Monthly Roundup – March 2020

March has been quite the month. It all started so well. I attended two fascinating literary events. I smashed my personal best at Parkrun. Student son came back from uni for a weekend visit. And then we became a plague house.

If it weren’t for all the scaremongering in the media I would say we had a nasty run-in with a flu virus. And maybe that was what it was. We can’t know as no testing for any potential new virus has been made available.

Husband was the first to go down – before all the media fuss – so, having recovered, ensured supplies were brought in. We weathered the storm. I’d like to say I made inroads into my TBR pile but actually I missed a few deadlines because, when I wasn’t lying still wishing my fever would abate and the bedroom ceiling would stop moving, my muzzy head couldn’t cope with anything remotely challenging. I read some. I wrote a few reviews. These will not be amongst my best work.

We came out the other side and I started to hope that, actually, it had been this new virus as we would then have the immunity we are supposed to be seeking. Without testing, who knows?

Son returned to uni to empty his fridge (meat had turned black!) and pick up work related items to enable ongoing, on line learning. The cessation of face to face support takes on new focus when this costly education is being paid for through loans.

As he was still feeling weary, and my car was needed to get other son to work (overnight he had been designated a key worker), husband and I travelled by train to Cardiff to help bring back what would be needed to keep student home for several months. Over the two days we spent in the city it shut down. We watched as a vibrant centre became a ghost town populated by increasingly aggressive homeless. By the time we left it felt feral.

With train services being cancelled without warning we were fortunate to get out. Daughter had escaped London on the previous day so came to our rescue when our final connecting service vanished from the boards.

It is good in these strange times to have my family all together. I have never felt so glad to live in the countryside where signs of spring are offering much needed hope.

My final literary event of the month – to be held in London – was cancelled. To be honest, given everything else going on, I was relieved.

We do our best to adjust to the shift in our reality. With police powers becoming increasingly draconian my mental state is jittery. How many lives will be shortened due to these measures inflicting difficult living conditions and shattered prospects on so many? My personal fear is the removal of my right to daily exercise outside – on some days it feels this is all that is keeping me balanced.

I posted reviews for 11 books in March: 4 novels (1 translated), 2 novelettes, 1 short story collection, 2 poetry collections, 1 children’s story, 1 illustrated story.

Click on the cover below to learn more about the book. Click on the title to read my review.

 

A variety of fiction

 
blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris, published by Black Swan
You Never Told Me by Sarah Jasmon, published by Black Swan


Once Upon a Time in Chinatown by Robert Ronsson, published by Patrician Press

 

Poetry 

 
Northern Alchemy by Christine De Luca, published by Patrician Press
Dancing Naked in Front of Dogs by Michael Maul

 

Fabulously wicked novelettes

 
The Prick by Mazim Saleem, published by Open Pen
In Lieu of a Memoir by Tadhg Mullar, published by Open Pen

 

Translated fiction


Fate by Jorge Consiglio (translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch), published by Charco Press

 

Not just for children

 
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy, published by Ebury Press
Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans, published by David Fickling Books

 

Short stories well worth reading


She-Clown and Other Stories by Hannah Vincent, published by Myriad Editions

 

Literary events attended

 
Adam Scovell in Bristol
Venetia Welby at Bowood

 

Sourcing the books I read

This month publishers provided me with five new titles to consider. I also accepted two books from authors – something I rarely do as reviewing them feels too personal.

I borrowed one book from my local library.

I purchased two books.

 

 

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health, speedy recovery from any illness, and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Gig Review: Venetia Welby at Bowood

When I heard that Venetia Welby, author of Mother of Darkness, was to be guest author at Bowood‘s monthly literary lunch I knew I wanted to attend. The venue is within walking distance of my home and the book being discussed has so many fascinating themes I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to find out more about how the story came to be created. I was grateful to be granted permission by the organisers to slip into the venue after the ladies attending had finished eating in order that I might listen to Venetia’s talk. This proved to be as interesting as expected.

The following is taken from notes I jotted down on the day. I cannot write fast enough to capture everything that was said but I hope it offers a flavour and is of interest.

Venetia opened by explaining the importance of the setting of her novel – London’s Soho. She loves the stories that come out about the place – of its former decadence. Now its skylines are dominated by cranes as work for Crossrail proceeds. Iconic clubs and other venues have been replaced with chain coffee shops. Her protagonist, Matty, lives in a flat that is based on one Venetia lived in. He feels he was born in the wrong era, hankering after the former velvet jacketed debauchery that was once accepted.

Matty considers his drug dealer to be his only friend. He struggles to deal with reality. There is a novel within the novel as Matty tries to rewrite his past. He considers himself a ladies’ man but treats women badly.

At the beginning of the novel Matty appears to be a lost cause. Venetia wished to explore if he could be brought back from the brink. She read an extract where Matty is considering his surroundings – the house on his street where Sebastian Horsley once lived that bears a plaque, ‘This is not a Brothel’; the classical literature he no longer reads but keeps to impress women; the luxury apartment blocks replacing the Soho he would prefer to live in.

Ventia talked of both Soho and Matty undergoing an identity struggle. In writing Mother of Darkness she wished to explore delusion and madness. Matty sees a therapist whose notes are included in the book. Venetia spoke to three experts as part of her research to ensure these came across as authentic.

The first was her flatmate, an NHS psychiatrist who was working in Soho and studying for exams, including the work of Freud. Matty’s mother died in childbirth and he maternalises girlfriends.

