Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Costa Awards Ceremony

Last night I went to the Costa Book Awards ceremony at Quaglino's. I'm so glad I went, I had such a lovely time. Congratulations to Helen Macdonald who won Costa Book of the Year for H is for Hawk and to Zoe Gilbert for winning the Costa short story prize.

Here are my Best Bits (subtitled: How not to be Cool at an Award Ceremony).

When I arrived at Quaglino's they had pictures of all the shortlisted books on either side of the entrance, which meant I had to get my lovely editor to take a photograph of me. If there was audio with this picture you'd be able to hear her very gently saying, 'You don't need to point to your book, Carys.'

Quaglino's is beautiful. It's very James Bond. See the picture of the bathroom below. I know - it's massively uncool to take a picture of the lovely bathroom (it gets worse...).

Here's the edge of the stage where they announced the category winners (previously revealed) and the winner of the Costa Book of the Year (decided on the night). Robert Harris gave a short speech before the announcement of the winner, prompting cheers when he remarked that BBC book coverage is a 'disgrace'. He pointed out that there were two dedicated book programmes when we had three channels, but now, with over 300 channels, there isn't even one.

The highlight of the evening for me was meeting Ali Smith, who very kindly listened as I told her about the gushing letter I wrote when I was an Open University student - I'd watched her talking about Sunset Song on one of the Open University dvds and I loved her enthusiasm (and Sunset Song) so much that I went to my local library (which has since closed - you ought to be ashamed, Sefton Council) and borrowed her short story collections. I adored them so much that I decided to write to her, but the letter sounded silly when I read it back, so I never sent it.

No-one writes a close, third person as beautifully as Ali Smith. The Accidental and How to be Both are extraordinary books. When I read Smith's short stories, years ago, I never dreamed for a second that one day I might actually write something worth publishing and end up meeting her.

The whole evening was like something out of a film. Wherever I looked there were young men and women holding champagne bottles and trays of canapes, filling glasses that weren't even half-emptied and encouraging people to try one of these, oh, and one of these, too. I had to exercise some restraint as I was already unsteady on my feet thanks to the enormous heels I was wearing, though I may or may not have purloined some of the Costa marshmallows (posh marshmallows, who knew?!) for the kids. 

Oh all right, I admit it - I did, and here they are.

Afterwards, I bought a pizza and went back to my Travelodge, goodie bag in tow (containing a copy of Five Children on the Western Front and a Costa gift card) and I sat on the bed (with slightly numb feet - how do women wear heels regularly?) feeling happy: happy to have been to the ceremony, happy to have been shortlisted, happy to have a lovely editor, agent, publicist and publisher - exceedingly happy and lucky*.  

*A friend of mine recently said that my blog is always cheerful (it wasn't a compliment). It's hard to get the balance of this internet stuff right - how to be happy without appearing smug? Of course, other, less exciting things are also happening in my life: today I'll be having beans on toast for tea, followed by an early night as tomorrow I'll be doing a 6:30 am paper round for son 1 who still can't lift following last week's surgery. I have 20 essays to mark, I have PhD rewrites to do and, next week, I'll be having a small investigatory operation *crosses fingers*. And those things make last night even more special.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Sweet Home on Radio Four Extra

Five short stories from Sweet Home will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra during the week beginning 19th January. I haven't heard them in advance, so I'm really looking forward to listening. 

Monday 19th: 'Everything a Parent Needs to Know.'
Tuesday 20th: 'Sweet Home.'

Wednesday 21st: 'Scaling Never'
Thursday 22nd: 'The Rescue'
Friday 23rd: 'Under Covers'

Monday, 5 January 2015

Costa Thoughts

Warmest congratulations to Emma Healey on winning the Costa First Novel Award.

If someone had told me a year ago that A Song for Issy Bradley would be shortlisted for the award I wouldn't have believed them. I still feel excited about it - in fact, here's a picture of me feeling excited about it (and insisting that everyone else in the vicinity also be excited about it). 

I wasn't sure whether reading the other novels on the shortlist was a masochistic thing to do, but when I received them - a gift of two halves; 2 novels for my birthday and 2 for Christmas (and yes, that means that Neil actually gifted me me a copy of my own novel - another classic present to add to the list) - it seemed silly not to enjoy them (or, at least, to enjoy the 3 novels I didn't write), especially as this may well be the only time I ever find myself on a prize shortlist.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Elizabeth is Missing is a heart-breaking, intelligent novel. Maud is forgetting things - cups of tea, the way to the shops, her daughter's face - but she is certain of something: her friend Elizabeth is missing. Maud's world is meticulously drawn, meaning that as her narration becomes less reliable, the reader has to fill in the gaps. And these gaps are achingly sad. The final chapters, in particular, are beautifully drawn and, although the reader is incredibly moved by Maud's deteriorating condition and the long-anticipated solving of the mystery, Healey's prose remains skillfully understated and unsentimental. A cracking read. 

Academy Street by Mary Costello
Mary Costello's debut reminds me of both Anne Enright's The Gathering and Tessa Hadley's Clever Girl. The novel begins with a bereavement and takes the form of a series of beautifully observed, deceptively quiet vignettes as it follows the course of Tess Lohan's life I was aware of Costello's earlier collection of short stories China Factory (which will feature on Radio 4 Extra, 12th - 16th January) and so it came as no surprise to find that many chapters of Academy Street were reminiscent of the measured, restrained stories I admire in The New Yorker - Costello's eye for detail and illuminating prose make this an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. 

Chop Chop by Simon Wroe
I knew I'd love this book by page 2. Told in Monocle's witty, knowing, voice and edited by 'Racist Dave' (who put a brick through the Salford branch of Blacks 'before he realised it was a camping store') and ape-loving trouble-maker Ramilov, Chop Chop is chock-full of visceral descriptions and gorgeous, biting characterisation. It took me a while to get through it because I kept pausing to read funny bits aloud to members of my family. But this novel is not just an entertaining romp; it's a story about loss and revenge, family and belonging, and, in addition to the chaos and hilarity, readers will be sure to find a meaty pleasure in the language itself. 

So, how do I feel having read these 3 novels? 

Happy. Not only did I enjoy each writer's work, I feel tremendously pleased and flattered to have been included on the same shortlist as them, and I'll be looking out for their next books.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Some thank yous

As we say goodbye to 2014, I feel tremendously fortunate. 

Thank you to everyone at Hutchinson for taking such good care of A Song for Issy Bradley, and in particular to my editor Jocasta Hamilton and publicist Charlotte Bush. I had so much fun doing all sorts of things I'd never done before - best bits included appearing on BBC Radio 3's The Verb and Radio 4's Front Row, festivals at Cheltenham, Wells, Sheffield and Dundee, and a trip to Waverton, a village that awards an annual prize for a debut novel

Thanks to the lovely writers who read my novel and gave cover quotes. Thanks to BBC Radio 4 for choosing A Song for Issy Bradley to be Book at Bedtime and to my agent Veronique Baxter. And a huge thank you to the fantastic independent bookshops that invited me to participate in events. 

Thank you to my PhD supervisors and examiners for reading my work and encouraging me to stretch myself. 

Thank you to Sunstone and Jenn Ashworth for an exciting few days in August at the University of Utah and thank you to Retreats for You and Sarah Franklin for a lovely week in September.

Thank you to the NHS and Alder Hey hospital for some pretty life changing surgery for one of my children. Thank you to the Ronald McDonald House for giving me a place to stay. 

An anticipatory thank you for the surgery that's due to happen next month for a different child.

Also, big thanks to the NHS for looking after my little sister and performing the emergency cesarean on Christmas morning that saw my gorgeous new nephew Reggie arrive in the world, safe and sound. 

Thanks to my lovely husband for always trying to think up interesting birthday presents (if my sisters are reading this, I can guarantee they're already laughing at memories of birthdays past)... you really outdid yourself this year. The life-size canvas of the Issy Bradley tube poster is, well, enormous. It's also prime short story fodder (a la The Yellow Wallpaper) - I fully expect it to begin speaking to me in the coming weeks: I'm watching you. Think you can write a second novel? Bwah-ha-ha... etc.

