Friday, 27 July 2012

Battling The Elements

A desert summer must be treated like a mountain winter--you lock yourself up for the day, only leaving the house for food & water. You sprawl out on the couch and devour books to fuel the creative fire. You let your body inflame and recooperate, watching the monsoons pass over the horizon (instead of snow).

This summer-winter I've survived on Coco Chanel, Hedy Lamarr & Marilynne Robinson. Coco, because her work ethic outweighs her talent. Hedy, because her ideas outlive her beauty. And Marilynne, because her philosophy outdoes her voice.

It's possible to battle the elements when you know you're not alone.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Valley Press Interview: Sir Andrew Motion

A favourite project by Sir Motion, in Sheffield.
When his recent tour of the UK came to York, VP author Miles Cain had the chance to interview Sir Andrew Motion - the man who revolutionised the laureateship and invented the Poetry Archive.  The tour was to promote Sir Andrew's new sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, entitled Silver (click here for more details), so it's that which forms the main focus, though Miles does of course manage to squeeze out some poetry discussion along the way.  (That last sentence says rather more about my proclivities than either of theirs!)  A shorter version appeared in the York Press, but you can consider the text below to be a VP blog exclusive.

Miles: Where did the idea of writing a sequel to Treasure Island come about?

Sir Andrew: I first read Treasure Island when I was about 20, and even then I was thinking about it. I was interested in the unresolved things in the original plot. I made a few notes over the years. When I finished being Poet Laureate it felt like I was being let out of school. I thought I could have a bit of fun, and started to work on Silver.

M: Were you intimidated by the prospect of writing a sequel to Treasure Island?

A: I was very aware that people might think it was a foolhardy thing to do. Some people might think I was going to stick gum on the face of a national monument. Yet Stevenson was very interested in sequels. He wrote one to Kidnapped called Catriona. Also, Treasure Island is full of open doors and windows – Long John Silver gets away, the Hispaniola and several men are left on the island. It’s very odd, in a way. There’s a highly volatile atmosphere. But I wanted to move things on. The original seems to be set around the 1760s. I set the story 40 years after the setting of the original story. There didn’t seem much point on trying to do a straight copy of what Stevenson did.

M: How did you emulate the original story?

A: I was conscious of being a sort of  ventriloquist of Stevenson, but wanted to make it at least a little different. Both stories begin with the map. But I was conscious of the things underneath Stevenson’s prose. He had complicated feelings about his father. Long John Silver is a sort of dark father figure in the first story.

M: A lot of children’s stories feature the absence, or death, of parents. It’s one way of allowing the story to begin.

A: That’s right. The father has to die in order for Jim to have an adventure. It’s the way the child begins to have the independent life that they wouldn't otherwise have.

M: Silver has a dark edge to it. The cover is dark, and the final chapter is entitled 'The Wreck Of All Our Hopes'. Was the dark atmosphere intentional?

A: Very much so. People associate Treasure Island with adventure, and that’s certainly there. It’s hard to imagine Pirates of The Caribbean without Treasure Island in the background. But nobody expects Pirates to include a scene where Johnny Depp gets killed. There’s a darkness and seriousness in Stevenson that I wanted to capture. Long John Silver is a person of real menace. I wanted to leave a lot of room for the dark stuff. The two books at the back of my mind were Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Lord of The Flies. What would it be like to be left on an island for the rest of your life? It wouldn’t be the happy adventure we think it would be. It would be something very terrifying.

M: When I hear you on the radio your voice seems to have an introspection and shyness about it. But you lead quite a public life – and one of your poetry collections was entitled Public Property. How do these two aspects of your life work together?

A: I do have an appetite for public things. I have just been asked to be President of the Campaign to protect rural England and that will involve a lot of speaking at public meetings. Left to my own devices, I do want to sit at home, talk to my wife and stroke the cat. But I think there’s a balance between the two things, the public and private.

M: There were times when you found it hard being Poet Laureate?

