The future of the novel is ……..

Here’s how my day started. No internet connection, burnt toast at breakfast and a room change.

But then things got much, much better. The future of the novel was a festival event with Jeffrey Eugenides and Emily Perkins discussing whether the novel has been fatally wounded by the modern breakdown of marriage. I managed to squeeze into the venue and nab one of the last eight seats.

Listening to authors of this calibre talking about the novel, you do not want it to die. You want it to live and thrive well into the future. And according to these two authors it will. Because what is at the heart of every good novel is not marriage, maybe not even love but – desire. And desire, let’s face it, is here to stay.

As Eugenides , the author of The Marriage Plot,  said:

Every novel of mine has desire at its centre. You can’t find a dramatic scenario centred on the absence of desire.

And Emily Perkins, who wrote The Forrests,  quoted from one of Goeff Dyer’s Rules of Writing:

Have regrets in your writing, because on the page they flare into desire

Both writers also commented on humour in writing, about good writing making the tragic comic. Eugenides says all his writing is a blend of tragedy and comedy and as Perkins put it:

There is absurdity in everything

It was in question time that things got really scary. Several of the questions related to technology and the future of the novel. Eugenides is very nervous of the direction in which technology is taking writing. He has no internet connection on his work computer which he essentially uses as a word processer. He says: “I don’t like the cloud!”

But in answer to further questions in this vein, both authors conceded there is a possibility in the future that there will be collective ownership of writing on sites like Twitter. People will just add bits of writing onto other peoples’ writing, creating never-ending stories . This will all be done anonymously. The future of the novel will be The Zombie Novel.

Perkins looked pale and Eugenides said “Now I feel depressed.”

It was a brilliant session.

‘I love vomiting words on the page’: An Evening with Roddy Doyle

CoverRoddy Doyle took the stage last night at the Aotea Centre. He was joined on stage by Kiwi Irishman Brian Edwards.

Brian took Roddy through his Ten rules for writers as published in The Guardian. By the by, I love this series. Read the full selection: Ten rules for writing fiction. Festival guest Geoff Dyer also shares his.

Roddy’s rules – and additions (paraphrased!):

    1. Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
      Writing is romanticised, especially the human disasters.
    2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph.
      My longest book took five years. No-one would start if they knew it was going to take so long. I measure my life in World Cups and this covered two.
    3. ­– Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
      After 5o pages is time to look again at the quality.
    4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
      It’s not unlike having a baby. It becomes yours when you name it.
    5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.
      Give in and have a wee browse.
    6. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.
      People don’t trust their own words. “He said” is fine. Lay off  the “He chortled” or “He guffawed”.
    7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
      Domestic routine is vital. When you’re working at home, putting out washing is a nice, healthy option. The little details of going to the shops, getting on the bus etc are the stuff of a lot of very very good fiction.
    8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.
      You can throw stuff out. You have to be open to going through a different door.
    9. Do not search for the book you haven’t written yet.
      Don’t start getting giddy about the book until it’s done.
    10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.
      Authors never look like their author photographs. I’d like to have my bio say “He divides his time between Dublin and confusion”

Roddy DoyleRoddy then talked about his first (unpublished) novel Your granny’s a hunger striker. Though it was ‘shite’, he feels it got a lot of stuff out of  his system and helped him grow as a writer.

Talking about Booker Prize winning Paddy Clarke ha ha ha, he talked about kids:

Any good Catholic education involves kicking cats and sticking fireworks up dogs’ arses.

Roddy then read from Bullfighting – a brilliant piece about a family’s pets, and how they all end up meeting unfortunate ends.

He was quite thoughtful on the process of writing, and praised the cold and rigorous editing at the New Yorker:

I love vomiting up words on the page and I love editing them.

The woman who walked into doors, a story of domestic violence,  has resonated with women. One asked him “How did you get inside my f…ing head?” And an actress who played the lead role in a stage adaptation would have to wait around after performances to talk to women who wanted to share their experiences.

So why do people like his writing? It seems it’s the craic, the humour – and the realisation that comedy and tragedy go hand in hand.

