Monday, January 30, 2006

Lies and Little Deaths

Have just added a link to Jason Lundberg's 'Lies and Little Deaths' blog on the side bar (underneath his other site 'Most Excellent and Lamentable'). He is a podcaster - and I think I am about to become a regular listener. Found what he had to say very interesting - it was like having a radio DJ talking lucidly about writing and books.


I woke to hear a cheery voice explain that experts think that 'the Greenland ice cap is on the verge of melting...and now onto the government's new health policy...'

Is that it? Is that all there is to say? Why isn't anyone jumping up and down?

Widespread international and irreversible catastrophe threatens but we are taking it all so calmly. I keep wanting someone to tell me it isn't true, that they could be wrong, but no one does.

We go back to the inane, the irrelevant - James Frey's memoir isn't altogether true. Interesting, but have you heard about Greenland?

Someone has won the Whitbread with a book on Matisse. Good, but what about this ice cap melting?

Apparently Greenland contains one tenth of the world's ice and anyone who still believes that global warming isn't really happening might care to look at these pictures of the Kamarujuk glacier on the north west coast of Greenland, 71 degrees north. The black and white one was taken in 1930 by Alfred Wegener - the man responsible for the hypothesis of continental drift, and the colour one I took in 2001 from almost exactly the same spot when I was researching for my novel. As you can see nothing had changed... except for the ice.

I also noticed on the BBC website that a group called the ARCTIC MONKEYS have made world-record album sales recently. ARCTIC MONKEYS, eh? Who could they mean?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Phantom Illness

The Hodmandods needed food and so I had to abandon THE NOVEL last week to do a little 'hunting and gathering' in the ancestral tribeland known as Tesco.

What happened there has been puzzling me ever since:
(i) by the trolleys someone I knew asked me if I was well in such concerned tones that I suspected it was not just a variant on the usual greeting;
(ii) just as I was reaching for a handful of Brussel sprouts a former colleague greeted me and said that he hoped I would be better soon because I'd obviously not been well;
(iii) then in the lifts a stranger looked most sympathetically at me and said, 'Take care of yourself, love, and mind you keep out of this cold.'

This is very disturbing because I am, in fact, the picture of health. I scrutinised my face in the mirror when I came in and could not detect any sort of unhealthy pallor. True, I have rarely been out of doors recently and therefore it is possible I could be suffering from a vitamin D deficiency, and I guess have been concentrating on THE NOVEL to such an unhealthy extent that I sometimes believe I know (and talk to) the people I am writing about, and yes, I did suffer from the usual existential angst by the plastic bags of pre-sliced breads - but surely this is perfectly normal.

Now, every time I pass a mirror I look at myself. Is this how hypochondria starts, I wonder - looking into the mirror to check for signs of pathological decay?

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Have I missed something?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

THE ICE QUEEN by Alice Hoffman

I am trying to work out why I picked up this book (US)(UK). Maybe it was the picture on the cover, (the UK one is of roots in ice, the US one is below), or maybe it was the title -THE ICE QUEEN- the name of my favourite Hans Christian Andersen's fairy story, or maybe it was the name of the writer - someone I'd heard of but never read, but mainly I think it was because I opened the book and read on the first page: 'Be careful what you wish for. I know that for a fact. Wishes are brutal unforgiving things...'

This is a powerful book, full of beautiful, weird and exotic imagery, and remarkable 'facts' about lightning strikes. Alice Hoffman takes the incredible but true - people struck by lightning can have strange branch-like burns on their bodies - and exaggerates them so they become fantasy - a man struck by lightning becomes too hot to touch, and has the image of a man's face burnt onto his back - in this way the boundary between fact and fiction is blurred.

The narrator of the book, like the child in the fairy story, acquires a splinter in the heart when she wishes that her mother were dead - and that wish comes true. That splinter causes the protagonist to become frozen, not fully alive, and she consequently develops an interest in death. Her employment as librarian allows her to research into ways of dying which in turn leads to her one relationship - with a policeman who shares her interest in forensics. There are touches of humour, mainly of the black kind.

Another death causes her to migrate from New Jersey and follow her brother to Florida. The brother is a scientist, a meteorologist, someone with little emotional intelligence - the archetypical cold scientist in fact, and for most of the book they continue their distant relationship. There are two further pivotal moments: the first when she is struck by lightning which gives her a second chance at life; and another towards the end of the book when she makes a disturbing discovery about the health of her brother. This is what finally causes the splinter to thaw.

The themes of the book are coldness and death - not a particularly good choice for the festive season, then, especially for someone recently bereaved - and in retrospect the death motif should have been obvious to me from the first few pages. However I continued to read because it made me think (miserably, but still it made me think) about having time and not having time, and of the advantages and disadvantages of sudden death without warning and the more protracted sort.

The narrator in this book had time to make her brother's wish come true - a scene involving butterflies - and also a chance to answer the question of what is the best way to die. The answer at the end was a happy one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Beer Trap - a tale of radishes and cuckolding

Some days the snail gets depressed. It closes the door to its house and won't come out. If it had any curtains to draw it would keep them closed. It thinks of why it is there a lot and what is the point of being a snail exactly - all it produces is slime and it eats a lot. It doesn't much help anyone, it doesn't actually produce anything useful that it can think of at the moment, although in its youth, when it was still being formed in its egg, it had big dreams. At that time it thought it could do anything it liked, but now it understands that it can't. It had thought that what it did might make a difference. It was a very able snail after all - it crawled faster than any of the other snails around it and at the time it was proud of its accomplishment but now it understands that there are other animals that move much faster.

