An interview with former poet laureate Billy Collins

Interview With Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 – 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from wikipedia.com), and he’s been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I’d pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They’re basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn’t have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn’t read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That’s where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she’d have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don’t think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn’t write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I’ve been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I’m a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don’t write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don’t sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don’t know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry’s known for its brevity, but that’s also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it’s done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it’s pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn’t see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it’s sort of like in music. It’s enough to be able to play one fairly well. That’s the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That’s a tough question. There are too many to name. It’s not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t influenced me, positively or negatively.

I’ve taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It’s a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I’ve read that you consider your poetry to be “hospitable,” which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that’s considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn’t mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn’t know where he’s going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It’s important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I’m obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She’s a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That’s a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I’m finishing a manuscript but I don’t know if it’s done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I’m not sure it’s ready. I don’t want to rush it into print. I don’t know how many aces I have.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It’s a matter of getting rid of the young poet’s delusion that your experiences are so original that you’re going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It’s not the muse. It’s not nature. It’s not emotion. It’s other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you’re adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don’t waste your time on poetry that doesn’t talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins, and to Billy Collins, for his generosity in granting the interview.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness … It was one thing my mother and I had enjoyed doing together when I was a child. She was not the type to sit and watch me draw or read me books or play games for go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.

  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation

I’ll just warn you in advance I’m glad I didn’t need to submit this to a particular publication for review, because the damn thing nearly broke my brain — not for its complexity, but rather because it made me very angry for being somewhat a cop-out of a novel, on a couple of levels. This was another book I’d built up in my mind, a novel that sounded so promising and got such raves I put off reading it until I felt I had the attention span to really soak it in.

How did that turn out? Keep going.

Both parents recently dead within months of each other, our unnamed narrator is a 20-something beauty, a statuesque size 2 blonde and recent Columbia graduate born to wealth and privilege.

In addition to being a very rich orphan she’s also a bitch, though I guess psychiatrists would rush to qualify she’s a manipulative narcissist incapable of empathy for anyone else’s pain, someone who uses anyone in her life naive enough to care about her. Fortunately, there aren’t many of those. Unfortunately, her best friend from college, Reva, bears the brunt of our narrator’s very bad behavior and pays heftily.

At times comically self-absorbed and very matter of fact about her beauty and privilege, the main character is positively revolting as a human being. Reader, I despised her and when I say this it’s a positive. When a writer’s so good she can set me against her main character that’s a win. It means it was intentional, and she’s done her job.

On the other hand, am I being played when Moshfegh crafts a character who’s given every privilege but can’t manage to scrape herself together without a grand act, a theatrical and cavalier game of Russian roulette played with her life just because she’s rich enough to pull it off. Is it the point to not care what happens to her because she has no substance? Another reason I’m glad this isn’t a commissioned review. I can just gloss right on past that one.

Tra la!

Days slipped by obliquely, with little to remember, just the familiar dent in the sofa cushions, a froth of scum in the bathroom sink like some lunar landscape, craters bubbling on the porcelain … Nothing seemed really real. sleeping, waking, it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds. I didn’t talk to myself in my head. There wasn’t much to say. This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.

Set up for life financially, her parents were apathetic nearly to the point of neglect, neither showing a shred of human empathy over the course of her life. Still, their loss hit her hard because it’s supposed to. Reprehensible or not, these two people made her, raised her, and more importantly left her all that glorious cash. Now dead, any chance they’d repent or explain is gone, *Poof!*, along with them. Heartbroken but reluctant to admit so straight out, her hold on life’s so tenuous she knows she needs a drastic action to jolt her out of her depression.

Left ridiculously wealthy, she decides in order to reset her grim life — poor wealthy, beautiful and admired thing — and have any chance at happiness she needs to sleep away a full year, marking a shift between her past and the future she hopes to salvage. Finding an unscrupulous psychiatrist, it’s easy enough obtaining a quantity of prescriptions and free samples to see her through. Through experimentation and much trial and error, resulting in a few wildly outrageous adventures she’s grateful she can’t fully remember, eventually she finds the formula for the maximum amount of uninterrupted sleep. More details than this I won’t give, since all that’s set out elaborately in more than half of the book. You need to read it to find out.

I loved the book through the first half and beyond; I found it nearly impossible setting it down, reading late into the night finishing it, convinced this was a 5-star gobsmacker.

Then a couple things happened. First, I read the last page and it disappointed me she took a ridiculously predictable route. Then, I started thinking about the book as a whole and it pissed me off. Stating the exact reason would be a spoiler, but suffice to say I saw the end coming like a Mormon in a suit down a suburban street: It was too late to slam and bolt the door.

