Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reading Balzac

I can't remember why or how I got onto Honore de Balzac, but I'm glad I did. I've just read three short stories, and today started a novel called Cousin Betty.

'A Tragedy by the Sea' was atmospheric, tense and had a shocking denouement. It was in the form of a man writing to his uncle firstly about an encounter with a fisherman, and then a living spectre along a coastline. I suppose it was a little melodramatic for modern tastes, but the build-up of tension was masterful.

'Facino Cane' was another encounter, this time with a blind musician at a wedding. His story is gradually drawn from him by the narrator, and is about obsession and greed.

In 'The Atheist's Mass' the important characteristics of a renowned surgeon are established, as well as the mystery of why such an atheist surreptitiously attends mass. The reason, when it eventually comes out, is a sentimental one, but I loved it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Salon: the book pile - my chaotic reading

Here is the sad state of my reading pile at the moment. These are just some of the books I am currently reading.

Men and Dogs by Katie Crouch (read one chapter - great writing style, desperate to read more);
The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke (read a couple of pages - beautiful writing...);
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (managed to read a couple of chapters because it was so intensely gripping, but unfortunately was interrupted - now desperate to read the rest of this too);
Louis Pasteur by Patrice Debré (this is 'research' and therefore work, but an inspiring and fascinating read nonetheless - I'm about a quarter of the way through);
Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama (also 'research' but also a big pleasure - couple of chapters in);
Noble Ways: Lay-bys in my life by Roy Noble (an hilarious read about growing up and being grown up in Wales - I keep picking it up, reading a bit and giggling);
The Interrogative Mood: A Novel by Padgett Powell (an innovative novel composed of questions, intellectual and strangely addictive (I couldn't resist posting response here) - about three quarters of the way through);
The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet (great writing, and anxious to read this after enjoying his book 'Jealousy' so much);
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (I've read the first couple of chapters but I actually think I shan't finish this book just because the type font is so tiny it is an effort to read. I think I might try and read it again when I get a Kindle).

And then there's The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (don't know how far I am through this as I am listening, when I can, on audio).

So that is the state of my reading at the moment. It is feeling a little out of control, and my aim today is to finish at least one of these books. I wonder if anyone else feels like this - and I'm also wondering if the Kindle will make things better or worse.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

APARTMENT 16 and an interview with Adam Nevill

I finished the last of the books for the 7Day Wonder Holiday (which is just over a week away now), Apartment 16, a week or so ago and its author, Adam Nevill, has kindly agreed to an interview.

Apartment 16
has one of the most terrifying endings of any book I've read, and I think the images of what exactly was in apartment 16 will live with me the rest of my life. A terrific book (in the full sense of the word!). I don't usually read horror, but after reading Apartment 16, and listening to and reading a little of the work of Ramsey Campbell, I am now convinced it is a genre well worth further investigation.


Adam Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is also the author of Banquet for the Damned, an original novel of supernatural horror inspired by M.R. James and the great tradition of the British weird tale.
In his working life he has endured a variety of occupations, including from 2000 to 2004 both nightwatchman and porter in the exclusive apartment buildings of west London. He lives in London and can be contacted through his website.


About Apartment 16.

CD: The scenes in Apartment 16 are hugely imaginative - with a horrific vision. Does good horror writing come naturally, or does it come from experience?
AN: Thank you, Clare. I’d say it comes from reading the canon and watching a great many films, and being captivated by the best in the field, and becoming inspired to contribute in an equally affecting way. An unhappy life is not necessarily required, though a sensitivity to looking through a glass darkly probably is. And it’s also about giving into an innate compulsion to go deep and to reimagine the world in a particular way; to try and make sense of the more disturbing elements of experience. And as Lovecraft put it, it’s about trying to create “wonder and awe”. Writing horror comes naturally to some writers all of the time, and some writers some of the time. It’s often non-genre writers who produce great works in the field.

CD: In your work as a nightwatchman or porter did you ever come across an apartment similar to 'Apartment 16'?
AN: Not specifically, but there were times when I was alone at night, or even times during the day shifts, when on what felt like a level of psychic sensitivity, it was possible to become attuned to something uncanny. An almost perceptible memory locked in place that suggested itself in unusual ways.

