Upon the Death of my Favourite Author

There is a distinct comfort in knowing that certain people are still around. A reassurance in knowing that there are people out there who see the world in ways that seem familiar to oneself. A relief that there are those who are able to put into words those things that at the time you are not capable of doing. When we lose these people, known intimately to us or not, then we are left with a certain empty feeling; not simply as a result of the physical yet metaphorical ‘hole’ they leave behind, but also the emptiness of knowing that we are losing a certain viewpoint on the world, one which we found to be sound, wise and safe.

I am reliably informed that a request to write this piece arrived shortly after the news broke, during which time I had received several messages from friends, enquiring as to my wellbeing and sending me love. Due to my complete ignorance of the current facts this was strange, but it being the 23rd December, a welcome addition to the festive period. Six days have since elapsed in which several paragraphs have been discarded after numerous failed reworks; my only success coming in the form of a few (potentially) throwaway sentences. Instead, on this, the sixth day, I have reread two collections of essays; Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, in the full knowledge that it is only once I feel comforted that I will be able to find my own words. 

*

Several times over the past week I have been posed with one striking question: How does one go about writing a tribute to someone who is so immortal? Although I will gladly take any opportunity to crowbar the name ‘Joan Didion’ into any conversation, I have been consistently struck these past seven days with the futility that lies in trying to write about her life. She did it for us. If you require an obituary, read Where I Was From. Social critique: Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Intimate glances into the author’s psyche: The White Album. Advice on how to grieve such a loss: The Year of Magical Thinking. When talking to a friend yesterday there were three words I returned to over and over and over again: she’s eulogised herself. 

I am unable to tell you anything about Joan Didion that Joan Didion has not already told us. It is impossible to write a legacy without simply using her own words. I do not mean that the odd quote here and there is useful in understanding her life, rather I mean it quite literally. Everything she wrote is so well crafted, so intimate, so personal and so subtly powerful that it would be wasteful of me to attempt anything new. Her legacy is a unique one, in that it is she who lays the most claim to it. 

Five years ago, I experienced a grief so intense I felt I had lost my personality. I knew there were many things I had just lost in the space of three days, perhaps most importantly to me, a unique viewpoint on the world. Upon my uncle’s death there were certain people who wrote about his life, his work, whatever legacy it was he had left behind and I hated it. I do not remember much from those first few weeks and did not put pen to paper aside from once; in the haze of my memories I distinctly remember writing down how strange it is that when one dies we no longer have control over who we are. How it is so easy to be interpreted, reimagined and redefined. This scared me. The only thing I wanted was for him to be able to speak for himself. To lay claim to his own legacy. To fashion his own eulogy. 

Joan Didion taught me about grief. The Year of Magical Thinking was avoided for as long as I still had other Didion to read. There was something within my being that knew that once I began her account on how to navigate unimaginable loss, the one I had felt would have some more finality. I knew that through the reading I would be moving closer to some kind of acceptance. It took me three years but it made me feel sane. I was acutely struck by the moment in which she is urged to remove John’s clothes and shoes, a task she logically understands but is unable to comprehend and therefore do. What will he do when he comes back, she wonders, as upon his return he will most certainly need both his clothes and his shoes. When you know exactly how this madness feels, someone writing it down and having the courage to publish makes you feel the sanest person in the world. 

*

It was my closest school friend who introduced me to Joan. (Not personally, although it’s often felt that way.) As I’ve shared before, he had taken a work-related trip to the States and returned with an edition of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which he promptly leant to me uttering the words, “you’re a woman who can’t help but include herself in her writing, you’ll like her.” At the risk of cliche, our first encounter was transformative. I didn’t simply like Joan Didion, as my friend had suggested, I was completely enamoured.

The first words I ever read of Joan Didion’s attributed suicide, divorce and prickly dread to the Santa Ana winds. She said they worked on the nerves, disrupted your breathing and helped hillsides to spontaneously combust. We are being told this as a prelude to a story about Lucille Miller, a thirty-four year old woman who was tried and convicted of murdering her husband on Banyan Street in the middle of the night via their 1964 Volkswagen. This is extraordinary journalism and even in my ignorance, with that first paragraph I was able to see that for her, place matters. It influences everything; lives, language, loves. It determines our attitudes and our destinies. It soothes us or it works on the nerves. It shapes our identities. It is not a mere backdrop for the players on this stage, rather a character within its own right, an integral part of the action, a plot device waiting to pounce.

