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Tart thoughts on the nature of fiction - and some sweet ones, too

Last Build Date: Wed, 07 Mar 2018 18:23:32 +0000


Literature and marketing: The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award

Mon, 21 Nov 2016 12:59:00 +0000

li.li1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Helvetica; color: #202020; -webkit-text-stroke: #202020} span.s1 {-webkit-text-stroke: 0px #000000} span.s2 {font-kerning: none} ul.ul1 {list-style-type: disc} This award, relaunched last year after a seven-year break, has produced another stunning shortlist and is proving once more to be a beacon of integrity in a literary prize world that seems increasingly in thrall to commercialism. Not that any of these books shouldn't sell in bucketloads: while each is highly original, in some way unlike anything that has come before, there's plenty of entertainment and immersion here, those qualities that tend to be associated with 'saleable' books - a word which all too often means 'nothing too different from what we already know sells.'The shortlist:An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray Originals)Physical by Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry)Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter (Faber)The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)Four innovative books by authors under 35: a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, a novel, and a fiction composed of both prose and poetry. I haven't yet read them all, but I've sampled those I haven't and am immensely impressed by every one. Jessie Greengrass's collection of short stories I do know, as it won the Edge Hill Short Story prize in the summer. The stories range across place and time, their protagonists haunted by the nexus of history in which they find themselves, and by their sense of themselves within it. I'm honestly bowled over by Jessie's insight and imaginative power, the rhythms of her prose and the originality of her voice. At an event for bloggers on Saturday, prize judge and Sunday Times Literary Editor Andrew Holgate interviewed three of the authors, and it was clear from Jessie's answers that her background in Philosophy strongly influences her as a writer of fiction - all to the good, I'd say: her stories, while entertaining and engaging, are profound.Andrew McMillan's poetry collection Physical comes already garlanded with poetry prizes, and deservedly so.  Powerfully moving, tough yet tender, these poems interrogate the notion of masculinity and of male relationships in their different forms. In the interview, Andrew spoke of the way that literature has traditionally been the male gaze on women, and he was moved to subvert that by writing about the male gaze on men - which, along with a miraculous combination of total lack of punctuation and ease of reading - makes his book truly innovative.Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers is the most obviously innovative in terms of form. I opened it up and was stunned and can't wait to read it. A giant crow straight out of Ted Hughes swoops on a grief-stricken widower and Hughes scholar newly coping with single parenthood, and what follows is a thrilling chorus of voices - including that of the crow - buzzing with energy and linguistic innovation and conveyed in a mix of prose, prose-poetry and poems. (Max wasn't present at the meeting.)I had started reading Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic on the way on the train and was immediately intrigued. The setting is a gated refuge for beleaguered artists on an island off the coast of Turkey in the 1960s, and the story centres on a celebrated female artist who has lost faith in her own creativity and a teenage boy who arrives to unsettle the community. It seems that the novel takes great risks with structure, which of course I haven't got to yet, and Andew Holgate asked Ben whether he had been nervous about doing this. Yes, he said, he had been petrified and thought of 'pulling the ripcord' and creating a 'safer' ending instead, but decided finally to meet the challenge he'd set himself.Finally in the interview, Andrew H asked the authors about the fact that they had been supported by their publishers in their innovations (which publishers have seemed increasingly unlikely to do), and all three talked warmly and enthusiastic[...]

Loving and hating books

Thu, 10 Nov 2016 11:26:00 +0000

A book our reading group unanimously loved, and a book our reading group (almost) unanimously hated:

All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Literary reputations versus actual books

Tue, 23 Aug 2016 12:26:00 +0000

A radical disagreement in our reading group about the political stance of Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, raising the question of how far books can suffer from their authors' meta-literary reputations. See our discussion here.

Can literary authors write good thrillers?

Sun, 31 Jul 2016 10:23:00 +0000

I hate it when people say they can't, but Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley seems to prove the point. Read our reading group discussion here.

Who cares about poetry?

