Alphabet Blogging Challenge Day 21

It’s day 21 of my September blogging challenge.

The letter is U

and the subject is UNRAVELLING!

Sorry about this, but I had to, didn’t I?

As probably everyone has heard before (endlessly) I wrote the first draft of ‘Unravelling’ when I was doing my MA at Bath Spa University. I’d read an article by Christa d’Souza about going to her parents’ third wedding, and I was immediately intrigued by the idea that the same two people might remarry each other other at different stages in their lives, and I started to think why?

D’Souza’s father was about twelve years older than her mother, and they married for the third time when he was suffering from ill health. He had an Anglo-Indian background, and d’Souza’s mother was very young at the time of their first marriage. They formed the template for my couple in ‘Unravelling’ – Vanessa and Gerald. Gerald is not Anglo-Indian, but I do try to suggest an alternative, somewhat exotic background for him. Mysterious, but possibly something related to South America.

Vanessa and Gerald meet when Vanessa is eighteen and has just started at art school – which I based on Hornsey College of Art in Crouch End, London. Gerald, is a charismatic (well, I think he is, but not everybody agrees!) talented sculptor, who teaches at the school. A rebellion occurred at Horney College of Art in the late 1960s, when the students and some of the tutors held a sit-in in rejection of the educational practices of the time. Gerald is part of that rebellion in ‘Unravelling’.

Like d’Souza’s parents, Vanessa and Gerald  divorce, although I wouldn’t want to give away what happens to anyone who hasn’t read the book, by revealing if the path of their relationship follows the same pattern as the d’Souza couple.

Vanessa’s parents are Irish and her father – a domineering man – doesn’t want Vanessa to go to art college, but she manages, with her mother’s help, to attend, with the idea that she can have a career as an art teacher. Teaching is far from Vanessa’s mind – she wants to be a fashion designer, and is besotted with Mary Quant. She later becomes highly successful as a knitwear designer, something the younger Gerald completely disapproves of.

While I’m a writer, I can’t paint, draw, sculpt (I used to knit, but not any more), but just to make life more difficult for myself, these artistic talents are at the heart of ‘Unravelling’. I have a friend who is an artist, and she gave me a lot of help with the artistic side. Another friend makes the most wonderful knitwear. She taught me loads of stuff about modern yarns – which have moved on a long way from four-ply and double-knit! – and took me to an amazing wool shop in Shipston-on-Stour where I fell in love with almost everything I saw! People have said how evocative the knitwear descriptions in ‘Unravelling’, so I think I must have pulled it off, or cast on okay – or whatever the appropriate metaphor is!

Christa d’Souza wrote in her article that the experiences she and her sister had of their parents’ marriage had made them  ambivalent about marriage itself. I wanted to explore the impact of divorce on a child, and the possible effects in later life. I created the characters Cordelia and her sister, Esme, in order to look at this. However, I quickly realised that although Vanessa and her story had come into my head almost fully formed, I hadn’t thought very much about Cordelia, and I had to do a lot of work to create a credible character with a plot of her own.

As a result of her experiences, Cordelia has a very difficult relationship with her mother, Vanessa, and I’m very interested in families and the links and discord between parent and child/between siblings.

I was really pleased when I heard from a book group of women, mainly in their thirties and forties, that the book had sparked an interesting discussion on daughter/mother relationships as a result of Cordelia’s relationship with Vanessa.

Clearly, two years after its publication, I still feel passionate about ‘Unravelling’, and I do think that a writer has to love his/her idea and the characters. If you, as their creator don’t love – or feel passionateabout them in some way: angry with them, hate them, desire them – then there’s not much chance a reader will feel for them. I could write so much more, but I’m conscious that everyone’s busy and lengthy blog posts are a big YAWN.

One last quick thing: Tessa Hadley was my manuscript tutor at Bath Spa, and I loved working with her. She was involved with my novel and gave me a lot of good advice. I made things difficult for myself by having two main point of view characters – Vanessa and Cordelia, but complicated by having their younger voices as well as their older voices. I also moved backwards and forwards in time, delving into the past, as Vanessa unravelled the story of her relationships with Gerald and her children. I do remember Tessa saying rather plaintively one day ‘Can’t you just write it chronologically?’, but I knew I couldn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t!

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  1. I’m glad you didn’t too! One of the things I loved most about Unravelling was the sense of passing through time, knowing some things about the past or the future, but never everything. I think you got the balance just right.
    Only 5 more days to go! I’m going to miss these posts 🙁

  2. Christine says:

    Thank you for this insight into Unravelling, how the idea came to you and how you decided to ‘treat’ it. I found it fascinating and I do like your comment on writer’s needing to love or at least feel passionate about their characters. Perhaps that is the only secret to great writing because without emotion from the author, the whole process must be simply mechanical. And mechanical writing must surely be evident to the reader.
    Looking forward to tomorrow. ‘V’-what will it be!

  3. Lindsay says:

    Thank you for your lovely comments on Unravelling and the alphabet posts, Jo. I really appreciate them. I’m glad you think the moving about in time works because I felt it was important – the past haunts everything that happens in the present of the novel. I hugely respect and like Tessa Hadley, and she gave me great advice, for example when I was about half way, and the structure was becoming complex, she ‘made’ me write a detailed plan for each chapter. I didn’t want to do it, but it was an invaluable tool. Once I’d finished the novel – during the many rewrites – I rejigged and shifted things about, but the structure was essentially there, thanks to the plan. So, I think I would say it’s important we are open to other people’s opinions and feedback, whether they are from MA tutors, writing group or … but if we get a gut feeling that something is right, it’s good to try to go with it.
    In some ways, I’ll miss the alphabet posts, but I’m looking forward to freeing up some more time. And, yes, only five more days, but some tricky letters to come!

  4. Lindsay says:

    I’m pleased you think it’s interesting, Christine. I was a bit worried about using Unravelling for U (in sense of over-blowing one’s own trumpet!)but I’ve tried to include the sort of things that readers have asked me, rather than just ‘I’ve written a novel and here it is’. I wanted to write about Lyme Regis and how I came to use it as a setting, and found where Vanessa’s house and shop are, but I’d already gone on long enough! A post on setting for the future – perhaps.

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