Friday, 31 December 2010

Facebook 'note' Hogmanay, 2010

In a few hours it will be 2011. I want to wish all of you a very happy new year, one that is overflowing with all the stuff good years should be about: Happy get togethers. Great evenings. Crisp mornings. Wonderful holidays. Terrific dinners. Satisfying work place scenarios. Family gatherings where no one dies. A new puppy. An iPad. Losing a few pounds, but not too much. A hearty breakfast. A sharp reduction in car servicing bills. A sharp increase in the average temperature. Less rain. More barbecues. Some nuts. Glorious sunsets. Fabulous orgasms. A new painting. A good clean shirt. A wonderful book. The discovery of an author you'd never heard of but who turns out to be brilliant. A great new hobby. Running, because it feels good. The touch of a person who you care about. The absence of people who don't care about you. A challenge. A treat. Chocolate. Finding yourself, feeling happy, feeling great. Have a great 2011. Better than that, have a fabulous 2011. Treat it like it will be the best year you've ever lived, and you know what, it might just turn out that way....

A Christmas Dr Who

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.
The strange thing is that A Christmas Carol hadn't been done with a time traveller before. It seems so obvious: Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Who else but a time traveller could supply those perspectives?
And A Christmas Carol has been done just soooo many times: this year alone my V+ box has Scrooged, A Muppet Christmas Carol and a dodgy looking musical featuring Kelsey Grammer...and that was without really looking for variations on the Dickens theme.
Moffat's triumph, I think, was that he took the Carol as a theme, but didn't stick slavishly to the format (like Blackadder did a few years ago). He played around with it and with our expectations.
I noticed a little chat about it on the web afterwards. Well, the guardian's comments ran into the several dozen, with several fanboys pointing out that it broke the first, or was it the fifth?, law of time, which states that you can't muck around with a person's own timeline. So Moffat broke the rules: good. That's what good drama is all about. Good literature too.
Padgett Powell, when I spoke to him recently, spoke about the rules in literature as well, and went on to admit that his own recent book, The Interrogative Mood, didn't comply by any of them. That it was, by rights, not actually a novel at all.
The great thing about literature is that it doesn't comply with the rules.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

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?

Especially as one person's freedom may not be another's. When you get down to it, isn't freedom just another word for conflict? Go ask the fellas in the Green Zone if you're not sure.
Iraq, 9/11, the Clinton-Gore-Bush years, act as a backdrop to this most American of family sagas. It's a book I think you need to swallow whole. If you drag out the experience you'll lose the subtleties that Franzen throws up in the way he manipulates chronology. The book is told from various POV: first we have, in the first/third person an autobiography by Patty, Mistakes Were Made, an awkward bit of prose that reads as it should, a little amateurishly. And yet it has a great deal of power. We learn that Patty feels let down by her parents: East Coast Liberals who can't come to terms with their eldest daughter's supposed ordinariness. Actually she is a fantastic athlete and basketball player, but this doesn't register for them. When she is raped, they place political and social concerns over her wellbeing and advise her to forget about it and move on. She does move on: and moves away from her family, cutting them out of her life, eventually, for decades.
Patty's husband, Walter, her son, Joey, and her sometime lover (and Walter's best friend) Richard Katz, take up the other POVs.
Joey kicks off as a pretty disgusting character: an entirely self involved teen, prematurely sexually active and obsessed with money and 'getting on'.
He is the opposite of Walter, a selfless environmentalist (lawyer by training) who has supported Patty's desire to be a fulltime mum and homemaker but who is repaid with her negiligence and coldness towards him.
Katz is a rock musician who becomes a major star; he lives entirely in the present and seems to be entirely governed by his desire for women and his desire to contradict anyone who appears to be in authority.
The book charts the breakdown of Walter and Patty's marriage, the coming of age of Joey and, to some extent, the coming of age of Richard. It is a book of huge transformation (don't let anyone tell you that, because it is largely a domestic drama, that 'nothing much happens'). I found it in places extremely moving and while there were passages that left me a little frustrated (Walter's bird thing: pretty boring if you ask me) I grew to think that Franzen was correct to include them. I felt almost as if the fact he was boring us, just a little bit, was forcing us to consider just how worthy and serious Walter was. Walter really got the detail: to understand that we had to be told the detail too.
Freedom has been hailed as a masterpiece: and you know, perhaps it is. Time will tell whether or not this book will pass into the canon. But if I was a betting man I might put a flutter on it.
Franzen is - and this surprised me, Freedom being the first of his books I've read - a great story teller. He really knows how to weave his characters around events. Not only is he the master of the time line, I even managed to read his sex scenes without cringing. A Literary Novelist who can write Good Sex? Forget the Pulitzer, that's a title that's really worth having.
I was intrigued by the age politics in the book. This is very much a 40-something's novel. Teens and early twenties are described almost as if they are another species. While Patty is reading War and Peace her son is texting and having sex with the neighbour's kid. Youngsters get a really bad rap - at the start of the novel. By the time the story has run its course you feel that Patty, Walter and perhaps even the author have come to terms with youth: has seen them for what they are: younger more energetic versions of ourselves, who don't know quite as much.
Freedom got a lot of hype, but what drew me to read it was an Time interview with Franzen. He came across as incredibly serious and devoted to his craft and I thought, if he has spent time writing this book, it's bound to be worth reading.

