Sunday, May 31, 2009

Just One Book: latest bulletin

Here's Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery's latest Facebook note about the Just One Book campaign: the low-down on the amazing success so far, and the reason the campaign needs to keep going:
Sunday, May 31 2009

It's been impossible to think. Just over a week ago we were facing oblivion, the backlist would have sold on, but the business as a going concern was all over. I was job hunting. Stress had left me deaf. We were about to lose our home and it seemed everything had fallen off some precipice and was hurtling down into the frozen dark. We began cancelling the list and preparing for the worst. Nearly a decade of effort was being lost.

Then our viral campaign led to an extraordinary sequence of events. Facebook, Twitter and hundreds of blogs all covered the story of Salt's Just One Book offer. The media picked up on the story and suddenly over a 1,000 orders poured in, supporters arrived in virtual droves and the goodwill and great ideas became emotionally overwhelming; we had support from Foyles and Waterstone's in the UK, from independent bookstores around the globe, The Bookseller and The Guardian covered the story, the BBC wanted to cover us. The office changed from its usual focus on editorial, marketing and publicity to become a non-stop postal service, sending thousands of books off around the globe.

Alex Pryce had arrived to do a week's work experience as a Salt intern (part of our widening programme to support those wanting careers in literary publishing), what began as a project surrounding audio developments was swamped as she was drawn in to picking, packing and despatching order after order. Beside Alex, the Salt team grafted away. Charlotte and Tom, Jen and I, still haven't caught up with it all. But we're working hard, all day, all night, and still the orders are coming in.

Last week was half term, and most of my days were spent at home with the kids, sometimes reassuring them that there was going to be a future and that we would get paid at some point. I was spending as much time as I could helping make those sales. Just over a week later and we've now raised £24,000 or our £55,000 target. There's still some climb ahead, a big climb, but the enormous support of our friends and customers has bought us all time; it's all about time. What we hope most of all, is that we can keep our new customers, and that we've shown them that there's something wonderful and fulfilling about our list and our site, something exceptional about our authors.

I need to keep it all going, I need your support for one more month. So here's an offer for everyone and we hope more customers will come and join the campaign to buy just one book:


We're now giving you a huge 33% off ALL books till the end of June. Use the coupon code G3SRT453 when in the checkout to benefit. Don't forget if you spend £30 or $30 you get free shipping too.

Please continue to spread the word, and spread news of this offer. Please don't let up. It's been extraordinary, but we're not out of danger yet. Every penny goes into developing Salt's books and services. We want to start a new children's list, and offer more resources to teachers and schools. We want to extend our publishing in new areas including our translations programme, we want to offer you more free magazines online. We want to help develop more support for debuts with the enhancement of our Crashaw and Scott prizes. We're planning audio books, ebooks and new videos for you. We only want to move forward, to develop and expand what we do and deliver great books in new ways to you and yours.

We need your support throughout June. We'll try and organise more readings and promotions with our authors. Virtual book tours. More launches. We'll work with bookstores to bring you short story and poety evenings. Stick with us throughout June and we can do something astonishing. That's the power of Just One Book — we want you to be a part of it. Follow us on Twitter look for #SaltBooks and #JustOneBook. Join our Facebook Group.

And have a giggle at the vid, too.

Oh, and one last special offer — Catherine Eisner’s magnificent crime novel, Sister Morphine for £7.50 plus P&P, simply enter coupon code EISNER in the UK checkout

Watch out for more special offers throughout June.

Thank you.

Brave or foolish

So often when I come here to the family house in Wales, I'm busy helping with the never-ending work on the house, or I'm here to write. And so often the weather is so wild or wet or both that when we go walking we are all togged up in our waterproofs.

But this time the weather is so beautiful we've been out walking all day every day - until today when I'm having an experience I haven't had here for a long time: I'm sitting under the trees with a wonderful view of Nantlle Ridge and beginning to feel a new story forming. And I need to, my legs are aching so much!

Look where we went on Thursday: after walking the length of Newborough sands on Anglesey we did something I have never dared do before: we crossed Traeth Abermenai while the tide was out and still receding (above). It's a huge bay which empties completely when the tide is out and fills right up again when it's in, the tide coming in very fast in these parts. It must be safe (as long as you know the tides) because there's an official 'track' across it, marked on the map, but John has never persuaded me to do it before. You set off from the lightpost at the end of the spit on the western side of the bay and make for the centre back onto the dunes. I can tell you I was pretty scared setting out across that great expanse which looked slick with water, and indeed was, although it was never enough to wet much more than our boots, and the sand underneath was firm all the way. In the event it was easy, and what a wonderful feeling when we got to the other side, from where I took the above photo, looking back the way we had come.

