Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Year of Short Story Wonders

This year has been wondrous. In a short story way. I’m not normally one for summaries and list-making madness at the end of the year, I’m someone who rather looks ahead, sees inadequacy and shortcomings everywhere, likes to get it all behind and start afresh. But something someone said to me a few days ago made me stop. I realise I’ve surrendered myself to the short story this year. I’ve been beating them out like a shoemaker stitching up leather. I’m grateful for a clutch of shortlistings and one tiny win. I’ve done workshops and readings, been to enriching festivals and, best of all, have met more short story writers than you can poke a stick at. There is a little drummer which is my beating heart that says, Short stories Cat, keep at it!

It all begins with Cathy Galvin’s Word Factory.  This year I’ve tried to go to as many Word Factory events in London as I could. I love their mix of intimacy and awesomeness. Hearing towering authors speak and read their stuff, and then sharing latest rejection or publication news with writer mates. We are instructed, inspired and coddled at the same time. Obviously it makes writing less of a solitary experience and one goes home with renewed drive, but it is even more refreshing to see big authors who have two arms and two legs and are dressed like us; and to wonder about the spark or frisson that really propels their work. Some were nervous, some splashy; many shared largely and with great humour. It is such a gift to listen, to have unvoiced questions answered.

Then there was Vienna. I think that steamy Austrian week is still glowing in many a writer’s mind. The 13th International Conference for the Short Story was a massive event with ongoing and truly international ripples. Many of the writers who took part have turned into great friends and we’ll see how many of us (fingers crossed) are able to attend the next instalment in Shanghai. Tireless Sylvia Petter was a wonderful organiser and brilliant host, and the warm Vienna evenings so dreamy.

And there have been workshops. I confess I signed up for more than one because I wanted to see how the instructing author – usually one who intrigues – might toss out writing scraps to hungry participants. I wanted to see if they would reveal points about their process of writing. Or perhaps I just wanted to see the magic up close. I was mostly satisfied. Cate Kennedy and Simon van Booy provided many, many glimmers, and though I felt like a short story groupie with a stupid grin, I did take precious morsels home.

The London Short Story Festival was a highlight, one I won’t be missing next year. Director Paul McVeigh has an infectious passion for the form and brought the crème de la crème to the floor. Listening to Claire Keegan read I felt lifted into her world of sharp smells and observations, cutting notions of the human; her salty charmed voice. Her book Walk the Blue Fields rode into me.

Daphne du Maurier
And there has been reading. Not all short stories of course. Sometimes it is good to plunge into a novel when one is being summoned by the jolting demands of writing a story. I loved Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon for language and insight, Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower for mood and description and her writhing characters; Daphne du Maurier’s collection Don’t Look Now which still rings in my mind; Murakami’s New Yorker story 'Scheherazerade' and his mesmerising tome 1Q84, read under my orange umbrella on a Corsican beach; Richard Ford’s collection Women with Men bought in a secondhand bookshop in Paris this autumn.. so many and never enough.

And now to the silly season. May you receive many, many beloved books and have the time to savour them.     

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ben Okri: A Timeless Magic

What were you reading twenty years ago? Do you have it somewhere? In your attic, a row of yellowing paperbacks sharing a shelf? The first page inscribed with your old married name, so much tidier than the scrawl you've developed now? Do you still have the precious books you never lent to anyone, the ones you kept for keeps?

I went up to the attic a couple of weeks ago. It is a cob-webbed, soundless place. I brought down two Ben Okri books I found, A Way of Being Free and Incidents at the Shrine. I couldn't find The Famished Road and Dangerous Love which I know I used to have. Were they lost along the way? After several big continental moves I'm surprised when I find any of my old books.

Twenty years later I quickly found that I was not the same reader as that young woman living in Belgium. I have published books now - nothing as lyrical and accomplished as Mr. Okri's works; and although by that time I had studied African independence movements and thought I knew a little, I was clueless. I also had no idea I would soon leave for West Africa where I lived a full, life-changing ten years. That young woman was still a scrap of a thing, with only superficial stints in Paris and Mogadishu under her belt.

Rereading these two works I felt a curious melding between my original impressions of both books, and changes in myself as a reader. With the short stories, I found that the shifting, charged realities, the sharp tones of danger and dissent, and characters whose humanity was recognisable and stark, all found quick entry points and made resounding music - the dance between reader and author in a way more complete. Okri's essays, too, spoke to a more mature reader, and an older, more knowing writer now familiar with hard work, tiny successes, defeat.

From Okri's essay 'Newton's Child' (A Way of Being Free), essential for any writer:

The best kinds of books.. have a delightful mystery about them. They inexplicably create powerful feelings, images, moods, worlds, and parallel narratives the farther away in time you are from the reading. They grow in time. They keep re-creating themselves in your consciousness, they keep growing, keep becoming other books, till they become part of your experience, like something lived, or dreamed, or suffered.
Further encounters with such books make them more. There is no final point of understanding with books that live.

The highest kind of writing - which must not be confused with the most ambitious kind - belongs to the realm of grace. Talent is part of it, certainly; a thorough understanding of the secret laws, absolutely. But finding the subject and theme which is in perfect harmony with your deepest nature, your forgotten selves, your hidden dreams, and the full unresonated essence of your life - now that cannot be reached through searching, nor can it be stumbled upon through ambition. That sort of serendipity comes upon you on a lucky day. It may emerge even out of misfortune or defeat. You may happen upon it without realising that this is the work through which your whole life will sing. We should always be ready.

Inspiration is harmony. The mind loves patterns.

Better a complex mind behind a seemingly simple thought, than a simple mind behind a seemingly complex thought. The mind should always surround what it expresses. Accidental perceptions can sometimes be profound, but it is always best to make accidental perceptions into a leavening agent, to extend its radiance and influence through the texture of the work. There are few things worse than being exposed by the unabsorbed felicities of chance.

November's Word Factory evening included a reading by Ben Okri. Imagine my fascination when the great man read a short story, a parable almost, to the entranced audience. Inspiration personified. An unsteadying evening. Many of us bought copies of Okri's latest novel The Age of Magic, which I have begun reading at a snail's pace: I don't want to finish it!

Ben Okri's love of his craft is passionate and graceful, his words feel timeless and touching. Here are two more treats from the essay 'The Joys of Storytelling I' (A Way of Being Free):

We all live out lives on this side of the mirror. But when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror - the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at unsuspected paradise.
The greatest stories speak to us with our voice, but they speak to us from the other side.

And this one surely has my name on it:

Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.