Thursday, 25 April 2013


WHAT, I wonder, does it feel like to know a whole county is reading your book at the same time? Pretty good I imagine. BERNADINE EVARISTO knows because her book HELLO MUM was chosen as the Suffolk big read a couple of years ago, which meant thousands of people from Ipswich to Lowestoft, from Newmarket to Felixstowe were reading that book. And loving it. And not just because it was given away free either. 70,000 copies of Hello Mum have been sold since then. Not bad.

Hello Mum is a very accessible, readable book, taking the form of a letter written by a 14 year old boy to his mother. But Bernadine has written experimental and challenging work too. Her first novel THE EMPEROR'S BABE is a historical novel-in-verse and SOUL TOURIST is a novel-with-verse. There's also the subversive and satirical BLONDE ROOTS - a counter-factual story which imagines a world where white people are enslave by black owners. And then there's her plays, her collaborations with musicians - her anthologies, her teaching and her latest book MR LOVERMAN - out in August - where the protagonist is a 75 year old male Antiguan poet who has spent his whole life hiding his true nature and has to face up to the consequences of dealing with he truth coming out,  as he is trying to come to terms with the dying of the light.

Oh, and Bernardine is an MBE. Did I not mention that? The only Member of the British Empire to have answered these ten scary questions... (so far)

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Anglo-Nigerian writer; female; Londoner all my life; fourth of eight children; writer of seven books of fiction and verse fiction; explorer of the African diaspora - past, present, imagined, lived, travelled; teacher of creative writing at Brunel Uni and for UEA-Guardian; award’s winner, award’s judge; critic, editor, cyclist; MBE

Why should people read MR LOVERMAN?

Because they won’t have read anything like it before. Black, gay, 74, blinged-up Londoner from Antigua who is married to his deeply religious wife. Also, funny (and tragic), irreverent, structurally adventurous, and set in the hipster Stoke Newington.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

I’m concerned about inequality of all kinds, especially society’s hegemonic structures that maintain privilege and power for the few and damn the rest.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I have written quite a few first person male protagonists and I enjoy the literary transvestism involved in adopting a male voice. I want my fiction to have emotional depth, and this could be one of the strengths of being a woman writer. However, once I’ve had the sex change I’ll let you know what it’s like to write with a willy. Best, Bernard.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

So many people, so many writers, but too many to mention. Off late: Glenda Jackson for her speech about The Milk Snatcher last week – it made me realize how much we need to hear more orators in politics. For the tiddlywinks reading this, Glenda was the No I classical actress of her generation; Ken Livingston (always); Gary Younge for being one of the few black media commentators allowed to speak in mainstream medi; Michelle Obama and her husband…

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

To promote women’s fiction but it does make a mockery of that when it simply
gives more to those who have most, which I think somehow defies its objective.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Not in million years, mate. Actually, the very idea has me retching. Where are we, Victorian England? That’s like asking me if I’d eat a McDonalds. It’s Pret,
Itsu and Carluccios all the way for me, love.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

My next book is floating around the blue skies of my imagination…er..

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

A ‘luxury room’ stay in a Champneys in, say, Bali? Can you fix it?
Tell me something I don't know...

I used to heckle ‘offensive’ theatre plays in the angry early twenties. I’d always sit at the back so that I could make a quick escape. Now I sit at the back for the same reason, but
I don’t heckle, obv.

MR LOVERMAN is out on August 29 with Hamish Hamilton. You know what to do.

Thursday, 18 April 2013


YOU like books with strong characters and powerful voices. You like situations that make you squirm and sweat. And laugh. You like irrepressible language that dances off the page. So, naturally you like JANE HARRIS and her novels THE OBSERVATIONS and GILLESPIE AND I. And I think you'll like her answers to my questions...

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Born Belfast. Brought up in Glasgow. "Interesting" childhood in which reading was refuge. Escaped to London, then Europe. Started scribbling stories in Portugal and realised that writing was missing ingredient in life. Took a long time to write first novel. Took a long time to write second. Now writing third.

Why should people read The Observations and Gillespie and I?

Hopefully, these two novels make the reader laugh and also shiver.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

We have had to move out of our home in order to let the builders take over and replace moth-infested carpet with new flooring (and also carry out a number of other long-overdue building jobs). Since I usually work at home - and love my home - this is a double-upheaval for me and I have found it quite difficult, psychologically, to adapt to being turfed out of the nest.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I’ll never know the true answer to that question. However, at a fundamental level, I suspect that most men who write are taken more seriously than women who write.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anne Tyler.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

So that - one day - people will stop asking this question.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich? 

I ate bone marrow and a lamb's bollocks last week but I don't think I'd eat a dripping sandwich, no.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

Only a working title which I’m reluctant to share. The novel is based on a true story from the 18th century and is set in the French Antilles (Caribbean).

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

Possibly at La Sagesse in Grenada, drinking Rum Punch and playing cards or reading a wonderful book.
Tell me something I don't know...

A Japanese researcher has recently invented artificial meat based on protein from human excrement.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Liz Jensen

A simple question, ladies of the women's prize for fiction jury. And you should think carefully before you answer. Make sure you take all the time you need. Ready? Then here goes. HOW THE FUCK IS LIZ JENSEN'S THE UNINVITED NOT IN YOUR TOP 20?

 You really, really, really think that XXX and XXX are better? Really? Not to mention XXX (Yes, I'm a chickenshit. Too scared of reprisals to name and shame) But, no, really, I'm interested. What was your thinking?

