In conversation: John Simmons & Rowena Roberts

Rowena Roberts and cofounder John Simmons talk language and connection, books, storytelling, and what it means to call yourself a writer.

JOHN
It was great to see you again at the Masterclass in Oxford – you’ve now done the full set. Your final evening piece reminded us that your Dark Angels journey began with a book. You came across my book We, Me, Them & It first and that led you to Dark Angels at Highgreen. It’s actually a well-trodden path. What did the book mean to you at the time you first read it?

ROWENA
Quite frankly, utter relief!

Writer Rowena Roberts and her munchkins

My first copywriting job was based on the principle of “write what you’re told”, which gave me little creative freedom and even less personal (or professional, for that matter) satisfaction.

On the side, I wrote magazine articles and reviews on a freelance basis – and was starting to separate the two activities in my mind as “free” writing, where I could indulge my love of language and expression, and “corporate” writing, otherwise known as formal, safe, and lacklustre beyond belief.

The worst part was the knowledge that my copywriting wasn’t doing the job it was supposed to do. Sure, my standard of English and grammar and my volume of output (there’s that corporate speak again) kept my manager happy, but I just knew how bored and uninspired the readers would be – how quickly their attention would wander, and how my world-weary words would make their day just a little more dreary.

How truly refreshing it was, then, to discover your book! To be reminded that communication in all its forms is ultimately about connection – and that a little artistry, imagination and playfulness beats a lot of USPs and jaded clichés (“passionate”, anyone?).

JOHN
‘Only connect’ (EM Forster) has always been my favourite quotation. It works for me in so many ways: the need to network, to work with others, a plea for empathy, to achieve the real purpose of communication. All those ideas were behind We, Me, Them & It and then I discovered that Dark Angels courses were really able to connect at a deeper level through a shared belief in the potential of writing.

By that point I’d also written The Invisible Grail, based on a belief (from my own work) in the power of storytelling in business. So The Invisible Grail was written as a quest, one of the fundamental archetypes of storytelling. What also emerged was that books might have two purposes for writers who came on Dark Angels courses. First to introduce them to the principles, perhaps to whet their appetite, then to remind them and recapture some of the excitement after returning to work: to renew that faith daily that business writing can be invigorating, stimulating, transforming – for the writer and the reader.

Do you dip into the books after courses? Do they revive moments from, for example, Dark Angels in Spain?

ROWENA
I do – and they do.

Dark Angels was an obvious choice after our first course. What I liked most about it was that you were walking your talk – bringing so much of your personality and background into your writing of a book that advised readers to bring more of their personality into their writing at work. The book reminds us that even people who aren’t employed as writers still often write at work – emails, letters, presentations, etc – and a little creativity can go a long way towards making work a little less mundane and a little more enjoyable.

It struck me early on in our Spanish sojourn how difficult it seemed for a group of people who were mostly employed to write to call themselves ‘writers’. Perhaps because there’s no qualification or certificate awarded, we shy away from a label that implies a level of expertise we’re not sure we have the right to claim. Milton, he was a writer. Wilde, Plath, Hemmingway, Brontë (all of them), Tolkein, Capote, Angelou, that Shakespeare wasn’t bad either. Me? I ‘write for a living’.

But the books tell us that we all have an inner voice waiting to be heard, a storyteller eager to be released, a dark angel ready to spread its wings. I continue to find ideas and inspiration in the books, before and after the courses. The courses themselves introduce us to our own hidden depths; I think we all left Aracena as proud, if somewhat surprised, writers. It’s satisfying to discover that I can walk the talk myself.

JOHN
It’s true what you say about writers finding it hard to say ‘I am a writer’. We hope they go away from our courses more confident to say those words. Perhaps it is something to do with a perceived legitimacy that comes from a published book – there’s a link between ‘author’ and ‘authority’.

But of course you don’t have to write a book to see yourself as a writer. By the time people reach Masterclass level – as you now have – our hope is that essentials are in place. By that I don’t really mean ‘technical skills’ but a change in the way you think of yourself. The inner belief to say ‘I am a writer’. To have the confidence and the sheer love of the craft to want to be the best writer you can be, whatever kind of writing you do.

I hope that rings true for you.

ROWENA
I’m proud to say that it does.

And, who knows, perhaps accepting that title in our minds is the step we need to take before we can go on to write our own books. That’s certainly been the case for some fellow Dark Angels, who became published authors after taking their courses.

Will I join their ranks in the future? Let’s watch this space…

Spanish Crossings

Dark Angels founder John Simmons has just published his second novel, Spanish Crossings, set during the Spanish Civil War. This began as a story written in Spain on a Dark Angels course in 2014.