There is a beer trap near the radish seedlings. It smells so good the snail feels drawn to it as it is drawn to a juicy radish. It thinks of the final plunge, the last swallow, the sweetness of malt and the comfort of oblivion. Slowly the snail opens its door, sniffs with that part of it that smells, stretches out, one set of antennae and then the eyes, one and then the next. If the snail had eyelids it would blink. In front of the beer trap is its favourite little white snail kissing the snail's best friend, the one that grew next to him in the nest.

I have been cuckolded, it thinks. The beer has lost its allure, but the radish has not. Its friends are locked in a complicated embrace - one part of one reaches into the soft parts of the other. They sway slightly as if they are listening to a particularly melodious and lyrical song and for a few seconds the first snail is mesmerised as it watches them. I need a radish, it thinks. Its foot pulsates wildly as it glides across the earth. The radishes have done well this year - the snail noticed them yesterday. They are large, long and prickly - a new variety from South America. The snail's slime seems to become more slippery as it anticipates reaches them. In fact its slime soon becomes so slippery that the snail realises that it has stopped moving altogether. Instead it seems to be sinking - rapidly. It had forgotten the beer trap. As the foamy liquid closes above its head it reflects dismally that this is not how it thought it would be. The malt has gone sour and there is no comfort.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

TRYING NEAIRA by Debra Hamel

There are two possible origins for my surname (actually it is my husband's name but since I am on the cusp of officially being a 'Dudman' longer than I was ever a 'Jenkins' it now feels like my name too). One origin of the name is 'Keeper of the Snails' the other is 'the cuckolded one'. I have decided to go with the 'Keeper of the Snails' version for obvious reasons.

Having finished Debra Hamel's book TRYING NEAIRA I can report that being the cuckolded one in ancient Greece could be entertaining. In fact Ms Hamel suggests that some of the cuckolded ones probably went out of their way to encourage cuckolding so they could exact revenge. The most interesting (though least mercenary) involved a radish, and, as Ms Hamel explains this was 'not the dainty red salad component one finds nowadays in the produce aisle, but rather a much larger variety of the vegetable - an instrument of sufficient proportion for a cuckolded husband to effectively register his displeasure.' Probably, by now, you can guess what happened to the unfortunate legume, and I shan't go further than that here - but will just say that the term 'radishing', which is a verb I had never come across before, now has eye-wateringly hilarious connotations in the Hodmandod household.

TRYING NEAIRA is that rare sort of book that informs and entertains in equal measure. For the scholar it is a well-written, well-researched and well-referenced account of an episode in ancient history. For the general reader it is a type of court room drama with a twist - as in a court the evidence is gradually exposed and examined thereby revealing the motivations and lives of prosecutors and defenders - and the twist is that this is all happening over 300 years BC.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The World Fantasy Awards, World War Two and one reason I am here

Comgratulations to Jeff VanderMeer for being selected as one of the judges in the World Fantasy Award.

What was also interesting to me is that one of the other judges, Steve Lockley, lives in Llangyfelach, Swansea - such a small world, or maybe each of us has so many connections - like spider webs - maybe it is not such a small world just a heavily webbed one...

...Because my grandmother used to live on Llangyfelach Road in Swansea and I remember even now the day I learnt to spell that word correctly. 'Llangyfelach' may also be the reason I exist, in a convoluted way.

Most days during the years of the second world war my mother would play with the other children in her street. At tea time they would all be called in with children calling out the usual promises to see each other the next day. But one night the air raid sirens went off and one of her friends took refuge in an Anderson shelter, while my mother's family decided to sleep downstairs in a middle room which had only a small window and seemed just as safe. The bombs duly fell - one just outside my mother's house, smashing all the windows - another directly on the Anderson shelter of her friend's family. No one in the shelter survived.

My mother says she just remembers the glass. In their panic to get out of their house that night they forgot to check that she had put on her shoes and her feet were cut. The morning after they had to go into town to check their relatives - my great grandmother and grandfather who lived in Bryn Hyfryd where the bombing had been heavy too. Sometimes I imagine that walk through the bombed town - the hosepipes snaking around buildings, the smell of cinder, the sound of bricks, falling, a metallic ring, the feeling of dread... My great grandparents were fine, and after iodine had been applied to my mother's feet it was decided they would all stay where they were until my grandparents' house was cleared. But the morning after that when my grandmother tried to get out of bed she found she couldn't. She couldn't talk, couldn't move, lost her hair...

Another time, after another raid - and this is where Llangyfelach comes in - this small family of husband, wife and the child (my grandfather, grandmother and mother) started walking - up the hill and out of town, through the fields and into the village of Llangyfelach. The bombing raids were known to come every night for three nights so they thought they would be safer out of town. They slept in the church hall of the village and that night they watched Swansea light up with bombs and flares. The night after that they were invited into the house of friends in the village, and the day after that they went home. But sometimes I think - what if the bomb had dropped a few metres to the right that night, or their shelter had been struck too - of course I could go on and on. We are all the results of 'what ifs', the coincidences that made us.

