Friday, December 31, 2010

Reading group: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I've been so busy working on promotion for The Birth Machine and, for a time at least, trying to keep going with my WIP, that I just haven't been keeping up with the book group reports, and Ann has kindly offered to take over reporting for the November discussion (when we looked at M J Hyland's Carry Me Down). However, it's still down to me to report on our October discussion of The Leopard, and I'll do what I can, though I'm afraid that by now my memory of the meeting is sketchy.

Written in the nineteen-fifties by a minor Sicilian prince, the book is set in Sicily and primarily in the two years following Garibaldi's May 1860 landing on Sicily's south coast, which kick-started a revolution in the south and strengthened the Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy and the destruction of the feudal system. The novel concerns Fabrizio Corbera, Sicilian Prince of Salina, who must come to terms with these social changes, and towards its end moves forward to 1883 and his death and finally to 1910 and the fate of his children. I hadn't had time to read the book by the meeting, and it may have been me, but I came away from the meeting with the impression that this was essentially the story of a love affair and a marriage: Don Fabrizio's daughter Concetta is in love with his orphaned and favoured nephew, the charming and wily Tancredi, and for a time Tancredi appears to be returning her affection. However, once he claps eyes on the beautiful and nouveau-riche Angelica, he decides to marry her instead. By the end of the novel and 1910, however, Angelica is a widow, and in their old age the two women have become friends, something which Jenny said she really relished, and where she felt the novel, which she had found rather hard-going, became more interesting and enjoyable.

In fact, when I came to find time to read the book I discovered that the story of Concetta, Tancredi and Angelica is an aspect and consequence of a much wider story, that of the ways, both politically and psychologically, Prince Salina handles or fails to handle the social changes taking place around him.

Opinion in the group was divided. Jo, who had suggested the book, and Doug both loved it, mostly for its vivid descriptions of the oppressive Sicilian climate and the plush and faded palaces. Clare agreed about the descriptions and was impressed by the symbolism - she mentioned in particular the precious grafted peaches which Don Fabrizio's gardener has grown and which Tancredi, without asking permission, has ceremoniously delivered to Angelica - but Clare was sorry, she just couldn't stand Don Fabrizio himself, she thought he was just an awful person, so sexist and bossy, which made her dislike the book. As far as I remember, Jenny and Ann found the book heavy going with its old-fashioned prose, though Ann was interested to find out about the politics of the period. I don't think Mark was keen, though as far as I remember Trevor liked it, and John was divided between the two groups, having found the book heavily historical without being very enlightening if you didn't already know the history, though he too found the symbolism interesting, mentioning the broken legs of the Salina heraldic leopard on a keystone.

Personally, although I would say the book was not an easy read with its dense prose and ponderous pace, I loved it for the delicious irony with which all of the characters and the political situation are portrayed. A direct literary descendant of Machiavelli's Prince, Don Fabrizio is an arch pragmatist - he deeply regrets the breakdown of the old order but sees the necessity of accommodating and absorbing the new, developing the philosophy that 'everything must change in order to stay the same'. He grieves the dilution of his aristocratic line but sees the inevitability of his penniless nephew's marriage into the bourgeoisie and thus works to enable it. Aptly he's an amateur astronomer with a wide view of that large picture, the heavens. But unlike Machiavelli, di Lampedusa ironises that pragmatism. A big man respected and feared by all including his family, Don Fabrizio is yet a touchingly ridiculous figure. He's so big he inadvertently breaks things; he performs mental acrobatics to convince himself that he's in charge of situations, nowhere more comically than the scene in which the priest, Father Pirrone, inadvertently enters for an audience as he is emerging naked from the bath:
...he hurried to leave the bath expecting to get into his bathrobe before the Jesuit entered; but he did not succeed, and Father Pirrone came in at the very moment when, no longer veiled by soapy water, not yet shrouded by his bath sheet, he was emerging quite naked, like the Farnese Hercules, and steaming as well, while water flowed in streams from neck, arms, stomach and legs, like the Rhone, the Rhine, the Danube and the Adige crossing and watering Alpine ranges... [Father Pirrone] stuttered an excuse and made to back out, but Don Fabrizio, annoyed at not having time to cover himself, naturally turned his irritation against the priest. "Now, Father, don't be silly; hand me that bath-robe, will you, and help me to dry, if you don't mind... And take my advice, Father, have a bath yourself." Satisfied at being able to give advice on hygiene to one who so often gave it to him on morals, he felt soothed... When the peaks and slopes of the mountain were dry ... the Jesuit sat down and [Don Fabrizio] began some more intimate moppings of his own.
Pragmatic he may be, but the Prince's aristocracy is doomed, and right from the beginning the prose signals this sense of doom: cicadas make a 'lament' that is like a 'death-rattle', a drinking well is also a 'cemetery' for corpses, the oppressive sun of the Sicilian summer is 'a deep gloom'; the ladies' ballgowns arrive from the dressmakers in cases 'like coffins'. Tancredi, the main agent of change for the family, is 'black and slim as an adder'. Ironically, however, the revolutionary spirit is also diluted: Tancredi begins as a follower of Garibaldi, but ends up an officer in the Piedmontese army despising the rebels. In one non-ironic moment Don Fabrizio explains the political inertia as a result of centuries of invasion and the oppressive climate:
Sleep, that is what Sicilians want, and they will always hate anyone who tries to wake them... our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death...
The novel is ultimately despairing, I found: the truce, indeed loving friendship, between Angelica and Concetta is founded on a pragmatic repression of the past, but that past is briefly revived and Concetta must face the fact that she has lived with a personal legacy of emptiness echoing the wider political impotence that the novel portrays.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas catch-up

Season's Greetings to you all! I hope you've had a good holiday period, though I know a lot of people have been and are ill and I wish a speedy recovery to those of you who are suffering. Because of illness, we've had to cancel our usual family day over the Pennines this year, and I was saving my family copies of The Birth Machine to hand around then, so my mum and sister haven't even seen the book yet! (Ever get that Jekyll and Hyde feeling that comes from the fact that the thing by which you define yourself is not exactly the point about you for your family?)

I envisaged spending Christmas tucked up with my TBR pile, but I've been too busy cooking, pouring drinks, tidying up wrapping paper and dirty dishes etc (that's our Christmas pud above) - too busy even to report on a couple of end-of-year things I'll mention now. Firstly, I was delighted that The Birth Machine was one of Angela Topping's choices in the end-of-year recommendations by Horizon Review contributors. There are some smashing choices there, and books I'm thrilled to have mine alongside. Secondly, on the other side of the fence, I was asked to contribute my cultural highlight of the year to the Faber blog, and it was a foregone conclusion that I'd choose The Unit, a dystopian Brave-New-World type novel, though also unique, by Swede Ninni Holmqvist (Oneworld Publications). I was asked to endorse it earlier in the year and it impressed and moved me so much that I really couldn't praise it enough - read it, I do urge you.

Before Christmas, I attended some enjoyable literary events. At the end of November John and I drove on a misty afternoon into Derbyshire to the very nice launch of Insignificant Gestures, a debut collection of short stories by Jo Cannon - stories strikingly informed by her profession as a GP. There she is, below, signing copies of her book.
We also went to the stunning new Anthony Burgess Centre in Manchester for the launch of Hidden Gem, a new publishing company owned and run by Sherry and Brian Ashworth. Their first publication, in June, will be the debut novel of Emma Unsworth, and Emma read its vivid beginning and was supported by readings from Zoe Lambert and Claire Wallace. Just before Christmas we went to hear Mike Barlow, a wonderful poet, read at Chorlton's Manky poets:

As for my WIP: well, after the 2-month break I took to promote The Birth Machine, the thing I'd dreaded happened, and which I guess I'd known in my heart of hearts would happen: I'd lost the thread, the pulse of it. I churned away at it for a month or so, but really the whole thing was dead under my hands, and I got to the point one day when I looked at it and decided, This is just a pile of sh**! Now, before you all feel sorry for me, the very same day I suddenly saw a new way to do it (yet another new way - this story has not been the easiest to decide how to tell!), a way which simplifies the story and structure even further without ditching any of the complexities (I'd rather just write it than explain), so after all the break was a blessing in disguise. It's back to the drawing board once more, which may seem horrendous, but the last part-draft was useful - just a stage on the way - and I don't feel I've wasted time. Best of all, I feel a real new excitement about the book, and in my experience no piece of writing is ever really successful without that essential ingredient, excitement.

So that's basically what's lined up for me in the new year - immersion in the novel and not much else whatsoever! There will be one other event I'm really looking forward to, however: starting on 6th Jan, over on my other blog Fictionbitch I'll be working with the Faber Academy to host a discussion on the crucial subject, Why Creative Writing? Writers Sue Gee and Marcel Theroux, directors of an upcoming Faber Academy course for beginners, will contribute their views and answer any questions. It should be a must for anyone involved with Creative Writing!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Guest post at The Spectator

Here's a link to a guest post I was kindly invited to write by The Spectator's book blog editor David Blackburn, on the publishing history of The Birth Machine and the way it illustrates that it's not just literary talent that can make or break books and writers.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Guest on Nicola Morgan's soapbox: 'Talent will Out'?

Today I'm delighted to be over at Nicola Morgan's great blog Help! I Need a Publisher! as a guest on her soapbox. I'm talking about how the notion that 'talent will out' always gets me steamed up, and how the history of the publication of The Birth Machine confirmed me in my attitude.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New reviews and Reading Roots

I'm coming to the end of a big push (excuse the pun) letting people know about The Birth Machine, and getting back to the WIP. Some nice responses are coming in. Rachel Carter writes a moving post on her blog after reading the book, describing an experience of her own which very much endorses the protagonist's situation, and making some very nice comments about the book. While Rachel responds to the childbirth theme of the book, and several birth trauma groups are showing great interest, there's also another new 5-star Amazon review which says this:
I don't see it as a polemic about hi-tech childbirth, but rather a nightmarish parable about power and secrets. Zelda can make no sense of her surroundings, and is deprived and imprisoned, because of a Kafka-style conspiracy between a sinister authority and her loved ones.
It concludes: 'An excellent and unusual story. Highly recommended.'

My relationship with the WIP is still a bit wonky, I'm afraid. This week I spent two mornings putting back an episode I'd dropped for this draft - I must have been mad to drop it, I decided: it was so colourful, and it illustrated something important about my protagonist's situation. But as I was showering to go out yesterday evening I saw that I'd been right before: no, including it made a less streamlined story! So I spent this morning rewriting again to get rid of the episode - only to move on in the typing and decide that, in view of what happens in the story later, it did need to be there after all... Basically, you could say I've lost the flow, but I'm hoping to be able to concentrate on it a bit better from now on.

And if you're interested in my childhood reading habits, today I'm in the Reading Roots spot on Carina's Reading Through Life blog.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Bookmunch review of The Birth Machine & Salt online store

Wow, a really great review of The Birth Machine by Valerie O'Riordan on Bookmunch. Can't resist quoting this bit:
A damn good read... It’s a cliché to say this is a must-read, but still, I’m going to urge you all to read it. And I’m talking to you, too, boys: it might have a lot of fairy-tale aspects and it’s undeniably about pregnancy and labour, but it’s got science, too! Seriously. Salt’s done the public a service in bringing this one back. It’s a rock-hard satire and a very, very, very good read. So, you know, read it.
In other news, Salt's local post office has had a possible reprieve, so they're keeping their online store open after all for the moment. So if Valerie's review has whetted your appetite, you know where to go...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Back to it

Well, life's getting back to something like normality after launching The Birth Machine. I'm still working hard on promotion, but it's now the more routine kind of work that can be done in the afternoons after a morning's writing and drainage of creativity - contacting mailing lists etc.

So in the mornings I'm finally back working on the WIP. I have to say I was dreading it, dreading that moment where you pick up the thing with which you were so obsessed two months ago - dreaming it at night and daydreaming it all day - and think: What the f***'s this all about? because you've long ago moved light years away from its creative space.

In fact, I didn't even remember where I'd got to in the story, leave alone all the thematic threads and connections I was meant to be juggling. I always write in longhand first, but type up chunks as I go in order to be able easily to look back on it, but I'd been so fired up, and then latterly so anxious to finish a whole section before I suspended work on the whole thing (I didn't) that I'd ended up with reams of pages untyped. So obviously the first task was to type that up, which it seemed would be a good way of getting back into the novel. But you, know, my writing's terrible, and the scrutinising it needed meant that I wasn't getting the flow, and so the next obvious thing to do was go back to the latter part of what I had typed up and read that. But guess what, I discovered I'd edited that with a black fountain pen, again without getting round to typing up the edits, and it was covered in blobby black scribbles which once again needed intent scrutiny. So that's what I'm doing now, typing up those edits, but it's so long since I made them it's taking me ages to decipher them...
And this afternoon I shall be doing something else I put off because I simply couldn't face it on top of everything else: spending the whole afternoon in the dentist's chair...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jim Murdoch reviews The Birth Machine.

