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Monthly Archives: July 2015
This month’s guest is Andrew Blackman, author and blogger. He has written two novels, On the Holloway Road and A Virtual Love and I’ve read both, the latter being the first book I read in electronic format. He was also the first author who continued to respond to my emails making me believe there isn’t an actual parallel world where writers create unbelievable works of fantasy and we the ordinary mortals are just lucky to read said works. He was also the one who encouraged me to submit my novel for publication, therefore prompting me to finally finish the thing which would have taken a lot longer to complete otherwise. I know writers are very busy people and so I was very happy when he agreed to do this interview.
1. Who are you?
I’m a writer from London. I’ve had a couple of novels published in the UK, as well as hundreds of short stories, essays and articles. I used to live in New York, where I was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, but now I’m travelling long-term around Europe with my wife, and we’re paying for the trip by doing freelance work online as we go. My third novel is in progress.
2. Why do you blog and what is your blog about?
I started the blog back in 2008 because something terrible was happening to me: I was reading lots of great books, and then discovering that after a year or two I had no memory of them whatsoever. I wanted a place to blog about my reading, so that I had a record of what I’d read. Since then it’s expanded a bit — after becoming a published writer I started to write more about writing, and also to do a bit of awkward self-promotion for my latest books — but still it’s writing about books that I enjoy the most. In fact I almost never refresh my memory by reading old posts about old books, but the process of writing the reviews, and of discussing the books with knowledgeable, enthusiastic fellow bloggers, solidifies them in my memory anyway.
3. Favorite books/authors/genres
I can’t give an honest answer to this kind of question. I love Jorge Luis Borges, Milan Kundera and John Banville, but if I name them as my favourite three authors, then what about Joan Didion, or Vasily Grossman, or Kazuo Ishiguro, or R.D. Laing, or George Orwell, or Edward Said, or Jamaica Kincaid, or… It’s just impossible. I’ve never been the sort of reader to fall in love with one writer/book/genre and read in that little corner over and over again—I prefer to read widely, always looking for the next new discovery.
4. Kindle or paper book?
This is something I’ve blogged about a couple of times. The bottom line is that I’ve had a Kindle for a few years now, but still prefer real books. Because I am living an itinerant life, I am almost exclusively buying ebooks at the moment. But when I’m settled in one place, I think I’ll go back to buying almost exclusively print books, only using the Kindle for an occasional 99p punt on an author I’m not sure about.
5. Three things you learned from a book.
When I was about eleven or twelve I read War and Peace, probably my first “adult” book. I discovered how a good writer could create a whole new reality. It took me months to get through the book, and I really felt part of that world, which was so different from my suburban London reality. It made me want to create those worlds myself.
When I was much older I read Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, and discovered that fiction was a much more malleable thing than I’d realized. Many of Borges’s stories are not stories—they use non-fiction forms, or deliberately misquote from other books. He plays with form and narrative structure, writes mysteries and detective stories as high literature, and has stories with no real plot at all. The book completely redefined for me what short stories could be.
I’ve also learned a lot from non-fiction books about the way life really works. I studied history at Oxford University, but there were massive gaps in what we learned. I had to read Eric Williams’s Capitalism & Slavery to discover how extensively British economic development was financed by the profits from the slave trade, Britain’s Gulag by Caroline Elkins to discover the mass imprisonments, killings and torture administered in the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, and so on. It’s not just Britain, either—all around the world, most of what we now consider to be normal has some pretty ugly origins.
6. Best book to take with you on a desert island.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. There’s lots in there about acceptance and serenity, which I imagine would be quite important if you’re stuck on a desert island.
7. Best book to use as a doorstop.
A Game of Thrones. I’m enjoying the TV series, but couldn’t stomach the book. And the good thing is that when one doorstop gets tattered, you can work your way through the rest of the series!
8. Favorite quotes
I love it when a book begins with some beautiful prose that just makes me feel I’m in good hands. These are not necessarily my favourite quotes, but they are some of my favourite opening paragraphs:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
(Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)
I am, therefore I think. That seems inescapable. In this lawless house I spend the nights poring over my memories, fingering them, like an impotent casanova his old love letters, sniffing the dusty scent of violets. Some of these memories are in a language which I do not understand, the ones that could be headed, the beginning of the old life. They tell the story which I intend to copy here, all of it, if not its meaning, the story of the fall and rise of Birchwood, and of the part Sabatier and I played in the last battle.
