Category Archives: Writing

Bookwitch goes speed dating

Seems the trolleyful of wine wasn’t for us. It was Jackie Kay’s, for her Black History Month event at the University of Edinburgh’s language department.

Oh well. I was on a date night, as was the Resident IT Consultant. We had come to speed date a new generation of Swedish authors, who’d been invited to Edinburgh to talk writing and translation, with a group of translators from SELTA. Their debut novels had not been previously translated, but the translators present had worked on some parts of the books, which we were able to read.

Not being entirely sure where we were heading, I decided to follow Son – because this was his baby – when he took his group of authors and translators off to the meeting room. And then they just disappeared!

I was only three steps behind and saw them go down the stairs and turn left. They were not in that room. The only thing remaining was the unlabelled door next to it, which led to a short corridor, from where Son appeared again, letting me through a door on which it said No Access.

So that was straightforward enough… Tried to text this info to the Resident IT Consultant, but there was no signal. He got there in the end.

Swedish Speed Bookclub

I wasn’t sure about this speed dating thing. One author and his or her translator sat at each table. The rest of us joined one of the tables for a brief reading, followed by a discussion. And then we were rotated anti-clockwise to the next author and translator. I was with two of my favourite translators, A A Prime and Guy Puzey, plus another translator and ‘Mrs Perera’ who belonged to one of the authors.

Adrian Perera and Kate Lambert

We started with Adrian Perera, who is that very unusual thing, a Swedish-speaking Finn, with a Sinhalese parent. His book Mamma, written mostly in Swedish, also features Finnish, English and Sinhalese; some of it spoken badly by the various characters. I gathered this made translating the text a bit tricky for Kate Lambert, because how do you convey how bad the Swedish or the English spoken by the Finnish doctor is?

But it wasn’t until I asked how old the main character is (seven) that sentences like ‘The whole Looney Tunes gang is covered in vanilla ice cream,’ made sense. Really fascinating.

Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz and Hanna Löfgren

Anticlockwise movement brought us to Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz and his Aussie translator Hanna Löfgren. Himself coming from Latin America, Joel had borrowed the title of a poem by Gabriela Mistral for his novel, The Story of a Son/Sången om en son. I enjoyed his reading from the book, and we were amused to be told that Joel feels there is so much sex in his novel that he won’t ever write another one like it.

He also reckons he has finished the book and moved on, and he had worried whether he’d be able to discuss it with us. (Seems to have gone just fine.) Translator Hanna brought up the necessity for her to add the word ‘I’ in lots of places. Joel had been told by his publisher to remove most of them, because that’s how people speak these days. Except it doesn’t work in English.

Fiona Graham and Balsam Karam

Up and on to Kurdish Balsam Karam and Fiona Graham, whose translation of Event Horizon/Händelsehorisonten was very beautiful. It really got to me when I read it. Balsam read a page out loud, if rather quietly, from this story about refugees and some kind of rebellion, where the punishment when getting caught is either execution, or being sent into a black hole in space.

I’d be interested to know how that goes, but understand that there is no clear description of what actually happens. Balsam feels that Swedes don’t have much idea of what martyrdom means, whereas Fiona had been shocked by the torture described in the book.

Kayo Mpoyi and Alex Fleming

Last but not least we came to Kayo Mpoyi and Alex Fleming, where Kayo was exclaiming about reading the same extract for the fourth time. But for us it was new, and I’d like to think that the subsequent discussions didn’t all go in the same direction for every group. Set in Tanzania, the story is about a family, two young siblings, maybe a curse on a name, and there is – possibly – a young god who appears every now and then. More a god like the Greek ones, rather than the One Up There, whom so many of us think about.

Kayo has a lot of thoughts and theories about life, and she’s not sure what language she uses to think about it in. Her characters are not Swedish, although the book is written in that language. She herself thinks in several languages.

Swedish Speed Bookclub

This whole speed dating was a lot better than most of us had been expecting. We got up close to four authors and four translators and got a brief look at a book we’d probably never otherwise have encountered. Also, what good English they all speak!

It was fun.

And I didn’t have to marry anyone.

How to Write a Great Story

I frequently wonder why authors write ‘how to write’ books. Are they mad? I know that they know how to, or at least what worked for them, but the competition! Keep it secret, I say.

In this latest one, How to Write a Great Story, Caroline Lawrence shares her tips. In fact, she shares how she wrote her books. And if you know her books, I’d say the advice is even better, because you’ll be able to see exactly what she means, and know what the references are about. She also mentions other famous pieces of writing, likely to be known to the reader.

Caroline Lawrence, How to Write a Great Story

(I brought her book to the hairdresser’s, and he said he’d never want to read a book like this. Could be because it’s not aimed at forty-something hairdressers, but more likely at Caroline’s fans, young and old. He wouldn’t object if I wrote a book about him, though.)

There are some sample workshops, and I envy students who’ve been able to work with Caroline on this. It looks interesting. You might start with a line from The Hobbit, and then you actually change everything, completely losing the Hobbit.

A long section explains writerly words, in case you wanted to know but were afraid to ask. Even the Vomit Draft sounds reasonably ‘appealing.’ Or do I mean appalling? And don’t you just hate those elevator pitches? Because you forgot to come up with one, or you forgot what it was. And there is Mr Spielberg, ready to listen for at least ten seconds…

I’d say Caroline doesn’t sleep enough. Some of us need more time. And preserve me from her lunches of broccoli and mayonnaise!

A twist on the cosy

And I’m afraid we all laughed at the memory of Catriona McPherson’s grandmother’s funeral. (But I’d say we were meant to.)

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Last night at the Golden Lion was one of the very best Bloody Scotland events I’ve known, and I’ve been to some good ones. As Vaseem Khan said, it was quality over quantity, referring to the fact that he and Catriona and Lynne Truss were competing with Ian Rankin and Nicola Sturgeon down the road. But really, who’d choose those two over these three, so ably chaired by Laura Wilson, who’s just as fun and capable as I remembered from CrimeFest eleven years ago?

Right, so it was a discussion on cosy crime with three authors and a select audience, which contained, among others, Catriona’s parents. I liked her parents and wouldn’t mind borrowing them.

But was it really cosy crime we were dealing with? No, it was more whether you can kill kittens, and about writing with humour. Which, as far as I’m concerned is the best. Well, perhaps not the kitten-killing.

Apparently all cats are psychopaths.

It was actually a fairly animal-centred discussion, ably led by Baby Ganesh, Vaseem’s little elephant. While it was his detective Chopra’s wife’s involvement with where to deposit your poo that got us onto this, it was Catriona’s question whether he never worried whether Ganesh might, well, deposit, something somewhere unsuitable as well, which took us straight to Blue Peter’s elephant poo memory. This made us laugh a lot.

(Here I have to insert an apology to Lynne. I am not at all sure I get my thats and whiches and anything else right. But that’s the way I am. I loved Eats Shoots and Leaves. I just didn’t learn anything.)

And let’s get the panda out of the way right now. Not allowed to say what Vaseem thinks about pandas. But he likes vultures. He gets mail from fans, warning him not to let anything bad happen to Ganesh. There is no great plan for his little elephant, since when he wrote the first book he didn’t expect to get published, or that there would be more books. Ganesh will obviously outlive Chopra.

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This makes dogs more suitable to your plots; they won’t live as long. But this thing with age is difficult. Apparently Catriona and her Dandy were the same age in 2002 when they started out, but now Dandy is four years younger than her.

Catriona wanted to write her period crime as though it was written back then, and the greatest praise she’s had was the comment that it was just like a novel you might encounter in a wet Norfolk cottage (and not in a good way). Or, Dan Brown meets Barbara Pym. Her problem is that the action happens in the shadow of WWI, while the reader knows what is to come.

Lynne’s novels are set in Brighton in 1957. She wanted to go back to a time when her parents were young, and while it’s easy enough to know what was in the cinema at the time, it’s harder to get people to act the way they did. Do you let them swear, or not? The criminals can’t be seen to swear, even if they would have.

And you certainly didn’t swear in the wet Norfolk cottage.

Murder on the other hand is fine. Even of kittens.

What all three authors were annoyed by is that cosy crime is seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’ and as not proper books, and you can’t be funny. This snobbery is so unfounded.

Police in Brighton were notoriously corrupt, and Lynne wanted to write about the ‘relentless idiocy’ of her stupid policemen. She quite enjoys the sexism from the 1950s, meaning the police can’t even imagine that a working class woman could be the villain. But Lynne doesn’t set out to scare people.

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This panel almost fought to chat to each other, and to ask questions, and it was all interesting and fun, and if I ever get one of those ‘who would you invite to dinner?’ opportunities, Catriona, Lynne and Vaseem will be the ones, along with Laura. And hopefully Catriona’s parents. Maybe their friends whom I eavesdropped on outside on the pavement afterwards.

Before that afterwards, there was the signing. I already had books by Vaseem and Catriona, but hurriedly bought Lynne’s book as well. It was that kind of event. Vaseem insisted on taking a selfie with me, even after looking dubiously at my [conventional] camera, realising that no selfies would be coming from that. He had a mobile to hand, and now I’m afraid the internet will explode once that goes on Twitter.

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Catriona remembered the Witch, even after so many months, after just the one review. I might have said I now need extra time in my life to be able to read all her books, but all she could offer was more books… Like the fourth in her trilogy. And she couldn’t speak to me until she’d written down the ‘just arrived’ idea for her new book title on the back of the Bloody Scotland programme.

And Lynne, well, her book on the pitfalls on grammar and punctuation has put her forever in my, erm, good books. It’s like talking to royalty. Her next book will be the impressively titled Murder by Milk Bottle.

Talking about the future, Vaseem clearly has too much time on his hands, as Chopra and Ganesh will be joined by a new series, about a female Indian detective in the 1950s.

I really will need that extra time.

Women in Gangland

That’s Manchester’s finest, plus a contribution from Lanarkshire. Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller come from Manchester’s troubled north and troubled south respectively, and I have realised I was right to be scared of Marnie when I first met her. Anna Smith – with no exotic name – came more from poverty than the violence the other two were used to.

Mandasue Heller, Brutal

Gently guided through the finer details of gangs by Jacky Collins – no not that Jacky Collins – we spent an hour learning about the seedier side of life. Mandasue came to writing after a life as a singer, after having been attacked in her flat, along with her ten-week-old baby, and feeling fed up with the bad treatment she got from the police afterwards.

Marnie was so bored at work that she decided to write some children’s books, before realising that her language is ‘too foulmouthed and dirty’ for children, and she reckoned that what dead Stieg Larsson could do, alive Marnie Riches could do as well. And she has, with her George McKenzie books followed by her Manchester ones and now more crime on her home ground in and near Hale – ‘where the orange people roam’ – with Tightrope.

It was Anna’s publisher who suggested she try gangland crime, and having read one Martina Cole novel, she decided to have a go. Her character can be described as a ‘much more exciting me.’

An expert on Nordic Noir, Jacky found the books by these three women an eye-opener. They were really dirty and draining; ‘so raw.’

Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller

Referring to Mandasue as the gangland queen, Marnie described her own childhood and how she ended up as the angry teenager from the council estate when she made it to the posh school, and from there to Cambridge. I learned more about her mother, too, and she sounds like quite a woman.

Mandasue started life in Warrington, before moving to Manchester at twenty, and she loves it! Anna knows about the poverty in Glasgow through her work.

Tightrope and Fightback

The way to write about bad characters who do really awful things, is to use humour. In fact, many of the bad people they have met are quite amusing. Sometimes the women are worse than the men. Marnie mentioned two girls everyone was scared of where she used to live.

The first question from the audience was how they felt about women being murdered [in books] and the short answer seems to be that since this really happens, it’s very real. Marnie has also murdered many men (fictionally) and while Anna likes men, she makes bad things happen to them.

Another question was if it’s possible to write about bad men with no redeeming features, and make it work. Admitting to being someone who used to have a massive crush on Darth Vader, Marnie said she writes about serial killers, and that she feels the continuity with their back story is important. She’s afraid someone will ‘recognise’ themselves in her books, and then she told the story of her builders, their criminal past and what you might do with a wood chipper.

Mandasue never writes about real people, but they do come up to her and ask if that was them. One criminal came to an event and said he liked her book, and how realistic it was. As did the undercover cops who used to work where she lived. She said her move away from the city in her latest book, Brutal, was not intentional; she just wrote what was in her thoughts.

She’s been a bit of a serial starter of books, and she described how her changing one line in the prologue, meant that the whole [of her next] book changed. Urged on by her agent, Marnie said she was supposed to mention that the Kindle version of Tightrope is available for 99p. And the next book is Backlash, out in January.

Marnie Riches and Mandasue Heller

Unlike last year when Jacky overran, it seems to have helped that she had no watch today, and we started and ended just when we were meant to. This was definitely worth missing the sunshine for.

Kiss and Part

I’d never heard of the Hosking Houses Trust, or the village of Clifford Chambers, and I’m guessing neither have you. The trust provides women writers with a “room of one’s own” where they can write in peace. And as such places require funding, they have commissioned a short story collection from past incumbents, and that’s Kiss and Part.

This is great fun to read and not in the slightest as worthy as it might sound. The introduction is by Margaret Drabble, and the list of authors has some names more famous than others on it, and all have contributed something original, something that connects with the cottage and the village.

Kiss and Part

We meet Shakespeare. After all, it’s more or less in his backyard. There is poetry. There are long stories and shorter ones, and they are all interesting in their own way.

I especially enjoyed The Incumbent by Elizabeth Speller, where I was at first annoyed by the seemingly narrow-minded narrator, but grew to understand her and to sympathise, and the ending is a masterpiece.

The stories are all different, as are their authors, and the fascinating aspect is how they all connect to the same place, while still being so diverse. They mirror literature today, showing us quality while proving this doesn’t have to be in just the one style.

Sitting pretty

It must be old age or something. I need my chairs to be softer these days, despite my built-in padding being quite well-padded. But on that basis, my old desk-chair was not up to it. Worked fine in most respects, but it was hard. Nothing soft about it at all.

I’d say I probably had it for 25 years. Hard to pinpoint exactly, because it looks – looked – much the same as the one before it, so the years blur a bit.

Had tried a new chair at IKEA when I was there last, like a year ago. Kept thinking about how comfortable it had been. So when Daughter drove me to shop a little, I tried the chair out again. It was still nice. But in the meantime, there was an even newer chair on offer, and it was even softer.

So I now have what I never thought I’d go for; a black leather desk-chair, on wheels. It is soft.

And ever so slightly lopsided. But by the time Daughter had built it for me – and it required a lot of building – we were hardly going to take it back, on the off-chance that the replacement would be straighter. And it would have needed building…

Cracking the Reading Code

You can’t hear enough about getting children – or even old people – to read, especially if they have extra obstacles to deal with. Well, I can’t, anyway. And I’d already heard the background stories of Tom Palmer, Sally Gardner and Alex Wheatle, but they can do with being repeated. Often. Until everyone who wants to can read.

Sally Gardner, Tom Palmer and Alex Wheatle

The three guests were ably interviewed by Mairi Kidd in Tuesday’s event hosted by Barrington Stoke, where she used to work. She knows about this business of dyslexia friendly books. And so do the three; with Tom probably having written the most books for Barrington Stoke, Sally being the most dyslexic while still writing the the most wonderful stories, and Alex for knowing what his readers know.

Tom Palmer

I do like the sound of Tom’s mother, getting him to read by giving him books and articles on football. And then he went to night school where he was supposed to read Shakespeare and Chaucer! It wasn’t until a tutor introduced him to poetry about Leeds United (!), and took students out to the actual ‘Wuthering Heights’ that Tom felt he could get on with this reading.

Sally Gardner

Not sure I like the sound of Sally’s school for maladjusted children (whose fault is it if children are maladjusted?), but at 14 when she tried reading Wuthering Heights for the second time and she suddenly was ‘in the f***ing book,’ things changed for her. As Sally said, you can be good at something and it needn’t be only academic for it to matter. We need ‘diversity in the brain.’

And Alex, who did read a bit as a child, from Huckleberry Finn and Ivanhoe to sports books, finally discovered books in jail at the age of 18. His cellmate, and mentor, gave him The Black Jacobins to read, as he ‘wouldn’t have anything better to do in there.’

Alex Wheatle

Asked to read to us, Alex again chose the bit from Kerb Stain Boys about being in detention, and this time it was Sally who asked if he reads his own audio books. And after Sally had treated us to a dyslexic pirate in Mr Tiger, Betsy and the Sea Dragon, Alex returned the compliment. Sally does have a great voice. Last but not least, Tom read from Armistice Runner, which is close to his heart, featuring both running and fells, and it still makes me cry.

Mairi asked the three about graphic novels; if they make reading easier. Sally mentioned Shaun Tan, and the ‘most genius book ever,’ which has no words at all. Both Alex and Tom were fans of Shoot Magazine, but understandably Sally’s not. Talking about Tom’s novel Scrum, and the revelation it brought a young boy at a school; ‘Miss, I can read this!’

Sally gets angry when people say to those who have listened to an unabridged novel as an audio book, that they ‘haven’t really read it.’ This is snobbery. She suggested to someone in the audience that if the can get a certificate from their GP that their child is dyslexic, then they have the right to access audio books for the blind and partially sighted.

The last question of the evening was not a question but a thank you, from a teacher who uses these books in her school. And it seems that Scotland might be better in this instance, not having reading rules, which means that teachers can let the children read anything, even if it’s not from the right part of a reading scheme. (This brings back dreadful memories of Son being forced to read ‘backwards’ so as not to rock the boat of equality.)

We then gathered in the bookshop where people were so keen to continue talking about this important subject, that poor Tom was unable to sit down at the signing table for quite some time.

This is what we like.