Inspiration, Stealing and Intertextuality

How what we read always bubbles up into what we write, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening

A guest appearance in the blog today from children’s author, R J Barron, writing about the links between his new novel, The Watcher and The Friend and the work of Joan Aiken, in particular, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The connections between what we read and what we write, even years later, are mysterious and powerful. Read on for more

In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”.

It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a punt? I said Narnia (The Grandfather Clock) His Dark Materials (parallel world, moral dilemmas, emerging feelings between young protagonists), Thomas Kempe (ghostly messages written across time and space). And it’s true, there is a connection between all of those books and my own. Originality is a very overrated quality in my opinion. Everything is connected, and ideas breed other ideas. The Jim Jarmusch quote is a useful guide here: Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” In other words, whatever you steal, make it your own. If you’re alive in the world, it’s impossible to produce something original. You’d have to lock yourself away for a lifetime to achieve that, like a jury in a murder trial. And for what? Instead, we should celebrate the connections between our own work and that of others, even connections that have emerged from the sub-conscious.

And the sub-conscious was exactly where my ideas lurked, in the shadows, skulking. But now they are out, wide-eyed and blinking in the sunlight, the connections are perfectly clear to me. Here they are:

Alternative History

In Aiken’s novels, the strength of the parallel world she creates is the fact that England’s real history has been tweaked only very slightly, as if an acetate copy has slipped on top of the original. The effect is disconcerting. The reader feels as if they are standing on shifting sand and everything, including the things we take for granted, has to be re-assessed, re-evaluated in some way. The power comes not from the precision of the words themselves, but the suggestions held by the white spaces in between the words. Everything seems to be at once familiar and strange at the same time.

The time shift in “The Watcher and The Friend” is different. At first it appears that Tom has simply gone back in time, to the Runswick bay and North York Moors of 1795. The clue first appears in Tom’s reaction to historical England, as we are told that there was something not quite right about it, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but which jarred, or irritated like a tiny pebble in one’s shoe. The reason he couldn’t work out what it was the fact that it was something so familiar to someone who lives in South London in the early twenty first century – the absolute diversity of the population. All kinds of people from all over the world, living relatively harmoniously together. This state of diversity and equality is extended in The Watcher to all groups – women hold positions of power, same sex relationships are commonplace and so not worthy of comment. As we subsequently learn from an amused Silas Cummerbund, Tom has journeyed not to England in 1795, but to Yngerlande, a parallel world, also in 1795, where there is perfect equality. There has been no history of Empire, colonisation or slavery, and therefore power relations have not developed in the same toxic way as in our own world.

Settings – Country side and weather

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be set in a mini ice age, with permanent ice and snow serving as a perfect backdrop to the wolf packs that are terrorising the country. This is very deliberately echoed in The Watcher and The Friend. One early chapter, The Frozen North sets an atmosphere that can be so powerful in children’s fiction, and descriptions of snow, in both countryside and “Georgian” towns and villages, are used to provide an atmosphere that is both beautiful and harshly challenging. For many children in the UK, apart from those who live in remote areas in the hills, snow is an unfamiliar occurrence and one which is mainly evocative of classic children’s books read or films (such as the Harry Potter series) seen. It’s a powerful motif of adventure, something that is both thrillingly beautiful and to be escaped from at the same time. The escape from a snow bound forest, and its attendant dangers, into a domestic setting with food and warmth and closed doors, fulfils a most basic human desire for security.

In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the early escape back to the big house after being pursued by wolves that descend from the hills into the estate is a key example of this. Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is another. In The Watcher, such snowy scenes of pursuit and escape play a significant role in the novel: in the wolf attack on the lonely snowy roads across the Moors to the coast; the scene where Della, Tom, Dan and Clara emerge from the smugglers’ tunnels high up on the top of the Moors, to encounter a group of Redcoats who have tracked them down in a thick, snowy forest; and the snowy streets of York on Christmas Eve, thronged with Redcoats nervously on guard outside the Queen’s Christmas Ball in The Assembly Rooms. All of these echo Aiken’s deployment of memorable settings to create a strong and vivid sense of place.

