On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Bath for a rather special author event. Naomi Ishiguro was at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights – where she used to work as a bookseller – for her inaugural public gig as a published author. It was lovely to observe the warm welcome she received from former colleagues. Friends and family were also in attendance to support what came across as a relaxed and open interview with her former boss, Nic Bottomley. He expressed his pride that one of his booksellers had gone on to create her own shiny book, especially one as good as Escape Routes.
As ever when I write up literary gigs I attend, the following is taken from notes I made on the night. I hope it is of interest.
The nine short stories in this debut collection explore themes of entrapment and flight – escape. After his introduction, Mr B opened by talking about the three tales that feature a rat catcher, asking if these started out as one story or the three included in the book.
Naomi explained that they were from a series she worked on while studying at UEA. She placed her characters in a fairytale world but set herself a rule not to make it too magical (in the real world contemporary settings of the other stories she allowed magical elements). The initial concept was Gormenghasty. A tutor dismissed the stories as full of tropes so they were set aside until a new tutor was more encouraging and suggested they were worth revisiting.
Naomi likes to try different voices and to test herself in order to develop as a writer. Her stories grow organically.
She started writing while working at Mr B’s. Having been raised in London the move to Bath felt like an escape, although she required some re-education. The first time she was in a wood and heard an owl she was unaware it was a natural sound.
Naomi regards each story as a song. It captures a moment and endings don’t need to be entirely settled.
Mr B asked if the book, then, was an album, and how the order of the tales was decided.
Naomi explained that she had heard that George Saunders prints his stories onto paper and then physically moves them around to find an order he believes works. Naomi liked this and her stories were shuffled during the editing process.
Mr B asked if she could introduce some of her stories, as she would have done for a customer on a Reading Spa.
The first story in the collection is titled Wizards. It is about a boy and a bogus magician who meet on a beach. The boy is looking forward to receiving his Hogwarts letter, although this is not specifically mentioned. The magician is trapped by his anxieties, especially his father’s voice in his head.
Mr B asked if Naomi had expected such a letter, if it was something her generation had hoped for.
Naomi admitted that the Harry Potter books had seemed so real to her, the ordinariness of Privet Drive, that at some level she had hoped to receive her letter.
She disagreed with Mr B that the ending of Wizards was ambiguous. She likes it when she is writing a story and can see the ending as it gives her something to work towards.
Mr B concurred that Gormenghast came to mind when he was reading the collection, and also Patrick de Witt.
Naomi told us that she read a great deal of Victorian fiction growing up, enjoying the Gothic elements. She only started reading more contemporary literature at university. She wrote a dull dissertation for her MA – about characters moving from place to place – to work through the technical aspects of moving between scenes. She much prefers writing voice led stories, listening to people and capturing them in her work. She enjoys writing dialogue and would have liked to write screenplays but could see limited demand so instead adds dialogue to her stories.
There followed a discussion about urban malaise. Naomi spoke of the differences in culture between London and Bath – the pace of living and demands made. Without wishing to idealise she mentioned how much more friendly Bath is and how people appear less busy. She told us the stress in London is insane.
Her story titled Accelerate features a guy who becomes addicted to coffee (which Naomi first drank when she started working at Mr B’s) as it streamlines his efficiency. She enjoyed the idea of taking an effect to its extreme.
Mr B commented that he liked this guy…
Naomi regards office life as a privileged existence although she never wanted it for herself. Friends who are, for example, lawyers are expected to work so many hours.
Mr B observed that many routes put young people on a conveyor belt to an office job resulting in many ending up there when it doesn’t suit them.
He asked if Naomi liked writing from a child’s perspective as quite a few of her characters are children.
The answer was yes as she uses their sheltered world, the wonder of possibilities that haven’t yet turned cynical. Children’s lives are more protected and still in flux. She regards two of the boys she created – Alfie and Jamie – similar in many ways despite their very different circumstances.
Mr B suggested they talk about books. Naomi and he agreed there should be book trolleys on trains and that an idea the bookshop once had – to offer recommendations to customers who sent photographs to Mr B’s of books for sale at airports – had potential. If she were still a bookseller, what books would she now recommend to customers?
Becky Chambers. Julia Darling; Pearl contains beautiful writing – humour, warmth, quirky characters who are doing their best.
Mr B asked if her family connections helped on her road to publication or if there were still surprises.
Naomi didn’t recall talking to her parents about this. She learnt about getting an agent and so on while doing her Masters at UEA. Having said that, she told us it is all a bit surprising. Skype interviews, talking at events, it can all seem a bit odd at times. In any other social interaction she wouldn’t constantly be talking in this way about herself and her work.
Questions were invited from the audience.
Naomi’s boyfriend kicked off, mentioning that she didn’t talk about her story, Bear, and asking how she inhabited the head of a middle aged man.
Naomi explained that writing is empathy and it happens naturally – a voice enters her head. It is a way to live lots of lives. She joked that the man could be based on her university supervisor.
Question: Which authors inhabited your head growing up? (ed. during this long list my pen ran out of ink – gah – but I include as many here as I could write down when I grabbed a replacement)
Doctor Who, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Gormenghast, Patrick de Witt, loads of science fiction and fantasy, geeky voices.
Question: You hear characters’ voices. Are these discrete or a part of you?
Definitely a part. It is nice to express different sides of my self. I can manifest in many different ways – thinking, what if I was this – and write.
Question: Were any characters, traits or moments from real life or were they all in your head?
Amanda Palmer has talked about an art blender. She says that her husband, Neil Gaiman, has his on a high setting. So yes, all things I’m thinking about are mixed in an art blender.
Mr B asked how Naomi felt when she got a quote from Neil Gaiman endorsing her book.
This came from a tweet he posted while reading Escape Routes that Naomi’s publisher subsequently asked if they could use. It felt amazing. A huge moment to have someone admired so much read her work and say they enjoyed it.
Mr B commented on how great the hardback cover is – such an important aspect for a bookshop.
Naomi explained it was created by her publisher’s in-house artist. She open the book to show both the front and back cover and revealed a bird – perfect for the themes explored, including flight, in the stories.
And with that Mr B raised his glass in congratulation and invited the audience to join Naomi in the bookshop’s Imaginarium where she would be happy to sign copies of her book.
Naomi thanked so many for coming out to see her when most can’t yet have read her book.
A long queue formed and I overheard her proud dad, there in support, saying he too had purchased copies for Naomi to sign.
Many from the audience were to be seen admiring the recently expanded bookshop which has become quite a labyrinth – it is gorgeous. I was pleased to find my name inscribed on the ceiling as a supporter.
And with that I took my leave and headed home. It was a lovely evening.
Escape Routes is published by Tinder Press and is available to buy now from all good bookshops, including Mr B’s (click on cover above for the link)