On 7th December Blue Door Press held a launch for my new collection of short stories Kremlinology of Kisses. I was thrilled with the number of people who came along, over 100 households signing up for it. Zoom launches, in these times of Covid, may seem like a second-best option and it’s true that not being able to chat to people before and afterwards, share a drink and allow everyone to see and hold a physical copy of the book (and have it signed) is a major drawback, and was rather a disappointment.
But there were some other, quite significant, compensations. Friends and family were able to come from far and wide, including Scotland, Norfolk, France, Germany and the USA. The audience was much bigger than it could ever have been in a hired venue and there were no worries about how much wine to buy, transporting wilting canapés and no fears about either ending up with a big empty, echoey space or a horrible, sweaty crush.
Another benefit is that Zoom allows you to record an event automatically, and given that my wonderful work colleague, Lucy, had ensured that the whole thing worked like clockwork, with all the transitions between me and others being quick and faultless, the recording ended up being a great record of the event. I’ve now put it up on my website, so it’s available to those who wanted to come but were busy that evening…and it’s now available, of course, for others to watch too.
For anyone interested, it includes a reading of one of my favourite stories in the collection ‘The Sitting’, an interview between me and award-winning writer Lawrence Scott and an audience Q&A. The interview was a lovely opportunity for Lawrence and I to discuss the collection, my writing process, my views on short fiction in general and others aspects of my literary life.
Blue Door Press is delighted to announce that the audiobook version of Who Do You Love (BDP 2017) is now available for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.
It was quite a journey working with the voice artist and actor Christopher James on the novel during this lockdown period.
He and I talked quite intensely about the novel via email as he grappled with the novel’s difficult subject matter and extended narrative. I believe he’s done a magnificent job. I know I am biased, but I found the process of listening to the novel again gripping!
For those of you who are not authors: it can be quite painful listening to your own words read back to you again by someone else, particularly if the reader isn’t that great! But Chris is a wonderful interpreter, and after the initial feelings of ‘uh-oh, is this novel any good?’ I found my self immersed in the story in a way I hadn’t been before. I know I had written it, but I finished the book over three years ago now, and I feel I have moved on as a writer, and I wondered if the narrative would ‘stand up’.
For me, it triumphantly did, thanks in part to Chris, who managed to give the narrator of the novel, Nick, an energetic but melancholic aspect and read the dialogue really brilliantly. The other characters of the novel really came alive for me. These are my highlights and thoughts on these characters.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story, this is an amplified version of its blurb, which I’m quoting now so that you understand my comments about Chris’s interpretations of the characters which follow.
Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, Hadley, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model? His marriage problems are now exacerbated by money worries and concerns about the future for his nine-year old son, Jack.
But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died.
Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past. He remembers the romantic times he had with Ellida in the 1980s and 1990s; times when, as a student, he wrote and directed a crazy mime play which was performed in Sussex woodland on the summer solstice; the wild parties and alcoholic picnics by the sea; and, most poignantly for Nick, an impossibly romantic holiday on the Northumbrian coast at his grandparents’ picturesque farmhouse. But Ellida and his grandparents are now dead. Can Nick ever recover his lost happiness? This is his search in the present. He meets up with Ellida’s former husband, an eccentric music composer, Arnholm. and his daughter Isolde; her friends and seeks recover ‘lost time’ by visiting the places of their past loves. Sometimes he travels with his young son, Jack, and at others, he goes alone.
The novel is, above all, an evocation of the character of Ellida, who, for Nick, was the most magnetic person he ever met.
Given this basic plot outline, hopefully you can understand my responses to Chris’s reading of the various characters without having read the book:
Ellida. She is the heart of the novel; the passionate, destructive Norwegian lover of Nick. Chris succeeds because he manages to give her a plausible Norwegian accent – or a sense of her foreignness to Nick – and a humanity, a sanity even. Ellida does some crazy things in the novel – demanding sex in wild locations, getting drunk in strange ways, swimming in dangerous waters both literal and metaphorical – but she is, for me at least, clear-headed much of the time, damaged but perceptive of herself and the world. Chris’s reading provides this strange mix of wildness and clarity very well in his reading.
