Tomorrow and Ever After

Tomorrow I will sit demurely
just wrestle words to the ground
with a flicker of my lashes
flash of sopweed from the Bard.

Tomorrow my characters will come alive,
fight each other, bicker, woo.
Plotholes will hang their grimey faces,
poems stop barking at the moon.

Tomorrow I’ll use post-its in coloured gradations,
fill spreadsheets and schedules, submit with method.
Each sapling of wisdom, each stray pun I will corral
till the day after arrives with a thud.

Portrait of a Poet, by Palma Vecchio. From Google Art Project.

What Got You Hooked on Crime, John Grant?

John Grant author photo (Meteor Crater, Arizona) (1)Nothing like shaking things up a bit, so it’s Wednesday rather than Monday this time for my customary questions about reading passions.

It’s my pleasure to introduce you today to a very prolific author and dynamic blogger, Paul Barnett. Under the name John Grant, Paul is an award-winning writer and editor, born in Aberdeen, Scotland but now living in New Jersey, USA. He has written more than twenty-five fiction books (mainly in the fantasy genre but also a couple of fantasy/crime crossovers) and non-fiction books on an eye-watering variety of subjects, such as Walt Disney’s animated characters, crank and corrupted science, fantasy and science fiction and, most recently, film noir. His second story collection, Tell No Lies, was published just before Christmas. He has won the Hugo (twice), the World Fantasy Award, and a number of other awards. You can find out more about John Grant and his books on his website, but I personally got to know him via his insightful reviews of films noirs. I was also delighted by his wry humour when commenting on this blog. You can also find Paul/John on Twitter @noircyclopedia.

How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

The first time I got hooked on crime fiction was probably through reading Sherlock Holmes stories during childhood. My mum tried to get me to read Father Brown stories too, but for some reason I didn’t enjoy them as much.

Another milestone came when, still during childhood, I went with the family for a short B&B holiday in the north of Scotland. It was one of those places where there wasn’t much to do except go look at the cemetery. Even this bit of excitement was out, though, because it rained the whole time. I swiftly worked my way through all the reading material I’d brought with me, and then discovered there was precisely one other book in the B&B, presumably left behind by a previous guest. That book was Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice, and I can remember being most reluctant to read it. Aside from anything else, it wasn’t science fiction, which had become my genre of choice by then. But it was either read the novel or watch the rain on the windows, so in I plunged . . . and loved it. It didn’t entirely break me of my science fiction habit, but it meant that from then on there was the occasional crime novel tossed into the mix.

What really did it was something silly. By my late teens I was an editor at a book publisher on London’s Fleet Street. More or less just across the road was the St. Bride’s Public Library, which naturally became a haunt. The UK publisher Gollancz used to publish all of its science fiction and crime fiction in uniform yellow covers, which made it easy for me to find the stuff. It wasn’t long before I worked my way through all the Gollancz sf in the place, so I thought I might as well give those other Gollancz yellowjackets a go . . . One protracted binge later, plus another binge on Wilkie Collins, and crime fiction had become an important staple of my leisure reading. These past few years, in fact, it’s become predominant.

JG's shelves 2Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I’m really not picky, to be honest. I try to make sure there’s a good admixture of translated work in there, just so’s I’m not always reading the same old, same old. I’m not hugely fond of modern cozies, although I do enjoy reading (or rereading) Golden Age mysteries, many of which are of course cozies. I like pulp hardboiled, although I haven’t yet read nearly enough of it to feel I’ve got a proper grasp of the subgenre. Scandi noir has become a favorite too, although I’m off it a bit at the moment having read a few over the past year or so that really didn’t impress me. I used to enjoy noirish urban fantasy until it became all werewolf detectives and nymphomaniac vampires. I’ve written a few stories in that fantasy/noir borderland myself (sans the werewolves and vampires, of course!).

What is the most memorable book you’ve read recently?

