Thursday, August 28, 2008

Into the clouds again

Back in Wales, and I don't think the cloud has gone the whole time we've been away. The tub of logs near the front door was full to the brim with rainwater and the logs were sprouting huge fungi...

I've got the internet this morning though (after several tries), and I'll blog when I can during the next 10 days or so.

And it's September on Monday, and you know, September is traditionally better weather in these hills than August. Well, we'll see...

And never mind about the times I can't hook up, I've got walls to whitewash and woodwork to paint and a novel I want to write to think about, and several stories jostling to be written and a bagful of books I want to read...

Friday, August 22, 2008

TV really does take over your life

So they're taking down the scaffolding, and the vans and cameras and actors and all the seemingly hundreds of personnel surrounding them have moved on to the next location.

And last night Rowan the location manager comes and says goodbye. 'Thanks for the lunch,' says John (yesterday we were invited to the TV canteen vans to have lunch with everyone else, something John says he hasn't done since he was a teenager, when he and his mates did it regularly - hanging around film sets so long that they got given lunch in the end - and his moped ended up in a famous, iconic scene).

'You're welcome,' says Rowan. 'Come again next time.'

'Next time?' We look at each other.

'Oh, yes,' says Rowan blithely. 'It's a character's house, after all. There are other episodes waiting to be written. We'll be back again before Christmas.'


Thursday, August 21, 2008

The story behind the story: Condensed Metaphysics

Last summer I contributed to a series on John Baker's blog in which writers discussed the questions of 'inspiration' and the creation of texts. In doing so, I concentrated on the story 'Compass and Torch' which is included in my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

That was then something of an exception for me, as I've always thought the focus should be on the words on the page, rather than all this meta-stuff which tends to feed into the current obsession with the author as part of the fiction package. Also I'm dead against the current tendency for biographical readings of fiction, and I've always thought that pointing to any real-life triggers for fiction - even if it's only to point out the differences between the life and the fiction - is to reinforce the obsession.

But then I'm writing a blog, after all, and I've written here about some of my writing processes even if, so far, I haven't really related them at the time to specific pieces. And after the publication of the collection I did get into one or two brief discussions on here about specific stories in the book which did touch on issues of creation/production, and now find myself drawn to continue these discussions and talk occasionally about issues of creation surrounding some of the stories in the book.

So here goes, with 'Condensed Metaphysics', the first story in the book.

This is the story of a group of people out on the town who end up in a pizza parlour where a comic drunken conversation with the other customers punctures a few preconceptions and leads to some pretty serious realizations. It begins like this:
We're all drunk and Ellie's drunkest. She runs up to a guy with a begging cup outside the Babylon and asks him to lend us some money, we're hungry and want a pizza and none of us has got any cash.

In fact (as I've indicated before), the publishing history of this story neatly sums up the pitfalls of being drawn to talk about the 'real-life' elements of fiction (which, paradoxically, makes it hard to discuss its publishing history without doing so!). As soon as I had written this story I sent it off to London Magazine, which was edited at the time by the now sadly deceased Alan Ross. This is perhaps an indication of my pig-headedness: I had sent occasional stories to Alan in the past, but although he usually bothered to be complimentary, he had never agreed to publish any, and though I had long come to the conclusion that my stories just weren't his kind of thing - well, let's just say my granny was pretty stubborn too. So I was delighted when he wrote back very quickly and said he had found the story very funny and wanted to publish it. And then he asked me was it fiction or fact, because if it was fiction then I would have a long wait for it to appear in the magazine, but if it was fact then he'd be able to put it in the reportage section at the back of the mag next issue.

That wiped the smile off, I can tell you. Fact? My carefully wrought and imagined story, with all those made-up conversations and characters, that product of my imagination, not a replication or account, but an artifice of images and a hammock of words swinging rhythmically, a constructed vehicle for my own individual vision and themes? Wasn't it obvious from the shape, the patterning, that it was a made up thing?

