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My Book Problem

This summer we had the hall painted, which meant that the enormous pile of books that are stacked on the wardrobe on the landing, from head height up to the ceiling had to come down.  I’d say, roughly, around five hundred seriously dusty books.  Hmmm, actually maybe more…possibly twice that.  And this is just the overflow stack.  The bookcases in every room are already rammed, the shelves in the loos teetering, plus the towering piles next to each side of our bed.

So I’ve had to take stock, which is not easy.  You see, if I can remember a detail from a book – like a character, or an atmosphere or setting, or even just a good line of dialogue – it’s like they’re part of me.  They’re my friends and it pains me to get rid of them, even though I’ll shortly be taking boxes and boxes of them to charity. 

I’m a writer, primarily because I like writing, but also because I love books.  For me, there is simply no better form of escapism. I can’t be doing with electronic books, or taking a tablet to bed. No, I need a physical book, where I fold over the corner of the page before I go to sleep, or leave it splayed on the sand next to my beach towel.  Books whose pages get slightly crinkly with moisture as I gallop through them whilst reading in the bath.  Books that have red wine, or gravy splattered on them as I’ve stood by the stove stirring a pot. 

I’m not a deliberate book hoarder.  If I read a book and love it, I pass it on immediately to a friend with strict instructions for them to read it.  I often end up missing the book so much, though, that I buy another copy of the book, just to have it.

Keeping books I love isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, it’s just after thirty odd years of collecting books, the problem is sheer volume.  And it doesn’t help that I’m married to a man who is exactly the same.

Problem one is of course, of my own making.  I’m talking about all of my own books and the ones I’ve written with Emlyn.  This is not meant as a humble brag, or even a brag, but as an author, it feels immoral to throw one’s own books away.  Do I need two Polish copies of A Twist Of Fate? Can I even read the title? No, but even so.  Someone, somewhere in another country, speaking another language I’ll never understand actually read the words I wrote.  It’s a fact that doesn’t get less amazing with time. 

Then there are the books of friends who are authors.  There are a lot of them, many of them personally signed at launches.  I have to keep those out of sheer solidarity with our fellow scribes.  I’ve been dusting off rare proofs, celebrating the life of these books that went out into the world, full of potential and hope.

Also in the collection are dozens that I’ve been carting around since university.  Ones that I think make me look clever – like Milton’s Paradise Lost, a battered set of Thomas Hardys, (plus the books I actually read, rather than swatted up on the Lett’s notes), the Edith Whartons and George Elliots. 

Then there’s all the  non-fiction books  –  on all sorts of eclectic subjects, from health, to all the history of various wars, out of date travel guides, to obscure books we’ve used for research – The Mabinogion anyone?  Oh, and let’s not forget the books we’ve inherited – like my father-in-law’s grandmother’s set of embroidery books.  What to do with them?  They’re so pretty – all embossed in gold.

I think the book problem would be easier to deal with if I didn’t keep buying new books, but I can’t help myself.  Bookshops are like sweet shops for me.  I just can’t resist. 

So recently I’ve tried a new tack.  I’ve decided that I’ll try and re-read books I’ve forgotten about.  Earlier this summer, on my first post lock-down trip to the very brilliant City Books in Hove, I bought a copy of The Magus, by John Fowles.   Admittedly, this was a first stumbling block in the new strategy.  I knew I had it somewhere in ‘the pile’, but who knew where, so I treated myself to a new copy.

Back in the late eighties, when I first read The Magus, it was incredibly popular and I remember loving it, but couldn’t remember very much about it.  It turned out to be a good summer holiday book – the setting is a sun-soaked Greek island. It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an arrogant young graduate who sets off to teach in the island’s school where he comes across a private estate, ‘Bourani’.  He soon meets its owner, the bonkers-rich recluse, Maurice Conchis. 

The Magus of the title – it was revealed about half way through – refers to a tarot card which represents a magician, and soon Conchis is conjuring up some weird mind-games that keep Nicholas – and the reader – guessing as to his purpose. The plot gets thicker and twistier. About three quarters of the way through, I nearly gave up, but I persevered and in the end, I did feel the re-read was worth it.  It’s a keeper.

Ah, but, damn it, I’m trying to create space.  So I have a copy going spare.  It’s a bit sandy, but any takers?

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Foisting myself out into the great unknown

Well Hello! This is my first ever blog. I feel a bit weird about writing it, foisting myself out into the great unknown. Somehow with books, it’s more civilized. By the time my words are written, edited, polished and published I feel a reassuring distance from them. If I happen to see a punter in a bookshop pick up one of my books, then after the initial adrenalin rush, the only panic I feel is because I can’t recall the character’s names or remember how to pitch my novel well. There’s a vague sense of pride, but the words in the book have nothing to do with me anymore. Whereas this…well this is immediate. Scary. There might be…feedback.

As a writer, feedback is a tricky area. Asking for it never turns out as you expect it to.  I’ve learnt never, ever to ask someone in a bookshop if they’re going to buy my book. It terrifies them and puts them in a horrible spot. Quite often they refuse to believe that you’re actually the author, as if anyone might pose as an author for fun.  People also don’t expect authors to actually talk, as if talking and writing are mutually exclusive. I suppose people assume that female authors ought to be bouffy and dressed in a white power suits and bespectacled and tweedy if they’re a man.  The last time I told someone they were holding my novel in their hands, they demanded proof of ID.  So I had to get out my bank card, dropping nappy wipes and baby milk in the process.  So terribly glam.  They didn’t buy my book.

But nevertheless the desire for feedback is undeniably strong. When Come Together came out, Emlyn and I stalked a man in Manchester train station who was reading our book. He remained glued to the pages all through the ticket buying, through the barrier, onto the train. He didn’t stop reading, but he didn’t laugh once. By London, even though he hadn’t looked up from our carefully crafted comedy, we were both despairing and Emlyn refused to let me grill the poor bloke as to why he hadn’t so much as smiled. It was just as well, as it turned out later that he was a critic.  He said our book was hilarious. Never trust the critics, I say.

The next time I saw someone reading our book, Emlyn wasn’t on hand to stop me. I marched up to the poor unsuspecting woman on the beach and asked her if she was enjoying the book in her sandy hands. She said that she was, but was quite confused that I’d asked. Again, I guess you don’t expect to see an author in a bikini. When I told her that I’d written that very tome with Emlyn, I turned to introduce him and saw that he’d disappeared into the sea with our daughter and looked as if he was swimming the channel to get away from his embarrassing wife. And this is a man who hates cold water. The woman left the beach almost immediately and I was left standing there, scratching my head.

So I guess you have to be thick-skinned when it comes to feedback. I saw one of my books on a second-hand stall on the beach front the other day. My eldest asked the stall-holder how much it was. He said a pound, but she could have it for fifty pence, as it wasn’t very good!

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