Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Something to drink to after all

Well, I'm sitting here quietly by the fire as I promised myself, but then I might just have a glass or two of fizzy wine after all, since I've just read this on the blog of one of my book-tour hosts, Clare Dudman:
Elizabeth Baines is a superb stylist - a latter-day fabulist in fact - and her writing reminded me of Chekhov's in that it was spare and paid attention to the subtleties of everyday experience.
Happy New Year, everyone!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The only way to do it

That horrible cold and Christmas have left me EXHAUSTED, and yet I've got SO MUCH to do. My virtual book tour for Balancing starts officially on Barbara's Bleuuugh on 14th January, but before then of course I need to think about the probing questions she has asked me, and come up with some halfway decent answers (after which, of course, for the next ten weeks, there will be weekly questions to think about). I have an article to write for around the same time as the start of the tour. And my best Christmas present ever was news from Salt that they will publish another book by me in the coming year, so I must start thinking about the publicity etc for that... And then of course there are the stories I have planned to write this coming term (I still think in terms of terms!), not to mention the pile of books I have been promising myself to read for so long now... I was planning a short play, too, but I'm starting to wonder...

Needless to say I am extremely excited about all of these things. Just hoping I have the energy. Think I'll start by having a VERY quiet New Year's Eve, and begin the New Year the way I mean to go on (early rise, head totally clear of alcohol, for a day with a rigid regime)...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

21: A New Online Critical Journal

The launch yesterday of 21, a new online critical journal from Edge Hill University, edited by Ailsa Cox and Rob Spence and concerned with contemporary and innovative fiction. Among the articles I haven't yet read is one on post 9/11 fiction, and those I have are a revealing interview with writer Charles Lambert and an interesting piece on the issue of collecting short stories in volumes by Ailsa Cox (instigator of the Edge Hill Prize for short story collections), including a report on a recent linked conference. There's also an article by me on the critical response to Anne Enright's The Gathering and its implications for the way we read now and the contemporary status of fiction.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Something to buck me up

I'm still really suffering with this cold, and have had to cancel another trip to London today - and can't get hold of the guys I was meeting for a drink at 5: their mobiles are on voicemail, they're not on Facebook! (So much for technology; so much for our ridiculous delusions of permanent health!). However, finding out that Anne Brooke has made some great comments about Balancing has gone a long way towards restoring the balance (so to speak: is this a word-play virus, do you think?). Here's what she says:
Speaking of stories, I've finished Elizabeth Baines' short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World. A very high standard of writing indeed and I enjoyed it very much. The themes are the relationship between people and the power they hold (or the lack of it) - very human tales indeed. Particular favourites are Condensed Metaphysics (jazzy, edgy and strong), Holding Hands (a powerful tale of family dynamics and frailty - though she should have ended it 3 paragraphs earlier as the end line actually appears at the close of the 4th paragraph in from the finish, to my mind), Into the Night (a great erotic encounter which might or might not turn out to be more) and Condundrum (a wry look at child-rearing through the generations). I'd definitely read more Baines.
Interesting, that comment about the end of Holding Hands. Ending three paras earlier would certainly make a good story, but a very different one, with a very different conclusion. Mmm. See, you never know, do you?

Anne also adds some really nice things on Facebook: she calls it 'high quality writing that was a pleasure to read' and wants to know when I'm writing more...

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tis the season for some seasoning...

There's still time to get those fantastic presents from Salt (last posting day Friday). Click now: go on, you know you want to...

Reading group: The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant

Clothes and the things they represent - social and psychological - are of abiding interest to Ann, a textile conservator - as they are indeed to me: I was very pleased when she suggested this book, the story of narrator Vivien Kovaks, the London-born daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees, and her relationship in adulthood with the uncle from whom her parents are estranged, a character based on the notorious fifties slum landlord, Rachman.

However, introducing the book, Ann said that she felt the clothes theme was disappointingly undeveloped. Clothes did constitute a fair element of the book - mainly of the story of Vivien who, learning nothing from her silent and hermetic parents about their background, must seek an identity for herself, which she does partly via clothes. However, Ann said, the idea seemed to lie on the surface, and wasn't linked with that lost background in any resonant way that she could see, as promised by the quite brilliant title. Most people in the group didn't particularly care about this - most weren't that bothered about clothes in the first place - and everyone resoundingly agreed that the story of Uncle Sandor which is slowly revealed to Vivien is engrossing.

Well, everyone had enjoyed the book and had found it a great read, but our group has got so critical nowadays that I'm afraid to say it didn't come out of our discussion in any way unscathed. Ann found a dissonance between the story of Vivien growing up and the later episodes: the first seemed felt but the latter rather made up, at which others agreed and listed all the things they had found 'made up' or unconvincing: Clare said that though we were told that Vivien was heartbroken at the loss of her young husband, there was no sense of her grief. And what was all that about him dying, everyone wanted to know? What was the point of not even revealing straight away how he had died, and indeed giving the wrong impression by talking instead about (other) examples of sudden accidental deaths? John said he felt that what was going on here was that things weren't properly imagined; he felt the same sort of confusion over Vivien's wedding: initially, he got the impression that her wedding had been a small one (because it was done through the focus of Vivien's parents) and only later is it revealed that it was a society wedding. Others agreed. The way Vivien and Sandor met was far too coincidental, they said, and they didn't find it believable that Vivien should invite her unknowing parents to the birthday party Sandor holds for her. Ann said that she wasn't convinced by the time shift of Sandor's slum landlordism to the sixties; Rachman was very much of the fifties, and the excuse that Sandor had come to England later didn't hold water because, as even the book says, it was immediately after the war that there were killings to be made in buying up cheap property.

John wanted to know what the book was supposed to be saying: was it meant to say that people like Rachman were OK really, or something? I said that I thought the point was to show that evil doers can't be dismissed as 'pure evil' (as indeed the mother of abducted Sharon Matthews had been described the very day of our discussion), 'the face of evil', as both Rachman and Sandor were described by the press; that what's far more frightening is that the people who conduct evil deeds are on the contrary human. But people said they didn't find the book portrayed this convincingly, Vivien didn't seem to have much of a convincing dilemma over this, and Clare compared the book unfavourably with Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, which we've also discussed.

