Friday, June 26, 2009

Just Four Days...

Just a reminder that the Salt offer of a whacking 33% off books ordered via their site lasts only another four days. Use coupon code G3SRT453 in the checkout.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reading group: Falling Man by Don DeLillo

This book was chosen more or less by default: Jo, whose turn it had been to suggest our next reading, failed to turn up, and, off the top of his head, Doug tentatively suggested this because he'd just bought it. Having read Panjak Mishra's Guardian article on 9/11 literature I said I thought it was a book we should perhaps read, and since we'd very much admired DeLillo's prophetic White Noise, we agreed on it.

We were very disappointed, and I found that the book bore out the criticisms in Mishra's article. One of Mishra's main complaints is that, as a study of the psychic effects on a bourgeois couple after the husband Keith survives the twin towers, the book is a retreat into the domestic, and thus away from the wider issues. I'm not sure that such a focus, in theory, would necessarily carry inbuilt failure in exploring the important issues, but we certainly found that it failed here: we found the couple almost entirely unsympathetic (with the exception that John thought the wife Lianne a fairly sympathetic character), and the conversations between Lianne and her mother Nina and Nina's lover almost shocking in their seemingly inappropriate urbane novel-of-manners style - convoluted, arcane and indeed very difficult to follow - and making it hard at times feel the urgency or import of the twin-tower context even when they are discussing the politics. We could see that there might be a political authorial point here, that DeLillo is showing the inability of Americans to absorb the reality of the situation, and indeed Keith's journey through the novel seems to be one away from reality (into a life of gambling), but the effect on us as readers was fatally ennervating. (As Jo said to me in the cafe the week before the meeting, she didn't care a hoot about the characters, and she wouldn't have gone on reading if she hadn't been doing it for the group.) As a result we found similarly ennervating the fragmented non-linear structure and the glancing, cumulative prose which I felt should in theory have been powerful as a depiction of the breakdown of bourgeois American certainty.

For a long time in our discussion we failed even to mention the fact that each of the three sections of the book is concluded with a piece which takes the viewpoint of Hammad, one of the 9/11 hijackers, and the three together chart his progress from his initial conversion to Islamism to the moment of impact. The fact that we omitted them so long from our discussion is an interesting comment, I think, on the ultimately bourgeois focus of the book, and once they were mentioned, people didn't really know what to make of them. Mishra's comment, in line with some other critics, is that the depiction here is founded in unsubtle stereotype. Our group wasn't quite sure what to think, but did find the depiction unconvincing (and someone questioned the factual/historical accuracy of Hammad's geographical origins). It's perhaps again an interesting comment on the failure and pallor of the rest of the book that, even so, some said they found these sections the most engaging and vivid.

If I understand him correctly, Mishra charges DeLillo with subscribing, via this sterotyping and the 'Western'-centric focus of the rest of the book, to a profile of Muslims as regarding 'Westerners' as 'other', while indeed colluding in a view of Muslims as 'other'. I believe that DeLillo is striving hard to avoid this: there are various tropes in the book which seek to break down such concepts of otherness. Most obvious is the fact that Nina's German lover has himself been a terrorist/freedom fighter (and argues the case for Islamist dissatisfaction with the West). Then there is the moment at the end of the book when the concept of 'organic shrapel' (in which pellets of the skin of suicide bombers become embedded in the flesh of survivors) is taken to a striking level when the body and consciousness of Hammad morph in the moment of impact into those of Keith in the tower. Such self-conscious tropes, however, are at odds with the psychic centre of the novel, which is indeed 'Western', forcing the 'eastern' into otherness, and in consequence, it seemed to me, the sections concerning Hammad's story felt more like colonization than the empathy which DeLillo may have intended. As Mishra notes, most Muslims already live with a complex sense of their own Westernization, rather than the polarization on which DeLillo feels compelled to mastermind such a striking conversion in this final scene.

Meanwhile, on the less conscious level, it seems, an undercurrent of polarization runs through the novel: Clare and I in particular felt shocked by an episode in which Lianne hits the woman in the downstairs flat purely for her insensitivity in playing eastern music in the aftermath of 9/11. While there was some sense that her behaviour was a kind of madness that had overcome Lianne (and Keith suffers a similar 'madness' when he hits a man in a department store for a perceived personal slight), there seemed too little authorial indication that the true madness is that her sense of injury and insult could only emerge from a sense of the music as 'other', and it was this that felt shocking.

And the street performance artwork mimicking the famous image of the man falling from one of the towers seemed - apart from highly unlikely: people thought that in reality the artist would have been lynched by New Yorkers - yet another dislocation into artifice of this urgent real-life issue.

