Friday, 31 December 2010
Dr Who was terrific, wasn't it? Stephen Moffat's tenure as the new chief writer hasn't been the smoothest of transitions. I thought some of his epipodes lacked a little something - some heart perhaps. But his Christmas special was a triumph, a glorious literary trick that left us drooling.
Sunday, 19 December 2010
Freedom. The title puzzled me at first, I thought it sounded a bit too general, but what I'd not taken into account was the significance of "freedom" to Americans over the past decade. Once I'd reminded myself of the Fight For Freedom, the renaming of French Fries as Freedom Fries (in response to French opposition to an invasion of Iraq), and all those Freedom first soundbites that sail out of the media and hit us square between the eyes a gazillion times a day: well then I realised why Franzen wanted it as his title and as his central theme. Freedom: because why would you write about anything else?
“I was like a lot of people, sometimes I saw them, sometimes I didn’t,” she recalls. “That’s what struck me: how we get used to it, that it becomes normal. We have to fight against that.”
What 44-year-old De Vigan had seen was the French capital’s growing army of new homeless.
“I was impressed by the fact so many young people were now homeless - and so many young women,” she says.
“I did some research on the Internet and that confirmed my feeling: there are more and more young people in France who are homeless and more and more young women. In the 16-18 age group up to 70% are now women.”
De Vigan, who herself befriended two, older, homeless women while researching the novel, adds: “Ten years ago perhaps, people who lived in the street might have chosen that way of life, it was a choice associated with a mental disorder. Now, a lot of people living in the street don’t have a choice: there is no other solution for them.
“In France we know that forty percent of people who live in the street work, they have jobs – most of them are women. They live at a friend’s place or in their car, sometimes in a social institution. But they don’t have a home anymore. I knew this was something I wanted to write about.”
De Vigan had risen to prominence in France with an autobiographical account of her own struggle with anorexia. Something of a departure for her, this new novel would be a socially aware story, and it would present the homelessness issue through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl, Lou Bertignan.
“She is a bit like me,” Delphine admits during out conversation on the phone from her Paris home. “The book did take on a life of its own. I always intended No, the homeless girl, to be the main character. But by the end I think Lou is the main one.”
For a school project, Lou – a precocious, highly intelligent student – decides to interview a homeless person. She picks No, an 18 year old who has been on the street for only a couple of years. As the two girls become unlikely friends, No’s back story is revealed: her abusive parents, her drinking, and her fantasies.
But Lou has problems of her own: her mother is suffering depression following the death of her baby sister; her father is struggling to cope. When Lou suggests No live with them, her parents surprisingly agree and the presence of a stranger in their midst becomes a catalyst for a healing process. However, No’s issues are more problematic than at first they seem.
“I think Lou is not very far from the little girl I used to be,” says De Vigan. “I didn’t intend that. I didn’t even realise I was doing it at first. My own mother used to be depressed, she was bipolar. At one period of my life she ‘came back’ – as I describe it in the book – but not for the same reasons of course.
“When I was 13, my mother became ill and went to the hospital for the first time. My sister and I had to quit our life. We used to live in Paris but we then had to move to the countryside with my father: one day in Paris, the following day in the countryside. We left with jeans and a T-shirt and my father said: now you live here. We didn’t see my mother any more for several months. I think that is why I could remember very well this age, how I felt, how shy I was. Always the feeling I was not in the right place.”
No and Me, a relatively brief 240 pages, won the Booksellers’ Prize in France and proved popular with both adults and a teen audience. Bloomsbury, who is publishing it here, is pitching it to both the young adult and adult markets. But De Vigan says: “For me it is not especially a book for teenagers, even though the main characters are teenage. I thought a teenage narrator would be a good way to question adult people about their dreams: as a teenager you want to dream you want the world to change. As adults, we must ask ourselves if we have done that.”
No and Me is published by Bloomsbury, £9.99. This interview appeared in Big Issue Scotland Magazine
Monday, 13 December 2010
I was asked by Big Issue Scotland to interview an American writer I'd not come across before: Padgett Powell. It was a real treat and very thought provoking. There are themes linking this with my other post of the day. I'll try and tease them out in a future post.
“Could you live on a boat?” “How do you stand in relation to the potato?” “Do you give greeting cards?” A novel made up entirely of random questions? Are you serious?
It does sound mad, like a novelty Christmas gift to be stored ever after in the smallest room in the house, and yet The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? is also a serious work by an undoubtedly gifted writer. Even if, as Padgett Powell is quick to admit, its 164 mesmerising pages stemmed from something as “trivial” as the desire of a middle aged man to get his own back on an ‘irritant’.
