Scottish Book Trust.

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Writing is the easy part. That’s what I tell folk. That’s when I learn what I think. And others think about me. Reading is the engine of writing. I’ve had a long love affair with books, with bouts of promiscuity. As I get older I find time not reading is time wasted.  Selling yourself, well, that’s the hard part. Not many folk know about Scottish Book Trust. It’s a national charity.  Until I started writing a few years ago I hadn’t heard of it either. Here’s what they do, they encourage children and adults to read books. http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/about/what-we-do. They link it with that buzz word, wellbeing. Whisper it, the key factor is class. Literacy rates in Scotland (and elsewhere) have been falling and this is linked to the gap between rich and poor. The earlier you get kids to read the better quality life they will have. The postcode lottery of what school you attend, whether, for example, Drumchapel High or Bearsden Academy a mile or two away, but on a different planet, determines life chances. Reading is the one thing we can get right, but we’re getting it wrong. The gap remains and has grown in recent years, despite much bluster. The Scottish Book Trust tells us it gave one million free books away last year. They organise festivals and supports authors. I’m a supporter of the charity work of the Scottish Book Trust. I attend most of their festivals in West Dunbartonshire libraries and write about the authors on my blogs. And last year, I gave a reading in West Dunbartonshire’s Dalmuir library of my debut novel Lily Poole (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356).  In a way I’ve worked for the charity for free. It’s win-win, as I get free publicity. My debut novel was novel of the week in West Dunbartonshire libraries. That’s as good as it gets. Most debut novels get published and are pulped within a week. Mine is no different. But for me, books are holy things. To be a published author is a big thing and to be on library shelves next to other novelists that’s a blessing.

My gripe with Scottish Book Trust is I’ve found they’re not to be trusted, don’t acknowledge me as a published author, even though I’ve appeared at one of their festivals as a published author. They can’t deny that I’m Scottish, I’m guess it may be a matter of number of books sold. The underlying question is quality. They don’t want to acknowledge a numpty like me as an author or the whole edifice of Scottish Book Trust will crack and fall to the ground. They may be right.

I’m a big fan of the Scottish Book Trust and have been trying to join them for years, but I fear it’s easier for a Catholic to join the Masons. Over the years I’ve applied for mentoring, the New Writer’s Award and later the Next Chapter Award. The first time I got an email back saying we enjoyed reading your application I thought it was true. After ten or twelve emails saying the same thing you recognise that no they didnae, it’s junk mail. Published authors can apply for inclusion in the Live Literature Database. It makes such applications easier.  BBC Script room, in comparison, are a lot better at that sort of thing. Over the same period I’ve been longlisted twice. They tell you for example, you got an A, but not A-plus for your attempt and your thirty pages script got a full read through. And they give you numbers, out of 13 000 scripts submitted, you were in the top 10%, perhaps even 1%,  but they don’t say we enjoyed reading your script, because they didnae, that’s their job.

To be honest I don’t really think of myself as a writer either. You probably wonder why I keep bothering the Scottish Book Trust with my lame efforts. Simple, they offer a gateway to writers that have been where I am, that will read my work and give an honest critique, point the way forward. That saves me time. Saving time and money, that’s what it’s all about. Unfortunately the Scottish Book Trust enjoyed reading my novel, but they didnae, I don’t exist.  Yet I persist.  Writing is a strange beast.

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Gail Honeyman (2016) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

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This book has not been officially release yet. I was lucky enough to buy a copy at West Dunbartonshire Festival of Words at Parkhall library on Monday night. Gail Honeyman was doing her first gig. Ahhhh, that’s nice. She seemed very nice and self-assured. It was the usual format of someone asking her questions about the book and Gail reading two short excerpts from the book. And later questions from the audience.  She read, first page, first paragraph:

When people ask me what I do – taxi drivers, dental hygienists – I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with the idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people here the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves –

First-person narrative for almost four hundred pages can be hard work. I must admit that if I’d picked this book up on spec and read a bit I’d have put it down again before the second chapter. A simple tale of boy meets girl isn’t really my thing. It does help the boy is a figment of Eleanor Oliphant’s imagination. He exists, but doesn’t know she exists. The other boy, Raymond, that works in IT, is the kind of anorak that anoraks avoid. Eleanor and Raymond seem a good match, but Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine in her own company. Other people are the problem. Will they? Won’t they?  I’ve only read to page 70, but I take it Eleanor’s mum, who plays a big part in the book, is a controlling Myra Hindley type figure that set out to destroy her daughter and largely succeeded, and may yet have the last snarl. Eleanor is weird, even by Glasgow standards. I’m sure Eleanor and her mum set themselves apart, by being different, and this proves to be the point. As a child, Eleanor does not watch telly and doesn’t know what an oven chip is. There was a bit of brouhaha at the reading about not giving too much away. Oh, no, I may be indicted, but it’s all there on the first page for the reader.

