Friday, March 31, 2006

The Exegesis Point - PhDs in creative writing

Ray Robinson started his PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University at the same time as myself. In the second year his book Electricity was already published by Picador. Click on the 'Academic' button of his website
and you can read what part the PhD played in his process - and how he is now moving on to what he terms the 'exegesis', which he's calling 'Making Electricity'.
I might start calling my own final stage 'exegesis' - sounds appropriately grand. My own 20,000 words is termed 'Living on the Edge: Ectopia and its context". For a while this section was going to be called 'The Autobiography of a Book', the book giving her own account of her creation. These PhDs are odd things though - creative writing departments sit inside English departments, who in effect seem to feel like they are giving harbour to a storm. My own account of the makings of my novel comes replete with footnotes - and in fact the book did gain from a breadth of comparative reading that I would not normally have brought into the creative process. Also to a reading / re-reading of all of James Purdy's novels, and an interview with the man. The 'exegesis' is a compromise between creativity and academia, but even as a new creative process that is interesting. Come the viva, the whole work has to be defensible in front of someone who may come from a purely academic setting. My final PhD job is to tauten the academic arguments of this section of the work.
In publishing Electricity Ray was already required to make the compromises required by the commercial world. He wanted wholly black pages to represent the lead character's collapse into a period of epilepsy. The editors insisted on pages of blurred script instead. What's the game here? Saving money on ink?
Standards of the readings you get on the PhD programme are incredibly high. It's a treat to be freed from commercial logic for a time and simply be steered toward ever finer creative cohesion and breadth of invention.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Readers' Groups

My reading's gone wild at the moment, covering so many areas. Victorian coalmining's a current favourite, joining a whole slew of science history for my Haldane biography. Science fiction involving male pregnancies becomes necessary for my PhD. Current fiction in Zimbabwe for an article for the Edinburgh Review. Reading work that comes in to my tutoring side. Then the old wildcard for non-work related fun. So I don't think I'll be joining a reading group yet awhile.

I've just posted a Readers' Group Guide to Slippery When Wet though. It tells why Slippery makes such a good book group choice as well as offering conversation points etc. And I'm happy to take part in other people's groups in whatever way I can - by phone or visit - if you want to take on the book. Let me know.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mulisch, Kadare and Writers' Talks


I used to head to writers' talks. All of them were worth it for two luminous encounters - with James Baldwin in Glasgow and Ray Bradbury in Los Angeles. A fair few others were uninspiring but OK - writers seldom make good performers it seems. Occasionally the transparency of a public performance undermines a reputation - was Doris Lessing just a lousy reader of her work, or had she really become a rotten writer? I had to suspect the latter after sitting through an evening with her.
Writers don't necessarily make great readers.
I tried Toni Morrison out on audio book, reading her own work. I had to give up after half an hour. I couldn't focus on the work, such was my concern for the state of her lungs. Her breath control couldn't get her through a sentence without gasping.
The South Bank pulled me out for a rare appearance (by me) at a writers' event last night - Harry Mulisch and Ismail Kadare being far from the usual suspects in these platform performances. I don't know Kadare's work (an Albanian, winner of the first International Man Booker award) but loved Mulisch's The Assault.
Kadare reading in Albanian was way preferable to Mulisch in English. Boy did Mulisch drone on - Kadare pleasingly crisp, with a translator in his wake, but Mulisch was like a foreign student struggling with the language of his end of term paper.
Kadare spoke in French for the Q&A period. He was pleasingly lucid, with considered words and a whole architecture of thought that was well shaped. He made a jolly comparison between the voyage of Columbus, which gave nothing to literature, and the near conemporary journey of an idiot from one Spanish village to another, which gave literature one of its masterpieces. Literature arises from the twilight zone of life. He viewed Albanian literature as part of Balkan literature, which stems back beyond the Greek tragedies. Literature stems from the sadder side of life, but this is not pessimism on the part of the writer. 'In Greek tragedy you can find everything but pessimism', as with Shakespeare and Marlowe. The writer's tone is more comparable to the emotion you find in a funeral procession. You appreciate life more from the sadness and gravity you feel at a funeral.
Writing from the Balkans has a great orality, and a consequent monumentalism. Greek tragedies had a few scripts for the actors, but for everyone else the delivery was oral. Epic writing is clear, dense and compact, to be compatred with the writing on tombstones. The oral tradition explains why masterpieces like Oedipus Rex are so simple. As an adolescent, Kadare found the simplicity of that play truly disappointing. Rather sweetly, he went on to reflect that adolescents all over the world find a similar problem.

