Books of 2018

In approximate order of reading, and including books published in other years, the books that I most enjoyed reading this year were:

Zoe Gilbert, Folk
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body And Other Parties
Xiaolu Guo, Once Upon A Time In The East 
Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
Tommy Orange, There There
Alexander Chee, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel 
David Sedaris, Calypso
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song
Lucia Berlin, Welcome Home
Anna Burns, Milkman
Sally Rooney, Normal People

Other mentions go to: Denis Johnson, Train Dreams; Kit De Waal, A Trick To Time; Carys Davies, The Redemption of Galen Pike; Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad; Bartholomew Bennett, The Pale Ones; Armistead Maupin, Logical Family.

I’m still reading other contenders: Richard Powers, The Overstory; André Aciman, Enigma Variations; the most recent Lucia Berlin collection, Evening In Paradise. Sometimes I just have to take my time with a book – why rush something that’s good and meant to be savoured? And I only just started Edward Carey’s Little. It is witty and well paced, and I am already halfway through this captivating story about Madame Tussaud, but I doubt it’ll be finished before 2019 comes in. I’m also currently listening to Claire Danes’s fleet rendition of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey: another one for 2019?

Other books shall remain permanently unfinished, I suspect, and I still won’t get back the time or remove the bad taste in my mouth, despair in my soul, or bewilderment in my brain that came from lasting to the bitter end with a few unmentionable duds. I have said it before, and I am sure I shall say it again: are there any limits to publisher hype and social media twysteria, is there any accounting for taste?!

No matter. I like books with a dark tinge, clearly. Other common threads in what I did enjoy: voice (especially Toews, Sedaris, Burns, and Rooney); the intensity of personal stories (Guo, Chee, Sedaris, Berlin, plus various fictionalised accounts); creating community from art and politics against the epic backdrop of historical events (Great Believers, Lacuna); unworldy world-building (Zoe Gilbert’s Neverness, the stories of Carmen Maria Machado). My read of The Lacuna was certainly expanded by the marvellous Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A, and I particularly enjoyed Alexander Chee’s interest in gardening and tarot, and his experiences as both student and teacher of creative writing.

A special mention for well-received Xmas pressies: Anissa Helou’s Feast: Food of the Islamic World, and the celebration of Palestinian food in Joudie Kalla’s Baladi, and The Writer’s Map by Huw Lewis-Jones (which I must work into the setting session of the masterclass I’m teaching next month). And the Blue Peter craft book Here’s One I Made Earlier was a real blast to the past, especially the wizard puppet made from a Jif lemon and a dishmop.

I attended many engaging literary events in 2018. I loved seeing André Aciman, Sharlene Teo and Madeline Miller at the London Literature Festival, and look forward to reading Sharlene and Madeline’s books as soon as I can. An event at Foyle’s for the fortieth anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics was a real celebration where I was lucky also to meet Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott for the first time. And I gained much from Zoe Gilbert’s insights into writing at both workshops as well as a Words Away salon. I’m sure I’d have loved their books without meeting them anyway, but knowing someone can really deepen a connection to a book. (Sometimes! It’s not always the case.)

But an advance notice for Eleanor Anstruther’s A Perfect Explanation, which is coming in the spring, and is based on the most extraordinary true story. In 2019, I’m also excited to read Julie Cohen’s Louis & Louise, Fiona Erskine’s The Chemical Detective, and Trevor Mark Thomas’s The Bothy. I know or have had professional connections to all of these writers, so I add not only that disclaimer but also an observation that it’s good to see talent, application, and good storytelling rewarded with success in publishing.

This was also for me the year of the audiobook. The two most profound reading experiences of 2018 for me were in fact listening experiences. One was Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song. I loved the narration of its collective third-person We: gossipy, intimate, confessional. Voice is probably the aspect of craft that draws me most of all into a story, and the voice in this novel about Truman Capote and his high-society muses especially worked its magic as narrated in audio form by Deborah Weston. This book took me somewhere else, and there’s little more I want from a story.

A very good year for very good books, but if I had to pick one that stood out for me it’s probably Milkman by Anna Burns. First, it has the most remarkable voice, in the audiobook brought to life by narrator Bríd Brennan with great force: sarcastic, funny, relentless. Maybe my experience of the audiobook gave me a seamless experience, as I was bemused by commentary on the book’s apparent difficulty. I easily find that works described as challenging can be opaque, pretentious, or dull. But I loved loved LOVED Milkman for its great looping paragraphs, and its rootless refusal of placenames, and the no-names of its characters: the wee sisters, maybe-boyfriend, longest friend, the real milkman, the unreal milkman. Again: that sarcasm, the tone, the gossipy style of storytelling. This is how people talk, right? Nothing difficult about that. (If you have any doubts: do the audiobook.)

