Monday, June 30, 2008

The Sarah Party, part one

What better way to spend Sunday than in the company of other Sarah's. The Sarah Party was fabulous, really good. Sarahs had been found from all over, by email, word of mouth, and even using a placard calling all Sarahs to the party...

There was a Sarah shrine, honouring Sarahs well known or well loved...

Sarah games to play...

Sarah food to eat ...

And Sarah friends of all shapes and sizes to enjoy talking to, so many I hope I'll meet again ...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Sarah Party part two

We are powerful presences, us Sarahs, so perhaps it's not surprising there was a little attempt for world domination at the party ...

Oh yes, the Sarah troops are rallying ...

And just look at our leader. How lucky are we that this particular Sarah offered to host us so generously and happily? Isn't she beautiful? I have an unashamed Sarah crush. (And just look at the Sarah multi-tasking going on here - a Sarah is posing while a Sarah is taking the photograph whilst also being interviewed by a Sarah for a Sarah Party programme for Radio 4, details to come.)

(ps yep, Alex, that is a shed she is being photographed in front of, you can stop peering and start voting for us now)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Two for the price of one...

Two links today. The first I'm really pleased about because it started as a suggestion here, which is the list of writerly do's and don'ts... Clare's written one here - I really love the image of someone standing behind the writer and making comments - a backseat writer. (Can I borrow that, Clare?) And Lane's done her own list too, which reminds me all over again just how important notebooks are. What interested me too is that we did this in my writing group last week, and deadlines came up there as something that helped - seems we writers buck against structure but need it too. Actually the more I think about writing at all it's about tensions, choices between two things.

The second link just made me laugh a lot. Because of course I had noticed that the today programme and radio news do keep saying 'The Prime Minister Gordon Brown' in a way I'm sure they didn't en-title Tony Blair, but it's the beauty of humour - when they just pick up something so simple and twist it perfectly. Ouch.

(Actually, keeping on Gordon Brown, so this is a real bargain post - at the 46664 concert last night there was a moment when the screen above the stage flashed to Nelson Mandela in his special room and who should be on the sofa but the Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Laughing. Yep, that's right. We all turned to each other and asked the same question, 'Was that really GB laughing?' If I were his campaign manager, I'd be suggesting more of the laughing-business. He actually looked quite nice, although I did spend a lot of the Simple Minds set wondering what they might have been talking about. Not Zimbabwe for a start.)

(And talking of Zimbabwe - it's ok, I will go eventually and you can get on with writing or reading or whatever it is normal people do on a Saturday night - Debi Alper has a great post up about what we can do. If you're feeling as hopeless about it all as me, I urge you to read and follow through. It might not be the first post now btw so please scroll down.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Things that make me happy No 88822888...

Pick your own fruit time, particularly for gooseberries, which have to be the most underrated fruit EVER.

Or so I say.

(ps although I don't know why they have gone sideways, perhaps they were blown over by the gust of my enthusiasm...)

Women are twelve times more radioactive than men....

Actually, that's a lie.

I've been reading lies and thinking about lying here. I love the site's warning:

Whilst we exhaustively examine each of our lies
for any specks of truth, and reject any found
to contain even a glimmer of reality, we cannot
guarantee that our lies are not, in fact, true.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A little bird told me...

Look what has just flown in through my letterbox...

Meet THE ABCS OF LOVE bird, made by Cotton Bird Designs from pages of my novel. I love it. It's sitting staring at me on my desk at this very minute. But what I like most of all are the words on its front because they are from this section:

Creme Caramel

Sally has a friend who can suck up a whole creme caramel from a plate in one go. I have seen her do it. She stands over the table, with her hands behind her back, and then she hoovers it up in one go without leaving a drop either on the plate or round her lips.

Sally herself can fit thirty-eight maltesers into her mouth at once. She has to stuff them round her lips and in the spaces at the back of her jaw. It is not a very attractive trick, especially when she has to spit them all out again. But then neither is the creme caramel sucking up, but at parties, people always ask to see them. It makes Sally and her friend the centre of attention, and the rest of us feel jealous.

Unfortunately I don't like either Maltesers or creme caramel and the one trick I do know is very complicated, involving three packs of cards. Could this be where I am going wrong?

See Captains, Underwear, Wobbling

And because we're all friends on this blog, this gives me the chance to admit that the two tricks above are, in fact, my specialities. Yep, I am that fun party person you dread coming near your fridge. But you can see now why they invited me to join the circus, can't you? I will be in one of those little tents at the back hoovering up creme caramels one after the other after the other after the other ....

That old bearded lady will have nothing on me.

And this little bird will be telling everyone all about it.

A different MA?

Sometimes I think I take my teaching a little bit too seriously. My own MA (now Mphil) was one of the best, and most useful, experiences of my life, and I really hope at least some of my current students at Sussex can say the same. HOWEVER, all those health warnings aside, this alternative MA available from the witty Jenn Ashworth made me laugh. A lot.

As, indeed, did the possibility of bidding to be a character in Alastair Campbell's new novel - to raise funds for the Labour Party. Trouble was I logged on to scoff a little and ended up being seriously attracted with the idea of tea with Nancy Dell’Olio. If I won, I could take two guests - anyone want to come in with me for this one?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Yay, yay, yay!

