On Friday I was invited to take part in a Facebook Live discussion for the excellent writing.ie, with Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin (a formidable champion of writers and a bestselling author in her own right) and Simon Trewin (my agent and dear friend, who is the one asking the questions). Each Friday lunchtime Vanessa and Simon invite a different writer to discuss elements of their craft and writing process with their community of listeners. Topics covered this time included how to find your way into writing, apprenticeships for writers, how writers can develop their craft by reading other writers' books (backwards), the importance of throwing away drafts that aren't right and starting again, as well as The House at the Edge of Night and my almost-finished next book. The full video is here for anyone who is interested. Have a safe and peaceful week.
Update: This post was written on Monday 9th March 2020. Since I know some English-speakers living in Italy come across my blog when looking for guidance about daily life here (usually bookshop advice!), the laws changed again on the night of Wednesday 11th March 2020. All non-essential services and businesses are now shut here in Italy so my note about bars and takeaway restaurants no longer applies. We can now only buy food from food shops or order it from restaurants who are delivering direct to houses, as the government has closed all non-essential shops and businesses and all restaurants and bars.
This month's update comes to you, once again, a few days late. Things have been quite disrupted here in Italy - more about that later. In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that I've been working hard on the final draft of The Lit and Unlit World. There are two things about this part of the writing process that I always appreciate. First, the return to the real world after months immersed in the world of the book; the final part of finishing a book always involves getting in touch with your agents and editors, whom you haven't properly seen for a while, and letting them know that the manuscript will be on its way in a few weeks, and also looking at it with the eye of an external reader. I find this part of the process a very welcome one; it often injects a positive energy into the final part of the work. The second positive, for me, is the chance to go through all my research notes again and weave them into the fabric of the manuscript, which is an absorbing process. So the month went past very quickly, and I only find myself sitting down to write an update now that it's already March.
This has been a strange month in Italy, and I wanted to write briefly about that in this post, especially as the situation has been covered so much and so dramatically in the international media. As some of you have seen, we're currently going through a very difficult period caused by the coronavirus epidemic, with emergency security measures now in place all over the country since 2:00 last night. Things had already been in half lock-down in Turin for a couple of weeks, so this wasn't a complete surprise to us and most people who expected to be working from home today had already prepared for it yesterday. The way the news is being portrayed from outside, however, seems to be quite different to the reality here in Italy and in the Italian-language media. The feeling isn't one of apocalyptic doom; in fact, the worry is more a public health one about how to care for everybody, especially the elderly, if we don't manage to flatten out the peak of the disease so that the health system can manage it adequately - and also worries about local companies and small businesses. We have an excellent free health system here, with spare capacity when needed, and in a country like this it makes a huge difference in terms of loss of life among the elderly to take strict measures in this type of epidemic. It's a public health decision which each government takes for itself, but speaking personally I'm glad that Italy is taking an approach which protects the vulnerable in society, even if it comes at such a heavy cost. So we are fine here in Turin, and the general feeling is that these measures are in place for a good reason, and we will have to stay at home and follow them as long as needed, in order to protect our elderly and immunocompromised neighbours. But of course it's difficult, and we hope it won't be for longer than the predicted date, the 3rd of April, and that local businesses won't be irretrievably harmed. We're mostly supposed to stay in our houses, and everyone is trying to keep up with and interpret the regulations and get a day's work done too, so the city this morning is understandably muted and quiet. In the coming days, I think a lot of people will be trying to figure out how to support their local businesses while still keeping the new laws. We're not totally confined to our houses - we can go to a food shop, for instance, or buy takeaway food, or go out, if necessary, to get food at a restaurant or a bar with spaced-out tables. A lot of people I know are working from home, with varying degrees of success, but for a writer, there isn't much change to the day-to-day pace of life between nine and six o' clock. It does feel strange to be required to stay in the house all the time - it's the main topic of conversation among everyone here in Turin, and we all feel that our usual social lives and important societal connections are disrupted. This is particularly difficult in a city in which everything is based on congregating outdoors and in public places. But we are mostly doing fine in ourselves. One interesting development is that a lot of Italian celebrities have been encouraging their fans to stay at home as much as possible already in recent days, even when the lock-down was only an advisory measure, using the hashtag #iorestoacasa, and that means that on social media a lot of people are talking about books and making book and film recommendations. In some apartment buildings in Turin, groups of students have been leaving notes for their elderly neighbours offering to go and buy their shopping for them so that they can stay safely in their houses. And the jokes circulating on social media are also entertaining. So there are some positive moments as people try to make a virtue of necessity and find something constructive in being asked to stay confined to the house for so long.
