Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Writing up and down with A.S.Byatt

Last weekend I appeared at the Cheltenham Festival, talking about David on a panel with H.M.Castor (Vlll) and Pauline Francis (Traitor's Kiss), very ably chaired by Nicolette Jones. It's the third time I've "done Cheltenham" which is only down the road from me and I always enjoy it. The sun always seems to shine, the Green Room is the BEST (beating even Edinburgh's Yurt) and the other events are always interesting.


And this time my book was actually set in the same century as the other two writers' - namely the 16th.

After our session, I went to hear A.S.Byatt talk about her latest book, Ragnarok, which is in the Canongate Myths series. I've always loved the Norse myths best of all - Balder the Beautiful was the first story I can ever remember being told - so I was specially interested in how she might have treated it.

Wagner's Gotterdammerung, which I was pleased she didn't dismiss, is sometimes translated as Twilight of the Gods but can mean Death of the Gods.

What Antonia Byatt wanted was a really bleak ending in which the black waters cover the earth. She was being interviewed by Libby Purves, who is a bit too perky for this subject. But then I remembered they had both lost a son, so maybe she had some empathy with her subject.

What struck me very forcibly was that Byatt said she would not any longer be able to write novels about characters who were much younger than her. I think that's a shame. But I understand what she means, though in her case it's about the technology as much as the moods and emotions.


So I hope she will reconsider. There is a character in Ragnarok called The Thin Child in Wartime and Byatt could write about her because she is really the author herself. The child who was moved out into the countryside from Sheffield in the war.

She would finish her work ahead of time in the small rural school she attended and then be allowed to browse in the book collection, which was where she discovered the Norse myths.

About ten years after her I was doing the same in my Secondary School Library, while bunking off games. Balder was speaking to both of us and the bleak beauty of the downfall of the gods.

Monday, 10 October 2011

What do do if you win the Lottery

If you should ever be so ?lucky as to win millions of pounds, you might wish you had read this latest book by Keren David. Her heroine Lia finds herself the surprised owner of £8m after her best male friend buys her a lottery ticket for a birthday present.

David has already made a mark on the children's book world with When I was Joe and its sequel, Almost True. It must have been a relief after those novels featuring knife crime, witness protection and life on the run, to turn to champagne, designer handbags and luxury hotels.

But although there are a younger sister with longings to go on Britain's Got Talent, love interest in a mystery boys and some delicious side swipes at the fashion for Paranormal Romance for teens, this is not a frivolous book.

Lia is flung up against some quite hard problems straightaway. What is the morality about keeping all the money? Should she give half to Jack, who bought the ticket? Buy a flat and go and live on her own or help out her struggling baker father and buy her family a new house? Should she stay on at school and take her exams? Lia is only sixteen and doesn't have all the answers.


At first, she doesn't come across as very likeable; in fact when we meet her, she is being thrown out of the house by her mother for being rude and obnoxious. And she does seem to me rather young for her age; more like a fourteen-year-old. But you have to be sixteen to play the lottery and that's the donnée of the book.

Later on it's important that she is sixteen for another reason.

Perhaps we all dream of winning large sums of money? I know I do (though it's offset in my case by only once ever having bought a lottery ticket!) It's difficult enough to be sure we'd use it wisely even if we are quite grown-up and sensible. For a sixteen-year-old the whole story is full of pitfalls.

All sorts of people come out of the woodwork claiming to be friends (= worthy to be bought expensive presents) while Lia's two real best friends both have problems with accepting anything from her. Jack wants a motorbike but his mother is terrified he'll have an accident when he gets it. And Shazia is made to return a few gifts because her father disapproves of the gambling represented by the lottery. Actually so does Shazia, when she comes to think of it, because she is a devout and serious girl.

All of which gives Lia food for thought. And then her little sister seems to be in danger.

It's an exciting read with plenty of surprises along the way. But a one-off, I think. I believe David will be returning to gritty adventure with her next book, a third title about Ty, the protagonist of the first two books.

Ah well, you only win the lottery once I suppose.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Who owns the virtual teaset?

A few months ago, I started a book group with some friends. Yesterday we met to discuss the fourth and far and away the most popular title so far: Kathryn Stockett's The Help. In fact, so much did we like it that we've made a date for us all to go and see the film together next month.



For anyone who has been living at the bottom of a hole for the last two years, The Help is a first novel by White American Kathryn Stockett, who was brought up in the South, largely by Black maids. It is set in the early '60s and features one brave young White woman who has lost contact with her Black maid in mysterious circumstances, which no-one will explain to her.

Skeeter wants to be a writer and has a slender contact with a publisher in New York City; all she has to do is come up with a commercial idea. Gradually a project grows of getting the  Black maids in Skeeter's community to talk about their lives. The "book within a book," called just Help, has to be published anonymously, or the maids would certainly lose their jobs. But the truth begins to leak out.

It's a wonderful book, told in the first person by several voices, prime among them Aibileen Clark. It was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic and very popular in book clubs. Then one Ablene [sic] Cooper, who is the maid to Stockett's brother's family, took out a lawsuit against the author, claiming she had stolen her name and appearance. You can read the Controversy about The Help.

But the case was dismissed in August because of the statute of limitations. Cooper was very upset, calling Stockett a liar and saying "she knows she did it."

This is reminiscent of the Bookseller of Kabul controversy although that book was presented as non-fiction by author Asne Seierstad.

What is so awful about this case is that the character in the novel, Skeeter, knows she has no book without the testimony of the maids and pays them an exact equal share of the advance she gets and any future royalties. Ablene Cooper must have brought her $75,000 compensation case at least partly because no such arrangement was made with her. (I assume).

It leaves a bad taste even though I still love the book.

So what has this to do with tea sets? It got me thinking about who owns the events in someone life. Margaret Drabble and her sister A.S.Byatt famously have not got on very well for many decades although there has been a certain civilised rapprochement in recent years, with Drabble attending Byatt's 70th birthday celebrations.

But something that seems to have fuelled their mutual animosity was An argument about a tea set
I have another writer in my family, my daughter, Rhiannon Lassiter We are both as parasitical and predatory for stories as any professional novelist but we have a gentlepersons' agreement to check with one another about who uses what.

Many is the time she has told me a story about someone and I've said, vulture-like, "Can I have that or are you going to use it?" The answer is usually no but that's fine.

But should I be asking the person who experienced the event, owned the tea set, as it were? Neither Drabble nor Byatt owned the real set; it belonged to their mother. But she didn't write about it. Both sisters owned the memory of it, different memories, as were those of their mother. So who had the right to write about either?

In my view, anyone who can! As it happens both of these women are expert novelists and writers of non-fiction and their contrasting viewpoints would be of interest to their readers. In the novel, The Help, it is obviously that the maids would never have dreamed of writing their stories, had no publishing contacts and there would have been no Help without Skeeter. And yet she was scrupulous about dividing her profits with them.

Does it matter that the fictional Skeeter was writing reportage and the real Stockett was writing fiction? These are murky waters.

I have one writer friend who suggested once we should have a writers' exchange of family stories so that those who used them in novels would not be identifiable as sources by said families. We haven't done it but it's an interesting idea.

And I have a hunch that Cooper will get her own book deal and that the product will sell. I'd be interested to read it. But will it prove who owned her story? We shall see.