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Review: The Children Act, Ian McEwan

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Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge, presiding over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now, her marriage of thirty years is in crisis.

At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: for religious reasons, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents share his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely held faith? In the course of reaching a decision Fiona visits Adam in hospital – an encounter which stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both.

Difficult to summarise, or to review, McEwan’s book (his 13th novel) draws on his personal experience with the family courts during a difficult divorce and custody battle in the 1990s. He had an uncomfortable interruption at the Cheltenham Literary Festival this year when his ex-wife began shouting about the injunction, which was placed forbidding her to speak about the case. This awkwardness and emotional turmoil is brought out painfully but carefully in the book: the sense of uncertainty and betrayal is beautifully illustrated, touching on emotions of difficulty in all of our lives. His ability to translate the complexities of emotion, and especially the difficulties of vulnerability in relationships, never fails to hold my attention. The novella, On Chesil Beach, was one of his most powerful books, in my opinion, and he uses the same mood, painting a landscape of fear and abandonment. One of the aspects of McEwan’s writing that I most admire is his ability get inside the mind of a character at their most vulnerable. He poses questions in his fiction that might otherwise be difficult to voice.

The main event in the story centres around a seventeen (nearly eighteen year old) son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple. The significance of his age and of the closeness to his eighteenth birthday becomes apparent as we get deeper into the story. The book covers themes of religion, personal faith and human rights law, and the legal aspect of the book was really interesting. Without showing much bias, he forces the reader to come to their own conclusions about the right or wrong or the family’s belief systems, and raises questions about how or why we come to the various and necessary decisions in our lives. I felt for each character for different reasons, and am left with a sense of having lived the lives of many of the characters.

 

 


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The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2014 Announced – Were There Any Surprises?

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As I write, the longlist for the Man Booker prize 2014 has just been announced. It is the first year the prize has been opened up to novelists from around the world, as long as the books are written in English. Previous rules limited Publishers to Commonwealth authors only. Previous winner, Eleanor Catton, says,  “I think it’s a really great thing that finally we’ve got a prize that is an English-language prize that doesn’t make a distinction for writers who are writing from a particular country.”

The longlist this year has proven controversial for several reasons. You only have to look at the #ManBooker14 Twitter hashtag to see the questions people are asking. Literature professor, journalist, author, and one of the 2014 Man Booker judges, Sarah Churchwell said, “As inevitable debate and criticism develop, do bear in mind that what we longlist is defined by what publishers submit to us.” It’s a helpful reminder that, although people are quick to criticise the judging panel, they are very much bound by what is submitted.

Publishers this year are navigating unchartered waters, and are finding their feet with the new rules. The longlist comprises 13 books by four Americans, six Britons, two Irish writers and one Australian:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)

Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)

Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

 

Howard Jacobson, a previous winner with The Finkler Question in 2010, is not a surprise; neither are the two previously shortlisted authors, Ali Smith and David Mitchell.  But some are asking why Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is missing and why Ian McEwan’s The Children has also missed the list. The Guardian predicted that it might meet the mark because the “novel is about a female judge dealing with a religious young man who wants to opt out of life-saving medical treatment,’ citing that it may appeal to the chair of judges. David Nicholls’ book, Us, has surprised some by making the list. His previous novel, One Day, was turned into a film, but he would not usually be seen as a writer of Literary Fiction. I feel refreshed by the thought that genre is now less of an issue than, possibly, it used to be. Don’t you?

 

A crowd-funded book has appeared on the list for the first time: Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel, set in 1066, was published by Unbound, which asks readers to give money towards publication in exchange for having their name included in the credits. This is a really interesting new development.

 

We will never know how or why the judges chose the books as they did, but I suspect that they were looking for a good range of stories as well as wonderful writing, and were avoiding anything too overtly political, especially given the current political climate.

 

Previous winners have included Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes, Howard Jacobson, Ian McEwan and Yann Martel and John Banville. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September with six titles and the winner on 14th October. The judges for this year’s prize are Sarah Churchwell, Daniel Glaser, Jonathan Bate, Alastair Niven and Erica Wagner, with Anthony Grayling as the chair.

