Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

Book Review: Man With A Seagull On His Head

“She’d sat in front of him for three weeks and he hadn’t seen her. How odd to discover one didn’t exist.”

Man With A Seagull On His Head, by Harriet Paige, opens in the summer of 1976 when council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. The moment is witnessed by Jennifer Mulholland, a shop assistant at a nearby department store who happens to be by the shore. No words are exchanged but this brief encounter, the unexpected vision of an unknown woman as he is felled, is seared onto Ray’s subconscious. The previously ordinary middle aged man living alone, who had never thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman on every surface available and with whatever substances come to hand.

Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world. Now living in London he has been adopted by Grace and George Zoob, collectors with a penchant for the experimental. Ray is still painting his woman and nobody, including him, knows who she is. An interview in a national newspaper alerts Jennifer to her unasked for role as Ray’s muse.

Alternative chapters allow the reader to catch up with the direction Jennifer’s life has taken. Still living in her small Essex town she no longer lives in a bedsit but has become part of a wider family. She observes the decisions people around her have made and how these have changed the trajectories of their lives. Few have ended up where they expected.

“she realised that she had no true friends in the world and that there was no one at all who understood anything about who she was.”

Themes of loneliness and the small deaths of personal dreams pervade. There is an undercurrent of quiet desperation. Grace Zoob struggles with her need to be acknowledged in a world that has no need for her individual existence. Eventually she takes out her frustrations on Ray.

The depiction of the art world is amusing but it is the deftly drawn characters and their private concerns that add impressive depth to this engaging story. It is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Life may at times appear to have no purpose yet still people find ways to live.

“sometimes you just had to put one foot in front of the other and tell yourself that you’d have a nice cup of tea when you got home.”

Quirky in places but always accessible this is existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale. A book that I will now be eagerly recommending – a vividly drawn, satisfying read.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.

 

Man With A Seagull On His Head has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.