Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bo Jazz at the King's Arms

I don't go often to the King's Arms in Salford, although one summer I spent a good deal of time there, as my play O'Leary's Daughters was staged for the 24:7 Theatre Festival in their fabulous round-ceilinged upstairs room (I think it used to be a billiards room), and last year after our rehearsals for The Processing Room at Salford University, Mary-Ann Coburn and I used to call in for a drink on our way back into town. I really should go more, because this is where Studio Salford is based, and they always have exciting-sounding programmes of new plays as well as their unique occasional 'embryo' nights where writers and artists can try out new sketches or snippets of plays or short films.

Studio Salford itself seems to be dark at the moment, but on Friday and last night a new independent company formed by actors Jarrod Cooke and Ryan Barber staged  the first of their own entertainments, Bo Jazz, billed as 'a new concept in live sketch shows', and directed by Helen Parry. John, Matthew and I went along. I must say the acting was brilliant. Five actors, Jarrod, Ryan, Curtis Cole, Samantha Siddall and Daniel Hayes each made lightning switches between very different characters, playing them with wonderfully accurate observation.  I liked the innovation whereby between the sketches two musicians, Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith, played live music pieces they had specially composed with the sketches as inspiration. I have to say I did find the sketches a bit laddish, and I'm not sure that the pretty vicious anti-lesbian joke at the end was quite excusable as simply a condemnation of the character who made it.
A great evening, though, and when we came down for the interval who should we bump into but several old friends who just happened to be there drinking.  I told you, I should go there more often....

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy at The Royal Exchange

Last night I went to the Royal Exchange production of The Revenger's Tragedy. I won't name names but, bloody hell, actors just can't seem to speak early modern English dialogue any more.
I must quickly make an exception for Stephen Tompkinson who played Vindice: none of his TV appearances I've seen have indicated to me the stature of his acting, but after last night I'd say he's a genius. Eileen O'Brien, who plays his mother, was also as brilliant as I've come to expect of her.

I went with my son Matthew and we sat on the banquettes, and I have to say we got sore bums and just before the interval our backs started aching but it was worth it, and John, who didn't come because of the bad reviews the production had had, really missed out. I knew the play from university but I'd never seen it, and it really was an experience. As the RX programme notes explain, the Jacobean playwrights thought of themselves as writing modern versions of Roman tragedy, but had overlooked the fact that the violence of those Roman tragedies was merely reported and not enacted on stage. It was a pretty strange experience to watch the Duke having his eyelids slit and his tongue cut out (you just couldn't help thinking about how they were doing it), and, as the interval started, to watch a stage hand pick up the 'tongue' and put it into a plastic pot ready for the next performance. The production self-consciously acknowledged this difficulty in suspending disbelief for a modern audience (for instance, during the use of the Duke's dead body in an intrigue there's a dance sequence performed to 'The Sun Has Got His Hat On'), but whether it worked - along with the modern dress: guys in suits using daggers and killing dukes without redress? - we're still heatedly discussing. There's no doubt however that it's made an impression and that the images will stay with us for good.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Messiness in Fiction

As I've written here before, I'm working on a series of short stories in which I'm trying something new. It's partly my response to, or maybe expression of, the situation we find ourselves in culturally and psychologically post 9/11, and partly perhaps my own rebellion against what I've done before - which you have to keep doing if you're not to go stale as an artist, right?

As I've said here, I've become increasingly impatient with concepts of fixed character, and with plot which leans towards singular meaning, and indeed with the whole conventional notion of story - I guess I always have, really, but I've been tipped over the edge recently. I keep asking myself: How like life is that, after all: the single interpretation, the one (authorial) viewpoint, the satisfying conclusion?

And yet... How to make stories which convey the messiness of life, the fact that sometimes there is no conclusion and we don't know the meaning - which increasingly it seems to me it's important to do - while yet satisfying the entirely understandable desire of readers for pattern and meaning?

