Archive | July, 2010

Giving Vampires a Chance

23 Jul

I can now confidently say that I’ve read my vampire book for the year – The Radleys by Matt Haig, a book that does a smart, tongue-in-cheek (if slightly predictable) take on the vampire trend. The story centers around a family of off-duty vampires living the quintessential suburban lifestyle in England. It’s an easy target, but Haig skewers middle class norms as well as anybody, with frequent references to douchey neighbours, tastefully neutral decor, and strictly human recording artists. For example, Paul Simon and Vivaldi – fine. Jimi Hendrix – vampire, obviously, so off limits to “abstainers” like the Radleys. It’s fun seeing how Haig mixes the dark fantasy genre with very pedestrian details, creating all sorts of practical rules that these ethical vampires try to live by. At one point, Peter, the father, chokes on a “Thai green leaf salad with marinated chicken and a chilli and lime dressing.” Garlic, naturally.

This book was published this year as both general fiction and young adult (with separate covers and marketing pushes), but I found I preferred the book more when thinking of it as YA. I thought the analogy between vampire problems and real life issues worked best when discussing the difficulties the two teens encounter as they struggle to fit in – Rowan is pale, skinny, bullied, and obsessed with Byron. Clara is a vegetarian wannabe who doesn’t understand why she keeps getting weaker (and why no animal will go near her). Then, when the kids discover their vampiric roots, we get to enjoy a bit of the classic “geek to chic” fantasy: they’re suddenly strong, sexy, and afraid of no one. Plus, they can fly. It’s particularly satisfying when Clara fends off a would-be sexual predator by making mince-meat of his torso (and I don’t even think that’s too spoilery, because as delicious as that scene is, it’s pretty obvious what’s about to happen).

This was a hugely enjoyable, quick read. If you know a moody teenager who’s too cool for Twilight, then this might be the perfect ticket.

Writer’s Questions – Evie Wyld

15 Jul

Evie Wyld’s been all over the place lately. You know – winning prizes, snagging a spot on the Brit version of the 20 under 40 list (as the most under-40 person there), and keeping it real in the Review bookshop in Peckham where she still puts in a couple days a week. And in this year’s graduating class of young, cool writers, she seems to have infiltrated a bit of a boy’s club.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like her debut, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (it sounded so sad!). And it was. But I did. What really wowed me was the feeling that she had managed to concoct most of these extraordinarily lifelike details out of thin air – the Australian bush, the prickly heat of the Vietnamese jungle, the heartaches of the close-mouthed father-and-son characters. In this interview, she mentions stomping around her flat trying to get into the heads of her protagonists, Leon and Frank. It doesn’t feel like she’s writing about herself, slapping on a male moniker and a retro time period, and calling it a day. She’s, you know, imagining things! It’s almost as if she gets paid to be creative or something.

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ABOUT READING

Which fictional character out there have you secretly (or not so secretly) thought you resembled?

I feel sometimes a bit like I resemble Miss Amelia from The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. Perhaps her crossed with Garfield the cat.

If you had to get a literary themed tattoo, what would it be?

It would have to be an animal to fit in with my other tattoos. But following that logic it would also have to be ridiculous. Perhaps a really beautiful Marlin, from The Old Man and the Sea.

Do you read anything completely different from your own style of writing?

I love Gordon Burn’s books about murderers. I read a lot of graphic memoir, David Small, Jeffrey Brown and Alison Bechdel are all fabulous.

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ABOUT WRITING

What distracts you from writing?

Food, drink, laundry, tooth ache, weight gain, rain, my partner, dogs, cats crossing the road, the next door neighbors when they play computer games, the next door neighbors when they have sex, worry, reading, baking, photographs,  the internet, a bee…and everything else.

Can you tell yourself if something you’ve written is good or bad?

I think I can tell now. It took a long time to work it out though, and I still need another pair of eyes to make sure what I’ve written makes sense, even if the writing’s good. I think that can be the hardest thing for a writer, remembering that readers don’t have the advantage of seeing inside your brain while you’re writing.

Have you experimented a lot with different styles of writing to find a writing mode that you’re comfortable with?

Not really. Generally the first draft of something is very serious, and I know it’s getting somewhere on later drafts if it lightens up. When I started writing I wanted to be able to write funny action stuff, but it just doesn’t come to me in the same way as the stuff that really works.

Your next book has a female protagonist and you’ve mentioned that you feel a bit self-conscious that people will think it’s you. How are you creating that divide?

I think I’ve just had to calm down. You write what you’ll write and at the moment I just content myself with the fact that no one is going to read it in its early drafts anyway. Also, fiction is fiction – my life is not half so interesting as the people I write about, and I am not nearly as brave as they are. I don’t really feel like I’m in danger of writing about myself, because other people are far more interesting. People are always going to think you have had the direct experiences of the characters you write about, and that’s just something to expect and deal with once the book is out there and being read.

