Monday, March 31, 2008

Balancing on the Edge of the World reviewed on Stuck in a Book

Simon Thomas at Stuck in a Book reviews Balancing:
Baines' stories are executed with a subtle smoothness, and a precise portrayal of human relationships - both the surface of them, and what goes on underneath.

His favourite in the collection is 'Compass and Torch', of which he says:
The story I wanted to pick out is 'Compass and Torch' - in the third person, an uncertain boy on a trip with his Dad, whom he doesn't often see. 'The boy is intent. Watching Dad. Watching what Dad is. Drinking it in: the essence of Dadness.' The awkwardness of their relationship - with its latent closeness, and surface of discomfort - is portrayed so exactly. We see it first in relation to the torch, of which the boy is so anxiously proud:

The boy is chattering: 'Have you brought one too, have you brought a torch?'
'Oh, yes!'

Is this a problem? the boy suddenly wonders. Does this make one of the torches redundant? For a brief moment he is uncertain, potentially dismayed, a mood which the man, for all his distraction, catches.

'We can use both of them, can't we, Dad?'

'Oh yes! Yes, of course!'

Then a swoop of delight: 'We can light up more with both, can't we?'

'Oh yes, certainly!' The man too is gratefully caught on a wave of triumph. 'Oh, yes, two are definitely better! Back-up, for a start.'
I shouldn't dream of telling you the end of this story, except that it is done calmly in a couple of sentences, and won't leave your mind for some time.

He reviews it alongside Vanessa Gebbie's wonderful collection, Words from a Glass Bubble, also published by Salt, and which he also loved.

The whole review here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fragments from the Dark, edited by Jeni Williams and Latefa Guemar

So I went to Swansea for the launch of Fragments from the Dark, to which I feel privileged to have contributed with one of the stories in my collection and a piece from a novel in progress. It's an anthology of writings about home and exile, edited by Jeni Williams and Latefa Guemar and produced by Hafan (Haven), the Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers support group. The book includes work from professional women writers either born or settled in Wales, such as Carol Rumens, Trezza Azzopardi and Tessa Hadley, and many moving testimonies from women expelled from many different parts of the world and finding themselves in Wales.

A vast crowd crammed into the Dylan Thomas Centre to hear speakers from refugee support groups, readings and music.
In the week when we learn that in our complacent, supposedly 'post-feminist' society Women's Studies are being dropped from some universities and in which, out of a narrow, middle-class perspective, people have called for an end to the Orange Prize as outdated positive discrimination, the point was strongly made here - most clearly by Lynn Hughes from Oxford Cymru - that asylum issues at any rate are women's issues. 'Women do two-thirds of the world's work and make half the world's food and are more likely than men to be involved in community groups', she pointed out, 'yet are less likely to be decision makers... Domestic violence is still the biggest cause of death in women... The asylum system still does not recognise the differing needs of men and women.' Editor Latefa Guemar asked the gathered crowd to take a moment to think of one of their female members who was being held in detention.

Yet if there were solemn and urgent issues running through the evening, there was also a sense of celebration - celebration that people could come together like this and support each other. And then, unbelievably, we were treated to a banquet such as I have never seen before: food prepared by 20 different cooks from 20 different countries.

The large audience:

The woman in blue at the front, who was sitting next to me (and is avidly reading the book), turned out to be Beth Thomas from the Welsh history museum at St Fagans, and who was there on behalf of contributor Elin Ap Hywel (who edited the Honno anthology Power which includes my story 'Power').

Editors Jeni Williams and Latefa Guemar:

Amani Omer Bakhiet Elawad reads the Arabic version of her poem 'I Journey towards You', and Jeni Williams reads the English version (a translation they made together):

The amazing food:

I was very moved (and very full!) by the time John and I left for our hotel which, though slap-bang in the centre of town, was like one of those old-fashioned country hotels with proper wooden wardrobes and antique lamps and breakfast served in the old-fashioned way, and - fittingly, I guess, for the home town of Dylan Thomas - literary novels on the shelves in the lounge.

