Category Archives: Book To The Future

Charlie Hill’s ‘Books: Read it and Die!’ @ Book to the Future

charlie hill booksDuring their interview, Nicola Kalinsky, director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, asks Charlie Hill, “Why do you write?” The author is taken aback, and after a loaded pause he responds with “I think…you just gotta, really.”

Here to talk about his new satirical novel, Books: Read it and Die, Hill looks distinctly uncomfortable in the spotlight, and is quick to self-deprecate. The interview format of the talk is a clever one, for the confidence and enthusiasm of Kalinsky facilitates Hill’s momentum, and encourages the author to express some thoughtful and subtle perceptions on the culture of literature.

The novel’s origin can be traced to Hill’s days working in Waterstones, spending hours gazing at the ‘3 for 2’ section. In the late 90s the idea came to him to write a short story, aptly titled ‘3 for 2’, which was published in ‘Ambit’, and would later expand to become Books: Read it and Die. On the topic of his own success, the writer has a dark sense of humour: “A part of me rather hoped my book would be picked up by a big publisher and end up languishing in the ‘3 for 2’ aisle”. Upon this quip Kalinsky is quick to point out that Hill’s dark comic timing lends itself brilliantly to the bleak satire of the book.

The crux of the plot-line is the idea that consuming mediocre literature can be detrimental to the reader’s health. At one point the story’s anti-hero and heroine witness the death of a publicist, and the protagonist flippantly remarks, “I’m not surprised she nodded off, reading that rubbish!” This is a topic that Hill is clearly passionate about; with some coaxing from Kalinsky the writer is very expressive about his abhorrence for mediocrity. “Life is too short to read what is pushed at you, to listen to what you are told you must listen to. We need to push ourselves.”

He finds it hard that so many writers are content to churn out the same mundane material, purely to make money. When asked to define ‘mediocrity’ Hill need not hesitate, and states with certainty, “The reader needs to be moved, have their perspective shifted, even slightly. There needs to have been an impact, rather than simply reflecting a person’s life back to them.” He is just as quick to discount his own opinions though, and jokes, “Hopefully what I write isn’t quite as dogmatic as what I say.”

The audience’s interest has been piqued, and Nicola’s praise sells the book in a way one suspects Hill, himself, would be uncomfortable doing. From the beginning it is clear that this man is an author, not a salesman. He discusses the novel objectively, without the need to bolster its content. Books is written as a series of first person accounts: from the main character, who stridently preaches about the problems of mediocrity; to the villain, Gary Sales, exemplar of someone responsible for such problems, but who is so human in nature that Kalinsky can’t help but sympathise with.

Despite Hill’s jaded attitude towards our contemporary cultural diet, he remains frankly optimistic about the future of books. “People have been saying the novel is ‘dead’ since the 60s, it’s ridiculous.” “Everyone loves to panic,” Kalinsky agrees. On the ‘kindle craze’, the author does not see cause for alarm, saying paper publishing and kindle publishing are not in competition with each other, so different are their markets. What he is less certain of, however, is what contemporary fiction will stand to be the classics of tomorrow, as it is so difficult to challenge a society that has already seen and heard everything. “The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is excellent, but I just don’t know if it could be a classic.”

Whether Books: Read it and Die will stand the test of time is a different issue. Though if the author’s obvious passion for writing flows through its pages as eloquently as Kalinsky says, then it is guaranteed to be thought-provoking and as far removed from mediocrity as one could imagine- not to mention, beneficial to the reader’s health!

by Susie Dickey
@SusannahDickey

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Jo Usmar: Being a Cosmo Columnist and Other Stories @Book to the Future

jo usmar 2“I am proof that, if you graduate from here…you can touch Harry Styles! Oh no, not in a weird way!”

With her nervous gesticulating and self-deprecating manner, Jo Usmar  instantly charms her audience, negating any preconceptions of the officious, odious journalist.  The talk has an informal but intimate feel from the outset, as Usmar guides her listeners through a career story with such humble origins as to put all aspiring writers in her midst at ease. Describing her younger self’s reluctance to get involved in student media societies until her final year, Usmar assuages the anxieties of those of us clamouring to fatten our portfolios, whilst also stressing the importance of utilizing such resources.

