Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Bitter Like Orange Peel

Bitter Like Orange Peel

If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees. – Kahlil Gibran, The Wanderer (quoted in Bitter Like Orange Peel)

Who is Roger Price? That’s the question that hangs over this novel like the sword of Damocles. We do know some things about Roger Price. He’s Australian. He has a brother called Samuel and a sister called Constance. At one time he was a university professor. He’s had relationships with three women (that we know of). Initially he was married to Eleanor, a paediatric surgeon, with whom he had a daughter, Ivy, who has grown up and become a depressed archaeologist with a slight case of nymphomania, now settled in Seattle following a divorce and where she’s working as a waitress. Eventually Roger cheated on Eleanor with one of his students, Ailish, “[a] stunningly petite freckled redhead with the vocabulary of a well-educated eighty-year old” who is now a repressed English literature professor. They didn’t marry but Ailish also bore him a daughter, Kit, who, at the start of the book we learn is a twenty-five-year-old archaeology undergraduate who doesn’t like to get her hands dirty. Kit and Ivy are surprisingly close for half-sisters. Roger then moved onto Beth—now an alcoholic although probably not one when he married her (his fault?)—with whom he had a third daughter before vanishing from everyone’s lives and the general consensus is that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or so the girls have been told. But then Kit decides she’d like to see for herself and that’s when we, the readers, start to realise this is a family riddled with secrets. Why’s Eleanor sending Samuel money? How come everyone knows about Beth’s daughter apart from Kit? All families have secrets but most aren’t much to write home about. This is not the case here. So, yes, on one level we know who Roger Price is but we do we really know who Roger Price is?

At its core this is a mystery novel. And I couldn’t help but think of Agatha Christie as I read through it. Roger’s not dead, admittedly, but he may as well be. And one of the first things a detective will want to know when he’s assigned a case is: Who is the victim? Why did someone see fit to end their life? And since he or she’s not around to question he has to interrogate all available suspects to try to worm out the truth. The problem is none of them ever reveals the whole truth, at least not up front, because everyone seems to feel they’ve the right to withhold certain key pieces of incriminating (or at least humiliating) evidence. Desperately they try to reveal as little as possible:

[P]eople feel more in control if they have secrets, independent from the world’s demands.

In Bitter Like Orange Peel our quasi-detective (and quite possibly a victim herself) is Kit. But a victim of what crime? In an Agatha Christie we know the crime—it’s invariably murder—and we know the victim but we don’t know the perpetrator or his motive. We know some of Roger’s crimes—he’s been unfaithful at least twice and abandoned his children—but is that all? In Christie’s day adultery was a big thing but not nowadays. There has to be more going on here but no one, especially Kit’s mother (perhaps understandably), is very keen to point her in the right direction:

Getting acquainted with Roger is not going to define who you are. You don’t need your father to shine. You are already you.

This is, for me, the key paragraph in the book. Since there are so many women in this book it’s tempting to ignore the elephant in the room. Roger is like Big Brother. He’s virtually omnipresent. There are lots of books about people with daddy issues—Goodreads has a whole list—and the simple fact is that the life of every woman in the book has been affected by Roger, his presence but especially his absence.

PoirotWhen we get to the denouement in an Agatha Christie either Poirot or Miss Marple will go round the drawing room and reveal the particular truths about each one in attendance and it’s rare that there’s anyone there who has nothing to be embarrassed about. Okay, only one or two are the murderers but the rest are usually exposed as embezzlers or liars or cheats or drunks or something like that; they’re always a bit of a disappointment when you really get to know them well and that’s pretty much the case here. No one’s a murderer but they’ve all been keeping secrets and telling themselves it was for the best of reasons. But then in real life there aren’t very many heroes and those heroes there are we’re told not to seek out because they’ll find some way to let us down.

Jessica’s approach to tackling her subject is a brave one but not one that always succeeds. She writes in the present tense but shifts perspective so that one chapter will be from Ivy’s point of view and the next from Kat’s and then one from Eleanor’s and so on but she still retains an omniscient narrator rather than have each character tell their own story. It’s tempting to think that this would’ve worked better but I suspect this would’ve thrown up its own problems. There are times when I would’ve liked to jump from head to head in the one scene but we can’t do that. This means that at the end we get a run of very short chapters barely a page long but it is an imaginative approach and what I particularly appreciated was her use of italics to indicate a character’s internal monologues although usually they’re just asides; you’ll hear them say one thing and then think the complete opposite.

Ivy walks toward the empty stool. It looks like Brian. It is Brian. Shit. I look like shit. Shit! She contemplates turning around and walking home in the rain, but he notices her too soon.

Of course it’s a contrivance because in the heat of conversation we don’t generally articulate the words but it works and works well.

orphan blackWriting from a number of different perspectives is hard. Two of the characters talk with an Australian dialect so they’re very distinctive as is the gay best friend who veers towards the caricature but I’m sure that was deliberate. (I couldn’t read a thing by him without thinking of the foster brother on Orphan Black.) It took me a while before I could separate Ivy and Kat from each other especially since both of them start new sexual relationships at the same time, Ivy with Brian, Kat with Sein. The same with their mothers and I kept forgetting whose mother was whose and needed to check my scribbled dramatis personae. More authors should consider using these. Seriously, they’re a great help.

Jessica’s a poet—I’ve reviewed both of her poetry books—and you would expect a poet to provide some arresting and vivid descriptions and she does but my main issue with her style is that she insists on describing too much. One of the reviewers on Goodreads said she felt as if she’d experienced “a metaphor and simile overdose” and I do get where she’s coming from. The only writer I can commend who can pile one metaphor on top of another and pull it off is William McIlvanney. I felt there were simply too many adjectives in this book. And too many unnecessary uses of the word ‘orange’. There are a lot of repetitive expressions, arms folded under breasts, tops of backs patted, hair fiddled with, furry teeth run over with tongues:

Kit focuses on the sound of Ailish’s clunky cork platforms clop on the wooden stairs. She runs her tongue across her furry teeth, gets up, and opens the blinds.

One of the passages that particularly bothered me was this one:

Brian steps foot into the international departures area at Sea-Tac. His eyes dart left and right searching for the Emirates logo and the correct flight number above the check-in desks. His breaths bounce up and down his throat like Ping-Pong balls. He ran from the cab, which was at a standstill in a bottleneck not far from the train line to the airport. He’s still in his tracksuit, unshaven, his finger throbbing where the splinter of Christmas decoration stabbed him. Toe’s still damn itchy and now inside a sweaty sneaker. Not much he can do about it except flex his toes in an attempt at slight relief.

