Wednesday, 29 January 2020

The World Divides: N M Browne

William Blake: The Ancient of Days

The World divides into people who bisect the world into categories and those who don’t. I have always belonged to the former category because I like the melodrama of it.
The world divides into those who love their coffee black and strong and those who don’t. Obviously, there is an implication that the only choice of any merit is that shared by the speaker or why else would they chose such an excessively self-important way of presenting what is nothing more than a mild preference for one food, book, life -style choice over another? Sometimes the divide is more useful as in Hollingdale’s [1]division of children’s critics into book people ( those concerned with literary quality) and children people, ( who prioritise its effect on the child) but in general I recognise my propensity to think this way as a failure, a reminder of the arrogant intellectual certainties of my youth, or worse, the totalitarian mindset of those who are not with us are against us.
   Writers are the worst kind of group to divide up in this way in any case. We can theoretically be divided into planners and non-planners/pantsers but so many of us part plan, part make it up as we go along/read the answer on the back of muesli packets/ get struck by inspiration on the District Line that any explanation of a person’s working method is a blogpost if not a substantial work of fiction in itself.
 I used to think that writers also divided into 'word people' or 'plot people' and, in those simple days, I placed myself firmly in the plot  category. My agent, rather brutally I thought, described me as a story teller and I was rather proud of this no-nonsense, workmanlike moniker. Not for me the angst of balanced sentences, the agony inherent in the pursuit of style, no, I rode my words as a workhorse, galloping through ideas for the glory of story alone. I’m not sure if that ever really characterised what I did, but it fulfilled the useful function of keeping the words flowing and self-doubt at bay.
  Then, a few years ago, I decided that my life and my writing would be improved by poetry. Well, that was my first mistake: my second was trying to write it.
  Change did not happen straight away, but gradually my story workhorse developed ideas above its station: Shrek’s mule has become a head-tossing show pony and I’m left tugging futilely at the reins. It has been a disaster.
  From this I derive two important lessons. First, stick to a metaphor which works for you and don’t change it. Second, if your world divides into the kind of people who like poetry or prose – stick to the prose.
Of course, if you are a writer, you will take no notice because there is no damn divide! There is just the empty page and the endless possibility of the words you have to find to fill it. The world divides into those who love that thought and those that hate it…




[1] Hollindale, Peter, Signs of Childness in Children’s Books (United Kingdom: Thimble Press, 1997)


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

New Year, World War 3, twins and the forgettability of some novels, by Enid Richemont.

Happy New Year to you all (here are some lizards having a party with some rather nice-looking cake to help you celebrate) although by the time this blog comes out, the new year will already be almost a month old.

It began badly, with the probably illegal assassination of a very bad man. I have no tears for him, but it happened via very Twenty-First Century technology - the attack directed from very far away from the target - reminding me disturbingly of the ethical issues raised in the film "DRONE", and of how we sat in the cinema rigid with fear for the little girl who kept returning to the target zone in spite of heroic efforts on the ground to keep her out of it. This guy was no innocent child, but he was in another country, and this was an invasion of its air space. Once, a long time ago, an equally unlovely guy called Hitler decided to invade Poland, thus starting the second world war. None of the protagonists in the current drama wants an outcome like that, but sometimes things just get out of control, and like many of us, I'm scared.

Back to a much nicer subject - books. I was given quite a lot at Christmas, considering my reading pace which is slow. The last one I opened was Audrey Niffenegger's latest novel: "HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY", which I'm now quite a way through - it's certainly a page-turner. Curiously, for me, it features twins - curiously, because one the the last novels I read in 2019 was Linda Gillard's magnificent "A LIFETIME BURNING", on the Kindle, which also features twins.

There's something about that bond between identical twins that fascinates. What must it be like to see your own face reflected in another's? The closest I ever got to exploring that in my work was my junior novel "TWICE TIMES DANGER", but the two girls in my story weren't actually twins, but doubles, which apparently can happen, so they say. Whether it's true or not, it's a good theme for a story. Which has me wondering about similar bonds between triplets/ quadruplets... and then to John Wyndham's scary SF novel "THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS". It's been a long time since I read it, but did those perfect blonde children have a collective intelligence?

And again on books - which ones do you remember and maybe go back to, like very old friends, and which do you read, enjoy and forget? I spent a lot of time at Christmas reading a very long Middle Grade novel (which shall be nameless for obvious reasons). I chose to read it as an ebook for personal study, because it's very popular with kids, so I felt it was something I should know about.

I was interested in the author's technique - I don't think I've ever come across SO many cliff-hangers! And the actual chapters - in Trumpish English "very many chapters, so many chapters" - were actually quite short. Like many children's authors of my generation, I've been accustomed to working to a wordcount of around 6-10000 for Middle Grade readers, but currently 30000+ seems to be just the starting point. I think it's the J K Rowling effect.

The book grabbed me. I could see its appeal, and the multitudinous cliff-hangers, although I could see them coming, were still cliff-hangers. The short chapters meant a lot of space on the page, making the eventual book look even fatter and more challenging. The plot was stuffed full of drama and events. Could I write something like this? Formulaic, but it worked. Then, more recently, trying to remember what I'd read in the last few months, I found I couldn't even remember its title (it wasn't that long ago that I'd been reading it) and had to resort to my Kindle Library to remind myself. Not sure what this implies, so over to you.