My notes from Mulisch, scribbled in the dark, are sparser. He was not so coherent, and was less engaged with the process of writing - perhaps a little more engaged with his own image. He grew up wanting to be a scientist, writing landing on him at 18, so while he decries the notion of anyone 'becoming a writer', for one simply is a writer, he's outside my own court. One is a human being, yet it takes continuous effort to achieve the conscious state of being a good one. He saw a historical novel making 'things less guilty', so that evil becomes beautiful (eg Macbeth). His take that Stalin inspires few books because he was not intrinsically evil, simply part of the Soviet system, whereas Hitler was truly evil, so the writer's role is to diminish him and make him ordinary, is open to debate.
Was I illumined by the evening? Not dynamically. But in Kadare I did come across a writer I liked as a being, and felt genuine sympathy with. The format of the evening, the confused questioning from the chair, did not shine the best light on him, yet still he glowed softly.

Monday, March 27, 2006

On the J.S.Haldane trail in Oxford

Across to Oxford today for a journey into J.S.Haldane territory as I follow the trail of the man's biography.
First stop was a meeting with his granddaugher Lois Godfrey (the daughter of the novelist Naomi Mitchison). A delightful lady, and wonderful to have made contact at last with someone who knew my subject - and indeed in the genetic terms which Haldane would have understood, still had the man himself coursing through her.
Then a little voyaging around the streets of North Oxford and Summertown. First to Wolfson College, built on the site of Haldane's home, Cherwell. The home was demolished - a cold Scottish baronial affair, two toilets to sixteen bedrooms - but the site by the river is still redolent of the times. My project felt graced as I walked across the neighbouring meadows.
Then via the Dragon School (where the Haldane children were sent) to his home at 11 Crick Road - the present owner, Sir Roger Elliott, kindly allowing this wandering strange biographer through the door. 4 St Margarets Road, where Haldane set up an early laboratory on the top floor, is now student accommodation.
Oxford needs more visits - various archives are sequestered away, and most universities have dismissed their librarians as work becomes digitized so access to papers is hard. I need to get a true sense of the city, 1880 - 1936, but this was another fine day on the research road. Little pieces slotting together, and some of those necessary curious details that bring a life to life.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Everything in F

John Barlow's just elected me to his 'Organist Writer's Club'.
Play everything in F was my approach, go especially soft when you don't know the tune, and everyone called it sensitive accompaniment.
I was primed for the Thringstone residency he mentions by earlier years with my mother. She had a spell at running an entertainment agency. We would be sitting round the table at home, she would shriek, tell me to grab my music, and I'd be whisked off in her black Mercedes 200SE (reg: KAY 1E) to fill in for a booking she had forgotten about - normally one of those charity gigs she wasn't going to get paid for in any case. So nurses massed on stage at the Bingo club to sing out carols, or a stand in organist for Lougborough's Spiritualist church.
Home organ was a three manual Conn, nice and theatrical, 'The Organist Entertains' on Radio 2 spinning out fabulous whirls of noise once a week.
Does anyone still play the electronic organ? Hammond got the sound right, great for jazz (especially Ramsey Lewis) but the rest is strictly end of the pier material. I bet there's still a summer residency at the end of Eastbourne Pier, John Mann pulling at the heartstrings.

small rooms and opera

Jenufa (English Touring Opera) at Cambridge was tremendous last night - tight-sprung and intense as ever, glorious singing and playing. And how fine to experience it in the relative intimacy of the Arts Theatre (how they fund it I don't know - more than sixty it seems, in the singers and players and crew, and the auditorium half full).
I love opera in small venues - a perk of last night was decamping to the Keynes Box for a touch of extra privacy, since it was empty (Keynes started the theatre). I once spent a year touring with Scottish Opera for Youth, and some of the most thrilling opera-going experiences of my life have been those of Scottish Opera Go Round, several singers and a piano in the village halls of Scotland.
The greatest small grand opera performance I've known was an operatc singing postman in his mailroom on board a train traveling through Italy - singing to the girl I was with rather than me, his voice resounding off the metal walls as he plied her with full-throated Verdi and Puccini.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Jez Butterworth's 'The Winterling' @ the Royal Court

