So Long, 2009



Everybody reckons it's the end of the decade, though it seems to me that you'd want to have started counting at Year 0 for that to really be the case - but never mind, I'll gag and restrain my inner (well, quite outer) nerd and we'll carry on.  I'll be thirty in 2010, which means I'll have my own decade to assess soon enough, so for now I'll stick to peering back at just this year.  It's been rather insane - quitting my job, moving to Manchester, starting the MA - and though it's probably been the worst year I've had, financially speaking, since I began work, and therefore rather stressful,  it's been a fantastic one for evaluating priorities and goals and ambitions. I haven't done as much writing as I'd like, but I've still done way more than before.  There's the MA, which has been an excellent experience so far; I've had several publications, been a finalist in a competition and had my first public reading; I've had drinks with Martin Amis!  I've gained a brother-in-law and become an aunt:



I've gotten a gig reviewing books for Bookmunch, and I've secured a work-experience position in a Manchester arts organisation starting in the New Year.  I've read 108 books, and I'm hoping to finish number 109 by midnight. (Nerdiness clearly creeping back in...)  I've been to the cinema considerably less than I would normally, but that's a consequence of the job-quitting and student-becoming; we did however manage to bring my sister's niece on her very first trip to the movies.  She seemed to like it:



The crappier aspects of the year (illness in the family, lack of cash, moronic tenants who can barely turn on the cooker without filing a complaint, my own insane landlord) - well, these have been overshadowed by the better things, though I can't imagine 2010 will be as turbulent.  I'm finishing off 2009 in a ridiculous down-key bedridden mess, having followed up a cosy family Christmas with a bastard of a flu/cold/unidentified virus, to quote my GP, who of course wouldn't see me, but gave me this very specific diagnosis over the phone along with an authorisation code for anti-viral medication.  Happy New Year, from me and my pal, Tamiflu.

Happy Christmas!

I'm back in Dublin for a week; it's my nephew's first Christmas, and though he's not old enough to get worked up about Santa, the excitement over my glasses knows no bounds:





We've been doing the rounds of relations over the past week, and last Friday we went with my partner's parents on a day trip to Oxford, where we witnessed the ransacking of Borders a few days before the final closure:



I bought a couple of books (Generation A and Glover's Mistake, at half-price) but it was a really depressing experience, and I wonder how many of the people raking through the leftovers were regular customers of the store before it went under?  But maybe I'm being too cynical.  Regardless, I hope all the ex-Borders employees manage to enjoy the holidays despite everything.

Over in my own corner, I've got quite a bit of university work to get done over Christmas, and Santa's also bringing lots of books - Wolf Hall, After The Fire, A Still Small Voice, some Paris Review interviews, The Year of the Flood, Remainder, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and more.  So the work will struggle to make itself seen over the parapet of reading, and there's also babysitting, bringing my niece on her first cinema trip, and the usual glut of eating, drinking, and festive Doctor Who. 

Happy Christmas Eve, internet!

MA Week Twelve

A week late, again; well, never mind.  Here's my last MA post of 2009!  Get ready for my versions of: the final seminar of our Forms of Fiction course, our last Martin Amis session (we didn't kidnap him, more's the pity, I could have brought him over to Dublin for Christmas and it would have been ace, he could have dressed up as Santa and everything, the dude's missing out), and our last workshop with one of the tutors, who's not around next semester.  Plenty of finality to go round, eh?

So, Forms of Fiction was all about Muriel Spark, and The Girls of Slender Means.  I'd read a couple of her novels before, and I get a real kick out of her style - so acerbic and insightful and funny.  Not everybody was as impressed - I think there was something of a girl/boy divide here, with the boys coming down against poor old Muriel, but hey, I could be misrepresenting them.  I loved it anyway.  Things we talked about in relation to the novel were time (objective time versus subjective time, and anachrony, or flash-backs and flash-forwards), the effects on people of closed communities (she does this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie too - fantastic book!), the doubling of characters throughout the text (Selina, Joanna; Joanna, Nicholas; Nicholas, Rudie, etc), the use of poetry and recitation, notions of love (romantic or pragmatic), private lives and trivial events in the context of history and world events (1945 setting), how the author changes the reader's perspective on a character as the novel progresses (Selina, Joanna), idea of evil and virtue with the backdrop of religion (bearing Spark's own Catholicism in mind).  It was a pretty full-on seminar, now that I revisit my notes.  I've got an essay to hand in at the end of the Christmas break for this course, and I'm writing it on this novel, so I'm somewhat bogged down in Spark right now, though not as much as I ought to be, perhaps - but, dudes - CHRISTMAS!   And it's snowing, snowing more than I've seen it snow in this country before, so essay-writing is getting shunted a little to the left as I'm distracted by trying to wrap myself around the radiator.

Okay.  The workshop was good; we looked at a short story and a novel extract, both very different from one another, and it was a good session.  We did a writing exercise based on John Cheever's style, and our tutor, who'll be away next semester, but returning in the summer to supervise some people's dissertations, wished us luck and a merry Christmas.  So merry Christmas, tutor, and we'll see you as and when the fates dictate!  (Well, in my case, that'll be in January, hopefully, for a delayed post-workshop one-on-one session, and I'm looking forward to it.)

On Tuesday, we had out very last seminar with Martin Amis.  We'll be just like normal punters next semester, without our shockingly impressive writer sitting up there at the front, rolling his fags and telling us stories about Nabokov and Burgess and Kingsley.  Boo.  He'll be back during the year for another couple of public talks, including the launch of his new book in February, but it just won't be the same.  For this last session, we read Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe, a book I originally read almost eight years ago while camping in Avignon in the stone-splitting heat, and though I enjoyed it then, it didn't blow me away so much this time - perhaps reading it in an actual Northern town, in the rain, in the dark, in the cold, made it all a little too grim and mundane, when from a French campsite it had all seemed good and imaginative.  Anyway, there were aspects I still liked - it's a very funny book, for instance, more so than I remembered - and others that I didn't - the one-dimensional female characters were especially frustrating.  I haven't seen the film, so I don't have that basis of comparison, but Martin Amis seemed to recommend it.  He was a big fan of the book; mostly, this term, we've all been heaping praise on novels that he's then ripped to pieces, but this time we were all giving it six or six-and-a-half out of ten, and he gave it, I think, an eight, which was high praise indeed.  So he talked about how it was the first real working class novel, and how Sillitoe's use of dialect (it's set in Nottingham) was noteworthy when it was originally published.  He reckoned it should really be called Saturday Night and Monday Morning, seeing as Sundays don't feature so heavily in the story, and we talked about how, according to the blurb inside some people's copies, Sillitoe had composed much of it out of of old short stories and poetry, so it's a wonder, really, that the novel has much of a structure to it at all.  We all reckoned the Christmas scene didn't really fit into the narrative flow.  Amis said that it wasn't a protest novel, but almost a celebratory hymn to the life of a factory worker, as Arthur, the protagonist, doesn't try to escape his job or his life, and in fact sings its praises, comparing it to the privations of the war years that preceded it.

We got on to talking about the writer's life - not Sillitoe, but the writer, generally - and Amis repeated what he'd told us before - as a writer, your subject is yourself and the world, and your job is to be supremely individual.  He said that growing up as the child of two writers (Kingsley and his wife, Martin's stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Howard) completely deglamourised the profession; nothing, he said, is more banal than what your parents do.  He said that the result of that was in his remaining somewhat immune to the egotistical ups and downs of the typical writing life. Novels lay you bare, he said, and he quoted Ballard, who claimed that the act of writing a novel was more intimate than climbing into bed with somebody.  Amis described it as the peeling off of one's head.  He asked if we had any questions for him, and one girl pointed out that our group's reading list hadn't featured any female writers, and the other group had only one (Jane Austen, in their first session), so who would Amis consider his favourite female writer?  He answered George Eliot (he'd said the previous week that he think Hilary Mantel is extremely talented), and then he spoke about male and female writers.  He didn't (sadly? happily?) make any soundbite-worthy sweeping statement on the topic (sorry, Daily Mail), and really just compared Jane Howard's writing habits to Kingsley's - and I'd argue, as might you, oh reader! that you can't carry that across to apply to Men and Women, but he wasn't making a considered argument, just chatting about his parents' work habits, so I'll let it slide.  He finished up by telling us to write for nobody except ourselves, to ignore the market, and to write what we want to read.

And that was that.  Bye, Martin.  We love you.

Right.  Um.  Well, I guess I should do my essay now.

Tracey, Tracey.

Just a quickie.

I'm not a fan of Tracey Emin, neither of her art, nor the avowed working-class pretensions that run happily alongside her plans to skip the country because the bastards want her to pay her full quota of tax (though Jonathan Jones would disagree with me).  Anyway, this made me smile. (via)

Fiona Robyn's Blogsplash




Here's an interesting take on the virtual book tour; the book itself will be on tour! Fiona Robyn is going to blog her next novel, Thaw, starting on the 1st of March next year. The novel follows 32 year old Ruth’s diary over three months as she decides whether or not to carry on living.

To help spread the word she’s organising a Blogsplash, where blogs will publish the first page of Ruth’s diary simultaneously (and a link to the blog).

She’s aiming to get 1000 blogs involved – if you’d be interested in joining in, email her at fiona@fionarobyn.com or find out more information at http://www.fionarobyn.com/thawblogsplash.htm.

I'm taking part, why don't you?  It's an interesting experiment, kind of like the free taster stands in the supermarket, and gives a larger sample of the book than Amazon's 'search inside' facility.  I know Shya Scanlon's been serialising his novel, Forecast, over a variety of online litmags, and I think it's been a great success, but this seems like a more personal touch - the rest of the chapters will all be on Fiona's own site, but the first chapter will reach so many more people via this saturation technique.  Hopefully people will still buy the physical book, though!


Nick Flynn review

My review of Nick Flynn's The Ticking is The Bomb is now live at Bookmunch.  Excellent book, though I now know more about torture than might be considered normal.

ps

The University of Manchester website has an article up about the Amis/James aging debate that I sort of blogged about last week - have a look here.

MA Week Eleven

Somebody arrived at this blog yesterday by googling 'neutrally calm'.  I'm pleased the internet advertises me by playing down the partisan panic. I hope the visitor was pleased and will return.

Anyway, this post is coming to you a week late.  I'm getting more slack with the posting as the semester comes to an end, and the next lot of submissions nears - 6000 words of fiction and another 3000 word essay, due after the break.  This is week twelve, now, and with Christmas looming, I'll update these last few sessions as quick as I can before I get all tied up in travel and packing and wrapping and, er,  writing those submissions.

So - week eleven, in Forms of Fiction, was all about Roberto Bolano's By Night In Chile and the conflict between aesthetic and ethical thinking in our response to writing.  We looked at Bolano as a post-national writer, in the same way as Borges was; they saw nationalism as an excuse for bad writing.  Death and time are appropriate themes for a writer (echoing Joyce) and Bolano fictionalises various 'national' writers in the novel, parodying the pointlessness of that kind of success.  A writer should be representative only of his art, Bolano thought, not his country.       

With the ethics/aesthetics thing, we looked at the way art seems to thrive in oppressive right-wing dictatorships - our tutor pointed out Yeats, Pound and Eliot.  He asked of any of us would refuse to read somebody based on their politics - somebody mentioned Kipling, but most of us struggled to think of an example.  I remembered how Jake and Dinos Chapman have re-appropriated Hitler's watercolours in various of their pieces (they had an exhibition of these at the White Cube last year, it was excellent) but I couldn't think of any kind of literary thing.  Our tutor then told us that Lionel Shriver is openly associated with unionist groups in Northern Ireland and he said that based on interviews with her in which she's been very insulting of the Irish people, he's never been able to read her fiction.  He's Irish, as am I.  I've read Kevin (thought it was okay), the Post Birthday World (loved it) and Double Fault (awful crap) - I googled Shriver after class and read some quotes of hers about the Catholics in Northern Ireland, and I was seriously unimpressed.  She was so arrogant and dismissive of the other side of  the argument and insinuated that everyvody non-Unionist was pretty much likely to blow up England.  I'm not especially affiliated to one side or the other in that debate, but I can say now that I won't be following her career with bated breath from now on.

Anyway, back to Bolano - we talked about  his unreliable narrator, the idea of satirizing testimonial literature, the importance and meaning of art (art above politics?  So back to the ethics/aesthetics thing) and the idea of writing history - how do you  impose a hierarchy, decide what's more important in the account?  Phew, all the big issues.  Next time, it's Muriel Spark and The Girls Of Slender Means.

In the afternoon, we had three pieces to workshop - two novel extracts and a short story - and in the evening, there was a public discussion between Martin Amis and Clive James about literature and ageing.  Mainly, Amis was a little pessimistic about the whole thing, talking about how writers lose their ear as they get older (Updike is his favourite example, being not so keen on Updike's final story collection) and James was far more cheerful.  We all left the hall wanting his to be our collective grandfather.  I didn't take any notes, so this is a rather useless account (see my friend Daisy's blog for more detail) and then next morning I have to say I was less than wide awake for our fortnightly Amis seminar.  We were looking at Roth's Goodbye Columbus, which I really enjoyed, and though Martin did get a little nit-picky about Roth's sentences at times, and criticised the character's intentions and the sub-plot about the kid in the library, it was still a pretty upbeat session, though looking at my notes, I'm not sure what we talked about for almost two hours.  He did go around the room asking about our reading habits, and I remember blabbering on about how reading is, like, THE BEST THING EVER (I do really believe this, it's by far my favourite pastime, but I probably sounded like a suck-up prat) and then I think I went home and had a nap.  I'd normally do a separate post about these Amis sessions, but I was very negligent about the note-taking, and it'd be a very short account to put out on its own.  This week we've got our final session, on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and then it's farewell to our private Martin Amis groups.  So I guess if we're going to kidnap him or hold him to ransom or whatever, it'll be done by the time I post again.  You'll have to wait and see. 

Do I sound like I know what I'm talking about?

Tom Vowler, over at How To Write A Novel, has interviewed me about the MA - have a look

And I swear to the flying spaghetti monster, I'll do some actual MA posting here soon - just as soon as I get the Christmas shopping, next week's reading, and all the laundry done, and watch several more episodes of True Blood.  I'm totally on it. 

publication bits and pieces

I've got a piece of flash fiction in the winter 2009 issue of The Battered Suitcase, out now - hurray!  Check it out.

My story 'Ready, Set', originally published in the Northville Review (thanks Erin!) was reprinted in November's Decongested Tales - print!

My review of Jose Saramago's new memoir, Small Memories, went live on Bookmunch a little while back.

Plus, I found out that a tiny piece of flash fiction I wrote ages ago has made it into the forthcoming Cinnamon Press Microfiction anthology.  It won't be published until September 2010, but that'll give you all time to get very excited.

MA Week Ten - guest lectures

Last Thursday we had two guest lectures, one after the other.  I'd cleared this day of day-job stuff, so I felt almost on holiday, and it was all very exciting.  Kate McCoy, who runs writing workshops in HMP Styal, came to talk to us about an internship programme they'll be running next semester with students from our course.  Three students (or six, if they do a second round during the summer) will get to jointly run a six-week long workshop course in Styal, which is a women's prison out by Manchester airport.  So they'd come up with a lesson-plan, a series of projects, or one extended projected to deliver over six three-hour workshops with a group of women prisoners in April/May 2010.  I've put my name down, it sounds really interesting.  I haven't really done any teaching since I was an undergraduate and I was one of four students who ran a literacy centre to help mature and underprivileged students on access courses to develop their writing and essay planning skills in preparation for university.  Still, because it's a team effort, we'll be able to help each other out, and we'd have Kate there too, as support and back-up.  Anyway, I might not get selected, so we'll have to wait and see.

Afterwards, two representatives from Mulcahy-Conway, a literary agency, came and chatted to us. They sponsor a manuscript contest each year for the fiction strand of our course - they read our dissertations (15,000 words of prose) and shortlist three - the winner gets £1000 and an agent.  They were announcing the winner after a reading of the finalists' work that evening, so came in to do a Q&A with us beforehand.  It was interesting stuff, and they were very friendly and informative people, and it turns out that one of them is the agent for Evie Wyld, whose book After The Fire, A Still Small Voice I've just this week asked my mum to get me for Christmas, after it won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize, beating off people like Chimamanda Adichie, no less.  So she's a sharp agent!  The readings later were in the committee room of Manchester Central Library, a lovely room that I keep wandering back to for various events, and the winner for the money and agents was Marli Roode, who I've mentioned before, and who read a very intriguing extract from her novel.  Go, Marli!  The other two finalists were also offered contracts with the agents, as it happened, so that was cool, and got us all very fired up and determined to get stuck into our own manuscripts.    

So a good and busy and writerly day was had by all.

MA Week Ten

Last Monday, the tenth week of the course, we looked at The Catcher In The Rye, by J.D. Salinger.  I say 'we', but I actually looked at By Night In Chile, by Roberto Bolano, getting my weeks all mixed up; everybody else turned up to class with the Salinger, I turned up swearing, and tried to dig out all my teenage impressions of Catcher, while reading over somebody else's shoulder.