Ottesa Moshfegh is a phenomenal writer in loads of ways. So good. Her sense of rhythm, turns of phrases, use of dialogue and creation of repellent characters illustrate a high level of mastery. The premise of this book was phenomenal but I’m left scratching my head at her choice to set the story around a character with no obstacles whatsoever to carrying out an outrageous plan to sleep for a year. Sure, she hits a few bumps but nothing a Columbia grad can’t work out. How much different and possibly better it could have been if obstacles were put in her path, real life practicalities the rest of us would run up against. If she’d been tested in any real way, not including one little hitch courtesy of Reva, not to be spoiled by telling you what that was.

But this book’s not about that, so I’ll yelling in the wind. It’s all about money, how it can bring you everything and nothing at the same time. Yet, even that’s spoilt by the twee ending so I can’t even say she did that well.

Yes, it’s metaphoric. I get that. And it’s a funny book and see above for the part about it being well-written. It’s all those things, but dammit I’m still pissed off and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Read it if you want. I’m just done here.

Instead, have another quote:

Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.

For the record, this is the second time I can recall a book getting under my skin this badly, irritating me to the point I couldn’t stick around long enough to finish talking it out. And no, I don’t recall the title of the other book. If this were a marriage, I’d divorce My Year of Rest and Relaxation, citing irreconcilable differences.

If only Ottessa Moshfegh weren’t such a damned fine writer.

The only antidote to my little hissy fit would be to try and re-read the book, to see if maybe there’s not some key thing I missed. I was so distracted by the One Big Flaw I already mentioned as twee, I may have flown by some other key to the puzzle, a reason not to pack my bags and leave. But then, if I have to dig that hard it was potentially too subtle.

Compromise: I’m going to read a few reviews, hopefully finding a couple that don’t rely on idolizing what a superb stylist Moshfegh is but specifically address the problems I have with her book. I’m not feeling very optimistic. When a writer’s this much of a darling, a phenom, good luck finding anyone to point out shortcomings.

I’m really going this time. But if I find anything to change my mind about the book I’ll post about it again.

So.

The end?

The writing librarian and her work: plotting and paring

Good as my word, I’ve been busily hard at work getting my freelance writing endeavor up and running. I’m in stage one: panicked confusion.

Apparently, before you can get much of anywhere you have to brand yourself. I’ve been at work watching videos and reading articles on how a person does that, which so far as I can determine means you need to specialize, find a pithy way of expressing what you’re about, then set to work finding people who’ll pay for what you’re offering.

Sounds simple but oh dear god it’s not. When you’re a multi-niche specialist as I am, cutting down what you’re doing is like pruning limbs from your body. The good news is I’m spoiled for choice. This is why I could never abide people with no hobbies or interests. I’m awash with them.

So, which to keep and which to sideline?

Twinned with that, you need to market and promote, naturally, write a portfolio and get out there and flog it. The good thing about it is you’re your own boss, and the terrible thing about it is the same. You set your hours, but you’re still responsible when you don’t meet self-imposed deadlines.

Then there’s the produce on demand bit. Once you have clients, that’s the meat of the profession. That, and filling orders once you’ve pitched ideas to editors, of course.

It all gets very real, very quickly.

I’ve been less structured in my freelancing up ’til now, letting work come to me rather than going after focused, carefully chosen clients. But seeing as I’m actively working very hard getting back into the library profession and peddling my writing as a second income stream, it’s getting a lot more intense. There’s no end of work to be done, and if you don’t get a good grip on things you can easily go flying off into the ether. If you listen closely, you can hear the screams of writers ricocheting into The Deep.

There went another one. RIP.

My 2019 freelance goals are to find a stable column writing gig or two, a handful of clients I’ll produce for regularly and a steady stream of querying and filling orders. That’s as a second job, working part time alongside the mythical full time librarian position I’m madly pursuing.

They say if you want a job done right, ask a busy person. Sounds idiotic, but it’s actually true. If I want to do what you’re asking, I’ll find a way to fit it into my rotation. Once you’re used to getting a lot of things done rapid-fire, it’s easy to gauge if yes, I have time for that, or no, sorry, find another writer.

I won’t hesitate to tell you yes or no. I can see everything I’m doing at a glance, the way I’ve set up my schedule. I know exactly what slots are open, and have prioritized every detail.

I told you I’ve been busy.

The professions of librarian and freelance writer go hand in hand, the one feeding off the other. While it’s not true librarians spend their days reading (I only wish), in every library job I’ve held I’ve been able to flex my writing muscles. I’ve been a social media manager and in-house editor in both library jobs I’ve had so far, as well as forming a writing group that’s still active more than a decade on. If my scheduled allowed, I’d be active there still. As it’s not, I’m considering pitching a start up writers group at another library, slotted to fit into my free time.

I bring my personality to my employer, taking on the role of the voice the community comes to associate with the library. And I’m damn good at it.

You may have noticed I have rather a strong voice. I use it to good effect, given a public platform. Now, I just need the library.

