Monday, August 28, 2006

Anyone out there?

Mark, the BA cabin crew member in our reading group, has the distinction of once having been taken for a literary device: his job and his babies made it so difficult to turn up to meetings that writer Nick Royle, reading the reports of our discussions on my website, thought that he was my joke and didn't really exist. Well, he does exist, but he's now going to have a new incarnation: back in Manc at the weekend and at a barbecue I discovered that he's giving it all up to set out on a course to become an English teacher. Great! But damn it! He's a literary type after all!

Let me explain. It's always been a source of great comfort to me as a writer that most of the people in our reading group aren't what you might call 'literary types'. There's a furniture maker, a doctor, two scientists, a criminologist, a psychologist, a social work administrator, a textiles conservator and an accountant, and only three of us writers. What it seems to mean is that there are endless readers out there from all walks of life, and that when you write a book (as long as it's published!) you will reach EVERYONE...

But who am I kidding? It's not as if ours isn't a rarified group (all educated, all 'middle class' ), and anyone who reads books is by definition a 'literary type' after all (so Mark's move is hardly surprising). And when I conducted a straw poll of people in pubs and cafes for metropolitan (Issue 6), to try to assess the reading habits of the general public, the results were pretty depressing if hilarious. No one reads nowadays, was the message: 'Books is books, innit?' said one baggy-trousered lad contemptuously, switching his Walkman back on. And when I think of the educated, middle-class neighbours who declined to join the reading group 'because they didn't read'...

Whatever you do, though, don't let this get you down....

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sent out of class

In a post entitled 'Class Reaction' Bournemouth Runner at The Art of Fiction muses that no British writer he can think of is able to write dispassionately about class, our great British subject. Everyone he can think of writes from 'inside' one class or another - mostly from inside the middle or upper classes, but Irvine Welsh too - writing, he claims, from inside the Scottish working class.

Yikes. Reading his thoughts makes me squirm. When I think of the times, when I first started writing, that I aspired to a middle-class certainty of tone and ambience because of my hunch that that was how I'd get published... And then when I grew up and learnt to write more honestly there were negative reactions from middle-class literary people ('What a strange book!' cried my first agent uncertainly, scratching his head; those editors who said politely that they failed to 'warm' to my work), and the sense then - however much I aspired to literary honesty - that, just as I had previously felt trapped by my fake middle-classness, I was now trapped once more in my lack of it. And I was still trapped by middle-classness anyway, since certain readers and reviewers, who defined themselves as working class, saw the middle-class status of the protagonist of my first book, The Birth Machine, (as opposed to the stance of the narrative) as making my book definitively middle class. And anyway, I was middle class now, just through - apart from anything else - the process of getting educated and being published, as Bournemouth Runner points out, and I started to see signs of it in the narrative, in spite of its lack of gentility in the eyes of some. And I think that the trouble I subsequently got into with the women's movement and which just about destroyed my writing career (a hairy saga for another time) was fuelled by perceptions of me as a poncey white middle-class writer.

My feeling then of wanting to escape it all - all these class prejudices and hang-ups - out to some kind of dispassionate classnessness which Bournemouth Runner seems to advocate, and one of the ways to do this, I felt, was an even greater irony than I had so far employed.

But then we can't always write satire, and if Poststructuralism offers us anything it's the knowledge that we can't ever get truly 'outside' our own experience and voices. In any case, we all speak with many voices and as writers we can use them all. Unless this is what Bournemouth Runner is saying...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Some publishers are marvellous

That fabulous woman Cathy Bolton at Commonword has done a sterling job on the Bitch-Lit anthology (Crocus Books), due out in September and including stories by Manc writers Cath Staincliffe, Sophie Hannah, Rosie Lugosi and also yours truly. This week an interview with the editors appears in The Big Issue, and we're promised coverage in Good Housekeeping, in the Guardian and on Radio 4 Woman's Hour. Her nifty idea of decking some of us out in polka dots to match the book cover for the press photo (Bonnieandclyde) has clearly paid off. The spotty scribblers above are [clockwise from top left] contributor and editor Maya Chowdry, Susannah Marshall who offers a sinister tale of a female truck driver, contributor and editor Mary Sharratt, guess who with a story of revenge against a pious feminist, Rosi Lugosi the 'vampire queen', Char March with a brilliant tale of a female Russian mafiosa, and Brighid Rose whose anti-heroine just loves to cause destruction all around her.
This kind of thing doesn't happen without utter hard work on the part of a publisher (I know - I've published a magazine, Metropolitan) and sheer flair. When it does, count your blessings, I say, and give thanks to the God of Marvellous Publishers...

Funny, hype never seems such a bad thing when some of it is happening to you...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

To read or to write

Anyone who has read my contribution to the Palgrave MacMillan Creative Writing Handbook (edited by Mary Luckhurst and John Singleton) will know that I strongly recommend that those who want to write should read, read and read all the time. You hear it everywhere from practised novelists: readers make writers. Most writers were big readers as children; books and the shapes of novels and the tropes of story-telling make up their psyches. And when I'm stuck as a writer, reading other people can get me writing again, something which Erica Jong has also said.

Not long ago though, Jeannette Winterson stated without shame that she finds it hard to read others while she is writing, which must be most of the time, and in the process she let the cat out of the bag. It's true for me too, in spite of all my pious urgings to others: when I'm writing I need to stick to my own psyche and (I hope) original vision, I can't go letting other people's fabulous sentences and images infiltrate my head (which, when writing is good, they inevitably do) and therefore my work. I have to read between projects. (Perhaps, while I'm at it, I should confess that I had hardly ever listened to any radio plays when I wrote my first one, Rhyme or Reason, which went on, to my shock, to receive two Sony nominations: I simply wrote what I wanted to hear, which goes against all advice to would-be radio dramatists which I've ever read.)

