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.

I Love Libraries

Some weeks ago I went to Brunswick Library looking for Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (it was recommended to me by some members of my non-fiction writers’ group in Edinburgh). The book should have been in the stacks but when a librarian went down to check, he couldn’t find it.

“It’s really unusual for a book to go missing from the stacks,” he said. “There’s not much I can do except reserve it for you and keep an eye out for it.”

Fair enough, I thought, because I don’t have unreasonable expectations about what can and can’t be retrieved from library stacks.

I pretty much thought the book was a lost cause so imagine my surprise when I popped into the library today and the librarian said, “There’s a message here for you: since we couldn’t find the book you were looking for we’ve ordered a new copy.” Then she apologised because that would mean a bit of a delay in me getting it!

I told her not to worry; I thought it was amazing that they were ordering a book for me, just because I requested it. What wonderful customer service!

Book Black Hole Conundrum

I knew it would cause trouble as soon as it happened.

I thought the trouble would come in the form of a bitchy post-it note stuck to the book I’d requested. Something along the lines of This is the second time we’ve had to pull this book for you, written in red biro, of course, with SECOND in block capitals and underlined twice.

Instead I got a phone call just as I was about to board a train into the city. You already had that book yesterday, the voice said.

I was quick to set the record straight. What happened was this: Yesterday I tried to request a book from the stacks but there was a system error and my online request didn’t go through. I asked a librarian for help. He clicked around with the mouse. “There we go. Your book will be ready in half an hour.”

“Oh, but I wanted it tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll just put another request in for tomorrow.” Click click click. “Done.”

I’m afraid you’ve been misled, the voice on the phone said. It’s not that simple. We’ve got millions of books, and get hundreds of requests a day. We took back the book you requested yesterday and haven’t been able to locate it today. I’ve had two members of staff looking for it.

I asked if I could request it again for sometime next week.

No, it won’t work, because we’ve got millions of books and hundreds of requests to deal with each day…

“But what happens if you’ve got someone doing long term research who needs to use the same book every day over a long period of time? Is that not possible?”

In that case you can reserve the book. If you like I can give you a tinkle when we locate it and put it on reserve for you.

“Ah, OK, I understand. That would be great, thanks.”

But I don’t really understand. I don’t mean that I’ve got no sympathy for the people who manage the library’s huge collection, or that I’m unforgiving about the situation. I mean that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to work with millions of books..

A million dollars. I know what that’s worth, but I don’t know how many suitcases it would fill in $10 dollar bills. 10 suitcases? 100? A room full of suitcases?

It’s the same with the books. Are we talking about kilometres of shelving here? Is my book on a long overnight journey in a robotic car through a canyon of shelves back to where it came from? But it can’t be, because it took half an hour to get from its shelf to the library reading room in the first place, so surely only it should have only taken half an hour to get back to where it started? It must be sitting there on the shelf right now, right under the noses of the two staff that have been looking for it; that phenomenon where the very thing you’re looking for becomes invisible the moment it comes into direct eye line.

It’s the physics of the situation that’s so difficult to get to grips with. There must be some kind of variation in the properties of time depending on whether a book is moving in or out of the stacks, or a change in the light reflecting properties of recently disturbed books. A book black hole, perhaps?

It’s a mystery, all right.

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.

Interview with Tess Gerritsen

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen talks about her latest Rizzoli & Isles medical thriller, The Killing Place.

The night before I am to meet Tess Gerritsen at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, her publicist texts me to say that they are on a “smog schedule” so could I meet them at Gerritsen’s hotel instead? I agree, although I have no idea what a smog schedule is. Some kind of industry insider code? Or is Gerritsen, who will be travelling on to Newcastle after our interview, concerned about poor visibility affecting the next leg of her journey? This is Scotland, after all.

The answer is neither. The apologetic publicist explains the following day that they are in fact on a tight schedule and the word mix-up was the result of texting while tired.

Gerritsen herself is bright and lively when she meets me at the hotel reception. Although she only arrived in the UK from her native Maine a few days earlier, she has miraculously avoided jet-lag and was on top form the previous evening, entertaining an audience at the Edinburgh International Book Festival by recounting the real life incidents that have inspired medical thrillers. Dinner conversations, news stories and even the antics of her sons have given Gerritsen the glimpse of the macabre she needs to spin out a terrifying plot.  “I go for the dark stuff. I’m always looking for things that are disturbing because I think that people are interested in those topics.”