Finally, a mahoosive thank you to everyone who read and reviewed my novel. Whether you loved or hated it, thank you for taking the time to firstly think and secondly write about it. I'm immensely grateful. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Books I loved in 2014

Here are some of the books I read and loved in 2014. In no particular order...

I loved this book. 
Perhaps I loved it because I have driven through the night to be at my brother's bedside. Maybe I loved it because I have listened, with clenched fists, to the news that he has, once again, been discharged from hospital, despite not being mentally well enough to remember to eat or change his clothes. I may have loved this book because I've regularly felt infuriated and hurt by my brother's refusal to make even the smallest attempt to accept treatment. It could be that I loved this book because as I read it I felt the horror of someone else's helplessness and realised that it was similar to my own. This novel made me cry and it made me laugh; it reminded me that humour that can be found in the darkest of places.   

In July 2012 Thomas Harding's fourteen-year-old son Kadian was killed in a bicycle accident. Shortly afterwards Thomas began to write. This book is the result. Part tribute, part lament, Kadian Journal is a precise and heart-breaking account of bereavement. It's a raw, uncompromising and, at times, uncomfortable book. Harding details a loss that is both unimaginable and unbearable - Kadian Journal made me hug my children a little harder, and it made me want to hug Harding and his family, too.  

This is everything you'd expect from Smith: deft, clever and elegant. How to be Both is divided into 2 sections. Some editions begin with one section and some begin with the other. My edition began with Francesco and concluded with George. I'm glad it did. I *think* it's the way I would have preferred it to be. But I'm not 100% certain - how could I be certain, having read Francesco and George's musings about the different ways of seeing and looking, and whether the first thing we see can really be described as 'first'? - I'll never really know for sure. And I like that. 

Clever Girl is a fragmentary novel that follows the trajectory of Stella's life. Written in beautiful, clear prose, and rich with carefully observed detail, it's exactly what you'd expect from Hadley. 

I know, I know - I can't believe it took me so long to read this, either. What an incredible novel. I've rarely felt so enraged while reading. I could have cheerfully murdered Nathan Price - I didn't care about his demons or his traumatic past, I just wanted to thump him. This novel is told by the long-suffering women in Nathan Price's life. It's a gorgeous exploration of the toxicity of patriarchy, the dangers of fundamentalism and the abuses of colonialism.  

'WHAT A WONDERFUL BOOK' (see what I did there?). Irving explores doubt and faith in this darkly comic novel. When Owen Meany kills his best friend's mother in a baseball game, he convinces himself that he is an instrument of God. This is a long novel - at times I had no idea where it was going, but I didn't really care because Owen Meany was so interesting and strange, and I *really* wanted to know what happened to him. I found the ending incredibly moving (if a little too neat) as several things suddenly made sense. 

Cusk expertly conveys the unsaid and the unsayable in these linked stories. I love her observations regarding the ways in which woman are changed (and, in some cases, ravaged) by motherhood. Take this passage, for example: 'For Martin, her body was like a village that over time had sprawled and grown until it became a bustling centre, cut through with new roads and modern developments, some of them unsightly. It had changed, but it was where he lived.' Arlington Park reminded me of Helen Simpson's delicious prose. I read it while son 2 was in hospital in early November and I found myself playing the 'just one more page' game at night, even though I really needed to get to sleep. 

As Terry Tempest Williams’ mother lay dying she said, ‘I am leaving you all my journals… but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.' After her mother died, Williams discovered three shelves of clothbound journals. ‘I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mothers’ journals were blank.' The blow of the empty journals was like ‘a second death’ to Williams who describes her own journal keeping as a way of experiencing each encounter in life twice: ‘once in the world, and once again on the page.' This book is Williams' response to her mother's empty journals. 

Twelve elegant, subtle and satisfying short stories from the winner of this year's Edge Hill Prize.