A: Yes. I was asked to write a poem for the Today programme and I had to write about foot and mouth. They wanted a poem that was about that issue, and I found it hard because they obviously wanted something that was easily comprehensible. The best poems about anything ‘…tell all the truth but tell it slant…’ as Emily Dickinson said.

M: I heard you at a reading and you talked about ‘…work and kindness, kindness and work…’ Is that a kind of personal motto for you?

A: I’d forgotten I said that but yes, I suppose so. It’s particularly important to be kind at home to the people you are close to.

M: It seems to be a good time for poetry by women at the moment.

A: Yes, a delayed high summer, you might say. It’s good that it redresses the balance, partly through highly symbolic things, like having a woman poet laureate. It makes sure that women’s voice are at least equal to those of men. Crucial people have given encouragement over the years and we’re seeing the fruit of that now.

M: Some strong young women poets coming through at the moment, like Liz Berry.

A: Yes. Liz is a fantastically interesting writer.

M: In your biography of Philip Larkin, you quoted a passage from him that said poetry should have clarity. Is that part of poetry’s role?

A: I do think so. That is the poetry I like best. Transparency. I’ve often said that poems should look like a glass of water but taste of gin.

M: On the other hand, ambiguity is important.

A: Yes. The hard and fast answers aren’t good enough. We don’t believe them anymore. I do think, as well, that poetry links to whatever we mean when we talk about religion. A sense of the numinous is really important to poetry. We feel a wonder at the intricacy and marvelousness of the world. The older I get the more I seem to reflect on questions such as what difference can we make, why are we here, and so on.

M: As you look back on the past thirty years, what are you proud of?

I’m proud of my kids. I’m proud of the Poetry Archive – a lot of people go on that website and listen to or read poetry. I like Silver. I like The Invention of Doctor Cake (ed: one of Motion’s novels, vaguely about Keats - spoiler alert!) and there are a few poems that I think are strong.

A delightfully modest end there.  One last fact before I sign off: Sir Motion has in fact contributed to a Valley Press book without realising it - the poem 'Motion' from Daniela Nunnari's Red Tree was written whilst at a workshop he was leading, based on a famous painting of a woman looking out of the window (that I've temporarily forgotten details of).  A great poem though, and one more literary achievement for him to be proud of!

If you're a former poet laureate and want to be interviewed for the VP blog, get in touch via the contact page.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Catch-up and New Interview with J.M.

Hello there - first of all, apologies for the lack of blog posts lately, I've been discovering just how much work really is involved in running a publishing operation... turns out, lots.  I feel confident now, however, that I stand astride the mountain of things to do, having not conquered it exactly but got in the right position to conquer it.  There have been countless events and book launches since my last post (feels like it anyway), particularly in June - some highly successful, some miserable failures, and a rare one or two that turned out pretty much as planned.  We don't have any more 'live dates' scheduled now till 8th September at the Poetry Book Fair, so the next month-and-a-half will be a rare chance for me to get everything up to date and catch my breath.

While all this publishing and eventing has been going on, no-one (except possibly my mum) has expressed a desperation for blog posts, so they have fallen by the wayside - the last really interesting post by me was March 3rd.  I promise to remedy this situation in the remainder of 2012, and maybe even shed some light on what went on during these past few months.

Cover for the last Inpress catalogue.
I assume you've been keeping up with our publishing programme while I've been 'away' - if not, check the homepage.  My next job is to make pages for all the books coming out in the second half of 2012, ideally before the release of the next Inpress catalogue, which will (for the first time) feature our titles.  And in this manner, we arrive at the meat of this post; the catalogue also features an interview with yours truly on the subject of - you've guessed it! - Valley Press, and you lucky blog readers don't need to wait till the catalogue has been printed to read it, as the full version is featured below.  The questions were asked by Inpress chieftain Rachael Ogden.

RO: What was the impetus behind setting the company up?

