Thursday, June 28, 2007

A rehearsal, a holiday and a Normblog competition

First rehearsal last night for The Processing Room. I didn't attend, but director Tracy rang me afterwards to say it went swimmingly, and that everyone is upbeat although she's given the actors plenty to think about with lots of movement. Can't wait to be at the next rehearsal next Tuesday when I get back from a long weekend in Paris and I hope some headspace for a new writing commission (more of which later), as well as a rest for my RSI.

Before I go (cringing about my carbon footprint, of course) I want to draw your attention to the short-short story competition being run by blogger Norm.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Reading group: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

'Oh god, no!' said Jenny when John suggested for our reading group A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers' first-person account of bringing up his younger brother after the death of his parents. Then: 'Oh, you mean that's the title!?' and everyone laughed.

In an extended cod-Acknowledgements section at the start of the book, the author addresses this very question of the effect of the title on potential readers - The author wishes to acknowledge your problems with the title. He too has reservations - and there follows a tongue-in-cheek history of the title choice and a deconstruction of all of its possible connotations and implications about the book, the author and readers' expectations

Even earlier, right from the verso page of the book we are alerted to the fact that this is a book which calls into question the whole nature and status of authors and books:
First published by Simon and Schuster, New York, a division of a larger and more powerful company called Viacom Inc, which is wealthier and more populous than eighteen of the fifty states of America, and all of the former Soviet Republics combined and tripled.
'So what is it, this book?' John asked the group when we met for the discussion. 'Is it a novel, or is it a memoir?' Once again, in the Acknowledgements and a preceding Preface, the author anticipates the question, and while insisting the book is a memoir stresses the fictive techniques he has used - the dialogue has been almost entirely reconstructed - and throws into the air the notion of distinguishing between memoir and fiction with this suggestion: if you send in your copy of this book ... [the author] will send you, in exchange, a 3.5" floppy disk, on which will be a complete digital manuscript of this work, albeit with names and locations changed, in such a way that the only people who will know who is who are those whose lives have been included, though thinly disguised. Voila! Fiction!

As a writer I was very taken by this and by the way that the book itself addresses this issue throughout as well as the moral implications of writing openly about one's own life. I also found the book brilliantly written: witty, energetic, yet utterly moving, the author masterfully in control of his material.

Not everyone agreed. Most did agree that the prose was brilliant and from her counsellor's viewpoint Clare found the narrator Eggers' emotional dilemmas accurately as well as movingly depicted. However she and most others were irritated by the Preface and Acknowledgements and skipped them altogether (I had to admit that I had felt the same before reading the rest of the book, but had gone back and read them with relish afterwards). Madeleine (who wasn't present but rang up beforehand) said that she had no problem with someone writing about himself, but she was pretty irritated by him writing about writing about himself. Most people got bored in the section I really loved, in which the narrator undergoes a clearly non-naturalistic and self-ironic interview for a Big-Brother-type reality TV programme, which is the starkest comment on the theme of personal exposure v fiction:

[TV producer/casting person:] But what about privacy?

[Narrator Eggers:] Cheap, overabundant, easily gotten, lost, regained, bought, sold...

[TV producer/casting person:]
... what about ...exhibitionism?

[Narrator Eggers:]
...Someone wants to celebrate their existence and you call it exhibitionism. It's niggardly.

However, while I saw this as Eggers successfully deflating potential criticisms, and Ann said she saw the whole book as a piss-take, others still thought the book self-indulgent and Eggers as thus less in control of his material than John, Doug, Ann and I thought. Hans said with irritation that in any case he didn't see all this self-referential stuff as excusing Eggers at all, it simply made matters worse.

Even those of us in most favour of the book, however, had to agree that it suffered structurally from the memoir mode: a longeur recounting the running of Eggers' alternative-lifestyle magazine, Might, created a slackening of narrative tension which spoilt the arc of the true story, that of Eggers' grief at the loss of his parents, and we didn't feel that on this occasion Eggers managed to dispel such criticism with his pre-emptive Acknowledgements warning that this section of the book should be skipped by anyone not interested in the doings of twenty-somethings.

Most people in the group seemed to share the feeling which Eggers challenges or at least explores in the book, that writing a memoir is a more self-indulgent activity than writing a novel. I said that, as Eggers indicates, while memoirs inevitably fictionalise, many novels are hardly any less autobiographical, and it can be thus the case that writing a novel, in which the names and locations are changed, is a safer, and therefore less brave thing to do.