This is a guy rushing into an airport with no time for anything. There are simply too many words here. We don’t need the bit about the flight numbers. We don’t need the bit about the table tennis balls. We don’t need the exact location of the taxi. We don’t need all that stuff about the Christmas decoration because we only read about it a couple of pages back. In her review of the book Ellis Henrika has this to say about one of the many similes in the book: “‘small pieces fall under her tongue like misplaced emotions seeking refuge.’ She's just eating a cookie, damn it. It's not the end of the world.” It’s a fair point. Books don’t have soundtracks and that’s what a lot of the writing feels like, like we’re being told what to feel rather than being allowed to draw our own conclusions. Might want to avoid reading that review because there are major spoilers in it. A good one to look at afterwards though to see if you agree with her.

This doesn’t mean that every simile Jessica uses is cringeworthy because they’re not:

  • This dial tone sounds like a nauseated robot.
  • Ivy coughs up a convulsive laugh a bit like a backward gasp.
  • Harold puts his hands in his pockets and smiles like a psychiatrist.
  • …jumping up and down on the spot like a child who won a trip to the fair.

The big reveal is left to the very end. And it’s a doozy. Did not see it coming. Should have because there’re crumbs throughout the book but that’s how good mystery writers do it. Afterwards—it comes right at the end of a chapter—we have two flashback chapters (the first in the book) which present two different perspectives on the same situation. We, the readers, get to find out the truth but no one in the room does which is very odd for a mystery and I can’t decide if I liked it. It’s one of those situations where there were only two people present—only two that remember anything—and so it’s a he said versus she said standoff and who’s going to believe someone like Roger when he says he’s innocent no matter what he’s being accused of? And that’s where we’re left hanging with a final coda tagged on showing us where the third daughter is while all hell is breaking loose. I’d love to explain more but if you’re going to read the book it’d spoil it and I’d rather not do that. The thing is that even if Roger is innocent of what he’s being accused that doesn’t suddenly turn him into a decent bloke. Even habitual liars occasionally tell the truth.

What I didn’t get was why the big reveal was left to the last minute. Once Ailish realises the showdown is unavoidable surely it would’ve been better tackling the matter quietly with those involved. Had they known the truth—albeit her truth—about Roger then they probably wouldn’t have wanted to see him at all.

The Midwest Book Review had this to say about the book:

A riveting reading experience from first page to last, Bitter Like Orange Peel clearly documents author Jessica Bell's impressive storytelling talents. Vividly crafted and memorable characters embedded in a complex, and constantly surprising, narrative, Bitter Like Orange Peel is solid entertainment and highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library contemporary fiction collections.

It doesn’t, however, say anything more. And that’s quite often the case when it comes to positive reviews. It’s so easy to provide examples of what’s wrong with a book. Not always so easy to say what’s right about it. I wonder why that is? I’ve read two novels and a novella by her and Jessica’s strength lies in her characterisations. Novels do tend to be either character driven or plot driven. Jessica does character better than plot. This doesn’t mean that Bitter Like Orange Peel is badly plotted because it’s not but it feels plotted. This won’t worry most people. It’s not something I like seeing because it reminds me that I’m reading a fiction. I like to forget that as much as possible. Good characters distract me and the better the characters the less I notice any structure. On the whole the people in this book came across as realistic—some were more real than others—but all avoided being archetypes or stereotypes even (surprisingly) the most cliché-ridden character of them all, the gay best friend. He’s also probably the most likeable character in the book too. And that will be a problem for some readers—none of the characters in this book have many redeeming qualities—but not this one.

Brighton RockIf I’m looking to buy a book and a reviewer talks about it as being entertaining I treat that as a black mark. I don’t read to be entertained or distracted. I want a reader to make me think and preferably about stuff I’ve never thought about before. This Jessica managed. Even “entertainments” can be thought-provoking. Just look at Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

The cover’s very pretty; quite eye-catching which is its job. My only gripe—and others have commented on it too—is that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the book’s content.

Reviews online are all over the place—as low as one, as high as five—and that’s not a bad thing. I’m always intrigued by books that divide an audience. The Road was like that, a real love-it-or-loathe-it book. I’ve read most of the reviews of Jessica’s book on Goodreads and they all make valid points. Richard Hartwell (who gives the book five stars) says, “it IS filled with perfect metaphors, uniquely-fitted and thought-provoking,” which contrasts completely with Ellis above whereas Sarah (who give it three) I think hits the nail on the head when she says in her review, “I get the feeling that Bell might have been trying a bit too hard when it came to her use of literary devices.” The book made Miranda Mowbray mad (she gave it two stars, upped from a measly one because “most of it was really well written”) and talks at some length about what she hated about the book. Luca Marchiori waxes lyrical about why it deserves five. In particular I liked his comment, “Many people have criticized Jessica Bell for making every one of her characters so irredeemably unsympathetic, but for me, this was the master stroke. It compelled me on to the end of the book, in order to see how each of these monsters would achieve their comeuppance.” Heather Truett was simply torn (three stars): “She made me vacillate between eye rolling annoyance and head banging frustration.”

Why such diverse reactions? I found myself lying in bed this morning wondering about this and other books that have such a mixed bag of reviews. Then I started to 50 Shadesthink about how one would classify this particular novel and I think the two are connected. It’s a mystery, yes, but not a neat one; there are relationships but it’s not a romance; it’s set mostly in Australia which for most of us is a foreign country but it’s not really a foreign novel even though it was written in Greece; most of its themes are adult in nature and there is a bit of sex but I imagine it pales compared to the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey although I seem to remember someone mentioning that book in a review. In Amazon it’s listed under Thrillers, Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Women’s Literary Fiction and Women’s Popular Fiction and this is probably its problem. It’s not an easy book to classify and you can listen to Jessica discussing the problems of pigeonholing in a podcast with Cath Murphy over on Lit Reactor; it’s a good interview. Personally I’m against classification. It raises expectations and invariably leads to disappointment. I suspect what most negative reviewers haven’t liked are the more literary aspects to the book. These are the very reasons I think you should read it even though I admit she isn’t always as successful as she might be. If we chose only to read masterpieces we’d be done in a month.

I don’t give stars. At least not here. I’m basically opposed to them because I don’t think any book can be reduced to a single number; books are too complex for that and readers are too diverse. I can, and will, say that I liked this book. To put that into context let me just say that the book I read straight before writing this review was The Appointment by Herta Müller (who won the Nobel Prize in 2009) and I liked it too. I didn’t love either of them. I loved bits about both of them. I disliked bits in both of them. I probably won’t read either of these books again but I will read both authors again. All of which underlines how careful you have to be when reading reviews. Do I think you should read Jessica’s book? Yes. Do I think you’ll like it too? Christ knows.

You can read excerpts from the book here and here.