Time and time again Joan’s own words have been used to describe her: a place belongs to the person who claims it the hardest. Although she is using this in relation to James Jones and how for her, he lays claim to Hawaii, the words unsurprisingly are the only ones that can do justice to what she was to California. I have never been to California, but in the California of my mind’s eye it is Joan Didion’s. It is sun-kissed, sixties hedonism and it is the Manson Family Murders. It is Jim Morrison arriving late, or not at all, to record with the Doors. It is San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and inevitable wildfires. It is a land where rain is a mystery, water a fascination, rattlesnakes a certainty. It is endless highways, the Pacific Ocean, car travel and the Beverly Hills Hotel. It is synthetic light, migraines, dinner parties and endless absurdities. It is one Pan Am flight from Honolulu and it is the final frontier. It is now, thanks to Joan Didion, one of my greatest obsessions. A mystery so intimate to me I wonder if I ever need go. 

*

For days I have been attempting to vocalise how Joan’s writing actually makes me feel. I have come up with nothing aside from feelings of being overwhelmed. I am always overwhelmed by emotion, neither sad nor happy. As I write I come to realise that she encapsulates a certain melancholy; a word that for me evokes feelings of desolation, emptiness and heartache alongside a certain comfort or reassurance. 

I have turned to Joan’s writing for consolation many times over the past two years. More frequently than not, the center has not been holding. I have turned to Joan as her work reminds me that there is a universality in chaos, in dread, in the impending sense of the end of the world. Generation after generation has stood on the precipice of the world collapsing in on itself and remarkably, every time, it does not. 

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There is much uniqueness in Joan Didion’s writing but there are two things I find particularly striking. The first is her ability to explore some of the most mundane things with such intricacy that they become the most exciting and enchanting things in the world. The essays Holy Water and Bureaucrats are excellent examples of this. In one, she visits the Operations Control Center for the California State Water Project and in another Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation’s Operation Center. Neither of these are particularly exciting places yet as Didion notes the minutiae in their workings and how her own thoughts and feelings interact with these places they become sensational. I knew when I was gripped to an essay on ‘the 42 mile loop’ that I was reading a writer like no other.

The second is her capacity to include so much intricacy in the sensational that they in turn become mundane. As in Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, (the story chronicling Lucille Miller and the death of her husband) where we are told that after Miller has given birth following her incarceration her elder daughter came to take the new baby home in a white dress with pink ribbons. We are consistently brought back down to earth. Told something suddenly, in an often offhand manner, that changes the whole feeling. This could happen to you. This could happen to anyone. One day you sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends. 

*

Reading Joan Didion did not make me want to become a writer. Reading Joan Didion assured me that I am a writer and taught me why. Why I Write is one of the most sensible things I have ever read. Why I Write taught me to unlearn everything I thought I knew about grammar. Told me to treat each sentence as if it were a melody, adding the rests and the short notes wherever I felt they should be. She taught me that writing is an art form, and that whenever I shift the structure of a sentence, I change it in the same dramatic manner as taking a photograph from an entirely different angle. She spoke to us often of her own doubts and reassured us that everyone has the feeling that they are sometimes simply passing as the person they think they are or would like to be. 

In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem Didion claims that there is one thing we always need to remember: ‘writers are always selling someone out.’ I reread this yesterday and, as always, was amused until I began to wonder who is it I am selling out by writing this piece. I still don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if it’s Joan, I’m selling out what she actually meant, what her true point was through some well-meant misinterpretation. I am, however, more inclined to believe that in this instance the person really being sold out is myself. Never will my (currently unfinished) novel land in the aged yet eccentrically expressive hands of the remarkable Ms Didion. Never will I be able to express to her how it was she who helped me make sense of my burning desire to work things out through the written word; that need to grasp a permeance in the midst of chaos. 