No And Me and Not Vampires

Somebody was lamenting the other day about how YA fiction for girls (in particular) was so utterly dominated these days by snogging Vampires. I suggested a title I'd read for review and it turned out they'd never heard of it.
No and Me, by Delphine De Vigan, actually enjoyed quite a bit of media coverage when it came out. But books are not films: if you blink you miss it. I know one really quite voracious reader who said recently that he'd not even heard of Jonathan Franzen, despite all the hoopla over Freedom. (I'm going to blog about that book very soon).
I actually got the chance to speak to De Vigan about her book, which I thought was charming and well done: a nicely balanced story that kept me wondering, and left me with a sense of genuine satisfaction. Definitely worth taking a break from the Vampires for.

It was while she was commuting in and out of Paris to a job in the suburbs that Delphine De Vigan realised the subject of her next book, No and Me, was staring at her in the face.

“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

Padgett Powell

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

Teaching what you can not teach

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.
This item caught my eye. In it he hears from one young man who feels his writing career is stalling -- at the age of 20 -- and then he reproduces the words of a correspondent who has a few axes to grind about a creative writing course she is involved with. Anyone thinking of writing as a career should read this and consider it carefully.
Writing courses weren't really about when I was 16-17, the age when I was trying to decide what to do with my life. I ended up getting fixed on English Lit - and studying a joint honours degree Eng Lit and Politics. I thought it was relevant to a future in journalism, and of this I was both right and wrong.
I regret not doing history. Or, in fact, law. But that's a whole different blog.
Anyway: on Gaiman's blog we have an account of a US writing course geared only for literary novels. Someone wants to write Sci-fi, but they are basically shunned by the professor. There is talk of the students signing a contract: no genre fiction...
One of my pet hates is the whole genre/literary debate. Its an artificial distinction. What these terms are really are labels -- labels that help publishers and booksellers do what they need to do: sell books. It's handy for Waterstones, but it doesn't define the content very well. I particularly hate the idea that literary fiction is somehow more worthy than, say, thrillers, because it is literary. There are a lot of bad literary books out there -- new and old.
I love 'genre fiction'. I also love a good 'literary novel' but I refuse to read either for the sake of it. I'm racing through Franzen's Freedom right now and loving it -- while secretly looking forward to a bit of time over christmas when I can read the second Stieg Larsson thriller. It's been on my shelf for nearly a year, and I can't believe its been that long already.
I agree with the correspondent on Gaiman's blog: writers should write what they have to write.
I'll also repeat an observation that Carmen made when I mentioned this issue to her: why do publishers and readers have such an issue with genre? And yet, when you go see a film, we happily talk about rom-coms or thrillers or action adventures.
(But then there is art house. I guess even in cinema there is a literary pretension.)
Her point is a good one though: the US screenwriting INDUSTRY loves genre. Serious book people, people who want to shift hundreds of thousands of copies of a book instead of just a few hundred to family and friends, also LOVE genre. Because they know thrillers, historical fiction, rom-coms (labelled for some reasons chicklit in books) is what really sells. It is a book business after all.
Literary novels? They are a genre too, of course. They conform to certain types, there are certain expectations. Rules. And some of them sell big - most often when a certain idea or a certain novelist really catches the imagination.
Franzen right now, perhaps.
Other lit writers struggle to cover their costs. That's why, as Gaiman's correspondent says, they end up teaching other aspiring writers how to write creatively.
The problem is: we end up with an entire industry, the creative writing education industry, that is disclocated from publishing and, indeed the real world. An industry that is entirely self referential and self propogating. Indeed, considering most of the professors of creative writing are relatively unsuccessful novelists, you might argue that they are openly antithetical to publishers and publishing. this might not be news to anyone who has seen the film or read Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. But you can now see this trend happening here too, in the UK.
And this isn't good. as developments go, it's pretty damned lousy. A cultural cul de sac. Novels, books, should connect with readers: not academics with tenure.

