Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Hearty Welcome to the Magpies

I'm delighted and honoured to be this week's stop on Elizabeth Baines's blog tour to promote her gem of a book, Too Many Magpies.

It's over a year ago that Elizabeth was last here, promoting her short stories  (busy woman, eh?).  As that took the form of an interview (which you can see here) this time I've asked Elizabeth to do a virtual reading.

First the intro:
Can we believe in magic and spells? Can we put our faith in science?

A young mother married to a scientist fears for her children’s safety as the natural world around her becomes ever more uncertain. Until, that is, she meets a charismatic stranger who seems to offer a different kind of power… But is he a saviour or a frightening danger? And, as her life is overturned, what is happening to her children whom she vowed to keep safe? Why is her son Danny now acting so strangely?

In this haunting, urgent and timely novel, Elizabeth Baines brings her customary searing insight to the problems of sorting our rational from our irrational fears and of bringing children into a newly precarious world. In prose that spins its own spell she exposes our hidden desires and the scientific and magical modes of thinking which have got us to where we are now.

Got that?  Sounds good?  So here we go.  Top up your glass.  Make yourself comfortable.  An extract follows.


On the baby’s first birthday the Smarties on the cake went frilly round the edges. The first sign of odd things happening.

No one took it seriously.

He said it was magic. (He; he doesn’t have a name, not here, not in my head.). ‘I told you,’ he said afterwards, ‘things would start happening now you and I have met.’

‘Magic,’ said Danny too, four years old and excited, waiting in an agony of impatience for the start of the birthday tea in the garden, though never in any doubt that things would go as planned, or that birthday teas would go on happening, and Daddy always come to join them in time.

And, this time, he did. He came round the side of the house, Daddy, my husband, ducking under the honeysuckle and coming to kiss us all, smelling faintly of the lab, that sharp high chemical smell.

He was a scientist, my husband. He had a rational explanation. He looked at the Smarties and grinned. Lovely teeth, he had, not a single filling, and naturally curly hair. The kinks of it glistened in the sun. It came back to me then, all the reasons I loved my husband.

‘See,’ said Danny, pointing the funny way he did with his left middle finger, ‘they’re like little mince pies.’

And they were, each sweet surrounded by a perfect row of frills. My husband looked at them and laughed.

‘Osmosis,’ I think he said, I wasn’t in a state to remember the actual word. Something about things running, their contents seeping through their skins, leaving themselves behind. At any rate, he said I must have put them on when the icing was too wet.

Of course. Because of what had happened, I hadn’t been in a state to judge the drying time of icing.

But it was odd. Why, for instance, if things had melted, had the colours not run?

I cut the cake. I doled them out, the magic Smarties. A piece for my husband, and one for each child.

And the blackbird pipped confidently, as if that garden and those hedges would always be there for him to call across; and there we sat, husband and wife and two-point-four children, point-four being the child we might have had if certain chemical chances in our bodies had or hadn’t occurred, and which we’d never have now, now things had started to happen.

It was the day before the baby’s first birthday that I met him.

In the park there were magpies, too many to be counted. When I was a child there were never so many of them — one for sorrow, you said, two for joy — but now there were too many for such short rhymes or such simple messages, they’d multiplied and colonized the towns.

That afternoon we’d both been on a committee, educationists drafted in to advise on artists in schools, my first outside commitment since before I’d had the babies. My first time back in the world.

Though I wasn’t really back there; I couldn’t concentrate on the dry committee language, I’d got too used to simple sounds linked to the vivid senses, or to holding and
rocking without the need for words at all.

It was hot in that committee room, early May and unseasonably hot although there’d been no sun all day. They had the window open and puffs of engine smell rose up through the still air. They were discussing the database of artists, and I was thinking idly of how in the centre of town there was never the sound of birds.

A train rolled over the viaduct, blue-and-grey toytown carriages sliding unbelievably along the top of a sky-high brick wall towards the suburbs where my husband would be putting the children to bed.

