Saturday, October 31, 2009

The problem with collections

A short story collection, when you think about it, is a really weird thing. This struck me when I was invited recently to a school to conduct workshops and read from my writing and talk about it. When you read from a collection you hope of course that it will lead people on to read the whole book, and maybe they will expect to. Well, there are several stories in my collection Balancing on the Edge of the World which I can happily read to school students, mainly those written from the point of view of children, one of which has been included in two school anthologies (which may indeed be why I have been invited). All good. But then there's the erotic story... Hm.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

To leaflet or not to leaflet

Ben, who is an artist and knows about such things - artists being well accustomed to doing their own promotion, a skill which even forms part of their Art School education - tells me that for every 100 leaflets you leave in bars etc, one person comes to your event. I groan. I am in the middle of putting together some leaflets for my Chorlton Book Festival event at Lounge Bar (7 pm, Monday November 17th). Maybe I shouldn't be bothering... Oh yes, I should, comes in Ben quickly. It's not just a matter of getting people into the particular event. It's also a matter of spreading the word about your art/book/product/career. For instance, naturally I'll have my website address on the leaflet... I groan again: I haven't thought of putting it on, and I've already printed half the leaflets.

So I spend Sunday evening writing it on the 100 leaflets I've printed so far, as well as the fact that Chorlton Bookshop will be selling books at the event, a courtesy promotion I've also omitted. This is all starting to seem just a tad tedious, not to mention unprofessional... Next morning - yesterday - I print another 80 (before the printer ink gives up) (new details incorporated) and set off from Didsbury to Chorlton for my Leafleting Trip. First, to Chorlton Library where I once led adult creative writing classes very conveniently just down the road from where I lived, to collect some of the nice black glossy festival brochures and official posters of my own event from David Green, who is organizing the whole Festival. David has got the brochure drop covered, so there I am concentrating on my own event, walking amid the orange falling leaves and dropping off leaflets of my own as I go.

First delivery is a single leaflet to the very house I lived in, because... well, would you believe that your son gets invited to his lecturer's house and it turns out to be the one he lived in as a small child? These are the weird coincidences that keep happening to me around that particular house. And as I walk towards it, it occurs to me that it is this street and this house which I used for part of Too Many Magpies, the book I'm in the process of promoting. By the time I'm approaching the house I'm experiencing the weirdest telescope of realities, the street of the book and the street of my own past both imposing themselves over the street of today. The door has been painted grey, which is weird, but the windows with their Belgian frosted glass are just the same, and so is the letterbox through which my letters of acceptance and rejection used to come, in those days before email. Actually, the house looks a bit shut up, blinds down on all the windows. I slip the leaflet through the door, and turn and stare at the street and the fact that the big tree outside the gate has gone and the pavement has been widened, but apart from that it's all much the same. And it's only as I turn out of the road again that I realize that I never noticed whether there are still black and red quarry tiles on the path, or the crazy paving I laid myself in the tiny front garden, and I'm thinking that maybe I just didn't want my memory disrupted...

On the main road I turn into a bar and am immediately stopped by the proprietor who is sitting in his vest outside and calls that he isn't open yet. He takes some leaflets from me grudgingly. As I'm walking away he is reading one and scowling, most likely at the fact that, since the event is in another bar, it is advertising a rival, and I have the distinct feeling they'll end up in a bin. Several bars cheerfully allow me to leave a contribution to their leaflet racks, but most of the other leaflets are for music events, and I have the sinking feeling that I'm not hitting my target market. Lounge Bar, of course, where the event is taking place, has a poster already, fantastically stategically placed on the window beside the door so you can't miss it as you walk in. The Battery Park cafe can only allow me to put one on the back of the toilet door, and there's only space near the edge where moving the lock ruckles it, and I can't see it lasting. Chorlton Bookshop, who are selling books at the event, willingly take a bundle of leaflets to slip into customers' bags, but when I'm too far on my way to Chorltonville to go back I realize that I didn't leave them nearly enough...