But that is why Jeff's blog on the WFA led me to think about my own existence.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

An Interview with Sarah Salway

Sarah Salway is the author of SOMETHING BEGINNING WITH... (THE ABCS OF LOVE in the US) which has been translated into several different languages. In fact I came across the Italian translation in the front window of a book shop when I happened to be strolling through Milan on holiday last year. It follows a few months in the life of twenty-something girl told in short snatches - one for each letter of the alphabet - and I enjoyed it very much when I read it when it first came out in 2004. She has also won prizes for her poetry and short stories, has an MA with distinction in Creative Writing from the University of Glamorgan and has recently completed her thesis for her PhD in Creative Writing at John Moores University, Liverpool. Before this she was a journalist with a degree in journalism from the London School of Fashion and has worked for the PR company that was the inspiration for the comedy Ab Fab starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanne Lumley.

Sarah Salway's prose is witty and light but there is a darker deeper undercurrent to her work which creeps up on you as you read - which also comes through very well in her response to my seven questions. She has another novel coming out this year called TELL ME EVERYTHING (which I haven't seen yet but looks, from the blurb, to contain the ultimate 'unreliable narrator') and, apparently, another book coming out in March which sounds greatly intriguing and which she describes very well in her answers to my 'further questions'.


“There are moments when you really can stop time. Make a decision to go one way, and not the other. There's just a sense, a prickle on the skin, that tells you you're at the crossroads. But it's only when you're too far along to change direction, you realise you ever had a choice.

She didn't mean to tell the story, or have it end that way. She just got a little … carried away.
It has been several years since she confided in a teacher, and Molly Drayton is still feeling the aftershocks. But when a chance meeting with a stranger leads to an offer of a room in exchange for telling her stories, she jumps at the chance. Slowly she builds a new, eccentric family around herself: Tim, her secretive boyfriend, who just might be a spy; Miranda, the lovelorn hair stylist; Liz, the lusty librarian; Mr Roberts, landlord and listener; and his wife, Mrs Roberts, who is that very wonderful thing, French.
Much to Molly's surprise, she finds the stories she tells now are her key to creating a completely different life. Suddenly, her future is full of endless possibilities. The trouble is, Molly's not the only one telling tales. And the truth is always stranger than fiction.

Sarah Salway's witty, finely-tuned and poignant story of many stories is a uniquely entrancing chronicle of a very different coming-of-age.”


1. Do you have any connection with snails?

I think the first snail I fell in love with was that giant one that Dr Doolittle sailed home in. I must have been a very domestic child because I can remember how excited I was about it. It just seemed like such a perfect house, all smooth curved walls and that silky pink colour. Did it even have a staircase, or am I being weird now? Anyway I dreamt about it for years; actually I'd still like to live in it. And then of course, there was Brian in the Magic Roundabout. Now, he was cool. Other kids liked Dougal, but he was always too hairy for me. I like my snails smooth, although Dougal was a dog. I do realise that.

2. What is your proudest moment?

My kids make me pretty proud - not for anything they achieve, but when they make me laugh or question myself, and I think, I did that - I helped make someone that I actually enjoy being with! But my single proudest moment might have been the launch of Something Beginning With. The room was full of people I loved, who were all there to wish me well. My publisher gave me a bag full of all these little presents connected with the book, including these very sexy knickers which made me blush, and everyone was talking so easily to everyone else. It was a brilliant party - we ran out of drink, and I think I smiled for about a month after.

3. Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

I've just finished my Phd, well all but the viva, which is on how we are influenced by our family stories, and the whole experience has been pretty life-changing. Before I set out, I always thought my family stories were pretty negative, but as I read more theory, not only did I come to the conclusion I'd been too harsh, I also realised that I had to grow up and stop blaming other people for who I am. It sounds a bit self-helpy and obvious, but it was a startling insight at the time. I think it's changed my writing too because I'm more careful to write things I really believe in. Publishing my novel was also life-changing, in that for years before I'd been building up to it as the ultimate goal, but once I got the contract, it felt like a real anti-climax when I realised that life just went on in the same way. But then I felt an enormous overwhelming relief. Phew, I DON'T have to change and be a Writer with a capital W!

4. What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?

It seems so trivial to talk about personal sadness when we're surrounded by tragedy all round the world, and I cry far too often watching the news. But I do get terribly sad when I see how brave old people are and how hard their life can be. I hate how we just hurry by and take for granted how we can do even simple things like just crossing a road without thinking too much. I witnessed an awful scene in the supermarket recently when an old woman was struggling with her purse and the assistant was laughing at her, but perhaps I felt more angry than sad about that.

5. If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?

I wish I could always think the best of people, and stop being cynical about their motives. I've come to the conclusion that it's better to be open and risk getting hurt, but it's hard sometimes. One of the reasons I love the internet is because people can be remarkably honest and generous, and I find that inspirational. One site I'm addicted to is because you get to cheer people on for doing the weirdest things like learning to cartwheel, starting a fan club or building a boat, as well as the really big life goals. I don't think I've gone on that site once without laughing out loud at something someone's written, and that's pretty good. I've just got to try to transfer that feeling into real life, and stop scowling at strangers.

6. What is happiness?

Red shoes? That was the first thing I thought about when I read this question, so I think I'll have to seriously consider buying them. Once in Ireland too, we were staying in a tiny cottage by the sea, my kids were playing on the beach, my husband was swimming, and I was sitting on some rocks in the sun, watching them and writing a story I was really engrossed in, and I can remember thinking at the time how happy I was. I'm a lot happier now than I used to be because I can accept being sad as part of life. I'm actually not sure I'd want to be happy all the time, because I'd be scared I'd forget how to feel.

