Claire King

Author

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Word of Mouth: Words of Mercury

Posted on: May 10th, 2013 by admin - 2 Comments

You really do meet all sorts of interesting people on twitter through a shared love of books. Today’s guest book blogger is Alan, aka Words of Mercury, a PhD student at Durham University who also maintains a cracking blog on books.

Alan Bowden cufflinks

Could you tell us a little about your PhD? What are you working on, and where would you like to go with it afterwards?

I’m working on the role of attention in aesthetic experience: what is it, exactly, that paying attention, either mental or perceptual, does for our experience or awareness of aesthetic properties or features of art, nature, and everyday life. That’s meant that I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking about the kinds of experiences we have in daily life which differ markedly from the kinds of special experiences we aim for in the art gallery, theatre, or nature reserve. Those are the kinds of experience to which we pay attention – after all, that’s why we went in the first place. My central question, then, is whether everyday life – when we are too busy to pay attention to much of our surroundings and their features – can support aesthetic experiences or some kind of aesthetic engagement with the world even without our being aware of it.

Attention (suitably understood) plausibly affects the complexity of the properties we can perceive as well as the sophistication and accessibility of those experiences for higher cognitive functions like appreciation and judgement. Or so I argue.

As to where I go after all that is done with, I’m not sure. Academia is always a possibility, of course (should one be able to find a job). But I would like to continue thinking and writing about books and, eventually, to write them as well. So we’ll see.

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Why do you blog about books? Has reviewing books changed the way you read?

I began blogging about books when Penguin started something called the Penguin Proof Group on Google+ last year. I thought it sounded like a good diversion from my PhD, so I set up my blog and put my name down for Evan Connell’s Mrs Bridge. I’ve had a few blogs in the past which had some bits and pieces of philosophy and art criticism posted (the exhibition reviews are up on my current blog), but none of them had really stuck and I’d never been able to engage with other people. That all changed when I got to know people on Twitter and found lots of excellent book blogs on all sorts of books. Suddenly I could talk to all sorts of people with all kinds of approach to writing and reading.

So, I began blogging about books as a sort of side project, but I’ve kept on doing so because I really enjoy discovering new things and talking about them with others. My literary horizons have really expanded. I knew a lot about books already, but I feel like reviewing has given me more traction. I also think (hope) that my writing has great improved as I’ve learnt how to approach books and how to relax into the process. Reviewing has unquestionably changed how I read: I’m now more attentive to language, structure, and thematic development and, as I read more, I think my judgement develops as I have greater experience to draw on with each book I read. Sometimes this means I can overanalyse when I should just get on with reading, but I definitely get more out of books now that I did before.

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Do you copy/paste your reviews onto places like GoodReads, Amazon etc? What do readers get from visiting book blogs rather than just browsing the book in online stores?

Not as a rule, largely because I’m not a fan of Amazon’s copyright rules for reviews. I’ve never really got into GoodReads, for no very good reason. Book blogs are great because they are far more idiosyncratic than the standard front page of an online store. Amazon and Waterstones are going to recommend you buy the latest book or one fairly similar to the last thing you bought there. Not only are bloggers more likely to read books I never would have thought of reading, they are more likely to read older books which won’t be found on online store front pages.

There is also the obvious benefit of a person whose taste you have come to understand and trust reviewing a book you might want to read, not to mention the sheer enjoyment of reading someone who has written about something because they like it and want to tell you.

Finally, I think I’ve learnt a lot about how to review and write and generally think about books from the book blogs I visit. That’s not something I could say for the average Amazon review’s writer being caught up in its own outrage over the book they ordered not involving likeable characters or being slightly the wrong colour.

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It’s clear you read a lot (38 books so far this year). Was that always the case? How do you decide which books to read, and of those how do you decide which to review?

Some of those books were quite short! I’ve always read a fair amount but I think I’ve actually sped up recently even as I become more careful when I do so. I think that’s because I devote more of my time to reading these days. It’s cheaper than beer.

I try to balance working my way through books received/solicited specifically for review and the library I seem to have assembled over the years. I’d like more of a grounding in early to mid-twentieth century literature, so everyone from Woolf to B.S. Johnson are fair game there. In general it depends on my mood when I happen to finish the last book. I’m going to try and read more novels and texts on artists and creativity in the next few months so that will affect my choices. I’ve been asking everyone on twitter for their favourite novels in that vein and people have been very helpful.

I used to try and review everything I read, but I’m realising more and more that not every book one reads is suitable for reviewing: that may be because I haven’t really been able to engage with the book, it might not be for me, or it might just not be very good or interesting. These days – what with the PhD breathing down my neck – I’m much more selective. I have to really enjoy and feel that I have something interesting to say about a book to review it. (Or (foolishly) I’ve promised someone a review).

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What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?

The high points are unquestionably reading a book you might not have picked up and finding something you never thought you would inside; the occasional review where you feel you might have written something worth reading; and the opportunity to talk to everyone from bloggers, reviewers, writers, and publishers.

The low points are those moments when you suddenly feel obligated to review a book rather than wanting to. A few months ago I managed to make myself ridiculously anxious because I was missing publication dates or the author was on twitter and I hadn’t liked the book and so on. There is also a tendency in both myself and others to be ever attracted to the new books, the shiny proofs, and the publicity-promising blog tours. This can get in the way of a proper engagement with the books that appeal to me. There is so much I haven’t read (or reread), so an infatuation with the new can be quite damaging.

That’s an interesting point, because whilst twitter can be great for networking and sharing ideas, as you get to know people it can be easy to feel obligated to buy/review or promote their books. Of course it’s impossible to do that for everyone. How do you manage life on twitter?

Fortunately the people I like best on Twitter, whilst they would love a review (who wouldn’t?), value talking to people who like books and will write and talk and them in an unpretentious and enthusiastic way. I have reviewed the books of people I know on twitter. Fortunately, I liked them. The ones I didn’t like I haven’t reviewed. Some of them I liked but haven’t got around to yet. I used to worry about that, but it’s ridiculous to be pinned down by who you happen to know on twitter. I imagine it’s the equivalent of writing blurbs for other author friends. Every now and then I get anxious because twitter has revealed a whole swathe of literature I didn’t know about, and then I rush off to a book shop and some blogs to find out what I can about those books. Fortunately I can’t buy them because my wife and I have agreed a monthly book budget. Otherwise I would be surrounded by books but a pauper. That’s the danger of twitter.

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What would you say is your taste in books? What makes a book good for you?

I really have no idea. My taste seems to veer wildly. I love travel writing but I hardly ever review it, which is a shame. It may be pure escapism: which probably also explains my taste for fantasy and science fiction, neither of which I’m an expert in. All of those areas have serious and interesting things to say beyond their (fairly fluid) genres and I suppose I’m interested in books which really have something to say about people and things: not just stories, but ideas. But that just means I like good books – and poetry. That probably also explains my fondness for books which aren’t quite novels but aren’t quite anything else. I love Sebald, but then so does everyone else: poetic delvings into place and history are my sort of thing. Hence my enjoyment of Robert MacFarlane, Colin Thubron, and Rory Stewart, amongst others.

My favourite recent novels are from all over the place: James Smythe’s The Explorer and The Machine, Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, Sam Byers’ Idiopathy, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, Christa Wolf’s Cassandra.

I suppose what these books have in common are a (diverse) concern for language and the nature of thought and identity, and how those two might be best married in order to represent what is important about the human and society. That might be grief and despair and its expression, the fragmented nature of thought and the illegitimacy of coherent narrative, the narcissism of our lives and rationalisations, or the fugitive nature of the mind itself. Yet, I don’t like books that become too caught up in their own style, which is why I put down Herta Müller’s The Passport last week. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner might also have become a bit too self-involved by the end.

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What is your point of view on the star rating system of book reviews? What, for you, do 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 stars mean to a prospective reader?

I’m entirely unconvinced by star ratings. Any judgement of a book has to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Books can be terrible and great for any number of very different reasons. It’s unclear how any given reviewer really thinks their actual experience of a book translates into star ratings. It’s equally unclear how a prospective reader is to interpret those ratings.

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Recommend me three books that have blown you away.

Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway

Fragmented, tormented, unrelenting.

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Generous, lost, unbearably sad.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Intimate, grand, poetic.

 

Many thanks, Alan, for your time & your thoughts.

Do visit Alan’s blog. Also why not catch up with other interviews in this series:

– Dan – Utter Biblio

 Isabel – On The Literary Sofa

Teresa – Lovely Treez Reads

– Lindsay – Little Reader Library

– Anne – Random Things Through my Letterbox

– Rob – Rob around Books

Word of Mouth: Lovely Treez Reads

Posted on: May 9th, 2013 by Claire - 4 Comments

In the third of my series of posts chatting to book bloggers, today I’m delighted to welcome Teresa aka Lovely Treez Reads

Teresa Majury

Why do you blog about books? How many books do you read per month on average and has blogging about them changed the way you read?

I don’t really see myself as a book blogger, I’m much too disorganised to have scheduled posts and monthly round ups etc!

I started reviewing books for an online bookswapping site about 6 years ago and folk there seemed to enjoy what I wrote so I became more confident about my reviews.  It’s a creative outlet for me and gives me a focus outside the world of a stay-at-home-Mum.

I read around 8 books a month and make an annual target with Good Reads which keeps me in check.  I don’t think I read any differently since starting reviewing.  I went off reading for a while after my university degree in French and Italian as I was so focussed on finding the “deep underlying meaning” and couldn’t switch off and just enjoy reading.  Now that my children are growing up, aged 9 and 13 now, I find myself reading more and more YA to discover new reads for them…and of course, we are all members of reading groups….is that not the norm? 😉

Oh I wish it was! Tell me more about your reading groups (I’m envious): have you ever had your point of view changed about a book as a result of a reading group discussion? How do the ‘live’ discussions differ from conversations online?

I really enjoy my monthly reading group at our local library.  The age range is from 30 – 65 and at the moment we only have female members although it is rumoured that a man may join our ranks in September – it will be interesting to see how this affects the group dynamic and discussions in general.  Book talk with like-minded folk is so satisfying and it is refreshing to see other viewpoints/interpretations.  We have lots of “aha” moments when someone else spots something new in a novel and as I have generally already read at least half of the chosen titles I have an opportunity to re-read novels and experience new levels of understanding.

Re the pros and cons of “live” discussion versus online, I find that conflicting opinions seem less abrupt in real life as you have the benefit of facial expression, body language and natural pauses plus there is a more natural flow to conversation.  We, as a group, also share more personal stories which all serve to  enhance the reading experience.  Our most recent read was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and we had an extremely rewarding discussion re mental health issues.

I am delighted that my son and daughter are involved in reading groups too.  They are both quite shy but reading gives them a common interest with others and an opportunity to exchange opinions.  Reading is definitely becoming a more vibrant, interactive, dare I say…cool activity.  Long may it continue!

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What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?

High points are reading spectacular debut novels which you just want to share with everyone.  The only “low” point is wondering how I will  be able to read all of my TBR pile…reaches for the immortality pill…

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What would you say is your taste in books? What makes a book good for you? 

It’s probably easier to say what I don’t enjoy.  I’m not a big fan of modern romance and although I really like YA novels I prefer those with dystopian themes minus the teen angst. I dislike Misery Memoirs and Clogs and Shawls books.  My favourite reads usually have some element of quirkiness and a bit of Victorian Gothic doesn’t go amiss.

Do you ever read books that you don’t really fancy, but everyone else seems to be reading and talking about?

I tend to be a creature of habit and have had my fingers burnt when I stray too far out of my comfort zone  Major confession..I did read Fifty Shades of Grey as I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  Some folk believe that it doesn’t matter what people read as long as they are reading but I would rather read the back of a cereal box for eternity than face any more of the “grey matter”!  I had got out of the habit of reading thrillers in my late 20s but I’ve dabbled a little recently with Mo Hayder’s Poppet and they’re back on the agenda. At the moment I am tempted to read Gone Girl as it has such a buzz about it but I’m not convinced….yet…

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What is your point of view on the star rating system of book reviews? What, for you, do 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 stars mean to a prospective reader?

I’ve seen many bloggers discussing this online and I can’t see the problem. Readers are intelligent and like to read a variety of opinions so they can make a balanced decision on whether to buy a book or not.  Sometimes I feel that book bloggers can be rather anal and precious about such things and can end up patronising readers.

Could you expand a little on what you mean by patronising the reader? Could a book that isn’t to your taste at all get a 5* review if you thought it was brilliantly written?

Readers have minds of their own and aren’t too swayed by star ratings. I think star ratings give readers an initial idea about how you felt about a novel and as they get to know your reviewing style and tastes they are a good guide for what might work for them.  The rating needs to be backed up with a balanced review.

I think it’s important to mention stylistic factors for example present/past tense, 1st/3rd person or multiple narrators as a lot of readers have fixed tastes re style.  There are plenty of marmite books out there which make for interesting reviews and indeed books which provoke discussion and make you feel something are much more intriguing than bland, safe novels – better to aim for the stars and risk failure rather than sticking to tried and tested formulas.There isn’t much difference between my 4 and 5 star ratings apart from the fact that I reserve 5 stars for books which I think will stand the test of time and are an excellent example of their genre.  For example I would give 5 stars to a spectacular children’s novel even though I’m slightly over the target market age range!  I often find that I have to “digest” a book for a couple of weeks to make sure the initial sparkle doesn’t fade before posting a rave review…you can tell I was a strict teacher in the classroom.

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Recommend me three books that have blown you away.

My all time favourite book is Jane Eyre but, in recent times, I have been very impressed by The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell and The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes.

Many thanks to Teresa for taking the time to be here and chat.

Catch up with other interviews in this series:

– Dan – Utter Biblio

Isabel – On The Literary Sofa

Alan – Words of Mercury

– Lindsay – Little Reader Library

 

– Anne – Random Things Through my Letterbox

 

– Rob – Rob around Books

 

Word of Mouth: The Literary Sofa

Posted on: May 7th, 2013 by admin - 8 Comments

Second up in my series of posts on book bloggers is Isabel Costello, whose book blog On The Literary Sofa is a wonderful source of both book recommendations and fascinating insights from the authors themselves. Isabel is also a writer, so we occasionally get glimpses into that world too.

Isabel Costello 2

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Why do you blog about books?

For me blogging is a way of connecting with people who share my love of reading and writing, an extension of my favourite kind of conversation.  I enjoy spreading the word about good books, getting recommendations in return and talking to other writers.  My blog readers are great at joining in.  I’ve met so many interesting people online and in real life through the Literary Sofa.

We writers do like discussing other people’s books. Do you have an idea what proportion of your blog readers are also writers?

I get the impression a lot of them are writers.  Certainly most of those who comment are!

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How many books do you read per month on average and has blogging about them changed the way you read?

I read five or six books per month.  I don’t think blogging has particularly changed the way I read but now I’m plugged into the book world I’m more aware of new releases and much more selective.

Five or six books per month is amazing, I barely manage one! How do you fit in reading with writing and your other commitments?

I take every possible opportunity to read: on public transport, in the bath, late at night, so the hours add up.  I watch very little TV.

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Has reviewing books changed the way you write?

Blogging does seem to have had a positive effect on my writing – I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’ve finally started to get to grips with short stories.  If you’re an emerging writer and your blog isn’t articulate and well-written, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

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What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?

I enjoy all aspects of reviewing, especially taking an in-depth look at the writing, which is often overlooked.  I relish the challenge of reviewing without giving spoilers – it’s hard but it can be done!  I only review books I think are worth recommending but I adopt a critical approach.  I aim to be honest and fair and that’s important to the credibility of any review – nobody takes any notice of a gush.

If anything I search harder for flaws if I absolutely love the book!

It’s frustrating that I just don’t have the time to read and review all the titles which interest me.

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What would you say is your taste in books? What makes a book good for you?

 My home terrain (in reading and writing) is the crossover between literary and commercial fiction.  I am hugely drawn to American writing.  The only thing I actively dislike is chick lit.  I strongly believe we all have a right to our own taste and don’t need to justify it.

Good writing matters the most to me and I and particularly admire novelists who can write beautifully about difficult subjects and emotions.  All reading is escapism if the writing is good enough to pull me in. If pushed, I would rank character above story but I rarely have to compromise because so many novels have all three elements.  A truly excellent novel will make me think and make me feel something.

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What is your point of view on the star rating system of book reviews?

 I find it very unsatisfactory so I prefer not to do it. For me the best books I’ve ever read would be 5 star and 3 stars would be a very decent appraisal.  I’m out of kilter on this but it doesn’t matter as I don’t review books anywhere but my own blog.

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Through your success as a respected book blogger you have become ‘known’ to editors at publishing houses. Whilst it’s always the writing that counts, it’s great to have that (I think). Would you recommend book blogging to other writers seeking to raise their profile in advance of submitting their work?

Thanks for your kind words, Claire.  I’d recommend blogging based on passion and enthusiasm rather than a specific agenda.  I never expected the Literary Sofa to take off so it’s been a fantastic surprise. I do believe that the writing is what counts for agents (publishers may be slightly more interested in an author’s profile), so my top tip for anyone submitting is to get your book professionally edited before sending it out.  I wish I had done that.

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Recommend me three books that have blown you away

These three novels tick every box in my answer to Q3:

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Fall on your Knees by Ann-Marie Macdonald

 

Many thanks to Isabel for her time and great answers.

Do also have a look at the other posts in this series, where I chat to:

– Dan from Utter Biblio

– Teresa from Lovely Treez Reads

– Alan from Words of Mercury

– Lindsay from Little Reader Library

 

– Anne – Random Things Through my Letterbox

 

– Rob – Rob around Books

Word of Mouth: Utter Biblio

Posted on: May 4th, 2013 by Claire - 4 Comments

Today I’m starting a new series of posts chatting to book bloggers/reviewers.

I’ve got to know quite a few people, mostly via twitter, who read voraciously – I mean incredibly so –  and review the books they have read on their blogs (and/or on Goodreads, Amazon etc).

