The Stories and the Stars

Reader Logo by Elizabeth Baines

Here are some conversations I’ve had recently:

SCENE 1: A Manchester café.

FRIEND 1: Have you been to see A Dangerous Method? The Cronenberg film about Freud and Jung?

ME: Not yet. Is it good?

FRIEND 1: Keira Knightley is fabulous.

SCENE 2: The same café, a couple of days later.

FRIEND 1: Well, what did you think of the film?

ME: Um … I’m not sure. I found it hard to get my head around somehow. It was very dense verbally, maybe because Christopher Hampton’s screenplay is based on his stage play (The Talking Cure) – all those discussions about psychology: fascinating, but I’m not sure I took it all in. I loved the humour though, the sly symbolism – the way Jung keeps challenging Freud’s idea that everything is based on sex and sexual appetite, and in the early scenes in which they meet he’s always eating (and unaware of how much he’s eating!) – the sexually frustrated man of appetite who then comes a-cropper on his sexual appetite!

Review: Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers
By Mari Strachan
Published by Canongate Books
Reviewed by Jessica Patient
Artwork: Fossfor

Mari Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, is a gripping novel about society’s post-war struggles.

Set in the heat wave of 1921, Rhiannon Davies, known as Non to her family, wakes and finds her husband, Davey Davies, huddled under the kitchen table. He is clutching an imaginary rifle, re-enacting a horrific incident from the trenches. She really wants to understand and try to make things better but Non feels like she has been pushed out of his life. A mysterious letter arrives and helps Non discover why her husband has come back from the Great War as a different man. She must summon the strength within herself to be able to help Davey deal with his war scars.

“The old war’s left its mark on us all.”

Mission Impossible

Reader Logo musings from the editor

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to some students at Birmingham City University as part of the National Academy of Writing day there.

Richard Beard the director of the academy asked me to spend half the time talking about my experiences of getting The Ascent of Isaac Steward published and half the time about what it was like being an editor of a literary magazine.

It was interesting comparing the two worlds: one being an unknown author trying to find an agent or publisher -  the other?
Well becoming an editor was like dropping in Mission Impossible style at the end of a steel tether into the back rooms of the world of publishing.  Publishers and agents joined the team at The View From Here, publishers replied the same day to my emails, famous authors talked to me - all the time I felt that at any moment I would be outed as a fraud ...

"You're not an editor, what are you doing here?"
"Yes I am, look I've got a shiny business card, and an international team," I would reply a drop of sweat trickling down my sunglasses. "Here take a look," ...

And behind the scenes is interesting.  I was doing a workshop last year and asked some well known authors beforehand about their synopses to help the students ...

Hi Mike, I don't do synopses - sorry! - Iain Banks

Hi Mike, I'm afraid. I've never had to send out a synposis. I've probably got a synopsis somewhere for my still-unpublished second novel, but it obviously wasn't what was wanted! - Marina Lewycka

Dear Mike, I'm afraid I can't help. I haven't written a synopsis for about 25 years - for a non-fiction book I never finished. best, Julian Barnes

So publishers don't always ask for a synposis then? Hmm. Interesting.

Chatting to publishers face to face over a coffee also provided some insights - once we'd exchanged the secret code word - pass the biscuits please - all sorts of top secret information was passed across the table.  Take the MD of Alma books who published Tom McCarthy's novel Remainder he pushed a little slip of paper past the garibaldis with the inside nod on Tom McCarthy's Booker shortlisted novel C ...

Mike, We simply turned down C because we were not passionate enough and thought that it needed a lot of work. Another publisher (Cape) was passionate about the book as it was, so Tom chose to go with them. These things happen in publishing, so there are no hard feelings. Nor was I surprised when C was shortlisted for the Booker, as Tom is a writer of talent. Alex

 So even successful authors get turned down by their publishers: I filed that under investigate further.

The staff at Random House told me how they swooned when Markus Zusak the author of The Book Thief came into the offices - no wonder when we asked him about his hobbies he said, "I go surfing early in the morning, before starting work." I guess he turned up with a surf board under his arm and a twinkle in his eye.

And the publisher of - arh, hang on I've triggered some kind of alarm telling you all this stuff.  Sorry got to go, you didn't see anything okay.

This post will self destruct in 10 seconds.

Self-publish and be Damned

By Roger Morris
Artwork by Bradley Wind

Publishing is a business. Writing is an art. That’s what I’ve always told myself. And it’s how I explained to myself why all those decades went by without my managing to interest a single publisher in any of the several books I’d written. Yes, decades, you read that right. Apparently I came close a number of times. And I also came close to putting the damn things out myself – self-publishing as it’s now called. Vanity publishing used to be the term.

What stopped me, always, was the need for validation. I had partial validation because I had been taken on by a well-known and respected literary agent. He liked my writing. He was confident, with every new novel I sent him, that this was the one. But it never was – or not for a long time.

When things did come right for me, they came right all at once. I had one novel, Taking Comfort, accepted by Macmillan New Writing. Then, soon after, a novel that was in submission through my agent, was taken on by Faber. (A Gentle Axe.)

Ardie Collins, novelist and song writer, talks about being creative and the art of swindling

2011 was a busy year for Ardie Collins.  His debut novel, Cult Fiction, was published by Knightstone Publishing, he finished his Master's degree and he committed himself to write a song a day for the entire year.


 I have a confession: I’m young. Much too young to be writing this post. We’re talking horrendously young here. I’m 23 and I somehow managed to get my debut novel published in September of last year. I’m still baffled by this. I sometimes imagine myself older. I’m twenty years older and looking back at that kid who wrote his first novel and managed to get it published at 23, and I’m smirking at him and saying, ‘It was an okay first effort, kid. How did you swindle that one, though?’ For some reason my 43-year-old self seems to think he’s in a gangster movie set in the 1930s, and he's also somehow forgotten how he swindled it.

The Buddha in the Attic : A Review

The Buddha in the Attic
By Julie Otsuka
Published by Fig Tree
Reviewed by Jessica Patient

Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic is a beautiful, lyrical short novel about the American dream from the immigrant perspective. The novel opens with a group of mail order brides on a boat from Japan heading for San Francisco and their new futures. Their new husbands greet them at the dock. There is hesitation and a stab of realisation that their husbands and lives will not be the same as the promises made through the letters and photographs.

“On the boat we were mostly virgins.”

The Artist: Another Way to Tell a Story

Reader Logo by Jonathan Pinnock

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a talk to a writers’ group, and I got into conversation with one of the members there. She was complaining that she’d just found out that her big idea for a book had already been done by someone else. As I tend to do on these occasions, I replied that the existence of Jill Murphy’s bestselling “Worst Witch” books didn’t seem to have done J K Rowling any harm. Unfortunately her response was to harrumph that she didn’t care for J K Rowling anyway, which I felt was missing the point somewhat.

I would probably have been better off pointing her in the direction of Raymond Quesneau’s “Exercises in Style” (or indeed Matt Madden’s graphic novel version of the same concept, “99 Ways to Tell a Story” . Both of these books take a simple story and tell it in 99 different ways, demonstrating that the subject matter of a story is more often than not of secondary importance. What matters is how you tell it.