Monthly Archives: May 2014

Interview with author, Roger King

How do writers decide to become writers? Especially when they get very little encouragement? And when they have exciting and worthwhile jobs doing other things? I only know one published author well enough to ask these questions, Roger King, whose most recent book is just out in paperback: Love and Fatigue in America. So here is another first for Bookword: after the guest blog an interview with a published author.

99 RogerI met Roger in the summer of 1983 when he had just published his first novel, Horizontal Hotel. We have been friends ever since, despite living in close proximity in West London (he could see into my garden), his move to the US, and meeting infrequently, usually in the British Museum. We always spend some time talking about books and writing. I am grateful to Roger for introducing me to the novels of Shirley Hazzard, especially The Great Fire. Definitely a recommended read.

I interviewed Roger and found out stuff I didn’t know despite 31 years of friendship and reading all his books. We had been on a damp tour of sailing berths and the coast in South Devon – Salcombe, Slapton Sands and a break in Dartmouth. The interview took place in a deserted Dartmouth tea room.

How did you get into writing?

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a sickly child at the age of 8-10, and conceived a project to capture what it was like to be a child before I was too old to remember. I was convinced that grown-ups were unable to imagine what it was like to be a child, and that in a few years I would also be unable to. I never wrote it. But I retained the idea of life being too valuable to be lived just once, that it warranted being turned over, digested and recreated in some new form – the considered, treasured life. I held onto that.

When I first met you, you were also working as an international development consultant with the UN.

I secretly always planned to be a novelist, despite first studying food science and then going on to a masters and a PhD in agricultural economics. It was a long detour that led through work in twenty countries. It did give me something to write about. When I finally started to write seriously, without any background in literature or the arts, I felt encouraged by such American writers as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, who drew on direct experience and were not intimidated by literary authority.

Who encouraged you?

No one encouraged me. Everyone thought it was a stupid idea. At school I scored high marks in creative writing but poorly in spelling and punctuation, so I came out mediocre. At thirteen we had to choose between arts and sciences and science was the practical choice. My father worked in a factory and my family saw education as a route to finding a respectable, secure job not self-expression.

At twenty-two I went to study in America and met a friend who was studying for a PhD in literature. She gave me a reading list of all the writers I should had read – I still have it. It was all self-taught. I started reading seriously but after forty years I am still filling in some embarrassing gaps in my literary education – though somehow I got away with teaching postgraduate English literature along the way.

At the UN, working in agricultural economics, international development and working to alleviate rural poverty, the people I knew thought writing fiction was trivial – decadent – in comparison with the work we were doing. I thought it could express a fuller, more complex truth. The jury is still out.

In my thirties I made a key choice by turning down a post heading a UN project at Oxford University – my perfect job in terms of my first career. After agonising, I chose instead to rent a cheap room and write my first novel. I then sent the manuscript off and went to work in Bangladesh and Sierra Leone. It was accepted by Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch. I didn’t know until my return. She was surprised not to have heard from me for months after the book was accepted.

Up to that time I was completely naïve about being a writer. I was 35 and had never met anyone who worked in publishing, or any published writers. I had no idea of whether I was any good, or how difficult it could be to make a career. It was beginners luck – it’s never been that simple again.99 photo cover

What are you most proud of in your writing?

I am most proud of having persisted. And of trying to do something new and thoughtful with each new book. I like to think there is more to be discovered for readers who spend more time with the books. I’m interested in doing more than just writing stories.

What are you most disappointed by?

99 Love & FThat it has taken so long to write five books, especially the slow progress of the last 20 years. [Readers of Roger’s most recently published book, Love and Fatigue in America, will be aware that he has been living with a severe form of ME in the last two decades. This book is described as autobiographical fiction on its cover.]

Sea Level is probably my favourite book, adventurous in form and written partly in poetic prose. It was an intuitive and a cogent way of writing, and tough to make it work, that is make it compelling and enjoyable. It requires the reader to read in imaginative ways, and not be led into the book simply by the linear logic of plot.

Since you have been based in America, you have frequently spent time in artists’ colonies. What do you get out of them?

They are a godsend to all artists. For a time, they take away all distractions and all other responsibilities and allow you to go deeply into your work. Everyone there is an artist and everyone is working. It is in the air that art is significant and important – away from the world where art can be seen as a marginal diversion.

Colonies put you in touch with people in other arts, which feeds into one’s own work.

It’s a mainly an American thing, not so much in the UK. But they are now proliferating around the world. Artists colonies have been essential to me because ME leaves me with scarce energy and at colonies any energy I have can go into work.

What about creative writing course? Can creative writing be taught?

Creative writing courses are a good way to step away from contingent life and be with like-minded people for a time. But there is a limit to what can be taught – and little to be gained without the writer starting out with an original voice and an original way of seeing the world. You can’t teach people that; that’s in the soul. There’s a danger of producing a multitude of irreproachably competent professionals with nothing much to say.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have just completed the first full draft of a new novel. It is the opposite of autobiographical, being fully imagined and researched. It has to do with memory and violence. It traces the widening rings of effect from cold war violence in Latin America and Asia and how it’s internalised in the personal lives of three people in the present day.

Recommended recent reads?

  • I enjoyed Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, that leads from a life much like her own on a remote Canadian island to the interior life of a pacifist Japanese Kamikaze pilot in WWII. [I loved this too: see my review on this blog.]
  • Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man, has gentrifying outsiders inadvertently opening the recent wounds of war in Croatia.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s, fascinating and unsettling Childhood of Jesus, brings a queasy humanity to religious fable.
  • I enjoyed the light-footed wit and originality of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, as much as I was irritated by her more showy and overstuffed The Luminaries.
  • Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was also well stuffed, but a compelling pleasure.
  • James Salter’s All That Is is the work of the mature master.

99 Rogers pile

Roger’s published books:

  • Horizontal Hotel(1983)
  • Written on a Stranger’s Map(1987)
  • Sea Level(1992)
  • A Girl from Zanzibar(2002)
  • Love and Fatigue in America(2012) The link to the facebook page for this book is here. His web site is www.rogerking.org

 

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The Bear by Claire Cameron and more on the Baileys Women’s Prize

We know the bear attacks the family. We know this from the publicity, the blurb and from the Author’s Note which briefly retells the events of October 1991 when a couple who had pitched their tent on Bates Island in Alonquin Park, Canada, were attacked and partially eaten by a black bear. The author had worked as a summer camp counsellor in Alonquin Park around the time of the attack. She tells us,

The Bear is based on my memories and research of this bear attack. I added the children.

We know, too that the children will survive. (No novelist could kill children aged 5 and 2 and be longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.) So the tension of the story is not in the question of whether the children will make it, but how they will manage this.

98 The BearIt took me a long time to read this novel because I found that I could only read a chapter at a time, so powerful was the emotional force of the tale being told by Anna. Each chapter was quite short and required a little work to turn the child’s description into a sense of what might be happening. This made it especially vivid.

Here’s how it begins:

I can hear the air going in and out of my brother’s nose. I am awake. He is two years old and almost three and he bugs me lots of times because I am five years old and soon I will be six but it is warm sleeping next to him. I call him Stick. He always falls asleep before me and I listen to the air of his nose. I can hear my parents’ voices. They are further away than I can reach and whispering because they think I can’t hear. I let out a squeak to let Mummy know I am awake and she says, ‘We’re right here’ from too far away. I squeak again and the zipper undoes and I can see the sky in the crack. Her cool hand brushes my hair and her fingers touch my cheek. ‘Sssh, Anna,’ she says, and the sky zips away again. When I am inside the tent the outside is far away. (p3)

Here is a child who already has fears. And we must follow her through a bear attack and an escape with responsibility for her brother. And we also know, from this first paragraph, that Anna is a loved child, and one who feels safe in contact with her family. How will she survive when they are not there to support her?

Even before this question has much time to form we are into the chaos of the bear attack, the stowing of the children so that they survive and their escape hours later to find ‘mess mess mess’. The details of the mess leave the reader in no doubt about the horror that has taken place.

Anna proves very resourceful, protecting her brother and herself from further attack, and managing to defeat the real and imagined dangers of the lakeshore. She achieves much of this following the guidance that her parents established, and by remembering what her parents had done, or told her to do in the past. Anna’s thoughts repeatedly return to the importance of being more than one, even if it is only to be two with her little brother. So when she loses her brother we know she is in for a dark time.

