Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Change at Commonword and Bitch-Lit still going strong

To Taurus bar last night for a leaving drink for Cathy Bolton, Commonword's innovative and inspirational publisher, who will be sorely missed. She's not going far, though - just down the road, and in fact to the part of town where Commonword began: after stepping in as Acting Director of Manchester Literature Festival last year, she is this year taking up the post of Director.

One piece of news was that Commonword's Bitch-Lit anthology (which includes my story The Way to Behave) is still going strong: Maya Chowdhry, Mary Sharratt, Michelle Green & Cath Staincliffe will be performing in character again at Manchester's Central Library on International Women's Day, March 8th, 1-2pm (Committee Room, 2nd Floor), and next week Maya, Char March and Brighid Rose will perform at London's Split-Lit Festival.

Maya also told me that we had had a really TERRIBLE review on the web, and of course I came straight home and Googled it. Omigod, so she didn't get that any of the stories were IRONIC!!! Is it not clear that they are ironic?!!! Should I not put mine in my collection, therefore? EEK!!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Those little rewards

Sometimes little things happen out of the blue that make you happy, a little reward for no extra work at all. Today: a sweet email from an Italian translator, asking if she can translate into Italian the story Compass and Torch (which will almost certainly be going into the collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World). The deal is by no means done, of course, but I'm still beaming: I don't know about other writers, but I don't think I'll ever stop being chuffed whenever someone writes and enthuses about my work.

Another typical event in the writing life: just when you get involved in a project, some other urgent thing pops up. Another email, this one from Jen at Salt: we need to choose the stories for the collection now. Which puts paid for a day or so to the new novel which popped into my head this weekend!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Radio schlock

On Friday in the Guardian Zoe Williams wrote this:
It's all very well calling Radio 4 drama inexplicably bad, but someone must be able to explain it. So I am going to make a stab at this. And then later, I am going to stab the person who commissions these plays.

It's the same everywhere I go. Yesterday I went to a party and as usual I was asked about my writing, and whenever I happened to mention that I hadn't written radio for a while, people relaxed and said: 'Oh yes, cos it's all crap nowadays, isn't it?'

Honestly, it's enough to make me think of taking radio off my CV...

Zoe Williams thinks the problem is that the themes chosen are too ambitious - (pandemics, Shoah, etc) - too ambitious anyway for Radio 4 which she associates unquestioningly with 'schlocky dialogue'. (Cringe.)

Well, I think it's the commissioning process, which took over at the end of the nineties. As I've said before, when I first started writing radio plays you wrote what you wanted, sent it in, and if they liked it they produced it. And there were real respect and encouragement in radio for good writing, which was rewarded each year with the now defunct Giles Cooper Award. But things changed, the BBC restructured and the dreaded Commissioning Rounds came in, and the 'Market' became quite frankly more important than the writer or the writing. Commissioning Editors decided on trends of the moment (in themes and style), and writers and directors had to pitch ideas within those parameters, following instructions as far as possible but much of the time second-guessing. (It was round about then that I heard from someone in the know, I can't remember who, that Tom Stoppard's agent contacted BBC Radio to say that Stoppard would like to write them a play and was told to tell him to send in a proposal, and they'd decide if it was suitable.)

If you did get commissioned, there were plenty of other obstacles to overcome. When I wrote my comedy series The Circle, each episode as I wrote it had to be read by not just my director, but a script editor, an executive producer and the head of drama, all answering to the Commissioning Editor and all coming back with separate comments according to criteria I hadn't guessed at and which now hit me like a bombshell. 'We want heart-warming drama,' they told me. 'Get rid of the irony, please.'

Get rid of the irony? But I had won prizes for my irony! My writing is irony!

Well, I was lucky with my producers: we talked and they understood and all was right in the end. Radio commissioning changes all the time, and I don't know the current situation, but you do sense that those big themes are being thought up in boardrooms. And I do know that writers write best when they're writing from the heart and not by numbers imposed from above.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The universities and author readings

Talking of author readings, as I indicated on my other blog last week, the place for readings in Manchester now seems to be the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. At last night's reading, however, I sat next to a friend who told me that the other university too holds readings open to the public. A problem however seems to be that these readings are not well advertised to the public, and you have to be in the know - he said that he had learned too late of a reading by John Banville at the other place, and last week Adrian Slatcher commented on this blog that he hadn't known about a reading I'd been to at MMU.

