masculinity Posts

“I write like a reader”, interview with Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is known for her mystery novels mostly set in Devon and the Shetlands. She has been writing for many years but the recent success of her Shetland novels adapted for TV by the BBC has sparked a renewed interest in her books. It has definitely got her a new fan base.

Ann Cleeves at Jaipur Literature Festival 2020

On 26 October 2017, Ann Cleeves was presented with the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honour in British crime writing, at the CWA’s Dagger Awards ceremony in London. In 2006 Ann was the first winner of the Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for Raven Black, the first volume of her Shetland series. In addition, she has been short listed for CWA Dagger Awards, once for the short story dagger, and twice for the Dagger in the Library award which is awarded not for an individual book but for an author’s entire body of work.

Her new novel, The Long Call, features a new detective, Matthew Venn. It is set in North Devon where Ann Cleeves grew up. Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is a reserved and complex person, estranged from the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, and from his own family, but drawn back by murder into the community he thought he had left behind. The Long Call seems very contemporary in its writing style, the scenarios presented, the flexibility in character movement, the plot lines etc. There are all the classic elements of a mystery novel keeping the reader in suspense but the modern touches to the storytelling are refreshing too. For instance the vulnerability of Matthew Venn in his personal space is very well done. Juxtaposed with the toxic masculinity he has to contend with while working on a case is fascinating to read. Although it is hard to pinpoint a specific point in the novel but it feels almost as if the recent years of having had many of her previous novels adapted for television has affected Cleeves writing style — although she denies it to be so in the interview below. Be that as it may, the story is fabulous. Read it.

Here is an interview conducted via email:

  1. What drew you to writing mystery stories? Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? And as a reader which form do you prefer? 

Although I’ve always read very widely, mysteries were my comfort books, the books I turned to when I had a cold or was miserable.  I planned to write a great work of literary fiction when I started out, but the novel only really took off when I killed off one of the characters!  I find the structure of the classic detective story rather liberating, and it still allows me to explore the topics which interest me: the family, social justice and the way that place influences the individual.

Short stories are very difficult to write.  Every word has to count.  I can experiment with short fiction, write from the first person, for example, which isn’t a natural voice for me.  I prefer reading novels; it’s a more immersive experience.

2. How long does it take you to write a novel? Does a series arc require extensive planning or do you let it evolve over time? 

I’m contracted to do a book a year, but the book usually takes about nine months to complete. I don’t plan my work at all.  I write like a reader, I think.  I can’t start until I have an idea about the world I’m creating, a vague sense of what it would be like to live there, but the details, even the details of character, come with the writing.  So, I’ll write the first scene and because I want to know what happens next, I write the second.  By the time I’m halfway through, I have a notion about what the resolution will be, but even then I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there.

3. How did you get your first break in publishing?

It was a lot easier to find a publisher when I started out in the late nineteen eighties.  I wrote my book, went to my local library to see who published the kind of novel I’d written, then sent letters and synopses to them.  The fourth publisher I tried accepted it.  It was much harder getting any commercial success.  That took twenty years.

4. The “Dear Reader” format is fascinating. It is a direct acknowledgement of how aware you are aware of the reader. How does this constant awareness of the reader affect your writing style? 

I wrote a letter to my readers at the beginning of The Long Call because it was the first book in a new series and I hoped to persuade the people who’d enjoyed the Vera and Shetland books to give it a try.  When I’m writing I’m not really aware of the reader at all.  It’s a very selfish process.  I write the book that I’d enjoy reading, I’m revelling in the process, in becoming my characters and seeing the world through their eyes.  It’s a sophisticated form of a child playing make-believe.  There’s nothing wrong with escapist fiction, either as a reader or a writer.

5. How do you create characters? Do they evolve once the plot develops as well or do you first create people sketches and then work them in to the plot?

I don’t create people sketches.  Of course I know my returning characters rather well – I’m writing them from memory not imagination – but the individuals who only appear in one book grow as I’m writing.  Then of course I have to go back and make sure that they’re consistent from the beginning.

6. Does the gender of a character make a difference to the degree of insight and work required on your part as an author? (I get the sense that your women characters are far more nuanced than the male characters. Not to say the male characters are not well portrayed but there are tiny details about the women that makes them to be more rounded. It is almost as if at times you are sympathising with them.) 