The second person she spoke to explained about the various types of separation issues that form in childhood: secure attachment, anxious attachment, avoidance attachment, chaotic attachment. Matty suffered a domineering father and can’t form a coherent narrative about what happened to him in childhood. His self destructive behaviour is an attempt to protect himself from the world. He tries to remove himself from reality in order to survive reality.

The third person spoken to introduced Venetia to: primordial images or archetypes (Jung wrote that an image is called primordial when it possesses an archaic character that is in striking accord with familiar mythological motifs); the eternal boy and associated narcissism. Matty has dysfunctional relationships with women. He elevates himself to god like status.

Venetia was interested in how, for example, a founder of a cult comes to believe in themselves.

She also looked to her classics education: the stories of Dionysus; the Oresteia trilogy (written by Aeschylus, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and the pacification of the Erinyes). Matty identifies with Orestes. The internal experiences and slide from reality makes perfect sense to him. By rejecting benevolence and embracing his animal nature, Matty can justify his behaviour. He sees everything through the lens of apocalyptic delusions.

A second reading – from when Sylvie tries to tell Matty she is pregnant – illustrated the world as Matty sees it. He observes the streets of Soho as radioactive and drowning in blood. He believes he will transcend the abyss and that Feracor – whose voice he has been hearing – will save him.

Questions were invited from the audience.

Q: Where did Matty come from?

A: He was skulking in the corner of another story I was writing. There are two types of people – those who party too hard and end up with drug induced psychosis, and those who swap their hard partying life for an alternative obsession such as religion. Dark cults – those who believe they are the next Jesus – display an innate arrogance. I am interested in how they can think this way.

Q: Your book is so relevant for current times, more should read it.

A: Thank you. I think also there is a crisis among young men. Drug use is a part of this.

Venetia was thanked and information shared on upcoming events, including the creative writing workshop detailed below. There was then the opportunity to purchase Mother of Darkness and have it signed by the author.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak briefly to Venetia. She is a lovely person and I look forward to chatting to her again at my next literary event – the Republic of Consciousness Winners’ Announcement – which, it turns out, we both plan to attend.

Mother of Darkness is published by Quartet Books

On Tuesday 21 April, Venetia will be running a Creative Writing Workshop at Bowood, specifically designed with beginners in mind. To find out more and book a place click here.

Gig Review: Adam Scovell in Bristol

On Tuesday of this week I travelled to Stanfords bookshop in Bristol to hear author, Adam Scovell, in conversation with bookseller, Callum Churchill. Having enjoyed both of Adam’s novels – Mothlight and How Pale the Winter Has Made Us, I was interested in hearing from an writer whose style strikes me as haunting and original. I discovered that he has been compared to Sebald, an author I am unfamiliar with. Adam’s books reference many people and works that I could say the same of – I have not come across them. This did not detract from my enjoyment of his books but does give me pause for thought. I wonder how many links I have missed in the plot threads woven.

I arrived early at the bookshop so had plenty of time to enjoy my complimentary glass of wine and peruse the shelves. Callum was busy recommending books to Adam. When I spotted a copy of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul on a book table I caught myself doing the same to his colleague. I’m not sure random customers are supposed to recommend books to booksellers…

Stanfords is a lovely bookshop. If you get a chance to visit be sure to admire the map of the city that covers the entire staircase wall from ground floor to basement. I spotted several small piles of Adam’s book strategically set out around the store.

As is customary with my gig reviews, what follows is a write-up of notes I took on the night – some sparse, and not a complete record of all that was discussed. Nevertheless, I hope it is of interest.

The event started with an introduction by Callum followed by a brief summary of How Pale the Winter Has Made Us from Adam. He told us that he split the narrative into two voices. The protagonist, Isabelle, is a stressed academic living alone in Strasbourg when she hears of her father’s suicide. The second voice is that of Isabelle’s research and is more academic in style. Adam then read to us a section of the book in which Isabelle is preparing to meet a market trader who sells her old photographs. The scene is set in the early morning. The language used has a dream like quality.

Callum asked about the Erl King and was told this mythical creature came from a poem by Goethe.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from Adam’s wanderings around Strasbourg where his girlfriend has a flat (the one Isabelle’s partner’s is based on).

Callum asked about Adam’s interest in objects that are old and battered.

Adam talked of his fascination with inorganic demons from weird fiction – the sense of what has accumulated in them over time. He mentioned books he read while writing, including Georges Perec’s Life: A User Manual. Isabelle lists objects seen in the streets she walks. Adam views objects as portals to history, their aesthetic a part of the city to be absorbed.

Callum mentioned that both Adam’s novels have a sense of crumbling.

Adam talked of his love of detective fiction such as that written by MR James. In these, what is real is presented convincingly, only to have this reality broken down. The banal and ordinary becomes unexpected, not of this world.

Callum asked about using hurtling towards mania as a trope in writing.

Last month Adam was interviewed by Deborah Levy at an event held in Foyles, London. She expressed concern that the intensity inherent in Adam’s writing was autobiographical. He explained that he admired [Bernhard or Bernhardt?]’s narrators for their manic qualities and wanted to see what he could do with this himself.

Adam told us that Gary at Influx, his publisher, didn’t like Isabelle for her insufferable, unbearable condescension. Much of the initial drafts were edited to soften her.