Next day we nipped off the M4 and called unannounced on my one remaining relative in the village I come from, my Aunt Peggy, who failed to answer the door right away because she thought we were Jehovah's Witnesses.

So, you could say I went home for the launch of a book about home. But so much has changed. When I was little and lived in that village, there was no motorway and Swansea was a very long way away: we were nestled among the trees and cut off from the world, and I'm ashamed to say we sometimes felt invaded when incomers came down for the day from Cardiff to the beach.

Some things change for the worse, but that evening in Swansea, that sense of connection across borders - so beautifully symbolized in the book's cover image of footprints criss-crossing the sand - showed that some things do change for the better.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sartre, eat your heart out.

We had a secondhand bookshop here in Didsbury - well, it still is a secondhand bookshop (though once it was an ethnic clothes and bit-and-bobs shop run by my friend Judy), but they've now turned the front bit into a little teashop and called it The Art of Tea (though they also serve pretty good coffee) and bake yummy cakes on the premises. Anyway, in spite of what the local paper would have you believe, I've never been a big frequenter of the local cafes, but just recently John and I have been tempted into the Art of Tea, and would you believe it, just as the local paper would have it, it turns out to be a right Mecca of metropolitan arty types. First off this afternoon we discovered poet Phil Davenport working away on his computer, and then when we sat down at a nearby table we discovered among the used cups and plates a discarded draft of someone else's poem - a poem full of food images, perhaps not surprisingly.

I tell you, it's the Left Bank of the Mersey round here...

Monday, March 17, 2008

Reading group: The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Trevor suggested this novel which concerns a young married but sexually estranged couple, Port and Kit Morseby, who escape the aftermath of the Second World War by travelling to North Africa and later into the Sahara, only to find themselves divided further.

Trevor said he thought the novel would raise some really interesting issues, but as it happened no one else was fired enough by it to discuss it with much passion. Two people said that they couldn't even finish it, Jenny because she simply found it boring and Ann because, having lived in that area of the world, she found it unrealistic.

Trevor found this hard to believe. He said he thought it was great: didn't we all think it was dead exciting and vivid, for instance, when Port went off on his dangerous sexual adventure at the beginning of the novel? And weren't the larger-than-life mother and son, the Lyles, whom they meet along the way - with the hint of their incest - fascinating? And what about that amazing scene when the dogs are running around in one of the towns with pieces of the body of an abandoned baby?

People seemed a bit nonplussed by Trevor's reaction. Sure, these things were vivid, they said, as were the striking descriptions of the North African towns and the Sahara, but what about the central characters? They just weren't at all likeable and you couldn't care about their story.

I said that you don't need to like the characters to like a novel - though Jenny said she did need to like at least one - but I did agree that you do need to have some emotional investment in their fate. I wondered if the reason we didn't is that although we are treated by the omniscient narrator to very detailed accounts of their feelings and motives, those accounts are very clinical and so those feelings and motives remain at a distance to us.

The book is in three parts and, for reasons I won't reveal here, in part three Kit has an adventure alone, joining a merchant camel train in the desert, and in this part the book undergoes a pretty radical change of style. John said he said he found this third part the best, in fact he really only liked this part, at least things start happening and the pace of the prose hots up - and Trevor quickly agreed. Doug and I cried that we much preferred the first two parts, in fact we hated the last part, not finding it believable in the slightest. Trevor said, But Kit had no choice but to join the caravan, and she had no choice but to succumb to whatever the merchants then demanded of her. I said, that's not the point: I can well imagine in theory that this would be the case, but the novel doesn't convince me, ie the way it's told, and Clare said, You mean the writing, and Trevor said sardonically, Oh, the writing!

I insisted. I said it is the prose in part three which is unconvincing - rushed and staccato. Clare said, but rushed and staccato prose can be appropriate, after all Kit's in a state of turmoil. I said, Yes, it can - for instance I thought the rushed (though fluid) prose replicating Port's typhoid delirium is beautifully done and this is one of the points in the book I find psychologically and emotionally involving - but in part three the prose rhythms and the sentence constructions seem rushed to me in the sense of being unconsidered, even lazy.