This is a really interesting observation!  I hadn’t thought the gender made any difference, but perhaps you’re right.  Perhaps I’m rooting for my women and have more understanding of their problems and stresses.  It doesn’t feel any easier when I’m writing them though.

7. Do you like observing people? 

Yes!  I’m perpetually eavesdropping and watching.  I don’t know how you could be a writer if you don’t use public transport, for example.  That’s such fertile ground for observation.

8. Have the recently successful TV adaptations of your books, especially The Shetland series, affected your writing style? 

I don’t think so.  The more recent Shetland TV series – they’re about to film series 6 – have moved away from the books. They retain the atmosphere and the sense of place, but perhaps they’re darker, a little more Gothic in tone. But the theme of kindness, which I hope is at the heart of the novels, is still very much there. The double Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn plays the central character in Vera and we’ve already had ten seasons of those shows.  She absolutely captures my character and I do hear her voice in my head when I’m writing dialogue.

9. Where do you find the inspiration of your stories especially the intricacies of the mystery?

The mystery and the plot twists seem to take care of themselves.  Deciding the essence of the book is the most important thing for me.  For example, I think The Long Call is about powerful men deciding that they’re entitled to cover up a crime.  And in the end the cover up is more toxic than the crime itself.

10. To create the settings of your novels, do you visit the places beforehand to get a sense of the geography and its locals or does it involve a lot of armchair research or a bit of both?  I ask because at times it seems almost as if the descriptions are written down as if you had observed them yourself. 

I can only write about place that I know well.  I have been visiting Shetland for more than forty years and lived there for a while.  I grew up in North Devon and still have friends there and I live in Northumberland where the Vera books are set.  My daughter is an academic, a human geographer, and I think that’s what I do: explore community and the individual’s place within it.

11. What is your writing routine? 

I write best early in the morning, at a laptop on my kitchen table, drinking lots of tea.

12. Who are the writers who have influenced your writing?

When I was younger I read all the Golden Age mystery writers – Christie, Sayers, Allingham – but my real reading passion now is crime fiction in translation.  I think we get a real sense of another culture’s preoccupations by reading their popular fiction.  I’m especially a fan of Simenon’s Maigret books.  They’re so tight and precisely observed.

2 March 2020

“I’m a REAL Boy” by Clayton Koh

The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.

This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’s I’m a Real Boy are extremely useful.  Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.

Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:

[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.

“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity deve­loped in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.

“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.

He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.

“But in terms of interests or ­certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”

He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.

“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.

Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).

Later Diksha adds:

Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.

Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80

22 June 2018 

Read more on “Literature and inclusiveness” ( Nov 2016)

Interview with Shikhandin

My interview with Shikhandin was published in Scroll on Sunday, 10 September 2017 as “‘The writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders’: Shikhandin“. 

Immoderate Men by Shikhandin is a remarkable collection of stories published by Speaking Tiger Books. These stories meander through the minds of men giving a perspective on daily life which would ordinarily be dismissed. For instance stories like  “Room Full of Presents”, “Salted Pinkies”, “Hijras on the Highway” and “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” if taken at face-value are regular stories with a mild twist. On the other hand these stories also dissect with finesse the preconceived notion of “What is masculinity?”  By delving into the mental makeup of the protagonists the author explores bewildering scenarios; thereby brilliantly subverting notions of patriarchical norms by blurring gender lines as often this confused state of mind is attributed to women and not men.

Here are edited excerpts of an interview with the author:

  1. How did these stories come about?

Mostly from the world around me, past and present. A couple are from dreams and visions. Some from newspaper articles, photographs, a conversation overheard, a person observed in a crowd, and so on. My stories usually come from life itself, whether dreamt or experienced or watched. “Room Full of Presents” came to me in a pre-dawn dream, all of it, more than a decade ago. I still remember waking from it, the sensations of the dream falling off me like water droplets as I sat up on my bed, trying to stay still, just feeling the story over me, around me. Dreams have their roots in reality, regardless of their form and shape. I was sure I had seen/met the characters somewhere, sometime. “Ahalya” came from a vision of a girl with cascading black hair running up a hill. I was half asleep, but I could see her clearly; the hill felt mysterious; this story crept up on me at first without any specific shape, smoky, yet tangible. Most of my stories run like little movies on a little screen before my eyes – that is my first sighting of the story. I write what I see and hear in that mental screen. This is how it has always been for me, even when I wrote press ads and ad films for a living, years ago.

