Saturday, 29 April 2017

Fictional fiction: N M Browne

We writers do like to bang on about writing don’t we? How many of the heroes of novels are in fact novel writers? From Death in Venice to London Fields we insert our own occupation into the mix for a little post modern intrigue. We even like our fictional detectives to be writers from Jessica Fletcher and Castle to the poet Adam Dalgliesh, created by PD James. 
   It is very tempting to follow that over used dictum to ‘ write what we know,’ and write all about us.  Thus far I’ve avoided that trap only because  my fictional characters have to be as  unlike me as possible  in order to fulfil their role as adventure hero or heroine.  The urge to write about a woman just like myself is strong though I am still fighting it, which makes me an unlikely convert to a script about a script writer.  Of course I  used to love those Hollywood films like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ about making a film, but the recent 'La La Land'which seemed to focus on the undiluted narcissism needed to fulfil your dreams, made me somewhat sceptical about ‘going to see the recent film, 'Their Finest’ which is, in many ways, even more self referential. I am pleased to say I was wrong. 
   The film tells the story of a woman script writer in war time London, getting involved in writing the ‘slop’ the woman’s dialogue in a propaganda movie. Sure, a writer is the hero, but a rather self deprecating one. It seemed to me that the film is less a self aggrandising story about the writer as ‘star’ and more a reflection on the intersection between fiction and life - contrasting the deliberate construction of the one against the unpredictable chaos of the other.  It is inevitably a romance, but more than that it is a story about a woman who was saved by work, by writing. This happens  literally; in staying at the office to save the script and her relationship, she is absent when her flat takes a direct hit. It also happens metaphorically so that when life gets in the way of the predictable happy ending the solace she finds in her work provides some kind of  alternative. I also loved the way the camera returns to the  structural story board for the film within the film, drawing attention to the way the main story mimicked the fictional story's peaks and troughs. 
  I may, in consequence, revise my view on self referential writing.  We all adapt the peaks and troughs of story telling into the narrative we tell ourselves about our own lives.  It is not just writers, but all of us, who cast  fictional versions of ourselves in the dramatisations we construct: our own stories are always fed by the fiction we consume. 

   In tricky times maybe we need more that is heart warming, inspiring and optimistic, so that we can all cast ourselves as plucky heroes and heroines, keeping calm and carrying on. 

Friday, 28 April 2017

Medieval manuscripts, Christianity, Fake News and Puppies, by Enid Richemont

Our wonderful British Library has been justifiably blogging about its fantastic collection of medieval manuscripts, and posting some of the images on Facebook. I've never seen them in so much close-up detail before, and they really are amazing - the details so exquisitely drawn by monks with no access to either great lighting, apart from what the sun or candles provided, or, of course, reading glasses. A Polish artist, whose name I can no longer find, has made an animation of one of them, and if you think about it, these manuscript illuminations are like very early comics, and perfect for animation.

The British Library's blog is at, very simply, "Medieval Manuscripts Blog", but the other site that's hugely interesting is at: www.fb.com/discardingimages It's an odd url, but go there and you will be richly rewarded. The animation I mentioned is of a Medieval nature story about the life of hedgehogs. It was believed that hedgehogs raided vineyards for grapes, shook them down (suspend your 21st Century commonsense here), turned on their backs and rolled over them, using their spikes like cocktail sticks, then scuttled back to their burrows and turned upside down, thus allowing their young to feed on the grapes. The animation is wonderful, with a commentary in Medieval Latin (subtitles in English). And people swallowed this story (but possibly not everybody). There's nothing new about False News, even if it involves hedgehogs.

Following on from the exquisitely-drawn dragons' tails etc, the book review I read later seemed very appropriate. It's a book by Robert Knapp called: The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in the Time of Magic and Miracles, and I'm going to get hold of it. It seems that Magic, Conjuring and Miracles were rife at the time of Christ. There was, indeed, a Samaritan called Simon who performed mighty acts of magic and who was considered a god, as was, apparently, the emperor Vespasian who - it was witnessed - healed the lame and the blind, which explains why magic was so frowned on by the early Christians as it represented direct competition. Well I'm sure that if you got into an argument about the life of hedgehogs with a Medieval person, you'd lose because well, hey! it HAS to be true - just look at the picture.

