Monday, October 30, 2006

Artists and Power

Power. It's nothing, but it's everything.

You're a writer. You don't have a publisher/producer. You petition everybody. Everybody turns you down. You feel like the lowest of the low.

You go to a 24:7 Theatre Festival meeting (as I did tonight) . People come up to you. You say you're an actor (as I did half the time). They look at you with matey commiseration. You say you're a writer (as I did the rest of the time). They hand you their CV, they tell you (with a wild , longing look in their eyes) that they'd love you to get in touch if you ever have a play produced. You feel like Herod or something.

Sometimes I think it's hell being a writer, but, honestly, there are worse things to be...

But I'm off out of it, from tomorrow I'm neither, I'm just a holidaymaker...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Spooked by a cough

It's great to support your writer friends, isn't it? Hm...

I've had a stinking fluey cold, which is why I haven't even been writing my blog, but last night I felt better, which meant, Great: having missed Nick Royle's launch during the Literature Festival, I could go to his reading with Conrad Williams in Didsbury Library. I kind of knew Conrad, too: I'd met him once, though I couldn't remember where, London, I think, and now, it turned out when I got there, he had come to live round the corner from me.

Nick and Conrad both write stories 'on the dark side' - stories which touch on the surreal and on alternative realities - so this reading, the brainchild, I gathered, of the Manchester Libraries fiction buyer, was intended as a Halloween event. It was intended also as a test of the viability of a series of readings, though as a one-off receiving consequently minimal advertising, it was not expected to be full. Huh. It was packed! They had to bring extra chairs and people had to sit just outside the reading area...

Lucky me, I got there early, making it through the chilly wind and revelling in the fact that I was no longer sneezing and coughing, and got a seat slap-bang in the middle. Nick began, a chilling story about strange events in a lonely pub. Then Conrad: another short spooky story, followed by a longer, seemingly realistic story about a wedding. It was just as you realised that there was something ghostly happening - just when the tension racheted - when, oh no, my throat began to tickle, and the uncontrollable coughing began. Oh no, I'd have to leave, stand up right in the centre, distracting people just when the story was at its most tense, and I did, I walked out, and fled off down the library towards the foyer, whooping and spluttering in a way which the library ceiling seemed to hollow and exaggerate. And, oh no, here came a kind librarian with a cup of water - what a fuss I was causing! - and at last the coughing stopped, but only just in time for the break, and I'd missed the end of Conrad's story.

Worse - in the second half I sat near the edge in case it happened again, and it did, and those lovely librarians chased me with more water, and when that didn't work a sticky toffee, and when that didn't a Strepsil tablet.

How to ruin your friends' readings without even trying...

I don't really think I did, though: the audience seemed thrilled by the readings, and the fiction buyer said that the success of the evening meant that a series was definitely on the cards.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Rhyme or Reason

Yesterday I wrote on my other, critical blog about an article in the Observer by Jason Cowley on our current era of winners-past-the post cultural prizes. Afterwards I fell to thinking about the time I didn't actually win a glitzy prize but may as well have done, and got to experience how it felt.

The occasion was the Sony Radio awards. I had just had my first radio play, Rhyme or Reason, produced. One morning Robert Cooper, my producer, rang up and said that something wonderful had happened: my play had been nominated for the Best Production category, and Harriet Walter, who had played my protagonist, for Best Actress. I was invited to the dinner and ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel, and since Harriet was in LA and wouldn't make it, would I collect her award if she won?

Crikey. Help. But yes!!! Yes!!

So off I went on the train, worrying about what I was wearing, worrying about getting up on that stage, rehearsing the speech I might have to make, almost shaking with nerves the whole way in fact, in through the doors of the hotel, down the stairs (behind Ned Sherrin, in fact) and into that vast ballroom filled with glittering tables. I'm not sure why I didn't actually faint.

And I couldn't sit with Robert, the only person there I knew; as a nominee (nominated for Best Production for two plays) he'd been placed at a table near the front, and I was stuck right at the back with a table of unnominated BBC employees. They had no idea of course who I was, and I was so small and black in my dress and my nervousness, so removed and silent in my agony (what if Harriet won?) that they clearly decided to leave me alone. I listened a little, understood that some of them were producers whose names I knew, but most of the time I blanked out. Needless to say, I hardly ate a thing.

