Guest Blog by Author Leslie Tate!

Leslie reading Heavens Rage The Studio

 

SHADES OF VIOLET

 

When I interview authors on my blog https://leslietate.com/ I want to find out what lies behind their latest book. So I avoid exchanges about sales or promotion, asking them instead about the process of writing. One of the questions I ask is, ‘Can you tell me about the beginning, growth and development your book?’ Applying the same question to ‘Violet’, my latest novel, I came up with the following three-part answer.

BEGINNINGS

I don’t plan my novels. I’ve never felt able to find an anecdote that translates neatly into a finished story. So I set off writing ‘Violet’ knowing only that it was about a late-life love affair. I’d a picture in my head of meeting my wife, Sue Hampton, in a West End restaurant, and I used that as my guide. I wanted to capture the fragile immediacy of our first encounter, how important it was, and how quickly it all happened. Beth and James are not like us, so their words and acts were largely imagined, but the feelings they experience were based on ours.

My first few pages are usually the most autobiographical. After that the characters take over and the ‘me’ in the story narrows down to a few borrowed details.

So here are a few examples of real-life borrowings, taken from ‘Violet’:

  • Before our meeting, Sue and I exchanged numerous letters and talked for hours on the phone.
  • On the day I had difficulty finding the restaurant.
  • Like Beth in the book, Sue turned up very early.

But the 3½ hours of intense table talk that followed between us wasn’t going to work in a novel. It was too static and far too long-winded. Even cut, it wouldn’t hold the reader. So I said goodbye to Sue and Leslie and allowed Beth and James to take over.

But I did want to capture the power of the experience. This was the story of two experienced adults diving in and going through a sea change. Translated into fiction, that meant taking risks. So James oversteps the mark, drinking from a glass smeared with Beth’s lipstick, plays mime games, and invites Beth, in the middle of the restaurant, to dance.

You can read this section of the book, together with a commentary describing how it was written, at https://leslietate.com/2018/01/5265/

I was aware that I was pushing it in the restaurant scene. Of course Beth and James have already had contact, making them more open, but for weeks after writing it I kept revising and re-reading to check for plausibility. In the end it seemed to work, mainly, I believe, because the mind in the act of reading takes things for granted and often jumps ahead.

As an author, I use the selective nature of the novel to foreshorten time and work the changes. The remote is in my hands and I can press ‘hold’, ‘rewind’ or ‘fast forward’. I can also change channels. So the restaurant scene moves quickly from the nervous reality of a conventional first meeting to a lover’s dream. And the dialogue is twofold, mixing short and meaningful quips with going in deep. Everything is imagined: so Beth and James come out with things we’d all like to say but usually keep shtum, while the reported conversations blend author-talk with voices in the head. The aim is to surprise and take a view on life, but not to break the spell.

  1. GROWTH

Once I have a start, the discoveries begin. Mostly I find my direction by writing it, but I also have a long-term feel for what I’d like to happen. If the two are at odds, then the short-term wins. So starting ‘Violet’ with Beth and James meeting at 50 meant I had to find a way to tell their full stories. I’d thought I might be able to flashback during the restaurant scene but found, in the end, I needed to give them separate treatment. And that meant, in James’s case, telling his backstory through his letters to Beth. In her case I began from birth in close third person, using her own juvenile stories to show how she’d changed.

So the book became layered, moving back and forth between present-day romance and Beth’s failed marriage to a born-again minister. At the same time I had an underlying feeling that the story was developing in a direction I had to follow…

  1. DEVELOPMENT

Two things happened when I’d finished the book:

  1. a) Despite my resistance, the old, old tale that unconditional love has no place in an uncaring world took over.
  2. b) My wife and author, Sue Hampton, had already noticed that three of the main characters in the trilogy had traits in common. So during the writing of ‘Blue’ (the novel before ‘Violet) we drew up a family tree. This required me to write in passages connecting Matthew Lavender in ‘Purple’ to Richard Lavender in ‘Blue’ and to James in ‘Violet’.

These changes were structural. They showed me that a book is never finished. And of course there’s a ripple effect, every minor change has its repercussions, and it’s always possible to add in links and connections to improve the flow.

In the end, a novel is complex. It has to be so since people and the world can’t be easily summed up. In ‘Violet’ I tried to reflect that complexity by writing in both third and first person and by including letters, stories and Beth’s diary. But the central idea is simple: boy meets girl in later life, they fall for each other, but have to cope with misfortune. In the words of the blurb: ‘The passionate, late-life love of Beth and James begins in 2003 on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister.

Telling stories runs in Beth’s family, so she keeps up with her friends, following their efforts to find love in a soulless, materialistic world. But Beth’s own passion for giving and commitment is pushed to the limit as she and James struggle with her divorce problems, each other’s children, and life-threatening illness. In the end, tested by pain, they discover something larger than themselves that goes beyond suffering and loss…’

 

  1. Anne Williams March 16th http://beinganne.com/?s=Leslie+Tate

 

WHAT’S IN A GENRE?

 

Books are sold in packages. On the outside they are shiny shop windows; inside they’re arranged in sections with signs and labels pointing the way. If the shop’s online then unseen assistants are steering you to the ‘right’ department where the products are neatly set out to help you ‘know what you’re looking for’. So the book shop browser is looking for the titles she/he has heard of, the nerdfighter wants TV books to act as badges, the book group choose from the competition shortlists, and we’re all conditioned to believe that we know what we want and kept safe and happy under the umbrella of brand and genre.

My new novel ‘Violet’ isn’t so easily labelled. If I had to pigeonhole it, I’d call it literary, meaning that it’s cross-genre, character-driven and language-led, with its own distinctive style. It begins with a story written by my main character Beth when she was eight, called ‘The Girl Who Began Again’, before switching to her meeting, at 50, with teacher and garden designer, James Lavender. From then on, Beth’s backstory alternates with her wildly romantic love affair with James. In the words of the blurb: ‘The passionate, late-life love of Beth and James begins in 2003 on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister…’

So is it Romance? Not really. It doesn’t have a HEA (happily ever after), strong males, glamour or unexpected plot twists. Yes, there is a dark prince, Beth’s ex, whose lurking presence inspires Beth’s Bluebeard’s-Castle-type story, ‘A Housekeeper’s Tale’; and there’s a teen-talk story, full of vampires and dysfunctional American families, written by Hannah, Beth’s step-daughter. But if ‘Violet’ does belong to a category, perhaps it’s lyrical realism, mainly because the novel is written in close third person, examining the intimate detail of a modern relationship. On the other hand, the book also contains sub-genre writing, including texting between lovers, a parent-teen dialogue set out as a play, dream sequences and sixty pages of Beth’s diary in the second part of the book when she’s ill.

An elegy to Beth wasn’t what I’d intended when I began writing. A doomed lovers’ tale felt like a something out of the past, but in the end it forced itself on me. That’s probably because fiction has its own conventions and adds to life rather than mirroring it. And the ‘overheard’ style of a diary allowed me to enter Beth’s mind, mixing memories with reflections, making it more about a state of being than its physical manifestations.

The final part of the book begins with James’s heartfelt, self-questioning, and ultimately therapeutic letter to his dead wife; continuing with tributes to her from old school friends, work colleagues and fellow-spirits.

But the ending, when it came, surprised me, transcending genre and passing through to the ‘other side’, where Beth sees all the characters from outside and inside, embracing even Conrad, her evangelical ex, with an author’s stereoscopic view. In afterlife she retells her father’s story, ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Like Her Name’, writes a valedictory letter to James and ends with Hannah’s picture-book ‘The little boy looked up at the grey sky’, written for Beth and echoing her own story that started the book, ‘The Girl Who Began Again’.

So the story is driven by the characters passing through extreme states, the vehicle is language in all its hybrid forms, and if ‘Violet’ has a genre it’s Relationships.

 

  1. Susan Hampson March 20th https://booksfromdusktilldawn.blog/2018/03/20/violet-by-leslie-tate-guestpost-lstateauthor/

 

VIOLET – ROUNDING IT OUT

 

I began the third novel in my trilogy, ‘Violet’, on a University of East Anglia writing course. At that time the working title was ‘Beth’. I’d chosen that name for my protagonist because it had several shortened forms, but in the end I only used two: Elizabeth and Beth. When I started the course I had the first chapter written where Beth meets James, but no idea what might happen next, except that the book was about a late-life relationship.

Novels are versions of life where we don’t declare our sources. So the beginning of ‘Violet’ drew upon my first meeting with my wife Sue Hampton in a West End restaurant. Like Beth and James we’d exchanged letters and talked for hours on the phone, but what we shared openly – Sue’s alopecia and my cross-dressing – plays no part in the book. I wanted to write about older people in love, and these issues would get in the way. In any case, according to ‘story theory’, key information like that has to be held back for a later ‘reveal’ – raising the question whether plot-driven novels falsify experience. Because in life, Sue and I knew that it was better to be completely modern, declare our secrets and risk rejection, rather than end up trying to make it work against the odds.

So fact is stranger than fiction, and hidden secrets return to haunt you.

Of course, books have their conventions, but they need to be relevant. So one of the challenges to the modern novelist is that we no longer have extended courtships where the characters can be introduced gradually. ‘Bed first, talk later’ leaves the reader with little to discover and nothing to look forward to. The action has all happened and the author is left picking up the pieces – which often translates to a voyeuristic focus on loveless relationships.

