’re not return (round trip) journeys. For better or for worse, there is no passage back to the place we were before.

L is for List of good memoirs

Nagzilla, catdownunder and David Rory added to my list to make:

  • Frank McCourt: Angela’s Ashes
  • Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle
  • Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Pray, Love
  • Alice Kaplan: French Lessons: A Memoir
  • Stephen King: On Writing
  • Barack Obama: Dreams from My Father
  • Jean Davison: The Dark Threads
  • Reva Mann: The Rabbi’s Daughter
  • John Grogan: Marley & Me
  • Jo Carroll: Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain (a travel memoir)
  • Jenny Lawson: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
  • A B Facey: A Fortunate Life
  • John Steinbeck: Journal of a Novel

M is for Memoir

The comments reflected the confusion about what a memoir is. It’s usually a part of a life as opposed to a whole-life autobiography. Some commenters also think a memoir gives the reader more freedom. As Pete Denton wrote:

“I think biographies are sometime very factual whereas a memoir is perhaps more open to creative license.

“When we were doing assignments in life writing we were encouraged to add details that were not necessarily true, but more artistic license. Paint the picture more like a story rather than be biographical.”

N is for Narrative voice

“I know that fiction is somewhat different but one does have to deal with the narrative voice in similar ways. I face these problems when I have to change from descriptive background or scene setting to present tense narrative of intimate moments or character building.
“The clunk danger is always there, too.
“I think one has to give the reader some credit for knowing what you are doing and allowing for these transitions. Most readers are able to sense how the writer is using their narrative and will be complicit in the style one chooses. They will do as theatre audiences do; they will suspend their disbelief if one carries them along in a well-paced narrative flow.
“I guess I’m saying, one can over think this process. The craft shouldn’t intrude; the art is in the hiding of the crafting. The narrator should be the reader’s friend and guide but should never bully or prod with too much crafting made visible.” David Rory

O is for Organisation

“I chose mainly chronological order starting with the point of entry into the mental health system and beginning of treatment, as this led into the main theme around which the book was focused. Later, I used some flashbacks to fill in background details about childhood and of what led up to going into hospital. I felt this worked best for what I was trying to do.” Jean Davison

P is for Proust

Royal Holloway Girl added to my list of Proust quotes:

“I think one of the most relevant things that he says (it isn’t clear how autobiographical his writing is) is how things in later life take you back to a certain point in earlier life.”

R is for Reunions for Reflective Research

Jean Davison, Royal Holloway Girl, Linda, Ann, Su-sieee! Mac, and Rachael ‘Honest’ Blair all commented on my reunion question, mostly advising not mentioning the memoir at first. Just finding things out from general chatter and leaving the memoir to emails later on. The general chatter part is harder for me than they probably realise, so I’m not sure about trying to follow this advice, but I’ll consider it.

S is for Secrets

“When I was working with kids we worked hard to help them understand that there’s a difference between ‘good secrets’ (what you’ve buying your mum for her birthday – I was rubbish at keeping those) and ‘bad secrets’ (anything that makes you uncomfortable, frightened, etc. – and most children keep these, regrettably.)

“As an adult, I’d also distinguish between things that are secret (because someone would be hurt if it were disclosed) and those that are private (anything I choose to keep to myself for my own reasons, but don’t hurt anyone.)” Jo Carroll

T is for Title, Topic, Theme and Takeaways

“Themes are also important because they help you in the marketing process. Check out the series of guest posts that I’ve got on the topic of Themes and Premise.” My Rite of Passage

W is for Why? And Wearing White

“Songs do and did often speak directly to me. When writing my memoir I put in song lyrics which spoke to me about what I was going through at the time. Sometimes a song wasn’t exactly meant to be about those things but for me it fit well with my thoughts, feelings and the events I was experiencing. But when my memoir was accepted for publication I had to take the lyrics out because it was either too hard, or too expensive, to get the copyright permissions.” Jean Davison

X is for X-ray

“This is something that needs careful thought. Are we ready for the exposure? Do we want it? Why? I think it’s important to examine our motives for writing, or more importantly for seeking publication of, a memoir before going ahead and trying for publication.” Jean Davison

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During the challenge, I visited several blogs whose authors were also doing the challenge, and read about song lyrics, recipes, animals, life in a Spanish village and more. I wish I’d had time to visit more blogs.

A huge thank you to everyone who commented here. You encouraged me to continue and taught me so much. Hopefully, this will lead to something like this:

My Memoir

But hopefully with a more exciting title and cover!

