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Susan Fletcher on outsiders in fiction – literal and imagined

A person stands on top of a cliff looking out on a vast panoramic scene. Photo by Felipe Giacometti on Unsplash.

I’ve always known that I’ve preferred to be outside. To be an outsider – literally, and, specifically, amongst wild places – has been my preferred state so that with every project, I’ve packed my pen and paper, and headed out. This love of the outdoors has always shown itself in my work. Since the beginning of my writing life, I’ve turned to nature. I’ve created protagonists who – whether they like it or not – are part of such landscapes as moorland or sheep farms or overgrown gardens; they relate to these places, identify themselves through the fact they live in such parts.

I’ve loved presenting my own, private observations as theirs. I’ve even excused, as necessary research, my tendency to wander in all weather, entirely absorbed – to, as the poet Robert Frost says, ‘look into the crater of the ant’. It is no longer a sheer indulgence to sit on a hillside with a Thermos flask; it is work — as well as pleasure. In short, nature – and being outside, elementally – has always mattered to me.

Yet to be outside has, of course, another meaning — and it has taken me far longer to realise that this meaning is just as relevant to my work. Never mind the walks in woodland; over time, I’ve recognised that my protagonists have always been — without exception – outside socially. This was never a conscious, deliberate choice — and yet, a few months ago, I had the moment of illumination; none are perceived as normal by themselves, or by those they live near.

From the orphan with eczema; to the too-tall, bespectacled bookworm who knows she has no friends; to the woman called witch in the seventeenth century; to the young widow who grew up in care homes; to the lonely housewife who stares out of windows, feeling exempt; to my latest narrator, whose skeletal deformities have literally kept her from living a physical, outdoors, blustery life so that she has, ironically, been made an outsider by being, permanently, in: these protagonists are all tied together by a sense of being less. Of being too different to be part of the norm. This characteristic that they share is obvious to me, now — but I never saw it, at the time.

A slow dawning, then. It does not feel like it was a choice — but, subconsciously, it must have been. Without realising it, I must have wanted each protagonist to be awkward, conflicted, socially removed. Why? There are, I think, two answers to this.

The first is that perhaps these feelings are ones that I, personally, recognise. My protagonists have these qualities because I have done, or still do. This isn’t to say I’ve been unhappy, afraid or particularly shy. I’ve just always sensed a difference of some kind, a distance — and I have, it seems, chosen to write of it. It’s in keeping with an early lesson we’re told as fledgling authors: we must write of what we know. And this, in turn, leads to another statement that I’ve heard in writing workshops — which is that all writers, in fact, feel themselves to be outside.

Is this true? Is this distance, in fact, a prerequisite of the writing life? After all, the classic image of the starving, tubercular writer in the garret with the fingerless mittens and candlelight might be a cliché, and outdated, but he is, also, alone in that garret. That garret too, by definition, is removed from the bustling world below. Do all writers feel themselves to be that? Excluded, on their own?

I know there is a difference between being an outsider and feeling alone — but to Google ‘writers and lonely’ is to find a myriad of quotes from authors who acknowledge the unsociable side of the job.

Ernest Hemingway famously suggested that loneliness is so integral to the job that if it lessens for the writer – if he or she becomes less lonely – their work deteriorates: to write well, he implies, we must be misfits, and stay so.

I’m not sure I entirely agree.

But I understand this reasoning: we must observe — an act which feels at its easiest and most potent when we’re standing on the sidelines, rather than taking part. We must study people — for writing is about the human experience: how we move, feel, react to each other and (in my case) how we respond to those wild, outdoor places.

Victor Hugo, famously, used to dress in rags and move through the poorest streets of Paris in order to observe his les misérables, at first hand — and I’ve not forgotten that image: the writer as intensely alive yet peripheral, seeing and yet unseen.

But the second explanation for this subconscious use of the outsider in my work is, perhaps, simpler: readers care for them. It’s an old, writerly trick: from Heathcliff to Miss Havisham to the BFG, it seems we are drawn to the person in the tale who is not quite like the rest.

At school nativity plays, I remember it was the magi that I loved — with their velvety cloaks, crowns and gifts with dark, extraordinary names; I preferred these men, by far, to the uniformed angels who struck me, always, as rather unimaginative and dull.

I wanted people who were seen as different to those around them — who were surprising, mistrusted, whispered of. Also, in fiction, such outsiders serve as a device by which to introduce its world to the reader — for the reader is a newcomer, to each book. We enter every novel on its first page to find, within it, a world that already exists; a world that has, seemingly, been going on without us — and so we, too, feel to be outsiders, momentarily.