And sorry for shouting just then, but you'll have to help me out because I don't get it.

The Uninvited begins with a series of apparently random - and inventively brutal - killings of parents by their children. These are happening all over the world and begin to unleash panic and violence and state-sanctioned vengeance. So it's a horror story, but it's not just that. THE UNINVITED is compulsive reading. Shocking even. Nightmarish in all the best ways. Gripping doesn't even begin to cover it. It'll keep you awake with all sorts of thoughts you really don't want to be having.

THE UNINVITED also has one of the most carefully drawn damaged narrators I've read in years. And for a terrifying white-knuckle ride it's got some funny set-pieces, some forensic observations of the way we live now, and - more importantly works as a shrewd prediction of where might be headed.

It's science fiction horror - John Wyndham by way of Atwood, Lessing and Angela Carter. As well written and as seductive as that. I love it. Have I made that clear enough? I fucking love it. And I love her answers to the questions too... 50 shades of terracotta indeed.

Can I have you autobiography in exactly 50 words. 

Grew up in a creative but dysfunctional family, went to uni, regretted studying English, escaped abroad as far and as often as I could, became a journalist as a stepping-stone to writing, forgot about writing but never stopped reading, started experimenting with fiction on first son's birth: never looked back.

Why should we read The Uninvited?
You should read The Uninvited because sometimes you need to be scared, and if children randomly killing their parents doesn't give you the creeps, what will?

What, right now, is your most pressing concern?
In general, it's the future. Everyone's. But on a more prosaic and specific note, my immediate issue is what shade of terracotta to paint my kitchen wall. The work-tops and cupbaords are quite pale. But just how dark can I go without invoking gloom? So many choices!

How does being a female writer differ from being a male writer?
Writers are writers first and foremost: imaginatively, we share a constantly expanding landscape in which there's room for everything and everyone, and sex doesn't matter. That said, there are important differences when it comes to our attitude to what we do. I live with a male writer, and I've noticed that he and other male colleagues have more confidence in their work than us. I envy them this. I also note that male readers trust them more, and read them more than they read women. That's really a crying shame. Cynically, if I could start out again, I'd choose a unisex nom de plume, or use initials. My male readers love my work. But I know I'd have more if I had a different name. I don't feel bitter about it, because bitterness is a waste of time. But I regard it as unfair.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?
In life: Carsten Jensen, my namesake and husband. (We share a surname by coincidence rather than marriage: freaky or what?)  Get hold of a copy of his brilliant seafaring epic, We, The Drowned, and discover a world-class novelist. I'm also a huge admirer of the climate scientist James Hansen, and campaigners like George Monbiot who continue to inform the world about climate change in the face of depressing resistance from those who should - and secretly do - know better.

Why do we need a Women's Prize for Literature?
We need a Women's Prize for Literature because despite all the progress we've made, we're still under-recognised in the literary world. By male readers and, crucially, by ourselves too. I'd like to see the day when such a prize is no longer neccessary but I don't think it will happen in my lifetime. 

What you eat a mucky fat sandwich? 
Only if it was microscopically small, and you paid me to.

What is your next book about? And does it have a title?
It doesn't have a title yet, but if it did I might not tell you because I'm coy that way. It's the third in the trilogy that  began with The Rapture and continued with The Uninvited. It's set in the close-to-now future, and it spans several continents and lives. I loved David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, so this time I'm experimenting with the linked-short-story format. When it's not slow-cooking my brain, and making me want to give it all up and become a fruit-picker, I'm having a certain amount of fun with my multi-narrative.

If you could be anywhere, where would you be at this moment?
In the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, reading the new Kate Atkinson with a massive gin and tonic.

Tell me something I don't know
There are fifty shades of terracotta. 
Liz Jensen has published loads of novels as well as the brilliant The Uninvited (Bloomsbury). Another great one is War Crimes For The Home - You know what to do.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Kate Worsley

THERE aren't enough novels set in small towns. Which, given that that's where most of the population of this country actually live, is a damned shame. There are even fewer books set in small Essex towns. I think there's only me and my latest interviewee KATE WORSLEY doing it. My book's set in a kind of contemporary Manningtree and Kate's is - partly -set in a vividly imagined eighteenth century Harwich. And in her's people do get actually manage to get themselves away from Essex.

Her widely applauded first novel SHE RISES takes its title from the sea shanty the drunken sailor, and is a visceral read. Right from the beginning of the book the reader is tossed into the roil and swirl, the wet dirt stench of sea-faring England 250 years ago, though it's not all storms and sails. We are also guided through the cool, quiet, bucolic world of dairy farming. And the back-streets and rookeries of the pre-industrial working class.

SHE RISES gives us characters in revolt against the place in society allotted for them,  surprising themselves with their capacity for risk and adventure. This is also a gripping, sensual tightly-wound love story of the kind Sarah Waters would be proud of.

And Kate Worsley also claims to know where the world's best pub is.

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Born in Preston. Spent my teenage years mooning about in various get-ups. Got to London as soon as I could. Worked as journalist, follow-spot operator, massage practitioner, restaurant manager... Moved house as often as I changed jobs. Finally got down to writing fiction when I moved out, to the coast.

Why should people read your book?