Callum mentioned the plethora of characters introduced along with the variety of information presented in essay style. He asked how Adam chose what to include.

Adam approached his initial research much as he would if writing a thesis. He then tried to make this interesting. It was about finding a balance between what is real and what is readable (not everything included is real). This approach made editing a challenge as facts had to be checked. For example, a book with a frankly unbelievable title actually exists.

Callum asked why Strasbourg, if its borders were significant.

Adam was going to the city regularly to visit his girlfriend when Brexit was starting. The European Parliament is there. It is possible to walk from the city into Germany. Jean Hans Arp used his French and German names as suited. Adam became interested in the people who had also passed through.

Callum asked about mapping a place – psychogeography.

Adam talked about getting to know a place at a level beyond what a tourist sees – its history and local residents. It can feel as though the city becomes ingrained within its people.

Callum mentioned that obsession is a theme in both books and asked how Adam drew up Isabelle’s character.

Adam wanted to subtly reflect her through her research – to insinuate rather than tell. He also wished to ensure that his girlfriend did not think Isabelle’s terrible relationship with her partner was a reflection of their’s! To help achieve this he deliberately sent Isabelle’s partner away. This created distance – a factor in all Isabelle’s relationships.

Callum talked of fragments included, intertextual references. He asked how Adam knew what to make explicit and what to assume the reader would know.

Adam talked of the many photos he purchased in Strasbourg (as Isabelle does), many of which were not included in the final edition. These offered stories that Adam realised could be included. What was difficult was reflecting in prose the real and personal impact of images and art encountered.

Mention is made in the book of Gutenberg’s holy mirrors. Adam was amused by the bizarre image this tidbit conjured, of Gutenberg trying to make money from pilgrims, tourists, and people believing that a mirror could capture a religious relic’s aura.

Callum asked what photography lends to text.

Adam explained that Mothlight grew from a suitcase of inherited photographs. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us came from research in which photographs featured. It became a case of what image fitted with a character – which historical moment captured fitted the narrative.

Adam’s next book also has photographs but these are ones Adam has taken. He finds the process rewarding – using photographs rather than text for inspiration.

The audience were then treated to another reading, this times from one of the more academic sections, before Callum invited questions.

Q: Isabelle’s father is a failed painter. Why was this fact set up so early?

A: Wanted to drip this back in during Isabelle’s disintegration, along with the critical comments from her mother. Used reflection and insinuation as a destabilisation technique. Wanted to suggest there might be other aspects that were not being revealed.

Q: Is first person narration important to you? Also, what lessons did you learn writing a book second time around?

A: Likes the potential of the unreliable narrator, when well done. Not sure what was learned. Writing Mothlight was cathartic. Pale the Winter is not as autobiographical, more is concocted, although had technique of writing set down from Mothlight. Wanted a little more solidity, not as brief.

Q: Was it written in Strasbourg?

A: Largely, yes. Walked the routes many times, visited the cafes, spotted characters to include.

Q: Any anxiety in writing a gender different to own?

A: Yes. In first draft gender wasn’t set down. Once set down there was pressure to get it right. Watched certain films [Cléo from 5 to 7 ?] over and over that seemed relevant or proved useful in providing a blueprint.

Q: Walking features in both books. You live in London. What is it like walking around there?

A: Love it. My income is from freelance writing, researching film locations, which is a bizarre way of mapping the city. This is different to Isabelle’s experience but find it addictive, rewarding. Wouldn’t use it in fiction as it has already been done.

Q: Mapping. What is lost when transferred on to the page – cartography as story?

A: The sense of excavating a city, recognising the impact of random discoveries of the bizarre.

Q: Arriving at a place before seeing it – what of the impact of preconceptions derived from reading other work?

A: You do bring assumptions – included some in the book. For example, Isabelle visits one of her partner’s relatives outside Strasbourg. The house described is my girlfriend’s grandmother’s. Attempt must be made to get past clichés. Many of the scenes are set in real places and the preconceptions are Adam’s at times – he let them flow.

Q: Is there food in the book? Religion?

A: Yes. Isabelle visits a bakery. Items are linked to folklore. She visits a cathedral with an historic astronomical clock. Other churches feature.

Adam shared an anecdote. Flights direct to Strasbourg stop over winter. He made a journey to visit his girlfriend that took him via Colmar, Basle. He was reading Sebold and came across a poem in which exact route was being followed…

Callum drew the event to a close by thanking Adam and inviting the audience to purchase signed books that could then have a dedication added. As I had not purchased my copy from Stanfords I was unsure of the etiquette so did not join the queue.

And with that I had to leave to catch my train home. It was a fascinating evening offering insights into the writing process of a fine author. I am looking forward already to reading Adam’s next book.

How Pale the Winter Has Made Us is published by Influx Press 

Gig Review: Naomi Ishiguro in Bath

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) 

Gig Review: Ariana Harwicz in Bath

On Wednesday of this week I travelled to Bath for an unusual but very much enjoyed literary event. Hosted by Toppings Bookshop, Ariana Harwicz, author of Die My Love and Feebleminded, was there to talk about her writing and her books. These are available in English from the fabulous Charco Press who are based in Edinburgh and publish books in translation, several from South America. Born in Buenos Aires, Ariana currently lives in France and writes in Spanish. She spoke to the audience in her mother tongue and was ably translated by Carolina Orloff. Carolina is co-founder of Charco Press and co-translated both of Ariana’s books. As someone who speaks only English, I was impressed that so many in the audience appeared to understand all that was being said.