Powell, who has been teaching creative writing in Florida, for over twenty years, explains that it was an email from a colleague that made him snap and turned him into a Grand Literary Inquisitor.
“They would go this way,” he drawls in his rich South Carolina accent. “‘Is it time for our esteemed director to have a chat with the Provost about the autonomy of the programme?’ I was the director. ‘Are we remembering what was promised o us last spring by the Dean?’ ‘Are we going to be content to let history repeat itself again?’
“And a typical letter would go on about eight or nine of these questions: directing me, telling me what to do. I started getting mad enough to want to send an answer. I started writing and pretty soon I had 600 of these things, then 6,000. I’d spend an hour or two writing these questions down, and then I’d feel better.”
The result has been extraordinary: a novel that has raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic (though arguably more so over here) and wacky enough to be featured in both The Independent and The Sun. But who is Padgett Powell? It’s a name you think you’ve heard of – but you almost certainly haven’t.
Powell came to prominence in 1984 with his first novel Edisto. Narrated by a precocious 12-year-old it was hailed by one well known critic as “like Catcher in the Rye, only better”. It generated a cult following, was named among the five best novels of the year by Time – and sold a piddling 23,000 copies. About as many copies as Dan Brown sells in one afternoon. Praised he might have been, but he was still flat broke.
Powell’s novels since Edisto became increasingly experimental – at a time when American literature was embracing the idea of “the big story” as practised by the bestselling likes of Chabon, Franzen and Tartt.
Flash forward to 2009 and we find this lauded talent hasn’t had a book out in nearly a decade. Now he is best known for teaching creative writing – he’s also been married and divorced – while his real career, as a writer, is going nowhere. Indeed, the two novels he had finished had not found publishers and he started telling people he’d retired.
Then he got that email and something burst; soon he was venting his spleen, beautifully and emphatically, with question after question of sheer unadulterated grumpiness. He sent it off to The Paris Review, which bought an extract, and found a publisher straight away.
Seemingly random, the effect of the book is to offer a surprisingly consistent character study of the questioner. We learn a surprising amount about his background, his obsessions and desires.
“Yeah, it’s me. Let me use all my French: c’est moi!” Powell says. “There’s no concealment whatsoever. There’s quite a bit of autobiography bobbing along in there. It’s my little life. There are 17 questions on bluejays probably because I’m fond of them. But I said to the editor, if there are 17 make it 13, so I don’t look like a complete idiot.”
When I point out to him that he often comes across as deeply unhappy he concedes that he’s probably just a grumpy old man “about nine tenths of the time.”
So is it a cry for help? You include that phrase in one of the questions.
“Is that there?” he asks, genuinely surprised. “Well it might be. The book [before this one] that was rejected was called Cries For Help, 45 Failed Novels.”
So is it about a frustration, about not being published?
“No,” he chuckles. “It was smart-arsedness: to send a very funny letter back to an irritant. There was nothing high minded about it. Once I got in to writing the questions I suppose something higher minded began to pertain. I got very interested in the idea of the non-sequitur. The overt non-sequitur is what started to be interesting. There are ways there are little connections.”
Bizarrely, Powell insists he’s never read the entire book back, either in the process of writing it or afterwards. He’s “poked about in it” to extract bits for readings, but that’s pretty much it.
And for a man who describes himself as writing ‘high literary elitism so good no one buys it’ he’s surprisingly relaxed about the novelty value of the book.
He laughs: “For all the poo-pooing I’ve done about being an elitist, if you told me that I could have a book on the back of everyone’s toilet, well I’d take that!”
This article appears in Big Issue Scotland Magazine
|Neil Gaiman's journal|
I'm a little bit of a fan of Neil Gaiman. Not a huge fan - his graphic novels have so far passed me by and indeed, I've only read three of his books, but found them exhilerating and entertaining. I've recently, by way of Facebook, been introduced to his blog... which is a fascinating read.
Wednesday, 8 December 2010
Tuesday, 7 December 2010
December, Scotland, 2010 is shaping up pretty much as January did. The Kelvin River, only a few hundred yards away from where we live, has iced over. There's even ice floating down the Clyde. Yesterday we had gridlock caused by a blizzard at rush hour. Ten and even 24 hours later there were still cars stuck in motorways - main roads that had been turned into slushy bottlenecks. Lorries were jack knifed. Cars were skidding. One friend of mine had been on the way to Loch Lomond when the snow began. He turned back, but spent a total of ten hours in his car trying to get home to Mearnskirk in the south side of Glasgow. He had a cup of coffee with him: he drank it and then had to 'avail himself' in the same cup. It will be a while before he lives that one down.