Reading in 2015

Since A Song for Issy Bradley was published I've received numerous novel proofs in the post and more email requests for cover quotes than I can recall. At the moment I don't have the time to read proofs - it's really frustrating because reading is my favourite thing to do and I'd usually relish the idea of peeping at books before everyone else gets to see them. The thing is, I have some corrections to make before my PhD graduation in May 2015 and another of my children is having surgery in January (son 1, this time) which means I'll have 2 slightly fragile teenagers to care for (son 2 is on light duties until early spring), and a daily paper round to complete until son 1 is allowed to ride a bike and carry a bag again, which probably won't be before mid March (argh!). And, of course, I'm supposed to be writing a novel. That leaves me with very little time to read anything other than the things I absolutely *have* to read. So to anyone who has sent, or is about to send me a proof, please don't take it personally if I don't get around to reading it in the near future - I hope to catch up with myself eventually, but it may take some time. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Costa Shortlist

Well, this is very exciting! A Song for Issy Bradley has been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. I'm so delighted, and surprised - I can't believe my book gets to cosy up to books by the incredible writers above, particularly Ali Smith whose writing makes my heart sing. Hooray! 

It's so exciting to see the cover with the addition of a Costa Book Awards sticker. 

At the moment the hardback is only £4.99 on Amazon. And there are other great deals, too. Like the offer in The Book People catalogue that includes all four of the Costa shortlisted first novels for £15.99. 

It's such a good offer that I decided to avail myself of it (I'm not sure whether that makes me a masochist, but I've heard such good things about the other novels that it seems silly not to enjoy them). I was about to go ahead when Neil walked in the room and rather cagily advised me not to (it's my birthday soon and I reckon I know what he's bought me!). 

I've been getting The Book People catalogue since my children were small which means it was especially lovely to see A Song for Issy Bradley on the front cover.

I also recently heard that Radio Four Extra will be broadcasting five of my short stories over the course of a week during January 2015. The stories were recorded a couple of weeks ago - I can't wait to hear them. I'm especially interested to hear what they've done with a story called 'Everything a Parent Needs to Know' which I've never read aloud because it is interspersed with advice from (fake) parenting books.

Best of all is the news that son 2's thoracic surgery in October was a success and he is now back at school. I'll be donating my fee from Radio 4 Extra to the Ronald McDonald House at Alder Hey where I was able to stay for several nights while he recovered. 

*shuffles back to the desk to grapple with the "difficult" second novel*  

Friday, 7 November 2014

Busy Times (otherwise known as swanning around & not doing much writing)

Such a busy few weeks. I had a lovely time at Dundee Literary Festival where I finally met fellow Scott Prize winner Kirsty Logan in the flesh. We discussed short stories, debut novels and fairy tales and during the course of our event we discovered that we both found our agents as a result of writing competitions. 

Kirsty's debut novel sounds wonderful. Here's the cover.

Isn't it beautiful?

The other fantastic thing about going to Dundee was the scenery. Here's a few pictures of the view from the train window.

I also had a great time at the Off the Shelf Festival of Words. My event with Berlie Doherty was held at the Quaker Meetinghouse. It was really refreshing to see a sign like the one below in a place of worship.

I very much enjoyed Berlie's novel, Requiem. Berlie describes it as 'a novel about the influence of religion, family and music on a child's life.' You can watch a video of the evening on YouTube.

I always think of things I should have said once events are finished. I have a tendency to agree with people far too easily, probably because I have a fear of "contention" - I grew up believing that contention (which seemed to mean 'mildly disagreeing with anyone') is 'of the devil' (3 Nephi 11:29). On this occasion, I probably should have pushed back a bit when it came to the discussion of my novel as a loss of faith story. While A Song for Issy Bradley is definitely about loss, it's not really about loss of faith; it could be said that the Bradleys renegotiate their faith, but they don't lose it, and I think, by the end of the novel, they develop some much-needed faith in each other, too.