I call him and he doesn’t say anything back. I wait and I think he will come and he doesn’t come. I feel a big cry in my eyes and my stomach goes around. ‘Stick!’ I yell again and no one answers me. I am one. (p136-7)

98 Claire CameronThis is a writer who knows children and the fears of parenthood. She is able to convey the emotions that Anna is not yet old enough to name through the physical symptoms. It is one of the major achievements of this novel. Another is that it celebrates the voice of the child, and demonstrates the importance of paying attention to what children say. What does a child understand, what are they capable of, how can they articulate what they have experienced?

A particularly telling creation is the crayon lady, who appears in the hospital after the children have been rescued. Anna is reluctant to draw Mummy as she last saw her on the island, but because she likes to please she tries to draw something. Eventually Anna takes the red crayon, prompted by the crayon lady’s.

She hands me the red.

There is a lot of red left and surprise because so much is on the lady’s mouth and I wish she would go away so I want to take her red. I put it in my fist like a baby holds a crayon and I start to press hard and make the paper go as red as I can and all over the place. … I don’t like the lady and I hope she feels sad because I used her red and I look at her to see. She is looking at the picture and she has one hand on her chest and one on her mouth and she says, ‘Oh, we’ll need to work that through.’ (p168)

This works in several different ways, not least because this child will indeed have much to work through. But Anna is also capable of rejecting the well-intentioned but mistaken assumptions of the therapist. As readers, we know what she has witnessed, but the crayon lady holds on to her preconceived ideas.

Through the same voice, we pick up Anna’s ambivalent feelings about her younger brother, as well as her ignorance of the danger they had endured.

The novel celebrates the resourcefulness of young children, and the importance of their voice.

And here’s a link to a video clip of Claire talking about the book on You Tube.

98 Line PainterI decided to read this book because I met Claire in Toronto. But I am very pleased to recommend it, and also her first book: The Line Painter.

The Bear is a very unsettling book, and one that deserves its place on the longlist of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. I was sorry it didn’t make it through to the shortlist, but the novels that did are as follows:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
  • Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
  • Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 4th June.

My reading group will be reading A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing next and has also put The Bear on its list.

Have you read any of these? Have you read The Bear? What were your responses?

 

Author photo borrowed from ifoa website (International Festival of Authors).

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Poetry in the garden

I sit in my cottage garden in the sun, for an hour, reading poems. I am looking for poems on the theme of ‘journeys’ to share with the poetry group that meets in our local library next week. Some people write poems on the theme, or find them from within their previous works. I don’t write poetry, but I am enjoying browsing through my shelves, and look forward to reading it aloud. It’s a special pleasure.

97 poetry in gdnThe sun is mild, occasionally obscured by clouds. No mechanical, man-made sounds reach me, just the droning of the bees in the hedge behind me, the arguments of the rooks who live in the trees by the old people’s home, and the clicking of plastic guttering in the sun.

I work through my pile, getting distracted by the pleasure of the task and by poems not about journeys.

I try the anthology called Staying Alive, which has a whole section on journeys and the road, and I note Adrienne Rich’s poem. This is the first line

A wild patience has brought me this far

I had remembered it as a wild impatience, which was more appealing to my ambitions and character when I first encountered the poem in the ‘70s. The rhythm is better in my version I think. But I must slow down and read the poem more closely. A wild patience? The lines of the childhood chant come into my head, which associates patience with good girls in an adult view.

Patience is a virtue

Virtue is a grace.

Grace is a little girl

Who didn’t wash her face.

That puts patience in her place for me. How can patience be wild? The juxtaposition of these words begins to create ripples in my head.

I move on to Robert Frost, Stopping in Woods, and recall walking in Robert Frost’s woods a few years ago on a visit to Amherst (when I also visited Emily Dickinson’s house). It was May, so there was no snow and no ponies. I read this poem to a group of travellers on Stewart Island, on Christmas Day a couple of years later – also no ponies and no snow but miles from home. Stewart Island is about as far south as normal people can travel without being in Antarctica.

97 Poetry booksAnd then I meet again Michael Donaghy’s poem Machines about writing poetry, cycling and harpsichord music. It starts …

Dearest, note how these two are alike:

This harpsichord pavane by Purcell

And the racer’s twelve-speed bike.

