Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Reading group: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Well now, here's an illustration of the contingency of reading.

Ten years ago when Fugitive Pieces was published I read it greedily at a sitting and when I got to the end put it down and thought to myself, 'That is one of the most brilliant novels I have ever read.' Ever since, I have told people how brilliant, and important, it is: a novel which unfolds innovatively into two linked 'pieces'. The first is the story of Jewish Pole Jakob who as a child during the war escapes a Nazi raid in which his parents are killed and his sister lost, presumably seized and taken to the death camps. Having hidden by burying himself in the woods, he is finally rescued by Greek scientist and archaeologist Athos who happens to be working nearby on the lakeside site of a once-drowned city, and who smuggles him back to his island home of Zakynthos. Athos nurtures Jakob through his loss until his own death in Toronto to which he and the growing Jakob have moved - a city conversely built in the bowl of a dried-up prehistoric lake. The second part of the novel is the years-later story of a young academic, Toronto-born Ben, who has lived with a different kind of loss: the loss of innocence and security in having parents who experienced and survived the death camps, an insecurity which once caused them to refuse to leave their house with young Ben when it was flooded by the river, and all of them thus nearly to lose their lives. Now, at a party, Ben and his young wife meet Jakob, now a poet and translator, and both he and his wife develop a fascination with Jakob which deeply affects their lives.

The rich themes of loss, erasure and exhumation are vividly carried in the images of the child burying himself in the wood, the drowned city and the flooding river - and in the academic and not-so-academic obsessions of the characters: the snow-burial of Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, Athos's interest in fossils and geology, Ben's study of weather and the practice of biography. This and the lyrical prose (Anne Michaels' previous reputation was as a poet) were what entranced me the first time round.

So how to explain the fact that when I read it again last week and ten years later I was dismayed to find I thought that, in spite of its merits - including the most beautifully honed and profoundest sentences - it seriously fails as a novel? For what strikes me now is that those ideas and images which once so bowled me over are not anchored on any novelistic scaffolding. The book does not take the structure of a novel but, as someone in the group said, rather that of an extended poem. There is no narrative tension, since in passing we are told the outcomes (first the death of Athos, and then that of Jakob) while the 'story' is still in progress, and also because the 'action' is constantly arrested by brief philosophical disquisitions or lengthy historical or scientific essays, the events seeming indeed merely triggers for the latter, in the manner which operates in poetry. Indeed, the only way to read this book, we all agreed, was to read it as a poem - ie, to stop at these points and ruminate consciously about such statements as 'Every moment is two moments', or the tale of Scott in the Antarctic, or a description of a weather pattern or geological process, and work out how they related to the recent action between the characters. The trouble is, I found that this time I was not prepared to do this, I wanted the events and relationships to transmit the ideas more dynamically, and at a deeper gut level, and sometimes found these gnomic pronouncements pretentious or even at times clumsy.

And little of the 'action' is dynamic: most of it is reported rather than dramatized, and therefore, in spite of the seemingly rich imagery, it lacks vividness. Nor is it convincing when it is dramatized, as the author makes the basic error of feeding information to the reader through unrealistic dialogue, and the characters all talk like each other and like self-conscious poets. And here's the crux: although the two separate parts are intended as separate first-person narrations (the first Jakob's, the second Ben's), it's very hard to tell them apart (and people said they kept getting mixed up between Jakob and Ben and forgetting that they were separate characters): ie there's no apparent distinction between narratorial and authorial voice.

I could hardly believe that I had had two such different reactions to the same book. All I could imagine was that my earlier reading was affected by the fact that I had at the time already conceived a novel of my own on similar themes of loss and suppression, and was simply gobbling up ideas and images which chimed with my own: ie, at the time all I was interested in were the ideas, so I didn't notice that the book didn't work as a novel.

However, although Hans and John agreed with my new assessment (Hans had failed to finish the book), the others felt I was being far too harsh. Doug said that although he could see there were faults with the book, he had been really impressed by its other aspects, and Ann agreed. Trevor and Jenny said they'd really liked it, and all four said that they hadn't at all minded having to read the book slowly and thoughtfully, putting it down to think about the meanings and the connections, and Jenny had been so impressed and touched by one sentence about the nature of grief that she had marked it and read it out. *

Then Hans and John had a seemingly inconsequential discussion about an incident in the book in which Nazi soldiers on Zakynthos amuse themselves by throwing down their olive stones for starving children to rescue and nibble clean. Hans said he was left wondering whether this was a historical truth. John said, Of course it was, people were really starving during the war. And then I realized that this illustrated an essential point about the book. Laden as it is with scientific and historical facts, this novel had left Hans uneasy about some of its 'facts'. But it's not factual but emotional truth which novels can best provide, and if a novel works properly on a fictive level, creates a universe which seduces and convinces, we just don't start questioning its 'facts'.

At which Ann said she wondered if this novel were based on something close to the author but which she had been told, which would perhaps explain its flavour of an account rather than a properly dramatized (and thus objectified) story, and the general consensus was that this was probably the case. Not that any of its four supporters really minded this effect.

See how dependent a book is on the reader?

* Edited in: I remembered wrongly: the quote Jenny read out was about the soul:
If one needs proof of the soul it's easily found. The spirit is most evident at the point of extreme humiliation.

And I have to say that this is one of those lines which seemed so profound to me the first time round, but when I really examine it now (and try to tie it in with the story) I'm not at all sure what it means.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Head over heels out of love with shoes

Here's why I didn't get around to wishing you all Merry Christmas, and here's why I may be giving up my stupid, unreconstructed love of high heels:

Saturday evening, I am at novelist Nicholas Royle's Christmas party in my best and highest, the ones I wore to the blog awards and which have always made me go all woozy when I think of them: burgundy Mary-Janes in the softest leather, DKNY, and the best thing about them - my biggest fetish of all - they only cost a fiver from Oxfam, hardly worn and sporting the teeniest little stain.



Anyway, there I am swanking out of the kitchen in them, glass of red wine in hand, with no notion that there's a tiny step down from the kitchen to the hall, and my heel cocks over, and before I know it I'm hurtling forward, and trying to stop myself falling, stampeding like a rhinoceros towards some startled faces at the end of the hall, but I can't save myself and I fall slam on the wooden floor and all I am aware of as I hit it is the sound of the glass smashing in my hand.

So there I was on Christmas Day: slivers of glass still stuck in my hand (so I couldn't wield the saucepans), bruised knee (so I can't easily go up and down stairs), a huge shiner on my shoulder and a bump on my head where it glanced against the doorpost.

Any closer to the doorpost and I think I could have killed myself.

And I wasn't drunk, honestly...

I keep looking at those shoes now and I get a different kind of wooziness.

But, hey, you know what my eighty-year-old mother said: 'Oh don't get rid of all your high heels! I went Christmas dancing in mine!'

Oh, and one of my Christmas guests is really ill with a fluey cold....

Happy New Year, though!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tim Love's Review of Balancing on the Edge of the World

The tireless Tim Love has written a detailed review of my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World.

He says he likes it - which tickles me pink!!

