Monday, 27 June 2011

Baby, Please Don't Go by Big Joe Williams

One of my favourite sets of CDs features good old, gritty blues.  The sound is tremendously rough in places - like cheap whiskey and three-day stubble - these being early recordings of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Willie McTell and the like, and I love it.  Always makes me want to dance and open the bottle.  I gave a quick nod to this collection in The Grease Monkey's Tale (pp 94-95), albeit under a different name, and mentioned a track where Big Joe Williams plays (appropriately for Nic the mechanic at that point in his story) Baby, Please Don't Go.

Thought it was about time I found the man on YouTube, so here he is, playing this song on a 9 string guitar, of all things.

Willie Dixon - another blues great - is conveniently quoted under this video:
"The blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruits."

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Recent reads: The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

I only recently came across the name Jean Giono, after his work was recommended to me by my friend, Dmetri Kakmi.  Following that discussion, I ordered a copy of The Man Who Planted Trees.

Coincidentally, Dmetri has blogged about this particular book today and you can read his comments here.  While I have a tale to tell about the arrival of this book, I won't add much more to what Dmetri's said about Giono's writing, except that the simplest tales are often the most profound and memorable.  It's a fine piece of writing, and puts me in mind of Alan Garner's Stone Book quartet and elements of Paul Gallico (The Snow Goose, for instance), all of which I read many years ago, except Giono pares the story-telling back even further perhaps.

Anyway, I found the book online at a couple of sites, but Fishpond were offering an edition with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy that took my eye, and so I ordered from them.  A very light, paperback-sized package arrived a few days later, which I opened to discover... a stamp-sized book.  It's a tiny thing.

Perhaps I'm exaggerating in saying it's a stamp-sized book, but it's certainly not much larger than an unfolded book of stamps.  And, including a 24 page Afterword by Norma L. Goodrich, it's only 77 pages long.  I read it in one small sitting.

Regardless of that, it's a delightful piece of writing (with wonderful woodcuts) and I'm keen to read more by Jean Giono.  The Song of the World may be next.

Monday, 20 June 2011

June sunrise

It's winter here.  The days are short, cold and often wet.  However, on fine days, June is a golden month for sunrises and sunsets - regardless of volcanic ash clouds drifting over from Chile.  Every year, it's impossible to resist capturing one or two on camera.

Took a whole sequence last Thursday, between 7:30 and 8:00 am, while taking a walk before work.  These two, about five minutes apart, show how quickly the show changes.  In the last moments, the reflected light in the wet sand glowed lilac.

From South Beach dunes looking towards East Beach, Port Fairy, 16th June, 2011

South Beach, Port Fairy, 16th June, 2011

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Mike French: The Ascent of Isaac Steward

Today sees the release of Mike French's debut novel The Ascent of Isaac Steward (Cauliay Publishing).

I first got to know Mike in 2007 when I was waiting for The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore to be released by PaperBooks and  he was trying-out draft chapters of The Dandelion Tree online.  Before long, Mike founded The View From Here - a literary ezine - and I was privileged to be one of the first authors  interviewed.  Since then, he's become a good friend, and there's something neat about being able to interview him in return.

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.

How did the story of Isaac Steward evolve?
In the beginning there was nothing at all but the desire to write. I honestly had no idea what I was going to do, why I was really doing it or how to do it.  (I had to go find a book and look at basic things like how to format paragraphs, when to indent etc.!) It really was a matter of sitting down and bashing away at the keyboard to see what spilled out of my head, not knowing what on earth was going to happen. 
From that beginning scenes came, which led to ideas, then characters. What grounded me were some key pieces like Isaac and Rebekah walking into Mamre Wood and the idea of the Dandelion Tree.  After a year I had, I think, about 120 thousand words which I then edited down to half that length as I chopped out some of my wilder flights of fancy – or scenes that didn’t fit into the tone of the book. During that stage some characters merged into one, in order for Isaac to take central stage.  I think some significant changes were the editing out of some talking frogs(!) and a character called Triage who determined what priority a new memory had in Isaac’s memory.  It really was quite, quite mad with Triage fighting nano bots within Isaac’s mind, with the epilogue having the Punch and Judy characters blasting off in a rocket within Isaac’s mind only to encounter the nano bots out in space. Here’s an example of the frogs:
Before Temp finished his croak, Rana's strong hind legs propelled her off the curb in a gigantic leap towards Isaac.  She landed, and braced herself for another leap across the road.  Temp turned away, unable to look. 
SPLAT.  The fat chunky tread of the juggernaut’s tyres bore down on her and crushed her body into their rubber.  Temp sat open mouthed. 
‘Rana,’ he mouthed, tears rolling down his shiny face.  He sat motionless, mouthing her name over and over to himself as he looked at the spot where the lorry had picked her up. 