Oh, lordy, that’s a difficult one. I guess it would have to be Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which I read last autumn. I don’t know if it’s the best crime novel I’ve read recently, but it really spoke to me. It’s a very long book, but I devoured it in just three or four days and loved every minute of it. A good English translation (by Sam Taylor), too. Last year I was also impressed by Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death — another long book! — and blown away by my discovery of Karin Alvtegen.

But I’m not very good at ranking things. If you asked me this same question in just a few hours’ time, I’d be adding a few books, consternated because I hadn’t thought of them first time round.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author (crime fiction) to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

I’m not a great reader of series, although there are exceptions (Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks books). Usually, though, I prefer standalones . . . and even with series books I generally leave a long enough gap between them so that they become in effect standalones. The one big exception to all this is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. I gravitate towards these not just because of their near-uniform excellence but also, at least in part, precisely because of the series context. Mixing with Steve Carella and the rest of the gallant boys of the old Eight-Seven feels like coming home to me. In later years McBain was able to play all sorts of games using the basic format as a substrate — Fat Ollie’s Book, for example, is a marvelous piece of metafiction as well as hugely entertaining and funny — but I like the earlier ones too, where you knew exactly what you were letting yourself in for. So, yes, that’s the series I’d take with me to my desert island. An additional advantage of this series is that it gives me lots of books to read! In fact, I’ve even written a crime/fantasy novella, The City in These Pages, as a (surreal) homage to Ed McBain.

All of that said, I’m not sure McBain is the single author I’d choose to take with me. He might just get pipped at the post by Wilkie Collins, another prolific writer. Collins’s novels, for all their ups and downs in terms of quality, have a capacity to engross me — in a very schoolboy way, really: mouth open, eyes wide, turning the pages eagerly . . . Besides, it’s far too long since last I read most of them, so they’d make a good choice.

JG's shelves 1What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

That’s another problematic one. My day job, as it were, is writing nonfiction books — such as (plug, plug) my recent YA book Debunk It! — and my research reading for these has to be pretty structured, as you can imagine. So I make it a matter of deliberate policy not to plan my leisure reading too far ahead. I have several bookcases full of stuff I haven’t read yet, and I enjoy browsing through these to select my next book on whim.

The big exception comes, of course, when I’ve borrowed books from the library. I know that I’ll soon be reading Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s Death Rites, recommended to me recently, because it has to go back to the library soonish. I’m trying to cut back on my library habit a bit, though, precisely because I enjoy not knowing what’s the next book I’ll read until I actually pick it out.

We recently bought a tablet to use as an e-reader, so that’s likewise stuffed with goodies waiting for me. A lot of them are public-domain items from places like Gutenberg. A small part of the motivation for getting the tablet was that I’d become interested in expanding my horizons to encompass some of the mostly US crime/mystery writers of the early 20th century about whom until recently I’ve known virtually nothing: Isabel Ostrander, Anna Katharine Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart . . .

I also want to get round to having a second — and long overdue! — bite at G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?

Some fantasy/sf writers: Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones — both much missed — Tom Holt, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Charles De Lint. In nonfiction: Martin Gardner, Paul Davies. Others: George Eliot, George Gissing. I recommend my own books interminably, of course, but only to strangers who don’t know my home address and whom I think there’s little chance I’ll ever run into again.

Thank you very much, John (or should that be Paul?) for a very entertaining look at your reading passions and for adding a huge amount of new authors to my TBR list (and not just for crime fiction, either). I am glad to see some old favourites there too, such as Wilkie Collins, Ed McBain and Terry Pratchett. 

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. This series depends so much on your participation, so please, please let me know via Twitter or comments if you would like to share your criminal passions with us.

 

Three Book Reviews: A Matter of Empathy

Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older, but I find it easier to relate to something or someone in most books nowadays. I can even empathise with characters described as ‘weak’, ‘silly’ or ‘unlikeable’. Perhaps because I am that myself! At least part of the time… Perhaps we are all much more fragmented, at conflict, darker, ineffectual than we like to think. Perhaps there are masks which we never take off, even in the privacy of our own rooms, for fear that we have to face a gawping void in the mirror. So here are three books I’ve finished recently, and I freely admit that all of them contain elements that I can relate to.

Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, www.salon.com
Photo credit: Lisa Cohen, http://www.salon.com

Claire Messud: The Woman Upstairs

Nora Eldridge is full of anger: from the spilling, thrilling outburst at the beginning to the more constructive anger at the end of the novel. She spouts invectives and hints at bleeding wounds, but then the style calms down a little. She becomes once more the ‘woman upstairs’, which in the author’s interpretation is not the ‘mad woman in the attic’ (the uncontrollable feminine power), although of course it slyly references that. In this case, it is the unobtrusive, undemanding, invisible neighbour that you barely speak to, who never complains, who lives in the service of others. So this book is a revolt of the meek. No more little nice girl! Anger becomes a productive force, as, in the wake of disappointments, failures and betrayal, Nora becomes convinced that the best revenge is to show others what she is capable of.  She will discard the paralysing sadness and fear or cautiousness which has limited her life thus far. She has spent too long in the Fun House, hoping to find the exit to an authentic life, and seeing nothing but doors closing one after another. Nora will become as ruthless and single-minded as is necessary to pursue her artistic ambitions:

I’m angry enough, at last, to stop being afraid of life, and angry enough – finally, God willing, with my mother’s anger also on my shoulders, a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me – before I die to fucking well live. Just watch me.

While this life-affirming finale is uplifting, I can also see how the rest of the novel could be unappealing to an American audience. The weakness, ineffectual dithering and self-obsessed over-analysis of the main character with her rant of self-pity is a taboo in American society, with its emphasis on taking action, positivism, the ‘you are what you think’ outlook. Nora is not old, but she is starting to resign herself to an unproductive, unfulfilled life, especially in the stifling world of pretentious academia and modern art around Boston and Cambridge, Mass. The descriptions of her small shoe-box creations and the contrast to her friend Sirena’s grandiose, over-the-top installations are more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Are they really innovative, or just jumping on the fashion bandwagon? And the name Sirena itself: surely not a coincidence, reminding us of the dangerous, addictive song of the Sirens. To guard against it, Odysseas has to tie himself to the mast and plug his sailors’ ears with wax.

One other criticism of the book that I’ve come across is that, while it is beautifully nuanced and well written, nothing much happens, i.e. it is too literary. However, I found it exciting, beautifully paced in crescendo, with a dark sense of menace. Something bad is going to happen, but who and what will provoke it?

My-Criminal-WorldHenry Sutton: My Criminal World

This will have writers of all persuasions, but especially crime writers, squirming in recognition. Poor David Slavitt is a mid-list author, whose popularity is dipping, slaving over his latest over-due novel, intimidated by the successes of his academic wife and the disdain of her colleagues. Agent-pecked as well as hen-pecked, he goes about his everyday tasks, trying to sort out plot twists between bouts of laundry and childcare, balancing his anxieties about the required level of goriness in his novels with worries about his wife’s possible infidelity. At times his mild ineffectuality and ego are so exasperating that you are willing him to confront his wife openly about adultery. You find yourself hoping that he will act out on his murderous tendencies. The interviews at the police station, in which David is more concerned about his writing career than in proving his innocence, are absolutely hilarious.

‘We’re talking about Julie Everett, your literary agent?’

‘Yes. Though, frankly, I’m not sure for how much longer. As I think I implied earlier, my career’s not going brilliantly at the moment. I narrowly missed winning a big award. And Julie’s not very keen on what I’m currently working on. […] She doesn’t think I’ve been promoting myself properly. You see, the market’s changed a lot recently.[.. .] And I suppose, to be honest, I’ve made a few mistakes.’

