St Albans Writers’ Festival

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Here, as promised, is my report on the St Albans Writers’ Festival:

Anticipating a drive through the usual Sydney traffic blockages, we were gratified to find ourselves instead winding through sunny country lanes. We passed cherry trees in bloom, burgeoning jacaranda, and willow-fringed creeks. The two hours seemed to pass in a flash, so that our city stress had already dropped away by the time we arrived, via the old Wiseman’s Ferry, at St Albans.

Spring had sprung in all its glory as we meandered our way to the tent where the first talk, with Bernadette Brennan, author of “A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her Work” was being interviewed by Nicole Aberdie. Long a fan of the incomparable Garner, I was entranced by Brennan’s astute insights into each of her works, and also into the life of this iconic Australian author. Brennan’s biography is now top of my reading list.

On my way to the next tent I was waylaid by the great Tom Keneally.’Young Davis,’ he flatteringly addressed me,’how’s that book of yours coming along?’ Tom was referring to “Capriccio” which I was working on during his writing workshop a year or so ago. His interest in my work encouraged me to finish writing this novel, now rewritten and on a publisher’s desk somewhere.  His session with Susan Wyndham,  “Tom Kenneally: a Life in Writing”, was a highlight. Tom had us practically rolling in the aisles with his anecdotes and dry humour. This prolific and much-loved author, winner of the Booker prize for “Schindler’s Ark” on which the film “Schindler’s List” was based, is another of my heroes.

After a picnic on the sunny grass and a wander around the crowded bookstore, I climbed the hill to the tiny convict-built church to hear a panel of Emerging Australian Novelists. They were all young, confident and successful writers, who’d had the good fortune to be ‘picked up’ by agents or publishers early in their career (before the rot of despair kicks in). I must admit that, although applauding their early success, I left that session rather cowed, especially when I overheard one writer say she’d finished a first draft in two weeks, and it was all just a matter of being ‘organised’. If Only!

Our literary feast was finished off with a panel on “Rebellious Daughters”, comprising Caroline Baum, Jane Caro, Leah Kaminsky, and Susan Wyndham. A fitting dessert indeed. As we left, Caroline asked me if I’d be coming to the Festival dinner. (Sadly, it was booked out). It was that sort of Festival, where one could talk to one’s Writing Heroes and Heroines as if we were old friends. definitely on my calendar for next year!

 

 

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The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

So here I am, as Abraham said to the Lord when offering up his son for sacrifice. “Here I Am” is the title of a wonderful new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, a monumental work close to 1000 pages, exploring themes of cultural identity, fidelity and betrayal, the ephemeral nature of love, families functional and dysfunctional, and what makes them so.

As for me myself and I, this post is in the nature of an apology to you, my readers, for my untoward absence. SInce I last posted back in April, life has overtaken me. There’s been illness, convalescence, slow recovery, as well as the joys of grandchildrens’ birthdays. and celebrations of their achievements, some sojourns in beautiful Darwin, home of my daughters and grandsons, and the minutiae of everyday life.

On the writing side, I’ve been hard  at work on my new novel, ‘A Difficult Daughter’, and preparing my first novel. ‘Capriccio’, for publication. This entailed a major rewrite, mostly in appeasement to Faber and Faber, publishers of the works of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and the Hughes Estate. Like Jonathan Bate, I fell foul of the Estate when requesting permission to quote thirteen lines of Hughes’s poetry, fully expecting dispensation for such a small amount of material. The lines I quoted were used to introduce chapters, each of which was given the title of one of the ‘Capriccio’ poems by Hughes. Titles, I know, are not subject to copyright. However, to be on the safe side, I have removed every syllable of Hughes’s poetry, and, in order to comply with the other request by the Estate, changed the name of  every character. The astute reader will no doubt recognise my novel, “Capriccio”, as the tragic story of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the lover of Ted Hughes, who came between Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath.  My novel ends with one of Assia’s poems (quoted with permission of her sister, Celia Chaikin), a final clue to the true identity of my protagonist.

