BOOK LIST: Fiction to get your hands on this month

September is great month for readers wanting the latest must-reads, as it’s when publishers often release hot new titles. This year, some big names have come out with stories I, for one, can’t wait to read. Here are my top suggestions…

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale The Testaments

The author on the cover of TIME.

THE TESTAMENTS, by Margaret Atwood (Chatto and Windus)

Thanks to the TV series, this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly the most anticipated of the lot. The Booker-prize shortlisted sequel picks up 15 years after the 1985 original, with a change in narration.

As O, The Oprah Magazine’s Leigh Haber explains: “While The Handmaid’s Tale is told entirely from Offred’s point of view, its follow-up, The Testaments, has three different narrators, none of them Offred. We are back in Gilead again, where Aunt Lydia seems to have amassed even more power. By now, Lydia has a lot of dirt on the commanders, and she isn’t afraid to use it against them to put them in check or to get something she needs. Because she is a narrator, we get a certain insight into her motivations and thought processes—or so we think: she’s not a very reliable narrator, so be forewarned.”

You can read an exclusive extract here.

Cover of Margaret Atwood The Testaments

OUT OF DARKNESS, SHINING LIGHT, by Petina Gappah (Scribner)

Zimbabwe’s most well-known contemporary writer has a new novel out, set in nineteenth-century Africa. It tells of the trek to carry Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone’s body from Zambia to the coast, and it’s narrated by Halima, a young slave woman, and a former slave named Jacob.

Kirkus Reviews describe the book as “a humane, riveting, epic novel that spotlights marginalised historical voices”.

Should be a goodie.

Pettinah Gappah book blurb Out of Darness shining light

Praise for the novel…

THE WATER DANCER, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World)

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the first full-length novel from the journalist, author and comic-book writer who’s outspoken on the issue of reparations for slavery is a story about slavery and how it tragically separated families. The fiction debut tells of Hiram Walker, a slave born on a Virginia plantation who becomes part of the underground movement to end slavery.

Ta-Nehisi Coates new novel

The author photographed for VANITY FAIR.

Publisher’s Weekly say that with this book, “In prose that sings and imagination that soars, Coates further cements himself as one of this generation’s most important writers, tackling one of America’s oldest and darkest periods with grace and inventiveness. This is bold, dazzling, and not to be missed”.

THE DUTCH HOUSE, by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins)

The award-winning novelist, essayist and bookstore owner made Time’s 2012 100 Most Influential People in the World list, and has featured on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.

Her publisher’s describe her new release as “a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go”.

I love an intergenerational story featuring a house as a kind of character, and would buy this book for the enigmatic, artistic title-and-cover combo alone.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

THE WORLD THAT WE KNEW, by Alice Hoffman (Simon & Schuster)

From the prolific author of The Dovekeepers, among others, comes a Jewish historical fiction tale about three women in Europe during WW2.

(You can check out the book trailer here.)

Here’s praise from fellow author Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge: “Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman’s exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience. The book builds and builds, as she weaves together, seamlessly, the stories of people in the most desperate of circumstances—and then it delivers with a tremendous punch. It opens up the world, the universe, in a way that it absolutely unique. By the end you may be weeping.”

The world that we knew by Alice Hoffman book cover

AKIN, by Emma Donoghue (Little Brown)

The Irish-Canadian author of the brilliantly executed Room, which was made into a film starring Brie Larson, is finally releasing a new book, which is about a retired New York professor and his great-nephew who go to the French Riviera to unearth the wartime secrets of the professor’s mother.

The London Free Press says: “Donoghue fans won’t be disappointed as the author of 2010’s best-selling chronicle, Room, pens another page-turner. In Akin, kinship itself, in all its intriguing possibilities, is viewed through the forced pairing of an 80-year-old widower and his 11-year-old grand-nephew and through the fraught events of a week-long trip to the south of France … Although Donoghue’s lively tale has many attractions, its most appealing is the repartee between uncle and nephew, crisp, peevish exchanges which underscore the gulfs which exist between generations, gulfs which cannot be bridged easily. Michael is technologically savvy, while Noah is a novice. Noah constantly corrects Michael’s grammar, but the boy, who addresses his uncle as ‘dude,’ refuses to rise to the bait”.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

AN ORCHESTRA OF MINORITIES, by Chigozie Obioma (Hachette, Little Brown)

This one’s actually been out a few months, but it’s been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, which will be awarded on the 14th of October, so there’s still a lot of buzz about it.