The evening opened with an introduction by Matt, one of Toppings’ booksellers, who spoke of how viscerally he had been affected reading Die My Love. Ariana then gave a reading from the original version of Feebleminded. This was followed by the same section read from the English translation by Carolina.

“if we don’t suffer there’s no passion”

“falling in love is the ultimate curse”

Matt asked a series of pertinent questions that enabled an interesting discourse on the creation of Ariana’s trilogy (the third book will be published in English next year). The following summary is produced from notes I took on the night. Some of the responses are translations of Ariana’s answers and some are additional comments from Carolina. My aim is to reflect the gist of what was said. I hope it will be of interest.

Q: What is the purpose of the trilogy?

When asked this question an author tries to go back in time. This process happens later, when the author becomes a reader of their own work. It is a deconstruction process. The more truthful answer is the writing comes from a mystery. I don’t know where it comes from.

What unites the three books is a feeling of desperation in the main character. There is a certain style, perhaps like musicians creating a triad. It is the punctuation that unites the books.

Q: How does it feel to revisit your published books that are only now coming out in English?

To write a book is a miracle. To see a translation is another miracle. It is as if I have written another book. Translation is like two people making music. It has to work together. There can be slight changes – politically, ideologically. Some authors hand over their work to a translator and don’t get involved – beyond their responsibility. I am not like that. The involvement comes from the dialectics. Writing is an act of translation.

C: Ariana was recently told her books were thought in French but written in Spanish. This was said as a criticism but she thinks it is a good thing.

Q: Has there been variation in response from Spanish and English readers?

To be here is a political act. It is expected that a Latin American author will write about certain things. I have an eight year old son who is Franco-Argentinean. All he gets from television is: sexist, stereotypical, poverty, dictatorship. I am not interested in these clichés.

It was through the English translation that Die My Love came to be translated into fifteen languages. Now it cannot be so easily pigeonholed. I write literature, not just feminist Latin American.

C: One of the biggest aims as publisher is to do away with such limitations. Charco launched with five Argentinean writers from the same generation yet all are different. It is good to break preconceptions.

A: Reactions of different readerships stems from cultural history. The Hebrew version is getting very different reactions from the English. Some regard the writing as akin to science fiction, others recognise it as realism.

C: These social constructs and clichés exist because Latin American authors are not widely read. Charco wishes to change this.

A: The true political act is to step away from expectations and write what I want.

Q: What was it about the English translation that particularly resonated?

I live in a small French village, write from the margins, produce cryptic literature. English being such a massive language it opens work up to so many readers. What I want to do is break language, undo and then remake, add new meaning. I was told when the books came out they would be impossible to translate.

The challenge of translation is to get across something of that which is broken. The translation had to be hidden, quiet, convoluted – whatever the original conveyed. To leave the bare minimum of image or colour or feeling.

I would not wish to live without writing – inventing language. It is the language that is the main character.

After a second reading, the audience were invited to ask questions.

Q: Characters are never named. Do they recur in the trilogy?

C: Ariana has a background in drama and film.

I am interested in the idea that characters have no names, that it is up to the reader to assign them. I would even prefer books to have no titles, preferring to keep things as pure as possible. There are darker elements. Each character is condoned to their role in society. It is this that defines them.

Q: The ‘mad woman’ – are they thrust into this role? Do they embrace it?

Having to name people, reducing them, creates a misunderstanding. When Die My Love came out many readers understood it was a woman suffering post partum depression. But I never thought of this pathologically. I wanted to give a wider perspective.

Q: The language moves as though alive. Does Ariana edit to achieve this?

Consider artists who paint outside, trying to find an image but the image cannot exist without surrounding sound. Feebleminded comes from an image of a female village idiot. I then saw her again on a train and realised it was not idiocy but obsession.

I also observed the relationships between mothers and daughters. I found something disturbing. There were two bodies that looked alike. What was going on there, between them?

Sound matters more than realism. I just write, uninterrupted. The language comes out.

Q: When you picture the people who love your books are you surprised that they look like me? (a young, white, male)

That they are normal? To answer I go back to my first novel. Being a foreigner is a lonely experience. I wrote for myself, out of desperation. I didn’t know it would become a novel. When I heard it was to be published I went into the forest and cried. It was a way of saving myself.

C: In Argentina the book has been adapted for the stage yet uses the same words as in the novel – it is striking.

I am interested in writing from deep solitude, sorrow, tortuous loneliness.

Matt: The power of good writers is that they evoke situations the reader has been unable to express themselves.

Indie publishers are great because they are places of discovery. And unlike some, Charco has not published a bad book.

As audience members queued to have their purchases signed by both Ariana and Carolina, I left to catch my train home. The evening offered much to consider about both the power of writing and of quality translation.

Die My Love and Feebleminded are available to buy from good bookshops such as Toppings, and direct from Charco Press.

 

Monthly Roundup – November 2018

However many times I start a new month thinking I will grant myself more space for other pursuits, I get caught up in reading and my time is gone. I have so many good books impatiently waiting on my TBR pile – this remains such a delicious non-problem. Looking at my stats for November it does at least appear to have been productive. I reviewed twenty books on my blog which means, for the first time this year, I am on track with my Goodreads challenge. I also attended two fabulous author events in Bath, probably my last in 2018 as I eschew the festive season crowds.

