I ran across an unusual blog the other day. Written by Moira Redmond, a British journalist, it focusses entirely, as its name suggests, on clothes in books, and their importance (or not) to the story being told. I find this interesting, because when I write, I’m never sure how much description of clothing to include. I don’t want it to be distracting, and yet clothing can say so much about a character. Her blog, which she publishes daily, covers all sorts of books, giving an excerpt, a found photo, and Moira’s comments on it. I haven’t read them all, but many are from books written in the 20th century. I wonder whether people were more interested in clothes then?
Here’s one she wrote for mother’s day, with an extract taken from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. And this is the photo she chose to go with it…
Naturally I had to find out what was going on!
You can also follow her at ClothesinBooks on Twitter.
On October 14, Neil Gaiman gave a lecture for the Reading Agency, at the Barbican in London. Neil Gaiman is the author of over 30 books, mostly fiction, including many for children and graphic novels. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries, and The Guardian reprinted an abridged version of the talk. You can read the whole thing here, but there are a few sentences that stood out for me;
I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations…
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them…
The second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals…
I’m English, so naturally I love books, and I love gardening (although I must admit that my gardening is of the if-it-lives-it-lives variety). Still, I pore over gardening catalogues in between reading other books, so I was particularly pleased recently when I had the chance to meet Marta McDowell. She’s the author of Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, a beautiful and fascinating look at Beatrix Potter and the gardens she created and featured in her books.
I sort of knew that Peter Rabbit lived in a real garden, but I didn’t know about Miss Potter’s tremendous talent for drawing or much about her private life at all. So I have found this book absorbing, the perfect accompaniment to a nice cup of tea when I’m taking a break from my computer. In addition to the biographical element, the photographs and illustrations are lovely, and the list of plants she grew helps me dream of improving my own humble plot. The book would make a great gift for a gardening friend – perhaps accompanied by a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit…
Marta McDowell was kind enough to let me interview her for this blog:
GC: Your previous book was Emily Dickinson’s Gardens. What gave you the idea of writing about famous writers’ gardens?
MM: I had a eureka moment on a chance visit to The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts in the 1990s. As a student I’d found the poetry of Emily Dickinson difficult. At The Homestead that afternoon I discovered that Dickinson had been an enthusiastic gardener. It was a tiny common thread — I was recently bitten by the gardening bug — and became a personal entrée into her life and work.
After that I was on the lookout for writers who garden. The pen and the trowel as I like to say.
GC: When did you first become interested in Beatrix Potter?
MM: At an exhibition at the Morgan Library in 1988. It was a spectacular show that explored her biography and work: the Tales, her art including botanicals, and her life as a Lake District farmer and preservationist. I visited her home, Hill Top Farm, in 1997. Then I got distracted by Emily Dickinson and didn’t come back to Miss Potter until 2007 when Linda Lear’s biography, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature came out.
GC: You’re a horticulturist. Was it Beatrix Potter’s watercolor illustrations that first interested you, or the woman herself?
MM: The woman. Beatrix Potter was a person of grit. She reinvented herself several times, and classed herself with “people who never grow up.” I understand that. And the more I learned about her gardening and personal style the better I liked her. She was relaxed about her manner of dress, direct in her conversations, loyal in her correspondence, regular in her work habits. She described her garden as survival of the fittest (evolution was relatively new in her lifetime — equivalent to DNA in ours). Just ask my plants — mine is the same.
GC: How did you go about researching the book?
MM: There are many excellent archives with Potter material. The largest is with the Victoria & Albert in London, but I also spent time in the National Trust archives and the Armitt Museum in Ambleside in the Lake District. I worked at the Morgan Library’s Reading Room, at Princeton University and at Connecticut College. I was also able to find material online. F. W. Warne’s image database was a key resource. And I hired a photographer, Dayve Ward, in the Lake District.
GC: She seems to have been quite a private person. How easy was it to find the information you needed?
MM: I was blessed with researching a person who became famous in her lifetime and wrote engaging letters. So while, before she died, Beatrix Potter Heelis burned her correspondence, most people who received letters from her seem to have saved them.
When she was a teenager, she kept a journal, (in code!), that was painstakingly translated by an early scholar of Beatrix Potter. Because her father was a photographer, there are many pictures of the people and places (and plants) important to her life.
There are wonderful biographies and studies of Beatrix Potter, many fostered by the active and engaging Beatrix Potter Society. The members of the Society couldn’t have been more generous. They helped with material, ideas, reading drafts, making suggestions — I’m still amazed.