Friday, 3 December 2010
There's a lot of it about. It's a bit of cliche when it comes to writing novels - or films for that matter - for the weather to reflect the inner turmoil of the characters' lives. Stormy weather means a row or a fight is coming. A prolonged winter landscape means someone is feeling, well, cold towards his fellow man. Hot weather and beaches means... fun, frolics, love.
Saturday, 20 November 2010
Loved it. That was the general view. Harry Potter 7 part 1 is a big hit, at least with the Quinns, who have read, listened to and seen all the other flicks countless times. (My son, Sam, has been doing HP trivia quizzes daily for the past month as this film approached).
Friday, 19 November 2010
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell has written more of it than most. I read and spoke to the author about his new book The Fort, for Big Issue Scotland recently:
Cornwell, who at 66 is arguably one of the most successful historical authors in the world, injects his stories with thrilleresque pace, turning subject that most of us vaguely recall from dull history lessons at school into page-turning beach reads.
In The Fort, Cornwell makes a rare foray to the American War of Independence. He’s written about the conflict just once before, in an early book, Redcoat and as an Englishman who has lived much of his adult life in the US, where he is now a citizen, you’d think it might be a pet subject. But he admits: “It’s not a particularly popular war either side of the Atlantic. I was drawn to this battle just because it was just so extraordinary.”
You can see his point. The Fort retells the story of the so-called Penebscot Expedition, a land and sea battle which resulted in a modest force of British redcoats, supported by three small warships, seeing off the largest raiding party the Americans had by that time ever put together – including 18 warships and about five thousand men. It was David and Goliath with muskets.
And yet the British won. “The Americans were making entirely the wrong decisions almost every time,” Cornwell explains. “It was their bad luck they were up against two consummate professionals in the British leaders, who made all the right decisions and who worked very well together.”
The Fort is littered with intriguing, real life historical figures. The American commander, General Lovell, who “like a rabbit caught in the headlights” freezes at all the important moments and manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. His reliable number two, Peleg Wadsworth (“He’s the real hero of the book for me,” says Cornwell), knows things are going wrong but lacks the authority to do anything about it. And then there’s Paul Revere, yes that one: the heroic Patriot who warned that the “British were coming” in Henry Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride.
Intriguingly, Peleg Wadsworth was Longfellow’s maternal grandfather, but Cornwell doubts the men would agree on their assessment of Revere.
“I’m offended by Revere’s reputation and I think Peleg must be turning in his grave at what his grandson did,” Cornwell says, who adds that he hopes his book goes some way to debunking those myths. “Part of the reason for it was that after the war, the Americans had won and there was a lot swept under the carpet.”
However, because the expedition was funded by the Boston state government rather than George Washington’s continental army, defeat cost the city almost $2 million – the equivalent today of about $300 million – and left them bankrupt. In a fascinating post script to the book, Cornwell argues that a conspiracy was hatched to blame the defeat on a Federal naval commander for his refusal to engage the enemy – allowing the state government to later successfully sue for compensation.
In fact it was Lovell’s indecision that was most culpable – and as for Revere, Cornwell depicts him as both incompetent and cowardly.
“Revere was a local folk hero in Boston just after the war, but he is one of many,” Cornwell says. “There were others who did the famous ride – and finished it, which he didn’t – and others who are genuine heroes. But Revere becomes an industrialist the biggest employer in Boston and one of its wealthiest men. So people think of him as a patriot – with an iffy bit at Penebscot they’d rather not mention.”
On the British side it is a bluff Scotsman, Brigadier General Francis McLean, who wins the day, outwitting the Americans long enough for reinforcements to arrive. There’s also the intriguing presence of a young 18-year-old lieutenant.
“I first came across the Penebscot when I was researching the life of Lt General Sir John Moore – I had a thought that Sharpe might meet him in a novel. He never did but I got distracted by Moore’s history and the fact that he first saw action in this battle at the age of 18.”
Glasgow born Moore was a hero of the Napoleonic wars and his death at the Battle of Corunna is commemorated in a famous poem by Charles Wolfe.
“It was really Moore’s army Wellington inherited,” Cornwell observes. “What we can’t know is whether Moore would have been as great a general as Wellington. There is no doubt that Moore brought great sympathy and intelligence to his job. The men really liked him: he had the common touch which Wellington never had. And when he dies he is an instant hero – long before Wellington was ever heard of."
