What happened to the New Man?

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the process of listening to the audiobook of Who Do You Love has been enriching for me, making me return to the text some years after writing it.

Christopher James  reads the book more slowly than me, taking his time, giving the narrator’s voice a melancholic, deadpan quality. This works well. As a listener you are given the room to feel the words. It’s made me realise that the book is very pictorial, or at least it has that quality for me. I feel like I am inhabiting the rooms, the streets, the countryside, the coast lines, the different eras of the novel as I listen.

One of things that really struck me was the way the different time zones encountered so far in the novel, 1987 and 2013, act as counter-points. I’ve been watching the Netflix sci-fi horror drama Dark which is, in part, about certain people time-travelling between 2019 and 1986: two eras I’m very familiar with! The Gothic sci-fi is completely different from my realist novel in so many ways, but one thing I’ve felt they’ve shared is that sense of ‘the uncanny’. I suppose this is because Nick is, in so many ways, my alter ego; and it’s a bit like standing outside myself as I listen to the novel being read by someone else. As the great literary theorist Stuart Hall said, ‘This experience of, as it were, experiencing oneself as both subject and object, of encountering oneself from the outside, as another – an other – sort of person next door, is uncanny’.

In Who Do You Love, in 2013, Nick is sacked (from his job) as an Arts Editor at a London listings magazine and can’t find another job; when he learns that a former girlfriend, Ellida, has died, he finds himself remembering his times with her in 1987. In his  first ‘remembrance’ (involve him) he recalls how he directed a strange mime play about the 1986 hurricane in a half-destroyed wood  on the summer solstice in June 1987. I found Chris’s reading of this section particularly effective because he evokes the different accents of the main characters so well: the emphatic tones of Nick’s friend George, the cheeky-clever voice of Luke, Nick’s other best friend, the Catalan accent of Arnholm, Ellida’s husband – done particularly well I think – and, of course, Ellida herself. Chris manages to make the relationship between Ellida and Nick seem very tender.

Another thing that struck me was just how much it is about different phases of male crisis: at the onset of forming adult relationships in late teens/early twenties, and at the classic ‘mid-life’ point where everything comes into question in your forties. The section where Nick describes the Men’s Group really brought memories back to me of the late 1980s where there was a real focus upon the idea of the ‘new man’; the emotionally literate, caring, responsible man who listened to women. The talk, as I remember it, was all very ‘gendered’. There was both explicitly and implicitly then the assumption that men and women were fundamentally different in so many ways; biologically, neurologically, genetically and psychologically. The idea of the ‘new man’ was that he would be attuned to these differences, not mocking of them, but understanding. But looking back, I believe it brought into play an ‘essentialist’ narrative – that men and women are essentially separate beings – in a way which is strikingly in contrast to essentialist thinking about gender now. Gender determinists now, such as the likes of Jordan Peterson and horrific Incel, are, I would say, virulently, violently misogynistic. The new man movement in contrast trod softly around these issues, and, at its best, questioned such essentialist assumptions, but I think, as the following extract shows, often fell back on tired stereotypes of ‘men being men’ and ‘girls being girls’; I use the word ‘girls’ advisedly here because the word frequently was used to describe women in a patronising way by ‘new men’. Listening to the section about the Men’s group felt quite an accurate account of what I encountered back then.

Here’s the section 8th July 1987:

I showed a draft of this article to the BDP team, who all commented on it in their habitual useful way. Barbara Bleiman made this perceptive point: ‘ Perhaps there are possible implications for all writers, at a drafting stage, when they hear the words they have written being uttered in someone else’s voice? Maybe it’s about realising the extent to which the reader always brings their own interpretation and that a different actor might have brought something quite different to it, illuminating it for you again in other ways.’

Yes, I would agree with this, and it makes think I must get other people to read my work out aloud during the drafting stage in future. It’s not something I’ve done, but I think it’s clearly a valuable exercise and could really help me improve my writing.

Listen to the first 15 mins of Who Do You Love for free here!

I’m writing this blog post on the summer solstice, 20th June 2020, which is an important date in my novel Who Do You Love. In fact, I like to think the events on the summer solstice June 1988 in a Sussex wood, devastated by the hurricane of October 1987, are pivotal in the novel. They are loosely based on real events that happened to me, when I directed and produced a mime play, performed at midnight at that time.

In the novel, the protagonist, Nick is rescued from a bad mushroom trip by Ellida, the passionate Norwegian woman who becomes the love of Nick’s life.

A tree spirit from the Song of the Falling Trees, June 1987, standing next to an uprooted tree in a wood in the Sussex Downs, fictionalised in Who Do You Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about Who Do You Love recently because I’m working with actor and voice artist, Christopher James, on an audiobook version of the book. He’s now produced the first fifteen minutes for me, which you can find here:

Audiobook version of ‘Who Do You Love’ to be publish soon on Audible!

I hope you’ll agree that he’s read it magnificently! I felt his accent and approach was just right for the narrator Nick: energetic but mournful, which is a difficult combination to get. There’s a sadness, as I see it, in Nick’s voice which he captures well. He also reads the book reasonably slowly and clearly, while maintaining a sense of pace, again this is tricky: you can’t read the novel too fast because the images, the descriptions and the dialogue can be marginalised in a fast reading.

