Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Living with books

Funny how a domestic upheaval can make you reassess your relationship to your physical books - both one's personal relationship with them, and their place in our newly digital book world. My relationship with my physical books had been - well, you know how it is after years without change: you get too comfortable, you start taking it all for granted, you hardly notice the accretion of the years or your habits, you even lose sight of some of the things about it all that matter, so it's not actually so comfortable, really, it's all sort of running away with you...

We have books all over the house - in the back room downstairs we have poetry, short-story anthologies and non-fiction; the room I write in is crammed with lit crit, feminist books and lit mags. John's a psychologist by profession and writes on linguistics so, naturally, the room he writes in houses his psychology and linguistics books as well as his particular poetry collection; there's a shelf of cookery books in the kitchen, of course, and I have a line of books published by Salt at my bedside. Our biggest collection, fiction, we have always kept on these shelves in the front room downstairs, and when we came to strip the room in the summer for fairly major building work and decorating, it took me a fortnight of afternoons to shift the books elsewhere. Painting the shelves was a pretty time-consuming job and took up gallons of paint, but spacious as they are I had begun to realise that they were no longer adequate for the books they'd been carrying: the books been double- and even triple- stacked, with others piled horizontal on top of the rows (you can see something of how it was in the sidebar in the videos of me reading from The Birth Machine). We hadn't been able even to see more than half of them and had forgotten we owned some of them, and the difficulty of getting to some of them had meant that they'd got more and more muddled as the years went by.

So what to do when I finally finished painting a couple of weeks ago and it was time to fill the shelves again? John suggested we limit them to classics and hardbacks. I wanted to know if he was mad: we wouldn't even fill the shelves and then we'd have nowhere for the modern paperbacks of which we have far, far, more. But I was wrong. We have far more of everything than I'd realised. Here below are the shelves filled as John suggested, and we still have boxes and boxes of paperbacks lining the landing, and we're going to have to go to Ikea for more shelving for the landing.

It makes me wonder: when, how did I acquire quite so many books? And what does it mean? Am I some old-fashioned fogey clinging on to an outdated way of life - because it is a way of life, the keeping of physical books: all that effort and time carting them around, all that thought, time and expense in creating places to put them... And they just disintegrate, don't they? The spines, I found, had started to come off the little leather-backed classics I was so thrilled to snap up from a secondhand-book shop when I was a student, some of the paperbacks had fallen apart, and those on the very top shelves, packed too tightly in a room inadequately heated before we set it to rights, were even going mouldy.

But I tell you what: I only found one plastic bag's worth that I was prepared to take down to the charity shop...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Review: 1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook, Edited by Charlotte Fiell and Emanuelle Dirix

What do I do when I'm setting a novel or a story in the past, and I want to refer to characters' clothing? I look at old photos, of course. What do I do when I'm producing or acting in a play set in the past? Ditto, of course. And what do I do when I have a spare afternoon? Scour the charity shops for vintage to wear NOW, of course.

So imagine my delight when the publishers sent me this book: over 600 original photographs and illustrations of the fashions of the thirties - drawings taken from fashion periodicals and mail order catalogues of the time and Hollywood studio press shots - and with an introduction by leading fashion historian Emmanuelle Dirix which sets the developing style of the era in the context of the two shattering world events that framed it: the Wall Street Crash and World War Two.

One thing that struck me immediately was the difference between my own impression of the way people dressed in the early thirties, as illustrated in our family photos - with a distinct overhang of twenties flapper style on the younger women (straight up-and-down dresses, dropped waists) and the older women still in Edwardian-style dresses - and the more forward-looking style presented here, figure-hugging and fluid and developing fairly early on in the decade into the styles I don't see on my family until war time - big shoulders and blouson waists. The introduction neatly addresses this issue, pointing out that fashion is about fantasy and ideals, and at the start of the decade the privilege of an elite able to patronise the couture houses. However, Dirix traces the way that the Depression broke down this divide and led to a democratisation of fashion, with Paris fashion houses offering ready to wear and even 'sew up your own to fit' ready-tailored garment pieces, and the rise of department stores and mail order catalogues. The Hollywood talkies also brought glamorous fashion and its escapism into the purview of ordinary women, explaining the apparent contradiction of this era, associated as it is with both glamour and economic recession.

Maybe it's the book nerd in me, but I'd have liked some information about the publications from which the illustrations were taken, and maybe it's the history nerd in me, but I badly wished that the illustrations had been presented more chronologically, in order to show the development Dirix describes. As the decade wore on, and 'the rumbles of warmongering grew louder', she tells us, more functional, military-style garments began to appear, so it seemed odd to me that the first section, 'Daywear' should open, rather than end, with a colour photo spread of two such dresses from 1936, and that there was no chronological pattern to the presentation of images that I could detect. Also, I was fascinated by the distinction made in the captions between 'day dresses' and 'afternoon dresses' - I'm no fashion history expert after all - a distinction I could not always detect in the dresses themselves, but I'll have to go elsewhere to investigate that little socio-historical matter: the book doesn't address it.

However, this book is a veritable feast for theatre and film wardrobe departments, fashion historians, fashion enthusiasts, and vintage wearers everywhere. If it hadn't been sent to me by the publisher, I would definitely be asking for it for Christmas. At the bottom of this post you'll find the details of how to buy it, and in the meantime, here are some of the hundreds of gorgeous images:

First, two evening dresses from Tres Chic - Selection Reunis, 1932:

 Three images from Tres Parisien, 1933:

and actress Madeleine Carroll in 'It's All Yours', 1938:

1930s Fashion: The Definitive Sourcebook is published by Goodman Fiell, has an RRP of £30 and is available from as well as Amazon and all good book stores.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A J Ashworth's dark secret

One of the five writers I tagged in The Next Best Thing is A (Andrea) J Ashworth (above), and today her post is up. Bravely, she writes about a work in progress - something I can never bring myself to do: I don't mind talking about the writing process as I experience it, but I have a superstitious fear of giving away anything of the subject matter or story before a thing is finished. Well, Andrea isn't giving too much away but she whets our appetite: the book, a novel, is about a dark secret, and who can resist that?

I also recommend Andrea's collection of short stories, which won the Salt-run Scott prize and was shortlisted for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize, and which I nominated when asked by the Guardian to make suggestions for the reader's choice slot on the 2011 Guardian First Book Award shortlist.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Next Big Thing

Well, I've been tagged by the one and only Maya Chowdhry in something called The Next Big Thing by which I'm required to answer questions about a recent or forthcoming book. Ever the proactive author (though my actual writing has kept me from attending to this blog over-much lately!) I have chosen a book that, should you not have read it but like the sound of it, you can get hold of without waiting, and which anyway may be quite new to my more recent readers: my short novel Too Many Magpies. Plus, I've never answered some of these questions about it before.

But first, a word about Maya. She's an innovative and gloriously subversive writer whom I first met properly when she co-edited Bitch Lit (Crocus), an anthology of stories about bad women for which my story, 'The Way to Behave', was commissioned. Bitch Lit was great fun: we did a reading tour, each dressed as our protagonist, and Maya, who also contributed to the book, was dressed most exotically as a fairy goth. I won't ever forget the sight of my mum, who came to the Sheffield reading, sitting chatting to a fairy with wings as if she did that every day of the year. (You can read my posts about the Bitch Lit anthology and tour here.) The book Maya answered TNBT questions about is her poetry collection, The Seamstress and the Global Garment.