A bracing evening at The Royal Court last night. Jez Butterworth's 'The Winterling' is a high energy play with a thrill to the writing. Great rhythm to the language, and magnificent solo runs for each of the actors. Four males and a woman on the edge of Dartmoor, the menace of urban and rural life packed in a single room, it's no comedy but gusts of laughter still burst round the audience. What a relief. It's often sad seeing the effort playgoers go to, their yearning to have a good time so active they scape up laughs at the vaguest hint of humour. Here great lines had a spot on cast and direction from Ian Rickson. New and especially fine for me was Daniel Mays as Patsy, his body gawky yet electric, real vibrant humour in the playing.
The second half, despite the gutsy new character of Sally Hawkins, was slacker. 'One Year Later' in lights at the beginning perhaps spelled trouble - that same reverse chronology, catching up with itself in a third act, spoiled the good start of 'Southwark Fair' recently. Has any playwright worked this trick well? Is it always a sign of a play not knowing where it's going? We came to the end and there was the longest silence I've heard at the close of a play. No-one was sure it had ended. Only when the stage lights came on and the actors stood in a line did we know to applaud. Then the auidence was whooping (friends in?).
Jez Butterworth (pictured) is old enough, praise be. The energy of his language is raw yet polished, and while violence soaks the atmosphere it doesn't soak the floor - the only blood is a runny nose. So many young male playwrights (maybe women too, Sarah Kane?) get off on violence - I guess I did too - but you grow out of it.
A playwright not to be jealous of - his play deserved all the care, time, sweat and expertise lavished on it. Listen for the pulse of Stephen Warbeck's music too. Perfect.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The National Archives at Kew


I had my first day out at the National Archives in Kew yesterday. They're housed in a vast modern building, with extremely friendly staff, all astonishingly abuzz with people. Parties of tiny schoolchildren were being whisked somehow into the wonders of textual research, while a lot of old couples seemed to be researching the recesses of their memories.
I was on the track of J.S.Haldane's wartime experiences, his visit to the trenches in 1915. A rather touching diary by Professor Hubert Baker had some intimate details. How wonderful that biographers have such accomplices, penning firsthand accounts from wartime cross-channel ferries.
I had hoped for hands-on Churchill and Kitchener material, though predictably you are relegated to microfiche machines for those. A good swathe of correspondence from bridagier generals though, as they sorted out the facts of the battles at Ypres between themselves.
I'm on track with this biography now, my home archives sitting in some semblance of order. It's fun burrowing away through archives to discover the sounds, smells and emotions of a century ago.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Bookbuying in Sandy Beds

I admire the man who said 'Whenever I hear about a good new book, I rush out and buy an old one.'
Here's my own local bookstore - the local branch of the Sue Ryder charity shop. I used to borrow shopping carts to take my old books to Oxfam. Now I'm collecting again. I find I need them for teaching, so some of the old favourites return when I find them. And it's grand to have a selection of unread books on the shelves.
Yesterday saw a first edition of Paul Theroux's 'the Family Arsenal' come back with me, and my John Wyndham colection (a teenage favourite) had 'The Midwich Cuckoos' added to it. Books by Wodehouse. Elizabeth Bowen, Mary Renault, Peter Ackroyd, field guides to Europe's mountain flowers and the birds of East Africa. I do better for less than any bookstore - paperbacks 80p, hardbacks £1.30.
It means building up a notional community too, like with the library - someone near me has also owned and read these books. I suspect someone who works at the local RSPB national headquarters.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

