Linda Gillard's A Lifetime Burning: Author interview & book review
" Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter."
- T.S. Eliot, from "East Coker" (from Four Quartets)
An interview with Linda Gillard, author of A Lifetime Burning and Emotional Geology, published by Transita.
1). How has the experience of publishing ALB surprised you? What about the experience has stood out from your other writing endeavors?
I had no idea I'd written a good book. I hoped I had, but I wasn't sure. Reader reaction and reviews have astonished me, exceeding my wildest dreams. I've also been surprised by the warm response from male readers. I don't think I write for a female readership (I'm certainly far more interested in writing about male characters than female for some reason) but my publisher Transita produces contemporary fiction aimed at mature women and that's how my books have been marketed. I also had no idea how upset some people would be by ALB. An Oxford book group almost came to blows over it and one woman stormed out leaving the group in disarray. I didn't realise mere fiction could provoke such strong reactions.
One way ALB has been different from the experience of EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, my first novel, is that although both books are issue-driven, I've been unable to promote ALB because of its byzantine plot! EG was a book about the relationship between mental illness and creativity and it was upfront about that. On the surface ALB is a "family drama" but there's a lot going on beneath the surface but I don't talk or write about it because it would spoil some of the plot's jaw-dropping (I hope) revelations. If pushed, I say ALB is a book about compassion and tortuous moral dilemmas, how much damage you can do by trying to do The Right Thing. Whilst this is a fair summary, it's not going to make copies leap off the shelves! So whereas I could actively target-market EG to interested parties I am very much dependent on word-of-mouth, in particular book group support, to get ALB better known in an overcrowded marketplace.
I think I've learned a lot about the marketing of books from the experience of publishing ALB but I don't think it will affect what or how I write in future. I just write for myself and for the people who enjoy my books. I don't do it to get rich or famous. (Which is probably just as well.)
2) What writing projects are you working on currently?
I'm now working on my 3rd novel. It's set on Skye and in Edinburgh and once again the female protagonist is middle-aged. I'm at that stage (25k words) where I wonder if it's going to become a real book or be an abandoned, half-formed manuscript that never really takes off. It could go either way. I'm trying to write something shorter and lighter than ALB, which was a demanding, at times gruelling book to write. It was also very complex (58 years of an extended family's life were covered in a non-linear narrative) so this time I'm trying to be simpler but the truth is, I like complex, I like ambitious, so I doubt this one will stay short and sweet.
3) Do you practice any writing rituals?
Not really. I don't have a problem with writer's block or the terror of the blank screen. I don't have a daily routine, I just write when I want to write. If I'm well into a book the problem is pacing myself so that I don't become mentally and physically exhausted. In the final stages of writing a draft I'm quite happy to skip meals. I'll happily work from 8.00am till midnight with a few breaks if it's going well. I wouldn't recommend this as a work method - you get too tired to appraise your work - but I do find it necessary to disappear, almost completely, into the world of the book. I do get obsessive and my characters seem to me at least as real as my family - possibly more so! I noticed that when I was writing about the pianist Rory in ALB who is left-handed, I ended up doing things left-handedly myself, so powerful was my identification with him.
I think my only foible is that I have to use a certain type of disposable propelling pencil. (I write longhand on lined paper for my first draft.) I buy them in packets of 6. I've often wondered if my writing career would grind to a halt if they stopped making these pencils.
4) What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you're
reading now, or have read recently, that's impressed you?
I'm always re-reading Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles - that's just an endless cycle and I think I'd better be buried with one of my 3 complete sets. (Different editions.)
I usually have a novel on the go by a writing friend or acquaintance. At the moment I'm reading Adele Geras' young adult read, ITHAKA as she sent me a copy. I've also read 3 novels this year by prolific fellow Transita author, Adrienne Dines, a versatile Irish writer who I think is going places. I read her SOFT VOICES WHISPERING in manuscript and found it compelling and beautifully written.
I read non-fiction for research purposes. Recent reads have been popular science: THE REVENGE OF GAIA by James Lovelock, THE SENSE OF BEING STARED AT by Rupert Sheldrake and UNWEAVING THE RAINBOW by Richard Dawkins. But the book that has impressed me most recently (apart from Dunnett) is Stephen Kuusisto's PLANET OF THE BLIND, about the experience of being blind. The writing is quite wonderful.
5) Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionately
1. Global warming (which I refuse to call "climate change".) The globe is warming. Period.
2. Education, particularly arts education (provision for which is lamentable in the UK.)
3. Music of all kinds. I was on a piano kick writing ALB but now I'm back on opera.
4. The Scottish Highlands. I live on the Isle of Skye. Every so often I have to go south to see my family or for work purposes. By the time I've got as far as Edinburgh, I'm already pining for the North again and counting the hours till I get home.
