I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Licking The Heat

I'm not complaining when I say that it's 42 degrees outside! Thank goodness for those large, leafy trees they have around here.

I am currently in the Basque country, San Sebastien, where everyone is shirtless and the air smells of sunscreen. We have ventured our way down from Nice, where we also called in to Vence and St Paul de Vence - this cute little place features in my novel and is also where James Baldwin used to live.

I have brought five novels with me and will enjoy having the time to get through them all. I am currently reading another Macmillan New Writing title - Across the Mystic Shore (I bought all six of the books that launched this imprint and I'm now on to the fourth). Having got this far, it is now clear there is a definite problem with the editing or checking of manuscripts. There are too many typos and small mistakes. This is not the fault of the authors. I would suggest that MNW needs to invest some extra time in proof reading when the book is set. I will come back to this later when I review this latest book. I'm only three chapters in, but so far so good in terms of the story.

I'm also taking loads of photos, jotting down verses for poems and nutting out the chemin of my new novel. After here we're heading for Bilbao and then a graceful descent down the coast of Portugal - Porto and Lisbon included.

I will sign in again when I get the chance. I hope you are all green with envy, unless of course you're in fancier quarters!

The Lions of Lyon (18)

This lion brings some welcome news: it's HOLIDAY TIME!

I am off in the morning on my trip to Portugal. I had to put up one more lion before I go because photos will be difficult to post when I'm on the road. I will pop in with the odd post during my travels - when I come across the Internet.

Keep the plants watered and no fighting while I'm gone. And for those worried about Muffin the cat - and yes, all serious writers must have an intelligent cat in their universe - she will be taken care of by a very kind neighbour for three weeks and then a very nice colleague.

Take care, stay happy, don't burn, don't sweat too much and keep those words coming, even when others are swanning it!

The Unpublished Blues

I really hate the thought that some writers are judging their entire lives on whether or not they get their work published, as if that prospect were the only thing stopping them from wilting away into nothingness.

Much has been said about the depression that writers can fall into; the pressure that "the unpublished" place on themselves is terrible, a wretched thing that can destroy many wonderful people. I have seen this. I have met the woman who walked into the ocean because her writing was "going nowhere", because she thought she would never be good enough. Hell, she had so much else to celebrate in so many other areas of her life that she always seemed to underestimate. Her writing was also terrific. She just gave herself too much of a hard time. The beautiful children she produced are far more of an achievement than any book on any shelf. It's a shame she wouldn't believe that.

Ambition is a very dangerous thing, and when that's mixed in with the spice of a fickle industry the mixture can be explosive. I know this feeling. Journalism is just as dizzying. I learnt to contain things. The spotlight needs to shine on ALL parts of one's life.

It's easier said than done, but unpublished writers, I believe, mustn't treat their manuscripts as the "be all and end all". There is so much else going on. Perspective. Perspective. Perspective. Write, write and write some more but don't think it's the only golden key to satisfaction. Ask any published author. Is there a sudden dose of something that sorts out their lives? I know plenty of miserable published writers. It wasn't the medicine. They often envy those on the "unpublished side" who have wonderful relationships, who have happy homes, who don't go to bed uptight, who don't worry so much and analyse everything that goes on around them, who don't cut themselves off from the world with their inner torment.

The writer Samuel Johnson once said: "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition." How can that relate to your situation?

When you start slapping yourself around because it's been too long that your words have not been in front of the masses, be satisfied by sharing them with just a few, then take a look at the rest of your life where there have already been more solid successes: children, gardens, friends, relationships, money-earning jobs, learning, good health, etc. Always keep things local, close to home, close to the heart. If it goes bigger on its own, then it's even more important to keep things local. If you become famous and it's huge, then you will need to force yourself to keep everything absolutely 100 percent LOCAL.

Getting a book into print would be nice, yes, but let's not blow up a whole planet just because one part of it doesn't yet have a flag to fly. I know a man who is always introduced by his colleagues, family and friends as "someone who failed to get a publisher for a book he spent 20 years working on". Gosh, what an introduction! I made a real effort to find out all the other wonderful things he did. He was a gem. Who cares about the book? He learnt in the end how to laugh about it. I do not want his unfortunate tag to be the one that someone staples to my shirt!

I will of course update people in my own writing circles on how my projects are going - yes, people on this blog are included in that - but I don't plan on telling every Tom, Donald and Harriet about my writing ambition, as though that's all there is running through my veins and that's what they should judge my whole life on. That little question that keeps coming back at us is a killer: so how is your writing coming along (meaning why haven't you been published yet?) or what's happening with the book (they haven't seen it on the shelves)?

