Behind the scenes at Diogenes publishing house…

On Friday I stood on a stepladder and signed my name on the walls of Diogenes Vertag in Zurich: deep in their gluey, papery smelling archive rooms. I was in Zurich to present the german language version of The Pink Hotel at the annual Diogenes sales conference. With the signatures of titans like Paulo Coelho and Ian McEwan terrifyingly nearby, I took a deep breath and hoped not to misspell my name. (It’s happened a stupid number of times before – an extra “n” while autographing a book, a missed “t” on a birthday card – like I’m not in charge). But this time I nailed it: Anna Stothard, March 2012.

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Names worry me. Personal, but shared. Ours, but we don’t choose them. Meeting strangers I repeat names in my head like a mantra until the syllables – Kati, Ruth, Vinny, Catherine, Philipp – sound like a nonsense poem, but hopefully a poem I remember. I live in fear of forgetting names. “What’s in a name?” asks James Joyce in Ulysses (I visited his grave last week, in a cemetery so close to Zurich zoo that you can hear lions roar if you come to the grave at feeding time). That is what we ask ourselves in childhood when we write the name that we are told is ours,” he answers.

Shakespeare’s Juliet answered the same question: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Of course the sound of “anna” didn’t develop from the smell and sight of Anna, while the word “rose” was presumably inspired from a sense of the flower. The word “rose” was given to roses when they already existed while I grew into the word Anna over time, scrawling then name I was told is mine over and over through my life until I (just about) owned it.

The protagonist of The Pink Hotel doesn’t own her name. Her future self, the book’s narrator, doesn’t mention one. The best character names summarize and hint: Pip, Tintin, Havisham, Gandalf, Philip Marlowe, those wide voluptuous vowels of Madame Bovary, the meandering creepy “humm” of Humbert Humbert, the ethereal noise that “Lyra” makes in your mouth, and the spit of the words Fagin or Becky Sharp. With The Pink Hotel, I knew my character wasn’t going to own herself enough to deserve a name, she’s too ghostly and uneasy to own much of anything as she starts her journey.

Whenever I stand up and read from The Pink Hotel, as I did at the Diogenes conference in Zurich last week, I feel briefly as spectral and willful and brazen and nameless as my character, who only begins to piece together shards of an identity – a taste here and a wish there – during a blisteringly hot summer in Los Angeles as she trawls through remnants of her mother’s disastrous life. It’s a peculiar, and not entirely pleasant feeling, turning momentarily into a character who does not embody herself enough to deserve a name.

Joyce and Kati, the editor of The Pink Hotel

Joyce and Kati, the editor of The Pink Hotel

The Art of Shyness

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Mark Twain

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On a bench at the top left corner of an island called Djurgarden in Stockholm earlier this week, I watched a child talking to herself with panic in her eyes: intent and discontent in her little bobble hat and matching mittens against the skyline of Stockholm. Perhaps she was lost, or mad, or both (too many Swedish thrillers in my head). Or a ghost. A sea monster?! Or, also quite conceivably: a school kid practicing a speech while her mother watched sullenly from a nearby bench.

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They had probably been practicing for hours and imagined a change of scenery might help, but the kid was still no mini-Churchill, no aspiring Emmeline Pankhurst. She spoke too quickly, fidgeting from foot to foot, and looked occasionally at her mother with an expression of abject hope and horror.

I’ve always thought it must be exhausting to be an extrovert: an inexplicable urge to attend parties on weeknights, go on holiday in eager groups and enjoy open plan offices. On the other hand, being an extrovert would help with the odd speech. I’m going to the Essex Books Festival and a Diogenes Sales conference at the end of this month. I enjoy talking about writing, but it’s a slightly masochistic pleasure. Not terror like the Swedish kid was feeling as she gripped index cards in her mittens, but not yet effortless either.  I was fascinated by Susan Cain’s article on introversion and shyness in The Guardianthis week. She defines introversion as “a preference for environments that are not over stimulating” while shyness is a more crippling, insidious thing, a “the fear of social disapproval or humiliation.”

I’d never given much thought to the difference, but it’s crucial. Shyness hurts. It makes you blush at inconvenient moments and panic while practicing speeches to your mother on darkening Swedish islands. Shyness is something that you can battle against over time, even if it takes hours and hours of practicing speeches as the sun goes down. (“Shyness can stop you/From doing all the things in life/You’d like to,” as The Smiths point out).

A preference for sitting on your own for long periods of time, though? That’s just good sense. It’s not something worth fighting. A card in a Stockholm bookshop made this point nicely: “No one is able to enjoy such feast than the one who throws a party in his own mind.” Selma Lagerlof, Swedish children’s author and Nobel laureate.