Here are my companions, John and Matthew, getting ahead of me on the way:

Latest in the Just One Book campaign

Just two little fluffy clouds this morning, the mountain seeming a different world from usual - something like Greece - and four out of six bands on my internet connection!!

The latest in the Salt Just One Book Campaign is that they have now raised £24,000 of the £55,00 target - soon be half-way there. A wonderful response from poetry and short story lovers. Please help to keep up the momentum by passing on the message, and do take advantage of the wonderful offer of 33% off all Salt books until the end of June.

Here's Jen Hamilton-Emery's latest Facebook message:

As a thank you for your support of us this first week of our Just One Book campaign we're offering you a huge 33% off ALL books till the end of June.

Simply use the coupon code G3SRT453 when in the checkout to benefit.

The offer applies to our UK & International and USA shops.

We have now raised £24,000 or our £55,000 target. Do please continue to spread the word about the campaign and this offer. Thank you for everything you're doing to help us save our business and continue publishing.

Best from everyone at Salt
Jen x

Friday, May 29, 2009

Foyles and bookshops take up the Salt Just One Book campaign

Well, it's a glorious day on the mountain today - soft fluffy clouds in the valley down below when I woke, now burned off by the sun, and the internet is working a fair bit better! (I see that yesterday's post got posted twice in all the confusions and lost connections!).

Anyway, here's the latest fantastic news in the Salt Just One book campaign from the Bookseller blog:
Chris will be on BBC2 "Newsnight" tonight (29th May). Foyles will shortly be running a benefit to help raise funds for Salt for the summer. Bookshops around the country are putting on displays of Salt's latest titles.
Well, wow. This is just wonderful news for everyone involved with Salt, everyone who loves poetry and short stories, and needless to say for me, as the publication of my novel Too Many Magpies depends on the success of this campaign!

Don't forget to watch Chris on Newsnight tonight if you can. We've got a meal booked in Caernarfon tonight, and I'm hoping to get back up the hill by 11 to watch it on our tiny portable battery-powered camping telly. I'm also off now to wait half an hour while the pages load to find out if I'll be able to watch it later on iplayer.

Then we're off out for a day walking!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Salt Just One Book Campaign goes on apace

I'm up the mountain in Wales at the moment, so I may not be online much for the next few days - it's always worst in bad weather, and it took about 5 mins for this page to load!

I wanted to blog this, though: the Salt Just One book campaign goes on apace (Please scroll down to my previous posts for the link: it would take me no end of time to put it in here!). Apparently there were 800 orders in the first 4 days, bringing in 17,000 pounds. Today the campaign hit the Guardian books blog with an article by Shirley Dent (that's a link I prepared earlier!), and it seems that at this very moment director Chris Hamilton Emery is in London in an interview being recorded for BBC 2's Newsnight Review this Friday at 11pm!

Thank you so much to everybody who has bought Salt books. Salt isn't out of the woods yet, though, so if you fancy some more or if you haven't yet bought one, please do. Their website here.

Cross-posted with Fictionbitch.

Salt Just One Book Campaign goes on apace

I'm up the mountain in Wales at the moment, so I may not be online much for the next few days - it's always worst in bad weather, and it took about 5 mins for this page to load!

I wanted to blog this, though: the Salt Just One book campaign goes on apace (Please scroll down to my previous posts for the link: it would take me no end of time to put it in here!). Apparently there were 800 orders in the first 4 days, bringing in 17,000 pounds. Today the campaign hit the Guardian books blog with an article by Shirley Dent (that's a link I prepared earlier!), and it seems that at this very moment director Chris Hamilton Emery is in London in an interview being recorded for BBC 2's Newsnight Review this Friday at 11pm!

Thank you so much to everybody who has bought Salt books. Salt isn't out of the woods yet, though, so if you fancy some more or if you haven't yet bought one, please do. Their website here.

Cross-posted with Fictionbitch.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hooray and thank you

My book, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and Tania Hershman's The White Road and Other Stories still on the Amazon UK Bestselling short story list, as a result of the Salt Just One Book campaign! Thank you to all those people who are buying Salt books!

Not just one book!!

Latest in the Salt Just One Book campaign: the website hits have gone through the roof and 643 new orders are in process.

