The Salt crime writing event that took place at Waterstones Gower Street yesterday was a very festive occasion. Sam Rahman, the Events Manager at the shop, her colleagues and a large and appreciative audience combined to make it a great success.
Laura Ellen Joyce, Matthew Pritchard and I each gave readings from our books. Laura read from The Museum of Atheism, which (jointly with In the Family) launched the Salt crime list last November. I read from Almost Love and Matthew from Scarecrow, which Salt will publish in September. Afterwards, I chaired a discussion with Laura and Matthew about their writing. The audience joined in, offering many lively and perceptive comments.
Both Matthew and Laura agreed that a sense of place was important to their writing. Laura chose to set her book in small-town America in the dead of winter – there is no daylight in the novel – to epitomise the corruption that it portrays. Matthew writes powerfully about Andalucia, which he knows well, having lived and worked there for twelve years. Laura agreed with the suggestion that she describes a rudderless society in which no character is able to provide a moral yardstick or compass. Matthew said that the corruption captured in his work derives more directly from his knowledge of shady Spanish officialdom. Danny Sanchez, the protagonist of Scarecrow, is a journalist who bravely tries to expose the fraudulence and self-interest upon which he sees that Spanish politics is based.
Laura had deliberately left vague the identity of the killer in her book, because, in a sense, she was indicating that society as a whole was to blame. Matthew had had the intention right from the start to write about a serial killer, but the character of the killer took shape in his mind gradually as he worked on the book and continued to read about real-life murders. An account of how the head of one of Fred and Rosemary West’s victims had been swathed in gaffer tape had left a particularly lasting impression on his imagination.
There was much laughter from the audience at Matthew’s anecdote about how, when the shop below his flat caught fire recently, the police broke into the flat and discovered his large collection of books about serial killers and Nazism scattered over the floor. There was even more laughter when I persistently made the mistake of calling him ‘Danny’, after his hero, rather than Matthew! (Apparently, it is a mistake that his agent makes, too!)
Laura confirmed that she will continue to write crime because she has a profound interest in why people commit evil or anti-social acts. She’s also interested in pushing out the boundaries of fiction. When, in response to a question from one of the audience about what I thought the ‘next big thing’ in crime writing would be, I said that I’ve seen several books lately that mix genres and I’m not sure that it works, Laura said that this idea appealed to her and that she would like to experiment with it. I do think that it would take a very good writer to pull it off, but Laura is so accomplished that she is one of the few people I know who might succeed at it.
I was asked why most crime novels are about murder, rather than other types of crime, such as theft or fraud. I said that there are some novels based on theft – there is quite a strong sub-genre relating to crimes associated with works of fine art, for example – but it is difficult to write about crimes other than murder unless you are a police procedural author. This sub-genre has never appealed to me; I’m more interested in the psychological aspect of crime-writing.
We were all asked whether we’d come to writing ‘lately’, or whether we’ve always been writers. We agreed that we’ve all been writing ever since we can remember. Asked also whether we had to let a novel ‘fade’ from our imaginations after we’d finished it before we could embark upon another, we each offered different responses: Matthew writes all the time and is usually working on several books at once – he knocks out 2,000 words a day, even if sometimes he knows it is rubbish and he will have to discard some of it; Laura writes regularly, but in different genres – she writes short stories between novels and also said that she was very organised when writing The Museum of Atheism which, with a detailed outline on a spreadsheet, she wrote in twenty-four days, a chapter a day, all in November, following the NaNoWriMo concept; I usually take a brief break after completing a novel, but I’ve started on the next DI Yates book now. I feel that being an author is a bit like being a member of the fashion industry: your mind is already on the next season’s work while your readers are still consuming this season’s product.
We all paid tribute to Salt Publishing, which we agreed is an uncompromising publisher setting high standards. We were also united in saying that we aren’t interested in the ‘blood-and-guts’ style of crime writing.
On behalf of the three of us, I’d like to thank Sam and the staff at Gower Street for their wonderful hospitality. I’d especially like to thank all of you who attended for being such a generous and receptive audience, for making such constructive contributions to the discussion and, of course, for buying or ordering our books! It was good to meet some new friends – some of whom I’ve only previously ‘met’ through Twitter. Finally, a big thank-you to numerous well-wishers who were unable to come (some of you based in countries very far away), but who sent kind and encouraging messages and helped to advertise the occasion. We hope to meet you all one day at future events.