 

I very much look forward to the shortlist and to reading some of the longlisted books. Has anyone read any? What did you think?

Here are some interested extracts and related works by the authors:

David Mitchell’s Twitter Story “The Right Sort” Collected.

The Wake has been crowd-funded by Unbound. You can read all about it here.

Bloomsbury have an extract of The History of the Rain by Niall Williams for you to read.


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The Fine Art of Bookselling

Christina James is a crime thriller writer of the literary variety. Her novel In the Family was published in November 2012 and her next DI Yates novel is due to be released in June 2013. She has written a guest blog post today on her experiences as a bookseller. Thank you, Christina.

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You might think that bookselling is like any other retail activity and, up to a point, you would be correct.  Bookselling consists of acquiring the right ‘product’, setting it out in an attractive manner and making sure that people who are interested in it are able to find and purchase it – and that throughout the process they are treated with unfailing helpfulness and courtesy from the moment that they walk into the shop.  You could say the same of selling cheese or hats or computer games.

Booksellers, however, have always known themselves to be special.  There are numerous reasons for this, some of them valid.  Booksellers are part of that small, select band – its other members include jewellers, posh dress-shop proprietors and some other sellers of luxury products – commonly classified by marketing gurus as ‘high-end retailers’.  It is not unknown for some booksellers to consider themselves a cut above even these illustrious peer-group members, on the grounds that what they sell feeds the mind.  Therefore, the argument runs, their customer service aspirations are of a different order from those of a jeweller who seeks to make a couple happy by conjuring up the perfect engagement ring or the chocolatier who provides the crowning accompaniment to a romantic date.

So far, so bad.  I am a great fan of booksellers in general – I do believe that they are among the great unsung heroes of civilisation – and probably of 95% of booksellers in particular.  But it is true that there is an annoying minority of booksellers who ponce around giving themselves airs, thus ensuring that all but the most erudite and determined customer is either too scared to enter the shop in the first place or, faced with silence or a supercilious greeting, beats a hasty retreat.  It’s amazing how every fresh generation of booksellers seems to breed a few of these – and how, against all odds, on the whole they manage to survive.

Anyway, back to what booksellers do.  Acquiring the right product is not as easy as it sounds when there are more than a million items to choose from UK publishers alone.  No bookshop can stock more than a fraction of these.  An average bookshop may hold 25,000 titles, a large one twice this figure.  ‘So what,’ you might think, ‘I can’t get every brand of T-shirt in Debenhams or even every brand of deodorant in Boots.’  That’s true, but the difference is that a bookseller’s customers expect to be able to find every book that they want in their local bookshop.  Of course, it’s not possible for the bookseller to fulfil all their expectations, however obscure, but he or she does have to get to know the (constantly-changing) preferences of the local community well enough to be able to score a good hit-rate and also to have an efficient, speedy ordering service in place for the titles that, inevitably, aren’t in stock.

Making the product look attractive is what retailing is all about.  No room for special pleading there, perhaps; except that a bookshop contains hundreds of items that have been arranged according to a system (by category, alphabetical order, Dewey decimal, whatever) and the more successful the shop is in attracting customers, the more likely it is that these items will be lifted out for inspection and returned to the wrong place.  The staff of a sizeable bookshop spends a large percentage of its time just tidying up the shelves.  Then there is the risk of damage.  No bookseller wants to stop a customer from browsing – it is what gives bookshops their unique feel; what makes them, in jargon parlance, ‘destination stores’ – but at the same time repeated handling is bound to leave some of the stock grubby, dog-eared or broken-backed. (One of my pet hates is to see someone callously ‘back’ a paperback.  The screeching of gum and binding as this evil act is perpetrated and the resulting mutilation is as hard to bear as watching a butterfly being broken on a wheel.)  Finally, there is the problem of outright theft – again, the curse of all retailers, but particularly difficult to control when the items being pilfered will slip easily into a bag or pocket.  Security systems help, but they are not infallible.  Bookselling margins are already tiny before being further eroded by ‘shrinkage’.