Because, I hope, they'll have as much fun reading it as I had writing it. And if enough people buy it I can write another one.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Remembering to take my chores headscarf off before I leave the house in 30mins to visit someone I've never met before. And to put my contact lenses in.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

Anecdotally and personally, it seems women are far less confident about our work, and find it harder to prioritise writing over everything else. But both factors can benefit the writing, as long as you actually get it done.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

In life, my other half. In writing, anyone who can combine humanity of feeling, and clarity of thought and expression with humour. Current literary crushes include William Trevor, Helen Dunmore, Joseph Conrad and Jon Cantor.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

Because I think both men and women don't take women's writing as "seriously" as men's. If we did it wouldn't be an issue.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Only as research for novel number two.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

Working title is Newbourne, about a Depression-era miner's wife moving south under a government land settlement scheme. Hence the dripping.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

In a sauna. My own sauna. I wish.

Tell me something I don't know...

The best pub in the world is in Harwich. It's called the Alma.



Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Caroline Smailes

I think I've said before that the test of a writer is not whether they've got one book in them, but whether they've got at least five. And this week CAROLINE SMAILES launches that fifth book, THE DROWNING OF ARTHUR BRAXTON. A very modern, very Northern fairy tale this book has already been delighting - and exciting - those who have managed to get their hands on advance copies.

Tanya Byrne, author of The Heart-Shaped Bruise called it 'strange, beautiful and wholly unexpected.' Matt Haig, author The Radleys, called it 'magical.' and the magazine Bella called it 'beautifully told and sometimes disturbing.' And the always straight-talking Bookcunt said it 'fixed something inside that was broken before.'

The thing about Caroline is she always pushing herself on, always trying to find new ways to tell stories - and new ways to reach audiences. She experiments, she doesn't settle. She's a restless, questing spirit - always in search of the story that shocks her readers out of complacency. And she is - book after book - getting herself a reputation as a force to be reckoned with.

As is my way at the minute, I pinged her some questions and she got back to me within fifteen minutes. dark, magical, unsettling, wholly unexpected - with quick brain and fast hands.

Can I have your biography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Caroline watched an interview on Richard & Judy where they referred to someone as a ‘nearly woman’. She identified with that label and faced a ‘now or never’ moment. She enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. Now, eight years later, The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is Caroline’s fifth novel.

Why should people read The Drowning of Arthur Braxton?

To remember the redemptive power of first love, to see how that love can transform even the bleakest of childhoods into something truly extraordinary.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Ants. I have ants in my office, they are mocking me, we are playing hide and seek.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I don’t think there is a difference. The process, the angst, the concerns about the industry are experienced by many authors, regardless of gender. Perhaps, I’d suggest, the dominance of females in positions of power in the publishing industry balances out any latent chauvinism?

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

Roald Dahl. He wrote what children wanted to read, even when many adults felt the subjects were taboo or difficult. Roald Dahl was never frightened to kill off parents or to address a child’s sense of loneliness and abandonment head-on. He set new boundaries for children’s literature, he mixed together sorrow and wit, he cut through to the essence of what a child finds funny. His stories are timeless.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

To celebrate a woman’s view, her craft, her perspective and her creation – this prize offers both men and women the opportunity to read what is perceived to be important literature by women. What’s not to love? I don’t feel this is a feminist stance, it isn’t about minorities. I’d be equally as interested in seeing a Men’s Prize for Literature.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Oh yes, can’t beat a bit of dripping on a stottie cake. You can take the girl out of Newcastle…

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

It might be called ‘Lime Street’, it’s a story set in a lost property office in Liverpool Lime Street train station, it’s an exploration of what it is to be lost or found or both.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

Paris, sipping champagne from a plastic wine glass, underneath the cherry blossom tree outside Shakespeare & Co.

Tell me something I don't know...

Some ants can swim.

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is published by The Friday Project (an imprint of HarperCollins) on Thursday - you know what to do...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Melissa Harrison

I when I last met Melissa Harrison she was holding a room full of pissed students enthralled as she read with quiet intensity from her book CLAY. She didn't win the literary death match - there are showier more peacocky types for that -  but she did get people to fall in her love with her writing. Of course she did. 

What marks Melissa out is the way she notices everything. Absolutely everything. Most good writing is about paying attention to what's around you and CLAY is startling in the precision of its observation of the natural life that teems, flocks, swarms, grows and dies around us. Human beings tend to focus on their most immediate concerns not taking much account of the fact that we are just one part of a fragile system, which we might well screw up with all our blind stumbling.

So Melissa's book is an urban book, a city book, but it'salso  a nature book. A book where the squirrels and the birds and the foxes are viscerally present with all their hot stink in  their own whole other city in the midst of ours.

She's smart too - as you're about to discover from her answers below...

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

I think it’s probably impossible to do it in exactly 50 words and still take in being the youngest of six children, going to a comprehensive school and then to Oxford, working in book publishing and magazines and living in South London with my husband, Anthony, and rescue dog, Scout.

Why should people read your book CLAY?

Because it’s about noticing, and noticing has the power to bring something genuinely transformative into our lives.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Whether there are any Yorkshire teabags in the office.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

Impossible to say, as I’ve only ever been a woman! My guess is not at all; motherhood may create a difference, but that’s a separate question.

Who – in life or writing – do you most admire?

Too many people to mention – but when it comes to literature I find Hilary Mantel’s current prose the closest thing I can imagine to taking flight. 

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

It’s my understanding that while women read books by men and women, men overwhelmingly choose books by men. Add to that the fact that we all (both men and women) tend to recruit, promote and generally identify with people who are similar to us (hence the perpetuation of men-only boardrooms) and you have a playing field that isn’t yet level. Ask me again when it is.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

Absolutely. I have a fairly undiscriminating and resolutely carnivorous palate.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

It’s about landscape and belonging. It does have a title, but an obscure sense of literary decorum prevents me telling anyone what it is until it’s finished. 

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be...?

Deep in the British countryside on a warm June afternoon, a quiet pub within an hour’s walk, my camera and a good book in my knapsack and nothing to do but walk, and look, and dream.

Tell me something I don't know...

Despite a) being a keen amateur naturalist and b) being married to one, I am terrified of ants.

CLAY is published by Bloomsbury. - you know what to do...

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Martine McDonagh

ON the day that the (all-male) shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award is announced it seems fitting to profile a writer best known for her first book, I HAVE WAITED AND YOU HAVE COME. This book imagines a bleak near-future where rising flood waters have pretty much drowned Cheshire.

I am an admirer of those writers who don't stand still or repeat themselves and Martine heads back in time with her second book. Heading to mid-seventies Bristol for AFTER PHOENIX a book about how a family struggles to deal with loss and grief.

Martine McDonagh writes simply, sparingly, intelligently and unsentimentally about both big and small things and she also doesn't take herself too seriously. As you can see in the answers to my questions.

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Born at the northern end of the A23. Moved to Bristol area. State-educated. Grew up in a psychiatric hospital, thanks to father’s occupation. Thirty years in music industry. Single parent, one son. Mature Degree and Masters. Writer. Lecturer. First novel first published 2006. A few brushes with death. Still breathing.

Why should people read your I HAVE WAITED or AFTER PHOENIX?

My first novel, I Have Waited, and You Have Come, is dystopian anti-chicklit – a stalker story with an unreliable narrator set in a climate-changed future, so might suit people who like creepy female characters and being scared.
The new one, After Phoenix, might appeal to someone interested in how differently the members of one family react to the same tragic event. Especially if they grew up in the seventies, or are interested in how people communicated pre-upspeak.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

I’m really worried about poor Iain Duncan-Smith.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I’ve never been a man - although I do love football and hate shopping - so I’m not entirely sure, but having spent time with male writer friends I get the impression that they find it just as difficult. Although, men are very good at giving that impression to women because they know eventually some sucker will come along and do the things they say they can’t do for them. Doesn’t work with the actual writing though…but then there’s that word muse…hmmm.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

This week it’s John Steinbeck. But also, you’ve got to love L Ron Hubbard.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

Because despite the majority of readers of fiction being women (maybe this is changing with the increasing popularity of electronic reading gadgets) and the majority of publishing employees being female (based on no true statistic, just a general impression), male writers still seem to be taken more seriously than women writers. And if that’s not true, well then if we say we need it, it’s because we just do. Okay?

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

No thanks. But after a long hike I do enjoy the vegetarian equivalent: cheese pie, chips and gravy.

What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

In Cannery Row, John Steinbeck says this about superstition: ‘It’s all right not to believe in luck and omens. Nobody believes in them. But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them and no one takes chances.’

I’m not superstitious, so yes, it does have a title, and the central theme is narcissism.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

I’m pretty happy in Redondo Beach, California at the minute. It would be quite nice to have somewhere to live when I get back to the UK though.

Tell me something I don't know...

Men are great too.

I Have Waited And You Have Come is published by Myriad AFTER PHOENIX is published by Ten to Ten Publishing and both are available in the better kind of place

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Mavis Cheek

MY daughter has come to stay and was telling me about her plan for a new cultural revolution, a way to kick start a renaissance in the arts. It's a beautifully simple idea. For the next ten years no men will be allowed to produce any cultural artefacts at all. No books, plays, films, TV, or recorded music. All men everywhere will have to JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP. For a decade.

And I think I sort of agree with this. Certainly I think all the other male writers should sit down and think very hard about what they're doing... There is a lot of noise around in the arts now isn't there? A lot of gimmicks. Quite a lot of shouting. Not all of it from men of course. There are quite a lot of women just banging on the table too. Though they often have more excuse.

And - whether men or women - writers who get attention seem to come from the same old places. Even when you meet a young  writer in tramps clothes, speaking about crystal meth in a cockney accent, chances are they come from a big house in the suburbs and went from A Good School to Oxbridge just like the ruling class have always done.

And it's a shame because listening too long to these guys can means the quiet and the thoughtful and the genuinely unusual can get lost.

MAVIS CHEEK, for example. If you like great stories about ordinary people showing grace under pressure (which are the only kind of stories that matter in the end) then you like the books of Mavis Cheek. If you like generous, warm-hearted, sharply observed and FUNNY books, then you like those of Mavis Cheek. And there are a lot of them. Many people have one book in them. But that's not the real test. The real test is whether you can you stay interesting for five, for ten, or, like Mavis Cheek, for FIFTEEN books.

And she's not just a warm and generous and funny writer, she's a warm, generous teacher of writing. She's worth shutting out the noise to go and discover. But then you, you're smart, you know this anyway.

Give me your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words. Not 49, not 51...

Born Wimbledon:  Failed 11-plus:  Secondary-Modern, B stream.  At 16 took job in contemporary London art world.  After 12 years took degree at Hillcroft College.  Daughter born.  First novel published 1988, won She/John Menzies prize.  15 published in all.  Now live in rural Wiltshire, write, teach, give talks, run Marlborough LitFest.

