Friday, April 30, 2010

Launches at Waterstone's

Well, amidst all the debate about Waterstone's and the extent to which it supports smaller presses and their writers, I am able to report that the truly nice Nick at Waterstone's Deansgate Manchester has agreed to host a launch for the reissue of The Birth Machine when it comes out in October!

And on Wednesday night I was at a very well-attended launch there for my friend Cath Staincliffe's new novel, The Kindest Thing, published by Constable and Robinson. Held in the events room with its elegant windows overlooking Deansgate and the thirties windows of Kendal's (which always make me expect Superman to come flying in front of them at any moment), it was a lovely evening. The book is a departure for Cath from her detective novels, although it's a crime novel in that it's constructed around a criminal trial, and the very topical case of a woman convicted for helping her husband, who was suffering from motor neuron disease, to die. It's a page-turning read, and yesterday, suffering from a migraine and unable to write yet still able to read, I took the book to bed and gobbled it all up in one day!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Earth Day: 40 ways to green your reading

Yesterday was Earth Day, and Eco-Libris (with whom I'm collaborating to plant trees for the copies printed of my books) posted a list of 40 ways to green your reading, which is definitely worth a look.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are books ever finished?

Well, I've been working on the proofs for The Birth Machine, my first novel which is to be reissued by Salt in October. This will be the third edition of the book, and I've written before about why I published my own second, revised edition after the rights reverted to me.

Well, there I was recently reading the proofs for typos (the whole thing had had to be rejigged from old files), and guess what? I wanted to change it again! Not in the way I changed it for the second edition (that was a change of structure, a reversion to the one I began with before the book was ever published). But you know, inevitably over the years my writing has changed (developed, I hope). Apart from anything else, in the period since I first wrote this book I've had a career as a radio playwright and under a different name I wrote a series of TV novelisations for children. The disciplines involved in those forms/genres must have contributed, although probably it would have happened anyway: in any case I think that nowadays my writing is sparer. It was very difficult therefore for me to read through the text of The Birth Machine without wanting to work on it, and I couldn't resist making a few tiny changes, and as a result this will be the 'Third, further revised edition' !

It makes you realize that in reality a book is never, ever finished...

And of course I am utterly grateful to Salt for allowing this one to go on living and breathing in this way...

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reading group: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Ann suggested this book because she had attended a lecture given by an American academic, in which he had advanced the notion that fiction is better at conveying the reality of historical moments and situations than 'factual' history. The two novels he cited as being excellent examples were Coetzee's Disgrace, which we have also discussed, and this 1987 novel set in mid-1800s Kentucky, when slavery was under attack from the abolitionists. The Beloved of the title is the baby daughter of escaped slave Sethe, whom Sethe killed with her own hands rather than have her taken back into slavery when the slave owners caught up with her - named 'Beloved' because that was all that was written on her gravestone - and who returns to haunt and disrupt her mother's house and claim retribution. The Author's Forward in my edition makes clear that the story is based on a real-life case, that of Mary Garner (whose slave-owner name, Garner, Sethe shares). Amazingly enough, in spite of the fame of this book, and the fact that Morrison has won both the Nobel and the Pullitzer, none in our group - or at least none present for the discussion - had previously read it.

Ann said that she hadn't found the book an easy read at all (at which everyone else nodded), mainly because of the structure of the novel which constantly shifts back and forth between both the viewpoints of the characters and the past and the present, but also because of the language Morrison employs: an intimate third-person which takes on the vocabulary and syntax of the characters' own language, and indeed at one point morphs into (a shifting) first person. However, Ann thought it was a very powerful book, and most of us strongly agreed.