Honestly, though, such an eye-opener, the way others see you! He says that 'middle-class people dominate ' in my stories!! Moi? Middle class! Well, of course I am, but I never thought of my stories that way, since I always think of them as most informed by my pre-middle-class sensibility - the way of seeing the world which my 'working-class' parents gave me. It's true, of course that the stories are concerned with class, along with the other forms of division and prejudice I'm concerned with in my writing (and life), and indeed with the power of middle-class people, and, let's face it, the real problem with those with the greater power is that they do dominate. The funniest aspect of this is that one of the stories, 'Star Things', which is about a sensitive and fairly 'posh' small girl going to the woods with some 'rough' kids (and learning a shocking lesson), was once reviewed as being about a 'rollicking deprived childhood' - ie, all of the children, including the protagonist, were seen as 'rough': an interesting illustration of how the perspective of the reader affects the reading.

And here's another thing which took me aback: although the story never specifies, Tim assumes that the group of people on a night out in the first story, 'Condensed Metaphysics', are all women, but in my head they were mixed - mainly because in the real-life incident which gave me the idea for this story, they were mixed! So here I am now wondering if such an assumption affects the whole tenor of the story, the relationships and conversations, creating whole new implications!

Tim likes best three of the more experimental stories in the collection, 'Leaf Memory', 'A Glossary of Bread,' and 'Going Back', though he says he also likes the much more conventional 'The Shooting Script' which he says has 'strong comic characterization'.

And he comments that I use the pathetic fallacy in 'Power'! I who hold up the sign of the cross whenever a pathetic fallacy hovers!!! I don't think I do use it here, actually, though I guess there's a subtle difference in what I do do: while I would always avoid outright personification of the weather etc, one thing that interests me deeply is the way we (and therefore characters) do indeed impose our emotions on our surroundings and see them as reflected back at us, and that's what I'm intending the protagonist to be doing here.

Answering your critics, eh? Think I'll start a new trend...

But many thanks, Tim, and I'm really glad you liked the book!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Playwrights at Christmas

The playwrights' get-together last night. First of all, we went for a drink in the Abercromby where we used to go after Theatre Writers Union meetings, though most of the guys are Emmerdale writers now, or have been at some time. Manchester was buzzing - and drunken! As I approached the Abercromby there were three guys in pinstripes standing outside and shouting and gesticulating in the strangest manner. They followed me in, and it wasn't long before one of them was swooning into another's arms. And the music! They never had music like that there in the old days - geared of course to get you to neck more booze because you can't talk. (They turned it off, though, in the end, we complained so many times.)

And the lights in the streets! Everything sparkling and twinkling and gleaming as if there's no tomorrow, or should I say ensuring there's no tomorrow - why do the council do it? Oh, that's right, commerce of course...

Afterwards the greediest of us went off for a meal at Cafe Rouge in the Printworks, the only place in central town I could book, and they sat us in an annexe around a corner overlooking that lit-up palace of commerce, Arndale and Next.


OK, I'm sounding scroogish. I did enjoy myself really: actually, enormously; while I sneered at the wastage of the gold and silver Christmas crackers on our table I couldn't help liking their glitter, and I met new people, including Peter Kerry, an Emmerdale writer who has interestingly published his first novel, The Scribe, through AuthorsOnline, a comic fantasy set in Arthurian times. And OK, so they forgot about us around that corner and our meal didn't come for ages, but we didn't care, it was just so good to be meeting up, and anyway they made up for it by offering us coffees and liqueurs on the house.

And driving back through Manc I couldn't get over the intensity of the blue street lights - I really couldn't take my eyes off them - and John said it's because they're kind of digital now, and I didn't know whether to believe him and let the council off the hook or decide he really needed a drink, what with having to lay off because he was driving.



Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas dinners

Christmas, oh Christmas, and the writer's getting fat...

Last night we had our book group Christmas dinner. And did we, during the three hours we sat eating mezzes and other Greek goodies, once talk about books? Did we heck!!

Tonight it's the playwrights' do. Talk about productions (and money) guaranteed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Time for dreaming

See this publicity and promotion stuff? It really gets in the way of writing...

As I have been moaning, I haven't written much for ages. I do actually enjoy the book publicity and the drama production work - it's so much easier in many ways, and you get to meet people and, as I've said before, use some of your other skills besides that one of being able to sit still at a desk for four hours at a stretch. Oh, and wear some of your clothes beside your jamas! And I do love acting, which I've done some of this summer. But oh, that not-writing state: there's that big hole inside you, and a kind of flatness inside your head, which you don't notice while you're busy, but as soon as you stop...

I stopped a week or so ago and found NOTHING INSIDE MY HEAD. Not a single idea, not even that sense of relish in the world around you, which soon gives rise to images and connections which turn into stories...

Would I ever write again, I wondered. (And I won't tell you quite how depressed and bad-tempered I was!)

But then of course, my empty head started working, and guess what? I remembered this: in June I went away for a weekend and something happened which made me desperately want to write a story. I got off the plane, I rushed home in the taxi, able to think of nothing else - which is how it needs to be for me to write - and all ready to begin work on it next day. But waiting on my computer were several emails about my play production, and consequently publicity jobs to get on with, and the next day there was a rehearsal, and hey presto, I was overwhelmed and there was no time to write.

And the story went right out of my head, until now...

See? Of course you need stimulation to write. But you also need the time and space to keep dreaming...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Does she know me better than I know myself?

My good friend Adele Geras has kindly written about my story collection on her website newsletter. I like that she says the stories are 'marked by wit' but 'tenderness' too? Tender? Moi? I'll be losing my street cred any minute! She also says this: 'Baines is very shrewd about the condition of being a writer and there’s one story about a script in production which ought to be required reading on every single creative writing course in the country.' Hah!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Publicity - blessing or curse?

Those who know me well know that Elizabeth Baines is a pen-name - though it isn't really, either, it's more like my other name, as I answer to it now, don't even notice when people use it, and forget to tell new acquaintances that it isn't my real name (it kind of is now). It's lost that function it once had, which was to separate off my writing head from my 'real-life' head, allowing me to write free of any expectations people might have had of me, and allowing the writing to exist for itself, and people to read it free of the preconceptions that my person might give them.

I really did have some romantic notion of being separate from my work, launching it off into the world to exist in its own right, while I went about gleefully thinking to myself, 'Little do they guess, those people who know me.' A notion of the power of words in themselves which of course I still hold to and go on championing on my other blog. Little chance, of course, of effecting such a situation in this age of publicity, and the fact that I'm writing this blog shows how far I've capitulated.

It's obligatory now for an author to work on publicity, and recently a press release for my short story collection prompted the local newspaper syndicate to pose me a quiz, my answers to which then appeared alongside my publicity photo. Yesterday I was in the charity shop (one of my habitual haunts, as you will know if you read this blog often,) and the manager, who usually greets me with a jolly hello, seemed shyer than usual, and then asked, after hesitating a moment: 'Do you mind if I ask you? Are you a writer? Didn't I see you in the local paper recently?'

See? It changes everything. And I have complicated feelings about it. I'm pleased that word about my book is getting out there. But is it word about the book? The woman couldn't actually remember what it was I had written, it was me she remembered, my picture which she'd immediately recognized as that woman who comes in from time to time... And I'm not in this context anonymous any longer, which any writer with their ear to the ground for a story most desires to be.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Reading group: The Maze by Panos Karnezis

Something is happening to our reading group, or maybe it's just this nasty cold thing, but there were only five of us to discuss Ann's choice, The Maze by Panos Karnezis. Perhaps it's just that life is more important than books. Or maybe, I am sorry to say, it was the way people reacted to this book.