Did I already tell you that I was in the flying saucer business a long time ago? Together with an artist friend, we set up a gentle Flying Saucer company, gentle because Frisbees too enthusiastically aimed can occasionally cause damage. We called ours Wizbees, and sold them in Carnaby Street and the Design Centre, but unsurprisingly our British Flying Saucers did not make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice. This is one of them.

The film - ah yes, this has been referred to before. Exciting, yes, but given the rate at which the film business works (think snails on Valium) the excitement tends to fizzle out. If it ever reaches the screens, you are all invited to a virtual Red Carpet event, for which I insist you wear all your finest fake diamonds or even your real ones.

And so to dogs. A very troubled writer friend who shall be nameless has recently acquired a puppy whose presence is clearly transforming her life. I'm no good at doggie breeds, so I can't tell you which one, but it has silky ginger ears and a very sweet face. My daughter keeps urging me to get a dog - well maybe I should. I did write "THE DREAM DOG", after all. First published by Walker Books far too long ago, it's currently available as an ebook on http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0053Y27L8 (use .com if you're American) Read it armed with a box of tissues.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Retiring from Writing Would Mean Retiring From Life - Andrew Crofts


People around me seem to mention the word “retirement” a lot, asking one another when they are thinking of taking the plunge. I’m keeping a low profile because I am not sure that, as a lifelong freelance writer, I completely grasp the concept.

Retire from what exactly?



If I wake up in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea for a book, am I going to turn over and go back to sleep rather than follow the train of thought to wherever it might lead me?

If someone emails me from some distant and mysterious land, inviting me to travel to them to hear their story with a view to ghosting for them, am I going to decline because now I am “retired”?

There are aspects of writing which become increasingly tedious with age – typing mainly - but then sitting on a ride-on lawnmower can become tedious after an hour or two, as can sitting in a coffee shop with a newspaper or staring out to sea from a tropical island paradise. None of these things do I particularly want to give up.

What exactly is “work” anyway?

Is raising children or caring for an elderly parent work? I think so.

Is commuting on a crowded train for hours every day work? Most definitely.

I guess if you hate your job then retirement is an attractive option, but are there any freelance writers out there who really hate their work that much? They may have grown tired of dealing with publishers, but now they can bypass all that irritation and publish themselves. They may have grown tired of sitting at screens, but most of us are willing to pay that price for as long as our backs and wrists hold up to the repetitive stresses and strains. Maybe they want more time to indulge in hobbies and interests, but ever since I left school I have been following wherever my interests lead me, while trying to make enough money to keep the family fed and warm, so no change there.

To contemplate retiring from writing seems to me to be the same as contemplating retiring from life, and I haven’t yet fixed a date for that one.  


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Out of the Mouths of Actors: Dipika Mukherjee Discovers the Magic of Audible Books

