Friday, 28 September 2007

Nix-lit and other Kid-lit

Given that Children's Book Week is next week (1- 7 )Oct), I thought I'd mention that a couple of weeks ago I visited my local Waterstones because the children's author Garth Nix was doing a signing there. And what a good experience it turned out to be - it was so encouraging to see a queue of children, not just parents, there (though there were some parents dutifully standing in line, with armfuls of books to be signed for their children). These were children who were calling out to each other across the shopfloor, naming books and characters as if they knew them! Hallelujah, I thought, some of the blighters actually do read! One teenager boasted to another that a mate of his was going to be so sick when he heard he'd met Garth Nix. This was great.

I, dutiful parent too, stood in line with my Nix-lit and met Mr Nix and he turned out to be a really nice man - he'd taken the time (as do Mr Horowitz and Mr Pullman) to engage in conversation with every signee and give each of them an individual moment which served to counter the conveyor-belt aspect of these affairs (publisher's representative progresses down the waiting line with little orange slips of paper to pop into your book to speed up the signing process: 'And who would you like yours signed to?')

So, I had a brief chat with Mr Nix, about the difficulty of pronouncing the name of his heroine, Sabriel - turns out the man himself doesn't know: he changes it according to his mood. I like that. I didn't tell him that I'm the only one in our household who's read Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, even though I leave them around invitingly, for my boys to read. So far, the only spontaneous reading I've seen my boys do involves Yu-gi-oh, Antony Horowitz and Lemony Snicket. Which is something - but they're missing out on so much! (Not their mother's fiction, of course - they are tied to chairs and forced to listen to that).

Given that I've been writing children's fiction lately, I've found myself getting into reading it too - though I'm careful to avoid anything that resembles what I myself am writing, in terms of subject matter or location: I want to plough my own furrow undisturbed. And what might have been a pursuit of duty has been an absolute delight. It's a cliche now to say that we seem to be living in another golden age of children's fiction, but I really believe it might be true. Certainly children's fiction is garnering so much more attention and respect than it might have done fifteen or even ten years ago. This is a two-edged sword because everyone wants to get into it now, including writers who are extremely successful in the adult sphere (Joanne Harris, Jeannette Winterson, for example), and the obligatory toying with the form from the celebrity contingent (Madonna, Julianne Moore, Jordan - who writes about ponies, can you believe it!)

So here are some of the books I've recently delighted in:

Marcus Sedgewick: My Swordhand is Singing - starkly beautiful vampire fable

Michelle Paver: just finished Outcast, which is the fourth of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. They're brilliant: the sense of time and place is spot on, the hero, Torak, has a touching bond with his companion Wolf (and parts of the books are narrated by Wolf himself), landscape and survival techniques of the Stone Age are immaculately researched and the pace of the stories never lets up.

Geraldine McCaughrean: White Darkness - the heroine visits Antarctica with her mad uncle and converses in her head all the time with Titus Oates of Captain Scott's expedition, because she has a crush on him. Very funny, original and beautiful.

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief - great fun, as the hero, discovering one of the Greek gods is his father, goes on a quest across America to recover Zeus's stolen lightning bolt. A road movie with Greek divinities: Ares rides a Harley and wears shades.

Celia Rees: Witch Child. It's The Crucible all over again and none the worse for that.

Julie Hearn: Follow Me Down - excellent sense of period, lively, amusing - but also with pathos. Loved the Bendy Man.

Eva Ibbotson: Journey to the River Sea - lyrical, beautifully structured story, set on the Amazon where there's a strange and lovely blend of the exotic and the normal.

And the aforesaid Garth Nix - dark horror, gripping adventure and amazing levels of originality.

So I think you'll get the sense of the sort of thing I appreciate in a good children's book: emotional engagement, a genuine sense of a child's perception of the world, convincing use of setting both in place and time, language which is vibrant with sharp and telling and often beautiful images, dialogue which animates the story and the characters, and a momentum and suspense that means you can't put the thing down. Oh, and the sort of idea at the core of it all that makes you think 'Damn, damn, damn! Now why didn't I think of that?'

Monday, 24 September 2007

Dissecting Loss

Last night I watched the South Bank Show programme about Joan Didion, whose book 'The Year of Magical Thinking' I read and loved last year, although 'loved' doesn't seem like the right word. Appreciated. Respected. Almost couldn't bear to read. The book deals with the shock of the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter Quintana was dangerously ill in hospital (Quintana died after the book was written). It is a literary dissection of the processes of grief which is both clinically dispassionate in its analysis of symptoms and significance and at the same time unbearably moving in its account of the sequence of the little moments, the telling details, the revelations that occurred during the year after Dunne's death. Any of us who has suffered loss (and who hasn't?) will recognise those stark anagnorises: yes, it has happened; yes, the loved one is gone; no, they will not come back; no, you will never speak to them again; no, no one can ever understand; no, no one can carry this for you; yes, this is how it is. This is how it is, for all of us.