The inspiration for The Killing Place came from declassified U.S. federal government reports about an incident in the sixties where thousands of sheep were found dead in a valley. Gerritsen was shocked by the reports because she realised the same thing could happen again to an entire city. She knew she had hit on the idea for a great story because “the emotion around the inciting incident was like a punch in the gut.”

The Killing Place is the eighth book to feature police detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Dr Maura Isles. Gerritsen turns the traditional relationship between the crime solving duo on its head in this novel when Maura goes missing, leaving Jane to track her down.

After the GPS leads Maura and her travelling companions along a road that is closed in winter, they find themselves stranded in the mountains during a snow storm. They think they have been saved when they stumble upon an isolated village but it is soon clear that something sinister has happened in the tiny settlement of Kingdom Come: the houses have been abandoned, meals left untouched on kitchen tables and cars still parked in garages. With nowhere else to go, the group sets up shelter in one of the deserted houses but it isn’t long before they realise that there is someone out there in the woods, watching them. Days later, a burned out car is found with four bodies inside, one of which is identified as Maura Isles. Jane Rizzoli is determined to prove the identification wrong and to find out what really happened to her friend.

“I think that the best mysteries are when the character has an emotional reason to want the case to be solved,” Gerritsen explains. “What sort of creeped me out about this idea was the abandoned houses and the meals left on the table. I like to take something that looks like a horror story on the surface but in fact there’s a logical explanation for it.”

As with all of her medical thrillers, The Killing Place has its share of gory drama which Gerritsen’s background in medicine left her more than equipped to deal with. (She trained and worked as a physician before becoming a full time writer.) “This particular book did not have a lot of research involved. I went online to find cases of GPS disasters. There have been a lot of people who have had accidents or who have died, in the US especially, because we have a lot of very solitary places, a lot of wilderness. There have been people who have been stuck in the snow for weeks because they’ve driven down a seasonal road.”

The Killing Place sees the introduction of two new characters, troubled teenage runaway Rat and his dog Bear, who Gerritsen reveals will be making a comeback in a future novel. “Rat and Bear are going to be more a part of Maura’s life in the future. The next book is not going to have them but I think in the one after that I may show them at their new school.”

The Killing Place by Tess Gerritsen jacket image

The Killing Place is out now in Bantam paperback (£7.99).

Update – 11th Jan 2011: According to an article in the Bookseller, The Killing Place is now number 1 in the Official UK Top 50 books.

Medieval Helpdesk

If you have signed up for Scottish Book Trust’s mailing list, you will have received their Christmas e-mail complete with a link to suggestions of 21 ways to procrastinate online this Christmas. Check it out. There’s a website recommendation from me in there too.

My favourite was Caitrin’s link to the Medieval Helpdesk sketch on youtube:

Do you  have a favourite book or reading related website, video, blogs etc. that you would like to recommend?

Interview with David Wishart

Meet the historical crime writer who has made a career offering alternative solutions to Roman mysteries 

David Wishart is a cooking enthusiast. Dried herbs are strung across the ceiling of a kitchen bursting with pots and pans and other cooking paraphernalia. As we sit down to a delicious meal of homemade fish soup and pizza, he tells me enthusiastically about his pasta making machine and tarte flambée board. When he is not writing or experimenting in the kitchen, he is out on long walks with his two dogs, a pastime that gets his creative juices flowing. Aside from cleaning, which we both agree is a waste of time, the one thing you won’t find him doing is promoting his novels. “It’s something I’m ashamed of, but I don’t like networking or marketing. I’m not an author, I’m a writer. A writer just writes.”

After graduating from university with a degree in Classics, Wishart spent several years abroad teaching English, a role he describes as “the best job in the world if you like travelling.” It was while he was living in Greece that a strange dream inspired him to write his first novel, a mad sci-fi adventure where a six foot high table lamp, a giant bottle of aspirins and a teenage girl go in search of a powerful energy transformer masquerading as a pomegranate. “It’s off the wall and it’s fun,” he says. “I thought that I was a children’s writer and I would write science fiction or fantasy.”

