Fiction

10 Online Literary Festivals for the End of 2020

The necessity of ‘staying safe at home’ has changed things. Even I, one of the least social people outside of cave-dwelling hermits, have occasionally felt the sting of solitude. A couple of months ago I even made an uncharacteristic effort at sociability and set up a Zoom appointment with a friend from my school days, someone I hadn’t seen for about 25 years. Jenny is an Irish citizen who was in Melbourne when Covid-19 struck and she’s been forced to stay in situ for the year, keeping herself busy with online work. We ended up chatting for an hour and having a good laugh and catch up. It was interesting and inspiring to hear about some of her adventures—abseiling up windmills on the North Sea, living in tree houses in Oregon and setting up an organization promoting women in trades in Ireland.

One of the interests we have in common is reading and she warmly recommended, since I’m in Northern Ireland, the Dublin Book Festival. Dublin is only a quick train ride from Belfast but the predicted second wave came along and in-person events are once more out of the question. My interest was piqued, however, and I realized that the festival is going full-steam ahead in a virtual format. Last night I decided to check out a—completely free—talk between Séan Rocks and three authors: Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Love), Christine Dwyer Hickey (Tatty, The Narrow Land) and Kevin Barry (Nightboat to Tangier, City of Bohane). The three authors were really good talkers and the conversation was thought-provoking and funny.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I decided to look and see if there were any other things going on this month. As it happens, there are! So if you’re interested in finding about new books and authors from around the world, go ahead and check out one of these events!

1. Dublin Book Festival

November 26-December 6

A meeting of Irish writers in all genres. Featured authors include Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Mike Chinoy, Louise O’Neill and Dr. William C. Campbell.

2. Georgetown Literary Festival: Through the Looking Glass

November 26-29

This one has nearly finished but it’s a good chance to check out what’s going on on the Malaysian literary scene and many of the talks are conducted in English. The theme is looking at the role of art and literature in a time of crisis. Highlights include a talk on the centenary of Paul Celan’s birth and a conversation with Filipino writer F. Sionil José. Have a squiz at the program here.

3. Palestine Writes

December 2-6 2020

An event that brings together writers, artists, publishers and others to discuss the intersection between culture, struggle and politics. More than 70 international scholars, writers, artists and activists will take part, including, Kenyan poet and playwright Shailja Patel; prize-winning historian Robin D.G. Kelley; Oglala Lakota educator and poet Mark Tilsen; and indigenous scholar and Red Nation activist Nick Estes.

4. Indo-American Arts Council Literary Festival “Stories of Humanity”

December 4-3

A celebration of literature from and influenced by the sub-continent. Featured authors include Dr. Madhu Bazaz Wangu (The Immigrant Wife), Megha Majumdar (A Burning) and essayist Sejal Shah (This is One Way to Dance).

5. Twenty in 2020

Saturday, December 5  14.00-19.00 GMT

This event, from independent publisher Jacaranda, showcases 20 Black British authors. Tickets are available here. Among the twenty are crime-writer Stella Oni (Deadly Sacrifice), novelist Berni Sorga-Milwood (Under Solomon Skies) and Somali poet Hibaq Osman.

6. Crater Literary Festival: “The Literary Agenda”

December 14-16

Crater is a publisher that supports new writing with a particular focus on Southeast Nigeria. The theme of this year’s edition of the festival is “The Literary Agenda”. Topics of discussion include Publishing in a Digital Age, Igbo Literature and Book Clubs. The program includes chat sessions with authors Deji Yesufu, Abigail Anaba and Tayo Agunbiade, a virtual art exhibition by Ifedilichukwu Chibuike and a live stream of a short drama about the 1949 Iva Valley Massacre.

Abigail Anaba

7. Vita Nova in Turin

December 4- 8

For Italian-speakers, the Salone Internazionale del Libro (International Book Festival) goes online this year. In response to the challenges that this year has brought, this event has a theme that encourages us to look at life anew, to realize that “reality is not a list of opponents, but of elements that we must learn to integrate with each other, to reconcile, to coordinate.” All events will be livestreamed free on Facebook here. I’m particularly interested in a talk by Romeo Castellucci on the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante. You can read more about it here.

8. Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival

November 30-December 22

Cookbooks, children’s stories, biographies and more–this festival has everything! Featured novelists include Eshkol Nevo (The Last Interview), David Hopen (This Orchard) and Myla Goldberg (feast your eyes) See the schedule here.

9. AIM Children’s Literary Festival

Live from London December5 11am-1pm GMT

Brought to you by children’s book publisher Author In Me, this event celebrates work for and by young people. One of the speakers is thirteen-year-old Anoushka Sabnis (Once Upon a Verse–because poems tell stories), who published her first book at the age of ten. The Facebook link is here.

10. Lockdown Lit Fest

This event is a bit different, you might even say ‘unprecedented’, because it’s an ongoing online hub “born in the time of Covid-19” to provide writers and readers with literary entertainment and inspiration in the form of author interviews. It’s all free, though donations are welcome. One of their most recent interviews was with Xialu Guo (A Lover’s Discourse and Village of Stone) and you can access all their previous sessions on the website by clicking the link ‘All Authors.’

Fiction Writing, Writing Technique

The Story Problem: Five Tips to Tame a Plot

Lately I’ve been wrestling a ferocious shape-shifting beast of immense proportions that breathes fire, spits venom in my eyes and generally makes a nuisance of itself. I am talking, obviously, about plotting. Here I am on my -nth draft with a plot still so full of holes it could double as a fashionable pair of jeans. I go to fix one bit and a new problem pops up. Every time I think I’ve got it beaten, the Promethean plot-plague rises up fresh as a daisy and starts all over again.

“Svipdagr Transformed” by John Bauer

The thing that gets me is that it shouldn’t be this hard, should it? For millennia, practically everyone has known how to do it. Illiterate nurses invented fairytales as easily as they wiped drool off chins. Troubadours kept courtiers happy with off-the-cuff romances. Soldiers in the Thirty Years War, probably starving and delirious with cholera and drunk if they were lucky, told each other perfectly structured dirty jokes. Besides, we have, most of the 7.8 billion of us, ingested and digested so many stories in the form of books, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, anecdotes, news articles and songs that you’d think it would be second nature by now, practically a biological function.

I tell myself, by way of consolation, that just as eating a chocolate éclair is easy, so is consuming a good story. Making one, on the other hand, is a different matter. It’s a skill requiring practice just like performing magic tricks and crocheting trousers. And practice, unfortunately, means failing often.

Years of hard work

Maybe it’s a problem with my brain, but a lot of plotting advice found on writing blogs and websites doesn’t stick. Much of it is tidy analysis-after-the-fact, good for describing an existing masterpiece like Hamlet or Hot Tub Time Machine but not particularly helpful for someone stuck in the Blank-Page Bog or the Fourth-Draft Doldrums. I’m especially unimpressed by diagrams that make everything look so simple and clean that you feel even worse about all the useless word-heavy, plot-poor clunkers slowing down your Lenovo laptop. The Freytag Pyramid looks wonderful but it doesn’t give any indication of the horrifying bulk and mess involved in the writer’s quest for streamlined perfection.

The sad conclusion to which I have come is there is no quick fix when it comes to plotting. You just have to throw your back into it and hope that eventually it will work. Basically, you’re like Edmond Dantès tunnelling his way out of your cell on the Château d’If with a rusty knife.

That said, there are things that might help…a bit.

Me on my fourth draft

1. A Timeline

I like timelines. Not only are they easy to look at, they’re really useful in creating the frame of your story. A timeline can show you, at a glance, the main events in a story’s action and how multiple plot lines fit together in chronological sequence. Not only that, a timeline can create a sense of verisimilitude, if only in your own head, when thinking about a character’s biography or fixing the story in relation to real historical events. In this article How A Timeline Helps You Plot A Novel | Writers Write , Amanda Patterson recommends creating a timeline for each of your main characters.