I’ve realised over the last few years that I’ve come to rely on these reviews to help me push books to the top of my ‘To be read’ pile, or to start discussions with others around these books.

Book bloggers are readers, whose points of view are considered, honest and based on a lot of reading, usually very widely. They also do a wonderful job for authors by helping to spread the word about out books to readers, which as any author knows is worth its weight in gold. So I’ve called these posts ‘Word of Mouth’.

First up is Dan, also known as Utter Biblio, previously known as Dog Ear Discs. Dan is definitely worth following on Twitter @utterbiblio and is lovely to chat to. Here he is in all his robot glory:

Utter Biblio

I asked Dan…

Why do you blog about books? Has blogging about them changed the way you read?

I blog about books to tell people about the brilliant works that are out there, whether they be new releases or older. I want to be able to express my passion for the written word. Blogging has definitely changed how I read. Sometimes I push older books to one side in order to read the latest titles. However, since I began blogging I’ve branched out in what I read. Now I read more poetry and non fiction than ever before.

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Where do you get your recommendations from? And where do you get your books from?

My recommendations come from all over. Mostly Twitter and podcasts, though. I now keep a notebook with me when I am listening to podcasts as they tend to rack up pretty quickly.

Same as above, my books come from all over. Publishers send through copies for review, I buy from high street chains, fill my Kindle at Amazon, trawl charity shops and import from the US and Canada through various websites.

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What are the high and low points of reviewing books for you?

The high points are easy. The best thing is someone getting in touch to say that they loved a book I recommended. Reading such a broad range of books is also a high point, I’m generally more open to reading different things since I began reviewing them.

The only low point that gets to me is when I read a wonderful book that doesn’t achieve the success I believe it deserves.

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What would you say is your taste in books? What makes a book good for you?

I am very eclectic in what I read. It’s easier to say that I don’t really read crime or horror and, although I like romance in books, I don’t read chick lit. Anything else is welcome. At the moment I am very partial to essays, creative non fiction and short stories.

A good book for me is one that engages me. I generally like a little oddness in what I read, I prefer speculative ideas. Most of all, an author needs a unique voice that tells a great story. Lyrical prose, etc, is all well and good, but I read for the stories.

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What is your point of view on the star rating system of book reviews? What, for you, do 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 stars mean to a prospective reader?

I used to use a star rating system. It is generally very helpful for summing up a general opinion. As consumers we tend to want an experience summed up briefly. Recently I abandoned star ratings completely.

The main reason for this is because a small image of stars just doesn’t encapsulate how I feel about each aspect of a novel. While you can sum up general feelings, you can’t discuss the nuances of the books with stars. I wondered how many people scrolled to the bottom to see the star rating and left before reading any more. Only in reading the body of a review can you really find out if it is something you may enjoy. Having said that, I still find myself looking at star ratings, it’s hard not to.

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Have you ever had an author (or indeed a reader) react badly to a review (or a star rating)?

No authors that I know of. To be honest, even readers have never really reacted badly. Sometimes I get a comment on my blog debating certain aspects of a book, but I’ve been pretty lucky with the community.

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Do you talk about books a lot with your friends and family, or mostly via your blog/twitter etc?

Sadly very few of my friends and family read, and certainly not to the extent I do. In fact, many times I have paused to read a section of a book to my wife and her eyes have glazed over. I rely on Twitter and Goodreads for my conversation. If it wasn’t for Twitter my evenings would be quieter and my TBR would be smaller.

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Recommend me three books that have blown you away.

I’m going to cheat, because there are too many books that I love.

1) The entire Holt trilogy by Kent Haruf is just stunning. Plainsong, Eventide and Benediction are each delicately beautiful and communicate the subtlety of humanity with near perfection.

2) The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait. I have read many books on depression, none have captured the darkness suffered as well as Rebecca.

3) I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle. The magical realism in this brooding book makes it such a great read. Each character is still with me some two years later.

Many thanks to Dan for taking the time to chat. Do have a browse through his blogs for more great recommendations.

Do have a look at the other book bloggers in this series:

– Isabel from The Literary Sofa

– Teresa from Lovely Treez Reads

– Alan from Words of Mercury

– Lindsay from Little Reader Library

 

– Anne – Random Things Through my Letterbox

 

– Rob – Rob around Books

A Launch Party Mingle

Posted on: February 1st, 2013 by Claire - 4 Comments

I’m having (whoopee!) an actual launch party in London on 13th February, on the eve of The Night Rainbow’s official publication date, but not everyone can be there, so I’ll be doing some virtual mingling over the next couple of weeks with some very smashing people indeed.

I’m hoping it will be like being at a party on the web, where you wander around chatting, you meet some new people, ask some questions, have a bit of a laugh. And all this without having to wear heels. So come on in, help yourself to a drink, and I hope you have a good time!

Champagne glasses

Take a glass and mingle

Who I’ve met so far:

Kate at For Books’ Sake, where we talk about the portraying pressures of motherhood and how long a story should be.

Jen at The View From Here literary magazine, who asks me what are the important things, and where did the idea of a night rainbow come from?

Roz Morris, about the Undercover Soundtrack to The Night Rainbow – the songs that were part of its making.

Joe at the Bristol Short Story Prize, the home of my first published short story, who asks “What has it been like?”

Dan at Dog Ear Discs  – who asks about the environment of the novel and the surrounding countryside. “It becomes as important as the characters. Was it based on an actual place?”

Simon Savidge, who pokes around my bookshelves and asks “Are there any guilty pleasures?…”

Jen Campbell – Bookshoppist and author, who I may have made happy-sad.

Caroline Smailes, who wants to know about being a debut author and asks “How has your following your dream influenced your daughters?”

Isabel Costello on her Literary Sofa, where we talk about the pleasures and challenges of writing in a child’s voice.

Waterstones blog, where I talk about the inspiration behind The Night Rainbow

Alison Bacon, who asks about my experience of the publishing process with a top publisher, as well as life on twitter!

Vanessa Gebbie, who asks “How much did you want the novel to explore notions of non-belonging?”

Alison Wells – Who has been running a series of posts exploring ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. I talk to her about keeping the joy in writing

Rumjhum Biswas at Flash Fiction Chronicles where I chat about how writing short fiction has influenced my novel, and what I looked for as an editor of a literary magazine

 

Spotted across a crowded room! I’m heading towards…

Chris Mosler  over at Thinly Spread, who has things to say, and a giveaway!

Nik Perring, about getting started and keeping going on a novel and…

… Jonathan Pinnock, who wants to know how I managed to wait out the two years from signing a book contract to publication…

and other people too…I hope there’s enough champagne.

The-Night-Rainbow-front

Paparazzi!

Marie-Claire selected The Night Rainbow as one of their top reads for the month.

Marie Claire Book Review

“An original and beguiling debut.”

Stylist magazine tipped me as one of their 4 soon to be bestsellers (alongside Maya Angelou and Dan Brown!)

You'll be on tenterhooks throughout

You’ll be on tenterhooks throughout

Good To Know magazine have listed The Night Rainbow as one of their 2013 book club picks (alongside Jodi Picoult, Yann Martel and Jojo Moyes!). If you post a review here you could win an e-reader.

 

Overheard…”Have you read it yet?”

Dan at Dog Ear Discs – The picturesque setting of Southern France in the midst of a heat wave is almost hypnotic.”

Nettie Thompson – “Pea and Margot are characters who stay with you, long after the last page is turned “

Teresa Majury – “…a narrator who will grab your heartstrings and never let go”

Tracey Upchurch – “Favourite character? Margot — little sister, voice of reason, bearer of night rainbows.

Laura Vickers at For Books’ Sake – Recommended for… Dreamers, mothers, lovers of the rich landscape of the south of France, and those in need of warming up.”

See more reviews on this page.

I’ll update the page with links as they happen.

For mingling in person, please see my events page here.

Champagne photo (c) Chris Chapman

 

 

 

Books that make you cry

Posted on: January 13th, 2013 by Claire - 6 Comments

I was sitting on a packed train looking at my smart phone and weeping copiously. I couldn’t help it. I had sunglasses on, but it had gone beyond that and people were staring. It being London, though I was left alone with my pocket tissues and my apparent grief.

But the grief wasn’t real, it had been conjured up in me by the author of the book I was reading. I was slightly embarrassed about the tears, but I couldn’t stop reading, because I had to know what happened next, and because on some level, it felt good to be crying.

Yes really.

Woman reading on train platform.

Sometimes day-to-day life can be routine: Going from one place to the next, dealing with chores and work and the mundane necessities of running a household. Finding time to be interested in and kind to the ones we love. Of course on one level this is great. How lucky I am to be living a life without hunger, suffering or tragedy. And yet it feels good to be reminded of the breadth of feelings that makes me human, and the possible lives that I am not living. It can make me feel more alive to experience something – joy, fear, sadness, anger, the tumultuous experience of falling in love – even if only on behalf of a fictional character. And when I leave the character behind, everything looks a little different. And I count my blessings.

I love books that make me cry. Or laugh, or in fact feel any kind of strong empathetic reaction to the characters. It means I’ve suspended disbelief, it means I care, it means I can have the rush of emotions – and the cocktail of chemicals that accompany them – without any drama in my own actual life.

