Friday, May 30, 2008

A good rejection?

No, I didn't get the part. But for the best reason, in this ageist world: I didn't look old enough! (If they're telling the truth, that is, and if they didn't just decide to up the age of the character to suit other actors they'd chosen, which does sometimes happen...)

It's this kind of morning when I'm glad I'm a writer really....

Thursday, May 29, 2008


I went for an audition today. I must be mad. I am: I don't even have to do this for a living, my career doesn't depend on it. So there I am getting dressed. What shall I wear? Well, I want to look interesting in my own right, of course (one has to get attention!), and switched-on and competent, but I also have to give some idea of my ability to inhabit the (somewhat sad) character I'm reading for.

OK, so I've made my decisions, I'm dressed, I'm off on the bus to the theatre. As I emerge from the cubicle in the theatre loo another woman is washing her hands, and I see immediately the tell-tale signs sticking out of her bag: the actor's failsafe bottle of water, the bundle of papers which is clearly the script. We eye each other swiftly and smile: camaraderie and rivalry hopelessly entwined: Is she better than me? She's bound to be, she'll be trained... Does she look more the part? I think perhaps she does...

Well, they liked my reading, the writer and the director. But then there were those looks passing between them, and I can guess what they were thinking, that thing I've thought myself as a playwright auditioning actors: Pity, she just didn't look the part...

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reading group: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Jenny looked pretty intent as we gathered in her living room, and when we were all seated she asked in some disgust, 'Who chose this?' I think she thought it was me, since when Clare had offered it as one of her two alternative suggestions I'd persuaded everyone to choose it over the other possible book.

Clare looked a bit non plussed, but went ahead with her admiring introduction. She thought it was wonderfully written, she said. It was a very bleak book in many ways: the first-person narration of 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty who is grieving her brother Liam's suicide and coming to terms with it by imagining the events at the heart of a family secret which may or may not have led to it. But the writing transcended the bleakness of the subject matter, Clare said: lively, witty and full of the most stunning phrases. She was most struck by the scene which Veronica first imagines early on, that of the first meeting between her grandmother Ada as a young woman and Lamb Nugent, a man she could have married but didn't, marrying his best friend instead. However, Clare had one criticism: these scenes were so beautifully imagined and written that she didn't feel that they were realistically Veronica's (as we are meant to take them), but were too much those of the author. I said that this too been Adam Mars-Jones's only criticism, just about, in his review for the Independent, and (although I loved this book so much I was loathe to criticize it) I supposed I had to agree that the register wasn't exactly Veronica's, although it hadn't struck me as I was reading it.

At which point everyone else began laying into this book. Ann said that she had liked the beginning too, but she felt it went nowhere; as she went on reading it she was thinking, 'Come on!' 'Come on what?' asked Clare, but if Ann gave an explanation it was overridden by the others' criticisms so I don't remember it. John said he too was disappointed: he had thought the book was going to be about uncovering the mystery of how Liam died, but it turned out to be something far more amorphous. Trevor and Doug said that they liked the Ada stuff but not the rest, or maybe they said the opposite, or maybe one expressed one view and the other the other, but Jenny came in most memorably with the firm view that the book was terrible and she had no idea how it could have won the Booker. None of it was consistent or made sense, she said: nothing happened, it was all conjecture.

I said, but that's the point: it's a book about not knowing, and how we deal with that. Jenny countered that none of the characters were realized: you were expected to take for granted the close relationship between Veronica and her dead bother Liam: it was never shown except for perhaps one childhood scene when they stole into a bus garage; and Veronica's estrangement from her husband over the loss of Liam is never made understandable. And look at Veronica's other brother Mozzie: he's supposed to have been a psychopath, as Veronica calls him, and then he's supposed to have this miraculous change at the end and be some kind of nice family man: you're just expected to take that on trust, and it's just not believable.

I said, But isn't that all about Veronica's perception of him, which changes? Isn't this a book about that very thing, perception, and how we make up stories about other people and give them characters in order to cope?

Jenny looked even more disgusted and said that I was putting a spin on the book it didn't deserve: these things just weren't there.

I have to say I had had one niggle about the book and now someone honed in on it: the connections that we are indeed meant to take on trust between the circumstances which led to the sexual abuse of Liam as a child and Liam's adult emotional problems and suicide. Would Liam really have been that affected by it? people asked. Clare said, Well, it depends what the abuse means to the child. Abuse is most damaging when the child is emotionally involved with the abuser. We all agreed that this must be so. But Liam could not have been emotionally involved with his abuser, and people cited examples of others they knew, including spouses, who had similarly experienced abuse by a family friend but without growing up to be emotionally disturbed by it. But then Clare pointed out a moment in the book which even I, its great champion, had missed (and which I won't give away here), and everything fell into place.

This moment is fleeting, though vivid. Once you catch it it is devastating, and in retrospect justifies the whole structure of the book and Veronica's speculations. At this point in the discussion even I began to wonder if the glancing, allusive prose which I love in Anne Enright's work does sometimes militate against her.

