Tuesday, 30 November 2010

THE ART OF DISTRACTION

This took about an hour to make. Much fun. Time much better spent writing.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

QUALIFIED AS A WRITER

Another lovely guest today. Please welcome author Jenn Ashworth, who talks about that moment you regard yourself a real writer, posh biscuits and getting drunk at literary festivals (something I never do. Ever). And while she's guesting here, I'm over at her excellent blog today (see below), so pop over and have a look. Over to you, Jenn...

When we were talking about guest posting for each other, Tom mentioned, off hand, how fascinated he was by the idea that there was a moment when a person changed – as if by magic – from a hobbyist or a hopeful into a writer. It made me look back over my ‘career’ so far and consider if there had been such a moment, when would it have been?

On publication day? The day A Kind of Intimacy was published passed like any other. I got a phone call from my agent and a box of chocolates from Arcadia. I shambled about the house in my slippers expecting to feel different, but didn’t, not really.

So how about further back? The day I found out A Kind of Intimacy was going to be published? That certainly helped. The writers amongst you will know how daft you feel and how oddly people look at you when you say you’re going home early to work on your book. Only nutters write books. It suddenly helped when I could say yes, it’s a real book, and someone wants to publish it.

Except I didn’t say that. I treated it like a pregnancy and kept it secret for four months, too shocked and disbelieving to tell anyone apart from my nearest and dearest, who, not being writers, were unimpressed. I celebrated by buying posh biscuits and rose scented tea.

Maybe then, it was the first major festival I appeared at. Getting (shamefully) drunk in the Writers’ Yurt at Edinburgh, seeing lots of Famous People and reading my book in front of a small but sympathetic and interested audience. Yes, I felt like a writer then, but not a real one. The other writers had such better shoes, such longer queues at their book signings, such well prepared readings and more erudite answers to the questions asked afterwards.

Festivals are lessons in inadequacy.

Moving forwards a bit. I can think of some formative moments. Being asked to contribute to magazines and anthologies made a difference from being rejected from them.

Refusing to work for free was really important. Being able to call it work, at all, without feeling guilty was even more important. Realising I am in charge of paying the rent for my family and I can do it by doing what I wanted to do when I was little. That was massive. Huge.

Although having said that, I celebrated a respectable advance for my second novel, Cold Light, by buying a pedal bin. So perhaps there’s no hope for me at all.

Winning a Betty Trask earlier this year should have been a watershed moment. I’m not too proud to admit that collecting a prize was something I’d fantasised about for years. There’d be shoes, haircut, fancy cocktails with umbrellas. All sorts.

The fantasy did not involve having to stay at home, pregnant as a gravid whale, prescribed bed-rest and crunching through a packet of sherbet lemons in frustrated, tearful rage. I bought a special maternity going-out dress that remains, unworn, in my wardrobe.

Still, this blog post is not intended to be a thinly-veiled litany of the accomplishments of my books so far. Perhaps it is enough to realise that writers (in the slightly paraphrased words of Stephen King) put their trousers on one leg at a time, forget to pay the gas bill and have to do the Hoovering just like everyone else. Having-written does not make life any different. I promise.

When you are working, you are being a writer and the feeling of typing, alone, late at night or early in the morning, in your car during your lunch break, on the nursery floor while the baby sleeps, whenever you do the making of the story - that is where the magic is. At your desk, on your keyboard, at the end of your pencil. Nowhere else.

Being immersed in the story and pleased with what you’ve done is the same no matter how far along the path of publication and prizes you are. You dream about fancy cocktails, you get sherbet lemons, and you make lemonade. And you write, and cross it out, and you write. And just like always, just like everyone else, you wake up the next morning, read back what you wrote the night before and wonder: what was I thinking? And you Hoover. The magic is rolling up your sleeves and attacking it again every day. Despite everything.

And I bet most of you reading this already do that. So you are writers.

Yes, I know that is easy for me to say. But it is also a true fact.


Jenn Ashworth wrote A Kind of Intimacy which was published in 2009 when she was 26 and won a Betty Trask award shortly after. Cold Light, her second novel, is out with Sceptre in 2011. People have suddenly stopped referring to her as a 'young' writer, which is worrying. She writes an award-winning blog and lives in Preston, Lancashire, with her daughter, her husband and their son. And two cats.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

JONATHAN'S PICKS

Special treat today. I couldn’t leave you with only my book as a festive recommendation, so I asked super-talented Jonathan Lee to tell us about five books he’s enjoyed this year. And, fortunately for us, he did.



ALL MY FRIENDS ARE SUPERHEROES by Andrew Kaufman

This is a small, perfect little book that is fast-becoming a word-of-mouth classic. Despite being ignored by all of the mainstream reviewers, it has found champions in the likes of Scott Pack's influential 'Me and my big mouth' blog and sites such as pulp.net. I'd call it a love story, but that might give you the wrong idea. It's unusual, inventive, cliche-free, funny and - at a mere 108 pages - a blissfully enjoyable train-journey of a book.

YOU'RE AN ANIMAL VISCOVITZ by Alessandro Boffa

A perfectly judged short story collection. If I were a bad critic who fell back on lazy cliches (which I am) I'd call it 'laugh out loud funny'. Full of great ideas and lovely sentences. In each story, Viscovitz is a different animal. One minute he’s a love-struck cuckoo, the next he’s a chameleon suffering from an identity crisis. It’s a clever, poignant, playful book that deserves a wider readership.

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by Colum McCann

My second novel is going to contain a number of competing voices propelling the central narrative, and as part of my preparation I've been digging through as many novels as possible that use clashing perspectives to interesting effect. This is one of the best of them. The still centre of the book is Philippe Petit’s breathless 1974 tightrope walk between the uncompleted twin towers. Spinning out from that centre are the lives of various New Yorkers, each with their own sadnesses and ambitions, told in a mix of engaging first and third person narratives. I like the way McCann resisted the temptation to force too many links and neat parallels between the stories - the book's looseness of form gives it a truth many '9/11' novels haven't managed.

HARPER REGAN by Simon Stephens

A play that I've sadly yet to see performed (I missed the 2008 National Theatre run), but recently read with great enthusiasm. In her late forties, Harper Regan suddenly leaves her family in the suburbs of West London and sets off on a mission to see her father before he dies. Her journey allows the author to explore the humour and sadnesses inherent in sex, death and love. Just when you think you know a character, have managed to flatten them into a nice little two dimensional summary in your own head, they do something unexpected. I think great plays have to have qualities which many novels don't - the action and the dialogue has to be so sharp and focussed as to withstand the scrutiny of being read or viewed in one sitting. Stephens is a very exciting writer and his new play, Wastwater (coming to the Royal Court in March) promises to be deeply interesting.

HER NAKED SKIN by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Another play, this one exploring militancy at the height of the suffragette Movement, with thousands of women from different walks of life serving time in Holloway Prison for their attempts to win the right to vote. There are some beautifully wry, zinging lines of dialogue: "Love is just fear I suppose. Masquerading as a fever. Then you explore each other and suddenly you have licence to become totally pedestrian. And ultimately abusive." The thing I love most about the play is the way it conjures a whole universe off stage. You get a real sense of wider society, class war and racial tensions in London, 1913.


Jonathan's first novel, Who Is Mr Satoshi?, is out now with Heinemann. You can find out more at Jonathan’s website and buy a copy here.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

IN MOTION'S FOOTSTEPS

If you’re, and I realise most of you won’t be, in Devon on Wednesday, I’ll be reading from the collection as part of National Short Story Week. It’s a wonderful venue, a converted church, purchased by a group of poets with lottery funding, overlooking the River Tamar. Andrew Motion was there a couple of weeks ago. I’ll also read from the novel set on Dartmoor, with a Q&A session and discussion on the short story, or anything else of interest that crops up.

The Method… got this lovely write-up on the Short Review, which went some way to ameliorate a flu-ridden week in which a builder delivered, in that inimitably apologetic-yet-gleeful way, news that a new roof was required.

I’ve still a few signed copies here if you’re, er-hum, after a stocking-filler. I can write anything you like inside the cover, as long as it’s not racist or overly sentimental, and postage is free (UK only). There's a clever little button in the toolbar on the left. If you don’t have a paypal account, drop me note.