Jo said she wondered why Morrison had written it in such a complicated way. I said that it was the only way she could have written it and achieved emotional veracity, since the story is about a suppressed history, in particular the subjective experience of slaves; the structure constantly resurrects the buried past into the present of the novel. Ann added the even more salient point that the characters themselves don't want to remember their past experience (since it is so painful). As a result the past is only revealed in layers: one scene from the past will be presented in a way which seems vivid enough, but then we will return to it again and a further detail will suddenly illuminate the scene in a new, and often horrifying, way. Thus we are forced constantly to reassess our own insights, and this, it seems to me, is the political force of the novel, and others agreed. There is one particularly horrifying detail, for instance, about the physical appearance of the character Paul D (who was enslaved with Sethe and now comes into her life again) which is revealed only at the end of the novel. The surprise is breath-stopping, and one is forced to come consciously to terms with the fact that for the length of the whole novel one's view of him has been partial, and that therefore one has underestimated his experience, as well as that of those around him.

I asked Ann what the American academic had said about why he thought fiction worked better than factual writing in conveying such histories, and Ann said it was precisely this, that it operates on the feelings of the reader by inhabiting the feelings of characters - a point with which I heartily agree. The structure of this novel in particular forces a kind of retrospective reading which most of us thought emotionally and politically powerful. Ann commented that another thing which makes the novel especially powerful emotionally is, paradoxically, the matter-of-fact way in which the horrors are conveyed. The contrast between the tone and the events being described, and the implication that for slaves this was day-to-day experience, is particularly shocking. Ann said that she had listened to a World Service podcast of an interview with Morrison who had said that she had made the conscious decision that she must avoid anger in the novel, and that the only character she could allow to be angry was the ghost (because she had been murdered).

John now said that it was interesting that we hadn't really mentioned Beloved up to now, although she was in many ways the focus of the novel. This wasn't really picked up for further discussion, though I think in retrospect she's a kind of medium, in the terms of the novel, for the conveyance of the past into the present of the novel. There was some discussion as to whether she was a real ghost or not - she finally materialises as the eighteen-year-old woman she would have been had she lived; and twice there is reference to the rumour of a young woman, kept as a sex slave, having escaped from a shed nearby - but our conclusion was that we were not meant to read the novel in these either/or realist terms, but to inhabit the mentality of the characters and their attitudes to an ambiguous spirit world. Some people, Ann in particular, wondered how differently Americans, to whom this history of slavery belonged, might read the novel. Ann said that in the podcast Morrison states that she made the decision to address her novel to black people (unlike the white abolitionist Harriet Beecher-Stowe, for instance, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had been addressed to white readers) - although it seems to me that her technique of retrospective revelation is employed on ignorant white readers most usefully of all.

However, Trevor now said that he had had a lot of trouble with the language and complicated structure of this novel, and Clare said so had she, and Trevor said that he'd even gone off and read something else in the middle as relief and then gone back to it.

We then recalled some of the horrors that the novel exposes, such as the fact that after the slaves are caught trying to escape, those considered of little use are beheaded and dismembered and their headless limbless torsos hung from trees, and the fact that the slave owner thinks of them as farm animals and talks of the 'breeding one' and her 'foal'. Ann told us the horrifying fact she had learnt from the podcast that the abolitionists had tried to get the real-life Mary Garner tried for murder, because if she were capable of murder then she would have to be acknowledged to be human.

Ann, or perhaps Jo, said that one impressive thing about the novel was the way that early on we are led to see the Garners as unusually philanthropic slave owners, but later realize that this is just a matter of relativity, and that they have their own cruelties. I said that one of the most horrifying moments for me, though, was not the out-and-out cruelty from which it's easy to distance oneself, but the incident towards the end when Sethe's living daughter Denver goes to the abolitionists' house to ask for work. Here she comes across something which horrifies her: a small statue of a black child with its head pulled back and its lower lip extended to receive coins casually thrown down, ready for paying tradesmen - a figure so like the Little-Black-Sambo collection figures that stood unremarked outside shops and in arcades in my own childhood, that I was pushed up suddenly against my own unconscious collusion in racism.

Then we talked about the fact that the TV Black-and-White Minstrel Show went on into the seventies, and that Robinson's golliwogs weren't discontinued until the eighties, and ended up, I think quite subdued...

