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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

Writing Crumbs: Short Stories

… from the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Short Fiction: Anneliese Mackintosh [AM], Colin Barrett [CB], and Graham Swift [GS]

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Young-Skins

eaosgs

 

 

 

 

Any Other Mouth is ‘A viciously funny and heart-breaking collection of semi-autobiographical short stories from one of the UK’s most exciting new voices.’

‘This is the best thing I’ve read in years. Brutally honest and exquisitely crafted, this is a book that breaks your heart, slowly rebuilds it, only to smash it to pieces again. I’m seething with envy.’ Doug Johnstone

AM‘s collection is gathered around death – a fierce, raw, brutally honest, heart-rending collection of stories that spilled out after her father died. She said his death released her to write what she wanted to write, both physically (an inheritance allowed her time to write) and emotionally (poured out things which she’d always held back from telling). Memoir refashioned into highly original prose. Broke my heart to listen:

  • highly personal; intense
  • punctured with black humour and irony
  • collection isn’t ordered chronologically, but has its own order through the emotional arc
  • 3 months to write a first draft; 2 years to rework them

CB‘s collection is a ‘biography of a small town’ [fictional town named ‘Glanbeigh’ and surrounding area of County Mayo ]:  “My town … is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk.”  A shy, unassuming writer who surprised me with the emotional maturity and sly humour of ‘The Clancy Kid’; the story he read.

Young Skins is a collection of “stories … set in a familiar emotional landscape, but they give us endings that are new. What seems to be about sorrow and foreboding turns into an adventure, instead, in the tender art of the unexpected.”– Anne Enright

  • paired characters; mostly young men
  • in the tradition of Joyce and Beckett who energised writing about small towns: small town fictions, big ideas
  • reveals the mindset of the place through a timeless representation of those who stay behind
  • four years to write it; edited as he wrote
  • advises writing stuff you don’t publish – write out your experiences
  • read; keep reading new things

GS‘s collection is ‘elegant, humble and humane’: James Kidd. I read the short story called ‘Fusilli’ on the way to the event, and nearly cried on a packed train because of the restrained way it unfolds a story of loss and longing.

‘We are the people of England and we haven’t spoken yet’ – ‘The Secret People’, G. K. Chesterton

  • began his career with short fiction and moved to novels. This is his first collection of short stories for over 30 years – why? short stories ‘departed him’ until 2 years ago and then they ‘happened to come’: ‘a joy’
  • carefully constructed collection: read from first to last, in order, to get the best sense of how it fits together
  • collection of stories ‘about how people who happen to live in England and, through the universal in the local, about the ‘greater republic of humanity’
  • one of the functions of fiction is to tell the stories that don’t get told
  • title has a hint of irony: suggests England is a kind of story – made from the stories we spin for ourselves
  • doesn’t write from his own experience
  • loves the idea that something formed out of nothing, in isolation, forms stories in the reader’s imagination which they read in isolation: the shared connection of storytelling

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers

US cover
US cover

Around five books in the last year have drawn me up short and made me think about narrative and storylines and the possibilities of literature and form. Last week I was running late for a train at Waverley without a book for the trip to Glasgow (around 40mins) and I nipped into the newsagent and, without thinking, other than to note it was only £7.99 for the paperback, I picked up The Flamethrowers. I haven’t read Kushner’s first novel or other writing and, although I’d heard the fuss about the book last year and knew critics on both sides of the Atlantic had raved about it, I hadn’t really paid too much attention to it.

I wish I had.

I wish I could wind back to last August when I passed on a ticket to go and listen to her talk at the Edinburgh book festival. I’ve wasted a whole year when I could have been thinking about this writing.

It’s engaging and feisty; brimming with so many ideas that it hurts to read it. My copy is so well-thumbed I need a new copy. I carry it everywhere. I read out parts to Mr Bookrambler, who is not into literary fiction, but I needed to share the joy of intelligent writing with someone. I stop in the street and re-read paragraphs and sentences. I have to get up at night to re-read long passages.

It’s exhilarating to find bold writing. It’s been called ‘muscular’ and the new American novel, which is somehow ‘novel’ as it’s written by a woman. Yet it is novel. It is an important book.

