Category Archives: Alphabet

On Writing Alphabet

You could say that I have spent  the  three years it took to complete  Alphabet  co-habiting with a dangerous  man. Someone brutal and manipulative,  but also damaged,  intelligent, and, occasionally, charming. My family were  forced to be close to this man  as well. It was something of a roller coaster ride  and from time to time, all of us felt we had had more than enough of him. The fact is, though, that when a character like this arrives, you can’t  throw him out. Just as in a real relationship, you have to keep going until whatever you came together for is  complete. It’s only afterwards that you can look back and  put it into perspective.

In this case I have to go back about ten years.  I was offered of a writer’s residency in a category B men’s prison at a time that meant I had to chose between  it  and a coveted place  on the scriptwriting course at the National  School of Film and Television.  Most of my friends were horrified when the idea of prison finally won out, but I felt that I couldn’t turn down the  chance to see and engage with part of the world I  (hopefully) wouldn’t encounter otherwise.  I went to gaol, spending about three days a week there for the next year – encouraging  the inmates to write, and supporting other creative projects, such as a play and a literary festival behind bars.

The prison had a huge effect on me. It was both fascinating and dreadful. It was a place of  frighteningly intense feelings, and, at the same time, given there was no outlet for them,  one of  utter stultification. It was about as hard a reality as you could get, yet nowhere else could fantasies  and delusions grow so thick and fast.

I  was  eventually given a set of keys and allowed to  roam the prison quite freely.  I talked to inmates in their cells, in solitary, as they worked mending TV sets or sewing  tee shirts, or outside in the yard with its geometrically patterned flowerbeds. I went to the office and read inmates’ files.  The experience was emotionally exhausting but at the same time  imaginatively very stimulating. What  was it like to work here, year in year out? What was it like be a man who had committed  murder and who must serve out his time in a place like this? What kind of relationships are possible for him?   Which was the ’real’ man, the one in the record,  the  neglected little boy he wrote about in class,  or the once charming the socks off me over a cup of tea and raising  hundreds of pounds for charity?  How much can a person change? Why do some women seem so drawn to romantic attachments with prisoners? And, to take a more abstract  approach, what exactly do we mean by justice? How should we deal with people who have hurt us? There are of course  no simple answers to any of these questions. If nothing else, I learned that.

After the residency,  I returned gladly  to my ordinary life.  I  began to write about the prison, but at least half of me wanted to get away from the place,  and in retrospect I can see that the material was too raw. It was simply beyond me at the time to find the shape for it  and do it justice –  or, you could say, I wasn’t ready to or capable of living with a man like the one I had begun to invent. Other, easier  projects came up.  It was almost ten years later, when packing up my office to move house that I came across the  few chapters I’d written and the boxes of notes, cuttings and mementoes from my time ‘inside’.
I  sat on the floor and read it  all through. Time had  performed its magic –  a kind of alchemy – and it was suddenly easy to see what to jettison and what I had  to keep: the  main character, Simon Austen, serving life.

Photos courtesy of Prison Reform Trust, UK
Copyright © 2004 Kathy Page
Commercial uses: Contact literary agent, Lesley Shaw of
Gillon Aitken Associates, London, UK (insert email address recep@gillonaitken.co.uk)
Reproduction for educational purposes, etc: www.accesscopyright.ca

Excerpt from Alphabet

Alphabet
Kathy Page

Weidenfeld & Nicolson
LONDON

1.