Then I loose myself in an anthology of poems by women in the 1930s. I marvel again at the steadfastness, endurance and perceptions of that generation of women who flourished between the wars. I find a poem by Winifred Holtby called Trains in France, the sounds of trains haunting the night, reminding her of wartime trains transporting people to and from the Front.

I move on to Billy Collins who can always be relied upon to write quirky, witty and intelligent poems about everyday things. I find two that I might read to the poetry group: Passengers and Walking across the Atlantic. I always enjoy the last three lines of Walking across the Atlantic.

97 b collins' feet

Drowsiness begins to infect me and I imagine lying on the lounger on the lawn all afternoon, reading, as the bees drone, the rooks caw and all seems well with this corner of England.

In my head, words are singing, like poetry when it is read aloud. In my head my own words become poetic, lyrical and full of intelligent observations. My mood is violently broken by a call on my mobile phone about PPI.

These are the poems I finally chose:

  • Walking across the Atlantic and Passengers by Billy Collins.
  • Trains in France by Winifred Holtby.
  • But I might add Honeymoon Flight by Seamus Heaney for the imagery of sewing that he uses to write about marriage.
  • And Craig Raine’s A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, which presents the world and its people from a fresh, Martian, perspective.

Have you any suggestions of poems connected with journeys?

 

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Reading with others

Anything you enjoy is better done in the company of fellow enthusiasts. I love talking about reading and books. Here are my six top ways of sharing reading.

 1. On the bus

Actually it has only happened once, or rather twice but about one book. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I was preparing for a reading group. ‘Are you enjoying it?’ a total stranger asked as he sat down next to me. We had a conversation about it how he had always intended to read it. ‘How are you getting on with The Master and Margarita?’ asked the second. I got a 4 minute critique. ‘One of my favourite books,’ she said before getting off.

Great! I thought – conversations on buses, about books. I thought about the conductor who sang calypsos on the 38 bus, and began to imagine poetry readings on the 210 and a 73 bus route reading group. On reflection it seems that the conversations were more a response to the book than the potential of buses for such conversations.

96 73 Bus

 2. With friends

Naturally, friends recommend, deconstruct, give me (I can’t bring myself to say gift me) books. Thanks to Rose I found Sebald, and my sister recommended Barbara Kingsolver years ago. I read Alone in Berlin recently, by Hans Fallada, recommended by a friend (thanks Jennifer). Most meetings with friends include enquiries about current reading and lead to most pleasurable talk about books.

3. When I have my hair cut

Usually the conversation is about holidays. I’ve never sat and stared at myself, all red eyed and too like my parents, and discussed books before. Great stuff. Recently, after 9 months I decided to have my hair cut, and went to see Gill Goddard in Totnes, who subscribes to this blog. Gill did ask me for my holidays recommendations – so watch out!

 4. In a reading group

96 J&JLove this – being required to read a book I may not have considered before, and then discussing reactions to it, hearing other people’s responses, and sometimes seeing things differently. Next up for discussion in my group is Julie & Julia by Julie Powell. It’s about food and blogging and life. Lots to enjoy and talk about there then. The first book I ever read for a reading group was one I had decided would be too difficult: A Child in Our Time, by Ian McEwan. A young child disappears from a supermarket … I am glad I have faced that one, and (like much of McEwan) it’s a tough starting point.

5. On courses

A day talking with other people, usually women, who I have not met before, and learning about books on a particular theme. What’s not to love? While I was in London I attended courses at City Lit. I remember one excellent course on women’s short stories at the end of the C20th. We focused on the collection edited by Elaine Showalter called Daughters of Decadence (Virago). And that led me on to Women Who Did, a Penguin Classic collection of stories 1890-1914. That was a good course, one that extended my reading.

A good way to talk books in Devon came my way a couple of weekends ago. I attended a day in the Reading Room on madwomen in the attic. Oh, the pleasure, an indulgence as so many of the participants described it, of a day looking at fiction, in an environment entirely consonant with the conversation! The house was on a hill, just outside Chagford. The drive through Dartmoor was a treat, the refreshments and lunch entirely delicious, and the room itself comfortable, warm, everything a reading room should be.