My own order arrived yesterday, and it's hard to describe the relish when those beautifully produced books emerge from the jiffy bag. I'd ordered Chrissie Gittins' newly-launched book of poems, I'll Dress One Night as You and Matthew Licht's stories, The Moose Show. I loved Chrissie's story collection, Family Connections, which was one of the first story collections Salt published - wry, vivid stories about 'ordinary' lives which make them anything but ordinary, so I know I'm going to love her poems. I bought Matthew's stories for John: we heard him read at a Salt event 18 months or so ago, and they seemed to me amazingly tough, dry yet moving stories, set mainly in New York, I think, and we both thought then: we've got to get those stories. But you know what, we didn't buy them that night. We thought: Oh, we'll get them another time. And guess what, we didn't get them, we just kept on thinking, Oh we'll get them sometime. This is what happens. And in the meantime the recession hit just as Salt's grant ran out and all their books looked in serious danger... This is what happens when people don't actually get round to buying the books.

So please, if you haven't yet bought Just One Book from Salt, do so: you won't just be helping Salt, or just helping to keep short stories and poetry alive, you'll be doing yourself a great big personal, life-enhancing favour, I promise. All their wonderful books here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Matt Bell's Short Story Month and my story 'Daniel Smith...'

I'm really thrilled that Matt Bell has written about my story 'Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth' for his 15th Short Story Month blog. This story appears in my collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World.

The Bookseller picks up on the Salt Just One Book campaign

Bookseller article here about the Just One Book Campaign. Chris Hamilton-Emery says that there were 400 orders in 24 hours. How wonderful!

(And Balancing on the Edge of the World has been up to No 21 on the Amazon UK short-story bestseller list - and Tania's The White Road is currently at No 4!)

Believing in bestsellers

Do you think maybe I need psychiatric help? You see, I find it really hard to believe sometimes when I hit a bit of writing success. Like the fact that since last night my book Balancing on the Edge of the World has been on the Amazon short-story bestseller list - up to no 36 this morning.

There are three other Salt books on the list, Tania Hershman's The White Road, Vanessa Gebbie's Words from a Glass Bubble and David Gaffney's Sawn-Off Tales. This is obviously down to all the wonderful people who have responded to the appeal to save Salt by buying their books, and it's a great big thank you to all those of you who are doing so, and who are spreading the word on the web.

Last night Jamieson Wolf generously weighed in on his blog, and said this:
...why not try the incredible Balancing on the Edge of the World by the lovely Elizabeth Baines, one of the best short story collections I have ever read.
And I'm thinking: What? Eh? The best he has ever read? Hasn't he read many short story collections, then? Or is he just one of those people given to overstatement?

Or maybe do you think someone needs to have a word with my mother?

As for the sales: well, one brief flash in the best-seller charts does not a whole future create, so please, please if you haven't yet done so, buy a Salt book - they're fabulous!!! Go to the website and see the wonderful array of books on offer.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lilac all the way

Does this ever happen to you? Sometimes I go into a room and there are two people wearing the same colour and standing in a configuration that makes the whole scene look as if it has been designed. And today, I was in the post office with a bundle of envelopes under my arm - magazines for some wonderful people who had bought Salt books today - and the woman in front of me was wearing a silk pale lilac mac. And the guy in front of her was wearing a pale lilac shirt. And the woman standing at the counter was wearing a patterned skirt with grey and lilac splotches. And then I noticed that the woman behind the counter was wearing a pale lilac jumper, and that this was actually the post office uniform colour because the guy to the left of her behind the counter was in another pale lilac shirt, and the woman on the right of her in a uniform blouse of black and lilac blots. And the only people in the place not in lilac were a girl in head-to-foot black and me in my jeans and black leather jacket, only when I got home and took my jacket off I realized I was wearing my puce-coloured T-shirt.

You couldn't paint it, or write it, unless you were making something surreal. Perhaps you could dream it...

What does it mean?

Thank you book buyers!

Well, tonight my book Balancing on the Edge of the World is on the Amazon bestseller short story list at no 49, and Tania Hershman's The White Road is no 10 - someone has been buying Salt books today, and thank you so much to them!

Salt spoof - but serious too

Shed some Salty tears at this:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Just one book: save Salt. And an offer

Although they have worked wonders in the present climate, Salt Publishing are facing a financial crisis, and have put out an appeal asking for people to buy just one Salt book. If enough people do that - just buy one book - the crisis can be averted.

Go on, you know you want one of those wonderful, beautifully produced, superbly written Salt books, or even two...