Natalie Goldberg's just published another book on writing practice, Old Friend From Far Away, and I'm finding it just as inspirational as Writing Down the Bones. Today's prompt is from it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

What are you doing this summer, Sarah?

Oh, not much. This and that, you know. Although, by the way, I'm joining a circus in Iowa.

I know!!!!!

It's a conversation stopper I've been enjoying using, not least because it's so different from anything I've done before, and such a great project. You can read all about it here, and there's an updated blog with a link on my sidebar because it's started already. I can't wait to get there. Basically, from June to September there will be a rotating group of artists, musicians and writers, based in tents and vintage airstream trailers, transforming run-down airstreams into mini-trailers and writing and producing shows. The circus will then travel in a rolling formation through mid-west America and put on performances - sometimes when invited, often when not, I guess. The shows are all on the theme of 'Histories of the World' and will include the History of Mistakes, the History of Love, the History of Forgetting. The other histories of the world, really. The ones that matter just as much as those in the official books.

It feels to me that this is something that needs to be done. It certainly needs to be done by me, at least once in my life. I spend too long sitting at my desk, looking at my computer. And of course, me being me, I'm terrified - of the snakes, of whether I've got anything to contribute, of the travelling, of homesickness, of the rain, but mostly I'm excited.

The magnificent CJ has a line in West Wing which goes something like this: 'I'm very well aware that I'm living the first line of my obituary right now.' It really made me think. What would I want my first line to be?

Hmmm, so if it goes something like 'Sarah ran away to join the circus once..' I'll be happy! (And of course the second line will read, 'and then she came home' - you can't uproot Fen kids too easily. We're like potatoes, we dig down fast where we're planted.)

(The beautiful drawing at the top is by Greta Songe)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What's in A Name?

Still on the name theme, and because I enjoyed Tania's contribution so much, I asked another interesting writer, Jamieson Wolf about his name. He came back with this fascinating mini-essay into how he came up with his pen-name. Enjoy!

What’s In a Name?
By Jamieson Wolf

Once upon a time, I wanted to be an actor.

I had taken dramatic arts all through out high school and university and wanted nothing more than to grace the stage and screen with my presence. Acting was in my blood; it was the air I breathed.

Looking back on it, I suppose it had a lot to do with the fact that I enjoyed being someone else, pretending to be someone I wasn’t. Like most people with a creative bent, I had a lot of self esteem issues that I didn’t want to deal with. Acting gave me the outlet I needed. I could pretend to be someone else, someone other than me.

There was one thing standing in my way, however. My name. My name was boring, boring, boring. I knew that if I was going to be an actor, I would have to reinvent myself. I would need a new name.

I saw this as the perfect opportunity to leave my old self that I was so unhappy with behind and embrace a new me, a better me. A me I could be proud of, a me I could live with. A me that wasn’t unpopular, gangly and awkward.

I was fine with my first name, which has always been Jamieson. But I wanted to change my middle and last names to something that would have a spark, something that would give me the new life I was so desperate for. A name that would help me heal.

All through out my first year of university, my mother and I tried to think of different names. I wanted to take her married name, that of Villeneuve, as my last name. Thankfully my stepfather at the time consented and welcomed me into his family. But I needed a middle name, something that would be different.

We tried all kinds of W names. I was already signing things with my initials of JWV, Villeneuve, so it needed to be a W name. We went through all kinds of names: Willhelem, Watkins, Wilbur, Wilkes, Wade, Walden, Waldo, Wallace, Walsh, Walt, Ward. I didn’t like any of those names. Finally my mother suggested Wolfgang and I thought about it for a moment.

I didn’t like Wolfgang, too old sounding. But Wolf…

There was something there, a spark, a tingle. I loved the sound of it, of the three names rolling off of my tongue: Jamieson Wolf Villeneuve…

I had always loved Wolves, loved the sleekness of them, their allure. I loved the idea that they hunted during the night, that they hunted in a pack or alone. They were hunters, strong and brave; things I always wished I had been.

Thus, a new name was born. But I would have to go through one final change before my name was complete.

After university, however, I realized that I loved the craft but not the people. For those of you not familiar with the world of theatre, it’s a cutthroat business. Though I had developed a thick skin, I didn’t have the patience to deal with the fake people, the backstabbing, and the competitiveness. I just wanted to act.

I left the theatre then. It was heartbreaking to do, as I had loved pretending, loved being on stage, the centre of attention. Something was different now, though. With my new name, I was a new person. The ability to be someone else didn’t hold as much allure or mystery as it once had. I didn’t need to pretend anymore.

As I began to write more seriously, I knew that I would have to go through one final change as far as my name was concerned. Again I was looking for a name that would stand out, one that would roll off the tongue and be easy to remember.

So, I decided to drop my last name and have my pen name be made up of my first and middle names. It worked for me, separating my regular life from my writing life and giving me the name I never knew I wanted.

Though it took many years, I finally have a name I cherish and I have finally found myself inside the pages of my work and inside my words.

