Thursday, October 31, 2013

Reading group: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Warning: spoiler.

It's six weeks now since we discussed this book, the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel set in the American Deep South of the thirties and concerning a lawyer's defence of a black man accused of rape, told from a later perspective in the first-person voice of his daughter Scout who was a small child at the time.

I've been too busy writing to report our discussion, so I doubt that I'll remember much of our comment, but here goes:

Jenny recommended the book because she'd never read it before and felt it was one she should, and as soon as she suggested it there was a general murmur of pleasure: most people remembered it with affection. Personally, I remembered it as rather worthy, as did Mark, although we thought we may have been being influenced by the drama adaptations we'd seen - Mark by the film and I by a stage version. In the event, we all found we liked it very much, and there wasn't in fact a lot of discussion, which, as someone pointed out, often happens when we all like a book. However, people did pick up on one or two points that had given them pause, and the discussion we did have was interesting in that ultimately we unpicked the nature of our pleasure and found it possibly dubious.

We very much loved Scout's viewpoint and voice, which wryly - often comically - recreates the mentality and sometimes incomplete understanding of the child while anatomising a small-town society steeped in racial and class prejudice - and on that level, the level of the prose, Mark and I found that it wasn't worthy after all. We spent some time referring to moments we had really liked, including the laugh-out-loud moment when Scout, dressed as a leg of pork for the school concert, having fallen asleep behind the stage, fails to make her entrance when called and then does so belatedly, and we are told that 'Judge Taylor went out behind the auditorium and stood there slapping his knees so hard Mrs Taylor brought him a glass of water and one of his pills'. People very much appreciated the insight into small-town life of the time and place.

Someone then questioned the relevance, or rather the prominence, of the strand in the novel concerning Boo Radley, a reclusive neighbour: it's a strand with which the novel indeed begins and ends. The children (Scout, her elder brother Jem and their friend Dill), who have never sighted Boo Radley, simultaneously regard him as a bogeyman and are fascinated by him; finally however he rescues Scout and Jem when (just after the hilarious moment described above) Bob Ewell, whose daughter accused the black man of rape, tries to take revenge on their father Atticus by attacking them. I said Boo Radley is meant to stand for the concept of  'the other' which is at the root of racism, but the objection came back: yes, but he isn't black (in fact, since he's never been out he's very, very white!). Someone countered that the novel is about class as well as race prejudice, and Boo Radley stands for the concept of 'the other' in all forms of prejudice. However, there was a sense in the room that we hadn't really resolved the issue.

Someone questioned the character of Atticus, the lawyer: he just seems to be far too reasonable and good to be true; others of us didn't share the objection; personally, I really loved and relished the portrayal. However I did express a doubt which John and I had shared prior to the meeting, regarding Atticus's moral position at the end of the novel. In the struggle with Bob Ewell, Ewell is killed with a knife, and to begin with it seems that thirteen-year-old Jem must have seized the knife off Ewell and killed him. However, Sheriff Tate, who has looked at the body, insists that the evidence shows that Ewell must have fallen on his own knife. Atticus, believing that Tate is covering up to protect Jem, insists, according his moral principles, that Jem must face up to his actions. When he finally realises that it's the highly sensitive Boo Radley whom Tate is covering up for (and who would never be able to withstand any public requirement to account for his action), Atticus gives in and colludes in the deception. John and I weren't sure whether we were happy with the moral ambiguity of that, and John thought it pretty rich that in the book a white man who has killed someone goes free from suspicion while a black man has been hanged for a rape he didn't commit. Doug, however, disagreed, believing that the moral ambiguity was acceptable in the circumstances and precisely the point that the book is making.

I then voiced something I had been mulling: no one in our group is black, and I said I wondered what black people made of the book. Ann, who had been having similar thoughts, said immediately that she thought they would much prefer Toni Morrison's Beloved (which we discussed previously). To Kill a Mockingbird, she said, is how America would like to see itself: upright and reasonable in the face of oppression and prejudice. Atticus, personifying America's view of itself, massages America's conscience. Beloved, on the contrary, exposes the sheer pain of the black experience and thus dramatically challenges America's conscience. I thought this a penetrating insight. Beloved of course takes the black perspective, whereas this book remains firmly with the white, if liberal, perspective. Basically, the reason we had so enjoyed the book was that it had charmed us with its upright white hero and its wry prose that can only emerge from a fundamental position of comfort, and this, from our present-day perspective, brings into question the radical nature of the book.

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Red Room reviews and events

Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, to be launched on Friday (1st November)  has already had some very nice reviews.

Maryom of Our Book Reviews Online declares: 'Reader, I loved it!' (Whole review here.)

Rebecca Burns of Sabotage Reviews calls it 'a fantastic collection of stories, a real treat for all Brontë-lovers and for those who simply love a good read'. (Review here.)

Michelle Bailat-Jones of Necessary Fiction say it's 'a provocative, emotionally-engaging and witty anthology.' (Here.) I think she must be referring to my story, 'That Turbulent Stillness,' in mentioning 'a contemporary Catherine & Heathcliff romance' (though, actually, the story is intended as an ironic comment on romance!).

There are several events lined up to launch the anthology. I'll be taking part in three of them:

* Friday, November 22nd at 7pm - Portico Library, Manchester: Readings from Vanessa Gebbie, Elizabeth Baines, Rowena Macdonald, Bill Broady and Felicity Skelton. Tickets available from the library or on this link.

* Wednesday, November 27th at 7pm - Blackburn Library, Blackburn: Readings from Elizabeth Baines, Carys Davies and Sarah Dobbs. Tickets available from the library or pay on the door. Details here.

* Saturday, January 18 2014 at 12pm-3pm - Waterstones, York: Signing with Elizabeth Baines, Bill Broady and 
editor A J Ashworth

and there's to be an Unthank prose event on Thursday November 7th at the Garden House, Norwich, 7.30 pm, to launch both Red Room and Unthank's Unthology 4. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Catch-up again

Here I am once more after a silence. I have to tell you that I am quite jealous of those who can go on blogging while they're engaged on a big or biggish writing project (or can they?). For three weeks recently, while I was in Wales, my days consisted of waking at 7, downing some porridge and then going back to bed with my laptop and typing like mad until about 5, and then needing so badly to move my body that I just went out walking for the remaining daylight, finally collapsing in the pub with mental and physical exhaustion - and, actually, screen fatigue. Since then I have been at my desk, but by the time I've crammed daily household tasks and work as a reader for a literary magazine around the writing, there's been no time or headspace left.

It's been a strange few weeks in other ways. As everyone in the blogosphere knows, on 18th October blogger Norman Geras died, the husband of my dear friend writer Adele Geras, and a beacon of intellectual power and reason for me as well as everyone in the blogging world, which has cast a sadness over the last ten days. I'm also still going through the after-effects of the fall I had in June: for most of the summer I had a very sore arm and was pretty much incapacitated (couldn't put my own coat on!), though it's on the mend now. And the fall so smashed my front tooth that last week I had to have proper dental surgery; not painful actually - I have a wonderful dentist - but it conked me out for a few days.

So I've been pretty much distracted, and missed altogether reporting on the October issue of a new edition of Short Circuit, the Salt book on writing short stories edited by Vanessa Gebbie, with several new chapters by additional authors (I have a chapter in it). It's a wonderful source book, and I often dip into it: nothing like getting other authors' perspectives on the process and learning from them. And I love the new jazzy cover.

I managed to get to four events at the Manchester Literature Festival. Normally I'd have blogged about them in detail, but suffice to say I enjoyed them all. The first was a completely mind-blowing and inspiring event with Ali Smith at the university (the event was also part of a conference on innovative women's writing). Smith read and was interviewed by the university's Kaye Mitchell. Smith's prose is just the bee's knees as far as I'm concerned, and then she turned out to be a charismatic yet informal speaker, and the main message I came away with was the utter seriousness of play in creativity.

The following week I attended two more inspiring events with women writers, running back-to-back at the Anthony Burgess centre: firstly, a Comma event in which short-story writers Alison Mcleod and Jane Rogers spoke about the short stories of Katherine Mansfield and Dostoevsky respectively. Alison pointed out Mansfield's innovation, and really stirred me to go and read her again, and Jane completely opened my eyes (and I think that of many of the audience) to a part of Dostoevsky's oevre of which we had previously been unaware. Following on from this was another reading and discussion with two more women short-story writers, Sarah Hall and Deborah Levy, also chaired by Kaye Mitchell. Sarah Hall read the beginning of her BBC-National-Short-Story-Award-winning story, 'Butcher's Perfume' (published in The Beautiful Indifference [Faber]), and I was again struck by its insights and the steely yet jewel-like glint of its language. Deborah Levy treated us to a haunting story from her book Black Vodka (And Other Stories), and several people I spoke to afterwards said how much they had loved her lilting prose.  Finally, on the penultimate day of the festival, a lovely event in the beautiful Halle St Peter's (a renovated church which is now a rehearsal space for the Halle): two Michaels, Schmidt and Symmons-Roberts, reading stunning poetry - Schmidt from his new book The Stories of My Life (Smith Doorstop) and Symmons-Roberts from his Forward-winning collection Drysalter (Cape).

In recent years I've come to take such readings for granted, but having been cut off from the literary buzz and coming back, I've been reminded that they were out of the question in my small-town background, and I can't help feeling it a privilege to hear writers you admire read their own work and talk about it. And clearly others feel the same: every Lit Fest event I went to was packed, and I understand it was the same for most of the festival, many events selling out right at the beginning.

Oh, I had one other really nice literary evening: a delicious dinner cooked for our book group's tenth anniversary by one of our members, with contributions from others. (Well, actually it was the eleventh, but time has slipped by so quickly we didn't realise that last year was our tenth!) We have another discussion meeting tomorrow, and I haven't even got around to writing up the discussion we had about six weeks ago now...

Monday, October 07, 2013

Being wined and dined

I'm writing this in the pause between two sections of my work-in-progress - I've been pretty much immersed in it recently, and simply haven't had the time or headspace for anything much else, which includes everything from blogging and social networking to shopping and cleaning, or even, some days, getting dressed.

I did recently have two wonderful moments of being an out-in-the-world Writer, however. It's a fair while since I've been wined and dined as a writer - the best times for that were when I was writing TV novelisations, and I have been taken out to dinner a couple of times by Radio 4 producers - but in the last three weeks it's happened twice! Firstly, I was interviewed for the local lifestyle magazine over lunch in Didsbury's Cibo Italian tapas restaurant (delicious!) and secondly, I was invited to the reading group based on Gert Vos's Oren restaurant in Caernarfon - an event that was postponed from the summer because of the fall I had in London. While I'd say that the reading group I belong to is more of a drinking reading group (!), this is an eating one, and Gert served up the most delicious chicken soup made with the unusual vegetable pictured above, tomatillo, a member of the nightshade family (to which tomatoes and spuds belong), a lovely warming casserole with pumpkin, and a fantastic chocolatey cake made with local bilberries - all while we chatted about my books and other things.

