21st Century Exam Skills

September 1st, 2014

I’m back after a wonderful summer. What was the highlight? An exam, actually. My first in the 21st century.photo

A couple of months ago I finally decided to apply for a British passport – and for that you need to pass the ‘Life in the UK’  test.  I have been living my ‘life in the UK’ for over 25 years so I felt well prepared. But not so fast. Apparently you have to buy a book. Then you study it. Then you register for the test. Then you sit in a room at a set time with a crowd of others and the test begins. Suddenly I felt a little nervous.

The morning of my exam, I sharpened my pencil, I made sure my fountain pen had enough ink. And I also put a newly purchased ball-point pen into the pencil case. After all, I wasn’t sure what sort of pen we’d be allowed to use, and I wanted to be equipped for all eventualities.

As I cycled down to Islington, in my mind’s eye I saw myself bending over a desk writing my name at the top of a sheet of paper. And at the end of the exam I would clip the sheets together and pass them over to an examiner who would tick the correct answers and then add up the ticks.

I arrived well in time – I was always a good student. I locked my bike and went inside. There were no desks, no examiner, no paper clips, not even any paper. Instead we were shown into a room with rows of computers. The images in my head evaporated into thin air as they were confronted with the stark, technological, reality. What would my son have said? ‘Dah, Mum, which century did you take your last exam in?’ And I would have had to admit that it was indeed in the last millennium.

Exam nerves subsided and full-fledged digital panic took over. What if my computer of all the computers won’t turn on. Or perhaps the machine turns on, but won’t let me access the right programme. Or it turns on, I access the programme, but then it saves my answers wrongly. Or doesn’t save them at all. It might even explode! My heart started racing. My palms became sweaty. And I feared my fingers were too wet to touch the keyboard.

‘Pull yourself together, woman. You are the head of my publishing house. Don’t disgrace yourself – and me.’ This were Peirene’s last words as I left the house that morning.  And as always, the Nymph’s words did wonders for me.

The computer did not explode, it let me enter the programme, it saved my answers. And I passed the test.

Back at Peirene HQ, the Nymph greeted me with a clap on the shoulder. ‘Well done, proud of you. Can’t wait to encounter the new, modern, technologically savvy, British you. We will from now on all look to you when the internet doesn’t connect in the office.’

Summer Time

July 6th, 2014

… and I am taking my annual summer blog break until the beginning of September.IMG_0408

However, I won’t be idle. Family holidays, then a writer’s retreat. Peirene No 15, Under The Tripoli Sky will be send to our subscribers. And I also want to read a few books.

Most importantly I like to finish The Old Testament. A few weeks ago I started on page 1 and have now reached the end of Chronicles 2. So, I’ve nearly completed the histories and very much looking forward to the Poetry Books.

Other books on my summer read list:

Poetry: Niall Campbell’s ‘Moontide’ and Anne Carson’s ‘Men in the off Hours’

Non-fiction: ‘Words and The Word: language, poetics and biblical interpretation’ by Stephen Prickett and ‘The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms‘ by Ernst Cassirer

Fiction: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Murphy’.

I hope you have a sunny, inspiring couple of months. See you back here in September.

 

Thoughts of a Hostess

June 30th, 2014

Last Wednesday I went to see the artist Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine Gallery where she is staging ‘512 Hours’. For three months Marina Abramovic is at the gallery from 10am to 6pm, six days a week. Everyone is invited to come.  She 7198892352_2726579394_z(1)greets you at the door. Then you walk into three empty rooms. Throughout the day she approaches her visitors and talks to them. A young assistant tells you to do things, such as standing with a face against a wall or walking in a room blind-folded. But you don’t have to. You can just sit on the floor and observe.

My visit made me think a lot about private versus public, and our individual body – and emotions – as part of a public performance. It also made me think about the role and power of a hostess. Because that is precisely what I explore with the Peirene Salons.

Four times a year total strangers enter our house. We wine and dine them. We provide literary entertainment. We offer our private, personal space for public encounters and conversation.

