The Three Rs: Alison Moore

August 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

Alison Moore’s short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies including Best British Short Stories 2011. Her first novel, The Lighthouse (Salt), has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012. Born in Manchester in 1971, Alison lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I can’t really remember not wanting to write books. I used to collect ideas on scraps of paper in a box under my bed. I wrote my first novel (‘secretly’ on an incredibly noisy typewriter) around the time I went to university – it wasn’t very good and I didn’t even keep it but it was good practice.

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

My days are shaped by my three-year-old, with writing fitted into the gaps. So I get up with Arthur sometime after 6 or 7. I can do emails/admin here and there but I only get down to writing when Grandma’s looking after him or when he’s asleep, at which point I write until around midnight.

Do you type or write?

I type – and scribble notes when I’m not at my computer.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I don’t read any differently when I’m writing – I read novels, short stories, sometimes non-fiction, usually about writers or writing…

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I only recently got around to reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That. Joseph Roth’s The Legend of the Holy Drinker was recommended to me and I read it in one sitting. And I’ve been reading Will Self’s Umbrella, which I think is absolutely beautiful.

What are your all-time favourites?

I have a strong attachment to Nineteen Eighty-Four. I used to go to the school library and read it whenever I had a break. And Anna Karenin(a), which I read at around the same time. A much-loved hardback of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind found in a secondhand bookshop when I was 18. Günter Grass’s Cat and Mouse, another favourite find. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Graham Swift’s Waterland. Ian McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent. Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. And Flannery O’Connor’s fine short stories.

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

I’d have to read. I don’t suppose there’d seem much point writing if I didn’t read.

What’s your third R, and why?

Arthur, my three-year-old, because in any given hour of the day I’m going to be either reading, writing or Arthuring. Without Arthur, I’d probably still be filling my free time with evening classes, voluntary work, going out, which was all good stuff, but having Arthur made me stop and start again and now I write instead.



August 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Random House Canada has just launched Hazlitt (named, obviously, after essayist William, but which I rather like for its connotations of haz-lit–what exactly would that be?), which it describes like this:

Hazlitt is founded on the premise that anything can be interesting—that a good writer can make an opera fan care about house, or a fashion blogger take an interest in the illegal arms trade. Good writing can make a finance story as riveting as celebrity gossip.

So Hazlitt aspires to publish great writing on everything. Politics, art, the environment, film, music, law, business. Books and writers—their ideas, insights and stories—are at the heart of what we do, because books and writers are at the heart of culture, both high and low.

My favourite piece so far is Alexandra Kimball’s “How to succeed in journalism when you can’t afford an internship,” which is an honest look at the industry and its financial practices. Many years ago now I put in my unpaid week at The Times and then another one at Good Housekeeping, before having to turn down Marie Claire’s three-month unpaid gig and get a real job, because, you know, I had to buy food and pay rent. We all know that nobody’s making big money in journalism or publishing–not the writers and not the owners (mostly)–but the trust-fund effect is usually written off as not a problem. Of course there are some people who manage to get in even without a private income or supportive parent/partner, but isn’t there a better way in this day and age?

Bonus material: Susan Olding writes interestingly about the essay (“That trying genre”) in a piece from 49th Shelf last year.

New reading

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Have I mentioned before how much I love the fact that my blog theme is called Oulipo? Once upon a time I dreamed of writing an Oulipian novel, but my ideas were all so much better in theory than in execution.

There should be a review or two coming along later this week, but for now I just wanted to draw attention to new issues of two online magazines (is that what we call them?). Untitled Books is one of my favourite browses, particularly since Pulp went quiet last year. The new issue features an interview with Herman Koch and a short story by Amy Hempel. And then there’s the new Five Dials from Hamish Hamilton, which includes an interview with John Banville as well as lots of bear illustrations. I’ll be spending a few hours with both of them later on.

The Three Rs: Sam Thompson

August 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sam Thompson’s first book, Communion Town, has been longlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. He has written book reviews and other journalism for the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, the Guardian and Scotland on Sunday. He was born in London in 1978, studied in Dublin and lives with his family in Oxford, where he teaches English at St Anne’s College.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I think I was pretty cagey about admitting that to myself. I always wanted to learn to write, but it wasn’t a case of saying ‘I’m going to write books’, just of trying out bits and pieces of writing in an attempt to work out how to do it. Writing this first book has been a long, slow, disorganized process, and it still takes me by surprise that it’s come together into a finished form. But I’m looking forward to being much more focused about the next one.