Now for the Joy of the writing life: my company of writers, the Randwick Writers Group, continues to flourish, with all four of us preparing to submit novels or memoirs to publishers. Without my fellow-writers, I would never have achieved the completion of one novel and the development of another. Their constructive feedback, wise insights, consistent encouragement, and friendship, has been the motivating force which keeps me going.

In Darwin, I was lucky to join the talented playwright Sandra Thibodeaux for her weekly writers’ workshop, which helped me develop ideas for ‘A Difficult Daughter’, my novel-in-progress. Then there was the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, the Jewish Writers’ Festival in August, and only last weekend, the St Aubin’s Writers’ Festival. More on this bucolic festival in my next post!

Kabbalah and the Seventh Heaven

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Image courtesy wikipedia

I’ve had the privilege recently of attending a course on the ancient texts of the Kabbalah, presented by Rabbi Dr. Orna Triguboff. These mystical teachings have long been a fascination of mine, particularly after I discovered, while researching  my novel ‘Capriccio’, about  the poet Ted Hughes, that he drew  inspiration and poetic imagery from the texts of Kabbalah.

Our talks with Rabbi Orna range from discussions about angels, to the study of sleep and dreams, which to me was fascinating. We learned that the Kabbalists see sleep as one sixtieth part of death, in which the soul leaves the body to seek salvation, and returns purified on waking. Thus sleep is like a mini-death, in which we shed the dross of the day to be restored through our dreams. What struck me most forcefully was the sheer beauty and lyricism of the language, which even in its English translation has a musical and poetic quality. kabbalah_for_healing

In Rabbi Orna’s own words: The Kabbalah can be understood as the mystical side of Judaism, which began thousands of years ago. Some of the texts, parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were lost and only rediscovered in the twentieth century. Jewish mysticism only really became known as Kabbalah in the Eleventh Century. People from other traditions and religions have been inspired by Kabbalah, and understand it in different ways. 

Each week we accolytes sit around a table sipping coffee laced with chocolate, nourishing body and brain with her jewels of wisdom. To take in the meaning of texts over 2000 years old in these little sips is a challenge, but one I welcome with eager anticipation.

I am proud that my own grandfather, who came from Sfad, the centre of Kabbalistic study in israel for many centuries, was a kabbalistic scholar, and left a legacy of writings in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

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Tapestry of Divine Letters. Artist David Friedman,    Selected artworks copyright © David Friedman.

The main text of the Kabbalah is called the Zo’har, which records the mystic’s ascent through the seven sacred halls to reach ‘the Holiest of Holies’ – the seventh and highest hall. This heirarchy of levels or spheres range from the earthly to thespiritual. The phrase ‘In Seventh Heaven’ comes directly from these teachings.

There are overtones of Hinduism and other Eastern Religions throughout these texts. There are also links to the chakras or energy centres in the Sanskrit teachings of yoga.

It is no wonder that the poet Ted Hughes found the study of Kabbalah so compelling, and incorporated so much of its mythology into his poetry, particularly the ‘Capriccio’ sequence. In these poems he addresses his lover  Assia, whose background was Russian-Jewish, as the divine feminine ‘Shekinah’ but also as the dark force, Lilith.

we have been given  by Rabbi Orna have influenced my own sleep patterns, mostly for the better. Before sleep I surrender my spirit to the Infinite, and on waking say a short prayer of gratitude (Modah Ani) for the return of my soul. I sleep deeply and peacefully, knowing my many flaws will be forgiven and healed, and wake with greater respect for the messages of my dreams.

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The Kabbalistic Tree of Life, by Artist Richard Quinn

Websites: 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com.neshamalife/

orna@neshamalife.org

https://www.kabbalah.com/what-kabbalahhttp://www.tzfat-kabbalah.org/p=1003

 

The torment of Ted Hughes

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This review by Mark Ford of ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’ by Jonathan Bates, gives an interesting slant on Bate’s book, and echoes much of the portrayal of Hughes’s remorse in my novel: ‘Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath.