I no longer have to run from myself because I finally know who I am.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Writing Do's and Don't's

I'm a bit confused because I thought it was Susannah who challenged me to a Do and Don't meme, but I can't find it now on her site - although it was a pleasure looking through her old posts as always. She has a ... delicious... blog. It's the best word I can find for it. I wish it were a book. I'd just flick through it again and again. Anyway, apologies to whoever did challenge me, and also thanks because I did enjoy doing this. Here are my writing Do's and Don't's:

I do write when I feel there are people who want to listen to what I have to say.
I don’t write when I feel people are waiting to pounce on me and tell me I don’t make sense.

I do write when I understand that the above fear is coming from me, and I really don’t care what other people think if I’m writing what I want to write.
I don’t write when I start worrying what my mother in law will think.

I do write when I’m listening to certain types of music.
I don’t write when there’s too much noise coming from outside.

I do write the more I write.
I don’t write when I get out of the habit – frighteningly easy to do.

I do write when I can sit still in public places. Libraries are good for me.
I don’t write when I’m on the move and worrying about tickets etc.

I do write when I’ve had some kind of physical exercise. Fast walking is best.
I don’t write when I’ve done nothing but sit all day and am feeling blurgh.

I do write when I’m writing something I’d like to read myself.
I don’t write when I can’t think myself into a character.

I do write when I have time to meditate.
I don’t write when my mind is rushing around with lists of things-to-do.

I do write when I have space to potter before I get down to it.
I don’t write when I only have half an hour to get on with it.

I do write when I’m happy.
I don’t write when I’m angry.

I do write if I have chocolate to nibble on.
I don’t write when I’ve gobbled too much chocolate.

I do write when I have a view to stare out at.
I don’t write when I’m sitting too close to a wall.

I do write after I’ve been reading authors who inspire me. Current favourites are Lydia Davis and Marilyn Hacker.
I don’t write when I don’t have a good book on the go.

I do write after I fill myself with interesting facts about things that inspire me. Anything to do with public spaces and gardens at the moment.
I don’t write when I slip into hermit-mode and I’ve forgotten to go out and talk to people or look at things.

I do write after I’ve been to see live bands – or even watch their videos.
I don’t write after an evening slobbing on the sofa.

I do write after I’ve been to see an inspiring exhibition.
I don’t write after a day trailing my daughter round her shops.

I do write after I’ve been teaching.
I don’t write after I’ve read too many student essays.

I do write after I’ve been looking at blogs like Susannah's or BB’s
I don’t write after I’ve been stuck too long on the internet, losing yet another game of Facebook scramble.

I do write when I can slot random things together and make a whole.
I don’t write when I get too clever and distance myself from the centre of the piece I’m working on.

I do write after I’ve spent some time with creative friends
I don’t write after I feel I’ve wasted too much time doing things I don’t want to do.

I do write after some time taking photographs and thinking about framing things.
I don’t write when I get too much of other people’s visions and can’t catch sight of mine any more.

I do write when I have someone I can talk to safely about what I’m writing about.
I don’t write when I’ve spent too long keeping my work close to my chest.

I do write when I let myself go and have fun.
I don’t write when I’m too self-conscious.

I do write after going to poetry readings.
I don’t write when I’m nervous about having to do a reading myself.

I do write after a nice glass of wine.
I don’t write after a nice bottle of wine.

I do write after I can dance round my writing studio before sitting down.
I don’t write after I can’t remember why anyone would ever want to dance.

I was surprised how much fun it was to write these, but also how many of the 'Don't's' (phew, what a lot of apostrophes, is that right? Any grammar geeks around?) I slip into far too often. It's almost as if I'm sabotaging myself sometimes. So now I'm off to an exhibition and a fast walk, nibbling chocolate as I listen to music on my ipod. If anyone else wants to make a list of things that make them write - or not - I'd love to see it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bits and Bobs ... and showers

I've just finalised yesterday the details of a writing weekend I'm going to be facilitating in France this October (16th - 19th). It's privately organised, and the second year running I've been asked to do this. Last year was such a wonderful, fun experience that I still find myself smiling at some of the things we wrote, said and thought about. So I'm delighted to find many of the participants are coming back for more. However, there are still places so if you think you might want to find out some details, do email me and I'll forward you the name of the organiser. My main memories from last year is someone saying that at any time over the weekend you could hear laughter coming from somewhere in the building, heated debates over whether you should dry between your toes or not, and dissecting the personalities of people who wear matching underwear. Also of us all just lying out on the grass after supper and watching the stars. One night I saw three shooting stars. All those wishes...

And speaking of which, here is my horoscope for today:

If you spotted something in a craft shop or art studio, dear Virgo, that you would really like to buy, but can't afford - consider making it. Even if you don't think you are particularly artistic, you may surprise yourself if you give a project half a chance. There are numerous web sites that cater to novice crafters that can give you the support and instructions you need. Don't dismiss your ability. Explore this avenue, and see about finding a creative niche for yourself.

