An Evening with Lionel Shriver

What to expect from an evening with Lionel Shriver? Spikiness? Controversy? It’s not going to be dull. ‘I don’t set out to offend people,’ she told interviewer Cathy Galvin, with a smile.

Shriver fans and fellow-writers had gathered at Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly for the Word Factory event. ‘So the short story doesn’t sell?’ was the Shriver-ish title for the evening, during which we discovered that her latest collection, ‘Property’, went for ‘a six-figure sum’ – the kind of number only dreamed about by short-story writers in the audience.

Shriver read from her story ‘Vermin’, part of the collection, about a couple in a rented house in Brooklyn. On discovering that someone wanted to buy the house because the street was ‘good for a family’, they decided to buy it themselves. They became home-owners, and that’s when the trouble started…

Although she prefers reading novels to short stories – or was that just a provocation? – Shriver writes stories in between her books because ‘it’s satisfying to have something complete’. She admitted that her novels suffer from being pushed aside to make way for work that has an imminent deadline, such as journalism. She’s ‘more loyal to something with a due date’.

Her early novels were critical, but not commercial, successes. She was ‘fortunate to be rescued by [We Need to Talk About] Kevin before I quit’. She admitted that ‘bad reviews still irk me’. She used to think that ‘writers who didn’t read their reviews were cowardly or lying’ – but wished now she could do the same. But ‘I don’t have the discipline’. She was scathing on the ‘capricious and faddish and arbitrary’ literary world. What does your success mean to you, she was asked. It ‘should make me take the whole farce less seriously’, she replied. One suspects it matters too much.

Writers hoping to learn about Shriver’s own process would have been disappointed, although there were some nuggets: she has no second readers – ‘never, ever’. She knows what’s wrong with her work. ‘Why would I ask someone else?’

It was a shame there was so little insight into the process of selling and marketing short stories – and why Shriver believes they sell. Writers who had come to hear insider tips, or how to get their collections out there, must have left disappointed. People would always rather read novels, she thought.

For fans of the short story, not much insight. She was surprisingly ambivalent.

For fans of Lionel Shriver, it was right on the money.

 

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Writing Props

I’d never call myself superstitious. I walk under ladders. I sit in row 13 on the plane. I’m secretly pleased when a black cat crosses my path, but I don’t salute magpies. I can work (or stare out of the window) anywhere; I don’t have a special pen, or special paper.

Watching a documentary on Philip Pullman recently, I was fascinated to hear him say that for each novel he writes, he colours the top right-hand corner of his notebook pages with a coloured pencil. A new colour for each novel; the same colour for each notebook page. He can only write on paper with two holes per sheet, but buys paper with four holes (so he covers the other two up). Not exactly superstitious, but a sort of writing ritual.

I don’t do things like that. Or do I?

For some time now, I’ve been working in a hamster nest. I’m surrounded by a creeping tide of Stuff, gradually covering any clear space with a kind of impossible-to-categorise driftwood. Things came to a head recently when my pc died, spectacularly, of chronic Update failure. Installing a new one meant moving the layer of protective skin that had grown around me on my desk.

Taking out the old machine was bad enough. But making space for the new one meant moving a handmade plaster pot, crumbling at the edges, made by someone years ago at junior school, full of what I think are called ‘Treasury tags’ – bits of string with metal either end, to keep papers together – all unused; five cards from friends, with inspirational quotes; four photographs – one of Jean Rhys; a seaside painting; a pot of clips and pins; two tubes of hand cream; a clock; a small wooden box that once held wooden bricks and now has drawing pins; cuttings that will be useful one day; four piles of books; a crystal paperweight; a pot of pens and pencils; a desk diary and three years’ worth of notebooks. Then the actual books and draft I’m working on, plus my current notebook.

My new laptop is fast and efficient: I’m thrilled with it.

I’m even more pleased that all my treasures are back where they should be: in my eyeline, cheering me up when I’m stuck. Familiar things that I like my gaze to fall on. Voices from family and friends, encouraging me; urging me on.

Maybe not superstitions, but definitely writing props. What are yours?