2. A Beatsheet

For the last six weeks I’ve been attending an online course with seasoned screenwriter and playwright Kathryn Burnett. It’s been a great, clear introduction to audio-visual storytelling and it’s got me thinking about how a lot of the principles of screenwriting could apply to novel writing too. A common way of planning a screenplay is to create a ‘beatsheet‘, a kind of skeleton story that sequentially lists the story’s significant action (‘beats’). It’s especially useful for showing the cause-and-effect progression of scenes, particularly useful for gauging tension and pacing.

3. A Reader

If you already have a draft, or even if you want to test your outline, the best way to see if it’s working is to get another human being to read what you’ve written. It’s sometimes hard to hear criticism but anyone who points out sloppy plotting in the privacy of your first few drafts is honestly doing you a big favor. Joining a writing group or bouncing ideas off writing friends is a great idea – they’re usually coping with the same kinds of problem and might approach it from a fresh angle. My brilliant readers not only identified problems, but they offered solutions tailored to the existing story. If you don’t know any writers, there are plenty of online communities and with a bit of research you may even find an in-person group in your area.

4. Software

This is something I haven’t tried because I know I would just end up reverting to Post-Its, but if you’re a proper 21st-century person there is now a lot of software that can help you organize story elements, in a paper-free and visually appealing way. Bibisco is an example of a free word-processing program that also offers simple tools for story planning. Other programs like Dramatica, and Scapple are specialized plotting tools.

5. Bloody-Minded Persistence

What I have learned is that even if you’re completely stumped today, your brain will keep playing with the problem. Start again tomorrow and you’ll flail around a bit before collapsing into a lifeless heap on the floor. The next day a little more progress will be made. And so on.

Travel, UK

Walking to the Shop in Bangor, NI

For a couple of weeks now we’ve been in the seaside town of Bangor, Northern Ireland. The winter weather here is not infrequently ‘manky’, a word that The Free Dictionary defines as ‘dirty, filthy, or bad’, and it has been particularly so this weekend. Wind at high speeds, rain at high volume, rough seas, anemic sun and the early encroachment of deepest darkness all create the atmosphere of a grossly unsubtle horror film. The wind is especially dramatic near the marina, where it produces various spooky FX on the masts and ropes and other yacht paraphernalia—clanking, howling, whirring. It puts the gulls in a bad mood, too. They’ve been mewling, keening and caterwauling like banshees.

Aside from the sound effects, there’s a wealth of visual interest—the movements of the tide, the activities of various species of bird and the parade of people and dogs along the esplanade. The other day, for example, I saw a man on a bicycle pulled by six huskies in tight formation. Was he training for the Iditarod? I asked myself.

Turnstones clustered on a rock, facing the wind

One of the things we like to do is go to through downtown Bangor to the ASDA supermarket and see what all is going on.

This is the Covid-19 era, of course, so the hustle and bustle is subdued. Most of the shops are closed, some of them permanently, unfortunately, with plenty of boarded up doors, emptied interiors and dusty lightless windows. Other establishments are all dealing in their own way with restrictions. For the past couple of weeks Northern Ireland has banned indoor and outdoor seating in restaurants and cafes. Other shops have posted mask requirements and a few are even restricting the number of customers in the store. These restrictions are due to be relaxed this Friday, which is a little worrying seeing that local hospitals are already operating at 101% capacity.

We’ve made the trip enough times by now that we’ve picked up a bit of trivia about the area, including the names of famous sons and daughters of Bangor from days of yore. The very street we live on, Seacliff Road, was home to LAM Priestly, pen name of author and suffragette Elizabeth McCracken who wrote The Feminine in Fiction and once invited Sylvia Pankhurst to Belfast as part of a campaign to support equal pay for women doing work for the Great War. Just a few blocks away is the former residence (marked with a plaque) of the artist Colin Middleton (1910-1983).

Sea Wall (1966) by Colin Middleton
© The artist’s estate. Photo credit:
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum;

Colin Middleton’s house is very close to a fancy cafe and deli named Guillemot, a bird that looks like something halfway between an auk and a cormorant but is known locally as the Bangor Penguin. We still haven’t seen one here, though they are eagerly anticipated here after their moulting season in Belfast Lough. This place does an excellent espresso and almost daily there is a gaggle of people clustered in the rainy street waiting for the waitress to come out and take orders or to bring them their paper cup of coping.

