Thursday, December 17, 2009

J.S.Haldane and the Hengist


One of the most popular images on my blog is one of the 'Hengist', this biplane (featured in this earlier posting).  As an early holiday present to those plane enthusiasts, here's the one previously not published on the web but in my biography of J.S.Haldane.
J.S.Haldane has been brought back to my attention today, as I have been alerted to the Royal Society's Trailblazer page, where the great man is linked on a timeline (1913). 
I met the man in charge of new exhibits at the Science Museum at Brian Eno's Christmas party the other evening (a cheery occasion, everyone joining in acapella singing) ...  the museum is STILL waiting to honour J.S.Haldane. Come on folks. It's been years since I was told you were onto it, that some due credit would be given to the great man. I'm glad the Royal Society are waking to their own.

Permeability and the writer


I'm back into writing my new novel, after some time away. Much of that time has been given to reading the work of Hilary Mantel. At the post-event dinner with her the other evening, someone asked if her novels would be influencing my own.
'I doubt it,' Hilary offered while I paused. 'I expect your writing is quite fixed.'
'I don't know. I'm pretty permeable,' I admitted in the end. Hilary, for herself, said she wasn't.
One aspect of 'Hilary Mantel' that may have stuck with me is her technique of beginning her sentences with something other than the subject of the sentence - in her case, quite often a time phrase. I've noticed that such avoidance of the standard 'Subject+verb+object' sentence order really helps to sustain narrative drive. I've used Hilary's work, especially her nonfiction pieces in the London Review of Books, to illustrate this to students. She was amused to hear it, had not been consious of the technique herself, and thought it would be amusing to be a 'fly on the wall' of such lessons.
That's a stylistic trick. I do find her ways with images, the appropriation of perfect details, her descriptions of characters, all set a benchmark I'm happy to reach toward.
My permeability stretches further though. When I'm writing, anything I encounter is likely to filter into my work somehow. As I study Zen philosophy, the thoughts I encounter are filtering into the mind of my holocaust survivor. I've just finished reading Francis King's A Domestic Animal, in which a character firmly based on the author scrutinizes his own responses and actions in a bracingly clear-eyed and unsentimental way. As my own novel resumed, it found a new narrative spur, the main character taking on some of the same searing introspection as the Francis King character.
I like this permeability in the writing process, this sense that the writing and the life are the same.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Irish Zen


In a piece about Dublin's new Samuel Beckett Bridge, I came across this line of Beckett's:


"Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness"

There's a fine piece of Irish Zen fo you.

It resounded, in a suitably empty way, with words I then found in Taizan Maezumi's book Teaching of the Great Mountain. The line that struck me followed on from Maezumi's consideration of some last words of the Buddha, after near fifty years of post-enlightenment teaching: 'I've never said a word.'

As I work to penetrate the wordless essence of Zen, here's the line that has most struck me:

'We shouldn't limit our life to what we think it is.'

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Preparing a writer's visit - Hilary Mantel

Doing an interview for The Journal (an East Riding glossy), I realized something about the writers’ events we’re holding at The Philip Larkin Centre (which take an ‘in conversation’ format). They’re theatre. The characters are costumed. We enter and exit the stage, which has been set and lit. We interact with each other, and with the audience. And the events are both scripted and improvised.
Hilary Mantel crowned this first season last Wednesday night. When I took the job at Hull she was my first ‘pick’, the writer I would like to come to know whose writing I most wanted to share with others. My invitation went out way before Booker Prize season. It was a fair guess that she might win, and I felt joy for her alongside trepidation for us when she did. Booker Prize winners are tempted around the world by glitzy offers. Wolf Hall was published in America the week after winning and zipped straight into the top ten bestseller lists, so the demand for Stateside interviews was also intense. Hilary was a trouper, is honouring her diary, and turned up on the East coast in cold December.