7. What is the first thing you do when you get up?

I'm very very horrible in the morning. I walk downstairs like a zombie, make myself a cup of coffee and take it straight up to bed, talking to no one, looking at no one. Then I read until my daughter's alarm clock goes off, and it's time to try to make myself into some kind of human being. She got a clock that moos like a cow for Christmas so I look forward to that because it's like living on a farm. I've a pile of books by my bed, and having finished my dissertation, I can now read books I like rather than ones that 'have a purpose'. At the moment I'm reading Michelle Lovric's The Remedy. It's completely gorgeous and set in Venice. A joyous way to wake up.


1. I believe you started as a prize-winning short story writer, is the way you write a short story different from how you write a novel - in terms of structure, planning and voice, for example.

I actually started writing as a novelist and then when I did my MA, I was encouraged to read more short stories, and from that to write them. It's a brilliant way to learn and practice different techniques - to see how the second person works, for example, as I don't think a whole novel could take the claustrophobic feel 'you' brings. Both Something Beginning With and Tell Me Everything have their genesis in short stories, so I suppose I can directly answer your question. Writing them as novels was much more than just expanding a structure. It was as if the characters were released to breathe and play, and the voice became less mine, more of the narrator's voice. For the time I was writing the two novels, I had to keep the whole structure like a balloon up in the air around me, and my job was not to try too much to contain the chaos. I had to trust I would get there, and at some stage in the writing process I did get a real feel of the shape of the novel. It made me think that my short stories were more akin to my poems - I'm much more aware of the emotional response from the reader I hope I'll achieve. With the novels though, I try to let go and actually enter the world I create.

2. You are also a prize winning poet - does poetry influence your prose or do you tend to keep them separate?

Well, I keep getting the comment that my poetry is actually very prosaic, and I do think I keep to a strong narrative line in my poetry. I find it hard to leave something just as an image, although there's no doubt that thinking and making imagery work has helped my prose. As does thinking about the rhythm of the words. I now read my prose out a lot more than I used to, and really try to hear it in my head. And boy, do I cut out unnecessary words, and also think of the overall look of the piece. More chapter and paragraph endings, than line endings, but it's a similar approach. I'm just so pleased to have got over a really powerful fear I had of poetry though - the thought of writing one, let alone have someone read it, would make me feel physically sick. I know I'm not alone here. I guess it comes down to rules, and getting things wrong!

3. Do you use any of your experience as a journalist in your writing?

Oh that's an interesting question. When I was a journalist I was interviewing lots of people for many different things, and some of the stories they told me, I've well not stolen but maybe poached! One of the things being a journalist taught me was that words had to come easily and quickly, and that actually held me up at the beginning. I would write something very quickly and it would be OK - that was my job! - so it was difficult to go back and edit. I really had to re-learn to write from the beginning, and that was sometimes painful. Poetry helped me in this, and also realising I wasn't just conveying information - that the gaps, what I wasn't writing about, were equally important. I do worry sometimes I've now gone the other way!

4. Would you recommend doing a PhD in creative writing to aspiring novelists?

I've loved it, but I've been very lucky with my tutors and the support I've received. I'm not sure though, to be honest, how much it's helped my creative writing (and this will probably get me into trouble with said tutors!) It's been an excellent workshop, but I could have got that elsewhere. It's my research project - looking at the storied self and relating this to my writing process - that has been fantastically exciting. I spent three years feeling as if I'd won the lottery, and it's helped me a lot. As much in giving me space to think about these things as anything else. Now I teach I always try to eek out what really gets students on fire, and tell them to go with that. Sometimes there's a resistance. We seem to think we shouldn't be enjoying these things, but need to take the diligent, dutiful route. Boo to that, much better to have fun surely?

5. Before that you got an MA with distinction - also in creative writing - were the things that you learnt on this course different from those you learn while working towards your PhD ?

Yep, I think so. The MA was much more orientated towards moving away from this fact-driven journalistic style to something creative so there was a lot of experimentation. It made me go into the PhD more confident that I knew what was working about my writing. But it was on the Masters that I learnt how much I loved research - something that I'd considered the downside of studying before - and so the PhD was a chance to take this further.

6. You have a new novel coming out this year - is there anything you'd like to say about this?

I have a novel - Tell Me Everything - coming out in November, which is based on my research. The heroine is a 16 year old girl who leaves home, meets an old man and just answers yes to every question he asks. So she recreates herself and loses all her old stories. It's about the effect this has on her, and also the people she meets. It made me realise how much we rely on our history, and also our future when we're talking to people - most conversations are more about what we've done and what we're going to do, than what we're doing! Hopefully it's funny, but it's mostly dark. Bloomsbury have done a wonderful cover which will make small children cry. I love it!!!
BUT I have another book coming out in March - don't know if I'm allowed to mention that? It's very interesting - it's a collaboration with the poet, Lynne Rees, and we exchanged 300 pieces of 300 words by email with each other over a six month period. The only rules were there had to be some link between the pieces - a word, emotion, theme - and they had to be returned within 72 hours. It was a really energetic project, and the book is called Messages, and is being published by Bluechrome. I'm excited about this - we've been asked to give papers at various conferences coming up because collaboration brings up all sorts of writing issues around voice, ownership, creativity, which we're going to be addressing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

ELEVEN by Patricia Highsmith

Look what arrived this morning! This collection of short stories was recommended to me by Debra Hamel (whose TRYING NEAIRA I am reading at the moment and finding quite fascinating - did you know, for instance, that in Ancient Greece the lower class prostitutes had nails in their shoes which spelt out the message 'Follow me,' in the dust as they walked? This sort of detail really brings this long-forgotten world alive in the book).

