Ophelia Street, 1970. A street like any other, a community that lives and breathes together as people struggle with their commitments and pursue their dreams. It is a world we recognize, a world where class and gender divide, where set roles are acknowledged. But what happens when individuals step outside those roles, when they secretly covet, express desire, pursue ambitions—even harm and destroy? An observer in the midst of Ophelia Street watches, writes, imagines, remembers, charting the lives and loves of his neighbors over the course of four seasons. And we see the flimsily disguised underbelly of urban life revealed in all its challenging glory. As the leaves turn from vibrant green to vivid gold, so lives turn and change too, laying bare the truth of the community. Perhaps, ultimately, we all exist on Ophelia Street.
First and last
First words matter. I’ve always been fascinated by this particular aspect of writing. How do writers draw their readers in from the very first words? As a writer in the business world originally, I knew the importance of gaining attention with a headline. Copywriters are not given many words to get their messages across.
So I collected my own favourites. LP Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” remains my favourite first line from a novel (The Go-Between). Others will have their own favourites but the reflective, elegiac tone of that line has been an inspiration to me in my own novel-writing.
I’ve no doubt that it was there in my head when I wrote down “Ophelia Street is” on a scrap of paper many years ago. That first line of Leaves eventually became “Ophelia Street was”, even more reflective in tone, looking back at that foreign country, the past, represented by this north London street that followed the fortunes (and decay) of a community over the course of a year.
My second novel Spanish Crossings also started with a first line. For the first, and only, time in my writing career I dreamt words that I wrote down in my bedside notebook: “Mother declared herself happy.” There seemed something magical in the arrival of these fully-formed words. I was staying overnight in Seville at the time, before running a writing course, so I spent the next day wandering through Seville, sitting on park benches, stopping for coffee in cafes, writing the words that followed naturally from that first line. The prologue that I wrote that day contained everything needed to set up the story of Spanish Crossings.
Of course endings matter too. It’s an emotional experience as a writer coming to the end of your own novel. You’re aware of all the words you’ve written, you are desperate not to let everything down at the last moment and you want the reader to close the book with a sense of satisfaction, that they will be saying goodbye to friendships forged with characters in the previous pages.
The ending I always keep in my head in that of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, where the narrator stands alone on the edge of water with a green light in the distance and the awareness of the rolling plains of the republic beyond, set the literary standard for final pages. I reread them frequently and they retain their power to move me. It’s the feeling, the depth of individual emotion connected to the universal, that I tried to reach in the ending of Leaves.
John Simmons’ novels Leaves, Spanish Crossings and The Good Messenger are published by Urbane.
Thank you, John Simmons and Love Books Group Tours.
About the author
John Simmons is an independent writer and consultant. He runs Writing for design workshops for D&AD and the School of Life as well as Dark Angels workshops. He has written a number of books on the relationship between language and identity, including The Writer’s Trilogy We, me, them & it, The invisible grail and Dark angels. He’s a founder director of 26, the not-for-profit group that champions the cause of better language in business, and has been writer-in-residence for Unilever and Kings Cross tube station. In 2011 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the University of Falmouth in recognition of outstanding contribution to the creative sector. He initiated and participated in the writing of a Dark Angels collective novel Keeping Mum with fifteen writers. It was published by Unbound in 2014. He is on the Campaign Council for Writers Centre Norwich as Norwich becomes the first English City of Literature. John also wrote the compelling novel Leaves, which was published by Urbane in 2015
Spanish Crossings was published in March 2018 and The Good Messenger in September 2018.
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