Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel To The End Of The World by Nell StevensBleaker House: Chasing My Novel To The End Of The World by Nell Stevens

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel To The End Of The World

byNell Stevens

Paperback | March 14, 2017

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On a frozen island in the Falklands, with only penguins for company, a young would-be writer struggles to craft a debut novel...and instead writes a funny, clever, moving memoir that heralds the arrival of a fresh new literary talent.


Twenty-seven-year-old Nell Stevens was determined to write a novel, but somehow life kept getting in the way. Then came an irresistible opportunity: she won a fellowship to spend three months, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world to research and write a book. Did she choose a glittering metropolis, a romantic village, an exotic paradise? Um, no. Nell chose Bleaker Island, a snowy, windswept pile of rock off the Falklands. There, in a guesthouse where she would be the only guest, she imagined she could finally rid herself of distractions and write her 2,500 words a day. In three months, surely she'd have a novel, right?
     It's true that there aren't many distractions on Bleaker, other than sheep, penguins, paranoia and the weather. But as Nell gets to work on her novel--a delightful Dickensian fiction she calls Bleaker House--she discovers that an excruciatingly erratic Internet connection and 1100 calories a day (as much food as she could carry in her suitcase, budgeted to the raisin) are far from ideal conditions for literary production. With deft humour, this memoir traces Nell's island days and slowly reveals details of the life and people she has left behind in pursuit of her art. They pop up in her novel, as well, as memoir and novel start to reflect one another. It seems that there is nowhere Nell can run--neither a remote island nor the pages of her notebook--to escape herself.
     A whimsical, entertaining, thought-provoking blend of memoir and travelogue, laced with tongue-in-cheek writing advice, Bleaker House brilliantly captures the hopes, fears, self-torture and humour of being young and yearning to make a creative life. With winning honesty and wit, Nell's race to finish her book emerges as a fascinating narrative in its own right.
NELL STEVENS has a degree in English and creative writing from the University of Warwick, and studied Arabic and comparative literature at Harvard. She received an MFA in Fiction from Boston University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Victorian literature at King's College London. She was a finalist in the 2011 ELLE Magazine Writing ...
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Title:Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel To The End Of The WorldFormat:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8.2 × 5.7 × 0.7 inPublished:March 14, 2017Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345811747

ISBN - 13:9780345811745

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Reviews

Rated 1 out of 5 by from No surprises I rarely write a review but I could not help but warn others. Very dull. I could only finish first half of book, then read the ending which would not be a surprise to anyone.
Date published: 2017-07-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must for aspiring writers This was exactly what I needed to read to reignite my creativity. Nell Stevens does an excellent job of putting you in her shoes and showing you that you have the power to write, you just have to connect with yourself first.
Date published: 2017-03-29

