Tag Archives: novels

My tribute to author Pat Conroy, 1945-2016

When I heard this weekend that author Pat Conroy had passed away, I remembered something I wrote in 2013 when I had just finished reading The Prince of Tides. The piece was originally called Unimagining Literature with Google Maps. I was inspired to write it after reading the last pages of The Prince of Tides when Tom is sailing out of Charleston Harbour. Here it is:

———————————————–

One of my pleasures in reading is to meander through a genre and see where serendipity leads me. I’m an unashamed fan of James Lee Burke, the veteran novelist whose books lay bare the seamy and steamy underside of the southern states of the US through his flawed anti-heroes – Dave Robicheaux, Clete Purcell, Hackberry Holland and the rest of the sweating, gun toting, self-doubting crew. Even the women in Burke’s novels seem to have hairy chests. The landscape of the Dave Robicheaux novels is the worn-out, waterlogged settlements of New Iberia in Louisiana. I’ve never visited this region, and so I conjured up from Burke’s rich prose my personal imagined picture of Robicheaux’s world. It looked a bit like Bali. I was hooked and began to plan my literary tour of the Deep South.

Reality intruded when I looked up New Iberia on Google Maps. The images showed something quite different: Dead straight roads passing through an utterly flat green landscape, grey skies. Suddenly I didn’t want to go there anymore.

Despite the let-down, Burke piqued my curiosity and I began to follow leads to other writers of the South. I discovered a great deal of collateral detail: Tabasco Sauce is made in Avery Island, Louisiana; there is something called cracker culture, and it’s got nothing to do with biscuits; Mofro is a really interesting band. Moving up to Oklahoma, I found Glenn Ford in the 1960 movie Cimarron.

The two highlights of my Deep South reading were Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides (which most people probably know as the film version). Look Homeward, Angel is a great rambling, untidy, deeply moving mess of a book, which follows the rise and fall of the desperately alcoholic Oliver Gant, his sons, and his calculating wife. It took me months to read it in fits and starts, but at the end I felt the same feeling of emotional exhaustion that I had from Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.

Pat Conroy’s novel continues the despair and unresolved angst that seems to pervade the literature of the South: The terribly damaged Tom Wingo struggles to come to terms with his equally damaged sister Savannah and his brother Luke. He finds some resolution at the end of the book, and this state of mind is conveyed metaphorically as he sails through the South Carolina islands following the course he had taken many times with his father. Now here’s where it gets weird: I’m reading this on my Kindle and my hand is twitching to open Google maps. I weaken and open the laptop, and for the next half an hour I drift through the sea coast of South Carolina sitting behind Wingo on his boat while I watch with Google Maps from the shore. It was a very serene and beautiful – if peculiar – reading experience.

So are our imagined visions somehow violated when technology virtually (and I mean it in both senses) places us in almost any street in the world? I’m not sure: It’s an experience that we already know from film versions of books, but of course these films are themselves artistic interpretations, and not in the same realm as photographs. I tried making a quick scorecard of film or TV versions of novels that have (a) complemented and (b) violated my imagining of the novel: Pride and Prejudice: I can’t think of a film version that comes remotely close to affecting my enjoyment of the novel; McEwan’s Atonement: Hmm, it nibbled at the edges; The BBC series of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong: Oh dear.

The one that kept popping into my head, however was the 1969 movie Justine, based on part of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, which I drooled over in the early eighties. I read the Quartet before discovering the movie, but once I’d watched Justine, the character of Pursewarden was defined retrospectively and for all time thence by Dirk Bogarde. In fact, the movie Justine caused me to reimagine at least part of the book.

I’m reading James Lee Burke’s Feast Day of Fools right now. It’s his most gaunt and spare novel, set in a desert landscape on the Southwest Texas border with Mexico. I’m using a tablet now, so the Maps app is just a twitching finger away.

 

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

Advertisements

Pamela Crane looks inside a murder victim’s heart.

Pamela Crane with Tinkerbell_author picIndie novelist Pamela Crane’s A Secondhand Life found its way into my Kindle this year. I needed a rest in my project to re-read all of William Faulkner’s main works, and Pamela’s book fell between As I Lay Dying and Soldier’s Pay. Did I need a rest! Did I need a crisp, refreshing read!

A Secondhand Life is based on a clever plot premise: Could the recipient of a transplanted organ experience the thoughts and feelings of the donor? Pamela Crane delves into the implications of the premise:  How would a donor recipient reconcile her own and the donor’s mind? Would it be possible to explore the details of memories evoked by the donor organ?

