Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bookend 2

Close Up With Jeffrey Eugenides: The Marriage Plot, Sunday 6th November, 7.30pm, Whitworth Art Gallery

Words by Zoe Lambert. Photograph by Jon Atkin.

About 150 of us are sitting in rows in the South Gallery, and with Jeffrey Eugenides standing at a lectern, we could be in a lecture in The Marriage Plot. But we aren’t. We are at the final MLF event, which is also one of Dave Haslam’s Close Up interviews.

Eugenides introduces his third novel, The Marriage Plot, by recounting how, just a few minutes ago, a "young journalist" had interviewed him for Creative Times told him that in a seminar in critical theory she’d sent romantic notes to someone in the class, using quotations from Roland Barthes' A Lovers’ Discourse. I glance at the "young journalist", who is sitting next to me in the audience; she is hiding under her hair.

At the beginning of the novel the "heroine", Madeleine - a devotee of 19th-century fiction - is attending a course on semiotics and writing a paper on Barthes’ A Lovers’ Discourse, while falling in love with another student, Leonard. Is this life copying art or art into life? Or being written by the discourse of love? In any case, Eugenides reads the section about Madeleine and Leonard falling in love, and ends with the moment when she announces she loves him, only to have Leonard force her read from A Lovers’ Discourse: "Once the first avowel has been made, 'I love you' has no meaning whatsoever."

Jeffrey Eugenides is an excellent reader. We could have listened to him for hours, possibly days, but with Madeleine throwing A Lovers’ Discourse at Leonard’s head, he closes the book and sits down on the chair next to Dave Haslam. Dave doesn’t ask about writing love stories, plots or semiotics. He goes straight to what audiences always want to know about: the practicalities of writing. Eugenides reveals that he writes every day from 10 til dinnertime; you can’t wait for inspiration. The secret, and this is what we are waiting for, is growing the flesh on your backside you need to develop to become a scholar. Is it hard to sustain the tone while writing a novel, asks Haslam. Sustaining it is easy. It’s finding the tone that’s hard. Are there any obstacles? Eugenides’ main obstacle is finishing his novels (on average 10 years). In fact, his editor flew to Berlin in order to take Middlesex away. (I imagine the editor prowling around his apartment, saying, Just tell me where the manuscript is, Jeff.) That’s another thing about Eugenides; he’s a great raconteur, full of anecdotes.

Dave Haslam asks the question no writer wants to answer: is there a lot of your own experience in the novel? Eugenides admits that when he was writing a lot of his memories of college life came back. But, interestingly, the section that "dovetailed" with his own experience was also the most difficult to write (he’d been trying to write about it for 30 years). Like the character Mitchell, he’d travelled around Europe and spent time in Calcutta, but the chapter about this ended up an "ungodly mess" and he had to cut away a lot of his autobiography in order to find the story.

Though the novel is about how to write the 19th-century marriage plot in the 21st century, aren’t things different now, with mobiles, the internet and so forth, to in the 80s? Nope. Nothing has changed. Whether you are waiting for a letter, staying in for a phone call or checking your mobile for a text, the "tumult of anxiety" (Barthes' words) of waiting has not changed. Too true, we all think. Too true.

Dave Haslam moves on to The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Was adolescence a fertile time for writing? Yes, he is slowly growing up. Is the "obscure object" in Middlesex from his personal experience? The term comes from a beautiful and mysterious art history major Eugenides and his friends admired at college. They called her "the obscure object" (from Bunuel’s That Obscure Object Of Desire). The day he finished his novel he went for dinner in Berlin and there she was, the obscure object in the flesh. Recently, she turned up at a reading in Toronto with her mother and fiancĂ©.

It’s the audience’s turn. No one says anything for a minute, then a hand goes up: do you put limits on yourself as a writer? Yes, as a young writer limiting his options in The Virgin Suicides made it easier. But his latest novel grew more naturally. He wanted it to be a tightly dramatised book and to explore the characters as deeply as possible. The audience warms up and the questions come thick and fast. What about his next book? Same tone, says Eugenides. Wider canvas. Is Leonard based on David Foster Wallace? Not at all. He didn’t know Wallace when he was writing the character. The best question of the night: do you believe in semiotics or in love? Eugenides says he sits on the fence. He’d like to emancipate himself from delusions but still wants to believe in love. He has been influenced by semiotics, but resisted deconstruction; he still believes a text can convey meaning, and in that way he still believes in love. With the final question, he tells us Middlesex is going to be made into a mini-series by HBO.