Strangers drop their coats on our bed, glimpse our family photos on the wall and see the books that we are reading. For an entire evening our personal refuge – our home – turns into a public arena.

It’s by far the most stressful thing I do.

Traditionally, a Salon has always taken place in a woman’s house. Two hundred years ago that might have been a necessity. Women were not part of public life. However, the connection between women and Salons goes deeper. A Salon is an exploration of what happens when private and public spheres collide, interact and fuse.

I went with a friend to Mariana Abromovic’s 512 Hours. My friend left the gallery angry. In her view, Marina Abranovic didn’t do anything. I, on the other hand, felt exhilarated. As far as I could tell, she had done a lot – she provoked feelings which we were forced to carry with us to the outside. And apparently she provoked these feelings without doing much. Or did she?

What I suddenly realized last Wednesday: Abramovic in her function as the hostess created a fusion of the private and the public and so offered her guests – and herself – a chance to participate in a communal performance.

I attend a lot of public literary events. Often they are completely disconnected from the actual creative source of literature which is the private. I.e. Good literature, in my view, always stems from a personal space or preoccupation. However, many literary events stand in stark contrast to that. The environment has no connection to the book presented and the author is interested in selling the work rather than talking about it and inviting the guests on a journey of discovery.

I have now finally understood why the Peirene Salon is so important to me – and why, despite of all the stress, I am looking forward to each one of them: The Salon not only brings together hosts and guests and fuses private and public, but it also offers a platform where the story is linked back to the private place from where it originated. Thank you Marina Abramovic for giving me these insights.

Image by David Lombardia.

Two-Hour Triumph

June 23rd, 2014

Last week my 14-year-old was awarded the Classical Civilization prize for Year 9 from his school. Well done, my son.5495880511_d1a9ef5a0a_z

But, actually, the prize belongs half to me. Without me he would not have stepped onto the podium. Without me there would be no academic triumph and public recognition.

At least not in ClassCiv.

A few weeks ago he started to prepare for his end of year exams. I asked him to show me his notes. I was impressed. Science, history, geography notes were tip top. Maths, English, foreign languages all under control. He loves music and art– so no worries there. I was about to leave his room when suddenly it struck me that I hadn’t seen any ClassCiv notes. My son shrugged his shoulder:

‘No one is going to study for it.’

‘So do you know it?’

‘It’s boring. I am going to drop it next year anyway.’

‘That’s not a good enough reason for failing your exam.’ I paused after this piece of maternal wisdom. Then added: ‘Show me your note books from this year.’

He got out a nearly empty folder.

‘Is that it?’

‘Yeah,’ he shrugged his shoulders again. ‘I threw most of the sheets away. They were too confusing.’

Since he started to play the piano at the age of four, my son and I have developed an effective modus operandi. The starting point: he doesn’t want to practice and I want him to practice.  First I blow my top. Then he shouts at me. Then I shout at him. Then we shout simultaneously at each other. This little intermezzo usually lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. Then we sit down next to each other and get down to work.

It took him a mere hour and a half to reconstruct the time line from the Greeks to Julius Caesar that had been covered during the school year. We then spent a further half an hour adding bullet points. He looked over it a couple of times, headed into the exam and achieved top marks.

‘You see,’ I couldn’t restrain myself from commenting when he came home with his A, ‘that wasn’t painful, was it? All you had to do was to concentrate for two hours.’

And so, dear reader, just in case you wonder why I recount this little domestic tale, we have now come full circle and we are back in Peirene land and our two-hour reads. It only takes two hours to read a Peirene novella. And if you, like my son, take two hours, the Nymph and I promise that you, like my son, will obtain unexpected rewards and pleasures.

Image by Xuan Che.

The Nymph & The World Cup

June 17th, 2014

On Saturday I held the 22nd Peirene Salon in our house.5147627110_bd31305d46_z

Many features remain the same with each salon – the potato salad, the cheese, the cakes, the wines, the order of events. Regular attendees know the routine, newcomers quickly get the drift.

There is one ingredient, however, that changes each time: The Author. I might know their book by heart. But I cannot predict their behaviour. The Author is the ingredient that makes the Salon truly exciting.

