Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reading plays

I've produced my own plays for three of the first four years of the 24:7 Theatre Festival (and performed one one year), but this year, the fifth, I'm staying in the background (I'm not even writing a play this year, as I'm too busy with prose). Instead, I've agreed to be a reader. I'm very much looking forward to reading and discussing the entries, which must be in by Thursday (31st).

Reading scripts, as I've said before, is a highly skilled job. It's a great mistake to read them in the way you'd read a novel, simply following the verbal logic and the narrative; you have to be able to pick up the other concrete and visual elements and be able to make the leap to imagine the piece working in the physical space of a stage. I hope I'm up to it.

If you have a one-act play (45-60 mins) and you live in the North West, there's still time to get it in the post. Details on the website.

(And no, I don't take kickbacks!)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Dovegreyreader writes about 'Power' in Balancing on the Edge of the World

Well, I sat down to write (on my other blog) about James Wood's piece in yesterday's Guardian Review on character in fiction, had a quick browse around the blogs before starting, and what should I come across but Dovegreyreader writing about 'Power', one of the stories in my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and in the very context of James Wood's piece! Would it fulfil James Wood's requirement, she wondered before she read it, and provide the subtle 'small point of entry' into the characters to make them live for the reader? Yes, she says:

Elizabeth provided it very quickly... And within a few sentences I have been allowed entry into this story, this world, the characters and already I know exactly where I am and where I think the story might be going.

Dovegreyreader's full post here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Brit Lit Blogs

You may notice I've just put a Brit Lit Blogs widgety thing on my side bar, as I'm tickled to say that this blog has just gone up in the world on that site. It's a great site - many brilliant book bloggers available at one click, and if you're not in the habit of doing so already, I urge you to click on over there.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reading group: Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

Jenny chose this book because she wanted a laugh. One of Graham Greene's 'entertainments' (as opposed to his more serious novels), it's the first-person narration of middle-aged bachelor Henry Pulling, newly retired from his position as a bank manager and committed to his safe suburban life of tending his dahlias - until, that is, the day of his mother's funeral when he meets an aunt he hardly knows. From this point on, his life is overturned: he is hurtled into an itinerant world of hippies, smugglers and war criminals which he has hardly guessed exists.

Jenny said she had been richly rewarded: the character of Aunt Augusta is a wonderfully eccentric one, although she said with a giggle that she thought she would be a real pain to be related to in real life.

Nearly everyone else agreed that the book had been fabulously entertaining and also brilliantly written. Well, I couldn't disagree with the latter: as usual with Greene there's a clarity to the prose - a sense of everything clearly visualized - which involves you from the first sentence. But then I said that actually I had a problem with the book because it was so rightwing. People seemed surprised at my making such a serious and political objection to such a piece of light entertainment, but I said that it was precisely because the book was so light, and treated with such urbanity subjects which are actually very serious, that I found it rightwing. It's not that I think you can't treat such subjects with humour, and I certainly wouldn't have minded a savage satire - indeed, I'd have loved one - but I found the urbanity hard to take (the apparent cosy stance that this murky underworld was just a good laugh), especially when you take into account the ending, which I won't reveal here, and the treatment of the fate of one of the characters, Wordsworth.

Hans said that actually, he agreed with me, he'd had similar thoughts himself: to what end was this brilliant writing being employed? but that hadn't stopped him enjoying the book as it had me.

And then people couldn't think of anything much more to say about it, and we hadn't even been discussing it for half an hour. There was a bit of a silence and then John said, well perhaps we should consider if Greene did in fact have a more serious purpose. Maybe the book, published in 1969, was a comment on the changes in society at the end of the sixties - and indeed Henry says at one point near the end that he had been brought up unprepared for the modern world. But then someone else pointed out that the world he encounters after leaving his old-fashioned suburb is in fact even older, with its roots in the war and thirties Bohemia and back further. Or, said John, maybe it's about the way people exist unthinkingly, and that Henry who has unthinkingly obeyed the tame suburban rules can also, ironically, succumb unthinkingly to a quite opposite mode of existence.

But Clare said that maybe we were seeing too much serious purpose in the book, and I said well, in any case I still didn't find the humour savage enough, and somehow began to feel grumpy, quite the po-faced lefty, and not very sociable either, and sat and demolished a bowl of carrots instead, and Clare accused me of eating all the hummus.

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

Monday, January 21, 2008

Housework update (I can't believe I just wrote that!)

