Thursday, 30 March 2017

Starting again by Valerie Bird




My latest book, ‘Incident on the Line’ is now published in paperback and as an eBook / iBook on Amazon, so what comes next?
Incident on the Line by Valerie Bird


Starting again, a new novel, and, as before, all the questions and worries crop up. It began with a scene, an image so clear in my head that it transposed into words with relative ease. What has happened and how it will reverberate into a story is clear. I know the reason who did what to whom and why. I have an outline of a plot.
      The characters are coming alive, they’re doing what they want, taking me to places, with thoughts and conversations I hadn't originally envisaged. Apart from the old problem of lacking confidence, fear that I cannot do this, and how do I stay focused and calm to keep writing, I am excited.
      This is a love story which should not have happened. It will not be a romance though; happy endings seldom convince me. Even in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ which I’ve recently been rereading, our great novelist does not give much time for the lovers to come together, it’s all rather cursory. The reader is not offered that final love scene and is left with a nasty feeling that our heroine, Fanny, sweet, frail girl that she is, will die during her first pregnancy and childbirth.



The ‘how it came about’, the consequences for those involved, are what I’m writing about.The tale has broadened out; there are more characters involved; they keep popping up. I begin to worry; this must not become a family saga.
      There are family sagas which I would commend. ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler cleverly takes us forward and back as well as exploring each character in some detail. Its main success for me was when, half way through, it jumps back in time, away from the woman who you have believed is the central character. It was unexpected and, with this knowledge, it added another layer to all the characters you already thought you knew.
      The lesson here is that more than one central character can work.


Anne Enright’s ‘The Green Road’ was another revelation. Set in Ireland, the mother is the main protagonist. Her bitterness and influence on her four children is the main focus for the novel. Each of those characters’ lives are given equal value though, a separate chapter where the reader meets and gets to know them before we see them sparring off each other. The chapter on Dan, the eldest, tells us about the gay community in New York during the initial Aids epidemic. Our sympathies are allowed to lie with these people and their situation. As if we have short stories of separate people embedded and linked.
      Strong supporting characters, or more than one protagonist, works.



As you would expect, my new novel is all becoming much more complicated. The initial scene is set in this year, 2016. Then it goes back to 1938 and on, with references to characters’ lives before the 1st World War.
      These time shifts will need careful handling. ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr is a marvellous example of this technique. The novel starts in St Malo in 1944, goes back to 1937 and on, though frequently switches back to the situation during the beginning of the retaking of the city. It is clearly signposted and keeps the reader on tenterhooks.
      Can I aim for the techniques of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel? Yes, isn’t that what we are always attempting?



My main fear is authenticity, the amount of research required for me to feel secure. The image of the iceberg comes to mind, the amount unseen below in comparison to that small peak appearing above the water. To make the reader believe they are there with those people, in that place, at that time.
           
Is it worth a whole project? Ought I to be doing something else? There are those half finished poems, short stories which I want to complete. I understand Sebastian Barry talking about ‘the hunger to write’ when we are involved in other tasks. So I ought to finish this blog. Make a plan, a schedule, that’s the answer. Perhaps I’ll start on that first.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Spring: N M Browne

‘APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.’

I never used to agree with old TS Eliot. As a young woman, I never thought April  cruel. I was largely an optimist, given to romantic melancholy but nothing worse. As an older woman and a writer, I would concede that all that bursting and budding could leave a writer feeling uncreative and inadequate.  But then pretty well anything can make a writer feel uncreative and inadequate in my experience. 
   This year though, as March fades and Brexit is triggered, the prospect of April is disturbing; I can see cruelty in its false promise. With Trump in the White House, sunshine and daffodils reminds me of the opening shots of a disaster movie, the beautiful before. I can almost hear the elegaic music, the lingering, loving camera shots before a tidal wave, or a nuclear winter destroys the lot. I should  come clean and confess that  I am still editing an old  post apocalyptic, climate change novel of mine, but, with the newspapers full of Trump's decision to abandon Obama’s climate legislation and our own country likely to abandon our commitment to  European environmental standards, it is not just the novel that is stimulating my millenarian tendencies. 
     As April springs into view,  I am reminded of a writing exercise I sometimes set students. They are required to imagine a scene and to describe it first from the point of view of someone excited to meet a lover there, then to describe the same scene from the point of view of someone bereaved. We humans rarely see anything objectively. Today the world feels a little like a scene from a film, set in 1913, every shot infused with nostalgia for the last days of a particular type of innocence. 

