Sunday, March 29, 2009

Eco-Libris collaboration for my new novel

I'm very excited. Following in the steps of fellow Salt writer Tania Hershman, I'm joining forces with Eco-Libris who will plant a tree for every copy printed of my novel Too Many Magpies which comes from Salt in October. (Tania has done the same with her great collection of stories The White Road.)

It seemed especially apt to do this with Too Many Magpies. The book indeed has an environmental theme, being about a woman whose faith in science is undermined as the natural world around her becomes ever more uncertain and she meets a man who seems to offer a different, more magical kind of power. It's a novel about our rational and irrational fears in a newly precarious world, and the scientific and magical modes of thinking which have got us to where we are now.

It's no surprise, I guess, that I should write about such things: I've been passionate about the natural world since I was a child, and this arrangement with Eco-Libris makes me not only excited but actually proud!

Eco-Libris are a green company aiming to point out the environmental impact of the book industry - more than 30 million trees are cut down annually for virgin paper to be used for the production of books sold in the U.S. alone - and to balance this out by working with the creators and readers of books by planting trees. You can join forces with them as an individual reader and have a tree planted for every book you read.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Real life v fiction

I've been talking a lot recently - on my virtual book tour, at the Huddersfield Festival and in the forthcoming Salt book on how to write short stories (edited by Vanessa Gebbie) - about the relationship between real life and fiction, but I haven't tackled this problem: what about when you take a real-life trigger and twist it into something quite different, but then real life takes such a turn that you lose grip on your fiction?

This is precisely what has happened to me over the past few days. For some time now I have been mulling an idea based on an incident in the past of a relative of mine. It's an incident which has always stayed with me, and which seems ripe with narrative possibilities - or at least thematic possibilitites, and for me once you've got the theme the narrative usually follows. In fact those possibilities hadn't become clear to me, and so the story hadn't so far happened, but then late last week it began to. I wrote the opening scene, although I was still very much feeling my way. Then lying awake in the night, I had it, the real 'inspiration': I saw what the incident truly 'meant' - ie what it meant to me, for a story, rather than what it had meant in real life. This is what you're always waiting for as a writer, think, the moment when the logic of narrative makes its own demands and releases you from real life into the more organic world of make up.

Well, I had a really good morning writing the next two pages. And then, guess what? That very same day a family crisis occurred involving the relative who had been the real-life trigger. And guess what? I am so taken up by her new crisis that I am finding it really hard to inhabit the story. It's not that I no longer believe in the story, I do, but my psychological alignment with it has been disturbed: my relative's real-life dilemma and her real-life personality are too close to me at the moment not to come between me and very different fictional reality I was creating.

The answer, I know, is to set the story aside and wait for that distance from my real-life relative to return. Or maybe start writing science fiction...

Saturday, March 21, 2009


This is the pic I was going to illustrate yesterday's post with, but didn't have time as I went rushing off for a booze-up with my friend Adrian Slatcher.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Well, phew. A few weeks ago I moaned about not being able to write to a theme set for an anthology I fancied being in, and about the ridiculousness of theme-setting in general, but I'm beginning to wonder if it was simply that while my book tour has been running, my head just hasn't been in the right place for writing.

My book tour finished on Wednesday. Yesterday, as a way of signing off from it, I tidied my study. This morning I walked into the tidied room and looked at my old writing table with the sun pouring onto one corner of its surface, my pad laid neatly and my silver fountain pen gleaming beside it, and something happened. Some kind of reverberation in the air of the room, some kind of peaceful soft feel to it... You know what it was, don't you? That womb-like dream world coming back...

I sat at the desk. And it came, the story I had been trying to write all those weeks ago.