There’s no getting away from the feminist aspects of the story. Reno – the protagonist is named by others from a place connection; we never hear her real name. There are long sections which she narrates but where she is passive and never speaks. A large part of the joy of the writing is in her deliberate passivisity (sp?). She chooses to be passive and to allow others to direct her actions, not because she’s weak but because she’s bold and self-willed.

In summary (woefully inadequate) but the jist of it: the story opens in third person past tense. It’s 1917 and an Italian rider named Valera fights a German soldier. The narrative then switches to present tense, to the 1970s and the narration of an unnamed woman who is riding a Valera motorcycle to the salt flats to a time trial, or so she tells the young man called Stretch who offers her his bed for the night. It’s only partially true. She’s also going to film and photograph her tyre tracks as part of an art project she hopes to pull together. However, she chooses not to impart this information to the young man because it isn’t the story he should expect or have of her.

The way in which Valera/Valera motorcycle intersect is integral to the way the story unfolds and it would spoil its unfolding to say too much.

Patti Smith NY (c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976
Patti Smith NY
(c.) Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

Throughout the novel, Time and History intersect and move apart, push off against each other and create new presents, new realities. Reno is constructed by the men around her (mostly men but women too) and by herself and the idea she has of how she thinks she ought to be. She has moved to New York to be where things happen.

Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. “Tonight is the night,” I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with the gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.

 

Time too is constructed and how we perceive history is interrogated by the storyline. Italian history intersects with the 1970 anti-capitalist riots in New York and with art and creativity.

But it’s also about a girl growing up and growing into herself.

I really can’t implore you more to read The Flamethrowers. Both readers and writers will find their idea of what is possible with literature altered by the experience of reading it.

Rachel Kushner’s website has links to interviews that give (or gave me) helpful insight into the book. See especially the frank and wide ranging interview on process and cultural memory with Dana Spiotta on Tin House.

The Flamethrowers is on the terrific longlist for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize

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

Happy Burns Night ?

Robert-Burns-001You’d think that by now, over 200 years since the death of Robert Burns, we’d know what to think about the man and his work. You’d think that, after 200 years of Burns’s Suppers and raising glasses to ‘the lasses’, his reputation would be set in stone and we could get on with the business of writing critical commentary and parsing his poetry and prose for fresh nuances.

Morgan Library (c)
Morgan Library (c)

Burns wasn’t set in his own ideas: religion, nationalism, literature, song, gender – he flipped his opinion so often you could call him a turn-coat (apparently he gets away with it because of the revolutionary times, and you can sort of understand it (to a point) ‘tho no one’s yet discovered a letter where he explains all his flipping; there are plenty to men and women he wants to impress – so it’s not surprising there’s so much disagreement.

Burns Night, a day of celebration and haggis eating and rampant sexism disguised as Burns studies: for a’ the jollity, there’s a lot of disagreement out there. Which is healthy. It’s probably what keeps his work in print while his contemporaries are forgotten. Check the bookshop, check your Kindle: Burns lives on in interminable cheap editions.

Burns is revered: a Shakespearian icon of couthy pseudo-Scottish sentiment: ‘wha’s like us, damn few’ . And yet, apart from academics and performance poets, I don’t know anyone who can recite more than four lines of his poetry, who can tell me his father’s name or the full title of his first collection. Most know he ‘loved the lasses’ but few are prepared to talk about his coarseness: ‘the dirt and deity’ as Byron called it (and he would know). Aye, Burns, he ‘loved’ women.

Perhaps the best thing that can come from all the disagreement is that we go back to the work, to his writing and letters and those of his peers and contemporaries and make our own minds up.

From all the glorying, twee pieces on the internet, these two contradictory viewpoints on Burns’s reputation stand out:

Liz Lochhead in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian (from Friday)

and

Allan Massie in Standpoint (from 2011)

10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

Here’s a good, strong reading list of books by writers about writing. There’s nothing more uplifting than hearing about someone else’s book that’s still pushed under the bed, or to tuck an inspiring quote in your pocket for when the ideas won’t flow, and to read about the power of writing when your own writing is a messy jumble, when you have all the right words in the wrong order.

Flavorwire

If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own…

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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…

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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]