Ben Lerner review

My review of Ben Lerner's leaving the Atocha Station is live at Bookmunch.

Guest Post: Lisa Marie Trump, Pangea blog tour

Today the blog is hosting a leg of the Pangea anthology blog tour (see here for more information). I'm delighted to introduce Lisa Marie Trump, a theatre designer and writer, whose story, Places to Go, People to Meet is included in the book, and who's here to talk about her absolutely fascinating career and her writing process. Over to you, Lisa!


Writing too much has been a forte of mine for more years than I care to confess. Editing I have learnt in the way an animal trapped in a snare learns to gnaw off a limb to survive. It doesn't come naturally to me. And it hurts.

Having grown up in a very witty family, as well as gorging on a diet of Blackadder and Red Dwarf and the like as a youngster, capturing the humour in my own life and those around me, was and is something that comes to me instantly and more naturally than reportage. I was working as a costume designer for theatre (a role that enabled me to really play with the humour in characters and to explore literature in detail) when the additional writing work I was doing progressed from penning a handful of topical comedy sketches for The Treason Show at Brighton's Kommedia, to writing fuller length pieces for the stage. I felt irked that so many classic texts in which I recognised incredible wit, had been short-changed when portrayed on the stage or on screen. Invariably the wit had been pruned away, sacrificed for the drama. The little known character of Henry Clerval in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein who has much of the narration in the novel, illustrates that point, and he inspired me to write a stage adaptation of the novel that captured his humour and quirky take on the world. The piece was performed at the Victoria Hall Theatre in Hertfordshire with a full cast and a particularly fantastic comic actor bringing Clerval to life. It was the first time that a substantial piece of my work had been produced and staged by a whole team with all their creative inputs influencing the look, the dynamic, the tension and (dare I say it) the editing of the script. As a writer it's very liberating and indulgent to watch your work evolve into four dimensions before your very eyes.

Wanting to explore theatre comedy further, I wrote a one woman play. Still life with Mango was inspired by a poem I had written about a visual artist living with cancer. The poem of the same name describes a still life painting of fruit, the texture and decomposition of the forms are described indulgently, paralleling the artists’ understanding of the thing inside her. Cancer is something that has impacted on my family, as it has many peoples’ lives. I wanted to write a play about loss and joy and personal strength that had humour at the heart of it. I enjoy exploring juxtapositions of sometimes “socially unacceptable" subjects; I do this in my design work and I wanted to do this in my writing too. It makes the reader/audience think and question – and sometimes it makes them uncomfortable. It’s part of being taken on a theatrical journey that can change you. The lead character became an amalgamation of several women I have known and I wrote it for a strong female actress to dominate the stage, challenge human insecurities and make the audience laugh - despite “the big C" being at the centre of the piece. Drawing on past experience, I pulled a lot of topical comedy references into the piece to root her world in the present - which evolved into a contemporary Joyce Grenfellesque monologue.  Still life with Mango played at London's Diorama Theatre and became a finalist in the Lost Theatre One Act Play competition. Again a director, co-director, designer, lighting and sound people brought my newly created little world to life. Lheila Oberman, a phenomenally talented comic actress turned my naughtily indulgent writing into a rounded, wonderful, vulnerable, feisty and believable character on stage. Interestingly a critic compared my writing style to a cross between Alan Bennett and Victoria Wood  - which was as much a compliment to the actor-director team that brought the character to life, as flattery for me as a comic writer.

So with my writing firmly rooted under the proscenium arch, what brought me to write Places to Go, People to Meet - a non-comic short story about a homeless couple in London? I was writing part-time as the Arts and Culture Editor for Human Journey magazine on the side, and had dabbled in poetry mainly in order to explore disciplines I found more difficult than writing comedy. The WriteWords online community was a great place to explore this - with some inspiring critical and constructive feedback fuelling me to try more.  Places to Go was another literary experiment for me.  I wanted to stretch my writing out of theatre, where light, sound and colour is implicit in the live interpretation. Where the scenography - the revealing of the body and the world through light and sound - manifests during the production period in an often potholed creative journey. The very nature of bringing together the creative skills of the writer, director, designers of set, costume, lighting and sound, and of the actors, has to be a bumpy expedition - with so many creative navigators vying for supremacy. But it works. One of the joys of working in the theatre industry as a designer has been the thrill of that collective journey of exploration and possibility, discipline and confrontation, resolution and inspiration, that results in a moment in time in front of a live audience. A moment in time that changes people. And that’s what I believe good theatre does.