Although the ending felt a little forced and rushed to me, I found this to be a nuanced and very funny novel, not taking itself too seriously, yet with a rather profound underlying message about insecurity, delusion and reality.

StelaBrinzeanuStela Brinzeanu: Bessarabian Nights

You may wonder what I recognise of myself in this sad story about sex-trafficking of women by a Moldovan writer now living in London. It is not the beautiful Ksenia (the girl that is forced into prostitution while on holiday in Italy) that I identify with, but with her ‘blood sister’, Larisa, who is studying in England. Together with their third childhood friend, Doina, she moves heaven and earth to find out what has happened to Ksenia when she goes missing. Larisa represents a cultural bridge between East and West, feeling equally out of place in both worlds, repelled by the backward superstitions in her home country (described as a place where men are either drunk or violent or frequently both), yet not quite fully accepted or integrated into the new culture.

The British TV drama ‘Sex Traffic’ (2004) did a fantastic job of showing both the individual stories of two Moldovan sisters and the global tentacles of the human-trafficking business. However, not all that much has changed since then.  Human trafficking continues to be a major problem in Moldova and, although the government has recently cooperated more with NGOs to tackle the issue, it does not comply with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. So this is an important story which needs to be heard. Again.

The title is a play on the ‘Arabian Nights’ theme, and Brinzeanu does come across as a Scheherazade of our times, eager to share stories about her little-known country on the fringes of Europe. This is a debut novel and the author is so brimful of stories that the book feels crammed with facts. The reader may well feel at times lectured at, even if it is disguised as dialogue. The book is at its most successful in those dream-like flashbacks describing the girls’ childhood in a Moldovan village where time seems to have stood still. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, the author needs to learn to select the most relevant scenes and polish those to perfection. There are a lot of gems in there, but they sometimes get lost in the multiple anecdotes.

So over to you, dear reader! Are there any books that have particularly resonated with you lately, any characters you have related to, or does an unlikeable character make you want to stop reading? 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

The Creativity of Molière

Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mign...
Inscription on backside: peint par Pierre Mignard en 1671 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am always a little wary of statements beginning ‘we writers’, as I feel it is wrong to believe that my sentiments and bad habits are universal.  So let me revise that to: ‘this particular writer is sometimes plagued by self-indulgent behaviour, laziness and self-pity’. When I am in the mood to whinge about how busy I am and how I have no time to write, I remind myself of the amazing creativity in the face of adversity of French playwright Molière.  Then I shut up about my own minor niggles…

 

What is so amazing about Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name Molière? He was born in 1622 in a rather wealthy bourgeois family and was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps in a career in public service. Instead, he chose to become an actor and join a wandering troupe of players – the equivalent of running away to join the circus.  Back then, actors were considered somewhat disreputable – in fact, they were not even allowed a decent burial in church grounds. Yet Molière chose to face this public and family disapproval to follow his passion.

Here are some other things I have learnt from him:

1) Writing is hard work – you need to be disciplined and persevere. Never complain about lack of time.  Molière overcame bankruptcy, censorship, fickle court fashions, disapproval by powerful clerics, ill health, an unhappy marriage, and still wrote more than 30 plays in 14 years, whilst also holding down a full-time job as a theatre director and performer.  He also had to please his royal patron, the Sun King Louis XIV, and make himself available for the daily formal ‘waking up’ ceremonies. The King occasionally demanded a new play in less than 48 hours and the public would not offer any applause or feedback until the King himself showed his pleasure for a certain performance.

2) You may reach the height of glory and still descend to the pits of despair and end up forgotten. In other words, you’ve got to do art for art’s sake, not just for money or glory. Although the King backed  Molière for many years, and even was the godfather of the firstborn son of the playwright, his support could never be taken for granted and he withdrew it on several occasions, which meant works such as ‘Tartuffe’ or ‘Don Juan’ were banned. In the end, the King abandoned him and never attended a performance of Molière’s final play, ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’.

