Sunday, 18 July 2010

Qh, lq belle Frqnce!

I!m ariting this on s French keyboqrd ) ahich, qs you cqn see, hqs several very irritqting trqnspositions of letters qnd co,,as qnd things; Good for the budding Qlqn Turings q,ong you, but just slightly irritating for everyone else; The zorst thing is zhen I get used to it qnd go ho,e to find thqt I cqn:t type on a QWERTY keyboqrd either;

On the other hqnd, the zeqther is fqntqstic.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Branford Boase high jinks...

Last night was the Branford Boase Award party, which, as one of the judges and last year's winner, I had to go to. But that was OK, because I would've gone anyway. It's a really nice occasion, very informal and friendly, which was just as well as I had to do the Judges' Summing Up ('let me put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury...') and was quite nervous. When you win it's not as bad, because no one minds what you say, they just smile at you benevolently, like you've just given birth to your first child. I suppose, in a way, you have...

Anyway, it all went fairly smoothly, apart from my nearly knocking over a massive vase of flowers that some IDIOT had put on a plinth right next to the platform... (Flowers? FLOWERS? Clearly an embarrassment hazard. Where were Health & Safety when I needed them?) And I got to announce the winner, which was fun (if a little bit nerve-wracking, as I was afraid I'd have a sudden brainstorm and announce the wrong person).

Which brings me to the important bit: the winner of the award was - dum dum DUM - Lucy Christopher, for her book Stolen. And I'm really glad it's been announced, because now I can rave about the book without giving away any secret information... Stolen is a wonderful, chilling, quietly subversive book about a kidnap and the relationship between the kidnappee and kidnapper. It's beautifully, economically and vividly written - the setting, the Australian outback, is brilliant, almost a character in its own right - and really remarkable, original and assured. READ IT! (And Lucy is lovely, too. But we didn't know that when we chose the book.)

The shortlist was also brilliant - I particularly liked Numbers (Rachel Ward) and Life, Interrupted (Damien Kelleher). But I would be very surprised indeed if all the writers didn't go on producing fantastic books...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Cauliflowers in fiction: the power of the imagination...

I was cooking the other day with cauliflower. I got it out of the fridge and unwrapped it, and then split all the leaves away from the stem, and what was I left with? A brain.

No, well, OK, obviously it wasn't a brain, it was a cauliflower. But I couldn't help imagining that it was a brain, as I cut it into bits and boiled it. In the same way that when I skin tomatoes I'm thinking about how the skin peels off just like human skin, leaving that veined raw-looking pulp underneath, and - well, who doesn't eat grapes and feel them popping in the mouth like eyeballs? And that's before I even mention things like livers and kidneys, which actually are livers and kidneys.

I realise this makes me sound like a psychopath. And it's true that I can see a rather macabre theme developing here. But this is my job. I spend my life imagining the worst, so that I can inflict it on my characters - and after a while you can't stop yourself. Sometimes I end up imagining it in such detail (what would happen if that car mounted the pavement just as I walked past?) that I scare myself. It's a litte bit unhealthy.

But it's also fun. Next time you cook a cauliflower, try pretending it's someone's brain. It's a lot more interesting.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

I can't work today. I've got to go to the dentist. Plus I've got a hangover.

Yesterday I couldn't work because I was going up to London in the evening, and yes, that does take an entire day to prepare for. (Mentally, I mean. I wouldn't like you to think that I spend hours trying to look the way I do...)

Monday I also had a hangover. This is most unusual for me.

Sunday I couldn't work because I had a friend coming to tea. I suppose I could've worked after she left, but she left at half past eight or so, and by that time we'd shared a bottle of Veuve Cliquot (she's just got divorced) and I wasn't really in a fit state to try to type. Hence the hangover.

Saturday I couldn't work because - well, it was Saturday.

I don't even want to think about the last time I sat down and really did a good day's work. Possibly it was on my proofs, a few weeks ago - but then doing proofs, while hard work, isn't exactly creative. Or hopefully not too creative, anyway. And given that the novel I'm (in theory) working on at the moment has never had a decent day's work put into it, ever (it's about 5,000 words long, out of a projected 100,000, to which I can only say: Ha!), that must mean it was the novel before, which makes it... at least a couple of months.