So, the questions about Too Many Magpies:

What genre does your book fall under?
It's not a genre book, though it definitely has elements of the psychological thriller: the female protagonist meets a charismatic man who seems like her saviour, but becomes ever more scary... As for the form, I tend to call it a novella but I once read that a novella is 32,000 words or less and actually Too Many Magpies is 38,000. Goodness only knows (or cares!). Suffice it to say that according to the Reading Matters blog, it's 'smartly plotted and with not a word wasted... an appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling.'

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That's a difficult one: Maxine Peake or Shirley Henderson could capture wonderfully the neurotic vulnerability the situation produces in my (nameless) protagonist - a state akin to madness, though you never really know how sane or otherwise she is - but Kate Winslet has the kind of looks that fit my picture of her - wholesome nice-girl looks that attract her sinister suitor and belie the chaos in her psyche that she's suppressing with her tidy bourgeois life. And of course, Kate Winslet could do that brilliantly, too, as she did in the film of Revolutionary Road. Kevin Spacey would be great as the charming, even cheeky, yet sinister older stranger...

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s safety as the natural world around her becomes ever more uncertain - until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power…

Who publishes your book?
Who but the wonderful Salt, who have also published two others of my books, the short story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World, and another short novel, The Birth Machine.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Not long at all. I wrote the whole thing in eight weeks, first and second drafts included. This is why I think of it as a novella rather than a novel - it has a kind of holistic shape that I associate with short stories, as opposed to the more rambling feel of novels, and as a result somehow it needed to be written quickly, just to get it all down while it was in my head.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've always been interested in the divide between science and art, and between rational and magical thinking. My father was an engineer and my mother was literary and artistic, and as I was growing up I felt caught between different world views. Both were fascinating, and attractive, to me, but what was fascinating to me also was the way those supposedly different ways of thinking could become blurred - my artistic mother was by far the more rational of the two, and my 'scientific' father was a great believer in ghosts and magic. Then I married a doctor and came up against some real 'magical' and non-rational thinking on the part of some medical so-called scientists, and I began badly to want to write a story based around these ideas. (So I suppose you could say that one of the reasons the book tumbled out so quickly was that it had been gestating for some time.) The autobiographical bit of the book concerns the protagonist's small son, who falls ill with a life-threatening condition: that happened to my own small son, and the uncertainty of it fed into the novel and fitted the themes.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There are spells and sinister nursery rhymes, there are spooky birds, there's a day when the protagonist wakes and just knows there's someone out there watching in the hissing rain...

The five writers I've tagged are Charles Lambert, A J Ashworth, Zoe Lambert, Ailsa Cox and Sarah Salway - all writers I very much admire.

You can buy Too Many Magpies direct from Salt or from Amazon or The Book Depository.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sweet Journey from Home

To Southport on Friday evening for the launch of Cary Bray's Scott-Prize-winning story collection Sweet Home. It was dreadful weather - sheets of water on the motorway, and when we got there waterfalls coming off the elegant glass arcade-type roofs that cover the pavements in Southport's centre - which last I'd never expected, never having set foot in Southport before. But Broadhurst's Bookshop was a wonderful haven, with a real and homely coal fire, and when we got there, on time, a crowd had already gathered, undaunted by the weather, and Carys was already signing copy after copy of her exciting-looking book. And there were cakes (!) which Carys had made herself, themed with the book, and very much in keeping with the great story she read us, a twist on the Hansel and Gretel tale with its gingerbread house, beautifully told with an original flair for language. If that story is anything to go by, there's an edge to Carys's writing which is anything but homely and sickly-sweet!

Broadhursts is an amazing bookshop - selling antiquarian, secondhand and new books and tiering up three storeys, it reminds me rather of Shakespeare and Company in Paris. They wrap your books in brown paper and string, pulling the string down from an antique dispenser high on the wall, and I was very torn between letting them wrap my copy of Sweet Home and leaving it available to peep into.

It was a lovely evening, and congratulations to Carys, for winning the prize and on her publication.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Reading group: Dubliners by James Joyce

We have always had a rule in our reading group that we don't discuss collections of short stories, initially because one of our early (now ex) members, Sarah, said (as someone who liked to sink into a good long novels) that she couldn't stand short stories. I have to say that as a short-story writer I found her comment upsetting but I was happy to go along with the decision as I felt that a good short story can take a whole evening's discussion and that any discussion by a disparate group of a whole collection of stories was most likely to be superficial.

So it was with some trepidation, I think, that Doug suggested this book, which he had always loved, assuring us that he had thought about it carefully and had decided that the cohesiveness of this particular collection would make for a good discussion after all. It turned out that he was right: we did have a good and thoughtful discussion, a main mark of that being that, unlike many of our discussions, it resulted in the adjustment of some people's perceptions, including my own.

Like Doug I have always held Dubliners to be one of my favourite books, but when I came to read it again this time (after many years) I found that I had hardly recalled the stories and, even more disturbingly, reading them this time under great pressure of time and commitments I found they blurred one into the other and I could hardly recall individual stories the day after reading them. When I bumped into Mark in the cafe some days before the meeting, I disconcertingly found myself agreeing with him that the stories were tedious, and this was the attitude with which both Mark and I arrived at the meeting. However, by the time the group had discussed the stories and reminded each other about them, both Mark and I began to engage with them, and having gone away and read several of them again since at much greater leisure, I'm glad to say they are restored to my personal canon.

By contrast to Mark and me, Doug, introducing the stories, said he had found his enthusiasm for the collection undimmed. He argued for its suitability for discussion: the fact that the stories are unified by a distinctive voice and authorial outlook and by the themes of religion, alcoholism and the ultimate hopelessness of the lives of its characters struggling in the hinterland between respectability and degradation in the economically-slumped Dublin of the early twentieth century, and by an overall structure of movement from childhood, through youth to maturity.

Jenny agreed: she had very much liked the stories (although she did, it turned out, also find it hard to remember which was which), but wondered why they are considered so groundbreaking for the time in which they were written. We talked about the fact that the stories eschew the traditional definitive resolution, and instead, in keeping with the theme of hopelessness and struggle, often end in a way that seems to leave us hanging. Even though most of the stories do in fact end on what Joyce called an 'epiphany', a moment of adjustment of perception for the reader, the meaning of that adjustment is not always clear, and the stories move towards uncertainty rather than certainty: it's a defocussing rather than a focussing, and thus a strong move away from the moral certainties of nineteenth-century fiction. (As someone put in at this point, one thing that characterises the book is that it's not moralising towards any of the fault-riven characters.) The final story, 'The Dead', as the story of maturity, presents the most obvious epiphany: Gabriel Conroy, having discovered a long-hidden truth about his wife's early past, has not only his perception of her adjusted, but also the perception of himself that both he and the reader have been nurturing all along. It is not simply, however, that in the light of his new knowledge he now sees himself 'as a ludicrous figure'; he moves on from that to a larger sense of uncertainty: 'One by one they were all becoming shades... The solid world itself ... was dissolving and dwindling... His soul swooned slowly...'

