Kauthar

January 25th, 2015

‘I’m not having a veiled woman on the cover,’ Peirene states. Her lips are closing to a terse line with the sides of the mouth drawn down. A photo[2]sign that she is determined to stick to her point.

‘Who says we will, ‘ I enquire calmly.

‘I’m just making it clear from the start. In case you or Sacha or Salt had any ideas.’

‘Oh, my lovely lovely Nymph,’ I bend forward and pinch her cheeks. ‘You really needn’t worry.’

Peirene, however, is not in a jokey mood. She ducks from underneath my hands and takes a few steps away from me. ‘Your next novel is dealing with a very sensitive issue. I don’t want to stir trouble.’

I point to the pile of A4 printed out pages on the coffee table in the office. ‘Have you read Kauthar?’ Peirene shakes her head, adding defensively, ‘but I know it’s about a woman who converts to Islam and then things go wrong.’

‘That’s a pretty rough summery ‘I reply dryly before I continue: ‘Kauthar is the Arabic word for the river of abundance in paradise. It’s also a woman’s name. The story takes as a starting point my own experience of wondering whether to convert to Islam when I studied Arabic at university. The plot then goes a step further and examines the psychological factors that lead my protagonist to distort her religious faith.’ I pause. ‘So the novel is about identity, memory and distortion of religious texts – the Bible as well as the Quran.’

Peirene starts leafing through the paper pile. ‘Wow. That is a challenge for the cover.’

‘Indeed. But I’m really lucky. The artist Whitney McVeigh has agreed to collaborate on the project. We are using one of her images – created with ink and water – and Sacha and Salt have come up with a fantastic design.’

I show the cover draft to the Nymph. She stares at it in silence.

‘You don’t like it?’ I’m suddenly worried.

‘No. no. It’s absolutely stunning. There is only one problem with it.’

‘What?’ My heart sinks again. I wonder if we have all overlooked something.

‘The novel will be a disappointment. It can never be as good as the cover,’ the Nymph gives me sparkly smile and kiss on the cheek. Then she picks up the manuscript from the table. ‘But I guess I still better read it.’

Big Money Plans for 2015

January 19th, 2015

‘What are you doing?’ Peirene’s face appears over my shoulder. I am sitting at my desk, the company spreadsheet open on my screen.5929622407_dd7f0033e3_z

‘Counting up how many books we sold in 2014 so I can work out how much money we will donate to the Maya Centre this year.’ I reply in a preoccupied voice.

She brings her face closer to the screen and begins to run her finger down one of the columns.

‘Go away.’ I am irritated. The Nymph has to poke her nose into everything.

‘I just want to make sure that you are not overlooking any books. You know that the Maya Centre is important to me,’ Peirene says calmly without moving away an inch.

‘To me too. But it’s a complicated calculation,’ I justify my working outs. ‘There are the wholesaler, the bookshops, our website and the stalls.’ I am holding up four fingers. ‘And every now and again I miscount. So I have to start all over again.’

‘Hm,’ the Nymph mumbles, as she keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the screen. ‘Looks to me as if you haven’t added the figures from the Christmas stalls.’

For a few seconds I am silent. I’ve been found out. I feel the heat of embarrassment rise to my face.

‘OK.’ I eventually admit. ‘You are right.’ For a brief moment – but only for a very brief moment –  I had toyed with the idea of doctoring the figures. We sold a lot of books with the Roaming Store in 2014. But overall it was a tough year. Partly because we ran over 80 stalls and the operating costs are huge.’ I sigh. ‘But I will now include every single book that we’ve sold, just as we state in our promise to the Maya Centre. After all it’s for an important cause and I am proud that we support them.’

Peirene puts her hand on my shoulder. ‘And I’m proud of you.’ Then her face lits up with a mischievous smile. ‘And let me tell you how we can save some money this coming year.’ She begins to giggle. She seems to be very pleased with her idea. ‘You will have to man more stalls. That way we save extra staff cost, can sell more books and break even more quickly.’