We had an early Halloween and then, at the end of last week, one of my sons had an operation and as a result I spent four nights in the Ronald McDonald House at Alder Hey Hospital. My son's operation was pretty big - it took almost 6 hours (we were counting the minutes). He had fantastic care during his hospital stay. I thought I'd get some writing done while I was there, but I spent most of the time worrying and eating chocolate. My son is now recovering at home and, for the first time in years, I've been up in the night caring for a child. I feel somewhat in awe of my younger self who functioned while enduring disturbed sleep for months at a time - well done younger self! While I was staying at Alder Hey I had some great news about a radio opportunity (details to follow in a separate blog). I'll be donating my fee from the project to the Ronald McDonald House.

And finally, here's a little bit of loveliness, A Song for Issy Bradley makes an appearance on this list - 'The Best Debut Novels of 2014' at The Huffington Post.

Dundee portraits were taken by Bob McDevitt.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Dundee Literary Festival

I'll be at Dundee Literary Festival on Saturday 25th October at 5 pm with fellow Scott Prize winner Kirsty Logan. We'll be talking about short stories and first novels. 

Kirsty's novel The Gracekeepers will be published in 2015 and it sounds fabulous.
"The Gracekeepers is about a circus boat in a flooded world. North and her bear live on the Circus Excalibur, floating between the scattered archipelagos that are all that remains of the land. To survive, the circus must perform for the few fortunate islanders in return for food and supplies. Meanwhile, in the middle of the ocean, Callanish tends the watery graves along the equator, as penance for a long-ago mistake."

Monday, 20 October 2014

Mitochondrial Donation

You may have heard the discussion about mitochondrial diseases and mitochondrial donation on BBC Radio Five this afternoon (you can listen again here, for the moment).

Mitochondrial donation (aka mitochondrial replacement therapy) is a technique that involves replacing the unhealthy mitochondria in a woman who carries the disease, with the healthy mitochondria from a donor woman, during the process of IVF.

Here's a link to information about the Commons Select Committee Evidence Hearing on mitochondrial donation which will take place on 22nd October.

My second child spent her life in a neonatal intensive care unit because she was born with a mitochondrial disease. As a carrier, and a mother, I support mitochondrial donation. 

Here's a short video about mitochondrial disease, narrated by Bill Nighy.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Cheltenham and Wells Festivals

Here I am, getting ready to do the A Song for Issy Bradley Book Group event at Cheltenham with Cathy Rentzenbrink. I took my phone into the event so I could take a picture of the audience, but I forgot (and the lights were blinding, anyway).

Book group events are interesting. As usual, some members of the audience were furious with Ian Bradley while others empathised with him - it's always funny to watch people argue (albeit nicely) about someone I made up!

By the end of book group events people are relaxed and tend to ask quite personal questions. I don't mind answering, but the questions still surprise me - people expect you to talk about your own life as well as the book, something I didn't realise when I was writing A Song for Issy Bradley.

Cathy was a great chair/host and we even happened to come down for breakfast at exactly the same moment this morning (Cathy had been working on the final edits of her memoir for a couple of hours whereas I'd just got out of bed) which meant that we could carry on chatting. 

I love pretty much everything about being a writer (apart from the actual writing of novel 2, which is not proving to be much fun at the moment). One of the very best bits is being allowed to go into places like the Writers' Room and have something to eat while surreptitiously glancing at people whose books I've read and/or seen on the television.

Because I'm going to Wells Literature Festival tomorrow, I stayed in Cheltenham today and went to some really interesting presentations, including Marina Warner's Once Upon a Time, A Short History of the Fairy Tale (above) and Blood, Sex and Death - Ancient Greek Drama (below).

Deirde Le Faye's Jane Austen's Country Life took place in the gorgeous Spiegeltent, and there was afternoon tea. Lovely.

Tomorrow morning I'll be at Wells Literature Festival with Gabriel Gbadamosi, Fay Weldon and Emma Craigie. Can't wait.

** Edited to add...

I had a fabulous time at Wells Literature Festival. It was lovely to meet Gabriel Gbadamosi and Emma Craigie whose novels Vauxhall and Chocolate Cake with Hitler I really enjoyed. It was also fantastic to meet Fay Weldon who is not only extremely accomplished, but is absolutely charming and very kind.