Last night at MMU it was Matthew Hollis. Although once upon a time besotted with Wordsworth, I am not nowadays a fan of rural poetry, but last night Matthew Hollis just about converted me back again. Though, in spite of their subject matter, there's a spareness and grittiness about his poems which make them seem not exactly rural in fact, and most definitely not backward-looking but universal and indeed contemporary. Apart from that they have a wonderful lyricism and Matthew was a great reader, and I was drawn right in. In the Q&A, Andrew Biswell, who runs the Writing School, commented that the poems were very much against the current grain in that they weren't confessional, personal or anecdotal. Matthew's brow crinkled and he thought a minute and then said somewhat tentatively that he had a bit of a problem with the idea of classifying poems as 'confessional', in that any poem is an artefact and thus something more than a mere 'confession', transcending any experience which triggered it.

Altogether he was self-effacing and always thoughtful, and open about not always knowing the answer (in spite of his status as a poetry editor at Faber): a stance which doesn't do authors much good in the wider publicity-geared world of publishing, but which certainly endeared him to this audience.

Over to Kro2 bar again afterwards and the film company were there again along with the writer who told me that he's written a special monologue for my character!

In the next weeks there will be several authors reading at MMU, including Livi Michael, Carol Rumens, Jeffrey Wainwright, Linda Chase and Jackie Roy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Independent bookshops and author readings

The Guardian Arts Diary reports today on a bid by respected authors to support 'Britain's embattled independent bookshops' by taking part in a festival which sounds more like a moving feast: 'talks and events in independent bookshops nationwide'. There's no information about when it will take place.

It's been a while now, but here in Manchester we are still mourning the loss of our once-great author-readings bookshop culture, centred on the non-independent Waterstone's Deansgate. OK, so it cost, but did it really? There was such a buzz, which attracted so many book buyers, not just to the readings, but to the shop as a cultural centre and meeting place. I bought so many books then: it's because of that period in the history of Manchester's bookshops that my house is groaning with books, and we trip over them on the way to the loo.

Waterstone's still holds the odd reading though, mainly for local authors. On the 13th March Dedalus Press present a night of Decadence and Noir with Nicholas Royle and Andy Oates, and on the 15th there's a launch of a new book by Mike Duff from Crocus Books.

From a writer's point of view, it's a great chance to connect with readers, which is presumably why, now that this culture is to be focused on the smaller bookshops, participating writer Jake Arnott feels moved to say that 'Smaller bookshops are really where the heart of a writer lies'.

Monday, February 19, 2007

How to name a bestseller

According to's Titlescorer, the title of my forthcoming collection of stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, gives it a 79.6% chance of bestsellerdom. Hm. I might be excited if the scorer included the meanings, associations or connotations of the words in a title, and not simply the parts of speech.

Thanks to Debi for the link.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Learning to adapt

Giles Foden writes in today's Guardian about the dangers of having one's fiction adapted for the screen. It's a funny business, as I've said on my other blog. As a reader I would say I don't like screen adaptations: I usually try never to see one before reading a book, yet if I watch one afterwards I'm always frustrated by the gap between the director's vision and my own. I haven't read Foden's novel The Last King of Scotland, but on this occasion I was dragged along, reluctantly, to see the film. I was bowled over - rarely has a film made such a lasting impact on me - but I know now that I'll never be able to read the book without its images and those actors in my head.

As a writer, though, it's a different story. Someone comes along and offers you a big bag of money to turn your novel into something which will make it a hell of a lot more famous than it ever was before - or in, my case, famous in a way it never was. I had had bad luck with my second novel, Body Cuts. Halfway through the editing process my editor at the small publishing house left to pursue her own novel career, and the publisher failed to tell me, or to make clear to her replacement where we were in the editing process, and as a result the book went to press without my final editing. The reason for such mix-ups suddenly became evident. Weeks before the book was due out the publisher was bought up by another, and although my book had been announced in the trade press, it failed to appear. When it was eventually published, no new announcements were made in the trade press by the new publisher, and not long after that the original publisher's fiction list was remaindered.

In the meantime, however, during the short time that book was in the bookshops, the TV director John Glenister happened to pick it up, got hooked and immediately decided that he wanted to adapt it for TV. How cool was that? How could I refuse such a chance of resurrection? My usual reservations about screen adaptations went shooting off into the ether.

