LISP 2nd Half 2021 Short Story Finalist 'A World Beyond Knowledge' by Paula Read
I am now 69, the same age as Vladimir Putin. What makes life different for me now is that I have more time to write. The disadvantage, of course, is that I have less energy.
I started out as a journalist writing arts reviews for a newspaper in eastern Canada, The Daily Gleaner, while studying for an MA in French, which took quite a lot longer than the allotted two years. For a couple of years, I worked as a French/English interpreter for the New Brunswick provincial government. The province had an official bilingual policy, so that every official event from school meeting to parliamentary session, had to be carried out in both languages. I toured the province with my team, setting up in anything from established interpreting booths to broom cupboards so we could translate proceedings.
Once back in London, I worked as a journalist for a magazine covering commodity markets, then moved to the USA following in the tracks of the man I would later marry. I wound up in New York as a reporter covering commodities and financials for a news agency.
Later, back in London, with the above man, I continued to free-lance for many publications, had children, attempted to write fiction. In my mid-forties, with a young family, I trained as a modern foreign languages teacher. And, as playwright Arthur Miller is alleged to have said, the next 25 years passed in an afternoon.
Writing has been a constant. Recognition is wonderful, but I would write anyway. I keep diaries. It is a means of creating a narrative structure for my life, as well as a means of feeling like I’m in control (although of course I am not, none of us is). I joined a local writing group and we produced a couple of short story anthologies. I was a legitimately published author at last, even if self-published. It was an achievement.
And then a small start-up independent publisher @ArachnePress accepted a couple of my stories for an anthology (Stations, 2012) which was hugely important for my confidence. Call-outs and competitions are useful as a means of making you focus on a story, of setting yourself those essential deadlines, and also of giving vent to subjects close to your heart. For example, the now-defunct @MomayaPress published my story about the terrible treatment of factory farmed pigs (Trading Places anthology, 2019). I was really excited about this one because it meant so much to me. Perhaps that’s the key to writing stories; you write them because you just must. Not that you can rely on inspiration. Oh no. Routine is everything. That, and a certain obstinacy even in the face of rejection.
By the time I was in my sixties, having spent a lot of time teaching creative writing to young children - a sort of lovely post-script to my secondary school career - I got into City University’s MA non-fiction creative writing programme. This was a lovely fulfilling couple of years. My problem has always been writing long. As a journalist, it was essential to cut stuff to the essentials. At City, I actually finished a whole book. The Hazelnut Grove is about the joys and woes of moving to another European country at a time when Europe signified something to be part of not a place to escape from. Published in October 2020 by @CinnamonPress during full pandemic times, it is the story of my cousin and his wife who have built an entirely new life in northwestern Italy. It is also partly an antidote to the great political mistake of Brexit.
My story for the LISP competition arose from my experience as a teacher leading a school trip to northern France and from my memories of a hideous real event similar to the one in the story. I wrote it as a much longer piece, then continued to cut it substantially, trying to maintain the sense of menace while deleting extraneous detail, with a view to entering it into the LISP competition.
I recently finished a second non-fiction book about the fate of forced labourers from occupied France in the Second World War. If Only it Hadn’t Rained is based on the memoir of a Frenchman who was captured by the occupying Germans and sent to work in Germany, ultimately ending up in the Buchenwald concentration camp. I translated the memoir at the request of his surviving daughter (translation is now in the Imperial War Museum) and the book attempts to set his story in context while maintaining a very personal angle. The title of the LISP story A World Beyond Knowledge is taken from the writings of Charlotte Delbo, a survivor of the Ravensbrück death camp, whom I came across during my research.
I’m currently in search of a publisher…