Thursday, October 28, 2010

Confessional Cities

20th October

In Waterstone’s sun filled room over Manchester’s Deansgate, Michѐle Roberts and Amanda Craig had a genuine conversation before their audience on 20 October: alternating, passionate and revelatory. Taking it in turns to speak and read, and converse again, they rambled through London’s Strand, the importance of Gaskell, true stories and the reason we read.

It’s clear that both women have passions in common. Aside from the stellar literary record boasted by each, they shared views on the richness of the city, the importance of narrative and a certain cocked ear that comes with being not quite native to their country. Roberts is half French, as her readers will know, and Craig grew up in Italy.

Both women write from a passion for real, personal narratives sometimes drawn from the people around them. Given Amanda Craig’s background in journalism perhaps this should not be a surprise, and it helps to explain the authenticity of the five principal characters in her new novel “Hearts and Minds”. The novel is about the lives of those new to London – those from other countries who are the au pairs, cleaners, waitresses, sex workers, taxi drivers that the city’s other residents lean on every day. The raw realism in the novel is built on Craig’s research. Each of her principal characters is drawn from the stories that Craig sought from others: the young Eastern European women that were candidates to help her look after her children during a period of illness when she could not do so alone, and two women “clearly on the game” at King’s Cross who offered her their stories and many more. Craig’s readers appreciate the honesty in these narratives: one audience member’s question drew Craig to talk about her sense of connection and responsibility to her characters and the people behind them. Writing some of their stories, she said, had been harrowing.

Roberts, too, talked about the importance of other people’s stories. She spoke about her long-held habit of taking walks through cities. Dressed in an oversized Irish tweed men’s coat and thick soled boots, Roberts has trod the streets of London, finding surprising urban narratives on the city’s street corners. It’s like magic, she says. People are yearning to tell you what has happened to them. This phenomenon isn’t limited to the street, either. Norwich taxi drivers revealed their secrets to Roberts week after week as she travelled between her university job and the train station – so much so that Roberts half joked about the parallels between the taxi and the confessional (the wire screen, the velvet curtain...).

It wasn’t just today’s inhabitants whose stories found Roberts, like the high, disorientated Eastern European girl that “cannoned” into Roberts as she passed a doorway on a busy street in Stoke Newington. (Here, incidentally, is where “Hearts and Minds” and “Mud” overlap: both contain a story about a young Eastern European prostitute rammed into a violent life. It wasn’t just Craig and Roberts that were in conversation, Roberts pointed out. Their books were too.) Ghosts, the two women also agreed, walked. For Roberts, Boswell and Johnson still stride London’s Strand, as they do in one of the short stories in “Mud”. And for Craig, Elizabeth Gaskell’s presence is still palpable on the streets of Manchester.

In their books and their conversation, the city is a powerful place: Craig talked about the transformative power of London and the layers of narrative it holds. It changes people, just as people are changed by stories. Asking his teacher at school what a story actually was, Craig’s son was told that it was when something happens to someone so that they are changed. For both women, stories were what happened to people in real life. They were, of course, what happened to characters but also to the readers that follow them. If not improved by what they read, perhaps, they said, people were richer for it, more thoughtful as a result.

by Kathryn Pallant

Kathryn is currently a full time novelist, working towards her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. She blogs as “litgirl” on WordPress.

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