Sunday, 30 August 2009

my giddy aunt

Just back from a weekend in Cumbria, including my first ever festival readings at Solfest.

The spoken word events were organised by the lovely Ann Wilson, and took place in a lovely tent called 'My Giddy Aunt's tent' on both Saturday and Sunday. Ann invited me along to read with her and such a lovely bunch of poets. There was Geraldine Green, James Knight, Dominic Berry, Rod Tame, Sarah Miller, a lovely mix I thought of performance and page poets.

We whooped. We read. We clapped. There were loads of people wandering in and out to listen to our readings, including someone dressed as a carton of milk, many very cute kids, and a few people who looked worse for wear. It was a wonderful festival feel, grassy smells, tent billowing in the wind and a right crowd that piled in when the heavens opened and it started to rain.

One of my highlights were reading my poem 'Bruise' which is about domestic abuse, and having a three year old boy come and stand right in front of me. I got the giggles, and everyone else laughed, and he kept running up to me, so that in the end, I asked his name, and then carried on reading my poem with him staring up at me.

Other highlights were, James Knight's poem 'I got 99 problems but the kitchen aint one', Dominic Berry's very theatrical performance and the shouting of aubergine, the dr who theme tune moment before Rod came on stage, Sarah Miller's brilliant poems about her grandad and her chav love song, Geraldine's Sulphur Beach poem, Ann's poem about snot, actually many of her poems as she is such an engaging performer and balances a beautiful mixture of poems for kids, uplifting poems, sad poems, and banter.

I loved reading there it was a lovely atmosphere, the stage and tent were beautiful, sigh. I mean the weather was a bit poor, typical British August bank holiday rain, wind and clouds. But everything else was fab, festival food, my polka dot wellies, the mud, the usual crazy stuff like people on stilts, fancy dress, hippy stalls, happy drunks, flags everywhere, dancing, la la la.

Friday, 21 August 2009

holiday reading... novels for a change

Picture the scene. Yorkshire Dales. Three miles to the nearest village and no car. A fridge full of food. A pile of books. Rain.

I did actually venture out of the cottage everyday, but a good amount of time was spent with my nose buried in books. I rarely read novels. With work being so busy and a hundred other things (like my love of short fiction, which dominates my reading time). So, this week, I ventured into the countryside with only novels, wanting to indulge myself in that almost forgotten thrill of truly immersing myself in a story and not emerging until I've turned the last page.

I picked four very different novels.

This was a wonderful freebie from dovegreyreader that I was lucky enough to win in one of her prizedraws. A beautiful hardback edition. I'm afraid I could gush about Sarah Waters for a very long time, oh how I love her writing. She has to be one of the most exciting novelists around. I need to try and summarise, otherwise I will talk about this book all day.

It's set post-second world war. Dr Faraday is a local doctor just before the onset of the NHS. Hundreds Hall is a crumbling old Georgian house, that the eccentric Ayres family can't afford to keep but are clinging onto. Imagine a few war injuries, weird unexplained happenings in the house, a dog bite, a bit of madness, a creeping kind of unrequited love, the loss of a child, tradition vs the modern way, 1940's medicine and lunatic asylums, and you might get a hint of what might occur as the novel progresses. As with every Sarah Waters novel, the tension is pitched perfectly. Her characterisation is wildly authentic so it feels as though these people are real and the events unfolding are actually happening. Her attention to historical detail is, as expected, intricately researched (medicine at the time, the life of landed gentry, the decaying of the aristocracy, post-war politics, the planning for the National Health Service). I was drawn in, haunted by this novel, completely taken in every way.

There were echoes from other novels - the ghostly side reminded me of the spiritualism in Affinity, the way she writes about maids/servants and their place in these families, reminded me of Fingersmiths. But even with these slight echoes, the material is vastly different. She creates an authentic sense of place, in a particular period in time. I was transported there. The voice, the immediacy, my involvement in the book meant, I didn't want to stop reading, but at the same time had a sense of dread at turning the pages as I had no idea what was going to happen next. A thrilling read. I certainly hope The Little Stranger wins the Booker.

