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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

Writer and creator of The Wire back on the beat

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David Simon, creator of The Wire

David Simon, creator of The Wire

Celebrated creator of the much loved hit US police drama The Wire (The Guardian’s live blog on all five series) has returned to his journalistic roots to investigate crime in Baltimore, the setting of the HBO series.

Writer and journalist David Simon was reportedly unhappy with the Baltimore Sun‘s coverage of a police shooting which reported that “one old police reporter [Simon] lost his mind and began making calls” following a handful of unsatisfactory stories.

You would have thought the Baltimore police would have learnt it’s lesson after five series of The Wire but Simon was denied the face sheet of the shooting report.

David Simon said: “I tried to explain the Maryland statutes to the shift commander, but so long had it been since a reporter had demanded a public document that he stared at me as if I were an emissary from some lost and utterly alien world. Which is, sadly enough, exactly true.”

Have a look see what Charlie Brooker thinks of The Wire below:

Discussion:
Has the Wire inspired anyone to try their hand at screenplay writing? Does anyone enjoy writing about crime, and why? Let us know what you think of The Wire.

Words: Dean Samways

Writer to rescue Heroes

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Bryan Fuller - writer and producer of Heroes (Independent)

Bryan Fuller - writer and producer of Heroes (Independent)

We’ll be straight with you, The Scribbler is not a fan of the current craze of American television shows saturating our beloved Beeb and other channels.

Shows like Lost seem to ramble on endlessly purely for that fact, because an endless plot and a forever unraveling storyline means an ever engaged audience. These are commercial gravy trains would appear to be coming off the rails though.

Bryan Fuller, the former writer-producer of Heroes, has rejoined the show’s crew as a consultant. The move follows the cancellation of his Emmy-nominated show Pushing Daisies.

The superhero series has been hemorrhaging viewers since the start of the second season.

Talking to Entertainment Weekly Fuller said: “My job is to help facilitate the vision of the show, and the vision has been a little inconsistent.”

“But Fugitives (the next arc) is such a great sea change. I think people who have been critical of Heroes will come back.”

The drama’s original writer believes drastic measures are in order to attract fans back, though those measures are somewhat questionable in our book.

“People will die. And some will return. Matt’s wife (Janice) comes back. We’ll find out what happens when you have a superbaby.”

A superbaby? Don’t tell me Fuller didn’t hear the sighs of disappointment from cinema audiences when Clark Kent’s alter-ego found out he had a son in Superman Returns.

As for why Heroes found itself out of favour with fans, Fuller has his own theories: “It became too dense and fell into certain sci-fi trappings.

“For instance, in the Villains arc, when you talk about formulas and catalysts, it takes the face off the drama.

“You have to save something with a face, otherwise you don’t understand what you’re caring about. We’re also altering the structure so that there’s a very clear A story.”

So basically Heroes is in line for a spot of dumbing down then?

“But it is a big ship, it’s going to take a little while to turn it.”

Part of the reason The Scribbler isn’t a fan of shows like Lost and Heroes is their lazy use of the English language. Scriptwriting 101: Use as few words as possible to say as much as possible, this is how people really talk. People don’t describe every single thing they are doing, even if there have got a few subplots going on elsewhere. The below clip from the incredible police drama The Wire proves our point exactly.

Discussion:
What are your favourite examples of screenplay writing? Are you a fan of any the American television-cum-Hollywood shows and why? Are you penning your own ‘high production value’ television drama? Care to share?

Words: Dean Samways

Potter spell continues to mesmerise

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The Moonstone edition of the book was auctioned in December 2007

The Moonstone edition of the book was auctioned in December 2007 (Wikipedia)

Every aspiring writer wants to think their latest project will strike a chord with the majority and propel them to literary super-stardom (though writing for the audience is the killer of creativity – Ed).

Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen but for one author her fictional wand waving speccy protagonist has made her books almost as renouned as the complete works of Shakespeare.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by JK Rowling has become the fastest-selling book of the year.

Hitting shelves only three days ago it didn’t take long for copies to fly off again and straight into the carrier bags of a few hundred thousand satisfied customers.