For me, one bright point has been discovering new books; I've had a lot of time to read during these past weeks when our evening activities have been limited. New to me was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison - I've wanted to read this book for a long time. Even from the first chapter, the way that Morrison handles the transitions from scene to scene, the quick switchbacks in mood from comedy to tragedy, the way she conjures the characters and the world and, of course, the way she speaks to urgent issues about race and injustice in America, are all powerfully and beautifully rendered. It's a complicated novel, an intricate world, often poetic, often sad, often violent and difficult to read, and I've already started reading it for a second time because I think I'll gain even more from a second reading. My second discovery of this month was In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne. The poetry and the realism of this book, the characters, the relationships, the strength and compassion of their voices, all really blew me away. The story itself is hard-hitting and tragic but also full of beauty, and that's maybe something both writers, different as they are, have in common with each other. This is the first book I've read that captures the way young people speak in London and preserves it so authentically and lovingly; in Guy Gunaratne's words, 'London can be an unkind place to live and grow up in, but I just love the way we spoke'. He has more insights about writing in this interesting interview here. If anybody has any book recommendations to send my way, English or Italian, they will be very gratefully received, as I have a feeling that in March we will all be doing a lot more reading... Otherwise that's all for now, and I'll head back to my desk to carry on working on the final draft of the book.
With warmest wishes from Turin, where we're hoping for better news soon, and a return to the normal life of our city.
We're a few days into the second month of 2020 already, and so I wanted to post an update about what I've been working on in January, and to wish you all a very belated Happy New Year. I hope it has been a peaceful and positive one so far. I am very grateful for the kind messages I've received in January telling me that you are looking forward to The Lit and Unlit World. Don't worry - it is almost finished! This past month has been mostly spent at my desk; it's been a month of hard work on the final draft of the book.
I posted at the end of last year that I was hoping to finish The Lit and Unlit World by the end of 2019, and while I didn't quite manage that, I made good progress. The final weeks on any project are always an interesting time: you see the overall manuscript finally taking shape from the various intricate pieces you have put together, you say goodbye to each part as it's finished (sometimes reluctantly, sometimes gladly), and you start to see it with an outsider's eyes and appraise it more dispassionately. I enjoy the process of writing a final draft, but I've also learned from experience that it needs to be given its proper time. Otherwise, the book tends to end up patchy in terms of pacing and structure and needs unpicking in the edits a few months later. By the time you've written five or six books you know some of what your editor is going to say before they say it, and so it's important to hang onto the book until you can't find anything else you can improve on your own, and only then hand it in. That way your editor's (or multiple editors', in my case) input takes it to a higher, more polished level. So that final version is what I'll be working on over the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, 2020 has been a good year for me so far in terms of reading. Particular highlights have been Silence by Shusaku Endo (slow to get started but full of depth and moving), and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (whose characters - and the compassion and wisdom with which they are written - really stayed with me all month; this is a book I'll reread). Also Partigiane: Le Donne della Resistenza by Marina Addis Saba (Italian language - a lovingly researched account of women involved in the Italian resistance). I've also been reading Storie di Piemonte by Carlo Petrini (Italian language - a collection of short non-fiction accounts of people working in different professions around Piemonte, from vine-growers to bookshop owners to a monk who has lived at the top of a mountain in seclusion for the past thirty years). I also enjoyed In the Woods by Tana French (a mystery, which has a beautiful, quite intricate literary style and strong characterisation). You're always very welcome to say hello to me on GoodReads, or to send me your recommendations - I love receiving them, and usually add them to my list, which is probably why my to-read pile is in the state it currently is... But I'm trying to note down more of the books I read this year, rather than forgetting half the titles by the time the end of the year comes round - we'll see how that goes as the year progresses, but in January I managed to keep track.
