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.

Know Better Now

(In response to Donna’s ‘It’s my birthday and I’ll suggest a Ramones themed anthology if I want to’ challenge.)

necklace“Honestly Mum, I didn’t do it,” I say as Mum is shown into the office by the same smug looking security guard who rugby tackled me as I left the shop.

Mum’s face is white. “I know you didn’t, Tracey. I’m sure this has all been a misunderstanding.”

The shop manager snorts. “We found this in her bag. The alarm went off when she tried to leave the store.”

Mum looks at the gold chain dangling from the manager’s podgy fingers. The quivering crystal drop deposits flecks of light on the desk. Colour rises in her cheeks. Only ten minutes earlier I had shown her that necklace and asked her to give me the money for it.

I know it’s looking bad for me. Mum does too. “What are you going to do?” she asks the manager.

“We can end the matter here, as long as Tracey agrees not to enter the store again. We have the necklace back and I think she’s learned a valuable lesson.” He smiles condescendingly at me. I wish I had a baseball bat so that I could smash his fucking teeth in.

“I didn’t do it, all right?”

The manager presses his fingertips together. “If you’re going to kick up a fuss we could always review the CCTV footage. I’m warning you, though, that if we see evidence of you stealing on camera I’ll have no choice but to prosecute.”

“Come on Tracey, let’s go,” Mum says.

I’m staring at the manager, hating him so much that he should dissolve into a greasy spot in front of my eyes. But he doesn’t. He stares right back at me, so I call his bluff. “Go ahead. Watch the footage.”


The black and white screen is divided into four. My stomach turns cold as I walk into view in the top right frame. Mum’s fingers wrap round my arm. “It’s not too late. Let’s just stop this now and go home.”

“Your mum’s right, Tracey. Why risk getting a criminal record when you’ve got your whole life ahead of you?” The manager is sweating. He knows as well as I do that the cameras may show nothing.  I can’t back down now.

Together we watch the black and white me on the screen lifts the necklace from its peg on the wall. I remember looking at it. I remember thinking, Mum would really like this. I remember how expensive it was.

Mum appears on screen beside me. There’s no sound, but our conversation is still fresh in my head. “Wow,” she said, when I showed her the necklace. I wanted her to have it but she said she couldn’t afford it. She’d just had to pay for my new school uniform and besides, when would she wear it now that Mike had dumped her? “If you give me my next three month’s pocket money in advance, I’ll get it for you,” I said. And she smiled and said that was very sweet, but I shouldn’t spend my pocket money on her.

Mum walks off screen. I’m still holding the necklace. I remember feeling the weight of it in my hand and thinking how easy it would be to just drop it. It would slither straight into the carrier bag over my arm. I glance round the shop to see if anyone is watching, then… I hang the necklace back up on the peg.

“See! I told you I didn’t do it!”

The shop manager has been perched on the edge of his seat, so sure that he’s got me. Now his mouth opens. For a moment he just stares, then he cries, “Wait a minute! Between this point and you leaving the store that necklace somehow got into your bag and I’m going to find out how you did it.”

He fast forwards, then stops when I appear in the bottom left frame. There I am, fingering some silk scarves when Mum comes up behind me. She’s telling me that she is going to Boots and I can meet her there when I’m done. Then, while I’m still studying the scarves, her hand reaches out, cupped like half of an oyster shell. She tips it downwards and the necklace flows into my bag.

The manager and I both turn to look at her. Her face is pressed into her cupped hands.

Some People Swore That The House Was Haunted

(I wrote this in response to Tsuchigari’s recent post about a Three Minute Fiction competition.)

Some people swore that the house was haunted. John had looked round the building, heard the wind howling through the broken windows and felt the timber framework shift and groan with the weight of the centuries

Belief was a matter of choice. He knew the strange noises could be explained by the house’s age and derelict state. If the villagers chose to believe in ghosts, that was all the better for him. He snapped the property up at a bargain price and began work to convert it into a hotel. He would make a killing from his investment.

But getting planning permission proved to be a frustrating process. While paperwork was shunted from desk to desk, his funds were trickling away: the roof of the house had to be repaired, the rot removed and damp dried. His golden opportunity was turning into a lead weight around his neck.

One evening when he arrived home, there was a message on his answering machine from a council inspector who had been to view the property that day. “There’s a complication,” the message said, “which may delay building works.”

