Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Next Big Thing

Well, I've been tagged by the one and only Maya Chowdhry in something called The Next Big Thing by which I'm required to answer questions about a recent or forthcoming book. Ever the proactive author (though my actual writing has kept me from attending to this blog over-much lately!) I have chosen a book that, should you not have read it but like the sound of it, you can get hold of without waiting, and which anyway may be quite new to my more recent readers: my short novel Too Many Magpies. Plus, I've never answered some of these questions about it before.

But first, a word about Maya. She's an innovative and gloriously subversive writer whom I first met properly when she co-edited Bitch Lit (Crocus), an anthology of stories about bad women for which my story, 'The Way to Behave', was commissioned. Bitch Lit was great fun: we did a reading tour, each dressed as our protagonist, and Maya, who also contributed to the book, was dressed most exotically as a fairy goth. I won't ever forget the sight of my mum, who came to the Sheffield reading, sitting chatting to a fairy with wings as if she did that every day of the year. (You can read my posts about the Bitch Lit anthology and tour here.) The book Maya answered TNBT questions about is her poetry collection, The Seamstress and the Global Garment.

So, the questions about Too Many Magpies:

What genre does your book fall under?
It's not a genre book, though it definitely has elements of the psychological thriller: the female protagonist meets a charismatic man who seems like her saviour, but becomes ever more scary... As for the form, I tend to call it a novella but I once read that a novella is 32,000 words or less and actually Too Many Magpies is 38,000. Goodness only knows (or cares!). Suffice it to say that according to the Reading Matters blog, it's 'smartly plotted and with not a word wasted... an appealing, bewitching read, one that feels slightly dangerous and a little bit thrilling.'

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

That's a difficult one: Maxine Peake or Shirley Henderson could capture wonderfully the neurotic vulnerability the situation produces in my (nameless) protagonist - a state akin to madness, though you never really know how sane or otherwise she is - but Kate Winslet has the kind of looks that fit my picture of her - wholesome nice-girl looks that attract her sinister suitor and belie the chaos in her psyche that she's suppressing with her tidy bourgeois life. And of course, Kate Winslet could do that brilliantly, too, as she did in the film of Revolutionary Road. Kevin Spacey would be great as the charming, even cheeky, yet sinister older stranger...

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s safety as the natural world around her becomes ever more uncertain - until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power…

Who publishes your book?
Who but the wonderful Salt, who have also published two others of my books, the short story collection Balancing on the Edge of the World, and another short novel, The Birth Machine.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Not long at all. I wrote the whole thing in eight weeks, first and second drafts included. This is why I think of it as a novella rather than a novel - it has a kind of holistic shape that I associate with short stories, as opposed to the more rambling feel of novels, and as a result somehow it needed to be written quickly, just to get it all down while it was in my head.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I've always been interested in the divide between science and art, and between rational and magical thinking. My father was an engineer and my mother was literary and artistic, and as I was growing up I felt caught between different world views. Both were fascinating, and attractive, to me, but what was fascinating to me also was the way those supposedly different ways of thinking could become blurred - my artistic mother was by far the more rational of the two, and my 'scientific' father was a great believer in ghosts and magic. Then I married a doctor and came up against some real 'magical' and non-rational thinking on the part of some medical so-called scientists, and I began badly to want to write a story based around these ideas. (So I suppose you could say that one of the reasons the book tumbled out so quickly was that it had been gestating for some time.) The autobiographical bit of the book concerns the protagonist's small son, who falls ill with a life-threatening condition: that happened to my own small son, and the uncertainty of it fed into the novel and fitted the themes.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
There are spells and sinister nursery rhymes, there are spooky birds, there's a day when the protagonist wakes and just knows there's someone out there watching in the hissing rain...

The five writers I've tagged are Charles Lambert, A J Ashworth, Zoe Lambert, Ailsa Cox and Sarah Salway - all writers I very much admire.