‘Well, my dear Nymph. I have an even better idea.’ And now it’s my turn to giggle.  ‘You will be on a dress- and shoe-shopping ban for all of 2015. I think that will give our accounts a healthy boost indeed.’

Image by Images Money.

Storm in a Teacup

January 12th, 2015

‘Ohhhh! I’ve had enough,’ Peirene throws the paper she’s been reading straight across the room. ‘How stupid do they think I am!’1998379409_810472752a_z

I look at her in bewilderment.  Peirene had been leafing through the Times Literary Supplement which features a review of The Blue Room.

‘Is it that bad?’ I asked, slightly surprised.

‘No it’s excellent. Very insightful,’ the Nymph confirms. But her body language expresses something different – her arms folded, chin on her chest, lips tight.

‘So? What’s the issue?’ I enquire.

Peirene gets up, walks across the room, picks up the paper from the floor. At my desk, she opens it up and with a finger shaking with rage follows the line as she reads out loud: ‘The publishers do Ørstavik few favours by billing her novel as the unsung precursor of Fifty Shades of Grey.’ She inhales deeply. ‘Yet another critic who has misunderstood our introduction.’ She looks at me with gleaming eyes. ‘And all because of you,’ she then adds. ‘You… you insisted on mentioning Fifty Shades.’

She marches back to her desk, while I read the article. In the background I hear her continue her tirade:

‘I warned you, didn’t I?! I said don’t mention Fifty Shades of Grey, didn’t I? People see theses words and think they know what you are saying without actually reflecting upon your statement.’ She pauses and I take this opportunity to interject.

‘The misunderstanding is fascinating, especially since it was so obvious to me that The Blue Room certainly doesn’t resemble Fifty Shades. Instead our book provides an explanation of why some women enjoy degrading sexual fantasies as portrayed in Fifty Shades.’

‘Oh listen to yourself! You think you are so clever! But clearly not clever enough to explain so everyone understands. Instead you totally embarrassed me.’ Peirene gets up and walks towards the door.

‘I will hide in bed until I can face the world again,’ she says and leaves the room. But already half an hour later she is back.

‘That wasn’t long,‘ I can’t help teasing her.

‘I thought about what you said,’ She settles back in front of her desk. ‘If readers and critics misunderstand but still read the book… then I guess we’ve done a good job.’

‘That’s right,’ I nod enthusiastically. I knew the Nymph would get what I was playing at when I decided to mention such evocative title as Fifty Shades of Grey.

‘And…,’ a wicked smile appears on her lips, ‘I am of course completely innocent. The whole introduction bears your name.’

Image by Marcie.

Winter Sleep

December 20th, 2014

Peirene and Meike wish you a happy festive season, Fröhliche Weihnachten und einen Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr. Thank you for following our adventures this year. See you back here second week of January. Winter Chair copy

Family Competition

December 16th, 2014

‘I will not be exploited as your family’s beast of burden!’ Peirene walks into the house with a flushed face and drops of perspiration on her 124753728_54ac2d7122_zforehead. I am confused. As far as I am aware, she just took our gift orders to the post office. Like every day for the last two weeks, there were quite a few envelopes but they all fit perfectly into the shopping trolley. And pulling it to the post office is not such hard work after all.

Peirene throws herself onto the sofa, fanning her face with a magazine. ‘Your son!’ she is gasping. ‘Half of the trolley was stuffed with his packages.’ She breathes in short bursts. ‘Get me a glass of water before I die.’

While I head towards the kitchen I can’t help smiling.

I often worry about my children’s future. Their lack of Germanic order exasperates me. I am convinced that they will never achieve anything in their lives without it. My proof? My son drops his coat on the floor or the stairs. I find his muddy football boots in the living room or kitchen or toilet. And his dirty clothes are thrown in the vicinity of the washing basket, but never ever inside. And my daughter, who travelled for six months on her own through South America and has just completed her first term at uni, returns home only to stand in my office six o’clock sharp: ‘Mum, when is dinner? I’m starving.’

