If you are alive and aware in the year 2015, you know that one of the most common complaints articulated is how technology has surpassed all other avenues of entertainment for “today’s youth.” Likely every parent, teacher, mentor, writer has made note of this cultural evolution (devolution?), and while most would claim no antipathy for technology itself (many quite happily using it to their own advantage), there is a general sense that proper balance between the tugging mediums has yet to be found.
Which prompts the question: Is there a way for kids to learn and engage with technology without losing the glorious and countless benefits of reading actual books? As any book-reading/loving adult who concurrently loves the Internet can attest: YES! But first you’ve got to inspire a love of books and reading, and that’s not easily done in the cacophony of ever-more-seductive screens.
Mark Barry, a Nottingham UK native who also happens to be an incredible writer and novelist (two of his books,Carla and The Night Porter, are top faves of mine!), is the co-founder of a brilliant organization called, quite appropriately, Brilliant Books (you can read all about it HERE). This organization’s sole mission is to create access to, and interest in, books… books that children are then inspired to read. Books that are put into the hands of children who might not otherwise have them. But Mark and his partner, Phil Pidluznyj, don’t just leave it there:
Essentially, Brilliant Books go into schools with successful people in tow; people who credit their success in careers, etc. because they read fiction as children and continue to read.
In two hours, they give an inspirational talk, then help us work with up to twenty children, in small groups, mostly reluctant readers, each writing a short story. Finally, after eight weeks, the stories are collected in an anthology which is presented to the kids in front of their peers, so they essentially become published authors at between 10 and 14.
Pretty amazing idea, isn’t it?
Obviously, there is a need for this sort of activity in millions of schools around the world, and if you’re interested in organizing just such a group in your area, much info and inspiration can be drawn from reading whatBrilliant Booksis doing.
Another way you can help is from afar: by purchasing Access All Areas, a sweet little short story anthology Mark put together as a fundraising gift.
Gathering many of his favorite authors (including, humbly, yours truly!), he gave the prompt to “focus on the magic of books and reading,” inviting writers to share stories about what inspired them as readers, what sparked their passion for words; what contributed to their love affair with books. The proceeds of this anthology, now on sale in both e-book and paperback at Amazon, will go directly toward much-needed items for Brilliant Books.
But the biggest call-to-action here is BUY THE BOOK!
Because this one’s not about raising the profile of any specific author, or participating in a push to get Amazon rankings up, or a contest won. It’s about spending a few dollars on a lovely collection of stories, all written for the purpose of getting — and keeping — kids interested in reading. As Mark always says: “A society that doesn’t read is a poorer one than one that does.”
Writing is a an enigmatic art form, an alchemy of skill and talent that renders simple words into compelling prose, plot lines that take your breath away; jump-off-the-page dialogue, and characters we’d follow around any corner or shy from in the dark. Books are, quite simply, magic, and despite our cultural predilection to analyze the bejeezus out of anything and everything related to them — self vs. traditional, print vs. ebook; free vs. sensible prices; men vs. women; Amazon vs. everybody — when it really comes down to what we all want, it’s simple: GOOD BOOKS. And good books are, unarguably, written by GOOD WRITERS.
Of course, what makes a book “good” is clearly subjective (just set E.L. James fans on readers of Donna Tartt), but from this reader’s perspective, I don’t give a hoot about the race, creed, color, gender, genre, price point, publishing platform, or social media status of an author; all I want is the alchemy, the magic… the good book. Which is why I want to introduce you to a favorite new author of mine, a fellow who’s writing exactly those books: Mark Barry.
Certainly he’s not new, but I’ve just come upon his work in the last year. Writing fiction that stands out with its wit and originality, Barry, who’s based in Nottingham and Southwell in the UK, has built an impressive library of novels and short stories published through his company,Green Wizard Publishing, stories steeped in his cultural vernacular and sensibilities, biting and wickedly funny. Introduced by a fellow author who felt my own literary sensibilities aligned, I picked up my first of his books,Carla, to be pulled into an alternately tender and shocking story of love between a mentally-ill man and an innocent barmaid, swinging wildly from out-loud laughter to the gut-punch of pain, violence, and heartbreak. Rare to find such humor in so dark a tale… I was hooked.
