Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Eight Cuts Interview

The energetic Dan Holloway, who was such a brilliant compere at the recent New Libertines night in Manchester which he organised, has kindly interviewed me over on the Eight Cuts blog. Among other things, he asks about the forms in which I write, my view of The Great American Novel and my reflections on the complicated publication history of The Birth Machine

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some recent reading

I'm finding it harder and harder to squeeze in time to write about books. And it's not just the time: as fellow Salt author and Art of Fiction blogger Adrian Slatcher once said to me (as we sat over a bottle of wine in the aptly named Art of Tea), it takes a good deal of creative and intellectual expenditure to write a proper, thoughtful book review. I'm not sure that that's generally appreciated: people seem to assume that bloggers find it as easy as breathing to do it all the time, for free. In fact, when I'm writing intensively I find it hard enough to read other books in the first place, and - as I've said probably all too often - hard enough even to keep up with the work I have to do for my own published work. So, in an attempt share something of my recent reading, here's a pic and a roundup of the books in my life lately - all of them from independent presses, and some from very small presses indeed.

The plain-looking red one in the centre of the back row is an advance reading copy of Anthony McCarten's novel Brilliance, which is to be published in March, sent to me by his publisher Alma Books. It's the story of the Faustian bargain struck by Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb, with the first 'world banker' J P Morgan - a fascinating exploration which has huge resonances for our present day.  I love those advance reading copies: the lack of distraction in terms of images and blurbs, and the intimacy of the draft not yet proofed and spruced up for the outside world. Because I didn't have time to review this book properly, Anthony agreed to write an article for my Fictionbitch blog, discussing the endlessly interesting issue of fact and imagination in fiction, and which you can read here.

To its left is the novel The Space Between Things (Indigo Dreams), sent to me by its author Charlie Hill, an energetic and linguistically adventurous take on a little explored world, that of the road protest movement and civil disobedience, as well as a love story. This novel has had endorsements from Jonathan Coe and Jim Crace, and great reviews in The Observer and The Times, and it's instructive to read Charlie's account of the problems of marketing a book even when you get such rave critical reception. And even, I would add, when you have Charlie's particular flair for promotion: of all the press releases and emails I've ever had from publishers and authors, I'd say that Charlie's was the most arresting and yet disarming, which made me interested in his book right away.

Because I know what it takes to write a really thoughtful review, I am truly aware of my debt to Jim Murdoch, who has reviewed my books in perhaps greater depth than anyone. It pains me that I simply haven't the time at present to repay him with the same kind of attention, but I would draw your attention to his latest novel Milligan and Murphy (Fandango Virtual) which he recently sent me (back row, right). If you like Beckett, you'll love it, but you don't need to like Beckett to do so. Consciously Beckettian in style and premise - involving two brothers who encounter a variety of eccentric characters on the road and circling the question: is it better to search for someone that will never be found than wait for someone who will never turn up? - it yet has a voice and a quirkily comic take on the characters which are all Jim's own, and is much more accessible.

Right and left of the front row are two winners of the Guardian Not The Booker prize. Lee Rourke's The Canal (Melville House) is a book I was meaning to read for ages, as Rourke sees himself, along with Tom McCarthy I believe, as 'a leading light of the Off-Beat Generation' (The Guardian). It's a book in which nothing much happens for a good long while, and its subject is boredom: the narrator gives up work to sit on a bench each day on the side of the canal (The Regent's Canal, I think), a bench on which a young woman also starts coming to sit. I didn't quite agree with the premise of the novel, which seems to be that boredom is a good thing because it's actually creative - personally, I think what's good about boredom is that it forces you to be creative simply to escape it, and the moment it does that you are no longer bored. Indeed, once he begins idling by the canal, the protagonist seems anything but bored, and neither was this reader: the amazing thing about this novel, in spite of its lack of  plot, is the way that its prose and its preoccupations hold you. I found it far more human and involving than Tom McCarthy's C which, although vivid and full of somewhat exotic curiosities, I've tried reading twice now and been unable to persevere with. Oh, and something dramatic does happen in The Canal after all...

Michael Stewart's King Crow (BlueMoose) is on the surface a much more conventional rite-of-passage novel: a young boy from a troubled background who protects himself by retreating into his ornithological obsession starts yet another new school and becomes involved with a charismastic older pupil. Immediately he finds himself caught up in a car chase involving drugs and a possible murder. But all is not as it seems, and the revelation of this novel is truly stunning and makes it far more movingly psychological than at first it may seem.

Finally, I was delighted that Andrea Ashworth sent me a copy of her Scott-winning collection of short stories, Somewhere Else, or Even Here (Salt), which I had been delighted to nominate for the Guardian First Book Award, and had previously read only as a PDF.  Excellent stories that hinge on those subtle turning points in relationships and lives that can change people for ever.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A writer's bad day - or is it?

Urgh. I have just spent one of those days (yesterday) that you have to suffer every so often as a writer - well, I do, anyway. Having been otherwise engaged for a few weeks, I was intending to go back to the series of stories I'm working on and begin a new one. But I went to my desk and nothing came. There was nothing there in my head, in spite of the fact that I thought I'd had ideas backed up waiting to be written. I looked at my notes: none of the ideas I had written down in my little hardback Book of Ideas seemed to matter, to mean anything, and - contrary to my previous conviction - none of the stories in the series, written or unwritten, seemed to link up in any satisfyingly thematic way.

I could tell myself why it was happening: it's because I've just spent three weeks thinking up ideas for radio and discussing them with a producer, and finally writing a treatment. While there is of course creativity in such a process, it also has a far greater cerebral component: you have to think largely outside the story, about the market requirements of the medium and the demographic you're writing for, and it's a huge intellectual task working out how a story should proceed and indeed how it should end, without the immersive dreamlike and instinctual experience of actually writing, in which things can evolve organically. I was simply in quite the wrong headspace for actual writing. But when that happens, the experience of being so is so horrible, so barren, that you sometimes think you'll never write again, and yesterday I did think that.

Well, I'm glad to say that today, after a good night's sleep, it's all come back to me - what the stories mean, in that deep gut way that fuels the writing of them - and I've remembered which story I was going to write next: ie it's now opening up before me, resonating and demanding to be written, which in my experience, is the only way good things get written.

And of course the fallow period was necessary for this to happen: the whole thing was working itself out as I got up in despair from my desk and went off into the lovely frosty day I felt I'd been wasting and bought a birthday present for my mum, and came back and sat down and chopped off the worn ends of two old duvet covers and sewed them into one (I'm a poverty-stricken writer, remember!), all the time thinking, God, am I really spending writing time sewing??! And why is my head still so empty?

I've so often told students that much of writing is done away from the desk, when you're doing other things: it comes in subconsciously and sideways. In fact, I actually say it in my chapter in The Creative Writing Handbook (Macmillan). But once again I forgot the truth of it while it was happening to me.

And the present I bought for my mum? A really lovely book: Weeds and Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald (Faber), weird and wonderful poems that - aptly for me in the circumstances -  'summon up the flora of the psyche', with etchings by Jessica Greenman.