Things to Look Forward To: Livre Sur les Quais 2015

lelivresurlesquais2014Last year I waxed lyrical about the great atmosphere of this book festival for readers and authors in Morges, on the banks of the bonny Lac Léman. This year it’s taking place between the 5th and 7th of September and I’ll be heading there again for what promises to be a great line-up and a chance to enjoy the last days of summer in congenial surroundings. There is a giant book tent where you get a chance to buy books and get them signed by your favourite authors, as well as a number of panel discussions or Q&A sessions with authors.

From actualitte.com
From actualitte.com

This year too, you’ll find the usual suspects of Swiss and French-speaking writers, including old favourites of mine (or those I look forward to reading), such as: Metin Arditi, Joseph Incardona, Yasmina Khadra, Martin Suter, Alex Capus, Emilie de Turckheim, Tatiana de Rosnay, Alain Mabanckou, Timothée de Fombelle.

From website of the festival.
From website of the festival.

They will be joined by a diverse bunch of writers who also speak English (not all of them write in English): Esther Freud, Jonathan Coe, Louis de Bernières, Helen Dunmore, Amanda Hodginskon, Jenny Colgan, Tessa Hadley, Elif Shafak from Turkey, Petina Gappah from Zimbabwe, Gabriel Gbadamosi from Nigeria, Frank Westerman from the Netherlands, Paul Lynch (the Irish writer rather than the Canadian filmmaker). Also present: several members of the Geneva Writers’ Group who’ve had new books out recently, writers I’m proud to also call my friends, such as Michelle Bailat-Jones, Susan Tiberghien, Patti Marxsen. The Geneva Writers’ Group will also be hosting a breakfast on the boat from Geneva to Nyon to Morges, a wonderful opportunity for readings and Q&A sessions with some of our authors.

Boat rides on Lake Geneva, www.genferseegebiet.ch
Boat rides on Lake Geneva, http://www.genferseegebiet.ch

 

This year’s guest of honour is poor, battered Greece, a reminder that art and creativity can nevertheless survive like wildflowers peeking through cracks in austere cement. Here are a few of the writers I look forward to discovering there:

  • crime writer and masterly painter of the Greek crisis, Petros Markaris
  • Christos Tsiolkas – Australian of Greek origin, who needs no further introduction
  • Ersi Sotiropoulos: an experimental, avant-garde writer, whose novel about four young Athenians musing about their future, Zig-Zag through the Bitter Orange Trees, has been translated into English. She is currently working on ‘Plato in New York’, described as a hybrid of a novel that uses fictional narrative, dialogue, and visual poetry.
  • Yannis Kiourtsakis – suspended between France and Greece, novels exploring the heart of displacement and emigration
  • Poet Thanassis Hatzopoulous, whose wonderful words (translated by David Connolly) I leave you with:

DAEMON
The clacking of prayers persists
And the rattles of the temple where
The beauteous officiates

And yet no one
Can bear this beauty, the touch
Everything glows and fades incomprehensibly
By itself carrying so much desolation
And charm peculiar to verbs

The seasons rotate under the veil of rhythm
And the people who bear them
Return more vigorous full of freshness and breeze
Conveyed in their steps
Dripping their tracks

And whatever life gives them they return
So equally the soul’s universe is shared
Rendering in radiance whatever
In at times its own way avaricious
Nature intends

Yet beauty has no justice
All turmoil, prey to chance is meted
And finds peace.

Lilac Passing

It was the first summer she was allowed to go to the seaside by herself. She was working as a guide, so there were still rules and timetables to conform to, supervision and rebukes to endure. But the clothes were uncensored, the lipstick was hers to wield. She could laugh loudly and often, she could dance as if no one was looking. Her light no longer concealed by the well-meaning protective shade of her parents’ bushel.

One dazzling older man painted her portrait. He sprinkled praise as liberally as his colours.

‘You’re not quite ripe yet. Not yet at the peak of your beauty. Give it another two or three years and you will be truly unforgettable.’