In fact, in the end that adaptation didn't happen - people at the BBC had moved on, artistic and funding policies had changed - but as I had been working on the adaptation with John, I took it to a Channel 4/arts-board screenwriting scheme, and here my reservations dropped back down from the sky. My God: the changes I was expected to make!! My main male character should be a different sort of person, my female character's mother ought to die!!! Needless to say I soon dropped the whole idea, and contented myself with salvaging from this last experience insights for my satirical (and entirely fictional) story, 'The Shooting Script', which may be included in my forthcoming collection from Salt, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

We haven't yet decided which stories will go in this collection, but one which probably will is 'Power', which looks at the stresses on children of quarrelling parents through their contrasting voices (previously published in Power [Honno]), a story I adapted as a radio drama. It was the second time I had adapted my own fiction for radio: earlier I worked on my first novel, The Birth Machine. Both times I worked with the director Michael Fox and both times I was given free rein to adapt my work in ways which allowed me to stay as true to the original as I wished. I have to say that adaptation for the verbal, non-visual medium of radio is a different thing altogether: I don't feel in any way that the transformations stole the souls of the original fictions in the way screen adaptations so often seem to do.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Out in Manc

To Manchester Metropolitan University's Writing School last night for a great reading by tutor Simon Armitage, and on to the Kro2 Bar afterwards. There Steve Waling and I sat and patted each other on the back for getting on Salt's publishing list, and, with silly grins on our faces, compared notes about how great they seem to be, and how much effort they seem to put into marketing their books. Steve's poetry collection comes out in April and he told me that Publishing Director Jen Hamilton-Emery had been up to make a podcast of him reading a poem and talking about his book for the website.

I haven't been out much recently, and I should go out more often: as we sat there shamelessly congratulating ourselves, a film company for whom I worked as an actor last summer walked in. The film we made has been really well received, apparently, and they're doing another, and would I be free? Yippee. Acting is one of the things I love best in the world (much easier than writing!!). I'm not telling you the name of the company or the film, because I play a pretty uncool character (it is a surreal comedy, I hasten to add), and that's not the kind of image you need for marketing fiction, now, is it?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

That photo thing...

So Salt asked me to provide some recent publicity photos PDQ. Oh, help. That dreadful process again. And my last photographer has moved away. Where would I get another one? Fellow bloggers Manchizzle and Adrian Slatcher came to my aid with suggestions, but their contacts appeared not to be around. Then John reminded me how fantastic the photos had been last summer for the Manchester 24:7 Theatre Festival. Yes!! Dave Slack, the festival's organiser, put me right on to their photographer: Tom Wright. And there I was within a day or two meeting him in the city centre.

What sort of thing did I want? Tom wanted to know. I resisted the urge to say the thing which made my last photographer go white even though I was joking, ie Please try and make me look glamorous if you can; I didn't even say Just making me look not plain ugly would be great, and I gave him the publisher's specs: interesting urban shots.

I suggested the new white bridge over the Irwell, which is always appearing in telly dramas like Cold Feet, and as Tom checked the light I leaned on the side in the hope of looking writerishly thoughtful. A man walked past and stared. He kept staring, turning back. More people came, in both directions, all staring back over their shoulders. I cracked up. And the bridge turned out not to be the best suggestion: it shook as people passed, which was not so good for focus, and it was so huge that it was hard to get a shot of it except from a distance. At Tom's more sensible suggestion we moved off to the old arched bridge. A woman stopped. 'Oh don't forget your bag will you, dear?' she cried, scooping it up for me and spoiling the shot. More people endangered their lives by walking while looking backwards at us, and again I had to make the effort to straighten my face.

At the end I took a shot of Tom taking one of me, and if I hadn't still been laughing it wouldn't have been blurred.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Expectations unfulfilled