I’ll leave you with an interview she did with Connecticut Style:


JessicaThe Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell, also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. You can read reviews of her other books on my blog by clicking on the following links:

(I’m not sure there’s another author out there who’s had five book reviews from me, at least not on this blog—I reviewed five novellas by Philip Roth on Goodreads only last year—so a word of explanation is probably due. I have a lot of time for Jessica. Like many other writers out there who have an online presence we’re friendly but the reason that friendship developed is the fact she is uncompromising in her writing. She may bend somewhat in the marketing (when she submitted her book to Lit Reactor she requested a female review it) but we have to use common sense there and the simple fact is, rightly or wrongly, a book featuring six women is going to appeal more to women than men. There’re very few literary novelists out there who are making it work and she is. And more power to her elbow. Which is why I’m willing to promote her work. The first sparkly vampire I find in one of her books, though, and we’re done.)

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest. She’s also written a growing series of pocket guides where she provides advice on writing. So far there are three: The Six Senses in a Nutshell, Adverbs and Clichés in a Nutshell and Show and Tell in a Nutshell. Her next novel will be called White Lady. “It's set in Melbourne Australia and is about a young woman named Mia who is fighting fat with white ladies,” says Jessica. Oh, and she does a bit of singing in her spare time.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The case for self-editing


Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing. – Richard North Patterson

I’ve nothing against editors. Let’s get that out of the road right away. But there’s editing and there’s editing. How many editors get name checked on the cover of a novel? Maybe in the acknowledgements buried in a list of names that doesn’t usually make it clear who’s done what. It’s the same with films. I can name the directors of a dozen great films but I’d be struggling to think of the scriptwriters’ names for any of them and if things go belly-up it’s usually the director who gets the blame. It should be the same with a book: the person whose name is in the biggest print should stand up and be counted. I wrote a book called Living with the Truth. My name is on the cover. The half-a-dozen typos that slipped through in the first printing are my fault and no one else’s.

And, before you ask, that book was professionally edited when I first sent it out looking for a publisher and, more recently, copy edited and proofread by someone apart from me; in fact three other people examined the proofs and found things to fix—clearly not all that was needed, but then it wasn’t their book, it was mine. The buck stops here. I won’t make that mistake again—in fact, my goal is to have my editors hand the work back with a “Hey, I couldn’t find anything to change—great job!”

Let me tell you what I hate. I hate artists who have assistants. I love watching documentaries about art but I hate it when you see inside an artist’s studio—Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst jump to mind but this is nothing new—and there’s a team of other artists working for them, literally painting their paintings and I’m not saying they don’t get paid for their work but whose signature goes on the work of art? Who gets the big bucks? Whose name goes down in art history? Okay, fair’s fair, I’m not saying that Hirst didn’t need a bit of help getting his shark cut in half and into its tanks but one does have to wonder how much work Hirst actually did. His was the idea and a great idea it was, too, but did he even make the tanks or were they just ordered and built to his specifications? He didn’t make the shark. He probably never even helped to cut the thing in half. He should be called a designer, at least in this instance. His design was great and it works as art, yes, but is he the artist?


But back to the topic in hand. There are good reasons why an author shouldn’t self-edit. Top of the list is that you’re too close to the work and I would agree. Which is why you should leave a long time between writing and editing. And by ‘long time’ I don’t mean a couple of weeks. I mean a long time. Of course it all depends what you mean by editing. Does rewriting count as editing?

Editing is polishing. By the time most of the things we get to polish appear on the scene all we need to do is give them a skoosh of Mr Sheen and a wipe down with a cloth, but there are levels of ‘polishing’:

When an unpolished surface is magnified thousands of times, it usually looks like mountains and valleys. By repeated abrasion, those "mountains" are worn down until they are flat or just small "hills." The process of polishing with abrasives starts with coarse ones and graduates to fine ones. – Wikipedia

Ever wondered what happened to Sisyphus?

It’s simple physics really. Over time the boulder was worn down by the constant rolling and even the hill stopped being quite so steep. After a while, albeit a very long while, he could carry what was little more than a rock in his hand without breaking a sweat. – Exit Interview

The four main types of editing are developmental editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. So what the heck is the difference? And who’s responsible?

At the developmental stage you’re getting in there with a chisel and a hammer. This where you’re looking for the big stuff like plot holes and bloopers and this is where alpha and beta readers come in because at this stage you’re probably in one of two states: you think this is the best thing you’ve ever written or the last thing you’ll ever write. When my wife, who gets to read everything I’ve written before anyone else, read Exit Interview she mentioned that the protagonist knew a lot about the Bible and yet came from a family who had no interest in religion. She thought that might need some explanation and she’s probably right. Easily fixed. Doesn’t change the story. But is that editing? Or is it simply her offering her opinion? A book is a collaborative enterprise. It needs a reader to make it work and, just as with a tool, not all readers know what to do with a book when they get their hands on it. Maybe the next dozen readers won’t think twice about that, Maybe she’ll be the only person ever to think that needs clarifying—she’s my alpha reader, not my co-author—but I’ll keep what she said in mind.

Line editing focuses on the sentence or paragraph level, rather than the broad story-scope of your novel. I do more of this than anything else, what Philip Roth referred to, so beautifully, as “turning around sentences”:

The-Ghost-Writer-195x300I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. . . . Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I'm frantic with boredom and a sense of waste. . . . And I ask myself, Why is there no way but this for me to fill my hours? – Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer

I spend more time doing this that I do writing the story. I do it whilst writing the story. I’ll have barely written a sentence then I’m in there turning it around. I love this bit. Thinking up stuff to write about and then writing about it is the hard stuff but playing with words on a page is something I could do all day long! What could be more fun than that? So before my wife gets her hands on my book at the developmental stage it’s already been line edited and partly copy edited. These stages aren’t necessarily chronological.

Copy editing is about grammar, punctuation, and proper word usage. This bit I don’t like so much. This is where you need to do global searches of your text looking for the word ‘that’ or extra spaces. This is where you look at every comma and question every adverb. This is grunt work but it’s still writing. This is what artists like Koons and Hirst delegate to others. I think they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter that they could’ve done this stuff; they should’ve done it and then signed their work with pride knowing it was all their own work.

Proofreading is the final step in the editing process and results in the final don’t-touch-it-again draft. This is where you are supposed to catch spelling mistakes, typos, missing words, isolated punctuation errors and the like. This is the hardest part because by this time you’ve read the text so many times that you’re no longer reading it, you’re remembering it. Also, the brain has this knack of being able to ‘fix’ typos while you read. Try reading this:

I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.

This is the easy one with just the inner letters mixed. Click here for the next two levels. I was amazed how much of the first one I could read.

