Friday, 14 October 2011

My Week In The Russian Ballet

I was very fortunate to be awarded a grant by the Arts Council to research my second novel, Letters From Yelena, for a week in St Petersburg. The book will chart the life of a Russian ballerina, and the trip gave me the chance to find out what this would have entailed...


Day 1- St Petersburg is bewildering, overpowering, and grandly beautiful. I lug my suitcase down the great Nevksy Prospekt, and struggle to make out signs depicted in letters I’ve previously only seen on confectionary. My hotel is situated in between the prestigious ballet academy the Vaganova, and the famous Mariinsky Theatre. As the city darkens I go to visit the Isaac Cathedral. It’s surrounded by neo-gothic statues, with young couples kissing in amongst all its dark corners.

Day 2- In the morning I visit the Nabokov museum. A quote by the writer on one of the video installations seems particularly relevant to my situation. ‘Reality’ he says ‘is perpetually eluding. A plant has a deeper reality for a botanist than for a layman. All you can do is progressively delve through the layers.’ It strikes me that this is all I am trying to do.


More immediate concerns hit me when I grow hungry. Using a phrase book I work out how to say ‘rice’ ‘chicken’ and ‘coffee’, and I eventually successfully order a meal. As I finish it though it transpires that the waitress spoke fluent English, but was too polite to interrupt me.

Day 3- I am met at the hotel by Maria, a guide who takes me backstage at the Mariinsky Theatre. This is where I will begin the pursuit of my character Yelena, whose letters comprise the book. In my story she dances here at her graduation. Maria and I view the grand, hand painted stage-curtain and gold encrusted stalls from the royal box. Backstage ballerinas with talced faces peer at us from their dressing rooms while they chat on mobiles. I am taken through winding corridors full of ballet dresses, ancient props, and determined seamstresses. I feel like I have been placed in a fairy tale.


Day 4 - After months of persistence I find out I have been permitted entry to the Vaganova Ballet Academy. I’ll be one of the few British people to ever fully set foot in the academy, a place which jealously guards its secrets. Writing a book about a Russian ballerina was not anything like enough of a reason to be allowed in. I had to prove I had relevant personal connections, and I also had to pass as a ballerina myself. Maria expresses some relief that I could still feasibly pass this test. I for once feel glad of my relatively slight build. Although it’s part of Maria’s job to set up such tours, she has never been able to get into the academy herself before, and is very excited to realize this life’s dream. I am shown around the academy by it’s pro-rector Aleksi, who was himself a ballerina. He kindly endures my relentless barrage of questions as he leads us around. He is used to intensity, and tells me dancers regularly require therapy when they are retired at 35.


In endless halls, overlooked by portraits of Nureyev, young ballerinas repeat routines from early in the morning to late at night. The haunting refrain of repeated piano music echoes through the halls. I’m taken into the hall of residences. Each ballerina has a small corner in which their worldly possessions are condensed. As they are rarely allowed visitors, my presence causes a bit of commotion. One ballerina is convinced I am French, and keeps speaking to me in that tongue. I just nod and repeatedly say ‘Oui’. Maria wonders why I don’t just tell her I am English. As I leave some of the ballerina's also make their way out to get pizza at the square nearby. They are permanently hungry.

Day 5- I’ve been able to get tickets to watch the famous ballet ‘Giselle’ at the Mariinsky Theatre. Noble families take their children here as part of a cultural rite of passage, and they are in evidence dressed in their finest clothes. The scrum for seats does not seem fitting for such an elegant enterprise. The performance itself is very powerful, and many are in tears at the end. The public expression of emotion here seems to provoke admiration, rather than shame. The lead ballerina, the very young Alina Somova, returns for three encores and is laden with flowers.


Day 6- On my last day I take in the cities architecture and gardens. My mind is constantly looking for places in which my characters romantic liaisons could have taken place. The mental image I had of Yelena came from a photo of a model in a cosmetics advert, which I stumbled across in a magazine. On my way back at the end of my walk I happen to see this same advertisement on a billboard just behind to the ballet academy. Although I remain far from an expert in ballet, in some small way it feels like I have finally found Yelena in this city.


(Supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. To find out more abut the Arts Council visit http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/)

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Unusual Intimacy Of Dinner Parties


As I move beyond the age where going to nightclubs remains comfortable, I find myself enjoying dinner parties more and more. I’m not talking about the Come Dine With Me style bitterness fests which we often see on TV, but instead those rare evenings when mutual disclosure is permissible and perhaps even nourishing. I apologize for writing about an arguably pretentious black and white French film, but I recently caught the wonderful ‘My Night With Maud’ for the first time. The film captures an intimate night in which a strongly Catholic man is introduced to a divorcee, the beguiling Maud. Over the course of the night they discuss fate, mortality, and philosophy, and when snow prevents him returning home the two of them have to spend the night together.


As an engaged Catholic the man has to resist the charms of the alluring Maud, and question whether his wife-to-be, a younger and more innocent women, is really right for him. In so doing the two characters inner worlds, with all of their ornate details, are laid bare through their private conversations. The concept of two people attracted to one another and being bound together for a period of time is one that intrigues me. The film was one of my main inspirations when writing The Intimates, in which I wanted to examine why dinner parties allow people to so readily reveal themselves.


What fascinated me about this film was the way in which the two characters late-night conversation allowed both of them to map out their intricate inner worlds. In striving to justify their worldview to one another – if only to resist each other - they created a bond which remained long after the man is forced to return to his fiancée. Despite this, it is evident that Maud, played by the exquisite Françoise Fabian, lingers in his mind. As a voyeuristic viewer you’re left to wish that he returns to her too. It confronts the viewer with occasions they have found themselves resisting temptation, and in so doing bonds us to the protagonist. The movie was the third in a sequence by six by Eric Rohmer, but out of all of them is undeniably the one that leaves the most enduring impression.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Award for 'Letters From Yelena'

This week I was very fortunate to be awarded by the Arts Council a grant towards the research and development of my second novel 'Letters From Yelena'. The book in progress contains the letters sent by a brilliant ballerina to ‘Noah’ – a writer who first gave her faith in people after the darkness of her childhood. By chronicling her journey first as an immigrant, then as a rising ballerina, the letters will chart how seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome through the connections people make.


I'm grateful that the award will allow me to spend much more of my time writing, as well as taking me to St Petersburg in Russia in a few weeks time. Whilst there I hope to visit the prestigious Vaganova Academy and world famous Mariinsky Theatre - places where my lead character learnt to dance. I'm also attending a performance of the famous ballet-blanc 'Giselle' at The Mariinsky Theatre. St Petersburg is a city I have been longing to visit for a while and it will be great to go there to work on my second novel. It will be good to flesh out exactly how my character would have lived, and hopefully see her gradually come to life before me.


(Supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. To find out more abut the Arts Council visit http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/)

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Inspiration in the strangest places



I often feel like a bit of a fraud when people ask me who my favourite writers are. They seem to be a small, insular crowd which people don’t particularly associate with literary prowess. It seems slightly disingenuous to say that my greatest influences have been records. I’m always attracted to works in which the listener can be drawn in by three or four rich threads. For instance, in Siri Hustvedt’s wonderful novel What I Loved, I found myself enraptured by four or five circling themes that rose recurrently like distant riffs. The idea of faded romance, the way art reveals the psyche of its creator, the vertigo in trying to reign in someone who always remains unknowable, even to themselves.


Giving the audience that room is something that in my own writing I’m always trying to achieve. Paul Auster has written eloquently about how he intends his books to ultimately give the reader room to find themselves in. It is perhaps just something I have just found it easier to do with records.


The Cures Disintegration is one example. It was Robert Smiths last attempt to create a masterpiece before he turned thirty. It’s a textured album full of washing synths and chattering drum patterns, stately and textured. Various songs concern broken bonds, missed opportunities, belated realisations. This world of regret, and to some degree indulgence, must not be to everyone’s taste. But I suspect such works are given potency because those unexpressed emotions can never find a place in the real world. But if captured on a record or on the page, they find a home where we can revisit them at will.


