The Comparison Curse

27 Aug

Blurbs comparing a current author to an old literary stalwart present a pretty obvious double-edged sword. They instantly speak to their target demographic (if you liked this, you’ll loooove this!), and manage to make a book stand out just a little bit more on that busy table of new, seemingly identical and obscure debut novels. On the other hand, forget trying to read that book without constantly comparing the two authors. And who do you think usually makes out better? The generally agreed upon genius, or the plucky new modern author who is automatically more fallible simply because of their newness?

Amy Sackville’s The Still Point, published early this year, had a stellar blurb to its name, courtesy of author Francis Spufford: “If Virginia Woolf had had a younger sister with a passionate interest in icebergs, she might have written something like this beautiful, unearthly novel […]” First time novelists would kill for this kind of association – or would they? I haven’t read that book yet, only skimmed the first couple chapters, but spent the whole time looking for reasons why Sackville’s writing was or was not like Woolf’s, like some kind of “Spot the Difference” challenge from Highlights magazine.

Unfortunately, I suffered the same compulsion when reading True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. ‘The Bell Jar for the twenty-first century’ proclaims Trezza Azzopardi on the front cover. And as gripping as the book was, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways in which it was not The Bell Jar. I remember relating much more with Plath’s cynical mid-century heroine Esther Greenwood than with Davies’ nameless black sheep. Granted, I was probably in my late teens when I first read The Bell Jar, so might have been more inclined to appreciate the angst. And of course, relating to the main character isn’t the be all and end all of a book, but that distinction made reading these works very different experiences for me.

In a nutshell, the True Things protagonist falls into an obsessive, dangerous, darkly sexual relationship with an ex-con. And actually, there’s not much more to that nutshell, making the story more suited to a movie than a novel, I thought. I felt like I needed a few pre-plot points of reference to help anchor myself to Davies’ heroine, but instead I was instantly pulled into this ultra-destructive, downward spiraling affair – which was possibly the point, but it made it all the more difficult to understand the motivations of the heroine. Why is “she” so obsessed with “him?” What, if anything, was so wrong in her life before he showed up, to make her so vulnerable to the charms of such a brutal, repulsive man?

I should also admit that part of my reluctance to relate to “her” was that my deep-rooted prude had a hard time dealing with the frequency and intensity of the sexually violent scenes. I’m guessing most people had the same reaction, but I think I needed something – even just one thing – to make me feel like I knew why this woman would allow herself to be in this situation. Why she would risk her job, friends, family, house, car, personal safety, self respect, life savings (and on and on) for this hunky piece of evil. Her one friend in the book, Alison (finally, a name!), stands in as the reader proxy, with her baby-having, job-keeping, TV-watching middle class values and obvious perplexity at her friend’s bad choices. But her inclusion in the book only increases the sense of frustration, because there’s nothing she can do to help her friend, either.

This lack of connection between me and the narrator continued to distract me throughout the book. Perhaps mistakenly, I kept waiting for her to act in some way that I would act, or for some information to come to light that would explain her decisions. Instead, she pays lip service to the fact that she’s put herself in terrible danger, but doesn’t seem to really believe it. After one particularly gut-wrenching scene, she ruminates on what has just happened with a sort of out-of-body perspective:

Something terrible has happened to me, I whispered, standing in the kitchen. It was like a film set. Obviously the kitchen of a nice woman.

When I managed to ignore (or embrace) the intrinsic uncomfortableness of the book, I was enthralled. There’s a sick sense of enjoyment in watching such a spectacular breakdown unfold. And despite the considerable shock value she wields, Davies doesn’t at all rely on the cheap tricks of sex and violence alone – she describes this person’s deterioration in meticulous, painful, emotional detail. She just doesn’t tell us why.

Adventures in Learning – You Are Here

21 Aug

After my obsession with a certain end-of-the world what-if book, I’ve had sort of a thing for science. Not an intimate, knowledgeable thing, mind you, but a bit of a crush.

And this crush led me straight into the arms of You Are Here: A Portable History of the Universe by fellow non-scientist Christopher Potter. The book begins with the basics – stuff we all may or may not remember from high school science classes, but somehow winds up exploring quasars and and quarks and quantum mechanics. I admit at the beginning, during all the basics, I fancied myself above what this book had to offer – not just because of the simple facts at the start (which didn’t last long), but because of the noticeably plain language. However, as the book zoomed on towards concepts that I can only begin to understand, I grew to appreciate Potter’s straightforward approach. It’s a remarkably concise, patient guidebook through some of science’s (and philosophy’s, and even religion’s) most abstract ideas. Wildly abstract to me, anyway – I found myself at times opening my eyes wider while reading some of the more mind-bending passages, as if that might allow a little more understanding to seep in. So in the end, it was perfect that a journalist would take on the task of making a wide variety of scientific information somewhat palatable and relateable for the average reader.