On top of this foundation, the author erects a thriller plot that makes for some highly original characterisations and twists. By the time I got to the ending, I had sticky fingers from counting red herrings. My five star review can be found here.

It has to be said, however, that the plot premise does have an antecedent. I did some checking and found that a 1971 UK comedy movie Percy runs a similar line; you don’t even need to click the link to guess which organ seventies comic actor Hywell Bennett received. The Kinks did the soundtrack, by the way.

My protégé Lesley Latte was unavailable to interview Crane, so I popped these questions over the email:

Q- What compels you to write?

A- Four little kids clambering for my focus all day, combined with no adult time, compels me to write. Writing is my break from reality…and it’s scary to say that living in the mind of a serial killer is much more exciting than changing diapers and housekeeping!

A- What would you (as author, not narrator) say to Brad if you met him in a bar?

Q- R.U.N. Run away from Mia Germaine as fast as you possibly can, Brad. A chick who chases serial killers–you don’t need that drama. Romantic relationships are tough enough without your significant other bringing a murderer into the mix.

A- When I write, my characters often take over the plot, and I am sometimes surprised at where they take the book. Does that happen to you?

Q- Even though I believe I create my characters, you’re right–they somehow live outside of my imagination and evolve independent of my will. As my characters develop through the story-writing phase, the plot needs to stay in line with who they are. In my thriller A Secondhand Life, Mia Germaine is stubborn (uh, nothing like me…but don’t ask my husband about this!), which causes her to nearly lose the love of her life, Brad. I hadn’t planned for that relationship tension, but it happened because of who she is (certainly not based on myself–did I say that already?).

 

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

Sydney author slams “Young Kipper War” gaffe

charcuterie monthy 002Sydney author Stuart Campbell says he is ‘disappointed and upset’ at Lesley Latte’s ambush interview with him in New Caledonia, in  which the roving correspondent said that Campbell’s new novel Cairo Mon Amour was set in the 1973 ‘Young Kipper’ War.  He has called on the new editor of Charcuterie Monthly, Gilbert Saucisson, to ‘send  Latte back to school to learn some history’.

In a brief statement, Saucisson said that Latte would be censured for h** error, adding that Charcuterie Monthly‘s editorial guidelines require that all articles include reference to meat, but not fish.

 

** Lesley Latte reserves the right not to disclose h** gender

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

The orientalist stripped bare

inscribed book
“To the English friend and guest of Egypt the orientalist Professor Stuart Campbell I give this book (author’s name redacted)

My third novel Cairo Mon Amour (publication July 2016) is set in Egypt in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. I travelled to Egypt with my wife a few weeks before the  war started on October 6. I was to study at Cairo University, and my wife was to enjoy a reunion with her Armenian grandmother. We had  expectations of the Romantic Orient; these hopes were soon dashed.

I have written about our first days in Egypt in my memoir Cairo Rations!, and I have included the relevant section at the foot of this post. If you would like to have a free copy of the entire 11,000-word memoir, email me at stuartcampbellauthorATgmailDOTcom (replace the AT and DOT with @ and . so that I know you are human) and I will send you a copy and add you to my email news list.

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

EXTRACT FROM CAIRO RATIONS!

THE ORIENTALIST STRIPPED BARE

The address we had been given was written in English: ‘Bustan Said’, and that was it. This piece of information had been passed along a chain of relatives from Egypt to Australia to Britain by letter and telephone, and via several languages and alphabets.

On our first night in Egypt we booked into the Hotel Cecil in Alexandria, where Somerset Maugham had stayed and the British Secret Service used to rent a permanent suite. Our mission was to travel to Cairo the next morning to find my wife’s relative’s boarding house. I spent the evening combing the telephone directory for anyone with Madame P’s surname and calling them up. “No, not here. Who’s that?”, “Who, who? Not here!” It didn’t help that the phone book was in Arabic and that Madame P’s Armenian name could have been spelt in at least six ways. But this was 1973: People didn’t expect to locate some exact spot on the surface of the earth in microseconds; people were used to being stood up, missing each other at planned meetings; people were used to unanswered phones. We went to bed without misgivings.

The train took us through the Delta to Cairo the next day, and I fought for and won a taxi at Ramses Station, asking the driver to take us to Bustan Said Street. I tried pronouncing ‘Said‘ in several ways – the four bald English letters gave about half the information needed to guess the Arabic word – and the driver lurched fatalistically into the traffic, no doubt praying that the mysterious location would magically appear before his rheumy eyes. It didn’t of course, although we did crawl up and down Bustan Street many times, craning to see past the bogged traffic and the sticky fingers of the child beggars on the car window, in case we saw a huge illuminated sign for Pension P. Nothing. “Take us to a hotel,” I said, and he drove for miles, eventually stopping outside an unmarked establishment in an empty street blighted with dusty urban poverty. We refused a squalid room upstairs with six frowzy beds, and resumed our journey. This time I said to the driver, “Take us to funduq urubbii“, ‘a European hotel’. I still cringe at the memory of the clumsy request. We were delivered to the posh Borg Hotel, where our room had just one bed.