It's hard. My story 'Possibility', which will appear in the first edition of the new online lit mag Horizon Review is one attempt. This kind of writing is exhilarating, challenging, but not easy. But an article by Anthony Neilson in today's Guardian has given me courage. He says that works of art which 'attempt to bring order to the unruliness of existence' are reductive, and that this is simply not the business of artists.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reading group: Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient is one of the few books I have loved so much that I have read it three times in spite of all the other books out there waiting to be squeezed into the time and, more importantly, the headspace left over from my own writing. Once I told him so, at one of those legendary Waterstone's Deansgate readings, and I'm not sure what he thought - whether he was embarrassed or amused or believed me, but anyway I had to say it. It's the structure I find most beautiful - a structure so resonant with aching meanings - so I'm not a huge a fan of the film which alters it so radically.

So anyway, when Doug suggested this, Ondaatje's next novel, I had mixed feelings. Surely this too, would be great, but then surely no writer could ever come up with something so thrillingly resonant twice? In any case, I read it through the filter of the first.

The novel is set in the late eighties and early nineties in Sri Lanka, when government squads were hunting down and murdering antigovernment insurgents and separatist guerillas, and concerns the events which ensue when Anil, a young forensic anthropologist, born in Sri Lanka but having lived abroad for most of her adult life, returns to uncover on behalf of a human rights group the source of the organized campaigns of murder.

This book takes further Ondaatje's use of unusual structure to embody the themes, and this time the rationale is more overtly political. It is essentially episodic, moving from character to character and back and forth in time in a way which can seem baffling, but which people in the group quickly noted mimics both the processes of civil war in which people and meanings are scattered and the procedure of forensic archeology which must piece together seemingly disparate elements. Introducing the book, Doug began by saying that it is about Anil, although he said this rather uncertainly and we quickly agreed that it's not possible to talk about this book in such conventional terms, or appropriate to bring to it conventional expectations. While the beginning appears to focus on Anil - arriving in Sri Lanka, remembering a doomed love affair, and meeting Sarath, the Sri Lankan anthropolgist with whom she will work - by the end of the book the focus has shifted to Sarath. Indeed, it is significant that the first section is titled 'Sarath' and the title of the book does not refer to Anil herself but to her 'ghost'. Most people in the group took this last reference - the 'ghost' - to concern the skeleton on which Anil and Sarath work, but I thought it meant something much more significant: it is revealed some way into the novel that a 'ghost' is a Sri Lankan informer, and Anil does indeed have her 'informer' on the deepest level: someone who points out to her that she with her outsider's perspective is not only useless but potentially dangerous to those she purports to be working to help. As people noted, Anil has dropped out of the book's focus altogether by the end, and by creating such a major shift in perspective the structure of the book thus makes a deeply political statement. I had intended to ask the group why they thought certain sections of the book were in italics, notably Anil's memories of her work life, but I forgot and it wasn't discussed. I think now that it's another authorial device to distance and parenthesize Anil's perspective and illustrate its impotence.

Nearly everyone thought this was an immensely clever book, and nearly everyone seemed to agree that it was moving (although it struck me that they said it without seeming particularly moved). Doug said he had found it very vivid - both in terms of the depiction of the scenery and atmosphere and in terms of the character depiction, although there were some things he couldn't quite get to grips with, like the point of Anil's memories of her affair and of her friendship with another, female colleague with whom she has now also lost touch. Clare said she thought that the point of these last were that they illustrated that people never really made lasting connections because they never really knew each other, another instance of Anil's impotence and alienation.

All of this praise had rendered John completely silent, as he had been unable to engage with the novel at all, and I now said that in spite of everything I admired about the book, my experience had been rather similar: unlike others I hadn't been moved by the book since I hadn't found the characters ever came to emotional life. Jenny suggested that that was deliberate authorial strategy, a replication of the repression of people living under such regimes - which is probably true, but sadly means for me that the novel's devices were too successful, and deprived it of the resonance I'd found in The English Patient.

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

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Succour launch at the Briton's Protection

The literary magazine scene is thriving again, thanks to the web, and one mag which has achieved prominence and a good deal of acclaim is Succour. Last night the latest and seventh issue was launched in the Briton's Protection pub here in Manc, and John and I went along and met Max Dunbar, one of Succor's several UK regional editors, and Managing Editor Anthony Banks, and heard two great readings by contributors to the current issue, Animals. Nick Royle's striking story 'The Bee Eater' displayed his trademark style, whereby everyday reality is slyly shifted into the surreal and indeed shockingly weird. Aidan Clarkson's poem, 'Feathers, Families', dealing with a strange mass metamorphosis, was equally arresting and otherworldly - all the more so for its deadpan demotic tone. Great stuff: I bought the mag forthwith.

