Monthly Archives: October 2010

Taxi confessionals and intertextuality

The way to catch Amanda Craig is to go to one of her events where she can’t just do a runner. She was in Manchester yesterday, with Michèle Roberts, talking about their most recent books. They were already there when I arrived, and I was virtually first, so that’s keen. I think I overheard them discuss those perennially important subjects, e-readers and schools. The place was respectably full, given it was the middle of the day. The audience was predominantly ladies (4 men at the last count).

Amanda Craig

It was weird, because I sort of ‘know’ Amanda from facebook, whereas I was sure I didn’t know Michèle at all, but she looked familiar in that way some people do.

Amanda – who has the most magnificent hair! – kicked off on the strength of her name coming first in the alphabet, and she read us the preface to Hearts and Minds, after describing how she began this novel which took her seven years to write. Basically she wanted a story about people who are from somewhere other than Britain, so she researched everybody from au pairs and taxi drivers to prostitutes.

Michèle Roberts

Michèle enjoys short stories, and reads one a day, which gives her time to think about them afterwards. She was once shortlisted for the Bad Sex Award, which surprised her but didn’t stop her. The latest book is Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, and she read us a bit, which I think is where the intertextuality came in. Inspired by Boswell and Johnson, she can see no reason why men are allowed to walk cities at night, and women can’t do the same. It’s the difference between ‘flaneur’ and ‘street walker’ which annoys her.  ‘It won’t do’!

She is thinking of doing an ‘art installation’ in the form of a taxi where you confess during your taxi journey, having been inspired by the taxi drivers of Norwich who used her to confess while driving her to the station.

Amanda is currently writing a North and South kind of novel, and is very aware of Mrs Gaskell while in Manchester. She recalled an early visit, when the city was dark and dirty, and I suspect she and I must have visited round about the same time. We also seem to share some witchy instincts, with her planning all sorts of things for her novels, which then happen in real life.

They both had plenty of books to sign, but I think Michèle was the only one faced with a carrier bag full of books. And I do wish I knew how authors manage the beautifully draped beautiful scarf bit. Michèle did it. Amanda didn’t need to, with that hair.

Fire alarm ringing? Then it’s Tuesday in Manchester

In his hotel room on Tuesday morning the fire alarm went. Lars Saabye Christensen debated what to take with him; laptop, shoes or photo of lovely wife? As he descended to reception he wondered why everyone was so calm. Seems they test the alarm every Tuesday.

Well, it beats possibly cooking your grandfather day in and day out. Maybe.

Lars visited Manchester Literature Festival on Tuesday, and I’m hoping you’ve never heard of him either. Me, I’ll blame it on having left Sweden in 1982, so a Norwegian author published after that is unlikely to feature on my – possibly narrow – horizon. I asked Lars afterwards if he gets recognised in the street. Yes he does. And all that attention can get tedious.

Lars Saabye Christensen

Well, when it gets too much he can just come over here where we will be cynically cool the British way. And also we’ve never heard of him. But from what I learned yesterday I think it would be a good idea if a few more people did get to know Lars and his books. After his talk I abandoned several of my principles in one fell swoop. I don’t spend money on books, if I can help it. Decided to buy. Have no time to read more, especially not 600 page novels. So I bought two. (Sorry, boss.) I prefer to read in the original. So I got two translated books.

There you go.

A hardy group of book fans gathered in Manchester’s Town Hall at lunch time to hear Lars talk about his novel Beatles, now recently translated into English after 25 years of success in Norway. Apparently Lars is (one of?) Norway’s most popular author, and Beatles is a significant and important book.

He read an excerpt from the English translation, stumbling a little on some of the words. Lars then read in Norwegian which he did absolutely perfectly. A poem about tightropes that end halfway along, which doesn’t sound a good idea. And we get the cooking of grandpa from Beatles, which has to do with India, but I won’t go into more detail here. You could always buy the book and read it yourself.

Like all Norwegians Knut Hamsun played a big part as inspiration for his writing, and whether you like Hamsun or not, you can’t avoid his influence. Hamsun is the reference frame for all Norwegian writing after him. According to Lars, if Hamsun had had a decent English translator we wouldn’t think of him as a Nazi first and foremost. He reckons translators are literary ambassadors, and they can do what they like to his books as long as they keep the basic feel to the story.

And I hope you have worked out what happened then? Lars (and the rest of us) experienced the day’s second fire alarm, so out we went. You can empty the impressive Town Hall impressively fast, even with tired bookwitches carting birthday cakes around. The only thing Lars forgot was his hat, which the moderator picked up for him. And then we had ten minutes in Albert Square (no, not that Albert Square) before they sent us all back in again.

Lars Saabye Christensen in Albert Square

The moderator wanted to move on to questions, but Lars needed to talk fire alarms for a while first. He thinks we need more of them. His Leonard Cohen bomb alert caused him to meet his wife (Which I secretly thought was very convenient indeed. Just think if he’d met someone else’s wife.)

The Beatles book almost didn’t survive an early trip to Paris, many years ago, disappearing in a suitcase on the plane home. The – temporary – loss of his only handwritten manuscript got Lars started on writing his next book, but the characters have become his own universe. (I take this to mean they recur in several novels.)