I said, But didn't you find the prose engaging and witty? and everyone agreed that yes, they had, and then Jenny said, My god, what's wrong with us, I said I liked this book! And then she said, Well, I still do anyway, and everyone agreed. Go figure.

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On course

Salt's Chris Hamilton-Emery has designed the logo for Around the Edges of the World, my Cyclone tour of Balancing on the Edge of the World. Isn't it great? (Although, in reality the colours are reversed: for some reason they change when I load it up!). You can now read all about my tour on the Salt Cyclone site.

Elaine Feinstein readings on the internet

Isn't the internet wonderful? I only go and mention that I was at Elaine Feinstein's reading in Manchester last week, and her son Joel gives us the link to MP3 recordings of her reading her poetry. See, it doesn't even matter if you weren't at the reading: you can go there right away and hear her unmistakeable voice reading those truly profound poems.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A nice accolade, a prize draw, a super reading, a great party , an impressive exhibition and the devil of a cold.

Salt-bagI am so tickled: Dovegreyreader says that Balancing on the Edge of the World is amongst her best reads of 2008. She says: 'This was one of those neat little books that packs the huge punch and it captured my imagination completely' and she calls it 'a little masterpiece' and a 'little treasure of a book', and repeats some of the wonderful review she gave it earlier this year.

Dovegrey is one of the bloggers who will be generously hosting my tour of Balancing (beginning in the new year) and she is currently offering a prize draw copy of the book inside one of those fabulous Salt hessian bags. To enter the draw simply ask in the comments of her post.

This has perked me up no end, and boy did I need a bit of perking. Not that I haven't been having a great time over the last few days - I have, so much so that I haven't had time to blog - but also a cold has been persecuting me by coming and going like some kind of tricksy goblin. On Wednesday I thought I'd banished it, but it came sneaking back up on me just as I was about to get ready to hear Nick Royle, Conrad Williams and Thomas Fletcher read at Didsbury Library, and I felt too ill to go, which was a big disappointment. Next day the cold had vanished again, and I was able to go to a reading by the wonderful Elaine Feinstein

at John Rylands library on Deansgate.

Elaine is one of those who first ever helped me on my way as a writer, once choosing a very early story of mine for an anthology she edited with Fay Weldon. She always remembers it, and this time, maternally pushing my hair off my shoulder, she remembered it again. Her poems, as always, were tough and precise yet moving.

Next day I went to London, to the Salt Christmas Beano at the Horse Hospital, which was a really great do. Great readings from Jane Holland, Julia Bird, Mark Waldren and Sue Hubbard, and chats with Salt authors such as Vanessa Gebbie, Jay Merrill, Vincent de Souza and Alex Keegan. Here are Vanessa and Jane:

Saturday it was out to Bermondsey to the Coleman Gallery, which artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White had turned into a shop (complete with screen-printed paper bags and open/closed sign on the door), selling their own discs of the out-of-copyright music they collect on their website, Open Music Archive, and of the covers made by contemporary musicians for the pair's projects and artist residencies. The sleeves of the discs were artist-designed, some by Simpson and White, others commissioned from other artists, many of them also screen-printed, and the walls were covered with posters, screen-printed by the pair, advertising the music.

Here I am trying out some of the discs:

Perhaps it was due to the fact that we then walked in the heavy non-stop rain along the river to Borough Market before going for our train (which turned out to be cancelled due to the floods!) that yesterday, on a Christmas visit to relatives, the cold came back with a vengeance, hitting me with a very sore throat which still hasn't gone away...

PS. You can see my big Salt book bag on the gallery windowsill...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sending it out to the edges of the world

I've been busy organizing my Cyclone book tour for Balancing on the Edge of the World, and Salt have been sending out copies to hosting bloggers. Here's Clare Dudman holding up hers just after she received it - well, you can see a bit of her face! Clare's blog Keeper of the Snails will be one of the early stops on the tour (beginning January 14th). Barbara Smith and Sarah Salway have generously joined my list of hosts, to make up ten stops in all.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Chorlton Arts Festival 2009

Another evening out through the frost last week was to the launch of Chorlton Arts Festival 2009 in the Lloyds Hotel. A buzzy atmosphere, although the earlier launch and the terrible weather meant that it was less packed than last year (and so this year we got some of the great free food laid on by the Lloyds, sponsors of the festival, which ran out last year), and I met some old friends I hadn't seen in a while and some new ones. This is very much a community festival. Last year I conducted a workshop for adults, but since involvement by students of Chorlton arts school is an increasingly important aspect of the festival, I thought of doing a project on story-telling with them this year, and, under the influence of a glass of red wine, got quite excited about it.

Since then, though, I've hit a run of stuff that has interfered with writing, and set me back on my writing schedule, and I'm starting to think maybe I just don't have time for something that would clearly be a fair amount of work...

If you want to propose a performance or event, the application form (the brilliant cover of which is in the photo above) should appear on the website shortly, and applications should be made by January 9th.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

All play and no work makes Jill a non-writer

How do you balance the staying in and focusing on what's inside your head and the writing, and the going out and getting stimulated?

See, I didn't go out for ages, and I started to get stale which wasn't any good for the writing, and then I started to go out again, and it's all such good fun it's hard to settle back down to the writing...

One of my first nights out was to the recent Succour launch at the Briton's Protection, and a great night it was. My first wine for several weeks (and I don't know about you, but I have to have a brain completely free of alcohol to write) a truly convivial atmosphere, and great readings including those from Laura Joyce, Nicholas Royle and Annie Clarkson, some of them from the current beautifully produced issue, 'Icons'.

And see, I didn't get up as early the next morning...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Lookin' For Lucky at the Salford Film Festival

One evening during the first 24:7 Theatre Festival, after a performance of my play O'Leary's Daughters, I found myself talking to Joe O'Byrne, whom I hadn't previously met, and he told me about the idea he had for a feature film for which he'd already got a title, Lookin' For Lucky: a man's dog runs away, and the man goes looking for him and his trail cuts across the lives and stories of a cross-section of the members of one Manchester community. Well, wow: what an idea for a story!

And talk about having 'legs', as they say in the business. While developing this film, Joe has also written and produced several stage plays set in the same community - in the fictional (and somewhat ironically-named) Paradise Heights - and featuring some of the same characters. Two of these I've seen: the hard-hitting monologue 'My Name is Frank', which Joe performed brilliantly himself for the second 24:7 festival, and more recently, at the Didsbury Studio Theatre, the lighter 'The Bench'. It's such a brilliant basic idea - a sort of Canterbury-tales of the twenty-first century north - a unifying platform for any number of diverse stories told in different ways.