Trevor was very late for this meeting, having double-booked, and we had finished the discussion when he arrived. Since he so often likes books others don't, we expected him to put up a defence for it, but when we asked what he thought he lifted his hand and stuck his thumb down, not exactly perpendicular but almost. And Hans had the last word when he said that he had looked on the internet for a film of 9/11, and the very short one he had found had left him a hundred times more profoundly affected than had this novel.

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

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The art of typesetting, school study, and a great review

It was my birthday this week, and I have had some wonderful birthday week treats, writing-wise. To start with of course there were the first proofs of my novel Too Many Magpies. This is such a magical moment, and for me has been even more magical since I was a typesetter myself, for the short-story mag metropolitan: I know exactly the care that has to go into getting the right look on the page for the text, the choice of font, of margins and point size and leading, the clever fiddlings needed sometimes with kerning (manually altering the spaces between the letters) (which I know I didn't always get right), the understanding of language and respect for the reader's perception in judicious hyphenation, the overall patience yet artistry needed. Text as paint, is how I used to think of it, and still do, and so now when I get my first proofs, it's not just that thrill of authorization I feel, but also the almost physical sense of the way my words have been shaped into something concrete by an artist. And something beautiful - the typesetting for TMM, which has been done personally by my lovely publisher Jen Hamilton-Emery, is beautiful! So that was a really lovely start to the week.

Then Jen told me that the story 'Compass and Torch' (which appears in my collection Balancing) is to be included in an anthology and accompanying DVD for GCSE students - the second school book in which it is to appear. Mind you, from some of the comments by schoolkids clearly forced by teachers to read it on the East of the Web site where this story first appeared, I'm wondering if it's a double-edged thing. And if I'm remembering rightly, when Vulpes Libris had a week devoted to short stories, some of the negative comments about short stories as a form were from people who had clearly been put off them by studying them at school! But then it's not just short stories, is it, that people get put off by school study, and not everyone gets put off, do they: when I mentioned my worry to my visitor Ben, who was staying on Friday, he said, 'Oh no, I really loved the stuff I studied for English at school - and all my Art School friends, did too!' - which reassured me a little.

Finally, I got an absolutely wonderful review for Balancing on the Shelf Life blog. Here are a couple of extracts:.
Balancing on the Edge of the World is a slim volume, but what it lacks in heft it makes up for in emotional power...

Every story is meticulously crafted, and I loved how the stories are told with such a compact grace. Baines takes life's mundane moments and invests them with meaning, power, and a sort of magic. I also loved how the stories all made me feel something. I am not someone who cries while reading, but I definitely wiped away a few tears while reading some of these stories. There is an emotional honesty to them that is really raw and intense, and I found them very affecting.

I was really impressed with Baines, and how she gets to the heart of the matter. I'm looking forward to reading more by this author.

Oh, and on the non-writing front: I bust my sewing machine and thought that would have to be an end to my hobby of buying charity-shop clothes and altering them, but then was told it could be repaired and be good as new! A great birthday present from the man in the nice old-fashioned sewing machine shop in Eccles!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ten days left to take advantage of Salt offer

Salt's Just One Book campaign made the paper Guardian today. And here's a reminder that there are just ten days left to take advantage of the huge 33% discount on all Salt books. Offer ends 30th June. Use the code G3SRT453 at the checkout on the Salt website.

Go on, you know you want at least one (or one more)...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer reading under trees

Eco Libris, who are planting a tree for every copy printed of my forthcoming novel Too Many Magpies, are running a summer-long series on summer reading. Every Thursday an author or publisher with whom they are working will recommend their favourite summer reads. This week is the turn of two of us from Salt, me and Tania Hershman, author of The White Road and Other Stories.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

First proofs!

I have just printed off these - my first proofs for Too Many Magpies, and they look lovely. I don't know how Jen does it!

Latest in Just One book campaign

Here's the latest on Facebook from Salt director Chris Hamilton-Emery:
A month in to the Just One Book campaign we’ve had 1,400 orders and taken over £30K (two months’ cash): it’s been extraordinary, exhausting and exhilarating.
The ICA is now supporting the campaign, there's to be a new ad in the London Review of Books (which reminds me I must take out a subscription again), and Birminghan New Street Waterstone's is doing a Salt table display. Wonderful!

And apparently Jay Merill, author of the haunting story collection Astral Bodies, is helping out in the Salt office for a week, despatching US orders.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Stuck at the desk, out and about and busy with the hoover

Not sure why I haven't been blogging much in the last few days - ah, yes, I remember, I was writing a story. On Friday I was so immersed in it and tensely intent on getting it finished I typed from nine in the morning until six in the evening and ended up with a hideous RSI shoulder to add to my bad ankle.

Ah well. You have to suffer for your art...

And then the really nice things happen. On Friday too I was invited to read in Prague - a city I love! - for Alchemy Prague, the writing community which I know Clare Wigfall (The Loudest Sound and Nothing) was involved with when she lived there. Couldn't make it before Christmas, however, so I'm reading there in February, and so looking forward to it!