Maybe I am selling myself out through what I now feel has become some kind of intellectual love letter to a woman born generations before myself, on the other side of the world, in a place I have never been, with whom I feel I have such a strong connection purely due to her exceptional command of the written word. Joan Didion taught me that there is a place in fact for women’s voices and that there is a place in journalism for the personal essay. Order can be found in the deepest disorder. Life is always there, even in the midst of grief. Nothing objective is interesting.

Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

Joan Didion

1934-2021


Saffron Rain lives and writes in Stockport. She was born and raised around Manchester, only moving away to get her degree and subsequent MA in English Lit in Sheffield. During this time she wrote ardently on the North, particularly female writers and filmmakers. 

Her preferred form is the personal essay and she enjoys writing about topics that she connects to on a personal level. Some of these have appeared in independent publications and she shares longer pieces on her own blog. She loves to read, particularly women, and will take any opportunity to crowbar Joan Didion into a conversation. 

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Book Review: Masterful Short Fiction – Sarah Schofield’s Safely Gathered In

As the year draws to a close and the nights draw in, candlelit reading becomes an absolute essential. November marks the launch of the perfect accompaniment: Sarah Schofield’s Safely Gathered In. Published by the incredible Manchester-based Comma Press, this electric short story collection is definitely one to add to your winter reading list.

A woman grows increasingly annoyed by her husband’s emails, offering advice and reminders even months after his death… A taxidermist dreams of preserving one of his clients after she takes him out for a coffee… A grieving nurse is troubled by her daughter’s fascination with The Iron Lady…”

With style comparable to Sarah Moss and the ability to evoke unease like Naomi Booth, Schofield’s storytelling certainly leaves a mark on her readers. One of the potent threads running through the collection is an obsession with objects. Schofield interrogates how they define us, our relationship to them and what they can eventually come to represent. This is the feeling delivered by the title story – Safely Gathered In – crafted in list formation to depict the contents of a series of storage units. While the idea seems simple, I loved how these inventories brought people and personalities to life without making their presence known. Powerful and unsettling, this story really sets the tone for the whole collection.

My favourite story opens the collection, cleverly entitled Dead Man’s Switch. Emmy, the plot’s protagonist, grows increasingly annoyed by her husband’s emails offering advice and reminders even months after his death. Whether it’s home insurance or her upcoming MOT, David’s words of wisdom continue to arrive in her inbox. Sharing the annoyance with her sister Kath as she tries to move on with new partner Gary, the speight of emails allow Emmy to reflect on her old relationship as well as the new. I loved how this story sparked thoughts about technology and how the modern age we’re living in allows us to extend our lives beyond expiration. Schofield also played with objects in this story to experiment with ideas of memory, loss and grief. Fisherman’s Friends, knitting needles, old books. All of these objects define something, and the author allows the reader enough space to decide what that is.

“It’s their last day on the beach and Emmy slips out her phone while Gary goes to get ice creams. There is another email from David. It is a reminder to cancel or renew their wine subscription. She scrunches her toes into the sand, heat flashing behind her eyes. She presses reply.”

Another critical theme reflected in Schofield’s stories is motherhood. Keenly observed and told with captivating honesty, she captures the trials and tribulations of family life. In Termination Happy Meal, a mother takes her teenage daughter to a McDonalds, presumably after visiting the abortion clinic. Told over less than two pages, the story casts a searing light on the wrought

nature of mother-daughter relationships. Again explored through objects in the story, Schofield brings to life the conflicts of growing up and the decisions that define our lives. For a story of so few words, it really is a triumph.

I was lucky enough to hear Sarah read from her collection at a pre-launch event: a short story salon hosted by Blackwell’s Manchester. Reading alongside the incredible Lucie McKnight Hardy and Vanessa Onwuemezi, it was a fantastic opportunity to hear more about the collection in real life after such a long time without in-person book events. Schofield read eloquently and gave some key insights about her craft, particularly how she likes to write and how her stories come together. If you’re looking for a true example of how to create haunting, bold and brilliant short fiction, Sarah Schofield is the beacon to look to.