I don't mind admitting I had a moment's doubt about the story, and in order to explain I do need to admit here that it was indeed based - based - on a real-life incident, more closely perhaps than most of my stories. I considered the fact that I had included real-life place names in the story, something I usually consciously don't do since what I'm aiming for usually is something a bit less realist - more universal, or mythic, if that's not too pretentious. Had this given it a kind of cod 'authenticity', especially since Alan (if he remembered) wasn't accustomed to reading that kind of thing in my work? Or was it something deeper? I had certainly written this story very quickly, it had come to me the moment I had woken up the morning after the real-life incident, and I had polished it off that day, and it was indeed steeped in the atmosphere of the real-life event. And the prose rhythms of the story were also tied up with the real-life experience; they did seem to have emerged from the particular hilarity of that real-life evening.

But of course it was fiction, (those rhythms were my own after all, and the characters and their stories were my fabrication), and so important was it to me to have it acknowledged as such, that I was quite prepared to wait for a lengthy period before publication. I wrote back to Alan Ross and jokingly told him that he was right in guessing that it had been based on a real-life incident but there was no doubt that the piece was fiction.

Well, now, maybe I was too cryptic, maybe Alan Ross was so busy he missed the point of my letter: imagine my dismay when the story appeared in the very next issue as reportage, indeed as a kind of travel piece, under the umbrella title Chinatown.

Why Chinatown? Because, presumably, the chap with the begging cup at the beginning of the story is asked by the revellers where he sleeps at night; he replies that he sleeps in an alley in Chinatown and before they can say any more he embarks comically on a lecture about popular misconceptions about the dangers of Chinatown. But we never find out if his version of Chinatown is the right one, partly because the revellers quickly forget all about him and Chinatown as they go on into the takeway place to order their pizzas. Any Chinatown of the story is not the specific place which a travel piece must reduce it to, but a Chinatown of the mind. This is a story not about a specific place or any specific places (in spite of my naming) but about viewpoint and the isolation of everyone from each other's experience and stories. It's a story about stories rather than reality, indeed it's about the difficulty of ever really pinning down reality - hence its ironic title 'Condensed Metaphysics'.

Best not even to get involved in discussions about the real-life sources for fiction, I say.

Arc lights at dawn

The view from our upstairs window:

See why it's hard to write?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Filming at Breakfast

OK, so now the film crew want to use our front door for the next-door-neighbour character to come out of (what is it that tells me that this is what they were intending to do all along?). And we are coming down to breakfast and the director is in the front doorway and asking, Do we mind if they just put a camera there in the doorway? And of course that means that the actor needs to come right in, along with the lighting crew, and the next thing you know there are arc lights in the hall and cables snaking to the power points in the living room...

But before that, it's the rehearsal, and I'm coming into the hallway and who is stepping in through the front door but John McArdle who played the main character in my radio series The Circle, and, it turns out, is playing the next-door neighbour today! This is when I find out that the series being filmed, The Choir Project, has been written by Debbie Horsfield, whose Making Out was perhaps of the best drama series I've ever seen on telly...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reading group: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

At the end of the last reading group meeting we were all a bit drunk, I think, and we cooked up the idea of having this month's meeting in the house in Wales where John and I would be spending most of August. We must have been mad: not only is the house still very much gutted, it's also pretty small, and most people would have had to camp in the field outside, and with these August winds howling and the stream that runs through the field swelling one night and flooding, it was clearly not on. We chickened out, and came back to Manc and held the meeting at our house here instead. In any case, the book suggested by Jenny for discussion, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was probably best discussed in a less abandoned and celebratory mood.

It was a sombre evening, dark already when people turned up at eight huddled and drenched from the walk around the corner, an evening well suited to the grave theme and formal tone of this book, a novella-length dramatic monologue delivered in a Lahore marketplace cafe by Changez, the Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated ex high-flying New York financial analyst, and addressed to an American stranger.

