Sunday, September 28, 2008

Short stories and chocolate buns: yum

Short story day yesterday at the Friends' Meeting House in Manchester, run by Manchester Libraries and the National Short Story Campaign.

It was a lovely day: a great atmosphere of enthusiasm for the short story, which is always something to warm one's heart. We kicked off with a panel discussion which Sophie from the National Story Campaign opened with a rousing speech and a brief history of the Campaign, and then Frank Cottrell Boyce, David Constantine, Comma publisher Ra Page and I were given the privilege of telling a roomful of people about our favourite short stories. Then we broke up into workshops. The day was intended for readers and writers, but as it happened everyone in both my workshops turned out to be a writer, and in my second workshop two people were teachers of creative writing, so people had plenty to say and ask. Adele Geras was, as usual, a wonderful contributor to my first workshop and David Constantine came to my second and sparked things up by adding his thought-provoking take on the question of new writers' fixation with publication over commitment to the work.

And in the break, when we were treated to chocolate buns (there went my new resolution over cake!), some lovely people bought copies of my book - thank you to them, and I hope you enjoy it!

Afterwards, Adele, Salt poet Steve Waling, writer and Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher and I repaired to Starbucks across the road and continued the discussions...

Adrian posts his impressions of the afternoon here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ride the Word at Borders Oxford St

Two things I'll never do again: wear heels to walk in London, and go on about how convenient and quick the trains are between Manchester and London now.

On Wednesday I was off to London for a meeting over a bite to eat and then on to Borders in Oxford St for the Ride the Word reading - five Salt authors, including Charles Lambert whose collection The Scent of Cinnamon was hot off the press. Seemed a cinch: in two hours and four minutes I was in London and a forty-minute leisurely stroll later (my heels weren't that high, after all) I was at my meeting. 'God, it's so quick now from Manchester!' I said over dinner, pretty pleased with the state of the world in general. 'Amazing that it's so easy now to come and go back in one day!'

And the reading was great: I arrived as the readers were being announced and slipped into a seat in the back row right next to fellow Salt short-story writers (and fellow bloggers) Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman whose debut collection The White Road is also just out. I loved the poetry: Simon Barraclough is deservedly shortlisted for the Forward Prize:

and Vincent de Souza's motorbike poems were exciting:

I knew it would happen if Isobel Dixon read her utterly moving yet restrained father poems, and it did, I cried:

Jay Merrill astounded us with her dry wit and sheer woomph:

and Charles' story was a miracle of vividness and control:

So involving were the readings that I think hardly anyone noticed that the programme overran, past nine o'clock - I certainly didn't, and then of course I was busy chatting to everyone including someone I had spotted in the audience but hadn't seen for years: Judith Amanthis, whose wonderful short stories we published in metropolitan. I went over to speak to Charles. In a moment as he turned away I looked at my watch. My God! It was nine thirty! It had taken me forty minutes to get here, and my train was due to leave in only thirty-five!

Charles emailed the next day asking what on earth had happened. One minute he had been talking to me and then... This is what happened: I snatched up my bag, I left the shop and then I fled. Well, I got there in thirty, but one thing I had learnt: it's one thing strolling in heels, even quite low ones, and quite another marching and half-running...

And as I rushed up to the departures board I was greeted with this news (somewhat ironic in view of my recently-published Horizon story, 'Possibility'): all trains to Manchester had been suspended since around 7.30: they'd closed the line because a gunman had been shooting at passing trains at Rugby, and was still on the loose and shooting at the police helicopter now.

I didn't get out of Euston till gone 11.30. I could have stayed nattering after all...

Monday, September 22, 2008

A Salt reading and a short story afternoon

A couple of announcements today:

If you're in London on Wednesday evening, there's another fabulous Ride the Word event featuring Salt writers: poets Simon Barraclough (Los Alamos Mon Amour), Vincent de Souza (Weightless Road) and Isobel Dixon (A Fold in the Map), and short story writers Jay Merill (Astral Bodies) and Charles Lambert who will be launching his hot-off-the press collection, The Scent of Cinnamon. Wednesday 24th Sept, Borders, 203-207 Oxford Street, 7.30-9.00 pm. I'm in London that day, and I'll be there...

And on Saturday there's a Manchester event to celebrate the short story, organized by Central Library in association with the National Short Story Campaign and Comma Press. There'll be a panel discussion followed by workshops with Ra Page of Comma Press, Polly Thomas who commissions short stories for BBC Radio, and writers Frank Cottrell Boyce who will talk about the difference between short stories and screenplays, David Constantine who will talk about composition in short stories and yours truly - I'll be on one of my favourite hobby horses and looking at the excitingly multifarious - and liberating - forms that the short story can take. Further details and booking information here. Friends' Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester, Sat 27th Sept, 1.00 -

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Reading Group: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

It was because I had recently raved about it (see my review) that John chose this book, the story of Oscar de Leon, a New Jersey ghetto nerd struggling with the curse imposed by his family's history of entanglement with the repressive Dominican regime.

