I ask because bedside tables and their offerings are the new profiling tool, their little worlds in microcosm giving us copious info about who we are, who we want to be and who we should be dating.
In Enough Said, the last film ever made by James Gandolfini and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Albert’s marriage breaks up partly because he has no bedside tables. When his ex discovers this she says:
Metaphorically speaking, he’s not
building a life for himself.
I mean, who would date
a person like that?
In The End of Your Life Bookclub, when Will Schwalbe looks round the bedroom of his dying mother, whose bedside table and the floor (every surface actually) is covered with books, he asks himself how much bleaker the room would look had his mother’s night table supported a lone Kindle.
And in the September/October edition of the ever trendy Frankie magazine, five young artists have been commissioned to draw their bedside tables. Way to go, Frankie!
What about my bedside tables at home? My little bedside world currently has three books stacked on it:
The Other Hand by Chris Cleave – this book is also sold under the title Little Bee and has been very popular in my Book Club. I love this book, it makes me want to speak in Jamaican patois. If you click on the link you will get the idea of the storyline.
There’s also The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. This is an unusual, quietly meditative book in which you will learn a lot (more than may be desirable, to be frank) about a little forest snail.
And The Tao of Pooh, which is my go-to book on those mornings when I can barely face the cone infested drive to a far-flung outpost of Library Land to get to a library that may or may not have stocked up on the full cream milk I require for my first cup of coffee.
In the parallel universe on the other side of the bed, my husband’s bedside table sports:
Italian Grammar for Dummies – bedtime discourse on the use of the subjunctive in Italian has entirely replaced any need for sedatives in our little world.
There’s also A History of Opera and a lone fiction work, The Panther, which he started reading seventeen months ago and hopes to complete when we travel again at the end of this year. I have to dust that book – often, and each time I wonder how on earth he is managing to remember the storyline.
How about you? Got any bedside books worth sharing?
These are the questions Chris Cleave poses hapless interviewees during the exhaustive formal research he conducts for each of his novels.
His informal research he characterises as “quite creepy” and involves stalking innocent members of the populace foolish enough to have heartfelt conversations on public transport.
Like any great hunter, Chris uses disguise and cunning, he sits behind his targets wearing unconnected ear buds, nods his head in time to the imaginary beats and captures their vocabulary, grammar and idiom. You have been warned. Stay alert for insanely grinning Englishmen, they want to pinch your charming Kiwi-isms.
Host Kate de Goldi, who described Chris’s books as “politicised, moral and completely readable”, asked Chris about his debut novel Incendiary. Written as an open letter to Osama Bin Laden from a grieving mother whose child died in an imagined London terror attack, it was due for release on 7/7/2005. Two thousand pre-publication posters depicting a smoking London city-scape and the words “What if?” were plastered all over the London Underground. Then that same day, the real London attacks kicked off, and Cleave, with his publishers, had the novel pulled from the shelves. This was for him a “fraught, frantic and complicated decision” but he still believes it was the right one.
The Geodome audience then paused for a few minutes while a bumble-bee drunk on the aroma from some onstage freesia was corralled and dealt to by festival organiser Morrin “No8 wire” Rout.
Chris next talked about the influence of parenthood on his work. Incendiary was written to mark the occasion of the birth of his first child and engaged with themes that previously had been purely abstract: grief at the loss of a child, injustice and the task of keeping loved ones safe in a potentially volatile and dangerous world.
Chris now dislikes his pre-fatherhood writing and characterised it as smug, self-reverential, full of ridiculous pyrotechnics and hubris. His youthful writing was in the pursuit of glory and was as a result terrible.
This self-analysis prompted New Zealand product design writer Michael Smythe to ask whether this was exclusively auto-critique on Chris’s part or whether another party had nudged him towards this realisation?
Cleave gleefully admitted that yes, several rejection letters for at least two full length manuscripts had eventually caused him to reconsider the direction of his writing. The fate of these rejected masterpieces, The Roadkill Cookbook and Tequilla Mockingbird, was not alluded to but the “rather charming” publishers’ rejection letters are filed in Chris’s big envelope of bitterness.
