Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Things We Never Say

How are you all? Feeling festive? This is what Christmas looks like here, cool enough for the bauhinia to bloom in the garden again. The little thumb sized cuttings from the plant souq are now ten feet tall, and what was a bare yard is a micro jungle of frangipani, bougainvillea, jasmine. I love this scrap of green - a tiny oasis in a sea of sand and concrete. Meanwhile, the new book has been delivered, last deadlines have been met, and we're looking forward to the pilot being home on Christmas Day, (fresh from a trip to Lahore), for the first time in four years. It's going to be good to stop still for a while. 

Maybe you're the same, if you write. The end of a book = complete physical breakdown. After months of intense work, this time I lost my voice (conveniently in the middle of a two day school's workshop - the local press reported on 'softly spoken British author KLB'). Then my neck went (less Nora Ephron than moving with all the grace of Lady Penelope for a week). However, the joy of finishing a book I love - literally putting body and soul into it - outweighs it all. The funny thing with writing is that after all *that* there's nothing concrete to show - not like a painting, or a sculpture, or piling logs, or cooking a meal or anything else that you pour your energy into. A glass of champagne after pressing 'send' and ... So, you wait and it all begins again.

'Be patient' is one of those phrases you feel like you repeat ad infinitum as a parent. Patience is a good thing for a writer. Another of my favourites was always 'there's no such thing as bored, only boring people.' After four years, I've discovered that's not true. I'm bored to the bone by things we never talk about. Remember that post from some time back about my father-in-law's conversation with an editor in Gorky Park in the 60s, who said things rarely got pulled up because all his writers self edited? That. Instead of Don Camillo's angel and devil on my shoulder, it's more like having the three wise monkeys. There's an internal editor there with every post: can't write that because xyz (everything from respect for our 'home-for-now' culture - when in Rome, etc - to people who know me in real life relaying information to family - I'm 42 and I still got a dressing down last week beginning 'Katharine ...'). So, can't write about home, can't write about family (the pilot understandably hates it), can't write about work in progress in case the magic evaporates ... By the time you've had an interesting idea and run through: can't write about that because ... all the fire and fun drains from it, and real life, or articles, or writing the novel fill the space. So there's a sparcity of posts and rather a lot of photographs of the cat and dog on Facebook.

But there have been some great moments. Here are just a few:

Firsts: Festival events in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Windsor ...

First translations - seven in all for 'Perfume Garden'. First (and I hope not last), trip to beautiful Scandinavia. First number ones in UK, Spain, Germany and Norway ...

(And in case you haven't downloaded 'The Last Rose of Summer' for free and prefer Kindle, it's now available on Amazon (at last! That took some persuasion ...). The link is here. Happy Christmas. Hopefully it should be free on all Amazons, wherever you are. And 'The Perfume Garden' is one of their December books, 99p here).

First experience of work going viral - (and no, they didn't ask - I don't even know what the copyright situation is for these things - but it's interesting seeing these passages popping up on memes). One young French perfumer is even getting a tattoo of the perfume line, how do the rights work on that ...

First book column - and the chance to read and promote some really wonderful authors in this part of the world for the first time (there's no other column like this in the region). As long as it lasts I'm enjoying championing contemporary writers and heroes like Atwood and Carter. I think of it as I do the garden ...

Of all the hundreds of books read this year, I loved this novel the most: 'Beautiful Ruins'. From the review for Ahlan!: 'Jess Walter’s ‘Beautiful Ruins’ is a beguiling, Technicolor tale that sweeps between 1960s Italy and modern day Hollywood. During the filming of ‘Cleopatra’ in 1962, an American actress, Dee, escapes to Pasquale’s isolated hotel. Fifty years later, an elderly Italian arrives at an LA studio searching for the woman he couldn’t forget. Romantic, glamorous, big-hearted – my book of the summer'. And it hasn't been bettered this year ...