Second, I loved Milkman‘s crafty politics: its critique of patriarchy and matriarchy and class, its depiction of the violence of borders and the madness of authoritarianism, its cry for freedom – especially (and indignantly) the freedom to read while walking. I realised that something I particularly liked about this book is that it’s basically a dystopian novel – one of my favourite genres, and right now, as we prepare to face the consequences of Brexit, most cleverly and claustrophobically rendered. (I return to a line from the musical Rent: the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.)

Milkman is one of my favourite novels of the last ten years, and it’s one I shall return to, and examine more closely – it will be interesting to see how my feelings about it evolve. Above I loved its beauty: the beauty of sunsets and French lessons, the beauty of reading while walking and camaraderie in running, the beauty of lists, the beauty of its sentences, the beauty of its fury, the surprise of its acts of compassion and creation, and, despite all the darkness, the sense of love and hope and healing it left me with. 

On that note: a Happy New Year! May 2019 again see good books and literary friendships bringing light into the world.

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

The Craft of Voice: Coming Soon

Kellie Jackson has posted a Q&A on her blog for our 24 November masterclass The Craft of Voice.

It’s voice that matters most in writing for me. It’s voice that draws us into a story at the start, and it’s voice that keeps the pages turning. When I was an editor working in-house, it was voice that usually convinced me that I wanted to take on a new writer.

I think of the opening of one of my favourite novels, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

I recently read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and, among its many strengths, what stands out is the way in which its voice brings a gritty humour to content that at times is pretty grim. It’s also very well paced – it’s natural, it’s easy, it brings us along. This class will devote some time to learning to trust the natural speaking voice, and also extending its range – varying the tone, shifting into other voices.

Related to voice, we’ll also be talking about narrators and narrating. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, which is fantastically done; a strong narrative voice that brings to life the gossipy world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is well served by the audiobook’s narrator. The voice of the text and the voice of the narrator are beautifully fused. Truman can be somewhat unbearable! But that’s the point, and because the voice is compelling this is a joy to listen to.

A recent article in the Guardian on the rising popularity of audiobooks says:

The new medium beckons a change in writing styles. The omniscient narrators of 19th-century novels, whose godlike qualities were unpalatable to the realistic writers of the 20th, are more suited to the audioboomers of the 21st.

I like that idea very much – I love a good narrator, whether omniscient or involved in the action or unreliable, and whether it’s read on the page or listened to in an audiobook. Who’s telling the story, and how? There’s a real art to good narration.

I feel that understanding how to use and develop your voice is the most important lesson in writing. I’m continually bemused by the reliance on screenwriting guides for prose fiction in creative writing, as there are real limits to what we can gain from studying film when writing novels and short stories. Don’t get me wrong – certain ideas about, for example, structure and dialogue are invaluable. But good prose cannot draw on the grammar of visual storytelling. Prose relies on words placed on a page in a book, one after the other, just as speech amounts to a linear sequence of words: a voice. Words and sentences are all we have – so we have to learn how to craft them in ways that are natural and persuasive and a pleasure to read or listen to.

This masterclass on voice is designed as part of an ongoing sequence of classes and workshops that could be incorporated into an ongoing DIY MA in Creative Writing. We’ve already covered revising, and plotting come next week, and future topics might include: prose style; character and setting; and creating scenes. As with earlier masterclasses, which featured guest speakers Lennie Goodings (chair of Virago), Nick Ross (production director at Little, Brown) and Jenny Savill (agent at ANA), we’d again hope to invite publishing professionals for Q&A sessions to help demystify the industry. Contact us if you interested in a particular topic or would like to be added to our mailing lists.

More information on the 24 November voice masterclass can be found in the Q&A on Kellie’s blog, and further details about the schedule for that day can be found on the Words Away site.

We Are A Muse: Writing Experiment No. 69

I recently went to the excellent exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was captivated! And I am still working out exactly why it beguiled me so much.

I’ve liked her work, though I’m not sure I have really loved it, and I can’t be sure I’d have gone to the exhibition until someone told me how good she thought it was, and then someone else I’d not seen in ages told me that she’d love for us to meet there. And I went, and I loved it.

Something funny though: a publisher friend had also seen and she did not enjoy it in quite the same way. We usually have similar tastes , and we tried to work out this difference: she said she wanted more of the art and less of what might be seen as an objectification of the artist, while I realised that this embodiment of the artist was what I found so enticing. So much there – so many details of the artist’s life. Perfume bottles, Frida’s illuminated false leg, beads spattered with green paint, the retablos (devotional artworks), and the clothes – remarkable in their bright colours after being locked up in a bathroom in the Casa Azul for fifty years. And in fact there is quite a lot of the art – enough to make me want to take a more serious look at the paintings. The life on show is in fact giving me a further route back into her work. 