  1. How long did it take to write these stories?

The stories in this collection, and others too, were written over a period of almost two decades. I love short stories (and novellas and novelettes), but everybody keeps saying there isn’t a market for them. So for many years I didn’t put together a manuscript of short stories, though I continued to submit and be published in journals, mostly abroad. The earliest story in this collection was written in 2002 and first published in an American Magazine the same year. Individual stories have their own pace. Some, like “Mail for Dadubhai,” was written in one sitting. Ditto for “Ducklings”, “The Vanishing Man” and “Black Prince”. They were edited/fine-tuned after what I call the resting/roosting period. In general, a single story may take me anything from one or two days to a week. I leave them alone after that for as long as it takes, before I revisit. Some may take longer, like “Salted Pinkies”. I was inhabiting the minds of young men, the kind who loiter in Calcutta’s cheap cafes. Even though I was confident of their language and mannerisms, I kept stopping to check, which was difficult because I no longer lived in Calcutta. At times I literally had to mentally transport myself to North Calcutta, walk the streets in my mind. Watching the boys and men all over again. The writing time, I would say, really depends on the story. There is a story that I have left incomplete for almost two decades, because I have imagined several alternative endings for it; one will rise up and push out the others I know. For me, it’s the story that dictates. I am merely the conduit.

  1. Are they pure figments of imagination or are borrowed heavily from life or inspired by events? (I ask because there is a tone to them that makes me feel as if there is a pinch of reality infused in the stories)

They are both and neither. Like dreams, our imaginings are also based on reality, grounded in the material world. Even a fantasy-scifi movie like Avatar, is at the end of the day, a story about thwarting colonial intrusion. If my stories are relatable, I have succeeded in writing a true one. By true I don’t mean factually correct or historically acceptable. Truth, as I see it, in fiction is about emotional sincerity, that kernel that makes you weep, laugh, sing or rage with or against the character or situation; the narrative that makes you walk through to the end, because it is probable, plausible, relatable, even when the world the story brings forth seems impossible or in the case of literary stories, unfamiliar and totally strange or even shocking. Having said all of the above, yes, there are stories that were inspired by something almost physical. Like “Ducklings” for instance, which is from a photograph I had seen in a newspaper. Avian flu was sweeping across Bengal and Orissa and also Bihar. It was around 2006 I think. There was this black and white photograph of a Bengali woman, weeping as she clutched ducklings, her pets, to her breast. The ducklings were looking innocently back at the camera/photographer. Having grown up with many animals and birds, and experienced the pain of loss, I am not ashamed to say that I wept for that woman, mourned her loss for days. And then I re-imagined her life.  “Old Man Sitting on a South Kolkata Park Bench, Ruminating” is inspired from an actual conversation, part of it, that I had heard while passing through a similar park in that city. A few old men were gossiping, about the young girls they had seen or knew, and their daughters-in-law. An incident in the story (kissing a baby boy in the crotch) was actually witnessed by me during my college days in the early eighties, and it is still practised. These traditional Bengali men didn’t/don’t think they were/are doing anything wrong. Saluting a baby boy like that is acceptable; displaying a boy baby is a matter of pride. I stitched that incident into my story. And I became an old man in my head when I wrote it.

  1. Curiously you chose to write about the world of men while inhabiting their minds. With this technique it is fascinating the multiple layers of reading it lends itself to. How did you train yourself to write in this manner?

For this I really must thank my rigorous advertising training. One of the exercises copywriting entailed was mentally switching places with the consumer. I discovered it works quite well for fiction when you are writing as someone else, seeing things from another’s perspective. My short experience with theatre also helps. That apart, since my childhood, I’ve had this tendency to feel things intensely- be inside the book I am reading or the music I am listening or the movie I am watching, the food I am cooking. Once my mother tore my drawing book into shreds because I hadn’t replied when she’d called me. I wasn’t ignoring her or being disrespectful, I actually hadn’t heard, but of course I wasn’t believed. Similar problems would crop up in school too. Be that as it may, it’s great fun becoming someone or something else even momentarily! Adventure and action, madness and mayhem all in the safety of your own mind. It helps that I am mostly by myself on any week day. I can laugh or cry without being seen as a lunatic! Right now, a part of my head is a dog, doing doggie things; two dogs actually in two totally different stories, so I had to apportion off my grey cells!

