A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Out of a Clear Sky is a gripping and intelligently written psychological thriller, set in the perhaps unusual milieu of bird-watching. It tells the story of Manda, who, in the wake of being dumped by her live-in boyfriend, finds herself the object of another bird-watcher’s unwelcome attentions.
Here’s a passage to give you a flavour of the writing: “Those overcast dawns are the best, the truest light. There’s no false colour; no shadows or glare. People talk about the cold, hard light of day. There’s no escaping what you can see by it. There can be no confusing, in that early morning light, the truth with the wished-for reality of dreams. The body was still there. He was still dead.”
RNM: Perhaps appropriately for a book which has observation as one of its themes, Out of a Clear Sky is brilliantly observed. Meteorological conditions, details and variations of the landscape, the behaviour and appearance of birds, not to mention human behaviour – you seem to have an impeccable eye for so many things. As a writer, is this capacity something you have developed actively or is it just there?
SH: It’s interesting you should ask that. A lot of both the birds and the weather conditions were actually written from life – if I observed something at the time when I was writing the book that seemed to fit, I’d incorporate it.
As to whether it’s innate or developed, it’s a bit of both. What works for me, if I’m trying to turn a scene (a bit of landscape, a bird, a storm closing in or the description of a person) into some writing, is that I have to observe it ‘in words’ as it were. I don’t have a photographic memory, I can’t just take a mental snapshot and then write it down later. So what I’ve learned to do is to turn it into a descriptive passage in my head, all of the time that I’m observing it. Then it comes back to mind much more easily when I’m back at my desk, than if I’ve just tried to memorise what it looks like. It’s quite a relief now to go back to watching birds and just watch them, without having to run a mental commentary all the time in my head. One exercise I used to do back when I was commuting was to take a person on the train, sitting opposite me, say, and (without getting arrested) memorise them, and then later try and reproduce their appearance, mannerisms & habits in words.
I like the way you say “back when I was commuting” almost as if that was your occupation, and perhaps it was! Especially if you were able to put the time to good use as a writer. You’re writing fulltime now. How’s that going? Are you pretty disciplined when it comes to writing? Do you miss the “daily soap opera” of the office, as I believe Fay Weldon described it? And what about the commute – you must miss that?
I’ll assume you’re joking about the commute… I’ve only been a full time writer for about a week (I worked part time and from home for a couple of months since leaving my full time job) so my answers are a bit provisional, but one thing I have found is that I need a routine, whether I’m working or not. I was much more disciplined about writing when I was working full time and I had to make the most of every moment I got – with the whole day in front of you, it’s never quite necessary to begin. So I use the golden hour – first thing in the morning, as soon as my brain is awake enough and I’ve ingested enough coffee to function. Now that I’m completely full time I’m increasing the amount of time I write at a sitting, but it’s almost like getting in training – you can’t just sit down for four or eight hours day in, day out, you’ve got to build yourself up to it.
I may miss the contact of the office, the grit in the oyster, but I think one advantage (and curse) that stay-at-home writers have now is that the internet provides its own daily soap opera. It’s a cliche, but there are communities out there, if you can tap in to them.
I recognise what you’re describing, though in my case I’ve been at it longer and written less, by the sounds of it. But to return to the book, and in particular this theme of observing, which is something that fascinates me… reading the book made me think about different ways of observing, for example, the kind of observation a writer engages in, that of a birdwatcher, and the malevolent observation of a stalker. Do you have any thoughts on what distinguishes these ways of looking and what they have in common?
Oh, all I’m trying to achieve at the moment is to write faster than I can delete it… not always successfully just now!
I think you’re right about specialisation of observation. With birding, and it’s another theme of the book, the key is identification. Really serious birders really spend very little time actually _watching_ the bird after they’ve worked out what it is, so what they’re looking for is the important distinguishing markers – wingbars, tail notches, toenail colour (I kid you not) – that make a bird the bird it is and not something else. So it’s a very specialised and precise and narrow way of looking, whereas observation for a writer has to be much wider than the very stereotyped form of looking that identification of a species requires. And stalking of course (and I’m not writing from experience here at all, I hasten to add) is barely observation at all – it’s more like a form of ownership, a gloating over the object of their affection, particularly if they are unaware. That said, the hunting skills of birder and stalker are in a sense the same. Less so for writers, although being able to observe people without them realising that you’re doing it is a good skill to have. Particularly on crowded trains…
So it’s all about the relationship between the observer and the observed? I loved the bird observations in the book, by the way – from the very first, very gruesome one onwards. (That’s one hell of an opening!) They seemed to work in a number of different ways, but I felt they certainly pulled their weight in terms of their contribution to the narrative. One of the most effective ways you put them to use, I felt, was when they took on a function similar to Proust’s Madeleine, serving as keys to unlock the past. What role, or roles, did you intend them to have in the story?
