Wednesday, December 30, 2009

So long 2009: we had fun I guess....

We've been joking for a while about how we'll kick 2009's backside as it exits on Midnight December 31st, but really a lot of great stuff has happened this year.

Our daughter, Isabella Arwen was born. And she had all the toes and fingers that a father could want, as well as a sleep routine and smile that could make any parent could wish for.

I re-wrote my novel. A couple of times i think. We drank a lot of Bollinger to celebrate, and a few rows worth of prosecco all along the way.

My brother was married. We spent maternity leave in Ireland, and London where I went to the 20th anniversary reunion for my school, St Peter's in York.

So long, 2009! Not many people will remember you that fondly, but you and I - we spent a long time together, and life for the most part was good.

Life is, I honestly believe, good.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Menu

I sat down to the Christmas meal last year to eat and almost fell asleep on the spot. I had cooked so much, with sauces, chutneys, veg, and a variety of stuffings that I was utterly exhausted by the time it came to eat.

Resolution to self, keep it simple next time round. So this is the keeping it simple: a roast goose with a staightforward selection of delicious foods. Had George and her brother and daughter and parents over, which made 3 kids and six adults - and managed to stretch this out for six hours of feasting.

Merry Christmas, which does of course go on for Twelve Nights!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas reading

Christmas: fabulous! I'm clearly a great fan of this fesitval of light and food and company, which really Christmas is all about, and like to accompany the season with suitabe reading.

Now when I was young I read Terry Brooks The Sword of Shanara, timing my reading so that I finished it on Christmas Eve - allowing me to stay up late and hopefully catch sight of Santa or my father, which I think I did a couple of times.

As a slight cheat there was a BBC drama I recorded back in the 80s, which was all about the pagan themes of Yuletide - but which went missing a few years before I could convert that cassette to mp3.

Which has left me a little lacking, when wanting some literary Christmas mate4rial.

I tried Dicken's Christmas Stories, which include the Christmas Carol, but others besides. Enjoyable, but sometimes I just can't be bothered to go through Dicken's wordiness. My son loves The Snow Queen, from The Pink Fairy book. I don't bother reading it now, but just snuggle up and retell it, which always seems a more interesting way to experience a stopry.

For the last couple of years Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, has filled my Xmas slot.

It takes part over two subsequent Yuletides, with the feasting and warmth and company, during the fantasitical reign of Arthur. There are some fabulous phrases - the grass being fixed with frost, swine swinging they swagger home!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You might like it

You know it's been a busy year: I strted work at Hong Kong University, started a pension policy, started jogging again, and I (we?!) had a baby, (Isabella Arwen) who has been delightful and rejuvinating - as well as a large consumer of sleep-time.

It's because of her I'm writing this blog, actually. Isabella has given me the gift of sitting and doing nothing, as she chugs quietly away on a bottle of milk. Part of that time has gone to catching up with sleep, but a large amount of time has gone reading. Yes, reading!

It's a slightly odd admission for a writer to make, but I haven't been reading as much as I ought, and sometime this year I decided to go back and read books I liked as a child. I got Terry Brooks, Sword of Shanara, one of the first Lord of the Ring's look alikes, that Santa kindly brought me back in the early '80s, and which became my Christmas holiday reading for years after. I would aim to finish the book on Christmas Eve, hoping it would keep me up long enough to catch sight of Santa, or perhaps later, my father coming in with a well-stuffed stocking.

I bought Julian May's Pliocene Series. I went back to my old Dan Abnetts. I read The King of Athelney, by Alfred Duggan - which my father gave me years ago, and said something like, 'Try this, you might like it.'

He was right of course, I loved it. It tells the tale of King Alfred, from a boy to an old and victorious man. It has chapter titles like, Battle Winter, which got my teenage and adult imagination masticulating with excitment.