Anyway, back to the snail anthology - ELEVEN by Patricia Highsmith... This collection of short stories was first published in 1945 and the edition that came through the post this morning is quite old but in good condition. I started reading the first story called THE SNAIL WATCHER as soon as it arrived and have to report it includes the most lovingly and closely observed description of snails mating I have encountered in my life.

There is another one to do with snails in the collection too (another tip-off from Debra) called THE QUEST FOR BLANK CLAVERINGI but I am leaving that one until later as a treat for myself.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

'CD Baby loves Clare.'

Following a suggestion made by 'DC Peaches' I investigated the website of Antje Duvelot and loved the snatches I heard so much I ordered one of her CDs from an independent firm called CD Baby.

I just received confirmation that the order had been sent out (email titled as above) and think it so funny I am copying it here...

'Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.

A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing.

Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy.

We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved 'Bon Voyage!' to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Saturday, January 14th.

I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as 'Customer of the Year'. We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!'

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Heinrich Harrer - author of SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET

Heinrich Harrer, the climber and author of SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET died this week. His book, which describes how he mentored the young Dalai Lama (which subsequently awakened western interest in the land of Tibet), was later made into a film starring Brad Pitt. This interesting BBC website article provides details of his extraordinary life, but what it doesn't mention is the little-known fact that Heinrich Harrer was the son-in-law of another extraordinary man - Alfred Wegener. However, although the two men had much in common - a love of climbing and conquering hardships that most of us can hardly imagine - I don't think they ever met. Alfred Wegener's youngest daughter, Lotte, was still a young child when her father died and presumably she met Heinrich Harrer much later.

The wives and families of famous adventurers are rarely mentioned or considered, but I think their hardships and mental endurance may equal and sometimes surpass that of their more famous relatives. Lotte's mother, Else Wegener, must have suffered considerable anguish both while her husband was making his important discoveries in Greenland, and also when she was eventually widowed at an early age with three young children (and two elderly parents). Then within a couple of years her eldest daughter, Hilde, died too, which must have been extremely hard to bear. When just a few years later her youngest daughter married another risk-taker and she had to help look after yet more (temporarily) fatherless children she must have pondered on the tendency of history to repeat itself.

Else Wegener was an accomplished writer and translator of books herself and wrote two interesting biographies of her husband and her father, Vladimir Köppen, who was an eminent meteorologist. She also helped her husband in some of his work, for instance interpreting the dialect of local people for her husband when he was interviewing them - he used their reports to predict where a meteorite had impacted.

When Heinrich Harrer returned from Tibet she was in her fifties, and I hope that from then on her life was easier. As it turned out she had many years to go and only died fairly recently - in the early 1990s aged 100.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Oxford University recommends... book to their geography undergraduates.

I am very pleased to report that Alfred Wegener's THE ORIGIN OF CONTINENTS AND OCEANS is listed as one of the key texts in their course on 'Critical Thinking for Geographers' and my book is listed as recommended reading to accompany this.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Book Selling at the ASE conference

Apart from lectures, demonstrations and discussions there was also a large marquee housing an exhibition of learning resources for teaching science at all levels as well as stands devoted to various specialist societies and publishers. This one I spotted had a familiar ring...

...with an inviting couch upon which I collapsed with bags and cup of coffee after my long train journey.

The theme was 'First Aid for the GCSE' and the sales reps were dressed as medics in disposable lab coats. As you can see there were computer displays, medicine bottles, cabinets, flashing emergency lights...ah the GCSE (General Certificate in Secondary Education) must be in a great deal of trouble to require such medical intervention and quite a few teachers seemed interested.

Some of the stalls in the exhibition were quite massive structures giving an impressive air of permanance for something that was obviously so temporary. They were a bit like film sets, with thick-walled alcoves, desks and chairs and complicated technological displays involving computers and simulations. There were also balloons, free bags, posters, and many ploys to grab a customer's attention...

After queuing for a sandwich and my encounter with Tarantino I made my way back to the Physics building where I had stashed my case of books in the caretaker's cupboard ('we're not responsible for it, mind') and then onto the lecture theatre where I was giving my talk. Dr Mark Biddiss of INSPIREducation was just clearing away the props from his lecture. He is the co-director of a company which provides in service teacher training. He gave me one of his colourful cards - 'science and maths with the fun bits left in' it says. Maybe that is why the GCSE is so ill. It has had its backbone removed - all the investigations and excitement of science has gone because everyone is so afraid of taking risks, of being sued if anyone burns a finger.

Anyway, my talk went well and although the audience was small it was appreciative and a few more people know about Alfred Wegener now, so I was pleased.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Humorous Entomologist

This is Lee, keeper of the spiders, the millipedes...

...and cockroaches. Millipedes, I learnt, are 'harmless herbivores' (even when they are as big as this) whereas centipedes are carnivores.

Cockroaches look a bit like millipedes but with additional features like heads (spot the odd one out in the picture above). This is a Madagascar Hissing cockroach because it comes from Madagascar and hisses when provoked.

Here is a close up of that tarantula again...

and finally a huge snail from Africa...

On the Big Bug Show Website the Princess Royal is quoted as saying 'I don't think I would class snails as pets.' And to think that I attempted to curtsey to this woman once (under protest).

Friday, January 06, 2006

My Little Friend

The ASE conference was excellent - not only did I sell out of books but I made a new friend. Her name is Tarantino. I asked her keeper (the Keeper of the Spiders) if it was true that tarantulas ate their mates after mating. He told me that it was just that they had poor eyesight and found it difficult to distinguish the mate from anything else that moves. Which is a problem I have all the time. He had a collection of other lovely little creatures too. More on this tomorrow.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

ASE Conference

Well I'm off to Reading tomorrow with a case of my books, my laptop, talk, a good book to read on the way, my ipod nano and of camera.

It is the Association of Science in Education Annual Conference and yours truly has been designated 'DISTINGUISHED SPEAKER'(!) which gives me a chance to tell an audience of secondary school teachers all about the life of the amazing Alfred Wegener.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

An Interview with Jeff Vandermeer

At the end of this month Jeff Vandermeer's new novel SHRIEK(UK)/(US) will be published in the UK. The US will have to wait until August which is a little strange since Mr Vandermeer lives in Florida - but that's the wonderful world of publishing for you - completely incomprehensible to this woman on the street. I have already seen this book in manuscript and reviewed it here.

Some books I find I enjoy but I forget them quite soon, they leave just a pleasant vague memory, while other books, like SHRIEK, stay with me much more vividly. For the uninitiated SHRIEK is set in Jeff VanderMeer's invented world of Ambergris (which I first encountered in the award winning City of Saints and Madmen(UK/US) - a world where spores and fungus have a pervasive and sinister presence. In this latest book this world is described even more seductively and mysteriously. It is a wonderfully intriguing book with an exciting and original structure which I am sure will win Mr Vandermeer a whole new troop of fans.

So, just to whet your appetite I asked Jeff to respond firstly to the seven questions and then to some additional questions on his writing in general. I think his answers are a fascinating insight into the life and career of a writer - it is a difficult business for most of us and what follows gives some indication of the dedication and tenacity involved (for more of an insight into this process see Jeff's books SECRET LIFE - an anthology of short stories which are quite fascinatingly annotated...

and WHY SHOULD I CUT YOUR THROAT?...which is a collection of critiques and autobiographical pieces clearly showing the writer as well as the writing 'in progress')

The Seven Questions

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)

JV: I have no particular anecdotes, just an abiding affection for snails. Every time I see one, I think how smooth and beautifully alien they look, how fully formed and finished. I like the slow elegance of their movements, the sense of their movements being carefully choreographed and yet fluid. I always stop and watch them when I encounter them.

CD: What is your proudest moment?

JV: Such a tough question. There's the proud moment of marrying Ann. There's the proud moment of selling my first book to a big publisher, Pan Macmillan. I've several times been very proud of my stepson Jason and my stepdaughter Erin. Fiercely proud. My family in general has made me proud. Over the past few years, I've been proud of being able to shed eighty pounds. In terms of individual moments, I think finishing Shriek - finally finishing it and seeing that it wasn't a load of rubbish - was a very proud moment for me. At many times I thought I might never finish it.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?

JV: I have had several, but I don't feel comfortable talking about the most profound of them. Most of the time a life-changing event for me has been a self-inflicted stupidity that has made me wiser or a tragedy that has made me see the world differently. But every year or two, I have what I call a kind of walking dream-time epiphany. It's where inspiration strikes so strongly that everything seems to whirl together and wherever I am, I have to sit down and write and there could be two people around me or two thousand and I don't notice them at all. These are life-changing in that they recalibrate you somewhat. You're the same but you're slightly different. Another time, when I was out hiking and in deep forest came across either a jaguarandi or a Florida panther that was life-changing. Because I found I was willing to stand there and fight if I had to, which sounds hopelessly caveman, but I was glad to know that I wasn't a coward in that sense. You can be brave in that kind of situation, though, and be an emotional coward. Generally, the life-changing events of the horrific variety come out in my dreams. When they enter my dreams and they turn to nightmares, I have to write them out of me or it becomes too much to bear.

CD: What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?

JV: It's almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are two of them. Horrible and sad. One is a photograph I once saw of a woman being burned alive in China while also being flayed alive. The other was a National Geographic special where they showed a market in the Far East and there were several skinned puppies, still alive despite being utterly skinless, in a basket for sale. I don't know that I can really convey how this affected me, but I couldn't even cry. It was beyond that. I just wanted to scream. Sometimes it is impossible to exist in this world and, for all of the goodness and beauty in the world, withstand the crushing pressure of the cruelty we do to each other and to animals. It's horrific, but behind the horrific is the sadness of it all, because of the lack of necessity of it. It's just dumb, blind, sad.

CD: If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?

JV: I would listen to other people better. I'm fragmented a lot, and off in my thoughts, and I sometimes shortchange people that way. I come in from bouts of 'receiving' i.e. just basically soaking up conversation for story idea and go through bouts where I try hard to listen in a non-writer sense. I also think I can be very selfish and I try to work on that. I think my wife suffers from the fragmentation the most because she is closest to me but many times I am Somewhere Else even when I'm there. She knows that's the nature of my work and the nature of being very busy, but I need to work on that more.

CD: What is happiness?

JV: Happiness is understanding that people and love are the most important things in the universe - not ideas, not things. For me, my happiness is my wife, my work, my interactions with my friends. All of these are about love. And I think love is about curiosity and getting out of yourself and trying to understand other people. I do an incomplete job of loving others, I know, but I try hard. I think happiness is indistinguishable at times from sadness because everything we love will one day no longer exist. But that's what we've got to work with and through.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?

JV: Jump in the shower. LOL!