Ten novels that made me cry (there are many, many more):

1) The Time Travellers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
2) Whatever you love by Louise Doughty
3) The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
4) The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
5) Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
6) Love Story by Erich Segal
7) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
8) To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
9) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
10) The Help by Kathryn Stockett

And it’s not limited to adult fiction. Since the startling hormonal uprising that is childbirth I’m now floored at their bedtime by:

– The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
– The Ugly Duckling (yes, really)

And in the future we can all look forward to tears over Watership Down and The Little Prince… oh yes.

 

Photo (c) Moriza via Flickr creative commons

What I wrote & what you read.

Posted on: December 29th, 2012 by Claire - 7 Comments

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the intention in what we write – how we choose the palette for our story, the setting and the small details to send messages for the reader to pick up on.

But intention is a funny thing, because things are sometimes not interpreted the way we intended. This is the source of a lot of arguments. Any of these phrases seem familiar?

“That’s not what I meant!

“You are inferring that from what I said.”

“You were implying that when you said…”

“I could see by your expression that…”

“It’s not what you said, it’s the way that you said it!”

Well, anyway, in November Waterstones ran a draw for people to receive review copies of The Night Rainbow, and December the books went out. So although there’s still a month until it starts shipping ‘for real’, reviews are now coming in, and I get to see if what I intended to say came across to *actual* readers in the way I hoped. Or not.

This, in a way, is the end of one writing journey that started back in 2009 and which I’ve been blogging about for almost 3 years. So I thought I’d share my first thoughts on being read, and reviewed.

I’d thought about book reviews before in terms of the rating, the number of stars. What does a one star review mean? How would I feel the first time I got one? It’s easy to say that rationally there is going to be some kind of bell curve. You can’t please all the people all the time. And a five star review is the flip side of the coin. You really hit a nerve with a reader, but it doesn’t mean you’re a literary genius.

Actually, now I’ve started to read the reviews, what matters much more is the words. Readers have taken the time to write at some length about how they experienced the story, how it made them feel as they read it, and their conclusions at the end. It’s such a privilege to read these insights, and to see if what I hoped I wrote matched up with what people actually read. It seems so far, so good!

I’m going to try not to get obsessed with reading reviews (seriously, I am!), mostly because I have written a new book that I am revising now and I have to turn the internet off most of the time to do that. But the appearance of these reviews is a timely reminder that I am writing for readers, and that I have to get it right. That ‘good enough’ isn’t really good enough, unless I want to face ‘good enough’ reviews on my next novel in 2 years time. And that’s not my intention.

So to the book reviewers out there who are taking the time to write these considered, detailed reviews – A Big Thank You!

And I wish all readers of this blog a very happy new year. Good health, peace and happiness to you and yours in 2013.

The High Roads and Low Roads of Scottish Fiction

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by Claire - 10 Comments

I read with interest recently an article that said Scottish children are not being taught enough Scottish literature. A debate has now sprung up over whether or not it should be made mandatory in schools up to exam level. Personally I don’t think that’s a useful approach, but I do believe strongly that if you don’t engage with the culture of the place you live – including the literature and art as well as the local surroundings – then you are likely to feel disengaged from the place, with all the associated problems this brings to a society. Here’s an interesting essay on the subject.

I mentioned this to my Twitter friend, Scottish author Alison Bacon, and she offered to post here on the subject. I asked her if she would talk about what Scottish fiction has meant to her. What did she grow up reading, and how has that influenced her writing?

Here’s what she has to say: My early preferences were the usual suspects: – Enid Blyton (any or all) and series like Sadlers Wells  and The Chalet School,  but for a while adventure stories by Scottish author Jane Shaw were my real favourites. (Like the period feel? Collector’s items now, apparently!)

I went on to historical novels – any period, any country, including Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Renault and with them D.K. Broster’s Jacobite Trilogy And so, if we let pass that Broster wasn’t actually a Scot (!) I’d still argue that Scottish literature was always part of my reading mix. As a teenager I progressed to the miscellany of fiction with which our house was filled, popular novelists of the forties and fifties like Howard Spring, Ernest Raymond, Agatha Christie, and amongst them Scottish classics –  Kidnapped,  Catriona, The Heart of Midlothian. I can still see them lined up around the walls of the ‘front room’ although if anything nudged me towards them it was probably the good old (can we say that now?) BBC whose Sunday serials gave a pretty decent nod to RLS as well as Dumas and Dickens.

Meanwhile, school neither encouraged or discouraged us in reading ‘home-grown’ authors: Burns, Buchan, and Barrie all figured, if briefly. But in the sixties the trend was for modern (in many cases American) authors. I think I only got to the fabulously lyrical Sunset Song and the rest of A Scots Quair via the 1970s TV adaptation (which wonder of wonders, is now available on YouTube!)

To be honest, as I grew up, I don’t remember distinguishing in my mind between Scottish and other writers. Books were generally good things, any decent story would do. But I’m reminded by a member of the Facebook Support Scottish Writing group that I and an entire generation were brought up on the Sunday Post, an icon of popular culture and the prime motivator in my learning to read!

Later, married in England and burying myself in Margaret Drabble and Penelope Lively, I was brought back ‘home’ in reading terms by none other than Inspector Rebus. Never mind the plot or the body-count,I was instantly hooked by the writing ‘voice’. I still can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something in the prose that just feels right. Rankin, like Iain Banks, is from my own neck of the woods, but I find that other Scots writers have the same effect, particularly poet and novelist Moira Forsyth whose dialogue has a ring of authenticity that is instantly satisfying. There are still more gaps in my Scottish reading than I will ever have time to fill, but I’ve recently added James Robertson and Janice Galloway to my favourites as well as Scottish indie authors like Catherine Czerkawska and  Chris Longmuir  all of whom to satisfy that need to hear the ‘guid Scots tongue’.

Going on to writing,  I’m inevitably influenced (no iconoclast me!) by the books I have read, including all of the above. But I don’t consciously ape any writer either. So is my writing style ‘Scottish’? I’m not sure I could answer that for myself! Nor do I feel that Scottish writers have particularly influenced what I choose to write about. My first novel (unpublished) was set in Oxford and France. But a trip to Scotland in 2007 (our first for many years) prompted a strong feeling of homecoming, and maybe even a sense of guilt at having gradually let the idioms and rhythms of speech slip from my conscious memory. And so A Kettle of Fish became, literally, a nostalgia trip, not in the sense of a memoir (I hasten to add!) but I think I used Ailsa’s story not so much to rediscover my roots as to repair my memories of them. Does that make sense?

From my point of view, the experiment worked, because I feel I know Fife better now than I did when I started the novel.I just have to hope that it works for my readers too. I’m afraid I’ve shied away from what is maybe the crucial question of what makes a Scottish writer. Scottish blood? Living in Scotland? Writing about Scotland? Any or all of these will play a part. As an exiled Scot with a desire to write, I’m not sure that I would have put myself in that group before I started Kettle. But it feels like I’m part of it now

 About Ali and her Writing  Ali Bacon was born in Dunfermline in Scotland and graduated from St Andrews University. She now lives near Bristol. Her writing has been published in Scribble, The Yellow Room and a number of online magazines. She was shortlisted for the A&C Black First Novel Competition 2006. Her first published novel is A Kettle of Fish.

Website and blog: http://alibacon.com

A Kettle of Fish  is a rollercoaster family drama set in Scotland and published by Thornberry Publishing Buy it from Amazon UK (£1.99) or Amazon USA in Kindle format. You can ‘Look Inside’ to read a sample.

Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/AKettleOfFish Print edition coming soon.

You Are What You Meet

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 by Claire - 2 Comments

This week there were various articles published reporting the results of a survey which suggests that we ‘become similar to’ the characters that we read about in books.*

This spawned a series of remarks such as “So this makes me a bonnet-wearing, blood-sucking, 30-something, single, serial-killing hobbit sharing my summer holidays backpacking through Thailand with three other children and a dog called Timmy.”

Yes, the idea itself is intriguing, but can quickly be dumbed down so much as to be ridiculous, and to allow conclusions like the above.

The attention grabbing headline, though, You are what you read is interesting: a play on words linking consumption of literature to consumption of food. The parallel is useful because the same rules apply. When we eat a prawn we do not become a prawn. When we eat cheese, we do not become cheese. When we eat radishes we do not become radishes or indeed ‘like’ radishes. But we do take on some of the constituent parts; we nourish ourselves with the energy, the calcium, the fats and vitamins and proteins.

Nourishing…another word that is often used to describe reading matter, with its antonym being ‘trashy’. We often class reading matter into things that are ‘good for you’ to read, and others we describe as trashy in the manner of junk food – often tasty but largely unhealthy.

As a society we are quick to draw conclusions about what fits where. Graphic novels – nourishing or trashy? Science Fiction? What about ‘Women’s Fiction’?

