Tuesday 30 January 2018

Interview with Ray Connolly

About Ray Connolly

Ray Connolly has written biographies, several novels, including Sunday Morning and Shadows On a Wall, the movies That'll Be the Day and Stardust, the television series Lytton's Diary and Perfect Scoundrels, and has published a collection of his Beatles interviews as The Ray Connolly Beatles Archive. He also worked with record producer Sir George Martin on the television series The Rhythm of Life, and has written TV plays, films and documentaries, radio plays, short stories and much journalism. He is married and lives in London. His website is http://www.rayconnolly.co.uk/ 

Interview with Lee Wright

LW: What determined you to become a writer? 

RC: I stammered very, very badly as a boy, and teachers would say to me many times, ‘If you can’t say it, write it.' So, it was set in my mind. I was also very good at English and history and not much else. So, I think I always saw myself as going into journalism. And when I was at the LSE I began to write. I edited the magazine there. 

LW: How did you start writing biographies? 

RC:  I only began writing biographies about three years ago because I thought that the story about Elvis is not really very well known – the Faustian plot side of it, I mean. So, I thought I ought to tell it and wrote Being Elvis on spec. Then my agent bullied me into writing Being John Lennon, who I knew very well. I’ve just finished that today. I won’t write any more biographies. I prefer fiction. 

LW: Is there any formula to follow in order to become a novelist?

RC: I think the formula is different for different writers. I admire very much those people who can tell a good story. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve no patience with novels that are all about form. Making up a good and original and meaningful plot is everything to me.

LW: Do you need seclusion in order to write? 

RC: I need quiet and a regular untroubled life, which is what I have now. When I’m also doing journalism as well it gets in the way of the bigger projects and slows me down with its interruptions and deadlines. But because I’m not clever with money I’ve had to usually keep some journalism on the go to bring up a family. Still do, although the family are grown up.

LW: You’re said elsewhere, that before writing the hit 1973 film That’ll Be the Day, you knew nothing about writing a screenplay. So, how did you go about it? 

RC: My friend David Puttnam sat me down and told me to write what I saw in my mind’s eye, and to add the dialogue. He then gave me a script so that I could see how it was laid out. So that was what I did. I’d been quite a big film fan, and had been a co-publisher of a film magazine when I’d been at university, so I intuitively understood that films are about structure with the less dialogue the better. David helped me a lot. We would talk about movies and movie moments all the time, and I was allowed to be involved in all aspects of the film. That helped.

LW: A sequel called Stardust quickly followed, for which you won the Writers Guild of Great Britain award for best original screenplay. How did you approach writing the sequel? 

RC: Much the same. David Puttnam was convinced there should be a sequel before That'll Be the Day came out. We plotted the storyline together while I was with his family on holiday in Italy. He should have had a storyline credit alongside me for both films, but he didn’t want to. If you ever write a screenplay make sure you have a brilliant producer. He was the best ever and I was lucky to know him as a mate. I’ve written better films than those two, but without him they never got made. We’re still good friends.

LW: After winning the award, was there ever a point when you saw yourself exclusively as a screenwriter?

RC: Foolishly, yes. But I always had to go back and do some journalism to pay the mortgage and feed the family.

LW: What advice would you give to someone hoping to succeed as a writer?    

LW: Write a lot.  Get stuff published or produced. It’s difficult to break into movies, so try writing radio plays. The BBC will tell you how. You never know where it will lead or who will hear it, and it’s all good practice. See lots of movies and read all the time. Read the papers. God loves a tryer. So never give up.

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Monday 29 January 2018

Review by Lee Wright of "Selfie and Other Stories" by Nora Nadjarian

'Let me start at the beginning, or what I think is the beginning,' says the unnamed narrator in the story, 'The Gentleman on The Train,' which makes up one of the twenty-five stories in this original collection by Nora Nadjarian, author of previous short story anthologies, Ledra Street (2006) and Girl, Wolf, Bones (2011) along with three further books of poetry. Each story here reflects true passion and intimacy through startling first-person narratives which are built around human contact. And, later on in the same story: 'Smashing girl. I’m a smashing girl, and I don’t even know it, because nobody’s ever called me a smashing girl before. I can just see myself going around, smashing men’s hearts and denting their lives with a hammer and asking them what they’ve done to deserve me.'

Nadjarian is a gifted wrier and in this book, she is at the top of her game. The story 'Truth' opens with 'At the exact moment my neighbour tells her lover “I’m leaving you,” a rainbow appears somewhere behind her.' This is the kind of fiction that shines light on blackness. 