And if you buy one Salt book today from anywhere I'll send you a free copy of the now defunct but acclaimed and collectable short story magazine metropolitan. Just email me at e dot baines at zen dot co dot uk.

Here's the message which Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery put out on Facebook yesterday:
As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business.

Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.


1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

2. Share this note on your profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone
Salt Publishing

Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Circuit: A Salt Publishing Guide to the Art of the Short Story

Ah, time to announce this, I see: Short Circuit: A Salt Publishing Guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie, due September 1st. It looks fantastic, and I'm really proud to have contributed alongside so many fabulous short story writers. Vanessa has done a stirling editing job, which she writes about on her blog, having got the final manuscript off to Salt. Can't wait to read all the other contributions!

Short is beautiful

An article I wrote for the Writers' Guild magazine, UK Writer, on the rise of the short story has just gone online.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading group: The Invention of Curried Sausage by Uwe Timm

Hans suggested this book, which we all very much liked, after a German friend had recommended it to him: we hadn't heard of it, but in fact it's a bestseller and something of a modern classic in Germany. It's short, a novella, and is told by a narrator who, like that of Austerlitz which we read last, seems very close to the author. Returning to his native Hamburg, the narrator sets out to prove that the popular dish of curried sausage sold on German street-stands did not originate in Berlin in the fifties as is generally accepted, but was invented by his aunt's Hamburg neighbour, Mrs Brucker, who sold it on the local square immediately after the war. However, tracking her down to an old people's home and getting her talking, he learns far more than the answer to this question - which was yes, she did invent it - and the matter of how she came to invent it is withheld as her poignant wartime story unfolds.

With a husband and two grown children away in the war, Lena Brucker meets at the cinema a young soldier who, failing to leave her flat next morning, becomes a deserter secreted by her there. When the war ends very soon after his arrival, she can't bring herself to tell him and inevitably lose him, and thus he becomes her unwitting prisoner. It is only later, after this story has played itself out, and Lena sets about making a postwar living for herself, that the recipe for curried sausage comes to her more or less by accident.

Thus the search for the truth about curried sausage is a kind of device, or even a McGuffin, for the unravelling of a more emotionally complex tale, but, 'combining the farthest with the nearest' as the narrator says it does, it is also a kind of metaphor for that tale too: the coming together of two disparate people who would not under normal circumstances do so, a woman reaching middle age and a young man with a wife and new baby to whom he feels committed.

John suggested that it also operated as a way to make palatable and approach a subject which is of great sensitivity in Germany, since the denouement of Lena's wartime story, which I won't give away here, hinges on the revelation to her of what had been happening in the death camps. He said he also thought that the double-narrator device which this book shared with Austerlitz was connected with this: a way for the generation of Germans tackling this subject in novels to 'distance' it and make it possible to handle. He thought it was interesting too, and perhaps inevitable as a strategy, that both these novels and The Reader feature a younger narrator forging a relationship with an older person who had been involved to greater or lesser degrees in these events.

Everyone had good things to say about this book. People liked its depiction of the ways that the extremities of war disrupt convention, and in particular the portrayal of the tenderness yet toughness of the unconventional relationship. They loved the little touches, such as the two officers of the occupying British force turning out to have Hamburg accents (and to be Jews), and the portrayal of the postwar black market bartering. They were especially taken by the book's illustration of the fact the people you least expected turned out to be the wartime informers. Clare said that she was amazed when she realized what a short time the two had been together in the flat, as it had seemed to go on for ages, and everyone agreed that this was an achievement of the novel: recreating the suspension of time and reality for the two characters.

I said that I thought the book extremely well written, as far as you could tell from a translation, or maybe you could tell because the translation read so well. Clare then asked me what I meant by well written. I said I meant emotional acuity or truthfulness conveyed via apt language, and John summed it up better by saying that in well-written prose there isn't a false note, which everyone agreed was true about the prose of this book. I also said that one of the things which struck me forcibly about the double narrator device which seems to be a feature of these recent German books is that it serves to subsume the ego of the author: all the emotional and verbal acuity is handed by the author to a narrator, which I said struck me as an act of great authorial generosity, and John wondered if it were a function of the act of reparation which these novels may be seen as.