You’ve written about this before in a Booktrust blog post, but my favourite question still stands: what’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

Oh god, there’s so much bad stuff. One particular favorite was a Y2K novella I wrote when I was 16, about a girl who has a love affair with an older man. The older man is an artist who has a twisted spine (symbolic). When ‘scientists’ predict the end of the world, (topical) lots of people can’t deal with the ticking clock and kill themselves. The girl’s lover gets cancer and is on his death bed, they have sex while he dies (intense) and then afterwards the girl shaves her hair (meaningful). There’s a huge end of the world party planned, and she goes along to it, and watches the countdown at Piccadilly Circus. But then the world doesn’t end (undercut).

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ABOUT AFTER THE FIRE, A STILL SMALL VOICE

What made Australia seem like a good place to set a novel?

I feel like most of the important parts of my childhood are there. The bits that feel the juiciest with emotion and imagination. Living in London it’s a real pleasure to think about the lushness of a different country, the heat and the colour.

Frank and Leon are similar characters in some respects – they’re father and son, they’re both hugely sympathetic characters who’ve nonetheless done some pretty crappy things. What do you think is the biggest difference between the two men?

I suppose that one has been in a war where he has seen that he is capable of violence, and the other has not, but violence has come out in his life none the less. I think Frank is angry, and it’s an anger that comes from misunderstanding a lot of things about his childhood. I think Leon is mainly heartbroken.

Which character is most inspired by someone you know in real life?

My uncle was conscripted and fought in Vietnam, but Leon is not really based on him. He’s a different man with similar experiences. Personality wise, it would probably be Sal. She’s my mother and me and my grandmother. She’s also a close friend of mine.

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WRITER’S PETS?

I am aunty and sister to some dogs. My parents have two lurchers, Juno, hairy and dark, and Hebe, blonde and smooth. Juno had 6 puppies, Hebe is one of them and another one, Gus, orange and smooth with black eye makeup, works in the bookshop with me and Roz, the owner of the shop.

"The mum is Juno, and the little brown one feeding is Gus who now works in the same bookshop as me. Juno's face looks like something out of Where the Wild Things Are."

What I Read About When I Read About Books – The Summer Edition

13 Jul

Lil' Capote

Some of my favourite links floating around on the internet recently:

Jezebel takes a look at “The Real People Behind Famous Fictional Characters.” Getting the dirt on the original Alice, Lolita, Psycho, and Flowers in the Attic kids (really!) somehow never gets old. Also, was I the only one who didn’t know that a pint-sized Truman Capote was the prototype for To Kill a Mockingbird’s Dill? Probably.

Everyone’s favourite new ego booster: “A grumpy literary agent wades through query fails” at SlushPile Hell. Because your own query letters/covering letters/what-have-you could never be this bad. And because what’s not to love about this sentence? “Indeed, books & media are an economic past-time today so I expect you are taking advantage of that angle of the biz.”

Slate says that every book, ever, contains a dog barking in the distance. So far, I’ve spotted the faraway barking dog in The Radleys by Matt Haig, and I’ll be keeping an eye out from now on. It’s kind of a slow drinking game though.

Come across any fun booky links lately?

Writer’s Questions – Chris Killen

6 Jul

Chris Killen’s debut novel The Bird Room is a bit like a bad dream. It’s made up of a series of short, dark scenes. Some questions are never answered, but it doesn’t really matter. Identities mix ‘n’ match:  two characters have the same name (Will). One character has two different names (Clair, Helen), and is made to pretend to be another character (Alice). The story is filled with sad, self-loathing-fueled sex, and it will definitely make you feel like a perv when you read it on the tube.  But an entertained perv! Sound like fun?

Below, Killen explains at least one of The Bird Room’s mysteries and makes me kind of want to read his (as yet unpublished!) story in which the narrator’s head explodes. And is it too early to say that cat fan-fiction might save publishing? I don’t think so.

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ABOUT READING

What are your Five Desert Island/Zombie Apocalypse books?

Pan by Knut Hamsun – This is favourite novel by my favourite writer. Pan is probably the book I have read the most times, and I feel reasonably confident that I wouldn’t get tired of re-reading it, even once a month or whatever.

An Unfortunate Woman by Richard Brautigan – I like all Richard Brautigan’s novels, so this was a hard choice. I decided on An Unfortunate Woman because I feel it has the most of him in there – in my opinion, it’s the most autobiographical of his novels. I have occasional daydreams about ‘hanging out’ with Richard Brautigan, and reading this book feels (to me) like the closest thing to that.

A Special Providence by Richard Yates – I’m choosing this Richard Yates novel because it’s the only one I have left to read. I was saving it for a ‘special occasion’ so I guess being stranded on a desert island or caught in a zombie apocalypse would do.

Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore – Same as above, I know that there are three or four stories in here that I’ve yet to read and I am kind of saving them. Also, everything else I could read many times over and still enjoy.