Wed, 29 Jun 2016 12:33:00 +0000

I'm musing the meaning of the fact that a poetry reading I attended on Sunday was also attended by, at my estimate, another 300 or so others, and in a small town in North Wales. The occasion was the Caernarfon stop on Laureate Carol Ann Duffy's 'Shore to Shore' tour of the country coinciding with Independent Bookshop week, celebrating poetry and community and the independent bookshops at the heart of communities. She is accompanied on the tour by Jackie Kay, the new Makar of Scotland, Gillian Clarke, the outgoing National Poet of Wales, Imtiaz Dharker, and on each stop of the tour by a local poet, on this occasion Ifor ap Glyn who is taking over Gillian Clarke's role. Entertaining musical interludes are provided by the musician John Sampson.

It's true that Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay always command big audiences, due to their hugely accessible and moving poetry which has given them prominence in school curricula, but it's easier to find this unremarkable in large towns such as Manchester, and here the audience was not especially young. People had clearly travelled for miles around North Wales to this event in Caernarfon's Galeri. Is it a result of the starvation of rural communities when it comes to national public/cultural events? Or is it because this is Wales, land of the bards? Though many people in the audience were clearly English. In any case, the whole audience around me was totally engaged in the poetry, which was dynamic, entertaining, deeply political, utterly moving, and utterly relevant to the current political events. It was an evening that showed that poetry matters, and it most certainly mattered to this audience. And afterwards the local bookshop holding the event, Palas Print, did a roaring trade.

Something to chew on at a time when publishers are telling us that the public has no appetite  for poetry (or short stories, or indeed any form of serious creative literature). All honour to Picador, Carol Ann's publisher, who are behind the whole tour.

Perspectives for reading

Wed, 29 Jun 2016 11:39:00 +0000

Our reading group recently read A Farewell to Arms, and found a difficulty in knowing what perspective through which to read a book which seemed very much of its time. Discussion here.

Accessing my website

Thu, 26 May 2016 16:49:00 +0000

I've discovered that my web domain has been down for about a week, so anyone trying to access my site through won't have got through. (Apparently the domain owners have sold on their business; the new owners are saying that my domain has expired - although it's paid for - and are insisting that I need to sort it out with the previous owners who are unobtainable and, it seems, no longer even exist!) I don't know how long it's going to take to sort it out, but in the meantime my website can be accessed via the basic url:

Latest reading group discussions

Thu, 19 May 2016 12:29:00 +0000

Here are our latest discussions:

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, which we found striking but slightly problematic, and
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, the prose of which we all admired for its elegance and economy, though we differed in our responses to the book's moderation of tone.

Edge Hill Prize long list

Sun, 13 Mar 2016 12:51:00 +0000

It's that time of year again - the longlist is announced for the Edge Hill prize for a single-author collection of stories. This year my own book Used to Be, is on the list - a massive list, and there's huge competition, with some big hitters in the short-story world there, including Colum McCann and Kate Clanchy, two of my favourite writers. And a good proportion of Irish and Scottish writers.

Crossposted to my author blog.

Two reading group discussions

Sat, 27 Feb 2016 13:16:00 +0000

Here's our latest book group discussion, of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, a novel which impressed and horrified our group in equal measure.

And here's our pre-Christmas discussion which I seem to have previously omitted, the very sixties The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, which hadn't really stood the test of time for most of our group and failed to engage.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Realism and surreality

Fri, 26 Feb 2016 11:16:00 +0000

Latest discussion of our reading group: Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser, the form of which cleverly depicts the lack of realism in the capitalist mentality.