There’s no chair, even. The room is blue-grey, fluorescent-lit, like the rest.
‘Property ?’ the man at the counter asks. Well, they’ve already taken his proper clothes: Simon’s standing there in a striped shirt, a pair of thin jeans that won’t stay up. ‘Anything that might get nicked or trashed,’ the man says, ‘Give it here – ’ he’s done this a thousand times, has the timing just so – ‘We’ll seal it up nice and tight… then we’ll lose it for you good and proper… Ha ! Seriously, there’s no liability…’ Oh, he’s proud of himself, all right. His white shirt glows almost violet. The breast pocket is stretched over a pack of twenty fags. The top of his bald head shines in the light. He taps the side of his nose, leans forwards:
‘What you got then,’ he says ‘Mummy’s ashes ? The bleedin’ crown jewels? Spit it out, we don’t have all day/’ There are six more behind me, Simon thinks, there’s fuck knows what ahead.. In the end, it can’t matter  much what happens to these two particular items of his. Except that this way he doesn’t have to look after them and if the are lost, whatever this bald bastard says, it won’t be his fault… Plus, the sooner he gets through this the sooner he might get to lie down. He could sleep on a bed of knives in an earthquake, so long as he was lying down… So, he grins back at the big-headed, fat-fingered man with  a sense of his own sense of humour; he keeps his thoughts to himself and puts his goods on the counter. First, the envelope.
‘It’s sealed,’ he says. Well, says the slow look he gets back, opening your sodding correspondence is the last thing on earth I’d do, because, like you, it’ll be a piece of –
Simon’s too beat up to react. His eyes are so sticky he can hear every blink, feel it too. He had the shower after the strip search, but it was cold and he can still smell his own sweat.  He stares at the counter top, dirty oak edging with Formica inset, remembers how the envelope was given him by a washed-out dyke type woman who watched him tear it open, unfold the single sheet inside, then read it to him, all two lines of it: ‘I am sorry. This is the way things had to be. I hope things turn out well for you, Sharon.’ That’s what the woman said it says.  Then she said he needed counselling, gave him a list of phone numbers as long as an arm; he was so fucked off with her that he nearly binned the thing, but in the end he smoothed it out and resealed the envelope, kept it for years in the lining of his pilot jacket. Well, as a matter of fact, things turned out just about as badly as they possibly could, and this lot can lose the fucking thing if they want to, he thinks. He’s moving on. In.
‘One watch,’ fatfingers observes.
‘It’s a Rolex,’ Simon tells him. But it’s not. He got it with his first month’s proper pay, from someone he met in a pub. It looses. He was ripped off. So, good riddance. He’ll travel light: washing things, plate, mug, bowl.
‘That it?’
He does his squiggle with the pen. The joker opposite turns around to lock up, then pushes over an empty envelope: brown with black type, official looking.
‘Your Free Letter,’ he says.
‘What for?’ Simon asks .
‘Well, son, you can wipe your arse with it if you want!’
‘Right, mate. Maybe I will,’ Simon spits back. His hands are fisted and he’s woken right up now.
‘Keep you head down’ the man says, pleased, turning away. Simon shoves the envelope in his pocket, collects two sheets and a blanket, stuffs them in the pillowcase, moves on.

The man in front of him has a moustache, the one behind a full chin’s worth of hair. He can hear the creak of both of their pairs of shoes, the rattle of their key chains, their breath, his own. They pass through the next pair of doors, solid, then barred and the next, and the next, pausing each time to wait for the key to slip in and do its work, two openings, two closures.  He thinks how he could die here. Be killed. Start using drugs and do the job himself. Just get old… and all of a sudden, how badly he wants what he’s not had, all of it, even not knowing what it is! How much he wants to throw the switch, de-materialise, re-appear somewhere else. His heart is already fighting to escape from his chest when the last set of doors opens on to the wing and the stench and echo of captivity smashes into him. It’s like the opening of a furnace door. A wall of heat. They have to push him through.
‘Go on,’ says the bearded man behind, ‘go on now, son, this here is a one way street.’

Photo courtesy of Prison Reform Trust, UK

Love Inside

Love Inside

Extracted from an article about Kathy Page’s experience as Writer in Residence in Nottingham Prison, published in The Big Issue, 19 July 2004

A neatly dressed, balding man with some alarming facial scars leaned back in his chair and treated me to a list of  already familiar complaints about the state of the prison  showers and so on. Suddenly he brightened, changed tack and told me: ‘But of course,  there’s one  good thing. My marriage is far, far better since I came in here.’  We both laughed; he went on to  explain  how, inside, he had become more thoughtful  about his wife and their relationship. He had plenty of spare time and could give her the kind of attention she had always wanted. They wrote every day; he had begun to know her in ways which he never had before. ‘The honesty can be heavy. She has to have her say. But it’s like a kind of honeymoon,’ he aid, cutting the conversation midstream to take up his turn at the computer.