CD: I thought the characters in Apartment 16 were complex and very convincing - how do you go about building your characters?
AN: Thanks, Clare. Observation, experience and imagination are my three components for creating character. In A16, I would think of set-pieces and introduce characters – sometimes grotesque reinventions and composites of types – and then let them take over the scenes, or suggest new scenes to me. If I can get into the ‘zone’, I often find that characters dictate story.

CD: Art was also an important feature of the book - do you have an interest in art or an artistic background?
AN: I am merely a layman with an interest in art history. But Francis Bacon and Wyndham Lewis appealed to me when I came across them in my teens. Bacon was all about capturing existence at the moment it impacted against his nervous system; which often the exact moment of true terror. And of “unlocking the valves of feeling” to express the deeper nature of things as he perceived them. To me, his work always seemed to articulate the essential horror of humanity and of existence. He found a visual language for terror, madness, self-loathing, entrapment, loneliness, violence, cruelty, incapacity, sexual perversion, damage, futility, death. How could I not find him inspirational?

Lewis was a genius, who reached deep into his own idiosyncratic and brilliant imagination and recreated the world through distortion, with the most complicated, impossible and impenetrable philosophy to back it up. His surviving paintings can be affecting in more subtle ways than Bacon, but are still as profound. Much of his work was lost, probably destroyed, so that was something I explored with my own Felix Hessen. I came across both painters in the art section of a library in my teens and was drawn to them in the same way I was drawn to my dad’s books on Bosch and Brueghel when I was a child. Why there aren’t more fictional expressionist painters in horror fiction is the question I ask. They were often daring to gaze into, and depicting, the very same things as horror writers.

CD: London is conveyed as a menacing, dismal place. Is this your experience of the capital? Or is it partly metaphorical (especially the way it was impossible to leave)
AN: In my experience of the city, and through its psychic overtones, it has been a menacing, dismal place, and still often is. To give some background, from 2000 to the end of 2001 I experienced a period of self-imposed isolation on night shifts, in my first foray into portering, and this period was the genesis of Apartment 16. I was never awake during the day, rarely socialised, and was traumatised by sleep-deprivation; put yourself through that, let your mind turn on itself, and you never know what you will start to imagine. I completely unravelled myself; mortified myself; hovered above a dark and terrifying place at times. But it enabled me to write about another level of horror, fusing the supernatural with madness. I did actually lose my mind at one point back then, and started to hallucinate from sleep loss. Some of the scenes in Apartment 16, when Seth tries to escape from London and his visit to a supermarket are drawn from those experiences. Apartment 16 would not have had the same impact, or carried the same force had I not gone through that difficult period. I wrote fragments of Apartment 16 back then, but weaved them into a coherent narrative much later. But my trying early experiences of London gave me the whole idea of a character glimpsing a radically transformed world, that no one else could see, while the character also wonders whether his vision is a truth, or the evidence of a tormented mind staring back at itself? I was excited by the idea of only being capable of seeing the city as a continually shifting and changing set of Francis Bacon paintings.
I think during my ten years in London, all of them have been something of a struggle – financially, psychically, emotionally, physically. I was once an optimistic, naïve, energetic man who showed up in the city, in a Volkswagen Golf with his entire earthly possessions on the back seat. I’m not that man anymore.

But London is a popular place to lose your mind in; and it can be euphoric too, transporting. My coping mechanism was switching to day shifts in 2002, and reintegrating myself back into a more normal existence. It took about two years to fully recover from that time of night shifts though.

The book was such a loose and amorphous collection of dreams, images, fragments, notes, I produced seventeen drafts over nearly four years up to 2009 in order to make the book internally consistent and fluent. But this book is for real. It was forged in despair and hewn from compulsion.

CD: What would you say was the most important aspect of writing horror - plot or character? Is it possible to write good horror without either?
AN: I’d say the most important thing is the actual writing, the craft. It’s very difficult to make the supernatural believable in a realistic setting. Most attempts are dismal failures. Also, any attempt to deliberately evoke a specific emotion in a reader, is fraught with difficulties. So to transport a reader through fear, or at least through disquiet, or by disturbing them, without becoming ridiculous or overwriting, is not easy. To incrementally disturb the natural order and to insert the uncanny, by building atmosphere and using certain devices, so that the characters and the reader of the novel accept your premise and the unnatural occurrences in your altered world, does require a great deal of application, instinct, study of the masters, and rewriting. The same rules for crafting plot and characterization in any good fiction are the same for horror.

CD: How easy was it to get published?
AN: Easy never came into it. My first novel, Banquet for the Damned, was complete in 2000. I began it in late 1997. But by 2002 every agent who accepted fiction in the Writers and Artists Yearbook had eventually turned down my letter of introduction. I don’t think anyone ever read a word of the actual book. “No horror” being the usual refrain, or “too many authors already”. And as no publisher took unsolicited manuscripts, that was that. Game over. By that time, I’d forsaken a career in television a second time. I was living on a shoe-string (again) and enduring an existence above an old pub in East London and working nights as a security guard. And going mad with sleep deprivation and a sense of despair.

And then my first break … After bringing one of my short horror stories into print, the British horror master Ramsey Campbell recommended I try his English publisher, the small press PS Publishing in 2003. PS Publishing read and accepted Banquet within a week. Without Ramsey and PS, Banquet for the Damned would have remained an uneaten meal, mouldering in the pantry of my hard drive. Had it been the eighties, the story may have been different, but I’d written a big supernatural horror novel in a publishing climate that had no interest in horror. I was bloody lucky to find a sympathetic writer of considerable reputation, and a sympathetic small press publisher in PS. They brought me into print as a writer of supernatural horror.

Apartment 16 took four years to write and during most of that time, little had changed in publishing: no one was publishing horror in the mainstream beyond series fiction and the big names from the seventies. After the book was complete and delivered to my agent early in 2009, publishing had just begun to return its capricious eyes back towards supernatural horror in fiction after the successes of Let the Right One In, and The Birthing House. There was even an auction for my book. How times change.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
AN: No, but apparently I enjoyed eating dried worms and spiders as a baby. I approached dead worms as if eating bacon rind.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
AN: It’s been a long struggle for me as a writer, so any payoff fills me with relief as much as pride. Picking up my author’s copies of Banquet for the Damned, and hearing that Apartment 16 was going to be published by Pan Macmillan made my hands shake …

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
AN: A few I think. Emigrating twice. Reading James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man. Going to university, twice. Getting published.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
AN: I could be here all day, but very recently, it was a letter I saw written by the Red Cross to relatives of an Australian soldier reported missing in action in the Great War. They have it in the Visitor’s Centre at the Tyne Cot memorial in Belgium. The letter detailed how hearsay amongst the missing soldier’s comrades in a hospital confirmed his death. Someone had seen him lying in the mud, shot through the head, and said: “There’s poor old Pies.” Beside the letter was a photograph of the soldier with his young children on his knees. It seemed symbolic of a terrible war I am amazed anyone actually survived.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
AN: Better rage management.

CD: What is happiness?
AN: A purpose for life with an occasional payoff.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
AN: Drink hot sweet tea, before taking care of business …

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Interrogative Mood: A Novel by Padgett Powell

If I told you I know the answer to the question about chlorophyll on page 7 would you believe me? Would you care? Even if it about energy and forbidden transitions? Did you know that the answer to almost all the questions on page 10 could be yes? What would it mean about me if my answers were no? Are the colours of the end papers significant? Would purple be even more so? And have I told you that I like the way your book fits into my hand - and the way the figure on the front is wrestling with his punctuation? Did I say?

I used to know a woman called Paget - are you perhaps related? And how about Piaget - did you know him? Do you agree with what he said? Do you even believe him? Are you aware that the question about the eagle on page 22 is soaringly beautiful? Did you know that referring to candies called jaw-breakers betrays not only your age but your nationality? Is that the point? Re jaw breaker - is that what we used to call a gob stopper? Did you know that people choke on these things? Was your mother's opinion of them the same as mine? And while I am on the subject of mouths and throats, is the gob in gob stopper the same gob as the gob in your gob of keys? Also, about phenolphthalein - does it matter that I'm a methyl orange kind of girl? And those bonds, when you mention them, I have to tell you that you leave a little out, but maybe you are being deliberately ionic? Or ironic? Or does it covalently not make exothermic sense?

Did you mean to infect my mind? I was just wondering: did you mean for me to become so overwhelmingly addicted to what comes next that I can't put it down? What will happen if I do? If I don't? Shall I tell you? Will you thank Profile books or shall I? And will you try to keep the sarcastic tone from your voice, because I really am grateful? Or should I add 'kinda'? Do you think this book of yours could be cuter if it tried? Shall I publish this before I reach the end? What do you mean by maybe? Would you mind not turning away? Can you please just answer me?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Good notepad intentions

Reading the David Sedaris book has inspired me. I need to be more serious about making notes. So today I bought myself a tiny notepad. It is like a Moleskine that fits inside my palm.

I am going to write down everything that occurs to me: ideas for future chapters; descriptions of people; jokes; things to read; anything that might come in useful in my life as a writer.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Salon: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

I am in search of funny books. This is mainly because it has become my ambition to make people laugh. Up until now my books have reportedly made people cry, but like the very right wing sometimes turns out to be close to the very left wing, I believe that extreme misery is somehow akin to great comedy. The two set each other off, one provides the contrast and relief to the other; tragedy and comedy are closely related on the wheel of human emotions.

So today I read David Sedaris's work, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and there were chapters in the beginning that made me laugh out loud; but, as if to prove my point, there were passages that I found poignant and sad. I think he is a fearless writer, and I am really rather glad I am not related to him or know him. At one point his sister tells him a story about herself and she objects when his immediate reaction is to retrieve his notebook and start making notes. But she would never use the material he retorts, and it seemed too good a story to waste.

His humour is my favourite sort: self-deprecating, and his family and friends seem part of this self-deprecation. A lot of the humour also comes from his homosexuality and religion. I am not sure I am learning much from reading it though, because I don't think I have any chance at all at incorporating his style of humour in my own work, but I am greatly enjoying the experience nonetheless.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Welsh Waterstones Tour: Stop 7 - Wrexham

And now - the place where I was born: Wrexham. It is a smallish town, once the centre of a mining community.

The exterior of the Wrexham Waterstones bookshop is, perhaps,

less impressive than its red-carpeted interior which has a welcoming feel of space (and the staff also have an excellent taste in music - i.e. is like mine).

The manageress and her team had made a lovely little display of my books, and I had a good afternoon chatting to customers. Once again there seemed to be a lot of interest in Welsh Patagonia, and I was pleased to hear from a lecturer in Yale College that the colonisation is now a part of the new Welsh 'Bacc' - where every subject in the curriculum is taught with special reference to Wales - even subject like biology and maths. It made me wonder how it could be applied to chemistry, but thinking about it, there is a chemistry of Wales. In the Welsh steelworks, the mines, the quarries chemistry would have been important, and the works chemists was much revered. I suppose a study of what they did would be interesting, and then, of course there are important Welsh chemists...and that is just a start.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The launch of ELLIOT ALLAGASH by Simon Rich

I had just five minutes. Enough to see rolling sand dunes, a low cliff, caves, a mention of Auriol Stein and then, imagined: the British man and an old Buddhist priest, the two of them smiling, nodding and retreating. Then a large wooden box and two men picking out a trail in the dark, and then, later, that box again, heavier now and then men moving faster, strapping it onto a camel and that camel rising with a protest.

Some would call it theft (and I think I would too) but others would think of it as some sort of rescue mission, and, anyway, there in the British Museum was the scroll. It was something I have wanted to see for some time.

It is the earliest known example of printing: black ink and white paper - the outlines still crisp and clear. Some scrolls are paper, some silk, and they were secreted from this oasis in the silk road and transported to the British Museum in the nineteenth century.

Five Minutes. Just enough time to imagine the grinding of the ink, the mixing with the gum, the black paste coating the meticulous carving of character and picture...

And the museum keeper calling time and I became part of the swarm to the outside, and eventually to Cecil Close, famous for its bookshops

and in particular 'To Hell With Books" at number 23 and the launch of ELLIOT ALLAGASH by Simon Rich (at 26).

The invitation had said: "Misfits, outcasts, losers: you are invited to celebrate the publication of Saturday Night Live writer and all-round funny fellow, Simon ‘most definitely a nerd’ Rich’s debut novel ELLIOT ALLAGASH with goblets of Elliot's favourite drink and a reading from Mr Rich at To Hell With Books in London." which I found irresistible, and turned out to be worth going 400 miles to see... mainly because I got to meet a couple of interesting people: Mark Reynolds contributing director of the Drawbridge, ('The Drawbridge is an independent quarterly delivering thought, wit and reflection through words, photography and drawing'), Pete Ayrton, editor of Serpents Tail, and Daniel Crew - editor of Profile books whom I'd only ever encountered virtually before.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

HAppY 5th BIrThdAy, BLoG!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Train Reading

I'm off to London for a book launch tonight, and intend to either visit the exhibition on Chinese printing at the British Museum or the new Apple shop in Covent Garden or both.

