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Just to say…

Emma-Viskic-–-Resurrection-Bay-172x276

Sending love and good wishes to Emma Viskic, whose debut novel: Resurrection Bay is shortlisted for TWO prestigious CWA Daggers:

CWA Gold Dagger

Clever, funny and totally deserving of the plaudits engulfing this antipodean début. Vividly persuasive characters along with fast-paced, gut-wrenching twists leave the reader craving for the next instalment — Judging Panel, CWA Gold Dagger 2018 Shortlist

CWA New Blood Dagger

Set in a beautifully evoked Australia […] Exemplary and humane and full of deeply felt anxiety’ — Judging Panel, CWA New Blood Dagger 2018 Shortlist

Matt Sumell – on Why Writing is So Hard and How to Write Anyway

Making Nice UK coverUp on Publishers Weekly, Matt Sumell’s piece on Why Writing is So Hard (March 13th) speaks to my inner critic – how do you switch her off? Should I lock her in a cupboard? Sumell skates across American male approaches to writing – Hawthrone, Hemingway, Thompson, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, – a nod to a couple of women would have widened out his thinking – but this is his experience and it’s insightful and true about the difficulties of writing through yourself.

with writing there’s no formula that makes sense to me, no recipe to follow, no map—at least no map I know how to read—to help me navigate. Every story is different, and every story comes with its own specific difficulties, so every story also comes with its own specific anxiety and panic until it’s done. Only—as they say—it’s never done, just abandoned.

The article coincides with publication of Sumell’s “novel-in-stories” Making Nice (Harvil Secker [UK]; Henry Holt [US]). Publishers Weekly think

it’s one of the funniest (and best) books of the year, featuring the self-destructive but well-meaning Alby–a “loser,” according to his sister.Making Nice cover

Good enough praise for it to slip into the tbr pile

>>Link to full article on PW Why Writing is So Hard

One Sleep Till @Edbookfest

SUMMER READING

Before I head off to Edinburgh for the next three weeks, here’s a round-up of summer reading. Not beach reads; who can read in the sunshine?, but some of the new books that kept me entertained while you were all out playing football and running around Glasgow.

mrs.hemingwayBhallaStrandCallOfTheUndertowFalling_SkyHead for the edgeholdstillNina-Findlaygiven the choiceA-Girl-is-a-Half-Formed-ThingA god in every stonewe-are-called-to-riseUnder-the-wide-and-starry-sky

 

You’ll notice it’s books by women writers, but that’s a quirk of what came to hand or was sent to me, not a meaningful decision on my part to seek them out. The list is random:

  • **Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape): the hype around this book made me cynical, but it’s true; she really has taken on the male bastion of nature writing, and moulded it into the female psyche. A goshawk called Mabel; superior descriptive writing, highly imaginative, compelling, raw emotion, thought-provoking, sad, funny: BRILLIANT!
  • Laura McBride’s We are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster), stirring debut based on a real incident due to the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder, but fictionalised into an angry, uplifting look at American values, and how they relate to people who don’t quite fit in. Technically brilliant in handling the to-and fro between past and present and showing the impact of childhood on adulthood. I think it’s fair to say, this is the complete opposite of most American novels, and one I’d recommend if you’re into meaty, thought-provoking stories and strong female protagonists.
  • **Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow (Freight): atmospheric story about a cartographer’s move to the north of Scotland; the challenges she faces in a new environment is twisted in with the emotional baggage she packs with her, and the map work she’s undertaking as the story unfolds. The opening, with a mysterious snowman appearing in the garden, reminds of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child – and it is and isn’t about motherhood and childlessness – but it’s a different book and sensibility. The title gives away the story, a bit, and a map or two would lift it for me, but I read the Kindle version so maybe the paperback has insets I didn’t see. Anyway, a good, satisfying, two-hour read.
  • Sarah Maine’s debut, Bhalla Strand (Freight): another woman with emotional baggage moving north – this time it’s to take up her inheritance; a derelict house on an island, with secrets. I expected this book, from the woman with her back to us on the cover and the swirly title, to be a predictable romantic froth. It’s not! It’s technically assured, well written (apart from a couple of over-descriptive passages, which you forgive as it sweeps you along with the strong characterisation). The story moves smoothly between different time periods and different historical relationships, which kept it all moving forward, even when it was looking back. A really enjoyable story for a rainy afternoon.
  • **Kamila Shamsie’s, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury): merges a story about colonial engagement in the First World War with a story about a female amateur archaeologist; the kind of book normally described as ‘ambitious’; ‘sweeping’. Let down by a fatal flaw at two-thirds in, which made me throw it on the floor. Before then, it’s a good, strong story about an aspect of war that is rarely covered by Western historians, twisted in with a story about early feminism and colonialism. I’m still not over it – but might be worth a re-read in a year or so.
  • **Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): fierce writing that haunts you when you’re reading it, and even now, thinking about it, I can see the young girl whose sad life we follow. Hard to get into its stuttering rhythm and narrative flow, but form and story combine to make a powerful story, and it’s well worth sticking to it until you’re hooked.
  • Nancy Horan’s, Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Two Roads): I so wanted this book about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osborne to be good: who doesn’t want to know the real reason he tracked a divorcee and her children to San Francisco? Sadly, it hit the floor three times, and I had to give it away as I couldn’t bear it to be in the house. Good fictional biographies bring the real people alive, lets you see into the rationale for their actions, makes you want to re-read their books. Horan is so keen to build up Fanny Osborne that I wanted to call her up and ask why she’d portrayed Stevenson as a soppy wimp; apparently, according to this reading, it was Fanny who came up with the psychological underpinning of Jekyll and Hyde?!
  • Andrea Gillies’s, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay (Short Books)woman with emotional baggage has an accident on holiday; bedridden, she recounts her past life and relationships to her doctor. Any other writer would make this into a beach read – after all it’s set in a holiday resort in Greece – but Gillies has a sharp ear for dialogue and an empathy for women and the decisions they have to make. Intelligent and astute writing.
  • **Kate Tough’s, Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo): about real women with real problems and emotional issues that could be worthy and sentimental, but isn’t. It’s gutsy and laugh-out-loud funny in places, although, there’s a wee tip to sweetness in the middle: a Tunnock’s Tea Cake of a novel. Warm and angry at the same time; a strong debut novel.
  • Cherry Smyth’s Hold Still (Holland Park Press): fascinating biographical fiction. Set in London and Paris in the 1860s, it’s about Joanna Hifferman, amateur artist and muse/model to both Whistler and Courbier. What lifts the book from other fictional biographies is in the unusual decision to construct a thesis around Courbier’s painting: L’Origine du monde – depicting female genitalia – yes, weird, I know, how to sell this to your friends? Strong female protagonist and fine historical detailing; sometimes it seems too modern in its sensibility. Dreadful cover image, especially, as it’s a book about the world of painting.
  • Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky (Freight): coming of age debut; female protagonist with friendship, life, work issues; good at depicting the infighting and back-biting in academia, and how women need to conform to society’s image. Cleverly threads astronomy and time into the storyline. Maybe I learned something about space, but perhaps that was another me, another time.
  • Susan Sellers’ Given the Choice (Cillian Press): intelligent, thoughtful look at an unlikable character – an ambitious agent; a woman who doesn’t want children – and the consequences to her relationships and herself. Set in the self-deceptive world of London arts, the protagonist is the arch deceiver: she deceives herself and those she comes into contact with, while her husband, a gentle soul, deals with it in his own way. Highly post-modern in the multiple endings that leave it up to the reader to decide which ending she should have; throwing the creative construction of the self into the imagination.
  • **Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway (Picador) is astonishing; excellent – the very best kind of fictional biography. I reviewed it for Fiction Uncovered

** indicates writer is at EIBF this yearEIBF

Book Discoverability: Introducing Bookbridgr

Screenshot-2014-02-22-06.34.44-580x421One of the issues and main word that’s buzzing around the book world just now is ‘discoverability’ – how do publishers and authors get their books into the hands of readers? Not only that, but how do they find a reader who’ll ‘get’ it, fall in love with it, press it on friends, and tell the world about it?

As you know (or should have guessed by now), I’ll try anything once. So I was really pleased to be ‘approved’ on Headline’s latest book discoverability site called BOOKBRIDGR.

Advertised as ‘A resource for book-loving bloggers’ (is there any other kind?), users create a profile listing their preferred reading, share links (join their marketing list), read previews and proofs (in hard copy or kindle), and share their blogposts and book reviews and host writers on blog tours.

The site is the creation of the lovely people at Bookswarm  – 🙂

2014 Folio Prize Shortlist

folioprize (c.)
folioprize (c.)

The media have zoomed into the shortlist for the inaugural Folio Prize to focus on the dominance of US-based writers. I can’t see the problem and don’t think I could spot the difference on a blind test. Could you?

