Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing seasons

 What a strange autumn it's been, with all the plants still flowering on the last day of November - including, in our garden, sweet peas:

Unbelievably, the jackdaws in the roof next door had a second brood in November, and for the last fortnight the pigeons have been courting on the little roof beneath my writing window. We had our first touch of frost this morning, but it hasn't stopped them!

The abnormality of the season has made me realise how far I've always fitted my writing schedules around the seasons: often as winter approaches I draw a big psychological line under the last project or set of projects and plunge in earnest into the next. But with the delay of winter this year I've been unable to escape the feeling that the season is still ahead of me, and I've had to work hard to drum up the sense of urgency that makes me work at full-tilt. Do other writers find this, I wonder?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reading group: Homer and Langley by E L Doctorow

This book, Clare's suggestion, is the story of two brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, sons of a bourgeois doctor - one of whom, Homer, is blind; the other, Langley, suffering shell shock - and who, after their parents' death in 1918, hole themselves up in their upper Fifth Avenue brownstone, stuffing it with junk that Langley compulsively amasses, while the greater part of the twentienth century washes up against their doors.

It is based on the real-life case of a pair of brothers of the same names, who were found dead amongst their piles of collected detritus in 1947, Langley having barricaded them in and fallen into one of the many traps he set for intruders. Doctorow takes some fictive liberties with their story, including that of reversing their ages and extending the brothers' lives into the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Unfortunately Clare was unwell and didn't attend, so Mark introduced the book in her place. He said he was an admirer of Doctorow: he really liked his way of taking individuals and placing them within the great events of the twentieth century. However, compared to Ragtime, where Doctorow does this brilliantly, this book, Mark felt, was not so successful. Several people agreed that the characters somehow weren't truly related to the events of the twentieth century, although most of those events touched their life in one way or another. The trouble was, they were only touched by them, since the point was that they were largely shut away from them. Yet at the same time most people felt that the characters themselves didn't really come alive - though Jo was astonished: she thought they were wonderfully rich characters, touchingly portrayed.

I said I agreed that they were touchingly portrayed: blind Homer, who narrates the story with nicely wry economy, has a touching affection for the increasingly mad brother who - in turn touchingly - cares for him, with his all-too sane insights into American society. Mark particularly liked Homer's account of Langley's assessment of the moon landings:
Can you imagine the crassness of it, hitting golf balls on the moon? he said. And that other one, reading the Bible to the universe as he circled around out there? The entire class of blasphemies is in those two acts, he said. The one stupidly irreverent, the other stupidly presumptuous.
However, like the others, I still found that there was something about the brothers that didn't really engage me on the deepest level.

We tried to work out why that was. Ann wondered if the lack of a sense of real connection between the brothers on the one hand and the events of the twentieth century on the other was something to do with the fact that this was a real-life story, that this last fact had somehow hobbled the author. Mark said he thought that the fact that the characters were such eccentrics rather than Everymen contributed to the sense of things not gelling - they just weren't representative so couldn't take the weight of it all (though once again Jo cried out in disagreement). But now some people began to point out that the brothers were more touched by the events in the outside world than we had been saying: what about the fact that they hold tea dances during Prohibition and get raided; what about the fact that their house is used as a refuge by gangsters on the run from the police? What about the fact that hippies come to live with them for a while?  John pointed out that surely the brothers were representative, exaggerated examples of certain twentieth-century and American political traits, compulsive acquisition and isolationism - with which Doug readily agreed. It's all rooted in Langley's shell-shock after the First World War, John said: he's representative of the damage inflicted by wars; and the barricading and hoarding starts after the tea dances, when the police invade their home, ie the state invades the private domain (there's an argument in court as to whether they were holding public meetings or private parties), and they react by creating an exaggerated separation of their private world and the public one.

Still, we felt dissatisfied, but failed to come to any real conclusion as to why. Trevor reminded us about Langley's scheme to create a single-edition generic newspaper that would be useful for all time, based on his Theory of Replacement (everything, including news items, becomes replicated in the end simply in a new form) and for which he collects the stacks of newspapers which will jam the house and eventually topple over and kill him. Trevor thought this was great, and in theory it seems like a central metaphor in the book, but it was interesting that we had failed to mention it, and now that we considered it, we couldn't at that moment see the artistic point of it. Finally, Jenny more or less ended the discussion by saying that she had found the book extremely upsetting, as it had made her think about what can happen to you in old age.

In retrospect it seems to me that the problem is that, while the brothers do come into collision with the outside world, they are essentially unchanged by those collisions: their fate is determined right from the moment when Langley begins the hoarding, and nothing that happens to them changes that trajectory (or lack of it) - which to some extent is determined, as Ann hinted, by the real-life story. They fulfil the static conditions of Langley's Theory of Replacement. Although I have been known in the past to rail against the  tyranny of the conventional 'narrative arc', I find the lack of one detrimental here: while the twentieth-century follows its narrative arc (although Langley would deny that it does), the brothers themselves are simply static points at its centre, or rather edge, with no narrative arc of their own beyond a slow disintegration, and in spite of the wit and the lightness of the prose, there is a hermetic, stifled feel to the novel and ultimately a lack of tension (though I'm sure that Jo would disagree).

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, November 14, 2011

Catch Up

Apologies for not blogging much here lately about my comings and goings. It's been a busy  and at the same time a not-so-busy couple of months: I've been taking one of those breaks from writing that you need sometimes - those fallow periods where you let life in (rather than shut it off in order to write) - and blogging seems to have suffered along with the creative stuff.

So what have I been doing? At the end of September there was the Didsbury Arts Festival, at which I gave a reading from The Birth Machine.

