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  • Happy Relationships

    Thu, 28 Feb 2013 10:06

    Why do some relationships give us great joy and others become toxic? What role do we play in our relationships? Are our relationship skills weakening in the age of social media?

    There are undoubtedly some people who seem to be more skilled at interpersonal relationships than others. But Lucy Beresford, Psychologies agony aunt, psychotherapist and author of Happy Relationships, at Home, Work & Play, believes that this isn't just down to lucky gifts from the gods or even down to a particular type of temperament, but because such people deploy particular ways of interacting with others which are successful.

    blog imageHappy Relationships aims to share this wisdom, to help us understand how relationships in all areas of our lives can be a joy and not a chore.

    Lucy speaks from her great experience not only in advising Psychologies readers on their dilemmas as their resident agony aunt, but from working in private practice in London, as well as in New Delhi, India.

    Whether it's with our partner, our kids, our boss or our mother-in-law, all our relationships require - at some stage in our lives - a little bit of tender loving care. Happy Relationships includes chapters on our relationships with ourselves, parents, close friends, partners, siblings, in-laws, children, colleagues and social media.

    "One of the key things that this book will try to show", says Lucy, "is that our difficulties in relationships will always say as much about us as they do about others. Unwittingly, we sabotage our relationships because of our own fears and hang-ups." So when relationships flounder or cause us distress, and especially when we find ourselves complaining endlessly about someone, we need to take a step back and see our own part in that relationship.

    She can't turn frogs into princes, bosses into brown spaniels (not overnight...), or stop teenage hormones going awry, but in Happy Relationships Lucy aims to provide a helpful toolkit that can boost self-confidence, encourage understanding and empower us to be the best we can be in all our relationships. Lucy Beresford is the Agony Aunt for the women's glossy Psychologies magazine and works as a psychotherapist in private practice and at The London Psychiatry Centre and Priory Hospital. She has also had three clinical sabbaticals in New Delhi, India. Lucy regularly reviews fiction for the Sunday Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator and Literary Review. Based in London, Lucy spent 10 years in Investment Banking in the City before leaving to write fiction and to retrain as a psychotherapist.

  • Interview with Edna O'Brien

    Wed, 24 Oct 2012 10:26

    blog image Since her debut novel The Country Girls, Edna O'Brien has written over twenty works of fiction along with a biography of James Joyce and Lord Byron. She is the recipient of many awards including the Irish Pen Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Art's Gold Medal and the Ulysses Medal. Now with Country Girl, in prose which sparkles with the effortless gifts of a master in her ninth decade, Edna has recast her life with the imaginative insight of a poet. It is a book of unfathomable depths and honesty.

  • Tanith Carey

    Thu, 21 Jan 2010 09:08

    Tanith Carey started her career in national newspapers at the Daily Mirror in the days when Marje Proops was still the paper's legendary agony aunt. She went on become the paper's Woman's Editor, Features Editor and NY correspondent but has never lost her fascination with the women who long reigned over the problem pages. Tanith now writes on women's issues for a wide range of national newspapers and magazines.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe?

    Tanith Carey: I was researching my third book, which was a collection of motherhood experiences from different eras -- and came across an article from a long-forgotten magazine called Mother and Home in 1915.
    It said that babies should never be played because there was a danger it stimulated their brains!
    As a parenting author, I was so appalled that mothers were told this, which is so contrary to what we know now, I decided to what other truly awful advice had been handed out in long-forgotten magazines and newspapers. Luckily there was lots of it!

    Mark Thwaite:Your book is based on the "words of wisdom from the golden age of agony aunts" -- when was that golden age?

    Tanith Carey:I would say from the 1860s when agony aunts become roughly recognisable in the format we know today -- to the 1960s when the advice started to get alot more sensible.
    Until the 1960s agony aunts could be very prim and proper and would issue dire warnings that women would be ruined if they had sex before marriage etc.
    When the Pill opened the floodgates of sexual freedom, not even their highhanded morality could keep them shut -- so Agony Aunts had to move with the times!

