Monday, December 1, 2008


'England and Ireland are small islands on the farthest western extremity of the world,' said another monk. 'They are so close together that they can scarely be distinguished; birds flying at a great height may land on one rather than the other.'

aaaaa--Patrick O'Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute

So indeed it appears from a distance, in the same way that people from New York often assume that because you live in Los Angeles, you might know their cousin who lives in San Francisco. From California, it's easy to assume everyone in the UK drops through London on at least a weekly basis, and that all MNW writers bump into one another frequently and toddle off together for a pint. Not so; and it's probably easier to get from LA to San Francisco than from, to take a wholly random example, Sheffield to London. So I count myself lucky to have met up with so many Macmillanites on my recent trip.

I arrived at Heathrow quite early Wednesday morning, and passed through immigration and customs in unusually short order, as United informed me on arrival that they had lost my bag. Well, they hadn't exactly lost it; they knew precisely where it was. But where it was wasn't Heathrow. So, not needing to wait for my luggage, I jumped on the tube and rattled off to Russell Square, where my hotel informed me at 9 am that despite a request for early check-in on my reservation, the best they could manage was 1 pm. Could I come back then?

Had I any choice? But one of the finer things about London is there's always something to do; and a poster on a passing bus told me there was a major Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain. Screaming Popes in the midmorning after an overnight flight? That'll keep you awake.

Now, I don't claim to like Bacon; his paintings aren't exactly likeable. His work is fascinating and compelling, but it's far more disturbing than other dark artists such as Bosch or Giger. There's something raw and slightly mad in his brushstrokes (and frottage, and scrapings) which gives the paint on the canvas an internal motion. The motion is most pronounced in his rendering of faces. Have you seen Adrian Lyne's movie Jacob's Ladder? In the darker, most horrific scenes, the denizens of the hospital corridors and subways are shown with flickering, wobbling, distorted heads. I don't think there's any doubt the production designer pulled his inspiration from Bacon.

It was an outstanding (and massive) exhibit, and I'm glad I had the chance to go...but by the last room I confess I felt a bit seasick and was overly aware that my consciousness resided in a shambling pile of meat. A nice start to any trip.

On Thursday I gave the final presentation--about three months later than expected--on the unfortunate project that has been eating my life (and stalling my novel) for the better part of this year. I arose the next morning, Friday, feeling as if several tons had been lifted off me. Net result: life was better, but I still felt flattened, like a cartoon character who has been accordioned by a falling safe.

I had a good meeting with Will, of which I'll say more another time, and then went off to meet Alis Hawkins for coffee. We compared notes about the travails of the writing life, and she impressed me no end with the fact she'd just cut more words from her work-in-progress than most people manage to write in a year. She's quite comfortable to be around, but the fact that she can take that many manuscript pages out into the back garden, shoot them, and bury them under the rosebed bespeaks a hidden ruthlessness (at least with her writing). I'm impressed.

Then, of course, off to the wilds of Islington for the MNW gathering Len Tyler had organized. I arrived a quarter-hour late, having misjudged the mileage (kilometerage?), and everyone had already assembled: Will Atkins, Dave Budd, Matt Curran, Frances Garood, Eliza Graham, David Headley,Tim Stretton, Aliya Whiteley, and even Brian McGilloway, who had to cross the wild Irish Sea to attend. And, despite the fact we were on small islands on the farthest western extremity of the world, many of these folks had never met one another.

One of John Updike's poems begins:

Though authors are a dreadful clan
To be avoided if one can...*

*(Full poem available on request. )

and I must say many writers I've met are part of a prickly and maladjusted tribe. But the MNW crew are some of the most easy-going, approachable folks I've ever come across. Since we in some sense already know each other through our books and blogs and e-mail, as Tim Stretton notes, it's much "like resuming a conversation broken off the same day."

Len and Ann really know how to lay on a dinner party, including great food, a never-ending stream of libations in the sequence Our Creator intended (champagne before, choice of wine at dinner, and then port, whiskey or brandy after)...and a dining table that seats twelve. The aplomb with which they managed all this was explained when we discovered they'd been professional overseas diplomats. Since the skills at entertaining around our house run about as far as slicing cheese, unboxing crackers, and, to liven things up, spilling red wine on our guests, I was quite impressed, and I'm grateful to our hosts for a memorable evening.

