The Unexpected Pleasure of a Social Fail

Last week I was invited to a publisher’s event in London and despite my terrible track record at attending such things, I decided I would go. There are plenty of reasons why I hardly ever attend, beyond my chronic fatigue. They all seem to start at 6.30 p.m., for instance, which is a dreadful time if you are a creature of habit and like to eat regularly. To arrive in good time, I need to leave my house about half past four, which is too early for tea beforehand, and then if one stays to the bitter end at 8.30, this means eating dinner at home around 10.30 p.m. which is even past my bedtime. Obviously other people find their way around this, but I admit it perplexes me.

Anyhoo, I boarded the train with my emergency supplies of a Marks & Spencer wrap, made it to London and walked to the venue which was just off Charing Cross Road. I visited the new Foyles as I had a a little time to spare, and found it very spiffy to look at, but a tad confusing in layout. Mind you, it’s definitely a step up from arranging books by publishers. Then I walked to the venue, eating half the wrap as I went (and trying not to drop lettuce into the folds of my scarf) and still arrived a bit early. I cased the joint, as the old gumshoes used to say, from the other side of the street, and saw people going in. At the door there was a young woman with a clipboard taking names, and I feared things were not going to go well when she could not find my name although I had written to rsvp. I had my invitation printed out in my bag, but it seemed she didn’t want to challenge me, just hastily added me to the bottom of her list and waved me on to coat check. The people in front were having their coats taken, and when that young woman never returned, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to keep my coat with me, which was a good decision in the end.

I sat in one of the alcoves in the bar, watching London publishing people arrive and flicking through the publicity brochure. This is when I realised I had made a mistake in not checking beforehand whether any other bloggers were going to attend. I’d been so sure somebody would be there who I knew, but as jolly partygoers poured in, I realised there was no face I recognised. They all knew each other though. They were doing that social clumping thing, where they separate into little, dense groups of furiously chatting people. When I finally saw a face that was familiar it took me a while to place it. Then I fervently hoped I hadn’t been staring. I think it was the owner of a book store who I met several years ago now, offering to create content for a website for the shop. This person was dead set against any idea of a website and we parted company less than pleased with one another. Yikes.

Well, half an hour had passed and I was very bored, and nothing seemed to be happening and I really had no desire to talk to the only person who might know me. And so I put my coat back on, slipped through the crowds in the room, and left without anyone noticing. Then I walked back to the station, got on the train and ate the other half of my wrap for dessert. It was one of those sleepy trains with the final few commuters of the evening all happy to nap in their seats or read. Across the aisle from where I was sitting an Indian gentleman slept through the first half of the journey and then when he woke up, he took a book from his bag. Inevitably I craned my neck to read the title and was intrigued when I saw it was a memoir by Michael Greenberg called Hurry Down Sunshine about a severe breakdown his daughter suffered. I’ve had it on my shelves for a couple of years without having read it yet (same old story!). Well, the gentleman saw me looking and smiled, and I smiled back at him and it was clear we both were on the brink of saying something but were a little too reserved. Ten minutes later, as the announcer said we were arriving home, and we were all shifting and leaning forward in our seats, we just started chatting (he was enjoying the memoir, though it was very sad, so maybe enjoy was not quite the right verb). And I had my bookish conversation after all.

When I told this story to Mr Litlove with the stated intention of blogging about it, he wasn’t sure I should mention it. I think this is because Mr Litlove is an alpha social animal, who would never be intimidated by a room of strangers and would find an easy, natural way to enter a conversation other people were holding. I do admire him for that. But that’s not me. I dislike parties, and travelling, and I fear being stuck in social situations I’m not enjoying. I was quite pleased that I took the decision to leave and to conserve my energy which is still in short supply and precious to me.

And it’s very intriguing why I should have found it easy to talk to the stranger on the train and impossible to talk to the strangers at the party. All I can say is that the train felt like a level playing field, socially. At the party, the people there knew each other already and I was at a disadvantage. And on the train, we had made a connection over the book; it was a tiny thing, barely perceptible, but it made all the difference. Something real had occurred, and the real is always simple to capitalise upon. When the connection is artificial, you have to work so much harder.

