Sam Maliko's Extra Good Times.
He wondered what he would say to the nursing staff if they asked about the cumbersome package he’d left the day before. They’d almost certainly be talking about it; it would probably be on their list of the strangest things ever brought in for someone in oncology. Had the old man explained it? Would he even remember what they were? The phone crackled through to the ward.
‘Whole lot better today, Mr. Maliko. Bit of a bumpy old night but sleeping like a baby now.’
He accepted the nurse’s familiar tone with the family now. They all had to. Her low, pastoral voice was now more important than any other in their lives. In just a few weeks she’d become a crucial branch in their wilting family tree, gently bringing them closer to the truth that autumn that year would be impossible to escape.
‘Has he opened the package I left for him yesterday?’
‘Oh, let me see.’ She shuffled down the corridor with the cordless phone, pulling the odd curtain back along the way, saying ‘how ya doin’ my lovely?’ to some of those desperate for her comfort. She never apologised for taking her time. ‘People ought to go forth in life with the conviction of someone who has all the time in the world,’ she’d once told the family.
As he waited, blowing out perfect circles of blue smoke, he wondered if he should ask for the latest results.
She came back on the line and chuckled. ‘Not even opened it yet, honey. Still all wrapped up in that dull grey paper you brought it in. You want me to rip it open?’
‘No, no … leave it like it is. He’ll open it when he wakes.’
* * *
They stayed up until just before midnight creating the labels, trying to see if they could match the style of those on real soda bottles. The father and son could be noisy and rash when mother was out of town, spreading their mess out into several rooms. They could even sit on the floor of the parlour in paper hats, singing Indian songs at the top of their voices, their shirts not tucked in, free of their shoes and socks.
Young Sam had his favourite colour poised. ‘What are we going to call it?’
‘Whatever you want. These are your very own bottles.’
‘OK then … Sam Maliko’s Soda!’ he roared, standing up straight to inspect the dozen brown bottles that surrounded him.
His father laughed, quickly grabbing hold of his pipe as it fell from between his teeth. ‘But these aren’t for soda, my boy. These are special, for filling up with extra good times. We need to make sure you’ve got some spare for later in life when you might need them.’
‘But what about the soda?’
‘Don’t you worry, there’ll be plenty of soda.’ He flicked a match and then sucked in as he relit his pipe. He then spat out several times, trying to dislodge a small piece of tobacco stuck on his lip. ‘But good times? Now that’s something very easy to run out of. Once we’ve got these filled up we can store them in the garage, so they’re always there if you need them.’
Young Sam stood there in deep thought, eyeing the labels, as his father put down his pipe and measured out some shiny silver paper.
‘It needs to be catchy, son. Something you’ll remember.’
After a minute or two of silence Sam burst out, ‘I’ve got it! Sam Maliko’s Extra Good Times!’
‘Perfect,’ said his father, winking as he nodded. ‘You just never know when you might need them.’
© Copyright, 2007. Seamus Kearney.
no, really, we could’ve,
heck, I just don’t feel,
I just ought to, needy?
I’ll tell you what, um,
no, nothing, not crying
if only I’d not been so,
you know, like it isn’t,
ahem, you know, bizarre,
right, caution to wind,
only, tossed right back
that’s cool, I ought to,
aha, absolutely, I see,
it’s just, um, unclear,
talking sideways? maybe,
yep, I get it, I’m gone
© Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.
In my previous post, in which I ventured to say that every writer has their own Mont Blanc in the distance, I completely forgot to tell you about the wonderful view I had of Mont Blanc when I was flying back to Lyon from New York in October. I took the following pictures, which you need to click to enlarge:
Not much snow on her in October, but still easy to spot!
I couldn't believe how close we got. I could've almost reached down to touch her.
This angle is similar to the one in my previous post, only higher up!
She watches over such a wide area!
No wonder people are inspired by her!
Just about to land in Lyon and we can still see her there in the distance!
All of this reminds me of the famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Mont Blanc, Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni. (That's how the French pronounce Chamonix, by the way.) Here's the last section of the poem, which was written in 1816:
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
While we're on the subject, you really want to check out this poem and post on Jessica Schneider's blog, which she put up after spotting my earlier post.
(Click on images to enlarge them).
What is it about high mountains and our crazy desire to get to the very top, no matter what?
Why is it that we're often blind to the valleys and mountains below, which are far less dangerous and require far less effort? I took the above photo of Mont Blanc during a weekend ski trip to La Plagne - thundering over the French Alps at a height of 4807 metres, this is Europe's largest mountain. For many writers, getting a publishing contract is their very own Mont Blanc in the distance. Nothing will ever put them off the relentless, gruelling push to reach that peak.