JM: I have had a peculiar interest in publishing throughout my life – at the age of 6, I was filling exercise books with stories, then adding ‘front matter’, a blurb and even a barcode.  I can’t really explain this behaviour (then or now), except to say it must have been hard-wired from birth!  I continued to experiment with publishing whilst at university, under the name ‘Valley Press’, so after graduation – having struggled for eight months to find any sort of gainful employment – I felt I had no choice but to get some more books printed and give it a proper go.  The rest is history.

RO: What is the primary focus of the press?

JM: Up to now, Valley Press has been responsible for a certain type of poetry – the word ‘accessible’ springs to mind, but never simplistic or banal.  Poetry that would satisfy someone with a wide knowledge of the medium, but also work that anyone could get something from; poetry that doesn’t exclude.  That’s my particular passion and area of expertise, but as readers of this catalogue will see (blog readers: just imagine it), during the next six months I’m experimenting with a few other genres – in the hope me and VP can continue to make ends meet.

RO: What do you think small independents contribute to the publishing landscape?

JM: Well for a start, more books – which is never a bad thing (until it comes time to move house, of course!)  More opportunities for authors to get their work in print, and more opportunities for readers to discover new books, and new ways of discovering books.  Also, with independents there is a great scope for specialisation, of topic and of region, which does wonders for our literary diversity.

RO: What are your aspirations for the company?

JM: This is an easy one – I would like to put in place an infrastructure that could take any book, edit and produce it to be the very best it could be, and market it in such a way that it was brought to the attention of (or perhaps, put in front of) everyone who could gain something from it.  I think at heart, this is the goal of all publishers – no-one really goes into this for the money!

I know this catalogue reaches people in many areas of the industry, so I’d like to say – if anyone has any tips, advice or questions for me, I’d love to hear from you on  I’m still at a quite early stage in my career, and when I started I knew absolutely nothing; so I still have a lot to learn, and I find a good way to speed that process up is to be honest and ask.

What I'm really looking for at the end, I think, is an offer of a better (i.e. less stressful and more lucrative) job!  Anyway, hope you gleaned some small enjoyment from that - if you've heard all those particular thoughts and stories before, you're obviously a keen follower of VP and won't mind a bit of repetition.  Pretty soon, the story of my early childhood book creation (and subsequent unemployment) will be as familiar and enjoyable to you as a black-and-white lunchtime film on BBC2.  I expect.  Anyway, see you shortly, for more enlightening chapters of the Valley Press story!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Kindle, the book and permanence

Jonathan Franzen recently issued a rebuke to Kindle readers everywhere when he said that text on a screen is ‘just not permanent enough’. What does this mean? What is not permanent about it? 

The language of the Kindle is rooted in impermanence: a page is not turned, it is refreshed; a book is not opened, it is loaded; a book is not bought, it is downloaded. Franzen, perhaps, is objecting to the new reading lexicon. A book is not a book unless the words still exist then the page had been read. In a book, of course, the words physically exist. A turned page still tells the story, but where does the story go when a page is ‘refreshed’? Taking Franzen on face value, does he have a point? Bluntly, no. If a page does not exist before the Kindle refreshes, where does it come from? This is the simple response to Franzen’s objection. Existence may be different in the world of the Kindle than it is in the world of books, but of course it still exists.
However, I believe that Franzen’s objection is far more complicated. It cannot be reduced simply to a luddite’s temper, a fist shake at technological advance. Franzen’s objection is actually about the permanence of text. He says that a Kindle screen feels as if ‘we could delete that, change that, move it around.’ Of course, when a book is in control of the author, this is merely called editing. Yet when it is published, Franzen seems to argue, this type of interference is desecration. This is not, as so many objections about the Kindle are, merely about the tactile response to the new medium. This is something sacred that has been defiled; the writer's vision never crystalised into art.

This is a far more interesting observation. It perhaps reflects textual theory, in particular with regard to a writer’s relationship with the text. Does the artist have ownership of it and therefore the right to change it as he pleases? Should there be a point where the artist comes divorced from it, a point where is belongs to everyone equally? Should the text be analysed as if the writer does not exist at all, divorced from biography? Is a published book set in stone? And is this relationship fundamentally different in kind when the text is on the Kindle rather than in a book?