    I know that I am not the only one, watching events unfold through the lens of future history, fearful that fact will deliver the kind of disaster usually confined to fiction. Perhaps this is nothing more than common or garden political disquiet, a writer’s tendency towards drama, a momentary mood. Let's all hope it is nothing other than middle aged anxiety and a harbinger of nothing more than a glorious summer. Meanwhile, I am in the perfect state of mind to finish my post apocalyptic novel. Who said I wasn't an optimist?

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Terrorism, Alien Gender Issues and Unbound, by Enid Richemont.

I am starting my blog on the day after the terrorist attack in Westminster, once more full of thoughts about life, death and the little deities we invent in order to make sense of our existence on this small planet. The guy who did this clearly thought his life was worth sacrificing in order to murder a few of the people he imagined were offending his god by not actually believing in him (although the latest evidence suggests that he actually enjoyed hurting people regardless of their beliefs or lack of them, and had already been banged up for GBH.)
      It seems to me, however, that if you're a real god, one who'd actually created universes etc etc, you'd be somewhat above being offended by the manners of mere mortals. But then, gods need believers, otherwise, like Peter Pan's fairies, they might cease to exist (cf Terry Pratchett's "SMALL GODS")  Mr Pratchett, regrettably no longer with us, always got these things quite uncomforably, but always amusingly, right.


This is the cover image of my new little book "AHMED and the NEW BOY" (my preferred title: "AHMED and the ALIEN", but maybe this is more accessble to young readers). No one, including the teacher - well, especially the teacher - seems to notice that the new 'boy' is green, and has antennae. This is true diversity and inclusivity, although I do wonder who, and indeed, how, the alien's gender has been determined - aliens, after all, are not kittens. My original character had no discernible gender as I felt that beings evolving on Planet Zog might have turned out differently, and maybe had three or more genders or even none at all. However, you may be pleased to learn that this particular alien turns out to be very good at football, although not very much else, so possibly an accurate analogy to certain-type Earthlings.

I am still hovering on the brink of publishing a curious adult novel with Unbound. The manuscript has been accepted by them, and they are picky - they even had a Booker author on their list. I'm daunted by the self-publicity, though, which apparently is very hard work. There was an interesting article by Alice Jolly, in the recent edition of "The Author", (the journal of the Society of Authors) who published a memoir with them. She has a lot of interesting things to say about the way publishing is going. To quote Alice: Unbound does book production to the same standard as a big publisher. They edit, proofread, design the cover and produce the ebook version. They also deal with marketing and publicity, presumably all this after the book has acquired the necessary funding - in my case, £4000, which does seem like a helluva lot to raise when I could set up the whole thing myself for peanuts. I've just been on its site, though, and picked up on the illustrated chronicles of Donaeld the Unready, the Best Medieval King out there. He's got great swords, everyone says so. Fake chronicles everywhere. Fight back against Mad Monk Bede and his Twisty Scribings. Love it! Feel Mr Trump has a second life, after impeachment, as a comedy act.

http://www.enidrichemont.org.uk



 

Monday, 27 March 2017

Attending the LBF on Twitter - Andrew Crofts


This year I decided to stay home and follow the London Book Fair on Twitter.

I can’t remember when I first attended the show. It could be as long as thirty years ago. Then it seemed impossibly daunting. So many thousands of books being promoted, none of them by me; so many people who all seemed to know each other well enough to air-kiss or hold intense meetings.

I wandered the aisles downstairs among the publishers for hours and then bluffed my way past the guards upstairs to wander among the agents as they haggled over foreign rights, overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.



Authors were not expected to attend in those days, so at least I had rarity on my side, but no one really wanted to talk to me either, fearful that I might pitch an idea or ask what had happened to my outstanding royalties.

Once I became more established and had relationships with half a dozen agents and half a dozen publishers, the experience became less overwhelming. I actually had meetings to attend and sometimes I even got to appear on a panel. Now when I walked the aisles I would bump into people I knew and I could exchange air-kisses of my own. One year I even over-nighted in London in order to attend two days in a row because I had so many people to see.

But still the facts remain; I became a writer for many reasons, some of which involve not having to walk around Earls Court or Olympia for hours on end, not having to be jostled by crowds, not having to queue to buy mass-produced food which I then have to consume standing up, or fight for a few inches at a table.