Young Writer of the Year Award

Sun, 15 Nov 2015 14:04:00 +0000

Writing, and promotion of my new book, may have been keeping me away from this blog lately but yesterday I attended an event for bloggers which has brought me right back. The Sunday Times and literary agents Peters Fraser and Dunlop kindly invited us to meet the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and it was a very enjoyable and interesting afternoon which raised some key questions about the promotion and nurturing of young writers at the starts of their careers.Begun in 1991 but temporarily discontinued since 2009, the newly-rejuvenated award, administered by the Society of Authors, is for a full-length book by a UK or Irish writer between the ages of 18 and 35. It boasts among its previous winners such luminaries as Helen Simpson (the first winner), Caryl Phillips, Paul Farley and Zadie Smith, a record justifiably prompting the prize's reinstatement, prime movers of which were Andrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times and PFD's Caroline Michel. Judges this year were Andrew Holgate, Chief Fiction Reviewer Peter Kemp, and previous winner Sarah Waters.The prize is for a book of either fiction or non-fiction, extended this year to include Irish, self-published and digital books. Andrew Holgate explained that it is avowedly literary in intent, and the shortlist bears this out, consisting of three literary novels and a book of poetry - no non-fiction makes the cut this year as sufficiently literary in character.The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota (above), which was also shortlisted for this year's Man Booker, is a huge sweeping novel following the individual progress of each of four young characters who have had to leave India for Britain (I think he said four: I'm only a third of the way through the novel and so far three have been dealt with in detail). It is Sunjeev's second novel, but the other three books on the shortlist are debuts: Ben Fergusson's Betty-Trask- and HWA-Debut-Award-winning The Spring of Kasper Meier (Little, Brown) set in Berlin immediately after WWII, Sara Taylor's The Shore (Heinemann), a multi-viewpoint fiction charting a community on the rural coast of Virginia, which is being shortlisted just about everywhere (Bailey's Prize, Guardian First Book Award), and Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe's collection of poems exploring her dual British-Chinese heritage, which has garnered shortlistings in the T S Eliot and Forward First Collection prizes.I would say that all of these books have a kind of literary ease that amply qualifies them for this shortlisting - each of the authors is wonderfully at home in the language, each has a sharp and original eye and accurate feel for our physical world and a psychological acuity, and each is powered by a deep moral sense. (You could tell that last anyway; they were such nice people!) (I've begun all of the books - for this event I broke my general rule of reading only one book at a time in order to give it its due attention, and it's a testament to these books that they're all nevertheless very individual and vivid in my mind.) Pick up any one of these four books and you know you're in the hands of a born writer - proved, perhaps, by the fact that Sunjeev confirmed the rumour that he hadn't read a novel until he picked up Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children at the age of, I think, eighteen.But what happens to a born literary writer in a culture hellbent on the commercial and on fetishising the Next New Thing, in which authors are routinely dropped after non-mega-selling debuts? It's a question, I think, at the heart of this prize. No doubt there will be accusations that, as a prize for young writers, it's contributing to the cult of youth, but I think its serious literary purpose runs coun[...]

Young Writer of the Year Award

Sun, 08 Nov 2015 12:25:00 +0000

The shortlist has been announced for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

Here's a summary from the press release:

Covering a rich variety of genres and forms, the 2015 shortlist includes: Ben Fergusson with his critically acclaimed historical fiction debut, The Spring of Kasper MeierSarah Howe and her poetic exploration of heritage and identity, Loop of JadeSunjeev Sahota with his second novel, the Man Booker shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, a timely take on the British immigrant experience; and Sara Taylor’s Baileys-nominated collection of interlinked short stories, The Shore.

I've just downloaded them all to my Kindle and can't wait to get reading this evening!

Three reading group discussions

Mon, 02 Nov 2015 08:53:00 +0000

Writing, and the publication of Used to Be, have kept me away from blogging recently, including the writing up of our reading group discussions, but here are the last three discussions which, post book launch, I've managed to write up over the last weekend:

The Bridge by Ian Banks

Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

The Quiet Soldier: Phuong's Story by Creina Mansfield

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Do we read a novel for its issues, or its treatment of issues?

Thu, 23 Jul 2015 12:36:00 +0000

Our two most recent reading group discussions, in each of which the book tended to prompt discussion of the issues on which it centred, rather than itself as a literary artefact:

Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

It's all to do with how we like to see ourselves

Sat, 18 Jul 2015 12:46:00 +0000

Excellent Guardian article by Sarah Churchwell on Go Set a Watchman, newly published and marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but which was in fact Harper Lee's earlier attempt at the same book, which an editor advised her to rewrite by concentrating on protagonist Scout's perspective as a child. Churchwell considers and judges various responses to the revelation in GSaW that the anti-racist Atticus of TKaM, Scout's lawyer father, turns out to have been racist after all, and makes the politically and culturally important points that the values of the Atticus of TKaM 'are in fact rather more dubious than the book, or many of its readers, care to admit' and that this new publication highlights the fact that TKaM is a 'consoling, childish, whitewashed fable' - views of TKAM which our reading group ultimately came to when we read it. (You can read our discussion, in which we decided that TKaM was very much how America likes to see itself, rather than a representation of reality, here.) 