Safely Gathered In was published in early November 2021 by Comma Press. Support your local bookshop or buy your copy here.


Words: Beth Barker 

Beth Barker is a writer and blogger from Blackpool, now working in Manchester. She also co-hosts Up North Books, a podcast celebrating books and writers from the North of England. 

Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.

For more book reviews and insights on publishing in the North, follow Beth on Instagram and Twitter.


“Your dad’s not necessarily a miner”: In Conversation with Eliza Clark

NRTH LASS talks to Newcastle-born writer Eliza Clark about her debut novel, Boy Parts, a surprisingly gory tale spanning art-school pompousness and hedonistic living, which has shocked and delighted readers in equal delight. Here, she tells staff writer Sophie Dickinson about the inspiration behind the book, stereotyping of Northern writers and how to get published.

Eliza Clark

Eliza Clark talks to me through a fuzzy webcam, both of us sitting at our kitchen counters. The Newcastle-born writer published her debut novel, Boy Parts, to wide acclaim in July. But Eliza is decidedly surprised about the amount of attention the book has been getting. 

“I honestly thought it would be a lot more divisive,” she laughs, looking sheepishly at the camera. “I expected more negativity. And there hasn’t really been any! It’s been great seeing it out in the world, and getting to people that I have no connection to at all.”

It really has been – with both the critical and the public reception awash with praise. The book follows Irina, a Newcastle native who quits her bar job to focus on photography, and pursues insecure men to model for her. The protagonist is decidedly unlikable – cruel to her friends, and bitter about the lack of appreciation for her art. This quickly spirals into violence: by two thirds of the way through the book, it’s very clear this is not a gentle tale about artistic endeavour or struggling as a student. As the book becomes more gory, the narration descends into a dreamy half-truth. Suddenly, we don’t know what is really happening at all – only that it is gruesome and dark. 

Eliza says her confidence about writing horror comes from film, rather than literature. Citing films by Korean director Chan-wook Park (perhaps best known for his 2016 film The Handmaiden), her ability to move from horror and humour definitely seems to have more in common with cinema than literature. “I feel like it’s more reflective of real life,” she says, nonplussed by my squeamishness at the plot. “We often end up with moments of strange comedy mixed in with horror.”

There’s definitely some truth in that. There’s a moment in the book – and I won’t give away which – that made me physically wince in a way I never have before when reading. But Eliza doesn’t anticipate that reaction at all when writing, saying she consumes that sort of content herself, and therefore doesn’t expect it to shock. It’s been compared to American Psycho –which Eliza hasn’t read, but she thinks it’s “not quite as violent as that.” I’m not so sure.

Something particularly refreshing about Boy Parts is the commitment to character-building – Irena is beautiful, we’re repeatedly told, but we see how much time it takes to acquire that beauty. She squeezes herself into a waist trainer; has an intricate skincare routine. This is rarely seen in fiction: women are unaware of how they look; popular novels of the last couple of years have had these unusually pretty, naturally stunning characters that frankly seem like a fantasy.

“I hate that so much,” says Eliza. “Why do these female characters not have a relationship with their appearance? Literature is packed with these waifs who are like ‘well i’m not as pretty as this girl’ but every man they come across is madly in love with them.”

 “I sort of think if you’re going to make your protagonist beautiful, you need to face up to that, and she needs to have a relationship with how she looks. Every woman I know has a really distinct, and torrid, relationship with their appearance, it really frustrates me…” she says trailing off.

That same frustration is reserved for the wealth of assumptions about being ‘from the north’ that both Eliza and Irena deal with. Eliza seems exhausted while explaining the preconceptions there are around being, essentially, not from London. “People don’t realise that there are various cities in the north, and every place in the UK has old money and new money.” Invariably, this leads us onto a discussion about class, with Eliza saying that her situation was “completely normal” for the North East – her parents left school at sixteen, but a generation later, she went to university at Chelsea College of Art. 

“You become very aware of your class identity in London, too, going from that feeling of being fairly middle class, to suddenly releasing you have none of the connections,” she says. There’s a feeling that you’ve got to justify that you haven’t grown up in a complete cultural wasteland, that you’ve got hobbies and interests and you know, your dad’s not necessarily a miner.”