'Q&A' by Vikas Swarup - who's an unreconstructed Indian macho kind of guy

I'd heard jolly things about Vikas Swarup's Q&A. It seemed a perfect book for a journey - simple language, big print, engaging characters.
It is a breezy book with novel construction - the chronology following the run of questions in a 'Who wants to be a Millionaire?' style contest.
Added to the usual 'wait and see how it turns out' elements, I read on to see if Swarup would ameliorate the book's homophobia before it ended. No such luck.
We have two gay characters in the book. Both of them are paedophiles. The first is a film star. From the 'brush of homosexuality'film magazine tarnishes the actor Q&A's narrator leaps to the assertion, "I, too, know of perverts and what they do to unsuspecting boys. In dark halls. In public toilets. In municipal gardens. In juvenile homes.'
So gays are perverts and prey on boys in dark places and those in care.
You might, just conceivably, excuse such homophobia as being true to a character - and hope that it is set in context within the book. No such excuse allowable for Swarup here. In the pages of personal statements he gives at the end of the book he explicitly identifies his own views with his character's.
He posits Alan Hollinghurst's 'A Line of Beauty' as one of is favourite books. What did he do, trawl through it to find things that disgusted him?
Mothers don't come out of the book too well either. Nor do brothers. But then those categories are hardly subjects of regular smear campaigns. I doubt the book's homophobia has done the book any harm in sales terms. Swarup's pandering to the masses.
I could do with learning about some positive views of gays in Indian or African novels. In Zimbabwe in January a female sculptor provoked a furore by including a wooden figure of two naked females embracing, called 'Lovers'. Artist and gallery manager were anxious for the world to know they weren't condoning homosexuality, indeed the manager wanted the press to know she was a mother. It was simply that lesbians existed so they could be represented in art. That's better than denial but they have a long way to go.
And Swarup has even further. Homosexuality is already illegal in India, gays driven to the margins or to suicide. One hopes that artists will learn how to challenge the evils of their society, not milk them.

A feature on being gay in India

Monday, March 20, 2006

Henry Fielding in Lisbon

Reading The Discovery of Slowness the other day, I was surprised when the principle character of John Franklin, on a visit to Lisbon, was walked off to visit the grave of Henry Fielding.
Always prone to a literary pilgrimage myself, my own journey to the grave was the highlight of a Saturday in Lisbon. Knock on the gate, and ultimately a magnificent tiny lady, all smiles and Portuguese jokes about her own deafness, let us in. The sun shone but she was wrapped in a wreathe of Tibetan style woollen clothing and hat.
Fielding's grave is fairly simple to find, a stone casket raised high and surmounted by an urn. It seems a pleasing place to end up - the English cemetery was set out on the instructions of Cromwell, a place of soaring trees, butterflies, graves overflowing with wild garlic, dappled shadows. Fielding came to Lisbon for his health. he hated the place apparently and died two months later - a joke good enough for Tom Jones.
I stood near his remains and gave thanks for his life, for the fun of his books, for his role as a pioneer. Few writers have had so strong an impact, breezing a 'devil-may-care' attitude into art, breaking through boundaries and treading new ground for us to follow.
'Bye bye' the little lady said, waving a benediction as we stepped out through the gates. Fielding is in good hands.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

My inner grown woman

I re-read John Wyndham's 'Consider Her Ways' recently, his speculation about a future world in which male humans have been rendered redundant. Oxford based Transita don't exactly need men, but they did read Slippery When Wet and allow me in. They asked me to write my experiences of being the only male writer on their list. How rare is such a being in the annals of publishing? Here's my response:

I’ve been flexing my feminine side. “It’s from my inner grown woman,” I told Transita when I introduced them to Slippery When Wet. Now I am the one male author on Transita’s list.
Who trained my feminine side?
My mother, I guess. My father wanted me to join his shooting parties and the village cricket team. My mother was having none of it. She was used to having her way. Since her way meant music, reading and writing, that was fine by me. My father fell asleep on the sofa while I joined my mother’s friends in the kitchen, talking them through their weariness with marriage. They drank and let rip with fantasies about life free them from the drudgery of their men. It was all grand training for an adolescent writer.
Home at that point was the Old Rectory in Rempstone, Nottinghamshire. Oliver Cromwell was taught there, and two writers lived in my bedroom before me. One was Cecil Roberts, the best-selling novelist of the 1950s. The other was the food writer Dorothy Hartley, who fed raw meat to owls at what became my bedroom window. The house features in Cecil Roberts’s fine novel ‘Scissors’ and in Dorothy Hartley’s classic ‘Food in England’. I travelled with my father to stay the night with Hartley at her home in Wales. Miss Hartley was the first woman to travel from Cape Town to Cairo, driving a Ford 7, but that was the past. Now was the present. Old beyond debate, she uncorked the wine and decided to seduce my father. She was a force of nature.
Men are great beings for entering ruts. Women seem to carry a bounty of reinvention along with them. Each day, each moment, they can become a newer version of themselves. Women are as constant, as vital, as unpredictable as weather.
Transita’s motto, ‘grown books for grown women’, is a heady and dangerous recipe. It’s like ‘storm clouds for mountain eagles’ or ‘child rearing tips for pumas’, something as tame as that.
Work out a thread of the potential and desires of a grown woman, unleash her on a world more used to the stale routine of men, and all you can do is admire and enjoy and learn and be amazed.
I’m glad Maggie chose to stride through the pages of Slippery When Wet. It was bracing to come to know her. I hope she gives readers some of the boon I have received from the women who form my own life.