We require both information and comfort to lessen this feeling — and a fellow outsider, within the text, can provide both these things. We discover Hogwarts alongside Harry Potter; we encounter Polyphemus and the Sirens as Odysseus does. And so I wonder if, without knowing it, I’ve just replicated a technique that I’ve always liked as a reader.If the reader is instinctively drawn to the outsider as much as the writer is.

Which is to suggest, perhaps, that we all are outsiders — or feel we are, in some way. Moreover, I can’t help sensing that it’s easier than ever, in today’s world, to feel like a misfit, and not quite enough. We do not live in accepting times – if we ever did – and so the qualities that make a person feel outside these days can vary from ethnicity to thigh circumference; it strikes me that we are surrounded by a media that encourages us to feel substandard. I can’t bear the magazines that demand conformity, that promote material possessions worth a month’s salary — for what?

I wonder at how social media has become the ultimate comparison site — on which we airbrush, celebrate, lie and out-do. Even the word ‘connection’ seems to have changed its definition — so that it refers, primarily, to the internet before it does to a shared, meaningful human experience, the kind which makes us feel included and understood.

‘Thank God’, my friends say, ‘that we aren’t teenagers now’ — but even though the armour of being older is far more effective against the online photos of the perfect life, it isn’t impervious. In short, I wonder if more people feel ‘outside’ these days than they did ten years ago.

All of this makes me want to run for the hills, even more. And this returns me, therefore, to the literal outside — to the nettlebeds and big skies. For I wonder if these two returning themes of mine (to be outside, socially, and to be outside with an anorak on) are closely tied. What did I – the twelve-year-old me, cheerful and stubborn and still in my brother’s hand-me-downs – love about climbing over a stile and setting off? It was certainly the sense of adventure, in part. There was astonishing beauty to be found, too; even at twelve, I knew that.

But I suspect, too, that I loved replacing the small, metaphorical distance I often felt at school or elsewhere with a real, blustery, geographical one. It was a far better alternative — in which I felt stronger, at ease. In my third book, Witch Light, my narrator Corrag – a solitary, half-feral creature, escaping a charge of witchcraft – says:

‘I am for the places where people do not go’ – and, on writing that, I knew it was my language in more ways than one.

The natural world, then, as the outsider’s resting place. This, too, is no new idea. But I feel that there has been a surge in nature writing, in recent years. The Wainwright Prize is still in its infancy, as prizes go, yet it is already part of the literary calendar; it has prestige and real impact to those writers who makes its lists. There are Masters courses in Nature Writing; I’m increasingly aware of websites and online magazines which explore – in depth, and wonderfully – the natural world through words — and the Nature Writing section of bookshops seems fuller and brighter than ever before. Book jackets, too, are exquisitely done.

I don’t doubt that this change and growth is largely due to the fact we’re losing our environment through climate change and intensive farming methods, and so are more aware of it (we value, at last, what we’re about to lose). But I wonder if it isn’t, also, proof of our private need for unpeopled places; if – through our increasingly interior lives, in which we aren’t truly connecting – we aren’t gasping for air more and more.

I think, as I type this, of my city-based friend who fills jars with seashells so that she can have the coastline with her; of the tended, treasured window boxes on a first floor flat; of the fact that we, as a nation, are spending so much on wild bird food (£235 million in 2019) that it’s thought that the beaks of some British birds are evolving in response to this. Of beehives on rooftops. Of city farms. Of the keyring I have, of a bronze, running hare.

A photo of a bee on an outstretched hand. Image by Genevieve Curry, Unsplash.

Image by Genevieve Curry, Unsplash.

These are only my thoughts. Yet it seems both rational and simple that the number of those of us who feel ‘outside’ is growing; in response, the lure of the natural world also feels much more. And what if we have no woodland near us? No Hebridean beach? A book is an alternative way of getting there.

One of the scenes from my books that I’ve had the most private conversations about, in the past ten years or so, is a very short, inconsequential one: an elderly man – living alone – assists a tired, slowing bee out of his house by moving it, very delicately, onto a folded piece of card and carrying it outside.

That’s it: it was a mere observation in my book; a moment of characterisation perhaps but no more than that. Yet I’ve been surprised by how many people have come up to me, privately, and said, ‘That’s what I do with bees; that’s precisely what I do; I did it yesterday or last week…’—as if they’d always thought they were the only ones.

And maybe that’s what books have done for me, in the past: firstly, they’ve shown me that my thoughts and actions are not, in fact, only mine; that I am not the outsider that I’ve always believed. And secondly, they have also ushered me into a place where I feel at home. In turn, maybe that’s what I try to do, subconsciously, with my own books; to recreate a fellow outsider and an alternative outside so that the reader might feel… less so. A connection which isn’t through fibres or pixels — but through typed, relatable words.

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