Then the ceremony. I followed the programme, my heart going like a goose in a bag. 'Best Production.' Robert Cooper! 'Best Actress.' My heart flapped up my throat. 'Harriet Walter. Unfortunately, Harriet can't be here this afternoon, but the writer of the play, Elizabeth Baines, is here to collect her award for her.'

Funny things happen at moments like this. Not for nothing are they done in slow motion in films. That's exactly how they seem to happen. I stood, and in the space of what must have been only seconds - I had to get across that vast floor, between all those staggered tables - I saw in minute and leisurely detail the way the people at my table turned and looked at me in astonishment, the changing of their expressions to realisation and then delight.

In his article, Jason Cowley writes of how winning a prize can change someone's life as a writer, and it's true: even though I hadn't actually won a prize - it was Robert and Harriet who had won - in that moment I went like Alice through a hole into another dimension, out of literary anonymity into recognition, out from 'struggling' into 'established' and 'successful.'

That whole vast room clapping and cheering as somehow, remembering my performance skills, I got quickly across it. Jane Asher kissing me (she was presenting the prizes), then down off the stage to a barrage of flash bulbs. And back to the table and everyone there waiting to hug and kiss me. 'Congratulations!' they kept saying. 'But it's not me who's won!' I said. 'Rubbish!' said the woman with the long hair who had turned out to be the producer Enyd Williams. 'No one gets nominated for a play that isn't great!' 'It's your win too,' they kept telling me. 'Make sure you put it on your CV!'

And then they called me to go with them in their taxi for a celebration at the BBC.

And afterwards? Well, as a radio writer I was made. One unfortunate result was that Robert - Sony-award-winning radio producer - quickly moved off to TV and Dublin, but the prize made it easy for me to get another radio producer. 'Anything you write, I'll produce it!' said Sue Hogg, who did indeed produce my next play. (Though there came a time of course when BBC Radio embraced Marketing, and no producer could say such a thing.)

But you can't help thinking how much luck is involved. What if that play hadn't fallen into Robert's hands? I had entered it in a Radio Times competition, and it hadn't won that - wasn't even a runner-up - and it could have fallen into oblivion if someone running the competition hadn't made the decision to pass it to Robert. I could have taken it as a message that I couldn't do radio plays and abandoned the whole idea... What if Robert had been less ambitious, and hadn't bothered getting a well-known and respected actress to play the part (bound to get more serious attention then)? What if he'd been less good at marketing and hadn't created a series of linked plays of which my play was one (an innovation at the time, that got a lot of attention)? What if, what if... As various people have commented, not least Grumpy Old Bookman, people take prizes as serious measures, but there's much about them that's random and not a lot of rhyme or reason.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Bitches and Chicks

Manchester Bitch-Lit event last night and Waterstone's packed out for it. This time I wasn't performing, but could sit back and enjoy: delicious performances from Rosie Lugosi, Chris Scholes and Sherry Ashworth.

The tour is over for me now, though there will yet be events in Newcastle, Leeds, York and London. It's been interesting to compare the different events and the different audiences and audience discussions. The 'Bitch-Lit' idea really seems to have struck a chord: events have sold out, with people placed on reserve lists or turned away. (If you still want to go but find it sold out, then reserve a place, because at Manchester some people who had booked failed to turn up - though you might need to turn up on the off-chance.)

In the book and at the readings editors Mary Sharratt and Maya Chowdhry have pointed out that generally in literature female protagonists are allowed to be less trangressive than male ones, or if they are transgressive they must be punished and/or realise the error of their ways. A condition for submissions to this book was that protagonists must not be punished for their behaviour, but must triumph in their transgression. The idea was to counter the censorship on women writers - that sense that you'd better make sure that, in some way at least, your female protagonist can be seen in a good light. The female heroes would be autonomous, answerable to no one, and thus an antidote to Chick-Lit, where your heroine is usually pathetically desperate to get her man (well, that's what they say - I've never read any Chick-Lit myself).

