How I Write – Trevor Zahra
by Marie Benoit

There was a time when I wrote a single A4 page every day… and the moment I jot down the final full stop, I’d just rip the sheet out of my typewriter and toss it into the wastepaper basket. This was just a disciplinary exercise. I wanted to train myself to write whenever I needed to write, without depending on the legendary muse. I believe there’s still too much myth shrouding the writing process. Some still consider the writer as the Anointed One, who under extraordinary conditions can tap divine resources, from where he extracts literary masterpieces. OK, that could make a good Disney movie, but it’s as removed from reality as Aladdin’s magic carpet.

I don’t just sit down and search the clouds for inspiration. I hunt down ideas. I’m always rotating my antennas, seeking interesting characters and bizarre situations, which might evolve into a good story. Frequently I dig into my childhood, which proves to be an endless mine from where fascinating little treasures can be excavated. I believe that stories are continually hovering around us … just like radio waves. Writers develop some kind of tuner, which picks up these waves, turning them into sounds and pictures.

Once I hit upon a good idea I start scribbling … writing notes on certain characters, their mannerisms and eccentricities. Maybe a good opening sentence crops up. I’ll jot it down. I’ll start doing some research. Perhaps I need to know more about the Second World War or about a particular period. Perhaps I’m giving one of my characters a peculiar hobby … so I need to know everything about his pastime. Wherever I go, my new unborn story keeps haunting me; nagging and rapping at my doors. I do a lot of thinking while I’m driving (and speed cameras are having a good laugh at my expense). I also find some very fertile minutes of thinking, when I switch off the lights before drifting into sleep.

This is the time I like best … when the story is open to all kinds of possibilities; when nothing is definite… while I’m still looking for the kind of tone and voice I need. It’s a wonderful game, but it’s also interspersed with tension. I know what I want to write, but I’m still seeking how I’m going to narrate it. Ultimately, art deals more with how than with what. It’s not the plot, which makes a good story, but the way the story is presented. I think it was Michael Morpurgo who said: “A bad writer narrates a story … a good writer reveals it.”

I’m very meticulous about organising my work. I plan each chapter in detail, plot family trees with all relevant dates, outline characters and draw plans of houses. Then, when I’m satisfied that everything is in order, I start the actual writing. I prefer the early hours. When I embark upon a new project, I start writing at five or six in the morning. I find those dark, quiet early hours exceptionally inspiring. I type directly on my PC… a tool to which, I admit, I’m hooked. Once I’ve started writing a new story, I write rigorously every day … shutting everyday business out of my mind. During this particular period I’m living with my characters and everything else is just fiction. That’s the best thing about being a writer: working alone while creating characters to keep me company! But while doing the actual writing I’m always very tense because although the story is already formed in my mind… it’s still in its abstract form. Now I’m trying to give it concrete shape. Would it lose its spark in the process? Would I manage to paint all the colours that my mind has already fashioned? I can never answer these questions until I write the final sentence … and even then, doubts are relentless.

When the story is ready I try to keep it in suspended animation for some weeks. I try to forget it and I might even start working on some new project or illustrations … but after I’ve distanced myself from it for some weeks, I pick it up again, and try to read it as an uncommitted reader. And that’s the time when I get to correcting and revising. I consider this phase as a very important stage. It’s amazing what a great difference that bit of fine-tuning can do. Choosing a different adjective or giving a sentence different structure, could flash new life into a previously drab paragraph.

And now for the final touch: I print five or six copies and send them to friends whose opinion I value. If it’s a children’s book, I seek children’s opinion. Their feedback is essential. I weigh and consider their comments and I make all necessary adjustments.

But this is not only how I write … it is also how I live!


Scenes from village life
by Noel Grima

Alfred Sant, Pupu fil-Bahar, Rakkonti u Divertimenti

reviewed by Noel Grima

I am writing this review even before I review another book by Dr Sant published earlier, L-Ghalqa tal-Iskarjota because while that book frankly depressed me, this book was a happy surprise.

There is a serenity, a detachment, even some understated humour peeping from out of the pages of this rather slim book.

But what comes as a total surprise is the way in which the author, who as we all know, is a town boy, somehow managed to portray village life in 20th century Malta, a rather small world with its own rituals and foibles, its simple lives sometimes lived in contradictions and masking depths of emotions.

For me, the best novel in this series is Gulina: the village spinster with a simple, unassuming history, who did nothing much in her life, except accompany her mother around the village in their daily rituals to the church, to the shop and to watch the ruin of a farmhouse that was once theirs.

Three things disrupt this simple life: the death of her mother, the farmhouse is taken over by a man from outside the village, and the advent of a young priest, the vici, who decided to get Gulina out of her solitude and what he must have perceived as an empty life, through more activism in the parish. And this silent, obedient, meek Gulina stunned him with a declaration he would never have imagined coming from her.

Another fascinating story is Qassis – a terrible story of an old, bitter priest who needs the storyteller’s help as an accountant to manage his money. And the story of an old woman who seems to be at the priest’s house every time the accountant calls. The priest seems to have a terrible hold over the old woman, and this creates in the accountant/storyteller an immense curiosity. He then finds that the woman lives in terror of the priest, in total, absolute, mesmerizing terror. What hidden unimaginable secret lay in this strange relationship and what secrets are hidden inside the woman’s house?

A third village story is Bil-Ghali – a village funeral of an old woman and what the key persons attending that funeral were thinking of during the rite.

Sometimes Dr Sant’s other life, when he is not writing books, creeps in, but even here in irony rather than anything else. Such as the story Blogg about Melanie, who publishes magazines and has a blog of her own and who commissions a private investigator to find out what her husband is doing at the office (nothing much really) while Melanie is focusing on the problems faced by the soldiers in their dealings with illegal immigrants. You could have felled me with a feather for thinking …..

Ipnozi is a story about an after-dinner entertainment which goes awry while New York, New York tells the story of Abigail, the financial services expert, married to a man who is an expert on old books with a Malta connection – Lewis Byrne, a friend of Hermann Melville – where does Sant get all this information from?

But the most trenchant story is Tpattija, another village story with a terrible background. A son discovers his father’s secret quest for vengeance.

A good read, even if you skip such stories as the first one, about what someone stoned thinks is a dummy in the sea, or Busuf about an invasion of strange furry animals, or L-Istorja tat-Tlett Bjondi about a car inauguration with blondes in attendance or Naslu f’Laferta, which looks like a chapter taken from Rider Haggart (here masked as Driver Taggart).

TMIS, 17.01.2010

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