It’s a love story; a kind of retelling of Homer’s Odyssey that’s set between Nigeria and Cyprus and is partly based on a true story. What sounds fascinating is that the story’s told from the perspective of a person’s animating life-force – referred to as “chi” in Igbo cosmology.

An orchestra of minorities by Chigozie Obioma booker prize shortlist

What inspired the story? The scam artists who lure desperate African students to universities in Cyprus, taking their money, with unmet promises of entry into Europe.

As The Guardian explains:

“The impetus to write the novel came out of what happened to Obioma’s friend, Jay, a Nigerian man he met in the first days of starting college. Jay had been duped by the middle men both into thinking the university in Cyprus would be a springboard into Europe, and that his degree would enable him to make lots of money. Instead, he confronted the reality that not only had most of the funds he’d handed over to fixers been embezzled, but that he was now stuck in northern Cyprus, where there were no jobs and where his status as a Nigerian immigrant made him widely despised. After a heavy bout of drinking, Jay was found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft, where he was assumed to have fallen accidentally.”

“The impulse to write in the first instance may come from a place of optimism – Obioma says that he was partly motivated by a desire to salvage Jay’s death from meaninglessness – but the bottom line remains that, whether one construes the larger forces to be spiritual or political, Jay, and so many other victims of seemingly random deaths, “didn’t do anything to deserve that fate” [Obioma’s words]. Illuminating that fact honours the author’s friend as it powers his fiction.”

INLAND, by Téa Obreht (Orion)

This author’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife − about folklore, family and feuds in a story that mythologised Yugoslavia’s history − dazzled me back when it won the Orange Prize back in 2011, when the Serbian-American writer was but 25.

She’s finally released this new offering; an American Western set in 1893 that the blurb describes as follows:

Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life – her husband who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons who have vanished after an explosive argument.

Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home, and her husband’s seventeen-year-old cousin, who communes with spirits.

Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West.

Check out a funny response from Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, here.

Inland by Tea Obrecht

Do you have any new book releases to recommend? What have I left off?
Do let me know…

Advertisements

REVIEW: City of Circles by Jess Richards

This poignant coming-of-age fantasy, which made me weep a little, deserves more praise than it’s received. Here’s why…

City of Circles by Jess Richards

City of Circles was published about a year ago. But it didn’t garner nearly enough buzz, IMO. The book’s author, Jess Richards, also wrote Snake Ropes, which was shortlisted for the COSTA award in 2012. The Guardian described Snake Ropes as “visceral, evocative” and “haunted by the influence of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood”. Such comparisons say something.

Many readers would enjoy the themes, messages and motifs in City of Circles. There’s alchemical and astrological imagery; and crows, horses, magpies and tarot cards feature (as do signs, omens and superstitions). Part of the story is set within a circus community, bringing other popular titles to mind (think The Night Circus and The Queen of the Night). It’s for readers who appreciate the fantastical, the magical and mysterious, with a lovely love story in the mix.

Given how much I enjoyed this read, I was surprised that it seemed to have fallen under the radar. But who knows … perhaps I missed some convos about it, or maybe it’s one of those slow-burners that’ll go on to be a sleeper hit some day.

City of Circles by Jess Richards

WHAT HOOKED ME IN

I’ve grown to understand the appeal of ‘ugly sexy’ men, so I was drawn to the hunchback character (the romantic lead) mentioned in the book’s blurb:

Danu, in mourning for her parents after a disease ravages the circus she calls home, begins a high-wire act with Morrie, a charismatic hunchback who wants to marry her. When the circus returns to Danu’s birthplace, the magical city of Matryoshka, she discovers the name of a stranger who may hold the answer to her past and reveal the secret of the locket her mother entrusted to her as she died. When the circus leaves Danu stays behind.

