Friday, 30 November 2007

Oh, for goodness sake!

I'm in nark mode, so brace yourselves. It must be something to do with the imminence of Christmas ...

First, in an interview Jacqueline Wilson reveals that her mother, who's in her eighties, has never read any of her books. 'Why would I want to read children's books?' she says. Well, there's so much wrong with this: first of all, why not read children's books, especially at this vibrant time for children's fiction? Several of the best books I've read in the past few years have been far more impressive than hyped 'literary' fiction, because children's fiction is a tough arena and anyone entering it has to remember that their readership will switch off quicker than any other if their interest hasn't been stimulated. And what turns them off quicker than anything - a lack of a story, a narrative that seizes them and carries them along to a fulfilling ending. (Congratulations, by the way, to S.F. Said for winning the Blue Peter prize for the Book I Couldn't Put Down for 'The Outlaw Varjak Paw'). Secondly, what about family loyalty? Can't JW's mother find it in her to read at least one of her highly-successful much-loved-by-the-public daughter's stories, if only to say 'Very nice, dear.'? Is this something you recognise? What is the attitude of your nearest and dearest to your writing? If you are unpublished, it might very well be that they have no interest in or respect for your 'scribbling' - and sadly, this adds to the loneliness of being a writer and reinforces the self-doubt which can all too easily stop you in your tracks. If you are published and have gained. to whatever degree, a public recognition of what you do, it's strange how important still it is to gain validation from those close to you. I speak from experience: I have a husband who is incredibly supportive in every way.

What else is pissing me off? Ah yes: apparently, health and safety, the Stalinist padded cell we are consigned to as a nation, has obliged certain publishers to take material out of children's books as being dangerous to the kiddies. This includes, in Lindsey Gardiner's book 'Who Wants a Dragon?' an illustration of a dragon toasting marshmallows while fire comes out of his nostrils! This ranks with the chap in Swindon who was forbidden to sell his book to his office colleagues for fear they might get paper cuts from handling it and then sue! What have we come to? My son went on a day visit to Southampton University on Wednesday, to fill him with the desire to attend university, which was a worthy aim. As his parent I had to fill in a health and safety form which included not only mentioning his allergies and when he last had a tetanus shot but also saying how far he could swim: were they afraid the bus would overshoot the campus and end up in the English Channel? So, go to your children's bookshelves and remove all those dangerous volumes involving adventures risky to life and limb and all those illustrations of ogres and dragons and towers and battles and spaceflights and boat trips and pet rats. That would mean .. oh, let me think. Yes: every book on the shelf.

Finally, an article in last weeks Times by Melissa Katsoulis, tells us that young writers are the best, and old writers are dried up has-beens with nothing to say about 'Revolution, revelation, challenge and unrest'. The whole thing is written in a bolshie attention-grabbing manner, and it certainly got my attention. 'The trajectory for most literary geniuses is down,' she announces. Well, in certain cases she's not wrong - and with the death of Norman Mailer there's been discussion of the dinosaurs of the literary scene, especially the male American ones, who seem to be going on well past their sell-by. Fine. I was extremely disappointed by the selection of books of the year in last week's Sunday Times - all the usual suspects were there: Ian McEwan for 'On Chesil Beach'. Oh please. Robert Harris for 'The Ghost' - it could be he's there because it's a satisfying twisty expose of our ex-prime-minister and his wife. Or is it because he's one of those writers who is in a crony relationship with the reviewers of reviewer-land? So, I'm not saying there aren't problems with our current literary scene. But to argue - and to reinforce your argument with examples drawn from the Romantic period, which is hardly news to us: that Keats did the right thing by dying and Wordsworth didn't - that youth is better because it's youth, because young people are, well, like, not jaundiced yet, and have lots to say about 'the hottest pies' and that fiction is written for young people and old people's 'furies and passions no longer spit and fizzle', that old writers write about sex because they can't get it anymore and this is 'so far from being fresh as to be yukky' - all of this is so simplistic. I remember bemoaning to my husband that I wasted my twenties, when I had far more time in which to write than I've ever had since and his reply was that I hadn't written anything because I hadn't anything to say. Some people need to live a little or a lot. Most of us need a long training in our craft. Of course, some writers become tired and predictable and set in their ways, some endlessly recycle the same old themes in the same old style. Some would have been better doing a Keats. But the thing about Keats, when you read through the brief but dazzling trajectory of his work, is that when he died he still had so much potential and had he lived to Wordsworth's age I fully believe he would still have been pushing the boundaries of what was poetically possible and he would still have been writing letters full of exploration of beauty, truth and time. Many modern youthful writers burn out after their first fine well-hyped rapture. To every thing its time and season. So, let's not have sweeping generalisations about writing not being a country for old men. Let the middle-aged and ageing continue to be nostalgic for their pasts, and explore experience, memory, time and death, along with the subjects Melissa claims are topics for the young: race, sex, politics, music. Let them go on raging against the dying of the light.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A cast can look at a king

I'm sorry I missed posting last week - God knows where the time goes. There's been a lot going on and I'm more than a little tired, actually.