And so, for one week only, you're only allowed to read short stories. It's the law.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

ALL THINGS SHORT AND BEAUTIFUL

Next week is National Short Story Week. A few weeks ago I (somewhat mischievously) asked what the greatest story ever written was. Amid debates on parameters, subjectivity, qualification of art, relativity etc…I suspected I’d at least tease out some cracking recommendations. And so, here’s what was mentioned:

The Tell Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe

Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – Ambrose Bierce

Misery – Anton Chekhov

Araby – James Joyce

A Small, Good Thing – Raymond Carver

People Like That Are The Only People Here – Lorrie Moore

Sister Imelda - Edna O'Brien

A Painful Case – James Joyce

In Dream Begin Responsibility – Delmore Schwartz

Diary of a Madman – Nicolai Gogol

A Day Meant to Do Less – Kyle Minor

Babylon Revisited – F Scott Fitzgerald

The Dead – James Joyce

The Beast in the Jungle – Henry James

Passion – Alice Munro

I’ll add:

The Lottery – Shirley Jackson

Last Night – James Salter

The Room – William Trevor

So, I urge you, next week, in celebration of the short story, to seek out one or two of these. And of course please add your own in the comments below.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

ON REJECTION AND ITS DAYS OFF

(Recalling hearing I'd won the Scott Prize.)

As a writer, especially an emerging one, it’s important to befriend rejection. You’ll be spending a lot of time together, and, after an initial repulsion and incredulity at its presence, you begin, like an embarrassing illness or an annoying colleague, to accept it. Life would be strange without it. During low points you even expect it, some comfort drawn from its familiarity: Hello rejection, my old friend…

But occasionally, if you’re lucky, the cloud lifts and you remember why you started this in the first place. Not for fame or fortune (just as well). But because you believe you have something to say. That you want your work, your art, to affect others the way great fiction has affected/infected you. And so for this reason you continue to put yourself out there, to submit, to lay yourself open to terse, yet cordial responses: I’m sorry, we like your work but...

Competitions are the worst, because you’re aware of the numbers involved (sometimes thousands). And initially all you want to do is appear on the longlist. That would be enough. But then, once longlisted, if I could just make the shortlist, I would be happy. You keep busy. You self-deprecate. You’re told getting this far is an achievement in itself, just before you throttle the person who’s uttered this sagacious yet inane maxim.

And then, like Schrödinger's cat, you leave the email unopened in your inbox, fearful viewing it alone will alter the outcome. You almost ask someone else to open it, so blame can be shared. You dare to dream, but prepare for the worst.

But even friends as loyal and ubiquitous as rejection have days off.

(Keep going. Knock on enough doors...)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

V FOR (A RARE) VICTORY

Being a ‘V’ has generally meant missing out: being last on any list at school, that sort of thing. So finding myself next to Kurt Vonnegut in Waterstone’s was no small recompense. When the assistant had gone I moved Virginia Woolf along a little, sandwiching me nicely among greats.


Just to apologise to those who’ve emailed saying either Amazon or the Book Depository have been tardy in delivering The Method to you. It’s a distribution thingy apparently. They’re out of stock for a few days now, until the next print run gets to them, but if this continues I’ll hand deliver one and make you a cuppa, and perhaps bring biscuits. Failing that, I have a few signed copies left (see sidebar), which I suspect fit in festive stockings.

I’ve been delighted, and occasionally overwhelmed, by the wonderful feedback and initial reviews the book’s received. Once the euphoria of publication ebbed away, the issue of how it would be regarded arose, and so far people seem to like it.

Not had a definitive response from the agent about the novel yet, though he did email me half way through to say he was enjoying it. Hopefully if it’s not for him, I’ll still get some feedback.

And so it’s time to turn to the Next Big Thing. Or two things in one, possibly. It’s almost impossible, unless you’re a Zadie or a DBC, to make a living from writing literary fiction alone, and so a job what pays cold hard cash beckons. I’ve loved the small amount of teaching I’ve done so far, but permanent lecturing posts tend to require a doctorate these days. (A book out helps, but is increasingly not enough.) But it happens that the next novel is forming nicely in my mind, that most exciting of phases when everything – characters, setting, era, structure – is all up for grabs, and so a PhD in creative writing seems the next logical step. I must be mad.

Coming soon…The brilliant Jonathan Lee talks about five contemporary novels he loves. The equally fabulous Jenn Ashworth. And the Scott Prize winners discuss the short story.

Monday, 8 November 2010

WRITING TIP #98

It’s important, as you develop your skill as a writer, to do so as a reader also. You are not reading someone purely for enjoyment or entertainment anymore; there should be a critical awareness that kicks in from the opening line. What is the writer trying to achieve? Have they succeeded? (You may have to wait until later to answer this.) Why have they used the words they have? Where is the work strongest? Weakest? Find its faults (with one or two exceptions, there will always be some). Start reading as a writer.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST TIME?

The Method... got its first proper review here. And although I know Lisa (a little), she promised me no favours. There’s also a chance to win a copy; just leave a comment.