So she waited for her irresistibility to commence. All year she lived in preparation for that delicious delirium, like the lilac bush in her parents’ garden at home. The green leaves so bland to casual onlookers, but she knew it was expectant, ready to burst one day into intoxicating flower.

P1030245

By the end of the summer, she’d met the sensible young man with a future ahead of him, the kind of man her parents had always craved. By the following summer she’d persuaded herself that this was her dream too. They got married, setting up a tiny home in a capital city that was much too expensive for them. She worked three jobs at once and still their money ran out mid-month, while he pursued studies which would carve out that promising, tantalising future. In her rush from night-time proofreading to early morning classes, from private lessons to the vegetable stalls at the marketplace, from cooking to cleaning to washing to bill paying and housewife-playing, she forgot to check for her bloom in the mirror.

She made a modest name for herself, a tiny bud in a scholastic tree of excellence. Invited to study abroad, she worked even harder: to fit in, to catch up, to keep up, to maintain the respect of those who funded her. There was no more room for housewifely contortions. Her marriage withered on the stalk. She sought refuge in the life of the intellect. She scraped, she scrabbled, scoured and swept, till she rebuilt a small nest fo herself in that new country, new language, new group of friends.

Then, one day, she looked up. She paused just long enough to catch a glimpse of the person in the mirror. The lilac bush had grown blowsy, the flowers curled up with frayed brown edges. The scent was now tinged with the onset of rot.

She’d blinked and the flowering was over.

This was written as an exercise at the Geneva Writers’ Group on Saturday morning. We were discussing metaphors taken from the natural world. Did I tell you what a wonderful bookish Saturday I had? Literary workshop in the morning, going to the theatre with my younger son in the afternoon and then a poetry reading in the evening. Days don’t get much more inspirational than that.

Book Fair in Geneva – Salon du Livre

On Thursday this week I had the pleasure of attending the Geneva Book Fair. This is a large annual event (by Swiss standards), but it attracts little attention internationally because it is geared towards French speakers (lots of foreign books, but they are all translated into French; I couldn’t find even Swiss German writers in the original) and has few big name invitations. Although I did get to see Linwood Barclay there last year.

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It is not a trade fair and many of the standholders and publishers say they don’t even sell that many books. (Hmmm, book prices in Switzerland may have a little to do with that – 25-30 CHF for a paperback is very common, about £20 or $30). Instead, it’s very much about raising awareness, the general public and education. Small wonder it was teeming with schools, children running around doing treasure hunts or learning how to draw BD characters, or toddlers reading with their parents.

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And it’s not just about books – there were many stands dedicated to associations (book clubs and writing groups), universities, arts and crafts, health and well-being, cookery workshops and wine-tasting. There are plenty of outlets for your own creativity.

Artworks made out of old books.
Artworks made out of old books.
The Factory: each container had a different theme for visitors' own contributions: a 6 word story, your favourite books, print your selfie, write your bio etc.
The Factory: each container had a different theme for visitors’ own contributions: a 6 word story, your favourite books, print your selfie, write your bio etc.

I minded the Geneva Writers Group stand for a few hours. We improvised a bit with the decorations, but next year we will create something truly magical! I had no books to display myself, of course (maybe next year or the year after?), but I was surrounded by talented members of the group who did: Katie Hayoz (I’ve reviewed one of her YA books here), science-fiction writer Massimo Marino and YA/NA author Olivia Wildenstein. And I’m not just saying that because they are nice people…

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In the afternoon I wandered around, bumping into Max Cabanes again and telling him I should pay him royalties for using his drawing as my avatar. The BD illustrators are a wonderful bunch, and I also enjoyed talking to storywriter De Groot (creator of Leonard, about a mad inventor, one of my boys’ favourites) and Batem (illustrator of the magical Marsupilami).

How to draw a Marsupilami...
How to draw a Marsupilami…

When I said it was aimed towards French speakers, I did not mean to imply it is not international. On the contrary, there are many special interest country and regional sections, ranging from the youngest canton of Switzerland (Jura) to Arabic nations of North Africa, Brazil to Armenia. Each one organises panel discussions or author interviews on small stages. But there are so many events competing for your attention that not all get the audience they deserve. I got to see Dominique Sylvain making some very witty and wise observations about writing crime fiction in front of just 5-6 people: in Lyon, she’d have been mobbed!