Next came The Night Porter. A mad piece of fiction that employs Barry’s signature wit and irreverence, his attention to detail is so fine-tuned you’ll feel as though you know that part of England by the time you’re done. The narrative (begging to be made into a Wes Anderson film) covers the angst and antics of a rowdy group of writers gathered for an Academy Award-type event for indie books. With footnotes so rich as to be essential, Barry’s titular night porter finds his regimented life shaken to the core by the eclectic and confounding band of characters who demand his time, allegiance, and attention.
The most recent of Barry’s books I’ve read isOnce Upon a Time in the City of Criminals, a bracing urban story that shares some of the aching tenderness of Carla, but goes deeper into the dark, following the trajectory of a tough, smalltime hoodlum who is hired to protect a young escort. With its sharp, brittle edges, its unvarnished glimpse into a violent subculture, it may be a rough read for some, but it’s replete with Barry’s crackling wit and signature mix of humor and pathos, and is, at its heart, a love story.
So now, with three books under my belt, and some correspondence articulating my kudos for his work, it seemed time for some one-on-one with the man himself, an invitation he so graciously accepted:
So, Mark, what’s the most original, unique, hardcore thing about you as a writer?
Forty years ago, in the era I most venerate, I would have been quite common as a writer, with my admiration for crime books, pulp, gangster fiction, and such. But now, in the indie, PHP (Post Harry Potter) era, I am definitely unique and one-off, certainly in indie, which can be extremely conservative, concentrating on the commercial and the traditional.
I try new things. Three of my books do not use dialogue tags or speech marks. Ultra Violence, my football novel, is written in second person omniscient. The Night Porter makes use of footnotes. In Carla, the protagonist is a probationer from a mental asylum. No one else is doing this, to my knowledge, and sometimes it pisses people off. I’ve lost readers and, as a tactic, it doesn’t make for massive sales…but it does make for an interesting read!
Nothing disappoints me more than a book that’s identical to the last book I read and the one before that, which is an all-too-common experience for readers. Yes, there are people who like the familiar, but for me that’s beginning to wear thin. No two books of mine are the same.
What compelled you to write Carla, specifically? A real person? A real experience?
After walking into a pub one night, spotting this simply stunning young girl, and realising immediately that I was utterly (and quite rightly) invisible to her, it struck me that I had become old; that part of my life was all over. I remember feeling incredibly saddened by that, and the idea to write a novel about it followed shortly behind: I wanted to write about a mixed-age love affair. I thought about potential plots, came up with one, rejected another. For me, it wasn’t enough to have an everyday chap (like my very good self) as the older male – it simply wasn’t interesting enough and it had been done before.
I did have the experience of having been a psychologist back in the day, and, twenty years ago, I taught criminal psychology. That whole subject fascinates me, and so I had the idea of making the older male a mental patient – potentially (but not necessarily) dangerous – which, bearing in mind that Carla is written from his point of view, is interesting. Then it struck me: what if the girl (Carla) was, in fact, attracted to him and he wasn’t invisible at all?
It all came together from there, a story inspired by a very beautiful, but completely unattainable barmaid (and I never did find out her name, btw!).
The footnotes in The Night Porter, as mentioned above, are almost a character onto themselves. What inspired the decision to use that device, particularly in a novel?
One of my favourite authors is your countryman, David Foster Wallace, who unfortunately – and tragically – passed away late last decade. He was a prodigious user of footnotes which, for a fiction writer, is certainly an innovation. It’s usually in the domain of academia and non-fiction; you don’t often see them in fiction. DFW used footnotes for digressions, explanations, histories, lists, stories-within-stories, and internal monologues, thus keeping the body of the narrative clean, sharp and linear.
