Archive for the ‘Literary Shows’ Category

Hangover in the Swiss Alps

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

‘This is the life! To be swept off to the Swiss Alps in the middle of a working week. Just like that. And everything organised– including check-in at the airport and taxis at our destination’. Peirene sighs happily, as she sips her café crème sitting photoin the Piazza Collegiata. It’s Monday morning 11am. ‘And if you hadn’t insisted that James and I help with the Salon on Saturday we could have come earlier.’ She can’t resist giving me an accusing glance over the brim of her sunglasses.

We, that is James, the Nymph, breach author Annie Holmes and I are attending the international literature festival babel hosted in the Swiss town of Bellinzona. Annie and I presented breach on Sunday in the main theatre in town. We discussed the UK refugee crisis in Calais and the challenge of writing commissioned fiction. In the evening we had dinner with a group of other UK writers, including Don Patterson, Nadifa Muhammed and Chloe Aridjis. No wonder, the Nymph is content.

Although, I can’t help feeling that she might be suffering from a little hangover. I went back to the hotel at midnight, while she decided to stay on. As I got up from the table she ordered herself another cognac. For a moment I was tempted to say something but then I decided against. This morning I knocked on her door at 8am. We had agreed to go for a run. After the third knock she finally opened the door. ‘You have to go on your own. I forgot my trainers,’ she said, blinking sleepily into the light.

I’m pleased she has now risen from her bed. I already had visions of having to prop her up on our way back to Milan airport later in the day.

‘How about buying you some trainers?,’  I now suggest. ‘We still have the entire afternoon. A walk in the beautiful mountains will do you good.’

‘I-‘ the Nymph stutters, her cheeks blushing. ‘I … found the trainers after all,’ she then admits. ‘They were at the bottom of my bag.’

‘Ah! Well good!’ I pretend to be surprised. ‘We can save the money.’

I pay for our coffees. As we are walking towards the restaurant to meet the others for lunch, she suddenly says: ‘Since we didn’t need to buy new trainers but you were willing to spend the money, perhaps I could undertake some retail therapy this afternoon – instead of climbing mountains? You, Annie and James will reach the top of the mountain much faster without me.’ She smiles at me sweetly. But I’m firm. If you’re lucky enough to visit the Swiss Alps on a Monday, the least you can do is appreciate the scenery.

Image by Annie Holmes of  me admiring the Alps in Bellinzona.

Knitting Therapy

Monday, June 20th, 2016

‘I have a present for you.’ Peirene hands me a parcel. I open the package.  Knitting needles, yarn and a book with retro knitting patterns fall into my lap. Surprised, I look at the Nymph. I haven’t knitted in years.151899525_24e04e590d_z

‘You should start again.’ The Nymph nods encouragingly.

‘Thank you, Peirene. That’s kind. But I just don’t have the time. I’m about to commission Peirene Now! No 2 for next year and that will take a lot of my space. Maybe when I’ll have retired from publishing in 20 or so years,’ I add.

‘Well, I was wondering if you would like to take early retirement-‘ I stare at the Nymph horrified and she corrects herself quickly. ‘I meant, sabbatical. A year of sabbatical leave would do you good.’

‘Do you think I’m losing it?’ I’ve recently felt a bit overworked. I suddenly begin to worry that I overlooked something or made a mistake?

‘No, not really. ‘ Peirene shakes her head mildly, avoiding my eyes. ‘It’s just… James and I are a great team… and you are slightly cramping our style.’

I’m utterly confused. ‘Cramping your style?’

‘Yes.’ She now leans back in her chair and swings her feet on the table. I notice a new butterfly tattoo on her ankle. She folds her arms demonstratively behind her head. Her sleeves slide up to her elbows and a tattoo of an open book appears on her lower right arm. Also new. ‘As you know, James pulled off this super cool event on Thursday in the hip Libraria bookshop in Brick Lane, with Octavia and Carrie from the trendy Literary Friction as moderators. Marie Sizun, our French author, was a star, too. The place was packed. Lots of young, arty people.’ Peirene begins to twirl her hair. Her fingernails are painted black.

