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Magdalena Ball, author of Sleep Before Evening (June 23-July 4)

Author Chat

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Jun 23, 2008, 11:22am Top

Join us here to talk to Magdalena Ball, author of Sleep Before Evening. She'll be on LibraryThing to discuss her work and answer questions through July 4th.

Jun 23, 2008, 1:45pm Top

Hey Maggie, don't know if you saw Bourne Ultimatum, but that last scene is ripped off from the last images of Sleep Before Evening! (Or maybe it just proves that great minds think alike or at least are plugged into the same archetypes!)

Jun 23, 2008, 4:58pm Top

Hi everyone, thanks so much for dropping by. Please feel free to ask me anything at all -- about my books, about books in general, writing, your books, reviewing, whatever. Looking forward to a few heady chats! Maggie

Edited: Jul 3, 2008, 5:56pm Top

Hi rollo (and incidentally, you're much slicker and more sensitive than Rollo, though I have yet to see what he's like in the sequel, but soon, soon...), I haven't seen Bourne Ultimatum, but I am definitely going to see it now. The nerve! I did watch Candy last night though, and have to admit that I read the book by Luke Davies (which is better than the film of course, though the film, which aptly stars the late Heath Ledger, is pretty good too), while doing my last few rewrites of Sleep Before Evening, and I found it powerful and inspiring -- more in its lyrical style than in its plot, though there was plenty in the plot for me to chew on too. I'll definitely get hold of Bourne now. Maggie

Jun 23, 2008, 6:29pm Top

Hi maggie! I didn't know you have a book on doing book reviews (The Art of Assessment) -- since this is something I just started getting into on Bibliophilia, have you got any advice for me?

Jun 23, 2008, 8:47pm Top

I've always got advice (and thanks for dropping by Bint)! I've got two tips culled from the book.

1. Even though you're doing a review, don't forget that you're first and foremost a reader. Read your book with the full sensual pleasure that any new book provides -- let it seep into your skin and don't begin your analysis too soon. Always allow yourself the full experience, and never skim a book you're reading for review -- give it a full reading from start to finish.

2. Make sure that, when you're writing the review, you analyse what works and why and what didn't. Sounds obvious, but I get a lot of submissions that are merely plot summaries, and as a reader, they don't give me enough information on the book's quality and how the author went about creating that work -- the narrative innovations; the literary allusions; the use of language; the depth of characterisation; the convolutions of plot and the interrelation between plot and character development; the unique setting and how, always how, the author sets it for us. All reviews should have, at their heart, a good solid analysis (but don't do it until you've experienced the book with the simple full bodied delight of a common reader)

Hope that helps! Maggie

Edited: Jun 23, 2008, 9:13pm Top

I'm not sure I should do this, but I'm going to run a very special offer right here to thank you folk for dropping by and give you fast access to my novel. The Art of Assessment sells for $13.95 (usd). The ebook of Sleep Before Evening sells for £1, or about $1.96usd. If you drop by: www.bewrite.net buy a copy of the Sleep ebook for £1 and forward the BeWrite receipt to me by email at maggieball@compulsivereader.com, I'll send you a free copy of the ebook Art of Assessment. That's 2 of my books for less than a dollar each! Can't do better than that. Thanks! Maggie

Jun 23, 2008, 10:17pm Top

I think that's a great idea, maggie, thanks for the offer! And I admit I'm guilty of reading a book with the mindset of a reviewer; for ex, I look out for bits I can quote to show what I mean by "the author has a poetic style" or "the main character is naive" -- I trot to my laptop right away to copy it down or I'll forget where I read it and spend an age looking for it later (and sometimes not even find it). Even if I just used post-its to mark those spots so as not to disrupt the flow of my reading too much, it still means that I'm mentally consuming a book like a reviewer, not a reader. It's when a book is really good or really bad that I can just get into it as a reader, but then I don't write up reviews on the really bad ones -- what would be the point?

Let me ask you something: do you recommend letting a book "sit" a while after I've finished before I start writing up a review?

Edited: Jun 23, 2008, 11:04pm Top

It's a good question Bint. For me, the sooner I write the review after reading the book, the clearer the book is within my head and the better I'm able to write about it -- I'm still in the world of the book and still want to write and think about it (if it's good at least) before it gets surplanted by a new book, since I'm always reading something. But that isn't always possible -- I tend to read faster than I write and usually have about 3-4 books that I've read but not reviewed yet (4 sitting right next to my keyboard right now and one nearly finished being read, so nearly 5). It doesn't happen often, but I can think of 2 instances where the lag time between my initial reading and writing the review took so long that I ended up having to re-read the book. And I'm shamefaced to say (but promised total honesty here), that I've only just published a review for a book I read 6 months ago (I re-read that one too -- a nonfiction, so more of a quick skim through second time round than a full read), so letting a book sit does tend to happen with me. But usually I like to do the review as soon as I can following a reading and find that the process is much easier that way.

Incidentally, I don't recommend this, but what I do (being a book consumer in the true sense of book destroyer) is to fold down the page on the bottom when I come across something powerful (or particularly awful) that I want to remember. I don't mark the passage but it does make it easy to come back to when I'm reviewing, without interrupting the flow of my experience. That said, and despite my advice, I do find that keeping the critic at bay can be hard. I sometimes find myself critiquing copy (song lyrics, tissue boxes, promotional literature, catalogues -- I can't help it -- I'm a chronic reader) as a matter of habit. It's one of the few downsides of being a reviewer.

Jun 24, 2008, 12:00am Top

I'm amazed that you can read so much -- I'm a slow reader and get even slower when my brain has to shift gears between books, so I try to read only one at a time. But hearing that you read and critique everything (even tissue boxes???), I'm not surprised now that you come up with flash ideas from reading Scientific American (did I remember the mag right? or was it Nature?). I always wondered how you did that: take an article about a newly discovered galaxy/star system and write a poem that is so human that I could visualize the character completely.