While on the topic of reading, I have added a lot of books to my reading list as a result of discussions this month over Latinx writers in the US book trade and the wider issue of representation. If you don't know what these discussions are about, a useful summary can be found on this Latino USA / NPR podcast (warning that there are some issues discussed which may be upsetting if you have personal experiences of migration across the US border, as well as loss or injury of children - but if you've already heard about the debates and feel you want to be more informed, Maria Hinojosa approaches the discussion in a very fair and balanced way). I think it's always helpful to have a wider contextual view on how the books we are reading intersect with the real world in which we are living, and as a reader and writer I'll be continuing to follow this discussion and the responses in the book trade in the coming weeks.
That's all for now. Let me know if you would like to see more monthly updates like this - I will do my best this year to write more regular blog posts. And in the meantime, I wish you all a happy and peaceful February 2020. I'm planning to spend it getting much closer to finishing The Lit and Unlit World.
With warmest greetings from Italy,
Greetings from Turin, where I've been spending these dark winter days immersed in the final draft of The Lit and Unlit World. The first part of the book is done, and there are a couple more parts to redraft, so the first thing I will be doing in the early months of 2020, I hope, will be sending the book to my editors to see what they think of it. And in the meantime, I just wanted to take this chance to post a quick update, and to wish all my readers who celebrate a very peaceful start to the holiday season and a happy end to the year, whether you are spending Christmas and New Year celebrating the holidays, working, or a bit of both like me!
With warmest wishes from Italy!
Greetings from my desk, where I am currently in the process of finishing the final draft of my new book. It's been a very long time since I posted any news, and I'm grateful to those readers who have been waiting so patiently to hear an update. But several of you have also been asking where I am and whether I'm ever coming back! Just to reassure you, I'm still here, and still writing. In fact, I plan to have the final draft of my next book done by the end of this year.
So why has it taken me so long? Some of you might remember that I completed a version of this book back in 2017, around the time the paperback version of The House at the Edge of Night was published. At that time, the original plan was for the next book to be out in 2019. But when I sat down to work on it, I realised it needed much more time. It had been a complex book to plan, with a lot of intricate historical research, and I wasn't convinced that I had fully realised the story in the first draft, or done the characters justice - particularly the central women characters, who had suddenly come into relief in the latter part of the draft. This happened with The House at the Edge of Night too, and probably deserves its own article - or possibly a whole conference or series of books about the problems we come across as women writers imagining women characters. Either way, I began to retrace my steps and unpick the structure of the book, attempting to find a way around this difficulty and re-imagine the characters. Until at some point I realised that the right thing to do would be to rewrite the whole book from the start.
That might sound drastic, and in a way it is - but in another way it's also quite a normal part of the writing process. Certain books take two iterations to get right, and once you realise it there's nothing worse than making surface edits to a draft that has underlying flaws and getting as far as publication with the wrong version of a story. I've always been quite strict with myself, and I know a lot of writers are, about not letting that happen even at the cost of taking more time. Because, of course, to rewrite a 100,000-word book takes a lot of time, and I'm grateful to my editors and readers for letting me do this. It was a decision I made by myself, and I didn't want to take it lightly - in fact, for this reason, I've taken a pause from social media and all other commitments like writing articles in order to focus on the book and get it written as soon as possible. The book is now almost finished, and I'm happy to say it's right this time around.
I will post more information in the coming months, particularly about the date of publication, but for now I can tell you that the book follows the women in one family from 1900 to the present day, it is called The Lit and Unlit World, and it is set in north Italy in a town surrounded by vineyards. Thank you for waiting so patiently for me to get the process right with this book. I feel grateful every day to have such kind and passionate readers. You make what I do worthwhile, you are generous with your words and support, your love for books and literature shines through in everything you write to me, and encourages me when I sit down at my desk each morning. I'm looking forward to sharing more news with you soon about the coming book.
With greetings from Torino, where as you can see I've moved house again, but kept the same writing desk as always.