Having finished this mini-rant I came across a blog/article on the Guardian's website that was talking about similar themes: literary merit versus genre popularity. It sparked off a hot, sometimes foul mouthed debate regarding the various merits/demerits of lit fic, genre writing and Ed Docx, the author who wrote the article (to promote his own new, literary novel). Phew. What a lot of nonsense was ranted. One thing occurred to me: there was a lot of talk about literary merit, and barely a mention of story.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

J.J. Abrams' mystery box | Video on

If you want an inspirational talk on connecting the dots between writing and shooting a high tech bullet up Tom Cruise's nose, then look no further than J.J. Abrams' mystery box | Video on

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Colder and colder

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.
All this weather has made things very difficult. Britain is very used to just getting on with things: we have a damp, generally benign climate that allows us to do just that. I know people who don't even have a proper winter coat. There have been years in the recent past when I have gone January to December without ever changing my wardrobe that much. Jeans, T-shirt, shirt, add a jumper maybe, medium coat. Suddenly we are living in extremistan and thinking: do we like this?
At least my North Face Parka is proving to be good value.
As a country, we're certainly not prepared. Kids are missing a lot of school, people aren't getting to work and the shops are empty. We have a road based economy and its freezing up. Now it turns out that only a few councils even have a bespoke weather report from the Meteorological Office. And the SNP Scottish Government didn't know there was snow coming...

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.
These last few days though prove that there is a real basis to these literary devices. Britain is really feeling the chill. One newspaper, The Times, speaks of us being 'Frozen Out', not just in terms of the frost but in terms of the Football World's decision to take the World Cup to a country other than England. We speak of the Winter of Discontent, and unhappy period in 1978 when industrial relations broke down and the economy ground to a halt. There are no mass strikes right now, but you do get the very real sense of a country battling the elements. And in Britain we are not used to that, and so it is making us feel very unhappy.
The snow novelty - the snowvelty, if you like - has undoubtedly worn off. Now all we care about is staying warm (and with headlines like 'two pensioners freeze to death' who can blame us?) and getting to our destination, safely and without too much of a delay.
The winterscape has revived my interest in Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy. He captures the snowy wastes of the Swedish countryside very well. In Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, the main character is in an exile, of sorts, stuck in a tiny snowcovered village, huddled round his wood burning stove. Its extremely evocative.
Another Swedish writer, Tove Jansson, captures the chilliest season perfectly in A Winter Book, a collection of stories about nesting, living with nature, and survival.
Other snowy reads include the Harry Potters - Hogwarts is always laden with snow at some point or other - and of course Narnia. But of the children's reads, if you can call them that, Northern Lights has to be the best at conveying the sheer physical gasping risky reality of snow and subzero temperatures. Read the passage with Lyra on the back of the Polar Bear: you can imagine holding on to his fur yourself.