How do you do that? I don't get it -- I read an article about star systems and I never get past the jumble of letters and numbers of the name, but how is it that you make a connection between something billions of miles away and a person with very human faults?

Jun 24, 2008, 2:24am Top

It was New Scientist, which is definitely geared for the layman, but very well written. I don't know why astronomy (or quantum physics for that matter) makes me think of human characteristics (probably due in part to my mathematical incompetence), but I will say this: science, at its rawest, begins with a hypothesis -- a reasonably educated but mostly romantic guess at something we don't understand. That's not so different from what a poet or novelist does -- we begin with a concept -- something invented that we don't know will work, and play with it, testing our hypothesis as it forms up. So there's a correlation -- both science and art are part of the creative process, and both rely on great hubris -- we believe we can create meaning out of the void and despite tremendous and ongoing failures, continue to try.

And I've never critiqued a tissue box outloud (though I've definitely done it, to my family's horror, with song lyrics and catalogues).

Jun 24, 2008, 3:20am Top

Interesting to see, Maggie, that you've published non-fiction, reviews, fiction, poetry, and have even been featured as a true-lfe character in a best-selling non-fiction book. Some career! I wonder what influence each area of your work has on the others -- or perhaps there is no overlap at all and you're able to switch hats according to the job at hand.

On another point, I'd be interested to know if seeing your family's own history told in such intimate detail in 'Home Fires' by Donald Katz and watching a successful professional author at work while you were still a youngster spurred your own literary future in any way.

Best wishes. Neil

Edited: Jun 24, 2008, 4:12am Top

Hi Neil, thanks for coming to my party! I'll answer your excellent questions in reverse order. I was about 20 by the time Don Katz began writing Home Fires, and by then I had already formed the idea that I wanted to spend my life immersed in words, so I don't think that Home Fires was a catalyst for me (I'm in it to be sure, but a minor figure compared to my mother and above all, grandparents). But my family is a pretty literary one in general. On my father's side most of the women are English professors, and on my mother's side there are composers (and my uncle Ricky used to feed me poetry like porridge when I was too young to comprehend it), musicians, and writers, so the creative thread is a strong one, and one which I not only felt as part of my own DNA, but part of the expectations around me. My mom and I always played word games with one another. My dad and I argued about philosophy, literature, and semantics. Book talk was always part of my daily life, whether Seuss, Sendak or Joyce. It was always expected that I would write, and when I was doing my own doctorate in English, I copped a bit of criticism for not being true to my own creative side. So nature and nurture have always been at work on my self-image in that respect. I tried hard to be a business gal (and have a MBA and still do pretty well in a corporate environment -- watch for more on that in my next novel...soon...soon), but always I felt that tug on my right side. Interestingly, my mother, who felt a bit lampooned by Home Fires, has recently decided that she wants to write her own story, and has asked me to help -- something I'm delighted to be part of -- her story is an incredible one!

As for different hats, yes, they do influence one another, and I'll often work across genres when I want to explore something. I might, for example, begin a novel by writing a poem that encapsulates the key theme. Then I'll do a short story before moving into the longer format of a novel. I'll often explore a theme, such as the tree change one from my next novel Black Cow, in a nonfiction article where I have an excuse to research.

Nonfiction comes easily to me (as you can probably tell from the endless responses I have to these questions), and it's quite relaxing for me to just write in straight manner without worrying about construct and form. Poetry is that nonlinear exploration of moments in time taken to a much deeper level than the conversational surface of nonfiction. While fiction is self-contained construction -- merging the linear progression of nonfiction with the emotive of poetry. So the different strands of my work relate to one another as separate explorations of aspects of consciousness and life -- it's all a form of exploration in one way or another, if that doesn't sound too poncey.

Jun 24, 2008, 4:32am Top

I'd never heard of 'Home Fires' before Neil mentioned it just now and googled it -- not surprisingly, it was a book review that clued me in. Wow. But the review made it sound as if Katz gave your family's history a shallow treatment without much insight -- it sounded like a form of sensationalism to me, as if he deliberately presented your family members' lives as extremes polarized from each other. Have you ever done a book review on this one?

Maggie, Neil reminded me that you're in Australia now -- does that mean the rest of your family is still in the US or did you "follow" them to Australia?

Jun 24, 2008, 12:18pm Top

WOW -- you are an educated person -- to say the least -- AND an author!!!!!

Personaly, I had trouble finishing highschool and have no qualifications at all. Due to this miserable state of affairs cant seem to land a job I thought to take up a career as a writer. Do you think that this is a viable proposition for a person in my position?

Thank you.

ps -- I am good at thinking up plots and such like

Jun 24, 2008, 12:42pm Top

That's an interesting question, Bonelazy. I was just about to ask something similar myself -- whether not having her background (family stimulus, extensive reading and broad education) Maggie feels she might still have been able to create fiction and poetry. Neil

Jun 24, 2008, 1:35pm Top

Don't be fooled, folks -- bonelazy is a fake foyler. He's a far better writer than his disingenuous comment suggests!

Jun 24, 2008, 2:46pm Top

ahem! A foyler - indubitably. But why the fake?

Many a good education has produced a good for nothing. nothing to do with Maggie's academic prowess

I think that Neilmarr's question suggests that Maggie is a born writer, irrespective. I have studied Maggie's pictures in depth -- it is clear she is a born writer, clavicles and all!

Thank you again

Jun 24, 2008, 6:29pm Top

Ah, the old nature or nurture chestnut. Who knows? As a parent, I'm always astonished by how much my children were born with and how different they are from one another despite a similar environment and upbring. So my education has had little to do with my love of reading since it preceding the educational process (but if no one read to me as a toddler, I have no idea whether I'd have become a writer or even a reader -- that's too hard to guess at or even imagine). My years of study almost foiled my ability to write -- it didn't really help, although there were some great teachers along the way, as there always are. I didn't complete the doctorate by the way, so not really all that educated -- the MBA was an afterthought to get me a well paying job. So bonelazy, if you're reasonably observant of character, and good at thinking up plots and such like, you'll probably be able to write (and the clavicle comment makes your identity clear -- so I know you're a bloody good writer), but you'll have a better chance at earning a good living if you stick to diet and well being books. Fiction is a long, slow, painful road full of debt. Though there is always the DBC Pierre example...