Last week I met Ben, an artist, for a drink, and I was moaning about this very thing: the way promotion requires a different mentality from creation, and if you do a lot of promotion you can end up not creating. He nodded and agreed, but I think he thought I was a wimp. It's the price of the democratization of art, he told me. I know he's right, but I don't half find it a struggle sometimes...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The dribble interview! Final leg of my book tour

Well, my book tour finally comes to an end today on the blog of Tania Hershman, whose own amazing collection stories, The White Road is also published by Salt, a book of stories inspired by scientific ideas and taking off into the most inventive realms of the imagination. Tania conducted her own riveting book tour at the end of last year - hers was a pilot tour for the Cyclone book tour scheme which Salt recently introduced. She knew therefore how much hard work book tours can be - I have spent most weekends for the last ten weeks thinking so hard about my own writing and writing in general that I think my brain's about to implode - and how distracting from writing. Tania therefore decided to give me a break with a 'dribble' interview, that is, an interview in which each of the answers must be no longer than 50 words! It was a great relief, and great fun - and yet the interview is incisive, I think: no surprise, as Tania is a whizz flash fiction writer. Some of the flash stories in her collection are the best and the most resonant I have ever read; John says that too, and as a poet he has very high standards for flash fiction.

Today's interview is here, and don't forget that all of the Cyclone tours remain on the Salt website, and you can click back and read all the interviews where I bare my writing soul!

Monday, March 16, 2009

The realism of readings

Issue 2 of Horizon Review is now live, and it includes my new story, 'The Choice Chamber'.

It's not a realist story in any way - quite the opposite, but you don't realize that until the end. Funny thing, realism, or should I say, funny word, or anyway funny how people take it. Last night Carys Davies, Mike Barlow and I did our reading at the Huddersfield Festival. (That's us above taking part in the Q & A.) In the introduction my third prize in last year's Raymond Carver competition was mentioned, and it became clear in the Q & A afterwards that it was consequently taken for granted that I write only realist stories and that Salt - unlike Comma, it was stated - publish realist stories in general - and this in spite of the fact that Carys read from one of her anything-but-realist contemporary fairy tales. It's so far from the truth that we three were a bit gob-smacked for a moment - Salt is nothing if not a broad church for writers, as we quickly told the audience when we recovered. As I said - to everyone's apparent surprise - my Carver prize-winning story is not a realist story. In fact, it's a story which self-consciously challenges the concept of realism, which is what I'm doing generally now in my short-story writing.

Part of the problem, I think, is the all-too-human tendency to pigeonhole, which is quite a stumbling block if you're trying to do something subtle which maybe doesn't shout out about its 'category', or which indeed is intended to break down those categories. And it depends how you read things, anyway. As John and I were speeding back down the motorway afterwards, John said he didn't read Carver as realist anyway.

It seems to me that realism is predicated on the assumption of an objective reality (about situations, characters etc) on which the author is intended to be taken as an authority. This is a notion I am always challenging in my writing - it's a core thing about my writing: the contingency of reality and the contingency of viewpoint - however psychologically convincing I may succeed in making the characters or vivid and real-seeming the situation. Even the story I read out last night, 'Condensed Metaphysics' - which was indeed called by someone last night 'a slice of life' realist story - is intently concerned with this, the fallacy of the notion of an objective reality. Perhaps the problem for this story is that it is now known to be based on a real-life incident, which I had admitted at the start last night, but I think my account on Vanessa Gebbie's blog of how I turned that real-life incident into a story shows precisely that the story is not after all about a real-life incident but the ideas in my own head.

As you can maybe tell from the above, we had a great discussion with a lively and attentive audience in the pub cellar bar we were moved to because of some technical hitches. Cosy and warm with red lighting - hard to see faces for the Q & A, but it didn't seem to matter! See how (realistically!) dark it was without a flash:

We had a great time. Many thanks to the festival for inviting us.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Salt of the Earth: Reading at Huddersfield Festival

An announcement today:

On Sunday I'm reading at the Huddersfield Festival with fellow Salt authors short-story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow.

Sunday, March 15, 2009, 6:00pm - 7:00pm
St Pauls Hall, University of Huddersfield
Queensgate, Huddersfield
View Map

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

New leg of my book tour: prose v drama and adaptation.

The penultimate leg of my virtual book tour, Around the Edges of the World, is now up on the amazing blog of novelist Debi Alper - after endless technical glitches, apparently, so I'm even more grateful than I already was due to the fact that in order to host me she is stopping out from her amazing account of the Grenada revolution and invasion. (I wrote about this last yesterday, and about Debi's very striking and unusual crime thrillers).