Short sharp satire

Mon, 22 Jun 2015 10:50:00 +0000

Our reading group discussion of Evelyn Waugh's Hollywood satire, The Loved One.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Simenon returns

Mon, 15 Jun 2015 16:51:00 +0000

I hadn't read the Inspector Maigret books - I've never been a fan of crime fiction - and I hadn't really watched the TV adaptations either - but he was somehow part of my consciousness as Igrew up: that pipe and bowler hat and, in the film adaptations, the homburg; the sense of a solid and impassive character at the still centre of a social maelstrom of crime and people pushed to the edge. And my curiosity was piqued when I had an invitation to a reception hosted by the agents managing his estate, Peters Fraser and Dunlop, to celebrate a resurgence in interest in the author. This includes a stunning new project by Penguin, English publishers of Maigret since the early fifties, to publish, over a 7-year period and beginning last autumn, new translations of all of his novels, unbelievably just less than 400 in all, 75 of them Maigrets.  Such a prodigious output is of course interesting in itself to a writer (how on earth did he do it?), but, without further investigation, it would be easy to dismiss Simenon consequently as inevitably a writer of pure pulp. Yet I began reading, and digging deeper, only to discover that he was greatly admired by none other than T S Eliot, Gide, Cocteau, Henry Miller, Colette, Muriel Spark, and a host of other literary writers, and to find there was indeed something in his insistently plain prose that is fascinatingly, almost magically evocative, and that at the centre of the books is a deeply humane and psychological interest in people.The Belgian Georges Simenon (1906-1989) did start out writing pulp novels as a 19-year-old in Paris, typing 80 pages a day and publishing, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books under 18 pseudonyms. At the reception Simenon's son, John, told us that his father regarded that period as his practice in novel-writing. In 1931 he wrote his first Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian - he produced 11 of them that year (at the same time as the short stories he had always also written) - and began also to write what he called his romans durs, his psychological 'hard novels', considered by many to be superior. It is however for the Maigret novels that he has been best known, and so it was to a Maigret novel, The Yellow Dog, one of those first 11, that I first turned, the story of a small provincial coastal town in which the prominent bourgeois citizens are being mysteriously murdered or attacked. As Maigret sets about solving the mystery, a strange yellow dogs lurks at the scenes of crime, a signature kind of touch in Simenon: something baffling, often seemingly inconsequential as far as the plot goes, but with unsettling reverberations that seem to me to symbolise the psychological dimensions of crime overlooked in institutional police procedure but which Maigret always purposefully waits and watches to uncover. Julian Barnes asserts in his TSL review that a Maigret novel has no subtext, but I would say that this does indeed thus amount to a pretty clever subtext - one that serves a double role as a subplot which, as Barnes puts it, 'ends up being part of the main plot.' Famously averse to the literary - rigorously excising all rhetorical devices such as metaphors, consciously using a restricted vocabulary and avoiding taxing the reader with anything more than novella length - Simenon yet manages to create resonance and atmosphere and a deep psychological dimension, and it's actually quite hard to work out how he does it. It's no wonder he has been so revered by literary writers: he's like the magician with the sleight-of-hand secret we all want. He does describe the weather - w[...]

Places of the mind

Mon, 25 May 2015 15:37:00 +0000

David Nicholls writes in the Guardian on the subject of a sense of place in novels. It is of course one of the pleasures, indeed joys, of novels: the creation of a sense of place in which the reader can be immersed - can, in his or her mind's eye, look around and walk with the characters: it's one of the ways in which we can identify with the characters and events of a novel, and in which the characters and events can be made to seem real.But what do we mean by reality when we are talking about fiction? Nicholls concedes that there are novelists who create a sense of a real place for the reader simply by making places up: writers of fantasy or futuristic fiction, and of historical novels: 'A notepad and camera won't help much if you're trying to conjure up Wolf Hall'. However, he is taxed by the issue of including current real-life places in one's fiction: what if you get the detail wrong? Well, he doesn't exactly spell this out but it can be disaster: if the reader knows more about the place than you do, then the fictional world of the novel, ie the fictional reality, is broken, intruded upon by common-or-garden real-life reality, and you've lost the reader. It's a worry all fiction-writers share when setting events in real-life places they don't know, or don't know intimately. Nicholls reports that he's physically travelled to avoid this problem and more recently has used Google Street View. I've done both of these things, too, but it makes me queasy: I always have the sense that I'm somehow missing the point; it's not only that, as Nicholls admits, one gets a very superficial view of a place this way, but more importantly that there is something wrong, or at least dangerous or diminishing, in so consciously injecting undigested geographic or topographic fact into one's long-digested fictional landscape.For what is fiction but itself a place of the mind? Fiction isn't a place you go chiefly to find facts; fiction's truth is chiefly emotional, psychological and moral. Yet, in our 'reality'-obsessed culture there does indeed seem to be a tendency to read fiction as fact - witness the rise in confessedly autobiographical novels and the recent, if fading, supremacy of biography over fiction, not to mention the insistence on author profiles and the need to sell a novel on an author's life story - and there does indeed seem to be a current cultural obsession with real-life places in literature. One member of my reading group, who, I think, is pretty representative of many readers who are not particularly literary, especially loves novels about places she knows, and I detect a trend amongst writers towards satisfying this desire for recognition by injecting real-life topographical detail and place-name-checks.But what about those readers who don't know the place - the street or the cafe - you're name-checking? No same sense of real-life recognition for them. My fellow reading-group member replies that it doesn't matter, it's simply a different experience for the reader who doesn't know the place, but the danger is that that experience will be one of exclusion. As an untravelled working-class teenager reading novels with unexplained or glancing references to upper- or middle-class rituals and foreign locations, I had a sense of exclusion, a sense that others, able to envisage the manners and places and know they were right, were getting more out of the fiction than I was. I could imagine the places but I had a deep sense of not being necessarily right in my imagining; I could look them up in the library, but I hadn't had that recreation of one'[...]

Edge Hill Prize shortlist 2015

Tue, 19 May 2015 12:43:00 +0000

It's that time of year again: the shortlist for the Edge Hill Prize for a short-story collection has been announced, and I didn't even get around to commenting on the long list.

As usual, the long list is dominated by independent publishers, with 9 of the 26 titles coming from Celtic publishers - no less than 5 of those from Ireland - and the established London houses fielding a mere 4 between them. Two books from big publishers, however, make it to the shortlist of 6, along with one from Scotland (Freight), one from Ireland (Doire), and one each from independents Seagull and Salt, based in Kolkata and Norfolk respectively:

Waiting for the Bullet, Madeleine D'Arcy (Doire)
The Redemption of Galen Pike, Carys Davies (Salt)
Infidelities, Kirsty Gunn (Faber)
Life-Like, Toby Litt (Seagull)
Any Other Mouth, Annaliese Mackintosh (Freight)
The American Lover, Rose Tremain (Chatto and Windus)

I've never thought to wonder previously about gender representation on previous shortlists and long lists for this prize, but as one of my Facebook commenters pointed out, this shortlist includes only one man, reflecting perhaps the fact that the long list is weighted towards female authorship, which possibly indicates that women currently dominate the short-story scene.

Heavyweights Hilary Mantel and A L Kennedy miss out, which is interesting: personally, I liked Mantel's book, although as critics pointed out, it did have the air of stories written over a long period and thus lacked the cohesiveness that this prize is specifically looking for in a collection. Cohesiveness certainly characterises all of the books on the shortlist. Annaliese Mackintosh's confessedly autobiographical and amazingly energetic collection obsessively circles the same moments and operates more as a short-story cycle; Toby Litt experiments cleverly throughout his collection with different forms, but overall it is a kind of jazz riff featuring connected characters. Kirsty Gunn's beautifully written stories are tightly bound by voice, theme and sensibility, as are Madeleine D'Arcy's and those of Carys Davies whose collection has the mythic quality she has made all her own. And while the stories in Rose Tremain's collection are strikingly varied in subject matter, and sometimes voice, a sense of her steady authorial sensibility makes these a strength.

I can't imagine who is going to win...