For those of you who have a Kindle, there's currently a three day promotion on one of my Young Adult novels. "TO SUMMON A SPIRIT" will be free from January 29th - 31st, so if you enjoy time-slip novels involving a possible murder, go grab (even if you aren't a Young Adult anymore!)




Monday, 27 January 2020

Bookshelves Gathering Dust - Andrew Crofts




My wife, a prolific reader, is one of the “I like the smell of real books” brigade, whereas I am one of the “I like the convenience and back-lighting of Kindle on my iPad” folk. My wife’s approach to book buying, (and of course mine until the Kindle Years arrived), means that we have multiple shelves of the paper variety, some of which are now showing their age with brown liver spots of dust.

We have reached the age where we are thinking about downsizing in the housing department and have decided that we are going to have to clean off the dust to display them in a way that makes the house look more desirable to potential buyers and then decide which ones we want to move with.

I have pointed out that this daunting task would be even worse if the two hundred or so titles on my Kindle were living with us in paper form, but my wife appears not to be listening as we empty the shelves into piles on the floor, dusting, wiping and vacuuming as we go.

Some of the dust on them is probably at least thirty years old as that is how long we have been in this house. Some of the titles were my mother’s books from when she was a child, which means they must be close to a hundred years old.

On top of all the books which we have bought, inherited or been gifted over the years, we also have the problem of the hundred or more books I have written. Most publishers kindly provide half a dozen copies of each on publication, and then the same for every translation and re-print. Those figures add up to crate-loads of books, the spines of which have never been cracked open and certainly won’t be now. To throw out a lifetime’s work however ….


I’m not sure that this exercise has led me to any earth shattering conclusions about the future of the printed book, and it is quite possible that once they have all been spruced up and re-shelved in attractive combinations we still won’t get round to moving house. They will then sit here with us for another twenty years until our poor grieving children are faced with the same problem. “Should we,” they will wonder, “burn all Dad’s books?”      

Sunday, 26 January 2020

GARIAHAT JUNCTION - Acknowledgement








My first work of fiction - GariahatJunction, a collection of short stories - is just out! Published by Kitaab International (Singapore), it is available online on Flipkart (within India) & on Kitaabstore for global customers. Sharing a bit of the book here...!


                                   ACKNOWLEDGEMENT


Everything in my life can be traced to my late mother - Kalpana Basu Roy - including my fiction. The long “back story” of my fiction writing has a lot to do with her – with her instilling in me a fascination for stories as a child, sharing with me her love of literature, music and all things beautiful and bringing me up in a home whose most prized possession were its books. But more than anything else, it has to do with her relentless faith in me as a writer and her urging me never to give up my creative impulse. In this, she had led by example – by publishing a book of fiction, Mukh-Michhil, at the age of 70!

Though I have read fiction all my life and dreamt of being an author ever since my college days, I gave priority to my academic ambitions and the business of earning a living in my twenties, starting to write fiction only in 2005. The incentive came in the form of a creative writing workshop with Amitav Ghosh and co-conducted by Prof. Rimi B. Chatterjee at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, which I greatly enjoyed being a part of and learnt a lot from, the principal lesson being that I can write fiction! It was a turning point in my life and I am indebted to that workshop for bringing it about.
Years later, in another life in a different continent, I would do another – with Amal Chatterjee and Jane Draycott in Amsterdam, in 2013. The first had started off my fiction writing; this other gave me the impetus to complete my collection of shorts, Gariahat Junction. In between, thanks to the irrepressible Dipika Mukherjee, I became part of a writing group in Amsterdam (Mezrab, Zolder, Genre Fiction Group and The Write Club being its various avatars), which helped me immensely in writing my fiction.
I am indebted to the members of the groups for their critique, their friendship and solidarity, without which the experience of writing would have been so much harder for me. Eric Asp, Tori Egherman, Anna Heldring, Dina Nayeri, Arturo Desimone, Christopher Saxe, David Lee, Smruthy Sachidanandan, Barbara Austin, Jackie Hatton, Karen Kao, Mark Bruinekreeft - you have each helped me in ways you were not always aware of. I am also very grateful to a small band of loyal readers among my family and friends, whose encouragement has meant a lot to me. I would like to especially mention Nilanjana Ray, Bhagwathi Rao Sandilya, Sanjay Sandilya, Bratati Raybardhan, Gargyee Roy, Srinka Bose, Brototi Das Gupta, Jaya Sarma and Barnita Bagchi.




A special thanks goes to Kunal Basu for being an inspiration and a role-model for me for over a decade.