The Fort by Bernard Cornwell is out now (HarperCollins £18.99)
Tuesday, 16 November 2010
My fingers are trembling slightly as I type this, such is the expectation. On Saturday we will be going, en famille as per normal, to the cinema to see the new Harry Potter film. None of us can wait.
Percy Jackson has left the building. But that doesn’t mean Rick Riordan and his army of readers can’t still have fun with the Gods of Mount Olympus.
The school teacher turned blockbuster author appeared to have consigned Percy the demigod to history with 2009’s The Last Olympian. But authors hate to completely leave a world they’ve created so carefully and despite launching a new trilogy, The Kane Chronicles, inspired by Egyptian mythology, Rick has been lured back to Camp Half-Blood.
“I felt very strongly that if I carried on indefinitely that eventually I’d get tired of the Percy Jackson books and that the readers would too,” Rick says.
“That’s why I gave him his good strong ending at the end of book five. But I was also aware that the readers wanted to find out what happened next and that many of them weren’t ready to say goodbye to that world.
“So I began scheming and planning ways in which I could return to that world – but through a new lens, a fresh perspective. The Heroes of Olympus features three new characters – Jason, Piper and Leo – who alternate in telling different aspects of the story. They gave me the chance to reinvent the world, and to give it some twists that kept me interested and hopefully that keeps the readers interested as well.”
Not that Percy, the son of Poseidon and a New York housewife, is at all forgotten. “This isn’t a years after, epilogue type of story,” Rick concedes. “We pick up the action almost immediately after the previous books.” As this book gets off to an explosive start, Percy has mysteriously disappeared just three days earlier. The new characters find themselves thrust into his vacuum, and have to get to know his old buddies, including Annabeth (daughter of Athena) and Chiron (the ancient, scholarly Centaur).
Riordan’s twist this time out is that he is taking these books in a Roman direction. The Greek gods were adopted by Rome and renamed – Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno and so on – but they were also given distinct characters. It is these quite different personalities that come to the fore in this planned trilogy.
“We tend to study the Greeks and Romans clumped together – but the Greco-Roman world is a misnomer, they were very different. The Greeks were Roman for much longer than they were Greek, almost,” he observes.
“As Roman Gods they reflected a different set of priorities and values. The Greeks gave us great architecture and wonderful art and drama - and all these wonderful artistic endeavours. The Romans gave us the idea of government, bureaucracy and military discipline, they were a very practical people.
“They admired the Greeks but they also looked down on them because the Greeks didn’t have their ambition.... the Greeks couldn’t help being impressed by the Romans but thought of them as crass barbarians.”
A bit like Britain and America then? He laughs: “A little bit. And it’s a pattern I’m sure we’ll see repeated again and again.”
Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan is out now Puffin £12.99. This interview appears in Big Issue Scotland magazine
Monday, 15 November 2010
Friday, 5 November 2010
I've just been speaking to Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson series. He's got a new one out featuring most of the same characters, but without Percy, which introduces three new heroes.
Thursday, 4 November 2010
Oh don't make me laugh. There's a report today that angry Kindle readers are giving authors one star reviews in retaliation for their publishers hiking the cost of their e-books. Imagine: publishers wanting premium prices for brand new products! Where could they get such an idea?
Wednesday, 3 November 2010
Tuesday, 2 November 2010
Thursday, 28 October 2010
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Distracted by David Cameron's speech in Westminster yesterday, the one announcing 8 per cent cuts in defence spending including the scrapping of the Nimrod and the Harrier, I posted on Facebook that I was having my own spending review.
Tuesday, 19 October 2010
Classic or Touch? You're probably an iPhone: everything in one slim unit. Very nice. Very now. But, oooops, it's over. Looks like we're moving on.
Technology as fashion? Who came up with that? Actually, its always been the case. Remember those TVs made to look like spaceman helmets? Remember the sandwich toaster? OK you can still get them, but there was a time when they were a covetable fad. It didn't last long, just a year or so, then they turned into greasy dusty objet de rubbish in the corner of the cupboard. As so many things do. But the idea of technology as fashion goes waaaay back.
In the 1840-50s, the well to do had cash like they'd never had cash before. At the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, there was a sort of ultimate expression of this. The Great Exhibition was intended as a scientific showcase, and in many respects it was. But really it was a great big shopping mall. A tribute to Britain's ability to sell stuff to people with money.