Bookworm on the Net

Bookworm on the Net - including an interview with myself. Scroll down to the bottom to find it.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Absinthe and Pessoa

I grew up thinking a couple of maladies were expected of a writer - TB and absinthe.
I seem to have skipped the TB. Absinthe was passing me by but I don't think it ever became illegal in Portugal. We tried ordering before dinner in Lisbon's 'Restaurante Martinho da Arcada'. The waiter advised waiting to have it as a digestiv instead, or else be slaughtered. It's 70% proof, down from the 90% of yore (still available in the Netherlands, according to the waiter). He reckoned that the 90% accounted for the odd mental condition of Pessoa, seen in pictures on the walls.
Pessoa was a poet, but beyond that he is an icon in the city. See his table in the picture, preserved as a shrine under his photo, where he came nightly after his day job as a translator, to drink his absinthe and write. In his trilby and his round spectacles, his image is all over the city - stencilled as graffiti, in paintings in Sintra library, as statues, as tile decoration.
We shared that dinner with the Pessoa Society, who meet and eat and drink in the restaurant once a month. It was a good mix of ages, all standing and drinking and applauding the memory of the man after hearing readings and speeches. It's touching to see writers remembered so thoroughly and clearly.
And the absinthe? Boy. No wonder Pessoa only published one book in his lifetime. The rest were composed throiugh different voices and alter egos and found in a trunk under his bed when he died. The throat disappears as you swallow, and the green stuff vaporizes the brain.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Russian double basses

I sat near the double bass section of the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra last night - a bracing all-Russian concert in Cambridge. I presume double bass players travel with their own instruments - but the double basses looked like a job lot from a junkyard. Dull worn wood covered with scratches. Yet the players stood on stage in their dark formal suits, bowing and plucking up a storm. They've been through the mill I guess, yet keep on playing.
Keep on aiming for the masterpiece, never giving in, I suppose that's what the game's about. I used to argue the toss with my mother over which writer's life was worth emulating: her R.F.Delderfield, who I believe gave up writing to sit in contented retirement on some Cornish or Devon shore; and my D.H.Lawrence, who raged and wandered till the end.
Sibelius, after years of neglect, won a state pension, and never wrote another note. As I get older, I come to see the comfort in such a stance. I guess I'm one of the rage till death camp though.
As of course was my mother. It would have been her birthday yesterday, the Ides of March. She's the dedicatee of my new novel, Slippery When Wet. I wrote the first draft as a 60th birthday present for her, a 'keep on going, life hasn't even started yet' sort of gift. Many drafts on she died, much too early, so never read the final volume. She worked till the end, and was still fighting through a horrendous time in hospital. "I see it coming," she said in her final days. "You're all about to be really successful. And I won't be around to enjoy it. Isn't that just typical." It was a wish for us, and a lament for herself.
Wishing, striving and lamenting to the end. It's the stuff of Russian masterpieces.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

