Saturday, October 31, 2015

Reading group: The Bridge by Iain Banks

I've been so busy with my current writing project and the publication of Used to Be, that I haven't at all been keeping up with the reports of the reading group meetings. I have three to catch up with, so my memory of this, the first (at least two months off now), is perhaps a bit incomplete.

Clare suggested this novel, a kind of crossover work between the novels with which Ian Banks began his career - not exactly realist, but more conventionally literary - and the science fiction which after this he began to produce simultaneously under the name Iain M Banks. Doug had said when the book was suggested that he particularly admired it, but unfortunately he was unable to attend the meeting at which we discussed it and thus champion it in the face of the more muted reaction of the rest of us.

Clare summed up the events of the book. It begins with a kind of nightmare sequence, told in the present tense and in disjointed prose with short, one-word sentences conveying crisis and confusion, featuring blood, a huge white cat, a bridge and an impact, the crashing of a car. There is then a shift to another dream-like sequence with a very different tone, past-tense, distilled, mysterious and haunting, in which a train leaves a deserted station, whistling off into the dark, and the first-person protagonist sets off too into the dark on a mysterious quest with a horse and a strangely sealed carriage. On a lonely mountain pass, with room only for the carriage, he comes face to face with an identical driver with an identical carriage whose actions mimic his own, neither of them able to pass.

We then discover that this is indeed a dream, the dream of a first-person narrator named John Orr who is recuperating after a car crash but still under the care of doctors in a strange surreal world of an endless bridge on which whole infrastructures and communities have been built. Later we will discover that, unable in fact to dream, Orr has made up the dream about the horse and carriage, along with other similar dreams, to keep his doctor happy. We follow events on the bridge, which grow increasingly surreal: Orr is demoted from his luxury room and stripped of the luxury goods with which he has thus far been provided, and sent to live among workers at a lower level; strange barrage balloons appear at the side of the bridge erected against sinister invading aircraft, and an aircraft (I think - my memory is hazy here) crashes into the bridge. There is the resultant crashing of one of the trains that constantly run through the centre of the bridge, and Orr escapes on another train only to find himself speeding and then rattling through war zones and apocalyptic landscapes, variously imprisoned and enlisted by different warring factions. About a hundred pages in, this narrative is punctuated by moments from another: the past-tense, third person account of a working-class student from Glasgow whose father once took him to look at antique steam trains and who moves to Edinburgh for university and up the social ladder, becoming an architect married to a middle-class girl from the area and leading a life of material success and fast cars. There is a third narrative, in which a seemingly different first-person narrator, speaking in demotic Glaswegian and expressing crude primitive desires, quests, with an argumentative creature on his shoulder, through the familiar but warped landscape of Greek mythology. Meanwhile, occasional sequences like the first section break through, indicating the mind of someone struggling to consciousness. As Clare said, these seemingly disparate stories come together at the end, showing that they are all indeed the dreams, alter-egos or memories of a single architect narrator, once obsessed with the construction of the Forth Railway Bridge, in a moment of crisis crashing his Jaguar (the 'huge white cat') on the road bridge, and now lying in a coma.

Most of us thought that the psychological insights of the book were interesting and clever - the mirror symbolism of the initial 'dreams' signifying the severing of the protagonist from himself (named Orr and implying an alter ego), the id and the super ego cleverly melded with the Greek myths that prefigured such notions, the protracted war struggle signifying Orr's resistance to emerging from the comfort of his coma, and the clever depiction of how our subconscious minds turn both our experiences and words into concrete symbols. However, as Trevor very strongly put it, if you get the connections at the beginning and understand that everything, apart from the realist backstory, is the consciousness of a man in a coma, as he and others of us did, then there's no narrative tension. It's hard to get engaged with the 'real-life' backstory of the architect since, presumably in a deliberate move to show the contrasting vividness of Orr's coma-induced interiority, it's told in a flat, pedestrian prose; the rest is a virtuoso authorial performance of linguistic richness and energy, but knowing it's a dream creates a certain detachment from the experience in the reader. To put it more bluntly, other people's dreams are nearly always boring, simply because they are only dreams.

Some were surprised that people have written PhDs discussing the book. Clare said that she had done some research and had discovered that there were many points of interest that must be compelling to Banks fans and PhD students, such as the fact that the surname of a woman on the bridge who is a love interest for Orr is also that of one of the original architects of the real-life Forth rail bridge, but such connections were of only passing interest to us.

One thing that did attract and intrigue both Trevor and me was the Edwardian character of some of the aspects of the bridge - the fact, most obviously, that the trains were steam engines - showing that we do not live exclusively in the present and that our imaginations are formed to some extent from the past. We both found this strikingly psychologically true.

Clare did say that she didn't feel as detached as most of the rest of us did, but, as far as I remember, Jenny said she just couldn't get on with the book at all.

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

Launch of Used to Be

The launch for Used to Be was a real celebration - of the publication, of short stories in general, and of literary friendship. Writer friends old and new came, many of them short story writers.

Ailsa Cox, perhaps my most long-time writing colleague and now Professor of Short Fiction at Edge Hill University (and world expert on the work of Alice Munroe), and Nicholas Royle, Creative Writing lecturer at Manchester University and tireless promotor and editor of short stories, both graced the event with superb readings from brilliant short stories of their own.