First blog review of The Birth Machine this morning, on Jim Murdoch's Truth and Lies. As is to be expected from Jim, it's a very thorough, thoughtful review and he's done lots of research in order to write it, looking at the covers of past editions etc. To my utter bashfulness he sees similarities between the book and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, and he concludes:
I enjoyed this book very much. It’s the best thing I’ve read by her ... and I’m happy to recommend it, to men (and not simply fathers) as well as women (and not simply feminists).

Friday, November 12, 2010

How (not?) to have a London launch (if you don't even live there)

First, you will have had one already, the previous year, for a different book, which was successful. For the current book you will have already had one in Manchester which was packed out, and where you sold all of the books the bookshop ordered, and more besides. This will give you confidence - although you are very aware of the unpredictability of these things, so maybe you are not so confident after all. Gird up your loins, though. First of all, be prepared to SPEND MONEY. This may seem to you crazy, ie to wipe out any profit on the books, and far more besides, before you begin, but remember: the point of the exercise is not so much to make money - something which is nowadays pretty much beside the point unless your initials are DB, eg - but to SPREAD WORD ABOUT THE BOOK. Book your return train journey. Book a hotel. Ask the bookshop to order in wine and nibbles, which you will pay for.

Begin inviting people. Start a month beforehand, in order to give plenty of notice. Send personal invitations to the following people: your personal friends and relatives who live within travelling distance of central London (this is not many), your writer and publisher friends: the two or three you have known for years, the ones you have met more recently via blogging and Facebook or on a writing course you went on once, and the several writers you know through currently having the same publisher, as well as the one or two you once published in a short-story magazine and with whom you are still in touch - altogether a good number. Be brave enough also to ask two very well-known writers you have also had dealings with in the last year or so, and don't forget your ex- but very nice agent who sold the book (which is a reissue) the first time round, and is thus part of its publishing history. Since the subject of the book is of particular interest to women (though not exclusively), contact a long list of London women's groups, and, since it has been studied on university courses contact a slightly shorter list of relevant London-based academics. And while you're at it, although it seems a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (but then the object of the exercise is spreading word about the book), contact a ginormous list of London-based reading groups. Get the event on Time Out listings.

All of this will take you several mornings and afternoons glued to the computer (you will need to reply to responses, remember). You will long ago have suspended work on your novel-in-progress or given up, for the present, any idea of writing .

A fortnight before the event, set up a Facebook event. Luckily, your publisher sets one up for you as well, because he has so many more Facebook friends.

What happens? Half of your very small number of relatives say they can't make it (you don't even invite your miles-from-London relatives as they would never travel). In spite of your having invited them so early, many of your writer friends write back to say that they too are already committed that evening - mostly to teaching: it seems that most creative writing tuition takes place on Wednesday evenings! Still, some say they'll come, but, frankly, you are counting on the fingers of two people's hands, and not using all of those fingers, either.

Your old agent sends you a very nice email to say that he, too, is already committed that evening, as do your old writing friends, one of whom will be embarked that night on an American tour. Neither of the famous writers with whom you are newly acquainted replies. Squash the horrible feeling that they are laughing up their sleeves at the thought of going to your launch, and remind yourself that they are probably extremely busy. About twenty people say on your publisher's Facebook event that they'll come (hardly any say so on yours), but you know that it's just so easy to click a button to look willing, and it doesn't really guarantee that any of them will come, and one of them lives in Colombia, you notice...

By now you are panicking. Your close friends and relatives tell you that it'll be all right, people always turn up, but you are not so sure. You stop sleeping properly at night. But then, you tell yourself, there are those 15 or so people who have said they're coming. And then there are those who haven't replied: maybe they'll come in the end... Though your gut feeling is that, actually, it means the opposite.

In the days coming up to the event, you spend time Facebooking and Tweeting the event, even though you are worried about breaking the code and being just too damn self-promotional and possibly therefore counterproductive. Also you write again to those who haven't replied, just in case they have forgotten all about it because you invited them so early - squashing the worry that they will just feel hassled, which will put them right off you and your book. Some of them do write back this time, to confirm your worst fears. Then several of the people who have said they're coming write to say that now they can't. The number of definites is dwindling.

But then you get a positive response from the University of East London who will circulate details, and from representatives of three of the women's groups who say they are sure their members will be interested. And to your delight, Beverley Beech, Chair of AIMS (the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services) writes to say she'd love to come.

You pack up your bags. Should you take some books? In Manchester the bookshop sold out, as did the bookshop at your last London launch, and on both occasions you ended up selling extra books out of your bag. It seems ridiculous this time. But then you never know: what if crowds of people off those mailing lists - and the bookshop's mailing list, and the Time Out listing - turned up? Every writer has to be prepared... So you do, you take a bag full of books as well as your other bags, and lug it on the train and the tube and up the steps of your hotel. As you are hauling it through your hotel room doorway the handle comes off, and on the way to the launch you have to buy another, and since this time you think you'd better get a stronger one, that's £50 added to the cost of the launch...

You're a little early, so you retire to Starbucks opposite the bookshop and transfer the books from your knackered bag into your new one. While you're sitting down, you look at your email. One of the writers you are expecting is not going to make it after all, as her babysitter has not turned up.

In the bookshop (Blackwell) the very nice Marcus has gone to a lot of trouble getting in the wine and nibbles and thoughtfully setting up for you in the medical section, most apt for the subject of the novel. Your heart is sinking at the thought that you will not make his efforts worthwhile.

This is what happens in the end: a few of the people who said they would come fail to do so, but a few others who said they couldn't, or didn't even reply, turn up out of the blue. Your lovely publisher comes (all the way from Cambridge in the freezing cold, her hands like ice), which makes all the difference, of course. And some of your oldest friends are there, including those who supported you all those years ago during the fraught history of the book. Although not a single other person from those mailing lists (or the events listing) is there, Beverley Beech comes, and is at the centre of intense discussions about the issues both before and after the reading. She tells you, both privately and openly during the reading, that the book is extremely current because the situation it deals with - that of the over-control of the obstetric profession - has got worse in the years since the first edition was published.

It's a small gathering, but it's a keen and involved one, and you are most surprised when at the end of the evening Marcus tells you that he is pleased with the number of books sold.

You even sell one copy out of your bag, because a dear writing friend arrives too late (and out of breath) to buy one from the shop!

And you are just arriving back at your hotel when your phone goes, and your son whose birth inspired the novel wants to know if you're all right, and you are all right, but so relieved of all the tension that you burst into tears...

(Pics here.)

*Crossposted to Fictionbitch

Reading Matters review of Too Many Magpies

Well, I was having breakfast in the hotel yesterday morning after launching The Birth Machine in London the night before, and an email came through on my iphone: notice of a wonderful review of Too Many Magpies on Kimbofo's deservedly respected Reading Matters blog - and I was so emotional after all the launching etc, that I burst into tears!

One of the nicest things about the review is that Kimbofo compares my writing to that of Jennifer Johnston, who is one of her favourite writers - and mine as well - and here's the bit I'll definitely be pulling for promotion purposes:
Smartly plotted and with not a word wasted, Too Many Magpies is an appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling. It deals with predictable subjects in unpredictable ways, and for that reason alone it marks Baines as a British writer to watch. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Here it is : The Green Books Campaign, organized by Eco-Libris. 200 of us bloggers are simultaneously posting reviews, each of a different green book, that is, a book printed on either recycled paper or on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Here's a piece from the press release:
By turning a spotlight on books printed using greener methods, Eco-Libris aims to raise consumer awareness about considering the environment when making book purchases. This year’s participation of both bloggers and books has doubled from the event’s inception last year.

Founded in 2007, Eco-Libris ( is a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices in the industry, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. To achieve these goals Eco-Libris is working with book readers, publishers, authors, bookstores, and others in the book industry worldwide. So far Eco-Libris has balanced out more than 150,000 books, resulting in more than 165,000 new trees planted with its planting partners in developing countries. To learn more visit
My choice for the campaign is the historical novel, The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger, which is printed on FSC-certified paper by Serpent's Tail in the UK and McArthur and Co in Canada.

The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and was long-listed for the Giller Prize. It's a novel based on a striking real-life story, that of the unconventional Victorian intellectual Lady Duff Gordon, who was forced to travel to Egypt as a cure for her raging consumption, leaving behind her husband and children including a toddler. She was accompanied at first by only her maid, thirty-year-old Sally Naldrett, but once in Cairo, took on also the dragoman Omar Abu Halaweh, settling in Luxor and finally dying in Egypt of her disease. The whole time, she wrote letters home which were published and famed and I understand are in print to this day, and provide the springboard for this novel.

The novel however does not take Duff Gordon's viewpoint, but most interestingly consists of the first-person account of the maid, Sally, about whom in reality very little is known. The book elaborates, as Pullinger explains in an article in the Independent, on a single curious paragraph in a biography of Lucie Duff Gordon, which points however to a dramatic story involving Sally and the dragoman Omar. (I'm not linking to the article, since to savour fully the tension of the book you'd be better not to read the paragraph beforehand.)

The Sally of the novel is the devoted lady's maid and nurse, orphaned and then abandoned and sent into service at an early age, who views Lady Duff Gordon, a colourful and expansive figure who treats her servants with generosity and concern, as something of a saviour. Of an adventurous and curious nature herself, Sally is perfectly happy - indeed excited - to be accompanying her mistress on the journey to Egypt. As they journey south along the Nile (in search of drier air for Lucie's lungs) and settle in Luxor, European conventions fall away: first Lucie and then Sally adopt Arab dress, and they abandon their formal relationship, reading together in the afternoons and brushing each other's hair. It seems, to the reader and also to Sally herself, that they have become less mistress and maid than companions. And yet the moment Sally steps over a line she had not realised was there, her mistress turns against her and brings to bear on her the full force of offended rank, with tragic consequences.

The story is told in the plain language of a maid taught to read by her mistress, generally formal while very occasionally - usually in moments of emotion - swinging towards the demotic, and marked by the emotional restraint which Sally herself confesses characterises her: she had been taught at an early age, she says, to bite down on her emotions. It is a testament to Pullinger's skill, therefore, that, via this medium, she conjures a vivid, indeed emotive picture of Egypt, and the very restraint of the account makes Sally's predicament all the more moving when it occurs. The mode of telling does exact a certain price in terms of story/plot: Sally is never clear why there is such a dramatic reversal in Lady Duff Gordon's attitude to her: is it that Sally has misconstrued her all along, or is Lucie's reversal an understandable inconsistency resulting from Lucie's own personal trials, including jealousy? And if that last, jealousy of what, exactly? Sally asks herself all these questions, but is unable to answer them, and the reader, restricted to her viewpoint, must remain as uncertain as she. The ending leaves us with another uncertainty: Sally's predicament hinges on Omar's dependence on the good favours of Lady Gordon Duff, and we do not know whether the lady's death at the end releases the pair from her strictures. But then the novel, having plucked Sally and Omar out of obscurity into the vivid world of story, thus finally re-enacts the uncertainty of the trajectory of their real lives, and in this way is very moving indeed.

You can read the other reviews here.
To see how many books were saved in the printing of The Mistress of Nothing and for more information about the environmental characteristics of the paper used to print it, as well as to take the green book quiz, visit Webcom, the print provider for McArthur & Company Publishing.
Please take part also by leaving comments on the blogs, and pass on the word and your opinions via Twitter and Facebook.

Big day today...

Tonight is the London launch of The Birth Machine, and I'm also taking part in the Eco-Libris Green Books campaign which kicks off at 1pm Eastern time (6 pm in the UK) - 200 bloggers simultaneously posting reviews of green books. I'll be swiftly putting up my review of Kate Pullinger's prizewinning novel The Mistress of Nothing before making sure the wine is sorted for the launch - do log on if you're not at the launch, and of course do so immediately afterwards if you are!

A reminder of the launch details: 6.30 pm, Blackwell's Bookshop, 100 Charing Cross Road (nearest tube Tottenham Court Rd). Please do come along: all are very welcome.

