From the pop buzz feel of Will Kemp‘s award winning ‘The Day I Met Vini Reilly’, brimming with light-touch social commentary, ironic personal reflections, sharp dialogue and insights about the author and his hero, to Jane McLaughlin‘s ‘Common Ground’ in which the narrator finds emotional release through an unexpected encounter; and from the dramatic first paragraph of ‘Eclipsed’ by Kate Mitchell, opening a story full of psychological entanglement that leads to a chilling conclusion, to the deft first person voice of Jane Austin‘s historical and personal drama in ‘Les Petites Curies’, these are stories that will delight, grip, entertain and intrigue. From 1970s pop buzz to hi-tech Saigon, Jeremy Worman has selected ten extraordinary stories.
My story traces the tense relationship between mother and daughter, Marie and Irène Curie, who used X-rays for the wounded at the battlefront in the First World War. The X-ray vans were dubbed Les Petites Curies.
The inspiration for this story was a spin-off from my novel, News from Nowhere, to be published by Cinnamon, March 2017. The novel is based on family letters from the First World War. It takes the point of view of a young woman whose life is changed forever by the letters she receives from the Front.
As I researched the byways of women’s achievements at that time, I came across peace campaigners, doctors, journalists, scientists, and the extraordinary career of Marie Curie. There was a side of her life, little known today, that I found quite fascinating.
Marie Curie was a world famous twice Nobel Prize winner, yet fighting to salvage her reputation. Vilified for her affair with fellow scientist, Paul Langevin, she was under severe stress and in poor health, when in the summer of 1912, Hertha Ayrton offered her respite in Dorset. The two had a lot in common; both were physicists, widowed, and of Polish origin. Marie had been hounded as a ‘foreigner’ by a rampantly xenophobic French press.
Two years later, the world was at war. Marie was determined to play her part in defending her beloved France. She turned her energies to establishing a fleet of X-ray vans, learned to drive, and took her machines to the frontline. The equipment she used produced images of shrapnel in the body and greatly increased chances of survival. Irène, her daughter and assistant, accompanied her at the tender age of seventeen.
What was the relationship between mother and daughter? How would Irène survive the experience of war, witness to horrific injuries? And what of the daughter left behind? These are the questions that drew me to their story.
2016 sees the start of my new novel with the provisional title, Father of the House. It’s been brewing for a while, and started as a story based on the reverberations of war down the generations. I’ve since shifted focus but kept the main character, Justin, whose youthful involvement with radical politics comes back to bite him and his family in later life.
This time round I promised myself not to launch in without an outline, however sketchy. My own experience of left activism in the 80s gives me a framework, though Justin was busy rocking the establishment in the early 70s. I now have a cast of characters with name, age and life history; I don’t always know how they will pan out until they appear on the page. I’m excited to be bedding them in and watching them grow. In the first flush of enthusiasm it feels good to ride the wave of making things up as you go along. Then comes the grind of rewriting, editing and brutally deleting.
I have a plot mapped out, but confess I don’t know how it ends. I’ll just have to keep writing to find out.
Edwin’s advice about goal setting, in Jan 6 post, is timely. My goal is to write the first draft over 12 months, allowing for background reading and research. Achievement – yes – brilliant idea!
Will let you know how it’s going.
Three days turn into four as we accumulate stoppage time for mile-long freight trains thundering down the track. We are passengers on Canada’s VIA service, where time, it seems, is no object.
‘This is stretching a friendship,’ as a fellow traveller puts it.
Rockies and prairies, lakes, forests and chiffon skies, a panoramic sweep from Kamloops to Toronto of this vast and beautiful country is ample compensation.
Most daunting are the prairies: sandless desserts that suck you in and threaten to tip you over the horizon. No parcelling of land into squares and strips with hedgerows and dry-stone walls, no relief of hill or tree. In these unconfined spaces the eye must shift dimension to find subtle shades in yellows and browns, fix on a distant tractor or trace telegraph wires in parallel lines. With steady gaze and firm foothold, I may yet distill this vision into words; like a blank page, the landscape cries out for delineation which only the mind can impose.
The Rockies have other qualities. Excitement bounces round the viewing dome as we happily snap our digital imprints of these stolid and graceful giants capped with snow; from distant heights they shed crystalline waterfalls. I’m put in mind of the flow that occurs, on a good day, after chiselling at the surface of language – an unforgiving material at the best of times – into some recognisable shape. Whether with camera or keyboard, we chase the shadows of nature’s commanding presence and perhaps our own half-expressed dreams.
Brakes creak as we grind to a halt to let an oil train pass – again. I have an intimate view of a pine forest and observe a spectrum of green as variegated as any sea. The trees stand close and tall, branches sweep skywards like dancers’ arms, spreading feathered hands to spiny tips. Mature trees are a muted bottle-green, others lead-green or verdigris – sometimes only a borrowed word will do. Younger specimens shimmer apple-bright with lime green shoots, light shining through still sparse growth.
There’s a jolt as the train moves forwards, to general cheering.
‘The destination is the journey,’ chirps a neighbour, which after ten hours’ delay, sounds like a gem from Forrest Gump.