It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.



Friday Writing Experiment No. 33: A Little Bird Told You


This week’s Friday Writing Experiment celebrates the publication next week of Donna Tartt’s very exciting new novel The Goldfinch.

It’s getting the fantastic reviews it deserves, but I do suggest you don’t read any of them until you’ve read the novel itself, as too many reveal far too much. Even things such as the settings are best left to unfold for themselves – the second (or maybe it’s the third) act of the book took me someplace quite unexpected, and it’s richly rendered and full of further surprises. And that is what much of reading for pleasure is about: the surprises, the narrative tension.

This is touched upon in this very inspiring (and spoiler-free) clip from an interview with Donna Tartt shown on the BBC this week:

When asked what she wants people to read her books for, she answers:

First I want them to have fun. Reading’s no good unless it’s fun … What I always want is the one quality I look for in books and it’s very hard to find … I love that childhood quality of just that gleeful, greedy reading, can’t-get-enough-of-it, what’s-happening-to-these-people, the breathless kind of turning of the pages. That’s what I want in a book. But I also want something that’s well constructed, too. I like to be able to drop down in. Dickens goes so fast, he goes like lightning, but at the same time any sentence you can lift up and it’s a marvel and it’s a miracle. To me, I want those two qualities, the two qualities of any great art: density and speed. Density and speed.

Kirsty also says that her books are about secrets, and Donna replies that all books are about secrets and have mysteries at their heart. ‘Every book has some secret, there’s always a secret.’

One thing that can probably be revealed (something I knew before reading – not least as it’s on the cover) is that the story involves a painting. A painting of a little bird: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius (and if you don’t know much about it, maybe don’t follow that link till you’ve read the novel either: let the novel bring it into your world in its own way). It’s a beautiful, beautiful painting, or so I believe – I’ve never seen the original, but we’ll all want to now, and thanks to Donna Tartt for describing it so well.

This set me to thinking about ekphrastic writing, which is writing that in some way describes art or uses it as an inspiration. Some examples are mentioned here. I remember my friend and co-teacher Stephanie Heit using Pictures From Brueghel in a workshop at Naropa.

Something further: that bird, that little bird. My goddess, that little bird really haunted me – its exquisite form, its vulnerability, ‘a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle’. A little bird painted three and a half centuries ago comes to stand for so much, and mining this meaning allows for the depth and richness of reading this great book.

For this week’s writing experiment, create a piece that takes The Goldfinch as a model for writing:

* As an inspiration, use a painting of a bird or an animal, or maybe a fish or a lizard or an insect.

* And then also place a secret at the heart of this piece.

* And it might not hurt to aspire towards density and speed in your work, too: perhaps some of its sentences can be marvels and miracles.

* Most of all, your readers must have FUN.

If you’d like to explore some inspirations, try Animals In Art or even visit the Animal Art Fair. Or take yourself on an artist date to one of your favourite galleries, or root around in gallery websites. Really take in all the details of an artwork featuring your own little bird or animal, and in your own writing embody whatever it – and its subject – might mean.

Michel Faber: On Writers As Public People

(Or rather: On writing and himself as a public person.)

Michel Faber, author of not just one but two of my favourite novels (Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White), quoted in a feature in Thresholds:

I’ve largely withdrawn from my career as a public person. I say no to almost all offers, don’t go to book festivals any more, etc. … I’ve resolved to avoid [these events], because you meet lots of people in the literary ‘industry’ and you smell their hunger for success or attention or status, and I hate to be reminded of all that.



I just read in the LRB an enjoyable review by James Wolcott of the selected letters of William Styron.

Sometimes, when I read pieces like this, which express strong opinions, I find myself getting carried along. Am I agreeing with what’s being said too easily, am I being too fickle, is there another view I’m ignoring? Or perhaps that doesn’t matter? What’s more to the point is the energy and the colour in the writing. We don’t have to agree/disagree with everything that’s put in front of us, and either way we can still enjoy the force in the writing.

Among various choice details in this review, one note that particularly resonated with me is a comment about a lost literary culture of ‘larger-than-life’ set against ‘the small-time pantomime we have today’.

Knock each other as they may in print, old-pro novelists harbour a crusty collegiality borne of the awareness of the attrition involved in pushing that cannon up the hill, enduring false starts, racking fatigue, spent livers, sunken eyeballs, crises of faith, year-round seasonal affective disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome, only to stagger into publication day and have Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times nail them in the neck with a poison blowdart.

I guess that larger-than-life had its own trappings, and we have to see through the veneer of glamour and celebrity in that literary mondo (I’m sure some of these figures would be frantically checking their Amazon rankings today). We can get too easily nostalgic. But it does bring to mind Norma Desmond: ‘It’s the books that got small!’ Good writing needs personality, and personality is probably helped by having some personalities write it in the first place. I can think of a few at work today, but perhaps not enough (and probably more poets than novelists).

I do remember reading Sophie’s Choice, too, and it being one of those first grown-up books to leave a strong impression on me. Styron does have a rich prose style, and perhaps for too long I carried with me the sense that grown-up writing needed to be so … flamboyant. Which it can, of course – if you can do it. And he could, and he told great stories, and filled them with characters we cared about.

Wolcott’s review is certainly worth a read, and I’m also going to have to remember to pop in on his blog every now and then. And I ought to get those letters, too.

Anne Rice

One of my very favourite people on Facebook is Anne Rice. She really understands how to use technology to connect with her readers. Her status updates are full of warmth, wisdom, and curiosity, and they have also sent me to various clips of her speaking on YouTube. Whether she is explaining why she quit organised Christianity or talking about plotting or the process of outlining (or not-outlining), her observations contain great insight, generosity, and inspiration. E.g., when you get stuck, ‘the worst thing you can do is go off and think.’ She is a very instinctive writer. Elsewhere she also makes a very emphatic statement that she thinks her books have been successful because readers connect to the characters. (How might readers connect to your characters?)

Above is a warm, funny, and touching interview with ‘the high priestess of modern gothic fiction’.

It’s been a while since I first read Interview With the Vampire, which is surely one of the two greatest vampire novels (Salem’s Lot being the other, for me; though its vampire-monsters lack the complexity of Louis, Lestat, Claudia, et al., it will always scare the hell outta me, and that’s a fine achievement in any novel). Interview With the Vampire has such a simple idea: a vampire tells the story of his life in an interview with a journalist. But it opens up so much, and it touches on two (again, simple) things I often find myself emphasising when I am working with writers: faith in the natural speaking voice as the mode of writing, and by extension the telling of a story (tell me a story – a great mantra). Like many of the best bits of advice, these are really obvious principles, though sometimes they can get a bit lost in other conversations about technique and revision, or overshadowed by the desire to impress (something we can usually do without).

I think it’s time to reread Interview With the Vampire, and catch up on some of her other books.