96 2 booksThe day provoked, entertained, introduced new ideas and we enjoyed much laughter. Again I want to revisit some of the books we explored: The Awakening by Kate Chopin and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Gilmour Perkins are two of them. Thank you to Leah, Naomi and Frances.

6. With children

96 Reading with motherThe physical closeness of reading to a small child, watching them engage with the text and pictures, sharing the love of certain books – I spend hours doing this. Current favourites with my nearly 3-year-old grandson are still the Aybeeceedee book (in the picture), and also Not Now Bernard, by David McKee. I’ve been reading with both grandsons since they were just weeks old. Magic. I hope to read to their children in time. (That’s my daughter in the picture, by the way.)

96 Not now BAnd there is another way I am coming to enjoy conversations about books …

 7. Blogs.

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An Author in Andalucía

Welcome to Jon Stein, my first guest blogger! Jon and I go to the same writing group where he read us a version of this post and told us about his novel. He’s got some great ideas. It’s an interesting and ambitious project and I look forward to hearing more about its progression.

95 Author in Andalucia

Decisions, decisions…

What would you do on your last night in Seville? I was waiting for a bus near the Barqueta, not far from the river, wondering if I should I go and hear flamenco or meet my friend Nino for a drink in the Bohemia. I had spent the last three months in Andalucía, escaping the British winter and researching my novel. Now, after happy stays in Malaga, Granada and Córdoba, I had just one evening left in my favourite city of all: proud, sensuous Seville.

Each city I visited had inspired me in its own way, suggesting new ideas for stories or characters as well as providing a bit of blog-fodder. But I hadn’t lost sight of my main work-in-progress and had even come up with a title: ‘The Sarcophagus of Seville’. These last three months, for a couple of hours nearly every morning, I’d been reading and writing. I’d amassed a file of papers, articles, maps and flyers and very soon I’d be home in Totnes, needing to make sense of it all.

The Coffin in the Carpark

The background of my book is the Jewish history of Spain – a dramatic two thousand year old story culminating in the Expulsion of 1492 when Jews were given the choice of converting to Catholicism or leaving the country. Today, Spain is reclaiming its Jewish past – perhaps in an effort to attract investment and talent into a country in crisis. But while many towns and cities are promoting Sephardic (Jewish Spanish) culture, Seville struggles to come to terms with its role as a flashpoint for anti-Jewish activity in medieval Spain. Now the only visible reminder of the city’s once vibrant community is an unmarked sarcophagus, displayed incongruously in an underground car park.

This curious artefact, unearthed in the 1990s when the medieval Jewish cemetery was excavated during a nearby development, has been the catalyst for my research into the history of Seville. It has provided a symbol for the fate of the Spanish Jews as well as a mystery for the novel to explore: who does the sarcophagus belong to, and why is it there? In the same line as various successful books in recent years, I want to combine two stories: a historical plot following the disintegration of a Jewish family through the upheaval of the late 14th century, with a contemporary story focusing on my character’s discovery of the sarcophagus and subsequent search for its meaning. The setting for both strands is the barrio Santa Cruz, the picturesque tourist area which preserves the narrow winding streets of the former juderia.

The Troubadour’s Tale

After several years of reading, writing and research (much of it happily conducted in Spanish libraries, cafes and bookshops), I’ve finally reached the ‘pre-draft’ stage. I’m simply letting myself write; following a number of threads and themes, hoping to clarify my ideas and distil the story from a mass of possibilities. I’m giving myself about four months to get a first draft completed and I’m looking to support my effort through reading books on the craft of writing, as well perhaps as doing some online study or attending a residential retreat.

Of course there’s other work to do in planning a new book: most of us these days also have to market and promote ourselves. Last year I devised a performance piece based on the material I’ve gathered – playing the part of a medieval troubadour who tells the story (albeit with the assistance of a guitar and a PowerPoint presentation). I imagine I’ll be getting involved with social media, as well as attending reading and writing groups and, of course I’m always available to contribute a guest blog!

Only connect

If you’re curious to hear how ‘The Sarcophagus of Seville’ is developing, or want to have a look at what else I’ve written, please visit www.jonstein.co.uk. Perhaps you’ve written a book yourself, have a Spanish story to share, or even some advice for an aspiring author. If so, do get in touch.

Oh, and what did I do on my last night in Seville? Met Nino for a drink and heard some flamenco!

 

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