I don’t buy that way of viewing people because it’s narrow and predictable, and I’m more interested in what E.M. Foster called ‘round characters’, rather than ‘flat characters’. So ‘Violet’ mixes light and shade, shifting between Beth’s passionate, crazy relationship with James and her dark past with Conrad, an evangelical minister; Beth and James’s children develop during the story, and Beth’s relationship with her parents deepens – even if her friends Amy and Rachael become ‘flat’ materialists and Conrad, at times, turns into a one-dimensional horror stereotype.

The group on my UEA course met weekly to comment on each other’s writing. Although we’d seen advance copy – an improvement on writers’ groups critiquing pieces they’ve only heard once – I found the discussion limited by the belief that novels must be pacey, always look forward, and intrigue, disturb, impress or thrill. It seemed to me a narrow view, suitable for some genre, but lacking the reflective qualities to be found in character-based and language-led work.

There was, perhaps, another reason for this approach. It could have been a way of preparing us for the rigours of the marketplace. Because writing today is all about marketing. An army of agents, editors, promotional gurus and creative writing tutors filter ‘the product’ to fit the latest fad – leaving the authors to ‘read my lips’ and deliver. So the book trade wants action-filled page-turners where the reader is kept in the dark, and most creative writing courses privilege minimalism, post-modern trickiness, and non-disclosure. I prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s version of writing: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such a complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.’

So writing ‘Violet’ was about fleshing out everything about my two late-life lovers, including their upbringing, letters, telephone conversations and texts; it also meant following them through a series of wild outings, doing the things lovers do, without ending in cliché. In the words of the blurb: ‘The passionate, late-life love of Beth and James begins in 2003 on a blind date in a London restaurant. Attracted by James’s openness, Beth feels an immediate, deep connection between his honesty and her own romantic faith. From then on they bond, exchanging love-texts, exploring sea walks and gardens and sharing their past lives with flashbacks to Beth’s rural childhood and her marriage to a dark, charismatic minister…’

And the story developed from there, going where it had to and alternating past and future to reveal unexpected sides of the characters – including Conrad.

To quote E.M. Foster: ‘The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises it is flat. Flat characters … in their purest form … are constructed round a single idea or quality; when there is more than one factor to them, we get the beginning of the curve toward the round.’

My aim with ‘Violet’ was to flesh out those curves.

 

ABOUT VIOLET:

In the UK you can buy signed copies of ‘Violet’ at https://leslietate.com/shop/violet/

You can buy ‘Violet’ on Amazon USA at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=leslie+tate+violet&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Aleslie+tate+violet

You can buy ‘Violet’ on Amazon UK at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=leslie+tate+violet

Reviews:

‘Violet is a captivating novel narrated through letters, diary entries, instant messages, poems, and other writings that create a multi-textured depth to the storyline. Leslie Tate’s fluid, musical sentence structure, vivid use of imagery and description, and skilful storytelling bring to life a memorable protagonist in the character of Beth Jarvis, an imaginative and sensitive woman. A pleasure to read!’ – Beth Copeland, Pushcart Prize nominated poet & winner of the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize

 

‘Leslie Tate has a beautiful turn of phrase and this work is threaded with elegant descriptive passages. The central characters are instantly likeable, and the reader has a quick and affectionate bond that hooks right from the opening pages.’ – Dawn Finch Trustee, Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Children’s Writer & Librarian.

 

ABOUT ALL OF LESLIE’S BOOKS:

Leslie Tate’s Author Page on Amazon USA is at https://www.amazon.com/Leslie-Tate/e/B07BL5L23B/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1

Leslie Tate’s Author Page on Amazon UK is at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leslie-Tate/e/B07BL5L23B/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1522493711&sr=1-1

 

In the UK, you can buy:

  1. signed copies of the first novel in the trilogy, ‘Purple’, at: https://leslietate.com/shop/purple/
  2. signed copies of the second novel, Blue, at https://leslietate.com/shop/blue/
  3. signed copies of his trans memoir ‘Heaven’s Rage’ at https://leslietate.com/shop/heavens-rage/

 

Leslie’s website is https://leslietate.com/

 

Bio:

Leslie Tate studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and has been shortlisted for the Bridport, Geoff Stevens and Wivenhoe Prizes. He’s the author of the trilogy of novels ‘Purple’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Violet’, as well as his trans memoir ‘Heaven’s Rage’, which has been turned into a film. Leslie runs a mixed arts show in Berkhamsted, UK, where he lives with his wife, multi-talented author Sue Hampton. On his website he posts up weekly creative interviews and guest blogs showing how people use their imagination in life, in many different ways.

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©January Gray and January Gray Reviews, 2016.
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