Early in the month I noticed some discussion online where bloggers were bemoaning the lack of shares by authors and publishers of their posts. Over the years I have watched a small but steady trickle of bloggers bowing out as the pleasure of the pursuit has waned. This got me thinking about why I devote so much time to producing content that I hope supports those who provide us with books. I process my thoughts by writing them out so put up this post on Writing, reviews and sharing on social mediaIf writers, and that includes book bloggers, wrote for the plaudits many would not persist.

When I say ‘provide us with books’ I don’t mean the free review copies of books that publishers send out to bloggers such as myself – that is another regular accusation from those who do not seem to understand our motivation.

I did go to the library this month as I was eager to read the Booker Prize Winner, Milkman. I enjoyed Anna Burns’ first novel many years ago and was delighted to see an author from my country of birth win this prestigious award.

I also put aside time to read those books on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist that were languishing on my TBR pile. I would have liked to have seen Murmur win that award.

As you can see from my links to November’s posts below it has been an eclectic reading month – just how I like it to maintain freshness and interest. I have also made a concerted effort to read books that have been on my TBR pile for some time, alongside the newer releases scheduled.

 

Fiction

  

Slip of a Fish by Amy Arnold, published by And Other Stories
Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions

  

In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, published by Tinder Press
Milkman by Anna Burns, published by Faber & Faber

  

The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M Harris, published by Gollancz
Aftershock by Adam Hamdy, published by Headline

  

The Longbourn Letters: The Correspondence Between Mr Collins and Mr Bennet, by Rose Servitova
The Little Snake by A.L. Kennedy, published by Canongate

 

Translated fiction and short stories

  

And the Wind Sees All by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery), published by Peirene Press
The Cake Tree In The Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), published by Pushkin Press

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), published by Peirene Press

 

Short Stories

  

Our Dreams Might Align by Dana Diehl, published by Splice
Flare and Falter by Michael Conley, published by Splice

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood, published by Bloomsbury

 

Poetry

the uncorrected Billy Childish, published by Tangerine Press

 

Children’s fiction

  

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (20th anniversary edition) by JK Rowling, published by Bloomsbury
Sunny and the Ghosts by Alison Moore, published by Salt

 

Non fiction

  

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard, published by Profile
Browse: Love Letters to Bookshops Around the World by various authors, published by Pushkin Press

Chicken Unga Fever by Dr Phil Whitaker, published by Salt

 

Literary events

One of my fellow book bloggers commented recently on the number of excellent book events I have had the opportunity to attend. I concur, and these two were special, as you can read in my linked posts.

  

Markus Zusak in Bath
Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

 

With the arrival of December we enter into the festive season with its lists of books to buy and best books of the year – more on that from me in due course. I am also compiling a list of those books I am most looking forward to in 2019. Whatever else may be going on in the world, our reading pleasure continues to be well catered for.

If you are considering buying books – they make the best presents and are so easy to wrap – do please support your local independent bookshop. For those like me who dislike crowds remember many bookshops also sell online.

Or you can buy direct from the publisher – for the small presses especially this helps hugely as they struggle to cover costs selling through the mega site that shall not be named. If you click on the covers of the books above you will be offered further information on each book and how to buy it.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).

  

 

 

Gig Review: Markus Zusak in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to join a large and appreciative audience, some of whom had come from as far away as Paris, to hear Markus Zusak talk about his latest book, Bridge of Clay. Markus was interviewed by Mr B from the bookshop hosting the event, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. As is my wont, I made notes throughout the evening and the following is a write-up of these. Much was discussed so this post is quite lengthy. I hope it will be of interest.

Markus told us that he started writing Bridge of Clay when he was nineteen or twenty years of age. He is now forty-three. The idea came to him during long walks around Sydney where he was living at the time. He wanted to write about a boy building a bridge and needing to do this well, perhaps better than he was able. He thought of the title, Clayton’s Bridge, then shortened the boy’s name to Clay. Bridge of Clay seemed apt as, whatever materials were used, the bridge would be made of the boy. Clay may be moulded into anything but requires fire for it to set. At this stage Markus even knew how his story would end – it doesn’t end that way now. He believed this was his best idea and set about writing it.

Somehow he couldn’t make the story work. He moved on to write other books but kept going back to Clay without success. After The Book Thief was so well received he had the time to devote himself to the story.

Markus was surprised by the reaction to The Book Thief. He hadn’t expected many people to enjoy a book narrated by death in which a large number of characters die. He knew that he needed to write another book and Clay was all he had.

Around 2007/8 the family structure in the story came into being. Prior to that it had been very different and had gone through many iterations. He introduced the five brothers – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy – when he realised that a menagerie of animals would be involved. He knew that one of these animals had to be a mule (all ambition is an ass) so set the story in the racing quarter of the city to enable this. From here Carey evolved. The original narrator was Carey’s sister but this didn’t work. The character was cut out.

Mr B asked Markus if his writing process is as fluid as it sounds.

Markus told us that he has all these ideas. He claimed not to have a great imagination but rather sets himself problems to solve. He wanted to include a mule so had to make that work. He came across a misspelled sign on a fence warning passers by not to feed a horse and decided he could use that. The feral brothers came from a picture in his head of boys running up a flight of stairs, goading and challenging each other. He needs to know what happens to characters – their backstory which makes them what they are.