Will she and Morrie ever be reunited, or will something unexpected be waiting for her in the mysterious heart of the city of circles?

On opening the book for a squizz, I felt the impact of the book’s first line: “Dying faces are the colour of soiled linen”. Flipping through, the chapter titles gave an indication of the book’s themes. They read like blessings, or lines from a folk rhyme, and point to a transformational ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure, too:

One for Sorrow
Two for Learning
Three for Refusal
Four for Yearning
Five for an Element
Six for Sold
Seven for Secrets, Never to be Told
Eight for Heaven
Nine for Wealth
Ten for Your Own True Self

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Danu loses her parents to illness, which ends their “safe group of three”, living together in their circus caravan. She’s frozen in grief, as if “behind glass”, and hunts for her parents in her dreams.

Danu needs a new place to call home. At first, she thinks she should leave circus life and join “the flatties” (as the circus folk call outsiders).

She knows some family secret could help her find solace in her grief and believes a locket of her mother’s holds the key − if only she had the courage to open it. She also remembers the name ‘Rosa’ being spoken by her folks in hushed tones. Who was (or is) she?

The answer must surely lie in the place she was born, where the circus will soon be headed: The City of Circles.

WHAT I LOVED ABOUT THE BOOK

The author’s writing style: Here’s an example:

“A warm breeze blows across her face. She exhales and rises from the wall. Going against the flow of pedestrians, she walks back towards Wringers Street. As she passes an alleyway, a tin can rattles along cobblestones. It’s the kind of sound stars might make if they’d fallen loose, and dropped to roll along an ordinary street.” (p. 250)

They gypsy theme: City of Circles shows you the best and worst of circus life, from the claustrophobia of living in such close quarters (“There’s never enough air in a caravan,” Danu says) to the warmth of singing songs around the fire at night.

I appreciated some of the wise words hidden in the folksy ditties. Take this chorus from a song Danu writes for an acrobatic sequence she and Morrie will perform:

“When threat of annihilation fills your lover with dread
If you’re not the same size then you’re ill-advised to wed
the bed’s a mile down when your wings get frantic
and rushed never lie with a lover who’s small enough to be
crushed” (p. 91)

Says something true about finding a partner with an equal fighting’ weight’, right?

The unlikely love interest: There’s great vulnerability in the intimacy between Morrie and Danu, and satisfying tension in her push-pull reaction to his desire for her.

Their moments of learning to tightrope walk as a duo are like an extended (and poetic) trust exercise, which works well as a device for helping build the tension and chemistry.

The City of Circles itself: Danu takes the bold step of starting over (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, given that the title of the book suggests she’ll journey to the city she was born in!).

spice souk spices

Spice souk (photo by Katina Rogers, Wiki Creative Commons).

The author has created quite an original world here: The City of Circles is built on a volcano, named after a doll, and made up of three circles (each of which is a different sub-city/neighbourhood). The circles move around each other, “like a vast mechanical toy”. In the outer circle, the main trade is in spices. This made from some evocative scenes, like this one:

“In the glow of streetlamps, coloured dust swirls in red, orange, ochre, yellow, black, white … Mist descends through the night sky, magnified around the lights … Flavours and smells compete as colours dance. Allspice, cardamom, chilli … cinnamon, curry, pepper … cinnamon again, ginger … she’s drunk with it.” (p. 95)

Sounds like a place I’d want to spend a few fun nights in!

“The main street must be the hub of the outer circle. It looks to be a circle inhabited by rogues, entertainers and pleasure-seekers. Café tables are crowded with enthused and argumentative conversations. Thieves snatch and scarper, the drunken swagger, lovers kiss, and vagabonds plot in huddles on corners.” (p. 94)

It’s exploration of loneliness and isolation: This is where it got me in the feels. The book introduced me to the concept of The Anchoress. I’d never known of the term:

Anchoress in isolation medieval times

Anchoress Saint Madelberte-Maubeuge (Wikimedia Commons).

