Category Archive: Writing

Thank you for having me!

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As you may have noticed over the past few weeks, the blog has been subtly changing hands! Scribbly Roo, our delightful illustration expert, will be stepping in as I head off to Boston to do some studying and teaching at Boston University’s writing program.

It’s been a fascinating experience to work with all of you, to judge the wonderful entries of our recent short story contest, to review your books. By far the most interesting part of it all has been getting to know you writers and reading your work. I’ve read such a variety of styles, situations, genres, voices and it has shown me how uplifting it can be to expose oneself to new things with an open mind.

So keep writing, everyone! As Kurt Vonnegut wrote once – “It’s the emptiest and yet the fullest of all human messages: ‘Good-bye.'”

Books That Should Have Been Illustrated: Part 2

Guest blog by Scribbly Roo, a freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer working from her home studio in Norfolk, UK, where she writes and illustrates her own graphic novels and children’s picture books.

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With the release of the new illustrated versions of the Harry Potter series due to be launched only a few months from now, it seemed fitting that Ms Parfitt and I discuss what books we wish were illustrated. As an artist, myself, I often enjoy sketching scenes from the books I have read, and some publications are so full of rich imagery and imagination that it seems almost a crime that they do not contain a single illustration.

So here are the books that get my fingers itching to illustrate:

The Dark Towers Series by Stephen King

I had to list this first, as I just finished the final installment last week and am still adjusting to life without another Dark Tower book to read! Seven books make up the epic tale of Gunslinger Roland of Gilead and his quest to find the point where all worlds meet- The Dark Tower. During his journey, he remembers friends of old and meets new friends from other worlds, including our own. The tale stretches across so many different landscapes that beg to be painted. We walk by Roland’s side, watching him encounter creatures like flesh eating Lobstrosities and the evil half-baby half-spider Mordred. Oy is one of my favourite characters, and the one I could sketch for hours. He is a billy-bumbler, described as a cross between a badger, a racoon and a dog. With his “intelligent, gold-ringed eyes” and “surprisingly graceful neck” I can’t help but liken him to my border collie, Simm.

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The series has a number of spin-off comics attached to it, thanks to Marvel and King working together, and there has been talk for around eight years now of producing several films and a television series based on the books, but personally I’m a stickler for the original text. If I could spend the next ten years illustrating The Dark Tower series and nothing else, I’d be a very happy bumbler.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

ChocolatSet in a fictional little town in France, ‘Chocolat’ begins as the town’s inhabitants are taking down carnival decorations that marked the beginning of Lent. A mysterious woman and her daughter move into the old bakery opposite the church, and anticipation grows as rumours of her opening a chocolate shop spread.
‘Chocolat’ is a beautiful book, full of delightfully real characters, quaint french settings and, of course, the magical art of the chocolatier. What better way to capture all this than with illustration? The descriptions of Vianne’s edible creations, flamboyant window displays and the sensuous aromas of melted chocolate and spices floating down the street would make fantastic images. Even some portraits or character studies dotted throughout the text would be interesting- accentuating the rivalry between Vianne’s unorthodox ways and the parish curé’s disapproval. I wonder if perhaps the addition of illustrations would bring this much-loved book to a willing younger audience too. Because who doesn’t love chocolate!?

Will and Tom by Matthew Plampin

I don’t often read books based on historical conjecture, but ‘Will and Tom’ captivated me within the first chapter and I had to continue. The story covers a week in 1797, West Yorkshire, when budding but rather introverted artist Will Turner (J.M.W. Turner, to us) is commissioned to sketch Harewood House. There, he unexpectedly comes face to face with his charismatic childhood friend and rival artist, Tom Girtin. In the next week, their complicated relationship in exacerbated by their aristocratic surrounding, of which Tom fits into seamlessly, while Will is constantly mocked and ridiculed.

