The Three Rs: Michelle Berry

September 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Michelle Berry is the author of three books of short stories, How to Get There  from Here, Margaret Lives in the Basement, and I Still Don’t Even Know You (which won the 2011 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011), as well as four novels, What We All Want, Blur, Blind Crescent and This Book Will Not Save Your Life (which won the 2010 Colophon Award and was longlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011). Her writing has been optioned for film and published in the U.K. She is also co-editor with Natalee Caple of The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers, and has collaborated on an art book with Winnipeg artist, Andrew Valko, called, Postcard Fictions. Michelle taught creative writing at Ryerson University, Humber College and Trent University, was on the board of PEN Canada and the authors’ committee of the Writer’s Trust and served as Second Vice-Chair of The Writer’s Union.  She presently teaches online for The University of Toronto and is a mentor at Humber College. She is a reviewer for The Globe and Mail.

This Book Will Not Save Your Life

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I think I was born knowing I wanted to write books. I remember writing journals, books, stories, when I was very young — grade 1, grade 2. Even before I was writing I was illustrating books. My father and I wrote a book together called, “Sailing the Deep Blue Sea.” A bunch of animals come with a girl on her boat and they sail the sea — it was all in rhyme. I drew the pictures and coloured them. We printed it and bound it nicely. I still have it. My first real publication was in grade 11, in an high school anthology.

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

That depends on what stage I’m at in the writing. If I’m well into the book then I tend to write less in the day and am satisfied with short bursts of time in front of the computer. If I’m starting a novel or stories I tend to stay stuck to my office chair and not get up for hours. I stop writing something when I stop being interested in what I’m writing, when I stop seeing it in front of me, moving. Then I know I’m tired. For a more practical answer: I get up around 7am. Drive my daughter to school (3 mornings a week these days I bike until 10:30), carry coffee up to my office, work until lunch (online teaching, emails, interviews, book reviews, writing), eat lunch listening to cbc radio, work again until 2:30pm, pick my daughter up at school and then usually read on the front porch until dinner. That’s a typical day. These days. In the beautiful fall weather with bikes and porches possible.

What We All Want

Do you type or write?

Computer — type. And fast. I’m a hugely fast typist (can you tell I’m proud of it?). I did temp-jobs throughout university and always got paid more per hour because of how fast I can type. It’s the one useful thing I learned in high school — typing class. I have carpal tunnel (from all the typing) and so can’t actually hold a pen in my hand for more than a few minutes. Even signing my books can be hard. >

What do you read while you’re writing?

Anything I can. I don’t find that reading other people’s work makes me forget my own writing, or influences it, etc.. I do a lot of reviewing and so I’m often reading new releases and books I wouldn’t normally have picked myself. Which is fun. Right now I’m loving Hilary Mantel’s book, Bring up the Bodies. I tend to read more novels than story collections, but that’s not by choice, just by convenience (more novels published then story collections). I read at least one novel a week if not more.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

See previous answer — Hilary Mantel’s book. I also loved The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen and I adored The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt.

How to Get There from Here

What are your all-time favourites?

Alice in Wonderland, anything by Raymond Carver, anything by Ellen Gilchrist, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Murray, Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, Don Delillo, Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare…. I’m pretty eclectic with my tastes. I like stuff that makes me laugh or shocks me. Or both.

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

Read. No, write. No, read. That’s an awful question to answer. I guess read is the answer — only because I have a tendency to be lazy and procrastinate and so sometimes (most of the time) writing is hard (but worth it).

What’s your third R, and why?

Wine. Definitely wine. And a nice dinner. Wine and dinner. And family. Always family.



September 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

Like, you know, I was all like, it’s kind of irritating when, like, good authors who are, like, trying to write in some kind of, like, literary formal register think that using like instead of, like, as if, makes their writing, like, contemporary or something.

When a writer has gone to the trouble of cultivating a certain voice, one that could only be done in the written form, the wrong sort of like derails the voice, the idea of the writer being in control of what they’re doing. Using like for as if is for speech only. If it’s the only deviation from an elevated register, it just looks like a mistake. (See also “since forever.”)

The concept of having separate languages for speaking and writing–which we certainly do, although we might not often notice it–is fascinating. Did you know that there is an entire tense in French that is used only in writing?

At Last (Edward St. Aubyn) / The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Recently I read At Last by Edward St. Aubyn and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry back to back. Oddly enough, it gave each of them new life and a new perspective. Joyce’s book is the first Booker longlistee I’ve managed to get hold of, so I read it despite not being particularly excited about it.