According to Medieval Life and Times, during the Middle Ages…

“An Anchoress was a deeply religious woman who chose to live a solitary life in confined quarters called an anchorage or and anchorhold, which usually consisted of a single small cell. The anchorage or anchorholds were similar to hermits but rather than living alone in forests or caves the anchoress lived within populated communities. The anchorhold was often attached to the wall of a church.”

Danu remembers meeting an anchoress once, when she was nine. The woman had lived alone in a cave for 20 years. Danu asks if she gets lonely, to which the anchoress replies:

 “As long as I’m still curious, I don’t mind loneliness. I’ve deeply considered all the types of loneliness that there are, and invented some new words.”  (p283)

The anchoress then shares her list of these 15 words with Danu. I particularly related to:

Ignornly: The kind of loneliness which others comment on – as in, ‘I think he’s lonely’ and their expression shows sympathy, but also a little wariness, as if loneliness could be contagious.”

Idealone: A hankering for an imagined scenario – where it’s the idea of the situation that causes the loneliness.”

Upwrench: The rational side – loneliness needs to be felt and solitude is needed even if it’s not always comfortable. Letting loneliness come, but giving it a time limit: not wallowing.”

The story behind the story: It was clear that the author knows what it is to feel adrift, grieving, and lonely. An author’s end note tells of Jess Richards’ journey in writing the book, which involved the end of her marriage and her father’s death. These heavy, heartfelt experiences resonated throughout the book; I could sense emotional truth behind it.

Her marriage ended in the early days of writing, so she packed up her life and became transient, looking after people’s houses and pets. This is something I’ve been doing (I read this book during a housesitting gig).

Says the author: “At its core, City of Circles is about love and grief. It’s been a beautiful and truthful and difficult tale to write during my own strange journey. Perhaps all fiction is in some ways autobiographical, even while telling its own story.”

(There’s more to her story. But I’ll let you read about her Happy Ever After yourself.)

SO, HOW DOES IT END?

Like the best of endings, it’s bittersweet. Danu finds what she seeks, but not without a serious sacrifice. Which is pretty much how transformation works IRL, right?

While the character’s outer journey is in some ways the literal opposite of mine, I took it to be representative of Individuation, of finding the Self. It’s also about belonging; trusting and loving your Self; finding your centre of gravity, your foundation, on this earth.

This book is for all of us who seek a soul mate, love, care and nurturing – in other words, a place to call ‘home’.

 

 

Take-outs from Jonathan Franzen’s Cape Town talk, or: How NOT to interview a world-famous author

“For the first time in six months, she shaves her legs. Well, of course, Jonathan Franzen is in town.”

My friend’s Facebook status summed up how big a deal it was that Franzen would be in Cape Town to talk about his last book, Purity, at the city’s favourite indie bookshop on 3 November 2017.

It’s not that that nothing bookish happens in the Mother City. Lots does.

Each year, the Book Lounge (the bookshop in question) hosts the Open Book Festival, which has seen the likes of Patrick Gale, Earl Lovelace, Alan Hollinghurst, Lionel Shriver and Joanne Harris pass through. Nearby, in the Cape Winelands, the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival also draws a notable international line-up.

But we’re talking Franzen. He alone, at a talk in the bookshop down the road, for no festival, on an arbitrary date on the literary calendar.

Jonathan Franzen on Time magazine

Turns out he wasn’t here just to bless us with the biggest non-festival-related book event of the year. He was on assignment, doing a report on sea birds for National Geographic. (Apparently, “If everyone would do what South Africa has done [for sea birds], they’d be in less trouble,” Franzen says.)

The talk got so many RSVPs, the hosts had to book a nearby school hall for the crowd. Afterwards, the friend-who-shaved-her-legs updated her post, saying while the convo was “a cringe a minute” (more on that a little later), she “liked” Franzen.

I did too.

He came across far warmer than general impressions suggest (that he’s “a weird, reclusive dick”), despite having spent the whole day doing interviews. From his opening joke at the size of the crowd (“I expected maybe 20 people. Speaking very personally, it speaks well of Cape Town”), to his closing thanks, in which he said he thought the school venue was “great” (despite its child-like crudeness possibly making the organisers blush), he was open, gracious − even cheery.