Spelling is irrelevant to comprehension. I reread Making Sense twenty times from cover to cover and on the last read I still found a typo. Can you believe that? No one’s informed me of any mistakes in the final copy but I wouldn’t break down and sob if there was one or two because proofreading is very hard. It’s hard, too, if you’ve never read the book before because you get caught up in the story and forget why you’re there.

The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld is a man after my own heart:

[H]e deplores the way contemporary authors 'cover us with words'. He hides each finished manuscript in a drawer for two or three years, before returning to prune it further. The results are tightly packed sentences like this: 'In the ghetto, children and madmen were friends', sentences loaded with magical, terrible potential.


'I don't write easily,' he explains. 'Writing is always taking out a piece of yourself; it's a mixture of pain and pleasure.' – Hephzibah Anderson, ‘One man's road to freedom’, The Observer, 21 August 2005 (bold mine)

smallCan you imagine finishing your book and then sticking it in a drawer for two or three years before even looking at it again? Nowadays, especially since the advent of the ebook, books are … let’s just go with ‘finished’ … and uploaded within days and so it’s no wonder that many look down on them. And I’m not saying that these books weren’t edited and often by a third party and for cash but I still think that’s too quick. I was telling a friend about Exit Interview and he was asking me when he might see it in print. I told him probably about 2019, maybe 2020, if my book releases go according to schedule. I intend to start editing The More Things Change in about six months—when I’ve finished the main marketing on Making Sense­—a book I ‘finished’ in March 2003. I can’t imagine spending less than six months on it. At least it’s not in nineteen different voices; editing those short stories was hard.

My wife has a phrase she’s very fond of—“Close enough for government work”—although she used it long before she ever worked for the government. I get the phrase and understand it—I also worked for the government for many years—but it’s not a phrase I identify with because I wasn’t that government worker; I held myself to a higher standard. I’ve never been one for getting away with things. I’ve never cheated in an exam. I’ve never seen the point. Stuff like that invariably comes back to bite you on the bum.

When I sat down to look at my short stories, the ones collected in Making Sense, it had been about thirteen years—yes, years—since they were first written and I’d barely glanced at them in the intervening period. Some had been published but I hadn’t tried especially hard to get them into print. That’s a long time. It was like coming to these stories afresh and I was disappointed to see how much work they needed to bring them up to spec. The basic stories were fine—I never changed a thing there—but they were sloppily-written. So I started editing. I began with the first sentence in the first story which I read, thought about and fixed. Then I moved onto the second and so on until I got to the end and then I started again. Not every sentence needed fixing this time but an awful lot did and so I fixed them a bit more and then I started again. Then I sent the manuscript to my beta reader who made a few comments which interested me—he noted how interconnected the stories were (even more so than I’d realised)—and so I started refining them, grafting in a bit here and there to underline their interconnectedness. Then back to line editing. Six months later, having now been though the book eighteen times, I passed it onto my wife (who is an editor) to copy edit. What was left for her to fix? A few commas, a couple of typos and spelling mistakes, nothing much and that, to my mind, is how it should be. But even then I still went through the book another two times proofreading it myself before I passed it back to her to ready the PDF for the printer.

So, I don’t write alone but … I don’t know—what percentage shall we put on it? … maybe 95% of the work was done by me and no one else. My name on the cover. My responsibility.

I like to edit my sentences as I write them. I rearrange a sentence many times before moving on to the next one. For me, that editing process feels like a form of play, like a puzzle that needs solving, and it's one of the most satisfying parts of writing. – Karen Thompson Walker

I edit as I write—I agree completely with Karen Thompson Walker here. Some writers don’t. They breenge through to the end and then go back and fix the mess which is fine if that’s the way you prefer to work; there is no right way to write a novel. I can’t do that. I’ve barely written a sentence and I’m already fiddling with it. I reread constantly, often from the start of the book to where I’ve left off. I also, on occasion, read the prose aloud and nothing reveals badly-written prose quicker than reading it aloud. I don’t need to physically read the words out loud as much as I used to because I ‘hear’ them in my head but it’s still not bad practice, especially if, like me, you have a tendency to write longish sentences.

Editing is writing. I’m a writer ergo I must be an editor. I’m a better writer than an editor but then I’m a better editor than I am a marketer and that’s also a part of most writers’ job descriptions these days. Let me leave you with a final thought from Michael Morpurgo:

With all editing, no matter how sensitive –and I've been very lucky here—I react sulkily at first, but then I settle down and get on with it, and a year later I have my book in my hand.

‘Sulkily’, eh? Who says all adverbs should be cut? Some damn editor I suppose.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Tiny Wife


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

If you’ve read The Tiny Wife I imagine you’re scratching your head wondering why I would open my review to this delightful little book with a quote from Kafka because on the surface this is really the least Kafkaesque book I’ve read in a long time—it owes far more to the likes of Richard Brautigan or Tom Robbins (I was not surprised to hear Kaufman list In Watermelon Sugar as one of his guilty pleasures)—but as soon as I read the following I started to think a little differently about the book:

Chapter Fourteen

Eight days after the robbery, Grace Gainsfield, who had given the thief a small pressed flower that she used as a bookmark, had woken up in cold wet sheets and discovered that her husband had turned into a snowman. Getting out of bed, she stepped in a puddle on the floor. She looked back at her husband. His head was melting faster than the rest of his body; the left side of his face was lopsided, its mouth and eye sockets grotesquely elongated and droopy. The phone rang and, in shock, she answered it.
       “Did I call too early?” her mother-in-law asked.
       “No, no. I was up.”
       “Can I speak to Daniel?”
       “Um. He isn’t here.”
       “Where is he?”
       “At 6.30?”

What does Gregor’s family do when they learn he’s been transformed into a gigantic insect? What they don’t do is bat an eye. With characteristic Czechoslovakian stoicism they deal with it. When the chief clerk comes to see where Gregor is the family cover up for him:

"He's not well," said his mother to the visitor, while his father was still speaking through the door, "he's not well, sir, believe me. What else would make him miss a train! The boy thinks about nothing but his work.

You can see the similarities. In the real world, even in the Fringe or X-Files universes, anyone else would be in hysterics but this wife takes it in her stride, drags her husband down to the freezer in the basement and preserves him as best she can.

Kafkaesque situations are characterised by social alienation, the victimisation by anonymous bureaucratic institutions, the irrational terror of metaphysical powers, or the conflict between a weak son and an overbearing father figure, which lead to the individual's overwhelming sense of anxiety and hopelessness and are often expressed by rhetorical strategies like paradox irony, or sudden reversals in action. – Richard T Gray, The Franz Kafka Encyclopaedia, p. 156

metamorphosisNow that doesn’t really fit this book but there’s another literary term that gets associated with Kafka: magic realism. It can be argued that he invented the genre although that specific claim to fame tends to get overshadowed by those elements listed in the definition above. His story ‘The Metamorphosis’, however, does tick the most important box: a character breaks the rules of the natural world and people simply accept it. There is only one fantastic element in ‘The Metamorphosis’, the transformation of Gregor’s body—his mind stays intact— and yet the real metamorphosis is of his family, most notably his father, who changes both physically and mentally.

