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The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Three – Making People

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Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Something ain’t right with my novel.

The big bones are in place: the main characters, the plot lines, even the climax and denouement. Seen from a distance, it certainly looks like a novel. But up close, you can see that it’s just a simulacrum of one; it’s canvas doped over a frame, like a dummy aircraft to fool the high-flying enemy. A book prematurely abridged.

A good start, I hope: now the simple process of filling in…

Ah:  here’s the rub. It’s this close-up work, the real flesh of the story that refuses generaisations and synecdoche that I’m having trouble with. There are scraps of the real stuff, passages and pages I adore, but I am having trouble joining them into a consistent and cogent narrative.  It’s not quite firing, quickening, whatever metaphor takes your fancy to describe that mojo quality that is life.

It’s tricky. This writing, in fact, is positively hard. Those that have actually achieved this act of sustained imagination (or perhaps more accurately, these millions of small acts of imagination) ascend higher in my estimation every day.

The main problem lies with the characters.  It’s not about them yet: it’s still about events, and the characters just happen to be the vessels through which interesting happenings happen. The tension between plot and character is of course fundamental to all stories. But I want both to be vibrating, pulsating, symbiotes feeding and thriving off the other.

And the core reason for this problem? I simply don’t know my characters well enough. Even the main characters have not got the depth of history, of complexity, that makes me believe they’re real. I am often at a loss as to what a character will do in a situation, how they will speak, react, move about. I can’t hear them. Their voices are muted.

Or, if the problem is not a lack of biography, it is they have too many, all equally tempting and interesting, all antipathetic to one another.  Choosing a particular path for a character involves destruction as well as creation, the slicing away of a host of possible past and futures. Of all the shiny scraps of the world that I have collected- the interesting stories and happenings squirreled away in notebooks- only a small proportion will ever be realised in a character. Try to get too many in, and a character becomes a shapeless hold-all.

So sit your characters down and interrogate them.  Ask them fifty questions. Start off with the major biographical details: name, sex, age etc. But then range on, to favourite foods, pastimes, memories, to their hopes and fears. Concoct strange questions and situations, and see how they react. Examine their webs of relatives, friends and enemies. How do they sit within these networks? Are they popular or disliked? Powerful or downtrodden?

Physical appearance is essential. What do they look like exactly? Sketch them. Find photos that could be them.  How do they walk, and sit and laugh? What do they sound like when they talk to you? Hopefully when they answer your questions, they’ll begin speaking in their own voice, complete with their quirks of accent and idiom.

Running parallel with getting to better know our peeps, we have to make sure they are worth knowing.

A bad story, in a film, play or book, invariably lacks strong characters.  Forget the setting, the special FX or bodycount. It’s how alive the characters are, how much the audience can empathise with them (not always, please note, sympathise). We’ve got three million years of DNA programming forcing us to want to pay attention to what people are about. Even if cinema audiences bumble on about wanting to see explosions and full frontal nudity, what they would really like is that but with great characters.

So what makes a great character? A trawl through my own fiction reading, and various handbooks on writing, offers some consensus.

Falstaff, one of the greatest Shakespeare characters

Falstaff, one of the great Shakespeare characters

  • Characters should be vibrant. They push against life. Something is wrong in their lives and they set out to change it, whether an external event forced upon them or an internal problem revealed through self-examination.
  • Like real people they should be full of contrasting, even contradictory emotions.  Surprise the reader with how a character acts and reacts. Complex people are interesting people. External conflict often reveals the internal conflicts, the mental fault lines along which a character splits.  The character is forced to make choices.
  • A mix of characters brings realism and contrast. They shouldn’t be interchangeable with one another: the “Bad Guy No.4” in the credits. Humour and sadness ,  for example, whether expressed by a single person, or in a group, become sharper when next to each other.  A wacky character can act as a foil for the more realistic. Or a character can be contrasted against the environment; the city boys in the country; the airhead in a high-powered job.
  • They are often good at what they do, whether it be cutting wood or being a lawyer. Even if they are bad at something, then they are the best at being the worst.

Of course, these guidelines are by no means definitive or binding. Not all these characteristics need to be included in each of your creations. But I think they certainly provide some direction.

With the details set down in black and white, with ambiguity taken away, the characters start to have to make decisions for themselves.  These concrete details are the foundations on which intricate structures can suddenly be built. New, more subtle plot suddenly presents itself.  Cards can be placed on these foundations- and then, as time goes on these lower layers seem to harden and fuse themselves, capable to sustaining structures upon them too, all the while developing in unexpected ways.

In the light of this discussion, it is perhaps telling that my two favourite stories of the moment, Anna Karenina (read the full text here), and the various series of The Wire (The Wire dedicated Guardian Blog), use their respective equivalents of the omnipresent, omnipotent narrator to peel back the inner lives of their characters.  With the same unblinking eye, we see the conflicting, and often contradictory, emotions in all parties. All are understandable as human: all suddenly become rational beings, no longer easily summed up and dismissed by race, wealth, gender or sexuality. The reader is forced to confront the tragedy or blessing of chance: that could have been me.

Vividly imagined, vital characters can help us be better people.  To crawl, waltz, crash out of the hot confines of one’s head, and into another’s: to forget one’s body and become someone else, if only for a moment, and then to return, slightly changed, more sensitive and subtle, is magic and art itself.

Just for your information and my fun, here are my top five characters:

  1. Captain Yossarian (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller)
  2. Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) (Full text)
  3. Harriet Dufresnes (The Little Friend by Donna Tartt)
  4. William Brown (Just William by Richmal Crompton)
  5. Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. I&II, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare) (Full texts)

Watch Captain Yossarian collect a medal in the nude below:

Discussion:
Have you been finding Richard’s posts useful? What are you going to take away from this instalment? If you’re doing some writing how have you found the obstacle of fleshing out your characters? Comments and debate always welcome below.

Words: Richard Walsh

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Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 – Interview One – Janice Y. K. Lee

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Janice Y.K Lees debute novel

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee has written her first novel to much acclaim, after making it onto the Waterstones’ New Voices 2009 The Scribbler has managed to secure a quick Q&A with the writer.

This interview is the first in a series in which we hope to talk to all the nominated writers competing for the Waterstones award.

Impressing many publications from the intellectual New Yorker to fashion magazine Vogue, Janice Y. K. Lee has managed to impress some of the harshest critiques with The Piano Teacher, a tale of love, passion and survival in 1940s and 50s Hong Kong.

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THE SCRIBBLER: What is different about your writing that helps it stand out from other new writers at the moment?

JANICE Y. K. LEE: I think that people like to be transported in a novel, and 40s and 50s Hong Kong is sufficiently far away from most peoples’ worlds that they feel as if they are travelling and learning a little bit.  The Piano Teacher has been described as an historical epic and an epic love story and I think both of those appeals to readers.

TS: As a New Voice of 2009 you must be inspired by some very contemporary authors. Which writers do you enjoy reading and draw inspiration from?

JYKL: I do read mostly contemporary writers, partly because I want to support writers working now and also because it is the closest to my heart.  I think Shirley Hazzard and Michael Ondaatje are amazing.  Also Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides.  I could go on and on.

TS:  Our readers will be very interested in how you approach a writing project. Where do you lift your ideas from?

JYKL: I don’t know that I “lift” them as much as they come floating up to the conscious part of my head.  I’ll be thinking about many things, and some will keep coming back, or be resonating for a reason I cannot figure out.  I was interested in a long time by people who steal, people who one would never think would do such a thing.  This found its way into short stories, characters I would write about, and eventually found its way into the book.  TPT started as a short story about an English piano teacher and her young Chinese student.  From there, the characters really led me to their story.

TS: When you first began writing how easy was it to find and sign to publisher? Can you talk us through that process?

JYKL: I have an unusual story, which will probably not be that helpful, unfortunately.  My teacher from grad school, Chang rae Lee, introduced me to my agent, and she took me on the basis of my short stories but she really encouraged me to write a novel.  It took me a while, but after 5 years, I had my novel.  She was always very encouraging of it and because I took so long to make sure it was right, it was in good shape by the time I finished it.  From there, she sent it out and there were a lot of interested parties and it ended up going to auction.  I had a lot of rejection during my 20s with my short stories, but luckily, with this novel, it was a fairy tale sort of story.

Janice Y.K Lee

Janice Y. K. Lee

TS: What obstacles have you come across in your writing and how did you overcome them?

JYKL: I think writing a first novel, in particular, is difficult as you are writing in obscurity, you are likely not making any money, and people often don’t know what to make of you.  All I can say is that you just have to believe in yourself, and in your book, and keep on.

