Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mushroom Training?


Walking around the outskirts of Bulawayo (in Zimbabwe) the other day I spotted this sign.
'Mushroom training'? The mind boggles.
My own piece on a mushroom journey in Arizona, from my website

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Discovery of Slowness


Sten Nadolny's The Discovery of Slowness is said to have sold more than a million copies worldwide. Funny that neither I nor anyone I have spoken to had heard of it.
The German author's confident evocation of 18th & 19th century Lincolnshire countryside struck me first. Then my own ignorance about John Franklin (pictured). The book is a novelized account of the life of one of England's great explorers, this seafarer who wrote a bestseller about his journeys in the Arctic. He was later governor of Tasmania - though I doubt Tasmania and the Arctic are home to those million readers. Are we really so closed to books in translation, even when they're about Britain? Canongate brought out the paperback here.
The book has a fine line about writing, as Franklin shifts from restless sailor without a commission to author: 'No one who had to write a book could be desperate for ever.'
I feel somewhat the same way as I embark on my biography of J.S.Haldane. A book project is very steadying. And Nadolny's novel offers a curiously fine model. The motif of 'slowness', Franklin's own studied mode of being, is steadily pursued, the book gradually accumulating its effect. The life story is told with line by line care, an assembly of resonant touches.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Dearth of the Novel - fiction reviewing and the British Press

Sunday and 'The Observer' heaps through the letterbox. With so many pages, and one of the more respected literary sections in the UK press, you might expect to learn about new novels. So many are being published. Which excite? What have you found? Go on, you literary professionals. Excite us. Lead the way.
SO how many new novels are reviewed?
Two. Only TWO.
A brief puff for the latest Scott Turow. And a more considered piece on D.B.C Pierre's latest.
OK, I wasn't really expecting my own new novel 'Slippery When Wet' to be reviewed (though why not? My first novel was shortlisted for the Whitbread. This is the next. Worth a squib of consideration, surely?). But I'd like to hear of some new fiction I want to read (the review of the DBCPierre is a turn-off).
Quite pathetic. I went to a recent PEN event in London, a top panel discussing reviewing, so expect nothing less really. Their main concern was with how they dealt with the negative reviews among the stack that come the way of their own books. They admitted that paperbacks get short shrift, and reviewers essentially recycle the hardback reviews of others. Philip Hensher has his list of authors he wants reviewed - presumably it's up to other review pages to find new authors and alert him to them.
Transita, the publisher of my new one, has had reviews for itself as a marketing concept but hardly any for its novels. I know Maia Press, with a strong literary list with some fine names and titles, barely gets a mention in the literary pages.
Rather than sigh at the novels that pile up on their desks - what do they do, cart them round to Oxfam? - can't some reviewers show imagination? Pick a theme? What are new novels saying about the environment? How are cities described nowadays? How are war and terrorism treated in the modern novel? What's the treatment of race like? How is the natural world treated in modern European novels? How do young American and British novelists compare? How are writers asserting regional identities?
What a boon for novelists and readers it would be, if literary editors suddenly dcided that literature - and not the small literary coterie - really mattered.
Over to the latest issue of 'The London Review of Books'. Do they lead the way? How many new novels do the review?
One. Only one. The new Houellebecq - and that tacked on to a review of a book about Houellebecq. Boy.Tthey're really pushing the boat out.
Over to you. Read any good novels lately?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Casting about at the theatre


My play 'Feeding the Roses' went out to a clutch of theatres and directors in early November. My play agent tells me not to expect a response before May. It doesn't stop me casting it. I play the game whenever I go to the theatre.
'Feeding the Roses' is a four hander. I cast the woman a while back, after seeing Anne Reid in John Osborne and Anthony Creighton's 'Epitaph for George Dillon'. She had a terrific mix of vulnerability and strength, girl and demon. That play's director, Peter Gill, would surely love to direct mine (you've got a copy so come on, Peter, get in touch!). While we're at it, Geoffrey Hutching from that production could do a good job of the Brian in my play (as could Roger Allam and Ian McKellen - and Sean Mathias as Director - from which you can see I was busy casting my own play while watching the Old Vic 'Aladdin', from which I also gained fresh confidence in the composer Gareth Valentine to work on my new musical inspired by Doris Day).
I went to see the Royal Court's 'O Go My Man' by Stella Feehily when it was at Cambridge Arts Theatre last Friday. All a bit am dram. None of my cast were there.
Then to Samuel Adamson's 'Southwark Fair' at the National. I was hoping for more substance from the play but it was fun and it was gay. Margaret Tyzack, a film favourite of my mother's many years ago, was in fine crusty form but I'm leaving that role in my play with with Anne Reid. The waiter character, the 'barista', played by Michael Legge (pictured, by the English Channel where my play is also set), came into his own in the second half. He's from Ireland. How's his Glaswegian accent? He's down on my card as a possible Cameron.
I'd trade a lot for a good production starring any of them. Come on theatres. I'm just one young actor short of a full cast. Get reading.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The best gay jungle story ever?