Having spent much of her childhood in Armenia, Ann was understandably attracted to this novel which centres on the retreat of a Greek army brigade at the end of the brief occupation of Armenia after World War 1. However, even Ann - or maybe especially Ann with her inside knowledge - was left somewhat puzzled by this novel, which we thus felt was, ironically, aptly titled. Ann's main problem with the book was that it did not square with her conception of the history: the mass upheavals which the real-life events created - Greeks having to return en masse from Turkey, the evidence of which can be seen in the Turkish street-names of so many suburbs of Athens - did not seem in any way represented by this story, which centres on the effectively claustrophobic situation of a single brigade lost in the desert until it happens upon a small isolated town where the soldiers come to be haunted by an act of vengeance they committed. She then wondered if she should be reading the book differently, perhaps as symbolic or mythic (especially as there is much reference to Greek mythology in the book) but once again she found it unrepresentative, as the desert, such a huge force in the novel, is not representative of Armenia's landscape.

Or were we meant to read it as a psychological novel about particular individuals rather than a period in history? But it was hard to do so, people agreed: most thought the characters were cyphers, representatives of certain states or positions, and they failed to come to life on a psychological level. Was this intended? The author had a particular technique of introducing his characters. Initially we would observe a character objectively in a setting, performing certain actions, and sometimes he/she wouldn't even be identified to us straight away - a technique which hints at a kind of Everyman universality. Then the author would provide us with a potted history of the character (another somewhat distancing technique) but which, however, would include accounts of the character's feelings and psychological processes. Was there some kind of special point to this? (After all, this book had been shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, so we had to take it seriously.) Or was this simply a case of Telling Not Showing? At any rate, we never felt engaged by the characters on any deep level.

Ann said that she was also distanced and puzzled by the language, which seemed stilted and archaic. She had considered that this was deliberate - as had Doug who, once he had taken it as so, got on better with the novel - but a Greek friend had told her that actually the prose reads like someone translating from Greek into English as they write. (Karnezis is Greek, but wrote the book in English.)

People just didn't know what to think. Was this book flawed or were we just not getting it? Was it naive or very clever?

I said, Well, look at how viewpoint is handled. At one point the priest is sitting alone thinking through his dilemmas - an unequivocally psychological moment - and suddenly we read this: 'Science,' he said unexpectedly. Unexpectedly to whom? Not to any other character, since the priest is alone; not to the author, since he's writing the damn thing; and not to the priest since it's he who's having the train of thought. In other words, the author has lost control of viewpoint here, a pretty good pointer to overall naivity.

It would seem that the treatment of the pivotal issue of the novel is intended as psychological, that what the author is interested in here is psychological repression: it is only once they are installed in the town that their terrible previous act forces itself back into the conscious thoughts of the soldiers. Yet the overall lack of psychological narrative treatment meant that the force of this repression was not conveyed, and the fact that the incident was left unmentioned for so long seemed to group members simply like a narrative mistake.

John said, 'Anyway, look at this sentence: The moon rose silently' and someone else pointed out that it was a bit weird that soldiers kept going in circles when they had a compass (even if the brigadier in charge of it was off his head on morphine), and when you could go by the sun anyway and everyone knows that if you go west in Armenia you inevitably get to the sea. Also, I said, Would they have operated on wounded soldiers on the move? and everyone shook their heads which put paid to the narrative sense of the medic planning to operate first thing in the morning when the brigade was due to up camp again. Plus, several people said, the brigade was described as an endless line as it entered the tiny town, but thereafter there was hardly any sense of any soldiers around.

But then Trevor, true to form, decided to stick up for the book because, he said, he had liked it anyway, and Doug agreed.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Sucks to the cult of youth

It's enough to make me want to start the Togs Blog again - but two blogs already are more than enough - too much - for a writer with writing time to be eaten into, so I'll say it here.

Seems Sarah Mower has decreed in the Telegraph that women over a certain age shouldn't wear leather jackets!!!!! Linda Grant has disputed this on her new blog (devoted to literature and style), and has had plenty of furious comments in support. Well, as a dedicated leather-jacket wearer for more years than Sarah Mower would allow me, I want to join in. It's not for nothing that I am wearing my leather jacket in my publicity photo, or that I was wearing it on Saturday (see below) when I went to the Tate Modern to meet the eternally-stylish author and counsellor Julia Segal (dressed fabulously in a white skirt-suit and leather boots) and ponder the stunning work of a (shock-horror, pretty old) woman artist (Louise Bourgeois). I LOVE MY LEATHER JACKET. It's VERY OLD, and I don't care - it wasn't even new when I bought it in a charity shop, there are teeth missing on the zip now, the lining has gone in the pockets and I keep losing my money and my phone round the back, and the stuffing keeps popping out. But I LOVE IT, I LOVE IT, and when I'm wearing it I am the REAL ME. As if the way you dress is only about how you look to other people (and people with the most superficial values!) , and not about how you feel, or what you WANT!

Really, honestly, as Vanessa Gebbie and I were only saying on Thursday in relation to the world of literature, when will people get a grip and stop being hung up on this infantile cult of youth???
Everyone seems to be - even those who purport not to be: not so long ago, as I recall, Zadie Smith castigated those who went on about her beauty by pointing out that she would soon be old and 'therefore no longer beautiful' - inadvertently buying in to the cult by accepting that AGE CANNOT EQUATE WITH BEAUTY!!!

Even Linda Grant's article today is undercut by this notion: while she praises the flair and bravery of a seventy-or eighty-year-old woman she saw wearing combat pants and huge earrings, she quotes without criticism Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman's style tips for older women which are all aimed at HIDING YOUR AGE, and appear as a sidebar guide (though there is the question mark at the end of the title). Too much flesh is wrong apparently: 'It's not as firm or luscious as it once was and showing it can make you look a bit desperate.' WHAT???? So f****ing what if it's not as firm as it once was? My mother is in her eighties and I LOVE it when she has bare arms. Granted the muscles are really well toned - she's a golfer and a tireless gardener and decorator and house cleaner - but their skin is, naturally, parchmenty now - but I LOVE THAT! It's all there in the skin for everyone to see - all those years she's had of adventure and living, I look at at those arms now and see them in all their incarnations as I've known them down the years, right from those of my first memories of her - I don't see her just as OLD. Well, hell, I don't see her as old at all...

No, Alex, you've got it wrong: showing flesh can make you seem as if you couldn't give a flying f*** about such stupid, wrong-headed notions as yours. *

* Linda Grant points out that this was actually said by Louise Chunn, the other editor she consulted. Apologies to all three!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Salt Autumn Party at Foyle's

What a great event this was - and lucky I made it.

Thursday afternoon John and I slammed the door, jumped into the
car and raced to the station (we discovered at the last minute
that we'd got the time of the train quite wrong!) and within two
hours we were in London. (We caught the train by the skin of our teeth, thank god.) Our gifted publishers Jen and Chris (and their
three children) were there to host a great do with
lots of wonderful readings -
as you can see in the slide show below. And fabulous to meet for
the first time so many of my fellow Salt authors - some of whom,
like Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman (both due to be published
in 2008) I felt I already knew from our blog correspondence.
Afterwards, some of us repaired to the packed pub and Vanessa
and I gabbed ten to the dozen in a very squashed corner, and just
as I had expected (from her wonderful writing and her great
tough-talking blog) I really did feel as if I've always known her.