By the time I get to Chorltonville and Beech Road I'm feeling a little bit unsuccessful. I slip in through the doors of the Trevor Arms and say to the man behind the bar, who looks as if he might be the landlord, that I don't suppose for a minute he'd put up a poster for me. Well, he doesn't see why not! he cries, and takes it and looks and says approvingly, Yes of course he will! Wow. Encouraged, I go to the pub across the road where several gnarled and hairy blokes are standing around talking dramatically and stare with theatrical interest at my female intrusion, and a young barman with a shaven head and earring puts his thumb up when I ask, and goes so far as to find me some blu-tak and put the poster up for me, and suggests I leave some leaflets on the mantlepiece in the (at present empty) room where those people go, he says, who want a quiet drink. Even the nowadays genteel Horse and Jockey on the green accept leaflets. I wait (quite a long time) in the health shop while the nice lady there schools a not-very-well-looking young man in a tartan cap on how he needs to repopulate his gut, and am rewarded by her warm acceptance of a poster. And the newsagent takes one too, and the Takeaway chippie man says it's absolutely no problem love, and the Lead Station restaurant take leaflets, as does the all-day breakfast bar.

When I get to the bus stop, I don't feel I've had such a wasted trip: I've distributed 120 leaflets (that's 1.2 people likely to come to the event, according to Ben, after all!) and 6 posters, which I agree with Ben is probably the better way to go. And I've had a most nostalgic trip, and so it's fitting that as I get in through the door at home my mobile rings and it's Susannah from South Manchester Reporter wanting to make tweaks to my contribution this week to the column: Things I Love About South Manchester.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A great review for Too Many Magpies

I've had a lovely review for Too Many Magpies on Goodreads by a member called 'Bookscout'. It's a long review which ends like this:
It's a gripping tale that is not without its surprises. Leaving the reader with a satisfied ending.

Baines achieves all of this with the most enigmatic prose; at times haunting, always poetic. She speaks of the modern woman’s paranoia like whispers through silk. Whilst managing to embody the effortless tone of A.L. Kennedy with the talent for Magical Realism of Angela Carter. But she is also clearly a unique voice and one that I am excited to read more of.

The more time I spent thinking about this novel the more I came to realise how cleverly structured it is. Not a word is wasted every sentence resonates with some supernatural power and a distant melody. All the events, no matter how minor, feed into the overall fabric of the novel. At only 123 pages it is a book to savour, to be read slowly and it will gradually imprint itself on your consciousness. This is a fantastic achievement from a fresh, noteworthy talent.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bit of a triumph

I know it doesn't count in the literary scheme of things (one should NEVER quote one's relatives!), but on a personal level it means a whole load to me that my sister is raving about Too Many Magpies! I have to say that she is a horribly honest person, my sister, and she usually has no hesitation in telling me which bits she didn't like in my work! Anyway, she has said that she hasn't had such a gripping reading experience since she read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, which I have to say I've never read and most of my reading group despise as tacky, but what the hell, I say, if it grips people like Anne! She said my book didn't make her cry, but told me that it did make my mum cry, which my mum has not admitted herself (too bloody busy pointing out the typos)! Anyway, the crowning glory is that Anne is going to give it straight to her best friend Pam whom she says she knows will love it - and, when I think back to how Anne and Pam used to walk behind me down the road when we were teenagers, giggling privately (but, you know, only because they were jealous of my patent-red kitten heels), well, that really is a triumph!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Adele Geras reviews Too Many Magpies

First review for Too Many Magpies comes from Adele Geras on her newsletter. As many of you will know, Adele is my friend ('Full disclosure', as Adele herself says in the review), but even friends don't need to be this positive:
...terrific ... At the end, everything becomes clear in the most satisfying way, so that you find yourself saying: I should have seen that. I ought to have noticed. I had the clues and didn’t pick them up. It’s very clever indeed and finally, very moving too.
Thank you Adele! The full review here (scroll down to Books).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fay Weldon at the Manchester Lit Fest

To the Friends' Meeting House last night for my first Manchester Lit Fest event: Fay Weldon promoting her new novel Chalcot Crescent, an innovative blend of fiction and fact in which Fay's real-life never-born sister lives after all and grows up to supplant Fay in all of her real-life circumstances. How juicy!