A difficult act to follow The Little Stranger. I felt only a writer like Ian McEwan could measure up. I've read all his books, apart from On Chesil Beach. A very slim book, a novella perhaps. Set in Dorset in 1962, Edward and Florence are spending the first night of their married life in a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach. On the surface, this is a very simple novel. It focuses mainly on their wedding night, with backstory about both characters and how they met.

After reading The Little Stranger, this book felt somewhat 'distant'. I felt like an observer rather than feeling involved (partly by the third person narrative, I'm sure). At the time I read it, it felt very credible, but I was always conscious that this was a story and that I am reading it at some distance in time. I didn't feel as inhabited by the characters. This story was more outside of me.

Saying that, On Chesil Beach has stayed with me over the whole week, wondering about it, asking myself questions. I loved the small details within the relationship between Edward and Florence, the nuances captured between two people still getting to know eachother, very nervous about their wedding night, with different expectations and ideas of how it will be. It captured the moment in time brilliantly. This pre-sexual revolution era, when men and women could not talk about sex. At all. The fears. The role of women.

I was nagged afterwards by thoughts about what I would have done in their situation, trying to understand how it might have been like this, why it turns out as it does. For me, the real power of this book lies in the ending, where we are transported through subsequent years to when Edward is in his sixties, so that we know the longer term impact of this intense night/this love affair. That was the brilliance for me, in this novel.

Next book, I wanted a very different read. The Mermaid and the Drunks has been sitting on my bookshelves for a very long time. It was my third book in a three for two offer. I have no idea why I chose it, I didn't like the title, and it has a Daily Mail quote on the front cover.

But, I was surprised. It is a complex, interesting novel. The book has two narratives, one following Fresia, a Chilean exile who has lived her whole life in England, and the other focuses on Joe, a Scottish academic researching Chilean political history. They meet on the plane to Santiago and become friends. There is a potential love interest, marred when Fresia gets involved with a much older Anglo-Chilean rich intellectual. There is tension from the search for Roberto's missing nephew, the politics of his disappearance are much more complex than I imagined (this book taught me more about the impact of Pinochet, torture, the disappeared in Chile, than I have read before.)

There is always a danger with split narratives that a reader will favour one or the other, but even though my favouritism swayed in Fresia's direction, I was interested in both characters stories. It was funny, moving, immersed in the art, political and social culture of Chile, particularly Santiago, and gripping. Yes, a surprise find.

Lastly, Megan Taylor's How We Were Lost. I've been meaning to read this for some time. Megan is one of my online writer friends (We have never met, but I feel as though I know her from reading her blog).

I sat up until the early hours of this morning finishing this book, absolutely refusing to put it down, and greedily wanting to know the ending. This is a special book in several ways, especially because of my not-so-secret love of child narrators. Janey is a gifted teenager. She has taken a few GCSEs early, gets bullied at school and has a wonderful heightened imagination that can become feverish. She is haunted by 'my missing girls', two girls who have gone missing in the British seaside town where she lives. She is on the brink of adolescence, just as her family are in crisis: Her older sister Diana is pregnant, her cold Aunt Rene is getting back together with violent Uncle Pete, and she is asking too many questions about the disappearance of her mother when she was a baby. Glandular fever, a sweltering summer, a town full of tourists, a dodgy ice-cream seller and the tension of police and media reports of the missing girls, send Janey into a dizzying state of torment, fitful nightmares, and discovering truths.

The language is dripping with teenage imagination and tension. There is a breathless feel to the writing, and sometimes I found myself rushing rushing rushing, not because I wanted to reach the end or skip parts, but because the pace is so fast, and Janie is filled with a hundred thoughts and questions all clammering into the prose so that sometimes I had to stop just to take 'a moment'. Of course, what we discover is that the truth is dreadfully sad, but not as dramatic and crazy as Janie imagines. I was surprised that this didn't feel like an anti-climax, but felt very apt, very real. Such a wonderful read.

So, Gosh.