I soon realised that a man being in prison is of course far more likely to have a negative effect on  romantic and family relationships:  economic hardship, lack of contact, the stress of travelling to visits and  the  jealous imaginings of the inmate can be  a fatal combination.  Nonetheless, over the coming weeks I met others who felt  their  relationships with their partners  had been improved by incarceration, and I became aware of the many ways in which men inside actively sought out  and found new attachments while serving their time.

In any workplace there are attractions  between people; men in prison have  few other flesh and blood options. The barriers between prison staff and inmates, in theory strongly demarcated,  may, for some, be a catalyst to romance.  I was both shocked and touched when  one of the inmates I worked with sought me out to explain that he had a ‘crush’ on me, knew it wasn’t reciprocated  and would only be a wind-up, and so would be dropping out of the writing workshop.

Because it is such a harsh reality, prison is a place where fantasy flourishes. Any woman  coming into a men’s  prison is  liable to  become, as another man  informed me with a frankness I could perhaps have done without,  ‘wanking material’.  Likewise, a female member of staff may well find herself  teaching  a class  full of semi-clothed men who spend hours a day working out and who, despite their dangerousness are,  in many ways, under her control.  All the same, it seems that a surprising number of  ‘real’ relationships  do develop inside. While meetings between men and women in  a men’s  prison often take place in a  grim, highly  regimented context that is the very opposite of romantic, they can, because of the context, be surprisingly emotionally intimate. There is  frequently  a  degree of vulnerability on the part of the man that would be unusual outside. Relationships spring up between inmates and female  lawyers, teachers, probation, officers, visitors  and even governor grades. And, I discovered in my year at Nottingham, many inmates seek out  official or unofficial pen friends who may later become visitors, partners or wives. Many men put an extraordinary amount of time  into their correspondence.

Some of these prison  relationships are no doubt duplicitous, exploitative, or plain bizarre (for example, those women who seem only attracted to violent offenders behind bars), but  some  were  genuine. As Angela Devlin shows in her study, Cell Mates, Soul Mates,  many prison marriages last and survive the transition to  the outside. I found myself thinking a great deal  about these relationships. What would it  be like to be  a man  negotiating, for the very  first time, an encounter with a woman that was not entirely on his terms? What would it  be like, as a woman, to have to cope with  the reality of a lover’s terrible past and all the questions it posed?

I could easily see the advantage of a relationship  for the man inside. What was  in it for the woman?  As with every question I asked myself in that year  at Nottingham,  there were no simple answers.  Some  women are  compulsive rescuers. On the other hand, roles  in prison relationships often seemed to me to be to some extent reversed, with the woman appearing to have more control  and more rights than she might outside. Another  thing to consider – and  this was interesting to me personally, since I was involved in a long-distance relationship at the time – was  that the writing of  letters and the restrictions on meetings created by the regime impose on the would-be  lovers  an old-fashioned courtship very different to the fast pace of modern relationships. This makes for a particular kind of verbal intimacy and at the same time allows fantasies about the other person to remain unchallenged by everyday reality.

Occasionally  I would hear talk from prison professionals as to how a prisoner’s relationship was causing concern. I could see the logic and there is no doubt that some prison relationships are dangerous. Anyone being hurt or abused by their partner needs, in my view, to  get out. But increasingly, during that year and afterwards as I wrote Alphabet, I became interested in the grey areas, in the  flawed relationships that were also, somehow, good. I came to realise that even downright destructive  partnerships contain shreds of contact with another, and are potentially catalysts for transformation.  Our sense of self  arises out of out intimate relationships, and one of the most irreducible aspects of our humanity is that we do, as  Ethel Spector Person writes in Dreams of Love  “desire to live an imaginary life in the minds of others.”
Copyright © 2004 Kathy Page
Commercial uses: Contact literary agent, Lesley Shaw of
Gillon Aitken Associates, London, UK (insert active link for Lesley’s email address recep@gillonaitken.co.uk)
Reproduction for educational purposes, etc: www.accesscopyright.ca

Sales Figures

From one surreal moment to the next…

The trip was part family, part business. Melatonin did not work and for several days we had walked in an exhausted, dreamlike state through the shade of galleries and museums taking in old favourites and seeing strange new things, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s video loop of David Beckham, sleeping. He was artfully lit and shot to emphasise the musculature of his shoulders; the image, poised midway between soft porn and religious icon, drew a steady stream of female voyeurs who settled themselves on the bench provided and watched the whole thing through. Teenage school-boys on a field trip blundered in now and then:
“Think he’s really asleep, Matt?’
’
“Na. Can’t be, not with that effing light shining right in his face.” Continue reading Sales Figures

The Reading

Maria hasn’t arrived.  I refuse to panic myself by checking my watch but I know it’s after 7pm, and I’m supposed to read at Pages at 7:30.  I peer out at the glitter of passing traffic; nothing even slows down, and finally I cave in and call her.
“Hi, Maria, how are you?”
“Kathy, I have a problem.” Her voice is subdued, unnaturally even. “The restaurant I was in threw away my glasses! I can’t see very much. I’m a bit flustered, but it’ll be all right.  Can you tell me again where you are?”  I repeat the address; all I know is that it’s somewhere in the southwest of the city, not far from downtown… Graham, the proprietor, steps in. I notice his forehead pucker as she explains to him about the glasses.
“Get on to Second.  You’ll see a large crematorium on your left, with yellow and gold neon signage. Turn left. Left again.  All our lights are on.  There’s a big sign. Some flags.  We’re the only low-rise in the street. You can’t miss it.”
Let’s say time passes. A vehicle pulls up. Continue reading The Reading

Notes & Queries

The Book Arrives (Alphabet)

Strawberries. Sunbathing snakes.  The first garden vegetables, the first swim in the lake, the last days of school, the long, golden evenings…  I write in the garden, lying in a hammock that’s shaded by an old cherry tree;  in a branch above me a robin pecks at the fruit, splattering my legs with  tiny drops of juice.

The house is sunk in shade. Someone has been to the mailbox: waiting on the kitchen table, along with a wad of junk mail, is  a padded envelope  that  I know must contain  a finished copy of Alphabet. I was told it was on its way but all the same the actual presence of it – the book, the final object, here in my house,  gives me a jolt. I feel it’s something to be handled with care: will it be the colour we discussed, as opposed to the anaemic hue that showed up on my computer screen some weeks ago? Will the text have survived the  printing process or will there  be some terrible mistake, such as a chapter upside down or an overlooked typo in the blurb? Will I look at it and want to run away?   After all, it’s over a year since I sent the manuscript to W&N and nine months since we finished editing it. And that’s just the recent history. It is also at least ten years since I  first conceived of the  book,   over three since I started it  for the second time…  And now this thing has arrived!
I’m about to put it back on the table and leave it for a while when Jim, four, appears and asks ‘Have you got a present, mummy?’ Becki, seven, is close behind: ‘Can I open it for you?’ she says, and Richard, following them both, laden with all the stuff they  can’t or won’t carry for themselves realizes straightaway what I’m holding: ‘That must be your book!’ They are all three staring at me, so I go for it, rip open the seal.

The colour is right (spooky, Becki says) – I can see that much straight away. A flick through shows that the layout changes were made, that nothing is upside down and all the chapters are there. It looks good. I can breathe again, but I’ll need to screw up a little more courage in order to actually read it. Before long, of course, other people will be doing that too. The story will have a life of its own. It’s wonderful, terrible. Both.

Snakes and Ladders

Snakes & Ladders.

The phone rings at 7.40 am: I’m easing the kids into raingear and out of the door along with their lunches, books, sports equipment and a recently discovered sheep skull for Show & Tell. Yes? I say, thinking it’s either a UK emergency, another cancelled soccer match or the dentist again – but no: it is the Canada Council telling me my novel Alphabet has been short-listed for a Governor General’s Award. The day – the month – is transformed into a mini roller coaster of interviews and trips. The kids bid for a float plane ride if I win; naturally, I agree – but sadly for them it doesn’t fall out that way. Even so, Alphabet and I have a good time.

There is a silver sticker on my book jacket to draw people’s attention to it and I can tell myself that I must, at least to some degree, be succeeding artistically if three of my respected peers, in a country I am new to, sat together for a day arguing over this and that point and agreed to put my book on a list of five.

So it’s very good. All the same time, this moment in the sun cannot but remind me how strange and difficult the writer’s life mostly is. Not long ago, I was talking with a talented, well-respected writer who, when I asked about her work, burst into a hurricane of tears because she had been suffering an unexpected rash of mid-career rejection letters. We hugged, and I commiserated and but there was nothing to say except that this can be a tough job, and that’s after you have written the book. Whilst writing itself can be difficult, most of us would agree that overall it is both a pleasure and a privilege. Being a writer is a different matter; it requires us to develop skills that have nothing to do with putting words on the page. The sad truth is that while some kind of verbal or story-telling talent is a prerequisite for writers, being able to cope with the psychological hazards inherent in being a writer is at least as important.

Success stories like JK Rowling’s haunt the public imagination but the reality is that most writers write into a void (no one knows or minds much what they are doing until, years later, it’s done) or even face outright discouragement (rejection letters, family disapproval, low sales). You have to be able to sustain yourself, emotionally and financially, under these conditions. You dedicate your time to what others may seem as an insane or lost cause; you must take the solitude you need to work, but at the same time you must not allow yourself to become utterly isolated or totally crazy (a little craziness is fine, even necessary). It’s important to generate ways of looking at the bizarre situation you are in which keep you going rather than stop you in your tracks. As John Gardner pointed out in his mordantly funny piece Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Novelist?, a writer needs to be “at once driven and indifferent” – passionate about the book, but also, I’d add, hard-nosed and realistic about his or her circumstances. This is not an easy combination.

Another difficulty is that in order to write, you must be sensitive, but to be a writer, you need rhinoceros hide or a good supply of bandages: rejection in all its nasty varieties is the biggest hazard of all, and spreads itself like Kudzu over the entire profession. Again, some rarely encounter it, but they are a tiny minority. Most writers must find a way to deal with constantly being judged, ranked and sometimes rejected or not even considered in the first place. Your name is not on the short list… a magazine editor declines your story… the year’s list of recommended books does not include yours… you receive a swingeingly bad review in a major publication just before you have to stand on a platform and read the damn thing aloud to 500 people…

Add to this that if you are so inclined, there is always some other book or writer to compare yourself with: a massive snake this, if you let it grow. You can feel either overwhelmed by his or her superior talent, or grow bitter and twisted because he or she has been rewarded for something that to your mind amounts to lesser achievement than yours. Prizes can have an especially infantilising effect: the chosen few step suddenly up into the limelight, leaving the rest behind. It can take a determined effort not to give in to this kind of thinking, even though anyone who has ever sat on the jury for an award will tell you that another five books could just as easily have been selected.

These are the snakes, and as you slide down their slimy gullets, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of the ladders, the biggest of which is having done what you wanted to do,  being pleased (even temporarily) with the result, and then having someone read it and sees/enjoy/be moved by what you have done. Or, better still, having many people read it and see/enjoy/be moved by what you have done.

Just as in the board game, it is possible to go for long periods where there is a chronic imbalance between snakes and ladders: far too much reptile. At other times, each inviting ladder is followed immediately by a pair of wide open jaws and you never seem to get anywhere at all: the editor loves it, the book is published, the jacket is great – but your book receives no reviews at all, or your book gets great reviews and wins a prize – but for mysterious reasons just doesn’t sell, and your publisher doesn’t want to put it out in paperback/won’t commit to your next.

Again, there is nothing to do but remember: you are writing because you think it is important, because it gives you pleasure, because you want a particular story to be told, because you want to make people laugh or make them think, because it is part of the way you relate to the world, because in the end you can’t not write (all or some of the above). Yes, working in an atmosphere of encouragement, feeling that readers actually want the results of your hours at the desk – basking, even, in their appreciation of your work, is far pleasanter than the opposite and will set you up for better few hours at the computer. Yes, being paid well helps too – and both together is brilliant, but it is only likely to happen some of the time. Meanwhile, find a way to keep on working: denial, distraction, and meditation, laughter, weeping fits, philosophy or simply writing itself… You do whatever works.