But where was the real-life Fay? The clock ticked past the hour at which the event was meant to begin, and then we were told that Fay was delayed, having encountered at least two accidents on the motorway, but she would be there in ten or fifteen minutes. We waited. We talked: I had plenty to talk about: I had sat down and found myself next to a neighbour from years ago, someone I hadn't seen for years, and not only that, she had lived on the other side of the neighbour I'd had precisely the same experience with a couple of weeks ago at the Didsbury Arts Festival (the three of us had lived side-by-side in a row)! See, Fay is right: life is just as weird as fiction...

The clock ticked on. Quarter past... twenty-five past. Director Cathy Bolton came to the mic gain. Fay had been taken by her sat nav to a Mount Street in Trafford, and would now have to find her way back here... See, sat navs can't sort out the facts, either...

Then at almost a quarter to, the call went up 'Fay is in the building!' but since she didn't appear immediately, probably needing to go to the bathroom, a doubt about the fact settled in the air, which everyone seemed happy to accept.

And then at last she came, a little breathless, a little shaken, even, it seemed, and had to negotiate the fifteen-inch step up on to the stage, but her customary grin never left her face, and she proceeded to give us the benefit of her humour and wisdom.

No wonder we were all prepared to wait.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Reading group: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

The smallest gathering we've ever had - just four of us - to discuss this novel in which Dutchman Hans van den Broek is left behind in post 9/11 New York by his English wife and their child and, with the city around him traumatized and his marriage disintegrating, turns to playing cricket on Staten Island, the only white man amongst other immigrants chiefly from India and the West Indies, and becomes involved with dreamer and fixer Chuck Ramkissoon.

Ringing beforehand to apologize for her absence, Clare said she thought it was a great book, but the four of us gathered were more equivocal. Doug, whose suggestion it had been, said that on the whole he enjoyed the book, but that, as with the 9/11 novel Falling Man by Don DeLillo which we had previously discussed, and the Updike 9/11 novel he'd read, he was left distinctly underwhelmed. In particular he felt that he never got to grips with Hans's character, mainly, he felt, because the first-person narrative voice didn't seem consistent. At times it would be stark, fitting Hans's financial analyst's character and role, but then it would veer off into high-flown meditation and florid description. But then, said Doug, people are inconsistent, though clearly he had found the inconsistency he perceived in this novel troubling. Ann had had similar problems, and John said that he had found that none of the characters came alive. I said that I found the novel, like Falling Man, somehow dazing and distancing, that reading it was somehow like feeling my way through a fog. I just didn't know where I was with it, or indeed what it was meant to be about. I didn't feel that it was in fact about 9/11, or, in spite of the endless descriptions of it, cricket, but I wasn't quite sure what the real focus of the book was - or rather, that there was any. An instance, I said, of the sense of unreality is the description of Hans's life in the Chelsea Hotel (where he lives after his wife and son have departed). It gives the impression of so hermetic an existence and psychology on the part of Hans that it was a surprise to be reminded that every other weekend Hans travels to England to see his wife and child, or even that during the days he goes to work, and once you are reminded of these things, the description of the emotional quality of his life in the hotel then seems fake. Doug suggested that perhaps this sense of disassociation, suspension and 'fog' is precisely what is intended by these post 9/11 novels, as an accurate description of the post 9/11 experience for New Yorkers. John and Ann said however that that was all very well, but it didn't make for good novels.

Ann said she didn't like Hans's wife, and everyone agreed, but then I said that her character was something else that seemed inconsistent - she seems like a very different and more likeable character once she and Hans are reunited in London. John put in here that the reasons for their split-up in the first place, and the reasons they get back together are not made understandable or convincing on a psychological and emotional level. Doug also said that the novel was filled with stereotypes: the freakshow of the Chelsea Hotel inhabitants and Chuck Ramkissoon, who while being the most vivid - and therefore least ghostly - of the characters was perhaps the greatest stereotype, that of the noble (though ultimately ignoble) savage with the ability to make simpler and clearer responses to the world than the introspective Hans. People also wanted to talk about the fact that we knew the story right from the beginning: we knew that Hans would get back with his wife, we knew that Chuck's body would eventually be pulled from the river with its hands tied. So the novel wasn't concerned with story, then, it was clear. But then what was it trying to do?

I then mentioned Zadie Smith's excellent essay on this book for the New York Review of Books, which I had read some time ago. Smith posits that Netherland is not so much about the unease of 9/11 as informed by the authorial unease of a novelist aware that one can no longer, in all conscience, write a naively realist book, yet nevertheless emotionally and narratorially tied to realism, as we all are. As Ann said, looking at it like this explains a lot of the inconsistencies: the postmodern refusal of plot and psychological character development and the disruptive questioning of Hans's extistential meditations, in particular on the problem of how to 'see' things, alongside the realist symbolism in the baroque descriptions and the fact that Hans's meditations nevertheless lead him to realist conclusions, such an ultimate faith in, above all else, the perceptions of the individual 'soul'. As Smith says, O'Neill wants to have his cake and eat it. I think she feels he is more successful at doing so than we did. The realist elements led us to be dissatisfied with the postmodern elements (to want to understand better the characters' motivations, for instance, and to feel the lack of their portrayal as a loss), while the postmodern impulses in the novel made realist elements such as the descriptions seem on occasion arrogant. It is interesting that we all found the ending sentimental with its reunion on the London Eye, realist symbol of a realist confident authorial stance. In fact this final passage is a wonderful exercise in postmodern questioning of this realist symbolism: The higher we go, the less recognisable the city becomes, narrates Hans, and then, just before the very end, the whole scene is intercut by two memories, one of seeing the twin towers from the Staten Island Ferry, and in both of which there is a questioning of what was actually being seen. However, the fact that we had found the ending sentimental perhaps indicates that a realist reading of the novel had won out for us.

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Northern Salt

On Sunday afternoon I'm reading at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester with three other Salt authors, Robert Graham, Mark Illis and John Siddique. Northern Salt, a Manchester Literature Festival event. 3-4 pm. Free but booking advised apparently on 08432080500 or

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Too many typos...

Well, I would never go about the place saying that I have a fault-finding mother, but...

Last night my mum rings me. She is on page 9 of Too Many Magpies. She has found three ruddy typos!!! (A missing pronoun and two indefinite articles, the last two side by side!!) *!!@!!. I must have looked at those proofs six times! And of course others did! (I am telling myself that the more engrossing a text is, the less easily you can detach in order to see the typos...)

Fortunately, she has now read to page 34 and has found no more...

Friday, October 09, 2009

Christmas bundle from Salt

Here's a lovely Christmas offer from Salt (and Too many Magpies is part of it):

Today we are excited to announce the launch of our themed Christmas bundle series.
Every week we’ll put together a themed bundle at an amazing price.
They’re your perfect Christmas gift solution. Five awesome Salt books, one low price. Buy them for five friends, give all five to a lucky loved-one, or simply treat yourself to some perfect Christmas reads.
Check out the blog each Friday for the next five weeks to discover our latest bundle.
Buy our new For Mothers and Lovers bundle for only £35 with free delivery in the UK
That’s an astounding £23 saving! Receive the following books in a beautiful ribbon-tied package:
The Missing by Si├ón Hughes — shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize Best First Collection, The Missing deals with the heart of shame, parenting, illness, loss, regret and falling in love with the wrong people.
Too Many Magpies by Elizabeth Baines — A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s safety as the natural world around her becomes ever more uncertain.
Nude by Nuala Ni Chonchuir — The women and men in Nude play out their desires and frustrations from Dublin to Paris, Delhi to Barcelona, and beyond.
The Zen of La Llorona by Deborah A. Miranda — How does a damaged child grow up to be a loving, strong adult woman? These poems explore survivorship, tracing an American Indian woman’s life from conception to mid-life.
Sister Morphine by Catherine Eisner — Women’s Narratives from the Case Notes of a Community Psychiatric Nurse.
This special price ends on 15th December 2009. Buy now to avoid missing out.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Salt guide to the art of the short story

