Friday, November 28, 2014

Catch up

The family issues keep on distracting me from my blogs (and from writing - which is dreadful!), so some of the interesting events I've attended this autumn just haven't got reported here. One thing I should have blogged about (I did take notes, because I intended to) was a Manchester Literature Festival reading with Martin Amis and Nick Laird, which I did find very interesting. (It was one occasion when Amis proudly called himself a Philo-Semite, for which he's since been criticised on the grounds that it's racist to characterise a people as all good, as well as to characterise it as all bad). Amis is always very listenable to, and of course his prose is vivid and rhythmically flawless. I was very struck, too, by the sense of a lot of what Nick Laird said about literature and writing.

Another was the launch of Carys Davies's superb second collection of short stories from Salt, The Redemption of Galen Pike, a lovely evening held at Daunt Books in Holland Park. Many of the stories in this book have won or have been long- or shortlisted in major awards, such as the V S Pritchett and Society of Authors awards, the Manchester Writing Prize, the EFG Sunday Times award and others. Carys's writing is taut and vivid, with both a mythic quality and a touching insight into human frailty. I strongly recommend her book.

I thoroughly enjoyed two very recent events. Last week at Edge Hill University, C D Rose and Edge Hill Prize winning Kevin Barry gave truly stimulating readings. C D Rose's book, The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure (Melville House), is a brilliant compendium of talented but failed writers (and a rebuttal of the assertion that 'talent will out'). Fact or fiction? Well, it's not immediately clear, and that of course is the point: if, through external circumstances, you disappear from literary history or never make it in the first place, you may as well be fictional. Innovatively, before he read the first entry, C D Rose read the Index of the book, which sounded like a long poem and was both hilarious and moving. Kevin Barry read 'Fjord of Killary', a story from his Edge Hill Prize winning collection Dark Lies the Island (Cape). His reading was so animatedly brilliant that I wondered if the story would stand up to my scrutiny when I read it on the page, but it certainly did - as did all the others in his wonderful collection.

Here are the two writers in the Q & A afterwards with convener Ailsa Cox (C D Rose on the left and Kevin Barry in the centre):

The next evening I was at Halle St Peter's in Manchester, the beautiful Ancoats church with its elegant airy interior converted as a rehearsal space for the Halle orchestra. The event I was attending was part of the project Different Spirit, a series of installations and events curated by Helen Wewiora and produced by Julie McCarthy, Creative Director of 42nd Street, a charity working with young people under stress. This was a musical event, titled Local Recall, and the culmination of work done by Open Music Archive artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White with the 42nd Street young people in the Ancoats area and Unity Radio. Simpson and White work to explore the potential of public domain material, and for this project they revisited the free art, music and lectures that were available to the Ancoats public from the late 1880s. Using piano player rolls, the young people had remixed, cut up, looped and re-assembled Victorian popular songs, and this was what we first heard when we arrived and milled about the church - very impressive. Then there were two live piano recitals: first, musician Serge Tebu took Victorian popular songs as starting points for jazz improvisation and then recent RNCM graduates Calum McLeod and Liam Waddle played new music they had composed using the remixes made by the 42nd Sreet young people - really quite stunning.

 Finally, after the break, we saw a breathtaking film made by Simpson and White using out-of-copyright footage and making haunting visual connections between the inner workings of a player piano, Edwardian mill scenes, and mid-twentieth-century Ancoats streets. The film was accompanied by a live sound track specially commissioned from Graham Massey, founding member of 808 State, composed and played by him on the night using exclusively 1990s technology. A really startling and moving evening, which the large audience greatly appreciated.

Artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White talk about the project.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reading group: Turbulence by Chico Buarque

It's some time now since we discussed this book, Trevor's suggestion, and my main memory, now that the discussion has receded in time, is that although we all found it a very quick and even compulsive read, most of us said that in the end we weren't left particularly affected by it. I have to say though that, looking back, the events of the book, and its atmosphere, have stayed with me quite vividly.

In fact, those events are not easy to relate, since right from the outset there is doubt as to whether all of them really happen, or whether at least some of them are merely possibilities imagined by the first-person narrator, a disaffected young man from a moneyed family who spends the novel more or less in a state of flight through a city of corruption, violence and uncertainty that is clearly the author's home city of Rio de Janeiro. Told in a breathless and immediate present tense that takes the reader right into the action, and in a riffing prose that recalls the author's earlier career as a jazz musician, the novel opens as the unnamed narrator spies an unwanted visitor through the door of his flat. Immediately we are in the realm of uncertainty and paranoia. To begin with, the narrator doesn't know who the visitor can be; we just know that he has cause to worry. Finally, as the unanswered visitor turns away, the narrator recognises him: someone from his past he doesn't want to see. The reader doesn't find out the visitor's identity, however: what's at issue is the narrator's paranoia - justified or unjustified (we just don't know) - as he watches the visitor walk away in the street below. The fact that he doesn't look up tells the narrator that the visitor knows he's being watched, which in turn means he knows the narrator is there, which means the narrator needs to escape immediately. As he does so, dressing quickly and leaving, he imagines the visitor stopping his taxi and rushing back to catch him out, a scenario so lengthy and detailed that it has the ring of reality, and indeed likelihood. Thus is established the novel's unique and disorienting mode of slippage between actuality and possibility, and its theme of the thin line between the two - the loss of control and the reality of awful possibility when social order breaks down. We follow the narrator as (escaping his unwanted visitor) he travels to his rich sister for money, tries escape to the farm where he was happy as a child only to find it taken over by criminal squatters whom in turn he must escape, steals jewels from his sister and gets involved in a police heist back at the farm.

The trouble was, our group found unsatisfying the lack of certainty about the events created by both this slippage and the fast pace which made us feel that we were reading too quickly and missing things. I don't think it was clear to any of us what actually happened at the farm in the end - who was who, who was tricking who - but several of us said that in the end we didn't care, not because it didn't matter, but because we had basically lost any emotional investment in the narrator's plight. Clare said she thought that part of the problem was that the prose takes us so deeply inside the unthinking narrator's head: there's no sense of an author distanced from the narrator's psyche and judging it or setting it in context. We had to acknowledge however that immediately after its publication in Brazil the novel sold over 130,000 copies, and that our reaction was probably a Western cultural thing: we like the rational and the certain and a more logical sense of consequence. And, as Ann said, we want redemption, which the ending of this novel, terrible and madly random, certainly doesn't provide.

Even Trevor, who had suggested this book with great enthusiasm, had found it less than satisfying; nevertheless, he said he would now try other books by Buarque, although I'm afraid everyone else said they wouldn't.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Best British Short Stories 2014 event at Edge Hill

Last night we had a most enjoyable event for Best British Short Stories 2014, organised at Edge Hill University by fellow contributor Ailsa Cox. Also reading were Claire Dean, Vicki Jarrett and Richard Knight (Richard arriving by the skin of his teeth after getting stuck in the rush hour on the M58!) It was very interesting to hear about the journey of the others' stories into this anthology, and great to hear them read aloud. I'm afraid the photos aren't so hot - I made John use my phone which he'd never used before and didn't get the hang of in time - but I thought I'd stick them in just to give some sense of it all.

Vicki (above) told us that her story, 'Ladies' Day',  first appeared in an anthology from enterprising Scottish independent publisher Freight before being picked up for BBSS by series editor Nicholas Royle. It's an account of a group of housebound young mums attempting with a day at the races to escape the inevitable sense of being sidelined (and stereotyped) in their role - amusing yet also very touching.

It turned out that Claire's story, 'Glass, Bricks, Dust', had its first outing in an academic publication: she had been asked to write a modern fairy story (this is her specialty) along with an essay explaining her process and rationale. The story, concerning a young boy playing on a pile of demolition rubble and a mysterious lamppost on which a host of black birds perch, is indeed a fairytale, yet, as we discussed in the brief Q and A at the end, there's also something very concrete about it, and a strong sense of the reality of place - an affecting combination that characterises her work generally.

Ailsa's haunting 'Hope Fades for the Hostages' was originally commissioned for an anthology accompanying an exhibition at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool on the theme of night-time. It's an impressive orchestration of the viewpoints of three separate people awake at the same time in the night and caught with the thoughts that 3 am brings - very tense, and very moving.

Richard's story, 'The Incalculable Weight of Water' brings to vivid life a reservoir on Saddleworth Moor as the lone protagonist thinks of his wife in the cafe below waiting tensely for important news, and comes upon something unexpected in the water. It was first published online as a result of being shortlisted in the Manchester Writing Competition.

My story, 'Tides, or How Stories Do or Don't get Told', was first published online in The View From Here (now sadly discontinued). I'd been at Edge Hill last week for a reading by the brilliant Kevin Barry, winner of the 2013 Edge Hill Prize for the short story, and he said at one point during the Q & A that he isn't so keen on the well-rounded story with a satisfying ending, since life just isn't like that. As I said last night, I tend to agree, and the more I write the more strongly I hold that view. This particular story, which begins with the narrator struggling to tell a story based on a single memorised moment - a moment when she and her partner stand watching the tide come in - is actually about that idea.

There was a brief Q & A when we discussed the importance of place in stories. There was general acknowledgement that naming a setting can help readers imagine and identify, but Vicki and I both said that we tend not to if we can help it, because of the danger of, on the one hand, readers bringing ready-made connotations that are not necessarily useful to a story, and, on the other, of creating a sense of exclusion for readers who aren't familiar in life with a place. We were all agreed, however, that atmosphere was important, and a strong sense of place (named or unnamed) creates it.

Here are some of us milling in the interval:

Thanks so much to Ailsa, to our editor Nicholas Royle, and of course to our publishers Salt. And last, but not least, to the audience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Reading group: Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

This was one of those rare occasions when those present were unanimous in praise of a book. A short novel, Voyage in the Dark deals with the story of Anna, brought to England from the West Indies at the age of eighteen by her stepmother after her father's death, and then abandoned in a strange cold country to make her own way, uneducated and deprived of the family money. Starting off as a chorus girl in a touring company, she soon falls into financial dependence on a man who is only amusing himself with her sexually, and drifts perforce from there into a kind of high-class prostitution, destitution and despair.