I’m nearly thirty years old now and I’ve been working here since I was twenty-one. Bob, the owner, took me on not long after the office opened. I suppose he felt sorry for me. I had a degree in Classics and on work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.

A budding author in the front row of the Parkhall gig asked Gail about agents and getting published. Like Gail she had won the Scottish Book Trust’s Next Chapter Award. Like Gail she wanted to create a buzz, have her book reviewed, sold internationally, be optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s company, with possibly Witherspoon playing the part of Oliphant. Yep. That’s a good question. I’d quite like to know the answer to that one too.

Ann Cleeves (2016) Cold Earth.

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Ann Cleeves has written a whole stack of books. This is her 31st. Sunday Times Bestselling author, and an imprint on the cover of the book showing some actor’s face, Douglas Henshall, with the tag now a major BBC drama. She is everything I am not, an established author whom I’ve never heard of until West Dunbartonshire Libraries made her novel Cold Earth novel of the week. Here’s where I segue away and start talking about myself like those insecure bores at the office party. (Hi girls and guys, did I tell you I was novel of the week, the week before Cold Earth in West Dunbartonshire Libraries and my novels a lot better than that?  You should check it out https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lily-Poole-Jack-ODonnell/dp/1783522356).   So in a way I’m checking out the competition and I’m committed to reading other novels nominated by West Dunbartonshire Library. Some times we get locked in our own wee worlds of reading and preferences we forget we’re not wearing high-viz vests and working in exclusive reading zones and there’s a whole world of books out there waiting to be read.

I love books, so that’s not a problem. The difficulty with Cold Earth, and detective novels in general, comes from watching too many episodes of Scooby Doo. At the end of 387 pages of Cold Earth the bad guy is going to come away with the Scooby line before getting led away, ‘And I’d have got away with it if it wasn’t for you damn kids…Scooby… Scooby Doo’.

We’re talking about characters, plot and setting here. On the first page, first paragraph, Ann Cleeves knows enough about writing books to fill a book and get these three in early to answer an unasked question of why the first paragraph in a book, or short-story is so important.

The land slipped while Jimmy Perez was standing beside the grave. The dead man’s family had come from Foula originally they’d carried the coffin on two oars, the way bodies were always brought for burial on that island. The pall-bearers were distant relatives whose forbears had moved south to England, but they must have thought the tradition was worth reviving. They’d time to plan the occasion; Magnus had a stroke and had been in hospital for six weeks before he died. Perez had visited him every Sunday, sat by his bed and talked about the old times. Not the bad old times when Magnus had been accused of murder, but the more recent good times, when Ravenswick had included him in all their community events.

The setting is a Scottish island near Shetland. And if you think all Scottish islands are the same then you probably have never heard of Charles Darwin, but you probably know enough to know that they are drab, claustrophobic, rainy places where if you don’t like the weather you can just fuck off.

Plot is established. For some writers a plot is where you grow turnips. Cleeves is Janus’s face here, looking backwards and forwards. She’s saying it’s not that quiet up here, Magnus has already been accused of murder, if you want to find out more read my old books. With all that rain there is a landslide. Jimmy Perez has come to bury his neighbour, but the land washes away the gravesite and the gravestones of the dead already buried, including Fran, Jimmy Perez’s fiancée buried a few graves along after being knifed to death. Her death haunts him and she talks to him from beyond the grave in italics. Don’t do that kind of thing unless you are an established writer.

Jimmy Perez is a detective it’s not his job to find out if God was responsible for sending all that rain to a wee God-fearing island perched on a rock on the Atlantic for not going to the Kirk enough, or if it’s global warming. But when cold earth ploughs through a small croft and the body of a woman is found, and it’s not an act of God, but she’s been murdered, then it is Detective Inspector Perez’s job to find out whodunit.