Once I’m installed as a librarian, I’ll be able to say yes more often to the publishers knocking on my virtual door. Yes, I’ll read and review your book. I’ll have an audience of library patrons, in addition to my reach as Bluestalking and associated review outlets. From there I generally go to work disseminating reviews, author interviews and events to the general public via the local media. It’s never far from my mind hooking up my library with writers on tour, either.

It all comes together quite nicely. Though not without an awful lot of work. But then, when it doesn’t feel like work it’s the absolute best thing on earth. I miss it, and I’m bound and determined to get back to it. And when I’m determined, very little stands in my way.

But first, the planning: The branding and the specializing and the tweaking.

2019: I’m giving you fair warning. You’re going to be my year. 2017 and 2018 were good efforts, but it’s time to put away the first draft and get on with the big work: Editor at large of my own life.

Starting my reading year: The Nanny

 

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

 

A light start to my 2019 reading year with this fast-paced darling of 2018, a thriller that swept Europe, washing up on the shores of America in early 2018. Despite knowing I have next to zero luck with buzz books – the latest flavor of the month thriller – I tried hunting it down, anyway. It was the title that did it. I like the device of nannies as main characters; their narrative usefulness is broad. On the one hand, they can serve as vehicles to save children from bad parents or dire situations. On the other, they can be very bad people, indeed. What’s more horrifying than parents inadvertently leaving their children in the hands of a paid, supposedly vetted psychopath? Answer: precious little.

Nannies, well done, make for delicious characters.

 

When Myriam decides to return to work as a lawyer after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their son and daughter. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic Paris apartment, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. Building tension with every page, The Perfect Nanny is a compulsive, riveting, bravely observed exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, motherhood, and madness—and the American debut of an immensely talented writer.

  • amazon.com

 

Ultimately, the point was moot because Barnes & Noble took its sweet time noticing the frenzied press the book was getting, neglecting to stock stores local to me. When I couldn’t find it and couldn’t be bothered ordering it, I blew it off. If it was meant to be, it would be. I had plenty else keeping me busy, and it was doubtful the book lived up to the hype, anyway.

Then December rolled around. I was out buying myself books as consolation prizes to soothe bumps and bruises earned in 2018 and there it was: that smoking hot novel with enticing title and cover art. It was wearing something slinky over those stockings with seams down the back, spiky patent shoes and a smoldering, come hither stare.

You want fifteen bucks? You got fifteen bucks.

It nailed it; I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It’s a thriller, so you know whodunnit immediately. It’s the why that keeps you guessing. Why does a perfect nanny, more friend than employee, turn into a murderer?

So many reasons, at heart a very selfish, narcissistic one. It’s dreadful, just horrifying. Well done, Leila Slimani. You created a monster. Not every Amazon reader was a fan, but then half those predictably droned on about how unlikable the main character is. Psst … She’s a villain, that’s kind of the point. If she’d killed the children, but then turned into this charmingly quirky character you loved, would that have worked as a believable story?

“I’m cute and endearing, but whoops! Killed the kids!”

Womp, womp, womp …

Quit being ridiculous. When a writer’s trying to turn your stomach and succeeds, when you want to spit in the character’s face, she’s done her job. The cover blurb told you this wasn’t going to end well. You’re in the wrong section, Skippy. Trot along to Self Help, there’s a good boy.

The other main criticism leveled at The Perfect Nanny is the characters weren’t fleshed out enough. I agree, it was a bit spare. But also, it’s a translation. Details are always lost that way. I give some credence to those who wanted to know more, but a thriller writer is hobbled. She cannot tip her hand. All the weight of a thriller lies in not knowing the motivation of the bad guy until the very end. The less you know of the character, the less likely you are to guess what’s in her head. Could Slimani have pulled the curtain back a bit further? Yes, she could have. It’s a legitimate beef, but I’d rather she leaned toward vague than risked letting slip the crucial why before the very end. Had I guessed the denouement, I’d have flung the book in the garbage.

Leila Slimani did her job, and I enjoyed the time I spent with her writing. It absolutely flew. What’s funny is I’m struggling to recall many specifics. I’m thinking those people who complained things were a little too sparse may have been onto something but stand by my feeling she pulled it off. It’s well done, intelligent and paced nicely. It was New Year’s Eve, I was sitting alone concentrating on ignoring the fact it’s a holiday and I wasn’t spending it in Edinburgh, immersed in a book I’d been trying to procure, off and on, all year. It was exactly what I needed to read at exactly the right time

What’s left to say besides read it? Yes, do. Read it. If you enjoy thrillers, especially books about evil nannies who do terrible things, read it. Read the hell out of it. I’d be surprised if you came back and said “that was really awful; I hated it and now I hate you”, unless you don’t like books about psychos. I do really like books about psychos. Hell, I attract emotionally stunted, crazy people – not necessarily on purpose. It must be some pheromone I give off. They’re good company. Interesting, at least.