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Woven throughout all of the drama are passages describing the acts of putting pencil to paper, the colours Will imagines he would use to paint the night sky or a passing scene which captures his imagination. The artist in me desperately wants to see these sketches within the pages as I read. As a point of reference as well as a fictional aid to make the story more real. It is only a possibility that Turner and Girtin really met at Harewood House, though it is true they were taking similar tours of the north at that time, so their paths may well have crossed. What is interesting, however, is the art that is referred to. The sketches Will took of the house and the surrounding estate are very real. So why aren’t they printed with the text!? No doubt its something to do with complicated permissions and copyright procedures, but this book positively yearns for a few Turner sketches in the least, not to mention some images from Girtin’s “Eidometropolis”, his 18ft by 108ft 360 degrees panorama of London which he exhibited in 1802, only a few months before his early death.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

In a similar vein to ‘Will and Tom’, ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ is threaded with beautiful imagery of Clare’s art, from her therapeutic paper making, to the intriguing sculptures she creates. Niffenegger herself is an artist and paper maker. Her understanding of the processes really gives life to her descriptions. Perhaps, if she illustrated the book herself, she could release it as a deluxe edition.

Time-Travelers-Wife-4

 

Though, of course, this book is a complete work of fiction, the artwork described feels real. Interestingly, the far-fetched idea of a man plagued with a time-traveling-related genetic disorder is also made fantastically realistic. We watch from Clare’s perspective as she meets the love of her life when he appears out of thin air in the gardens of her family home when she is just a child. At this point, he is from the future. Later, she meets him in the present when their ages are the same. This is the first meeting for Henry, who is still yet to time travel into Clare’s past. Its confusing to explain, but fantastically easy to read and comprehend in the book. Throughout, Clare’s artwork is a metaphor for her relationship with Henry- she creates birds and wings and things that feel insubstantial or fleeting, as hard to capture as Henry’s illness. Niffenegger‘s vivid imagery paints each scene with all the clarity she uses to convey Clare’s artistic process. The whole book is like a grown-up fairytale. And what fairytale doesn’t suit illustration?

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Last but not least is the book that started this two-parter blog between myself and Georgina Parfitt. We were discussing the possibility of writing a review of the new television adaption of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ but the talk quickly moved to imagery and illustration. Arguably, I shouldn’t be mentioning this book, as it is already illustrated- a fact of which I was not aware until writing this blog, as I listened to the audiobook version and have never seen the physical publication. I’m thrilled to hear one of the books on my list is actually illustrated! And no book is more suited to it than this.

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Clarke’s beast of a novel is set in 19th Century England, during the Napoleonic Wars. Magic, which once thrived in England, is returning in the arms of two magicians- the stuffy and reclusive Gilbert Norrell, and the imaginative and charismatic Jonathan Strange.

As with ‘The Dark Tower’ I think this kind of other-worldly magic cries out to be drawn. The realms of fairy, the castle of Lost Hope, the gentleman with the thistledown hair. Clarke’s writing is Dickens-like, each scene creating a wonderfully clear tableau in the mind of the reader. Her characters, of which there are many, are all fantastic individuals, each with their own secrets and motives. The gothic settings in Yorkshire almost feel as remote and mysterious as the fairy world Jonathan Strange discovers he can travel to through mirrors, and the Raven King would be a marvellous subject for a wood engraving, surrounded by thorns and celtic knots.

The artist lucky enough to have been given the task of illustrating Clarke’s novel is Portia Rosenberg. And she doesn’t disappoint. Rosenberg, who has also illustrated Alexandre Dumas’s ‘The Black Tulip’, has captured ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ in 28 wonderful yet understated drawings that have the quality of old fashioned woodcarvings or etchings akin to those plates in Dickens novels. Faced with so many details and descriptions, instead of being overwhelmed and trying to fit everything in, Rosenberg hasn’t fallen into that trap, instead leaving her illustrations  uncluttered, but with enough life in them to inspire the reader to create more complex images in their imaginations. The only thing I can fault is that 28 drawings is not nearly enough to capture all of the incredible imagery in the book! But maybe I’m just being greedy.

I could go on with this list of books that should be illustrated for at least another two parts. My note book page for this article is covered in titles that I’ve not yet mentioned! Other tales of magic like Patrick Rothfuss’s ‘Kingkiller Chronicles’, epic classics like ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas and the dystopian worlds of Suzanne Collins’s ‘The Hunger Games’ and James Dashner’s ‘The Maze Runner’. But I’ve share my opinion, and we here at Towerbabel want to know what yours is. What do you think about illustrated books? Which books do you think would be improved with some images? Tell us what you think on Twitter and here on the Forums page.

Next week I’ll be sharing with you some of my favourite illustrated books- and they’re not just for kids. See you then.