    Mark Thwaite: How and why did agony aunts come about?

    Tanith Carey: They were invented by a magazine publisher called John Dunton who first hit on the idea that his readers' own dramas were much more interesting than politics or current affairs -- as well as a very cost-effective way of filling his pages. It also maybe no coincidence that he was having a moral dilemma of his own -- he was having an extra marital affair.
    However those first letters in the Athenian Mercury in 1691 were just as likely to be queries about the mysteries of the world, like the wonders of perpetual motion. But they also touched on such issues as: "Is a husband justified in divorcing a wife who tricked him into marrying her by wearing make-up?"
    Soon Dunton had hired a group of women writers to answer the queries. But it was the Victorians who really turned the agony aunt column into the form we know today -- and basically used it as a way to map out and uphold their morals.

    Mark Thwaite: Did they ever really give genuinely useful advice? Did society really need them?

    Tanith Carey: Yes, I think at a time when information was so scarce, agony aunt columns performed an absolutely vital role. And to be fair, a lot of what was written was fair and applicable for the era in which it was written.

    Mark Thwaite: When and why do you think their influence waned?

    Tanith Carey: The advent of the Internet in the late Nineties meant that anyone with a problem could now find the answers to most queries within seconds. Problems pages are still popular today, but really they a quaint anachronisms, read more for entertainment, than information. The fact that many celebrities are now agony aunts -- Katie Price for example has a column in OK magazine -- shows they are more for fun than anything else -- and no longer to be taken entirely seriously, which in some ways is a great shame.

    Mark Thwaite: What is your favourite bit of advice in your book?

    Tanith Carey: I love the advice to a lady in 1928 who is told she can whittle away the excess pounds by rolling on the floor.
    There's another from around the same time where a woman is told that you can lose as much weight visiting a museum -- through exercise of the brain -- as you can climbing the Alps. If only!
    Then I still laugh at the advice given to a man called Peter in 1865 who can't swim, but wants to learn. He is told to wade into the sea, throw an egg ahead of him and dive in after him, to prove to himself that he will float!
    Generally the ones I love the best are the hilariously high-handed pieces of advice -- or the ones that summon up vivid images of some of the ridiculous things people got up to in times gone by.

    Mark Thwaite: Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and attempted to kiss anyone in a canoe yourself?

    Tanith Carey: Well, I am not a big boat lover. The closest I've ever been in probably giving my husband a kiss on a cruise the year before last -- but the effect wouldn't have been quite the same as the boat was about the size of the QE2! The quote comes from a piece of advice given to a girl in 1895 who asked if she could go out alone with a boy in a canoe -- and who was brusquely told it was out of the question. I think she was told no because it was socially unacceptable, not because they'd tip over though!

    Mark Thwaite: On the back of researching and compiling all these questions and answers, did you become very wise about the human condition!?

    Tanith Carey: Well, I learned that the human condition has always been fundamentally the same. People want the same things now as they have always done -- love, happiness, advice on how dress well and look good. It's only social rules which surround us that change.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book Tanith? How did you overcome it?

    Tanith Carey: It was just the sheer number of hours that I would spend leafing through magazines looking for new gems that really surprised or made me laugh out loud. So in some ways, it could be an endurance test. But I really loved doing it, because I would open these magazines that looked like they hadn't been read since the year they were published and the letters felt as fresh and vivid as the day they were written. I just kept going until I felt I'd made it the funniest book I could.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing and compiling odd books about agony aunts?

