Wednesday, 26 September 2012

HarperCollins reviews my book, Inevitable

I finally, finally have my review from HarperCollins/Authonomy. You can read it here... Thanks to all of you who made this possible by clicking on links, writing comments, and all that kind of thing! I'm reasonably pleased with it - by now I know that it needs a lot more work - and hopefully with the help of my fantastic professor and classmates on my MFA in Creative Writing I can rework it to publishable standards. As to whether it's worth the effort and time invested in getting this review, well... That's another point for another day.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Author Q&A: Katie O'Rourke

Katie O'Rourke's novel Monsoon Season, is out this week, published by Canvas Books, who first spotted her on author showcase site Authonomy. Monsoon Season was one of the first books I "backed" when I joined the site, so it's exciting for me to see it come full circle. 

The book tells the story of Riley Thomas, whose first foray into adulthood hasn't worked out quite as she planned. A year after her college graduation, she's back at home with her parents in Massachusetts, escaping a dysfunctional relationship and other secret mistakes from her year in Arizona. 

We see what Riley has learned about love from the people closest to her, how she has grown into the person she is, and how she attempts to chagne. When she's forced to accept help, Riley realises that being independent doesn't have to mean being alone. Monsoon Season explores how well we know the people we claim to love and how much every personwe choose to let into our lives shape who we become. 

I caught up with Katie - sadly not over coffee, since distance prevented that - and asked her a little about life as one of that rare and venerated breed, a Published Writer.

In three words, can you describe...

Yourself? introspective, quirky, optimistic
Your book? connection, growth, strength
Writing, as an experience? personal, satisfying, vulnerable

You say you've been writing "seriously" for about a decade. What does "seriously" look like to you? 

 For me, ‘seriously’ means with an eye toward publication, a concept of an audience. I’ve always written, but when I was younger, I kept my writing private. Writing ‘seriously’ means getting comfortable being read, throwing yourself into the critique process and developing a thick skin.

How does it feel to finally be published? 

It doesn’t feel real yet. I don’t know when it will. I had a little book party to celebrate with friends and I did a reading. I’m loving that people are finally reading it and I’m getting feedback. I check my amazon reviews daily. And also, my extended family is reading it and I’m getting responses trickling in. That’s really rewarding.

Are you able to give us any sneak peaks into the other two novels that are to be published? 
The next one is about cousins who reunite as adults after a long separation during childhood. They were close as children but have lived very different lives after the divorce of one set of parents and the ramifications of that. It’s another book that alternates narration and it includes the perspective of their grandmother. It deals with the repetition of family history and issues of identity. Like, how much of who we are is already determined when we’re ten years old? What can a decade of separation do to change who we are?
The third book has a single narrator. Jenna is a people-pleaser dealing with the death of a parent when she unearths a family secret.

Are there recurring themes in your fiction - dysfunctional relationships, families, longing for home, something else?

Absolutely. For me, family dynamics are fascinating. Patterns that get repeated through generations, often unconsciously. I also like strong female characters who are more interested in finding their path in life than finding Mr. Right.

What advice would you have for people who are just beginning to write?

Get comfortable being read. It can take years to figure out which feedback to take on and when to go with your gut. It’s a tricky balance. To a certain extent we write for ourselves, but there comes a point when you have to concern yourself with your reader. 

And how about for writers who are discouraged because they can't find a publisher? 
I think it’s really hard. I think there is no shortage of writing talent, which makes the competition fierce. Plenty of crap gets published, promoted and purchased. And good writing that doesn’t get into the right hands will never see the light of day. It’s discouraging. I think you have to be really persistent.
The other thing is that you should really examine your motivations. Do you want the credibility of getting published? Fame and fortune? Readers? These are actually different things and there are different routes to get there.

Do you have a writing "routine", a favourite time and place?
I tend to write in the evening with music playing.

What are you working on now? 

I have a trio of characters percolating in my head. They’re unlikely friends- like two of them only know each other because of the third person. I think we all have people like that in our life- people we might not be friends with if it weren’t for the fact that they’re family or they married in or they helped us through a really tough time in life and we’re loyal to that. It broadens our world view. I haven’t figured out what their story is yet. I’m still getting to know them.

Katie blogs here and you can buy her book here in the UK and here in the US.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

University 2.0: Air Miles 2.0

When I started my first degree back in the mists of time, Sainsbury's had just launched their first reward card. I became a little obsessed with it.