Below are some take-outs from the talk, followed by some tips on what NOT to do when interviewing a literary heavyweight on stage.

ON HIS LAST BOOK, PURITY

“Purity is essentially about the search for a missing parent, which is a totally nineteenth-century trope … Today, secrets still exist, but I thought it would be interesting to set a story in a regime in which secrets are no longer possible.”

“Purity started from something that wasn’t working for Freedom. I felt it was too shameful, which was the narrative of a marriage deep in the book – I piled up as many easier-to-take pages before it, so there’s a lot of padding – or should I say, ‘muscular storytelling’ [laughter]. I wanted to find a story to place that psychological narrative in, to offset its hard-to-takeness.”

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

ON WRITING

“I don’t write books that argue anything. I’m really just trying to tell a good story. I’m writing for people like myself who want to read someone writing about the world in an interesting way.”

“It does start with things kept in a drawer. My advice for someone wanting to write a novel: It’s good to try join point A with point B … and if point B is rather distant from A. And in general, as a reader, I enjoy the experience of not knowing where a story is going. You want a sense of: Oh my God, where is this going?”

“Process wise, one way of doing that is not knowing yourself. Have a destination, but how you’re going to get there … if it’s a stretch, it’s more enjoyable. There’s this mystical faith I have that things that are fun to write – fun in a real way, not a masturbatory way – translate into a sense readerly fun. With my books, I’ve tried to write the book I’d like to read.”

“It’s not socially useless to do the entertainment [as well as confront social issues in non-fiction] … I do think there’s an arguable social utility in continuing to write literary fiction and personal essays. The parts of being human I appreciate – our capacity for self-doubt, self-reflection, empathy – find a home in literature.”

ON THE DIGITAL AGE

“I think some of my worst fears of social media have been richly borne out by political events in my country. I’m still a bit of a techno sceptic, because it represents the hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist model.”

“There’s a lot of good writing by young writers out there [online], and I’m not worried about it. I’m more worried about the pressure to promote. The internet is the latest guise of consumerism. The persona/e itself becomes the thing to be marketed. I’m that rare person, my pulse rate lowers when I see an audience – as long as I get to be alone in my hotel room afterwards … but it’s hard for other authors. Having to bend your personality into something that’s likeable, that’s where I hear the cries of young writers. The production [side of writing] has changed. I think social media is bad for fiction writers. My criticism of social media is in defense of the novel.”

ON JOURNALISM

“Post Trump, people suddenly seem to appreciate journalists. Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing, but I believe in journalism. It’s an expertise, to separate signal from noise … there’s no algorithm for that; that’s a human skill.”

[Doing long-form journalism is] “a real job as opposed to being like a sick child in a bedroom … I got to save my receipts, and was forced to pick up the phone.”

“When you’re writing a novel, the facts are in the way. It’s completely the reverse with journalism. There’s also a sense of patience that comes with it.” [When gathering information for a story]. “You float through, then the thing happens. The waiting part of journalism is really the fun part.”

[The above was in relation to his experience of writing this New Yorker story, the journalism piece he is most proud of, “from a process point of view”.]

ON THE TOPIC OF SHAME

“Shame has become a verb in social media and online discourse … For some writers, it’s THE problem. We have these carefully crafted online personae, but there’s still something behind that façade that’s potentially full of shame. The argument I have regarding real writing is that it’s done by the writer who goes to the shameful places and then tries to make something of them that isn’t unbearable to read … Even if it resonates with just one other person who feels the same, the writer has succeeded.”

ON HIS BIRD OBSESSION

“People think I write too much on birds. My agent says they do, she says readers flinch when I mention birds, and I feel like saying, ‘You mean wince?’”

ON ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’ IN BOOKS

“Bill Finnegan’s book on surfing, Barbarian Days. He went around the world chasing waves.”

