I’ve moved to Berlin and now live in an apartment with jungle animals painted on the front, near a park with a fairground. I’m back in London this weekend though, for cocktails and Soho stories at London’s most intimate literary event, The Word Factory #11 at The Society Club.
Hotels are the best cure for writer’s block. Better than temper tantrums or sleep. From the skanky motel near my former flat in LA to the marble-floored St Regis in Beijing, I’ve never slept in a hotel that wasn’t a story-machine. It’s the run-away atmosphere, the lack of personal possessions. A stage set of a bedroom, ready for fiction.
I’m in a Seattle hotel room right now, here to read The Pink Hotel at University Book Store on Tuesday night. I can see skyscrapers and early morning blue/grey sky outside the window, hear doors slamming around the ubiquitously trippy, geometric patterned corridor carpet outside my door. I’d like to stay here for longer than a few nights. I’d be like Eloise at The Plaza, but highly caffeinated and writing.
Unable to sleep at three am Seattle-time last night, my mind moved from Eloise’s Plaza to other fictional hotels, other writers who have shared my fascination for anonymous bedrooms and free time.
My first thought, after Eloise, was The Edmont Hotel in Catcher in the Rye: Holden Caulfield watching a guy trying on corsets and stockings in a nearby window, appalled but intrigued by the time-out offered by a hotel. Then I thought of the dreamy and watchful self-imposed exile in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. The Pensione Bertolini in A Room with a View? Where all different classes are thrown together into the crazy intimacy of shared living. And The Dolphin Hotel in Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, the backdrop and epicenter of a distorted erotic memory.
There must be thousands. The plush hotels of escapist fantasies with glossy covers, the motels of crime novels and horror with their quilt covers and pale water color prints on the wall. The Overlook Hotel, of course, in The Shining, where the freedom becomes a curse. Oddly enough I fell asleep thinking about The Overlook last night, deciding that the one thing I won’t do in my quest to live in a hotel one day, is become a caretaker.
Do come say hi on Tuesday, if you’re in Seattle:
The Pink Hotel (PICADOR)
U District store: 4326 University Way NE. Seattle, WA 98105
Reading & Book Signing
A belated thank you to everyone who came to the launch of The Art of Leaving last week, held at The Society Club on Silver Place: an excellent venue full of Soho literature, first editions, vintage erotica and vodka.
When I first started writing The Art of Leaving, skulking around Soho mapping Eva’s life, the corner of Silver Place was a clothes shop. I bought a couple of moth-eaten hats and housed my character in a semi-imaginary flat looking out on a semi-fictional Silver Place. “As Soho alleys go, Silver Place was sedate. It was only a few roads down from Walker’s Court, where the sex cinemas were packed together and girls in leather skirts stood on either end haggling over the price of blow jobs…” Eva has been living in the alley ever since. She would approve of the space at the end of her road transforming into a bookshop/gallery/cocktail bar.
The party got a good “review” in Londoner’s Diary, and the book’s had some nice reviews so far too:
“A stunningly accurate and chilling account of the acquiring of emotional wisdom, with vividly drawn characters,” Kate Saunders, The Times
“Anna Stothard’s third novel cements her her place as one of Britain’s best young authors… Stothard’s lush, dreamy prose is given full rein …” Kaite Welsh, The Literary Review
“Stothard gets her talons into you…read it for its beguiling heroine and sparky prose.” Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
“I would recommend it to anyone who likes being told a very good story,” New Books Magazine
“The great strength of this book is the lovely London atmosphere; Regents Park, Fitzrovia, the winding streets of Soho, all of which Anna describes so well.” Wendy Holden, The Daily Mail
“A witty, beguiling and increasingly poignant novel about the scars – physical and psychological – that make us who we are.” Stephanie Cross, The Lady
I’ve always loved leaving cities. As a kid I remember playing hide and seek amongst shipping boxes, waiting to say goodbye to a stray London cat we used to feed. Then later, collecting ants in jam jars under Washington sunshine as we packed to move back. Since my last escape from Los Angeles to London a few years ago, though, I seem to have accumulated a problematic amount of stuff.