The Perfect Nanny is a kick starter. It’s that book to pick up when you’re stuck, when you’re restless and can’t think what to read next. On the beach? Read The Perfect Nanny! On a plane? The Perfect Nanny!

Patterson and Grisham are shit. Read The Perfect Nanny!

Wow. That was fun. Let’s call this a review palate cleanser and back away slowly.

Hashtag WINNING.

Since The Perfect Nanny, I’ve read one hell of a great book deserving of its National Book Award win. It’s decidedly not forgettable, spare nor lacking detail, not a book for the beach. It’s emotionally exhausting, especially if you’ve ever lost an unrequited or impossible love, left wondering if a best friend could have been a one, true love of a lifetime. Maybe you already knew it was so, but had no power to change anything. And then that person’s dead – in this case, by his own hand. It’s brutal and wonderful. Wonderfully brutal.

It’s Sigrid Nunez’s phenomenal The Friend, and it’ll be up next.

Meanwhile, my home office is getting much closer to being set up, and I’m writing this on my new desktop computer. Scribbled novel and memoir drafts haven’t been transcribed, since I haven’t shelled out for MS Office, but that’s coming. Soon. Right now I cringe at the cost, but let’s face it, there’s no choice.

Hell.

Also working on reading Moby Dick and associated books about the book and Herman Melville, the 200th birthday boy of 2019. That’s in the midst of nesting in my new place, acclimating two nervous rescue cats and coming to terms with What’s Next for Me.

It’s been busy. Always is.

 

May be a bit of a lag.

 

Goodbye, Edinburgh. And goodbye, UK.

 

I have a post in draft form about my visit to London to meet up with online bookgroup friends of nearly 15 years, however, I’ve had to up stakes and change plans entirely. I’m not long for the UK, friends.

The Landlaird’s broken this camel’s back via a grievous breach of privacy and wearisome jealousy, both professional and personal. The rest of the world has friends; sorry you’re incapable of sustaining relationships, but I have a lot of them. Try dropping the unprovoked hysteria and paranoia, and keep to your wee niche. And, fuck’s sake, find and use spell check.

Barely worth the energy of an eye roll.

I may or may not post properly before I leave for the States. I’ll try very hard to at least push the London post through, but it will be tough.

It’s also not escaped me that it’s the end of the year already, time to wrap up 2018 reading. Well, I’ll do my level best.

Meantime, happy advent. Hope your holiday season’s bright. Here’s to a 2018 packed with lessons and a 2019 with possibilities.

The Fair Maid of Perth, Scotland

 

Perth city at Christmas.

 

Needing a break from the relentless beauty of Edinburgh, last week I took a few days away to visit pretty Perth, Scotland. The Scottish Landlaird and I weary of each other’s company, turning a wee snippy and unpleasant left together too long; it’s not a bad thing separating us by a few hundred miles every day or so few weeks. It can get unpleasant. He’s been a bachelor for decades, and I’m the American interloper. What was it Ben Franklin said?: “Fish and visitors stink in three days.” For the record, it’s been almost three months. It’s past rancid to skeletal, friends.

Plus, I’d never been to Perth. And it’s all decorated for Christmas:

 

Off the High Street, Perth

 

Nae Day Sae Dark (No Day So Dark) by David Annand

 

Why Perth? Why not. It’s less than two hours from Edinburgh by train, so not too expensive transportation-wise. And, nicknamed the “Gateway to the Highlands” translates into this is where the rolling foothills start.  I’d note the four days I stayed were too many from a tourist point of view, if you don’t have a car to roam the area. Since I needed time away, the excess wasn’t as big a nuisance; for the casual visitor, one or two days would be more than sufficient.

The old section of the city is charming – lots of churches and restaurants and shops – but most sites of interest are walk bys. You take a gander, take a photo, off you go. If you have a car, there are several castles and pretty little villages warranting another day or two using Perth as a hub. On foot, not so much.

While I’m thinking of it, I’ll recommend Cafe Biba (22 King Edward Street) for its tasty hamburgers. Tired of British fare, I popped in for lunch one day to treat myself. They put some sort of herbs in the meat, plus the cheddar cheese is glorious. Then, Murray’s Bakers (114 South Street) makes a mean apple crumble. They’re also award-winning, and the prices are surprisingly cheap. One apple crumble lasted me three days, all for under £2. For Americans, that’s about $3.50 or so.

Not shabby.

 

High Street, Perth

 

If I’d arrived a day earlier I could have been there for the lighting of the holiday decorations, as well as the gin and chocolate fair and peak of the Christmas market. Arriving Sunday afternoon was cheaper, but I was tired and didn’t feel like battling whatever was left of the crowds milling around the pop up shops still open. Surprisingly, the majority of the market pulled up stakes early. In most cities the Christmas markets are there for the duration. Not so Perth. By Monday there was a chocolate stall, a couple food stalls, and three or four other specialty places for jewelry and other gifts. Not much choice.

