Lincoln in the Bardo, Toby in the Lake District

This is where I have been this week.

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After a very long time without a holiday we finally managed to get away and have the most perfectly tranquil few days that I think it is possible to have. It ticked all the boxes on my short list of boxes to tick. Nice coffee, nowhere to be, nowhen to be there, a good book, and a nice view.

We got out a little bit, but November in the north of England isn’t always the best getting-out conditions. We did manage a little walking, taking our inadequate footwear on an adventurous hill climb along steep ravines that eventually took us to our destination; a waterfall with a rainbow in it.

Here’s the water fall with the rainbow in it;

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But never mind the holiday snaps, what did I read?

I read this years Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This was one of the short-listed books that I wanted to read but I didn’t get around to it until after it had won. The structure of this book is astonishing. It’s like a faux montage of historical texts, snipped and bound together to create a wider view of a short period of time during the American civil war when President Lincoln’s son died. Early on there are some lovely moments when the historical texts contradict each other a little, throwing doubt of the accuracy of any of the reports that followed. The book then seems to become a charming Shakespearian tale of the ghosts that inhabit the tomb that the president’s son has been placed in. All these elements coalesce into a story about loss and grief and letting go and moving on.

The two elements, the American civil way and the grief of losing a child (as well as the grief of losing a father) come together in some brilliant scenes where the ghosts inhabit the president and we see inside his head a little, but still with the lens of doubt about the authenticity of the reports we are given. And the way the story focuses on such a short span of time and uses that to muse on a much larger historical subject is masterful. Simultaneously small and sweeping in scope. I can’t think of another book I have read that is like this one.

And reading it in such a condensed way was lovely. It’s not often you can sit and read next to a lake for hours on end. Oh go on then, one more holiday snap.

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Why I Will Be Losing At Nanowrimo Again This Year

I really like nanowrimo a lot. I have tried it a few times but only reached the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month once. Last year I managed it, getting to the target word count a couple of days early but in previous years the attempts have fizzled out. It is hard to fit that kind of writing in without making some big concessions elsewhere. Last year was the most concerted effort I have ever given it, and it was nice to know that it was possible. I will give it another good shot this year, but I think I learned a few things about myself as a writer during last years nanowrimo and I want to keep them in mind.

There are a lot of reasons for trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but the reason I had last year was to get a chunk of a first draft written of a novel that I was very serious about. In fact, it is a novel that I was so serious about that I am still working on it now. And while I did manage to get a lot of writing done, afterwards, when I was looking at what I had, it was actually a lot less than the word count might suggest. Too much of what I had written simply wasn’t good enough, and not that it was just in need of a second draft and a tidy up. A lot of it was just wrong. So my second draft is essentially a second first draft.

Writing that many words in that short a time doesn’t come naturally to me. My average work count is usually about 600 words in a sitting, which really isn’t that many. But often the time I have available in a day yields about that many words. 50,000 words in a month is about 1700 words a day, which I can do, but I found that I started to hit diminishing returns.

There were some benefits to writing that wildly. I discovered a lot about the story and the characters. Some elements of the story emerged without me knowing they were there, and they have ended up being integral to how I am writing it now. I feel like I have a much greater connection to the characters. I feel like I know them better. And I think I know where I went wrong with the nano draft. I think I know what it is about the tone that doesn’t work, and that is a very useful thing to know. So while almost none of what I wrote last year is being retained, it was an essential part of what the book is becoming.

So what to do with this years nano? Well I don’t want to work on this book again, and I don’t want to try and write a new novel as I am currently very involved in this one. So I am going to be doing a little cheat and this year I will be writing a series of short stories. I have a few ideas queued up to get me started, and then I am just going to do some more of that wild writing and see what comes of it. If I can come out of November with a couple of drafts that I can work into something more finished it will have been okay. And I just really like joining in with nanowrimo. I don’t have much of a writing community, I have been meaning to try and join a writers group for ages but never seem to get around to it. Nano makes me feel like I’m in the thick of it with everyone else. So that’s what I’ll be doing, but I also won’t be too worried about the daily or monthly word count. If I fall a bit short, that’s okay, because some days just sitting at my computer and writing my 600 words feels like a real achievement.

In other news, I have a new short story up at The Dime Show Review called A Stranger in Your World. Go check it out, and while you’re there, have a look around. I really like this journal. They have some great shorts, as well as audio, and ten word stories typed on vintage typewriters, which I absolutely adore. They are gorgeous little things.

Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley

This week I read Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley’s short story collection. I have been reading an awful lot of short stories lately, partly because I went on a literary journal buying spree a while ago and they have been slowly arriving in the post. But I bought Bad Dreams because Tessa Hadley judged The Bridport Prize in 2016 so I figured since she read my story I should take a look at hers too.

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I thought Bad Dreams was absolutely brilliant. That’s why I’m writing about it here. (I don’t blog about books I don’t like, I tend to just put them away and move on.) The stories are made up of the most mundane ingredients that slowly come together to make something greater. All of her stories have a kind of airy triviality about the events and the characters, how small their lives are, how inconsequential it all seems, but then by the end of the story those trivial details have transcended and become bigger and more significant. I absolutely love how she does this. This is what realism can do so well. Taking all this stuff that is boringly familiar on the surface and contextualising it so that it seems almost magical.