The conditions needed for writing

Mon, 18 May 2015 11:33:00 +0000

I can't write at the moment, and here's why. The room in which I like to write is an attic room, under the sloping ceiling with no space between me and the actual roof. As I work I can hear the pigeons trotting across the slates just above me, and their cooing is a soothing background soundtrack. I feel so at peace there, so removed from the hum-drum world down below and free to sink into other worlds. I know it's a cliche, the writer in the garrett, and it's often presented as a writer's hardship (having to live in a garret, which is traditionally associated with poverty), but our garret is an extra, and I know I'm lucky to be able to work there. However, since it's directly under the roof it's been vulnerable to leaks, and I have often also sat writing with water dripping - and more recently pouring - into a bucket. So now the roof is being mended, the view from the window is blocked by scaffolding, my partner John is working on the window frame, since it went rotten while we didn't consider it worth decorating up there, and everything's covered with drapes. I feel bereft: I had to abandon the desk hastily, because the roofers began earlier than I had expected, and it's a struggle to get back up there to get things I need for writing but had forgotten, as, on the stairway just outside, the old skylight is being replaced and the stairwell is blocked with tarpaulins. And anyway I can't write.I don't think it's just the sound of hammering above, and battens being thrown down all around; it's also to do with my displacement from my nook. I've puzzled about why, since I've written in so many other places: I've lived in so many other places, for a start, and I've written in basements and shared bedrooms; I've written in other places in this house, on the table I'm sitting at now in our living room, and on the landing, even, with all the doors shut, when I've needed insulation from the sound of other people's roofs and building work being done. I've often written very successfully while travelling alone on trains, usually with the excitement of a brand-new idea, and I think that's a clue, travelling alone being not only stimulation but a kind of mental insulation: a removal from the day-to-day, and a throwing back of oneself onto one's own resources and insights. It's a question, in the main, I've found, of carving out a kind of physical-mental space, a corner of the room, say, where these particular thoughts and inspirations happen. So why can't I do it now? After all, the roofers aren't here at weekends, or when it's raining, as it is at this very moment, and anyway I could take my writing pad and laptop off to a quiet cafe and work there.I think it's to do with the particular work I want to tackle next, and it makes me realise something about the process of writing, at least as it works for me, as well as having implications, I think, for the kind of fiction our distracting culture makes difficult. What I want to tackle next is a story of very deep emotional turmoil and betrayal, and I know I can't do it - not properly, not with justice - unless I feel utterly calm and sorted and on top of everything. I know that, if I'm not, the story could overwhelm me, and I could fail to achieve a light enough touch for the story not to be overwhelming for the reader. I'm too locked on to it now to turn in the meantime to anything less complex or shorter, but I can't start it in odd moments of peace, as I know it's going to need an immersive and uninterrupted effort.Seems to me, [...]

Guest post: Penelope Farmer on ageism in traditional publishing and the e-publishing answer

Tue, 05 May 2015 09:46:00 +0000

Penelope Farmer is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including the classic and loved children's novel Charlotte Sometimes, so famous and loved that it was turned into a hit song by the pop group The Cure. One might have assumed that someone with such a track record would never end up without a publisher, yet this is the situation in which Penelope found herself, much to the frustration of her agent who had a new novel by Penelope that she loved and was dying to sell. Here Penelope talks about the present-day forces that led to such a situation, and the solution that her agent found in helping to bring her sweeping new novel, Goodnight Ophelia, to public attention. The thoughts and memories of a woman dying from a disease that could have been prevented had she known her true parentage, it's both a fascinating study of a complex character and an impressive survey of the history of a whole generation brought up with the unacknowledged tragic effects of war. And in spite of its subject matter, it's sprightly and uplifting - in a way that the marketing folk of traditional publishing were apparently unable to see.Old writers may not die; they may even keep on writing. What they don’t get is published any more unless their names come with big sales figures attached. This old writer – me – has published more than thirty books over the years, for adults and children, most of them commissioned. One – Charlotte Sometimes – has been in print since it was published in 1969, helped by being turned into a song by the Cure: an accolade that led around 1996, to my standing in Earls Court Arena waving back at a vast audience of cheering Cure fans. Maybe I should have foreseen that this would be my high spot as writer, before the downhill slide caused by the ditching of the Net Book Agreement. Everyone said its demise would do for mid-list writers like me. And they were right. I compounded the problem, of course, by never writing the same book twice. I can’t blame either publishers or readers for liking familiarity; I gulp up successive books about the same detectives myself.  But that’s boring for the writer – me. I compounded problems still further by failing even to produce a novel after 1993. My life having fallen apart, I assembled three autobiographical anthologies instead, all published, but hardly best sellers, and then, as foolishly, turned down a commission to write another children’s book, opting instead to produce a book about several weeks spent as a writer in residence at a hostel for people with mental problems. The ruling on this book by the marketing men - against the wishes of an eager would-be editor  – was ‘who wants to read about the nitty-gritty of mental illness’: this my first encounter with the very different publishing world from the one I’d hitherto enjoyed of being nurtured by fond editors; a world in which sales and marketing rules.I think I realised that publishing the new novel I did at last get round to would be troublesome. But I’m a writer, I write; when the name ‘Ophelia’ swam into my head, in 2008, I scribbled down endless notes and set to work.  The first line ‘There can’t be many people, especially of my age, who find out who they are via Wikipedia’ came into my head about six months later. And there I was with a book about a woman whose conception out of the chaos caused by Hitler even before his war broke out led to her being brought up by a[...]