The whole event was a wonderful display of both publishing
and writing talent, and I can only say how thrilled I am to
be associated with this very exciting publishing house.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reading: Michele Roberts at Manchester University

A great evening on Monday - a reading at the University by Michele Roberts, which was of course guaranteed to bring people from as far away as Liverpool and Chester, and so I met some old friends I hadn't seen in a while. The reading itself and the Q & A afterwards were engrossing, and as people said afterwards, inspiring: Michele Roberts is wonderfully open and unassuming and engaging. Although known as a novelist, she was reading from her recent memoir in which she looks back on her time in seventies London as a struggling new writer.

Interesting to me, with my obsession with the subject, was the audience discussion with Michele about the differences between memoirs and novels. Asked why she had chosen this time to write a memoir, she laughed and said with typical openness that her publisher (presumably responding to the current appetite for memoirs) had suggested it. Then someone in the audience identified herself as a teacher of memoir and 'life writing' and said that she always told her students that (as I'm always saying) a memoir is as much of a construct as a novel, and asked Michele whether she had found that to be true. Michele said that she had, but that the linear shape of the memoir had made for easier construction. However, a further question prompted her to say that she had originally conceived of the book as structurally more complex, but that the commissioning publisher had wanted something more linear (and presumably more marketable). Asked if this had compromised her truth, she said that, actually, yes it had: she had wanted very much for the book to be about the difference between her two personae: that of the young woman she was in the seventies and the woman she is now, but that the linear form hadn't been as capable of carrying that idea as her original conception. But then she laughed again and said without regret that this was the situation in today's publishing market, which you just have to accept.

What was really interesting, however, is that, at least with Michele Roberts accompanying the book in person, you very much did get a sense of the differences between those two personae, and of the relationship she now has to her former self - which was actually pretty moving, to me and I know to others in the audience. Someone noted that while many writers like to distance themselves from their fiction writing (something which I tend to do as a protest against the cult of personality), Michele is very open about the relationship between her writing and her life and personality. Michele responded by saying that this stems from her sense (with Julia Kristeva) that writing comes from the body, is felt before it is articulated in language - something I can't argue with in the least.

Food for thought - and a really stimulating evening. (And some OK wine.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Salt Autumn Party

An announcement today (on both my blogs): on Thursday evening Salt Publishing will be holding a party at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross Road to celebrate their poetry and short story lists and launch their autumn titles. Yours truly will be reading, along with a glittering array of brilliant, prize-winning, other Salt authors - or Salties, as some of us like to call ourselves.

Everyone is welcome. Come along and celebrate with this truly wonderful, and superhuman, publisher (I know I'm biased, but...!): The Gallery, Foyles Bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road, 6.30-8.30, Thursday November 29th 2007. Readings kick off on the dot at 6.30 (and I'm reading at the start).

The pic shows the cover of Salt's autumn short story catalogue, and is taken from that of their brilliant collection by Charles Yu, the title story of which, Third Class Superhero, won the 2004 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award. Charles has also been named one of the US National Book Foundation's '5 Under 35' writers of exciting fiction.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Whose right to write?

Oh, I am all churned up again.

Reading group last night (report when I finish decorating that ruddy room!), and it was my turn to make suggestions for next time. One of the two books I suggested, and the one plumped for by the others was Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces. Talking about the book to the others, and waving my signed copy, I remembered the Waterstone's Deansgate reading at which I got it signed, and the fact that someone in the audience asked Anne Michaels if she was Jewish. (The book deals with a Jewish theme.) Now I don't know if this guy was meaning to be aggressive, but he certainly came over as challenging, and Anne Michaels clearly felt wrong-footed if not threatened as she declined to reveal her cultural identity, saying that she didn't feel her own racial or cultural identity was relevant, that the book should stand up for itself. The guy persisted, saying he wanted to know because he was Jewish, and it was a pretty sticky moment before he finally gave up.

Me, I was hot and cold all over, just as I was again last night remembering it, because of course this issue - the idea which I'm sure the guy was pushing, that only certain people have the right to write about certain experiences - was the issue over which my own writing career stumbled.

As if fiction is merely testimony! (Yet there have been literary movements where this notion has been seriously held.) Fiction operates via imagination and empathy, and this is what makes it more potentially socially dynamic than is nowadays acknowledged. You can't change society without empathy, after all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wordless

I never thought I'd say this, but sometimes, I've discovered, you just need some time away from words. I've been in Amsterdam without my laptop, I looked at a newspaper only twice, and although I took a book I read the first few pages and then never picked it up again. I've just been looking and dreaming. And here, look, I made my own Dutch interior, and it was a damn sight easier than knocking together those slippery words...


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Reading group: Disgrace by J Coetzee

A big crowd of us to discuss this Booker-winning novel about David Lurie, a Cape Town teacher of Romantic poetry whose affair with a student leads to his dismissal and who retreats to his daughter's smallholding where he and his daughter are subsequently raided and his daughter raped.

Hans, who had chosen the book, said he found the depiction of Lurie fascinating: it was hard to know whether to condemn him for his chauvinism or to admire him for his honesty and determination to stand up for his own insights against those who were intent, like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on making him apologize.

A long discussion followed - one of the longest we've ever had - in which we tackled this and tried to tease out the meanings of the novel. I said Lurie was a colonizer - as an academic (colonizing poetry, perpetuating the culture of an imperialist nation in South Africa), as a womanizer and as the seducer of his student (whom he feels he is raping when she passively submits to him). John agreed and said that everything in the novel was very highly patterned around this theme: as he 'rapes' his student, so his daughter is raped in turn (just as, as whites have 'raped' South Africa, they must be raped in turn). As at the very beginning there is an ambiguous contract between the apparent colonizer Lurie and the prostitute Soraya (each using the other), so by the end of the book there is an ambiguous contract between Lurie's daughter Lucy and the new landowner Petrus.

Jenny disagreed that this was the point about Lurie (but I've been so busy I can't remember now what she said the point was), and she said with a giggle that actually, having taught in universities in the seventies she didn't think Lurie was all that bad as a womanizer, which set us all off laughing pretty helplessly, and from that moment on the whole meeting kept swinging between hilarity and the seriousness to which the novel kept drawing us back.

John said he was interested in the passivity which kept being enacted in the novel - the sexual passivity of the student and Lucy's passivity as she gives in to the consequences of her rape and to the new landowning order. It's this passivity in Lucy which Lurie can't stand, but which makes her the realist, and, as someone suggested, his (colonizer's) inability to accept it makes him redundant and leaves him only the option of retreat from this society.

In fact, he returns to the smallholding, but the ending, turning on the dog theme running through the book, and thus the whole book, Doug and I found utterly bleak.

I said I thought the book was too patterned: I didn't find at all psychologically convincing the episode in which Lurie visits the parents of the girl he seduced (which Hans suggested was a development of the covert Truth and Reconciliation theme), and especially their response, and most people agreed.

Finally Clare said it was odd that Lucy's rape, which was the really vivid (and horrifying) part of the book, and the episode which finally pulled her into it, was the one thing we hadn't discussed. I said that I thought that was because it was the only incident in the book which was entirely unambiguous, everything thing else being morally complex and shaded.

Doug, Clare, Jenny and Trevor said they thought the book fantastic, but Ann said that while she had appreciated the themes and patterns she had never become fully engaged.