Some are brilliant performers. Some are funny and make the audience laugh. Some are story tellers. Some deep thinkers. Some talk fast, some talk slowly, some reveal, others hold back.

But each time our guests gain an insight into the workings of a creative mind and have the chance to encounter a new idea or an innovative thought.

However, what happened at the Salon last Saturday was unprecedented.

The Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik introduced her novel The Blue Room. Rarely have I come across a more generous and honest author. She showed us her vulnerability but also her strength. She engaged with the audience without fear and pretense. She said what she wanted to say but never stopped listening. Her openness encouraged the guests to tell their own stories. And once the official part of the evening was finished they crowded around her in a circle and continued to talk. Group therapy at its most beautiful and effective.

Seeing  Hanne Ørstavik in action presents living proof of the strength that wonderful literature can give.

Unfortunately though not all my guests were capable of appreciating the uniqueness of the evening. Literary and therapeutic goodness was lost on them. Sad but true. And to my great shame I must admit: my husband and the Nymph belonged to that group. At precisely 11pm they brought out the whisky and turned on the football. I didn’t want to create a domestic row so I retreated to the kitchen with others more inclined to literature. I did, however, tap Peirene on her shoulder in silent outrage. ‘I didn’t know you were an England football fan?’ I hissed into her ear. She simply ignored me and continued starring at the screen.

I knew why: She was jealous that Hanne had stolen the show.

Image by Ross Griff.

B-Day Party

June 10th, 2014

Five years of weekly Peirene drama! Exactly five years ago to the day I started writing this blog. Every week – except for holidays – I have given you an account of my life with an ancient Greek Nymph. 225 entries in total, each entry on average Clever Cupcakes450 words long. That means I have produced just over 100, 000 words. Or in book page terms: a 400-page long psycho drama. Or in Peirene novella terms: a complete 3 book series.

However, unlike novels and novellas, this is not fiction. This is for real.

Whatever the weather between the Nymph and I, I have set down and recorded it for you. I have given you the naked truth: the glorious sunny days as much as the dark difficult hours.

I am surrounded by fiction every day. Writers invent the craziests of stories: such as Norwegian women being locked in rooms by their mothers and Kazakh boys who stop growing and never turn into men – just to mention our latest bizarre tales. The Nymph and I are often amazed by our authors’ ability to conjure up images and invent realities that exist nowhere else except on page.

We knew we couldn’t compete, so we decided to give you our everyday trials and tribulations instead.

It was Peirene’s idea. Five years ago I knew nothing about blog writing. In fact I wasn’t thrilled at all about the idea. It would be hard work and demand discipline. Wasn’t I busy enough running the publishing house?

‘No other publisher enjoys the support of an ancient Greek Nymph.’ I still remember Peirene flashing her eye lashes at me in irritation and indignation that I wasn’t jumping with joy at her suggestion of a weekly blog. ‘You can’t hide me away in your dingy office.’ She put her hands to her hips and threw an impatient glance up to heaven. ‘Because, may I just gently remind you, we are a team. And I like the world to know.’

I had to admit, I knew she had a point. Peirene deserves the world stage. Without her, neither the publishing house nor I would be where we are today. She is my inspiration and my muse. I bounce ideas off her, I fight with her and I grow with her. Sometimes I can’t bear her and wish she’d go back to her Ancient Greek world. Other times I love her so much I could hardly live without her.

I raise my glass to Peirene. And to you, my dear reader.  Because as we all know, a drama needs an audience, a blog needs readers. Thank you for visiting us week after week. Here is to the next five years.

Image by Clever Cupcake.

A Moral Tale

June 2nd, 2014

At my age I should know that day-dreams lead to disappointment. And an ancient Greek Nymph should certainly know it."The Joy" by Mike King

Well, I guess then that Peirene and I still have a few life lessons to learn.

Two days before the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize awards evening we both succumbed to our fantasies:  images of an applauding crowd as we climbed the podium with our winning author Birgit Vanderbeke and translator Jamie Bulloch to receive the prize. And afterwards interviews with star-struck journalists. After all, we had made history. For the first time ever a woman author had won the prize. Moreover, a woman author published by a woman publisher. The literary world was ecstatic.