Harold Joyce is a retiree who receives a letter from an old friend who is dying. When he sets off to the postbox to send her a letter, he ends up actually setting out on a pilgrimage all the way from bottom to top of England. While the writing is quite good, and Joyce’s insights are written with empathy and conviction, I couldn’t help feeling that the book’s central idea–that suffering is universal; that everyone is carrying around some pain–was something that most people discover at more or less the moment they grow out of teenage navel-gazing. Don’t they? Are there really people who don’t get it until they’re 65? Or is the point really that Harold has been an overgrown teenager all these years. Perhaps, but the point is belaboured.

The ending–and even the journey–are predictably unadventurous. The book’s promise perks up when Harold decides that the purest way of making the pilgrimage is without money, sleeping outside and getting whatever food he can, but it gets rather too much of the Chicken Soup for the Booker Prize treatment and is not nearly as interesting as it could be. Where Joyce could have explored the difficulties and trials of this decision, it’s all rather too uplifting. They eat mushrooms, wild greens, and even rabbits and birds. It all sounds so easy, so pastoral. But surely they were starving, not to mention constantly damp and uncomfortable. Harold’s blisters make big news, but the rest of the pain is all emotional. Very glossy and uplifting, but disappointing. This purist decision could have been a great way into exploring so many aspects of modern life and modern people, but instead it’s very safe, very Radio 4 (disclaimer: I love Radio 4, but not always its vaseline-lensed artistic take on modern Britain), and rather a surprising choice for the Booker longlist.

The St. Aubyn, in which a load of depressed rich people gather at a funeral, rubbed me the wrong way to start with. All the characters seemed to be camp robots: bitter, sardonic, entitled, and entirely without usefulness. Everyone started out as witty and supercilious as Lady Bracknell–something that appeals only in very small doses—and about as emotionally intelligent as a coffin. Patrick Melrose, familiar to many readers (although not me) from St. Aubyn’s highly acclaimed series about him, is at his mother’s funeral. His ex-wife Mary—one of the few human characters in the early part—has largely arranged the funeral on her own, and indeed was the only person to visit Eleanor in her last couple of years, for reasons we learn as the novel progresses (although I suspect readers of the other books in the series might already know). Various miserable old crones and wealthy or impoverished fakes have shown up at the funeral, seemingly interested only in being as nasty as possible, while Patrick reflects on the terrible evil perpetrated by his father, and his mother’s dreadful sin of omission in not protecting him from it.

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

At Last really takes off, though, when the funeral is over and Patrick’s two small boys come to the after-party. Nobody, Patrick and Mary aside, appears to have the slightest interest in children, or indeed in anyone else at all, so Patrick’s transforming love for his children—and the end of a hideous cycle of violence—redeems the novel. Up until this point Patrick seems to be experiencing all the other characters as “adults”—a homogenous mass of undifferentiated voices, none of which is capable of being pleasant, let alone kind—from a child’s perspective. But with the sudden change in pace with the two boys, the novel breaks out from its one-dimensional cage and puffs up with real, vital human feeling.

Reading the two books together emphasised different aspects from those I might otherwise have focused on. The basic message is that all the parents in both books have always failed their children. People, the novels are telling us, are damaged by the failures of communication, the pain of love withheld, and the evil that is passed from generation to generation. It takes thought, courage, determination and strength not to continue this cycle of hurt. What’s intriguing is that At Last manages to salvage a happy ending (or at least a positive future) from this without being sentimental, while Pilgrimage’s family has already had the tragedy but ends on a much sappier note. Neither book really wowed me, but the interplay of the two revealed hidden corners.

The Three Rs: Alix Ohlin

September 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alix Ohlin’s novel Inside (recently longlisted for the Giller Prize) and her story collection Signs and Wonders were both published in June.  Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s “Selected Shorts” program.  Born and raised in Montreal, she currently lives in Easton, PA and teaches at Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

I wrote a lot as a child.  The girl-writer characters in books were big heroes of mine–Jo in Little Women, Emily of New Moon.  Later, in high school and college, I began to feel that trying to be a writer was both intimidating and impractical, so I set it aside.  I started writing again in my twenties.

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

I get up early, drink a little too much coffee, walk the dog, read every single thing on the internet, scold myself internally for not getting down to work sooner, read every other thing available on the internet, ask myself, “Do you really want to do this or not?” over and over again until the internal dialogue becomes exhausting, at which point I turn off the wi-fi on my laptop and write for around 3 hours.  Then I do other things–read, teach, cook.

