Friday, January 27, 2012

The commissioning process: New piece on The View From Here

It's a good while now since I've written for radio: I've even talked of having given it up, but to my delight I find myself working on radio once again - not yet on producing a play, I hasten to add, or even yet writing one, since in the time I've been away the commissioning process has changed. What I'm doing is throwing up ideas with a producer and developing them according to BBC guidelines to pitch to a commissioning editor, and there's no guarantee that our offerings will be accepted in the end. My latest post on The View From Here considers some of the implications in such a process for creative production and for writers.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alan Beard reviews The Birth Machine

A lovely review of The Birth Machine from Alan Beard, whose good opinion is really worth having, as he's a brilliant short-story writer with collections from Picador and Tindal Street Press.

'It all comes together in a coherent and powerful way,' he says, and: 'For me what impressed most was the language ... well observed and precise.'

He ends by saying: '...although a feminist book it is not just for feminists', and it seems in fact that on Goodreads, where this review appears, the men are liking this book (first published by a feminist press) better than the women - Jim Murdoch gave it a rave review, and five stars. It kind of makes you wonder if, while many women have gone and distanced themselves from what they suspect men see as the taint of feminism, men have been busy assimilating the issues and have become pretty feminist themselves!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New Libertines at Afflecks

Last night's one-off New Libertines event was quite fabulous. Organised by Literary Death Match winner and Eight Cuts Gallery impresario Dan Holloway, in association with the dynamic women behind the great book site  For Books' Sake, it was held in the Three Minute Theatre in Manchester's Afflecks Arcade. I hadn't been in the venue before - it's been there about seven or eight months, I think: it's cosy and informal and even a bit mad, with not only some raked seating but also stools and tables and cushions for sitting along the sides and some easy chairs, and weird and wonderful decorations on the walls and ceiling, a little bar in the corner as you come in and a toilet at the side of the stage! I wish I'd taken more photos of it than the single one above of the stage. [Edited in: Here are some pics.] The audience who packed the place was a lovely one, and the atmosphere was warm and friendly. Loads to laugh at in the readings, and loads to think about, and a wealth of performance talent - in the open mic as well as in the scheduled spots. Paul Askew got everyone in a hilarious mood, as much with his mordant delivery as with his vivid, off-beat and surreal poems, one of which featured a talking crow; Rachel Genn read a funny but touching section from her novel The Cure in which the male protagonist negotiates a swimming-bath date with ill-fitting swimming shorts; Sarah-Clare Conlon had people in stitches with her extremely smutty flash fictions, and Sian Rathore's poems had us all hooting and delighted by their in-your-face exuberance. Laura Jarratt's extract from her forthcoming YA novel Skin Deep, which starts with a car crash, was vividly harrowing. Claire Robertson, who works across various media including calligraphy gave us some true performance art which featured a beautiful hand-made scroll and referenced her own current advanced pregnancy. Michael Stewart decided not to read from his clever and moving novel, Not-the-Booker-winning King Crow, and instead read some thought-provoking poems from a project on Couples on which he's working. I read from my short story 'Condensed Metaphysics', the first story in Balancing on the Edge of the World. Dan Holloway was a brilliant compere, and his own poems were tough and moving. A great open mic session, too, in which poet, prose writer and Manchester blogger Fat Roland took part.

I really couldn't believe, when the evening finally wound down, that it was already ten-forty-five!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When is a story not a story (and really a play)?

I've said in several interviews and articles that when an idea comes to me I know instantly whether it's a story, a novel or a play. Recently, though, I blushed to think that it may not be quite true, for I'm working with a producer on developing ideas for radio drama, and one is an idea that started out as an unpublished short story. And, now that I've thought about it, I remember that it's happened before:

I once wrote a story based on a wedding. I guess it was quite an innovative story in terms of form: it was done as a menu, a wedding meal menu, beginning with the sherry offered to guests arriving at the reception, but each item triggered a 'flashback' to an incident portraying family disharmony and in total signalling a poor prognosis for the happiness of the married couple. I never published the story. It was rejected at least a couple of times - it's always harder to sell innovative stories, and I guess, looking back, that those publications interested in innovative work would be uninterested in what they might consider 'bourgeois' subject matter. Perhaps it didn't help that I signalled its weirdness by giving it the title 'Marriage Menu' which sounds odd until you read the story. Anyway, since it was a time when I was having quick success with a lot of stories, I saw it as one that just hadn't worked, and gave up trying with it.

However, the basic situation stayed with me: I'd abandoned the short story but I still wanted to write about the scenario; and when, a few years later, a radio producer asked me to submit some ideas I thought of turning the situation into a radio play. The menu structure disappeared and the omniscient narrative voice was replaced by the reminiscing monologue of one of the characters, an ironically unreliable narrator, intercut by dramatised flashbacks. The wedding was still central to the story - it was the occasion the protagonist was purportedly reporting (while rambling off into the family story) - and I kept something of the original in the title: the result was my BBC Radio 4 broadcast play, Dry Sherry. The whole tenor of the thing had shifted, though: now it had become a satirical portrait of a scheming, bitter and disappointed ex-wife.

Later I even wrote a stage play based on the same situation, this time an entire monologue, in which the voice was not disembodied as in the radio play, but the character - even more monstrous, since things can be so much bigger on the stage - was in her own living room, inviting the audience, her guests, to hear her tale. This was Drinks with Natalie, which I performed myself for the 24:7 Theatre Festival, as you can see above.

But is it actually the case that the idea was really a play (or two plays) all along?  I don't think so: I've said how turning to a different form shifted the thing, turned it into a different beast and basically  - in just the same way that happens in an adaptation, as I have explained previously - changed the emphasis and thus the meaning. To my mind, the form dictates or alters the message. On the other hand, I have no wish to return to the original short story - as far as I'm concerned, it's now been done.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Reading group: The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Warning: plot spoiler. In order to report our discussion, I've had to reveal the ending of this book.

Doug suggested this book, a departure from Paul Auster's usual more high-wire postmodern storytelling mode. It concerns narrator Nathan Glass who, after a divorce and in remission from lung cancer, returns to his birthplace Brooklyn, he says 'to die', and his nephew Tom whom he unexpectedly finds there working in a second-hand bookshop, dropped out from a brilliantly promising academic career and also in retreat from life. However, the two soon find themselves embroiled together in the lives of colourful others - among them the eccentric bookshop owner Harry Brightman with his dubious past, and the nine-year-old daughter of Tom's lost sister, who turns up on his doorstep out of the blue, strangely mute. Before they know it, Nathan and Tom are engaged on quests to save others from various fates, and en route to their own personal redemption.

Doug said he really liked the wry, urbane narrative voice of Nathan who, while purporting to be curmudgeonly, is in fact touchingly humane and generous. He did, however, feel that the second half of the book was less satisfying with its plot twists, or rather its sudden changes of plot - one story thread being dropped for another - and that here it rather fell apart. Trevor and Ann agreed with him on this latter point, and Trevor said he thought the ending fizzled out.

I said, But don't all the threads come together in the end? and they agreed they did, but still seemed unsatisfied by the way they diverged along the way. I said that Auster was making the point that all stories are contingent to other stories and each story (and each life) is as important as another - this structure, postmodern after all in spite of the seeming greater conventionality, was the author's conscious way of making this point, rather than a failure in storytelling. As for the ending: Nathan relates that, with people saved and all the threads apparently tied up, and newly happy himself in a relationship, he puts his new partner on the subway on her way to work 'only forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.' Surely that clinches the point, and also makes a point about the precariousness of happiness, and the fact that you therefore have to grab it while you can.

They seemed to feel they couldn't argue with this, but they were still unsatisfied by the book. John suggested that maybe Auster had been commissioned to write a 9/11 book, as most prominent American writers probably had, and that that explained what he suggested was a tacked-on 9/11 ending. Others however now said that the ending had in fact been signalled, mainly with references to dates and the political background of the time, 'the right-wing takeover of America' and the election of Bush. I said I thought the book was a conscious and deliberate reminder of the innocence and optimism of the pre-9/11 world and its contrast with our fearful and suspicious post-9/11 world, and above all a reminder of what we had lost in terms of our humanity and generosity towards others. Ann said that what made the book a 9/11 book was indeed the fact that it was about tolerance, the tolerance that characterises Nathan and Tom with their acceptance of everyone and their foibles, and the melting-pot setting of Brooklyn.

Clare and I agreed at this juncture that this sense of generosity and acceptance was the thing we really liked about the book, and new member Chris felt the same. But Trevor now said he didn't buy it. There was an inconsistency, he said: right at the start Nathan admits to being a curmudgeonly old sod, and it simply doesn't fit with the way he turns out to be so generous and humane. I said that that was one of the book's jokes - right at the start Nathan is being an unreliable narrator, indeed he is making fun of himself, and the humour of the book was another thing I really liked about it. Chris had already commented appreciatively on the verbal humour - he particularly liked Harry's instruction 'Keep your nose job out' - and Doug nodded in agreement. However, Trevor was unconvinced, and Jenny now said that though she had liked the book she hadn't found it funny.

Mark, who had been quiet so far, now spoke up. He said that he hadn't appreciated the humour, either. He found a joke of Tom's  -  Tom calls greasy cheeseburgers 'cheesy greaseburgers', if I recall correctly - simply puerile, rather than, as I do, amusing and heart-lifting evidence of Tom's ability to move from gloomy academically-couched existential angst to simple life-affirming humour. In fact, Mark, said, he hadn't liked the book at all. He said he had to admit that this was largely because as an admirer of Auster's previous style, he was disappointed by the change, but also he thought it sentimental. He didn't, as most of us did, find the book touching. He didn't think the nine-year-old niece's mutism credible - though he also announced that he hadn't found the book worth finishing, so he would have missed the explanation provided at the end. He said he strongly agreed with John's suggestion that this book had been written cynically to commission as a 9/11 book and had failed.

At this things got heated, with everyone talking over everyone else, and Doug and I found it quite hilarious that Mark, a fatherly primary school teacher with young children of his own, was sitting there being such a curmudgeon, and in effect doing a pretty good impression of Nathan.

This whole discussion was altogether far more unruly than my account has rendered it, and when at the end someone asked new member Chris what he had thought of the group, he said, in a phrase Tom and Nathan would have appreciated: 'It's like a honky-tonk lagoon!'

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

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Happy New Year and New Libertines

Happy New Year!

Hurray for a good break now and then, I say: I'm back at the desk today and bursting with plans for new projects. I'm also very much looking forward to taking part in a couple of events. Firstly, I'm thrilled to be reading with the buzzy and innovative New Libertines, alongside King Crow author and Not the Booker winner Michael Stewart. Last year's New Libertine tour sold out, and it's exciting to be having them here in Manchester - their first gig north of Birmingham. Monday 23rd Jan, 8.00 - 9.30 pm at Three Minute Theatre, Afflecks, Manchester, M1 1JG. Facebook event details here.
Later on, in March (21st), I'll be reading and talking at a conference on Small Press Publishing at Salford University - details to come later.

And here's wishing you all a successful and creative 2012!