The argument goes that, with the Booker now also open to everyone, American authors will win everything. I disagree. It’s up to writers, from wherever they’re based, to write the best story they can and for judges to choose the best book they read, regardless of whether the writer was born in Boston, Mass. or Boston, Lincs.

The Bookseller are whining about US domination and even Galley Beggar Press who published Eimear McBride’s debut, which recently won the Goldsmith’s Prize, temper the news of her shortlisting by raising the spectre of ‘Team Europe’ (whoever they are?). Stop!

Eimear McBride is on the shortlist with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing– hurrah. So is Jane Gardam for Last Friends– double hurrah. So is Rachel Kushner with The Flame Throwers – triple hurrah.

  • Good writing is good writing no matter where the writer happens to live when they write.

Here’s a link to the announcement on the Folio Prize website.

Here’s the shortlist:

Red Doc by Anne Carson (Random House/Jonathan Cape)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Faber & Faber)
Last Friends by Jane Gardam (Little, Brown)
Benediction by Kent Haruf (Picador)
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (Random House/Harvill Secker)
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (Maclehose Editions)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury

The Big Idea: Nicola Griffith

Reblogging Nicola Griffith’s post on history, historical fiction, the absence of women from history and why she wrote Hild – which is heading from my TBR pile. I love Nicola’s blog on the book’s development from notes to book.

Whatever

What do we think of when we think of history? For author Nicola Griffith, it’s a pertinent question, particularly for her latest novel Hild, which features a protagonist of no little historical import — but also no great historical record…

NICOLA GRIFFITH:

Just before I started work on Hild, I wrote “You’ve been warned,” a blog post in which I vowed that with my next novel I would run my software on your hardware. “I will control what you think and feel, put you right there, right then…give you a life you’ve never had, change the one you live. For a while, when you’re lost in my book, you will be somewhere, somewhen, someone else.”

It was my dagger in the table, a public challenge—to myself. You see, I’d been aiming for Hild for a long time, and I was terrified.

*

Inmy early…

View original post 872 more words

Tartt[an] Bookishness

Donna Tartt (c. LittleBrownsite)If I was Donna Tartt and I was in Edinburgh for one night, and I’d playfully mentioned ‘Potter’ in my latest novel, I’d stay in the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, in the room where JK Rowling completed the final pages of the Harry Potter series. It’s not as fanciful as it seems. Unlike the cold persona she puts out – few interviews – professional photo shoots in an array of serious poses – no blogging or tweeting or facebooking – Donna Tartt is engaging, delightful, entertaining and really rather lovely to listen to for an hour on a grey November night.240px-Balmoral_Hotel

She came on in a bit of a rush, like a rock goddess whooshing through the corridor on the way to an event. Draped in a jaunty tartan scarf (which I’ll come back to later), DT enthused about art, about literature, about the trickery of artifice and how to deceive with truth. She was very good. And it was so appropriate to sit in the nave of a converted church, listening to her evangelise about writing – a religious spectacle where DT explained her reverence for the act of writing as a spiritual act as a form of spiritual connectedness between writer and subject, writer and reader – they [we] engage in a soul exchange; literature is the only medium, she said, where we enter another person and see what they see, feel what they feel, know what they know.

It was enthralling. I have to admit that this year’s literary events have seemed to me to be a bit jaded, as if the writers I’d listened to had dragged themselves out to speak to us because they had to, it was just another part of their job. I didn’t get that at all last night from Donna Tartt. For the first time in a long time (Margaret Atwood and Edna O’Brien excepted) I felt I was listening to a writer who really cared about her art as art, not just as a means of making a living; as if she wanted to make us care, searching for the right word, the exact metaphor to explain or describe what she was attempting to do in The Goldfinch and in her writing.

The Goldfinch is the best book I’ve read this year. Everything about it is perfect: characterisation, narrative drive, pacing, dialogue, cultural references, setting – it’s a superb achievement and well worth the eleven years it took to bring it into print. I only finished reading it a couple of nights ago and I’m still in that ‘it’s a great book’ phase you get after reading a great book and I have nothing to say about it, except telling everyone ‘it’s a great book’. (I’ll try and write something more meaningful by the end of the year.)
Goldfinch cover (c.) LittleBrown

On the tartan – when she came in draped in a tartan scarf and laughing about buying a vintage kilt, I was disappointed. Typical, I thought, an American coming to Scotland thinking that tartanry is our culture and we’d love her for ‘joining in’. Oh I was wrong – happily. She explained, when I asked about it at the book signing, that it was a bit of fun – she knew it was all phoney but she was passing the vintage tartan shop on the Royal Mile (that shop and the one down the Grassmarket are tourist magnets) and felt a piece of tartan from there was appropriate to the idea of fakery and authenticity in The Goldfinch. She was right, I do love her for buying it because she understands (more than many Scots) about the fakery we accept as our past.

On Writing: Crumbs from the Tartt table

  • DT has kept a writing notebook for decades, she owns piles of them where she writes snippets of conversations, descriptions, ‘bits and pieces of the mind’, she said, quoting Didion
  • she writes and writes to hone her talent, as a pianist or a dancer, writing yards to get a sentence just right
  • DT builds her scenes through small brushstrokes to perfect the texture of a character and a scene, building them up and going over and over, adding little telling details to bring them to life; make them authentic
  • there’s a little bit of every writer in all their characters – which is not the same as saying ‘it’s about themselves’ (which is reductive)
  • the opening of The Goldfinch is deliberately leisurely – like Hitchcock, DT builds the tension by looking away from the moment of high drama that’s just around the corner, drawing the reader in with lengthy description, exposition and dialogue
  • writers should write for themselves
  • there’s no ‘readership’ to write for but an ideal reader – one true person who ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say
  • tragedy, cruelty, horror and outrage are ‘sweetened’ by the act of writing – it can be cathartic for both the writer and the reader

**With thanks to Waterstones and Little Brown for bringing Donna Tartt up to Edinburgh and hosting a highly enjoyable evening.

*** Isabel Costello has reviewed both The Goldfinch and the London event on The Literary Sofa  << well worth a read

 

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A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the sand at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

From barnacle-encrusted jetsam that washes up on a beach in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Ruth Ozeki weaves together a highly innovative tale about time and the self. Ruth the narrator, like Ozeki (is Ozeki), is an American writer with Japanese ancestry; a novelist. For ten years Ruth has worked on a memoir which she began as a way to record both her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and also “her own feelings and reactions”. Suffering from writer’s block and unable to contemplate reading over what she has written to “consolidate the structure” of the “ungainly heap” she turns to the diary inside the Hello Kitty lunch-box she has found on the beach.

Ruth goes in search of sixteen-year old Nao, both in the literal purple prose of the handwritten diary and online for traces of evidence that she was a ‘real’ person. She looks everywhere and anywhere across time where Nao has left her mark. So far, so normal.

What raises this novel from good to dazzling is the way that Ozeki draws attention to the creative process and blurs the division between teller and tale, reader and writer. Ruth the novelist writes a tale about a novelist-turned-memoirist called Ruth who turns from writing herself into being to reading another self into being – that of a teenager called Nao (pronounced Now) who has written herself and her great-grandmother into being – and the whole is written into existence by Ruth (the narrator) who annotates the tale. At a further step, Ozeki as creator brings the reader into existence to read a tale formed out of the “gyre memory” of oceanic drift.

If all of this sounds pretentious it most definitely is not. A Tale for the Time Being is highly engaging, thoughtful rather than didactic. Nao’s diary is concealed within the covers of a “hacked” copy of In Search of Lost Time. Alongside her record of peer-bullying, a depressed father and decent to the darker side of life (she writes her diary in a “French” café in ElectricTown, Tokyo) she relates part of her great-grandmother’s autobiography. Jiko is a 104 year old feminist–radical-Buddhist nun who lives in a remote temple. Nao visits her for part of the novel and gains insight and solace but not enlightenment. Back at home her life is still tortuous. Also within Nao’s diary are pages from a family “secret French diary”: stories within stories.

Strong narrative voices add authenticity to the parallel narratives. Nao’s forced jollity grates at times, after all, there’s only so much teen angst anyone can take.

I had to look on the bright side and try to make the best of things. At least Dad hadn’t hijacked the bus and driven it off the side of the mountain. At least he was still here with me, and maybe- maybe he wouldn’t leave. Maybe I could do something to make him stay. Because even though he promised to come back and pick me up at the end of my vacation and take me to Disneyland, what if he didn’t? What if the special doctors couldn’t fix him? Or what if, on the way home, the urge to die got too intense, and he suddenly had to hurl himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Disneyland Super Express? He didn’t really care about shaking hands with Mickey-chan after all.

