April is Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare Chandos portrait

Chandos Portrait circa 1610

April 2016 will be steeped in all things Shakespearean as William Shakespeare (1564–1616) died four hundred years ago and everybody is (still) talking about it. Which is good as everyone should know who Shakespeare was and what an enormous debt the modern world owe to his work. What not everyone might know is that someone so important to the English language and literature in general for his plays and poetry would only have been 52 on his death. Which seems a terribly early death for someone so very gifted and prolific.

But in our current times we have lost other gifted and prolific artists at an age that seems too young. Only this week the British writer, actor, musician and director Victoria Wood (May 19, 1953 – April 20, 2016) passed away at 62. And yesterday the singer and superstar Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016) died at only 57. This is obviously very sad for their family, friends and many fans. Part of our sadness is because we can’t help but wonder what these artists might have produced if they’d lived longer. What we can still enjoy and treasure is what they made in their lifetimes and looking at the example of Shakespeare’s life, we know that the work artists, writers and musicians produce can endure long after their death.

Shakespeare understood the human condition of hope, desire and dreams. He was also well aware of how very short life is. Of course, I need to round off this slightly maudlin start with a small Shakespeare quote, it’s one of my favourites:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest


tempeststorm

Illustrated by Charles H. Buchel, 1904

The joy of writing is that you can transform sad, difficult events from our little lives into something new and positive. All the writers I’ve spoken of understood that.

wordpress-shoe-collection

On Tuesday I went to the Norwich Writers’ Circle launch for the  Olga Sinclair Open Story Competition 2016 This is for a 2000 word story on the theme of shoes and is being sponsored by a Norwich shoemakers, Van-Dal Shoes.

It was a great evening with talks by people from Van-Dal shoes, which is celebrating 80 years. Frances & Michael Holmes  did a presentation based on their book The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Trade telling us fascinating stories and showing archive pictures from the local shoe trade over the last century.

Then Ashley Stokes from the Unthank School of Writing spoke about the creative writing courses they are running, both online or at evening classes.

Finally, the writer Rachel Hore, whose most recent novel is The House on Bellevue Gardens, will be adjudicating the prize and gave tips on what she will be looking for in the competition entries. All very useful and inspiring.

The House on Bellevue Gardens by Rachel Hore

Also inspiring was getting a copy of The Cafe Writing Map in the post from Writing Maps. These are ‘creative writing prompts and ideas for stories’. Good fun and they currently have a 30% off Writing Maps in April!

 

Writing Maps logo

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Agatha Christie – still the Queen of Crime

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Agatha Christie, surrounded by some of her 80-plus crime novels.

January is traditionally a time for new things, new ideas, new starts. It makes sense to do this as it follows closing the old year and moving on. Named after the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions and from the from the Latin word, ianua, which means ‘door’, this is the door to the new year! So why am I writing this almost half-way through the month? It might be because the start of the year is always very distracting after the end of year celebrations and holidays. It might be because I dislike following the crowd with publicising new year resolutions that could soon be broken. It’s also tricky until you know how plans from the previous year have done, so you can definitely feel like a true Janus figure with one head looking back while the other looks forward.

Janus_coin

Janus coin

I was (and still am) waiting for the results from some short story submissions. One got longlisted, which was great! But didn’t win, which was less great… However, as any writer/artist knows you have to get used to knock backs and still keep trying. There are websites for dejected writers devoted to this sort of thing, but I take the old fashioned view of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. All you need to remember is that every writer, from  Agatha Christie to Stephen King, had numerous rejections, but still kept writing.

I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie (1890-1976) but not much recently. However, over Christmas the BBC did a fantastic adaptation of ‘And then there were none’ (BBC 2015) and it reminded me what great plots and interesting, believable characters Christie created and how wonderful the BBC is at making adaptations of novels  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2v52

And then there none BBC 2015

And then there were none                                                                BBC 2015

I always liked Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot because they weren’t hard boiled cops or jaded investigators trying to solve a murder. Instead they were unusual (an older Belgian and a much older English lady) and as such slightly humorous as people underestimated their abilities, which were exceptional. I hadn’t read ‘And then there were none’ before, it has had different names over the years (some more insulting than others). There is no central detective character like Marple or Poirot, instead there is a range of ten people on an island, each wondering who the murderer is. In the story the reader (or viewer) will have to decide which of these people are likeable and trustworthy and those who are clearly not. This was Christie’s great talent for getting readers to make assumptions about the characters (which are often proved to be false) and putting in red herrings to keep us off the scent. One thing I hadn’t previously known was her education in pharmacy which helped her attend to patients in the First World War and also gave her knowledge of poisons for her stories. Perhaps it is this specialised knowledge that gives her stories an extra veneer of reality and makes the endings more satisfactory for the reader.

If you want to find out more about wonderful Agatha this website is a good resource: http://www.agathachristie.com/

 

Dodie Smith – The Shop Girl Writer

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 Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith

On the last day of November the weather has gone to rain and wind. Good weather for hunkering indoors and reading and writing.