His first published novel, however, was an entirely different beast. The inspiration for I, Virgil, a fictional autobiography of the Roman poet, came from an essay he had written as a student at the University of Edinburgh. “It wasn’t a crime book but it did have an historical puzzle and that’s what interested me.”

Wishart began to seek out other historical puzzles that would make interesting novel plots and the next one he came up with was “Why was the Roman poet Ovid sent to the Black Sea and never allowed back?” His novel Ovid was the first to feature Marcus Corvinus, the Roman nobleman sleuth who would go on to star in a whole series of historical crime novels.

“Corvinus started out as a real surprise to me. I had a sort of character in mind – middle aged, certainly, and very straight down the line – but I couldn’t get him to come alive.” Wishart spent three days in front of the computer unable to write until one day, while slumped in his chair in a dressing gown with a glass of wine in his hand, the character suddenly started talking to him.  “He wasn’t the person I had thought he was at all. He was 19 for a start, and he was this total immature, yuppie, spoiled brat. It was so surprising but he was absolutely right and I was chuckling. And after that the book wrote itself.”

The books in the Marcus Corvinus series are humorous, with the characters speaking in modern dialogue. The complex plots can generally be divided into two categories: political mysteries and whodunits. In both cases, Wishart likes to base the story around a documented historical event, using the facts to come up with a new, fictional solution. “It’s a bit like doing The Times crossword: you’ve got to produce an answer that covers all the bases. In crime novels you can’t finish up with the accepted explanation, otherwise it’s just an historical novel.”

Wishart works out the solutions to the historical mysteries he is writing about in much the same way Corvinus does. “I’ve got a list of characters and I imagine how and why each one could have done it.” Wishart, and correspondingly Corvinus, work through the list of key players, formulating theories and eliminating suspects as new information comes to light. “It’s almost like a checklist. At some point you’ve got to put a cross.”

Corvinus is kept on track during his investigations by his sharp-as-a-tack wife, Perilla. “He’s very clever but his enthusiasm and cleverness carry him away beyond the point where he thinks. He’s impulsive. Perilla is a lot more logical. She’ll be looking for flaws and problems. I can let Corvinus take the reader down the hypothetical path and then let Perilla stop that and take them back to reality. At end of the day it’s got to make sense. Perilla is a brake on fanciful plotting. She keeps me, not just Corvinus, on the right line.”

By unravelling the mystery in this way, Wishart ensures that the reader and Corvinus are always at the same level. He confesses to hating crime novels where the writer is purposefully withholding clues from the reader. “That’s why I like writing in first person: you get to assume the reader is fully apprised of what the character is thinking.”

One aspect of first person narrative that sometimes causes difficulty is that the reader must be able to empathise with the character. “Some aspects of Roman life would be completely alien to us and would break the empathy. For example, the real Marcus Corvinus wouldn’t have had an issue with slavery at all. Slaves were ranked below domestic animals. They weren’t people.” In the novels Wishart sometimes has to “blur over reality” so that modern day readers can identify with the characters.  The fictional Marcus Corvinus has developed a camaraderie with his slaves, putting up with his temperamental cook’s mood swings and concocting plans with his wife to help his major domo get a girlfriend.

On the whole, Wishart likes to portray Roman life as accurately as possible. He admits to already having a comprehensive knowledge of Roman history thanks to his Classics degree. He supplements this by further reading into the background of each novel. “The most useful source of research has been the 19th century Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities, two solid volumes of everything you ever wanted to know about Roman and Greek background.” He researches his topic thoroughly before starting to write. He stresses that “you have got to let the character tell the story” and for that reason he has to know everything he can about the background history so that the character doesn’t “walk in a direction you don’t know about.” He likens his theory to seaside binoculars: “you can turn them any way you like but when the money runs out the shutter comes down and you’re blind. If you think your character is going to turn right because you’ve researched that area and he turns left instead, it’s like the shutter coming down.”

He warns against letting the extent of your research show in the writing. “I find that very annoying because it breaks flow of plot. Research is a bit like an iceberg. One tenth of it appears in the book but the other nine tenths aren’t lost, they give the one tenth stability. The reader should think that if they got the author into a corner and said ‘tell us a bit more about this,’ the author could do it. It gives you street cred as an author.”

As well as schooling himself on the historical background, Wishart studies maps of Rome for place names and geography. Surprisingly, he did not actually visit Rome until after he had published several books in the Corvinus series. “Until comparatively recently my only source for the topography of Rome was an early 19th century classical atlas.” Although he planned several trips to Rome, he was always thwarted at the last minute by a series of disasters, from sinking ferries to outbreaks of farming diseases.  His sixth attempt to reach the city was successful but, “two days before we left the pope died. I feel personally responsible for that.”

While in Rome, he felt more connected to his characters, noting that they seemed to “come alive”. He describes an instance where “Corvinus almost took over.” While travelling on the underground with his wife, he noticed someone trying to pick his pocket. “I got him by the throat and I wasn’t letting go. The door opened and he kicked me and took off. I took off after him, grabbed him and I literally lifted him off his feet and slammed him against the wall.  He thrust this bag at me. He didn’t get anything and we won, but it wasn’t me, it was Corvinus.”

Having a strong relationship with your characters is, according to Wishart, the main advantage of writing a series of novels. “They’re all friends. You don’t have to get to know them as you would new characters. You’re straight in there and you can watch them develop. At the beginning, Corvinus had only his own opinion and that was it. Now he can see other people’s points of view, which is good.”

After fifteen years and as many books with Hodder & Stoughton, Wishart has moved to a small print-on-demand publisher with the latest novel in the Corvinus series, Bodies Politic. Being a “small fish” at Hodder, there was little money for marketing his books and he describes his frustration at seeing them disappear into a “publishing black hole”. He is much happier now that he is with PlashMill Press, who have recently launched a blog dedicated to promoting their authors and showcasing their work. Visit the blog now to find out more about Bodies Politic and to order a copy.

Portugese Palaces and Holiday Reading

Palacio Nacional da Pena, Sintra, Portugal

Palacio Nacional da Pena

Which palace would you prefer to live in? The one on the left, Palácio Nacional da Pena, looks all colourful and quirky from the outside, but inside the rooms are small, dark and overstuffed with furniture and ornaments. The one on the right, Palácio Nacional de Sintra, is less breathtaking from the outside (although the double chimney is quite cool), but the rooms inside are spacious and light and decorated with beautiful azulejos. It is also conveniently situated in the town centre, unlike it’s whacky counterpart which a one hour uphill hike from the Portugese town of Sintra.

We (my sister and I) decided that we would choose the Palácio Nacional da Pena on the condition that we could put a helicopter pad on the roof and redecorate the interior. Now who’s going to buy it for me?

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Aside from gallivanting around picturesque palaces, we spent an enjoyable couple of days exploring Lisbon, eating Belém tarts and reading. I read two of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano Mysterieslight, lyrical Sicillian crime novels with mafia, drugs, femmes fatales and gourmet Italian meals all thrown into the mix. I didn’t start at the beginning of the series because although my parents have the first three or four books at home, my sister and I bickered about who would get to read them first with the result that neither us got to read them.

I remember when I first moved to Switzerland swapping book recommendations with a friend. She said, ‘Oh there are these wonderful Italian detective novels but I’m afraid they’ll never be translated into English because they’re written in Sicilian dialect.’ It was the Inspector Montalbano books she was talking about, and of course they have been successfully translated into English, albeit almost a decade after being published in their original language. The Sicilian dialect is comically rendered as some kind of lazy London / New York accent in the speech of Montalbano’s colleague Catarella, who handles incoming calls to the police and passes on semi-accurate, semi decipherable messages (when he remembers) such as :

“Doctor Latte wit’ an S at the end jes’ called. He said that ’cause that they’re having that funiral service for that sinator that died and seeing as how the c’mishner gotta be there poissonally in poisson, atta furinal, I mean, the c’mishner can’t come to see youse like he said he was gonna . Unnastand Chief?”

Catarella’s appearances in the books are, however, so infrequent that I wonder why my friend thought his peculiar dialect would be a barrier to translation. Perhaps the books were originally written entirely in dialect but only Catarella’s small contributions have made it into the English translations to provide a little flavour? Regardless, the English versions are lively, colourful and delicious reads, ideal for whiling away hours on a sunny beach.

What are your holiday reading recommendations?