GC: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
MM: For me, I loved to step through Beatrix Potter’s garden with her, to try to see it through her eyes — what was growing, her favorite plant (snowdrops!), the work that needed to be done in the beds and borders — and how she honored her garden by including it in her letters, her illustrations and her writing. My best day of the research was one November morning when I got to work in her garden at Hill Top alongside the National Trust horticulturist, Pete Tasker. We were cutting back the perennials. Heaven.
I’ve recently been enjoying the books of Scottish author Catriona McPherson . Her first series was the Dandy Gilver mysteries, featuring an aristocratic lady sleuth in Scotland and the books take place after the First World War. Unlike Charles Todd (author of the Ian Routledge mystery novels) and Jacqueline Winspear (The Maisie Dobbs novels) which are set in the same era, McPherson’s heroine moves easily among the upper classes, and sometimes among the people below stairs. She’s helped in her detecting by a handsome young man called Alec…and occasionally hindered by her husband, Hugh. It’s the tone of these books that sets them apart from the others. There’s a lightness to the prose like that of P.G. Wodehouse, and a self awareness in the heroine that makes her very credible and likeable.
Catriona’s last book, As She Left It, is set in 2010 and has us in a working class area of the North of England. The plot concerns the disappearance of a child ten years before, and the determination of the young protagonist, newly-orphaned 20-something Opal, to find out what happened back then, as well as unraveling several other mysteries in her own life along the way. This was, in fact, the first of Catriona’s books that I read, and I loved it. It was proof that a Scottish writer doesn’t have to stick with a Scottish backdrop; the characters, language and plotting had me utterly convinced. This is one of the few mysteries I would read again, just for the pleasure of the writing. (see my Goodreads review here)
I contacted Catriona to ask her a few questions about her work.
GC: On checking out your bio, I found that you had a strong background in academia. What made you switch to writing mystery novels?
I did an MA and then a PhD and worked as a university lecturer for five years. In that sense, you’re dead right. But the thing is, I was a hopeless and miserable academic. I loved my subject – linguistics- and loved teaching the students, but it wasn’t my world. My PhD supervisor and good friend, Ronnie Cann, always said my thesis was as close as you could get to a science fiction novel and still be awarded a degree for it.
I had always wanted to write stories. But for one, I thought working-class kids from small Scottish towns didn’t burst out and become writers. And for two, when I told a careers adviser I wanted to write (I was fourteen), she scoffed and told me not to be so daft. I was a clever girl, she said. I should stay on a school and make something of my life. So I stayed on at school until I was thirty five. What a chump.
Moaning to a friend one night about how much I hated my job but how stuck I was (first in my family to go to university, parents so proud, all that) I tried to prove I had no options by passing on that careers adviser’s scorn. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is write stories.’ I said. ‘And since that’s daft, I’m stuffed.’
She didn’t even have to say anything. She just looked at me. The light bulb came on. I resigned and started writing. But seriously, what a chump.
GC: How did the character of detective Dandy Gilver come to you?
CMcP: She arrived fully formed the day I started planning to write a crime novel. I had to decide where she lived, what she was called and who her friends and family were, but Dandy herself just turned up. Where from? The answer to Q.1 tells you she’s not me, right? she’s posh, English, dark-haired and a dog-lover. I’m unposh, Scottish, “blonde” and – here’s the clincher – a cat-lover. On the other hand, one of my favourite descriptions of Dandy comes from a Guardian review “brisk, baffled, kindly, heroic and – above all – very funny.” I’ll admit to brisk and baffled, and I aspire to the rest, so maybe she’s sort of me. We’re both tenaciously logical and passionate about truth and justice too. That helps no end with solving cases and with plotting novels.
GC: I would say that the Scottish settings of the Dandy Gilver novels add a great deal to the reader’s enjoyment of them. What made you switch to the North of England? Is that an area you know well?
Thank you! It’s always a juggling act. I want the books to be rich in setting, without that horrible info dump. You know – “I’ve spent months finding this out so you’re damn well going to read about it.”
The reason As She Left It is set in Leeds? The University of Leeds was where I worked for those five unhappy years and I adore Yorkshire people. Still miss being called “love” by strangers. And the real-life incident that set the story going happened in Leeds: I met that little old lady, in her apron and slippers, looking for the party, and took her home. I should say, even though Opal’s house in the book is my friend Diane’s real house in Leeds, none of that stuff happened there. But the bed’s real.
GC: Opal, the main character (among several other memorable ones) in As She Left It is a world away from Dandy. What is your favorite thing about her?
CMcP: I love Opal! She has had a tough life so far but she’s not hardened by it or broken. She’s got her tender spots – places she doesn’t go – but she’s fierce and brave and she cares about the people around her. Also, I love her haplessness. She’s like an anti-diplomat, charging in with the best of intentions and getting thing calamitously wrong. But what a good heart. It was very refreshing writing a character who’s never careful.