I could go on. Haggard, Tolkien, Robert E. Howard. All fabulous writers and fabulous ways to spend an hour or two with a baby. Between books I realised a couple of things. I wasn't reading any of the worthy 'literary' fiction my books seemed to be lumped as. These books, that teenage boys like to read, were still books that I like to read, and then I realised I was finally writing a book that I could give to my teenage cousin and say 'Try this, you might like it.'

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Su Tong Scoops the Prize

Which might not suprise many: he was the odd one out in the list, being a well-established author in a list of mainly unpublished young voices. In that way, the whole ceremony lacked some of the fairy-tale quality last year, when one of those young-bloods, Miguel Syjuco from the Phillipines, beat off another established Chinese author (Yu Hua).

I haven't read the books this year, but I have no doubt that the judges have picked a worthy winner. He is the one Chinese author I can think of who was writing interesting and provoking material about China way back in the '90s. And he's been doing it ever since, with less attention than many other Chinese authors. Colm Toibin made the most beautiful speak, as chairman of the judges, that I have ever heard - and throughout the room there was a palpable snap - as from a daydream - when he sat down again.

When prizes insist on inviting all the shortlisted authors, staging a sit-down meal, and adding a certain ceremony to the whole occasion it's tough on the four authors who go home disappointed. You're not hungry, you don;t want to talk or make conversation, and you're torn between hoping and smothering those hopes. And then, having been feted, you suddenly find yourself, less the star, than the guest at someone else's party. Which is the wrong way to feel, of course.

To be shortlisted is really the honour, and for the unpublished young authors, who left disappointed that night, they might well find that being shortlisted is more of a prize than winning is for Su Tong.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hear them here first: Man Asian Literary Prize, 2009

So. It's November again, and another Man Asian Literary Prize. Well, it's only the third so far, but already becomming a well-established event. To recap: the prize is for a work by an 'Asian' writer (difficult to determine, but roughly a resident or national of an Asian country) with a work not yet published in English.

The idea of the prize is to promote Asian writing around the world, and the short-list this year are a fairly mixed bag in terms of experience and recognition. Su Tong is an already established writer, with an oscar winning film (Raise the Red Lantern) adapted from one of his early novellas. Other literary veterans include US/Philipino author, Eric Gamalinda and Indian publisher and author, Siddharth Chowdhury. The young bloods are Nitasha Kaul, whose phd thesis intruiginly combined economics and philisophy; and Omair Ahmad, a journalist/analyst with an expertise in Kashmir.

Last night, we got to hear them all talking about and reading from their work. The last two prizes it seemed clear after the reading which novel would win, but can't say I can tell this one. They all had strengths, and with a new set of judges (Colm Toibin, Gish Jen, and Pankaj Mishra) who knows which they'll go for.

Other men than me were confident Su Tong is going to win, but who knows.

I had the pleasure and honour of reading Su Tong's piece in English. Back in the 90s, Su Tong was the only Chinese novelist who work varied from the Wild Swan's style misery books and I think he's one of the really interesting voices to come out of China so if you haven't had the chance to read him yet, put him on your list.

Dinner, was at Yung Kee, where it was interesting to see that once you put a couple of glasses of wine into them, the shyest writers on stage became quite eloquent.

Prize announced tonight.

Su Tong, Eric Gamalinda, Siddharth Chowdhury, Nitasha Kaul, last year's winner Miguel Syjuco, Omair Ahmad and myself.
Thanks alot to Martin Merz for sending me this pic.

Lunch with Colm Toibin

Colm is over as the chair of judges for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize. On Saturday we had lunch at M at the Fringe, and I was lucky enough to sit opposite the big man, but barely shared a word as I was also sitting next to the aunt of the restaurant owner, a very entertaining lady, Diana Marsland - who sailed from Australia to London as a younger lady, worked at the Hilton, and travelled back east by land, and had many interesting stories about Afghanistan.

Anyway! Colm was very entertaining after lunch, and one of the writers you listen to and think, i should go and buy one of his books.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Twiddling my thumbs

So! As the poem began, I finished the book!