Russia was the guest of honour this year. Here's a selection of cookery books in Russian.
Russia was the guest of honour this year. Here’s a selection of cookery books in Russian.
The African Salon.
The African Salon.
And, of course, you can't forget Switzerland itself...
And, of course, you can’t forget Switzerland itself…
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The Philosophy Section. Unfortunately, the session I was looking forward to here, ‘What Use Is Poetry?’, was cancelled or moved.

I was restrained in my book purchases, because most of the French authors I wanted I can get cheaper across the border in France. I did find a book by Alex Capus in German Mein Nachbar Urs (My Neighbour Urs) – which I couldn’t resist, since I have a very good friend with that name. Besides, I’ve been meaning to read Capus for ages. There was also an English-language bookshop that was selling off their remaindered books at very low prices, so I bought a one-volume selection of prose by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber & Faber, and the deliciously gossipy looking Writers Between the Covers. The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes and Cads by McKenna Schmidt and Rendon.

Apologies for the shaky photographs: I hate taking pictures with my mobile phone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Positives of the Year 2014

No matter how horribilis an annus horribilis is, there is always a mirabilis aspect to it as well. Translation: no year is so bad that it doesn’t have its golden moments. Readers of one of my more self-pitying previous posts will know that 2014 was not that great for me. But what are some of the things that I will remember with pleasure?

BookPile21) Reading: quantity and quality. 189 books, roughly 56200 pages, exploring new horizons, huge diversity in terms of languages, themes and genres. 14 of those got 5 star reads on my Goodreads ticker tape (mostly poetry and non-fiction, oddly enough). Only 1 got one star (Katherine Pancol, in case you’re wondering. Not that my modest opinion will affect her outstanding sales figures!). And although quite a large chunk of the books I read were published after 2000, there was quite a good spread of decades, going back to 1908. I’m not sure how they count the classics published before the 20th century!

2) Poetry: I’ve not only started reading more poetry this year in printed format (full collections rather than the odd poem here and there online), but I’ve also completed a poetry course via Fish Publishing, from which I learnt so much (even if it has temporarily paralysed me a little with self-censorship). I’ve also been much braver about submitting poetry, even if it has tailed off in the last few months of the year. I submitted to 17 literary journals and anthologies (multiple poems in each submission, I hasten to add) and have had a total of 9 poems published. (I’m still awaiting a couple of responses.) One of my poems was also longlisted for a poetry prize, which was an additional boost to morale.

3) Community: It may seem sad, but the online community of writers, readers and bloggers has become more real to me than the people who physically surround me. Call it expat isolation, arrogance or depression, but I choose to put a more positive spin on it. It’s easier to establish common ground and become friends with people who share your passions, even if they are scattered all over the globe, rather than try to pretend common passions with the people with whom you just happen to be living in close proximity. As a global nomad, I’ve become used to the fact that most of my best friends are an email or telephone call away in another country, rather than within easy visiting distance. It simply makes the times we spend together even more precious!

Having said all of the above, I should add that the Geneva Writers’ Group has been a wonderful ‘real’ community of people passionate about literature. Even if I haven’t been able to attend all of their workshops, it is a wonderfully diverse, supportive and inspiring group of people.

Zozo54) My Cat: This year in February, a cat finally came into my life, after about 4 decades of hoping and wishing for one. I say ‘my’ because she is most certainly ‘my girl’, rather than the family cat. She ignores my husband, tolerates my sons and even sometimes plays with them… and adores me. She follows me around everywhere, and is happiest when she is cuddling up to me, kneading the blanket and sucking onto it – I must remind her of her mother. She may be a bit of a wuss when it comes to other cats and dogs in the neighbourhood, but she’s a good climber and outdoorsy type. She is the most gentle, affectionate, obedient cat you can imagine. She has taught me so much about patience, unconditional love, quiet support (with a purr and a rub) and just generally being calm and relaxed.