Goodness knows how, but from the book we then got onto the subject of boils, and the fact that people don't seem to have boils as they used to, which we thought was due to better diet, and then people compared boil experiences and remembered how painful boils could be and said how horrible it must have been to have a boil on the bum, and Jenny said she did.

So by the time Ann offered her choice of two books for next time we were far gone in hilarity and when she held up two whoppers, we shrieked, How on earth could we choose (since we tend to go for the shortest)?, and people compared the authors' photos and made rude comments and considered turning down the one who looked snooty and in the end we chose the book which went with Jenny's jumper, a kind of brick orange.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Reading group: Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

I've been so busy I've got behind with our book group write-ups, and I'm a bit hazy now about our September discussion. The things I remember most vividly are that there were very few of us and that when John and I arrived Clare and Doug were discussing their respective forthcoming surgical operations.

Clare had chosen the book, a French classic and one of her favourites which had had a great impact on her when she first read it as a teenager. It was published only a year before its author, Alain-Fournier, was killed in World War I at the age of 28. The Grand Meaulnes of the title is the young lad who enters the life of the (initially) schoolboy narrator when he becomes a boarding pupil in the village school of which the narrator's father is the headmaster. Meaulnes is his surname, and because of his impact on the other boys - he's older, bigger and with a somehow enigmatic presence - he becomes known as Le Grand Meaulnes. The defining moment in the book comes when he 'disappears' or runs away and stumbles upon a seemingly entranced world- a grand but crumbling estate in which a party is being held - and encounters a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love. After his return, he and the narrator are constantly longing for and planning to re-find this lost world.

Clare said that what she loved this book for was its atmosphere, its descriptions of the seasons and the French countryside and its depiction of a mood of longing which conjures beautifully the adolescent condition which the book is about.

We all agreed about the atmosphere, but didn't find that it overcame our other doubts, mainly the fact that the book wasn't simply a depiction of adolescence, but was adolescent in itself. As Adam Gopnik says in the introduction to the current Penguin Classics edition, there's a lot of 'mooning about', and John had taken to calling this book (which has apparently had many different titles in translation) The Big Moan. Clare pointed out that after all the romantic yearnings, the ending of the book leads to a kind of disenchantment, but she then agreed with the rest of us that this disenchantment, rather than a growing-up, amounts to a failure to accept the realities of maturity. As such, I found it rather depressing. As Gopnik says, it's not so much a rites of passage novel as a Peter-Pan type tale of rejection of maturity. Clare also said that she was surprised when she re-read the book to remember that the 'adventure' occurs fairly near the start of the book, and that the rest of the book deals with repercussions continuing for years - which underlines the notion that the force of the book, and the true colour of the author's attitude, lie in those romantic adolescent longings.

Trevor said he thought that maybe the book's classic status owed more to the 'romantic' early death of its author than anything. Someone else suggested something subtler: that the book's theme of a lost world chimed with the sense of irrevocable change which the first world war brought. Everyone agreed that the rural French world in which the story takes place, and which is contemporary with Fournier's own life, is singularly archaic, thus adding to the impression of an old world only recently lost.

Before we met, Clare had met John in the street, and had said she wondered if she shouldn't have suggested a book she was so fond of, and she did indeed seem a little disappointed by the fact that we weren't swayed by the lyrical prose. And then she noticed that she was the only one with the earlier Penguin translation. She borrowed a copy with the new one and took it away and reported back that, as we had discovered with Camus' The Outsider, the newer Penguin translation was far less lyrical and thus less persuasive.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Didsbury Oxfam bookshop readings: Cath Staincliffe

Last night it was Cath Staincliffe's turn to sit in the chair in Didsbury Oxfam bookshop and give us a reading - she read from her latest crime novel, Missing. She had arrived with a huge bag of all her books but when we said goodbye in the swirling evening her bag was empty: she sold the lot, in spite of the fact that the spellbound audience could never be huge in such a small space!

For details of the rest of the week's events see post below.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Readings in Didsbury Oxfam Shop: Adele Geras

Last week I had my launch in my favourite restaurant, and last night I went to a reading in the place where I buy my clothes - Didsbury Oxfam shop.

All this week the newly refurbished Oxfam shop is holding a series of readings by local authors in its books section, and last night, the first night, was Adele Geras. Outside there were leaves swirling - Manchester is so fluffy with leaves this autumn (not so much rain)! - and inside there was a lovely homey atmosphere, with wine and nibbles, and Adele sat in an armchair beside a big vase of flowers to read to us. I think that - at six on Bonfire Night - only adults were expected, but children turned up to have her sign all the books of hers they owned and their autograph books too.

Adele obliged by reading from her one of her spellbinding Historical House teenage novels before moving on to her luscious adult novel Made in Heaven and finally she entertained us all with her writing, publishing and reading tales and gave us a good laugh.

A really lovely evening.

Tonight, crime writer Cath Staincliffe reads, tomorrow it's novelist and story writer Conrad Williams, Thursday is a double bill with novelist Nick Royle and poet Linda Chase, and on Friday the shop presents poet Carol Ann Duffy - all at 6 pm. On Saturday poets Jane Weir and Mike Garry read at 2pm and 3pm respectively.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Launch for Balancing on the Edge of the World

I'm so lucky - I had such a lovely launch for Balancing on the Edge of the World! So many of my fantastic friends came down to help me celebrate - writing and acting friends, my reading group, most of the guys from the old Robert-Topping Waterstone's days, neighbours and family - I really couldn't have had better support. And the venue, Chorlton's Croma Restaurant, was so stylish, and the Croma people looked after us so attentively, and had set out the room with such thoughtfulness and care. Vicky and Jo from Chorlton Bookshop - who, as I said when I gave my little spiel, have been supportive of my writing right from the very early days - generously gave up their evening to come and sell the books (and people bought a heap!). Ailsa Cox, fellow short-story writer and my one-time co-editor on the short-story magazine Metropolitan, also generously offered at the last minute to introduce me before my reading, and Tim Power took some great photos (below) in spite of the fact that the light was pretty tricky.

Afterwards about 25 of us stayed and had a meal - what a great evening. I think I must have got a bit drunk in the end: we had wine with the meal, and when my family got me home they opened a bottle of champagne. At any rate, next morning I felt quite giddy whenever I bent down...

Thank you everybody for making the evening so great! Thank you, Croma's Kirsty and Claire for respectively offering us Croma and organising the event. And most of all, thank you Salt for publishing my book and for providing a long-needed platform for short stories.

Here's the crowd beginning to gather, artistically caught by Tim in the wall mirrors:

Filling up (that's writer and blogger Clare Sudbery I'm talking to on the left and far right in the foreground is writer and Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher):

Here's Ailsa getting ready to introduce me before the reading (I look a bit serious - a moment of nerves):


And then the eating began:

Thanks to Tim Power for permission to publish his pics. More of his work can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gonzopix/

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ridiculously strenuous preparations for a launch

Who would have thought that a book launch would require such preparations? (Tonight, Croma Restaurant, Chorlton, 7 pm, the launch for my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World.)

I'm not talking the printing of the invitations by my lovely publisher, Salt, or the sending of them out, or the liaising with the venue (well, there wasn't any really, the marvellous Kirsty, Croma's manager, just offered me the launch!) or the bookshop (ditto: Chortlon Bookshop have been wonderful, as they always are!), or press releases etc.

No, I'm talking DECORATING A ROOM!

