Thursday, 21 March 2013

Pauline Fisk Asks What Makes An Author Electric?



I’m asked to read a book that comes highly commended.  The author is visiting Shrewsbury for an event in the town library, and I’m invited to attend. I’m a cussed so-and-so who knows what she likes when it comes to reading - and it’s more often than not not the book that someone recommends. Despite all this, however, I decide to give the book a go.  Then, me being me, I forget all about it. A couple of weeks later, I’m reminded by the Library Service that the book’s still waiting to be picked up so, feeling sheepish, I go to collect it. After all, the library is almost next door.  [That was one of the selling points when I bought my house.]  It’s not as if I have far to go.

I find the book waiting with my name on it. A librarian hands it over and my heart sinks.  The author is coming to town, and I’m bound to be introduced and what am I going to say to him if I don’t like his book? Just because it’s published by the same publisher as mine doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good.

The cover’s a pinkish-red with a cartoon-type black silhouette on it. I'm not sure about that.  I've never much cared for  cartoony-type covers. I slink away only slightly mollified by the word ‘river’ featuring in the title. I’ve had wild swimming dreams from childhood onwards, many featuring rivers, and have even written a series of novels about rivers myself.

Heading for the entrance, I turn over the book and read the blurb on the back. Imperceptibly something tightens inside of me.  I can feel it happening. Something is stirring. The word ‘souls’ is mentioned - and I’m a sucker for souls. Then there’s the word  ‘enter’, which in connection with the word ‘water’ has a certain resonance. Then the numbers nine and fourteen get a mention and - for what reason I can’t begin to know – they suddenly take on an auspicious glow.  Just a handful of words, but they’ve done what blurbs are meant to do.

I’m in.

I make the short walk home reading all the way.  By the time I shut the front door behind me, I know the author’s history and what he’s written before.  I take the book upstairs and attempt to settle in the sunshine on the sofa by the window.  But by the end of the first page of the Prologue, I have to break off to email the library service:

Can you arrange for me to interview this man? 

How do I know when a book just might happen to be special? How is that information conveyed at such speed? Is there a scent that blows off the paper? An electric charge when the page is turned? A secret code embedded in the print? Whatever it is, by the end of a couple more pages I’m getting the message. I read, put down, pick up, gaze into space, read again, get up, walk about. I’m being drawn in too fast here. I have to do things like this to slow down. Galloping through a book may be fun, but equally fun is savouring the ride.

In the end, I abandon the sofa and head down to the local coffee shop on Castle Gates where I can sit invisibly in the window behind plate glass.  This is one of my favourite places.  There’s better coffee to be had here than anywhere else, and I love the fug of voices and tinned music, and the cheek-by-jowl sense of all Shrewsbury passing the door, either uphill to the shops or downhill to the station. Sitting in the window with a book clutched in my hand I always have a great reading experience.  Now, even more so, I feel at the heart of something.  A storm is blowing up through the pages and I’m caught in its eye, in that still, small place where the voice of the author is like the voice of God, and whatever he’s whispering I know I have to hear.

Do you want to know how special this book is turning out to be [I'm on Chapter Four now and it still looks great]? When I do something that usually only happens when I write, I know I'm really enjoying a book. I'm talking about reading out loud. If you’re an author, do you do it too? Do you beat out your writing aloud, sentence by sentence and word by word?  This is something I’ve done so often, and for so many years, that I’ve become completely unaware of the low, growled mumble coming out of my mouth.  In fact, I’m doing it now as I write this post, and I know I was doing it in the coffee shop earlier on. Even when I forced myself to shut up, my lips still mouthed and the words still came out silently.  

This is a real compliment to my as yet unnamed author because usually I read at scanning pace, pounding down the lines, jumping from paragraph to paragraph, photographic in my clamour to devour the story and answer the question what happens next.  It’s a rare book indeed where the words are so powerful in the way they’re placed that I don’t give a damn about the next page. But that’s what’s happening today. I hit the Prologue running, and slowed down by the end of Chapter One. By half way through Chapter Five, I was reading out loud. And now that I've reached Chapter Six, I’m putting down the book more and more in order to savour. How can I let this book be read [past tense]? How can I let reading it become something I once did [more past tense]? How can I hold onto it as something I’m discovering – and continue to discover - in the here and now? How can I keep it in the here and now?

I remember reading Lord of the Rings for the first time one summer holiday, sentence by sentence, fuelled by Smarties [at eighteen I was still a big kid], mumbled out loud under my bedcovers, refusing to come out until the whole book was done.  It’s how I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, falling asleep at night with it in my arms like an adult comfort blanket, reading and reading, holding onto and holding onto as if the experience of reading meant as much as the book itself. 

