'He should take care to produce books at regular short intervals. He may continue this process for years without any really striking result in fame or money, and he may pessimistically imagine that his prolonged labours are fruitless. And then newspapers will begin to refer to him as a known author, as an author the mention of whose name is sufficient to recall his productions, and he will discover that all the while the building of his reputation has been going on like a coral reef.
'Even mediocre talent, when combined with fixity of purpose and regular industry, will, infallibly, result in a gratifying success.
'But it must never be forgotten that while the reputation is being formed, the excellent and amiable public needs continuous diplomatic treatment. It must not be permitted to ignore his existence. At least once a year, and oftener if possible, a good solid well-made book should be flung into the libraries.' "
Here's something I'd love to go to if I could, a printing masterclass offered by Faber & Faber:
"This Masterclass is perfect for people with no prior experience to learn how to prepare work, and print on a press from start to finish. You will learn hand typesetting in both lead and wooden type, how to lock up your work into a forme, selecting paper stock, choosing and mixing inks and how to set up the presses. At the end of the day, you’ll take home your own unique poetry print."
" 'If it were not impertinent to lecture one's publisher,' [Beatrix Potter told Harold Warne], thoroughly exasperated with his literary timidity, 'you are a great deal too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared one tuppenny-button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work.' "
Beatrix was writing to her publisher about The Tale of Mr. Tod, a departure from her previous books in that the principal characters were villains. Her original opening lines ran, 'I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people. I will make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.'
In the end a compromise was reached, 'Beatrix agreed to drop "goody goody books" and substituted "well-behaved" for "nice" ', but it's her self-assurance in the face of her publisher's conservatism which I find so interesting.
My recent visit to Oxford coincided with the Oxford Literary Festival, and I was able to go to a couple of events including a rare appearance by Philip Pullman, timed to mark the 20th anniversary of publication of Northern Lights.
In conversation with Nicolette Jones, children's books editor of The Sunday Times, Philip Pullman talked most entertainingly about the writing process, his influences, and the extraordinarily rich concept that is the daemon.
He revealed that he doesn't have the readership in mind at all when he writes as he feels that identifying them even in general terms as 'children' or 'adults' might exert a subconscious control which he doesn't want, and he's glad of his wide audience as no-one is excluded from the world he has created; related to that he commented that there is no right way to read his books, and how you understand or respond to what he has written is entirely up to you; "that is," he says, "as it should be".
It's well known that Paradise Lost inspired the His Dark Materials series (that's the origin of the title, for one thing), and Philip Pullman recalled loving Milton's work, as a teenager, with a "physical admiration and passion, not just an intellectual appreciation". On the subject of his well-known atheism, he termed himself "a cultural Christian", not exclusively atheist, whose work is informed by his deep knowledge of the Bible and of growing up with a clergyman grandfather.
In beginning Northern Lights with the words "Lyra and her daemon ...", he opened up a deep seam of material which he has mined to great effect. His use of the daemon - the soul, the spirit, the physical manifestation of the inner self - arose out of his observations of children (he used to be a teacher) and the changes adolescence brings. The onset of self-consciousness, of a realisation that certain talents will never be ours, of withdrawal in certain circumstances, all these things occur at the same time as a broadening of our mental horizons, and a reconciliation with who we actually are - hence the daemon's changing as the child grows and develops but 'settling' on adolescence: we may think we are a lion, when in fact we are a poodle (to use his own example), but the sooner we accept that and live comfortably with it, the better.
As to the writing itself, he's well on with the next book in the series, The Book of Dust, and says it may be out next year. To this end he continues his habit of writing three pages every day. If the work is going well he stops at three pages, giving himself a 'springboard' into the next day, and if it's going badly he still fulfils his quota. "Gin helps," he says, if he finds himself lacking inspiration, and if he does dry up in the middle he recommends simple dialogue of the ' "Hello," "oh, hello," "how are you?", "I'm fine, thanks," " nature to fill the page!
Asked about his own daemon, Philip Pullman reckons it's a corvid of some kind, a magpie, a raven or a rook: "... a bird which steals things. I hear things, read things, see things, then 'steal' them and use them myself".
"One day, we go to the square in front of St. Paul's Cathedral, where the booksellers are. To our surprise, we find none of the quiet reverence one associates with reading.