My only experience of the Arab World had been our honeymoon in Tangier, a memory naturally tinted with romance, or more specifically The Romance of the Orient. Our taxi trip had left me with the impression that most of Cairo looked like a rubbish dump, but waking up in a decent hotel with a view of the Nile restored my hope that the Orient was out there to be found. Even better, the front desk staff knew exactly which street Pension P was in – Bustan El-Saeedi Street, right opposite the Filfila Restaurant. With the missing syllables restored to Madame P’s address, we checked out of the Borg and took another cab. And here we were, outside an Italianate apartment building in chaotic Bab El-Luq with all the prescribed features of The Orient around us: Men in nightshirts and turbans, donkeys, street stalls, thronging crowds, beggars, hullabaloo. We took the shuddering birdcage lift to the fourth floor and were admitted to a large vestibule with a dining table and a dozen or so chairs, and seven or eight doors leading to bedrooms around the sides. A couple of professional gents sat us down and politely explained that Madame P was out shopping. They sent out for fuul medammes and boiled eggs while we waited. The gents were two of Madame P’s boarders. Some weeks later, one of them – an army journalist – gave me a signed copy of a book he had written in praise of President Sadat. He inscribed it in Arabic, To the English friend and guest of Egypt the orientalist Professor Stuart Campbell I give this book.

Now might be a good point to take stock of how things stood with the Orient in 1973, at least among the people that I mixed with. Despite its glee at the dismantling of the colonial order, nouveau intellectual youth culture in the UK had inherited the cultural blueprint of the East drawn up by former generations: The Orient of the Beatles and the bandwagon Indian mystics was sensual, passive, spiritual, dismissive of material concerns. This hippy formulation wasn’t much different from that of T.E. Lawrence’s views of the Arabs he led at the fall of Damascus in 1918. As for me, I spent the first two years of my degree luxuriating in the works of old-time Orientalists like William Lane, Richard Burton and Gertrude Bell. The task, I believed, was for the West and the East to reach mutual understanding, mutual respect, world peace and all that. The bit that I missed was that we, the colonialists, had written the rules and the East didn’t have a say. Five years later the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said launched his seminal book Orientalism, changing for ever the rules of intellectual engagement in the study of cultures. After Edward Said nobody wanted to be called an orientalist.

Let’s return to the dining room at Madame P’s. We had finished the fuul and eggs, and there was still no sign of the lady. The professional gents sent for a young man, a university student, who must have lived in the building, and he was told to take us around the neighbourhood to look for Madame P. We went from shop to shop while the student practised his English on us. I was expecting him to be interested and flattered (I cringe deeply again) that a British student had gone to the trouble of studying his language and his culture. Instead he questioned me brusquely about why I was in Egypt, eventually becoming quite sarcastic and tossing in terms like ‘imperialist’ and ‘invader’. We didn’t find Madame P, but by the time we returned to the Pension she was there, and the sour student slipped away. There were hugs and kisses, and my wife, her relative and an ex-orientalist settled down to catch up on family history.

Indie authors like Francis Guenette producing stellar work

Francis Guenette - author photo (1)
Francis Guenette

These days I seem to divide my reading between carefully selected indie authors and a long backlist of classics. A week or two back I found myself reading Canadian indie author Francis Guenette’s Disappearing in Plain Sight alongside Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which stormed the literary world in 1962.

The comparison was instructive: Both novels are driven by strong characters, and both immerse the reader in compelling settings. At the same time, there was a complementarity between the books: Porter’s scathingly critical analysis of the hapless passengers on a pre-war journey from Mexico to Europe; Guenette’s insistence on redemption for her damaged and difficult characters in rural British Columbia.

I haven’t reviewed Porter; after all, she did get a Pulitzer decades before the Kindle was a gleam in anyone’s eye. But  I did give Disappearing in Plain Sight five stars here

I’d love to ask Katherine Anne Porter some questions about Ship of Fools. Alas, I am 36 years too late. However, I popped a few questions to Francis about her thoughts on Disappearing in Plain Sight:

Q – What would you say to your character Izzy if you came across her in a coffee shop?