In case you’re interested, I had a bowl of cereal when I got home, to round off my nutritionally impoverished evening and I still managed to come down with a chronic fatigue relapse a few days later, which goes to show that evenings in London are probably still beyond me physically as well as socially.* But the experiment was interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways.

 

* And yes, Dark Puss, you are top of my list for when I am able to spend a bit more time in London!

Issue 4 Goes Live

 

And indeed, we are live…!

SNB-logoIssue 4 of Shiny New Books is now available for your delectation. To help you get started here are a few of my favourite reviews written by people other than myself!

Fiction

Harriet’s review of Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

David Hebblethwaite’s review of Bilbao-New York-Bilboa by Kirmen Uribe

Rebecca Foster’s review of Some Luck by Jane Smiley

 

Non-Fiction

Jenny’s review of In These Times; Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars by Jenny Uglow

Rebecca Hussey’s review of Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Annabel’s review of Armchair Nation; An intimate history of Britain in front of the TV by Joe Moran

 

Reprints

Simon’s review of Essays on the Self by Virginia Woolf

Lory Widmer Hess’s review of The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

Karen Langley’s review of In The Twilight by Anton Chekhov

 

BookBuzz

Neil Ansell’s article: The Art of Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction

Michelle Bailat-Jones’ article: On Writing Fog Island Mountains

Marilyn Dell Brady’s article: Reading Diversity

 

I could have picked so many more, but for now: Enjoy!

Almost There

We’re almost at the publication day for Issue 4 of Shiny New Books, which will go live on Thursday. Due entirely to my own miscalculations, I’ve been lashed to the keyboard for several days now, typing and typing and typing. I think I’ll get everything done – just. But inevitably my mind wanders to the distant future lying at the end of the week, and all I’ll then be able to do….

1. I’ll be catching up on the virtual conversations that I’ve abandoned this week. There were several ongoing that I had to drop out of, once I’d looked at my to-do list. In one, I was right in the middle of throwing my psychological prowess around *cough* and David, I’ll be back. (Bet you can’t wait!)

2. I’ll be reading Nabokov’s Speak, Memory for a new virtual friend, Andy, and Ali Smith’s How To Be Both for one of my longest-standing virtual friends, Stefanie. I think they are going to be amazing books.

3. I might finally manage to review Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World, and be able to change the books in my sidebar, which I’ve been looking at for more weeks than I care to think about.

4. And yes, Mr Litlove, I will restock the house with groceries. And maybe run the vacuum cleaner around, although between you and me, I’m hoping for a better offer to distract me by then.

5. I might even be able to respond to comments here, and leave comments on my blog friends’ sites. I did quite well with reading if not commenting up until last weekend, and now I don’t dare look at my feed reader.

Bear with me, dear friends. The new edition of Shiny is looking wonderful, so it will all be worth it in the end!

The Widow’s Confession

widow's confessionI’ve had a horrid cold all week and so I’m very glad that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in today’s blog post. Sophia Tobin is the author of The Widow’s Confession, a gorgeously-wrought Gothic novel set in 1851 in Broadstairs on the Kentish coast. American cousins, Delphine and Julia have settled there for the summer; they have a peripatetic life, running from a troubled past, and they believe that this charming sea-bathing resort is somewhere safe to hide. But they get drawn in to a circle of summer visitors, including a wayward artist, a staid doctor of psychology and an exquisitely beautiful young woman and her older chaperone. Then the body of a girl washes up on the beach, the catalyst for any number of secrets to be shaken loose. I’ll be reviewing this novel in more detail in the next edition of Shiny New Books, but for now I’ll say that it’s beautifully written, and the evocation of a heavy, menacing atmosphere is as close to Daphne du Maurier as I’ve read in a long time. Sophia kindly answered the following questions:

tobin_sophia_13017_2_3001. I found the two American cousins very evocative and enigmatic characters – what was your inspiration for their part of the story?