‘You’re right.’ I agree. ‘James did a fantastic job on Thursday. But I’m not sure I cramped your or his style that night.’

‘No, you didn’t that evening. However, middle-aged woman just aren’t ‘it’. Sorry,’ she says in that annoyingly teenage tone that doesn’t mean sorry at all.

I quickly lean over to her and scratch her ankle tattoo with my fingernail. It’s peeling off straight away. I laugh.

‘And you think fake tattoos and black nail varnish is ‘it’?

‘It shows that, at heart, I’m a non-conformist,’ she informs me.

I pick up the needles and yarn and begin to cast on stitches. I still remember how to do it and it feels good. Maybe I should start to knit again?

‘Fair enough,’ I say. ‘If you want to run the company for a while…the monthly accounts need doing.’ I’m counting the stitches on the needle and wonder what I should aim for – a scarf or a jumper?

‘Accounts?’ I hear the Nymph swallow. She hesitates, then mutters: ‘Perhaps you should stay and do those – and then take sabbatical.‘

Image by meknits, creative commons.

Dhaka Abduction

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

A few months ago I received a phone call.  Would I like to come to Dhaka for a literary conclave? The invitation sounded exciting, not least because I’ve never been to Bangladesh photo[1]before. I checked my diary and said yes.

As I put down the phone, Peirene shook her head. ‘That was unwise. You don’t know the caller, you don’t know any of the organisers. We’ve never heard of the Bengal Lights Literary Conclave.’

I clicked on the website that I had been given. ‘Look, here are the details from last year’s event.’

The Nymph wasn’t convinced. ‘Anyone can put up a website nowadays.’ She paused, then took a deep breath. ‘I think it might be a scam…in order to … lure you away from Peirene HQ … and abduct you,’ she whispered in a hoarse voice.

‘Abduct me?’ I tried not to chuckle. ‘They just offered to pay for my flight, my hotel. That doesn’t sound like a plan for an abduction.’

‘That shows you how clever they are. Because,’ the Nymph’s lower lip began to quiver, ‘they actually want me. They will hold you hostage until you hand me over.’

I pulled Peirene towards me and put my arm around her. ‘You are an invaluable source of inspiration to me. But I’m pretty sure that no international hostage taker would bother with either you or me.’

The Nymph calmed down. But when I left the house last Wednesday to catch my flight she gave me a long hug as if I might be gone for many months.

It’s now Monday morning 9am Bengali time, 4am UK time. I’m sitting at Dhaka airport waiting to board my flight back to London. I have had three wonderfully inspiring days. I sat on three panels, discussing world insurgencies, fiction writing and the future of publishing. I met writers from seven different countries and four continents, including Nigerian Igoni Barrett, Indian Githa Hariharan and Dutch Femke van Zeijl. And I was invited to the homes of Bengali writers and editors. I received nourishment for my body and soul.

I texted the Nymph, saying that I’m looking forward seeing her. She’s finally put her abduction theory aside. In fact, she now wishes that she had joined me. ‘I feel I missed out :-(’ she messaged ‘I could have been the first Greek nymph to be “big in Bengal”.’

A Problem Child

Monday, September 15th, 2014

‘My life is utter misery.’ Peirene is shuffling around the office with uncombed hair, slippers on her feet and shoulders hunched forward. ‘I don’t know if I can go on living.’5165181_773ce5bdd8_z

‘Hm,’ I respond, without taking my eyes off the screen. I don’t really want to be drawn into a doom & gloom chat with the Nymph. She will snap out of it eventually. And as far as I can see her life is going just fine. Two weeks ago we’ve been awarded a major EU grant for our 2015 ‘Chance Encounter’ series and last week our Polish masterpiece, Chasing the King of Hearts, received the Found in Translation Award 2014.

