Thursday, 18 September 2014

How to be the new Jeffrey Archer, the next Anne Rice!

Literary lifestyle coach Stephanie Hale has interviewed twelve of the world's best-selling writers of fiction and self-help books, picking their brains for tips on How to Write a good book and, more importantly (if fame and fortune are your goal), How to Make It Outsell Everybody Else's. Jeffrey Archer believes that story-telling is a gift from God - gifted to him, of course, but not necessarily to us lesser mortals. Some writers, says Joanne Harris (Chocolat sold 30 million copies), "have bigger egos than others." Bigger sales too: Archer has sold over 270 million books!

Barbara Taylor Bradford
Barbara Taylor Bradford (89 million): "A novel is a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth". Substantial advice from a Woman of Substance. Mrs Bradford says she cannot start work on Chapter Two until Chapter One is not only written but edited. (That's my style too, Barbara.) Editing, of course, is key. Lord Archer does 13 or 14 drafts of each book - in longhand. Joanne Harris thinks four is enough. New Age guru James Redfield recommends leaving a completed book for 6 months, so that you then re-visit it as a reader.

Taylor Bradford gets up at 5 a.m., Lord Jeffrey at 5.30. Alexander McCall Smith gets up at 4 and only writes for about three hours, but he reckons to produce around 3,000 words in those three hours and writes 4 or 5 books a year! The importance of discipline cannot be over-emphasized.

McCall Smith (only 40 million books sold, but he's written close to 100) is a big fan of Facebook and likes to discuss books-in-progress with his followers. " Joanne Harris prefers Twitter and Tumblr. Vampire queen Anne Rice (100 million plus) responds to all her fanmail and reviews/postings on Amazon/Facebook. New writers, Anne says, shouldn't try to sound like someone they admire. "Sound like yourself." Sound advice.

Your book needs the Pick It Up factor
James Redfield gave away the first 1,500 copies of The Celestine Prophecy. He says a book must have the "pass along" factor: write a book people will buy again to give to friends. Financial planning expert Sharon Lechter's mantra is "Pick It Up": a book needs a title and a cover that people cannot resist. Hers is Think and Grow Rich. Lifestyle guru Brian Tracy says, "Do anything to get a real, live publisher." If self-published books reach a reviewer's desk, "they are immediately thrown in the waste-basket."

Bernard Cornwell (20 million) sees himself as a story-teller, like Lord Archer. He's very anti writer's groups and has a lot of common-sense advice: "Something has to happen on every page ... you cannot bore people." A splendid pronouncement from Sir Terry Pratchett (85 million and counting): "Write with passion about subjects that you're passionate about."

Terry Pratchett:
"Write with passion"
Your head will swim reading this book. So many ideas, so many tips. Which one will work for you? I think the Big Selling Point - the "hook" - of my latest novel The Bexhill Missile Crisis is the question I ask in the Prologue: When did Sexual Intercourse begin? Poet Philip Larkin said it was in 1963 - "between the end of the Chatterly ban and the Beatles' first LP ." I say it was in October 1962 when the Cuban Crisis made everyone fear that there might only be time for one last fling before the Superpowers blasted the world to pieces. The four characters in Bexhill unfortunately choose the Horseman of the Apocalypse for this final fling (he rides in on a motorbike).

A final word from Brian Tracy: "There are three keys to writing a bestselling book, and nobody knows what they are."

Stephanie Hale's interviewees have shifted a billion books between them. Does that daunt our spirits? Shall we lesser mortals continue our desperate, even futile, struggle? Bet your ass we will!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Theatre at the cinema: "The kindness of strangers"


Screened live last night from London's Young Vic Theatre, this brash new production of Tennessee William's steamy old warhorse stars Gillian Anderson, who manages to breathe new life into the role of neurotic fading Southern belle Blanche Dubois.