Whilst such a platform could have afforded Usmar the chance to self-indulgently pontificate for a 45-minute stretch, she instead chose to impart insights and advice laden with the benefits of experience, as well as some choice anecdotes; she had the hotly contested job of ‘preparing June Sarpong’s blueberry porridge’, not to mention the coveted ‘first interview with One Direction!’ Her delivery is rushed, with neither comic-timing nor polish, but the result is compelling, for Usmar is accessible, and thus fascinating.

 Starting her career at Sugar magazine – which unfortunately met its demise shortly after – Usmar worked her way up through the journalistic ranks: a healthy dose of reality for those who thought they could simply waltz into an editorial position at The Times. Currently working as a freelance writer, Jo eschewed any fears her listeners associated with such a precarious position, by demonstrating what a vast range of opportunities such a position afforded her, having written for Stylist, Heat and The Daily Mirror. The title ‘Being a Cosmo Journalist’ really doesn’t do justice to the talk, for Usmar has accomplished so much more. She has also published self-help books, and speaks of the daunting task of finding a willing publicist in a frank but optimistic manner.

At times the writer is ill at ease, and this may reflect an anxiety to fill the allocated time, but these occasional uncomfortable lulls are punctuated by frank and honest observations, and the contrast between the seeming self-doubt that lingers with youth and the self-assuredness that comes from success appeals hugely to an audience of nervous undergrads. At one point she pauses, and asks “Is this helpful?”; here is a woman with an interest in her audience and a passion for her topic. The talk spans an invaluable range of topics, from work experience, to the importance of tailoring your writing style, to the importance of “just talking”.

 Jo Usmar is a University of Birmingham girl with no laboured airs or graces, and ‘Being a Cosmo Journalist and Other Stories’ could not have done more to convince her listeners of the importance of such qualities.

by Susie Dickey
@SusannahDickey

Jo Usmar Interview @ Book to the Future

Jo UsmarInterviewing Jo Usmar was especially inspiring as not only is she a UoB graduate but she has my dream career as a columnist, freelance journalist, and published author. She joined the ‘Book to the Future’ festival to offer advice on how to make it as a journalist and met me beforehand to give me the inside scoop on her own journey.

Jo revealed that she got her first big break at FHM by networking her way up from being a studio runner at Channel 4. Finding that opportunities often open up “once you’re in the building”, she asked for work experience with Zoo, three floors up from FHM, and became their Editorial Assistant for a year and a half. She emphasised that FHM and Zoo were less controversial at the time and were certainly more successful than women’s magazines, reiterating her belief that any experience is better than no experience.

When asked whether she prefers writing for magazines or newspapers, Jo chose the former without hesitation, stating she “dabble[s] in news” but it’s “hard core… running out and finding stories. With magazines you have a longer timeline.” She conveyed the value of experience in news though, stating that it teaches you to write fast and to deadlines, which is helpful for any aspect of journalism. Indeed, Jo said that a transition from news journalism to magazine journalism is easier than the reverse, declaring that “if you can survive in news you’ll do well in anything!”

Jo now has the luxury of being a freelance writer, but it’s not an easy switch; to be successful and earn an employer’s trust you have to have a substantial book of work. Neither is it for nervous people as work is never guaranteed. Although she enjoyed the camaraderie in the office, she said she wouldn’t go back to being a staffer and it was clear that she enjoys the flexibility and freedom that comes with freelance journalism.

Aside from journalism, Jo is incredibly passionate about her latest project: a series of four self-help books which will be released on 7th January. Designed to be smaller and more accessible than other self-help books, they carry the overarching title ‘This Book Will’ and focus specifically on happiness, confidence, sleep and calm. Written with close friend and clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibbard, their collaboration combines cognitive behavioural therapy with a style of writing that Jo hopes is “less intimidating and vaguely entertaining!”

In her spare time, Jo is a voracious reader and enjoys everything from Roald Dahl’s children’s classic Matilda to Bram Stoker’s gothic horror Dracula. She expressed her love of thrillers such as those by John Grisham, Lee Child and Stephen King especially – sharing her enthusiasm for his post-apocalyptic horror novel The Stand.

Jo finished with a few key tips for aspiring writers:

  • Be enthusiastic and get as much work experience as you can.
  • “Don’t take things personally!” Ask why your work was edited and learn from it.
  • “Have ideas- if you have amazing ideas you will get an interview.”

Finally, she warns aspiring journalists to be prepared for long hours and menial jobs. “The hours are ridiculous and the pays non-existent. If you can’t hack it you won’t last. You’ve got to really want to do it.” Despite this, she declared that the “pros massively outweigh the cons for me”, before concluding with a smile “it’s the best job in the world”.

by Ellicia Pendle
@elliciapendle

The Subject of Murder @ Book to the Future

lisa-downing

Professor Lisa Downing’s talk marked the close of the University of Birmingham’s first six-day long literary festival. The controversial subject of murder was broached by Professor Downing through the medium of her much discussed book The Subject of Murder, released in March of this year. The event took the form of a reading from Professor Downing’s book, with explanations along the way, and questions from the audience closing the event.

The ideas discussed in the book conveyed many ideas about murders and their depiction in the media that I would previously not have considered. Yet, when brought up, such ideas make perfect sense with reference to the way in which we view murderers and their crimes. Downing opened the talk with the idea of murderers as being “immortalized”, in the glamorisation of their crimes through their representation in the media. Downing discussed how there is something intrinsically “exceptional” about murderers, so much so that they almost attain a “quasi-celebrity status”, and become an object of fascination, due to the hideous, yet strangely extraordinary acts they commit.

Downing also made reference to the idea of murderers needing to be understood in gender terms, where, quite blatantly and stereotypically, the killer is a white male, and the victim, a vulnerable female. Downing claimed that, when discussing murders, “only men are allowed to be transcendent, while women are imminent”, portraying the idea of men as “the subject of exception” when it comes to murder. She explained that men attain a somewhat higher status through the act of murder, where women are demoted, in their role as victim.

A key part of Downing’s talk aligned murderers with European ideas of beauty and art in the 18th century, right through to the 20th century. As I have previously stated, it is a way to explore the nature and representation of murderers that I would personally never have considered, yet the explanation perfectly explains our public perception of murderers as these omniscient figures, of whom we are made aware through their horrendous crimes against humanity. The alignment of a murderer, a traditional figure of evil and condemnation, and the idea of decadent beauty and artistry at first left me slightly uneasy and sceptical. However, Downing explained that the murderer parallels the artist in the sense that they are exempt from normal morality. An artist is allowed to create a morally or socially controversial painting in the name of art, where a murderer commits a heinous act outside of accepted social boundaries.

She also discussed the idea, or rather the fantasy, of murderers, that an act of destruction is close to an act of creation, giving the murderer an elevated view of themselves in moral terms. Downing thus went on to provide a point of comparison in the aesthetic alignment of a murderer with an artist, using the example of a thief, a small-time criminal. She stated that a thief heralds a lack of artistic interest; their crime is merely petty and pathetic; it has no deeper connotations. A murderer on the other hand, would be, somewhat wrongly, “elevated in aesthetic value”, for the sheer depth of their crime, as opposed to the relatively miniscule impact a thief leaves in his wake.

Downing also interestingly deliberated the notion of the murderer as beast, an idea I could personally understand a little more than her alignment of a murder to ideals of beauty. This concept was explained in reference to scientific ideas of the 19th century. Downing explained the ideas of physiognomy, and the notion that the essence of a murderer can be read in his or her face, suggesting a “reliance upon the body as a map to an individual’s nature”. Downing of course then addressed the often discussed idea of male sexuality, that murder is simply the male expression of untamed natural urges, that have not yet been constrained by the bounds of marriage.

A thoroughly intriguing and thought-provoking talk on a highly controversial and tentative topic, Professor Lisa Downing and her book provided me with some interesting ideas on the different ways in which murderers are represented, and can be explained.

By Amy Hunt

Imperial Purple to Denim Blue: The Colourful History of Textiles @ Book to the Future

colours

You go into that new shop you’ve been dying to visit and you’re met with the sight of multitudes of coloured clothing spattered everywhere around you. There’s that purple blouse, or the green sweater, the blue denim shorts, the white trousers, the black t-shirts and the red dresses.  And it’s these colours that make up our surroundings today. It’s these colours which hang around everywhere you go. And it was these colours that Dr Susan Kay-Williams passionately talked about in her lecture.

It’s taken for granted everyday how we can now buy so many pieces of different coloured clothing. Dr Kay-Williams took us right back to the start with the invention of imperial purple. Considered imperial as it was the colour which only European regents and the papacy could afford to wear. She enthusiastically went through the painstaking dying process workers had to go through to transfer small amounts of colour onto large materials to be sold by merchants. That wasn’t all, Dr Kay-Williams gripped the crowd’s attention from the start and went through each of the major colours through the hour. 