They can’t even look after themselves! How are they supposed to achieve what they want? All my role-modeling of hard work and discipline has not born any fruits.

I pour a glass of water for the Nymph. The facts, however, clearly contradict my worries. My daughter is organising an art festival at her college and my son has set up a business on e-bay – selling DVDs. It’s booming and he has even cracked the art of job delegation.

I hand the Nymph her water. She drinks, then closes her eyes. ‘Leave me alone,’ she mumbles. ‘I am exhausted.’

I walk upstairs to my son’s room. ‘You’ve exhausted the poor Nymph. I think you owe her an apology.’ I stop. ‘Having said that… I am impressed by your success,’ I continue in honest admiration. ‘How about expanding your e-bay shop and selling Peirene books. Like that you might be able to persuade her to continue doing the post run for you.’

He rolls his eyes. ‘Mum, my business works because I offer well known films, not some obscure books,’ he informs me.

‘Well, my son, then I guess you have to get the Nymph a very nice Christmas present indeed and promise to give her a smile and a hug whenever she carries your parcels to the post office.’

Image by Jos.

Discovering Serenity

December 7th, 2014

‘You are a hero,’ I hear the Nymph mumble in the background as I light a candle. I take my mug and sit down on the sofa. It’s two o’clock on 3740820498_8a2e8a3bef_zthe Sunday afternoon following the 24th Peirene Salon. As I sip my tea I close my eyes and think of the conversations I had last night.

‘You are a hero.’ Peirene repeats, sitting down next to me. She has some kind of list in her hands.

‘Are you talking to me?’ I open my eyes and turn to her in surprise.

‘Yes, of course. There is no one else here, is there?!’

For a moment I am speechless. It’s not often that Peirene pays me compliments.

‘Why am I a hero?’

‘Because for the first time in five years of running the Salon you got us help with the clearing up.’

It’s true. I brought in some help and so the house returned to normal by Sunday lunch time. We both turn our heads and stare into the dancing flame on the table.

After a while Peirene says: ‘I wonder, if the twenty three other times  you wanted to punish me. ’

‘Punish you?’ I raise an eyebrow in disbelief.

‘Yes. You create something everyone enjoys – the authors, the guests, your family. Each time we should be in seventh heaven, proud of ourselves. Instead we work so hard in preparing the salon and then equally hard to bring the house back to order that there is no time to breathe. That to me sounds like a punishment.’

I contemplate the Nymph’s words, while she in turn is warming to her subject.  ‘But now I have an idea how you can pay me back. With all this time on your hands you can start wrapping the gift orders now. Then you can take off a day for Christmas shopping during the week.‘ With that she shows me her list. She has a slightly guilty look on her face.

‘You will be able to buy most of the things around Bond Street – and after working twenty-three Sundays I think I deserve it’.

I breathe in the sandalwood smell of the candle and smile mildly. ‘Whatever you say, Peirene.’

Image by Akuppa John Wigham.

Out Alone

November 30th, 2014

On Wednesday evening I was invited to be part of an historical event: the greatest gathering of authors in the largest bookshop in Europe.Night club dancing party

Waterstones Piccadilly asked 36 writers to hang out in the bookshop from 6pm to 10pm, talk to customers and sell our books.

As I was blow-drying my hair and putting on lipstick, Peirene was teasing me: ‘Sounds like a meat market of authors. And since there will be some really famous authors, I doubt people will queue up to buy your books.’ I gave her a playful slap. ‘You don’t have to be jealous. I’m sure there will be opportunities to talk about you, too,’ I reassured her.

At the shop, we were dispersed across four floors. Two writers shared a table, with our books piled high in front of us. I sat next to Jonathan Gibbs, whose debut novel ‘Randall’ was published earlier in the year. Booksellers walked around serving wine and mince pies to authors and customers.

Of course the Nymph was right. I can’t claim that our table was mobbed by hysterical fans. However, we did receive a measured flow of cultured, interesting, people.

