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 ūüôā

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 Рat 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.

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Gig Review: Tim Dee in Bath

Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath hosts a number of reading groups, one of which is called The Paperback Ramblers. As the name suggests this involves getting readers together and going for a walk to discuss a chosen book. When I noticed that they had selected¬†Landfill by Tim Dee, and that the author was to join the group for the event, I knew I had to attend.

On the day it rained heavily all morning. Emails were sent to ensure the walk would go ahead. Reassured that the forty mile round trip would be worthwhile I packed my full set of walking waterproofs and set out. The rain eased as I reached the bookshop and had stopped by the time our diminished group set out (such a shame that the wet weather put so many who had signed up off).

I should add that while waiting in Mr B’s I was offered a most welcome cup of tea. Independent bookshops know how to look after their customers.

Sam from the bookshop had organised the event and decided on the best route given the weather. I did not need the level of gear I was wearing. We wound our way up to the Royal Crescent and then through the park. The gulls which we had brought our binoculars to observe on our urban nature hike were staying away.

I had a lovely chat with Tim about his book as we walked. He told me about his interest in gulls, how the methods of classification have changed, and of his wish to capture a moment in birding history that was passing. I was glad that I had recently read Landfill as I had little prior knowledge of the subject. Yet our conversation was wider than that. Tim writes as much about human life as about the birds that have interested him since he was a teenager. The personal touch makes his subject a story.

  

We stopped in the park where Tim gave the group an overview of the book and its background. We stopped again at a pond where a few gulls competed with the many ducks for the bread that Tim had brought to feed them. A group of children were also feeding the birds – being Bath they had brought brioche. The birds were equally happy to eat Tim’s sliced pan.

We walked on and I chatted to some other members of the group. Several were regulars. A lady who had also read Landfill in preparation agreed with me that her interest had been piqued in a subject she had previously known nothing about. Tim’s writing is accessible for all.

I also chatted to Sam who expressed interest in where I published my writing. He had heard of Bookmunch but struggled to understand what I was saying when I named my blog (and there was me thinking I had lost my regional accent – I hadn’t thought to slip some business cards into the pocket of my walking jacket). I did try to persuade him to get Mr B’s to stock more books from small independent publishers. I do that with every bookseller I meet.

Given the subject of the Tim’s book, Sam next led us to one of Bath’s recycling centres. Being a Sunday it was closed which, as is explained in Landfill, meant little gull activity. We did see a few birds flying overhead. More appeared as Tim gave a reading. Hopefully they were appreciative of his sympathetic stance to creatures many regard as a nuisance – behaviours caused by man’s actions.

We made our way along the river and back to Mr B’s. From there it was decided that there was time for a quick pint at a local hostelry. Settled with our drinks Tim told me about the book he is currently working on in which he will follow Spring as it moves north at walking pace. He has become aware of the process of aging, and of capturing what moments are still available. I suspect it will be another fine read.

Landfill is published by Little Toller Press

Gig Review: Edward Carey in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to hear author Edward Carey talk about his latest novel, Little. This fabulous tale tells the fictionalised life story of a young woman named Anne Marie Grosholtz who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Edward had travelled all the way from America to promote the UK release and, having read the book, I had been happy to discover that one of the stops on his tour was the always delightful Mr B’s Emporium, less than an hour’s drive from my home.

As I sipped on a well chilled glass of wine prior to the event I got into conversation with another attendee. She told me that she went to university with Edward, who she had known as John, and that she was expecting a number of their former student friends to join her for the evening. She hadn’t yet read the book which I was happy to recommend.

We were soon ushered upstairs to the bibliotherapy room, taking our seats in the intimate space to listen to Edward in discussion with a member of staff on how he came to write this particular story.

Edward told us that the book took around fifteen years to create. A number of years ago he worked in Madame Tussauds in London where his job was to ensure that the noble wax figures were protected from a disrespectful public. He was intrigued by the original models on display, especially that of an elderly Marie Tussaud which she had made.

Research for the novel included temporarily living in Paris and getting a feel for the city and its history. There were so many famous characters to learn about whose wax models Marie created. Eventually Edward stepped back from the research to write the story. He realised that this was a tale of survival, that Marie was a witness to an incredible period of history – the years leading up to and including the French Revolution.

Although a rather dry memoir was written in Victorian times, by three different men, Marie’s life remained largely undocumented. What she left behind were her wax models of the famous. Edward aimed to present a story that joined them together. There were many to incorporate. Despite being an orphan and penniless servant, Marie became part of these people’s history. She met them in life or death. She enabled those who came after to attain a feel for them as individuals.

There were details that Edward wished to share, such as that King Louis never wished to be king and was fairly hopeless in the role making many poor decisions. Louis would have preferred to be a locksmith – the Palace of Versaille still contains locks he fitted. It is known that he would go out onto the roof of the palace and shoot at the feral cats his father had introduced – in the story Marie meets him here, unaware of who he is. Whether or not Marie lived in a cupboard in the palace cannot be known but Edward was writing fiction so felt free to embellish.