Read from the Book

A generous donor has made it possible for us to send most of our students abroad after they complete their degree requirements. Global Fellows in Fiction may go to any country and do there what they wish, for a typical stay of up to three months. The Global Fellowship adventure is not only intended to help Boston University’s MFA candidates grow as writers, but also to widen eyes, minds, and hearts—from which better writing might eventually flow.— BOSTON UNIVERSITY CREATIVE WRITING DEPARTMENTThis is a landscape an art--therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea. The water is the same colour as the clouds; it is flecked by white-capped waves, spikes of black rock, and, intermittently, the silvery spines of dolphins. I pace from room to room in the empty house, testing out the silence with occasional noises: “Hi! Ha! Who! How!” My fingers are stiff with cold. When I open my notebook, I fumble with the pages; I struggle to grip the pen. I write the title of a journal entry: “Bleaker Island, Day One.” Beneath it, an attempt at a beginning: “I am living alone on an island.”I spell it out to myself. I try to make sense of where I, astonishingly, am. What I’ve written sounds like a metaphor, so I clarify: “This is not a metaphor.” I am living alone on an island, a real island in the Antarctic waters of the South Atlantic, and the name of the island is Bleaker.I have been cold since the moment I woke up, stiff and groggy, fleetingly confused and turning over in my mind all the places I might be: at home, in London; in my student apartment in Boston; at my parents’ house; my best friend’s place; the hotel on Exmoor where I stayed—How long ago? Days? Weeks?—to be a bridesmaid at a wedding. The final option that occurred to me, least plausible, true, is that I was where I in fact was. I dressed in the chill—sweatpants over jeans over tights, woolly hiking socks pulled halfway up my calves—and scurried to the window. Behind the curtain, there it was: the island and, all around it, the sea.I flew here yesterday, from Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands, in a tiny plane. We juddered over the sea and over a blot of lumpy islands, then past a white beach crowded with penguins, before landing, softly, on grass. I stepped down from the plane to face a little hut and a sign that read, in crooked letters: “Welcome to Bleaker Island.”Now, I am the sole resident of a large, dark house. When I first arrived, I stood in the doorway to watch the sun drop out of the sky into the grey water, listening to the thick silence of this empty corner of the world.I set about trying to make the place feel less empty, or at least, to revise the emptiness into something that feels as though it belongs to me. I unpack the few items of warm clothing I am not already wearing and take my food supplies to the kitchen, lining them up beside the microwave, each day’s rations weighed out and counted in advance. Doors to unoccupied bedrooms I decide to keep closed. In the living room, there is a table large enough to host a dinner party for ten, and deep, bouncy sofas strewn with sheepskins: it is a room made for entertaining and company. It should be full of people, and it makes me panicky to be in there by myself, like a host awaiting guests who will never arrive.The biggest space in the house was described in the online brochure I read before my arrival as a “sunroom,” a conservatory tacked on to the front of the building. Hail is pelting the glass roof with a metallic--sounding din. Through rivulets of melting ice running down the windowpanes, the sunroom offers a panoramic view of the island to the north: waves chewing the edge of the settlement, farm buildings on the other side of a small bay, looming clouds interrupted by wheeling birds of prey. This is where I will write.I convert a coffee table into a writing station, loaded with the tools I imagined in advance I’d need to build a novel: laptop, notebooks, tatty copy of Bleak House, pencil, pens. I position everything neatly, then worry that the orderliness will seem oppressive. I disarrange the objects, as though I had tossed them down without much thought. Still, somehow, the table feels like a set, the sunroom like a stage, and the island beyond like a gaping, vacant auditorium.Later, I set out to begin my exploration of Bleaker. The house is on a narrow section, in the relative shelter of a hill, which I climb, bent into the wind and small shards of freezing rain. From the top, you can see the whole curve of the island: cliffs on the west side and a beach on the east, speckled with black-and--white dots that, when you walk towards them, bloom into penguins. They waddle and slither into the waves and run out again like delighted toddlers. Caracaras cluster overhead, eyeing anything that shines. I walk for hours and see only monosyllables: cliffs, birds, waves, sand, sheep, rock, moss.A dream: You can see, on an island near yours, a plane. You watch yourself, on that other island, boarding the aircraft. But you know the person you are watching is not really you, because you are here, alone, on an island with no plane. You yell. You try to get the attention of the other you, or the pilot, and explain the mistake, but the wind swallows your voice and throws specks of saliva back into your mouth. The plane takes off and vanishes amongst clouds and circling albatrosses. The other you will get home, be welcomed back by family and friends, marry your future husband and write your novel, and nobody will ever know that you, the real you, are in fact still here, alone. Beside you on the beach, an elephant seal emits a long and fart-like groan.In the applications I send out to Creative Writing MFA programmes in the States, two years before I find myself on the island, I quote Ted Hughes: “For me, successful writing has usually been a case of having found good conditions for real, effortless concentration.” I want to do an MFA because I desperately want to concentrate, because it will mean I won’t have to work in my draining, unrewarding office job, and because it will take me away from my friends and family in the UK to a place where I will know nobody from whom to demand distraction—but of course it doesn’t. I am accepted into the one-year, intensive Fiction MFA at Boston University, where, as in London, life gets in the way. I make new friends, develop crushes, go on dates, and spend more time than I could possibly have imagined on the phone to Bank of America and Verizon and the BU International Students & Scholars Office. I worry about rent money and my tax return and my hair and my visa and whether the thing I said to my room-mate about the way her voice carries came out wrong.At the end of the year, however, there is a chance of redemption. The programme ends in what it calls a “global fellowship”: students are sent out into the world, wherever they choose to go, to spend three months living, exploring, writing. In March, there is an information session, which outlines the application process and exactly how much money we can expect to cover our trips; I become preoccupied with thoughts and plans and schemes for my fellowship. I don’t want to waste it. I want to do it right. The absorbing vision of “effortless concentration” appears before me again, and I find myself pining for empty, remote places: snow plains, broad lakes, oceans, wherever there is more nothing than there is something and where, I imagine, I will finally do the thing I have spent my adult life hankering after, attempting, and interrupting: write a novel.I wonder how productive, how focused, how effective I can be. On the phone to my mother I tell her, “I want to know how good at life I can be in a place where there are no distractions.” After a long Boston winter, it is finally spring, and I am walking down Commonwealth Avenue in bright sunlight. Around me the city is busy and shiny and diverting.“And where is that, exactly?” she asks.“The Falklands,” I say. “I think it’s the Falklands.”Even as I make this statement—I want to know how good at life I can be in a place where there are no distractions—I question it. I wonder how naive I am being. Surely by now I should know that wherever I am, wherever I go, however determined, I can find ways to distract myself, to procrastinate, to put off the real labour of creating something with words.It turns out, though, that I am not being naive. As I stand in the sunshine talking on the phone to my mother, watching cars and buses and students with cups of frozen yogurt go past, I cannot begin to conceive of how few distractions there will be on Bleaker Island.

Bookclub Guide

1. If you were given the chance to go anywhere in the world to write a novel, where would you go? Why? 2. Nell spends a lot of time trying to control the distractions in her life. Have you ever been able to rid your life of distractions? If so, how?3. At one point in the book, Nell writes “It seems clear, now, that I have been alone in my relationships . . . It is hard to love someone, if you are in the habit of taking every experience you have as material for your work.” How does this idea play out in the book? Do you think other writers feel the same way?4. If you had to describe Bleaker House to a friend in one sentence, what would you say?5. Have you ever written fiction before? If so, how does your process mirror Nell’s? How does it deviate?6. How does Bleaker House compare to other memoirs you have read? How does it compare to other books you’ve read about writers?7. The fiction pieces in the book seem to mirror details of Nell’s real life. What did they add to your experience as a reader?8. Did reading Bleaker House increase or decrease your desire to visit the Falkland Islands?9. Why do you think Nell choose to share her experiences in Bleaker House? What did you gain by reading this book?10. What aspect of Nell’s life did you relate to the most?

Editorial Reviews

“Nell Stevens takes you on a wild ramble across the landscape of the writing life, and at the end sets you down somewhere entirely new and unexpected. This is a romp of a book, a genre-defying feat of the imagination and pure pleasure to read.” —Alison Pick, author of Far to Go and Between Gods   “Bleaker House is so riveting and so much fun to read, I would have loved it even if it hadn’t also been innovative and brilliant, but it is all those things. Nell Stevens is an excellent writer, as well as great company, and I can’t wait to read every book she writes.” —Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man and Blue Plate Special   “I adored Bleaker House . . . Hilarious and original, charming and engaging.” —Rebecca Wait, author of The Followers and The View on the Way Down