Monthly Archives: December 2020

Serpentine

I might have said yesterday that I think Philip Pullman should spend his time writing the last instalment of the Book of Dust, and not fritter his time away on the short books set in the world of HDM.

Any book is obviously always welcome, and years ago I was quite excited by the other two short books, both the red one, and especially the blue one. And now here we are with a green one. Even shorter, particularly if you take into account the illustrations.

I liked it well enough. It provides a brief chapter on Lyra in her mid teens. Or so I believe. The age, I mean. She returns to Trollesund. She asks some questions, and gets a few answers. But that’s about it. The sneakiness of daemons is made more obvious; how both humans and their daemons have to contrive to do things without the other noticing.

It’s just I’m beginning to despair of book three. It’s not going to be next year, is it? I’m thinking 2022 at the very least. There had better not be a yellow shortie while we wait.

‘I’m discovering things about daemons all the time’

We could see the writing on the wall. Literally. Blackwell’s Thursday event with Philip Pullman took us to his study, where words appeared to be hovering above his head. It was a quote in Spanish, which he claimed to have mostly forgotten about. Something along the lines of you should find out about everything, and then keep the best.

Philip was speaking to Sian Cain, although at one point a bearded man also appeared, waving, as though this would make him go away. Zoom is nearly always interesting.

There was much talk about splitting from your daemon and how it feels. There was quite a bit of mention of the third Book of Dust, ‘which hasn’t happened yet’. Well, it should. Just saying, in case other fans haven’t already. Philip is not a short story person. So maybe stop writing these little extras? Write more on Dust?

He loves Mrs Coulter, who has no inhibitions. But it seems he loves Lee Scoresby the most. I like an author who can have favourites! And Lee was a wise choice. We love Lee.

Philip does not travel for research. It’s far too uncomfortable. The Bodleian does just fine. He points out he is old, and ill. (Which is when Daughter shouted ‘finish your book!’) He also claims to like the BBC version of His Dark Materials, which caused more shouting at our end. But he’d not wanted to write the script; there is too much time wasted on talking when you are involved with filming.

There were questions. The Lord of the Rings would ‘impress an Edwardian schoolboy’. And Narnia lacked Christian charity. He loves Michael Sheen as narrator of his books. (Well, who doesn’t?)

The good news is Philip wants to return to writing about Sally Lockhart. Although, that’s what he said in 2005 as well…

Now that we’ve seen his study, we know what it’s like, and we will urge Philip on to finish the writing. First Dust. Then maybe Sally.

Nobel, at home

Do you feel cheated? Or is the honour, and the money, enough? Might it even be a relief staying at home?

I sometimes feel that the handing over of the Nobel Prize is what matters. The hanging out with the Royal family, enjoying the dinner, meeting the other prize winners, and generally having a rather special few days in Stockholm as the crowning glory of a long life of work. But then I’m a Swede. I would think that.

Although, the money must be nice. And the honour of having been awarded a Nobel for your work is clearly not negligible. Except some people don’t much care for it. I forget who it was that had to be dragged out of the shower to speak to the Nobel committee this year.

I’m relieved that the Swedish Academy continued their work by awarding the literature prize to someone I’d never heard of. It’s tradition.

But I understand that poet Louise Glück is good, and she seems pleasant enough.

While today is the day, or would have been if things had been normal, and the big ceremony would have taken place in Stockholm, Louise received her prize on Sunday, from the hands of the Swedish general consul. In her own garden in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with only a couple of neighbours present, and the consul and her husband and a photographer. All masked and distant. Not to mention cold, in the minus 10 degrees.

At least it makes for a different experience. At least I hope it does. Let’s wish for normal for 2021. Unless lots of winners actually really do prefer awards at home. Many will do their best work at home, and alone.

(Photo by Daniel Ebersole.)

‘What if you’d been dead?’

That’s crime writers for you; coming across an unusual event with a happy outcome, and then making it worse by killing someone [in a book]. In Meet the Author event with Dr Val McDermid, organised by the University of St Andrews on Tuesday afternoon, Val described how she came to write The Distant Echo by murdering former students, and how someone unwittingly provided her with the spot for the original death.