‘Do I talk too much?’ he asked as our time was nearly up. Well, he did talk quite a bit, but it’s nice when people go off on a tangent and tell us unexpected stuff.

Then we flocked to the buying table, after which we queued up for our books to be signed. All but the Norwegian fan who already had her well worn Norwegian paperback. After that lovely encounter, a Swedish bookwitch isn’t much to write home about.

And Lars – your English is not ‘lousy’. Most authors can’t do events in another language.


Did anyone see a blue streak in Didsbury yesterday morning? If you blinked you probably missed her. It was Adèle Geras, fitting in a book award coffee – Costa, to you and me – between last minute chores and moving house. Very sweet of her to even contemplate elevenses at a time like this.

Adèle Geras 11

She and Norm are deserting Manchester for somewhere nearer the grandchildren. Adèle told me all about the new house, which sounds wonderful, and now that Norm has managed to part with some of his beloved books they may even fit into their new home.

We talked about our children, and it seems that Adèle’s (that’s Sophie Hannah) did what I wanted to do, and spent the weekend in San Francisco. I can’t decide whether to go for green with envy or to breathe a sigh of relief that I’m not recovering from an exhausting trip.

We talked about Ann Widdecombe. As you do. Shoe shops. Marcus Sedgwick. Christmas parties. Universities. And most likely other things, already forgotten.

Adèle is doing a guest blog on Normblog today, so it’s worth popping over to read what she has to say. I gather Norm is too busy masterminding the move to spend as much time on blogging as he usually does. Seems the same doesn’t apply to Adèle…

Getting paid for daydreaming

Buses may come in threes, but recently I had authors coming in fives. It’s that fact, and nothing to do with me engaging in daydreaming, which has delayed the interview with the ever lovely Cathy Cassidy.

But hopefully she has had her head full of chocolate and cute boys, so that she never noticed that she was last in line at Bookwitch Towers.

Cathy Cassidy

Admire her crinkley hair curtain and read about her love for her fans. Cathy may get paid for daydreaming, but she gives the job 110%, so I forgive her.

I’m still slightly under the influence of that pixie charm, so will go and lie down now…

In the event of success

Now, I have never been in the position to offer a quiet room in which an author can scream with frustration. Sorry, to rest in. That’s because my only experience of author visits has been as volunteer helper in either a school or a shop, and neither does spare rooms. But I have accompanied an author or two to the toilet. Not all the way, obviously. Just enough to make sure they found their way back again, because school corridors can be hard to navigate. I used to get lost myself.

I’d like to think that Offsprings’ secondary school library wasn’t a bad place to visit, even without a private restroom. We really wanted the authors to come. Due to lack of library space it was always the keen students who were invited. Perhaps that was the wrong way to do it? They will have been better behaved, but leaving less opportunity for an author to convert someone. I was very heartened by the young man in Y7 who was seen carting all (as they were) eight of the Roman Mysteries around.

We remembered the names of our visiting authors, and had we had access to a red carpet, we would have rolled it out. Depending on the programme they were offered tea and coffee with cake or biscuits. Since I can remember eating Cathy Hopkins’ sandwiches, there must have been some of those on occasion. Reasonably good ones, for a school.

But funds were always a problem. Travel expenses were paid. But never a full day’s fee, and that was simply because the school didn’t have the money. Not because no one felt the author deserved to be paid. I offered a bribe once. Which has still not been ‘acted on’.

It surely must be like having guests come to dinner at your house? We can’t all give the same experience, but the dinner guests are not the same either. Or is it more like calling a plumber out? You need their services, but you don’t have to become best friends. Sometimes getting together will be a success, and at other times not. And it’s not always the case that both parties feel the same. I was once overcome with the feeling that an author was ghastly beyond belief, only to have them say how well they thought it went.

So did we get it wrong? Nicola Morgan has some firm ideas about what makes a good author visit. For the author, that is.

Bookwitch bites #28

It’s Bouchercon weekend, and I’ve discovered that I’m not in San Francisco. Oh well. I daydreamed about it a little, but that was over 15 months ago. I think it was the fact that it’s San Francisco. Or maybe just that they’ve made the heading on the website look so seductive? But compared with CrimeFest in good old Bristol, the hotel cost rather more. I’ve glanced a little at the list of attendees, but only sort of sideways, because I don’t want to go all green. (Even the Resident IT Consultant has been to SF, and he’s not been to that many places.)

Seeing as I’m at home instead, I should turn my thoughts to that very home. I’ve read that books are in, which is good because mine are very much in. The way, everywhere. But at least I’m fashionable for the next few months until ‘they’ decide books are out again. Seen but not heard. No, that doesn’t work. Have them, but not see them.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Derek Landy’s fans are still debating that Skulduggery Pleasant film. The one that it seems will no longer happen, and that Derek hopes will never happen. There is an interview with him in the International Business Times.

Other young readers have their say in the Guardian Education where the young critics’ competition results were published this week. Children read the longlisted books for the Guardian prize and wrote a review. As usual they have good opinions on books and reading. And I’m glad there is somewhere they can do this.