TS: We often hear that artists have trouble dealing with their own pieces (i.e. musicians not able to listen to their albums etc.) How do you feel about your own work? Are you comfortable with it?

JYKL: I haven’t read the book through since it came out.  I don’t know when I’ll do that.  I do flip through sometimes, and read a passage, and usually I will like it.  I suppose that’s pretty good!

TS: Have you already started work on your next book? Is it difficult to leave one piece behind and start new one?

JYKL: Writing a second book is awfully difficult as well!  I feel there is a certain expectation as to the kind of the book I will write, and I’m trying hard to let that feeling go and write what I want to write.  I think I have successfully left TPT behind but it’s just trying to get to that new place right now.

TS: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given and advice would you give to our budding readers today?

JYKL: Treat writing like a job.  It is a job and you have to work very hard at it.  It is not always some romantic life of late nights and wine and talking about one’s process (that may come afterwards! or before!).  You have to sit at that desk and write.

TS: In your opinion what is The Piano Teacher about?

JYKL: I think it’s about Claire (the book’s piano teacher), but I’ve been argued down to the ground about that.  Others think it is about consequences of actions made under duress, east meets west, wartime.  But I’ll stick to my guns and say it’s about Claire’s journey as a person.

TS: What books inspired you to pick up the pen and start writing?

JYKL: Any of the books written by the writers I mentioned above will move me and make me want to write.  They have a way of surprising readers, using words differently, illuminating character, that make one pause and savour the language.  

TS: What is your learning background? And do you feel it helped you in writing your novel?

JYKL: I went to university and studied English and American Literature which was certainly helpful.  I did an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing which was helpful insofar as it gave me time to write in a community of people who were doing the same thing.

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Click on the below clip to hear an except from The Piano Teacher:

Discussion:
Please take this chance to discuss, promote or rant about Janice Y.K Lee or any of your favourite new writers for 2009, and expect more Q&As with the novelists on the Waterstones ones to watch list 2009.

Words: Seamus Swords

Toby Young – A Master of nothing?

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Toby Young, author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

Toby Young, author of How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

To celebrate the DVD and Blu-Ray release of ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate People’, The Scribbler talks to the author of the book that became one of the funniest movies of last year.

In an exclusive interview Toby Young talks about how he got into writing, what nurtured his talent and how the transformation from book to film transpired.

Enjoy our little chat with one of the most sought after writers of the twenty-first century below and leave a comment:

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THE SCRIBBLER: When, where and how did you first discover your flair for writing, and how was it nurtured early on?

TOBY YOUNG: Both my parents were published authors so, for me, writing a book wasn’t a particularly huge leap. Growing up, it was always something I thought I’d do. In addition, my father was always quite encouraging. From a very early age he used to tell me that I was a natural writer.

TS: What was it about working on The Danube that drove you to follow a career in journalism when you were, at the time, studying very different subjects?

TY: I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics as a student — a subject known as PPE — and that is considered a typical degree for a journalist to take. I think a more pertinent question is why I didn’t go into current affairs journalism, why I tend to do the softer, more personal stuff, and that was something I fell into by accident. It was just easier to get published on the features page than the op ed page and, having come up that route, that’s the path I’m still on. But as I get older I find myself drifting more towards news and current affairs.

TS: You mentioned that as you get older you feel drawn to current affairs, how has that transition in writing styles and subjects been for you?

TY: I just mean that I enjoy appearing on programmes like Newsnight and Question Time – not that it happens very often!

The Sound of No Hands Clapping

'The Sound of No Hands Clapping'

TS: Can you describe the move you made from journalism to fiction writing? What differences exist between the two disciplines in terms of having to change your methods? Did you come across any difficulties and how did you overcome them?

TY: I’ve published very little fiction. My two books – ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate
People’ and ‘The Sound of No Hands Clapping’ – are both non-fiction.

TS: While your two books are non-fiction some creativity must have gone into them, even if it was just finding ways of making scenes sound as colourful as possible.  How did you approach writing books like that? Are they not just mammoth features?

TY: I’ve read quite a few books on screenwriting and done Robert McKee’s screenwriting course a couple of times. I found that very helpful when it came to writing books. I think the principals of storytelling are universal, regardless of whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction.

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

'How To Lose Friends and Alienate People'

TS: How did ‘How To Lose Friends and Alienate People’ come about? Can you briefly describe the writing process of such an auto-biographical book. Was it as much fun writing it as it is reading it?