All in all, it was a very memorable evening indeed!
I spent yesterday evening at Leeds City Varieties, watching the Reduced Shakespeare Company [RSC!] giving its version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged: a wonderful performance, hilarious and exhilarating. The City Varieties provides a fitting venue; it is one of Yorkshire’s great Victorian theatres (Leeds is doubly blessed: it also has the Grand Theatre, now home to Opera North) and is the site of many decades of performances that, like this one, demand participation from the audience.
In case you’re not familiar with it, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged is a comedy which aims to restore the bard to the public conscious by evoking helpless laughter from its audiences. It is very funny and gently satirical. Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, the authors, are from the USA and jokingly assert that they ‘thought Shakespeare was American.’ More seriously, they say that they were disturbed by a recent survey that suggests that today’s children have not heard of Shakespeare and that more than a quarter of adults haven’t read his plays. So they set out to put the record straight. It’s a touring production and it will have visited forty different towns and cities in the UK by the end of this year.
Every play is covered, though some are just mentioned by name – in the case of several of the comedies, by an amalgamation of parts of all their names and plots. The actors, Gary Fannin, Matt Rippy and Matthew Pearson are quick-change artists. Gary Fannin in particular amuses with his pained expressions and Matthew Pearson with his very unlovely and regurgitative renderings (he values excessive vomit!) of Shakespeare’s most famous heroines: his Juliet is a sturdy lass who sulks and has tantrums; his Ophelia looks as if she has been rolling in a midden.
Almost the whole of the second part of the performance is devoted to Hamlet and the trio surpasses itself when offering (forwards and backwards!) its version of what for me is Shakespeare’s greatest play. These three actors also, incidentally, demonstrate through their delivery of ‘straight’ snippets that they are capable of orating Shakespeare ‘properly’ if they choose. Taken as a whole, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged is about much more than slapstick. Nevertheless, the choreography and timing of the knockabout scenes has been honed to perfection: the actors are so nimble that their movements are almost balletic.
Despite prancing, dancing, running, fighting, wooing and declaiming on the stage for almost two hours, the cast of three was game for meeting members of the audience afterwards to sign programmes. I happened to descend the stairs of the theatre just as they were setting up their table for this and all three of them signed mine. They must be the first autographs I’ve collected in thirty years, unless you count copies of novels presented to me by their authors when I was a bookseller!
I’m very grateful to my husband’s colleagues for inviting us to the play, and especially to Julia for getting the tickets; it isn’t the first time that she has gathered us in this charming music hall setting, familiar to followers of the BBC’s ‘Good Old Days’ programme which went out for decades, with Leonard Sachs as the compère who alliterated for a living. I’d like her to know that this was the best evening out I’ve had this year. Afterwards, we walked through the streets of Leeds in the dusk and enjoyed a meal together. Leeds has long been my favourite English city and is at its best in the early summer. An enchanting and enchanted evening, indeed.
If you get the chance to see this play, don’t turn it down!
I went to Wakefield One last Friday, in order to discuss the details of the programme for 29th June with Alison Cassels, the librarian who’s in charge of events there. It’s a truly spectacular new library and events centre and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. It’s heart-warming to think that in these days of austerity and cutbacks there is still investment being made in such buildings, so important for promoting reading and holding local communities together.
During the course of our conversation, Alison mentioned that she’d ordered copies of both my books for the event. The library has itself bought copies of In the Family for its reading group (a very generous action which I applaud!) and has also ordered copies of it and Almost Love for those attending the session to purchase if they want to. I asked Alison who was supplying them and she said it was Rickaro Books of Horbury. It’s a bookshop that I’ve long been meaning to visit, because its proprietor is Richard Knowles, who many moons ago was my first boss. I e-mailed Richard to ask him if I could drop in with some Christina James postcards and he got back to me immediately. We agreed that I would call yesterday.