It got me thinking about all this year’s literary prizes (and there were a lot) and how some of the results of those prizes won’t be known until 2016. Writing for competitions requires a lot of hope and patience.

The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting ­http://www.writeaplay.co.uk/ was won this year by Katherine Soper. When I read about this one phrase stuck in my mind, the winning play was described as ‘written by a shop girl’. Obviously you wonder why they didn’t just call her a ‘writer’ as that’s clearly what she is. And the words ‘shop girl’ sounded­ slightly pejorative, as if working in a shop was bad. But it’s also funny! Lots of writers have worked in shops, some still do, and then I remembered reading about another playwright who was also referred to as “Shop Girl Writes Play” by a newspaper after she won a prize. That writer was Dodie Smith (Dorothy Gladys Smith, 1896-1990) and she was working at Heals in 1931. Before she started writing novels, Dodie Smith wrote plays. She had worked in the theatre so writing plays would have seemed a natural progression.

Most people will know of Dodie’s first novel I Capture the Castle published in 1948, which has that famous and brilliant first line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” After that the rest of the book has a lot to live up to and fortunately doesn’t disappoint. It’s such a wonderfully funny, bittersweet love letter to growing up, writing and England. The 2003 film version with Romola Garai as the narrator, Cassandra, definitely does the book justice.

I Capture the Castle film

I Capture the Castle film

Dodie’s other famous work was the children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956) which was apparently inspired by a friend’s comment about Dodie’s own beloved dalmatians “Those dogs would make a lovely fur coat!”

Dodie with dalmatian

              Dodie with dalmatian

It’s another well observed book and mixes humour and fear brilliantly. Cruella de Vil is terrifying, but also a great (if unintentional) anti-fur ambassador. Who would want to be like her?

Cruella_de_Vil

            Cruella_de_Vil

Dodie spent all her life writing and if it wasn’t books or plays, it was letters to friends or her diary. She was a full-on full-time writer and a wonderful inspiration to anyone who’s ever worked in a shop and dreamed of be able to write professionally.

If you want to know the full story about Dodie get hold of Valerie Grove’s biography Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith

Albert Camus: November is Absurd

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Albert Camus

Albert Camus

November has sneaked up and closed the curtains. The clocks have changed, but the evenings are still drawing in. Halloween has been and gone and bonfire night too and that’s just in the first week. All a bit spooky and dark and fitting then that 7 November is the birth date of Albert Camus (1913-1960) philosopher, journalist and writer of L’Étranger, often translated as The Outsider (1942). He also wrote other novels, short stories and non-fiction. He was famous for his theories on the Absurdist School of Thought and stated that ‘individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning’. More on Camus here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/camus/

The Outsider (Penguin)

The Outsider (Penguin)

As most writers will know, November is also National Novel Writing Month or ‘NaNoWrimo’. I always forget the acronym, which isn’t a good start if you’re hoping to actually do the challenge, and it is a challenge! The idea is that you write around 50,000 words in the month of November, which translates as writing quite a lot of words every day (almost a couple of thousand). Or doing what I would do, which would be prevaricating for the first three weeks and then trying to catch up. But that’s just me, LOTS of people love nanowrimo and say that even if the final result is a massive editing challenge, it makes you focus on just writing, which is what every writer should try to do. So good luck to all you nanowrimoers (made up word?). If anyone wants to know more look at the official website: http://nanowrimo.org/

nanowrimo

nanowrimo

Recognising that I will not be doing the Nanowrimo challenge this year, I am focussing instead on sending out short stories, finding fun little competitions like ‘Less than 100 words’ which is online at http://www.lessthan100words.com/, doing research for my novel and connecting with local writers, like those at the wonderful Norwich Writers’ Circle https://norwichwriters.wordpress.com/

I also received today the latest issue of ‘Short fiction journal’ http://www.shortfictionjournal.co.uk/ This is a high quality publication in association with Plymouth University. Full of short stories, translations and art and published every autumn. Submissions are open now until December 31st, details on their website.

Short Fiction 9

Short Fiction 9

If you have also decided not to do nanowrimo but still want to get that novel written you could turn any  month into an ‘every day is a writing day’ month (absurdist acronym still to be decided) and there are website communities available that fit this need. Personally, I am quite tempted by this one: http://750words.com/ It’s online and private, so not open to the general public, but it still allows you to track how well you’re doing with your word counts.

Katherine Mansfield

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Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

October is the birth month of Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) a modernist short story writer born to a socially prominent family in New Zealand. Her real name was Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp and it is telling that she chose to change her name and rid herself of some of the upper class trappings of the family to which she was born when she moved away from home and went about getting her stories published.

She travelled around continental Europe and lived for long periods of time in London, being part of the bohemian set there. She was friends with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and Woolf wrote in her diary: “I was jealous of her writing—the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

Throughout all this she followed the ‘modern’ path of living her life as she saw fit. Like many artists and creative people in the new century, she wanted to lose the oppressive old Victorian rules about sex and had numerous affairs with both men and women (scandalising her mother back in New Zealand) and used the experiences in some of her stories. She also had two marriages, the first was a mistake and the second was to John Middleton Murry, an Oxford graduate, writer and editor of literary magazines.