PJ Harvey’s often overlooked album ‘Is This Desire?’ was the first work which did this for me. She was the first person I’d known who didn’t sing about love in a saccharine, clichéd way. She sang about love as a complex, liberating, and often painful experience. The album is rich with elusive female characters, objects of desire living in exile, irrevocably tarnished by their obsessive love. The Angelene of the title track is ‘the prettiest mess you’ve ever seen’. One Catherine de Barra is ‘the patron saint of nothing’. The backdrop depicts nature at its most beautiful and bleak; a place where biblical characters persist in seeking redemption. That album taught me that through a character it was possible not only to make mouthpieces for your own emotions, but that you could also find yourself within their enclosed worlds. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that after hearing that album I tend to depict women empowered by the rules they have adopted in their life, wherever it takes them. Such albums remind me that like, life art, does not follow a linear narrative. It persists as a complex pool of interlinked themes that rise and fall like waves.


Monday, 8 August 2011

The Intimates in The View From Here


Feel honoured to have a very considered review from the fabulous literary magazine The View From Here this month -
‘Mankowski’s ability to construct and develop his characters is formidable and the execution of this skill adds to the compelling nature of the book. The reader is taken on a journey through a vast array of intensive and moving experiences. Fascinating and compelling, ‘The Intimates’ is a deep and challenging book…definitely worth a read’.
To see the whole review...

Monday, 25 July 2011

'The modern Great Gatsby'


'The Intimates' has been kindly featured in Rookie Magazine's monthly Entertainment Chart along with Tracey Emin, The Saturdays and the final installment of the Harry Potter saga, where it's described it as 'a fascinating debut' 'a glamorous read' and 'the modern great Gatsby'. You can check out the fashion, culture and lifestyle magazine online at- http://www.rookiemagazine.com/


Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Closest An Author Gets To Going On Tour...


Some Upcoming Events For The Summer-

Reading from 'The Intimates' at Hartlepool Central Library, Wednesday 6th July from 6.30pm
http://www.hartlepool.gov.uk/events/event/1450/

Reading at the launch for Trashed Organ Zine ('A collective of gutter poets, musicians and artists') at The Bridge Hotel, Newcastle on July 13th at 7.30pm
http://www.trashedorgan.co.uk/

And reading at Heaton Arts Festival's 'Just Say The Lines' ('A suave evening of sophistication and glamour, with spoken word, martini’s and decadence all on the menu') at The Chillingham Arms, Newcastle, August 11th at 7.30pm
http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=236356066382504









Sunday, 26 June 2011

'Dance Makes The Invisible Visible'


This week I had the pleasure of observing the work of one of the North East’s most sought after choreographers, Dora Frankel, while she rehearsed sequences for her next show ‘One Small Step, One More Step’. Having made her acquaintance a few weeks ago, and having mentioned that I was undertaking research into the world of dance for my next novel, Dora agreed firstly to be interviewed by me, and secondly to allow me to sit in while she developed her next work in progress. ‘One Small Step’ will see daylight as part of 'Bridging The Gap', an evening of performances, music and events. It is a site specific performance that will take place on and around The Apollo Pavilion in Peterlee, a concrete pavilion which is the work of the artist Victor Pasmore. The show promises to be a striking synthesis of visual art, dance and sound with the composer Peter Coyte supplying a varied, visceral soundtrack for it.


Although my novel is set ostensibly in the world of ballet, I was particularly intrigued to learn about the life of a dancer – most specifically how such a subtle, athletic pursuit manifests in the day to day. My novel is concerned with the life of a Russian dancer, Yelena, who captures her often complex inner world in a series of letters to Noah, her former lover. Writing from this viewpoint I was very keen to therefore gain an insight into how dancers interpret and respond to the challenges of their life. How they respond to internal pressures, what parts of their work they enjoy and how this focused form of work impacts upon them personally. From an outsiders’ point of view, the success of a dance performance seems contingent upon realizing the refined visions of a select few people, and I was particularly intrigued at how dancers and choreographers would interact to enable this. As Dora succinctly put it ‘dance makes the invisible visible’.