Broken Britain

This is the write-up I’ve been dreading – what on earth do I say about what must surely be one of the highest-scoring IQ lineups ever on an Auckland festival stage, particularly when I feel like possibly the least qualified person in the room: I am not British, have never visited there, and to date most of my other blogs from the 2012 AWRF have had to include references to multiple unpleasant bodily functions. However, best shot and all that …

Luckily the panel discussion is being led not by me but by the very clever and not at all scared looking Dr Robin Congreve, who does a great introduction – AD Miller (ADM) was not christened AD, but instead is Andrew David, Stella Rimington (SR) was swept for explosives residue at the airport, and if Dame Stella is a counter-terrorist then Geoff Dyer (GD) can only be described as a counter-tourist. I am starting to relax.

This turns out to be a mistake.  Dr Robin then goes on to say that he is now hoping to ask just one question, then sit back and watch a vehement onstage argument develop.  The question itself is very simple: take the phrase Broken Britain … and add a question mark.

  • SD: It’s not broken, just “slightly tatty round the edges”, compared to some other places in the world today – the Arab states, the EuroZone; we are picking the wrong bits of the world to be so focused on.  There ARE tatty bits, though, undeniably – the cycle of poverty in many areas, increasing welfare dependency, lack of education, longterm prison institutionalisation; our lost faith in politicians; and the rise of radicalised young Arab Britons, leading to the multi-cultural question – were we right to manage immigration the way we have?
  • ADM: I think the only ones asking that question are the nostalgics – typically straight white middle-class men. For everyone else Britain is better than it was before – if you look at those inconvenient facts that can so often get in the way of British journalism, they show that it’s safer, less violent, with more access to better life than it’s been before. The main problem seems to be with the British media, which constantly inflates and then recycles individual incidents to feed the competitive need to outsell its rivals. As Stella says, there are problems: local ones like welfare dependency, and educational inequality; and international ones – domestic politicians have less control because of the rise of international factors like Facebook, the increasing power of globalisation and the rise of (for example) Asian superpowers.  Look at the EU – we think they are somehow different from us, but they’re doing the same things, they’re just less muted about it.
  • GD: Okay, it falls to me to be the anecdote guy, then: a recent newspaper survey shows that British Muslims are the most fed-up, depressed and plain pissed-off group in Europe.  What this actually shows is that they’ve totally assimilated, gone ‘native’ – didn’t we want them to be just like regular Brits?

Politicians, says GD, crave the ideal of Britishness, but this now exists only as a silly, jokey way of describing Britons in the face of what we are supposed to acknowledge is an obviously different and desperate reality. This shouldn’t be so – we are doing ourselves a disservice.  Just look at how some of our greatest writers have described us, he says, and then reads out the most gloriously awful, utterly negative and beautifully crafted description of the British by DH Lawrence, by the end of which most of the panel and half of the audience is in an uproar. Say something positive, says someone else on stage, so he notes that Brits are very very good at doing what they do best – self-loathing and denigration.  Compare us to the US, he says.

And this is where things start to get really really interesting.  The above paragraphs are only the answer to the Very First Part of the Very First Question. I will write up a full report, which you will find later on the website …

An hour with Peter James

Brighton based crime novelist Peter James is a man of many facets. Screenwriter, producer, businessman, wearer of natty red socks (red for energy) and the victim himself of crime. Burgled shortly after his wedding, Peter James in one fell swoop managed to disencumber himself of some seriously naff wedding presents and meet the detecting officer who proved to be a gateway into the tight-knit community of the police.

The relationships he’s built with the Sussex Police force have proved invaluable in populating his novels, lending them an unprecedented level of authenticity and real-life detail. His central character Detective Superintendent  Roy Grace is based on  Detective Superintendent Dave Gaylor and he draws many of his plots from true crime stories. Brighton acts as a unique back-drop to all this criminal mayhem and is for James the perfect setting, with its dubious history as the ultimate “shag pad” resort ( I’ve never heard the Brighton Pavilion, love-nest of George IV referred to in these terms but I’ve got to say I love it!), playground for London’s criminal fraternity and recreational-drug-using partytown par excellence.