let's not talk about angels - critics on Af Klint


Moving to Santa Fe I went to parties, started conversations that touched on the spiritual, and got ready to withdraw as people got touchy - like they always did in Britain. There in New Mexico though, all was different. Sooner than think me a lunatic people started sharing experiences of their own, asking me to say more of mine.
The Guardian has a good piece by Adrian Searle today on the artist Hilma af Klint. Searle loves the work, but look how he starts: "In some respects, the world will never be ready for the occult symbolism and spiritualist gibberish that her work was derived from, and from which she gained her inspiration. Although the same peculiar beliefs attend the work of pioneering artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky and malevich, they never suggested, as did Af Klint, that their work was guided by an imaginary "leader in the spiritual world". For Af Klint, this was a certain Ananda, who in 1904 told her "she was to execute paintings on the astral plane."
I doubt Af Klint saw Ananada as 'imaginary'. He was clearly real to her, as was a sober life dedicated to his guidance. The article tells how she prefigured great art movements, how the second world war was prophesied in her art. It's a fine piece, but gives no credence at all to the artists' stated source of her work. Great art, how odd the madness.
And how tight-arsed the UK, and critics, still are about anything overtly 'spiritual'. Is tight-arsed too harsh a term for someone's considered beliefs? Not when he terms someone else's beliefs 'gibberish'.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Postcard from Lisbon


Our first trip in Lisbon was to a cafe near the water - and already we had entered the city´s literary history. Restaurante Martinho da Arcada saw the poet Fernando Pessoa sip absinthe here every evening while writing. His table is still set out for him, with his books, his glass and coffee cup. Another table is dedicated to the Nobel prizewinner Jose Saramago, a regular diner.
I´ll be back, maybe trying absinthe for the first time, thereby discovering why Pessoa hid under the table when lightning flashed.

Off to Sintra yesterday, called Eden by Byron in his ´Childe Harold´. Past a house where Hans Christian Anderson lived as well, on a walk up to the Moorish Castle shrouded in cloud in true romantic mode. Real worl Disney, though the National Palace from the 14th century was surprisingly fine, clean lines and wondrous 3D tiling.

The sun shines. Lisbon appeals hugely. One of the finer aspects is the tiny shops. Rent agreements mean all those places forced out by vast rent hikes elsewhere still survive here. Ive just bought a paper from my favorite paper stand anywhere in the world, a small vaulted corridor with a painted ceiling, dark yet filled with gilt mirrors and plaster swallows perched on old telephone wires along the ceiling.
Drinking, eating magnificent fish dishes, learning to appreciate Portuguese wine and Brazilian cocktails, unwinding. Aaaah.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Creative Writing through Distance Learning


I've been writing tutorials for Lancaster University's Distance Learning Creative Writing MA today. Distance Learning works well for creative writing - while teaching on their MA program I've been doing my Creative Writing PhD at Lancaster in the same mode. The schedule includes a summer school (pictured - I'm the male one in red), online conferences in which students debate each others' work, and a series of written tutorials. Exploring writing by means of writing, without the nuances of facial expression, gesture, voice etc., is a fine skill to develop. It's impressive how much all students work has developed over the last year or so.
Fees for distance learning courses in the UK are lower than campus-based ones, presumably because you make little use of the university's physical structure. I was amused to learn from a colleague in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that the USA works out its fee schedules differently. They reckon distance learning means students can stay at home, so saving residential fees, and can maintain their day jobs. Students have more money, so what do the universities do? Take it from them. They up the fees.
Time for creative writing departments in the UK to market to the US.

Monday, March 06, 2006

LBF and 21st Century publishing


Back to ExCel today for the Book Fair. I've learned the transport trick now, the Docklands Light Railway all the way from Bank. It's driverless fun, up and down steep slopes, high level views of new London all the way.
Next time I'll take a sandwich. Books may be the business of the LBF but all the real queues were for lunch.
What's a writer doing at the Book Fair? Wandering and watching. Visits to stands of publishers past and present - Transita, Heart of Albion and SImon & Schuster UK. A quality freebie, Sara Paretsky signing me a copy of her new novel 'Fire Sale'. And a high-class panel discussion on publishing in the 21st century - Tim Hely Hutchinson presiding, Victoria Barnsley as CEO of Harper Collins; Stephen Page, CEO of Faber, there as the independent; Gill Coleridge as the agent; and Alan Giles, CEO of HMV hence Waterstones, as the retailing voice.
Biggest surprise for everyone was Giles's statement that central buying only accounts for 20% of Waterstone's sales. (Since my 'Slippery When Wet' is high on their category B list for buying, I don't mind that much of the rest of the buying comes from central's recommendations.) Victoria Barnsley's rather excited about Google dispersing all text, is more in fear of Amazon sidestepping publishers to produce their own content. Stephen Page (as he did at a panel last year) is looking forward to more publishing mergers, so publishers gain the clout not to need to discount so heavily. Gil Coleridge foresees everything being affected ever more deeply by the interent, and Barnsley waxed lyrical about Sony's new digital book prototype.
Alan Giles reckoned there was room for the small publishers, fast on their feet catering for niche markets, and for the big boys, but woe betide all those who fall in between.
I have notions still of starting my own literary imprint - hence my wandering really. I'm not discouraged, though there was scarce a model available among the miles of stands. Those presses of note seemed subsumed in group stands so offered no sense of their own identity.
Now back to the quiet, steady, private life of writing.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