    Tanith Carey: Well, this is my fourth book, so when I am not writing books, I am looking out for ideas for new ones. I also write features and opinion peices for a range of national newspapers and magazines.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Tanith Carey: Well, as I wrote this book, I imagined this book would appeal to a lot of different people -- but principally those with a good sense of humour. But also I felt it would appeal to those people who like history. That's because these letters bring the past alive by showing what people really thought and felt at different times over the last 150 or so years. You can actually see society evolving through the subject matter of the letters -- and the answers.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Tanith Carey: Well, if I am not writing books, I am often writing journalism. I am also writing another book which is a memoir about a woman whose soldier husband forgot all about her when he suffered amnesia after an accident in the Gulf -- and how she made him fall in love with her all over again.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer Tanith? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Tanith Carey: I have to say I mainly read non-fiction. I like books with a different perspectives that teach me something.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Tanith Carey: A brilliant idea will always shine through. Also it's a good idea to spend as much time as possible browsing in bookshops to see what publishers want.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Tanith Carey>: As harsh and highhanded as some of the advice is, I think this book appeals so much to people because it harks back to a time when everyone knew the rules -- and stuck to them. In the past, agony aunts were very much moral enforcers -- so I think that chimes with the present day, when there aren't many morals left!
    For that reason, the book seems to have attracted a lot of commentary on lots of different levels.
    But my favourite comment was from a reviewer who said it was the perfect last minute present for absolutely anyone -- but the danger was that would end up keeping it yourself!
  • Neal Asher

    Mon, 07 Dec 2009 07:26

    Neal Asher has been an engineer, barman, skip lorry driver, coalman, boat window manufacturer, contract grass cutter and builder. Now he writes science fiction books, and says he is "slowly getting over the feeling that someone is going to find me out, and can call myself a writer without wincing and ducking my head."

    Mark Thwaite: Orbus is the third Spatterjay novel. Tell us about the series, Neal, and where Orbus takes it...

    Neal Asher: The Skinner, which starts the series but can also stand on its own, was one of the two books I'd already written when Macmillan offered me a contract. It's one where I completely let myself go and I wrote it very quickly, subsequently expanding it from 80,000 words to 150,000. The whole novel thing grew from two extremely weird short stories I had published long ago called Spatterjay and Snairls. Here's a bit of the blurb:

    Three travellers arrive on the world of Spatterjay: Janer brings the eyes of a Hive mind; Erlin comes to find Ambel -- the ancient sea captain who can teach her to live; and Sable Keech is a man with a vendetta he will not give up, though he has been dead for seven hundred years...

    It's romp of a story on a world occupied by some seriously weird life-forms -- leeches whose bite imparts immortality, living sails -- and then a Prador, a vicious alien arrives with a little mayhem in mind.

    Next came The Voyage of the Sable Keech in which our visitors return, only to be confronted by the "first-child" of the Prador in the previous book, a cruise liner filled with animated corpses, and then a Prador space dreadnought whose captain is quite prepared to take Spatterjay apart in his hunt for that first-child.

    Orbus takes the story offworld, to the border with the Prador Kingdom -- the Graveyard -- the monstrous king of the Prador, a nightmare creature called the Golgoloth (which uses body parts from its own children to stay alive) and a confrontation that could easily result in interstellar war.

    Mark Thwaite: What inspired you to write this particular story?

    Neal Asher: I found the character Orbus, who appeared in Voyage, very interesting and wanted to take his story further. At the end of the previous book he was heading offword, which perfectly tied with an unresolved story thread about one of the alien characters, a Prador called Vrell.

    Mark Thwaite: In Orbus, "the cold war is heating up, fast." Our own world is still pretty war-riven, is SF a place for you to think about our world as much as a space to write about imagined ones?

    Neal Asher: Not really. It's a place where I can escape our world and where I can create something to help others escape from it. Certainly comparisons can be made, but they're not intentional, just a product of the fact that I live here and some of what happens here has to penetrate my skull.

    Mark Thwaite: What/where next in Spatterjay series Neal?

    Neal Asher: I don't have anything planned for Spatterjay. In fact I'm starting on something new, a new series based on The Owner stories that appeared in my collection The Engineer ReConditioned. But I will probably revisit that place in the future.

    Mark Thwaite: Tell us a little about your latest short story collection, The Gabble.