Books That Should Have Been Illustrated: Part 1

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This week, Scribbly Roo, our resident illustrator and design guru, and I have teamed up to bring you a curious list. We’ve been thinking about the lucky kinds of books that are bestowed with illustrations, and how vital those pictures often become, often so connected to the texts themselves in readers’ imaginations. Think of the famous illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland or the definitive scratchy sketches that first brought Ted Hughes’ Crow to life.

 

But there are many books that have always remained text-only, tantalizingly imageless. Now we think about it, there are so many possibilities that illustration could bring to our beloved classics, literary fiction that’s stuck to the page with the importance of its subject matter or gravity of its language, genres that have never traditionally been graced with pictures, like crime or history but could be so enlivened by an extra visual dimension.

Even as the future of print publishing changes and warps so that we can’t quite predict it, the market’s demand for beautifully bound books seems to be on the rise. Imprints are forming within well known publishers to publish special, extra aesthetically pleasing volumes, gift editions, limited editions, fancy papers and recycled covers, intricate bindings and illustrations – readers more than ever want to invest in a physical object to own, as the very idea of owning books is sort of slipping out of our hands.

So here are my picks, books I think deserve a good bit of illustration and why:

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

Donna Tartt by Beowulf Sheehan

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I think The Goldfinch would make a fascinating illustrated book because its effect depends on its ability to surround the reader in a complex, realistic world, and the reader’s ability to attach and relate to the central characters – to illustrate this epic tale would be ambitious but would certainly offer us another level of engagement with the story and make its settings even richer.

The Goldfinch was a blockbuster hit last year, despite its door stopper size and intimidating scope. With its publication, the author, the enigmatic, one-book-every-ten-years author Donna Tartt, became even more of a household name, and introduced herself charismatically to another generation. The book itself also has a charismatic, enigmatic presence. With a hearty dose of traditional style in its epic, bildungsroman structure, plus a contemporary confidence in breaking the mold of what a modern novel “should” be, plus a nostalgic sensibility too, its settings and characters bringing a Victorian, antique air to contemporary New York, The Goldfinch’s illustrations could bring the whole novel together in a cool way.

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As a glad literary descendent of Dickens, Donna Tartt’s work shares a decorative, flourishing quality in its long elegant sentences and, like many of Dickens’ stories, seems a perfect home for charicatures and adornments.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

Miranda July’s first novel takes elements and inspiration from her work in other media, her visual art, her installations, videos, interviews, all of July’s aliases seem to combine in her written voice so that you can almost hear it aloud, almost view it on the page as a painting or a sculpture rather than just text in a paperback. I’d love to see how July would populate the world of The First Bad Man with pictures.

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Illustrations of July’s characters could be so whimsical and beautiful. The obsessive rituals of protagonist Cheryl Glickman’s life could wallpaper their way through the novel in a sort of visual tirade, adding to the oppressive but deeply comic effect the prose already has on the reader.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

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Station Eleven made waves in the literary fiction world recently by bringing a new kind of dystopia into readers’ hands, pushing the genre out of the box of the YA label and into the open ground of “literary fiction,” and “contemporary fiction.” The world of the story, from recognisable New York to a new barren land where new-sprung civilisations haunt old relics and ruins of a destroyed environment, is so ripe for illustration.

The novel made me think a lot, but if there’s one thing that niggled me about it throughout it was a lack of visual clarity, which seemed to run contrary to the main character’s love of comic strips and sketching. The landscapes and textures of the book are often sweeping and vague. Kirsten’s secret world is made of these sketches, and they’re so vital to the surface of the prose that I kept wondering why there wasn’t more of a visual element to the volume itself, perhaps the whole thing could be presented in the form of a sketchbook or artifact.

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The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein 

The Making of Americans was written by Gertrude Stein over a long period, between 1903 and 1911 reportedly, but wasn’t published in full until 1925, in a special limited edition batch. In fact the birth of this novel sounds much like an etching or a print; “the original” has such a mystique to it and even though the themes of the book are so big and universal, it also seems to resist mass production. Like many other works of modernism at the time, The Making of Americans was pushed and coaxed into being by a network of friends rather than a single publisher – it took a village to raise it, and so perhaps it has managed to retain that special handcraftedness that lends it to pictures.