And then, and then, in the middle of all the usual juggling, and writing, and birthdays, and anniversaries celebratory and painfully mournful, and travelling (let's not forget the summer of three house moves, or perhaps we should ...), there was a moment of sheer glorious impulse. I made it home to hear one of my heroes talk in London about his new book. Here is my James Salter story: 

I've loved Salter's books my whole adult life. When I heard on Twitter he was going to be reading in London, I booked a ticket that instant, figuring that if it was meant to be the logistics of dates, and leave, and getting there from the Middle East would fall into place. It worked. The auditorium was packed, the reading was heaven, the signing queue meant that Mr Salter would be there for hours I guessed, having seen similar queues for Jeffrey Archer in Dubai where he signed non-stop for three hours. Just as I reached the signing table and handed over 'All That Is', and Mr Salter raised his pen, a beautiful dark haired woman swept over. 'Darling,' she said. I guessed this must be Mrs Salter. 'X and Y have to leave, would you ..?' He signed, he stood, he left the book. Not a word was exchanged. And Mr Salter went with Mrs Salter to talk to X and Y. I stood for a moment wondering: did that just happen? Glanced back at the snaking queue. Is that it, All That Is ..? The people behind me looked as aghast as I imagined I did, perhaps thinking: oh God, don't let that happen to me when I get to the front. It's the kind of situation British people are no good at. What's the polite response? Do you get pushy and wait, and hold up the queue? What could you really say, anyway, except 'thank you'? Thank you for the difference your work has made to me. I've read enough interviews with Mr Salter in which he's said he hates people coming at him with dog-eared copies of 'Light Years' bristling with bookmarked favourite passages, and I've realised something from the small first signings I've done this year - it's absolutely not about you, the author. People want to talk about what the book meant to them, and if you're lucky they tell you their stories. Which is as it should be, I think - you write a book, it goes out into the world, and it belongs to the people who read it. So, at that moment as I walked away it was kind of perfect - surprising, heartbreaking, beautiful. A bit like life itself, lately. I never said thank you, but Mr Salter has his priorities absolutely right. Real life, his beautiful wife, came first, before all the books and all the people waiting to tell him how he made them feel. We can all learn something from that. Luckily, Chris White was also in that queue somewhere, and he took this beautiful shot of Salter signing his copy - thank you for allowing me to share this photo. 

This is the moment from the year (at least, the one we can talk about); something, nothing, and everything: 

Credit: Chris White 

Wishing a peaceful Christmas to those of you who celebrate it, and all good wishes for the New Year. Look forward to seeing you in 2014, and our resolutions. Mine's a simple one. 

I'm going to write my way home x


  1. I was also there at James Salter's talk/signing and had a similar experience. I was supposed to make myself known, had been told he'd seen and liked something I'd written about him, but in the end a combination of no mobile signal, extreme shyness and typical British concern that he must be getting tired of chatting and have a sore hand from signing, meant that at the moment of truth I just mumbled my name, then thank you and shuffled off... And it was still my peak moment of the year!

  2. Ah, Claire - you're not alone! I remember your beautiful post (which is here, for fellow Salter fans: )

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  4. Thanks for using my photo, Kate, and seeing it again in your blog brings the moment back to me!

    I was almost at the very end of the queue, so I'd waited a good 90 minutes or more before my turn came. I could see James Salter was getting pretty tired by that point - wouldn't we all? - and I think I remarked on it and thanked him for sticking around for us. I also thanked him for answering the question that I had asked put during the reading (it was about a remark that he's made in a letter to Robert Phelps, about how afraid he was of success) and he told me without a moment's hesitation how much he had loved his friend. It felt almost too intimate a thing to say to a complete stranger like me.

    I'd had a chance to hear James Salter before, at a reading he'd done years before at the LRB Bookshop when Last Night had been published. He was more sprightly then - almost a decade younger, of course - but also he seemed more at ease around a smaller group of people. I don't know how easily this new fame and much wider adulation sits with him.

    I like James Salter's style in print and in person, and I know I treasure those books of his that I have on my shelves.

    Best, Chris

    1. How great, Chris - I remember your question about Phelps. As you say, I like Salter's style ...

  5. Poignant post Kate.

    Blessings of the season to you and your loved ones.


  6. Thank you, Shaz - this year has just flown by for a lot of people, speaking to friends ... Wishing you a happy and peaceful holiday K x


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