Friday, October 30, 2009

Blogging, Lit fests and writing longhand

I am feeling less of a need to blog right now, which is interesting. It seems to be something to do with the fact that more people are reading my blog, so maybe I am feeling a little shy. Also, it probably has to do with feeling unsettled, still, as I talked about on Petina Gappah's blog the other day, and unsure about my words. I am finding myself doing in English what I used to do in Hebrew, which is rehearsing what I am going to say before I say it, for example to the girl at the desk when I went swimming this morning. I found myself practising in my head how to ask her whether I am on the mailing list... but it's English. It's supposed to be my native language. How odd! I guess here it's not the words that are the problem, which was often the case in Hebrew, even after 15 years, but the tone of the request I wanted to make, the cultural framing of the question, how formal to be, how informal and chatty? I need to re-learn all of this. So that's perhaps why I've not been blogging much.

What I have been doing is going to hear people talk about short stories, which is heavenly! Last week I spent two nights in Lancaster with a great writer and friend, Carys Davies, who was chairing a short story session at the Lit Fest with another great writer and friend, Alison MacLeod, author of 15 Modern Tales of Attraction, and Panos Karnezis, whose short story collection, Little Infamies, came out in 2002. First, the room was set up cabaret-style, with tables and chairs rather than the audience in rows, which made for a great atmosphere. Second, each author read a complete story, which is such a treat nowadays, when often even short story writers only read excerpts.

The authors came and chatted to people in the bar afterwards, so there was none of that Us and Them that accompanies some literary festivals where the authors sign, sign, sign books and are then whisked away to a Special Area. Carys and I, and festival director Andy, went for dinner with Alison and Panos afterwards in the brand new restaurant at The Storey, and much lit gossip ensued! The next night, we went to hear novelists Andrew Miller and Sarah Hall read several excerpts from their new books, an entirely different experience, also very stimulating.

During the day in between the two events, Carys took me to Morecambe, which was such a fascinating experience. An English beach resort sounds like a contradiction in terms, and in some ways it is, with an abandoned theme park and some empty arcades filled with video game machines (see some old pictures of how it used to be here).

But it also has considerable charm: the recently renovated Midland Hotel is a wonderful example of Art Deco, and has some Eric Gill works in there. And we sat in a small cafe at the far end of the promenade, a modernist box with a wall of glass giving the most fabulous sea view (plus homemade cupcakes).  

We sat and we both did some writing, by hand. And this brings me to my next topic. I've been pretty stuck recently, not knowing what Big Project I am working on, not really feeling focussed, productive. So, I decided to try something new: writing longhand in a Moleskine notebook (thanks, J!). It's only been a week, but I am really enjoying the change, writing in a cafe with no laptop in front of me to block the view, to form a barrier between me and everyone else. The process is completely different when you can't move words around, cut and paste, check the word count every few minutes. I also like not having all the stories I've ever written - the published and the unpublished and half finished - looming over me. And... of course... no Facebook with its myriad distractions. Yes, yes, I have my theory about how playing online Scrabble as I write distracts my logical brain, but trying it without has its benefits too.

Apparently, one very well-known writer has a large house and she begins writing in longhand in the basement and, over the course of the day, works her way up to the fourth floor where the computer is... And another well-known writer can only write with fresh apples on a wooden table. Ain't it interesting to hear how others do it?

The next day, I took the train to Manchester for part 2 of my literary festivities. I wandered around the city a little, once again looking for the ghost of myself there as a Physics student in the early 1990s, searching for a familiar corner, but the city has changed so much, I couldn't find one. But it is fun! The next day, I had a lovely meeting with three writer friends, Elizabeth Baines, Annie Clarkson (who I had never met) and Mel, and more discussion about how we write, what we write, where we write...and about not writing too! And then off to the Short Weekend at the Manchester Lit Fest.

First, a session after my own heart, the launch of the When It Changed - Science into Fiction anthology from Comma Press which brought together fiction writers and scientists in order to encouraged science-inspired fiction. (Yes, I would have loved to have been in it.. but I need no encouragement to get hold of some science, so it was great to see others who'd never tried it.) There was an extremely articulate astrophysicist who made me want to head off to an observatory, and another writer friend, Adam Marek, read the tantalising beginning of his nanoscience-inspired story. Let's hope this is the start of many more science-into-fiction collaborations.