What do other writers do with previous drafts of their manuscripts? I’d love to know. Tearing them up makes me think of infanticide. But as I fell asleep last night surrounded by paper I imagined myself, aged fifty, encircled by every incarnation of my earlier novels. Dying, eventually, when a pile of paths-my-characters-didn’t-take falls on me while I’m sleeping.
Do people keep their old notebooks? I have a box full of them from the last three years. They are full of frantic scrawls, the excess energy of yesterday’s preoccupations. Mostly, I have remarkably little idea what I was going on about. In faded pencil one pages says: “FROZEN DOLLS!!! Styled abandon. Flying corpses. An albino puffin with sad eyes.”
“Flying corpses” is underlined twice. I have no idea why.
But I’m definately keeping the notebook.
Yesterday’s packing ended when I opened a drawer full of string, usb sticks, matchboxes, paperclips and foreign currency mixed in with not only my own photographs, but washed-out snapshots from other people’s lives, bought from flea markets and junk shops. Honestly. Why didn’t anyone stop me before now?
Leaving makes you realise that your identity has settled, furtively, while you weren’t looking. Like saying goodbye to a person, gearing up to leave a city demands a full scale re-write. That is, I suppose, half the point of escape.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Ted Hughes’s Crow poems. Aesop’s Vain Jackdaw. Othello, Macbeth. Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crows, which I started reading last night on a plane to Nairobi. Crows are notoriously freaky. As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel in Zanzibar having come in to escape the bone-stiff smile of a single skinny crow I met in the higgeldy piggeldy streets of Stone Town. His back was curved like a piece of calligraphy punctuation, and he quivered his whiskers at me.
When I was last in Stone Town three years ago, the place was overrun with crows. Where did they all go? No wonder the last skinny crow in Stone Town looked a bit irritable. I remembered the streets as having a similar crow-density to Kochi, Southern India, where I was just before Chistmas. There, shiny storybook crows waddle on the roofs of colonial houses and swarm the papaya trees over your head. They sit atop archaic Chinese fishing net contraptions, laughing at the fishermen, and argue with each other while shitting on tourists.
But in Stone Town they’ve been exterminated, all 5,000 of them according to the hotel manager I just asked. They were becoming a nuisance, killing indigenous bird species and spreading disease.
In a way I’m relieved to avoid another swarm of them. It makes me shiver when they stare. I feel like they’re ridiculing me. “He laughed himself to the centre of himself,” as Hughes’s poem Crow’s Fall goes, where a white crow attacks the sun and returns char black, with his words all mangled and charred too. “He aimed his beak direct at the sun’s centre.” The audacity of them, the cheek! The horror.
But I also feel shaky, like a terrible thing has happened and the crows will somehow reek vengeance. Possibly, illogically, on me. The truth is, I wasn’t scared of crows until I went on a taxidermy course in London a few months ago, where I became unusually intimate with a jackdaw. (He died naturally, I’d like to add, I’m scared of the crow family but not vengeful.) I spent two days sewing and blow-drying him and now he’s propped up in a cheap black velvet stiletto heel on my bookshelf in London, beady (literally, made of beads) eyes watching me all the time.
You’d think that this experience would have made me less scared of crows, but it hasn’t. There’s too many crow deaths in my life at the moment. Perhaps, somehow, I think that all the other crows in the world know what I’ve done to their cousin. Perhaps I deserve their derision.
Emirates Terminal Three in Dubai is basically a space ship – cruel tooth-shaped windows, curved walkways, giant ceilings. Great reflective columns scattered light-rays on the ceiling and appeared almost fluid, dripping sunshine. Leggy tapered buttresses appeared to have re-arranged themselves into new shape a every time I blinked. The angles of the balconies were different.
