Author: Alex Knight

The Good Ship Well-Being

Writing sometimes makes me ill. There are many days when I feel just like this pitiful boat – battered and stuffed with rubbish and marooned on wasteland far from the sea.

Sitting at a desk day in and day out is not conducive to good health. It’s not only writers who sit at desks for long periods of time, but writers do it in a particularly desperate and intent way that leads to hunched backs and tension between the eyes and a horrible, life sapping, liverishness. Whether the prose is flowing free (seldom) or whether it is stuck somewhere deep down in your miserable gut (most of the time) the effect is the same – tormented minds and twisted limbs and an over reliance on Haribo.

Take breaks! I hear you cry. Go out and stare at shrubbery! Use your never before opened app that promotes mindfulness! Descend to the kitchen and whip yourself up something tasty with a tin of chick peas! All good, sensible, excellent advice, which I am utterly unable to take. If the writing is going well, i.e. more than ten minutes have passed without me staring frantically out of the window or looking at Twitter to see who is doing better than me (everyone), then abandoning my desk feels foolhardy- it might be the very last time the tail of inspiration lies in my sweaty fist. When it’s going badly, then leaving my lonely vigil feels too much like failure to bear, and what if….what if…when I’m mashing chickpeas with a fork or wandering across a meadow of buttercups, I feel that tail flick past me and I know that if I had only held fast, if I had only continued to sit hunched and miserable at my post, the words would have come pouring out of me.

The thing I live for (apart that is from never, ever, again having a review on Amazon that simply states, in lower case, as if using capitals would involve too much effort, the dreaded ‘dnf’) is the moment when finally and improbably, the first draft has been squeezed out. There is more pain to come, or course, much, much more pain, but just for a few days, maybe even a week, I can emerge creaking and blinking from my study and feel the sun on my body and hold a buttercup under my chin.

 

Creating stories

The main protagonist of my fifth novel is a bereaved woman who decides to retrace the story of her marriage by revisiting the places marked on her collection of pebbles.

Put baldly like this (and you’re always supposed to be able to describe a novel synopsis succinctly, just in case you are ever trapped in a lift with a famous movie director) it sounds a little strange. Who, after all, goes around picking up pebbles and marking them with a Sharpie?

Well, the answer is I do. Or at least I have. The collection has tailed off rather in recent years, which may say something about growing older and being less excitable and prone to feeling the need to commemorate occasions, or perhaps it’s simply that my bowl is full to the brim (which sounds like a euphemism, but most definitely isn’t). Starting a second bowl would be a step change from something that might be viewed as an amusing eccentricity into more worrying territory.

I’ve often wondered why people have collections. Men are more prone than women, of course. It’s surely something to do with hanging on to childhood (Freud would have you think it’s to compensate for escaped turds), or perhaps it’s born of the same impulse that often makes men climb to the highest point of any terrain so that they feel they have a full and proper grasp. We acquire things to give us the illusion of control, to link the past to the present or because we think we might make a fast buck. We sometimes gather things to make ourselves feel safe and to protect ourselves from sadness.

The contents of my bowl were acquired, I think, as markers for specific places where something significant – sorrowful or joyful took place. I like to imagine, just like the protagonist of my novel, that they tell the story of my life. That laid out, in date order, I would be able to demonstrate that I have been a witness to what has taken place. The thing about stories though, is that they often turn out to be unreliable narratives…..

Books of My Life

A by no means comprehensive list of books that have had a lasting impact on me as a reader and as a writer, and which I turn to often for comfort, inspiration and laughs.

Favourite book of all time 

The first line of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” still thrills me. Rebecca has everything you want from a novel – romance, dark secrets and complex characters, but above all, it is the house itself and our unnamed heroine’s struggle to feel as if she belongs there that really resonates.

Book that made me want to become a writer 

I fell in love with the eccentric Mortmain family in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, particularly the narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra. The book is funny and dreamy and sums up perfectly what it feels like when you are just on the edge of adulthood.

Book I recommend to people 

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, because a lot of people have never read her pared back, melancholy portrayals of individuals beset by longings and loneliness.

The best book to start a book club 

The story of a shipwrecked boy sharing his boat with a tiger called Richard Parker may sound far fetched, but The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel is a book that examines notions of faith and truth and the way we choose our own narratives. Plus it has one of the goriest scenes I have ever read.

The funniest book

There are lots of contenders for this category, but Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbon never fails to cheer me up. I can never read the part about Old Adam Lambsbreath cletterin’ the porridge-encrusted dishes with a thorn twig under Flora Poste’s disbelieving gaze, without laughing out loud.

Favourite author 

William Trevor’s collected short stories are always on my bedside table. They are a source of inspiration and comfort. It staggers me how he is able to squeeze such meaning and emotion from the most ordinary events.

Favourite classic book

Mill on The Floss by George Elliot. Maggie Tulliver is the perfect heroine- fiery, principled and with a real thirst for experience. Her relationship with her brother Tom is at the heart of the book and is the best account of sibling rivalry and love that I have ever read. I defy anyone not to shed a tear at the end.

Book I wish I’d written 

Affinity by Sarah Waters is so accomplished that as a reader you don’t notice that you are part of an elaborate hoax. From the description of the prison at the beginning of the book to its denouement, it is a glorious, sly, twisty, tale.