A small, excited audience with Jhumpa Lahiri

You could feel the excitement contained in the tiny 8th floor lobby at Broadcasting House. Thirty of us had gathered to listen to the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri – a woman whose short stories are so powerful and evocative that you believe she is writing about your own life – being interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for the World Book Club. The experience taught me one thing: be careful about putting someone on a pedestal. Harriett Gilbert was a delight; animated and gracious and sporting a very cool tie. It’s a shame that her warmth wasn’t matched by her interviewee. It’s not unusual to read about Jhumpa Lahiri being reserved or distant and luckily this doesn’t take away from her exceptional talent and maturity as a writer (and she's only human, after all). In spite of her coolness in demeanour, there is a genuine depth in her explanations. She spoke of writing about profound shifts and of growth and loss, nodding once again to her two favourite authors William Trevor (she is nourished by his short stories) and Flannery O’Connor. Writing for Jhumpa Lahiri is seldom an intellectual process, but rather intuitive. In the interview she describes vividly how she inhabited Ruma’s father (in Unaccustomed Earth) and wanted to know and write his side of the story.

The questions from the audience were great, but she neatly sidestepped any real discussion on why she writes primarily about wealthy, academic migrant experiences, and not about the skilled, educated migrants who end up ‘driving taxis and cleaning’. I guess she’s earned the privilege of never really having to justify what she chooses to write about, as her writing is no longer ‘young’. What’s clear is that she understands her craft, not the craft of writing and owns it wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Such is the conviction of a seasoned award-winning writer – listen for yourself.

3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasn’t Like This In My Day)

At Hudderfield Library last Saturday, we celebrated World Book Night two days early and during the day. Here's an edited version of my reading, taken from The Living Library: If you think back to when you went to the library as children, you’d be forgiven for thinking that libraries have changed beyond recognition. The buildings remain the same – big and imposing, or small and intimate. And perhaps the decor remains the same, with yellow, peeling walls coupled with a familiar smell that lingers. Yet all of this is largely cosmetic. Visiting the library is different now, and it’s different because the rules of using your library have changed. By rules, I don’t mean the number of forms you have to fill in, or how to book yourself time on the computer, I mean the Unwritten Rules. So, to help you make sense of these rules, I’ve put together a list of things I think you should know, helpfully titled: 3 Unwritten Rules I Think You Should Know About Using Your Library (It Wasn’t Like This In My Day).

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent. Remember when libraries used to be sanctuaries, places of quiet reverence where the hushed tones and the sleepy atmosphere helped cure your insomnia? (Going to the reference section of Leeds Library is like drinking a warm cup of milk before going to bed.) Remember when you daren’t breathe for fear that just the sound of your breath would make heads turn? And not just any head turn – no – what really frightened you was turning the head of the librarian, making her eyes bulge out of her head in disapproval. Then you’d suffer the humiliation of being told to SHUSH; a simple sound that held so much power and brought so much shame. Remember the sanctuary of it all? Libraries are still sanctuaries, but now they come with a cloud of white noise, what I like to call ‘non-silence’ silence, that wasn’t there 20 years ago. This includes, and is not limited to, sounds of the tap-tap-tapping of keyboards, mobile phones buzzing, and entire conversations happening for what seems like hours on end. The noise is endless, but it’s an unwritten rule now that being silent actually means having a conversation. So now you know that next time you visit the library, the rule is: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library. The only thing I needed to bring with me to my library as a child was a 10p piece in case of emergencies. On the odd day, I’d have a pencil case. But now you need a bit more if you’re to make the most of your visit. The right accoutrements will make your visit to the library much more efficient. You’ll need 4 things in particular: 1. A phone. Why would you need a phone I hear you ask? Well, you have to pretend to be silent don’t you? And what better way to do this than shout ‘I’m in the library, I can’t talk now’ and then just have your conversation anyway? 2. Bags, assorted. Bags are good for hiding things in, and for putting other bags inside them. You can kid yourself, and others, by thinking you’ll need a bag for putting your library books in, but really you need them for the third thing, which is... 3. Food. You definitely need food for the library, preferably something that involves licking your fingers clean. And that’ll just make you thirsty, so the final thing you need is... 4. A drink. The slurpy kind that comes in ‘super-size me’ buckets. Fluorescent colours are best if you want lots of attention and enjoy the sound of pensioners tutting through their dentures.