A couple of the stories really stood out for me. Her Share of Sorrow is about a young girl who discovers reading, and then writing, and sets herself to writing a novel. Her family discover the novel and make fun of it a little, and so, crushed by this, she retreats and finishes it in secret. See how small that story sounds? But it evokes the private thrill of writing so perfectly that it almost has a transcendent quality.

But by far the best, for me anyway, was Silk Brocade. As soon as I finished reading it I instantly read the final few pages again. It is about two dressmakers who are hired to make a wedding dress for an old acquaintance. It about loss and change and drift and reunion in a most unexpected way. As much as I want to describe the clever, heart-breaking ending, what I think you should really do is try and read it for yourself. If you like that kind of thing. I think it is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

I enjoyed this collection of shorts so much I am certain to try one of her novels later. If I can ever make it through the mountain of short stories that I have recently acquired – made more difficult by the fact the Jeffrey Eugenides new short story collection Fresh Complaint came out recently, as well as the 50th issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, which is particularly lavish, even by their high standards. Here, look at it. Who can resist this?

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Kazuo Ishiguro Wins Nobel

So Kazuo Ishiguro won this years Nobel prize for literature. I don’t usually follow the Nobel prize particularly closely, other than the annual will he/won’t he speculation that Murakami brings, but seeing that Ishiguro had won really made me smile. I’ve only read two of his books, The Remains of the Day and Nocturnes, but I have to say that The Remains of the Day is a truly astonishing novel.

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I wonder what someone does after they win a Nobel prize? Do they just try and get on with their day? Do they go and potter in the garden and then pop to the supermarket? Do they just spend a week staring out of the window?

Today I re-read an old Guardian article about how he wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks. Obviously that doesn’t take all the inevitable, and I imagine considerable, editing that would have followed, but still; four weeks. That’s like a nanowrimo project winning the Nobel. I love the idea of the kind of immersion that he described, writing for more hours in the day than seems possible. There’s a bit in there about the idea that after writing for more than four hours you start to hit diminishing returns. I have to say I agree with that. The kind of mental endurance required to continue writing for so long in one sitting without the writing falling to pieces is astonishing to me.

There are quite of his other books that I want to read, and I think I’ll try and fit one in soon. It’s been a long time since I read the two that I have read. I think I read The Remains of the Day in 2010. Maybe 2011. I can’t remember. I remember that I loved the book so much I watched the Merchant Ivory adaptation the day after I finished it. That was probably a bit much, in hindsight, but Stevens is such a brilliant character I just wanted to hang out with him some more.

I don’t know why I am so pleased for Ishiguro to have won this years Nobel but I am. I hope he spends a week staring out of the window. He’s earned it.

Salt Publishing

Last week on Twitter I saw that Salt Publishing were doing a call for people to buy a book directly from them using the hashtag #justonebook. I like Salt publishing a lot. They have published some fantastic books, they do an annual anthology called Best British Short Stories – which is one of my more ambitious writerly aspirations – and they are based in Cromer, which is a lovely little seaside town in Norfolk of which I have some very happy memories. A set of happy memories that includes eating Jack Daniels flavoured ice cream down by the seafront, which was either the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted, or is simply another childhood memory that nostalgia has bent out of shape.

So wanting to support a small publisher that I admire a great deal I went over to their site and started looking for something to buy. I have to be honest, it never occurred to me before to buy books directly from the publisher. Normally I would just make a point of keeping an eye out for books I want when I am in bookshops. I think it would have been pretty easy to find most of the books on Salt’s catalogue that I liked the look of in one the bookshops near where I live, but I wanted to answer their call. I had a dig through their website and found quite a few books that I fancied but in the end I went for The Book Collector by Alice Thompson

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It is about a young woman who marries a man and have a child together and settle into a comfortable, idyllic life. She loves to read, he likes to collect books, but one day she finds a secret book of fairy tales in a safe in his study and that seems to precipitate the gradual unravelling of her mind. Seeds of doubt are thrown in and so she (and we) are unable to tell what is really going on, what is real, what is delusion. And when her husband hires a nanny to look after the child everything seems to slip further and further out of her grasp.

It is brilliantly written and completely compelling. It has a creeping darkness that constantly wrong foots you as you read. There are some clever little references to gaslights through the first half of the book that made me feel like I had figured out what was going on, but then chapters later it had me doubting myself, making me think I had read to much into an incidental detail. Is the book collector gaslighting his delicate wife, or is Alice Thompson gaslighting me? Or neither? Or both?

I had intended to finish reading it before writing this post but I still have about fifty pages to go. I was going to try to fit it in through the day but life conspired to keep me from it. Some days are like that. But I will finish it soon and then there are a number of other books that I want to read from Salt. There is The Other Word, It Whispers by Stephanie Victoire, Two Sketches of Happiness by Simon Kinch, and The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks. I actually can’t type all of the names of the ones that caught my eye because it would take too long. Just go over to Salt’s page and take a look for yourself.