Jun 24, 2008, 6:38pm Top

As for Home Fires, Don had a thesis which he worked my family around. When they fit, he got it right, and when they didn't, he moulded the story to fit. So there are some people, like my mother, who are sensationalised and presented insensitively. Also the story is skewed by who was prepared to speak to him, and sometimes you're getting one perspective only but presented as "the truth", which is always difficult. But that said, I love that I have such a well researched record -- it's kind of a gift to be able to go and read my grandfather's story (which you never listen to or get when you're a child), and he did a wonderful job on them. I've never reviewed it -- I'm not impartial enough! My family (parents/grandparents/aunties & uncles etc) are all in the US, but of course my immediate family (hub and kids) are here in Aus with me. My husband's family is mostly here too, although they are English, and since I now say g'day to passers by, I'm afraid I've decided to stay.

Jun 24, 2008, 7:13pm Top

Who is DBC Pierre?

And the way you write, Maggie, is not the kind of thing they can teach to at any level of schooling, but I see what a huge impact education has on people's image of themselves and what they believe they can do. Even then, that goes both ways: some people rebel against the constant message of "you can't do that" with a drive to "show them all one day," while others choose other (better-sanctioned) paths.

What you said about your kids is a sentiment I've heard a lot of parents voice. I'm guessing that what you see in them now is not what can be captured by photos -- do you have other (perhaps better) ways of capturing those memories?

Jun 24, 2008, 10:24pm Top

I do believe that you can learn to write well at school actually - the rules of grammar and structure are important -- no point in creating brilliance that is so convoluted and constrained that no one can understand it through the errors (and you've got to know the basics before you can move beyond them). I loved studying literature as an undergraduate, and having my papers assessed and critiqued did help me become a better, clearer writer. I know many people who have written their first novels in a MFA program and the interaction and constant critiquing process helped them tremendously. For me, the amount of learning that I obtained from other people -- from my mentor to my editor --on my first novel, was not only helpful, it was essential. So please don't let it go on record that I have implied that education isn't a valuable thing -- it certainly is, and bonelazy, you'll find that any education you do, regardless of whether it was back then, or now, will open doors for you -- the Open University is a superb form of adult education (though I fear I'm speaking seriously to someone with a tongue in his cheek). But school isn't the only place to get an education, and beyond a certain point, from my experience, the world of the university isn't always about teaching and learning. Also writing is one of those many things that is primarily learned by doing -- theory will only take you so far (which isn't to say that you don't need to know it -- you should) -- the rest involves personal bloodletting.

I do take a lot of photos and videos of my children (mostly for my mother, who doesn't fly). And I write for them, with them, through them. Our lives are so intertwined though, that I don't see these moments as something I need to capture as such, anymore than I need to capture the intake and exhalation of this particular breath. The daily changes in them as they grow are part of the fabric of our lives -- our collective memories change every second. I'd never stop trying to capture them if I got on that merry go round -- I'd rather just enjoy now. And to be honest, I don't want to remember everything -- like how I yelled something mean at my daughter this morning as she refused to get out of the car to go to school because she'd just changed her mind about which shoes she wanted to wear, or the time my son vomited all over my laptop, killing a brand new expensive motherboard)

DBC ("dirty but clean") Pierre won the Booker prize in 2003 for his first novel Vernon God Little. He was a self-confessed awkward and bumbling mess at the time of the award, and said that the the £50,000 prize would go one third of the way toward paying off his debts, which included selling a friend's house for him and then spending the money on drugs for himself. He has since written a second novel which I have reviewed (more or less positively) titled Ludmilla's Broken English. For a full overview on him visit:

Jun 25, 2008, 1:13am Top

I guess a careful review is written mostly with the reader in mind; unless the reviewer is on an ego trip and in love with his own words, which sometimes seems to be the case. But I wonder how much note you, as an author, take of critique of your own published work (as opposed to work-in-progress) and if it has a major impact on the direction you take next time around. Neil

Edited: Jun 25, 2008, 2:06am Top

I read them all very carefully and definitely take note of them. I'm not sure about the direction per se, but certainly things like the impact that certain themes have on readers, or what works really well and what tends to absorb people's attention will guide me (sometimes subtly and subconsciously) towards the decisions I make about character, plot, setting, chapter numbers, timing, etc I take as I'm working on the next one. Good reviews are also great bolsterers -- when you're feeling a little dry, low in confidence, or distracted by the many other voices that are calling your name, a good review can be a way to keep motivated towards completing the next book. So they have a positive impact in that sense too -- reminding me that there are other imperatives to completion than just those coming from inside of me.

Jun 25, 2008, 10:19am Top

As Neil pointed out on Biblio, the letters you get from readers in response to your published work can mean so much more than the published book reviews -- Maggie, what was the funniest comment you ever read in a reader's letter to you about your books/articles?

Edited: Jun 26, 2008, 2:28am Top

I don't get a dramatic number of letters, but I do try and be accessible to readers. Most of the correspondence I get is about Art of Assessment rather than about my poetry or fiction, and it's rarely funny (though I've had a few funny responses to review request rejections)! One of the most wonderful letters I received was from my aunt Clara (an English professor at Boston U for many years before she recently retired), who wrote about Sleep Before Evening: "I just reread your book and was even more moved the second time around--to me it's a hip, painful "Maggie" version of To the Lighthouse and The Waves right down to Lily's name and talents in the former...I was awed by your ability and voice, safe and steady right through "the dark night of the soul," capturing your heroine's longing for both freedom and security; and you explore life's pain and complexity without ever sacrificing the beauty of language and music, perfect pacing and plotting--the book is impossible to put down, and sensitive specifics: sounds, similes, dialogue, tastes, settings: New York--subway,beaches, playground, Lincoln Center."