Creatures – Wolves, Steedhorns and Steedwings

The combination of a parallel world and a historic setting allows the writer to give full vent to their imagination as far as reality is concerned. Creatures that come from old folk and fairy tales naturally inhabit this land. The archaic setting gives permission for imagination to flourish. These creatures are surely the kind of things that would have existed in this strange alternative universe. Aren’t they?

And so, very real and very frightening wolves, are joined in my book by Unicorns (or Steedhorns, as Yngerlande terms them) and flying horses (Steedwings). Not the sickly pink, disneyfied versions. No, these creatures are large and rough and shaggy, with brown coats and matted hair. The Steedhorns are commonplace and considered a pest by the local farmers, because of the damage they do to crops and the environment whereas the Steedwings are rarely seen and thought by most people to be the stuff of old tales.

In Aiken’s  version of England the same cast of wild and fierce animals are present as a source of danger: primal, terrifying, ancient in the shape of the packs of wolves that roam the countryside with a careless lack of fear as far as human beings are concerned. Casual references to bears abound, along with flocks of sheep, (rescued from the slaughterhouse) a pink whale and many individual creatures that tag along after Simon, a prototype eco warrior, years ahead of his time, is the future King of England with an uncanny affinity with animals of all kinds. For children, animals in fiction are both a blameless repository of affection, and an echo of an ancient wilder world than their own. Aiken taps into this unerringly – perhaps she was an animal lover herself?

Strong female characters

Dido Twite is possibly Aiken’s greatest creation. Missing presumed drowned in the North Sea at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, she reappears mysteriously at the beginning of the next book in the series, Nightbirds to Nantucket, on board a whaler headed towards the Newfoundland coast. The story of her rescue does not detain the reader for more than a paragraph or so and no-one who has read Black Hearts needs to know more than that, so delighted are they that Dido has returned. The legend has it that readers were distraught at the end of Black Hearts at the thought that Dido might have died and wrote to Aiken begging for her resurrection. I love the fact that this was not part of a grand plan on behalf of the author but instead it emerged at the behest of her readers. Proof again that reading is a social act of reconstruction for each individual, and that once a writer has let their work go, it no longer belongs to them, but has an independent life of its own, being constantly regenerated every time it is read afresh. And once Aiken had been diverted down that path by her readers, a whole warren of paths and turnings sprang up that had not been envisaged when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was being planned. This is the very nature of the writer’s imagination. The act of writing begets deeper, richer, better writing; better than could ever have been planned, no matter how meticulous the creator.

The Dido that returns does not disappoint. Feisty, independent, brave, loyal, she brings a young, and as yet unjaundiced, eye on the idiocies of the adult world. The book sings whenever she is on the page, not least because of Aiken’s fabulous inventiveness in terms of Dido’s language. Even without speech tags or description, the character is immediately identifiable through her dialogue alone. Croopus! What a creation!

Like Aiken’s books, the most important characters in The Watcher are female, despite the fact the protagonist, Thomas Trelawney, is a thirteen year-old boy. As well as a group of younger female characters (Tom’s sister Grace, the mysterious girl Clara, who trails stars in her wake, Della Honeyfield, the dashing coachdriver and her partner Dr Amelia Church) the book paints a positive portrait of an older woman, Mary Carruthers. As Silas Cummerbund tells Tom early in the book, “With age comes wisdom, Thomas. Most of the old women I know are fearsomely clever, and the world would be a better place if people listened to them a bit more often. Your world and mine.”

A world under threat – plots and rescues

First and foremost, The Watcher, like the Wolves Chronicles, is an adventure, an entertainment. The story carries important messages about the world we live in, but the book stands or falls on the story alone. If the reader is not engaged, no message of any kind, no matter how pressing and relevant it is, will have any purchase. In the alternative history that underpins the stories of the Wolves chronicles, the ongoing struggle for power of the Hanoverians versus the Jacobeans provides much of the drama of the plots. Revolution, counter revolution, plots hatched and foiled ( usually at the last minute), hiding places, treachery, chases, discoveries – all of these regularly punctuate the pages of the novels in a breathless chase towards a final resolution. They are exciting adventures and readers turn the pages eager to experience the next twist or turn.