Tonight, for once, the baby would have to go to bed without his breastfeed.

On cue, as I thought of that, my breasts tingled, automatic, with primitive life, and on cue the familiar sleepiness overcame me. I’d lost the drift of the argument in the room now. I’d gone too far, metamorphosing down those baby years, and I was gaping now, hardly breathing in this flat dry committee-land. I yawned.

He’d hardly spoken till then.

He didn’t speak when he didn’t have to. Knowing too much about words to squander them.

I looked, I noticed him, for the first time really, just before he spoke. I saw a careful tension around his large mouth. Fastidiousness reining in something else.

And when he spoke he held his lips as though tasting something. Testing.

I knew then. He had the power.

As we crossed the park afterwards, suddenly there were birds again. Magpies, dropping out of the trees, like bunting, like Jacks-out-of-boxes. They cackled, they seemed hilarious.

We tried counting.

‘Seven,’ he said. ‘What does that signify?’

I said, too sternly, that I didn’t believe in charms or spells.

He laughed. I saw that his teeth were bad, stained and very full of fillings. He said: ‘There are charms and there are charms, and there are spells and there are spells,’ and I had no idea what he meant.

The sun came out, dazzling and disorientating between the trees. The magpies glistened then, medallion green and alchemy blue. They were watching us sideways, they cocked their heads slyly over their bird-shoulders, waiting, or maybe taunting, it was hard to say.

We moved on, and they flapped away into the columns of sun between black tree trunks, still there but suffused and melted with the light.

He said, ‘Seven for a secret never to be told.’

I said quickly that I didn’t believe in secrets. And I told him all about my husband, and about the kids, to indicate at once that there was no chance whatever, should he be thinking along those lines, of any kind of intrigue, any kind of setup where I’d need to make divisions, protect him from knowledge or guard my family’s privacy from him. And, to nip in the bud any growing attraction, I babbled on about the children in the bourgeois way I’d guessed by now he wouldn’t approve of. But those shapes in the sun, I could sense them shifting. I lost courage in what I was saying, and he was laughing at it anyway, showing those big handsome teeth with all those awful brown fillings. I guessed suddenly what he’d meant: that the best charm, the real secret, is in losing your fear.

I’d stopped walking, I discovered. The bark of a tree was behind me, ridged and warm. Under my feet something crumbled, sugary, the dead catkins off the tree.

I said stupidly, no not stupidly, I thought it might protect me, it was one the things which Richard and I held most important in our life together: ‘We only give the children sugar at special times like birthdays.’

After all, it was my baby’s first birthday next day.

It didn’t work, that spell. And I knew, after all, that it wouldn’t. I sensed, didn’t see him come closer. He took hold of my hand. He knew that vivid power of touching, he knew without being told that once he’d made contact I wouldn’t be able to take it away.

The magpies flew off again.

The first time I’d seen so many was the day I discovered I was pregnant with Danny, my first child. Three for a girl, you once said, four for a boy, god knows what seeing so many could mean.

He had hold of my hand.

He said, ‘What are their names?’

If this has whetted your appetite, follow the rest of the tour here.
If you'd like to hear Elizabeth's podcast, go here.
Links to reviews can be found in the sidebar on Elizabeth's blog here.
Next stop on the tour is at Tom Vowler's blog here.
The last stop was at Nuala Ni Chonchuir's blog here.
For further insights, I really do recommend you check out the other stops on the tour.


Monday, June 14, 2010

Because you're worth it?

An interesting double take on literary prizes.

Lionel Shriver’s 2005 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin has received the public vote as the most popular previous Orange Prize winner.  Nevertheless, she's very disparaging about the value of literary awards in this article in the Independent last week.

Even more to the point, she's hesitant about recommending a career as a writer, saying:
I'm very sympathetic to aspirant writers. It's very difficult and there are no guarantees that cream will ever rise to the top.
It'd be totally hypocritical to discourage people from joining my profession, which was good to me in the end, but I have qualms about being encouraging. The odds are stacked against you. I want to give people enough of an idea of the capriciousness of the industry.

Michele Roberts, one of the Orange prize judges, conducts a robust defense of literary awards in this article, also in the Indie.

But she too is relentlessly downbeat about the realities facing authors, saying:
Deciding to write means volunteering for poverty: 20 years ago, publishers might offer certain well-known writers six-figure advances on sales and could afford to be reasonably generous to some of the less well known. Those times are over.
Nowadays, many authors augment their meagre incomes from writing by taking on whatever freelance work they can get, or by teaching. A joyful acknowledgment that you write from a sense of vocation, driven by single-minded devotion to language, image-making, storytelling, co-exists with a sense of belt-tightening, an increase in the sheer bloody-mindedness necessary for survival as an artist. 

When I conduct workshops, I always have a section that I call 'managing expectations'.  On the one hand, I don't want to destroy dreams and hate the idea that someone might feel so discouraged to hear how high the odds are stacked against them that they feel there's no point in continuing to write. 

On t'other hand, I still get MSes for edit in which the covering letters state that the author 'just' wants to pay off their mortgage or take early retirement and write full time.  Clearly, it would be wrong of me not to balance their expectations with a reality check, however unwelcome that might be.

If someone decides that there's no point in writing on the grounds that there's such a minuscule chance of achieving fame and fortune, I suspect they were never truly committed in the first place. 
You can write and hold down an unrelated job. 
You can earn money by doing other related work.
You can grow your own veg and shop at Lidl.
There are ways to survive, if you're prepared to set your priorities accordingly.

Yes, there's a payoff.  Rent still has to be paid, food still has to be put on the table.  We seem to have returned to the concept of the starving artist in the garret boiling up old shoes to make soup.  Progress, eh?

But if you're prepared to accept the likelihood of poverty ...
... and you have the hide of a rhino ...
... and you realise that this road will be bumpy and you have to watch out for the potholes ...
... and have the energy to climb back out of those you fall in along the way ...

... I genuinely believe there can be no more rewarding way to live a life.  

Those highs when your writing takes wings ... when your characters take you in surprising directions ... when you slap yourself on the head, yelling, 'Of course!' ... when you sit back and reflect that you have created an entire world and populated it with an eclectic cast drawn from inside your own head ... when you fall in love with a particular phrase or image ...

Ah, there's nothing like it.

If the price to pay is eating pasta five nights a week and a minimal social life (apart from lit events - lots of them!) then so be it. I'm in. 

And anyway, there are still those amazing stories of people who make it to the big time, even though they are few and far between.

As the old lottery slogan used to say, 'It could be you!'

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Watch out for visiting magpies

I'm delighted to announce that Elizabeth Baines will be visiting here on 26th June to give a virtual reading as part of her tour to promote Too Many Magpies.

I've been very remiss - I should have been posting about this long ago.
You can check the previous stops on the tour here.  And here

The current stop is at our very own Barbara Smith's blog. 
Next week - Vanessa Gebbie. 

Monday, June 07, 2010

33 London Boroughs ... 2 Great Books

I've mentioned before (most recently here) that I have a short story coming out soon in a 2 volume anthology to be published by the innovative new publisher, Glasshouse Books.
33 has a story set in each of London's boroughs and looks like an eclectic and exciting mix of styles and unique approaches.

It's all systems go and guess what - you're invited to the launch party!

33 EAST / 33 WEST
Wednesday 14 July from 6.30 pm
The Press House Wine Bar 1 St Bride’s Passage, EC4Y 8EJ
Please join us to celebrate the launch of our most ambitious project yet. 
33 boroughs, 33 shorts, 1 London. 
From Bexley to Brent, Havering to Hillingdon.
Entrance is free for all.
Please RSVP to

Click here for more details and to order copies.
Click here to see the authors for 33 East and here for 33 West.
(Lots of familiar faces and some new ones that I look forward to meeting in Real Life.)
Follow Glasshouse Books on Facebook and check for updates.