I also fall into this category, I suppose, but I do try to remind myself that we must also try to enjoy what's around the feet of that great mountain. There is fun to be had! The smaller mountains nearby are just as grand, just as gorgeous, and we shouldn't dismiss them out of hand. The journey is often better than the arrival! Also, if we never reach that glorious peak, and there's a mighty big chance we won't, then at least we've had a blast on the way.
We can keep our sights on our Mont Blanc, but we shouldn't become so obsessed that we see nothing else. Let's put on our skis and let ourselves glide off. There is so much else to experience and see. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Some of us may just find that on the summits of those smaller mountains, and among lots of other undiscovered valleys, we find all the pleasure and satisfaction we need.
This is what I tell myself: keep on towards Mont Blanc, but don't go getting lost in a blizzard.
Some novels are born from such fantastic ideas that I often don't really need a lot of persuasion to buy them. I only need to flick through a few pages in the bookshop to make sure that there are words, commas and full stops. The idea makes me so enthusiastic that I become certain that I am in for a treat. This was the feeling I had when I saw the blurb on the back of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Having just completed the book, there are two things I am now certain about: it was a great idea, but it was far from a treat.
Here was the great idea: This is the extraordinary love story of Clare and Henry, who met when Clare was six and Henry was 36, and were married when Clare was 22 and Henry 30. Henry suffers from a rare condition where his genetic clock periodically resets and he finds himself pulled suddenly into his past or future.
It promised to be a new take on all the time travelling stories we have around, a new way to get excited about an impossible love story. I sat down and wanted to be blasted somewhere else. I really wanted this idea to work. The book had been recommended by a sister, a friend, a workmate. It couldn't go wrong.
There was one main thing that kept taking me off the golden path of reading pleasure. The author took the risk of writing everything in the present tense, with short, careful sentences, not unsimilar to what we find in instruction manuals. The danger here is that everything seems to be a banal list of things that happen. This works for me if it is right for the story; here it drove me crazy. The sentence constructions weren't varied enough, making the book seem lifeless.
If you asked me to recreate the writing style in this book, I would come up with something like this: I woke up. I opened the window and heard the birds. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I had a shower. I called out to my husband. He was still asleep. The alarm clock hadn't yet gone off. That's right: there were far too many sentences beginning with "I". OK, my re-creation is slightly exaggerated, but you get the idea. Plot and characters are not enough for me; I need to feast on the taste of the language.
There also seemed to be a tendency to give every action its beginning, middle and end, regardless of whether the reader really needed to go through the motions to advance their understanding of the plot or the characters. This is the writing style in which every door opened has to be shut, every cupboard opened has to result in an inventory of what is inside, every person in a scene that speaks and moves has to be described, tidied and resolved by the end of it all. I found myself flicking through many scenes. The book ran to 519 pages; with better, more audacious editing, 200 pages could've been dropped very easily.
This novel, for me, seemed to be better at the head and the tail, but the large saggy middle was crying out to be trimmed. There are moments that are powerful, but there are many moments, in the middle sections, that felt like padding, as though the author was trying to figure out where things needed to go. It's a shame; it was such a fantastic idea.
What language are you speaking? What language are you writing in? Will your words get through to everyone who reads them?
It makes me sad to think that there are so many great foreign books that I will never truly be able to digest in the way the authors might've liked. As this universe hasn't yet given me the ability to read every book in the language in which they were originally written, I am denied the chance to get up close, figure out what an author was really trying to express. Yes, we do have translations, many of which are wonderful, but for me it is just never enough. It astounds me when I read a book in French and then compare it to the English translation; I feel sad that non-French speakers will never have access to the nuances, the authors' breaths and slight humming, the little flicks and caresses that translators struggle to transmit.
This brings me on to the story of a couple we'll call Agnus and Wally. To illustrate the dangers of translating with online programmes, and to illustrate the power of words, I thought I would try a little experiment. For a bit of fun, let's imagine that Wally writes a love note to Agnus, but for complicated reasons it must be translated into three other European languages and then back into English. I clicked on to the Babel Fish translating programme at Yahoo.com. Will our lovely couple live happily ever after? Let's find out:
The original letter in English:
Dear Agnus Punk,
I am writing to profess my undying love for you. My mother says you are the right woman for me and you cook and play darts very well. My father says I should quit dreaming and just accept my lot. He says I cannot expect to attract someone better looking than you. The church is booked, the ring is chosen, the pig has been slaughtered - all you have to do is say yes! I have left my secretary's number below and I expect a speedy reply. Kindest regards, Wally Moles.