At the start of the book she understatedly, chillingly, says 'Life changes in the instant', as she focuses on the transition from life to death in a moment, on her own transition from wife to widow, to woman with a soulmate to woman with concerned friends but who has to find her own way.

I'm fascinated, gripped, overwhelmed by the fact that we teeter on the brink with every passing second. I speak from experience of a massive loss, many years ago, which took merely an instant to accomplish. That something so big took mere milliseconds to occur - still I wonder at it and still I cannot incorporate it into any sense of just order. A sane world became at best ludicrous, at worst malign.

Some changes, some losses, are insidious, incremental, subtle and unseen, a slow erosion, like the change of a river-course or shoreline. Others are like the shift of plate tectonics; a jarring shudder casting people this way and that, with no concern shown for individual fate or identity. As writers, we have to record the changes, and bear witness to that individuality in the teeth of the blank, gorgeous, finite and infinite universe. As writers we do this, whether what we write is trite and hackneyed or as awe-inspiringly sharp and precise as Joan Didion's work.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Drip-Feeds versus Wallows

Now here's a thing: The Book Standard has an article extolling the virtues of Daily Lit ( if you can bear to check it out), because 'even the busiest person can tackle a literary classic - in five minutes a day via email.'

This is yet another symptom of our time-poor nanosecond-attention-span society. Listen, if you're pushed for time, read a haiku. Some poor novelist has sweated blood creating the rhythm of clause, sentence, paragraph, chapter, overall plot. The language may have a lilt to it, a swing and flow that is individual to that writer and is the result of long practice. The pace of the story should have its own systole and diastole, lifting you, holding you, releasing you only to seize you again as you read. And you don't get that in a five minute soundbite.

You can tell I'm narked, can't you? I'm also puzzled. Whenever I and my friends talk about the joy of reading or reminisce about books we loved long ago, the books we've never forgotten, the books we revisit, we don't talk about that zippy little phrase on page 67 which grabbed us and made the whole thing worthwhile. Certainly, we may have favourite lines or memorable phrases we can recite - but when we talk of the love of a good book we use phrases like 'I was lost in it', 'I couldn't put it down', 'I was totally drawn into it' - and we sigh at the memory of the reluctant renunciation we felt when the book came to its end and we had to return to the 'real' world. Some books take a long time to cast their spell: it isn't an instant fix, a shallow 'affirmation' to be stuck on the fridge - it's a long wooing, a seduction of the reader through character and language and storyline.

One of the things I most regret about adult life is how difficult it is to have a damn good wallow in a book. On the rare occasions where I can read a book in a couple of bursts - or in one sitting - I sink into the book with joy and am fit to commit murder if disturbed. One of the irritations of trying to read in bed nowadays is how tired I am, how incapable of still being awake all the way to the last page at five a.m. when the birds are stirring and the light filters in. Nowadays, a page or two and I'm dozing - and the next night and the night after that find myself rereading the same two pages because I've forgotten what happened.

It's claimed that Daily Lit works because 'people really respond to the fact that it's according to their schedule.' Couldn't they fit their schedule to reading the book, according it the attention and respect it deserves? Is this what we've come to? I worry that my children bring home photocopied sheets from school all the time: they're being conditioned to see life in terms of 'best of', in terms of extracts and bleeding chunks, and thus never learn any staying power, never see what might be worthwhile in the 'slow bits', the less obviously grabby bits.

In the article, one reader says it's the method 'easiest for me to consume'. Consume? Consume?

One of the founders says 'It's a new format that hasn't yet been exploited and they're looking at this incremental revenue, similar to the book club format. It doesn't take away from or cannibalize the existing marketing. It's reading that wouldn't otherwise take place.' This is just sad. What have we come to, if we have to rely on Daily Lit, emails, and reading potted texts off the itty bitty screens of mobile phones to be the last bastions of reading custom.

Wake up, pick up a big fat read - and wallow!

Monday, 17 September 2007

Slings, Arrows, Self-Belief

During this difficult time, this arid wait for responses from publishers, it's not surprising that one finds oneself assailed by negativity. Writers are a weird mixture of arrogance and self-doubt. You believe you're good or you wouldn't do it - but at the same time, like spiteful tinnitus, there's the voice in your head saying - Why are you doing this? What are you thinking Of? Who on earth would want to read this stuff? etc etc and dreary etc. Is it any wonder so many creative artists have turned out to be bipolar? Even those of us who are not clinically ill suffer extreme highs and lows - and when you hit the lows it's hard to retain any sense that this writing business can be joyful and positive and life-affirming. It seems to be a grinding tyranny, trudging round the treadmill of dreams - of what? Fame? Money? Peer acceptance? A kick at mortality? Just WTF are you doing with it?