That was it. He’d had enough. He drove out to the house, emptied a container of petrol in one of the ground floor rooms and tossed in a match. From the edge of the road he stared at the house, the fire a glowing red heart pulsing within its walls. A white flash in an upstairs windows caught his eye – for one icy moment he thought it was a face – then there was a roar as the flames ripped through the building and he realised it was just smoke that he had seen, smoke and debris which were now rushing into the cold night air.

Even when it had been reduced to a smouldering heap of charred wood and stone, the villagers still believed the house was haunted. Two boys claimed to have heard groans coming from the ruins; they were sure it was a ghost mourning the destruction of its home.

It was clear the blaze was deliberate, which meant the insurance company wouldn’t pay up. John didn’t care; at least the building was no longer a drain on his finances. And that would have been the end of it, if the council inspector hadn’t phoned a second time, three days after the fire. “It was probably that squatter who burned the house down,” he said. This was the first John had heard of a squatter. “I’m sure I must have mentioned it,” the inspector said. “Evicting a squatter’s tricky business. It would have set back building work by quite a bit; a real spanner in the works.”

It was with a sick stomach and an aching heart that John returned to the ruined house. “Is anybody there?” he called. Nothing. Silence. Relieved, he started to walk away but stopped when he heard a horrible, gurgling moan. “Is there somebody there?” he called again, but this time the words were a dry scrape in his throat.  Now the moan came more loudly and was followed by a frantic scratching from somewhere deep under the rubble.

The boys had said it was a ghost, but what if it was a man, burned and crushed by the ruined building, slowly suffocating to death? The implications of what he had done were too much to bear.

Belief is a matter of choice. John chose to believe in ghosts. He turned his back on the house and walked away a haunted man. Nothing was ever the same again after that.

My Stint at Story Shop

I did a practice run with some colleagues last Friday, with a dry mouth and a shaky voice, which I think got most of the nerves out of the way. On Sunday morning, the day of my reading, I practiced once in front of my sister, both of us in our pyjamas, and decided that I would imagine it was just the two of us again when I did the real reading to a group of strangers.

I got some good feedback from my colleagues and sister: show a bit more emotion, vary the tone of your voice, don’t read too fast, project your voice. I was lucky enough to  interview Michèle Roberts when she was up for the festival and she gave me some great advice: “Imagine that there’s a friendly being in the front row that admires your work and wants you to do brilliantly. I tend to imagine that my grandmother, who is dead, is sitting in the front row because she loved me and I loved her very much. If you know your text really well you can keep glancing at the audience and they love that because it means you really know that they’re there and you’re in touch with them.”

Luckily I didn’t have to imagine the friendly beings. My brother and sister were both there to support me so I instructed them to stand at the back and quite far apart so that I could look from one to the other and give the impression that I was making eye contact with the audience. The plan was that they were to smile when I looked at them which in turn would make me smile, but in practice it was quite a sombre story so the most I got was lips pressed together in acknowledgement that I was looking at them.

There were quite a lot of people there, but I was related to half of them so it was not as nerve wracking as I had imagined. Cousins from both side of the family came, an altogether weird situation which would normally be reserved for me or one of my siblings getting married. “Not much chance of that,” my sister said.

I think the best thing to come of it was my brother telling me afterwards that he was inspired to write a story that would be better than mine. And I feel inspired to write more fiction too, and a lot more confident about reading it in public. If you get the chance to read your story in front of an audience, go for it! I can tell you that there is life on the other side. And if you have any advice to share about short story or book readings, I’d love to hear it.

Michele Roberts and Helen Simpson – Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

“Walking about in London in flip flops you get these little curds of mud between your toes, tickling your bare feet. It’s a form of sexual bliss!” declares Michèle Roberts, introducing her recently published collection of short stories, Mud, to the Book Festival audience. Indeed it is a very muddy collection, from the “turned, buttery earth” in the title story, to the “stinking mud caking the cobbles” that signifies to Polly a backwards slip in time. For some characters mud is a source of nourishment and growth, for others it is associated with secret hiding places and private magical worlds; some, like Polly, are made dirty by it. 

Mud is also a very sensual collection, full of smells and colours and tastes. The book is subtitled Stories of Sex and Love and Roberts says, “Sex and love are often connected to food and eating in my fiction. They are difficult to write about because the language available to us is not good enough, for me anyway. It’s a language of lying.” She points to pornographic langauge about throbbing members and wave-crashing orgasms as an example.

