Thursday, March 29, 2007

If image is everything....

Image is all for writers now, apparently, so what the heck are these pics doing popping up when I do as Debi Alper has just done and type my name into Google Images?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

MMU reading: Linda Chase, Jackie Roy and Jeffrey Wainwright

A fair-sized crowd on Thursday for the final event in the MMU Writing School series of readings, in which three of the school's own lecturers presented their work. Poet Linda Chase gave one of her sparky performances with which Manchester audiences have become familiar, novelist Jackie Roy read from her witty and thought-provoking novel The Fat Lady Sings, and finally poet Jeffrey Wainwright stated that although he had always up till now avoided writing autobiographical poetry, he had lately surprised himself by writing it, and proceeded to read these new poems, surprising the audience in turn and indeed moving us.

There was a celebratory atmosphere (and not just because there was wine): there was a justified feeling that this series had been a success, and that the Writing School is flourishing. During the break someone reminded me that there had been a parallel series of readings at the other university. I had still not seen them advertised anywhere, and had therefore forgotten about them, and it was perhaps not surprising then that, as she said, they weren't very well attended.

And then over to Kro2 bar with Mark from our reading group (who was also there and is an MMU student) and others. All I can say is that it's a very good job I was not on any writing deadline next day!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Reading at MMU: Alice Oswald

Omigod, last night I committed what I consider to be one of the worst literary sins: I walked in late - ALMOST HALF AN HOUR LATE! - to a poetry reading. So far I have been only to the Thursday readings at MMU, which always begin at 6.30, and I had not really registered that the Tuesday readings were slightly different not only in that, although the public is invited, they are part of the MA course, but in that they begin half an hour earlier.

Think of the poor writer - last night poet Alice Oswald. Any writer worth their salt takes an effort with their performance and builds an atmosphere. By the end of half an hour the atmosphere should be spellbinding, which it clearly was. And guess what, the door to the side of her comes open, the atmosphere cracks, all heads turn to the people in the doorway, and they become the flippin stars of the show instead! And they are so embarrassed they apologise, and thus take up even more attention, and the poet has to excuse them graciously and ask them to sit down - she is forced to include them in her own show! Oh, cringe. And then they sit, and they can't take off their leather jackets because the squeaky noise of doing so would continue to draw attention, so for the rest of the reading, every single time they shift their leather jackets squeak anyway.

When Simon Armitage read recently he dealt with such a situation with aplomb. Reading from his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he had just got to the point where the giant Knight enters, when a rather large man appeared in the same doorway, and Armitage responded by acknowledging him ironically, brilliantly and wittily incorporating the incident into his reading. But you're not always so lucky with the circumstances. Armitage was reading from what he acknowledged as a product of an oral tradition, and a shared folk tale, whereas Alice Oswald's poetry (although also drawing from folk traditions) is more internal. How much worse it would have been therefore if John and I had not entered fortuitously between poems, but slap-bang in the middle of one...

We still managed to hear a good chunk of her reading, however, including the final part of her magnificent book-length poem, Dart, and sections of a new long poem, a 'biography of the moon'.
Oswald was open and thoughtful in the Q & A afterwards, and I must say there were some pretty intelligent questions from the MA audience, focusing on Oswald's interest in the 'personhood' of things and in the fluid nature of people and the natural world.

Thursday is the final reading of the series, with poets Jackie Roy, Linda Chase and Jeffrey Wainwright - and this one's at 6.30!

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Hat Check Boy launch

Waterstones last night for the Commonword launch of Mike Duff's second novel, The Hat Check Boy, and a very jolly night it was too. Mike's first novel, the pacy vernacular tale of a contemporary yet Dickensian 'hero' making his roguish way through Manchester, sold out and was greeted with acclaim by newspapers and academics alike. Last night a huge crowd from Mike's home town of Moston gathered to hear an extract from his equally lively second book, and the questions (mostly rhetorical) and tongue-in-cheek comments began almost before he had finished reading:

Man in audience: When are you publishing a third book?
Mike: When are you finishing my bathroom?
Man on front row rather worse for drink: Mike, do you still love me?
Mike: Yes, but not in that way.
(Mike, tipsy man and audience fall about laughing)

Those of us who had undertaken to take the photos were just crap: the camera of ex-Commonword publisher Cathy Bolton ran out of battery, and the flash on mine stopped working, and all it produced was this blurred drunken image:

Friday, March 09, 2007

MMU reading: Livi Michael

Another MMU reading last night, this time from prize-winning novelist and children's writer Livi Michael. Livi is now teaching in the Writing School there, and this was her introduction reading. Appropriate then that she talked about her whole career as a writer, first of adult novels (including Under a Thin Moon and All the Dark Air), then books for younger children, and most recently teenage fiction (The Whispering Road and The Angel Stone). Disarmingly informal and amusing, she told us about the hows and whys of this progression and her various personal influences, and the different experiences of publishing 'literary fiction' and more commercially-directed children's fiction.

I have long been an admirer of Livi's work (and am pleased to say we published one of her stories in Metropolitan). She makes ordinary lives extraordinary, and the writing is spare and direct yet tense with beautifully controlled undercurrents. I was amazed and admiring to find that her children's books retain this tone - a rare feat in a genre where patronisation is all too common.

Next Thursday (15th) novelist Martyn Bedford reads, and the following week finishes off this year's readings with poet Alice Oswald (20th) and on the 22nd a triple bill of Jackie Roy, Linda Chase and Jeffrey Wainwright.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Letting go

A Guardian profile of playwright Martin Crimp continues the theme of ownership of one's work once it has gone out into the public domain:
...this is the other great paradox of his life. No matter how much he obsesses over every word, ultimately his work must be handed over to a production team. No wonder he has come to think of his plays as a brood of children. A play, he says, "contains the genetic material of the writer, but that doesn't mean you are entitled to control it. The plays depart - they go out and find their own way. You might find they do very strange things, but you have to learn to let go".

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Reading group: Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury

Reading group again and Jenny's choice: Doctor Criminale by Malcolm Bradbury, the story of the search by young journalist Francis Jay for a famous but elusive 'Mittel European' philosopher, firstly for a proposed TV programme and later to satisfy his own fascination.

Jenny said she had chosen this novel, set in the late eighties-early nineties, because she taught in a university at that time and witnessed for herself the conference bonanzas described in the book, and the worship of starry academics - plus the fact that she had also taught in Hungary for some of that time. She found the book very true in its merciless satire of these matters as well of British television and Thatcherite Britain and the East Europeans' emulation of the last. She had therefore enjoyed the read, but found that in spite of all the chasing about there wasn't much of a story since at the end we never actually find out the truth about Doctor Criminale. I said that, while the book makes a great deal of fun of Postmodernism, isn't that a postmodern joke of the book? And that the other joke is that while Postmodernism is considered a flowering of Western intellectual thought, it is the Eastern Europeans, supposedly innocent of it intellectually, who are its true practitioners in that through political necessity their politics and indeed identity are fluid in a way the Western characters don't understand.

At this point we had a discussion about what Postmodernism was, and whether or not you could define it and the notion that if you could it wasn't Postmodernism anyway, after which nearly everything that was said was followed by a joke about Postmodernism. Everyone (apart from John who couldn't read beyond page 50) agreed that the book was brilliantly written - Bradbury's choice of diction on every occasion apt and urbanely sly - and for much of the time extremely funny and always clever. However, everyone also agreed that it was basically a one-trick book, and that it could have been much shorter, and that the characters never amounted to much more than caricatures, which though some pointed out was a postmodernist point, left the book soulless.

I also said, to the agreement of others, that I found the tone uneven, with situations presented as hilarious larks only to turn dark in the light of later events in a way which made the earlier tone, in retrospect, inappropriate - after which, the book would tip into farce again.

Hans said: so what do we think, then, that Bradbury was for or against Postmodernism? and Jenny said, 'Above it all', at which Trevor (I think) said that he thought that was disgusting, for an author to be above it all. I said that satires are always to some extent above it all, but I did agree that they don't necessarily have to lack soul. Clare said, Well, actually, Malcolm Bradbury was a show-off with all that history and theory, and everyone nodded.

And having thus despatched a giant of modern literature, we broke into several conversations, about every other topic under the sun, which seems to be our (somewhat postmodern?) habit of late, and Jenny, Clare and I discussed the girls' weekend away in Paris we have planned.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who is the judge?

In my last post I described the experience of publishing The Birth Machine with changes imposed by the publisher which ran strongly counter to my authorial/aesthetic intentions, and the way I then felt about the published work. In today's Guardian, Mark Ravenhill discusses similar issues, focusing this time on a writer's own 'mistakes' which he or she sees only after a work has gone out into the public domain. I touched on the fact that academics, in writing about the first edition of The Birth Machine, had written about a work which in fact I did not want to own, and Ravenhill develops an implication of this:
Whether a reader likes the play or not, it will look to them like an authoritative stream of text, a definitive statement. What I see is great black holes of missed opportunities. This is not false modesty. This is quite honestly what it feels like to open a book with my name on the cover. I'm amazed that academics haven't grasped this. Whenever an academic talks to me about my work, there's still an assumption that here is a definitive, confident text that is at my bidding.

statement that writers can always ever after see improvements they could have made to their work is very true. He argues, however, that writers should never let this lead them to suppress their work (as Deep Purple have, with Live at the Birmingham NEC 1993):
Artists aren't always the best judges as to which of their works should make it into the public domain. If his family had followed his instructions, all of Kafka's manuscripts would have been burnt and we would have lost some of the 20th century's most important literature.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Whose novel is it?

Notwithstanding The Death of the Author, first comes Zadie Smith arguing that a work of literature is above all the expression of an author's personality, and now here's Milan Kundera advising that an author's work is his own property to destroy, suppress or alter as he pleases, in a new book due from Fabers and extracted in today's Guardian Review.

Maybe I should have had Milan Kundera with me when my novel The Birth Machine was first published.