Anyway, now the film is finished, and a couple of weeks ago I got the invitation to the first, Salford Arts Festival screening at Salford Quays. It's riveting, and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen (and not just because I turned out to know half the actors in it!). It's hard-hitting, yes, and there is much of the violence which underpins our present-day society, in this case surrounding prostitution, but there is also a touching humanity, which is somehow captured by the way the film is lit and the sometimes glancing, sometimes lingering camerawork of that perfectionist and hard taskmaster Jonathan Harris (I know: I have been an actor with Jonathan as Director of Camera!)

The thing which staggered me was the tiny budget on which I discovered this film had been made, and the fact of it is a testament to the commitment of everyone involved. And I've never been to a screening before where I've been handed a T-shirt! Congratulations to Joe, and to everyone else involved, on this achievement.

You can see a trailer of Lookin' For Lucky here)

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Keep It Salted

Another of Salt publisher Chris Hamilton-Emery's amazing Facebook notes, in which he reveals the commitment he and Jen have made to their authors and the difficulties they nevertheless face in these testing times:
"I've been pondering on our sales and the trading difficulties many independent literary and small presses are facing. Sales are slowing, and slowing dramatically. Last year, November's trade sales (i.e. through shops) were triple what they are this year. And we'd budgeted to grow.

It's been a similar picture over the past seven months, when looking at our total sales (i.e. trade and direct, globally), it's all slowing down. Overall growth dropped from 72% in 2007-2008 to 4% for 2008-2009. Oddly, in this tough trading climate, Salt's trade sales (as a subset of total sales) have increased comparing the current 12 month's total to the previous (known as the MAT: moving annual total); we've increased trade sales by 65%, but that figure is beginning to slip now. I wonder where it will be at our year end on 31 March 2009?

The business has benefited hugely from an Arts Council grant over the past three years, which gave us around £50K a year of investment, but this money has run out now, and that loss of income and the decline in budgeted sales has led to a cash crisis (something all publishers face each year). And we're looking at some substantial changes in keeping Salt running."

Chris's Facebook notes and the Salt blogs have revealed the engaging and impressive spectacle of a couple managing a family life with three children while conducting the monumental feat of turning Salt into one of the most respected independent presses in the UK.

Their books are wonderful, containing some of the most stimulating literature around and beautifully produced. I urge you to go directly to their website and see the wealth on offer - and the best Christmas presents you could possibly buy for your literary (and non-literary) friends for a whacking 33% discount with their Christmas offer. And you can join Salt's Poetry and Story Banks: stunning hardback first editions picked for you by Salt for your annual subscription.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Excitement and pain

I'm excited that in Jan-Feb I'm going to be doing a virtual tour of Balancing on the Edge of the World, and some lovely bloggers have already agreed to take part. One of these is the super Clare Dudman, who like me suffers sometimes from that writers' (and bloggers') scourge, RSI. I haven't had it in a long while, but this week it returned and the knuckle at the base of my index finger (my mouse-clicking finger) is positively swollen. At least it's only my hand and wrist this time. Once, the time I was doing 12-hour stretches on my radio comedy drama series The Circle, my whole arm, shoulder and collar bone were affected, and by the time I had finished (it always gets worse when you stop, I find) I had to have my arm in a sling to ease the pain of it pulling on my collar bone. So I should stop blogging this minute...

So far my book tour will go to the following great blogs: Keeper of the Snails (Clare Dudman) Dovegreyreader Scribbles, Me and My Big Mouth (Scott Pack), Tania Hershman, Debi Alper, Charles Lambert, Caroline Smailes and Vanessa Gebbie's News.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Publishers from space

If anyone would like proof that I'm not exaggerating when I call my publishers superhuman then I recommend reading this Facebook note by Chris Hamilton-Emery.

All I know is, I'd like some of whatever he's on...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jen Hamilton-Emery shortlisted for Pandora Award

I'm thrilled to report that my miracle-working publisher Jen Hamilton-Emery of Salt, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Pandora Award run by Women in Publishing.

The winners of the awards will be announced and presented at the Women In Publishing Christmas Party, held at the University Women's Club, London on December 10, 2008.

Pandora Award
For a significant and valuable contribution to publishing

The Pandora Award has been presented since 1981 to an individual or organization for promoting positive images of women in publishing, bookselling and related trades. Since 1982 onwards the prize, appropriately enough, has been a writing box which is passed on from one winner to the next. The Award – Pandora’s Box – will be presented to a woman or an organization in the publishing industry that has consistently made significant and valuable contributions from which women have benefited.

Winners in past years have been women who have made important literature and studies more widely available, taken leading roles in publishing in countries where that is difficult for women, or set up apprenticeships for women wanting to get into publishing. They have put their issues onto the mainstream agenda and the publishing industry has benefited from re-assessing its output and reflecting the lives and perspectives of today’s society.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Different kinds of housekeeping

OK, so I came back to the real world and started tidying, and what should I realize when I finally tackled the mounds of paper on my admin desk? That the fee which had been dangled in front of me as an enticement to do a day's workshops, workshops now long enough in the past for me to have forgotten all about the matter, had never been paid.

When I think about it now, I don't think those who invited me ever had my address to send a cheque to, since everything's done through emails now. But why had no one asked for it or asked me to submit an invoice?

It's probably just an oversight. Well, I hope so, and that it's not another instance of the depressingly widespread assumption that writers should just be grateful for any work that comes their way and that money's beside the point.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Filthy houses and clean slates

It's that housework problem again! Yesterday I finished a new story and looked around at the result of several weeks of writing, reading, blogging, eating, sleeping, going out and doing nothing domestic - and being far too lost inside my head to tidy up as I go, indeed being so lost inside my head that I drop things on the floor and then don't notice them lying there. Not to mention the state of the kitchen, and the loo... Until last night.


And oh dear. I now have to clean the house when I want to start a new story. I know if I don't, now that I have noticed it, it will scramble my head and the story will suffer...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Depends what you mean by a story

In today's Guardian Hilary Mantel writes about revision (including the difference that computers have made to the process).

