This week I've been entertained, challenged, fascinated and appalled. It's amazing what writers can do to you. Thank goodness I've also discovered another lovely café: a woman needs her scones after all that turmoil.
BREAKING THE VESSEL – AN EVENING WITH MARK Z DANIELEWSKI
‘All writers are control freaks’
– or so says Mark Danielewski. He should know – last Hallowe’en he orchestrated a performance of his new novel The 50 Year Sword, with five actors not only reading the text but also completing one another’s sentences. Danielewski ‘musically stitched together their voices’, seeing himself as ‘Harry Potter in a different way’ and says that the read-through showed him just how the parts of the book fitted together.
On Monday, Danielewski was at Blackwell’s for the UK launch of this novel, his third. In conversation with Mark Buckland of publishers Cargo, Danielewski explained that each of his works is an attempt to ‘remediate’ a different subject. Previous books have looked at horror stories and music, whilst his current work-in-progress will remediate the TV series. The 50 Year Sword takes as its subject the classic ghost story, the story told around the camp fire. A Thai seamstress who is getting over a failed marriage comes across Belinda Kite – her nemesis – at a party. She thinks of leaving but stays, and the consequences of her decision form the book’s story.
Danielewski wants the book to be read straight through: with just a few words of text on each page, it should only take an hour. He thinks a great deal about how text will look on paper, and is much influenced by William Faulkner and Laurence Sterne, both of whom played with the colour and form of text. Danielewski sees himself as part of this experimental tradition, and explores the effects on his characters of changing colours, fonts and even margins. For him, image and text become one, the shape and colour of a letter or word having as much influence as its literal meaning. He talks about ‘breaking the vessel’ (of traditional forms) to allow language and meaning to pour out. This can liberate meaning, freeing the words and allowing them to grow.
He sees language as ‘oscillating on the page’ - it is integral to our lives but also mystic, and he has come to realise that even language is small compared to the world around us, and only one of the tools we can apply to try to comprehend that world. One part of our minds processes text, another images, and for Danielewski the best way to understand the world is to look between the two. This, he says, leads to new experience.
Danielewski is interested in the tradition of oral storytelling – one that is of course still strong in Scotland. Voices, he says, come together like ghosts within the speaker, so that sometimes a different story emerges. He seeks to show that different voices will tell different versions of the same story. We present ourselves as complete beings, but we are the product of many influences and experiences. The 50 Year Sword includes many images of a butterfly; these were sewn with thread onto paper, then scanned. The stitches were snipped out then re-sewn, to show how we cut our experiences apart and sew them together. We need to take things apart to create a new whole.
E-books initially appealed to Danielewski , allowing as they do the use of many colours and fonts, but he found that after initial enthusiasm, sales have flattened out – there is a resistance to them, a failure to deliver something that readers still get from a traditional book. He’s also tried an animated version of The 50 Year Sword for i-pad, but this has also had only limited success. The book is clearly here to stay, though Danielewski will continue to push the boundaries, to investigate its potential, and to explore that exhilarating space between our senses.
The 50 Year Sword by Mark Danielewski is published by cargopublishing.com and available from Blackwell's, Edinburgh
My next writer is also pushing the boundaries. A highly successful crime novelist, he is now breaking the rules by introducing elements of the supernatural into his books. He says that, as a new generation of readers emerges - one that is open to fantasy and graphic novels - this is the only way for a genre to develop and grow.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NOT STANDING BY
Writer John Connolly on moral heroes, mixed genres – and middle-aged men
John Connolly has updated his image. He’s even bought a new waistcoat – ‘the middle-aged man’s gastric band’ – and on Tuesday he was at Blackwell’s to show it off, and to discuss his new novel, The Wolf in Winter, the thirteenth in his series about Charlie Parker, former detective and anti-hero. In a hugely entertaining and fast-paced talk, Connolly switched effortlessly from jokes about failed Irish criminals to thoughts on the moral themes that inform his writing.
Connolly is Irish, but sets these books in Maine. He says it’s because Ireland has little history of crime fiction – but he also likes the US state’s environmental extremes; its vast forest; the contrast between its wealthy coast and less affluent interior. Many US crime writers set their books in states other than their own, and Connolly feels that looking at a place from the outside ‘allows you to see the oddness of it.’
Rejecting the received opinion that crime writing is plot-driven, Connolly sees readers as far more interested in characters. He challenged the audience to recall the plots of the last three thrillers they had read (I couldn’t, but proving his point, I could remember Hercule Poirot, John Rebus and VI Warshawski.) Our affection for crime writing is, he says, tied up solely with its people, especially as it’s one of the few forms that allow a writer to return to the same characters time and again. He admires the work of Ed McBain and Ross MacDonald, and sees James Lee Burke as the greatest living crime writer.
Connolly writes in a variety of genres, including ghost stories and children’s books – he is all too aware that some crime writers trade on the affection for their characters by simply churning out the same book every year, good or bad; he likes Parker, and doesn’t want to waste his readers’ time, so he takes a break from the series to work on other projects and keep his Parker novels fresh. He is also keen to thank his loyal followers; one way that he does this is to include a CD with each book - music that seems to match the story, either lyrically or musically. He says only men define themselves through music: ‘it’s a fan boy thing.’ Ideas, he says, can be expressed through many different media - indeed, after having written another of his novels, The Book of Lost Things, he noticed that its story was mirrored in the film Pan’s Labyrinth. ‘We are all pulling from the same pool of ideas, the same cloud of inspiration.’
Asked why his novels are bleak, Connolly replied that he did not see them as such. Raised a Catholic (although no longer practising), he grew up with strong values of morality, justice, compassion and empathy. His characters are all in search of redemption, and their stories offer the reader hope. Parker is a moral being, this is his strength and his weakness, and for Connolly the books are about the importance of ‘not standing by.’
Breaking away from the purely logical traditions of classic crime writing, Connolly has now started to introduce a supernatural element to his writing. Younger readers, he says, have grown up with fantasy and graphic novels and are far more open to experimentation: the genre advances only by people pushing the boundaries. He is letting Parker age through the series because he hopes this will allow the character and the novels to develop; he is not interested in writing ‘rote books.’ He resisted hopeful questions about the plot of the next book, but said that he already has the series’ conclusion worked out.
A character who cares about his characters – and his readers – Connolly was a deserving hit with Tuesday night’s enthusiastic audience; the queue for the book signing afterwards showed that his books are every bit as popular as his banter.
The Wolf in Winter is published by Hodder & Stoughton and available from Blackwell’s, Edinburgh.
On Thursday, I was at Looking Glass Books to hear a writer with a story to tell as appalling as it is fascinating. This was without doubt the most thought-provoking evening of a week rich in ideas and entertainment.
THE GUILLOTINE CHOICE - a work of very little fiction
Michael Malone believes he was always meant to tell Kaci’s Mohand Saoud’s story.
Already a writer and poet, Michael was on his way home from the bookshop where he worked one night when he stopped off at a café in Ayr. It was late in the evening, he was the only customer, and he got chatting to the North African owner. Then he went home. Two weeks later, the organiser of his local writers’ club told him that someone had been in touch, asking if Michael would write his father’s life story. Michael said he was too busy. Time passed; Michael gave a talk at the club: in the audience was that same Algerian, Bashir Saoudi. Michael and Bashir met, but Michael was still hesitant; he had plenty of writing on his plate already.
Michael was at that time in touch with a psychic, Joan Charles, in connection with another book he was writing. She called one day to discuss the research she was helping him with and told him that every time she tried to email him, she typed Martin instead of Michael. She didn't know anyone called Martin. And the only Martin she could think of was Martin Bashir. The next morning, in the shop, the only book on the counter was The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s classic text on the colonisation of Algeria.
Michael was hooked.
On Thursday, Michael was at Looking Glass Books to introduce The Guillotine Choice, a story that starts in 1920s Algeria and ends – if it ends at all – in modern day Cambridge, where Bashir now lives. It is a story of a man’s, and a country’s, honour, suffering, oppression and ultimate liberation.
At the age of 17, Kaci was an assistant to the accountant of a hydroelectric station near his home in the village of Maillot, leading the Frenchman up into the hills on his visits to the plant. The Frenchman was known to carry gold to pay the workers; one day he was murdered for it. Kaci was the obvious suspect, and the lack of conclusive proof didn’t bother his colonial rulers; he was charged with complicity to murder, but told that he could walk free if he named the real killer. The Berber code of honour is strong; family ties are everything. Kaci knew that his cousin Arab had committed the crime, but he also knew that if he spoke up, Arab would be sent to the guillotine. He chose to remain silent, and was sentenced to 20 years hard labour on Devil’s Island, French Guiana.
In France at that time, any sentence of over eight years was automatically doubled. For those sent to Devil’s Island, this was followed by ‘in perpetuity’ - men were freed, but not allowed to leave the island because the French wanted people to populate it. Few others would choose to live there.
Devil’s Island was a notorious place. Over 9,000 convicts were sent to it every year, but its population remained at that figure because so few survived. Transported by boat on which they were kept in a cage with no sanitation (the stronger men acquired hammocks ‘an exercise in power’, the rest had to lie on the floor in pools of excrement), many died in transit. On arrival, sent to barbaric logging camps in the interior, the lethal combination of yellow fever and starvation put paid to most of them within the first few months. It was, says Michael, a brutalising experience for all concerned, prisoners and guards alike.
Algeria gave the French more trouble than its other African colonies, so they practised a policy of divide and rule, encouraging disputes between Algerians to deflect criticism of France itself. They brought Moroccans to Maillot to work in the hydroelectric plant because they did not want the Algerian locals to earn any money; it is said that they wanted to turn the country into ‘a nation of beggars.’
Michael does not seek to demonise the French in telling this story, pointing out that many European countries including the UK committed similar atrocities in the name of colonisation and ‘development.’ Many French people have praised the book and urged him to publish it in France; they say Algeria’s story needs to be told, and France needs to examine its past sins.
Bashir was determined to tell his father’s story, and gleaned much of it from other family members on his frequent trips home. Eventually his father relented and allowed Bashir to interview him, but there were still some things about which he never spoke.
Michael has never been to Algeria, although he would very much like to visit. In the ten years that it took Michael and Bashir to complete The Guillotine Choice, he immersed himself in research on the country’s culture. He calls writing ‘an exercise in empathy’; the most important thing is to be able to stand in another man’s shoes. He and Bashir eventually decided to write the book as fiction, even though at least 80% of it is true, because there were still gaps in the story. Bashir had already written a hundred pages of the story before he met Michael, whom he chose because he admired his work ‘and I can’t put two sentences together.’ It is a work of collaboration; sometimes Michael had to rearrange the story to make sure it held the reader’s attention, but Bashir was always consulted over any changes. He is delighted with the end product, as can be seen on Michael’s Facebook page, where a video clip show Bashir opening a parcel containing the very first copy:
Other books have been written about Devil’s Island. Henri Charriere’s Papillon is perhaps the most famous, and was made into a film in 1973 Only one book, however, tells the story of Bashir Saoudi’s father, the story of the ultimate honourable choice made in a dishonourable world.
The Guillotine Choice by Michael J. Malone and Bashir Saoudi is published by saraband.net and available from Looking Glass Books, Edinburgh.
Michael J. Malone’s other publications include Blood Tears, Carnegie’s Call and A Taste for Malice. His next crime novel will be out in March 2015.
Bashir Saoudi is a computer systems engineer with Cambridge Silicon Radio. He hopes to retire to Algeria one day.
My cafe this week is the Salt Yard, Dalry Road, which is run by Gorgie Dalry Church. It is a fair trade establishment, serving coffees, teas, home baking , soups, sandwiches, 'savoury plates' and lots of delicious stuff.
The interior is beautifully spacious, with cool blue and white decor, comfortable sofas, a children's play area and a fair trade corner selling gifts and homeware.
The people serving are very friendly and helpful, and the atmosphere is relaxed and peaceful (though they did warn us that it can be a lot busier than it was on the day we visited - it's very popular.) The scones were very good, as was the coffee, all served on pretty blue and white china.
The Salt Yard is uses eggs from Happy Hens, bread from http://www.garvaldedinburgh.org.uk/the-bakery/, coffee from Indigo Valley and fair trade teas. It is at 158 Dalry Road, and open Tuesday to Saturday, 10-4.
*NEXT WEEK* - I hope to be seeing authors Joan Rowe at Morningside Library and Kirsty Logan at Looking Glass Books. I'll also be celebrating World Book Night at Blackwells, with John Burnside, Jenni Fagan, Jim Crumley and Angela Jackson. And I might just be eating a few scones - I'm always looking for new and lovely cafes, so if you know of any, please share!