The following article appeared in the Big Issue, 13th September 2020.
The following article appeared in the Big Issue, 13th September 2020.
The Dancing Writer –why tango dancing and novel writing go together.
Dancing and writing seem to be the activities of two completely different types of people. And in a way, that’s true.
Here’s me, the novel writer: A figure hunched over my laptop, usually distorting my body into strange angles. After hours of sitting at my desk, I have lost touch with my physical self completely. I’m usually wearing my dog-walking jeans and scruffy top, or even a pair of pyjamas. I don’t look in the mirror, and that’s just as well. I’d see a wild woman with no make-up, hair scrunched up, glasses sliding to the end of her nose, brow furrowed in concentration. If I get hungry, I grab the quickest comfort food, usually coffee and toast and honey. I type and munch, honey dripping onto the key board. I’m lost in the story, lost in the puzzle of constructing sentences, rearranging words, making a character speak.
After a days’ writing, it would be easy to stay in my head, in a state of body-denial. I could float through domestic demands, cooking on autopilot, walking the dogs in a dream. But the lure of tango stops me. As soon as I think about slipping on my dance shoes and stepping into the music, I snap back into my body.
Here’s me, the tango dancer: my mind empty of words, so that I can focus with every fibre on trying to become the dance. I need strength, balance and co-ordination. My whole body is alert. I listen to the music, to my partner. Nothing else exists.
Dancing and writing have always been my passions: jotting down short stories and poems when I was a child; then working as a journalist before becoming an author. Like lots of young girls, I did weekly ballet lessons. After I moved to London, I booked in for jazz classes at the Pineapple Studios, wearing the obligatory leg warmers, headband, and high-cut leotard. The place was scarily cool; and the routines almost impossible to follow. I found ceroc in my twenties and liked my first taste of partner dancing. My 30s were a dance desert while I had kids and took a second degree; dancing confined to boogying around the kitchen table on my own, a baby on my hip. Then a new friend and neighbour began to turn up for the school run on a Friday morning with a huge smile on her face. When I asked why, she confided that she went salsa dancing on a Thursday. ‘I’m coming with you next week!’ I responded instantly.
Salsa is everything they say it is – steamy, sexy, sociable. And lots of fun. I was hooked. But it was when I discovered tango that I fell in love.
It’s a beautiful, sensuous dance, full of drama and poetry. And the music is layered, deep, irresistible. Tango is also difficult. The tango scene isn’t as friendly as some other dance scenes. There is a certain amount of elitism. It’s not a dance you can pick up quickly either. It takes years to get any good. You can’t rush, it has to seep into you gradually, so that you understand it instinctively, from the inside. But all of this made sense to me. I’d been writing for years – I knew about patience, about striving and failing and striving again. I knew that anything worth while takes time and a measure of pain.
So although tango requires me to be in my body, and writing requires me to be in my head, I’ve discovered that they make a wonderful combination. Both allow self-expression; both are non-verbal and creative. They come from connection – to music, self, story, another. And perhaps most important of all, they are about living in the moment, because in both cases, you simply can’t allow yourself to be anywhere else. For me, they compliment each other perfectly and bring huge joy.
Blog: It’s A Dog’s Life
My dogs are part of my writing life. I have two cats as well, but being cats, they come and go as they please. Like furry muses, they slink across my keyboard, wander past my desk with a knowing look, and disappear to do more interesting things. But dogs are different. They are faithful companions. We have long walks together every morning, whatever the weather. You can’t tell a dog it’s too wet, or you don’t feel like it. It’s my favourite way to start the day.
I find that my dog walks are a great time to mull over plot points and work out writing problems. I can sound characters’ voices inside my head or proclaim them out loud. The act of walking for an hour or so helps to get my brain into gear. I arrive home, feed the dogs and make my coffee, and I’m ready to settle at my desk for several hours of work. The dogs follow me up to my room and find comfy places to snooze while I type. Sometimes I have to confess that I am working inside a distinctly doggy aroma, but I don’t mind. And I find their sleep whimpers and paw twitches comforting rather than a distraction. Funnily enough, I can’t bear a person sitting in the same room as me when I’m working, but the dogs don’t impinge on my thoughts, restrict my imagination or irritate me. I hardly notice them when I’m immersed in the story. I think I must be aware of them on a subconscious level though, and their supportive, patient, unquestioning companionship centres me. They only stir when they know it’s time for another walk and supper.