Book Barbarian Days A Surfing Life

And … HOW NOT TO INTERVIEW AN UBER AUTHOR

While the overall impression of Franzen was warm, the overall impression of the event was less about Franzen, and more about the awkwardness of the interview itself. It was all I heard from people after, and in conversations overheard from the departing crowd.

As another friend put it so succinctly, also on Facebook:

“This was supposed to be an author interview between a great American writer and young local literary mind. But it turned into a dick duel between two dudes. Franzen, of course, sliced [the interviewer] into tiny neat pieces. #awkward”

Jonathan Franzen on stage

Franzen being introduced to the crowd, 3 November 2017 in Cape Town.

Apart from Franzen’s response to the interviewer’s first convoluted question (“I’m trying to find the question … give me something to work with here…”), the awkwardness didn’t make me squirm as much as it clearly did others. Part of why I like going to book talks are the moments of chemistry and little frissons of tension between whoever’s on stage. But also – empathy.

I’ve been up there before − admittedly NOT to interview a name as big as Franzen. But I’ve had one-on-ones with bestselling authors in front of many sets of eyes. Fortunately, they went well. But as an introvert, I’ll admit the build-up … wasn’t fun.

The up-and-coming poet/author/publisher interviewing Franzen was likely both star-struck and intimidated. Who wouldn’t be? This is the man who famously snubbed Oprah (more on the truth behind that, from Franzen, here).

Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen

That time they kissed and made up (oprah.com).

Still, there are lessons to be learnt from the failure of others. Below, as both a ‘note to self’ and advice for anyone who may need it, are some tips for interviewing authors, based on what NOT to do.

DON’T make it a battle of egos

Sure, from a psychological viewpoint, putting your ego aside is easier said than done. We need that pesky thing so many self-help columns diss.

But to stop it from tripping you up, remember the event isn’t about you − it’s about the person the audience came to see. This guide-on-the-side approach actually helps by taking any sage-on-the-stage pressure off of you.

Don’t show off. Don’t overcompensate for feeling insecure by boasting of your own travels/writing. Don’t resort to snorting cocaine in a panic. Just focus on bringing out the best in the author, for the audience’s sake.

DON’T ask long, layered ‘questions’

The process of prepping for an interview is a bit like the process of writing itself. You research, generating information; then you distil all the info, reducing it right down into direct yet nuanced questions. This takes time, some of which must be spent AWAY from the research, so you can gather your thoughts on the themes it has generated.

Allowing time for digestion/incubation can be hard when there’s an event deadline and you’re so worried about stuffing up, you’ve way over-prepared. Your head is buzzing, and all the little threads you’ve gathered have turned into a ball of energising yet confusing half-formed thoughts.

But the layering of such thoughts in a philosophical soliloquy, rather than a direct question, can aggravate an author, especially when they’ve been talking all day.

As Aussie commissioning editor and professional reader Angela Meyer says: “It’s OK to lead in with a little bit of info that will help to place the question, but if you analyse an aspect of the book and then just ask: ‘what do you think about that?’ you often don’t give the author much room to move …”.

So leave the bits and bobs ‘on the cutting room floor’, and go in with some key, clear questions. Don’t fear: the research won’t have been in vain. As SA author of The Seed Thief, Jacqui L’Ange, said on research at #OpenBookFest2015: “The ghost of what you cut from your novel remains there – it adds authenticity”. The research helps give you go ‘off script’ confidently, whether to follow an interesting tangent the author’s answer has raised, or to push further on what seems to be an insight.

DON’T reveal what really went on behind the scenes

In what was possibly an effort to be self-deprecating, or anecdotal, the interviewer spoke of his friend shoving one more thing about Franzen at him, which he read that morning in bed.

Avoid doing something similar − no matter how late you were up reading your notes, how close you came to unravelling, how last-minute your arrival may have been, etc. Keep the messy details to yourself.

And use cue cards, rather than concertina-like folds of A4 paper that will distract both the author and audience when you read from them. (When Franzen grabbed the interviewer’s notes to see the quote he was reading out for himself, the interviewer must’ve died a little. Who knows what hot mess of scribbles were set down there?)

