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That Awkward Question: Where Do Writers Find Their Ideas?

Leonid_Pasternak_001Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Yesterday I watched a really interesting set of readings from the Cheltenham Literature Festival. This was a special event (link to the programme will expire in 4 weeks) welcoming all six writers on the 2014 Man Booker Prize shortlist to the Festival: Joshua Ferris, Richard Flanagan, Karen Joy Fowler, Howard Jacobson, Neel Mukherjee and Ali Smith. The authors discussed and read from their shortlisted novels, then took questions from the audience. The readings gave a good sense of the tone and subject matter of the books. What was particularly interesting, and uncomfortable, though, were the questions after the readings. I don’t think there was a single question posed to the authors that wasn’t either ‘naughty’, in the words of the host, or just difficult to answer. They were asked, if they had to swap their novel with one of the longlisted books, which one they would choose. Needless to say, nobody answered this question. They were also asked how they felt about sitting with two Americans (the Prize was opened up to American authors for the first time this year). Neel Mukherjee said he preferred an inclusive approach over exclusivity. This has been much debated over the years. Joshua Ferris broke the ice with some humour, adding, ‘I think I speak for Karen when I say, we are completely beside ourselves’. The most awkward question, and this was possibly the worst set of questions I’ve heard from any audience to a panel of writers, was whether they had read each other’s books. Ali Smith, thankfully, had read the whole set and thought that they were ‘fantastic’. They were also asked how you know when you have truly finished your novel. The authors agreed that it was much like a painting where you added the last brush stroke. This was one of the better questions, but the question that struck me as particularly familiar came from a young girl in the audience. She asked the eternal, ‘Where do you find your ideas?’, question. And it’s one that makes many writers uncomfortable, primarily because it is difficult to answer.

WHERE DO WRITERS FIND THEIR IDEAS?

The responses from the authors varied. Karen Joy Fowler said that her ideas came from her daughter, and that the question had once been difficult to answer, but was now all sorted. A very tongue-in-cheek, and slightly evasive answer. Howard Jacobson suggested that the word ‘ideas’ may not be the right one to use, and that he sees a scene. He mentioned Milan Kundera in his point that it might be better to try not to have ideas. Joshua Ferris’s answer was closest to what I experience when I write. He said that he has sentences before he has ideas, and that those sentences come from somewhere. From that sentence come other sentences and at some point you find a rhythm. Ali Smith, after a joke about Waitrose (although she failed to mention Peter Andre), says that ideas are absolutely everywhere. Every single thing that we encounter is filled with possibilities and at some point there is a chemical process, a fusion of ideas. She talked about the need to have your senses open. Neel says he gets his from reading other people’s books. But don’t tell anyone! His title came from a a book called Light Years, by James Salter. And finally, Richard Flanagan shared his view that novels are a ‘crack diary’ of your soul.

“NOT TO LOOK FOR THE IDEAS BUT TO HAVE YOUR SENSES OPEN.”  ALI SMITH

I don’t think I have ever managed to answer this question successfully. But, if I look back to the seeds of a novel or a short story, and I have many short story ideas, the ideas come in the waking moments of half sleep, of semi-consciousness. Are they a dream? Not really. They are the thoughts that creep into my mind when it is not preoccupied with the thoughts of the day and the ‘to do’ lists. We wake with so many things to do and places to get to, that our imaginations become squeezed out by the necessary thought processes that we go through on a daily basis. Our imaginations wait on the sidelines for the quiet moments, to come into play when we have a conversation with the lady in the local chemist and talk about travel and family, when a friend tells us about a particular issue that they are facing (although I never use confidential information in my writing). They feed on the everyday encounters that we have, as Ali Smith said, when we have our senses open. Writers tend to notice people, body language, unusual situations, things that are out of the ordinary. They observe. Most will admit to being people watchers. Ideas also come from memory, from fears and from the ‘what if’ scenarios that play out in our minds. Neil Gaiman wrote a good essay on this question, saying that the ideas are not the difficult part, but creating believable characters and making the story interesting. He suggests that the most important questions are, What if, If only, I wonder, If this goes on, Wouldn’t it be interesting if…