What I found interesting was Perez is written as the kind of eye-candy usually associated with women. His superior Willow, for example, comes from a different lifestyle, but another of the small Scottish islands, and she, like many of the locals, fancies him rotten and they do have sex, but it is off the page. Nothing that couldn’t be seen in a Disney Cartoon. That’s murder you might say, but Scooby, Scooby Doo, I quite like you.

 

 

 

Jack’s Big Day Out -Dalmuir Library

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If we exclude the launch party for my debut novel Lily Poole, where I didn’t have to do anything much, but go to the bar and buy drinks and get a couple of selfie-styled photos, then yesterday’s outing in Dalmuir Library was my first outing as an author. There were only two things made me more nervous than losing something on a flip of the coin.  A heads up (i) There would be an audience. (ii) No audience. The tale of the latter was far more likely. My partner Mary asked me if I wanted her to go. She couldn’t really be bothered. Hasn’t read the book, wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, but on the plus side Dalmuir Library is only a ten minute walk away. I hinted if she came along at least I was guaranteed an audience of one.

As any budding author knows playing the shucks-you-wouldn’t-let-down-card, if such a card exists in modern sagas with pre-nup agreements always works. I think what swung it for me was the Waltons was on the telly and presented a picture of prairie life as it should be. Mary put me right. It wasn’t the Waltons but Little House on the Prairie. I get a bit confused with nostalgic images of long-lost yore and life in pre-Trump America, but sure as fate, a pigtailed and incredibly young looking Laura Ingalls was in the next shot. She was planning to go on a picnic with a raccoon and her sister, whose name nobody can ever remember, (spoiler *  she went blind at some point in later programmes, probably looking for food for picnics), but they planned to enjoy themselves regardless of whether they had food or not, because in those halcyon days they made do, a picnic without food was still a picnic. I guess they could have hunted and eaten the raccoon, or raccoon tail, because everybody in America is licensed to carry a gun except black men and Mexicans. I missed what happened next because I didn’t want to be late. Bob, Mary’s son couldn’t be bothered going to the snooker, so the potential audience had just doubled, or increased one-hundred percent, whichever sound more impressive. It was icy on the roads and pavement, I clung onto Mary’s jacket because I didn’t want her getting injured, and as they say in theatre land, break a leg, especially as she’d have missed all the fun. Bob had to deal with global warming on his own.

I wasn’t sure if the library was open, but three push-bikes were parked in the rack outside, which was encouraging, but then three people came out and rode away on them. On the plus side, Donny, West Dunbartonshire’s Champion Reader, which sounds like a cartoon character, nipped into the library in front of us and led the way.

If I included Donny and the two librarians working behind the counter my potential audience had increased by a multiple of three. A person smarter than me with a HNC in PR would have been able to calculate that number in audience growth rates above the mean, in terms of integers, and put positive spin on it (and ignore the negative and equalizing values that the audience were all paid employees of West Dunbartonshire Council). Things were looking good for a quick and diplomatic exit.

However, as anybody that’s ever been to Dalmuir Library knows that’s the place where they first got the idea for Dr Who’s Tardis. Donny the Champion Reader led me into the Tardis room and there were seated give or take a few bodies, around 15 000 folk. I recognized some of the faces. Pat McDade hadn’t given any hint on Facebook, where he lives, that he’d be making the journey to reality. But there he was seated in the back row close to Jim Mirren, his wife and father-in-law. Mary and Robert went to sit beside him. In the middle tier were the author Emma L Clapperton and her mother Margaret. They smiled to encourage me to hurry up and get it over and done with. In the front row a man with slicked black hair, blue casual wear and soft shoes clutched his ticket nervously and later asked me to autograph it.  The librarian had to bring in more chairs, which might or might not have been a good sign.

The Champion Reader graciously offered the much prized and  sought after padded swivel seat at the front as my throne. Pat’s voice drifted down, some belittling remark about me being unusually early for someone that prided himself on being fashionably late. Jim McLaren breenched in and then we needed another seat for Louise, Alan’s fiancée, but they’ll probably never get married because he’s grey and going bald. She’s already swithering, but her secret is safe with us. Don’t tell anybody, unless you have to.

John, the head of West Dunbartonshire Libraries, stood up, and  like father of the bride, did the mandatory announcement about safety issues, where the toilets were and read a short speech about me. Donny remarked that was quite a good blurb and that he should know because he sometimes had to write them. I didn’t say it was a pretty good blurb because Unbound’s was crap and I’d written it, but that was the only time I was modest. After that I claimed to have read every book in the English language and some in schoolboy French and was in the process of re-writing them and making them better. After yakking for several hours Donny had me saying au revoir and had to pull me away from my audience and push me outside where he had a taxi waiting and the meter showing a bill of £321.