So it's not really the answer to your question, but it is a reader's letter (albeit a reader who is close to me). I'm humbled and moved by the reference to Woolf, and my aunt's taste in literature is exceptional, so I treasure her response.

Jun 26, 2008, 2:31am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Jun 26, 2008, 8:22am Top

Why, thank you, Maggie! Admittedly, there is something nice about having the chance to "dialogue" with someone after having read your flash contributions (which already gives me a false sensation of "knowing you").

What your aunt said: hey, were you a New Yorker? Haha -- I hadn't remembered that, though I'm sure you must have mentioned it before. I just read the words "Lincoln Center" and a wave of homesickness flooded me! Did you grow up there or did you only live there as an adult?

Speaking of "wearing many hats," I'm getting the feeling your closet is full of them too: what other things do you like to get into? I imagine gardening is not a good option. (Surely not all parts of Australia are desert, but as I'm discovering in Texas, gardens aren't as lush in these parts where water is expensive! Another thing for me to get homesick about: I miss the crammed and colorful tiny yards people have in Brooklyn.) Since you've got a pic at the piano, do you play a lot? Do you ever compose your own stuff?

Edited: Jun 26, 2008, 7:20pm Top

I was born in NYC and lived in NY (except for a brief stay in VA) until I left to study in the UK at about 20. So I'll always think of NY as my 'home town.'

Between writing, a full-on day job, and parenting 3 young children, I don't have a lot of extra time, but I do swim regularly. My family's great musical genes have bypassed me (other than that I have a good ear, and enjoy listening), but my children have them, and the piano (which I shouldn't have taken a picture at) belongs to my older son (11), who plays beautifully (he was really practising Dvorak's Largo while I was writing Sleep). My other children play too, so the house is full of music.

Jun 26, 2008, 8:06pm Top

Ah, I looked up the piece on youtube because I didn't recognize the title and found this: http://youtube.com/watch?v=u5EsCoys9qc

which thankfully also has the (English) words. Unless Sleep Before Evening has a parallel philosophy running through it, I can't see how hearing your son work on that piece could help, not hinder, your writing. It has far too strong an aura to fight against...

Is it usually piano and classical Western works that fill your home? Has aboriginal music influenced you too? What about arts that go hand in hand with music, like dance?

Edited: Jun 26, 2008, 10:17pm Top

My protagonist is a piano prodigy and was also struggling with this piece. It was very clear in my head (in piano only, not orchestrated) while I was writing, and I couldn't help but use it since the bones of the song were right in front of me. But yes, there is a parallel philosophy (the whole notion of going home), and there are no words. I don't think I could say that I've been influenced by aboriginal music, though when played well, I do like the didgeridoo, and world music too. My tastes are pretty eclectic, and it isn't all classical western music. My 8 yr old boy is a major rock and roll fan (I had to remove the AC/DC he put on his ipod because he was walking around singing songs with inappropriate lyrics), and he's currently working on a duet with my 11 yr old on Coldplay's Clocks, so we get a pretty big range here. My mother plays Tablas (as well as guitar and piano), and I grew up with a lot of classical Indian music. I like other arts too.

Edited: Jun 27, 2008, 1:49am Top

No words? Someone put words in a subtitle format on that video -- as I read it, it reminded me strongly of Peter Gabriel's Salisbury Hill, and I wondered if that connection was just in my head or if Gabriel drew on Largo for inspiration. Isn't it fantastic how ideas can come from so many different places? Whether you're talking about New Scientist or Dvorak (or even ACDC!), they're all launching pads...

You know, I've been wondering ever since I read it, and now I just have to seize the opportunity to ask: was your "mirror" flash semi-autobiographical? The idea of the main character craving solace from her mother and then getting it from her daughter was an elegant twist on the idea of "mirror." Even if it wasn't autobiographical in the remotest sense, it was still a damn good piece!

Jun 27, 2008, 12:50am Top

Thanks Bint. I think that the words on the video were made up, although maybe I'm wrong. The versions (we have a few) I have are not choral -- just music. But I do love Gabriel, going back to your earlier question, and Salisbury Hill is a favourite of mine (his latest album is great too). I always draw on my own experiences and perceptions in my writing, but the specifics of that piece didn't happen as such (I can't recall ever breaking a mirror). I have plenty of experience though bemoaning the aging process (don't we all...) and finding solace in the perfect beauty and sense of immortality that I find in my daughter. That reminds me that I need to check the latest challenge on Biblio. Why not include a link here for other writers who might drop in.

Jun 27, 2008, 2:05am Top

After we started chatting about book reviews, I couldn't help but put a link to Biblio on my profile to mention the reviews I've done so far. The main page for Bibliophilia is at:
www DOT Bibliophilia DOT org

and the main page for Bibliophorum (where my book reviews are in your Reading Room forum and the flash challenges are in the forum titled "Flash Fiction") is at:
www DOT Bibliophilia DOT org / forum / index DOT php

I'm generally trying to remember to write "DOT" instead of "." -- I used to post the link everywhere and invite spam (mea culpa), but oh well, what's done is done!

Y'know, sometimes I get into a "Peter Gabriel mood" and I just play one album after another of his for days on end! It's not about being depressed, or even just "in a funk" -- I don't know how to describe it other than to call it a "Peter Gabriel mood." Do you ever get into moods like that where you feel that one song/album/composition keys in to your mood perfectly?

Jun 27, 2008, 2:41am Top

Yes, definitely. Music sits at the backbone of my life, and though I'm a word girl, it can often go places that words can't. Gabriel's Up, despite it's name, is the blackest CD I've ever listened to. But I still love it, and black isn't necessarily depressing. He goes deep into the world of emotional pain ("I Grieve" still makes me cry, though I've listened to it thousands of time and the "let it out and move on/life carries on" doesn't lighten the pain one bit) and sometimes it seems like he'll never surface. I like to swim down there in that blackness with him if I'm in a PG mood. But when I want to move, dance, smile, and just be happy, it's got to be The Cat Empire (Melbourne band -- check on Google). And there are times when only something heady and classical will do -- maybe Rachmaninoff, Chopin, or something super rich sung by the St Petersburg chamber choir (Credo by Hvorostovsky is incredible--you feel it in your bones rather than through the ears). But there are times when I want nothing more than Robbie Robertson's Red Boy or Tull's Catfish Rising. I also use music to set moods for my work, so will choose the song to match the feeling I want to create and try and pick that up in the prose.

