What It’s Actually About

“What is it actually about?” Nicky asked me. We were in her study. The room of a real writer, I thought.

She looked stern, even fierce. I like it in stories when the one to come to the rescue is not only kind but also fierce – all those angels that blind people with their brightness, make shepherds quake, and terrify the sheep – Nicky has played that part very well.

“You have four choices,” she said. She had written them down. She handed me a piece of paper. It read:

– the way in which the world has moved on from the rhythm of nature and the seasons

– the relationship between mother and daughter and the difficulty of letting go

– the way in which we tell stories and who has the power in that

– a modern re-telling of an ancient myth with contemporary overtones

“You can only pick one,” she said.

“Mother-daughter” I replied at once, and it was such a terrific relief to feel certain about something, when I had felt nothing but doubt and fog about my work for months. But I was certain about this. I still am. The book, for me, is about a relationship, one between a mother and a daughter. It was so in the draft I gave Nicky Singer to read – and rescue – five years ago, and it is now, at the point of publication.

I think all books, no matter the content, are, in essence, about a relationship – that between the reader, or writer, and the words on the page, the images, characters, ideas in the story. In her treatise on creativity, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert proposes that ideas even have an autonomous existence – that they hang about longing for someone to notice them, fall for them and bring them into being. My relationship with No Season but the Summer has been a long term one – the ideas have been patient with me. It’s been twelve years to date. Same length of time as my marriage. Same length of time as I’ve been a mother. Same length of time as all the other important relationships in my life, except that with my mother to whom this book is dedicated – that relationship is as old as me, and in many ways older, an archetypal one. That’s why there are myths about us – mothers and daughters go a long way back. When my mother writes me an email, she signs off ‘xxxxx01’ – which is because she read somewhere that the human race is only two thousand grandmothers old. So, when I had my son, and she became a granny again, she decided she must be the two thousandth and first.

As you’ll read in the ‘Acknowledgements,’ the idea for the book began with a single word: ‘spring,’ but the characters followed swiftly after. It’s Demeter and Persephone, that mother and that daughter, and my relationship with them, who have been at the heart of the story from its outset. And often the best part of any relationship is the ways in which it surprises and challenges you, makes you do things you never thought you would. My relationship with Demeter and Persephone has done this, time and again – but then if you get into a relationship with a couple of Ancient Greek goddesses, I think you should expect to be challenged. They too can be kind but fierce.

At the start I had no idea I was writing a novel – I would have laughed had anyone suggested such a preposterous idea. Me? A novel? I couldn’t. Ever. No Season but the Summer began life as barely even a short story – a series of unclassifiable short prose pieces inspired by the myth. The characters and I were dating. Gradually things got more serious, and then came the point, about four years in when they demanded I commit: was I in this relationship for the long haul, or not? My son was three by then, experiencing his first knee-deep snow, in Granny’s care, while he and she accompanied me on a writing retreat to Vermont. There were foot-long icicles along the edge of the house in which we stayed. My story had grown into a novella, but it wasn’t working. I had to face it: if I take these characters and their story truly to heart – believe that, year in, year out, Demeter’s grief at her daughter’s absence causes winter – this astonishing and savage whitewashing of the land – and that her joy at her return brings the other breath-taking change that we call spring – then I can’t consign them to the past. I have to believe they are alive, now.

This shifted everything.

It made the relationships involved simultaneously much more dangerous, and much more exciting – both Demeter’s and Persephone’s with each other, and mine with them. It meant I had to resolve the dynamic between them, and not leave them stuck in the painful limbo that is the end point of their original story. And it meant I had to find a contemporary narrative to match the myth, its stature, its imagery.

My first attempts didn’t come off. This was five to six years in – my daughter was born in the summer of ’16, and I laid the story down for a few months while I picked her up and performed play fights with my son. A summer of blue skies, surplus milk, sibling rivalry and tears. Summer isn’t always, or only, full of roses. But I didn’t leave Persephone and her mother alone for long  – or they wouldn’t leave me alone – and in the autumn I began to seek out help. I found it, eventually, from the likes of Nicky Singer. Slowly, with some fierce angelic assistance, a tale of environmental activism emerged to accompany the myth, which drew on the epic stories of those who, in recent years, have made their homes in treetops, or spent days under the ground, in an effort to save the earth. I was moved and inspired by the rhymes between the imagery in the myth and these acts of modern protest.

I never intended to write a novel about the climate crisis. In fact, the idea of doing such a thing alarms me. I am nervous of writing anything issue-based, let alone on that issue. I am keenly aware of the immensity and complexity of the crisis, and that I have only read a tiny fraction of the literature addressing it, so the dangers of both simplifying and sermonising seem high. Nevertheless the ‘elevator pitch’ – “a reimagining of the Persephone myth in the time of climate crisis” – the novel’s title, and the cover design, with its flames instead of leaves on the right-hand tree, all point to it being what the book is about. I steady myself with the thought that what I have written is the story of a mother and a daughter, whose relationship happens to be intimately linked to the weather. I know something of this at least – both the mothering and the daughter-ing, and the things we weather in those roles, the seasons through which we go. I attended to this, related to this, as I wrote it, trusting in the relevance of an intimate crisis of care, to the wider climactic one we face. It is possible to argue, anyway, that every book now must address it – it being the backdrop, foreground, skyscape under which all our stories are unfolding.

Still, I feel a sense of excitement, and fear, at the decision to bring this ancient tale into the present. It feels scary because it breaks the mould of most classical retellings, which keep things safely in the mythic past, but it also feels right, because the times we are living through are mythic, require us to have incredible courage and to re-examine all our relationships – to each other, the land, to the other species with whom we share the planet. That’s the point, I think, not only of this novel but of any book: the invitation it extends for us to enter into a new relationship, which might challenge our existing ones, which might change us.

No Season but the Summer has changed me over these last twelve years. As have my children, who are now eleven and six. My mother is eighty-one, much frailer than when I began to write, but still the world’s two thousandth and first granny. And the book is still a work-in-progress, an ongoing conversation, because this is where you come in…..

You, reading this, are a new beginning. A whole new relationship. Like the spring. Like Persephone, as the story starts, the book is emerging into the world, after being buried in the dark. I’ve kept it hidden (except from those fierce angels who see everything) – just me and the story – huddled on the children’s bedroom floor, which has doubled as my study for the last decade. I am nervous, eager to see what will happen, how the story will unfold, now it is in your hands.

What is it actually about?

At this point, it isn’t up to me to say anymore. 

It’s up to you.

Thank you for picking it up, and taking it on from here, into another season…

You can order your copy here: https://amzn.eu/d/ga4Gv0F


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