We did find some false notes on other levels, however. While the narrator reports Lena's story indirectly, thus giving himself room for interpolation, it is nevertheless the story as told to him by Lena, and on one or two occasions the novel swerves unconvincingly from its own convention when we are presented with the interiority of other characters. Some people said they had found themselves wondering if it really were believable that the soldier, Bremer, didn't guess that the war was over as he watched the road from the window all day long. I said I had a slight doubt about the novel's treatment of the business of the informers and people's knowledge of the death camps: the novel seems to imply that people like Lena were completely unaware of what was happening with the Jews (Lena thinks back to a Jewish neighbour leaving with her case and how nothing much struck her about it at the time), yet Lena lived more or less in the Jewish quarter, and also, the novel seems to indicate, people knew that there were informers informing on the Jews.

Doug said that the worst false note was right at the end, indeed the very last word, when the narrator comes upon a scrap of paper on which is one of the crosswords which Bremer whiled away his time doing. One of the words filled in by Bremer is 'even though nobody will believe me - novella'. Everyone cried out in horrified agreement, and Doug said he'd thrown the book down at that final point.

Even so, we liked the book enough to forgive it any of its faults, including this.

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

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Awards big and small

I am so flattered: the wonderful Sue Guiney has given me a Kreativ Blogger award - which comes with a sting as I have to list 7 things I love, and if you think I'm going to tell the whole truth about my lusts and obsessions, you've got another think coming!!

Here are some things I love which I don't mind confessing, though:

1. My partner, John (soppy, moi?)

2. My kids (mumsy, moi?)

3. Finishing a piece of writing and thinking it's OK (self-satisfied, moi?)

4. Being with actors, which I have been this week, and who are some of the most open, generous, stimulating and witty people in the world, even though those who don't know think they're just show-offs.

5. Walking in Snowdon.

6. New shoes (or rather, charity-shop shoes in outrageous impractical styles I'd never buy new) (Fetish, moi?)

7. Cabbage. Yum.

And now I have to make this award to 7 creative bloggers I love. I know that many of my favourite bloggers have already received this award, but here are some who may not have, though I could well be wrong: Charles Lambert, Caroline Smailes, Keeper of the Snails, The Volatile Rune, Barbara's Bleeugh!, The Richard Madeley Appreciation Society, Maitresse.

And a fabulous piece of news. The longlist has been announced for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award: a stunning 57 collections are on it and thus receive the international publicity which this award was set up to provide for a form which generally gets little attention. And alongside authors such as Ali Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro, there are eight Salt authors :

Tania Hershman, The White Road

Sue Hubbard, Rothko’s Red

Alex Keegan, Ballistics

Charles Lambert, The Scent of Cinnamon

André Mangeot, A Little Javanese

John Saul, As Rivers Flow

Mark Illis, Tender

Robert Graham, The Only Living Boy

Friday, May 08, 2009

Launch of The Real Louise by Ailsa Cox

I love Liverpool. It's this kind of place: last night at 6.15 John was parking the car near Lime Street Station and I was studying the parking meter, and a chap who was crossing the street several hundred yards up took the trouble to divert towards me and call, 'It's free after six, love!' And I love the way the roads swoop up hills and round bends and the wind whips off the Mersey and round your shoulders - well, it was doing that last night.

We were on our way to the Bluecoat Gallery and the launch of The Real Louise (Headline Publications), a first collection of stories from Ailsa Cox, with whom I once edited the short story mag metropolitan. Ailsa is a wonderful writer: her acuteness with language casts an immediate spell, transporting you instantly into place and psyche. There's gratifying surprise in her stories in the way they get under the surface of experience, yet they also make you want to say, 'Yes, that's how it really is!'

As Ailsa's publisher Gladys Mary Coles said in introducing her, Ailsa has played a large part in the recent renaissance of the short story, through her own academic works and the founding of the prestigious Edge Hill Prize for a published collection, this year's shortlist for which has just been announced. Ailsa gave a wonderful reading and then she and Gladys Mary held an interesting discussion with the audience about the short story.

I had a great time: there were several people I knew and hadn't seen for ages, and I was very pleased to meet once more Robert Shearman, whose own great collection, Tiny Deaths, was shortlisted for last year's Edge Hill Prize and went on to win the World Fantasy Award. Afterwards some of us went out for a Portuguese meal, and it was pretty late by the time John and I made it back along the M62. Even so, I couldn't sleep until I'd had a couple of paracetamols, and you know why? Because even though I vowed not to wear high heels any more after my accident last year, I went and wore them again, and halfway along Parker Street I went right over on my ankle and was in agony by the time I got into bed.

Vain, moi?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A conversation with John Baker: the virtual tour of Winged with Death

Today I'm delighted to be hosting John Baker's latest stop on the virtual tour of his new novel 'Winged with Death.' This is a gripping novel, for me in more ways than one.