So here's the object I'm lusting after most at the moment:

Now of course us 'dear Virgos' can turn our hand at most things (particularly if it involves alphabeticising and criticising) but this might be a wish too far. Sam Winston is safe in his 'creative niche' for a little while, I think. And quite right. These are objects of art that make me want to cry out with excitement. Seriously, just how beautiful are they?

But hmmm, crying... have I talked about my knitting recently? No. Thought not. Six months after starting, I have finished ONE sock. A friend very diplomatically pointed out the holes are in just the right place for ventilation. Anyone know a sweaty hopping-type person who isn't very fussy?

And lastly, I'm not the first to say that the good thing about poets is that they make you see things differently. The strange thing is when it's your own home. This week I had the pleasure of having John Fuller to stay after his reading in Tunbridge Wells. He made me laugh out loud when I read in his email after: "Your shower is like a Roman tomb made over for a Parisian night-club." I went rushing up to look at my shower, and do you know what? He's right. However, he did also write: "And your dog is the sweetest dog I have met for a long time." Which I could have told him already.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Making it worthwhile...again!

My sister's just sent me this photograph of the plaque at the Bristol Cancer Centre where she does some work as a complimentary therapist.

The pain, the blisters, the sleeplessness have long faded now, but even if they hadn't seeing this would have reminded me what it was all about.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

There was an article in yesterday's Guardian that I thought for a long time must have been a joke. But it wasn't April 1st, it wasn't in the science fiction book review column, and when I checked the website - - it seems geniune enough.

The premise of the website is that - for only $40 a year - when 'rapture takes place' on earth (ie the second coming of Jesus) it will fire off emails to friends and relatives of subscribers letting them know that they have been, ahem, 'left behind'.

Because, according to the website, if the second coming of Jesus happens 'there will be as small window of time where they (non-believers) might be reached for the kingdom of God.' Therefore the money will go towards allowing subscribers the chance to write personal messages useful to those who remain on earth and which might possible allow them to be 'raptured' also. (Now I never knew that was a verb. A bit like workshopped, I guess.)

But all well and good, it's up to everybody how they spend their money. What worries me is the website seems to be set on automatic pilot in how it sends out the emails - apparently the team of Christians who run it must log on every day to indicate that the rapture has not yet taken place. 'If enough of them fail to log in, however, the system assumes that the second coming is nigh and sends out messages from all its subscribers,' the Guardian report reads.

Feels like a potential recipe for a full-scale panic to me. And maybe a little ya-boo-sucks for those of us who don't pick up our emails until too late and are left behind, all lonely and unraptured.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Writing names...

Because I'm obsessing about names at the moment, I invited the talented Tania Hershman on my blog to talk about how she names her characters.

As well as editing The Short Review, Tania's got her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories, coming out this year from Salt Publishing. I hope to have more about that nearer the publication date, but in the meantime here's what she says about the naming process:

During my MA in Creative Writing, as I was preparing the short story collection which would be my final manuscript, my tutor suggested I change one of the character's names. I had called her "Mags" and this reminded my tutor of the film Fargo. She suggested "Maggie". Not wanting to lose marks "just" because of a name, I changed it. And suddenly, Mags was gone. Mags, whose voice I had heard so strongly, whose story had moved me, had vanished with her name. Maggie? Someone else.

From this I learned that I wasn't choosing my character's names. They came with their name. Wrong name, different character. Or: wrong name, and the voice in my head is gone. As soon as I graduated, I changed her name back, and there was Mags, waiting for me, hands on hips, amused.

Is "naming" a character akin to naming a child? This is not something I have done, but most friends who have always had a name lined up in advance. Would it fit when the baby arrived, I wondered? Or were they somehow already connected to that magical process whereby - in the same way that Mags introduced herself to me – they weren't actually choosing the right name, although they thought they were, they were just hearing the right name.

Last year I was commissioned to write a short story for BBC Radio 4 during a week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the of Sputnik launch. Much to my astonishment, Mary Margaret appeared. Mary Margaret, a sixteen-year-old Irish girl in 1957. The minute I heard her name, there she was, fully-formed. She has that effect on others, too. Members of my writing group who read the many drafts loved her, loved her name (except for one person who, because of her name, assumed she was a nun!). Everything was present in those two names together: her Irishness, her innocence, the time she lived in. Mary Margaret could never have been called anything else. Just as her friend, Sylvie, could never be Sylvia. Nope.

Mary Margaret has stayed with me, she is now the main character in several more stories. She is not really a character to me, she's Mary Margaret, as real as she could be. When I saw the film Stranger than Fiction, I was deeply moved. That's how I feel; Mary Margaret is right there, I can almost touch her.

In a second story, Mary Margaret herself wants to change her name, wants to drop "Mary" because of what it connotes for her. And although she might do this when she introduces herself to others, in her head she is still, and always will be, Mary Margaret. There are the names we choose for ourselves and then there are those essential, ineffable singular names, to paraphrase T S Eliot, that nobody can alter.

I find so much about what Tania says fascinating, particularly how she felt she lost a character when someone outside (her tutor) changed the name. Anyone else had this experience?

It's Smokelong's birthday!

Here's what they say...

