Archive | July, 2013

An evening with Michael Frayn at the Bloomsbury Institute

26 Jul

Yesterday I went to the beautiful Bloomsbury Institute to listen to an interview with the multi-talented writer, Michael Frayn.  He has been one of my favourite contemporary novelists for many years now and I am still happily working my way through reading his back catalogue.  I first learnt about his writing as a 16 year old, studying ‘Spies’ for English AS Level and was hooked since then which is weird as I usually think tediously analysing every single word, a practice somewhat synonymous with English Lit courses in the UK, would mean I would never want to read another book by Frayn again.  However, in this case, it had the opposite effect.  I loved ‘Spies’ so much – the beauty of Frayn’s prose, the themes of the transience of memory and the brutal transition from childhood into adulthood – so I was eager to read more of Frayn’s work.

The talk mainly covered Frayn’s work as a playwright as it was an interview with Geoff Coleman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama.  Last year I saw ‘Noises Off’ in the theatre and thought it was the funniest play I have ever watched.  It literally had me in stitches as I was giggling so much.  What struck me was how clever it was and the challenges Frayn must have had when writing a play about a play within a play.  Well worth watching and the talk discussing his motivations and relationship with the director Michael Blakemore has motivated me to watch more of his plays.

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Frayn first worked as a journalist and he talked about how he thought his journalistic background had helped him with his fiction writing.  Essentially, he believes that real life is far more complicated than fictional worlds and it would benefit fiction writers to experience real-life reporting to understand the reality and how to write concisely, with definitive facts.  Working in PR, I guess many would dispute whether you need to write with ‘definitive facts’ but I did find Frayn’s words encouraging as I often wonder if the writing I do in my job actually benefits my fiction writing.

I didn’t realise at the beginning but I was sat next to a playwright, Alistair Beaton who was lovely and friendly and introduced me to Frayn at the end for a book signing.  Thanks to Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge, I’ve since found out that Beaton is a Scottish left-wing political satirist, journalist, radio presenter, novelist and television writer.  It was amazing to be around such talented writers and incredibly inspiring.  At one point, Frayn was asked a question about his favourite contemporary playwrights and he mentioned Beaton and his play ‘Feelgood’, a satire on New Labour spin doctors.  So this is something I intend to explore next!

I had an amazing evening and chatted to some lovely people within the publishing industry.  The atmosphere was incredibly inspiring and it was great to meet someone I have admired for so long.  It also made a change to go to an event that didn’t claim to ‘teach’ you anything; in fact, I learnt far more at this than I have at many other literary events I have attended.

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Everyday Sexism campaign

24 Jul

Following the Everyday Sexism campaign on Twitter never ceases to shock me.  It has confirmed my belief that casual sexism is rife and ingrained in our society which is an incredibly depressing thought.  Everyone seems to accept that sexism is still a problem in developing countries but to realise that this is something that has a vice-like grip in our ‘developed’ society in the 21st century is unacceptable.

What’s also poignant is the fact that it is not only men that exhibit sexist views which is perhaps the general old-fashioned view.  It goes far deeper than that.  Many women adhere to gender stereotypes and judge other women on sexist grounds – just look at the catty ‘celebrity reporters’ that scrutinise the tiniest bit of cellulite on an actress’ thigh.  This is a problem for both genders.

These pervasive beliefs of many people are revealed in various ways, ranging from the obvious sexist remarks – the catcalls, the lecherous comments by randoms on a night out, the blunt remarks on a woman’s physical appearance.  Or these sneak insidiously into offhand remarks that betray an inherent sexist mindset like: ‘Girls don’t get science’/ ‘Girls go to university to find husbands’ (thanks floppy-haired Boris!)/ ‘Does she look the part for our business?  It’s a client facing role and it would help if she’s easy on the eye.’

I am glad that feminism is getting more attention of late and this campaign has encouraged people from around the world to share their stories and experiences of sexism.  It got my friend and I chatting about one experience in particular that we had when we were both 13  at a bus stop late at night.  We were young girls and these two men – they must have been in their late forties – started chatting to us, trying to encourage us to come with them on the bus.  We politely declined and while we walked away, one of them shouted out ‘You should do what you’re told, dressed like that!’ and then they both started laughing.  Frightened and alarmed, we walked away quickly with our heads down, feeling ashamed.  I remember thinking that perhaps it was our fault that they had said that.  We were both wearing miniskirts and makeup as most young girls experimenting do ; perhaps our way of dressing justified such comments?  Of course not.  And the fact that we both felt ashamed for a comment they made simply goes to show how rife sexism is.  Those men could have had daughters, or perhaps granddaughters – they were definitely old enough – yet their attitude to women and young girls was abhorrent.  If I saw something like that now, I would speak up instead of running away – in fact, I’d probably have to stop myself from kicking them in the balls – as this kind of behaviour is disgusting and inherently damaging to a person’s self-esteem.  In fact, this behaviour seems somewhat normalised in today’s society, serving to perpetuate these repulsive beliefs and maintain them in younger generations.

The campaign has deservedly received prolific attention and has made me far more aware of things.  I was surprised to discover just how much marketing and advertising out there reinforces sexist beliefs – since when was a hoover or a cleaning spray a most-desired item for women?!   Before I would be inclined to ignore all of this, avoid it or believe people’s half-hearted claims that ‘that’s just the way it is’ but knowing the extent of this issue and understanding the importance of the cause, it is simply not something that should be ignored or avoided.

Just finished reading…

17 Jul

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

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I’d read Atonement by McEwan before (I still can’t make myself watch the film even though I know it’s meant to be amazing) which I absolutely loved.  I tried to read Enduring Love but my sister studied it at school (and didn’t like it) and the copy that lies in our bookshelf is dotted with her notes scribbled in biro and sections covered in neon highlighter which I found far too distracting so I soon gave up.  When I worked at Waterstone’s while at school, all the booksellers got given a copy of McEwan’s novel ‘On Chesil Beach’ which I also loved.  There is something utterly compelling about the way he writes; he sets the scene so vividly and is able to build tension with an amazing level of skill.  It is perhaps the subtlety he employs when writing that is most engaging, drawing the reader in to the world he has created convincingly.

I had read in an interview that McEwan’s earlier work tended to be darker, earning him the nickname Ian McAbre.  This is definitely the case with ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ which explores themes of domestic violence, repressed homosexuality, extreme sadism and masochism.  Not for the faint-hearted.

The story follows a modern couple (Colin and Mary) on holiday in an unnamed city (but most likely Venice) who meet a strange couple (Robert and Caroline).  I guess the title alludes to the fact that after Colin and Mary meet this couple, they become more passionate themselves – spending time with the strange couple seems to ignite some lost passion in Colin and Mary who lock themselves in their hotel room for days afterwards.

All through the novella, McEwan expertly builds a sense of suspense and the story reaches its climax right at the end, which is both chilling and disturbing.  What I especially liked was that McEwan took care to exhibit Robert and Caroline’s motivations – we learn at the beginning of a childhood incident involving Robert and his sisters and his relationship with his father, which helps the reader understand how he has come to form his outmoded opinions on men and women.  Caroline is portrayed as a weak figure when Mary first sees her – a broken, fragile woman trapped in a loveless marriage.  But by the end, we learn of Caroline’s motivations, her desire to be hurt and punished, and her part in the final scene which makes the whole story even more distressing.

The sinister themes are inescapable in the novella and form much of the tension; however, McEwan’s superb illustration of the perils of a long term relationship should not be overlooked.  His poetic prose never fails to amaze me.  He illustrates the lack of passion, over-familiarity and even the sometimes parasitic nature of relationships beautifully by examining Colin and Mary’s relationship.  The quotation below seems to capture this:

This was no longer a great passion. The pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure, precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold. 

I’ve since found out that this has been made into a film starring Rupert Everett as Colin, Natasha Richardson as Mary, Christopher Walken (perennially taking the ‘creepy’ guy roles) and Helen Mirren as Caroline.  In my mind, I have clear ideas of these characters, none of which match the actors cast so I’ll probably give this a miss.. plus the end scene would just be weird to watch…

A Marie Claire event – How to write a successful novel with Cecelia Ahern

10 Jul

Yesterday evening in the glorious sunshine, I went along to the beautiful Blue Fin buildings in Southwark for a Marie Claire event on successful novel writing.  The evening consisted of a talk with the writer, Cecelia Ahern, who has written such novels as ‘PS I love you’ and ‘The Time of Your Life’.  I have never actually read any of her books – I am not a fan of chick lit at all – but I was under the impression that the talk would cover the general novel writing process and would thus be useful to attend.

The venue was lovely and we stood admiring the panoramic views of London from the tenth floor whilst quaffing champagne.  There were all types of people there – the young, the fashionable (the ‘Oh hello dah-ling’ types) and the older who were looking for a career change. We were then seated in a sort of lecture theatre and the rest of the evening consisted of the Associate Editor of Marie Claire informally interviewing Cecelia on how she goes about writing her novels and what she finds useful.