    Neal Asher: The stories were first published in magazines like Asimov's and sprang from a creature I created in The Line of Polity (second book in the Cormac series): the Gabbleduck. This creatue has grown in the telling. It's a massive alien creature with a duck-like bill, tiara of green eyes and pyramidal body. It speaks nonsense and is likely the descendent of aliens that once had a star-spanning civilization, which they sacrificed when they committed racial suicide.

    Mark Thwaite: Besides length, what differences do you find between novel writing and writing short stories? Do you prefer one form over the other?

    Neal Asher: I like them both. Writing a novel allows for a relaxed approach to developing the plot but can sometimes be a bit of a slog. Tighter writing is required for a short story, and it is very satisfying when you get it right. They are both the work I enjoy but, unfortunately, only one of them pays the bills.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing Orbus Neal? How did you overcome it?

    Neal Asher: Same thing as usual with all my books, I let myself go crazy for about 80 to 100 thousand words but then I have to produce a satisfying ending. I have to tinker with plot threads, cut some of them out entirely, rewrite sections and write entirely new sections. That's it really: delivering and ending. Beginnings are easy.

    Mark Thwaite: You've been an engineer, barman, skip lorry driver, coalman, boat window manufacturer, contract grass cutter and builder -- I'm suspecting writing ranks as better than all and any of those?

    Neal Asher: I don't have to clock-on, use Swarfega to get my hands clean, visit an osteopath, or tolerate idiots. This is the kind of thing some writers seem to forget when they whine about struggling with their art, either that or they never caught sight of it in the first place. Yeah, writing SF books as a profession is good, but don't forget I spent twenty odd years running at a brick wall with my head before I broke through.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Neal Asher: Eat, read, drink wine, swim, spend far too much time mucking about in the Internet, socialize (a bit) and generally what most people do in their free time. Though I have to add that writing is a life and not just a job to pay for a life.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Neal Asher: The reader I write for is me, but I'm lucky that many other people like what I like. It turns out that the demographic seems to be mainly males between the ages of 20 and 40 who work in IT -- or at least that's the way it was last time I enjoyed a beer with some fans.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Neal Asher: Right now I'm working on a book with the provisional title Gabbleducks but, since it's turning into something not entirely focused on those creatures, the title may change. Thus far I have the only living survivor of a hooder attack trying to recover his sanity. Polity medical technology would be able to sort him out in a trice, were it not for the fact that the AIs are reluctant to meddle with his mind since the hooder that attacked him was a near mythical creature called The Technician, and it did something to him that even they don't quite understand. I have an odd character called Chanter who pursues the Technician in his mudmarine, trying to understand the grotesque sculptures of bones the creature makes with its victim's remains, trying to understand its art... This is all complicated by the history of the Atheter's (gabbleduck's) racial suicide, a world-destroying machine built to ensure they are never resurrected, a black AI called Penny Royal and a mean war drone called Amistad (from The Shadow of the Scorpion). I'm about 20,000 words away from tying this up.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer Neal? Both SF and not... What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Neal Asher: I don't have any single favourite writer, nor a single favourite book. This is always a difficult question because, if a try to answer it, later I'll remember, oh yeah, and there's so-and-so, and there's that book. For example, I was recently reminded of how much I enjoyed a couple of books by F Paul Wilson, The Keep and Healer.

    Odd stuff that springs to mind: Half-Past Human by T.J. Bass, anything by Terry Pratchett, Roger Zelazny and Larry Niven; Minette Walters, Graeme Green's Claudius, Jack Vance, Iain M Banks, Richard Morgan and Alastair Reynolds and Gary Gibson... dammit, I see that I'm going to have to note down a list of everything up in my loft and stick it up on my blog.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Neal Asher: One writer's reply to this is "don't" in the sure knowledge that those who want to write for a living will ignore him. My advice: write, write, write. There is no funny handshake you need to learn to be successful. Never think you've nothing left to learn, buy books on the process, read English books, read, read, read and just keep running at that brick wall with your head. I think that one of the main traits you'll find in those who have "made it" is pig-headed stubbornness!