As with my previous learning adventures, I’ll be throwing some fun facts at you for the next little while. And here’s the first one that made me go, “really?” As promised, it’s a little basic compared to what eventually follows, but it’s an example of how most of us actually don’t know the answers to these classic curious child “why-phase” questions:

You know the whole digging into (or right through) the centre of the earth thing? My childhood hole-to-China endeavour wasn’t a terribly determined effort – I may have just grazed the bottom of my sandbox. But it’s somewhat gratifying to know that even grown-up attempts have been less than successful: The furthest we’ve been able to go into the earth is a meagre 12.262 kilometres, before drill bits start melting at 300 degrees Celsius. 12 k! Some people run 12 k before their first bowl of fruit loops. Not me, but you know, some people.

Unsolicited Personal Information

20 Aug

This last week has been filled with prolonged birthday celebrations, work deadlines, and moving house. Yes, I packed up my books and carted them just down the street for a new life in a new flat. With a yard. Sort of. If London hadn’t already turned its back on summer, I’d be reading The Blue Castle in a kiddy pool (aka paddling pool) at this very moment.

That’s not going to happen, though. So instead I’m turning my guilty pleasure attention to the release of Mockingjay in three days, eight hours, thirty-one minutes and 24 seconds. Or something like that.

Anyone know what’s happening with the Hunger Games movie? Do you think they’ll do full justice to bad-ass heroine Katniss and the gratuitous violence that makes the series so terribly satisfying? If I don’t see some kid impaled on a spear I’m going to be very disappointed.

At the moment though, I’ve been geeking out with more non-fiction sciencey fun (You Are Here by Christopher Potter), which means that my educational segment, “Learning Adventures” will be back tomorrow! Come back and visit if you want a glimpse of just how far quantum theory lies from my brain’s grasp.

It’s my BIRTHDAY!

11 Aug

So I was determined to find something to post today that would encapsulate both my love for myself and the fact that this blog is supposed to be about books. I settled on some photos of my trip with my parents a couple weeks ago to the book Ark at the V&A, as part of their small spaces exhibition.

It's nifty.

I think I'm pretty nifty, too.

Stealing books was frowned upon.

The first birthday present I received this year was also book related: a copy of The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (alas, not the old McClelland and Stewart edition) from one of my sisters, which I’ve written about here before. I can’t wait to yet again read about mean old Cousin Stickles and purple pills from Montreal and moonlight on Lake Mistawis. It’s the book version of Death by Chocolate.

Housekeeping update: And if you want a chance to win a SIGNED copy of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, you can still leave a wacky Wikipedia entry here, until end of day Friday.

Writer’s Questions – Ned Beauman

6 Aug

The problem with reading a lot of books is that they can all start to seem the same. I had no such problem with Ned Beauman’s debut, Boxer, Beetle, which sets itself apart with a wink from the get-go. In the very first line, we’re treated to one of our narrators, a Nazi memorabilia collector and smelly recluse named Kevin, merrily reconstructing Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party in his mind.

The book that follows is a mad dash through obscure intellectual theories and beetles named after Hitler and an usually strong, beautiful Jewish boxer with one missing toe. This story is positively crammed full of strange facts and repulsive characters. Rather than becoming distracting, these details are the life and soul of the party (the quintessential “bizarre dinner party” kind of party, with a hodge-podge of quirky guests and no shortage of mysterious deaths).

Despite the dark themes and dark characters, this book never loses that initial wink. “This is a novel for people with breeding” the blurb boldly proclaims. It’s also a novel for people with a sense of humour, and maybe an internet connection – Beauman happily credits Wikipedia as the source of many of his weirder plot points.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of Boxer, Beetle, leave a comment with a fascinating Wikipedia article you’ve stumbled across lately. Take a look below at my interview with Ned for some ideas on where to get started, like Cthulhu Sex, feral badgers, and a “List of People Who Have Disappeared Mysteriously.”

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ABOUT READING

Did you ever pretend to be any fictional characters when you were a kid? How about now?

All I can remember from my childhood is Bucky O’Hare. These days, for guidance, I look to Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Don Draper, Scott Pilgrim and Ghostface Killah. Although most of the time I feel more like the narrator from The Good Soldier.

Which author makes you jealous?

The quality that tends to make me most jealous in other writers is imagination. So, this year so far: David Foster Wallace, China Miéville, David Mitchell, Pynchon, Borges.

Come across any choice Wikipedia articles lately?

As always, yes.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unknot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potsdam_Giants

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_who_disappeared_mysteriously

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oneirophrenia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazen_bull

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ABOUT WRITING

Are you a disciplined get-down-to-work kind of writer, or more of a procrastinating artist?

There are feral badgers with more discipline than me. It’s awful. That said, my writing often relies on ideas that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t procrastinated for so long.

What distracts you from writing?

The internet and hangovers.