A – Hands down, I would ask her for more Caleb stories. Izzy’s first husband, Caleb, the man who created the paradise at Crater Lake that Izzy inhabits, is dead before the opening lines of Disappearing in Plain Sight and yet he has often been named as people’s favourite character. One reader went as far as to say that Caleb is the moral compass of the novel. Glimpses into this man’s personality and charisma saturate the entire Crater Lake Series. I know as the books add up and I move further from his death and into the lives of the people left behind, I will have to be more and more creative in my task of keeping him in the present narrative. Come on, Izzy. Help me out here.

Q – Did you fall in love with any of your characters when you were writing the book?

A – Hmmm … since a little bit of me is in every single character, I was narcissistically in love with each of them. Differing personality traits appealed to me. I admired Lisa-Marie’s feistiness. Who wouldn’t fall for Justin’s good looks and code of honour?  I fell madly in love with Beulah’s sharp wit and wry comments. My heart went out to Bethany for the cards life had dealt her. Liam’s strength and fragility wrenched my emotions every time I encountered him. And Izzy’s struggles with grief and professionalism buffeted me with echoes of many, many stories I’ve heard over the years. As you can probably tell, these characters mattered to me. If, as an author, I am not emotionally committed to my characters, how can I expect the readers to care?

Q – Do you ever wish you’d ended the book differently?

A – Absolutely not – the ending of Disappearing in Plain Sight gives me great satisfaction. The novel never started out to be the first book in a series. It was simply a story I had to tell. When I try now to answer questions about where the characters or ideas came from, I’m at a loss to provide an answer. All I do know is that the ending more than any other part of the book had the characters clamouring in my head to have the next chapters of their lives told. After three novels, they are still at it with new characters constantly making appearances and begging for attention.

The verdict after my week of parallel reading: Porter is deservedly part of the canon of English language literature, but  indie authors like Guenette are producing stellar work. Both books gave me immense satisfaction.

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

Escape from Egypt during the Yom Kippur War

cynthia ticket 001My third novel Cairo Mon Amour (publication July 2016) is set in Egypt in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. I happened to be a student in Cairo at that time, and as the borders closed, it became very difficult to leave Egypt. Several days into the war, we heard that a ship was to evacuate foreigners from Alexandria.

In the novel I have two of my characters, Pierre and Zouzou, flee the country on a ship around the same time. In my research among US diplomatic cables I discovered the actual ship was the Syria, and that it left Alex on  Thursday 11 October, five days after the war began. I could not find any contemporary descriptions of the Syria, except for an obscure article about the US diplomat Dean Dizikes*, who found the ship in Greece and organised the voyage. I drew on his description of the ship’s graceless departure in my story.

However, I was amazed to discover that US diplomats had tried unsuccessfully to requisition another ship,  the Cynthia, at Piraeus before obtaining the services of the Syria. Why amazed? Because I had sailed from Piraeus to Alexandria on the Cynthia just a month before. I have the ticket to prove it! So, in the interest of literary rather than historical integrity, I put Pierre and Zouzou on the Cynthia and wrote the Syria out of the Yom Kippur War.

The Cynthia was, by the way, a loathsome tub. I have written about my horrible voyage from Piraeus to Alex in my memoir Cairo Rations!, and I have included the relevant section at the foot of this post. If you would like to have a free copy of the entire 11,000-word memoir, email me at stuartcampbellauthorATgmailDOTcom (replace the AT and DOT with @ and . so that I know you are human) and I will send you a copy and add you to my email news list.

*The Yom Kippur War – an evacuation of the ungrateful

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here. Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity and The Play’s the Thing . Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .

EXTRACT FROM CAIRO RATIONS!

BY SCRAPHEAP FROM PIRAEUS TO ALEXANDRIA

We tried to catch a taxi at Piraeus station but couldn’t master the local technique of running alongside the moving vehicles, grabbing the door handles, and claiming possession. Instead I hefted our two heavy suitcases under a blinding September sun from the station to the dock. By the time we found the MV Cynthia my arms were as taut as fanbelts and my anaesthetized fingers looked like salami.

We had tickets to Alexandria for a double cabin, bought through the National Union of Students in London. The NUS wanted to sight our marriage certificate before they would sell us the tickets, and had thoughtfully franked the reverse of our Gibraltar Registry Office document with a big inky stamp.

When we arrived on the deck of the reeking Cynthia the purser shook his head in amazement that travellers with such cheap tickets could possibly believe they were entitled to a double cabin. My wife and I were separated and ordered to different parts of the stinking tub well below the waterline. I lugged the two huge suitcases to her cabin, dropped off the one we thought might contain her clothes, and then continued to drag the other one like a cockroach through the superheated rusting passageways. But I was spared: My assigned eight-berth cabin was festooned with frilly frocks – no place for a man. I used my last ounces of energy to drag the hated suitcase to the top deck. The grudging purser directed me to a double cabin above the waterline, and I threw myself onto the lower bunk and hung my throbbing hands over the side.