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say.

    Neal Asher: You're gonna get your first book published, the one it took you years of struggle to finish and finally get published? Just remember your publisher will now tell you they want another one, next year. Publication isn't success, constant publication is.

  • Nick McDonell

    Thu, 01 Oct 2009 05:02

    Nick McDonell was born in New York City and is a graduate of Harvard University. The wunderkind of American fiction, he has published two previous novels: Twelve and The Third Brother.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing An Expensive Education Nick?

    Nick McDonell: There was no moment in particular. Because I had was traveling in Africa and recently graduated from college I started thinking about how the two places might be connected. Waiting in airports or hotels or dirt roads I started thinking about what kind of book I'd like to read, and kept returning to stories about spys and colliding worlds.

    Mark Thwaite: An Expensive Education is your third novel. Do they get easier or harder to write!?

    Nick McDonell: It is difficult to compare the process. I do know that as I get older more options present themselves, and so making decisions about what to write is becoming more difficult. But with practice some of the forms are getting easier -- like the narrative prose in this book -- or if not easier than clearer, I hope.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel moves between Africa and Harvard, and deals with the inner workings of the American intelligence service -- was there a lot of research involved then? Was that something you particularly enjoy? What was the trickiest aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Nick McDonell: The research was really just hanging out in places were people talk about and sometimes are involved in the intelligence business. I enjoyed that tremendously -- particularly when it was in the form of researching a piece of journalism. I got a great deal out of a trip I too to Sudan to write about a mediator there. I wasn't embedding with the CIA or anything like that, but I was listening to stories of former guerrilla fighters in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front.

    That sort of stuff always gives me ideas for fiction. I don't know what the trickiest aspect of writing the book would be -- probably trying to stand inside the shoes of one of the characters, authentically see the word from another point of view.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Nick McDonell: I write straight into a laptop, print, edit in longhand, and then repeat that process for as long as it takes to finish the book. I keep notebooks too -- ideas for the novel go in there along with whatever else I am working on.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how An Expensive Education would end before you began, or was writing the novel a journey of discovery for you?

    Nick McDonell: I had an idea but only on the larger level. I wanted the characters to all make decisions that seemed 'right' but whose consequences were 'wrong,' at least in this particular fantasy.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing Nick?

    Nick McDonell: I am writing, reading, or researching most of the time. When I am in New York I run a weekly basketball game. I spend as much time as I can in the natural world.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Nick McDonell: I think about how the book is read more than the reader. An idea I got from Joan Didion is to always try to write something that can be read in one sitting. I remember something about John Updike saying that his ideal reader was a kid in a library in Kansas but I have never been able to visualize anything like that. It is important to me that I like what I write at least, and that is not so easy as it sounds.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Nick McDonell: I'm doing more reading and thinking than writing just now. I am interested in the motivations for intervention abroad, whihc is connected to this last novel. Now I'm more interested in pursuing the question in non-fiction, so I am trying to work out how to do that.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Nick McDonell: Too long a list to write, but right now my favorite piece of writing is an essay by Isaiah Berlin called The Hedgehog and The Fox. The title is taken from a but of greek positing that the fox knows many things while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Dante was a Hedgehog, Shakespeare was a Fox, and so on. Berlin uses this idea to look at Tolstoy's War and Peace and concludes that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. I have been thinking that this piece has some resonance in the world of international intervention in conflict zones and, considered with Berlin's nuance (hard to do!), I think there might be something to the motivations of interventionists to be seen more clearly in this light.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Nick McDonell: Robert Stone, whom I admire tremendously, once said about writing, that writing "is goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not. You have to make yourself do it." I think that was something that helped me. The idea that you have to 'make yourself do it.' That is the 'tip' I would give to anyone who wanted to write, besides read everything.

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