What's it all about?

My 25-year-old son Oliver recently wrote an email to his workmates, an email which included the following:

I wanted to drop by and brag about my Dad. He wrote a goddamn novel! I've read it and I loved it (and not just coz he's my Dad). Mum edited it, I proof read it and took his portrait for the back cover, and my little brother designed and did the art for the cover. A real family affair! … It's finally out on Amazon, and Taylor and I were gonna order copies together to save on shipping. If any of you would like to support a lovely old man with an incredible skill for storytelling, let me know and we can team up on a big ol' order.

“A real family affair!

“A real family affair!

Clearly this marketing strategy -  linking a desire ‘to support a lovely old man’ with buying a book - works! Twenty two of his colleagues dug into their pockets and ordered the book. :-)

This morning, though, Oli told me how he struggled when asked what the book was about. ‘What do I say?’ he asked.

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself as I throw myself into ten weeks of publicity before the official launch on March 26th. I’m not happy with the ways I’ve described it on Goodreads or on my website or on Book2Look or Netgalley.

Cover design and art work by Solomon Karmel-Shann

Cover design and art work by Solomon Karmel-Shann

Writing helps me with questions like this. Hence this blog post.

What is my novel about?

The simplest way to answer the question is to repeat the title. ‘The Worlds of Harriet Henderson’. My book is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl and the complex intersecting worlds that she both experiences and creates.

When I started writing the first chapters in mid-2015, I thought this was exactly what my book was going to be about (and also about the complex and intersecting worlds of her grandfather, her teacher, and her friend Zeph). I wanted to write a story, not a treatise or essay or journal article. I’ve always loved telling stories. Here, newly retired, was my chance to tell a long one. I wasn’t setting out to explore a theme or to make a point or present an argument. I wanted to draw on moments from my own personal and professional life to make a story which a reader would enjoy reading.

As Tim Winton said in a recent interview

I don't set out to write a novel about anything … I don't do themes or issues, I just write about a place and the scum that bubbles up out of it, which is the humans. I just follow them and see what gives.

But now I realise that something happened in the writing of the book that meant that it wasn’t just me telling a story. The characters whose stories I was imagining (Harriet, Max, Molly, Zeph) were all aspects of me, and so inevitably what they felt, believed and said came to resemble things that I feel, believe and say.

All my teaching life I’ve felt a kind of semi-articulated frustration that the way our general culture talks about teaching, schools, students, learning and education is somehow two-dimensional, and that this narrowness of view affects our teaching practices and limits our institutional structures and procedures. It also pits us teachers against our deeper intuitions and loves. Where teachers (and especially English teachers perhaps) have what I’d call a mythopoetic sensibility, our society values something more functional, rational and blinkered.

I love the term ‘mythopoetic’. For me it speaks to the way our lives are made meaningful through the stories we live and feel and imagine, and through the way others’ stories or life-trajectories intersect with and affect our own. When we see a classroom through a mythopoetic lens, what is hidden or suppressed through being viewed through a functional lens becomes visible. What is potential but dormant becomes accessible and touched.

My novel is not just the telling of a story. It’s an attempt to describe a classroom – and the teachers and students who live so much of their waking lives in it - through a mythopoetic lens.

I’m not sure that this would help Oliver all that much next time he tries to explain what my book is about. I’m not sure that it gets me much closer to re-writing the unsatisfactory book summaries on Goodreads or my website either.

I’ve still got work to do before I’ve found the right words for my publicity blurbs.

I’d appreciate any comments that might help nudge me closer to a pithy expression of what my book is all about.


Postscript: In November 2018, the journal Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education published online a piece about the genesis of The Worlds of Harriet Henderson. It’s called The Worlds of Harriet Henderson: Fiction as a Window into the English Classroom.”