Four very different books, all of which I thought had brilliance about them, all of which I loved reading. There was something wonderful for me about re-discovering my enthusiasm for the novel, and I've been very greedy. I have been disappearing for hours at a time and getting lost in stories. I've enjoyed it. But, oh what to read next...

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Waterstones update...

I'm waiting for a reply to the email I sent to Waterstones last week, after struggling to buy short fiction in their Manchester store.

I received a brief response saying that "I have passed your email directly to the relevant department to assist with store based enquiries, as we are unfortunately unable to do so here."

In the meantime, I have had messages from a few different people about their own experiences, which I want to share here...

Peter tells me that "Chester W has a short fiction section (but only a few short shelves) just before the A-Z starts."

Jen told me that Waterstones in Brighton and Cork have their own short fiction sections.

Carol went out and did some research in Newcastle and found that there is "short fiction in A-Z sections listed by author, e.g. Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, etc, and two shelves before the start of the As for mixed anthologies BUT I had to ask, i.e. it isn't labelled as opposed to the pride of place 5 shelf central section dedicated to DAN BROWN." She intends to check out Blackwells as well.

I'd be interested to know whether other branches of Waterstones or leading stores such as Borders or Blackwells have seperate short fiction sections (i.e. not just for anthologies, but for author collections as well.) How hard is it to buy short fiction where you live?

Tomorrow, I am going into Manchester on a mission for the short story. I plan to visit the leading bookshops and report back my findings.

I want to browse and buy short fiction... I'm going armed with lots of cash. let's see how hard it might be...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Dear Waterstones...

Dear Waterstones,

I was very disappointed to go into my local Waterstones in Manchester, Deansgate to find that it was very diffcult/almost impossible to buy short fiction from the store unless I knew the name of an author. I was disappointed to see that although there was a short fiction section, this was only for anthologies of short fiction and not single author collections.

I mainly read short fiction, and very rarely read novels. Perhaps this is a rare thing, but the short story is getting much stronger in the UK. There is a vast choice of short fiction out there, by a range of UK and Overseas writers. In my view it suits the faster pace of life these days. I can read a short story here and there, on journeys, between jobs. It takes less investment than immersing myself in a novel, yet the rewards are so much greater, short sharp shocks, beautiful insights, small pieces of magic.

Short fiction undersells (possibly because shops such as yours don't have a specific section for short fiction and don't promote it).

I wanted to draw your attention to my blog about my visit to Waterstones Manchester

and to mention that it is not the member of staff I was complaining about, she was actually very friendly and helpful, but was limited by how things are set out in the store.

I also want to point you in the direction of The Short Review. A brilliant review site for short stories, that has a huge following on the internet.

Mostly, I buy short fiction from the internet. Amazon has a short fiction search facility so I can get recommendations. I also buy a lot on friend recommendations, short fiction reviews.

What is missing for me, is the opportunity to call into my local bookshop and browse short fiction, so I can flick through the pages a little, read a sample, feel the books and buy on a whim.

If only I might be able to do this at Waterstones, my favourite bookshop...

Annie Clarkson

Monday, 10 August 2009

bookshop blues...

I went into a well-known bookshop in Manchester that shall remain nameless. Yes, it was Waterstones. I decided that it's been a long time since I bought books from a shop rather than online. I thought I might browse, see what I could discover, perhaps find a treat on the shelves that I might not otherwise know about. It used to happen a lot. I was an avid bookshop browser, with a love for wandering round a bookshop, collecting a stack of books, and then deciding which three (or five) to buy. I've been spoiled by online book shopping, wishlists and recommended readings, one click buying, and readers reviews. So, yesterday, I nipped into town, wanting to flick through some pages, feel the books, read a page before I bought.

So, I asked the lovely young shop assistant, 'Could you tell me where your short fiction section is, please?'

She was very eager to please, smiled, wanted to be helpful, but looked a little puzzled. I think you probably know where this story is heading...

'Is there a particular author or collection you're looking for?' she asked.

'No, actually, I just want to browse thanks.'

Another bewildered look, a quick glance at the list of sections on the wall, and then... 'I'm sorry, we don't have a short fiction section. All the short fiction is in the main fiction section'. Yes, a whole enormous floor of novels, perhaps a hundred different bookshelves, A-Z.

The well worn phrase 'needles in a haystack' came to mind. If I wanted, say, Raymond Carver or Ali Smith or Kafka, I would find them in their alphabetical place squashed in amongst the novels. And perhaps if I wanted someone less well-known and I knew their name, I might find their collection. But, no browsing for me... because the short fiction is not seperate from the bloody novels. How annoying.

I didn't expect a display of short fiction, or even a very prominent or huge selection, but I did think there might be a small collection of short fiction for me to find at least one book I might want to buy. Yes, there were a couple of very small shelves with anthologies, mostly either familiar to me already or uninspiring it has to be said. But, that's it.

Booksellers, please! It's like putting the biographies in the history section, or mixing travel guides in the geography section. Yes, kind of the same, but actually NO, it's totally different. *Exasperated Sigh*

Saturday, 8 August 2009

on being un-creative

I'm lying on my decking in the back yard, cat next to me, warmed by the sun for a change. Yes, it's actually warm enough in Manchester for me to be wearing a flimsy skirt and vest.

I'm pleased that I put up my tiny greenhouse the other day. It was a birthday gift. I have filled it with little pepper, tomato and cucumber plants that I have been growing from seed in my kitchen. It might be too late for them but I don't care. I can grow things, even if they never grow fruit. It's about the growing, not the end result.

Actually some of my tomato plants are doing very well. They are flowering in abundance, and twining their way up the back of a garden chair and the side of the shed. My mint is in flower for the first time, which is very pretty and the smell is lovely. I have some half dying sweet peas, a collection of shells, stones and bricks, a belfast sink with baby herbs, a dried-up rotten footpath sign, empty wooden crates and a clutter of pots all over the place. It is very pleasing. I feel as though I live in inner-city bliss.

I should in fact be at the monthly Paper Planes writing workshop, but I feel un-creative at the moment. I have writing prompts waiting to prompt me, unfinished short shorts, and work that could do ith a little editing. I have my book of ideas waiting to be written and so far still unwritten. I have some photographs of insitu-words to take for my collaboration with an artist. I have various reviews to write, and the books are unopened in a pile on my disorganised bookshelf.

Yes, I am un-creative. I'm not feeling the urge. And I don't feel bothered in the slightest.

Life is busy with a new job, a little romance, jobs around the house, gardening, and sometimes nothing at all other than pottering around or resting. Perhaps I'm storing it all up and I will soon have a creative outpouring. Or, I will feel inspired to pick up pen or keyboard and write about one or more of the many things that are inspiring me at the moment. Because, I do feel inspired by many things, just not in a way that makes me feel I need to explore them in words right now.

Perhaps this is weird for a writer. But I am many things other than a writer, and some of those things are not in the least creative. Perhaps if I was creative all the time, it would be less exciting, or spontaneous, or surprising and just part of the mundane or everyday or routine. Why would I want that!

So, today, I am lying in the garden, appreciating the weekend, and being thankful that sometimes I can be un-creative, and that this very fact makes the times when I am creative all the more meaningful.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Interview with brilliant NZ novelist Eleanor Catton

A few weeks ago I reviewed Eleanor Catton's debut novel The Rehearsal for Bookmunch...

Since then I have been busy thinking of all the questions I would want to ask her about writing, success, inspiration, life, scandal, being 23... I had to narrow them down as I had far too many questions to ask her, and some of them were just damn nosy.

I liked doing this interview. Interesting what Eleanor says at the start of the interview about the intensity of writing a novel (Oh what writers put themselves through!).

I wrote the bulk of the novel in quite a short period of time – about eighty thousand words in eight months – and during that time I really immersed myself in the novel’s world. I got glandular fever towards the end of the year and it took about a month of fevers and shivering before I realised that my symptoms weren’t actually novel-related, and I was genuinely ill.

You can read my interview on Bookmunch here

And if you missed my review of The Rehearsal here it is.