I don’t write real people into my books, but I’ve put Sacha, my lurcher into Without You, changing his name to Silver. And one of my cats, Tilly, is in my next book, The Stranger. The heroine of The Other Me, Klaudia, desperately wants a pet when she’s a child, but her father won’t let her have one. I’ve kept cats all my life, but I’ve only had dogs since becoming an adult. I was persuaded to get our first dog, Maisy-the-border-terrier, for the children, but quickly became a dog-lover without the incentive of any extravagant pet-care promises from my kids. I was happy to take on all the responsibility myself. Who couldn’t fall for a dog’s loyalty, unwavering love, joy, sense of fun, bravery and beauty? And they are the best writing companions: accepting my obsessive attachment to my laptop without complaint, listening to me tapping away or reading paragraphs, wagging their tails in encouragement. As far as they are concerned, it’s all five-star material. And when I’m tired or feeling blue, a hug with a dog will always make things seem better.
Blog: The Inspiration for The Other Me
The main inspiration for The Other Me was a deeply personal one –about ten years ago I discovered the identity of my father. By the time I’d tracked him down in France he’d died. I’d missed him by months. But I did meet my half-brother, Vincent, who showed me photographs and was able to fill me in on my family history. To my surprise, I discovered that my father had been Jewish, of Portuguese and Dutch blood. He’d lived in Paris since arriving in the city as a young man. He’d been an artist in the COBRA movement in the early 50’s. He’d always loved horses and dogs and jazz. It was strange to have these facts about him and to feel a connection through them – I love horses and dogs; my daughters are artists. My son plays jazz piano. These were tangible things that seemed to have come down to me through him.
As a blonde, slightly Scandinavian-looking person, I’d never though that I might have Jewish blood. It made me take a new interest in Jewish culture and religion, and of course, I immediately had a different take on WW2, knowing that some of my relatives would have been caught up in the anti-Semitism and quite possibly died in the Holocaust.
I began to think about the importance of knowing our parents – how our identity hinges on who they are. Having stories and facts and anecdotes about my father filled a void. As I stared at the black and white photos of him, searching for similarities, I knew that I wanted to write a story about identity, and about the uncertainty that comes from any ambiguity around the question of parentage. I believe that at some level a child will always know if a parent isn’t their biological one. I knew this from personal experience. I’d been brought up by someone that I called ‘Dad.’ Yet I understood deep down, without anyone telling me, that he wasn’t my real father.
I’d already played with this idea in my second novel, Without You. In The Other Me I wanted to develop the idea further and I wanted to add a historical element, because it occurred to me that I might just as easily have discovered that my father had had links to Nazi Germany, especially with my Saxon colouring. And I asked myself how I’d feel if that was really the case: would I suddenly inherit guilt? Would I become ashamed? Would it change the way I thought about myself?
These were the questions that were in my mind when I began to construct the story of The Other Me.
IS PUBLIC SPEAKING AN ALIEN CONCEPT FOR A WRITER?
Answer the following questions:
1. Do you crave being alone all day, locked in a room with laptop and notebook?
2. Are you a dreamer?
3. Do you translate the world through an interior process that results in the written word – and not any old words. They must be carefully thought through, agonised-over, edited and re-edited many times?
4. Do you like to take long walks by yourself?
5. Do you often talk out loud to yourself – usually telling bits of a story, reading bits of your work or working through dialogue?
6. Do you feel sick at the thought of delivering a public speech?
7. Would you describe yourself as one or more of the following: mad/crazy/mixed-up/emotionally unstable/anti-social/neurotic?
Chances are that if you are an author you’ll have answered ‘yes’ to some of them. I put an affirmative by every one. So when I was offered a publishing deal I thought that meant that I could be that person – ‘the author’ – and not have to apologise for it. ‘Yes, I officially write for a career. Yes, I’m a neurotic hermit, but it’s expected of me.’ Break out the champagne.
Except, from the moment my first proof arrived in the publisher’s office, my lovely hard-working PR wanted me to start talking, aloud and in public. All I wanted to do was stay home, gloat over the physical reality of my shiny novel and begin the next one. But suddenly I was supposed to go out there, into the public eye and be sane, capable, sociable, personable. Radio interviews. Author events. Talking on a panel of other writers. Being a hermit was not an option.
I used to work in a job that involved talking in public. So I’d had some experience of doing it. But that was a long time ago, and I’d never really learnt how to conquer my nerves. Now, years and years later, after locking myself in solitary confinement to concentrate on fiction writing, I’d even lost the ability to make small-talk. Sometimes, going into a shop and asking for a pint of milk could seem like a challenge too far.