It really is a privilege, I think, to have a chance to find out people's reaction to your work, whatever they say. In fact, they paid me the loveliest compliment as far I'm concerned: one of the members asked me if I also wrote plays (which of course I do), because she felt there was something vivid about my writing which made her feel as if she was really there in the story, seeing it all through the characters' eyes and feeling all the emotions and everything, and the others agreed. She wondered if that was because I was accustomed to describing the scene, etc. I explained that actually you're not really supposed to write in a lot of the scenery in playwriting, as that's really the director's job, and you're definitely not supposed to spell out what the characters are feeling, as the dialogue should indicate that clearly to the actors. But I was thrilled that she felt like that - it's one of the things I set out to achieve when I write: to bring readers under the spell of the experience I'm trying to recreate. The group said they also thought it was unusual: most novels and stories they read keep you at a slight distance from everything. That did in fact make me wonder if what I'm trying to achieve is in fact a good thing: if in fact many readers want not to be drawn in, not to have to undergo any emotional disruption. Indeed, one of the members said that the story 'Compass and Torch' (in Balancing on the Edge of the World and on the AQA GCSE syllabus) had affected her so deeply she had had a sleepless night: it had brought back memories of her own divorce, and had made her wonder if her own daughter had experienced it in the way the little boy in the story does - and I felt the need to apologise! It's not the first time someone has said this sort of thing to me: one friend, a widow, said that after reading Too Many Magpies she wondered if her marriage had been as happy as she had thought, and I really did feel bad about that.

John, who was there with me, laughingly mentioned the fact that some city schoolchildren have thought that at the end of  'Compass and Torch' the father and son are trampled by the wild ponies. I've written about this before as an instance of our sensation-seeking culture affecting what we expect of literature, and our loss of interest in and awareness of the subtly psychological, but now two members of the group said that they too had wondered if something terrible and physical like that had happened - rather than the psychological and emotional death I'm intending. I guess I now do really have to wonder if I have in fact got quite the right balance, quite the right wording at the end of that story, and I think it really is invaluable, this kind of feedback, in making you scrutinise your own work and the way you work in future.

One interesting moment was when I mentioned that the story was actually set (in my mind) on a hillside very near Caernarfon (that was where I witnessed the incident that sparked the story). One member expressed surprise: because I'd used the word 'moor' or 'moorland' (can't remember which, and I don't have the book on me), she had assumed it was set in Yorkshire - an interesting lesson in the power of diction and the connotations of words. (Hillside being more appropriately Anglo-Welsh, I think.)

One of the members said she was particularly struck by the flash fiction 'Conundrum' (also in Balancing), which I found interesting, as I don't think anyone has picked it out before, and she said she's used it with a group in her work as an occupational psychologist.

One question they asked me was how I write, in the physical sense. In the past I have always replied to this question that I write the first draft by hand, that it has always been linked in my head with drawing, the sweep of the wrist recreating patterns in the brain. As time has gone on I've got quite fetishist about it: if I haven't had my Silver Cross fountain pen and my bottle of Lamy ink and my pile of Pukka Pads with their beautifully silky paper, I've panicked and felt I couldn't write. Yet, for the first time in my life, I am now writing something directly onto the keyboard. I'm not sure how it happened. I do remember that I started out writing it by hand, and then got annoyed - with my own handwriting (which has got worse and worse, especially when my thoughts are running away more quickly than I can write neatly) and the consequent lack of clarity when I glanced back over what I'd written - and the next thing I knew I was rattling away on the laptop! Whether this will be a permanent state of affairs, I don't know: possibly I can do it this time as the thing I'm writing is very linear and the plot is unfolding in a logical way - and maybe other, less linear things would be less easy this way. But as it is, I'm finding it much, much easier to edit as I go along - there's yesterday's work all neat and clear in Times New Roman - and I'm thrilled that for once I'll be spared my traditional several-week typing-up stage.

We discussed many things, bookish and non-bookish - including the very interesting topic of writing as therapy, which all of the members felt they had done at one time or another, and whether any writing, from a writer's point of view, is ever not therapeutic in some way (I don't believe it is).

When we'd finished eating, I read some snippets to the group, including what I thought an apt section from Too Many Magpies, about food and cooking.

It was a lovely evening. Thanks so much to the members for inviting me into their lovely warm and intelligent company, and thank you to Gert for my delicious dinner!