The Three Rs: Madeline Miller

July 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Todays Three Rs guest, Madeline Miller, recently won the Orange Prize for her debut novel, The Song of Achilles.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I have been writing ever since I could hold a pen, but for a long time never dared to imagine that my stories might once day turn into books.  The first time that I remember really claiming that desire was my senior year of high school. Our yearbook had this page where they did “destinies” for all the seniors, and mine was to be a literary critic.  I remember indignantly thinking: I don’t want to be a critic, I want to be the writer they’re critiquing!

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book? 

I suspect it will be a little different for this second book, compared to my first.  Back then I was teaching and directing full-time, which meant that writing was mostly for weekends and vacations.  When it did come time to write, I would do it in huge binges: wake up, start writing, and not stop for the next fourteen or so hours, besides snack breaks and maybe some exercise.  Nowadays, I’m a bit more balanced.

Do you type or write?

Type.  And I think very warm thoughts towards my ninth grade typing teacher, Mr. Barrett, when I do.  Long-hand, I can’t always keep up with my thoughts, so ideas fall through the cracks.  On the computer, I’m much faster, and it makes it easier for me to revise.

What do you read while you’re writing?  The same as what I read when I’m not writing: anything and everything.  I have always been an indiscriminate reader, from genre to literary, high concepts to pure thrills.  As long as it’s a good story and well-told, I read it.  Though while I was writing The Song of Achilles, I did avoid other modern retellings of Achilles’ story, just so that they wouldn’t spook me or interfere with my imagination.

What have you read recently that you really loved?  

I devoured Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up the Bodies,” her extraordinary follow-up to “Wolf Hall.”  The prose, characterization and story-telling are all absolutely incredible.  I also loved “The Sisters Brothers,” by Patrick DeWitt, which is a dark and hilarious novel about a pair of hitman brothers in the old American west.

What are your all-time favourites?

It’s an ever-changing list, but always near the top is Vergil’s Aeneid—his poetry is profound and beautifully precise, and I love his empathy and humanism.  Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is definitely also up there, as is Anne Carson’s gorgeous poem-novel “Autobiography of Red,” and, David Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.” Two favorites I have probably read fifty or a hundred times at this point: Elizabeth von Arnim’s hilarious “Enchanted April” and Richard Adams’ gripping rabbit version of the Iliad and Odyssey, “Watership Down.”

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Read.  I can’t imagine my life without a book in my hands.  (But I would cheat and get my story-telling fix by directing plays.)

What’s your third R, and why?  

Directing plays, particularly Shakespeare.  I love the psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s characters, the richness of the language, and the power of the stories that he tells.  So much of what I learned about narrative and pacing I learned from him, and when I write, it’s as if I’m watching the scenes play out in front of me.  Another thing I love about theater is the fact that it is so collaborative: the actors, directors and designers are all working together to bring the story to life, which  makes a wonderful balance to the solitary life of creative writing.

Dear Richard

July 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Dear Richard,

It’s not you, it’s me. I keep breaking up with you, and then we get back together for a little while before I remember why it was that we had to break up last time. I’m just too impatient for you; that must be the problem. You like to set out your plans right from the start, so I can’t even say that I don’t know where we’re going. It’s just that it takes you so long to get there. By the time we’ve arrived, I’ve forgotten I even wanted to go.

It took me a week to get to page 120 this time. I knew the parents had robbed a bank from the first page. I could have driven to North Dakota and held up the bank myself in less time than it took them to get there. I just feel I don’t really need to know all the ins and outs of who closed which window when, or quite such minute detail about the offering, cooking and then eating of a grilled cheese sandwich. Now I want to get to the murders, or find out the details of what happens to the teenagers when the parents are taken away. Come on! Don’t hold out on me here. Please?

It’s really too bad, Richard, because I enjoy reading interviews with you, and anything non-fiction I’ve ever seen of yours has been great. I’d love to be able to finish one of your novels. But I’ve got my own windows to close, my own sandwiches to make, and I really need you to just move a bit faster. I know that says more about me and my intellectual abilities than it does about you and your greatness as a prose stylist. I accept that.  You can certainly write with precision and poignant observation, I won’t deny it. But despite the accumulation of detail, Dell Parsons and his family still feel a bit shadowy to me. I also notice that even reviewers who love your work have more or less omitted the first third or so of the novel when summarising the plot, and I can see why. What would they say? Maybe I should start from the halfway point, give it one last try. A break-up date, if you like. I’ll give it some thought.

You’ll find other readers, I know you will. People love your work so much that the library will only lend the book for two weeks instead of the usual three, to give everyone a chance of reading it. So you can see there are plenty of people who admire you. In fact, there are two in my house–and I’m one of them. The only thing is, I can’t see it through with any of your books, and for that, I’m sorry. Maybe it’s just better all round if we say goodbye now. Who knows, perhaps we’ll meet again one day and things will work out differently. I’ll keep hoping.

Canada By Richard Ford

Capital by John Lanchester

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Once upon a time, when London and much of the UK was still hanging out at the Cool Britannia party, celebrating old Gordon’s fiscal policies that put an end to boom and bust, not entirely out of love with Tony despite the early inklings of serious problems with the WMD dossier and the David Kelly report (now there’s a subject I’d like to read a novel about), not yet brought to its knees by the Olympic fiasco nor alarmed by terrorist attacks and threats, nobody wanted to ask how the holy muffintop this entire fandango was remotely sustainable. Anger at bankers was ridiculed as resentment; the idea that we might want to question quite how London had turned itself into the place of everlasting growth was repugnant and incomprehensible.

Even the people who were earning normal amounts of money were all over the hedonism—weekends in Tallinn and Stockholm, gourmet restaurants, sporting events, music festivals, gastropubs, theatre, fishing, sailing, horse riding, parachuting, stadium concerts, opera, ballet, clubs (night and gentlemen’s), food festivals. (And of course pubs. Always, always, in London, there is alcohol.) It didn’t matter what your interests were; in fact you didn’t have interests any more. You simply did it all. Experience was what counted, especially since the very things that had brought the party to town (globalisation, Chinese and other Asian labour making goods cheap, deregulation of the financial industry, no political or financial restriction on foreign or buy-to-let ownership) were precisely why all these twenty- and thirty-somethings with only average salaries had so much disposable income: they were never going to be able to afford to buy even a broom cupboard in London, so why even bother trying to save?

John Lanchester’s new novel, Capital, begins in that heady period. It’s 2007, and after being introduced to Petunia Howe, Pepys Road’s oldest and longest resident, we meet Roger Yount, smooth, old-City Roger, with his suave entitlement and guileless complacency. His lack of expertise or indeed usefulness in banking prove no impediment to his making lots of money, both in salary and bonuses. In fact, the only obstacle he has yet encountered comes in the form of the first economic hiccup, nothing to do with Roger personally, which drastically and unfairly reduces his expected bonus. This poses an enormous problem for Roger, who is living more or less beyond his means and mixing not just with the rich but also the super-rich and the incomprehensibly rich, and consequently feeling very poor and hard done by.

Lanchester writes about Roger with derisive eloquence, but when we meet Roger’s wife, Arabella, this intense narratorial dislike pales in comparison to how much Lanchester appears to despise Arabella, a stay-at-home mother of two small boys, but one with a full-time nanny plus a weekend nanny. Arabella spends even more money and has even less idea of its value than Roger does (Roger is at least given the grace of occasionally wondering what the point of it all is and whether it might not be better just to drop out and potter around in the country doing something more meaningful, and of admirably coping as a parent in a situation where it is implied Arabella would be utterly at sea). It’s paragraph after paragraph of invective against her false consciousness.

And then there’s a wonderful paragraph where he describes how Arabella thinks she’s perfect—not rich enough to be dislikeable, in fact rather poor if you think about it, and how she appreciates and understands the value of money. Aren’t we all like this in some small way, judging those with more money to flash around as profligate, undeserving fools and those with less as, well, profligate undeserving fools, albeit for different reasons and with different outcomes? So with the Younts well and truly skewered, we meet the other inhabitants of Pepys Road.

The inhabitants of the street, their visiting relatives, plus the people who service the houses and their residents (African refugee traffic wardens, Polish builders, various European nannies, the Asian family that owns the corner shop, representing the various types of British Muslims—thankfully more complex than they threaten to be at the beginning) form a little microcosm of London’s economy. There are a few omissions and problems, for instance that almost all the white English people in the book are fabulously wealthy; that the young couple in their early twenties have a two-bedroom flat (space is too expensive to waste money like that, at least in the experience of everyone I know); that there are no public sector workers (even the traffic wardens are outsourced).

This last is a major omission in my opinion, partly because of the sheer number of Londoners in the public sector, people managing on salaries in the low twenties who began with—and still harbour—the same socioeconomic and lifestyle expectations as their university peers who moved towards the money. It’s not just eastern Europeans with degrees doing manual and service work who can’t actually afford to be there, but whole swathes of eager UK graduates and non-graduates trying to make their fortune and marvelling at the smell of money everywhere, always.

And then there’s the writing. It’s exhilarating, addictive and easily consumed. It’s also surprisingly easy to reproduce (try it: just pick a person who annoys you and describe them in fine detail, letting them mostly hang themselves but leaving just enough rope to tie a few fancy rhetorical bows so that the reader is in no doubt where you stand). But is it too easy? Is it too glossy, too clever by half? I confess its sheer ease with itself makes me think of rich people identifiable at a hundred paces by the cut of their clothes, the shape (and often the particular blonde) of their hair and the healthy glow of their skin. Something about Lanchester’s polish and stylistic wit makes me ever so slightly twitchy. It’s hilarious, but might the targets be a little too easy for a writer of Lanchester’s calibre?

Ultimately, Capital is a Punch and Judy show for the twenty-first century. Punch is the City, Judy (or one of the Judies) is the mysterious protestor who sends vaguely threatening notices to the residents of Pepys Road. The baby, put through the sausage machine one too many times, is the notion of fairness, responsibility, equality. The ineffective policeman is the government. Lanchester writes glib take-downs of archetypes delivered via a particularly English form of humour: faint but whip-sharp ridicule. It’s not that Lanchester hasn’t done the research to fatten up his characters; he has. It’s just so hard to pull all these people together and make it mean something. As satirical sketches of some recognisable London types, it’s outstanding and entertaining, but as a comment on the state of the nation, Whoops! (Lanchester’s non-fiction book on the economic fiasco) is more intellectually satisfying.

 

Capital is something of a cynical—yet still sweetly optimistic–remake of Love, Actually. There’s the loving descriptions of the chaos, the non-stop activity, the history, the scenery. It ends quietly with unexpected hope rather than despair for many of the characters, which is disconcerting, since one reason Lanchester is not really a Marxist—and see his recent LRB article on Marxism—is that unlike Marxists, he is not afraid of admitting that what we have now might actually, scarily, be the good thing; that the implosion of capitalism would hurt far more (more people, more painfully) than capitalism itself, at least in the short-term. The problem is that Capital won’t admit this. Everyone (except Arabella, who is clearly beyond redemption) is forgiven their sins and given a little candle of hope to light their way to the next crisis. The disappointment comes from the fact that we know, and we know that Lanchester knows (mostly from his outrageously good financial journalism for the masses), that the global financial tempest is not so easily brushed under the carpet.

That, then, was my original conclusion. But after pondering the novel overnight, I decided that Lanchester knew exactly what he was doing with the ending, and it’s infinitely more depressing than my first impression. By this point, several of the characters have been punished, including two who have (wrongly) suffered incarceration and two more facing the threat of it (perhaps less unjustly, although essentially they are being punished for wanting what other people have and want more of). But these are not the rich people. Capital is more damning than I at first realised: it’s not Lanchester brushing the problem under the carpet, but the world, at the request of the banks. Roger Yount has been punished, sure, but he can lose almost all of his wealth and still be richer than most people (just not anyone he knows). With his country house and his connections, he’s going to be absolutely fine. But the others—the ones who do the real work, the hard work, the undesirable work—are not so lucky.

So the City is dead, long live the City. Lanchester’s prognosis—the rich staying rich and the poor getting poorer, with the pole between the two becoming ever greasier—is grim.

The Three Rs: Andrew Cowan

July 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Andrew Cowan is Director of the Creative Writing programme at the University of East Anglia.  His first novel PIG was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for five other literary awards and won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, a Betty Trask Award, the Ruth Hadden Memorial Prize, the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Scottish Council Book Award. He is also the author of the writing guidebook THE ART OF WRITING FICTION and four other novels: COMMON GROUND, CRUSTACEANS, WHAT I KNOW and WORTHLESS MEN, which will be published by Sceptre in 2013.

book cover of Pig byAndrew Cowan

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

– one wet dinnertime, aged 11, I discovered a ragged copy of Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘According to Jennings’ on a neglected shelf in my comprehensive school classroom.  It inspired me to ask my mother to send me to boarding school.  She was having none of it.  I wrote a short story set in a boarding school instead.  I got a star.

– aged 17, encouraged by Mr Drane, I found in Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ a mirror to my own anguished soul and imagined I might one day write a portrait of myself as a young man, once I’d become an older man.

– aged 19, unhappy at art school, I bought a copy of Ian McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ from an art supplies shop and discovered a more plausible portrait of myself, which made me wonder if I might be happier writing than painting.  I left art school anyway. Other than these three moments I’m not sure I ever actually wanted to write books.  It just sort of happened.  I often imagine I’d be happier as a potter.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book? 

It used to look very messy.  I’d do a lot of decorating and other jobs around the house when I was writing.  Now I have a day-job in academia, which means my writing happens in the margins of my academic existence.  But if I have a whole day in which to do nothing but write…?  There’s a lot of sleeping and television involved.

Do you type or write?

I begin with automatic writing, screeds of barely legible handwriting, which eventually I fillet for the good bits, or at least the legible bits – I type those up, and from then on its all typing.  I’m an obsessive re-writer.  A word processor makes that easier, and leaves no trace of the mess and muddle, which hoodwinks me into thinking it might be ok.

What do you read while you’re writing?

Poetry, often.  I don’t read poetry at any other time.  I break off every 20 mins or so to read a poem, otherwise the words in my head start to taste very stale.  A poem can be like a glass of water.  I also read novels, far more novels than when I’m not writing – I keep hoping the next book will contain all the answers to my own writerly dilemmas.  Ideally I’d like simply to copy out 220 pages of someone else’s book.

What I Know

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’m beginning to fear I may have outgrown love.  I’m happy just to find a book I don’t dislike.  I enjoyed the company of Coetzee’s ‘Summertime’ recently.

What are your all-time favourites?

Anthony Buckeridge, According to Jennings; James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

I’d read, now and then.  But mostly I’d do pottery.

What’s your third R, and why? 

Regret.

Crustaceans

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

July 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

During the Second World War, Bethnal Green witnessed the biggest civilian disaster of the war when 173 people died in a crush at the entrance to a tube station bomb shelter. In The Report, Jessica Francis Kane has fictionalised the event itself, the writing of a report about the disaster, and new information that changes perspectives thirty years later. The book opens with the crush itself, then spends the rest of the novel with a large cast of characters, from the magistrate charged with writing the report to the survivors, and from the police and wardens responsible for the station to the government officials who refused to listen to the requests for improvements to the dangerous entrance. A large part of this is done, successfully, through sparse transcripts of the inquiry. The book also flashes between the contemporary events and the preparations for a documentary film retrospective, revealing shades of meaning and significance.

Unusually for me, I read the blurb before I began the book, and began by being annoyed that it gave away the main event of the novel. Kane doesn’t rush through telling the story of the crush, but because I already knew what was going to happen I wished that some horror had been kept back, to deepen rather than simply elaborate on the information that has been so easily given away to the reader. This meant that, early on, I couldn’t see how the novel was going to sustain itself for the next 200 pages.

I gave the book the benefit of the doubt and another half an hour, by which time some mysterious magic had been worked and the book had become as compelling as a crime novel, the sort of book you carry from room to room while you pretend to fulfil your household obligations.

Kane has really done a good job—from the perspective of someone who didn’t live through it—of creating the period without overdoing it or strangling it with research. The damaged people, the daily tragedy, the coexistence of anger, resignation and deep, deep sadness. One of the most telling and most terrible moments is a tiny little exchange in an orphanage, when one bereaved mother adopts a baby and wonders about its name.

[The orphanage mother] was touching the baby’s cheek. “What about Justin?” she said, and [the mother] was very surprised to see that she was crying.

“Did you know a Justin?”

Mrs. Barton-Malow nodded. “It’s such a nice name.”

And that’s it. That’s it! Then they move on to something else. But we already know that Mrs Barton-Malow has lost a son, so it’s a perfect tiny encapsulation of the closed-off nature of how people had to experience their own tragedies, the terribly universal and democratic nature of bereavement and grief during the war. Nobody was special for having lost someone. Nobody can be roused out of their shell-shocked torpor for mere ordinary sadness. It’s only the extremes of terror, for example when the news breaks that some of the dead were the only surviving relatives of people serving overseas–whom the government hasn’t yet informed, that people are able to see this as something beyond the daily misery of the war.

The Report is a quiet book, doing its work effectively and unobtrusively. Kane’s writing is perfectly suited to the task at hand—clear, precise and evocative. Above all, this is a humane observation of duty, suffering, guilt and blame.

Short story competition

July 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Telegraph-Journal, New Brunswick’s provincial daily newspaper, www.telegraphjournal.com, recently launched a new short fiction prize.

The Salon Fiction Prize, which opened July 7, is for a work of short fiction in English between 1,500-3,000 words. The winning piece will be published in an issue of the Telegraph-Journal’s art and culture section, Salon, and the author will receive a prize of $1,000. The winning piece will be selected by a trio of judges from Atlantic Canadian universities: Thomas Hodd (University of Moncton); Alexander MacLeod (Saint Mary’s University); and Sue Goyette (Dalhousie University).

The contest is open to all residents of Canada. All entries must be unpublished material and not under consideration in any other contest of competition. Entries will not be returned, so keep a copy.

Deadline: Entries must be received by Oct. 1, 2012.

Submissions may be sent via email to salon@telegraphjournal.com or by mail to 210 Crown Street, Saint John, N.B., E2L 3V8. Entries must include a contact email and telephone number where the author may be contacted.  Judging will be blind, so your name should appear on the cover sheet only. Bear in mind that the winning story will need to be suitable for publication in a daily newspaper, so cursing and graphic content should be avoided.

For more details and information, email salon@telegraphjournal.com.

Different interpretations

July 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

My review of Pasha Malla’s debut novel, People Park, is in today’s Globe and Mail. I really loved and admired his short story collection, The Withdrawal Method, but although I found a lot of good stuff in People Park I also didn’t get on with some aspects of it. If you read my review, you should also have a look at Matthew J. Trafford’s piece in the National Post, which is a much more thoughtful and generous appreciation of the novel by perhaps its ideal reader. I don’t usually read other opinions of books I’m reviewing (for fear of being easily influenced or discovering that everyone else thinks the book I’m praising is a worthless sham) but last week’s “negative” reviews dust-up between Michael Lista and Jan Zwicky was the backdrop to my writing and reading, so once I’d sent my piece off I was curious to see how others had reacted to the book.

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