Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My virtual book tour: snails, kids, acting and porridge

Today my Cyclone virtual book tour for Balancing on the Edge of the World comes nearer home, just up the motorway to Keeper of the Snails, the amazing blog of novelist Clare Dudman (whose great books I wrote about yesterday). (Currently she's blogging about the silk worms she's keeping!)

Clare asks me in depth about my use of a child's perspective in my fiction and in fiction in general, about how much I use people and settings from life and how acting relates to writing. Other things, too, including getting me to reveal my recipe for porridge!

This book tour is turning out to be fascinating. As Barbara Smith comments on today's leg, it's really interesting to be presented with the different responses and angles on the book from the different hosts, and I must say it's also a wonderful opportunity to be able to talk about the book and what I'm trying to do in it in such depth.

For instance, it's a great surprise to me that Clare finds similarities in my stories to those of Chekhov: the last writer I'd have thought I was like was Chekhov, simply because I think of Chekhov as a tradition, and I see many of my own stories as innovative. Stupid, of course, because Chekhov was enough of an innovator in his own time, and Clare is right, I do, like Chekhov, often use the minutiae of life as a telescopic window onto our wider place in the universe. Interesting how we need others sometimes to remind us of our influences...

An even bigger surprise to me today was that Clare took all of the stories in Balancing as being set in the north, whereas in fact some of the settings I had in mind were Welsh! Part of the reason for this is that I tend not to specify geography as I'm looking for universality (there's just one story in the book in which I do): I want readers to sink into the situations in my stories (and not be alientated, as I think readers can be, by the names of places they don't know or don't know well). But Clare also says she feels the voice and tone of the stories are northern, which I must say makes me feel quite weird. I know my fictive (and real-life) voice is pretty ironic, but I always thought I got that from my dad, and not from having lived in the north for admittedly many years now...

And Clare sees an edge of anger in the stories. You see, you just can't fox some people...

You can read the interview here:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Clare Dudman, scientist and novelist

Tomorrow my virtual book tour goes to Keeper of the Snails, the blog of novelist Clare Dudman. I have just finished reading Clare's amazing novel, Wegener's Jigsaw. Although few have now heard of him, Alfred Wegener was the scientist and Arctic explorer who, at the beginning of the twentieth century first conceived of and proposed the idea of Continental Drift, the notion which is now at the heart of accepted theories of Plate Tectonics. The novel takes the form of a journal or memoir, written towards the end of Wegener's life, charting the birth of his scientific consciousness as a child in late-nineteenth-century Berlin, his experiments such as those with balloons, his experiences in the trenches in the first world war, and above all his treacherous expeditions across the icy wastes of Greenland.

Clare was once a science journalist, and it shows, yet at the same time she has a novelist's poetic empathy: the journey she takes us on is psychological as well as scientific and geographic, as we share in the moments when Wegener's insights come to him - the great folds of ice and bent icicles on the floor of an Arctic ice cave suggesting massive pressures and things on the move - and in the emotional trauma of his war experience and the disappointment as his theories are rejected by the scientific community.

And the descriptions of the Arctic environment! For the nights while I have been reading this book, there have been snowflakes and ice floes and wide white wastes in my dreams...

And before I had finished it, I sneaked a peek at her second novel, 98 Reasons For Being, about a Jewish girl taken in 1850s Frankfurt for treatment for 'nymphomania' to Heinrich Hoffmann, the physician and famed author of Struwwelpeter. It looks inventive and very psychological, and therefore right up my street!

I see from Clare's website that she travelled extensively to research both these novels, and for the new one which is due from Seren, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, about the nineteenth-century Welsh settlers in Patagonia.

I am in awe.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Reading Group: The String of Pearls by Joseph Roth

I love our reading group. Last Friday we had our group Christmas dinner, which may seem strange. It was originally scheduled for a date in December, but in the event I couldn't make it, as it clashed with the Salt Christmas party, and the other members decided to reschedule for my sake - by which I was very touched. Yet here I've been failing to attend to group matters: I've been so busy with stuff like my virtual book tour that I still haven't written up our last discussion. So here it is, or at any rate as much of it as I can remember:

We met at Clare's to discuss a book she had suggested: The String of Pearls, by the Jewish Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, translated by Michael Hofmann. It's the story of the events which ensue when the Shah of Persia, on a visit to Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, desires a beautiful countess and decides that he must have her, and the knock-on effects on characters from various strata of Viennese society.