The Life of the Mind

Thu, 30 Apr 2015 19:33:00 +0000

Our reading group discussion of John William's once-neglected but revived and recently bestselling novel, Stoner.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Reading a novel through history

Fri, 10 Apr 2015 11:56:00 +0000

Our reading group discussion of the best-selling novel Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood, in which we ponder whether the fame of a real-life story can get in the way of its novelistic depiction.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

The medium and the message

Wed, 04 Mar 2015 13:22:00 +0000

There's a question that nearly always comes up in interviews and Q&As: What do you write with: a pencil or pen or straight onto the keyboard? When I first heard this question it struck me as an irrelevant one: what did it matter, wasn't the work, the end result, the thing that mattered, not the mechanics by which it was set down? But then of course in order to answer the question I had to think about why my personal preference was to write my first drafts by hand. The reason, I realised, was that I felt there to be some kind of connection between the brain and hand: it was like drawing, drawing the pictures in my head, only with the shapes of the letters and the words; it was a way to get the proper shape and the feel of things - a more bodily, visceral connection to the story than I could ever get with the tips of my fingers on a keyboard. And the reason I liked to use a fountain pen was that the liquid flow of the ink somehow helped to make the words and the pictures flow. I hadn't always used a fountain pen, though: before someone bought me one for Christmas one year, I used any old biro to hand, and for a long time I was far less fussy about the kind of paper I wrote on than I ended up being. And others wrote straight onto the computer. So surely it was a matter of habit and personal preference, and therefore of no real wider interest in the question of how to write?One thing that swapping to a fountain pen did for me was to make my handwriting neater. Writing by hand for years with your mind on the story and not on your handwriting makes your handwriting terrible, or it did mine. The nib forced me to be more controlled than the slippy ballpoint or rollerball could, and created subtler, more differentiated letter shapes. But there came a time - about eighteen months ago - when even my fountain pen couldn't make my writing neat enough for me easily to read back what I had written. Eighteen months ago I sat down to write a novel. On the second day I looked at what I had written on the first, and I could make neither head nor tail of it without doing a scrutinising, translating job. Hardly conducive to an overall view and fluid leaps of the imagination. How was I going to get any sort of flow? Apart from which, if I did ever manage to get to the end, how long would it take me to transfer the thing to the computer, if I couldn't even read what I'd written?In fact, although once upon a time I'd write everything this way, I was by now writing everything apart from fiction straight onto the computer. It started, as far as I remember, with blogging, and I soon moved on to writing everything beside fiction - reviews, articles, reports - that way. Was I just being superstitious about fiction, clinging superstitiously to old habits? After all, I was very used by now to forming ideas via my fingertips directly on the screen. And it wasn't as if I didn't, after all, ever write fiction on the computer: unless I needed to do radical rewrites, once I'd transferred the first draft to the computer, all further work on a piece was indeed done on the computer. It's often pointed out - though perhaps less than it was at one time - that once a piece of writing is on the screen it looks authoritative, finished, which leads to a temptation not to rewrite and edit. But didn't I edit endlessly on the computer? And I thoug[...]