Thursday, 30 June 2011

NOT a press release

Bah - press releases; I hates 'em, I tells yer, hates 'em. So this isn't a press release, more an attempt for me to start splurgling (yes, splurgling) out some ideas about SWALC, the upcoming event/thing I'm hosting in September, in the hope that out of the free-form melee I come up with something I can hone into legibility...

I guess my first problem is I don't actually know exactly what SWALC is supposed to be; I don't even really know what it stands for. I just liked the sound of it, so for now its Something Writers & Artists at the Lord Clyde... or possibly 'Saturday' rather than 'Something'... or 'Sexy'... or 'Soused'. The initial drunken concept was going to be WILF, a play on MILF which could stand for Writers Independent Literary Festival, but was more likely to be 'Writers I'd Like to...'.

We binned that.

So, it's an event where I don't know what the name means, so hardly surprising that I don't know exactly what it's going to comprise. I do however know what I DON'T want it to be. With the new book out, I've done a fair few signings recently and while the hosts are always lovely, lovely people and meeting the public is always a joy, there's also always a sense that you've let everyone down on a really bad blind date.

First up, you're parked at a table behind a pile of your wares, like a show-offy Big Issue salesman; punters wander past, but if they don't know who you are, there's no way they're going to approach you and start thumbing thru your books - it's the social equivalent of flicking through someone's bank statements or pants drawer before you start chatting them up - and so they crane to take in your book covers from a distance while you smile inanely like a hooker on her first outing in a strange town.

If they do know who you are, and by some quirk of fate have actually come to see you, another social awkwardness arises. I'm sitting down, they're standing up. It's a crazy way to try and enact a meaningful exchange, but inviting them to sit makes you sound like a bank manager, while my suddenly standing (esp. as I'm a 6'3 hellfiend who looks like Shrek's ugly brother) is just intimidating and weird.

And so the awkwardness continues... invariably the room is hot and crowded, or there's a queue behind, or someone far more popular's queue is jostling your reader. Your reader may realise they just like your stuff and have no interest in actually talking to you about it... or they may LOVE your stuff and want to talk to you about it at length, but feel intimidated by leaning over this frail seated figure, or by the line behind them, or by the fact that no-one under normal circumstances opens a conversation with a stranger by asking about the minutae of their job.

Whatever the manifold options, there's some polite and blustery banter, a scrawl on the bookcover (where inevitably, I fail to understand the basic construction or spelling or sound of all human names - 'Jack? Jock? Jim? Oh, sorry, Liz... and how do you spell that?) then it's mercifully over, with both parties wishing they'd said something more intelligent.

THAT's what I don't SWALC to be... because another thing I've noticed at these events is that after the signing, the lovely hosts always take you to the nearest pub. Once there, the writer relaxes and, after five hours of being a charmless nerk, kicks into charm overdrive, beguiling the bookshop staff/convention organisers with witty banter, salacious insider gossip and an effortless flirtation that makes all around fall in love with them (that's how I always remember it the next day, anyway). What's really great though is when half the people at the signing are also in the same pub; they feel a little more bold. Socially speaking, they've already sort-of-been introduced, so Victorian etiquette laws now apply, and they can come over and start a conversation (no doubt drawn by the sheer magnetism of the writer's debonair wit and sexual chemistry, of course). THAT's the point where you can, quite normally and in a perfectly acceptable display of social mores, offer them a chair and invite them to join in.

So I guess that's what I want SWALC to be; the post convention/signing, green room/local pub atmosphere. Writers will be spread around the room with a nice badge on to identify them, having a beer, playing a game of cluedo or scrabble or trivial pursuit or whatever, just doing normal pub things, and if you want to go and sit with them, then say hi, introduce yourself and start chatting. It doesn't have to be about their work; it's a social get together, a shindig, as the mighty Josh Whedon almost wrote, a little bit of hoot with a smidgin of nanny. The pub's a big open space so there's plenty of room, but it also has a very cosy little snug bar where we'll be putting on some music, comedy and showing some trailers from people's work on the big screen.

We're going to have a bookstall at the back where folk can buy stuff, as well as a bookdrop box where you can bring something from your own collection and swap it for free with a book someone else has dropped. If you want to come in fancy dress as your favourite fictional character, that would be brilliant and someone will surely win some sort of prize for doing so. If I can work out a non-invasive way of devising a short pub quiz, then I undoubtedly will (for the Lord Clyde is famous for it's... ahem... utterly amazing pub quiz and totally professional and sober question master).

