Author Josie Barnard, course tutor for Tindal Street Press's new academy masterclass in Birmingham, tells Richard McComb about her first novel, Poker Face, which won a Betty Trask Award following publication in 1996.
When Poker Face came out, people wanted to know how much of it was autobiographical. Like the protagonist Allie, I went on the odd trip to Harry Ramsdens. I too was brought up by my dad. Aspects of the book do look distinctly factual.
Did I really put lentils in the washing powder compartment of the washing machine? Did I actually work in a vegetable shop called Mr Cheap Potato when I was a teenager?
Questions I was asked about which aspects of the novel exactly were “real” set me thinking.
Does it help to know that the hall in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is based on her old school gym? I found this detail out after a first reading. When later I re-read Atwood’s novel, suddenly my old school gym was in her futuristic world, and it really didn’t fit. It was distracting. What counts is Atwood’s belief in the hall she has built in her book. Her memory of a real hall lends plausibility to the invented republic of Gilead, certainly. But when you’re reading The Handmaid’s Tale, it is Atwood’s imagined hall that counts.
Writing novels is, says Atwood, about writing convincing lies. Life is full of inconsistencies, but stories have to add up. You can’t just splurge life on to a page.
Many writers who use aspects of their life in their work, from Ireland’s John MacGahern to New York’s Philip Roth, have said, use it, fine, but autobiographical material will only work on the page if you transform it. When Graham Greene said write what you know, he meant emotionally. In Brighton Rock, his portrayal of Brighton was actually fuelled by his dislike of the seediness of Nottingham.
Some writers protest, “No, no, it’s all real, my novel is the truth about what happened to me.” But writing involves selection. Writers make creative decisions about what to put in and what to leave out. And then they alter what they’ve put in anyway. They fiddle with the time, the size, the place – to suit the plot, to suit the point of view.
In Poker Face, schoolgirl Allie, her siblings and their father are abandoned by the mother before the book even begins. And that’s it. The mother’s just not there. Why? Why does the mother have to be totally absent? She’s a crucial character, surely. Wouldn’t it have been better to start the novel just before she left? Don’t we want to see this woman who has such a devastating effect on the husband and three children she leaves so thoroughly in the lurch in a remote farmhouse in Yorkshire?
Since Rousseau, the general view has been that it goes against nature for a mother to leave her children.
In terms of Poker Face, if you introduce the mum – the actual flesh and blood figure of the mum – a large chunk of the novel, perhaps the bulk of it, has to be about her and her motivation. I wanted to look at the effect her actions had on those she left.
To the children – to Allie – she is a huge mythical figure. Whether “mum” wore size 4 or 6 shoes is irrelevant to Allie. What matters is Allie’s interpretation. What drives the narrative is her attempt to control the multi-headed lashing beast version of “mum” that is rampaging around inside her poor nine-year-old head and body. And, as if Allie’s job wasn’t tricky enough already, her mum is not the only adult who is absent.
The Bennett house is geographically isolated. Its setting mirrors the family’s isolation. The time is 1970’s rural Yorkshire. Divorce hasn’t quite hit the area yet (the Bennetts are leading the way on that one). Staff at the children’s primary school don’t know how to deal with the situation, so they distance themselves. The father, Martin Bennett, doesn’t want to have to deal with people’s pity, so he withdraws from the social network he once enjoyed with his wife. And, the main character Allie is just a child, an upset one at that. She’s a highly unreliable narrator. It didn’t take me long to realise I’d set myself a bit of a technical challenge. I had to get some adults in as Trojan horses for opinions on the situation. As mature outsiders, they could make observations that the reader might trust. The old family friend, Bernard, appears quite briefly. His role is disproportionate to the amount of text space he gets. The same is true of Mrs Taylor, who knew the family before the mother left.
Whilst speaking to the father over a glass of wine, Bernard says that the father’s method of coping is too brittle and can’t last. It is useful for the reader to hear this bluntly.
Allie daren’t properly consider what Bernard says. She overhears it, then must dismiss it. The idea that her father’s method of coping is dangerous is unacceptable. He is the remaining parent. If he thinks bottling everything up is the way to go, she has to do that too.
The already chunky list of absences in Poker Face, then, includes, pivotally, part of Allie herself. Emotionally and physically, she goes into hiding.
That is why when I was thinking about narrative voice, the third person wouldn’t do. Given the option of “She walked into a room” and “I walk into a room,” I had to take the second. Fractionally, maybe, but the word “she” is that bit longer, softer, more forgiving. “I” tends to make everything more immediate, perilous.
And it had to be the present not the past tense for the same reason. As Poker Face opens, Allie is reading out an essay about her summer holiday to the class. She’s just telling, plainly and simply, what happened during the summer months. Her mum left.
Using the first person puts the reader right there in the classroom with Allie. The reader is being hit with the teacher’s and classmates’ reactions at the same time as Allie.Allie hides behind a long fringe and glasses; the reader hides with her. The reader can see how much her nine-year-old’s glasses are distorting reality.
Using first person present tense can be tricky logistically. For a start, it can feel pretty relentless. It keeps the reader inside the protagonist, to be beaten by events as she is. I had to offer some relief, a few places for the reader to rest. And Allie too. And perhaps me as I was writing it.
Some of the school scenes as well as various slightly madcap scenes in which the father has to learn new skills give room for humour. Allie can’t laugh, she’s too wired. But the reader gets the opportunity.
Allie has to find space that will make the needs of her siblings and father recede. The landscape is very important to her as a means of escape.It was quite late in the final re-write when I suddenly decided I had to get on a train and go for a walk in the Yorkshire landscape.
In the novel, the Bennett family lives right out on a moor. In several passages, Allie runs out into the countryside. She takes her stress with her at first.
“It is nearly too bright. In the yellowy fields every unevenness is lit brightly on one side. The clumps and tussocks stick out of the earth like grassed teeth, teeth that bit dead the black plank fences where they end in nowhere.”
And, looking at this passage some years after publication, I couldn’t tell you which bit is a remembered part of my childhood and which came from the trip I made as an adult. In the novel, surrounded on her walks by gorse and heather and curlews, Allie breathes the air and looks around.
“Oak and pine branches lace together above my head. Sunlight sifting down makes the bracken around me blaze. I kick-spray fiery fallen beech leaves. Swirling up in the musky, dark-patched air, they catch in soft green fir.”
* For information about Tindal Street Press’s writing masterclasses go to www.tindalstreet.co.uk