And the purpose of the observation, yes. I’m flattered by the Proust comparison and I’m not sure I set out to do that in a conscious way – but it does help ease the transition between the present day story and the back story. I find it very annoying when you’re reading a book with a lot of flashbacks and there’s some heavy handed signalling ‘and then she thought back to the time when …’ American writers like John Updike do flashbacks very well, they just launch into them with no apology and then return to the present day completely seamlessly, but I found that, not being Updike, it helps to have a framing device so the reader knows when the action has returned from the past – the birds can bracket the memory neatly, as well as triggering it. Other roles – well, there’s so much in bird behaviour that mirrors or points up aspects of the story – migration, mimicry, infidelity. I don’t want to go overboard with the symbolism though – I also just really enjoyed writing about birds, and left to myself would probably have put even more in. That would have made it a different book though.
When it comes to Manda’s back story, I found the strand with her mother very powerful and affecting. I hope it’s not giving too much away to ask you about the depiction of mental illness there… It felt utterly convincing. What were the challenges in taking on an issue like that?
This is a tricky one, because unlike the birds, this wasn’t an area where I was writing from direct experience. I have vivid memories as a child in Tanzania hearing stories about the wives – or the husbands – who did crack up, which was a common enough feature of ex pat life. Mostly they were told as humourous anecdotes – there was an incident with a government inspector and some raw sewage which is probably best left to the imagination – but I think there must have been some real despair underlying the stories. So that was the starting point and then I just distilled it down. It helped that a lot of that part of the story is filtered through a child’s consciousness, so my own childish memories of listening to the wives’ gossip and only half understanding what was being discussed actually helped rather than hindered.
I’m seriously glad to hear you don’t have any direct personal experience of mental illness. It’s interesting to learn about your upbringing in Tanzania though. Perhaps this is an impossible question for you to answer, but do you feel this background has informed your writing in any way, and if so how? I suppose I’m wondering if an ex-pat childhood in one country, then an adulthood in another, creates a certain sense of being an outsider – and whether that’s a useful thing for a writer to have?
It’s an interesting one about being an outsider, versus having a very definite sense of place. I grew up not just in Tanzania but all over – we were uprooted every three years, so I’ve never quite felt anywhere was home. I think it’s a mixed blessing to be an outsider. Some writers are so firmly rooted in their region that it gives them a very distinctive voice – I’m thinking here of people like the Australian writer Tim Winton, or Ian Rankin and Rebus in Edinburgh, or Ian Sinclair – and a rootless wanderer like me can never quite fully inhabit a locale in that way. But then again, the outsider’s eye can be a very clear, if dispassionate, one and that brings a fresh perspective to otherwise familiar settings.
We seem to have come full circle, back to the eye and observing. There is a sense of Manda being an outsider, a woman engaging in a male-dominated pursuit, which adds to her isolation, I think. It’s also interesting that you made her an IT specialist, which again is something stereotypically associated with, dare I say it, nerdy men. Is there anything going on here, or am I barking up the wrong tree?
Well, maybe, but my own background is in IT so it was more that I was writing about what I knew. But then when I think about it, a lot of my own life has been spent in male-dominated environments, so maybe I was tapping into something unconscious there after all…
Thank you, Sally. I loved the book – it’s a great read. And I’ve really enjoyed our cyber chat.
To conclude, in keeping with the Vulpes Libris tradition, could you recommend 5 favourite books and tell us why you like them?
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – I defy any sensitive bookish female not to include this book in their list, secretly or otherwise. It’s one of those books that I ingested at fifteen and internalised so much I probably wrote three or four thinly veiled versions of it myself before I had the sense to go back and re-read it so I could disentangle my own personality from that of Smith’s heroines.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. – A comic masterpiece that has probably warped my imagination more than any other. We read this almost on rotation as children, and quoted endlessly from it. I’m fairly sure that my recent move to the countryside has been coloured entirely by this book.
Havoc in its Third Year by Ronan Bennett – Bennett is a recent discovery for me and all of his books while bleak are beautifully and sparely written, with this one the real stand out. It effortlessly creates a world of the past which may or may not be accurate but always rings completely true.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson – maths, computer geekery, war, romance, and even buried treasure. Any work of fiction that has an appendix at the back where you can work out the codes used is a winner in my eyes. I finished this book and turned right back to the front to read it again because I didn’t want it to end.
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers . Classic detective fiction, just intelligent enough, and with of course more about campanology than you ever knew you needed to know.
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