I realise I may be alone in thinking this, but that first card was  better than its successor, the Nectar Card, and here's how: you could use it for air miles. And air miles were straight forward, tax-free, and generously allocated.

After a term's worth of (basically) cheddar, bread, tea bags and milk, I was able to treat myself to a flight back to Guernsey to see much-loved, much-missed friends from my gap year. I'd eaten at least one meal in college per day during that time, but I'd been savvy and always chosen the make of bread or cheddar or tea bags that carried extra reward points (and there were many of those back then), and so basically one term's worth of lunchtime cheese toasties had been sufficient to carry me home. I know Guernsey isn't far, but still, that's some achievement. And my brilliance at collecting reward points was, now that I think about it, something of a legend among my group of friends. (Maybe not a legend; I exaggerate for the sake of poetry. But it was nonetheless mentioned from time to time.)

Now that I'm about to start the whole university thing again (though it will be called "school") I have picked up this obsession where it left off. America loves reward points. It loves them! And most beloved of all, as far as I can tell, are the frequent flyer miles. Unlike the Air Miles of old (wistful sigh), each airline has its own scheme, which makes it more complex, and a lot harder work to figure out.  I'm flying to DC with British Airways, who are an American Airlines partner, so I've opened an account with them, though I've opened several others too. I plan at some point to spend a substantial amount of time looking through the web site of each scheme and collating information on exactly which restaurant, which credit card, which hotel, earns me how many points with which airline. Maybe even doing a nifty thing involving a giant map and colour coding. Because it's not just flights - you can earn them on everything. I mean, everything. You can spend them on everything too, but I won't be doing that - mine are for seeing the world. Well, Colorado and California, anyway.

My air miles collecting will be legendary once more.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Aaron Sorkin does not have a woman problem.

There. I said it. Now let the onslaught of disgusted comments begin.

I’ve watched, as you ought to know by now if you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, every episode of the West Wing multiple times. I’ve watched Studio 60 at least twice; I’ve watched and rewatched the Social Network. I’ve watched the first two episodes of the Newsroom.

I’ve never once felt insulted as a woman.

I’ve also never once felt insulted as a Christian. Yes, he writes about some pretty strange, crazy and dislikeable people who call themselves Christian. In one case, he writes about one who is neither strange nor dislikeable but who behaves in ways that I would see as being at odds with her faith. (Yes, we all do at times, but that’s the subject of another blogpost.)

Do those people exist in the real world? Absolutely.

Do the women Aaron Sorkin writes about exist in the real world? I think so too.

So, you’re all shocked that McKenzie can be competent as a journalist in a war zone yet fails to use email properly and over-reacts to a mistake she makes that she knows will make Will crazy, jeopardise their already difficult working relationship, and embarrass both of them in front of their staff. Of course I know women who would calmly breathe, tell themselves “I’m a professional”, and walk away. I think I also know women who would react like her. I know women (and men) who are hopeless with technology despite being intelligent people, too. It’s plausible. It’s more than plausible- it’s reality.

People are full of contradictions. Aren’t they?

Intelligent but lacking in emotional intelligence. Incredibly messy yet borderline obsessive compulsive about not cracking their book spines. Working in war zones yet shying away from conflict in their private lives.

Do you really not know any women who are super confident in one area yet a little ditzy or flaky or crazy in another? I do. On a good day, I might even put myself in that category. Maybe the reason I get protective of Mckenzie and Maggie is that I can relate to them. Bright and ambitious but far from perfect. 

Maybe this is also why I wrote a novel that people criticise because its main character is an accomplished politician yet still wistfully daydreams about a guy she never quite got together with a long time ago. Maybe Aaron Sorkin has influenced me even more than I realise.

I don’t think he is laying out a blueprint for all women everywhere: he writes about a certain kind of person. Do you get men bemoaning that most of the guys he writes, for example, are hopeless at relationships? They understand it’s fiction. They understand that he is not saying all guys everywhere are hopeless at relationships.

Come to think of it, most of his characters are super-intelligent and articulate. Is everyone in real life super-intelligent and articulate? No. Hardly anyone is. But some people are. And those are the people he chooses to write about.

