Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Book lies

Normally we lie about books boasting about those we've read when we haven't, but I have to confess about a little white lie earlier about not bringing any books with me to America.

I meant it at the time, but at the last minute I just couldn't do it. I pushed a collection of Lydia Davis's wonderfully anarchic stories into my case at home, and then at the airport, surrendered to David Sedaris's new book. (I shouldn't have done. I was bored with it after the first page and ended up leaving it behind.)

However, at Minneapolis I'm more than making up for any lack - Anne Carson, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Solnit etc etc etc. I know you can buy a lot of these authors in the UK, but I LOVE the feel and look of American books. There are some great bookshops here. (I'd like to show some photographs but my camera's broken - in one secondhand shop, I thought there was no one working there until I turned round one back shelf and found a man lying on a day bed, reading. He lazily waved a hand at me, and I thought, oh yay, Oscar Wilde lives. Later I asked him if he knew of a bank near here and he said he had no idea as he had never had much time for banks. Perfect. I'm imagining a velvet purse full of gold coins.) Anyway, I've packed my suitcase full of books and magazines and am now struggling to choose ones to read on the plane. I want to keep all of them close.

Perhaps best of all though are the literary and psychology magazines - Paris Review, Harpers, American Scientific Mind, Poets and Writers. I couldn't even wait until I was out of the shop to start reading, but had to go to the cafe to start flicking through them. I was in good company. At the next table there was a group of women in their twenties I started talking to. They each had a HUGE pile of magazines in front of them, and it turned out they were the Lazy Girls Magazine Club - Minneapolis Chapter. They meet once a month in the cafe, take a huge pile of magazines off the shelves and just read through them, sharing articles they find interesting. I like the cheek of it but I'm also a bit shocked - one of the joys of buying magazines for me is being the first person to read it, the sharpness of turning each page. And I know I couldn't resist my normal magazine reading habit which is tearing out the pages I find interesting or know I will want to read again.

Mind you, I tried this with Poets and Writers but ended up tearing the whole magazine out. Hmm. I think it's time to splash out on a subscription. At least I'd bought my own copy!

Fat Pigs

So there we were, basking in the reflected glory of Freight Train (see the post about three below) winning the fattest pig category in the Emsworth Village Show, when up pops this one. Pop being the operative word - someones inflated this pig, that's for sure. Hmmm...

And I'm trying to work out why fat pigs bring such satisfaction as opposed to, say, fat dogs - and no, I'm not talking about Tally here. But heavy vegetables are surely the best. Here's another from the Iowa State Fair (wish I could have taken this back in my hand luggage and entered it for our own allotment show. That would have made up for the humiliation of last time ...)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Meanwhile back in the graveyard

So it's Sarah, the necro-tourist* here with more gravestone excitements....

There must be something spooky about tending your husband's grave and seeing the spot left blank for you. There are several gravestones here too that have the names but only the birthdate. Presumably waiting for the final day to come. Reminds me of when I was still pregnant with Hugh and he was late, so people would ring up and try to hide their disappointment when they got the pregnant me and not the new mum me. Hurry up already! How we do like to draw a line under experiences, although I'd never thought it applied to life before.

But I like the gravestones with pictures on - not photographs which I always find too spooky to look at, but etchings like this. It seems to me they show a love for the countryside and their farming roots - although I'm wondering about the story behind how these people (above) ended up here. Mind you, I don't blame them for loving it. I like Iowa a lot and I've only been visiting a short time. It seems to me that not only is it beautiful (and not flat) but it's full of good people. Hardworking and painstaking and looking out for others. Funny too. I will become an Iowa bore next time people try to have an easy laugh about it.

I've left the circus now, and am in Minneapolis, of which more later. I haven't written much about the circus in particular because it's all on the Tiny Circus blog. It's a great project - I can't wait to see the finished films.

Before I left I made shepherds pie in a saucepan. And here's my stupid mistake - I was surprised to see Heinz tomato ketchup on sale. It's been so much part of my eating life that I automatically assumed it was a British thing. Duh.

And I said goodbye to the squirrel babies - they were already climbing out of their nest before I left, although their eyes hadn't opened. It'll be good to think of them running around in the Ferguson garden soon. I wonder if their mother will find them?

