Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Zadie

I don't have a lot in common with Zadie Smith. Zadie finished her university education while I am a drop-out who ran off to au pair in Paris. Zadie published her first novel to great acclaim while mine is still sitting in a cupboard, typed up on yellow paper and smelling of moldy house. Zadie has acquired a broad-based and supportive readership, some nitpicking detractors, and has won awards for her work, allowing her to build a career in teaching writing at a university level. She also writes delicate articles with a punch in reviews no less glorious than 'The New Yorker', dealing with issues dear to her heart. She is doubtless a hard worker with much talent, and has just published her fourth novel, already receiving glowing reviews.

Phew! Just taking a breath as there is so much to admire here.

And here's an even bigger difference. Zadie had her daughter in her thirties, while I started reproducing in my mid-twenties while I was a young diplomat's wife in Mogadishu, and then, ahem, continued my output over the next twelve years. Much has been said about having a career versus being a stay-at-home home. (Whose children are more intelligent and well-adjusted? Whose bunions are bigger?) But how does mothering affect creativity, that daunting endeavour?

In this week's 'Guardian' (which I feel less and less like reading for various reasons, not least of all the fact that they haven't reviewed my novel there!) I read an article accompanying a review of Zadie Smith's new novel 'NW', which struck a very familiar chord.

According to the newspaper, Smith said that 'motherhood had changed her in an extreme way', especially by nibbling away at her time and concentration. She says: 'I wasn't interested in 80-page chapters any more - I couldn't stay in that mindset for that period of time.'

And even more tellingly, she spoke about being shoved off the writing cliff into the freefall of childcare: '..there's no down time. I would stop writing and would have no chance to think about the book at all, nothing. Then in the morning, it was as if someone else had written it.'

Has anyone else ever felt this? After the school run, the escaped dog, the tipped-over rubbish, the maths homework lies, more washing, a missed train, stolen wallet, unpaid telephone bill, broken dishwater, nagging ex, unwatered plants, the odd fever... YOU THINK I CAN SIT DOWN AND WRITE ANYTHING MEANINGFUL NOW?

It's all about brain twisting, if you like. Gymnastics. Focusing. Not always easy, not ever easy.

What is interesting is that Smith then spins this brutal detachment into an advantage, saying that it also gives the writer essential distance, a crucial objectivity that is difficult to achieve when one is bathed in the work.

I do like this one. I am clinging to it.

* * *

I have an interview about my publishing experience up with Brit Writers!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Une Femme en Corse

Every morning you swim out to the farthest buoy. A little afraid of sharks, having watched way too many documentaries with great whites exposing their gnashing teeth. The water is green-blue and barely tossed, although on some days grey and glassy like milk. You swim thinking of other bodies of water, stuff you should be doing for work, ideas for lunch, naughty things you'd like to do and have done to you. You backstroke in to shore then head out again, over and over. Every morning you nearly collide with the guy in checked boardshorts on that stand-up canoe. Every morning you hear the old cranky man cleaning the wooden planks of the cafe with a leaf-blower.

Then, before the crowds come with their tumbling kids and teensy bikinis and umbrellas and tribal tattoos and suncream, you sit awhile in the sand, invisible, contemplating coffee, hoping to dodge last night's dishes. The wind comes up.

Before lunch there will be pastis most days. (For those who haven't tried one yet - a cloudy aniseed aperitif, you keep on adding water until your jug is dry.) On a bright red table in a village. Or in the piazza at the nearby town, a hot clifftop hike away (involving naked swims on the way back).

Or in a cafe high up above the coast in a village with lavender shutters and winding paths and massive agave with bent blue arms.

Then in the afternoons you might have a nap, read a novel, or tickle your revisions; set out to a faraway and breathtaking beach.

Or a mountain village you never, ever want to leave.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A Divorced Lady in Cornwall

Now that I am typing with a fan on my back and it is 40 degrees outside, my trip to the Penzance Literary Festival seems to have happened in another universe. A cooler, windier one where where socks were worn and a trench coat was contemplated.

I set out from Victoria Station in London on - my friend couldn't believe this Euro-punishment choice - a National Express coach. It was long, 10 hours long. Are these the sacrifices poor writers have to make? That thought niggled as I bobbed sleeplessly in my seat.

Dawn came sweetly however, over postcard villages of stone houses and boats dozing in rivers. Cornwall, I had been told, doesn't like to call itself a part of England. I know that feeling, coming from a dusty hinterland of the empire. I wondered how early I could ask for a pint without seeming, well, indecent.

First up on Day One was Festival Patron Patrick Gale, whose most recent novel, 'A Perfectly Good Man' had been tucked in my handbag over the previous week. Patrick read beautifully from his elegant work, although the more I looked at the crowd around me, the way all faces were turned up and expectant, and the more I studied Patrick himself, a seasoned performer I saw, but still sweating slightly under the yellowy lights, the more I wanted to run away and catch the next bus back to London.

I haven't done a lot of public speaking in the years since I was a debating nerd in school. I've also developed blushing into an art form. A friend called it charming once. I wanted to slog her. Since the book has come out I've had to speak at the launch and do a few readings and book club meetings, phone interviews with journalists and a radio interview in Italian. I've had to Man Up. A strategic drink can help, and I confess I've done one telephone interview in a my pyjamas sitting on a bench outside, stroking my cat. Not so chic, hey?

Last week I was given some essential advice from a friend at the receiving end of my deranged texts. She reminded me that I am the person who knows my book the most, and that I should own these public speaking moments because I have worked so hard to produce and publish this silly book. Doesn't that already make you feel lighter, hardier?

On Day Three at 2pm in the Acorn Theatre I met Sarah Duncan ('Kissing Mr. Wrong') and Liz Fenwick ('The Cornish House'). Both lovely ladies who immediately set me at ease. We moved onto the stage. The lights were turned on. Jugs of water appeared. We all crossed our legs in the most lady-like way.

The session went swimmingly. Not a full hall, but a warm one. Our topic was 'How Did I Get Here?'. Liz was billed as 'a much travelled mother who divides her time between Dubai and Cornwall'. And I was 'an Australian who ran away to Paris at the age of 21'. I managed to not talk too much about silly things such as food-in-Italy, men-in-Italy, shoes-in-Italy. I think. And we also touched upon vital subjects such as method, inspiration and of course '50 Shades of Grey' and the E-book phenomenon. Sarah was a wonderful host and Liz a great speaker. I can honestly say I enjoyed myself more than I could ever have imagined!

And I didn't blush, trip or splutter!

I could indeed write a lot more about the thoroughly inspiring series of events organised by the charming Peter Levin. The theme of the festival being Journeys, there were authors whose work is set all over the world; there were technical sessions about the business of writing; poetry readings and appearances by young adult writers. And in the evening the Acorn Theatre became alive with music - such as the original and talented Bookshop Band who write haunting songs recounting characters and book themes.

Though I confess I never tried a Cornish pasty, I think I've fallen for Penzance. I hope my publisher doesn't mind me playing around with my cover. This was an unscripted Iphone photo that was too kooky to let go.