It seems particularly fitting that my visit should have taken place this week, which marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of my appointment to the library supply company in Normanton where my bookselling career started. Richard, then the manager, had many idiosyncratic interests which married well with bookselling: he was an authority on mediaeval armour and effigies and both wrote about and collected books on them. He liked antiquarian and private press books and had a fine collection of these, and read everything that he could lay his hands on about or by T.E. Lawrence. He was also fond of the poetry of Edward Thomas. Other interests included motor-bikes and collie dogs. He had a small child’s aversion to vegetables and liked nothing better than a currant bun filled with cheese for lunch, bought from the bakery on the corner. Main courses he could take or leave, but he loved puddings and chocolate. I once walked nine miles to work through snow drifts after the bus failed to materialise; he must have been impressed, because he gave me the chocolate bar he had earmarked for his elevenses!
I last saw him about twenty years ago (at the Scottish Library Association Conference in Peebles), but truly he hasn’t changed very much. A little more ‘distinguished’, perhaps, and now wearing spectacles, but otherwise he could have stepped straight out of 1978.
Rickaro Books is exactly what I had expected: a deep Aladdin’s Cave of intriguing antiquarian and second-hand books, with a smaller but select stockholding of new titles. It even has a resident collie dog – Tilly – who lies under the cash desk. I didn’t ask him whether he comes to work on a motorbike; I suppose that Tilly would make this difficult, but otherwise I wouldn’t be surprised. I note with amusement that there is a baker’s shop just a few doors away and wonder whether its currant buns are up to the mark.
Richard said that he’d set up the shop thirteen years ago. He has a loyal local following and the library business, for special orders of new titles, is important to him. His customers for the antiquarian books are scattered throughout the world. He spends much of his time packing parcels to despatch to them. I didn’t buy any of the antiquarian books, but I did leave with two of Anne Cleeves’ titles, having been encouraged to read her by comments on the social networks.
Rickaro Books is a delightful place and one that I shall certainly visit again. I’ve already threatened to present myself for duty in the run-up to Christmas! It’s encouraging that booksellers like Richard can not only survive, but thrive, by building a business such as this, almost entirely on traditional lines; excellent also that Rickaro’s worth is recognised by the local library service.
Richard says that he and his wife plan to come to the event at Wakefield One on 29th June. I am pleased and touched that they are going to the trouble of rearranging their afternoon. After a gap of twenty years, two meetings in the space of two weeks! Like fine old books, old bookselling friendships mellow with age and perhaps get a little dusty, but they don’t disintegrate.
If anyone reading this would like to attend the event at Wakefield One, it starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday 29th June. I shall be giving readings from both books and talking about how I came to write them, as well as offering tips on how to get published.
I was awoken in the early hours, just as dawn was breaking, by my husband – trying to punch me in the face! No, I’m not a battered wife: he’s just a very vivid dreamer. On occasions, he has dreamt that he’s a wolf, or is being pursued through the streets with a crowd following him. This time, apparently, he was trying to ward off a street seller who was persuading him forcibly to buy a fizzy drink. I take heart that my strictures about junk food have found root in his subconscious!
It’s surprising that we get any sleep at all at this time of year, what with the dog demanding to be let out at all hours so that he can eat grass or bark at hedgehogs and the cat, who is small but fierce, keening like a banshee below the bedroom window to defend his territory from the large and thuggish tom-cat next door. This morning, as my husband and I lay awake in the dawn listening to these various noises, we heard the (temporarily) local cuckoo.
“There’s the cuckoo,” he said, “unless it’s Fred again.”
I was trying to get back to sleep, but my ears pricked up.
“What do you mean, unless it’s Fred again?”
“Didn’t I tell you? Fred impersonates birds really well. He has a whole range in his repertoire. He does a really good cuckoo. He said that a cuckoo came right up to his house the other day, before it realised that it was only a human and flew off again.”
I considered. I’ve been writing enthusiastically about hearing the cuckoos for weeks now. Since Fred has seen at least one of them, and it’s unlikely that in fact it was he out there before 5 a.m. today, it can’t always have been his impersonations that I’ve heard. Nevertheless, if you should happen to look over my recent cuckoo posts again, I feel duty bound to warn you that all the cuckoo noises I’ve recorded may not have emanated from cuckoos. Instead, a burly Yorkshireman named Fred may have been responsible.
Nothing else in my day today matched its surreal beginning! Perhaps I’m going cuckoo!
