Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Tales of Lust and Dirt

Things that happen on that momentous day when your book copies arrive at the house.

You wake after a dream of salt and sloshing water, scratching the spotty red jellyfish sting on your wrist.
You remember you have a book coming out and are suddenly shit-scared.
You read your favourite mate's daily email and feel uplifted.
You read the newspaper on your iPad and feel shitty because of your comfort and the awfulness in Syria.
You look around at the beautiful late summer day, your garden.
You drink green tea.
You blog.

You release kittens and dogs and feed them and blah blah.
You think you should be getting to work on those blog tour articles.
You drive your daughter to the bus stop.
You think it's a good time to weed the driveway, now that the ground is soft.
You make barley coffee.
You open the computer.
A woman calls with a heavy Roman accent, lazy and uninspired and you can tell she doesn't give a shit whether you say yes or no to a new Sky deal.
You say you are a foreigner and don't understand Italian.
You reply to twenty emails.
You have a headache.
You make tea.
You write the headings for two articles. One of them is called Sex and the Short Story. If I write this, you think, no one will ever, ever take me seriously.
You don't care.
You frantically write down the details for two radio interviews and think, Ha! I can do that in my pyjamas. Or worse!
You go through your manuscript looking for sex scenes for your article.
There are a lot.
You sift through them, choosing just three to put at the end of the piece.
Your son tells you there is a big red truck at the gate.
You are pissed off.
The man kindly brings a heavy box onto the kitchen table.
You can't look.
The books are here. They truly are.

There is no alcohol in the house except two last Corsican beers you promised to your eldest son. You are able NOT to drink them.
Your ex comes to the house when you are finishing your article. He says his girlfriend says she has read your blogs and you are sex-obsessed.
He goes to buy a cat cage.
You scan through your blog posts and don't feel you are sex-obsessed.
You also write about racism and politics and shoes.
Your other ex calls from Copenhagen.
You think, Hang on, this is my damned day. 
But you feel a turnaround, a step ahead. A little click inside.

It is joy.



Wednesday, 21 August 2013

In Good Company

This morning, very cranky after the teens partied just about all night, I opened an envelope on the table. This is what I found inside:

This story was accepted around two years ago - perhaps more - and highlights the exquisite pain of being a short story writer. Previously, I had very ambitiously sent it to The Paris Review, and received my copy back with squiggles and crosses over it. I had the feeling it was some college graduate with a heavy hand and flicking pen. Rejection. Oh well. This is when Catherine-the-secretary kicks in. Revision. Review. New horizons. A new submission.

As the story deals with neo-colonialism in West Africa, I decided to try a review I used to subscribe to called Wasafiri. Fat chance. The story talks about Eugene, a failed British Ghanaian doctor, who travels home to assist his dying sister. Recently left by his girlfriend, he experiences his tropical homeland in a fray of discomfort and pain, reflecting at length on the failure of the independent government, on his sister's malady, the phony aid workers dotted throughout the country, the tricky power his old mother still has over him. And a terrible, irreparable secret he holds close to his soul.

Surprise. A year of so later I received a reply. They liked it. But it was way too long. Could I cut down by a third? Whaat? I tell you, I learnt more about words in that edit than I did in the whole 300-page-long experience of my novel edit last year. Judging, weighing up. What really counts, what adds to what you want to say. What do you want to say anyway?

It's one of my favourite stories. The first big piece I wrote after returning from Ghana to Europe. It means a lot. And as our household hero Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the esteemed members of the editorial boards, I decided I was going to get in there by hook or by crook.

And I did! Formal acceptance came a long while back, and now finally the review is here on my desk. With my name on the same page as my hero Ngugi wa Thiong'o (I'm not silly enough to print it here, but just believe me.) I even went up to Ngugi to have a dog-eared copy of 'Devil on the Cross' signed at the last Mantova Book Festival, and shyly said I had a story coming out in Wasafiri.

A wondering smile. A wonderful man. You can download 'Infection' through this link. And in next month's Wasafiri you can read Ngugi's compelling introductory article on Mazrui and Achebe, full of memories and reflections about the art and politics of these two great intellectuals of Africa.

*   *   *

More astounding news from the ranch. PELT AND OTHER STORIES IS UP FOR PRE-ORDER! Here is the author-friendly link to my publisher where you can order a copy. It is also up on Amazon and will later be coming out in the USA and Australia, and well as a Kindle version. Publishing date is 2nd September 2013. More news on events shortly.

Excitement! This Corsican queen is organising her blog tour and book launch with a glass of Pastis..

Monday, 5 August 2013

Book thieving; stealing lives

Have you ever stolen a book? I confess I have. Years ago, impoverished student, all that stuff. It was a hardback copy of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse'. I still have it. And look upon it with shame.

But what a book to steal!

Do you ever walk through bookshops inhaling? Or plunge into a sofa and drink up as much as you can? The last time I did that was in Piccadilly Waterstones, where the chairs are very comfortable and no one frowns in your direction. I read nearly the whole of Helen Garner's last book, 'The Spare Room' . Garner's friend is dying of cancer and comes to Melbourne to endure a final, non-Western treatment. She has come to die. Interspersed with these ravaged scenes Garner's grandaughter pops through the side fence in her flamenco costume, looking for some grandma attention. Kid stuff. A gentle laugh.

I felt like a voyeur, allowing myself to be gripped by the what stood up as a crafted story - and yet whose central drama was the real and painful demise of a friend. Her death. Is that allowed?

Why is she writing this?
Why am I reading this?
There was a horrified pull and push to my involvement. I was magnetised, repulsed, compelled. I read on and on until at certain point I realised I wasn't breathing anymore and my chest was caught. I had to look around, get my bearings, get away from Garner's fetid house.

About halfway through I decided I couldn't read anymore. I also decided that London was too expensive for me to justify buying a half-read book, and that my cheap-flight bags were already overweight (other books, my tireless daughter's shopping). I still don't know how the book ended. Though I suppose Helen's friend Nicola dies. She had to.

And I didn't even contemplate stealing the copy. I wouldn't dream of doing that these days. I put it back slowly and walked out into the busy street, feeling guilty that I had stolen some of Helen Garner's hard work.

But it made me think of theft. What we steal from those around us to write a story. I don't think I could ever document life as vividly as Garner does, but I know I use it as a springboard. Real things. Real places. In Penzance where I presented this book last month I was asked about my title story 'Pelt', where a pregnant Ghanaian woman tries to win back her German lover when his ex-wife comes to town.

Where did it come from, Catherine?

The truth? Years ago a German man knocked on our gate in Ghana, said he grew up in our rented house. Said there used to be a monkey cage behind the kitchen. He even went onto the veranda to point out the place. I could see the little boy he once was: grinning, unreeling.

My story has nothing to does with monkey or cages or little boys unreeling. But when this German man walked away down the street I could see him through the hedge. His back was a little too straight, as though he'd had an injury, been thrown from a horse. There is nothing in the story about horses or back injuries either. But way he moved - even though I never mentioned it - that was Rolfe.

Oh yes, that was Rolfe.