When John and I first bought this rather large house together the reason we (writers!) could afford it was that it had only just been converted back to single occupancy after years as pretty grotty flats. The work to be done was, well, monumental, and although the previous owners had worked hard, they'd really only scratched the surface before they had to sell up and move on for their work.

Well, John and I had great intentions, but we also had young kids, and we were very busy with our writing and our work, and let's say we got used to the congealed and peeling paint, the dropping plaster, the plumbing that never worked - and anyway, we could never afford the improvements. We stopped seeing the remains of yale locks on all the doors and the big dents where they'd been kicked in (now there are a few narratives lurking!). And the books piled up and hid it all, as well as the furniture we inherited from dead relatives - well, we had the big house, didn't we? We could be the depository for the family 'heirlooms' (a piano that doesn't work any more, but on which my mother learned to play when she went as a playmate to the lord of the manor's daughter, so it simply can't be jettisoned! Chests of drawers with half their handles missing etc etc).

Except when people came to stay: that's when I'd get embarrassed about the piled junk and peeling wallpaper in the bedrooms and the cracks in the walls, and the patterns drawn on the ceiling by the previous owners' children and the blocks of wood knocked into holes in the plaster (!). Well, I won't go on.

And now all of a sudden we are going to have a houseful: people coming to the launch tonight need to stay! So three weeks ago John and I decided to create at least one decent bedroom. This is why I haven't been blogging. For the past week we have been working against the clock, from nine in the morning till nine in the evening, scraping and sanding and painting and driving ourselves to distraction and exhaustion.

A strange way to prepare for a launch, don't you think? And guess what, the room's not finished anyway, so there's one less half-decent room than before...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Split personality? Moi?

It's a funny old life, this writing one. Last winter, after three years on a very big project, I was housebound, almost agoraphobic, and I think all my friends had just about given up on me. I was starting to envisage an old age of shuffling to the shops every afternoon for a little bit of entertainment, and beginning to think I'd been an idiot to choose this way of spending my life (not of course that it's a choice - I just can't help it).

Yet this summer and autumn, with the production of my play The Processing Room for the 24:7 Theatre Festival and the publication of Balancing on the Edge of the World (not to mention taking part in a short film) - well, let's say I haven't drawn breath, I am hardly ever home and when I am I'm climbing over piles of unwashed laundry, and - a writer with the need to observe! - hardly noticed the seasons passing until I was forced to do so, thankfully, to write the Manchester Blog Story.

So here I am longing for a bit of peace and quiet again and a CHANCE TO GET BACK PROPERLY TO WRITING!!! It's such an irony. You dedicate yourself to your writing and to do so you need to retreat (well, I do, anyway), to answer to nothing but your own dreams, but nowadays, once your writing becomes public there's no choice but for you to become public too - indeed to become some kind of mad PR machine - and, most ironic of all, the writing comes to a standstill.

And it's not over yet. There's the proper launch of the book, and I have three trips to London lined up, and today is the first, so excuse me now as I dash off for a shower and then for the train, dreaming of those cosy December days when at last I'll be able to sit down at the desk in my pyjamas and get lost inside my own head again...

And then of course, by March I'll be longing for contact with people and the outside world all over again...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Salt and Transmission reading at MMU

Last Thursday I took part in the Transmission Magazine/Salt Publishing event at MMU. It was a great evening and I enjoyed the others' readings immensely. Earlier in the day I met our Salt publisher, Jen, who arrived laden down with camera and tripod and a box of David Gaffney's new book, Aromabingo, which apparently he hadn't even seen yet. Jen says that's one of the great things about being a publisher - she keeps her arms well toned.

Here's a photo Jen took of the four of us Salt authors after the reading: David, Neil Campbell, Steve Waling and me.


After the reading we all went over to the Sand Bar, and I had far too late a night when I had a reading and workshops at Edge Hill University the next day!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bloggers in the flesh


What a great do the Manchester Blog Awards was! (Didn't win, but what would you expect when you're up against the other nominees in the Arts and Culture category - including the amazing Mancubist, the eventual winner?). A big thank you though to everyone who nominated my Fictionbitch blog - I was very surprised and immensely flattered.

There were some great readings from nominated blogs, and we had a smashing time: Norm (also nominated) and Adele Geras were on the next table, and Norm and I were able to talk about how addictive blogging is, and Adele, always with an eye out for the physical details, said she liked my shoes, but actually they were far too high for climbing on stage to read the final instalment of the blogstory, and I nearly came a-cropper!


Trevor from the reading group and his wife Anne came down to give support, and Trevor was pretty shocked when Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher said to him, 'Oh, I know you: I know all your opinions!' and was quick to inform him that he only knew my (blog) version of his opinions of books.

Caroline Smailes was there, giving a reading from her great book In Search of Adam and answering questions, and as usual Kate Feld, the force behind the whole evening, was a brilliant compere.

The other winners were as follows:

Best Personal Blog: Single Mother on the Verge

Best New Blog: Rent Girl

Best Political Blog: Politaholic

Best Writing on a Blog: Day of Moustaches

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Manchester blog Awards and a reading of the final episode of the Blog Story

The Manchester Blog Awards tonight at Matt and Phred's, 7pm. I'll be there, reading the final episode of the blog story. I wrote it at the weekend, as I've had a hundred other things to do this week - preparing for workshops and readings - and I've been on tenterhooks all day today, hoping that there was going to be no ground-shaking breaking news which would mean that I'd have to sit down and thrust everything else aside and re-work the story at the last minute!

Special guest Caroline Smailes will be there too, reading from her fantastic novel In Search of Adam, which was picked up by publisher The Friday Project from Caroline's innovative blog.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Reading at Independents Day


Just back from Manchester Literature Festival's day for independent presses at the Lowry in Salford and my first reading from Balancing on the Edge of the World.

Well, I guess twelve noon is not a good time to get people flocking to a reading, especially somewhere a bit off the beaten track, and actually I got a dozen or so, so I guess that wasn't bad going!! The worst thing was following Chloe Poems, that fantastically seasoned and hilarious (as well as moving) performer, dressed today as Sandie Shaw, and who doubled up before his own gig crying: 'What is this hour of eleven-thirty in the morning: I don't know it!'


You see, we matched: blue and red! (Well, OK, the red's just in Chloes' cheeks, and I was in black too.) And we both read stuff set in Manchester and about being drunk and out on the town! (Chloe's book of poems is The Lil Ol' Book o' Manchester.) And during his reading Chloe had a brilliant tantrum about this big posh building we were reading in, which can be built while people are homeless - after which I read my story which begins with a homeless guy. Oh, we Manky guys - so angry, yet so swish and abandoned!!

Here's Chloe, bless him, listening to me reading:


And here's the view our wardrobes were competing with - through the window right behind us:


Later, at two, fellow Salt author Shamshad Khan read and got the audience, which had begun to swell by then, miaowing and barking like cats and dogs.

Finally I attended a very interesting panel discussion on independent publishing chaired by DJ Taylor, who came out with this line which we should all get engraved on our foreheads: 'We live in a culture that's based on the glorification of stupidity.'

Thursday, October 04, 2007

My new book!

Oh my goodness, I have lost all will to vacuum the stairs, which was what I was doing when the front doorbell went, and a man in a luminous gilet was standing there with a box which I knew - because Jen told me yesterday - was full of copies of my new book!

