‘Should you,’ a writer friend asked recently, ‘read books that have similar themes to yours when writing a novel? Or does this mean you might be influenced? Put off by the brilliance of the other person’s handling of the subject? Might you feel despondent that someone’s already had your idea? Inadvertently nick an idea and be accused of plagiarism?’
I remember some advice from Julie Myerson for first time novelists. ‘Read a lot’ she said (this is not a verbatim quote) ‘people are afraid they will be influenced, but being influenced is good!’ And another by Jeanette Winterson ‘All stories are in fact a conversation with other stories’ she said, ‘stories beget stories.’
I read while working on The Darkening Hour. I wanted to know what had been written on the subject ( migrant domestic work, modern day slavery) I needed ideas about writing in the voice of someone from another country and culture. I researched Deptford- where the book’s set. The books I read provided a backdrop to my writing, they informed it and helped to colour it. But they were also a gentle reminder that writing is indeed a kind of conversation, both with other stories, as Jeanette Wintrson points out, but also with readers. Being a reader while writing helped me put myself in my imagined readers shoes.
Here are some of the books I read and ways in which they helped me.
1) The Road Home, Rose Tremain.
Lev -Tremain’s Central European Migrant worker- starts off speaking very little English but as the book progresses is able to speak fluently. This helped me decide to have Mona’s internal dialogue in English from the beginning but to show her ‘foreignness’ with the use of slightly incorrect syntax and vocabulary in her dialogue. It was possible to hint at her non Englishness with a few pointers here and there. This book also made me think about how Mona would view aspects of life we take for granted in our home country, how our cultural habits (one example is that wealthy people over-drink at dinner parties), might appear bizarre to a visitor from another culture.
2 The Cleaner of Chartres, Sally Vickers.
How did Sally Vickers portray the cleaner of the cathedral? I was intrigued as to how she would show the prejudice towards someone in a low paid role, whilst maintaining the character’s dignity. I was also interested in how she wrote about cleaning itself. Can cleaning as a subject be interesting? (In fact I think it can be, and enjoyed also researching and trying out the cleaning properties of natural substances, such as lemon juice, oil, bicarbonate of soda!)
3) Antigona and Me, Kate Clanchy.
A true life portrayal of the touching relationship between the writer and her Kosovan cleaner. The important thing for me was to get a rounded view of the variety of ways such a relationship could play out, and to read as much as possible about other similar scenario- and see below.
4) Nickel and Dimed, Barbra Ehenreich.
The author goes undercover in low paid America to see how people survive. This helped me understand how poverty impacts on the tiniest decisions those of us with reasonable incomes take for granted, (such as whether to preference eating over washing for example) how the poor are often despised, but how easily anybody could fall into the terrible trap of deprivation.
5) Dirty Work, Julia Bell.
I read this as part of my research on people trafficking, how it works, how people might walk into this sort of exploitation.
6) For Bread Alone, Mohamed Choukran.
The autobiography of a street kid in Morocco. How life might have been for Mona’s husband Al when he was growing up? It helped me with cultural accuracy and social realism.
7) Geographies of Muslim Women, Edited by Ghazi-Walid Falah and Caroline Nagel
Research papers on how Muslim women are affected by the social and economic world around them- the paper on Indonsesian migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia was particularly pertinent.
8) Tales from The Thousand and One Nights I reread some of these tales to remind myself about the Arabian world and its cultural heritage, its magic and its beauty.
9) The Seamstress, Maria Duenas I picked this up when I saw it was set in Morocco. I read it to get into the spirit of the place.
10) The Other Hand, Chris Cleaves I read this mainly to see how he tackled his two voices, a Nigerian trafficked child and a British woman. Cleaves did a great deal of research into Nigerian dialect. The structure of his novel from the point of view of two narrators, was exactly what I was trying to achieve and it was reassuring to know it was possible – in his case anyway- to do it successfully.
This is not an exhaustive list, other reading includes The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro- for the master-servant relationship, The Servant, Harold Pinter, and films, the wonderful Dirty Pretty Things- about migrant workers and the trade in body parts, harrowing!) and others.
Any suggestions as to other books on the subject of master/mistress/ maid/ employer/cleaner would be most welcome.