Hadley. She is the American teacher-wife of Nick, and is an ordered, thoughtful person, caring and a good mother. Possibly one of the issues about her is that she could be seen as strangely unsympathetic because she is so ‘together’. I felt that Chris’s reading made her a moving character; he gave her dialogue a moving quality, a vulnerability which I hadn’t heard before.
Arnholm. He is the former husband of Ellida, a selfish, narcissistic composer who is Norwegian/Catalan. I felt that Chris captures his accent very well, and this works excellently in the dialogue scenes when Arnholm is speaking to both Nick and Ellida, as their contrasting voices give the audio book the quality of a play at this point. For me, Chris really inhabited Arnholm.
Isolde or Izzy. She is the troubled, wayward, damaged daughter of Ellida who Nick connects with many years after his affair with Ellida has ended. Chris catches her accent – which is British – nicely, and the scenes at the end of the novel with Izzy and Nick have an emotional quality. I felt he captured Izzy’s sadness. I was very moved by his reading of the last scene.
Jack. He is Nick and Hadley’s young son, upset by the difficulties in his parents’ marriage. Chris gives him a suitably plausible boy’s voice; again, a really tricky thing to do, but he pulls it off, and the scenes where Nick and Jack talk about life, relationships and everything are believable and funny.
Mercy. She is a Nigerian-English academic who plays an important but small role in the novel. This was a challenge, but I felt that Chris conveyed her humanity without descending into stereotype.
Other characters: Ellida’s parents, Nick’s grandparents. These were smaller roles, but once again because Chris read the novel so carefully before reading it aloud, he really ‘got’ them, the nuance and importance of them in the narrative.
So, what am I saying here? Listen to the novel if you want! I felt immersed in the world of Nick as I listened to Chris read the book: I wanted to know Who Did He Love?!
There could be many other interpretations of the book; it could be read in a more male way, with more bravado, possibly at a greater pace, or it could be read more slowly, more lugubriously. I think the novel is open to both interpretations, and a lot of others! But I liked Chris’s mix of keeping the pace up and yet emphasising the emotional side of the narrative.
Below, you can listen to a section in the middle of the novel where Nick has returned from Brighton to his wife, Hadley, and child, Jack, having met his lover’s grown-up daughter Isolde, who has got drunk with him and then tried to go to bed with him. Nick has rebuffed her advances but is shaken and lies to his wife about seeing Isolde, saying he was seeing his friend George instead.
I’ve always loved short fiction. When I went to my interview at Birkbeck for a Creative Writing MA, over a decade ago, I had in my bag Flannery O’Connor’s collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. It was my talisman. I’d always loved the way O’Connor married emotional truthfulness and precise detail about a specific region, the deep south of America, with something more strange, mysterious and full of wonder. I entered the world she created and, on the final page of each story, I remained there long after closing the book. There was always more than met the eye, a conundrum or a human puzzle, a question left unanswered, a marvelling at the oddness (yet unsurprisingness) of human life and behaviour. As O’Connor herself said in her writing about fiction, a story is not a story if it can be summed up, if its ‘theme’ can be announced plainly, as if it were an argument. For her, fiction is all about ‘mystery and manners’. Fiction cannot be fully explained.
At that Birkbeck interview, I was asked why I had applied and what I wanted to learn. The answer was quite simple; I wanted to know how to tell, withhold and reveal, and how much, in other words how to get that fine balance that writers like O’Connor and Alice Munro and William Trevor achieve, seemingly so effortlessly, between the reader knowing too little and knowing too much.
In my MA dissertation I decided to submit a collection of short stories, inspired by reading Chekhov’s famous short story ‘The Kiss’. I started to explore the significance of the kiss in many different contexts – something rather taken for granted perhaps in everything other than romantic fiction. The chance to workshop the stories helped me enormously in having a live audience who could respond to drafts. My co-students gave me invaluable feedback on many aspects of my writing, including that most important issue for me, of what to withhold and what to reveal. Some of the stories in my new collection, Kremlinology of Kisses, and the whole concept for the collection, emerged from that work. I then added to these, bit by bit, over time
The stories in Kremlinology of Kisses are all very different. They’re written in multiple styles and voices, in different genres. They span different times and places. They certainly don’t have the stability of setting of Flannery O’Connor’s regional work, or of William Trevor’s Anglo-Irish stories. And yet there’s a common thread to them and a set of ideas about people and their lives that allow the stories speak to each other, as well as to the reader. They explore ideas about intimacy, or the lack of it, about opportunities grasped or missed, about the importance of a kiss and what it might signify. I hope they will provoke questions as much as offering answers and that, like the bowls of porridge, the chairs and the beds in the famous fairy tale, I give away not too little, not too much, but rather what’s just right!