(John Banville, Birchwood)
Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.
(Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing)
9. Three tips for bloggers.
1. Don’t check your visitor stats. Or if you must do it, only do it once a month at most. Early on, I used to be quite obsessive about my stats, and it was a waste of energy. Now I try to follow a quote from the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.”
2. Remember why you’re doing it. It’s easy for blogging to become a chore or an obligation. If you’re not enjoying it, just ease up on your schedule, or even stop for a while, and only return when you’re feeling enthusiastic about it again.
3. Never write a “Sorry I haven’t posted for so long” post, or an “I’m giving up blogging” post, or an “I’m back again two weeks later” post. Just write when you have something to write, and be silent when you don’t.
10. Best/worst blogging experience.
The best part of blogging for me is not so much a single experience, but the cumulative effect of thousands of little interactions over the years. A comment here, an email there, and gradually I’m getting to know people from all over the world who share nothing in common but a love of reading. It’s a wonderful thing, and although my life circumstances mean that I’m not as active now as I was a few years ago, it’s something I treasure.
The worst blogging experience for me has been when I have a book out and am hoping to get reviews. It takes my relationships with other bloggers to a place I don’t like. I worry that they feel under pressure to read my book and review it. Of course I hope to get good reviews, but when I do, I wonder if they’re genuine or if the bloggers are just being nice because they know me. And if they don’t review it, I assume it’s because they hated it. Basically it’s not a process I enjoy. Being published, yes, but anything to do with publicity, no.
11. You are also a writer. Tell us more about your books.
My first novel, On the Holloway Road, is a story about two young Londoners who are inspired by Jack Kerouac’s famous 1950s novel On the Road and try to create a spontaneous, free existence in the more limited world of contemporary Britain. The book was inspired by my own feeling of alienation and suffocation when I moved back to London after living in the U.S.
My second novel, A Virtual Love, explores relationships in the age of social media. It’s a love story of sorts, but one based on constructed identities and therefore crucially undermined. Although I love blogging and enjoy other social media to a certain extent, I do feel that we perform and are not our true selves when we construct these online identities, and the novel examines what happens when those dishonest, often idealised identities cross over into “real” life.
12. What is your writing routine like? Do you have one?
I write first thing in the morning, which is odd because I’ve never considered myself to be a “morning person”. I think it’s because to write good fiction, you need to access the subconscious, so it helps to be half-asleep!
I keep a regular writing schedule, every day from Monday to Friday, usually three hours a day, but it depends on what else I have going on. My routine has been disrupted this year by all the travelling, but I still aim to do at least some writing first thing in the morning, even if it’s only an hour or even half an hour. It’s important to keep the rhythm going. When I lose the habit of writing, it’s hard to get it back.
13. Three tips for writers.
1. Have a purpose. George Orwell said that writers’ four main reasons for writing are aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, political purpose, and sheer egoism. Understand your own motives. If you want people to read your stories, you should at least know why you’re writing them.
2. Be humble. Nobody would expect to sit down at the piano and immediately play like Chopin, but because we can all type, we think we can write a great novel with no practice, study or effort. It takes time to be good at anything, and becoming a good writer is a lifelong commitment. Read a lot, write a lot, and stick at it for a long time.
3. Be arrogant. To be a writer, you have to believe that despite all the millions of books out there and the thousands more being published every month, what you have to say is important and the world needs to hear it. In other words, you have to be unbelievably arrogant. So embrace that arrogance: be bold, be ballsy, and say something the world needs to sit up and hear.
14. What are you most passionate about?
Social justice. As a middle-class white British man, I’m aware that I enjoy a lot of unearned privilege. It disturbs me that so many people in my position refuse to acknowledge the fundamentally unfair ways in which we’ve chosen to structure our societies. So many of us live in a bubble, refusing to accept the reality that our comfortable existences are being propped up by the suffering of millions of others who will never get the chances we had, and more importantly refusing to do anything to change things. It reminds me of how Orwell ended his book Homage to Catalonia, giving a beautiful description of a train ride through the bucolic Kent countryside in which everyone was “sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
15. Last book that made you cry.
I’m not sure if it was the last one, but I know that Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman made me cry. He described a village in the Ukraine having all its grain confiscated, and the villagers digging for worms, boiling their cats, making bread from acorns, eating rats, and making noodles out of shoe leather. Reading about people slowly dying made it impossible not to cry, especially because I knew that in some form it was a true story, and also because it was so beautifully written, so that the beauty of the prose clashed horribly with the brutality of the subject matter. Grossman’s Life and Fate also made me cry, and I preferred it overall, if you’re looking for a reading recommendation.