This was a well-run online event, as you’d expect from a leading university, when treating their students to a talk by one of their Honorary Doctors. After an introduction by the Principal, Sally Mapstone, Val talked to Professor Gill Plain, who teaches a crime fiction module. With two new books, Val had lots to say. Still Life is her new crime novel, and then there is her 2020 bonus book, the Christmas is Murder anthology.

Sitting in her library, with a lovely Christmas tree next to her, Val talked about various aspects of her writing career, and not only stuff I’d heard before. At the beginning of the year there was only Brexit as a cloud on the horizon, until it became obvious that there would be more. Her yearly pattern of writing, followed by events, was broken, and the short crime stories in Christmas is Murder filled a gap.

Val had a bout of Covid in March; 17 days when she can’t really account for what she was doing. Writing took longer when spending a lot of time on following the news. The online events she did lacked the sense of camaraderie she loves, and she misses the conversations with colleagues. Walking with friends helps.

She doesn’t think people will want to read Covid books. Coming up with an idea for a quintet of novels set in 1979, 1989, 1999, 2009 and 2019 respectively has given her some breathing space.

Meanwhile, we have her new short stories that were a struggle to write, including the one titled Holmes for Christmas… Val hopes for a Christmas equivalent of Norway’s Easter crime reading.

The conversation moved on to Hamish’s hipster porridge. Yes, really. Seems Val has been ‘Cooking the books’ on YouTube. There will be a Christmas special, and maybe one for New Year, but she will call it quits while she’s still having fun.

Generally she knows where she will start a book, and where it will finish, but the road in between she can only see glimpses of as she writes. For the new Karen Pirie novel, Val had to make up some sort of art, which turned out to be a collage of a person, cut into pieces and reassembled as a portrait. Or something like that. And it’s important to keep track of what you are withholding from the reader. She introduced a new detective as a plot device; someone who might now stay on.

When asked who people will still read in a hundred years’ time, she hoped she’d be one of them, but more seriously said it will be the game-changers, and compared this to who we read today, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and Allingham and Marsh. Authors with memorable characters. So perhaps William McIlvanney, Patricia Highsmith, P D James and Thomas Harris.

I shall have to look into these cooking sessions.

Bookwitch bites #150

Kindle-sharing is the new thing at Bookwitch Towers. With me actually paying £1.99 for ebooks that the Resident IT Consultant might also enjoy, I can’t just suggest he doesn’t drop my [paper] book in the bath. So, what’s his is mine, and the other way round.

The Resident IT Consultant has had the benefit of reading some of J D Kirk’s crime novels. If someone reads more than one, it is an indication the book wasn’t too bad. Or so I believe. But recently I gathered J D had put in an Ofsted inspection where none ought to be. When I told J D he was so upset he stopped talking to me. Until I woke up and discovered he and the Resident IT Consultant were on such friendly terms that they had balanced a tankard of beer on my head.

😳

The Edinburgh International Book Festival are planning some December Winter Warmer events. On Saturday 12th there is a full programme of book events for you. Free to access.

It’s Advent. Daughter requested I get out the Jostein Gaarder advent book for her daily read. The thing that always strikes me is how his book sits right next to Cornelia Funke’s advent book. It’s almost as if it had been planned.

We also have a real, live – well, you know what I mean – advent calendar. We take turns opening the doors. This was sent to us by a very kind author, who ‘lives’ a little bit along from Jostein on the shelf.

I have been asked for a wish-list. The Resident IT Consultant wants help with ideas for me. Daughter does not want a list. She will come up with her own ideas. Which are usually very good. My list had only books on it. I know. This is crazy. I don’t need books. But I need other stuff even less. Except when Daughter has come up with the perfect thing. I’ve still to read my way through the books from last Christmas. And the ones I bought myself in August. Also the books I bought the Resident IT Consultant last Christmas…

But books still make sense.

Revenge of the Andes

‘Someone in Chile is holding Rosetta Girl’s parcel hostage’, Daughter announced last week. While not exactly the last thing I’d ever expected to hear, it was low on my list.