Next month sees publication by Salt of this book, edited by Vanessa Gebbie. I've contributed a chapter about the thorny subject of turning 'real life' into fiction, via a deconstruction of the creative processes in writing 'Condensed Metaphysics' (one of the stories in Balancing). Vanessa specifically asked me to write about this, and I did think twice about it - as you all probably know by now, I'm very wary of pointing out the real-life triggers of my writing, as I don't want to invite biographical readings of my stories as a whole: it's reductive and beside the point. But, in order to point out the dangers of doing so, I had written on this blog about the fact that I once made this mistake with this particular story, which led to its being published as reportage rather than the fiction it is. Vanessa had seen this post, and wanted me to elaborate. I just hope that the chapter underlines the fact that fiction is an indivisible meld of 'real life' and imagination, and doesn't solidify the story further as merely (and wrongly) autobiographical!

I'm very much looking forward to reading the other contributions: the contents list (below) looks exciting. I understand that Salt are looking into facilitating advance orders on their website.

Graham Mort: Finding Form in Short Fiction
Clare Wigfall interview: “I Hear Voices”: Voice, building character and much more
Alison MacLeod: Writing and Risk-Taking
Nuala Ni Chonchuir: Language and Style
Chika Unigwe: Settings. A Sense of Place.
Alex Keegan: ‘24’: The Importance of Theme.
Lane Ashfeldt: Building a World
Adam Marek: What my gland wants. Originality in short fiction.
Catherine Smith: Myth and Imagination.
Tobias Hill interview: Character, dialogue, and much more.
Sarah Salway: Stealing Stories.
Elizabeth Baines: True Story, Real Story – Good Fiction?
Marian Garvey: On Intuition. Writing into the Void.
Tania Hershman: Art Breathes from Containment. The power of the short short story.
David Gaffney: Get Shorty. The micro-fiction of Etgar Keret.
Elaine Chiew: Endings
Paul Magrs: Thoughts on Writing Fiction, at the End of Term
Vanessa Gebbie: i) Leaving the Door Ajar: On Opening the Short Story
Epilogue: Carys Davies, Zoe King, David Grubb, Linda Cracknell, Jay Merill, Matthew Licht.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Podcasts: Too Many Magpies

Well, I did my podcasts - believe it or not - and my readings from Too Many Magpies are now up on the Salt blog. (One thing I don't know is how to put them on here!)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Rest of the Didsbury Festival

Well, the Didsbury Festival is over. It was very successful, and I enjoyed it a lot. A lovely first weekend with great weather for the outdoor activities, and by the time the typical Manchester rain had set in on Wednesday all of the events were luckily scheduled to be indoors. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings I went to hear fellow Salt authors read. First was Robert Graham reading from The Only Living Boy in the packed upstairs room in Casa Tapas - where I found myself sitting next to a one-time neighbour I hadn't seen for years, and who turned out to be a friend of Robert's. This is the sort of thing that happens at festivals... Next evening Steve Waling in The Railway pub, accompanied by Coolworks Jazz Duo with specially composed music - as keyboardist Phil Portus said, the Beats never went away in Manchester! (See my photos of these events below). Finally, on Friday evening, I went to Nick Royle's and Tom Fletcher's 'Fright Night' at the Northern Lawn Tennis Club in another packed room, this time with suitably dimmed lights and candles on the tables - very spooky (and very spooky writing), and too dark to take photos without a disruptive flash. Still, I got one them signing books afterwards - Nick one his novels, and Tom his Nightjar chapbook (although I did make Tom grin unsuitably!)

Saturday, October 03, 2009


I rang my mum this morning. 'Have you been writing?' she asked, her usual question. Well, no, I had to reply, at the moment I'm marketing. There was a little silence and then she said, 'What on earth do you do when you're "marketing"?' Honestly, I could hear the inverted commas! And you know, I did feel a bit sheepish: isn't the truth really that when I'm thinking about such things as promoting a new book I can't concentrate on writing, rather than that I don't have the time? This is the guilty thought - and sense of literary inadequacy - I usually carry around with me, but then spelling out for my mother precisely what I've been doing in the past 3 weeks or so made me realize how much time marketing does take up, thus:

A day at least, and maybe more (by the time I had emailed everyone with drafts and worked on the adjustments they suggested) designing a poster and leaflets for the Didsbury Arts Festival reading.