I also recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna (where Frida plays a significant role), and watched Selma Hayek’s film Frida, and I’ve spent a few hours looking at the gorgeous V&A exhibition catalogue (exquisite bit of publishing). What a life: it’s impossible to separate her everyday life from her creations from her friends from her lovers from her family from her politics.

This immersion into so many things Frida set me to thinking about the ways in which the life of the artist and the art itself are enmeshed. The world of creative writing involves itself with serious matters of mastering the craft and pitching and publishing, but sometimes (often) there’s room for things that might seem silly or indulgent but are inspiring and sustaining, or simply feed your soul in some indescribable way. I have a hunch that sometimes writers (and especially British writers?) don’t indulge themselves as artists as frequently as they could; they might even be embarrassed to think of themselves as artists, or to regard what they create as art. Someone might be writing the pulpiest fiction, but it’s still art, I say. 

I am also inspired by the award-winning poet Anne Waldman – beyond her writing, she lives and breathes Art in every way, whether in a grand hundred-year project, such as cofounding an alternative university (Naropa, where I got my MFA), or in something more personal, such as her flamboyant choice of scarves. 

In her book Vow to Poetry (the clue is in the title), Anne includes an essay called ‘Creative Writing Life’ that starts ‘Be in the mind/perspective of a writer twenty-four hours a day’, and then continues for nine pages with a manifesto listing things to feed your creative energies, ranging from carry writing material at all times, to organising sessions to exchange work, to recording your dreams, to writing a radio play, to proposing a question before you sleep (‘See what happens. Keep a notebook that will “worry” the questions).

So, inspired by Frida’s mantra ‘I am my own muse’ and Anne’s ‘Creative Writing Life’, write a manifesto for yourself as your own muse. You might include:

  • Activities to add to your routine (maybe something nonverbal – a sport, or yoga, or gardening, or chess)
  • A class you can take in some field other than writing (oil painting, or singing, or dance, or astrology)
  • A class you could take in writing (come to one of our masterclasses!)
  • Things to wear (scarves! beads! flowers in your hair!)
  • Things to put in a shrine on your writing desk or a bookshelf (little Aztec figurines, if only from a museum gift shop? a pretty coaster for the mug of tea that sustains you while you write?)
  • Expertise and resources you can share with others and, e.g., put into a workshop offering of your own or offer as consultancy (this can become a whole other purpose to develop for your artistic self)
  • Blogging, or careful tending of some presence on social media (I hesitate to suggest Twitter or Facebook, because I’m not wild about either, but I know others use them very well indeed)
  • Routines and rituals you’ll create for yourself
  • Artist Dates (as inspired by Julia Cameron)
  • Buying a new journal (any excuse for new stationery)
  • Also think of people to be around – a company of fellows. Maybe arrange to see them in some regular way, and not just as a writing group, e.g., outings to exhibitions, or a book club: a salon of sorts.
  • Getting a dog, or borrowing one (or another animal – I am a dog person, much more than a person person, I suspect), because company that speaks in nonverbal ways can be ever so important
  • Like Frida, you could even take an artist-lover and have a wild affair

Then start doing these things – give yourself deadlines and targets, perhaps.

I think of the following as people who in some way serve as examples for me: the artist and writer Austin Kleon (I always look forward to his inspiring Friday newsletters), my friend Bhanu Kapil and her blog, my friend the curator and writer Jennifer Heath, the all-round shiny brilliance of teacher and writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry. And RuPaul, of course: ‘We’re all born naked and the rest is drag’ – a relevant analogy for self-creation and finding the muse within.

This isn’t just about their work, but about who they are: the artistic fire, intelligence, and generosity that comes across in all that they do. For them, writing is not something done to a schedule to get a book deal (though it can be too); it’s whole, it’s consuming, it defines their all.

Thinking about the lifestyle of an artist may not seem to involve the hard graft that’s needed for developing the craft (that comes elsewhere), but these are the artefacts and activities that get documented in exhibitions years after we’re gone. Or maybe these things just make life better, or raise our spirits when other things aren’t working out, or they lead us into new communities? Success in writing comes in many forms, and not just through publishing – lead a life as a joyful artist, rather than a struggling one.

Also, if you get chance:

  • Visit Frida at the V&A (runs till 4 November – and I’m actually going again tomorrow …).

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!