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.