Finally, there is the challenge of making sure that the customer finds the book that she or he wants, or is even surprised and delighted by being offered a book that pleases but of whose existence s/he has been previously unaware.  In order to achieve this, a bookseller needs not just to understand  the local market, as already mentioned, but to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of both backlist and forthcoming titles, along with a highly-developed power of recall.  This is much more difficult than it sounds and is where the bookselling profession really comes into its own.  Booksellers make serendipitous links between what the customer likes and what is on the shelves, dozens of times a day.  Unfortunately, you only get to hear about the times when they drop the occasional stitch.  For example, one of the national newspapers once ran a prominent story on how its reporter had gone into a well-known bookshop and asked for Amsterdam, the novel by Ian McEwan, only to be directed to the travel section.  The member of staff in question was a Saturday girl and, needless to say, she was mortified.

Apart from the three great planks upon which bookselling is constructed – getting the books, displaying them, connecting them with the right customers – there is a myriad of other tasks associated with running a good bookshop, from handling goods-in and returns to keeping the shop floor areas clean and hazard-free to managing complex staff rotas, meeting publishers’ representatives and organising events.

I think that I have just proved the case that good booksellers are special.  And the real crème de la crème of the bookselling industry reinforce their specialness by keeping this to themselves.  They take a modest delight in practising their skills in an understated way, knowing full well that the best way to win and keep customers is by understanding that ars est celare artem.

Christina James Gravatar (1)Christina James was born in Spalding and sets her novels in the evocative Fenland countryside of South Lincolnshire.  She works as a bookseller, researcher and teacher.  She has a lifelong fascination with crime fiction and its history.  She is also a well-established non-fiction writer, under a separate name. You can follow Christina on her blog at www.christinajamesblog.com and on twitter @CAJamesWriter.


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Author Interview: Ian McEwan On Writing (Guardian Open Weekend)

How do you restore the stock of ideas for prolific writing?

Make time by saying ‘no’ to unnecessary things.
Do nothing when you have finished, take a break.
Hike or get out.

How do you enjoy writing?

You need a form of happiness, a total absorption in trying to write.
Get lost in what you are doing.

Where and how do you write. What is the process?

Write in longhand.
Make notes and messages.
List what your chapter will contain, not necessarily in order.
Describe a novel you know you will never write to free your writing. It may turn into a novel.


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Chekhov, Short Stories and Goals for 2013

This year has been a whirlwind of editing, marketing and publishing for me, a year where I started to build a platform and an internet presence as a writer – something which is a necessity for both traditionally published and self-published writers. It might sound familiar to many of you, but if I tell you that for the past five years I have been tucked away writing, with no sign of my name on Google and no contact with other readers and writers, you can imagine how much things have changed.

I winced at the thought of loading my photo and sharing ideas from my heart about my passions, and what I enjoy reading and writing. I shuddered at the idea of my thoughts being public, but what I have discovered is that the relationships you build online overtake any fears. The people I have met here, on facebook, twitter, and goodreads have been interesting, inspiring, and encouraging. These are all people who are passionate readers, a range or writers over all types of genres, and marketers with a vast experience of online communication.

So, now that we are nearing the end of 2012, I have been thinking about my goals for 2013. I haven’t had time to come up for air but my mind is always full of writing ideas and next steps, it is constantly wanting to create.

Having spent several years crafting ‘Take Me to the Castle,’ a novel which I am pleased to release, with the kindle version on special offer over Christmas and the New Year, I now want to spend next year reading and writing short stories and flash fiction. I wrote many of both types of story as I neared the end of the edits of my book, as I was craving some writing time. Editing and writing are two entirely different processes and I defy you to find any author who prefers editing to writing. The first draft goes through many many changes and morphs into a different form to the original version. This is a good thing – first drafts can sometimes miss essential ingredients, have too many unnecessary words, or just not be tight enough for a compelling story.