The shops are adorned with brightly coloured signs that enchant me: ships, water nymphs, Moors' faces, bishops' mitres, snarling dragons and Saracens' heads. As for the shopkeepers, they have the same stentorian voices as the vendors at Cheapside or Leadenhall. You'd think you were at the vegetable market, save for the Latin mixed in here with the English.
'What do you require, my good sir?'
'The Mirror for Magistrates! New illustrated edition!'
'Freshly printed! Never before published!'
'Buy my map of the New World!'
'Chronicles and homilies!'
'Come on! Come on! Take a look at my book! All you need to conjure the perils and pitfalls of the sea!
'Read my Book of the Courtier! With engravings! Custom and decorum, all explained!'
It is the same at the Royal Exchange, between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street, where all the world's merchants meet to discuss their business. On the first floor there is a row of shops: apothecaries, armourers, bookshops, jewellers, mercers and haberdashers, all vaunting their wares - a fashionable garment here, a love potion there, wigs and fragrant musks; one sells beard brushes, another handbells; there are coat linings, purses, the finest Toledo blades ... I forget.
The place I find most entertaining is the area around the Exchange. Here is a mosaic of fruit sellers, hawkers and chimney sweepers, apprentices dallying gaily with housemaids, and clerks scurrying hither and thither, all in a commotion, a monstrous choir of carters thundering past, their singing often audible above the racket, shouts from tavern gardens, farriers' hammers, carpenters' mallets, the din of smithies, barking dogs and the laughter of all those who, like myself, feel infinite pleasure at this monumental symphony."
In advance of publication of her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert has been talking about living a creative, expansive life by taking the path of curiosity. In this audio interview she touches on "the tyranny of passion", the stifling nature of perfectionism, the "democratic, gentle urging" of simple curiosity and where it can lead, and how inspiration "delights in working with us", forming the ultimate creative relationship. (If you're short of time, listen from around the 19.50 mark.)
- For anyone looking to buy a copy of A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh, from which I quoted the other day, I'm told by Booksource that it should be back in stock in bookshops and with online retailers early next week.
- Those who commented on the British and American covers of Anne Tyler's new novel are all in favour of the latter design; no votes, as I write, for the less distinctive UK one. I'd love to know the thinking behind both, and ask jacket design teams why they so often opt for the bland and generic over something more imaginative.
- Since news of Harper Lee's 'new' novel broke last week there has been much talk in the press and online about the author's capacity, the likely quality of the work - given that it was in essence a rejected piece on which she built her classic, and the rights and wrongs of publishing it. Comment has rangesd from the cynical to the trusting and optimistic, with Miss Lee herself reported as saying she's "alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to [the novel]". Regardless of of the book's merits or demerits - and we'll discover them in July - I hope that the author is indeed as strong as she indicates, and that her judgement in this matter is clear-sighted and serves her well.
- Lastly, an important note to authors: if you haven't already signed up for PLR, or if you haven't recently updated the books/editions of yours which are registered, do so to ensure that you don't miss out on any payments which would be due to you. On the subject of libraries, the latest library loan statistics have just been published (for more statistics and regional variations follow the links here).
That break in transmission was unintended - I've been laid low with a lurgy (debilitating but not remotely serious) and am just getting back to normal now. Emails were beyond me when I was ill, so apologies to anyone who is waiting to hear from me as I work through the backlog. As for reading, I'm scarcely any further on with either book than when I last posted so I've nothing much to report on that front.
From last month's Historical Novel Society London conference, here is the very interesting discussion Fact and the Unexplained: Myths, Fairy Tales, and the Gothic, chaired by Kate Forsyth with Prof. Diana Wallace, Essie Fox, Jessie Burton and Deborah Harkness*. (I loved Kate Forsyth's description of historical fiction as "history set to music".)
Subtitled "mother and son on creative inheritance", this afternoon's Edinburgh International Book Festival event featuring author and illustrator Judith Kerr and her son Matthew Kneale - novelist* and lately non-fiction writer - was billed as an exploration of creative heritage: "what travels with us from childhood to form the adults we become - a sense of self, memories, imagination, creativity?"
As is the way of these things, the discussion ranged widely, but at its centre was the early life of both authors, Judith's as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and Matthew's in a house where writing was the family business. Fondly remembered and the subject of many charming anecdotes was Nigel Kneale, Matthew's father, renowned writer of science fiction and screenplays, who would work in his room at the top of the family's large home, his wife remembering the feeling that "there was always something being made", his son recalling both the background noise of typing, and his father's tendency to analyse television drama as the family watched, something which Matthew credits with developing in himself a strong sense of structure in fiction.