Jun 27, 2008, 5:34pm Top

Ah, I didn't know about Gabriel's "I Grieve" so I found it on youtube, as well as "Miserere" by The Cat Empire, and loved them both. Thanks for the tips! Certainly, Gabriel's album has been out for a couple of years now, but I'm not as up on the music scene as I'd like to be. I don't have a TV (nor do I think I'm missing anything), so my radio listening is my big connection with pop culture these days.

Yes, I agree with you: black isn't necessarily depressing, and it's more than just a catharsis to me (did I say "just"???).

Speaking of websites, what's The Compulsive Reader about?

Edited: Jun 27, 2008, 5:51pm Top

You've got to get Up if you're a PG fan. Almost all of it is superb (except maybe the first song on the CD). As for The Compulsive Reader, it's all about book reviews. I've got about 20 reviewers working around the world and 10 new reviews a month. There's quite a variety, and even music reviews too, but I tend to lean towards literary fiction, since that's my own favourite genre. Drop by and have a look and you'll see -- it's quite straightforward. I also do a monthly newsletter (free of course -- we're kind of like a community of book lovers) which has book news, and lots of book giveaways.

Jun 28, 2008, 6:23pm Top

Aargh! Sorry for disappearing, Maggie, but I am struggling to polish up a story for a contest and it's due Monday night -- I've been working on it for a couple of months now, so it would be a real shame if I don't submit something. Hopefully I'll have good news on that front by tomorrow!

Jun 29, 2008, 11:05pm Top

In a moment of panic (and basically because I was fed up with the story already), I submitted the story for the contest already and now my angst is over! It's out of my hands -- yay!

I did indeed have a look at the Compulsive Reader, but being squeezed for time, I didn't actually read the book reviews, just poked around a bit. Now that my life is my own again, I'll visit again and read some of those reviews.

Maggie, I wanted to ask you: I noticed that the Compulsive Reader includes reviews of non-fiction as well as fiction; though you said your preference is for literary fiction, you've written both -- does that mean you also review non-fiction?

Jun 30, 2008, 2:13am Top

We've got about 20 reviewers, so assuming a book doesn't sound too wacky (a judgment call I know, and I'm the judge), or the submission isn't too badly written, and believe me, we get an awful lot of wacky sounding submissions and badly written requests, I'll usually circulate it through my reviewers. If one of them wants it, regardless of whether it's nonfiction or fiction, I'll take it. I've got about 50 (!) books awaiting my attention that I definitely intend to review, so I'm trying not to take on anymore (though I'm a greedy girl...) until I start to catch up a bit (because I still have writing deadlines too), but my other reviewers aren't quite as overwhelmed, and I like to let them pick and choose to allow a little leeway. Some of my reviewers actually send me book lists, and I try to accommodate them by ordering the books for them from publishers (only if they're fast, on top of their review piles (unlike me), and very very good!).

Jun 30, 2008, 5:09am Top

Hi Maggie.

I'm interested to know if you write everything directly onto a computer, or if you also use notebook and pen (this is in particular with reference to creative writing). I ask the question because a well-known author (who shall remain nameless) has a real bee in her bonnet about writers who think they can write 'creatively' on a computer, and reckons she can spot their work a mile off. I think she's wrong. What do you reckon?

Edited: Jun 30, 2008, 5:29am Top

(and the clavicle comment makes your identity clear -- so I know you're a bloody good writer) --- maggie;message#19

i thought the stupid comment would blow my cover..... here's another one:

you think i could ask my publishers if they would use "so I know you're a bloody good writer", as a review by maggieball on the cover of my next book??

Jun 30, 2008, 6:51am Top

Hi Maggie,
I've bought a copy of Sleep before Evening from BeWrite, as an ebook. I hope to tingle my eyes with those electrons soon.

Best, Geoff

Jun 30, 2008, 8:44am Top

Hi there Magdalena, the Compulsive Reader has been around for quite a while now, what makes it so successful? Have you ever struggled to keep it thriving?There's plenty of Internet sites out there that do the same as CR, I'm very interested to know what makes it different to other similar sites?

Jun 30, 2008, 10:09am Top

Hi, Maggie. I was pointed at this site by a certain Mr Marr and very much like what I see in this thread, particularly. I have a question that may have been asked before in which case I apologise and please point me in the direction of the answer!

Do you think it's important to have had a lot of life experiences in order to create a good, solid story based in the "real world?" (as opposed to fantasy/Sci-fi.)

I seem to have led a very, very dull existence and
I'm wondering if that's likely to show in my creative writing as I've no exciting real life stories to draw from. It bothers me that I will pick up a book and fall in love with it, convincing myself I could do equally well, then see the author's had about 6 different careers and was brought up somewhere exotic and/or raised by wolves! (well, you get the idea ...)

What are the chances for a bog-standard 40-something with a job in the civil service and one rather bland divorce under her belt?

Jun 30, 2008, 11:12am Top

Hello Magdalena, Do you feel that (allowing for a huge gray area) there exists an identifiable difference in female versus male approaches to fiction writing? I'm not referring to topics, but rather to phrasing, emotional import, choice of verbs, degree of irony, physical descriptions, etc.? Or is this just a sexist question?

Jun 30, 2008, 2:49pm Top

Hi Maggie,

Your assistance as an Uber-reviewer has always been very helpful to me. And I'm going to take you up on that great offer you mentioned above.