 

Meeting my writing hero

Some say you should never meet your heroes, in case they turn out to have feet of clay. But nothing was going to stop me going to hear Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. On a cold spring evening, the city’s Sheldonian Theatre was a suitably elegant and historic venue for a conversation between Barry – the author of seven novels, 13 plays and two volumes of poetry – and Chris Patten, an obvious fan.

Although there was a nod to his body of work, much of the discussion centred on Days Without End, Barry’s latest novel, and winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. In breathtakingly poetic prose the book tells the love story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two seventeen year-olds who sign up for the US army, to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.

The tale is narrated by Thomas, whose voice is a stunning achievement. But it took a while to find, said Barry. ‘It was frustrating.’ He would go to his workroom ‘dutifully’ every morning, feeling ‘stupidus’ – a Latin word meaning ‘thick’, just as it does in Ireland, he joked. He was nine months into the project before ‘the first sentence arrived, like a herald’ and the book was underway.

In the meantime, he read 300 books on American history. He discovered wonderful nuggets, such as the Native American tradition of braves changing into women’s dress when in camp, and back into braves’ dress when they went to war; one of the many facts seamlessly woven into the novel’s portrayal of the young men’s love. Barry was aware of the risks he was taking. ‘I thought, “No you can’t do that,” he said. ‘So I did that.’

He was engaging and honest on the story’s inspiration: a period of anguish in his family, resolved when his sixteen year-old son Toby revealed that he was gay. Because of the book, his son’s story is now well known. Asked how the young man had reacted to the publicity, Barry said that his children never read his work, but his son had read this book. He liked it. That affirmation, said Barry, was ‘the Nobel Prize, right there’.

Family is at the heart of his work, and relationships between generations – particularly fathers and sons. Even the difficult relationships. ‘You’re letting them in. You’re still in love with them.’ The searing historical detail he includes is part of the novelist’s duty to try to understand ‘the history through which they waded’.

He spoke movingly of his maternal grandfather, who told him wonderful stories of family members, although sometimes he only knew ‘half a sentence’. But ‘that’s enough for a novelist,’ said Barry. ‘You can make the rest up’.

The world of his novels, Barry suggested, was the country he had created for himself, where he felt at home. ‘You want to be a citizen of somewhere – sometimes you call your heart your country.’

Is it easier to be comfortable with an Irish identity nowadays, Chris Patten asked. Barry, who lives in a mixed Catholic and Protestant area of Wicklow, replied, ‘How I long to say yes.’ He was generous in his praise for politicians, such as Patten, who try to achieve peaceful change: ‘an act of magic similar to writing a book. Trying to effect something with love and sincerity.’WP_20180322_19_22_12_Pro

Love and sincerity: the hallmarks of a wonderful evening with my writing hero.

In the book signing queue, other fans agreed: we could have listened to him all night.

He was even gracious enough to let me take a selfie…

 

 

Reading Allowed

Anyone looking through the window of a first-floor room in Bloomsbury the other night might have been tempted to dial 999. Bodies littered the floor. Listening in, the observer would have noticed a strange noise: humming. Were these people the victims of a mysterious cult? An other-worldly sect? No – just writers. It was Bloomsbury, after all.

As one of the bodies I can explain: we were taking part in a ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop, with Miranda Roszkowski and Judy Marshall, to get ready for the Mechanics’ Institute Review Live reading events. Some of us had read in public before; some had not. The aim was to enable us to read confidently, but above all authentically. As writers we spend time crafting our work. It’s easy to forget that presenting it needs time and practice too.

Lying on the floor and humming was part of the preparation. Next we had to walk round the room, haphazardly, reciting the first line of our stories as we criss-crossed each other’s path like phone-reading commuters. A perfect exercise to practise in the rush hour. Then, Miranda showed us how to stretch and bend from head to toe. Even our faces didn’t escape: ‘Pretend your face is a toffee, being chewed,’ she said, helpfully. We gurned away obediently, like the best end-of-the-pier act.

All this was to loosen us up, to stop us feeling tension and reflecting it in our voices. Judy showed us how to find our pitch: to start high, and take our voices in a swoop, as low as we could go, then come back up again, to a comfortable level.

We were practising to read extracts, not whole stories, which in most cases are a few thousand words long. So what makes a good extract? Keep it simple: not too many characters. Humour is always good. Not too much dialogue. Leave your listeners wanting more. Choose a piece that’s self-contained, but feels like it leads on…

It sounded straightforward. Being writers, we had to make it complicated. What about foreign words? Accents? Only if you really can pull it off, said Miranda. No need to make unfamiliar words too pronounced.

