Friday, July 30, 2010

Things you sometimes see from your writing desk V

Bit quiet on here, I know. I've been in Wales for a week with pretty dodgy internet and with my head deep in my novel every morning, and we've had another family member staying so have been off on long family walks for the rest of each day. Tonight, though, it's just John and me again and the rain is just bucketing out of the sky, and surprisingly, in spite of that, I have some decent internet connection for once!

As for the novel, well, maybe it'll go down in history as the most reworked novel ever - or maybe not, but then I guess it's some consolation that James Joyce will probably beat most, apparently. Having finished the next section, I ended up reworking the beginning once again - yet again! All good, though: it's just lovely, that feeling you get when the more you write the more of what you've already written comes in to focus, and then what you haven't yet written comes into brighter relief, too, and the whole thing starts drawing together...

Before we left Manchester I took this pic of the tree I look down on from my writing room. The clematis has long finished flowering, of course, and the significance now is that inside it, beyond the darker depression you can see in the middle near the top, there's a blackbirds' nest. And it's the third nest our resident blackbird pair have built this summer! The first two nests they built much lower down, and magpies got the eggs of the first one. The second brood hatched, but there was a tremendous drama concerning the neighbourhood cats. Every time a cat came into the garden the blackbirds would set up the most tremendous row, sometimes to the extent that I couldn't work, and divebomb the cats who at first seemed quite bewildered. Quite frankly I think they alerted the cats to the presence of their nest, and in the end we kept finding dying fledglings on the lawn..

I could hardly believe it when I looked up from my desk one morning, well into July, to see the cock bird emerging from that gap in the tree, and later the hen alighting on a branch lower down and looking around very carefully before shooting in.

Talk about perseverance. Bit like me and my novel...

Oh, and in one of my brief and interrupted forays onto the net last week I discovered that I had beaten Jenn Ashworth, author of the clever and engrossing A Kind of Intimacy, in Benjamin Judge's World Literary Cup - for entirely spurious and non-literary reasons! And I can't give you a link because while I have been writing this the connection has become dodgy again, and I don't even know if I'll manage to publish...

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Result of draw!

Well, it's done, the draw for Nuala Ni Chonchuir's great novel, You, and the winner is - Clare Wallace!

There's John above, shaking up the names in his nice new trilby before dipping his hand in and pulling her name out (note how I used a cut-up old typescript).

Congratulations, Clare - you will love this book, I promise. Email me via my profile with your address and I'll send it winging your way.

And don't forget, everyone else, you can immediately assuage your disappointment by pressing a button and getting Nuala's novel here. You won't regret it!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Maybe not a blindfold but...

Well, I'm feeling a bit of an idiot. It's 3 weeks since I looked forward in Wales to getting onto the second section of my novel within a couple of days, and I have only just got there!

Maybe you'd think my life was boring enough for me to have got on with the thing (I'm hardly going out, after all) but enough things have intervened - the tail-end of my virtual book tour, a few days of the house being full of guests up from the south for a wedding, a reading and a one-day trip to London, and finally and most recently Salt's Just One Book Campaign - to dissipate the kind of focus it turned out I needed to negotiate the transition between the two sections.

There's an apocryphal story about Jonathan Franzen (one of my favourite writers) that appeared in some of the broadsheet interviews at the time of publication of The Corrections - to whit, that he shut himself in a room blindfolded in order to write it. He came to read at Waterstone's Deansgate and someone in the audience asked it were true. Of course it wasn't, he said, but yes indeed he had said it to a journalist: it was a hyperbolic way of describing the kind of isolation and peace one needs to concentrate on a novel.

Well, on a couple of mornings this week I did somehow find the kind of concentration I needed to discover that the reason I was finding it so impossible to make the transition between the two sections while negotiating three different time levels was that the overall voice was still not right (in spite of the fact that I spent so much time trying to get it right at the start, and in spite of having worked on the diction since!), and to work out how it should be different. It wasn't a big change, in fact it was a pretty subtle one, but it made all the difference in the world, and after I'd gone back and changed it for the whole of the first section, I was able to make the transition into the second section at last.