Her witty historical facts followed spontaneously throughout the presentation such as Alexander the Great’s fondness for purple robes and the Roman’s obsession of purple which soon reached fever-pitch all across Europe. Alongside this an exploration of Venetian scarlet was made which adorned the walls of the Royalty soon after purple, there was the bleaching white which Elizabeth I wore to acclaim and black which Philip the good wore till his death. Not until the final part of the presentation was blue delved into.

Blue: the most popular colour in the world. Blue, famous for adorning the Virgin Mary in paintings for centuries, later became the staple it is now when Levi picked it up to use on denim jeans. And as they say the rest is the past.

To stand in front of a small crowd of all ages trying to explain the historical values of dyeing clothes isn’t easy. But Dr Kay-Williams throughout the lecture stayed calm and represented her eloquent oratory skills which no doubt kept me absorbed. Combined with her refined speech her wittiness was appreciated and met with giggles from all ages of the crowd. She often dispersed heavy historical contextual detail with small pieces of trivia keeping the event lively but factual too.

Coming from a completely novice background in textiles, Dr Kay-Williams presentation was like a voyeuristic display filled with vibrant anecdotes of the glorious and not so glorious past. The discovery of these colours and their infusions with textiles is why we can afford to wear whatever we please in whichever colour we want. And expectantly it’s something which will always be around us for a long time to come.

By Shantok Jetha

UniSlam! Final: Edinburgh vs MMU @Elgar Concert Hall

judgesSpoken word has had a massive influence on my life in the past three years, and Writers’ Bloc has a very special place in my heart, so to see the Elgar Concert Hall filled with poetry lovers and supporters was truly something I appreciated. It was also a pleasure to see that people came for the poetry, not simply to support the University of Birmingham’s team: the final was certainly the most popular of the rounds.

From Tony Campion’s first poem, it was evident that the Edinburgh team was coming out fighting. Toby’s poem about his name (or lack thereof forty-one days into his life) was incredibly funny and witty. With the timing of a professional comedian, he created a piece that was hilarious. However, he ensured that the poetic elements were maintained: using a poignant image of a glass bottle, Toby completely won the audience over. This performance was by far my favourite of the final.

Edinburgh’s other star was Agnes Torok, a poet who admitted that English wasHannah Wilson her second language. Her first poem, in which she subverted questions and stereotypes attached to homosexual or bisexual people was incredibly clever, funny and delivered an important message without preaching. Her second, a poem about heritage, was a little more difficult to follow, but her ability to explore complex emotions indicated her range.

When Edinburgh’s Freddie Alexander took to the stage, I was initially a little disappointed. Freddie was versed in the American style of slam. Lots of American spoken word often employs a very similar rhythm and syntax, so it can be quite easy to feel like you’ve heard a poem somewhere before. The sentiment behind Freddie’s poem for his father was touching, but the regularly employed images of stars and fires were a little predictable. However, the audience generally loved his performance: Freddie was met with clicks (a way of applauding in the middle of a performance) and a massive round of applause. His second poem – possibly one of my favourites in the final – in which he turned a relationship into a comic book strip (complete with puns based on superhero names), was original, funny and incredibly entertaining. Likewise, Rachel Rankin’s poems about mental health and the uncertainty of her future were crafted from extended imagery and provided a good variety, completing the team.

freddieMMU’s Calum Dwyer recovered from his mishap in the semi-final to perform a poem about fetishes and the awkward situations that arise from them. It goes without saying that this was met with roars of laughter from the audience, but it is a credit to Dwyer that his refrain: ‘How did I end up here?’ was deployed with impeccable comedic timing. His second poem, in which we learned the significance of his name, had more emotional impact but was unfortunately less well-written. The framing device was a little confusing, and it was often very difficult to pinpoint Dwyer’s meaning.

Hannah Wilson was a crowd favourite with her poems about unrequited love and the social stigmas attached to writing poetry. She gave confident performances, but I felt that the subject matter she covered was quite typical for spoken word, and her writing sometimes lacked the originality such popular topics need.