John said that what he liked about this last part was that in focussing on Kit it made the book about women and the condition of women, and most of the men agreed. I said that I didn't actually think that this was a specific intention on Bowles' part, as not only are parts one and two more about Port than Kit, I had read in Michael Hofmann's introduction to the new Penguin Classic that when Bowles had got to the end of part two he had decided to use a different writing method for the rest of the book: automatic writing (which eschews thought or conscious 'art') - which would also explain not only the change in style but the nature of the prose here.

In other words, I felt that by loosening the reins of his artistic consciousness, Bowles had merely reproduced here an unconvincing male fantasy about a woman, a fact which showed up in the prose.

At which Trevor insisted once more that this was how Kit would have behaved.

Ann said that she wasn't even convinced by Kit's behaviour in the first two parts, which was why she had stopped reading before then. Also, she had found the book unremittingly colonial in its perspective, and that it colluded too far with Port's racist view of Arabs as 'monkeys'. (How on earth could they have made a film out of it at that rate? I asked, and Clare, who had seen the film, said that they had excised all the racism and romanticised it all, especially part three, and indeed bleached it of the real theme - the emotional and existential barrenness of the characters - so that in fact it had been like watching paint dry.) Some people quibbled with Ann's point, saying that there were some sympathetic Arabs in the book, that the author is not necessarily to be identified with Port, and that even Port despises the anti-semitism of the Lyles. But as Ann said, the perspective of no Arab is ever represented (although she guessed that was par for the course at the time of the novel's writing), and it's all relative.

And then Trevor said how much he'd enjoyed the exciting bit towards the end and Kit's imprisonment and escape, and explained to us doubters why she would have acted exactly as she did.

Next time, we're discussing Ann's choice, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - by the skin of our teeth, as Jenny said that she didn't like novels with parallel narratives.

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

Friday, March 14, 2008

Getting into the zone

I've been writing really slowly, which is unusual for me. Partly I think it's because I'm trying something new - a new way of writing stories for me - and I'm feeling my way with it, but it's also because I've been pretty distracted by family illness.

Every now and then I read something, usually on the web, which implies that writers have no business letting themselves get distracted, that it's just too precious, for writing is a job of work, and writer's block is nothing but a pretentious excuse for something much more down-to-earth: simply getting stuck.

Well, I've given out plenty of advice in my time for dealing with this last but, you know, sometimes it really isn't just a matter of practicalities. As far as I'm concerned, in order to write you really do need a particular psychic state - emotionally different for each thing you write, but always a separate space from that which you inhabit day-to-day. It's as the athletes and sports people say: you need to get 'in the zone'. It's a kind of dream-like state, a kind of trance - indeed, John has sometimes come into my room when I'm writing and touched me on the shoulder and I haven't even noticed. And it's hard to get into it when there are other things on your mind like your brother's chemo or your partner's hospital tests.

As fellow Salt author Carys Davies has said to me, writing time needs to be 'pure'.

Well, maybe it doesn't for some people. Maybe they are better than me and Carys at cutting off and getting into the zone whatever's going on. But then if you can't do it so easily, aren't you disadvantaged or disabled? And no one wants to condemn the disabled for their disability, do they?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Some New Ambush by Carys Davies long-listed for Wales Book of the Year 2008

Last time I decided to go to Welsh Academy's Wrexham Library launch of the long list for the Wales Book of the Year Award, it was called off at the last minute due to snow, and yesterday I thought I might not make again it because of the gales, but luckily the winds died down during the afternoon. I especially wanted to go this time because I had an exciting hunch that my fellow Salt author, Carys Davies, was on the long list (I'm psychic, right? No, actually, I just picked up some clues and put them together) and sure enough she had, and had made it there too (in a roundabout way, due to the closure of the Thelwall viaduct)!

The three judges for the English Language prize were represented at Wrexham by writer and broadcaster Mavis Nicholson. Introducing their long list, she said that they'd had 200 books to consider (which is more than the Booker judges have to contend with). Like former Booker judges who have commented recently, she said that with such a large number the job was very onerous, and constantly going from one book to a very different other made it difficult to be sure to give each book the right kind of attention. She suggested, therefore, that in future, particularly in view of the fact that so many of the books had been 'fluffy', the organizers operated some kind of filtering system before handing over to the judges. She said also that the judges had been very struck by the poor editing of books nowadays and that it was very clear that many books are now hardly edited at all.