I have to say we were more than a bit confounded by this novel. Having read Hofmann's translation of the very psychological The Reader, we were perhaps stupidly expecting something in the same vein, and were surprised to find this a somewhat old-fashioned omniscient tale. But we felt it was something about the novel itself which was difficult to grasp. As the novel follows the chain of consequences, the focus shifts from character to character, following each to their ruin and then leaving him or her and moving onto the next with an abruptness we found odd. Ann and I felt strongly too that we were missing things - that there were references we weren't getting, and possibly ironies and jokes. We had no idea whether this were the fault of the novel or the translation or indeed our own lack of historical background, but since this was after all a novel about the tenor of Viennese society at the centre of a crumbling empire, we found this frustrating. We were especially suspicious of the translation when it came to the representations of colloquial speech, which seemed awkward, and we wished that our German-speaking member Hans had been there to advise us, and indeed look at the original as he had with The Reader. Especially, though, we kept not being able to visualise things: for instance, we imagined the characters in Edwardian costume, but then suddenly there would be an indication that a character was dressed in more modern clothes.

Clare suggested that this was an effect deliberately created by Roth, as an indication of the flux and confusion of the society being portrayed. She suggested too that the abruptness of the changes of focus between characters was a formal replication of the effect on them of the disintegrating society. Nevertheless, she had to agree that there had been something unsatisfying about it all. Every one of us, it turned out, had been reduced to reading Hofmann's introduction for clues as to how we should take this novel, yet had found that it provided few, concentrating on the more superficial tropes such as that of doubling and on teasing out the parallels with strands in others of Roth's novels. So, still confounded and unsatisfied, we dropped the subject of the book and turned to other more gossipy matters.

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

Friday, January 23, 2009

Where do you get your ideas? Damn good question

Sue Guiney writes about writer's block, and that perennial question: does it really exist? All I know is that I have sat at my desk for the last two or three days buzzing with an idea that won't go away but dissipates every time I try to commit it to paper, and stops seeming like a proper idea after all. Yesterday I gave up and went in the shower - maybe the running water would get those alpha waves going? No, nothing... so I got dressed and went off into town to the Library Theatre to an afternon performance of Cathy Crabbe's play Beautiful House, running as part of the theatre's Re-Play season of performances picked up from the year's fringe in the city. A truly entertaining play (always guaranteed from Cathy Crabbe) and great performances including those from Jimmy Foster, 24:Theatre Festival's David Slack, and Cathy herself whom I'd never seen acting before but who turned out to be quite brilliant. And a really good-sized audience for a weekday afternoon performance.

Well, as soon as I arrived I spotted another friend, director Helen Parry, who said she and her friend, playwright Terry Hughes, were waiting for the bar to open. What, drinking in the middle of the afternoon? No way, especially when I'm not drinking anyway because I'm keeping my head clear for writing. But wait, maybe a drink will relax me, get those ideas coming in sideways... Well, yes it does: we get chatting, and suddenly we see that what we're talking about would make a great play, or even two plays, a double bill which all three of us could work on together...

And the story idea? No chance. Another day today at my desk and it still hasn't gelled...

There are two more performances of Beautiful House, tonight and tomorrow. I recommend it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Around the Edges of the World virtual book tour: pushing the boundaries and pleasing the punters

Back to England this week on my virtual book tour, to land on Me and My Big Mouth, the blog of Scott Pack, publisher and former chief fiction buyer for Waterstones, for a grilling about saleability! Well, actually, it's mostly me who goes on about saleability and the pressures of the market, after Scott surprises and pleases me by saying he likes the unorthodox stories in the book best, and about the effect such pressures have had on my writing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Scott Pack reviews Balancing

I'm pretty chuffed by a review by Scott Pack of Balancing on the Edge of the World. He says:
Most of the stories in this impressive collection are firmly rooted in reality. Domestic situations. Families. Marriage. The relationships between friends and neighbours. I often think that these are risky subject areas as they are ones that every reader will be familiar with and therefore more likely to pick up on elements that ring false.
They'd struggle to do that here as Baines perfectly captures the tone and cadence of everyday life. She finds and plucks out important and remarkable moments from the otherwise ordinary. It is quite a skill.
He goes on to say that he likes the more experimental stories best, and could have done with more, which is interesting to me, as when I was putting the collection together I left out some of my experimental stories, as my impression was that realist stories are more popular (and would sell better!).
On Wednesday Scott will be generously hosting the next leg of my virtual tour with the book, Around the Edges of the World. I don't yet know what he's going to ask me...!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Launch of Ballistics by Alex Keegan

Having sent my book tour winging around the blogosphere yesterday morning, I jumped on a train and did my own zip to London in a shorter time than ever before - less than 2 hrs - on the new Pendolino. I'd like to say there was no hitch, but in fact my train was cancelled, and I had to catch the one twenty minutes later, due to a 'faytality' as the information guy told me in a chirpy it's-that-usual-inconvenience voice, so it wasn't quite the happy-go-lucky journey it might have been. And kind of apposite, in a way, as I was off to the launch of a wonderful new book of stories from Salt, Ballistics, by Alex Keegan who began writing after he was involved in the Clapham train disaster.

