Category Archives: Writing

‘One of mum’s fanciful ideas’

Or welcome to Bloody Scotland 2020!

After a worthy introduction by the First Minister herself, this year’s online Bloody Scotland kicked off with four crime writers dishing dirt and trashing reputations and generally having a good time, despite the fact that Lin Anderson, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown, kept in some sort of check by Abir Mukherjee, were all at home. Each in their own, where we were treated to two sets of book backgrounds, one of posters plus Lin’s sauna, although I suspect that might have been a joke.

Bloody Scotland as ‘one of mum’s fanciful ideas’ was how Lin’s children explained how it came about. ‘A lot of good ideas come out of alcohol’, and as Gordon said, organising a crime festival ‘cannae be that hard’. For this year’s online weekend, Lin had apparently suggested that the whole country could light torches. Gordon had to tell how he ruined the town’s bowling green when he set up the football pitch five years ago. The grass died in a pitch pattern.

They all feel that this new crime festival has many advantages, including the ability for anyone, anywhere to attend; both authors and audience. It was great being able to ask Ian [Rankin] and Val [McDermid] who they most wanted to talk to, when anyone is possible.

The Curly Coo – the pub where shenanigans take place on the Saturday night – is actually Craig’s local pub and it was his ‘daft idea’ to organise an event there. It usually sells out in seconds.

Abir asked the others how the pandemic had affected them. He had found that his usual workflow of 15000 words per month dwindled to about 15. Craig found writing easier, if only because he couldn’t pop to the Curly Coo all the time. Gordon got up at five every morning and wrote a new novel, while Lin was so traumatised she couldn’t write at all, and had to stick to jotting down ideas for later.

Two thirds of the way into this event, I got up to go to the kitchen and put dinner on. This has never ever happened to me at the Albert Halls. But the four Bloody Scotland board members were able to follow me there and merely continued their bickering.

There were audience questions, and we learned that Abir once got asked about another authors book, because they were both brown authors. Gordon [also Brown] once had to explain to an irate bookshop customer why he was out signing novels instead of attending to the election. Lin told a fan at an event why she’s so good at sex. Lots of practice, I gather. A fondness for pina coladas is spreading wherever Abir goes, because he treats all crime gatherings like holidays.

Whether that will have to change now, we don’t know, but they believe there will be a Bloody Scotland after the virus. If there is an after the virus. And continuing digitally looks like a real possibility, regardless of viral status.

Abir did well, getting his unruly lot to finish on time, just as the pasta was ready.

How to find your voice as a writer

We began by watching the teacher’s two-year-old daughter chatting to a cushion, telling it to sit down. It’s as good a way as any, when you are looking to find your voice.

From time to time I have stared at the lists of Guardian Masterclasses offered by the newspaper. But the time and the distance travelled would never justify the cost of them. Now though, when Covid has forced everything to go online, I grabbed the bull by the horns and signed up for a class. It was the subject, on finding my voice, and the fact that the master was Aditya Chakrabortty, that made up my mind. I thought I could always consider the fee as my contribution to the Guardian’s survival if I didn’t make it on the day.

There were technical hitches to begin with, but they mostly disappeared as we went along. And while at first it felt like quite obvious stuff, it was actually very interesting. I suspect I have already found my voice, in which case it was good to have it confirmed. And my inner cynic also tells me that however charming that voice may be, it won’t pay. I suppose that’s where I felt more could be said. It’s all very well to write a good piece, but right now I doubt anyone will want to pay for anything like that.

But that’s OK. Writing can be fun anyway.

I quite liked being told that one should never try to be someone else. (Whenever I get a bit precious I realise I’m writing absolute rubbish.) However, bits of ‘my voice’ always got edited out when I had my blogs published in the Guardian. Just saying. I could always see where someone else had had a go. Not so much the pruning away, but the words added that I would never use.

I suspect Aditya expected to talk to a younger lot than what he got. Judging by the ‘Zoom’ pictures we could see, most of us were ‘older’. I like that. It’s good to know people have ambition, even when the world might think we’re past it. (When break time came, he told us to go to the toilet and be back in five minutes. Bar one, they all got up…)

Write if you really want to, and if you have something new to say. Not the same old as everyone else. You should know what you know (I complain about this all the time!), and ‘going home’ can be good. Aditya told us about what he saw when he returned as an adult to Edmonton Green where he grew up. He talked about minorities. Etonians are a minority.

‘Be new’ and never mind Twitter.

Read, read, read. Those are the three Rs. Aditya even suggested children’s books to read. I think as a shock to the system for being so different. (I’ll have to have a word with him, before his two-year-old does.)

Listen, smell, be a camera. (I appear to have written down several ideas based on this. Wonder if I’ll ever get round to them?)

Don’t write case studies. It’s what they do on television. Don’t repeat so much, but use more rhyme. Think of the carpentry in getting sentences to stick together. Get used to just writing, however bad. Five minutes on what you did yesterday. Be yourself. Write down what you had for dinner.

Daniel Barenboim. Aditya spent a week with him for an interview, but in reality he had about 90 minutes with the man. The rest was running after him and being fed too much pudding. (This, too, reflects my own experience. Not the Barenboim pudding, exactly, but how you do a lot with quite little.)

Going through the notes, which they emailed us afterwards, saving on the note taking, makes me feel a lot more enthusiastic again.

I’ll see what I can do.

Translating Wretchedness

I ‘went to’ a webinar on Thursday evening, to hear Nichola Smalley talking to Swedish author Andrzej Tichý about her work on translating his novel Wretchedness, which has had some good reviews. Hosted by Brookline Booksmith, someone had done some thinking of the timing. It was early in the US, but late in the UK and later still in Sweden. But we were at least all awake.

I have heard Nichola speak before, live, and I was struck by how well I know her voice. I have not read the book, nor had I ever heard of Andrzej. But it seems that this might be rectified if he’s as successful as people believe. And no, that’s not a very Swedish name. He’s half Polish and half Czech, but also Swedish.

Andrzej started by reading a few pages, before Nichola talked about how she’d found the book. It’s not an easy book, apparently. Nothing you’d take to the beach. And no, it didn’t sound like it from either the reading or the description.

Nichola asked Andrzej to read again, but he didn’t read what she’d expected. But ‘apparently I need conducting’, he said as Nichola apologised for pushing him about. Theoretically, of course, with everyone in their own room, in their own country.

Speaking of rooms, Andrzej had a beautiful wall of books in the background and Nichola had some very fetching children’s art behind her. There was also a car alarm somewhere, making it hard for her to concentrate.

There were questions for both of them, with Ian Giles asking ‘how was it working with Nicky as a translator?’ She instructed Andrzej to say only nice things. Which he did. I think. Someone else was interested in the time it had taken Andrzej to write the book, and whether he’d suffered writer’s block

And we learned how useful it had been for Nichola to meet Andrzej and to be able to discuss his book with him and ask him endless questions, in order to translate it. It was a difficult book, and she’d already read it twice, so meeting Andrzej was really helpful.

All things come to an end, and the host came on again, saying she hoped people might buy the book from them – but only within the US – and that they’d be back with more talks during the autumn.

After the War

The tears started falling right from the start of Tom Palmer’s new book, After the War. I missed The Windermere Children on television in January, so had been looking forward to Tom’s book. To say it’s an enjoyable book would be wrong. It’s very good, as always with Tom, and so important, especially now.

We meet three Jewish, teenage boys, who along with three hundred other children came to the Lake District in the summer of 1945, straight from the concentration camps.

The automatic reaction for the modern reader is how lucky these boys are, and how they must know that things will be OK from now on. But what you tend to overlook is what has been done to them during the war. Yes, we know about the camps and the loss of their families and the general awfulness of everything.

But here the boys are worrying whether they can really trust these people, whether they will really be all right now. Because being transported in large groups to somewhere new, where they are being promised better lives, food, and so on, has been done to them already. And we know what happened then.

When they arrive, the many buildings they see look a bit like the concentration camps. They have to remove their clothes, for obvious reasons, and they are told to wash, and they are deloused, etc. But this too rings a bell for the children. It has all happened before.

On the other hand, they have been given a piece of chocolate, for the first time since before the war. Maybe things will be OK?

To begin with they hoard the food they are given, in case they aren’t fed again. They even steal potato peelings, just in case.

But slowly, slowly, they learn to trust, they stop being hungry, they learn English. In fact, they are allowed lessons, which is something they’ve not been permitted for six years.

This is a beautiful book, telling us about something real. Until quite recently we would have taken this kind and decent behaviour by the British for granted. But whatever our future holds, I am so glad these children were given a future after all they went through in the war. And I hope there was much chocolate for them.

How many?

I don’t get this. I know we are all different, but how many books do you need to sell to be a success?

Quite a few authors have shared their sales figures with me. I have no idea if I’m supposed to keep quiet about them, but let’s assume that I am. Let’s just say I have been surprised. Not by the smallish number a good many absolutely fantastically good authors have sold. It’s wrong and it’s unfair and I don’t know how they live or how they sit down and write the next book. But they do.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I’ve also been taken aback by how few copies – at least of the hardback – one or two authors with very solid reputations and marvellous novels, have sold.

How does selling 40 000 copies of your books sound to you? It’s not J K Rowling, but it’s quite respectable. Especially for someone who’s not a household name.

More than ten years ago I was persuaded to buy a crime novel when on holiday in Sweden. Written by Christina Larsson, who holidays just around the corner from the sales point, and let me tell you, that is no cheap place to have a holiday home. I’d never heard of her, but felt duty bound to support both the author and the ‘bookseller’.

I never got round to reading the book, though. I went looking for it recently, but deduced it’s either ‘on holiday’ without me, or it’s a charity case. I suspect the former.

Anyway, I looked, because I discovered Christina was about to receive some award in Finland, being very popular there (all these years later). The award caused articles to be written about her and her humble writerly beginnings. The first three novels – of which I bought the second – ‘only’ managed to sell 40 000 copies, so she gave up her writer career plans due to lack of success.

I’m afraid my jaw dropped. I know the publishing business in Sweden is more benevolent than the dog-eat-dog in the UK. But I don’t see how these sales figures could be considered a failure.

Eventually Christina did continue writing and has now done even better.

At the same time she has run a summer restaurant in the holiday resort, throwing lots of time and money at it.

And before that she moved the whole resort to somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar if I don’t remember wrong. Son has the hoodie to prove it. Lots of merchandise got printed with the wrong latitude and longitude. These things happen. And Son enjoys his ‘mistaken’ hoodie.

What I only discovered last year, was that it was a friend of mine who’d discovered the Indian Ocean aspects of our summer paradise. 🙃

And I still believe 40 000 is more than fine.

The point

‘What’s the point?’ is a question I have asked several times recently.

I actually found the point one day, as I was pontificating about some thing or other, to you, right here on Bookwitch. It’s that I quite like writing. Not all the time, but if I can be a little silly, and far too often when I don’t really mention books.

When it is right, it is really right. Still. I merely need to steer clearer of being polite, say ‘no’ a lot more often, and well, hope for the best, really. My best. Your best.

So what I just did, was bin the pile of ideas I’ve hung onto for the last dozen years, almost not looking through them, or anything. OK, I might have glanced at some. And I kept a few. The rest went straight into the bin, because, let’s face it, if I have saved them since the beginning of time, they must be appalling. At the very least, not interesting.

A bit like me.

Are we really ready for this?

To mention, or not to mention. That is the question.

I am of course talking about the virus. Something that has touched on the lives of everyone, in the whole world, can’t just be disappeared in fiction. Can it?

I’d been thinking about this quite a lot, when a crime writer on social media asked her fellow writers what they thought, and what they were going to do. As for her, she was definitely going to mention it in her future writing, because, how could she not?

But someone else had asked her publisher and they had advised against it. Now, I don’t know if she will take that advice, but unless you set all your modern life fiction in the past, you can’t not have the whole virus situation as part of your story, even if it’s already – hopefully – in the past. It will need to be harked back to.

And if you write crime fiction, what an excellent way of adding a little something.  You could kill, hide, do anything, almost, during a lockdown.

As for children’s fiction, no need to kill off the parents in some outlandish way. Here you have a number of possibilities to make a young protagonist free from bothersome adults.

What you do if you’re halfway through a story now… Well, maybe rewrite it to end before February 2020. Or give up and write something different. Many authors seem to find writing hard right now. I’m not surprised. We don’t know the outcome yet. On the other hand, I marvel when reading books or watching films from, say, 1943. ‘How could they?’ I ask myself, ‘when they didn’t know what we know.’

Publishers are funny. So the one who advised against, can’t be the same who commissioned a Covid novel. I’m guessing it’s going to be a fast turnaround and the book will be out before we know it. I wonder if it’s done in the belief, maybe actual knowledge, that people will flock to such a story, like they supposedly click on news articles online.

I wasn’t ready for a Brexit novel before. I’m certainly not ready for a Covid one now. But as for mentioning it; yes, you must.

Culture keeps us going

I don’t know about you, but writing is harder now. And it’s not as if I live off writing, or anything. But I know people who write, and they find they can’t, or at least not their usual stuff.

Sara Paretsky was bemoaning how she couldn’t get stuck in with writing, when she came across something Toni Morrison had said:

“I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, ‘How are you?’ And instead of ‘Oh, fine — and you?’, I blurt out the truth: ‘Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…’ I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!'”

Morrison adds, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”

I’m hoping now that Sara will be able to get started. Because we need her words, we need V I.

Within minutes of reading the above, I found myself watching a flash mob thing on YouTube that someone had linked to. It was a group of opera singers belting out Funiculì, funiculà in a Waitrose food hall. It was wonderful! I listened twice, and felt very cheered. I could tell it wasn’t recent, because people were standing too close, but it didn’t matter. I’ve since discovered it was from 2013, and had something to do with pasta sauce, but it was still joyous and fun.

I came to the conclusion that we perhaps appreciate these things more for being short and near and unexpected. Something to brighten up everyday life.

That bit of deep thinking reminded me of something the volunteer organist in church once said. Jan Wallin played double bass for the Liverpool Philharmonic for a living. It seems he, too, doubted whether what he was doing was of any use, when a doctor friend pointed out that it was hearing music like that, which made life bearable for people like him.

In short, we need ‘fripperies’ like culture to survive. Or, to feel better while surviving. Jan didn’t only play for the philharmonic and in church; he also wore the exact same shoes as Father Christmas.

Three ten-year-olds

I have been reminded of some books that were first published ten years ago. 2010 was an interesting year for books and witches. There seemed to be a whole host of new authors, sort of clamouring for my attention. And that always scares me.

But early 2010 was a good year. (Maybe later in 2010 was good too. I’ll deal with that some other time.)

First I read Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story, even though it didn’t come out until May or thereabouts. But I read an early copy and I loved it. And it wasn’t a one-off, as Candy has continued to supply some lovely novels for, well, for everyone, I should say.

Second I read Keren David’s When I Was Joe, which I’d not been sure about, what with knife crime and that kind of thing. But even then, it was a fabulous story. The kind where you look forward to all the next books coming from that keyboard.

And sandwiched between these two authors was Jon Mayhew and his Mortlock. Just the title was enough to send the right vibes, and there are graves and ravens aplenty. Jon has also gone on to write lots more books. So many, in fact, that I can’t keep up. But that’s all right. I think.

This is precisely what I like in this business. New people turn up, and turn out to be as good as those who were already there. And so it grows.

Happy tenth birthday to all three books and their creators!

Speculating on Liz’s new book

I frown on speculation. People can write a lot of words on stuff they know very little about, guessing as they go.

But piecing together news from more than one source, I am hoping that the new novel by Liz Kessler – Chasing the Light – that Simon & Schuster will publish next year is based on a story Liz has told several times, about her own family’s past. (Yes, you are quite right. It is a long wait.)

The Bookseller says it’s set in the 1930s, it’s about three children, and it’s got something to do with an event in ‘her own family’s history.’ I forget the exact details of the story I have heard, but if that’s what we are dealing with here, it’s a tiny coincidence; the kind that happens all the time, but which in this case saved lives. Without it we wouldn’t have had Liz, or her books.

I hope this is what it is. And I’m looking forward to it. We are now back in darker times, and need all the help we can get from that period we believed we had long ago put behind us.