Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Tipping Point

This week, exciting news - 'The Beauty Chorus' is on the front cover of The Bookseller in the UK: If you scroll down the page you can get a first glimpse of the gorgeous design Corvus came up with. Still can't quite believe that all those messy, drafted pages are going to be A Real Book ... for someone who loves books as much as me it's a dream come true.
One of my absolute favourite books is 'The Mirror of Venus' - the pilot bought it for me in a second hand bookstore when we were first dating. The photographs are glorious 60s shots of beautiful kohl-eyed models with backcombed hair and the limbs of gazelles, and the words are by Sagan and Fellini doing a 'he said' 'she said' commentary. I didn't bring it here because I was afraid the censors would set to work with their black markers, but from memory one of the brilliant lines is something like: 'before the time, it is never the time'. They were talking about the moment when a relationship changes - that tipping point, that shift in chemistry. I was thinking about it the other day watching this classic clip from 'Picnic', because it reminded me of a scene I'm going to be writing in the new book (getting butterflies just thinking about it, a good sign hopefully). Like Holden's character, my hero is everything she thinks she doesn't need ... and yet. Holden apparently got plastered to do the scene - and it shows, but what a brilliant counterpoint to Novak's cool sensuality ...This moment, ('mesmerised, hypnotised ...') - it doesn't last. If you experience it, you never forget it. And maybe that's why we love love stories, because they allow us to re-experience it again and again.

Maybe starting something creative is like starting a relationship too. The time has to be right. You have to be ready for it. By the way, how many books do you have on the go at any one time? I'm just curious - today for me there's one of eleven MA novels, 'tough' research (ie, a lot of dry wartime history), 'fun' research (amazing biographies, the history of perfume ...) and a short story for tomorrow's class at Bloomsbury. Even here, travelling light, there are books in the car, by the sofa, by the bed, in the loo (well we are Brits and all the amusing ones seem to end up there :)

There's been a lot of reading going on - but as we've said before, writers write. At some point it's time to stop with the prep work and get down to business - and there is nothing, *nothing* like the boot camp that is (deep breath), Nanowrimo to push you over that particular tipping point. It's less about heady seduction than being clubbed over the back of the head and dragged back to the cave - but it is a very good kick start. I did it in 2008 and swore never again, but here we are. When I signed up today, I noticed several old friends up there - Martha, Rowena ... so who's with me?

TODAY'S PROMPT: 30 days, 50,000 words - enough to put the fear of god into any writer. But it is possible - and fun. If you want to hook up, I'm there under my real name. There's nothing like a great group of people to get through the month. If you've never tried before, why not make 2010 your first go?

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


How is everyone? To say it's been busy here is a bit of an understatement. In the last month the pilot has mostly been away (North America, South America and now Australia). Meanwhile the kids are at school, and I'm crossing over between two books, 7am - 1pm checking the proofs of 'The Beauty Chorus' and at night after they are asleep, I'm in the early stages of writing the next one. Oh, and the MA has started again - so I'm reading and critiquing a novel a week for that too. The photo sums it up - you have the visual 'story' of the new book on the pinboard, the last three books from two suitcases full of reference material, and the print out of 'The Beauty Chorus'. I still love the company of my 'girls' as I've come to think of them, and take it as a good sign that though I've read the manuscript a hundred times, I haven't tired of their story. It's ridiculously exciting seeing your work laid out like A Proper Book ... let alone the fact that there are bound proofs going out into the world.

A quick piece of advice for anyone writing for publication - do not include numerous quotes from copyrighted songs. Nightmare. Maybe you get used to being able to do whatever you want with blogging - sampling music and photos - but not with books. With any luck I'm in the final stages of negotiating permission to quote 'I'll Be Seeing You' - with two separate companies who hold 50% rights. I've had to cut the other quotes because either the rights holders haven't responded or they've wanted £100s to quote two or three words. So in celebration of (fingers crossed) being able to include that wonderful song in a crucial part of 'The Beauty Chorus', in today's clip we have Francoise Hardy singing with Iggy Pop for Jazz at Saint Germain.

Meanwhile as one book is taking on a solid, final state, the other one is running wild in pages and pages of notes, files of photographs, maps, archive documents ... characters are chattering, mutating, clamouring to be heard. It makes me think of that brilliant Annie Dillard image - approaching a feral manuscript with a chair and whip yelling 'down Simba!'.