International Women’s Day and The Orange Prize longlist

“There’s a flower called ‘bird of paradise’ all over Los Angeles: it has orange leaves shaped like knives, although from a certain angle the flowers also look like gaggles of slim-necked tropical birds,” – The Pink Hotel

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I’m thrilled to be on the longlist for The Orange Prize, announced this morning to mark the hundred and first International Women’s Day. I was planning on blogging about the strange science of the colour pink today for Women’s Day. I lay in bed last night planning sentences about light spectrums, rainbows, and the mysterious part of the colour wheel where ultraviolet and pink reside. I was going to write about too-glam children in sinister pastel lipstick, the crack of rock candy between your teeth, coral way down in the sea, and the exact shade of colour on the menacing beachfront hotel in Los Angeles that inspired The Pink Hotel.

But now I have a different colour on my mind, and am far too excited to contemplate the science of light receptors. “Orange is the happiest colour,” as Frank Sinatra once said.  I’m proud to be a part of today’s celebration of women’s achievements, and to be connected to The Orange Prize along with such wonderful writers as Anne Enright, Ann Patchett and Al Kennedy. The only book I’ve read so far on the list is The Forgotten Waltz, which was entirely beguiling, but I’m looking forward to reading them all. It’s going to be a huge pleasure over the next few months. Keeping to my colourfully themed twenty four hours, I think I may start with A.L. Kennedy’s The Blue Book.

Likes and Dislikes

I’m not a natural list maker. My mind doesn’t enjoy the decisiveness of a good bullet point, or the clarity of an efficient summary. The German publishing house Diogenes recently bought rights to The Pink Hotel and asked me to perform the deceptively simple task of listing my “likes” and “dislikes” for a slot in their magazine. I like swimming pools and eavesdropping, I thought to myself as I walked home after meeting the director. I like horror movies, crows, the smell of sunscreen. Sharp pencils. Toy soldiers. I don’t like: Monopoly, the word nubile, pigeons, the smell of roses. A telephone book sized catalogue came into my head, but when I got to my desk it seemed almost unbearably intimate, somehow, to write it all down.

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I didn’t want to write a list.

Months passed. I decided there was something clandestine about a list, something not-quite formed, almost humiliating, like the scribbled first draft of a poem, or notes for a letter that you meant to destroy but didn’t and then found months later and tore up quickly. Lists are reductive, but revealing. I don’t like sunburnt knees, or numbers, or tennis, but the idea of a definitive list of these things made me feel nauseous. A list feels like sketching yourself and not doing a good job. I didn’t want to write a list.

A school friend of mine once filled an entire notebook with a list of her “likes” and “dislikes”, presenting this summary to her boyfriend as a gift that was part love letter and part crib notes. He never had to wonder if his girlfriend liked vintage porn, or roller coasters, or Nabokov, or soy milk (she did); he never had to ponder growing a moustache (dislike) or buying her Chrysanthemums (never). It seemed a very glamorous idea at the time, but it’s the last thing I’d ever do. Surely half the fun is guessing?

There’s a American magazine called FOUND run by the amazing Davy Rothbart, who collects found love letters, photographs, letters, photographs, doodles, hate-mail, post it notes, anything. My favourite finds are the wayward array of lists that make their way into Davy’s hands. “Never Call Landon again,” one letter says. “Get hair done”, “whiten teeth”, “no blow”, “Drinking only 4x a week”, “sex w/Chris Only”. Or another: “email Corey”, “introduce him to lesbians”, “convince self that I’m not madly in love with him”. Each list, even the shopping lists, are like miniature character bios, concise autobiographies.

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Last weekend I came across the ultimate Likes/Dislikes list, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, in a friend’s mouldy garage. “Splendid things,” the Japanese court lady lists haughtily: “Chinese Brocade. A sword with a decorated scabbard. The grain of the wood in a Buddhist state”.  Unlike telephone directories, top ten inventories on music websites, restaurant menus and dictionaries, Sei Shonagon writes lists that ought to be read out loud with an earnest yet flirtatious pout. “Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters,” she pouts: “Strawberries, A dew-plant, A prickly water-lily, A walnut, A Doctor of Literature, A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor’s Household, Red myrtle.”

I’m not sure what red myrtle is, but I know I like walnuts and strawberries and Chinese characters. Swords with decorated scabbards are quite cool too. I hate milky coffee and crowds, automated telephone purgatory, stilettos at one am, writing lists. I like Truman Capote and Roald Dahl, movie trailers, vodka. Easy. I’m getting the hang of this.