‘I’m going to sell my shoes – the one with the sparkles. I’m going to put them on e-bay.’ She says decisively. She is now standing right next to me, her voice is shaky, a big tear drops onto my desk.

I sigh. I better pay her some attention before she dissolves totally. I make us a tea. We sit down on the sofa.

‘No one loves me,’ she stumbles, her hair hanging in her face.

‘You have lots of fans,‘ I reply matter-of-factly. ‘And the first reactions to Under The Tripoli Sky are fantastic.’

‘Yes,’ she shakes her head impatiently. ‘Our books are doing fine. But I am not.’

‘If you want me to help you, you need to be more precise.’

She flings her hair back, looking at me angrily. ‘If you truly loved me, you’d know what I am talking about it.’ For a moment we both stare at each other in silence. Finally she rolls her eyes:

‘OK. I clearly have to spill it out for you. It’s our Experience event this coming Wednesday. Supper Club is sold out, Salon is sold out. And the experience event? Four people so far have signed up. It’s my favourite event. But each time we struggle to get the crowd. The author will be there – all the way from Libya, musicians and a beautiful actress. It’s innovative. Unique. And in addition I am starring too. Does no one want to see an ancient Greek Nymph in flesh and blood?!’

What can I say? Peirene has a point. Our Experience Event is our problem child. Each time we hardly sell any tickets in advance. But on the day so far always enough people have turned up. It’s nerve racking. But it’s never been a flop.

‘So fingers crossed that it will be the same this time.  However, you better improve your mood. Otherwise…’ I stop as I search for an effective threat. ‘Otherwise, you won’t be allowed to show off your sparkling shoes.’

… and if you want to make Peirene happy, you can book for our Experience event here.

Image by Dave Morris.

Book Launch Highlights

Monday, September 8th, 2014

My own second novella, Clara’s Daughter, published this month by Salt, was launched on Friday. In style. Thanks to an amazing team.7688672396_2caab2860e_z

The preparations started at 9am on the dot. My daughter Rosa and her friend Connie chopped 10 kilos of potatoes for the potato salad, then tidied the house, while I fetched baguettes and cheese. By 3pm the buffet was laid out, the white wine consigned to the fridge, the bicycles moved from the hallway into the back garden. At 5pm we loaded glasses, bottles of Prosecco and books into the car then drove up to the Highgate, to the Literary and Scientific Institution. Rosa and Connie organised the drinks, my son set up the table with the books. Zelda and Aysha, our two lovely 14-year old Peirene Salon waitresses, turned up at 6.30. Peirene’s Jen sold 90 books in an hour, while I greeted the guests.

The writer Isabel Wolff and I took to the stage at 7.45. My son was employed as the official photographer.

By 9pm we all headed back to our house. Clara and her boyfriend had gone ahead to put the finishing touches to the buffet, uncork the wine bottles and open the door for the first guests. Connie and Rosa stayed at the Institution to tidy up and put the empty glasses and bottles into our car which I picked up the next morning.

It couldn’t have gone smoother. It was a wonderful evening. With over 100 guests. I felt very honoured indeed.

‘I love the way you always make yourself sound so chilled in your blogs.’ Peirene chuckles behind me. ‘If only your readers had seen you at the beginning of the week. You were in tears. You couldn’t see how to boil enough potatoes. And then you decided to cancel the entire event.’

‘Not because of the potatoes’ I am responding defensively – but I already know what is coming next.

‘No, because of your hair.’

True, I can’t deny it. I had forgotten to book a hairdresser appointment. But Drew, my hairdresser, managed to fit me in at short-notice. I received my new highlights just in time. So I add him to the list of team members who help when help is needed.  Thank you to my wonderful team.

Image by Daniel Oines.