Then she announced the ten long-listed books, five of which come from small presses:

Winterton Blue - Trezza Azzopardi (Picador)
Hector's Talent - Kitti Harri (Honno)
Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth - (Bloomsbury)
The Claude Glass - Tom Bullough (Sort Of Books)
Blue Sky July - Nia Wyn (Seren)
Trouble in Heaven (Gomer)
Some New Ambush - Carys Davies (Salt)
The Presence - Dannie Abse (Hutchinson)
The Master Bedroom - Tessa Hadley (Cape)

Congratulations to all of them and especially (since I know her) to Carys!

Mavis Nicholson happened to be leaving for the car park at the same time as John and me. She said her husband would be turning in his grave if he thought she'd judged a competition, since he didn't believe in them. I said, Well, I don't really, and I told her that I'm always going on about it on my other blog, but then when someone you know wins one, well you can't help but be very pleased indeed!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Launch of Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie

Really great time last night at the launch of Vanessa Gebbie's collection of short stories from Salt, Words from a Glass Bubble. John and I arrived completely windswept to find ourselves in the most beautiful surroundings in London's Foundling Museum, champagne being poured and Vanessa resplendent at a table piled high with her beautifully produced book and people already queueing to have copies signed. Periodically throughout the evening Vanessa read instalments of her wry and touching title story, which was a nice way to do it. And three of us turned out to be wearing almost identical costumes, me, Vanessa and the gent in the oil painting below which she read. And then, all too soon it was time to rush off through the wind again to Euston and to spend the journey immersed in those stories, heartbreaking yet witty, gritty yet other-worldly and totally original - so that we got to Stockport before I realized and had to make a scramble for the door.

People queueing:

Me and Jen from Salt having a natter:

and sporting our fabulous Salt bags:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Salt wins Nielsen Innovation of the Year Award

I am thrilled to be able to announce that my fabulous publisher Salt has won the Neilsen Innovation of the Year Award at the Independents Publishers Awards
'...for its imaginative efforts to increase sales of collections of poetry and short stories despite very challenging market conditions. It impressed with its range of web-based marketing initiatives and partnerships and energetic development of its brand.'

Publisher and fiction editor Jen Hamilton Emery (pictured with publisher and poetry editor Chris Hamilton-Emery) says:
it's great to win an award that matters to us, and especially one which signifies that the literary sector is able to drive sales and get noticed on a national scale.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Hanif Kureishi at Manchester University

On Thursday night Hanif Kureishi read and talked to a sold-out theatre at Manchester University. Kureishi turned out to be a frank yet even-handed speaker and said what seemed to me eminently sensible things about writing. Yes, he thought intuition was a big part of writing but then you always had to have a rational understanding as to why you were following your intuitions. Yes, he thought (like me) that the distinction between autobiographical and non-autobiographical writing was a dubious one. Yes, he thought you developed as a writer as you got older, you learnt more skills but you can lose some of the fire of untutored youth. Yes, he had swapped about from form to form but he wouldn't say he liked any of them better than the others, films were good for making money and for getting away from the isolation of the desk, prose gave you more or less total creative control. Novels are great to get your teeth into but also hard work and short stories can come as light relief when you've finished one. Did he like working with actors? Well, if we thought writers were a pain we should meet some actors, they were awful, but then on the other hand he's been really grateful to the actors he's worked with, they can give an underwritten part wonderful life.

The narrator of his latest novel, Something to Tell You, is a psychoanalyst, and writing as therapy was a strong thread through the evening. The way he told it, he himself took up writing as the best form of therapy, but then on the other hand, as he always tells his creative writing students, you've always got to be aware of the reader and write for the reader. I'm not sure how the Creative Writing students in the audience must have reacted when, asked whether he agreed with Will Self's condemnation of the teaching of Creative Writing, Kureishi said that he could see where Self was coming from, there really was something dodgy about it all: what the universities are up to in fact is making money out of the fees, and it would be an utter cruelty to give 'these people' the impression they were likely to get a publishing deal, the point of it all for most of them was therapy (which of course is important), and some of them in fact were 'absolutely barking' - in fact he's noticed that when you get these shootings in American universities the perpetrators always turn out to be students of Creative Writing. But then after all it's true that madness is close to genius and all great writers really have to be mad - at which point the audience laughter turned from nervous to relieved.

