I had a lovely time answering questions from The Fussy Librarian. If you want to know why I might need ten years of therapy click below!
Ah, isn’t he lovely! This is Titian’s The Man with the Blue Sleeve. A painting that has such a prominent place in my novel Titian’s Boatman that it is also its sub-title. The book is published at the end of January by Black and White publishing. This fine fellow was painted by Titian in 1510, when the painter was twenty years old and hangs in The National Gallery in London.
So this is the story of me and The Man with the Blue Sleeve and how he muscled his way into my novel.
I was between books. Never a good time. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, for whatever reasons, I need to write and I need to be working on a story and if I’m not the effect isn’t good and the effect is physical. It’s like having the ague. A more modern version would be that it’s like the first few days before you know you’ve definitely got the flu. You don’t feel ill enough to go to bed but you know something is going on and it’s not good. In the meantime you irritate everyone you come in contact with. I hesitate to quote Boris Johnson but I was definitely in a state that might best be described as a whinge-o-rama. My partner had had enough of me, pointed at the door and said, ‘Be gone.’ So out I went.
There was a 22 bus and I got on it. The bus went into town and I got off at Piccadilly Circus. I wandered. There was The National Gallery. I went in and my wander took me, as it often does when I’m in this condition, to the room with the Titians, currently Room 2.
And there was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and I stood in front of him and stared and I realised I had been here many times before. And then I felt it, the thing that makes a writer know that this is the trigger, (the poncy word is donné) the thing that sparks the beginning of a novel. The thing that is given to you. There he was. There I was. And I knew my next novel was spluttering into life.
“We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.”
It was only once I was up and running with the book and was telling people about it that I realised how many other people loved the painting. You have to develop a shorthand description for works in progress because often the simple truth is you have no idea what you’re doing but it’s embarrassing to say that because you sound like a driveling idiot. So I started saying, ‘It’s about Titian and The Man With The Blue Sleeve’. ‘Oh, yes, isn’t he lovely?’ was a fairly common response or, ‘Oh yes, I love him.’ I was mildly miffed at times. Something that I thought was a private obsession was, I quickly realised, shared with the world and her husband. I was not alone in my adoration of The Man with the Blue Sleeve. He was everyone else’s man as well. Of course he was, he was a masterpiece.
Why him? Well, partly I think it’s because I’ve always been rather better one to one than in groups. It’s not that I don’t play well with others but my instinct has always been to the tête à tête. Those huge paintings with large amounts of religious or mythological symbolism make me feel overwhelmed, as if I’ve walked into a room filled with strangers talking in tight groups and they are not going to move one inch to welcome me or let me in. It’s a sort of sensory overload. There’s too much to look at and I feel I need to read a great many books to work out the symbolism. I’m OK with the distorted skull in the front of The Ambassadors. Yes, yes, we’re all going to die. That’s not hard but some of the others …
There’s a simplicity to looking at a portrait that I like. There’s not so much I feel I need to know to enjoy it. The date: 1510. The painter: Titian. Titian’s age: 20. That’s enough and then you can just get on with looking at him. There’s not much to distract you. And what do you see? No, seriously what do you see? What sort of man do you think you are looking at? What do you think he’s like? Fill my comment box below lovely people! I’m really curious to know what you think. And then I will do another post on my lovely man which uses your lovely comments as my jumping off point.
P.S. The painting has had various titles over the years: The Man with the Blue Sleeve, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve and finally Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, 1510. I eschew all those other than the one I’ve used above because that is what he was titled when I first encountered him and also I’ve never heard anyone call him anything other than The Man with the Blue Sleeve. I like the mystery and anonymity of it and it allows projection aplenty, always useful for a novelist.
Charles Bukowski is a writer I love. His subject matter is drink, bad relationships, dead end jobs, gambling and writing. But despite that or maybe because of it he is incredibly funny. If you can imagine a cross between Jeffrey Bernard and Tom Waits that’s Bukowski. Bukowski wrote poetry : The Pleasures of the Damned is a pleasure and also novels. Post Office and Factotum are my favourites. Recently I have been reading Charles Bukowski: On Writing (Canongate) which contains a series of previously unpublished letters to editors, friends and fellow writers.