Doug now asked us what we thought about the sex, which he had found so graphic it was somehow disturbing. People agreed and wondered about it without coming to any conclusions, and the discussion turned, with some relief it seemed, to a general consideration of sex. In fact, said Doug, getting back to the book, he had found the whole book disturbing. He had certainly admired the prose, and he was glad he had read the book but he had found it extremely painful to read.

Clare and I were stunned, insisting that it was witty, even funny, only to be met with sceptical stares. Jenny reiterated that she thought it was awful.

Some days later Hans called round at our house to find out about the next meeting, and we discovered why Jenny had informed us so meaningfully yet cryptically that he wasn't coming to the last one. He hated the book, he told me. He had travelled back from Glasgow that day and he couldn't face sitting talking about a book with which he had utterly failed to engage, and which he had found frankly pretentious.

His wife Jan had liked it, though...

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

The Salt Frank O'Connor Prize Blog

Want to read all about the Salt books on the Frank O'Connor long list - an astounding eight story collections, including my own, Balancing on the Edge of the World?

Then go to the The Salt Frank O'Connor Prize Blog, where you can also read and watch interviews with the authors, hear clips from their stories and see photos of their readings and launches.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Why prose fiction is sometimes the best option for writers

Who'd be a writer of films in this world of images?

I've twice had a go, experiences I satirized in one of the short stories in my collection Balancing, 'The Shooting Script', which I read on Thursday at Manchester Central Library to an audience which always includes some writers, and which responded on this occasion with wry heartfelt laughter. I don't want to boast, but Adele Geras said in a review that this story should be 'required reading for anyone who fancies themselves writing for television.'

But it's not just the structures of the industry which divest writers of power (as this story indicates), it's the requirements of the form.

On Saturday I went to a screening of a short student film which I took part in as an actor last summer. Well, I loved being in this film: I love acting, I love the camaraderie (such an antidote to the isolation of the desk!) and I loved being part of the team working on the vision of the two writer-directors. But that's just it: you are part of a team, and there's never a guarantee that everyone on that team will share the vision of the writer or indeed respect it. And let's face it, when there's a camera and an editing suite at the heart of things it's the person behind the camera and/or with their finger on the computer button who wields the power to impose their own vision. On this occasion it didn't matter, because the writers were also the directors, and bitter past experience had taught them that they needed to do their own editing.

But just how much script writers can be marginalized by the form itself was illustrated for me when I finally saw the film at a screening in a bar on Saturday afternoon. I ordered up the film (it was on the 'menu' from a bar as part of a mini film-festival) and a fortifying glass of Chardonnay (seeing yourself on film playing an overalled cleaner and later naked in a bath is NOT an ego-stroking experience!) (and nearly choked at the exorbitant price of the wine) and settled down in the dark alcove set aside for viewing.

The film opened with beautiful shots, as I knew it would, of empty offices at night time, with the lone cleaner (me) silhouetted as she busied away in the vast spaces, strangely competent yet vulnerable - scenes which we never even rehearsed: I just turned up on the appointed night and we did it. Later the film cuts, as intended, to a kitchen in a house and here the dialogue begins. But they had cut half the dialogue! Half the ruddy dialogue, which we had laboured to learn (it was difficult dialogue to learn, because it was deliberately confused, illogical and inconsequential, as the characters were stressed) and which we had rehearsed over and over...

What had happened here was that image had squashed out the words: rightly, as it happened, because the way the film begins sets up a certain grammar which needed to be fulfilled, but also because sometimes - or indeed more often, in films - image is enough to tell the story: one closeup of me saying nothing but closing my eyes was more expressive and convincing than the speech which had followed the gesture but was now cut.

Writing for film is thus not so much the writing of a script - based in dialogue - but the provision of a kind of choreography of image. It's an interesting challenge, but you could ask: Why bother, when it's the director and the cameraman who really have the power to create and choose the images? And it's not surprising, I guess, that so many directors, like the two on this film, 'write' their own.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Quill Magazine Interview

I feel very privileged to have been interviewed by Quill editor Eric Forbes for his blog and for the July-September issue of the magazine, along with three other authors also long-listed for the International Frank O'Connor Short Story Award: Clare Wigfall, Nam Le and Wena Poon. Eric describes himself in these terms which are succour to the hearts of all writers and committed readers:
I am a book editor who lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I am hopelessly in love with books and the freedom to read whatever makes me happy: fiction and nonfiction. I have always been obsessed with the relationship between literature and life and its role in society. As an editor, I have edited many books, both good and bad, but never get tired of the grand adventure of reading. We must never underestimate the redeeming power of fiction in our lives.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Salt reading at Manchester Central Library

So there we were on Thursday in the impressive wood-panelled committee room in Central Library, with its amazing marbled fireplace, four authors all published by Salt, Carys Davies, Andre Mangeot, Shamshad Khan and yours truly. The audience, though smallish, was a great one, laughing gratifyingly in all the right places - at Carys's wry story Boot about a dog who gets the better of his owners, at my satirical story The Shooting Script about a conman arts worker - and murmuring appreciatively at the touching story which Andre read from A Little Javanese (which had only come from the printer's the previous day!). And we all sat spellbound as Shamshad had the lights turned out and then, in the dimness, wove her customary performance magic with her voice and the words of her poems.