It was an extra nice evening for me, as while I was waiting for the reading to begin, I looked up at the woman who was sitting down beside me and realized it was my friend, writer and counsellor Brenda Mallon whom I hadn't seen for ages. One of the many books Brenda has written is Women Dreaming, and afterwards she asked Kureishi how much he used his dreams in his writing, and he answered: 'All the time.'

Friday, March 07, 2008

Where do you get your inspiration? or The distraction of literature

Yesterday I went to have my hair cut.

I've been wanting a change but I've been having trouble getting my hairdresser to make it.

Me: Well, last time you did agree I should have a few layers at the front, but actually you didn't do it in the end.

My hairdresser: Oh yes, yes, that's what we'll do!

He starts snipping. He says, So what have you been up to? and I tell him, I'm doing a new series of short stories. What about? he wants to know. I tell him about the one I'm writing now set on a train. I tell him about the ones I've already finished, the one about the airport, and the one about driving too fast on the motorway, and one about getting lost with a map, and the one I'm going to write about a robbery.

He snips thoughtfully. He says, I guess you can write a story about anything!

I agree that you can.
I say: Oh. Don't you think I could have some shorter layers than that?
Oh, yes, yes, sure! he says, and gets snipping at the front.

He's thoughtful again. He looks up excitedly, scissors poised. He says: You could write one about a hairdresser! Shenanigans in the salon!

I say I could! Go on then, give me some material!

He says quickly: Or you could make him a mobile hairdresser! All those things he could get up to in women's houses!

And then we talk about the earthquake and other things. He goes quiet. He says: Or the salon. All those things he could get up to in the salon!

I say, Yes, right! Give!

He laughs. No, no I'm not telling you anything!

He says he's done.

What happened to the shorter layers? I say.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Monday, March 03, 2008

Selling short stories

Recently I noted how unusual (and good) it was that Faber have promoted as a virtue the varied nature of the stories in Clare Wigfall's collection The Loudest Sound and Nothing, and BookFox has commented similarly on the promotion of John Shepard's prizewinning collection Like You'd Understand Anyway.

BookFox now alerts us to an interesting essay by publisher Gina Frangello, replicated on The Literary Outpost, a section of which deals with the reasons why for so long now the typical published short story collection has been interconnected facets of a unified whole (or indeed an episodic novel):
Often, when I presented at panels, writers in the audience asked why short fiction had met with such a decline in popularity. After all, many reasoned, if the contemporary attention span has become geared towards sitcoms and videogames, then aren’t short stories the ideal medium for the hip young reader? The answer, I often suspected, had nothing to do with what the contemporary reader would actually read, and much more to do with what marketing departments could successfully tell them to read. While a novel can be easily marketed with a few plot-summarizing taglines (and a memoir even more so, especially if its author is famous and his/her life already well-documented in the tabloids), it is much harder to “sell” a collection of 10 or so diverse stories with no common characters or plots.

As I think I have said here before, when my own collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was in production I nearly died when we had to start thinking of a single unifying characteristic for marketing purposes, since my aesthetic purpose in writing the stories had been to make each one unique. I had approached each story as a whole new adventure: a new idea which required its own unique way of telling (so that you won't even find a unity through the book in the way the dialogue is punctuated, as each story required its own particular mode). But of course, since they had all been written by me with my continuing obsessions, I was able to choose fourteen stories which linked thematically, and there are other links - in subject matter and in style - criss-crossing the collection.

Shepard's publishers have no qualms, though: here's the brave or foolish but undoubtedly exhilarating blurb on his book (thanks to BookFox): "So varied in tone, theme, voice, and setting are these stories that they might've been written by a hydra."