I've never before taken so long to get the voice of a piece of writing right - usually the voice is the first thing that comes to me. Live and learn, see?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Salt 10th birthday flashmob celebration

Welcome to a virtual flashmob timed to happen at exactly the same time (3 pm) as the physical flashmob to celebrate the 10th birthday of my publisher Salt. It's taking place at the Southbank Centre in London, and Pablo Neruda's Ode to Salt is being recited.

There's a lot to celebrate: all the wonderful books Salt has put out over those 10 years, and for me personally their publication of my short stories and my short novel Too Many Magpies (not many publishers will take a chance on short stories or short novels), and their commitment to reissuing my first novel, The Birth Machine, at a time when reissues are generally pretty well unheard of.

Why not buy a Salt book or two to celebrate? In fact, I urge you to do so, since it's never easy going against marketing trends, and while Salt celebrate, they are of course in financial difficulties and having to run their JustOneBook campaign. People have responded wonderfully, and the campaign is having an effect, but Salt are by no means out of the woods yet. So please do spread the word, and please do treat yourself, and your friends, to as many Salt books as you can afford.

And here's Neruda's poem to read while those gathered in London read it out loud:

Ode to Salt

This salt
in the salt cellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know
you won't
believe me
it sings
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
the voice
the salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the nitrous
a mournful

In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
vital light
our food.
of the ancient
holds of ships,
the high seas,
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
the smallest,
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste finitude.
Pablo Neruda

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Magpies wins in round 3 of Ben Judge's World Lit Cup!

What a hoot Benjamin Judge's World Literary Cup is. In the current round, three, Roald Dahl loses ground in a contest with Jenn Ashworth by being dead and having no latest book to be compared with hers, and I have beaten Nicola Barker purely on a penality shoot out in which Ben takes random words from our books and decides which he likes best. Hilariously, I win even though Barker is apparently his favourite author ever!

He does say some really nice things about Too Many Magpies, however:
Too Many Magpies was among the very best things I read last year (and I read in excess of a hundred books a year if that helps put a scale on things) It is real. It breathes. The characters are so perfectly drawn, their conversations so lifelike, that you are drawn in completely. Its representation of a family so spot on you feel you are not reading but leaning against your neighbours wall with a glass to your ear. Elizabeth Baines has an ear for dialogue that most of our most prominent authors would kill for. She is a shining example of why publishers like Salt are so important.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir about her novel, You

I am thrilled to be host this week to the most talented Nuala Ní Chonchúir on her tour of the blogs with her exceptional debut novel, You.

First, a bit about Nuala and her writing:
Born Dublin 1970, she is an award-winning fiction writer and poet living in County Galway. Her novel You was published by New Island in April 2010; her third short fiction collection Nude was published by Salt in 2009; The Irish Times called it ‘a memorable achievement’. Nude was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize. A full poetry collection The Juno Charm is due November 2010 from Templar. She is fiction editor of Horizon Review.

You is a second-person narration (the 'you' of the title) from the viewpoint of a thoughtful but feisty ten-year-old girl left basically in charge of her two younger brothers (aided and abetted by a couple of colourful neighbours), as their mother struggles with the emotional and practical trials of single parenthood, and as tragedy eventually strikes. The first thing to say about it is that I loved it, was completely engrossed by it, and from about halfway through I was in floods of tears while still having the odd wry smile. And now if you want my more professional writer's and critic's opinion I'd say that the book is most impressive in terms of language and voice as well as humanity and insight, and consequently is strong on vivid characterisation. It's a touching and generous portrait of the vulnerability yet toughness of people under stress, very moving yet humorous.

I asked Nuala about these achievements:

Nuala, the second person is notoriously difficult to extend over the length of a novel, yet you manage it with amazing ease and to my mind total success. Why did you choose this particular narrative mode?

Really the narrative mode chose me; my fiction begins often with the voice. For me, second person is a very natural, very Irish way to tell a story: close but at a remove. People say the second person is difficult to maintain, but like any voice, once you are in the groove of it – the grip of it, even – it flows and feels right. (Though in Ghost Light Joe O’Connor slipped between second, first and third person, which I found distracting.) Maybe it’s readers who fear the second person narrative? Personally, I love it. I loved Edna O’Brien’s A Pagan Place and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (both written in the second person).

I think the voice of the young girl in this novel is pitch-perfect, as are the voices of the characters she quotes, and I'd say from reading this novel that language is very important to you. Can you talk a bit about this?

I am in love with language, always have been. I love the way people talk, the expressions they use and invent. I’m from Dublin and the book is written in a Dublin vernacular that I am very familiar with. I’ve been a big reader all my life and I’m fan of stylistic writing. I love Banville, Proulx, Wells Tower – any writer who takes risks with language, who is playful. I also write poetry which is hugely about language and bending it. Jeanette Winterson has said, with regard to writing, ‘A tough life needs a tough language’ and I subscribe to that. I love when language and theme intertwine in a book and I hope I achieved that in the novel.

You certainly do. Telling a story from the viewpoint of a child while portraying ideas beyond the child's consciousness is also very tricky and again something I think you do with great success. It seems to me that the novel is about the vulnerability and toughness of children and adults, too, in the face of difficult circumstances. What made you want to tackle the particular themes of this novel, and choose to do it through a child's eyes?

Yes, the novel is about survival and trust and it’s also to do with the way children suffer when the people who love them let them down. Thankfully there is room for humour within all of that and telling the story from the child’s POV means you can maximise on that. I wasn’t thinking themes – I tend to write to tell myself a story and whatever happens happens. I’m not a plotter. But it’s challenging to tackle things like alcoholism, neglect and broken families. And satisfying when you work it all out.

The novel flows with a real energy - rather like the river in the story - especially in the second half, and I get the feeling you wrote it very quickly. Is that the case, and how does it compare to the process of writing for you generally?

It took a year from start to finish so not very quickly but it wasn’t a slog either. Having young kids tends to cut into writing time something fierce. But it also makes you productive because you will literally grab writing time anywhere. These days I write an awful lot slower because I simply don’t have the space in the day to write – my baby daughter is my priority. I’ve been working on one single story for over a year, for example. I’ve become a more ruminative writer, I think, and I hope that will prove to be to the good. However, in September baby’ll be in a crèche 3 mornings a week and I plan to write up a storm. I can’t wait!!

Thanks a million for having me here, Elizabeth. Next week I'm at Sarah Hilary's Crawl Space Blog

Nuala, it was such a pleasure - and a great pleasure indeed to have read your novel!


Quite frankly, folks, I read so many books that just float off into the great grey of Literature in my head, and so few that stay there with vivid pictures and emotions and indeed whole phrases, and You is one of the latter. I have a spare copy for one lucky reader: just put your name in the comments section to be included in the draw.

You can be bought from here.
To find out more about Nuala, go to her website here, and you can read her blog here.
Read last week's stop at Barbara's Bleeuugh!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Just One Book

I'm sorry to say that the recession has bitten so deeply into book sales generally that my wonderful publisher Salt is in financial difficulties again. For this reason they are resurrecting the JustOneBook campaign, and asking people to buy just one Salt book, since if enough people did this, Salt could be saved from disaster. There was such a marvellous response last year, and Salt was saved - it really did work. People showed that they really did care about Salt books and were committed to keeping alive this small but phenomenal literary publisher, and I'm so grateful. I had a vested interest, of course, as the fate of Too Many Magpies was in the balance, and so my gratitude is highly personal - it's down to all those of you who weighed in and bought Salt books that it was eventually published. I often think of that when I'm reading from it, or when I get a nice review for it; I think of how, if people hadn't supported Salt at that time, this just wouldn't be happening. Once again I have a book in the balance: the reissue of The Birth Machine in October/November depends of course on Salt's survival, so once again my plea is personal. But it's also more generally literary: there are so many Salt books already in print and about to be published that the world would be poorer without.