It’s nothing like that now! Well maybe a little bit like that.
The final version was an edit after leaving the MS for a year or so, reflecting on the key elements I wanted to tell; then moulding the material I had to pull those to the front of the novel.
In what ways, if any, does the place in which you live (or the places in which you’ve lived) shape the way in which you write?
That’s a very interesting question!  My environment has affected some of the imagery, like the descriptions of Mamre Wood, which is from my observations of walking through a small wood near where I live and I think from my childhood where, unlike today, kids were free to roam, and I’d spend hours and hours exploring woods and the countryside around me in Scotland – I think that sense of wonder at your surroundings that you have as a kid have found their way into the novel.
So that affected what I write and how I describe things, the emotions behind the descriptions. The other thing of course is the people around where you live – for example my friend Charlie who pointed me the way of Stephen King’s On Writing.

What are some of the influences that most affect you as a writer (aside from booze or drugs!)?  Perhaps you could write a few lines on:
    Most influential book/author

It’s hard to single one out, I think influences are a mixing together of Julian Barnes, John Steinbeck, George Orwell, Tom McCarthy, David Lapham (his non-sequential story-telling) and Kurt Vonnegut.  Like a blended malt. Although I don’t drink malt – a Ben and Jerry’s flavour ice-cream perhaps? Kurt can be the chocolate fish.

    Most influential music ... or music you enjoy writing to
I only ever put music on if I need it to help with the mood of a specific scene – like a film soundtrack of something sad for example if I’m writing a sad scene. Even then that’s rare and I prefer to work in silence and let the story fill my mind so I can step into a scene and view it without any distractions. Having said that music has influenced me greatly, just not during the writing itself – stuff like Coldplay, Jem, Pink Floyd and Radiohead.
    Most influential film
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I watched this as a kid and it had a profound impact on me.  It’s like a combination of George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, so I think in some way I must be hard-wired to like this kind of weird stuff. I’m also a visual person and Gilliam’s style is atmospheric, retro and mad.
    Most influential visual image, architectural delight, sculpture ...
Can I say comics here?  Does that count for visual imagery? In particular [the work of] Dave McKean, who I had the pleasure of interviewing last year. I love the interplay between images and text, the way one works with the other to convey mood and pace but, unlike most films, still makes the reader a key part of the process.  In fact, having grown up with comics and taking to them again as an adult with such things as Sandman, Stray Bullets and Bone, I’d go as far as saying they probably played the most important part of shaping me as a writer – certainly the imagery conveyed in a novel is crucially important to me.

In what ways has your training and experience as an engineer shaped the way you write, or your expectations as a writer?
It helped with the cooling ducts that keep chapters seven and eight at a constant temperature, but, apart from that, none as far as I’m aware – and being an engineer was only a way of making my love of Physics pay the mortgage. I like the way Physics asks some huge questions about the whole nature of reality, especially with quantum mechanics.  The idea that your common sense is built up over years by what you have observed and learnt, and how this is flawed as you can only observe the world around you through a narrow window.   Physics widens that window, often with surprising results – that sense of what you could call the surreal effects the way in which I write.

How would you like readers to best remember The Ascent of Isaac Steward?  (Other than it being the best novel they’ve ever read.)
I really can’t answer that! I hope that I’ve written it in a way that interacts with people that is specific to them, that the reader and book come to a mutual understanding of what the whole experience was about, shake hands and part as friends, lovers, sworn enemies, whatever.  As long as there is a reaction, rather than, “that was nice.” Hopefully the reaction will be wildly different for different people and I’ve left room for that to happen.

In what way have you been most affected or changed by the process of getting this novel published?
That you have to discover what talent you have, be the best you can possibly be with it once you’ve found it, and never give up Mr. Frodo, er, I mean Paul.

I gather you’re writing your second novel – Blue Friday.  Are you approaching the writing of this differently in any way?
I’m so excited about Blue Friday! But I’m trying to keep the lid on it whilst the Ascent of Isaac Steward goes out. In fact I’ve had to lock it in the attic where it hammers away like some lunatic wanting to be let out. (You can probably hear it now.) It’s actually finished, two people have read it so far and that’s it. I can’t let it out again for a while as it may try to burn the house down.
And yes I approached the writing differently – with the Ascent of Isaac  Steward I started without the faintest idea of what I was doing and it took me years and years to get it to what it is today. Blue Friday still has all the hallmarks of what you’ll get in one of my novels, but it is stripped back, hard-boiled and a different animal all together.  I was influenced greatly by reading Only Joking by Gabriel Josipovici  shortly before writing it, and that, together with a greater understanding of the craft (which I cut my teeth on with Isaac), meant the whole novel was done and dusted in 4 months. That worried me to start with but Iain Banks knocks them out like that – or his latest one at least – and it is very short at just over 30 thousand words.  I would have liked it to be longer but every time I went to tinker with it and carry on the story it just felt wrong, and I was messing with a perfectly good story just to fit it into a mould of what people see as acceptable for the length of a novel – it’s about the length of my arm if I stretch it out like this or Animal Farm if that is more helpful.
And although it only took 4 months to write, the ideas for the story had been swilling about my head for ages, in fact it started years ago as a short story, so the first chapter came already written, although it needed some editing to turn it into chapter 1.
The other main change was that I had the luxury of writing it almost continuously throughout the winter months at the start of this year, whereas Isaac Steward was written in dribs and drabs over the space of a whole year. 
Excuse me a moment.
No, you can’t come out, later, stop hammering!
Sorry I feel like Mr Rochester sometimes.  Is that all Paul?  It’s been a pleasure.  Cup of tea?
Isaac Steward thinks he has had a good life so far. That is what he chooses to remember. The Ascent of Isaac Steward is the remarkable and extraordinary debut novel from the senior editor of the prestigious literary magazine, The View From Here. Written with a literary, lyrical voice, the book follows Isaac Steward in an emotional and original tale as he struggles to deal with the resurfacing of a suppressed memory. Isaac becomes increasingly dysfunctional and delusional as the story unfolds in a hypnotic and startling way bringing into play childhood memories of a Punch and Judy show and the revelation from his half-brother, Ishmael, that he must be brought to a tree from his father's wood called The Dandelion Tree. 
ISBN: 978095688101
Buy from: The Book Depository 
Visit Mike's blog: mikefrenchuk.com
Visit The View from Here here

