Friday, 22 July 2011

What do you do when a dream comes true?

You run in the sea and caper like a wild thing...

You bask in the early evening sunlight that has briefly appeared, after a day of bluster and drizzle...

You get your husband to jump off something really HIGH...

... and then you team a bottle of Bollinger with a couple of packets of Scampi Fries and have yourselves a party.

That was the sequence of events when Rowan, my agent, telephoned to say I had a two-book deal with Headline.  Such amazing news is welcome anyhow, anytime, anywhere, but I was on a beach in Devon (a beach I used to go to when I was a child, and always my favourite, as it's reached by a smugglers' tunnel through the cliffs) and the setting made what was already an incredible moment even better.  After all the running and the splashing and the jumping we gathered pebbles to cherish forever and wrote our good fortune with a stick in the sand. Note to superstitious self, the words were duly washed away, was this a good idea after all?!  And then... we went to the pub.

Even now, a couple of weeks on, the news is yet to sink in. I guess it takes a while to accept, and to truly believe. Meeting Rowan in March was a milestone moment, the realisation of which provoked my very first blog. And a month or so ago, along came another...  It was the early hours of the morning and I was making finishing touches to my manuscript, knowing that it would soon be going out to publishers for the first time. It was probably the combination of sleep deprivation, soft lamplight and music in a minor key, but I had a quiet little cry, understanding suddenly and irrevocably that this was a further step along the road. I felt like I was on the cusp of something that night - whether it turned out to be boundless joy, great disappointment, or just a hellish long wait - the moment, I knew, was nigh.  

The strange thing is, I haven't cried once since getting The News, and I am one emotional sap. Maybe that night hunched over my desk was my lot.  Or perhaps the weight of it all will hit me when I least expect it, like when I next see someone innocently munching on a bag of Scampi Fries. Whatever, I'm ready.  

I'm ready.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

"Something glimpsed... in passing."

I was introduced to Raymond Carver by Louise Dean, on an Arvon course in November 2008.  I was in a barn, in a huddle of other aspiring writers, as she handed us the poems 'What The Doctor Said' and 'Late Fragment.' It was at the end of a session and around me people were getting ready to leave, shuffling papers and thinking of coffee and cigarettes and a brief break from the relentless pursuit of writerly progression.  But I stayed seated, reading.  Reading and falling in love with the quiet, tough, beauty of Raymond Carver.  

Later, at home in Bristol, I began to read his short stories.  His collection 'Where I'm Calling From' now occupies a permanent spot on my bedside table.  The author's foreword ends on a paragraph that I never fail to find affecting.  I won't quote it here - you need to buy it and read it for yourself.  But it cuts right to the very heart of what it means to read and write, and I love it.  It shames me to say it, but Carver's was the first book of short stories I've ever bought.  However I've proved a quick convert, discovering soon afterwards the incredible writing of Canadian Alice Munro.  Since then, I've never looked back.  

I'm moved to write about these two great short story writers because just a few hours ago I spoke to a friend who is a voracious reader.  One who reads well and reads widely.  And yet... she doesn't think she likes short stories - a reaction that Jonathan Franzen explores in his foreword to Munro's collection, 'Runaway'.  I say 'doesn't think she likes' as I rather think that's all set to change.  Tomorrow I will be presenting her with two of my most prized book-possessions - 'Where I'm Calling From' and 'Runaway'.  I'm not going to say anything to her... I'm going to resist all temptation to wax lyrical... instead I will let the stories speak for themselves, with sweet brevity.  And as V.S Pritchett says, I will leave her to discover "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing."

Friday, 1 July 2011

Borrowed time

Whenever I visit someone's house for the first time, I always head straight for their bookshelves.  You can tell a lot about a person by the book-company they keep.  The libraries of old friends aren't free from my scrutiny either, and I recently sized up the collection of my friend Sonya.  A fellow York English Grad, her shelves were creaking with righteously-good tomes, and I quickly turned into a child in a sweet shop when she said 'borrow whatever you like.'  That night I took home with me An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, What I loved by Siri Hustvedt, and Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains by Susan Elderkin.  What a haul!  

The pleasure of borrowing a book is quite different to buying one for yourself.  After peanut butter, chorizo sausage and extra-shot-cappuccinos, books are the thing I buy the most, and the thrill I get each time never diminishes (the same can be said for the other mentioned items). But borrowing a book from a dear friend, or perhaps even more tantalizingly, a newish acquaintance 'of promise', offers a pleasure all of its own - as indeed does lending. As a teen I thrust The Catcher In The Rye upon several potential boyfriends, thinking, 'are you, like Holden, the sort to care if a girl kept all her kings in the back row?'  Then I met a boy at university who already had a copy all of his own on his shelf...  Reader, I married him.

I've just finished the last of my borrowed books, and each were enjoyable and impressive in wholly separate ways.  But it was Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains that captured my imagination the most.  Perhaps it was the Arizona desert setting, conjured with such drama, beauty and a magpie-like eye for glinting detail.  Or maybe it was the dark fairytale-ish feeling that's evoked; don't be swayed by the saccharine title, Elderkin's is a book with its fair share of gruesome, a heady mix of idyllic and uncomfortable that smacks of Grimm... or, sometimes, just plain grim. Or it could even have been the dual storylines that run parallel all the way through and then criss-cross beautifully when you least expect it.  All I know is that I loved it.  And once I've returned it to Sonya, I'll be squeezing a new copy on to my own shelves.  After all, I might want to lend it to someone myself one day.