How We Spend Our Days: Mari Strachan

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Mari Strachan:

Everything has shifted slightly. Yesterday my husband left for two weeks to teach in Kenya. But today will be different, also, because I have to travel from my rural village south-eastwards to our capital city, Cardiff.

But, first things first. I drink a mug of coffee, Italian blend, and use the remainder of the hot water to mix a mash with some oats for the hens.As usual, they behave as if they haven’t been fed for a month and gobble up the mash, then race out of their pen to roam the garden and cluck and peck at everything as they go. They are comic creatures and invariably make me laugh. I shall tempt them back into their pen with chopped tomatoes and green leaves and corn before I leave; there, they will be perfectly safe from our nocturnal visitor, the fox. Some sunshine has been promised for today by the weather forecasters, so the plants in the glasshouse and the polytunnel need watering: tiny alpine strawberries, a good crop of tomatoes, spreading courgettes, the last of the filet beans, ripening butternut squashes, spinach, kale, salad leaves, fragrant coriander, parsley and mint – our smallholding is about eight hundred feet above sea level and the covered spaces lengthen our growing season by several weeks. Then I return indoors for breakfast and another cup of coffee, and to do some preparation for the event I am travelling to Cardiff to attend.

Literature Wales, the body which supports writers in Wales, has been offered a shop space in a prestigious new shopping development in the centre of the city, and it is being turned into a pop-up Lolfa Lên – a Literature Lounge – for a month. It has been set up at short notice and the event today is one of the first to take place there. In a ‘Meet the Author’ event Deborah Kay Davies and I, both Canongate authors, will be reading from our prose works and taking questions. I’m looking forward to meeting Deborah, and to being in Cardiff, the city where I attended university and worked for a while many years ago. My youngest son, Cai, lives and works there now, and I shall stay with him tonight.

The bus leaves from Aberaeron, down on the coast, and for the first half of its journey meanders through lush green countryside and villages and small towns: Felinfach, Llanbedr Pont Steffan, Llanybydder, Llanllwni, Llandysul, Pencader and then Caerfyrddin, the oldest town in Wales. Their names run off the tongue like a litany, the names of places have a powerful magic, conjuring up their history, their culture, their religion, their people. I like to use proper nouns when I write. My mind drifts in and out of the ideas and information I am gathering for my third book. The novel is at that nebulous stage where nothing is yet formed, so that when people ask me what it is about I sound completely incapable of forming a sentence let alone a novel when I reply. The second half of the journey is mostly on the motorway and not as conducive to gathering thoughts as the first half. Three hours and forty minutes after leaving Aberaeron, with an hour to spare before I have to be at the Lolfa Lên, the bus draws into Cardiff Bus Station, and Cai is there to meet me.

It is wonderful to chat to Deborah, to compare experiences, to hear about her current writing project, which sounds innovative and interesting. A small audience has gathered in the meantime, and we begin our readings. The Lolfa Lên opens out into the shopping precinct and passers-by stop to listen, though most of them resist attempts to bring then further inside! The audience has plenty of questions to ask of us both, and the time speeds past.

The evening ends with a meal in an Italian restaurant with Cai and Hannah, and a walk back through the centre of Cardiff to the area of Roath where I’m sleeping tonight. I lie in bed listening to the night-time sounds of the city, so different to my village where the susurration of the wind through the leaves of the beech trees and the calls of barn owls lull me to sleep. Tomorrow I shall walk back through the morning city to catch the bus, to make the same journey in reverse, to travel home.

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • PURE by Andrew Miller, and I had been waiting impatiently for it to be published.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Read as widely as possible.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I write the whole of my first draft by hand in A5 notebooks.

By Mari Strachan:

stoneham, andover, tewkesbury

I was just reading over the upcoming November 1 How We Spend Our Days post by Mari Strachan (which is wonderful).

In her post, Mari recites the names of some Welsh towns, each one of which sounds magical. Her list reminded me of a list I had jotted down in June on my way to Vermont.

I flew into Boston and was driving on 93 N to Montpelier, Vermont. The signs announced the towns:

Stoneham
Andover
Tewkesbury
Lowell
Manchester
Concord
Plymouth
Portsmith

Is it just my love of the northeast that transforms the names of these towns into music? Or is it the fact that the names are unfamiliar to me–in the sense that I’m not usually driving by these towns?