The research for this book has just floored me - when we lived in Valencia, I always wondered why no one would talk about the Spanish Civil War. Now I know. I'm doing a brilliant writers' workshop here at Bloomsbury Publishing led by the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, and some of the exercises inspired by good old Dorothea Brande have shown just how deeply affecting this material is. All the improvised stuff I'm coming out with is Spain, Spain, Spain ... it's just devastating what went on, and few people know about it. A guy asked me the other day what I'm writing next ... 'Spanish Civil War? I didn't know they had one ...' he said.

We've talked a lot about Julia Cameron's work in the past - one of the best pieces of advice she gives is the need to fill your creative well. I don't know if I've been running on empty, or have been overflowing. One of the best things for a writer is to be emotionally permeable - I think if you don't feel your story, your material, no one will. However, in spite of the intensity of everything I've learnt in the last few months, something was missing. So, the pilot suggested a break. We went to Dubai, (it felt like Vegas after here ...), which was great, but I still couldn't crack it. Then we went here - just up the road:

The new cultural village (so new, there's still piles of gilded tesserae lying around the mosque where the craftsmen are finishing the mosaic), held the answer. Thousands of miles away and nearly a century after they were taken, I went to see the Capa Spanish Civil War photographs in a dazzling Magnum exhibition. They sparked something. A long night chasing up leads later ... I found a photograph, the missing piece of the story, the catalyst that's pulled all the elements together. Now, I can write:
TODAY'S PROMPT: During the first week of the Bloomsbury workshop, Leila encouraged us to try out Brande's exercise of keeping a notebook by the bed. Each morning before you get up, before you talk to anyone - write. It's a very quick way to access what I think (from memory) Brande called 'the artistic trance'. Why not give it a go? My early morning scrawls were full of bullrings and refugees, but yours may be about raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens ... see how you get on. Maybe you'll find that key, the missing part of the puzzle that you've been looking for ... x

Friday, 1 October 2010

Shaken or stirred?

Today is a bit of a red letter day. I finally have a liquor licence, which means for the first time in six months I can buy wine without my husband's permission. The pilot still gets a text every time I use our card, and an account of exactly what I've bought, (which he naturally finds highly amusing), but frankly I'm thankful for small mercies. It struck me the other night that expats seem to go one of two ways - gin or gym. We should all aim for a balance of both, but 'sundowners' are a welcome diversion out here and 0f course the quinine in the tonic is so good for you in this heat ... Yes, perhaps most of us can identify with today's guest bloggers Gillian Martin and Emma Kauffman who are launching their hilarious guide for 'woefully inept' parents today. The sun's over the yard arm, so let's settle back with 'Cocktails at Naptime' ...

Q: How did award winning bloggers Misssy Martin and Emma K come to write a book together?

Emma: Well I'd been blogging for a few years and was becoming a little jaded. It seemed there were really mostly two kinds of bloggers: the sort of professional blogger who touts all kinds of worthy information and products and makes tons from advertising or the sort of colourful eccentric person I love to read but who as time goes on you realise may have had an extended period of time in a secure mental health facility. In the midst of these polarities emerged Misssy M - the perfect balance. She seemed like an eminently respectable member of society yet she wasn't the kind of bore who wrote about the latest trends in widgets. At the same time she had a rather bizarre and wicked sense of humour and (as far as I know) has never been sectioned. I knew we had to write something together and so I approached her. The rest, as they say, is history!

Gillian: And meanwhile I was bobbing along writing my blog, trying to get the odd story or article published but too busy at work to really give anything book-length a real go. I knew at one point I wanted to write something but had this idea in my head that I’d have to lock myself away for away in a remote cottage in the Highlands to get it done- something like the guy in Stephen King’s Misery, but without the angry obsessive nurse taking me hostage afterwards and maiming me with a sledgehammer. When Emma and I started thinking about a project we could do together I don’t even think we even actually said the words “Let’s write a book”. We just kept on writing pieces and emailing them to one another and eventually got it done between us. No remote country cottage needed.

Q: so how did you find the process of writing collaboratively? Is it like all great comedy writing partnerships (French + Saunders etc) - one plus one = more than 2?

Emma: I think generally speaking writing is a lonely fairly boring endeavour and so it was really a delight to write with someone else - even if that person was 4,000 miles away (Gillian is in the UK and I am in the USA). Mostly it was energizing - she'd write a bit, then I'd write a bit and we'd be enthused by each other's energy. Of course it would have been more fun if we'd written it together with a selection of cocktails and greasy snacks to keep us going - although realistically we may never have reached even a 200 word count with that method - so it was good that we wrote via email, soberly and without crisp crumbs all over our fronts.