Was this still his father? Was this the same man who in old days used to lie wearily buried in bed when Gregor left on a business trip; who greeted him on his return in the evening sitting in his bathrobe in the armchair, who actually had difficulty getting to his feet but as a sign of joy lifted only his arms; and who on the rare occasions when the family went out for a walk on a few Sundays in June and on the major holidays, used to shuffle along with great effort between Gregor and his mother, who were slow walkers themselves, always a little more slowly than they, wrapped in his old overcoat, always carefully planting down his crutch-handled cane, and, when he wanted to say something nearly always stood still and assembled his escort around him. Now, however, he was holding himself very erect, dressed in a tight fitting blue uniform. – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, pp.27, 28

In The Tiny Wife there are thirteen instances of magic realism, many involving transformations, but I’ve got a bit ahead of myself. My apologies for beginning this review in media res. Let’s go back to the beginning and see what this is all about:

Chapter One

The robbery was not without consequences. The consequences were the point of the robbery. It was never about money. The thief didn’t even ask for any. That it happened in a bank was incidental. It could have just as easily happened in a train station or a high school or the Musee d’Orsay. It has in the past and it will in the future, and shortly after 3 p.m. on Wednesday 21st February it happened inside Branch #117 of the British Bank of North America.
       The bank was located at the corner of Christie and Dupont in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There were thirteen people inside when the thief entered: two tellers, the assistant manager, and ten customers waiting in line. The thief wore a flamboyant purple hat and brandished a handgun. Having a flair for drama, he fired a single shot into the ceiling.

The thief is not there to rob the bank. Money is of no interest to him. Instead he wants something personal from each of the thirteen people. He makes them form an orderly queue—he has a British accent and we do love our queues—and then lets them know what he wants:

I demand only one thing from each of you and it is this: the item currently in your possession which holds the most sentimental value.

So, David Bishop, the first person in the queue, hands over “a cheap-looking wristwatch … ‘My mother gave it to me – years ago, when I left for university. I’ve just gotten it fixed and started wearing it again;’ the next in line, Jenna Jacob, parts with “two wrinkled photographs” of her children; next again, the narrator’s wife (the narrator was not, however, in the bank himself), gives the thief a calculator and so the man works his way through the small group:

Daniel James gave him his wife’s parents’ wedding photo, which he’d been taking to get restored. Jennifer Layone gave him a dog-eared copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Sam Livingstone, the assistant manager, who’d stood last in line, handed over the paystub from his recent promotion.

All thirteen items in his possession the thief prepares to make his escape but before he does he turns and addresses his victims:

       “It has come to my attention that the vast majority of you, if you even believe you have a soul, believe it sits inside you like a brick of gold.
       “But I’m here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Your soul is a living, breathing, organic thing. No different than your heart or your legs. And just like your heart keeps your blood oxygenated and your legs keep you moving around, your soul gives you the ability to do amazing, beautiful things.
       “But it’s a strange machine, constantly needing to be rejuvenated. Normally, this happens simply by the doing of these things, like a car battery recharging by driving.”
       The thief stopped, put his arm into his sleeve, and sneezed. “Excuse me,” he said. He looked at his watch. “I’m really using a lot of metaphors today. Listen, I’m in a bit of a rush, so let me conclude. When I leave here, I will be taking 51 percent of your souls with me. This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives. But more importantly, and I mean this quite literally, learn how to grow them back, or you will die.”

TheStranger_BookCover3Shortly thereafter each of the thirteen finds out just exactly what “strange and bizarre” thing is going to happen to them or, as in the case of Grace Gainsfield, a loved one. Bearing in mind the book is called The Tiny Wife it will come as no surprise to you to learn that the narrator’s wife begins to shrink. Theirs is the only story we witness in any detail. All the others’ stories take over the course of a few paragraphs—like Sandra Morrison who becomes convinced that her heart is a bomb that will go off in ten minutes or Jennifer Layone (she’s the one who handed over the copy of The Stranger) who finds God under her couch—and a whole (short) chapter like Grace Gainsfield or Timothy Blaker, who’d stood seventh in line and who’d handed the thief an engagement ring; he gets his heart ripped out of his chest by his ex-girlfriend but doesn’t die (you can see why people reference fairy tales when they talk about this book) but don’t worry, he gets it back.

Some of the customers’ stories have been published separately. You can read two of them online

The blurb for the book says in part:

Stacey Hinterland discovers that she’s shrinking, a little every day, and there is seemingly nothing that she or her husband can do to reverse the process. Can Stacey and the other victims find a solution before it is too late? The Tiny Wife is a weird and wonderful modern fable. Small, but perfectly formed, it will charm, delight and unnerve in equal measure.

Okay, so is this a kind of And Then There Were None situation? Well, yes, in a way it is; not everyone dies but one by one they are eliminated. The group arrange to meet in the basement of St Matthew’s United Church but even their first meeting is not fully attended. Needless to say Stacey is there at the bitter end. By this time she’s calculated (remember she handed over the calculator) she has one day left before she vanishes completely. Will an answer come in time? Now, that would be telling.

Looking back on the story there are more quintessentially Kafkaesque elements there (albeit this would be Kafka-ultralite): Stacey feels increasingly alienated as time goes on although the thief is far from gone—he makes a habit of calling up his victims for wee chats. Instead of Stacey though he gets her husband:

       “Who do you think you are?” I started. “You fucking, goddamn – ”
       “Hey, hey, hey,” he interrupted. His voice was calm and reassuring. “Listen, maybe you should just, you know, listen, for once. Your wife tells me you’re not so good at that.”
       “What are you talking about?”
       “Calm down. Relax. I’ll quit baiting you. Ask me anything you want and I’ll answer.”
       I did not feel like talking to this thief, and I certainly didn’t feel like seeking his wisdom, but what choice did I have?
       “Why did you do this?” I asked.
       “Because it had to be done.”

Incredible-shrinking-manSo he plays the role of the faceless bureaucrat who doesn’t really answer anything (shades of The Trial there). Hopelessness is something most of the group have to face up to but especially Stacey who has more time than the rest to contemplate her fate. Her solution is: business as usual and her husband and kid buy into this. Now maybe in Kafka’s day they would’ve been happy to hide their dirty little secret away in their house but when Scott Carey, the protagonist in The Incredible Shrinking Man, begins to shrink the first thing he does is head off to the doctor who reassures him that he’s in perfect health and that "people just don't get shorter." When George Walterby who had stood twelfth in line and gave the thief his daughter’s pacifier learns that his baby’s started to shit money they still go to the doctor so what’s wrong with Stacey’s husband? I found his simple acceptance of things, although in keeping with the basic tenets of magic realism, unrealistic. What does he think’s going to happen? That’s my opinion. This Amazon reviewer disagrees:

This reminded me of the children's book Flat Stanley. In this, the wife is shrinking and there isn't panic and hysterics and tears but rather resignation and continuing as normal with an added obstacle to daily life. In Flat Stanley, Stanley's flatness is an inconvenience rather than a cause for wonder and panic as you would expect. I love this style, it is very fairy-tale esque, with a hidden message at the centre which you just have to dig a little to discover. – Anna Clare

Actually Dawn is the one to bring things to a halt—she’s been chased by a lion for several days (a tattoo that comes to life)—and appears a few times throughout the book trailed by her lion but we never find out any answers. Yes, you can have a solution without an answer. That’s okay in a fifties science fiction film—the thing gets killed and we never know for sure what it’s aims were although any fool can see it was there to obliterate all humankind—but I felt a bit cheated at the end of The Tiny Wife. I’m not the only one. Here’s what a few reviewers had to say:

I did feel that there was something, something I personally sought, missing - I don't know what, but for as much as I loved this, it holds me back from really loving it. – Shannon, 4 stars

It would have gotten five stars had the ending not been so abrupt, and maybe over time I'll learn to appreciate that more, that the ending was perfect, but I guess I didn't want it to end. – Craig, 4 stars

Had the end been elaborate and had the end explained anything about why the robbery occurred in the first place, it would have been one TERRIFIC helluva story. However, because it was abrupt and gave me the feel that perhaps the author was bored with the concept himself, I docked off two stars. – Shriya, 3 stars

Part modern fairy tale, part magical realism, I enjoyed this little fable and lost myself in the quirky tales of how the different characters were affected by the robbery. It is immensely imaginative and thoroughly charming. However as I came to the end I had a niggling feeling that something of the moral of the story had passed me by. Marie, 4 stars

I guess I wasn’t the only one to miss the hidden message. Still at only 88 pages I could easily sit down and read it again and probably will.

Looking at the seven basic plots it’s hard to say where this one lies. I’d probably go with Rebirth—where our protagonists are supposed to realise the error of their ways before it's too late—because that’s really the challenge the thief sets for them although, obviously, not all succeed. If the book has a moral it’s that you probably shouldn’t take life for granted but without any real backstory for these characters it’s hard to know if they truly deserve what happens to them, unlike, for example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Augustus, Violet, Veruca and Mike are really horrible brats. Dahl’s name crops up a few times in reviews and I can see why but, like Brautigan and Kafka, the only person Kaufman’s really like is himself.

The term ‘flawed masterpiece’ gets tossed around a bit too often, as does the expression ‘cult hit’ but this is the kind of book where both probably apply. If you are going to buy a copy—and despite my reservations I think you should—do try and find a copy of the hardback. It’s quite lovely. I can’t see the Kindle edition having the artwork and it is a nice addition. This is the second book by Kaufman I’ve read—I really loved All My Friends are Superheroes—and I will be reading this guy again. He says The Waterproof Bible is his best book. We’ll see. Let me leave you with the book trailer:


Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes, a story following the adventures of a man Andrew Kaufmanturned invisible only to his wife. This novella, first published by Coach House Books in Canada, has also been published in the UK and translated into Italian, French, Norwegian, German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and Born Weird. He is also an accomplished screenwriter for film and television, and has completed a Directors Residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He lives in East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga, and their two children, Phoenix and Frida.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Everybody lie down and no one gets hurt


As long as necessity is socially dreamed, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

How to read a book of poetry? I ask myself this every time I pick one up. Always I find myself looking for some kind of narrative. Why are the poems arranged in the particular order in which we find them? Where’s the poet leading me? Why’s the first poem the first poem? Why’s the last poem the last poem? Whether or not the poet put a great deal of thought or even any thought into the order I find myself still wanting to impose a sense of order on them. It helps if there is some common ground to the poems as is the case here. What follows is my reading of Everybody lie down and no one gets hurt. I have no doubt no one else will read it this way.

The first thing I noticed about this collection was the quality of the sound. I’ve known Colin for years and regularly read the poems he posts on his blog, Notes from a Glaswegian Immaturity—he has at times joked that I was his only reader—and his poems have never sounded bad although there has often been a roughness to them that I’m sure he would be the first to acknowledge although I expect he might prefer if I described it as an immediacy so let’s go with that. It always struck me that he was perhaps a little too keen to get his ideas down on paper without worrying much about the spit and polish. I know he admires Bukowski and so this isn’t a fault so much as an artistic decision and let’s be honest most of Bukowski’s poems are a bit on the rough side. There is, however, a sonorousness apparent here which I’m going to attribute to the fact Colin’s been a regular fixture at poetry readings in recent years and he’s clearly become acutely aware of the sound of his voice. Just look at the second stanza to the first poem in the collection:

Though there is sincerity in waiting,
stillness in the quiet of dark,
restless, peace soon settles
with the certainty of pulled curtains,
the warm seal of walls.
A room safe in darkness.

[‘The Drift and Special Ease’]

The number of internal rhymes and half rhymes (as in the case of ‘still’, ‘pull’ and ‘wall’) is striking as is the nice use of alliteration in the third line: “restless, peace soon settles”. These are lines that feel good in the mouth.

What the poem is describing is something that every single person who picks up this poem knows about intimately: falling asleep. It’s not a nature poem or a religious poem or a political poem. It’s not a poem that people are going to squabble over because we all know what he’s talking about. But just because we know what he’s talking about doesn’t mean it’s all that easy to describe. How’s he done? Well, okay actually but who wants to read a poem about some bloke dozing off? Well I do as long as that’s not all he’s on about. The trick—which William Carlos Williams pulled off so well with poems like ‘This Is Just to Say’ and ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’—is to make us reflect on the ordinary. And with a few well-chosen expressions like “there is sincerity in waiting” and “the certainty of pulled curtains,” Colin makes us look again at the commonplace.


It’s a strong opening poem which immediately sets a reader at ease because, as I’ve said, we all know what he’s on about. It also lays the book’s recurring motif: sleep. The word ‘bed’ crops up in almost every poem which made me wonder about the title: Everybody lie down and no one gets hurt. It really refers to the sixth poem in the book ‘Eyes Closed, See Nothing’ which sounds like it might be about sleeping but it’s actually about a bank robbery.

The first poem is about falling asleep. The second is about waking up. Is the person who fell asleep in ‘The Drift and Special Ease’ the same person who’s crawling out of bed in ‘Waking Up To It’? It’s tempting to think so. It’s tempting to assume these are autobiographical pieces which is why when we see the narrator waking up “on a single bed” we have to wonder what exactly he’s waking up to. The language paints a stark picture: “[a]n arm stretches in surrender”, “the hard facts of a shower”, “bitter morning”. One can almost imagine his first thought on waking: Oh God. I’m still alive. Of course he’s only getting out of one bed and straight into another:

Morning breaks in on time in shifts,
in exchanges,
in obedience
to the entire absurd histrionics
of the worldly compulsion,
to actually get out of bed in the morning.

(bold mine)

Okay, we’ve gone to bed, slept, woken, got up: now what? The third poem is entitled ‘La Société du Spectacle’so it looks like we’re going to have to face the big bad world. The Society of the Spectacle is a work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory by Guy Debord first published in 1967 in France:

Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation: "All that once was directly lived has become mere representation." Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing." This condition, according to Debord, is the "historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life." – Wikipedia

It reminds me of an old Steven Wright joke:

The other day somebody stole everything in my apartment and replaced it with an exact replica... When my roommate came home I said, “Roommate, someone stole everything in our apartment and replaced it with an exact replica.” He looked at me and said, “Do I know you?”

Colin’s poem begins:

The Revolution of everyday life
will begin with every one sleeping in.
Only when men and women
have slept in unexpectedly
will they experience
a momentary glimpse
of life outside of
spectacular society.

It sounds like some kind of manifesto. Who’ll be first against the wall after the revolution? They brush their teeth and rush to the barricades only to be informed by a friendly policeman:

‘Wrong era, folks.
Must have been a simulation.
Nostalgia from an old war film.
An idealist’s myth of gossip.
Memories of something better.
It happens to us all.
Good day.’

Debord writes in Society of the Spectacle:

The unavoidable biological limitations of the work force—evident both in its dependence on the natural cycle of sleeping and waking and in the debilitating effects of irreversible time over each individual’s lifetime—are treated by the modern production system as strictly secondary considerations. (from No.160)

Assuming this to be true then the first act of rebellion would have to be sleeping in. It would be best if people did it deliberately—and act of social unrest or would that be social continuing to rest? passive resistance—but sometimes it takes an accident to open our eyes to the reality of the world around us. Having read a lot of Colin’s work it’s no surprise to see some political comment here; after all he studied global politics at Caledonian University and he’s never been shy in getting things off his chest.


Religion is the next thing to be scrutinised by Colin in ‘The Forgotten Jesus’ written from the perspective of the resurrected Christ who moans, “I keep making people fall asleep.” He even imagines his father in his “Heavenly bed. / Dreaming of everyone and everything besides me.” If the Christian deities are either powerless or disinterested then who does that leave in charge?

I half expected an appearance from the Sandman, Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, but, no, what get next is Somnus. In Greek mythology, Hypnos was the personification of (and god of) sleep; the Roman equivalent was known as Somnus. The day—another day in a long line of days—is over and here we are back in bed again. But maybe this is a different bed.


Staring for hours at the wall
something keeps him wound.
How many nights go by like this?

Eyes pit-dark from digging
for what little light
is found in memory.


The clock weighs a lifetime.
He coughs, a cough of bronchitis.
How many years left?

Somnus has a brother, Mors, better known as Death. There was no revolution. We kept on working, kept on pretending. And now even sleep refuses to share our bed. Some nice imagery here too: “pit-dark” eyes and a “clock that weighs a lifetime”.

Now we get to that sixth poem, the bank robbery. Not much sleepy imagery here apart from:

Some hush fervent pleas
to be spared the dying end,
those who think themselves brave or bold
consider their move but do not move
and lie on like Sunday sleepers.

I’m going to say this is a dream. Sometimes we dream about reality and sometimes our dreams supply their own “dream reality” (to nick an expression from Bowie‘Quicksand’ in case you wondered).

We’ve had the bad dream, now the good dream in ‘Bed is a Pleasant Country’:

Bed is a Utopian state ruled by fantasists.
A gentle tossing and turning
does not disturb the peaceful accord
between the tranquil snooze treaty.

Bed is a womb warm bliss of primal memory,
a protectorate that nourishes with its boundaries.
May bed reign a restful century,
asleep in its own satisfaction.

Bedtime is when we find ourselves pondering the imponderable. And that’s where we end up next in ‘Nocturnal Questions’ where we ask ourselves questions like:

When will the ghosts of eternity
clean my dishes, hang up my washing
and rake the dry leaves in the back garden?

If Colin’s poetry is typified by one thing (apart from forthrightness) I’d have to say it was humour and I’m glad to see it’s not missing from this collection:

Wake up; Wee Willie Winkie has been sent
to put future generation to bed early,
before they can realise a wide awake revolution.
Tenderly in cots they are hypnotised
by Mothercare’s
dangling dream catchers.

[from ‘The Sleeping Epidemic’]

The next poem appeared in The Scotsman so I’ll include it in full and say no more about it:

Soft Wings of Z

Exhausted, we must sleep.
Soft wings flutter
from miraculous sleepers
on temporary spiritual altars
were the mind beds,
nurtured by weightlessness,
rescued by its warm charge.

In sleep we are given
a glance at disappearing;
a restorative cooling of the actual.

Nightly tunnel, from the prison of awake,
tend them gently through your passage,
until day break.

Beds, of course, are not only about sleep. The narrator in ‘Waking Up To It’ may well have been alone but not everyone is. In ‘Regarding the Couple’ Colin considers a selection of those who don’t crawl into bed alone, like

…the couple who pour and pour and pour
warm water from jugs, from trophies,
from mouths, over their bodies
and take photos entitled ‘Landscapes’.


Or the couple who undress each other
then redress then undress then redress
then undress until the pressure has burst
and they fall into bed hot and ravenous
for love, for hot sweating, bestial love.

One of the longer poems in the collection I can well imagine this is a good one to present before a crowd.


A short prose poem follows which didn’t do much for me. Not a great lover of prose poetry, me, especially poems that include lines like “O giant milky button’. Sorry, Colin. Read it here and make your own mind up.

In ‘Whitewash’ we’re back on track. This one I remember from before. I’m not sure the fear of nuclear annihilation is nearly as strong as it was when I was a kid but it’s still a possibility. This would be the ultimate big sleep, everyone asleep. The poem’s an injunction to everyone, everywhere to prepare in advance, to swaddle their babies in white linen, to spray-paint their cars white, to decorate every tree with white flowers so that…

When the enemies of sleep
come to put us to bed permanently
they will see clouds of white citizens in robes of Jesus,
in a City, for once, the colour of an ideal.

It’s a strong, evocative and downright poetic image. It might have been good to even finish the collection with this one but we have one more, a kind of coda:

Your voice melts a fist to sleep.

Your voice polishes stone
upon the warm pull of a pillow.
Your whisper is a white flag.
Your voice calls a truce,
slides a sheet over a world,

[from ‘Listen, Softly’]

And who doesn’t like to get tucked in at night? Or have we ended in defeat? Perhaps. We give in to sleep. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

At this point I thought a short Q+A might be in order:

I’m curious about the title. I can see where you got it but as a title for the whole collection It’s not one I would’ve gone with it. Your reasons?

Where do you think I got it from? The title captures the spirit of the collection. It is at once an aggressive statement (of a bank robber), but considered closely, it is actually calm statement, a call to peace and equanimity. I was more interested in the last connotation, to be honest. The title affirms the tone of 'an increase in equanimity' yet there is ambiguity because the statement is normally used and a highly aggressive, violent manner. I quite like titles that are short poems in themselves.

I only recognise one of these poems from the past—that would be ‘Whitewash’—and I get the feeling that you sat down and deliberately worked on poems around a theme. Am I right? If not, how come you write about beds so much?

There are quite a few poems in here from Riddled With Errors that have been completely re-written.

The collection became deliberately focused loosely on the subject of sleep, but many, if not all the poems, were written long before the idea for the collection came about, and they were slowly collated together. Many other poems were taken out. I was quite scrupulous not to include 'just anything' like Riddled.

I write about sleep so much because we are all exhausted from time to time, aren't we? Bed is a neutral place we share in common, at least as 'sleeping beings'. I calmed down a lot the previous year—quit alcohol, got serious, got focused, harnessed the drive, etc. This is the result of it. A calmer, more focused (arguably pretentious) bed ridden yawn in praise of sleep and bed, yet also a warning against 'political sleep of unawareness and social control and domination'.

As I worked my way through this collection I tried to establish a narrative. I don’t think I did too bad a job—you’ll have to judge for yourself when you read the review—but I’m curious how you came to lay out the poems the way you did, indeed how you came to choose some of the poems.

Why did you try to establish a narrative? This is not a novel. That said, there is a deliberate layout to the structure. I will not explain that deliberate layout. From the personal to the general. Then from the general to the particular by the end. Shh. I find it hard to hold my tongue.

I see quite an improvement in this collection from your first one—and I’m not just talking about typos—but I’m curious if you put down the improvement to the fact that you’re reading your poems aloud at public venues and, I would imagine, writing with a physical audience in mind.

There are only three or four typos that I noticed that remain in this collection and they will be fixed when the next batch is printed. They were not intentional, as with riddled with errors (which became a kind of intention). Quite simply, I am more focused, less chaotic and the poems reflect this. I don't write with a physical audience in mind. Though quite a few poems work as performance pieces.

The perceived improvement is not because of performance but simply my intention to write more coherently, more deliberately.

I didn’t read the blurb before I reviewed your collection. Having now read it it feels very… blurby and not at all how I felt about the grouping. What did you have in mind when you organised the collection? What do you expect the reader to take away from it?

I agree. Both blurbs emphasis my performance yet this collection is one of the quietest and least performance based reads you will have from McGuire; in that sense perhaps the blurbs are misleading.

I hope the book is seen largely as a positive collection. Resecting calmness and quiet. Yet there are some warnings and fearful tidings in there too.

I hope the insomniacs can get to sleep. The sleepers can revel in the warmth of bed. The political activists can wake us up. The book is idealistic in many ways. Take back our lives. Grow your own veg. Don't take part in the entire 'spectacle' of 'mediated reality'. But perhaps less, grandiose, the book hopes to remind us that there is a lot to be said for going to bed, curling up cosy and being gentle to each other.

How did it feel to have a poem in The Scotsman?

A small glory for a fleeting individual. How many people may have read it? How many went to bed early because of it? (None of course, I am being ridiculous.) Thing is, I didn't know exactly when the poem would feature and missed it, only discovering a few days after publication that it was in it. I am grateful to Colin Waters for getting it into the paper. My words? Shared at large? Great opportunity.

What’s next for McGuire?

McGuire will be reading, reading , reading… I am performing at StAnza in March [at the Poetry Café on 6th March at 1pm] which I am balled over by and can't wait. Then there is my second collection coming out in June with Red Squirrel Press. A larger collection, combining short stories and poetry. It is a much darker, sinister, wilder book. More on than to come.

Thank you for taking the time to take the time to consider my chapbook, Jim. Appreciated.

“Colin McGuire’s new book is the most exciting thing to happen to Scottish poetry since Colin McGuire’s last book.” So said Claire Askew on her site One Night Stanzas. She hadn’t actually read the book at this point but I have to say it’s certainly better than his last book. As I’ve said before I’ve known Colin for years. We’re friends in that Internety way people make friends these days. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sit here and praise him into the ground and I can tell you for a fact he was scared shitless I was going tear his poetry book a new one. And if I didn’t like what he’d produced… well, I wouldn’t’ve done that. I would’ve dropped him a friendly e-mail offering him a few helpful pointers and apologising for not having the time yada yada yada. There are too many books being produced right now to waste our time on rubbish. This is not rubbish. This is a solid, well-written, thought provoking collection and apart from the one prose poem which I didn’t like it stands up very well as a body of work. Obviously some poems are better than others but none—apart from the prose poem (Yes, Jim, we know you didn’t like the prose poem)—let the side down.

Everybody lie down and no one gets hurt is available from Red Squirrel Press. At time of writing I couldn’t see a link on the publisher’s website but there is one on Colin’s blog, in the right hand column. The striking cover, by the way, is by Kirsty Whiten and comes from her Monkey Relic Series. You can read an interview with her here.

I’ve leave you with a wee video of Colin on stage. Not one of the poems from this collection but that’s neither here nor there:


ColinMcGuire is a 31-year-old thin Glaswegian man who’s settled into Edinburgh's literary scene quietly but comfortably, touch giddy in the head, sometimes poet of mangled form and dirty prose, sporadic drummer, drunk grammarian, waffler, painter using crayons, lover, hater, learner, teacher, pedestrian, provocateur, wanderer, confronter of shadows, irritating whiner. You can read my review of his first collection, Riddled With Errors, here. He was a finalist in the BBC Fringe Festival Slam 2013, and performs widely in and around Scotland and the UK. He currently hosts the monthly Talking Heids in the living-room comfort of Sofi’s Bar in Edinburgh.

You can listen to a rather good interview with him over on the Scottish Poetry Library website. And, oh, I know the cover says ‘sit’ and not ‘lie’. I was working from an old PDF. The cover has now been changed.

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