*Edited in: When it was suggested that our history is more distant from slavery than that of the Americans, John pointed out that it was ironic that as Mancunians we should feel a distance from slavery, since as a cotton port Manchester was intimately involved in the three-way cotton-sugar-slave trade. (A novel that explores that three-way trade is Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger.)

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The trickiness of marketing: Benjamin Judge reviews Too Many Magpies

Tell you what, marketing is the trickiest of things. I've had a lovely review from Benjamin Judge for Too Many Magpies, but he begins by saying that something - the marketing blurb, maybe ME? (!) or at least what I said about the book - had put him right off it and made him actually TUNE OUT when I read last October for Manchester Literature Festival. However (thank goodness), he put aside his impressions and read it recently.

I'm very grateful to him for doing so, and extremely pleased with his final judgement:
It is superbly written. Spare, while being full of perfectly observed detail, the text has a knack of repeatedly picking up moments of life that only while reading you realise you haven’t seen in a novel before but that are true and needed telling. The book freezes our times for future generations in a way that the mammoth, multi-layered uber-novels of Franzens, Safran Foers and Mitchells can only dream of. If I say it is light I don’t mean lightweight but that it is graceful, illuminating and capable of flight. Like the magpies of its title it can soar beautifully and cackle maliciously. It is a great book.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Eco-Libris: A tree for every copy of The Birth Machine

I've had some great reviews for Too Many Magpies, but one (pretty sexist) blogger, whom I won't link to for obvious reasons, pointed to the fact I was working with Eco-Libris to have a tree planted for every copy printed, and said he'd rather we'd all cut out the middleman and left the tree standing in the first place! (Sexist, but witty.)

Anyway, I'm pleased to say that I shall be risking his spleenful keyboard further by doing the same with the reissued The Birth Machine: I've signed up with them again, and a tree will be planted for every copy - well, 1.3 trees, actually, to allow for saplings dying. I just love the fact that for the wood pulp used for each copy (and the ire expended by sexists everywhere), a new tree will grow somewhere.

You can also plant trees with Eco-Libris for the books you read, for as little as a dollar a book: here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

New Issue of Mslexia out

Many magazines will tell you that they don't look more favourably on your submissions if you subscribe. I do know that when Ailsa Cox, John Ashbrook and I published the short story mag Metropolitan we used to join in the magazine-publishers' collective sigh that if only everyone who submitted subscribed we'd be well away, but we made a point of never converting that into a prejudice against submissions from non-subscribers. You do wonder, though, if people are sometimes tempted, but then maybe I'm just an old cynic. Anyway, before it was more generally known that Elizabeth Baines is a writing name, at least I could be sure that that wasn't happening when my stories were accepted by mags, since it's a different name which appears on my cheques and thus usually on mag subscriber lists.

One magazine which reassures us that they are never thus swayed (which reassurance only serves to suggest that they do indeed suspect that some mags are!) is Mslexia, the magazine for women who write. One excellent service they do provide for their subscribers, however, is that they list their latest publications. I've subscribed to Mslexia since its beginning, but since I did so under my non-writing name, and it seemed too fussy to explain, I wasn't able to take advantage of that when Balancing on the the Edge of the World came out. This time, though, I decided to write and explain, and the latest issue has just popped through the door, with Too Many Magpies listed - and they've even included a picture of the cover! Thank you, MsLexia! This issue carries an interview with novelist Kamila Shamsie and the winning stories of the latest Mslexia short story competition.

The problems of having more than one name, though...!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Nightjar Press Chapbooks

I wasn't feeling so good last week, wiped out and pretty much ground to a halt. Nothing I had planned to do in the way of writing got done. I was flopping my way down the stairs one afternoon, fit for nothing but a sit by the fire, and a white envelope dropped through the letterbox in the hall below me, which turned out to contain two of these lovely single-story chapbooks from Nick Royle. They are the latest in his Nightjar Press series, 'Black Country' by Joel Lane and 'When the Door Closed, It Was Dark' by Alison Moore who was shortlisted for the inaugural Manchester Fiction Prize. (I already had Tom Fletcher's 'The Safe Children'.) So just the ticket!