Prologue

September 1984, Spain

Mother declared herself happy. She had not liked Madrid. In her head it still rang with the steel clang of jackboots on the cobblestones. Standing in front of Picasso’s newly installed painting Guernica, paying silent homage, had left her tearful. Now we had moved south to Seville, and her mood lifted.

Sometimes we rattled through the streets on trams but mostly we walked. Even in late September Seville was hot, the heat rising from the pavements as well as burning down from above. So our walking was strolling and our strolling was sitting in the gardens. Watching the world go by was what Mother did now, now that the world was passing her by. It seemed that way to me too, now that I was nearing my fortieth birthday.

I had been a disappointment to Mother and Spain had been the reason for her disappointment. In her youth, her beliefs and her friendships had been defined by the Spanish Civil War. In north London, particularly in Hampstead, the war had raged fiercely through the weapons of words. I wish I had heard her then, in her prime. I was left with the black and white photos of a young woman with dark hair tied back and a raised clenched fist. “No paseran!” she shouted from the centre of her eccentric group of comrades.

But I disappointed her. My political belief was warm leche compared to her hot cortado. What should I do with a degree in languages, with Spanish as my main study? Of course I came to Spain, and of course this was the 1970s with Franco still in power. I broke Mother’s forty year boycott of this country that, unseen, unvisited, she had loved despite the way it had disappointed her. Perhaps I took heart from that. Disappointments can be overcome. They do not need to last a lifetime.

I came to Spain as a lowly link in the journalistic chain. I filed stories with a reporter’s objectivity – how Mother hated that – but with increasing excitement as Franco’s time also began to fade into the history of black and white photography. He died, I rejoiced, I held my breath. I joined the people on the streets as colour returned. I was there, with shots ringing out in parliament, watching the coup failing like a scene from an opera. Then I came home.

By this time, Mother was frail. My father had long disappeared from the scene, unmentioned, unmentionable. I took it into my head to take Mother to Spain for her first experience of this country that had shaped her life.

“That would be interesting,” she said. I wasn’t sure if this was a commitment.

“I’ll pay,” I said. “We’ll stay at nice places and we can go at your pace.”

Her eyes were filming with age but there was a glint of her old spirit.

“I’m not dead yet. And not planning to be. I would like to see Madrid – and Seville. Pepe came from there.”

So he had been mentioned. Perhaps this gave me a reason, apart from filial duty, for such a trip. I could walk in my father’s disappeared footsteps.

After Madrid we took the train to Seville. Despite Mother’s rejection of the advance of age, there was no mistaking her frailty. She was in her seventies now, her skin wrinkled like overwashed fabric, her voice closer to a whisper than a shout, her gait hunched behind an invisible stick. I walked behind, to follow her pace and direction, not my own. And she gained energy day by day as we both orientated ourselves towards Seville.

We stayed in the Hotel Doña Maria near the Cathedral. The bells tolled through the night but Mother never mentioned them. Her room was rather grand, with antique dark-wood furniture and devotional paintings. Not her taste, nor mine, but she could rest in the afternoons. The idea of siesta made more sense here.

On our first morning we visited the cathedral. Mother was still shocked by its Catholicism, by the flaunting of its wealth through gold and silver. The statues of Christ, the paintings of the Virgin, allowed no questioning of faith.

“I hate this place,” Mother whispered to herself, perhaps to me.

She gravitated towards la juderia and Alcazar, instinctively on the side of the suppressed. But Jews and Muslims were not really present there. Their people had been swallowed by the past.

She loved the barrio, wandering the narrow alleyways without fear while I looked shiftily over my shoulder in the gathering darkness. We could smell rather than see the oranges deep in the leaves. Sitting on a bench in Plaza Santa Cruz, among the rose bushes, she listened to the gypsy wails and rhythmic strumming of Flamenco players getting ready to perform. By daylight she inhaled the architecture of the tobacco factory, allowing herself a secret cigarette while humming songs from Carmen.  Water trickled through the days, the trilling of fountains all over the city, the stifling air freshened by the wafting of a fan bought in a shop outside the Cathedral.

So the days drifted by. We had set no time limit on our visit but I sensed it was nearing our time to move on. Perhaps Bilbao could no longer be avoided?

It was in the Jardines de Murillo, outside the Alcazar walls, beneath the ancient, leafy trees, that Mother declared she was happy. It was a relief to me, more than I had expected.

We said good night and wished each other sleep. I listened to the Cathedral bells marking the hours. In the morning, when Mother did not appear for breakfast, I knocked on her door but there was only silence. So I had to ask the hotel manager to open her room door. Her sleep was profound but at least, I consoled myself, she died happy.