‘Money well spent,’ was my parting remarks to him.

I’m not sure I’ll be invited back. But with a library card in my possession I will not be thwarted in my plans for global domination.

Des Dillon at Dalmuir Library, 2pm.

Last Saturday, when I was in Dalmuir Library, Gregor Fisher was doing a gig at 7pm. It was sold out. Tickets only. But let’s put this into perspective. Dalmuir Library is not the Albert Hall. Sold out means about thirty hard plastic chairs filled by wee woman with blue rinse and bookish leanings. A stocky wee guy with a bit of the blue rinse about him was setting up the microphone, practicing saying one-two, one-two. I didn’t want to tell him that it gets harder as you get older because I was sure he’d learned that himself. I just let him get on with it.

Today I learned that wee guy was called Donny O’Rourke and he’s the dedicated reading champion of West Dunbartonshire libraries or something like that. It sounds a bit like Batman, but with books, instead of Robins. He was master of ceremonies and did the introductions for an old pal of his – Des Dillon. I didn’t know a lot about Des Dillon. I can remember Ann Marie at a film and television course making a face which meant he’s not really one of us, because he’d left early, written a play called Singin I’m No a Billy He’s a Tim.  Ann Marie probably won’t remember me either. And if she does I’m sure she’ll make the same scrunched up face. I left the course early too, never to amount to much. True, of course. But there you go. The next time I heard of Des Dillon was when I bumped into Sharpie. He told me he’d been to a play. Obviously, if you come from Dalmiur that’s not the sort of thing you admit to. You can say things like I stuck the heid on the wife, but even though it was her fault, it was a total accident. People will nod their head in recognition. Or the dog fell out the windae, but it wasnae my fault. It wasnae my turn to take him out. There’s three storeys in that one story, but going to the theatre. Fuck off. But then Sharpie explained he went with Jackie and it was her idea. That makes it kinda OK. Then Sharpie explained it was funny. One guy  jaked up wakes up in the cells and turns round and the guy sharing his cell is a Billy boy. He’s a Tim, a Taig, a potato muncher and the Sons of William and he go to it and gie it laldy. I’ve never seen it, but that’s my kinda play.

Des is a wee guy, brought up Coatbridge and the first thing he told us was he was proud of his Da, because he was 72 and went to the gym, so he could scrap, and he’d battered the guy upstairs from him that was 53. Then he told us he was here to read poetry. That’s hard for a guy to say. Especially, a working-class guy.  He played it down by telling his audience about how he’d posted some of it on Facebook and forced his fourth wife to read it. Yeh, fourth wife. We got that old story about when you’re first married and you have sex and you put a pea in the jar on the mantelpiece… and later in life when your libido fails and you take a pea out there’ll be always be something left in the jar. Multiply that by four and that’s a lot of jars. That’s a lot of mantle pieces. And Des was good at that. Telling that’s where story telling in Coatbridge begun. Elbow on the mantelpiece telling the story of who did what to whom – and that wan had a shotgun. And then there’s the drink. Des is AA, been non-toxic for 30 years. I guess he was too busy getting married. But we know about that. Then there’s the language of deference. How we are talked down to because we don’t speak Received Pronunciation. Discriminated against. Des said he turned down a contract with the BBC, a ten-part adaptation of one of his books that would have netted him upwards of £100 000 because of the BBC’s coverage of the Independence Referendum. Des is part of the 45%. Vocal in the ways that those above us with power fuck up the working class. I know all that. But it was good to hear it verbalised. Des is one of us.

Poetry wise, Des was a bit nervous. He rattled through his poems. One about Lena Zavaroni, Mamma He’s Making Eye’s at Me, and how full of the wine he sang outside his sweetheart’s house of his true love. There was a sonnet and he talked about the diamond shape of verse and how restrictions can make the poem, but I can’t remember what it was about. Coffee and tables were set up, but I nipped away. I’m not sure about poetry, but I am sure I like Des Dillon. One of us that has given voice to the violence done to our language and the poor by the gatekeepers of society. Who benefits? That’s the question Des leaves his audience with. Post your answer in poetry and give voice to working-class culture. Let’s give insurrection voice and  bring the tanks back to George Square.