On March 28, 2017, Audbible release Ode to Broken Things as an audiobook, but before that, they sent me a link to an excerpt on SoundCloud.
Ode to Broken Things is my debut novel. Like a jealous Mum, I wanted the book to stride into this new audio world with intelligent self-conviction but I definitely did not want it adopted by a mentor so fabulous that it would forget its roots and my vision.
So the first time I listened to Ode To Broken Things—if it can be called “listening” –  was in the shower, with the sound partially drowned by cascading waters.
Okay. So I am a writer who NEVER reads her books once they are published. When I am called upon at literary or talks to read excerpts, I discover cringe-worthy writing hiding in the recesses of my beloved passages. I am glad that excellent editors comb through my writing, because when I am done with edits, all I do is binge-watch Hallmark movies and Bollywood escapism for weeks, completely disengaging my brain until I am ready to do words again.
I imagine that all writers are uncomfortable with their words made flesh, but the first time a German filmmaker showed an interest in my novel, underneath the excitement was the thought, How are they going to cast for a book that is set in Malaysia, has speakers of Malaysian English, Indian English, American English, and native speakers of Bengali and Malay? Ego reared a great ugly head, knowing that I, the creator of this world nurtured in my mind for over a decade, will see this story implode in the hands of another artist.
Cue the entrance of Audible, purveyors of brilliant Audio Books around the world, who bought audio rights to Ode to Broken Things. Then they cast British actor HomerTodiwalla to read the book I had written.  
A word about the fabulous staff at Audible; they are wonderful to work with and as soon as the audio rights were in their hands, they offered me free audiobooks to check out their system and double-checked that I could access books in the UK and the US. They just weren’t interested in my input on who should be cast to read for my book.
So when the Audiobook was released worldwide on March 28, I, along with millions of people, (ok, more like a few hundred people) heard this book at the same time.
Most people probably heard it before me, because as you already know, I listened to it in the shower.
My publisher, Repeater Books in London, have been most excellent with the editing and distribution of this book; I do very little but show up for events, so the fact that the audiobook would be good should have been self-evident. But I am a sociolinguist by academic training and like most researchers and teachers of language I knew all the things that could go wrong with pronunciation and articulation.
If they had got me involved with Central Casting, I’d have whipped out a real shibboleth to sort out the Malaysian English speakers from others.
The first time I listened to Homer reading, I was startled by the mispronunciation; Malaysian English is not Indian English, and the ubiquitous lah in Malaysian English does not take a pause before articulation, but tags on happily to words for emphasis (Ok lah, said as one word, can emphasise agreement, frustration, amusement, and a host of other human complexities). Malaysian English is also idiosyncratic and very very funny, especially when Antares describes it. 
But then, Homer started to weave his magic. As a professional actor, he knew where to pause breathlessly and where to raise his voice just so. The section on the hunt for the Kajang terror with the soldiers weaving their way through the dense undergrowth of the dank rainforests grew sonorous with the whisper of leaves and the chirp of wildlife. There is a nuanced lilt to his voice when he takes on the persona of the aged grandmother, Shapnasundari, which I, as an author rushing to finish reading and sit down again, will never be able to replicate on any stage.
All of my worries about my Singaporean and Malaysian buddies listening to this and saying Rubbish lah! melted away as Homer’s voice filled my ears with words from succeeding chapters. I know from teaching English that very few people distinguish varieties of Asian Englishes clearly enough to be disturbed by anomalies in a particular type, and this audiobook, available in the US and UK for western readers, is unlikely to disconcert.
Besides the story is still mine, still intact, still good...and much enhanced by the talent of the actor reading it aloud.
I have used this old Bengali proverb in Ode to Broken Things but I am recycling it again: 
Gacher theke phol mishti
Sweeter than the tree you plant is the fruit it bears.
P.S: I still have a few free US & UK codes to giveaway for reviewers who want to review this audiobook; write to me here



Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016) and is available as an Audible audiobook in the US and the UK. Shambala Junction, her second novel,won the Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016) and was released in the US in April 2017. 

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Technological Eavesdropping by Susan Price


Spoken into a mobile phone by a young woman pushing a baby in a pushchair.

No idea what the 'it' was that he wouldn't let her have. Or where she got this strange idea that 'he' could stop her from having it, whatever it was. But she let everyone within earshot know about it as she passed. There's the start of a story here.

     I love technology. It's technology that allows me to bring you this blog and it's technology that now allows me to overhear the snippets of other people's private lives on a regular basis.
     I offer them here as a public service to writers who're looking for something to, perhaps, kick-start a story.


I overheard this in a pub. No surprises there. The speaker stood nearby, trying to hide his phone in his jacket and mutter into it, but growing louder and more impassioned as he went on. I may not have all of the conversation word for word but I have the gist - and he really did say, 'You Jezebel.' I know because, when he did, Glenfiddick came down my nose and the waste of good whisky has engraved it forever on my heart.
     It's cruel, I suppose, to make a mere blog out of his heart-ache - but aren't we always making use of other people's - and our own - heartache? If you haven't got that core of ice in the heart, don't become a writer.
     And it was his choice to hold the conversation with Jezebel in public. He could have had the conversation elsewhere. For my part, I couldn't not hear and I couldn't even move away because the pub was so crowded. And, yeah, right, of course I would have moved away if there'd been more space. The late Patrick Campbell said that his aunt would often shush him in public because she was so intent on listening to the conversation in another group. And he himself, he admitted, was so given to eavesdropping that his elbow would be almost on another party's table.

