Saturday, February 28, 2009

Snooping Sarah

Listeners never hear any good of themselves.

That's what my mum always used to tell me. Which is why I haven't signed up to Google Alerts, tempting though it might be to find out that the whole of the blogasphere is talking about me, me, me...

However, a friend passed me on this link about the Sarah party because it's got a mention of the piece I wrote for the occasion, here (and unlike the US Christian housewives site who sent me a link to the worse review of Tell Me Everything I've seen saying how they knew I'd just love to see it, I trusted my friend). It still felt like I was snooping, but I LOVE how the radio programme and subsequent publicity have treated the whole party in exactly the way it was intended, a bit of fun but also the chance to come together spontaneously and celebrate just being alive. What other excuse need there be for a party? Go go Sarah Pletts.

And then, because I'm nosey (nosy?), I investigated the 365 Ways blog a bit more, and my mum got it a bit wrong. See, listeners aren't always listening out for themselves. They're listening for new information, new routes to go down, new ways of thinking. And so, this blog has joined my top blogs I read regularly to make me think about being alive. They are ...

1. 365 Ways Blog. As well as celebrating Sarah-ness, it brings together all the initiatives you always suspected were going on but couldn't be bothered to find out (ok, I couldn't be bothered...) - Zero Rubbish Week, supporting insect life etc etc.

2. The Happiness Project. Greta sums up exactly one of the reasons I love America. She spent a year test-driving her own happiness project, and now she wants to help us set up our own. There's something very British in me that immediately responds with a flinch and a 'thank you very much, I'll think about it', but hey, why not be happy?

3. The Daily Mind. Subtitled Making the Daily Grind Meaningful, which isn't a bad description. I loved the recent post on how to tell your Meditation practice isn't working - this story made me laugh out loud because it felt so true ...

I once used to hang out at a little Buddhist Center in Australia and got to know the people there. One day I went out for lunch with a lady whose partner was one of the more “senior” meditators at the center. She was a little upset so I asked her what was wrong and she told me how her partner had yelled at her while he was meditating the day before. “What happened?” I inquired.
“Well,” she said. “I was watering the plants outside his room and all of a sudden he screamed out ‘Would you SHUT UP I am trying to meditate!‘ and then slammed the door.”

BUT as far as I know, and maybe I just haven't been invited and so am outing myself as nobby no-mates here, there's no party blog. One you can visit every day and just have a bit of a dance, drink too much and then be sick in a flower pot. Oh wait, perhaps that's why I'm not invited ...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Portrait - 1

Meet Tama Baldwin, one of the fellows with me at VCCA this year ...

Nope, I haven't gone mad. When I was sorting out my bookshelves last weekend, I suddenly realised that what I was looking at wasn't so much a line of books but a series of portraits of the people, times in my life, even places, I cared about. I even thought briefly about categorising my shelves along these lines - the books I read on that camping holiday in France, those a particular friend gave me, the ones I read when I was pregnant. But hey, while rearranging my books is an excellent displacement activity, I decided to start smaller, with a series of book portraits. And it works beyond my expectations.

So above are books and authors Tama either recommended or gave to me, (the poetry book in front is hers - Garden.) Now I can look at these books and see Tama clearer than any posed studio photograph. Better yet, I can pick up any one of them and feel I'm having a conversation with her that's going to go on and on.

(and my soundtrack right now is Nina Simone, Feeling Good)

Thursday, February 26, 2009


What you knitting? They always ask her this as she click-clacks away on the buses, restaurants, in museums. She’ll smile then, say it would take too long to explain. The truth is she can’t miss a minute. There’s a whole hard cold world out there she needs to cover up.


Last week, half term, on my way to the Tate Modern to meet up with my writing partner, I saw this altered sign in a housing estate..

...and it made me laugh...

... and then a bit further on, I stood and looked at this office building, trying to imagine what it might be like to work in there. There was someone looking out of one of the windows. No, not looking. Really staring. You can see him in the middle of the bottom row of windows...

So I turned round to see what that gripped him so intensely. And it was this cricket match ....

... for a few minutes, I watched these boys play on one of the few bits of scrap land still not developed along the South Bank, thinking how great it would be if everyone from the office block suddenly walked out of their work and joined in the game.

But my daydreams started to feel too much like the storyboard of an ad to me - maybe one for coca-cola or even worse, a four wheel drive car - and that made me cross so I walked on.