GC: I know you have a new novel coming out next week. Could you tell us something about it?
CMcP: Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses is coming out in the US on the 19th of November. It appeared in the UK last year. In it, Dandy is undercover as an English mistress in a girls’ boarding school in Portpatrick, where teachers are vanishing (five) and bodies are piling up (four). That mismatch is what makes the number of corpses bothersome.
And I’ve just finished the edit of Dandy Gilver and the Reek of Red Herrings (trouble and strife in an Aberdeenshire fishing village) which is slated for June 2014 publication in the UK.
There’s also the second in the modern stand-alone strand. A follow-up to As She Left It, although not a sequel. That one, The Day She Died, will be out in May 2014. It’s the story of Jessie Constable – a survivor – whose careful little life gets turned inside out and upside down by a sudden death and the appearance of a stranger. I love Jessie just as much as I did Opal and there’s a gallery of secondary characters – toddlers to elderly Irish priests – that are now my friends for life.
GC: Will these be available in all formats?
CmCP: The Dandy books appear in the most traditional way: hardback followed six months later by paperback and (these days) eBook. The stand-alones come out as trade paperback and eBook simultaneously.
GC: Now that you’re living in California, do you have any plans for a book set there?
Hm, it took me ten years after leaving Leeds to set a book there, so California might not figure very soon. There is an idea for a mid-twentieth-century suspense thriller (possibly a series) but it’s the faintest whiff at the moment. Like smoke from a distant bonfire. One thing I think I can guarantee is that Dandy Gilver will never get in a wagon and roll west. At most, she might take a luxury liner to New York (how I’d love to do that research!) but I think Inspector Morse should stay in Oxford, Miss Marple belongs in St Mary Mead and Dandy Gilver should be tramping about rural Scotland in the plotching* rain.
GC: * I have to admit I didn’t know the word plotching, so I asked Catriona what kind of rain this was and here’s her answer: heavy, windless, downpour, plopping off leaftips and drumming on roofs! The Scots have a word for everything!
I was lucky enough to meet Richard Ford, author, among other works, of the Frank Bascombe series (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land ) and, most recently, Canada, at the Darien Library about 10 days ago. He turned out to be a fascinating speaker, so as he was signing my copy of his novel, I asked him:
“When you’re reading a new book, how long do you give it before you decide to stop reading it?”
“Ten pages.” Nice smile. “And I think that’s generous.”
“Life’s too short?” I queried.
“Yes,” he agreed. “So bring on the good stuff.”
I mention this not just to name-drop, but also, because those of us writing books ought to know just how much time there is to get your reader invested in your book. And it’s not much.
Everyone’s doing it. Producing lists of things to give people for the holidays. I myself have been plugging Tangerine Tango, the cute little book of writing by women in which some of my deathless prose (and a poem) appears. But I keep running across other great things a book-lover or writer might enjoy receiving. So here goes:
Every writer needs a notebook. This one is designed for the insomniac writer and includes lots of creative writing prompts (Write the shortest story ever written. Describe the taste of regret.) and quotes about the power of nighttime. Only $15.
My Ideal Bookshelf is both a book and a series of art prints that can be hung on your wall. Edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount the illustrations show the bookshelves of cultural figures, including writers Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan and Junot Diaz. The cover of the book gives you some idea, but check out the website for close up views of the illustrations. Book $25, prints on archival paper $28.
There have been several films about writers this year, including The Words, Writers, and Being Flynn. My favorite, and one I’d give to a non-writing friend too, is Ruby Sparks. a 2012 romantic comedy-drama about a struggling novelist whose fictional character, Ruby Sparks, comes to life. It scored 79% on RT (Rotten Tomatoes) and has a great cast. I loved it. From $18.
For your favorite book snob, to broaden his horizons, or for a young person you want to entice into the classics, Seymour Chwast’s graphic novel of The Odyssey. It’s not exactly the same old thing. Odysseus travels by space ship, for a start. Chwast brought out Dante’s Divine Comedy in 2010 and the Canterbury Tales last year. List price $20.
I’m not sure I can explain this one, but it sounds fascinating. Here’s the Amazon description: Everything you need to read the new graphic novel Building Stories in a box: 14 distinctively discrete Books, Booklets, Magazines, Newspapers, and Pamphlets by Chris Ware. If you read the rest of the description. you’ll see it’s something completely original, though don’t give it to someone who has no patience and /or no intellectual curiosity. (But you don’t have friends like that, do you?)
With the increasing electronic incorporeality of existence, sometimes it’s reassuring—perhaps even necessary—to have something to hold on to. Thus within this colorful keepsake box the purchaser will find a fully-apportioned variety of reading material ready to address virtually any imaginable artistic or poetic taste, from the corrosive sarcasm of youth to the sickening earnestness of maturity—while discovering a protagonist wondering if she’ll ever move from the rented close quarters of lonely young adulthood to the mortgaged expanse of love and marriage. Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the crushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle and upper-class literary public (and which can return to them in somewhat damaged form during REM sleep).
A pictographic listing of all 14 items (260 pages total) appears on the back, with suggestions made as to appropriate places to set down, forget or completely lose any number of its contents within the walls of an average well-appointed home. As seen in the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Building Stories collects a decade’s worth of work, with dozens of “never-before published” pages (i.e., those deemed too obtuse, filthy or just plain incoherent to offer to a respectable periodical). List price $50. $27 at Amazon.
My friend Sally Allen at Hamlet Hub Westport keeps coming out with great posts about books, reading and writing. Here’s last week’s, which I thought was a propos, since it’s time to be thinking about what to get our book-loving friends for Christmas or Hanukkah. here’s the beginning of the article – click on the title to read the rest of it.
What serious book nerd doesn’t love a reading memoir? This is when you read a book about someone else reading books. If this sounds a little postmodern, well, yes. But it’s great!
Besides exponentially expanding your reading list (gulp), books about books provide insight into and create a conversation around how reading matters to different readers, which is just about as fun to talk about as plot and character, setting and mood. The serious book nerd has his or her own ideas, of course, but experiencing the multiple iterations of reading’s value expands the sense of possibility.
After art school graduate Clay Jannon loses his job designing logos for a bagel company, he takes a job working the late shift in the titular 24-hour bookstore whose most requested inventory is books written in a mysterious, indecipherable code. As Clay works to uncover the relationship between his quirky customers and their books, he draws on the resources of his friends, wrestles with the limits of technology, and discovers the nature of immortality.
Sloan’s debut novel reads like a delightful mystery (meaning no one is killed), with a cast of imperfect but kind and ethical characters pooling their knowledge and traveling across the country to help Clay discover the secret behind the bookstore’s existence. But what they really find is the meaning of life. If you like to feel good after you finish the last page of a book, you will probably adore this novel.
My favorite read of 2012, it’s a multi-layered story that also has one of the best last lines ever. And did I mention the cover glows in the dark? It’s a metaphor.
They started in September 2010, in their home town of Bath. All three members are singer-songwriters. But their talents don’t stop there. Poppy Pitt plays the guitar as well as the occasional harmonium and ukulele for Bookshop Band. She fronts her own Bristol based band Poppy and Friends where she is accompanied by Drums and double bass. Poppy is also an artist and has her own art practice in Bristol. Beth Porter is the band’s cellist. She plays for a number of musicians, including Eliza Carthy, as well as her own band Beth Porter and the Availables, and string quartet The Stringbeans, with whom she also recorded for the BAFTA winning Eagleman Stag. Ben Please is a guitarist based in Bath, and is part of indie-folk band Urusen. He composes music for film and animation, including work on the BAFTA (2011) winning animation The Eagleman Stag. He is co-founder of the Bath arts / music / poetry monthly The Bath Burp, has a linocut studio, and often works as a filmmaker in East Africa.
They’ve produced four CD’s so far: Travels From Your Armchair, with songs based on folk tales from around the world, And Other Dystopias, which covers dark themes in literature, the self-explanatory Revolutions, and Into the Farthest Reaches, which covers books about extreme people in extreme predicaments. They’re about to launch two more in December. I think any one of these would make a great present for the book lover in your life. You can listen to some of the songs by visiting their website. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook and see their videos at vimeo.
As my regular readers know, some of my personal essays and a poem were published recently in a great little book. Great, because the writing is good, and little, because, well, it’s small. A perfect size, in fact, for a holiday gift for a hostess, mother, stocking stuffer or just for fun. (Only $8.35!)
To give you some idea of the kind of book it is, I thought I’d share some of the pieces with you between now and Christmas. The book’s available at Amazon in either paper or digital form. Here’s a sample of writing from the editor, Lisa K. Winkler, my internet friend. Here you go.
There’s nothing like an ice cream cone. And this summer, there are more flavors than ever to choose from. Creative expression has pervaded ice cream, exposing our palates to culinary experiences akin to dining in ethnic restaurants.
Cheeses- feta, goat, ricotta or blue can be found mixed with fruits and vegetables. Savory spices such as paprika, basil, rosemary, curry, pepper and even garlic are offered next to traditional chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. In New Jersey, the Garden State, I’ve seen “Fresh Corn.” For those who skipped breakfast, maple syrup and bacon flavors abound, and for those thinking salad, there’s olive oil.
Then there are the flavors invented by creative vendors whose names tell the customer nothing. Why don’t the stores tape an explanation of these flavors to the front of the case? Instead, customers have to ask what each is, wasting the scooper’s time and annoying the impatient Little League team waiting in line.
One stand offers a flavor named for the town’s zip code. And “Special Flavor,” which changes all the time. Last visit, it was peach. And the imaginative names, like Dirty Diaper, Elephants Never Forget, and Kong.
GC: Wow – buy the book to read the rest – which includes a recipe for chocolate fudge sauce. Yum.
I first met Alice Mattison several years ago when she was part of a panel of writers doing their best to enlighten some neophyte writers (me included) on ways to improve our writing, specifically when we had plot issues. Even when we peppered her with questions she was very approachable and so are her novels. She’s written six so far, of which the latest is When We Argued All Night, described by the New York Times Book Review as ‘a fine novel of a friendship that lasts more than half a century.’When I ran into her again recently, she agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I wanted to find out, among other things, why place and multiple generations of characters are so important in her work.
GC: Your novels have a very strong sense of place. Brooklyn is often almost a character in itself. Is place an important part of your work?
AM: I picture people in context, with a background, whether they are my characters or other people’s, imaginary people or real. I need to know where everybody is and what they see out the window. The places I’ve written about most, Brooklyn and New Haven, are places where I’ve lived, cities about which I feel passionate, but I like thinking about setting in any story, and trying to sense what it would be like for my characters to live in a particular place. I’ve recently written stories set in the mountains in New England and in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
GC: If so, do you have to travel to each place, or can you write about it from research?
AM: I write about places I’ve lived in or visited. I make up houses all the time but I don’t think I’ve ever made up a city—oh, yes, I did: Boynton, Massachusetts in The Book Borrower. I don’t think I’d set anything of length in a place I’ve never been, but a couple of times I’ve used research to write briefly about someplace I don’t know.
GC: Your novels often span several generations. Can you tell us why family histories interest you?
AM: I don’t always write about several generations, but I’ve done it more than once, yes. My grandparents were immigrants to this country. I don’t know much if anything about anybody in the family before them, but they were real and important to me when I was a child—even my mother’s father, who had died before I was born, and for whom I am named. My mother’s mother couldn’t read and write, and that is feels central for me: I will always be the granddaughter of someone who couldn’t read and write. She used to dictate letters that I’d write for her. My parents stories made a time just before my birth come alive for me. When I think about people like my family—even when I am not writing autobiographically, and I’m usually not—I have to include the older generations.
GC: You include politics and historical events in your books, with a particular fondness, it seems to me, for the 30’s until today. Why those years particularly?
AM: My parents were young in the 1930s. It seems like a fascinating era that I missed. I keep trying to get back and know what it was like for them—to see through their eyes. I love photographs from the thirties. I suppose life did not take place in subtle blacks, whites, and grays, but it’s hard not to think it did.
AM: When We Argued All Night is the story of the difficult friendship between two Jewish men from Brooklyn, Harold Abramovitz and Artie Saltzman, beginning in 1936 when they are 26 years old, and ending in 2004, as Artie’s daughter Brenda and her partner watch Barack Obama on TV as he gives the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. The book is about the lives of the three main characters during difficult times—the Depression, the buildup to the Second World War, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War. But even more than that, it’s about love, friendship, and the complexities of family life.
GC: Readers are always interested in the process of writing. I know you write in the afternoons, but where exactly do you write?
AM: I start in the late morning, but I rarely produce anything good until afternoon. I write in a small room on the second floor of my house. Sometimes I carry my laptop into the bedroom and write with it on my lap on top of a pillow, and occasionally I write in the attic. I leave my study when I don’t feel sufficiently alone there, when I’ve been answering too many emails and the room feels crowded with other people. Then the dog and I migrate elsewhere. It’s not logical, because I take my laptop with me and I can check email in any part of my house, but it feels helpful anyway.
GC: Do you have any writing rituals that help you get started or stay on task while you’re writing?
AM: No. I just keep going away from it and back to it until I can write something. I never stay on task. I turn away and back, away and back. It’s sometimes painful, but eventually I can write.
GC: What are you working on now?
AM: I’ve started a new novel and have also written some short stories, which are all about women at work. One was in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories collection of 2012; one is coming out in The Threepenny Review. Now and then I write an essay.