DON’T forget your place in the pecking order

As authoritarian as that sounds, there are times in life when you need to graciously defer a little. As one book reviewer was overheard saying after the talk: “You don’t speak to someone of that level as if they’re your equal!”

This is not to say you shouldn’t hold your own beside someone higher up in the hierarchy. Or to suggest that you suck arse the whole way through (“don’t ‘verbal hug’ the author/s too much,” as Meyer says).

But do listen, more than talk; and acknowledge your place, to yourself.

In the words of Maya Angelou: “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”

I suspect women, long raised to be more aware of social pleasantries and what not, may have been socialised to be better at this. While I can see why the organisers chose an up-and-coming male literary author to interview Franzen – and just before the interviewer’s own book release, effectively killing two publicity birds with one stone − a more mature woman book reviewer, perhaps someone with the broadcast experience to steady any wayward nerves, would’ve been a better choice here. (It would’ve eliminated the ‘dick duelling’ aspect, in any event.)

DON’T beat yourself for any ‘oopsies’

So you’ve made a gaffe or generally stuffed up the interview.

Get over it. Don’t nurse that ‘loser’ wound.

This can be hard to do, especially if you’re an introvert and the failure has been publically witnessed. But while your error may loom large in your mind, it’s likely quickly forgotten by others. And if not, at least the lesson you learnt may also have allowed some vicarious learning in others.

Just do better next time. Or wait until it’s your turn to be the star in the spotlight.

(I have no doubt that the interviewer in question here will one day command the same size crowd. He’s done brilliantly onstage at literary events before, and is a great writer. This just wasn’t his best effort at showmanship.)

*BONUS MATERIAL:

Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.

Writerly tips from author Patrick Gale

British author and screenwriter Patrick Gale was one of the international acts to join this year’s Open Book Festival. The Oxford-educated novelist is an avid gardener who lives near Land’s End in Cornwall, where he and his husband farm.

Patrick Gale

By Dan Hall (www.dan-hall.co.uk) from the author’s website.

Gale, whose books have previously made it onto Richard and Judy’s list of summer reads, is currently promoting his 17th novel, A Place Called Winter. The novel, a BBC Radio 2 Book Club choice, is described as follows:

To find yourself, sometimes you must lose everything.
A privileged elder son, and stammeringly shy, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest cost him everything.
Forced to abandon his wife and child, Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war, madness and an evil man of undeniable magnetism that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.
In this exquisite journey of self-discovery, loosely based on a real life family mystery, Patrick Gale has created an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love.

A place called winter cover

In a panel talk on researching time and place, Patrick generously shared some tips and tricks with the aspiring writers in the audience.

On the limits of research
Patrick described how A Place Called Winter came about. When his mother decided to move into an old-age home, he inherited her set of Georgian drawers, stuffed full of old Vogue patterns, mismatched knitting needles, years of correspondence between his mother and grandmother… and his grandmother’s unfinished life story.

When asked why he decided to fictionalise his family history, rather than writing a biography, he said: “Fiction is very useful to get to the emotional truth of a situation that you won’t find with only historical research”.

He also confirmed that old adage that you should write from what you know, saying: “The glorious realisation you’re a novelist comes when you suddenly realise no experience is wasted”.

On the subject of researching when you’re a new novelist, Patrick said he believes a lot of the extraneous research is about the writer’s need to gain confidence. “But sooner or later,” he said, “you must trust your ability to tell the story”.

He also suggested that new writers follow advice he’d heard another author give: Try tell as much of the story you want to tell before you research it, even if only in note form, as “it’s easy to get overwhelmed by research with your first novel.”

On archiving your past, and your stories, for the future
Gale keeps all the notebooks from his old manuscripts, but he hands them over to an archivist for safekeeping. The first time he did this, the archivist was pleased he did things the old-fashioned way. Apparently, with technology changing so much, paper lasts more than documents on memory sticks (which you may not be able to read from in a few years), so archivists always print out any digital material authors hand them.

He also reiterated something my Irish great aunt Margaret told me: It’s really important to write the names of people on the backs of photographs for the sake of leaving an accurate record of your life as legacy.