Opposite the cafe is the ‘Long Hole’, which seems to have originally been a little sheltered harbor for small boats in the early twentieth century. Nowadays it’s an excellent place for dogs to jump in and fetch tennis balls, expending plenty of energy while their accompanying humans sip coffee and take in the sea view. This Long Hole is next door to Eisenhower Pier, which, yes, is named after that Eisenhower. General Dwight D. stood on this pier in May 1944, inspecting ships as the Allies prepared to storm Normandy. It was known simply as North Pier until 2005, when Mary Eisenhower (the former president’s granddaughter) came to Bangor for a renaming ceremony.

The Long Hole, and houses lined up along Seacliff Drive
The marina

Very near the pier is an old stone tower that was built in 1639 to serve as a Customs House by James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboyne (1560-1644), one of the first landowners in Ulster to bring workers over from Scotland a few years before the Plantations began. Hamilton was a beneficiary of the Nine Years War. It is the oldest building to have been in constant use in Northern Ireland.

Moving inland, we pass establishments that have been closed for several months: The Salty Dog, The Rabbit Room, The Royal, Brian’s Fish and Chips and others. Funland seems to be open still. I’m not sure what goes on in there and nor am I completely convinced that it’s really fun. There’s also a mural of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten with a subversion of his famous quote, “Anger is an energy.”

To the left is a little park with a clock tower, benches and pigeons. On non-rainy days it’s full of people sipping coffee, chatting and wandering aimlessly. There is a little fountain there and signs to something called Pickie Fun Park, which is apparently a big attraction for families. Crossing the road, we come to the main commercial cluster, heading up the hill past a few cafes and bakeries, a TJ Maxx, a bank and some goodwill stores.

A restaurant cleaning its chairs and tables in preparation for the reopening

One of my favorite things is a display window for a local art collective. I quite like some of the artwork on display, especially the bust of the nurse taking off (or putting on?) her scrubs. Unfortunately it has since been removed from the window and I didn’t see the sculptor’s name. But Jane Irving does a good rhino!

By this time we are about halfway up the hill and veering here and there to keep the requisite two metres between ourselves and other pedestrians, who are generally queuing up outside stores or ATMs. At the top of the hill we reach a large church, the First Bangor Presbyterian Church, completed in 1880, though a Presbyterian congregation has worshipped in the town since 1623.

Then it’s just a short walk across the street and we are at our destination, ASDA. Time to gel-blitz hands and grab groceries!

Travel, Uncategorized

Old-Timey Travel for the Holiday Deprived

Exotic vacations are not easy to come by right now. Even if a vaccine has been announced, it will be a few months yet before travel is a thing any sane person really wants to do. Most nations have closed borders or have imposed tight restrictions, usually a stick up the nose and 14 days in solitary.

Luckily, if you’ve read this far it’s a sign that you have the gift of literacy, which means that the world is essentially your beach bungalow. That’s right, I’m talking about books. I am here to help you holiday interiorly with some travel-writing classics (or at least interesting old travel-writing oddities), which I have lovingly handpicked from the Dolan e-Reader Library.

1 Travels in Persia

Born in 1634 to a wealthy merchant and jeweller to the Place Dauphin, Sir Jean Chardin is best known for writing ten volumes documenting life in Persia and the Near East. Collectively published as The Travels of Sir John Chardin, the whole set has never been translated into English but you can get Travels in Persia 1672-1677 from Dover Publications (2012). Chardin set off on his first journey to Persia in 1664, travelling via Constantinople and the Black Sea. In his account of this first trip he describes meeting and enjoying the patronage of Shah Abbas II of Persia and witnessing the coronation of Soleymān. In 1676 he returned to Persia and India and then went back to France via the Cape of Good Hope in 1677. Soon afterwards he fled French prosecution of Protestants and settled in England.

