Friday, May 30, 2008

Research for writers - from Walton Castle to Monaco


I took a break away from the university recently - just five days, a long weekend, so where's that get you as a writer in the 'academy'?
Well around around Europe for a start. First stop was Walton Castle in Somerset, hired for her husband's birthday by an actor friend. It was my first castle house party ... staying in one of the battlement towers, splashing around in the indoor pool, dining most finely (mmm for venison carpaccio) with walks along the seashore to the Victorian Clevedon Pier, chatting about films mostly (most likely when you're with film actors, composers and directors). So as drink flows and talk grows more wild, it all goes down to 'research'. I've got a fresh venue, insider gossip, lots of toilet tales, a whole welter of stuff for future fiction.
Then it was on to Monaco - standing by the yachts at Cap Ferrat on the Saturday afternoon, I reminded James that we'd been strolling the wet sands at Weston Super Mare just the day before. The Riviera has a whole host of resorts in a tiny area. We were visiting new friends, and conversation ranged across many venues ... Jean Cocteau's painted temple, mountain villages, the palace of Monte Carlo, and several circuits of the Grand Prix track (we were entering race week).
Of late I've been going to familiar places - our place in France, up and down between Plymouth and London. But then of course that Plymouth London run is still fresh for me ... and a very recent story was set in those very locations, with a boat trip out across my daily view out over the waters of Plymouth Sound.
My writing had always been fuelled by places I've visited. I've always learned from conversations I've overheard. This all reminds me to get out more!

Kate Lyall Grant and Babs Horton - the author / editor relationship


How many lunches are there in a year? Kate Lyall Grant, a senior editor at Simon and Schuster (seen here on the left), came down to Plymouth the other day for the launch of Babs Horton's new book Recipes for Cherubs. She graciously came along to talk to our MA students the next day, alongside Babs, giving us the inside take on an author-editor relationship. Kate works with 80 agents, and suggests that a requirement of a successful agent is that they are based in London - for an agent must build up relationships with editors over coffee and lunch.
The buzz is good for Babs' new book. Apparently for an editor to take on a new commercial fiction title she must be pretty confident of 32,000 sales. Babs (the Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Plymouth University) is well on target, her book picked up by the supermarket chain Asda, and a healthy 120 copies bought and signed on the launch night.
It's interesting to learn once again about the supreme power of single bookbuyers in the large chains. Six months of work on a cover, with a product that delights an editor, has to be thrown away if the book buyer doesn't approve. Happily Bab's new book has the look of a winner: a touch of class, a touch of the exotic, a touch of mystery. Now Beryl Cook has passed on (a lovely obituary in the Guardian gives a fine taste of that artist's penchant for Plymouth) Babs is set to be the city's new grande dame of the arts.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sarah Anderson's HALFWAY TO VENUS


Tuck your thumb between your second and middle finger, sit down in a Turkish cafe, and those you are with may either thump or laugh at you. You're making as obvious and vulgar gesture in their culture as giving them the finger. This trait of mine is something that runs in families, I now learn, and is shared by around 5% of the population.
I picked this information up from Sarah Anderson's Halfway to Venus. The book is filled with cross-cultural, time-bending insights into the roles played by hands and arms in history and society. Sarah's quest for mastery of the subject stems from the loss of her own left arm at the age of ten. It was amputated to prevent the spread of a rare form of cancer.
Sarah's a friend, but it needs no such close reference to find the early chapters extraordinarily affecting. The reality of a girl's losing her arm is a poignant tale. Somehow childhood illness is something we are protected from as though it hits out at our own presumed innocence. As a child I was stopped from entering a children's ward at a hospital, for what I might see there would be too disturbing. Sarah leads us through the drama of a child's experience of amputation. We see how it touches the lives of her parents, siblings and friends, and even more acutely of course herself ... and the degree to which everyone seeks to separate themselves from the loss. Ten years passed before Sarah was able to ask the question of her parents, Why did this happen? A brisk answer came back and the subject was changed. Imagine, losing an arm, going through the pain of that, yet not knowing why.
This is one of those 'had to be told' stories, for that's the nature of good books, the telling of tales that establish their own truth against a societal norm. The book is tender yet strong, and shifts out into wide terrain just as Sarah has done (an expert traveller, she set up the travel bookstore that became the model for the book shop in the film Notting Hill). She deals with losses of arms in fiction, to which I here add another fine novel, involving a camerawoman's loss of a hand while climbing a sacred mountain in Zimbabwe then going home to face the family in Scotland, Sara Maitland's Home Truths.
I love the 'never say die' spirit in books. Halfway to Venus exemplifies that, as do Sarah's own publishing exploits. This story is self-published by Sarah's company Umbrella Books, the publishing story making gripping reading of its own kind on its own blog. It's not just self-publishing, it's publishing on your own terms. It's a brave, and bracingly successful, achievement. I attended a launch the other day in 50 Albemarle Street, home of the publisher John Murray. With its portraits and its shelves of leather spines the building is redolent of British publishing history. Sarah joins those literary ranks with this book, which is achieving a remarkable series of reviews and high-profile appearances. Grab your copy now before it runs through its second and third editions!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