TY: I worked on the proposal for ‘How To Lose Friends’ for a couple of years, but, after I’d sold the book on the back of that, it only took me about six months to write. I’m not sure “fun” is the right word to use. Hunter S Thompson said, “I suspect writing is a bit like fucking, which is only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.”

TS: To the majority of readers it would appear you’ve led quite the lifestyle. How do you intent to follow your two books? Do you think you’ll have to turn to fiction to convey the same messages and humour?

TY: Well, my life is certainly less exciting now that I’m married and have four children. I want to write more fiction, but it’s hard finding the time between all my other commitments.

TS: During the film making process of HTLF&AP was it difficult to let some of the book go in the production reasons? How much input did you have in the process?

TY: No, I didn’t find that at all difficult. William Goldman, the novelist and screenwriter, once told me that a writer has to learn how to murder his babies, but that came naturally to me. The producers of the film were initially a little wary of me because they thought I’d fight to preserve every last scene in the book, but when they realized I wasn’t going to do that they were much more open to my suggestions. I knew that if the book was going to be turned into a film it would have to be very different.

TS: Are you happy with the finished piece? Has is inspired you to do a bit of screenwriting?

TY: Yes, very happy. It’s a very entertaining film. On the screenwriting front, I caught that bug about twenty-five years ago and I’m still plugging away. Being involved in the making of a film hasn’t put me off in the slightest.

TS: As the hype over HTLF&AP the movie pipes up again with the release of the DVD what are your plans for the future?

TY: I’d like to keep writing books, plays, movie scripts, etc, but be paid a lot more for doing it.

TS: You’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to writing. Which discipline do you enjoy dabbling in the most and why?

TY: I like comedy writing the best, particularly devising comic scenes. If you can pull that off, it’s very satisfying, particularly when you hear people laughing in the theatre or the cinema.

TS: I was able to contact you quite freely without having to go through publicists or PR. Do you usually work with them?  For the budding writers out there, what are the pros and cons of working with such professionals?

TY: I worked with a PR company on How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, but generally speaking I don’t. As far as I can tell, the only advantage of forcing people who want to interview you to go through a PR company is that they take you more seriously.

TS: The Scribbler is dedicated to inspiring and advising would-be writers to get their material published. What is the best piece of advice you could give them, or you have ever been given concerning your work?

TY: When I was about 19 I bumped into Clive James at an airport and told him what a big fan I was of ‘Unreliable Memoirs’. He reciprocated by giving me a piece of advice that I’ve found very useful: Keep it personal. The important thing is to find your own voice, to write in a style that is unique to you. Once you can do that, the rest is easy.

TS: Just how personal are you prepared to go in your writing?  How much of yourself do you dare put into your work?

TY: I like to think I’m pretty open and honest, but it is easy to delude yourself about just how open and honest you’re being. That is to say, many people who write about themselves and their reactions to things claim to feel what they think they ought to feel, but which, in reality, they don’t. I don’t think they’re being straightforwardly deceptive – it’s more that the lies they tell themselves spill out on to the page — but it still has the smell of dishonesty about it. The really hard thing about personal writing is to be completely faithful to who you really are and not pretend to be the person you think you ought to be.

TS: What you up to at the moment?

TY: I have a few irons in the fire, but experience has taught me not to talk about anything until you’re ready to unveil it before the public because, so often, these projects come to nothing.

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Find Toby Young in cyberspace:

Watch Toby Young interview Simon Pegg (and vice versa) for The Culture Show below:

Discussion:
Are you a fan of Toby Young’s writing? Does the movie do HTLF&AP justice? Post your views, comments and start discussions in the comments box below.

Words: Dean Samways

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part One – Where does a story start?

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Richard Walsh is writing his debut novel. A colleague and friend of the editor, Richard is going to be producing a greenhorn novelist blog exclusively for The Scribbler for the foreseeable future.

During the series he will discuss his experiences in the industry so far including communication with publishers, agents, the processes of writing, developing ideas, nurturing characters and will touch on every aspect of the craft.

In this, the first part of blog post number one (Richard was so keen to do what comes naturally he wrote a lot more than anticipated. Not that his enthusiasm is a bad thing – Ed), he talks about how the idea for his first novel came about and how much it has already progressed. As more posts are published the more he’ll reveal about life as a working novelist.