Having just finished Adam Nevill's stunning Apartment 16 (top of this pile) I now have to choose what to read next. Maybe something from this pile... or maybe something else. It's a hard choice. Or maybe I shall just settle back and listen to more of Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My Welsh Waterstones Tour: Stop 6 - Abergavenny

Abergavenny is in the Brecon Beacons - a well-known beauty-spot of green hills and trees

all of which require copious amounts of rain of course, hence the footwear of choice is the wellie.

I also spied a castle, tucked behind the street on the edge of an escarpment

with a 12th century entrance

and slitted windows in the younger (14th century) part

and grander ones for what was a hall and the bedchambers, and the usual tales of heinous deeds necessary to keep down the rebellious Welsh.

I always come across the Waterstones shop unexpectedly

with the poster advertising my event in the window

and another (extremely kind) one inside with my books,

and I enjoyed myself talking, and talking and talking - to the staff and the customers - until it was time to go home.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What I'm Doing 32:

What I'm listening to:

Alicia Keys and Jack White singing the introduction to Quantum of Solace

What I watched Last:

Quantum of Solace. We've had this for ages, but we only got round to watching it now. I thought it the best Bond I'd ever seen - although maybe I'm biased because he comes from Chester.

What I'm reading:

Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill in preparation for the 7Day Holiday. I thought it started well, went through some pretty gruesome descriptions which I had to read through my fingers, and has a truly page-turning finale.

What I'm listening to:

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Narrated by Rupert Degas.
Just as mesmerising as Kafka on the Shore.

What I'm doing:
Writing articles about the research for my Patagonia novel.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday Salon: An Interview with Charles Lambert

I've recently had the pleasure of reading Any Human Face by Charles Lambert - another of the novels for the 7Day Holiday in September. This increasingly gripping thriller, which is also part love story, is set in Rome and so makes ideal holiday reading. There were some excellent characters, but there was one that I grew particularly fond of, and that was one called the Birdman. He was an eccentric character, whose main interest in life was looking after the birds he attracted to his flat in the city. He seemed to have no sinister or even self-interested motives, just the satisfaction he derived from looking after his menagerie of birds and humans. Everyone else had needs and relied on other people but the Birdman seemed to require very little of people. He was overweight, rarely venturing from his flat, preferring instead to stay indoors and wander around in the comfort of a voluminous kaftan. I felt I got to know him, and through the book I felt I grew to know an aspect of Roman life which I suspect the Italians wisely keep from view.

Charles has kindly agreed to an interview - and he gives a fascinating insight into aspects of writing the novel.

Photo by Patrizia Casamirra


Charles Lambert was born in Lichfield, the United Kingdom, in 1953. After several schools in the Midlands and Derbyshire, he went to Cambridge in 1972. In 1976 he moved to Italy and, with brief interruptions in Ireland, Portugal and London, has lived and worked there since then.

Currently a university teacher, academic translator and freelance editor for international agencies, he has also been a kitchen hand, shop assistant, medical journal editor, guidebook writer, receptionist, teacher of political science, and journalist with ANSA, the Italian news agency. He now lives in Fondi, a stone's throw from the Appian Way.

You can contact him by clicking here. You can contact his agent, Isobel Dixon at Blake Friedmann Literary Agency, by clicking here. And if you want to know what's distracting, amusing and irritating him on a daily basis, try clicking here.

Questions about Writing.

CD: I loved the Birdman character. Where did he come from?
CL: He was based on someone my partner met when he first moved to Rome just over twenty-five years ago, and many of the circumstantial details are borrowed from the stories Giuseppe told me: the acting career, the interest in ‘artistic’ photography and photographing young men (although more chastely, at least in Giuseppe’s case, than his counterpart in the novel), the stage in the living room. When Giuseppe knew him, he dressed and behaved in a fairly normal manner; it wasn’t until later that he began to dress – and behave - in the eccentric way the Birdman does, and that was when I saw him drifting round Termini station. I never met him myself. The birds and the name of the Birdman are elements that I added, and most aspects of his general character, other than an undiscriminating benevolence that the original also seems to have possessed, are my own doing. But this is actually his second outing in my work. He’s also in a novel I wrote the first draft of some years ago, in which he plays a more sinister role altogether, as the accomplice/sidekick to a malevolent but charismatic midget taxidermist, seen through the eyes of the midget’s young apprentice. I hope this novel, which explores a darker side of Rome, will be coming out before too long, as the third or fourth in a group of novels examining corruption in the city.