We were aiming to speak for a minute or so: roughly half an A4 page. Everyone speeds up when they read, was the advice, so keep it slow. But vary the pace. And you can breathe half-way through a line, if you want to.

Then it was time to hear our words – in our own voices. ‘Readers love hearing writers read their work,’ said Miranda.

She was right – reading aloud added an extra dimension to the stories. It was also helpful to get colleagues’ feedback: where a sentence was unclear, or an idea too hard to grasp on one hearing.

It was powerful to hear each writer speak to the room. There was something magical about being invited into the world of the story. When I went back to the anthology, I could hear each unique voice.

The next MIR Live is at the Brick Lane Bookshop in London on 17 November, followed by dates in Birmingham and Manchester. Details will be on the MIR website: https://t.co/L6cIwcm4Vk or check out @Editors_MIR.

Come along and be part of the world of our stories! Just don’t look in the Green Room – there may well be bodies on the floor…

 

Listening to Ghosts

In early September I found myself walking through an elegant square in London’s Bloomsbury. I watched russet leaves drift along the pavements, thought of all the feet that had walked there before me, and allowed myself to embrace the joy of being part of a world I’d always dreamed of.

I was on my way to the ‘open the box’ event for the 14th issue of the Mechanics’ Institute Review, the annual publication from Birkbeck, University of London. MIR 14 is a beautiful book, showcasing new short stories from a range of voices across the UK. The subjects are topical and relevant, ranging from immigration to social media. There are new pieces from Jenn Ashworth and Alan Beard, and a brilliant foreword on teaching creative writing from Julia Bell. And there is my story, ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand.’

It’s a story I’ve been trying to pin down for a while. ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is set in Beijing, in 1980 – a very different place from the city today. Then, the only cars were the lumbering, Russian-made vehicles used by Party officials. The roads were clogged – but with bicycles, ridden by people wearing identical clothes, in muddy colours. There was not a designer outfit in sight. There were no skyscrapers. There was no metro. There were no glitzy bars; no restaurants serving international cuisine to a jet-setting clientele. Everything closed in the evening, in a sort of unofficial curfew.

That world has gone, but the people who grew up with it have not. Now in their sixties and seventies, they are a kind of ‘lost generation’ in China. They have endured every convulsion of the State, from the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, when industrial production took precedence over normal life, to the famine that succeeded it when untold millions died. Then came the Cultural Revolution, and the unleashing of the terrifying Red Guards. Education and learning was suspect; teachers were humiliated and persecuted. Many killed themselves to save their families further suffering. Ancient monuments, including Confucius’ birthplace, were smashed. In 1980, the one-child law was passed, with its terrible and far-reaching consequences. When China opened up to the world, many of that generation dared to ‘invest’ their savings in stocks and shares, and lost everything. They have no money for designer clothes and cars. Their homes have been destroyed to make way for the new China. In their old age, they have only one child to look after them. If they have outlived their child, they face a lonely future.

Back in 1980, the world looked different. For people prepared to take a risk, like Liu, the main character in my story, there was a feeling that this might be a chance to grab what we in the West take for granted: the freedom to think and question, the right to improve our lot in life, and to try to make things better for our children. The right to dream.

‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is fiction, of course. But if Liu’s ghost were walking with me along that Bloomsbury street, I hope he would feel that something of his story is being told at last.

 

Re-drafting and Sweet Peas

Kill your darlings; cut, cut, cut; start in the middle of the action, get out early… all great advice for short-story writing. And I know it works. But for a couple of weeks I’ve been stuck on a draft, and I can’t see a way through. Each time I cut a paragraph, or re-write dialogue, the new version looks better; until I realise I’ve made it worse. I might as well delete the page numbers, throw it all up in the air and start again.

I know this is how I work, but I hate this bit. When I start a piece, I have only the slightest idea where it will end; and no clue what will happen on the way. One of my writer friends, on the other hand, waits to start until she knows where she’s going, and how she’ll get there. I just have to get it down – then try to work out what I’ve got.