Meg Rosoff

And finally, I can make use of this space to wish Meg Rosoff a happy birthday. I wouldn’t have heard of her and How I Live Now had it not been for the above competition. Six years ago, that was. I still haven’t got over the fact that she doesn’t have long hair. Maybe I never quite left San Francisco of the late 1960s. Americans don’t of necessity have to have long hair. Nor does it make for better books. At least, I don’t think so. Happy Birthday, Meg!

Take it as red

You don’t really want to know about my red shoes. But, I have to own up to sometimes wearing them, if only to cheer me up. Red does that, but it’s a hell of a colour to carry off further north.

In case anyone needs cheering up today, here is Jeanne Willis, and she is very red.

Jeanne Willis

I know full well this is no fashion column, but here is someone who gets away with red. Can you see why I very nearly stopped Jeanne outside her Edinburgh hotel for an immediate photo session?

Red means stop, anyway. And luckily we waited for a more appropriate time and place.

(Photo Helen Giles)

Numbers translated

I loved Numbers by Rachel Ward, even when called Döden i dina ögon. As the ultimate language snob I always say you need to read everything in the original as far as possible, so am busy eating my words.

Döden i dina ögon

For some reason I never got round to reading Numbers when it was first out, and after meeting Rachel in Edinburgh last year I felt I really must. And still didn’t. And it’s not always the thought that counts. Then I came across a review of the Swedish translation on a teenage blog, and Rachel hadn’t even heard it was out there yet, until I told her. She offered me one of her translated copies, which has been languishing for months, waiting for me to get into a translation mood. Because I do not feel like reading Swedish while in Sweden. Call me weird, but I feel better doing it the other way round.

It’s a scary concept, this idea that 15-year-old Jem can look into the eyes of people and see the date when they will die. (But one that the witch in me can sympathise with.) So she and her friend Spider avoid getting caught up in a bomb attack because she works out something bad is about to happen. Then they have to run away as the police believe they are terrorists.

They become close during their escape, but things don’t go too well, which is hardly surprising for two disadvantaged teenagers. And Jem can see that Spider will die soon. She desperately wants to prevent it.

As the first of three books Numbers obviously still has some way to go before the reader knows all. There is a cliffhanger, but it’s a mild sort of cliffhanger, because after what happens in Numbers you feel ready for almost anything. Rachel has already moved the plot into the future by the end, and I can’t help wondering if this is significant.

The Famous Four

The kitchen timer screeched when there were only ten pages to go. My kitchen timer, worse luck. The bread needed to come out of the oven, or I’d have ignored it. Seeing as I only had another ten pages, and the characters were in the middle of… and they had to try and … if they didn’t then…!

Luckily the bread didn’t take too long to release from the hot oven and I was back in my reading chair for the last ten pages of Elen Caldecott’s How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini. First I had thought the book was mainly for young readers. A kind of Famous Five – minus one – except more pc and more working class and up-to-date. Better written obviously.

But I’d spent too long not finding the time to read Elen’s first novel, so I was very determined to get to this second book. And it’s great fun, even for oldies. Although I can see that it’s primarily for readers of the FF age.

Ali and his Mum move into a flat in a high-rise, and within minutes he’s found new friends and almost as soon he’s found himself a mystery to solve. Ali and Caitlin and Gez and sometime dog assistant Falcon work at least as hard and as diligently at solving the case of the missing Miss Osborne, as those other FFs would have done. There are lots of things that go bump in the night and other inexplicable stuff, too.

Good to see young children with more fictional freedom than is currently the done thing. Usually we have to have dead parents all over the place to let young characters out alone in this manner. (Mind you, if they were mine I’d lock them up.)

Twelve don’t go to Anglesey

Or ‘how to fail at getting Daughter to read’. Something. Anything.

She went on a Geology field trip to Anglesey last week. So obviously they were going to spend lots of time staring at rocks. And other geological things. But you just never know what you might want if you wake up in the middle of the night in a strange place. Or if your room mates are boring.

Small luggage allowance in the college minibus meant we decided on just one very good paperback. But which one? Daughter wanted it to be adventurous. ‘It will be, dear’ I said. ‘Oh, the book you mean?’

Nothing girlie. Not too long. Not scary.

I dug out twelve contenders to share with the waterproofs and thick socks. They were: Between two Seas, Burn my Heart, Chains, Crossing the Line, Halo, Hootcat Hill, Ondine, Revolver, The Cat Kin, The Night of the Burning, Time Riders, When I Was Joe.

Having lined them up (sorted according to colour of the covers) on the piano, we met and she pruned. Oh how she pruned. Too pink. Too chavvy (cover). Scary dragon. No. Don’t get it. Too political. No. No religion. Prefer to read this at home. (!) Don’t think so.

Then it was down to two. Halo and Between Two Seas. Hard choice, but Between Two Seas ‘spoke’ to her.

So this historical tale set in Jutland was the one that got squeezed into her bag. The one she would have read, had she read a book there.

Oh well.

(Looking on the bright side, at least she didn’t tear the pages out and stuff them inside her boots to make them dry faster. Seeing as they had no newspaper to stuff with.)