This 'defocussing' is closely linked to another Modernist aspect of the stories: the fact that they are ultimately psychologically internal and deal with the contingency of consciousness. In fact, only the first three stories are told in the first person, and the rest are cast in a third person that cannot even be said to be an intimate third, since characters are often described in an objective-realist nineteenth-century mode and their personalities and life situations authorially summed up - aspects of the book which seem indeed very old-fashioned and were I think what set Jenny wondering about the book's Modernist credentials. However, there is an engagement with the consciousness of the protagonists of these stories, taking place on an important linguistic level: the narration partakes of the inflexions and diction of the characters and thus of their psyches: one character is 'handy with the mits' and 'Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.' As John pointed out, the characters are thus seen from both the outside and the inside, which, before I had fully re-engaged with the stories, seemed to me an inconsistency (in the group, I praised the three first-person stories as the only ones with a consistent viewpoint) but which I now see as a deliberate authorial project achieved via a complex, multi-layered prose (which would be fully developed in Ulysses). Similarly, one of my complaints in the group discussion was that there seemed to be erroneous moments of shifting viewpoint. The story, 'A Mother,' in which Mrs Kearney chaperones her accompanist daughter at a disastrously attended concert and, in spite of the clear absence of box office returns, insists on the contractual payment, is told entirely from Mrs Kearney's viewpoint until a moment when, having become more and more insistent, she is suddenly seen from outside, in fact from the viewpoint of the other characters, 'appearing' to discuss something intently with her husband. In the story 'A Little Cloud', Little Chandler is made to see the futility of his own life by a reunion with an old friend who left and made his way in Fleet Street. We are entirely with his viewpoint until, towards the end, he is trying unsuccessfully to stop his baby crying when 'a woman' comes into the room, whom, due to the objective diction, we only realise a sentence or two later is his wife and the mother of his child. Doug said - too tentatively, it seems to me now - that these were not authorial mistakes but intentional, and I now agree with him (although I'm still not sure that either actually works). In the first instance, a tension is being deliberately set up between the internal world of the protagonist and the way she is seen by others, the moment of change being perhaps the moment of 'epiphany' for the reader, and in the second instance the switch is either meant to create a similar adjustment for the reader (we see the woman in a more objective light, rather than through Little Chandler's self-centred eyes) or a sudden moment of alienation within Little Chandler's own consciousness (he suddenly sees his wife as alien to him) (or both). While the book uses realist methods to capture and critique the social circumstances of the characters - detailed physical descriptions including obsessive geographical delineations of Dublin, careful and accurate observations of characters' behaviour and lengthy colloquial dialogue - it also operates on a more Modernist symbolic level to portray the perceptions and consciousness that call into question the reality of that world, 'dissolving and dwindling' it in the symbolic snowstorm at the end of 'The Dead'.

As Jenny said, nothing much happens in the stories, there's no drama, and this is not simply because the lives of these characters are humdrum, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the true focus of the stories is psychological and internal. Ann said she found that on that level they were dramatic, in fact. She had really liked the stories, and the episodic nature of the book as a whole, and was very glad to have been given an occasion to read it. She also found it amazingly prescient, touching as it does on paedophilia, including that in the Catholic Church ('The Sisters' and 'An Encounter') and corrupt politicians ('Ivy Day in the Committee Room'), and everyone heartily agreed. People commented on the strong criticism the book makes of the Catholic Church, and of both colonial rule and Celtic Revivalism, while, as had been noted earlier, refusing to moralise against the characters.

John commented that there were similarities between Dubliners and Trainspotting - both episodic, both set in Celtic cities and dealing with addiction. He said he felt that there was a hole in the middle of the most famous of the stories, 'The Dead', in that he didn't find it psychologically realistic that Mrs Conroy should have kept the episode from her youth so secret from her husband, but I don't think anyone else found it unreasonable, given the era of the stories. Personally, I find it perfectly organic: the point is that romance has long been worn away for the Conroys by the humdrum struggle of their lives, and it is the sudden reawakening of romance and lust in Gabriel Conway's bosom, his need to connect with his wife and his uncustomary tenderness towards her, that, ironically, unlock her emotionally and cause her to unburden herself.

Someone said that there was no humour in the book, with which I couldn't at all agree. The contrast between the realist elements and the internal, symbolic elements makes for an overall irony of tone, and I can't see how the following, for instance, isn't funny: 'The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped'.  I laughed out loud with Gabriel Conroy's audience when he relates how his grandfather's horse, used to walking in a circle to drive his mill, stops on an outing to walk round and round King Billy's statue. There is course however a bitter political edge to this moment of merriment, and I do agree that the humour, residing always in the realist moments, is ultimately subsumed by the existential sadness falling like the snow 'faintly through the universe'.

There was some discussion about authorial intention. Jenny wondered how far Joyce, and authors in general, consciously set out to create the effects achieved. Could it be a question of just writing stories as they came and justifying/explaining them in retrospect? I said I felt on the whole, yes, writers write according to their temperament and outlook, see afterwards what they have done and then identify and name it, and John added that writers are also influenced by what they've read and admire, but Doug was pretty sure that as far as Joyce was concerned the whole project was approached with a very conscious political and literary intention. Of course, with most writers all of these things are operating to some degree. Joyce's own family background of reduced fortunes and Home Rule politics clearly affected his outlook, and so, in my view, would be likely to affect directly his literary stratagems, but as is well recorded it also endeared him to Ibsen with his concern with ordinary lives and led him in turn to be influenced by him, and his letters make clear that, influenced by the French Symbolists, he developed serious literary theories for his own writing.

By the end of the meeting, Mark no longer considered the stories tedious, but he maintained nevertheless that if it hadn't been for Ulysses, we would not have heard of these stories now, they would have sunk without trace. As for me, my experience of trying to rush these stories and getting nowhere, and then approaching them more circumspectly and finding them rich after all, has confirmed me in my view that, far from being the literary form suited to the rushed soundbite age, good and complex short stories need special close attention and re-reading.

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

Monday, November 05, 2012

Reading group: Looking for Mr Goodbar by Judith Rossner

In the last couple of months my time has been completely taken up by intensive writing and some pretty radical decorating (involving stripping paint and replastering!), so I haven't been keeping up our book group reports, I'm afraid. It's now about seven weeks since our September meeting (and I've had those massive preoccupations to push it out of my mind), so my following report might be a bit sketchy, but here goes.

Clare chose this book, set in the early 1970s and based on a real-life 1973 murder case, about a convent-educated primary-school teacher in her late twenties, Theresa Dunn, who haunts the singles bars of New York picking up men for brief sexual encounters, and is finally murdered by one of these men, a psychopath.

The book was published in 1975 to ecstatic reviews, and generally accepted as being of 'considerable literary merit' (New York Times). None of us present, however, felt that the book was well written, and as far as I recollect a fair bit of the discussion concerned this discrepancy. Clearly, at the time of publication, the subject matter - a woman cruising bars for casual sex, in particular a woman from a respectable Catholic family with a highly respectable job and, later on, a respectable lawyer fiance - and the explicit way in which the sex was portrayed - were explosive, and it is interesting to see how response to subject-matter can affect one's perception of prose style.

Most of us, reading the book in the present day, felt that it was very difficult to understand on an emotional level why Theresa engages in this double life of self-destructive behaviour. Least perturbed by this was Clare who is a counsellor and who, introducing the book, said she could identify certain psychological theories about emotional damage and promiscuity being consciously worked through in the book. In fact, the book makes plain, on a factual level, the causes of Theresa's behaviour: struck down at the age of four by polio which resulted in a slight curvature of the spine that she works hard to disguise, suffering a repressed sense of parental neglect (the death of her elder brother after her illness prevented her parents noticing her incipient disability and getting it treated), feeling inferior to a glamorous elder sister, and used and hurt by her first callous and predatory lover, her college lecturer, she suffers from low self-worth and, as a kind of warped self-protection, dissociates sex from emotion: brief sex with strangers is exciting, or at least briefly satisfying - the more threatening or detached the more exciting/satisfying - but sex with her sincere and loving fiance is anaesthetic. However, we were generally agreed that none of this was convincing on an emotional level: it was hard to feel Theresa's psychological development (if it can be called that) and changes of gear; the book, as Doug said, just didn't feel lived or felt. 