First off was Carys reading from her fantastic collection Some New Ambush:

Next up was Andre:

Because Shamshad read in the dark we didn't get any photos of her reading from her poetry collection Megalomania, so here she is afterwards chatting to me:

Finally, I read from Balancing on the Edge of the World, and here below is an instructive photo for all writers, reminding you to get your hair out of your face when you're reading, and try not to gurn when you're doing the characters!

And here we are chatting afterwards:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Salt reading and workshop

Tomorrow (Thursday 22nd May) I'll be taking part in a Salt reading at Manchester Central Library 1-2 pm, Committee Room, 2nd Floor. Free. I'll be reading from my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World. Carys Davies will also be reading from Some New Ambush, her wonderful collection of short stories which is up for the Wales Book of the Year Award, Manchester performance poet Shamshad Khan will be stunning us all with her Salt poetry collection Megalomania, and we'll hear Andre Mangeot read stories from A Little Javanese which is hot off the press today!!

You can read more about the event here.

And on Saturday I'll be reading and running a workshop for the Chorlton Arts Festival at Chorlton Library 11.30 am - 1.30 pm. Also Free.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Edge Hill Prize shortlist

So here's a prize I didn't get on the shortlist for:

Tania Hershman sends me this:

The second Edge Hill Prize shortlist was announced on Saturday 10 May, at the climax of the Oceans of Stories Conference, hosted by Liverpool John Moores University and Edge Hill University. Author Helen Simpson presented the shortlist, which was selected by three judges: author Hilary Mantel, BBC Producer Duncan Minshull, and Prof. Rhiannon Evans.

The shortlist in full is:

Tiny Deaths by Robert Shearman (Comma Press)
The Separate Heart by Simon Robson (Jonathan Cape)
Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan (Faber and Faber)
The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam (Chatto and Windus)
Old Devil Moon by Christopher Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

It's hard to comment if you're involved (though I don't even know if I was involved, since each publisher was allowed to enter only two books and my publishers Salt would have had to choose between several of the short story collections they have published this year). So apart from noting that, unlike the Frank O'Connor long list, this one leans towards established publishers (Comma being the one truly small press), I'll confine myself to saying many congratulations to these authors.

More about the prize here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

To innovate or not to innovate

I've been thinking about innovation and I've embarked on a series of short stories which are a departure from any of my previous styles. While I love a good plot and I'm a sucker for imagery, I've been getting increasingly cynical about the power of conventional narrative tropes to express our post 9/11 condition of uncertainty. The contingency of story has always been a running theme in my fiction, but now I'm thinking that character and metaphor are closed circuits unable to express our current loss of existential grasp, and above all that narrative arc is just one big - but impotent - authorial con, and in these new stories I've been trying to find a way to question them without ditching them altogether.

It can be really scary doing something new. There's no guarantee that other people will see what you doing - rather than assume you're just making a mistake, failing to achieve the conventions you're actually questioning - or if they do that they'll find it palatable. And no guarantee that you're not failing unless someone else tells you you're not. So it was with great relief that I heard this week that the last one I wrote has been accepted by an exciting new online magazine Horizon Review, named after Cyril Connelly's original Horizon, coming from the Salt umbrella and edited by poet and novelist Jane Holland. In fact, on the Horizon website Jane says that she is indeed open to writing that dares to take risks, and wishes to make the mag a place of question and challenge.

It so happened that the other day, via the Story website, I came across some pertinent comments in an article by AL Kennedy. She says rightly that the magazines that used to print stories have largely disappeared and instead:
they're left to be harried by endless small-scale competitions that merrily dictate size, content, themes and even title options.

Yes, this is the rub. Competitions which impose such restrictions (and that's most of them, as she says) make my heart sink, because they always imply certain expectations or certain acceptable norms, which simply cannot apply to innovative writing, and cannot encourage the innovative urge in writers. Clearly innovative stories do sometimes win competitions, but it seems to me a triumph over circumstance when it happens.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Balancing on the Edge of the World on Frank O'Connor Longlist

Well, along with 38 other short story collections, including 7 wonderful others from my fabulous publisher Salt. I'm always going on, on my other blog, about the invidious aspect of literary prizes, and the way that choosing some books over others for long lists and short lists inevitably bestows negative associations on the books omitted. But this international prize, The Frank O'Connor Short Story Award, was set up specifically to draw attention to the short story and to publicize collections which have appeared within the year, and, as a function of this, the long list is deliberately inclusive.

This list is a thermometer showing the robust health of the re-emerging short story, a map of its geographical growth and an indication of the areas of publishing in which it is thriving. As last year, it shows that it is within independent publishing that the short story is thriving, and this year that Britain is now the great home of the short story. There are 8 collections here from the US, 5 from Ireland, 4 each from Australia and New Zealand, 1 each from Singapore, Taiwan and Nigeria and a whopping 14 from Britain, including 8 from Salt, who are thus announced as the Biggest Champions of the Short Story in the World!!!