The boys’ mother, Penny, started from the idea of nicknames. She was to be The Mistake Maker and it came to him that she would play the piano and love Greek mythology. Her journey to Australia would be like The Odyssey. Homer used nicknames. Markus’s wife was brought to Australia by her parents when she was six years old. Her parents couldn’t believe the heat, the size of the cockroaches. The chapter on paper houses developed from their stories of that time in their lives.

Markus aims to create memorable characters. Penny looked fragile but was incredibly tough. Although apparently based around the five brothers, it is the female characters who are the heart of Bridge of Clay.

Mr B asked about the origins of the fights on the running track.

Markus told us he always needs to train hard to be good at anything. Clay is training but nobody is sure what for – it turns out he is training to build a bridge. Matthew offers motivation but improvement stalls. Rory realises that Clay needs to hurt – to improve at anything it is necessary to make it harder. Markus remembers a teacher telling him that to get good at running on grass a runner should train on sand.

Boys are very physical. He wanted a contrast between the toughness they display and how much the brothers love each other (love runs through the family like a river). Boys don’t mind touching – elbows, shoulders, fists – but they don’t talk much.

Markus writes books from the inside out. He shows how the boys are and how they would like to be, juggling the rough and tumble with emotion. He didn’t want author quotes on the finished book but did think of having quotes from each of the Dunbar boys – “It’s a bit shit but you’ll love it”; “I can get you a good price for it”, and so on 🙂

Mr B asked about the objects, talismans in the story.

Markus is a collector of things. He and his children have a book of feathers. He is interested in memory and what is treasured. The lighter that Carey gives Clay has several meanings – don’t burn your bridges, clay needs fire to set. The monopoly piece is a reminder of a game played while their mother was ill.

Markus is always trying to write a book that maybe he’s not good enough to write. The book is made of him. He is at his happiest when writing and it is going well. Life is stories.

The real hero of this book is Markus’s wife. in 2016 she sat him down and told him, after a decade of trying, that he had one week to finish the book. When, after a week, it still wasn’t finished she told him to take a break from Clay, to write in his neglected blog. He didn’t want to. He started to write up all the books he would read when he finished. After four to six weeks he knew he was ready to get back to it. He started building up the chapter headings he had noted down in an attempt to progress.

He writes at home amidst the family chaos. Occasionally they will all go away for a few days. He remembers one day, it was very hot, he took off his t-shirt – something he never usually does. His son’s reaction amused him and he thought, I can use that. The writing came to life again. He realised that he was 85% done and six months later he finally finished.

One big change in that time was with Michael Dunbar – a painter who loved the work of Michaelangelo. Markus decided Carey and Clay would have a mutual obsession with a book about the artist, The Quarryman. This now has its own thread.

There is a lot going on in the story but every single piece means something and will make sense by the end. Each idea introduced is part of a jigsaw.

Markus had a lot of ambition for the book. We all live our lives moving forward but take everything that has gone before with us. He wanted the structure to be tidal. Beginnings are everywhere and there are many before the beginnings. This may offer a challenge to some readers but hopefully also rewards. In some ways he wants readers to finish and feel they have been run over by a truck – maybe need to soften that analogy – he wants readers to still remember the book in ten years time.

He has always had a good relationship with his editors. With Bridge of Clay, some of the queries he had to point out the answer was coming if they read on. This may not suit all readers but that’s okay.

Mr B was sent an early manuscript copy of the book that contained handwritten notes on illustrations which aren’t in the finished copy. He asked: why is that?

These were an idea that wasn’t included because illustrations weren’t needed. Words alone leave more to the imagination for the reader.

Mr B asked why in America the book is promoted as for YA while here it is primarily aimed at adults.

This is because Markus wished to stay with the same publishers as previously. He felt a loyalty. He doesn’t regard Bridge of Clay as a YA book but it is down to readers.

Questions were opened to the audience.

Markus was asked what he thought of The Book Thief film.

He didn’t expect the book to reach such a wide audience. Dealing as it does with death, when the producers wanted little kids to be able to watch the film it had to be made the way it was. The book is not for little kids. When film rights are sold the story needs to be handed over. Creative people have to be allowed to be creative. A book is a book (although there are elements in it he would now change – he was very young when he wrote it – he is still young!); a film is film (and it opened up a new audience for the book).

A teacher asked how to get young people interested in books.

Markus is asked this a lot and doesn’t know. It’s not his job. He would maybe point out that reading is tougher than football or TV – challenge them. Also, find the right book for the right person. Take them to a good bookshop such as Mr B’s.

Asked why Matthew was the narrator it was pointed out that this is explained at the end of the story. Markus did change the narrator regularly during rewrites. It couldn’t be Rory as he wouldn’t care enough. Henry is too flippant, Tommy too young. At one stage he nearly cut the brothers out but realised he needed them for colour – and to get the mule in.

None of the final characters other than Clay were in the first version of the book. All the brothers are deceptive and offer flashes of insight. He believes in Matthew the most.

Q: What motivated you to keep coming back to the unfinished work?

This was the book he was destined to write – that sounds corny – he felt it was the book he had to write.

Q: What research did you do for the book?

Markus doesn’t look for facts but rather people. Ideas can leap out from their stories and be turned into something else. He uses them as stepping stones.

Q: What are you going to write next?

He may further develop a minor existing character, or look at the time after the setting of The Book Thief – at what would happen next. He is not contracted to anyone so can write for the joy of it and see what happens.