Short stories and flash fiction:

I found in these a style of writing which suits my writing. I love the condensing or framing of a story into 350 words or 3000 words. You can create so much suspense and exagerate themes in a way in which they would be lost in a longer piece of prose. I read many different stories, mainly short stories, and wrote many which I will be publishing next year.

I wanted to share with you two books which are on my table to read over Christmas and into the New Year:

Image I love Chekhov’s short stories, they are powerful, full of enticing detail, and captivating. His literary genius is timeless; he wrote in a way that makes his tales just as readable now as they were in the 1800s. Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short story author. As a doctor, also, who helped the poor, he was disturbed by the darker aspects of society. His father was a tyranical figure, and this has cast its shadows in his writing. I have already dipped in to ‘The Essential Tales of Chekhov,’ and am hugely enjoying the stories. There is a really interesting account of his life in the Guardian if you are interested in further reading…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/06/anton-chekhov-short-stories

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In time for this year’s National Short Story Week, ‘Overheard: stories to read aloud,’ was released. It is edited by Jonathan Taylor and, wrapped within it’s beautiful cover, are a collection of stories from over 30 of the UK’s most popular storytellers, including Louis De Bernières, Blake Morrison, Kate Pullinger, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Adele Parks and Hanif Kureishi.

I bought this as it was released in November of this year, as I really enjoy reading books by Louis De Bernières and Ian McEwan. It is now tucked it away for the cosy (post editing) winter evenings.

So my goals are to read and write many short stories in the coming year. What are your goals for books to read, or ideas to write?


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Writer’s Block: 5 Top Tips for Finding Inspiration

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There are those who say ‘Don’t look for inspiration, just write.’ What about the days when you are stuck with a scene that feels clunky or one of your characters doesn’t seem consistent or exciting enough. Maybe you are are about to embark on a new book, a first book, a short story, or a poem…and the list goes on. Finding ideas for blog posts can sometimes be difficult when many key topics have been covered from all angles.

Here are 5 top tips:

Go for a walk. Get out and stretch your legs. Writing can keep you pinned to a chair for longer than you realise and the exercise alone will get the blood circulating to your brain. Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity while riding a bike. Emerson said of Thoreau: ‘The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.’ Haruki Murukami runs 10K a day when in writing mode and says, ‘Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.’ The Neuroscience of Imagination is a really interesting article on this topic.

See a film. It is a good idea to see films which stretch your imagination, especially if it is a difference genre to your own writing. The visual stimulus and the way the characters are played out often spark ideas for characterisation or scene setting and plot momentum.

Read. Read as much as you can of as many different genres as you can get your hands on. Ian McEwan writes all morning and reads all afternoon. Some agents recommend reading at least as many words as you write each day! With the rise of ereaders it is quick and easy to access a vast range of books.

Pick up a paper if you want to find inspiration from non-fiction.

Dip into a short story if you want a short burst of inspiration. They are packed full of description and swift characterisation. See my recent post on short stories.

Head to a cafe. Go somewhere which is guaranteed to be full of people! You are most probably writing about people, so study them. Watch people’s body language, the way they dress, how they talk. Go and write or meet a friend and observe. You’ll be amazed by how much it helps. I was writing a difficult scene in my novel in a cafe. The scene involved a particular character and, by chance, a guy with similar features and mannerisms to my character sat down at a table nearby. Needless to say the scene was wrapped up by the time I had finished my coffee. It was a complete coincidence but you never know who will walk by or sit down and inspire a particular character in your writing.

Go to a gallery. Or a football match, or any thing that you enjoy and find inspiring. I love art galleries and there is something about art which, for me, crosses over into writing and ideas. I see a painting and think of a story behind the image or wonder about the life of the artist. The biographies on the wall often inspire ideas about a different time frame or issue.

So, go and be inspired then come back and tell us what it is that helps you to get around writer’s block. Do you have any tips for inspiration?