Spring and Feathers

A few weeks ago it was Cambridge Literary Festival again and I ended up spending most of the weekend there. Usually I buy one or two tickets for whichever events I am most interested in, but this time around I saw seven different events. I had been most interested in seeing James O’Brien on Saturday evening, and Ali Smith on Sunday evening, and filled out the afternoons with whatever else was on that seemed like it might be interesting.

I was really excited to see Ali Smith. I had been hearing about her for years, then when she started her seasons series I took that as a chance to give her a read and really loved them. I had bought a copy of the latest, Spring, before I saw her speak but hadn’t got to reading it yet. I saw her twice on the Sunday actually, once in the afternoon where she presents three debut novelists that she has selected to feature, and then again in the evening where she spoke about the new book.

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There is something magical about Ali Smith. She wandered up onto the stage in a t-shirt that was a little too big for her, her floppy fringe hanging over her glasses and stood there looking a little awkward and out of place. And then she started talking. She speaks about reading and writing with such love, such gushing enthusiasm, it’s hard not to get swept up by her. And when she read from Spring in the evening it was one of the most captivating readings I have ever heard. The whole audience were just sat forward in their seats, hanging on every word she said. I got the feeling of being in the presence of someone really special, and I have a feeling her writing is really going to endure, even the specifically time-sensitive series she is currently writing. They are magnificent.

I had bought a ticket to see Max Porter just so that I would have something to do while waiting for the Ali Smith event to start. Max Porter wrote Grief is the Thing with Feathers and had just had a new book out called Lanny. I had been seeing Grief is the Thing with Feathers in the bookshops for months. It seemed appear out of a storm of critical acclaim and take over the tables by the front of the shops for ages. I remember seeing it and thinking cool title but never once picking it up and taking much of a closer look than that. Not sure why. But I needed something to do for an hour before Ali Smith so that I wouldn’t just be standing in the rain waiting, but then it turned out that Max Porter was amazing. He read from Lanny theatrically and was so interesting to listen to I decided I would read both his books. I had considered stopping and buying them both at the event and getting him to sign them but I didn’t have a lot of time to get across the city to the Ali Smith event, so I didn’t bother. I don’t usually stop for a signed book, even though I know I should, but this time I just didn’t have time.

So I bought both Porter’s books a couple of weeks later and have read them both now and let me tell you, they are brilliant. He writes with a kind of poetic, experimental, free-form prose style but the stories are grounded and honest and simple. Grief is about a family dealing with the death of the mother. In Lanny a small village is rocked by the disappearance of a local boy. Both books are kind of quiet and energetic at the same time, with some beautiful observations and turns of pace. They both have a sinister shadow cast over them, the crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Dead Papa Toothwort in Lanny. Porter is spectacular and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

Grief and Lanny

So it was a shame not to meet him and get a signed copy. He seemed like a really nice guy, but once I had made it over to the Ali Smith event and taken my seat I was glad I made it in time. I’m not going to lie, I fell a little bit in love with Ali Smith in that hour. I think everyone did. At the end, when we were all clapping and she was hiding her face with embarrassment I turned to look behind me and there was Max Porter, stood on the stairs. He must have rushed over after his signing was finished and crept in quietly while she was reading. He was clapping as enthusiastically as the rest of us, the same misty eyed admiration on his face as I had on mine while she shuffled off the stage in her big glasses and that baggy t-shirt.

It’s Been a While

I took a year off blogging. This wasn’t like other breaks I’ve taken from it, where I just forget to do it for two months. This was deliberate. I wanted to focus the time I had on working on my novel, and given the way life tends to squeeze writing time, I wanted to make sure I used what I had the best I could.

Given that I haven’t written anything on here for so long it means I have a years worth of reading that I can write about. So I thought I’d do a 2018 retrospective. These are some of the best books I read last year.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

I had been meaning to read this one for a long time. I kept hearing good things about it after it was nominated for the Booker prize. It has a beautifully earthy tone, but that manages to feel elevated and almost mystical in places. A gripping, nuanced story of an outside family. Probably the best book I read last year.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of the things I love most in my reading (and that I am constantly aspiring to in my writing) is a grounded subtlety that is quiet and personal with emotional honesty and confidence in the reader. This book is all of that. In fact, this writer is all of that. I read another of her books, Anything is Possible last year as well, and it was just as good as this one. This is a writer I will read more of.