But for the rest of the day, I kept thinking about those boys playing. And then I got how I could write the story. I was thinking too big. It wasn't the whole bunch of office workers coming out, but just one. Not even the staring one either. But the one on the floor above. The one who tries a bit too hard at the Christmas party. The one who buys his wife an African violet every birthday and she's never had the nerve to tell him she hates them. How every time she waters the forest of violets she has now she fantasies punching him in the face. He plays cricket with the boys, not knowing they want to punch him in the face either, for ruining their game. Taking it over with his rules and competitiveness. He is just enjoying his moment of freedom, just as he enjoys thinking about how much his wife loves purple. Loves how he is giving her a cloud of purple in every room in their house. He'll tell her about this, he thinks, when he gets home. He'll be boyish, cute as he watches her water the African violets. I couldn't help it, he'll say, you know me. Meanwhile the staring man on the ground floor is watching him, wanting to punch him in the face too for spoiling his own little fantasy.

And my sound track for writing this is Neko Case, and John Saw That Number, in particular. And what's strange is that Neko Case makes me feel quite mellow always, which is why I like her in the morning, but I seem to have got fixated about punching people in the face. Perhaps better to duck if you come across me today ...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fifty word photo-story - benches

Her son tells her how there’s one bench you must never sit on because you will be cursed for life. ‘Did you sit there?’ she asks. Nodding, he laughs. ‘I am doomed.' And she wants to curse him herself but she smiles instead. Tells him he is her brave boy.

(photograph by Sam Mitchell)

Seeing with your ears..

One of the quotes I found for the sound workshop (see below) was WRITERS SEE WITH THEIR EARS.

I've been thinking about this a lot - as far as I can work out, there are three things here:

a) That the uses of senses in our writing needs to be subliminal. We don't want just to write straight clunky statements, but for our readers to actually see, smell, taste what we're writing about. Like Orwell's 'the feelies'. Metaphors come in here, and also mixing up our senses. A good exercise for this is to write a list of nouns, then a list of verbs, mix these up so you might have THE DOOR SCREAMS ... and then finish with a different sense than the ones you might imagine. So ... rather than THE DOOR SCREAMS LIKE A (another sound) you have THE DOOR SCREAMS LIKE THE GRAININESS OF ICE-CREAM ON YOUR TONGUE. Ok, that one's a bit strange but keep going, you'll find one you love.

b) The rhythm of our words - through our sentence patterns, our alliteration, word sounds - can mirror what we want the reader to hear, as well as the meaning. This is as much in prose as poetry. See this extract from Annie Dillards' Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to see how you can do it:

Shadows lope along the mountain's rumpled flanks; they elongate like root tips, like lobes of spilling water, faster and faster. A warm purple pigment pools in each ruck and tuck of the rock... As the purple vaults and slides, it tricks out the unleafed forest and rumpled rock in gilt, in shape-shifting patches of glow ... The air cools; the puppy's skin is hot. I am more alive than all the world.

Not a sound explicitly described there, but whether you like the style of the piece or not, it's impossible to read without 'hearing it'.

That sound - or the music in our words - can give an atmosphere and tell the story is well-known by anyone who works in films. It's why my automatic response to hearing the da-da-da in any horror movie I'm unlucky enough to go to, is to clap my hands over my eyes. I don't want to see the music any more, thank you.

(Carlos has been editing some of the Tiny Circus animations, and adding brilliant soundtracks by the composer Lee Ferguson. As a writer, what I'm finding both shocking and interesting is how that music covers much of what I thought only adding words could do in terms of giving all the clues as to what's going on.

Here's one of my current favourites - The History of Smiles (I just have to say looking at this again, I'm so proud to be a small part of this whole project. And this wasn't even one I was involved in!))

c) and lastly, there's the magical writer's voice we can try to hard too find, before suddenly finding we've 'got' it. But as Al Alvarez warns in the Writer's Voice, your writing voice may not necessarily be the one you want to hear. We can try too hard to be a 'serious' writer, for example, (not least because that might please our parents etc) when what our 'voice' is happiest speaking is teenage humour - and suddenly by going with what is authentic, we write about are amazingly serious issues.

Anyway, when I was thinking about all this, I was also browsing blogs and it struck me how many I enjoyed had some kind of soundtrack going on. I'm thinking particularly of Blackpitts Garden (hmmm... music, writing and gardening, no wonder I keep popping back for more), Danielle LePorte's White Hot Truth, and, this is a no-brainer because it's about music, Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise.

I want to hear more about what bloggers are listening to as they write. Personally I have to write to music. Each book I've written has its own little soundtrack going on, and listening to that soundtrack is a shortcut to getting back to the particular rhythm of that writing. But I don't expect readers to listen along with me. Laura Esquivel did, of course, with her Law of Love, which came with a CD to play while you read, and it really does give a whole different dimension to the experience. However, I'm not aware of any others, which is a shame so if you know of more, please let me know.

So from now on, each post on this blog is going to have its own little soundtrack, and I'm going to work on how I can put these into a series of short stories I'm planning. And as I write this I'm listening to Blitzkrieg Bop by the Ramones (which could expain the fragmentary nature of what I've just written!)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Not quite twittering, more clouding...

My notes for a writing workshop on sound are turned into something beautiful by Wordle here.