CD: Rome comes over vividly throughout ANY HUMAN FACE. Did you have to explore any parts of the city especially for the book?
CL: Not at all. I’ve lived in the various parts of the city in which the novel is set; indeed, some of the flats – Andrew’s by the English cemetery and Sandro’s in San Lorenzo – are flats I’ve rented myself. I first went to live in Rome in 1982 and led a fairly wild life, but I think I’ve managed to remember enough about it to feel sure that most of the details of that period are right. The only part of the city that I don’t know very well, and am always confused by, is – oddly enough - the part that Andrew doesn’t know very well either: the part of town behind the Vatican where lawyers hang out; if I were writing fantasy this area would be the Evil Empire.

CD: For me, one of the main themes of the book was corruption - in all its many subtle and unsubtle variations. Is your experience of Italian corruption different from its English counterpart?
CL: Well, I’ve spent most of my adult life in Italy, so my only knowledge of English corruption is the playground variety, which can be ruthless and appalling, but is pretty small beer compared to experiences I’ve had, or heard about, in Italy. In some ways I’ve been in Italy long enough to make generalisation impossible – the more you know about a place the less you’re sure of. But it’s hard to talk about the country at the moment without mentioning the extraordinary phenomenon of Berlusconi, a man who would have been automatically excluded from power in any other working democracy, but whose high-handed contempt for fair play continues to appeal to large numbers of Italians, though not, thank God, to the majority. The best arms against corruption, and the power it feeds on, are the judiciary, public indignation via a free press and the puncturing ridicule of satire (ask any UK MP!). So it isn’t surprising that Berlusconi should have spent so much energy attacking, and trying to restrict the liberties of, Italian judges, journalists and TV comics. Let’s hope his reign comes to an end before too much longer. It’s certainly true though that very few Italians understood why the British were so incensed by the expenses scandal. In a country in which fleets of official cars can be seen parked outside beauty centres while the minster for education tops up her tan, this probably isn’t that surprising.

CD: Apart from being a thriller, this was also a book about love - mainly between men, and there were scenes that were both endearing and affecting, although with each liaison came a sense of unease that really helped to build the tension. I was wondering if there are some scenes that you prefer writing to others.
CL: Not really. Anything that moves the book on gets my creative juices flowing. One of the aspects of writing AHF that did strike me was that I never had that feeling that I was doing a scene because I had to in a mechanistic sense, just to make the story work... I’m very glad though that you see the importance of love in the novel. There’s always a bit of self-discovery in writing and one of the things I discovered about myself (yet again!) as I wrote AHF was the idea that the ‘big issues’ might be irrelevant compared with the joy, and comfort, we can give each other. You might call the care that Alina puts into her risotto in the final chapter the objective correlative of this attention.

CD: The Italian love of good food and wine also comes over very strongly. Did you also have to research this? Was this terribly onerous?
CL: Research it? Constantly. And onerous doesn’t begin to describe my commitment to it, although much of the burden, in terms of weight gain anyway, is self-induced.

CD: Were any aspects of the novel based on real events?
CL: Yes. The murder in the first chapter was based, I’m sorry to say, on the very similar murder of a friend of mine, an American writer called Louis Inturrisi, a crime that remains unpunished. The story of the girl was based on the abduction and presumed murder of a teenager called Emanuela Orlando, also unpunished – the final section, among other things, provides a summary of the various theories surrounding her disappearance. And the central event was triggered by the seizure of material from a small gallery in the centre of Rome some years ago for reasons that are still not entirely clear. What all three events share, apart from the fact that they’re unresolved in one way or another, is the feeling that someone, or something, is behind them. This is so much a part of Italian life that there’s even a word for it: dietrologia: the obsessive study of what lies behind, or beneath, the surface.

CD: What is your favourite aspect of life in Italy?
CL: This is a hard one to answer. When I first arrived in the late 1970s, I’d have said the food, the climate and a sort of intellectual buzz that seemed to inform the country at all levels and in all spheres. People actually seemed to enjoy ideas, although that may just have been the effect of finding copies of Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard in the newsagents of country train stations (really!) Since then, the food, particularly restaurant food, is far less reliable than it used to be (though I do live in the heart of mozzarella country and the best olives in the country are grown just down the road), the climate is more humid and oppressive every summer, and the ‘people’ (once again, with my proviso on generalisation) have bought into a sort of X Factor/BB mentality that’s supplanted the intellectual curiosity that used to be there, or so it seemed to me. To be honest, I’m slightly out of love with Italy at the moment, and not only because of the political situation (see above); the fact that it’s the only European country (along with Greece) to refuse to recognise gay couples in any way at all doesn’t help. I do still enjoy evenings in late summer though, and a walk along the Corso to buy a decent ice cream. I have some extraordinary friends, Italian and not. And I live within 15 minutes of some of the cleanest beaches in the Mediterranean. So what am I complaining about? It may just be time for a change...

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
CL: My only contact with snails these days is gastronomic, often in tomato sauce, though I prefer garlic, so maybe France should be my next stop. I do find the occasional dried and empty shell still clinging to the outside walls of the house and wonder where its owner has gone.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
CL: I’m not sure I like pride that much. I feel pride for others, most recently when my partner won a prize for his painting.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
CL: I’ve had so many. I wouldn’t know where to start.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
CL: David Beckham building the Taj Mahal out of Lego in a Milan hotel room. (This isn’t really the saddest, but anything seriously sad would be too hard to type...)

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
CL: I’d like to be less accommodating. And if you aren’t happy with this answer, please change it...

CD: What is happiness?
CL: Frank O’Hara called happiness ‘the least and best of human attainments’. I think he’s right on both counts.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
CL: Pee.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ynys Môns 3 - Parys Mountain

A desert, I know now, forms not just where there is little rain but also where man has exposed what nature took pains to hide

This rock is rich in metal ore, and toxic, the colours indicating iron, copper and zinc.

There was a vast open caste mine here, and in the 19th century the miners were suspended by ropes and beat at the sides with mallets to dislodge the rock.

(the pit here is huge - to get an idea of the scale of this picture click on it and look for the car tyre in the bottom)

Women, known as the copper ladies, knelt for twelve hours at a time on this cobbled platform (now partly eroded away) and broke up the rocks to find the ore, a spotted yellow scarf covering their face and, on top of this, a little black hat.

Meanwhile, water from the mine, which was rich with with dissolved copper salts, was pumped into ponds containing scrap iron. The copper then displaced the iron (a chemistry classic) and precipitated out to produce a copper sludge which was then dried and smelted. The water, now containing salts of iron rather than copper was then channelled into precipitation pools for the iron salts to be deposited as yellow ochre, to be used in paints.

It all makes an eerie otherwordly landscape, popular for filming science-fiction. A pathway traces a circuit

stopping at points of interest: including this skeleton of a windmill, which once had five sails, and was used to pump the copper-rich water from the mine

and through whose vacant window-sockets can now be seen the new sails of the modern era.

Ynys Môn 2: out of Amlwch

The harbour of Amlwch that reminds me of Charlestown near St Austell: an incised valley, a natural harbour, ships, ancient industrial buildings allowed to decay.

It is hard to believe now but Amlych was once the most important port in Wales. It produced 90% of the UK's copper, and even today the water that drains from here is a major polluter of the Irish Sea. Recently, disaster was averted when an underground lake, full of toxic minerals was found to be close to breaking its banks. It would have spread toxins all over the town, but was drained just in time.

We went up to where they used to make sails in a large workhouse with a sloping floor, and after meandering around an interesting exhibition on the mining of Parys Mountain (where the copper was extracted above the harbour) we went on a two hour cruise in an open boat.

We passed mine shafts which happened to end in cliffs

seals recumbent on an island

and in water

birds on watch against the sky

and then a porpoise briefly amused us with his tricks: a single fin and a curving back looping the surf.

Ynys Môn 1

I have been away to Ynys Môn, with its headlands

fractured coves

paths leading nowhere

inquisitive cows

jelly-bean plants

perfect brickwork

half-buried places

suicidal fishes

and an expanse of sky and sand so large

that everything disappears:

fears, hopes, memories and the sounds within my head.