Monday, May 28, 2007

Meet the author - for real

I've just been to the Hay Festival, which I've posted about on my other blog, and which has now become so huge, with remote stages and audiences of up to 800 or so, that there's not really much chance to get to talk to authors. On Saturday morning we went to a discussion with novelists Gail Jones and Hisham Matar, led by Meet the Author website David Freeman, but stuck in a darkened 'auditorium' it didn't much feel like meeting them, and only two or so audience questions were allowed.

But a Fringe Festival has started up in compensation in the town (the official festival is now on a site three-quarters of a mile out), and, wandering through the streets, John and I came upon a reading about to begin in the tiny Hay Poetry Bookshop, by the celebrated Irish poet Tony Curtis. We had met Tony once before, at the South Tipperary Festival at Clonmel - not that he remembered, but that didn't stop him with true Irish lying charm referring to the occasion constantly throughout the reading, and suggesting afterwards that we three pose for a photo for old times' sake (Tony's on the right).

He was reading from his fantastic new book, The Well in the Rain (Arc). You know what's embarrassing when you're in such close proximity to the author and the other crammed listeners? It's OK when the poet makes you laugh (as of course he did), but what what about all the times he made me cry?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How to stay sane while producing a play

This morning I slept until 8.30. I am so exhausted! Why do I always forget how tiring, how time-consuming, how nerve-wracking and damn emotionally involving it is producing a play?

On Sunday Mary-Ann and I met in a pub to discuss things - Mary-Ann sweeping in all dressed in sparkly ear-rings and celebratory pinks and purples - and got too excited and ended up drinking too much.

'I'm not drinking any more,' I told her on Tuesday as I arrived at Cornerhouse to talk to potential directors. 'I'm staying clear-headed for this project.' She was there already, waiting for me in more sober but nevertheless glamorous purples and black. Me: I was all black and trousered, in a shirt and carrying my biggest brief case, but in spite of it all, feeling like a fraud. 'Oh, it's odd doing this,' Mary-Ann said, echoing my feelings. 'I'm so used to being on the other side of the table!'

The day wore on. With each interview we had coffee, between two of them we had lunch, and then we had coffee again. By 4.30 we were done, coffeed-out, our makeup faded, our clothes crumpled, papers out of order, and totally gob-smacked by the talent and commitment we had encountered. And exhausted. 'Oh, god,' said Mary-Ann, rising with her purse in her hand. 'Let's have a glass of wine!'

And that was that all over again.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

All in the image

OK, so I kind of glossed over my hair-raising experience of getting an image for The Processing Room. Well, I'd decided what image I wanted - Dave Slack had warned us that we needed to be thinking about it - but I still had a mad panicked rush to achieve it in the end. Last weekend I went to London, and got back late on Monday to a packet from 24:7 which must have arrived on the Saturday, and the news that we had one week to submit our festival image! This meant that in fact I had 4 days to get the photo taken and - without training - successfully manipulate it on the computer before getting it to them in time! And I was due out all day Tuesday, and Mary-Ann was coming over Wednesday to help me go through actors' and directors' CVs, and meanwhile the correspondence from both was still coming through and had to be dealt with.

Tuesday night. John and I have waited for dark, and then there I am dressed up in some semblance of a nurse's uniform (and freezing bloody cold, since the boiler's bust and the weather's like February), trailing round the house with John behind me holding a camera, trying to find a doorway he can stand far enough back from to get enough black space around it. We choose his study, which is at the end of the landing. We want a silhouette, so we've set up a light behind me.

'Further back, John.'

He almost steps back in the dark, before realising the stairwell is right behind him.

I look at his efforts. He doesn't know what's in my head, of course, and I haven't managed to explain, so we have to start again. By the time we finish, he's very fed up and I'm frozen to the door frame.

Next day, with Mary-Ann, I take a look at them properly. They're hopeless. Too dark - there wasn't enough light behind me after all - and all John's study junk behind me is far too distracting, and most unethereal... We'll have to wait for dark once more and clear the room and adjust the lighting and do it all over again...

Thursday I'm at my computer working on the chosen shot. It's OK, I can do it, but I'm so slow, it's taking all day, and there's so little time left... And then Ben, my website designer and saviour, comes through on Messenger and takes over, whisking different colour versions of the image back to me over and over, and helps me to choose.

And guess, what, I did it: emailed the image off a day early and had a hard copy printed just in time! I'd have had a celebratory glass of wine if I hadn't already ended up with a migraine...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Production takes it out of you

The last few days have been crammed with activity - no time for blogging - around the 24:7 production of The Processing Room. I've been working on the image, which meant a photoshoot, and then my laboured and untutored efforts on Photoshop, and finally an SOS email to artist Ben White, who designed my website, and who now shamed me by flashing up double-quick various colour versions for me to choose from. In the end we chose ethereal blue - I'm calling the play 'an unearthly comedy' - in spite of my life-long belief that only red or yellow leaflets get picked up. (When we come to design the leaflet, we'll probably add some touches of red.)

And yesterday Mary-Ann Coburn, who is taking one of the parts, came over, and we studied the huge pile of actors' CVs I've been sent, and negotiated by email with interested directors. After which we were ravenous and stuffed ourselves with salad and smoked mackerel and cheese and cake!

Call this a writing career?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Proof copy

A lovely parcel through the post - a proof copy of Adele Geras's new novel, A Hidden Life, to be published in August.

Proofs are SO exciting! Limited in number, the cover not yet finalized, the text not yet finally corrected - they come with such an exciting sense of the process of publishing, and of privilege at being included!

The author of numerous acclaimed children's books, Adele has already published three adult novels - luscious sagas in which characters are made to confront the secrets of the past. A Hidden Life, her fourth, looks to be no exception: the story of a family gathered to discover explosive secrets at a funeral.

