The Sketchbook Project

ImageIf the Sketchbook Project Library is popping up anywhere near you, then you have to visit. It’s in Melbourne at the moment and I went to have a look at the weekend.

It’s a travelling library of artists’ sketchbooks. Every artist involved in the project started with the same blank sketchbook which they could then write, draw, paint, paste in, cut out, as they wanted.

The books we saw were absolutely beautiful. Some were travel journals, others filled with preliminary sketches to prepare for a larger work; some had a narrative, others were collections of random images and writing. It was amazing to be able to touch these books and leaf through them, to feel the paper that was almost solid with paint or to unfold pages that had been cut out to make intricate patterns. Getting such a close insight into an artist’s work and being able to interact with it is a very special experience. I went with two friends and we spent hours exploring the books.

Even checking the books out with our personal library cards was fun. We picked up a card at the entrance and registered it, then we looked at the online catalogue and chose a theme (travel, cartography, science, narrative, etc.). One book related to that theme was brought out to us along with a random book. This meant we saw amazing books on themes we might never have considered. We could only have two books at a time each so we went up multiple times to make different selections.  We saw around 24 books in two hours. There are a few thousand sketchbooks currently in Melbourne (the total collection comprises close to 28 000 books) – if only I had enough time to see them all!

I felt really inspired looking at the books. I wish I could draw! But the best thing about the project is that absolutely anyone can take part, regardless of their drawing skills. The next submission date is 15 January 2014 and you can choose to make a basic submission of a sketchbook only (25 AUD), or to have your work digitized (60 AUD). This means that even if you can’t get to The Sketchbook Library in person, you can still have a look at some of the work online in the Digital Library. Do it, it’s great!

The Sketchbook Project Pop-up Library is located at 234 St. Kilda Road, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Building, Melbourne until 9 November.

Melbourne Central Little Library

How’s this for a neat idea? I spotted this cute Little Library when I went for a walk through the shops at Melbourne Central today.

Readers are free to borrow books and then either return them when they’re done or replace them with another book.

The unstaffed library, which opened recently in a newly developed corner of the mall, is little more than a few shelves but already there is a reasonable selection of reading materials, all donated second hand books.

Great stuff!

An Abundance of Second Hand Bookshops

Books in Australia are very expensive. I’ve got no idea how anyone can afford to read. A book that costs £7 in the UK might be $25 (around £16) here. Even kids’ books cost $15. It’s hardly pocket money. The result is an abundance of extremely good second hand bookshops. By extremely good I mean they are packed to the rafters with a wide range of reading material. The photo is of a second hand bookshop I visited in Castlemaine. It looks like a health and safety hazard. Normally I like to browse by myself but when the lady in the shop asked if she could help me find something, I accepted her offer straight away. Time was tight and I couldn’t afford to get lost in a maze of stacked books.

Normally I am against buying books second hand. My reasoning is that if you buy a new book the author gets royalties for it, if you buy a used book they don’t. Libraries are great because not only do you get free access to books, but every time you borrow a book the author gets a little bit of money too. At least that’s how it works in the UK. I need to find out what the situation is here in Australia.

In the Castlemaine bookshop I was looking for more Paul Jennings stories and I managed to find a collection (after being given directions and a map) of three of his Un books in one volume. At $7.50 it was a bargain. Even second hand books here normally cost almost as much as a new book in the UK. I didn’t feel too guilty about my purchase because I’d already bought all of his books once before. Not only did I not feel guilty, I’d even go as far as to say that transaction made my day.

Still Unconvinced by the Kindle

Standing in the garden with my handful of crushed gum leaves, I remembered a story by Paul Jennings about two feuding neighbours in the outback who could transfer injuries onto each other by playing a tune on a folded gum leaf. I absolutely adored Paul Jennings’ stories when I was a kid. They were quirky and funny and clever and always ended with a twist. I had every single short story collection (at that time – a new one was published in 2002) and I read them over and over again.

It never occurred to me that I would one day be living in Australia, where the books are set. Suddenly all I could think about was those stories and how desperate I was to read them again now that I was closer to the places and the people they described.

Shortly before coming out here I bought a Kindle, thinking it would enable me to travel light with all the books I wanted. I’ve been let down on that score. Most of the books I want to read aren’t available on Kindle yet. Paul Jennings’ books, for example, Ali Smith’s Hotel World, Nicola Barker’s The Burley Cross Postbox Theft. I don’t really consider this a reason not to buy an e-reader. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the huge backlog of printed books gradually appears in e-book form.

What is a huge disappointment as far as the Kindle is concerned are the typos. You so rarely see errors in printed books that on the few occasions that you do, they are burned into your memory forever (‘tina of fish’ in one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books is one that has stuck with me since I was seven years old). I’ve only read two books on the Kindle, How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran and Down Under by Bill Bryson, but both were littered with typos: missing letters, two words joined together, a hyphen in the middle of a word from where it’s been wrapped over two lines in the printed text but appears on one line in the e-book version. Some examples from Down Under which I noted during my last reading session: ‘battered portion offish’, ‘accli-matizer’, ‘bom-bable’. It’s absolutely unforgivable.