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The prose has Stein’s tell-tale repetition and abstraction but over the length of the novel there is a sense of development, of a collage of layers, generation laid over generation as detail begets detail, creating a dense texture that goes far beyond the abstract, into personal history. Stein’s strange mastery of the specific and the abstract together is wonderful food for illustration, I think. What would an artist make of these blank, full lines? What images could come to represent “The Americans,” these two quintessential families that are bound tenuously together by marriage?

Scribbly Roo will be carrying on the list shortly with her top books she’d love to see illustrated and why. Till then, tell us what books you’d love to see illustrated! Or if you’ve illustrated your own books, we’d love to hear about the process, too. Join the conversation on Twitter, below or on our Forums page.

Stories to Read Online in July

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For whatever beach, balcony or sweaty train you’re on today, some proper hot stories for the start of summer in these new summer issues:

About Her and the Memories that Belong to Her by Mieko Kawakami in Granta Online

Kawakami is a new discovery for me this month. The little prologue to this story is itself a stunning piece.

“If we think of our memories as having a shape, then one possibility is that they come in the shape of a box. I know that this is not entirely an original idea, but that doesn’t make it untrue,” the prologue begins. It’s a beautifully and confidently abstract beginning to a surprisingly specific, grounded story, set at the narrator’s middle school reunion, where she is shocked to learn that an old classmate of hers has died and struggles to remember why the girl is so significant to her.

Dole Girl by Barbara Hamby in the Boston Review

Rightly selected as the winner of the Aura Estrada contest 2015, this story feels so true and surrounding, even though I have absolutely no experience of a Hawaian pineapple canning factory. In fact, you can almost taste the pineapples. A ripe, vivid sense of time and place, plus a compelling character with a burning desire is a winning combination. This story has both in excess. It’s a real lesson in voice, too; the voice of our “Dole Girl” is strong, youthful, naive and streetwise at the same time, making me wish I could read a whole novel of it.

Taxidermy by Vladislava Kolosova in Ploughshares

Set in after-dark Moscow, this is an unsettling story about a young woman who has started having sex for money, to help pay for her studies. One night, she’s picked up by a charismatic, authoritative “New Russian” called Eva who buys a night with her and takes her home to her quiet, boxer-like husband. Like all good shorts, Taxidermy plants its real lightbulb moments just left of center. After the sex, after the drama, the quiet moment gives this story its edge.

My Life by Chantal Clarke in N+1

This is a terrifying but profoundly funny little story. We are tricked by the narrator at first, as in plain childlike language, she describes the bare bones of her life, “I HAVE A HOUSE, and it’s great. My money bought it, so it’s mine. I love to live in it,” she begins. But she reveals after a while, and with glee, that she’s really “Predator 923,” a drone who is “writing simply so you’ll trust me.” Be warned, this story might make you want to try all kinds of weird stuff in your work.

Congregation by Christopher Alessandrini in the Harvard Advocate

A little treat from a magazine very close to my heart. This story follows a girl working at a summer camp. From the outside, she seems to be on the brink of something, some beginning of real life, but to her, the world of the camp and the array of girls and boys that form her camp society, is its own special kind of real life. Searing sharp human observation meets beautiful lines describing the architecture, natural and otherwise of “Link’s Seafood & Bait” where the camp is situated: “Out by the sheds, the bulrush swells with frog song and birds, whip-thin plovers and orioles halving through the stalk like light on water, all that good gossip and whisper.”

What are your reading recommendations for July?

Go Set a Watchman: Expectations and Reality

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Monday night at Foyles’ flagship bookstore in London, fans of To Kill a Mockingbird came from far and wide to share the last moments of suspense before sales of the new book by Harper Lee opened at midnight. There was southern music, food, a screening of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, and of course, piles and piles of orange-covered books.

Go Set a Watchman is possibly the most long and eagerly awaited new release of the past fifty years. The only comparisons I can think of are recent hyped-up sequels like additions to the Fifty Shades of Grey series or the release of a Harry Potter book. But the new Harper Lee has something extra special about it; since the initial publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 the reading world has absorbed Harper Lee’s characters as part of their own lives. They are real as members of our own history but also, in that beautiful literary way, stuck in the time and place in which we first met them. The addition of a new volume to our treasured relationship with Scout and Atticus is to shake up the canon and look at it afresh. It’s a huge risk.

So how can this average sized novel that supposedly sat in a safe box with its author’s assets for years possibly live up to the hype?

Well, to review the novel, I think I have to first confront its “cover,” so to speak, the imagery and story that precedes the novel itself.

