Saturday, August 31, 2013

Kitchen Table Scribbler

As the excellent and often underrated British author Penelope Fitzgerald once observed ‘women are all kitchen table scribblers...’ She meant that we write when and where we can find a moment, in between the demands of work, kids, spouse and household chores. I myself have been known to run away from the stove where things were threatening to bubble over to jot down a quick note or a line of dialogue before it disappeared again.

In all honesty, and to head off any cries of sexism, this can apply to male authors too.

It seems these days many of us start our literary careers at work. In my case, and I seem to be in good company there, it started while working an endless string of dull temp jobs. I can remember a few where I was able to fill at least half a notebook.

One temp job in particular stands out in my memory. Not because it was a fun one or particularly easy to get to, I had to sit in traffic for almost an hour each way, but because there was truly, absolutely, nothing to do. To alleviate the boredom that mushroomed in between two or three phone calls I had to answer and the odd person coming to the counter, I decided to put the old computer at my workstation to good use and write a book.

It wasn’t a very well thought out book, but I was working my imagination and keeping busy between 8 am and 5 pm. The mandated lunch break was just a chance to stretch my legs, find a decent cup of coffee and have a sandwich before returning to ‘my book’.

The office was staffed by total of 3 people, women with conflicting ambitions, and there didn’t appear much communication between any of them as they all huddled in their individual offices, ignoring me. As long as they signed my work card I was happy to be left alone.

Once I’d finished ‘my book’ I realized I needed a way to get it off that computer and home with me. I’d already printed out each days‘ progress as I went along; just a few pages a day so as not arouse suspicion if the printer went on too long. I carefully selected the woman to ask for a diskette (yes, it was that long ago), assuming she was the least likely to give me away as she was quite junior there, and there were whispers she would be transferred to another office soon.

I picked wrong.
I got my diskette and blissfully went home with 'my book' on it ... but the next morning I got a phone call from the temp agency saying my contract had been cut short due to budgeting issues, or some such vague reason. I shrugged it off and moved on.

Two days later I had another temp job. This time I was told I could read if things were slow, as long as I would hide the book if a client showed up at the counter. It turned out to be a great opportunity to catch up on some of the classics in literature.

All time well-spent in honing the craft of a writer.

PS: No interview this month. It wasn’t possible to organize one with the end of summer vacation looming and back-to-school details to attend to.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Train Writer

An underrated pleasure of travel in the US is train travel. Sure the rails are old and bumpy making my pen sway across the page in an inelegant scrawl, but I have legroom, a view and no traffic jams. Good coffee and a decent sandwich can be had on board as well.

I don’t have to do any driving and the wait at the station before boarding isn’t nearly as long or onerous as at the airport ... and I get to keep my shoes on before boarding!

There are no distraught children because there are no air pressure changes that hurt their ears.

In short, nothing to distract me from making up stories about my fellow passengers and the things I see rushing by outside the window to the soothing clickity-clack of the rails with the occasional clanging of crossing guard bells.

We rush past farm houses and fields of corn and potatoes. There’s a crumbling jetty, once we start hugging the inland coast line, with an old towel and no-trespass sign that’s bound to have stories to tell.

Then there’s the grandmother with her 2-inch hot pink nails, rhinestone bedecked white denim clothes and small grey braids wound around her head, playing bingo on her big purple cellphone. A very cheerful woman with a ready smile off to see her grandchildren. Life has given her permission to be eccentric.

There are the young students headed to Canada for some late summer adventure, their faces flushed with excitement, smiling, no, grinning happily. It must be some adventure! My imagination runs wild.

And what of the family of four from somewhere in the former East Block? I can’t manage to place their language, but I’m sure it will come to me before the end of the trip. Only one of them speaks English, and I wonder if she’s perhaps a university exchange student traveling with visiting relatives.

Theirs is certainly once conversation I won’t be eavesdropping on.

Not that I make it a habit to listen in on the conversations of others, but snatches caught on the air of a train can make for good story material. If only to get a sense of the colloquial speech patterns of various generations on that train, which might come in useful in some future book.

I can see why Alfred Hitchcock placed so many of his movies on trains, they offer no end of possibilities.

I’d also like to use this opportunity to give a big shout-out to the very cheerful staff on the Amtrak Cascades train who made the trip even more pleasant.
Amtrak Cascades logo

Friday, August 16, 2013

August Book Review

Cuckoo's Calling Cover

The Cuckoo’s Calling
By: Robert Galbraith a.k.a. J.K. Rowling

This book intrigued me and found its way into my shopping cart before I knew Robert Galbraith was the pen-name for J.K. Rowling.

I’m not sure, to be honest, if I enjoyed the book more or less after finding out the author’s true identity. In some ways I’m saddened that she was outed so early on as I think Robert Galbraith could have stood on his own as an author without Ms. Rowling’s fame. Galbraith could have enjoyed that slow, agonizing trek up the publishing ladder ... well, except that there was already a decent marketing machine behind him, something many first-time published authors don’t have.

What I did notice while reading the book - which is a good read by the way - is that I kept looking for hints of Rowling’s more famous characters, just to see which traits she would transfer, carry over into other writing. Somewhere in one of the more important characters I did spot a hint of Hermione Granger, which by Rowling’s own admission is a character closest to her own. So it should come as no surprise that we find her in this book.

But it’s not my intention to pick a good read apart and certainly I do not want to comment on Rowling’s style. I just want to review what was a satisfying, well-crafted detective story.

It has many elements of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre, but would probably be placed on the tamer side of that shelf because it wasn’t as gritty or cynical as say a Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammet book, but certainly fitting with the things the down-on-his luck private eye, Cormoran Strike, has already witnessed in his own extremely dysfunctional upbringing and military career and now his detecting business.

As this was the author’s first foray into the whodunit genre there is still room for growth, and I look forward to more.

For me it was a satisfying summer read, nothing too heavy, just a good page-turner, and that is what summer reading should be all about.