This was a delightfully wise and witty session from an author of compassion and curiosity, and from a man who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. I’m going to ask myself some of Chris’s questions but I suspect they will, rather like his novels, make my heart hurt.
The Press Christchurch Writers Festival is here. I’ve drawn back the curtains, kicked away the draft excluder and liberated myself from my thermals, after an epically long, damp and dreary winter I am ready for books and book talk.
All your novels have featured children. What do they bring to your books?
The children in my novels compel the adults to get it right. The ethical and moral questions I pose for the grown-ups are more potent because we desperately want to see the adults resolve their issues to the benefit of the children. They have to get their acts together. I also love the moral clarity of children; you just can’t bullshit them.
Qualities important for a writer?
Be a reader first. The best writers are readers. Imagination is a muscle that atrophies but as readers we fill in the blanks and bring just as much to the table as the writer.
You’ve described your novels as a mix of reportage and fiction, what do you want to achieve with your work?
I’m trying to write novels that are emotionally true, with the conscious desire to make a difference by either reinforcing ideas already held by my readers or by starting new thinking. Many people I respect disagree with my work but that’s fine. I want to start the debate rather than have the last word and I want the themes I raise, rather than my own opinions, to become the talking point.
On the topic of reviewers, Chris is emphatic:
They create their own hell. I don’t regard them as peers and many of them are just vicious. Reviewers get to comment on writers’ work but this is entirely one-way traffic, writers are never invited to the reviewers’ parties. I approach reviews with caution and don’t take them too seriously.
Have libraries been an important feature of your life?
I was practically brought up in libraries! I had weekly visits to our local library with my mum. Libraries were a lifeline to culture and helped make me what I am, without them I wouldn’t have become a writer. Sadly, libraries in Britain will only survive if there is a huge political shift but I also think libraries need to adapt. I’d like to see them as free speech arenas with emphasis on library events. This may require a shake-up in thinking and some new faces in UK library management.
My festival kicked off with an interview with John Lanchester. You can’t help but feel the odd twinge of fluttery tummy when you are about to meet up with such a literary luminary – I seem to be becoming hooked on this particular form of terror. But he was a pleasure to chat to. It won’t be obvious from the transcript, but he thought carefully before he answered each question. It was fascinating stuff, see for yourself:
I’ve read all your novels John, but none of your non-fiction work. Yet I get the impression that you move effortlessly between these two types of content. Is that true and do they challenge your writing in different ways?
I wouldn’t say effortless, but I tend to do the thing that I’m interested in at any one point in time. In my book about my parents (Family Romance), I wanted to explain their story to myself because there was a mystery in my mother’s story that I only found out after she died and I wanted to make sense of it. The best way to do that seemed to be to write it and I didn’t think of it as: “OK now I’m writing a non-fiction book”, that wasn’t how it came about. I just wanted to tell it to myself. I finished that and started on Capital (a novel) and Whoops! (non-fiction) grew out of that.
The writing skills that I used for these books, both fiction and non-fiction are a weirdly similar skill set. The word for fiction comes from a word for shaping things on a potters wheel and not from the word for “I make things up” and shaping is the core skill that goes from fiction to non-fiction. Crucially the tools that I use for both fiction and non-fiction involve shaping and selecting. The way you present characters is amazingly similar, I think, between fiction and non-fiction. For example when I wrote about my parents, everything in that book is true to the best of my knowledge, at the same time you do end up using fiction techniques to make people seem real.
Library users have an expectation that librarians have read every book and can comment on all of them. I love Capital and want customers and friends to read it, but when I describe it (possibly in somewhat gushy terms), I can see the lights go out, one at a time. How would you describe the book in a couple of sentences. I need help!
If I could have summed it up I would have written it in that many words! I was interested in the size and scale of everything going on in London and the length is part of that. At what point do you think that what you’re saying puts people off?
It’s when I use the words “stock” and “market” and “crash” in the same sentence!