There are pleasing similarities with Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka, whom she writes directly about in the story 'Kafkaesque': 'He hated me till the day he died. He called me a schmuck and he was right.' The collection is full-to-bursting with characters who live with people they think they know but don’t - who speak in puzzlingly witty dialogue, and have us engrossed until the often-ugly outcome.  

The author returns again and again to solitary women reconstructing their thoughts and desperate dreams: 'I’m a character in a play, but I’ve forgotten my lines ... In the kitchen my mother makes babies with flour and eggs ... My sister said she was carrying a bird inside her, a bird which would soon be drinking water out of her navel. “I am a cage,” said my sister.'
Nadjarian doesn’t concern herself with such old-fashioned basics as plot. Because life isn’t about plot, but about glimpses, moments. Some of these stories are just good moments, while others are purely wonderful.    

About the reviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Review by Danielle Copeland of "I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem" by Maryse Condé, trans. Richard Philcox

Tituba's story begins many years before the hysteria of witchcraft hits the village of Salem, and takes us much further afield than Massachusetts. In Condé's book, the historical figure of Tituba is necromanced into a bold narrator, recounting her story from infancy to her death. As the daughter of an Ashanti slave and the by-product of rape, the tone of injustice is set from the opening sentence. With the assault taking place on the deck of a ship christened Christ The King, we believe we are prepared for religious hypocrisy, prepared to hear of the inequity executed under the guise of puritan Christianity. We are not. Condé shows us life in the 17th century through new eyes; we forget what we know about life in such a time and are as vulnerable as our protagonist to each twist in the narrative.

Barbados is given the lush description it deserves, but its natural beauty is overshadowed by the colonial empire that has been forced onto it. The book's very opening has us questioning whether it is a story about Salem or a story about slaves, but it is soon revealed that the two need not be mutually exclusive. Maryse Condé has written a story about people. People who, despite their best intentions, are not able to succeed due to circumstances beyond their control. Everything and everyone has their time, and for Tituba we certainly wish that her time had been different. Accused of doing the Devil's work despite having no knowledge of Christian vices or values, Tituba learns quickly that peace and privacy are luxuries not afforded to those whom others seek to use.

The story does require a certain amount of suspended disbelief in order to thoroughly appreciate Tituba's journey. Though we now know that what many thought to be a witch's potion was simply herbal medicine, in this book witchcraft becomes a reality. Magic is given life very early on in the text, though it is not given a name. The word “witch” is not uttered until “Satan” and “Devil” are also shared, long after we have seen Tituba use and manipulate nature to do her bidding for good. Perhaps, like many things, witchcraft is part of a dichotomy: good and bad, black and white, witchcraft and hoodoo. Indeed it is suggested that Mary Sibley, a wife of Salem and respected white woman, is involved in magical practices. For the magic of Tituba, history has recanted people's accusations against her, now that it is no longer convenient. Instead of “witch”, many texts say she practised hoodoo, folk magic which by design is more aligned with the experiences of African-Americans than white Americans. Condé critiques this deeply, for why should witchcraft be remembered as the practise of white women? Why should we mourn the innocents who were drowned, accused and tortured only because we are told they were Caucasian? I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem reminds us that it was black women who bore the weight of such cruelty first. Tituba is a witch, not a hoodoo practitioner, and she wears her title with pride.

Though the novel is a retelling of one of the most significant events in American history, it is also a tale of race and of sex. The gendered subplot is one which resonates within society, even now. Tituba is very human, with the ability to make mistakes. Many of her irrational and seemingly illogical decisions are inspired by listening to her heart, not her head. Nor, we learn, to the spirits she so frequently calls upon for advice – advice she seldom adheres to. Her relationship with the charismatic yet cunning John Indian is one such decision. As irritating as the choices Tituba makes in her youth can be, it is refreshing to experience a character who is not without flaws. She is perhaps one of the most relatable characters in historical fiction, possessing very modern views on sexual liberation and showing respect for the beliefs of others which differ from her own. For a time Tituba experiences life surrounded by a Jewish family, and as much as she observes their culture and customs, she is also exposed to the anti-Semitic influences rife within 17th century America. After enduring her own abuse, it is a shocking comparison to see just how deeply rooted the social fear of “otherness” is. Whether it be by skin tone, gender or religious practice, this book ensures that time admits to all its injustices.