5) My Boys: Well, you didn’t think I was going to forget about them, did you? They’ve been one of the greatest sources of stress and anxiety this year, but also one of the biggest joys. Intelligent, opinionated, argumentative, droll and completely unsentimental, they make me laugh and cry many, many times… each day! I just hope I won’t mess them up too much on their way to adulthood.

DrawMama

 

Hope you’ve all found plenty of positives in your year, and here’s to wishing you all a very good 2015! Thank you very much for your wonderful company and see you in the New Year.

Literary Festival on Lake Geneva

Le Livre sur les quais is a relatively unknown literary festival taking place on the banks of Lake Geneva, in the small Swiss town of Morges (near Lausanne). It started in 2010 with just 180 mainly Swiss local writers (a friend of mine who lives in Morges referred to that first year somewhat unkindly as ‘all cook books, tourist guides and crafts manuals’). However, in its 5th year, it has expanded to 362 authors, including many international authors (particularly English-speaking, to satisfy the large expat community in the area). Each year there is an honorary president –  a well-known French-speaking author (last year it was Tatiana de Rosnay, this year it was Daniel Pennac – and a different geographical region is invited to be the ‘guest of honour’. In 2011 it was Quebec, Belgian Walloon region in 2012, last year it was Rhone-Alpes and this year it was Tessin – the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

lelivresurlesquais
infolio.ch

This is a book festival for both fiction and non-fiction fans, for all genres, for all ages, and for quite a few languages. There is a huge book tent on the lakeside, where you can buy your books (at exorbitant Swiss ‘exchange rates, where 15 euros becomes 31.50 francs) and get them signed by the authors when they are not at a conference. There are said conferences, either individual or panel discussions, workshops, films, wine and food tasting, art exhibitions, concerts and, above all, the boat trips with readings. What better way to spend a sunny September weekend than cruising on Lake Geneva listening to Daniel Pennac read from his many novels, Luc Ferry ponder philosophical and ethical issues and Philipp Meyer debating the New Great American Novel with Donald Ray Pollock? Oh, and did I say that all of the events (except for the cruises) are free and that most of them don’t even require pre-registration?

morges.ch
morges.ch

Swiss and French-speaking authors are of course predominant, but there were many authors that were interesting to me as an English speaker. These authors would have been mobbed at a literary festival in the UK – Nathan Filer, Naomi Wood, Louise Doughty, Douglas Kennedy, Andy McNab, Val McDermid, Jo Baker, Caroline Lawrence and Peter Robinson – but here they were mostly subjected to relentless button-holing by us expats, who kept telling them how much we’d enjoyed their books.

It is also a great opportunity to become acquainted with the up-and-coming authors, or those writing in other languages who have not been translated yet into English. This was a common complaint: many authors told me they had been translated into German, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian etc. etc., but not into English. This made me wonder just how ‘big’ or ‘wealthy’ the publishing business is in those small countries and languages, that they can ‘afford’ to translate so much. And not just from well-known American or English authors.

lacote.ch
lacote.ch

While French readers were queuing for autographs in front of Katherine Pancol,  an author who writes what I would describe ‘soap opera with designer gear’ (I could not finish her book), I got to meet and have proper conversations with far more quirky and interesting authors whose books I bought (as I mentioned yesterday) or Pedro Lenz, who writes in Swiss German dialect, and Matthias Zschokke, born and raised in Switzerland but now living in Berlin, or the very candid and delightful debut novelist Lottie Moggach, whose book on online identity sounds both chilling and fascinating. (And yes, she was asked about the benefits but also the disadvantages of having a famous writer as a mother.)

rts.ch
rts.ch

Beautiful weather (to make up for the miserable summer we’ve been having in this area) and good coffee and cakes contributed to this perfect day, as well as bumping into many friends and fellow writers from the Geneva Writers Group. In fact, many of them were running their own workshops on characterization, life writing, translations. I think it’s a given that I’ll be attending next year too!