Edward spoke of Marie’s encounters with Benjamin Franklin (through his hair) and Voltaire (after he died). He wished to find a new way to tell these people’s stories. To create a wax model a cast needed to be created, a process that required the subject to sit silent and still. Edward liked to imagine the tiny Marie being in charge, for a short time at least, of the likes of Napolean.

Doctor Curtius, Marie’s mentor, was a talented wax anatomist. It was he who instilled in Marie the fascination and obsession with physiology. When, as a lowly servant, she was denied access to the wax models, she would draw instead. The book’s wonderful illustrations are the author’s way of presenting how Marie dealt with the challenges and triumphs of her life. Shut away from other people these are her means of connecting with the noise and activity of the tumultuous events that surrounded her.

Edward read the passage from the book where Marie first meets Curtius. He brought the doctor to life.

All writers find ways of not writing. Edward draws, a process that enables him to physically understand his characters. He also sculpted Curtius in wax to better understand the modelling process, that he could write on the subject with some sort of authority.

Marie understands people from their notable features. Her nose and chin, from her mother and father, were her inheritance – proof that she was once loved.

Her greatest mistake was to marry Tussaud – a useless man – but she was strong and survived. She packed up the French Revolution in crates and took her figures to London, telling Tussaud she would return. In this way she gained autonomy at a time when such freedom were made difficult for any woman to achieve.

Edward has visited Times Square where an enormous gold hand holds a sign for the Madame Tussauds there. He believes this would have pleased Marie, although she would not have been so happy that her family sold the business.

Curtius and Marie were not the first to display wax models for public entertainment but they became the most famous. They recognised that people wished to see royalty, celebrities and murderers.

The French royal family would allow observers into their palace once a week to watch them eat. Marie drew this scene and wax models were made of the spectacle which the public could then touch for a fee. This removed social barriers – the whiff of somewhat scandalous behaviour generating publicity.

Over time Marie became a savvy businesswoman. By casting the famous in wax, those who believed they too were famous wished to be included and came to her.

Edward spoke with passion and vivacity, answering questions and sharing his enthusiasm for his determined little protagonist. When he moved into the adjacent room to sign books a queue quickly formed. It was good to see that he was happy to chat to each purchaser as they proffered their books.

It is always a pleasure to visit Mr B’s. This truly special bookshop is currently crowdfunding to enable them to expand. You may check out the rewards available to supporters here.

Little is published in the UK by Gallic Books. You may read my review here.

 

Gig Review: Launch Party for The Life of Almost by Anna Vaught

Last Thursday evening I travelled to Bath Spa for a book launch at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. Author Anna Vaught was celebrating the publication of her second novel, The Life of Almost, and her supporters packed the bookshop out. It was a friendly and fun event involving books, chat, readings, wine and delicious snacks. This is my sort of party.

    

Anna talked about her two published books (her first was the autobiographical¬†Killing Hapless Ally) and her writing inspirations. For The Life of Almost these were: her family; her love of Pembrokeshire; Welsh myths; Dickens’s Great Expectations.

She and two of her friends then gave readings from the book before Anna’s husband, Ned, spoke of his wife’s prolific writing and his pride in her achievements. Anna does not have a dedicated space for her craft. She writes at her kitchen table surrounded by family life. The time for this must be squeezed in around her many other commitments.

    

Questions were invited from the floor and Anna spoke of her next books. Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose Books in 2020. A fourth novel is currently out to submission and she has started writing a fifth.

In talking of her characters Anna explained that many are based on wider family members and the stories they have shared with her. She wished to capture these before they were lost. Her family do not read her books so she has few concerns about their reaction to her representations.

Anna then offered to sign books and there were a flurry of purchases before a queue formed. As it was getting late I had to slip away.

    

The Life of Almost is published by Patrician Press. Signed copies are currently available to buy at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Anna’s launch party was just one of the many enticing events in Mr B’s Autumn schedule.

Gig Review: Marcus Sedgwick in Bath

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Regular readers will be aware of how fond I am of Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights in the City of Bath. However, up until Tuesday night of this week, I had yet to attend one of their author events. I had been waiting for the right author to visit the bookshop itself, not one of the larger venues where events are sometimes held. Marcus Sedgwick, whose writing I adore, was a perfect fit.

The ticket had seemed a little pricey but included music, wine, a plentiful and delicious wintry feast, and a 15% discount on all purchases made on the night. For a full evening of such congenial entertainment it turned out to be excellent value. The size of the bibliotherapy room ensured that this was an intimate gathering, and Marcus was happy to mingle while supper was eaten.

Attendees were welcomed with a glass of wine and invited to browse the shelves before moving upstairs for the main event. This opened with music by¬†The Bookshop Band¬†who performed a specially written song about Snow. If you haven’t heard of these guys then do look out for them. They set the scene beautifully for a cosy and entertaining evening.

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Marcus was there to discuss a recently published monograph about Snow, the seventh in a series of nature themed books commissioned by Little Toller Books. He talked briefly of the work that this small publisher supports, how they have recently opened an art gallery in Devon and offer residencies to artists in the Toller valley. This helped explain the gorgeous look and feel of the book. I was privileged to have been sent an early copy Рyou may read my review here.