And then last night I discovered this lovely comment about Balancing on the Shelf Life blog:
I'm still under the spell of Elizabeth Baines's short story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World, which I finished last night. These stories are very short, but hypnotic--I found they definitely transported me to another world. Sometimes that other world was the world of a child's mind--those stories were particularly good.
It's just so wonderful when someone says they've been affected like that by your writing. I'm sure you never stop feeling thrilled when it happens.

What else have I been doing? Well, on Saturday evening I was hobbling up and down the old warehouse stairs in the Rogue artist's studio for their open evening. I really should get out more. I had been invited by Jen Orpin, whose stunning paintings of the sea horizon in Williamstown, Australia bowled me and John over, but there was also new work to see by other artists I know: David Gledhill whose still, haunting paintings of suburbia so conjure for me a period in my teenage years when I lived on one of those housing estates, Jackie Wylie with her fascinating knitted pieces, and some photos which leave Tracy Emin's latest exhibition looking a bit tame by a photographer we once featured in the short story mag Metropolitian, Sue Fox. And I bumped into an old writer friend there: Julia Brosnan, who is now part of the cabaret production company, Mish Mash. Their latest show will be at the Bury Met on 18th June, 8.30 £5.00, 0161 761 2216.

And then on Sunday I cleaned, because we're having visitors later this week and also the place was filthy after my writing stint. What is this thing with homes, and the way they become so chaotic when you're writing? Surely, if you're stuck away at your desk everything else should stay perfect and untouched? But then of course there are those forays to the fridge when you leave the stuff out on the table because you've just got to get back to it, and the unwashed pots for ditto reason, and the clothes you don't hang up but leave lying about because your head is just somewhere else and can't accommodate the here and now, and all the other stuff you just drop on the floor instead of putting away... etc etc

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pre-ordering Too Many Magpies

Yesterday the super Nik Perring asked if it's possible to pre-order my novel Too Many Magpies, (which, thanks to the success of the Salt Just One Book campaign, is coming out according to schedule in October after all) so I thought I'd explain the situation here. It will be possible to pre-order the book on Amazon eventually, but not yet. Salt don't have a pre-order facility on their web site, but Jen says that if anyone would like to send a cheque for £8.99 or bank card details, they'll pop one in the post to you as soon as it's back from the printer (cheques won't be cashed or credit card details processed until the books are sent off).

Salt Publishing
14a High Street
CB21 5DH

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Too Many Magpies going ahead, and on schedule!

I am so, so thrilled be able to tell you that, as a result of the wonderful response so far to the Salt Just One Book campaign, my novel, Too Many Magpies, is going ahead - and on schedule, the beginning of October! (Which is such a marvellous relief, as I already have readings set up for it at that time.) Yesterday Jen began the typesetting and we are discussing layout, and we've chosen the photo (one of mine) which whizz designer Chris will work into a cover - quite a snap decision, that last, but I think it'll be perfect: luck, or sheer inspiration, is going our way! Really, my wonderful publishers, Jen and Chris Hamilton-Emery are nothing short of miracle workers, and I can't say how lucky I feel to have such a publisher in such a difficult time for authors, but also how indebted I know I am to all the poetry and short story lovers who have responded so magnificently to the campaign.

Thank you so much to all of you (and in particular, of course, thank you to those of you who have bought Balancing on the Edge of the World and sent it and other Salt story collections into the Amazon UK short story bestellers list). Do please keep passing on the word, as of course the future for Salt, and any further writing they publish, depend on keeping up this wonderful boost in sales.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Me and the world and other people's words

What is it about other writers' readings that gets me throwing myself about the place?

See, I'm seeing a pattern here. Last month on my way to Ailsa Cox's launch in Liverpool I went over very painfully on my ankle. Last summer, the night of Katy Evans-Bush's launch in London, I just about concussed myself coming out of the toilets in a restaurant beforehand by not seeing a semi-concealed step in time. And on Wednesday evening of this week, I was leaving Central Library in Manchester after a great reading by John Baker from his new novel Winged with Death (picture above, and see his book tour on this blog), and I went headlong on St Peter's Square over one of those kerbs I've always thought were lethal, the ones that rise up at an angle from nothing in the middle of a walkway, and that you just don't know are there if you happen to be looking the wrong way as I was, checking that there were no trams coming. So here I am with my foot up, my ankle swollen like a ball and a tubigrip bandage from toe to knee, a bruised shoulder and a bruised hip, and an afternoon in Wythenshawe A&E to add to my store of material and my sense that no one cares about anything or anyone else now that the recession is on us - ie I had to wait in a queue of fainting and injured people, all of us standing, while the automatic doors kept closing on us, to be treated like an object by a triage nurse who seemed never to have learnt about eye contact, and finally, after about three quarters of an hour, to get to book in, or rather to stand at the booking-in desk while two clerks discussed the silver bracelet of one of them for at least three minutes, after which I had to wait another five minutes while the one on duty logged into the computer, because it turned out they had just changed shifts. And then the usual waits, which of course you accept because there are other patients in need of more urgent treatment, but then finally when I got to the x-ray department and turned up at the counter with my card I had to wait another three minutes while the receptionist there finished her conversation about their shifts with another staff member already standing at the desk.