Family influences work in both directions, for Judith said that she would never have become a writer and illustrator of picture books had she not had children - they provided much of the inspiration, and discussing her work-in-progress with her husband over lunch each day proved very helpful, while Matthew credited his father's gift for storytelling as a formative example, and his mother talked of her son's "instinctive respect for writers" when he was a young boy.
Having writer parents made Matthew aware that "you could do that and get away with it", but witnessing the frustrations his father had with what he felt were poor treatments of his screenplays, he himself opted for writing novels. Given that both his parents wrote at home, Matthew was asked about his own preferred workplace, and he revealed that he gets more done away from his flat; walks around Rome (where he lives), time spent writing in longhand on a park bench, in cafés or the library is when he is most productive. Interestingly, on the subject of writing methods, Matthew said that he always works first in longhand as it induces the necessary calm state.
Judith, who at a very sprightly 91 is still writing and whose latest book is Creatures: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Judith Kerr, described her modus operandi as beginning with the story and letting the illustrations grow out of it, complementing it rather than referring directly to it, but equally, she said, a detail in a picture can then produce a further idea for the text. Similarly, Matthew comes up with a situation and plot first and then finds the characters to "catch up" with it: "think of something inadequate," he said rather self-effacingly, "and make up the gaps". Sounds simple, doesn't it?
Today's event was an hour spent in the company of two delightful, entertaining people; I'm so glad I was there.
"An utterly beguiling memoir"; "The Devil Wears Prada meets Mad Men and Girls"; "an impossibly excellent read"; "the story of a reader becoming a writer, of a young woman deciding who she will be, of the power of books [...] a memoir that manages to be dreamlike but sharp, poignant but unsentimental."
Having read those comments about Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year I couldn't not read the book, an account of her time as an assistant at a prestigious New York literary agency where one of her responsibilities is answering J.D. Salinger's fan mail. "But as she reads the candid, heart-wrenching letters from his readers around the world, she finds herself unable to type out the agency's decades-old form response. Instead, drawn inexorably into the emotional world of Salinger's devotees, she abandons the template and begins writing back ..."
The book is published in the UK tomorrow (5th. June); I'm reading it now and although not far in, I'm very taken with it indeed.
"A junkyard of the mind", "literary mushroom compost", a record of "thwarted intentions", a "repository for obsessions", a "transitional" medium .... some of the many descriptions of writers' notebooks given by Lawrence Norfolk, A.S. Byatt and others in this programme which I flagged up a few days ago and which was broadcast last night.
"How did Agatha [Christie] develop from the amateur, 'trying things, as one does', into the creator of this dazzlingly accomplished book*? By degrees. By intelligence; by instinct; by confidence; by courage. By trusting her own judgement about what made her writing work. By having a mind uncluttered with received ideas, and an imagination that naturally ran so free she could enjoy the exercise of its restraint. It was a relief, in fact, to trammel it within a genre. Although the structural work of a detective novel was very difficult, there was joy in the discipline. She was ordering her brain like a well-run establishment. Like Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 4.50 from Paddington, she was shining the silver and scrubbing the kitchen table and making a Spanish omelette with the leftover potatoes. She was living in a world where all could be known, all motives uncovered, all ambiguities penetrated. Where mysteries were within her control."
That's from Laura Thompson's Agatha Christie: An English Mystery which I'm much enjoying, and I was amused by the following passage quoted earlier in the book and relating to a period when Agatha had fewer novels under her belt; here she looks back on the early years:
"It was by now just beginning to dawn on me that perhaps I might be a writer by profession. I was not sure of it yet. I still had an idea that writing books was only the natural successor to embroidering sofa-cushions."
Today is the 450th. anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare and we shall not let it pass unmarked.
The Folio Society have issued a limited edition of the poems, sonnets and plays, printed by letterpress and bound by hand. The complete set will cost you £11,555, but if that's beyond the budget, you can read all about it here, and watch these videos of the craftsmen and women involved in the project at work:
The Treasures of William Shakespeare by Catherine M.S. Alexander has been produced in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is large and lavishly illustrated, and begins by setting the Elizabethan scene into which Shakespeare was born; it follows him to London, looks at his contemporaries, the world of the court and the theatre, and then moves on to his works themselves, examining the "infinite variety" with which the plays have been adapted for stage and screen.
