Friday, February 29, 2008

The necessary evil of research

How I hate research. I mean I like it in itself but oh how I hate what it does to the writing process. I've just spent most of this morning on the internet turning into a train nerd and researching how modern trains work - all for one small section of the short story I'm writing. And I found out what I needed to and was armed to carry on with the story - and I couldn't! Because of course you need a different kind of thinking: you need to let the research sink back away into your less conscious brain, and wait for the story to reassert itself with the new information attached in the ways that suit it best.

Grr. May as well give up and go and get lunch.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Letting writers be who they are

Playwright Dennis Kelly complains in today's Guardian about the way that writers must be pigeonholed, expected to write the same thing over and over and assumed to be unable to move from one genre to another. People can't come to terms, he says, with the fact that he writes both serious theatre and comedy for TV.

I know exactly what he means. At the playwrights' Christmas get-together, where all the old Theatre Writers' Union members but me were now or had been Emmerdale writers, I was asked why I had never written for TV. Good question. Once a very well known TV playwright, who is known also for generously helping other writers, put my name forward to a TV drama executive. Well, you can't imagine a better leg-up than that, can you? But guess what, it got me nowhere: my track record of prizewinning radio plays and literary prose fiction (about which the drama exec was very complimentary) were just not the right qualifications for an aspiring TV playwright - quite the opposite, I suspect.

Kelly's comments also apply to the system of 'writer development' in most of our new-writing theatres, which I've written about before, and of course, while Kelly is writing about playwrights, the same applies for writers of books.
''s time we let new writers be who they want to be, without forcing them to make artificial decisions about who they are and what they should write.'

Monday, February 25, 2008

My favourite bookshops of the week: Deansgate Waterstone's and Borders Cambridge

I have fallen back in love with Deansgate Waterstone's - partly for selfish reasons. Here's the photo I took yesterday of my book on display there along with books by two other Salt authors, David Gaffney and Neil Campbell:

I had read in Joel Rickett's Guardian bookseller column that Waterstone's was having a change of heart re authors and was about to begin a nationwide local authors promotion. Deansgate are certainly doing that: our books are part of a floor-to-ceiling local interest display right next to the main door. And as for books generally, I noticed that there's now a box for customer suggestions. Things are looking up again, hooray.

And while I'm at it, here's a photo of my book on a shelf in Borders Cambridge, sent to me by Jen of Salt.

Let's see, how can I put this? If any other bookshops want to send me photos of my book on their shelves, I'll be more than happy to give them some publicity in return!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The importance of buses

Funny that I should come across this the day after writing a post about getting inspired on the bus (it's a quote from Paul Bowles in the introduction to the Penguin edition of his novel The Sheltering Sky, which we are reading for our next reading group discussion):
I got the idea for The Sheltering Sky riding on a Fifth Avenue bus one day going uptown to Tenth Street. I decided just which point of view I would take. It would be a work in which the narrator was omniscient.

Which is also, more or less, the decision I made about viewpoint for my story (or rather the inspiration I had). Must be something about the perspective you get on a bus...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Writing away from the desk

I'm pretty rubbish, really, at following my own advice. If you read my chapter in the Macmillan Palgrave Creative Writing Handbook you'll see that I suggest that if you're stuck when you're writing it's sometimes best just to give up and go and do something else.

Yes, well. I'm working on a new series of short stories - rather different from any I've written before - and today I intended to start on a new one. But I just couldn't find the way into it: I had the situation, I knew the theme (or as much of it as I need to at this stage), the story was already peopled in my mind, but I didn't have the essential thing: the mode of telling, and the voice.

The way I think of this is that I couldn't hear it. I sat at my desk all morning listening for it, the voice of the story, while in the distance, above the roofs opposite, planes came in one after the other towards the airport, right on each other's tails, and I never stopped seeing them because I never heard it and never started writing. Well, I wrote a few first sentences, but every one was wrong, fake, 'made up', not setting me off in the right direction or encapsulating the feel and essence of the story I want to write. (And screwed the pages up and binned them because as always I have to obliterate those wrong starts, get the wrong noise out of my head - one of my biggest ecological sins in life!)

And then it got to 11.45 and it was time to get dressed if I was going to make it to a lunchtime poetry reading at Central Library - Ian Pople and Chris Woods - as I had planned. But how could I leave my desk when I hadn't even started? I really ought to stay and crack that story.

I nearly didn't go. But in the end I did and, late because of my prevarication, I dashed into the shower and rushed to the bus stop, and the story went right out of my mind. Until I was sitting down on the bus and suddenly the voice of the story and the first sentence dropped as if from nowhere into my head!