~ Catherine, November 2019
A couple of weeks ago I posted about a not-for-profit project which I've been working with in my spare time as a writing advisor. The aim of that project, VOICE, is to provide a platform for people working for change in their own countries to tell their own stories, in their own words. Over the past year we've collected fifteen stories from around the world, which are soon going to be published. The book is called A Definition of Snow, it's being published with Unbound, and the exciting news is that it just hit 10% funding. You can see our video (including a cameo appearance from me!) here:
A lot of my readers have been asking me about this project, and whether they can help support it. The answer is yes: I would love to see some of your names on the supporter list! To help explain what the project is about, here are some of the questions I've received and a few answers...
What is crowdfunding and why did you decide to do it?
We’ve decided to publish our writers’ work with Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher, because it gives the writers complete control of their stories. Crowdfunding also puts power into the hands of readers by letting them decide whether a book deserves to be published or not. By pledging to order a book on our Unbound page (www.unbound.com/books/a-definition-of-snow), early readers receive a special edition of the book. They also get unique rewards and an insight into the publication process. As a thank you for being an early supporter and making the book happen, readers get their name printed in the supporters’ list in the back of the book. Unbound has won awards for its innovative approach to publishing, so we decided to publish with them to get the best support for our writers. I publish my own work with a traditional publisher (Penguin Random House), but they are also affiliated with Unbound so I'm confident our writers will get good support from them too.
What is A Definition of Snow about?
When Annina (our project coordinator) came back to Europe after working in a rural hospital in Bolivia for five months, there was a huge interest in her experiences there. However, when she talked about her work, she always felt there was an essential part of the story missing – that of her Bolivian colleagues. Realising their stories were not available in Western countries, she started to think about a way to change this. This was when she founded Project VOICE, and the rest of us (the VOICE team) quickly came on board to help with different areas, from editing to web design to coordinating outreach projects. Since then, VOICE has been working tirelessly to collect the stories of individuals from all over the world who are working or volunteering in social, humanitarian, development or peace-related fields in their home country or region. Our writers come from all corners of the earth and many different fields – from doctors in Bolivia to humanitarian and peace workers in South Sudan and Kenya, from an education worker in India to a Ghanaian UN peacekeeper in Liberia, from an International Red Cross Medical Delegate in Asia to an Eritrean refugee in Germany. A Definition of Snow, our book, brings their voices together. It is the first time such a book has been published. With foreign aid workers´ stories usually being the only narrative available, the voices of individuals from their own country or region are mostly unheard. A Definition of Snow gives a previously unavailable alternative to the narratives of the media or general publications. Our contributors are not professional writers – many of them have never written a story before. But they are people who dedicate their lives to working in their field every day, and they tell a story that no-one else could tell. As writing advisor, I came into the project to support the writers, and to help them find an audience for their work, but the stories are their own.
Why does the book need to happen and why are you personally working on the project?
When I heard about the project, I knew I had to get involved. I felt it was a real injustice that these stories weren’t accessible to Western audiences, and that the voices of people working for change in their own communities had gone unheard for so long. I believe that stories can connect people and open up experiences of other lives; this was certainly how I felt when I read the writers’ stories and began to understand their different experiences. This was why we decided to work together as an international team of volunteers to try and make their stories more widely available. It’s certainly ambitious and the whole team has given up many hours of their free time to make it happen, but we’ve done so because we believe that these stories are important and really deserve to be told.
What can I do to help?
1. Pledge to support our book! The project page can be found here: https://unbound.com/books/a-definition-of-snow
2. Share the book with others who you think might be interested, via email, Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Instagram or in person.
3. If you have any other ideas for how we could spread the word about the book, let us know! We would be very happy to hear them.
Meanwhile, it's back to draft two of my own second book, but more very soon on both projects...
So as my regular readers know, I haven't got a new book of my own out in 2017. But to say that I haven't got any book coming out this year isn't strictly true. Today, I have some incredibly exciting news to share with you all. In my spare time, I've been working on a project called VOICE, which aims to share the stories of those working for change in their own countries, in their own words. That project has now become a book, which has just launched here at the wonderful crowd-funding publisher Unbound!
The book, A Definition of Snow, is a collection of fifteen stories of humanitarian, development, health and social care and peace-building workers writing about their experiences working in their own communities. When I first heard about the project, way back in spring 2016, I knew I had to get involved. The project began when the project coordinator, Annina, spent six months working in Bolivia for the Red Cross. When she came back, she noticed that friends, family and even many strangers were interested in hearing her experiences, but the experiences of her Bolivian colleagues - people working every day in the hospital, with a profound understanding of the challenges, difficulties and day to day realities of that work - were totally missing from the narrative. And when she looked on the shelves of bookshops, she found that nearly every book on development was written from the perspective of a Western worker who had gone to a country not their own, for a limited period of time. The crucial perspectives of people working for years in their own communities were lost, and this was a massive gap in the bookshelf which she wanted to remedy.
When Annina told me about the project, and showed me the first draft of two of the writers' stories, I knew I wanted to be part of the project. The stories were powerful, necessary, and unlike anything that I had read. There's something about reading another human's voice, talking honestly about their experiences, that opens up a whole world of understanding. It's the same reason I became a writer, and these stories, I knew, needed to be told. As I've worked on the project, I've grown to be incredibly proud of the work of our writers, most of whom - though they are doctors, nurses, run NGOs and work in expert roles in peace-building projects - had never written a story before. The writers talk about what it's like to be a female doctor working in a rural Bolivian prison; about being a refugee who risked his life to further a dream of becoming a doctor; about growing up in an organisation for orphans in South Sudan and later working for that same organisation to help women become business-people and successfully support their families after years of war. The stories are fascinating, poignant, outspoken and honest. As writing advisor, I've worked with each writer over several drafts, helped with the preparations for the publication process, worked on the manuscript, and advised the project coordinator and the regional contacts. It's been a privilege, but the real magic in the project came from the stories themselves. Two years on, the VOICE team is made up of ten people speaking six different languages, and we work with writers all over the world. This year, we presented a proposal for a fifteen-story book to Unbound, the publisher responsible for ground-breaking essay collections like The Good Immigrant, and it was accepted. Our book is crowd-funding now!
And this is where I need your help... If you are interested in development, in memoir-writing or in stories from around the world which open a reader's eyes to different realities, I would be honoured if you would consider pledging towards helping make the book a reality (in return, you'll automatically receive one of the special first editions as soon as it's published). Or, if you know someone who might be interested, I would be delighted if you would share the project with them or ask them to pass it on. The Unbound model is a great one for a book like ours, because it works by giving early supporters special extra rewards for preordering. Those who pledge now can receive personal gifts from our writers, city tours, Skype calls and book club benefits. In addition, all supporters get their name in the back of the book. I've personally supported several books on Unbound over the last couple of years and it's quite a magical thing to contribute in this way to a project as a reader and see your name in the list of supporters when you receive your first copy.
For aspiring writers, one of the rewards we are offering is an exclusive writing consultation. If you choose this option, I will read the first part of your novel or memoir, give you detailed feedback and advice on publication, and organise a personal Skype conversation with you to discuss it. I promise I will be as helpful as possible (I have lots of experience now, after all, since I've spent all this time working with our VOICE writers and helping them get their work to publication standard!). There are only three available - unfortunately I can't offer more as I want to spend a lot of time on each one and also get Book Two redrafted before the deadline - so if you want to pledge for this reward, now is the time.
You can read more about Project VOICE here, and find the Unbound page here, where, excitingly, we are already 6% funded in just 48 hours!
If you are one of my existing readers and you do decide to support the book, send me a screenshot of the thank you message - I would love to send you a postcard personally to say thanks. Being British, I'd never ask you directly to buy one of my own books. But I'm making an exception for these fifteen brilliant writers because their stories really deserve to be told.
It's here: the final day of my #yearinthelifeofawriter project. It’s been quite a year (actually quite a seventeen months, because I took a break in the middle to finish Book Two!). Thank you so very much to everyone who has been following over on Instagram. For those of you following here, I thought I would share my final photo...
How best to sum up a writer’s year? What do all those days amount to? Well, I've gone back through my notebooks and tried to add it up for you...