It was really “global” and “financial” and ” crisis”, but that mightn’t have been much help in keeping the lights on either! The specifics of what really happened are very baffling to people which is partly why I wrote Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. Let me know if you ever get a good succinct description of Capital that works, I’d be interested to hear what it is.
There is an unsettling refrain running throughout Capital: “We want what you have”. Did you mean that to refer specifically to money and possessions or did you intend it to have a wider meaning?
A lot of the characters think that the wanting and the having is all about money. It was clearer to me after I was finished with writing the book that they tend to think it is about money, the idea that what they have is mainly economic. The extent to which some of the characters in the book come to realise that there are lots of kinds of capital other than financial capital, is one of the organising principles of the book, because to varying extents they all tend to forget that.
Right now in Christchurch there is a lot of writing about the city going on. People are being encouraged to get their quake stories down and to share their experiences. After all, we have had a disaster, in a city that we love and we have a whole lot of fascinating characters too. The same skeins are present in Capital. What pointers would you give to potential authors to pull these three strands into a cohesive whole?
The difference between a man-made crisis and a natural one is that it’s a lot easier to seek for meaning in a man-made one. The financial crisis touches on things that had causes that you might have been able to prevent at a societal level if not at an individual level. A man-made catastrophe you can kind of study for lessons and think through, whereas natural disasters are just great ill fortunes – nothing to be done about that and so would be harder to develop them into grand themes in novels.
I first heard about all your books in book clubs. What do you think of reading groups?
Book clubs are definitely a good thing. There is one tiny negative thing – overwhelmingly they are great but lately I’ve noticed that there is a trend nowadays for everyone to read the same book at the same time. I don’t quite understand what the drivers of that are. It is so much more common than 15 to 20 years ago. I feel that monoculture is bad in all fields of life and the same goes for what we read. People live longer and longer nowadays and reading and variety of reading is a way of keeping your brain active. It’s not going to stay active all by itself and it is going to be less stimulated if you’re all doing the same things at the same time.
What’s your take on libraries, how important have they been in your life?
Very, very important. It’s a really sore point that we have just lost a library in our street, just 30 metres from where I live. I’ve more or less grown up in libraries and my children were doing that too. It was a very, very important part of their early childhood. I do hope you will win the fight for libraries as places where people can be without having to buy a product. You don’t browse for socks or toothpaste, but you do browse for books and the act of browsing is what facilitates the discovery of newness and libraries are so important for that.
One last question, are you an e-book reader?
I use an e-reader for travel, it saves me about 10kgs in luggage weight. I’m not theological about it, but I am surprised by the extent to which I prefer physical books. I didn’t know that before I got an e-reader but I find I vastly prefer physical books. They’re just much much nicer!
In the city of memories it’s hard to resist looking back. When was the first Christchurch Writers Festival I attended? I used to have a full collection of programmes so I could have checked, but not any more.
It was certainly held in the Arts Centre in the winter, because I remember the fire burning in the Great Hall. There have been so many great writers over the years; who stands out? In a quietly powerful New Zealand way Noel Virtue and Beryl Fletcher. In a “hairs standing up on the back of your neck I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” sort of way Tusiata Avia. In a “this guy wrote a book that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg” way Tom Keneally.
Who am I kidding? I’m looking forward to all the writers. I’ll be at every session humanly possible. I won’t be in a Great or a Town Hall, but in two years’ time I might be blogging about how the Geo Dome was the most memorable of all.
What memories do you have of past writers festivals? And who are you looking forward to this time?
It’s my Double happiness time! I get to blog on another literary festival and it’s The Press Christchurch Writers Festival right here in Christchurch. I’ve been on the blog team for this event twice before and each time the earth moved.
Third time lucky.
It was only after I’d submitted my selections of preferred events (from my very readable and striking lime green Festival booklet) that I realised I’d chosen only easy-on-the-eye male authors who’d apparently all been born under wandering stars – seems this festival is about the importance of Place for me. See for yourself:
The main character in The Secret River gets to the heart of the importance of Place in our lives with this quote:
A chaos opened up inside him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground … He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.
How about you, do you have a place that you’ve fallen in love with? And when can we expect to see the book?