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky – I’ve tried to read this twice and never made it past page 200 or so, even though I was enjoying it. I don’t know why I can’t keep reading it. I would like to be stranded somewhere so I could finish it.

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ABOUT WRITING

How would you describe your own writing style?

Well, I don’t have a very large vocabulary, so I tend to write quite short, simple sentences. I use repetition a lot. I guess I try to write things which are funny (maybe not in a ‘laugh out loud’ way, but that someone might just look at and think, ‘That’s funny’). I tend to write about awkward, young people a lot. Awkward young people without many external problems. Awkward young people wishing for things they don’t have. I hope that makes sense.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

I don’t know. I am bad at writing ‘official’ things – like a job application or a reference for someone or something – anything that calls for a more ‘formal’ style. Apart from that, pretty much everything I wrote between the ages of 16-23 was pretty dreadful. I once wrote a story in first person, past-tense, where the narrator’s head explodes at the end. I wrote a story about a ‘great poet’ meeting a female fan, which ended up as a kind of Charles Bukowski pastiche. And I wrote lots of things about young men in their early twenties swigging red wine from the bottle and moaning (internally) about how no girls ever wanted to go out with them. Oh dear. Just lots and lots of bad/pretentious/corny short stories. I know I have them all saved in a folder on this computer but right now I feel too scared to look at them to provide excerpts or more details, I’m afraid.

What distracts you from writing? (Aside from answering emails from bloggers)

I am pretty undisciplined at writing, so if it’s going badly, if I’m stuck, if I’m not 100% excited about what I’m doing, then almost anything can distract me from it. I guess number one is The Internet. After that, just the general nagging worry that there is ‘something I have to do, but I don’t know what it is’. This vague but persistent feeling can have me wandering aimlessly around my flat for hours.

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ABOUT THE BIRD ROOM

Which character in The Bird Room is most based on someone you actually know?

Both the Wills – the narrator and the artist – are based on me, on the two different sides of my personality. I have a friend called Chris, who is a working artist, and I worried around the time of publication that he would think it was based on him. It’s not, it’s me when I am at my most dickish.

Did you have trouble writing any parts of The Bird Room?

I honestly can’t think of a passage that I had much trouble writing – if something wasn’t going well in first draft then I usually just scrapped it and tried a different approach. So what I was left with, at the end of that draft, were all things that I’d had fun writing (and so went pretty easily). That said, once I was done, I did have a fair amount of trouble ordering and re-ordering it so it made sense on first read, while still being fragmentary/non-chronological. So, my answer is either ‘nothing’ or ‘the whole thing’. Is that cheating?

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TIME FOR PICTURES!

What kind of writing space do you have?

I just moved flats. My last ‘writing space’ was sitting on my sofa. It gave me quite a bad back. Now I have an ‘office’ (which doubles as a spare/guest room), which I am very excited about. I’ve only been in here for two days, and apart from emails, this is one of the first things I’ve written in it. It feels calming in here. I like looking out of the window. I’m excited about trying to maintain more of a daily routine from now on. No more bad backs and late nights. I like the sound of the cars out of the window.

Do you have any writer’s pets?

I don’t have any pets, I’m afraid. I used to have a cat called Frisky. I wrote some fanfiction about her recently here.

I would like to have another cat but, like every other landlord in Manchester, my new one doesn’t allow pets. Hopefully one day I will have a cat again.

Frisky, star of fan-fiction

O Canadian Books!

1 Jul

My favourite Canadian place

Living outside of Canada makes me feel more patriotic and folksy than usual. Suddenly I’m all bunny-hug this and Being Erica that. But circumstances outside (ok, within) my control rendered me unable (ok, unwilling) to attend the official London Canada Day festivities at Trafalgar Square and the less official festivities at Canuck watering hole the Maple Leaf.  So instead I celebrated “A Part of Our Heritage” by soliciting shout-outs for Canadian books on Twitter. It’s what brave-but-sort-of-boring pioneer authoress Susanna Moodie would have wanted!

There were some very clear favourites throughout the day: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, and Robertson Davies got the lion’s share of Twitter love. There were also nods to Visible Amazement by Gale Zoe Garnett, Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor, Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler, The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay, The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson, Nox by Anne Carson, and King Leary by Paul Quarrington.

I also appreciated a showing of good old fashioned support for Canadiana classics like Mavis Gallant, Margaret Laurence, and Stephen Leacock (although Sunshine Sketches never really did it for me). I was pretty surprised not to see anyone mention L.M. Montgomery, but I’m sure we all tweeted her in our hearts.

To put a beaver tail on the top of a lovely day, I was proud to feel at least partly responsible for Twitter fanatic @MargaretAtwood herself retweeting my lovely friend’s offering:

And then I got my very own Canada Day present:

Please feel free to keep my strictly indoor party going with any other Canadian books and authors you’ve always loved or feel are worthy of more attention. And keep it clean, this isn’t the CBC.ca comments section.