You can buy Too Many Magpies direct from Salt or from Amazon or The Book Depository.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sweet Journey from Home

To Southport on Friday evening for the launch of Cary Bray's Scott-Prize-winning story collection Sweet Home. It was dreadful weather - sheets of water on the motorway, and when we got there waterfalls coming off the elegant glass arcade-type roofs that cover the pavements in Southport's centre - which last I'd never expected, never having set foot in Southport before. But Broadhurst's Bookshop was a wonderful haven, with a real and homely coal fire, and when we got there, on time, a crowd had already gathered, undaunted by the weather, and Carys was already signing copy after copy of her exciting-looking book. And there were cakes (!) which Carys had made herself, themed with the book, and very much in keeping with the great story she read us, a twist on the Hansel and Gretel tale with its gingerbread house, beautifully told with an original flair for language. If that story is anything to go by, there's an edge to Carys's writing which is anything but homely and sickly-sweet!

Broadhursts is an amazing bookshop - selling antiquarian, secondhand and new books and tiering up three storeys, it reminds me rather of Shakespeare and Company in Paris. They wrap your books in brown paper and string, pulling the string down from an antique dispenser high on the wall, and I was very torn between letting them wrap my copy of Sweet Home and leaving it available to peep into.

It was a lovely evening, and congratulations to Carys, for winning the prize and on her publication.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Reading group: Dubliners by James Joyce

We have always had a rule in our reading group that we don't discuss collections of short stories, initially because one of our early (now ex) members, Sarah, said (as someone who liked to sink into a good long novels) that she couldn't stand short stories. I have to say that as a short-story writer I found her comment upsetting but I was happy to go along with the decision as I felt that a good short story can take a whole evening's discussion and that any discussion by a disparate group of a whole collection of stories was most likely to be superficial.

So it was with some trepidation, I think, that Doug suggested this book, which he had always loved, assuring us that he had thought about it carefully and had decided that the cohesiveness of this particular collection would make for a good discussion after all. It turned out that he was right: we did have a good and thoughtful discussion, a main mark of that being that, unlike many of our discussions, it resulted in the adjustment of some people's perceptions, including my own.

Like Doug I have always held Dubliners to be one of my favourite books, but when I came to read it again this time (after many years) I found that I had hardly recalled the stories and, even more disturbingly, reading them this time under great pressure of time and commitments I found they blurred one into the other and I could hardly recall individual stories the day after reading them. When I bumped into Mark in the cafe some days before the meeting, I disconcertingly found myself agreeing with him that the stories were tedious, and this was the attitude with which both Mark and I arrived at the meeting. However, by the time the group had discussed the stories and reminded each other about them, both Mark and I began to engage with them, and having gone away and read several of them again since at much greater leisure, I'm glad to say they are restored to my personal canon.

By contrast to Mark and me, Doug, introducing the stories, said he had found his enthusiasm for the collection undimmed. He argued for its suitability for discussion: the fact that the stories are unified by a distinctive voice and authorial outlook and by the themes of religion, alcoholism and the ultimate hopelessness of the lives of its characters struggling in the hinterland between respectability and degradation in the economically-slumped Dublin of the early twentieth century, and by an overall structure of movement from childhood, through youth to maturity.

Jenny agreed: she had very much liked the stories (although she did, it turned out, also find it hard to remember which was which), but wondered why they are considered so groundbreaking for the time in which they were written. We talked about the fact that the stories eschew the traditional definitive resolution, and instead, in keeping with the theme of hopelessness and struggle, often end in a way that seems to leave us hanging. Even though most of the stories do in fact end on what Joyce called an 'epiphany', a moment of adjustment of perception for the reader, the meaning of that adjustment is not always clear, and the stories move towards uncertainty rather than certainty: it's a defocussing rather than a focussing, and thus a strong move away from the moral certainties of nineteenth-century fiction. (As someone put in at this point, one thing that characterises the book is that it's not moralising towards any of the fault-riven characters.) The final story, 'The Dead', as the story of maturity, presents the most obvious epiphany: Gabriel Conroy, having discovered a long-hidden truth about his wife's early past, has not only his perception of her adjusted, but also the perception of himself that both he and the reader have been nurturing all along. It is not simply, however, that in the light of his new knowledge he now sees himself 'as a ludicrous figure'; he moves on from that to a larger sense of uncertainty: 'One by one they were all becoming shades... The solid world itself ... was dissolving and dwindling... His soul swooned slowly...'