5. Mental health issues. A year after EG was published I'm still trying to raise awareness of the stigma attached to mental illness and promote understanding of the issues.
6) Do you have a favorite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you
feel sums up your philosophy on life?
I'm tempted to quote chunks of HAMLET which has always been something of a vade mecum, but instead I think I'll give you a quotation from Louise DeSalvo's WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING which got me writing again after a break of many years during which I'd been a teacher. "If you want to write and don't, because you don't feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are."
7) If you were marooned on a island, stuck on an elevator, or
otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you want to have
Without a moment's hesitation I can say The Lymond Chronicles by the Scottish historical novelist, Dorothy Dunnett but that's actually 6 books, which form a series. As they don't exist in one volume I'll settle for the final book, CHECKMATE, which is the best and the longest.
8) What memories do you have, from your childhood, about your
experiences in public libraries? Did they play a role at all in your
love of books and reading?
Although my local library (in Dartford, Kent, England) seemed to me a sombre, rather forbidding place, silent and not at all child-friendly compared to its modern equivalent, I remember feeling transported to a magical world. There was a lot of dark, polished wood and 2 turnstiles. You went in by one door and out by another and I always wondered why this was. I remember too that people's shoes squeaked on the floor - that's how quiet it was.
I suppose excitement is the feeling I associate with that library and that excitement was to do with choice. I had never seen so many books before. I didn't know that many books existed! I lived in a town with a very small bookshop, which we never visited. (We were not well off and I had few books when I was young. My mother used to buy us comics and my father bound them into books and covered them with plain brown parcel paper.)
I remember feeling overwhelmed by the choice of books in the children's section of the library. (This was the 1950s. What on earth would I have felt if there had been the variety and quantity of children's books now available?) I remember too the pleasure I got from the physical experience of books: their smell; the variety of colours on the shelves; the feel of big, heavy books in my hands; the sound of crisp pages turning.
I had an unfortunate friend who wasn't allowed to visit the library because her mother said you could catch diseases from dirty library books. I was shocked by this piece of information. I remember considering it, then deciding I didn't care. I was a reckless book addict from an early age!
Thanks very much to Linda for so kindly taking the time to answer my questions. Following is my review of her recent book A Lifetime Burning:
A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard
I truly enjoyed Gillard's first book Emotional Geology, and thought it so beautifully lyrical in style I read it very slowly, to savor every word. If it had a flaw I'd say it was the graphic, raw nature of both the sex and the language of the main character. It's not that I'm a prude that way. Not at all, but I'm just not one for overly graphic language or sex scenes in general. A personal call, and there you have it. But the rest of that book was so lovely, and the story so wonderful, the bit about the graphic nature didn't mar my enjoyment. Her latest, though, A Lifetime Burning, is brilliant in every way, start to finish.
What's somewhat surprising about that is the fact the premise of this book hinges on what could only be termed rampant incest within the family, which is the focus of the plot. There are multiple incestuous layers, which you'd think I'd find more disturbing considering my minor criticism of Gillard's first book, but the simple fact is this book is so wonderfully written as to present the reader with a completely non-judgmental exploration of what is love, and what should the limits be when pursuing something you believe to be "the real thing." I found myself forgetting the taboo nature of the love, so wrapped up I was in the beauty of the raw need and complete, encompassing love between the characters. The fact it was incest was, of course, disturbing, but Gillard manages to work her way beyond that, finding just the right perspective that made the reader feel less uncomfortable, though just aware enough to see there was a horrible element to it. In short, the book is masterful and shows a huge leap of sophistication from Emotional Geology, which was at the same time one of the most outstanding first novels I believe I've ever read.
A Lifetime Burning is just unearthly beautiful in terms of prose style and lyrical quality. The language is gorgeous and lush, and if the author falters anywhere it's at that hideously difficult three-quarters mark, building up to the climax, when so very many writers seem to have a difficult time filling the space. But even there, when the plot slows down a bit, my interest never actually flagged. I noted the bit slower pace of things, the slight slowing of the prose, but just as soon as I had the chance to notice it was happening things took off at a brilliant clip again, never to slow down again so much as a hair.
I will be recommending this book to everyone I know who enjoys reading contemporary literary fiction. I found it tremendously moving, and even the day after finishing it I continue to find it positively haunting. I will temper my recommendation to others by adding a caveat about the theme, as the issues raised could be very painful to some, but there will be no strong warning. It's simply not needed, given the deft way Gillard handles the subject. The sheer beauty of this book is its biggest recommendation, and this book deserves a wide readership. I'll be waiting very anxiously for Gillard's next offering.