So what tips are to be gained from him:
- If all else fails try and get a job from someone who published you once:
“I received your rejection of ‘Whitman : His poetry and Prose’, along with the informal comments of your manuscript readers.
Sounds like a nice thing.
Should you ever need an extra manuscript reader, please let me know. I can’t find a job anywhere, so I might as well try you too.”
To Hallie Burnett October 1945
- Be cavalier in your approach to rejected material:
“I’ll be honest with you. You might as well keep those poems as long as you want to because when you send them back I’ll just throw them away.”
To Judson Crews November 4th 1953
This on writing technique:
“I like to make the words bite into the paper not so much like Hemingway did but more like scratches in ice and also attended with some small laughter.”
To William Packard March 27 1986
- Here is a quotation that if you’re a writer cries out to be typed up in capitals and placed somewhere in your eye-line.
“If a man truly desires to write, then he will. Rejection and ridicule will only strengthen him … There is no losing in writing, it will make your toes laugh as you sleep, it will make you stride like a tiger, it will fire the eye and put you face to face with death. You will die a fighter, you will be honoured in hell. The luck of the word. Go with it, send it.”
“Writing is only the result of what we have become day by day over the years. It’s a god damned fingerprint of self and there it is … And when you can’t come up with the next line it doesn’t mean you’re old, it means you’re dead.”
To William Packard March 27 1986
As a writer the idea of my writing being a ‘god damned fingerprint of self’ is slightly worrying but also has the awful ring of truth to it! Oh well, on to the next line then …
This book and all his other writing comes highly recommended. Have you read Bukowski? What did you think? Whether you have or you haven’t, ‘the luck of the word’ go with you and may your toes be laughing as you sleep.
I was working for the publisher Gerald Duckworth in the 1990s packing up books in their warehouse. I had dropped out of law, having spent two very unhappy years as an articled clerk in a city firm and started working for Duckworth when the company moved from the Old Piano Factory in Camden Town to Hoxton Square. They did their own distribution at that time and so they needed people to shift the books. My sister was an editor and director of the company and I was hired as casual labour along with the brother-in-law of the sales director, a resting actor. I had not expected to have a job there for more than a week or so but then hard on the heels of the move Duckworth bought up Bristol Classical Press and more stock started arriving. In the end I worked there for about six years between 1990 and 1996. This wasn’t unusual at Duckworth which had a habit of retaining its staff for extremely long periods of time. The obvious reason being that it was an exceptionally nice place to work.
It was not an easy time. The company, to coin a phrase from Sean O’Casey, was, through much of the period I worked there, in a ‘terrible state o’ chassis’ (at boardroom level, anyway) as Colin Haycraft, the owner of the company struggled to hold on to the company he had owned since 1968.
Despite the ‘noise of distant thunder’ I loved my job. Duckworth’s list was hilariously eclectic, ranging from The History of the Vlachs ( I don’t think I ever did quite grasp who they were) to The History of the British Pig (excellent photos and illustrations). Along with these there was an illustrious philosophy and classics list, which included books by A.C. Grayling and Michael Dummett. There was also of course fiction represented by Beryl Bainbridge and Alice Thomas Ellis. The Birthday Boys was published when I was there and it was probably the most copies of a single title that I ever packed up and sent out.
At that point Hoxton was not the hipster paradise it has become; it was grim and rough. Duckworth’s offices are now occupied by the art gallery The White Cube but before Duckworth moved in the building had been a sweatshop and the places where the plugs for the sewing machines had been were visible in the floor. The famous gay club The London Apprentice was on the corner of the square and it was boarded up with the kind of metal shutters that made you think it was derelict. This was because it was the frequent focus of homophobic attacks. A sign of how things have changed in the area is that now the places getting attacked are those selling expensive cereals!
I loved the job not just because of the entertaining list but also because I was much more suited to working for a small independent publisher than working in the law. My confidence had taken a bashing in the city but at Duckworth I began to relax and feel capable, liked and valued. Having felt depressed and directionless I found the physical work was good for me. I felt proud to be working there. There was something else as well that I did not talk about much. I dreamed of being a writer. At least now I was working with books albeit manhandling them rather than writing them. It seemed like a small step in the right direction.
An old fashioned but rather effective cover!
Colin Haycraft was the first to publish Oliver Sacks’ book, Awakenings (1973) after the book had been turned down by Faber and Faber. At that time Sacks was not the illustrious world famous author he later became. He had published one book in America on Migraine. In an affectionate essay he wrote after Colin died contained in the book Colin Haycraft 1929-1994 Maverick Publisher, Sacks described him as his ‘midwife and unmuddler’. As sweet a description of being edited as you’re ever likely to come across.
‘If it had not been for him Awakenings I think would not have been finished, much less published.’
‘But it was not just unmuddling that I demanded of Colin at this time, it was emotional support when I was blocked or when my mood or confidence sagged, as they did almost to the point of collapse.’
Then in the final month of working on the book Sacks’ mother died and
‘Colin became a mother for me as well as a midwife.’
Colin may have mothered him but at a certain point like all good mothers he put his foot down. This was after Sacks, back in America, sent him so many footnotes that they came to three times the length of the original book. Colin told him he could keep 12 and then allowed him to keep 82 including one of his own which was a pun on godness, goodness and guinness! Colin also refused to let him see the page proofs because Sacks had made so many changes to the galleys he knew what would happen if he did.
Colin went on to publish two more of Sacks’ books: A Leg to Stand On (1984) and The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985). I didn’t know much about Sacks but I went to the film of Awakenings when it came out in 1990 and found it very moving. The hardback of Awakenings was out of print by then and the paperback rights had been sold so unfortunately Duckworth didn’t benefit from the publicity generated by the film. I have a hazy memory of sending out the odd hardback copy of ‘Leg’ at the time but no recollection of ‘Hat.’
One day Colin came down into the warehouse with a pile of notebooks and an address label. ‘New York,’ he said and went to make himself some coffee. They were Oliver Sacks’ notebooks and they were to be sent back to him in America. I presume now that Colin was doing some ‘housekeeping’ as it was never quite clear whether the company was going to survive or not. I opened the notebooks and flicked through them. An overwhelming desire to steal them came over me. I can’t remember anything that I read there. I seem to remember that the notebooks related to ‘Hat’ but I could be wrong. The handwriting was hard to decipher, the content chaotic and poetic; everything I imagined writers’ notebooks ought to be like. It crossed my mind that Sacks would never notice if one went missing. Or two? Who knew how long Colin had held onto these anyway? I wrestled with my conscience. Then I wrapped them all up securely and sent them off first class airmail.
That moment of wanting to steal them has remained with me. Looking back I think it was an exact reflection of how strongly I wanted to be a writer. Somewhere in these notebooks I imagined was the key to how it was done. If I had one of them then maybe just maybe some of that magic would rub off on me and like a benign genie from Aladdin’s lamp Oliver Sacks would appear and reassure me that I had what it took to be what I so desperately wanted to be.
If only life were like that. In the end I had my own rather simple awakening – that working with books is not the same as writing them. I did eventually become a published writer about ten years later. My first crime novel, Bloodless Shadow, was published in 2003 and six other books have followed. But sometimes I look back with a pang of regret to the moment I had Oliver Sacks’ notebooks in my hands. We all know how easily things can get lost in the post.
I’ve always loved the Paris Review interviews with writers. In depth interviews asking writers about their writing lives. It’s a bit like In the Actors Studio but for authors. However, I imagine that Julian Jebb must have felt at least a degree of trepidation at the thought of interviewing Evelyn Waugh, which he did for the Review in 1962. Waugh was not a man, Jebb probably suspected, who would take kindly to a psychological approach of any kind. Waugh’s interview with Jebb, apart from being one of the shortest, has one of the funniest introductions. So I thought I’d do a quick overview of the interview and see if any tips could be gleaned from a man, who is viewed by many as one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century.
Waugh met Jebb at the Hyde Park Hotel in London at three in the afternoon, wearing a black Homburg hat and heavy overcoat. The interview was to take place in Waugh’s own hotel room. Once in the room Waugh moaned under his breath, ‘The horrors of London life! The horrors of London life!’ and then went into the bathroom and changed into a pair of white pyjamas. From the bathroom, he asked Jebb if he smoked and when Jebb said he was smoking a cigarette at that moment Waugh said, ‘I think cigarettes are rather squalid in the bedroom. Wouldn’t you rather smoke a cigar?’ Poor Jebb! Then after offering Jebb a cigar, Waugh climbed into bed and they got down to the interview or ‘inquisition’ as Waugh called it. Here are some of the details:
- Waugh wrote his first piece of fiction at the age of 7. It was called The Curse of the Horse Race;
- After coming down from Oxford without a degree he tried to be a painter but ‘I failed as I had neither the talent nor the application – I didn’t have the moral qualities.’
- Of his hugely successful book Vile Bodies he says, ‘It was a bad book… It was secondhand too. I cribbed much of the scene at customs from Firbank’;
- His early novels took 6 weeks to write including revisions;
- On Brideshead Revisited: ‘rich in evocative description – gluttonous writing.’
- On characters: ‘There are the protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture… I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me;
- On influences: ‘P.G.Wodehouse affected my style directly’. On Hemingway: ‘I admire the way he made drunk people talk’;
- On experimentation: ‘Experiment! God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of writers like Joyce. He starts off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic’;
- On writing: ‘I don’t find it easy. You see there are always words going round in my head; some people think in pictures, some in ideas. I think entirely in words. By the time I come to stick my pen in my ink pot these words have reached a stage of order which is fairly presentable’;
- On writers he reads for pleasure: Anthony Powell, Ronald Knox and Erle Stanley Gardner (author of Perry Mason);
- On being asked why he had never written a sympathetic or even full-scale portrait of a working class character: ‘I don’t know them and I’m not interested in them’;
- His final statement: ‘I have done all I could. I have done my best’.
Waugh was right-wing, reactionary and snobbish; he also wrote some of the most beautiful prose you could ever hope to read. And many of his books, Scoop for example, are ‘laugh out loud’ funny.
Jebb was generous about Waugh. Having admitted the interview was not ‘in depth’, he explains that ‘Mr Waugh did not lend himself either as a writer or a man, to the forms of delicate psychological probing and self-analysis which are characteristic of many other interviews’. However he also states that Waugh was, ‘consistently helpful, attentive, and courteous during the three hours I spent with him’.
As well as offering him that big fat cigar.
So not many tips here. I wonder if writing came so easily to Waugh (despite what he says) that he was superstitious about looking at the process in any depth at all. Maybe he took the approach ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ which is a perfectly valid position to occupy but not one that delivers a particularly interesting interview. I wonder why he agreed to the interview at all. Maybe he was flattered.
Perhaps the most useful tip is how to wrong-foot an interviewer. So now you know it involves:
- a London hotel room
- a pair of white pyjamas
- a big fat cigar.
Do you like Evelyn Waugh? If so what’s your favourite book?
These days the writer Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) is best known for his novel Of Human Bondage and of course his short stories but back in the day he was also known as a prolific and immensely successful playwright and adaptor of his own works for Hollywood. So what in his opinion were the qualities that made up a good novel?
- A widely interesting theme of enduring interest;
- The story should be coherent and persuasive. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning;
- Episodes (i.e. the things that happen) should have probability and should not only develop the theme but grow out of the story;
- The characters should be observed with individuality and their actions should proceed from their characters
- Characters should be interesting and their speech should be distinct;
- Dialogue should: a) characterise the speaker and b) advance the story;
- Narrative passages should be (a) vivid, (b) to the point, (c) no longer than is necessary;
- Writing should be simple enough to be read with ease and ‘the manner should fit the matter as a well-cut shoe fits a shapely foot’;
- It should be entertaining and the more intelligent the entertainment a novel offers, the better it is;
- The last point is the essential quality without which no other quality avails.
If the unlikelihood of juggling all of the above at the same time has depressed you or if you are a modernist and have started tearing your hair out in a strictly non-linear and stream-of-consciousness sort of way, hope is at hand :
There is a faultiness in the form (of the novel) that renders perfection impossible.
Well, thank god for that!
No novel is perfect.
Because a novel takes so long to write that the author’s inventiveness will sometimes fail (no kidding) and then he falls back on dogged industry and general competence.
