Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Signing for Red Room

Signings are notoriously unpredictable, if you're not utterly famous, and I sometimes wonder why bookshops bother to hold them at all. You're not offering a reading, or any sort of entertainment  apart from a bit of individual chat, and it's up to people to make the effort to leave their browsing and come and see what you're all about (and many people seem too scared to do that!). I've known of many signings where the author sits there for two hours and not a single person approaches, and not a single book is sold! However, York Waterstone's stuck their necks out and last Saturday hosted a signing session for Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, which I, fellow contributor Bill Broady and editor A J Ashworth attended.

At a Christmas meeting of writers, author Helen Cadbury had aired the notion of getting actors to dress up appropriately and hand out leaflets in the street beforehand. I was determined to make a go of the signing if we could, so I took up the idea: since Bill and I were taking turns to sign, and Bill was going first,  I dressed myself up - with a little trepidation - in a long black seventies cloak and a Victorian bonnet and parked myself outside the bookshop while he signed, handing out leaflets our publisher Unthank had had printed.

Well, it certainly attracted attention! First of all, a tiny dog on a lead took one look at me and jumped away, yelping in fright (my bonnet was black, too), and I began to wonder if, rather than attracting people, I must be scaring them off! But then a little sixty-ish woman made a determined beeline towards me. I said my piece, telling her briefly what we were all about, and she began: 'This is what I'm coming to the shop for! The thing is, I'm an utter Bronte fan!' My heart swelled: success! She went on: 'You see, I've read every single book by the Brontes, and I've read them over and over again! And I've read all the biographies!' I thought: a sure sale! And then she said, 'That's why I'm coming here, because the last one I read I got from the library, and I want to get hold of a copy of my own!' My mouth fell open, but I had my wits about me: 'Oh great, I said, and I'm sure you'd love this book of Bronte-inspired stories too -' She cut me off. She said, becoming very intent, 'This is what I want to know, dear: whether you're likely to have it?'  'Well, I don't work in the bookshop, you'd have to ask at the counter. I'm just here for the signing, it's a book of really great stories -' She cut me off again: 'My favourite one of all is Wuthering Heights!' I jumped in quickly: 'Oh, my story is based on Wuthering Heights! It's about a girl who bases her life too much -' 'And I've seen all the films of it. And would you believe it, dear, how different they are?' 'Oh yes,' I said quickly, 'that's one of the points of my story: the films forget about the second generation! But the second generation is the point!' 'The best one's the second BBC one, but when I went to get it - well! It costs so much!  Do you know, there's one film where they even have Heathcliff dying by falling off his horse!' She stopped, utterly indignant, and I got in, 'Well, there's even a piece at the back of the book where I discuss these issues.'

She seemed to hear me suddenly. She took a step back and looked at me properly. 'What did you say you were here for, dear?' 'For a book signing. It's a book I think you'd really enjoy, a book of new stories inspired by the Brontes.' 'Oh no, dear, I'm sorry, I don't have time!' And she turned on her heel and walked off, not into the bookshop, but away in the opposite direction altogether.

But people did take leaflets, and they did take them up to our desk in the shop, and we did sell several books!

Thank you to Waterstone's, and to the lovely staff present who kept bringing us cups of tea!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Some nice comments

I'm thrilled to have come across a lovely new review of Too Many Magpies, by Michelle Bailat-Jones.
Here are some quotes from it that are still making me glow:
"Without a doubt the story and the questions Baines poses are compelling, unique even. But her writing is what makes this short book exceptional ... The book involves this wonderful tension between ideas of science and more romantic and felt explanations for what happens in everyday life. The narrator is curious about how deeply we want to believe in magic, yet she is aware of how dangerous and beautiful those beliefs can be. But also, on the other side, how very shocked and disappointed we may feel when science fails us in some way. It is really well done—complicated and with no real attempt to do more than question and examine and highlight these tendencies. I love the ambiguity in that."
And in the same week  Dan Powell, author of the Scott Prize winning collection of stories, A Storm in a Teacup, has commented thus on my story, 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told', published on The View From Here: I bloody love this. Part life story, part love story, part memoir, part exploration of the nature of stories. Brilliant. Brilliant.’

It's so easy to lose confidence as a writer - to some extent it's part of the job description: you need constantly to be reappraising what you write and striving to get better, which last inevitably involves a sense of dissatisfaction with what you've so far achieved. But such affirmation can send you floating up to Cloud 9!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Story on East of the Web

'Falling', my story which was shortlisted and Highly Commended in the Sean O'Faolain competition, can now be read online at East of the Web. It's another of my less conventional stories: it deliberately plays on the 'and then she woke and it was all a dream' convention, turning it on its head and exploring the notion of the unreliability of consciousness. When I posted about East of the Web recently and the story's acceptance, I forgot to mention that one great thing about East of the Web is that they allow comments on the stories, which I don't think many online magazines do. It's a two-edged sword, of course: it's really great to get the reactions of general readers to your work, but also you need a thick skin: a couple of the commenters so far don't think much of 'Falling' at all!

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Reading group: The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow

It was the beginning of December when we discussed this 1971 novel, recommended by Mark, and I've been so preoccupied in the meantime, not simply with Christmas, but with furious writing, that at this moment all I remember of the discussion is that the five of us present agreed that we had found the book wonderful, if not mind-blowing.

The book is based on the real-life case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who in 1953 were the first Americans to be executed for spying, accused of passing the secret of the atom bomb to the Soviet Union. Doctorow creates their fictional counterparts, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, replacing their two orphaned sons with a fictional son and daughter, Daniel and Susan Lewin. The book is related by Daniel who, some fifteen years later, against the background of the Vietnam war and sixties leftwing protest, is seeking to understand the circumstances of the death of his parents and their earlier leftwing politics, and trying to deal with the personal emotional legacy: Susan's current emotional disintegration and his own destructive tendencies and inability to cherish his wife and child.