On Tuesday the reading group met at Clare's house to discuss Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang is the only book ever which has had a universal thumbs-down from the group – no one had been able to engage with it - and when Clare (who had not been a member then) suggested this book everyone groaned. In the end, however, we decided not to be so prejudiced and to give Peter Carey another chance.
It was a freezing night, and the fire in Clare's Victorian terrace was roaring: a fitting setting for discussing this novel set in Victorian London and featuring an eponymous protagonist not a million miles removed from the character Magwitch in Dickens’ Great Expectations and antagonists with parallels in its hero Pip and in Dickens himself. Like Magwitch in Dickens’ novel, Jack Maggs, a convict deported to Australia, has made good there and now returns to find the young man (in this case Henry Phipps) who once as a boy took pity on him, and whose secret benefactor he has been all along. Unaware like Pip of his true relationship to Maggs, Phipps absconds on receiving news of Maggs’ imminent arrival, and Maggs becomes involved as a ‘patient’ with the Dickens-like novelist and mesmerist Tobias Oates.
Clare introduced the book briefly by saying she had really liked it because it was a ripping good yarn. The recreation of the Dickensian story-telling mode and atmosphere had really pleased her, she said, and Doug, who – The Kelly Gang apart – is a big admirer of Carey, agreed. Jenny then scowled and said she liked a good yarn as much as anyone, but she didn’t think this was one: she thought the story was far too convoluted and meandering, with lots of extraneous elements and ends which she failed to tie up. Trevor agreed with her wholeheartedly about these faults and said that if Maggs and Oates hadn’t gone on that wild-goose chase to Gloucester, spending 20 pages on the coach journey, he might have finished the book in time, which he didn’t, and anyway there was nothing in the book beside story, which actually wasn’t enough for him. Doug and Clare countered, But that’s Dickens!
I then said that I did think it stood up as a pretty good ripping yarn, but that like Trevor I find story alone unsatisfying in novels, and agreed that if you read the book on that level it’s unsatisfying. I said I would wonder what the point is of simply writing a pastiche of a Dickens novel in this day and age, if I had not read the book as a postcolonial ‘writing-back’, and Ann, who is studying postcolonial theory for her PhD strongly agreed.
Most of the others looked at us pretty suspiciously, and feeling therefore somewhat like the school swots Ann and I talked about how Carey switches the narrative/focal places of the Magwitch/Maggs and Pip/Phipps characters, taking Magwitch from the periphery of Dickens’ Victorian-colonial narrative to the centre of his own, and exiling Dickens’ hero to the periphery. Australia in this novel, which in the Dickens novel is the ‘other’, is here ultimately anything but. By placing into the narrative a Dickens-type novelist who mesmerises Maggs in order to obtain his secrets and thus material for a novel (Maggs feels that Oates has stolen his soul), Carey explores in a dramatic way the process of colonial-novelistic cannibalisation. In the Dickens novel, Pip, who at first, like Phipps, tries to avoid the convict and is dismayed to discover he is his benefactor, comes to care for him, but Carey allows no such colonial false-heroic sentimentality. Neither does Carey give Maggs the narrative punishment of death which Dickens metes out (in the Victorian-colonial universe the only fate for an exile trying to return must be punishment). Instead, in Carey’s narrative Maggs learns to divest himself of his own colonial yearnings – his wish to ‘father’ the unpleasant Phipps - and to value the life he has built elsewhere.
Everyone else said that none of this had occurred to them in the reading of the book, and that they hadn’t even thought of the parallels with the Dickens characters – and certainly not with Dickens himself – even though they had read Dickens as children and even though the Magwitch/Maggs parallel had been mentioned when the book was suggested.
Ann then suggested that this novel is really nothing much unless read through the filter of Great Expectations, though of course those who had enjoyed it without doing so did not agree. I said that I had never been very happy with ‘writing-back’ fiction, as it seemed to me secondary rather than primary literature. I had often felt the same about a lot of feminist literature in which supposedly male texts were ‘recast’. Jenny eagerly agreed: she said that that sort of feminist fiction ‘re-gendered’ texts but ultimately retained their structures. At which point I got quite excited, as I have always maintained that it is only in structure and form and language that literature can be truly radical.
And then Mark arrived on his bike, true to form and too late to take part in the discussion, bringing in a blast of bitter night air, and Clare shut the door quickly and got out the boxes of chocolates she’d had for her recent birthday, and the room disintegrated into several conversations which were nothing whatever to do with the novel.
Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Short stories on the up

In December I wrote about the state of the short story and the fact that there were signs of a resurgence, with several small publishers beginning to specialise in the form. Well, I am thrilled to be able to say that in October one of those publishers, Salt, is to publish a collection of my stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

Salt, based in Cambridge and run by Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery, are turning out to be marvellous. The whole thing happened very quickly: a fortnight before Christmas I sent them a sample three stories, and by mid January they had offered to publish a collection. No messing about: straight through came an author questionnaire which made it very clear that Salt empower their authors by involving them in publicity and marketing at every stage.