The fifth anniversary issue of SmokeLong Quarterly is live! A special double-size issue, it features fiction by Bob Arter, Matt Bell, Randall Brown, Blake Butler, Brian Allen Carr, Natascia Casey-Dean, Dave Clapper, Myfanwy Collins, John Colvin, Katrina Denza, Murray Dunlap, Ashley Farmer, Kathy Fish, Stefanie Freele, Scott Garson, Alicia Gifford, Natalie Goldberg, Rosanne Griffeth, Steven Gullion, Evelyn Hampton, Lindsay Hunter, W.P. Kinsella, Nance Knauer, Jeff Landon, Darby Larson, Ellen Meister, Corey Mesler, Mary Miller, Meg Pokrass, Bruce Holland Rogers, Jim Ruland, Paul Silverman, Claudia Smith, Amy Sparks, Kelly Spitzer, Maryanne Stahl, Thomas White, Joseph Young, Shellie Zacharia, Michelle Zellers, and Bonnie ZoBell.

Sounds worth a visit to me (even if the founding editor regularly humiliates me at facebook scramble so convincingly that I think I have lost all my word-loving credentials and probably have no hope of getting published by them!) - all those stories above can be found here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Exploring ...

One of the most important things about writing for me is the non-writing bit. I believe completely that the writer is the one who keeps in the chair, but it's still important to engage with the outside world sometimes. In her book, The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron talks about 'artist's dates', the dates you have with yourself and which help to 'fill the well'. Well, I had a little one-to-one with myself in London recently just mooching along some back streets. Then I came across this...

Apart from the ribbons, the gates look as if they just lead on to yet another builder's yard, but they are the site of the medieval burial ground, the Crossbones Graveyard where the 'Winchester Geese' or prostitutes from local brothels were buried. In his 1603 Survey of London, Stow writes:

'I have heard of ancient men, of good credit, report that these single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman's churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.'

Now they are a shrine, with votive lights, ribbons, cards and gifts to commemorate both the 15000 women buried there, but also for all 'women on the street' throughout the ages.

Apparently the graveyard was forgotten about for many years until it was dug up for an electricity sub-station and the remains discovered. A proposal to build some offices there was turned down and now there are plans to turn it into a memorial garden, It's clear that it's not forgotten any more, but it still didn't seem peaceful to me. It's not too fanciful to say I felt a really deep sadness I just couldn't logically explain.

When I got home, I looked up the meaning of pyscho geography and from that essay (see the link), mooched along to this one.

Now I want to write about the idea of an emotion getting stuck in a place. I've had the experience of walking into a building before and just needing to leave, equally some houses make me feel immediately relaxed. I can't explain why, and I hadn't thought about the potential that this might have for writing or indeed, town planning.

Other Names no 2 - CLARE

When I was a kid, I used to love Gilbert O'Sullivan's song, and be really envious of anyone called Clare. Truth was I wanted to marry Gilbert more than anything, but recently I heard it played on Radio One where they were incredulous about the lyrics and obviously thought Gilbert was the dirtiest old man ever. It's yet another thing I'm going to have to think again about - golly, it gets exhausting.

Anyway, Clare is - whichever way you interpret it - a beautiful name. It means famous apparently, which is appropriate because the very funny writer and blogger, Clare Sudbery is certainly going to be even more famous than she is already. I think she's inspirational in the way she makes things happen - not least blogging central, Bookarazzi. Anyway she wrote this about her name in the comments section and I liked it so much I'm copying it here:

There's not much to say about my name, except that it means clear, which I like because it's an anagram of Clare anyway, and it's not a bad thing for a name to mean. Caused no end of confusion when I was studying for French and German O levels and A levels, though.

"C'est clair?" my French teacher would say, and I, off in one of my daydreams, would leap to attention, saying "Yes miss?"

Or, "Erklaren sie mich," my German teacher would say, to similar effect.

Sheep say my name a lot, too. There's been a few times when I've been out walking in the wilds with my family, we've got separated, and I've become suddenly convinced that I can hear my dad or my sister lying bruised and bloody at the bottom of a cliff and shouting plaintively, "Claaaare!"

I could even say it myself when only a few days old. Apparently my parents hadn't decided between Clare and Alice, but then I got all upset, started crying, and demanded that they choose Clare. "Claaaaaare!" I cried.

But anyway. Regarding street signs. I have a "Clare Road" sign at the top of my stairs, just so you know whose steps you are climbing. The road itself is a few streets away, and I found its sign, detached, in the wrong place, just sitting there staring at me in the middle of the pavement. Well, I had to take it home with me. Didn't I?

(Note from Clare - Erklaren should have an umlaut on the A in the middle, and is pronounced "Air-Clare-un")

(And note from Sarah - the picture of the sign at the top of this post isn't Clare's but is stolen too - from here, a site well worth looking at.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Make your own camera obscura

Oh yes. Instructions here.

The Booker at the Movies

There's a series of films put on at the ICA in London this month which features films made from Booker nominated novels. The films will take place on Sunday afternoons and are followed by a Q and A discussion with those involved. The ICA say:
In total, 39 winning and shortlisted Booker books have been made into films or are currently in production; but does a good book necessarily make a good film or is something inevitably lost in translation?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why do it?