Peirene Takes on ‘Life of Pi’

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

Best news this week: Beside the Sea is outdoing Life of Pi. And that despite the fact that Life of Pi has been turned into a major blockbuster film.Bookshelf. Image bykatinthecupboard

Peirene’s books are widely reviewed in the national press and that certainly helps to sell our books. But if a book – like Life of Pi – is turned into a major film, book sales undoubtedly rocket.

Well, truth to tell – Beside the Sea is outdoing Life of Pi not in sales – yet – but in Norfolk library lending figures. By exactly two copies. But two copies are two copies and not to be scorned. So where does this mini-triumph come from?

On Wednesday I headed to Norwich where the Writers’ Centre has picked Beside the Sea as one of their six Summer Reads for this year. From May to August the book is pushed in Norfolk’s bookshops, libraries and reading groups. The translator Adriana Hunter and I talked about the book at the Millenium Library.

If I had lived three- or four hundred years ago, I know what I would have been: a story-teller. I picture myself as a woman in long woollen skirts and a brown scarf across the shoulders. She walks from village to village where she gathers people around her to tell them stories from far away places. Some of the stories she has collected, some she has made up herself.

Although nowadays my skirts are knee-length and I adore wearing high-heels and prefer to travel by train, I don’t think my job has changed much. I might be called a ‘publisher’, but in my mind’s eye I am a story collector and teller.  My passion is to share stories and see the reaction on people’s faces. I love being invited to events and reading groups to talk about the Peirene stories and series.

‘So why are you so surprised about the success of Beside the Sea?’ Peirene asked when I arrived back home. ‘In Ancient Greece we built whole empires by sitting under olive trees discussing philosophy. Now it’s no longer you alone. Sam and his team from the Writers’ Centre are doing the same for the book. You see, soon the sales figures will climb sky high too.’

‘You might be right, but I must admit I do quite like the idea of a Hollywood block-buster.’ I smile and add: ‘So if Spielberg calls, please do pass him on to me.’  Till then, however, I want to praise the book-readers of Norfolk.  They are wonderful and deserve Peirene’s compliments.

Image by katinthecupboard.

Kitchen Workshop

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

A few years ago I got stuck on the question: Why do we live in houses? Of course I understand the practical side of living in buildings. Classroom. Image by  katinthecupboardBut why and how did our brains ever conceive in the first place of building shelters.

I’m not barmy. Honestly. Peirene is with me on this by the way. As an ancient Greek Nymph she, too, couldn’t get her head around buildings. However, she eventually found the answer in a book:

‘The archetypal house repeats the architecture of the universe; a ground below, a space between, a vault above, in which there is an opening corresponding to the solar gateway by which one ‘escapes altogether’ out of time and space into an unconfined and timeless empyrean. Functional and symbolic values coincide.’ (Ananda Coomaraswamy)

The quote solved the riddle.  Since then I haven’t wondered once why we humans live in houses.

This weekend Peirene’s first ever novella-writing masterclass took place In true Peirene style: not in an anonymous office but in a kitchen. In Shelley’s kitchen. Shelley is our creative writing tutor.

For two days from 10am to 5pm Shelley and her students gathered around her big kitchen table. They studied our Female Voice series, dissecting the texts in order to understand how the writers had achieved a unique narrative voice (Beside the Sea), conveyed an entire life story of a woman in less then 120pp (Stone in a Landslide) and created a real sense of place (Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman). Moreover, they didn’t just talk, they also worked hard.  They had to write scenes from the perspective of nine-year old Stan, one of the children in Beside the Sea, and had to imagine pursuing Margharita from Portrait of the Mother through the streets of Rome in 1943. And finally they were provided with the chance for individual tutoring on their own pieces of work.

Peirene and I can’t really take credit for this course. We turned up at 4.30 on Sunday afternoon in time for the Prosecco and walked right into a buzzing creative atmosphere.

‘I think they had such an inspiring course because it took place in a kitchen,’ Peirene mused as we walked home. ‘The solar gateway – the hearth and chimney – were originally in the kitchen.  It is from this room that one escapes out of time and space. And that is precisely what a writer needs to do in order to produce great stories.’

I liked her interpretation.  But I know my Nymph just a tiny bit too well. ‘You are jealous.’ I laughed. ‘We could have held the class in our kitchen but my children wouldn’t have received any food all weekend long. I do think Shelley offers the students a better “solar gateway”.

Peirene pouted before adding ‘She is also a more patient teacher than either of us’.

Image by katinthecupboard.

A Final 2012 Nymph Word

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

The Nymph has requested to take over the last blog of this year. Not without a smidgen of anxiety, I will let her take control of the key-board.facbk_wall_xmas

‘Three years ago I arrived on this rainy island, a lonely ancient Greek Nymph washed ashore. The Gods begged me not to give my lovely name to a publishing house bound to fail in this cold, ruthless climate. I defied them. I was young. Nevertheless, I had my doubts. But this year the doubts have evaporated into thin air. I now know: the British reader loves me. This miracle wouldn’t have been possible without an impressive team behind me. I like to thank them today:

Sacha Davison Lunt, my designer: I can’t even imagine how I would get out of bed in the morning, if Sacha weren’t there to help me get dressed. People love and adore me because of my good looks. But I have to admit, without Sacha I’d be nothing but black words on a page.

Maddy Pickard, marketing director: the woman who ensures that I have the audience I deserve. Maddy attracts the best wine sponsors for our events, she sets up Supper Clubs and evenings with music and drama for our subscribers. And takes our sparkling show to bookshops, cafes and gift shops. Thanks to her I can take my place in London literary society.

Jennifer Cairns, Roaming Store manager: outright hero. Whatever the weather she stands outside selling books with a smile. She spends most of her time talking to punters who have never heard of an ancient Greek Nymph before. A couple of weeks later they have read the books and subscribe for years to come. In short it’s partly because of Jennifer that I have such a devoted fan-club.’

The Nymph pauses. I look at her and wait, expecting more to follow but she seems to have finished her speech.

‘Haven’t you forgotten someone?’ I eventually ask.

She looks at me in surprise: ‘No.’

‘What about me?’ Admittedly I feel  hurt by the omission.

The Nymph laughs in slight embarrassment: ‘Ah, yes.’

Then she regains her cheeky composure: ’Fair enough.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘You are the best slave driver. Even the ancient Greek world didn’t produce a better one.’ She grins at me. I lean forward and take her face between my hands and plant a kiss on her forehead. ‘Thank you, my lovely Nymph. And you are the most difficult yet rewarding non-slave I have ever worked with.’

Ladies and Gentlemen, Peirene and I bow to you. We thank you for your custom and interest and enthusiasm. Without you, our books and our show would be futile. We wish you a very Happy Christmas and einen Guten Rutsch ins Neue Jahr. See you all back here in 2013.

Peirene Upstaged

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Last Wednesday Beside the Sea hit the London stage. The play was put on at the South Bank Centre’s Purcell Room and opened the Women of thebeide-the-sea_stage World Festival 2012.

Over the last two months the Beckett-actor Lisa Dwan and director Irina Brown worked behind closed doors to put the show together.

I had heard Lisa read from the book. I’ve seen her outstanding performance of Beckett’s Not I. I trusted her to do a good job and expected the audience to shed a few tears. But I didn’t anticipate crying myself. After all I know the text inside out and have talked about the story many times.

The staging is ingeniously minimalistic. A muslin curtain draped over a big empty screen in the background. White beach pebbles on the floor. A stool with a jacket in the middle of the stage. Where are we? A beach? A mental institution? A prison? Or perhaps inside the blank mind of the heroine where only vague shadows flicker across the empty canvass?

The actress wears a plain white nightie and boots. During the first 50 minutes she walks around on the stage, puts the jacket on, kicks stones, jumps on the stool, scratches her arms while she tells us about her sad journey to the seaside with her two children. Her voice oscillates between love and anger, calm and desperation. She is a woman at the end of her tether.

I follow the performance with interest and notice with delight that I am not bored. So the play must be good.

Lisa  now kneels down on the floor. Her hands rest motionless in her lap as she begins to narrate the shocking end. Nothing is happening on stage any longer. Whatever we see, we see in our minds. The auditorium is utterly still, no one breathes, no one moves. I feel a knot in my chest, for a moment I fight the tears. Then I let them run.

“And I screamed.” The final sentence of the book. It is also the last sentence pronounced on stage. Then Lisa arches back, the veins on her neck protruding.  As she slowly folds over she produces an animal like sound, an inward-scream, so desperate and lonely. I’ve never heard anything even remotely similar on stage or in film. A cry for humanity.

The lights go out. Total darkness. Still no one moves. The lights come back on slowly. Someone starts clapping. We all join in. Lisa walks to the middle of stage with a smile and bows. A relief washes over the auditorium. She smiles! It was only a play. For a few minutes that notion had dropped out of many people’s mind. We are reconnected to the reality of the Purcell Room.

“You are very quiet.” I say to Peirene as we walk back across Hungerford Bridge to the tube station at the end of the evening.

“I am absolutely stunned by adoration.” She says in a coarse voice. “I still feel emotional.” For a moment we continue our way in silence. Then she adds with a little laugh. ”And I can’t even be jealous. Lisa’s performance was just too good to make comparisons. Even I have to admit: I couldn’t compete.”

An Actress and A Nymph

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

The highlight of this last week was undoubtedly the Guardian article about the forthcoming staging of Beside The Sea at the South Bank Centre.Hampstead Ponds 2. Image by  Janie Easterman The two page spread featured an artistic photo of the leading actress Lisa Dwan waist deep in Hampstead Pond – a modern-day Ophelia. And the text? I have been waiting for this review ever since I’ve published the book two years ago.

Reviews – in papers and online – hardly ever discuss the subject matter of a book. They tell you if the novel is a “chilling read” or a “lukewarm read” but avoid mentioning what it is actually about – even if it is as obvious as in Beside the Sea.

No one wants to be accused of spoiling the plot. Because if you reveal the plot you kill the read – so the myth goes.

I’ve never read a book merely for its plot. I don’t publish books merely for their plots. In my view the plot is nothing more than one piece in a jigsaw. Structure, voice, language, images and rhythm are other, equally important parts.  All the pieces need to fit to form a meaningful picture.

The translator Adriana Hunter would have never translated Bord de Mer, I would have never published Beside the Sea and the actress Lisa Dwan would have never adapted the book for theatre, if all Beside the Sea had to offer was a “haunting read”.

Because truth to tell: there are far more entertaining, less controversial “page-turners” out there to absorb time and efforts.

The writer Bidisha in her  Guardian article gave all of us finally space to express why we believe in this text and why we feel it is such an important piece of literature. I am grateful to her.

“Ok. That’s enough now. You’re overdoing it.” Peirene looks at me disapprovingly.

“What am I overdoing?”

“Your thanks to Bidisha. She’s a journalist, she’s merely done her job.”

“She interviewed me. Usually publishers aren’t asked about their thoughts. But Bidisha recognizes that I have a vision with our books.”

There is a moment’s silence.

“Well, but she didn’t ask me for my opinion, did she.”

“I speak for the two of us.”

Again a moment’s silence.

“Then at least they could have asked me to stand in the pond with a beautiful nighty on in the middle of February. Poor Lisa, probably caught a cold.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Since when are you concerned about Lisa’s health.” I asked with a mocking smile

“I am.” The Nymph insisted with a stern expression. “Poor love.” Then she continued, nearly inaudibly: “And I would have struck an even better pose.”

Image by Janie Easterman.