I think that whatever literature we consume, from The Beano to Dostoyevsky, there is usually some goodness in it for us. We may find some characters inspiring or aspirational, where we lack role models around us. We may learn from their actions. We might feel a sense of injustice on their behalf or be compelled into hopefulness. Perhaps we will find the humour in their situation which helps us to find the humour in our own. This, I think, is the essence of reading. Not that we become the characters themselves, but that we experience them and their stories and learn from that experience.

Just as though we had met them in real life.

Here is an excellent article on the neuroscience of reading fiction which takes that thought further, suggesting that our brains assimilate the books we read as though we had actually had those experiences ourselves.

 

* Here is the MSNBC take on it and Here is the Daily Mail’s take on it

 

Potato, Potato, Tomato, Tomato, Book Covers.

Posted on: April 29th, 2012 by Claire - 21 Comments

Today we’re talking about that Special Relationship….

I’m in the amazing position of having The Night Rainbow being published in several countries, including the U.K. and the U.S.A., where the cover designs have now been developed (I had input into both). I’m delighted with both of them, but they are markedly different (U.K. on the left, U.S.A. on the right):

I’ve asked some very kind booksellers in both countries, and my editor from Bloomsbury U.S.A., to talk about the importance of a book cover, and to try and define what defines the differences in our tastes. Here are some of the first responses:

First, Robert Gray, who from 1992-2005 was a bookseller and buyer for the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vermont.

He has also been a contributing editor and columnist at Shelf Awareness since 2006. As a writer, his work has appeared in numerous publications, ranging from Tin House to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine toPublishers Weekly. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College. Rob tweets as @Fresheyesnow

Rob says:

The cover was always a factor for us when buying in stock, though not the deciding factor (excepting, of course those counter books that could be sold as gift items on strength of their covers or titles alone). If a book with a lousy cover was still something I loved and knew I could handsell, content always trumped art. But if a book wasn’t so great and the cover was irresistible, then the decision came down to a question: “Is this a book I know there are readers for, even if I’m not crazy about it?” Another factor I don’t see discussed often: When booksellers are building displays, a great cover always has a better chance of being showcased.

I do think customers instinctively reach for a book with a great cover if it’s on a display or face-out on the shelves. If it’s spine-out, then the game is over before it starts. Ideally, what a great cover does is get the potential reader to pick up the book, maybe scan blurbs on the back cover, open the book and flip through the first few pages.

Anything that inspires a customer to initiate that ceremony is critical.

Looking at your covers, I do think the U.S. cover will appeal more to American readers. I’m not sure I can be more specific than that. It’s an instinctive reaction for me, since I’m not a graphics or even a particularly visually-oriented person. I’ve just watched thousands of books being sold over the years. 

***

Anna J G-Smith has worked at Stroud Bookshop for the last 15 years.
Stroud Bookshop is an independent book shop, keeping books on the High Street and part of Stroud’s cultural heart. Anna is passionate about her job – even more so since she started writing, and rarely seems to have her bookselling hat off these days. Her writers blog is here and she tweets as @eryth
Anna says:
When ordering a new title in for stock, the most important thing is the write-up, and any advance reviews. Also if we like the premise, and feel it fits with the zeitgeist of the moment in which it is published. BUT, once the new titles arrive, then we can assess how best to display them, depending on jacket design (and heft!). I tend to be the one mostly responsible for the displays, as I am acknowledged to have a good eye for overall balance of colour/design. If I think a book looks particularly beautiful, then I will display it as prominently as possible, and especially if it is a hardback. With paperbacks it is slightly easier, in that the bestsellers tend to be displayed depending on how many we have in stock, and what the prevailing colours/designs in paperbacks are at the time. For example, Julian Barnes and Graham Swift look well next to each other at the moment:
Design is important to customers. Hardback design in particular: if they’re going to shell out on a new title they might not otherwise buy (unless they’re die-hard author-addicts who can’t help themselves!) then they like the idea that they are buying something beautiful. Smaller hardbacks in particular fit this niche, (Julian Barnes – again – was an example last year), as do books that they might like for themselves, but can only justify if buying a gift for someone else. Paperbacks are where the most committed browsing takes place. For backlist/classics it helps to have either a smart and recognisable livery (Oxford, Penguin, faber etc) or something beautiful and striking. Joanne Harris’s Chocolat still stands out years later, because of the rich purple; David Mitchell’s Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is another good example.
When a title is new, and selling well, then it is more likely to be displayed face-out. This is where good design comes to the fore.
A good cover helps a book more than a bad cover hinders it. If a customer really wants to read a particular title, then a poorly designed cover will not put them off – though it does cause comment. This does happen a lot, and especially if the design is changed between hardback and paperback, or between trade paperback and A-format. Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English is a good example here. The original design was very striking in red and yellow. The A-format paperback is less memorable, and especially when there are so many other blue covers around.
Now to your covers. They are BOTH beautiful. I much prefer the English cover for the hardback  – and it will look lovely stacked high in the middle of my hardback display, and in the window! – the U.S. edition is too much like other jackets I have seen, but will look very strong as a paperback cover, whereas I think – lovely though it is – the striking detail on the UK cover will be diminished once it is scaled down. And I’d be very surprised if my customers don’t greatly admire the hardback cover. It is unlike anything I have seen in a very long time, so will stand out well. Bloomsbury do have a knack for GOOD covers that buck the mass market; Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being another example.
***

Rachel Mannheimer is my editor at Bloomsbury in the USA

Rachel says:

It’s difficult to pinpoint how important is the cover design for a novel. With the closing of so many bookshops, and the rise of online shopping – for print books and especially for e-books – I think there are fewer face-to-face encounters, as it were, with the book cover. There are new ways to find books, which are great, but it’s rarer for readers to discover books based solely on an eye-catching image. Still, when I’m in a bookshop, it’s definitely still my eyes leading me. (Then I read the blurbs or reviews on the back). And a memorable image still makes an impression if you see it online, in an advertisement, wherever. The cover conveys something about the style of the book before you know anything else.

When you consider the difference between what readers in the U.S.A. like in a cover, compared to the U.K., I think it’s a matter of a slightly different visual language, and just what the customer is accustomed to seeing – what connotations different visual cues have. Successful British book covers look like other successful British book covers, and successful American covers tend to look like other American covers. And I would say, to be supremely reductive, that British covers can look a bit schmaltzy to American eyes, while American covers can look stiff and boring. But sometimes something works perfectly in both markets! It just depends.

I love the cover we came up with for The Night Rainbow; it’s evocative and stylish. There was discussion early on about how difficult it would be to match the title literally (though the UK cover does come close). But it’s also such an interesting phrase, “night rainbow.” The designer had to work with both its sweetness and its mystery. Also, you had been clear about not wanting a straight representation of Pea; you wanted the reader to have space to imagine. This image the designer found, I love that it shows a little girl, but it’s a bit disorienting; you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. You want to read and learn more.

***

Many thanks to Rachel, Anna and Robert for taking the time to comment.

For more discussion on UK versus US covers:

Here’s a link to a brilliant talk by Chip Kidd on Book Design on Seth Godin’s blog.

Some very interesting comparisons of the last year’s novels on The Millions.

Not just a wildly different cover, but a different title too, from Morag Joss

For more information/to see other work by the designers of my covers:

UK: Holly Macdonald

USA: Jennifer Heuer

Now in Paperback! Interview with Vanessa Gebbie & Bloomsbury’s paperback editor.

Posted on: March 28th, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

As some of you will have noticed, Vanessa Gebbie is a little like my Moses. She is busy parting the Red Sea of debut-novelling in Bloomsbury, and I am standing a year behind her peering over her shoulder. March sees the launch of her novel The Coward’s Tale in paperback, so I have invited Vanessa back along with her (and my!) paperback editor from Bloomsbury, Trâm-Anh Doan, to see what it’s all about.
Vanessa Gebbie (Photograph by Andrew Hasson)

CK: How has life been since the launch of your novel last November?

VG: Well, apart from the joy of knowing my novel is ‘out there’, nothing has changed. I am not doing anything different – still working hard at a hundred and one different things.

CK: What have been your highs and lows?

VG: Highs have been seeing some lovely reviews in the newspapers – especially the glowing reviews from A N Wilson. But the best thing? Getting letters and emails from complete strangers to say how much they have been moved by the book. And even better – when those come from Wales!

Of course there are lows, but it is really important to put these in context – I am delighted and very lucky to be with Bloomsbury, am learning such a lot, and enjoying working with everyone.  But it would be an unusual journey if there were absolutely no shades of light and dark.  The most surprising low is the discovery that if I want to support publicity, marketing and selling The Coward’s Tale,  I have to forget my professional rule of sticking to Society of Authors’ minimum earnings guidelines.I’m also downhearted at the lack of interest in ‘The Cowards Tale’ from lit fests – I love these, and was greatly looking forward to mingling with readers, writers, picking readings to intrigue, raise a smile – but it obviously ain’t to be. If Bloomsbury can’t get the book in, no one can.I suspect it is a vote less against the book, more against the older female author. If I was younger, the story would be different, judging from the authors’ events info on the website – I’m caught somewhere in the no man’s land between glamour and gravitas. (V shuffles off to spinning wheel, sucking her one remaining tooth)

CK: Wait, come back! What else have you learnt?
VG: A lot. That it is not an end, but just another beginning. That your book jostles for attention with a whole raft of brilliant books. Yours is just one of many.