The reading was extremely successful: Central Library Reading Room was crammed - standing room only - to hear the vivid poems which have emerged from Ian Pople's travels and the insights which Chris Woods' profession as a doctor have lent to his. In fact, I've been having a poetic couple of days: last night, due to illness Gwyneth Lewis failed to make it to Manchester to give MMU's first reading of the semester, and Michael Simmons Roberts and John McAuliff stood in at the last moment to give great readings, Michael treating us to a series of great new poems yet unpublished. I knew a lot of John's poems, but the great thing about good poems is that they get better each time you hear or read them.

On the way back from Central Library I called in at Blackwell's to see if they'd consider stocking my book, Balancing on the Edge of the World, but it turned out the person I had to see isn't there on Fridays, so that was a failure. Still, at least I got going on my story today, and reminded myself that the best writing is not always done at the desk.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reading group: Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

It seems to be generally agreed in our reading group that Lolita is the best novel we have discussed, so when John suggested another Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, everyone jumped on it.

This book, written some twenty-three years earlier, follows the same Nabokovian scenario, with differences: that of a middle-aged man caught in a doomed passion for a childlike young woman. Originally written in Russian with the title Kamera Obskura and soon after translated into English as Camera Obscura, it was eventually retranslated by Nabokov himself - and, I understand, to some extent revised - and republished as Laughter in the Dark.

The bones of the story are set out at the beginning of Laughter in the Dark:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.

This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and though there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound in moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome.

Thus it is established that what will be of interest is not the what of this story but the how, and what follows is an omniscient-author view (not unlike the encapsulated panoramic view through a camera obscura) of the circumstances, coincidences and manipulations - all masterfully handled - through which Albert Albinus is ruined at the hands of the gold-digging prostitute Margot and her diabolical lover, Axel Rex.

The theme of the novel is clearly that of insight, conveyed through images of darkness and brilliant light. Albinus is sadly lacking in moral insight and, symbolically, falls in love with the unsuitable Margot in the dark of a cinema and eventually is blinded.

Most people had enjoyed the book immensely, but Doug surprised us all by disagreeing. He said he found it impossible to care about the fate of any of the characters, and found it quite unconvincing that Albinus should leave his wife for Margot. There followed a long discussion about this last: people said, Well it was passion, irrational passion! But Doug said that was precisely what he didn't get any sense of with the stuffy Albinus.

It is true that most people had been surprised, after the psychological complexity of Lolita, that the characters in this book are indeed stereotypes. The book has a cartoon quality, as colourfully vivid indeed as a camera obscura image, and to a great extent relies on farce. It is therefore is only by accepting these terms, and indeed entering into Nabokov's contract and taking pleasure in the process of narrative (rather than expecting psychological complexity or expecting to identify with the characters) that one can fully enjoy this book.

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

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Glossary of Bread in Buran

'A Glossary of Bread,' one of the stories in my collection Balancing on the Edge of the World, appears in the current issue of the online Italian literary mag, Buran, which has gone online today. It's a very international issue based on the theme of Food. Another author in the issue is Tamar Yellin, with a translated extract of her prize-winning novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher. So if you can read Italian.... I can't very well, but this mag looks so good I'm guessing it will be a pretty good translation.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Reading: Clare Wigfall and Jonathan Trigell

After the Christmas break and I presume the exam season, readings at Manchester's two universities are finally getting going again, in a stumbling sort of way. The reading programmes at both schools of writing are notably sparser than previously, I presume as a result of funding cuts, or funding used in other ways.

On Monday the Victoria University hosted two of its own creative writing alumni - my Myspace friend Clare Wigfall, who took the creative writing option for her BA at Manchester, and Jonathan Trigell, who did the Novel-Writing MA. It was a smashing reading: Jonathan, whose first novel, Boy A, which was written for the course and has since done so well it's been a TV film, was a fizzy and engaging reader, and as well as reading from his two novels he treated us to a short story (previously broadcast on Radio 3) which was so very accomplished that it was hard believe what he told us: that it was the only one he had ever written. Sometimes writers are just born, you can't get away from that...

And as for Clare: well, I somehow knew I was going to like her stories - I had already seen one somewhere - but in fact I was bowled over by their haunting, glancing nature, and their verbal precision (as well as by her amazingly gifted reading). One thing I found really interesting: there's been a long period in which there's been a fashion for publishing linked short stories (short stories trying to ape novels, and indeed pretend that they're not really short stories at all, in a climate where they're supposed to be unpopular). But the short stories in Clare's collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing are vastly varied in subject matter, tone and voice, which Faber are rightly pushing as a virtue, and a sign of her acrobatic gifts as a short-story writer. For the best short stories, like the best poems, exist alone and resonate so far that they have no need of being shored up by others on all sides...