 It was wonderful to have there with us long-time writer-friends Cath Staincliffe, Livi Michael and Carl Tighe, and those with whom I've more recently chewed the cud about writing matters: fellow members of the Inklings writing group, Sarah-Clare Conlon and David Gaffney, and of the Narrative Research Group at Edge Hill University, John Rutter and Billy Cowan. Lovely too, to have the support of Doug and Jenny from the reading group, and Nick and Diane Duffy with whom John and I have attended many a Waterstone's reading and with whom we've had many a discussion about books, as well as friends from other walks of life. Thank you to all - your presence made the launch of book very special, and thank you to Waterstone's for hosting the event and looking after us so well. Thank you too, to Carys Bray who had been going to read, but was unfortunately prevented from attending.

A first review of Used to Be appears on Tim Love's blog today - in fact, it's a detailed, in-depth look at the book, and I thank him for his thoughtfulness and attention.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Charles May on BBSS and 'Tides'

Short story expert Charles E May has been writing on his blog, Reading the Short Story, about Salt's Best British Short Story series of anthologies edited by Nicholas Royle. Today he turns to BBSS 2014, and in an interesting post on the metafictive story and 'writing what you know', considers three from the volume answering the description, including my own 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't Get Told'. Of 'Tides' he says it's
'a thoughtful story about a writer dealing with the so-called "reality" of her life the way writers do when they write fiction—making choices, determining generic approaches, using narrative technique to make meaning how of their experience.'
It's interesting - and rather funny - that he calls the protagonist of the story a writer, as I was very careful not to identify her as such, and she talks about 'telling' rather than writing the story. Given myself away after all, maybe? Or maybe, as he indicates, it's a stupid distinction, since, as he points out,  those of us who write metafiction tend to think of simply living as a fiction-making experience (each experience different from a different point of view).

I must say, though, that although 'Tides' is not the only metafiction in my new book, 'Used to Be', there are stories in there that aren't: sometimes you just want to write a conventional story, after all.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Used to Be: Goodreads giveaway

I'm giving away 10 signed copies of Used to Be on Goodreads, and it opens today. To enter click on the link in the sidebar.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Two story reviews I hadn't seen before

Yesterday I came across two reviews I hadn't seen before of anthologies containing my stories, both by Katie Lumsden, on her great blog, Books and Things.

The first is a review of Best British Short Stories 2014, ed Nicholas Royle, and I'm chuffed to say that she really liked my story, 'Tides' :
I love Elizabeth Baines’s ‘Tides, or How Stories Do or Don’t Get Told’. In part I love it because I like self-reflective writing, because it’s clever, because it’s in part about writing, about telling stories. But it’s also just a beautiful, moving story, a story about the lack of story almost. It’s brilliant.
One of her favourite stories in the book is David Constantine's 'Ashton and Elaine', which led her on to Red Room: New Short Stories Inspired by the Brontes, ed A J Ashworth, where that story was first published, and which she reviewed here. I'm happy to say that she also liked my story in Red Room, 'That Turbulent Stillness', of which she says:
One of my favourite stories was ‘That Turbulent Stillness’. I’ve already come across Elizabeth Baines inThe Best British Short Stories 2014, and it was a real pleasure to read another of her short stories. ‘That Turbulent Stillness’ is movingly written, with strong characterisation. It has a lovely narrative voice in which the narrator intrudes, at first in a very Victorian manner (‘I know very well what happened’, etc), and later in a more self-conscious, almost post-modern way that I enjoy. I plan to buy and read Elizabeth Baines’s novel promptly and expect good things from it.
Both stories are included in my newly-published collection, Used to Be, a box of which arrived yesterday, to my great excitement.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Used to Be arrives

My author copies, which arrived this week. Aren't they lovely? They feel nice, too - sort of silky! I'll be doing a giveaway on GoodReads, and will add the widget to the sidebar when it begins in about ten days or so .

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Used to Be published

Yesterday I was at my mum's for the day. 'When is your book coming out?' she asked me. I told her it was due back from press any day now, but I couldn't check on my phone to see if it had come yet, as where she lives there's no signal whatever of any kind - well, there is a bit of phone signal, but not great enough to hold a decent mobile phone conversation! So it wasn't until I was on the train back to Manchester that I discovered that Used to Be had arrived from the printer's at Chris and Jen's, along with Jonathan Taylor's novel Melissa, and Roddy Lumsden's poetry collection Melt and Solve. Don't they all look fabulous? (And isn't that a beautiful clock on their mantelpiece?)

I'm holding an event to celebrate the publication of Used to Be at Deansgate Waterstone's, Manchester, on Thursday 29th October (7 pm), and I'm making it a celebration of the short story, with additional readings from three brilliant short-story writers, two of whom are also key players in the recent rise of the short story. Ailsa Cox is Professor of short fiction at Edge Hill University and founder of the Edge Hill short story prize, and was co-editor with me of the one-time short-story magazine Metropolitan. She is the author of numerous prizewinning short stories and the collection The Real Louise and Other Stories (Headland). MMU lecturer Nicholas Royle, has edited numerous short story anthologies and now edits the Best British Short Stories series (Salt) and publishes short story chapbooks under his own imprint, Nightjar. He founded the Manchester Fiction Prize for a single short story. His own stories have been shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and he is the author of several novels, including the latest, First Novel. (He was also a valued contributor to Metropolitan.) Also reading, I am thrilled to say, will be Carys Bray, whose debut novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, has been such a resounding success, and whose collection of stories, Sweet Home, won the Scott Prize.

And there will be wine! (Gotta celebrate, yeah?)