The weather was abysmal in November, not that I should have expected otherwise. The day before I left was so rainy I spent most of it in the Airbnb apartment (right on the Tay River, overlooking Greyfriars Church Yard – BLISS), in the afternoon walking around the Perth Museum & Art Gallery. Plenty of paintings and sculptures there, plus local and natural history. A nice diversion. It’s also free, though nice people give a donation.

 

I regret to say I burst out laughing seeing this.

 

And of course I shopped. Taking a break from the rain, I fortuitously ran into a convenient Waterstones, where I finally broke down and bought this book I’d been looking at a while:

 

 

We know I can’t abide book orphans, so I also bought this, mentioned in the book above:

 

No court will convict me.

 

A wool shop may have been involved in one excursion, along with a miscellany of holiday shopping. As the landlaird’s daughter is cooking for Boxing Day, to which I’m invited, I found some gin and liquor-filled chocolates as a hostess gift. Other bits and bobs, as well, for various naughty and nice people on my list.

The mental break was necessary, and Perth did its job. I didn’t schedule myself, didn’t hurry anywhere, and slept ridiculously late. While I got some reading done, unfortunately I did no writing, which had been on the original itinerary. I brought with me the leather journal I had custom made when I turned 50, not a mark yet in it, figuring at this point of my life I have a whole lot to say. I’ll get to it. I just didn’t in Perth. As for the Landlaird? It was time enough to reset the friendship, at least for a while.

This week I’m headed to London for a day, to meet up with friends. In a week and a half or so a long journey down to Penzance, in beautiful Cornwall. I’m looking forward to it immensely, never having been to that area. I expect the four days allotted may be too short.

Do I have room to complain, though? I don’t think so. No. I don’t think so at all.

 

River Tay, Perth. My last evening.

 

 

 

 

 

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

 

If I am asked for advice I always say, “Don’t give up the day job”, no matter what it is, because however well your first book did, however large a sum of money you may have made, one swallow does not make a summer or one successful book a long and lucrative career.

-Susan Hill, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books

 

I’m struggling to get caught up sharing thoughts on the books I’ve read in Scotland, as well as those I’ve bought and will have to ship back to the States. Because failed relationship.

Anyhoo, it’s been difficult not buying more, but I need to show restraint on all but those books difficult to find in the States. I cannot pass up select vintage Penguins, for instance, nor the occasional work by more obscure British authors I know would be more expensive there.

At least, those are my excuses. No bibliophile would bat an eye.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books I purchased in hardcover, an irresistible volume written by a writer I respect who cherishes books, liberally peppered with anecdotes about other writers she’s known and lots of digressions into things like the weather. I’d expected more focus on Hill’s personal favorites, reminiscences about what she’s read; in reality it’s less that and more a delightfully eccentric, jumbled diary of sorts. It’s a memoir of scattered memories. If you sat down to a meal with Susan Hill, this is the conversation you’d love to have.

Writing a book like this is on my mind, relating specific books to specific stages of my life and discussing my personal iconic writers. Just as everyone’s story is distinct, mine diverges sharply from Susan Hill’s. Though nowhere near as extensively, I’ve met and rubbed elbows with writers of staggering reputation, insinuating myself into their circles, buttonholing them at events, contacting them for interviews unfazed by prizes as the majority of writers I’ve worked with have been gracious, refreshingly humble. A nobody in the literary world, my accomplishments haven’t so much fallen into my lap as been forcefully pulled. Fast talking – or typing – and sharp elbows go a very long way toward competing with writers who have more talent but less assertiveness.

Ultimately, you make your own luck.

Hill’s book introduced me to several writers I’d never heard of, like Duncan Fallowell:

 

“the author of How to Disappear and other brilliant, eccentric, quirky books by a man who Has Adventures. Duncan has adventures because he goes about looking for them – admirable trait, though one which I have never shared.”

  • Susan Hill, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books

 

Hill may not have ventured far, but I certainly have. Sitting here in Scotland, for the second time having left my American life behind for the sake of trying a relationship that’s twice failed, a roamer afflicted by wanderlust several times traveling to Europe alone, I’m clearly not of her disposition. Rather the opposite, though if you’d have told me I’d be this way as a reticent child I’d have thought you crazy. My days of traveling extensively outside the country, barring unforeseen incidents (and dear god I’ve had my share of those), are likely to be eclipsed by roaming my own country once I’ve returned home. But I never expect I’ll lose that passion.

Handily, Susan Hill has included a bibliographical list of books mentioned in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I’d say helpfully, but it’s also dangerous as I’ve decided I need several of them, Duncan Fallowell’s travel writing included. I suspect his style is closer to my own writing, being less sweet of nature and more inclined toward snark. I’m not a mincer of words. His example may help show me the path, giving me a few ideas. Another necessary book in the Amazon cart.