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

It varies a lot: I work as a university tutor, and my partner and I have a 19-month-old son, so I fit writing in around marking essays, planning classes and having bananas rubbed into my hair. This is a good thing, because if I had limitless writing time I’d achieve even more awesome feats of procrastination than I do already.

Do you type or write?

I type almost everything, but I do carry around a little notebook to write down stuff I’d otherwise forget – the usual kinds of raw material, fragments of ideas, dreams, isolated sentences, bits of overheard conversation, attempts to describe the weather and people at bus stops. It’s a good way of paying attention to what’s going on around you, and it gets addictive. Sadly I can’t read my own handwriting.

What do you read while you’re writing?

Whatever I happen to be reading anyway. I know some people avoid reading fiction while they’re writing it, so as not to pick up someone else’s style, but I find this problem is outweighed by the benefits of inspiration and seeing how it’s done. It’s remarkable how often you can get stuck on some technical problem with what you’re trying to write, then you open a familiar novel at random and it shows you the solution.

Also, this is possibly a shameful confession, but I do find myself reading books about writers and writing – whether it’s the Paris Review Interviews or John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction or Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. When you feel ridiculous for spending your spare time bent over a laptop, it’s encouraging to read something which takes this foolish activity seriously – and/or romanticizes it hugely.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’ve just read Alan Garner’s new novel Boneland, which is the conclusion to a trilogy that he began over fifty years ago with his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Those were children’s fantasy adventures based in the landscape and local mythology of Cheshire, but Boneland finishes their story in the manner of Garner’s more recent work, which means it’s a shamanic, frightening novel for grownups. It reminded me how scary his early books were, too.

Other recent likes include Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and Louis MacNeice’s memoir The Strings are False. And at the moment I’m part-way through The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson, which is fascinating. It’s a ’21st Century Bestiary’, an A-Z of creatures that are extremely strange, but real – the point of the title being that humans have hardly begun to imagine how weird life on Earth actually is.

What are your all-time favourites?

I’m really bad at deciding and I keep changing my mind. But there’s Shakespeare for a start: my touchstones are Hamlet and The Tempest, probably because I got to know them inside-out at school. What else? Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. R. L. Stevenson. Chekhov for his humanity, and Flannery O’Connor and Muriel Spark for their inhumanity. Beckett for his honesty but also his tenderness. James Baldwin for his fusion of style and passion. Some more recent writers I go back to are John Banville, Angela Carter, M. John Harrison and David Foster Wallace. And there’s Bob Dylan, who’s a fiction-writer in everything he does.

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

I have to choose reading, because if I didn’t read I wouldn’t be able to write either. It can’t be done in a vacuum.

What’s your third R, and why?

Regaining perspective by hanging around with a two-foot-tall maniac who demands a continual supply of raisins.

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Simon Mawer

August 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m always intrigued by writers who have day jobs unrelated to writing, which was the main reason (along with a lot of positive reviews) I picked up The Headmaster’s Wager (Lam is a doctor). At first sight it’s very much the expected prose style for this kind of historical novel. Lots of description, heading towards the poetic without being especially original—it doesn’t come across so much as the voice of the author but of the genre. For me, this kind of writing usually loses in character investigation and emotional development more than it gains in evocative setting and convincing detail. The novels I love the most are those that examine the human condition, and these rich historical novels always seem to lack something crucial that would really give the reader a sense of what it was like to be that person—or, perhaps more to the point, so that the reader can become that person for the duration of the novel.


I recently learned from Nicholas Carr’s essay in Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative” to the extent that “when…a character in a story puts a pencil down on a desk, the neurons that control muscle movements fire in a reader’s brain. When a character goes through a door to enter a room, electrical charges begin to flow through areas in a reader’s brain that are involved in spatial representation and navigation.” This is fascinating stuff, and got me wondering if it could be extended to show that people respond more strongly to certain kinds of writing than to others. Could it mean that the more or less a reader likes the writing style, the more or less he or she will be able to clamber into a character’s head and actually live out the novel? Is that why I find it hard to relate to the characters in novels of this style?

Nonetheless, The Headmaster’s Wager kept me reading where a lesser story might have failed. The detail is fascinating (Lam recently said somewhere that he learned about ten thousand things to write about a hundred; this is obvious from the quality of the novel, yet he handles the research very delicately) and Lam’s writing style grew on me. It describes the life of Percival Chen, or Chen Pie Sou, a Chinese-born headmaster and businessman living in Vietnam. When his teenage son gets into political hot water, Percival begins to understand that bribery and connections can only go so far. As the Vietnam War continues, Percival makes bad decision after bad decision and ends up losing almost everything. Despite some flaws (Chen, for example, is implausible, crammed with too many contradictory principles and morals) his is a book at the top of its genre written by a talented and intelligent writer.

Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is another historical novel, this time about the Second World War. Sometimes it starts to feel as though novels about that period—which are produced relentlessly, and for which I am always an easy target, having been fascinated by it since I was seven—are no longer about the war but about the whole conversation of literary representations of it. This is one that rises above such concerns (which are usually related to flat, unconvincing types going through predictable experiences instead of vivid characters following an individual path). The girl who falls from the sky is Marian, or Anne-Marie, or Alice, who undergoes astonishingly strenuous training so that she can be parachuted into France to help with the resistance. The novel is about the politics, intrigue and danger of this life in general, and Marian’s in particular, but at the same time it is also a coming of age tale and a complicated love story. Mawer is exceptionally good at the tense scenes of danger where Marian evades capture.

Is it impossible, though, to write a historical novel that truly captures the human condition from the inside? It’s not as though people thought any differently; I’ve just been reading Hardy and regularly fell into that pleasing sensation of “Oh, that’s exactly right. This writer has been inside my mind.” Is that what every reader looks for in a book? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly what fills me with elation and delight. Perhaps too much interiority negates the writer’s efforts to create historical authenticity.  Mawer’s writing style is clean, crisp, uncluttered and unshowy. It’s deceptively simple, evocative and effective. It gets me much closer than Lam’s style to an interior experience of the character’s world: I’m seeing London, the brutal training, the parachute drop, France and the secret missions from Marian’s eyes, rather than observing everything as a fly on the ceiling in Percival Chen’s house. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is gripping, well-written and well-conceived, but ultimately it is—perhaps both of these books are—a practical illustration of the concept that you can give a book ten out of ten and still not put it in the small category of life-changing writing.

The Three Rs: Lauren Groff

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today’s guest, Lauren Groff, is the author of the novels Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton, and a story collection called Delicate Edible Birds.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

It sometimes seems that desire occurs only when there’s possibility. Writing books seemed like such a daunting task for most of my life that I didn’t realize that I wanted to write books until fairly late in life. I never met a writer until I was in college and had bought into the tormented-genius-in-garret myth, which I knew I wasn’t; and so, even though I always longed to publish a book, and wrote pretty much constantly since I learned how to write my ABC’s, I didn’t realize it was a possibility until I was in my twenties. Before then, I insisted I wanted to be a pediatrician.

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

I get up early with my children, go to the gym or to the pool, come home, have breakfast and make lunches, pack the big boy off to school, wait for the babysitter with the baby, head out to my studio, read some poems, realize I need more coffee, come in and make more coffee, go back out, take a nap, wake up, sit down in front of a blank page, stand up, walk a mile on the treadmill while reading some book to inspire me, sit down before the blank page, decide I’m too warm to sit down, take another nap, wake up, and let guilt drive me to the work again for the final three hours of the babysitter’s tenure until one in the afternoon. Then I eat lunch over email, Twitter, and my RSS feeds, and read until the baby is up from his nap, whereupon we go fetch the big boy from school, and I’m run ragged until they’re in bed at seven. Then, my husband and I eat dinner, we’re in bed by nine pm, we read our separate books, and at about 11, I get up because I’m an insomniac, sit down at my work, and do the best work of the day until I fall asleep on the page at about 1 am. Rinse and repeat.

Do you type or write?

I write longhand for the first two or three or four drafts, then transfer them to the computer. Writing by hand slows down my thoughts and connects me physically to my sentences in a way that writing on a computer cannot.

What do you read while you’re writing?

I try to read everything I can read. I start the day with poetry and end it with a novel, usually.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I loved Open City by Teju Cole, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, and Zazen by Vanessa Veselka.

What are your all-time favourites?

Middlemarch by George Eliot; Speak, Memory by Nabokov, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and a million more, which I will regret not mentioning.

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

Oh, tear my heart out. It’s too cruel to contemplate even for a second. I take the fifth.

What’s your third R, and why?

Gratitude. It’s the only way to get through frustration and rejection and difficulty with dignity and calm.

The Three Rs: Kyo Maclear

August 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kyo Maclear was born in London, and grew up in Toronto. She is the author of two novels: The Letter Opener and, most recently, Stray Love, both published by HarperCollins Canada. A dual British-Canadian citizen, Kyo is also a visual arts writer and the author of two illustrated children’s books: Spork and Virginia Wolf.

When did you first know you wanted to write?

I never thought that I would be a writer when I was young. I didn’t take myself seriously in that way. What could I possibly have to say? That feeling shifted a bit in Grade 11 when I took a Writer’s Craft class. By sheer luck, I fell into the hands of a wonderfully astute teacher who looked at the botch job I was doing trying to imitate Somerset Maugham and basically said, “No, Kyo, what’s your story?” I was stumped. To help me along she had me write a “credo”. What do you believe? What irks you? What moves you? It was an incredible experience and definitely the first time that I had any sense that my personal voice, background or interests might be worthy of a story.

But that still didn’t make me want to be a writer. Really, for my first twenty years my primary passion and preoccupation was visual art. I drew and painted any chance I had. In university, I studied fine art/art history with every intention of continuing down that path. Then I moved into printmaking and while working on a large intaglio print series, I noticed my art was becoming more narrative. I started doing work that combined text and images. Then, at some point, the images evaporated. At the same time, I began to publish a bit of freelance art writing. Truthfully, I think I was suffering from “art school malaise” and found writing to be a less self-conscious and more liberating until eventually drawing became the harder thing to do.

For a long time I considered myself an accidental writer. I think I finally committed to this path with some degree of intention after the birth of my first child. I had stopped working fulltime and suddenly had this very small myopic life (with maternity benefits!) that gave me room to imagine other worlds. I started playing around with a novel idea. I didn’t show the manuscript to anyone, just wrote on my own, every day, until the pages piled up and writing became a habit and necessity.

More recently, I have gravitated back to images with my picture books. This has been a huge highlight. I love collaborating with artists.

Stray Love by Kyo Maclear

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

I have a zealous and superstitious attachment to routine when I am working on a project. Ideally, I wake up very early and meditate for half an hour. Then I do yoga or go for a swim or run. I have found that if I get moving first thing in the morning, I am better able to sit for a day of writing because I’ve burned off any unhelpful, negative or jittery energy. After I exercise, I return home for breakfast and to see my children off to school. Then I go to my studio and start writing. My husband is a musician and we both have workspaces at home so we usually share lunch together. My day typically ends when school finishes, though I sometimes fiddle for an hour or two once the children are asleep. I also use the evening to catch up on administrative stuff.

The question that plagues and motivates me most as a writer is: “How will I ever do it?” I have never worked from a place of confidence or complacency. When I am in the middle of a project and the story is unspooling or unraveling, I always feel that I haven’t a clue how things will work out. That might sound horrible but I’m used to working with uncertainty. The question for me is how to create an emotionally spacious and quiet container so that I can work through these states of doubt without becoming immobilized. A routine helps a bit.

Do you type or write?

I do both. I fill up dozens of tiny Rhodia and Moleskin notebooks with handwritten ideas, character sketches, scraps of dialogue, scene notes, and mental flotsam. (Beyond the obvious advantage of portability, I find a mini notebook infinitely more inviting in the divining stages than a blank computer screen.) These notebooks litter my desk, lending the pretense of productivity and direction, and sometimes get wrangled into use but often they just rest, facedown, like colorful rooftops. Once I get started on the computer, I type and print, type and print, and so on to infinity. I waste way too much paper but the only way I know to revise is by working directly on the page with my favorite Pilot G-Tec pen. (Sorry. When it comes to stationery, I am an unabashed product pusher.)

The Letter Opener by Kyo Maclear

What do you read while you’re writing?

There are writers I return to again and again. I turn to some for the spell they cast (Haruki Murakami, Marguerite Duras, Per Petterson), some for their creative derring-do (Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith), some for the rhythm of their sentences (W.G. Sebald, Toni Morrison), some for their comic-sadness (Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Anne Enright), some for lessons in plot and structure (Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan).

Basically, when I am writing, I turn to books the way Christians turn to gospel music—to be enhanced and uplifted and to fill the room (of my head and  of my heart) with soaring inspiration.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Non-fiction: Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

Fiction: Open City by Teju Cole. Into the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs.

YA: Darkest Light by Hiromi Goto. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

Picture Books: Little Bird by Germano Zullo and Albertine. Julius, The Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes.

What are your all-time favourites?

My list changes all the time, but here are a few that I have kept close over the years: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger. The Lover by Marguerite Duras. The Deep by Mary Swan. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.

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

Writing has made my life more meaningful by allowing me to examine things more carefully, but I would be completely lost if I didn’t read. So I’d say reading so long as I could find some other solitary, creative outlet.

What’s your third R, and why? 

Roaming: as an antidote to the very internal and introspective work of writing and so I remember to turn off my path regularly and stray.

Where Am I?

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