All of this disorganised bleating leads me to a couple of recent quotes I noticed: first of all from Graham Greene's letters, where he laments his manic depression but says 'Cure the disease and I doubt whether a writer would remain.' You may well have seen Stephen Fry's documentary exploration of what it means to be bipolar, which was fascinating and moving. He asked several of the people he interviewed whether, if given the chance to push a button that would take the illness away, they would push it. They said no: the rush of the ecstatic hyperawareness of being alive, the joy of fantasy and creation, the sense that anything was possible, counterbalanced the terrible phases of despair. Despair and wishing for death - the price to be paid, and a price accepted - anything better than what they clearly feared, like Graham Greene: no creativity at all. So there. You have to suffer for your art.

That said, some kindly publisher could easily salve the trauma, externally at least: a big fat contract ought to do the trick.

And while we're in self-doubt mode, here's Ian Rankin: 'The reason writers keep on writing even when they don't need the money and don't need the acclaim is that they haven't yet written the perfect book. Each book you produce is another small failure.' I'm comforted by this: I scarcely dare open the pages of The Chase because I'm bound to see something I would do differently now. The apprenticeship is never-ending. So everything you create will indeed be a small failure. It won't match the glittering vision of it you first had. It can't be the Book as Platonic Ideal. So it will be a small failure - and it will be a great success. After all, you wrote it.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Noggins, Ne'er Do Wells, Performers and Plowterers

First of all, thanks to Scott Pack of The Friday Project for taking a look at this blog and complimenting it. I'd emailed him to try to get a freebie CD of Oliver Postgate material (I never had time for the Clangers but I was a huge Noggin the Nog fan when I was young. Ah, the Land of the Northmen, the Nogs, Queen Nooka, Graculus the Great Green Bird, even Nogbad the Bad bwa-hah-hah-hah ...) - but I was too late, they'd all been snaffled up.

Secondly, my boys have returned to school - the elder one facing GCSEs this year, so God help us all. And I'm back teaching too ...

Take a look at the link to muvva's blog on the right - it's newly started up and looks promising. I especially like the cartoon she's posted on it - we can all relate to it, I think!

Items in the current world of book news - apparently a Polish author has been jailed for 25 years for murdering a man he suspected his wife was having an affair with. Later he published a novel with all the details of the murder, which led the police to arrest him. Not the brightest of bunnies, then. See

Richard Charkin on his blog talks about routes to market. Analysing the sales of a recent mass market fiction paperback he found 50% of sales were through the chains, 35% of the supermarkets, 9% internet, 5% independent bookshops, 1% libraries. You may find this scary. The 1% library figure was rounded up - even scarier.

A blog by Lee Rourke in The Guardian blames the influence of the Beat writers for the self-indulgence of young male writers who talk the talk but don't walk the walk and who worship at the altar of experimentation having never learned the basics of composition. It's the familiar point that you have to know the rules to break them.

An earlier Guardian blog discussed how badly writers tend to read aloud their own work. We've talked earlier on this blog about how writers are expected to be performing seals these days - and some are better than others at balancing that ball on their nose while slapping their flippers together. I've attended some brilliant readings - Philip Pullman and Carol Ann Duffy spring to mind - but also some truly dire ones (names withheld to protect the guilty). I do think that if the publicity people want to send the writer out to perform they ought to give him or her coaching in how to do it - and if the writer genuinely cannot do it, if they read in a flat monotone, looking at the floor as they do so, or mumble inaudibly, or drain the work of any colour and animation, then just don't send them out there: it'll do the work no favours at all. Get an actor to do it instead.

Here's a good quote from Leopardi on The Guardian blog: 'we are well aware of the unspeakable annoyance we feel when listening to someone else's work.'

I'm having real trouble today just typing - positively dyspraxic. Also the words are not flowing - which is a pity, because I need to put together a synopsis for the new book. All summer the damn thing has been giving me trouble in terms of making the elements of the plot hang together - but now at last it's seems to be settling into place and I want to formalise this so that it acts as my basic route-map. (Not that there won't be diversions and alterations of itinerary ahead - it's just nice to feel I have a general sense of where I'm going and what my destination will ultimately be. I don't like going into a book totally blind.)

As I say, the words aren't gelling well for me today - I do believe that we are subject to biorhythms or whatever you want to call them: sometimes there's fluency of brain and internal Roget's Thesaurus, sometimes there just ain't, and every last phrase is a heavy-booted clump through claggy mud. Do you ever feel that too?

In the dialect of the bit of northern Scotland I come from, to struggle through mud is to 'plowter through the dubs.' Thought you might like that.