I often begin with a scene, as Howard Jacobson mentioned, and if it won’t go away, I commit it to paper, building a story from that scene, asking who the characters are and what they want, what is blocking their desires and what might happen next. I try to feel the atmosphere. With my current work in progress I initially had five key scenes but I knew that they were scattered, and the difficulty lay in linking these once they were written. It became a jigsaw puzzle. I usually write chronologically, but there are no rules. And there in lies the problem: no rules, no solid idea of where the stories begin, but you only need a seed. You allow it to grow and then shape it into something that you hope will inspire and challenge readers. Ideas are as much a mystery to writers as they are to readers. You experiment with different ideas to see what works and, often, ideas will surprise.

 

 


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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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#bookaday Have more than one copy: The Lighthouse

lighthouse

 

I have two paperback copies and a kindle download. This gives you an idea of how much I enjoyed it. The doubling up of the paperbacks is down to a joyful discounted purchase of the Booker shortlisted books  in 2012. I have yet to read Wolf Hall.

The lighthouse caught, and held, my attention partly because of its sadness and for the emptiness of the main character. His life has fallen apart around him and he sets out on a journey, a walking trip to Germany. It is a journey that appears to mirror his own sense of a loss of direction. The abandonment of his mother, and the disappointment of his ex-wife and father, garner sympathy from the reader through Moore’s cleverly crafted narrative. A chilling and suspenseful read. So much emotion is conveyed through very scant explanation.

I have subsequently read her more recent short story collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories. I reviewed the collection in previous post.


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#bookaday Forgot I owned it: The God of Small Things

the god of small things

 

 

This one has been on my shelf for a while but I found it the other day, having forgotten all about it. Has anyone read it? In the absence of any views on the book, here is the blurb:

The God of Small Things (1997) is the debut novel of Indian writer Arundhati Roy. It is a story about the childhood experiences of fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the “Love Laws” that lay down “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” The book is a description of how the small things in life affect people’s behaviour and their lives. The book won the Booker Prize in 1997. Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, this is a modern classic that has been read and loved worldwide. Equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama, it is the story of an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie.


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Disgrace by J M Coetzee: A Review

disgrace

There are books which stay with you for months and years beyond the final page; there are books which draw you in to the point where you cease to feel time; there are books which transport you to a different time and place, yet keep you rooted fully here in the present. This book achieves all of these with a masterful use of imagery and language. This is one of the most powerful books I have read, partly because of its timeless themes and wholly for its ability to get inside the mind of its main character and his daughter, and of course for the delicate insight into human nature, with its brutality and desires. I was utterly captivated.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, J. M. Coetzee’s searing novel tells the story of David Lurie, a twice divorced, 52-year-old professor of communications and Romantic Poetry at Cape Technical University. He has an impulsive affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs. The affair sours and he is denounced and summoned before a committee of inquiry. Willing to admit his guilt, but refusing to yield to pressure to repent publicly, he resigns and retreats to his daughter Lucy’s isolated smallholding. For a time, his daughter’s influence and the natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. He and Lucy become victims of a savage and disturbing attack which brings into relief all the difficulties in their relationship.

Among many accolades for the book are the Man Booker Prize (1999),

National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (1999),

Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book Overall (2000)

Coetzee delves into the darkness of the human condition, making this an uncomfortable but compelling read. His descriptions are often harsh and gritty, but somehow satisfying: ‘The skull, followed by the temperament: the two hardest parts of the body.’ His insight into the mind is beautifully reflected in sentences such as this: ‘His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origin of speech like in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.’

I will hold on to my battered copy, treasure it, reread it, and enjoy the fact that I have finally managed to read it, although late in the game. Have you read it? What did you think? I’d like to hear your thoughts.


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Review: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

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‘I REMEMBER EVERYTHING. MEMORY FILLS MY BODY AS MUCH AS BLOOD AND BONES. 

