Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Man-Booker Long List 2009

There are no surprises this year - all the usual suspects are there. A feast of reading for anyone able to get hold of them.

AS Byatt - The Children's Book
JM Coetzee - Summertime
Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze
Sarah Hall - How to Paint a Dead Man
Samantha Harvey - The Wilderness
James Lever - Me Cheeta
Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall
Simon Mawer - The Glass Room
Ed O'Loughlin - Not Untrue & Not Unkind
James Scudamore - Heliopolis
Colm Toibin - Brooklyn
William Trevor - Love and Summer
Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger

The only book on this list that I've managed to acquire so far is Sarah Hall's How to Paint a Dead Man, sitting on my bedside table. How I'm going to get hold of the others, I don't know - the library copies will disappear immediately. This is the major problem for a book-aholic - how to afford your weekly fix (on an author's income). I daren't go on Amazon for fear of bankruptcy (Oh, the temptation of 'buy-with-one-click!!). I raid the libraries, but these days they are somewhat cash-strapped and small rural libraries are the worst affected. Book stocks have suffered. Second hand shops are my next call, but even Oxfam are charging £2.50 for a paperback these days, and the books people are throwing out are often clones of the ones I have at home. So I usually read the latest publications months after everyone else.

There are four books I'm waiting avidly for - not due out for a few more weeks and so not eligible for The List. They are:

John Banville, The Infinities
Margaret Atwood The Year of the Flood
Thomas Kineally The People's Train
Alice Munro 's latest short stories

Alice Munro is easily one of the greatest fiction writers of the past decade, yet she never makes it to the Booker Prize list - because she writes short stories. So why don't we see short story writers on the list? It is a prize for Fiction, after all - we're missing out on some of the greatest writing of all.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Now is the time to beware of the Rain!

What terrible weather we had yesterday! It was raining like Noah's flood, and so dark inside we had to have the lights on. Working upstairs in my office, I could hardly hear myself think for the wierd rhythms the rain was drumming on the roof. And it made me feel strange; excited, restless and very wide awake. But also rather melancholy. I kept thinking of Katherine Mansfield's journal entry;

‘Late in the evening, after you have cleared away your supper, blown the crumbs out of the book that you were reading, lighted the lamp, and curled up in front of the fire - that is the moment to beware of the rain. You are conscious of a sudden hush. You open your eyes wide. What’s that? Hullo, it’s raining! Reluctant at first, and then faster and faster, tapping against the window, beating on the door, comes the rain. The air seems to change; you are so aware of the dark flowing water that your hands and cheeks grow cold. You begin to walk up and down. How loud the rain sounds! ..... You remember that the kitchen window is wide open. Is the rain coming in? No, not really. You lean out a moment. Two little roof gutters flow into the garden. In the dark they sound like two women sobbing and laughing, talking together and complaining and laughing, out in the wet garden. One says : “ Life is not gay, Katherine. No, life is not gay.” '

About 5 o'clock the river, which had been roaring past like a brown jet-stream, suddenly fell silent as the water level rose high enough to be above the weir. And then it began to creep over the river bank towards the house, drowning the himalayan balsam and the loosestrife, until even the bullrushes were up to their necks. It was more than a foot deep over our front garden and the only way out was to wade through it. We stayed put, watching its advance, listening to the rain and wondering when it was going to stop.

This is my front drive!

This morning there is mud everywhere and wellingtons are the essential footwear. The water didn't come high enough to get onto the ground floor (which is elevated above the river bank), but the level of the flood was unprecedented for the summer months. Winter flooding is a regular feature of life here. On a sandstone pillar, beside the river bank, the occupants of the mill have recorded flood levels, with dates, for hundreds of years and several of the highest marks have been in the last forty years. Now it's something we're going to have to watch for in summer as well as winter.

