We’re all links in a chain

The ever-exuberant Kelvin Knight has passed me one of his 3 onward batons for the My Writing Process blog tour, having had one passed to him by our mutual friend Van Demal. Being a polite chap, he asked me a couple of days ago (before he publicly named me as a participant) if I was happy to continue the tour, and of course I said yes. Naturally, I sat down immediately to write down the questions and think about the answers. In no way did I get sidetracked by working back through the chain and reading assorted extra posts by the bloggers I found along the way. Regular readers will know of my legendary organisational skills and will therefore not entertain the thought that I may have written only one sentence of a response so far. The very idea.

Bearing all that in mind, look out for my in-depth answers to the following questions next week:

  1. What are you working on?
  2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
  3. Why do you write what you do?
  4. What is your writing process?

Queen Lucia by EF Benson

This 1920 novel of middle-class country life never fulfilled its comic potential, sadly. There were a scattering of amusing episodes that went nowhere, and an awful lot of everyday life that made me shake my head in despair rather than laugh.

Mrs Emmeline Lucas, universally known as Lucia due to her pretentious scattering of Italian phrases in conversation, is undisputed queen of Riseholme society. This doesn’t seem like much of a prize to me, as the village of Riseholme appears to house some of the most vain, selfish, mean-spirited, shallow and catty members of the idle rich around. Nevertheless, where Lucia leads her subjects gleefully follow, at garden parties, musical evenings and the like. She sets the local tastes in art and literature despite having little qualification to do so. During the summer of this book, however, there are stirrings of rebellion – some of her subjects start trying to think for themselves, and what’s more, there are outside influences. Naturally, chaos ensues.

At times Queen Lucia feels like it’s going to be a satire, at other times a farce, but for me it never quite works as either and perhaps it only set out to be a gently comic novel that I’d have enjoyed if I’d been around at the time. It’s not angry socialism rearing up, for I’ve enjoyed a multitude of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and F Scott Fitzgerald novels containing more than their fair share of spoilt rich creatures. I just couldn’t find any point of contact with patronising Mrs Lucas and her ‘silvery laugh’ and her baby talk (‘Me vewy sowwy’) though I did have some sympathy for her sidekick, camp middle-aged bachelor Georgie with his dyed hair, and talent for embroidery.

Queen Lucia is the first in a series and I believe some or all of the novels have been adapted for TV. That might be more successful as the comic potential could be developed and brought to the fore. I downloaded it for free so anyone who feels they might have more luck with it can do the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Writing in alphabetical order

This month’s exercise at the Telegraph Short Story Club is a 26-sentence story in alphabetical (or reverse) order. These were my first 2 slightly tongue in cheek attempts:

As if by magic the shopkeeper appeared. Ben jumped, dropping the packet of Smarties he’d been about to slip in his blazer pocket.

“Caught you,” the man sneered. “Damned kids, thinking they can get one over on me. Every year it’s the same, I’d flog the bloody lot of you.”

“F-f-flog?” stammered Ben, who was shocked but not as frightened as his occasional speech impediment made him seem.

“Go on, hop it before I ring your headmaster.”

Hurrying out of the corner shop before the old man could change his mind, Ben collided with someone hurrying the other way. If there was one person Ben should never have run into, it was Jack Grosvenor. Jack was feared and loathed in equal measure, an arrogant, swaggering bully from the fifth form, manipulative and sly.

“Knightley, what the hell do you think you’re playing at?” he barked. “Let’s see. Maybe you could make it up to me.”

Nearby was an independent record shop that was slowly going out of business. Our Price records had opened up a few streets away and all the schoolboys took their pocket money there these days.

“Perhaps you could liberate a cassette or two for my listening pleasure,” suggested Jack. “Quickly, I didn’t mean next week.”

Running along the street away from Jack, Ben’s stomach was doing somersaults and he felt like keeping going. Sprinting into the sunset, as it were. Tomorrow he’d have to go to school though, and Jack would find him and make him pay. Under the watchful eye of the record shop owner, Ben sidled down an aisle, watching the watcher rather than looking where he was going. Vinyl cascaded across the floor and Ben legged it, grabbing the nearest tape box while the shopkeeper’s attention was elsewhere.

“What have you done to my LPs, you little hooligan?” he bellowed.

X-Ray Spex were belting out Germ Free Adolescence from a builder’s radio as Jack kicked his heels in the street.

“Yes!” he shouted, punching the air when he saw Ben running towards him with a cassette box, but then he saw what it was. “ZZ Top, bloody hell.”

And going the other way…

Zaphod Beeblebrox was Alan’s role model. You would have thought he’d have picked someone better, or at least more achievable. Xena, Warrior Princess, had in fact been his first goal, but it had been doomed to failure. When his wife found the costume at the back of the wardrobe she assumed it was for her, and flounced off to Birmingham for sisterly solidarity and a good moan. Vadim next door had been most understanding, helping Alan come to terms with his new life. Until then, Alan had wondered if he might be suppressing his feminine side, hence the aspirational Xena (thus avoiding anything too pink and girly), but the way he took to baking his own pies in his wife’s abandoned pinny he thought that couldn’t possibly be it. That was why he’d gone for a real man’s… alien, on his next attempt.

Smooth-talking, super-confident Zaphod had been the stand-out character for Alan, when he’d read the Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy all those years ago. Regrettably, he was more of an Arthur Dent by nature, and the change in approach wasn’t easy. Quite how all those slick suits at the posh bar next to the station managed it, he wasn’t sure. Pheremones, maybe. Or the size of their wallets. No matter how hard Alan tried to throw himself into being cool or wild he couldn’t bring himself to do it. May I buy you a drink, he’d say. Like Zaphod would bother asking! Killer chat-up lines just weren’t compatible with the thickness of glasses Alan needed to wear, and it was about time he faced it.

Jenny had been watching the man with the bottle-bottom specs all evening. Intrigued by the loud suit and cocktails which didn’t seem to go with the rest of him, she decided to go over and liven up her night.

“Have we met before?” she asked, leaning against the bar next to him.

“Gosh, I don’t think so,” he said.

“Funny, I could have sworn you looked familiar. Excuse my mistake.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“Can I join you anyway?” asked Jenny. “By the way, what’s your name?”

“Alan,” said Alan, wishing it was something cooler and wondering what Zaphod would do next.

If you feel inspired (and really, how could you not) do come and join us.

Don’t give up the day job

Huffington Post ran an article on The Bizarre Day Jobs of 20 Famous Authors, so of course I sidled over to have a look, hoping that some over-hyped, pompous writer had once been in charge of artificially inseminating llamas or something. However, the reality was both more mundane and more peculiar. I will grant you that oyster piracy (Jack London) is a bizarre way of making a living, but engineer (Dostoyevsky), barrister (John Galsworthy), surgeon (Arthur Conan Doyle)? Some of them are pretty well-known facts, too. Disappointing. Maybe what we actually need is a list of jobs that seem peculiarly fitting for particular authors, though perhaps it would be as well to restrict it to the dead just to be on the safe side of libel…

The thing about day jobs, bizarre or otherwise, is that your average writer gets masses of inspiration from them. Office politics. Legal jargon. The way llamas stamp their feet when you get too close. Although it’s sometimes a pain trying to fit writing around work and everything else with a claim on your day (like reading Huffington Post articles or catching up with 3 days’ worth of Twitter-feed) I do think it keeps you more in contact with (at least a portion of) the outside world.

Speaking of which, that bookaday thing is still going, but it’s getting a bit specific now (I guess there’s only so many open questions about reading you can come up with). It’s now at We Love This Book and as usual I’ve come to it late. I’m not going to go through the lot, but I will make the following comments: Do people buy books for the cover (4th)? Surely every reader gets sparked off by a different book or type of book (21st). Lots of books make me question everything, that’s how I know they were good (29th). And if I had a cup of tea for every time I’ve been likened to Arthur Dent (14th)… I’d have several cups of tea.

Conversations with the past

What would you say to your sixteen-year-old self if you could go back (assuming you’re over 16 as you read this)? My first thought was ‘read Neuromancer’ but when I thought about it, I’m fairly sure I was told about William Gibson at, if not 16, then not much older than that, and I didn’t listen. Or rather, I stored the name at the back of my mind, never happened to see a book by him in a library or second-hand bookshop, told myself for a couple of years that I didn’t read sci-fi, then finally got round to him in my late 20s.

My next thought was ‘don’t feel obliged to keep reading a book you’re not enjoying’ but then I can think of a couple of books I’ve loved, that didn’t impress me during the first few chapters. If I took my older self’s advice too seriously, what might I miss out on?

A fairly safe one would be ‘don’t let the doubts set in about writing’. I used to write stories all the time, and when I was 18 or so and confident of my own undeveloped abilities I even sent a couple off. They were of course rejected, and as I got a little older I experienced the horror of realising I’d sent out some pretty poor material. Instead of using that as a spur to learning the craft, looking at what I thought was wrong and trying to improve it, I decided I’d been presumptious. I wasn’t a writer and never would be, and it was best to admit that, sit back and enjoy reading other (real) authors’ efforts. If I’d kept going, I might have reached the level I’m at now a few years sooner, when I had more time and energy and less in the way of responsibilities and competing activities. But then I wouldn’t have written the stories I have written, and my experiences would have been different. So maybe I should let the sixteen-year-old me get on with it and make the same mistakes I did. I wouldn’t have listened to my older self anyway.

What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Yiddish Policemen's Union

Imagine a world where Israel didn’t become a state in 1948, and where the largest Jewish community is a North American backwater tolerated (mostly) by the local Tlingit people on the understanding that it’s purely a temporary measure. Now imagine an unidentified Jewish junkie is found dead in his room in the same fleapit hotel that the area’s premier homicide detective currently calls home, on the eve of mass eviction. You have the beginnings of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, an unusual novel that I enjoyed a great deal.

Sitka, in Michael Chabon’s world, is a small Yiddish-speaking homeland in the heart of Alaska on a 60-year lease starting in 1948. It’s now autumn 2007, 2 months from Reversion when the population of displaced European Jews and their descendents will be displaced again, this time by their American landlords. The novel apparently comes from the author having found a Yiddish travellers’ phrase-book from the 1950s and imagined what kind of place it might be useful, and heard about a failed 1940s plan to resettle displaced European Jews in Alaska. Laced with ornately mournful humour, the book was reminiscent of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth noir  in its alternate history and almost surreal setting, though it seemed less tongue in cheek (then again, I’ve never been to Alaska or a Jewish enclave, so I could have missed the overtly silly parts).

Meyer Landsman, a middle-aged alcoholic detective who’s falling apart at the seams, is nevertheless a sympathetic main character. I was rooting for him, I warmed to him, and I felt for him. First and foremost he is a policeman, and when Reversion comes the Sitka police force will be disbanded. What then? And what will happen to his neighbours, friends and family? There is an interesting theme of chess throughout the story – the ritual of playing it, the shame of not enjoying it when everyone else does, its puzzles as an allegory of life.

Chabon has written such lyrical prose that despite the relatively short chapters and the tension of the murder investigation (not to mention the headlong flight towards Reversion), I found myself putting the novel aside frequently to savour the images. At one point he described Landsman as walking ‘with a kink in his back and an ache in his head and a sharp throbbing pain in his dignity’. It was a book that deserved to be read slowly.

Fans of the hard-boiled detective story might need to be patient with this novel, it’s probably not as spare as they’re used to. If you’re not a detective fan, don’t be put off – like the rugby in This Sporting Life it’s a key part of the setting but not the only point to the story. I would recommend this widely to lovers of lyrical literature of wide open country, like The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx.