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.