This is Mary. A mother whose son was taken from her and lost to the world. A woman who lives now in exile, watched by those who seek to preserve the sanctity of her son’s memory. But Mary’s recollections of his difficult life and tragic death are a truth that few who knew her son now recognize. As the myths grow around her like walks, so Mary clings to the truth, revealing, in a time of turmoil and profound change, her own fragile humanity.’

I was intrigued by Colm Tóibín’s novella, given the controversial subject matter and read it in one sitting – 104 pages in its entirety. A fictional account of Mary’s loss of her son on the cross and of her doubts surrounding the miracles and the disciples, it delves into the nature of her fear and confusion. It is a brave attempt to fill the gaps in one of the greatest stories of history and daring in its openness, in its raw uncovering of the destructive nature of loss and what it can do to a person. The Testament of Mary has a beautiful, almost dream-like quality and the depiction of Mary’s grief, of her anger and distrust, is striking, powerful and at times shocking. Yet I could begin to relate to aspects of her pain and understand some of her crippling doubts. Tóibín’s use of language is poetic and lyrical keeping the reader absolutely engaged. There are times when the mind often drifts as you read but this book draws you in and holds you tightly in its grasp until the author releases his hands with the final words that ‘words’ in themselves ‘matter.’ My only wish would be for greater detail in the scenes to plant the reader in the picture and the events as they unfold, but the book remains firmly inside the mind of Mary as she waits for the inevitable to approach.

There is an otherworldly feel to the narrative and an ethereal quality that links cleverly to the context of the book. An inherent darkness seeps into the words, leaving you with the sense that this could almost have been a psychological thriller. Literary it may be, but it has the power to almost transcend genres through thriller, literary fiction, biographical non-fiction. It is difficult to draw the line. There has been less opposition to the book than might be expected and for good reason; the fact that it is a fictional representation of a biblical story leaves the pages open and ripe for an author of great talent to sensitively explore what it might have been like for a Mother to lose a son in the most graphic and torturous of methods. The detail in the crucifixion scenes is just enough and it is not overwritten. The claim that he was the ‘Son of God’ is not the focus of the book and it is interesting that his name is never used, instead we are taken to the core of a Mother’s memories of her child as a baby and of the cold distance between them now, and her excruciating powerlessness as he is placed into the hands of his enemies.

An utterly absorbing and memorable read. It is not difficult to see why this has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This is Tóibín’s third Booker nomination. He was awarded the Costa Novel Award in 2009 for Brooklyn and has received numerous other awards and a Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlisting for The Empty Family in 2011. A gifted and enthralling writer. 

Listen to an excerpt of The Testament of Mary narrated by Meryl Streep.


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Swimming Home

swimming home

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home is a book that has been on my to-be-read pile for far too long. I managed to reading it, amongst other books, while I was away last week. Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2012, I was expecting great things from this book and it did not disappoint.

As he arrives with his family at the villa in the hills above Nice, Joe sees a body in the swimming pool. But the girl is very much alive. She is Kitty Finch: a self-proclaimed botanist with green-painted fingernails, walking naked out of the water and into the heart of their holiday. Why is she there? What does she want from them all? And why does Joe’s enigmatic wife allow her to remain?

Both the unusual cover and the concept grabbed my attention from the start and I knew that this would be an allegorical journey in many ways. Levy’s use of visual constructs and rich symbolism retains a powerful hold over the reader’s experience. The wording is lyrical and enticing, wasting nothing. She casually underplays the devastating story as it reaches an unexpected climax. It has been described as a ‘literary beast’ of a novel and, although initially skeptical, I can understand why; I would agree. Reviews have been mixed, understandably, as her style is highly specific and will not appeal to all. Her power to draw in and to shock is almost a surprise and I found myself rereading parts of the text in disbelief. She uses subtle repetition to great effect and the prose has a circular narrative in that it ends almost where it begins. The outcome? Well, you’ll have to read it and decide what you think. I would highly recommend it to those who enjoy literary fiction and a short, sharp shock. I look forward to reading her newer short story collection, Black Vodka.