So, that’s your accoutrements sorted.

It’s not just what you bring to the library that is subject to rules. It’s also what you use it for, which brings me to the third and final rule:

Rule No3: don’t bother with books, there’s better things to be getting on with. As a child, I used the library to read mysteries about missing pets and to play on the cushions in the children’s library. As a teenager, I used it as place to do my homework in peace, and to complete my university applications in private, so I tend to recognise this in others when I see patrons making use of the library in similar ways. But what else do you use the library for?

It appears that some people think that it’s perfectly acceptable, romantic even, to meet at the library for clandestine love trysts. I didn’t know where to look whenever I accidently stumbled on an amorous couple. There’s some serious smooching going on amongst the stacks. On one occasion, I even saw a box of Milk Tray being presented to a girl by her suitor, and she started cooing at him and fluttering her eyelashes. Poor girl, I thought, Milk Tray... I hope for her sake he’s managed to upgrade to the vastly superior Thorntons range.

What I also saw was that people use the library as a port in a storm, and there’s more about that in the book. So, these are the unwritten rules, for now at least:

Rule No1: pretend to be silent without actually being silent.

Rule No2: make sure you have the right equipment for visiting your local library.

Rule No3: don’t bother with books, there’s better things to be getting on with.

The aim of these rules isn’t to mystify, they’re just there to help you make sense of a diminishing world. Don’t let the changes happening to your library put you off using them, just make use of your library while you can.

“Expect the flu whenever you finish writing anything big.”

At the recent Society of Authors North meeting, we listened to Simon Brett tell us about the activity of Trying To Write. This was interspersed with gems about how a writer can look around the house and pinpoint which work paid for which bit of furniture, and the things you buy when you should have saved for the tax man. Then there was the warning that you will always get the flu whenever you finish something big, and we all nodded in unison. Simon reflected on making the transition from having writing as a hobby to making it your career. When you move your hobby to the centre of your life, this immediately creates a “job vacancy” for interests outside of work, and it’s important that you have other interests that balance your professional life as a writer.

This made me think about what I do outside of “writing” that could be classed as an interest or hobby. Does procrastination count? How about doing some half-hearted yoga whilst watching TV? Or staring at the garden willing fairies to come down and mow it? I’m really struggling to identify some part of my routine that doesn’t involve writing or reading. Can you relate to this?

In the afternoon, we listened to Julia Franklin reading extracts from the Books Are Loud portfolio and, for me, this was the best part of the day. It takes real talent to bring text to life using just your voice, and if you’re a fan of the audio book format, then you’ll know what I mean. Anyway, Julia and her colleagues are expanding their portfolio, so if you want your work read by pros, have a look at their website.

My World Book Day gift to you...

She is razor sharp and insightful. Her precise language captures the essence of what it means to be an award-winning, Croatian writer on the margins of a star-struck industry, and she does this without once gazing at her navel.

She uses Ivana Trump as an example of how anyone can be an author, but authors can’t penetrate other industries in the same way, such as become sports personalities or business leaders. Above all, she offers a cultural commentary on the cogs that make up the publishing industry, as well as a candid peek into the writers’ psyche, weaving in encounters with other writers and agents along the way.

Her name is Dubravka Ugresic, and her critically acclaimed book Thank You For Not Reading is a must read for anyone thinking about earning a living as a writer.

Read it and weep heavy tears onto your next tax return.

Valentine

Husband: What shall we do for Valentines Day?

Wife: What we always do.

Husband: Which is?

Wife: You know, say we're not doing anything, then rush out to the shops at the last minute to buy each other something - ANYTHING - so it doesn't feel like a normal work day.

Husband: Hmmph. We're not doing that this year.

Wife: Agreed.

Husband: So what shall we do then?

Wife: How about fight about your daily fruit and veg intake?

Husband: Excellent, I'll get the wine. It's made of grapes.

Wife: That's just fruit. What about the veg?

Husband: I'll eat a cabbage after.

Wife: What, a whole one?

Husband: For you, yes.

