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.