Yesterday, I was driving from Columbus to Birmingham. I passed signs for Opelika, Auburn, Alexander City, Sylacauga, Pelham. I didn’t make any notes.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the Alabama towns not to list them vertically.

the continuous life

1990 back cover photo by Denise Eagleson

1990 back cover photo by Denise Eagleson

One of my all-time-favorite poems is “The Continuous Life” by Mark Strand from his book of poems, The Continuous Life.  Here’s the beginning:

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,

The poem in its entirety can be found on The Writer’s Almanac.

I was rereading the poem again yesterday and was surprised–although by now I guess I shouldn’t be–that the things I liked about the poem had changed since my husband gave me this book in 1990.

What I loved this time:

Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;

That one thing leads to another. I guess that phrase is like anything you notice and then begin to see everywhere. It was there all along; it’s just that I wasn’t paying attention or it had no meaning for me before or I wasn’t ready for it. Now, sometimes, I’m able not to impose order but to let myself be led here and there.

that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed.

I’m trying to catch days, to make sure they stick. Sometimes a week goes by in a blur anyway. And I’m writing, writing, writing. Still, some days it does feel as if nothing is completed. I think of my novels–do they have to be published to be completed?

learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave,

To be still enough to hear the sound of the earth. To pause long enough. To wait. In Mari Strachan’s novel,  The Earth Hums in B Flat, which I mentioned a few posts ago, little Gwenni at 12 1/2 already knows to lean down close to listen for this hum. To recenter.

Enjoy a poetry moment today. See what catches you–or what you can catch.

faces in the distemper

IMG_2371When Mari Strachan was a little girl, she used to create pretend newspapers, carefully writing the stories in pencil, drawing a picture to go with them, and then sewing the pages together. She says, “I’ve always loved the physicality of books and paper and writing instruments…”

Now she is 64 years old, and has just published her first novel, The Earth Hums in B Flat.  Her first novel! Congratulations, Mari!

Mari Strachan is Welsh. She lives part of the time in Wales and part of the time in London. As early as she can remember, she has loved books and reading and words, so it makes sense that she grew up to be a librarian, a book reviewer, a researcher, a translator, a copy editor, and a web editor. And now an author.

In The Earth Hums In B Flat, the main character is 12 1/2-year-old, Gwenni Morgan. Strachan reveals Gwenni’s personality in the way Gwenni interacts with objects in the world around her.

For example, early in the novel, imaginative Gwenni sees faces in the distemper [a kind of paint] in the scullery:

“The green distemper on the walls is beginning to peel and flake, shaping faces with sly eyes and mouths tight with secrets. There are new faces there every day.” (page 6)

Gwenni is, in fact, surrounded by people with secrets. Strachan pulls this thread through the novel.

“They’re not watching me this morning. They’ve closed their eyes and grown long ears so that they can listen…” (page 43)

She uses the faces to show Gwenni’s emotions:

“You scared the faces in the distemper, Mam.” (page 92)

“Will the faces open their mouths to scream out our secrets as the new distemper washes over them like a wave and drowns them?” (page 93)

It’s Gwenni’s relationship with the world around her that makes her such a compelling character. For more on this novel, please check out my review in the summer issue of Contrary Magazine as well as this  interview with Mari Strachan at The View From Here Magazine, in which Strachan talks about where she writes, the difference between drafting and writing, and her favorite words.

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summer reading

IMG_0950June 1st, although not officially summer, is in my mind, which makes it time for summer reading!

My recommendations:

  1. The Earth Hums in B Flat (novel) by Mari Strachan. This is out now. I just read it….See my review forthcoming in July in the summer issue of Contrary Magazine!
  2. The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy (memoir) by Rachel Cusk. This is out now and is on my shelf waiting to be read. It’s reviewed in the NYT book review below.
  3. The Angels Game (novel) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This will be out on June 16th. I loved Shadow of the Wind. It’s reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  4. That Old Cape Magic (novel) by Richard Russo. This will be out August 4th. I loved Bridge of Sighs. Also reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  5. South of Broad (novel) by Pat Conroy. This will be out August 11th. I loved Prince of Tides and Beach Music. Also reviewed in the WSJ book review below.
  6. Pick a classic you haven’t read off the summer reading table at your local bookstore!

IMG_0987Other lists:

Please share any recommendations you have. Happy Summer and Happy Reading!

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