Tim's post contains a picture of the gang around the table, in sort of a Last-Supper arrangement with Len as You-Know-Who. (The person hiding behind David Headley on the left is Eliza Graham, International Woman of Mystery.)

The camaraderie of the MNW crowd is striking. Faye Booth long ago began referring to us as 'imprintmates,' by analogy with the 'labelmates' of indie music companies like 4AD. I gather that a sense of belonging to an imprint largely vanished in the days of Maxwell Perkins, yet that feeling seems to be thriving amongst this bunch.

The only disappointment of the evening is that it was far, far too short to accomodate all the conversations I'd like to have had (especially with Eliza and Brian, whom for logistical reasons I never really managed to monopolize). But, then, who wants a twelve-hour dinner party?

I walked with Tim, Aliya, Matt, and Dave as far as the Angel tube stop. I gather Aliya thereafter missed a train somewhere. Since I was on foot I didn't miss any trains, but I did confidently round the corner and head south without paying much attention to the fact that I was at a V-junction, and that Rosebery Avenue heads off southwest, but that Goswell Road heads distinctly southeast, and I headed off down Goswell Road with a spring in my eye and a sparkle in my step or some combination thereof until my internal compass made me realize that my present trajectory would eventually, after a bit of a swim, put me in either Calais or Dunkirk rather than Bloomsbury. So I altered course due west, or as due west as you can manage (i.e. not very) in that part of the city, which took me back through some surprisingly lively areas of town. Initially it appeared that many people were electing to dine al fresco despite the plummeting temperature, but I eventually realized these were smokers banished to outdoor tables.

Most impressive, though, was the startling number of young women in very short skirts, apparently unaware that summer had long since fled and that Santa was damn near on his way. A hardy race, the English.


Tim Stretton said...

David, as you say, much too short an evening. You'll have to sign on to some more international projects: I hear they are making great strides in reusing rats' brains these days.

Alis said...

Hmmm, burying manuscripts beneath the rosebushes... I like the thought. First we'd have to have some though. Rosebushes that is, MS I can do in quantity...
You're right about my ruthlessness, I am ruthless with my writing but I think it's the only area of life in which I am ruthless. Or maybe my friends out there would like to tell another story...?!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Sure, but that's the problem--my expertise will probably be replaced soon by a small collection of rodent brains.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Well, it need not be rosebushes, I suppose. But something thorny discourages the literary police from digging around for MS corpses...

Ellie said...

Hey, I like the idea of being an international woman of mystery!

I was sorry not to talk to you, too, David. Next time--for definite. You're over in January, aren't you?

(not Ellie)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Eliza--

Alas, I probably won't be there in January. But I'll be there sometime in the near future...

(And I think having you be 'Ellie' is kind of sweet, though 'Eliza' definitely has more mojo as the name of an author.)

Creative A said...

"Net result: life was better, but I still felt flattened, like a cartoon character who has been accordioned by a falling safe."

I'm going to quote you on that.

It sounds like you had a great time with the group - I didn't know publishers brought their writers together, or is that just Macmillan? - and as for girls in short skirts, over here it's girls in shorts and poufy jackets. Like they can't make up their mind. Oh well.


David Isaak said...

Hey, Creative--

No, our publisher didn't put this on--one of the writers* organized it. But the Macmillan New Writing gang has an unusual degree of camaraderie, and a lack of the ego issues that usually plague gatherings of writers. And we all have the same editor, Will Atkins, who is not only our advocate, but part of the crew. Macmillan is a huge publisher, but this particular imprint is a sort of, well, club...and one in which I'm happy to claim membership.

And, yeah--what is up with jackets and bare legs? I mean, speaking from a male perspective, it looks great. But is it possible to stay warm with your legs dangling out like that? Or is that the implied point: I'm so hot the snow melts right off my thighs? Or are they going for a twin-pillars-ofice effect? In either case, I'm both impressed and baffled, poufy jackets or not.

*(That would be L.C. Tyler, author of the wonderful "The Herring-Seller's Apprentice," a comedic detective novel that features the world's most awful literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle. I'd recommend the novel to anyone, but it's especially marvelous for writers who have dealt with literary agents--either as clients or as hopeful clients!)