The Clyde will be serving its usual fine array of wines, beers, real ales and fabulous spirits as well as some truly sterling pub bar snacks like home made sausage rolls, scotch eggs, pork scratchings and some other healthier stuff that I don't understand but is almost certainly green. Weather permitting we may even fire up the barby in the wonderful decking paradise that is the extensive beer garden.

We'll be kicking off around 12.30/1 and finishing at about 7 with a rousing pub singsong; the pub's both dog and child-friendly, but do be aware we're expecting quite a crowd, so it might not be suitable for very wee toddlers or chihuahas, as big lunks like me may trip over them.

I think I just ran out of space, so more to follow but there it is... NOT my press release, which I'm none the wiser about writing... all that's left to add is it's on September 10th, 12.30-7 at the Lord Clyde, 340 Essex Rd, N1 3PB - call 02072889850 for more details.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

100% Dynamite - the Nobel Project 2

'The Passport' - Herta Muller

So, this is already turning out to be a fascinating project (for me, at least). From the lengthy work of Llosa, I turn to this slender 92 page novella of prose poetry. How to describe it?

'Chewy' is the first word that springs to mind, chewy in a good sticky-toffee way though it's a grim and hideous story. Friends of mine know I've been wrestling for many years now with my own prose-poem novella, so finding this was both a joy and a series of repeated axe-blows of despair. A joy because I see that I'm not crazy, it can be done, despair because Muller has chosen a totally different poetic style and makes it work supremely, whereas I'm wading through overwrought sentences channelling the spirit of James Joyce on a rare good day, and Stanley Unwin on all too frequent bad one.

Muller's writing style seems at first glance mundane; Short factual sentences, often stripped bare of metaphor and adjectives, but then out of nowhere comes an astonishing piece of imagery or a convoluted cobweb of repeated phrases. The closest I can come to a comparative is that it's like reading a nightmare narrated by the Brothers Grimm. There's a fairytale quality to Muller's construction of repetition, her seemingly casual insertion of a horrific visual image, and I guess that makes perfect sense because 'The Passport' is an allegory. Her story is very simple, but the reality of her story is so arcane, sinister and corrupted by evil, that Muller clearly feels the only way she can truly get across the enormity of the narrative is to retreat into archetypes of fable; the journey through the dark wood, haunted animals, demonic trees and protective talismans.

The plot, stripped down to its basics is simply this - In Ceacescu's Romania, a rural miller seeks a passport for himself, his wife and daughter so they can travel to Germany and escape the barbarism of communism. A passport isn't easy, and he has to bribe his way to the document in a series of increasingly humiliating and costly payments. A lesser writer would have written the straight skinny; the bribery, the corruption, the sexual exploitation, and while it may have made a stark and grim piece of documentary fiction, it would be far less of a read.

Muller knows that all such regimes are tainted by the culture of the nations they seek to oppress; many so-called communist states were riddled by the feudalistic cultural tropes of the nations' ancient history, so it makes perfect sense for Muller to tell her story in that context. By choosing the language of folklore, mythology and the ancient beliefs and prejudices of medieval serfdom, she makes it plain that her present day world of bureaucracy, cruelty and grotesque corruption is just as uncivilised and riddled with evil.

This truly is an astonishing book, unlike anything else you've probably read, Despite the brevity, it took me almost as long to finish as the previous epic, partly because it's sometimes like joyously and heroically hacking through a forest of thorns to reach the narrative within, but also because at times the imagery and language shine so immaculately that you find yourself stopping to read and re-read sentences, paragraphs and even entire chapters. The good news is that each chapter is short, sometimes no longer than a couple of paragraphs, and while there is a consistent through line, each chapter is presented as a separate and distinct short story. I wish I knew a lot more about Romanian folklore and history so I could appreciate this more fully, but at the same time, it really doesn't matter; Muller's fairytale archetypes are universal, but always approached with a fresh and startling eye and ear, and ultimately they are simply the trappings of the far darker truth of the core of the narrative.

And it's just so damn chewy. Delicious, like a toffee apple but packed full of barbed wire, owl claws and dying wasps.

NEXT: 'Desert' by Mauritian J.M.G. Le Clezio, a dual narrative set in pre world war 1 and post world war 2 Morrocco apparently, so once again, another history lesson.