When working in the theatre, I find it much harder to accept evolution of my work as a writer than I do as a designer. The production team don't want too much description or too much detail from a writer, they want captivating dialogue, a journey for the characters and as few stage directions as possible – it’s for the creative team to paint the rest of that picture for you. That’s what I do to other writers’ scripts when I design for the stage. So it’s a discipline I’ve learned as a writer for the stage too. The amalgamation of the creative team's technical skills and creative vision is at once a self-indulgent luxury to a writer, and a gargantuan albatross around your neck. You watch your baby taken away from you and then fledged on your behalf. It's scary and exhilarating and dreadful and wonderful at once. With Places to Go I wanted to do away with that luxury. I wanted to explore the live experience of all the senses, as on stage, but this time in the narrative of a story instead - stretching my writing to another extreme.  The short story was very much an experimental piece.  I made it as elaborate and juicy and adjective-heavy as I needed, in order to immerse the reader in all those senses, like being in a theatre. The elaborate descriptiveness and the painting of the sensory picture was the impetus behind writing the piece. Fitting it to the framework of the characters (inspired by a homeless chap I once saw on the steps of the London Palladium) was secondary but nonetheless important for holding it together. My fascination with character provided an anchor with which I could ground this ether of colour and light and texture.

I was thrilled that Indira and Rebecca selected the piece for the Pangea anthology of short stories. And it was a welcome relief that they worked with me in the editing, as I only have two editing tools: a tiny nail file or a sweeping scythe. They found a balance that captured the essence of the sensory experiment without losing the focus on the real people in their real world, as seen through my theatrical eye of follow-spots and par cans and gobos.

Currently my creative energies are being channeled into making opportunities to support the work of disabled writers (and disabled artists from many other disciplines too) in my role as Programme Director for a London based arts organisation. This includes producing and hosting book launches, creative workshops, professional development opportunities, mentoring, exhibiting works and performance opportunities for performance-poets and author’s readings. Outside of the office, I write the occasional idiosyncratic article for online forums – usually on the subject of narrowboats – another passion of mine. And when I don’t have either a pen or a tiller in my hand, I am taking on painting commissions of murals and decorative work for other people’s boats, or I’m at the theatre: immersing myself in someone else’s creative world.


Thanks, Lisa! And, everybody else, do keep an eye on the Pangea blog for the next stop on the tour. 

Bill Murray reads Wallace Stevens

You've probably had enough of me talking shit, so here's Bill Murray instead with some excellent words. You just can't go wrong with shit like this.

reviews and more

My reviews of Pat Barker's Toby's Room (meh) and Ewan Morrison's Close Your Eyes (gah) are live on Bookmunch.

I've been on holidays this week (well - to my mum's house in Dublin) and brought my Kindle and two paperbacks and bought another paperback (Keith Ridgway's The Parts) while I was out and about in town - I don't think I've got the hang of the Kindle, have I? Though I have actually been using it a bit this week (Ridgway's The Spectacular and the anthology Shut Up/Look Pretty), and the paperbacks have been all sad and abandoned.   Anyway, I've also managed to catch some sort of flu or something while away, so I expect I'll infect the whole world, Twelve Monkeys style, by passing through Dublin and Manchester airports this evening. But if you do survive until tomorrow, be primed for a guest post here on Monday 20th from writer Lisa Marie Trump as part of the Pangea anthology blog tour. Exciting!

Keith Ridgway review

My review of Keith Ridgway's latest, Hawthorn & Child, is live at Bookmunch. So far it's a two-horse race between this and Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies for my book of the year.