While rooting around various critical texts recently, I found an essay comparing D.H.Lawrence's The Prussian Officer with Walter Baxter's Look Down in Mercy. Lawrence's book is homoerotic and consumed by loathing. The Baxter was utterly new to me and of a far higher order. It has to be one of the best books about the second world war, set largely in Burma before shifting to India. It has the same officer and batman premise as The Prussian Officer but actually allows for love, and discreetly written sex, between the two men. The war scenes are unflinching, and the topic of homosexual love in the forces is embraced to an astonishing degree for 1951.
Does it have a happy ending? I want such endings in gay fiction, and could just about have fashioned one for this book. I wanted a happy ending for the novel I've just finished writing, but books build up such head of steam they steer their own way. Still, this book closes in a powerful enough way that you can just about take as affirmative if you're desperate to do so.
In the back of my copy the reader has written another book title: 'In the Absence of Magic' by Ernst Pawel. Another unknown classic maybe? I've just found a copy on the ever trusted abebooks so now one is on its way to me from 'Martin's Books' in Wales - it seemed to have my name on it! I'll let you know how it turns out.

And a PS ... I've just found the following on Abe Books. An autograph letter from Walter Baxter and the first bit of his biography I've been able to find. "Book Description: Good ALS, 2pp, 4to, Hotel Miramar, Gerona, Spain, 21 July 1952. Baxter's response is to a gentleman in Philadelphia who had enquired as to the availability of the manuscript of Baxter's novel Look Down in Mercy. Baxter, just beginning to try and make a living as a writer, considers selling his manuscript, because, though his book is a success, the financial rewards for a first novel aren't that great except in the form of congratulations from the publishers and critics. Baxter places a fairly high price on his manuscript, $1500.00, (". the book will live and probably always rank among the first three of the vast number of books written about World War II''), and writes that to accept less would not be of much help. In very good condition. Baxter, born in 1915, served in World War II in India and Burma. In addition to Look Down in Mercy (1951) he also wrote The Image and the Search (1953)." He's right to be so confident about the book in terms of quality. And how typical of course, his penurious state. The money will do him little good now, but that letter's all yours for £59.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Birds of good omen



The writer and friend Sara Maitland calls to tell me she's seen a pair of hen harriers on her land. The land holds the ruin on moorland near the western edge of Dumfries & Galloway in Scotland, where she is building her hermitage and writing retreat.

So of course I long to be there myself. SOME of me wants what you can get from a big city pulse, but MOST of me wants to be writing in some wilderness spot. Even remote disconnected shacks in Scotland go for more than I would like to budget - compare them with places in Normandy and the heart starts moving south.

Still it's all wishful thinking. I'm in Britain, my house is for sale but no takers, and I need to do a great deal of UK based research for a couple of books in any case. And spring will surely come and life be not so bad.

Just a few weeks ago I was watching a trio of black eagles circle above me in Zimbabwe. But even here in Bedfordshire the birds can do well. Hosts of goldfinches crowd the feeder. And on finishing a longterm novel recently I went for a walk beside the River Ivel. A heron, my bird of good omen, took off from the bank. Then a kingfisher skimmed the surface of the water. Some way along a kestrel was sitting on a wire. Then I saw a cormorant diving for fish. And the blackbirds and robins were singing their hearts out. Nature's often in accord with writing in that way. It's heartwarming.

Author in Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe, Jan 2006 Posted by Picasa

kicking off

What's my 'writer's state' as I kick off this blog?

A new novel out, SLIPPERY WHEN WET from Transita.One just finished as part of a creative writing PhD at Lancaster University, and the first draft of the thesis for that done a moment ago. A play out through an agent four months ago, another two months needed for the response. A biography of J.S.Haldane commissioned by Simon & Schuster UK. Writing a book on 'Mentoring for Creative Writers' with Sara Maitland, for New Writing North. Teaching Creative Writing. The usual mix of a full range of jobs as you try to earn the living to do the stuff.

That's my hello.

My website is MartinGoodman.com

See you around!