We file into the next room for the book signing. Perhaps our "young journalist" and the story of her Barthian love letters will tour with Eugenides in his bank of brilliant anecdotes.

Zoe Lambert is the author of The War Tour, out now on Comma Press.

Bookend 1

Anthony Horowitz's Sherlock Holmes: The House Of Silk, Thursday 3rd November, 7pm, Banqueting Hall, Manchester Town Hall

Words by Simon Savidge. Photograph by Ed Swinden.

The setting for Manchester Literature Festival's first ‘bookend’ event couldn’t be more apt. Could there be anywhere more perfect for discussing all things Sherlock Holmes on a dark autumn evening than Manchester Town Hall - one of Manchester’s most gothic Victorian buildings and used in Guy Ritchie’s reinvention of Sherlock on the big screen as the Houses of Parliament. No, it’s true, honest. We are here tonight to see Anthony Horowitz, interviewed by one of the Festival’s patrons, Jenni Murray. He's discussing his career but in particular his latest novel, The House Of Silk, which - with the backing of the Conan Doyle estate - sees Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson emerge once more from the fog of Victorian London.

Horowitz starts the event with a reading of the introduction, and (if you're like me rather a fan of Sherlock Holmes, you needn’t be worried) you are instantly drawn straight back into 221B Baker Street; his voice is so close to Arthur Conan Doyle's. When he ends, the packed Banqueting Hall explodes with applause, but everyone soon goes quiet as they put the famous voice of Radio 4's Woman’s Hour to the face of Jenni Murray. She opens the conversation with Anthony by asking why he felt he could write as Conan Doyle. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I could carry it of, for I am a huge fan, and in fact I had to write five pages first just to give it a go”, comes the reply, and the game is afoot.

Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle’s legacy makes up the first part of the discussion. Horowitz believes the fascination behind them is simply down to "friendship - we all want a best friend like Watson and a best friend like Holmes, it's that simple, and so we want to spend time with them as I always did and continue to do". Horowitz freely admits he did this project because he thought it would "be fun" and "had the story in about 45 minutes of knowing I was doing it", before telling us that there won't be a second Horowitz and Holmes outing because he has "used all the best stuff with this one, and a second would be cynical". Some authors could come off as arrogant with statements like that, but there is something slightly innocent and simply honest in Horowitz’s discussion - a certain open frankness which makes you wonder if that is what calls out to his younger fans.

In fact many of these surround him in the audience (indeed my 12-year-old cousin had begged to come along), and it's nice to see such a mix of young and old. When Horowitz discusses the ending of the Alex Rider series and why as he goes forward as an author - especially now his sons have grown up - the children’s books might slow down, one of the older fans says, "You gave me my childhood escapism - can you please keep doing it for my adulthood too?" It is when the audience gets involved and all the children start asking questions that the event opens up and a less serious side of Horowitz emerges and the author in fact almost lights up. I'm left fairly sure there will be no end to the children’s novels for quite some time yet as they provided such a captive and entertaining audience for the author, it seems.

There is also much laughter when Jenni Murray brings up his TV work, firstly the incredibly successful Foyle’s War and then Midsomer Murders and why Horowitz left. A wry smile appears as he tells the audience: "I had killed everyone off, in fact in my last episode I managed to kill two people off between every ad break, it seemed a little much." It's a question about TV that ends the evening as Murray asks who Horowitz would love to play Holmes and Watson should The House Of Silk be adapted. He thinks about and says: "My ideal pairing would be Daniel Day Lewis as Holmes… and Kenneth Brannagh as Watson - I think that could be the perfect duo." And from the sound of the audience, I think we are all agreed.

You can hear a Sherlock Special plus Manchester Literature Festival Special podcast on Simon's blog The Readers: click here.

Simon Savidge is a freelance editor and journalist, he blogs about all things bookish at Savidge Reads. He is also co-host of Manchester's Bookmarked Literary Salon, co-host of The Readers podcast and co-founder of the Green Carnation Prize. You can follow him on Twitter via @SavidgeReads.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Two for one tales

Words by Nazia Bashir. Photographs by Jon Atkin.

Review 1: Family Storytelling: Margaret Ryan, Saturday 15th October, 12 noon, Children's Department, Waterstone's Deansgate

It's stories galore on this warm October afternoon in the Children’s Department of Waterstone’s Deansgate, with books almost jumping at you from every wall; setting the right atmosphere for what is to be a fun and lively event. On entrance we are warmly welcomed by Margaret Ryan’s brightly lit smile as she sits comfortably behind a display of her recent works, which families are circling around. I manage to have a quick conversation with Margaret. Previously a primary school teacher, Margaret tells me she gave up teaching to become a children’s author. Writing is a hobby which “grew and grew”, she explains, till she decided to take it up as her main profession.

Now, as the carpet space fills up, Margaret gets ready to address her enthusiastic family gathering of children and parents alike. Some are sat cross-legged on the soft purple carpet, while a few are gathered around the table. Margaret begins by taking us through her journey and process as a children’s author. So how do ideas enter an author’s mind? Carefully taking off her glasses, Margaret remembers how a random conversation about pet names with a colleague intrigued her to write the Fat Alphie And Charlie The Wimp series. She found that her colleague’s pet names had something very “magical” about them which would appeal to children.

Margaret now presents us with a lively animated reading of Fat Alphie In Love. Brilliantly, she shifts her voice from a high-pitched singing tone to a low and gentle voice. Enthusiastically, the families join in together and the momentum picks up with the repeated sighs; everyone takes in a deep breath before Margaret reads the next line, “I’m in love with Lola!” Together everyone lets out a loud "sighhhhhh"! Noticeably, we are all warmed up and it is clear that repetition is a useful tool for children’s stories, especially for a bit of family storytelling fun; bringing everyone together. But before Margaret moves on to her next reading, a puzzled-looking lady impatiently asks, “Excuse me: does he get Lola in the end?” Left on a cliff-hanger, we are asked to read the rest to find out.

I’m sure we all must remember the familiar family story ”There were 10 in the bed and the little one said: roll over...” This is the idea for Margaret’s The Littlest Dragon series. The Littlest Dragon is the youngest in a family of 10 dragon brothers and they all sleep in one big dragon bed. However, the littlest dragon wants to get rid of the other nine dragons so he can have the bed to himself. Margaret explains this series, with a familiar family theme, is aimed at beginner readers.

Next, with the help of the lively audience, Margaret presents her most prominent work Roodica The Rude And The Famous Flea Trick. This is one of Margaret’s first books to be selected in 2011 for the Richard and Judy Children’s Book Club. As roles are allocated to both parents and children from the audience, it is clear that Margret has prepared for the fun element of her visit. She has even gone the extra mile by bringing in clothes and props to help dress up and bring to life each of the characters in her story.

The question and answer session that follows further explores Margaret’s journey as a children’s author. First question: how long does it take to get an idea transformed into a book? “It ranges from five to six weeks to a few months.” For instance, her Weird Street series was instigated while waiting at traffic lights. Margaret noticed the name Weird Street, consequently, her creative mind began exploring and questioning; who lives in Weird Street? Next: what is your favourite book? “That is a hard question because you end up liking all the characters including the baddies.” However, Margaret is fond of her Canterbury Tales series as they are personal stories which relate to her own children.

Clearly there are many joys of being a children's author; enabling her to write and still be involved with children. Margaret has also just finished her first book for adults. The event comes to an official end as the audience gives a big round of applause. What a great fun event, leaving us all smiling with fond childhood memories. As families we depart, taking away fun reading ideas, I also feel inspired: to take back some fresh ideas into the classroom.

Review 2: Children's Bookshow: Kevin Crossley-Holland, Friday 21st October, 10.30am, Royal Exchange Theatre

There is a real sense of excitement as I arrive on a cool, clear October morning at the remarkable Royal Exchange. Children liven up the atmosphere as they scurry around in their red, green and blue school uniforms while enthusiastic teachers frantically direct them towards the theatre entrance.

As we settle into our seats, the lights dim and it’s so hushed you can almost hear a pin drop. Under the spotlight, the stage is set with what resembles a comfy lounge: we have a brown leather sofa next to a side table with a small pile of books spread across.

“Life is long and time is short,” begins Kevin Crossley-Holland, one of the UK’s most acclaimed children’s authors, in his reflective tone.

