A pair of

Ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

REG­U­LAR readers will know I am a fan of the Bri­tish Li­brary’s Spo­ken Word CD sets. To­day I am go­ing to re­view The Writ­ing Life: Au­thors Speak, a two-disc, 138-minute com­pi­la­tion of con­tem­po­rary writ­ers talk­ing about the writ­ing life. It is ut­terly mar­vel­lous, the best of the se­ries I’ve lis­tened to so far. Any­one in­ter­ested in writ­ing, and es­pe­cially any­one in­ter­ested in be­ing a writer, will find this col­lec­tion a trea­sure trove. There’s lots of real nuts and bolts stuff, with suc­cess­ful writ­ers dis­cussing things such as Start­ing Out; Choos­ing a Genre; Re­search­ing; Find­ing Ideas; Cre­at­ing Char­ac­ters; Struc­ture; and End­ings. It’s a mas­ter­class and the teach­ers in­clude Hi­lary Man­tel, Beryl Bain­bridge, Ian Mce­wan, Howard Jacobson, Michael Frayn, P.D. James, Pene­lope Lively, Philip Hen­sher, Ian Rankin and Peter Porter. It’s won­der­ful to hear Porter, the great Aus­tralian poet who died in April 2010. ‘‘Writ­ing is fight­ing with words,’’ he says, ‘‘be­cause they will pum­mel you . . . you’ve got to get the bet­ter of them.’’ The novelist Paul Bai­ley prefers to duke it out in day­light: ‘‘I like writ­ing first thing in the morn­ing . . . when one hasn’t talked to too many peo­ple. The si­lence is im­por­tant.’’ While it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to hear ac­claimed au­thors on the nitty gritty of the craft, the real pearls come with their re­flec­tions on why they be­came writ­ers in the first place. Jacobson is hi­lar­i­ous on his teen years: while his mates had posters of foot­ball stars and pop singers on their walls, he had ones of Ge­orge Eliot, Jane Austen, Ben Jonson and Henry James. Mce­wan talks en­gag­ingly about his tran­si­tion from an ‘‘ex­is­ten­tial writer’’ of ‘‘out­sider’’ sto­ries to the au­thor of Atone­ment, a very English novel that ‘‘looks over its shoul­der to Jane Austen and Agatha Christie’’. Sev­eral au­thors re­call child­hood in­flu­ences: Lively, an as­pir­ing writer at age 12, had a charm­ing let­ter from Som­er­set Maugham ad­vis­ing her to ‘‘read a lot’’; Frayn’s school­boy eureka mo­ment came when a teacher read aloud Shel­ley’s Ode to a Skylark; Man­tel re­mem­bers grad­u­at­ing to an adult li­brary card at 14, bor­row­ing Brideshead Re­vis­ited and think­ing ‘‘and this is only the be­gin­ning’’. Man­tel is a de­light through­out, by turns charm­ing and sur­pris­ing. Her anal­y­sis of why all writ­ers should have a re­li­gious up­bring­ing is acute and amus­ing. I’ll give her the last word, on crit­ics: ‘‘From time to time you are go­ing to be hor­ri­bly mis­un­der­stood, but af­ter all, you gave that book into the world to be mis­un­der­stood. You can’t sta­ple your­self to it and go around ex­plain­ing your­self.’’ The Writ­ing Life: Au­thors Speak re­tails for $34.95 and should be avail­able from most book­stores. The Aus­tralian dis­trib­u­tor, In­books, can be con­tacted at or­ders@in­books.com.au. OUR reg­u­lar book col­umns — Crime File, Kids’ Lit, The Lab and so on — re­turn from this week in an ex­panded for­mat. There will also be some new col­umns. See page 21.


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