Q: A favourite quote from Bridge of Clay?

“It’s a mystery to me how boys and brothers love”

Q: Did Homer influence the style of writing?

Yes, that was deliberate. The rhythm and cadence, the epic nature. This is a suburban epic. All lives have epic moments.

Q: Does the book feel finished now, after being in your life for so long? Will the brothers grow old as your life progresses?

Markus may well revisit them. Characters don’t arrive fully formed, they have to be worked on and developed. They become akin to friends.

When his publisher suggested he must feel great to finally finish he admitted to feeling terrible. After the high of all the hard work it all felt flat.

Q: Do you have a nickname?

There are many nicknames in the family and all evolve over time. A friend called him Small and his son then became Little Small. His sister called him Golden Boy (here he is with his books) and when The Book Thief did so well this became Platinum Boy, and then PB – he doesn’t think this suits him at all but the stories behind the names are what interest. The dedications in the book are to his family and are their nicknames.

Q: Would you allow Bridge of Clay to be made into a film?

Markus doesn’t know. He loves books and loves films but who should he give it to? They might do something different with it which may work or may not. He would be just as happy if it isn’t made into a film.

Q: When writing are you a prolific reader?

No, but he likes a book with a good voice, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Good characters make good books.

Markus was then asked to sign books and the queue snaked all the way around the large church venue, several people deep, and out the door. Unable to delay so long I took my final few photographs and made my way home. It was an evening well worth attending.

Bridge of Clay is published by Doubleday.

You may read my review here.

Monthly Roundup – October 2018

This month’s reading has been a mix of new publications – including several read in preparation for author events – and a few books plucked from my vast TBR pile that I have been eager to get to for ages. I have enjoyed fiction and non fiction, translated works, and even a couple of books aimed at children. In total I posted reviews for 14 titles, including two that I originally wrote for Bookmunch. I also posted write-ups from 8 literary events. It has been a busy bookish month.

If you click on the book covers below you will be taken to publisher information and purchase suggestions. Click on a title and you will be taken to my review.

Translated fiction

  
The White Book by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith), published by Portobello Books
Soul of the Border by Matteo Righetto (translated by Howard Curtis), published by Pushkin Press

Fiction

  
Normal People by Sally Rooney, published by Faber & Faber
The Study Circle by Haroun Khan, published by Dead Ink

  
Thin Air by Michelle Paver, published by Orion
Crocodile by Daniel Shand, published by Sandstone Press


Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak, published by Doubleday

Short Stories


Chains: Unheard Voices, published by the MargŌ Collective

Children’s and YA Fiction

  
Captain Pug: The Dog Who Sailed the Seas by Laura James (illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans), published by Bloomsbury
Disbelieved by Beth Webb

Non Fiction

  
For Love & Money by Jonathan Raban, published by Eland
Landfill by Tim Dee, published by Little Toller

  
The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad by Sam Jordison, published by Michael O’Mara Books
The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah, published by Profile Books

Literary events

  
Rachel Trethewey at Bowood
Adam Kay in Bristol

  
Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson at the Marlborough Literature Festival
The Corsham Bookshop (for Bookshop Day)

  
Edward Carey in Bath
Tim Dee in Bath

  
Sally Rooney in Bath
Novel Nights in Bristol 
with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. I don’t say it enough but your support is always appreciated.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

Novel Nights is a monthly literary meetup with branches in Bristol and Bath. The aim is to showcase and support excellent writing and writers at all stages of their careers. Last Wednesday evening I travelled to The Square Club in Bristol to listen to four authors read from their work and discuss Writing and Persistence. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Literature and featured Nikesh Shukla, as headline speaker.

Grace Palmer, who set up Novel Nights five years ago and continues to run it along with a supportive team, opened proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing Jari Moate, from the festival, as host. Jari told us that the Bristol Festival of Literature is now in its eighth year and receives no outside funding, relying on donations and ticket sales. It is run by volunteers, and it was following one of its events that Grace felt inspired to set up Novel Nights.

Jari then introduced the first reader, Anesu Pswarazayi, who read an extract from his debut story collection The Nomadic Slave. This is a memoir of growing up straddling three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – and how perspectives are influenced by race, citizenship, and ascribed identity.

  

The second reader was Mike Manson (a last minute replacement for Karla Neblett) who read an excerpt from his latest work, Down in Demerera, which completes a trilogy of humorous novels. Mike also writes history books but likes to think he will return to fiction in the future.

  

The third reader was Sabrin Hasbun who describes herself as an Italian-Palestinian transnational writer. In the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing – focusing on memory and memoirs – at Bath Spa University. She talked about feeling Arabic in the West and Western when in Arabia. She read from her current work in progress which is based around a family from mixed backgrounds. The excerpt was a fictionalised account of her father’s childhood, exploring the subtle differences in treatment of Christians and Muslims. The religion marked on ID cards creates an invisible border between people who live side by side.

  

Pete from Foyles then drew the first half of the evening to a close by talking about the local branch’s plans for the festive season, their last before being taken over by Waterstones. He spoke of the effect of negative reviews on book sales, such as he has observed with the new Murakami. He also mentioned the recent Booker winner, Milkman, and how it was good to see a paperback scoop the prize as this will be affordable for more readers. He urged the audience to buy the books he had brought along and support our bookshops.