Please read, enjoy and feel free to comment. Richard will be on hand to answer any questions, comment on your responses and generally be open for discussion on what he’s written.

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The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part One

Richard Walsh in Vorovoro, Fiji

Debut novelist Richard Walsh in Vorovoro, Fiji

Where does a story start?
Thirty thousand words deep, this is the story of how mine began. Seeing as its incipient ideas have been rattling inside me for the last three or four years, quite possibly in the least efficient and effective way possible. It’s been a protracted labour. I hope I’m entering the final trimester. Epidural, anyone?

Ravelled in with that question, because this is my first novel, is the question of where does a writer start?

I can’t claim the title of writer yet, I think. I am, I hope, a work in progress. My credentials:  I’ve written a few short stories, I’ve an MA in Creative Writing, and it’s what I spend almost all my spare time doing. So, then, these reports are not from a published sage, but rather an ink-spattered greenhorn. Dispatches from the front line, with an aim to providing comfort, advice and warnings.

So, beginnings.
Four years ago, when I was living in London, I started playing a game. I would ask myself questions about people on buses, in the street, in shops: what’s his story? Where is she from, and where is she going? Does she regret that tattoo? Were they happy when they got up this morning? Will they still be happy when they go to bed tonight? The most incidental of objects or occurrences could be the spark for an extended reverie: a torn-off pigeon wing on the pavement, a rag of bright flesh still adhering to the feathers; a woman stepping from the dentist with half her face drooping as if struck by a stroke.

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer back then. Although I’d always read voraciously, the thought had simply never occurred to me. I didn’t have a degree in English or Drama; I’d studied Geography. Interesting enough, but not one that had ever raised notions of future literary greatness. To be a writer you had to be born to it, or selected in infancy, fed with regular dollops of bookish royal jelly so I had a proper life. I even got a proper graduate job. That first morning, when I walked to work over London Bridge in the dawn with the grey tide of commuters, I was filled with pride and excitement.

By noon I hated it
I loathed it with an intensity that shocked me. I stuck it for a few months, and spent a miserable winter trying to work out what the hell I was going to do. I think the daydreams were some kind of defence mechanism, a pressure valve. As I became more and more frustrated and unhappy with the direction my life was going, they played more frequently. I was haunted by them. Multi-sensory visions, fat with smells, textures, sounds, emotions, on public transport, at dinner, in the middle of the night, in the shower.

Finally, I bowed and cracked. I started writing down these scenes, and turning them into short stories. I discovered I was quite good- not great, but not horrific- and, more importantly, I loved it. I didn’t just have to read: I could write.

I quit the proper job. I went back to my home town. I enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. A year when all I did was write and read and talk writing with like-minded people; for me, quite magical.
It was during this time that the ideas that would form my current novel began to appear. They came as a series of visions, or even a feeling in the gut, rather than springing from a central question or dilemma, which were the usual starting points for previous stories. A girl in a tower, high above a city. An old man running through crowded streets. Wading birds probing mud, and the sun coming up above the Atlantic. Brief, vivid, fleshy vignettes playing in my mind.

The problem was I didn’t have a central story or question. All I had were characters and places in search of a story. They exasperated in their tenuousness. All this golden straw and no baler-twine. I knew the place and the time. I knew who. I didn’t know what or why. I tried out different stories. None did the feeling justice. What did these characters want? What was the question? Nothing worked.

In the end, I buried that novel, and turned my attention to other stories and projects. It was only in March last year, that the story clawed its way back to daylight.

Words: Richard Walsh

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Tune into The Scribbler next week for the second part of Richard Walsh’s greenhorn novelist blog, part one.

Watch Guardian Fiction and Booker Prize winner Ben Okri talk about his approach to writing below:

Discussion:
Have you got any ideas you want to develop into a story? Got a question for our blogger? Comment, discuss and ask away using the comment below.

…and the Guardian first book award goes to…

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Alex Ross, winner of this years Guardian first book award (Guardian)

Alex Ross, winner of this years Guardian first book award (Guardian)

The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross was named this year’s Guardian first book at a ceremony in central London last night.

The overwhelmingly in-depth history of 20th century music, embracing classical through to contemporary, was the undisputed winner of the £10 000 first prize.