Well, I've been saying that for so long I can't remember. Partly because there are so many stages, it seems, to finishing. There's the first draft. The second draft. The draft that went to the agent. The draft that came back from the agent. The draft that incorporated his feedback. The draft I finally finished, and then I sat on the book over the weekend to see if any other points came back to me, and the draft that included those little changes.

Each time something about the book changed. It got longer, usually, smaller characters got bigger parts, and some of the characters began to drift through various drafts in their roles and motivations. As the author it was all fascinating!

And the book's not really finished. Like the fatted cow, it's just finished enough to go to market.

And now I'm twiddling my thumbs, which is a wonderfully odd place for me, as this book has been about 4 years work (I can't get a reliable doc 'created' date as 'm on a different computor, but the earliest file I have is a six page beginning, which is still the beginning, last modified on 27th October 2006 which fits nicely my recollection of a year's research, followed by three years writing.)

Where next? The sequel of course, which is great to look forward to. And the selling of the book, which is part of the general air of disappointment (not necesserily with the money, but the whole slightly grubby but entirely necessary marketisation of my book. But also putting my feet up more, spending more time with the kids (genuinely!) and reading. Four years is a long time to learn things, and I've learnt alot of stuff during (and not necesserily connected to or because of) writing this book. One is the kind of books I like to read. I knew it of course, but I'm clearer now about what kind of books I don't like. I suppose 'genre' is the closest way to describe the kind of books I like. But 'genre' seems to be a term used to describe books (crime, fantasy, science fiction, romance, whatever) where story is important. And I have found that I rather like story. In fact, story is gripping in a way that beautiful language, clever literary references, or any of the other marks of that rather doomed genre 'literary fiction' is not.

And to make some kind of sense of this blog, I think each draft has made this novel more about the story (as well as the historicity and the characters and the beauty of the language of course!) It's a good thing to have learnt. But hell, this is only my fourth novel, so I'm just a beginner really.

What is she called? Well, this novel has gone through a couple of names, and now she's called Shieldwall. Not a very female name to be honest, and as I've compared my other novels to girlfriends, I guess this one is less like a lover than a great friend. Reader, meet Shieldwall, Shieldwall, meet reader! I think you'll get along very just fine!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Past Lives

I lived another life apparently. In Dark Age England. Or so I was told at a party this weekend when talking about the book I'm just finishing off.

It's a little odd. I've been telling people I'm finishing for about six months. And it's true. I finished the novel to show an agent - now my agent - the very impressive Charlie Viney - and then finished it again with his comments included, and so on, until now - i'm finishing the book so I can sell it, and then they'll be comments from the editor, and I'll finish it all over again.

But apparently, my previous life had to be in that time, because the world is so vivid to me. The world's leading practitioner of second life reinformcement/enhancement - I can't remember exactly - is flying into Hong Kong and I could see her, if I liked. And I was quite tempted, I have to admit.

I've certainly found that this book, this topic and these characters chime closely with me. But they it seems to link into thoughts and ideas I had when I was a child. It runs off the kind of things I read when I was a boy: Njal's Saga, Laxdaella Saga, King Harald's Saga, and of course, The Lord of the Rings.

This edit is particularly exciting, because there is little to change. You are teetering on that sentence or paragraph, whilst you balance the rest of the book on your shoulders. And so you have to keep all that in your head, all the characters, action, story lines, love affairs, whilst thinking about that comma.

It has taken up most of my attention for about two months now, during which my ability to do simple things like answer emails, has ground almost to a halt. But I should finish this week, which prompts me to remember other novels, and how I parted with them. I like this one, and in many ways I don't feel that abrupt break, as this is the first of a trilogy, and the characters will continue into the next book.

Of course I meant to be chronicalling this whole period with this blog, but life somehow got in the way of good intentions, and so this is very late in the whole process. Passing a resolution long before New Year to keep up blogging my way through whatever is left of my time with this novel, which now has a name - or I should say it's now got a name that has stuck.

Dear Reader, meet Shieldwall; Shieldwall, it's an exciting time for me, because you will soon be meeting your dear readers.....