In our dreams.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the most prestigious prize for foreign fiction in the Anglo-Saxon world, went for the 24th consecutive year to a male author, the Iraqi Hassan Blasim for his fine book The Iraqi Christ, published my fellow indy publisher Comma Press.

But.

For the first time ever in the prize’s history there was a runner up. A book that received a special mention. A book that the judges felt deserved recognition even though they didn’t grant it the prize: Peirene’s The Mussel Feast.

As we clapped the winner, I can’t deny it: For a moment the Nymph and I were a tiny bit disappointed as we saw our beautiful dream go up in a puff of smoke. I threw Peirene a worried glance as I half expected her to turn on her heels and march out of the room in indignation. I quickly handed her a glass of champagne. She took a couple of big gulps. Then she suddenly began to smile.

‘This is brilliant. Much better than receiving the official prize,’ she whispered into my ear. ‘Everyone now will know that we made the judges think twice. Prizes are always political. But the panel knew they couldn’t simply side step us. The Mussel Feast is too impressive.’

13 Peirene people went for dinner that night. Our author Birgit and her husband, translator Jamie and his wife, our roaming store manager Jen and my assistant Clara, our designer Sacha, Philip and Ellen who work at the stall, Maddy, my husband, the Nymph and I. And we all agreed: That evening we had received the official recognition that Peirene has become a force in the literary world.

So, the moral of the story: Let the fantasies run wild in your head and, maybe, reality will give you something different and almost as good.

Image: The Joy by Mike King.

The Beauty of Being Right

May 19th, 2014

‘You have absolutely no clue what you are talking about!’ I slam down the phone and march out of the room. In the kitchen I put on the kettle. ‘That was not a very mature reaction.’ I hear the Nymph say behind me. ‘I don’t care.’ I take a cup "Miss Philadelphia 1924" by velvettangerineout of the cupboard. ‘The way the man handles literature makes me so angry.’ Before pouring the boiling water, I take a few deep breaths to calm down.

The man in question: my husband. The issue: the ending of The Blue Room. He took the latest Peirene book on his business trip. He then called me up to tell me his thoughts. And: I totally disagree with his reading of the final sentence.

‘You know the thing about literature,’ the Nymph says in a tone as if talking to a small child, ‘it’s open to interpretation.’

I roll my eyes. ‘I know that, Peirene, don’t lecture me.’

‘Then don’t get angry. It’s nothing personal.’

I suddenly have to smile: ‘Oh, look who is talking!’

Now it’s the Nymph’s turn to throw me an irritated glance: ‘Our classification of books into a series – that’s different’.

Peirene has become a liability at our stalls. Whenever a customer decides to buy just one book rather than all three making up one of our annual series she is in danger of uttering sharp remarks under barely held breath along the lines of ‘You are missing the point of our books,’ or ‘Why don’t go away and learn about creative reading first.’

Needless to say, the Nymph’s heart is in the right place. She is adamant that reading all three books in the order of their appearance in the series adds another, deeper dimension to the reading experience.

Because: our curation of our annual output resembles a three part musical piece. Each section is self-contained. The A section (this year: The Dead Lake) provides the theme and key (Coming-of-Age). The B section (The Blue Room) is in a contrasting but closely related key and displays a different character. The C section (Under The Tripoli Sky) than returns to the A section and continues where A left off.

‘Let’s make a deal.’ I turn around to the Nymph. ‘I will call my husband, and continue our conversation in a calm fashion, while you from now on will be nice to anyone who comes to the stall.’

P.S: I will be away next week and back here 2nd of June.

Image: “Miss Philadelphia 1924″ by velvettangerine

In Bed With A Stranger

May 11th, 2014

Books are not judged by their covers. They are judged by their titles.IMG_0385

Our Roaming Store is heading into its fourth summer season. And while punters are attracted by our beautiful design, it’s the titles that determine which books they pick up first.

The top hits at our stall throughout the year are: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, The Murder of Halland  and Mr Darwin’s Gardener. Why? Because the titles sound familiar.

In the winter The Brothers is a great seller too due to its Russian echo of The Brothers Karamazov and the wintery image on the cover.

In the summer Tomorrow Pamplona conjuring up images of Spain has been our seasonal bestseller for four consecutive years.

Sea of Ink, The Mussel Feast and Chasing the King of Hearts attract attention too.

In fact, the only title which causes us agonies is Next World Novella. Even though it is one of Jen’s favourite Peirene books. But she too struggles to persuade readers to hand over their money for it.

‘The title is too abstract.’ Peirene shakes her head when ever we discuss the dismay of the poor title. ‘I told you this from the beginning, didn’t I.’ The Nymph throws me a disapproving glance.

I admit it. Next World Novella was the fourth book I published. At the time I worried that the title might be too abstract. But I was less experienced in persuading author and translator to agree to a title change and so we stuck very closely to the original. That was a mistake. And now I know: if we ever going to reprint I will change the title.

‘In Bed with a Stranger.’ The Nymph beams. I furrow my brow as I don’t immediately understand. ‘The new title of the book, ‘she explains. ‘After all, the story is about a couple who’ve been married for decades only to discover that they don’t know each other at all.’ She pauses. Then she breaks into an even bigger grin. ‘And how about an alluring young couple posing on pink silk sheets for the cover?’

‘Peirene!’ I can’t believe my ears. ‘I really thought you had more class than that.’

She shrugs her shoulders. ’Whatever pays the bill is fine with me.’

Well, luckily I am the boss and such decision can’t be made without my approval.

Issues With Reality

May 6th, 2014

Quantum mechanics argues that the act of seeing effects what we see (you may need to read that last sentence twice). And if we are not looking, anything could happen. It’s all to do with particles behaving like waves. If we observe a particle Jim Kravitztravelling through one hole in a screen, and we are therefore convinced it can’t have gone through the other hole… well, we are wrong. In fact, this one particle has gone through both holes at the same time. Yep. It has.

I’ve read a lot about quantum physics over Easter. It’s mind-bending and – blowing stuff. A brilliant exercise for the imagination. But not very relevant to our mundane reality here on earth.

That’s what I thought. But I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

By the time I send a book to the printers, I usually switch my attention from the text and start concentration on the marketing. Experience has taught me that the book will come from the printers looking beautiful, that Royal Mail will pick up the sacks with the envelopes to our subscribers and that the distributor will release the book on its due date.

Well…not so for The Blue Room.

The book arrived from the printers with a creased spine. I sent back all copies, the entire print run was pulped and reprinted. We then stuffed the envelopes with subscriber copies ready for collection last Wednesday. Wednesday came and went. The Royal Mail had forgotten to log our request. And on Friday I looked on amazon only to see that they were already selling The Blue Room. I am sure my heart missed a beat. Publication date is not until mid June. I called our distributors. They had made a mistake and are now recalling the copies.

Furthermore, amazon has misspelled the author’s name and the book title. The meta data I uploaded last autumn is correct. The mistake occurs on the amazon site itself. For weeks I’ve been trying to get hold of the right person. So far in vain.

And to top it all: There is an ‘Edvard’ in The Blue Room. Twice he has now mutated into ‘Edward.’ I had asked the proofreader to check all ‘Edvards’ as I was aware that this would be an easy mistake to make. It’s a true conundrum how these two  w’s sneaked in.

So, what can I say? I can now vouch for the validity of quantum mechanics. We have no clue of what is happening when we are not looking. Everything is possible. Everything is real. Or nothing is real until we see it. Depends how you look at it.

‘Are you ok?’ The Nymph places a cup of coffee on my desk. ‘The last week has been quite a challenge, hasn’t it?’ she says in a tender tone and squeezes my shoulder sympathetically. A sudden worry grips me. I’m not used to so much loving care from my Nymph. This might not be the real Peirene. Then I look up and I see her. And let me tell you: she is real. Yes. She is.

Image by Jim Kravitz.