Writer Terry Farish met Jan during her two-years as Writer in Residence at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University). By chance, I discovered a wonderful piece she’d already written, which you can find here. I contacted Terry, asking if she’d expand on her memories of Jan and she accepted. Thank you, Terry, for this brilliant extra gift of a piece.
‘I’ve tried to ring several times but you always seem to be elsewhere which is only right and just. No one ever manages to raise me here.’
Jan and I exchanged letters because it was the 1980s and we used typewriters still, not computers, and did not have e-mail and if we weren’t home by the phone, we missed each other’s calls. Jan gave her address, 6 College Close, Wheatley, Oxford on the campus of the Polytechnic. We met for the first time there. It was June, 1983.
Jan mentions 6 College Close in a letter after she no longer lived there. ‘I was wonderfully happy there. I still miss that flat.’ I have memories of the living room, the kitchen, the kitchen table by the window, but I also remember Ruth Prochak (Zeno Was Here) on memory – ‘What I said is that memory is a great editor.’ I don’t trust imagination to not interfere with memory. I know Jan was content there, and inside me are words of every writer we ‘debated’ there. Debate was Jan’s word. Jan had pronouncements about many things, and she wanted to hear mine, too.
Jan was my degree committee chair for a self-designed MA in creative writing with Antioch College. Creative writing was a phrase Jan found troubling and possibly destructive to the art of fiction. She was also highly skeptical of some of the American students who schlepped abroad for one reason or another to study with Antioch College’s International Studies program, at that time with a base in London. Maybe it was my earnestness. I don’t know. Nevertheless, we began. I wrote a previous essay, ‘Studying With Jan Mark: How I Became a Children’s Book Writer.’ This current piece draws on letters she wrote to me. I don’t have many. But enough so I can tell you about the teacher I knew her to be, the friendship she offered, and her generosity with students, teachers, writers – every letter fairly flies from the hand with the steady beat of her travels to schools, conferences, readings, meetings with me and so many others.
‘It was memorably entertaining,’ she writes about doing a week at Arvon with poet George Szirtes.
‘I’m going to Canada this autumn, working Eastward from Vancouver to Montreal. Working is the operative word. It won’t be a holiday but it looks like it will be a lot of fun.’
‘I had another week in Northern Ireland.’
‘In July I shall be in Boston.’
We simply called what we were doing the ‘Writing Tutorial.’ We read extravagantly widely. We compiled lists of books for each other. From the beginning we read children’s, young adult, and adult literature with the same critical eye. It was clear that in Jan’s writing and in her reading she had the same standards of honesty, and respect for the intelligence of the reader, in mind as a measure of the writing. An effect of Jan’s education of a writer – me – seems not so much to be a moment of crisis and discovery, as Jan describes a short story. A single frame after which nothing is the same. It was more like a layering of thought, and that over time – lots of time – I didn’t so much evolve as zig zag into rediscovering myself as a writer over and over.
To leap forward for a moment, I want to tell you about a letter I received after I left Combe village where I lived. My husband’s tour with F111s at the U.S. air base at Upper Heyford had ended. When Jan’s letter came, I was then working in Leominster, the one in Massachusetts, a French Canadian mill city. In Jan’s letter, she was ‘just back from one trip and just off on another.’
Jan also expresses huge delight about a novel she’d just finished writing. ‘It’s a long while since I enjoyed anything so much,’ she wrote. It was a long novel and it required her to miss her deadline with Penguin. This new book ‘was not for Penguin and it was definitely not for children.’
‘The novel,’ she wrote, ‘is called Zeno Was Here since much of it deals with paradoxes.’ She doubted it would find a US publisher. Many editors had liked it, she said, ‘but have variously pronounced it too intellectual, too arcane, and mention that books about writing and writers are very hard to sell.’ She protested it was not about writing, the plot concerned being written about, ‘which did in fact happen to a friend of mine.’ Zeno was indeed published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1988. A reviewer at the Washington Post cut through the arcane to see, ‘an intricate comedy of love and panic.’ (The reviewer said the final pages are a mistake, but liked the book too much to care.)
Jan was writing Zeno during the last year of our tutorials in which we discussed our dozens and dozens of books, stories, and poems and my writing ‘exhaustively’ but Jan also talked about her writing. She said she was writing about a poet, and she needed to step into the work of a poet and write the poems her Ruth Prochak was writing. I no longer have notes of our sessions, but upon re-reading Zeno, I know almost certainly Jan’s advice about writing since her Ruth Prochak tells them liberally, as does Geneva, Ruth’s friend who writes fiction. Ruth accuses Geneva of speaking in aphorisms. ‘Talent is a muscle; it needs exercise or it atrophies.’ On a short story and its elevation over a novel: ‘You have to know how the thing will end before you begin it—it’s not a novel.’ To the ill-prepared: ‘You aren’t equipped for fiction writing; you’ve got no curiosity.’