So please do buy a Salt book if you can - from anywhere, your independent bookshop, Amazon, The Book Depository or direct from Salt. Above is a selection of my own Salt Library - it's so precious I keep it by my bed - and I can recommend any one of these.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Edge Hill Prize and other gatherings

To a sultry-hot London yesterday and Blackwell on Charing Cross Road for the Edge Hill short story prizegiving. Winner was Jeremy Dyson for his collection The Cranes that Build the Cranes. Robert Shearman, who was also shortlisted in 2008, won the Reader's Prize, awarded by a panel of students, for his wonderfully surreal and warm-hearted collection, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical. Many congratulations! It was a lovely do, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially meeting in person for the first time Nuala Ni Chonchuir (above, right) whose wonderful collection Nude was shortlisted - and who will be visiting here next Wednesday with her amazing novel You. Also lovely to meet fellow-Salt author Weena Poon at last, and to meet up again with so many literary friends including prizewinner Robert Shearman, Sunday-Times short story competition shortlister Adam Marek, Salt poet Robert Sheppard (above, centre), my lovely publisher Jen Hamilton-Emery (above, left), and my long-time friend and colleague Ailsa Cox, the brains behind the Edge Hill Prize. It was a whole afternoon and evening of catch-ups: Beforehand I met Salt author Jay Merill for coffee, which was lovely, and I got her to sign my new copy of her latest Salt book God of the Pigeons, which I read on the train down - great voices, and haunting stories. After the prizegiving we went to the Phoenix arts club across the road, where the launch had been taking place of three new Salt poetry collections, The Method Men by David Briggs, Snow Calling by Agnieszka Studzinska and Mark Granier's Fade Street, so I bumped into a clutch of poets, including my good blogging friend Katy Evans-Bush.

I've been worn out today, perhaps partly because I ended up running more or less half the distance back to Euston in order to catch the last decent train back to Manchester (the one after it, at 10 o'clock, takes over 7 hrs - now maybe I'm turning into an old blimp, but really, what's the world coming to: you used to be able to catch one at 11 and still get back to Stockport by half one!). I had thought that I could walk the distance in half an hour - badly underestimated, I began to realize as I was half-way - and ended up sprinting and caught the train by the skin of my teeth: I belted down the platform while the guard stood flicking her flag thing VERY impatiently and glared like mad, and the moment I stepped onto the train it started moving. Phew.

Really, I may as well have stayed in London overnight for the energy I've got left today - none for writing. The main problem, though, was that there was drink, and I'm not used to it, as for the past few months I've been mostly abstaining - partly to be healthy and more recently for the sake of the novel-writing - but hey it was a real celebration! And I'm not exactly hung over, but I certainly don't feel full of energy or mentally alert.

Ah well. It was worth it. And from now on I should be able to settle down to uninterrupted writing... (Touch wood; or maybe I shouldn't speak too soon...)

Here's Ailsa with winner Jeremy Dyson behind her:

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Oxfam Bookfest reading

Well, it wasn't a disaster, my Oxfam Bookfest reading last night, in view of the fact that I clashed with the Spain-Germany football match. It certainly wasn't a crowd, but there weren't so very few that it was embarrassing or anything - there were about 10 altogether. I talked about the fact that having The Birth Machine reissued in October has made me look back over my work to see whether my preoccupations have changed or whether there has been a thread developing right from the start. Really, it seems that I have always been interested in issues of knowledge, power and language, and above all with the issues of certainty/uncertainty attached to them. So I read the oldest story in Balancing, 'Who's Singing?' (first published in the Literary Review and broadcast on Radio 3) which is very much concerned with some of the same issues as those in Too Many Magpies (which I also read a piece from) - in particular that of climate change, and in the instance of 'Who's Singing?' with the dangers of too much certainty. We discussed how I'd tackled these issues in this story in view of the fact that they weren't as acknowledged when I wrote it as they are now. Finally I read a new story, 'What Do You do If' which is newly published in Issue 4 of online Horizon Review, and is one of a series I'm writing quite consciously on the issue of uncertainty.