An afternoon buying a colour printer to print it out, and then working out how to use it.

Equivalent of a whole morning altogether delivering said poster and leaflets.

Much of one afternoon making phone calls to try and organize launches for Too Many Magpies.

Another afternoon designing a poster for Too Many Magpies requested by a bookshop, and then delivering it.

Two afternoons, I'd say, emailing bloggers to inform them of publication, and emailing Salt with resulting requests for review copies.

A morning writing a press release for the local press and sending it out.

A morning disrupted by talking to a journalist who contacted me as a result, and sending her pictures.

A whole day, more or less, racking my brains for the two quizzes/profile pieces she also asked me to do for the paper.

Probably about three hours altogether packing up copies for contacts and going to the post office and waiting in the queue with them.

A whole afternoon working out how to make a podcast.

An afternoon making podcasts for my page on the Salt website.

And - this is the biggie - countless hours on the web, making a FaceBook group and FaceBook events, organizing a GoodReads giveaway, uploading photos, blogging and generally promoting - not to mention the way you get sidetracked into more general and extremely enjoyable web chat while you're at it!

And I've got a feeling there are other things that I've failed to recall...

Salt authors at the Didsbury Arts Festival

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Publication day for Too Many Magpies

Today is official publication day. It's an understatement to say I'm chuffed. These things are always a little fuzzed nowadays - advance copies have been available on the Salt website since it came back from the printer nearly a fortnight ago, and our lovely Didsbury bookshop, Morten's, immediately stocked it to sell at our Didsbury Arts Festival reading last Friday. So it's kind of 'out there' already, but there is of course something special about official publication day. Maybe I'll have a little glass of champagne tonight, even if it will be on my own, since John decided to stop drinking four days ago, and I wouldn't like to spoil his resolution!

It's been an amazing process, getting this book published - so quick, and seamless, even taking into account the nail-biting period in late May, I think it was, when it looked as though Salt would have to fold and the novel wouldn't go ahead after all. It was only late last November that I wrote to Jen and asked her if she'd like to look at it, and by Christmas she had said she would like to publish it (the best Christmas present I've ever had), and in the autumn. I never really got upset about the scare in the summer - guess I'm too used to the knocks of the writer's life by now, and have learnt to accept such things as the norm and to see the successes as wonderful miracles. Also somehow I so believed in Jen and Chris's ingenuity and commitment that an opposite part of me didn't think Salt could really fail - and of course there was so much immediate support for the Just One Book campaign, and I made myself too busy with that to allow myself to think negatively.

As soon as Salt had drawn back from the brink Jen set to typesetting TMM. It's beautifully typeset and I'm so grateful to her - most especially as the stress of the scare had left her feeling unwell at the time. The cover just happened, out of the blue - almost literally out of the blue. I had been taking photos of magpies myself, just in case they were needed, to have one ready the moment the subject of the cover was broached, but quite frankly, they weren't much cop. Magpies are really quite hard to photograph: being pied they don't show up against any kind of cluttered background. They kept settling in the leafy tree outside my workroom window, but it was hopeless - though interesting: when I blew up one photo a little goldfinch was revealed sitting companionably beside the magpie, undetectable before then. Then one evening walking home I saw magpies perched very high up in the tree in reading-group Trevor's garden - an ash, still not properly in leaf in June, so the birds were silhouetted against the sky (and luckily I had my camera on me). That sky was a bright cloudless blue, though, and I sent the photo over to Jen and Chris with great doubts: it was far too peaceful and complacent, none of the haunting atmosphere we needed for the novel. But Chris took one look at it, and knew he could do something haunting with it, and the amazing spookily distressed design on the cover of the book is the result.

And now, all in ten months, here is the book - complete, concrete, a thing existing in its own right, separate from us who worked on it, and from me out of whose head it came in the first place, and ready, I hope, to become something else, whatever is made of it in the minds of others...