Secrets

Memoir Writing

This post is one of 26 I am writing for the A-Z Challenge on the subject of writing a memoir. I’m not an expert in writing memoirs, but I’m exploring the topic with thoughts about writing one, and am happy to share the fruits of my exploration.

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MemoirWriting-Secrets

If you’re going to mention, in your memoir, that there have been secrets in your past, you have to tell the reader what those secrets were, because the reader will want to know. Hopefully those secrets no longer have to be kept secret. Otherwise, you’d better not write about them.

In an article in the Independent, Ruth Rendell is mentioned as having written in her first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye: “Secrets, having them, creating them, keeping them and half-keeping them were the breath of life to her.” Ruth Rendell, the article says, has her own secrets although that particular interviewer found her in an unusually talkative mood and she even, though briefly, discussed her childhood.

But she didn’t say whether she had to keep secrets as a child. Maybe she did and she was good at it. I hated having to keep secrets as a child. Secrets stopped me from talking – I was so afraid of making a mistake – and that in turn took away my self-confidence.

So, while secrets have been a breath of life to Rendell’s character and, it seems, to Rendell herself, for me they have had the opposite effect.

How have secrets affected you?

Note: I love to read your comments, especially when they’re attached to the right post. Please remember the Comment link is at the top of this post.

TakingThePlungeHelp! I’m standing on the edge and afraid to take the plunge. And that’s because I can’t see what I would jump into. Is the water rough or calm? Maybe there’s no water at all and diving in would be my downfall.

Maybe I should stop playing with metaphors and come to a decision. The problem is twofold:

Outside in

If people who only know me virtually get to know me from the outside – where I live, who I live with, what I do – will they still want to know me? I want to reach everyone, and especially anyone I can help. I wouldn’t want to put anyone off by bringing my outside in.

Inside out

If people who only know me from the outside get to know my inside – my thoughts and how they impact on my behaviour – will they dismiss me as a weirdo? I don’t want to put them off either.

But I spent my childhood keeping the secrets I was told to keep. I don’t want secrets of my own. And I’ve spent my life longing to be understood. I can’t be understood if I don’t explain. I know that if my novel is published … when my novel is published … the publishing of my novel would/will make this happen anyway, but do I want it now? Isn’t it happening anyway, willy nilly? Is my only question whether to speed up the process?

Others have done it. Why not me?

Help!

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Alien outside circle

Not funny ha-ha. Funny peculiar. Peculiar for me, that is.

I spent my childhood on the edge of the social circle, always looking for the way in, but never finding it. I spent most of my adulthood locking myself away from society and its imagined dangers. Divulging anything about myself that was a bit sensitive has always been hard due to conflicting voices within me. And also because no one would reciprocate. Why would anyone want to confide in me when they have so many others to choose from?

So, I was surprised when I received the email from J that I mentioned before. Just because it’s unusual for me to find myself in the position of confidante. And I felt that J deserved a serious and helpful reply.

J’s problem was not one that I knew about through personal experience, although I had read about it before. So I was hoping for some responses to my questions. On reflection, it’s not surprising that there weren’t any. Like J, anyone with experience of it probably wouldn’t want to announce it.

Do you tell all or keep things to yourself? How do you decide who to tell?

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 Baby

In my previous post, I suggested that writers’ blogs are shallow and uninteresting. By writing that, I have been introduced to some very different blogs, and especially mapelba, who poses some thought-provoking questions. The question in her latest post is: “Where do you come from? Does your answer explain your writing?” Some people come from some very dark places. I come from a place of love, protection and loneliness….

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I come from a place so deep in suburbia that the bus came only once every half hour – if you were lucky.

I come from a world of secrets and pretence. Of feeling guilty every time I forgot.

I come from a father who I now know was a people pleaser, who needed everyone to think well of him, and who took out his frustrations on his wife. And a mother who never understood that. I come from a mother who never understood many things. I come from parents who had had enough excitement in their lives by the time I was born.

I come from a place where religion is a noose, a chore, a secret, an embarrassment, a reason for keeping quiet. But also a fine tradition, an offloading of worries and hopes, an expression of sadness and joy.

I come from a place where teachers just taught and children were free to torment as much as they wanted. Where no one explained to them that their actions could be a life sentence.

I come from a place where loneliness is the norm and thoughts have no human outlet.

I write to tell the world that whole lives can be spoilt because of where they come from, if no one notices or acts in time.