Friday, September 23, 2016

Careful What You Wish For

If people always made wise choices, the role of fiction in the world would be much diminished. As readers, I doubt we consciously seek out stories where the heroes and heroines plunge their lives into disaster within the first twenty pages—or we may not like to admit that to ourselves—but unconsciously we do. One of the first lessons a new writer has to master is the art of forcing beloved characters (often based on the author, in a first novel) to suffer. In early drafts authors often create idealized versions of themselves—lovely to imagine and fun to write but, alas, deadly boring to readers. The rest of us flawed, struggling humans just can’t connect to perfect people living perfect lives. So as writers we learn to complicate, complicate, complicate until that final moment of resolution that allows the book to end. As one of the developers of the fiction-planning software Dramatica put it, “A story represents the mind’s way of solving a problem” (or words to that effect—alas, my memory is not that good!). As I interpret that phrase, fiction allows us, from the safety of our couches, to explore the many different avenues available to resolve any given situation. Hence characters require problems to solve.

With this idea at the back of my mind, I knew I was in for a fun time when I opened Heather Teysko’s debut novel, Sideways and Backwards, and encountered the first chapter title: “In Which Things Fall Apart.” Nothing like laying it out there from the beginning.

In fact, for Natasha, the heroine, things have already fallen apart. She just hasn’t realized it yet. As the opening paragraph puts it, after settling us into a misty fall morning underneath a cosy duvet:

Today, though, there is a huge clash going on. An epic battle between the dreamworld in which I was living not five minutes ago, filled with warmth and quiet, and the incessant beeping of my phone. Someone clearly wants to tell me something, and I can’t decide whether it’s worth it to make the effort required to reach it, charging on my night table, which requires movement.

Turns out that Natasha has imbibed rather too freely at a Halloween party, and after a few dozen more phone-based interruptions, she learns to her horror that her “friends” have plastered her transgressions all over social media—imperiling her career as editor in chief to a London publishing house. She flees to Cambridge, seeking some quiet time at its ancient university while her publicist cleans up the mess. But during Evensong in the King’s College chapel, Natasha blacks out. She wakes up five hundred years in the past, with no idea how she got there, never mind how to get home. “Quiet time” and “refuge” have just taken on a whole new meaning.

The story is tremendous fun, and although not quite able to break her addiction to her iPhone (sustained by a conveniently packed solar charger), Natasha does use her isolation from the Internet to engage in necessary emotional work as the story progresses. A neat twist ties beginning and end together in a surprising way, and the explanation for her journey to the past has a lovely medieval resonance. So if you like funny, time-traveling chick lit—imagine Bridget Jones coping with Tudor England—Sideways and Backwards is well worth a few evenings of your time. You may never find yourself in sixteenth-century England, but faux pas on social media are a threat to us all.

Heather Teysko is not only an author; she also hosts interviews of her own. Listen to her chat with historians and historical novelists on the Renaissance English History Podcast. Natasha has her own webpage, where you can find out more about her story and listen to the piece of music that she hears in the King’s College Chapel with such extraordinary results. Or you can just check Heather’s site for information about her and links to the others.

And by the way, love that cover. It’s a perfect match for both the subject of its book and the tone.

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