I'm starting to delve into an artist's creativity and inspiration of craft: Where do you find the creativity for the work you have done? And particularly, does your review work interfere with your creative endeavours?

Thank you,

Elizabeth King Humphrey

Jun 30, 2008, 5:50pm Top

Hi Maggie,

What a wonderful discussion! I'd like to quote something you wrote in an article we posted on the authors' blog, MURDER BY 4, in February of this year. It has stayed with me and think it speaks volumes of you:

"A healthy concern for those who have similar talents, ethics or who are members of our family/social circle is part of what it means to be a human."

Our friend, Aaron Lazar is on vacation this week and I know he's going to be very disappointed that he missed this.

All the best,

Edited: Jun 30, 2008, 6:24pm Top

Unfortunately everything comes in consecutively here, and due to Aussie time, I'm in the happy situation of having lots of wonderful questions to answer. So I'll match up question and answer in my responses. This one is from Delph: "I'm interested to know if you write everything directly onto a computer, or if you also use notebook and pen (this is in particular with reference to creative writing). I ask the question because a well-known author (who shall remain nameless) has a real bee in her bonnet about writers who think they can write 'creatively' on a computer, and reckons she can spot their work a mile off. I think she's wrong. What do you reckon?"

Answer: Hi Delph, and welcome to the party, and what a good question to join with. I'm hopeless with notebook and pen -- I wish I could use a notebook and pen because they are more portable than my hefty laptop (and less valuable or prone to theft), but I just can't write that way anymore (used to, way back when). I've heard that comment from the great Julian Barnes too -- he says computers make everything look too good, too quickly, so he only uses a PC for final drafting. I see where he's coming from, but I think that your bee friend is wrong. We all know what works for us, and pens or PCs are just tools. The creative process is one that begins and ends with a human being (at least until we cross the Singularity!), and the tools we use are just means to an end. So for me, I do sometimes jot out inchoate ideas in a notebook with pen, but the real creation happens on a screen with keys beneath my fingers.

Jun 30, 2008, 6:26pm Top

From bonelazy: you think i could ask my publishers if they would use "so I know you're a bloody good writer", as a review by maggieball on the cover of my next book??

That's your publisher's call (and probably depends on your audience), but okay by me. Suggest you format like this: "bloody good writer." Magdalena Ball, Compulsivereader.com

Jun 30, 2008, 6:28pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Jun 30, 2008, 8:38pm Top

This is from GeoffNelder: "I've bought a copy of Sleep before Evening from BeWrite, as an ebook. I hope to tingle my eyes with those electrons soon." Thanks Geoff. Love the suit. A copy of Art of Assessment will be winging its way to you this morning, uh, evening.

Jun 30, 2008, 6:57pm Top

From Twisted: "the Compulsive Reader has been around for quite a while now, what makes it so successful? Have you ever struggled to keep it thriving?"

Hi Twisted -- feels like a masked ball here. So good to have you drop by. I think there are a couple of reasons for CR's longevity. One is simply that it sits outside of commercial considerations - the reason for many a website's failure. It isn't there to make money and I don't pay my reviewers (me either). It may sound odd, but we're all there to feed our book habits and that includes the kind of post-reading immersion that writing a review provides (not just the free books, although that isn't something to sneeze at). Very small scale book related ads pay for the hosting so it's cost neutral, but even if I didn't get any of those, I could afford to cough up for my quite reasonable hosting fees. So it doesn't rely on sponsorship or advertisements or any other form of cash to keep going. I've never struggled with it or struggled to keep it thriving -- it almost has its own life, and so many good reviewers, I could easily bow out for a few years and it would probably still continue to thrive (though I'm hopelessly addicted).

Aside from that, I try to keep it quality focused, and our reviews tend to be longer and more pithy than many other review sites -- I know that's a lot to ask of an unpaid reviewer, but it is what differentiates us. I think we offer reviews that are on par with the best of printed media but free, and accessible globally.

Jun 30, 2008, 7:07pm Top

From Telnix: "Do you think it's important to have had a lot of life experiences in order to create a good, solid story based in the "real world?" (as opposed to fantasy/Sci-fi.)"

Hi Telnix, you are very welcome here and that's a superb question. I'll just qualify it first by saying that I don't think that fantasy/sci fi needs to be any less solid or realistic than say realist fiction. It's hard to write good fantasy/sci fi because it needs to be as utterly, bone chillingly believable as any other fiction -- believability is a critical component of any fiction (and I always consider it a compliment when something grills me about the 'truth' in my stories). So, my answer to your question is that, I do believe that life experience is important and that it provides a great basis to draw upon (but having said that, a few of my favourite authors -- Marcus Zusak to name one, are quite young, but still write with the voice of tremendous experience) but every 40 something year old has had a lot of life experiences! There is no such thing, at least in terms of writing, as a dull existence. The stuff of everyday life (and civil service definitely -- think of Franz Kafka) is a wonderful basis for fiction. Stand in the place where you were (with apologies to REM), and look at it with new eyes. Surely you can see conflict, intrigue, great protagonists, great antagonists, amazing settings that readers (yes, 40 something year old readers in the civil service with bland divorces under their belts) can find themselves in. Pick a point in your life, and begin writing it. Of course you can give yourself longer legs, and make your ex a little better looking, but the bones of your story will be full of pathos as all lives are. I'll look forward to reading it!

Edited: Jun 30, 2008, 8:42pm Top

This is from Santacola: "Do you feel that (allowing for a huge gray area) there exists an identifiable difference in female versus male approaches to fiction writing?"

Hi Santacola, another great question (and I'm doing an interview in a half hour, and asking a very similar question of an author who has written a very 'male' book. I think that sometimes there is an identifiable difference -- some authors have a clear male or female voice in their fiction which permeates the whole book -- it's part of their style and underlines the narrative strongly, while others can either write in a male or female voice, or a gender neutral one. For example, I think Martin Amis' work is so male, and it isn't just that his protagonists tend to be male and his women tend to sit in the background, but also the deep masculinity in the narrative structure, voices, perspectives, choice of verbs, extensive, slightly bitter irony, etc. While I see David Malouf, another male author, as being much softer in his narratives and it is impossible to ascribe gender to it. A writer like Emily Ballou is utterly female -- I almost feel her words talking directly from her uterus to mine, whereas Margaret Atwood has a style that really doesn't come across as male or female.