First, all the work that can't be seen on my desk:
Emails sent: 1600
Emails received: 3047
Reader messages and comments: 191
Interviews: 31 (27 English, 1 Italian, 2 Dutch, 1 Montenegrin)
Articles written: 45 (18 for other people, 27 for my blog)
Instagram photos posted: 365
People I’ve worked with, including editors, publicists, designers, copy editors, international editors, agents, event organisers, booksellers, my coworking colleagues, and one very helpful accountant: 103
Research visits to archives, libraries, museums (and a car factory!): 15
Writing events attended (as a writer): 12
Writing events attended (as a reader): 14
Hours of travel: 119 (partly because I keep going by train)
Then, what's left on my desk at the end of it all...
Editions of HOUSE published: 23
Books read: 68
Notebooks used up: 5
Pens run out: 16 (surprisingly low - thanks Mitsubishi-Uniball!)
Pages deleted: 125
Pages written: 297
(Net pages written: 172, or about two-thirds of a draft of a book)
And that’s a wrap! To celebrate, I'd love to give away some of those books on the desk to my readers. To be entered to win a signed copy of The House at the Edge of Night in a language of your choice, just go over to my Instagram account (www.instagram.com/catherinebanner), like this photo and tag a friend in the comments. Or, if you prefer, comment below on this post. I'll pick out ten winners at the end of October. Thank you all for following this project right to the very end. You are what made it worthwhile.
And don't worry, I'll still be posting behind-the-scenes writing photos on Instagram, which has become my favourite bookish community over this year. If this project has persuaded me of anything, it's that the everyday graft of a writer's year can be just as interesting as the exciting moments, in the end.
Some news: on Friday I will be travelling to Berlin to take part in the Internationales Literaturfestival 2017. The story of how I came to be going to this festival is quite an indirect one... A few months ago, along with some other female writers from various countries who I know via social media, I was trying to figure out whether there was anything we could do in the current political climate to start a network of writers committed to taking action on issues of democracy and human rights. It was during this time that one of these writer friends, Vanessa, who is also chair of Irish PEN, told me about an event being organised in Berlin this autumn, a Congress for Democracy and Freedom, which seemed to have exactly the same aim: writers from all over the world coming together to discuss what could be done to uphold values of equality and international human rights, and to share perspectives from their own countries.
A few weeks later, after reading the updates on this new event, I contacted the organisers to ask if I could visit to listen to the discussions, and the Berlin Literaturfestival and the British Council invited me to attend as a guest instead. I'll be there mostly in my capacity as a British writer, since the British Council are very kindly sponsoring my visit, but also as a member of PEN Writers' Circle, a human rights group which I decided to join this year, and also (if that isn't already too confusing), as a joint delegate from Italy since I sort of belong to both countries as a writer. I'm really honoured to be part of this event - partly for the opportunity to speak about my work, but mostly for the chance to listen to what these other writers from all over the world have to say. German readers, here's what I'll be involved in during the weekend:
On Saturday 9th September at 10:30pm, a reading and discussion of The House at the Edge of Night / Die langen Tage von Castellamare at the Upper Foyer of Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Details here.
On Sunday 10th September at 7:00pm, a panel of international writers and artists discussing the question 'What Can Art Do?', in the same location, as part of the Congress for Democracy. Details here.
And if you'd like to know more about the congress, here is an article. It would be wonderful to see you there!
Last year I wrote a blog post about five of my favourite bookshops in Torino, which you can find here. But one of the great things about this city is that its beautiful bookshops are almost unlimited, and so this year I thought I should add a few updates. Featured this week, Libreria Il Banco, one of Turin's most particular and unusual bookshops:
Originally, Il Banco was set up just as a summer bookstall along one of the city's busiest shopping streets, Via Garibaldi. But apparently the other local shops noticed a drop in sales when the bookshop was taken down in the winter, and so they asked for it to be reinstated permanently. Thirty-seven years later, it's still here. It's Turin's (and probably Europe's) longest bookshop, with one single corridor of books stretching about sixty metres along the street. The bookseller, Lina, is very helpful and passionate about books, and it's even air-conditioned in summer! I'd definitely recommend it.
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