*Just in case anyone is really worried, I used to walk through the graveyard to get to this particular bench every morning to write.

How beautiful is this spot? And perfectly quiet too. It was only spoilt once when a woman with a HUGE dog started throwing sticks into the lake right next to me. She was shouting 'Go on fat boy, go get it.' Time after time after time. I guess that bench was her spot too so we were having a weird bench face-off, but I sat still until fat boy got bored of stick chasing and I got the tranquility back. Hah, that'll show them. Writers 1, Fat boy 0.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Just to prove ...

I'm not spending all my time here in the graveyard, here's a record of my first ever visit to Walmart.

Rows and rows of everything you never knew you needed.

But here in Grinnell, it was an official Happy Day.

This is a NICE town. It has a great coffee shop too, and the university is endowed by the person who invented the microchip (I'm too lazy right now to look up his name) so it apparently is one of the richest in the country. The students are just coming back now. It's strange how there are whole chunks of America you would never normally get to see because they aren't on any tourist route.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Writing classes

I'm just putting together my programme of classes for the Autumn - planning on teaching one morning a week in Tunbridge Wells and one evening a fortnight in London, with three whole day classes.

I'm almost full already for both, but if you would like to come or need more information, please email me. If you have already and I haven't emailed back recently, I'm sorry but I lost a whole lot of addresses. Do contact me again.

Six feet under ...

So in the graveyard here, there's this tomb which looks a bit like a shed, except a grand shed. It was the benches that drew me to it first, made of marble with little plants all round. There's the family name and the list of people buried there on one side of the entrance, St Francis's poem on the other side. Everything looks totally normal...

Until you go round the back, and there's a satellite dish!

I just can't think what it's doing there. Maybe they were buried with a remote control so they could catch up on every episode of every sitcom they hadn't got round to watching. Or they're keeping a high-tech eye on living relatives. Or it's the only way they can get the grandkids to visit.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Squirrel news ...

The little ones are thriving. Here is the girl curled up in my hand...

And the boy doing some instinctive climbing on Holen's jumper!

Getting up early

About the only advantage of jet lag that I can see is early morning walks. I'm waking up about 5am, bright and ready to go. This morning was so fresh.

There's something about the pace of walking that suits me, particularly when it gives the chance to spot exciting foreign things, such as this letterbox. I'll never again laugh at the things tourists take pictures of at home, but isn't it beautiful?

And the walk took me through the cemetery. I know it's because of the hill but I loved how these graves were lined up ...

.. almost as if the inhabitants could admire the view.

Mind you, it was about the only view I could see around here that wasn't of a corn field!

And here's where I was heading. It was well worth the early start. I wish I could have taken a sound picture, the birds, the insects, the water lapping and nothing, nothing else! This is really a beautiful place.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

From one extreme to another...

Yesterday we went to the Iowa State Fair where - apart from the cow and olympic gymnast, Shawn Johnson, made from butter ...

... where we saw this 'Superbull' ...

... called of course Tiny, but weighing in at more than 3,000 lbs. It didn't stand when we were there, but I guess it can.

And also this super-boar, Freight Train ...

And meanwhile, back at the farm, there are these tiny things. Two squirrels that were rescued from a tree ...

and which are fed with puppy formula using a syringe, every two hours. They seem to be thriving.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Garden open day ...

Visit the virtual garden of blogger, VP, she's opening it for the charity, WaterAid. Great garden, great cause.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Something scary...

Just finished packing for Iowa, and - guess what - I am taking NO books to read with me. I feel as if I'm stepping off the high diving board.

This isn't because I can't think what to take, or haven't read anything good recently. The opposite. My pile for Italy was a treasure trove of good reading. Best was The Makioka Sisters. What a find. There was something bizarre about being in the middle of the Italian mountains and inhabiting old-style Japan. Because that's what this book felt like. I walked into the pages, and watched these four sisters go about their business. It's a masterful novel, not least in the way the eldest sister slips out of the story as her place in society slips, and also the power given to her by the passivity of the third sister. It was the first time I understood the power of the Japanese cherry blossom rituals too - the celebration of the fleeting moment.

I want to do reviews of all the books I read - I meant to do them before I left again - but I want to absorb them too. Normally I read one book after another, this is a chance to try something different. A slower approach. Also I'm going to make myself watch and make notes at the airport etc etc.