 In March 1969 Assia gassed both herself and her four-year-old daughter by Hughes, Shura, in her flat in Clapham. She had grown tired of sharing Hughes with his two women down in Devon, Brenda Hedden (a social worker) and Carol Orchard, a local farmer’s daughter and nurse, who would become his second wife. Hughes did, on occasion, explicitly question the implications of his … behaviour in his private journal, noting, for instance, of this particular erotic triangle: ‘3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed – but own soul lost.’ The sorrows of the polygamist … As the errant poet struggled to manage his handily alphabetised commitments to A, B and C, as he referred to them in his journal, Assia battled with the complexities of the situation in which she found herself after Plath’s suicide.

 

Although less jealous and possessive than Plath, Assia had her own moments of despair and fury: in a will she made in April 1968 she left to Hughes only ‘my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.’  Hughes’s ‘The Error’, from the suite of Assia poems collected in Capriccio (1990), presents her subsequent death as almost a direct consequence of Sylvia’s suicide:

When her grave opened its ugly mouth
Why didn’t you just fly,
Wrap yourself in your hair and make yourself scarce,
Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
To be identified
Accused and convicted
By all who held in their hands
Pieces of the gravestone grey granite
As Bate’s tells it, Hughes had no need of others’ vitriol to feel haunted and tormented for the 35 years that followed his first wife’s death. He suffered as much as they could have wanted. And while some may find specious Bate’s theory that Hughes’s serial infidelities were in fact a way of staying faithful to the memory of Plath – an argument that certainly pushes to a new level of sophistication the Cole Porter lyric ‘I’m always true to you darling in my fashion’ – it’s hard not to feel that Hughes never escaped the baffling labyrinth into which his relationship with Plath led him.
Excerpt  from Sorrows of a Polygamist’ by Mark Ford: a Review of Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate  

Birth Day of Assia Wevill 15 May 1927 – 23 March 1969

 

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Assia Wevill, born Assia Esther Gutmann, would have been 89 years old today, had she not taken her own life and that of her daughter Shura in March 1969. She was 41 when she died: 41 years, reflected in the 41 chapters in my novel, ‘Capriccio’, which endeavours to honour her short life.

Who was the real Assia? Was she a seductive siren, wooing Ted Hughes away from his one true wife? Was she a vain, selfish woman determined to establish herself in London’s literary world? Or was she a frightened wanderer through life, excessively generous to her friends, utterly devoted to her daughter, and a loving daughter herself to her charismatic father Lonya?

Her third and truest husband, the poet and academic David Wevill, has said that no-one has truly understood her, for all the fictional and non-fictional portrayals, from the play ‘Doonreagan’ about the months she spent with Ted and their children in Ireland, to the only published biography,’Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Her close friend, Nathaniel Tarn, has left diaries and letters to the Stanford University Library, which throw light on Assia’s identity. He describes her as a ‘peasant’, never fully accepted in English society, covering her painful insecurity with an over-polished accent and a dramatic persona. Far from being vain, she was highly self-critical, and would be driven to tears when friends teased her about her undoubted beauty.

What did she think of herself? The scant diary entries that remain show her as thinking she was ‘second-rate’, would never amount to anything, was unworthy of the great poet Ted Hughes’s attention, and could never match up to his first wife Sylvia, whom she both idolised and feared. Yet she was a talented miniaturist, an award-winning copywriter, and a talented translator and linguist. In the words of her own poem, she remains ‘unlamented’:

… To see again and no more/The black northern pond,/ Its autumn spent/

Its eye burning with crippled cedar wings…..

Like Thomas Hood’s and my time’s

Unlamented, spring less, passed.

– Assia Wevill, ‘Winter End, Herfordshire’

 

Sylvia’s Last Letter

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What do you think Sylvia might have written in that last letter?

Sylvia Plath’s last days have been well documented, again and again giving us the same facts in the various non-fiction biographies. We know she wrote a letter just before she died, and asked her downstairs neighbour for stamps.. The letter, if it was found, has never been disclosed. We also know that Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s rival, was shocked to read the vituperative language Sylvia wrote about herself and hr husband David. The journal was subsequently destroyed.