Do you type or write?

Both.  If I’m outlining or brainstorming I’ll usually make notes by hand on a yellow legal pad.  (It must be a yellow legal pad!  I don’t know why.)  Then for a first draft I’ll type.  I type quickly and enjoy the fluency of it, how readily sentences arrive on the screen.  Later, in revision, I’ll usually print the draft out and go over it by hand.  At that point, when I’m looking at the work sentence by sentence, I want to go slower, and working on paper helps me with that.

What do you read while you’re writing?

For a project that requires research I’ll often be reading non-fiction that helps me to understand, say, a given character’s profession or circumstances.  Otherwise I read fiction: I like to be reminded, while I’m struggling, of what success and beauty look like, feel like.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn.  The Idiot by Dostoevsky.

What are your all-time favourites?

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  The stories of Alice Munro.  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

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

Reading, without a doubt.

What’s your third R, and why?

Family.  I would be lost without mine.

Delaying the inevitable

September 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

So, it’s ten days since NW arrived. I’ve picked it up, left it out on the table to admire, opened the covers and looked inside for no more than a second at a time, and even almost killed myself by stepping on it on the stairs in the dark. What I haven’t done is read it.

It’s a strange thing, anticipation. I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. I think it was about a year ago that my obsessive googling of Zadie Smith revealed that she had a new novel coming out. I didn’t really like White Teeth, and barely got anywhere in The Autograph Man, but I love her non-fiction, so I’ve been desperate to get my hands on this book.

But instead of reading it, I’ve been picking up books from the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, and a few other random ones. In other words, instead of reading the book I really want to read, I’ve been choosing to read things I don’t particularly want to read.

The best two of my recent reads (coincidentally the two books I have particularly wanted to get to for ages, but have been putting off like the Smith while clearing some of the other debris) were Heather Birrell’s short story collection Mad Hope and Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!, a collection of essays, ruminations and reminiscences on the act of reading.

Mad Hope (done with nice paper and a pleasing font by Coach House Books) is Canadian Heather Birrell’s second collection. She’s a perceptive, precise writer who catches the moments of pain along with the snippets of joy and wraps the lot up in astute portraits of people and lives. The stories are inventive without (hurray!) using idiosyncracies–either of behaviour or settings–to add interest to a tale that otherwise is pretty feeble (something I find is a common fault in short stories).

I wish I was doing this collection justice with a proper review, but for now it will have to do that, in my opinion, this (along with Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories and Anakana Schofield’s Malarky) should have been on the Giller longlist instead of quite so many of the usual Giller-bait historico-mysterio-Canadian-mosaic sagas. (I say this on the totally informed basis of being partway through one of the books on the longlist, having read none of the others as yet–but plenty of the covers tell me I’m not wrong.)

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! is an odd duck. The ten essays are almost all intelligent, interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable. What they don’t have is a coherent audience in mind. Some are a conversation with equally bookish readers; some are exhortations to the massive numbers of people who don’t read (the UK figures quoted in the introduction say that one in three teenagers reads two or fewer books per year). The introduction calls the book a manifesto, with essays that “aim to convince you to make reading a part of your daily life.” All right, but I’m already convinced, and so, surely, is every other likely reader of this collection. I can sort of see why Vintage might have wanted to market the book this way, but an essay collection with such high-calibre writers all discussing the art of reading would be an easy sell, no?

The essays themselves are good. My favourite Smith opens the collection with her personal-political take on the importance of libraries. Earlier this year her piece in defence of Willesden library became one of the hottest things on the web (after Katie Holmes and Prince Harry, obviously). Other high-cachet contributors include Mark Haddon, Blake Morrison and Michael Rosen. All fascinating, all charming pieces. I particularly liked Jane Davis’s essay about reading out loud and reading in institutions. Quibbles over title and marketing aside, this is a great little volume.