You'll know that I've mentioned the novels of C.J. Sansom before - they're Tudor detective novels (Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign). I read today that the BBC is going to turn them into a series, which is a promising thing - and certainly very good for Mr Sansom. They've cast Kenneth Branagh as the detective, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Now this I'm not so sure about - I do think he was excellent both as Heydrich in 'Conspiracy' and as Shackleton in ... 'Shackleton' - but I don't see him as Shardlake. He's not my vision of the man at all. This is always the problem with these things, isn't it? I'm very fond of Daniel Craig (first had my eye on him as the love interest in 'Moll Flanders' years ago), but he's not Lord Asriel in Northern Lights - or as we're supposed to refer to it in its film avatar, The Golden Compass. Tricky business, casting. I bet we've all got examples in mind where we thought the casting was barking - I believe it's called 'stunt casting' in Hollywood, where the most unlikely star is cast, and no doubt it draws the oxygen of publicity which all productions need to survive. If we were to award the 2007 prize for the barkingest, stuntiest casting of the year it would have to go to Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII in the current overblown series 'The Tudors' (and don't get me going on the surfeit of howling inaccuracies and laughable costumes ...). Rhys Meyers not only bears absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the giant jowly monarch, he seems to think that to characterise a king who was a dangerous bully but also learned and cultured, all he needs to do is bluster, bellow and pout like a tot in a tantrum and show his biceps at every opportunity. What with that, and reducing the count of his sisters from two to one, then marrying her to a king she didn't historically marry, after she had bonked the Earl of Suffolk (was it?) on the ship to Portugal etc, etc, etc, - it's the best comedy series on the box at the moment.

How many of you remember dear old Keith Michell as Henery, long ago? Now there was an actor - knew not just how to bellow and scare the living daylights out of his court, but also how to wheeze and limp and be pustular and ulcerous of leg. Ah, the good old days ...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Caught in the net

My sons are into Bebo and YouTube, my friends say I must get onto Facebook, and I've just purchased a 'takeaway website in a box' from Mr Site, and there's a blog this week in the Guardian by Sam Jordison about the importance of social media to network, promote, sell ..

Am I the only one feeling just a teensy bit of pressure about all this? On the one hand, blogs, sites and networks are a brilliant resource and one that wasn't really available to me when The Chase was first published. I did what I could, in conventional terms (readings, signings, local radio, an article in 'Living France' and so on) to try to publicise the book, while being disappointed that so many of the excitedly-worded promises of my publishers ('We're going to promote it on Eurostar and the cross channel ferries!' 'We're going to run a postcard teaser campaign using images from the tapestries in the Musee de Cluny!') came to naught. I realised that in this business, unless you're a lead or superlead title, the publicity buck stops with you, the author, because the publicity bucks are not forthcoming from the publisher to fund the kick-ass attention-grabbing you'd like. Anyway, how good is that sort of thing anyway? If you see a poster for a book on a bus shelter or as you ride the escalator in the London Underground, do you dash to the nearest W.H. Smith's on the strength of it?

So, along come all these Web 2.0 opportunities for us to do it for ourselves: to create our markets, to build groups of 'friends', to have dialogue with our putative readership. Fantastic. Then it hits you: creating your site takes time, listing your favourite reads for a social networking site takes time, writing your blog takes time (though don't get me wrong - I love it). Time. Attention. Imagination. Creativity. Wait a minute, waitableedinminutethere - aren't those what I should be devoting to my Art? Shouldn't I be writing, like, books? Have I used so much energy and time and attention and imagination and creativity to create my market that I have none left to create the product I wish to market? The words 'hoist' and 'petard' spring to mind.

So, I'm not as yet on Facebook, though I may give in to the nagging. I do worry about it: it's like being back in the playground, somehow - 'Be my friend! Be my bestest friend!' And I've read the instructions on Mr Site for the easy-as-pie (ho ho ho) creation of my website, but Gawd knows when I'll get round to it. So many decisions! How many pages? How should it look? How do I link photos to it? How can I make it stand out?

If you're interested in social media debate take a look at the blog publishing talk, by reed media, a media consultancy, at
Although they use the painfully hip tagline 'mashing up books and social media', there's a lot of interesting stuff there.

So now I've spend half an hour worriting myself about spending half an hour on web communication. Heigh ho. I do love my little blog, though. It's so much better than being hermetically sealed into isolated artistic angst and it's so much more responsive than, ahem, publishers tend to be. And quicker. Bless you all for reading it.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Get your teeth into a good book

I'm delighted to learn that this year's Booktrust Teenage Prize has been won by Marcus Sedgwick for 'My Swordhand is Singing', which you may remember I recommended in my post a couple of weeks or so ago, Nix-Lit and Kid-Lit. One of the judges praised it not only for the gripping narrative but the' subtle poetry of its language.' Quite so. Given that vampires are coming out of the woodwork (or the crypt?) all over the place, it's good to see a book which takes a genre and transcends it, in this case by the spare and beautiful quality of the prose, the scene-setting in rural Romania, and excellent creation of tension. Like 'The Tenderness of Wolves' which I talked about last week (what is with me with snowy landscapes and predators?) I was drawn by the cover and by the brilliant title of the book. Do read it.