My favourite consumable from the GE has to be the folding piano. Piano makers had been going at each other for a while, upgrading the keys, coming up with increasingly elaborate engraving, pedals, sound. But then someone thought, let's make a piano you can fold up. There was this idea that you'd buy it for your yacht. It seems to have worked like a sort of concertina.... you pushed it against a wall and it collapsed/squeezed down. It was very expensive but it meant you could invite someone into your home and then, at some point in the evening, say, hey let's play the piano and they'd look round and say, but you don't have a piano and you'd go, yes I do, and you'd open a door or remove a curtain or whatever and you'd heave out....
To the Victorians the folding piano was just as exciting as having an app on your phone that allows you to read a barcode or map the night sky. Things that one day will sound equally ridiculous.
Monday, 18 October 2010
No, never seen it. Not all the way through, anyway. A bit here and there. A clip on YouTube. Sometimes I might stumble on it, watch for a few minutes... but usually my brain begins to seize up and I am gripped with nausea.
Admittedly I'm not really that into music. I like certain things. Increasingly I've been enjoying having classical or choral music on, loud, while I've been working. iTunes and Spotify are great little tools if you are working at a laptop. But pop music? Rock? Indie?
The last few months I've been working part time with the Big Issue in Scotland. This has involved regular days in their office... there's a couple there who used to work for NME. Another girl who probably should work for NME. Nothing wrong with that, but they really know the music scene. Really care about it. they don't just talk about bands I've never heard of, they talk about whole musical movements that haven't otherwise blipped on my horizon.
As a teenager and as a twentysomething I paid lipservice to poprockindie. But at uni I probably listened to as much John Coltrane as I did The Smiths. And actually I preferred Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, already 20 years old at the time. Britpop was fun. It felt like something important – funny how I prefer Blur now to Oasis, I remember reading a critic at the time who argued that everyone would. Who was that?
I digress. The point is, X Factor... It has been given three more years. A £100 million deal. Meaning more X Factor, and the other thing, Britain's Not Got Talent. I want to be nasty about both of them. I want to tear them to shreds, laugh at all the sad, overweight, hopeless screw ups that go on desperate to be singers, stars, somethings. But you know, I just can't be bothered. It's too dull, too corny, too uninteresting even to take a pop at. X Factor is final proof that pop culture is over, that it's had its moment. Diversity is all now. Elitism. Selectism. Personalism. Individualism. Cowell can celebrate, he's ridden that wave. But he may well have killed it for good. No seriously, his high point is a new beginning. People want more than the X Factor. They actually want stuff that's good, interesting and sophisticated. They don't want to be talked down to anymore.
As you get older you tend to need more. Harder books, more challenging drama, new experiences. Its all part of realising that you have a limited time on this Earth and you'd better make the most of it. and that making the most of it does not include frittering Saturday evenings away on X Factor karaoke.
Wednesday, 13 October 2010
When I went to university I remember counting the books on my shelves. I had a tiny single room at a hall of residence and the library space amounted to, I think, three small shelves on the wall. I was studying English Lit, Politics and History and I made sure I bought all my listed texts new. Their spines sparkled with promise. Yes, really, that's what I thought. Even "Scottish Politics" by the department head, printed on what looked like bog paper, appeared to me at that time to be a shiny beacon of the future.
Over that year or so I added many paperbacks. Books I read because I wanted to. Books I bought because I thought I should. I have always bought more books than I read, however, which is partly why now - two decades later - I have a dining room table groaning under the weight of columns and columns of books.
We're doing out the front room (again... I won't bore you with the details) which means a temporary migration for the books to the back sitting room. I mention this because it is only when you move books around that you realise just how many you have and what a cumbersome load of stuff they amount to.
I'm not a fan of ebooks. I hate the idea of them, in fact. I fear that if we take away the physical side of writing then novels will become as much of the web has, this blog included, entirely disposable, throwaway and worthless. Writers are already paid a pittance, and now the publishers want to screw them even more by demanding larger than fair slices of royalties from ebook publications.
And yet, books... Lining the walls in neatly organised shelves they look fabulous. (Obviously I'm a fan, just look at the home page). But as people move into smaller and smaller apartments, as we move around more and more trying to keep down jobs and to maximise our worth in this most fragile of economies, you can see why an iPhone or an iPad or even a Kindle is so attractive. An entire library weighing no more than a bag of sugar? Cool.
I've already got over my CD collection. It's gone, in boxes, unloved and gathering dust. Will the books go the same way? I hope not. I really love reading books, turning pages and seeing them on the shelves. I was never good at sport, I was good at reading: these guys are my trophies. But I doubt my grandchildren will feel the same way about them. Indeed, they'll wonder how we survived under the weight of all this paper.
Monday, 11 October 2010
Once Upon a Time, at Harvard Culture: vanityfair.com