Blue Door Press is pleased to announce the online launch event on December 7th at 8pm, where Barbara will read from the collection and be interviewed by writer, Lawrence Scott. There will also be a Q&A session.
Watch the wonderful launch of Hidden, Annabel Chown’s marvellous new memoir here:
Annabel Chown writes of her launch:
I am no stranger to sudden change, as you’ll discover if you read my memoir, Hidden. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that my beloved London, in which Hidden is mostly set, could be plunged into lockdown. At first, I mourned the absence of a live event; everyone crowded together in the same space, chatting, drinking and hugging. Things that until recently I’d taken for granted.
I realised I needed to create Plan B, as Hidden still deserved its launch. Enter, Zoom. Something I’d not even heard of until March this year. I kept the same format I’d designed for the library: a short reading from Hidden, an interview with my brilliant journalist friend, Paola de Carolis (who normally interviews the likes of Ralph Fiennes!), and the chance for the audience to ask questions.
Of course it was different to a live event. But there were also advantages to having it online. Unlike at the library, there was no limit on numbers. And it was exciting to see a grid of faces on the screen – both familiar and unfamiliar – many of whom could have never attended in person. We had people from as far afield as California, Zurich, Frankfurt and North Yorkshire.
Life has taught me that even the most challenging situations can offer us opportunities we might not otherwise have had. This is a theme of Hidden, and perhaps one for all of us in 2020.
As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the process of listening to the audiobook of Who Do You Love has been enriching for me, making me return to the text some years after writing it.
Christopher James reads the book more slowly than me, taking his time, giving the narrator’s voice a melancholic, deadpan quality. This works well. As a listener you are given the room to feel the words. It’s made me realise that the book is very pictorial, or at least it has that quality for me. I feel like I am inhabiting the rooms, the streets, the countryside, the coast lines, the different eras of the novel as I listen.
One of things that really struck me was the way the different time zones encountered so far in the novel, 1987 and 2013, act as counter-points. I’ve been watching the Netflix sci-fi horror drama Dark which is, in part, about certain people time-travelling between 2019 and 1986: two eras I’m very familiar with! The Gothic sci-fi is completely different from my realist novel in so many ways, but one thing I’ve felt they’ve shared is that sense of ‘the uncanny’. I suppose this is because Nick is, in so many ways, my alter ego; and it’s a bit like standing outside myself as I listen to the novel being read by someone else. As the great literary theorist Stuart Hall said, ‘This experience of, as it were, experiencing oneself as both subject and object, of encountering oneself from the outside, as another – an other – sort of person next door, is uncanny’.
In Who Do You Love, in 2013, Nick is sacked (from his job) as an Arts Editor at a London listings magazine and can’t find another job; when he learns that a former girlfriend, Ellida, has died, he finds himself remembering his times with her in 1987. In his first ‘remembrance’ (involve him) he recalls how he directed a strange mime play about the 1986 hurricane in a half-destroyed wood on the summer solstice in June 1987. I found Chris’s reading of this section particularly effective because he evokes the different accents of the main characters so well: the emphatic tones of Nick’s friend George, the cheeky-clever voice of Luke, Nick’s other best friend, the Catalan accent of Arnholm, Ellida’s husband – done particularly well I think – and, of course, Ellida herself. Chris manages to make the relationship between Ellida and Nick seem very tender.