I had met Trevor in the street a few days before the meeting and he had raved too: definitely worth the money, he said (we usually read books in paperback, and this was an exception), absolutely flipping brilliant, wonderful the way the story (told in the main by street-wise Yunior who befriends Oscar at the request of his own girlfriend, Oscar's elder sister, Elizabeth) is developed in a non-linear way - it makes it all so real, and exciting the way certain information only comes out later, and Trevor had only one criticism which was that he was so hooked he felt he was reading it too quickly and was missing stuff - a point with which I agreed.

So I was a bit surprised when John reported that he was never really engaged by the book in this way. I had noticed that he read it in a piecemeal way, being very busy with other things, so it's possible that he didn't give it appropriate attention, but in any case I was very interested to hear what everyone else thought.

On the whole people thought the same as Trevor and me. They had been gripped, and most people, like me, were particularly bowled over by the narrative voice of the novel and suspected that Yunior's voice was very close to that of the author, since there are frequent footnotes explaining the history of the Dominican Republic, and indeed of the composition of the novel itself, which are delivered in the same voice. As a result, Clare said that she had been hooked by these footnotes, unlike those in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which had bored her silly: these seemed, unlike those, an integral part of the novel, essential to its structure. Jenny agreed, but she said she had a slight problem in that as a result she wasn't sure how how factual were their historical details. Trevor said that he felt that Junot Diaz had set out particularly to educate people about the DR with this novel, and so we could take them as truly historical, and people then agreed, and Clare, Jenny and Ann said what an amazing experience it had been to discover from it this history which is generally unknown and unacknowledged. I said that I really loved the way that the footnotes and the novel itself (which is in fact dedicated to Elizabeth de Leon) played with the ideas of fact and fiction in a way that was searingly appropriate, thematically, for the slippery realities created by the political situation described - at which John drew attention to the amazing symbol in the novel of the faceless person, and people chorused accord.

Clare said that she loved the way the different stories of the characters were woven together in a non-linear, indeed backwards way: the way that you get the stories of the children and then the story of the mother, and after that the story of the grandfather, and in the telling of each the previous stories take on new meanings and contours. Jenny strongly agreed. She said that when she read the daughter's story she thought the mother was a bitch, but then when she read the mother's tragic story her eyes were opened, and it was great to have these changing perspectives.

The big surprise for me was Doug's reaction. He had been pretty quiet up to now, but now he said that he agreed with us about much of this, in particular he thought like John that the women were brilliantly done and that the story of Oscar's mother was especially moving. But unlike us, he had found Yunior's voice - which we had found so authentic - fake, affected and modish in its streetwise nature. What? We stared at him open-mouthed. But what about the fact that we felt it was pretty close to the voice of the author (especially as I had said that it was also like the overall voice of Diaz's short stories in Drown)? Doug said, Well, in any case he didn't find the character of Oscar at all convincing. What? Our mouths dropped open further. He was a caricature of a nerd, Doug said, and come to that, so was Yunior, a caricature of a streetwise guy, picking up the girls, talking like he did... And he found the story of Oscar's bullying at school and university so parochial compared to the extreme stories of his mother and grandfather.

We were staggered. First, we pointed out that the whole point is that Oscar's plight draws him back tragically into that political situation. As for the portrayal of those two characters, we had no answer except to say that we had found them both utterly convincing, and Oscar's plight as a bullied nerd as moving as Doug had found it unmoving. Doug said, Well what about when that Goth girl befriends Oscar, that was totally unconvincing, how would a Goth want to be seen dead with Oscar? Clare said, because he was safe, because she could have the kinds of discussions with him she couldn't have with her Goth friends or her boyfriend, but Doug said that his friend had a daughter who was a Goth and she wouldn't be seen dead with anyone outside her own Goth circle. I said, Well, there are Goths and there are Goths and Trevor and Jenny said that people can dress up as Goths for all sorts of reasons, sometimes only because they want to dress like that. But this was getting away from the book and onto life and Clare pulled the discussion back by saying that she felt you could identify with Oscar, surely, if you had ever experienced some kind of bullying or even at least thought you had. And she didn't think that Yunior was a caricature because he did precisely that, identified with Oscar at moments which the rest of us agreed were very moving.