So my lovely blogger friends gave me advice about my writing-housework dilemma. Jen at Salt recommended a robot vacuum cleaner, Adele Geras advised me that doing the housework would make me feel better, Clare Grant suggested a house stripped of all but essentials (that would take me several years - just to strip it of all but essentials!) and she and Rachel Fox seemed to think the best thing would be just to bite the bullet and play loud music while I'm at it.

Get on with it then, Baines.

Well, I didn't for a bit - in fact, I felt more inclined not to bother (I'm so stubborn). And I moaned about it to my mother on the phone, and she said to me, 'Well, you CAN'T do housework and write!' (Though there was that little note of self-satisfaction; she'd just told me she'd spring-cleaned two bedrooms that day, which included - apparently - brushing down the ceilings and curtains [?!]). 'And anyway,' she said, 'it's dark now: too late to start cleaning. Remember what Nanny [my grandmother] used to say: "If you can't do it in the morning, don't bother: there are more important things to do in a day." ' (My mum's pretty houseproud, but she understands human nature, and she knows I'm my grandmother's granddaughter.)

But then. Well, guess what, I got up yesterday and I could stand it no longer. I cleaned the kitchen!!! Well, yes, only the kitchen, but it was the worst bit, and a monumental job - all those cat hairs, for one thing (I don't have a cat, we had a cat visiting for Christmas - don't ask!). And DO I feel better!

Funny: clean and tidy kitchen, and now I have a clean and tidy head. This morning did a whole load of admin which has been clogging up my head and overwhelming me, and now the decks are cleared and my head is free for writing....

You were right, my blog friends!

Only thing, there's the rest of the house still....

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Salt shortlisted for Innovation of the Year Award

Having been sprinkled with the Salt magic, I am thrilled to bits to hear today that Salt have been shortlisted (for the second year running) for the NIELSEN INNOVATION OF THE YEAR award, a category of the UK's annual Independent Publishing Awards, 2008. Here's why they made it, according to the Independent Publishers Guild website:
Salt Publishing made the shortlist for finding new ways to increase sales of its poetry and short stories despite tough market conditions, through online marketing, partnerships and brand development. "Salt is bucking the trend in poetry by growing its sales. Its innovation in lots of small ways adds up to a major achievement."

Today the Guardian's Bookseller column notes Salt's success, calling them both canny and 'feisty', and reporting that having invested in their website and direct sales, they are 'now on the road to profitability'.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Last year I spent the whole of the spring and summer involved in drama productions, and when the New Year came in I made the decision that this year I'd spend more time at my writing desk - I've got a raft of stories I want to write and a novel brewing, and you just don't get them written, do you, when you're swanking about in front of the camera or tearing your hair out getting to grips with Photoshop and designing posters and spending all your creativity on press releases and blurbs?

Well, last night was the launch of the Chorlton Arts Festival - now in its seventh year and growing rapidly - an evening for people to express their interest in taking part. Now there's a big emphasis on drama and music in this festival, but there's also poetry and there are talks and workshops, so I thought I should go along and offer something around my story collection, Balancing. (I would NOT take my acting CV, I would not start talking drama projects!!!!)

Well, I'm just about to leave my computer and get ready to go and an email pops through from Julie, a fellow actor from the short film I took part in last summer: was I going? She'd see me there. And who should I bump into the minute I step foot inside the buzzing Lloyd's Hotel but actor Nicola Gardner, with whom I read last year at the Jewish Museum, and already that rush of dramatic excitement is threatening to envelop me (the camaraderie! the transport of instant make-believe!), and then in comes playwright Caroline who says she's making films now, she's just made her first, and she nearly asked me to be in it, but then there was a funding crisis and she couldn't (oh damn! - no, I mean phew!), and Julie arrives and tells me she's seen the producers of the short film we were in and it's attracted huge grants and is causing a buzz and the screening will be soon, and then she introduces me to Emma who trained with her as an actor but is now producing and doing something for the festival and is collecting actors' emails, and Julie says to me, Have you put yours on the list, go on, put yours on, you've got to!

But I WILL get those stories written, and I WILL make a start on the novel. I WILL.

And actually, just being there gave me more short story ideas...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

English bread in Italian

One of those nice little emails today: from the Italian lit mag Buran who want to translate my story A Glossary of Bread (one of the stories in Balancing) and publish it in their next edition, the theme of which will be Food.

Be interesting to see how they deal with it, since the story is built around dictionary definitions of various English words for bread...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Housework and the writer

See, here's the dilemma (among all the other dilemmas of the writer's life):

You hate housework. You think it's a waste of time. Well, you know it's a waste of time: you clean the floors, you scrub the sinks, and before anyone ever sees them - because you're a writer, for god's sake, you're far too busy writing to entertain, and you need peace and quiet and no distractions - they're just as dirty again.