After a short break Grace sat down with Nikesh Shukla and asked him to introduce his work. As well as publishing four novels, Nikesh is: editor of The Good Immigrant, has written regularly for national newspapers, and co-founded The Good Literary Agency. The following is taken from notes I scribbled down during his discussion with Grace.

Nikesh spoke of his journey as a writer, how he started what eventually became The One Who Wrote Destiny when he was nineteen years old as he wanted to tell the story of a court case involving his uncle. Uncle came to the UK in the 1960s to join a friend who had been offered a job juggling in London clubs. Not knowing the UK, Uncle ended up taking digs in Keighley where he met the young girl he would marry. As other family members joined him he tried to buy a house in Huddersfield but was informed by the estate agent that company policy was not to sell to people of colour as they ‘would devalue the area’. This was in 1968 and the Race Relations Act had just been passed. Uncle took the company to court, the first person to do so under the Act. It was clearly discrimination yet he lost the case on a technicality.

Nikesh wished to write this family history into a sort of legal thriller but couldn’t make it work so set it aside, going on to write his first and second novels. Periodically he would retrieve the manuscript and rewrite it. When he showed it to his agent it was still a mess. The structure of the story was unlocked when he realised it could be a humorous family tale – matriarch and patriarch. Sometimes an author’s work is best left to cook for years.

The One Who Wrote Destiny was eventually written from four perspectives, set in different time-frames. It explores: race relations, immigration, illness and grief, destiny, fate, science.

  

Nikesh wants to understand people – his characters and their interior lives. He wrote Destiny in the first person as he felt comfortable with this – earlier versions had been written in the third person but felt messy. He also aimed to provide a positive representation of South Asian women.

Grace asked about rejection and Nikesh explained why he believes this can be healthy if based on writing – not if based on race. He has had work rejected because the submissions reader did not believe it was authentically Asian (from a British perspective) and because the publisher is ‘already publishing an Asian writer this year’.

Nikesh regards ‘literary merit’ as bullshit. He believes rejection is about the tastes of the person reading submissions. Authors may not want to rewrite to suit an editor but can still pick up hints as to what may not be quite working. An editor needs to recognise potential and be passionate about a book. It took him years to realise that rejection wasn’t about him but about whoever was reading. He advised the audience to do their research and seek out that person who will love your work, to submit it to the correct person in an agency who will be hungry to build their lists. This requires persistence – and rejection still stings.

Asked how to know when a book is ready for submission the advice was to take as much time as was needed, to make the manuscript bullet proof, the best it can be (time is available before first book is published that will no longer exist once under contract). Nikesh suggested sharing work with trusted readers who would be honest in their feedback, then to set it aside before rereading.

Seek out agents who publish the sort of work written. Submit to multiple agents and inform all if full manuscript called in (although don’t say by who). This introduces an element of competition. When your published work appears in a bookshop rejections will be forgotten. Nikesh’s aim was to publish a book, anything after being a bonus. He sometimes needs to remind himself of this.

There must be an element of trust between author, agent and editor – an ability to talk through any issues or concerns. Nikesh was not impressed with the recent comments made by Booker judges about the standard of editing. His experiences have mostly been positive.

Asked about The Good Literary Agency, Nikesh told us they are now signing up writers and have a huge submissions pile. They have just completed their first six figure deal with Transworld, for an author who had spent twenty years on her book.

Not all writers have the time or ability to enroll on creative writing courses, MAs or retreats. The Good Literary Agency aims to offer mentoring and to to nurture its authors.

A member of the audience asked Nikesh about the emotional impact on him as a writer when writing his characters’ emotions. He told us that he has never made himself cry but he has laughed. Destiny did not affect him in this way, perhaps because it was reworked significantly. Nikesh regards writing as therapy so his emotional response is more often one of relief. He spends so long with his characters he comes to know what to expect from them.

Nikesh was asked  how he engages with those who may not see writing as for them, perhaps due to their socio-economic upbringing. He suggested school visits and engaging with whatever makes an author appear accessible to the children. He mentioned one boy who asked him about the hair gel he wore. The teacher was not impressed but Nikesh understood that this was a potential connection that could be built on.

He considers the discussion around Booker winner Anna Burns interesting. She was on benefits because she needed the benefits. The fact that she used some of her time to write was her choice. Making money from writing is a challenge. Nikesh can spend longer each week doing events.

Another question was asked about emotions. Nikesh talked about the importance of keeping the author’s voice off the page – of reactions remaining the characters’. Authorial distance matters.

Asked about what compromises should be made for the reader who may not understand the reality of a culture Nikesh expressed a need to push back against certain attitudes, to use authentic names even if these are not familiar or some may find them hard to remember.

Asked if he had any interest in collaborating, perhaps writing a graphic novel, Nikesh was enthusiastic. He would love to write a Spiderman novel. He reads graphic novels and has recently enjoyed Booker longlisted Sabrina.

As Grace said in her summing up:

“we learned such a lot from Nikesh tonight – about persistence as a writer, the importance of a good editor, ideas on when to push back with an editor, advice on choosing agents”

I enjoy the discussions at Novel Nights for their candid content. The evening was well worth attending.

As an aside, I appreciated the value of having a professional photographer to hand. Compare the somewhat dark and blurry photos above, snapped on my phone throughout the evening, with these taken by Tom Shot Photography, who gave me permission to include a few of his – taken along with several other images that you may wish to check out shared by Grace on the Novel Nights Facebook page.

  

  

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books.

You may read my review here.