CD: I was wondering if your vision of Ambergris comes from a nightmare, also was it something that built up slowly in your mind or was it suddenly there - complete, all at once?

JV: I wrote a story called "Learning to Leave the Flesh" which was basically a prose poem about dealing with death and loss. It mentioned some Ambergrisian features like Albumuth Boulevard but felt more like just a distortion of our world. I liked "Learning" but that story was also very ephemeral, shimmery, delicate. I decided that at some point I would write about that place again but in a more muscular style. Six months later, I remember going to bed in a kind of peaceful state. Everything around me seemed to be slow and comprehensible in an odd way. I began to dream. I can't remember the dream, but I remember waking from the dream with an image of the city of Ambergris in my head. And the image was wedded to the character of a troubled missionary staring up at a third story window and falling in love with a woman he saw there. I don’t think I was really awake yet. I mean, I had woken up, but I hadn’t *woken up*. There was a kind of energy running through my body. I remember that my fingertips felt weighted, like something was coming through them, as I sat down at the computer. There was a firmness to the keyboard that hadn’t been there before. I sat there and very deliberately, without haste, I typed out the first eight or nine pages of “Dradin, In Love,” the first true Ambergris story. I think I recognized even as I was typing, from some calm place, that the setting was a combination of all the places I visited as a child. But mostly I was excited, taken over by this vision, because even though I had to stop after eight pages, there was so much more information running through my head—about Ambergris, about the characters. I went to the couch and wrote as much of it down as I could, on little scraps of paper. And in the morning, I took the scraps and continued with the story. What is odd is that I had mono, with a low-grade fever, for most of the time I was writing Dradin, and so there is a kind of delirious feel to the text that is a direct reflection of my own kind of fatigued state. I also made very few revisions to those first eight pages, which never happened before or since. (As for the plot, it was based on a story a friend told me, about how his father, walking down the street, looked up and saw his future mother in an office window, went right up and asked her to marry him. Which I always thought a little odd.)

The most direct result of nightmare is “The Transformation of Martin Lake.” I suffered a kind of trauma, one which also influenced Dradin, and it began to manifest in my dreams as a shadowy figure behind a door. There was a screen door in front of the real door. The real door would open as I walked toward it and through a hole in the screen door, I would extend my arm. The figure would hold my hand, palm up, and then plunge a knife into the middle of my palm. And keep cutting at it while I just stood there and let the figure do it. It’s the most intense nightmare I’ve ever had and after awhile I couldn’t take it any more. I had to do something about it, so I wrote it into “The Transformation of Martin Lake,” where it became pretty much one of the central images of the novella. Once I had written it into the novella, I stopped having the nightmare.

CD: Can you say where it (Ambergris) comes from and what influenced you in your invention of the place?

JV: I may have answered this above, but ever since that initial vision, I have gorged myself on Venetian and Byzantine history to kind of set a base-line for what Ambergris is all about, and then thrown in my experiences in Southeast Asia for good measure. I still find myself using incidents from childhood to set the scene in various Ambergris stories. It is the perfect way to make my rootlessness as a child into a strength—creating a sense of place that encompasses all the places I experienced.

CD: Also does reality and the imaginary ever get mixed up in your mind? Ambergris is described so well and so convincingly in your books I sometimes caught myself thinking that it really does exist, somewhere far away... is there a part of you that believes in the reality of Ambergris?

JV: Because the experience of writing the first few Ambergris stories was so intense—I mean, I really was living and breathing it day to day. Everything I encountered entered the stories. At times it felt like automatic writing. This kind of frightened me a little bit. It made me feel like Ambergris was writing me. It’s just so unusual to have such a sustained level of inspiration for so long. Usually, you slog through the writing at some point, no matter what the initial spark. But, anyway, because of this, I wrote a story for myself called “The Strange Case of X,” X being an author remarkably like me who was in an insane asylum for believing his creation was real. It was a way of kind of getting outside of Ambergris, so I could write about it from a different perspective. It served that purpose. I got out from under the obsessional quality of the text, and that allowed me try different styles and modes of writing about Ambergris. But then I started showing the story to a few friends—some of whom actually thought I was nuts, and some of whom had their sense of reality so altered that after reading the story they were momentarily unsure if they were in the real world or Ambergris. At that point, I realized the story connected with readers and so I included it in my published works about Ambergris. It actually became the catalyst for the whole second half of City of Saints & Madmen.

CD: Could you tell me a little about your life - where you were born, how you spent your childhood and how you first got published and your writing career in general.

JV: I was born in Belfont, Pennsylvania. My dad was and is a research chemist, currently studying fire ants. At the time, my mother was a painter an illustrator who made good money working for the government doing biological illustrations. She also made quite a bit of money designing psychedelic doors for various offices and homes. Currently, she’s in Paris studying French graveyard art for a PhD. My parents joined the Peace Corps when I was young and we moved to the Fiji Islands so that my dad could teach Chemistry at the University of the South Pacific and my mother could do biological illustrations of sea turtles and rhinoceros beetles for various naturalists and scientists. We lived there for four years and we spent six months traveling around the world on the way back. I was ten when we came back to the US and the whole experience deeply affected both my sister and I. We got to see things that kids that age don’t normally see, have experiences that you usually don’t get a chance to have until you’re college age: trance dances in Indonesia, Kathmandu, Machu Picchu, etc. It was surreal in the best sense of the word. It’s so difficult to go back to seeing the world as ordinary, even in the most mundane circumstances, when you travel like that as a kid. I try very hard to remember that lesson, just in getting up in the morning and looking around our front yard, even. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t dismiss anything as something you know too well)