It was important to me that they are outsiders, and I was really interested in contrasting the American character with the English; it provides a note of tension, and gives Delphine and Julia some leeway to act differently (and get away with it). Also, I’ve always loved the writing of Edith Wharton and the way she portrays New York as a kind of hothouse of wealth and luxury at the turn of the century. I wanted to give Delphine and Julia a hint of that same decadence, so I researched the New York social scene of the 1830s and 40s.

2. This is a very gothic novel, with all sorts of elements of melodrama, religious obsession and stifled passion. Do you think those elements naturally belong in historical fiction? Would you ever write a contemporary tale involving them?

I think there’s room for those elements in novels set at any time, but there is a particular atmosphere about the Victorian period that makes it the perfect setting for them. It was a time when people felt very insecure – there’d been rapid industrialisation, home was separating from work and being idealized (hence the ‘angel in the house’ idea of the perfect wife gaining credence at this time) and there was a great deal of turmoil over religion and its dialogue with science. I think people were very afraid, and it was having a stifling effect on their lives. Once you have those kind of pressures on you, there’s room for drama.

I would certainly love to write a contemporary tale featuring them, but the right idea hasn’t turned up yet. Every time I try to write something set in the present day, the words ‘it was 1851…’ or something similar come out of my pen.

3. I was really pleased that you managed to create a ‘forceful’ character in Delphine who is not an anachronism. Did you feel pressurized at all to produce strong female leads?

I’m really glad you felt that, because I felt I was walking a tightrope with Delphine. I wanted to portray someone who was strong enough to survive great difficulties, whilst also showing just how hard it was for her to be strong, not only because of societal pressures, but also because of her own vulnerabilities.

I didn’t feel any external pressure to create a strong female lead, but my last main character, Mary in The Silversmith’s Wife, was someone who was quite delicate; she had been shattered by the events of her life and had to recover from that. So, having been through the emotional wringer with her, I was ready to write someone a bit tougher.

4. Have you imagined the characters beyond the relatively happy ending of the story? Do you think their marriages will work?

I don’t want to be too specific, because I might give the ending away! Yes, I do imagine them afterwards, definitely. I think that life will throw challenges at them, but they deserve to be happy.

5. This is your second novel (after The Silversmith’s Wife). Was it easy to write or is it true what people say about second novels and the challenge they present?

I think the difficulty with a second book is mastering your own doubts and worries – all the little gremlin voices saying ‘will it be as good as the first?’ On the other hand, you do know that you can write a book – because you’ve already done it once. Also, I learnt a huge amount from writing the first book, and from being edited. That experience helped me with structuring the book and knowing what to push forward with when I was writing, and what to throw away.

I wrote the second book in a much shorter time period than the first, which was a pressure but also a motivation. Every evening, it was just me and the book: it was extremely intense, and I felt as though I was living it as I was writing it.

6. What brought you to writing fiction in the first place?

I’ve always loved stories, and I’ve always loved books. But I think a big influence was a particular incident in my childhood. I was seven years old and I wrote a poem about a play which had been put on at our school. The pivotal moment was watching my teacher’s face as she read it. There was some indefinable quality in her expression which made me realize that she liked it. That’s what I want to inspire in my readers. The poem ended up being printed (another pivotal moment!) and I still have it somewhere.

After that I always wrote, and I always wanted to be a writer, but it was a private thing; I wrote on my own, and I didn’t talk about it. Life carried on and it was over twenty years before I decided I should just go ahead and see if I could write a book or not.

7. Who are your inspirational authors?

There are so many. I’ve read and loved Hilary Mantel’s work for years. Michel Faber, who wrote The Crimson Petal and the White, is brilliant. Other favourites include: Daphne du Maurier, E.M. Forster and, of course, Jane Austen. I grew up reading nineteenth-century writers so I’m very much at home with them.

8. And what are you reading at the moment?

I have an enormous pile of books on Georgian society to read as research for my third book, but I’m also reading Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. The writing is so full of warmth and wit, you feel as though you’re being lulled by it and then suddenly there’s a little dig, razor sharp; I love it.

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