At Sheffield, and especially at Ilkley, you could see that the audiences, mainly female - there were only three men at Sheffield - were really taken by this. 'We're celebrating female badness!' said Mary at Ilkley, and many in the audience grinned and nodded. I have to say that I didn't feel entirely comfortable with this sentiment, though of course it was not completely serious, rather a provocation. I wouldn't exactly celebrate or condone my protagonist's behaviour, I'm simply inviting the reader to understand the extremes of behaviour to which her situation has driven her. At another point (in the book's introduction) Maya says that the women characters in the book are not victims 'lashing out in self-defence'. 'I don't intend to be a victim,' my protagonist says at one point, but it depends what you mean by a victim, and you could say that her act of revenge makes her one, a slave to her vengeful emotions, and as desperate, in a different way, as any Chick-Lit heroine, to get her man. As Suzanne Elvidge, another reader at Sheffield, said to me in the bar afterwards, several of our protagonists are indeed, in this sense, victims lashing out.

As I said, though, in the Q & A at Ilkley, the real difference with this book is that it blows a breath of fresh air over the taboo subject of female badness, and does this largely by reclaiming the word Bitch. As I said then, if we can't say a word then we can't begin to discuss the issues around it, but once you reclaim the word you can break the taboo, and begin to discuss the concept of female badness more rationally.

Most of us were agreed that there has been a real taboo. At Sheffield we were asked if we felt liberated by the book into censoring ourselves less when we write, and even Sophie Hannah said that she did. Sophie is one of the most straight-speaking and independent-minded women I know, and one of the most balloon-pricking of satirical writers, yet she said that it has made her more determined to resist editors' pleas to 'make her protagonists nicer' (and thus, in Sophie's opinion, less lifelike).

Interestingly, however, when I asked Rosie the same question in the Q & A last night, she said that she had been developing in that direction anyway in her writing, and Sherry said that she had never felt censored, even though she writes books for teenagers, an area in which language is inevitably strongly policed by editors. I suppose, however, it depends how far you are already censoring yourself, and Sherry did indeed admit that although she had never been troubled by the b-word, she still found herself shocked by the use of what she called the c-word, a fact which many of the Manchester audience may have found shocking in itself.

It was a different kind of audience last night in Manchester, much more mixed in age and gender. A nineteen-year-old student in a red bakerboy hat said that she felt we were perhaps making too much of it all, and it was the same on the English degree course she had just started, as soon as you get to a woman writer people start on about the feminism thing, it really didn't mean a lot to people of her age and it irritated her, and furthermore she read Chick-Lit and enjoyed it and didn't see anything wrong in it. She clearly felt that there wasn't an issue, as the editors were making out.

The fact remains, however, that when Mary went on Women's Hour to talk about the book, Jenny Murray avoided using that word, as did many of the writers who rang up to inquire about submitting...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Bollards, fences and boxes

When you're doing a reading, always turn up early.

Yeah, right.

Bitch-Lit reading in Sheffield yesterday evening. 7.30 start, plan to get there an hour beforehand to change into costume and check out the venue, so leave at five for the one-and-a-half hour drive. Oh-oh. Traffic blocked at Glossop. At 6.30, when I'm meant to be there, we're still scooping round those scary bends between darkening misty hills, not a city light in sight. 6.40, we hit the outskirts, zoom downwards to the centre only to find what no one has warned us about: the roads around it are completely dug up, it's all bollards and diversions, hardly any lights or signs, and no one around - why not? - it's like the surface of the moon, the dark side. We're going round in circles, and now we seem to be driving away from the centre again... One lone man walking. I wind down the window. 'We're looking for the station!' He scratches his head, not sure how we'd get there with all these altered directions... Another: with all these altered directions, he's not even sure any more in which direction it actually is. It's seven o' clock now. John's driving, so I rummage in my bag, thinking I should change in the car, but then find I don't have the room. Two young girls, about twelve and ten. 'Know where the station is?' 'Oh yes! Well... erm... MUM!' they scream up to a window above the shops. The window opens. 'Mum, where's the station?' The woman starts yelling down instructions we can't hear.

It's 7.10 when we get to the back of the station which we know is opposite the venue, the Showroom Cinema. 'Stop! I'll run from here!' I grab my bags and costume and jump from the car, my skirt dropping from the hanger onto the pot-holed ground. Snatch it up, run through the dark round the side of the station car park, stumbling over potholes, only to come to a high workman's fence and be diverted a very long way round. It's 7.15, when I finally reach the steps of the Cinema Showroom. I fling myself, breathless, onto the box-office desk. 'To the stairs and then left,' I am told. I race down the stairs. There's no left turn... I race back up. 'Where's showroom 5?' I call to an usher. Oh, he meant past the stairs and turn left!

