07 Jun 2023 / Lumb Bank
My Arvon Week: Alice McIlroy – from the 1970s to speculative fiction
I was stuck in the 1960s and 70s when I arrived. I had just finished John Fowles’ classic The Magus, having already read every Iris Murdoch I could find. My own prose, it seems, needed a window to be opened – and oxygen and the 21st Century let in.
Lumb Bank (former home of Ted Hughes), 2017, at the very beginning of my writing journey provided this. I was tutored by Andrew Cowan and Patricia Dunker.
Andrew gave me a reading list, kindly but firmly, of Emma Cline’s The Girls, Rachel Cusk, Zadie Smith. (If you’ve not read Andrew’s Your Fault it is an excellent depiction of the legacy of sibling rivalry and responsibility.)
Looking back, I received conflicting advice. The inimitable Patricia Duncker prescribing The Turn of the Screw for tension, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, whilst Andrew gave me a path to the 21st Century. It is a debate I still have with my fiancée, him defending the classics, me the modern. Of course, there are lessons to be learnt from both. But if you are writing contemporary fiction it is invaluable to read widely what is being published today, this year and next. My prose became sharper, I like to think.
The second lesson I learned from Andrew and Patricia was the value of an opening that turns the reader’s expectations on its head at the last minute. They drew my attention to the fact that the strongest part of my opening paragraph, following a list of facts the narrator has learnt about herself, is the final sentence which throws everything preceding it into doubt. I remain indebted to them for this.
My novel has since transformed beyond recognition. A bed of buried memories, repressed trauma, but I did not know that yet, in the way that a story only reveals its true self to you once you have written that first draft. It begins to take on a life of its own. Set in the near future, it asks the question: what if you could flick a switch and delete pain and loss. Would you do it?
It feels fitting that as I write this, I am in the process of responding to my editor’s suggestions for the novel for a final time before the ARCs (Advance Review Copies) are sent out.
I was twenty-eight when I went to Lumb Bank and it was a refuge from the outside world, the fractious inner tumult caused by a toxic workplace. It provided the pure luxury of having space and permission to write, and the value of a writing community.
Emma Cline recently recommended baths for productive procrastination, and I would add to that the imaginative power of meditative walks through West Yorkshire’s woods and valleys, letting the mind wander.
Alice McIlroy’s debut novel The Glass Woman will be published in the US and UK on 9th January 2024. Copies of The Glass Woman are available to pre-order here: https://daturabooks.com/product/the-glass-woman/
Find her on Instagram @alicemcilroy_author and Twitter at @alice_mcilroy.
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