Take a look at their site, and you'll see how classy they are, both in terms of literary standard and marketing flair. It's no wonder that they've gained such prominence and respect in such a short time, and I feel just honoured to be published by them - alongside several other Manchester writers, as it happens, including Steve Waling, David Gaffney and Neil Campbell.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

How to read plays

Not long after I wrote in November about the frustrating business of submitting my fringe-produced play O'Leary's Daughters to mainstream theatres last February, I received a response from one of the theatres I had given up on.

They enjoyed reading it, they said, and admired both my 'confidently fluid writing style' and the 'economy of my stagecraft'. For once they did not take the schematic structure and my 'other devices' as mistakes, but unfortuntely they found them 'alienating'. Oh.

Mm. Why, I wonder? None of the audiences in the three fringe shows found them alienating in the least. Those audiences laughed and cried (some coming out with wet faces), and in the 24:7 production they stood at the end of some performances and whistled.

I read on to the end of the sentence: '...and they didn't allow the drama space to breathe.'

Ah! That breathing kind of drama! Not the tight stuff then, not the stuff where you're pulled on an emotional rack, breathless with all your senses attuned... But the breathing stuff, the stuff where you can lie back, relax.... They couldn't be meaning naturalistic drama, could they?

Of course they could. Here's the next sentence: 'It was also felt that the piece might benefit from a deeper exploration of the causes of abuse and a more balanced approach to the nature-nurture debate.' What?!!!! Lordy-lor, this NOT a play about abuse! Yes, all three characters have been abused, and use their childhood abuse as their defining experiences, but this is a play about IDENTITY, not abuse per se!

Gotcha. You didn't want me to write anything so abstract or surreal, in fact even though I'd said in my letter what the theme of the play was, such an idea was so far from your concept of what a play should be, that you couldn't even see when you read it that that's what it was.

You wanted me to write a different play.

Friday, February 02, 2007

That inspiration thing...

Who was I kidding? This is just a different, new (for me) way of writing a play, I told myself, as I sat at my desk all January, and the play seemed to ease its way out of the ether only slowly, and then to disintegrate on the page, only to begin easing its way out again from a slightly different angle.

But I had to face it, I wasn't making progress. I knew what the themes were, I thought I knew the characters and the story, but something was sticking: in the middle of the play there was a dark patch, a blank, a big chasm over which I had to get the characters, and which I never would until the damn thing disappeared, lit up, turned into some kind of solid ground. Oh, I could think of plenty of ways to do it in theory; I even drew myself a little picture/diagram, my two characters standing together at the tram stop at the opening of the play and curved lines showing the journeys they would make away from each other and back again to the conclusion. But would it actually happen? Would it resonate, buzz in my belly, take on that alchemical fizz which makes a play really happen? Would it heck. And I was getting so tired. And other things were piling up: the washing, the unanswered mail, the blogging!, some publicity work I was meant to be doing, the crucial matter of earning a living...
Really, sometimes writing is the hardest thing in the world....

I was writing this play for a deadline, the 31st of January. Last Saturday, 27th of January, I decided I would never do it now, not just for the deadline, but anyhow, anyway. The play was a dead duck. I was a dead duck. My recent much larger writing project had drained me, of imagination, of inspiration. Maybe I would never write again.... I gave up, gave in. I went downstairs and started sorting the piled-up washing, I went out to the shops and for once didn't rush to get back but wandered...

'I've given up,' I said to John. And guess what? As I said it, in a flash, in a single instant, the real play, the one I was meant to be writing after all, popped into my head fully-formed. I got up on Sunday morning and put my pen to paper and the play just flowed. I was in that ecstatic fired-up state, where you're not really thinking so much as tuning in, where it feels as if you're acting as a conduit, this buzzing thing - this play - simply coursing through you and out of the nib. I wrote all day - I was writing much longer hours now but no longer exhausted - and on Monday I did the same and completed the handwritten draft. Tuesday and Wednesday I rose at six to the laptop, and by 5.30 on Wednesday afternoon, the deadline, I had the typed draft in the post.
Really, sometimes writing is the most exhilarating thing in the world...

Looking at it now, I can see that this was the same play from a different angle, but a very different angle. I could say I wrote it in only four days, but the real truth is that I was gestating it for the whole of January. There's never really a simple answer to that question you're often asked at readings or when you give talks: How long did it take you to write it?

Fay Weldon once wrote: if you're blocked, go away. Write something else, or do something else altogether. She's right.