Jenny said she chose the book because of its subject matter and because it had been Booker shortlisted (which last would no doubt have drawn wry comment from the anti-hype, anti-prize Mark had he not been absent from the group for some time now because of his studies). She briefly recapped the story which Changez tells the stranger: of his meteoric success at university and in the financial company he joins thereafter, of his relationship with the young and beautiful New Yorker Erica who however is blighted by past sadness, the death of her first, childhood love, and of the way that both areas of Changez's life take a downward turn after 9/11. Erica becomes strangely sadder and indeed psychotically obsessed with the dead Chris, finally withdrawing from Changez altogether; Changez's social status is threatened by the growing American suspicion of all Muslims, and at the same time he comes to realize that he has been a willing dupe in the West's usurpation of his own people who, as he points out to the stranger, although now suffering poverty, built sophisticated cities and conducted a sophisticated civilization when westerners were still barbarians.

Meanwhile, this being a dramatic monologue, as this story is unfolding so is another, on the level of dramatic action: the relationship between Changez and the stranger is tense and highly ambiguous. Changez buttonholes the stranger, who appears immediately afraid, especially of the burly waiter. During the course of the meal which Changez 'invites' the stranger to share - in fact appearing rather to impose it on him, as he does his story - we learn that this louring and intent-seeming waiter has been a freedom fighter in Afghanistan. Yet who is this American stranger in this city without tourism? He must be a businessman, Changez concludes (and the stranger fails to confirm or deny this); yet why does his hand continually move towards his inside pocket? And what is that glint of metal there? Is it a cigarette case or a gun? Who is trapping or hounding down whom? Jenny said she concluded that the stranger had been sent by the Americans to take out Changez, the new if reluctant fundamentalist. Doug however said that since Changez took such pains to engage the stranger he had concluded it was the other way around, that the American stranger was being trapped by Changez and his new fundamentalist confederates. In the end, though, we all agreed that you couldn't really conclude either: indeed both were possible (in the best spy thriller tradition) and, more importantly, the book was deliberately ambiguous (it's an ambiguity that holds right up to and including the dramatic end), sending the important message that it in our current political situation friendship and enmity become muddied, and it's not possible to pinpoint goodies and baddies (as the traditional spy thriller ultimately does).

Jenny said that she found the book a little puzzling, a bit thin maybe. She thought that Erica's sudden emotional descent and its link with 9/11 wasn't really explained and that Changez's political turnaround was perfunctory and possibly unconvincing (and people murmured agreement). She said that pondering this she had wondered what made someone a fundamentalist, and had decided it was probably when something goes wrong in their personal life and they need something to fill a gap. Taking this back to the book, she thought that maybe the point was that if Changez's relationship with Erica had worked out, then he wouldn't have become a fundamentalist.

I said that I didn't think that we were meant to give the book that kind of psychological reading, and that rather it was an allegory, as indicated by the symbolic naming. Erica stands for the Am-erica which after 9/11 is lost, like her, in nostalgia for past glory and invulnerability - a point which Changez (and the author) makes explicitly (and indeed rather over-explicitly). Chris, her dead boyfriend, stands for the death of any vibrancy or integrity in Western Christian civilization, Western Christianity being now reduced to its own version of fundamentalism. There's another kind of fundamentalism in the West too, it's implied, that of the cult of materialism and finance - the mantra of the finance company for which Changez worked is 'focus on the fundamentals' - and it is indeed this fundamentalism about which Changez becomes reluctant as his views change. John added that Changez was also of course symbolically named, as he both changes and becomes perhaps an agent for change.

People agreed that the book made more sense read in this way, but nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, they still found it thin. I asked them what they thought of the voice - Changez's voice in which the whole book is of course couched. It's a very formal voice, suited to the formal cultural mores of Changez's Pakistani background and the kind of English he would have learned there: 'Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?' Jenny said she really liked the voice: it was one of the reasons she picked out the book; she likes books in which the voice is calm and measured yet there is something tense or sinister about what is being conveyed. I agreed about this, yet I wasn't sure that the voice in this book rang true: wouldn't someone as bright as Changez pick up the slicker lingo of American business and finance - and how could he be so successful without doing so? Doug, who works in finance too, agreed, now that he thought about it. Jenny said, But the Americans absolutely love that old-fashioned formal kind of English, they have a real snobbery about it, which seemed a valid point, but then wasn't the point about Changez that he had excelled at fitting in and hiding his outsider status?