It was odd to wake up to such an article on a day when I'm near the end of a story I have revised over and over, to an extent I've had never to do with a story before. Though perhaps it would be more accurate - yes, it would - to say that actually what I've been doing is re-writing, not revising, it, indeed over a period of a couple of years, abandoning the thing time and time again as unworkable, but then finding myself bugged by it and ending up having another go...

So what's been the problem? Well, in order to explain I guess have to confess that it was based on a short period in my own childhood. I'm always arguing against the biographical reading of fiction, and stressing the fact that fiction is such an alchemical fusion of fact and imagination that to try and tease them apart is hopelessly reductive, and that even to acknowledge the terms of any such discussion is to deny the real nature of fiction. However, it's to the point to acknowledge my story's autobiographical basis here.

Now, when I think about it I've used this period of my childhood often in my writing - slipping its setting into this story, certain of its incidents into that play, its atmosphere into another - disguised in varying degrees. Yet there was something about it that I had never captured and which these fictive mutations always suppressed and belied, and yet which, as the years went by, I wanted more and more to pin down.

I've written quite a bit on this blog about feeling the need to find ways of saying things I want to say which familiar forms somehow belie, and it seemed logical, therefore, that what I needed for this story was an innovative form, and that was the way I had been approaching it as I tackled it time and again.

Then finally, this week I realized (I think) what the problem was: this story was about the very wrong conclusions you can come to, and the way you can belie reality, when you twist things to make up a neat, satisfying story.

And here's the real paradox: the way to say that, I found, was via a pretty traditional story form...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fewer degrees of separation

The weatherman Jack Scott has died. The way it was announced on the lunchtime news, it was clearly seen as the passing of an era. For me it was a particularly poignant moment. I turned to John and told him, the way I used to tell my first husband every time Jack came on the screen: 'That's my great-uncle's brother.'

Not that I ever knew him. Not that any of us ever knew him. But whenever we were at my grandmother's in South Wales and he came on with the weather, she would turn to us all and say, 'Uncle Jack', and someone would explain yet again: he was her sister's husband's brother. Well, that's what I'd always thought they said: when I rang my mother today she said, 'No, wasn't he Will's cousin?'.

In those days I always found it a slightly strange sensation, watching him there on the screen: a man who was no blood relation and was in truth a complete stranger, who knew nothing of my existence, no doubt, but who by all accounts was connected to me by those familiar relatives and their stories...

But the funny thing was, today, in these days of interconnectedness, it didn't at all feel so strange...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Something Rich and Strange: virtual book tour of The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert

Welcome to the very beginning of Something Rich and Strange, the virtual tour of Charles Lambert’s collection of short stories, The Scent of Cinnamon, just out from Salt. I’m always complaining on my other blog about the current obsession with the personalities of authors, but I would never deny that sometimes meeting an author can be more than interesting. I’ve met Charles in the flesh and the impression I received was of a kind of daredevil glamour tempered with an intellectual humility which is evident in the interview I conduct with him below. Such a combination is exciting in the person of a writer, because it promises rich imaginative possibilities, and this collection more than fulfils that promise. The title of the tour, Something Rich and Strange, is also that of one of the most moving stories in the book, a delicately wrought tale of homosexual attraction during World War Two, but I’d say that ‘rich and strange’ is a good description for the book as a whole. It’s richly varied in subject matter and setting and style - spinning us from the nineteenth-century colonial outback to contemporary Rome to a magical wood, from childhood family traumas to the relationships of present-day urbanites - yet the stories are unified in revealing the unnerving yet wonderful strangeness of human experience and relations.

Charles will be pleased to answer any further questions or comments you may wish to leave either today – we’ll both be on hand from around 9 am GMT – or on subsequent days.
You can find out more about both the collection and the tour from Salt’s ‘Cyclone’ Book Tour site and about Charles's work as a whole from his own website.


Charles Lambert was born in England but has lived in Italy since 1976. He works as a university language teacher and editor for international agencies. His debut novel, Little Monsters, was published by Picador in March 2008. The title story of The Scent of Cinnamon was selected as one of the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007.

The Interview:

EB: Your collection includes an impressive range of modes: some stories, such as 'Girlie', about a boy who conjures a girl out of leaves, are intensely psychological, while some strike me as wonderfully and objectively realist in their depiction of social relations; I'd say that others, particularly those dealing with gay relationships, encompass aspects of both modes. 'The Growing' is a kind of haunting folk tale, the very original ‘The Number Worm’ is surreal in a Kafkaesque way and the 'The Scent of Cinnamon' is again its own kind of story (I won't discuss it further in case I give away the stunning ending!). 'Little Potato, Little Pea', a satire about university politics, is distinguished I'd say by the way it slips seamlessly - and shockingly - from one mode to another. I think all of this shows wonderful facility on your part as a writer, but I wonder what you have to say about it yourself and how it fits in with your aims as a short story writer or indeed your views of the short story as a form?

Well, Elizabeth, that’s a disarmingly generous way of saying what a mixed stylistic bag the collection is! I’ve always regarded writing a short story as having to do with solving a specific problem rather than as part of an ongoing dialogue with the form, which may mean that I’m not really native to the world of the short story at all, but something of an expatriate, with my patria being the novel.

Each story is really a separate project for me, with its own procedure and goal. The goal might have to do with explaining to myself a moment or event in my own life, and I’ll be talking about that in a moment. It might be driven by a more didactic urgency: 'Little Potato, Little Pea', for example, was written out of a sense of exasperation with the fact that the sheer horror of the Italian university system was incommunicable in any other way than through the use of satire. 'The Growing', on the other hand, was part of a much longer unpublished, and probably unpublishable, work and was conceived to help me to understand how one of the characters might cope with disfigurement. 'The Scent of Cinnamon' was written specifically to win a competition (it didn’t!), while both 'The Number Worm' and 'Something Rich and Strange' were intended for themed anthologies. Occasionally I’ve written to settle a score, of which I’m not necessarily proud, or to amuse my friends, of which I am.

At a formal level, I’m aware of a growing set of resources available to me, and I’m grateful for that, but I’m not really as concerned as perhaps I should be with pushing out the boundaries of the form or even ploughing a single furrow within it. The best thing about short story writing for me is that I can play around in a state of childlike glee and irresponsibility, and I hope to continue to do this for as long as I can.