I'm all for the idea of chapbooks containing single stories: it's a mode of production that respects the fact that a good short story exists in its in own right and pays most dividends if given the kind of singular, focussed attention which many people don't give to the stories in collections and anthologies, reading the books too much as they read novels.

I don't know whether all of the books in the series are intended to be thus*, but all of these three are different takes on the horror genre, and while the three writers have distinctive voices they nevertheless share a certain objective spareness of narration, and which indeed characterises Royle's own horror/alternative-reality stories. (Perhaps this last is a typical characteristic of horror writing - I guess I don't read enough to know.) Alison Moore's story is the most psychological of the three - it's a story of sexual and social power - Tom Fletcher's is a Brave-New-World-type story (and pretty shocking), while Joel Lane's is another of his spooky takes on the nature of reality.

So if you like horror/spooky/alternative these are just great for a sit by the fire. And they're cheap - only £3.00 (Chapbook: originally a small pamphlet sold by a chapman, a pedlar of inexpensive, ie cheap goods.)

* I guess the name may imply as much.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Clare Dudman reviews Too Many Magpies

Clare Dudman has written a very nice review of Too Many Magpies on her ever-interesting blog, Keeper of the Snails. She says:
Just as I admired Elizabeth's anthology of short stories 'Balancing on the Edge [of the World]' I am delighted to say that I admire this novella just as much. She really does have a wistful, compelling style that keeps me turning the pages. I think in all good writing, no matter what sort, there is a recognition of truth, and it is certainly here again in this story... The terseness of the short stories is still there, but so too is a sustained menace which reminded me a little of some of Alice Hoffman's writing.

A great Easter present for me - especially as I can't eat chocolate at the moment!

Friday, April 02, 2010

New Wikio Top UK Culture Blog rankings

Well, after my negative comment yesterday on Fictonbitch about prizes and rankings, I blush today to bring you a preview of Wikio's new Top UK Culture Blog ranking which will go live on Monday, and in which, it turns out, this blog features. Really, I'm very flattered and humbled - position in the ranking depends on the number and weight of incoming links from other blogs, so thank you to all of my readers who have thus linked to me. I'm thrilled to be there with the great blogs around me on the list, and of course the mighty and wonderful Dovegreyreader, who tops it.

1Dovegreyreader scribbles (Ent.) (Ent.)
3Pepys' Diary (Ent.)
4Peter Stothard - Times Online WBLG (Ent.)
5Elizabeth Baines (Ent.) (Ent.)
7A Don's Life - Times Online WBLG (Ent.)
8BBC - Introducing blog (Ent.)
9Clothes on Film (Ent.)
10Bart's Bookshelf (Ent.)
11Books, Inq. (Ent.)
12HeyUGuys (Ent.)
13Ben's Bookcase (Ent.)
14BubbleCow (Ent.)
15Mark Kermode's film blog (Ent.)
16ReadySteadyBlog (Ent.)
17The Ibooknet Blog (Ent.)
18Bookshelf (Ent.)
1920jazzfunkgreats (Ent.)
20The Beat (Ent.) (Ent.)
22Philip Bloom (Ent.)
23Eve's Alexandria (Ent.)
24Bibliobibuli (Ent.)
25ResoluteReader (Ent.)
26Mostlybooks (Ent.)
27Filmstalker (Ent.)
28My Favourite Books (Ent.) (Ent.)

Ranking by Wikio

Rankings will be updated on a monthly basis, and here's what else Wikio say: 'Only links found in the RSS feed are included and blogrolls are not taken into account. The weight of any given link increases according to how recently it was published'.

If you would like to submit your own blog you can do so here.