Sir John Chardin

2. The Naturalist on the River Amazons

Not only did Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892) write the first scientific account of mimicry in animals, he also wrote this classic of natural history, a description of his expedition to the Amazon jungle with Alfred Russel Wallace. Seeing as he was a nineteenth-century scientist, there is an awful lot about killing animals to get ‘specimens’, which is off-putting for the squeamish, ie me. But skipping over those bits, there are some lovely descriptions of plants and animals and his enthusiasm for his vocation is infectious.

Henry Walter Bates. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Henry Walter Bates. Photograph. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

3. The Peregrinations of a Pariah (Pérégrinations d’une paria)

I confess that I haven’t read this one yet but I really want to because Flora Tristan is a pretty fascinating figure. She was born in 1803 to a Peruvian-Spanish dad (a colonel in the Spanish Navy) and a French mother. Her father died when she was very young and the family fell on hard times. When she was in her twenties she travelled to Peru to claim her inheritance from her uncle, Viceroy of Peru, who failed to cough up. She was there from 1833 to 1834, after Independence ,when the country was erupting in territorial disputes. While she didn’t get her inheritance, she did keep a travel diary, which was published in France in 1838. Oh yeah, and then she became the mother of feminism and of popular communitarian socialism, insisting that feminism was an essential step in liberating the working class. Plus she was Gaugin’s granny.

4. Travels in the Interior of Africa

Mungo Park (1771-1806) was a Scottish surgeon and botanist who hied off to Africa in his twenties to explore the upper Niger River. In 1779 he published a detailed narrative of his exploration, titled Travels in the Interior of Africa in which he hypothesizes that the Niger and Congo join to become the same river, a subject of ancient debate. After a short time practising medicine in Peebles, the British government invited him to lead another expedition to Niger and he jumped at the chance. Unfortunately he died during the second expedition, drowning after jumping into the Bussa Rapids to evade an attack.

5. Hashish: A Smuggler’s Tale (Le Crosière)

1946 Penguin Edition

Henri De Monfreid (1879-1974) was a bit of a rogue, but was he really as much of a rogue as he would have us believe? That is what I kept wondering reading this entertaining account of smuggling hashish from Greece to Egypt. Apart from that he builds dhows, runs guns, dives for pearls, sails hither and yon and converts to Islam…and who knows what all. After all these adventures on the Red Sea he settled down to write about 70 books. One of them is this one: Hashish: A Smuggler’s Tale, translated here by Helen Buchanan Bell.

Portrait in the New York Times

6. 1786-1857: Travels through Russia, Siberia, Poland, Austria, Saxony, Prussia, Hanover, &c, &c, Undertaken During the Years 1822, 1823, and 1824, While Suffering From Total Blindness, and Comprising an Account of the Author Being Conducted a State Prisoner From the Eastern Parts of Siberia (2 volumes; London: G. B. Whittaker, 1825)

Better title.

They went in for long titles back then, OK? James Holman (1786-1857) began life in Exeter, joined the British Royal Navy, contracted a mystery illness off the coast of the Americas and ended up completely blind at the age of 25. After that he decided to go off travelling everywhere. He was the first blind man to circumnavigate the globe and visited every inhabited continent. If you have trouble trawling through the original account of James Holman, there is a modern biography of him that is highly recommended by my brother: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts.

7. Travels in West Africa

This one is available for free thanks to some kind volunteers. It was written by Mary Henrietta Kingsley (1862-1900), who led a fairly secluded life before upping sticks and charging about western and equatorial Africa. Her motivation, it seems, was to gather research on African religion to finish a book started by her late father George Kingsley, who himself had traveled quite a lot. This trip produced two books: Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1899). In the Second Boer War she volunteered as a nurse, caught typhoid and died. According to her wishes she was buried at the bottom of the sea underneath the continent she loved.

This is a miniscule sample of travel stories but hopefully it has whet your appetite. If you’d like to travel further afield, why not check out this list of great women’s travel books or join me on a trip to Saudi Arabia as I describe life in the cloistered Kingdom in my book Teacher, We Girls! Grab a book, sit back and relax. You even have plenty of leg room. Bon voyage!