It’s my new favourite airport, winning for its sheer futuristic audacity. I wrote my New Year’s resolutions while people watching at the departure gate and when I pulled them out of my pocket back in the safety of London, they all seemed a little far-fetched and unlikely. But strange things do happen.
Philip Womack kindly tagged me in “The Next Big Thing” Blog Meme, so thought I’d introduce my next book:
What is the title of your next book? The Art of Leaving
Where did the idea come from for the book? From Holly Golightly abandoning her cat, Anna Karenina throwing herself under a train, an unhealthy fascination with airport departure lounges, changing schools regularly as a kid, moving cities, leaving relationships… Somehow it’s always the exit scenes that I remember from novels and experiences. I wanted to write about the adrenalin of saying goodbye.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? I’m not ready for them to exist outside the imagination yet.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book? During a rainy summer in Soho when an eagle escapes London Zoo and a secretive stranger starts appearing around the city, Eva realises she’s failing at the only thing she’s ever been very good at: the art of leaving.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? The book is being published in March 2013 by Alma Books. My agent is Charlie Campbell.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? About a year.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? It’s a story for anyone whose ever found it difficult to leave…
You can read the first chapter here.
I hereby tag journalist, novelist and best read person I know, Emily Rhodes, as the ‘Next Big Thing’.
The Spirit Collection at the Natural History Museum does not contain a curated selection of souls, or at least not exactly. Don’t go looking to understand the anatomy of a phantom or the evolution of your average poltergeist, but if you want to see embalmed miniature dolphins, rat spines in jam jars, perfectly preserved shark heads or a giant squid named Alfred, then a back-stage tour of the museum’s Spirit Collection will get you in the mood for Halloween.
The Natural History Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world. I’ve spent days studying the stuffed hummingbirds and the (justified) worry on the face of dodos; the whale-spines, snake heads, dinosaur skeletons and cabinets of beetles. This time I went to specifically to visit the birds, in preparation for a taxidermy course I have booked for the beginning of November, but I discovered that in all my years of coming here I’d never followed signs to the collection of “spirits”.
The small top floor gallery is spectacular – full of mice and bats and forlorn-eyed seahorses incased in jars of luminous methylated spirit – but taking a tour into the bowels of the museum, past laboratories and through grey filing cabinets full of curiosities, the air chill with a chemical edge, you’re in real Halloween territory.
There’s a squid as long as a double-decker bus with ragged pink flesh and huge talons to capture whales, but only tiny beak-like mouths to to eat them with. “Being eaten by a giant squid would be like being licked to death by a kitten,” the tour guide explained chirpily. There are fish with limb bones in their fins, bats that look like dragons, specimens from HMS Beagle, snakes with their tongues still hissing out.
If Pullman’s His Dark Materials was re-written as a horror movie, this is where the last chapter would end: all the daemons of the world torn from their humans and floating eternally in cold chambers of glass jars underneath London. The coiled snake grimacing out from a tube of luminous formaldehyde is your ex-boyfriend’s daemon, perhaps. That furless baby kangaroo? Belonged to the girl he left you for. That black crow, with her wings stretched up and her neck broken against the bottom of her jar, that’s your imagination before she was snipped away from you at the climax of act three and embalmed to leave space for a sequel.
Maybe, on Halloween, the souls will break out of their glass jars and scamper, shaking alcohol off their fur, across the great tiled floors, impatiently flapping wet bony wings, hopping into the air until they fly, sniffing for their humans. I hope so. I’ve booked a nighttime “behind the scenes” tour on the 31st, just in case.
The first thing I saw on arriving at Frankfurt Book Fair was a woman in a skirt suit holding a bag of unbound proofs, bending to swap stilettos for luminous green trainers before rising – a look of intense, Olympian determination on her face – and sprinting off around the corner. Just as she reached the tram her bag fell off her arm and papers scattered up into the rain, landing smudgily in puddles, but she didn’t even stop. I like to think she arrived at her meeting just in time to snap up international rights to the Next Big Thing, proof pages be dammed.