PS For The Birth Machine, I'm taking part in Eco-Libris's scheme to plant a tree for every copy printed.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Celebrations and rest

I'm writing this from a hotel room overlooking Brighton beach and my feet are actually hurting from the long walk John and I took to Hove this afternoon, and I'm still feeling slightly ill at ease/guilty about the fact that I'm spending several whole days away from the desk. Yesterday we travelled south for a great private launch party - that of Vanessa Gebbie's new story collection from Salt, Storm Warning, which looks wonderful. It was a lovely party, and so gratifying to see the piles of Vanessa's new book on the kitchen table, which by the end of the evening were all gone! And so nice to meet up with several writer friends, and very good (and brave!) of Vanessa to put up all those of us who had travelled from afar! Since my own London launch for The Birth Machine is on Wednesday, John and I decided not to travel back to Manchester in between, and since John had never before been to Brighton we've spent another night here in order to explore. And I'm so hungry after all the walking I've gone and thrown dietary caution to the winds and eaten the crappy hotel biscuits...

And now, very fittingly, someone is setting off fireworks on the beach.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Reading at Bolton Octagon

They're mad in Bolton - mad for literature, it seems. There they are up in what you might think were the wilds of the north of Manchester and they have this vibrant theatre and a university with an English department that has been running well-attended readings for the public.

Last night I was privileged to have been asked to be one of the readers, and John and I set out after dark to drive up the motorway. A week ago we'd driven at a similar time of day on the same bit of motorway, so we knew we'd be stuck in traffic, though as we went to the car through driving rain and huge swirling leaves, we thought we were being ridiculous leaving one and a half hours for a journey that should take only 30 minutes. Huh. It was after one hour and ten minutes in a rain-swept traffic queue on the blackness of the motorway that we pulled up outside the Octagon Theatre where the reading was to take place. It had actually stopped raining, but I honestly didn't think anyone would have turned out in such conditions to hear me and poet Tony Roberts read. How wrong could I be? People were already gathering when I got up into the room, and in the end the room was practically full, with not only university students but members of the public. All of them writers, it turned out, all of them madly into literature, all really keen to talk in the interval, and many of whom, bless them, eagerly bought books. (Pics below.)

It was a lovely evening.I loved being back in Bolton where I once taught for a while at the university, I loved Tony's reading - he and I swapped books, my Balancing for his Outsiders, which I am going to relish - I loved chatting to the audience members, and it was exceptionally nice to be introduced by poet and professor Jon Glover - who produced a copy of the original edition of The Birth Machine and showed it to the audience, and got me to sign it!

Sadly at the end we learned that the readings, which have continued uninterrupted for the past thirty years or so, have been affected by the cuts and are suspended for the moment. A very great shame, as they clearly provide a service to this literature-hungry community - I talked to Thomas, an A-level student very keen to be a writer, and to a 53-year old man who has done an Access course in English and is going on to do a degree. It is hoped, though, that the readings will start again in the new year.

Thank you so much to Lauretta Evans and Jon Glover of the university who hosted the reading, to the Octagon, to Sweetens Bookshop who sold the books, and to the great audience.

And we swept back down the nearly-empty motorway in 30 minutes flat!

Le Mans Crescent in the wet, snapped from the Octagon Hospitality Suite where the reading took place:

The audience gathers:

Jon Glover introduces us:

I read:

Tony reads:

Talking in the interval to A-level student Thomas:

The book piles going down:

The question and answer session:

Monday, November 01, 2010

Official Publication day for The Birth Machine and Amazon reviews for Too Many Magpies

Well, I've already had one launch and still have another to come (Charing Cross Road Blackwell's, 6.30 pm, Wednesday 10th November), so I'd sort of lost sight of the official publication date, and there I was about an hour ago typing it in an email: 'Publication date November 1st', and it hit me: that's today! Well, it so happens that I'm meeting someone for dinner tonight in Aladdin's in Withington, where you take your own drink, so I might just take along a wee bottle of fizz, even though, actually, I had decided to give up drinking for now...

And while The Birth Machine is now officially out, reviews of Too Many Magpies are still coming in: last week, to my great delight two more five-star Amazon reviews popped up. One of the reviewers, DotSeven says this:
I finished Too Many Magpies in three bedtime reads (something I rarely do!). Mesmerised from start to finish. As a reader I identified with it to a (sometimes) uncomfortable degree - loved the prose and the way the elements and characters were mirrored/entwined. A unique experience, seldom read anything by a UK writer that has had so marked an effect!
Honestly, what better reaction that that? Yup, fizz tonight defo...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pics from Manchester launch of The Birth Machine

...the first with great thanks to novelist Clare Dudman, who blogs about the event here. Blogger Clare Conlon posts about it here.

Look at them all chatting ten to the dozen: a really lively audience!

Reading Clare's blog reminds me of my nick-name, the Zedster, which Benjamin Judge, who was also present, gave me when I won his World Literary Cup this summer, and, really, it's how I should have signed his book! Ben, I should add, was shortlisted for the MLF novel-pitching event last weekend - congratulations, Ben!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Manchester launch of The Birth Machine reissue, and why I count myself so lucky

Well, it's here: the day of the Manchester launch for the reissue of The Birth Machine. And here I am, nothing much left to do towards the preparation, with time to contemplate how very, very lucky I am. People keep congratulating me on the reissue, as though it's something I've done myself: Well done, they say, to manage that, a reissue - at any time, they say, leave alone these difficult times!!! They think I must have worked hard, and be very clever, to achieve it. I have to tell them: no, I'm just unbelievable lucky. It's all down to my wonderful publisher, Jen at Salt, who brought the subject up, out of the blue, and offered to do it! Actually, she didn't even offer: there she was standing with her suitcase ready to leave after our Salt reading for Manchester Literature Festival last year, and she stopped and turned back and asked if I WOULD MIND her re-doing The Birth Machine!!

Being a writer can be a struggle for so much of the time - it's so hard to get published (and that doesn't necessarily stop being the case even when you've been published previously), and when you are published it's so hard to get your books noticed, and so hard to get the sales, and then the books go out of print (as indeed happened with the first edition of The Birth Machine), and in the face of all that it's quite hard sometimes to keep writing, to see the point, or to keep believing in yourself as a writer. But then sometimes this sort of thing happens: when suddenly someone in the publishing industry acts like a fairy godmother, and magic happens.

And I have to say some pretty frightening things happened to me over the first publication of The Birth Machine, as I described here, to the extent that I thought my potential career as a writer was ruined before it had hardly begun, and leading to a years-long struggle to overcome the setback, both practically and psychologically. So this really is a most wonderful occasion for me - the happy ending of a painful story. Do please come and help me celebrate if you're in Manchester tonight: Waterstone's Deansgate, 7pm, £3.00 redeemable against purchase of The Birth Machine.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Eureka Commissions at Manchester Literature Festival

Since science and scientific thinking have been preoccupations of both my novels Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine, I was very interested in the Manchester Literature Festival event on Saturday evening: 'The Eureka Commissions.' In an ongoing project, Ra Page of Comma Press is commissioning short stories around the concept of the 'eureka' moment of scientific discovery - those 'breakthroughs and bolts-from-the-blue that change the game and shift the paradigm', as he puts it in the blurb - and in particular around the understanding that such moments 'are themselves a kind of fiction, a useful apocrypha for simplifying a complex blend of calculated experiment and pure accident.' Each story focuses on a particular moment of scientific discovery and is written after consultation with a scientist, and that evening Stella Duffy and Zoe Lambert were to read from their commissioned stories, and the scientists who had advised them would speak - astrophysicist Tim O'Brien and historian of science James Sumner, respectively.

The meeting was due to be held in the Manchester Astronomical Society's Godlee Observatory at the top of the university's Sackville building, and there was great excitement and security as we, a strictly limited number, gathered. With great ceremony and import we were let through a turnstile one at a time by the Astronomical Society's Tony, who shouted strict instructions after us to wait for him when we got to the top in the lift. Then we were escorted up some tiny wooden stairs to a small room in the centre of which an ornate metal spiral staircase went up - and up and up! - to the observatory above. But in spite of the regimentation things went haywire: only 36 people were allowed in the room at one time, and somehow 40 had ended up there, and we weren't going to be able to have the meeting there after all, but in a lecture room elsewhere. Before that, though, and excitingly, those who wished - and who didn't have vertigo, Tony said - were to be escorted by him in groups of seven up the stairs and into the observatory. I went in the first lot, telling myself, no I didn't have vertigo. And I damn well couldn't afford to have it, as first Tony and then fellow writer Annie Clarkson shot up before me, leaving me climbing much more slowly and gingerly and working on blanking the spaces opening up beneath me through the lacy metalwork, and wondering when on earth the top would come... And, via a precarious metal ladder at the top, out we came into the tiny round space with its domed roof made, apparently, of papier mache, which slides sideways to allow the view of the sky. The telescope, made in Dublin in 1903 for the society which was founded that year, takes up the main floor space. The woman behind me was a bit dizzy, I think, as she arrived at the top, and she kind of swayed towards the telescope, and Tony jumped in alarm and told her to get back and made us all stay flat against the wall, well away from the precious equipment. And now we had to go down, and although I'd come up in high heels I knew there was no way I could go down in them. But then I had my eureka moment: I would carry my shoes in my teeth (no way would I be able to let go of the rails), and so I did, although this had the unfortunate result of obscuring my view of the steps - but then it also had the fortunate effect of obscuring my view of the spiralling spaces below.

We repaired to the lecture room, and Zoe read a moving story about a female chemist (shame on me, I have forgotten her name!) cut out of the discovery of a radio isotope, and Stella Duffy gave us some stunning literary space-time pyrotechnics around that very subject, space-time. Then historian of science James Sumner spoke about the fact that, while eureka moments are a populist concept, in reality they rarely happen: scientific discoveries tend to come about by accretion. The audience didn't seem all that convinced of this. John, whose recent writing of a textbook on the way we learn language seems to have been a whole series of eureka moments - we will be out walking and he'll suddenly get a new insight and have to rush back home - questioned the premise, and another man suggested that scientists themselves believe in eureka moments. James conceded that this last was so, that scientists as well as the public need to believe in such a phenomenon as a way of shaping and narrating events, but held that that didn't mean it was an objective truth. On the other hand, he did also concede that there were moments of sudden movement forwards. He agreed with one questioner who pointed out that some famous discovery - maybe something to do with DNA - was actually made by a third-year undergraduate, and while he seemed to see this as proof of the accretion effect (it wasn't just the famous scientist having the eureka idea) it seemed to me proof rather of the opposite - the eureka moment as the sudden insight of an individual person outside of the system. And surely, I thought, the eureka moment is after all just the moment when all the connections suddenly come together and make a meaning or a proper picture, the 'turning point' that even those arguing against the eureka moment kept referring to. In the end, I decided, maybe it just depends how you define it...

Tim O'Brien, asked what popular misconceptions about science he'd like to address, said that most people like to think that science is about certainty, but in fact science is very much about doubt. I liked this very much, but I also thought 'Tell that to the doctors in The Birth Machine...'

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bookshops I love: Waterstone's Deansgate

Well, some of my best memories are of Waterstone's Deansgate, and I met some of my really good friends at readings there, and so it's really the very best place for me to be having the Manchester launch this week of the reissue of my first novel, The Birth Machine, and some of those friends, I am very happy to say, will be there. Here (above) is the copy of Balancing I found in their fiction section this afternoon: I pulled it out temporarily, as the spine was reflecting the shelf light so brightly you couldn't read it - I did put it back again afterwards!

Do come to the launch if you're in Manchester: all are welcome, and I'd be delighted to have my readers celebrate with me on what will be for me a very special occasion. Wednesday, 7 pm. £3.00 redeemable against purchase of The Birth Machine.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Well, I am utterly EXHAUSTED - and that's before I do the actual launches and readings.

As you can see from my (very personalized) flow chart above and the stuff now crossed out, since 1st October I have been working flat out on the launch of The Birth Machine reissue. Crossed out and done are the giveaway, poster-making and delivering, invitation-making for two launches (designing and distributing leaflets, facebook messaging and much, much endless emailing), press releases to local papers, contacting of listings publications, visits to bookshops with advance information of the publication and liaising with the bookshops holding the launches. Meanwhile I managed to do just one other thing: read Sue Guiney's fascinating new novel A Clash of Innocents and host her blog tour. You will see from the chart that I failed to do any of my other scheduled reading (or any other reading at all): I didn't get the book read for my reading group, and I still haven't got further than the first chapter of Kate Pullinger's Mistress of Nothing, which I'm reviewing for Eco-Libris's Green Book day on 10th November - the very same day as my London launch: I hope I manage that manoeuvre; I've been so preoccupied I got the date wrong and only belatedly discovered the clash!

But on Wednesday this week I came to a point where there wasn't all that much more I could do for the moment (at least not that I'd thought of), and for the first time I relaxed. On Wednesday night I slept right through for the first time in ages, and lo and behold I woke in the morning with the start of a migraine - the usual symptom for me of relaxation after stress. Not that in fact there weren't still things to do. There was a question mark over books getting from the distributors to Waterstone's Deansgate via the 'hub' in time for the launch next Wednesday, which needed to be sorted out, though my lovely publisher Jen came to my rescue and fixed it. And then there were the trains and hotels to book for my few days' trip away - and god, doesn't that take time - and isn't it confusing: I ended up paying £20 more for one leg of a journey than I discovered later I'd have done if I'd booked in a slightly different way! That trip will be exciting, though: it will include not just my own London launch but a visit to Brighton to see my good friend and fellow Salt author Vanessa Gebbie and celebrate the publication of her wonderful-looking new collection, Storm Warning.

But you know, I don't even think it's just the work that's tiring - I know from experience that it's not, as I've done it for others. It's just so damned emotionally draining, I find, pushing your own work. But maybe that's just me. I blame the parents...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fleur Adcock, Amanda Craig and Michele Roberts at the Manchester LIterature Festival

I really only woke up to the Manchester Literature Festival on Tuesday when I came to a lull in publicity for The Birth Machine. I sat up and looked around and realized that the festival was already in full swing, so that evening John and I headed off to Manchester Museum to hear the poet Fleur Adcock. We all sat in the Prehistoric Life Gallery under a huge suspended dinosaur skeleton beside a mock-up of a prehistoric forest. The sense of the past pressing in and physically coming to life again was fitting, as the engaging, accessible and pithy poems Fleur read were very concerned with the past, her new book Dragon Talk centring on her own childhood, and indeed she talked interestingly about how as you get older your own childhood becomes a history, linked with the events occurring in the greater world. In fact, the past kept popping up all round: in front of us sat someone who turned out to be poet Tony Roberts with whom I'm reading in a couple of weeks at the Bolton Octagon: I hadn't met him before, but John had met him some years ago. And afterwards we all went for a drink - just like the old days.

Then yesterday I went to the lunchtime event at Waterstone's: Amanda Craig and Michele Roberts. A very good turnout for lunchtime, but only two men in the audience, I noticed, which seems to support the notion that women are the majority of fiction readers. It was a very interesting session. Amanda Craig was talking about her latest novel, Hearts and Minds, a novel concerning the murder of an au pair in a contemporary London which is, after all, not too far from the London of Dickens. I found Amanda a particularly engaging and intelligent speaker: she talked of being struck by how little London has really changed in terms of its underbelly, and how little this is actually addressed in fiction. She told us that the novel came from first her growing awareness that so many people in the services industries in London now come from other countries and then from her own experience of falling seriously ill and finding that those people she needed to employ to help her were indeed from abroad. As a result of her illness, her novel took her seven years, and was, she admitted in answer to an audience question, at times harrowing to write. Some people, she said, had been upset by its depiction of London, which they didn't recognise, but she assured us that, the result of her research interviewing prostitutes and trafficked girls, it was accurate. The beginning of the novel, which she read out to us, was in my view stunning - beautifully written as well as ultimately shockingly dramatic.

Michele Roberts is a writer whom I've always thought of as a fellow spirit - we were after all both published by the same publisher early on. She's a more experimental writer than Amanda Craig, I think: in keeping with her sense of the continuity of London's underbelly, Amanda consciously writes, she said, in the tradition of Dickens, but Michele plays with voice and our concepts of reality, and it seemed when she began talking that the two writers would provide a contrast. Michele was reading from her new book of short stories, Mud: Stories of Sex and Love . Beforehand she talked about how sex and love have become difficult subjects to write about, and that a lot of writers now seem to avoid it: you have to get around the cliches about love and sidestep pornography and the fact that sex and love have become artificially separated in our culture - if you don't use the language of either the clinical or the pornographic gaze, what language do you use? Therefore, typically I think for her, she found it a challenge, and what she's interested in in writing this book, she says, is the complexity of both sex and love - all kinds of love including non-sexual love, and the stories of those whom the language of newspapers objectifies even when taking a positive stance.

Then she read to us from a stunning story in the book about a trafficked girl forced into prostitution and suddenly - since Amanda's novel hinges on the rescue of such a girl - the work of both authors dovetailed dramatically. (I was particularly interested at this point, as my most recently published short story also features such a girl.) The authors agreed wholeheartedly about the transformative power of London, and the way it provides transitional spaces, both in reality for people wanting to start again and as the setting for stories exploring complexity and eschewing the false divisions of good and bad. Both spoke of London as a living creature, Amanda referring (in answer to a question about the effects of the recession) to its heartbeat and its dystolic/systolic rhythms of change of expansion and contraction. Both said that they mined it for stories, Michele giving us a vivid picture of herself trudging in a huge coat and boots and constantly getting chatting on street corners to people who pour out their stories to her.

Both agreed that fiction is both about change and can effect change - something has to happen in a story which brings about change - but also reading a story can change you, shift your perceptions. Stories too, Michele said, can help us to recognise change in our own lives.

Someone asked if in consciously giving voice in their writing to people who didn't have a voice in life, the authors felt an extra special responsibility of authenticity. Michele said that one has to always acknowledge that fiction is making things up and that one's first responsibility as an author is to the story. Amanda, however, did feel that, since the characters of her novel were indeed based on real people she'd interviewed, she felt some responsibility to be true to their experience - and added that much of what she'd included in the novel was only the tip of the iceberg of that experience, in spite of the fact that some people had objected to the 'over-grim' portrayal.

And then it was out into the lovely sunny streets of Manchester and the posh shops of King Street, though it's true that a few of them are now empty, and there weren't that many shoppers about, and there was the Big Issue seller on the corner, and the echoes of the authors' writing following me all the way home...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is it a novel?

There's a new review for Too Many Magpies in the magazine Front&Centre. Interestingly, although the reviewer was clearly engaged by the book in the end, he seems to have struggled initially, mainly because he says that knowing that I'm also a playwright gave him misleading expectations. What tripped him up was the internal nature of the book. In a play, where we observe characters from the outside, we are often aware of meanings and implications that remain a puzzle to the characters, and it was a while before he realized that in Too Many Magpies we are meant to share the protagonist's puzzlement and sense of mystery.

It set me thinking. People often ask me if I know from the start whether a piece of writing is going to be a play or a novel, and I do, and this clarifies to some extent why: it's very much to do with the perspective. Too Many Magpies is about not only uncertainty, but the experience of uncertainty which I wanted the reader to share, and so that's how it came to me: as an interior first-person narration, ie a novel, and it just couldn't have been anything else.