S.S. Laurentic

Morning news bulletins headlined the S. S. Laurentic the other day - it was an odd experience, having one of my more arcane research specialties exciting everybody.

J. S. Haldane pioneered the diving research that allowed divers to work at great depth. In 1917 a leader of that diving team, Guy Damant, came out of retirement to lead the salvage crew reclaiming the gold bullion from the seabed near Ireland. The S. S. Laurentic had secretly been carrying the British Government's funds to pay for US war armaments ... and the gold had to be recovered.

After the war Haldane went out to survey the continuing salvage operation ... the story is told in my book Suffer & Survive. Now (and this is the news part) it's possible to buy a share in the ruined hulk of the great ship, and any of the remaining gold bars that might come to light. It's £50 per share ... (though my book comes cheaper is you want to grab the full story first!).

As with much of the Haldane story, it's hard for me to let the tale of the Laurentic go. As with buried treasure, my research has brought to light a 'buried citation', another scrap of the Laurentic story I need to check out at the British Library. As with the Titanic, this is a White Star liner tragedy that has lots more narrative legs in it yet.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Short Stories

I thought teaching contemporary poetry here at Plymouth University might trigger me back to writing my own. Well, not quite. The creative writing teacher's load is much more full-on in the UK university system than in the US. I managed a novel in the past year by embracing the freedom of summer 2007, but the preparation / teaching / marking / admin aspects of the job stopped anything else squeaking through.
Now summer's just about touching the UK again. A marking load is set to swamp my May, but I've just had a few more relaxed days. In choosing the works for next year's story module, I've been reading and reading short stories. I was shooting for The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, Richard Ford's recent selection, then shot back to his previous one. They both contain real gems but quite a deal of American realist sameness. I needed a collection I could love. Years ago, at the now defunct Pan Bookshop in London, I attended a reading given by Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and Jonathan Raban - quite a heady trio. Carver has since won himself classic, posthumous status. Raban was the most fun. Ford, fresh from The Sportswriter, was genial enough but one from the jock school of writing, too dry for me. His introductions to both books manage to stultify.
Daniel Halpern's The Art of the Story is a marvellous anthology drawn from around the world. Sadly it's not available enough to make a core text in the UK (a reissue, please!). I'm opting instead for the recent anthology drawn together by Zadie Smith, The Book of Other People, and a surprisingly terrific collection called Poolside. Printed on paper you can take into the bath with you, it contains fourteen poems based around swimming, from Hemingway and Cheever through to A.M.Homes and David Foster Williams.
Reading Edna O'Brien's contribution on the train, a tale of a woman at her celebrated lover's houseparty (called 'Paradise') a story of my own began to filter through. It seems all my story reading had placed me in the right space. Four characters, a setting, and off I went, pursuing their story as it unfolded. I've wrapped it up in 3,500 words, a delightful experience all round, my first wholly new short story in years.
I've come to see again what a beautiful form it is. Charles Baxter, in an essay I read recently, spoke against epiphanies. I'm all for them. I don't need characters to be manoeuvered into opportunities in which they see the light. I just need them to be true to themselves, to chase down their own stories. I suppose for me an epiphany is simply catharsis. I re-read Katherine Mansfield's 'The Garden Party' on the train last summer, and closed the story in tears. You know something hidden inside of yourself, some quiet pain perhaps, has been brought into the light and healed a little.
The close of Poolside achieved the same effect. Julie Orringer (a new writer for me, born in 1973, though astonishingly I'm set to teach student writers born in 1990 next year)first published 'The Isabel Fish' in The Yale Review. It is a tale about grief, and beyond that it is the finest brother and sister tale that I know. The boy is sixteen, the girl fourteen, the narration is hers, the truth and the toughness and the compassion are beautifully done. No train compartment this time, just me on the couch before breakfast, cup of tea to hand and the morning sun slanting through the high windows. My tears washed me clean for the day.


Julie Orringer's notebook for the story is worth checking out online.

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