Wife: I love you.

Husband: I know.

What a year, eh?

Warp speed is an understatement. The prologue and first chapter of my library residency book, entitled THE LIVING LIBRARY (yeah, I am pleased with the title, thanks for asking) are ready! And you can read the prologue here. I’ll also be giving a reading from more bits of the manuscript on National Libraries Day in February, so stay tuned. This year has also been the year of the rush job, i.e. Nilam, can you just rewrite this paper/chapter/module/case study/donor report/exec summary, I need it next week, is that ok?

So now, I’m ready for a break and won’t be looking at the computer screen for a while. Bring on the Christmas boxsets! Happy doodah everyone.

Short story ‘Rouen’ published in Litro

Many moons ago, I blogged that I would write a story with a link to France, and it seems that the editors at Litro think it’s worth publishing.

This started as a comic piece about not being able to speak the language, but after rewriting the first paragraph as a ‘warm-up’ exercise at my writing group, the original was scrapped for something altogether darker.

And now I've made it into an ebook...

See what you think?

NaNoWriMo begins today

For the uninitiated, that’s National Novel Writing Month. I have signed up. I have no idea why, except that I work well to deadlines. When someone says ‘write a 50,000 word novel in a month,’ I say, ‘OK, I will.’ But I’ve already decided that I’m using it to bang out new work that I can come back to next year. In the meantime, my manuscript on the library residency continues and the December deadline I set myself is hurtling towards me. Watch this space...

That’s all folks (not really)...

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last two weeks, it’s that library staff know EVERYTHING, and I don’t mean which books to read if you want to do a loft conversion. I mean they pick up on much more than you realise. Not only do they know what you eat and drink when you think they are not looking, they know your reading habits, how often you come in, the time of day they are likely to see you, and the way you walk, talk, behave and smell. This means that if, for some reason, you suddenly disappear, they start asking questions. It means that they care enough to find out what has happened to you – they are a real ‘social service' showing that what they do is sometimes above and beyond the call of duty. How many institutions can say this about their clients? The start of Summer Reading Challenge yesterday marked the end of my formal writing residency, but I’ll be back over the summer to top up my research as I write my manuscript. So you’ll get some more library stories over the coming months. Stay tuned and thanks for reading...

Summer Reading Challenge 2011

Yes, you could spend money on one of the new titles being promoted by the Richard and Judy Children’s Summer Book Club, or...you could sign your children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren up for the Summer Reading Challenge and its Circus Stars reading campaign. I’ve worked out that even with the half-price discount currently being offered for the Richard and Judy books, the price tag, if you chose to buy them all, would be just shy of £50. Thereare 6 books in 3 categories: Read Together (£19.94 for 6 books), Read By Yourself (£14.44), and Fluent Reader (£13.44). I know, I know...you’re not likely to buy all six books at once. Maybe you’ll buy one, as the others aren’t quite right, and wonder where to get something more appropriate. You know where I’m going with this, don't you?

Don't get me wrong, I think that the books being promoted are great, and it’s important that the authors earn a living from their writing. My point is this: why limit the children to just the books being promoted in the shops, especially, when they get the reading bug, they tend to devour books? One book per week may not be enough for the 6-week holiday.

Sitting in the children’s library today, the decibel level was as you would expect for a Saturday, but there was extra excitement amongst the little people about being able to choose LOTS of books to read over the summer. A boy came and sat next to me on the sofa, clutching his chosen books to his chest.

‘I got my books,’ he beamed, and showed me My Family, Trucks, Fire Engines and Alien Tales. His sister walked away with 4 books too, but they each had the freedom to choose up to 15 books. Next was a boy who walked away with 8 books, and I later saw him reading his Harry Potter whilst waiting for his dad to make his choices in the lending library. Another lay prostrate on the floor reading Roald Dahl, and there were plenty more like him. So, even if you decide to buy books recommended by other reading campaigns, please remember to sign your children up to the Summer Reading Challenge - they can never have too much choice when it comes to reading.