Gillian: I’d agree with the energising aspect of it for sure. It’s like we imposed deadlines on one another, we both had to keep up with one another’s pace. It became a kind of chapter swap shop! Would it have been the same had we sat in the same room together. No, I don’t think that would have worked at all, it would have too distracting and there would have been too many trips to bakeries and off licences. When it came to editing the book and making sure all the pieces gelled that’s when it became difficult with two people. That took a long time where to be honest it would have been handy to sit across from one another in the same space.

Q: Cocktails at Naptime - a title many can relate to (I have a friend who never managed to make it through bathtime without a Pimms :) What's the book about?

Emma: It's about that confusing crazy first year after having a baby when you have no idea what year it is never mind the day of the week - you are so crazed from sleep deprivation. The book is a non fattening pick me up that will make any new mum weep with laughter. It does not dole out any holier than thou advice about 'getting baby on a schedule' etc. It's main objective is to make any mum feel like "We've all been there. It's going to be a shocking rollercoaster ride. But you'll get through it." We are not encouraging mums to get drunk of course but more encouraging them to take time out for themselves once in a while or else they'll go mad!

Gillian: It helps to add our subtitle, “The Woefully Inept Guide to Early Motherhood”. It became apparent that although we liked the title “Cocktails at Naptime” it didn’t really give much of a clue to the tone or the content of the book. A friend of Emma’s suggested we add a subtitle and we agonized for almost two weeks over what that should be. I have a list of the rejected ones somewhere. Now that we’ve decided on Woeful…etc I really like it because it sums the book up. No one after reading that phrase should buy the book under any illusion that they are getting any kind of useful advice!

Q: So how does your book compare to say Gina Ford?

Emma: Sorry had no idea who she was - I live in USA and she hasn't made it big here I think! I believe she writes a Contented Baby Series. Well our book is all about mum! It's about how to make mum contented - by making her laugh herself hoarse.

Gillian: Apologies to Gina but I too had to Google that name. I’ve never read her material. But what I can compare it to is the kind of baby books out there in the market. Ours is a humour book, pure and simple. It is the kind of book you’d buy your mate when she tells you she’s pregnant, or bring as a gift to her when she’s had the baby instead of boring old chocolates and flowers.

Q: I've always maintained every maternity ward should have a sign over the door 'abandon dignity here'. How much of your own experiences have fed into the book?

Emma: Well luckily I'm not much of a prude so I don't have much dignity left to lose. Suffice to say I made a tit of myself at both births. The first time wasn't my fault - I was heavily medicated and was tripping and kept shouting that I could see multicoloured goblins riding on unicorns - and all the medical staff told me about that later and had a good giggle about it. The second time I went unmedicated ie. no pain medication. As Misssy M put it "There is nothing natural about a natural birth." Thank you Misssy. I know that in hindsight. I chewed off my husband's hand during labour and mysteriously enough he had a vasectomy shortly after. Certainly a lot of personal anecdotes have gone into the book but I also put in some funny stories from friends.

Gillian: Pretty much everything is in there is based on the experiences of Emma, me and our friends. But I would however like to point out for the record that the stuff about Grans is not based on my molther or my mother in law. Not one single tiny word.

Q: finally, (as we ask all our guests), what are your tips for juggling writing, work and family life?

Emma: Well I am lucky that both my kids are mercifully at school age which gives me six hours a day to avoid going to the gym, avoid writing and mostly hang around on the internet and having long lunches with pals. It's a tough life but someone's got to do it! As for family life the internet is banned from four pm onwards which is a blessing. I have tried to be disciplined about writing but it hasn't gotten me anywhere - I really write when I am inspired. Misssy M was certainly an inspiration and that's what got us through the writing of the book - her good humour and patience with my somewhat chaotic brain!

Gillian: Good grief, that’s the real question isn’t it? Can I be really creepy and say it’s a partner who gives you the time and space to let you get on with something that he knows is important to you. My husband is a teacher and a musician, so we both juggle our creative life, our bill paying proper jobs and our family life. He knows what it takes to create something and he is great about taking the kids out for a day when I really need time to thrash something out. But as for tips for other writers I would just say, squeeze it in- even if it’s only the odd hour here and there, make it an intensive hour. Oh and remember, no-one ever won prizes for having an immaculate home- leave the laundry, write the book. Pretend your pit of a house is part of your artistic bent if anyone should challenge you.

Thanks to Emma and Gillian. For those who think a Contented Mother is as important as a Contented Baby (sorry Gina), here's the links to the new book:
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