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.
‘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 forehead. 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.
‘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 the 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.’
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
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.
‘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,’
‘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.
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 contemplated 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.
Peirene is sitting in the office armchair, reading the latest edition of our newspaper.
She reads out loud from the introduction: ‘Best-selling German author Birgit Vanderbeke allows us a glance into her creative process, comparing writing to cooking. Internationally renowned Polish author Hanna Krall talks about stories of the Holocaust. ‘They are stories in which everything has been multiplied. Enormous evil and enormous good.’ Translator and writer Emily Jeremiah gives us an insight into the art of translation: ‘There are things one cannot render.’ And the Deputy Director of English Pen, Katherine Taylor takes us on an eye-opening journey through the world of literature. ‘Imaginations are ignited in infancy by fairy tales drawn from diverse cultures and languages.’
The Nymph pauses for a moment. Then continues: ‘Plus interviews with film makers and authors. And extracts of our forthcoming books.’ She is slightly out of breath. ‘Wow. This is so impressive.’
‘I know. Isn’t it just.’ I am proudly beaming across my face. She lowers the paper for a moment. ‘I am so pleased that the newspaper has a new editor. The last editor really didn’t know what she was doing.’ She once again disappears behind the paper.
‘Peirene. That was mean of you.’ I feel hurt. After all, for two years I used to be its editor. And I felt I did what I could at the time. However, I have to admit: what was not much more than a glorified catalogue under my control, has now evolved into an exciting magazine about foreign literature. Thanks to Clara, our new newspaper editor. Still, I like to be given a bit of credit from the Nymph.
‘Well done for delegating,’ comes Peirene’s voice from behind the paper. ‘ May I just point out, though, that the position for Queen of Delegation is already occupied within our company…’
The voice wants to continue, but I am quicker. I have walked over to the chair where the Nymph has been sitting for over an hour. I pull the paper away from her in a single sweeping movement.
‘May I announce: There has been a revolution. We have a new Queen of Delegation. And you my lady will now get back to your desk and continue working through the to-do-list I have given you.’
Image by Amazing Cupcakes.
In fact, I was gone for five days. I had discussed my absence with her before. She had agreed. She’d be running the show in the office, she said.
I carry my suitcase inside and close the door behind me.
‘I told you I’d be back on Saturday afternoon. And here I am.’
‘You disappear to “write.”’ She mimes quotation marks with her fingers in the air. ‘No internet. No phone. 30 messages on the answering machine, two hundred e-mails, the 2016 programme not yet sorted. And look at that huge pile of post. Your behaviour is outrageous.’
She glares at me furiously, blocking my way. There is part of me that would love to walk straight out of the door again and return to the cottage in Norfolk I had rented to make headway with my next novella.
Instead I take a deep breath. ‘Let’s have a cup of tea.’ I usher the Nymph into the kitchen.
‘So what’s the real issue?’ I ask as we are sitting down at the table.
‘The work that has piled up while you are away,’ she insists.
I pour the tea and shake my head. ‘No, Peirene. I don’t believe you. We both knew that that would happen and we also know that we can handle it. So, what’s really bothering you?’
She takes a sip of tea. ‘Ouch!’ She jams down the cup. ‘This tea is far too hot!’ she exclaims, looking at me accusingly. Then her lower lip begins to tremble.
‘Jen and Clara,’ she sobs. ‘They’ve been ghastly to me while you were away. Jen has now finalised the Roaming Store schedule up to Christmas. 43 stalls. Can you believe it. 43! And of course I have to be present at them.’ She shakes her head in despair. ‘And then Clara. She’s so excited. She has sent our next newspaper off to the printers and wants me now out and about with her every week distributing them at tube stations across London. They treat me like a slave. No! Worse. Much worse. Like a work horse! How utterly degrading for a Nymph.’
Peirene is dissolving into tears. I push my chair closer to her ‘Let me talk to Jen, ‘I put my arm around Peirene. ‘Perhaps she will agree to you taking a few days break.’
The sobbing subsides. The Nymph and I finish our tea in harmony: I feel proud of my team. Peirene, on the other hand, feels excited about shopping trips she will organize on her days off.
Image by Feliciano Guimaraes.
I haven’t read it. I’ve been preoccupied with other things.
A few months ago the artist and poet Steven Fowler asked me if I wanted to take part in the Enemies Project which encourages collaboration between poets across countries. Without knowing much of what I was letting myself into, I said yes. It sounded exciting.
I have been paired with the Slovakian poet Juliana Sokolova. We have been told to create a ten minute performance piece that we will stage at the Free Word Centre in London on 5th of November.
Juliana and I have never met. We haven’t even heard each other voices. Initially we toyed with the idea to Skype, so we can at least see each other on screen. But then we decided against it. After all, our collaboration is about words. Last week we sat down and created a story purely by email exchange.
The story is in English. We developed the plot in alternating paragraphs, with added quotes from poems and songs. We took as our starting point a poem by the Turkish poet Sait Faik about a man drinking a beer on a Sunday. What became clear was that we both held different images of this man in our heads. But we also knew that we could build tension and a narrative arch by accepting these differences. Most exciting, during the course of the story our perspectives began to converge.
Now let’s get back to the future of the book.
In his Booker prize acceptance speech last week, the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan said that ‘novels are not content. Nor are they a mirror to life or an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels are life.’
I would like to extend that to all forms of text and to all books. As long as we humans use language to communicate with each other, we will explore the creative potentials and limits of words by producing text – novels, novellas, short stories, essays, poetry and drama.
Some of this might be published as ebooks, some as paper books. And some might be created via email exchange to be performed for one night only.
Image by P K.