I have also become spoiled in my old age. If I have to eat in company I would prefer it to be somewhere where I will get plenty of elbow room and plenty of nice people constantly asking if I need anything and keeping my glass topped up.

In a remarkable and welcome change of emphasis, writers are now positively fawned over at LBF, which means that hundreds of them turn up and there is no rarity value to me being there any more. I am rather afraid of going anywhere where I will be confronted by the inescapable evidence of how many of us there are frantically chasing the same dreams.

It was only by accident that I discovered that almost everyone I follow on Twitter was either involved in the LBF or attending, so by following them I was able to feel like I was there while still fitting a few hours of writing and a few hours of gardening into the day – plus a bit of an after-lunch  kip.

Maybe next year I’ll feel ready to tackle the real thing again.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

For Derek Walcott, from Chicago by Dipika Mukherjee

On June 6, 2013, the Poetry Foundation in Chicago hosted the Chicago segment of the Poetry Society of America's 2013 national series, Yet Do I Marvel: Black Iconic Poets of the Twentieth Century. I spoke about Derek Walcott's poetry influencing my own creativity.



I chose to speak about Derek Walcott, for Chicago is as much home to me as is Kuala Lumpur and New Delhi, so I chose Walcott, another nomad poet, who writes about exile and politics and a post-colonial identity in a voice resonant with many languages. He claims the brilliance of a monsoon sky while in the bonechilling winds of an American winter. Although Walcott is of a generation earlier than mine his concerns remain relevant to the generation that comes after me. The world still remains divided by wars, endangered by racial violence and religious distrust...and still, driven by greed.

There were years when I could not write creatively at all...except for poetry. In my twenties, as a young mother of two little boys, while straining to complete a PhD in an alien city in Texas, I read Walcott's poetry and wrote my own. I am aware of the charges of sexual harassment plaguing Walcott's career and they make me very uncomfortable as a woman and a poet. But it is also true that he influenced my early writing in a way that is undeniable.

Walcott’s sensibility, as he speaks of the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and America with equal familiarity, negotiating the difficult and often dangerously fraught spaces in between, spoke to me. In A Far Cry From Africa he wrestles with writing in the colonial language:


...I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?
Walcott’s poems sing, even when they are full of pain. As a child, I was brought up on Bengali poetry written by another Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, whose poems are literally sung in the homes of West Bengal and of Bangladesh; even the Bengali diaspora sings this poetry. I grew up with an appreciation of the musicality of poetry, but from poets like Walcott and Tagore, I learned how to form words to be the change in this world, to create beauty even when there is great despair. Years later, at an APWT literary festival in Thailand, I would heard Kim Jong Il’s former court-poet read a poem about a woman selling her daughter in a marketplace (the child is bought by a soldier), and it moved the jaded international audience in a way news reports rarely do. At a literary festival in Myanmar, fiery poet-monks in red spoke about the value of poetry in challenging notions of nationalism.


It is impossible to talk of Walcott without Omeros. For six years I worked in Leiden, an ancient cobblestoned city of poetry, the birthplace of Rembrandt. Poems in different languages are inscribed on street corners, and on the walls of the KITLV library I would come face to face with these lines from Omeros every single day:




In this, there is the heart of an exile, the enchantment of a journey, the simple joys of land and sea over the trappings of entrenched power. My first poetry book is titled “The Palimpsest of Exile”.

In my own nomadic journey, I have found Chicago In Walcott’s, Midsummer Poems:

Chicago’s avenues, as white as Poland.
A blizzard of heavenly coke hushes the ghettos.
The scratched sky flickers like a TV set.


New Delhi’s summer-to-monsoon season is in these words from The Prodigal:

... Things burn for days . . .
then the rain begins to come in paragraphs
and hazes this page, hazes the grey of islets,
the grey of eyes, the rainstorm’s wild-haired beauty

Now that Walcott is gone, I think of White Egrets, a remarkable book written when he was 80. The last poem in White Egrets is Untitled, as death tends to be, reducing us all to a memory to be slowly erased. But Walcott’s words sing of the resurgent creative power of the word, the sheer magic of creating a vision on white paper with only black lines and creating a “self-naming” universe as real as the one we live in, with clouds and mountains and villages:

54.