Get a copy of Spanish Crossings here ->

Crossings

 

Dark Angels Masterclass, Oxford 2017

by John Simmons

My Dark Angels partner, Jamie Jauncey, was struggling to translate the title of my novel Spanish Crossings into Spanish. ‘Crossings’ has more than one possibility. Perhaps it would be even trickier to translate it into Basque, that mysterious language of the country where much of the novel originates.

I was thinking about origins in more than one way too. My own family origins; the origins of Dark Angels; the university’s origins in the 13thcentury in the buildings where we were staying. This was a rich mix of emotions because I was running – with my Dark Angels co-founders Jamie and Stuart and new associate partner Elen – the fifth Dark Angels Masterclass, possibly for the last time. And it was also publication day for Spanish Crossings.

We had a talented group, ten fine writers with the Dark Angels spirit. By which I mean we set them writing exercises, often with seemingly impossible constraints (not least of time) and of course they all rose to the challenge.

Oxford itself was a large part of the experience. Place is always important to inspire writing on a Dark Angels course and this time that seemed more true than ever. Visits to colleges, to museums (Ashmolean, Weston, Pitt Rivers), briefs inspired by fantasy and reality inspired an amazing diversity of writing. To be moved to laughter, then to fears and tears, by a ghost story was just one of the writing feats. (Hats off to Jeannie.)

 

From a purely personal viewpoint, I had the added poignancy of an ending combined with a beginning. Thursday was the official publication day for Spanish Crossings so in the evening I was asked to give a reading and talk to the group after dinner. I concentrated on what writers might learn from my own experience of writing the novel. The importance of:

  • The opening words, particularly if they can suggest the theme (“Mother declared herself happy”.
  • The focus provided by the concentrated experience of a Dark Angels course (I had written the Prologue during one of our courses in Spain).
  • Structure providing the framework to shape and direct the writing.
  • Research, particularly provided by books and visits to significant locations.
  • The stimulus of family stories, memories and photographs.
  • The story behind the story.

I have told some of that story behind the story in previous blogs: the Spanish Civil War; the bombing of Guernica; the evacuation of 4000 Basque children to Britain; the adoption by my parents of one of those boys. Eighty years ago. Since I had written those blogs, more information had emerged about Jesus Iguaran Aramburu thanks to the help of new Basque contacts via Twitter. My special thanks are given to @gurimousen and @uaiartza who enabled me to track the story of Jesus Iguaran a little further.

Now Dark Angels moves on to the next courses www.dark-angels.org.uk and now the novel Spanish Crossings is published. You can get a copy here goo.gl/9jVJCM I’d love to hear what you think of it. And I’d be interested to hear any translations of the title into Spanish, Basque, French or any other language. For what is a translation but a form of crossing?

Fiction is the true alternative

by John Simmons

I cannot imagine that anyone reading this blog is a supporter of Donald Trump. The new president glories in the absence of books in his life, revels in his lack of reading. That might be the scariest fact about him, and it’s not an alternative fact. The adapted version of the classic Penguin 1984 cover speaks to me about the times we are currently enduring.

I’ve blogged here before that art and creativity have to be the best counters to dark forces like Trump. I’m just reading Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel The Underground Railroad set in slavery-era America. It’s impossible to read that novel then support Trump. Fiction really is the most powerful antidote to Trumpism because it nurtures our empathy for other human beings.

Last week I was proofreading my novel Spanish Crossings that will be published in April. The story involves the 1930s rise of fascism, the Spanish civil war and the child refugees from that war. When I began writing it I had not anticipated that it would have such an uncanny relevance to our current times. If I had anticipated that, I might have recoiled in horror and become more polemical. I’m glad I didn’t because the novel – any novel – has first to be a human story not a political treatise.

Proofreading has given me this strange experience. I finished writing the novel nearly a year ago and since then I’ve been concentrating on other work (including another novel). So I came to the proofreading task with fresh eyes and open mind, and I read the book as if it had been written by someone else. It’s a very weird feeling. When I came to the ending I had tears in my eyes. Am I allowed to cry at my own book? I remembered Jamie Jauncey’s favourite quotation from Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Here I had been both writer and reader.

If you want to pre-order the book you can do so here >> I’m pleased to say early readers of proof versions have been very enthusiastic.

So 2017, for me, promises to be a creative year, my own antidote to Donald Trump and all his works. It is appropriate in a way that I will be running the first American Dark Angels course in New Bedford, Massachusetts in October. I’ll be doing that with my good American friend Richard Pelletier and you can read about it here >> The location has literary links to Herman Melville and Louisa May Alcott, fiction writers who linger in the minds of millions who have read them over the past centuries.

Out of the blue, and so appropriately, I was sent the image shown below by Anita Klein, who collaborated with me a few years ago on The angel of the stories. She calls this new linocut ‘Angel protecting an acorn’. It seemed to me the perfect image for our Dark Angels venture.

Dark Angels in Conversation Nov. 2016

Dark Angels student, Johnny Lyons at the Intensive Foundation Course in Cornwall
Johnny Lyons at the Foundation Course in Cornwall

John Simmons in conversation with Johnny Lyons

John to Johnny

You’ve been on two Dark Angels courses now. So obviously I’m interested in hearing things from your perspective because these conversations should involve the whole Dark Angels audience, not just the tutors.
But first, because it was first, I just wanted to ask you about reading. We met when I was doing some tone of voice work with AIB in Dublin. Our first proper conversation was not about writing but about reading. You recommended a book to me – Stoner by John Williams. The best book recommendation I ever received. I hadn’t heard of it at the time, few people had, but it then became a rediscovered classic across the world. What do you get from reading?

Johnny to John

There are so many things I get out of reading. But some of the bigger ones would include the way reading can take me beyond myself and my own limited thoughts and experiences. Then there’s the unique exhilaration that comes from reading a heart-achingly sad novel like Stoner or an intellectually mesmerising Platonic dialogue or a poem by Keats or Larkin that helps me feel less alone. I also like the way reading has the power to change me in interesting and unpredictable ways, the way it can both liberate and challenge my imagination.

John to Johnny

All those things, I agree. There’s also the obvious point that reading leads to writing. It helps us to become better writers if we become better readers. So, as you know, we do a fundamental exercise on Dark Angels courses – you’ll have done this in Cornwall on the Foundation, then the adapted version in Spain. The exercise leads to writing in the style of another writer. It seems counter-intuitive but, for me, that’s an important step towards finding your own personal voice.

What it does is liberate us: “You don’t have to write as you.” But of course that’s what people do, without realising. And they do it – hopefully with increasing regularity as they write more – by paying closer attention to the individual words and sentences as building blocks of longer pieces of writing. Recognising that ‘there’s a blaze of light in every word’ as Leonard Cohen put it. This doesn’t mean choosing exotic words, just trying to find the right word, dedicating yourself to that pursuit. Then, broadening out from that, trying to make every sentence an event.

That’s how I now approach writing – but it’s continually reinforced by examples in books I read. Does any of this match your own feelings?

Johnny to John

I remember that exercise well. We each wrote our own versions of a famous novel ending. The amazing thing was none of us guessed correctly from the choices written by each of us – they were all credible.

Your comments about the relationship between reading and writing remind me of something the author Stephen King said – ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’.  Yet while I was always a pretty voracious reader of history and then philosophy, for some reason this never helped me develop into a good writer. In fact, if I’m honest, I was so afraid of writing that I’d get a pit in my stomach every time I had to produce something.

Dark Angels broke this chronic spell. By doing exercises like the one above in the company of supportive and like-minded people and under the helpful guidance of the tutors, I managed finally to overcome my crippling phobia of writing. It literally happened over three magical days in Cornwall. So I suppose my main obstacle to writing was psychological, a lack of confidence and once I found a way of overcoming it the sunlit uplands literally opened up before me.

Since then, I’ve been reading far more fiction and poetry as well as writing with a degree of fluency and regularity that I couldn’t have imagined little more than a year ago. And writing, in turn, has helped me become a better and less intimidated reader.

John to Johnny

You went on the Advanced course to Spain after the Foundation in Cornwall. Recognisably a Dark Angels experience, we hope, but stretching you even further. The places we go to have a certain magic, whether that’s a stunning coastal location in Cornwall or the Andalusian national park. Did you find that the places helped sharpen your own receptiveness to the writing challenges? I often think that the location is like an extra tutor.

Johnny to John

I couldn’t agree with you more. Being somewhere entirely new and stunningly beautiful has a hugely invigorating and liberating effect. Being in an unfamiliar place can help us break free of familiar or habitual ways of thinking and writing. One of the exercises I particularly enjoyed on the Advanced course in Aracena was when we took a hike into the countryside which inspired us to write a wonderful play. Yes, place can be as important as people in inspiring us to write.

John to Johnny

Reading, people, place – all things that inspire us to write. But I think you’ve also identified the most essential: simply a greater confidence in the individual’s writing instinct. It’s so easy and so damaging to suppress it. With it we are better, more fulfilled human beings. Dark Angels’ aim is to bolster confidence, to boost the belief that you and your words can fly. But how do you maintain it?

Johnny to John

There’s a three-word answer to that one which I know you’re fond of – Just do it! And by that, I have taken you to mean keep writing, keep reading and keep talking.  I think the more you can connect writing with your own well-being or, at least, with your own sense of self, the more natural it becomes to develop and maintain the writing habit. In this way, to paraphrase John Keats, writing can become as natural a part of our lives as leaves to a tree.

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