I talked to an artist, a man passionate about German literature and a woman who knew my cousin in Germany 15 years ago. I had a fascinating conversation about the art of the novella and I met my fellow Salt author Alison Moore for the first time. A number of Waterstones booksellers introduced themselves.

As I walked home from the tube station I was once again surprised how much I enjoy – and receive energy from – such events.

‘And did anyone buy your books? Did you sign any?’ Peirene shot down the stairs as soon as I stepped into the house.

‘Yes.’ I replied.

‘And…what about my books?’

I knew the Nymph hadn’t stayed up to enquire about the success of my novels.

‘There is a whole shelf of your books.’ I smiled. ‘Some people came up to me because they knew I run Peirene and others I’ve pointed in your direction.’

‘Good,’ she muttered, apparently satisfied by my reply. ‘As long as people are aware that I am the source of your inspiration, I don’t mind you going out without me…occasionally.’ She turned on her heel and skipped back up the stairs.

Image by www.audio-luci-store.it

The Wrath of the Nymph

November 25th, 2014

Bad news of the week: our Arts Council funding application to take the Roaming Store to places outside London has been rejected. For the 4944293408_bc07cf51f0_zsecond time.

Apparently our application showed weakness in relation to our plans to ‘engage the public’.

‘I don’t believe it?!’ Peirene can hardly breathe when I show her the letter. ‘Weakness to engage the public?!’ Her voice is breaking.

‘Any other reason,’ she paces up and down the office.  ‘Any other reason I would have tolerated. But …’ Once again she begins to hyperventilate.

‘Calm down,’ I beg her. She shakes her head.

‘The entire roaming store is a public engagement.’ she cries in between breaths.  ‘Standing at markets, convincing people who would never go into a bookshop or look at the review pages to read foreign literature – what precisely do they call this if not public engagement. Our roaming store is the best, most efficient, public engagement tool ever invented.’

She suddenly falls silent, turns to the phone and picks up the receiver. My heart misses a beat. The Nymph is in no fit state to speak to anyone.

‘Who are your calling?’ I ask.

‘The Arts Council.’ Before she can dial the number, I’m next to her and take the receiver out of her hand.

‘You’re a coward,’ she protests.

‘They won’t change their mind.’ I pause. Then I continue: ‘I think the main challenge we have is that they don’t really understand the concept of our stalls. Even though we do our best to explain and send pictures. No other publisher does it, and certainly not in the organized fashion we do.’

Peirene sits down on the sofa. She suddenly looks deflated. ‘But I am so upset that once again we won’t have enough money to take our Roaming Store outside London. It’s such a pity.’

I nod in agreement ‘I wish one of their people would spend just a single day at our Roaming Store and see what we are achieving. I’m sure we’d get the money.’

The Nymph jumps up. ‘You are right. That’s what I am going to tell them.’

I push her gently back onto the sofa. ‘We’re going to take a deep breath.’ I bring my palms together in front of my heart and encourages Peirene to follow my example. ‘We’re going to be calm’. The Nymph half closes her eyes. ‘And then,’ we both look at each other, ‘we’re going to reapply.’

Image by JD Hancock.

Dog Encounter

November 17th, 2014

‘I worry about myself.’ Peirene and I are sitting on a bench on top of Parliament Hill as we take a break during our run. My eyes are travelling across a rainy London skyline, while the Nymph concludes her thought: ‘I might not exist for much longer,’

4509494174_d9f67caa44_z‘Peirene!’ I exclaim in such a shocked voice that the dog playing with a stick a few meters away lifts its head in surprise. ‘These are very morbid thoughts indeed,’ I continue in a lower voice.

‘Well,’ the Nymph sighs. ‘I’m just being realistic.’

The dog, a black labrador, is approaching us.

‘In which way?’ I’ve detected a hint of the Nymph’s melodramatic undertone in her voice and my initial concern is replaced by curiosity.

I look around for the pet’s owner. Both, Peirene and I are scared of dogs.

‘The written word is going to die,’ she says solemnly.