At the age of 70, Kevin has many stories to tell and retell as he explains the three stepping stones that led to him becoming a writer: “Moments that are key minutes in your life that bring me here to you.”

He admits he had never read a book until he was 11 years old. But it was an “electrifying” Saracen shield that transformed him to tune into his senses, allowing the object to tell him a story. The second stepping stone, which actually took Kevin by surprise, was an old pot he chose to keep in memory of his grandfather, only to later discover that it was a unique hidden treasure, a missing Anglo Saxon piece. Kevin’s passion to learn and speak Latin while studying at Oxford University directed him to his third stepping stone. In his own words, Kevin describes the sound of the Anglo Saxon language - “Like waves running up a stony beach” - making him fall in love with Anglo Saxon writing.

Kevin, a natural storyteller, sheds some light on his career journey. He steadily gives details about how he sacrificed his publishing job to camp in Iceland. This journey inspired him to spend the next four years writing and retelling the Viking myths. As each story unfolds and another one begins, Kevin takes us through a visual journey presented using a slideshow of images from Norway and Turkey. The faint background music further enables the audience to capture his imagination. Captivated by the image of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, formerly a masjid and church, Kevin explains how this visit inspired him to write his recent novel Bracelet Of Bones. During this visit he saw a carving of Viking runes leading him to write the story of Solveig, a Viking girl who makes her journey from Norway to Turkey.

Kevin now gives an avid reading from a passage in Bracelet Of Bones. His voice and calm manner leave the audience spellbound. It is amazing to see how the children, some astonished and some eyes glued to the centre spotlight, are all magically listening.

Kevin ends the event with some wise words of encouragement, “If you can make music with words and pictures with words, you can write!” He further adds that he will keep on writing stories: “I’ll never stop but I’ll be stopped by old age.”

Kevin is a truly extraordinary storyteller with a difference and The Children’s Bookshow presents a truly entertaining event. I leave comprehending that everything and everyone has got a deep hidden treasure - full of stories.

Nazia Bashir is a teacher of English in Lancashire with a keen interest in exploring diverse cultures. She also blogged for Manchester Literature Festival 2010.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fair to Midland

Midland Hotel: Fact & Fiction

Review 1: Fact
Memories Of The Midland Tour With Barbara Frost, Wednesday 19th October, 1pm

Words by Hayley Flynn.

Today's tour of the Midland is held by historian and author Barbara Frost, who's been taking people around this grand building since 1987 and has picked up an interesting tale or two over the years. We meet in the foyer, formerly the Winter Gardens, just beyond the two archways out front that were designed for horses and carriages so that they could deposit their passengers inside the hotel without them ever seeing a drop of local rain. It's easy to be swept up in the historical grandeur of this hotel, imagining as we're guided around touches from the past such as the live orchestra which sat where we now have reception desks.

Built by Midland Railway Company in 1880 in reaction to a rather peevish public who couldn't bear having to walk all the way from the Manchester Central station to Piccadilly in order to find a decent hotel. The erection of the hotel meant that five buildings were demolished, one of which was a gentleman's concert hall where Charles Halle began his career and Chopin gave his very last performance. A condition, therefore, was imposed that the hotel must build a concert hall within its walls. On-site entertainment, a coal fire and telephone in every room, it was all very luxurious - if you forget for a moment that back then guests shared bathrooms.

Although now owned by Q Hotels, there is evidence everywhere of the Midland Railway Company, most notably in the Wyvern. This restaurant is named after a mythical dragon and there is a Wyvern room in every hotel built by the company. Take some time to have a look at the photographs here; they're by Eadweard Muybridge, a man fascinated by the movement of the horse trot. He captured sequential photographs that could be animated much like a flip book and his work here is of the human motion and adorns every wall of the restaurant. Immediately outside the Wyvern the artwork takes a literary turn; extracts from W H Auden's poem Night Mail can be found framed in several locations on the ground floor and serve as a reminder of the mail trains that would have rattled by the hotel. Continuing the theme, the Alexandra ballroom contains plastercast replicas of the building's exterior carvings, including ones of Shakespeare.

In the Trafford Room we learn that the tango was danced here for the very first time in the UK, most likely by film star and gangster George Raft who taught the king and queen a little while later in London. Passing by the Moorish Octagon Room, we move into the French restaurant (pictured), where the Beckhams had their first date and Coronation Street characters Hilda and Stanley Ogden celebrated their silver anniversary.