I’m not saying this book is on a par with either of these. Of course I'm not. This author may have moments when he sounds like Flannery O’Conner and Tim Winton rolled into one [with a bit of Ray Bradbury thrown in for good measure], but his photograph is of a young man, successful maybe and hungry for more, but with his greatest triumphs yet ahead of him, I suspect. 

What I am saying though, is that my coffee’s cold. The sun’s moved round. I’ve been at this seat by the window for some time now whilst whole swathes of people have come and gone. And here I am, feeling that old excitement again, losing myself in a world of someone else’s making.   

This is what a good book does.  I don’t even know if it’s worth telling you what this one is called.  Everybody’s experience of what makes a good book is so different. One person’s Gabriel Marquez is another’s, oh, I don’t know, Daphne du Maurier. A couple of months ago I wrote an article that likened books to works of art hanging on gallery walls.  I was writing on the subject of the value we put on words, and this seems to have set off something inside of me. I’ve been thinking about words ever since, and the value we put on books.

Certainly I’ll buy this one on Kindle before handing it back to the library.  It may yet disappoint me - who knows how this author will pull off what he’s begun – but I want a copy anyway. Sometimes I rattle on about e-books and the future of publishing, about authors’ rights and readers’ rights and all of that.  But behind my words, like silent sentinels, stand the books. Wherever they come from, in whatever format they’re read, whatever their genre, whether they be funny, painful, joyous or bleak – what a world we live in that renews itself by means of books. How privileged we are as readers to have access to them, and may we always do so [there are battles here that need to be fought]. And how privileged we are as authors to have written or be writing them. How privileged I am. Whatever form of publication my books may take, it only needs one reader to react the way I’ve just done to Peter Murphy’s book, and I'm an electric author too.

PS. ‘Shall We Gather At The River’ is published by Faber & Faber.  Will I still be raving by the time I finish reading? Let’s hope so because the interview’s fixed up.












9 comments:

Lee said...

What a lovely post! And one for my to-be-ordered list. Thanks.

(Though I'm not entirely convinced that 'everyone's experience of what makes a good book is so different.' We are not as individual - or unique - as is currently customary to believe.)

julia jones said...

Wonderful - a tingle on the pulses. What a great moment, thanks for sharing this

Lydia Bennet said...

Lovely post, a love letter to books and what they, and their authors, do for us. I love to be right into a book, now I get the same from my kindle! While obsessed with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels and reading them repeatedly, I became so much a part of their world (Napoleonic War English navy at sea) that I found myself saying at a party, to someone with an affliction of the hand, 'oh, Stephen has a specimen with that, he got it from a hanged man on the gallows' and then realising I was talking about someone fictional... I've been re-reading all Ngaio Marsh's crime novels, and apart from some rather cringe-making attitudes due to the time they were written, am blown away by her writing and often find myself saying out loud some particularly astonishingly beautiful phrase.

Kathleen Jones said...

You convinced me! Just downloaded a sample.

Pauline Fisk said...

Yes indeed, a bit of a love letter to books. And Lee, as well as thank you for your kind words and hoping you'll enjoy the book if you ever get to read it, just to let you kow I've left a comment on Julia's last post about the Perrie Lecture website, which may or may not help your enquiry over books about the effects of prison on inmates. If there's nothing on the site that's helpful, it's an interesting one to know about anyway if you're interested in prison life etc.

Reb MacRath said...

Pauline, this is the loveliest piece I've ever read about the reading experience--and what we feel when we know that a good new writer 'has' us. Sometimes, as they say, at Hello. Thanks so much.

Lee said...

Hi Pauline, thanks for the Perrie Lectures link, which is definitely worth knowing about.

Have you read Murphy's first novel? I've decided to begin there, since it's much cheaper secondhand!

Pauline Fisk said...

No, I haven't Lee - but I'd like to before the interview. Not that I have long. Glad you like the Perrie Lecture link. If that sort of thing interests you, you might also like the interview I conducted with Shrewsbury's Governor, which was before the last prisoner was moved out prior to the prison's closure:

http://mytonightfromshrewsbury.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/we-are-shrewsbury-in-hmp-shrewsbury.html

Pauline Fisk said...

Reb, I can't help but take that as a compliment, for which I say thank you. It's as good to know that someone 'gets' what you're saying as it is to be 'got' by what someone else is saying - and now, in the same blog post, I've experienced both. And there I was worrying that I'd nothing to write about this month. It's amazing what comes when you sit down in front of a screen.