Staged in the round with a revolving set the size of a wall-less Portakabin, the play has been moved forward from its traditional 1940s setting to the modern era, although the theme and much of the language still belong much more to Williams's own time. Anderson's Blanche is initially more predatory than the pathetic sparrow we remember from earlier productions; she pecks like a vulture at her spineless sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) and her roughneck husband Stanley (Ben Foster), exposing their vulnerability, their neediness. But, of course, it's Blanche who's the true Queen of Need and in the second act she falls to pieces - magnificently. As in the last production I saw with Rachel Weisz, Anderson is directed to emphasize Blanche's weakness for the bottle, which provides the play with most of its funny moments.

Ben Foster makes a fine Stanley, the blustering bully with a soft heart painfully centred around Stella. But the play, as always, belongs to Blanche, and Anderson endows the character with an intensity that recalls Claire Bloom's performance in London in 1974 (I'm not a fan of Vivien Leigh in the 1951 movie version although Brando of course had already defined for all time the role of Stanley).

National Theatre Live are doing "Encore" screenings of Streetcar in the first week of October, so you can still catch it.

A Streetcar Named Desire has one of 20th-century theatre's most famous last lines. Another famous last line is Joe E. Brown's in Some Like It Hot: "Nobody's perfect." Gillian Anderson proves him wrong: in this play she is perfect. This year's Best Actress Olivier is in the bag! It may be time to remake the movie.

Monday, 15 September 2014

LINDFIELD ARTS FESTIVAL: my finest hour (not)

(David Gee with 'Booktique' founder Daisy White and
aviation historian Mick Oakey)

Well, we had brilliant sunshine in West Sussex on Saturday, but my appearance at the Lindfield Arts Festival was something of a washout. There were only four people at my reading (plus my paramour who acted as my 'bearer'). Some of the other authors had even fewer. It was very generous of the owners of The Tollgate (a classy craft shop in a splendidly ancient High Street property) to allow us to strut our stuff in their tea garden, but the combined mass emailing and Social Networking by the whole group somehow failed to draw in the crowds. We should have invited one of the Duchesses - Cambridge or Cornwall - to introduce us!

Daisy White (who is a doll, by the way!) had worked very hard to set up her "Booktique" (also known as a pop-up bookshop) in a marquee on the village common. We had a trickle of sales throughout the day, but it seemed that reading (or listening to) a bunch of not-quite-celebrity authors was not high on the villagers' agenda. We should have invited Simon Cowell!

Self-promotion is, like everything else, a Learning Curve. Unfortunately our curve seems to have taken a downward turn. If anybody reading this has a Brilliant Idea to communicate with us, please make haste to communicate it.

(David, Mick, Daisy and Keith Mapp
in the marquee at Lindfield)

Friday, 12 September 2014

David at the movies: From Downton to Haddonfield!


A family in rural America welcome a young soldier into their home; he claims to have been the best service buddy of their son who was killed in action. He's soon their other son's best friend, savagely beating three high school bullies. He also beats up a guy at a party who won't accept that his girl has dumped him. Only the family's teenage daughter (Maika Monroe) is suspicious and phones the military to check up on "David".

At this point it's impossible to go into any more plot detail without a spoiler. You kind of know from the beginning that this guest is not all that he seems to be, like Richard Gere in Sommersby. The casting against type of Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens was a good move. Seriously buffed up, he produces a convincing if stateless American accent and is very persuasive as the handsome stranger who is clearly too good to be true.

There's a sci-fi element in the storyline which needed a bit more detail. The fact that the high school is making elaborate preparations for Halloween brings in some strident echoes of John Carpenter's 'masterwork'. The Guest is a hokum movie with too much of the kind of violence younger audiences now expect and crave, but a sturdy performance from our Dan makes lifts his transition from Downton to Haddonfield out of the B-movie slot where the script would otherwise have left it.


Inspired, they want us to know, by the 'actual accounts' of NYPD Sergeant Ralph Sarchie, this is the story of a series of gruesome murders in the Big Apple that prove to be linked to a demonically possessed ex-Gulf War soldier (British actor Sean Harris on overdrive). Sarchie (Eric Bana) has to enlist the help of a Jesuit priest (Edgar Ramirez) as the crimes he is investigating progress from abnormal to paranormal.