Then Trevor said that he had a hunch that Diaz himself was probably both characters, that he had split himself in two - the wiseguy and the nerd - to tell this story, a point which we all found astute. This seemed for a moment to prove Doug's point, but the fact remained that everyone beside Doug found the depiction of these two characters nevertheless convincing and moving.

After which, we had an impassioned discussion about bullying...

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

Friday, September 19, 2008

Out of my head and into the air

So I listened to my story, The Way to Behave, on the radio this afternoon - often a strange experience, since it's so rarely the same as it is in your head, but Lesley Sharp had it almost the way I hear it myself! Of course, it had been cut to fit the slot - the 'frilly' bits had gone (I couldn't help thinking that that was how they must have thought of them): the descriptions of the room and the autumn, with their hints of witchcraft and physical violence; I suppose you could say it was (appropriately) turned into more of a drama. But it definitely got the spirit of it, and Lesley Sharp really was the character as I'd envisaged her: what a pro! Thank you, Lesley, thank you producer Jill Waters, and thank you Jen at Salt.

The story can be heard online for the next 7 days here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When it comes from a talented short story writer...

I have just been paid the ultimate compliment for a short-story writer, praise from a most talented writer of his own exciting, unique short stories. Rob Shearman, whose collection Tiny Deaths (Comma Press) was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Award, shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and is also shortlisted for the World Fantasy Awards, has given Balancing this lovely Amazon Review:
It's all too easy for short stories to read as something very slight - either as tales which don't have a strong enough backbone to support a bigger plot, or as bits of poetry in prose form which delight in the rhythm of words over meaning or point. What makes Elizabeth Baines' collection so brilliant - and why, no doubt, it was deservedly nominated recently for an international award - is that she perfectly plays with both the page-turning quality of novel's fiction, and a crafted beauty you usually only associate with verse. These are stories concerned with 'power', in all its forms - whether it be the hilarious tale of a naive screenwriter and the way her fledgeling script is abused by a film course, or the magical superhuman powers of a young child ignored by the numbing reality of parents getting divorced. They're funny, and moving, and thoughtful - but above all, they're short stories which celebrate how beguiling short stories can be. Read and be enchanted.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Horizon Review goes live

The first issue of Horizon, edited by poet Jane Holland has just gone live. It's packed with fabulous stuff - most of which I've only managed to glance at yet - including poetry by George Szirtes and Katy-Evans Bush and fiction by Nuala NĂ­ ChonchĂșir and me.

Here it is: a new place on the web for exciting and serious literature to flourish! Read, submit, spread the word!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Way to Behave on Radio 4, 3.30, Friday.

Looked at the radio listings in the Observer this morning and found that it's Friday of this week that my Balancing story 'The Way to Behave' is being broadcast on Radio 4 (3.30 pm). It's a fabulous series to be in, intended to highlight collections of stories in print and easily available, and titled In Bookshops Now. The series kicks off tomorrow with (appropriately) 'Monday Diary' from another Salt collection, the wonderful Some New Ambush by my friend Carys Davies (she's my friend because we met through both being published by Salt and precisely because I so love and admire her writing). It's a real mark of Salt's marketing nous that they should feature so prominently in such a series.

I'm particularly chuffed as my story is being read by actress Lesley Sharp (above) of Clocking Off fame and numerous northern TV dramas - what an honour, and she's just perfect I think for the ironic tone of the narrator. My story slot is critic Stephanie Billen's Radio Choice for Friday and she has this to say:
Radio 4 continues its valuable championing of the short story by highlighting fiction from widely available collections. Concluding the week is 'The Way to Behave', a clever tale by Elizabeth Baines, in which a social worker takes a slow revenge on her husband's far too nice mistress. Reader Lesley Sharp invests her character with just the right amount of venom as she recalls her fateful first discovery of a blonde hair: 'a gold worm, hooked and wriggling...'

I should mention that The Way to Behave was first published in (and commissioned for) the Bitch Lit anthology which is also available, direct from Crocus Books (get them both if you can afford it!)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Getting one's writing head on

I've had a very disrupted year, writing-wise. I'm speaking in terms of the academic year, here: those academic-year rhythms are so deeply ingrained that like Emma Darwin I always think of this time of the year as a new beginning. The leaves beginning to fall, the darkening evenings and the earlier twinkling of the lights in the windows fill me with an excited sense of adventures to come. Consequently, it's a time too for reassessment.