'The Cut', selling rights, and a piece on Zimbabwe


Ian McKellen now looks like my last memories of my father. His acting tour de force is one reason to see Mark Ravenhill's The Cut. The audience was admirable too, packing the Donmar and eager for a good night out at the theatre, taking the slightest opportunity to laugh. I hoped for fun, or at least outrageousness, after Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Mollyhouse. 'Twas dreary, though. Picking around in Pinter's furrows like a seagull, Ravenhill came up with mouthfuls of language but no tension. Fine acting. Slack play reaching out for ideas beyond its capacity to embrace them dramatically.

I made an early run to the London Book Fair in the afternoon, attending a seminar on 'How to sell rights'. Good presentation, top people. I have some notion of selling other people's rights, and also reckon it's good to know what happens to one's own when the books are carried out into the world by others. Sara Fisher of the agency A.M.Heath fed the platitude 'agents care for the writer's whole career, not just one book' with such conviction I was ready to believe her.

A piece of my own came out in The Guardian yesterday, Writing In Zimbabwe. Odd to see how this online version has a different title, and different editorial spin to the original. I prefer the original. Glad to have the piece in, though, after all the interviews. As all those at the fair agreed, when talking about selling serial rights, newspapers are always liable to 'bounce' your work. Years ago The Guardian bought a piece of mine on a train trip through the Ghobi desert, which never saw the light of day. I'll be posting extended pieces from that Zimbabwe trip through these next weeks, as with the Virginia Phiri piece posted below.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A Meeting with Virginia Phiri, Zimbabwe