Bana and Ramirez are two strong-presence actors whose performances help to dilute the implausibility of a story which borrows too many elements from that old show-stopper The Exorcist - even down to the evil emanating from an excavation in Iraq. Almost every scene is shot in darkened rooms - the demon keeps blowing fuses and light-bulbs - saving thousands of dollars on sets and lighting. There are a few good jumpy moments in Sarchie's house where his small daughter is also submitted to borrowings from William Peter Blatty. The climactic exorcism scene almost makes Linda Blair look like Mary Poppins (Linda's pea-soup moments are thankfully not, excuse the pun, regurgitated here), but there is not enough originality in the script or the direction to make this more than a run-of-the-mill horror which, with a less A-list cast, would have gone straight to DVD.


If, like me, you have fond memories of Earthquake in the cinema, with low-tech Sensurround shaking you in your seat during the tectonic sequences, you will get a similar blast from Into the Storm which has some seriously audience-engulfing CGI as a barrage of tornadoes rip a town in Oklahoma to shreds. It's only 90 minutes long and inevitably has to recycle much of its plot from Twister: imperilled townsfolk, a group of storm-chasers with state-of-the-art equipment. A couple of local loonies on motor-bikes add some comedy to the mix. 

A B-list cast is headed by British TV actor Richard Armitage in (I think) his first starring Hollywood role as the widowed high-school principal trying to save the entire final year on Graduation Day, while one of his tearaway sons is trapped in a derelict building outside town.

There's not a lot that's new here, but the storm sequences are visceral, with buses and aeroplanes as well as cars and roofs (and people) sucked up into the air. Yes, it's hokum, it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but as disaster movies go this one delivers the goods.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Wot I'm reading: Gay life before the Plague

Dancer from the Dance

Thanks to the affordability of Print-on-Demand a lot of so-called Classics are being made available again. Dancer from the Dance, regarded as a modern gay 'classic' has been reissued by the Quality Paperback Book Club. It was hailed in 1978 by one reviewer as "the best gay novel written by anyone of our generation." That generation was about to be decimated by the arrival of a disease first known as GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency), later re-branded as Aids. Reading with unavoidable hindsight I kept thinking of Roger Corman's film of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death with the Plague Bringer wandering up the grand staircase and through the dancers in the palace ballroom. A pestilence was about to descend on the disco dancers of 1970s New York, on the bronzed hardbodies of Fire Island.

The book's two main characters, the unbelievably gorgeous but deeply unhappy Malone and the extravagant drag queen Sutherland, are two of Manhattan's party people whose lives revolve around nights of clubbing and summer weekends at the beach. Every moment is devoted to finding hot new guys to dance with and shag. Poppers come in ampoules rather than (diluted) bottles (simpler times!). In the clubs "everyone was reduced to an ecstatic gloom ... how aching, how desperate." It's not hard to see why the Religious Right in America - 'Christian jihadists', we might call them - saw Aids as God's retribution on the citizens of Sodom and Gotham.

Andrew Holleran's narrator weirdly - even perversely - romanticises the great gay 'delirium' (his word for it), which takes place in toilets and backrooms, in abandoned buildings and under boardwalks. He doesn't call it sex. He calls it love. Malone and Sutherland are, with a new guy every night, looking for love.

The unnamed narrator, infatuated with Malone and amused by Sutherland, tells their story in a prose style in which the textured lushness of Truman Capote is intermittently punctuated by  the blunt terminology of a high-school corridor. There's a lot of lurid sex talk but very few descriptions of actual sex. The chapter in which Malone falls in and out of love with an Italian electrician is almost as overripe as Barbara Cartland but very touching for all that. Hard not to assume that Malone is a self-portrait.

This is a version of gay New York peopled entirely by scene queens, hustlers and mega-rich predators prowling for toyboys. There's scarcely a glimpse of gay men living domesticated or culturally-oriented lives outside the Scene and not many echoes of lonely men closeted in the intolerant boondocks. It's possible that the author is mocking the 1970s scene and its denizens, but the book reads more like a social chronicle than as a satire.