I was desperate to try this technique out and so, when the idea for The Night Porter came to me, it seemed the ideal opportunity. I also use footnotes in a wry way. Many indie authors will find their novels listed in one of the footnotes, particularly those who appeared on my interview blog, The Wizard’s Cauldron, and there are three pages of footnotes listing imaginary books from imaginary authors. I loved writing those.
TNP is a satire of publishing and indie at heart, and these footnotes are an ironic joke. Not entirely popular – and they are not available on the e-version (but the paperback is such a beautiful book, why bother with the e-version!). I would do it again and I have not ruled out a return to footnotes in subsequent books.
Violence and crime play a starring role in your work, certainly in your most recent novel, Once Upon a Time in the City of Criminals, yet you somehow always find the heart and humor within the darkness. Talk a bit about that signature mix.
In Criminals, I was keen to crack jokes and sprinkle the book with black humour. My friend,Georgia Rose, herself a mean writer, says that with Criminals, one minute she found herself laughing, the next, crying.
That’s pretty much what I aim for! I started out as a comedy writer (particularly with sketches about relationships) and my first audiences were predominantly female. And yes, while I enjoy a good punch-up in my fiction, I enjoy cracking jokes and, in particular, exploring the complex interactions between men and women, a lot lot more.
Frankly, I’ve been stunned by the ferocity of the violence in certain books — needed a shower after some, to be honest. I believe you have to throw something light into the mix to make it palatable.
If you could change one thing about the independent publishing world, what would it be?
One thing? Ummm. Nope – can’t do it! So let’s get radical: I’d limit the amount of books people can publish on Amazon in one calendar year. I’d completely ban novellas of less than 30,000 words, introduce some form of selection, and I would start a crowdfund to pay for five freelance sales reps to approach bookshops to persuade them to carry Independent paperbacks.
Bookshops: That’s the old/new frontier. The day I get my books in bookshops will be the day I’ve succeeded — it is simply too difficult now for me to continue using the Blog 101-recommended methods of Twitter, Facebook, and Book Bloggers, etc. The market is drenched with books, the review system is extremely dodgy, and everyone, talented or not, is fulfilling their I-Can-Write-Better-Than-That ideations. And fair play to them, but, in a lot of cases, they discover they cannot, yet still publish anyway.
In any case, evidence suggests readers are returning to the shops and that’s where writers need to be.
Lastly, you’re involved in a great literary organization, Brilliant Books; tell us a bit about that.
BB is something my friend, Phil Pidluznyj, and I started a year and a half ago. Funded by the British Big Lottery Fund, we take role models into schools – success stories from industry and commerce, sports and the arts – and get them to address and enthuse reluctant readers (of which there are many). Then, over eight weeks, we encourage the kids to write short stories and we publish the outcomes in an anthology that they keep forever. It’s been a roaring success so far – we even had the British Shadow Chancellor acting as a host. If you’d like to read a bit more about it, I’ve written a post about the group at Ali Levett’sA Woman’s Wisdom book blog.
So, there you have it: a snapshot of the prolific Mr. Barry: a good (excellent) author writing good (excellent) books. Visit his page, enjoy his work, and, frankly, don’t just take my word for it:
In the just-releasedLA Punk Rocker, an anthology produced by indie firecracker,Brenda Perlin, Barry contributed a short story on Billy Idol. With the book out only one day, the man himself Tweeted a “review” of Barry’s story:
Testimonials don’t get much better than that!
Photos by permission of Mark Barry. Tweet image by permission of Brenda Perlin.
It’s not every day you have a deliciously brilliant author/indie publisher from the UK spend a little word count on your behalf, so when it happens, how remiss would you be if you didn’t share those precious words with your always interested audience?
Please take a moment to enjoy the very funny, astute, and really touching write-up Mr. Mark Barry wrote up about the state of fiction in general, and my fiction specifically.