Needless to say, I wanted to rip into it straight away, but he said, 'I need you to sign,' and I had to put it down. And then he stood there for three minutes setting up his electronic signing pad and moaning about how it was all so much quicker when he had a pen and paper, and I was trying to stop myself from jumping up and down on the spot, and noticing sideways what a beautiful morning it was, and how everything suddenly glowed in the sun, his nice brown skin, his amazingly luminous gilet, the tan leather cover of his signing pad, and then at last, at last, he let me sign and went and I shut the door and ran for a knife and slit the tape, and there they were: piles of beautiful cool blue copies of my book, all silky to the touch!!

Oh, there's nothing like this moment - the moment you first see your newly-minted book!

And it's the moment when it's no longer private, but a public thing. And indeed on Saturday I'm reading from it at 12 noon in the Circle Bar at the Lowry, Salford, as part of the Manchester Literature Festival Independents Day series of events. ( Book on 0870 428 0785 or www.manchesterliteraturefestival.co.uk, but I think you can also get tickets on the door.)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Rejected!

Well, this blog just been rejected by BritBlogs - I think maybe because, for several posts running, I've been posting here about the interactive Manchester Blog Story which I've been writing for the Manchester Literature Festival, and it looked as though this blog was simply a portal to another!

Undeterred, I'm going to alert you to this week's instalment, which has just gone up online. It's such an interesting literary experiment, but have to admit I've found it a bit hard to talk about the process while I've been actually writing it. As I said at Saturday's Blogging for Writers workshop (which I conducted with Kate Feld), I'm one of those writers who doesn't like to talk about her projects while she's still writing them, and even finds it difficult, because the whole process of writing for me is rather intuitive and 'magical', using a different, non-logical and associative part of my brain from the one required for analysis of literary processes. But of course this project isn't simply mine, others have had an input, and in order to involve them I've had to promote it by talking about it on the radio - which I have to say I haven't found easy.

I know that when it's all over- and when I'm scheduled to conduct a workshop about it at Edge Hill University - I'll have loads to say: you won't be able to stop me!

Because of last week's voter choice, our blogger-narrator Cat is undecided about her feelings for her housemate Ahmed, and the mystery of the elusive stranger is about to unfold.

You can vote to influence the nature of the mystery and thus the end of the story by doing so before 8pm Thursday.

I'll then unveil the final episode by reading it at the Manchester Blog Awards on Wednesday 10th October, Matt and Phred's Jazz Club, Tib Street, 7pm (Tickets free, but please book on 0870 428 0785 or on the Manchester Festival website.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cover proof


A nice surprise this weekend: the cover proof of my forthcoming story collection from Salt (a bit wonky in the scan above as it was so big I couldn't get it straight in the scanner). I'm still getting used to the new processes in publishing. It's the first time I've ever had bound proofs - that is, bound with a proper cover - and it seems odd to be getting the final cover proof after I've actually had a 'book'. The new cover is lovely: silk, whereas the bound proof cover was glossy, and very luxurious-looking and -feeling!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Blogging for Writers workshop

Just back from the workshop 'Blogging for Writers' at MDDA, where I learnt something new: that I can't work on a computer and talk to a group at the same time - I lost my thread two or three or times! Interesting: I hadn't realised how utterly silent and private and inward this space at my keyboard was: because of the interactivity of the blogosphere, I had thought of it as quite the opposite. Now I understand why, when I've been doing a spot of blogging, John acts as though I've been away somewhere!

It was a great group of writers, with varying levels of knowledge about blogging. Kate Feld did a great job of explaining the fundamentals of blogging, and by the end of the session everyone, even complete beginners, had set up their own blog and was ready to join us all. I was going to take a photo if people had been willing, but guess what, that was another thing I forgot...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Manchester Blog Awards

Well, I'm pretty thrilled: my other, issue-based blog has been nominated for a Manchester Blog Award.

The blog awards will be held at 7pm Wednesday, Oct. 10, at Matt and Phred's Jazz Club on Tib Street in the Northern Quarter. Tickets are free, but should be reserved via the Manchester Literature Festival website.

At this event I'll also be reading the final instalment of the blog story I've been writing in the run up to the festival.

Go here to find the list of nominees.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A pub, a club and Nan


Instalment 4 of the blog story, 'What Would You Do?' which I'm writing for the Manchester Literature Festival, has now been posted. Last week's vote means that in this week's episode, 'A pub, a club and Nan', Cat must dash from her nan's somewhat robust party to the gig where she hopes to get information about the mysterious stranger - with an unexpected development.

You can vote on how that development should pan out, and you have till Thursday 8pm to do it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book launch: Some New Ambush by Carys Davies

Last night John drove us north out of the pelting rain of Manchester to the dryness and quaint stone buildings of Lancaster, where in the Dukes Theatre Gallery fellow Salt author Carys Davies was holding the launch for her fabulous collection of stories, Some New Ambush.

These stories are wonderful. Wry yet magical, and ranging from a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum to contemporary Chicago, they are fairy tales of human longing and determination in the face of fate. Carys read from three of the stories including 'Pied Piper', which blew me away when I read it, beginning as it does as the tale of a woman who finds a baby in the sand and passes it off as her own, and turning out to be a depiction of the human effects of one Britain's worst industrial disasters.

Here's Carys signing books after the reading:


I got my precious bound proof signed, and also a copy I bought for Christmas for my mum, who comes from the part of Wales where some of these stories are set. Luckily, my mum doesn't read blogs, so she won't find out unless anyone tells her. Right?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

John McAuliffe at Manky Poets

I haven't been to Manky Poets for ages. It's run by copland smith (who spells his name without capitals) and is held in Chorlton Library one Friday each month 7.30-9.30. The first half is an open session in which audience members read - beginners and experienced poets alike - and then after the break there's always an invited guest.

Last night I went and found that the numbers had grown hugely in my absence - I arrived rather late and had to stand, as the only seat available was way at the front. Typical me: there was one seat near the back, and I promptly sat down on it, only to realize when the poet reading finished and came towards me looking stymied that I was not only sitting on her seat but on her bag!

Well, last night's guest was John McAuliffe, and a thoroughly enjoyable reading it was. He's a warm character and reads engagingly and his poems are funny and moving and at once sensuous and muscular. What I loved about them most was their concern with a kind of doubleness of both place and time: Ireland recalled in England, moments triggering the memory of others, layered and altered by their layering.

Great stuff. And great that copland has made Manks the success it is.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blogging for writers

It seems that there are still a couple of spaces left in the Blogging for Writers workshop which I'm running on Saturday, Sept. 29 with the fabulous Kate Feld, writer and Manchizzle blogger.

We'll go over the basics of blogging as a tool to market your work, experiment with different styles and get projects off the ground. And have fun writing! It'll be from 11am-1pm.

Later the same day Kate will be running a more general blogging workshop, So You Wanna Be a Blogstar?, with Chris from Mancubist. It'll be for anyone setting up a blog, or anyone who has been blogging for a while but needs a little inspiration, and will run from from 2-4pm.

Both are just £2, and take place at MDDA headquarters on Portland Street. We will have computers available for those who need them, but the place has wireless so you can bring laptops if you like. Book here at the MLF site.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Late night, late September in Manc

To the BBC again late last night to update on the blogstory for the Radio Manchester Phil Woods show. Last time I went the streets were so quiet, but last night - well! What were all these crowds???? Sauntering in great crocodiles along Oxford Road and down Charles Street, dressed (in spite of the weather) in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and sandals, and strappy tops and pelmet skirts with bare legs or fluorescent legwarmers - and carrying balloons???? Like a children's tea party but with adult-sized guests?