Do you ever look back at your life and ask yourself what you're doing with it?

(Research, the answer comes back, in a sepulchral voice. Research.)

Friday, 2 July 2010

The W Word

Last night I saw Bright Star on DVD. For anyone who hasn't seen it, it's a film about Keats and Fanny Brawne, and the only thing I can say is: don't bother. I couldn't work out whether it was badly acted - Ben Whishaw, strangely, is a wonderful actor who doesn't seem to have been in a single good film - or only so, so badly written that the actors froze and just concentrated on trying to say the words without making them sound stupider than they already were. As an actor (a Trained Actor, darling) I know what that's like, and I can forgive them for it. But the script - oh, dear God, the script... What can I say?

Does anyone really imagine that Keats and Fanny Brawne sat around looking soulfully into each other's eyes while they recited La Belle Dame Sans Merci together? Or that she - soulfully - quoted the first lines of Endymion to him at a dance? Or that he recited When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be after Christmas dinner, while looking at Fanny Brawne? (Soulfully, of course.) Honestly. You'd think poets did nothing but quote their own works and look soulful. Incidentally, my mother, who is a poet, pointed out that the other poet character was much more convincing, because all he did was sleep around and be obnoxious...

As the film said, the poet is (in fact) the most unpoetical of creatures. That's a good line, I admit, but Keats actually did say that, so I can't give the scriptwriter much credit. And it's true. Poets are not poetical. Writers don't sit around quoting their own work, as a general rule, and if they did it would be rather embarrassing. (Especially if it's Keats. Try saying, 'O, what ails thee, kinght-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?' in a conversational tone. It's hilarious.) Writers and their work are not synonymous: writing, or having written, interesting books (etc.) does not make you interesting. Writers can and do have interesting lives (or so I'm told... sigh...) but that's separate from, in addition to, their writing. So if you want to make a film about a writer's life, you have to find (or, yes, make up, why not?) something interesting - wait for it - in their life. Yes, Keats' poems are very good (even if they're recited very badly). Yes, he was a great poet, and it's very sad that he died. And I have no doubt that there really is a good and heartbreaking film to be made about him. But forget the poetry. The poetry isn't the story. They're good - but they don't do anything, dramatically speaking. And if all Keats ever does is sit around quoting his own poems, or listening to Fanny quoting them, it just makes him look like an arse.

OK, I'm exaggerating a little bit. But there's this strange sort of perception that "being a writer" is something in itself that is different from, and better than, just "writing". And it's not simply to do with earning a living, or getting published, or all the real (and laudable) ambitions that writers have. Has anyone seen Julie and Julia? Another film where nothing happens, give or take, and one where the blogging character puts this strange, fetishistic emphasis on "being a writer". "I'm a writer!" she squeals at the end. "Yes, you're a writer!" her husband squeals back. She's been writing all the way through the film. But it's only at the end that she gets that shot of self-congratulation, that sort of self-promotion from just writing to (ohmigod!) being a writer. She's attained a new level. Now she is a new, better, more important human being. Soon she will be sitting listening to her husband soulfully quoting her blog at her.

And this, in turn, reminds me of the "writer" character, Jenny, in the American soap The L Word, to whom all things are forgiven and excused because she's a writer. "It's different for her," one of the other characters says. "She's a writer. She needs to experience life." Well, no, sorry. That's not being a writer, it's being a wanker. If you need to kill someone in order to write Crime and Punishment, or (going back to Keats) bury a decapitated head in a basil pot to write Isabella, your career prospects as an author are looking a little limited. You might, I suppose, end up as an insane genius. But that's the point: you would be insane.

Writing itself, the process of actually writing, is interesting only for the person who does it. Think about it: typing, handwriting, whatever, for hours on end, with breaks for the loo and cups of tea. Reading is interesting too, but, again, only for the person who does it. No one would want to see a film of someone doing either. And so what we end up with is films that can't show actual reading or actual writing, but want, somehow, to create the inherent glamour, the excitement and wonderfulness of them. Hence the "being a writer". But "being a writer" is meaningless. What matters is the writing you do. All you are, in the gaps when you're not actually writing, is a person.

But that, at least, is interesting.