Here's the stunning prologue:
Montevideo was a dreamland.

We stood facing each other before I offered the embrace. She with her head high and her breasts thrust forward. When we came together and moved away in the tango walk I could feel his eyes tracking us around the room.

I was young and he was old and in taking her I might as well have cut his heart out. but I didn't know that. Or if I knew I didn't care. An old man's heart; it wasn't something to grieve over.

The novel then begins with Ramon Bolio, formerly Frederick Boyle, relating how in 1972, aged 18, he jumped ship in Montevideo to start life anew and indeed take on a new identity, landing unsuspecting in a country on the brink of dictatorship. Very soon, though, this narrative is interrupted: Ramon tells us that here in present-day York he has had to stop writing it because as he was doing so his brother Stephen came to tell him that Stephen's daughter, Ramon's niece, has gone missing. From this point on two stories run parallel. On the one hand there is the story of how, while people began to be 'disappeared' all around, in Uruguay young Ramon became a Milonguero, a master of the dance, immersing himself in the tango, which, if I understand the novel rightly, is both a denial of and a rebellion against repression - finally waking up to the political situation and joining the resistance movement and ending up in knuckle-biting danger. On the other, there is the present-day story of his niece's disappearance and the police hunt for her abductor or, as time goes on, her possible murderer. And all the time we are made aware of Ramon writing down both stories, and of the way that present-day events hold the process up.

While both stories in themselves are gripping, I found this structure and its implications, gripping: the idea that stories vie with each other for significance and as the repositories of reality or truth.

I was therefore eager to talk to John about his aims in this novel, and the conversation we had follows below. But first, a biography:

John Baker was born and brought up in Hull. He has worked as a social worker, shipbroker, truck driver, milkman, and most recently in the computer industry. He has twice received a Yorkshire Arts Association Writers’ Bursary. Married with five children, he lives in York now but has also lived in Oslo and a barn in France on the way there – long way for a short cut. In addition to Winged with Death he has published eight why-dunnits based in Hull and York - the Sam Turner series and the Stone Lewis series.

Here is our discussion:

EB: You've already talked on the tour about your themes of time, tango and denial and identity, but I'm really interested in how these are negotiated via the structure of the book. You've said that the two narratives operate like a tango, and I must say that I was excited the first time that the present-day narrative intruded, interrupting the writing of the older story (and this happens later again of course) - the way that, as you say in the book, tango partners move in relation to each other, invading each other's spaces. You say in the book too though I think that the tango is above all a communication - implying unity. Could you elaborate on the way the stories do this too?

JB: This is an interesting question. Winged with Death is the single story of a man's life. And it is a paradox, of course, that a life, any life is at one and the same time a single event while being made up of a host of different events and stories. Likewise with the dance, although the leader may indeed invade the other's space from time to time and the two dancers involved may dance conflict or disdain, loneliness or antagonism, these aspects of the dance can only really occur because of an inner unity or an understanding on each of the dancers' parts that they are dancing together. If that understanding, that unity is lost, even for a moment, there is a real danger that the dance will end up in a heap on the floor.
When I was writing Winged with Death I was aware of several stories going on at the same time (this is often the case in a novel); divided, in time, by two main narratives.
The earlier narrative, in Montevideo, concerns the experiences of a young man. The later experiences, in York, concern an older man. They dance together over time. They can never meet in actuality, only in memory. They are a unity, together they form a life. The young Ramon and the older Ramon are separated by time; but at the same time they are absolutely inseparable.
The two stories are dependent on each other. One cannot exist without the other. And in the dance there is no existence, no presence, without both partners.
That stability, that maintenance of form, represented best perhaps by the atom, is only possible because of the constant movement of its constituent parts. We can never step again into the same river.
Winged with Death aims to achieve its own unity by the interplay of its parts, the dislocations in time, the geographical, cultural and political differences between Montevideo in the seventies and York in the first years of the 21st century, and by the myths, musings, preoccupations and personal conduct of its main characters.

EB: This is fascinating, John, and very exciting. And yes, while your novel operates via those 'nudges' and interruptions, it does have a feeling of real synthesis: it's difficult, I find, (and reductive), to talk about one aspect of it without talking about all the others! Another moment which really struck a chord for me was the one near the beginning where Ramon talks about the possibility (or impossibility) of his present and past selves meeting up and comparing notes. While this obviously conveys your themes of dance and time, it’s also central to the notion of identity, isn’t it?