The first in the author’s collection not to feature Harry Potter shifted 368,000 units last week compared to 73,000 copies of the Guinness Book of Records 2008, its closest rival.

Phil Stone of The Bookseller magazine told The Daily Telegraph: “None of the other big releases managed to get near the sales figure for Beedle the Bard.”

“I would be very surprised if it is not Christmas number one, but it’s not a dead cert.”

Nicknamed the ‘unofficial Potter farewell’ The Tales of Beedle the Bard, is a collection of five fairy tales which got a mention in the final wiz-boy book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Six super-rare-handmade-by-the-author-special-editions of the book were given away last year to people most closely connected to the Harry Potter series. A seventh was made and sold in auction to raise money for a children’s charity. Amazon bought the unique copy for almost £2M!

JK Rowling is interviewed about The Tales of Beedle the Bard below:

Discussion:
What is it that makes Rowling and Potter so darn popular? Is there anyone who comes close to her kind of fame? Are there any novel ideas rattling around in your head that could become supernova huge?

Words: Dean Samways

How to talk to girls – Tips from a nine-year-old

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Can all men learn something from lil Alec Greven?

Can all men learn something from lil Alec Greven?

There are many difficult subjects for writers to tackle, but a nine-year-old boy getting to the bottom of the eternal mystery of nine-year-old girls seems to be a unique one. The pre-teen version of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus (boys are from the climbing frame and girls are from the sandbox anyone? – Ed) started out as a school creative writing project for young American Casanova Alec Greven.

The hand written pamphlet proved to be a surprise hit at his school’s book fair and the story was picked up by local news. The leaflet soon turned into a full-blown called How To Talk To Girls. Alec was then invited onto a US TV chat show which led to a publishing deal with HarperCollins. The hardback is now available across the the United States.

In an interview with the New York Post he revealed his inspiration for writing the book. “I saw a lot of boys that had trouble talking to girls.”

The book includes some very eye-opening pearls of wisdom. In an extract from chapter three he writes: “Stop showing off, go easy on the compliments and be wary of ‘pretty girls’. It is easy to spot pretty girls because they have big earrings, fancy dresses and all the jewelery. Pretty girls are like cars that need a lot of oil.”

His mother has put Alec’s success down to the fact he is an avid reader.

Here is the boy himself talking to the New York Post about his book:

Discussion:
So have you learnt anything from lil’ Alec? Are all the pretty girls the ones with big earrings? Case in point, Jackie from Hollyoaks. What will Alec’s next work be? A Mills & Boon tribute?

Words: Seamus Swords

Popular figures on books they just couldn’t put down this year

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The Guardian website yesterday published a very interesting article about the favourite books of some of Britain’s top public figures and literature critics.

To celebrate the final month of the year the piece talks to journalists, politicians, broadcasters, military types and many more who, collectively, make a very diverse and colourful cross-section of society. The chosen novels also throw up some intriguing results.

We’ve selected the best celebrity top books for your reading pleasure. To see the entire list click here.

Richard Curtis with fellow bookworm Stephen Fry (BBC)

Richard Curtis with fellow bookworm Stephen Fry (BBC)

Richard Curtis – Film director

“Now that Kurt Vonnegut has smoked his last cigarette, John le Carré is my favourite living author. A Most Wanted Man (Hodder & Stoughton) is full of classic le Carré delights – the plots that sneak up on you, the wonderful, compromised Englishmen, the richness of the writing, strangely allied to the feeling that he is just recording documentary fact. When I first started reading le Carré, his middle-aged British men reminded me of my schoolmasters and my father’s friends – now they’ve turned into me.”

Alistair Darling – Chancellor of the Exchequer

“The book I’ve enjoyed most this year is Ian McEwan‘s On Chesil Beach (Vintage). It’s a thoroughly evocative novel from one of the best writers of his generation. Reading it was a great escape from the Treasury.”

General Sir Mike Jackson – Soldier

“The British armed forces are much in the news and it is important that we understand what is being asked of our military. Lieutenant General Sir Hew Pike, one of my oldest comrades-in-arms, knows as much about the human dimension of soldiering as anyone I know, and in From the Front Line (Pen and Sword) he has put together a wonderful description of this human dimension as seen through the letters and diaries of the soldiers of his family over four generations.”