Issues that we examined in relation to the book: first, our impressions of Holden - did we find him sympathetic or irritating?  The consensus was that as young teenagers we'd mostly found him sympathetic; as older teenagers, or in our early twenties, we'd found him a pain in the ass; and as older adults, we'd felt sorry for him again.  We looked at his reliability as a narrator, his admission that he's a liar, his hyperbole and embellishments of the truth; his motivations as a narrator, including the way he might be seen to use those embellishments as a psychological tactic  to protect  himself in a world he sees as hostile. We examined his use of role-playing, and escape as a repeated tactic throughout the narrative; Holden's emotional state, his second-guessing of himself, his conflicted reactions to other people and their motivations, the internal contradictions of his feelings about himself and others and the situations in which he finds himself.  We looked at how the easy-going laid-back narrative voice masks moments of real darkness, and how Holden wants to remain a child (and idolizes his young sister, who embodies that easy childhood innocence he feels that he has lost) and yet he is attracted to the adult  world of sexuality, although it scares him.  He seems to be afraid that adulthood will force him to play a role, to not 'be himself', even though he spends his time enacting movie roles, taking on new identities, and he fantasises about living out in the woods and pretending to be a deaf-mute.   His wants and fears are very closely entwined.  The novel debated ideas of existentialism and authenticity - we talked about reactions to Holden's stance against phonies, a catch-all term that seems to encompass most  conventional adult posturing and role-playing; he's been seen as both heroic in his refusal to participate, and ethically admirable, and also as an immature fantasist in his refusal to accept the world, and his own stake in it.  Are his ethical stances flawed because of his privileged background?  It can be easier to protest and rebel when there's a safety net of parents who'll bail you out, send you to the doctor, and enable your self-expression (the telling of the narrative, as the implied reader would appear, at times, to be Holden's psychiatrist).  We spoke about the alternative moralities presented by the novel - the teacher, Mr Antolini; Holden's older brother in Hollywood - and  notions of change and stasis.  Moving towards adulthood is a change that Holden clearly fears, but he also distinguishes himself from small children, and doesn't want everything to freeze around him.  We looked at a couple of key scenes (the one with Antolini, the carousel scene with Pheobe) and we finished up by discussing whether in this case there's much difference/distance between Holden the narrator, and Holden the character.  There's so little distance between the events of the story and the time of the telling, that I think the difference is negligible, though you can probably pick out a sense of Holden having leanred from some of his actions and mistakes.

The workshop in the afternoon was a short session as one of the students got snarled up in horrible traffic for hours and couldn't get to class on time, so we talked about the other girl's novel-in-progress, and wrapped up early.  Next week we'll be looking at the Bolano (I'm sure about it this time) and we'll have Martin Amis talking about Philip Roth.

excuses

I've been a lazy blogger this week.  I accepted my Kreativ Blogger award and passed it on, and then fell silent, internet-wise.  I wasn't even in work this week, so I have no excuse.  I've been writing and reading and going to class and to a couple of talks (more of which in upcoming posts) and contemplating cinema trips but then failing to leave the house.  I might go as far as Didsbury on Sunday morning, and visit The Art of Tea, where I hear they have a good bookshop.  Despite my student budget, my book-buying habit increases week by week.  One day the piles of Things To Read will collapse on me, wicked-witch-style, and I probably won't even be wearing flashy shoes.  The boiler broke in our flat for two days, but our new best friend, the British Gas Man, fixed it, and lo! we have heat again.  Yesterday my boyfriend brought me on a surprise ice-skating trip in town, in Spinningfields, and then to a beautiful Armenian restaurant in Albert Square; today we're eating dinner at quarter to one in the morning.  WILD LIVES.  That's about it.  I'll do MA posting asap. 

Kreativ Blogger award!

Ages and ages ago, the lovely Diane Becker, aka DotSeven, over at http://notdesignedtojuggle.wordpress.com/, nominated me for a Kreativ Blogger award.  Look at this shiny thing:




Now, I think it was Spider-man's uncle who said that with power comes with great responsibility, and it seems this also applies to Kreativ Blogger awards.  There's a list of conditions - check them out:

* 1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.
* 2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
* 3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
* 4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
* 5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
* 6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
* 7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.


So!  Thanks Diane, I'm very honoured!  Seven things about me.... I'd rather be reading than doing almost any other thing at any given time, but I'd settle for a good loud gig; I hate cooking; I can't drive; I grew up on a farm and almost became a vet; I've moved house seven times in five years; I'm always thinking of other places I could move to in the future and currently have my eye on Berlin; I want to be Karen O when I grow up.   

And nominations!  Well, there's a danger that I'll be tagging people who are already established Kreativ Bloggers, coming late to the party like I am, but nevertheless, here we go:

Kim McGowan at Just Testing, another creative writing MA blogger who knows much about neanderthals.
Daisy Baldwin at What Daisy Did Next, my classmate and one of the bloggers for the Central Lancashire Writing Hub.
Richard 'Vivmeister' Hirst at I Thought I Told You To Wait In The Car, for revealing the seedy underbelly.
Fiona over at Superfiona, for doing the job/parent thing so very entertainingly.
Emily at My Shitty Twenties, for the same thing, and for being such a dedicated Elbow fan.
Kerry at Writing At The Window for travelling and novelling so successfully at the same time!
And Jessica at Writers Little Helper, for being so inspiringly motivated with her writing and her Wordcount Wednesdays!

Thanks again, Diane; and I'll try to be all Kreativ as I go.