Why should we read your books?

They hold a beady-eyed mirror to the way we are now and most of them will make you laugh.

What is your most pressing concern right now?

It's waiting for a publisher to offer on my new book which is currently with my agent.  These are hard times.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I’m sure we see the world differently and our concerns are not identical (though many are).  When a woman writes me a fan letter, it’s a fan letter.  When a man writes me a fan letter, it’s a fan letter with a PS about where I got a fact wrong.  This, I think, may be at the heart of gender difference in writing.

Who - in life or writing do you admire?

In life - Helen Bamber and her Foundation that works to hold, contain and sustain people who have suffered immense atrocity and loss – she began with Holocaust survivors and she is, 65 years on, a signatory for Jews for Justice in Palestine.

In writing – the character of Jane Eyre who had wit, humour and intelligence in a time when women were required to be demure – she’s a survivor who stuck to her principals and found happiness in the end.

Why do we need a Women's Prize for Literature?

Because men have had the sole ascendancy in all things worldwide for thousands of years so let’s redress the balance whenever we can and give a share of the goodies solely to women.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

I’ll say – it was one of the treats of my childhood – either beef dripping (which had dark bits that tasted salty and sweet) or more delicately flavoured pork dripping – spread thickly on white bread.

What's the next book about?

About 300 pages – Oh OK – it’s about a woman who decides to go to bed for the rest of her life – and its subtext is the untrustworthiness innate in interpreting history – and Becket’s eternal
‘I can’t go on like this,’
‘That’s what you think.’

If you could be anywhere right now where would it be?

In Corfu, in hot sun, lying by the pool at Kontakali, with an audio book plugged in.   (Here it’s minus one outside currently).

Tell me something I don't know?

Michael Morpurgo failed his 11+, too.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Claire King

SOME people are attracted to extreme sports. They sky-dive, bungee jump, bob-sleigh or tombstone (would any sane person do something called Tombstoning? Of course not. Clues in the name isn't it?). And in the same way some novelists are attracted to the idea of a child narrator. It's a similar kind of high risk endeavour. If you can pull it off then it's exhilarating, but it's tightrope walking, escapology. If it goes wrong you can look foolish. Or dead.

Most readers are wary of spending all that time with a child's voice. Let's be honest, most parents are wary to spend too much time with a kid's voice anywhere nearby. The problem is adulteration in its most literal sense. If you get it wrong - if even a trace element of the adult writer's perspective survives in your kid's voice - then the whole novel is corrupted. It's like that film The Fly, you can end up with something that becomes quite grotesque, something that can't survive in this big unfriendly world that books have to fly out into.

Successful examples? Well, there are a few. ROOM by Emma Donoghue of course. WHAT I DID by Christopher Wakling. and now THE NIGHT RAINBOW by Claire King. King's protagonist Pea is described as 'a heroine you won't forget.' by Maggie O Farrell no less. And Joanne Harris describes the book in glowing terms as 'quirky, elegant and sweet.' Which actually describes very well  Claire's answers to my questions below.

Can I have you autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

The problem is that I never had any sense of my own limitations. Aged three, I attempted to jump off the battlements of Conisborough castle, thinking, presumably, that I would either fly or bounce. Aged 41 I still haven’t learned better. Perhaps I have wings, or am made of rubber.

Why should people read The Night Rainbow?
To remind themselves what they have forgotten : That when, as a child, they thought they knew best, and that adults were all strange, they were largely correct.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?
Finishing my second book. It shouldn’t be, because we have a leaky roof, an uncertain work situation and rubbish pensions. But it is chewing me up and I will be much less insufferable when it is ready and sent to my agent.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?
In the actual writing, getting an agent and getting published, not much. At least not so much that you can generalise. There is, however, still a great difference in terms of the amount of critical reviews given to women writers, and possibly a general perception issue. But it’s not as simple as that. Throw into the mix race, class, celebrity, establishment…it’s not a level playing field is it ? It’s complicated.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?
I admire people who follow their dreams and help others follow theirs. Those who know their place in the universe. Those who are kind and charitable. Those who get up when life knocks them down. And anyone who has ever pushed a person out of their fanny.

Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?
Because we are feminists, which means we believe in equal opportunities for men and women.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich? 
It wouldn’t be on my top ten, but yes, in the right circumstances. My parents & grandparents ate it. When I lived in Ukraine, as a guest you were often offered bread and salo, which is effectively the same thing. The French call it saindoux and you get it in fancy restaurants. Go figure.

What will the next book be about? 
It’s an existential love story about a man who lives on a houseboat on the Canal de Midi. The working title is Candice, but it might change.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?
At my mum’s house on Arran, where she’s had no power for a week.
Tell me something I don't know
The name of Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg is Algonquin for “I fish on my side, you fish on your side, and nobody fishes in the middle.” 

The Night Rainbow is published by Bloomsbury. Available in all the best places. You know what to do...

Friday, 29 March 2013

Ros Barber

CALL me old fashioned but I'm inclined to think that the plays we think of as being written by William Shakespeare were, in fact, written by a jobbing actor and son of Stratford glovemaker called, er, William, er, Shakespeare.