Ah! Freshers week, of course!!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Instalment 3 of blogstory goes live

Instalment 3 of the Manchester Blogstory is now up. We had a bit of bother with the poll site last week, and huge apologies to those who found they weren't able to vote. This week we're using a different one, so there shouldn't be any problems.

Those who could vote last week chose Ahmed the sound operator who lives at the top of Cat's house to help her begin to solve the mystery of her anonymous caller, and in the current instalment there's a development when Ahmed invites the inhabitants of the house to be extras in a film he's working on.

This week you can vote on a radical plot twist for instalment 4. Voting ends 8pm Thursday.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Voting for Chapter 3 of the Blogstory

Voting is under way for the next episode of the Blogstory, and Ahmed, the sound operator who lives at the top of Cat's house - a character who hasn't yet featured much - is at present way ahead as the person who in the next episode will inadvertently help her on the trail of the mysterious stranger.

It's a weird process, this, and maybe I shouldn't be looking at the votes, but I can't help it, I'm far too curious, of course. But I really mustn't yet start to envisage scenarios involving Ahmed - what if the voting pattern changes, as it did last week?

There's still until tomorrow (Thursday) 8 pm to vote and make a difference!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Chapter 2 of Blogstory goes live

Chapter 2 of the Manchester Blog Story, What Would You Do?, which I've been commissioned to write for the Manchester Literature Festival, has just gone live.

It's set in Central Library, which readers voted for - and I just hope I've come up to their expectations!!!

I didn't sleep much last night, as I was still mulling over a particular phrase - and I had to get up early this morning to get it to administrator Kate Feld in time!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tagged after all

Well, I've been holding out against this tagging lark - otherwise how can I go on complaining about the tendency to want to know about writers' lives (rather than their books), as I do on my other blog? But now Jen at Salt has tagged me, and what can you do but comply when your publisher tags you, and anyway she makes it such fun, so I'm giving in:

"Each player starts with eight random facts/habits or embarrassing things about themselves. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog."

Here goes:

1. My mother once dressed me up for a village fete as a summer salad, and what this did for my self image may be a matter for the psychiatrist's chair. (I was only four, but I can still remember in a physical way the shock of cold when she placed the necklace of cucumber slices round my neck.)

2. I recently sat in a cooling bath for an hour and a half (mercifully dressed in a strapless dress) while a film director and cameraman decided on the shot they wanted. By the time they had finished I was a wrinkled prune.

3. I sing to myself without knowing I'm doing it, which made my children want to walk ten steps behind.

4. I talk to myself, too - or more accurately, I mouth the stories I'm writing - which makes my children still not want to walk with me at all.

5. A lost skill: I can't cook any more, I'm always too busy writing to practise.

6. My feet are so big that when John first met me he bought me Fats Waller's Your Feet's Too Big.

7. I'm crazy about cabbage, and never get enough as no one else likes it. What's fantastic about North Wales restaurants is that they serve it up!

8. Something that still makes me blush: I once agreed to use clippers on the head of someone about to go on holiday with a brand-new girlfriend, an event he was somewhat nervous about. I sneered at his worry that I might drop the guard, and then went and did just that and made a bald stripe up the back of his head.

Now I have to tag eight others:

Sally Lawton
Caroline Smailes
Debi Alper
Amanda Mann
Clare Sudbery
Lucy Pepper
Nicola Monaghan
Charles Lambert

Friday, September 07, 2007

Blogstory: readers vote for Central Library

So the vote on the blogstory was overwhelmingly for Manchester Central Library. This is where Cat's mysterious caller will tell her to go for a meeting, rather than the rumbustious pub in Salford or the the slick, slightly wild ambience of the Printworks with its bars and clubs. Not only does this potentially have a bearing on the identity of the caller, it makes me wonder about the readers who have voted. Why have they voted in this way? Is it because Central Library is the place they know and/or like best (in which case of course they're a pretty studious lot)? Or is it that, like the voters on Sarah Hepola's interactive blog story (see earlier post) they want to steer the characters in that more 'worthy' direction? Either way, the reality of readers is already strongly imposed on the story.

So it's quite funny that when I met an (admittedly senior) friend at the bus stop this morning and told him I was writing an interactive blogstory, he grimaced and rolled his eyes and did a comic quick retreat away from me and from something quite so trivial and trendy and 'unliterary'!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Blogstory voting

Voting is going interestingly for the blogstory, and implies that it's a pretty literary lot who are bothering, since so far Central Library is way ahead as the venue for the narrator's mysterious meeting. That's not how it began, however: at the start the Salford pub was in the lead, but unfortunately the voting site we were using at first went down and we had to swap sites. This meant that we lost the first dozen or so votes, which had been heading the story in that direction. I know that Kate Feld, the site adminstrator, tried to transfer those votes to the new site, but I don't think the software let her. So if you voted on Tuesday morning it's possible that your vote hasn't been counted, but you should be able to vote again on the new site. Voting closes tonight at eight, and then I'll have to get writing again!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sundar Kanta Walker at the Portico Library, a dash to the BBC and a drink in the Lass o'Gowrie


To the Portico Library last night for the opening of Sundar Kanta Walker's final leg in the tour of her fantastic show of paintings, Samsara: The World, The Universe. What a surprise: since the first show in Sale last October, Kanta has added numerous new paintings, some of them huge and all overflowing with vibrant energy - and Kanta is such a little woman, I don't know why she wasn't flat on the floor rather than looking her usual bright-button self.

Some of these new paintings made me shudder in an exciting but disturbing way, and Kanta explained to the assembled guests that the theme of this exhibition is our treatment of the environment and its resultant cataclysmic changes. The picture above is Kanta's vision of a tropicalized Lake District, and others show mountain ranges where the brush-strokes and colour shifts seem dynamically to split mountains between melting heat and desolate uncompromising ice, capturing our sense of the uncertainty of the future in a way which brought my heart into my mouth. But, marvellously, there are pictures too celebrating those things which, if we are not careful, we could lose, and the shot below shows Kanta beside one of them.

I couldn't help thinking there was an interesting culture clash between the urgency of the paintings and the gentility of the venue: live music, a gentle harp and a flute, above us the beautiful recently restored Georgian glass and plaster dome, all around us shelves of old leather-bound books, one wall classified in gold lettering: Polite Literature. And the reading room, where William Gaskell and Roget once sat. I love the place, but there is still an air of nineteenth century elitism about it - the way you have to be let in at the door, the fact that you need a letter of reference before you can ever borrow books and the original club-type membership system still in operation. There's good reason, of course - the books are a special and crumbling resource which need great care and renovation (the library is engaged on a massive ongoing renovation project of the books and the weakening shelves.) But you know me: I stood taking the photo below of the gentleman's-club type reading room, and couldn't help making a connection between nineteenth-century elitism and the state of the world about which Kanta is painting.

And then home for a bite to eat, and out again back to the BBC to talk about the blogstory on Radio Manchester's Phil Wood show, and then across the road to the Lass o' Gowrie and a world Gaskell and Roget would never recognize, where John was chatting to a bunch of ecology students all dressed up as animals (don't ask me why) and who should also be there but Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher and, guess what, we talked about blogging until chucking-out time.

Kanta's exhibition continues until 27th September.