I met up with my gang at Euston and we all went along to Pizza Paradiso, where the launch was taking place. I met Alex only recently, but I now feel as if I've known him forever, and it's not just because we're both part-Irish, part-Welsh. Alex is a force of nature with boundless energy, and you'd never have guessed he was still suffering a bad fluey cold. He is famous as the man who ran around helping others after the Clapham crash, while covered in blood. This event caused him to reassess his life and he gave up business for writing, publishing several successful crime novels before turning to punchy, gutsy literary short stories.

We had a great evening listening to Alex talk about writing (Alex runs the web literary school, Boot Camp, and several of his Bootcampers were there) and reading from his work, and hearing a dramatized poem of his performed.

Introducing Alex at the start, our publisher Jen (above) told us that just about every story in the collection had won a prize, and, having read two so far I'm not surprised. Finally, after the readings, several of us settled down and had a meal, which was a simply lovely way to round off the evening.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My virtual book tour: milk-fed snails and some deep questions about my writing process

Isn't the internet an amazing place? Today, due to my virtual book tour for Balancing on the Edge of the World, I'm in two places and two time zones at once: I'm in present-day Ireland on the blog of poet Barbara Smith, and at the same time in Ancient Rome, due to the fact that she has laid on a virtual Roman feast...

Course, there I am reclining with my wine cup and she comes in with the killer questions about my writing process...

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gotta be on my toes - and work up an appetite!

Tomorrow my virtual book tour 'Around the Edges of the World' kicks off in Ireland, on Barbara's Bleeuugh!, the blog of poet Barbara Smith. Barbara's blog is a great homey place, where you can settle down all unawares and next thing you know you're engaged in the deepest, most probing thoughts! And you know what, she is going to be softening me up with a Roman banquet...!

Barbara's own poetry is like this: it has such an easy clear surface, with a vividness of often domestic detail, and yet touches on the widest and most profound issues, reaching simultaneously back into the past and forward into the future. Here's the ending to the (not so domestic) 'Trench Monument' from her collection, Kairos, from Doghouse Books:

But now, in spring, white maggots blindly creep

From thawing flesh remnants,writhing, vying
for their own stale warmth, feeding the biomass,

reducing the remains to a future fossil.
Particles of dust, carbon atoms:

emissions in a shell-shocked future.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Writer's itch

Oh dear, it's one of those days... I've been working for the last two days on things other than my own writing, first of all yesterday creating a Facebook Group for my virtual book tour, and answering singularly deep and subtle questions about the writing process for my first stop on Barbara's Bleeugh! next Wednesday (14th). Then I began work on an article about the short story for the Writers' Guild newsletter - oh, and had to stop off to write a press release/blurb about the new book, a novel, which Salt will publish in November.

And now I'm going up the walls! Halfway through the afternoon today the sun came out and I thought, Oh, I really must go out and take advantage, just pop out for a little walk, even if it's only up to the shops. But no, I was strict with myself, and anyway wanted to get as much of the article done as possible. Stupid, because once I'd thought of that, the article didn't go so well at all... And now it's dark, and I've lost my chance, and I am so sick of being inside. I could go up to the pub, but then I don't want to drink because I want to be fresh to finish the article tomorrow. Must say, though, I never get as bad as this when the reason I've stayed in is to do my own writing...

Could be worse, though: at least I had the chance to stay home and get it done...

Monday, January 05, 2009

A disappearing practice

Such a strange experience today. Someone who wanted to see some of my stories asked me (admittedly by email) to send them in hard copy form to his home address! It's such a long time since I had to go through that process - printing the things out along with a letter (which involved running for more paper to feed the printer), weighing the package, finding stamps and sticking them on and carrying it up to the post office through the frosty afternoon... I felt like a character in a Dickens novel, or at least I felt like my five-years-younger self. It took half the afternoon: I started after lunch, and it was getting dark by the time I came home (though I have to admit I called in to the charity shops and bought myself a beautiful silk Karen Millen blouse for next to nothing!). How different from just pressing a button...!

Of course, some mags still only consider snail mail submissions, but they're in the minority. How the world changes...

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Dreaded set texts

Emails from children studying her work for GCSE have prompted Susan Hill to write an article for Standpoint Magazine about English teaching in schools. Those who followed Hill's blog will be familiar with these emails: desperate, often resentful, and revealing teenagers at a loss with the task of reading and writing about a full novel.

Actually, I don't think it's just novels. My story 'Compass and Torch' (one of the stories in Balancing) is to be included in a school textbook, and it's not just Hill's experience but the comments from school students on East of the Web (where the story was first published) which make me think that becoming a set text will not necessarily be the story's best fate...!