Sunday, July 29, 2007

The best view in England

So this is where I'm off to next week. The Hurst is the former home of playwright, John Osborne, who called the view down to the Clun Valley 'the best view in England’. Now, it's one of the four Arvon centres in Britain, and we're going to spend the week looking at short stories in particular. There is a full house of students so I'm guessing there won't be much time for admiring the view, but in the meantime I'm enjoying the perfect 'glimpses' in the stories of my fellow tutor, Jean McNeil. I'll be back in a week.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Fact

Now, I read a fact like this and I automatically want to prove it wrong, but I've been trying all morning and I can't find another word that'll do. Hmm. Anyway, apparently, ALMOST is the longest commonly used word in the English language with all the letters in alphabetical order.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

How to kiss

Kissing, cakes, good books - never say I'm not good to you....

And sunny kissing is my writing prompt for today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The art of editing

Wonderful piece about what an editor does and why we need them here.

Good Game!

Japanese Tetris - Watch more free videos

Have watched this far too many times than is good for me - why don't they all do what that clever one did, just make themselves really small and dive through? Oh how much I'd love a go at this.

Thanks to womagwriter for the link.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Who likes this rain?

From theWooster Collective website (and found via the ever inspiring BB-blog)

Fleeting Passions

God, how much I love the short story. Even spending a whole day talking about them, and having them analysed by academics, surely the ultimate of all passion killers, isn't enough to stem my obsession. Instead, I left Saturday's conference with a clutch of story ideas, books to try and notes I've been chuckling over ever since. Some of my scribbles seem like post-modernist story ideas in themselves. What did I mean exactly by 'Cooking pot - ideas in body?' or 'don't think and then finish it'? I'm sure it made perfect sense at the time. Luckily, I did also come away with some solid questions to ponder. Alan Wall, my fellow reader and hero of the key, posed the idea that the difference between an oral tale and a written story is that the story contained two worlds that bumped into each other, while a tale is dependent on a unified world where everyone involved understood the signifiers. You could tell a tale easily because of its simplicity, while a story had to be read in order to be understood. This led to some good discussion in the coffee breaks.

In her paper, Dr Paola Trimarco, of the Open University, looked interestingly at how the reader fills in the gaps in flash fiction. One example of hers was Graham Swift's six word story -
Funeral followed honeymoon. He was 90.
As she expected we would, we all laughed when she read it out, but our assumption that it was funny was based on the fact that the funeral followed swiftly after the honeymoon - all honeymoons will be followed by funerals of course, but hopefully years apart. Also that the 90 year old was the groom, and that the bride was young. And that it was the over-enthusiastic sex that had killed the groom. She was right, of course, and looking again at the story, it's clear that the author is expecting us to do a lot of assuming, otherwise the story is meaningless. It's made me want to try to write a story using parallel narratives of both the given statements and the story about the gaps.

And my third aha moment came with Phil Nichols from the University of Wolverhampton who presented on the adaptations of Ray Bradbury's short stories. One of the reasons Phil gave as to why these short stories had been translated into stage and film quite so often was that (as so often in SF) the landscape is the hero, and by foregrounding the landscape it could be adjusted to different forms. Again, I kept thinking about a story just using landscape - could you write one without people at all? Has it been done?

I had a great train journey home reading Dave Evans Portrait of a Playboy and other stories, a collection that ought to be much better known than it is, but as always with these conferences, there were plenty of papers I would have liked to have gone to, but just couldn't fit in. I'm still cross at missing 'Writing Gothic Fiction', because it was definitely calling me, but I compensated this morning by ordering two recommended collections, Karen Russell's St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Kelly Link's strange looking Magic For Beginners.

And, joy of joys, this morning, Philip O'Ceallaigh's Notes from A Turkish Whorehouse arrived. I wish I could remember who recommended this to thank them, because although I've just dipped in so far, it looks brilliant. A positive short story orgy ahead.