Ciaran Hodgers tackled social issues with poems about the impact of technology and improper maternity care in Ireland, while Olivia Hicks introduced a completely different style of poetry to the slam. She adopted the persona of a bat to give a boisterous, loud performance. Whether or not this was poetry, I cannot actually be sure, but it was most certainly a crowd-pleaser. There also seemed to be a lack of communication between the team, as Hicks also performed a poem about the impact of technology. As both these poems appeared in the same round and from the same team, it was a little too much, and the message seemed tired.

After some great performances from the Round House Collective, who had acted as sacrificial poets in the preliminary heats and kindly entertained the audience while we waited for the scores, Edinburgh were announced as the winners.

I believe that the judges chose the right winners, but I must admit that I waswinners a little surprised at the choice of teams for the final. I personally prefer poetry that is personal, or that makes a move towards the personal. I am not saying that biographical, confessional poetry is the best – my poetry rarely falls into either of these categories – but poetry that takes a personal stance (whether that be of the poet or of a persona) is far more interesting, in my opinion. I personally did not enjoy the poems that tackled social issues without a personal or original slant: saying that poverty is bad, for example, is something that most people would find it impossible to argue with. Having such subject matter does not instantly make a good poem.

There are several criteria which make a good poem (which I believe were reflected on the judges’ scoring sheets). However, I often found myself disagreeing with decisions made or the audience’s delight at ‘social issue’ poems. My favourite poem of the whole day was (and call me biased if you want) UoB’s Ben Jackson’s ‘Cocaine’. It was original, used a persona to create a personal and simultaneously universal message, and was incredibly well-written. It is interesting and frustrating to watch a judged slam; I suppose it is a credit to the poets that I become so impassioned.

But the final, most important point I should make is this: as compere Bohdan Piasecki said, it is not the scores or the ranking that matter; what matters is that poetry is being given a platform, and that people can be united in a love for it, and share the result of their passion. The Writers’ Bloc committee should be applauded for the organisation of this fantastic event; I am certain that they have created a legacy.

by Jenna Clake
@jennaclake

Richard House: The Kills @ Book to the Future

richard houseThe University of Birmingham’s own Richard House gave a lecture as part of UoB ‘Book to the Future’ literature and spoken word festival last week.

The event was a look into the creative process that culminated in this ‘new age’ sort of novel that was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The Kills is just over a thousand pages in length, broken up into four shorter sub-stories: ‘Sutler’, ‘The Massive’, ‘The Kill’, ‘The Hit’. The interesting and new aspect of this novel is the multimedia aspect the book has, with added extras in the form of short film clips and animations. And although House made quite clear the book can be read alone the multimedia extras help to set and change the mood of the extracts.

The event not only gave us an insight into the novel but the man behind it. House spoke about how he was a visual artist before he became a writer, and highlighted the difference between the two, saying his vision and creativity has always had a practical element that comes from working in the visual arts.

All the short films included in The Kills House shot and edited himself on his ipad whilst travelling. He spoke about how the interest of a new medium (the ipad) allowed him to explore new aspects of creating. “When I wasn’t writing I was filming, when I wasn’t filming I was writing”, and the process of an extra layer of video within the book allowed House to think more like the characters he was creating. When he was filming he said he would be thinking “what would Mizuki be thinking, what would she be looking at?” As a creative writer myself I found this fascinating; it’s almost as if via his ipad House was able to explore the world via the sight of his created characters. The videos as well as adding to the novel also acted as a creative exercise furthering the character and plot in his own mind.

The incredible thing about The Kills is all the extra information that goes around it and all the extra work and effort put in to create a world with people and voices. For example ‘The Kill’, the third sub-book within the novel, is referenced by Sutler in the first as a ‘terrible book’ and then again later as a film based upon the original book.  This added extra really gives a personal connection to the audience as they feel immersed into House’s world. This is furthered by the concept of flipping a coin to determine how you read ‘The Kill’. House advises readers to flip a coin and depending on its outcome read the book in chronological order or character by character, making the experience of reading rather more personal.

‘The Kill’ started out as a murder mystery set in Naples, but not wanting to write “just another crime novel in Naples,” House decided to take the advice given to all writers: write what you know. So he wrote a crime novel from the perspective of the outsiders, the people on the periphery. This changed the piece from just another crime in the stereotypically violent and corrupt Naples, to an insight into the people caught up in something they don’t really understand.

The event for me was incredibly interesting and enjoyable in spite of a few technical errors. It gave me an insight into the world of visual arts, and how in this day and age a novel can be so much more than simply words on a page.

By Noemi Barranca.

@NoemiBarranca