And there's the proof copy, sitting enticingly beside my bed, waiting for me to begin!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Cover blank

No cover for my short-story collection yet, though Jen at Salt, and I and John, and (as I said in my last post) our reading group, are all banging our heads for one. I used to do a lot of the illustrative photography for our short-story mag Metropolitan (under my other name Helen Johnson) and always had to make quick artistic decisions, so I was fairly confident when Jen asked me at the start if I had any ideas for the cover. The title is a spin on a phrase running through one story: Balancing on the Edge of the World, and the image which came to me was an androgynous figure poised on a curved surface, maybe a hill. However, Jen says that when they tried it out it looked like the cover for a management/spiritual/religious type textbook!!

'Ditch the figure' said Trevor in the reading group, and the general consensus there was that I should go for something abstract. I know that some people, writers in particular, prefer abstract covers because they don't artificially tie books down, but I have a feeling that browsers want, and are more attracted by, some concrete idea of the human situations behind that cover. And it's so crucial to get it right: although Doug in our reading group insists that he is immune to book covers, knowing that they can mislead (and pithily says that he's a title man himself), I think he's pretty unusual...

Oh well, back to the drawing board...

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Reading group: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Everyone round to ours on Wednesday for the reading group to discuss A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese).

None of us had read Murakami before, and during the week beforehand John and I had bumped into Doug and Ann separately, and each had told us that they were having difficulty getting going with the book. They would read a few pages, fail to get gripped and put it down, and then when they picked it up again find they couldn't remember it and had to start all over again. John and I told them that we were having precisely the same experience.

Ann said, 'I don't know where it's going', and I said, 'I don't know where it's coming from.' We felt we couldn't grasp the tenor of the opening chapters in which an unnamed thirty-year-old narrator attends the funeral of an ex-girlfriend and reminisces about their meeting and relationship before going back to his flat to find his ex-wife briefly returned to collect her things. While the stunning prose made all of this seem significant, there was also a sense of structural inconsequentiality about it, and indeed the story seems only to get going the next morning after the ex-wife has left and the vacationing narrator is called to his office to discover that he has been summoned by a mysterious stranger to engage on a 'wild sheep chase'.

Before this point, however, a surreal and absurdist element had entered the narration, which should have warned us that the conventional expectations with which we were reading this book were inappropriate: the narrator, it turns out, has a new girlfriend with ears so exquisite (and which during one conversation she sits carefully cleaning) that when they are on view and 'unblocked' in terms of channelling their power, they promote super-sensational sex. She is also possessed of a special sixth sense, which means she guesses that the phone call will come summoning the narrator, and knows it will be all about a sheep.

Hans, who had chosen the book, said he had found it very interesting but strange. He had indeed become involved at this point, and wanted to know what was going to happen, but the more that was revealed to him the less he could take it, a tale about a sheep which may or may not exist, with the power to possess a human and thereby dominate the world.

However, Doug and I had experienced an opposite effect. Doug said that once he understood he needed to accept the book as absurdist, he began to really enjoy its off-the-wall turns, its humour and, like me, its memorable evocation of the spirit of situations and things, landscape and the weather. By the end of our journey with this chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking narrator prone to bouts of philosophising which end with banalities ( 'I came to the realisation ... that I am not a whale') or are abandoned for a drink or a fag, whose Sherlock-Holmes-type reliance on clues turns out to be beside the point, we had come to understand the reason for the strangely inconsequential yet seemingly significant beginning.

The book is indeed about inconsequentiality, and the strange paradox that the seemingly inconsequential things, or the episodes which on the rational level are no longer relevant, are nevertheless evocative and important on the level of emotional experience, while the importance of those things which seem significant in the grand, Western-hero quest tradition, is unstable. Thus the girlfriend with the ears, who seemed so central to the endeavour, turns out to be not so important to the plot after all. Evidence too the absurd way, which had made everyone laugh, that the narrator gets the sinister figure who sends him on his quest to look after his ailing, farting cat while he is gone. The narrator has never named this cat, and during his narration never names any of the other characters: as Clare said, names fix things artificially and thus deny the truth that importance is relative, and reality fluid.

Several people, even Doug, thought that the ending, which I won't give away, was disappointing, but to me it endorsed this view of the book and was therefore fitting.

Then people got interested in the different covers of the book in the different editions we had and agreed that the one above (the latest Vintage paperback) was best. A general conversation started up about covers, and I asked everyone to help me think about ideas I might suggest for the cover of my forthcoming book, which isn't decided on yet.

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

Thursday, May 03, 2007


And now my inbox is swamped with the emailed CVs of actresses who didn't get to see me on Monday night!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Last night was the 24:7 Theatre Festival gathering, when interested writers, directors and actors get the chance to make contact to work together on this years' projects. Well, yeah, the kind of contact sardines get in a tin... I have never seen such a vast crowd! We had to wait in a snaking queue to be processed at the door and given our designation tags (actor, writer, director etc), but long before I got to the door the tags had run out. And once inside, a seething mass! Mostly actors, of course, but also mostly young, and there are only two young parts in my play, and very few old enough for the other part I have to fill. And, just my luck, very few directors who were not already committed to plays... Or at least, that's how it seemed: maybe there were scores squashed away in the crowds and impossible to see... Oh and, then organiser Dave Slack suggested we writers get up one at at time on this huge very high podium and address that packed crowd and say what parts we had to fill... Well, I've addressed plenty of audiences, but there was nothing quite like it before: quite stomach-crunching, I'm telling you. And then scores of pretty, intent and articulate young actresses squirmed their way between the bodies to hand me their CVs, and I have such a pile of them I honestly don't know where to start...