I tend not to write down dates of birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc., but I think I’m quite good at remembering them – although I have just had to ask one of my friends the date on which her daughter was born. One date that I never forget each year, however, is a fictional one: Bloomsday. As all James Joyce aficionados will know, it is today, June 16th. It was on this date in 1904 that Leopold Bloom made his day-long perambulations around Dublin and, by describing it in Ulysses, first published in Paris in 1922, Joyce captured the history, customs, beliefs and prejudices, not only of his own country, but of the whole of European culture. His masterstroke was to present it from the viewpoint of the perennial outsider, a modern version of the Wandering Jew. A life in the day, indeed! There was a personal irony in the choice of date, too, as it was on this day that Joyce’s liaison with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his long-suffering common law wife and eventually his legal wife, began.
Picking up my tattered Penguin edition of the book, I resolve to read it again very soon. Because of the range and depth of the literary styles that it covers, and Joyce’s wonderful manipulation of language, it is a complete writer’s handbook in itself. It needs no gloss or laboriously explained sets of rules – although the book can be read at many levels and is amazingly erudite. I don’t usually write in books, but I see that against one passage my younger and more studious self has written ‘Traherne: Centuries of Meditation. 3rd Century’. It’s impossible for anyone else to write like Joyce, but admiring and appreciating his work certainly makes you think about how to use language.
It was Joyce who first taught me the magic of lists. The ones that he creates appear to be off-the-cuff, but I’m sure their sparkling apparent spontaneity cost him many hours of effort. Take this one, for example, which is only a third of one in a series that appears towards the end of the book to sum up Bloom’s condition: Mendicancy: that of the fraudulent bankrupt with negligible assets paying 1s 4d in the £, sandwichman, distributor of throwaways, nocturnal vagrant, insinuating sycophant, maimed sailor, blind stripling, superannuated bailiff’s man, marfeast, lickplate, spoilsport, pickthank, eccentric public laughing stock seated on bench of public park under discarded perforated umbrella. It was through Joyce’s work also that I came to realise the importance of evoking all of the senses, not just the visual: his description of Leopold Bloom’s lunchtime cheese sandwich is a classic still to be surpassed, in my experience. Then there is his satirical juxtaposition of the sacrosanct (and, he indicates, probably humbug) with the absurd: And they beheld Him, even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel. Like avid readers both before and after him, Joyce read everything: cereal packets, handbills, magazines and potboilers as well as more European literature than almost anyone else could cram into a lifetime. Unlike other learned writers, however, he didn’t make judgments about the ‘quality’ of what he read. The Nausicaa episode (Chapter 13 of Ulysses) is not only a brilliant pastiche of the style of writing of women’s magazines of the time, but also reveals Joyce’s sneaking admiration for a genre that could get away with so much hyperbole. Gerty MacDowell, its naïve and rather tragic heroine, is a fine portrait of a dreamy young woman whose head is filled with romantic notions of how she can shape her life. Although she is portrayed only once, in a tiny snapshot of time, Joyce conveys to the reader through this medium of ‘magazinese’ that her life will be much bleaker than she supposes. Today’s ‘filmstar for a day’ brides are her modern equivalents.
It’s difficult to say what I like best about Ulysses, but, if pushed, I’d say that it’s the portrait of Molly Bloom. Hers is a timeless portrait of almost everything that it has meant to be a woman through the ages: she is a sensuous earth mother, fascinating femme fatale, sexy but not a whore, capable of great sympathy but also self-centred, perceptive, ‘genteel’ and coarse. She belongs to a long tradition of female characters that stretches back in time, even beyond Cleopatra, to Homer’s sorceress Scylla. Molly lives through her senses; the one attribute that she doesn’t possess is intelligence of the formal, schooled kind. In this, she is the antithesis of Leopold, who thinks about everything, applies his knowledge to everything, and therefore, like Hamlet, is unable to act. Apparently she was modelled at least in part on Nora Barnacle. Some feminist readers have found her portrayal insulting to women and, mixing life with fiction again for a moment, it’s true that Joyce held some curious views about the female sex. But Molly is above all the great force for the positive in the novel. It is she who has the very last word. It is, simply, Yes.