...and the whole self-naming island, its ochre verges,
its shadow-plunged valleys and a coiled road
threading the fishing villages, the white, silent surges
of combers along the coast, where a line of gulls has arrowed
into the widening harbour of a town with no noise,
its streets growing closer like a print you can now read,
two cruise ships, schooners, a tug, ancestral canoes,
as a cloud slowly covers the page and it goes
white again and the book comes to a close.

I end here, on this resounding tribute to the immortality of the word, of poetry. There can be no death here, no silence.



Dipika Mukherjee’s second novel, Shambala Junction, will be released in the US in April 2017; it won the Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016), and is available in bookstores now. It is being released as an Audible book on March 28, 2017. 
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Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Pain of Titles by Susan Price

It's still sharper than my sight without my specs
Over the past year I've been trying - with a satisfying amount of success - to make my garden more attractive to wildlife. By which I mean birds, frogs, newts, that sort of wild life and not certain friends. (Apologies for the photo's poor quality - new camera that I've not got the hang of yet.) 
     Chatting recently to my agent about the possibility of selling a non-fiction book, I happened to mention this. My agent was interested. A non-fiction book for children on the how and why of 'creating a wild-life garden.' She could get behind a book like that.
     Ah, but what to call it? It's one of the banes of a writer's existence that books and articles have to have titles.
       I started the book with the working title 'Why You Should Make a Wildlife Garden.' But this very blog's own Karen Bush strongly objected to this on the grounds that it sounded so boringly educational and worthy that it would be avoided by all. She suggested, 'Go Wild in Your Garden,' which I'll admit is a whole lot better and less dull than mine but I'm still not totally convinced it's right.

     Aren't titles a pain?

Christopher Uptake

     I've never found them easy and most of my titles have been argued over for ages or invented by other people. I wish I didn't have to think of titles. I used to like the way the TV series, Friends titled their episodes: 'The One About - ' or 'The One Where - '  I wish I could publish my books as, for instance, 'The One That's Sort of Based A Bit on Christopher Marlowe but Not Really.' Publishers never seem to go for that kind of title though.

I remember having a terrible struggle to come up with the title 'The Sterkarm Handshake.' The German translation is called 'The Time Tunnel' and that was one of the many, many titles I came up with. I remember having pages of them.
     In the story one character tells another that the Sterkarms have more left-handers among them than most families and because they are notorious for double-dealing and treachery there is a local proverb, 'Never shake hands with a Sterkarm.' It's said that they will smile and shake hands on a deal with their right hand, but draw their dagger with their left and stab you.
     The Sterkarm family badge shows a hand holding a dagger. Their enemies say the hand shown is a left hand and the badge exemplifies the Sterkarms' untrustworthiness. Their enemies call the badge, 'the Sterkarm handshake.'
The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price
     I jotted down 'Sterkarm Handshake' as one possible title and as I battled with rewrites and edits, this phrase began to seem, to me, to be the ideal title. One of the main themes of the book, after all, was treachery and double-dealing of one kind and another, by one party or another, and the phrase
summed that up. I also liked the rhythm and thought it was odd enough to create a curiosity in the reader.
     So, when I submitted the final draft, it was with the title, The Sterkarm Handshake.
     And the publishers hated it. Back and forth went the emails. It was too obscure. It wasn't a 'selling title.'
     I sent them my long, long list of possible titles and said: Choose one you do like.
     And then, suddenly, collapse of stout party. The publishers got back to me saying that after reading my exhaustive list of titles and talking among themselves, they'd come to the conclusion that The Sterkarm Handshake couldn't be bettered. It might be awful, but still couldn't be bettered. So that's the title that stuck.

I called the second book in the series, A Sterkarm Kiss. Without giving away too much of the plot, one reviewer remarked that 'a Sterkarm kiss is every bit as anti-social as a Sterkarm handshake.' They are the Sterkarm versions of a handshake and a kiss, that's the idea.
     This time the publishers had no problem with the title, but I have never heard the last of it from my partner. He has never written a book but this in no way discourages him from telling me how to write them. The title 'A Sterkarm Kiss,' would lose me readers, he said. Any mention of kisses, apparently, is just too girly to be stomached, and the title would cause every single potential reader of the male persuasion to run away in horror without looking back.
A Sterkarm Kiss by Susan Price
     Despite the fact that Sterkarm Kiss has sold pretty well over the years, and presumably not only to soppy girlies, he has not altered his postion on the title one iota and restates it every time any mention of the book comes up.  (Just in case there are such men as he describes in existence let me repeat: a Sterkarm handshake is a stab in the belly. In similar vein, A Sterkarm kiss has nothing to do with snogging. It's a little like a 'Gorbals' kiss': a head butt in the face.)