The audience was lovely, and contributed lots, we had a very interesting chat about all of these issues. Thank you to them all for coming, and thank you to Wendy for hosting the event.

Tonight's event in Didsbury Oxfam is Adele Geras, which I recommend, as she always creates a lovely warm evening.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Not a lot of novel progress lately. I had several visitors for a long weekend - they were up for a wedding they'd been invited to, and I hardly saw them because they were either out at the wedding or the pre- and post-wedding parties or in bed sleeping it all off, but somehow just having a crowd in the house shattered my novel consciousness... Sometimes I think I have such a special and delicate writerly consciousness, and other times I think I'm just too damn precious for my own good.

And since then I've had a mound of washing, and now my mind is turning to the reading I'm doing this evening for the Oxfam Bookfest in Didsbury, and then tomorrow I'm off to London for the Edge Hill Awards ceremony, and won't be home until very late, which means I'll be tired on Friday, and then that'll be another week gone...

Honestly, maybe somebody should just put me out of my misery... (Or let me get back up the mountain where even the internet doesn't work half the time...)

Nice Oxfam Bookfest event last night: Nick Royle and Tom Fletcher, but I'm afraid I've no pics. I'm still getting used to my iphone and I messed up the photos... * My own tonight (7 pm) clashes with the football, so I'm quite prepared for no audience whatever...

*Added: Sharon Ring has come to my rescue and sent me two of her photos, below, the first of Tom reading, the second of Nick talking to the audience.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Big Salt Prize

Here's the chance to win an absolutely fantastic prize from Salt.

To celebrate their 10th anniversary, Salt are running a prize draw: every time you buy a book directly from Salt between now and the end of August, you'll be entered. First prize is amazing: copies of the FIRST 20 SALT TITLES TO BE PUBLISHED AFTER THAT DATE, absolutely free! There are second and third prizes too:
  1. First prize: one lucky winner will be selected to receive the next 20 new Salt titles we publish absolutely free — the offer is for books in print, not for eBooks. As they’re published, you’ll be sent a physical copy of each new publication post-free.
  2. Second prize: A signed book of your choice and your chance to ask the author five burning questions. [Subject to the author's availability.]
  3. Third prize: A free book of your choice, delivered post-free.
Don't forget that you get 20% off books bought directly from Salt, and larger orders are post free.

So get your summer reading sorted now and be in with a chance for this whopper prize at the same time. (You could always begin with my stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, or my novel Too Many Magpies - if you've got them already, how about buying them for a friend, eh?)

Novel progress and Clare Dudman's launch

I didn't get into the second section of my novel after all in Wales, and still haven't. After I got to the end of the first I had a day off, and guess what, during that day things kept coming to me about the first section - connections I could point up, even something I could add - and the voice came to me even more clearly. Bugger! - and I say that advisedly: it was a characterizing word of my protagonist that I'd left out previously, and once it came to me it brought everything into even greater focus. Which shows how rest periods can be an essential part of the writing process. I know that I have to get it right before I move onto the second, because the voice of the second section will depend on it, so I'm still tweaking the first section. And tomorrow I've got other, more domestic duties...

Ah well. At least I'm getting more and more sure of what I've done so far, which is a good, warm feeling (at least for the moment!).

The pic above is the one I tried unsuccessfully to upload in Wales, the view from the desk I was writing at, and here's a swan with cygnets we came across while walking on Anglesey one evening:

On the way back from Wales we stopped off in Chester for the really lovely launch of Clare Dudman's new novel A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees (Seren), at the Forum Studio Theatre. It's a book about the first Welsh settlers of Patagonia, and Clare gave an extremely moving presentation in which she read from the book, talked, and showed us films she had made about the historical background, the research she had done for the book and her own feelings about her relationship to her Welsh heritage, which last I identified with closely.

I am very much looking forward to reading the novel. And Clare makes a cake every time she has a launch, and here was the wonderful one she made for this book (and it tasted delicious!):