Ask me a question.
What’s your most daring ambition?
Over the years I’ve asked myself the same question. To travel the world while writing, to see and experience and live a freer existence. I guess this sounds familiar since this is the life you are living. But if you ask me to sum this up to one essential thing, that would be to one day see my novel in bookstores around the world.
Last weekend I took Stephen King to the beach. Now as I’m typing this I realize the title of the post may actually be the name of a drink, one of those sugary cocktails with a tiny umbrella stuck in the orb of a tofu eye (for a touch of horror) or maybe with the promise of a hangover of horror proportions. What do I know, I’ve never had a hangover. But I digress.
Husband and I decided it was time for a nice getaway to the beach and since space is now not a problem – gone were the days when we lugged our backpacks to the bus terminal – he packed Revival (hey, isn’t that another drink-worthy name? or a hangover cure?) by the same author and off we went for a blissful weekend of doing nothing but sit and read with the sound of waves breaking in the distance and the occasional horse carrying mostly children trotting along the shore.
The weather was overcast for most of the time since we are right in the middle of the rainy season but that was not a problem. I actually prefer it to the blinding scorching sunshine present the rest of the year.
We found a stone heart on the beach…
…and also a dead jellyfish which we inspected by touching the creature and discovering a tiny starfish right next to it which we promptly released into the sea because it was still alive and moving. My desire to take a picture was overruled by the desire to return the starfish to the sea while still alive.
We sat down on comfortable beach chairs under a big umbrella and proceeded to read. You can see I made some progress but not as much as I’d hoped. Hardboiled crime is not my favorite genre but we do amazing things for the authors we love.
On the road leading to the beach we stopped at this place because how could I not? I named it “the book shack”; it had mostly Dutch books for sale. The Dutch must read a lot. I barely saw any English books at the free book zone at our hotel or the book shack. We passed by it several times without seeing the owner or anybody near it for that matter.
I remembered this “mobile restaurant” from previous visits. The somtum, or spicy papaya salad, is deliciously hot and the grilled chicken legs and stick rice a great companion to one of the most famous Thai dishes. I asked the guy’s permission for a photo and he nodded and walked away.
On the same road I saw this sign and resisted the urge to scrawl Narnia under that last destination.
I have done little writing these past few weeks but that’s because I’ve been busy with other creative pursuits. Writing has been replaced by a more tangible occupation, making notebooks. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – there is a story behind that want but that’s for another day – and finally decided to go for it.
When I started doing this, I was more in love with the idea of having the finished product in my hand than actually making it. If you look online, there are so many gorgeous handmade notebooks made of paper, leather and fabric, I could spend days just looking at them and asking myself how did they do that?
But when it comes to the actual work, the beginning was not easy. And while I was cutting (not so straight lines) and gluing (with too much glue), and folding the wrong corners and many other clumsy things, it suddenly hit me that making a notebook is a lot like writing a book or a short story, because:
- No matter how fancy the paper or beautiful the color, or how much you fantasize about it, the thing won’t make itself. You’ll have to go home and do the work.
- Fancy utensils may seem like the right motivator in the beginning, but this won’t hold for long. My favorite story is the one about Stephen King who, at the height of his career and his addiction, bought a fancy desk but in the end got rid of both the desk and his addiction. Simple things are the best. Paper and pen or a computer, needle and thread, and paper.
- Work space is important – a place where you can go and be creative and where you can keep all your tools, including the needles and that sharp cutter that nearly sliced off my fingers.
- You have to make time for it because if you won’t nobody will and sometimes you have to give up other things – like I did (partially) with writing and reading lately, because all I can think about now that I’ve pretty much solved the mystery of making a paper covered notebook is how to decorate a cover by myself. I’m not great at drawing but I do have a few things in mind.
- Using too much glue is like using a lot of unnecessary words in your story – you may think they would be able to hold the thing together better but in the end it creates a mess you’ll have to throw away and start again.
- A good cutter is like a great editor – it’s important that both of them are sharp because they can get rid of unnecessary parts.
- Practice is essential. It’s the only way to get better and there is no alternative. The first couple of notebooks I made were OK but the ones I am making now are definitely an improvement.
- It’s all a question of taste – different people will like different things and they’ll point out details you never thought about.
And it isn’t because:
- When making a notebook, knowing what you want from the start is important because there are measurements to make; with writing the most important thing is to start and finish – you can go anywhere and do anything with the part in between.
- Once the notebook is finished, that’s it. You can do minor changes, like add a pocket at the back, but if you forgot to glue the ribbon bookmark, well, hopefully you won’t forget it next time. With a story, you can edit as much as you like.
- What has been glued cannot be unglued – unless you’re very quick and the paper cooperates and it’s your lucky day (that’s three big ifs right there), but you can go back and unsay as many things as you like in a story.
- Making a notebook is a lot faster than finishing a book you are comfortable showing to the world. With a notebook, you already know the mechanics, you just need to decide on the size and color. With a book there’s the first draft, and the second, and the third and so on. It may take weeks, months, even years. A notebook is only a matter of days, and that’s because you have to wait for the glue to dry. And the only thing you have to “agonize” over is the cover paper.
Do you like handmade notebooks?
What makes a great notebook – the pattern, the size, the color, the details (embellished corners, back pocket, bookmark)?
Do you prefer blank paper or lined paper?
Now, almost every trip to the city includes a stop at a stationery store and yesterday after visiting such a place I went to my favorite bookstore which is right next door to it, and bought some of the latest Stephen King novels. I wanted to buy the paperbacks but the writing was so tiny I could not see myself looking at hundreds of pages with that minuscule font so I decided to go for the hardbacks. To my surprise they had a discounted price that I was more than happy to take advantage of. I think I’ll start on Revival soon.
The Artificial Anatomy of Parks is the story of a family secret. Tallulah Park gets a phone call from the hospital. Her father has had a heart attack and is now unconscious. She decides to go and see him.
It is clear early on that Tallulah did not really get along with her father, and so the story begins, alternating between events from Tallulah’s childhood and the present, where she is working as a waitress, living in an old building and trying to avoid her relatives. Her father’s ill health is the reason she decides to once again come back and see her family, even though she’s been away from them for years. Why she’s stayed away for so long is explained in the end as is almost everything else.
This book was a mixed bag for me. I liked the skipping back and forth in time – the narrator, Tallulah, has an engaging voice and the breaks in her story come at the most interesting points, something I found equally intriguing and annoying. It’s like someone is about to tell you a secret but suddenly the phone rings and the moment is lost. There are plenty of moments like that throughout the story which only made me impatient to get to the end. There are family squabbles, a strained relationship between Tallulah’s mother and her father’s sisters, and then there’s Jack, her father’s brother, whose return after a long absence causes turmoil within the family and brings about a tragic incident.
Tallulah seems apathetic for most of the time, and I did not find her a particularly likeable character. After going away to live by herself she seems almost lifeless and I couldn’t help comparing her with her father, a seemingly cold and uninteresting man who seemed to do anything in his power to avoid spending time with his daughter. Later on in the story I felt pity for her, for the tragedies she had to go through, and a tiny bit of admiration for the way she had managed to survive, but overall I wished I liked her more. Uncle Jack was the real mystery of the book, and the part he had to play in Tallulah’s life. It seems that even if he tried to do good, all he was able to do was to bring about more heartache.
From dealing with abuse to anatomical references concerning the workings of the heart (my favorite part), this novel manages to be somehow heart-warming and almost indifferent at the same time, an odd combination which works startlingly well overall.
There is a mystery to be revealed at the end but the part that is finally revealed is easy to see coming because of all the events leading up to it. The other part, the most interesting part concerning a death, is left unanswered and I’m still thinking about it because I felt there was no closure. On one hand I agree that not everything needs to be resolved in a novel but on the other hand I really wish I had the answer to this one. But then, thinking back to the name of the novel, this seems like a fitting way to end the story.
I got this book from the publisher, Legend Press, in exchange for an honest review.
My rating: 3/5 stars
Read in June 2015