I began my preparation last summer, reading her saga of the French revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, 800+ small print pages, one of the most ambitious first novels in history. Wolf Hall stayed on my shelf for a while. I wanted it fairly fresh in my head for our talk, as I set out on a chronological approach through the Hilary Mantel oeuvre.
Questions lurk in my head through those months of reading, and then I start to write down my side of the conversation some days before the ‘show’. These questions move from scrawl to computer screen and are whittled down into my ‘script’. I refine the questions, shift them around, until the talk begins to gather some shape. It’s possibly not apparent to an audience, but I see each of these conversations as having a beginning, middle and end. Themes are broached and then explored, the ‘end’ more of an emotional note, a point when some line of enquiry reaches a high point and we can pause, passing the questioning role over to the audience.
Readings stud the evening, giving us the writer’s voice, her book, and some variety of content. I like selecting the readings because I think this freshens things for the writer—there’s a curiosity of someone having engaged with your work, and the writer is moved out of tried and trusted territory. For Hilary I selected four passages, from different books. From the narrative voice in Wolf Hall, told in the present tense with some use of ‘you’, the reader addressed directly, I had a sense of Hilary Mantel in a Tudor gown, seated and telling us a story, and indeed she is a natural and marvellous storyteller.
I have my ‘script’ to hand, all coloured up with marker pens, sectioned into themes with titles in bold letters. I glance at it, but it’s there for comfort rather than reading. We’ve now entered the improvised nature of the show. I’ve scripted it, but the writer hasn’t. They’re working on trust, and their own vast knowledge of their subject area—their own writing and way of working. I ask a question, and then the writer’s up and flying. There’s no telling where their answer will land them, and so I can’t tell what the best follow-through question will be. I tend to work through my script for content but not order, improvising segues to get us back on my course, while following interesting lines of thought the writer is pursuing.
We’re recording all of these events for the library archives—in sound, but also on film for Hilary Mantel. These recordings will be linked from the Larkin Centre website sometime in the New Year. One of my main hopes for our writers’ events is that my questions, stemming from my own life of writing, trigger unusual responses. I want these talks to be a valuable resource to researchers of the future.
And, of course, for readers now. I’ll leave you to watch / listen to the event yourself when it comes online. Those who were there were astonished by Hilary’s articulate flow. One of the booksales team playfully termed Hilary Mantel her new ‘goddess’ in honour of the encounter, had embarked on reading all her work, and was building an altar in the backroom of the bookstore. One element I particularly enjoyed was Hilary’s sense that bad writing or banal conversation would throw you off your writing stride completely. I like the sensitivity of that. For Hilary, the solution is to read anything by Ivy Compton-Burnett—and only by her, no-one else works in the same way. The way she writes her dialogue has the same ‘tick’ as Hilary’s own, so reading Ivy Compton-Burnett before bed resets her clock, and her writing rediscovers its appropriate speed when she resumes work the next day.
Now my focus shifts. I’m reading my way into Francis King’s writing world for our conversation in London in January. For an occasional evening’s break I may watch a film or two scripted by Christopher Hampton for our February gig (as part of the staging, we’re shifting that to Hull Truck Theatre’s studio space). The lucky part for me, that raises this work far above any sense of chore, is that I get to choose the writers. There’s quite a list of starry names I’ve no interest in meeting. When the writing speaks to me, I have a chance to speak with the writer. Mine’s not a bad job at all.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

American Zen

Six to eight in the morning has become my writing time, before the rest of the university job kicks in. The game of late has been to write up the meagre pages of journal from my days in the Zen Mountain Monastery last September. I like the notion of writers' journals, but find I only keep one when travelling. My notes are minimal. I want to write up the experience while the experience, and its details, are still in my head.
Touching 11,000 words I'm just about done. I do see this as a book in the making, a Zen journal in the tradition of Peter Mathhiessen's Nine-Headed Dragon River. For now that's it, I only have the one episode to write up. In writing about it I come to understand it a little more, see what is there to be learned so I can move on. One phrase hit me this morning, from an interview with Daido Roshi. As advice, it seems to be the very nugget of American Zen. 'Shup up and sit.'