With the circulation to my fingers partly restored I went aloft, or perhaps abaft, and searched for my wife on the deck. The greenish tinge of her face augured badly; we were still tied up alongside the caisson wall, but the rocking of the ship, the stench of diesel, and the hot greasy miasma from the vents above the kitchens had started to do their work.

The MV Cynthia juddered out of the harbour at a funny angle like a water rat with a crushed leg. It was her last voyage before the scrapheap.

In the afternoon the ship’s swimming pool was filled up. It was barely big enough to fit six people standing but the weight of the water taken on board strained the heaving engines almost to a standstill. We hung around the canvas awning near the pool to escape the heat. An Egyptian man in swimming trunks did an elaborate callisthenic routine and introduced himself. He was captivated that I could pronounce his name properly, and asked me to repeat it over and over: “Please, what is my name?” We escaped to another part of the ship but wherever we went he seemed to be waiting in his trunks behind a lifeboat or a stanchion, and would pop out and inanely ask, “Please, what is my name?” I would repeat robotically,  “Mar’i Kamil S-“. I leave his last name incomplete in case he is still alive and wants to be my friend on Facebook.

In the evening the toilets overflowed and we had to hop through sewage to get to the hotbox  where dinner was served to the third class passengers. A waiter probably named Malvolio guarded the kitchen entrance with a filthy tea towel over his arm. The food – it hardly needed guarding – was Kit-E-Kat mashed into macaroni tubes. We gagged and picked over our bowls, but our table companions – cadaverous British hippies who had been in India for months – golloped theirs down, and then finished our leftovers. Our hearts leapt as fat peaches were handed out, and then shrivelled when they were cut apart to reveal the plump maggots within.

We parted late that night on the upper deck, but not before I had my first real conversation in Arabic outside a classroom. While my wife leaned over the rail to find some air that didn’t smell of Kit-E-Kat, I watched a Lebanese family chatting in the moonlight. There was another ship in the distance and a man in the group commented that it was from the same shipping line as the Cynthia. He actually said nafsi shirka, ‘the same company’. I grabbed my chance and attempted to join the conversation by loudly intoning nafsi shirka with a questioning intonation. On reflection I suppose I was saying, “Oh, family of complete strangers, is it indeed a fact that the ship we see is from the same company as the ship we are on?”

The family turned to stare at the apparition at the rail whence the odd utterance had come: A moustachioed wraith with shoulder length black hair supporting a young woman who was sobbing and retching under the moon.

I spent the night awake in terror listening to the stranger in the upper bunk making long rhythmic noises like a razor being sharpened on a leather strop.

At Beirut – not yet torn apart by the civil war – we ordered massive plates of rice and minted lamb in a restaurant but could barely eat a few spoonsful, so shrunken were our stomachs. We made it back to the Cynthia by smell alone, and fought the crush of Egyptians who were boarding with boxes of Lebanese apples as big as babies’ heads.

As we sailed for Cyprus a black and yellow flag was raised – cholera! – and instead of entering Limassol harbour we stood offshore in quarantine. A Mercedes Benz was hoisted from the Cynthia’s deck on davits and swung wobbling onto a wooden barge, which puttered off to Limassol with a few passengers.

Like a malodorous pariah, the Cynthia limped towards Egypt, its decks still stacked with boxes of apples. Officials came out to meet us in Alexandria harbour and we were lined up and each given a large white cholera pill, the composition and efficacy of which we knew nothing. The officials had a loud discussion about the apples and a decision was made: Destroy them! They may be infected! The boxes were broken apart and the passengers ate the apples.

Some hours later the Cynthia eased her dented flanks alongside the berth and the engines stopped grinding. We lined up in an immigration hall where men in uniform took all our passports and made a toppling pile of them on a desk. I watched in anxiety: How would they return the passports to the correct owners? What if I got the wrong passport and I had to spend the rest of my life as Mar’i Kamil S-?

“The writing is smooth and delicious”

It was terrific to see this blog post by Canadian author Fran Guenette about An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity today. I can’t disagree with her view that “the writing is smooth and delicious”!

 

Read a free sample of An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity  here.

 

Buy Stuart Campbell’s books in paperback and ebook on Amazon by clicking on these title links:

An Englishman’s Guide to Infidelity

The Play’s the Thing

Stuart Campbell’s covers are designed by Rachel Ainge .