I recommend Hill’s book. Some have said it drops too many names, but good lord what has she been doing all her life but consorting with fellow writers? And, while it may not be devoted solely to books, there’s enough to have satisfied me. Once you’ve finished that, she published a prior book that’s much the same, Howards End is on the Landing. They make a great pairing.

More books to go before I’ve caught up, then I’ll do my best to stumble through a year-end wrap up. No surprise I have trips both booked and in consideration before I leave the UK. The next is a one day trip to London next week to meet up with friends, then a December jaunt to Penzance for a week’s holiday spent on the most westerly tip of England. As it’s off-season – way, way off-season – it will be freezing and empty.

Are there any bookshops is my first question. If so, no promises I’ll bring back more souvenirs. I’ve just returned from pretty Perth, and will put up photos soon. No bookshops of note there save Waterstones. Not that I don’t love it, but secondhand shops reign supreme.

Back to planning the remainder of my stay. Too early to worry overly much about what I’ll do when I return. Don’t let the present be ruined by difficulties that can be saved for a later date, that’s my motto. Meantime, allons-y!

 

 

 

 

Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens

 

panmacmillan.com

 

Not currently employed outside freelancing – not outside the home, I mean – how I spend my time is at my own discretion. A rabid reader, it’s not a stretch guessing what I’ve been doing with my free time these past seven or eight weeks.

You betcha!

Cups of coffee and toast crumbs litter my desk, books stacked on and around me acting as a fortress. It’s an apt comparison. Books have always served me well keeping harsh realities of the world at bay. They represent both passion and comfort. Between used bookshops and the wonders of the internet I’m doing a laudable job building my collection.

I’ve read some astonishingly good books lately, at least one not so great. Two of the astonishingly good have been on my TBR for years, surfacing because the Edinburgh-based book group I joined chose them. Funnily enough, I didn’t make it to discussion for either book I did manage to finish. I only made it for the one I didn’t. I read the unfinished book at least a decade ago. A classic of contemporary Scottish literature, I will finish this go ’round and write about it. I showed up for that discussion without worry the ending could be spoiled and to introduce myself to like-minded readers. I also wanted to hear native opinions about an Edinburgh-set novel so wildly popular it was later adapted to film.

Mrs Gaskell & Me: Two Women, Two Love Stories, Two Centuries Apart made it into my Scottish home library thanks to an itchy Amazon One-Click finger. I can never order just one book. How lonely for it to ship alone, who could bear the thought of an orphaned book. And the title of its companion … how could I resist? Then the description:

In 1857, after two years of writing The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell fled England for Rome on the eve of publication. The project had become so fraught with criticism, with different truths and different lies, that Mrs Gaskell couldn’t stand it any more. She threw her book out into the world and disappeared to Italy with her two eldest daughters. In Rome she found excitement, inspiration, and love: a group of artists and writers who would become lifelong friends, and a man – Charles Norton – who would become the love of Mrs Gaskell’s life, though they would never be together.

In 2013, Nell Stevens is embarking on her Ph.D. – about the community of artists and writers living in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century – and falling drastically in love with a man who lives in another city. As Nell chases her heart around the world, and as Mrs Gaskell forms the greatest connection of her life, these two women, though centuries apart, are drawn together.

Mrs Gaskell and Me is about unrequited love and the romance of friendship, it is about forming a way of life outside the conventions of your time, and it offers Nell the opportunity – even as her own relationship falls apart – to give Mrs Gaskell the ending she deserved.

  • Amazon.com

Charles Eliot Norton

I knew little of Gaskell’s beloved Charles Eliot Norton but his name rang a small bell.

An American author, art critic and professor of art, he enjoyed friendships with a number of writers of his day including: John Ruskin, Leslie Stephen (father of Virginia Woolf), John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) and, of course, Elizabeth Gaskell.

Rudyard Kipling, from his autobiography:

We visited at Boston [my father’s] old friend, Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard, whose daughters I had known at The Grange in my boyhood and since. They were Brahmins of the Boston Brahmins, living delightfully, but Norton himself, full of forebodings as to the future of his land’s soul, felt the established earth sliding under him, as horses feel coming earth-tremors. … Norton spoke of Emerson and Wendell Holmes and Longfellow and the Alcotts and other influences of the past as we returned to his library, and he browsed aloud among his books; for he was a scholar among scholars.

Norton’s place in Gaskell’s heart was a delightful surprise, admittedly voyeuristic. Digging into his life, small wonder she found kinship in a way she couldn’t with her husband. Meeting the great thinker on a trip to Rome, what better setting to spark romance. A feeling he reciprocated made obvious through barely restrained, coded correspondence, it’s safe to assume it was never consummated considering the time and upstanding reputations of both. And when he eventually married, realizing a relationship could never be, Gaskell’s heart was crushed.