Finally, here are a few choice quotes from the sessions I attended:

I don’t think you make a conscious choice of writing a ‘classic’ or writing a book that sells. Those authors who have written classics were not aware that they were writing classics at the time. After all, if you only sell five copies, no matter how good your book is, does it have a chance to become a classic? (Louise Doughty)

It was torture writing my book, but nice to have it written. (Nathan Filer)

I stuck to a proportion of about 90% fact and 10% fiction in my depiction of Hemingway’s life and loves, and I was afraid I would be scourged by Hemingway experts, but in the end if you are writing fiction, you need to give yourself the licence to get away from the facts. (Naomi Wood)

I don’t find it easy to write, nor do I feel a compulsion to write every day, so for a long time I thought that meant that I wasn’t a real writer. (Lottie Moggach)

I originally wrote this book in English and contacted a publisher in the US. They were initially very enthusiastic, until they discovered my age. All of my previous novels counted for nothing. They all want young and healthy writers, who can reliably produce a book a year for a long stint. (Mary Anna Barbey)

24heures.ch
24heures.ch

 

Geneva Writers Conference 2014

This past weekend I attended the biennial writing conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. Nearly exactly 2 years ago, during a very cold spell in February 2012, I attended my first one… and its effect on me cannot be exaggerated.  It inspired me to start writing seriously once more (every day), made me fall in love with poetry all over again and was the decisive factor in starting up this blog.

So I was eagerly awaiting the new event – and it did not disappoint, even though this time I was not quite as addicted to meeting every single person and exchanging cards. What I lacked perhaps in wide-eyed wonder, I made up for in deeper connections with fewer people. I can only talk about the sessions I attended, of course, but all of the instructors read to us during the conference dinner and I can assure you they were all excellent. Huge congratulations to Susan Tiberghien (the founder and driving force behind the Geneva Writers’ Group) and her conference committee for organising the event so well.

Mimi Thebo
Mimi Thebo

Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I have tried to capture (apologies to our tutors if I have misinterpreted or misquoted):

From Mimi Thebo, who writes predominantly for YA and children (‘it might be harder, but it’s more fun’):

We writers are not the navy, we’re pirates. I’ll tell you what to do in this class, but if you don’t want to do it, go ahead and rebel.

Young people feel as deeply and suffer everything that we do but without the power to make any changes, to make things better for themselves.

When I sell a book, I don’t get the opportunity to go home and sit on the armchair and tell you how to read the book or explain away all of my many mistakes.

We only write half the book and the readers write the rest when they read it.

Brenda Shaughnessy
Brenda Shaughnessy

From Brenda Shaughnessy, award-winning poet and just a really generous and sweet person, whom I think of as a kindred soul:

Metaphor is key to poetry. This is that – but how do we get from this to that? One of the best ways is to think of it as two balls linked with a tether and you throw them as far apart as you can without ripping the tether.

If you ask a question which can be answered, that’s too easy a question for a poem.

Write and read beyond your own comprehension level. Your poems should know more than you do.

WallisFrom Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, poet as well as novelist and memoir writer, I learnt:

Words have become devalued. In today’s world we are flooded with information and words, at such a volume that we find it hard to bring them back to their basic level, to give words their proper weight and meaning.

When you want to capture that moment ‘that needs speech’, that wrinkle in reality which catches our attention, you need to make it visible with words, but not imprison it. So don’t force your words. Trust your instincts, your impulse, take time to amble and write down your untethered impressions. You can always revisit those first words many years later, as long as you have written enough to capture that feeling.

A poem won’t fall apart with our interpretation. It can take whatever we project onto it. That’s why it’s nice to read poetry together and allow everyone to contribute.

My-Criminal-WorldLast, but not least, from Henry Sutton, author and lecturer of crime fiction, I learnt about asking that next question of your plot and characters, always digging a little deeper into yourself and your novel.

Be prepared to deviate from your plan if that allows you to find your own territory.

We always need to ask questions of why we are doing things the way we are. Why is this book being written? Why are the characters behaving this way? What is the question that best describes my WIP?

Abstract themes and broad concepts are all very well, but surely all literature needs to be concerned with that to a certain extent. It’s the specific, personal stuff that readers want, that they can project their own experiences upon. The personal stuff contains the broader stuff – and abstract concepts have to come through your character, otherwise you might as well write an essay.

