Friday, November 5, 2010

Miranda Sawyer: Cheshire, Smash Hits and books

A few weeks ago, I ventured out of The North and went to London to meet Miranda Sawyer. She's a patron of Manchester Literature Festival and a very nice one at that. We met up on Oxford Street and then made our way to the BBC's HQ where she was doing a voice-over for The Culture Show. It was a strange and exciting experience walking through the barriers with my visitor's pass next to someone so well-known and respected in popular culture.

In a little studio with mics and sound desks and padded walls, I set up my recording device and asked her about life in Cheshire, judging the Orange Prize for Fiction, e-books and best of all, what it was like working at Smash Hits in the early '90s.

So as a parting gift, at the end of a fabulous festival, I'm sharing the interview with you all. It's in two parts because the phone started ringing half way through, and I'm no expert when it comes to editing! Enjoy!

Kirsty Young (Digital Marketing Assistant)

Rosie Alison & Monique Roffey

25th October

Waterstone's again hosted two fine writers, this time two novelists who were shortlisted for this year’s Orange PrizeRosie Alison and Monique Roffey. For fifteen years the Orange Prize has been connecting readers with great writers. Today showed it is still coming up with the goods.

Monique Roffey read from her second novel, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Set in Trinidad, as the country becomes independent. It is part historical fiction, part a portrayal of a marriage. In the extract Monique read the novel’s protagonist watched Eric Williams deliver a speech. In her introduction she discussed blending real people, such as Williams, into fiction. It is a difficult technique because the author becomes both a witness to history, via research, and a writer of history, through the novel. It is a position of great responsibility. Roffey copes with the task admirably.

Rosie Alison’s reading was from her debut novel, The Very Thought of You. The novel has picked up a handful of award nominations on top of making the Orange shortlist, including being longlisted for the RNA Romantic Novel of the Year and the Le Prince Maurice Prize for Literary Love Stories. She spoke of how she was tired of modern novels being “unwilling to tackle grand emotion” and how they hid behind irony. She went on to say how that this almost certainly means that she is “preaching to the unrequited converted” and that readers who were not romantically inclined may hate her book. Those who are not afraid of emotional content however, may just find a new favourite.

In the question and answer session we learnt how the two authors felt about the Orange Prize, both of them feeling extremely lucky to get and grateful for the opportunity it gives shortlisted writers to reach new readers and Roffey raising the point that since the prize has existed there has been a rise in the number of women on other prize shortlists such as the Mann Booker and the Whitbread.

We also learnt that if you are a novelist the phrase “if at first you don’t succeed” still has enormous relevance. Both writers discussed how they had to fight against a wall of rejection to get their novels into print. Alison only found a publisher after three agents and two rounds of almost uniform rejection. Roffey, despite the critical success of her first novel, had to search for a long time to find someone to publish her second.

We are lucky that they did eventually reach the public, and via the Orange Prize, a large readership.

by James Prince

Seamus Heaney’s Journey Of The Soul

25th October

For over forty years Seamus Heaney has dug deep with his pen into the psyche of Ulster, exploring cultural identities and Ireland’s troubled past. He has been awarded numerous accolades over the years and added another to his collection earlier this month when Heaney’s twelfth volume of poetry, Human Chain, was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Collection. The prestige surrounding a poet of Heaney’s stature was echoed by that of Whitworth Hall itself, and with its neo-Gothic architecture, swooping chandeliers and wood panelling, it’s difficult to think of a venue in Manchester more befitting a former Nobel Laureate.

As he stood at his lectern wearing a sombre charcoal suit, Heaney’s white hair contrasted sharply against an imposing backdrop of grey organ pipes. A lone spotlight shone directly onto his books and it looked almost as though what he was reading from had turned into gold. In his own words, Heaney was about to take his audience on a ‘journey of the soul’ which would recount old and new poems along the way, with his father emerging as a central figure on that journey. In his opening address, Heaney was quick to point out his literary roots with Manchester, as it was in Didsbury that he had some of his earliest works published in a literary magazine set up by Harry Chambers. He also heaped praises on the university’s Centre for New Writing which he said has cultured some of the best Irish poets of recent years.

Heaney is himself an inspiration to many poets, partly because he has a gift for making the ordinary extraordinary, and this was demonstrated in his opening prefatory poem to Human Chain, entitled ‘Had I Not Been Awake’. The lyric poem is about a wind, ‘A courier blast that there and then / Lapsed ordinary’ which rouses the poet from his sleep, acting as a metaphorical vehicle to showcase how acutely sensitive Heaney has become to his surroundings following a stroke in 2006.