On the value of writing in ink
Extending the writing-like-gardening analogy he mentioned at the start of the talk, Gale said the reason he makes his writing students have “inky days”, with no electronic note-taking or writing allowed, is because “the mess that comes with scratching out and so on is hugely fertile”.

His own preference? Gale writes in Toffee Brown ink (the one that “looks like dried blood”) as archivists say that’s the tone that lasts the longest.

On what writers talk about
“People think when writers get together, they talk art. We don’t. We talk about backing up,” Gale quipped. When I tweeted this, writer Jenny Colgan replied: “and VAT and writer’s arse and unfair car insurance premiums.”

Gale, still generous with his writerly tips, replied to say “I beat writer’s arse by investing in a sort of brain surgeon’s chair − the Hag Capisco: lets one lean forward”.

The Hag Capisco is environmentally sound (the seat is made from recycled car bumpers and waste household plastic packaging, and its plastic components are labelled to help sorting for recycling) as well as ergonomic. Here’s what the chair looks like, and where to learn more about it.

Hag CapiscoHag CapiscoHag Capisco

Book buzz: The Sunlit Night, by Rebecca Dinerstein

This anticipated debut has a dreamy back story, and effusive praise for its author from her former teacher, Jonathan Safran Foer.

TITLE: The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury)

AUTHOR: Rebecca Dinerstein, a Brooklyn-based poet and graduate of Yale (BA) and NYU (MFA in fiction; a Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow).

RELEASE DATE: 2 June 2015

Rebecca Dinerstein

Image credit: Nina Subin

THE BACK STORY: In their ‘Most anticipated debut novels of spring 2015’ list, Publishers Weekly described how Dinerstein travelled on a Yale postgrad fellowship to the Norwegian art colony of Lofoten, an archipelago in the Arctic, to write a book of poems. But the solitude and space was so inspiring, the poet began what was to become The Sunlit Night, first her MFA thesis, now her debut release.
“I grew up in Manhattan, in a really crowded environment,” Dinerstein was quoted as saying. “Suddenly I had nobody around me. That solitude and that silence − and that really inspiring beauty of the landscape − led me to figure out a way of being productive […] I realised very quickly that you can’t write poems all day.”

THE PREMISE/BLURB: In the beautiful, barren landscape of the Far North, under the ever-present midnight sun, Frances and Yasha are surprised to find refuge in each other. Their lives have been upended − Frances has fled heartbreak and claustrophobic Manhattan for an isolated artist colony; Yasha arrives from Brooklyn to fulfil his beloved father’s last wish: to be buried “at the top of the world.” They have come to learn how to be alone.
But in Lofoten, an archipelago of six tiny islands in the Norwegian Sea, ninety-five miles north of the Arctic Circle, they form a bond that fortifies them against the turmoil of their distant homes, offering solace amidst great uncertainty. With nimble and sure-footed prose, Dinerstein reveals that no matter how far we travel to claim our own territory, it is ultimately love that gives us our place in the world.

The Sunlit Night cover

UK Cover | Design: Emma Ewbank

THE PRAISE: (From Dinerstein’s website)
“Lyrical as a poem, psychologically rich as a thriller, funny, dark, warm, and as knowing of place as any travel book or memoir, The Sunlit Night marks the appearance of a brave talent.” Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

“By turns ravishing and hilarious, The Sunlit Night is more than a shining debut − it’s the work of a young master. Dinerstein writes of her two lovers with sensitivity and chutzpah: human drama, a nightless summer, the transformative power of nature. Here’s an exciting new voice that sings perfectly in key.” Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life

“Dinerstein’s deliciously melancholy debut…is light and lyrical and her descriptions of the far north are intoxicating…A poetic premise with language to match.” Kirkus Reviews

“Dinerstein has done readers a big favor not only by writing this luminous story about love, family, and the bewilderment of being young but also by bringing them into an otherworldly setting: a nightless Arctic summer on the spectacular Lofoten Islands. Enchanting in every way.” −Maggie Shipstead

Lofoten

The village Reine, Lofoten Islands (source: Wiki Commons)