Ros Barber does not think that. Ros Barber thinks that there is at least a good chance that they were the work of another playwright. The work of Dr Fautus author Christopher Marlowe in fact, and it's this idea that provides the propulsion behind her WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR LITERATURE nominated novel THE MARLOWE PAPERS. But, actually, the real authorship of the Shakespeare's plays is hardly the point. THE MARLOWE PAPERS is first and foremost a great story. A thriller even. A man - a drinker, a lover, a fighter, a spy - fakes his death and goes on the run, changing his identity... This is classic thriller territory and the fact that it is written in verse doesn't detract from that.

A novel about a linguistically gifted, shape-shifter and risk-taker should be linguistically and thematically daring itself, shouldn't it. The iambic doesn't interfere with the story-telling, quite the opposite. Given the seventeenth century setting and the florid personalities of the protagonists it seems entirely fitting and gives the work a depth most writers couldn't begin to manage. Ros is a poet with several highly regarded collections behind her and to deny herself use of these gifts in her debut novel, would seem perverse.

So a great and provocative book and some great and provocative answers below. (Oh and my favourite Shakespeare 'fact' is that his dad made a lot of his money from the manufacture of reusable condoms made of kidskin)

 Can I have you autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Born in the States, raised (or depressed) in Essex, Brighton adoptee.
First class Biology and EngLit degrees; latterly MA and PhD.  Two
poetry collections (Anvil). Four offspring.  Author of verse novel The
Marlowe Papers, winner of the 2011 Hoffman Prize, long listed for the
Women’s Fiction Prize (formerly Orange) 2013.

> Why should people read your THE MARLOWE PAPERS?

To find out what all the fuss is about. And because it's not as scary
as it sounds.  People courageous enough to face their fear report
forgetting the layout and finding themselves gripped by the narrative.
It's a historical thriller full of sword-fighting, cross-dressing and
sex.  A cross between Wolf Hall and James Bond.  And much more

> What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

Saving the molar that my dentist yesterday pronounced 'doomed'.  And
finding a cheap flight to Washington for a conference that will still
allow me flexible return dates in case I'm called back for something
I'm not yet allowed to speak about.

> How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

You have to work harder to prove you're serious.  You're more likely
prickle at terms like 'poetESS'.  If the house looks a mess after
you've been buried in your study for ten hours it is deemed your
fault. Your children don't understand why they don't see much of you.
Men are a little scared of you. You have one extra major literary
prize in your sights than a man has.

> Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

Absolutely anyone who follows their dreams, commits, burns the
lifeboats.  Writing-wise - on numerous fronts and for different
reasons - Hilary Mantel and Will Self.  Both are amazingly talented
novelists, and both were extremely kind to me when it really mattered.

> Why do we need the Women's Prize for Literature?

Because otherwise men (and also women) tend not to notice how
brilliant women are.  Because women make up the majority of fiction
readers, and deserve access to a list of fiction that other women have
loved.  And, from my own experience, because all-women judging panels
can clearly be more courageous and visionary than mixed ones!

> Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?
Only if my life (or the life of a loved one) depended on it.

> What will the next book be about? (does it have a title yet?)

Ten years from now, when Richard Dawkins is dead and revered as a God,
a psychologist assessing a woman accused of murdering atheists must
decide whether religious fundamentalism is a form of insanity.

> If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

In a shady hammock overlooking a blue sea and deserted white sand
beach in Tobago.

> Tell me something I don't know

I have a certificate in Apiary Management from Plumpton Agricultural College.

THE MARLOWE PAPERS is published by Sceptre and available in all the usual places. You know what to do...

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Jess Richards

CONVENTIONAL wisdom says that men don't read books by women. Now, it's a fact that conventional wisdom is wrong about almost everything. Conventional wisdom is a bloke droning on in a pub, giving you lists of facts when you'd rather have, you know, a conversation. Conventional wisdom will also tell you that men don't talk about emotions or feelings which is certainly not true of the men I know. Though we like to do it with a pool cue in our hands. Or some darts. In other words we like to  MULTI-TASK as we do it.

So I don't know if men are reluctant to read books by women or not. I think a lot of men are reluctant to read full stop. But I do know that I, personally, honestly don't think about the sex of the author when I pick up a book. I've just checked and the last five books I've read are all by women... Anyway, in honour of the not-the-orange prize, the new WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR LITERATURE, I thought I'd do some interviews with great contemporary women novelists - or novelists who happen to be women...

And first up is JESS RICHARDS. Jess was on the Costa Shortlist for First Novel and her book is an unsettling fairy tale about healing and loss that challenges the reader through having two unreliable narrators who also bend language in inventive ways. It's an intricate and eerie book. Daring too. A book that pushes at boundaries and is, genuinely, a book that has extended the idea of what is possible in modern fiction. But don't think it's not an accessible read, because it is. Every line is imbued with the very essence of story-telling...

Can I have your autobiography in EXACTLY 50 words (not 51, not 49)?

Jess Richards was born in Wales (1972), and grew up too fast in Scotland watching the ferry boats going to Northern Ireland. She left home at 17 and after getting an education, moved to Brighton aged 23 where she has grown up a bit slower, and has lived ever since. 

Why should people read Snake Ropes?

Because curiosity is a wonderful thing. It kills cats, apparently. And yet they take the risk so it must be worth it. There are already many amazing books in the world. If people weren't curious, no new writers would ever have their novels published. My novels aren't based on what or who I know. They're from an overly vivid imagination, and from a childhood spent inhabiting fairytales, which is where my own curiosity comes from.

What is your most pressing concern right this minute?