Heaney admitted that the poems in Human Chain had been written more quickly than any other works which had preceded it, and by way of contrast the next poem to be read out was ‘Personal Helicon’ taken from his first collection, Death of A Naturalist. Dedicated to his close friend, the Irish poet Michael Longley, ‘Personal Helicon’ is one of the first poems in his journey of the soul, and recounts from memory a young Heaney aged one, playing by a well and tapping into a world of identity that he has little comprehension for, but is beginning to hear echoes of: “To stare bug-eyed Narcissus into some spring / Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

The following group of poems which Heaney recited: ‘Mossbawn: Sunlight’, ‘A Sofa in the Forties’, ‘Two Lorries’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ were all set in his childhood home on the farm at Mossbawn, County Derry. In the late 1960s when Heaney was establishing himself as a poet, his memories of the 1940s overlap with those of the Troubles that were about to begin in 1969:

Oh, dream of red plush and a city coalman
As time fastforwards and a different lorry
Groans into shot, up Broad Street, with a payload
That will blow the bus station to dust and ashes. (Two Lorries ll.20-23)

Heaney’s reading shifted its focus intermittently from innocent childhood memories to a more immediate present, as he touched upon recent events in Northern Ireland and the resurgence of Irish terrorism of which he said: “the danger is still tick, tick, ticking away.” Danger also lurked in ‘The Tollund Man’ which he composed after being gripped by photographs of mummified peat bodies in P.V. Glob’s The Bog People. Throughout his career Heaney has been inspired to write poetry which examines the bog myth, concerning whether or not the bodies were victims of sacrificial rites, and during his recital he posed the question, “Did they fall or were they pushed?” He went on to explain that ‘The Tollund Man’ had been written around the time of the first killings during 1969 and he explained that the poets of The Belfast group, to which he and Michael Longley belonged, “felt the pressure of public events and the unease of private writings.” For Heaney, The Tollund Man is a poem that attempted to address the dichotomy between public and private. This was something he went on to add had also vexed WB Yeats’ soul many years earlier in ‘Easter 1916’ when he had asked, “O when may it suffice?”

It was the figure of his father Patrick, who Heaney turned to next in his recital and whom he movingly referenced in ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Uncoupled’, ‘The Conway Stewart’ and ‘The Butts.’ Over the years Heaney’s father has taken on various significances, whether it be the silent figure of ‘The Harvest Bow’ or that of the farmer in ‘Uncoupled’. In ‘The Butts’, whose title Heaney joked “means different things in different places,” the frail body of his father acts as a poignant reminder of the soul’s mortality. But as often is the case with Heaney, there is cause for joy and celebration to be found in the darkest of subject matters. Referring to the stroke he suffered in 2006, Heaney said that while in hospital he thought about the incident in the New Testament when the paralytic is brought in for healing by Christ. He observed that it was the people who carried him in and looked after him there that were central to the tale, and this he admitted inspired his poem, ‘Miracle’ from Human Chain.

Heaney also had a point to make about ‘The door was open and the house was dark’ – a poem which he said came to him as a dream. Written in memorial of his friend David Hammond, the poem captures a precise moment in time of knowing when something is not quite right, it also confronts a fear of any soul’s journey, that of death itself: “I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger, / Intruder almost, wanting to take flight.”

For his penultimate reading, Heaney chose ‘In the Attic’, a lyric poem from Human Chain inspired by the view of a birch tree from his attic window. It invokes the power of imagination, something which Heaney has thankfully not been robbed of following his stroke. The poem is split into four parts, the first opening with references to Treasure Island and closing on an image of the wind, the motif which had opened the collection: “It’s not that I can’t imagine still / That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt / As a wind freshened and the anchor weighted.”
The evening, and the Manchester Literature Festival itself, came to a close with ‘Postscript’ a poem taken from The Spirit Level, published in 1995, the same year he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. With its images of wild swans, the poem contains yet another reference to Yeats, whom alongside Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, he holds in the highest of regards. ‘Postscript’ again made reference to wind in the closing lines which beckoned the audience to, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” The wind motif in Heaney’s poetry acts like memories that whistle and swirl into the mind, Heaney said of it himself that: “Wind reminds us that we are to enjoy every minute.”

For over an hour the audience listened, enraptured by the dulcet tones of Heaney’s Northern Irish accent, enjoying every minute. Heaney captured the imagination of everyone present, taking their souls on a journey through his poetry, intertwining the old with the new and contrasting the fears of a nation with those of his own personal struggle. ‘Human Chain’, like so much of his oeuvre is about the passing on and transmission of humanity, whether it be knowledge, love or memory. And as the chilly winds of Manchester brushed against the faces of those leaving the warmth of Whitworth Hall, they may have been left wondering when Seamus Heaney will next grace the city with his presence.

by Catherine Fearn

Catherine writes a blog called The Poplar Tree – one of Manchester’s literature-orientated blogs which includes editorial features on authors, reviews of books, films and anything in-between, such as TV programmes and current affairs.

Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah at the Whitworth Art Gallery

22nd October

Dark and stormy weather cast a dark shadow over a night in Manchester that made walking anywhere a gloomy affair, never mind down all the way down Oxford Road to the Whitworth Art Gallery. However, the trudge was worth it since the evening promised an insightful discussion by Val Mcdermid and Sophie Hannah, two of the UK’s most popular and prolific crime writers. In fact given the topic, the weather was perfect. A newcomer to the Whitworth, I admired its architecture as soon as I got close, but couldn’t help thinking it looked a lot like a lunatic asylum. Possibly this was down to an over-active imagination, but it certainly kicked off the evening in appropriate style. Inside the layout was contemporary and fresh, and an internal exhibition of an imitation dark forest couldn’t have set the tone better. We were definitely in for a treat.

Alongside the two authors was crime aficionado Jude Davis, who kept the discussion flowing in the right direction as well as making sure the audience’s questions were answered at the end. The event promised to cover topics regarding the genre in general, both author’s writing style, inspirations, up and coming ventures and answering the real question: ‘Do women make better crime writers?’

Conversation verged straight into the state of the genre itself, both authors considering how agents or publishers always look for ‘the next big thing’ in crime, further agreeing that Patricia Cornwell was somewhat of a pioneer in terms of uniqueness. Given the current popularisation of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl who…’ trilogy the authors also explained this by stating that people enjoy the quirkiness that European fiction brings to the genre, and the fact that Swedish/Norwegian/Scandinavian crime fiction has been around for decades but has simply not been translated. Personally I have only read a bit of Henning Mankell who is the creator of the Wallander series of books that is only just finding recognition on the international stage. The point being that people are drawn to fiction that is unconventional and is not totally linear in practice, but there is still a big demand for crime fiction.

Further to this both authors went on to describe points in fiction that they find the most important in considering a book to be one to remember. Sophie explained that readers like to learn something whilst indulging in fiction, and she values a really gripping story that has been confidently written. Val concurred, as well as adding the need for investment in a story, caring what the outcome is going to be and having complete engagement with the characters and what happens to them. They briefly discussed balance within crime fiction, since when discussing dark topics such as Sophie Hannah’s subject of cot deaths in her next book, there always needs to be moments of light-heartedness in order to bring the reader back from the brink and changes of pace that allow a reader to breath a sigh of relief after particularly tense moments. Val added that as women they write about people that have a more rounded life, and when engaging with the idea of the victim they don’t want them to come across as cardboard cut outs but place them within a realistic setting that people will believe, and getting the balance in the world they create is a big part of that.

Up and coming ventures steered the next portion of discussion, starting with Sophie explaining that her third book (whose title she didn’t mention but I’m sure die hard fans will be screaming this at the screen) is currently being filmed for TV and will be broadcast in March of next year. She humorously observed the truth about actors, describing them as people that ‘prowl round with desperate insecurity all over their faces’.

She described read-through sessions as being in a ‘room of people paid to pretend what I made up’, with Val adding that they are indeed fascinating but is still likened to watching paint dry. With this she considerately advised that if you are ever in that position you should arrive as close to lunchtime as possible.

Val described her latest book as simply being ‘chock full of lesbians’ and that it worked better that way as there weren’t too many sexual identities getting in the way of a triangle of truth, lies and love, that framed the whole story. She got her inspiration from a recent wedding in Oxford and decided instantly that if she had it her way, ‘the bridegroom had to be dead by bedtime’. Who knew sinister crime writers were also hilarious? Must be something to do with the balance; if you write about dark stuff you end up with a dry sense of humour.

Then came time for the question of the night, do men or women make better crime writers? I did already feel the answer to this was going to be biased, but the reasoning was definitely sound. Val explained that men write much more linear crime that is a superb read, especially for men (softening the blow). However, women, being more convoluted and devious (I can agree with that…) end up writing more convincing crime given that they are brought up being taught that you won’t get anything in life with directness and that they are convinced they are the victims who need to be protected by men. This leads to women writing about fear and violence from the inside, such as being haunted by the steps behind them on a dark night and the feelings that emerge within that sense of fear. Sophie added that Male authors tend to involve major organisations such as FBI or characters being on the run from the mob, that end up making a book impersonal and uninteresting. I can definitely see her point although the inclusion of these in fiction adds a dramatic element to a book that heightens the tension so the sacrifice can be justified in some circumstances.

Val finished the question with an anecdote about a story a librarian once told her. She explained that the librarian once noticed a woman getting out 6 crime novels every week for a long time until dramatically changing her selection to 6 romance novels. The librarian asked why she would change her selection so drastically and the woman replied, ‘because my husband has just died I don’t have to fantasise about killing him now’.

After answering intriguing questions on the limits in crime writing, corresponding with criminals, the pressure for Val to write about lesbians and male or female killers within fiction, both authors thanked the audience and provided them with a book signing at the end of the discussion for fans to meet them. One of the volunteers, Sue Battrick, also got her shirt traditionally signed after getting it signed the year before.

After an intriguing evening and a trip back through the dark forest, I was left content with the inner workings of a crime writer and where to find my inspiration within the genre for my own reading. I was still left with the quandary of how writers who come up with such dark material can come out with so many jokes. They must have been either finding ‘the right balance’ or be sick in the head. I hope it was a little of both.

by Rob Bester

Rob is a freelance writer based in Manchester, currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at MMU. He spends his time writing short stories, a crime novel based in Manchester, material for a local student magazine, blogging at freshscribble and taking many trains in between.

Magical Moomins

October 24th

As Sophia Jansson herself commented, you really couldn’t ask for a more apt and magical setting than the Whitworth for this introduction to the world her aunt, Tove, created; the audience is guided through a dark and mysterious indoor woodland, to be seated in a leaf-wallpapered room looking out onto a crisp, autumnal Oxford Road, just perfect for Moomins.

The audience is comprised of that most hackneyed of phrases, ‘children of all ages’, reflecting the sixty five years that have passed since Moomintroll first blinked in wonder at the light of day. You could date its constituents, perhaps, from the incarnation of The Moomins that first held them in thrall. For myself, it is hazy memories of Alan Bennett reading Moominland Midwinter on Jackanory. For my five year old daughter, Betsy, Moominvalley is an undiscovered land, waiting to be explored.

That the Moomin books continue to hold such fascination across the age ranges is testament to Tove Jansson’s modest genius; both her words and pictures beguile, speaking directly to the reader, according to their experience of life. The child is drawn into the haphazard adventures of Moomintroll, the Snork Maiden and Little My, whilst the adult can appreciate the deeper themes of family and loss. In some ways, perhaps, they are a distinctly European equivalent of Pixar at its most successful.

Such broad appeal is difficult to recapture in a talk, and, whilst Sophia’s reminiscences of her aunt – born in Russian Finland to artistic parents, and a lesbian when to be so was against the law – fascinate the adults, some of the younger members of the audience, Betsy amongst them, begin to fidget.

For me, the spirit of the Moomins is most truly evoked in those moments when the audience as a whole are brought back together, most notably in the reading from Moominsummer Madness, when we can all enjoy, whether for the first time, or the umpteenth, the pragmatic responses of the Moomins to a flood.

Equally fun is the question and answer session, during which we are encouraged to share our own impressions of Moominvalley, and better understand matters of such playful import as the taxonomy of Hemulens and the provenance of Moominmamma’s bag.

This, then, is the spell that The Moomins cast, like all the best stories, it draws you out of this world, and into another. And, for all the longueurs from a five year old perspective, Betsy is not immune; she skips out into the crisp October evening, now as dark as the forest through which we entered, excited at the prospect of Moomin stories to come, and a trip to Bury Art Gallery to see the Magical Moominvalley exhibition there.

by Desmond Bullen

Desmond is a graduate of the MA course in Screenwriting at the University of Salford and is a mental health nurse working in substance misuse.

Grimm Reading: the breadth and diversity of horror literature

24th October

This was a day of firsts for me. It was my first bookish event in Central Manchester: it was also my first visit to Cornerhouse, on Oxford Road. I moved to the Greater Manchester area earlier this year and have been delighted by the scope and vibrancy of arts-related events in the area.

Sunday’s event was centred on a subject close to my heart – horror fiction. Grimm Reading’s premise was a panel discussion on the breadth and diversity of horror literature, chaired by Ramsey Campbell who, in the horror community, is seen as a master of the genre. The panellists were Tariq Goddard, Matt Haig and Conrad Williams. An eclectic mix. Campbell and Williams are well-known and respected figures in the genre world; Goddard and Haig, less so, for reasons which would become clearer as the discussion progressed.

Having missed the first half hour of the panel (thanks a lot – GMPTE!) I arrived to catch the tail end of Ramsey’s reading. The discussion began with thoughts on how horror fiction is marketed. This is always a hot topic for horror writers so it was interesting to hear Tariq’s take on this subject. He is not known as a horror writer yet, in his latest novel The Picture Of Contented New Wealth, the bold decision was made to add the tagline A metaphysical Horror. For Tariq, the concept of genre is an afterthought, the text is all-important and writing is more powerful when the author writes without genre in mind. This may be how many authors view the process of writing but, as Tariq points out, it’s an entirely different matter when it comes to marketing a book.

Both Conrad and Ramsey noted that as established horror writers it can be difficult to push the humorous aspects of one’s writing. Horror fiction is noted for its dark humour yet, in marketing terms, this is rarely an aspect which sees the light of day on book blurbs.

This brought the panel neatly into the next point of discussion – book blurbs and covers. For Matt’s novel The Radleys, two covers were commissioned to reflect different target audiences, both adults and the YA market. In the world of book marketing, cover design is an important tool, one which can significantly expand an author’s readership. The same is true of blurbs. Both Conrad and Ramsey commented on having written their own blurbs, preferring the level of control it gives them over this essential selling point.

The conversation turned to another hot topic, Is there snobbery in horror fiction? Conrad pointed out that horror is often seen as a dirty word in the literary world yet one hundred years ago, and even further back, some of the most important writers were often seen as writers of horror fiction – Charles Dickens, M R James, Henry James. Ramsey noted that just sixty years ago, as he was discovering horror fiction, that short story anthologies and collections were very much in fashion and almost every major short story writer at that time is known to have written one or two ghost or horror short fiction pieces.

Here Tariq commented that we are very much living in a secular age: that living in an era of Dawkins perhaps makes people view horror and supernatural fiction as something childish. More controversially, he also claimed that a lot of horror writing isn’t particularly good. While I would disagree with this almost entirely, his point that some horror fiction is producing the literary equivalent of special effects may go some way toward explaining the attitude within the literary world of horror fiction being what Conrad termed a dirty word. Matt then noted that marketing itself may have much to do with the snobbery surrounding horror fiction.

The last section of the discussion was turned over to questions from the audience. Again, talk returned to matters of marketing. When asked where the difference lays in crime horror and supernatural horror, the general consensus is that how a title is labelled and marketed will determine which element is given precedence over the other.

The authors were asked about the influence of film and television on their writing: about writing stories to order: on whether they would write a book because that particular trope happened to be popular at the time: and, finally, if they had a belief in the supernatural.

As someone deeply embedded in the horror fiction community, this was a fascinating afternoon for me. Conrad and Ramsey are authors I know well: Matt and Tariq are new discoveries in my reading world. All four of them gave myself and the audience much to think about on how horror fiction has been perceived over time, how it is marketed in today’s publishing industry and how its image may change in the months and years to come.

Thanks to the Manchester Literature Festival for for playing host to such an interesting panel and giving me the chance to blog about this event.

by Sharon Ring

Sharon is a freelance editor, book blogger and podcaster. You can read her work here and here.

Another bright idea by Rainy City Stories

24th October

Talk of the Rainy City seems somewhat out of kilter today as bright sunshine streams into the new Cornerhouse Annexe through its floor-to-ceiling windows. The turnout is still keen on the penultimate afternoon of Manchester Literature Festival, where Rainy City Stories was launched two years ago. Having already submitted a poem to the website and taken part in one of the regular writing workshops run by the project, I’m looking forward to gleaning further Writing About Place tips from this discussion between some of the more well-known contributors.

Festival Director Cathy Bolton provides a brief background to the “interactive literary cityscape”, then hands over to the panel’s chair; author, Nightjar Press publisher and MMU lecturer Nicholas Royle. Nick is flanked by novelists Jenn Ashworth and Clare Dudman, and kicks off by inviting each in turn to step up to the lectern and read extracts of their work.

Jenn’s first novel, A Kind Of Intimacy, takes Lancashire fishing town Fleetwood as its backdrop, while her second, Cold Light, moves down the coast to Preston. Telling the story of two teenage girls, Jenn explains the importance of outside settings and space in this novel, which is due out next summer. Too young for pubs or clubs but too old for staying at home and keeping out of trouble, the characters take to hanging about in parks and other public places where they can drink and snog in peace. Jenn draws a link between the wildness of the teenagers’ behaviour and the wildness of the nature reserves (“where urban people go to look at grass”) they inhabit.

A little further afield, Clare’s novel, A Place Of Meadows And Tall Trees, is set in Patagonia, and her reading follows the story of Welsh settlers Silas and Edwin. Physical descriptions of the scenery play a big part in Clare’s narrative, with the two men trekking to a place where a perilous precipice overlooks a large lake extending into the distance. She describes a tangible tension, with man pitted against the environment, almost as if the landscape is a character itself. She also admits that perhaps she has an ulterior motive for choosing far-flung places as settings in her books: research provides her with the perfect excuse to go and visit!

Nick reads part of a novel that he is in the process of building up from a short story idea. The narrator, like Nick, teaches creative writing, lives in Nick’s house (albeit with a slightly different layout), sees what Nick sees and goes where Nick goes, which, in this case, is down onto the disused railway line that runs along the back of Didsbury Village. Nick instils in us his love of abandoned places – here the train track, but also dilapidated buildings: “It’s as if the story is waiting to happen; as if you disturb the stories as you explore.”