Translated into Italian:
Caro Agnus Punk, sto scrivendo per professarvi il mio amore undying per. La mia madre dice che siete la donna di destra per me e cucinate molto bene e giocate i dardi. Il mio padre dice che dovrei rinunciare sognare ed accettare appena il mio lotto. Dice che non posso pensare attrarre qualcuno che osserva più meglio che voi. La chiesa è prenotata, l'anello è scelta, il maiale è stata macellata - tutta che dobbiate fare deve dire sì! Ho lasciato il mio numero di secretary's qui sotto e prevedo una risposta veloce. Riguardi più gentili, talpe di Wally.
Which is then translated into French:
Cher Agnus Punk, j'écris pour vous professer mien amore undying pour. Ma mère dit que vous êtes la femme de droite pour moi et cuisinées beaucoup bien et jouées les flèches. Mon père dit que je devrais rinunciare rêver et accepter à peine mon lotto. Il dit que je ne peux pas penser attirer quelqu'un qui observe plus de mieux que vous. L'église est réservée, l'anello est choix, le cochon a été abattue - toute que vous deviez faire doit dire oui ! J'ai laissé mon nombre de secretary's ici sous et prévois une répondue rapide. Égards plus gentils, taupes que Wally.
Which is then translated into Spanish:
Costoso Agnus Cerdo, j'écris para profesarles mío a undying para. Mi madre dice que son la mujer de derecha para mi y cocinadas mucho bien y jugadas las flechas. Mi padre dice que debería rinunc soñar apenas y aceptar mi lotto. Dice que no puedo pensar por atraer quelqu'un que observa mejor más de que ustedes. ¡Se reserva a L'église, l'anello es elección, se cortó al cerdo - toda que debían hacer debe decir sí! J'ai dejado mi numeroso secretary's aquí bajo y prevé uno respondida rápidos. Respetos más agradables, topos que Wally.
Which is then translated back into English and smartly posted off to Agnus:
Expensive Agnus Pig, j'écris to profess mine to them to undying stops. My mother says that they are the woman of right for my and cooked much and played the arrows well. My father says that rinunc would have to dream hardly and to accept my lotto. He says that I cannot think to attract quelqu'un that he observes better more of than you. Reserve to L'église, l'anello is election, was cut to the pig - everything that had to do must say yes! Lazy J'ai my numerous secretary's here low and anticipates one responded fast. More pleasant respect, awkward people than Wally.
Suffice to say that Wally remains a bachelor!
Isn't that great? I know it's hard to believe that "Dear Agnus Punk" can become "Expensive Agnus Pig", but it's absolutely true. Try it yourself!
I rest my case regarding online translating - just in case some of you are thinking about flogging your books to many different publishers/agents in foreign lands. Also, I suppose we'll just have to go on reading all of those wonderful foreign books that have been "adapted" - or we could sign up for non-stop, intensive language classes!
Just when you thought it was safe! Another one of my lions has turned up! This one is magic though: he's responsible for the raining letters you can see, which is a cure for all of those people suffering from post-Christmas writer's block! Just relax and let the letters soak over you.
Don't forget you can click on the photos to enlarge them!
I love these kinds of challenges. In a competition at The Clarity of Night, we were given a photo as inspiration for a short piece of fiction. There were 51 entries and the winner will be announced on Sunday night. The word limit was 250! My fellow bloggers Minx, Verilion and Cailleach are also among those who entered, producing some stunning work. Here's what I produced.
I was glad when I found that old photograph amongst his things; it was a reminder of one of the few projects he’d never accomplished.
My dear, impossible Arthur, who would wake up in the morning holding his beloved chisel and hammer. The kids used to say they were scared that one day they would come home from school and find a pile of rubble because of all his tinkering. He just couldn’t leave things alone, always having to go on mending, changing and improving. I suspect he’ll be doing the same thing in heaven, interfering with those golden gates no doubt, trying to convince his lordship that they should swing in and not out.
You can have a giant mural or a bay window, he’d said to me with a monkey’s grin. He argued it was high time we got rid of that damn awful void, those wires hanging down like poison ivy, blood leaking through the stone. I rattled with laughter, until I realised he was absolutely serious; he’d already been down to the library to find a glossy picture of Paris and had already got a quote on ten different tubs of acrylic. A window, he explained, would bring the morning sun directly into our bed, perhaps even do something for our love life.
This week, in memory of my wonderful Arthur, I decided to have both: a bay window in a classy, colourful Montmartre building. The kids are out there now, directing the workers.