And so I'm off. Again. This is a working trip so I'll be blogging. If not here, then here. And in the meantime, don't get too frisky while I'm gone. At least remember ....

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My publishing myths

Last week I spoke to a group of writers as part of a course organised by Shaun Levin. The brief was to talk about being published, and I spoke about ten things I had thought were true before I signed my first contract and am now not so sure about. Here they are - I'd love to know other people's views or other myths they might have had about being published.

1. I will automatically LOVE my work now that someone else wants to publish it.

Hahahahahaha... the trouble is if you talk too much about how you'd like to win the lottery and therefore buy up every copy of your new book that's just about to be reviewed, published, etc etc so it can't be read by anyone, then unpublished people want to spit - rightly - in your face. No one who hasn't been through the publishing business can quite understand how panicky it can be. And the guilt of that strange sense of anti-climax too. On the whole I think it's better to be prepared for those moments of 'hey, this is shit' while proof reading. Luckily, there also comes a moment later onwhen you think 'actually this isn't so bad.' The problem is that dark night of the soul bit in between when you wonder just who you thought you were to imagine you could write a 'proper' book.

2. Once the book deal is signed, then I am a writer and my life will have changed.

This is what I thought. it was a bit of a shock to realise how much work I still had to do. Editing, and of course publicising as much as I could. And then of course you wake up the morning after the book is published and, what do you know, you're exactly the same person and the children are still waiting for breakfast. They don't care if it's served by a writer or not - hey, they're hungry and there's no one else to feed them.

3. Being a writer means I can be as scatty as I like, and therefore in no way a business person.

Hmmm... while not necessarily 'business people', many writers I respect are incredibly professional about their work. It's all we've got. There's also the need to promote ourselves and our books. Having been brought up on stories of hermit-like hard drinking writers, I was secretly a little bit disappointed to find that isn't really how it's done nowadays.

4. I am lucky to be published ....
and related to this .... It is impossible to be published.

I did think this. And of course I am. Butbutbut ... if publishers didn't have books, then they wouldn't have anything to publish.
And so it goes on.

5. Your editor is for life.

Oh, how I wish. I've had lovely editors who I felt real friendship and passion for but all have moved on. Luckily another lovely editor appears, but it's like first love. You hanker for the dream of happily ever after and, although you know it's the real world, you don't quite like the hardness that creeps in to the next relationships.

6. If an agent says she doesn't LOVE my work, then it is unpublishable.

More than anything, you want an agent who LOVES your work. If she doesnt, you've had a lucky escape. Keep trying.

7. If an editor says she doesn't want my work, then it is unpublishable.

To be honest, I had thought this but then I edited a magazine and realised how much good work I had to turn down. Many stories could have been published in that issue, but I needed a mix of first-person, different styles etc.

8. I have written something everyone everyone will take as a work of fiction.

Yep, that's what I thought. Because it was. But I'll always remember an interview with Lynne Reid Banks, when she talked about how her friends quizzed her after about the baby she'd had. She was confused until she realised they were confusing her with the book. Now I'm prepared, and although it can be threatening, I've decided to be flattered that something I've written can feel so real.

9. The only way to be a writer is to get a book published by a big publisher.

Have I mentioned on this blog before I'm off to join the circus arts project. OK, just a few times, but if that's not being a writer, I don't know what is. And what's more, there's no publication involved. We get too tied in to publishing. What is it about writer that makes it so difficult to say we're writers? Why is it inevitable the next question will be 'so what have you published?'. When was the last time you quizzed an accountant about his tax returns? Surely the process of writing is what is more important? It's what makes us writers after all.

10. It is a nasty 'dog eat dog' world out there and all other writers are out to get other writers.

There's a strange myth that writers are competing constantly against each other. In fact, most are amazingly supportive - after writing my first novel, I knew I'd respect with total abandon anybody who managed to finish their manuscript right up to the last word, published or not. I've been gobsmacked by how more successful writers have helped me - with no benefit to themselves. It's made me determined to do the same. It seems to be the way it's done and hoorah for that.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Circus mania...

Just arrived in my inbox:

Call for Submissions!

We are now inviting submissions for our September Short Fuse. The theme is,

'Nights at the Circus'.