Like much of my work, The Birth Machine is about knowledge and power, about the different kinds of knowledge, empirical and intuitive, the knowledge of science and the knowledge of myths and dreams, and the question of where, between them all, the truth, and the power, lie. Well, this is what it's about as far as I'm concerned. It's also, for me, a novel about viewpoint, about objectivity and subjectivity, and in this, to me, the structure is all-important: I began with an objective, scientific (medical) viewpoint and slowly circled inwards to the subjective viewpoint of the 'object' patient, and through into memory and even further into dream.

But, after we'd done the deal, after the publisher had said how much she absolutely loved my novel, she told me: 'We really need you to change the beginning. We need to begin with the viewpoint of the woman patient in order to appeal to our market, ie women, and allow them to identify.'

Well, this was a feminist publisher, and I wasn't so naive that I hadn't realised that she might see my book more narrowly in terms of male power and the condition of women (or indeed that the context of a feminist publishing house might push it towards this narrower interpretation), but I was pretty shocked by this indication that the book would only be marketed to women, and deeply shocked that my structural stratagems must be discarded and with them any chance of my thematic intentions being realised. (And they must: the publisher did not feel she could go ahead unless I made the change.)

Well, I made the change. I was a new, scared writer after all, and my agent had already tried to sell the book to mainstream publishers, but the very thing which had attracted The Women's Press, the central situation of a high-tech birth, had put those other publishers off, and, insecure as I was, I didn't think anyone else would publish it. Apart from which, The Women's Press had already threatened not to go ahead with the book as I'd turned out in real life to be Not a Good Feminist in the eyes of their 'market' (which was thus diminishing before my eyes to 'Angry Feminists in the Know'). I was already on a last warning, and to get this book published, a satire about a woman making the mistake of being a Good Girl according to others' rules, I had to be a good girl according my feminist publishers' rules. And the novel was made more 'accessible', 'identifiable-with' - in post-structuralist terms less writerly and more readerly - and the political/aesthetic challenge I had intended was dissipated.

Aesthetically I felt ruined, and in some ways I didn't even want to own the novel as it was published. For as Kundera says in his new book: the beauty of a novel is inseparable from its architecture; I say "beauty" because the composition is not merely a technical skill; it carries within it an author's originality of style. Whenever I thought about 'The Birth Machine' it was the original version I thought about, and whenever I read from the book to audiences, I always read the original first chapter which had been relegated to later in the published version. So when the book went out of print and the rights reverted to me, I published a revised edition, subtitled 'The Author's Cut', with the original structure reinstated.

But by then, to many people, including academics who had written about it, 'The Birth Machine' was indeed the first published version - and many had written to me to tell me how much it had meant to them. What did this mean? In the Author's Note to the revised edition I say this:
Of course in the end it's not for me, as the writer, to say which version is better, or whether either version fulfils completely the authorial/editorial intention behind its creation, and whether indeed it matters if it doesn't - all this has to be up to readers.

But I think I was still running scared. After all, I had grabbed the first chance to reinstate the original version. And what do I think now? Well, that 'The Author's Cut' is the real version.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Being the Queen

Yesterday in the Guardian Kira Cochrane rued the fact that, since playing The Queen in the film of that name, Helen Mirren has spoilt her previous anti-monarchist credentials by paying schmaltzy obeisance to her Majesty in her award acceptance speeches.

Well, it is a bit much, I agree, but the clue to this odd behaviour is in the final quote Cochrane (sardonically) offers from Mirren: 'Having played an essence of the Queen I've lost that chip on my shoulder.' The point is that as an actor you simply can't play any character - however suspect - without identifying with them. To play even the coldest and most evil character you have to find the humanity within them, the thing which makes them 'tick', even if you have to make it up and apply it artificially. It is something of this that is allowed for when directors tell writers that actors mustn't be told about their characters, but must 'find it for themselves'.

In this respect comedy is easier, because you retain a certain ironic distance from the character (and part of the comedy for the audience, whether or not they are conscious of it, is quite often this very gap between character and actor). However, you still have to find a very personal 'connection' with the character, and this necessity for a double-act is what in other ways makes comedy harder. In a recent comedy I played a very stupid woman, the kind of woman I would die rather than identify with in real life, but I could never have done it, never have got the body language, the tone of voice, the rapport with my opposite, if I hadn't crossed that barrier.

There was one time, though, when it took a lot of crossing for an actor in one of my radio plays. The play was not exactly a comedy, but was, like many of my radio plays, pretty ironic, and the main character, played by this actor, was a spectacularly self-deluding woman and a bad mother. In any radio production the writer, director and crew sit in a sound-proofed booth and the director speaks to the actors in the studio through a mic which can be switched on for the purpose. One afternoon the actor, clearly not knowing the mic was switched on, gave a great sigh which filled our booth, followed by her heavy moan to her fellow actor: 'God, I hate this woman!'

Which made me realise why she 'd been so cool: she'd already let it slip that she thought the character was me.

Tricky, all these elisions between fact and fiction, actor and character, reality and fantasy. If you're sensible you cross back again at the edge of the stage or at the studio door. I guess a particular problem for Helen Mirren, though, is that she wasn't just playing a character, but a real, living woman.