The book includes 20 removable facsimile documents such as extracts from the First Folio of 1623, and from the prompt book for a 1965 production of Twelfth Night directed by Sir John Gielgud; Shakespeare's marriage bond and will, and the entry of his burial in the parish register; and in addition there is a 53-minute CD of classic excerpts from the plays.
The play's the thing, and Shakespeare's Globe are going to take one of the plays right around the world over the next two years, performing Hamlet in all 187 countries. Their Globe to Globe Hamlet project is looking for funding via Kickstarter, so click here to watch the video about their plans and back them if you will, and here for more information including tour dates and venues.
All keen readers will have writers for whose books they put everything aside, the ones who go straight to the head of the reading queue, no matter what else is waiting. I am delighted to welcome one of those writers to Cornflower Books today, and it is a privilege to have been able to ask him a few questions about where and how he writes.
Alan Bradley is one of those inspiring people who have a successful career but then truly come into their own at a stage of life when others are thinking of putting their feet up. Taking early retirement from academia, he wrote non-fiction before beginning a novel which - on the basis of a synopsis and an opening chapter - won the CWA Debut Dagger Award. A publishers' bidding war ensued, rights were sold hither and yon, and the first of the wonderfully entertaining Flavia de Luce books was published to great acclaim and popular success. The sixth in the series came out recently and, as Alan tells us below, there is more in store!
Apart from being a great fan of his books, I had another reason for inviting Alan to join us today. He and his wife Shirley are Canadian, but nowadays they live on the Isle of Man which is where I was born and spent my childhood, so I'm proud to have an honorary Manxman as my guest, and I hope he is feeling very much at home in that beautiful island.
Alan, please tell us about your writing desk or table. Is it a special piece of furniture or just a convenient surface? And the room in which you work - a dedicated study, or a corner you've carved out of another room in the house?
Although I have a lovely study overlooking a churchyard, complete with computer on a Victorian partners' desk and a wonderful reference library at hand, I still do an inordinate amount of writing propped up in bed. The reason is quite simple: since I like to begin work at about 4:30 a.m., it means I can make the transition from sleep to writing with as little jarring effort as possible.
What typically sits on your desk? Piles of books for reference/a dictionary or thesaurus? Photographs or special objects? Can you work with 'clutter' around you or do you need clear space?
I like clear space, but I usually have a clutter of things that need doing. I feel most comfortable when I'm within reach of my reference books. I must admit to an absolute passion for outdated reference works: the Imperial Dictionary; Whitaker's Almanacks for the early 1950's; the ABC Railway Guides, ditto, Kelly's Post Office Directories; Bradshaw; the Army and Navy Catalogue; Hints for Holidays; Law's Grocer's Manual (1949) and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition), marred as it is by the sensationalism of the popular plates. There's an indescribable comfort in being surrounded by things as they used to be.
As you sit at your desk, do you have a view (and if so, of what) or would that be too distracting - do you prefer a blank wall, or a lovely object or painting perhaps, to focus the mind?
As I have said, my desk overlooks a churchyard where there's often something going on: weddings, funerals, jackdaws, ravens, all of which keep me grounded in real life without proving too much of a distraction to the murder and mayhem on my mind.
Do you write in longhand first, or make notes/plans that way, or do you work directly on the computer? If the former, do you have a favourite notebook and pen, or does any scrap of paper serve the purpose? Do you use a pinboard or whiteboard or similar, either for displaying notes and reminders, sketching out plot points and structure, showing location photographs or other visual cues to characters or interiors, etc.?
I write directly onto the computer, but only after doing the required research and making notes in pencil. I don't know why a softish pencil is so important - perhaps because it reminds me of my childhood. A hard-nosed ball-point seems so crude in comparison; the way in which it graves the paper seems physically (and even morally) repugnant. There's nothing I love better than a fat fresh pad of A4, even if I only use a few pages of it and start afresh with each new book. In spite of that, I always end up with hundreds of notes on bits of paper: the backs of envelopes, grocery receipts, bits torn from the edge of newspaper pages, and so forth. I don't do a lot of plotting, other than a few key scenes. The Flavia mysteries are character driven and I have learned to let them have their heads.