As much as Condé is concerned with addressing racial mistreatment, she is first and foremost concerned with the voices of society's most vulnerable: women of colour. Tituba's interrogation is a deeply uncomfortable read not only for the fact that we know she will be shown no mercy, but also due to the fact that there is a level of sexism to the torture used against her. Sexual abuse is rife throughout the text, and there is an element of horror as we are exposed to such events, and it is a stark reminder that we cannot move forwards until we look back. This book is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it intended to be easy to consume.

It is impossible to read Condé's novel without feeling as though you have been granted a greater understanding of human nature. The pain, the pleasure, the confusion of social politics and the desire to find somewhere to belong. Condé does not ignore the pain of men, instead she highlights the important distinction between suffering for existing, and suffering for existing as a woman. Yet despite its serious nature, there is not just doom and gloom to be found between the pages of I, Tituba, but hope, too. There is a beauty to the fact that joy can be found in even the most trying times, and a reminder that humanity is not lost.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is a feminist post-colonial novel which integrates actual historic records of conversation and interrogation, often to the extent that we as a readership forget that Tituba's story post-Salem remains undocumented. Condé fictionalises many aspects of Tituba's life, in order to grant her a satisfying and (mostly) happy ending. It is the very least that she deserves. Tituba's fondness of love and romance does not overshadow the bonds of sisterhood she makes with the women in her story, women who are both white and of colour. She is betrayed time again by those in which she places her trust, yet this does not harden her heart. It is an inspiration to us all that kindness does not bend under the will of brutality. Tituba is reminded (and reminds us, too) that we must not allow ourselves to become like those who would seek to undermine us; instead, we rise above, and by doing so know that goodness will prevail, if only given time.

About the reviewer
Danielle Copeland is a lover of fiction, an experimental baker, and always a fan of a good cup of tea. She blogs at daniellefreya.blogspot.co.uk where she keeps some of her own writing.

Monday 15 January 2018

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Summer Nineteen Forty-Five" by John Lucas

In his famous essay The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), George Orwell declares that, for those fighting in the Second World War, ‘a better life is ahead for them … and their children.’ Ironically, the darkest days of the war simultaneously encode a moment of utopian, visionary promise: Orwell believes that a very ‘English revolution’ might emerge from the wreckage of the war. This strain of optimism, idealism and utopianism can be traced throughout the war – in works such as Powell and Pressburger's film A Matter of Life and Death, for example – and immediately afterwards, in the popular jubilation of V.E. Day, and the subsequent election of Clement Attlee’s Labour government. It is also one of the subjects of John Lucas’s beautiful and poignant third novel, Summer Nineteen Forty-Five

In this novel, set in the aftermath of V.E. Day, the main character’s mother puts a ‘VOTE LABOUR’ poster in the window, and constantly looks to ‘“the promise of the future,”’ when ‘“everything will be better.”’ She is one of many people ‘“who genuinely hoped the world would be different after ’45,”’ as her son, Peter Howard, puts it. The novel celebrates this hopefulness – arising from the joy of victory in both war and subsequent General Election – whilst also charting the disappointment, disillusionment, which accompanied it: ‘“They built their hopes too high,”’ says the son, many years later. 

Somehow, everything seems to change, or seems about to change for the better in 1945, and yet, paradoxically, nothing changes; as Orwell suggests, ‘England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.’ This paradox is what the locals in Lucas’s novel flippantly call the ‘“same difference”’: everything is different, everything stays the same. Likewise, the main character, Peter Howard, ‘must have thought that in the days and weeks following the announcement of Victory in Europe the village of Stonely would continue to breathe the atmosphere that lit up each new day of peace … Now: open the window, inhale the new air. Stretch out a hand to feel the breeze on your bare skin, shiver excitedly at its promise. But no. It didn’t take long to fade, this excitement, it dwindled, dulled, sank back into ordinariness … As the summer went on so, he recalls, in the faces of people he passed in the street … the shadow of disappointment, of let-down … The anticipation [was] so great, the realisation so small.’