I just want to get on with this whole living thing - and part of that is the writing. Enough of the running commentaries and painful updates, which only add more pressure. I am writing. The writing is coming along well. Everything else is too. Life is a beach. Did you know I paint? Did you know I also play the piano? Did you know that I've learnt to speak and write French? My name has already been published and broadcast around the world. Big deal. That's not what this whole creative thing is about. There. Enough said. There's no time to get blue about writing. There's too much fun to be had!

The Lions of Lyon (17)

I call this one "The Icecream Lion". When all of the lions have been displayed - and don't forget there are as many as 40 or 50 - we will have a vote to decide which are the best three! So, stay tuned.

A Shameless Review

Sometimes the best way to really get to know a writer is by reading their books from A to Z, starting with their first novel and working your way through. I did this recently with Colm Toibin, the celebrated Irish author. I'm still not sure how to pronounce his name by the way; is it Toe-been? Toy-bin? I seem to remember seeing Toe-been somewhere, but I can't be sure. Any idea?

The South was his first book, published by Serpent's Tail in 1991. It won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature Prize in that year. I was intrigued by the story: an Irish woman runs away from her husband and young son, ending up in Spain, where she falls in love and devotes herself to painting. The book covers the subsequent undoing of her fantasy life in Spain and her return to Ireland as an older woman. There seemed to be something to look forward to here, with an endless list of sparkling reviews.

The writer did force me to sit up and pay attention. The prose is carefully pruned into something elegant and dreamy. We instantly fall under the spell of this lyrical style. This writer does know how to wield a powerful pen. It was a shame then to feel jolts as time rushed forward, as key moments were left behind without being explored. Some reviewers have praised the book for this quality. Don Delillo said: "Toibin, like his characters, never says too much and never lets us grow too comfortable". The "never says too much", in the end, became a problem for me.

The main character, Katherine, has abandoned a 10-year-old boy (the leaving of the husband we might accept). We never get the sense of what this does to her. Does she care? Is she so cold-hearted? It is hard to feel for a woman who can so casually walk away from her own child, and to not have that explained adequately. I was willing to understand, but the author didn't want to help me. She later loses another child, and this is mentioned in passing! Katherine turns out to be living inside a hard shell, and yet we are supposed to feel for her and her love of painting.

I hoped there would be some kind of redemption, some kind of twist that would help me understand her. There was very little. We learn very little about her true feelings, even after tragedy strikes. This makes it hard to feel any empathy. She happily takes money week in and week out from a mother she doesn't get on with. She returns to Dublin and tracks down her son; she needs money from him. He and his new wife are too good to this woman who has been so selfish for far too long. The author doesn't explore the situation these people find themselves in.

By the end of the book I had no desire to see anything develop. I didn't want to hear about how Katherine is forgiven without having to face up to herself. She flees one man and a child to find another man and a child, and then loses them in some strange kind of punishment. That is all it is, however. I wanted to know more about what was inside her head. What was inside the other characters' heads?

The writing is beautiful, but there wasn't enough substance here for me. I will take the time to read Toibin's later books though, in the hope that there will be something more to my liking. I mean, he was nominated for the Booker, wasn't he?

Joyce Carol Oates

Frank Wilson from Books, Inq seems to be the champion of my literary challenges. Is there a famous author he wouldn't be able to get?

Just to fill in those who may have been baffled by the five clues.

Rosamond : this is the pseudonym that Oates used to publish a few suspense novels - Rosamond Smith.

Mademoiselle : she won the coveted Mademoiselle fiction contest in her younger years, while studying at Syracuse University.

Elwood : this is Richard Elwood, the 18-year-old who features in her book Expensive People, published in 1968.

Princeton : she's been living here since 1978, and has been closely involved in the creative writing programme at Princeton University.

Lockport : this is where she was born, in the countryside outside New York.

Oates is one of the most prolific writers in America, having successfully crossed many different genres. She is a kind of literature missionary, wanting the beautiful power of words and stories to reach every corner of the globe. I love the experimental style that she so easily brings to the masses. She is a master at using the first person, but equally at home with something more multi-layered. The subjects and the ideas are often daring and a bit challenging, but she knows how to keep people in her universe.

I love the quote by another American writer - Henry James - that is said to be attached to the wall above her desk:

"We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

What more can one say?