Host Bookman Beattie skillfully put Peter James through his paces  but stumped him when he asked James what the trickiest question he’d been asked in an interview was. Aaah, wheels within wheels! James was on more certain ground when it came to the old chestnut of literary fiction versus genre fiction. James believes that “if Shakespeare was writing today he’d be writing crime” and he deeply resents the poor man’s literature tag associated with mystery fiction. The police, he argues, are exposed to life and death in the raw and these interactions with both the best and worst aspects of humanity give unique insights into the modern world and the human condition. The stuff of great fiction.

James is in the process of bringing DS Grace to the big screen. The road to celluloid has been nothing if not bumpy. BBC Scotland were keen as haggis to produce a TV series but this involved removing Grace from the mean streets of Brighton and relocating him to … Aberdeen. Good grief: I’m pretty sure there are no shag-pads in the granite city!

There has been some speculation that Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame was to take on the central role but Peter James confirmed that this is not the case. Ladies of a certain age everywhere will no doubt take a moment to wipe away a tear (or am I speaking for myself here?)

Hungry for more? Never fear dear blog-readers, I’m the lucky little librarian that got to meet with Peter James. Keep an eye out for my interview in full, coming soon to a blog near you.

‘You’re telling yourself the story all the time’: an interview with Emily Rodda

Rachel was lucky enough to interview Emily Rodda yesterday. Kids (and plenty of adults) love her writing. Here she is talking about writing, quests, high fantasy and the worlds she has created.

[19 min 35 sec, 45.9MB MP3]

Emily Rodda and Rachel

Into the deep, dark Forrest

The Forrests

Do we change or don’t we change?

I managed to get my hands on a copy of the newly released The Forrests at the airport and became so engrossed that the flight attendants were handing round the boiled sweets before I knew it.

Today I saw award winning author Emily Perkins discuss her latest novel in conversation with Paula Morris.

This is the story of the Forrest family and the secrets and demons that haunt them. Their creator says that one of the family’s main problems is that there are just too many of them. Lee and Frank Forrest can’t live with or without each other, and they put their complicated, troubled relationship before the needs of their four children. The Forrest family is deeply dysfunctional and your heart goes out to each in turn.

The main character in the novel is third child, Dorothy. The author started to write, in a ‘mossy and accumulative way’, a series of poles in this character’s life. She selects interconnected threads that reflect changes of mood and style to create the novel’s structure.  Underpinning the work is the question of whether or not human beings really change. Emily Perkins doesn’t aim to provide a definitive answer. Instead she shows Dorothy being influenced by the changing circumstances of her life. She adapts but there is something at her core that remains constant.

The Forrest family immigrate from the United States when Dorothy is seven years old. They are outsiders with not even the Commonwealth connection to make them feel at home in New Zealand. A boy called Daniel attaches himself to the family and shows them how to get by. He’s also an outsider from a troubled background but he’s a survivor. Dorothy’s complex relationship with Daniel is at the centre of this novel. He’s ‘a touchstone for her sense of self’ and provides the gravitational force in her life.

Emily Perkins has created memorable characters in this narrative. They’re familiar. I feel like I know them. The Forrests feels like a New Zealand book. The Kiwisms help – the possum smell of woman’s hair and the glow-worms that mirror the night sky. This is a story with ‘Auckland light and Auckland trees’.  You sense the big sky and the mental space that surrounds the characters.

Emily PerkinsA new novel by Emily Perkins is always an exciting prospect and The Forrests doesn’t disappoint. The author’s aim is to experiment and she enjoys the freedom to be exploratory and do different things in every book. With The Forrests she says she breaks a style of writing she’d had enough of. This work takes writing rules and breaks them. It’s got emotional grit.

I’m already looking forward to her next work. Perhaps it will be The Albanian Book that was put aside while The Forrests was being written as part of her Masters thesis? Who knows, but Emily Perkins is an author with something to say and I, for one, am very willing to listen.

Snacks are the ultimate (writing) props. The kettle, the fridge, sharp pencils and good paper.