Marcus now lives full time in the French Alps, at a height equivalent to the peak of Snowdon. He talked of how science has proved that the natural world has health benefits, how exercise outside is more beneficial than in a gym, and how hospital patients on the sunny side of a hospital ward respond better to treatment. Our emotional response to natural events remains childlike throughout our lives. We point out a rainbow, a sunset, heavy rainfall or a covering of snow. Businesses monetise this when they charge more for a room with a view.

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As well as the science of snow, Marcus talked of its inclusion in literature. He mentioned his favourite book, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which is set in and around a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Living where he does he understands the pleasure of the rarefied mountain air and the introspective world he can enjoy in such a remote location.

Marcus talked of his interest in etymology and the century long debate over how many words the Innuit people have for snow. He pondered why the early explorers to the poles chose to risk their lives to bag a world first, and how only now are some of their remains being located. The indigenous people could have shared this knowledge much earlier but few were willing to listen, convinced as they were of their own superiority.

There was mention of climate change, of how much less snow now falls, how when it does there is a muffling of the regular world as a cleansed pallet is offered. It is also, of course, a danger. The music of Schubert evokes this darkness.

There were many more questions but much of what Marcus revealed is covered in the book which I recommend you read. He writes so beautifully and this is obviously a subject close to his heart.

The evening ended with a signing and I was delighted when Marcus drew a little snowflake in my book. He is a warm and fascinating speaker. This was a special event.

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Snow is published by Little Toller Books and is available to buy now.

Looking forward to #BookshopDay

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Saturday 8th October is 2016’s Bookshop Day in the British Isles. I plan on visiting my local Waterstones and hope to pick up the specially designed Books Are My Bag Winnie-the-Pooh tote, and to fill it with some new books of course.

In previous years I have travelled to Bath, the closest city to where I live. I wrote this piece for the blog on their official online tourist information site, Visit Bath back in 2015.

Bath is for Bibliophiles!

Book lovers love Bath, and with good reason. Want to buy books? Find them in the impressive range of bookshops. Want to meet the authors? Order a ticket for one of the many events which happen throughout the year.

The Bath Literature Festival runs for ten days in early spring and offers audiences a chance to listen to and interact with many of the big names in books, as well as lesser known and local talent.

The Bath Kids Literature Festival, also a ten day event, runs in early autumn and offers a wide and eclectic range of lively book themed events to keep all ages entertained.

These annual extravaganzas generate a buzz which is fun to be a part of, but literary events are happening in Bath all year round. Thanks to the efforts of two of the city’s fabulous independent bookshops there are a variety of both small gatherings and larger fixtures to appeal to all interests.

Toppings

Topping and Company Booksellers (pictured above) offer the quintessential bookshop experience, with shelves and tables overflowing with tempting choices, and friendly, knowledgeable staff always available to help guide customers to their next great read.

Regular events offer access to a range of authors, with the cost of tickets refundable against the cost of the book being discussed. Some of these are intimate affairs are held within the shop, while others are staged in larger venues nearby.

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Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights (pictured below) offers not just a range of carefully chosen books in their three floored warren of a shop, but also the option to buy someone you love the gift of a Reading Spa or a Year of Books. These include a consultation with a bibliotherapist to ensure that each recommendation will delight the recipient.

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Where better to find a bath full of books than in a Bath bookshop? Meander through their various rooms and look out for the quirky displays: a customer toilet that has been decorated by the Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell; a stairway papered with Tintin comics; a ceiling decorated with book themed tote bags. The shop is a relaxing haven for booklovers. Take a comfy chair by the fire, pour yourself a complimentary cup of coffee, and check out that book you know you want to buy.

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Mr B’s events are often intimate gatherings, enabling the audience to enter into discussions and interact with the author; some of them are even free to attend. They are held in various locations, including the shop’s own bibliotherapy room, with larger gatherings scheduled at alternative venues.

All of these events may be booked online. If you are planning a trip to the city then check out what is going on while you are here. You may just be tempted to make this the primary reason for your visit.

Jackie Law is a wife, mother, hen keeper and writer who lives in a small village east of Bath. She is an avid reader and publishes book reviews and other related posts on her blog. She is easily distracted, especially by Twitter, where you can follow her: @followthehens.    

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When I wrote this piece I had yet to discover the delights of Waterstones which I now know is another beautifully laid out bookshop that hosts excellent author events. It has friendly, welcoming staff and a coffee shop with free wifi.

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The central shopping area in Bath is compact for a city, giving visitors the chance to easily explore all three of these booklover’s oases.

Which bookshops will you be visiting this weekend?

Bath is for Bibliophiles!

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Today I am over at the Insider’s Guide, the blog for Visit Bath – The Official Tourist Information Site for Bath Tourism.

I am writing about¬†‘why the city is perfect for bookworms’.

You can pop across to check out my post by clicking on this link: Bath is for Bibliophiles!