Jun 30, 2008, 8:29pm Top

From Elizabeth King Humphrey: "Where do you find the creativity for the work you have done? And particularly, does your review work interfere with your creative endeavours?"

Hi Elizabeth! So nice to have you here, and thanks for your question (had to quickly duck out to interview Nick Place, so sitting on both sides of the chair today!). Creativity is the easy part, time is the hard one, and you've touched on both in your excellent question. Creativity is everywhere -- everyone has a story, every thing I read inspires another story - the way the sun is hitting the edge of the banana tree outside and the singing of the bellbirds, or the tantrum my son had this morning, or the way my daughter looked at me when I kissed her goodnight last night, or the latest news headlines. If I really felt dry, I might nip over to Nasa.com, where one of the headlines is "Pheonix Scrapes to Icy Soil in Wonderland". That's a poem waiting to be written as far as I can see. And yes, review work (also a form of creative writing of course) does interfere with novel writing, as does everything else I do including the day job (gotta have one), parenting, exercise, entering poetry competitions, writing short stories, cooking dinner, reading, and sleeping. But we're all in the midst of life and it's life that informs our work -- no author works in a vacuum. I think probably reviewing is one of the more minor things that my time goes to in the overall scheme of things, but it's always a juggle and always a matter of choosing where to put limited time (that's the ever shrinking resource). I need a balance in my life and can't just write fiction. But it would be nice to have a little more time for it!

Jun 30, 2008, 8:35pm Top

From Marta: "What a wonderful discussion! I'd like to quote something you wrote in an article we posted on the authors' blog, MURDER BY 4, in February of this year. It has stayed with me and think it speaks volumes of you: "A healthy concern for those who have similar talents, ethics or who are members of our family/social circle is part of what it means to be a human."

Hi Marta, and thanks so much for dropping by. I've been reflecting on this point and about the kind of virtual community that we're seeing in action here (help yourself to a virtual hors d'oeuvre -- they're low in fat), and I think that it's so critical to feel like you're part of some kind of team. As writers we often work in isolation, and if you're like me, and live in a remote place, or have responsibilities like children who make attending in-person group meetings impossible, it's critical to have this kind of support network and to work with one another, at least for promotion. So thanks to all of you for being here, and I promise to drop by and ask you tricky questions when you do your chat (which you should -- it's fun!).

Jun 30, 2008, 10:39pm Top

Hey Maggie, try us out now: throw out a question and see what folks have to say on the topic...

Jul 1, 2008, 3:54am Top

I usually like to tailor my questions to the author, but how about this -- fiction sales tend to be dwindling in favour of the memoir (hoaxed or real, but sensational generally) and the self-help (diet book ideally -- the world needs more of those) genres. Do you think there's a reason for this, and what can fiction authors and readers do to counter the trend?

Jul 1, 2008, 4:58am Top

About the appeal of memoirs: I think it may be driven by people's need for *characters* in their reading combined with their need to understand the world around them. So, my stab at a short answer is that writers should focus on character development -- even in genres like science-fiction which have a (perhaps unfair) reputation for skimping out on the character development -- and on relevance. By "relevance" I don't mean that it has to be a story about George W. Bush to have meaning to people's lives. The most bizarre, out-there book I can think of right now is Geek Love, but in today's pluralistic society, the celebration of difference in that novel was absolutely relevant!

I think the appeal of self-help books lies in their relevance to people's lives: here you have someone (the author) "talking" to you about something that plays a huge part in your life (e.g. weight loss imperatives, domestic violence, alcoholism, how to get ahead at work), and the main character is ... the *reader*!

I'll have to think about that some more -- I'm spewing pop-psychology, you understand, and surely there are as many different reasons for the overall trend as there are readers, but it's a good question, Maggie. I'd like to hear what others think ...

Jul 1, 2008, 6:55am Top

Just thought of another memoir: Heaven's Coast -- I don't usually read memoirs, but I had to read this for a class. Powerful book. The author is a poet, and that comes through in his writing. It's not like an A&E biography documentary, but Doty's and his partner's characters are vividly portrayed here in awesome language, so it definitely fed my need for both characterization and expressiveness.

Jul 1, 2008, 11:20am Top

I would kindly like to address this message to"Bintarab." With all due respect to freedom of speech, your input to this chat has, for the most part, been very interesting. But of the the 31 postings (not counting Magdalena's responses), 17 of them from have come from you. That is just shy of half. Perhaps you would consider backing off a tad to afford Magdalena some breathing room to answer postings from other interesting and interested people. I am sure that Magdalena is capable of fending for herself, but I get the impression that she is too polite to express what I am suggesting to you in this posting. No offense is intended and I hope there is none taken.

Jul 1, 2008, 5:07pm Top

fiction sales are down as folks have/take less time to read. Self-help books sell (hey, people are needy) but don't generally get read. "memoirs" do seem to draw readers in - in just the way good fiction should, but perhaps have greater "curb" appeal. I would like to think that when the TVs go off and video games die, fiction will make a comeback. Libraries may see the revival before bookstores, but there be missionaries!

Jul 1, 2008, 6:01pm Top

I'll take a stab at the answer too, though I've written about it more extensively here. My feeling is that, as readers (and I'm generalising), we may have developed a distorted sense of the relationship between facts and truth. That is, in our collective quest for truth, we may have mistakenly come to the conclusion that truth is to be found solely amongst fact -- "what actually happened"-- and that fiction is little more than a light hearted break from the gaining of knowledge -- eg, 'entertainment' (and I use the word in its derogatory sense). Being a dedicated fiction reader, as well as a fiction writer, I, of course, dispute this. Truth is to be found at least as readily amongst fiction as it is amongst fact, and as we can see from the raging tide of faked memoirs, 'what really happened' is no closer to the heart of what it means to be human being, than a work built up from observation and invention. All knowledge begins with hypothesis. I would suggest that badly written self-help books (there are good ones too), are as far from the 'truth' as a well written novel is close to it.

