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