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?

Monday, 12 September 2011


The first draft of the stage version of Mavis’s Shoe has now been finished. I know there is a lot more work to be done, but it feels good to have reached THE END, at least for the first time. Perhaps drafts should be called laps, as in those on a running track, or would the idea of running in circles be too painfully close to the truth?

If you don’t have a complete first draft, you don’t have enough ingredients for your cake, aka play/novel/short story/screenplay etc. My ingredients are in the bowl and I am celebrating with some fizzy, by which I mean Lidl’s oversweet pear cider that some kind (unsuspecting) person has left in my fridge, and by lighting the wood-burning stove and leaving the curtains slightly open despite the darkness outside, so that I can still see the trees waving frantically against the pink city sky in the gale. I can hear my daughter and her friend giggling in the next room, not at me I hasten to add, though I wouldn’t care. Copies of this first lap have been sent to two parties for inspection, and the anxiety, not to mention dread, that sometimes accompanies the wait for feedback has not yet made its presence felt.

I am also celebrating the arrival of two copies of West Coast Line, a Canadian journal who have kindly published one of my short stories, The Love Bus, which you can also read on the International Literary Quarterly website. In addition to this, West Coast Line have published two stories that I worked on with Iraqi writer Kusay Hussain. We got paid for these stories too which is increasingly rare these days. The current journal’s theme is ‘Transnational Publics, Asylum and the Arts in Glasgow’ and its guest editor is Kirsten E McAllister, a Japanese-Scottish Canadian. I’m delighted to see the names of several people I know on the contents page.

But the other thing I am celebrating, Sue-no-friends in my room all alone, is my participation in the Vault art event over the last weekend. I know, visual arts: what was I doing there? I did ask myself that question a few times. I was doing an ‘art booth’. The booth was actually a table, itself a work of art with a variety of strange marks of glittery red and pastel green amongst others. There were three jars of sweeties on it (when I started) and a plateful of custard creams. Beside me at the table were a couple of visual artists offering instant art for a small fee. I was offering instant poetry, also for a small fee, based on OuLiPo techniques. I dreamt this up in a moment of optimism. Actually it was a moment of optimism about optimism. In other words I was feeling rather despondent and was missing feeling optimistic, so I faked it and hey presto! there I was making promises to the organisers that on reflection seemed a little difficult to fulfil. (I was under the auspices of Ironbbratz studios, who I love. If you are a creator of art of any description, Ironbbratz studios is a fabulous place to be.)

For an art venue, the Briggait in Glasgow has a lot of drips falling from it’s beautiful holey ceiling. Some of it landed on the booth-table. But spirits were not dampened and indeed I am celebrating the fact that the instant OuLiPo poetry exercise worked and was even, apparently, therapeutic for the customers who revelled in being able to talk for a few minutes completely uninterrupted on their chosen subject while I concocted poetry from their words. It was a heart-warming occasion for all, and one which I’d happily repeat.

So, yes, I think smug is the word I’d use for myself right now. Not proud of it but it doesn’t happen often.