Each of the three writers is obviously attracted by wilderness in one shape or form, and the discussion which follows takes this as a starting point. Jenn finds wild places dramatically interesting because they are often where people get up to no good; Clare says wild landscapes allow for more interaction and give you the opportunity to let your imagination run free. From this, they discuss how place can be more than just a setting for a story; that it can also suggest a mood or a character.

All agree that it’s important to go to the place that you are writing about in order to immerse your senses and fully appreciate the sights, smells and sounds that can’t be experienced any other way (Clare recounts how, when researching a novel set in Greenland, she got lost but found her way back to the settlement by following the howling of the dogs the villagers kept, and how she wouldn’t have known this otherwise). By having this first-hand knowledge and feeling of a place, you can then evoke it and not merely depict it.

by Sarah-Clare Conlon

Sarah-Clare is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. She is the co-creator of Ask Ben & Clare, author of the award-winning Words & Fixtures, and regular contributor to Manchester Blog Awards 2010 Best New Blog 330 Words.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

More Chuck!

Chuck Perkins was definitely the highlight of my MLF 2010 experience. As Alex Herod says in her review, he is pretty amazing! Super friendly, but edgy at the same time, his authenticity shone through. I don't particularly like describing things or people as 'cool', but he definitely is! His performance was captivating and the band he played with were a perfect match.

Lucky for us all, Catherine Teague was at the Zion Arts Centre with her trusty camera. She managed to capture one of his performances on film. Thanks Catherine!

Kirsty Young (Digital Marketing Assistant)

Chuck Perkins: Master Storyteller and Performer

23rd October

This event was held at Zion Arts Centre – a vibrant youth and arts centre just outside of the city centre. The theatre space had been set up with cabaret style seating, creating the feel of a jazz bar rather than a straight performance space.

Young Identity poetry collective kicked off proceedings. This group of poets and performers was founded in 2006 in Moss Side, and has since gone from strength to strength. The performers were confident and engaging: young, honest voices offering poetry and spoken word that was brutal, moving and hilarious. I wasn't sure what to expect from the group, but I’ll definitely be checking them out in the future.

Chuck Perkins took to the stage accompanied by his 'Manchester band': Aid (percussion), Rich (drums), Andy (double bass), and Lawrence (piano). We were treated to two sets with an interval, the first set described by Perkins as “all the pissed off political poems!”. He started with a poem inspired by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, examining the human impact of economic turmoil: "What's the mark-up on a soldiers casket?". The poem, about the unfair distribution of wealth, was accompanied by the frightening statistic that CEOs in the U.S currently earn 821 times more than the lowest paid workers in the company!

Perkins is a master storyteller and performer; his poetry is relevant and beautiful, and has at its heart the people and places he knows well. He grew up in New Orleans and returned there after years of moving around with jobs; its spirit and rich musical history has clearly influenced his work a great deal.

As a performer, Perkins is passionate, entertaining and, well, pretty damn amazing. He also has a natty line in wild and wonderful anecdotes, such as a story about ending up in a crack den after befriending a homeless guy: “I don’t smoke crack and I’m an atheist but hey, it was 6am and there I was reading the bible to them. Don’t try that at home!”.

The jazz-fusion and blues music is part of the poetry, rather than an accompaniment, and the music inspires a new appreciation of the rhythms in the spoken word. Jazz and blues influences, social history in America from the Civil Rights Movement to current economic issues, and the personal history of friends and family all feature in Perkins’ work – you get the impression that he was born to tell these stories.

After the interval, Perkins returned to the stage celebrating the diversity of New Orleans, a city that “had no choice but to be different” – Spanish, French, Haitian, Cuban, African and then American people settled there, creating a truly unique city rich in culture and diverse in terms of its festivities. A poem accompanied by traditional Native American music was about the Mardi Gras custom of African Americans masking themselves as Native Americans. Perkins summed up this beauty and diversity: “African-Americans masked as Native Americans on an Italian-American holiday!”

He went on to tell us about ‘Jazz Funerals’, where the mood starts somber with hymns and slow marching, but develops into celebrations of the person who has passed – “From soft and sad to wild, happy and a little mad”, a true expression of feeling through music and movement. One poet and four musicians painting a picture of the noise, dancing and outpouring of emotion of hundreds.

At one point, a challenge was issued: Perkins said that despite being past the age where you can legitimately rap, he wrote one anyway. In the ‘80s, rap artists like NWA and Public Enemy were political, brave and important, but now rap music is derivative and materialistic. To this, and to new generations, Perkins says: “Tell me something I don’t know!” Members of Young Identity Collective were still in the audience, and it’s safe to say it’s a challenge they rose to.