Through glass doors into the hall, I ventured out of the rain into a space where the air hummed: caffeine was being inhaled on escalators while Reservoir-Dog-type cliques of publishers marched down echoing airport-style hallways clutching spreadsheets and editors jogged the bookish assault course of the fair. I’d imagined some whimsical Emerald City or Disney Land of books and wasn’t disappointed – giant book covers, enormous shelves of novels reaching up the ceiling, a Tolkien-inspired waterscape in the New Zealand pavilion – but almost more interesting was the sense of the cogs moving the clock hands, deals being made, the mechanics of the international book world setting stories in motion.
I was a voyeur in the nuts-and-bolts of book selling, there to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of my German publisher, Diogenes. I spent the afternoon at the fair eavesdropping on agents gossiping about who was drunker last night, watched roomfuls of publishers and reps holding meetings, heads bowed over spreadsheets and galleys, pens bobbing, arguments erupting. Then all the earnest meetings stopped for the party on Friday night, when a six hundred strong crowd of booksellers, publishers and authors turned up to celebrate.
As the Diogenes Owl logo bopped away in lights on the walls of the club, I met booksellers who worked in Vienna and Dusseldorf and everywhere in between. In a small bar above the dance floor they set up a mini-library so while the party thumped on and the lights spun downstairs, up in story-heaven everyone could lounge over booze and books, deciding which novels to take home with them. If all clubs promised libraries in their chill-out rooms I’d go out dancing way more often.
Rumor has it that Diogenes danced on until sunrise and wore sunglasses to the fair the next day, but I stumbled out at three in the morning, bending to swap my stilettos for trainers in the rain.
P.S. Pink Hotel has been getting press in Germany. There was an interview in Die Welt, and in Süddeutsche Zeitung’s online magazine, Jetzt.com. It’s been reviewed in Cosmo, Brigitte, Die Rheinpfalz, Welt Express, and by Christine Westermann on German TV. Liberatingly, I have no idea what any of them say….
To celebrate the German launch of the Pink Hotel, I spent last weekend in Berlin, which now tops my list of cities I plan to live in when I grow up. Bearded violinists in board shorts, urban beaches, locked graffiti-caked doors leading nowhere. Everywhere you look there’s some splash of high-drama: wooden art mannequins arranged in lemming-like suicide leaps from a window ledge, a single swing looking out over a park, a sculpture bleeding red paint. The top five ways we spent our time were, in no particular order:
Mauerpark Fleamarket – baskets of naked Barbie dolls, ragged jigsaws, teacups, albums filled with family snaps, comic books, ancient microwaves, hats, lamps, furniture, DDR memorabilia…
Bar Ravel in Kreuzberg – Eggplant tempura with honey, huge wheels of baked goats cheese, churizo, braised rabbit, garlic shrimps, white wine and crème brulee at tables out on the streets of Kreuzberg.
East Side Gallery – In 1989, after the Wall came down, hundreds of artists from all over the world painted the formerly untouchable east side of the Wall. It’s 1.3 kilometers of euphoric, colourful, emotional mural painting. Just behind is a beach bar on the water called Strandgut, where you can dig your toes in the sand and sunbathe.
Views from the clouds – If you happen to be walking through Mitte, the tower of a bleak, stripped-down church called the Zion Church is worth stopping for. You climb an increasingly narrow, worryingly lopsided staircase into a tower with giant clocks leaning against the walls, guarded by a man named Karl, who is an expert on Berlin viewpoints all across the city.
Street Artists – One of our favourites was a juggler performing in the middle of buzzing traffic, framed by the Brandenburg Gate in the distance. Close runners-up were: the break dancers in Pariser Platz, Turkish drummers in Kreuzberg, Jazz musicians in Prenzauer Berg, a violinist pacing the colonnades outside the National Gallery on Museum Island.