In the dance hall Dora was working with two dancers, Holly Irving and Natasha Kowalski, who were bringing to life Dora’s visions of a series of dance suites with what seemed to be a minimum number of props. Over the course of the few hours I got to see just how many different styles of dance Holly and Tasha were able to spontaneously perform. Until this week my view of choreographers were that they were probably all similar to the public perception of the rather brooding, incisive type as personified in The Black Swan. I was surprised therefore to see how enjoyable the process seemed to be, with Dora guiding the expression of her dancers interpretations while at the same time maintaining a strong vision.


As I tried to find a back seat in the hall, the dancers worked through a sequence driven by a pulsating, urban piece by Peter Coyte. It sounded like a hybrid of Aphex Twin and The Prodigy, with the dancers moving in a provocative, confrontational style that was evocative of grimy urban tenements, thick with the promise of inevitable violence. Peter Coyte worked from behind a bank of keyboards and glittering computer screens to supply a dextrous soundtrack that was constantly enthralling. I learnt only later that he’s worked alongside musical heavy weights such as Metallica, Bush and the Human League.


The next sequence was designed around a more joyous, exuberant piece of music, which the dancers imbued with a subtle comedy that was very engaging. I was struck by just how much the dancers were encouraged to explore the piece. The high standards of professionalism that had to be met at all times was very apparent – even in the short breaks between sequences Holly and Tasha were performing all manner of eye watering stretches. It was apparent that in the life of a dancer they are never off the clock, merely honing another aspect of their work. To be given even a flash of insight into such a multi-faceted, fascinating work in progress was a great honour, and I’m sure it will make for very useful research for my next book. I can only encourage you to attend the opening of One Small Step / One More Step at The Apollo Pavilion on July 10th from 5.30. Details are available from www.apollopavilion.info and http://www.dorafrankeldance.co.uk/

(Photos by Tony Griffiths)

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Tutus and Moleskin Notebooks


Writing can be a rather solitary venture; it’s not a pursuit usually requiring the company of off-duty ballerinas, eager to break into dizzying dance sequences at a moments notice. Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a Writing and Dance Workshop at Dance City, a location which has always intrigued me, due to its rather evocative air of artistic permissiveness.


I did this out of a combination of intrigue and duty. I’ve just started researching my second novel, Letters From Yelena, which is set in the world of ballet. I was keen to move my research beyond struggling to decipher Russian ballet websites and into the real world. The workshop was organised by the award winning Write Around The Toon, which is Project Managed by the author Viccy Adams. The workshop was ran by Alex Lockwood, a lecturer at Sunderland University. Until yesterday I had steered clear of writing workshops due to a rather precious fear I had about reflecting on the writing process, which I've fumbled through on my own over many years. But the workshop was an inspiring and somehow liberating experience, and in a matter of hours it blew away many of my misconceptions about creative workshops.


In it we were encouraged to explore our own conceptions of dance, to spend time amongst the dancers and to reflect on the creative atmosphere of the setting. The dancers offered an interesting juxtaposition next to the considered thoughtfulness of the writers – many of them flexed cautiously in corners, ready to break into a flurry of moves at a moments notice. As we clutched our moleskin notebooks (mine was £1.99 from the post office actually) and scribbled out observations, lycra clad limbs gambolled and stretched all around us. After watching clips from the recent show Singing Light, choreographed by Stephen Petronia, we improvised snippets of creative writing, and were coaxed into sharing them with the class. Personally I shared the concerns of one rather lucid fellow attendee, who expressed her reluctance to ‘sound like a bell end’ in so doing.