I’ve been thinking of writing just this sort of book, weaving a life’s worth of reading literature in with my experiences. I’m not old and decrepit – though the snaps, crackles and pops emanating from my leg joints suggest otherwise – but I do have enough life experience to look back with benefit of well-earned wisdom. Stevens seems a bit young to have already begun looking back, but then she’s chosen a brief window. Mine would involve looking back further along than halfway, a bigger task.

A memoir of several years of her life juxtaposed with a period of Gaskell’s sharing a

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

similar theme, it hits the ground running. I loved the first third or so, empathizing as she struggled heroically with her doctoral thesis (NOTE: I don’t have a Ph.D. but based on my Masters experience I have an inkling) and recalling the heartbreak of failed love, something we all know too well.

The material concerning Stevens’ life – as far as the love story – began running thin the further I got into the book, not quite successfully stretching to match Gaskell’s. It became repetitive; I began to drift off. I identified with Stevens mostly in the beginning, when the love was unrequited. I can’t help thinking if she’d maneuvered that period forward a bit, starting earlier in the relationship, she’d have made it to the end with more effective balance. Her struggles with scholarship provide plentiful material but it’s the romantic element binding her to Gaskell. It never felt quite matched to me.

Now that I’ve finished the book, formed my opinion and gotten through one draft of my own review, I’m at this moment revising. Safe to read the thoughts of others without them bleeding into mine, I see I’m distinctly in the minority – not uncommon at all. Reviews in big name periodicals are overwhelmingly positive, though Amazon’s readers are more mixed. A couple mention factual errors, disconcerting considering Nell Stevens is a scholar. While I haven’t gotten to the bottom of that, I’m investigating.

Enough about the book irked me I can’t give it a firm recommendation. Yes, the premise is intriguing, and yes I’m delighted to see Elizabeth Gaskell’s name brought into the 21st century, but conceits such as slipping into second person in the Gaskell sections made me grit my teeth.

Then, keep in mind I’m a hard ass reviewer. Your experiences may vary. I do recommend caution against plopping down the hardback price, though.

If you have read or do read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

An evening with Ian Rankin: Music and Murder

I first met Ian Rankin in 2006 on his Chicago tour stop. I’d been a fan of his John Rebus detective series a short while, as much for the familiar Edinburgh setting as the writing.

I fell all over myself talking to Rankin, stuttering and turning red. His accent and rugged good looks made my knees shake. Literally. It was embarrassing as hell. By that point I’d interviewed a U.S. Poet Laureate and string of high profile writers, but you’d never have known from my (total lack of) mad interpersonal skills. I managed to blurt out a request for him to inscribe, “You complete me” on the title page. He smiled and complied, possibly assuming English wasn’t my first language. Or that my handler was hanging back watching, waiting to change my drool bib and take me home.

Little did I realize dude gets that ALL the time. I should have known.  You mean I’m not the only woman easily swayed by a Scot? I dinnae ken!

 

Photo credit: The Irish Times

 

Discussing his fan base with him years later, he said he’s been asked to sign women’s necks, cleavage and hotel room keys. Also an arm, for a woman who planned to have it permanently inked. The only rule is no inappropriate touch. And no, I don’t know that from personal experience.

THE CHEEK OF YOU.

Although …

Ian Rankin values his fans; he won’t abide hearing them referred to as “stalkers”. No matter they follow him to his favorite pub in Edinburgh, using the address to

Pardon the low resolution.

send mail directed to him. He’s fine with that, and I don’t blame him. You want to send me gifts? It can be arranged.

But I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he opens them. I can only imagine.

Since our first meeting I’ve interviewed him briefly by email on behalf of the library I worked for, sent him a t-shirt he took a picture of himself wearing (though it was too small and he had to shoehorn himself into it), a goofy beer glass, and a Moleskine notebook and pen he promised he’d make use of for his next book. We’ve been in regular Twitter contact ever since.

He’s a genuinely good soul.

 

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. Ian Rankin event 16 October 2018.

 

This past Tuesday evening I had tickets for an event with Ian Rankin “and guests”:  a police pathologist and Rankin’s “Dad band,” Best Picture. Held at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, it was well attended, if not packed. Frequent local events celebrating the release of his latest In a House of Lies have spread the wealth as far as the crowds go. And thank goodness for that. It was hotter than hell from the body heat. The crush of the signing line gave me anxious moments.

It was standard interview fare: the 31-year history of the Rebus series, recurring characters and how they’ve grown and progressed, a few continuity gaffes he’s committed, stories of his early days and how he came to be a crime writer. There’d be nothing new to anyone who’s heard him speak before. He was witty and charming, natch, poking fun at himself in his genuinely down to earth way.

 

Interior, Queen’s Hall.