Then we came back to the states—complete with authentic British accents—and lived in Ithaca, New York, and then Gainesville, Florida, where I went to high school. I had written poetry for a long time—I still have a little notebook with a really awful “Oh how I love the sea” poem from when I was eight or nine. But I didn’t start trying narrative until the sixth or seventh grade. In eighth grade, my English teacher, Mr. Welker, had us all writing novels for some reason. And I did all these novel installments about Draco of Lost Atlantis. I also played Dungeons and Dragons briefly, but found I preferred writing stories about the characters to actually playing the game, and so I guess that was influential. At the same time, by high school I was reading a lot of mainstream poetry, founded a national poetry magazine called Chimera Connections (we published a lot of award-winning poets, including work by National Book Award winners), and in addition to reading SF/Fantasy was reading Vladimir Nabokov, Barth, and many others. Soon, I was writing short stories and had abandoned poetry. I took a creative class in high school and unified the various assignments by sticking a frog in each as a grace note. I self-published a collection based on that work called The Book of Frog. By then, I’d sold work to a number of indie press publications and some literary magazines, mostly on the genre side of things. Over time, I began to sell to larger and larger publications and I thought I would have a really good career as a short story writer. But then I had the Ambergris vision, started writing novellas, and for ten years had difficulty expanding on my earlier success because the Ambergris material was so different from my prior work. Long story short, I labored in the indie press until 2002, when Pan Macmillan bought City of Saints and Veniss based on their success in the indie press, and from there my hard, long slog has blossomed into commercial press footholds on both sides of the Atlantic and in many foreign languages.

CD: Your new book Shriek has an unusual and very effective structure. Can you name any important influences in your work?

JV: Shriek, structurally, is, on one level, a direct response or in dialog with Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, in which twinned narrative voices intermingle. It is also in some structural dialogue with Views from the Oldest House by Richard Grant, which was itself an attempt to re-use the Nabokov technique with more success. I thought neither book had used the technique very successfully but thought it had potential if redeployed in a totally different context. Now, that’s just one aspect of the novel, but it’s an important one from a writer’s point of view. I think Proust has also been an influence in that he’s mastered a kind of plotless plotting. Edward Whittemore helped me in terms of an example of how you can use half-scene and summary effectively and also how to manage large stretches of time in a novel. Really, I had to learn so much to write this novel, which is one reason it took eight years to write.

CD: What are your immediate plans in your writing career?

JV: I am taking a break from the next Ambergris novel to help promote Shriek and my other books coming out in 2006. I’m writing some short fiction and nonfiction in the meantime.

And finally...

CD: Your new novel Shriek, published by Pan Macmillan later this month in the UK, and by Tor books in August is also based in Ambergris - what is the origin of this novel - how does it fit in with your other works?

JV: The novel originated from a conversation I had with Jeffrey Thomas, the publisher of the original stand-alone chapbook of "The Early History of Ambergris," a story disguised as a faux history essay (included in City of Saints) and another conversation I had with the brilliant writer Thomas Ligotti. Jeff had wanted to know more about Duncan Shriek, the writer of the "essay". I told him I would include an afterword by the sister of Duncan that would go into more detail. A truncated, two-paragraph version of this made it into the final chapbook.

At the same time, Ligotti had read City of Saints in manuscript form. He really loved a lot of things about it, but he recognized the way "Early History" used some of the structure of Pale Fire, and objected to it because he said I hadn't really incorporated the narrator into the story, and therefore a whole level of complexity was missing. I told him, and still believe it, that the whole point of the story in "Early History" *is* the history (and the humor) and the rest is meant as entertaining window dressing. However, it did get me to thinking about the life of Duncan Shriek and what it means to write an afterword and who Janice Shriek was, etc. Before I knew it, I had about 10,000 words. I told Jeff I wanted to include this mammoth (at that time I thought it would be 30,000) afterword to the main "Early History," which would function both as fleshing out the character and as the ultimate joke: an afterword longer than the actual main body of the essay. However, Jeff had two concerns: (1) he didn't have the space to publish it and (2) he really hated what I sent him. It was very different from City of Saints and it was a little early for anyone at that time to wrench themselves out of that milieu and into Shriek's world.

At that point, the negative feedback didn't matter (and I didn't take it personally)--I actually incorporated Jeff's comments into the text of Shriek. Shriek at that point was eating the real world in large chunks. It was very clear in 1999 that it was going to be a huge undertaking, that it was becoming organic, that it was coming to a kind of lurching life. Over the next eight years, I wrote Shriek on and off, getting distant from the personal events disguised in it, and learning more and more writing technique.

I'd say it's different because it's less formal and it's also the first real novel I've done. At 130,000 words it dwarfs my other "novel", Veniss Underground, which was only 55,000 words. I am very pleased with it precisely because it is a true novel. And, I think, my best work.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Molluscs and Snow - a study

January 2nd 2006: A strictly temporary installation in the Hodmandod household.

A Few Good Links to start the year...


I'll start 2006 by mentioning a few good blogs and posts I've across recently:
Jeff Vandermeer's preconceptions about New Hampshire;
The fascinating portfolio of the young and talented Ramsay de Give (via Mumpsimus);
the start of Buy a Friend a Book Week on Deblog;
Sarah Salway's entertaining take on life (interview to follow soon I hope);
and glad to see Ros Barber's blog and novel continuing...