So far no typos in my e-book version of the Lonely Planet Guide to Australia, but the maps are shocking (I think I just have to wait for technology to catch up) and the links infuriating. Any time I click on a link it takes to me to somewhere completely random in the text which has nothing to do with what I’ve just been reading. There was one time that clicking a link took me to the right section of the book, but since it only happened once out of dozens of clicks, I have to conclude that it was just a lucky accident.

Another disadvantage: I can’t flick through pages to see how long till the end of the chapter. This is important to me since I usually read in bed. I have to know how many pages in a chapter so I can decide whether or not I’m going to be too tired to finish reading it.

All these bad points aside, I genuinely believe that e-readers will save the publishing industry. It’s so easy to buy books with the Kindle – one click and you’re away, any time any place – that book buying is bound to increase. I just hope it doesn’t mean the death of libraries. Bendigo Library came to the rescue the other day when I had reached the height of my despair about not being able to download Paul Jennings’ short story collections onto my Kindle. I sat in the kids’ corner with a pile of his books at my feet and devoured story after story. It’ll keep me going for a little while until I get a permanent address, then I can borrow all the books I want.

Maggie O’Farrell – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

Photo of Maggie O'Farrell at Edinburgh International Book FestivalWhen Maggie O’Farrell was working as a Front of House Assistant at Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago she never dreamed that she would one day be up there on the stage herself. She was in awe of authors. “They were a bit like Greek gods; they existed somewhere in the ether.”

She wrote from a young age and kept diaries from the age of six or seven. After graduating with a degree in English Literature – “study of literature essential for people who want to be writers” – she worked in London for a while, secretly writing poetry by hand. Back then she thought she was going to be a poet but once she got a computer she moved on to writing fiction. “Having a computer and typing released prose.” She’s never gone back to writing poetry.

Her most recent book, Costa Novel Award winner The Hand That First Held Mine, features two main characters separated by half a century: Elina in the present day who is suffering from post-natal amnesia and Lexie in the 1950s who, we learn from the beginning of the story, will die young. “In an early draft I had Lexie narrating from the grave,” O’Farrell reveals. When she showed it to her husband he said, “‘It’s not bad but you’ve got to get rid of all that supernatural shit.’” O’Farrell went back to the manuscript and realised he was right.

One of the challenges O’Farrell faced when writing the novel was getting the dialogue right. “What I found difficult was the way people spoke in the fifties. I watched a lot of films of the period. I had to immerse myself in the fiction of the time: Iris Murdoch, Jean Rhys, Muriel spark. I learned all kinds of things I didn’t know I needed to know.”

She recommends research as a way of getting over writing blocks. “With any novel you hit a number of brick walls with the fiction side of things and with a contemporary novel if you’re tearing your hair out with the plot you can do some research…to give yourself confidence or a platform to create your fictional world.”

O’Farrell is currently working on her next novel about a London Irish family who reunite for a family event during the heat wave of 1976. “I’m two thirds of the way through, which is one of my least favourite points. There’s too much to go back and still quite a long way to go.” She nearly didn’t have to worry about “going back” at all when, only a day earlier, her young daughter accidentally turned off the power to O’Farrell’s computer while she was writing. She lost all the work she had done that day. On the whole, however, O’Farrell is positive about the impact having children has had on her writing.

“One of the biggest dangers to a writer is time. Having children you do lose time – and your marbles! – but anything that’s good will make it onto the page.”

Jackie Kay – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

The whole audience is in stitches as Jackie Kay recreates the horror and hilarity of her first meeting with her father, dancing around on the stage and putting on a Nigerian accent as she reads from the autobiographical Red Dust Road.

“I think of Red Dust Road as being a multi-voiced thing. It’s fun to do the accent – it brings out the ham actress in me,” she admits afterwards.

Red Dust Road recounts the emotional and physical journey Kay made as she tracked down and met with her birth parents. The companion book, poetry collection Fiere, covers some of the same ground, but also deals with relationships between friends. Fiere is a Scots word (Kay pronounces it “feeree” – “you can get more rhymes in that way”) meaning companion, friend, equal. “I like the idea that relationships are to do with power, and things that people don’t talk about. There are lots of poems that celebrate romantic love but not that many that celebrate friendship.”

After reading a selection of poems from Fiere, Kay announces that she is going to regale us with one of her Maw Broon Monologues and people in the audience cheer. I’ve never come across them before but the character of Maw Broon is known to me. She is the matriarch of the Dundee family who feature in the Sunday Post comic strip The Broons.

Apparently DC Thomson, who publish the Sunday Post, responded to one of the monologues saying that Maw Broon would never go for a colonic irrigation, which Kay thinks is missing the point. “This one’s even more hardcore,” she warns, before launching into Maw Broon’s Vagina. It’s hardcore and hilarious. Now I understand the cheer.

When the time comes for audience questions someone asks Kay what she thought of Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father. “I think his search is a similar search to the one I’ve carried out and I just hope that I get his sales,” she jokes. A few days later, in a separate event at Edinburgh International Book Festival, Red Dust Road is awarded the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book of the Year Award. The prize is £30000 and will perhaps bring a taste of those Obama sales figures.

Stella Rimington – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

Photo by Jamie Hughes

Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington is the author of six contemporary spy novels. People are always asking her if she based her heroine on herself and she told us that the one thing she has in common with the “sharp, spiky and intuitive” Intelligence Officer Liz Carlyle is that they both hate being patronised – especially by men. When Rimington first joined MI5, “women were second class citizens and they had second class careers. They couldn’t go out and gather intelligence.”

Thank goodness things have come a long way since then. In her novels, Rimington has tried to “reflect the fact that there are a lot of women working in our Intelligence Services at a high level.” She also wanted to “release the spy story from the men. I wanted to have a character who works in a team, by thought and analysis, not the type who runs around with a really big gun trying to kill people.”

Rimington’s stories come from “keeping a very sharp eye on what’s going on in the world.” Her plots cover what she believes are threats to our national security. Her former colleagues carefully read through her manuscripts before they are published to make sure she hasn’t inadvertently revealed any potentially damaging secrets. “So far they have asked me to change or remove very few things. I dread the day when I send them a complete manuscript and they say, ‘You can’t use that plot at all.’”

Audrey Niffenegger – Edinburgh Book Festival 2011

Apologies for the long break I’ve taken from blogging. As you know, I recently moved out of my flat. The following day I started work at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I’ve spent most of my time ever since. Today is the first day I’ve had off in two weeks so I’m setting up some posts about the wonderful events I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on. Look out for these coming over the next few days.

First up, my notes on Audrey Niffenegger’s event.

Audrey Niffenegger - photo credit Edinburgh International Book FestivalShe was so lovely and down-to-earth. I’ve noticed that really mega authors can sometimes come across as either super aware of their own brilliance or else embarrassingly self-deprecating. Niffenegger was neither. She was funny and charming and spoke admiringly of the artists and writers who have influenced her work. Both her novels, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, share a fantastical element, and she explained that she is attracted towards the weird and wonderful in the everyday. “If you sit down and pay attention to anyone, they will be out of the ordinary. Artists direct your gaze towards the amazing thing that would otherwise appear normal.”

Some of her characters, for example, the obsessive compulsive Martin in Symmetry, have been inspired by people she has dated. She met this particular ex recently and joked that he had either not read the book or not recognised himself, since he didn’t comment on the similarity.

One audience member asked if she ever felt that she had to rein in her imagination when she was writing. Niffenegger replied that on the contrary, she wished she could let it go more. Niffenegger is a Guest Selector for this year’s Book Festival, which means she chose three authors to appear in the programme. The writers she picked – Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link and Chris Adrian – are ones she admires precisely because they are so free and unrestricted with their imagination.

Another audience member asked her to comment on her model of time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife. It is non-traditional compared with other works of fiction in that Henry can’t influence future events or change history. Niffenegger said that she researched by reading some “light physics” and decided that she wanted “a block universe where everything co-exists.” The way she sees it, there are two types of time travel: humorous Back to the Future style, where the character’s motivation is that he can interfere with past and future events, and the tragic style of her own novel where the drama comes from the fact that the character can’t control his own destiny. The idea that Henry knows what will happen but can’t change it is what appealed to her about the concept.

Can you believe Niffenegger has never seen the film of The Time Travelers Wife??? She doesn’t want to spoil the idea she has of it. “In my head that movie’s glorious. Sometime when I’m ninety and ready to die I’ll watch it.”

Banana Me Beautiful by Emily Dodd

I don’t think anyone at the launch of Banana Me Beautiful last night could have got through the whole evening without falling in love with Emily Dodd just a little bit.

How can you not love a person who interrupts an intense silence after a poetry reading to sing a song about a horse whose poo smells of roses (complete with whinnying and prrrrr-ing at the chorus); who thinks it’s more important to dress for children than for the Queen when both are in the audience and who, during high school art lessons when everyone else is painting still life fruit, makes a series of artworks featuring a depressed banana character?

The horse song and the depressed banana drawings are published in Emily’s debut poetry collection, Banana Me Beautiful. The photo of her meeting the Queen, wearing a ‘cartoon punk’ dress with puffin puppets on her fingers and children at her feet, is not.

The book is divided into three sections which contain writing, art and photography from three different periods in her life: age 9-11, 15-18 and 25-28. It documents her journey as a writer and a person and, although I have only read the first section so far, I already feel touched that she has shared such a personal journey with the world. The diary entry at the end of part one made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Banana Me Beautiful is available as an e-book from Chipmunka Publishing for £5. If you buy a copy you will be supporting a wonderful writer and artist and a publisher that raises awareness of mental health issues and encourages society to listen. The physical book paperback will be out in six months.

Who Wrote It?

A pupil went into my mum’s library today and asked her who wrote Dante’s Inferno. She said it reminded her of the time when another pupil asked who the author of Anne Frank’s diary was. Before my mum could reply, the pupil’s friend cut in: “It was her dad, wasn’t it?”

Here’s a little quiz I found so you can test your author knowledge. Notice that it is the easy quiz. I crashed and burned in the hard one.