The book’s title is pronounced YouLISSease, by the way, not YOUlissease. I was taught this by an Irish professor, who said that I could mispronounce it if I liked, but, if so, I’d never get to grips with Finnegans Wake, which is all about pronunciation. I’ve found this to be true. Although still a difficult work, ‘the Wake’ becomes comprehensible if you read it aloud in a Dublin accent.
Joyce eventually stretched language to the point at which all but his most determined supporters find his work too much of an effort to read. He may perhaps have been a genius on the verge of madness. Nevertheless, what he managed to wrest from language changed the course of fiction writing forever. A much more insignificant James salutes the author – and you all – on Bloomsday 2013!
Today is the official publication date of Almost Love. It is almost midsummer and the sun is shining; the cuckoos are still here, though they’ve changed to cuk-cuk mode now (it’s been a particularly good year for cuckoos in Yorkshire this year). It’s a complete contrast to the day on which In the Family was published, when the leaves had fallen, the shooting season was in full swing and we were heading for the winter solstice. November seemed a good time to publish then, because it was still far enough away from Christmas for the book to feature (as I know it did, and am grateful) on some Christmas wish-lists. June also seems a good time, as I’m hoping that at least a few people might want to take Almost Love on holiday with them.
Some authors talk about their books as if they’re babies. This particular baby, although it’s been born today, is still in the incubator. The books were delivered to Salt and its distributor yesterday, but have yet to be despatched to the shops; this will happen on Monday. Yet I’m not impatient or disappointed that I don’t yet have a copy in my hand; on the contrary, I’m profoundly grateful to both Chris and Jen at Salt and to TJ International Printers of Padstow for pulling out the stops so quickly after MPG Printers went into receivership just as Almost Love was going through the press. Thanks to their Herculean efforts, the delay has been minimal – much slighter than we’d feared. And yesterday’s blog-post attracted so much interest that I feel that it acted as a ‘virtual’ launch. Thank you very much to everyone who read it, spread it or contributed comments.
Thinking again about The English Bookshop and Jan’s explanation of why he chose Almost Love brought home to me the crucial role of Advance Information (AI) sheets in helping authors and publishers to sell their books. AIs have improved tremendously over the years. They started out as Gestetnered sheets. (Does anyone remember Gestetners? They took ages to set up and usually suffered a paper-jam within five minutes; you got ink all over your hands and, if you were unlucky, your clothes. The only good thing about them was the pink correction fluid, which could give you a temporary high if you applied it when standing in a confined space.) These were sometimes almost illegible and contained little except the ISBN, a two-sentence blurb and the publication date. There was no picture of the jacket. However, by no means all publishers used to produce AIs. Those who didn’t often sent out spares of the actual jacket with the date of publication stamped inside. Booksellers therefore never received a complete set of information: you either got an insubstantial blurb with no jacket, or the jacket and not much else.
By contrast, today’s AIs – at least the ones that Salt produces – are works of art. Author and publisher work closely together in order to wrest benefit from every centimetre of the space on a single A4 sheet. They include a fine picture of the jacket and all the information that the bookseller needs, yet can be read in less than a minute. Sometimes several hours are spent on developing an AI.
I thought that you might be interested to see the AI that was used to sell Almost Love into the shops, so I’ve included it here. I hope that you will like it.
A lovely Friday conversation with Jan Smedh, joint proprietor of The English Bookshop in Uppsala, a thriving independent business…
I’m delighted and very proud to discover that Almost Love has been chosen as the British Crime novel of the month by The English Bookshop in Uppsala. I asked Jan Smedh, who, with his business partner Christer, is joint proprietor of the shop, if I could call him. He kindly agreed to talk to me today, although he was busy making final preparations for his absence: he and his wife and three sons are about to leave for a holiday in Greece.
Jan told me that every month he chooses books for his reading groups and his book club. There are three reading groups: one for the Book of the Month, one for classics and (in Stockholm – he and Christer have just opened another shop there) one for children’s books. The book club operates as a subscription service. It has between fifty and sixty members scattered throughout Sweden. They choose the category to which they wish to subscribe and are each month sent a book in that category that Jan has chosen. They do not know in advance what the title will be.