And when you click over to read the full post, I urge you to take some time to click on Barry’s books posted on his site. The three I’ve read—Carla, The Night Porter, and Once Upon A Time In the City of Criminals—were each incredibly original stories, with fierce wit, enough edge to slice a finger, and utterly intriguing characters and plot lines. Which makes his kudos for my work all the more meaningful.
Thank you, sir; you are a reminder of what a wonderful circle of wagons the indie community can be!
• • • • • • • •
Lorraine Devon Wilke Reviewed!
by Mark Barry
Contemporary Fiction is the unwanted, bastard stepchild of Independent fiction.
Harsh? No. True. Don’t believe me? Come and join me at the shelter where, just outside the soup kitchen, you can find ten, fifteen, twenty Contemporary Fiction writers huddled around the brazier, polystyrene mug of powdered Minestrone warming fingerless mitts and coating trembling, arid lips.
Contemps just can’t catch a break.We starve for our art.
I’ll go further.
To sell in Indie, you need to be writing genre fiction.
Famous Nottingham author Nicola Valentine held court on this in a debate at the Nottingham Writer’s Studio a short while ago and many, many blogs and analysts on the scene allude to the eminence, the supremacy of genre. Here’s the top four (outside non-fiction and self help).
Vampire – preferably the stuff that sparkles. Erotica – atm, LGBT erotica in particular. Young Adult – pick something unreal and it’s likely to be written about: Wizards, Zombies and Gargoyles have been popular recently and of course, Romance/chicklit – say no more.
(The really clever authors who are sitting on biblical piles of paper moolah the size of the Tower of Babel are those who write dirty vampire romances for teenagers. They’re rolling cigars made of crisp twenties and laughing all the way to the bank).
Unreal. Invented. Other. Escapist.
In fact, genre fiction= escapist. The more fantastic, the more unreal and out there, the more it is likely to sell.
Contemporary fiction writers can usually be found hunting for food in skips outside conferences full of genre authors, which is a shame as generally contemporary fiction authors, as writers, knock genre writers into a cocked hat. These boys and girls can write.
And Lorraine Devon Wilke, who lives just up the road from Brenda Perlin, the “Faction” writer I featured last week, is a damned fine contemporary writer indeed.
At the time he was in the midst of reading my short story, “She Tumbled Down,” and promised to get to my novel, After The Sucker Punch, as soon as he was able. Which was delightfully soon, considering how busy this guy is. I say “delightfully” because Mark did that thing every writer loves when someone’s reading their book: he sent emails during and throughout his read, exclaiming over bits he liked, sharing thoughts on various characters and plot twists, assuring me that, when he was done, he would write a proper review. He and I did share some thoughts about the review conundrum (bracingly discussed in OK, Let’s Discuss This Whole Book Review Thing… Please), and I made him swear on a stack of indie novels that whatever he wrote, it would be his authentic opinion, good, bad, or in-between (I made the pact in return, given his status as a fellow author whose books I’ll read).
Of course, this sort of promise is always a dicey thing, something every reader of indie novels (and even some traditional novels) knows. You pick up the book of someone you’ve met in a writer’s group, a book club, online, or at a convention, and you do so with a certain gnawing fear that you’ll discover, sentences into the thing, that writing a review is either going to be a painful process or something you’ll eschew all together for the sake of the friendship. So when you make that pact with someone directly, well… there’s no turning back, is there?
So when I got the news today that Mark’s review had posted, I approached it with bracing fortitude, hoping for the best but, mostly, wanting Mark to have felt comfortable enough to stay true to his word, no matter how the reading experience transpired. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled, pleased, delighted, honored, and really touched by what he had to say.
I’m leaving the whole review here, because I loved the depth with which he analyzed the narrative and shared his perspective. However, I have left the links to his sites above and below, so you can check them from time-to-time for his ongoing reviews and updates about his own work.
Thank you, Mark Barry, for being such an unabashed supporter of the literary arts… and those of us who love painting our creative pictures with them!
After The Sucker Punch: A Review
After The Sucker Punch (ATSP) is a fantastic novel.