In my fictional recreation of these events, I’ve invented details, dialogue, and writings by the main characters.The following extract excerpt is an imagined version of what she might have written on that last day. The letter contains the things Assia might have read about herself, in the lost journal.

Here’s an extract from my fictional letter:

I cannot bear to write your name; its very sound is a hiss from the tongue of a serpent. You snaked your way into our lives and destroyed all that was once wholesome and fertile, and changed my husband from a god to a devil. Here is the gift you have wished for, freeing him to be yours. But rest assured, he will never love you, or your bastard child, as he’s loved me and our children. With this act I curse you forever. I will always be between you, watching and waiting. The day will come when you and yours will join me in Hell.

 Sylvia

What other writers have said about how to create  fiction from fact:

‘When making up detail, you still have a structure to pin it on. The facts are a stimulus to the imagination, so you’re not inventing something in a vacuum. In a way, you’re inventing these things almost like a detective would. You come up with hypothess that would make sense of the facts you’ve got. (e.g. the letter Sylvia wrote just before she died, for which she asked Dr Thomas for a stamp.) There is a wonderful kind of tug between the facts and the fiction.’ ( Emma Donoghue, author of ‘Room’.)

William Nicholson, the British author and screenwriter, wrote, in his reply to my email query re fact/fiction: As you may know I write fiction with real people in it a great deal, and have done since ‘Shadowlands’ dramatised the love life of C.S.Lewis. My own view is that it’s okay to do this so long as: a) you stick to the truth as far as it’s known; and b) where you invent to fill the gaps, you treat the real people generously.

 Hannah Kent, in the author’s note to her brilliant award-winning novel, ‘Burial Rites’ says: ‘Many known & established facts about Agnes’ life have been reproduced in this novel and events have either been drawn directly from the record or are the result of speculation. They are fictional likelihoods.’

 If we substitute ‘Assia’ for ‘Agnes, Kent’s main character, the same might be said about my novel, ‘Capriccio’.

 

 

What is Truth in Fiction?

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the subject of my novel, 'Capriccio'image

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the subject of my novel, Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath

What do readers look for from historical or biographical fiction? Is it the ‘truth’ in the form of accurately researched facts, or are they seeking  a deeper truth behind those facts? There are facts a-plenty in ‘Capriccio’, the result of ten years’ extensive research of the characters’ lives and works.However,   I have dug deeper into the realm of possibilities to create a story which, although largely following known truths, adds drama and colour to the lives of these real people.

The question of truth in fiction has been constantly in my mind throughout this novel’s long gestation. I first heard of Assia Wevill in the year 2000, when a newspaper article ‘Haunted by the Ghosts of Love’ came to my notice. It was written by Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Something about Assia’s story resonated with me, and for the next few years I read and researched everything I could about her role in the famous story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

When Negev and Koren’s biography, ‘Lover of Unreason’, came out in 2006, I was at first devastated to know that others had got there before me, and abandoned all thought of writing my own book about Assia. Then I realised that what I wanted to write was not a ‘straight’ biography, but a re-creation of the lives of Assia, Ted and Sylvia during the turbulent years of their tragic triangle. This is not to say that Negev and Koren gave us only the bare bones of Assia’s story – far from it; they left no stone unturned, and I’m forever in their debt for revealing the many facts which have formed the ‘scafffolding’ for my novel.

As author of historical fiction,  Sulari Gentill, suggests,” bringing a  historical figure to life is often about juxtaposing the contradictions to reveal the small details and allow the reader to see to them as human beings. The “holes” in history, the blank spaces, are  where we spin our tales and create. We fill in those spaces with imaginative hypotheses, with stories that link separate historical facts with a fictional narrative.

By filling in the ‘holes’ left in the documented events of those years 1961 to 1969, using imagination to create dialogue, thoughts, dreams, journal entries and letters by the main characters, I hope to make their story live again.