Roberts reads to the audience from the humorous story A Vegetarian in France. I must be a very serious reader because I always find fiction funnier when it is read aloud. Poor Larry with his omelettes!

Afterwards Helen Simpson reads the short story Diary of an Interesting Year from her collection, In Flight Entertainment. It switches rapidly between moments of hilarity and devastation, the brief one line entires proving that sometimes what is left unsaid can be more revealing than what is put into words.

Simpson sees the short story as a “zoom lens. Sometimes it’s criticised for being small, but it’s not small; it’s just not panoramic. It’s a close up.” She describes herself as “a coral reef type of writer. There’s a little bit added each year. Short stories are wasteful in terms of money and time to write but you’re never bored. That’s why I write. Your only duty as a writer is to write about what stimulates your imagination.” Five of the stories in In Flight Entertainment feature climate change, a topic that is “hard to know how to dramatise without moralising. There are lots of statistics, it’s a depressing and boring subject unless you are a physicist. I’m just a layperson. I’m not very good at science.” So why did Simpson choose to write about climate change? “I like a challenge I suppose.”

In each of the five stories Simpson tried to find a different route into the subject. “One is a sales pitch and that was meant to be a comedy. She’s a carbon coach but that’s almost not satire; people are doing that now. One is an apocalyptic love story and one is about a death on an aeroplane where people are getting annoyed about the delay.” According to Simpson, deaths on aeroplanes occur quite frequently but not to worry, it’s usually in first class. Something to do with the age of the population who can afford to  fly in comfort. “I think they store bodies in the overhead lockers,” Simpson says. “Or else stretch them across three seats in first class, even if you die in economy. Apparently the first class passengers get quite shirty about that.”

New Writery Stuff

The Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Awards are open for applications from unpublished writers living in Scotland. £2000 and the chance to work with a writing mentor? Not to be sneezed at.

Previous winners of the award are starting up a New Writers Blog where they’ll be writing about literary projects they’ve been involved with, events and workshops they’ve found useful, and posting samples of their work. The first post, where Billy Letford talks about writing poetry under roof tiles, went up on Tuesday.

I’ll be reading one of my short stories at the Book Festival this year as part of Story Shop. My slot is 4pm on Sunday 22nd August. If you’re around, come along. As nerve wracking as it is to read in front of people, I think it would be worse to be talking into an empty room. Story Shop is taking place every day during the festival so I’m going to catch as many of the readings as I can. I’m looking forward to hearing some brand new Scottish fiction.

Opportunity for Writers: Story Shop

Story Shop gives new and emerging writers who live or work in Edinburgh the chance to showcase their work at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Successful applicants will be given a ten minute slot to read two short pieces of flash fiction or one short story to an audience in the Book Festival’s Bookshop. More information about this exciting UNESCO City of Literature Trust initiative can be found here.

If you are planning on visiting the Book Festival this year, Story Shop is a free event and a fantastic opportunity to hear vibrant new writing from Edinburgh.

Ring Truth

A few weeks ago my parents replaced their stair carpet. When they lifted up the old threadbare one they found a child’s silver ring underneath which they identified as belonging to my sister. “How did you know it was Barbara’s?” I asked. “Were her initials on it?”

“Trust me,” my dad said. “We both remembered it being Barbara’s.”

I had been hoping it was my ring, not so that I could claim it back from my sister but because if it did belong to her then there was only one explanation for how it had slipped underneath the stair carpet: I must have poked it under there myself. Indeed my dad confirmed this: “You know, it wasn’t just under the carpet but wedged right underneath the rubber underlay as well.”

I do remember now crouching on the stairs, curling my fingers under the frayed edge of the carpet, tucking the ring out of sight. I was only six or seven at the time and I had lost my own gold ring and been punished for it. It’s hard to say if I wanted my sister to suffer the same loss as I had or if I wanted her to be punished too. I suspect it was the latter. My gold ring did eventually turn up: a girl in my class had it. We had been playing weddings and we needed a ring for the ceremony. She had kept it after the game and it was under her bed for weeks before her mum found it and made her give it back to me. By that time I had probably forgotten about Barbara’s ring. I don’t think I intended it to stay hidden under the stair carpet for twenty years.

I feel so desperately sad at the idea that my sister was missing her ring all that time. I remember how devastating it is to be a child and to lose something precious. I feel guilty too, and it’s no consolation knowing that she has been reunited with her ring at last because what good is it to her now? She could wear it as a toe ring I suppose.

I guess it’s the writer in me but my first reaction to any strong emotion like that is to want to put it into a story. I recently read Sally Zigmond’s post on turning real life situations into short stories. It made me realise that I’m going to have to consider very carefully how much truth goes into my short story and how much fiction. I have a tendency when I write short stories to leave the ending open. That seems more honest to me than tying everything up neatly, because in real life there are no neat conclusions. However, as Zigmond points out, real life is not fiction. When people read short stories they have certain expectations that need to be satisfied, among them a beginning, a middle and an end. The real life ending of my ring story is not very satisfying so I need to create a new, fictional one. Writer Nicola Morgan says on her blog that you don’t need a neat ending, but you do need the reader to feel that at least some good degree of resolution and partial closure has been reached.  So how do I do this?

I was watching an episode of Frasier the other night, the one where Frasier and Niles take up the floor boards of their childhood home searching for a memory box they hid there as children. They do find the memory box, but also a human skull. Before calling the police, they decide to try to solve what they believe to be a murder case themselves. The starting point of that story is the same as mine: something hidden in childhood being found decades later. It might well have been based on an experience of the screenwriter. However, from that starting point the story moves in surprising directions, encompassing a police investigation, some hilarious theories and inevitably, a catastrophic misunderstanding. There is a definite sense of resolution at the end of the episode and I am reasonably sure that this latter part of the story is entirely fictional. Something for me to think about when it comes to writing my short story based on the reappearance of my sister’s ring.

A L Kennedy, What Becomes – Edinburgh City Reads

Due to what I can only hope is some kind of administrative error, I worked two days last week and now owe the company £24. This negative salary has only compounded an already worrying financial situation and I have resolved to work harder at writing and to try to make some money from it.

After a couple of productive hours in the library bashing away at an article and a few less productive hours back at the flat, I braved the sleet and went to see A L Kennedy at the third Edinburgh City Reads event.

Who knew A L Kennedy was a comedian? It’s no secret. She even takes her stand-up comedy show on tour. And yet I was completely unprepared for the hilarity of her reading of Story of My Life, one of the short stories in her new collection, What Becomes. It was proper, laugh-out-loud funny. At one point I had to press my face into my hands to stop my wine from shooting out of my mouth. (Oh yes, another great thing about Edinburgh City Reads: not only do you get to be in an audience with an author for free - similar events at the Edinburgh Book Festival would cost you £10 –  but you also get a free glass of wine. I always feel slightly naughty sitting amongst all the ancient books in the reference library with a drink in my hand and have to take sips when I think no one is looking.)

After the reading there were the usual audience questions. I’m about two thirds of the way through my shorthand course so I thought it would be good practice to take notes in Teeline. It turns out I still can’t write as fast in shorthand as I can in longhand so I didn’t manage to get everything down. Here’s a summary:

A L Kennedy is a fan of Shakespeare and would have loved to have met him. She thinks romance should be like it was in his day, when people wrote poems and letters to their sweethearts and love was this enormous thing akin to being hit over the back of the head with a frying pan

She enjoys doing readings and likes to present new stories to see if they work. “I’m an auditory person. I hear [the story] in my head when I write. [At readings] I’m hearing if the music is the correct music.” She doesn’t like travelling to readings so much because it takes time away from her writing. She writes in hotels and on trains to try to get some of this writing time back. The only short story she got in the New Yorker was written on a train.

She doesn’t plan her novels, although she spends about three years researching each book. “I’m researching as I go. I kind of start [writing] when it feels right and see how it goes. I get to a hundred pages and do a rewrite…but it tends not to be a catastrophic rewrite or an abandonment.”

She says that she does not “literally experience the emotions of the characters” she writes but she tries to “follow characters about” so that she can describe how they think and feel.

She always worries that her writing is rubbish. “I don’t like anything that I do that much. It’s always some kind of failure, otherwise I wouldn’t write the next thing. If I thought that I’d nailed it it would be disastrous.”

Despite the author’s own misgivings about her writing, I thought the story we’d heard from What Becomes was excellent and I was very tempted to buy a copy of the book on the spot. Then I remembered that I’m working this weekend so that’s potentially another twenty-four quid down the pan. Thank goodness we have libraries!