And so it is with The Watcher, I hope. I make no claims by this comparison – it’s up to readers to respond. I’m just struck, after the event, of a similar technique, a similar structure that underpins my book. In The Watcher, Yngerland in 1795 is a diverse, tolerant society. The only hierarchy is that generated by money. Apart from that, all “minority” groups are treated with equal respect and have an equal place in society with equal status. It serves as a model for our own world, particularly when it comes under attack. The “old Guard” – white rich landowners, with the figurehead of the grandson of a King who had been deposed many years earlier – secretly try to mount a coup against the Queen, Matilda, a black woman who represents everything they despise. The old guard want to preserve their interests, establish their privilege and consign all other groups to servitude. The Watcher, The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, has an ancient role of guarding the portal between Yngerlande and England, and working together with the new “Friend”, Thomas, they work to foil the plot. Their struggle to save Yngerlande involves wolf attacks, invisible ghosts, chases through smugglers tunnels, capture in dank cellars and flight across a snowbound North York Moors, all against a background of a snowy five days in the run up to Christmas. They succeed, of course, winning this first battle, but the war is clearly not over.

This blog has been a musing on connectedness and intertextuality. If you’re a teacher, a reader or a writer, I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this reaffirmation of how important children’s fiction is and how what you read as a child resonates down the years. I loved writing The Watcher (and I’m looking forward to the next four volumes in the series) and it’s clear to me now that the enjoyment I derived was in part down to the pleasure I had had years before in reading Joan Aiken’s books. If you haven’t read them, let me enthusiastically encourage you to begin. You have a treat in store. And as a writer taking the first faltering steps towards a readership, it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to do the same with my Aiken-inspired first children’s novel, The Watcher and The Friend. See if you can spot the connections as clearly as I now do myself.

If you’re interested in The Watcher and The Friend, try a lttle more. Click the links below either to read the first few chapters, or, even better, to buy a copy.

Click the buttons below to buy The Watcher and The Friend at your preferred bookshop

This piece first appeared in the barrononbooks blog at www.rjbarron.co.uk

A review of “Sorrow and Bliss” by Meg Mason

Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints.

It’s targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have a pink cover. The quotes on the inside cover are all from famous women, apart from a couple that are just attributed to a publication. There are two large quotes highlighted on the front cover, one from Ann Patchett and the other from Jessie Burton – both female writers surfing a certain zeitgeist at the moment. A comparison with Fleabag is also heavily underlined. That’s like comparing The Tempest to Love Island because it’s got people in it and it’s set on an island. Waller Bridge is a gloriously talented writer and Fleabag is funny, refreshing and moving – everything that Sorrow and Bliss isn’t but wants so desperately to be. The only thing missing are references to Sally Rooney, the media’s favourite young darling. Maybe there are contractual barriers to that, but I’m sure the publishers would have been falling over themselves, to get that agreement over the line. Maybe Rooney comes at too high price these days to be even mentioned in publicity puffs, who knows. But then Rooney’s last book did brilliantly and convincingly portray working class characters that were recognisably human. And we don’t want that sort of thing to catch on, do we?

Haven’t we got over this kind of thing yet? I know you’ve got to have a consistent message and aim mercilessly at your target audience, but this is 2021 and personally, I find the concept of women’s books and men’s books (oh no, sorry, obviously men don’t read at all) rather insulting and hopelessly out of date. At a time when the debate is about gender fluidity and all of that, this stuff seems positively antediluvian.

Meg Mason

Sorry, I digress. Back to the book. Well, let’s deal with the good stuff first. It is genuinely funny at times. On a couple of occasions, I laughed out loud, and that is not something you can fake. Some of the observations about relationships and family dynamics are acute and amusing, and Mason can clearly write. As an experienced journalist you would expect no less, but not wanting to be churlish, she is more than competent at structuring the narrative and balancing dialogue and description, but then so are many Sixth formers. If that is meant to be enough, we’re setting the bar extremely low.