A small space

Space is a real issue for libraries: everyone wants a piece. The town and branch libraries use every inch of space for poetry groups, basic reading groups, a PALS (Practice Activity and Leisure Scheme) Art Group, children’s storytime, a birdwatchers group, a visually impaired reading group, school visits, coffee mornings with guest speakers, knitting groups, parents groups, Mumsnet groups, Manga groups, and much more besides. And these are just the groups who meet informally. I have asked organisers where else they could meet, and the answer has always been ‘we couldn’t, not without this place.’

During storytime in the children’s library, a woman asked me if there was any space for some groups she works with to meet at the library. It turns out that one of the local community centres has closed because of spending cuts. This means that 14 separate groups (run for everyone from women and children to asylum seekers) who once had a home, have been turfed out onto the street. Their first port of call for help was the library, in the hope that they would be able to continue offering their services, if only they could find a small space. Many groups already use the library to meet and run informal activities, but an additional few groups may well place a strain on the halls and committee rooms. From my experiences as a writer-in-residence, I know that the library is possibly the one public service organisation that will do all it can to remain inclusive. We are lucky that libraries are so very resourceful and accommodating.

The Little Library That Could

British Asians of my generation had very little freedom growing up. We had pushy parents who wanted us to become doctors, lawyers or accountants, we were definitely NOT allowed boyfriends and girlfriends, and going out with friends involved spinning any number of yarns about studying for tests, just so we could be ‘normal’ and go to a school disco. As our lives revolved around studying, our parents saw the library as the one respectable place that we could be trusted to go to by ourselves. Imagine, then, 22 years later, sitting with a careers adviser at one of the branch libraries today, and discovering that we both went to school in Gosport, a year apart, and spent much of our spare time in Gosport Library.

‘It was a big, smoked-glass building with a massive anchor outside’ he said, still dazed from nostalgia.

It all came back to me in an instant. I went there every Saturday, and began by laying out my books, pens and notes in one of the cubicles, so that it looked like some very serious studying was taking place. Then I’d wander off into town for a couple of hours before returning refreshed and ready to read. I used to borrow tapes of bands that I wasn’t allowed to listen to, and worked my way through all the Agatha Christie books. One afternoon, I saw a crowd of old ladies huddled around a particular set of shelves. I’d seen this phenomenon before, and had paid no notice, but this time I went over. That was my introduction to Mills and Boon.

Reading about Gosport Library now, I see that it was revamped in 2005 to become The Discovery Centre. It’s website states that it is now ‘four floors of books, reference materials, art, local history, museum exhibits, film, music, events and a coffee shop,’ and it sounds fantastic.

I remember it very much as a safe haven from parent and peer pressure. I remember it as a place to hide and to reflect, a place where I could complete my university applications in private, and a place to plan my route to freedom. I hope it continues to give its members the crucial breathing space it once gave me.

Sophie Hannah/Readers Group Book of the Year Event

Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah

If you want to learn how to pitch your book to someone, and I mean really hook them in, make time to see Sophie Hannah next time she’s in town. After another intense day at one of the local libraries, I was ready to collapse in front of The Apprentice, but roused myself in time to attend the local Reading Group Book of the Year event, where Sophie Hannah was giving a talk about her writing, and announcing the group’s favourite read of the year. They chose The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver as their winner (one of my favourite reads), and Sophie threw in her two recommendations of Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield for the group to read next year.

Sophie has an annual routine of publishing one book a year, writing for approximately 6 months each year and mainly touring the rest of the time, and she also has a daily routine of writing for around 7 hours each day. She described one way in which her ideas take shape: she likes to take a cliché and twist it, so that it becomes a springboard for her plot. As a crime novelist, she is intrigued by ‘impossible mysteries...if I’m intrigued, then others will be too.’

Sophie is a great speaker; generous with her advice, informative, down to earth and funny. She is a professional, and her status as a best-selling author is well deserved.

A safe haven

A mother comes in with her young daughter, and it looks like an ordinary enough scene: they enter the large, square room that is the Children’sLibrary, the daughter runs to the brightly coloured table and chairs in the centre to do some colouring in, whilst the mother sits at one of the tables in the corner. The mother nods and smiles at the librarian, looks at her phone, then pulls out a text book and reads quietly. After about 30 minutes, the daughter comes to her with a choice of children’s books and they speak a little. The mother puts down her heavy text, picks up one of the brightly coloured books offered to her, and begins to slowly say the words on each page. But something about this scene is different, and it’s only when I see the spine of the mother’s text book that I fully understand. The textbook is English for Beginners, and what I have been witnessing is, every few words, the daughter correcting her mother’s English.