Listening to it was immersive for me. I was actually more present with the book than when I wrote much of it. This said, writing the first draft of it was an enveloping experience: I virtually free-wrote a draft of 120,000 words over the space of six-eight months! I had just started my PhD in Creative Writing with Blake Morrison in 2009-2010; I had got my place on this prestigious programme by proposing another entirely different book, but changed tack when I learnt about the death of a friend. Blake was great because he allowed me to change direction and recognised how I wrote. He let me ‘splurge’ away!

The process of editing and pruning and changing after that was not as hypnotic. I had to have a very critical eye while re-reading what I had written. I must confess editing is not my strongest suit. I can, at times, take the foolish road of publish and be damned, particularly with some of my blogging and journalism!

I have never done this with my fiction, but the temptation is still there. Listening during lockdown to the audio book, I made entry into Nick’s world without that wincing editor’s eye inside my head. This was a rare treat for me. I felt immersed back in the fiction: I was there as Nick gets the news he’s been sacked; I felt for him as he listens to his wife, the New Yorker, Hadley, give him lots of sensible but hard-to-hear advice; and I felt his pain again! This was, I felt, because Chris captured his pain in his voice.

I particularly enjoyed the reading of the second chapter, which is Nick’s memory of the hurricane of October 1987. Chris captures the different voices and accents of the students in this scene beautifully: the dominant, angry George, and the cheeky, clever Luke. This worked well I thought; the reading never strays into parodic student talk in a way some people have complained happens when you read it straight off the page. That’s what a good actor can do: bring a sense of gravity to things that might look a little silly on the page. 

Making an audio book out of my novel, Who Do You Love

I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.

I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:

My soundcloud file of Christopher James’ Audition

Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.

Summer Solstice Readings for National Writing Day at the Word Bookshop, New Cross

I had a very enjoyable day at Goldsmiths on the summer solstice to celebrate National Writing Day. The summer solstice is:

“the time at which the sun is at its northernmost point in the sky(southernmost point in the South hemisphere), appearing at noon at its highest altitude above the horizon.”

It is midsummer; the heart of this glorious season, a time when Vikings used to resolve legal disputes, when the sun would align with the Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel and magnificent Aztec architecture, and the Ancient Chinese would honour the earth which embodied the feminine force known as yin. It’s no surprise then that storytellers, poets and writers have been drawn by its power. In 1987, myself and a group of students from Sussex university put on a play on the summer solstice to honour the trees that fell in the 1986 hurricane. I wrote a fictionalised account of this night in my novel, Who Do You Love, and this prompted me to see if I could celebrate the solstice again. The fact that it was also National Writing Day meant that there were many people interested in getting involved. The following things happened:

First, Goldsmiths English PGCE students hosted a writing workshop in the Goldsmiths allotment. You can find the excellent worksheet they produced on Scribd here.

 

English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017
English PGCE students in Goldsmiths allotment, June 21st 2017

Second, although she could not be at Goldsmiths, Ursula Troche wrote these two poems to celebrate National Writing Day and the solstice.

 

Third, myself and a number of other writers, including Ian McAuley, Helen Bailey, Peter Daniels, Julie Hutchinson and Magda Knight read at the Word Bookshop. Here are the videos of their readings. They are audible, but the noise in New Cross can be heard at times; it was very hot and we had to leave the bookshop door open!

5 Ingredients for a Great Book Launch

ONE: Find a supportive publisher.

Blue Door Press have been wonderful to be part of because there is such a collaborative spirit. Pamela Johnson, one of the founders of the press, gave me a brief introduction (as you can see on the video) and along with Jane Kirwan & Daphne Astor have been real champions of my work. Who Do You Love is a personal novel, and in some ways quite challenging to write and publish, and I definitely could not have done it without BDP’s unstinting support. BDP has believed in my writing and given me a writerly confidence I haven’t had before.

TWO: Find a supportive bookshop.

The Brick Lane Bookshop were also very helpful; being a local author, they took extra care with things, keeping track of the people invited and offering to sell the books as well as opening after hours on a Friday. The shop was a great venue; cosy but with just enough space to contain the hoards.

THREE: Invite friends and family who like you!

The launch was a great excuse to catch up with family and friends who I hadn’t seen in a while. It was brilliant to see so many smiling faces who were willing to buy my book!

FOUR: Make the speeches short, snappy and include some brief readings.

It’s important to have speeches at a launch, but they do need to be brief; people need time to chat and socialise.

FIVE: Be merry in the moment.

A book launch is a time for celebration so being positive is important; take a moment to enjoy the beauty of people coming together to buy and read your work.

20170317_193108 FG, Kathy & Blake Morrison, Chris Kearney[/caption]

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Melissa Benn, Fiona Millar, Francis Gilbert

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Ian McAuley who launched his novel London Stone with me on the night as well.

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FG with Ayesha Kyrou & Abdul Hanan

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With Sonia Lambert & Andrea Mason (fellow novelists)

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With my father, Peter Gilbert & Tim Hewitt

Who Do You Love by Francis Gilbert

who_do_you_love_cover_for_kindle14-jan-2017

‘I enjoyed Who Do You Love a lot. It’s beautifully-written, very funny about sex and the excruciating confusion of being young and single then middle aged and trapped. I think you’ve captured something about a generation in a way that will touch a lot of readers…. Really, a terrific novel.” Amanda Craig, literary journalist, and author of A Vicious Circle and Hearts and Minds.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model?

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died. Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past.

By turns comic, tragic and romantic, Who Do You Love is a stirring novel which explores the big issues of passion, death and grief; a fast-paced contemporary love story but also moving exploration of what it means to be alive today, which should appeal to fans of writers like David Nichols, Ann Tyler and Nick Hornby.