Authors in France: Amanda Hodgkinson

 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

In the small village of Labatut Rivière in the lovely south west of France a group of readers and writers welcomed Amanda Hodgkinson, author, to talk about her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.
 
In preparation, I did some strenuous research on my sunlounger…
 
 
Here’s the blurb:

It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made a home for them in Ipswich.

However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has crisscrossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help him put his own dark past behind him.

But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them, unless together they confront what they were compelled to do to survive. 

 
Amanda read an extract from the points of view of the three main characters and I enjoyed (as she suggested everybody does) being read to in the glorious sunshine with a glass of rosé and only next door’s cockerel to punctuate the silences.
 
Then Amanda spoke about her motivation for writing the book – her attempt to capture something of  the relationships between families who were separated during the war and, although reunited, are never the same.
 

The discussion then moved on to her journey to publication: One query letter (I said ‘one’ there in case you missed that), several bids which led to an auction, and the novel went straight onto the New York Times bestseller list. A dream for many, but good to hear it can, and does, happen.

 

Amanda’s second novel Spilt Milk was released earlier this year and has been very well received:

‘Hogkinson’s second novel is simply but elegantly written, its subtle charms emerging as her gentle, bittersweet story shows history repeating itself over the generations’ Sunday Times

She also spoke about the Grand Central, an anthology to be released in July which sounds very intriguing:

Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…

 Thanks to Jane who hosted the lunch in her beautiful garden. I returned home with garden envy and road-to-publication envy. But it was an enjoyable day and great to meet so many book lovers.
 
 

Creative Writing: Robert Olen Butler

Creative Writing: A Spectator Sport

I came across this video by Robert Olen Butler on youtube, published in Oct 2012, the first in a series. He is attempting to capture his creative process for an audience and it’s fascinating viewing. He uses an old postcard as a prompt and we watch and listen as he tries to articulate the reasons for the choices he makes without becoming too analytical which would impede on the dreamlike state he needs to preserve. I found it interesting that he collects old postcards for the messages written on them, and how he tries to imagine the person who wrote that card.

I noted that he uses a dictionary which references the date the word came into use. When he checked the word ‘shimmied’ in relation to a horse, he found that it was first included in the dictionary in 1919, but, as he was writing a story set in 1913, he couldn’t use that word.

I recommend watching these if you have quite a bit of spare time, but beware there are no action scenes (unless you count when he reaches for the dictionary), just a writer sitting and tapping the keyboard, then the backspace key, then stretching and re-reading what he’s written.

Short stories: ‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

‘The China Factory’ by Mary Costello

This collection of short stories, published by The Stinging Fly, really drew me in. The first story, The China Factory, and the last, The Sewing Room, are beautiful pieces. But there is plenty to recommend in between: The Patio Man, And who will pay Charon, and Little Disturbances being worthy of mention.

The China Factory features Gus, the main character’s co-worker, who gives her a lift to work every day. He’s a quiet hero and she betrays him, but he understands that she’s young and desperate to fit in with the other women, even if she has nothing in common with them. 

‘She was the kind of girl who wore flesh-coloured tights and pencil skirts but never jeans, and would grow into the kind of woman I never wanted to be.’


The Sewing Room is an elegant story, which fits perfectly with the main character’s comportment. It recounts the build-up to a schoolteacher’s retirement party. While she accepts everyone’s best wishes she is also considering her past mistakes. A slow-moving and evocative story.

I like that the first story is about a young girl starting in her first job and the last story is a woman retiring after many years of service.

In many of these stories there is a note of loneliness, especially within married couples: A husband reminiscing on an affair he had with a girl when he was school inspector; a wife, bored in her relationship, having an online affair; a husband waiting for the results of medical tests, unable to express his feelings. Quite a sad reflection on married life.

Although the characters are normal, almost banal, there is disease, rape, death lurking in the background. 

This collection is a treasure trove to be dipped into and savoured. Mary Costello has a light touch and an uncomplicated, understated way of telling a story.

The Creative Process Blog Tour

The Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Paula McGrath for nominating me to answer some questions on the creative process.



What am I working on?

Well-travelled – A short story collection: From the backpacker to the business traveller, from the child of diplomat parents to the retired couple touring in their campervan, I’ve been chipping away at about fifteen stories for the past six months and they’re currently reposing in a virtual drawer.

New novel: I’ve been plotting and planning and trying to gather inchoate notions of characters and settings for my nameless new novel. This is the creative stage of the writing process that I love. So these mornings I jump out of bed (something I’m not too well-known for) to get back to it. I hope to write the first draft (and give it a working title) over the summer.



I’m also working on all the little things writers have to do that take insane amounts of time – submitting my completed novel, Lost in Lourdes, to agents and editors, researching writing competitions and literary magazines, devouring all the information I can about the craft and business of writing (and not getting too distracted on Twitter.)

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 
I haven’t really figured out my genre. I guess every author’s voice is different though, and I have been told in my writers’ group that a certain turn of phrase is ‘typically Hilary’, so although I can’t define my voice I know others can hear it.

Why do I write what I do?

Although novels were my first love, I started writing short stories and flash fiction as a way of gaining some real critique on my writing. I soon came to love reading and writing short fiction.

I feel I have the freedom as an emerging writer to choose whatever form or style or subject-matter I want. I mostly write for myself, usually to just try to make sense of the world.

The books I’ve read and loved recently include Gone Girl, Apple Tree Yard, Transatlantic, The Luminaries, The Goldfinch and Frog Music. It’s difficult to say what these books have in common (apart from the fact that they’ve all been nominated for literary prizes) but I would like to write like that.

 
How does my writing process work?
 
Here’s a picture of my attempt to follow the subplots in my new novel. I began with normal-sized cards but I was adding too much detail, so I had to cut the cards to small pieces. I still managed to cram each with barely decipherable scrawl.



My writing process really consists of sitting down every day and trying to progress on one project or another depending on real and self-imposed deadlines. If my concentration is waning, I push myself to complete the task quickly (because a first draft is easier to revise than a blank sheet of paper) and then punish myself with forty lashes or some housework. 

Who I nominate next…

I’d like to ask the same questions of KM Elkes @mysmalltales and Geoff Holder @geoffholder58 (update: here it is) and look forward to reading how they work.

Writing Contests: On The Premises Magazine

On The Premises is a web-based fiction magazine. New issues are published every four months. 
A rarity in the world of writing competitions: there are no fees, yet winners receive cash prizes in addition to exposure through publication.

They also provide a free critique to any contestant whose entry makes the top ten but doesn’t get published.
As well as the main contests (see below) there are mini-contests for anyone who has signed up for their newsletter. The current mini-contest #No. 23 is entitled ‘It Was the Best of Prose, It Was the Worst of Prose.’

There is an interesting article in the newsletter which conveys the concept of using the right prose for the right content. You should sign up for the newsletter if only to read this article, which is insightful.

The competition asks to write two very short pieces of prose, each one between 10 and 25 words. The first 10-25 word piece should use TERRIBLE prose that ruins what the content is trying to convey. The second one should be a dramatically improved version of the first piece that is also 10-25 words long but uses much better prose that enhances the content’s inherent power.

I have been enjoying this challenge. It’s a great learning tool – deliberately searching for the wrong way to convey the story and then aiming to improve the same few lines to produce a better version. I’m looking forward to reading the winning pieces.

The closing date is 30/4/14 so there’s still time to enter. Sign up for the newsletter here.

 

Here’s the main contest:

Contest #23 officially launched on March 9, 2014. Its premise is

DECISIONS, DECISIONS

One or more characters face an especially difficult decision. Whether readers would find the decision difficult will have no effect on how the story is rated. What matters is whether at least one of the story’s more important characters finds the decision difficult.

As usual, any genre except children’s fiction, exploitative sex, or over-the-top gross-out horror is fine.

Your challenge: In at least 1,000 but no more than 5,000 words, write a creative, compelling, and well-crafted story that clearly uses the “Decisions, Decisions” premise. If you have questions, ask us at Questions@OnThePremises.com.

Deadline: 11:59 PM Eastern Time, Friday, May 30, 2014.

Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

Here’s the blurb

‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love – and his talisman, the painting, places him at the centre of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America and a drama of enthralling power. Combining unforgettably vivid characters and thrilling suspense, it is a beautiful, addictive triumph – a sweeping story of loss and obsession, of survival and self-invention, of the deepest mysteries of love, identity and fate.’

Amazon

Pure entertainment


This is a door-stopper of a book at 700+ pages. A greatly entertaining story, I was bereft when I finished and couldn’t choose another book to read for days. Well-deserving of all the accolades.

Well-drawn characters


Theo, his mother, Boris, Hobie, Xandra and Andy are all memorable characters and kept me turning the pages – from Andy’s drawling voice telling us about his dislike of boats, to Hobie’s stilted and formal manner of speaking. The only character I never got to like or care for was Pippa, but she was off-the-page almost all the time.




Theo’s mother has a strong voice although she is dead from the beginning. When she relates the history of the painting in the museum we are drawn to love it. We see the bird and its chain, and the history of the painting, and want to protect it.

Great settings

I have to say I’m a sucker for great settings. I loved the New York in this book – the restaurants, cafés, parks and museums. Las Vegas was first introduced by the bling, the strip, the cliché, but we were brought with Theo to the suburbs and saw a side of Las Vegas rarely written about.

Hobie’s antique shop is vividly depicted. I can smell the antiques, the wood, the oils. The Barbour’s luxurious apartment on 5th avenue contrasted well with Theo’s own New York home.

The devil is in the detail

Although there are sections of this novel that are arguably too detailed and unnecessarily long (the first time Theo gets really drunk in Vegas and does a lot of  stupid things, or the long bus journey with the Popper, the dog), this is a novel that draws you in and you accept the detail because that was what was important to Theo.

There is, however, a long epilogue that felt too preachy and I felt the book would have been better without it, but overall I was entertained and drawn into Theo’s world. I despaired at the hand life had dealt him.

 A wonderful novel to get your teeth into. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014. Bravo Donna Tartt.

Longlisted: Fish Flash Fiction Prize

Longlisted

The winning stories of the Fish Flash Fiction Prize 2014 were announced this week and I was pleased to see my story ‘Baobab’ on the longlist. Thank you to the judge, Glenn Patterson, and to Fish Publishing.

Fish Publishing

From the Fish Publishing website:
‘Publisher of over 400 emerging authors and poets since 1994 in The Annual Fish Anthology.

Fish is an open door that’s inviting writers to walk through it.It has to be encouraged, celebrated, congratulated. – RODDY DOYLE –
Fish is doing God’s own work.
It’s an inspiration and an avenue to writers everywhere.

– FRANK McCOURT –
I hail anyone who enters the Fish Prize . . . It is difficult to create from dust.
I know that the best stories are those that are still untold –
so keep writing, keep creating, keep the faith.
– COLUM McCANN -‘

The Flash Fiction Prize

The flash fiction contest is very popular – there were 1,250 entries submitted in total.

The challenge: ‘to create, in a tiny fragment, a completely resolved and compelling story in 300 words or less.’

The authors of the first ten stories have been invited to read at the launch of the anthology during the West Cork Literary Festival in July. I hope they enjoy West Cork. Last time I was there I stayed in Durrus, home of Fish!

Review: ‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

‘Five Star Billionaire’ by Tash Aw

Here’s the blurb:

‘In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping this dazzling new city, and their effect on these individual lives.’

Fast-paced, breathtaking

 

I was surprised and delighted by this book. Tash Aw’s writing style is elegant, yet fast-moving and modern. This is a novel that sparkles.
 

Themes

Themes of loneliness, ambition, success and tragedy are threaded through the inter-connecting stories. Most of the characters are struggling to climb to the top of the ladder and struggling to stay there. The author imagines the difficulty of being a woman in modern China as well as the despair of a successful pop star on the way out.

 

Setting

 

From tiny villages in Malaysia to luxury spas in Shanghai, from a dilapidated hotel in Malaysia to the slums in suburban Shanghai, from pineapple stalls near Singapore to lonely hotel rooms in Taiwan, the settings in this novel are exotic and unique. I’d love to visit modern China after reading this. Failing that I would like to read more from this author.
 

Format

I listened to this as an audiobook and felt it was hard to follow at times. As the pace is quite fast, I felt the need to flick back to check which character was which. I would highly recommend this in hard copy/e-book format.

 Biography

Tash Aw is the author of two previous novels, ‘The Harmony Silk Factory’, winner of the Costa First Novel Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel, and ‘Map of the Invisible World’. He was born in Malaysia and now lives in London.

Contemporary French Lit: ‘Bernard’ by David Foenkinos

Contemporary French Literature


‘Bernard’ by David Foenkinos is a slim French novel. In fact, fooled by the unorthodox format, I’m not sure it can even be called a novel. A novella, then.

 

The story begins with Bernard returning to live with his parents after he splits up with his wife. At the age of fifty he finds himself in his childhood bedroom, falling in with his parents’ rules. We find out how he ended up there: He had an affair. His wife threw him out.
 
He realises that he’s gradually losing contact with his daughter. He tries to reconnect with her through facebook, a rather creepy episode that doesn’t show him as a sympathetic character, although that was perhaps the author’s intention.
 
Living with his parents is difficult. They treat him like he’s still a teenager. Then they try to set him up with a divorcee.
 
‘Bernard’ is a pleasant and easy read, although I didn’t feel much empathy with any of the characters. There was a certain lightness about the story, as if it wasn’t taking itself that seriously. Plenty of humour in there that had me chuckling, especially as he reverts to the behaviour of his teenage self.
 
Bernard, although only concerned with himself, manages to shake up his parents’ lives too and causes them to make changes themselves that are well overdue.
 
Find out more about David Foenkinos here.