You know, I didn't feel very looked after. To be honest, I felt all weepy, and when the taxi driver taking me home missed my turning and started heading off into town, I wanted to burst out crying, but when he said he'd been lost in a world of his own I'm glad to say I felt like laughing instead.

Hm. Last year, when they saved John's life I thought the NHS was marvellous, and I guess they are in an emergency, and I suppose that's what counts, but I had to keep reminding myself of that on Thursday afternoon.

And this thing of other people's readings... It's as if the power of their words sends me out of touch with the physical world...

More thoughts about writing and dreaming.

It's in the moments of waking that I often get my best clues about what I'm writing - that magical slope that slides you from the dream world into the real one.

Yesterday I said that my problem with my new story is that it hasn't yet replaced the last story as my deepest obsession, my true mental landscape. But in the moments of waking this morning it came to me (I think): I 'heard' it, a subtle change in the voice I've been using for the story, very subtle in fact, but enough to resonate truly and to make all the difference (I hope), with a new energy that I think will give the story the momentum it's been lacking.

Well, we'll see. I'm off for breakfast now and then it's back to the Pukka pad, and I'll soon find out...

From the brink towards a possible future

Just One Book has changed from a campaign to save Salt from immediate demise to a campaign to build a sustainable business. Here's Salt's latest announcement:

We’ve been busy campaigning over the last two weeks to save Salt. The business has faced some serious financial difficulties as the recession hit us hard. I’m pleased to say we’ve stabilised the business, but we still need to build our cash reserves to secure our future. We’d like to thank all our customers for supporting us; but more than that, we thought we’d offer everyone a summer treat:—


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.

Crossposted with Fictionbitch.

Friday, June 05, 2009

The hard work of dreaming

Whoever said that short stories are easier than novels has no bloomin' idea, I say.

As far as I'm concerned, the real work of writing is done not at the desk, but beforehand, inside your head (well, mine, anyway): you need to start dreaming a piece of fiction before you can put it into words on the page, you need to see it, smell it, hear the characters talking, be fascinated by their bodily movements, get obsessed so that you can't help thinking about the damn thing, it just won't leave you alone. Which, when you're writing a novel, is great: it's what keeps you at it, those long months it takes to write it. It's also great, of course, while you're writing a single short story.

But if you're writing a collection... Well, you need to keep dreaming up new worlds over and over, and in order to dream up the next one you need to let go of the last. Which I'm finding really difficult to do at the moment: I've got a new story to write, and I know it has the potential to engross me utterly, but the last one is still trailing me, my mind keeps slipping back towards it, the old dream still following me around in a cloud.


Success: but the Just One Book Campaign needs to keep going

Wonderful news! Thanks to all the poetry and story lovers who have bought Salt Books in response to the Just One Book Campaign, Salt has been saved for the present and can go ahead with the business. This is an amazing result - such a turnaround in just a fortnight, and it's just so heartening to think that people care this much about these two forms of literature and about keeping such a great (little) publisher afloat (and, once they are aware of them, want those great Salt books!). Wow, I have a warm feeling in my chest today! There are too many days when, as a short-story writer, one is fighting off that old sense of defeat and invisibility - fighting it off, of course: one has to, right? But that feeling is hovering nowhere near today. People do love poetry and short stories, it seems.

Of course the battle isn't over: inevitably, it will all be very precarious. Salt now depends entirely on sales, and the test will be whether this new market stays with Salt and keeps buying its books. And indeed the campaign needs to keep going. So if you haven't yet bought your one book (or your six, or dozens, as Griff Rhys Jones suggests!) please do so. Or build up a collection - your life will be vastly enhanced, I promise!

And for the rest of June there's Salt's fantastic offer: 33% off Balancing on the Edge of the World and all other Salt books. Use the coupon code G3SRT453 in the checkout.

Thank you to all of you who have supported this campaign so far.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Griff Rhys Jones supports Just One Book

Griff Rhys Jones has weighed in to support the Salt campaign. He says:
"Don’t let Salt fall. If the recession is going to take things down, let it be motor manufacturers, let it be bad banks, let it be chains of fast food restaurants. We can lose a few of them, but we don't have enough small independent and daring publishers like Salt. I think I can be a little more forthright than Chris and say ‘Just six books’. Buy dozens why don’t you? It’s a great list. And apparently you will help the economy in many subtle ways too complicated for studious folk like us.”