While running a creative writing workshop in Bulawayo in January 2006, I asked what writer excited other writers. “Virginia Phiri,” one woman said. She was making her book ‘Desperate’ a set text in a teacher training course she was running. The book choice was confrontational given the conservative social structure of Zimbabwe, being a series of stories with sex-workers as the narrators. “I don’t care what people say though,” the book’s champion declared. “It is beautiful writing.”
Back in Harare I met Virginia Phiri at a book launch, and she agreed to an interview at the British Council offices the next day, February 3rd 2006. I had questions, but did not really need them. “I love people. I love talking,” she says. For over an hour the talk flowed, with only occasional prompting from me. For ‘survival and buying food’ Virginia works as an accountant. Back in 2002 her sister in Bulawayo bought a car. That sister is the family member most like Virginia, the others are ‘normal’, but instead of a car Virginia spent her money that year on the publication of her book. ‘Desperate’ was her tribute to the sex workers who had taken her in, hid her, fed her and saved her life when she was active as a guerrilla fighter in the 1970s liberation war that saw Zimbabwe emerge from the colonial era.
That War of Independence sits behind much of Zimbabwean writing. Few people parade their participation. It sits in the heart of a whole generation of writers, and finds its own way of emerging. Virginia Phiri is also an expert on orchids. She sees the sweep of human drama, but also has an eye for the rarities of life, spotting orchids which other experts have passed by.
“I am from a background of women who are activists,” she told me. “Some were chiefs. My grandmother was a chief’s wife who influenced the chief in good governance. I had an aunt born in Bulawayo who married a foreigner in 1936. She started the burial societies. My paternal men were moneymakers, my maternal men were chiefs. I have always done things in my own way, since primary school,” Choosing to write in the voices of sex workers is surely doing things ‘her own way’, when there is a danger of writers being cast in the same light as their characters.
“Aftrica is an oral culture. The orality of things is selective—we choose what we talk about. Black people in a black community are expected to behave in a certain way. Someone asked me ‘Are you still black?’”
“I believe in speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves. In the 1970s I was rescued by these women, by sex workers. Those people had a heart. They were women, mothers and sisters. They really felt for people. If a man wrote it, he wouldn’t understand how it worked. These women never have the time to sit and write their experiences. They are too shameful, too embarrassing.
“One woman, named Patricia, now in her sixties, could not go back to her village where to be unmarried was shameful. ‘Most of my friends are dead’ she said. ‘When I heard of protection against Aids I took it very seriously. I learned how to use female condoms.’ She is the grandmother of all and looks after her extended family
Most sex workers are the breadwinners. One said to me ‘I need to buy a ticket for my niece to get to London’. My first story, ‘Diary of a Sex Worker’, was originally in Ndebele. Nobody complained. Yvonne Vera wrote to me and said, ‘You are so brave’. I am not encouraging prostitution. I am bringing out the way things are.”
Yvonne Vera is one of the benchmarks for modern writers in Zimbabwe. She ran the National Gallery in Bulawayo for many years, dying of Aids in the US in 2005. Many writers told me how difficult they found her to read, and indeed Virginia Phiri’s ‘Desperate’ has displaced Yvonne Vera’s ‘Stone Virgins’ for those students in Bulawayo. Virginia Phiri marvels at ‘Stone Virgins’ though. She feels it starts with intentional difficulty for the reader, and grows to something sublime and luminous.
Dambudzo Marechere, who died from Aids in1987, is the other writer most voiced as creating a shift in the writing of Zimbabwe. Virginia Phiri cites him as well. “Marechere said we must write how we feel. Self-censorship in an author is very serious. I don’t intend to annoy anyone. When most writers stop self-censoring we will bring out what we want to say.”
Virginia is grateful to her husband. He is supportive of her writing, which she sees as an exception to the norm. “Men don’t want women to have more about them. One woman writer’s husband used her manuscript for his roll-ups and smoked it.”
And what other writers inspire her?
She has just made a film about the South African writer Noni Jabavu, in tribute to the strong effect of reading her ‘Ochre People’. Barbara Nkala, who writes in Ndebele and English, and Chiedza Musengezi, who writes in English and Shona. And across in the States, Toni Morrison.
She is happy to have a growing international reputation herself, but wante her book to find readers in Africa first. “I must start here. I am read all over Africa. I was invited to Colorado because of this book. Churches are buying it. A pastor bought some and sent them abroad.”
Virginia Phiri is working on a sequel to ‘Desperate’ to be called ‘Southern Highway Queen’. And a new novel, ‘Destiny’, dealing with another taboo, this time of visible physical blocks to sexual reproduction, has just gone to her editor. From her independent start, paying for her own publication, publishing houses are now approaching her looking for deals. Her independence is hard-won, though. I doubt she will compromise it in any real way.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Book cover art


Three images here – the book cover to my new novel Slippery When Wet , in its stages of development.
I thought the first image was great. Transita’s sales reps found it too suggestive. They only get seconds to pitch a book with buyers, and feared it might be dismissed as erotica.


So the second image emerged, two legs dangling in a pool. No thanks. Blue water’s OK but the image did not excite me and had nothing to do with the book.
So to the final version, and the book cover. We went back to the first image and lost the outline of the body.

I’m pleased with it.
In fact, it’s the first time I’ve truly liked one of my covers. As a writer I’ve found it hard to use my notional veto in the face of great enthusiasm from editors. It was good to get Christopher Corr as the artist for my first novel, On Bended Knees. He painted his version of the central character on the cover, though. I prefer readers to picture characters for themselves. My next three covers? They did a job, but not much more.
I was chatting to the team that runs David’s Bookshop in Letchworth this week. They like this new cover too, happily. Apparently the artwork for many novels determines the gender of its readership – it says ‘man’s’ or ‘woman’s’ book. They felt Slippery should appeal all round.
Perfect!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Opening a book


Which do you prefer as an opening line?
‘Once, during a summer we spent at Kerneham, Francis locked himself in the church for the whole of a night.’
Or:
“It is when I look at my hands that I believe I am an old man.”

Both sentences come from Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night. She opens with the first sentence. The second one comes in paragraph five.
For my money, that second choice is much the better opening.
In working with writers, I often find their best opening line is buried further into the text. I picked up The Bird of Night last night. It has gripped me now. The writing is taut and fine. But the book takes two or three pages to really firm up on its voice.
You’ve got to start somewhere. By the time you’ve finished a book, though, you’re in much better shape for writing its opening.