Ann said she had read that Rossner had been commissioned to write the book in the aftermath of the real-life case, and wondered if this had made for a lack of true emotional engagement on the part of the author. Mark and Ann both felt too that Rossner's age at the time - I think they had read she was about forty - set her apart from the newly sexually 'liberated' scene she was describing: she had indeed not lived it and was portraying it from the outside. Those in the group who had been young at the time felt that she hadn't in fact got it right: while everyone present could agree that promiscuity can be a kind of masochism, there was nothing in the book of the atmosphere of the time whereby women who did behave this way revelled in it, telling themselves (however mistakenly) that they were exercising a newly found sexual power.

Whatever the reason, we felt that, in spite of the critical praise, it is the prose that fails to convey the crucial emotional element. In spite of an innovative beginning - a police report on the murderer followed by the murderer's confession - the book very quickly becomes a conventional third-person linear plod through the events of Theresa's life, with much ground to cover and a consequent tendency to tell rather than show. This leads inevitably to a lack of vividness, leading in turn to a loss of significance. For instance, I said, when I realised that Theresa in adulthood was jealous of her elder sister Katherine I was surprised: I had missed that; and once again, I was really surprised to learn that Theresa had been very fond of Katherine's husband Brooks. Therefore I found it unconvincing that Theresa should be so upset when Katherine leaves him, and in turn even more unconvincing (even baffling) that when Theresa goes to Brooks' flat to comfort him and finds him with a young woman, she is so upset she hotfoots it down to one of the bars to pick up a man. There were general murmurs of agreement among the book group. The need to cram in a lot of backstory in a somewhat doggedly linear tale leads to clumsy (and over-proliferated) sentences such as this: It turned out that the way Katherine had broken her engagement to Young John was by running away with and marrying a cousin of Young John's whom she met at a wedding she'd gone to with Young John, and to clumsy structure and an over-reliance on exposition. After Theresa finds the supposedly grieving Brooks with the young woman, and before she seeks refuge in a bar pickup, she feels she really needs to talk to someone and thinks of another teacher at her school whom she wishes she could call (if she knew her better and if weren't too late in the evening).  This teacher has not  been mentioned previously in the novel, and slap-bang in the middle of Theresa's supposed emotional crisis we are given an account of this teacher from scratch - Her name was Rose and she was middle-aged and Jewish - what she looks like, her home circumstances and her personality, and the narrative tension is dispelled. This links with a general complaint in the group that very little attention is given to the schoolteaching side of Theresa's life - a result being that the supposedly shocking contrast between the two aspects of her life becomes merely academic for the reader. Although in theory everyone in the group accepted the notion of a secret life - as Mark said, it's one of the basic subjects of novels - most of us found it unconvincing when we were told in this novel that Theresa handles the children so well and is such a caring teacher - it merely seems inconsistent with the pathetic lack of emotional control in the other side of her life. Similarly, Ann noted, although we are told about Theresa's Irish-Catholic background, there is none of the particular emotional flavour of that (and so we miss out on any visceral sense of its emotional impact). A specialist in textiles, Ann said also that the bottom fell out of the novel for her at the point when we are briefly told that Theresa makes herself some new curtains even though she has never sewn anything before in her life - a small but vital indication of the lack of felt experience in the book. None of us could remember all the different men Teresa had taken back to her flat, or the order of her doing so; the linearity and account-type style of writing had created a repetitiveness that made them blur into each other and failed to turn them into much of a narrative arc. This was a failure compounded by the randomness of the ending. Although Theresa's repressed prudery combined with her fear of closeness are what tip her murderer over the edge, the fact that she picks up a psychopath in the first place has an inherent randomness rather than any inevitability. All in all, for most of us present, what should have been an exciting story was a tedious read.

So, basically, the book got a thumbs-down from us, although it turned out later that Trevor and Jenny, who had both missed the meeting, had very much enjoyed it. Trevor agreed that it wasn't too well written, and also that the sexual ethos of the 70s hadn't really been the way it's portrayed in the book, but he hadn't found that that mattered and had really liked it as a cracking and 'juicy' read.

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

Monday, October 22, 2012

Staying in and going out

I'm still pretty immersed in my current project, and here's what I'm also doing - against time, before workmen come to do another job - stripping wallpaper and paint: so two things are now keeping me away from my blogs. Today, though, my first reader (John) is looking at my latest draft, and there's a plumber downstairs taking out a radiator in that room, so for once I have time to come to the blog and mention a few events I've attended recently.

Most recent was a great reading yesterday afternoon by short-story writers Adam Marek and Guy Ware, a Comma Press/Manchester Lit Fest event at the Anthony Burgess Centre. Both Adam and Guy have new collections out from Comma, and each read a story from his new book. Although both writers have highly individual voices, they share a surreality married to political consciousness. The lively and quirky title story which Guy read from his collection, 'You Have 24 Hours to Love Us', was the story of the siege of a mountain egg farmer by a political regime, and successfully kept you guessing to the end about the real nature of the protagonist narrator. Adam's story, 'An Industrial Evolution', from the new collection The Stone Thrower, was first commissioned by Comma for Bio-Punk, an anthology of short stories about the potential ethical consequences of current biotechnology research, and imagined Ape Town, a place where orangutans have been rescued by genetic modification from the extinction with which they are in reality threatened, but have been put to an ethically questionable use. A thoughtful and thought-provoking story, beautifully imagined. Comma's Jim Hinks then chaired a very interesting Q & A (above), and afterwards we all repaired to the pub - along with my long-time friend and former co-editor of metropolitan magazine, Ailsa Cox, who'd come with her husband journalist Tim Power (and extremely quiet and gentle dog George!) - it was great to catch up, and made me think I really should get out more!

I haven't managed to attend many Lit Fest events this year, and two I did try for were sold out. I did get to the panel discussion 'Is the Editor Dead?' (also at the Anthony Burgess Centre) - an interesting evening which I'll write about on my Fictionbitch blog when (if!) I get time. [Edited in: I have now managed that: here's the link.]

The Didsbury Arts Festival took place the last weekend in September, and I went to two events, the first a Nightjar Press reading arranged by its publisher Nick Royle. Among the readers were Nick himself with a clever and moving story based around the names of bus routes/destinations, and Alison Moore, whose Booker shortlisted novel The Lighthouse was edited by Nick in one of his other roles as a Salt Publishing fiction editor.  Alison read from The Lighthouse with its emotive atmosphere and evocative prose, as well as her new creepy Nightjar chapbook story. Gregory Norminton read a very clever story (for which he said he owed a debt to JG Ballard) written entirely as footnotes to a biography.  The following night I went to another excellent reading by three more Comma short-story writers, Zoe Lambert, Jane Rogers and Michelle Green.

Oh, and before that, in mid-September, I did a reading of my own, for the Alderley Edge Oxfam Community Book Festival. I was billed for 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning, the first slot of the day, so didn't exactly expect an audience, but to my surprise and delight a not-bad-sized audience turned up in the plush blue newly-furbished committee room of the Festival Hall. I read my story 'The Way to Behave' from Balancing, and extracts from each of Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine.

What else? Oh yes, on Friday I went to J B Shorts, an evening of 15-20 minute theatre plays by established TV writers, at the Joshua Brookes pub. Now several series in, J B Shorts is something of a phenomenon: they do a massive two-week run, yet most evenings are sold out. Tickets are only available on the door, so I went early, arriving half an hour beforehand, but there was already a queue circling right around the pub. By the time I got to the box office there was standing room only, and only four or so people after me got in, the rest being turned away. Apparently it had been like that the night before, the Thursday as well!

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Results for anniversary draw of my Salt books.

Congratulations to the winners of the anniversary draw for signed copies of my three Salt books (all published on the same date, 1st October):

My story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World: Paul McVeigh and Armel Dagorn.

My novel The Birth MachineJessica and Hayley Jones.

My novella Too Many Magpies: Dan Powell and Sandy Ferguson.

Above is John making the draw for The Birth Machine  - being interrupted, officially, in writing his textbook on language - he did actually put his laptop aside, but I'm not sure what the Guardian is doing on his lap!

Monday, October 01, 2012

Anniversary giveaway

I emerged briefly this morning from the deep trance of an intensive writing stint to realise that today, 1st October, is the anniversary of the publication of three of my books: my story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, the novella Too Many Magpies, and the first edition of my novel The Birth Machine. So I'm making a quick visit here to the blog to announce that, to mark the anniversary, I'm offering two signed copies of each of the three books. If you would like to be put into a draw (to be made a week today, Monday 8th October, at 5 pm) then leave a comment below, email me via my profile or message me/comment via Twitter or Facebook. Please say which book(s) you would like to be put in for (you can be put in for one, two or all three).

Remember, my publisher (of all three books) is the remarkable Salt, which means the books can't be too bad, though I say it myself!

Sorry for recent absence - once I've finished the latest project, and answered a couple of queries from people studying my stories, I hope to return to report on one or two readings etc I've attended.
Balancing on the Edge of the Word. 'Quite swept me off my feet.' - Dovegreyreader

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

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 -

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stand Magazine at 60

On Saturday I attended the 60th anniversary celebration of Stand Magazine at Leeds University. The origins of Stand are legendary. As current Managing Editor Jon Glover related, Stand was started by the now sadly deceased poet Jon Silkin in 1952, when he used his £5.00 severance pay as a lavatory cleaner to buy paper from the company office, and printed off the first copies on a mimeograph. He had been trying unsuccessfully to start a union, and instead Stand became his act of protest: to make a stand for things that matter through poetry. At a forum on small presses which I attended in the morning, Jon Glover held up copies of the first three issues for us to see: home-made looking objects, far removed from the classically designed publication Stand became. But very quickly it achieved a prodigious reputation, with huge names - including Angela Carter and Peter Carey - beginning their writing careers between its pages. It is one of the few important magazines to have survived from that time. Also legendary are Silkin's efforts in distributing the magazine: Jon Glover and poet Jeffrey Wainwright, who were later students at Leeds, related how they would come into the students' refectory to find Silkin flogging copies, and Lorna Tracy, who became his fiction editor, told how they would travel the length and breadth of the country by car with the magazine.

I was delighted that Lorna Tracy was present at the celebration. As I said when I read in the afternoon, I have felt very nurtured by Stand - as a new writer I drank in its contents, and it was a huge part of my creative education - and by Lorna in particular. When I first began writing short stories my great aim was to get a story in Stand; Lorna turned down the first story I sent her, but she was so very helpful, discussing my story in detail, and so very encouraging. As I said to her, it's people like her who make writers. Lorna eventually stepped down from Stand but returned in 2004 to edit a special fiction edition, and I was thrilled that she included my story, 'A Glossary of Bread' (now included in Balancing on the Edge of the World). This is a story I've never read at a reading, as it's interspersed with dictionary definitions of bread and types of bread, and I didn't think it could work read out loud. But it seemed so fitting to read it on this occasion, that I had a go, and, after all, it seemed to work fine!

Others reading prose with me with were Janette Jenkins, Elanor Dymott, Elizabeth Cook and my fellow Salt author David Gaffney. Later we heard readings from poets Alison Brackenbury, Julian Turner, Vahni Capildeo and Ian Fairley. Unfortunately I then had to leave and was very sorry to miss a further two sessions of poetry readings, including those from John Cassidy, Amanda Dalton, and a trio of Ians - Gregson, Samson and Duhig.

I do urge you to subscribe to Stand if you don't already. You won't be disappointed - eclectic but excellent poetry and prose. I'm very pleased to say that my new story, 'The Relentless Pull of Gravity', originally scheduled to be included in a 2014 issue, has now been brought forward and will appear in the next issue, due out at the end of September or the beginning of October.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

End of summer, start of new things

Well, now that our stormy summer is over and the autumn sun is beating down (!) I'm back from mountainous Wales and once again at my desk in the city. I do love autumn, though, with its air of new beginnings: the theatres starting their programmes and Manchester Literature Festival on the horizon, and as a rule whole new writing projects ahead of me. Next weekend there are two mini-festivals in which I'm taking part. On Friday and Saturday (14th and 15th) there's a celebration of 60 years of Stand magazine at Leeds University, with workshops and poetry and fiction readings. (I'm reading with other Stand fiction contributors at 1.30 on the Saturday afternoon). Meanwhile, on Saturday Edwina Currie will open another 2-day festival: the Oxfam Alderley Edge Community Book Festival, with readings from writers such as Melvin Burgess, Nick Royle, Livi Michael and Conrad Williams. (And me: I'm kicking off the Sunday readings at 11.00 am, and if no one manages to get out in time to hear me, at least I'll be compensated by a day of other, fabulous readings to attend!)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reading group: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Ann suggested this short novel, which takes the character of Rochester's mad wife Bertha, incarcerated in the attic in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and tells the story of her life, chiefly in her own words but also with sections related by Rochester. As Ann said, she is a gap in the Bronte novel, and this novel fills the gap. Ann had previously read the book on the recommendation of her English teacher when she was a teenager struggling with Jane Eyre, and then she had enjoyed it as an interesting prequel, but this time around she had found a lot more in it. This time she found it a very dense book, in which every word and sentence matter - at which several people nodded in agreement - and was afraid that as she had had to read it quickly at the last minute this time she hadn't given it the careful reading she felt it needed.

The book takes as its cue the short section from Jane Eyre in which Rochester relates to Jane how he was tricked into an arranged marriage in Jamaica with his Creole wife who then turned out to be mad, and recreates those circumstances from a different perspective. Here Bertha is Antoinette, the name by which she went before Rochester insisted on calling her Bertha - and we are presented with her vivid and evocative memories of a lonely and emotionally deprived childhood as the daughter of a deceased slave owner and his grieving and fearful widow. Descendants of the original English colonials, ostracised and indeed threatened by the ex-slave community in post-Emancipation Jamaica, Antoinette, her congenitally disabled younger brother and her distracted and grieving mother live in isolation and increasing poverty. When her mother remarries wealthy Mr Mason, a new colonial, they seem 'saved', but he is incapable of understanding the social situation. His failure to heed his wife's warnings about the resentment of the ex-slaves leads to a tragedy which impels her towards complete emotional breakdown and loss of control, resulting in her incarceration in a 'safe' house where she eventually dies. It is this 'madness', along with the infirmity of Antoinette's (also now dead) brother, which a jealous and disowned half-brother of Antoinette's, her father's son by one of his former slaves, uses to poison Rochester against Antoinette, convincing him of her incipient madness. Antoinette has been at first unhappy to be trapped in a forced union to a man who needed her wealth and now, according to English law, owns it (in reality she is in love with a second cousin, Sandi, who is also the descendant of slaves, but she must be married off to someone of pure English descent), but subsequently ecstatically sexually seduced by her new husband Rochester, only to have him then turn cold and even hostile towards her. She reacts in a deeply emotional (and non-English) way that only confirms the warnings about her. It is now that Rochester begins to call her Bertha, the second name that she shared with the mother whom everyone now takes for granted was mad. By the end of their short honeymoon in her old family house on Dominica, he has categorised her as lunatic, and plans already to incarcerate her:
White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter... She's one of them. I too can wait - for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or  lie...
The final short and harrowing section is related by Antoinette from the attic room in Thornfield Hall, where she is now truly deranged by the isolation and the lack of knowledge of where she is, why she is kept there and why her husband doesn't come to her.

This precis of mine makes the thrust of the novel, in terms of plot, seem much clearer than it does on a first reading. The prose is highly economical, as Ann pointed out, and there is a focus on the emotional rather than the factual dimensions of the story. Information about the factual circumstances is often slipped in only subtly and even indirectly - a perhaps inevitable and even calculated effect in a story of cultural confusion and increasing psychological derangement. I found that on a first reading, concentrating on the emotional element, which is indeed complex and subtle, I missed some of these points of fact and I wasn't absolutely clear about the sequence of events and therefore of some of the causes and effects, and it was only on a second reading that the whole thing fell beautifully into shape for me as above. Not only did Ann feel she had read the book too quickly, but Jenny hadn't yet reached the final section, and Doug, who had read it years ago but is moving house and has all of his books packed away, hadn't managed to find it to read it again, and as a result there was a fair bit of doubt and discussion about fairly radical aspects of the book.

Ann considered that it was a book about people in new places and/or situations they don't understand and in which they don't know how to cope - the ex-slaves and both the old and new colonials in the post-Emancipation West Indies, and the two young people forced by their families into their cross-cultural marriage. (Rochester is especially hurtled into it: arriving in Jamaica only three weeks before the marriage his family have arranged to  a woman unknown to him, he is immediately struck down by illness and spends a large part of that time in a fever - which he will later look back on as a way in which he was cheated of finding out about Antoinette in time.) And indeed, when Ann looked up the book on the internet, she found it called 'the original post-colonial novel'.

This led to quite a lot of sharing by group members of factual information about colonialism, slavery, multiculturalism and the history of the West Indies. Taking the focus back to the book, Jenny said she felt sorry for most of the characters, including Rochester, who is also a victim of a social system (expected to maintain his social status but impoverished by primogeniture and consequently manipulated by his family into this marriage, and of course entirely innocent of the West Indies social situation into which he is plummeted). Along with most others, I agreed with this last, though up to a point. By allocating sections of the book to Rochester's first-person narrative, Rhys does give an insight into Rochester's predicament. However, I felt that the book had a more feminist message than had  been noted so far in our discussion. Victim of a patriarchal society though Rochester may be, nevertheless he undoubtedly ends up with the patriarchy-sanctioned power to save himself by destroying and negating Antoinette. I felt that this book was taking up a point made on more than one occasion by Jane Eyre (who narrates the Bronte novel) that women and children are not the sweet, angelic creatures they are thought to be and meant to be and that women can have tumultuous emotions and the same ambitions as men. Rhys seems to me specifically to develop this point and the notion that is thus implicit, if not actually tackled, in the Bronte novel, that behaviour in women not sanctioned by a patriarchal society is merely called madness, a repression which ironically however can induce true derangement. John agreed (and recalled our discussion of Tender is the Night and its so-called mad character Nicole, a novel in which the author seems less aware of such a notion). (People seemed initially a little taken aback by the idea that Jane Eyre could be considered feminist, with its heroine in love with a distant, brooding and even cruel man, but no one apart from John had read it recently - he went back to it after reading the Rhys book - and Trevor hadn't read it at all, although he had seen a film adaptation. We reminded everyone that although Jane 'gets her man' in the end, she does so on her own terms, as, finally, a rich and thus independent woman, and when, as Trevor put it, Rochester has been emasculated, blinded and having lost his right hand - indeed 'punished' by the backfiring of his own action in incarcerating Bertha/Antoinette.)

Doug however, not having read the Rhys book recently either, was unconvinced that Antoinette was not congenitally mad - after all, wasn't her mother mad before her? This led to some general discussion about what constitutes madness, but pinning it back to the book, those of us who had read it more recently insisted that there were circumstances which had driven Antoinette's mother to  distraction - although I think we omitted to mention the crucial and precipitating one, the tragic death of Antoinette's brother. Explaining Antoinette's own 'madness', Clare pointed to her emotionally deprived and fearful childhood, and her consequent emotional vulnerability in the situation into which she is forced with Rochester. Still Doug worried about it all: but to have been in such a state that she was incarcerated? Once again, as in our discussion of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, he was met with a chorus of protest that throughout history women have been incarcerated as mad simply for unacceptable or emotional behaviour, and once again Jenny said that it happened to an aunt of her own.

I said that I thought the theme of obeah (or voodoo) in the novel was not simply a function of cultural difference but was put to specifically feminist use. In fact, the implication is that it is not a point of difference: Rochester's insistence on calling Antoinette Bertha, the name of her 'mad mother', is indeed a kind of voodoo, and Antoinette recognises this: ' "That's obeah, too." '  A patriarchal system which calls women submissive, and mad when they fail to be so, allows them no other way to be and locks them into one or other of those states. Rochester himself is half-conscious of his own voodoo-type power: having decided to hate Antoinette and destroy her hatred for him, he says, 'I did it too. I saw the hate go out of her eyes. I forced it out... Say die and I will die.'

In a similarly ironic way, it is at this point that the prose of Rochester's first-person narrative changes and adopts rhythms, images and conceits similar to those of Antoinette's, implying similar mental breakdown: 'I thought I saw that tree strike its roots deeper, making ready to fight the wind.' In a further twist of irony, this is when he finally decides that he is sane: 'All the mad conflicting emotions had gone and left me wearied and empty. Sane.'

People commented on the descriptions of nature, its beauty and yet its sinister character to both Antoinette as a child and the adult Rochester, and the jungle that threatens to encroach on Antoinette's ancestral and honeymoon home, another very real way in which the characters are  overpowered by an alien environment. I said I thought that the weather was also used in a symbolic way: at the point when Rochester finally hardens against Antoinette and asserts his English patriarchal values over her, the weather changes and becomes, in his words, 'cool, calm and cloudy as an English summer.'

John now read out a passage from the section in Jane Eyre where Rochester explains and justifies himself to Jane, saying that, actually, reading Wide Sargasso Sea had rather spoilt Jane Eyre for him. As John was indicating, in the light of Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester comes over here as utterly self-centred, indeed selfish, lacking in empathy and cruel: in fact, the passage almost reads as satirical, yet one is aware that Bronte, while not dealing with him uncritically, is not intending satire. Interestingly and ironically, as Clare pointed out, because Rhys provides some insight into his predicament, he comes over less badly in her novel of cultural and feminist redress. Trevor, however, didn't agree. In his view the Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea was 'a bloody plonker, a Grade One.'

There was now some discussion as to whether it was necessary to know Jane Eyre in order to appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea, and opinion was divided, or at any rate uncertain. I said that surely it was necessary (ie to truly appreciate it), since it was a work of redress and the original was so explicitly flagged. (It truly is harrowing to have one's previous perceptions of the ghostly threat in the attic overturned by the final section of Wide Sargasso Sea, an experience that would not be available to you if you did not know Jane Eyre.) But then Doug said that once again we come up against the impotence of authors in the face of the way that readers read.

At any rate, everyone agreed that, short as it is, it had been a difficult book to read, and whether this was because none of us had recently read Jane Eyre beforehand it wasn't really possible to know. Trevor seemed to have found it the hardest (and he was the one who had never read Jane Eyre, though of course he had seen a film adaptation): he said he really had to struggle with it and force himself to go on reading, and although he is the one in the group who enjoys most books, as a result he hadn't enjoyed this.

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

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How do you identify as a writer?

At Easter I was at a conference at Salford University on writing and the small presses, and Professor of English Lucie Armitt, who'd invited me to speak, asked me if I identified as a Welsh writer. For a moment I felt stumped. Did I or didn't I?  It's one of those questions that have me floundering, and feeling that there aren't enough words, or the right words, to tackle this whole issue in a single conversation. I answered that no, I didn't identify as a 'Welsh writer': my Welsh background does of course strongly influence my outlook, and therefore of course how I write, but there are other strong influences - not least my education in English Literature and the many long years I've lived in England, as well as my father's Irishness, and the fact that some of my ancestors were quite probably from Eastern Europe and that others may have been black slaves. I've therefore never really identified strongly with any particular nationality - I always refuse to fill in those sections on questionnaires, and national pride usually gives me the creeps - and of course all of this affects who I feel I am as a writer. Writing to me is a state without boundaries: and realising this makes me realise also that this is why I write.

And then the other day on her blog the writer Nuala Ni Chonchuir called me 'the English writer Elizabeth Baines.' It's fair enough: I live in England and have done so for many years, I've mainly been published by English publishers, and, perhaps because writing to me is this universal place beyond geographic boundaries, I tend not to name locations in my writing, and they're probably taken as consistently English although some are Welsh. But, I tell you, the phrase really shocked me. I found myself thinking: Me? English? But I'm Welsh by birth; by parentage I'm  half-Welsh, half-Irish! And don't I write against the English canon? English? Me? That, I discovered, is how I feel after all these years of Anglicisation - my Welsh grandmother's punishment in school for speaking Welsh, my own inability to cope in a Welsh-speaking school, the way that, by the time I was a ten-year-old in England no one would have guessed from my accent that I hadn't been born there, the way I felt English - indeed, identified as English - at a Welsh university. No, I was far more shocked, in the end, to be called an English writer than to be asked if I identified as a Welsh one. Maybe I'm not as impartial as I've thought...

Monday, August 06, 2012

An interview with Nuala Ní Chonchúir about her new collection of short stories

Today this blog is honoured by a visit from the wonderful writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir, who's on a tour to promote her latest book, Mother America (New Island). This stunning collection of short stories deals chiefly though not exclusively with aspects of motherhood - the experience of it, its effects and consequences - taking in not only the viewpoints and voices of mothers but of men and children too. There's also an achingly moving reworking of the Mary Magdelene story, and a recurring scenario of betrayal in which an affair occurs between a woman's husband and her sister, this last vividly conveyed in a second-person portrayal of the pain of the artist Frieda Kahlo - a theme of painting and drawing works its way through the collection, too. There's a cosmopolitan feel, with stories set in America, Paris and Rome, yet the spirit of Ireland hovers over it all, as in the story in which an Irish mother, brought to Brooklyn by her son and then abandoned by her there, sits in a cafe with the letter he's sent her but which she is unable to read. In another story, the very same cafe plays host to a different character, and similar connections trace their way across several of the stories. Short-story writer, novelist and poet, Nuala seems a complete mistress of all three forms. I find her work breathtaking in its insight and command of language - her touch is light, yet her sentences, both poetic yet muscular, burn themselves on your brain, and her vision is both warmly human yet searing. This book had me enthralled, at times in tears, now and then laughing out loud with delight at the connections, and I was eager to talk to Nuala about it.

EB: Nuala, there's a strong theme of exile running through the book, centred on the mother figure. So many of the mothers are Irish, and I wonder if you are making a link between a mother's relationship with her children, and the people of Ireland with their homeland?

NNC: Ireland is personified as a woman – Róisín Dubh, meaning Dark Rosaleen – in song and myth. We also have the mother goddess Danu, and Ériu who gave her name to the country, so the symbol and importance of woman/mother is a strong one in Ireland.
There is also the old cliché about the Irish mother and her sons – she loves her sons and they can do no wrong, but she lambasts her daughters. There’s the ring of truth in that of course. I’m a mother (of two boys and one girl) and I’m a daughter, and that influences what I write about. Ireland is also a country of emigrants and, lately, immigrants. Historically, there is a good deal of sentimentality about Irish emigration (that continues to this day) and I am interested in that.
When it comes to writing stories, I have no agenda – I just write about whatever is interesting to me at that time. For the last three years that has been mothers, especially ones who are separated from their children, by force or by will.

EB: The connections between some of the stories are stunning and very moving, and it's a wonderful way of carrying your themes of exile and also redemption. Would you talk about that?

NNC: When I write stories, one after the other, inevitably there are linking themes, because my synapses are sparking off a few riffs (if that is not too mixed a metaphor!) over a period of time. I only realised, after a few stories, that I was writing about mothers. The fear and separation/exile motifs emerged later. Two of the stories are very deliberately linked: ‘Scullion’ sees a young maid become pregnant by her master. ‘My Name is William Clongallen’ sees the son of that union return to Ireland from America to seek out his mother.
I like links in short fiction collections but I also like diversity. Nam Le, Caitlin Horrocks, Sarah Hall and Anthony Doerr all do a great line in diversity in their collections, though there may be a linking tone or theme, of melancholy or loss or whatever, in their books.
As long as a book hangs together cohesively in some way, I see no absolute need for linked collections. I would be disturbed if it became the norm – it would smack of publishers attempting to make novels of short fiction collections, which I object to.

EB: You are brilliant at voice and point of view, and the contrasts in both once again promote your themes brilliantly. How do you do it? Was it a deliberate choice or instinctive here?

NNC: I am most comfortable writing in the first or second person, so that’s where I will usually begin. Third person is more difficult for me but some stories, like ‘Queen of Tattoo’ beg for that bit of distance.
It’s instinctive in the sense that I don’t plan anything when I write – I go from the gut and the thing either works or it doesn’t. Having a distinctive voice to work from always makes a story flow much easier for me, so I like when a voice whispers in my ear early on.

EB: In some ways this book reminded me of one of my favourite short story writers, the American Grace Paley, although you have your own distinct tone. It's not just in the melting-pot Brooklyn settings, the cleverness with voice and the concern with motherhood: there's always a sense of homeland underpinning everything, perhaps best summed up in the title story. How do you manage to conjure up these places (the stories set in Paris conjure up its atmosphere, beautifully, too)?

NNB: As an Irish person, I am pretty much obsessed with place. It may be to do with Colonialism and occupation, but we Irish are very regional, very place-addicted. Most of us want to own our bit of home.
But, as someone born in 1970, I am also very Europe orientated and I value Ireland’s connection to the European Union. So my fiction happily looks to Europe and America, while also keeping one foot firmly in the homeplace.
Travel has been the big boon of being a writer for me. I’ve always enjoyed travel and now I get to do it a lot. That fires me up as a writer; I love it. I am an ardent notebook keeper and, when I travel, even more so. I keep a journal, I take photos, and all that helps if I feel like setting a story in Paris, for example, where I have set many stories.
Thanks for having me by, Elizabeth. Next Monday my virtual tour takes me to writer Ethel Rohan’s blog in San Francisco. I hope some of your readers will join me there.