She had sent her friend Rosetta a parcel, containing nothing terribly exciting. A small item for Rosetta’s – by now – past birthday, and something for Christmas. It’s the thought that counts, and all that, and the shipping costs probably outran anything Daughter had spent on the gifts. She sent it FedEx, and we’d both been pleasantly surprised by the speed with which it took off from Scotland to Chile. Before we knew it, the parcel had got to Rosetta Girl’s apartment block.

Except then, it turned out to be like something from a thriller; ‘pay the ransom or the socks get it’ kind of situation. They tried to call it a fee, or even import duty, and it had to be paid in cash. Which Rosetta didn’t have.

It was clear that someone in the delivery chain, someone in the town, well past customs, was hoping to make a bit of money. Because most people are so excited by parcels arriving that they will do anything, even quite unreasonable things, to discover what they have been sent. Daughter tried to insist to her shipping company, that the fee was unreasonable, but if it was to be paid, she would pay it, thank you very much, and she’d do it cash free, with a receipt.

It’s a shame that some countries, and some companies, have this kind of bad reputation. And it’s probably not even the neediest people who are attempting to make some money on the side, which would have been almost all right. And I was under the impression FedEx was a proper company.

We can all be wrong.

Another of the items being held to ransom is Michelle Paver’s Thin Air. The paperback version. It’s set in the Himalayas, but as Michelle said at the Edinburgh Book Festival, she had intended to write about the mountains next to where Rosetta lives. I suspect this to be a case of Revenge of the Andes.

I’m hoping the parcel-napper understands quite how modest the contents are. You’d never pay that much for anything like this. But you might pay because getting the parcel means something to you.

Packed bags and passports

While I’m talking about Hadley Freeman, as I was yesterday, I’ll return to something she wrote in her Guardian column in the summer [about antisemitism]. She said ‘the stories about Jewishness I grew up with, at home and at Hebrew school, were all about persecution, keeping your bag packed by the door, just in case.’

Reading that sent chills through me, because it echoed what another Jewish author told me a few years ago, which was that as a Jew she couldn’t have too many passports.

And now, I’m thinking of both those statements, and finding myself closer to ‘packing a bag, just in case.’ As for passports, they have been greatly on my mind recently. Brexit – do you remember Brexit? – raised its ugly head and almost shoved Covid aside.

I thought, I need a new passport. Not immediately immediately, but pretty soon. Sooner than felt comfortable, as the borders of Europe closed again, and airlines cancelled the flights they had been happy to take your money for, and there were quarantine rules all over the place. I’m not saying I wanted to fly anywhere, or even to travel. But to have a passport is awfully handy when you live ‘somewhere else’, even when that is your home.

So not only were there fears about catching a bad illness, but before we knew it, those tiers started coming and we were not supposed to travel. Unless essential. Seems passports might be ‘essential’. Doesn’t mean you won’t catch anything, though. Travelling domestically or internationally both have drawbacks, as well as the odd advantage.

It’s very expensive, travelling within this country, to your ‘local capital city’. And the passports cost more. Going abroad would have been more cost effective, but not advisable.

My nearest honorary consul held a Zoom meeting this week, where we all discussed stuff like this. Many turned out not to know certain relevant things about continuing to live here in 2021. Many might be unable to afford a 600 mile return trip for a new passport, or feeling too old or feeble to undertake the journey.

I’m now so old that I have started thinking about pensions. While we’re in the grip of the virus, many will – possibly – have to go without their foreign pension, if they are unable to prove they are still alive. This, too, necessitates some travelling in many cases. The foreign authorities have said they’ll be somewhat patient, waiting for proof, but not for that incredibly long. If you’ve been declared dead, I’m guessing it’s hard to be ‘revived’ after travel restrictions are lifted. If ever.

So, we’ll see. Technically I’m not supposed to go and pick up my new passport, either.

‘My Mom got me my job’

I’d like to think that Hadley Freeman and I are [almost] the same. She’s just more famous, and mostly gets to interview more famous people than I do, but we both do it for the same reason; to meet people we admire. So that’s why I simply had to attend Hadley’s event for Arvon at Home this evening.

She apologised in advance for any potential interruptions from her young children. There were none, but I’d say she was a little tense, just in case they’d decide to join us. I’d have liked it if they did, and I’m sure most of the others would too.

To start, Hadley read from the beginning of her latest book, House of Glass, about her French grandmother. I’d read about it in the Guardian, so knew it would be interesting, and almost enough to make me want to read something other than children’s books. Deauville is not like Cincinnati. And none of the elderly relatives five-year-old Hadley met on that holiday in France were the type to run around like she was used to doing with cousins.

Having spent something like twenty years on this book, after finding a shoebox at the back of her late Grandmother’s wardrobe, it was interesting to learn how she set about her research and the writing. Her American – but bilingual – father helped with some of the French, while the Polish was done by the wives of her Polish builders at the time.

For the structure of the whole thing, help came from all directions, and as I keep quoting others on, you should always ask your friends. Apart from different coloured files, which is always attractive, you should know your subject completely, but write only what’s interesting and what your readers will want to know. Like the interviews, in fact.

Hadley’s Grandmother and her siblings never spoke of what happened in the war, but they kept everything. It was there for Hadley to find and to read. It took her 18 months to write the book, and the way you achieve this with three children under five, is to have the right husband who does the parenting at weekends, leaving Sundays for writing.

For her second reading Hadley chose her 2015 book Life Moves Pretty Fast. I think it’s about her love for the 1980s, and in particular for 1980s films. And music. Apparently they are better than 1960s stuff, which I can almost believe. (Except for the music.) She herself was surprised to discover that her mother, being the kind who only gives you fruit for dessert, let her discover these movies at a young age.

But then, it was that same mother who sent an early interview to a competition, which Hadley went on to win, and which brought her to the attention of the Guardian, where she has been for the last twenty years. Mothers are good.

Questions, and compliments, from the audience seemed to surprise Hadley. I think it’s time she realises that quite a few of us admire her writing quite a lot. No, scratch that. It’s better she doesn’t, in case it goes to her head.

As you were, Hadley.

Launching Allie

You could tell it has been cold in Edinburgh. For the launch of his new book The Sins of Allie Lawrence on social media, Philip Caveney has walked, or been made to walk, all over the place to be filmed saying stuff about his book. This is good. I reckon authors should be made to work hard. And Philip looks reasonably handsome in a knitted hat, so that’s not the disaster it could have been.

He started by reading from this, his 54th, or maybe 55th, book. He’s been at it for 43 years (which fact made Helen Grant say something less well thought through), so that could be why he’s not counting so well. But at least the flowers in the background were not plastic. Kirkland Ciccone wondered about that.

As you can tell, this launch was well attended by quite a few of Philip’s peers, and it felt almost as if we were meeting in real life. Except there was no cake. Apparently I was meant to do the cake. Oops.

Philip took us round past Söderberg’s and round some fancy apartment near the Meadows, and at least two theatres, plus other Edinburgh sights. It made us all wish we were there.

Once this prancing around town was over, it was question time, with lots of people asking, both from before and also during the event, as well as some recorded questions from three child readers. He likes his covers. In fact, he seemed to have some of them framed on the wall behind him.

‘The ideas will come’, he said ominously regarding where he gets his ideas from. And he does like all his children, I mean books, because if he doesn’t, then how can he expect the rest of us to like them? Good question.

There will be at least three drafts of a book, taking two to three months to begin with. Philip quite fancies being picked by Netflix, and who wouldn’t? His alter ego, Danny Weston, was originally a character in one his early books, and someone he needs for the really creepy stuff. Like his most evil character, Mr Sparks, in the book dedicated to me. Such a relief to know that.

Having autonomy when he writes  might be the best thing about being an author. In fact, if no publisher were to be interested in his books, Philip would still write them. He said something about ‘howling into the void’ but mercifully I have already forgotten what that was about. Sounds desperate. And just think, if his then 10-year-old daughter hadn’t wanted to read his totally unsuitable adult novel, there might never have been these books to entertain, or scare, younger readers.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. He’s still not quite Ray Bradbury (but it can’t be long now), author of his favourite book, the book that changed his life. As to why Allie comes from Killiecrankie, Philip simply needed a ridiculous name. But not even this passed without argument (from a man closer to Killiecrankie than some of us).

That’s book launches for you. All sorts of people attend them.