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Although the tickets were £40, I paid £20 knowing that prices for these types of events often get slashed the day before.  One of the ways they tried to entice people to the event was by advertising the fact that attendees would receive a goodie bag worth £60 – a clever PR exercise and as the evening progressed, it became clearer that Cecelia was no stranger to effective marketing and PR.  To be honest, I don’t think the night was worth £40 at all and even the £20 I paid was pushing it.

I did, however, find it interesting, as I always do, to find out how other published writers work and how they became published in the first place.  Ahern’s story is certainly incredibly impressive.  At 21, she started writing PS I love you and her journey to become a published writer is remarkably free of much of that painful rejection many other writers experience.  Her mother read the first three chapters and encouraged her to send it to an agent and after securing an agent, she got a deal with HarperCollins one month later! Slightly (OK – incredibly) envious there!

It was interesting to find out about the way she writes – she does so longhand and will write an entire chapter in one sitting as she views a chapter as a story in itself and doesn’t want to break her flow by stopping midway.  She is an incredibly speedy writer: after writing longhand, she then edits what she has written while typing it onto the computer.   She wrote PS I love you in three months and she is able to write a new novel every year which puts my goal of around 500 words a day to shame!

Quite controversially, perhaps, Cecelia stated that not everyone is a storyteller and implied that if you’re not good enough to get published, then you’re perhaps not cut out for it.  While I did find this refreshing to an extent – too many people assume writing is easy and everyone can write a worthy book – I found her a little too smug for my liking but then again, who am I to talk?  It has worked for her.  Not only has she managed to write successful, bestselling novels but one of them has been adapted into a Hollywood film (which, coincidentally, I found unbearably cheesy but then that was inevitable) and another one is in production at the moment.  What she writes obviously pleases the masses.

Before she writes, she has a clear plan of the beginning, middle and end of a story.  She stated that often, a long time before she reaches the end, she’ll write the final paragraph to capture the tone of the ending which gives her direction and something to work towards.  This organised and prescriptive approach highlights how pathetically disorganised and scatty I am.  Rarely do I know where I’m going.  I often have a vague idea but I tend to let things move in the direction I feel while I’m writing but then Cecelia’s novels tend to be high-concept, i.e. plot driven whereas I have always found character driven novels to be more absorbing.  Once I become intrigued by a character or feel I have connected with a character in some way, I find it difficult to stop reading.

All in all, interesting but not the most useful and definitely overpriced.  I found the event that I attended with Kate Mosse and Rachel Joyce (at the London Literature Festival) far more insightful and much more reasonable too, at a mere £10.

That said, the goody bag was pretty good 🙂

Just finished reading…

9 Jul

…’The Edible Woman’ by Margaret Atwood

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I’ve just finished reading Margaret Atwood’s first published novel, ‘The Edible Woman’ which came out in 1969 and propelled Atwood into the literary world.  I’d only read ‘The  Handmaid’s Tale’ by her, which I felt (possibly, somewhat controversially) was overhyped and I was keen to see whether I felt this was the case with other Atwood novels.

At many points in this novel, I did.  I found the prose slow-going and dull in parts and was unable to empathise with the protagonist, Marian, or even care what would actually happen to her.   In the introduction, Atwood states that she wrote this novel at 23 and it was published at 24, which probably accounts for the prose laden with imagery and symbolism that is at times shoved down the reader’s throat.  A brief summary of the story is that Marian, a young, employed, educated woman,  finds herself unable to eat at first meat, then all sorts of other things from the moment she gets engaged, which represents a sort of subconscious rebellion to the patriarchal role of woman in society.  I thought the themes that Atwood explored in the novel were incredibly interesting – namely, the conflicting role of women, especially during the late 60’s.  Women then were becoming more and more educated but many of the careers they could go into offered few prospects for real progression.  At the same time, the idea of female in society was still very much that they should marry and fulfil their womanly duties as wife and mother – an idea which was becoming increasingly at odds with the rise in educated young women.

I really liked the representation of women as ‘edible’ , i.e. there to be consumed and devoured by men and I thought the idea was witty and insightful.  It was just that I felt the novel dragged on for too long and some of the characters felt a little two-dimensional and in my opinion, didn’t really add much to the story.

Atwood uses foils to great extent for the characters to demonstrate their opposing qualities: Marian is contrasted with her roommate Ainsley, who initially seems freer from restraints however interestingly ends up being the character with the more traditional setup (she ends up with a child and a husband).  The two predominant male characters seem to be diametrically opposed as well: there is Marian’s inconsiderate fiancée, Peter and the manipulative self-absorbed English graduate Duncan.