Chuck Perkins told the audience that if any of us is ever in New Orleans, we should drop him a line as he’d be the best tour guide ever. I don’t doubt that for a second.

by Alex Herod

Alex is Deputy Editor of For Books’ Sake. She has just finished her MA (Performance Works, Leeds Met) and is keen to meet writers, makers and do-ers through her Collaborate Here project.

Eureka! Where Science Meets Story

23rd October

To many people, science and literature could not be further apart, working in different worlds in different ways. Yet, as the Manchester Literature Festival draws to a close and the Manchester Science Festival kicks off, one event ties them together and makes them inseparable. Comma Press and the Institute of Physics united in an effort to bring writers together with scientists to develop stories around the “Eureka Moments” that become legendary in science.

The event began in the wooden Godlee Observatory, which was built with money from Francis Godlee, a prominent cotton baron in Manchester during the 19th century. In a cramped, octagonal room, a winding iron staircase barely wide enough for an adult reaches up through the ceiling to the original refracting telescope originally installed for 1903. Posters of the sun and the stars adorn the plain walls, and all gatherings are overseen by a picture of Godlee himself, bearded with a long pipe clamped between his teeth.

In groups of seven, we were admitted into a world as magical as Harry Potter’s, climbing the narrow staircase up to admire the telescope, which still boasts its original wooden box camera. The stairs are ornate, but not for the faint of heart. From the top, the view down into the room below is giddying, while above the telescope itself is held on girders, rather than the wooden floor. A modern computer still collects data for the Manchester Astronomical Society, which boasts at least one member nearly as old as the telescope itself.

Once we had all been given the chance to see the telescope, we were ushered into a teaching room for the readings. Writers Zoe Lambert and Stella Duffy read from stories composed by working directly with scientists and historians of science for the Eureka Commissions. Zoe’s story was a very immediate take on the struggles of Lise Meitner, a member of the team of scientists who discovered nuclear fission, while Stella Duffy created the impression of being a train speeding through the developments in space-time theory from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth, following the life of the mathematician Hermann Minkowski.

Zoe’s story was a clear, conventional narrative, covering Lise Meitner’s life and work in Germany during the 1930s. She handled the complex physics brilliantly, unafraid to use detail in conversations about the deeper mechanics that the physicists would have discussed. There was no attempt to gloss over anything complicated, and would have made a brilliant learning tool for those wanting to discover more about the development of nuclear fission. She interwove the story with the politics of the age. As a woman, Lise had struggled to gain recognition as a nuclear physicist, and just as she found her place alongside Fritz Strassmann and Otto Hahn, she then faced barriers because of her Jewish background. The flow was so seamless it was impossible to tease out the scientist from the woman dealing with the pressures of discrimination for both gender and race.

Stella Duffy’s approach was entirely different. Rather than relating a strict narrative story, she presented a work in a prose poem that travelled like a train through history, pausing at stations where significant events were described in detail. Like Zoe, Stella wove together the personal and the scientific completely seamlessly, making the scientists not gods of their discipline, but humans with their own foibles and struggles with the wider forces of society and relationships.

What both stories brought out was that the idea of a single heroic character suddenly experiencing a flash of inspiration that changes the world is false. From Isaac Newton’s apple tree encounter to Otto Hahn’s revelation about nuclear fission, the stories that we tell about great scientific breakthroughs hide the hard work and dedication of not one, but many individuals who are often lost to history. Both writers had chosen individuals whose work went largely unrecognised; as James Sumner, a historian of science and collaborator on the project, pointed out, many of the people who have contributed to great breakthroughs have been forgotten. In other cases, such as Einstein or Newton, it is because society highly values their findings that they become giants of science.

The evening highlighted the way that story has become just as powerful a part of science as it is of literature. Stella Duffy remarked during the debate that followed the readings that its a natural human thing to boil down events and memory into story, and that this has spilled over into science. James Sumner was keen to emphasise that this is often highly useful, especially when people (and indeed, scientists) are learning about the history of science. If they had to learn every single detail of every breakthrough, they would get lost. Synthesising is essential; the downside is that it means that the work of many scientists remains unseen.

Sumner describes himself as being there for the scientists who are written out of the story. The effect of the project, judging by the subjects chosen by both writers, has been to re-write the great eureka stories from the perspective of those who missed out on awards and recognition the first time around. From both stories and the discussion afterward, it was clear that what drives both writers and scientists is a passion for their work that overrides almost everything else. Yet rather than cutting them off from others, this passion spills over into every aspect of their lives.