Monday, 13 June 2011

Recent reads: Black Hole by Charles Burns

There's a secret pleasure in picking up a graphic novel.  It reminds me of childhood and a fortnightly treat when I was allowed to buy a comic, which was usually The Beano, I think, followed by Valiant.  It was a treat because comics were generally looked down upon as lazy reading, inasmuch as they demanded so little of the reader.  These days, while part of me associates that same delicious laziness with graphic novels, they have a 'grown-up' legitimacy about them, which allows me to enjoy them even more.  That's not say that graphic novels can't be dense, layered texts, which they clearly can (and I might hold up Jonathan Walker and Dan Hallett's superb Five Wounds as one of the best examples of this), but that because most people are visual readers first, there is a distinct pleasure associated with reading a story principally from images rather than words (and why we like our written stories to create strong visual impressions, perhaps).

Charles Burns's Black Hole is an impressively thick book, and I approached it with some awe (and respect for the work that must have gone into creating so many detailed pictures), but it's also an easy and reasonably compelling read, and only took me a couple of brief sessions to finish.

While I enjoy texts that are more layered than this one, and that require more work of me as a reader (so I can get fully involved), there were a number of elements I especially enjoyed about Black Hole.  Chief amongst these was Charles Burns' decision to tell the story from overlapping points of view.  Given that it might be harder to provide characters in graphic novels with the same depth as those in non-graphic novels, it was good to be provided with these different perspectives of the same story.  The exploration of the drug-addled, sexually promiscuous 70s - albeit an American version - also added to my interest. Furthermore, but linked to this perhaps, I was intrigued by the symbolism that seemed to tie so much of the story together, but did wonder by the end whether I was imagining so many references to vaginas or whether these were indeed intended.  There was nothing like that in The Beano.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The long, winter weekend - Port Fairy

It's a busy few days in Port Fairy.  Started yesterday evening with being invited to join a Book Group as they discussed The Grease Monkey's Tale (always enjoy these opportunities to answer questions about a novel, the process of writing, and to hear different reader's interpretations and views).  Then, tonight saw the launch of an exhibition at The Whalebone Gallery, where SB promptly sold one of her paintings (so we'll be eating for a few more days).  And tomorrow sees the launch of the Biblio-Arts Awards Exhibition at Blarney Books & Art, where we both have paintings on show.  It being the long Winter Weekend (thanks to the Queen's Birthday public holiday - "Happy Burfday, Queenie"), when our small town is inundated with visitors, there's a host of other weird and wonderful events taking place, such as the Running of the Dachshunds.  I'm not quite sure how the annual dachshund dash evolved, or whether Spain's Running of the Bulls should feel threatened by it, but it'd probably be more appropriate to the locality if it was a Running of the Crayfish or Running of the Abalone... except it can take a long time for an abalone to yawn, let alone to move a centimetre or two.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Julian Smith and I'm Reading a book

Following on from Lane Smith's It's a Book, here's Julian Smith's I'm Reading a Book.  Nice match.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Down at the Factory of the Imagination

I'm a slow writer. I know I am.  Some days, I end up with less words on the page than at the beginning of the day.  Although, hopefully, they're better-placed words.

Be that as it may, in addition to the novel I'm currently working on, I have a queue of five books waiting to be written, and as many short stories.  And I want to get them out.  To that end, I'm trying to write faster ... without sacrificing the telling of the story, the placement of the words.

I set myself a goal at the start of May: to lay down 10,000 reasonably polished words every month until novel Number Three is finished.  That would be just about doubling my output.

Well, it's 1st June today (the first day of winter in these 'ere parts, me hearties) and the word count has grown from 30,000 to 40,000 in the last month, so I'm reasonably content.  If I get to 50,000 by the end of this month, then I'll feel like I've really achieved something, and if I can keep that going throughout these winter months, then spring may see in the first of the final edits - fingers crossed (but not too crossed, otherwise it's difficult to type).

Now, back to work at the Factory of the Imagination.