He chooses titles from six categories altogether: the Book of the Month, which is always a literary novel; British Crime, ‘Tough’ Crime, Paranormal, Fantasy and Science Fiction. He tries to introduce a spread of themes and to get a balance between male and female authors and authors from different countries; for example, he has featured Asian authors who write in English. His choices are pretty unerring: his customers always seem to like them.
Jan said that when he read the description of Almost Love, he ‘loved it at once’. (I’m blushing as I write!) He tries to pick books by authors from small publishers that aren’t necessarily well-known, rather than blockbusters. The subject of Almost Love seems to be exactly what his readers are looking for: it has a bit of history, a bit of archaeology, some local background, a good plot and a strong psychological element. He says that his favourite customer is ‘someone who leaves the shop with a book that they didn’t know that they wanted.’ His copies of Almost Love have yet to arrive (there has been a slight delay in the printing, caused by MPG’s having gone into receivership two weeks ago), but they should reach the shop next Monday, so he didn’t know until I told him that there is also a Scandinavian element to the plot. He was delighted about this.
Jan learned about Almost Love from a Scottish publishers’ rep who carries titles from several independent publishers. His name is Stuart Siddall. I had not heard of him before, but I shall certainly get in touch with him now and I should like to take this opportunity to thank him.
I asked Jan about the inspiration for The English Bookshop. He said that he and Christer came up with the idea for it in 1995. They received no financial backing; they raised all the money themselves. Christer was already working in the bookselling industry (largely in the academic sector), so he had the contacts with UK publishing companies, who were therefore prepared to set up accounts for the new venture. It would not have been possible without their support. Jan’s own background is in communications and the business has benefited a great deal from this. It is he who designs the graphics for the website. He is prolific on the social networks and the shop has very active Facebook and Twitter accounts. He says that the key thing with social networking is to be consistent. He has worked hard to build up a loyal customer following and he knows he must maintain their interest by continually being there for them. His own love of books goes back to his childhood. He also speaks impeccable English: he explained that he has lived in Cork and has also visited the UK (he would like to see much more of it) and the USA.
95% of The English Bookshop’s customers are Swedish, though there is an ex-pat community in Uppsala, which is a university town (Jan describes it as ‘the Oxbridge of Sweden’). Most Swedes read English, and Jan’s customers are getting younger: some twelve-year-olds now buy books in English. Uppsala is also Sweden’s religious centre and the city in which the Monarch is crowned. It is Sweden’s fourth largest city and not huge, but it has the weight of history behind it and is home to many very well-educated people. Jan and Christer made the conscious decision to stay away from university course texts: they wanted their bookshop to provide leisure reading. By this, he doesn’t mean that all the books he sells are ‘light’: his readers like books about many subjects, as well as fiction. British history, books about war and books about psychology are all popular. Sales of non-fiction titles are growing; also crime fiction and children’s titles. The Swedish government has now set up English language schools, which means that parents are looking for books in English for their children. The English Bookshop tries hard to keep abreast of the continually changing interests of the local community and its unique stockholding reflects this. Jan says that ‘other bookshops aren’t doing this any more; there’s often a drab uniformity about what’s available from the big chains.’ Smaller publishers often complain that it’s difficult to get a proper presence in them. This view would certainly resonate with Salt, whose many distinguished authors often struggle to get adequate shelf-space in chain bookshops. It would also be endorsed by the UK’s many excellent independent booksellers, some of whom Jan knows. He has met Jane Streeter, a former President of the Booksellers Association, and is himself a member of the BA, for which he has a high regard.
In the last six years the turnover of The English Bookshop in Uppsala has doubled, enabling it to open the second shop in Stockholm. Jan says that this ‘goes against the grain’ of Swedish bookselling generally, so he feels that he and Christer ‘must be doing something right.’ I’d say they were doing a great deal right! The business is now eighteen years old.
It was delightful to have the opportunity to talk to Jan, and I am very grateful to him for giving me so much of his time and as well, of course, for choosing Almost Love. I now have an open invitation to visit The English Bookshop, which I am determined to take up. I’d like to visit the one in Stockholm, too! I wish Jan and his family a very happy holiday indeed in Greece. If any of his customers should read this, I’d also like offer you a big thank you and to say that I very much hope that you will enjoy Almost Love. Perhaps we may meet in the bookshop one day.