Well, since flights of genius have never been my thing, I, for one, say let’s raise a glass to dogged industry and general competence. I wonder what he’d have made of Umbrella by Will Self. Not much is my guess.
Finally, I can’t resist quoting what he has to say on sex scenes.
Whenever they (novelists) feel that something must be done to sustain the readers flagging interest, they cause their characters to indulge in copulation. I am not sure they are well advised. Of sexual intercourse Lord Chesterfield said that the pleasure was momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable… there is a monotony about the act which renders the reiterated narration of it excessively tedious.
So there we are. You can’t even use sex scenes to get you out of trouble. You might as well give up now. I am going to make myself another cup of tea, stare out of the window at the scaffolders and hope that a feeling of dogged industry and general competence overwhelms me. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I came to writing relatively late in life. I was in my twenties before I even dared articulate to myself that was what my dream was. I sat on my bed looking at a clapped out old electric typewriter on the other side of the room and feeling this huge space between me and it. It seemed impossible. The only thing occupying the space at that time was my longing to be a writer.
But how to begin?
In the end I did three things:
1. I did a writing course taught by Sahera Chohan* and Nigel Watts;
2. I did The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron with my friend, Francesca Howard*;
3. I began to read books on writing and creativity in general.
* See my blog roll for their inspiring blogs.
The first book I read was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Still one of my favourites. It was Francesca who suggested doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. She wanted to become a painter and I wanted to become a writer and she suggested we do the course together and talk on the phone weekly about how we’d got on. Without those weekly telephone calls I’m not sure I would have finished it. As I remember it, I was appalled at Week Four, the reading deprivation week, and extremely stroppy when it came to collages (which I loved doing when I got down to it) but at the end of it the seeds of hope and possibility were planted in me.
I have read many other books over the years and I’ll give a list at the end of my favourites but one which I’m reading now and absolutely love is by Anne Bogart: A Director Prepares. Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. These are her chapter headings: Memory; Violence; Eroticism; Terror; Stereotype; Embarrassment; Resistance. It’s a brilliant inspiring book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. She uses examples from the world of theatre, painting, dance and literature.
Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:
‘The saving grace in one’s work is love, trust and a sense of humour.’
‘Every creative act involves a leap into the void.’
Here she is on resistance:
‘Laziness and impatience are constant internal resistances and they are very personal. We are all lazy. We are all impatient. Neither are evil qualities; rather they are issues that we learn to handle properly…. Attitude is key. Naming something a problem engenders the wrong relationship to it… Try not to think of anything as a problem. Start with a forgiving attitude to laziness and impatience and cultivate a sense of humour about them both. And then trick them.’
To find out how to trick them buy the book!
When I look back, books played a crucial role in leading me across that room towards the typewriter, towards the moment when I put my hands on the keyboard and began to write. They play a crucial role in keeping me there. I continue to buy these books (71 and counting!) and I continue to explore the whole subject of creativity. I find it endlessly fascinating.
The questions I’m looking to have answered are how do other people do it – create? How do dancers dance, painters paint, actors act, writers write, singers sing, directors direct. How do they persist? How do they deal with setbacks? What can I learn from them?
Here, in no particular order, are twenty of my favourite books on writing and creativity.
1.Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
2.Teach yourself Writing a Novel – Nigel Watts
3.The Courage to Write – Ralph Keyes
4.The Writer’s Book of Hope – Ralph Keyes
5.Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
6.Wild Mind – Natalie Goldberg
7.The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
8.The Right to Write – Julia Cameron
9.On Writing – Stephen King
10.Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
11.Writing for your Life – Deena Metzger
12. The Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard
13. The Paris Review Interviews – all volumes
14. The Master and his Emissary – Ian McGilchrist
15. The Gift – Lewis Hyde
16. Which Lie Did I Tell? – William Goldman
17. One Continuous Mistake – Gail Sher
18. Walking With Alligators – Susan Shaughnessy
19. If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland
20. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre – Anne Bogart
There’s also a book coming out in February 2015 called The Art of Creative Thinking written by Rod Judkins, a lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art, which looks very interesting.
Do you have a book which had a big effect on your creative process? Are there any books you would recommend? What do you think of my list?