Trevor said there was something else about the book which bothered him, which had made him wonder whether it really worked in the psychological and temporal terms set up by its dramatic monologue form. It had continually occurred to him as he read to wonder if Changez would really have been able to detain such a reluctant stranger for so long, and was it psychologically realistic that he would in those circumstances have told, or been indulged in the telling of, such an intimate tale, including the intimate details of a sexual relationship? And most of all, could he really possibly have told a tale of such length in the space of a single meal? And everyone else said that the very same thoughts had also troubled them.

All in all, the consensus was that the book was interesting but perhaps rather little: Jenny said she didn't think it had the weight to make it worthy of its Booker shortlisting, and Doug said that he felt that it benefited from its timeliness, but that in 50 years people would be unlikely to find it so important as a work of literature.

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

Monday, August 18, 2008

TV takes over your life

OK, so I'm back in Manc and back to my home broadband. But can I write? Can I heck. There's a TV crew setting up scaffolding in the back garden! This area we live in, Didsbury, is always being used for TV drama locations - for years a house in our street was one of the locations for Cold Feet. A few years back John and I were stupid enough to agree to our house being used for a one-off film. Never again. We had just decorated the hall, landing and stairs with great effort: as I've said before, the house needed a lot doing to it when we moved in, including major repairs - and still does, I'm afraid. The hall, landing and stairs was indeed the only part we had sorted out then, and by the time the TV crew left after two days' filming there were knocks in all the new paintwork, and chatting to star Robert Lyndsey on the landing, nice as he turned out to be, did NOT, NOT make up for the experience!

So when the Beeb's location manager came round the other week looking for something for a new drama series we said N.O. And anyway, it turned out the director had different ideas about the kind of home Sarah Lancashire's single-parent ex-university-wife character would be living in, and went for our next-door-neighbour's much smarter house instead. So we thought we'd escaped. Phew.

But then of course it turns out they need to put lights up in our garden to shine into next door's kitchen. And then there's the little matter of the character's scruffier neighbour who needs to be filmed walking down our suitably overgrown garden. And then there are our window frames which, while not exactly pristine, are too un-scruffy even for that character and need to be painted to look shabbier. And while they're at it, can they put some blinds up in our windows? And I come downstairs to make a cup of tea and there's a crew member moving everything off the windowsills ready....

I can think of one way to salvage the situation. I'll get a story out of it if it kills me.

Edited in later:

I was thinking what a contrast, this media-soaked place, to the one I've just left, cut off from everything in the hills, and then I remembered: one summer there was filming there, as well! They used the outside of the house and its little field for a short Welsh-language film, an adaptation of a short story, Mynedd Grug (Heather Mountain), by the Welsh writer Kate Roberts, who was born in nearby Rhosgadfan.

And you can go into the pub in Tremadoch and quite often there'll be a film crew or a reccy party relaxing at the end of the day... How long before even our countryside becomes, like the real New York, veiled by the one planted in our minds by film?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry

It's a particular experience, reading a book by someone you know - I always feel so personally involved, which is why I always write about those books on this blog rather than my other, more detached, critical blog. Quite often I've been party to the joys and struggles of the book's creation and/or publishing history and often I can't read the book without hearing the author's own real-life voice and envisaging the gestures which usually accompany it.