The debate itself covered many angles, from the women “computers” who processed calculations for scientists in basement rooms to the difficulties of collaboration between scientists and writers. Zoe described herself as being about as easy to collaborate with as a cat, but Stella “felt my brain expanding” during the process. What has been created is work that presents a new telling of vital moments in science, giving the spotlight at last to the complexity of the scientific process. It will be interesting to see what the final book presents from other writers on the project.

by Joely Black

Joely is a freelance writer and author who writes epic fantasy and drinks large quantities of tea. Two of her books, The Execution and The Inheritor, are available as ebooks from Smashwords.

The Future: Carbon Diaries

23rd October

“I was walking through the park when I got the idea,” says Saci Lloyd, author of The Carbon Diaries. “There was a newspaper left on a park bench; the headline was telling us the world was heating up and we're all going to have to live at the Poles. The next day, another paper was telling us that the world is cooling down, and that we're all going to have to move to the equator. I thought, well, which one is it? That's when I thought of the book.”

Today Saci is at the Garret Suite in the Museum of Science and Industry promoting her two teen novels, Carbon Diaries 2015 and Carbon Diaries 2017, the eye-catching book covers projected onto the screen at the front of the room. The event nicely ties together day 10 of the Manchester Literature Festival and day 1 of the Manchester Science Festival, which is appropriate considering her writing genre – Science Fiction set in the uncomfortably near-future. Her novels, which critics describe as “A cross between Adrian Mole and JG Ballard”, tie together teen romance and hard science.

Fed up with the notion of global warming “being dull”, Saci chose to tell the funny story of Laura Brown, who is “not a do-gooder”, braving the elements when an immense storm hits Europe.

Saci has thought the future through. Life in 2015 has had to change in The Carbon Diaries due to ecological pressures. Transport systems, waste management and people's lives have all been affected. Characters use various tools to limit their pollution, such as “carbon cards”– like eco-credit cards based on World War II rationing – to keep carbon emissions low. The card's graphic display – a series of vertical blocks – slips from green to red at the bottom as the owner uses up the credits.

“Rationing today would allow kids to go a bit feral,” Saci says, “which would give them a bit of responsibility.”

During her research Saci also studied the recent floods in Cornwall, and looked into the country's rivers. The Thames barrier, she assures us, needs rebuilding after being raised 37 times in 2009. This is all due to global warming.

Despite this critics have questioned the realism of the novel. Global warming? Causing a flood? In England? Ho ho. “People are so dystopian,” she says. “I'm like, 'Read the news!'”

One of her research tools is the fascinating website Breathingearth; it cleverly shows us the amount of CO2 that each country pumps out.

Levels of carbon emissions, it seems, increase as a country becomes more sophisticated. “Every developing country wants their revolution,” says Saci, “which is why it's so hard to bring down.”

Saci never lets the mood get too dark: if you're discussing climate change you don't want raw facts. A reader in the audience tells us that Saci balanced the hard facts with a fun story. “It's hard to stay positive,” Saci responds, “but I have a lot of faith in the public.”

“I want to show you this little hamster,” she says, and plays us this poignant YouTube video

Rationing would sure help that little (?) fella.

Saci is not only a great writer, she's also a capable presenter – comfortable in front of the group and quick to get us all involved in the event by asking us questions and getting our opinions. Her enthusiasm, and genuine concern for the environment, are catchy. She reads well too – the exciting flood scene near the book's climax is perfect for the teen audience as well as everyone else who was swept along with them.

Stay tuned for the next Saci Lloyd novel, which will focus on the other giant time-bomb: Oil. It will be the only thriller she will write, as she says it's hard! In it she proposes a future London where Rio-style Favela slums have the replaced today's swanky pre-fab apartment blocks.

A fantastic competition will be launched soon: My World 2030 is looking for a fresh take on tackling climate change. Imagine you live in 2030. How will the altered climate have changed your life? What will you be doing to help the environment? What will the rest of your day-to-day life be like? My World 2030 wants a glimpse of this. You'll be able to submit your project as graphics, writing or on video (drama or animation). The winner will receive a swanky pair of headphones. Keep your eyes peeled – this is so exclusive there isn't even any official info online yet!

For those of you who would rather see a story on the screen than in print, you'll be pleased to hear that there is a Carbon Diaries film in the pipeline (no pun). Saci says she turned down Johnny Depp – at least, his proposal to make a movie of her novel.

“I wanted to make a really British thing,” Saci says. “I didn't want a glossy version like 2012, which was the worst film I've seen in ages.”

Aptly, she got in touch with Company Pictures, who brought you Skins and Shameless on Channel 4. The UK studio has secured the rights to film Saci's book.

by Matt Tuckey

Matt is a writer from Oldham. He's had fiction and poetry published in numerous e-magazines and has written for Oldham Evening Chronicle and Manchester Evening News. He works in Marketing and trains in Mixed Martial Arts. You can read more of his work here.