Two bright spots among an expanse of greyish worthiness. So why do I do it? Why not pick up Zadie Smith, read it, and trust that something else good will come along? I don’t believe in keeping special dishes for visitors or wearing old rags for gardening. But the fact remains that the books that stay on my shelf the longest (apart from the worthy mistakes that I’ll never pick up) are the ones I most want to read. Whatever the reason, I think I’ll hoard NW for just a little longer. Once I start reading, I might be disappointed. Once I start reading, I will definitely not have Zadie Smith’s new book in the TBR pile. And that will be the biggest disappointment of all.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

The Three Rs: Naomi Alderman

September 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

Naomi Alderman grew up in London and attended Oxford University and UEA. Her first novel, Disobedience, was published in ten languages; like her second novel, The Lessons, it was read on BBC radio’s Book at Bedtime. In 2006 she won the Orange Award for New Writers. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstones’ 25 Writers for the Future.  Her prize-winning short fiction has appeared in Prospect, on BBC Radio 4 and in a number of anthologies. In 2009 she was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award.  In 2011 she wrote the Doctor Who tie-in novel Borrowed Time. Naomi broadcasts regularly, has guest-presented Front Row on BBC Radio 4 and writes regularly for Prospect and the Guardian. Her third novel,The Liars’ Gospel, was published by Penguin in August 2012.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

Hmmm. Probably when I was 14 or so. I tried to write a novel when I was 14 or 15 – only got a couple of chapters in but I was already trying so I must have known then!

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

Typically: I read for 30-60 minutes when I wake up, then go for a walk. Walking wakes up the writing. And then – somewhere between one and four hours of writing, depending on how long it takes me to get to my 800 words, which is what I do every day. But every day. No weekends off. This is what I’ve discovered works for me. Sometimes I procrastinate and put it off, but the good news is that when I’ve got 800 good words I can stop for the day, so it’s an incentive to push on through and get it done as early as I can :-).

Do you type or write?

Type. Been typing since that first attempt, at 14 or 15.

What do you read while you’re writing?

Definitely non-fiction more than fiction. Or fiction written by people who’ve been dead for a while ;-). I love reading about science and history… wandering the halls of knowledge, seeing what little nuggets spark something.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

I’m reading Hitch-22 at the moment. Not a perfect book, but a window to a man with intellect, confidence, widely-read and wide-thinking.

David Eagleman’s Sum is a chewy, tasty delight. MJ Hyland’s This is How is a revelation.

What are your all-time favourites?

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams; Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino; The Whole Story and Other Stories – Ali Smith; Labyrinths – Jorge Borges; Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clark; Knowledge of Angels – Jill Paton Walsh.

And many many more 🙂

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

Writing. I’d miss reading a lot but I could derive a lot of fictional nourishment from radio and TV and movies. And especially if listening to audiobooks didn’t count as ‘reading’ ;-).

What’s your third R, and why?

I actually do like rithmetic. I did Maths A-level, I still sometimes do quadratic equations for relaxation.

Gold by Chris Cleave

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

This book was provided free of charge by Random House Canada in return for an honest review.

Chris Cleave’s first novel, Incendiary, about a terrorist attack on London, was released on 7 July 2005, a day that many of us set off for work as normal, only to find ourselves caught up in a terrorist attack on London. So learning that Cleave’s new novel, Gold, was about the London Olympics made me feel more than a little queasy.

The Other Hand (Little Bee in North America), Cleave’s second novel, was an effective—although plot-holed—and strongly written examination of capitalism and colonialism on the grand scale, and marriage and decent-personhood on the small scale.  It was, I thought, intelligent upmarket mainstream, so I was eager to read Gold.

But Gold is disappointing. It’s a plot heavy story about two cyclists, Kate and Zoe, who have been training together since they were teenagers, and who are both expected to make it to the Olympics—until the Olympic committee decides that only one person from each country can qualify for each event. Although the two have forged out a friendship over the years (a friendship that is largely impossible to believe in, given Zoe’s narcissistic nastiness and Kate’s saintly sadism as she constantly comes back for more) this plot twist pits them against each other yet again. Cleave has given Kate, and her husband Jack, who also has a complicated history with Zoe, a very ill daughter, to increase the levels of emotional manipulation. Writing is always emotional manipulation, of course, but there is something galling about not only seeing the strings but then being more or less instructed to pull them yourself.

There are a lot of people who enjoy literary fiction who also like to take an easy read to the beach. This is that kind of book: far more intelligently written than most genre stuff, but satisfying if you want a plot-driven page turner. But although I was sucked in by the pace and the competition—and Cleave does write very well about cycling itself, the familiar buzz of speed and effort, the adrenaline of competition—I felt rather sullied by having been forced to pick sides from these three utterly flat, unbelievable characters, almost fairytale-like in the lack of nuance. Even when Zoe is marginally rehabilitated from evil witch to passably human, it’s heavy-handed and unsatisfying. It’s disappointing too because Cleave does have the ability to figure out and elegantly describe the workings of the human mind, but that talent is too quiet to be heard above the rest of this novel.

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