Everyone else is ready and waiting. So where can I change? Not in an office as they'd vaguely suggested we might, but in the loo... Great. Race to the loo. Can't paint my bitch lips on, must have dropped my makeup bag when I rummaged in the car...

I emerge with my arms full of bags, coat, clothes and a coathanger to find the audience already being seated. Where can I put them? Under that table there, I'm told, which I must squash past the legs of the audience to get to. So much for making an impact as your character...

And the setup, which I'd come too late to have a say in? A lectern with a mic we didn't really need, and which would hide our carefully planned costumes. And each side of it and a little behind it, two chairs for the readers, which meant that in the long room where the seating was arranged horizontally, each pair of readers was hidden from half of the audience. And as for the Q & A session: well, I tell you, it's amazing the rapport we achieved with our sell-out audience from behind a big blue box!

Here Maya Chowdhry and I are trying to converse around the lectern with the other two readers:

And here we are at last released from the box [From left to right: me in my wig and dressed as my avenging wife character, Sophie Hannah as herself (because, as she told the audience, she is her character), Suzanne Elvidge as her avenging cook, and Maya Chowdhry as a fairy punk]

Sunday, October 15, 2006

From the sublime to the wicked

Yesterday I went to the talk by Murat Belge in St Ann's Church - an event I found quite mind-blowing, and which I've written about on my other blog where I try to tackle the more serious matters.

Afterwards I wandered a bit gloomily, musing how in Britain we just don't value serious literature any more, when we damn well ought to: after all, the issues Belge was talking about, and in the novels he publishes by Nobel-Prize winning Orhan Pamuk, are even now being played out in Britain, not least in the current comments by British politicians about the veil.

And then I went into Waterstone's and found something to cheer me right up: there in the anthology section was Bitch-Lit, our light-hearted anthology with nevertheless a pretty serious point, turned out in all its bright-pink glory. Not only that, someone was reaching up to look at a copy! I tip-toed away, thinking, Good Old Waterstones, and Three Cheers for our lovely publisher Cathy Bolton at Commonword!!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Salt added

Yesterday afternoon I'm waiting to cross the road to get to the fish shop and over the other side, waiting to cross in the opposite direction, is Steve Waling, poet and editor of poetry magazine Brando's Hat. He waits for me, looking somehow calm, beatific yet excited... What's cooking, I wonder? When I get there he gives me this exciting news: he has a poetry collection coming from Salt. No wonder he looks like the cat that got the salmon! There is nothing so wonderful, so heart-warming as the joy of a writer who, after years of working away, has achieved success (just look at Marie Phillips' blog recently)! And this small press, Salt, seems to have come from nowhere to become a hugely respected force in publishing in a very short time. Another reason for writers not to give up in the face of the more commercial trends in publishing...

Friday, October 13, 2006

One reason to turn to drink

Reading group last night, and another useful illustration for the writer of how differently people read and the different criteria they apply. 'Brilliant,' said Mark about our choice for discussion, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. 'Really clever marriage between journalistic and novelistic forms. The objectivity means there's a lack of sensationalism, prurience or moralising, yet it's a compulsive read, you just can't put it down.' Others differed. 'Afraid I struggled with it,' said Doug. Doug and others felt that the marriage didn't work, and that the book did in fact at times induce a prurient reaction on the reader.

See? You hone your prose, you think carefully about your structure and its effect on the reader, and then a load of crisp-chewing, wine-guzzling punters casually bring to your book their own preconceptions and taste and experience...

Ah well.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Manchester Literature Festival

The Manchester Literature Festival, conceived by outgoing director Chris Gribble and built on the foundations of the Manchester Poetry Festival, kicks off on Thursday, and it looks pretty exciting. I'll be sorry to miss William Boyd that day, as I'm already committed to my reading group, but I'm looking forward to the Amnesty International event on Freedom of Expression in St Ann's Church on Saturday afternoon and to Sebastian Barry at the University of Manchester at six on Monday. Sometimes as a writer you JUST DON'T GET OUT, but I've got an embarrassment of choices later on Monday evening: free tickets to a rarely-performed Tennessee Williams play at the Library Theatre, cult artist and musician Ed Barton reading his poetry at Matt and Phred's, or the Manchester Blog Awards at Urbis. How on earth can I choose? Maybe I'll get a migraine trying...