This 'defocussing' is closely linked to another Modernist aspect of the stories: the fact that they are ultimately psychologically internal and deal with the contingency of consciousness. In fact, only the first three stories are told in the first person, and the rest are cast in a third person that cannot even be said to be an intimate third, since characters are often described in an objective-realist nineteenth-century mode and their personalities and life situations authorially summed up - aspects of the book which seem indeed very old-fashioned and were I think what set Jenny wondering about the book's Modernist credentials. However, there is an engagement with the consciousness of the protagonists of these stories, taking place on an important linguistic level: the narration partakes of the inflexions and diction of the characters and thus of their psyches: one character is 'handy with the mits' and 'Lily, the caretaker's daughter, was literally run off her feet.' As John pointed out, the characters are thus seen from both the outside and the inside, which, before I had fully re-engaged with the stories, seemed to me an inconsistency (in the group, I praised the three first-person stories as the only ones with a consistent viewpoint) but which I now see as a deliberate authorial project achieved via a complex, multi-layered prose (which would be fully developed in Ulysses). Similarly, one of my complaints in the group discussion was that there seemed to be erroneous moments of shifting viewpoint. The story, 'A Mother,' in which Mrs Kearney chaperones her accompanist daughter at a disastrously attended concert and, in spite of the clear absence of box office returns, insists on the contractual payment, is told entirely from Mrs Kearney's viewpoint until a moment when, having become more and more insistent, she is suddenly seen from outside, in fact from the viewpoint of the other characters, 'appearing' to discuss something intently with her husband. In the story 'A Little Cloud', Little Chandler is made to see the futility of his own life by a reunion with an old friend who left and made his way in Fleet Street. We are entirely with his viewpoint until, towards the end, he is trying unsuccessfully to stop his baby crying when 'a woman' comes into the room, whom, due to the objective diction, we only realise a sentence or two later is his wife and the mother of his child. Doug said - too tentatively, it seems to me now - that these were not authorial mistakes but intentional, and I now agree with him (although I'm still not sure that either actually works). In the first instance, a tension is being deliberately set up between the internal world of the protagonist and the way she is seen by others, the moment of change being perhaps the moment of 'epiphany' for the reader, and in the second instance the switch is either meant to create a similar adjustment for the reader (we see the woman in a more objective light, rather than through Little Chandler's self-centred eyes) or a sudden moment of alienation within Little Chandler's own consciousness (he suddenly sees his wife as alien to him) (or both). While the book uses realist methods to capture and critique the social circumstances of the characters - detailed physical descriptions including obsessive geographical delineations of Dublin, careful and accurate observations of characters' behaviour and lengthy colloquial dialogue - it also operates on a more Modernist symbolic level to portray the perceptions and consciousness that call into question the reality of that world, 'dissolving and dwindling' it in the symbolic snowstorm at the end of 'The Dead'.

As Jenny said, nothing much happens in the stories, there's no drama, and this is not simply because the lives of these characters are humdrum, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the true focus of the stories is psychological and internal. Ann said she found that on that level they were dramatic, in fact. She had really liked the stories, and the episodic nature of the book as a whole, and was very glad to have been given an occasion to read it. She also found it amazingly prescient, touching as it does on paedophilia, including that in the Catholic Church ('The Sisters' and 'An Encounter') and corrupt politicians ('Ivy Day in the Committee Room'), and everyone heartily agreed. People commented on the strong criticism the book makes of the Catholic Church, and of both colonial rule and Celtic Revivalism, while, as had been noted earlier, refusing to moralise against the characters.

John commented that there were similarities between Dubliners and Trainspotting - both episodic, both set in Celtic cities and dealing with addiction. He said he felt that there was a hole in the middle of the most famous of the stories, 'The Dead', in that he didn't find it psychologically realistic that Mrs Conroy should have kept the episode from her youth so secret from her husband, but I don't think anyone else found it unreasonable, given the era of the stories. Personally, I find it perfectly organic: the point is that romance has long been worn away for the Conroys by the humdrum struggle of their lives, and it is the sudden reawakening of romance and lust in Gabriel Conway's bosom, his need to connect with his wife and his uncustomary tenderness towards her, that, ironically, unlock her emotionally and cause her to unburden herself.