Nasim Marie Jafry's debut novel The State of Me, a revelatory depiction of life with ME, is an especially pertinent case since, for one thing, it is an avowedly autobiographical novel. Thus if you know what Nasim looks like it is just about impossible to read it without projecting her appearance onto that of the protagonist, and indeed the witty, wry, angry yet philosophical voice of that narrator-protagonist is the voice I know from emails and internet forums. In fact, many people will know Nasim as well as and better than I do, since it is also the voice of her successful and touching blog. This novel's publishing history is an interesting one: an agent persuaded a very reluctant Nasim that in a world where memoirs are the big sellers the book would be more easily marketable if sold as 'fictionalized memoir'. However the agent's first attempts to sell the novel quickly failed, since as an autobiographical novel it failed to meet publishers' expected parameters for memoir. The agent promptly dropped the book, leaving the author to tout it herself, but without the energy to do so, debilitated as she was by the condition which forms the very subject of the book. Instead, Nasim posted extracts on her blog and Clare Christian of The Friday Project came along like a fairy godmother and snapped it up, and now at last the book is published. Thus the author's real-life experience of having the book published after a long ME-troubled struggle becomes a kind of meta-ending for the novel's story, and in this respect the story of the novel and real life bleed into each other in a very particular way. This, and the identification which many must have with Nasim through her blog, may be why some commentators have judged that the novel should after all have been published as 'fictionalized memoir', which, in spite of the highly positive nature of the reviews, must be a dismaying thing for Nasim to hear.

In fact, it's nonsense. OK, so we may be able to see for ourselves, and Nasim's blog has told us, the things in the novel which relate to the real-life Nasim. But Nasim has also told us that there are things in the novel which don't relate to reality, and in my view, as in hers, that makes it fiction full stop. Come on, folks, there's no such thing as 'fictionalized memoir' (only insofar as no memoir can ever be truly objective - but that's not what we're talking about here.) You start making things up, you change the tenor of everything, you're making an artifice, which is what artists, including novelists, do.

So let's look at this book as an artifice, as a novel, as Nasim would want us to do. It's the story, beginning in the eighties, of Helen Fleet, a popular, lively university student of French who is struck down during her year abroad by a mystery illness which leaves her debilitated, cutting short her studies and forcing her withdrawal from life. Later tests reveal that her initial illness was caused by the coxsackie virus, and much later, physical tests prove that her muscles are no longer capable of producing enough energy. Initially, however - at a time before ME has been named, leave alone generally acknowledged by the medical profession - Helen encounters medical disbelief in her symptoms, and even after it has become acknowledged and her originally projected five years of the condition turns into six, seven, and finally, by the end of the novel thirteen, she comes up against both medical and lay resistance.

The novel is the story of Helen's rearguard psychic battle against the condition itself and her forced retirement, against such disbelief, and against the consequences for her relationship: the bond between Helen and her boyfriend, though ultimately strong, is stretched to breaking point as he sets off on the youthful adventures on which she can no longer accompany him. And her weapons in this battle are her wit, her verbal inventiveness and precision, her vivid eye on the kaleidoscopic world which is going on around and without her, her acute observations of character and physical detail, and above all her anger, which is the motivating, energizing force of this novel.

The amazing feat of this novel is to give one a physical sense of the pain and frustration of this condition, and yet to be bouncing with life, the inner life and the irrepressible psyche of Helen. For long stretches of time not a lot happens - which of course is the nature of the condition and the point of Helen's tragedy - and this may be why some commentators have insisted that it's 'not a novel'. Wrong again. Look at the word novel: the novel is called the novel because it has the capacity to constantly reinvent itself anew. It doesn't have to conform to conventional expections - the best ones in my view don't; it doesn't have to be action-filled or action-based, as long as it works, by which I mean it involves you emotionally, makes you want to keep reading, and this novel certainly did that for me. The story of this novel is an inner, psychological one; it's the story of Helen's fight to retain the sense of who she is while in outward ways the condition changes the kind of person she is or can hope to be, and of her psychological maturing in the process.

The ways in which the effects of this novel are created are highly literary (and novelistic), with precisely honed, sometimes lyrical prose and with highly stylistic devices. Helen uses the conceit of Play-School type windows through which her situation can be viewed via different viewpoints; intermittently she brings in an imagined conversation with a stranger who begins by expressing disbelief in her condition and must be educated into its reality and with whom she reviews her own progress.