Jul 1, 2008, 8:58pm Top

And as the late George Carlin reminded us, if you need to buy a book written by someone else to help yourself, then it really isn't "self help."

Jul 2, 2008, 2:57am Top

What's your take on ebooks, Maggie; especially since dedicated reading devices like the Soni Reader and Amazon's Kindle overcame the big bug of portability? And do you see a time when authors (especially those forced to resort to self-publishing) might write with only ebook publication in mind? Neil

Edited: Jul 2, 2008, 9:18am Top

Hello Magdalena, Although I will stay tuned to this forum until the end, this will most likely be my final question/posting, so I'd like to first thank you and the other contributers for a very stimulating exchange of ideas. Perhaps you will allow me to spread out somewhat with this last question.

This regards Message 41 and your response to it in Message 49. I totally agree with you and delph that computers are merely a means by which authors write and that if a writer has nothing interesting to say, electronic devices will not help. (Although I stand in awe at those writers, fiction and nonfiction, from the 19th century and earlier who authored tomes of over thousands of pages with nothing but a stylus or quill.)

However, cut-and-paste and other features of word processing programs have without question made it easier for would-be writers who might not otherwise attempt a novel by means of a pen. Mine is a two-pronged question and I also invite responses from editors and literary agents who might be monitoring this chat. A literary agent once told me that two events from the 1990s have served as a crowbar with which to pry open the gates of Hell for them and publishers. The first is word processing programs for the reasons stated above, namely, that now it is so easy for any wannabe author to cobble together a manuscript that agents and publishers are deluged with junk (agent's word, not mine).

The second event was a book authored by Robert James Waller titled "The Bridges of Madison County" which sold over 50 million copies world wide. The literary agent in question told me that the simplicity of Waller's writing and his almost unprecedented success implanted the notion in the minds of thousands of people otherwise disinclined to write that, "Hey, if this guy Waller can make a zillion dollars with so simple a vehicle, then I can too." Of course, the agent regarded these two events as annoying occurrences.

This leads (finally) to my question. Do you think there is any validity to the agent's negative spin on these events? Or do you think that making it simpler for people to be lured into the writing arena by word processing programs and the success of a novel (almost defined by its simplicity) is a good thing?

Thanks in advance. I feel grateful to have been part of your forum.

Jul 2, 2008, 6:02pm Top

neilmarr asked for my take on ebooks. I think, Neil, that it's only a matter of time before they do completely wipe out printed books (which will be for collectors of the artifacts rather than for readers). It's been a long learning curve and we aren't there yet -- the ideal reader will be cheap (after all, you can buy a book for under $20, and a lot less than that second hand or at a discount--there are a lot of books in $400 -- plus, do I really want to walk around with a $400 machine in my handbag?) and able to work across platforms (and definitely with .pdf -- most of them don't work well with it--I've tried and it was a disaster--I had to return my reader). But I think we're getting very close. As a person with an ever expanding book library and ever decreasing shelf (and handbag) space, I can certainly see the appeal. Plus ebooks are cheap (and should be a lot cheaper than Amazon is selling them at Kindle -- they should be as cheap as BeWrite sells them for!) and many great books are available free in ebook form, which makes a reader much more attractive. Backlighting, the ability to search, bookmark, and annotate are very useful extras. So I think its down to the reader, and I expect the market to be cracked in about a year and then filtration to take another year and that will be that, said the Sybil. And yes, I think there will be a time when authors will write with only ebook publication in mind, though I'm sure there will always be prints for certain types of books like gift/coffee table/art books, but they will be visual, rather than textual based.

Edited: Jul 3, 2008, 6:01pm Top

Santacola asked: "Do you think there is any validity to the agent's negative spin on these events? Or do you think that making it simpler for people to be lured into the writing arena by word processing programs and the success of a novel (almost defined by its simplicity) is a good thing?" This is a 20milliondollar question, which I could easily translate into "is technology a good or bad thing?" My simple answer to that is, I don't know. The Atom bomb was an evil evil thing, but I can't see how Oppenheimer would have known or how we could have not made it. We're rushing forward fast, Santacola, and it's both scary and exciting. Ray Kurzweil predicts we won't even be homosapians anymore in something like 20 years, but rather, that we will have evolved to another race altogether -- half man/half machine. I thought that was loopy when I read it until I later, the same day, heard on the radio that there were some students who had had chips implanted into their hands so that they could operate their hands as computer mouses (mice?). So, I'm not sure that we can ascribe a morality to the fact that computers make writing easier and that the Internet gives everyone a soapbox and audience (the proliferation of the blog). We're moving there faster than we can eat our morning breakfast and it's simply the reality. There are lots of good things about the 'democratisation' of writing, from the printing press to the Internet, and lots of bad things too. Maybe I'll write an article (blog :-) about it so I can do justice to your question! The truth is, we're all breathless and trying to keep up, and your publisher friend has to try and ride the waves of the tsunami, because it doesn't matter whether it is a positive or negative thing -- it's here and those that can't swim will sink. Phew -- sorry for the extended metaphor.

Jul 2, 2008, 6:16pm Top

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Jul 11, 2008, 1:38pm Top

BintArab asked way back: Who is DBC Pierre?

He won the Man Booker prize with Vernon God Little. A coruscating tale (as Prof Carey described it) of high school shootings involving a framed boy and his reality relationships with his family. DBC intrigued me because the press made out he was an unknown writer but otherwise known as a bounty hunter who stole his friend's house at cards and sold it to pay of his drug debts. In fact DBC was already known to his publisher as a cover artist. Vernon God Little, I presume has been reviewed at Compulsive Reader, Maggie? If not I'll send you mine.


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