So I try to cheer myself up by looking at old stories and drafts. On my pc are over a dozen versions of one piece, that I began five years ago, and which only recently achieved its ‘final’ shape. It’s encouraging to look at the end result and remember the struggle to get there; but it’s also strange – as if it happened to someone else. And surely it wasn’t as painful as the current one is proving to be? (My pain pales into insignificance, though, beside that of US author Richard Bausch, who turned an 800-page novel into his short story, All the Way in Flagstaff, Arizona. How? ‘Just like a kidney stone is passed,’ he told interviewer Carole Burns, for her brilliant book ‘Off the Page’: Norton 2008).

I make tea, pace about, and stare out the window, where the garden path has disappeared under a sweet pea vine. Not the ladylike, scented sort, but the hooligan variety that rampages across everything and has no scent at all. Every time I go out I feel the splat and crunch of flowers underfoot. I’m cross with myself, cross with the flowers and bored at the thought of tackling the job. I’m busy! I don’t have time. And I’m meant to be writing.

But something is niggling at my writing brain…

Before I know it, I’m kneeling on the path with my secateurs and twine. I untangle the main vine stems. In places the stalks are knotted together; some of them snap, and can’t be kept. Tendrils are getting in the way, or connecting to the wrong stem. Too much flowery growth: not enough structure. Is my story the same? What does my main character want? What’s his secret, that drives the narrative, and reveals his motivation at the end? On the vine there are lots of shoots going nowhere: I pull them out. I find the four strongest stems, and tie them in. I cut off the extra flowers, and put them in a vase.

I go back to the story and try to look at it afresh. I wield my story secateurs – the Delete button. Cut, cut, cut. I find the structure, and clean it up. Everything must serve the story. Give it room to breathe.

Not there yet: but it’s reading better. There’s clarity, and forward movement.

Outside, the garden path has re-appeared. The vine is covering the ugly fence. And on my desk, there’s a vase of sweet pea flowers.

In Praise of Writing Friends  

 

The email pings into my inbox and I can’t help smiling. It’s from my writing friend: in the subject line, ‘Work for next week’. At the end of her email, where she’s attached her work for me to read, are the magic words: ‘Looking forward to reading whatever you want to send.’ In other words, get a move on and send me some new stuff.

Writing is such a lonely business. There’s nothing like the feeling that someone is waiting to read my work to get me motivated. Competition deadlines are great for finishing a piece – but like every writer I know, I crave feedback. My regular deadline with my writing friend isn’t just motivating – it’s encouraging too. And her thoughtful comments give me plenty to work on.

There are other benefits too. Reading her work sharpens my eye for my own – although why is it so much easier to spot the unnecessary word or clunky sentence in her prose, than in mine?

We remind each other of competition deadlines – and are genuinely pleased to hear of each other’s success. It’s not just writerly generosity; if we’ve worked on a story together, it’s a testament to both our writing and editing skills. As well as the hits, it’s great to have someone to share the misses; and to commiserate on yet another ‘thanks but no thanks’ email. I’ve read of published writers who still share their work with their writing group. Interestingly, I only have experience of working with women in this way. Arrangements with men seem to peter out – my fault or theirs?

It doesn’t always work, of course. I’ve been in groups where writers, instead of critiquing constructively, have dumped their prejudices on others; confused the work with the writer, and allowed criticism to become personal. But that’s thankfully rare. Another problem can be competitiveness. I once met a writer on a course who had left a high-profile City job to write. He wanted to share work, but only on his terms; and he was unwilling to spend time on anyone else’s writing. He was confusing his high-powered, competitive career with the collaboration and trust needed for successful workshopping. We weren’t colleagues, we were the competition.

It sounds precious but here goes: only another writer really understands this mad obsession. It’s great if family show an interest, but they can be unsettled by the result: who is this stranger? Is that how you really feel? The effect must be even odder, I can see, when they recognise a setting, or snippets of conversation. Do we all, deep down, possess Greene’s famous ‘chip of ice in the heart’?

My writing friends aren’t icy: we’re just dedicated. And we trust each other – because good writing is revealing, of oneself – and, as a tutor advised me once, when you give your writing to someone else they will always see something different in it; something you didn’t intend at all, which will surprise you. You have to put treasured images aside; kill your darlings. And who better to tell you that than your writing friend?