Blood with Maggie Gee

By Jamilah Ahmed

At our last Literary Salon on March 20th, we were privileged to listen to Maggie Gee, who read from her latest novel, the subversive and hilarious BLOOD.

The theme at the centre of this book is what Maggie termed ‘one of the last taboos’ in a liberal democracy: the killing of The Father. This is explored via a protagonist who fiercely loves her siblings, and the children she teaches.

In their discussion, Catherine said she thought of Monica as ‘extra-real’, she is almost mythological in her strength and individuality. Maggie enjoyed writing her, living her alter-ego life and being as funny as she wanted to be.

Monica sounds like a character almost too challenging to like, but she acts with grace and love and in this way wins over the reader. Maggie explained her character: Monica gets up every morning and tries not to be a maniac; she doesn’t want to be violent or like her father, but society doesn’t help her. There was a brief discussion about Brexit Britain, as in one scene Monica calls out the racism she sees. It’s interesting how in ‘polite society’ this topic is often handled so gingerly, not something you can accuse Monica of however!

 It made me think how often we might look away, because to call it out makes us look manic or aggressive, however honourable the intention. Monica is not constrained by such concerns and there is an honesty and bravery to that.

There followed a discussion about what bravery is, and Maggie concluded that there is no point not doing the thing you want to do; therefore it doesn’t feel courageous, it’s doing what you want. My notes don’t show if this was in relation to calling out racism, or writing what a publisher doesn’t want, but they are fine words to hold onto either way!

She was asked about ‘relatability’ and although it isn’t something she overly worries about, Maggie decided that Monica had to carry out a heroic act, to balance the actions that are not.

It’s too irresistible – you can’t not ask such a prolific and renowned writer for a tip or two, and Maggie said she always needs the ending written first, and uses daily and weekly word-counts to spur herself on. She doesn’t think about genre though. In fact critics have called BLOOD a ‘mash-up’ of genres, to which Maggie said:

‘you don’t think about genre, you’re thinking about what tells the story!’

It was a wonderful conversation, lots of laughter and nodding from our audience, and ended with the comment ‘humour isn’t shallow, it’s chaos at its best!’

Sarah Moss: Ghost Wall

Sarah Moss (right) in conversation with Jamila Ahmed.

By Marta Maretich

On a freezing January night, Upper Wimpole Street Salon members convened at the warm home of Lucasta Miller to hear renown novelist Sarah Moss talk about her latest book, Ghost Wall. Salon committee member, Jamilah Ahmed kicked off a conversation that soon grew into a wide-ranging and intimate discussion of the novel, its genesis and the themes of violence and identity that resonate through it.

Ghost Wall tells the story of a father and daughter whose participation in an Iron Age re-enactment takes a sinister turn. As the narrative progresses, it examines the dangerous nostalgia for a Britain “free from foreigners” and the way a certain kind of man tries to control the story of the past in order to gain purchase on the future—very much subjects for our times.

A residency in the north of England, where Moss admired the landscape and met a number of traditional craftspeople, provided her first spark of inspiration for Ghost Wall, she told the group. It led her to set the narrative in that part of the country and to focus on the connection between the ancient past and the present day.

Salonistas, preparing to hear what Sarah Moss has to say about Ghost Wall.

Sarah revealed that the slim novel was originally part of a much larger project that involved multiple narrators all living in different historical periods. Curious about her progress, her editor asked to see what she’d done so far and she handed over the section, thinking it was unfinished. The editor disagreed and Ghost Wall was published as a stand-alone novel, to positive reviews.

“Sarah Moss is a writer of exceptional gifts. She writes better than anyone I know about the way we live now. She gives us so much. I love her work.” (Margaret Drabble)

Linda Grant in Conversation

Linda Grant reads us a preview from her work in progress.

by Jamilah Ahmed

The enjoyment of any Upper Wimpole Literary Salon evening begins as soon as you cross the threshold – into the home of another writer, and into the company of other writers. We have put aside all other responsibilities to talk to one another, and collectively validate the often solitary work we are engaged in.

The evening with Linda Grant was no different. The gorgeous North London home of our generous host Lucasta Miller offered respite from the windy, wet London streets, and the promise of properly interesting conversation.

