My Desert Island Discs dozen castaway novelists

Desert Island

Mrs eNil, Creative Commons

Since the Desert Island Discs archive was digitised, making recordings of around 1500 castaways interviewed since 1942 available for download, I’ve been steadily making my way through the pick of them.

The interview format is timeless and still smart to this day: the music often prompts an emotion or a recollection that a short interview would otherwise struggle to do.

What’s more, there are hundreds with interviewees I admire, and from time to time the interviews are genuinely illuminating, peppered with insight and warmth, a whole biography writ small.

I love the different interviewer styles too: Posh Roy Plomley with his shambolic shortfall in research; urbane and wise Parky; go-for-the-jugular Sue Lawley; and slick Kirsty Young.

The 12 interviews with writers that I’ve chosen here are the best, most touching, most revealing, most surprising and thought provoking of those I’ve heard to date. Continue reading

The Spooky Art made less scary


Norman Mailer by Kieran Guckian, Creative Commons

The best book I’ve ever read on writing comes from one of my favourite authors of all time.

Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing was published in 2003 as he neared 80 years old, and finds him in a reflective mood.

It’s packed full with decades of hard-earned experience, snippets from essays and interviews through the years, stitched together and expanded on. Continue reading

Text bomb: Thom Jones and the super six years

In his short story collection Cold Snap, Thom Jones thanks friends and the anti-depressant drugs Effexor and Elavil in the acknowledgements for ‘expanding the narrow spectrum of happiness available to such gloomy hypochondriacal existentialists as myself.’

Sadly, to my mind Jones’s published output is a similarly narrow spectrum: a short story writer, his repertoire is largely limited to three collections – The Pugilist at Rest (1993), Cold Snap (1995) and Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine (1999).

But in those six years and three books, regardless of when they were actually written, the stories gave life to one of the most distinctive voices in fiction in the last 30 years.

I was lucky to make direct contact with Jones in 2005, when I was writing a piece on him for a book The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction. I tried to reach him via the publisher of his collections, but with no luck. Unlike many modern writers then, he didn’t have a website, nor was there much published information on him or about him online anywhere. Continue reading

He said, she said: it’s all a matter of perspective

I’ve just finished watching season 2 of The Affair, a smart drama about the impact of an adulterous relationship between a teacher with a promising writing career and a waitress unravelling with grief following the death of her son.

It’s solidly scripted and brilliantly acted, with plenty of good set pieces, but the most interesting and unique thing about the show is that events are told and re-told from the point of view of four lead characters.

We get access to their inner lives, and as viewers we pinball between their different versions of events and are left to make our own judgement on whose perspective rings truest.

It put me in mind of two of my favourite 20th century American novels, both lightly fictionalised versions of true events written by swaggering male writers.

Both are now part of the literary canon and both were subject to re-tellings: one a factual account of events from a real wife who appeared as a prominent character in the novel; the other a fictionalised narrative version of a wife’s experiences, giving voice to an otherwise mute but real life character.

In both cases it took decades to redress the balance. And in both cases the follow up book from a woman’s perspective is an antidote to the original books at their worst while at best shedding light on the real life circumstances of their creation.

On the road Off the road

First, there’s On the Road by Jack Kerouac, the book that became the bible of the ‘Beat Generation’. It’s packed with high-energy road trips and hitch hiking adventures, back and forth across America and down into Mexico, laced with beer, grass, jazz, sex and poetry, and written in a breathless spontaneous prose style.

And nearly 40 years later came its counterpoint: Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Carolyn was Camille in Kerouac’s novel, her husband was his muse Neal Cassady, or Dean Moriarty. And for several years, Kerouac was her lover too, with Cassady’s blessing. Continue reading

A hymn to David and D’Arcy: men of letters

‘I’m a big fan of David Foster.’

‘Oh, you mean David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest was just…’

‘No, I mean David Foster.’

That’s how a conversation about one of my favourite living authors usually begins. Just David Foster. Not to be confused with David Foster Wallace.

I was backpacking around Australia during the mid 90s, in my early 20s, and one morning read a Sydney newspaper article in which Annie Proulx evangelised about a local writer I’d never heard of.

I’d just read and been blown away by Proulx’s own novels Postcards and The Shipping News, so she had my attention.

She told how she discovered Foster while thumbing through his novel Dog Rock in a bookshop, and this was the first sentence her eyes fell on: “Owen Evans was found disembowelled in a urinal.”

Proulx fell in love with Foster’s narrator, D’Arcy D’Oliveres, and became a cheerleader for his work. 20 years on, I’m proud to join her troupe.

D’Arcy is the hero of Dog Rock: A Postal Pastoral (1985) and of The Pale Blue Crochet Coathanger Cover (1988). He’s an Eton-schooled English nobleman, the 15th Baron D’Oliveres, who emigrated to Australia where he’s a penniless postman, beekeeper, crown green bowler and sometime detective.

Continue reading

Like father, but like son better


Martin Amis by Maximilian Schoenherr, Creative Commons

The British author I reckon writes the best, sentence-for-sentence, over the last 40 years has to be Martin Amis. As a prose stylist, he’s superb.

Amis found fame with his first book, a comic novel called The Rachel Papers in 1973 when he was just 24. Somewhat uniquely, he won the Somerset Maugham award for a first novel exactly as his father, Kingsley Amis, had with his own first novel Lucky Jim in 1954, published when he was 32. Continue reading

My book of the 90s: Trainspotting

Irvine_Welsh_by_Kubik (2)

Irvine Welsh by Mariusz Kubik

Forget Trainspotting the movie, with its silly surreal scenes of deep diving into a filthy toilet and a baby’s head rotating through 360 degrees.

Trainspotting (1993) the novel was a darker, more disturbing story altogether, a tale told by multiple narrators that plumbed incredible lows, delivered at exhilarating pace in challenging phonetic dialect.

And reading it blew the lid off my understanding of how novels could be narrated. Continue reading

The right words in the right order

typewriter 4

Welcome to my site. Thanks for dropping in. Do take a look around. I hope you like what I’ve done with the place.

You’ll find blogs on my favourite writers and on the craft and graft of writing, top tips I’ve been taught about the spooky art, and things I learned myself the hard way. I hope you find some of it chimes with you.

I also write stories and sometimes they’re published. You’re welcome to read them here. And if you like what you find, or want to take me to task, I’d love to hear from you.