I stayed for the whole afternoon to hear a video interview with Gazan writer Atef Abu Saif (who hadn't been allowed out of Gaza to attend, sadly) talking about fiction not being political and about the need to write, and readings by fabulous Irish author Bernard MacLaverty and Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, who had finally been allowed into England to attend, and who read a story in Arabic, with the translation projected behind him. (I was thrilled to be able to sort of follow the Arabic...!) His short stories have an element of surrealism to them and I really look forward to reading his collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, also from Comma Press.

And then, to finish off my day, a reading by Chris Beckett, whose award-winning collection The Turing Test had opened my eyes to the possibilites of science fiction (thank you Roy!). Of course, after dashing off to catch my train, missing James Lasdun's reading, the train was delayed and I nearly missed the last connection from Birmingham to Bristol. But in the end, all worked out well.

So, back now with a week before I am off to Ireland to see if my screenplay, adapted from my story North Cold, has triumphed in the Waterford Film Festival's short screenplay competition for which is is shortlisted. Nice to be home.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writing and Place: My Guest Blog

So, after having two guest posts here about writing and where you are, and how the two mix, I've finally written my thoughts on how it was to move countries and what that has done to my words, over at  Petina Gappah's excellent blog. An extract:
So we moved, with our two cats (who are now, sadly and cruelly, in quarantine), two months ago. And that is when the culture shock hit. Yes, I had been back often on holiday. But something shifted inside me, knowing that this wasn't a short trip, and I found that I couldn't get through a whole sentence in English without stopping to search for a word. After 15 years, there were gaps in my English that I would have filled in in Hebrew. (I like to think this bilingualism made my fiction more "innovative"!)
Read the rest of the post here I would love to hear thoughts from other "aliens" in their own homes!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Can Writers Learn from the Art World?

I have an interesting topic I'd like to discuss, and would love to know what others think. First, a few words on what I am reading right now. A great blog called Writers Read asked me this a few weeks ago and they have just posted my answer today - and you might be surprised that it's not all short stories, or even fiction!

And, to shock you even more, dear blog readers, sometimes.... I just don't want to read short stories. (I know!) Sometimes... I want to have that delicious experience of immersing myself in one story for several hours. I did this yesterday, and in one day read two  novels, straight through: Dear Everybody, by Michael Kimball (thanks, Nik, for the recommendation) and the Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. Both were excellently written, devastating and moving. Both, oddly, dealt with characters who were deeply wounded in some way, and with the themes of disconnection from one's family, but in very different ways. I highly recommend them both.

 Now, to the other topic I wanted to discuss. I read an article in the New Yorker the other day about a 36-year-old artist who is now the latest Wunderkind (well, slightly older) in the art world for his odd installations (wax sculptures of women that melt as the exhibition progresses; a large pit dug in the floor of the gallery) and sculptures. His works fetch enormous sums of money, in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, and this is mentioned in the Arts articles as if it is simply accepted, a matter of course. So I say this: what is it about "art" of this kind that such sums are demanded and are received but that when it comes to the written word, the situation is so different? Even talking about artists who are not the latest Hot Item, a painting in a small local gallery has a price tag of several thousand pounds. And yet... if I get £10 for a short story, I am thrilled.

Here's my question: are we not asking enough for our work? Is it something to do with a sculpture, installation or painting being a "one-off", in some way unreproducable (even though this is not always the case)? Is it that the collector or buyer wants to own the art in a way that you couldn't own a piece of writing? And... is there any way we writers could somehow emulate these artists, by putting our work up for sale instead of submitting it to a journal? Any other ideas, thinking outside the box on this one? Is there a way we might write one-off pieces too, something we can guarantee is unique and unreproducable or  - and this is a big question - do people view an object that is made up of words, which are the currency everyone trades in, as far far less valuable, as something they could "probably do themselves if they tried"?

I would love to start a proper discussion about this. What do you think? While it is quite common to hear that someone is a poet, novelist and playwright, for example, I rarely hear of someone who is a painter and short story writer. Why the gulf? Is there "art" and then "art"??

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Giving up the day job, winning free books and chocolate

Yes, it may seem as though the title to this blog implies that if you give up your day job, many freebies will come your way, but that's deliberately designed to mislead, just so you'll come and read this post. Sorry! So: just a quick roundup:

I was asked by fellow writer and blogger Michelle Teasdale to talk about what it was like to give up my "day job" and become a full time writer, and I have tried to answer as honestly as possible over at her blog.

Now for the free books:

Tom Vowler's running a competition over at How To Write A Novel:
You have to write the best six-word story. Five words will be regarded as woefully short, seven as a rambling epic. And the prize? A signed copy of Lisa Glass’s debut novel, Prince Rupert’s Teardrop. Deadline Oct 31st.
Visit How To Write A Novel to win.

Canongate has very kindly given The Short Review five copies to give away of Rebecca Miller's short story collection, Personal Velocity. Visit the Competitions & Giveaways page and answer the pretty easy question for the chance to win one.

And the chocolate? Head over to Nicola Morgan's excellent blog, Help! I Need a Publisher, who has much Hotel Chocolat chocolate to give away. What to do?:
Flash fiction. A very short story, up to 100 words, which most gorgeously, elegantly, poignantly, creatively, wittily or movingly (or any combination thereof) includes three ingredients in any proportion or combination: chocolate, fear and the written word. Any genre, any age-range. 

Deadline: midday, British time, on October 21st. That's 21st, NOT 31st... 
If you want some inspiration for what to write and you're in or near London, I happened to know that there are a few spots still available on the workshop prize-winning writer Vicky Grut is running on Sat 17th Oct: "The Paper Clock: Handling Narrative Time". Visit London Writing Workshops for more info.

So, free books, chocolate and a workshop. All we need now is for someone to make the tea. Good luck to all!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Paying it forward

I am toughening up in the chilly English weather - there's me, in a coat, scarf and knee-high boots while around me, students stroll in T-shirts and flip-flops. I feel a bit mad. But... we joined an outdoor swimming pool  for the winter!!! I can't quite believe it. It's three minutes walk from our house, and actually, it's very refreshing. The whole set up is a bit posh, the revamped Lido, with a glass-walled cafe overlooking the brave swimmers. Going from the pool to the jacuzzi, my body is saying, What? What? What? I'll get used to it. Not swum in the rain... or sleet... yet!

So, onto business. So many lovely things have been happening to me that I have decided that it's time to Pay It Forward. The latest news is that my short screenplay adapted from my story North Cold is a finalist in the Waterford Film Fest's short screenplay comp, am off to ireland on Nov 8th to see if I've won.... and I'm a finalist in PANK magazine's 1,001 Awesome Words comp and will be published there. So, I'd like to return the karma. A few months ago I took Sue Guiney up on her offer to Pay it Forward: she sent me a beautiful gift in the post (her poetry play, Dreams of May, and a starfish pendant) in return for my promise to send a gift to three more people. Now it's your turn: I will send something to the first three people who comment here and promise to pay it forward too. Give me your email address if it's not on your blogger profile. Let's spread the love!

A bit more love: Kelly gave me a Kreativ Blogger award some time ago, thank you Kelly! The rules are:
  • 1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
  • 2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
  • 3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
  • 4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
  • 5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
  • 6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
  • 7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.
So, 7 things? Ok: I used to have a piercing in my belly button; I speak English, Hebrew, French, German and a little Arabic; I wrote my first book when I was 6, a novel about triplets (unfinished and, fortunately, unpublished); I am right-handed but eat with my cutlery the "wrong" way round; I have a toe ring; I can hula hoop fairly well; I learned to do a headstand again at the age of 30-something. 

I nominate:

Diane Becker (with snazzy new blog layout!) 
How publishing really works full of very useful information
Mira's List fabulous blog with grants, fellowships and residences for creative people
The Quack Doctor "a collection of panacean powders, pills, potions and pamphlets, as advertised in historical newspapers."
God Shuffles His Feet  - always thought-provoking
Anam cara Writers and Artists Retreat - a creative blog about a heavenly place that nurtures creativity.
Branta: The Might of Write lots of interesting writing-related "stuff"

So, don't forget - first three commenters who agree to pay it forward get a gift!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