This time last year I was busy on the blog story, which though I enjoyed immensely and found a welcome change from the isolation of the normal writing mode, was of course time out from my own writing. It was immediately followed up by the activities involved in the launch of Balancing - those promotional activities for which I at any rate need a different mentality from that which I need for writing. As far as I'm concerned, it's a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde situation: for the promotional work one must trip the switch and shrug off the dreamy, receptive personality who does the writing, and become outgoing and hard-headed. (In fact the blog story required a strange fusing of those two personae, which was perhaps why I found it so all-encompassing.) After Christmas I got time to myself at last and managed, once my head had settled, to begin on a new series of short stories. But it was indeed a question of waiting for my head to settle. A week or so ago I read Jeanette Winterson's novel Lighthousekeeping: in the Postscript to my paperback edition Winterson describes well the necessity to wait for fiction to happen to you, the fact that it simply can't be forced, one needs to be emotionally and creatively ready. (In fact, appropriately, Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde features in Lighthousekeeping.)

Well, by the end of January I was ready, but I had written only three stories or so when family illness struck with a vengeance: both John and my brother became seriously ill, and while the danger is now passed for both of them and I did begin writing again in May, I have to say that my creative focus has been intermittent.

But then yesterday things felt different. I had washed all the dirty laundry we had brought back from Wales, the summer was over and packed away. There was that soft, fizzing, typically Manc autumnal rain falling. Suddenly I experienced that old familiar combination of peacefulness and excitement. I went to my desk and in a flash I saw the way to write the story I conceived in Wales but of which I'd only so far managed a sentence, and the wrong one at that.

Here's hoping, anyway...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Satisfaction or your money back

Yesterday The Guardian tried to elicit tales of stage rage from writers and performers who had been annoyed by audiences, but in several cases it was the audience who turned out to have been most enraged, and the performers forbearing or even timid.

Anyway, it reminded me of the time we took the Bitch Lit tour to Ilkley....

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Words lost in the flood

Ah, the city! And I always thought I was a country lass at heart. Here's what we had to wade through to get from the house to the car, the stream which is normally three feet beneath the track. Though you can't see it, it's waterfalling down each side of that tree on the left. Well, we had our wellies, of course, but the feeling of being cut off on a mountain in a changing climate was a bit insistent, especially when the wind got howling and the rain hit the windows like breakers (and came in through the gaps in the mortar!).

We spent the fortnight fighting the elements with lime plaster and paint and, in this place where in the past I have gratefully written most intensively, I wrote a single sentence only, I didn't read much after all, and the internet - of course - was dodgy. By the time we were due to come back I had regressed to such a non-verbal state I was almost scared to...

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Raymond Carver winners published online

The winning stories in the Raymond Carver Competition, including my own third prizewinning 'Used to Be', are now published online in the Fall issue of Carve Magazine.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

It's how you read em, I guess

Email today from Matthew Limpede, editor of Carve Magazine. The Fall issue is slightly delayed, but should appear on Wednesday or Thursday with the winning stories of the Raymond Carver competition, including my own, 'Used to Be'.

It's interesting to think about this story in the light of Dovegreyreader's comments about Balancing on the Edge of the World. It's something of a breathtaking whirl, deliberately eschewing or at least questioning all the traditional tropes of the short story - character, symbolism etc - and I would say it most definitely doesn't fit her description:
I envisage Elizabeth Baines hunched over a magnifying glass, the finest, most delicate of brushes in her hand, painting exquisite little miniatures, and there you have the essence of her short story collection... It is the microscopic quality of Elizabeth Baines’ eye that make each and every one of these stories so special.

Actually, while I'm thrilled that Dgr's review is so positive, I don't think of the stories in Balancing in this way, either, or maybe I'm just frightened stiff of the kind of reaction expressed today by Elaine of Random Jottings on Vulpes Libris:
...when I pick up a collection of short stories and find they are described as ‘exquisite vignettes’ (and yes this has happened), my main reaction is to run screaming from the room.

In fact, folks, I see my stories as punchy, ironic and huge in the themes they tackle - but then I guess it's up to others to decide...

Monday, September 01, 2008

Ah, September, and the cloud has cleared and I can see the ridge all patched in purple heather, and what's more I can get the internet, and here I am at the laptop, splattered in paint but having a break, and I have just been given a huge boost by discovering that Dovegreyreader has chosen Balancing on the Edge of the World for a roundup of favourite story collections, conducted by Vulpes Libris' Leena. Thank you, Dgr!

There's an interesting selection of story collections and favourite all-time single stories, should you head on over, a fair weighting towards the traditional, I think, with Katherine Mansfield coming out well, but also Clare Wigfall's recent wonderful The Loudest Sound and Nothing having made a big impact.

Interestingly, Leena says that she turned to other bloggers as she had come up against something of a blank with her vulpine fellows: '..many of them pleaded ignorance of the genre'.


Still, the other bloggers came up trumps.

And I also discovered that Barbara has bought Balancing and received it in the post today...

Internet, brilliant innit?