Ozeki peels back the emoticons and exclamatory tone and injects pathos and compels us to sympathise with Nao as much as we want to tell her to take it down a notch or two. Ruth adds scholarly footnotes to Nao’s diary where she explains references to complex theories, unfamiliar concepts and contextual material (quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, WWII kamikaze pilots) and these are further cross-referenced to appendices that expand on specific topics, such as Schrödinger’s cat and Hugh Everett’s theory of “many worlds”. The effect of Ruth’s writing in the margins of Nao’s diary draws attention to both the tale and its telling.

An outsider in Whaletown, a “spectre of the past” (“whales are time beings”), Ruth shares a wooden house outside of town with her ecologically-aware husband Oliver, who teaches permaculture. Oliver considers that the lunch-box has probably broken off from one of the “eleven great planetary gyres”, a “drifter” from the wreckage of the Japanese tsunami. In the forest, he observes “time unfolding … history embedded in the whorls and fractal forms of nature”.

Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut … He planted groves of ancient natives- metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginkgo- species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago.

Through Oliver’s battles against misinformation and fierce local opposition to his planting scheme Ozeki examines the connectedness of life across time. On a trip to a secret clam garden they consider the irony of “native” Pacific oysters, which originated from Japan: “ ‘You used to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches’ ”, Oliver says, as they look over a landscape of razor-sharp oyster shells, and Ruth wonders “when the last oyster was harvested in the beds around Manhattan ”.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be …

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you.

Who are you and what are you doing?

What are you doing now?

I have only scratched the surface of this heartbreaking, uplifting novel. A Tale for the Time Being is a testament to the power of words – a tale whose ideas and characters resonate long after the final page.

Note -I read the paperback version which comes with a ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’. It’s also available in a hardback and eBook bundle.

Do check out Ruth Ozeki’s website: Ozekieland – webworld, for more details and information.

A Tale for the Time Being is on the shortlist of the 2013 ManBooker Prize, announced tonight (Tuesday) – I do hope she wins.

[reposted from EarthLines Review]

Golden Nuggets – last words on writing, from EIBF 2013

Edna O’Brien [EO] and Margaret Atwood [MA] are so different in the books they write that it’s hard to convey how alike they are, in their professional approach to writing that is. Each spoke of the struggle to find the right form to tell their stories and each conveyed something of the magic of writing through the little golden nuggets they dropped into their talks. Both were gracious too about other writers and were generous in sharing a life-time experience of writing.

EO

  • On writing memoir – it’s crucial that you place the memory in a place, its correct setting, you need to ‘ground it, give it physicality’ (Proustian qualities).
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013] - pb
    Country Girl. A Memoir, Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013] – pb
  • On setting the scene – don’t write a catalogue of description – ‘unless it has emotional relevance it’s no good’: writing is about detail
  • Ignore inane clichés like post modern etc. – don’t pigeonhole your book
  • On story: stories are essential to any book – hook the reader into what will happen next; stories are about how to live, how to be – about the characters’ inner lives
  • Baudelaire changed the way she writes
  • She is annoyed by the current vogue for limiting writing into genre and category.

The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O'Brien [Faber, 2013]
The Love Object: Selected Short Stories by Edna O’Brien [Faber, 2013]
An anecdote Edna O’Brien shared reveals the hunger that exists for writing and character, for setting and descriptive writing as well as the story. She told us how her village had few books, the Bible was most prominent. But someone had a copy of Rebecca and its pages were shared around from house to house and hand to hand, but out of sequence, out of order.

Edna O'Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
Edna O’Brien [author photo from Faber (c.)]
On Feminism

EO also spoke about feminism during the Q&A in response to a question about how she saw herself in the trajectory of modern feminism and whether she saw herself as a role model.

[in summary – not verbatim]

In some ways, every woman must thank the movement and recognise their work and question why it took so long. She was lucky enough to be living through the time when it emerged. She is grateful and proud. She’s wary of ‘isms’. ‘Most importantly, we must remember that the root and intent of feminism is about freedom of intellect, not about being superhuman or trivialising it’. She’s wary of those who reduce the seriousness of it – ‘it’s so important’ –‘ we mustn’t allow it to be reduced to being about being audacious but about being deep, which is much harder’. She’s drawn to women because of their psyche and the tragedy of women’s lives; pregnancy and marriage and losing the self; feminism is about being a person and deep rootedness. Above all, she doesn’t write under the banner of feminism but writes what most affects her about the condition of women.