After watching them, I am left with many questions: what is this woman’s story? Why does her daughter know more English than her? Where would they go to do this, if not here? I didn’t approach them, as my blundering attempts to engage would have burst their contemplative bubble. But that scene has stayed with me, and more than that, it’s shown me that this space is a safe haven for people to come and work, in whatever capacity and with whoever they like, without any judgement.

Writer-In-Residence, with a twist...

What started as a rant about World Book Night and library services being cut (see World Library Night Parts 1 and 2) has turned into something quite wonderful for me. I am to be a Writer-In-Residence at Huddersfield Library for the next two weeks. But this is a residency with a twist. Instead of going out to schools and community groups to encourage reading, writing and the take up of library services, I’ll be writing about the experience of using the library and what it means for its members. This has been a personal project of mine for a while and I am in bits with excitement. In one day, I have already caught a glimpse of the herculean lengths to which library staff go in their daily working lives. The general public really do have a staggering range of requests. Add to that the many groups who use the spaces on all four floors throughout the week; this place really is a hub. Over the coming weeks, I’ll also be visiting Birkby, Lindley and Deighton libraries to get a sense of what these smaller centres mean to local residents. And after the two weeks? Why, a book, of course…

Happily Ever After

‘Intelligence’ and ‘steely determination’ are the central tenets of the Mills and Boon writer, says Roger (who writes as Gill Sanderson from his caravan in the Lake District). So too is a sound understanding of a format that works. Julie Moggan’s documentary True Stories: Guilty Pleasures is not solely about what makes a Mills and Boon romance so compelling for readers. It’s also an insight into a narrative format that makes this a popular and lucrative genre (a Mills and Boon book is sold every four seconds), so Roger’s take on the format is worth dwelling on for a minute. Certain things are a must, specifically:

  • the man must be an alpha-male. He will be handsome and charming, imposing even. But he cannot be too hairy, or have a hairy back, or have red hair, or be fat. And he must have a ‘good name.’ In short, he has to be ‘the type of man that every woman might fancy.’ Quite specific then. Interestingly, there is nothing about the ‘type’ of woman that is the protagonist in these stories.
  • It helps to draw on generalisations, the most popular being that men have a fear of commitment and that they can’t say ‘I love you’ with any degree of ease. Another good plot device is the protagonist coming face to face with a richer/younger/prettier rival, who happens to be her man’s former lover. This seems to add the necessary ‘barrier’ needed to create romantic and sexual tension.
  • As any writer knows, ideas are all around. Roger looks for the ‘peopleness’ in situations, such as the small actions and looks couples give each other over dinner or when walking together. It’s the small things that become the spark for something of substance.
  • Romance – meeting someone and falling in love with them – changes people. The characters are not the same as they were at the beginning of the story, so character development is important. Think about your own relationships, how did meeting someone change you?
  • Mills and Boon are not known to shy away from their sex scenes, which are more explicit than when Roger first started writing for them. But sex must be in the context of love or a loving relationship, always consenting and never forced. Roger didn’t say, but it probably helps if the underwear is silk.

Ultimately, the stories make romance spectacular by ‘celebrating the power of love.’ A good romance must have a happy ending and be believable. What, you may ask, is believable about portraying love as a holy grail, where only the truly deserving gets their prince/boss/sheikh? That question was left unanswered, but maybe it’s the work-based scenarios that make it real for readers. It’s believable that you would fall in love with someone whilst engrossed in work together. It’s believable that you would be aware of a more glamourous rival for your man’s affection, and it’s believable that there will be misunderstandings between you both before you admit your love for each other. So if romance is rooted in an everyday scenario like work (however far-fetched that job may be) then the reader will think it believable.

There is an art to making writing look effortless or ‘easy.’ Mills and Boon writers, like chiclit writers, are often accused of ‘churning out’ books, much to Roger’s disapproval. If it looks easy, or like it could be churned out, it’s because someone has spent hours toiling over the script to make sure that it’s pitch perfect. Happy writing everyone.