But in my partner's favour, he did give me the title for the third book in the series.
     It took me a long, long time to write and choosing a title was the usual hard graft. It was going to be 'Sterkarm something,' in keeping with the other books, but Sterkarm what?
     For a long time, it was 'Sterkarm 3.' Then a reader asked, since the first two books had moved from a handshake to a kiss, was the third book going to be called 'A Sterkarm Shag'? (For non-UK readers, a 'shag' is not only a seabird related to the cormorant but British slang for 'sexual intercourse,' as the dictionary puts it.) This amused me and for another long time, my working title was 'Sterkarm Shag.'
A Sterkarm Tryst by Susan Price
     But there came the time when I had to submit the book and come up with a serious title. (Although undoubtedly a 'selling title, at least in the UK, I didn't think the publishers would accept 'A Sterkarm Shag.')
     So I called it 'A Sterkarm Embrace.' In fact, the first cover roughs have this as the title. But I was never happy with it. The rhythm was wrong: the ending of the phrase is weak.
     Then my partner suggested 'A Sterkarm Tryst.' As I turned this over in my mind, it seemed better and better. Its rhythm was better than 'embrace.' Then, 'tryst' has romantic associations and there is a romantic thread in the book. 'Tryst' has other, unromantic meanings - it was, originally, an appointed meeting place for members of a hunt. It also became the name for the great meetings of cattle-drovers and dealers in the north, and the Sterkarms were cattle-farmers as well as reivers. It's also capable of taking another meaning: a Sterkarm tryst is an appointed meeting place that only one side knows about - an ambush.
     The publishers, Open Road, were agreeable, and so the third book was published as A Sterkarm Tryst.
     "But you should get them to change the title of the second one," my indefatigable partner says. "'Kiss.' That's no good. You should change it." Ten years or more since it was first published and I have never once agreed with him and yet he will not give it a rest. Titles are a pain.

     I once published a book for children of 8-10 about a bogle or house-spirit. I called it Hairy Bill, after a genuinely folkloric bogle whose Gaelic name translated as 'Hairy.' My partner was very happy with this title.  It struck him, for some reason, as very perfection in a title.
     The book also featured, besides the bogle, a motorcycle riding witch called Olly Spellmaker and I later wrote a couple of other books about her, called Olly Spellmaker and the Sulky Smudge and Olly Spellmaker: Elf Alert!
    My publishers decided to package the books as a trilogy and wanted to retitle the first book to make it fit better with the other titles. So they retitled it Olly Spellmaker and the Hairy Horror. My partner has never forgiven this sacrilege, or forgotten. If ever anything reminds him of these books, I get, "You should never have let them change that title. It was better before they changed it. That was the perfect title."
     A pain, I tell you. In all kinds of ways, titles are a pain.


Friday, 24 March 2017

Roads less taken, Jo Carroll

I'm home from Malawi, and have begun the process of teasing stories out of the scribbles in my notebooks. For there are stories - of generous, welcoming people who spend three rainy months of the year working their socks off to grow food, and the rest of the time eking out whatever they have grown. There are stories of people starting schools under trees. There are stories of people trying to provide health care with no running water. There are stories off illegal logging and people trying to plant new trees. There are stories of aid agencies, with their baseline studies and conferences. There are stories of lions and hippos and fish eagles.

So you can see why I might be struggling to shape this into some sort of coherence that can hold together in a narrative. Bear with me, I'll get there.

Meanwhile, I think these three pictures illustrate something of my dilemmas.





This is the M1, previously known as the Great North Road. It is the main road north from Lilongwe, the capital. It's much busier further south. Well, if a gaggle of bicycles and a couple of minibuses can be called busy. But who wouldn't want to drive up here to see what you might find?


Or walk along this wooden walkway to see what you might by hiding? But there's a lake nearby, so best keep your eyes open for snakes and crocodiles.



And this path? Has this been made by people? Or animals? It's surely tempting to stroll down here,  binoculars in hand, to look for bulbuls and louries. But be careful: there are jaguars and hyenas here.

Every path has its excitements and its pitfalls. A bit like my stories.