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July 2017

Truth in fiction

Today I’m featuring Sebastian Barry, award winning novelist and a man who seems to have experienced many of the things he writes about. But that’s unlikely to be true. His first World War epic A Long, Long Way (2005) is quite outstanding and his descriptions of an Irish soldier’s life in battle make you think he must have been a soldier. Perhaps the skill of a great writer is to make you think you were there, to make you believe that what the author is saying is true, and that the experiences described are so vivid they must have been lived.

His other books also make you think the author is speaking from personal experience. Talking about his Costa winning novel Days without End (2016) he comments that his son ‘instructed him in the magic of gay life.’ And in The Secret Scripture (2008) words come out of his characters’ mouths that seem to imply he has great faith in God.

Here are two quotations from that book:

Gardening – the white, yellow, blue sequence of snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells – is an effort to drag to earth the colours and the importance of heaven.”

Fred Astaire. Not a handsome man…. he couldn’t sing. He was balding his whole life. He danced like a cheetah runs, with the grace of the first creation. I mean, that first week. On one of those days God created Fred Astaire. Saturday maybe, since that was the day for the pictures.” *

* For those of you too young to remember ‘the pictures’ meant the cinema

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June 5th 2017

Birthdays … and deadlines

Today is the birthday of:

the author Dame Margaret Drabble (78)

playwright Sir David Hare (70)

novelist Ken Follett (68)

chef and writer Simon Hopkinson (63)

It’s also my own birthday. The date of my birth corresponds with the writer I most admire from this list. Everyone wished me “a really happy day” and this is what happened when four sons and thirteen grandchildren sent kisses and good wishes from three different countries.

The crime novelist Ian Rankin (57) spoke at the recent Hay Literary Festival. Surprisingly, he confessed that his writing speed is ‘slowing down’ and attributed it partly to the demands made on authors to promote themselves on social media.

To counteract the pressures he retreats to Cromarty in northeast Scotland when a deadline approaches. With no wifi, no mobile phone signal, no telephone and no TV, he just starts writing but admits that after a couple of pages he is ‘knackered and has to take a break, have a cup of tea, do the crossword and try again.’

Rankin has sold more than 20 million books in his Rebus series. He used to submit two novels a year, writing between 15 and 20 pages a day, but a ‘good day’ now would be six pages. He added that if he was given a year to deliver a book, the explosion of literary festivals has meant that 6 of the 12 months have to be taken up promoting his previous novel. ‘The notion of locking yourself away and writing all day has pretty much gone.’

Not so for those of us who are less famous. We do the writing first and then hope to get the work published, so we create our own deadlines and work environments. Invitations to go on tour, interviews on radio and TV appearances? We should be so lucky!

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May 2017

A film for readers and writers

On a recent airline flight I watched a film called Genius – not the drama about Albert Einstein’s life, but the story set in 1929 about a literary editor and the budding genius whose work he is publishing.

The film, starring Colin Firth, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, gets critical reviews, protesting about the ‘drab grey interiors’ filmed in Manchester, evoking a picturesquely brown and smoky Manhattan in the 1930s. But it’s not the pace (‘all the life of a a pressed flower’) that matters; it’s what happens between an elderly, sober publisher (Max Perkins) and the wild-man novelist (Thomas Wolfe) whose work he is attempting to cut and compress into what will become a best seller.

Critics complain that the story is slow to unfold, but this is the very essence of the relationship that builds up between the two over time. Anyone who has ever had an editor who showed little interest, or one who failed to understand the enthusiasm of an author, will yearn for the rapport that built up between these two. Which novelist wouldn’t die for a man who was prepared to drop everything – including family holidays – to pursue his task of reducing an outpouring of 5000 pages to a manageable and readable book?

The core of the story is how for both men work totally dominated their lives – to the detriment of those around them. Max tells his wife, as she leaves alone to take the girls on holiday, that he’s ‘at a crucial stage in Tom’s book’. At the same time Tom rejects a plea from his lover to, just once, forget his own needs and attend an event that’s important for her.

There are lighter moments as one when the young Thomas tries to loosen up the sober Max in a Harlem jazz club, but the pleasure of the film comes mainly from the way Firth plays the hidden warmth and scrupulous intelligence of Perkins and Jude Law portrays the outbursts of his totally opposite character, the madly unreasonable, crazed-genius who was aiming to take his place among writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Seeing the film might make you want to read Wolfe’s book, Look Homeward Angel, or even the book that Genius is based on, A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins. If you’re a writer and you would like to dream for a couple of hours about how your working life might have been different, this is the film for you.

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March 2017

This week I’ve been thinking about books and what I’ve read recently.  Here is a non-fiction book that made an impression.

NEGOTIATION by Gavin Presman

This is a self-help book; an engaging, page-turning explanation of how to come out of a business deal with both sides happy.  The author starts by differentiating between haggling and negotiating. He gives advice about listening, discussing, bargaining and finally agreeing. What’s interesting about this book is that his techniques, honed on concluding business deals – whether it’s buying a house or setting terms at a job interview – include the most basic necessity: how to negotiate with family.

“Real collaboration with someone else is often accompanied by a warm connected and grounded feeling. If this feeling isn’t present we can ask ourselves whether we are really in the right state of mind to negotiate with another person.”

This book is for anyone who has come up against conflict. Presman gives us the skills we need to navigate many aspects of our lives.

Negotiation by Gavin Presman is available to buy on Amazon.