That I've just lied to someone so I can keep writing today, instead of going out to meet them. I'm wondering if lies are always wrong... if lies are more wrong when they're spoken aloud, or if texted lies don't count. I'm also wondering what would have happened if I'd just told the truth.

How is being a woman who writes different from being a man who writes?

I'm aware from recent tweets, eavesdropping on conversations, and asking questions, that not many men seem to read women's writing. That said, quite a few men who have read my 'very female' book, Snake Ropes, have really enjoyed it, and taken the time to tell me so. Which makes me think that more men should read women's writing in general. Often if I tell a stranger I'm a writer, one, if not the first thing they ask is: 'do you have any children?' I'm not sure if male writers get these kinds of question, or in truth, what this question really has to do with writing.

Who - in life or writing - do you most admire?

I admire pirates for their boldness and fashion-sense, spiders for the engineering within their webs, anyone who has survived a personal tragedy and stayed alive, and in particular, people who find their own dream and follow it relentlessly. Which includes many writers (who aren't necessarily pirates or spiders but are often survivors).

Why do we need a Women's Prize for Literature?

Why wouldn't we? Women's voices still aren't heard as much or as loudly as men's and there is still inequality in many cultures, including the UK. There's a real tendency to think that with political correctness and an awareness of diversity, we can disregard any kind of difference within our society. But disregarding anything means we don't listen to it. I'm more interested in people's personal stories and genuine experiences. Equality is an ideal, based on how we think we should  behave towards one another, but ideals never exist in reality. That said, I'd be interested to see a men's prize for literature as well. And also a transsexual prize for literature. The great thing about prizes is that they make people aware of writers they'd not necessarily have heard of, or wouldn't usually read. Men read more male writers, perhaps women read more female writers, I would like to read more transsexual writers. Either way, a prize to draw attention to good books is never a bad thing, surely.

Would you eat a mucky fat sandwich?

No, never. That's foul.

What is the next book about?

My second book is about to be published - by Sceptre, on April the 25th, 2013. It's called Cooking with Bones and is an adult fairytale. It's about two sisters, Maya and Amber, who leave an oppressive futuristic city. Maya is a formwanderer, which means that people see what they want, when they look at her. They arrive in a deserted cottage where a recipe book and list of instructions await them. Kip is the only child in the nearby village who goes to and from the cottage, collecting the honey cakes Amber bakes, and bringing ingredients to them. Staying hidden, Amber feels she has finally found the home and life she wants. Maya has no identity she can cling to. When a brutal act of violence is committed in the kitchen of their cottage, they have more than themselves to hide.

If you could be anywhere right now, it would be....?

Up a mountain with a panoramic view, nowhere to shelter, and a storm coming in.

Tell me something I don't know...

In a diagram of a flame, the main part of the flame is called the 'luminous zone'. Oh, and crows have cleverer eyes than humans, because they can see an additional primary colour that we can't.

Snake Ropes and Cooking With Bones are published by Sceptre and available in all the usual places. You know what to do.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Do I like writing? Of course I bloody don't....

So, do you like writing?’ he says. I don’t have to think about this.

‘No. No I don’t.’ I say.

Of course it's a little bit more complicated than this. I like the feeling of having written. And  I quite like editing. The slash and burn of it. The cut and chop and happy vandalism of it. Restoring white space to the page. It's like reconstructing a lost virginity and somehow I do like that. I even like the feeling of being up at 5.30am when the rest of the world is still dreaming, still pretending that the working day isn’t going to happen.

But no, the actual labour of trying to wrestle wisps of dreams into hard shapes that make sense. The typing, the pacing, the staring at the page while your head bleeds and your shoulders go rigid with the pressure of it all. No, I don’t enjoy that. That just feels like a weird compulsion. An extension of restless legs syndrome, something that keeps me awake and annoys my life partner. Restless brain syndrome maybe.

And there’s also the knowledge that there might not be that much time to write too many more books. After all my father died suddenly at 62, my paternal grandfather died suddenly at 52, his father died at 48, and he outlived his father… My maternal grandfather died at 39. And I’m 48, so I’m deep into the danger zone…

Writing is something I can’t really prevent any more. Like it was something lurking and latent that has risen to the surface. It’s an urge I used to be able to ignore, but the virus – if that’s what it is – is now full blown and so I’m compelled to sit down every morning or I find I’m all unbalanced for the rest of the day.

But I tell you what I do like – meeting readers. And if writing is painful it does have the compensation that, in the end, I quite often end up in libraries talking to thoughtful, intelligent, honest and forthright people who love books. Even if – as sometimes happens – they don’t love mine.

I’m on this splendid Read Regional scheme where writers based in the North are matched up with libraries who unleash their writing groups upon us. Sometimes we face these groups on our own, and at other times we have the solidarity of a fellow worker in words to get our backs. And it’s always fun, always enlightening.

So far I’ve been to Hull Central Library (the Saturday before Christmas with Alison Gangel – 5 people there. One of them my father-in-law). I’ve been to Shipley library in February (50 people). I’ve been to Riverside library, Rotherham in a blizzard (25 – very hardy – people). I’ve been to Consett Library where my car blew up on the A1 (M). I was like a Messerschmidt pilot in the film Battle of Britain. Panicking and swearing and wreathed in the most acrid of smoke. I still made the gig though (my father-in-law again, driving from Hull to Wetherby services and whisking me up to County Durham where I stumbled in blackened of face and  20 mins late to the great hilarity of the assembled book club)

It was in Consett that an audience member said ‘My only worry about your book was that you are a middle aged man writing in the voice of a teenager… But having met you it now makes total sense.’ Cheeky, or what.