"Why should we all use our creative power...? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money." Brenda Ueland

Spreading the gossip...

I've been resisting doing it.

Not because it made me laugh, and my jokes often don't make other people laugh. I've noticed that.

But I can't any longer. Look. Here's the entrance to the last weeks prizegiving for the Orange Book prizes. And look who is bustling about on the red carpet...

It's none other than the fully clothed Gok Wan, star of How to Look Good Naked. After we'd seen that, my friend and I spent a happy hour discussing which of the Orange shortlisted authors was going to appear on the programme. Perhaps one of them would even pick up their prize, resplendent in their nakedness and capturing the kind of coverage not normally given to literary prizes. We imagined a scenario where it was a requirement of any literary success that you had to look good, be the type of larger than life reality tv personality everyone could relate to. Indeed, when to be a personality was perhaps more important than being a writer.

But by that stage, it didn't seem all that funny any more.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Other names No 1

Now, obviously it's taken for granted (on this blog at least) that Sarah is a special name. We're having our own party to celebrate ourselves after all, but in the spirit of generosity that makes us such princesses I'm going to start a feature for other names on this blog.

So first up, here's Catherine, which means pure. And here's one of my very favourite Catherines pointing out another not so lucky namesake...

Do let me know if you have any interesting stories about your name. I promise to be (quite) interested...

ps annoyingly on our expedition to Brick Lane, Catherine and I didn't find any Sarah streets (to be honest, I'm not sure if Catherine was looking all that hard) but anyway here's the nearest...

The Postman's Park

I've been exploring London's parks recently as part of my settling back into the capital, but also in preparation for the course in Garden History I'm starting in September. One of the most touching is the little square called "Postman's Park", which is tucked in between King Edward Street, Little Britain and Angel Street, near St Bartholomew's Hospital, to the north of St Paul's Cathedral.

If you've seen the film Closer you may remember a scene at the beginning when Natalie Portman and Jude Law visit a wall commemorating ordinary people who lost their lives trying to save others. Well, it's in this park. It was the idea of the painter G F Watts (1817-1904), and the hand-lettered tiles were made by Doulton. Apparently Watts disliked the upper classes, and wanted to celebrate people who would perhaps otherwise have been forgotten.

I want to try and find out more about the memorial because I'm interested in why it stopped. It feels as if there are still spaces that were waiting to be filled, but maybe it was always intended as a one-off and the gaps are symbolic?

But most of all you wonder about the stories given in every plaque, particularly when you see the wall of anonymous gravestones piled up right next to the plaques. Who most of these people were, we will never now know.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Off my bookshelf...

I've been lucky recently. For several months this year, I just couldn't seem to get into a book. I'd read half a short story here, and then a chapter there. It was as if I had reading attention deficit disorder. Mind you, then I was involved in writing a novel. It's the pattern to my reading/writing that still takes me by surprise every time.

Now I'm writing short stories, and I'm finding I can get absorbed in books again. So here are three good ones I've enjoyed over the last week:

Ben Okri's Starbook is just beautiful. It's about creativity and captivity and the importance of love and freedom. I don't always like fables so I thought I would be bored, but the language here is just perfect - is it wrong of me to hope that the self-help brigade don't get hold of it? Somehow this felt like a book I wanted to savour and make meanings of my own from - or even no meanings at all, just wrap myself up in the words. Here's a passage:

'When a people sense their own extinction what do they do? They either throw themselves into an orgy of distraction, or they try and resist the inevitable vision by deeds which make the feared thing happen, or they do nothing, as if they had sensed nothing; or they create, in a sublime fever of hope, magic works to divert disaster, or to perpetuate their memory, so that the earth will not forget that they once existed and were passionate under the sun.'

I'm a big fan of Kate Long, but now that I'm lucky enough to have got to know her as a friend, it drives me mad that I feel self-conscious about raving about her books. It's as if we'll be accused of cronyism, but to be honest I'm not sure how I would feel about developing a relationship with a writer whose work I hated. Most of my friendships with writers have, in fact, started through a deep admiration of their work so I'll shut up worrying and shout about Kate's latest novel now without embarrassment. The Daughter Game is, in my opinion, her best so far. It's full of complicated characters you like but still want to shake, good people doing bad things, and yet, somehow Kate manages to hold it all up in the air and leave me feeling satisfied. As an extra, it was like someone had lifted the lid of a school and let me see what actually happens inside. I loved it - this is the second time I've read it.

Hugh told me about this book, The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W E Bowman. He's just come back from the base camp at Everest and read it there, but he's annoying like that. I've been reading it in my Tunbridge Wells garden and still laughing just so much I cried at one point. It's a spoof of a mountaineering expedition and just so funny. The best thing of all is the bumbling expedition leader who is the first person narrator, and just doesn't realise what's going on around him. The author, W E Bowman, died with the book out of print, but it's since gone and been reprinted several times. There's even a Rum Doodle bar in Nepal apparently. The only thing I have to say against it is that in my edition Bill Bryson's name (he wrote the introduction) is larger than W E Bowman's. Still, I guess that's salesmanship for you...

On sneezing and shaking...

It's like a bad joke from a Sarah Salway novel (or would be if I ever wrote bad jokes, ahem) but I have developed hayfever and a sensitivity to pretty nearly everything this summer. In the meantime, Tally has developed a serious case of nerves. So when she comes near me, I sneeze. When I sneeze, she shakes, which makes me sneeze even more, which of course makes her keep on shaking. You get the picture. And then she won't leave me along because she's nervous.

So there we sit, the two of us, shaking and sneezing happily together - two merry English eccentrics. Although I am seriously considering this haircut for her as an option...

Sunday, June 08, 2008

In the Red...

I'm very happy to see an extract from my latest story, Dictionary of Death Dreams*, up on the In the Red website here.

The website is great, as befits anything coming out of the City of Culture this year, but so is the magazine. The editors Alysa Thomas and Hannah Todd, (who are creative writing students at Liverpool John Moores University) have done a brilliant job, with over forty different authors contributing - some well known (Dave Eggers, yep, Dave Eggers!) and others who will definitely be future literary stars.

You can buy it from the website, or from ebay (I think). Here are some story/poem titles to whet your appetite... 'Einstein couldn't Tie his Shoelaces' (Paul Campbell), or 'The Man with the Strongest Face in the World' (Clare Kirwan) or, hang on, can this be right... 'The Pretentious Woman Poet'. You're a brave man, Mr Doherty. I have to say your poem made me laugh (and shudder just a little)!...

*The full version of Dictionary of Death Dreams (which is an extract too, confused?) will be in the print edition of Monkeybicycle, due out in September.

The worst thing about having teenagers is ...

... no, not this inside our front door....

... or even this in the shower....

...but the fact that they get old enough to go off on holiday together and leave you.

The house feels very empty - and to think I spent a decade wishing for some peace and quiet.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Burning the house down....

Apart from my free cupcakes, another good reason to go to New York now would be to see David Bryne's Playing the Building.

Using a revamped antique pedal organ, Byrne has transformed the empty Battery Maritime Building into a musical instrument that visitors can play.

The "Playing the Building" art installation centers on the organ, which sprouts colorful tubes that lead to metal beams, columns, pipes, electrical conduits and other elements of the building. Pressing a key triggers different sounds throughout, such as clanking hammers on pipes or a motor vibrating against ceiling beams.

I have been listening to the sound clips continually, threatening my old house that I might go around banging on its walls with hammers soon too, not least because I waannnttt to be in New York and hey, I'm Princess Sarah. I stomp my foot and hit ceiling beams if I don't get what I want...

In his journal, David Bryne says that one of his pleasures in this exhibit is that the building, The Battery Maritime Building, isn't normally open. I think there's always a pleasure in snooping where we're not allowed. It's one of the reasons I'm so much looking forward to my day tomorrow in London going round all the squares and gardens not usually open to the oiks like me. On the moonwalk we saw so many green spaces - it's one of the things you forget about London - and now I'm going with the same team to try to find some of the places we thought we would have liked to have stopped and sat in. And this time we're going to take it a bit easier - not least because we'll be fully dressed!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Free cupcakes...

I have delegated one of my 'give away' days to David Horvitz because he has a really really good website on which he is selling many things you didn't know you wanted until you see them offered.

I bought him giving away the cupcakes above. Apparently people enjoyed them a lot. This is what he says on his website about it:

Sarah Salway purchased the giving away of cupcakes from Sugar Sweet and Sunshine on June 4, 2008 from 2:49 - 2:58pm. The first was given away to a man selling flowers on Ave A, and the last were given away to people in Thompson Square Park.

Not all of the things David's selling involve icing and sweet things. You can buy a picture of the sky, or an envelope filled with a star sand from a small Okinawan island called Taketomi, which David will visit for you.

The world needs more strangeness like this, that's for sure.

(ps - I googled the Sugar Sweet and Sunshine bakery and think it's this one here in New York. For a thousand pounds I will visit it for you and eat every single one of those cupcakes on their website. Yum. Even the pistacho ones.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Where were you last night?

I like this story so much I don't care if it's true or not (or that it doesn't - as far as I know - contain any Sarahs). But it's about a concert where the guest conductor didn't show up. Just before they were supposed to start, someone remembered that one of the violinists had conducted the work at college, so he was seized and put on the rostrum. Despite everything the concert went well, but the next night when he took his place back with the other violinists, the guy next to him asked, 'So where were you last night?'

Ten Things About Being Sarah

Only ten, I hear you cry. And no, despite what my kids say I am not TOTALLY obsessed with this party. However I have written a little list and although I hardly ever, in fact never, put my work up here, I'm going to make an exception this time. (Btw, Sarah C - are you going?)

Ten things about being Sarah

1. Once at the start of a writing group we were asked to tell a story about our names. I told everyone that Sarah meant Princess. ‘That’s so appropriate,’ they all said straight away. I secretly think of myself as modest and humble so I was a little shocked, but when I’ve told other Sarahs this story, they’ve received the same reaction. It seems we can’t always hide the princessy bit.

2. My uncle made a speech at my wedding. ‘Sarah,’ he said, ‘is harass backwards, and she has certainly always been very good at that.’

3. For a while I called myself Sarah-Jane to seem more interesting. Once when I was being chatted up by a stranger on a train, I told him this. I didn’t think of it as something funny but he started laughing so much that he slapped his thigh too hard and got worried he might have given himself a bruise. Luckily, I was able to get off at the next station.

4. Sarah, Sarha, Sahra… how hard is it to spell? Once, after three attempts over the telephone, the man on the other end told me crossly that it would be easier if I’d been called ‘banana.’

5. Ever since that wedding speech, I can’t stop thinking about ‘hairy ass’. Princess, I whisper to myself at these times. Princess, princess.

6. When my children were little, I told them that Bob Dylan had written his song, Sarah, just for me. After that, my daughter kept asking for me to play it in the car. I didn’t feel guilty until she told me that one day she wanted to find someone who would love her as much as Bob must have loved me.

7. French people find it hard to say Sarah. ‘Zhere are..’ they keep telling me and I am still waiting to hear what they are going to say next when I realise they are not just halfway through a sentence but are saying my name. For this reason, Sarahs can often appear suspicious in France. It is as if we can’t always remember what we are calling ourselves today.

8. People are often disappointed when they meet me. They tell me they expect Sarahs to be small, bubbly and blonde, but most Sarahs I have met are dark like me. Dark, brooding and a teeny bit princessy.

9. Sarahs don’t always respond to their name in crowds. There are too many of us. We tend to look a bit wary when someone shouts ‘Sarah’ as if we will be caught out pretending to be popular if we respond. A Mercedes or a Camilla, on the other hand, feels free to yahoo wildly back at even the whiff of a ‘Merc…’ or a ‘Cam..’.

10. Once when I went into a school to teach creative writing, I spent too long with a small Sarah. She had called the heroine in her story Sarah. ‘Is it about you?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, frowning at me very fiercely. ‘What on earth makes you think that?’ I told her I didn’t know. ‘It’s because it’s the nicest name,’ she whispered to me then, and she put her hand in mine under the table to let me know that this was our little secret.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bad habits....

I suppose there's a case to be made that my book buying habit is at addiction point, which is probably one of the points being made with these little cigarette packet books from Tankbooks, strapline 'Tales to take your breath away'.

They are readable - just - inside, which was my concern but I'm not sure I will be fingering my Tolstoy too much. It's joined my Cabinet of Curiosities along with, among other things, a soft cuddly penguin that farts when you press its foot and the lipstick pen Caroline gave me. Come to think of it, neither of those objects are exactly what they seem either...

This is such a neat idea though. I love it. Now, I'm going to have to resist buying the whole set.

Monday, June 02, 2008

On worshipping and serving Sarah...

See I always knew we were special. And now it seems we're going to have a special Sarah party all of our own. I can't tell you how happy this has made me. Any other Sarah's around who want to join me?


I woke up this morning to the news that Yves Saint Laurent has died in Paris, aged 71. My first thought is entirely and shockingly selfish. Now I'm never going to get to be his muse - something I've been counting on definitely happening one day soon, every day since I went to fashion college and really learnt the mysteries of the cut. I knew he was the only person who would see past my fen-peasant bones, and turn me into the waif-like Loulou de la Falaise, because, tell the truth, I was more in love with her than anyone else. I used to walk down the streets in London dressed as a scruffy semi-punk, but imagining myself as the completely opposite Loulou - tossing my tasty but bold necklaces over one shoulder and jutting my own (well covered) hip bone out. All it would take was for me to turn the corner, bump into Yves Saint Laurent, possibly spill my orange juice over his perfect white shirt and the rest would be history. (Oh, come on - that scene was one of the main reasons we loved Notting Hill so much - who isn't waiting for something like that to happen to them? I've heard it best described as a 'plunk' - that little prickle when you see a secret of yours exposed on screen. Half exciting, but half a loss too because you know everyone else shares it now.)

Just recently there seems to have been a spate of deaths that shatter these dreams of mine, one by one. All the things I knew would happen one day. The people waiting round corners for me to bump into them. What surprises me though is that it has taken me so long to realise this is one reason why people read obituary columns. Not to read about the real lives, but to mourn their own now lost dreams. Darn it, now I will never get to turn the pages for ... be asked to be lab assistant to ... get a fan letter from ... Then we look round the debris left on the breakfast table and hoist ourselves back to reality...

Sunday, June 01, 2008

slowing down the writing...

Meet my new ring - large enough to be another member of the family. I've been craving something dramatic for a long time, and when I saw this one, it was love at first sight. What I hadn't expected was how different it would make me feel - not just the way I flounce it around like a star-struck fiancee but when I'm writing too. Everything has slowed down a little. It makes me more aware of how I'm making the letters, and reminds me how pleasurable the actual physical act of writing is - something it's all too easy to forget after a couple of hours at the keyboard.

I'll be painting my nails soon. I can tell this ring has plans. Big plans...