Some, I expect, were not amused by Jan’s forthright opinions. She was indeed harsh in her criticism. She could be quite harsh when it came to teachers, as could Ruth Prochak. Here’s one of Ruth’s outbursts when she meets troubled John McEvoy, English teacher: ‘Teaching is the worst-read profession. I visit schools quite often. There’s always some smug tit in the staff room who says, “I’m afraid I haven’t read anything of yours. I don’t have time for reading.”’
Nor did she suffer writing students gladly who did not actually write. Some Antioch students, she says, ‘I find excessively tiresome. They have fantasies about being writers without the bother of having to write anything. All talk about it rather than do it, the pitfall of many creative writing degree aspirants. I’ve just been dismissed by one student who says she feels there’s no chemistry between us. She is dead right about the lack of chemistry. I thought her a whimpering dilettante and she no doubt thought me a hidebound bigot.’
‘8 December 1983. The bus reaches Marlborough Arms in Woodstock at 10.05. As Frank [Warner, Headmaster, Combe School] suggested I reach school at 10.40, this seemed like the best one to get. I’ll see you then.’
And just so, on that day, Jan came to Combe village. She was visiting Combe School where my daughter attended and combined the visit with a meeting with me. Now she was coming to the place I’d been writing about at her suggestion. The work Jan invited me into that has shaped my writing life was keeping a journal of my life in Combe. I came to England as a military wife, a role I found difficult. A Peace Camp protesting the nuclear weapons at Upper Heyford was gradually growing outside the main gate, something of great interest to me. My life was divided three ways: village life; RAF Upper Heyford and the Peace Camp; and Oxford where I worked at the Philosophy Library. In the journal, I documented what I saw for nearly two years. Jan was my reader. Maybe we both liked the journal more than the novel I was also writing in our work together. Here’s Jan on the journal: ‘It exhibits a dry sense of humour, a welcome contrast to the glum self-regard of so much private writing, perhaps bearing out the belief that the best writing is that which is intended to be read.’
About the novel, at one point Jan must have suggested writing chapter synopses. Later she wrote, ‘I’m glad the novel goes well and that chapter synopses have helped. It never occurred to me to suggest them as I don’t use them myself. But now I recall that I did try them once, on The Ennead, and they were very useful. I don’t know why I stopped.’
Much of what I wrote with Jan grew into something else over the years. A journal entry about my daughter’s and my beloved neighbour Jimmy Fowler became a picture book with Candlewick, The Cat Who Liked Potato Soup. A series of fictional letters between a soldier and a Red Cross worker became the core of a later novel about Vietnam, Flower Shadows. The experience of writing that novel led to other works of fiction about war and resettlement including the verse novel, The Good Braider.
Jan welcomed me into her world of poets and writers. To her, I was a writer, simply because I wrote, and rewrote and rewrote, even when that first novel might easily have been dropped into a trash can a writer might pass at the Botanic Garden. What was to come from it, would come. To me, those years as Jan’s student make me think of the line of a Mary Oliver poem, ‘Whoever you are … the world opens itself to your imagination.’ Write!
The first novel I read of Jan’s was Thunder and Lightnings about a boy, Victor, whose big brother is in the Navy. Victor becomes an expert on the Lightning fighter jets that fly from RAF Coltishall near his Norfolk home. Jan’s and my lives intersected because of the F111s that brought me to Oxfordshire. In Thunder and Lightnings, Victor and his friend Andrew find a map. ‘It was patterned all over with the ghostly bones of dead airfields.’ Jan wrote that she thinks of me when there’s news about Upper Heyford. She’d read the F111s were so aged they ‘abandoned the manoeuvre of turning on take-off to avoid the villages in the flight pattern. The local consensus is: should they be in the air at all?’ Today Coltishall and Upper Heyford are both closed and are historic sites to interpret the cold war (and ‘ghostly bones of dead airfields.’) Part of what is now Heyford Park has become a film set with its dramatic, abandoned stone structures and passageways. I’d like to write to Jan with a bit of news I learned – ‘Did you know Wonder Woman was filmed at Upper Heyford?’ I think of that designation, too, when I think of Jan and her letters and novels of urgency, life, hunger, championing, insistence, delight in the debate, and wonder:
‘Thanks so much for your letter and the squash seeds. The children are delighted – real American plants! I’m very fond of vegetable spaghetti, which I did manage to grow once, but I’ve never seen Royal Acorn. I shall sow in hope.’