Stylistically, I liked the use of first person and third person to denote the emotions (or in the latter case, the lack of) and it is clear that Atwood is a talented writer; however, I was simply unable to fully immerse myself in her world which felt to me, rather flat and one-dimensional.  Having read such great things about Atwood’s writing ability, though, I’ll read a few more of her novels to see if she’s a ‘grower’ but at this moment in time, I’m not a huge fan.

Many of the themes I am attempting to explore in my own novel are prevalent in Atwood’s writing so it’s all useful research!

Film review: Before Midnight – spoiler!

2 Jul

On Sunday, I was excited to watch the brilliant Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for their third Richard Linklater film as Jesse and Celine. We first saw them meet on a train at the tender age of 23 on their romantic adventure around Vienna in ‘Before Sunrise’. Nine years later came ‘Before Sunset’ – my personal favourite – which saw the two reunited after Jesse, now a writer, has written about their meeting all those years ago, and we learn how they had not met again since then. Nine years later, they are older and more cynical, with regrets and hopes and the spark between the two is definitely there. Jesse, for one, is unhappily married  with a young son and the emptiness of his of life has led him to go in search for this elusive Celine he met all those years ago. In ‘Before Sunset’, Jesse and Celine meet in Paris and look at each other with a sense of ‘what if’ and ruminate about how their lives would be different had they met each other again.

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So with ‘Before Midnight’, another nine years have passed, with both characters now forty one years old and contemplating the onset of their ‘middle years.’ We learn that they have not only stayed together since we last saw them at the end of ‘Before Sunset,’ but they have also had twin daughters although they are not married.  They laughingly talk about being bad parents but behind the laughter, their concerns about whether they are good parents are palpable, resulting in a tense atmosphere.  The air is fraught with insecurities about growing older and they contemplate about their first meeting and what made them fall in love with each other.  At one point, Celine says that the flecks of red in Jesse’s beard that she loved when they first met have disappeared – a telling statement for their relationship which has grown increasingly stale and lacklustre. For those who enjoy the witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud repartee between the two, you will not be disappointed. The cinematography is also, as expected in Linklater films, gorgeous – it is set in Greece as Jesse and his family have been invited to stay with a renowned writer for six weeks.

As the film progresses, we learn of Jesse’s regrets at leaving his son with his ex wife and his desire to spend more time with him although he lives in Chicago while Jesse, Celine and the twins live in Paris. We are provided an insight into Celine’s vulnerability – she often questions Jesse as to whether he still finds her attractive and their relationship, which was once characterised by affectionate touching and gazing, has matured into something more familiar and less charged with sexual energy.

I have to admit that I found the first half of the film rather slow-moving and the other characters that populated the writer’s house largely irrelevant. The part where the film really started to draw me in was when Jesse and Celine spend a night alone in a hotel room – a gift from their friends – and the night quickly disintegrates into a heated argument between the two, spurred on by Jesse’s desire for Celine and the girls to move to Chicago so he can be nearer his son. What I found incredibly poignant was the exploration of Celine’s feelings of inadequacy in comparison with the Celine character as immortalised in Jesse’s books.  The real Celine has aged and changed whereas she remains constant and the same youthful idealistic young woman in his books.  At one point, she is asked by a fan of Jesse’s to sign a copy of the book and it is clear that her awkwardness signifies the incongruity she feels between her real self and this imagined self of someone she used to be.  She feels that he has almost stolen her identity by writing about her and envies the fact that he is applauded as being a writer while her current job is ultimately unsatisfactory. I loved this exploration of Celine’s character – for me, her character was far more interesting than Jesse’s and Delpy played the role with a subtlety and beautiful vulnerability.

Linklater also introduces the idea of infidelity – both characters accuse the other of cheating, and neither actually explicitly rejects each accusation. The accusation that Jesse cheated on Celine while she was back in Paris looking after the twins just after giving birth was particularly heartbreaking and a clear message that perhaps love isn’t enough.
The end, in typical Linklater style, was ambigious and it is unclear whether they stay together after Celine declares that she doesn’t think she is in love with Jesse any longer. It’s the stuff of real life, which is perhaps why it is all the more painful and melancholic. In a way, I wish Linklater decided they live happily ever after but I suppose the realistic portrayal of relationships and the raw dialogue is why the ‘Before -‘ films have been hailed as some of the best films of the last century.