10 Reasons/Lame Excuses for Not Writing

  1. I've just moved countries and am unsettled (can milk this one for months and months...)
  2. The cats are in quarantine and I can't possibly write without them (another 5 months' shelf life for this excuse)
  3. My new study is an unfamiliar place, I can't write here until I feel totally comfortable (Yes, right, I can write in any cafe but not my own workspace?)
  4. I've got far too much to do with the Short Review (I have a great deputy editor, so really can't use this one)
  5. I do lots of writing-related things (Hmm, this old one...)
  6. I am in a fallow period and should be gentle with myself (ah, this is good, can use this one a lot)
  7. I'm still working on promoting my book (Oh, come on, it's been 13 months, get over it...)
  8. I write very very short stories so don't need very long to do it, I can always do one later (Yes, but I want to write longer stories, so I need to get down to it...)
  9. I don't know what I want to write (If I wait for this, I'll never write again...)
  10. Because it's the thing I most want to do and so, being contrary, I'm not going to do it. (I don't get this at all....but it's a strong one)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Writing and Place Guest Blog post 2: Miriam's thoughts

As I formulate witty and insightful thoughts in my head about the cultural differences between my new city and Jerusalem, I am bringing you the second in the Writing & Place series of guest blog posts, this one from Miriam Drori, who blogs at An' De Walls Came Tumblin Down. A bit about our guest today: Miriam Drori came to writing late in life, prompted by a passionate desire to be understood and to help others. By profession, she is a writer of a different sort: a technical writer. Miriam lives in Jerusalem with her husband, three children, a cat who walked in one day and a novel that’s straining to get out into the world.

Take it away, Miriam!

TH: Where are you?
MD: In my office, in the fourth residence we have lived in since getting married. Like all the previous ones, it is in Jerusalem, Israel.

TH: How long have you been there?
MD: In this amazingly large and beautiful house with (thanks to my husband) a very special garden: 4 years. In Jerusalem: 31 years. In Israel: 33 years.

the view from Miriam's office

TH: Why are you there?
MD: That's a question I'm often asked, usually by people, in Israel or the UK or elsewhere, who can't understand why anyone would want to leave stable, cool and carefree England to live in a country with ... let's say: problems. And heat. In the past, I replied that I followed my husband-to-be to this place. Which is true, but it's not the whole truth. Another important reason is something I didn't have the knowledge or the words to explain then. It has to do with being in a "hidden" minority and with social anxiety. Social anxiety, very briefly, is a fear of people and especially of what those people think of the sufferer. I caught this disorder while growing up in England, but it could have happened anywhere. Combine that with being in a minority that's not immediately obvious (unless you dress to look the part – and then it helps if you're a man) and life is filled with difficulties. In the place where I am now, I can say "I'm Jewish," without worrying what the other person will think.

TH: What do you write?
MD: I began writing because I want to publicise social anxiety. Because I wish I'd known about it earlier and want others to know as soon as possible. Before that, I didn't think I was able to write anything beyond the technical writing I did for a living. Certainly, I didn't think I could be creative. Having a goal helped me to overcome that hurdle. Now, I write about many things, but I often return to my original topic.

TH: How do you think where you are affects what you write about?
MD: It doesn't – not majorly. I agree with Nik that similar things happen to people everywhere. However, if the story isn't abstract the characters have to be in some place. It's hard to describe a place you've never been to, or to describe living in a place you haven't lived in. I think all my experiences influence what I write about, and the places I've lived in are part of those experiences. I set my first novel in England. I didn't want to set it in Israel, because I felt that readers have certain expectations of novels set in Israel and I didn't want to address those issues. I couldn't have set it in say, America, where I spent a total of 10 days many years ago. Although I was left with a string of superlatives: coldest, strangest, wildest, ... place I've ever been to, I couldn't begin to describe living there.

I like to sit in our garden when I write. I was sitting there when I wrote a short story about an artist, and – guess what – she painted the very scene I was looking at! I think location can give a story character, even though it's not usually the theme of the story.

TH: And how you write?
MD: A tough question – again I agree with Nik. Perhaps it's because I don't know how I write. I don't know how I can be creative after having been certain, for so long, that I'm not a creative person. And I don't know how to describe how my stories are written, in terms of content, and hope that they don't all fit the same pattern or style. I suspect how has something to do with finally growing up and with being able to understand, partly, what's going on in my head. Nothing to do with where I am.

Thank you, Tania, for giving me the opportunity to ramble on. Now I can sit back and read other thoughts on location.
Thank you, Miriam, for sharing your thoughts with us. Nik Perring wrote the first guest blog post on Writing & Place. More  coming soon, let me know if you'd like to contribute.