Another thing that struck me was just how much it is about different phases of male crisis: at the onset of forming adult relationships in late teens/early twenties, and at the classic ‘mid-life’ point where everything comes into question in your forties. The section where Nick describes the Men’s Group really brought memories back to me of the late 1980s where there was a real focus upon the idea of the ‘new man’; the emotionally literate, caring, responsible man who listened to women. The talk, as I remember it, was all very ‘gendered’. There was both explicitly and implicitly then the assumption that men and women were fundamentally different in so many ways; biologically, neurologically, genetically and psychologically. The idea of the ‘new man’ was that he would be attuned to these differences, not mocking of them, but understanding. But looking back, I believe it brought into play an ‘essentialist’ narrative – that men and women are essentially separate beings – in a way which is strikingly in contrast to essentialist thinking about gender now. Gender determinists now, such as the likes of Jordan Peterson and horrific Incel, are, I would say, virulently, violently misogynistic. The new man movement in contrast trod softly around these issues, and, at its best, questioned such essentialist assumptions, but I think, as the following extract shows, often fell back on tired stereotypes of ‘men being men’ and ‘girls being girls’; I use the word ‘girls’ advisedly here because the word frequently was used to describe women in a patronising way by ‘new men’. Listening to the section about the Men’s group felt quite an accurate account of what I encountered back then.
Here’s the section 8th July 1987:
I showed a draft of this article to the BDP team, who all commented on it in their habitual useful way. Barbara Bleiman made this perceptive point: ‘ Perhaps there are possible implications for all writers, at a drafting stage, when they hear the words they have written being uttered in someone else’s voice? Maybe it’s about realising the extent to which the reader always brings their own interpretation and that a different actor might have brought something quite different to it, illuminating it for you again in other ways.’
Yes, I would agree with this, and it makes think I must get other people to read my work out aloud during the drafting stage in future. It’s not something I’ve done, but I think it’s clearly a valuable exercise and could really help me improve my writing.
I’m writing this blog post on the summer solstice, 20th June 2020, which is an important date in my novel Who Do You Love. In fact, I like to think the events on the summer solstice June 1988 in a Sussex wood, devastated by the hurricane of October 1987, are pivotal in the novel. They are loosely based on real events that happened to me, when I directed and produced a mime play, performed at midnight at that time.
In the novel, the protagonist, Nick is rescued from a bad mushroom trip by Ellida, the passionate Norwegian woman who becomes the love of Nick’s life.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Who Do You Love recently because I’m working with actor and voice artist, Christopher James, on an audiobook version of the book. He’s now produced the first fifteen minutes for me, which you can find here:
I hope you’ll agree that he’s read it magnificently! I felt his accent and approach was just right for the narrator Nick: energetic but mournful, which is a difficult combination to get. There’s a sadness, as I see it, in Nick’s voice which he captures well. He also reads the book reasonably slowly and clearly, while maintaining a sense of pace, again this is tricky: you can’t read the novel too fast because the images, the descriptions and the dialogue can be marginalised in a fast reading.
Listening to it was immersive for me. I was actually more present with the book than when I wrote much of it. This said, writing the first draft of it was an enveloping experience: I virtually free-wrote a draft of 120,000 words over the space of six-eight months! I had just started my PhD in Creative Writing with Blake Morrison in 2009-2010; I had got my place on this prestigious programme by proposing another entirely different book, but changed tack when I learnt about the death of a friend. Blake was great because he allowed me to change direction and recognised how I wrote. He let me ‘splurge’ away!
The process of editing and pruning and changing after that was not as hypnotic. I had to have a very critical eye while re-reading what I had written. I must confess editing is not my strongest suit. I can, at times, take the foolish road of publish and be damned, particularly with some of my blogging and journalism!
I have never done this with my fiction, but the temptation is still there. Listening during lockdown to the audio book, I made entry into Nick’s world without that wincing editor’s eye inside my head. This was a rare treat for me. I felt immersed back in the fiction: I was there as Nick gets the news he’s been sacked; I felt for him as he listens to his wife, the New Yorker, Hadley, give him lots of sensible but hard-to-hear advice; and I felt his pain again! This was, I felt, because Chris captured his pain in his voice.
I particularly enjoyed the reading of the second chapter, which is Nick’s memory of the hurricane of October 1987. Chris captures the different voices and accents of the students in this scene beautifully: the dominant, angry George, and the cheeky, clever Luke. This worked well I thought; the reading never strays into parodic student talk in a way some people have complained happens when you read it straight off the page. That’s what a good actor can do: bring a sense of gravity to things that might look a little silly on the page.
I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.
I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:
Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.