Running, Travel, UK

Rounding the Ards Peninsula

This week we moved to an apartment by the sea in Bangor, Northern Ireland (i.e. not Wales or Maine). The first thing we noticed is the high concentration of luxury cars in the area. In a ten-minute walk I saw two Ferraris, a Mini convertible, a Maserati SUV and several Audis, BMWs and Mercedes. It’s not that I’m interested in cars, either, it’s just quite a big change from the city, where if a family owns a car at all it tends to be a pretty nondescript vehicle.

Though only 12 miles from Belfast, Bangor is in another sense very far away. There are no more brick row-houses decorated with moss and creeping damp, no more Union Jacks and political banners, no more Strongbow beer and bookies. Here the houses are painted primary colors and decorated with tasteful fake-antique signs. The dogs are groomed and dressed in quilted coats. There’s even a gift shop on the main street called Boodle and Doodle (or something like that) selling cutesy items like silver cork-holders and signs making a claim for ‘Poshest House in Bangor’.

Our front window is large and everyone who passes by on the promenade can (and does) look in, but the obverse of that is we have a great view. From the sofa we can see across Belfast Lough all the way to Carrickfergus, the town of the eponymous song, which boasts its own Norman Castle. Throughout the day, depending on the angle and intensity of the sun, the lough adjusts its colour from aquamarine to turquoise to slate. Skirting the coast, sharp rocks stick up, slick with brine and decorated with the occasional vein of quartz. Gulls hover, bob on the sea or roost on the rocks depending on their mood and little fluff-bellied shore birds poke about among the rocks. They’re some kind of small sandpiper, maybe little stints or red knots, which cluster together and seem almost invisible against the rocks.

Yesterday I went for my first run in the area, not knowing exactly what I’d see but ready to be socked with a heavy dose of negative ions. It was about 8 degrees Celsius and blowing a gale, so I put on my woollen hat and raincoat and hoped for the best. Almost immediately I was glad I did because the immersion of senses

Looking out to the Irish Sea

About half a mile along the road I got to Ballyholme Bay, site of a small yacht club and also a popular place to swim . Although it’s most popular in the summer, there are a few groups that swim all year round and the local Baptist church even dips its new recruits here when the time comes to baptise a member. Today there was no one swimming that I could see, but there were plenty of dog walkers. At the far end of the curve of the bay was a stretch of sandy beach, covered with slippery kelp that smelled fresh and salty, reminding me of the New Zealand beaches I used to walk on in the weekends. On one side of the beach was a rocky wall artfully constructed with giant flintheads on top.

Where the sandy stretched stopped there was a stile leading to a wild muddy path. A sign enjoining dog walkers to restrain their dogs suggested that it was a public access path so I decided to see where it led. The coast here was very pretty, with grass growing right to the shore, the black rocks patched with bright yellow lichen and the invisible birds whose presence I didn’t guess until I heard their warning cry, occasioned by my feet slopping through the mud.

Retreating from the coast I found the path went through a tunnel of gorse, another reminder of New Zealand. A native European plant, some early settlers brought it to New Zealand to use it as a wind-breaking hedges. Unfortunately it did a little bit too well in that fragile island ecosystem and has long been considered a pest there.

furze

Rounding the bend, I found myself in Groomsport, whose name in Irish is Port an Ghiolla Ghruama (Port of the Gloomy Servant). Intriguingly, it may have once been a Viking settlement as pieces of jewelry have been found in the area. Groomsport has its own little bay and on a clear day you can see Scotland across the sea. As I jogged past the little park by the shore, I saw a man making his way slowly along the path as his dog scampered around with an orange ball in its mouth.

At this point I decided it was time to go back to Bangor but I didn’t want to get my feet cold and muddy again so instead of returning around the coast I took the road, which luckily had a sidewalk. I have had some regrettable experiences on Irish roads that have nothing in the way of a verge so that once I had to climb a tree to get out of the way to avoid traffic. This road was unexpectedly pretty and I had one of those great moments that come to you when you stumble on something beautiful. Now that it is November, the trees are either yellow or bare and either way they look very striking.

Euphoria assisted by downward slope

After this it got pretty suburban and I didn’t take many pictures. To make a long story short, I ended up back in Bangor in a high wind ready for a hot beverage.