Writer's rant: The distant hum of white noise

After a hoohaa about World Book Night, I sat down to watch the coverage of it on BBC and ended up having a rant about...well, you can read it yourself (first published on The Asian Writer):

As an extension of Farhana Shaikh’s earlier rant about Asian writers being outsiders looking in, I have to confess that watching New Novelists 12 of the Best from The Culture Show left me a little queasy about the lack of diversity in the their list of ‘up and coming’ authors in British literary fiction.

The Guardian Comments section sparked a healthy discussion about the lack of ethnic diversity in the short-list, but no one expressed a huge amount of surprise at this ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s a shame that the long-list wasn’t made available online for us readers to make our own judgments and recommendations. I realise that the group of ‘judges’ convened for the Culture Show (which included the show’s own editor, Janet Lee) is one of many panels charged with producing lists such as this throughout the year. We know that each time a list like this is given prominence (two and half pages in the Guardian Review section a week earlier), it pushes up sales for both long- and short-listed authors. A published long-list by The Culture Show would have gone a long way in benefiting more than just the 12 authors showcased on the night. It would also have given us a glimpse of a more diverse range of debut novelists; 57 novels were submitted, and I spotted Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart amongst the pile.

Of the 12 books presented on the night, I’m afraid I’m only likely to pick up one, David Abbott’s The Upright Piano Player, firstly because the wonderfully eloquent Helen Oyeyemi described it as having ‘a quiet dignity’ and secondly because he is the man who wrote the JR Hartley commercial for Yellow Pages in the 1980s.

On the same night, In a Million Books for Free: A Culture Show special, raised questions about how writers are selected for promotion. In an interview with Jamie Byng, Chairman of World Book Night, Andrew Graham-Dixon glossed over any questions of why new authors were not considered. According to Byng, the criteria for making it onto the list was that the books should be ‘great reading experiences,’ and there’s no doubt that each of them are. This suggests, however, that forcing titles from anyone other than ‘star’ authors onto the public would not provide enough of a hook for them to continue reading or, crucially, buying books.

Don’t get me wrong, the event itself was worth staging for many reasons, and I really enjoyed handing out books at my local library. World Book Night has its supporters and its critics and I’m not going to rehash those discussions here but next year I would like them to seek out lesser known authors.

This brings us back to lists again. Given that 23 of the 25 titles given out freely have reportedly seen an increase in sales from being featured on World Book Night, imagine how many more authors would have been able to pay their gas bill if they had been promoted in a similar way, and their back catalogue or debut novel sales had increased as a result?
I suppose it’s early days for initiatives such as World Book Night, but the broader question remains. How do we promote a diverse range of writers without relying on closed or elite circles of critics and judges (largely based in London)? And what is the criteria for making it onto a judging panel anyway? Maybe The Asian Writer should set up it’s own panel?

For events like World Book Night, diversity appears to mean ‘a conscious attempt’ to include thrillers, memoirs, crime, literary fiction, poetry and cross-over novels (no short stories though).  It seems that what is viewed as ‘promising’ is highly subjective and that the power of recommendation and the marker of critical acclaim still lie in the hands of a predominantly white publishing industry; an industry where we are indeed outsiders looking in.

Maybe we’re outsiders because we present problems for marketing teams; we’re too Asian, or not Asian enough, or too niche, or too serious, or too predictable or just not producing what the industry expects from us.  Terrorism or arranged marriage is what we do best, or so we’re told. Or maybe it’s just that our voices are being drowned out by the distant hum of white noise.

Here’s the list of the “12 Best New British Novelists” according to The Culture Show:

David Abbott – The Upright Piano Player
Jenn Ashworth – A Kind of Intimacy
Ned Beauman – Boxer Beetle
Deborah Kay Davies – True Things About Me
Samantha Harvey – The Wilderness
Adam Haslett – Union Atlantic
Rebecca Hunt – Mr Chartwell
Stephen Kelman – Pigeon English
Jim Powell – The Breaking of Eggs
Anna Richards – Little Gods
Eleanor Thom – The Tin-Kin
Evie Wyld – After The Fire, A Still Small Voice