I was quite nervous at the start (which I think the above pic shows!) as there was a doctor present, the husband of playwright Debbie Freeman: I was afraid he would think I was attacking the medical profession per se. But he was wonderful, and understood exactly what the book was saying about communication and power, and agreed wholeheartedly. I was also afraid I wouldn't get an audience, as we were in competition with the launch of Nick Royle's Murmurations anthology (I was also sorry not be able to go to that), but the room above the health food shop Healthy Spirit was nicely full. We had an excellent discussion.

If I'd known beforehand that two of the people there were midwives, I might have been nervous about that too, but they were wonderfully supportive and engaged. And every person but one bought a copy of the book - far better sales than I've had at some bigger gatherings! Someone said that the book should be required reading on Obstetric and Midwifery courses - I think I couldn't have had a better compliment. Among other DAF events I managed to get to were the great outdoor theatre and music events outside the library, a spooky reading by Nick Royle under the atmospheric yew trees in the pet cemetery of Parsonage Gardens (both reported on here), a reading by poet Jeffrey Wainwright (always thought-provoking), another by poet Sue Stern accompanied by jazz, and a gig by jazz group Jazzworks.

After that I went back to Wales for a few days, as novelist Jean Mead had kindly invited me to take part on the Saturday in a book fair she had organised at the Quay Hotel in Deganwy. The fair took place in a suite with a wonderful view of the water, and I had a whole table to myself for my display, and once again I sold more books than I feel I could have expected!

Next it was the Manchester Literature Festival. I attended the gala event for the Manchester Fiction Prize, a very interesting debate about prize culture, which I reported on here, a tribute to innovative novelist B S Johnson which sadly dented my admiring view of him with some early films I couldn't help finding adolescent, two excellent Comma Press events - an evening with European short story writers and an afternoon reading by Jane Rogers from their Litmus anthology (stories from science) with a discussion with scientist Martyn Amos - and a very moving tribute to poet Linda Chase who sadly died in April.

I attended Jeanette Winterson's event at The Royal Exchange and reported my impressions here. What else? I went to the cinema and saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, the book of which I have always found hard to get into. I decided it was a hotchpotch of conflicting and half-baked psychological theories - cold mothers create monster children, or maybe they don't, monster children are born like that; macho fathers create monster children, or maybe etc... maybe autism was involved, or maybe not (the doc's test for autism was laughably mistaken, child psych John tells me) - and far too heavy on the blood symbolism which I found as horrifying as the violence they made a point of not showing. I guess I should really read the book now in case the film didn't do it justice.

I went to see C P Taylor's Good at the Royal Exchange, an adaptation of his novel and a tale of how a good man with good motives gets inadvertently involved with Hitler and his henchmen. To begin with I and my companions were entranced: the production seemed wonderful, with music and song and a brilliant use of the stage to create time-slippages that you don't often see in our generally over-literalist theatre. But by the second half we were feeling that the frantic pace was preventing us from concentrating on the moral problem at the heart of the play and the way the transition took place. From what I could tell, that transition was very disappointing: I was expecting a real revelation about the way that apparently moral precepts can be twisted to immoral ends (which I believe they can) but all that seemed to happen was that from the start the protagonist couldn't help acting out of selfish motives that belied his sense of himself as good, and the outcome was thus hardly a surprise. This didn't however seem to worry the rest of the audience, who consisted a great deal of schoolchildren and who went wild with applause.

Meanwhile I have been sinking myself in books, reading in the immersive way I used to as a child, and can't often do when there's too much pressing, especially in terms of my own writing. Among the books I've read are two for the reading group: Helen Garner's The Spare Room (report here) and E L Doctorow's Homer and Langley which I'll report on after we've met to discuss it. I'm a good deal of the way through a re-read of David Copperfield, and I've written here about the particular immersion of that experience, but since then I've been rather pulled out of it by getting to the part where Copperfield meets 'little Dora': such a cypher! I'm also reading Tom McCarthy's C.

Finally, last week I attended a lovely launch for The Coward's Tale (Bloomsbury) the debut novel by my good friend and colleague, Vanessa Gebbie. A smashing way to end a period of relaxation, before I turn my nose in earnest to the writing desk again...

Monday, November 07, 2011

Giveaway results

I'm delighted to announce the winners of the giveaway of copies of my three Salt books, drawn from the hats by independent adjudicator John. Congratulations to those winners and thanks to all those who entered (and you know where you can get copies instead!)

The five winners of the new edition of The Birth Machine are:
Diane Becker
Jo Derrick
Alan Beard

The two winners of Too Many Magpies are:
Susie Maguire

And the two winners of Balancing on the Edge of the World:
Alison Wells
Monty Reid (via Facebook)

If the winners can drop me a note of their addresses via my email (see my profile) I'll send them winging your way forthwith!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

One year to the day and a giveaway

Today is exactly one year since the reissue, in a new edition, of my novel The Birth Machine, and I'm celebrating with a giveaway of 5 signed copies of the book, plus two each of my other two Salt titles, the novel Too Many Magpies and the story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World. If you'd like one, just leave your name in the comments below, saying which book or books you'd like to be put in the draw for. Deadline Saturday.

The Birth Machine. 'A damn good read. It’s a cliché to say this is a must-read, but still, I’m going to urge you all to read it. And I’m talking to you, too, boys.' - Valerie O'Riordan, Bookmunch -

Too Many Magpies. 'An appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling.' - Kimbofo, Reading Matters blog

Balancing on the Edge of the Word. 'Quite swept me off my feet.' - Dovegreyreader