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Picking up a pen, celebrating women’s writing and a trip to the marshes

Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, writes the diary.

This week, I swapped the computer screen for old-fashioned paper and pen. I went from writing to editing. Imagination to process. A kind of cabin fever takes hold at the end of a novel, a disquieting combination of holding one’s nerve and a wild desperation to have it over and done with. This new book is the first in a sequence of historical novels – The Burning Chambers – set against the backdrop of the French Wars of Religion. Starting in Carcassonne and Toulouse in the 16th century and ending in Franschhoek in the 19th (by way of Amsterdam and Cape Town), the series has been five years in the making, from the first glimmer of an idea, the book research and the physical research, false starts and new starts, to the wrestling of the story into shape. Suddenly, there is a book. Almost a book. The shift of a few yards from the office desk to kitchen table, keyboard to scissors and paste.

This novel has been a slow burn, gently revealing itself like an old-fashioned photograph. What do I feel this week? Relieved, nervous, excited, disappointed, exhausted, shy. I oscillate between wanting to share the characters to wanting to protect them from being sent out into the world. Then I go back to Margaret Atwood’s brilliant meditation on the craft of writing, Negotiating With the Dead, and remember that this is how things always feel in the moment of transition. This is normal.

A change is as good as a rest

All authors dream of being left alone, in peace and quiet, to think, write and edit. This rarely happens. Things collide. So though I should be chained to my desk, the beginning of June sees the final preparations for the announcement of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

The prize was founded in 1996 to cele­brate and honour the very best writing by women anywhere in the world. Past winners include Lionel Shriver, Rose Tremain, Eimear McBride and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Twenty-two years on, it is one of the largest celebrations of women’s writing in the world. Thousands of readers have taken part in events celebrating the 2017 longlist and shortlist – novels set in Nigeria and China, Canada and contemporary London, in the Kent countryside in the days after the Second World War, from 19th-century Kentucky to dystopian futures set free from time and place – with a week of live events at Waterstones in Tottenham Court Road, London, in April, reading groups in libraries up and down the country in May, and international readers taking part via ­Facebook and our digital platforms.

Eyes on the prize

Now, it’s June again. Usually, the week before the prize is quiet, making sure every­thing is ready for our shortlisted authors – Ayobami Adebayo, Naomi Alderman, Linda Grant, C E Morgan, Gwendoline Riley and Madeleine Thien – to take to the stage at Cadogan Hall in London on 5 June for the shortlist readings. The following night, after a panel event the prize is hosting in partnership with Grazia magazine at Foyles on
Charing Cross Road, the 2017 judges – Tessa Ross, Aminatta Forna, Sam Baker, Sara Pascoe and Katie Derham – will meet to decide which of the six exceptional novels on the shortlist will win the 2017 prize.

Women of the world

In a fragile and challenging world, celebrating women’s voices matters more than ever. This year, millions of women all over the world have taken to the streets in protest; the spirit of resistance has felt, at times, like a turning back of the clock.

In times of division and the silencing of other people’s voices, novels help us to listen. They slip between the cracks of what we thought we knew and encourage us to see things differently. Novels may reflect our lives or help us to stand in another person’s shoes. Between the covers of a book, we can travel in time or all over the world.

That is why it is so fantastic this week to be announcing the new, exciting future for the award from 2018. After months of planning and listening, analysing the nature of contemporary arts partnerships, brainstorming how best to help the prize to grow and flourish, we decided to move to a family of sponsors rather than continue with a single headline supporting organisation. It’s a collaborative model widely – and successfully – used in other areas of the arts and will help to extend the reach of the prize further than ever before. Each of the partners shares a commitment to promoting and celebrating women’s voices, and is ambitious to help the prize thrive. It’s a particular pleasure to be able to confirm that Baileys, which has been a fabulous title sponsor over the past four years, is a founder member of our family of sponsors. The full line-up will be announced in the autumn.

Memory lane

In the never-ending juggling between our private and public selves, between reflection and action, between moving too fast and thinking too little, there will be certain days when we must stop and fall silent. Red-letter days. This week, I spent as much time as I could walking on the Fishbourne Marshes and thinking of my beloved, much-missed parents on what would have been their 62nd wedding anniversary. My father died in 2011, my mother in 2014, and though the sharpness of grief has passed, I miss them. To walk in their footsteps, in a place they loved, is the gentlest act of remembrance. A fusing of past and present.

The Marshes look much the same now as when I grew up in Fishbourne in the 1960s and 1970s. In Sussex now, the hawthorn is coming into bloom as the last of the bluebells fade in the woods. The foxgloves are pink and plump, and the fields yellow with rape seed. Down by the sea, the wind whispers in the reedmace and the shore is alive with birds.

Then, back to the kitchen table . . . 

The 2017 winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced on 7 June. For details, visit: womensprizeforfiction.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear