Friday, 28 February 2014

Nail polish, tube delays and the trouble with writers

Any excuse to head to London is a good one but the best have to do with meeting other authors and hearing them speak about their work. While the usual zany things occurred - such as spending a half day hunting down contact lenses with a daft son and having my fingers and toenails painted by my favourite thirteen-year-old 'niece' - on Saturday night I rocked up to another stunning Word Factory session and on Monday evening I heard wonderful Alison Macleod speak about her Booker longlisted novel Unexploded.

Along the way I met up with Rowena Macdonald (Smoked Meat), with whom I read at the December Word Factory event in Soho, Isobel Costello, who writes the successful On the Literary Sofa blog and has a novel in the works, the fabulous (& similarly henna-headed) Tania Hershman, who is a champion of the short story form (My Mother is an Upright Piano), and lovely writers Zoe Gilbert and K.J.Orr.

The Word Factory is a brilliant, brilliant short story salon set up by Cathy Galvin, where emerging and established authors alike present their work once a month to an entranced audience. It takes place downstairs at Waterstones Piccadilly - a glass of wine and cheery hello from WF Deputy Paul McVeigh. On Saturday Holly Dawson read a short story she honed with author Alex Preston. Holly and Rebecca Swirsky won the inaugural Word Factory mentorship scheme and have been working with Alex Preston and Stella Duffy over the past few months. I missed Rebecca's reading in January but thoroughly enjoyed Holly's eerie, unsettling story and her polished reading. Holly spoke about her experience with mentor Alex Preston (a tonne of must-read books!) and wrote this article - Are You Sitting Comfortably - about how nervy public speaking can be, after canvassing Thresholds members for tips. Alex Preston then read a resounding story weaving history and geology and a cross carved into the palm of a brutal mining disaster survivor (the two threads of the story interspersed by a cool karate chop). And Toby Litt showed his authorial agility by reading a transporting short story, an excerpt from an article speaking of Literature versus Literary Fiction, and a poem! And to boot, Toby says he is currently working on a comic project.

On Monday I was lucky enough to hear Alison MacLeod interviewed about her novel Unexploded, which takes place in Alison's adopted home town of Brighton, during the Second World War. Alison spoke of the charge of fear that ran through the community as the Germans threatened to invade, a hidden internment camp and the influences behind her poignant characters who deal with love and fear and uncertainty. She read scenes that were both touching and rich with language. I haven't yet read Unexploded - it sits on my bookshelf! - and look forward to delving into it. 

On my last day I sat on the train thinking over and over about the different types of authors I had met. Many are super-qualified in an academic sense, some are winging it, some have kids and families, others don't; all are working dreadfully hard to feed their art. Of course there was a tube delay so I had plenty of time to revolve my thoughts. Is it better to be an academic, or commercial, to have a crowd, to be public, or to live in a coccoon and count the tractors going by?

It shouldn't really matter. That's what I think. And you know what's the trouble with writers? That - from what I've seen so far - they are a cohesive, especially generous bunch who, like this country mouse, are happiest when they can run off, when they are at their desks, when they are doing it.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Love and writing and pain and goodness

Love hurts. Writing hurts. Rejection hurts. Revisions hurt. Publication hurts.
It is all so painful.
But what is even more painful than the above?
It is silence.
What happens when you have been encouraged and given your best and then... nothing?
The brick wall.
No reply.
No reply.
Argh! You're not going to write to these bastards again.

Oh I know people are busy and busier and you are a humble writer in new uggs in a smelly house in a muddy field...  But I know busy people too. People who are scarily busy on many levels who still manage to connect, or leave a note, or say, Too busy so no thanks but thanks anyways.

Grrr. I hate rudeness. I'm so anti-rude that I always feel I have to be last to close off communication. The last thank you, the last good bye. Is this alarming insecurity or the way I've been brought up?

So what to do when it takes a year to get a reply for a short story ? Give up, move on. Pull out your secretarial hat. Pull out your finger !

I think that's the answer. Man up, Catherine. Back to your desk. If these jerks don't want you, try try try somewhere else. Where people might be more polite.

So what am I doing this week? A crash course in Flannery O'Connor, whose 500pp Collected Works (my pre-loved copy bought from The Society Club, Soho) is sitting gleaming on my desk. From her first wobbly but bold stories, to the well known ones that tear into your psyche.

From the twisted and luminous 'A Good Man is Hard to Find':

Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like a rabbit's ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar.
...The children's mother didn't seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, 'If you don't want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?' He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
'She wouldn't stay at home to be queen for a day,' June Star said with raising her yellow head... 'Afraid she'd miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.'
'All right, Miss,' the grandmother said. 'Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair.'
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.

You haven't read Flannery? In her short suffering life she wrote more brilliance than most of us will ever touch with a barge pole. Go hunt her down and learn her!