Three years ago, when I embarked on the long novel I've recently finished, I, the great champion of reading, was going to become a non-reader unless I did something quick. So I started a reading group, and at least once a month I was made to read a book, and got away from the self-imposed isolation I found necessary to write the novel, and had a laugh and a booze-up to boot. It's still going, I doubt we'd ever give it up now. (I report our discussions on my website.) This month we're reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, whose sixties novels are undergoing something of a revival with Methuen's recent reprinting. Trouble is, now, instead of a novel to write, I've got that blinking paint stripping to stop me reading it...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Can't write? You will!

What do you do if you can't write?

Perhaps some people don't care, but if I can't write I feel about as useful to myself and everyone around me as an old sock, and about as limp, and I start to wonder about the point of my brief visit here on this crock of rock spinning in that great void round a star which will only explode in the end etc etc... (You get the picture: slit my throat, quick.) (I do know that there are people who never can't write - a couple of my friends, for a start - but I'll pass over them quickly before I start feeling murderous rather than suicidal.)

I don't mean the kind of not being able to write I'm suffering at the moment, ie simple lack of time or suitable circumstance. For years now I've had the use of a cottage in North Wales for writing - no need to tell me I'm lucky, I know! I've written loads here, and (at the risk of implying it was autobiographical, which it wasn't) I set my radio play Holiday Home here. Wales is where I was born and spent my early years, and this particular place really does feel like my spiritual and creative home; I sit at this window and look out at the field with ash trees lining the stream and in the distance Nantlle ridge, purple and topped with clouds, and I instantly feel in touch again with the fundamentals and start to dream, which for me is what writing is all about. This year, though, the cottage is being renovated, and I'm not here to write but to help out. Today in the foreground through the window is a man with a cement mixer, and I've promised that when I've written this I'll go and strip some paint. It feels really weird.

But I'm talking about different ways of not being able to write. Firstly there's that really frustrating one where you've got this thing inside you and you just can't get it out, can't find the key - the image, the phrase (the finger down the throat!) - to release it and allow it to come flowing. That's the time I pace the house, raid the fruit bowl or nut jar (making myself feel literally sick) and have to restrain myself from throwing a chair when my partner John says with a maddening grin: 'Can't write? Always a good sign: it means you will.'

And then there's the even worse kind, which I have to admit I haven't suffered too much, but have done so badly this year. Recenly I finished a long novel, the biggest and the hardest thing I have ever done, and when it was done I was exhausted, not only physically but creatively. My mind felt dead, numbed. Brain empty of ideas and stories, retinas dead to the images passing before them. I felt as though I had written myself right out. I really thought I'd never write again.

Well, I was wrong. Here I am, full of ideas again, here is the world throwing people and stories at me (those Morris dancers in the pub last night, Terry the builder and his history emerging as he plasters the walls), and I've got to go and strip damn paint!

My advice to any blocked writer: don't lose hope, lock the pills in the drawer. Just bide your time.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Taking brickbats

Sometimes, when you're a writer, you've got to laugh or you'd cry.

Some years ago now, when I was munching on my toast and marmalade, a letter popped through the letterbox: would I like to be a reader of scripts for Contact Theatre? I sprayed marmalade and wet crumbs. Me? I had written one short one-act play, which had not even received a professional production, but a rehearsed reading by North-West Playwrights. I wasn't qualified to judge scripts by people who could well be far more experienced playwrights than me! I turned down the offer.

So I should have expected what happened when I recently sent out my play O'Leary's Daughters to theatres. Now I'm not one to boast (though it seems to be part of the job description nowadays) and it is in order to illustrate the irony of what happened that I tell you that this play has already won two awards and has received two successful fringe productions with full houses and standing ovations, as well as having been chosen by Alan Plater (among others) for an earlier rehearsed reading by the Writers' Guild - successes which I naturally mentioned in my letters.

This week a response comes back from one theatre, a copy of a reader's report. First, I am treated to a long synopsis of the story of the play - I, who wrote the thing and know the story better than anyone. And then, in a much shorter report section, I am told in no uncertain terms that this is not a play yet, only a skeleton of one, that the motives of the characters are 'somewhat suspicious' (by which I think the reader means unconvincing), and that the characters 'would probably make the worst ultra-masochistic trio a world has seen' (which he clearly thinks a bad thing), and that the play 'frankly isn't that much engaging.'

Well, he could be right of course, I won't dismiss the possibility, but you can't help thinking that he never saw my letter and if he had he might have been less certain that I was an incompetent novice. What this illustrates is a lazy, lip-service system for dealing with scripts - the synopsis was clearly meant for the theatre, not me, but was lazily passed on to me anyway - which does no service to writers or readers (I know from my own invitation that readers are paid pennies), but simply shifts the burden of considering scripts away from the theatres, and is based in any case on the assumption that unsolicited scripts to theatres come from would-be playwrights unlikely to produce anything of value.

This lack of commitment over scripts is particularly hard on new writers whose confidence is most in need of nurturing, and it helps to understand what's going on when those cavalier and damning reports come slinging through the letterbox and bring you to your knees.

And not all theatres are the same. I got a lovely response from the Liverpool Everyman, where Suzanne Bell, the fantasic Literary Manager, is working her socks off for new writers and new writing...

New Start

Well, it seemed like a good idea, the Togs Blog, pinning my musings about literary and theatrical activities around the theme of clothes - and so damned metaphorical! (and thank you, Katy Evans-Bush) - but there are things I just can't talk about there without bending over backwards to force the connection, so here goes with a new blog instead.