Wordle: sounds

I really love some of these juxtapositions - Writing Kisses, Afternoon Sentences, and above all the message rammed home ... FIRST JUST SOMETHING WRITE...

Hmmm... I guess that means not putting words into wordle then.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Back in November I started twittering.

Sort of.

In fact, I just joined up to Twitter and didn't do anything else. It's a bit like how my writing goes some days. I say I'm going to be writing, but really I just hope that the words will spill out on the page without me having to do anything about it. Not even raise a pen. Hmmm... But then I kept getting emails saying people were following me on Twitter. Some of them I knew, some I didn't.

But I still didn't write anything, mainly because of a fear of this ...

HOWEVER... yesterday I met my very cool nephew, Nick, in Oxford Street completely by accident. So we went to have a drink and he showed me how his iphone worked. (I looked around the pub at that point and there were - I promise I kid you not - two other men explaining how their phones worked. What is THAT all about?) Anyway, he took a photo of both of us and within a nano-second it was up on facebook...

I'm still wondering why this impressed me so much, but it did. I even checked up when I got home, and yep, it was there. See I exist. I was existing yesterday afternoon. And what's more other people can see I exist. Anyway, Nick also said that he had been following me on twitter and, er, how could he put it, but I wasn't all that interesting.

Not all that interesting. A challenge, a challenge. I love a challenge.

So I put up my first post today. About how I am going to Seedy Sunday at Arundel this afternoon. And I should think my next twitter will be about the seeds I swopped there.

Hah, let the twittering commence and we'll see who is interesting or not. All those silent twitterers in my old camp can think they are mysterious, but they will have nothing on me once I get going. I might start talking about how I'm knitting a scarf for George Szirtes next, and the trouble I'm having deciding on a colour scheme. Maybe plans for the next Sarah Party. Or benches I've seen.

So come and follow me, do - - but be warned, I'll start following you too...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The last Pick'n'Mix bag....

So, it's the end of an era.

The last Woolworth's Pick and Mix bag is being sold on Ebay. Bids have so far reached £13,000 and the money is going to a charity to help retail staff in trouble. I'm wondering if I'm honour bound to make a bid, to make up for all the little sweets my 'friend' might have, ah, 'found' in 'her' pockets when we were kids.

Here's an extract from my alphabetical novel, Something Beginning With... and as I write this, I'm wondering if I should be updating my book now? Will people still know about Woolworth's Pick'n'Mix in five years time?

Hmmm...the end of an era indeed.


After the success of our last shopping expedition, Sally and I now spend Saturdays shopping in town. Last weekend she said she wanted to take me out for a special treat, and then took me to Woolworth's. I was surprised. WHen we were kids, during the summer holidays, we used to pretend to our mothers we were just going to the park near our estate, but then we'd jump on a bus and have baked beans on toast in the Woolworth's in the centre of town.

For pudding, we'd steal sweets from the 'Pick'n'Mix' counter. We weren't the only ones. Even nowadays you get adults looking at the sweets in Woolworth's with a nostalgic look on their faces. They buy selections for their own children, but you can tell they think there's something unenterprising about this. Something unnatural about just handing over the money, but then children these days expect everything to fall on their plates without doing any of the work, don't they?

I was about to point this out to Sally, when I saw her face. 'I want you to get me a candy shrimp, a fruit chew, two pear drops and a coconut mushroom,' Sally said For a few seconds I thought about refusing but there would be no point. I know Sally too well.

We ran down the streets afterwards, whooping and shrieking with joy. My hands were sweating so much that most of the sweets had disintegrated but I didn't care. I kept looking into the faces of everyone passing me by, and just at that moment, it was if Sally and I were the only ones who were truly alive.

See Codes, Danger, Kindness, Women's Laughter, Zzzz

Thursday, February 19, 2009

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.
Pablo Picasso

It's time for another fifty word story ... Shadows

I kept my fairies locked up in the dark until my wife told me I was too controlling. The first fairy I took out lit up the house. Even my wife found her radiance was unbearable. We keep them in the shadows now. Where we can best manage their luck.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dancing book...

This note I received on my facebook wall from a student called Asha Gill surprised me and made me very happy...

I study English and Physical theatre, and for my final year at uni, I took a choreography module. Three days before the exam my other dancer dropped out, making my duet with him, into a solo which didn't make any sense. I was utterly stuck and really upset, then I came home sobbing slightly, and saw "Something beginning with"... so I went over to my sound guy's house and recorded some extracts and put it to piano stylings of Ludovico Einaudi, it was totally a rush job, but I managed to get something together to perform, I put the book centre stage at the front and danced behind it. I got loads of audience feedback, they absolutely loved it. I got a first for that module... so thank you muchly for that lovely book. xx

CONGRATULATIONS to Asha for her first, and go, Something Beginning With, go!