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sarfraz Manzoor at Central Library

To Manchester Central Library last night to hear Guardian journalist and documentary maker Sarfraz Manzoor talking about and reading from his memoir of growing up in seventies and eighties Luton, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock and Roll.

Manzoor is an engagingly honest speaker. He told us that he had written the book as a celebration of ordinariness, something he hadn't found in the biographies he's read as a schoolboy, which had made him feel excluded. He told us how he'd got published: a big literary agency, noting his writing in the Guardian, had written and asked him if he'd like to write a book.

Looking round the audience, many of whom had read his book beforehand, I saw row upon row of fondly smiling faces, but then some joker - whom I think knew Manzoor personally - pricked the bubble somewhat satirically and tipped the evening into laughter. But how could Manzoor call himself ordinary? he asked: Wasn't that why his book was published, for the very reason that he isn't ordinary now? And how, therefore, the speaker seemed to be implying, could his book be read as being about the ordinary, after all?

One of those conundrums which autobiographical writers know only too well.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Not just out but away

So off John and I went to London on Monday and, as we'd
promised ourselves, we went out to the Troubadour in the
evening to the Salt poetry reading. Well, I'd never been to
the Troubadour before, and what an amazingly atmospheric
place it is: that lovely old exterior, and beyond the door a
candlelit bar (at least that's how I remember it) and then
down the stairs to the darkened basement where it seems
Dylan and Hendrix performed in the sixties - already
crammed, and we were lucky to get a seat. And then there
were the Salt poets, standing in turn under a spotlight like a
golden sun (see the slideshow below) and transporting us
with rhythm, with wisdom, with longing, with laughter,
and above all with magical fizzing words.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Dovegreyreader's review of Balancing on the Edge of the World

Dovegreyreader, that miracle of a woman who manages to read more than just about anybody while quilting, knitting and driving across the countryside as a community nurse (I don't think all at the same time!), and yet gives her reading the most thoughtful attention, has written a lovely review of Balancing on the Edge of the World. Needless to say, I am over the moon as the footballers say!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Going out once more

I had to laugh last week when I read an article by Linda Grant about the shoddiness of some so-called designer clothes - laugh at myself, that is.

She begins the article by saying that she'd had to bin two Zara little black dresses which hadn't lasted two years, too shabby now even for a charity shop. I thought: Two LBDs from Zara?!!! When would a writer like me buy even one LBD from Zara, let alone two? When would a writer like me ever wear an LBD? Once in a blue moon maybe for a prizegiving - and other people's rather than my own, because at my own I'd rather be taken seriously as a writer, not a fashion victim (but there I am, see, obsessed with image anyway) - so when it comes to LBDs (along with most kinds of clothes, I have to admit) it's charity-shop jobs for me. (Which is why, perhaps, when I went as a guest of winner Carl Tighe to the Authors' Club first book award, an amazingly beautiful ice queen in an absolutely up-to-the-minute LBD didn't half give me the snooty once-over in the loo.)

But maybe my reaction to Grant's article was coloured by the fact that I've spent January more or less in my pyjamas, lost in the new series of short stories I've just embarked on and hardly going out - though I seem to be making up for this last at the moment.

You've got to work on your publicity, right? And on Friday I went into town through the wind and snow - my god, it's cold out there in the big wide world! - to Manchester Digital Development Agency, where Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher was putting into practice an idea he found in that bottle of red wine we had at our post-Christmas drink, and which included filming a 'Meet the Author' type clip of me. I'll put it up on this blog if I turn out not to be too absolutely dreadful - see, there I am again, on about image; or maybe I'm just being sensible: a dreadful image is not going sell any books, or so they say. (How do you know, for instance, that there aren't fangs and carbuncles Photoshopped out of my profile photo?)

And then yesterday I spent the whole day in town at the initial sifting of scripts for the 24:7 Theatre Festival (snow on the ground!). I couldn't imagine how Amanda (Hennessey) and David (Slack) were going to organize it, but it worked like a dream and involved us reading aloud a substantial portion of each play, which, since most of the readers were actors as well as writers and/or directors, ensured that the readings justified the plays as far as possible (you know actors, they have an inbuilt instinct to try and realize characters as well as possible). What a marathon, though! We were so hoarse by the end of it! But it was so enjoyable, and I have to say I was stunned by the general high standard and inventiveness of some of the plays I saw - which means it's going to be a cracking festival come July.

And tomorrow I'm off to London for the day, and in the evening I'll be going to the Salt poetry reading at the Troubadour Cafe, 265 Old Brompton Road, 8.00pm - 10pm. Ten Salt poets reading: I'm really looking forward to it - those Salt poets are fantastic, and the Salt readings are great.