Latest News

Drugs, desire and one straight Englishman: a memory of Paris, 1972

The smile was almost the same. Those heavy-lidded dark brown eyes may have become a rather warier over the twenty years since we had last met. The handsome black face was a little more lined, but still conveyed interest, affection, mild amusement. It was my old friend Pierre's front teeth that were different. He had none. He was a cycle messenger in New York these days, and had been involved in a nasty accident. Now he was in Barnes, staying for a few weeks at the house of an older man, possibly his lover, who was arranging for the National Health to fix Pierre's teeth. It was a case of what we now call "health tourism". Although I had not seen him for over a decade, I had not been surprised to get the call from Pierre. He was one of those people who appear in one's life at the...

read more →

From cats to editors – a top 10 of authors’ little helpers

The page before you is blank. When you try to write a sentence, it is like dragging your feet through a quagmire. With every slurpy step, the idea that you are a writer seems more absurd. Story? Hah! Who is going to read this stuff anyway? An hour ticks by. You write a sentence. You read it. Your groan. You delete it. You tell yourself that this is just one of those days, but then these days every day is one of those days. The moment has arrived when you need your writer's support system - that safety net of encouragement and distraction that you have erected to catch  you when you are in danger of plummeting into the abyss. The questions is: who are you going to call? The spouse/lover/close friend (good). They know you well enough to recognise when you're in trouble: the reluctance to get out of...

read more →

The Seven Ages of Authorhood

1 Even as a mewling and puking infant, he shows signs that one day he will be an author. There is something about how he grips his copy of The Cuddly Cloth Kitten in his little hand, the way he looks out of his cot, observing the world around him with oddly knowing eyes. She, on the other hand, is a real talker. Within weeks of her making her entrance, she is chuckling and laughing and speaking in her own strange, gurgling language  - a foreshadowing, it will later be said, of her experimental novel EndOf, which will be written four decades later.   2 As a schoolboy, he is a voracious reader. He reads  Little Dorritt when he is nine. He is pale and solitary with an acceptably unhappy childhood, which will feature largely in his later work. Like many successful writers, he suffers from asthma and hates games....

read more →

The rise and rise of the celebrity bully

There was once a man called Jimmy Savile. He was powerful and did bad things. Although some people suspected as much, he was allowed to continue being powerful and doing bad things for two main reasons: he was a bully, and he was popular with the public. Those  were the bad old days. Nothing like that, we are told, could happen in this fairer, more morally scrupulous age. That assumption, always questionable, received a bit of a bashing this week. A famous broadcaster lost his temper in a food-related incident and took a swing at a BBC staffer. Hundreds of thousands of people, some of them quite sensible, have argued that he should not be punished. He is too amusing, too popular, makes too much money for the BBC, to lose his job. In another part of the media village, a well-known eco-millionaire has lost a matrimonial case in the...

read more →

My 10 Writer’s Resolutions for 2015

On a home-alone New Year's Eve, I find myself sternly noting resolutions to myself for the creative year ahead (the personal resolutions can wait). Of course, they may not work for everyone...   Enjoy yourself at work. Even when it is deadly serious, writing should have a bit of skittishness and fun to it.  Forget the market. It's mad, and getting madder. Worrying about it will send you the same way.  Do something different. Startle yourself out of your comfort zone.  Write every day. If it's prose, anything under 200 words doesn't count. If it's poetry or a song, two lines should count as a good day.  Don't write too much. After you pass the 1000 word mark in one day, a law of diminishing returns sets in.  For any form of genuine creativity, the internet is the snake in the garden. In 2015, there will be writing time and...

read more →

There’s no snob quite like a book snob

The book fair crowd was streaming past me on their way to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. That evening, in another part of the city, I would be performing a musical show about writing and the life of an author as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. I had thought, in my innocence, that readers and writers of books might be interested. I was wrong. Anyone trying to persuade people to come to a show in Edinburgh becomes used to getting the brush-off, but the snottiness of the book crowd was in a different league.? Not for the first time, I wondered why the world of books is such a snooty place. Snobbery is in the lifeblood of publishing. It swirls about at the grander literary parties. It even, as I discovered in Edinburgh, infects readers. The subtle, constantly evolving gradations of bookish superiority would probably require a lifetime of study,...

read more →

Top Nine Writer’s Rules #7: Fear

It will catch any serious writer in the end: that familiar dread of the blank or page or screen as it stares back at you, daring you to give it  some words which, the blank page just knows, will be disappointing, or surprisingly weak, or in some way inferior to everything you have written before. The question is whether the author's fear is friend or foe, creative or crippling.  Opinion among those who really should know is, as ever, divided.  1. A.L KENNEDY ‘Let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear  and all you’ll get is silence.’   2. STEPHEN KING ‘I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.’       3.  DAVID FOSTER WALLACE 'I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when...

read more →

Remembering Paul Sidey

Some time in the early 1990s, the writer Willie Donaldson devoted his weekly column in the Independent to an account of how the editor who had commissioned him to write his memoirs was so desperate to get the book delivered that he had committed him to an addiction clinic run by mad Christians: 'Paul Sidey of Random Century  - one of the many publishers who have been hounding me in Ibiza  - isn't as silly as he looks. Not that he looks particularly silly; indeed he doesn't look silly at all. A little too well-preserved, perhaps, for a literary man of a certain age, a little too crisp in the step and upper head; more like an old-time actor  - even, in a certain light, like a retired soloist with the Ballet Rambert  - but he'll know his business best.' I've been thinking about silliness and  courage since Paul, who...

read more →

Top Nine Writer’s Rules #6: Confidence

It is an undeniable (and frankly rather unattractive) aspect of a writer's character that it needs to be finely balanced between  arrogance and insecurity. Confidence is needed to write in the first place; a degree of self-doubt is necessary for what is written not to be preeningly complacent and indulgent. From Anthony Trollope to Caitlin Moran, the distinguished panel for this part The Writer's Rules seem pretty unanimous as to the best approach, which is most pithily summarised in Rule Number 9. Feel free (if you have the confidence) to add the tenth rule yourself.   1. ELIZABETH SMART 'Writers have to construct an importance, a sacred vocation, not to feel fiddling….  If you feel foolish doing it, think of those who have done it and earned your everlasting gratitude.'   2. JONATHAN FRANZEN ‘However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that...

read more →

Top Nine Writer’s Rules: #5 Block

Look at the first of these two rules, and you'll see that nothing divides authorly opinion like writer's block. Most of these insights are either self-pitying or briskly unsympathetic  -  successful writers seem to believe in tough love when dispensing advice - but there is one piece of caring practical advice. Surprisingly, that comes from Kingsley Amis.   1. JOHN CHEEVER 'There is nothing more painful for a writer than an inability to work,'     2. TONI MORRISON ‘If you’re blocked, you probably ought to be.’   3. JOSEPH CONRAD ‘I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours every day  -  and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair… it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against...

read more →