I’m writing this because I know most of my readers are always on the lookout for a good book – and ATSP is a very, very good book.
I met the novel’s author, Lorraine Devon Wilke, two weeks ago through a lovely friend of mine, Orange County’s Brenda Perlin. A resident of LA, Lorraine came around the interview Cauldron to widen her exposure to a UK audience.
Out of respect, Lorraine made a gift to me of both her novel and short story “She Tumbled Down” and while I loved the short story, the novel is something else entirely.
An Indie novel, it is definitely in the top ten of the books (Trad or Indie), I have read (which is a fair number) since I started Green Wizard.
After reading twelve chapters on Kindle, I immediately logged on to Amazon and like some literary Victor Kiam, I bought the paperback.
I am glad I did. It is a magnificent paperback indeed.
I teach the odd hour of Creative Writing and Self Publishing, and last night, I took the paperback of ATSP to our latest group to demonstrate how to structure dialogue.
The group I teach are professionals, experienced diarists, bloggers, report writers who wish to learn about e-publishing and between them, they read 100-200 books a year.
Not one of them could tell that this was a self-published book.
Printed by Createspace and professionally edited, it is a beautiful piece of work to hold in your hand. ATSP would not be out of place in Waterstones (and, without getting political, it makes a total nonsense of the idea that self-published work is somehow inferior. Saying so would be an insult to this novel and its creative team).
ATSP is a family saga. Tessa, a dreamy, thirty-something, sometime artist/writer/drifter with aspirations to something better than her current humdrum life, attends the funeral of her father, Leo.
After the Wake, and while staying at her mother’s house, she reads one of his many journals.
What Leo wrote is so shocking, it changes Tessa’s life and the lives of everyone in her extended family.
Four factors mark Lorraine’s brilliant debut as something special.
Firstly, her characters. Each so individual, so distinctive and so well defined, you can tell who is talking without the character being named. That’s no mean feat. Secondly, the dialogue is crisp, sassy and real, patter so realistic, you can hear it taking place. Thirdly, the way Lorraine links and merges the historical comments Tessa reads in the journal into the real time narrative is shrewd and repays rereading.
Then, finally, there is Tessa herself, the novel’s protagonist. You may not like her – two days after completing the novel, I am completely ambivalent about her * – but she is real and you can follow her train of reasoning at all times.
None of her behaviour is extranormal and you can imagine doing the same things she does (and that’s not a necessarily recommendation).
You watch her progress and change. You understand her one minute, then you can’t comprehend what she’s up to the next. Then immediately after, you want to reach into the pages of the book and wag your finger at her. You live her deliberations and you can feel her confusion on your fingertips as you turn the page.
At no time does Tessa lapse into stereotype. She constantly surprises you and – whether you like her or not, you cannot stop following her trials and tribulations for a second.
The supporting cast is excellent. Her family, particularly the harassed Micheala, and the alcoholic brother, Ronnie, are similarly absorbing. Tessa’s long suffering boyfriend, the corporate sportswear schill David, struggles manfully to accommodate Tessa’s whys and wherefores before being completely overwhelmed by them in some of the novel’s saddest scenes.
Her relationship with best friends Katie and Ruby would satisfy any fan of chicklit, (and I quite fancied the hapless, heartbroken Ruby, in a Sir Lancelot kind of way), but it is Aunt Joanne who steals the show.
The Catholic Nun-cum-Therapist helps Tessa deal with the aftermath of the revelations unleashed by Leo’s journal and becomes by far the strongest foil for her increasingly self-destructive angst.
You long for her to reappear in the narrative – perhaps because she is the only person strong enough – and brave enough – to confront Tessa, whose self-absorption is relentless.
Like the best contemporary fiction, nothing extraordinary happens.
People talk on the telephone (which happens a lot in this novel). Conversations take place in cars, in coffee bars, around the water cooler, on sofas, in the still life of the marital bed, the post-coital cigarette smoke still swirling between the blades of the fan rotating overhead.