Here’s the thing: if you are a woman, he is not writing about you personally. Nor is he writing about all women everywhere – about how they do behave or how they should behave. He is writing about these particular people, and he invented them, so he knows how they react and what makes them tick. So let him write about complex, contradictory characters, even if they are women. They’re his characters. He should know.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Newsroom: ten initial thoughts

1. Bradley Whitford would have made a great Will McAvoy. The initial scene seemed to have been written for him. Sigh.

2. Aaron Sorkin has the courage to tell the truth about America. And about the fact that it's not the only country with freedom, thereby elliciting whoops from those of us who nod furiously when played the clip where Obama says he believes in American exceptionalism the way, for example, Brits believe in British exceptionalism. It's the kind of thing that may have riled some Americans, but won hearts in other countries. Because it's true! and refreshing to hear!

3. Aaron Sorkin has a thing about Belgium. I've always suspected this, but to get a mention within five minutes of the pilot episode is quite something. Well done him.

4. Also, he called the UK the UK, and not England. This is unusual for an American, and to be applauded.

5. MacKenzie did not need to be British. But if she was going to be British, she should have been called Fleur, or Sophie, or Fiona. British parents do not name their little girls Mackenzie, especially posh diplomat types. This unnecessary plot complication and unnecessary accent and ridiculously chosen name is likely to irritate me throughout.

5. Until the last scene, I worried that Mackenzie/Will had as much chemistry as Josh/Mandy. Which isn't a problem, except we are clearly meant to be shipping them. Oh well - maybe another meant-to-be-minor character will steal one of their hearts. The best ships are organic anyway. But then, oddly, I found myself welling up at the end. So who knows?

6. But Aaron Sorkin is clearly a romantic. More than that, he believes romantic love to be the motivation behind excellence, the thing that causes us to rise higher than we thought possible. Viz Studio 60 and the Social Network, though not the West Wing in quite the same way.

7. He's chosen to set this show not in a parallel universe, but in our real world - maybe the real world of a couple of years ago, complete with Barack Obama and BP oil spills. Interesting concept. And one which I think I Iike - it should make for some interesting social commentary, and means his creative energy will be devoted to characters and internal plot, rather than coming up with external plot.

8. That episode was really long. Are they all going to be this long?

9. Recognisable Sorkin characters all over the place - most notably Maggie (whose name Mackenzie pronounces with an American accent for no discernible reason). She reminded me of Matt's assistant in Studio 60. In fact, she's basically the same character. Or am I wrong?

10. Aesthetically speaking (and in many other ways), it's no West Wing. And it is certainly no Studio 60. (I doubt the Bradley Whitford/Matt Perry combination can be equalled or surpassed by anything other than Bradley Whitford/Rob Lowe). But John Gallagher, Jr, has grown into a hottie since he was last seen dropping Josh, Donna and Toby off at a station so they could get a train going the wrong way. Maybe it's time I crushed on someone more age-appropriate. Think I can charm him with my British accent (and my genuine British name)?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically -- in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.
“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.
She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”
“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford - is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension - is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! -- was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.
I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Nice places to eat: Keops Palačinkarnica, Belgrade

I've been saying for months now that I'm going to start blogging about places I've enjoyed eating.

I've also had a conversation today about the things we say we should be doing but feel bad for not doing and instead wallowing on the sofa, thinking "I can't be bothered".

So, here we go.

One of the best places to be in the early-evening yet still stifling heat of Belgrade is by the river. And the river is helpfully lined with cafés. We chose one towards the end of the row, because we had a pushchair with us and this particular one offered reasonable access, and also because my friend had been there before and knew they did good crepes.

There was  a table free right by the water's edge: a good sign from the start. I feel terrible assuming that people away from home naturally speak my language, but was chuffed when it turned out that they had a menu in English. I went for a Rafaello - the white chocolate, almond and something. The reason I don't remember the something is that I asked for it to be replaced with Nutella - although it's not called Nutella here. My friend pulled a face and said "that'll be really sweet" - and it was, but it was also delicious, and plenty big enough too. I rounded off my mini-meal with my second fresh pink grapefruit juice and enjoyed the view and the relative cool of the evening air. Recommended.

Service: 9/10 - polite, efficient, multi-lingual but not over-eager
Food and drink: 8.5/10 - the bonus .5 point is for their being obliging in modifying my order! (Always important for me, since I tend to "know what I want" - as parents say of stubborn toddlers.)
Surroundings: 9/10 - looking out onto the river
Overall experience: 9/10 - not too touristy, not too busy, good atmosphere, non-intrusive music, and a welcome evening breeze. Great place to savour a dessert.