And that’s really all the good stuff. The main problem is that the characters and their dilemmas are so crashingly dull and unbelievable. I’m sure this won’t stop someone snapping this up for a three episode mini-series, but the appeal there, will be, to my mind, the book’s greatest weakness. It invites us to care about the emotional dramas of a white, highly privileged woman from the English upper classes. An endearingly eccentric posh family who live in the middle of London and whose friends and relations are movers and shakers in the Art world, or Finance, or Government or whatever. After one in a series of traumas (discovering that her hastily married husband is an abusive control freak. Sorry, but marriage is important enough to do due diligence surely?), one such family treasure scoops up Martha, the protagonist, takes her to Paris and then lets her live rent free in his fabulous bijou appartement, somewhere very bohemian and rive gauche.

If only all women escaping abusive men and disfunctional families could just slip across La Manche. Why can’t people stand on their own two feet and rely on their family rather than the nanny state? Then we wouldn’t have to pay for ruinously expensive housing benefit etc. Excuse my sarcasm, but this is so out of touch with reality it’s painful. It reminded me a little of “The Pursuit of Love”, the Nancy Mitford novel that was serialised in the BBC earlier this year. That was brilliant, and gave the impression that the author was to some at extent at least, satirising the idle upper classes. Mason, on the other hand, gives no clue about any glimmer of social awareness. Instead, she creates the impression that she is writing about a familiar social milieu, one that she assumes everyone inhabits. Or everyone that reads books, that is. And I suppose that for Meg and her chums, journalists for The Sunday Telegraph, The Financial Times, Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle, it is very familiar.

But enough of class war, back to literary analysis. The husband in this dismal scenario, the nice one that is, married after Martha has escaped from the clutches of Husband 1, Mr Nasty, is a chap called Patrick. That’s where his resemblance to a human being in 2021 begins and ends. There is nice and nice. Patrick is NICE. He puts up with a lot of shit because Martha is very high maintenance and Patrick, as a black adoptee in a very posh family seems to feel that it would be impolite (the greatest British upper class sin) to have any views, feelings, thoughts, standards about anything that might cause any upset. And throughout the novel, he is treated abysmally by absolutely everyone. By the end, I found him so annoying and unbelievable, I really wanted to be casually vile to him as well.

He does, to be fair, provide the only narrative driving force of the novel, which is the desire to see them get married in the first place and then to see them and their marriage survive. Well, OK, maybe “driving force” is a little misleading, because it suggests that I gave a toss about either of them. Maybe narrative meander would be more accurate, a reason to keep going to the end before losing consciousness.

The final piece de resistance of this whole sorry debacle was the treatment of mental illness, a topic so fashionable it squeaks. I got the feeling that the spectre of Martha’s unspecified condition was meant to excuse the whole range of her excesses. Certainly, it features heavily in the largely positive reviews of the book. You know you’re on dodgy ground when depiction of mental illness is described using the word “brave”. This anything but brave. The deliberate vagueness around the condition is thought by many to be a glittering triumph, but I found it yet another cop out. Mason even includes a note at the end of the book: “The medical symptoms described in the novel are not consistent with a genuine mental illness. The portrayal of treatment, medication and doctors advice is wholly fictional”

What? You wouldn’t do that with a physical illness so why do it with a mental one? It smacked of someone slightly out of their depth and who couldn’t really be bothered to do the research. It’s always possible of course that I’ve got this wrong and Mason has had personal or family experience of mental illness, in which case I apologise sincerely. All I can say is that it didn’t ring true for me – a clumsy plot device, rather than an artistic decision.

So once again I find myself out of step with mainstream opinion. Sorry if you loved it but it just did not speak to me convincingly at all. This was definitely a case of mainly Sorrow, little Bliss.

This review was first published at www.rjbarron.co.uk