But I realised that I couldn’t allow my nerves to ruin opportunities to promote myself and my books. The ivory tower dream just isn’t realistic. Writers need to be good at social media, and they need to be able to stand up in front of people and talk. Of course, I’m generalising here, because some writers are brilliant speakers, some are absolute naturals at wooing an audience and coming up with clever, lyrical speeches at the drop of a hat. But many struggle with it. And for those who are more like me, here are some of the tricks and techniques that I have found helpful. And the thing is, when I’ve managed it, and the event is over, I actually feel quite euphoric. I’m not sure if that’s just relief, or the effect of holding my breath…I suspect that it’s a rush of adrenalin from facing my fears. Whatever the cause, it feels good.
*Humanise your audience. Some people say it helps to imagine their audience without clothes – perhaps as a reminder that the sea of faces before them are actually individuals with faults, fears and dreams. An audience is made up of people. They are not there to see you fail. In fact, they want you to succeed. Plato said that we should be kind, because everyone we meet is fighting a hard battle. I find it’s helpful to think of that.
* Prepare. Always prepare properly. If you are talking with someone else or on a panel of authors, find out who they are and what they write. Read their books. If there’s an angle to the talk, then research the subject, memorise some interesting facts and quotes.
* There are some questions that get asked a lot. ‘What is your book about?’ comes up time after time. Work out a short, possibly amusing way of describing your novel. Learn it. Have it ready. There will be other questions that relate specifically to you or your book.
* De-stress beforehand. Go for a run, meditate, do an exercise class – whatever it takes to make you feel better, relaxed and more in control.
* Breath. Learn how to breath correctly. Use your diaphragm. When nerves kick in, it’s easy to deprive yourself of oxygen by shallow breathing, or even holding your breath.
* Hydrate. Have a bottle or glass of water on hand. Dry mouths are part of public speaking.
* Pace it. Don’t rush. Take your time. Talk slowly. Take pauses. Remember to aim for the people at the back – don’t mumble, speak up and speak out.
* Practise talking and video yourself. Analyse your technique. Common habits to watch: fidgeting, swaying, looking down, repeating certain phrases or saying ‘um’ too much.
* Use reminder notes. Lots of people swear by having reminder notes. They will make you feel safer, even if you don’t need them. But keep them short and simple.
* Be yourself. Dress in a way that makes you feel comfortable. Show your personality. Don’t try and be someone else. People have come to listen to YOU.
* If delivering an hour’s talk feels too intimidating, there are other ways of presenting yourself and your book. I find that being interviewed is easier. I can talk more naturally if it feels like a conversation, and it can be reassuring to have someone else up on the stage with you.
* Use the power of positivity. Don’t shrink from talking in public. Instead, make a conscious effort to embrace it, embrace the opportunity it offers. Enjoy yourself!
Signing your first book deal? Better get blogging.
Pretty much the first words that I heard after I’d secured that elusive book deal were – are you on social media? My muttered response was, ‘um, no.’
Three years later, and here I am with a Twitter account, a Facebook author page, and my own website. So how come I’m still finding it all a bit of a struggle? There must be reasons for my reluctance to join the rest of the world’s outpouring of Tweets, blogs and posts… Pondering those reasons gave me an ‘aha’ moment: I could write a blog about why I’m useless at social media! The ‘aha’ moment was immediately followed by a realisation: if I was going to be honest about it, this blog would reveal more about me than I’d originally intended – would, in fact, expose some embarrassing faults and weaknesses. A little like a naked Selfie. (Without taking any clothes off.)
So, taking a deep breath, here are my excuses/reasons:
SASKIA SARGINSON’S TIPS FOR WRITER’S
TEN BOOKS THAT I LOVE
Every time I’m asked to choose a list of ten favourite books, the lists will vary slightly – there are just too many wonderful novels to choose from. But here are ten that I do love.
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
In this book, we have Virginia Woolf in 1920s London; Laura Brown, a young wife and mother, suffocating inside the domesticity of her life in 1940s L.A; and Clarissa Vaughan, a woman in New York in the 1990s. The story is told across the span of a single day, with Cunningham cleverly making subtle connections between these seemingly unconnected lives, interweaving them across time and memory through literary references, unexpected associations and ideas. The book is full of humanity, love and loss.
