Missing people you’ve never met

Years ago, I turned a page in a newspaper and found out that Tove Jansson had died. It made me cry. It didn’t matter that the news was two years old. I loved Tove because I loved, and still love, some of the characters that she created. I know very little about the woman but I had a strong emotional tie to the writer and her creations.

As a reader, I form relationships with imaginary people, and, sometimes, also with authors. Imaginary relationships with very real writers. Writers have a world-building super-power that I cannot help worshiping them for, and when they go, the loss I feel is real.

A few years after I found out that Tove Jansson had passed away, Kurt Vonnegut died.

Again, I knew very little about Kurt. When I really admire someone, I try not to find out too much about them. Writers, musicians, film stars: if I like their art, I’ve learned not to listen too much what they say, in case they say something dumb. Sometimes dumb stuff ruins good things. I just wish my heroes well and hope they’re sensible, decent and wise people.

I think Kurt was all those things. I hope he was. As a writer, Kurt made me think in new ways and made the world a more interesting place. Slaughterhouse 5 change my universe forever. Kurt had the power to make me laugh and to make me sad. He also made me want to be a better person. Finding out that he’d died made me cry again.

And you know, I never met Kurt Vonnegut but sometimes I miss him. I really miss him.

This morning, I found out that Iain Banks is dying from cancer. It’s a horrible thing to know, and it’s deeply sad for Iain and the people who love him. The news hit the sci-fi fan community hard, and Twitter was all abuzz with grief today. Iain is another writer that has meant a lot to me, and one I’ve actually met. (Once. For 60 seconds.) His Culture novels convinced me that sci-fi could be fun, and The Wasp Factory made me excited about Scottish fiction. I finished Stonemouth just last night and was thinking about re-reading Espedair Street, the first of Iain’s books that I ever read. I was planning to revisit books I haven’t read for a long time. Whit, for example, such a laugh. We were going to have an adventure.

And then, this hopelessly sad news.

To stop myself from missing people I don’t really know, but whose characters feel like friends to me, I’m not writing this evening. Nor am I cleaning, doing the laundry or packing for my week in Basingstoke. Or doing any of the other things that I should be doing.

Instead I’m eating grapes and watching Glee. It’s one way of dealing with an unpleasant reality.

Inspiration: the quiet beauty of Tove Jansson’s moomin books

When I was a kid, I loved The Exploits of Moominpappa*, a cheerful adventure and coming of age story a self-obsessed moomin troll. I read it several times a year and loved it’s quirky characters and beautiful pictures. As I grew up, other moomin books won me over. I still read them: there are not books just for children.

My favourite moomin book now is Moominpappa at Sea. On one level – the pappa’s – Moominpappa at Sea is about a midlife crisis. For the other characters, it is about other things: loneliness in particular, finding out who you are and where you fit. Jansson lets her characters do what they need to do to deal with the situation they find themselves in, however random their actions might seem. These are flawed, vain and silly character whose very humanity makes them lovable. If I could write characters that were that real, I’d be a very happy writer.

Tove Jansson died in 2001. She’s one of the few authors, like Kurt Vonnegut who passed away in 2007, that I actively miss, even though I never met them. It’s odd to me that you can miss someone you’ve never met, but I do. It’s a sweet melancholy, a regret, I suppose. And that makes sense because the thing about the moomin books that speaks to me is the melancholy that permeates them. Yes, there are cuddly critters and they are outrageously cute at times, but at the heart of Jansson’s writing there’s truth. It tells us that life is beautiful and sad in equal measures. That is something I think we need to be reminded of, regularly.

Moomin kuva, from Wikipedia.

* The version of the text I know and love is not the one that was translated into English, unfortunately. I wish they’d issue a new translation because the revised book is better than the original and as a number of really nice touches.

Standing up for the short novel

A lot of my favourite books are short. Very short.

  • Slaughterhouse five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • We have always lived in the castle, Shirley Jackson
  • Muminpappan och havet (Muminpapa at sea), Tove Jansson
  • The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

To name just a few. A lot of the books that I read for literature history were short. (A short novel is somewhere around 65,000 w0rds. That used to be the length of a novel but now, it’s the length of a short novel or a romance novel. most other genre and literary novels are a lot longer.)

The first ever book I read in English was Animal Farm. I’d read articles, bits of plays, chapters and comics but I hadn’t read a full book. So, I picked up Animal Farm. It’s a classic and I was 16. One the first page I underlined and looked up 12 words. Then I got bored with detailed understanding and went for the gist. A year later I we read The Great Gatsby for English. That was followed by The Human Factor by Graham Greene, Winnie the Pooh and several others. All short.

When I left Sweden to go to Scotland, the guys at work gave me a gift. My manager picked out two (short) books in English for me: Tidings by William Wharton and And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. At the time, I knew Cave as a song and lyrics writer and I adored him. The book blew me away. It was rich, it was partially phonetic, it was Gothic, it was weird, it was endlessly strange and invigorating. I loved it. It took me a while to get around to reading Tidings but really enjoyed it when I did.

I have a new love story with the short novel. It’s not just because the longest novel I can write at the moment is a short one. It’s also because the longest novel I can read when I’m writing is a short one. I work. I write. I read before I fall asleep. I don’t get through that many pages anymore. It’s a depressing fact, but since I started taking my writing seriously, I read less. There are only so many hours in a day. Sigh.

The short novel, when it’s good, shows mastery of the form and focus of thought. In a long novel – the genre I write in produces novels of between 120,000 and 175,000 words – there’s room for long speeches, long descriptions, long battles, many characters and many asides. You can pad a little bit – not too much or your readers will notice, but you can. There’s no room for padding in flash fiction. There’s no room for padding in a short story. There’s little room for padding in a short novel. There is, no matter how much action, troupe movement and character development, a lot of room for padding in a long novel.

My goal is to write long novels. It has to be: the genre I write in is one of big tomes, it is not one of slim volumes, easy to carry in a back pocket or handbag. I’m working on how to find a balance. Writing what I want to write and at a length I can manage.

Yeah, that’s the wrong way around, isn’t it? Either I write something that fits a shorter form, or I get comfortable with longer stories. I’m working my way up to a longer story and I’m trying to write long without padding. It’s not a small challenge.