Gariahat Junction is a collection of ten short stories; its title a symbolic nod at the fact that most of the protagonists in this collection have reached a critical juncture in their lives. I wrote these stories because I felt deeply compelled to write them. They are drawn from my own life and that of women close to me; women I have loved, admired, cherished, been influenced by and empathized with. Words fail to express how grateful I am to them for their generosity in allowing me to write fictional accounts of their lives, for baring their souls to me and trusting me with my renditions of them. I was drawn to the longing and loneliness in their tales, to their poignant failures and un-fulfilments and to their continuing struggle of being torn between the contrary pulls of ambition and tradition in their (postmodern) lives, themes that strongly resonated with my own.
Gariahat Junction is not only about women, but also a place: Kolkata. The city where I was born, brought up, studied, taught, married; the city I had left and have now returned to after a decade, the city that has shaped me and my sensibility to a profound extent. How do you thank a city? Acknowledge its integral presence in your life and your very being? The answer is simple – by writing about it! I am a middle-class Bengali woman from Kolkata and the world that I depict is also (primarily) that of middle-class Bengali women of my generation, in or from Kolkata: even when they live abroad, their stories have an important Kolkata connection. Kolkata itself, thus, becomes a significant character in this collection, one of the threads that hold the stories together. 
This slim book took an inordinately long time in the making. That is a story in itself, with too many twists and turns. That it finally managed to have a happy ending is due to Zafar Anjum, who, as Director of Kitaab, has valaintly championed short story collections for many years now and accepted mine as well. I thank him for giving my maiden book of fiction a home. And I am very grateful to Pallavi Narayan, without whom this would not have happened! I owe my final thanks to my friend, Arindam Dasgupta, for designing the cover of the book.
I wrote Gariahat Junction (in fits and starts) in one of the most challenging and eventful decades of my life. Its high points were, thankfully, creative ones – two academic books, and my daughter, Srishti! I am grateful to both: the books for teaching me the discipline that is essential for writing and for boosting my confidence as a writer; and my daughter, for giving me renewed hope and faith in life, and a joy I hadn’t known before. I dedicate this book to her, hoping she will fly with unfettered wings.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

A Feasting of Trolls -- by Susan Price


The Wolf's Footprint
Of all the books I've republished as ebooks and POD paperbacks, my best seller, by a long way, is The Wolf's Footprint. I have no idea why but month after month it outsells all my other titles by 100 copies and more.

Since it's written for the 8-10 age-group, I decided that it would make sense to re-publish all my other titles that were published for that age-group. I've just added another: A Feasting of Trolls.

A Feasting of Trolls by Susan Price
A Feasting of Trolls was originally published by A&C Black in 1990. They commissioned it for their Comets series and since I had to come up with a story in a short time I turned, as usual, to folklore. There are several old legends about supernatural home-invasions at Christmas or the New Year and I took bits I liked from different ones to make an original story. It has a little of 'The New Year Visitors,' a pinch of 'King of Cats,' a smattering of tales about mortals being taken into Elf-land and added sinister witch (male).

          Ivar lives on a farm with his two older brothers and two older sisters. He is the spoiled youngest, indulged by all the others, sent to play while they work.

Ivar takes all this for granted but, as he grows older, there are some things that puzzle him. For one, he's always sent away to stay with his uncle and aunt at Christmas while the older four remain at home. For another thing, when he leaves for his uncle's, there's always plenty of food in store at home. His brothers and sisters have worked all year to make sure there is. Yet when he returns after Christmas, most of that food has vanished and they're all on short-rations for the rest of the year.

Why does he always have to leave home for Christmas? And where does all the food go?

Ivar is playing his fiddle one day with the farm's black cat as audience.


Illustration by Andrew Price
Ivar ...was... playing his fiddle and wondering what had happened to the bushels of missing fruit. On the floor beside him lay the farm cat. This cat had strolled in at the door one day, carrying a dead rat in its mouth. Ragna had laughed and said, “Keep on killing them and you’ll always have a warm place in this house!”

The cat had proved such an excellent rat-killer that the sisters happily put down milk and scraps for him. They didn’t give him a name but simply called him Black Cat because that’s what he was. His shining, soft fur was all black with not one single white or coloured hair. From amongst all this darkness his big round eyes shone wonderfully. They were round and golden.

“Where does all the food go, eh, Puss?” Ivar said. “Why won’t my brothers and sisters ever leave the farm?”

The cat rolled on his back, looked up at him with golden eyes and said, “You know how to find out.”

Ivar put down his fiddle and stared at the cat.

The cat flicked the tip of its black tail and said, “Don’t gawp. You want to know where all the food goes? Then stay here for Christmas instead of going to your uncle’s to be made a pet of. Then you’ll soon find out.”
      Ivar still stared, with his mouth open, but then pulled himself together. Cats didn’t speak often but it seemed that when they did, they gave good advice.

          Ivar's brothers and sisters refuse to let him stay at home but, encouraged by the black cat, he sneaks from his uncle's house and trudges home through the cold and snow. On his way, he runs into the visitors who are on their way to celebrate the mid-winter solstice at his home and who are responsible for all the food vanishing -- at a Feasting of Trolls.

With black cat's help, Ivar sets out to free his family from the trolls but to do so, he has to make a bargan with the local witch, Jaroslav Skin-trousers. This does not turn out well and puts the lives of both Ivar and Black Cat in danger.

Does it end happily, or in disaster? Well, as I say to children when I read it in schools and break off at the most exciting point: "You'll have to read it for yourself to find out."