Monday, 13 July 2009

The Literary Award

I’ve just spent a sleepless night worrying about a literary prize I’m judging. OK so this is not the Man Booker - only a small regional award, but very important to the authors and publishers who have submitted their books. Literary prizes are coveted these days for their marketing value as well as the pleasure they give to the winners. I always seem to come second: this year my Passionate Sisterhood came second to Wainwright in the best-ever Cumbrian non-fiction on-line poll!! But I still count myself lucky to be there at all. When I was starting out, even a ‘highly commended’ made me feel like a Real Writer and encouraged me to go on. They have another useful purpose too, even if you don’t win anything, they make you finish things and sometimes there’s the possibility of getting feedback from the judges.

Often, in the big prizes, the advertised judges only get to read the long-list; the organisers of the competition weed out all those they think are substandard. Understandable when there are more than a thousand entries, but you do wonder how many really good things get thrown out at this stage.

When you’re judging, you have to ration yourself to reading only so many at a time - otherwise you become tired and find yourself skipping, which isn’t fair to the writers. And there are always compromises. What should get the most marks - the story that’s full of innovation and good imagery whose author hasn’t learnt how to use the spell check and chooses a weird font that makes you think you’re getting glaucoma? Or the one that is perfectly structured and presented, beautifully crafted, but somehow leaves you unsatisfied? I give marks for each aspect of the narrative and I also have a separate group of marks for the ‘wow’ factor. Believe me, a good story needs a wow factor even more than a property developer!

So, you now have half a dozen stories which have roughly equal marks, but no outright winner, and you read and re-read. In the end the one that wins is the one that stays with you - the one you think about when you wake up in the morning. The one you wish you’d written.

There’s always a subjective element - any judges who say otherwise are bending the truth. This time it’s a panel of judges and we don’t agree on everything - but in public we have to present a united front. Any screaming has to be done behind closed doors - or in this case with a computer mouse.

And then what do you wear to a Literary Award? I generally slob around in jeans, t-shirt and cardigan, but the LA demands something much more glamorous. People expect you to look like a writer - whatever writers look like! I stand in front of the wardrobe with about ten minutes to go before I have to leave, in a complete panic. Something young and trendy? Young is definitely The Word in publishing at the moment - anyone over 50 is encouraged to have plastic surgery or sign up for voluntary euthanasia. With that in mind, I put on a short skirt and dangerous heels and look as if I’m auditioning for Big Brother. ‘You’re a judge,’ I remind myself in the mirror. So perhaps I should look serious? Longer skirt, flatter heels, business suit jacket - now I’m a walk-on part in the Granny Diaries!! With two minutes to go and one eye on the hazy sunlight outside the window, I throw on a summer dress and grab - yes! - a cardigan. It’s the Books that are important after all.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The short story vs the novel

Back from Italy and loving the Italian weather in England. Neil’s sculptures look wonderful among the olive trees - it was very hard to leave. But now I must get down to the business of choosing illustrations for the biography and sending off endless letters and emails asking permission to use quotes and photographs. I’ve found a wonderful photo of KM in an out-of-print book which Penguin want to use for the cover, but I can’t find out who has the original.

I’m also working hard on a talk about Dorothy Wordsworth for the Gaskell Society conference, being held in Cumbria this year, and trying to finish a short story. Why are they so difficult? Why should 3,000 words give me more trouble than 30,000 words of anything else?

The problem is that you’ve got to have all the depth of back-story and characterisation that there is in a novel, without the space. The words have to work hard. KM thought the difference between a novel and a short story was the amount of time it was exposed to the creative process. ‘In the case of the short story it is possible to give orders that, unless the house is on fire – and even then, not until the front staircase is well alight – one must not be disturbed; but a novel is an affair of weeks, of months; time after time the author is forced to leave what he has written today exposed to what may happen before tomorrow. How can one measure the influence of the interruptions and distractions that come between?’

For me, the difference is also structural. A short story is like walking past a house in a dark street - I love doing that when all the lights are on and none of the curtains drawn. You can look in and see the people in the rooms, talking, doing small domestic things - glimpse odd emotional dramas, but then you walk on. All you have in a short story is that brief snapshot. In a novel, the front door would be open and you’d be able to go inside the house, wander around, price up the furniture, peer into the cupboards, have a glass of wine in the back garden, and get to know the people intimately. You’d have all the time and space in the world before the fire brigade arrived!