One of the problems, as the novel makes clear, is that the anticipation of change for the better – the belief in a new beginning – is always haunted by the past, in this case the horrors and losses of wartime. And not only the past: in the small village of Stonely, the horrors of wartime seem to carry on, after V.E. Day, in the unexplained death of a young evacuee, Lorna May, and the suicide of a local boy. Peacetime is still haunted by violence, evil and loss: ‘When, many years later, Peter thinks back to the summer of 1945, it occurs to him that … the unappeased spirit of the girl was haunting the woods … Something bad had happened … You could say that some malevolent power had been set loose. But you could as well say that this was not confined to a small, rural area of the English Midlands, any more than it was a unique phenomenon of the time when wickedness – Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Hiroshima – provided all the evidence anyone could require of the insufficiency, the fraility, of light, warmth, kindness, against the world of night.’

This tension between light, warmth, kindness and, indeed, hope, as opposed to ‘the world of night’ is everywhere in the novel. Lorna May’s death, its subsequent sensational treatment by the local press, the behaviour of the villagers, and the suicide of one of the suspects, all of these images come to symbolise what Peter Howard calls ‘“a wider betrayal”’ of post-war optimism. In this way, Lucas’s novel stands as a powerful microcosm of wider, historical, political and social trends. It also stands as a very contemporary warning, at a time when the promise of Orwell’s England, Howard’s mother’s optimism, of war-time idealism, post-war Socialism, of the NHS, the Welfare State, seems most under threat. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Review by Mark Mayes of "Zod of Zodbury Hall" by Sam Shepherd, illustrated by Catherine Beaumont

A delightful follow-up to On the Couch: A Bohemian Terrier, this is a perfect blend between story and illustration. Our hero, Zod, is getting up to all sorts of mischief, while the cook is sleeping, and his Mistress and Master are otherwise occupied. 

This book is funny and memorable, and will be entrancing to children, and certainly a good number of adults - of which I am one. Zod is not a bad pooch, but he causes more than his share of disruption. He is quickly bored, and knows what he wants and that he wants it NOW! - much to the chagrin of the gardener and the long-suffering cook.

The illustrations are bursting with motion and vibrancy - beautifully chosen colours, and energetic lines. One of my favourites was a precipitous view down a spiral staircase. The text does just enough, with admirable simplicity and restraint, to convey the mayhem this little dog is causing. Towards the end, the technique of reiterating Zod's catalogue of chaos is deftly handled. 

Zod might be described as 'high-maintenance,' but he has clearly won his Mistress's heart for keeps, and can really do no wrong.

About the reviewer
Mark Mayes loves to read, and occasionally he reviews books on Amazon and Goodreads. He also enjoys writing - mainly fiction, poems, and songs. 

Monday 1 January 2018

Favourite Reads of 2017

At the end of 2017, we asked readers to nominate a favourite read of the year, and write a one-sentence review of their chosen book. The book could be from any time or genre - the only qualification was that it had to be a book the reader found particularly memorable, striking or enjoyable during the last twelve months. Here are the responses we received. Wishing everyone a happy new year of reading and books!

Barbara Cooke 

The Bees by Laline Paull: "1984 in a hive, with more eco-criticism, and a happier ending."

Laurie Cusack

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack: "It made me shiver with joy; should’ve won the Booker by a country mile!"

Sharon Eckman

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman: "long-awaited, every bit as wonderful as hoped for ... Glorious."

Peter Flack 

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell: "Life and love on a one track train line that eventually passes everywhere."

Simon King

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub: "Early twentieth-century Russian writing of the cruel and satirical kind, this tale of a sadistic and insecure provincial schoolmaster is as black as a diseased lung."

Kevan Manwaring 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: "Boldly genre-bending, defiantly imaginative, and beautifully-crafted, it seems eerily resonant - a novel about an alternative past that is really about now." 

Alexandros Plasatis

The Complete Short Stories by James Purdy: "A sensitive observer, his prose is gentle and, when needed, fierce."

Robert Richardson

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: "The magnificent 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner has a setting of the terrifying aftermath of environmental disaster while still affirming humanity."

Jonathan Taylor

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: "a masterpiece of storytelling. You feel like you're there, on the boat, with the old man."

Maria Taylor 

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy: "I have nothing more to say than I loved reading this book." 

Miranda Taylor (aged 9)

Toto the Ninja Cat by Dermot O'Leary: "because it's fun and silly. It was fun to read and it took me only two days."

Rosalind Taylor (aged 9)

Rabbityness by Jo Empson "because it's my favourite book of all time."

Paul Taylor-McCartney 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: "A heart-rending and life-affirming journey into that purgatorial space between knowable historical fact and extreme creative invention."  

Harry Whitehead

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: "for making me see that industrial farming is the 'greatest crime in history' - now what the hell am I to do?"