Show 040: March 2011
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NewsMy reading group and I are thinking about what ten books to read next year. The books we read often confront issues; we’ve just read To Kill A Mocking Bird, and are at present reading The Book Thief. One of the members suggested we read a modern Egyptian novel, given what is happening in north Africa and the Middle East, because we have often found that reading novels about a place or a time give us a special insight.
It is soon going to be the Scarborough Literature Festival ‘The Long Weekend’ and it seems to me that this particular weekend gets longer every year. I’ve got the great privilege of interviewing Margaret Drabble, Sarah Waters, Joanna Trollope among others this year.
But it is also a less comfortable story of anti-Semitism, and the darkening storm to come., telling how the family was broken up and somehow this small collection survived through the war years. A wonderfully sensitive and compelling read.
It was fantastic to get the inaugural Duncan Lawrie crime prize, because it came with money and enabled me to write for a year. It also put me in touch with an international audience as my books started to get translated more widely. Money can be an issue for writers, The Society of Authors once worked out that most authors earn about £2500 each year from their writing.
In the twenty five years I have been writing the crime genre has widened and nowadays there is a place for more literary crime novels. I love the idea of setting out a mystery and letting the reader work out what is happening. I am two books away from my last Jimmy Perez novel set in Shetland, because I’ve been writing more Vera Stanhope novels. ITV have taken her up and I don’t want them to run out of stories, so I’m longing to get back to Shetland.
The Crow Trap, the first Vera Stanhope book, was meant to be a stand-alone novel, but I found I couldn’t do without the traditional detective appearing half way through, and Vera stayed with me and now there are another three novels.
I write all the time. There’s gap of three months between delivering a script and starting on another one. I don’t know what it’ll be about and I start out knowing nothing about the crime or the murderer. I first went to Shetland and worked as a cook on Fairisle the most remote inhabited UK island and just loved it. It always seemd a bit of a cheek to set a book there. We went up in mid-winter when it’s pretty well dark all the time and it was so dramatic. There was a scene of three black ravens against the snow, and I thought all that was needed was some blood to set it all off.
Crime is a way for me looking at ordinary people under stress. I’m not very good at plotting, so the traditional crime novel gives me some structure.
In terms of my own reading I was writing traditional crime novels until I read John Harvey, and I realised what could be done with the crime novel. I have to read the whole of the time I was writing. I’m chair of judges for the International Dagger so I have a stack of books by my bed. I love Karen Fossum and Fred Vargas.
For me writing is still an indulgence and if I have a couple of free days just to write it doesn’t feel like work at all. Work is the other stuff.
Poem of the MonthI write a lot about trees. This is a poem I wrote for Valentine’s Day. Read Silver Birch.
Show 039: February 2011
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NewsI have been editing and redrafting my finished teenage novel and writing poetry which still appears to me like a gift, but I’ve also been contemplating two major literary prizes which have been awarded recently. The first one to Jo Shapcott who won the overall Costa prize for her poetry collection Of Mutability where she describes her battle with cancer, and Derek Walcott winner of the Nobel prize for Literature, who won the prestigious T S Eliot prize with his collection White Egrets which appears to be a meditation on life and mortality.
Book reviewA Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
It’s about parents and children and it’s a book about eccentricity. Jasper Dean tells his family story from his prison cell. The whole family shares a capacity for gathering information and knowledge from books. This is a funny book and it’s full of surprises. It’s also full of regret and unexpected liaisons and meetings. You’ll feel at the end of it that you have been given ‘the whole’.
For me literary activist means doing things that are exciting and interesting. People don’t do these things unless they are passionate; otherwise you cant take people along that journey with you. The books I’ve edited are all ground-breaking, the first of, the only of….. Literature is one of the best mediums of bringing people togther and breaking down boundaries. ‘Literature is the most beautiful of countries’ is my motto for Sable magazine.
I did a West African studies course at university but there was not a lot of literature in there. My family is from Sierra Leone, and I wanted to find out more about ‘home’. My kind of activist stance was about who I was and what I was doing. Hardly any of the universities were doing anything about African of Caribbean literature and I felt there was a gap out there.
One of my influences was Glenn Thompson; he was African American, who started up Centreprize in London, which was part of a federation of community presses. He did a book called In The Tradition. I went to him and I met him, and asked him to do something like that for writers in England, and he said, ’Why don’t you do it?’. And I rose to the challenge.
‘Six Plays by Black and Asian Women’ came by default, someone owed me a favour, and they offered the editorship for the book. From this came the desire to run my own company and from that came ‘ Burning Words, Flaming Images’.
It’s the ten years since I set up Sable literary magazine; it came about because someone said no to me and I thought how dare they.. I wrote a review piece which was they wanted me to change, and then a story was returned to me from a publisher, and I realised that there were very few places to publish black writing, where writers can show a bit about the breadth of their work. I read an amazing interview in the Washington Post by Rita Dove, ’In the Shape of her Dreaming’. I wanted that to be the cover interview for Sable, I wanted something heavyweight. It turned out the first cover piece was by Linton Kwesi Johnson.
I loved Bell Hooks’ ‘Ain’t I a Woman’; it just hit me at a time in my life as a young black woman. The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahirii is an great example of wonderful short stories. It went on to win the Pullitzer Prize.
Home for me is people, my sister in the UK, but my great pull is West Africa. When I think what this government is doing to the Arts in this country I feel like setting up home in the Gambia.