For northern writers, Eliza’s advice is clear. “Lean into it,” she says with a grin. She says that literary agents from mainstream publishing houses are looking “for a new Andrea Dunbar to fall off a council estate and write a bestseller. If you are northern and working class, just lean into it. They’ll love it.” If you don’t fancy being the next Jeanette Winterson though, she recommends looking for indie presses (like Influx, the publisher of Boy Parts), because they will likely have more time to nurture a new writer. The books being published by Influx in 2021 are testament to this: a broad range of writers, their offering is notably diverse in terms of geography, ethnicity and sexualty. “There’s a lot more going on from underrepresented writers in the indie presses,” Eliza says with pride. “The big publishers might have more money, but at indie places you’ll get a lot more attention. So yes – play the game, or go independent.”

She suggests using resources like Mslexia magazine (“a crash course for getting published”), and the New Writing North writing programme for 18-25 year olds, which Eliza was herself a part of. The benefit of these schemes, she says, are that “if you’re above the low income bracket but don’t have the connections, it can be hard to get on a course. This allows you to get in as early as possible.” 

Clearly, whilst Eliza had always wanted to write, publishing a bestselling book at 26 was not part of the plan – but it’s because of resources like New Writing North that she was able to. “I was expecting I’d write Boy Parts, put it in a drawer, and then see if my second novel got picked up.” And the best places to write in Newcastle?

 “I wrote the vast majority of Boy Parts in Flat Caps Coffee, and a fair whack of it at Camber Coffee, too.” Perhaps, for writers in the North, that’s the place to start. 

Boy Parts is available in all good bookshops. 

Interview: Sophie Dickinson

Sophie Dickinson is from Clitheroe in Lancashire. She is a freelance writer and journalist, but when she’s not hurriedly writing phone-note poems, she can be found collecting ceramics and wild swimming.

Twitter: @sdickinson8, Instagram: @sophiedickinson96

Cover shots and portraits courtesy of Robin Silas Christian

Words of wisdom with Novelist Emma Jane Unsworth

EMMA JANE UNSWORTH by ALEX LAKE

Born and bred in Greater Manchester, Emma Jane Unsworth is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter applauded for her sharp, witty and bitingly funny commentary. Formerly a journalist for The Big Issue in the North, Unsworth has published a number of short stories and two novels including Animals, which won a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize and was adapted as a film starring Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat. Her latest novel, Adults, published by Borough Press, is a lesson to us all on the pitfalls of social media and romance in the modern age. She also writes for television and magazines and is currently busy adapting her second novel for screen, as well as writing a memoir about post-natal depression that she promises won’t be depressing. The bestselling author and screenwriter talks to us about her memories of life up north, creating space for women and her advice for aspiring writers.

  • Could you start by telling me a little bit about yourself, where you are from and what you do?

I’m a writer from Manchester. I write all sorts of things: screenplays, novels, journalism, and I’m currently writing a memoir about post-natal depression that I promise won’t be depressing. I write comedies. Or I try to. Is saying you write comedy a bit like laughing at your own jokes?

  • What are your memories of growing up in the north?

Going to Heaton Park in Prestwich and climbing trees. We had adventures in the woods behind pubs. We caught newts in the lake behind a nearby housing estate. I had a total naturalist’s childhood for someone living in the suburbs. Then as I got older I went out in Blackley, chasing boys. I should have stuck to newts.  

  • How has your upbringing shaped you as a person?

Hard to say, but I do know I write about Manchester more than anywhere. All my stories seem to gravitate towards that north star. 

  • At what point did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in writing?

It was always there within me. Even as a child I desperately wanted to be a writer. Which was weird because I came from a working-class family where everyone had previously been a printer or a mill-worker. But I had this wild notion I could be a writer. I used to wear a bonnet on Sunday walks with my sister because I loved the Brontës and clearly thought that wearing a bonnet was the way to be like them. My sister refused to walk next to me. 

  • How would you best describe your writing process?

Haphazard. I work in fits and starts. I’m a crammer. I always push it to the wire. 

