Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Lenny's Recipe

I’m receiving blogs from exotic places, most recently from the Scottish PEN conference in Belgrade. Of course a place is only exotic before it has attained the contempt that comes with familiarity. And then familiar places, once unvisited for a certain period of time, offer us the comfort of the same familiarity when we return to them, and perhaps if we’re lucky a renewed spark of exoticism.

This comes to you from Glenuig in Moidart. Moidart seems exotic to me again, perhaps because of the mist, and comforting because I am visiting an old friend for her BIG BIRTHDAY (mentioning no numbers) in a place I haven’t visited for some time. So for a short period I can enjoy both feelings at once. My eyes are instantly rested, no longer gazing at the horizontals and verticals of Glasgow City but at the rocks and mountains and all the trees, greenery and early autumn singhed-ness of open, late-September northern countryside. The only straight line is the horizon and, due to the weather, even that’s a bit fuzzy.

Directly in front of me the sea is silver, pewter to my left and on the right a vibrant blue. The wind is blowing and the rain clouds moving fast, pursued by openings onto the great blue yonder. Patches of yellow sunlight appear momentarily on the tops of islands, or glow in the curve of sandy bays. Unfortunately I’ve parked my little van/office in the lea of a rocky outcrop and it’s cold and those sunny highlights are yet to hit me. A lone seagull appeared from nowhere when I threw my crust onto the beach and there are only a couple of gannets circling and plunging off in the distance, their white backs luminous in the intrepid sun.

Today, in contrast to all this, I’d like to write about Lenny, the girl from Mavis’s Shoe, because I want to write a sequel for her and have no less than three possible plots and can’t decide which one to go for. I’m here, in addition to celebrating my friend’s spectacular age, specifically to make that decision which for some reason can’t be made in the hubbub of normal life. I’m also here precisely because what I need to think about is so completely different from my surroundings. Sometimes such contrasts can help, but often have unforeseen consequences.

Once upon a time, while baking on a balcony in the French sun, I wrote a chapter about tattie-howking in a heavy Scottish mist. When I read it later, back in Blighty, I couldn’t gauge its authenticity because despite everything being drippy and cold on the page, I still re-experienced the heat of the Mediterranean. Lucky me. I’ll dig it out once winter sets in and the heating’s on the blink again.

But I digress. Or prevaricate. Or maybe I’m just cold.

Sometimes the ingredients of novels are a little strange. Occasionally people ask how I went about writing Mavis’s Shoe and I usually talk about the research, who I interviewed, how I tracked down records and so on, but never mention the long drives to exotic/familiar places in poisonously fumy vans, the healthy diet I often impose on myself while sitting there trying to find focus, or the arguments I have in my head to give up and find the nearest sweetshop or heater.

And still I digress because really I want someone else to make this decision about the sequel, or at least to help. I can’t tell you what the three plots are, of course, because that would break the spell. That’s another ingredient in the cake mix of novel-writing, arguably, and one which I also usually fail to mention because I don’t want anyone to think I’m whacky when actually, as anyone who’s read Mavis’s Shoe will know, I’m keen of portraying the realities of any situation.

So, any ideas on what Lenny does next? Or later?


  1. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’ve been awake since 2:30 and up since 3:30. I did try and get back to sleep but my mind wouldn’t let me. Like you I’ve finding myself drawn to start a new project and yet it’s one I am also reluctant to begin for many reasons but the main one as always is the fear that I’m going to begin something that is beyond me and yet in the nine months since I finished this is the only idea that I can’t seem to let go of. So I can sympathise with your plight.

    I’ve only written one sequel but the more I think about it the more I’m willing to admit that my first two novels are really one long narrative which is why now I’ve published the ebooks I’ve also produced an omnibus edition and that’s what I’ve been plugging trying to get a few reviews that take in the whole story arc. I’ve no desire to go back into that particular universe though. That said I was asked to do an interview from the perspective of my characters (where they get to gripe about me) and that was enjoyable; I had forgotten how much fun Truth was to write. But I’m still not tempted.

    As for your dilemma I suppose much depends on how connected you want the books to be. Yes, they contain will some of the same characters but what would they remember of that time years later? I never lived through a war but I’m sure that the sheer weight of her subsequent life will weigh heavily on Lenny. The book focuses on her devotion to her sister. Being the twisted bugger that I am and life being the twisted bugger that it is I personally would do something to damage that relationship. It would be helpful to know when you want to set the book. My own relationship with my siblings has gone through a variety of stages over the years. For a time both my brother and sister lived with me. Now I’ve not spoken to either of them in over ten years.

    The book that I’m thinking of writing is about a return home after many years. An old man who may or may not be dying decides to take a trip to his hometown and walk around it. Of course as he walks he passes places where things happened in his life but although his journey will be linear his recollections will not and so, over the course of the walk, a picture builds up of his life.

    You could do something similar, have Lenny now an old woman and estranged from her sister receive a letter one day – perhaps Mavis has cancer – and she decides to make the journey along with her own daughter to whom, as they travel, she tells their story. Of course you would be able to tell the story chronologically. My story would rely heavily on its discontinuousness and although the idea appeals the mechanics of how to do what I’m proposing troubles me. But I’m in no rush to begin. The gestation period needs to be allowed time to do its job even if it does keep me awake sometimes.

  2. Hi Jim. I once wrote a short piece about my research for Mavis's Shoe from the perspectives of my various interviewees including books. It was fun to do and and produced some interesting results. Truth can indeed be fun to write.

    Sometimes just starting to write can help the rest of the story emerge and of course you keep plotting and replotting as you go along.

    Interesting ideas. You point me in the direction, roughly, of one of the three possibilities, although at the moment they seem to be merging into one. Oh dear.

  3. Glad to be of help. Perhaps I should clarify one small point though: when I say that Truth is fun to write I'm actually talking about the character of Truth. My first two novels are about an old guy who ends up spending three days in the company of the personification of the truth and, as you might well imagine, Truth calls a spade a spade.

  4. Hi Sue, each time I start writing something new - or even go back to something after I've left it for a while - whatever idea I may have thought I was following, it inevitably changes. But you may well be more able to follow a thread than I am. I tend to start out with just one idea or one scene, sometimes just one sentence! And sometimes I make false starts or restarts only I don't know that they're false until later, when the trail fades away entirely. Which idea has the most energy, which excites me most? That's what I tend to go with. good luck whichever choice you make!