The hotel is a maze of reading rooms, barber shops, tea rooms, ladies' meeting rooms, basements and sub-basements. Every need is catered for, except, in the beginning, those of the stomach. Architect Charles Trubshaw, a man who clearly had his every meal cooked for him, didn't even consider the need for a kitchen until the last minute and as such they were originally located in a basement level as an afterthought.

Down in the basement, the gym as we know it today, a German restaurant could be found. The original entrance is beautifully covered in Bermantoft tiles which were plastered over during the war to protect them - ironically it was the removal of the plaster and not the war that led to the damaged state they are in today. A waiter working in the restaurant, Hugo, fell in love and proposed to a co-worker named Alice Bradley. The war arrived in England and German Hugo was sent to the Isle of Mann from where he would never return. Alice didn't give up on Hugo and travelled to Germany to trace his family, which she managed to do and found Hugo alive and well, and married to another woman.

Room 247 on the second floor is the home of the Presidential Suite, where the likes of Pavarotti and Princess Anne have stayed; travel two floors up and the suite here has seen such guests as David Cameron. Keep travelling up and you'll find a room that no longer exists. The roof of the Midland was once a garden where guests could take their afternoon teas - Barbara shows the group a photo of an old garden party and it looks as refined and pretty as any party can when located amidst the billowing smoke of the chimney pots! Still, it was elegant enough to host the wedding of Rebecca Marks (Marks and Spencer) in 1910. Look up now and you'll still spot the ornate, white iron fence that surrounded the garden.

Hayley Flynn won Best City And Neighbourhood Blog in the Manchester Blog Awards 2011 for her site, which features the regular Skyliner series, looking at "the secrets above your eyeline".

Review 2: Fiction
Afternoon Tea With Patricia Duncker, French Restaurant, Midland Hotel, Wednesday 19th October, 3pm

Words by Sarah-Clare Conlon.

Hearing from Hayley that the second floor of the Midland is home to the Presidential Suite and has hosted guests of somewhat high standing is most interesting: it provides a certain context to author Patricia Duncker choosing to use it for the room inhabited, albeit briefly, by the main character in her specially commissioned short story.

The Madonna At The Midland opens with the rather posh Clarissa Dalloway (yes, the nod to Virginia Woolf is intentional) "cuddling a headache" as she faces the prospect of seeing in her 70th birthday alone in a strange second-floor suite overlooking the rain-drenched Central Library, gazing into "the long sigh of old age ahead". Patricia and Barbara explain to me that Clarissa's suite is located above the conference rooms, which serves to link her back to the public spaces in the hotel, where she spends much of the action, aghast yet also enchanted.

In her introduction, Patricia tells the well-turned-out audience filling the sumptuous, gilded French how, during her four- or five-month spell as writer-in-residence (though she didn't actually live at the Midland), she became intrigued by the inner or personal parts and the outer or shared parts any hotel has. "Hotels are not only very theatrical places," she explains, "they are also quite curiously interlinked - private space and public space. That private space and public space is what interested me the most."

To get a proper feel for the Midland, Patricia was pretty much given the run of the place - "I do declare myself to the duty manager when I start one of my secret raids on the hotel," she says with a good-humoured cluck, something of a trademark. "I have an upstairs as well as a downstairs knowledge of the Midland." Historian Barbara was also drafted in to offer Patricia an insight into the background and gossip from the building and its guests, helping her imagine the story she was gradually beginning to unfold and relating it back to the very specific location.

As well as making particular references in her story to the public spaces of the Wyvern, the French and "the strangely Oriental space of the Octagon", much of the action takes place in the lift and the lobby, where Clarissa finds herself "walled in by smiles" as a hubbub of people, all in fancy dress, are gathering for a birthday party. The guests are "supposed to come dressed up as famous people who stayed at the Midland", and indeed we have Hayley's aforementioned Pavarotti, Posh and Becks, and, perhaps not David Cameron, but his predecessors Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Knowing what Barbara knows has added an extra depth to Patricia's story of the reunion of two old friends; already a well-written, well-paced and well-received story. Time for tea.

The Madonna At The Midland will be available shortly to read on the MLF website.

Sarah-Clare Conlon is a freelance writer, editor and press officer. Her award-winning blog, Words & Fixtures, is about language, literature, arts and culture.