Sunday, September 30, 2007

Cover proof

A nice surprise this weekend: the cover proof of my forthcoming story collection from Salt (a bit wonky in the scan above as it was so big I couldn't get it straight in the scanner). I'm still getting used to the new processes in publishing. It's the first time I've ever had bound proofs - that is, bound with a proper cover - and it seems odd to be getting the final cover proof after I've actually had a 'book'. The new cover is lovely: silk, whereas the bound proof cover was glossy, and very luxurious-looking and -feeling!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Blogging for Writers workshop

Just back from the workshop 'Blogging for Writers' at MDDA, where I learnt something new: that I can't work on a computer and talk to a group at the same time - I lost my thread two or three or times! Interesting: I hadn't realised how utterly silent and private and inward this space at my keyboard was: because of the interactivity of the blogosphere, I had thought of it as quite the opposite. Now I understand why, when I've been doing a spot of blogging, John acts as though I've been away somewhere!

It was a great group of writers, with varying levels of knowledge about blogging. Kate Feld did a great job of explaining the fundamentals of blogging, and by the end of the session everyone, even complete beginners, had set up their own blog and was ready to join us all. I was going to take a photo if people had been willing, but guess what, that was another thing I forgot...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Manchester Blog Awards

Well, I'm pretty thrilled: my other, issue-based blog has been nominated for a Manchester Blog Award.

The blog awards will be held at 7pm Wednesday, Oct. 10, at Matt and Phred's Jazz Club on Tib Street in the Northern Quarter. Tickets are free, but should be reserved via the Manchester Literature Festival website.

At this event I'll also be reading the final instalment of the blog story I've been writing in the run up to the festival.

Go here to find the list of nominees.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A pub, a club and Nan

Instalment 4 of the blog story, 'What Would You Do?' which I'm writing for the Manchester Literature Festival, has now been posted. Last week's vote means that in this week's episode, 'A pub, a club and Nan', Cat must dash from her nan's somewhat robust party to the gig where she hopes to get information about the mysterious stranger - with an unexpected development.

You can vote on how that development should pan out, and you have till Thursday 8pm to do it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Book launch: Some New Ambush by Carys Davies

Last night John drove us north out of the pelting rain of Manchester to the dryness and quaint stone buildings of Lancaster, where in the Dukes Theatre Gallery fellow Salt author Carys Davies was holding the launch for her fabulous collection of stories, Some New Ambush.

These stories are wonderful. Wry yet magical, and ranging from a nineteenth-century lunatic asylum to contemporary Chicago, they are fairy tales of human longing and determination in the face of fate. Carys read from three of the stories including 'Pied Piper', which blew me away when I read it, beginning as it does as the tale of a woman who finds a baby in the sand and passes it off as her own, and turning out to be a depiction of the human effects of one Britain's worst industrial disasters.

Here's Carys signing books after the reading:

I got my precious bound proof signed, and also a copy I bought for Christmas for my mum, who comes from the part of Wales where some of these stories are set. Luckily, my mum doesn't read blogs, so she won't find out unless anyone tells her. Right?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

John McAuliffe at Manky Poets

I haven't been to Manky Poets for ages. It's run by copland smith (who spells his name without capitals) and is held in Chorlton Library one Friday each month 7.30-9.30. The first half is an open session in which audience members read - beginners and experienced poets alike - and then after the break there's always an invited guest.

Last night I went and found that the numbers had grown hugely in my absence - I arrived rather late and had to stand, as the only seat available was way at the front. Typical me: there was one seat near the back, and I promptly sat down on it, only to realize when the poet reading finished and came towards me looking stymied that I was not only sitting on her seat but on her bag!

Well, last night's guest was John McAuliffe, and a thoroughly enjoyable reading it was. He's a warm character and reads engagingly and his poems are funny and moving and at once sensuous and muscular. What I loved about them most was their concern with a kind of doubleness of both place and time: Ireland recalled in England, moments triggering the memory of others, layered and altered by their layering.

Great stuff. And great that copland has made Manks the success it is.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blogging for writers

It seems that there are still a couple of spaces left in the Blogging for Writers workshop which I'm running on Saturday, Sept. 29 with the fabulous Kate Feld, writer and Manchizzle blogger.