Becoming Myself by Irvin Yalom

I have read a couple of Irvin Yalom’s psychology books before. They are made up of anecdotes taken from his life as a therapist, which tell these complex little stories of the struggles and triumphs of his clients. This book is a memoir which stood out to me for a chapter in which Yalom meets another writer, Viktor Frankl., a holocaust survivor who wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I have had Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom side by side on my bookcase for years, and suddenly they were together on the page. Yalom’s writing is gentle and generous and insightful, and this biography was fascinating. Not sure how good it would be if you have never read any of his others books, so if you’re interested, maybe read Love’s Executioner or Creatures of a Day first.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American, who decides to start a coffee company reintroducing coffee from Yemen to the world. He travels there to collect samples, and ends up stranded in the middle of the middle-east crisis, trying to get home with a suitcase of coffee samples under his arm. I love Dave Eggers, and I loved reading this book.

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

I feel like what Ryan O’Neill has done here is invent a new genre. A collection of short stories, masquerading as short biographies that are actually an interwoven, ensemble novel. Each chapter tells the story of a single Australian writer and slowly builds a cast of crack-pot, morally-ambiguous characters who criss-cross in and out of each others stories, building a rich, textured landscape, of a completely made up history of Australian literature.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This book was a gift. Before I left my last job one of the people I worked with gave me a copy of this, saying she wanted to share a book with me that had meant a lot to her. (I had recommended The End of Vandalism to her a few months before). I haven’t read a book like this one for a long time. I read a lot of Neil Gaiman when I was younger and this reminded of him in places. Elements of speculative fiction are layered over the story of a young boy coping with the terminal illness of his mother. It has that honesty that I love in good fiction, and is raw and unyielding with it. Truly excellent.

So there you are, a handful of great books I read last year. There were others, but scrolling through my goodreads 2018 shelf, these ones stood out a little.

Incidentally, it has now been ten years since I started using goodreads, and shelving every book I read by year. I thought about stopping using it, since there is something round and satisfying about ten years worth of anything. But scrolling through my goodreads shelves is just a really pleasant way of remembering my reading. I have added a link to my goodreads on the contact page. If you use it, feel free to add me as a friend.

The Vague Days of 2017

This is my favourite time of year, the vague days after Christmas where all the urgency has gone out of everything, all the pressures of the festive period are lifted. There’s still chocolates and biscuits and cake, but I don’t want to eat them. Every year, by about the 27th what I really want is abstinence and sleep. And it is hard not to reflect on the year, and look forward to the next, while I look out of the window at the inexplicably snowy landscape, sipping my mint tea.

2016 was the year I gave up self-publishing. 2017 was the year I saw some of my stories in print. 2018 is the year where I keep trying. It’s a pretty simple resolution. Just keep trying.

Normally for my last blog post of the year I look back at what I read and talk about some of my favourites, and scrolling through my goodreads 2017 folder I keep seeing Tom Drury’s name whiz past. After reading his first novel, The End of Vandalism, a while ago I decided to read the other two books in the series, and then his other two novels as well, and then, having enjoyed them all so much, I am reading The End of Vandalism again. His writing is so delicate and carefully assembled; all the humour is sad, all the sadness is funny. It’s hard to really describe what it is about these ambling novels that is so good. But they are perfect.

I also read Ali Smith for the first time this year, reading Autumn and Winter, and now very much looking forward to Spring and Summer, whenever they come out. I think as a writer sometimes it is hard to just read for pleasure, there is always a sense of mining other peoples brilliance for little clues to how it is done, and the way she has written about contemporary political issues in novels that you would struggle to describe as political is brilliant. It is like incidental commentary, rather than overt criticism, and still none of it gets in the way of the smaller, more personal, stories that the novel focuses on.

Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my long-time favourites, had a book of short stories come out, spanning the length of his career. He is one of the most discouragingly brilliant writers I have ever read, but I have thought that about him since I read The Virgin Suicides back in 2000. These short stories have lots of allusions to the novels that would come later, including one with a lot of medical detail on gender conditions that made me nostalgic for Middlesex.

I think my reading resolutions for 2018 are going to feature more re-reading. I don’t re-read very many books at all, and there are a number that I feel like I should. And I plan to spend more time having long browses of bookshops for novels I have never heard of. I used to do that a lot, but not so much recently. I made an enormous effort this year to up my writing and be more productive, and I want to keep that going, but sometimes writing can be like a second job, and as expansive as a second life. It could fill every minute you have if you let it. One of the best things I did this year (with my wife’s help) was structure my writing time. I wrote a blog post about it a while back. An average day doesn’t give you much time, and an average year breezes by in no time at all. For a long time I didn’t re-read because I had a feeling of urgency about reading as much as possible in the little time I have. It’s amazing how little of the average novel you actually remember.

Maybe I’ll make a goodreads shelf for the books I re-read, so that I’ll have a metric to feel good about. 😉

Happy new year.

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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Something To Say And A Voice To Say It In

So recently a big box arrived from Oregon with my free copies of Glimmer Train issue 100. I had been so eager to get these because this is the first time I have had a story accepted, and I badly wanted to see it. I have to tell you, it is a weird feeling seeing the words that I wrote on my rickety old laptop, on my old dining table, with my old cat getting in the way, in such a lavish, beautifully presented book.

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I first heard about Glimmer Train a long time ago when I first started writing and was trying to figure out who to send work to, since I didn’t even really know where to send it. I took a close look at them and quickly decided that they were much too good for the likes of me, and so I didn’t submit anything to them for a very long time. I was never very brave about sending work out, but then last year I decided on a different approach.

It was inspired by my wife’s job search strategy. A few years ago we moved town and she ended up out of work as a result and when she applied for jobs she applied only for the most exceptional jobs in her area that she could, figuring that as each application was unsuccessful she could slowly lower her sights until she got something. Then she would never have to wonder if she had missed out on something better. So I borrowed the strategy and submitted the best short story I had to Glimmer Train, never expecting it to get accepted, but that’s what happened. Old me never would have done that and so old me would have really missed out. Incidentally my wife also got the first job that she applied for. The strategy worked better than expected in both cases.

Since then I have been submitting to the kind of places I never would have dreamed of submitting to. I haven’t had another acceptance since, but I have had some favourable rejections from some pretty prestigious publications. It is very hard to explain why you are so happy to have been rejected by Granta, but when they encourage you to submit again it’s a very good feeling.

About a year ago I had almost given up on ever getting anything published. I figured I would never quit submitting, and I certainly wouldn’t quit writing, because it was way too important to me. But I had kinda made my peace with what the idea that I wouldn’t ever have any success. In a way, this was very freeing. One of the things I love about writing is I sort of end up explaining what I think to myself and not expecting that anyone else would ever read it meant I just wrote more naturally.

I’m a very thinky person but I know that I can end up thinking in circles. It’s hard to get anywhere with the same words rotating around in your head. But talking lets me hear the words and suddenly they sound different and I can figure which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. And writing has this same effect. Stuff emerges and I get to see it differently. So I figured that even if I never managed to publish anything, this on its own was a very useful thing to do. In my years of writing there have been a number of occasions when I could feel what I was doing had stepped up a notch. When I found a rhythm, or a voice, or a structure, and it all felt a little bit better than it was before. I think the point at which I started using writing as a way of figuring out my own thoughts was a big step up for me. To be a writer you need two things; something to say and a voice to say it in. For a long time I was working on the voice, but it took me a lot longer to figure out what I was trying to say.

So maybe this will be the only story I ever manage to publish but if it is I will still spend a huge amount of my time sitting here writing my little stories, if for no other reason that I find it so personally useful to do so. But for as long as I am writing I will be submitting, and I don’t think I will ever feel like there is a publication that I shouldn’t submit to ever again.