3) You love your art to the death.  Molière is notorious for being so dedicated to his art that it actually killed him. During a performance of ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’, he suffered a coughing fit and haemorrhage (it appears he was suffering from tuberculosis). He insisted on finishing his performance, but died a few hours later as a result of these superhuman exertions.

Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard...
Molière in classical dress, by Nicolas Mignard, 1658. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) You play to your strengths. Personally, Molière appears to have been fonder of playing tragedy and would have liked to write tragedy as well.  However, he very quickly realised that his real talent lay with satire, mockery and comedy, and that this was what his public wanted from him.

5) You can have depth in any genre. Despite having to please a difficult courtly audience, who liked their comedy broad and farcical, Molière proved that, if you are a good enough writer, you can be funny and still layer in universal and profound questions about hypocrisy, falseness in human relationships, pretentiousness and truth.

6)  You don’t have to be perfect.  French language purists argue that there are lots of  errors, padding, grammatical inconsistencies and mixed metaphors in Molière’s work (much like the criticism made of Shakespeare). Yet French is known nowadays as the ‘language of Molière’. Corneille is the greater writer, Racine has the more profound tragic sentiment, but Molière is the most performed and the most quoted French dramatist. His plays have been continuously performed for the past 350 years and the public has always loved him, even when critics, philosophers, religious leaders etc. tried to diss him.

7) Learn from others. In the early years, Molière met with Corneille and even collaborated with him on a play.  He also encouraged Racine in his artistic endeavours, although the troupe never performed a play by the younger writer. His most famous collaboration, however, was with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the founding father of French opera and ballet.  Together they created a new genre known as the comédie-ballet, perhaps the forerunner of today’s musicals.

8) We don’t care about his private life. Yes, he was a bit of a ladies’ man. Yes, he married the illegitimate daughter of his lover. Yes, he wrote extremely well about being cuckolded, so it might have been based on personal experience. Do we care? No. His work stands on his own merit, much like Shakespeare’s, about whom we know even less.

As an interesting footnote, there are some who doubt the authenticity of Molière’s work and attribute at least some of his plays to another playwright (in this case Corneille, in Shakespeare’s case Christopher Marlowe).  It seems that readers will always need to invent complicated theories to fill in the gaps.  So perhaps I should rephrase again from the ‘we’ to the ‘me’.  Do I care about Molière’s private life and his failings as a human being? No. He still has so much to teach me.

 

 

 

And if all else fails…

I was passing through the charming town of Chambéry earlier today and I saw this shop front, so I had to share this with you.  This shop is for a Public/Official Writer.  The shop is called ‘The Ear and the Quill’ and we are assured that the shopowner is a certified Public Writer and a member of the Academy of Public Writers.  Sadly, the shop was closed on a Monday, so I could not go in and ask what precisely he or she writes, and for whom.

So, if all my writing and publishing efforts fail, nice to know there is still a career option available for me.  I just hope it doesn’t involve calligraphy (or too much French grammar)!

Quotes about Not Writing

Here are some quotes from recent conversations with family and friends, which serve to remind me each day about why I want to write but also make me wonder why I am not doing it (or getting better results with it).  Do any of these sound familiar? And see if you can associate the right person from this cast of characters with the right quote:  mother, father, former boss, husband, children, new neighbour, old friend.

If finishing your novel is your top priority, how come it never gets done?

So, what do you do all day?  How come you are always too busy to meet up?

So, when are we actually going to be able to read something of yours in print? No, not online, that doesn’t really count, does it?  And besides, I can’t handle that mouse contraption too well.

Not at your laptop again?! What are you doing there all day?  When do I get to see you or talk to you?

When are you going to find your way back to those incisive, succinct reports you used to write? I mean, creative writing is a lot of waffle, ultimately, isn’t it?

All that education, all that encyclopaedic knowledge, all those years of hard work… and what have you got to show for it?

Do you really think writing will make you happy, or is it just another passing fad? There have been others before, haven’t there?