There's another curious thing about this review. So many reviews of this book have called the prose spare, yet this reviewer calls it 'oft-florid'. It seems to me that it would be pretty difficult to be both. In fact my aim in writing is always to be vivid and often visual (which is perhaps what leads to florid?) while striving at all times for economy and concision (which is probably what makes people call it spare) - which seems to give rise to some very opposite descriptions of my prose!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Bookshops I love: Chorlton Bookshop and Blackwell University Bookshop, Manchester

Yesterday afternoon I went with my sheet of information about the imminent new edition of The Birth Machine to Chorlton Bookshop and Blackwell in the university precinct.

The bookshop in Chorlton where I used to live was started in 1983 by Alan and Ceri Johnson, and is now run by their daughter Vicky. Right from the start, however, Vicky made the most wonderful window displays I've ever seen in a bookshop, and she continues today, as you can see from the pic above and her current display of fashion history books. They really are an excellent bookshop, tiny but always stocking the key books of the moment and the classics, and absolutely on the button if you need anything ordered. They have always been very supportive of my books, beginning when the first edition of The Birth Machine came out, and yesterday they said immediately that they'd order copies of the new one.

Then on into town through the falling orange leaves to the university precinct and Blackwell, who said right away that they'd order a couple of copies too.

See, no wonder I love these bookshops...!

I had forgotten both my camera and my phone yesterday afternoon (!), so I can't show you the carpet of leaves outside Blackwell, and have to rely on this official pic (below), but in the evening John and I went back to Chorlton to eat at Croma next door to the Chorlton Bookshop, and I was able to get the pics above.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Amazon review for The Birth Machine

I've had my first Amazon review for the new edition of The Birth Machine - already; and it's a rave!

The bit I like best is this:
This novel should be required reading for medics, politicians, teachers, lawyers and individuals who do not want to be crushed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A fate to avoid

I was out on a walk on Sunday afternoon and came across this which really struck me. It's kind of what I'm hoping doesn't happen to my WIP while I'm working with my publisher on the launch of The Birth Machine!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

A Clash of Innocents by Sue Guiney

Today I'm delighted to be hosting fellow blogger and writer Sue Guiney with her fascinating new novel set in Cambodia, A Clash of Innocents, which has the great distinction of being chosen as the first publication of new independent publishing house Ward Wood.

Against the backdrop of Cambodia's violent past and the beginnings of its tribunal for 'justice' unfolds the intriguing story of Deborah, the indomitable sixty-year old American (and first-person narrator) who runs a Phnom Penh orphanage, and Amanda, the young woman with a mysterious past who turns up one day to help. It's a story of hidden identities and questioned motives, during which Deborah must struggle with her own demons.

Here's the stunning beginning, with its ironic quoting from a Cambodian Tourist book:

Welcome to Cambodia! We are so glad you are here to learn about our glorious past and experience our remarkable culture. Come see the beauty of our traditional dancers. The comfortable temperature of February is a pleasant time to visit our many temples and our modern capital city. Please let our happy Khmer smiles be your guide. Cambodia From Us to You: A Touristic Handbook, p 8
You live here long enough and you stop taking things for granted. Where I grew up, in suburban Ohio, I could assume one day led to another, one season to the next: you reap in autumn what you sow in spring. People were who they said they were, generally speaking, and if they weren’t you could pretty much avoid them and surround yourself instead with people you could trust.But in Cambodia, you can’t trust anything or anyone. The rice you plant in May won’t necessarily be there in November to harvest. And if it is, it won’t necessarily be yours. A child who’s been put to bed by the caring hands of his mother might never feel that touch again. Actually, it’s not so much that you don’t know who to trust, it’s more that you don’t know what the word trust means. But after all these years in Phnom Penh, I had gotten kind of used to that. Trust. Friend. Murder. Victim. All ideas more like science fiction shape-shifters than real words. You think you have a hold of them, then suddenly they change. It makes for an interesting and challenging life, I’ll tell you that. And after so much time, I can’t really imagine myself living anywhere else.
At the wonderful launch of the book which I attended, Sue made clear that the book had been inspired by her own time in Cambodia, and also that she would be going back there to tour the book. Later I asked her about this last in more detail, and also what had drawn her to write so passionately about the aftermath of war. Here's the answer she sent me:
I’ve raised two boys and I’ve raised them in London, a city which is a little boy’s paradise.There are soldiers and parades and some of the best military museums, and toy soldier museums, anywhere. I couldn’t even count the number of hours I’ve spent at the National Army Museum over the years. So it made sense for me to try to write a book about war, and the war which meant the most to me in my life was the Vietnam War. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I’ve been to Cambodia, and I can say that when I walked out of baggage claim and into the airport of Phnom Penh, complete with Cambodian soldiers and rifles standing guard, I did feel a moment of irrational panic. I grew up seeing too many news programs and Hollywood films about that era. So “A Clash of Innocents” was to be the novel which helped me sort out my feelings not only about war in general, but about that specific war which so coloured my adolescent years. I recognize the dramatic worth of war stories. They are, indeed, perfect for tales of humanity being stretched to its limit. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write a book about the actuality of war, placing my characters in those battles themselves. I don’t believe it’s because I couldn’t imagine the scenes or the dialogue. I think I could have come up with the story and done the research. But instead I realized it wasn’t actually war itself that haunted me enough to spend years of my life writing about it. It was the aftermath of war. It was the question: what do you do when the war is over and you have survived? How do you live your life having witnessed the worst that humanity can do? How do you come to terms with it all and go on? That is really the question that has always haunted me and that‘s ultimately what “A Clash of Innocents” explores – finding a way to survive, despite. For me, that is the more profound and difficult question. My guess is that this new novel of mine will turn out to be just one of several attempts to answer it.

I think all of Cambodia is still struggling to answer that question, and that might be one of the reasons why I fell so in love with that sad yet beautiful country, and why I’m planning to go back. Many people go away, get inspired, and then return home to create. That has certainly happened to me before. But I’ve decided that this time I wanted to take the fruits of that inspiration back to place that caused it. I’m actually planning a trip in early 2011 back to both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap where I’ll do a series of charity readings for the English-speaking communities there. There are two organizations that I’m talking to about holding events from which the proceeds of books sold can go to their charitable activities. Sure, this gives me a great excuse to go back, and I very much want to. But hopefully, I’ll be able to do a little bit of good as well.
Such energy and commitment! Congratulations to Sue and her publishers. Do buy the book: it's available from Amazon, The Book Depository and good bookshops.

Sue's website is here
Her blog is here
and you can visit her publisher Ward Wood here.