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

When I was at university I was eager to publish some short stories and I found a list of print magazines that accepted unsolicited submissions and paid per word. There were not many of these, but one was a magazine called Cthulhu Sex, which only took stories that included “sex, tentacles, or, if possible, both”. I thought this was an irresistible challenge, and I love HP Lovecraft, so I started a horror story set at a girls’ boarding school. But stuff like that is trickier to crank out than you might think! In the end, I abandoned it half way through, and sadly Cthulhu Sex went bust in 2007.

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ABOUT BOXER, BEETLE

If this book had a soundtrack, what would be on it?

A lot of 1930s jazz, which I don’t know much about. I think Kevin probably has really good taste in metal and hard techno.

You’ve packed Boxer, Beetle full of little references. And, presumably, some inside jokes (like “nbeauman” making an online appearance). Did you include any other details that have some personal meaning?

So many! I mean, even “nbeauman” itself is a pretty crude allusion to The New York Trilogy. Also, from just the first few chapters: Myth FM, Kevin’s favourite pirate radio station, is a big plot element in an unpublished novel I wrote before Boxer, Beetle called The Martyr Street Theatre Company, and indeed that whole passage is an attempt to evoke Burial’s second album. Erskine does his research at the London Library because that’s where I did my own research for the novel. The stuff about the Thule Society and the Holy Spear of Destiny is partly a nod to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics. And the paragraph about Galton’s rabbit experiment is, for me, key to the whole book, although I don’t really expect anyone to notice that.

Is it fair to say you enjoy writing unlikeable characters?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I honestly had no idea when I was working on Boxer, Beetle that so many readers would pick it out as a characteristic quality of my writing. One response might be as follows. If you think about the romantic relationships among your outer circle of acquaintances, the really loving, tactile couple comprising two really grotesque, obnoxious people is always the most fascinating – that’s the couple you can’t stop looking at, eavesdropping on, gossiping about after the party etc. And it can be the same in fiction. Still, there are a few noble souls in my book!

Every character here seems to have an obsession – Nazi memorabilia, beetles, artificial languages. What’s yours?

The London night bus network. I’ll never forget you, 78.

Is there anything happening today that you think someone in the future will point to (or write about in a book) and say, “Can you believe they used to do this in the 00s?!”

A gloomy answer: that at least a million people a year die in traffic accidents (with lots more maimed or crippled) and we just put up with it as if it were a law of the universe. I think if somebody invented something today where the sales pitch was “This will become the number one cause of death among teenagers, but at least you won’t have to take grimy old public transport to work any more!” we wouldn’t be rushing to rebuild our cities around it. Also, Twitter.

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PICTURE TIME

Can you provide a photo relevant to your work?

"My current desktop background is a photo that I came across as part of the research for The Teleportation Accident, which is the novel I'm working on at the moment."

Do you have any writer’s pets?

"I love dogs, but I don't have one. However, in my flat there is this fox head by a Brighton artist called Emily Warren and this tiger head by a guy at Brick Lane Market whose name I don't know. (He also makes great lamps.)"



Good Books, Bad Writers

3 Aug

I read Ender’s Game a few days ago. It was an undeniably compelling book in almost every way. It had three child geniuses (one evil, one kind, and one named Ender – a six year old boy with a little bit of both. And who doesn’t love child geniuses?).  It had a space station with a Battle School for Earth’s best children, all training to one day defeat the alien “Buggers.” It had gravity-free practice battles, painted with a meticulous amount of detail and beautifully choreographed strategy. It was awesome.

Time and time again Orson Scott Card delighted me with yet another scene in which little Ender proves once again that he is simply smarter than everyone else. I couldn’t take my eyes off the page as I watched the adults deliberately make Ender’s life as brutal as possible, in order to cultivate a perfect fleet commander. They engineer a constant war between his compassionate and violent sides. They manipulate him into literally destroying other children, almost – but not quite – to his own breaking point. It’s a fascinating exercise in what people can be made to do, with some major ethical themes along the way. And the fighting was pretty cool, too.

My only problem? The author. I’d love to say unreservedly, “you’ve got to read this book!” (Although I guess I pretty much just did.) I’d love to go out and get more of the books from this series, of which there are plenty. But after looking into the life of Orson Scott Card, I just feel icky about putting money into his pocket.

I don’t agree with Card’s general politics, but that in itself wouldn’t usually be enough to turn me off an author, especially if they didn’t make their political convictions a centrepiece of their public persona. No, it’s his raging homophobia that really does the trick. He’s gone out of his way to loudly state, whether through his membership in the “National Organization for Marriage”, or through his own articles, that he’s not only against same sex marriage, but actually advocates for the criminalization of homosexual activities. He goes so far as to equate homosexuality to “deviant behaviour” in this painfully cringey (but fascinating) interview with Donna Minkowitz.

Eesh. I have this terribly naive habit of wanting to identify with writers when I love their books. That’s obviously not going to happen here, but when the disconnect is so severe, can I even support their books in an indirect way? I got Ender’s Game from the library. Is that a decent way around this moral conundrum? Let me know what you think, because I’m genuinely stumped. Do you feel the same way about any talented writers?

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