Harold's Planet makes me happy

I know I've written about them before but getting a weekly cartoon into my inbox from Harold's Planet is one of my HOORAY moments of the week. And now I've just found out they've got an exhibition coming up in London, at the Dray Walk Gallery, Old Truman's Brewery, 13-16th September (which conveniently happens to be around my birthday. Are you listening, F?) In the meantime, the artwork is being showcased here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Literature in Translation

A discussion on Literature in Translation with Robert Chandler, Daniel Hahn, and Amanda Hopkinson will take place on Thursday, 26th July at 7 pm. The venue is Waterstone's, 68-69 Hampstead High Street, London NW3 1QP. Tickets cost £3 and are available in person or on 020 7794 1098.

Robert Chandler is one of the foremost translators of Russian literature at work today. He has translated Pushkin, Vasily Grossman, Andrei Platanov and others.

Daniel Hahn won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007 for his translation of Jose Eduardo Agualusa's The Book of Chameleons. He sits on the English PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee.

Amanda Hopkinson (Chair) is Director of BCLT, Chair of the Writers in Translation Committee and a translator of French, Spanish, and Portuguese into English. Her latest translation (co-translated with Nick Caistor) is of Rodolfo Fogwill's "Malvinas Requiem", just out with Serpent's Tail.

Out of The Tunnel

There's been a lot written about Rachel North recently, but even so that's probably not enough. I had heard her story before I read her memoir, 'Out of the Tunnel' - how she was raped and left for dead by a stranger who knocked on her door one night, and, two years later, she was one of the passengers on a 7/7 tube, only surviving because of the crush of other passengers around. And if that wasn't enough, she's recently been stalked through her blog and then, just when her book was finally being published and everything was looking good, her mother had a stroke. It's the kind of series of events that makes you want to hear just how someone could survive all that intact. Well, this book makes it clear how they do - Rachel's not just a victim, and doesn't want to be treated as one. She certainly doesn't want to be cynically used as one by people with ulterior motives. Reading this book made me think how easy it is to pigeonhole other people - ah, poor girl - and how dangerous that can be. It's the way Rachel is prepared to speak out, and really search through to the truth, that cuts through all that. The experiences she's been through seem to have made her more determined to help other people cope with their lives, and not in a sickly sweet way either. This woman can get angry, which just makes her all the more likeable and impressive. She really does care - and so should we. I get the feeling that Rachel sees information now as the most valuable thing she can offer, and she's a powerhouse of facts and thoughts - just take a look at her blog. In fact, that's what I liked most about this book - how it felt like Rachel wanted to share these experiences with me as reader even though it wasn't going to be easy and the responsibility I then had to listen. I found myself cringing in lots of bits, but I couldn't stop reading. You never forget Rachel's a real person, not just a photograph or a news report, and that's the most valuable lesson for me from this book. The joy in just being ordinary - in being able to wish someone an 'ordinary year', in having someone look at your battered face and seeing, not that, but the ordinary, old non-perfect 'you' underneath the bruises. And there's plenty of joy in here too - in fact, that's what I was left with, a feeling of pride and inspiration. A great book.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Reading tart

So, I'm off in the rain for my third reading of the week. This is definitely NOT normal for me. Three years ago, I would have rather gouged my eyes out than stand up in front of a group of strangers and read out something I'd written. In fact, my first reading was kept an absolute secret in case anyone I knew turned up, because I was so sure I was going to a) fall over b) burst out crying c) be heckled d) lose my ability to see (and therefore read) or e) realise that what I had written was absolute crap and not be able to carry on. But slowly, slowly, I grew to like it. And now I like it very much indeed.

I don't even hear all those voices from my childhood any more - Sarah Peplow, what are you doing showing off like that! Come and sit down and be a nice quiet girl! As if anyone wanted to hear what you have to say!

No siree, it's very difficult to get me out of the spotlight these days. I wasn't even embarrassed recently when I had to be asked to leave a recent seminar I was a guest reader at because they wanted to get on with the next bit and I had outstayed my welcome. If the host hadn't done that, I would have stayed talking all day.

So of course, at tomorrow's conference, I will stand up and a) fall over b) burst out crying c) be heckled d) lose my ability to see and e) realise.... you get the picture, but even so I don't think that will stop me aching for the next go! And I still get nervous too, but now I have certain people I can yelp at beforehand and who will always offer calm advice. My favourite text came as I was travelling by train to a reading recently - 'Tell yourself loudly and clearly: 'I am a Goddess', and then grab a large gin from the trolly'.

Seriously, I think the biggest change in my attitude towards readings came when I realised that actually what the audience wanted was to be entertained rather than to physically and mentally torture me. It wasn't supposed to be a painful ordeal. Going to see other writers helped a lot. Sharon Olds, in particular, is a fantastic reader, talking rather than pronouncing, and funny too. You feel you've spent some time with a real person, and a person who is enjoying herself too. This recording highlights everything that, to me, is good about a reading. The poem she reads about catching sight of her middle-aged rear view made me laugh so much (in a bitterly empathetic way!)

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How I Feel Right Now...

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

First lines...

Ooooh I love a quiz like this, and at least I came out 'Well Read' (if only just).

And perhaps reading more about the Jane Austen case where an academic and would-be writer sent off a lightly changed extract and received rejections left right and centre, it's not altogether surprising. After all, it was only recently that Jane Austen was considered 'too ugly' to have her likeness on the cover. I'm not laughing - alert readers of Tell Me Everything have pointed out my photograph's nowhere to be seen in that book either!

Poetry Thursday

Neil Gaiman reading 'Instructions'. Silly, but I like it.

And if you want more Poetry Thursdays, go to the original site and look through the comments to visit plenty of good blogs. Or you can click on this pretty button:

Paris Parfait is always one of my favourites - beautiful photographs too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What if...

..the human race was wiped out? How long would it take for our traces to disappear? According to this, fragments of radio and television broadcasts would be travelling outward forever, so although our physical presence dissolves, our voices will carry on. This is all from the Alan Weisman's website, author of The World Without Us. I can't stop watching the video of the house slowly falling down. Is it me or is it strangely calming?

The Star of the Show...

... at my reading yesterday was definitely the venue. The independent and charitably funded Bishopsgate Library is quite possibly the best place I've ever had the pleasure of reading in. As well as being a beautiful room, just look at that ceiling, it also hosts world famous collections on freethought, the labour movement and London. It felt a privilege to read in there, and with a great audience too. The questions thrown at Shaun and I varied from creating a 'realer world than the real world' in novel writing to thinking commercially in the writing process - and it ended up being the best possible discussion, one which certainly left me thinking until far too late for much sleep!

The library is open every day, although accesss to the collections needs to be arranged in advance. I really would recommend it - even if you're not normally in the area. It must be an inspiring place just to sit, read, work and write.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ella Minnow Pea

When Scott Pack first told me the idea behind Mark Dunn's book Ella Minnow Pea, I could feel myself go rigid with excitement.

The book's premise involves a statue of Nevin Nollop, the author of the sentence 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' on the small island of Nollop. Nothing much happens in Nollop, but then one day a Z falls off the sentence and the Island council decree that no one should use the letter Z as a result. The islanders see this a quaint decision to begin with, and even plan Z farewell parties, until reality hits. They are faced with a death sentence (appropriately!) if they ever use a Z in their spoken or written language. Then a Q falls off, and more and more letters are banned as they drop one by one off the sentence. Eventually - guess what - only L,M,N,O,P remain - Nevin Nollop lives on!

The book is billed as 'A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable', but what I love about it is that it's so much more than a great idea. I started reading it thinking it would be fun, but found it swiftly chilling. It's got one of the sweetest love stories in it - in fact two, and the book even becomes a thriller as the search for an alternative sentence develops. One page of the book is this simple decree:

G go tinite at mitnite. No more 'G'. So long 'G'.

I often worry I'm too geeky in how much I love wordplay, but this book makes me feel better. I can't believe I missed it first time round, but am so happy to have discovered it now. If nothing else for these alternative days of the week when 'D' drops off the sentence, and therefore out of the language:

"For Sunday, please use Sunshine
For Monday, please use Monty
For Tuesday, please use Toes
For Wednesday, please use Wetty
For THursday, please use Thurby
For Friday, please use Fribs
For Saturday, please use Satto-gatto.
Parents: you may wish to help your children absorb these new words by turning the process into a game of some sort, simple flash cards also constituting a tried and efficient course"

Have a good Toes today everyone....

Monday, July 16, 2007

Need a mummy?

When we were kids we used to always ask Mum whether it was a 'jacket or coat' day before we set off for school - we must have been convinced that among her magic powers, she knew what would happen with the weather. There have been plenty of times this Summer that I've missed that oracle, so nice to find this, possibly the most useful service I've come across on the internet. And comforting too - do try it with the sound on. It's fixed on Mexico City because that's where my teenage son is at the moment, and I can at least be prepared if he should ever email me and ask 'jacket or coat, Mum?'.

You're a little bit early, love!

Good practice dictates you should arrive at a reading about half an hour before, but here am I, reading and waiting at the Second Life centre more than TWENTY FOUR HOURS before the reading was due to start. I was petrified I wouldn't be able to get my avator to sit nicely (and in that short skirt too)! Anyway, my host, Adele Ward, kindly rescued me and took me off for a virtual jacuzzi, and I managed to calm down a bit. The show was fun, although it was slightly strange, actually extraordinarily strange, not to be able to see the audience's reaction. They seemed to enjoy it, and I quickly learnt to prod my avator every so often because even it fell asleep as I was reading at times! There are going to be weekly readings from other authors which I plan to attend at the same time and same place, The Joysco Stadium, Sunday 10pm (GMT), but in the meantime, thanks to Jonny Austin, everyone who came and most of all, Adele, for the experience! And if you weren't there, and want to catch my reading, it's here. I'm still cringing about the bit I said 'she threw her head over her shoulder' instead of 'hair', but hey, it's Second Life, anything goes!

And I'm wondering now how it will compare to this week's 'real life' reading. Certainly it will take a lot to beat the virtual champagne we shared after the event!

Friday, July 13, 2007


The latest edition of this brilliant on-line magazine is now up. I particularly enjoyed Nuala Ni Chonchuir's story, "To The World of Men, Welcome".

Exciting blogging stuff...

Press the Bookarazzi magic button at the side and you will be transported to a magic kingdom of clever bloggers, advice, fun, and Lucy Pepper's clever drawings. Go on, press it. You know you want to...

(And major thanks to Clare for doing all the hard work.)

Friday Fact

In Japan, apparently, a man's 60th birthday is commemorated with a special ceremony. He is given a red kimono, which denotes that he no longer has the responsibilities of being a mature adult.

(whereas in the UK he buys himself a red sports car at the age of 45 and calls it a mid-life crisis. Oooo, put those claws away, Salway.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Poetry Thursday

Foreign countries...

"Men like women who write. Even though they don't say so. A writer is a foreign country." Marguerite Duras

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

You Are Invited To A London Reading...

An Evening with Sarah Salway, Shaun Levin and other writers - Tuesday 17th July, 7pm
At the Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH

Sarah Salway's work has been called hilarious, heart-warming and darkly funny. She will be reading from her new novel, Tell Me Everything, and answering questions in this evening of literary delights and surprises. ‘I galloped through this - couldn’t stop once I started…spiky, sparky, pithy and deep’. (Kate Long, author of The Bad Mother’s Handbook.)

Shaun Levin, author of Seven Sweet Things and A Year of Two Summers, will also be reading from his work, alongside students from Bishopsgate Institute's creative writing workshops.

Tuesday 17 July

£5, concs £4; advance booking required - Call our ticket line on 020 7392 9220 between 9.30am - 5.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Starting as you mean to go on..

Let's start the week with some good news...

The lovely and wise Clare Grant is finally going to have her blog made into a book we can hold in our hands and admire. Far too good for a loo book, I say.

And because Clare is from Tunbridge Wells, and so am I, and so is Dan, who I sat next to at Live Earth (despite the fact he'd gone there specifically to get away from people from Tunbridge Wells), and because we had the Tour de France whizz through our town on Sunday, here is the proof that Tunbridge Wells can do it best...

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Eek, I'm not going to survive the zombies!!!!


Ok, 39% isn't very good, but looking at these questions, I'd be very very worried about anyone who did any better.

At last, at last....

I can hardly breathe from excitement. Just a couple of hours before I get to finally see my favourite boys...

And what do you mean, there are other people playing?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Friday Fact

Surprise, surprise, researchers have found that men talk just as much as women. What does interest me though is this quote:
The most talkative man in the study used 47,000 words while the least used a little more than 500 over a few days.
I am trying to think of what type of person could only use 500 words a day. I just have to write a story about him! Teaching in a university as I do, this admission made me laugh:
The researchers admit that their findings may not apply to all men as they only studied university students.
And the last word, aptly, goes to a relationship therapist, Paula Hill, who advises:
"The problem is not how much people talk or don't talk, the problem is how well people listen.

"If women listened more we might find men talked more than we thought, and if men listened they might find that women actually don't talk a lot of rubbish all the time. Some of what we say is actually valuable."

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Well, I have to admit it did pass me by, but luckily Alex was on hand to remind me that this is the first ever National Shed Week, and the photograph above is the winner of the unique category of the Readers Shed competition. Although to me it looks more like a temple, but this what the organisers said:
"Tony has done what most sheddies would love to do, turn their normal garden shed into a unique building that's not afraid to stand out from the usual shed crowd," says Uncle Wilco, head sheddie of
Oh, I so much want to be a sheddie...(but am taking some consolation in the fact I'm whipping Alex in Scott's Fantasy Tennis Tournament, shed or no shed. Hey, I never said I wasn't competitive.)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Inside an Oulipo Meeting

Readers of my work, especially Something Beginning With and Messages, probably won't be surprised to hear that I'm fascinated by the Oulipo Group.

A treat therefore to pick up the latest copy of Paris Review in the London Library, and find an interview with the only American member, Harry Mathews, and even more of a treat to get a description of just what goes on at the monthly Oulipo meetings. The first surprise was that, apparently, they have a 'very strict Agenda'.

First up is 'Creation', where a new method of experimentation is discussed, with descriptions and examples. Then comes 'Rumination', where possible creations 'not yet worked out' are examined. Then is 'Erudition', a conversation about works by writers not members. And lastly, 'Action, past and Future', which features Oulipion activities around the globe, and lastly, 'Small Talk'.

According to Mathews,
'We try to get through creation and rumination before drinking, because once we sit down to dinner things can get rather disorderly.'
But not, it seems, that disorderly, because
'Now we meet at six because Jacques Roubaud likes to go to bed early and Ian Monk has a train to catch.'

So now you know.

It's a brilliant interview; I was scribbling notes and quotes down from it like mad. How about this, which sums up perfectly how I feel about my writing but never quite crystallised it before:
'I've always said that my ideal reader would be someone who after finishing one of my novels would throw it out the window, presumably from an upper floor of an apartment building in New York, and by the time it had landed would be taking the elevator down to retrieve it.'
Or this, which is exactly what I'm going through at the moment:
'William Gaddis once said to me - that an unfinished novel is like having a sick guest in the house. I dream of the day when it'll be over'.

So here's to sick guests getting better and walking straight up the best seller lists (with bouncing rubber covers, of course, so they survive their fall from the top floor window).

I must admit to my own The Man Who ... Bateman" moment when I laughed out loud in the library at one snippet of the interview, which was the reaction of Mathew's publisher when he first saw him: 'He said, I didn't imagine you looked like that. I think he was expecting a gnome.'

And to finish with Mathew's own gnomic invention, the perverb - take two proverbs that can be divided easily into halves and cross them, eg A rolling stone leads to Rome, and All roads gather no moss.

And if you dare to ask what the point of it all is, this is what Mathews says:
'It's very liberating. It allows you to make up something that you never would have if you didn't have this nasty problem to solve.... as though you were wandering through a jungle and suddenly you come into a clearing that is a beautifully composed garden.'