I was impressed by some of the vivid, colourful and sometimes very funny pieces other attendants seemed able to deliver at a moments notice. I initially resisted reading out my vague, formless scribblings to a roomful of strangers, before gradually warming to the idea amongst the bonhomie of the environment. I came away from the workshop with a sheaf of new ideas, a notebook full of needed details, and a renewed appetite for dance. Write Around The Toon are offering a series of mini-residencies across venues of interest in Newcastle over the coming months. I would strongly recommend going along to them if you have an interest in developing your versatility as a writer.You can find out more about Write Around The Toon at http://www.writearoundthetoon.co.uk/.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

On Letting Your Baby Out Into The Cold



I read a very interesting blog by fellow Legend Press author Ruth Dugdall the other day, who mentioned that prior to the release of her first novel she wished she had taken the time, just before the novel was released, to ask herself what exactly it was that she expected from her book when it was eventually published. A couple of local book signings, a mention in the local gazette? While I was writing The Intimates for the first time in my life I kept a journal, most of which is filled with vague romantic preoccupations and reflections on the copious numbers of gigs I was attending at that point in my life.

But flicking through it last night I noticed one or two mentions to the book that would eventually become The Intimates (known as The Fountains at the time, until my editor Lauren wisely instructed me that that sounded like a Barbara Cartland novel). Reading them I was struck by the rather humble ambitions I originally had for it. For it to be ‘a decent impression of a thoughtful book’. For it to be a way to exorcise certain demons lingering at the back of my mind, be they faded romances or little obsessions. For them to scratch certain itches left on me by visiting certain places, and dwelling amongst certain moods. At most, I hoped a few people would like it, and I was going to try my damndest when writing it in the hope that they might. And, effort wise, I did not let myself down. By the time it finally saw print, I had written and rewritten those bloody 51,000 words so many times that I knew passages of it off by heart – more out of frustration than vanity, I assure you.


Just before the book came out it started to gain some advance notices, which were exceptionally kind, and soon after followed the first reflections from Amazon customers, which I was pointed towards by a fellow author friend. I was fascinated to see that the book seemed to be garnering extreme reactions – at first of intense dislike, but later of an appreciate bent that I felt fairly touched by. Both reactions were interesting and – eventually – useful to me. Had I ever thought about it, I would have hoped for no more than for some people to have read it, and perhaps a couple to have even liked it.

Originally it took some adjusting to see that you could focus your efforts on a project which you had addressed with utmost sincerity, and that effort could garner strong dislike as well as appreciation. I was surprised to see the Amazon page for my book turn very quickly into a very considered forum for debate (with currently nineteen reviews and counting). Once I had got over my rather petulant adolescent hope, lingering inside me like an errant germ, that wanted everyone to like what I did, I started to realise that it was in fact just as instructive to have people disagree with your work than agree with it. I realised too that many of my favourite books and albums had provoked strong reactions when first released, and what are they if not something to aim for? Not that I would ever, even for a moment, put my work in their league, but novels like Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, and albums like The Cure’s Pornography – which on first approach could be easily seen as listless and uncommunicative.


I think I hoped, when writing The Intimates, that despite perhaps initial impressions I would have put enough into the book for it to eventually reveal itself in time. It didn’t mean that when some people didn’t like it at first I didn’t petulantly sulk like a spoilt child. But when an interviewer on BBC radio recently started to ask me questions about my ‘controversial new novel’, now that my skin had grown slightly thicker, I realised that this new suit was starting to fit a little more comfortably. But it doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t prefer five stars over two...

First published online 6th April on legendpress.co.uk

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Ghost Of Juliette Binoche


One refrain that I often hear from people is that they ‘would love to write, but can never find the time’. Though I’m sympathetic to this statement – because for the best part of a decade I’d wondered when the novel twisting inside me would come out- I also find this question rather frustrating. As I’ve since learnt that the time to write your novel will never come. It will just have to be carved out, rather bloodily, from the series of bewildering compromises that modern life has now become.