Chair of the judging panel, Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead, said: “In some quarters this book has been seen as not having a popular appeal. Our prize – which, uniquely, relies on readers’ groups in the early stages of judging – proves that, on the contrary, there is a huge appetite among readers for clear, serious but accessible books.”

Another judge said: “Where Ross lifts his book above the ‘expert’ and impressive to the ‘good read’ category is in the way he wears his learning lightly, never clutches for false or contrived ways of explaining music, and never dumbs down in order to explain.”

Waterstone’s reading groups up and down the country also helped with the judging process. One member said: “Every time I felt overwhelmed by the technicalities, along came a sublime metaphor or simile that would light up the prose.”

The Guardian’s website describes Ross’ book as ‘a lifetime’s enthusiasm and learning distilled into a rich narrative of musical history, setting the works of Mahler, Schoenberg, John Cage and the rest into their cultural and political contexts – but also giving a vivid sense of what the music he describes actually sounds and feels like’.

It goes on to say: “Of all the artforms, modern and contemporary classical music is often seen as the most rebarbative. Ross brushes aside the mythology of 20th-century music’s “inaccessibility” as he charts its meandering histories. Along the way, fascinating connections are made: hip-hop has more in common with Janacek than you might think; Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin were tennis partners; Gershwin, in turn, was an ardent fan of Alban Berg and kept an autographed photo of the composer of Lulu in his apartment. If there is an overarching idea to the book, it is perhaps contained in Berg’s pronouncement to Gershwin: “Mr Gershwin, music is music”.”

The current music critic of The New Yorker Ross, 40, was born in Washington DC. He was an enthusiastic teenage musician but it wasn’t until studied English and history at Harvard when he became interested in journalism and became a student broadcaster. Ross began writing music criticism after university and was appointed to his current role at The New Yorker in 1996. He also has a blog which he uses to great effect in transmitting his work around the globe.

The media reception of for The Rest is Noise has been phenomenal. The New York Review of Books said: “by far the liveliest and smartest popular introduction yet written to a century of diverse music”. The Economist noted: “No other critic writing in English can so effectively explain why you like a piece, or beguile you to reconsider it, or prompt you to hurry online and buy a recording.”

Former Observer music writer Nicholas Kenyon said: “At a time when people are still talking about 20th-century music as if it were a problem, here is a lucid and entertaining book about what I regard as some of the greatest music ever written. It’s a wonderful way to advance the cause of 20th-century music to an ordinary, intelligent general reader. It’s the ideal mix of enthusiasm and information.”

The judging panel for this year’s Guardian first book award was made up of novelist Roddy Doyle; broadcaster and novelist Francine Stock; poet Daljit Nagra; the historian David Kynaston; novelist Kate Mosse and Guardian deputy editor, Katharine Viner. Stuart Broom of Waterstones‘ spoke as the representative of the retailer’s reading groups.

The other books shortlisted for the award were Mohammed Hanif‘s A Case of Exploding Mangoes; Ross Raisin‘s God’s Own Country; Steve Toltz‘s A Fraction of the Whole (also put forward for the Man Booker prize) and Owen Matthews’s Stalin’s Children.

Previous winners of the prize have most notably included Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters (2005) and Zadie Smith‘s White Teeth (2000).

See Ales Ross talk about The Rest is Noise in an interview below:

Words: Dean Samways

Author of Jurassic Park passes away

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Michael Crichton died on Tuesday aged 66

Michael Crichton died on Tuesday aged 66

Michael Crichton, the million-selling author has died of cancer.

Crichton who made scientific research terrifying and irresistible in the thrillers Jurassic Park, Timeline and The Andromeda Strain, died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 66.

“Through his books, Michael Crichton served as an inspiration to students of all ages, challenged scientists in many fields, and illuminated the mysteries of the world in a way we could all understand,” his family said in a statement.

“While the world knew him as a great storyteller that challenged our preconceived notions about the world around us — and entertained us all while doing so — his wife Sherri, daughter Taylor, family and friends knew Michael Crichton as a devoted husband, loving father and generous friend who inspired each of us to strive to see the wonders of our world through new eyes.”

He was an experimenter and populariser known for his stories of disaster and systematic breakdown, such as the rampant microbe of The Andromeda Strain or the dinosaurs running riot in Jurassic Park. Many of his books became major Hollywood movies, including, most notably, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun and Disclosure. Crichton himself directed and wrote The Great Train Robbery and he co-wrote the script for the blockbuster Twister.