Debi asks me about the differences between writing prose fiction and drama, and about the special problems of adapting one's own work from the first of these forms to the second.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Debi Alper

Tomorrow the penultimate leg of my virtual book tour, Around the Edges of the World, goes to the stand-out blog of Debi Alper. For those of you who don't already know, Debi is currently blogging about her experience of being in Grenada in the early eighties, after the revolution and then during the coup and the US invasion. It's an eye-opening read, a brave project which explodes myths which have grown up about the period, and was prompted largely when Debi was contacted by a documentary filmmaker who is delving into the truth of the revolution and invasion. Debi is one of those bloggers who have become real-life friends, and I am not at all surprised to read her brave part in this history, since I know her as hugely warm-hearted and staunchly committed to whatever she decides matters. I am extremely honoured that she will break from her account to host my little ol' tour.

Debi is also of course the author of striking crime thrillers distinguished by a very original angle: the amateur sleuths of Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana belong to the alternative sub-cultures more often seen as 'other' in crime thrillers. The vivid occupants of the Nirvana Housing Co-op include a drugs counsellor as well as an ex-drug addict, a New Ager and a refugee from the S & M scene, and as they tackle head-on the fascist elements of our society, Debi exposes from inside the harsh realities of subjects such as sex trafficking and child abuse - all with the trademark verbal fireworks which also characterize her blog.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Will I catch up?

Spring already, and the period I set aside for my series of short stories is rapidly running away. Not much time for it lately, or for blogging. I did finish a story the week before last, but I haven't had time to give it a final look over, so it's still languishing on my desk. I spent last week writing a chapter which I was thrilled that Vanessa Gebbie invited for an exciting book she is editing for Salt on writing short stories, based on one of the answers I gave when she hosted my virtual book tour. At the same time of course there was the usual distracting task of keeping up with the latest leg of the tour (and the pretty head-stretching questions Charles Lambert asked me about my writing). The weekend was taken up in answering the questions for this week's upcoming leg (Wednesday) on Debi Alper's blog (more probing questions which I've had to think about really hard - mainly about the difference between writing prose and drama, and about adaptation) and reading scripts for the 24:7 Theatre Festival. I've read quite a lot of scripts for the festival this year, and I've come across some I'm sure are absolute winners, but of course I'll have to wait to see if other readers feel the same...

I feel as though it's all work and no play, but I did get out for a walk along the river on Sunday afternoon and into Fletcher Moss Gardens to photograph the crocuses (above). And I did go out twice in the week, once to hear Jackie Kay and Joe Pemberton read at Manchester University, and the second time to MMU to hear David Edgar talk most interestingly about translating Brecht. A really interesting thing about that last event was that it was attended not only by theatre folks but also by people I normally only see at poetry readings - usually, I find, these are separate constituencies. And afterwards a group of us went out for an extremely enjoyable meal and catch-up on all fronts - so really, what am I complaining about?

There's more excitement this week - and travel, that real thrill for the desk-bound writer! I'm off to Liverpool on Friday to take part in the workshop of a play by Ian Moore - something I love doing, and which is such a great break from the desk work. And on Sunday I'm off to Huddersfield to take part in a reading at the literature festival with fellow Salt authors short-story writer Carys Davies and poet Mike Barlow. (Details here.) Then next week it's the final stop of the virtual book tour (18th March) on Tania Hershman's blog, which is bound to be interesting, since she is the editor of The Short Review.

And then maybe I'll get a chance to put the writing cap back on...

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Politics and audiences - new leg of my virtual book tour

Today my virtual tour of Balancing on the Edge of the World goes to Italy and the blog of novelist and short-story writer Charles Lambert. This is something of a reciprocal thing, as last year I hosted Charles on his own Cyclone tour of his wonderful collection of stories, A Scent of Cinnamon. I am a great admirer of Charles's work, and I wrote about his sophisticated (in literary terms) yet utterly moving and accessible novel, Little Monsters, here.

The intelligence behind his writing and which he brought to his own book tour would, I knew, guarantee that the questions he asked me this week would be thoughtful and searching, and indeed they get right to the heart of some of my main concerns as a writer. He asks me about my political consciousness (with a small p) as a writer, the differences between writing for a radio and a short story audience, and the reasons for the variety of the stories in my collection (and in the process I spill a few more beans about my past).