 

CK: The Cowards Tale is getting a new boost this month with the launch of the paperback edition. What is significant about this for you?

VG: It has happened very quickly; I think usually, there is a greater distance between hardback and paperback publication. But for this writer, the daughter of a librarian, and a person who adores books as lovely things, I was delighted to have a few months in hardback, and having now got my hands on my gorgeous paperback, I am as nuts about that book as I was about the hardback.

 

CK: What has it been like working with Trâm-Anh as your paperback editor?

VG: Lovely. All I ask is that there is communication – because I care enormously about my book and need to know what’s happening, or not. And Trâm-Anh is wonderful…she seems to understand that. Thank you Trâm-Anh

 

Trâm-Anh (“This photo makes me look like Head Girl”)

CK: Could you tell us a little about your job as a paperback editor? 

TD: I oversee all paperbacks on our trade list, fiction and non-fiction. I brief our in-house designers for all paperback covers after discussing with our marketing and sales teams which direction we want to take the paperback. I then work closely with our designers as they progress their visuals and, alongside the commissioning editor and our marketing and sales directors, make the final decision on which cover we will have. I also put the book through press, selecting the best press reviews for the cover, making any corrections that need to be made to the main text, and making sure the costs for the book work. Then, in the run-up to a paperback being published, I work with marketing and publicity on their campaigns. It’s a very varied job, and I love the different aspects to it, but the best part is helping an author bring their book into the world.

 

CK: What is the usual time difference between the launch of a hardback and the paperback version? What are the reasons it might vary?

TD: It depends on the book and the time of year that we publish the original edition. In general there’s roughly a year between hardback and paperback, but with Vanessa’s book it made sense to publish in the spring, quite soon after the hardback. Spring and summer are our busiest times of the year for paperbacks as people tend to buy them when they’re off on their holidays, while the autumn market tends to be geared towards Christmas gifts, which suits higher priced books like hardbacks (publishers will almost always save their big cookbooks for October publication). So, of the 120 paperbacks we will publish this year, over two thirds of them are published between January to July. We look at our schedule carefully to make sure we’ve spread out our titles so that similar titles aren’t competing with each other.

CK: Why do paperbacks tend to have different covers from hardbacks? What were your thoughts when preparing The Coward’s Tale?

TD: The market for paperbacks is different from hardbacks – it tends to be a younger, much broader market for the paperback which is why we often go for different covers as we’re trying to reach a bigger readership with the paperback. The gorgeous, illustrated cover for the hardback of The Coward’s Tale (designed by our very talented designer Holly Macdonald) was perfect for making a statement to the trade and literary editors that this is an important literary novel that people need to take notice of. When it came to the paperback, Helen Garnons Williams (Vanessa’s editor) and I both agreed the cover should be photographic, concentrating on the boy Laddy Merridew, with a real sense of south Wales’s sweeping valleys. I have a close friend who grew up in Caerphilly and she helped me find the right kind of photographs of the Rhymney Valley to show our designer, Sarah Greeno. Here are some of the options that we initially looked at but subsequently discarded – we all wanted the cover to be more uplifting, and these designs weren’t quite strong enough (though the feather design is a beautiful and clever idea). As soon as we saw the vibrant orange sky, we knew it was perfect, and the image of the boy running down an empty street was so poignant. There was a collective, simultaneous sigh of ‘Ahhhh’ when everyone saw this cover. We later realized it’s uncannily similar to the cover for one of Vanessa’s previous books, but this was a pure coincidence!

 

CK; Books published under Bloomsbury’s new imprint, Bloomsbury Circus, will launch as ‘unusually sized’ trade paperbacks. When the paperback editions of these books launch, will there a be a difference in how you work versus one that launches in hardback?

TD: No, Bloomsbury Circus books will still be published in paperback in the same way as books that were originally launched as hardbacks.

 

CK: How do you see the share of sales changing between hardbacks, paperbacks and electronic books?

TD: Over the past year or so we’ve seen a marked increase in the sales of electronic books but so far it’s difficult to tell how much they’ve impacted on sales of print books. Sales overall for publishers are down (hardback and paperback), but we’re yet to see if the rise of eBooks has compensated for this downturn, as unfortunately the sales data for eBooks isn’t quite accurate enough for us to get a clear idea of how they’re doing.

Traditionally, the paperback is the main life of the book and 9 out of 10 print books purchased are paperbacks. In America, eBook sales of big, commercial titles have been known to outsell the print edition. We haven’t quite seen that level here, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.

 

CK: What has it been like working with Vanessa?

TD: Vanessa is an incredibly warm, intelligent and passionate author and it’s genuinely a pleasure to work with her. I remember first meeting her on our editor-in-chief’s houseboat last summer and having a lovely chat with her about books, families, life and everything. It’s also brilliant to work with authors who are clued up about using social networking sites: I cannot count the number of times our marketing and publicity teams ask editors if their author is active on Twitter! Via her blog, website and Twitter feed, Vanessa clearly works hard to promote the book, and it’s increasingly important to have authors as pro-active as her. More than anything, we’ve all found Vanessa to be a very gracious author, thanking everyone involved in every stage of her book (marketing, publicity, production, design, etc).

 

CK: How early on in the life of a book do you get involved? OK, I admit that’s a slightly loaded question…so have you been having thoughts about The Night Rainbow yet?!

TD: Ha, good question! Well, I’m very much involved in the acquisition process here at Bloomsbury and try to read as much as I can of the books that the commissioning editors are considering. It’s impossible to read everything (especially when you have over one hundred paperbacks a year!) of course, but I try to get a feel for as much of our list as possible. So, I normally start thinking about a paperback as soon as the commissioning editor has bought it, and the editor also talks to me about their thoughts on the paperback at a very early stage. Helen Garnons Williams is such a passionate advocate of all her authors and is constantly checking on the progress of all her paperbacks.

And to answer the question about your book: as you know, I’m a huge fan of The Night Rainbow (I almost cried when Helen was launching it at the marketing meeting recently) and have some thoughts on the paperback cover but you’ll have to wait and see!

 

Vanessa

CK: So, Vanessa, now you’ve seen the alternative covers to the one you were proposed and ultimately ended up with, what are your impressions?*

VG: I am struck by the sombreness of the palette used in firstly the cover showing the close rows of houses – and secondly the boy on the hilltop overlooking the town.  And, although I prefer the third concept – the colours in the ‘feather’ cover have the same effect on me. The Coward’s Tale is not a gloomy book – it is about healing, at base – the meta-nattative is about the healing power of story, the way repeated telling of the same tales  finally  helps the community to acknowledge the past and move on.  And frees the teller.  

If I tried consciously to do anything at all, I tried to make the story sing. So when Trâm-Anh’s note, in with the paperbacks, said ‘Doesn’t the orange sky sing?” that felt absolutely right!

I know colourways can be tweaked. But the first (hilltop) holds no intimacy, whichever colour it is. The second (close up houses) is too ‘house-orientated’ – it’s muddly as an image, and I don’t really like it as a cover.  The feather idea is better, it is clever,  but it kind of misses the point – the boy is not the coward,  and it leads the reader to expect him to be.

The chosen cover works so very well – and one of the most resonant things for me,  apart from the street being ‘right’, the Cat public house, the mine in the distance…the flame-colour of the sky – is the shadows. Or not. When I was sent that cover I liked it immediately. It has very close echoes with the cover of my first book – a red-haired child walking away from the onlooker. So there was a synchronicity about it. It is a more commercial cover than the hardback, and that has to be a good thing, for sales.

The most important thing for me in all this was that I was in the hands of professionals who know the market, who know what works and what doesn’t. It would seem silly to impose my likes and dislikes onto that, as they ought to be irrelevant. Besides, Trâm-Anh told me that some important book buyers liked the cover we ended up with – and that was key. It’s just a product, in the end.

So, on to a cover I like came the fabulous quote from A N Wilson when he made ‘The Coward’s Tale’ his novel of 2011 – saying the book is lyrical, moving and funny. You can’t get better than that, and coupled with an engaging, eye-catching image, more than that we cannot do!

 

CK: Vanessa, you said at the start that you’re ‘working hard at a hundred and one different things’! What are you up to now/next?

VG: Top of the list would of course be anything needed for ‘The Coward’s Tale’. Thus far, there has not been much to do apart from a few visits to read/talk/record video etc at Bloomsbury. But I’m not twiddling my thumbs doing nothing, I hate not having lots of things on the go! While I was writing The Coward I also wrote two collections of short stories, pitched, organised, edited and contributed a chapter to ‘Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short Story’, wrote an as-yet-unpublished flash collection, did masses of teaching, and started to learn about poetry.

1. Next Novel! Yes! The working title is ‘Kit’, and it will be a prequel/sequel to The Coward. I started it in Ireland back in Jan/Feb and came back with 40,000 words to play with. Early days, and it’s going to be a rather tough call to make this work – but I will give it a good go. I’ve got a Hawthornden Fellowship for November/December, a period of four blissful weeks in a drafty Scottish castle, with no internet, no phone signal. HO HO! Hot water bottles, blankets, laptop. Imagination. Hopefully ‘Kit’ will start taking shape…. at the moment, it is shut away and I won’t look at it for a few months. Already I know I went down completely the wrong road with one character, and he has to come out.