EB: I'm very interested in your use of viewpoint. The satirical 'Little Potato, Little Pea', although written in the third person, begins so strongly with protagonist Janice's viewpoint that as a reader one is tempted to identify with her. One soon comes across the hints otherwise, but there's a kind of tension set up I think in the reader's attitude to Janice - which makes the ending all that much more shocking. There's a similar dynamic operating I think in the 'The Crack' with its thieving narrator, perhaps even more so because this story is written in the first person. What would you say is your authorial attitude to the 'bad' characters you give centre stage in this way?

As I said in my podcast for Salt, I’m interested in – even fascinated by - ‘bad’ characters, for a variety of reasons. The first is probably the standard Miltonian one that evil is simply more intriguing than good, not only because it’s more complex and thus requires more effort to understand, but also, and more worryingly, because we often try to deny our understanding of it, as something that incriminates and exposes us, as both readers and writers. This is certainly true of The Crack. When I wrote it, I wasn’t as aware as perhaps I should have been that the narrator is a very nasty piece of work indeed, partly because there is, alas!, a fairly strong autobiographical element in the story. Anyone who’d like a psychological breakdown is advised to look at the comments East of the Web readers have made about the story, some of which are uncomfortably close to the truth. So I’m certainly aware of using fiction to see for myself how bad my own behaviour has sometimes been!

Something I like very much about the single viewpoint that short stories – and I – tend to adopt is that as a reader you’re drawn into what that person knows, coaxed into its incompleteness, and forced to work out from that into a larger and more complex awareness. This is always true of a single narrative voice, obviously, but it’s fun to use it as a way of building tension and frustrating expectation. 'Soap' [A story set in a middle-class German household in WW2 - EB] is probably the best example of this, and in this story too what we mean by bad - by absolute bad - is challenged as the narrative develops.

EB: There's been a lot of talk about the tendency to read fiction as autobiography (and I'm one of those who have been strongly arguing against the tendency to do so). Nevertheless, one sometimes comes across a story which one simply can't help feeling is basically autobiographical - it just has that ring of felt experience - and I must say a couple of the stories here which predominantly take a child’s view, the very vivid 'Beacons' and 'All Gone’, struck me in this way (and inevitably led me to read others of the stories in the same way). Am I wrong? Or would you rather not answer this question, and if not, why not?

CL: You’re absolutely right to argue against the all too common belief that autobiographical writing has greater validity than something that’s just been ‘made up’ by the writer. At the same time, events in my life obviously have provided important stimuli to the writing and you’re both right – and wrong – to pick out these two stories as being autobiographical. The central event of 'Beacons' actually did take place – and my mother will vouch for it! - but I was no longer the small boy trapped in the hills and obsessed by Ryan O’Neal. By the time the fat hit the fire, so to speak, I was already hundreds of miles away at university, as emotionally detached from what was going on at home as I could manage. When I came to write the story, I tried to get hold of it from the mother’s point of view, but couldn’t find the right voice, couldn’t hear it; she knew too much – in a narrative sense, I knew that I knew something different. What the story needed was to be told by a witness who really didn’t have a clue, and so I lopped eight years off my life and moved home. The second story, 'All Gone', is also an account of actual events, and this time I was there; but the narrative voice is furtively omniscient in a way the ten-year-old narrator could never have been.

Of the sixteen stories in the collection, eight do have an autobiographical element, but not one of them tells it the way it was, and what impact they may have has, I hope, far more to do with the shaping of the material than with the material itself. By the same token, there isn’t a single story that doesn’t draw on some aspect or other of my experience, however remote or fantastic it may seem. What I hope is that the ring of felt experience can be heard in those stories too.

The next stop on the Something Rich and Strange Tour will be Writing Neuroses on 18th November, followed by:

3 25 November 2008 Me and My Big Mouth
4 2 December 2008 Jockohomo
5 9 December 2008 Vanessa Gebbie’s News
6 16 December 2008 Asylum
7 6 January 2008 dovegreyreader scribbles
8 13 January 2009 Harkaway’s Occasionalities
9 20 January 2009 Topsyturvydom
10 27 January 2009 Una Vita Vagabonda

Monday, November 10, 2008

Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

I have recently read Charles Lambert's wonderful novel, Little Monsters (Picador). In sixties England, thirteen-year-old Carol's father has killed her mother and she must go to live on the bleak Derbyshire moors with her harsh pub landlady aunt. Now, in present-day Italy, she is working with asylum seekers. With great aplomb, and a commendably light tone, the novel alternates between these two time levels to unravel a deep mystery and expose a heart-rending struggle to escape the cycles of emotional damage. Personally, I'm blown away by the fact that a male writer could so well understand both the physicality and the emotional reality of being a girl, but I recommend the book too for its wonderfully restrained writing, and above all its very good story.

Charles will be appearing tomorrow on this blog in the first leg of his tour of another book, his story collection The Scent of Cinnamon, newly published by Salt.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The things you sometimes see from your writing desk...

I dunno, talk about distractions while you're writing. Looked up from my desk yesterday morning and down into next door's garden, and what should I see but a beautiful heron standing on the fence. Well, I was rather lost in my latest story - double-lost: I'm trying to write a story about someone lost in a memory which she isn't even sure of - so it didn't occur to me at that point why the heron was standing there. I happened to have my camera on my desk so I snapped it, then looked away, back to my story. When I looked up again the heron had moved down to the side of the neighbours' pond. Should I run the two flights and outside and chase it away? Before I could move, it bent down and picked out of the water a big lump of soggy weed. What on earth, I thought, would a heron want with a soggy lump of weed? (You see, I really wasn't with it). The heron stepped down onto the lawn and dropped the weed to begin poking it. As soon at it let go, the lump shot away, so the heron snapped it up again, hopped back onto the side of the pond, and methodically dipped it into the water over and over, so the weed was washed away and the shape of a frog emerged, its legs flailing. And when at last all the weed was gone, in the split second after this photo was taken, the heron swallowed it whole.