© Copyright, 2007. Seamus Kearney.
in between elegant madams
lofty Xaviers and Sophies
a first kiss is remembered
tears tumble on mandarins
this brisk line of folly
becoming his daily ritual
a crowded, wistful canvas
royal hue, timbre, aromas
the Saint Antoine market
the place they’d first met
an ending never imagined
food and wine for eternity
bonjour, a vendor shouts
blue cheese for your love
the woman no one can see
whose pale hand he chases
brioche for one is bought
the old man turns for home
his lover is left to stroll
the playful market zephyr
© Copyright, 2007. Seamus Kearney.
Sometimes I start to wonder whether self-publishing may not be such a bad idea, when I find myself asking the cat: What if it really does just come down to a question of marketing?
Here's part of a rejection email that I received from a UK publisher last year:
"Our reader liked your manuscript and we seriously considered it for our list but in the end we felt that we would have limited success in trying to commercially market it in the current climate."
That's when you really want to get on the phone and discuss things, argue your case, try to work out how they know in advance how the public might react to the book. "Look at all the lousy decisions you made last year," I would say, nicely. "This year you could take a gamble and it might just pay off. Discover me!"
But no. You don't ring. You know you're not supposed to ring and try to change their minds. You are supposed to stay rational, calm and professional. Just sigh, then moan, then get on with it.
The email that I refer to did give other clues: the fact that the main character is a New Zealander, and the action takes place in France not the UK, complicates the mix. I drew the conclusion that the publisher thought it would be difficult to market this to a UK audience. This has been hinted at by others - mostly UK agents - who've looked at the manuscript.
That is why I am now trying New Zealand publishers - no response yet from the first publishing house that I've approached. I hope they won't see the book as too "different" to what they normally publish. If these NZ avenues are exhausted without success, the question of self-publishing will certainly have to be an option. Could I make a go of it myself, if it's just a question of marketing?
(Of course, it may be something more than just the marketing and commercial considerations. The story may be crap. The main character may be totally unappealing. The writing may have nothing going for it. I do ask myself these questions all the time, despite the nice comments I get every now and then.)
On the subject of which books are printed in which countries, and which books readers of certain nationalities are likely to warm to, I was pleased to read a recent blog entry from the head of Macmillan, Richard Charkin:
"Every now and again I feel moved to do an update on Macmillan New Writing, our programme for finding new fiction talent which was memorably described as a Ryanair (cheap and basic) concept in Charlotte Higgins's piece in The Guardian. The publishing business model is quite simple. If we can avoid losing money on individual titles the occasional discovery will allow us to make a modest profit overall. We've managed the first part of the equation successfully. All the titles have performed decently but none of the authors has 'broken out' into the really big time. We think we may have found our first mega-seller..."
The book he was talking about here was Never Admit to Beige by Jonathan Drapes, an Australian writer. Yes, that's right. A UK publisher has struck rich - well, kind of - by publishing a story that takes place in Australia, written by an Australian.
Whew! Stories from Down Under can work here then! Although, I mustn't overlook the fact that this is about a Brit who goes to the Gold Coast. Mmmm. Hold that glass of champagne, Mr Shameless!
No, hang on a minute! My story takes place in France! What about doing a translation? Publish the book first in French? That could be a very good marketing line: "New Zealand writer breaks into print by publishing first English-language novel as a French translation."
The greatest pleasure for a writer is to discover that he is being read.
That someone is really tuning in to what he's trying to express.
That someone goes away and meditates on the meaning of his words, and those reflections may even end up staying in the psyche.
Double-click on photos to see larger versions.
The trouble with Muffin, my lovely Siamese, is that she is unlikely to ever give me any useful, honest feedback - at least not in this lifetime! Well, I suppose it's normal that she can't be objective; she needs to praise everything to make sure that she is fed and stroked. I really don't blame her!
So, as 2007 kicks off, I would like to thank those of you who were so encouraging in their reactions to the "shameless" words that I put out there in 2006. This blog has been a wonderful experiment. It has been refreshing. It will definitely go on.
I am a writer and you are my readers! Just as you are writers and I am your reader. I have tuned in to a lot of what you have written. I have often gone away and meditated on your words and their meaning. These have often stayed with me. I also often wonder why the unpublished among you are not the authors of wonderful books.
This year, I look forward to being your writer and your reader. Don't forget that a writer only needs one reader to make it all worthwhile!
Even if I don't end up being on your bookshelves this year - keep those fingers and toes crossed - at least there's the chance I can beam out from your computer screens. The same goes for you. Take heart from the fact that you are providing me and my little Muffin with wonderful words to munch on.
Here's to happiness, creation and good vibes in 2007!