And while we're talking dancing, you still have several days left to listen again to the Sarah Party on BBC Radio 4. I appear rather more than I had hoped I might, particularly giggling in the background, but I'm not sure I've laughed so much as remembering what it was like when we heard that the SECOND Sarah had ended up in casualty after being involved in a fight the night before... brilliant!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Valentines Song for YOU today ...

Because this blog loves you!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Is this the equivalent of putting a writer in the stocks?

Please take a moment to visit the charity page set up by writer and regular visitor here, Kathryn Harriss, for Red NOse Day. She's volunteering to take your three prompts - as random as you like - and turn them into a short story in exchange for sponsorship.

My prompts for her were a bench, a shopping trolley and a Cadbury's Creme Egg but I don't think people have been mean enough yet.

I might have to go back for another go ....

Pray go very clean ...

I am enjoying Andrea Wulf's The Brother Gardeners very much. It's an account of the relationship between the American farmer, John Bartram, with London cloth merchant and plant fanatic, Peter Collinson in the 18th century. The power balance between the two men is beautifully drawn, as John Bartram slowly realises that Collinson needs the plants and seeds he collects and sends to Britain. However, this doesn't stop Collinson patronising him constantly. Before a trip to Virginia to collect plants for Collinson, for example, Bartram receives a letter from England telling him, 'Pray go very Clean, neat & handsomely Dressed to Virginia' and don't 'Disgrace thyself or Mee.'

Of course, once there Bartram charms everyone. I wish I'd read this book before I went to Virginia (luckily clean and neat) so I could look out for the plants Bartram collected and sent to London. However, what I could recognise was this description of the landscape:

The hills were blanketed in trees - each crown adding to the patchwork of autumnal red and rusty orange. Once the sunbeams began caressing the leaves, the whole landscape was set alight. The leaves of maples, scarlet oaks and dogwoods were like drops of amber clinging to the branches, against which were set the dark needles of the conifers.

Obviously it wasn't Autumn when I was there and not a hill either, but there was definitely some sunbeam caressing going on most mornings...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And you thought I had been joking?

'Sarah Party'

A half hour radio feature on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 13th February at 11am, (and for seven days on listen again at ). Co-produced by Sara Jane Hall and Sarah Bowen, presented by Sara Parker and mixed by Sarah Hockley.

What is it like to be a Sarah, one of the most common names in the last 50 years? Sarah Pletts hosts a 'Sarah Party' in the UK, to help make Sarahs feel incredibly special - princesses, if only for a day. What will they have in common when they meet? Who will provide the entertainment? Most importantly, how will they celebrate their Sarahness?

(ps Go to this site for pictures. Can you spot me above amongst all the Sarah's? I'm the one at the front in white trousers, in between Sarah and Sarah, oh and in front of Sarah too, and that's Sarah to the right, Sarah to the left ... And yes, I am wearing a tiara. Of course.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A writer worth cooking muffins for....

Notice something different about this blog today?

Yep, that's right. There's been some cooking going on round here. I've been up early cooking cakes and grinding coffee beans to prepare for this visitor, cos she's a bit special.

Dear reader, Elizabeth Baines is visiting us today as part of her frighteningly impressive and well organised blog tour. Because we all get to ask Elizabeth different questions, the idea is that the tour leaves us with a really useful resource for looking at how a writer writes, why they write, where stories comes from, questions of world beliefs, the purpose of reading and writing ... and because this is the wonderful land of blogland, we also get to know what her relationship with eating dormice, whether or not she knows Simon Cowell and not just her connection with snails but what is the meaning of happiness.

And of course, as with all of Elizabeth's stories in her excellent collection, Balancing On The Edge of The World, it is often the trivial or ordinary that can be the most surprising. Elizabeth writes about the peace-loving parents who bring up a tyrant; the story of a life and death is told through the sound of song, and three teenagers enact a dance of power on city streets, all losing a bit of their identity in the process.

There are individual stories in this book I want to look at later in this blog, not least because Elizabeth has very kindly left me with some writing prompts from them to use over the next few days, but first I want to pay respect to her use of structure.

Because I love structure, and it seems Elizabeth is a writer after my own heart. Too often writers take the idea of a short story as a 'glimpse' a bit too literally for me. I once heard Dilys Rose talk about having to 'wrestle' a short story into shape, and it feels as if Elizabeth has come out victorious in this collection. Although, yes, they are a look at the ordinary and making meaning from it, they are something more - they are their own little worlds from which you have to jump off sometimes reluctantly to the next story. For this reason, the title - Balancing on the Edge of the World - made perfect sense to me.

Take a look, for example, at how a few of her first and last sentences chime ...

'Conundrum': They were children of the 1950s, this girl and boy, they were punished, even beaten, as a matter of course, just for making mistakes, or for simply not knowing, indeed for being their innocent childhood selves .....

Why the cops picked him up for violent, even fascist behaviour, when the social worker pronounced him deeply troubled, well, they couldn't believe it, or imagine where on earth they could have gone wrong.

Oh joys. That last line takes me back to the first and back again - to be beaten for simply not knowing adds poignantly to the last anguished puzzle of 'where on earth they could have gone wrong' with their own child. A lack of knowledge which is beating them all over again.

And then there's the experimental dictionary-style story, 'A Glossary of Bread', for which Elizabeth has been rightly showered with praise. This starts with a definition of bread as meaning a 'morsel, or crumb', and after moving through many different definitions, finishes with BREAD: The means of subsistence (OED 1993). And Elizabeth has the authority to leave us right there. Not with crumbs but with a thunk of recognition in what we've just read.

Anyway, lots to learn and admire in this collection,but let's listen to Elizabeth herself. It's a great honour (as you've probably gathered from my gushes above) to have her here - at the end I've put the link to where you can find out her other stops on her tour, so please do visit and buy her book.

Sarah: Language is obviously very important to you. If you were visited by the word-thief and he stole all your words but five, which ones would you like to keep, and which do you think sum up your work?

Elizabeth: Hope, love, doubt, sight (in the sense of keeping alert), thought.

These are the things I aspire to. I guess the last three best sum up my work, as it’s in my work I want to examine things, pull them apart, demolish assumptions.

Sarah: I recently contributed a piece to the anthology ‘Stolen Stories’, where writers had to confess where they had stolen their story from – something they’d overheard, or read maybe. Those stories were fascinating and, I think, satisfied an itch in the reader. Could you talk about one of the stories in your book, and where the ideas and/or images came from?

The book sounds fascinating (who’s the publisher?). The only story in Balancing which came as a ‘complete’ story from someone else was ‘Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth’: in fact, I was told the story by the mugged boy himself. I have to confess that all of the factual details came straight from him, and I must say that when I wrote it I wondered if I should be doing so. Many of the stories in ‘Balancing’ are the results of things I’ve overheard or witnessed, but in general, it seems to me, when things in the outside world resonate and act as triggers, the stories they trigger are already inside you, your own obsessions or memories or imaginings. I wrote about this when I did a guest spot about ‘inspiration’ on John Baker’s blog, using as illustration the story ‘Compass and Torch’ . This story was triggered by actually seeing a young boy and his father setting off for a camping trip in the way the father and son in the story do, but I soon realized it was really informed by my own childhood and family experiences. These last probably affected my perception of the real-life pair in the first place: I wasn’t even really seeing them for what they were – maybe in reality they were as happy as Larry and had a wonderful understanding – so the story was not at all about them. In a similar way, you could say – and I have said to myself – ‘Daniel Smith’ is not the story of the real-life mugged boy, but the boy of my imagination: after all, it was only the facts that the real-life boy told me; I had to imagine the subtleties of the emotional experience and of course the thematic significance of the situation in my story had to be created by me. There are many ways to tell a story and as many meanings you could give it; the meaning I had given this one was mine and not the boy’s, and if he ever wrote about the incident himself, then he could come up with a very different story. Still, I did worry about it and wonder if I was stealing. After all, unlike the boy and his dad in ‘Compass and Torch’, I knew this boy well, and maybe I really had put my finger on the emotional pulse of his experience and the thematic significance he would give it himself; maybe if he ever wanted to write it himself he’d find I’d gone and stolen his fire. In a way it might be even worse if he wanted to write about it but his take on it was very different from mine, because the recognizable facts could signal the story as having been already told and make it difficult for him to get an audience for his version of what was after all his own story.

Not so long ago the novelist Sebastian Barry (whose writing bowls me over) said to me: ‘All’s fair in war and writing.’ He’d given a reading at MMU and something he’d said chimed with a real-life story, set in Ireland, which my Irish dad always told me. When I went to get my book signed, my partner John, who was at my side, told me to tell Sebastian this story, and like an idiot with no mind of her own, I did. Straightaway Sebastian said he was going to put it in his next book. I said in horror, ‘You can’t because I’m putting it in mine!’ and that was when he said it: ‘All’s fair in war and writing’. I think he was winding me up, but if not and I find that story of my dad’s in Sebastian’s latest book (which I’m just about to read) or any future book, then – ‘Daniel Smith’ notwithstanding – I will of course want to kill him (well, all’s fair in war and writing). (And goodness knows what my dad would think if he were still alive.)

Sarah: I read ‘Daniel Smith’ with my creative writing class, and we were all very excited by how power shifts between the characters in this story. Could you talk about this?

What I was most interested in for this story was the contingency of power, the fact that what seems like power can slip over to become vulnerability. Daniel Smith’s middle-class background gives him what seem like power, material power and a wise-guy kind of confidence. But it also makes him vulnerable to muggers, both physically because of what he has that can be thieved, and also in that by shielding him from how the other half lives, it gives him a terrible and paradoxical naiveté. And then, as a result of the mugging, his confidence in his place in the universe is permanently affected. The power of the muggers – which paradoxically is prompted by their powerlessness in society – is not just physical: once this happens, they have a psychic power over Daniel. But of course, this too is only a precarious kind of power, and the story follows the shifts in the balance as Daniel struggles against their power over him. I suppose I should say that I never put it to myself like this when I was writing the story: I knew there were issues of power involved, but I wrote it more instinctually.

Sarah: It is such a big theme, and I admire tremendously how you manage to handle it so lightly, so we are allowed to pick up on it ourselves rather than having you hit us over the head with the concept! Do you re-write a lot? (I’m hoping you’ll say yes, Elizabeth, otherwise I’ll despair!!!!)

Sometimes I need to re-write a lot, and sometimes I don’t. I talked about this in some detail on my visit to Barbara Smith's blog where I said that I think it depends very much on one’s prior relationship to the material, how far you’ve already digested it. I didn’t re-write the stories in Balancing very much at all, but the stories I’m working on now need considerable re-writing.

Sarah: Continuing the idea that the short story allows us to talk about BIG subjects like power, would you tell us a little about the difference between writing short stories and novels?

Dovegreyreader, in her review of Balancing , said that she thought of me as holding a microscope to the minute details of life, and I see what she means, in that I often take a tiny focussed moment or aspect of life and explore its more universal implications, so showing that it is bigger than it may seem. Maybe the analogy of a telescope is even better: writing a short story is a bit like looking through a telescope from earth at the bigger, wider universe. (I’ll be talking about this in more detail on Dovegrey’s blog later this month). (‘Daniel Smith’, I’ve just realized, actually uses a similar astronomical metaphor: Dan’s middle-class perspective, which up until the moment of the mugging is to him the centre of the universe, is contrasted with the idea of the planet hurtling through the cold indifferent universe.) A main and obvious difference from novels is that novels don’t have that singular focus, and although novels are usually thus wider in their sweep (more like those big sweeping telescopes perhaps!), I do think there is something particularly powerful about the way that short stories, like poems, can condense huge themes into something small but highly charged.

Another analogy I’ve used before for short stories is that of dropping a stone into a pond and watching the ripples grow wider and wider in every direction. For this reason short stories seem to me much less linear than novels even if they have a basically linear narrative, whereas however non-linear a novel is structurally, writing it feels much more of a forwards rush, don’t you think?

Sarah: And how important is the character for you? Have you ever had a character that took over the story from you? And if so, what did that feel like?

You know, I don’t think this has ever really happened for me in writing prose. On Barbara’s blog I talked about the fact that the initial stage of writing is more a question of ‘listening’ and ‘watching’ than of feeling in control, but, as I said then, the editing, controlling side of me is never entirely absent even at that stage, and I do always know more or less what a story is about and where it’s going (even if I turn out to be wrong), and the characters always play their part in that. In fact, as I said on my visit to Clare Dudman, I don’t see my characters as separate in any way, but as part of the narrative construct, and therefore of my own consciousness. There was one character once (in a story which isn’t in the book) who seemed to ‘come to me’ rather than to have been actively imagined by me, and it felt like a gift and was very exciting. But although I couldn’t have predicted beforehand some of the things she did, nothing she did moved the story away from the direction I was expecting it to go in, but in fact served my purpose beautifully.

In fact it’s in writing plays that I experience characters as more separate from me and more in charge of their own destinies. I think that this is because if you get the situation and the voices right at the start of a play, dialogue emerges logically and naturally in a way that can seem to happen without you – and that is exciting, yes.

Sarah: I am so impressed by your voice in this collection. Was there a moment in your writing career that you had an ‘aha’ moment and felt you’d found your voice?

Well, Sarah, I’m very pleased that you think I have a voice! Right at the beginning, when I first started writing seriously for publication, what I wanted more than anything was a voice all of my own, and yes, I did have a moment, fairly soon, when I thought I’d found it, though the story which gave me this eureka moment isn’t in the collection. Trouble is, though, I had another one after that: I wrote a story in which the voice was different (or so it seemed to me) and my previous voice now seemed not a true one, but derivative. And then it happened again… And then I started trying out different narrative personae… And the stories in Balancing represent this history. I guess the truth is that from inside my own writing I tend to see only the differences from story to story. Though even I can see that my general tone is one of irony…

Sarah: And lastly, hell is a dinner party. What are you eating and who are your guests?

This is my hell, my nightmare: I have found a way of feeding people words. It’s an amazing recipe, handed down from great word-cooks of the past and to which I have added my own – though I say it myself – brilliant innovations. No words have ever tasted like this before. I lay out the table with painstaking care and artistry. No table has looked more beautiful. My guests arrive. They are a tall and thoughtful-looking middle-aged man in a dark suit, a younger man in a coloured open-necked shirt and with spiky hair, a smart thirtyish woman and three others: a girl in jeans and two older women, one of whom has brought her knitting. I sit them down. The first three look expectant, but one of the older women looks blank while the other rummages in her bag, and the girl in jeans listens to her iPod.

I bring in the words, steaming on a platter. The scent is unbelievable: aromatic, pungent, conjuring up lost worlds and worlds to come. My heart is bursting with happiness. The dark-suited man, who is a literary editor, sniffs appreciatively. The spiky-haired young man, his marketing director, says, ‘Cool!’ The smart young woman, an agent, says, ‘These smell like Richard and Judy words!’

I lay the platter down. The agent takes a spoonful, slips one of my glistening, luscious words into her mouth. ‘Oh no!!’ she says in dismay. ‘It’s lovely, but…’ The girl in jeans says, ‘Is it yuk?’ ‘Well, you wouldn’t like it,’ the agent tells her ruefully. ‘Oh yuk, I’m not eating yuk,’ says the girl, standing. ‘Or you, I’m afraid,’ says the agent to the older women, who wrinkle their noses. ‘Oh well, if they wouldn’t like it,’ says the marketing director, and pushes the platter right away from him and out of the reach of the editor who has been waiting his turn. ‘I’m off for an ice-cream!’ says the girl, pushing her chair in. ‘We’re off for cakes,’ say the older women, standing also and yanking their bags over their arms. The agent and the marketing director are going too, the marketing director already punching into his Blackberry. The editor gives me a wry smile of apology, and then he too is gone. And my words, my once-magical words, are left on the platter, congealed and growing cold.

(I don't want to spoil that last lingering horrific image by rabbiting on so this is a quiet but genuinely meant THANK YOU TO ELIZABETH from the sidelines. More of her tour-dates and appearances here.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Showing up for your part

A video of Elizabeth Gilbert talking about a different kind of creative genius here.

Me and Harold on his planet...

I've written before about my love for the Harold's Planet cartoons that jump into my inbox in a cheery way every day, but this one really hit home today.

You can buy your own cartoon here.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

How did I forget to mention this?

The paperback of Caroline Smailes's wonderful novel, Black Boxes is now available (together with a blurb from me) and she's running a competition to win a whole bunch of goodies. I'm not quite sure what you have to do - I've read the rules twice and it seems to involve getting into a box wearing a bikini to hide from the judge, Scott Pack, but good luck, and, if you win, remember sharing is for grown-ups!

And ... hey, we have a link ... Caroline recently hosted the excellent writer, Elizabeth Baines, also known as blogger, fictionbitch, who will be visiting this blog on the 11th Feb.

It's all happening. Superman don't need no seat belt...

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Floating like a butterfly

This quote from Muhammad Ali has been making me smile all day.... “I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.”

So much so that I went to look up some of his other quotes. How about:

"A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life."


"I hated every minute of training, but I said, ''Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.''


"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. "

But it's this one I love the most. I'm not sure why, or if I even understand it, but I just know muttering it to myself every time I'm frightened is going to change my life:

"Superman don't need no seat belt."

See. It works already. Cor, I have a party coming up next week that I was dreading. But hold on to your hats, people, Superman is going to be floating through. Don't need no seat belt either.

(Although in the interests of health and safety, and before any one writes in, I will point out that I do clunk-click every trip, just not when I'm travelling by cape ....)

Friday, February 06, 2009

I may be gone some time...

I'm lucky enough to be judging the New Writer Magazine short story competition this year, and I've just received the very exciting looking bundle of entries.

I'm saving them for later, when I've got more time and can really absorb what I'm reading, but this is what I'm going to be looking for:

a) A shape
b) A voice
c) Something that surprises me
d) Something I can believe in
e) And most of all, that particular thing I didn't know I was looking for until I read it.

It will be interesting to see if there are any particular themes or styles that come through, but I want to be open and not make too many judgements over what I think SHOULD win a prestigious competition like this. As Einstein said: 'We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve.'

Actually - there it is, exactly what it is I'm hoping for. A short story not with a showy-off six pack, but with real personality. A real heart.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The meaning of words

Susanne has more words for ‘breakup’ than the average Eskimo has for snow. But none say what she means. He left me. We don’t see each other. He doesn’t know what’s good for him. No, what she means is white, silent, icy, and changes everything. We are snow. Better.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Angels and labyrinths

So, yesterday was a day to give myself up to making snow angels - see what a natural I am here ...

(modest too.)

But last night I got all worried about driving through to Canterbury for my weekly tutorials. I hummed and hawed so many times before rousing what little pioneer spirit I have, packing my thermos and rug, and finally setting off. I needn't have worried. Once past my house, the roads were clear, and the snow drifts got fewer and fewer until by the time I got to the university campus there was only a few remains of snowstudents to be seen.

Because I'd left so much time before my first appointment, I decided to walk the university's newish labyrinth. It doesn't look much at first, to be honest - a snaking brick path amongst the turf,

oh but see the view ...

However, no time for that. I set off, eyes down, aiming straight for the centre.

This is easy if a bit pointless, I thought. Time for a coffee at least before class. But then the path veered off to the edge, and then off again, so I had to give myself over to walking a circle looping back in and out again and then again, before I made my way - strangely reluctant now - to the middle.

There as if in celebration was an old sports sock - this is a university after all, anyone else noticed how there are always stray sports socks hanging around on campus? -

but the experience was worth much more than that. I stood still for a long while, calmed down, being present, happy now that I hadn't rushed straight for the goal. And then I walked it all again, much much slower now, back to the beginning. Time seemed to stand still which was a gift in itself.

(And then the students all produced exciting and interesting work, which was yet another gift! I credit the angel... you must admit, she is rather fine.)

You are beautiful...

No, really. And there's nothing more you need to do about it - nothing to buy, improve or consume. In fact, don't. Just be.

See this site, You are Beautiful if you don't believe me.

And keep looking out for more of their collaborations - the books seem particularly exciting to me (but then I suppose they would!)

Monday, February 02, 2009

help me here please...

I'm struggling to understand the slant of this widely-reported research from The Children's Society.

It's partly the headline ...

Working women 'damaging children'

To be honest, my first reaction was that working women were hitting their kids out of stress but then I read on and thought 'oh not again' ...

Women's increasing economic independence from their male partners is contributing to family break-up which is in turn damaging children, according to a wide-ranging survey into British childhood.

I was puzzled to be honest. Why should women being independent be a bad thing? And then I realised, ah, it's because they have a way out of their marriages. As it goes on to explain ...

"The second change is the rise in family break-up. Women's new economic independence contributes to this rise: it has made women much less dependant on their male partners as has the advent of the welfare state.

But what I can't understand is not the fact that family break-up damages children but why it should be the fault - once again - of the woman. Take these statements one step further and are they REALLY saying that women should be forced to stay in marriages they're obviously not happy with by making them completely dependent on their husbands?

That we're so light-headed that we will flit around where we want just because we can.

Hey new marriage, new hair shampoo... because we're worth it.

Of course not. Or I think not, but trouble is, I can't really see any other way to read this report. After all, as the headline says - it's the WORKING WOMEN who are damaging the children.

What I'm wondering is how much research has been done on just why they are all leaving their husbands as soon as they can, but also how those WORKING MEN also contribute to the damage on the children. This isn't an idle question - I'd really like to know.

Not least because it seems to me that most men I know - and maybe I'm just lucky - feel they have a part to play in bringing up their kids too. However, reports like this seem to ignore that.

Surely we can't go on and on and on demeaning men as parents, or, indeed, husbands?

And as well as anger, I'm feeling relieved my kids are older now and I no longer have to feel those absolute and heartbreaking pangs of guilt I used to have when I read similar headlines on the way to work. Do we really want women out of the workplace and living back on Revolutionary Road?

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Graham collects chat up lines. ‘How do you like your bacon for breakfast?’ is his favourite. Although he’d never chat anyone up. In fact, the very idea of talking to people, let alone a woman, makes him sick. He just likes writing them down, shivering with disgust at every word.


One of my New Year Resolutions is to explore a little more about where I live. Just round the corner from my flat in London there's this sad but very visible sign of the credit crunch. More than a football field's worth of empty land:

It seems definite now that work on the luxury flat development planned for the old Middlesex Hospital has ground to a halt. For a while there were a few machines moving things from one side to another, but now everytime I've walked past there are people standing there, peering through the holes in the hoarding and looking at .... nothing.

I do the same too. I'm not sure what it is we're watching for. Possibly the others are like me and don't know either.

This is what the hospital used to look like:

The description I've found says:
"The Middlesex Hospital's history goes back 250 years. The Middlesex Infirmary opened in 1745 with 18 beds to provide medical treatment for the poor. Funding came from subscriptions and in 1747, the hospital became the first in England to add 'lying-in' (inpatient) beds.

The foundation stone on the present site was laid in 1755 and in 1757, The Middlesex Hospital opened on its current site. Over the years, extra wings were added but in 1924, it was decided that the building was about to collapse and something had to be done. Huge efforts were put into a "The Middlesex is falling down" campaign to raise the necessary million pounds plus to rebuild the hospital. Finally, without ever having closed its doors, the new Middlesex was opened in 1935."

However, there are still little traces of the hospital to be found in the streets around, including these two - separate - signs for libraries:

There will be lots more to show this was once a living, thriving place, I'm sure. I've just got to keep on looking.