In the second half of this relatively short novel (150 pages) Sutherland's brand of camp and lurid sex-talk becomes wearisome, as it does when you're over-exposed to it in daily life. There's a framing device of cod ladies-of-letters exchanges between the author and a grand queen who's retired to the Deep South; these exchanges are seriously OTT and richly funny.

Holleran's extravagant prose, like his cast, is very much of his time, although of course that style and that lifestyle are still pretty much part of today's 'Scene'. A lot of contemporary fiction (not all of it gay) suffers from florid over-writing, and a lot of people (not all of them gay) still live by the same code: eat, drink, dance, do drugs and fuck our brains out, for tomorrow we ... become old and staid!

Dancer from the Dance - an anthem for doomed youth - manages to read as a book of its time and of ours. For me the great gay novel of the pre-Aids era is John Rechy's City of Night, written in a Beat-era style that owes a debt to Kerouac, a style Rechy never recaptured in the tawdry pseudo-porn books that followed. Rechy is a more urgent writer than Holleran, but Holleran's reputation will probably outlast Rechy's; perhaps it already has.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Wot I'm reading: the man who loved dogs


After two books in which he listed the (few) artists he admires and the (many) he despises, plus a blow-by-blowjob account of his busy sex life, 80-year-old art critic Brian Sewell now sets out to catalogue the dogs he has owned,  from boyhood up to his present great age: usually two or three at a time. Some were pedigree animals, some were cross-breeds, a few were mongrels. Most were rescued from re-homing centres; one he brought back from Turkey.

This is a short book (130 pages), each chapter encompassing the life of one or two of his beloved pets. The life and the death. Brian sticks with his dogs in health and in sickness, tenderly nursing them through injury, blindness, incontinence. Some of them he was forced to take to the vet to be euthanased but more often than not he cared for them to the very end. "The deaths of dogs grow more painful the more we experience them," he writes with poignant accuracy. Some of his dead dogs were buried in his or his mother's garden; a few were dug up and re-buried in another garden. Others were treated to a Tibetan 'sky burial' on the roof of his house. Mr Sewell, lord love him, is a bit weird.

He writes an elegant Edwardian prose, dense with commas and subordinate clauses. He writes with a touching tenderness and a fierce passion. This is a man who has clearly loved his animals, loved them wantonly, lavishly and slavishly. Any committed animal-lover will not fail to weep and laugh with Brian as he bonds with - and inevitably parts with - dog after dog after dog.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Wot I'm reading: After Philby, Blunt etc .... a sixth spy

Charles Cumming: THE TRINITY SIX

Historian Sam Gaddis  has just published a controversial book comparing Sergei Platov, Russia's autocratic President, to Peter the Great. At a launch party Gaddis is approached by a woman whose recently dead mother was researching a book on the KGB, which employed Sergei Platov in the dark days of the Soviet era. Soon Gaddis finds himself on the trail of the long-suspected 'Sixth Man' in the Cambridge spy ring (Burgess, MacLean, Philby, Blunt, Cairncross and ?????). He meets a man who assisted at the faking of the death of the sixth superspy in order to vanish him behind a new identity.

One by one the people who know - and leak - this naughty secret die sudden deaths. Is MI6 having them eliminated, or is it the Kremlin? Gaddis has clandestine meetings in Winchester and Berlin and Vienna as he seeks to uncover the truth about the Cold War's last secret. It turns out to be a secret of startling magnitude.

This is the kind of espionage story with which John Le Carre first made his name, but Cumming gives his plot all the pace of a Dan Brown blockbuster thriller with the added ingredient of a disturbing  plausibility (which tends not to feature in the Da Vinci/Masonic/Knights Templar tales by Mr Brown and his many imitators). 

The Trinity Six is instantly up there with the best spy novels I've ever read. The ending is an outstanding example of what they like to call Realpolitik. It's chilling to think that Russia might one day have an ex-KGB President with a megalomaniac ego and an aspiration to be compared to the greatest of the tsars, but that's never going to happen - is it?