2. Planning the most exciting thing – a residency on the island of St Helena for 2013. For anything up to six weeks/two months I would like to be on this
fascinating island, responding to the place and the people, somehow, in writing. Whatever comes. Stories, hopefully, then it becomes a third collection. If not, a travelogue with a twist. We’ll see. I’m also hoping to work with the schools, and other plans up the sleeves. And of course, it will be a suitably remote place to work on ‘Kit’.

3. Second edition of ‘Short Circuit,’ for Salt Publishing. You can’t let a great ‘how-to’ book go stale – so I’m making it bigger – adding new stuff – and working with writers like Scott Pack, Stuart Evers, Tom Vowler, Nicholas Royle, either on new interview-based chapters or they are going off and writing their own. It begs the question why am I doing this – I won’t earn much from it – but it’s a good thing, a great book, and I love the thought that it is helping new writers, inspiring tired ones. Passing this thing called writing on to the next generation is very important to me. Many of the original Short Circuit writers, whose chapters will remain an important part of the book, have blossommed even more in the last couple of years – Alison MacLeod, Graham Mort for example – both finding success in national competitions – and Carys Davies – winning the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook award. We have a strong strong team, giving insights and practical advice.

4. ‘Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures’. I am working with a fantastic illustrator on a mad collection of flash, subtitled ‘Portrait of a Marriage’. We are planning to publish this as a gift book with a tiny tiny press, planning, funding, designing, sorting all the stages of the production process ourselves – and that will be a fab experience. Sales, marketing, distribution – ask me later! All I’d like to do is break even at this point, so it is an interesting project.

5. Learning! Poetry. I am loving learning about poetry, and maybe uncovering a small talent for this slippery thing. As I write, I am in the middle of a series of wonderful poetry workshops tutored by Pascale Petit. She is poet in residence at The Tate, and we meet every Monday after Tate Modern has closed, in
whichever exhibition she has chosen that day – just us, a group of twenty or so – and we respond to the art. Yesterday, we were with Boetti and his world maps sewn by Afghan women who didnt know what the sea was, so coloured it with what silks whatever they fancied, and sometimes filled it with patterns. Amazing.

6. Teaching! Invitations so far this year to take workshops for Spread the Word in London, New Writing South in Brighton, Wellington College, University Campus Ipswich, Claremont School, The Winchester Writers’ Conference Pitstop, Hope and Anchor Writing School in Whitstable, a week on the short story at Anam Cara Writers and Artists Retreat in Ireland – and I’m in discussion about another week at a Spanish writers’ retreat. I love teaching – and besides, it pays. That is very necessary now, the combination of husband retiring a while back, our youngest son in his first year at university and the recession has done its worst in our household – I am seeing Toby through uni on what I earn as a writer… go figure!

***

Thank you to Vanessa for coming by to give us an update, and especially to Trâm-Ahn for taking the time to be interviewed and providing us with the ‘rejected’ covers!

***

Vanessa’s wacky website is www.vanessagebbie.com and her blog is www.morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com and here’s a quick link to Amazon…

Finally, it’s Bloomsbury’s Year of the Short Story. Vanessa’s ‘unofficial’ contribution is to read and record for posterity what she thinks is one of the most powerful short stories ever written. ‘The Ledge’, by Lawrence Sargeant Hall. Here it is – interspersed with a bit of natter – in two sections. It’s long… http://readmesomethingyoulove.com/?cat=110

The Coward’s Tale – Interview with Vanessa Gebbie

Posted on: November 10th, 2011 by Claire - 18 Comments

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Vanessa Gebbie to my blog, to talk about her novel The Coward’s Tale, which launched officially three days ago  (7th November 2011). I was lucky enough to have an advance copy to read, and it’s an absolute treasure. The writing is so lyrical I felt as though it was being read out loud to me, the storytelling so thoughtful…

Claire King: Vanessa, first I have to tell you how much I loved The Coward’s Tale. So many novels these days play on our worst fears, make readers anxious and immerse us in the trauma of the characters. Your story was like a breath of fresh air: a careful untangling of cause and effect, written with great generosity and respect. How did you know that this was the story you wanted to tell?

Vanessa Gebbie: I can’t tell you what it’s like hearing those words, Claire. Thank you.  When a reader gives up a few hours of their life to read a book when they could have been doing a zillion other things, that’s always great. But the reader who does that and ‘gets’ it – that’s rather special.

The honest answer to ‘how did I know this was the story I wanted to tell’ is this –I didn’t!  I was hijacked, and it happened like this. I wrote the first section with no thought as to what it was saying, other than the surface story. I was playing with the character of Tommo Price, the Clerk at the Savings Bank, and the story that unfolds in the narrative ‘now’. I’ve always been hugely interested what makes characters who they are, and most of that has no place in the story – but here, there needed to be a bit of his history. I’d already written much of that backstory, but when I came to ‘cut n paste’ it, I couldn’t make it ‘fit’.  Not until a completely new character wandered into the piece, uninvited, and started telling the backstory himself, in a first person narrative.  That was the beggar, Ianto Jenkins. I had no idea who he was, or why I was going along with this (this is where non-writers shake their heads and think we are nuts!) but it worked so well, I let him get on with it.

It wasn’t until I’d written perhaps half the novel that I tumbled to the importance of what was happening… Ianto’s narratives were revealing a rather important backstory, not only for each character, but for the community.  A single event was common to all of them, however peripheral it seemed. And there was a switch – some time towards the end of writing it all – where his stories took on a much greater significance than the bits I’d been creating deliberately.  The novel should really be ‘by Ianto Jenkins with a bit of help from Vanessa G’!

CK: The Coward’s Tale appears to be a collection of short stories that are all intertwined. How did they grow together under your pen?

VG: I’m a story writer by trade, Ma’am. I approached the novel as a series of stories with the same cast of characters, each with a backstory that made up another strand.  I wasn’t satisfied with a book of linked short stories that could be called a novel for marketing purposes. It needed to be something else – and after a year of editing and rewriting, the backbone of the book is a now a quadruple strand weave (I think) – made up of Laddy’s story now, Ianto’s own story then, the gradual reveal of what happened at Kindly Light then, and the separate character tales. Never been one to tackle simple things, me.

CK: There are so many strange and yet believable idiosyncrasies in The Coward’s Tale – the wooden feathers, the  search for a straight line through the town, the fish in the river, the annual bread ritual…did you find all this in your imagination?

VG:  Aye. I’ve always preferred being in my own head to being out on the street…it’s much more fun.  Refused to go out and play as a kid, always nose in a book, or dreaming. But when you do eventually get out there, people are endlessly interesting, aren’t they? There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ person, a mon avis.  Long live not being normal, I say!

CK: I’d seen on your blog that there is a map of the town, which I love. (For the musical version click here – although if like me you’re the child of a mining community, beware the colliery brass band, which made me a bit teary) I’d expected the map to appear in the book, why did you decide not to include it?

VG: I didn’t. I was kind of hoping a place might be found for it. I love novels with maps in the endpapers – can you imagine The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings without?  It adds another element that smoothes the reader’s initial experience, I think. But Bloomsbury have created the most beautiful book – initially a stunning hardback with gorgeous foil-blocked jacket by designer Holly MacDonald, and the paperback out next March in the UK is equally great.  The US version, also coming out in March has yet another cover – again, absolutely stunning.  I love them all. And you have to draw the line somewhere, I understand that – it’s tough times for publishing, innit?

CK: It is, and we have to count our blessings! What has been your favourite or most memorable part of bringing The Coward’s Tale to life (either in the writing, the research, the road to publication etc)?

Vanessa Gebbie:

Favourite: The realization a while back (its taken over 5 years!) that this was a novel, not a short story, and that I was in for the long haul. I had something that would last, a world to which I would return over and over again, whilst also working on the other short stories that became my two collections.  It was very grounding.

Memorable:  The research – I left it until the book was finished to first draft stage. I didn’t want the temptation to cram the work with research detail just because I had it in a file. I had to make sure each detail really earned its place in the story. I needed to check some technicalities of coal mining, to check what I’d written from imagination and memory was correct. I will never forget reading the reports of so many mining disasters in the Welsh valleys, especially the 1913 Senghennydd disaster.  I needed to get it right, hard as it was to revisit some of the tougher passages in the novel to make my characters go through their experiences again.

Memorable: My visit to Big Pit at Blaenavon, where I had to remove mobile phone, watch, don a hard hat with light fitment and an incredibly heavy battery round my middle, before dropping what seemed like miles down the shaft in the cage, and spending abut an hour walking in the tunnels beneath the ground.  Unforgettable, really.  All that massy rock above you. How little the spaces are where the work got done.  The sense that we are absolutely insignificant…

I’d like to pause a minute and remember the recent Gleision colliery disaster here, if I may.  Men who work in mines are among the bravest souls.