I'm extremely sorry to be missing the launch of novelist Nick Royle's first short story collection at Matt and Phred's on Tuesday, not least because we published him in metropolitan, but that night I'll be doing the Sheffield Bitch-Lit event. Apparently, to our great delight, the Manchester Bitch-Lit event at Waterstone's on Thursday has long been booked out. Sharon Olds at Manchester Museum on Wednesday is a must-see, I'd say, as well as the 'Celebrating Burgess' event at the Whitworth Gallery on Friday, and the exciting festival-within-a-festival of Palestinian literature and the Decapolis European short story events.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A schizoid moment

What do you do when your relatives decide to come to one of your readings? Bite the bullet, I guess: thank the lord they support you in your mad life's endeavour and hold no grudges about the way you've unfairly portrayed them, decide not to care about the clash between your carefully honed writer's persona and the real embarrassing you they could let slip in flash, and when the night comes shut your mind to the fact that they know precisely which bits of the piece you're reading are autobiographical, and can transmit this to the rest of the audience with their knowing, readier laughs.

My mum rings me: 'We're coming to the Sheffield Bitch-Lit reading.' Eek. 'But we've got this problem. We tried to book, but they told us because we're relatives we'd get complimentary tickets.'

They told them they were my relatives? (Like proud parents or something?!!)

'And they said you'd know all about it and would sort it out.'

Ohmigod. I know nothing. I want to know nothing... 'OK.'

I ring the festival box office, apologetic, foolish. 'Oh, that's fine!' they tell me. 'Yes, your mother and your sister: we've already put two comps aside!'

I feel just like when I was in the school play...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

There's never not a hitch...

Forget your posh pens or your slick laptops: a writer's best equipment is a damned good sense of humour.

Yesterday we kicked off the Bitch-Lit tour. Drive from Manchester to Ilkley, leave in plenty of time, but the traffic is dire, backed up for miles, and I know others are cutting it finer. Will they make it? Will the folk of Ilkley miss out on the revelation of a row of bitches bitching? And what about the parking? Lucky for me, there's a space right outside the Ilkley Playhouse where we're performing. Grab costume and bags, rush in to find Mary Sharrat our editor there already, and I no longer need my sense of humour: lovely ladies ply us with cups of tea and a bottle of wine (before a performance?) and lead us up to a plush green-room with glorious mirrors and a big plate of fruit and enough hairspray, as Mary said, for Margaret Thatcher if she lived another forty years.

We're already changed when the others arrive in a breathless dash. 'Hi Mary,' they cry and fling their arms around her, but they don't speak to me, just glance at me uneasily. 'You bitches,' I say, and at last they see it's me beneath my wig and in my vamp's jacket and killer heels...

But there's no time for laughing, and in a very short while a sound engineeer who looks all of sixteen has excessively politely spoilt the line of our costumes by sticking mics up our jackets, and we're being led downstairs to the stage. The show begins, it's going well, and Cath Staincliffe is two minutes into her reading, the first. The door opens at the back and a tiny elderly woman in a sharp grey trouser suit bursts in. The usher jumps up to direct her to a seat near the back, but she booms that she has to sit at the front 'because I'm deaf', and, still booming over Cath, is led all the way to the front row.

Hitch over, the show seems to go well. The audience is a gift, laughing at all the right moments and very appreciative in the Q & A session afterwards. We're walking out to the foyer for the signing when I realise the hard-of-hearing lady is right in front of me. She turns and snaps at me: 'You want to invest in a microphone.' 'We had microphones, actually,' I tell her kindly and sympathetically, and then realise I might not be speaking up enough. She heard all right, though: 'Well, they didn't work.' She turns, scowling, to Mary who chaired the event: 'I didn't hear a thing and I'm demanding my money back.'

Hm. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, however, and we sold a fair few books, the main point of the exercise, after all....

Four bitches, from left to right: Mary Sharratt, me in my wig, Char March and Cath Staincliffe