JB: Identity is another one of those endless quests. Like grasping or trying to grasp a fairy or a spirit. At last you get there and know you have it in your hand, but when you unclasp your fingers it has already flown. We always need to classify and measure and assess, to define and say this is it, now I have it, this is my identity. It's a kind of illness we have, a flaw in our makeup.
Because it doesn't take much reflection to see that we are in constant flux as long as we are alive. Our identity is whatever we are engaged in. Our characters are formed by the elements with which we are raised. We are the cumulative product of our past and the past of the fragments of culture we have absorbed and interpreted and the songs our mothers sang and the sounds in the night and a bright shiny day by the sea or in the back yard.
So identity is important, impossible but important. We would love to know the extent of our freedom and we can only begin to guess at that when we begin to discern if our knowledge is spontaneous or inherited.
This is complicated by questions of nature or nurture, by the old certainties disappearing, like nationality (the difference between the races); the death of god and our complete failure to find a replacement for Him. Our growing certainty over the last few hundred years that we are increasingly alone (or our capitulation into the fantasy of commercial religion).
Winged with Death begins with Ramon's reinvention of himself, his change of name and domicile, his willing absorption into a strange culture and tradition. He gives himself a new start.
In a way this happens quite frequently. People tell me, you get what you see with me. Or: I'm a simple man, or: I tell it like it is. They cannot accept the complexity of life, they want to lose themselves in the old religion or in over-simplifications like self-sufficiency. They dream of the countryside, seeing romanticized pictures of Hardyesque proportions.
All this is, of course, a kind of denial. It is stating that the overwhelming complexity of our lives is not necessary, that we don't need or shouldn't need to deal with it, that we can decide to say no to everything and achieve freedom through escapism.
But I feel more and more that the truth is complicated. That it is not possible to pinpoint who we are. That I am only the me that I am in this moment, and that in the next moment I may well be someone completely other.
I also believe that all of these questions of identity are touched on in one way or another in Winged with Death.
Like in any novel, some readers will pick up on this aspect of the novel, while others will not. A novel is a layered thing and a reader should be able to discover the layers they need at one particular reading. I suppose that is what is meant when people talk about a book having as many interpretations as it has readers.

EB: Well, for me they were a big thing in the novel. This idea that the truth and 'reality' are too complicated, paradoxical to pin down is a very important one to me (and I'm blown away by your moving explanation of it ), and it's one of the best things for me about Winged with Death. I'm wondering if this is something to do with your abandonment (for the moment) of the crime novel? I don't read crime novels as a rule, so in fact I'm pretty naive about them, but I have the idea that they are reliant on concepts of a single identifiable reality (solutions to mysteries and puzzles) and of course the search for identities in the most concrete sense of the word. Am I wrong here?

JB: I can't tell you if I have abandoned the crime novel. I don't want to write another one at the moment, and my current project, apart from promoting Winged with Death, is more of an historical novel than a crime novel, though I don't think of it in genre terms.
This time next year I may have changed my mind. I have still to conquer the future.
I think your idea of the crime novel and its limitations might be slightly skewed.
It is quite a broad genre. At one end these novels are exactly as you describe, and here I'm thinking of writers like Agatha Christie; the village mystery or the 'cozy', where something violent and completely unexpected happens within a small geographical and social area and the revelation of the perpetrator is (to me, at least) usually unconvincing and quite surprising. I don't regard this type of book as a novel at all. It is something else, more related to the crossword puzzle than to mainstream literature.
At the other end of the spectrum are novels by writers like Dashiel Hammett, Chandler, KC Constantine and George V. Higgins. These people write character based novels and are invariably interested in relationships and language and the interrelationship between individuals and society. They use the crime genre self-consciously, using perhaps a murder or other crime as a skeleton on which to hang a thinly disguised novel of manners or an excuse to introduce other concepts of a wider concern.
Between these two extremes there are, within the genre of crime or mystery novels, a seemingly endless array of side streets and alleyways which include sub-genres like historical crime or fantasy-crime, etc. etc.
Like any other genre, there is a lot of dross. But if you choose critically there are some real gems out there.

EB: Yes, I guess I was overstating my position a bit, as I do like Chandler for the very reasons you outline. And of course, Winged with Death plays with the genre because there's the hunt for the missing girl and a potential murderer in the present day. And now that I think about it, it's almost as if you're saying (in the novel) that the crime novel is one kind of truth out of many... ! (?)

JB: I didn't think I was saying anything about the crime novel in Winged with Death. However, as you well know, the writer is often the last person to know what is really going on.