I can also tell you what I did not do at this conference: attend the Q&A sessions with the agents and publishers. Not that I’m not curious to hear what they have to say, but I think I’ve heard a lot of it before, some of it on Twitter and in blog posts. And I didn’t want to hear just how discouraging the publishing landscape is at the moment, nor how the odds are stacked against me.

All I want to do is sit down and apply all this wisdom. Finish my novel. Improve my poetry. Write as well as I can, and getting better all the time. Two years is too long to wait for such an inspiring, fun and productive conference! I know that, ultimately, the hard work is down to me, but I am curious to see what effect this conference will have had on my next two years…

It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books.  By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.

But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism.  I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.

However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.

This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice.  Yet it is far rarer than you might think.  I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens.  I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.

Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,

www.jimmorrissonline.com
http://www.jimmorrissonline.com

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

last.fm

20 Years’ Celebration

Last night I had the great pleasure to attend a wonderful celebration: the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Geneva Writers’ Group.  Needless to say, I forgot my camera at home (I always do for momentous occasions), so I can only try and convey through words the emotions, warmth and fun of the event.

It’s been twenty years since a small group of women intoxicated with the beauty and power of words first started meeting at the Cafe du Soleil in Geneva.  Since then, under the passionate and expert guidance of Susan Tiberghien, the group has flourished and grown to 200 members (men and women).  I was delighted to discover the group soon after I moved to Geneva and the conference they organised in February 2012 was what inspired me to write poetry again.  It was also the gentle push into the world of blogging, reading, critiquing (and being critiqued) and generally connecting with other people who love literature as much as me.

So far, so predictable, right?  But what I would also like to convey is the sense of  deep friendship, mutual respect, humour and fun which were also present in the room.  And wait, there were more surprises…

A newly created literary prize for poetry, fiction and non-fiction.  20 words or less to describe what GWG means to each one of us.  A song worthy of Flanders and Swann performed by a trio with an endless collection of hats. And a special anniversary edition of the biennial publication  ‘Offshoots’, in which I am proud to say I have been included with a poem and a short story.  I don’t think I’ve been published on paper (at least, not for fiction) since I was in school.

And yes, I have to admit, old-fashioned old codger that I am, there is something special about seeing your name (or pseudonym) in print, that no amount of online publication can quite match in my own heart. But there is a downside to that: re-reading my own work (particularly when it is showcased next to other, far more experienced and talented writers),  it suddenly looks so slight, so flat, so mundane…

Ah well, will have to do better next time!  Forever onwards and upwards, proud pioneers!

*And there are some pictures from the event on Facebook, I am told.

 

The Golden Cold Shower of Literary Agents

No mythological puns intended here. No, let’s just say it like it is: I had the good fortune to attend a meeting with literary agents this weekend, an event organised by the indefatigable Geneva Writers’ Group. And while the agents’ advice is worth its weight in gold, they also injected a note of cold realism into our starstruck writerly eyes and egos.

It started off gently enough with sensible, if rather well-known statements such as:

1) Don’t try to second-guess trends or formulas which will help your book to sell.  Write the kind of novel you want to read, have a story you are dying to tell.  Yes, publishing does tend to be trend-driven, but there’s no point trying to write ‘100 Shades of Grey’. By the time you have written and published it, fashion will have moved on.

2) There is a false dichotomy between literary and commercial fiction.  It’s wrong to believe that if a book is well-written it will not sell, or that if it sells, it can’t possibly be well written.

3) Authors can no longer afford to be the talent sitting in their ivory towers in front of their keyboard: they need to be the best ambassadors for their own novels.  Writing is such a privilege: it’s not that much of a hardship or outrageous demand that authors should be responsible for their own careers and at least partly involved in promoting their book.

4) Yes, publishing is an industry in flux, but so are a lot of other industries (both creative and non-creative) at the moment. Some doors close, other doors open, new opportunities appear.

5) Agents are people too, with personal likes and dislikes.  What may be a no-go area for one might work for another.  So don’t get discouraged by rejection and try someone else.

But then surprises started popping up unruly heads:

  • Amazon is the Beast – but it’s a complex beast. It appears that agents and publishers hate the suffocating closeness of the relationship with Amazon, although they try hard to see its positives too.
  • Who wants to read the book you’re writing? If the answer is ‘no one’, then write a different kind of book.  Or make your peace with the not-being-read scenario.
  • It’s all about being in the right place at the right time. The very same book may be impossible to sell one year and then do very well the following year.  You cannot predict or follow fashion, but you may be subjected to its tyranny anyway.
  • Agents rarely take on more than 3 writers per year. You don’t want to know the number of queries they get every day.  They are looking for excuses to press the ‘delete’ button.  Literally. Because most queries are now sent via email and they will scan through the email, perhaps open the attachment, and if it doesn’t intrigue them within the first few sentences, they will delete that entire email.  No explanations, no apologies
  • I would rather take on one author I can sell in 35 countries than 35 authors I can sell in one country. Agents need to make money.  They don’t want their hearts broken by beautiful writing which they cannot place.
  • Yet, at the same time, agents live in fear of missing the next J.K. Rowling.  In spite of never running short of unsolicited manuscripts, they still look occasionally at self-published titles or go scouting for talent at creative writing courses or conferences. 
  • The best sign of a good writer: persistence.  That doesn’t mean becoming a stalker or being oblivious to constructive criticism. What it does mean is picking yourself up after you have been rejected, repeatedly, and starting on your next novel. Improve your craft all the time and never stop knocking on doors.

Finally, how did my own meeting with the agent go?  Ummm… next question please…!  I think he was disappointed by my first 15 pages and felt that it didn’t do justice to my story. ‘Get to the point’  and ‘clunky dialogue’ comes to mind here.  He also encouraged me to make some changes I was considering but wasn’t sure they would work.  Finally, he told me to start writing my next book (see last bulletin point above).

So I won’t be signing any contracts any time soon.  I feel flattened but grateful.  Back to the drawing board.  I’m going to show them all!

 

Poetry Workshop: Ideas and Results

Aracelis Girmay

This past weekend I had the rare pleasure and luxury of thinking of nothing else but words, writing and poetry.  I attended a poetry workshop organised by the indefatigable Geneva Writers’ Group and our guest instructor was the vibrant, beautiful poet Aracelis Girmay.  She invited us to play and experiment, to explore bewilderment and mysteries, to climb down the ladder of writing head-first.

It was the first full-length poetry workshop that I ever attended and, boy, did I need it!  Poetry is an old love that I have only recently come back to, after many years of neglect.  I am still struggling to shed the adolescent overcoat that lies over it (yes, it is that long ago since I wrote poetry).  I have been writing a lot of it this year, but is it all therapeutical outpourings of infuriating sentimentality? I needed to push myself. I needed to learn to play, watch words appear and disappear. So here is an interesting experiment we conducted.  Based on Bhanu Kapil‘s thought-provoking questions from her book ‘The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers’, we were asked to create our own questions about a subject that preoccupied us.  I picked ‘Identity and Belonging’, and here are my questions (it’s not really a poem, more like a prompt to spark thinking):

Where do you come from?

Who helped make you what you are?

If not here, where?

How will you know when you get there?

What are you trying to prove?

When will you know and tell?

If not now, when?

What else are you?

What has not been mentioned before?

Why do you need to make the fragments whole?

Who lingers when all is said and done?

But then – and this is where it gets interesting – we had to reshape our questions, leave gaps and rearrange syntax.  We were Isis finding all of the fragments of Osiris and trying to put them back together.  And I was startled to find a much more powerful way of thinking hiding under my initial, conventional questions.  Here is the outcome:

Where do you come from? Who helped make you?

What? You are? What else you are?

When you get there, will you know?

Will you know what you are trying?

When will you know and prove?

If not here, where from? If not now, how will you know?

Who lingers when all is said and done,

Who lingers when all done is said?

What do you think?  Which version do you prefer?  Is this an experiment that might be useful to your own writing?  Can we change our way of thinking by changing the structure of our sentences?  What does the lack of information, that frightening gap, tell us about ourselves?