Nick and Anthony Banks also read stories of their own which had appeared in the London Magazine (which, in spite of recent Arts Council cuts, is still going strong due to the energetic efforts of the acting editor Sarah Mae Tuson and her team). John also read: his recent serious illness has somehow pushed him back into writing poetry after years away from it and writing academic texts instead, and last night he put his toe back in the reading water with a very short poem from his Peterloo collection, In the Footsteps of the Opium Eater.

It was a great evening, and great to drive home with a sense that the small magazine scene is buzzing once again.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Inspiration again

Speaking of 'inspiration': Nick Laird follows Anne Enright in the new Guardian Author, Author slot with an endorsement of her account of the process of beginning writing a piece as fundamentally unwilled and out of the author's conscious control. (Can't find a link, I'm afraid.) However, Laird is only speaking for poetry, the conception of which he says has 'no aspect of choice':

The right words are little coughs from off-stage, promptings, triggers, intimations of something near and distant ... and finally connected to you, right through your skin.

I like this, and I also like the fact that he says that this is why you can't just go making poetry out of other people's suggestions or reported incidents, but I'm pretty uncomfortable (as I guess Anne Enright might be) with his suggestion that the same can't be said for fiction.

As far as I'm concerned, this is a pretty accurate description of the conception of fiction (as I've indicated in the piece I wrote as part of the series on author 'inspiration' for John Baker's blog) - especially short stories which I believe are closely related to poems. Laird's account of a poem's gestation: 'Not a wholly intended process', depending on Maeterlink's 'concentration, intensity of mood', is not unlike my own description of a story's gestation in my Quill magazine interview, and for me the 'clarification' of a story similarly depends (if to lesser extent) on 'sonic effect'.

And actually, when it comes to novels, it's not that different, either, as far as I'm concerned...

This is why, when my mum rings up on Sundays with the latest scandal or family crisis and the inevitable rider: 'There's a story there for you!', like Laird I can only politely murmur agreement, knowing it won't go anywhere.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Short Review reviews Balancing on the Edge of the World

Issue 8 of The Short Review is now up, and it includes a pretty fabulous review by Melissa Lee-Houghton of my story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World .

She calls it '
a stunning debut collection by a writer whose prose deliberates its characters and themes with a keen sense of literary drama'. She also says of the stories that they are:
contemporary in the acutest sense without being limited to being fashionably modern ... Place and time are not necessarily pinned down in many of the stories, but rather swoon toward a universality which is wholly admirable ... The stories never feel forced, but prickle with a high-sensitivity to the themes which bleed through Baines’s concept of power: often nameless individuals dish out and receive humility, fear, violent threat, expectation ... Each story, though offering a heavily unreassuring perspective, feels weightless and tuned in, in the balance of the fickle order of things.

And here's what The Short Review says about me (!):

Her reputation is consistent amongst her peers and readers alike, as an innovative and committed writer of distinctly pure talent.

Eeek! Now I'll have to live up to that!

This seems to be a bumper issue, with reviews of nine other great-looking collections as well, and interviews with seven authors (including yours truly).

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Salt's Short Story Bank

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The need to be ready to write

Anne Enright writes about the difficulty of starting a novel, and the tricky conditions required for doing so, including one's own emotional relationship to the material. What comes over is an impression that the ability to get going on a piece is not ultimately under the author's conscious control or will.

I've written something similar on this blog, but after reading the Enright piece I got to thinking that actually, sometimes being forced to start writing rather than waiting around for the ripe moment or 'inspiration' is useful, and fruitful (well I hope it was for me!). All but the first two of my radio plays were written to commission and deadline, as were at least two of the stories in Balancing: 'The Way to Behave', which was commissioned for the Bitchlit anthology, and 'Into the Night' which was requested for a Welsh anthology of erotic stories (though the anthology never happened - not enough Welsh writers came up with erotic stories!) I've also written here agreeing with AL Kennedy that literary competitions which dictate subject-matter militate against innovation, but both of these short stories were responses to prescribed themes.

I guess, though, it's more a question of being lucky if the prescribed theme or the imposed deadline fits your own prior state of readiness, because unless you're in the 'zone' whatever you write will be dead in the water before it swims.