Katherine Mansfield with John Middleton Murray

Katherine Mansfield with John Middleton Murray

Her greatest loss was the death of her much-loved brother, Leslie Heron “Chummie” Beauchamp in the First World War. It was for him that she wanted to write about their happy childhood together in New Zealand. She suffered from ongoing illnesses and as her health was so precarious she tried to write as much as she could in the years before she succumbed to tuberculosis when 34.

This is a short, scrappy run-down of Mansfield’s rich but all too brief life. The reality was far more complicated, interesting and, at times, contentious. The most important thing to know about Mansfield is that she wrote exceptional short stories! And if you don’t know her work then go and find one of her story collections. Middleton Murry ensured her work, fiction and non-fiction, was published after her death.

The Garden Party by Katherie Mansfield

If you want to know more about Mansfield’s life check out Claire Tomalin’s biography of Katherine:

katherine_mansfield_tomalin1988

And these two websites are worth a look too:

http://www.katherinemansfield.com http://www.katherinemansfieldsociety.org/

Of course nothing really beats reading her work, her short stories or her very revealing and at times heart-rending journal.

Journal of Katherine Mansfield

 

A new edition of this journal is available from Persephone Books http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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John Tenniel's picture of Alice with flamingo

John Tenniel’s picture of Alice with an annoyed flamingo.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  is 150 years old this year. Published in 1865 by Macmillan, the author was Charles L. Dodgson (1832-1898).

Charles L. Dodgson, 1857

Charles L. Dodgson, 1857

Dodgson was allowed to use his pen name of Lewis Carroll and alternative names for the book like ‘Alice Among the Fairies, and ‘Alice’s Golden Hour’ were binned. In its 150 years Alice has been reimagined many times in plays, musicals, films and simplified picture books. Part of the story’s appeal must be down to not just the wonderful writing by Carroll, but the glorious pictures.

John Tenniel, Self-portrait

John Tenniel, Self-portrait

The artist was John Tenniel (1820-1914). He was already well known in his time for his illustrations for Punch, a political magazine. Carroll had admired his pictures of animals in a version of Aesop’s fables and with the high animal count in Alice Tenniel was an obvious choice of artist.

For Alice all Tenniel’s paper drawings had to be carved into woodblocks by engravers, which were then used as masters to create electrotype copies in metal. This was a new process, but it transformed how things could were printed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electrotyping Electrotype ensured printing of the books was quicker and more precise and this was a good thing as the book was very popular right from the start and the entire first print run sold out.

The White Rabbit

The White Rabbit

The book was and still is popular with both children and adults (Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria were fans) because of its humour, fantasy and clever wordplay. It marked a change in children’s books by allowing fun and silliness rather than just teaching reading or moral instruction.

A new stage adaption this year is the musical wonder.land where the story is based in the internet, the ultimate rabbit hole leading to all manner of wonders and dangers. With book and lyrics by Moira Buffini and music by Damon Albarn this is currently playing at the National Theatre in London. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/wonder.land

There have already been lots of events this year celebrating 150 years of Alice and I’m hoping tea parties formed part of that. If you missed them and feel left out make some tea and invite some interesting characters round (animal and human). Mad Hats are of course necessary. And see the 2010 film by Tim Burton with Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter for inspiration.

Depp in Tim Burton Alice

Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter

Oh, and don’t forget to read the original book as well…

Man Booker Prize 2015 and Penelope Fitzgerald

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down by the river

down by the river

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction shortlist 2015 was announced last week. See the list here: http://themanbookerprize.com/man-booker-prize-2015.

If you work in publishing or at a bookshop you will already know about the shortlist and have seen tables piled up with the six shortlisted books. For everyone else, it depends on whether you read books and if you do how much you know or care about big literary prizes. I’ll assume you have a passing interest…

The Booker (no one I know would call it the ‘Man Booker’ as the ‘Man’ sponsor was only added in 2002) is seen as equivalent to the Oscars in terms of sales and prestige. Despite this the prize has always been followed by controversy, which I would suggest is the same with the Oscars. Booker judges have been accused of choosing a bad winner, having a conflict of interests (e.g. being in a relationship with an author?) or always choosing men (since the prize started in 1969, 30 men and 16 women have won the prize). It’s probably getting better as Hilary Mantel has won twice!

I have to admit that I haven’t read loads of the Booker Prize novels, but one that I have read is the 1978 winner, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s set in the 1960’s and is about a group of people living in riverboats on the Thames. The selection of Fitzgerald’s book as a Booker winner was criticised at the time as the novel is fairly short and the story is concentrated on domestic issues like family life, relationships, outsiders and how poverty can decide whether you sink or swim. I found it wonderful, a great evocation of the times and often very funny. I also love the fact it’s partially based on her own life with her two young daughters on a barge that sank!

Offshore bookcover

Penelope was also very inspiring as she didn’t start writing novels until she was sixty. More on Penelope here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/17/penelope-fitzgerald-biography-hermione-lee