Although it was written in 1934, and set in 1914, we were hugely impressed by how very much ahead of its time it was both in the issues it addresses and in its prose style. As Mark, who had suggested the book, said, it exposes the hypocrisy of an upper-class Edwardian society in which sexual exploitation of women was the norm, and the contempt for women in general and their lowly status within families, and touches on postcolonial issues long before they were widely addressed - as Creole, Anna is both seen as exotic and despised. But all of this is conveyed in an entirely non-explicit way via Anna's first-person narration, which simply replicates her experience as the events unfold, relating only what people say and do and Anna's feelings as events overtake her. There's an apparent simplicity to the prose that echoes her innocence, and perhaps her lack of status and power, but in fact it's very sophisticated. It's economical rather than simple and, as the novel progresses, slips seamlessly into Anna's memories of the West Indies, her lost paradise (though of course the place where the seeds of her doom were set), often without punctuation, in a way that re-creates the fluid thought processes of memory. Therefore the novel is chiefly psychological - and thus very modern - creating layers of consciousness which the reader shares, and the effect is very powerful. In my view, too, to make a reader share the experience of oppression - as Toni Morrison also does - is in addition very political.

However, perhaps because of the lack of explication, John had wondered to me beforehand if Rhys had actually been aware of the significance of the issues raised by her story, which is famously autobiographical. Mark was in no doubt that she was, and spoke of Anna's bitter understanding of what was happening to her, and why. There was some demurring here: Jenny thought Anna was hugely innocent: she seems to have no idea of the shallow designs upon her of the man she first takes up with, Walter Jeffries, and can't see, as the present-day reader can, the signs that he's about to throw her over. But as Mark, said, Anna learns. However, because of that lack of explicitness, those lessons are only implicit, unvoiced, which I'd say creates a powerful sense of the trap that Anna, and women in her situation, are in - a social trap and a trap of silence.

Ann expressed amazement that the book had never been popular - before the years-later publication of Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (which we discussed here), it had fallen out of print, and has never since achieved the same popularity. Ann thought that this was because people simply don't want to confront the issues it raises, and the feelings of discomfort and loss and depression that it so accurately (and beautifully) recreates. I said that I didn't think I'd ever read another book showing so accurately - or even at all - the feelings one has when one is despised simply for being a woman, and everyone agreed. Jenny and I said we could remember the deflation we felt, at a much later date in history, when we were young and men treated us, as they do Anna, with sneering amusement, but none of us could think of other novels that acknowledged that, not even self-consciously feminist ones that tend rather to depict women's anger or attempt redress by portraying women as powerful.

Doug now said that the one negative thing he would say was that he found the book depressing, and Ann and I agreed that we had too, but for none of us did this detract from our huge appreciation of it, and even Trevor, who had expected not to like it since he'd hated Wide Sargasso Sea, said he'd found it wonderful.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Anniversary prize draw results

Congratulations to the winners of my anniversary draw, to each of whom a copy of one of my Salt books will be winging its way:

Balancing on the Edge of the World: Pratibha Veronica Castle and Fran Slater

Too Many Magpies: Char March and Sarah Schofield

The Birth Machine: mrcc and Frances

Winners: please email me via my profile with your address, so that I can get your book in the post asap.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Wish Dog arrives

A lovely parcel at the door this week: my author copies of The Wish Dog, ghost stories from Honno Press, which includes my story, 'A Matter of Light' - arriving just as the weather turns cold and wet and you need the electric light on halfway through the afternoon: just the weather for tucking up by the fire with a good book of spooky stories! Here they are, just unpacked, on my desk. The book's available here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Short Review looks at Unthology 5 and 'Clarrie and You'

Horrible rainy day - first real day of autumn, but I'm cheered no end by a lovely new review of Unthology 5 on The Short Review, which says some lovely things about my story, 'Clarrie and You', and the anthology as a whole. Sarah Schofield calls the book 'a glittering collection' and offers 
A huge credit to editors Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones that selection seems to be based on whether a story sings, not on who wrote it. Following a highly acclaimed backlist of Unthank anthologies, I believe Unthology 5 is the strongest to date.

Of 'Clarrie and You' she says:

My favourite story is Elizabeth Baines’ Clarrie and You. Rich with multifaceted believable characters, it explores deep held secrets and misunderstandings. The protagonist, Olive, reflects back on the complex relationship she has with her sister, Clarrie. Baines’ deft touch and acutely observed detail of family relationships make it a story with layers waiting to be undone;
"There are things you don’t want to remember, because doing so makes you guilty, after all these years and at your time of life, of ridiculous sibling rivalry."
The second person narration works brilliantly in both intensifying the reader’s involvement in the story and yet simultaneously feeling somewhat accusatory. We empathise with the slights Olive perceives but there are moments when we’re not entirely certain whose side to fall on. The story offers new subtleties with every read.