  • Your novels are strongly influenced by your own personal relationships and as a consequence they touch on themes of love and human connection – what have you learnt about yourself and other people from writing about these topics?

Everything! As much as the living. Although, I don’t really know how to separate writing and living. But when you say love, I think it’s about the legacy and aftermath of love. By that I mean I tend to analyse the fallout, and how these things define us, and how we might need to reshape our understanding of them to be free.

Every time I start to write a novel I start with an emotional crux, a conundrum for my central character, and that is usually my own conundrum at that point in time, or something close to it. Then as I spin a world around it, I get to explore it in an abstract way, and the characters that grow and take it in new directions. That’s the adventure.

By the end of a book, I always feel purged and a little wiser and lighter. It means the world when that book then resonates with other people with similar hopes and fears.

  • Your novel Animals was received with critical acclaim and was subsequently adapted into a screenplay – what about the story do you think resonates the most with reader?

The honesty, I hope. I wrote that story from my guts. It scared me to death and I kept wanting to delete it, or at least sections of it, but I’m glad I didn’t. People see through bullshit and padding and cynical writing. I never want to make anything that isn’t fiercely and dangerously true. I like to risk my neck. Otherwise I might as well just type out the phone directory over and over.

  • Personally, what is your favourite book that you have written?

I can’t do that! They’re my children. Don’t make me choose!

  • Now residing in Brighton, what do you miss about the north?

So much. My friends and family. The peculiar quality of the sky. The colours of the stone. The accents. I hear a Northern accent down here and I’m like COME TO ME, MY BRETHREN.

  • We talk a lot about the scope for giving women the tools and resources so that they can thrive in spite of where they were born and raised, how do you feel about the north-south divide in this context?

I think seeing women succeeding from all backgrounds is key. I hope more literary agents and publishers set up in the north as the country rebuilds itself. I hope we see more TV and film companies based up there, or at least having offices and production studios up there. Writers shouldn’t have to travel for two hours to take meetings. Or maybe now we’ll all be better at Zoom and Skype meetings. That could free things up!

  • At any point in your career so far, have you ever felt held back or hindered by your gender?

Always. Fighting that is part of my job, and it always has been. That said, I am a white woman, and because of that have had more opportunities than many writers of colour. But the facts remain: women are paid less, fear of violence is real. Those things affect most jobs all of the time in some way or other.

It’s harder in the TV and film worlds. Commissioners need to give women more money to make things. That’s the only way we are going to see change. All these reports telling us what we already know just wind me up. They’re useless puff PR so organisations look like they’re doing something. They need to put their money where their reports are.

We need more female directors, producers, writers – and they all need the chance to make mistakes and get it wrong and be mediocre – as well as have strokes of genius get it right and be brilliant – the same way men have forever.

  • Who or what inspires you?

My friends and my son. My need to feel as though I deserve them. Fear of being poor. Self-loathing. Self-preservation. Fear of failure. Willingness to fail. Funny things. Beautiful things. Ugly things. Sad things. True things. Women who live on the edge in some way.

  • Complete the sentence, a writer is…

 a thinker first and last; a typist in between.

  • What would your advice be for any aspiring writers or authors?

Finish the draft. That’s it. Whatever it is, get to the end of it for the first time. Then: polish like fuck. 

  • I’ve been told many times that in order to be a good writer you must keep reading, with that in mind what three books would you thoroughly recommend?

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, Fast Lanes by Jayne Anne Phillips and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

  • Finally, if there was one thing in the world that you would change, what would it be?

Right now, I’d get rid of coronavirus. Either that or those electric scooters. I really hate those.

Emma’s latest book Adults is available here.


WORDS: JENNA CAMPBELL

Women Behaving Badly (or well, depending on your point of view)

Writer and singer Jessica Walker has spent much of her career bringing the fascinating, forgotten women’s histories of the last century to the stage. Ahead of the opening of Not Such Quiet Girls, her new play uncovering the forgotten stories of the First World War at The Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, she traces the thread back to her first solo show.

Continue reading “Women Behaving Badly (or well, depending on your point of view)”