I’ve also been to York Explore Library where Fiona Shaw and I had a lovely chat with six readers and two librarians. Felt like the most civilised thing that I’ve ever done. It was in York where I was asked if I actually enjoyed writing. I should say that when I gave my answer, the bloke that asked it came back with ‘I don’t believe you.’

At King Cross library in Halifax (15 people)  I tested out the plots of my next two novels and they seemed to go down okay. Which is a relief.

I have two more library gigs at Embsay community library and the fabulously named Sherburn-in-Elmet in North Yorks and come snow, come rain, come hail, come tiny audiences, come exploding cars I will be there. Smart people who have read your book and who generally like it and sometimes point out things that you haven’t noticed yourself -  that’s worth all the pacing and the groaning and the fighting with phantom thoughts who won’t stay still properly. Worth all the slow drip-drip of brain blood onto paper.

And I learn so much too. Because my favourite part of these events is when the audience start to tell you their own stories. Which are always fascinating. And which some reader’s group members at least will see in print if they carry on reading books of mine. Be very careful what you tell a writer. But don’t be careful what you ask. Ask anything you like. I’ll answer honestly. Promise

Sunday, 24 February 2013


Awopbopaloobop awopbamboom. It should be written in the wildest most ridiculous font imaginable. One much more bonkers than any I have access to here. In that phrase is encapsulated the whole joyous movement from polite cocktail pop to the raucous freedom of rock and roll. The phrase - exciting enough even when just written down - expresses all the vigour, all the abandon and all the the sex of a whole new way of being. It means spare us your lectures daddio - the kids are moving in. Taking over. It's as subversive as Fight The Power, Relax and Anarchy In The Uk. As blatantly sexual as Je'Taime and with a better tune than any of them.

Awapbopaloobop awapbamboom - I can't stop typing it -These are the first words, the first noises of Little Richard's fantastic album Rockin with Little Richard. The opening lines of the war cry which is Tutti Frutti. With this track began the whole process of liberating an entire generation from the careful restraints of their parents. After Tutti Frutti (Covered by others of course, including Elvis in a version that's good but colourless when compared to the original) the kids had a whole new way of scaring their parents shitless.

Little Richard was vivid, sexually ambiguous and black. He also wasn't a kid. He was 29 when Tutti Frutti was released. He'd been around the juke joint block a few times and learned the ways of the carny. How to whip up a crowd.

Tutti Frutti is more than just a wild refrain. Awopbopaloop alopbamboom is the sound of a man responding to a sexual emergency. A man coming (!) to provide urgent relief to a nation just waking up to its hormones. In this song Little Richard seems to be in the grip of an unstoppable musical Tourettes. His whoops and whistles and yelps are all the sound of a man compelled to try an escape his band in just the same way that the new post-war generation is trying to get out from under the stifling feet of the squares.

Little Richard is way, way out there a standard bearer for the generation that didn't fight in any wars, the first generation of American youth with pockets full of spending loot and access to cars, clothes and records. A generation that had TV. That could take a date to the movies and make-out in the back seat of a ragged Ford.

This was a generation that had no need of the gentle courtship notions of Mom and Pops. And no patience with their hypocrisies either.

And that impatience is the core of this album. Tutti Frutti is an impatient song, a song propelled by a pounding secular, sexual evangelism. Awopbopaloopbop alopbamboom is like a pentecostal speaking in tongues, only at a teenage orgy after the drive-in rather than in the wooden shack of a rural church. It has the same kind of ecstatic revelation contained within it. No wonder adults hated and feared Little Richard Penniman. No wonder the teenagers loved him. No wonder they literally ripped up the cinemas during showings of his first film The Girl Can't Help It (Both the title track and Otis Blackwell's Rip It Up are contained here too).

I got Rockin with Little Richard out of Hebden Library four weeks ago and I've just been renewing it ever since. It's been a constant companion on the car stereo. Tutti Frutti is followed by Long Tall Sally, Lucille, Good Golly Miss Molly, Slippin and Slidin and other early rock and roll classics that take you over and out of yourself like an orgiastic mugging. The sexy, saxy, thump and jump of the tight little band just about keep up with their manic, sexually hyper active vocalist.

Little Richard's songs are all about celebrating the moment and they - along with the more considered and witty storytelling of Chuck Berry - did more than anything to create the iconography of rock and roll. Little Richard, Berry, the young Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis these are the guys who created the mythology of their own genre, but no-one did it with more outrageous panache than Little Richard.

How surprising it is then - upsetting even - to find that Rocking with Little Richard is catogorised by Calderdale libraries as Easy Listening. This music, the sound of authentic sexual revolution, was partly responsible for tearing down the bedroom walls between the white kids and the black kids. The parents, rightly feared that this music with its explicit calls to 'ball', would lead to miscegenation in the dancehalls. Easy Listening? White middle America didn't think so. And neither do I.

Within a year of the 1956 release of this album, Little Richard had become the Reverend Richard Penniman and put his voice and personality at the service of the Lord. For a few years after that Little Richard only made gospel records before rock and roll proved more powerful even than the voice of God and dragged him back to the dark side.

Sometimes Tutti Frutti comes on the stereo when I'm whacking the boxing bag at the gym. And I always hit a little harder for it's two minutes and 11 seconds. Actually I smack that goddamn bag a lot harder...