The ending is inconclusive, which again seems to have led people to a reading of the book as memoir, but once again I'd say that formally this is the perfect novelistic end, replicating both Helen's uncertain future and the unfinished story of ME's acceptance by the medical profession. And, come to that, fitting that feeling of wishing a book hadn't ended...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Clouds in the hills and a story on the radio, maybe

Oh dear, this is turning into a blog about the ruddy internet. So OK, I got a better mobile broadband, and yes, it does work from the house here, but not when the weather is bad! And has the weather been bad up here in the hills! Here from the upstairs window where I sit at my laptop I should see a blue ridge of hills but all I can see most days is the cloud we’re sitting in the middle of, and the very nearby ash trees flinging themselves around with the kind of anguish I feel every time I try to connect up.

However, sometimes it happens and I find myself thinking what a miracle the internet is, instead of taking it for granted as we’ve all learnt to do in the past few years. Still, it can take several minutes – now and then 10! - to navigate between web pages, so I may not be very good on links, I’m afraid.

So anyway, I got an email through to my publisher Jen at Salt to tell her about my Raymond Carver win, and the next time I managed to hook up there was a reply from her telling me that my story ‘The Way to Behave’ is to be broadcast on Radio 4’s afternoon slot sometime in the autumn, probably in September – that is, if she received my answer giving the go-ahead: too many of my emails have been bouncing back! ‘The Way to Behave’ is one of the stories collected in Balancing, and it was originally commissioned for the Bitch Lit anthology (Crocus) with which we had great fun doing a series of readings dressed in character, since most of the stories, TWTB included, were dramatic monologues. TWTB is the story of a wronged wife, the narrator, who finds an unusual way of taking revenge, and is one of my naughty swipes at the abuses of feminism by so-called feminists. (My Aunty Phyllis read Balancing recently and pronounced TWTB her favourite in the whole book, so maybe I should be worried: but no, Phyllis was a WAAF in the war, and she’s pretty switched on about female power.) To read my character for the Bitch Lit tour, I dressed up, as she does in the story, as a vamp: red high heels, red nails, bright lipstick and dark wig, and when my mother and sister came to the reading we did at Sheffield, they sat there as the reading started wondering where I had got to, and didn’t realize I was me until I began reading! TWTB is one of the more conventional stories in Balancing, and so I suppose well suited to radio.

I haven’t been feeling very literary, though. Writing’s on hold as I’ve been too busy helping out with the work on this old family house, which was started two years ago, but is only ever done in people’s spare time, mostly in the summer. And do I really want to start writing a blog about lime plastering and woodworm?

Although, actually, a damned enticing story came to me the other night in the pub down by the straits…

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Raymond Carver short story competition

So there I was with my rickety mobile broadband, having driven all the way down the mountain and into Caernarfon before I got a connection, sitting in the car in the middle of the wind- and rain-swept Castle Square, and I finally got my emails - including one telling me that my recent story 'Used to Be' has come third in the Carve Mag Raymond Carver short story competition.

So let me eat humble pie. Honestly, always going on about how conventional and conservative short story competitions are, and how (nose in the air) I'm into innovation myself, and then I go and get a prize in one of the blighters! But actually, I must say that (though I may be wrong) I consider this particular story one of my most innovative - it's specifically and explicitly about the contingency of story and the fluidity of all those old short story tropes - metaphor, character, etc - in the face of our particular contemporary uncertainty. So I'll admit it, I'm really thrilled that it's been acknowledged in this way, and feel really privileged!

And I bought a different mobile broadband (what a waste of dosh!) and so though I'm still on the mountain I'm back in blogging business sooner than I expected...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Hold up

OK, I give up. I bought mobile broadband, and it didn't even work on that hill - there was no connection, even though the website said there would be a rudimentary one. So sorry about the silence again. And for one reason or another I won't be blogging again for another 10 days to a fortnight, or dealing with comments I'm afraid.