There is virtually no action – just like real life.
The sheer joy of the ATSP is its very ordinariness. These are ordinary people going about their business, all of them affected to one degree or another by the portentous, unhinged rantings of Leo Curzio.
The richness of the everyday needs no explosions, because the revelations are the explosions.
A Christmas Conclusion
If you like contemporary work, I strongly recommend After The Sucker Punch.
Forget the e-book for once: Treat yourself to an early Christmas present and buy the paperback for seven quid or so. It is lustrous, with its cream pages, one and a half line spacing and comforting, airport-shelf heft.
It is a book which is written for paperback and meant to be read in bed; absorbed, over time, savoured by lamplight.
In the always adventurous world of indie publishing, the assignment to unearth and implement as many new and innovative ways to market and promote your books is ever at the forefront of your thoughts:
You maintain a small library in the backseat of your car in case you run into someone to whom you’d like to gift a copy; you seek out indie bookstores and eclectic gift shops that might prop up one or two at the cash register or on a “local authors” bookshelf; you even chat up friends in certain writing circles hoping for fair ways to exchange creative services. It’s a tap-dance like no other and you soon discover you must not only believe in your book, but must equally enjoy the art (challenge?) of marketing and promotion if you want to keep your literary baby’s head above water until it goes viral… or at least gets in a good swim!
Then, every once in a while, a serendipitous connection leads to an unexpected opportunity. Sometimes someone introduces you to someone else who happens to be a person with their own foothold in the indie book world, and who also happens to be an enthusiastic and prolific book blogger excited to write about and promote the work of authors he likes. In my version of that scenario, the introducer would be the unflagging and always generous Brenda Perlin, e-troducing me to the very creative UK author/blogger, Mark Barry, who goes by the name Wiz Green and has a blog, The Wizard’s Cauldron, focused on books, writers, and all things literary.
The Wizard’s Cauldron is described in its headline as a Dedicated Author Interview Blog from Green Wizard Publishing of Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Publishers of the fiction of Mark Barry.
In it, you’ll find concise, witty, well-written reviews, features on books and authors, promos on Mark Barry’s prodigious library of books, and, as mentioned, interviews with authors. After meeting Wiz via Brenda, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in one of those interview. Given that I am always happy to chatter about my books, and the fact that Wiz asked a lot of great questions, it was fun to converse across the pond about my creative journey, indie publishing in general, my books in particular; even who I’d invite to my favorite dinner and what would be on the menu (no hints… go read!).
As an author, it’s incredibly gratifying when someone discovers your work and gets excited about it. When that someone is an author himself, knows well the journey we all take, and makes it his business to shout-out about writers and books he likes, that gratitude is multiplied.
California’s Lorraine Devon Wilke has packed an awful lot into her life and she shows no signs of stopping
The third-eldest sibling of eleven, she packed her bags and hit the road as a travelling rock singer in the big-haired eighties, carrying her camera with her, before settling down to marriage, motherhood and a life of popular bloggery, including her current stint working for the Huffington Post.
Her list of past achievements and current work is quite staggering – and she’s a delightful person too!
Lorraine is now a novelist writing (in Indie terms), that quiet, shy and vulnerable industry step-child Literary Fiction.
The genre the 101 blogs tell you to avoid like the plague and yet, it’s the one area where a reader can find really, really decent writing if you look for it. And Lorraine is a really, really decent writer.
I was introduced to her by Brenda Perlin and received both her short story and novel. The former is a cracking read, but the latter – I am twelve chapters in and I am engrossed is possibly a great book. I had to buy it in paperback.
It’s a sweeping, sassy, cynical, redeeming, tricky “Terms of Endearment” type family saga – remember those? – with dialogue so acute you can experience it, a real sense of place, and characters you can see and hear as if they were next to you, the novel deserves a wider audience.
I picked up the Wizphone and interrupted Lorraine while she tapped out her latest blog on a sunkissed veranda overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Here’s what she had to say: