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Salley Vickers

Salley was appearing at our local Forum and I went to see her last night. She gave an accomplished and very interesting talk which I wanted to share with those of you who admire her work.

She started with a potted history of her life as a writer. She had no particular intention of being a novelist, although she had enjoyed writing stories as a child. She divided her life into the things that had inspired her to set fingers to keyboard.

Firstly she found that having had children she was regularly making up stories to entertain them. This was particularly so on long car journeys and she got into the habit of narration. (I played endless I Spy and my girls are very good with words)

While her children were small she worked in the evening at an FE college teaching English Literature, which made her organised and gave her a work ethic. It also reinforced to her that reading great litereature is the best way of finding out how to write. She waxed lyrical about the wonderful writing of the Victorian greats (she is re reading Trollope at the moment) and what fascinating stories they contain. They are often not at all difficult to read. She also did a degree in Psychology.

Then she trained as a psychotherapist and spent a great deal of time listening to the life stories of people in extremis. To do her job properly she found a way of identifying with all of her patients; even the young men! She found this immensely helpful as a way of discovering characters and she also found that making her patients relive the story of their lives and discern how they had, in many cases, fictionalised what really happened ,  got them to revisit these traumatic events, often involving death, and enabled them to set their own story on correct lines and therefore live with what was not usually their fault.

Her experiences makes her feel that humans dislike change and will make enormous efforts to avoid it; putting up with nasty conditions rather than be brave enough to break away. She talked about abusive relationships as an example of this and how many partners really know they do not want to be with their violent spouses but make up stories to themselves so that they do not need to make any changes to their lives.

In her fiction she has to find ways of making people bravely change their lives and, in that, she often uses death. She went through in great detail how she did this with Miss Garnett's Angel. She has never reread her own books so she admitted that often sudiences know her books better than she does!

Salley has not been on any writing courses but composes in a rather organic way. She is usually inspired by setting and her latest book, which is not yet out, was started by thinking of the life of a woman who cleans Chartres Cathedral. She unashamedly reuses plots from the classic authors, and this means really classic such as the anscient Greeks and Romans. She feels that because these stories have lasted so long they have important psychological hooks which mean something to us and can always grab our interest. She feels in good company as Shakespeare uses the same technique and she was very interesting about the different texts she has used (heavily disguised). One of her books is based on Hamlet!

It was a wonderful evening and if she is coming to a venue near to you buy a ticket.

Sounds really interesting. I like the bit about people resisting change - it's so true, and one of the tell-tale signs of weak plotting is when characters do things without sufficient motivation, just to satisfy the author's need to advance the plot.

Robert McKee makes this point in his book "Story" - he says that most people are instinctively conservative in their actions. The trick to raising the stakes is in having unexpected consequences to their conservative actions which force them to take ever more drastic measures.

The point about telling ourselves stories is very well recognised in psychology - our "episodic" memory (ie autobiographical memory) is a sort of narrative that we maintain and modify, and is highly unreliable.

Thanks Mike.

Two things I didn't mention were that she didn't write her first book until she was fifty and that she likes to put in an element of the supernatural because so many traditional or classic stories use that device and she thinks our brains have an affinity with the spiritual - angels, ghosts and so on. Her latest book uses fairies!
Green Jay

Thank you for this, Ann, fascinating. I knew she was a psychotherapist and thought this shows strongly in her work. I have read Miss Garnett's Angel, Mr Golightly (?), The Other Side of You which is very moving about loss and grief and has a therapist as one main character...sorry, I'm not sure about those last two titles.  I really love Miss Garnett, as it brought Venice to life for me and was very compassionate. Must re-read that one. In that she uses the story of Tobias & the Angel woven into the modern-day fiction, so your references to her use of classical texts shows me that she goes further than I thought in this respect. I'm sure I heard a radio play of hers about Freud, but perhaps someone else adapted a novel she had written. Did she mention play-writing?

Obviously an accomplished lady - I always find it rather odd when someone becomes a good writer when they appear not to have ever intended to follow this line.

I wonder which is the Hamlet novel???

Green Jay wrote:
. I'm sure I heard a radio play of hers about Freud, but perhaps someone else adapted a novel she had written. Did she mention play-writing?


It was a novel and it is called Where Three Roads Meet. I have got it and it is all about Oedipus and Freud. It is a really lovely book and I would recommend it

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