In a delicious irony, considering Franzen’s remarks, the first UK edition of his novel Freedom was printed with a number of typos. The publishers response? To recall the book and pulp it. Of those that had been sold, readers were offered the opportunity to replace their ‘faulty’ copy with a new one. Of course, not everyone would have done this, but it is fair to say that most were returned and pulped out of existence. And as time passes, more will pass out of existence copies of this book. Words were not just moved about a screen, they were destroyed entirely. This is simply mischief-making, however. This book was destroyed only because it contained typos and did not represent a fair copy of the author’s work. These changes were simply about editing, something which any writer would say they have a right to do. At this point the text still belongs to the author. However, it does demonstrate the paper permanence is not what Franzen might have us believe. 

So perhaps Franzen’s objection is more that once the fair copy of the book has been published it is set, unchanged for future generations, never to edited again. Unfortunately this is not true. Tess of the D’ubervilles is a great book by one of the great English novelists, Thomas Hardy. Yet the story of the book that you come to read today is more complicated. First, there was the serialisation in two magazines, each of which published a slightly different version of the story (the rape of Tess, for example, was left out). Then there was the first book of the story, which differed again. Yet even at that point, Hardy had not finished and still claimed the right to edit so that he made changes even as late as 1912. What is permanence in this case? Is there a stage when the author and the text must divorce themselves from one another? You could object, of course, and say that the other copies still exist, that they are permanent. But do they not simply become versions of permanence? There are other examples: Great Expectations, for instance, had two endings; Elizabeth Gaskell’s Bronte biography went through three editions. Is this permanent in the sense that the author and the work become divorced? It seems, after all, that it is still possible to ‘delete that, change that, move that around.’
What of the Kindle in this debate? It does not offer much of a defence of itself in this regard. Indeed, it might come off worse because Amazon have the ability to remotely delete items on a person’s Kindle without their permission. Thus, in this case, it could simply have removed all faulty copies and replaced them. Therefore, would not this mean that only one version exists, whereas at least for physical books it is possible to retain all editions? But there are other ereaders on the market, and as Franzen’s objections were in respect of a screen rather than a particular product, we shall treat Kindle as other treat Biro, that is a generic terms of all ereaders. When we consider these,  ereaders respect of permanence is more deferential. I have a Sony Reader. To purchase books one must first download it to one’s computer and then upload the book to the ereader. At the point, it is isolated from outside interference. It is also possible to duplicate the file, onto a memory card, onto a hard drive, even onto a server. Duplication of these files, and their isolation from outside interference, is easy. Remote deletion is not possible. The file is protected and easily reproduced, unlike the book which can be pulped; is this not more permanent than a book?
Think too about the oppression of novels. A printed copy could be destroyed. Book burnings are a very strong symbolic gesture about the destruction of knowledge. But in the electronic world, oppression is much more difficult. Think of the brave bloggers in repressed societies. If they were to rely on the printed world, would their testament have such force? The fact the digital, a world of which the Kindle is a part, can so easily reproduce itself on millions of systems worldwide, ensure their permanence and their strength. The ebook still exists where perhaps the physical book can go up in flames.
Franzen is wrong, then, when he objects to the impermanence of the Kindle, or the digital word.  Yet it is difficult for me not to agree with the sentiment. There is something special about a book. But it is not permanence; it is impermanence.  A book's entropy is there for all to see as is its fragile existence, perhaps now more under threat than ever, which one must endeavour to protect. A Kindle screen does not change; one page is much like the other; one book a screen of words, another book simply a screen of different words. Yet, I can look at the physical book without reading the words and appreciate its uniqueness; I can run my hand over a page and feel the undulation of the printed word beneath my fingertips. An older book picks up its own life, its own experience and its own smell, its stains, even its notes in the margin. It gets old, it fades, it loses its memory as it loses its pages. And by the light of a candle sometimes one swears one can see a word’s shadow flicker to the flame's irregular beat.
It is not permanence, it is impermanence that makes the written word special. So special that it must be protected.