We'll go over the basics of blogging as a tool to market your work, experiment with different styles and get projects off the ground. And have fun writing! It'll be from 11am-1pm.

Later the same day Kate will be running a more general blogging workshop, So You Wanna Be a Blogstar?, with Chris from Mancubist. It'll be for anyone setting up a blog, or anyone who has been blogging for a while but needs a little inspiration, and will run from from 2-4pm.

Both are just £2, and take place at MDDA headquarters on Portland Street. We will have computers available for those who need them, but the place has wireless so you can bring laptops if you like. Book here at the MLF site.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Late night, late September in Manc

To the BBC again late last night to update on the blogstory for the Radio Manchester Phil Woods show. Last time I went the streets were so quiet, but last night - well! What were all these crowds???? Sauntering in great crocodiles along Oxford Road and down Charles Street, dressed (in spite of the weather) in Hawaiian shirts and shorts and sandals, and strappy tops and pelmet skirts with bare legs or fluorescent legwarmers - and carrying balloons???? Like a children's tea party but with adult-sized guests?

Ah! Freshers week, of course!!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Instalment 3 of blogstory goes live

Instalment 3 of the Manchester Blogstory is now up. We had a bit of bother with the poll site last week, and huge apologies to those who found they weren't able to vote. This week we're using a different one, so there shouldn't be any problems.

Those who could vote last week chose Ahmed the sound operator who lives at the top of Cat's house to help her begin to solve the mystery of her anonymous caller, and in the current instalment there's a development when Ahmed invites the inhabitants of the house to be extras in a film he's working on.

This week you can vote on a radical plot twist for instalment 4. Voting ends 8pm Thursday.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Last day of voting for Chapter 3 of blogstory

There's still time to send me into a pickle for chapter 3 of the blogstory - voting is open until 8pm this evening.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Voting for Chapter 3 of the Blogstory

Voting is under way for the next episode of the Blogstory, and Ahmed, the sound operator who lives at the top of Cat's house - a character who hasn't yet featured much - is at present way ahead as the person who in the next episode will inadvertently help her on the trail of the mysterious stranger.

It's a weird process, this, and maybe I shouldn't be looking at the votes, but I can't help it, I'm far too curious, of course. But I really mustn't yet start to envisage scenarios involving Ahmed - what if the voting pattern changes, as it did last week?

There's still until tomorrow (Thursday) 8 pm to vote and make a difference!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Chapter 2 of Blogstory goes live

Chapter 2 of the Manchester Blog Story, What Would You Do?, which I've been commissioned to write for the Manchester Literature Festival, has just gone live.

It's set in Central Library, which readers voted for - and I just hope I've come up to their expectations!!!

I didn't sleep much last night, as I was still mulling over a particular phrase - and I had to get up early this morning to get it to administrator Kate Feld in time!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tagged after all

Well, I've been holding out against this tagging lark - otherwise how can I go on complaining about the tendency to want to know about writers' lives (rather than their books), as I do on my other blog? But now Jen at Salt has tagged me, and what can you do but comply when your publisher tags you, and anyway she makes it such fun, so I'm giving in:

"Each player starts with eight random facts/habits or embarrassing things about themselves. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog."

Here goes:

1. My mother once dressed me up for a village fete as a summer salad, and what this did for my self image may be a matter for the psychiatrist's chair. (I was only four, but I can still remember in a physical way the shock of cold when she placed the necklace of cucumber slices round my neck.)

2. I recently sat in a cooling bath for an hour and a half (mercifully dressed in a strapless dress) while a film director and cameraman decided on the shot they wanted. By the time they had finished I was a wrinkled prune.

3. I sing to myself without knowing I'm doing it, which made my children want to walk ten steps behind.

4. I talk to myself, too - or more accurately, I mouth the stories I'm writing - which makes my children still not want to walk with me at all.

5. A lost skill: I can't cook any more, I'm always too busy writing to practise.

6. My feet are so big that when John first met me he bought me Fats Waller's Your Feet's Too Big.

7. I'm crazy about cabbage, and never get enough as no one else likes it. What's fantastic about North Wales restaurants is that they serve it up!

8. Something that still makes me blush: I once agreed to use clippers on the head of someone about to go on holiday with a brand-new girlfriend, an event he was somewhat nervous about. I sneered at his worry that I might drop the guard, and then went and did just that and made a bald stripe up the back of his head.

Now I have to tag eight others:

Sally Lawton
Caroline Smailes
Debi Alper
Amanda Mann
Clare Sudbery
Lucy Pepper
Nicola Monaghan
Charles Lambert

Friday, September 07, 2007

Blogstory: readers vote for Central Library

So the vote on the blogstory was overwhelmingly for Manchester Central Library. This is where Cat's mysterious caller will tell her to go for a meeting, rather than the rumbustious pub in Salford or the the slick, slightly wild ambience of the Printworks with its bars and clubs. Not only does this potentially have a bearing on the identity of the caller, it makes me wonder about the readers who have voted. Why have they voted in this way? Is it because Central Library is the place they know and/or like best (in which case of course they're a pretty studious lot)? Or is it that, like the voters on Sarah Hepola's interactive blog story (see earlier post) they want to steer the characters in that more 'worthy' direction? Either way, the reality of readers is already strongly imposed on the story.

So it's quite funny that when I met an (admittedly senior) friend at the bus stop this morning and told him I was writing an interactive blogstory, he grimaced and rolled his eyes and did a comic quick retreat away from me and from something quite so trivial and trendy and 'unliterary'!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Blogstory voting

Voting is going interestingly for the blogstory, and implies that it's a pretty literary lot who are bothering, since so far Central Library is way ahead as the venue for the narrator's mysterious meeting. That's not how it began, however: at the start the Salford pub was in the lead, but unfortunately the voting site we were using at first went down and we had to swap sites. This meant that we lost the first dozen or so votes, which had been heading the story in that direction. I know that Kate Feld, the site adminstrator, tried to transfer those votes to the new site, but I don't think the software let her. So if you voted on Tuesday morning it's possible that your vote hasn't been counted, but you should be able to vote again on the new site. Voting closes tonight at eight, and then I'll have to get writing again!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sundar Kanta Walker at the Portico Library, a dash to the BBC and a drink in the Lass o'Gowrie

To the Portico Library last night for the opening of Sundar Kanta Walker's final leg in the tour of her fantastic show of paintings, Samsara: The World, The Universe. What a surprise: since the first show in Sale last October, Kanta has added numerous new paintings, some of them huge and all overflowing with vibrant energy - and Kanta is such a little woman, I don't know why she wasn't flat on the floor rather than looking her usual bright-button self.

Some of these new paintings made me shudder in an exciting but disturbing way, and Kanta explained to the assembled guests that the theme of this exhibition is our treatment of the environment and its resultant cataclysmic changes. The picture above is Kanta's vision of a tropicalized Lake District, and others show mountain ranges where the brush-strokes and colour shifts seem dynamically to split mountains between melting heat and desolate uncompromising ice, capturing our sense of the uncertainty of the future in a way which brought my heart into my mouth. But, marvellously, there are pictures too celebrating those things which, if we are not careful, we could lose, and the shot below shows Kanta beside one of them.

I couldn't help thinking there was an interesting culture clash between the urgency of the paintings and the gentility of the venue: live music, a gentle harp and a flute, above us the beautiful recently restored Georgian glass and plaster dome, all around us shelves of old leather-bound books, one wall classified in gold lettering: Polite Literature. And the reading room, where William Gaskell and Roget once sat. I love the place, but there is still an air of nineteenth century elitism about it - the way you have to be let in at the door, the fact that you need a letter of reference before you can ever borrow books and the original club-type membership system still in operation. There's good reason, of course - the books are a special and crumbling resource which need great care and renovation (the library is engaged on a massive ongoing renovation project of the books and the weakening shelves.) But you know me: I stood taking the photo below of the gentleman's-club type reading room, and couldn't help making a connection between nineteenth-century elitism and the state of the world about which Kanta is painting.

And then home for a bite to eat, and out again back to the BBC to talk about the blogstory on Radio Manchester's Phil Wood show, and then across the road to the Lass o' Gowrie and a world Gaskell and Roget would never recognize, where John was chatting to a bunch of ecology students all dressed up as animals (don't ask me why) and who should also be there but Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher and, guess what, we talked about blogging until chucking-out time.

Kanta's exhibition continues until 27th September.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Manchester Blog Story goes live

The Manchester Blog Story, What Would You Do? which I'm writing for the Manchester Literature Festival, has gone live! The first of six weekly mini-episodes, The Caller, is now posted, and readers have till Thursday 8pm to vote on the venue for the next turn in the plot - and then I'll have four days to write the next episode accordingly! It's scary, but exciting - never in my life before have I written so publicly, and never before have I not had the option of going back and changing things which turned out to be extraneous or out of place!

Here's the blurb about it from this week's Manchester Literature Festival e-letter:

Episode One takes place in the hallway of a large Victorian house converted into flats and introduces us to its eccentric occupants. One of the residents has been visited by a mystery caller but will they manage to collect their message?

The project is produced by Manchizzle blogger Kate Feld and sponsored by Richard Fair

Monday, September 03, 2007

Never give up

About three years ago I sent a play to a theatre and received a discouraging response: my play wasn't really a play, it was far too schematic, the characters weren't fully rounded, and worst of all, I really needed to learn how to write dialogue and not have them spouting great explanatory speeches.

Well, you know how it is: you think, Couldn't they see that the style of the play was consciously chosen (rather than a mistake!), that the 'schematic' nature of the piece was deliberately devised as a comment on the schematic psychology of the characters, and that in any case it's subverted at the end? That it's not intended as naturalist, for heaven's sake - that televisual standard of 'rounded' characters' and real-life replicating dialogue? And that anyway, the things the characters say in their speeches aren't meant to be taken at face value, they are in fact subverted and overturned by the action? Are there no script readers in theatres educated in the history of theatre and who don't view life through the lens of Coronation Street!!!??? Didn't they read my ****ing letter and see that I have done tons of radio and can write realist dialogue whenever I like, thank you very much?!!! (And probably better than them!!!!) (You're getting vicious now and spitting.) Haven't they ****ing heard of me in any case?!!!!! Are there no script readers who know how to read a script? (You are practically foaming at the mouth by this time.)

And then of course comes the moment of doubt, when, even though you have thought all of these things, you think: But what if they're right? What if I am a crap writer after all? Because there's just no proof that I'm any good if I can't get past these script readers and get my plays on... And you start to think that writing theatre plays is a waste of time and you simply stop doing it...

Well, don't do that. In July I attended a panel discussion, 'Joining the Dots', at the Royal Exchange, held as part of the Manchester International Festival, and was greatly encouraged. One panellist was the inspirational Suzanne Bell, Literary Manager of the Liverpool Everyman - with its admirable record of showing new writing - who proved passionate about new writing. Another was West Yorkshire Playhouse Literary Manager Alex Chisholme who said (with what Chair Tony Clarke, AD of Hampstead Theatre, called admirable honesty) that working recently with a PhD student of Drama had caused her to think that British Theatre may well have been missing plays and playwrights by being too hung up on narrative and character because those are the things it's easiest to teach - at which Tony put in with the statement that he didn't in fact think it was up to other theatre professionals to teach writers how to write.

And guess what? Earlier this year I sent the play I mention above to the very same theatre all over again because the artistic director had changed. And when I got back from Wales there was a wonderful letter understanding everything I was trying to do and lavishing it with praise! They're not putting the play on, but the praise was really inspiring - and what's great is that they want to see anything else I may write.

So never give up, I say. And the best news is, I think things are looking up.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A reading and celebration for Balancing on the Edge of the World

Last night John and I went to the fabulous Croma restaurant in Chorlton, where we often go. Maybe I shouldn't be admitting this, but I often have my best writing ideas with a bit of wine inside me - it's that sideways, non-logical thing that slight inebriation allows - and I've had several in Croma of a Saturday night.

Well, the really exciting thing is that Kirsty, who runs the restaurant, has offered to do me a launch/celebration for my book of stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and Vicky of Chorlton Bookshop, next door to the restaurant, has agreed to supply the books. I'm doing several readings at the start of October (see the list on my website), but this will happen later (we've pencilled in 29th) when they've died down a bit, and will be more of a celebration. Details have to be organised yet, but I'll be keeping everyone posted, of course!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Reading group: White Noise by Don Delillo

Yet another book I read in Wales was Don DeLillo's White Noise, last month's reading group choice, the story of university lecturer and Hitler expert Jack Gladney who lives with his nth wife and a house full of step-children, and suffers existential gloom and unease - or more precisely, a fear of death - in a contemporary world of confusing signs.

It's a while now since we met to discuss it, and in the meantime I've been filming, so my memory of the discussion isn't too detailed: what I remember more than the discussion is the darkness and dampness of the evening, so typical of this odd summer, and the fact that the dog in Hans's house was suddenly different, because his old one had (shockingly) died, and every time we went to the loo the new one jumped up in excitement and wrapped us in her lead.

I know we all liked the book. Some of us, Trevor and I in particular, loved it. Trevor began the discussion by stating that the author was having a go at most things in the modern world, but I said, Wasn't it more precisely about the loss of boundaries between fantasy and reality (see, it's all coming back now) and Jenny said, No, surely it's about the fact that we can no longer distinguish between what's important or not. I had to agree that this was true, too: there's a running joke about the fact that there are 'PhDs now in cereal packets', and key scenes of the book take place in the supermarket, the place where
people scan the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal.. Many have trouble making out the words... Smeared print, ghost images... But in the end it doesn't matter... The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners... This is the language of waves and radiation.
We all loved the hilarious discussions between Jack and the younger visiting lecturer Murray, who is studying such cultural signifiers, and the fact that Jack's subject, Hitler, is of no greater cultural significance than Murray's, Elvis, in the scene in which they lecture together, almost physically dancing their subjects together around the room. We loved the way the household TV set ends up in one of the children's bedroom and becomes a god-like voice from above puncturing conversations with surreal and meaningless or trivial announcements. We loved the irony of the fact that when a real threat suddenly enters the family's life - a chemical spill causing a toxic airborne event - no one can immediately recognize the danger for what it is. We found brilliant the book's subsequent joke in the response of the Simulated Evacuation officer to the real-life toxic event:
'The insertion curve isn't as smooth as we would like. There's a probability excess. Plus we don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this was an actual simulation... You have to make allowance for the fact that everything you see tonight is real.'
One of the brilliant strokes in the book is the suggestion by the authorities that the toxic elements in the spill cause deja vu which is consequently experienced by the characters even after the suggestion is withdrawn.

There were some quibbles: neither Hans nor I were convinced by the original premise of Jack Gladney's obsession with dying - we felt that, on the contrary, nowadays people refuse to think about death - indeed this is one of the notions I explored in my recent play, The Processing Room. However, there is a conversation between Jack and Murray in which Murray states that this is the other side of the same coin. Most people, even I, felt that the book lacked forward momentum before the airborne toxic event, when it suddenly became riveting. Doug said that this was his main objection, the fact that there was no real story, and while he agreed about all the other things in the book, ultimately he was left wondering if it added up to much as a novel, rather than an entertaining and well-written exposition of a point that was made from the very beginning. I said, But isn't this the point: the book formally portrays its thesis, that we can't shape narratives any more, we are at the mercy of forces and codes we can't decipher? Jenny, however, said she liked the comfortable tone of the beginning and went off the book when she got to the toxic event.

John said that he wasn't sure about the ending: were we meant to believe that Jack really had committed such an extreme act at the end, and if so why were there no consequences, when he had left so much evidence? Or were we meant to think he had so lost touch with reality as to imagine it? Everyone else said, No, it was meant to have happened, but it's not remarked on because violence is normal now, and no one knows what's important or what anything means, though John still looked doubtful. I said that I had had similar doubts about the unrealistic lack of conflict or emotional disturbance in a house full of stepchildren, but in the end had put them aside because this wasn't a realist novel. Some people said they had skipped bits as boring - which I couldn't believe, as I thought the prose so brilliant - concise, witty and telling.

We all noted how prescient this book was, pre-imagining Bhopal and even 9/11, and prefiguring our present unease and uncertainty about what we are experiencing - is this a freak period in the weather or a new status quo? We marvelled that the book was published as long ago as 1985.

Finally, John said that when he got to the end of the book he experienced deja vu and thought he had read it before.

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