  1. Why use a nom de plume?

Actually in my case, it is not so much as a nom de plume, as acknowledging to myself and everyone, that the writer in me doesn’t have a gender or is made up of all the genders. I ought to have used Shikhandin right at the beginning, but felt shy about it; didn’t want to come across as pretentious. It’s hard enough replying “I write” when folks ask me what I do.

I could have picked up any other gender nonspecific name or initials. There are several versions to the Shikhandin narrative in the Mahabharata. The common thread running through all is that Shikhandin, who was princess Amba of Kashi, in a previous birth, through deep penance and austerities and after several rebirths and a Yaksha’s boon, became a male, Shikhandin, and succeeded in destroying the man (Bhishma) who was responsible for her humiliation and ruin in her first life. Whichever version you read, Shikhandin’s life is a fascinating story of grit, determination and resolve against all odds. For most people Shikhandin represents members of the LGBT community, or those who have rejected gender stereotypes. For me, Shikhandin represents a mind so strong that it can overcome physical boundaries and frailties. It doesn’t matter what you are born as, but who you can become.

I had heard about Shikhandin as a young child listening to tales from the epics. Later, while still in school, I read a bit. Shikhandin has been with me for decades. And because of Shikhandin I questioned male-female roles as dictated by society, and the kind of character and personality ascribed to each as acceptable. I wondered then, and still do, how gender specific are we in the purely intellectual or cerebral sense. How much of our gendered lives are in fact centuries of conditioning. I think it is nonsense that only women can understand women and likewise for men. Physical violence is not a male characteristic, just as daintiness is not a female thing. As a writer, I don’t want to belong to any specific place or slot. I don’t matter, the story does. At the time of writing, I should have the freedom to become whatever is necessary, whatever is required of me, for the story to unfurl as truly as it can.

  1. When did you gravitate from writing children’s stories to stories for adults?

It’s the other way round actually. I have been writing for adults ever since I can remember.  I wish I had started writing children’s stories earlier. That’s another regret, and hope I can make up for lost time now. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. But the Children’s First Contest curated by Duckbill, Parag (an initiative of Tata Trust) and Vidya Sagar School has boosted my confidence . I enjoy reading children’s fiction a lot, even today, after my own children have grown up. And every time I have written a story or poem for children I’ve come away feeling so euphoric – the sheer joy of being a child is like an elixir. I enjoy listening to children’s patter too. Their sense of logic and observation astounds me. They also know more than many grownups about many things.

  1. Do you think there is any difference in your methodology while writing for children or adults?

Yes, certainly. There is a poem that I’d written and published several years ago, which I think can give you an idea about the kind of heart needed when writing for children:

WHAT THE CHILD DOES

When gossamer tufts come cascading down

From the silk-cotton tree’s bright scarlet crown

Who chases the tufts? Say who does?

The child does

When plump raven clouds thundering their refrain

Suddenly shed weight in vast feathers of rain

Who raises a fountain? Say who does?

The child does

When dew beads strung across blades of new grass

Glisten like rows and rows of glowing elfin glass

Who sees the rainbow? Say who does?

The child does

When within that pupa clinging to a tree

A butterfly softly struggles to be free

Who hears the cry? Say who does?

The child does

When deep down in winter’s icy waters

A timid sun’s shy white ray quivers

Who feels the arrow? Say who does?

The child does

Ah! Everywhere in this world, a new world unfolds

And unwraps and unfurls, expands and grows

Who stands in wonder, then? Say who does?

We do! We do! Yes. But first the child does!

  1. At times you hold yourself back from describing in greater detail the surroundings or situations. Why?

In short stories less is more – usually, because there are always exceptions to prove the rule! The best are those that without shouting, slip inside your head and start to niggle, urging you, the reader, to create possible endings and solutions, extend the surroundings or simply stay on with the story. I try to emulate that standard. I try.

Shikhandin Immoderate Men: Stories Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 299 

12 Sept 2017 

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