The worst bit? Watching the heron's neck convulse as the frog fought inside it for at least five minutes, while the heron stood nonchalant and still on the side of the pond.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Homes for stories

Once the prizewinning poet Gillian Allnutt said to me, 'Isn't it great when people get what you're trying to do?' She meant editors of course, specifically, at the time, the editors of literary magazines. It was a thought that became more poignant to me, first as serious print lit mags dwindled, and now as a story 'zine' culture supported by the web has emerged, in which, as AL Kennedy has remarked, editors so often set the agenda for authors by running pre-themed issues. As I've written before, this is a culture which is basically not serious on the most fundamental literary level, since an editor looking for stories to fit a theme is by definition not first and foremost looking out for literary innovation, or interested in an author's own literary agenda. (I worry that we contributed to this culture when we published the apparently themed issues of the short-story mag Metropolitan; the fact is, as I've written before, we never thought up themes beforehand: each time we simply chose the stories we considered the best or most exciting, and then, for marketing purposes, thought up a theme which encompassed them all.) In this culture, and in the competition culture which has grown up alongside it, literature pushing at the boundaries of convention - and therefore arguably failing in conventional terms, and thus needing a special kind of literary attention - can get sidelined.

So when Horizon Review was announced, and editor Jane Holland set out her aims, I was excited. She would not be prescriptive, she said. What she would be looking for in the work sent to her was 'openness: to the physical, to the wider world, to ideas and language, and to the possibility of failure'. This was somewhere for me to send my stories, I felt, this is someone who might be attuned to 'what I am trying to do' - to stretch narrative boundaries to explore the contingency of our sense of reality - and 'would get it.' I sent her a story, 'Possibility', and she did indeed accept it.

Writing a post at the time I said that in a literary climate where such serious magazines exist the short-story writer will usually find a home for his or her stories. Yet even as I wrote it, I was aware that Jane had also said this: 'I don’t want Horizon to be a cosy refuge for writers looking for allies and a comfortable place to sleep'. I'd be pushing my luck to send another for a while, I felt. Yet the sense that Jane 'would get' my new story, 'The Choice Chamber', overcame me and I sent it to her anyway. Yesterday she sent me an email in which she said that she would love to turn it down because she didn't want me to look like a Horizon fixture, but she had liked the story so much that, alas, she was forced to accept it.

Now, as far as that story is concerned, that's a literary home.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Something rich and strange: 11th November

We have a date for Something Rich and Strange, Charles Lambert's virtual book tour. Next Tuesday, 11th November, the tour will kick off here, and Charles will be answering my questions about his impressive Salt story collection, the Scent of Cinnamon. Can't wait for his answers.

Friday, October 31, 2008

An interesting experiment

Here's a very interesting experiment in close reading which anyone can take part in and which I'd love to if I get the time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reading group: The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

Group member Trevor suggested this novel which begins in 1921 when the head of an Anglo-Irish household shoots at and wounds a potential arsonist, after which he and his wife decide out of fear to leave their County Cork home with their child, eight-year-old Lucy. Desperate not to leave, and not understanding why they must, Lucy hatches a plot to prevent the departure, but inadvertently leads her parents to believe that she is dead and consequently leave without her, cutting all ties in order to deal with their loss. The story then follows the life of Lucy, brought up by the servants left behind and tied to the house and to her guilt, longing for the return of her parents and redemption.

Trevor said that when he began this novel he thought it was fantastic. So much happens right at the beginning: the foiled raid on the house, Lucy's running away and the terrible mistaken conclusion of the parents. But as he went on reading he began to feel less sure: obviously the point was that nothing happened after that, that Lucy's ironic fate, after she had tried to take control, was to end up passive and basically to miss out on life, but he had the growing feeling that as a result there wasn't really enough in this book to justify its length and that it would have made a better short story. But then he really didn't know what to think, as all the review quotes on the back cover said how marvellous it was.

Doug said that he thought it was a wonderful story, but he hadn't at all liked the style of the book (and he too thought it might have better suited novella length). John asked him what he meant by the 'style' and Doug said he meant the prose style. I said that I too hadn't liked the prose style: to my shock I had found it over-abstract and formal, distancing and failing thus to make the characters live.

Clare quickly said, but isn't that the point, the characters don't live: all of them, and most especially Lucy, are condemned to a half-life? I agreed that that was true, but I still didn't think that the language worked well to to convey this psychological state. It reminded me of the prose of the Nadine Gordimer we had read, The Pickup, and similarly featured a frequent and clumsy use of the defocussing word 'what' in place of a specific noun: ...the men who had once come in the night would have by now lost interest in what they intended... ... they went to the creamery together for the first time since what had happened... ...his experience was puny compared with what still continued for the girl he believed he loved. Clare said, But the whole point is that characters in the book don't talk about things, they don't refer to things directly: the book is after all about silences and the consequences of silence. Fair enough in theory, I said, but I still thought that the prose was clumsy and distanced the reader from the characters' experience of alienation: what about the frequent use of the passive tense, eg when school had been finished with rather than 'when Lucy finished/left school' and He spoke of that afternoon and was listened to politely rather than 'Lucy listened to him politely'. Clare said, But this underlines the passivity of the characters. I said that there was other clumsiness, though, which seemed less like authorial strategy and more like mistakes: tautologies and lack of verbal economy, eg, Her fingers today were slow in what was required of them and ...this was an outcome that might yet come about.

Doug, Anne and John nodded agreement, but Jenny said that nevertheless she liked the book because it was a great story, and Clare said firmly that whatever we said she had found the book extremely moving and it had meant a great deal to her. I had to agree that in spite of my reservations about the prose it was a great story. John said that we couldn't ignore this, that people had thought it was a great story, and we needed to think about why this was so. I said that if someone told me the story over a cup of coffee in a cafe I would have thought it as good, so it was a separate thing from the execution in the novel, but Clare felt that it was the novel she was responding to. John asked her why she so engaged with it, and she said that it recalled for her her feelings of abandonment when she was sent away to boarding school. John wondered if she was though therefore bringing things to the novel rather than taking things from it, and Clare said, Maybe.

Ann, who also went to boarding school, seemed far less impressed by the novel. John now said that he wasn't actually as moved by the story as others of us: indeed, he found it pretty unbelievable. He didn' t find it believable that the parents could so easily disappear, and Ann agreed. She has recently been researching her own grandfather, an archeologist, for her PhD, and has found that at the time of the novel upper-class people like the Gaults moved from country to country via recommendation (rather than passports) which would leave a trail, not to mention the paper trail which would have been left by their cashing in of their shares - a point which had occurred to both John and me. (As a textile conservator at the Whitworth Gallery Ann is an expert needleworker, and she also said that the authority of the novel was spoilt for her by the author's mistakes about embroidery). Personally, in the light of cases like that of Madeleine McCann, I found psychologically unbelievable the Gaults' ability to accept so quickly the death of their child without the evidence of a body, but most of the group seemed to have no problem with this, unlike me finding the fishermen's explanation adequate to convince the parents.

John said that the thing he really disliked about the book was its colonialist tone. He thought that this was created by the aspects of the prose style I'd pointed out, and drew our attention to the omniscient opening:
Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers' heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.
In fact, John said, this passage begs questions which we are clearly not expected to ask: Was Everard really aiming above the trespassers' heads? (The novel appears to expect us to accept this.) As an ex-army captain could he really have been that bad a shot? And, Trevor added, isn't it harder to misfire downwards if you're aiming upwards?

I said that, as for viewpoint, the whole novel takes the colonialist one. Jenny said she wasn't sure about this: what about the servants, Henry and Bridget, they were Catholics, and they were very sympathetic characters, and what about the fact that the boy who is wounded ends up being looked after in the mental asylum by Lucy? I said that last was quite right wing, the fact that narratorially he was dismissed into madness. Jenny said, How on earth is that right wing? and Ann said, Well, the boy's story could have been presented as a foil to that of the Gaults' but instead he was simply a pawn in the Gaults' story, which was the primary story, and indeed narratorially he is just in service to Lucy's own (do-gooding) redemption. And then people remembered how much better the Republican and Protestant viewpoints had been counterpointed in Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon? and how brilliant we had thought that book.

Everybody now agreed that none of the characters in this book ever really came to life, and that even as far as Lucy was concerned there were serious gaps where you might have expected emotional development - which, though it may have been the intention of the author, was unsatisfying for the reader. Several moments which were theoretically key to the story were glossed over emotionally, dismissed in a sentence or two, and Lucy's immediate reaction to her father's reappearance just about omitted altogether.

I said in mitigation that one thing that did really strike a chord with me was the fact that the story of Lucy Gault has to be simplified and indeed altered, its nuances lost, in order to achieve the legendary, folklore status it does amongst the local people. This is in fact an obsession of mine as a writer - the contingency of narrative - and it didn't seem to strike much of a chord with the rest of the group, who looked at me rather blankly. Someone, I think Jenny, said to much agreement that she had really liked the depiction of the way the neighbours, the O'Reillys, slowly encroached on the Gaults, taking back into Catholic ownership the colonized land, and someone else pointed out the similarity between this and the situation in Coetzee's Disgrace which we have also discussed. John said that it also echoed Chekov's Three Sisters, a production of which some of us had recently seen, in that the land had been gambled away at card games.

After which, the conversation about the book ended somewhat abruptly, and next thing we were planning our group Christmas dinner.

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A nice mention for Balancing

I'm chuffed to get a really nice mention for Balancing on the Edge of the World from one of my favourite bloggers, novelist Nasim Marie Jafry. She's just started reading it, and here's what she says:
I have been looking forward to reading Elizabeth's stories for ages, this is a lovely slim volume, easy to carry, and it doesn't surprise me that Elizabeth can turn waiting in a queue for pizza into moments of exuberant intelligence.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Carys Davies and Mike Barlow at Manchester Literature Festival

Had a great evening yesterday: John and I went to a superb MLF reading by Mike Barlow and Carys Davies and afterwards the four of us and a friend of Carys's went out to dinner and chewed the writing fat. Carys and I agreed that the longer you go on writing, the harder it is somehow: we both have several stories in stock which simply aren't ready yet, we're just not satisfied with them. Both of us remembered it being so much easier when we first started writing: we wrote stories quickly and got them dispatched for publication swiftly. But the longer you go on, the more complicated are the things you want to do, and the less easy to achieve...

Carys, Mike and I will be reading together at the Huddersfield Literature Festival on March 15th.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Reading out and reading in

Hm, I'm not sure that the Manchester Festival Hub at the Northern pub had quite taken off by yesterday evening. Maybe the problem is that the festival venues are spread out so far across the city, and it's only when a festival is concentrated on a small area that a drop-in/hang-out centre works. And I wonder how many people are aware of it? It's included only in the back of the brochure, as if as an afterthought.

It's a great shame, because there should have been far more people to hear Belinda Webb read from her punchy, linguistically inventive novel of a Moss-Side teenage rebel, A Clockwork Apple. And there were no copies of the books for sale: someone had failed to get them to Belinda in time.

Sometimes you can't help getting weary of the whole book-tour, festival scene: so much physical effort and expense for so little effect sometimes. I've been doing a fair bit of reading lately (I mean private reading of other people's books), and this, along with the fact that my writing is taking off at the moment, is such a richly personal experience that public readings by authors seem not just beside the point but to deflect from the real point. Among my most recent reading has been the utterly wonderful The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, two clever novels by Tobias Hill, including the proof of his forthcoming The Hidden which I was privileged to receive, William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault (for my reading group, and the prose of which I'm shocked to discover is over-abstract and woolly), and a whole host of short story collections, including two impressive collections from Salt, The White Road by Tania Hershman and The Scent of Cinnamon by Charles Lambert.

Indeed, the last two are about to take part in virtual book tours, the latest addition by web-savvy Salt to their publishing model - a brilliant way to bypass the drawbacks of real-life, expensive and ephemeral book tours. This will be one of the blogs hosting Charles Lambert with The Scent of Cinnamon (dates TBA), and I am very much looking forward to my/our conversation with the author.

Even so, I urge any of you who are able to come along to the Northern on Tib Street at 5.30 this afternoon, to hear two more quite brilliant Salt authors, short-story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Manchester Lit Fest: The Hub

What with Paris and coming back to a lot of stuff to catch up on, I haven't yet got around to the Manchester Literature Festival. However, I'm planning to go to a couple of events at the new 'Festival Hub' tonight and tomorrow. I've thought that the one thing the festival lacked in its first two years was a central meeting and relaxing point, and this year, the festival's third, they've set one up in the Northern pub in Tib Street, where free early-evening events will also take place. Tonight it's blogger Belinda Webb reading from her debut novel, A Clockwork Apple, and tomorrow it will be my fellow Salt authors, short-story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow who was shortlisted for the prestigious new Manchester Poetry Prize.

So I'd better get on with some of my reading before I need to leave the house...

No need to book, apparently.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Good as a tonic

Here's a great photo of most of us on the Faber Academy weekend in Paris, taken by one of our members, Antonia Hayes:

Back, l-r: Ronald Grover, David Lee, Sam Thorp, Kate Brown, yours truly, Antonia Honeywell, our great tutor Tobias Hill, Bill Colegrave, Catherine Douglas, Liz Wilkinson, Laura Elkin, Fionnuala McManamon, Cynthia Barlow Marrs.
Front: Jeanette Winterson and Colette, the Shakespeare and Company dog.
On the table: the second of the tonics Jeanette gave us (the first being her rousing talks).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jane Holland discusses Horizon Review on Start the Week

An email today from Jane Holland, editor of Horizon Review (in the first and current issue of which there's a story by yours truly): she'll be discussing Horizon Review and the current state of literary criticism on Radio 4's "Start the Week" this coming Monday, 20th October, at 9am.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Fizzing verbs

'What is this celebration?' asked a fascinated (and jealous-looking) woman outside Shakespeare and Company late yesterday afternoon.

We do know, folks, that we're privileged. It was the end of a really great day on the Faber Academy course. That morning the first thing we'd done with Tobias was talk about our experiences of the exercise the day before (and I confessed my inadequacy – only to have it pointed out that in the telling I had already begun writing the story I thought was out of my reach). Next, we moved onto dialogue and Tobias came up with some great exercises, one of which involved us in drama-school type antics and considerable hilarity.

In the afternoon Jeanette came and blew us away all over again. Writing is a physical activity , she told us; good writing is founded on the muscularity of verbs, a point which she rightly said is far too little acknowledged or discussed. We looked at the use of verbs in the startlingly muscular beginning of her novel Lighthousekeeping and an RS Thomas poem, both of which she had by heart. (Learn stuff by heart, she told us, keep it inside you, physically, because we live in a precarious age, books can disappear but no one can take away the texts written in your heart and which can spark your own writing.) Be true to yourself and your writing but work hard to find the words to release it. Most important writing, she felt, comes from our deepest wounds. And then she stopped and gave us a telling-off for an attitude she’d sensed in the group: never apologize for your writing.

Jeanette famously doesn’t believe in teaching creative writing. In that single hour she taught us loads.

And then she whipped out champagne. And since today had turned out to be the birthday of one of our group - blogger Laura Elkin - Faber's Patrick had bought a cake, and we went outside into the summery afternoon and had the party which made our passer-by so curious.

And it wasn't the end of it. When the champagne was done, we walked up to Montparnasse for a group meal, and I'm telling you, people were a little slow-moving to start with this morning...

But then we did something which has turned out to be some people's favourite thing on the course: we went down to the fiction shelves and picked out good and bad first lines and then spent time discussing them (and sometimes killing ourselves laughing). Now everyone is working on an exercise based on a poem or preparing for the readings with which the course will end this afternoon.

Here is the birthday girl Lauren:

And here is Sylvia Whitman, daughter of George who in 1951 took up the Shakespeare and Company baton from originator Sylvia Beach. Sylvia now runs the bookshop and has worked hard to make our residency there so very enjoyable:

Thursday, October 09, 2008

France, fantasy and fiction

See, it's this fantasy, innit? You're an artist - a writer-artist - fancy-free and cosmopolitan, you can see yourself on European railway stations, en route to meetings with other artists in eccentric locations with literary-intellectual histories. And blimey, there I was on my way to the inaugural Faber Academy course at the Left Bank bookshop Shakespeare and Company, having lunch with Ben at St Pancras and deciding we MUST, to suit the occasion, get a glass at the champagne bar. But then, see, our respective northern and Welsh roots get the better of the fantasy: we look at the menu and clock that the very cheapest is the same price as TWO glasses of wine in the restaurant so we go to the restaurant instead. But then I'm on the Eurostar and before I know it I'm in Paris and tucked up in my suitably and quite romantically eccentric and old-fashioned hotel. Next morning it's a ten-minute walk along the Seine and I'm there, among the famous teetering shelves.

The course is being held in the tiny library upstairs, past book-filled alcoves (and the odd bed: presumably for resting browsers!). There are fifteen of us and we fill the room, seated around its edges, those of us in the corners with our knees touching. It's intimate, and immediately our tutor, poet and novelist Tobias Hill got us interacting with his relaxed yet thorough and thought-provoking approach. Description, character and story: these are the three things which make up a novel, he said, and the exercises he had devised around this theme were ingenious and raised issues which led to lively discussions, and I must say that at this point some pretty impressive talent emerged. We discussed past versus present tense and first versus third person. Tobias is a champion of third person and thought most great novels were written in the third; not everyone agreed. By the end of the afternoon we were pretty exhausted but fired up (and some of us a little drunk by the time we'd been for the very nice drinks and canapes laid on by Faber and six of us students had gone off afterwards for dinner).

That was yesterday. Today was very different: that's another thing about Tobias, he knows how to shake you up with surprise. No sooner had we sat down comfortably, ready for a repetition of yesterday's proceedings, than he told us to get up again and go off individually into Paris for the whole morning on a note-taking exercise - a very nice one which entailed sitting in cafes like Matisse if you wished, a suggestion some of us had no bother taking up. Oh f***, though, I can't do this. I've so often wondered if I could, when I've taught writing courses myself: ditch my own agenda and concentrate on flexing the particular writing muscle in question. I try, I really do, but my own bloody agenda keeps surfacing: I've found some amazingly interesting-looking characters to describe, but once I start thinking about what their outward appearance signifies about their inner life, the other idea which obsesses and excites me as awriter kicks in: that outward appearance more often or not belies the inner person. So I'm hopeless in the afternoon too, when we spend the main part of it writing up our notes, while Tobias conducts one-to-one ten-minute tutorials about the work he kindly allowed us to shower on him on arrival, and I'm struggling with the thought that I'm not a very good student, after all. Then at four o'clock Jeanette Winterson arrived and roused everybody with an inspiring hour-long talk on the importance of voice in fiction, and a spirited defence of the first person over third, which gave us all, including Tobias, a good laugh. Then off to the cafe next door for a drink (of course!) before a great reading by Tobias of his poems and an extract from his forthcoming novel The Hidden. And then guess where six of us went again...