Friday, 4 August 2017

The Simple Things - and the story behind my story

I'm really happy to have a short story in the August edition of The Simple Things. I love this magazine - it's always an inspiring and refreshing read. Its motto is 'taking time to live well', and as the name would suggest, it's about enjoying life's simple pleasures. In the latest issue there's a photo essay on Seaside Nostalgia, extracts of some of the best contemporary nature writing including Robert Macfarlane and Amy Liptrot, and a host of appealing campfire recipes. 

My story, Waking Up at Sunset, occupies the back page Bedtime Story slot - and has been treated to some gorgeous illustrations. Last month there was a story from Gail Honeyman, author of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, so it's an illustrious baton to take.

Waking Up at Sunset contains both an element of wish-fulfilment, and an inversion of my own experience (as much of my writing does, I think). In it, Jen is just arriving in Portoferraio, her first time on Elba. She is alone, but is yet to learn to embrace solitude. She stops at a bar and hesitantly samples her first aperitivo; the waiter  - a clear descendant of Valentino in The Thousand Lights Hotel - explains it's all about appreciating the moment, while looking forward to all that's to come. With a sunset-coloured drink in her hand she feels a clear, bright pleasure; and it's there to stay.

Two summers ago I explored the island's capital for the first time. On previous visits we'd docked and dashed, eager to shed the other tourists disembarking the ferry and hasten to our own corner of Elba. But on my last trip, a five night solo writing retreat on the northern coast, I decided to spend a couple of hours in Portoferraio before I caught the ferry back to the mainland. I'd achieved what I'd come to Elba to do - immersed myself fully in my work-in-progress, written thousands of words - I knew I'd be returning to Bristol triumphant, full of inspiration, and excited to see my family. But I was still reluctant to leave. So I studiedly turned my eyes from the port. I ignored maps and wandered blind; all-seeing. I found myself in the steep streets of the old town in the midday sun (mad dogs and an English woman). Knowing this was my last piece of solitude, my last blast of heat, I soaked it all up, my toes tingling in my flip-flops, my footsteps the only sound in the hushed residential districts. Considering this was the island capital in July, its emptiness was a surprise (I suppose anyone sensible was at the beach, or reclining on a shaded terrace). The unexpected quiet of those seductive backstreets gave me the sense that I was walking in a kind of limbo - the place between being away and going home; where you're still in the moment, but already awash with nostalgia. I passed an alluring-looking bar and thought of stopping, but instead I chose movement, motion. I felt like if I sat down then reality would sink in and take hold; the clock was ticking, my ferry was waiting. 

For me, those last hours wandering in Portoferraio had felt like a gift; as I climbed stone steps the day sizzled with possibility. I'd pretended it was the beginning, not the end. Looking back, it kind of was. Two years on, to take the moment and make it into a story - to let it be the start of everything for a girl called Jen - is, for me, one of the great joys of writing fiction.