Andrew Marr chews the fat with PM Gordon Brown

Andrew Marr chews the fat with PM Gordon Brown (BBC)

Andrew Marr – Political journalist

“No question – the non-fiction book of the year is Richard Holmes‘s Age of Wonder (HarperCollins), not only beautifully written, but also kicking open a new perspective on the Romantic age, as scientific and artistic thinking began to diverge. But please let me also mention The Legend of Colton H Bryant (Simon & Schuster) by Alexandra Fuller, which is brilliant, moving and almost a new form – factually true fiction. And for fiction, a newcomer, Andrew Nicholl’s The Good Mayor (Black &White), a story of love, dreaming and loss, magical realism from Scotland. You will not be disappointed.”

David Miliband – Foreign Secretary

Counselor (HarperCollins) by the late Ted Sorensen, Kennedy‘s long-term adviser and speechwriter, is a reminder of the best instinct of American liberalism. Self-deprecating (which is touching), and in awe of everything JFK (which is less so), it shows how small-town America (in this case Lincoln, Nebraska) can produce people more like Michael Palin than Sarah Palin. Equality, hard graft and the frontier combine to produce something special. Barack Obama inherits its optimism.”

Michael Palin – Actor

“The surprise of the year was a modest gem of a book by Raja Shehadeh, called Palestinian Walks (Profile). Ostensibly a celebration of a lifetime spent walking the hills around Ramallah, Shehadeh’s book is also an elegy for a lost land, and an inventory of a natural environment that has been slowly whittled away by an ever-expanding Israeli state. Shehadeh’s love of his homeland and his naturalist’s eye make for a poetic little book that has big things to say.”

Jeremy Paxman with one of his larger books, we hope (BBC)

Jeremy Paxman with one of his larger books, we hope (BBC)

Jeremy Paxman – Television presenter

“I’d not expected to like Sebastian Barry‘s The Secret Scripture (Faber), of which I imagine the talkSPORT synopsis might be ‘an old woman inside an Irish loony bin tells her life story’. In fact, I found it mesmerising. It is a simultaneous narrative, in which a doctor attempts to discover why an elderly woman was committed to a Sligo asylum, while she confides her life story to a secret memoir, in which she tells, in intimate and moving detail, how the tides of modern Irish history washed against her life. Climate, countryside and a malignant Catholic priest are all brilliantly rendered. Barry’s prose is brisk and vivid and at times terribly moving.”

John Prescott (blog) – Politician

What Does China Think? (Fourth Estate) by Mark Leonard is an excellent analysis of the current debate under way in China regarding its future development. An especially important read for all of us concerned about finding global solutions to global problems.”

Kirsty Wark – Television presenter

Kate Summerscale‘s non-fiction whodunnit The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (Bloomsbury) reads like a thriller. She researched a famous murder in 1860, of a three-year-old boy in a country house whose inhabitants were siblings, parents, a governess and servants. But what gave this book such an edge was the author’s meticulous detailing, down to the weather on the day of the murder. Toni Morrison‘s latest novel A Mercy (Chatto) goes back to the 1680s and the chaotic beginnings of slavery. In her vivid story centring on one young slave, Florens, Morrison reveals the tragedy of slavery and how it also involved Native Americans and even whites.”

Vivienne Westwood – Fashion designer

“In The Road (Picador) by Cormac McCarthy – actually published last year – a man and his son are ‘on the road’ in a world where nothing lives except for a few human beings. The two must keep going to find food and to avoid groups of cannibals. This is a story of love so total that it shines like a beacon on our human resources for good. Though harrowing, it’s great literature.”

Toni Morrison also gets a special mention from President-elect Barack Obama as he and John McCain talk about their favourite books in a CBS interview below:

Discussion:
Later on today we will be posting a topic whereby you will be able to discuss your favourite reads of 2008 so be sure to come back for that, but right now let’s have some fun. What famous people would you like to think read what books? For example, the editor would like to think George W. Bush’s favourite book was Where The Wild Things Are (an easy one we know). Post your suggestions below and let’s all have a giggle.

Words: Dean Samways