What about the problem of protecting others, though? said Clare. I agreed that that was an important issue: once, I had written a very autobiographical story and had fully intended to sell it as fiction, but then a chance came up to publish it as memoir, which I did instead. As a result, like Eggers I had then had to consult with the people I'd written about in the story, and had had to make changes they'd asked for - which created the paradox that, since the change did not match with my memory, the 'memoir' was to me less autobiographical than the 'fiction' had been!

That's one of the great things about fiction, we decided: however autobiographical a story really is, as long as it is presented as fiction, then the author can always deny it with impunity!

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

Friday, June 22, 2007

The proof of your eyes

We are finalizing the proofs for Balancing on the Edge of the World! Scary. I never don't find it scary, knowing that you can look and look and still miss the most obvious errors...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

24:7 Theatre Festival Press Launch

Tuesday evening was Press Launch for the 24:7 Theatre Festival, and all afternoon beforehand there was a rehearsal for the trailers which several of us companies would be presenting to the press. Other companies were acting out their trailers, and the place was swarming with stressed actors, and my director Tracy and I congratulated ourselves that, since our trailer for The Processing Room was a film, we'd avoid such hassle: all we'd have to do was press 'Play'. Hm. Not so simple. The technicians had to rig us up sound, which it seemed was not easy, and we spent most of the afternoon geared up and waiting and so getting as adrenalin- stressed as the rest. But then it happened, and for the first time I saw the film which Tracy has made and I loved it! She's launching it on MySpace soon so I'll be able to link to it.

Then it was time for the launch: pink fizzy wine and hors d'oevres in one of the bar/lounges of the vast Tardis-like complex which exists beyond the narrow doors of Pure in the Printworks, followed by the trailer show, and then back into the bar again. There are reports in The British Theatre Guide and The Manchester Evening News and Tom Wright, the festival photographer, took photos including the one above. I'm on the far left talking to fellow playwright Trevor Suthers (whose Comedy Mouthwash features in this year's festival), both of us in our theatrical gear, me in my funky charity-shop heels and he in his bright-orange blazer. To the right of Trevor and just behind is Processing Room actor Rachael Carnegie, and in the centre at the back Amanda Hennessy, co-director of the festival.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Trials on the way to perfection, we hope...

Well, it wasn't easy turning people down after our auditions for The Processing Room. Not only was the standard so high, but as sometimes happens we had to make choices on other criteria as well: for reasons of plot which I won't divulge here, we had to find actors who fitted together in terms of physical appearance, quality of voice and overall energy - not an easy task, and there were people we were really sorry and very reluctant to pass over, but we did it in the end and have four perfect actors (see post below).

After the actual auditions, Mary-Ann and I, worn out once again, went and collapsed at an outdoor table at the The Old Pint Pot just across from Salford University Adelphi Building, where we'd held the auditions. It's a lovely spot, overlooking the river, and the sun came out and all the gnats were fizzing in the air above it and the ducks were making gleaming slipstreams, and I suddenly relaxed and realized how anxious I had been about getting this company together in time. People management, I'm not used to it nowadays, and though I look forward to it as a change, it's always a shock to be dependent on others and on outside contingencies when you've been so much in control of your world at your desk, the world of words. A glass of wine, that's what we wanted, but only the house wine, which we didn't much like, came in glasses, so guess what, we ordered a bottle. Good job that a truly charming guy on a nearby table overheard our conversation and introduced himself as a teacher of movement, and ended up joining us and helping out with the booze...

Not that that was the end of the panics. Tomorrow is 24:7's Press Launch. We decided to get our flyers ready for the event, and Ian Currie, Production Manager at Salford University (where our director Tracy Gentles teaches), very generously agreed to design them for us. Last Wednesday was the final day for getting the file to the printer, and on Tuesday afternoon Tracy emailed it to me to approve and send on to them.

I rang her quickly: 'Tracy, for some reason, Ian got the wrong logo!'
'No problem, I'll get Ian to change it when I get back to the university.'
Half-five she rings me back. 'Ian's gone home I'm afraid, but don't worry, I'll do it myself.'
An hour later, she rings me again. 'I'm locked out of the computer room, and I can't find anyone who's got a key. I can't do it in the morning because I'm on a plane at 5.00 am.'
'OK, if it's just a matter of dropping the logo in, I can do it.'
I try to load the file into Photoshop. It won't open. The only way I can have a file to send to the printer tomorrow morning will be to rebuild it from scratch.

8.00 on Tuesday evening I sit down at my computer and teach myself to use Photoshop properly for the first time ever. Is this only way to learn software, I wonder? I have sat at the computer for hours in the past unable to fathom how layers work in Photoshop, but on Wednesday evening I had no choice but to find out quick-sharp. Well, I got the file to printer the next morning just in time, but I'd been wound so high I hadn't managed to sleep that night...

Next, the meeting with the technician for all the companies whose plays will be performed in our venue, Pure Blue. Hmm. 'I hate these kinds of things,' the normally equable Tracy tells me. Why? I soon find out. As soon as Mary-Ann and I saw the Blue Room at Pure, the night of the Big Gathering, we knew it was the one for our play: it is draped all around with white voile curtains which, for reasons I won't divulge again, makes it perfect. Well, I walked in with Tracy last Friday and realized straight away what I hadn't noticed before, that one of the walls isn't in fact so draped, but is faced with white slatted boards. And the other companies were agreeing eagerly with the technician that the plays should be done end-on to this wall.

Me: Any chance that we could do them the other way on?
Writer/producer of one of the other companies: No! We chose this room specifically for those slats.
Me: Well, actually, we chose the room specifically for the drapes...

We came to a compromise. We will have to suffer the slatted wall, but the technician will cover it with a different sort of drape.
Tracy to me: See what I mean about hating this kind of thing?

Press Launch tomorrow, and thirteen companies, including us, are presenting trailers of their plays. Tracy has made a film for ours, and I can't wait to see to it...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Our cast is complete

Well, we held our auditions. The overall standard was amazing, and we have ended up with four great actresses for The Processing Room.

Mary-Ann Coburn, who was pre-cast, has worked for major rep and touring companies including The Glasgow Citizens and the Manchester Library Theatre as well as television:
She is joined by Paula Williamson who, since graduating in 2005, has set up her own comedy theatre company Yappo: by Stephanie Ridings who is a founder member of touring theatre company Angel Club and whose TV credits include Coronation Street and Clocking Off:

and by Rachael Carnegie, who graduates this summer from Salford University in Media and Performance: I breathed a great sigh of relief, and once we got them altogether and had a readthrough I knew it was all going to be great!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A great evening and a great book

I've been so overwhelmed with production for my play The Processing Room that I haven't been getting onto Blogger much (in the next few days I hope for a breathing space and the chance to blog about it all), but I did manage to take Thursday evening out for the launch of Caroline Smailes' fantastic debut novel, In Search of Adam.

This was a really great launch from every perspective: the reading room at Waterstone's Deansgate was full, and Caroline gave a beautiful reading which made clear that the book is riveting, a moving yet restrained depiction of childhood pain, and deserves all of the rave pre-publicity it has received. Caroline's publishers, The Friday Project, were there to support her, and it was clear from the Q & A and from my conversation with publisher Clare Christian and Editor Clare Weber that they had paid rare respect and attention to Caroline's typographically innovative script. Tutors from the MA course on which she had written the novel were there too, and - excitingly for me - fellow bloggers jumping their virtual reality to be there in the flesh: Clare Sudbery, nmj and Jude among them.

It was a shock to emerge from the bar we repaired to afterwards and find that Manchester was more Manc than ever, with cold rain dropping in sheets - the atmosphere inside had been so warm with literary celebration.

Caroline signs copies while the queue gets reading

Friday Project publisher Clare Christian looks justifiably happy

Monday, June 11, 2007

Launch: In Search of Adam

An announcement today: on Thursday evening there's a launch at Waterstone's Deansgate for Caroline Smailes' debut novel In Search of Adam, and the first in the Friday Fiction list from the innovative publisher The Friday Project, which specializes in picking up books via the web.

Caroline's publishing story is an exciting one. While still on the MMU Novel MA course for which she wrote it, she began an engaging and innovative website to promote it, and the Friday Project happened along... (Another forthcoming Friday Project novel from fellow blogger nmj was discovered in a similar way.)

Aside from all this, however, even prior to official publication, In Search of Adam has been a huge hit, raved about by Dove Grey Reader and others, and the extracts I have seen indicate that the book is stunning.

If you're in the North West, be there for this important debut: Waterstone's Deansgate Manchester, 7-9 pm Thursday 14th June £3.00.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A director!

We have a director for our 24:7 production of The Processing Room: the fabulous Tracy Gentles who at the stunningly young age of 24 lectures at Salford University and runs her own dynamic theatre company Hooh Hah.

Actor auditions tomorrow...