To find the time to write my novel last summer, I simply had to quit my job. I had no money, and was pretty sure no magical grants were on their way. It was a terrifying but exciting prospect, having two months ahead of me with a growing overdraft and with nothing to do but write. But it had become clear that the book, which would eventually become The Intimates, was going to haunt me until I eventually acquiesced. It had been bothering me ever since I had first thought of the concept for it on holiday in Florence, and it was becoming like an ex-girlfriend who you can’t help still having a place for. The day I started writing it I experienced a real sense of vertigo as I realized that I could do whatever I wanted with it. On the wall of my bedroom I made a spider diagram of how each of the characters were linked to one another, and from this the characters started to step out of the shadows they had been lingering in for years. Eight pages of note paper, with a characters name at the top of each one, were pinned to my wall. Over the course of the next two months those pages became filled with notes. For instance- Elise had a secret second life as a burlesque dancer. Graham had a tendency towards transvestism, even if it usually only manifested itself in the odd streak of glitter. And Carina, despite her protestations, still hadn’t abandoned her childhood hopes of becoming a ballerina. Some of the characters even developed certain speech patterns that on occasion woke me in the middle of the night as they swarmed around my head. James for instance, spoke in the sort of halting drawl that Ben Kingsley had used in Sexy Beast. As it was summer, after a days writing I would usually go into the city for an evening drink with friends, or to see a band. And on occasion I’d be sure I’d caught a glimpse of Francoise, perhaps disappearing into an Italian restaurant wearing a black dress. Gradually, over many months, each of my characters started to find their voice.


The book is set at an opulent dinner party held by Francoise, the owner of a sprawling mansion who is celebrating her first novel with the eponymous characters. One advance review has described her character as someone who ‘effervesces like a twisted Juliette Binoche’. This gave me some satisfaction, as that had been exactly my intention. For years I had pored over the films of Anthony Minghella, inevitably starring Kristen Scott Thomas, and craved to one day live in that world of dark elegance. Writing The Intimates I was finally able to create that world, which had been beckoning me in for many years. But to me this wasn't a question of hankering for pure escapism, but more for resolving the mundane problems of our lives by having the imagination to create something better. In my day job I am training to be a Clinical Psychologist, work which has fed into my writing not least because it offers me some access into the inner worlds that each of us have. My job had many times allowed me to meet characters like The Intimates – people who despite their brilliance, have been thwarted and suppressed at every turn. Whose talents have caused them not liberation and transcendence, but festering wounds of bitterness. When I started to write The Intimates I therefore immediately felt at home in their company - as I was used to fighting their corner. What my work had not offered me was the setting in which their stories could finally burst into colour – though my novel did. The characters still don’t seem real quite yet – I’m hoping that when I finally hold a copy of the book I will feel a new sense of satisfaction, as they will now exist in the real world. I just wish there was a way to keep them there, and perhaps even angle for an invite to their next party.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Eight days until my first novel is released...



Starting to gear up now for the final stretch before my first novel is released, and experiencing a real mixture of feelings, some excitement but a huge amount of anxiety and real fear too. I'm starting to do my first interviews for it now, including prerecording one for BBC Newcastle on Jonathan Miles' Midmorning Show tomorrow. It's been a long time coming, and will feel strange when the date finally comes.

I've been fortunate enough to be offered the use of Morden Tower, Newcastle for the launch party of the book on Thursday 25th March. It's a great venue which has seen readings from the likes of Seamus Heaney and Allen Ginsberg between its walls. In fitting with the theme of the novel my publishers have decided on the optional theme of 'decadence' for the night, which should mean the photos are slightly different from when Mr Ginsberg made an appearance...


Am also appearing the day after with Matthew Crow, Andy Kirby and Legend Press MD Tom Chalmers at York Writing Festival, making an appearance on the New Authors Panel. Mr Crow and I will be joining up again on the 2nd April for a joint signing at Waterstones Newcastle, and on 16th April at Waterstones Gateshead. Our publishers clearly see us as some sort of double act. I like to think of us as...


But suspect we are more...