I'm also reminded of Joe Orton, a writer I greatly admire. The
Joe Orton, Wikipedia
people in his plays say things like, "I had no idea our marriage teetered on the brink of fashion." (Said by a woman on discovering her husband dressed as a woman.)  And, "Every luxury was lavished on you - athiesm, breastfeeding, circumcision. I had to make my own way."

    When he was accused of writing stylised, unrealistic dialogue, he denied it. Listen to people, he said. Listen to the way they actually speak, at the bus-stop, in the shop-queue. He reckoned that he wrote very realistic, everyday dialogue.
     It's not only a great waste and pity that Orton was murdered at so young an age - it's absolutely tragic that he died before the invention of the mobile phone, which would have given him so much material to work with.



The above was overheard, just the other day, in a bus-stop. I never got to hear why the cat couldn't be impregnated now ('tho I was agog) because the bus came and interrupted the conversation.

You could mix the characters together, fit them all into the same story. Is 'Jezebel' the young woman with the pushchair, after she's got fed up of not being allowed things? - But that's easy stuff. Who owns the cat and why can't it be impregnated now? What is the cat's job and what is it that Mum must do because this dislikable cat is doing its job? Somebody, please, make up an explanation. 

But since technology isn't everything, here's a couple of traditional earwiggings of the kind that Patrick Campbell and his aunt enjoyed.


The above was overheard in the bar of a rather posh London hotel (well, posh for me anyway) where I was attending some Royal Literary Fund do.
     And, below, overheard one late night, in a bus-stop.


Mix them in with Jezebel, her ex, pushchair girl, the young casino worker, his mum and the cat. I challenge you.

 I think Orton would have appreciated the politeness of the exchange - politely enquiring what's going on in the friend's life now, reminiscing a little about past shared experience, and politely enquiring about the friend's family.
     And, as Orton himself said, "It's all any reasonable child can expect if the dad is present at the conception."



Susan Price is a writer for children and Young Adults.
Her book, The Ghost Drum, won the Carnegie medal.
The Sterkarm Handshake won the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Both are currently under film option.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Those nitty-gritty details - Jo Carroll

I'm known as a travel writer. So writing a novel - and then having the temerity to publish it - has been a bit of a learning curve.

As a travel writer I try to bring the tiniest details to life: the harrumph of a hippo or the strength of the tiniest dung beetle. Deafening tropical rain. Equally essential are personal reflections on daily challenges that may be so very different from those I find at home, such as night buses and street food. And then there are the minutiae that I don't write about, like the toilets.

Which is the link (believe it or not) to my novel, The Planter's Daughter. Sara left Ireland during the famine, to live with an aunt in Liverpool. From there she headed for Australia, ending up in Hokitika - a gold town in New Zealand. These are the bones of the story - a bit like the bones of a travel book. But I needed to know more about the homes she lived in, the food she ate, how she kept clean. Okay, not much of that ended up in the novel, but it was still something I needed to know.

And the aspect that exercised me most was ... toilets. Especially in New Zealand, where she lived in an old fisherman's hut on the beach. No doubt the old fisherman widdled in the sea. But I could hardly have her lifting her ladylike skirts among the crabs and seagulls.

These days, we don't shy away from most bodily functions. It's ok to write about hernias and menstruation. Scenes in public toilets are used as a way of two characters sharing information with each other and the viewer or reader without anyone else knowing. But the rest of it ... well, it's not really a story, is it. The trouble is, when I'm watching a film, I can't help wondering about the heroine who is stuck on a ledge fighting off the bag guys for five hours. How come she never says, 'Hang on a minute, I'm just nipping off for a pee.'

You might wonder if there is anything interesting to say about toilets. And it may be my background as a travel writer (all travellers have toilet stories) that leaves me wondering about something so mundane.

How did I solve Sara's toilet challenge in New Zealand? If you really want to know, you'll have to read the book! (Here it is on Amazon.)



And yes, I do know that 'nitty' (in the title if this post) is Geordie for toilet.

If you want to know more about me and my writing, you can find it here - http://www.jocarroll.co.uk