Someone said that there was no humour in the book, with which I couldn't at all agree. The contrast between the realist elements and the internal, symbolic elements makes for an overall irony of tone, and I can't see how the following, for instance, isn't funny: 'The most vigorous clapping came from the four young men in the doorway who had gone away to the refreshment-room at the beginning of the piece but had come back when the piano had stopped'.  I laughed out loud with Gabriel Conroy's audience when he relates how his grandfather's horse, used to walking in a circle to drive his mill, stops on an outing to walk round and round King Billy's statue. There is course however a bitter political edge to this moment of merriment, and I do agree that the humour, residing always in the realist moments, is ultimately subsumed by the existential sadness falling like the snow 'faintly through the universe'.

There was some discussion about authorial intention. Jenny wondered how far Joyce, and authors in general, consciously set out to create the effects achieved. Could it be a question of just writing stories as they came and justifying/explaining them in retrospect? I said I felt on the whole, yes, writers write according to their temperament and outlook, see afterwards what they have done and then identify and name it, and John added that writers are also influenced by what they've read and admire, but Doug was pretty sure that as far as Joyce was concerned the whole project was approached with a very conscious political and literary intention. Of course, with most writers all of these things are operating to some degree. Joyce's own family background of reduced fortunes and Home Rule politics clearly affected his outlook, and so, in my view, would be likely to affect directly his literary stratagems, but as is well recorded it also endeared him to Ibsen with his concern with ordinary lives and led him in turn to be influenced by him, and his letters make clear that, influenced by the French Symbolists, he developed serious literary theories for his own writing.

By the end of the meeting, Mark no longer considered the stories tedious, but he maintained nevertheless that if it hadn't been for Ulysses, we would not have heard of these stories now, they would have sunk without trace. As for me, my experience of trying to rush these stories and getting nowhere, and then approaching them more circumspectly and finding them rich after all, has confirmed me in my view that, far from being the literary form suited to the rushed soundbite age, good and complex short stories need special close attention and re-reading.

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

Monday, November 05, 2012

Reading group: Looking for Mr Goodbar by Judith Rossner

In the last couple of months my time has been completely taken up by intensive writing and some pretty radical decorating (involving stripping paint and replastering!), so I haven't been keeping up our book group reports, I'm afraid. It's now about seven weeks since our September meeting (and I've had those massive preoccupations to push it out of my mind), so my following report might be a bit sketchy, but here goes.

Clare chose this book, set in the early 1970s and based on a real-life 1973 murder case, about a convent-educated primary-school teacher in her late twenties, Theresa Dunn, who haunts the singles bars of New York picking up men for brief sexual encounters, and is finally murdered by one of these men, a psychopath.

The book was published in 1975 to ecstatic reviews, and generally accepted as being of 'considerable literary merit' (New York Times). None of us present, however, felt that the book was well written, and as far as I recollect a fair bit of the discussion concerned this discrepancy. Clearly, at the time of publication, the subject matter - a woman cruising bars for casual sex, in particular a woman from a respectable Catholic family with a highly respectable job and, later on, a respectable lawyer fiance - and the explicit way in which the sex was portrayed - were explosive, and it is interesting to see how response to subject-matter can affect one's perception of prose style.

Most of us, reading the book in the present day, felt that it was very difficult to understand on an emotional level why Theresa engages in this double life of self-destructive behaviour. Least perturbed by this was Clare who is a counsellor and who, introducing the book, said she could identify certain psychological theories about emotional damage and promiscuity being consciously worked through in the book. In fact, the book makes plain, on a factual level, the causes of Theresa's behaviour: struck down at the age of four by polio which resulted in a slight curvature of the spine that she works hard to disguise, suffering a repressed sense of parental neglect (the death of her elder brother after her illness prevented her parents noticing her incipient disability and getting it treated), feeling inferior to a glamorous elder sister, and used and hurt by her first callous and predatory lover, her college lecturer, she suffers from low self-worth and, as a kind of warped self-protection, dissociates sex from emotion: brief sex with strangers is exciting, or at least briefly satisfying - the more threatening or detached the more exciting/satisfying - but sex with her sincere and loving fiance is anaesthetic. However, we were generally agreed that none of this was convincing on an emotional level: it was hard to feel Theresa's psychological development (if it can be called that) and changes of gear; the book, as Doug said, just didn't feel lived or felt. 

