Gig Review: Not The Booker Live

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Regular readers will be aware that I have been following this year’s Guardian newspaper Not The Booker Prize with interest. Having read each of the six shortlisted books, I summarised my thoughts here. I mused:

“After the initial euphoria of selection I do wonder what the authors and their publishers have made of all that is being said about their work”

On Saturday I had the chance to find out when I travelled to London for my first visit to the Big Green Bookshop who, for the third year running, were hosting Not The Booker Live. This is a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison and featuring as many of the authors on the shortlist as can get there on the night.

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The three who came along – Jemma Wayne (Chains of Sand), Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Dan Clements (What Will Remain) were those who are based in England. Dan M had travelled with an entourage from the far north. They contributed to what turned out to be an interesting discussion.

To start proceedings each author talked briefly about their book and gave a short reading.

Jemma considered her characters, although brought up within differing cultures and privilege, to feel a lack of control over their destinies. The cause they were expected to support was, to some of their family and peers, more important than truth. Their rebellion against expectation was the beginning of free thought.

Dan M explained that his initial idea had been to produce a reworking of Don Quixote. He read out the first chapter of his book as he felt this best explained what it was about.

Dan C considered through his story whether the damage caused to people by experience can sometimes not be fixed. His story of war looks at the lasting impacts on soldiers’ lives. He suggested that certain actions that appear foolish – such as blowing a compensation payment on a sports car or trip to Vegas – can also be life affirming. Good things in life may sometimes be denied to those who live too earnestly.

Sam then talked of the unique process this prize offers for readers. Unlike other literary prizes, the discussion of the shortlist is open to anyone who wishes to comment and is available for all to read. He asked how the authors felt about their books being selected.

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Dan M told us it felt like a really public workshopping of his novel.

Jemma appreciated the opportunity to reach new readers but felt it was best for publishers and new authors. She admitted to inviting friends and family to vote for her at the earlier stages. She wondered if certain commentators agreed with Sam’s reviews because they wished to be chosen as a judge. The process offers no filter. She found the comments interesting but bruising. It was only after returning to them after a few weeks that she could see the positives.

Sam asked about the choice of subject matter for each book.

Dan C had not initially wished to write about his experiences in Afghanistan. When he decided to write a war novel he read widely around the subject. He feels that the way war is currently viewed has changed readers expectations of the genre.

Jemma sees opinions about Israel polarising and extremism increasing. She was concerned that people were losing the ability to empathise with those considered other. They give impassioned views on whatever is going on but see issues in black and white. She wished to present some of the grey.

Dan M suggested that his story came together when Don became Donna. He chose to include fairytale imagery, to explain how when reality becomes too difficult fantasy offers an escape. His protagonist is not a distressed damsel locked in a high tower – she has chosen the isolation to keep others out.

Sam asked about each author’s experience of being published.

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This is Jemma’s second published novel, her first was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. Her concern for this one was if it would be as well received.

Dan C considered publication to be an astonishing anticlimax after the intense work required to get that far. He felt a sense of exhaustion, almost bereavement when the book was released into the world. The pleasure he gets from writing is the work he puts into his next novel.

Dan M talked of the pressure he felt after devoting so much time to the book, and the cost of this. He felt relief but also found it hard when he got to the stage where nothing could be changed.

The audience were invited to ask questions which delved into the authors’ writing processes and advice they would give to others.

Dan M wrote the first draft of his novel over an intense eight day period. Although he subsequently worked on the content, the heart of this remains. He was accepted by the first publisher he approached, a few hours after submission. (Is this a true fairytale ending?)

Jemma advised writers to get their ideas down first, ignoring their inner critique.

Dan C commented that he writes slowly and methodically which leads to less editing at the end. He did not recommend such an approach.

The final question to round up the evening came from Simon of Big Green Books who asked if the authors would like to be shortlisted for Not The Booker again.

Jemma suggested that she may prefer to be longlisted as this offers an opportunity for marketing without the public discussion.

Dan M pondered if the prize were best suited to early novels as it was a good way of gaining attention.

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I was grateful for the opportunity to chat briefly to the panel as they signed books purchased. Sam commented that he was pleased I had disagreed with his reviews, prompting me to comment that he critiques like an English teacher and we seemed to have different tastes. Afterwards I realised how daft I must have sounded. Sam is also co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and they have yet to publish any title that I have not absolutely adored.

 

Book Review: The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote

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The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, by Dan Micklethwaite, is a poignant yet always humourous adventure featuring a wine guzzling twenty-two year old whose life revolves around the stories she reads in books. Her top floor flat has been taken over by her literature, with bookshelves obscuring windows and a shower curtain protecting the titles she keeps in her bathroom. She has little furniture and a ragbag of clothes, but her many bookshelves overflow and her bedroom is carpeted with novels of uniform size. She rescues books from charity shops and orders them on line. Her stories have kept her together as the life she dreams of has repeatedly slipped from her grasp.

At the beginning of the tale we learn that Donna is currently single. Her previous boyfriend, Kirk, disliked her fixating on books, preferring that she concentrate on pleasing him. We learn that Donna’s father, an English teacher, encouraged her to read voraciously to avoid growing up ‘a thickie’. His scathing language was never confined to his pupils. Donna’s childhood was played out to the soundtrack of her parents’ arguments, although their eventual divorce helped her financially.

One morning Donna rashly decides to leave the sanctuary of her small and stuffy flat. She will don the armour of a knight and go questing. She discovers that Huddersfield may not be ready for such bravado. The setbacks she encounters force her to consider a different role, perhaps that of a princess.

Storybook princesses will inevitably seek their prince. Donna’s experience of these beings has not been favourable. She resents that her lovers regard every situation as revolving around them. She has no wish to be any boy’s toy.

Donna’s prince, even if he does talk a bit southern at times, brings her wine and companionship, but it is her books that continue to provide the adventures she seeks. She lives life through her imagination, fueled by stories lightly flavoured by experience. She begins to question their happy ever after.

Written in short sentences and chapters, the author is piercing in the observations he makes about his characters and setting. He captures the mundane as Donna sees it, turning empty shops into caves and bookshelves into forests. His heroine is a too thin, ginger haired, northerner with a proclivity, if not the talent, for cosplay. She and her many foibles are brought to life with a sharp wit and a sympathetic wisdom. She is a fabulous creation, volatile and vulnerable but determined to forge her own path with as clear a head as excessive wine consumption will allow.

“Nobody has ever accused Donna Crick-Oakley of being adventurous. A slut, yes. A thickie. A dreamer. A quiet one. A fat bitch (before she lost weight). A skinny bitch (after). A nutter. A swot. A stick-in-the-mud. An accident waiting to happen. A cry-baby. A silly cow. A giant waste of time. All of the above, but never adventurous. The fact was, when given a choice between real life and books, Donna Crick-Oakley chose books every time. […] She chose books because they never left her lonely the way Kirk had had left her lonely. Because company was often nothing of the kind, whereas a good book always was.”

Much of the story reads like a modern day fairy story, paying homage to the traditional form, not Disneyfied. There are awkward conversations, drunken messages posted on social media, and the disdane of city dwellers to battle. Throughout the text perceptive insights are fired like arrows, mocking yet poignant and very funny.

A tale lightly written with a depth that will linger, it is clever whilst avoiding any conceit. More than that though, this book offers entertainment. It was an absolute pleasure to read.