Thanks so much, Nuala. I urge you all to buy the book - it's wonderful!

See my earlier interview with Nuala about her witty and moving novel, You. 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

New literary festival

I've been alerted by novelist Charlie Hill to a new literary festival he's started up with Andy Killeen. Looks well worth a visit.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reading at Oren in Caernarfon

Every so often you do a reading that's really different and off beat. John and I are in Wales at the moment, and the week before last I did a reading in the tiny Oren restaurant in Caernarfon which Gert Vos runs, providing a different, and always exciting, set menu each week. Occasionally on a Thursday, Gert will put on some kind of entertainment for diners, and he had invited me on this particular Thursday to read between courses.

With a necessarily small and select audience mellowed by wine and the most delicious food, it was probably one of the nicest, cosiest readings I've ever done, rather like reading round the dinner-table at home to a group of friends - not that I've ever done that! Gert had decided to do a Welsh menu for the evening, and there was a choice of starters, but then the way we all ordered made him suggest that we all sample some of each, and everyone agreed with delight. So before I began reading I was already almost too full to do so with mackerel salad, battered courgettes (with flowers intact) and Welsh vegetable spring soup. When everyone had finished the first course, those on the ground floor swung their chairs around to face me and those upstairs came down, and I read. I had decided to read food- and restaurant-related pieces, and at this point I read 'Condensed Metaphysics' from Balancing on the Edge of the World, which though set in a very different kind of restaurant from Gert's - a pizza takeway on Manchester's Oxford Road - features a set of customers relating and chatting in just the way we were already doing. And indeed, as Gert served up the next course - Anglesey lamb for carnivores and delicious Welsh goat's cheese with broadbeans and homemade oatcakes for us veggies - there was chat about some of the issues in the story, and about writing. People also asked me about 'Compass and Torch' (because it's on the AQA GCSE syllabus), which I had in fact considered reading, as it was the area above Caernarfon at the start of the Nantlle ridge that had inspired it. After the main course I read a section from The Birth Machine with its strong theme of cooking and witches' brews and spells, and then finally we all went quite quiet as we tucked into one of the most delicious puddings I've ever tasted (I think maybe puddings are Gert's specialty): summer fruit crumble with Caerphilly cheese.

It was an evening I'll remember for a long time: such a friendly, interested audience - in spite of the distraction of the food! - and they even asked to buy books, which I hadn't really expected!

Here's a photo of an earlier meal I had at Gert's: the starter for the Danish summer menu:

Salt author on Booker longlist

Many congratulations to Salt author Alison Moore for her Booker longlisting with her debut novel The Lighthouse, which I'm dying to read. It's wonderful that the Booker judges this year have avowedly backed innovation and the off-beat, and looked at 'novels not novelists, texts not reputations', and as another Salt author, I'm naturally thrilled at the endorsement this gives to our tiny, inspired and hardworking publisher. Congratulations also therefore to Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery, who have steered Salt through some pretty hard times, quite often single- (no, I mean, double-) handedly - quite frankly, I don't really know how they've done it. And also to writer Nick Royle who recently joined Salt as an editor to begin his own list, of which Alison Moore's book is a first triumphant fruit.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What's in a name? Guest post by psychological thriller writer Niki Valentine.

Today I'm delighted to host a very interesting guest post from psychological thriller writer Niki Valentine on the occasion of the ebook publication of her latest novel, Possessed, in advance of the October print publication.

Possessed sounds really exciting:
Who do you trust when you can no longer trust your own mind?

Emma's life has always been a struggle, and now she's been accepted at a prestigious music school, she is determined to excel. But when the impossibly chic twins, confident Sophie and quieter Matilde, come crashing into her life - surrounding her with champagne and parties - they demand Emma's full attention.

Then shy Matilde commits suicide and shockingly, her identical twin Sophie flourishes. Now odd things are happening to Emma: blackouts, waking up in strange places, bizarre dreams. Something, or someone, is consuming Emma's mind. Terrified, Emma begins to doubt everything and everyone around her, especially the beautiful Sophie...

Powerful, twisted, atmospheric and disturbing, Possessed is a terrifying psychological thriller.

This is the second Niki Valentine book - the first, Haunted, was acclaimed by the Irish Sunday Independent as 'quite terrifying'. But their author is also Nicola Monaghan, the prizewinning writer of equally tension-filled 'literary fiction' who also teaches Creative Writing at Nottingham University. Her first, The Killing Jar, deservedly won a Betty Trask Award and the Author's Club Best First Novel Award, among others - like all of her writing, it had me gripped from start to finish!

 In today's post, Niki  talks about this 'dual identity' as a writer - and admits that it's maybe not so dual an identity after all:


In 2006, after I published my debut novel, I got married. I’d always planned to keep my maiden name, as I liked it very much, and also have some feminist principles about these things. But my writing career gave me a third option: I could change my name and keep it at the same time. My feminist principles intact, both my husband and I changed our surnames to one with resonance and family connections for both of us and I became Mrs Valentine.

Even as I sent off my passport and my deed of name change, I couldn’t help thinking what a great name this would be for a writer. Other people mentioned it too and the idea took hold that I might find a way to use it. I didn’t want to lose my maiden name, though, and the identity that went with that. My first novel did pretty well and won a couple of prizes, so I had built a reputation that I didn’t want to lose.

I’ve always read widely and through a number of genres. I do love literary fiction, but I love books from many genres. I was aware of Iain Banks and his alter ego with the extra initial, having read books by ‘both’ and enjoyed them. Literary fiction wasn’t even my first choice of genre; all the books I’d planned and started before writing my first novel had fantasy elements to them. I was a big fan of magic realism and gritty, urban fantasy, as well as stories about ghosts, possession and reincarnation. And my literary fiction had criminal and thrillerish elements, so that crime was a genre I considered too.

I didn’t need to use another name to write a different genre. I’m a strong believer that, as a writer, I should be able turn my hand to any genre I want, as long as I am prepared to read and get to know it intimately. I also think that it’s preferable to love the genre I’m writing and feel passionate about it. There’s a lot talk around writing and publishing and this idea of the author as a ‘brand’. I’ve never seen myself that way; nor have I been encouraged to by any publisher I’ve worked with. I refuse to be a commodity, or to see art in such deeply capitalist terms. It doesn’t scan for me.
That said, I am also a reader. I know how it works to go up to shelf in a bookshop or library and find a writer you love. The warm feeling of the familiar and the new at the same time. I know that I come to books by writers I know with certain expectations. That’s not to say that I think every book should be the same. I’m probably the most disappointed when I find it’s more or less the same book I’ve read before, or written to some kind of formula the writer or publisher has come to believe in. At the same time, if it was a wildly different genre, I think there is a risk I’d be disappointed, not because the book isn’t good, but because it isn’t what I wanted from a book right then and there.

Like most of my choices as a writer, the decision to use a different name was about the reader. I thought it made more sense to define myself as two different entities. Niki Valentine, who writes thrillers with psychological and supernatural elements to them, and Nicola Monaghan, whose thrillers are more literary in nature. In fact, the deeper I get involved in my new genre, the less it feels different from what I write in the other name. It broaches similar themes; broken psychologies, disturbed individuals, dysfunctional relationships. These seem to be the things I am interested in, no matter which name I use, or which genre I wrap it up in.

Many thanks to Niki, and I urge you to read her gripping books. The ebook of Possessed can be bought here.