Contributions from the police pathologist presented real crime in Edinburgh, unsurprisingly nowhere near Rankin’s fictional body count. Whereas Ian admitted he’s rubbish at figuring out crimes, the pathologist said he’s generally able to tell cause of death from newspaper articles and pictures. I suppose that’s the difference between the real and fictional worlds.

The real treat, though, was the performance of Rankin’s band. Of all the author events I’ve attended, this was the most singular. And though I took video of two songs, I don’t have the copyright to embed them. Instead, here’s his record label’s official video of their first single, “Isabelle”:

A truly great evening, crowd anxiety aside. One of these days I’ll catch him down at the Oxford Bar, where I can buy him a pint while I stutter and fall all over myself all over again.

 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

 

Penguin (1 Jan. 2015)

 

I’m blaming dismal cold and wet weather on my grumpy reading mood. I have never suffered mediocre books gladly. I do not hesitate to throw dull books aside with such force they dent the walls. The older I grow, the less latitude I’m willing to give as time grows shorter.

Reviewing books more than fifteen years has accustomed me to high quality prose, spoiling me in receiving these books for free, so when I splash out with my own funds I expect they’ll meet or surpass my best hopes. The last two books I’ve read have not quite hit the mark.

This makes me very, very irritable.

Before I get into the first book, let me qualify it’s not a failure, per se. My mood is sour today because the second book, finished less than an hour ago, was just such a read. Worse, I paid for it in hardback, not a cheap secondhand copy. The first missed the mark with me, but by no means is it not worth the read.

 

Amazon:

Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

 

Books with unreliable narrators, especially involving memory gaps, grab my attention. Coupled with the premise of the mystery, I needed this novel as soon as the seller could ship. The “Costa Winner 2014” sticker slapped on the cover sealed it.

As a young girl, Maud’s life is ripped apart when her glamorous and beautiful older sister Sukey (Susan) disappears under menacing circumstances. A young wife with a husband home from war, her life appears content from the outside – until Maud and her father begin exploring further. Her husband Frank, neighbors and the police revealed, was both volatile and involved in shady black market dealings in rationed goods. Seen leaving the house in the middle of the night carrying a suitcase, his story was Sukey was being menaced by a mad woman well known in town, a woman driven out of her mind by the death of a daughter who’d been run over by a bus.

But where had she gone, and why had she not gotten in contact with her family?

Told in alternating narrative, Healey follows the young Maud’s traumatic loss of Sukey, then skips to modern day when she’s grown old, rapidly losing her mind. Despite both a carer and her daughter Helen checking in twice a day, Maud manages to slip out of the house and get herself into scrapes. There are silly things like constantly buying sliced peaches when she already has a cupboard full, to, more seriously, getting lost and dangerously muddled. Over and over, she takes the short walk to Elizabeth’s house, knocking on doors and peeking in windows. As the house grows emptier, so does her suspicion.

Maud keeps notes in pockets and drawers, desperate to keep a grasp, but disjointed words and phrases rarely make sense when found again. There are just two things for certain: buried inside her head is the answer to Sukey’s fate, and her only friend, Elizabeth, is missing.

With Elizabeth, the elderly Maud shared adventures and companionship. Less well cared for, Elizabeth appreciated both Maud’s company and the treats she brought. Together they enjoyed outings to local charity shops, buying cheap knick-knacks that gave them pleasure. In these brief moments, both felt the burdens of old age slipping off their shoulders. Then, suddenly, Elizabeth herself seemed to disappear, the jolt triggering Maud’s memories of her sister’s unresolved mystery 70 years earlier.

Maud began searching as well as she could, repeating ad nauseum to anyone who’d listen, “Elizabeth is missing”. The more she uttered it, the less anyone took notice. She was a silly, demented old woman who spouted random memories and fancies.

For most of the book I was riveted. Healey did a magnificent job getting inside the head of a very muddled elderly woman. It felt authentic, the desperation and frustration of Maud, her daily life and slipping away from reality. Not having dealt with the situation first-hand, the descriptions felt real.

My quibble is perhaps minimal but nonetheless interfered with my complete absorption in the book. If my daughter went missing I’d be absolutely frantic. While the family was concerned, I was never convinced this was an all-consuming, desperate event. They did a perfunctory search, talking with neighbors and trying to gather clues, but I never felt in my gut this was a major upheaval in their lives. I never felt the immediacy.

Then, none of the characters were fully fleshed out as Maud. Realizing the story’s told through her eyes, not often grounded in reality, I still felt it came up a bit short. The challenges in conveying characters seen through a clouded lens are huge, but I missed that. What Healey does well she does very, very well. What she left out continues to niggle at me, perhaps more than it should.

Still, I recommend the book. Maud’s story is heartbreaking, the twin mysteries compelling. The approach of winter seems an appropriate time to add this one to your reading list. If you do, or have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought. Tell me I’m overly particular if you wish, and I’ll be surprised if you don’t find something to love about it.