Ann said she had read that Rossner had been commissioned to write the book in the aftermath of the real-life case, and wondered if this had made for a lack of true emotional engagement on the part of the author. Mark and Ann both felt too that Rossner's age at the time - I think they had read she was about forty - set her apart from the newly sexually 'liberated' scene she was describing: she had indeed not lived it and was portraying it from the outside. Those in the group who had been young at the time felt that she hadn't in fact got it right: while everyone present could agree that promiscuity can be a kind of masochism, there was nothing in the book of the atmosphere of the time whereby women who did behave this way revelled in it, telling themselves (however mistakenly) that they were exercising a newly found sexual power.

Whatever the reason, we felt that, in spite of the critical praise, it is the prose that fails to convey the crucial emotional element. In spite of an innovative beginning - a police report on the murderer followed by the murderer's confession - the book very quickly becomes a conventional third-person linear plod through the events of Theresa's life, with much ground to cover and a consequent tendency to tell rather than show. This leads inevitably to a lack of vividness, leading in turn to a loss of significance. For instance, I said, when I realised that Theresa in adulthood was jealous of her elder sister Katherine I was surprised: I had missed that; and once again, I was really surprised to learn that Theresa had been very fond of Katherine's husband Brooks. Therefore I found it unconvincing that Theresa should be so upset when Katherine leaves him, and in turn even more unconvincing (even baffling) that when Theresa goes to Brooks' flat to comfort him and finds him with a young woman, she is so upset she hotfoots it down to one of the bars to pick up a man. There were general murmurs of agreement among the book group. The need to cram in a lot of backstory in a somewhat doggedly linear tale leads to clumsy (and over-proliferated) sentences such as this: It turned out that the way Katherine had broken her engagement to Young John was by running away with and marrying a cousin of Young John's whom she met at a wedding she'd gone to with Young John, and to clumsy structure and an over-reliance on exposition. After Theresa finds the supposedly grieving Brooks with the young woman, and before she seeks refuge in a bar pickup, she feels she really needs to talk to someone and thinks of another teacher at her school whom she wishes she could call (if she knew her better and if weren't too late in the evening).  This teacher has not  been mentioned previously in the novel, and slap-bang in the middle of Theresa's supposed emotional crisis we are given an account of this teacher from scratch - Her name was Rose and she was middle-aged and Jewish - what she looks like, her home circumstances and her personality, and the narrative tension is dispelled. This links with a general complaint in the group that very little attention is given to the schoolteaching side of Theresa's life - a result being that the supposedly shocking contrast between the two aspects of her life becomes merely academic for the reader. Although in theory everyone in the group accepted the notion of a secret life - as Mark said, it's one of the basic subjects of novels - most of us found it unconvincing when we were told in this novel that Theresa handles the children so well and is such a caring teacher - it merely seems inconsistent with the pathetic lack of emotional control in the other side of her life. Similarly, Ann noted, although we are told about Theresa's Irish-Catholic background, there is none of the particular emotional flavour of that (and so we miss out on any visceral sense of its emotional impact). A specialist in textiles, Ann said also that the bottom fell out of the novel for her at the point when we are briefly told that Theresa makes herself some new curtains even though she has never sewn anything before in her life - a small but vital indication of the lack of felt experience in the book. None of us could remember all the different men Teresa had taken back to her flat, or the order of her doing so; the linearity and account-type style of writing had created a repetitiveness that made them blur into each other and failed to turn them into much of a narrative arc. This was a failure compounded by the randomness of the ending. Although Theresa's repressed prudery combined with her fear of closeness are what tip her murderer over the edge, the fact that she picks up a psychopath in the first place has an inherent randomness rather than any inevitability. All in all, for most of us present, what should have been an exciting story was a tedious read.

So, basically, the book got a thumbs-down from us, although it turned out later that Trevor and Jenny, who had both missed the meeting, had very much enjoyed it. Trevor agreed that it wasn't too well written, and also that the sexual ethos of the 70s hadn't really been the way it's portrayed in the book, but he hadn't found that that mattered and had really liked it as a cracking and 'juicy' read.

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