Catherine Davidson began by noting that her various novels involve a stranger entering a setting with very fixed values, and so the character has to navigate and explore that world immediately. Linda talked about having flamboyant Polish parents, being a bookish girl at a very English school, and how ‘imposter syndrome’ often lurks in the background. Perhaps not surprising then that her novels set off something incendiary in sedate, stable settings, and so the drama begins.

Not a planner, Linda talked about the importance, for her, of not knowing where a book was going, and of writing without a sense of direction as being key to her enjoyment of the process, and the characters. Looking back on completed works always seemed to show that ‘the book knew what it was doing all along’. Reassurance for the less structured amongst us!

The conversation touched ever so briefly on Brexit, Linda with an eye on her publisher Lennie Goodings who had also joined us. They both agreed it is most definitely not a ‘Brexit novel’, but does attend to the theme of the outsider that is a constant in Linda’s writing.

Book signing: The Dark Circle

Catherine also talked of how pleasing it to be given details of clothing and so on. Linda is firmly of the opinion that women can enjoy the surface details while also having depth, and it was apparent that many in the room greeted this approach with enthusiasm too.

We were also delighted to hear an excerpt of her latest novel in progress. Whereas her previous work tends to be set in the recent past, her forthcoming work breaks with this tradition. Linda described the overheard conversation in a tube that gave her the starting point. We know that two unrelated people go missing, but will have to wait for publication to know what happens next…

Questions from other members were, as always, fascinating and relevant, another characteristic typical at this event, unlike some others! We forgot to note them down, so busy were we listening and chatting. We wrapped up with a last question about writers who have influenced Linda, which established that Dickens gets her vote over Eliot because he is never humourless…we all moved downstairs to refresh glasses, buy books and carry on the strands of conversation before heading off at the end of another very satisfying evening. 

Ruth Padel Brings a Jewel to the Salon

Ruth Padel: “Emerald really is like a jewel brought up from the deep.”

by Catherine Temma

On September 26th, we hosted Ruth Padel for our first event in a new location. I have taken up hosting, along with Lucasta Miller, and I was understandably nervous, but with committee members Karen Scourby D’Arc and Julia Weiner on hand to help, everything went smoothly.

Two days before I had seen our previous and much missed host, Sarah Glazer, for tea. She was about to start teaching a new course at NYU and was sorry she had to leave before the reading, but I was happy to report we had a full house response to our event. On the night itself, the Piccadilly strike brought the numbers down, but we still had a wonderful crowd of novelists, poets, historians, journalists and readers who mingled in the kitchen over the mezze and then went upstairs to hear Ruth read.

Emerald really is like a jewel brought up from the deep. Written in the wake of the death of her 97 year old mother, it is a series of poems about mourning, a tender portrait of a remarkable mother (the great-granddaughter of Darwin), a meditation on the tensions between science and faith, and an assertion of the power of story-telling and the way words transform the base material of daily life into something wonderful and lasting.

Ruth’s reading was a reminder of the best of what poetry can be – how it can contain layers of meaning in a compact form through the conversations words, images, lines and even poems have within a compressed space, and how good poets can access multiple layers of memory and imagination in their readers as well. This really struck me as I listened to Ruth read aloud poems I had enjoyed and admired on the page; in her intonations and breath, her pauses and tone, they took on greater depth and dimensionality.

It was hard to stop in time for a discussion, but I had questions I wanted to ask about how Ruth produced a book of such intensity and depth in the wake of one of life’s most profound griefs. She told us that she had been working on a book about emeralds; her mother’s illness and death erupted into the middle of this material and drove a white line through it. What emerged was a much more compact and multi-layered book. She talked about the editing process like a form of chiselling, and said she was very lucky to have an editor who encouraged her to chip away the much larger work to find these compact conversations instead.

It seemed that many in the audience had views about emeralds – from the esoteric to the everyday; we heard there was an English superstition against giving emeralds, and the role that emeralds played in alchemy. Julia Weiner told us about a talk she gave at the V&A on a collection of Mughal emeralds.

We ended the evening with a look forward – to future salons in West London, in North London at the biographer Lucasta Miller’s house, and a possible Field Trip to the Women’s Library in the new year.

Ruth Padel’s book, Emerald, is available at bookshops and through all major online retailers.