Do you ever write away from your desk, for example, in cafés, libraries, on trains, in the garden? If so, is that because you happen to be in those places and need to get on with some work, or do you purposely go to other writing locations for inspiration or improved concentration?
No, I do a lot of thinking while walking by the sea, or riding on the bus, but I write only at home. It would be wonderful to be able to write anywhere, but I can't. To me, writing fiction is like being a deep sea diver: you can't be on the surface and in the depths simultaneously. Which is reality? Whichever one you're immersed in at the moment.
Tell us about sound while you're working: do you like to listen to music or prefer silence, and do you need to be shut away with a virtual 'do not disturb' sign on the door, or can you get on happily with the usual interruptions of phone, doorbell, other people in the house, and so on?
Silence is golden. Our household is a haven of blessed near-soundlessness. As I write this, the only sound in the room is the sober ticking of the clock. We have no radio chattering away mindlessly and watch television only by appointment: generally on DVD. My wife, Shirley, treasures silence as much as I do, so we're the perfect couple.
What tends to distract you most when you're supposed to be writing?
Telephones, doorbells, people who don't realise that your work involves staring densely off into space and looking as if you're waiting for a good old chin-wag.
Could you tell us a little about what's currently 'on the desk', i.e. your work-in-progress or what you are planning to start next?
I'm happy to announce that Flavia #7 (slated for 2015) will be called "As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust", which I must admit is one of my favourite titles. It's from Cymbeline, of course, and comes with its own haunting baggage. Besides that, I've been asked to write a new YA series. And, oh yes, Sam Mendes (of 'Skyfall' and 'Call the Midwife') will be bringing Flavia to the television screen in 2015. I've seen Harriet Warner's screenplay for the first episode, and it's absolutely brilliant. Who was it said, 'May you live in exciting times"?
What would you say were the best, most rewarding aspects of the writer's life, and what are the downsides, if any?
The rewards, I suppose, are in being self-employed and being paid for doing what you love to do. The downside is that there are no breaks; no holidays; work is 24/7/365. Travel, too, is a great joy. The Flavia books, which have been translated into about 36 languages, have allowed me to visit Germany, Finland, Croatia, Poland, Malta, and Norway, with upcoming trips to Italy, Sweden and Russia: all of them places I would never otherwise have seen. And the fans, of course! The word I hear most often from Flavia's fans worldwide is 'love'. It is like being immersed in a warm ocean. And there is no downside to love!
Finally, by spending many hours 'at the writing desk' you now have a very wide and avid readership, and a career which although you've come to it later in life has brought you great success. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, or to those already in print and hoping to build on that beginning?
Keep the bum applied firmly to the chair and the fingers to the pen, pencil, or keyboard. Remember the 10,000 Hour Rule. It sounds tacky, but it's true: you learn to write by writing. Beware the sharks and gatekeepers: there are many more of them out there than there are bona fide agents and editors. Don't ever pay anyone to edit or market your work. Real professionals don't charge; they make a living by selling your work. My goodness - what a lot of advice! Well, it's taken me years and tears to learn it. I'd be thrilled to hear that it's helped someone else even a smidgen. Now go write.
My thanks to Alan for taking the time to answer my questions, and on behalf of all of us who love his books, may I wish him continued great success - his writing gives us such a lot of pleasure!
I've said before that I always pay close attention to what Ann Patchett recommends in her Parnassus Books posts because she makes a compelling case for them. Today's is no different, except that the book in question is Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index, a work which - on the face of it - could be a hard one to 'sell', but as I've read it and admired it I was especially interested to see what Ann had to say about it. Do read Ann's post and note her suggested leap of faith vis-à-vis recommendations.
Another book for which I have a high regard is Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, which is out in paperback today. "Highly original, meticulously constructed, thematically convincing, this is a richly evocative mystery," I said in my review, and here's my summary of what Eleanor had to say about the book when she came to Edinburgh last summer.
If you fancy having a crack at writing historical fiction yourself, there is a masterclass on the subject taking place in London next month. Sarah Dunant and Celia Brayfield "will share their knowledge and experience of creating or recreating historical characters, of evoking period settings, of finding inspiration in archives, constructing a compelling narrative without sacrificing accuracy and finding voices for characters that are true to their time and place"; but if you can't attend the event, there is a book on the subject.