We'd like tales with an Angela Carteresque lavishness, but the theme can be interpreted as you wish, here's something to start you off:

Violet ink and purple prose, the Big Top lifetsyle - a menagerie of colourful characters, trapeze artistry, lion-taming, Freaks, Funambulists and the high wire, Trick Ponies, travelling 'artistes',
or time, cabaret, showgirls, showbusiness...
wit, charm, the grotesque, perhaps even a touch of the absurd.

The event will be on Thursday September 18th, at Komedia's Studio Bar, but the deadline for submissions is on the 8th September.

Please send stories of no more than 3000 words to
Please label the word file attachment with your name and the story title.

Happy Birthday Tally!

Thanks to all of you who have sent messages regarding Miss Tallulah. She's seems to be enjoying a new lease of life at the moment, helped by recent birthday celebrations:

She was very gracious as she looked at the chocolate cake enjoyed by all her humans (she had doggy treats and, ok, a few crumbs):

Here's the old girl now. She'll be getting a telegram from the Queen at this rate:

And can I remind you that talking to Tally in a silly voice is not really surprising from a woman whose parents made huge decisions depending on what our dog, Boots, thought. I kid you not - he would be posed the question, and as we all stood round waiting, would bark once for yes, twice for no. Oh yes, Boots's word was law in our house. Explains a lot on reflection!

Here are two writerly dog blogs - The Weirdie Beardie Chronicles and Monty, the dog owned by our own Kathryn Harriss also does prompts. And you thought I was mad.....


Of all wonderful things I could have inherited from my mother, it seems that getting the names of things wrong is going to be my legacy. It used to drive me absolutely spitting mad. I remember once having to leave a family party because, when, as a cool fashionista teenager I nearly shared a flat with Bob Geldof (I know, I know, lucky escape), my mum was going round telling people that 'Sarah's going to flat-share with Bill Goldof.' I kid you not.

Anyway, I try and I try and I try and I just can't get these things right anymore either. So when my son got a job working at Gourmet Burger Kitchen, I told everyone he was working at Burger King. He spent ages coaching me - 'it's G.B.K. mum. How hard can it be?' Very very hard.

But, hey, his lessons must have stuck somewhere. Now, as we cheer GO TEAM GB, GO TEAM GB we're all as synchronised as the divers in our house. Or nearly all of us are.

There's one lone voice chanting for GO TEAM GBK.

The judges are not pleased.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Vote now!

Oh this is so cool. Alice Barnard, the very very talented 17-year-old daughter of my friend, Gaye Jee has made a video cover version of 'Five Years Time', which has gone into the top five of the Sun newspaper's Vote the Video competition. Obviously I'm a little bit biaised but I still think it should be number one. Watch it and see what you think - it made me smile so much. And if you like it all you have to do is to text 'VTV 101144' to '66633'

And if that link above didn't work, there's another to see the video: here

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Alpine vegetable gardens

Just feast your eyes on these beauties. And whoever said that vegetables couldn't be as lovely as flowerbeds. I was so excited to see vegetable patches everywhere - we need more of that in this country. They were a joy to see...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

More at the Circus

I was going to put up some of my Alpine vegetable gardens today (please please I hear you beg. No, I say firmly, stamping my foot. Sometimes you lot need to know who is boss.) Plus I had a a nice surprise last night that I want to share with you.

As I've said before, I'm spending some time this Summer in Iowa at an arts project, The Tiny Circus. Although not a circus in the animal training, human acrobat sense of the word, the whole thing still has the same air of childish excitement for me. Ever since I first agreed to go, I've woken up every morning thinking 'god, I'm so lucky to be involved.' It's like I've been given a great big unexpected present.

But that's not my surprise - it's that the publisher of my short stories, Bluechrome have put up a post about the circus today, offering to contribute £4 to the circus funds for every copy of Leading the Dance they sell.

It's so generous I'm forgiving Anthony the quips about my mid-life crisis - after all, he is talking about the woman who has just bicycled down a mountain. Ok, ok, I was hunched over in total terror the whole time and my hands had to be prised off the brakes afterwards, but I still DID IT. Beats my normal daring deed of choosing a different pastry at Carluccios any day.

But first of all, a little circus history about my involvement, which is really much less than I've been credited for. When I was a fellow at vcca last January, one of the other fellows there was Carlos Ferguson, an amazing artist. Despite him creating a scene of me being eaten by lions (worryingly captioned as Dying - Sarah - Very painful)...:

...I still agreed like a shot to join in the arts project he planned for the Summer. Carlos has done up one vintage airstream trailer already, and had a vision of a troop of mini airstreams touring the country putting on shows:

It started off as a collaborative project right from the start. I particularly liked the aims he set out at the beginning:

My aim in general is to create artwork that is free, anonymous, and generous. This might be accomplished by speaking clearly to an audience with goals in mind: to create joy and thought, to entertain, to communicate and share.

I would like to move outside of my own focus on myself and my own work. When I have worked with other artists I have found the collaboration to be transporting, exciting, and inspiring, and a terrific antidote to never-ending questions and doubts about what is important and right in my own artwork. With this in mind, I would like to facilitate and participate in a larger scale collaboration.

To begin with, it felt safe to dream but then, very quickly, it has all become real. There are already a bunch of talented artists based at the circus farm in Iowa working on the first projects and living in tent city:

This is an amazing opportunity for me, but an interesting one too. Because I've been looking and looking at the first video produced on the History of Rain and wondering about the role of text. Coming after the pictures, it seems to me it could work too heavily as the frame for the images, to change the whole feeling of the piece, almost the da-da-da of the horror movie music that tells the viewer how to think. Usually I aim to create pictures with my words, to make people see the things I'm describing so they forget me, the author, completely, and enter the story themselves. There's a quote in Women who Run with Wolves that I really like - If a story is seed, then we are its soil. But it seems to me every time I look at this video, that the seed has flowered already. I've tried various options - fairytale, comic, silent movie drama, end of the world - and I still can't get the balance right between the story the video tells and my words.


It's probably one of the most interesting projects I've been involved in. I keep going back to the original thoughts of the circus that attracted me most -"I would like to move outside the focus of my own work." It brings me back to the need to lose the inhibitions of self-consciousness in my writing process. Because if I'm honest, I am worrying about getting it right at the moment so the others will like it (and possibly me). I don't want to spoil the collaboration I'm only on the outside of at the moment. It feels a bit lonely, and that's something I have to get over too. A puzzle I'm determined to get to the bottom of. It can only be good for me because I NEED to stop worrying about everything. When I actually lose myself in my writing, I can feel all these worries lift. It's magic. It's the hot air balloon feeling that keeps me hurtling back to the page. Self consciousness is just too much of a straitjacket. I'm tired of being scared.

And I'm also trying hard not to think too much about the next one. A History of Popcorn. Hmmm. Don't worry, when I get there the Brits will have a say - A History of Marmite after all is probably one of the most fascinating stories that hasn't yet been told.

So, that's the circus. And I'll be there in just over a week. Another mountain to climb and then to speed down, I'm sure I'll be screaming at least part of the way. Do read the blog and watch the progress - this is an amazing project. If you want to buy my book and contribute that way I'll do a little juggling act especially for you. Or at least sign it for you if you send it to me. Email me.

And we do have an animal too. Meet Marigold, the circus pig. I'm not sure what tricks she can do yet, but I've been growing my fingernails specially for scratching...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Hurrah, hurrah..

Some brilliant news to come back to - my friend, Catherine Smith, is on the Forward Prize Shortlist for her stunning collection Lip, and now I've only got until October to learn how to type with all fingers crossed for her.


If anyone had told me just how many woodpiles there were in the Dolomites and how beautiful they were, I would have been there years earlier. But anyway, forgot those old mountains and feast your eyes on these amazingly splendid piles:

They are even the focus of pin-up posters. Can't bear to leave it at home? Take it with you:

And... oh, I do hate this. When the people you're on holiday with start demanding you stop taking pictures of what matters and concentrate on them instead. But I think just behind Rachael, you can spot some very beautiful wood:

What amazed me was that not only were the piles organised round windows, as a second layer of insulation, and in terms of size, but this one even seemed to be colour-coordinated like a painting (the bench is an extra present to you all):

And if you have no space? Don't worry, climb. After all, these are mountain people:

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I'm back!

Did you miss me?

Sightings of shopping trolleys being taken up the Dolomites were unfortunately few and far between, but some very successful spottings of benches, woodpiles and vegetable gardens. More to come later ...