‘I agree.’ I nod. The thought is not new to me. ‘After all, it was invented by the Ancient Sumerians as a means of storing information. We’ve now developed other, more efficient ways to do that.’ I pause. ‘Having said that, I also believe that for the time being we still need the written word to structure our thoughts. So I’d give writing a few hundred years more. 300 to 500 years, I’d say.’

The dog has briefly sniffed Peirene’s shoes and now lies down in front of our feet, head on its paws. No owner in sight. We both keep our gaze fixed on the horizon, but our bodies are glued to the bench. Neither of us even dares to move a finger.

‘For an ancient Greek nymph a few hundred years resemble a mere blink of the eye,’ the Nymph says.

I can hardly hear Peirene’s words. My heart is beating so loud. ‘Peirene, ‘ I whisper. ‘There is a huge dog at our feet.’

‘I know.’ Peirene whispers back. ‘I am trying to ignore it.’

‘What, if it attacks us?’

‘Then we both die in a blink of an eye’ the Nymph breathes.

I contemplate our fate during the ensuing silence. Then I give myself a push and lean forward to stroke the dog. ‘You won’t hurt us, will you.’ I stand up and pull the Nymph with me. ‘Come on. We have a job to do.  A few more masterpieces to publish before dogs eat us or the written word becomes a thing of the past.’

We run down the hill as fast as we can and don’t stop until we are back within the walls of Peirene HQ.

Image by Duncan.

Back at the Stall

November 10th, 2014

I did not jump out of bed with joy in my heart yesterday morning. In fact as my husband and son left the house for a football match, I 12585975954_9447ca337e_zcontemplated faking a migraine so I could stay in bed for the rest of the day.

‘Will you get up!’ The Nymph eventually pulled the duvet away from me. ‘The taxi will be here in half an hour.’

If I want to glamorise my condition yesterday morning, I’d say I suffered from stage- fright. However, if I want to be honest, I’d have to admit that the source of my attitude was slightly less admirable. I am the CEO of this publishing house. I ought not to stand in the freezing cold selling books at market stalls. Such were my thoughts as I tried to hold on to the duvet.

‘Yes, you certainly ought to sell books at market stalls.’ The Nymph stood next to my bed tapping her foot impatiently, her arms crossed in front of her chest. ‘A good boss leads by example,’ she stated.  ‘ Jen and Clara – plus a number of interns – run stalls throughout the year – in the rain, the heat, the cold. When did you last work on the stall? I think it was Christmas a year ago.’

‘That is precisely my worry.’ I moaned as I dragged myself out of bed. ‘I don’t know any longer how to set up the stall. I can’t think of what to say to people. And I have forgotten how to keep smiling when they treat me like thin air.’

Peirene showed no mercy. ‘I’ll be waiting downstairs for you. And,’  she turned around in the door, ‘if you continue whining I’ll join Clara today at Richmond market and will leave you alone at the Ally Pally Farmer’s market.’

I stopped. I wanted the Nymph by my side after all.

My worries, though, were justified. I was rusty at the beginning. As we were setting up the stall, I didn’t know how best to display the books and took a lot of time shifting them around. I also lost a couple of sales straight away because I just didn’t hit the right note with the customers. I was too eager to sell, rather than sharing my enthusiasm for our books.

Still, as the hours went passed, I got back into my stride. I made eye contact with passers-by. They approached the stand. We chatted about Peirene, foreign literature and the novella.

I was yet again reminded what contradictory emotions go through me when I look after our bookstall. It is hard work – both physically and mentally, and the prospect of a day’s market duty often feels daunting. However, selling books next to cheese and fruits and vegetables makes so much sense – one is nourishment for the body, the other for the mind. And there was a moment in the afternoon when suddenly I was overcome by a beautiful calmness. I knew I was doing just what I meant to do.

And I managed to sell a fair amount of books, too.

‘Not at many as Jen usually sells at this market,’ the Nymph mumbled as I was cashing up at the end of the day.

‘Jen is our star bookseller. Hard to beat her, ‘I replied.

Not even my ancient Greek Nymph could disturb my inner peace.

Image by Holiday Gems.