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A writer exposed

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Watchman media saga has been how Harper Lee has evolved as a public figure. She has spent fifty-five years as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and this single book has defined her style, her career, her themes. Inevitably, when I pick up my copy of Go Set a Watchman, I am ten times more aware of Harper Lee than I was when I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. Not only am I more aware of her as a writer, I’m also aware of her as an American woman, 89 years old, that slightly aloof face that graced the papers a few months ago when the Watchman news was announced, the woman whose nostalgia for the Finch family must be very different from ours.

Rumors that Lee had been somewhat taken advantage of in her old age were quieted recently, at Lee’s claim that she gave complete consent and was very pleased with the new publication. Still, even disregarding age and fame, there must be a feeling of profound change that occured to Harper Lee when she saw her new book on the shelves. From such a simple identity, as the author of the Mockingbird book, Harper Lee instantly became a more complicated name, connoting not just the canonical morality and dusty childhood scenes of Mockingbird but now many other things besides, a media frenzy, rumors, Atticus’ bigotry, and more. The new scenes of Go Set a Watchman.

So our new relationship with Harper Lee also affects the way I start to read Go Set a Watchman as I turn to the first page.

A new way to do books

If only all new releases were able to cause such celebration and ruckus, I found myself thinking as I walked round Foyles looking at the rows and stacks of orange hardback Watchmans. People have been so curious and excited about the new novel since it was announced in the press earlier this year that no attention seems too much to bestow on the book or its author. Every publication interested in literature has covered the release, images of the book are everywhere, generations of readers who discovered the book on their school reading lists are reacquianting themselves with the classic text.

watchman guardianBut moreover, one of the most beautiful things about the reading era we’re currently in is the dynamism of it. When we’re about to buy a book now we can see trailers and interact with authors online. The publicity campaign that has struck the world press ahead of Go Set a Watchman’s release has been nothing short of a global party. And I think it’s a model that will continue to grow, and hopefully lesser known works will benefit from it too. Just imagine, for example, if all new releases could have a moving trailer, with train sounds, and narrated by the transporting voice of Reese Witherspoon, like Go Set a Watchman had in the Guardian.

By the time I open Watchman, I am rooting for it in a way that I haven’t really rooted for any other book before.

Go Set a Watchman

So finally I get my hands on a copy of the burnt orange volume. There is a moment of surprise when I see the whole story laying in wait, as if I don’t quite believe that the book would ever be more than teasers and suspense.

The first thing that jumps out at me is the language that Harper Lee uses to tell her story. Mockingbird has become so iconic for its characters and storyline, and so synonymous with the proverbial phrases that sum up its philosophy – “[Courage is] when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway,” for example – that it’s easy to forget the linguistic texture of the book. But Lee has a wonderful tone and rhythm, a way with words that both manages to conjure the heat and tradition of Maycomb but also has a sparkiness to it, something modern. In this way, the prose of Watchman feels like it belongs in the bookstore – it’s not an anachronism; it isn’t the freak that you might assume it is by the media coverage.

It’s a humble book. It’s hooks are small and slow, unlike most other bestsellers’ this year. It’s a family story and a county story. Relations between people are labored over, dialogue is deliberate and characterful. The story is moral, but it’s also accepting. Jean Louise (formerly Scout) is a woman now, has a sweetheart and thoughts of marriage all her own, but she resists being transformed by growing up. Again the thought of Harper Lee, the woman behind Jean Louise comes to my mind. I think of a feisty independent thinker, with a warm heart, and can see the author in the character in a way I never did in the first book.

To critics and seasoned readers, Watchman may not live up to its sister novel. Some certainly feel that they wouldn’t have published the volume had it not come from such a famous hand. But to a certain extent, the new novel is a more interesting literary prospect than the first. It is messier, has changes in pace, and its plot doesn’t seem to unfold in a clean suspenseful arc. But at the same time, it’s a bit challenging, it’s meandering, and I bet it will inspire endless conversations.

Astonishingly, despite the crazy magnification of every aspect of its release, Go Set a Watchman manages to transport me to Maycomb as if I’ve just landed there for the first time.

Are you reading Go Set a Watchman? What do you think? Do the controversies or media frenzies affect your reading experience, or does the book manage to rid itself of its surrounding hullaballoo? Do let us know – we’d love to talk about it!