EB: You've touched on the theme of denial in the novel, something I'm particularly interested in. Could you to talk a bit more about it?

JB: My neighbours’ daughter went down to four and a half stone (30kg) before they took her into hospital. Even then she had to be force-fed, insisting that she only needed to lose another few pounds and she would begin eating normally again.
I often recall Solzhenitsyn's remarks about his neighbours in Stalin's Russia. They would leave for work in the morning, he said, and there would be a car at the end of the street with two men sitting in the front seats. When they returned in the evening the same car would be in the same place, but with other men in the front seats. They would be told by neighbours and friends that these men from the car had been making inquiries about them. This might go on for several days, until one day the two men would arrive at the house with a uniformed officer and the subjects would be arrested and taken away, often never to be seen again.
Everyone knew the routine, Solzhenitsyn said. When the process first began it was a warning. The subjects could have got on a train and disappeared, sought help from relatives in another town; they could have done something to save their lives. But hardly anyone ever did. They preferred to believe it wasn't happening. Even though it would soon claim their lives, they preferred to ignore all the evidence.
According to Susan Sontag's son, David Rieff, she refused to accept she was dying of cancer until a few days before the end. A woman who revered reason, science and logic, and in the face of overwhelming evidence from the medics willingly entered a state of deep denial.
Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms and one that we all use from time to time. We often refuse to acknowledge the existence or severity of unpleasant external realities or internal thoughts and feelings. Men who live in cultures with extreme notions of masculinity are known to view fear as a sign of weakness and deny their own feelings of fear.
Denial can also take on a mass form. There was a kind of national denial taking place during the 1950s when school children were taught to hide under desks in preparation for atomic attacks.
Today we all know about Holocaust denial, and even the denial of global warming.
But people generally accept that denial only takes place among others. They never do it themselves, they may understand the mechanism and understand why it happens, but it is invariably something that happens to others, never to me.
As a writer I find myself fascinated both by the personal and the social manifestations of denial. I see us going to the polls and electing chauvinistic politicians who are prepared to tell us anything but the truth. It is as though we have an internal picture of our world and we are prepared to spend an enormous amount of energy and time on maintaining that vision, almost at any cost.
This was one of the things I wanted to explore in Winged with Death, and why denial became one of the themes of the novel.

Thanks so much to John for such interesting insights into his artistic concerns.

You can buy the novel here.
John's blog is here.
Details of the rest of the virtual tour can be found here.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A guest is coming

I've been having a really interesting - no, inspiring - conversation this weekend with John Baker, who is visiting this blog on Wednesday (6th) on the virtual tour of his gripping new novel, Winged with Death.

Do drop in on Wednesday and read what we've been saying, and find out all about his novel!

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Real writers

I've just written on my other blog about the desire of Anne Michaels to remain invisible behind her text, and not to reveal things about herself which would affect the way people read it. It's an attitude I held myself for a long time, and which, you know, I still have deep down. But hey, look at me, I'm on Facebook and Twitter, I write this blog, I've just done the virtual tour for Balancing on the Edge of the World in which there was no way to avoid revealing stuff about myself - and of course it's all very gratifying: I love the connection with other writers and readers.

But there's always that worry, isn't there? Maybe people will look at my picture and read about my life and then impose those on the protagonist and book from which I've worked so hard, as Anne Michaels says, to expunge myself...

As I was saying the other day, as a radio playwright I've never needed to do any publicity: you get your name in the Radio Times, and that's it: any publicity based on personality devolves around the actors - same in the theatre and of course film. And in my view it's absolutely lovely, because when someone (thrillingly) writes to you to tell you they've loved your play, you know that what they have loved is the play in its purity, just as you intended it! Well, obviously the actors and director have contributed to the interpretation out there, but the great thing about radio is that they always strive to get your concept of the play across.

As I've said before, Elizabeth Baines is not actually my 'real' name, but was adopted as a pen name, purely because I wanted to get this experience with my prose. I thought I could sit at home, like those Victorian women novelists and send my missives out into the world and hug myself with amusement and glee when no one guessed it was I who had written them, and if they were a success, it would be because they were a success in and for themselves. It hasn't worked, of course, and Elizabeth Baines is now as much my real name as any other - as I've said, I answer to it and don't even notice any difference: basically, now it is my real name!

In any case, having spent my entire writing life so far sticking to publishing facts, more or less, in my author bios, I've realized how pointless that is now, and I've just written my most personal one ever (for my forthcoming novel, Too Many Magpies).