MA

[On writing The Blind Assassin]

  • The story preceded the form in which it unfolds.
  • MA had several false starts before she found the right form – starting with death of central character and a found cache of letters; started again with an elderly relative and two journalists; finally found the form to tell her story. The newspapers contradict the story; the story contradicts the story
  • a framing narrative structure is hard to sustain. MA wrote as far as she could in one section and then took up another section but she wrote in sequence
  • Research, research, research – go to the places in your book to add authenticity and realism
  • Part of the struggle to find the right form was resolved when she asked ‘who is Iris’s reader – who is reading the story?’
  • When asked during the Q&A about writing, she said: Plunge in, write what you need to write, then go back and fix it  – and
  • Write 200 words a day, whether good or bad, matters less than getting into the mindset of being a writer
  • Get ‘the look of an age’ from old newspapers and ads in old magazines, such as, Good Housekeeping
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury 2009)

MA commented on how to write, mostly, these were summarised from her excellent [and highly recommended] book about writing, Negotiating with the Dead. Here’s what she has to say on being a writer:

There’s one characteristic that sets writing apart from most of the other arts – its apparent democracy, by which I mean its availability to almost everyone as a medium of expression. As a recurring newspaper advertisement puts it, “Why Not Be A Writer?…No previous experience or special education required.” […]

To be an opera singer you not only have to have a voice, you have to

train for years; to be a composer you have to have an ear, to be a dancer you have to have a fit body, to act on the stage you have to be able to remember your lines, and so on. Being a visual artist now approaches writing, as regards its apparent easiness – when you hear remarks like “My four-year-old could do better,” you know that envy and contempt are setting in, of the kind that stem from the belief that the artist in question is not really talented, only lucky or a slick operator, and probably a fraud as well. This is likely to happen when people can no longer see what gift or unusual ability sets an artist apart.

As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them – that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same thing as “being a writer.”

Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. – /

Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)
Negotiating with the Dead (CUP, 2002)

 

Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)
Special Edition Hardback Version of The Blind Assassin (2013)

A Handful of Writing Crumbs

a few writing crumbs from the women’s table … from Evie Wyld [EW], Amy Sackville [AS], Jane Gardam [JG], and Maggie O’Farrell [MO] at this year’s EIBF.

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld
All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

“You need to write the books you have to write”, EW said [I’m paraphrasing], but she could have been speaking for everyone I’ve heard at this year’s EIBF who has attempted to explain why they write and how they write and what they write about.

Orkeny, by Amy Sackville
Orkney, by Amy Sackville

Both EW’s and AS’s latest books are set on islands, so it probably seemed natural to pair them in an event. Probably: in style and tone both books are worlds apart – as far apart as Australia, the Isle of Wight and Orkney, where their books are [partly] set. Yet this was one of the most interesting events. EW’s book follows a double patterning, sliding between the past and the present, as it builds the character of Jake – a female sheep-shearer living on an unnamed British island who battles an unknown destructive force. AS’s book follows an unnamed woman who moves to Orkney with her professor-cum-new husband.

EW didn’t write the sections alternately, in order, but followed each part to its conclusion and then sewed them together once she knew the pattern the book ought to take.

AS was intrigued by answering “who would gets to tell the story”?

Both chose islands for different reasons:

EW- islands as prisons, for example, Bass Rock; outsiders are more visible

AS – an island provided the perfect setting for using “classic Aristotelian restrictions”  and to play with perception and reality.

On research, both agreed they could spend too much time, yet not enough. AS researched a way to think about folklore and culture and researched for as long as it took her to write the book. EW researched sheep and shearing (but didn’t shear a sheep).

Both agreed that the way they wrote made the reader work hard – in such a way that each reader takes something different from their books – and both were interested in the form and shape of their books.

Last Friends by Jane Gardam
Last Friends by Jane Gardam

The spark for JG’s trilogy about the end of Empire was a vision of a man stepping out of a London hotel. We weren’t sure whether she had seen him or imagined him, but whatever it was, he stayed in her imagination until she imagined him into print. In her latest book, Last Friends, she returns to minor characters because, “we all know someone in their background who is always there” – all are important, all have interesting features and stories to tell. She begins by wondering about voice – whose voice should tell the story? JG is interested in the way she can use fiction and her characters’ ability to “surprise themselves … in real time”, for her, “there’s no such thing as coincidence”.

Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell

MO

  • writes about twenty drafts of her novels
  • never writes the beginning first because she’d be forever working on it, revising and rewriting it to make it perfect and would never get to the end of the story
  • writes scene by scene and then puts it all together when it’s finished
  • never reads reviews [whether good or bad]
  • is never happy with the finished book – it could always be better