Unlike a good day spent writing, a day spent cleaning can add nothing in the end to your sum total of achievements.

But then your home is your workplace, and there's this aspect of your personality, you need your workplace to be in order, and quite frankly, seeing all those crumbs on the kitchen floor, still there from Christmas dinner halfway through January, and all that stuff not yet put away or seen to, the decorations, the laundry, well it's annoying, and in the end distracting. Distracting from writing.

And you can't afford a cleaner, and even if you could, you couldn't stand one in the house because, like I said, you need peace and quiet.

So what to do? Spend a day or two cleaning and lose good writing time, or leave it and risk being so out of sorts you can't write?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The dangers of adaptation

Usually you don't tell the world what your mum says about your writing (everyone can guess!), but this is worth repeating, I think.

Last week, after finishing reading Balancing, my mum rang me and cried: 'What on earth have you done to "Power"? (She had read it before because it had previously appeared in an anthology from Honno which I'd given her as a present.)

'Eh, Mum? What do you mean?'

'You've changed the ending!'

What? Is this my mum finally beginning to show signs of old-age forgetfulness?

Me (patronizing): 'No, no I haven't changed it, Mum. It's exactly how it appeared in the Honno anthology.'

'Yes, you have: what on earth has happened to the little girl in the pond?'

Now I'm actually worried. What on earth can she be muddling my story with? Is she going senile?

'No, no, Mum, nothing like that happens in that story. Remember, it's all about a divorce, and how the little girl weaves a magic spell to bring her father back...'

'Yes, yes, that's right... and he does come back, in the nick of time, because she's fallen in the pond and he saves her from drowning.'

I swallow. It comes to me. That was the ending I was forced to invent when I adapted the story as a radio drama, because drama needs action whereas stories can be subtle and internal, and because the BBC commissioning requirements included happier and less ambiguous endings.

But I had completely forgotten the ending of the play. Is it me who's going senile?

Actually, I think it's explained by something Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher said to me in the wine bar last week: that when stories and novels are adapted for broadcast media, there is always the danger, or indeed the likelihood that the drama replaces the original as the primary text within the culture.

To me my story had remained the primary text behind which the differences in the play were insignificant and so had faded. But to my mother, who heard the broadcast, it was the drama which had become the primary - the real - text, and when she read the story it fell short of it...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I shouldn't mince my words

Over on my other blog I'm always going on about the way people read fiction for fact (and how annoying that is for a fiction writer!), but it occurs to me that I once came right up against this issue with one of the stories in Balancing.

It's the first story in the collection, 'Condensed Metaphysics', in which a group of young people out on the town get chatting to some pizza-bar philosophers and discover more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy (to quote the Great One). I have to say that it was indeed inspired by a real-life event: some mates and I had been to a poetry reading and got a bit drunk, and we did end up having some similar conversations with some strangers in a pizza bar, but needless to say - as all writers reading this will know - I elaborated and invented outrageously (both conversations and characters), pulling it all into my own little ready-set-up world of ideas and obsessions (as we fiendish writers will.) Well, I had the idea right away - woke up the morning after fired up with it, sat down and wrote it in a day or so and slammed it off to the London Magazine.

A couple of weeks later a letter came back from the editor Alan Ross. It was very funny, he said, and he'd like to publish it. But what he needed to know: was it fiction or fact (and actually if it was fact he'd be able to publish it a lot quicker, in the reportage section at the back of the mag)? Well, this made me laugh, and I wrote back what I thought was a pretty smart reply: OK, so he'd guessed that something like it had actually happened, but there was no way that it was true to life!

I sat back and waited, expecting the 2-year wait or so that was normal for short stories in the LM. But then the next issue arrived, and there was my story, printed as travel reportage and under the title 'Chinatown' (which was where the story was partly set)!

That'll teach me to be cryptic, eh?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The independent lives of stories

It never fails to thrill, I think, stumbling upon strangers reading your work. Here's the Writers' Community of Ball State University, a jolly bunch who seem not only to write but get together to read other people's writing to each other, and here's an item recorded for one of their recent meetings:
JoyAnn Hirschy read a story by Elizabeth Baines, called "Compass and Torch."

I don't know about others, but on occasions like this, finding something I wrote operating like this in a situation I hadn't guessed about, and in lives that are unknown to me, I'm struck by how far it now has a life of its own.

Wonder if she read it from the collection, or if it was downloaded from the internet?