Although the book does allow for some doubt, its general thrust - motored by Daniel's perspective - is towards a notion of the Isaacsons' innocence. After its publication papers would emerge indicating that Joshua Rosenberg, at least, had been involved in spying, but we all agreed that this made no difference to the impact of the book (see, some of what we said is coming back to me!) since it concentrates on the human cost in terms of the effect on the children and on the barbarism of a system that would impose the death penalty without proper evidence, thus giving the lie to claims of American rationality and political freedom. It is the human dimension of the situation with which Doctorow is concerned, and Ann noted that the flaws and complexity of Daniel's character deepen rather than detract from this, and we all agreed. Similarly, Doctorow shows the Isaacsons as complex: politically passionate but poor and thus less than autonomous, their leftwing politics conservative, Paul politically naive with a blind faith in the justice of the American system.

The thing that really struck and impressed me about the book (apart from the stunning prose) was Doctorow's brilliant device for portraying Daniel's divided sense of self - a constant shifting between first and third person, as well as self-conscious commentary on the difficulties and traps of telling the tale.  Mark agreed, noting that Doctorow does these things so well that he never once loses you, the reader, and we all agreed that on the contrary, we found the effect extremely moving. We all found the whole book moving: several people picked out the scene in which Rochelle is called in for questioning never to return, a picture of her departing figure from the viewpoint of her watching son, which is repeated in the way it would clearly be re-run in his memory.
She was wearing her black coat that was almost down to her ankles in the fashion of that day. She had let the hem down to make it longer. She was wearing her blue dress with the white high-necked collar. She wore her tiny wrist-watch that my father gave her before they were married. She was wearing on the back of her head a little black hat she called a pillbox.
She was last seen in her black cloth coat with the hem let down and a black pillbox hat. My mother was last seen with her tiny watch on her wrist, a fine thin wrist with a prominent wristbone and lovely thin blue veins. She left behind a clean house, and in the icebox a peanut butter sandwich and an apple for lunch. In the afternoon I had my milk and cookies. And she never came home.
My mother left me in her long, black coat, and although she never wore hats, she wore a hat that day, also black, and almost invisible in her thick, curly black hair.
Trevor said that one aspect of the novel he didn't like so much was the insertion of sections outlining American foreign policy of the fifties, which he didn't find very novelistic. Mark pointed out that at the time of the publication of the novel, little was known about it, so it had been a necessary contextualisation. I said that in fact it's acceptable from a novelistic point of view, as these sections form part of Daniel's researches and the doctoral thesis he is writing.

It was, however, a minor grouse on Trevor's part, but some weeks later, at our reading group Christmas dinner, two members who hadn't been present at the meeting, Doug and Clare, said that these sections had put them right off the book, which they had found altogether too much of a history lesson - much to the amazement of the rest of us, who had been frankly wowed.

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

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to everyone! It's not a day for a New Year walk here in Manchester: it's wild and wet and dark, even in late morning, so I'm sitting here by the fire and taking stock of the year that's just gone.

It's been a year in which I'm afraid my blogs have been somewhat neglected, especially my other
blog Fictionbitch, which, as a critical blog, takes a fair amount of thought and time. Mainly this is because it's been an eventful year for me on the family front, with lots of family issues to occupy me, some joyful, such as my discovery of my long-lost Irish cousin and her family, and others, like my mother's house move, pretty stressful, as is the way with these family matters. Partly it's been because I spent most of the spring and summer in Wales without broadband, coupled with the fact that my laptop is basically dying and very slow, so for a lot of the time getting online was impossible. One of my New Year resolutions has to be to get a new laptop, although I have to say that, as income for writers goes down and down and we are expected to contribute more and more for free, I can't really afford one. Reinstalling the operating system has made little difference, and the thing is basically on the way to being kaput. I guess it's had a lot of stick. My techie advisor was shocked when he saw it. 'You must do a lot of typing!' he cried, when he saw that the a, e, and s keys have worn to invisibility. Ironically, it's all forced me to take my own advice  to ration my social networking activity (advice I doled out in April on the Salt London Book Fair Panel on Social Networking, and in the new edition of the Creative Writing companion, The Road to Somewhere [Palgrave Macmillan]), with the result that in spite of other distractions I've been able to concentrate on writing more than I have for a good while.

There's a popular notion that short stories are the mode for our rushed sound-bitey times, but personally, I take the opposite view: a worthwhile short story is something distilled that requires stillness, both to read and to write. Over the past few years, while I've been spending a lot of time online, I really haven't found the right stillness for short-story writing, but this year thankfully I have found it again at last. I wrote several, now published or about to be. One short-story highlight in the latter part of the year was of course the publication of Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes (Unthank Books), for which my story 'That Turbulent Stillness' was commissioned, and our editor A (Andrea) J Ashworth organised great reading events, two of which I took part in, in Manchester and Blackburn. (Three of us - Andrea, fellow contributor Bill Broady and me - will be doing a signing at York Waterstone's on Saturday 18th January [12 am - 3 pm] ). In late summer-early autumn I managed a novella in nine-and-a-half short weeks (sitting up in bed at the back of  a mountainside cottage in Wales where the internet was inaccessible on the dongle!). I have also finally had the peace to come to realise that the longer novel I've been struggling for ages - years now - to make more acceptably commercial is never going to work unless I damn well write it the way it needs to be written, and hang the consequences in terms of anything but artistic integrity!

A peaceful and successful 2014 to you all!