In 1994, he created the award-winning TV hospital series ER. He’s even had a dinosaur named for him, Crichton’s Ankylosaur.

A stille from The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park

A still from The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park

“Michael’s talent out-scaled even his own dinosaurs of Jurassic Park,” said Jurassic Park director Steven Spielberg, a friend of Crichton’s for 40 years. “He was the greatest at blending science with big theatrical concepts, which is what gave credibility to dinosaurs again walking the Earth.

“Michael was a gentle soul who reserved his flamboyant side for his novels. There is no-one in the wings that will ever take his place.”

John Wells, executive producer of ER called the author “an extraordinary man. Brilliant, funny, erudite, gracious, exceptionally inquisitive and always thoughtful.

“No lunch with Michael lasted less than three hours and no subject was too prosaic or obscure to attract his interest. Sexual politics, medical and scientific ethics, anthropology, archaeology, economics, astronomy, astrology, quantum physics, and molecular biology were all regular topics of conversation.”

In recent years, he was granted a White House meeting with President Bush, perhaps because of his scepticism about global warming, which Crichton addressed in the 2004 novel, State of Fear. Crichton’s views were strongly condemned by environmentalists, who alleged that the author was hurting efforts to pass legislation to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.

If not a literary giant, he was a physical one, standing 6 feet and 9 inches and ready for battle with the press. In a 2004 interview with The Associated Press, Crichton came with a tape recorder, text books and a pile of graphs and charts as he defended State of Fear and his take on global warming.

“I have a lot of trouble with things that don’t seem true to me,” Crichton said at the time, his large, manicured hands gesturing to his graphs. “I’m very uncomfortable just accepting. There’s something in me that wants to pound the table and say, ‘That’s not true.'”

He spoke to few scientists about his questions, convinced that he could interpret the data himself. “If we put everything in the hands of experts and if we say that as intelligent outsiders, we are not qualified to look over the shoulder of anybody, then we’re in some kind of really weird world,” he said.

A new novel by Crichton had been tentatively scheduled to come next month, but publisher HarperCollins said the book was postponed indefinitely because of his illness.

A portrait of legendary American writer Mark Twain

A portrait of legendary American writer Mark Twain

One of four siblings, Crichton was born in Chicago and grew up in Roslyn, Long Island. His father was a journalist and young Michael spent much of his childhood writing extra papers for teachers. In third grade, he wrote a nine-page play that his father typed for him using carbon paper so the other kids would know their parts. He was tall, gangly and awkward, and used writing as a way to escape; Mark Twain and Alfred Hitchcock were his role models.

Figuring he would not be able to make a living as writer, and not good enough at basketball, he decided to become a doctor. He studied anthropology at Harvard College, and later graduated from Harvard Medical School. During medical school, he turned out books under pseudonyms. (One that the tall author used was Jeffrey Hudson, a 17th-century dwarf in the court of King Charles II of England.) He had modest success with his writing and decided to pursue it.

His first hit, The Andromeda Strain, was written while he was still in medical school and quickly caught on upon its 1969 release. It was a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was sold to Universal in Hollywood for $250,000.

“A few of the teachers feel I’m wasting my time, and that in some ways I have wasted theirs,” he told The New York Times in 1969. “When I asked for a couple of days off to go to California about a movie sale, that raised an eyebrow.”

His books seemed designed to provoke debate, whether the theories of quantum physics in Timeline, the reverse sexual discrimination of Disclosure or the spectre of Japanese eminence in Rising Sun.

“The initial response from the (Japanese) establishment was, ‘You’re a racist,'” he told the AP. “So then, because I’m always trying to deal with data, I went on a tour talking about it and gave a very careful argument, and their response came back, ‘Well you say that but we know you’re a racist.'”

Crichton had a rigid work schedule: rising before dawn and writing from about 6 a.m. to around 3 p.m., breaking only for lunch. He enjoyed being one of the few novelists recognised in public, but he also felt limited by fame.

“Of course, the celebrity is nice. But when I go do research, it’s much more difficult now. The kind of freedom I had 10 years ago is gone,” he told the AP. “You have to have good table manners; you can’t have spaghetti hanging out of your mouth at a restaurant.”

Crichton was married five times and had one child. A private funeral is planned.

Watch an hour long interview with Michael Crichton when he talks openly about his sceptical views on global warming and his book Next:

Words: Dean Samways & AP