The Girls, Lori Lansen
This is a small book that delivers a huge emotional punch. It’s about twin sisters growing up in a small American town, trying to live a ‘normal’ life. But when you discover that the twin sisters are joined at the head and are already, in their late twenties, the oldest surviving craniopagus twins in history, you know that this is going to be anything but normal. Told in first person in alternating chapters, we have thoughtful, literary Rose and outgoing, sunny Ruby giving us their perspectives on their intimate, entwined world.
Accidents in the Home, Tessa Hadley
A favourite read. Hadley writes emotionally intelligent books that are full of insightful observations. Clare is happily married with three small children. Her best friend, Helly, is a glamorous model. Both women seem to want what the other has, and when Clare realises that Helly’s latest boyfriend is someone she once had a teenage fling with, her safe and comfortable life begins to unravel.
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
This book seems to me to be perfect. Set in a small, remote town in northwest America, against a landscape that is bleak, wintery and watery, it tells the story of two orphans who are abandoned by various relatives, until their enigmatic and vague aunt Sylvie comes to live with them. The story is subtle, beautiful and heart-breaking.
The Little Friend, Donna Tart
At 555 pages, this is a huge book in so many ways: dark and tense and full of loss, it nevertheless had me laughing so hard at times that I was crying. I fell in love with the voice of twelve-year-old narrator, Harriet. The story follows her search for her brother’s killer over one snake-infested summer in her small, southern town.
Train Dreams, Denis Johnson
My best friend gave me this book for my birthday this year – and I was happy she did. Set in the American West in the depression, it tells one man’s story in spare, concise language. It speaks of loneliness and endurance, and I really felt that it brought me closer to something mysterious and profound.
Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proux
Another short novel set in the vast, open countryside of America, about the lives of the men who survive there. Like Train Dreams, this book is written in spare, elegant prose and resonates with the unspoken. It is scored through with hard truths and it takes an unwavering look at the difficulties of being gay in the macho world of cowboys and rodeo riders.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
A book that made an indelible mark on my psyche, it’s deeply emotional and full of poetry: a huge, sweeping story that covers war and betrayal, death and love. I recommend it whole-heartedly, whether or not you’ve already seen the film.
The Outcast, Sadie Jones
Sadie Jones has a particular gift for writing about horrific and extraordinary moments in life. Her writing goes to the core of a shattering event, slowing time, revealing exact earthbound details and the surreal otherness of it. This dark and elegant book is set an English village in the 1940s, where a boy called Lewis is haunted by the terrible tragedy that has wrecked his family.
The Road Home, Rose Tremain
I could have chosen almost any of her novels to put in this list. I find her writing to be truthful and tender, and she always tells a great story. This book is about Lev, an Eastern European coming to find work in London. We see the city through his eyes. The novel is funny and heart-breaking, and it captures what it is to be home-sick.
In the tradition of many debut novels, there’s quite a lot of autobiographical detail in The Twins. Like Isolte and Viola, my brother, sister and I were brought up in a small cottage in a clearing in the middle of a pine forest. It was the 70’s; my mother was relaxed and trusting, (although, I hasten to add, nothing like Rose!) She encouraged us to roam free. From an early age I went off with my siblings into the network of sandy paths inside the forest. We would be gone for hours; with no watches or mobile phones we lost track of time, living, as children do, entirely in the moment.
Several people have remarked that reading The Twins stirred similar memories from their own childhoods. Many of us brought up in the time before technology took over, whether in a city or the countryside, had freedom to explore our surroundings. It makes me sad to think that we are afraid to let our children out of our sight a lot of the time. Most of them will never know the joy of going off on an adventure without an adult beside them. Being alone in the forest encouraged us to be responsible for each other, taught us respect for wild animals and to rely on our instincts. I’m certain it helped us develop our imaginations too.
Something terrible happens in my book as a result of the children being by themselves, but in real life no harm ever came to us as we tramped through the undergrowth, waded streams and hid out in dens. Although we did have a scare when my four-year-old brother ate some interesting speckled toadstools and was rushed to the doctor’s with violent stomach cramps. Eating them had seemed natural to him, as we’d been brought up, like Viola and Isolte, to pluck berries and mushrooms to turn into meals. Luckily, he was OK and the memory later inspired me to write about foraging for wild food in my book.
I couldn’t resist putting some other childhood experiences into the The Twins. For example, the dog’s head that the girls’ find in a hollow tree is based on reality. While playing a wintery game of hide and seek in some snowy oak woods, we really did come across the severed head of a black dog hidden inside the centre of a rotten tree. We were just as horrified and fascinated as the children in the book are. We never found out how it got there. Like the twins, we supposed that it must have been something to do with witchcraft. But it remains a mystery to this day.