Memorable: My visit to Bloomsbury to meet the team, and seeing the boardroom table awash with bags of toffees! (As you know, Ianto Jenkins only tells his stories if he is fed toffees…) next time I shall write a novel about gold mining, in the hopes of taking away bags of gold – although actually, sitting on the train home, chomping toffees, knowing this was the team I wanted to look after my book, was rather lovely!  (If terrible for teeth and now non-existent waistline.)

CK: OK. The toffees just gave me such a frisson I welled up! Aaaanyhowz…Charles Lambert described your book as “The unlikely but entirely legitimate child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Dylan Thomas” and I’ve seen you’ve already had a number of reviews on Waterstones. How does it feel, seeing your work through the eyes of the readers? Is it different for your novel than for your short story collections?

VG: I love that description from Charles. DT and GGM are two writers whose work I admire hugely, and I count them among the best writing tutors! I am delighted that The Coward is in some way descended from them. Isn’t that perfect? And it is just great to read reviews from readers. As I said above, I am always aware that readers give us a few hours of their lives when they read our ‘stuff’ – I am hugely grateful both for that and for their comments. There’s nothing better, really.

The Waterstones page is here, the reviews now number 13 – and are simply lovely.

CK: In the town you wrote, I could picture the echoes of ancestors wandering around in borrowed clothes, mingling amongst those they left behind, and the new generations. We all carry the echoes of the past with us, to some extent. What are your strongest childhood memories of Wales, and where do you call ‘home’?

VG: ‘Home’ is a difficult word for me, for personal reasons. I’m never sure where it is, but that’s a legacy from my adoption, I suppose. I know lots of adopted adults – many of them, like me, never quite know where they belong. Spend our days looking for it.

But what a gift for a writer, huh?!

I loved staying with my grandmother in Merthyr Tydfil with a passion – never wanted to leave.  Both my lovely parents (adoptive, if we must…) came from Merthyr, so both grandmothers and respective families were there. Some still are. Every setting in The Coward’s Tale is based on somewhere I knew as a child. The kitchens where most of the gossiping got done, where the mantels were hung with gas brackets and carried brass plates and candlesticks and broken cups with spare change for the meter.

I used to play on the tip – the old slag heap at the end of the road, where wild ponies came to graze. We used to try to catch them. Fat chance!

I could ramble on for hours, I’m afraid..

CK: Many of your characters have names that have been bestowed on them by the townsfolk in some way, that have become more than nicknames. How important do you think are the names that others give us?

VG: Oh hugely important. A name holds so much more than the sound, don’t you think? And of course the tradition of linking name to occupation is immensely powerful, if a bit of a cliché. Must be careful with these things…

CK: If you were a character in The Coward’s Tale, what would your given name be, and why?

VG: What a brilliant question. Hmm. I’d be an old bat who wanders the streets with a notebook, her hair in curlers, who sometimes forget she’s still wearing her dressing gown. I’d appear in a line or two in most stories and Laddy would pick up a notebook after I’d left it on the bench in the park…what would my name be?  ‘Imagination’ Ellis, I expect.

CK: I love it! Vanessa, thank you so much for your time, and here’s hoping Ianto Jenkins finds his way into the hands (and hearts) of many, many readers.

Vanessa’s wacky website is www.vanessagebbie.com and her blog is www.morenewsfromvg.blogspot.com and here’s a quick link to Amazon…

It’s the Book-Recommendation Swap Shop

Posted on: October 31st, 2011 by Claire - 20 Comments

I need a few Christmas gift ideas (sorry for mentioning the C-word so early, but when you live abroad you have to consider postage and so on). I’m hoping you can help.

So, here is my proposal. In the spirit of Swapshop, I’m going to tell you what books I’ve read and enjoyed this year and my top 5 recommendations for Christmas gifts (or your wish lists). Of course these are only my own personal tastes, I tend to read mostly in contemporary/literary fiction, with a few detours. And many of my family and friends prefer other genres – thrillers, for example. But here is where you can help! In the comments, could you please tell me your top 5 books you’ve read this year that you would recommend, and mention the genre, so we have an idea who they’d be suitable for?

This year I’ve started 27 books so far. I’ve left two unfinished (and since they’re e-books I can’t find them a better home, unfortunately), and I’m still reading a couple of short story anthologies, two paperbacks and one e-book. So I’ve finished 21. Here I’m just mentioning the 18 that I really enjoyed:

 

Paper books (Author A-Z): 

♥ At Home (non-fiction) – Bill Bryson

♥ Whatever you Love – Louise Doughty

♥ The Birth of Venus – Sarah Dunant

♥ The Cowards Tale – Vanessa Gebbie

♥ Chocolat – Joanne Harris

♥ How to be a Woman  – Caitlin Moran

♥ Dambusters – Robert Radcliffe

♥ What I Did – Christopher Wakling

♥ Why Willows Weep – The Wildlife Trust Joanne Harris, Maggie O’Farrell, Philip Hensher, Kate Mosse, Ali Smith & others

 

On my Kindle (Author A-Z)

♥ From Words to Brain (non-fiction) – Livia Blackburne

♥ Pistache – Sebastian Faulks

♥ Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

♥ The hand that first held mine – Maggie O Farrell

♥ The Devil’s Music – Jane Rusbridge

♥ Like Bees to Honey – Caroline Smailes

♥ Change of Life – Anne Stormont

♥ Trespass – Rose Tremain

♥ The Route Book at Bedtime (short stories) – Jo Cannon, Cally Taylor & others…

 

Books I’m still reading

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver (Kindle)

Geek Love  – Katherine Dunn

Playing Sardines (short stories) – Michèle Roberts

For Esme – with love and squalor (short stories) – JD Salinger

Other Stories and other stories (short stories) – Ali Smith

 

Still waiting on my ‘to read’ pile:

Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick

The Daily Coyote – Shreve Stockton

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

The Pile of Stuff at the bottom of the stairs – Christina Hopkinson

 

So, how to pick a top 5 from that lot? In the end I’m just going to go with gut feeling…

 

My Top 5 reads of 2011 (A-Z by author)

Whatever You Love – a hard book to read, but the tiny perfect observations in this book really made it stand out for me.

The Coward’s Tale – because it’s kind and lyrical and reads like an audio book on paper.

Pigeon English – because I don’t remember ever having been so knocked out by the ending of a book.

How to be a Woman – because it made me laugh out loud, a lot. Caitlin Moran is invited to my fantasy dinner party.

The Hand That First Held Mine – because I loved the voice.

 

Top 5 (so far) on my wish list for 2012:

One Thousand and One Nights – Hanan Al-Shaykh

A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan

Blueeyedboy – Joanne Harris

The Tiger’s Wife – Téa Obreht

How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog – Chad Orzel

 

So that’s me. What about you?

Ode to books

Posted on: September 27th, 2011 by Claire - 20 Comments

My name is Claire and I like books made of paper.

It is becoming increasingly unfashionable to admit this, a little like saying I prefer…well, what is it like?

  • LPs to CDs?
  • Telephone boxes to mobile phones?
  • Horse drawn carriages to modern day cars?

No, none of these analogies fit because books are not being antiquated by technology. There are elements of improvement and technological advance – digital books have huge potential for interactivity, portability, etc. But there are also elements of paper books that are not improved by rendering them electronic.

I was reminded of this on my recent visit to Tilton House. It was such a joy to find books all over the house, like a treasure hunt. You could find them, of course, in the library – novels, autobiographies, some I have read, many I have not. All of them waiting to entice you in a spare moment and have you browse their pages.

In the sitting room and the conservatory there were coffee table books – biographies, textbooks, and some rather strange and unusual tomes.

I even found inspiration in the books found in the bathroom – if you’re a writer and have never seen a copy of the Collins Guide to Roses by Bertram Park then check it out. You’ll never be stuck for a character name again.

I was lucky enough to visit the neighbouring Charleston, home to the Bloomsbury set. There J.M. Keynes (as a regular visitor) had been awarded his own bedroom. As someone who has spent a lot of time studying Keynes, the opportunity for me to nose around his bookshelves was the chance to peer into the mind of the man, not just the economist. On his shelves was Punch – lots of Punch, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the manifesto of the communist party and many other books that allowed my imagination to fly. Thank goodness Keynes didn’t have a Kindle.

I do have a Kindle. It’s very practical for travelling, and for buying books that I suspect I will only read once. But I do still buy paper books. I love the covers, I love the tactile nature of the pages that transform the book under the weight of your fingertips.

Last week I spend an hour browsing in a bookshop to buy two children’s books. It would have taken me ten minutes on Amazon, but the whole process is so much less fun.

Perhaps the best analogy I can come up with is the love letter. It’s very nice to recieve a romantic email or a cute text message. It costs nothing to send, it’s fast and no trees are killed. But there is something about receiving those words hand written on paper: something physical, something sensual, something that can be held to the heart today, and left for those who follow to find.

Read ‘Bone Fire’ at The View From Here – Front View

Posted on: May 7th, 2011 by Claire - No Comments

Click to read A.J. Ashworth’s haunting short story ‘Bone Fire’.

 

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