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Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, best known for his Botswana novels about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, at The Junior Academy music school in Stockholm, Sweden, where McCall Smith was on tour with his Really Terribly Orchestra.

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I was familiar with McCall Smith’s Akimbo-books, which I’ve read to my kids, but as I prepared to conduct the two-hour interview and Q&A session,  I understood his authorship is far more complex.  McCall Smith has written more than a hundred works of fiction, librettos and scholarly titles – including multiple series and many stand-alone works.

He divulged a great deal of interesting information about his writing process, including the fact that for his Botswana books (The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series) the titles and covers are often set long before he’s finished writing, which can lead to awkward situations. He said he writes five books a year, with only a vague outline in his mind when he starts, and often works right up to the deadline.

 

 

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This summer and fall I’ll be writing fiction and articles for Swedish publisher Natur och Kultur for their Wings middle school reader series.  This book will be directed at ninth graders, revamping the concept quite a bit from the way the books have been done in the past –– while still retaining the mark of quality that has been the highlight of this bestselling series in the past.

Young people need and deserve stories that they’ll remember their whole lives, and when working with shorter word counts the way these books demand, the psychological content has to hold up.  I’m proud to be working on these projects.  This will be the sixth book I’ve written or worked on for this publisher.  The new Wings 9 will be available for purchase this spring.

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About ten years ago I learned the word chronotope from an essay by literature professor Maria Nikolejeva.  Most people talk about setting or milieu in terms of literature, but these both emphasize place over time.  The word chronotope (Greek: chronos/topo, time/place) indicates the interface between time and space, and I like to keep this in mind when I’m writing fiction.  Some authors, especially of fantasy, view their settings as central characters; but the time period is just as important.  Kansas today is not what it was two hundred years ago, nor what it will be in two hundred years, or two thousand.  Present-day Stockholm is not the same as present-day Buenos Aires, Tuvalu or North Philadelphia.

Travelling makes chronotopes more apparent.  I was recently in Pompeii and Venice –– two places that have inspired a great deal of storytelling.  For example Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza novels take place in a slightly-altered medieval Venice.  They were fascinating to read, but I had the sense that the chronotope was somewhat of a gimmick in the stories.

After spending a rainy day in Venice, I changed my mind.  Venice is a completely different concept regarding how to build a city, and how time leaves its mark on a place.  Pompeii (and nearby Herculaneum) were frozen in time by a volcanic blast, and their stories ended –– again giving us a unique insight into what a chronotope can mean to a story.

The story of Pompeii ended with Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 CE; Venice’s continues.

A Cave Filled with Books

A cave filled with forgotten books and people sifting through them, heads down, panning for lost treasure.  Sleet and snow filtering down through the sliver of sky visible through the walls.  Laptops and telephones lighting up faces.  The squeaking of wheels from a book trolley, an electric motor whining as it pushes open an elevator door.  Two explorers in light winter jackets –– darker skin than most of the rest of us –– walking in, talking.  Their voices echoing off the stone walls, creating a chorale, a canon of rhythmical chanting.  One lifting his arm, pointing out at the sliver of city visible through the wall, his voice an older brother’s.  The rest of us looking up from our treasure hunts, sighing to ourselves –– but since they don’t look like us we don’t want to hurt their feelings; we suffer in silence and shake our heads and imagine that where they come from, people don’t know how to behave in caves full of books.

Them looking my way.  Me putting my finger to my lips.  Them opening their eyes wide, whispering, showing me the palms of their hands, turning and leaving.

A Train Platform

Six men, darker and skinnier and younger than me, taking turns running and throwing themselves against a vending machine.  Shoulders drumming into the plexiglass-fronted monolith –– two guys tossing themselves into it at the same time.  The bubbling of a language between them.  The pigeons in their dusty winter coats walking past, bobbing their heads, ignoring them.  The rest of us winter pigeons –– faces framed by the glow of phones or lighters.  Watching. Thinking: where these guys come from, people obviously don’t know how to act on train platforms.

Me walking over and pointing to a phone number at the top of the machine, explaining that they should call and tell the company the code number on the machine, and the company will send a gift certificate to their phone.  One of them putting an arm across my shoulders and pointing at the guilty chocolate bar. A mix of English, Swedish, a language that might be Somali.  Me repeating myself, others watching.  Me shrugging, walking away, them slamming themselves against the machine again until as the train pulls up –– them erupting in a soccer-goal cheer, them dancing, one of their arms held high, the chocolate bar raised in salute to the Stockholm night.

On the Train Home

On the train home, sitting as usual revising the manuscript in my lap. The facing seats like the booths at a bar, people nurturing the day’s defeats, tucking their heartaches and unfulfilled desires into their phone cases and slipping them into their pockets.  A man like a tree stump growing out of the seats across the aisle.  Footsteps behind us, a young woman’s voice in Swedish, she stands in the aisle next to me, she looks like one of my students, blond hair and an upturned nose, too young to be selling homeless magazines on the train –– no, not selling magazines, staring straight ahead and asking in a monotone if anyone can help her with a place to stay for the night.  And every one of us thinking about our empty trips home from the station, empty guest rooms and sofas when we get home… every one of us silent, ignoring her, waiting for her to walk on past.

Her walking on past.

Under the Station

The train moulding the night with hands of steel, blowing life into streetlamps, houses, mud-and-snow landscapes in the woollen winter nighttime.  Whispering secrets with spinning wheels on rails, with generators and transformers and electrical motors whining, pulsing.  Wishing my town into being, just for me, just for tonight, me a stranger at home in this country, this language, these thoughts.

The train lurching, seizuring,  winding down and stopping, splitting its sides open and us spilling out, yanking open glass doors and tumbling night-drunk down flourescent-tile train station stairs, to the viaduct underneath where half a dozen cocoons, mothers and fathers and grandparents lay bundled on damp foam matresses and swaddled, mummified, in winter coats and hats and thick rag mittens, empty paper cups and plastic bags bulging with clothes standing sentinal at their feet… and them not asking for a place to stay the night, only begging to be ignored for being here, forgiven for being poor.

I Sverige håller det just nu på att bli rumsrent att rösta på rasister. Det har hänt förut, olika partier har genom åren gjort utspel om att stänga ut folk som mig, som kommer från andra länder. Men håll med om att tonen just nu är råare.

Jag hade en morbror som var utpräglad rasist, han körde inte japanska bilar – ‘rice burners’ – för att han ville stödja sina polare som jobbade på GM-fabriken i Lordstown, Ohio. Låt bli att till och med han insåg att GM gjorde usla bilar. Men det kunde inte hans kompisar påverka.

Är det önskvärt att bygga staten på en nation, alltså grunda ett land på en etnicitet?

Nej, det är varken önskvärt eller ens möjligt. Det går att försöka, men ett samhälle som grundas på att exkludera kommer för alltid att vara upptagen med självdestruktiva gränsdragningar. Ska vi gå efter folks efternamn? Religion? Hudfärg, modersmål, politiska åsikter, sexualitet, diet, klädval?  

Zygmunt Bauman skriver i Liquid Modernity att ett samhälle tvärtom är ett project som drivs utifrån individer som väljer att delta: ”all communities are postulated; projects rather than realities” (page 169). Han beskriver det destruktiva i att försöka stänga ut – och in – folk utifrån etniciteten:

”First there is a conflict, a desperate attempt to set ‘us’ apart from ‘them’; then the traits keenly spied out among ‘them’ are taken to be the proof and the source of a strangehood that bears no conciliation.  Human beings, being as they are multi-faceted creatures having many attributes, it is not difficult to find such traits once the search has started in earnest.

Nationalism locks the door, pulls out the door-knockers and disables the doorbells, declaring that only those who are inside have the right to be there and settle there for good” (170).

Det finns ett bättre sätt att bygga ett samhälle: med folk som vill hjälpas åt, i stället för enbart de som råkar ha liknande släkträd.

I translated the rules of the classic Swedish board game in order to send a copy to nephews in the States.  Here are the rules, for anyone who needs them:

Den Försvunna Diamanten (The Lost Diamond)

Game rules:

Find the missing diamond –– the Star of Africa –– by searching the continent by land, sea, and air.  Find the diamond and return it to Cairo or Tangiers to win –– unless somebody else finds a visa after you find the diamond, and gets there first!

Set-up:

1 Make sure there’s only one star.

2 Put all the markers face-down, so nobody can see what they are.  Mix them up and set one on each red dot on the map.

3 Choose a banker.  Pass out 5,000 dollars each.

4 Choose your tokens and place them to start either on Cairo or Tangiers.

5 The highest roll starts; continue clockwise from that person.  As soon as you flip over a marker, you have to do what it says (more about this later).  Afterwards, it’s the next player’s turn.

6 You don’t have to flip over a marker.  If you choose not to, your turn is over and the next player may take their turn.  On your next turn, you may as usual pay 1,000 dollars to flip it over, or roll a 4,5 or 6 to flip it over.  OR you may move on without flipping it over.

Moving your token:

On  eac turn, you may move your token by land, sea or air; or stay on a red dot to flip a marker.  If you move, you have to first say how you will move (land, sea or air).

Moving by land:

1 Roads are shown as light-green lines and dots.  Moving by land is free; just roll the die.

2 Move the number of steps the die show.  You many however stop early on a red dot.

3 If you stop on a red dot without a marker, nothing happens and your turn is over.

4 If you stop on a red dot with a marker, you may immediately pay 1,000 dollars to the bak to flip it over.  Or you may roll the die; if you roll a 4,5 or 6, you may flip it over for free.

Moving by air:

1 Air routes are marked out by airplane symbols and lines between squares.  To fly, you must pay 3,000 dollars to the bank; you then fly directly to your detination without rolling the die.

2 If there is no marker at your destination, nothing happens and your turn is over.

3 If you land on a marker, it’s the same as landing on a marker on land (4-6 above).

4 Airline tickets are only good from one square to the next; for instance you can’t fly from directly from Sierra Leone to Cape Town, you have to stop and buy a new ticket in St. Helena.

What the markers mean:

Blank: nothing happens.  Give it to the bank.

Emerald: Sell it to the bank immediately for 4,000 dollars (8,000 on the Gold Coast/Guldkusten)

Bandit: Opps, give all your money (and the marker) to the bank.  If you don’t have any money, just give the marker to the bank.  If you meet a bandit on an island, skip a turn and take the boat for free next time (as a stowaway, or washing dishes).

Visum: If The Star of Africa is still hidden, give it back to the bank.  If somebody else has found the diamond, hurry immediately to Cairo or Tangiers to try to get there first and win the game.

The Star of Africa: The most important marker.  Keep it, and hurry back to Cairo or Tangiers to win the game.

Places with special rules:

Kapstaden (Cape Town): First one there gets 5,000 from the bank.

Guldkusten (The Gold Coast): FInd a gem here and earn double the dollars.

Slavkusten (The Slave Coast): Fins a blank marker here and skip a turn.  All other markers are the same as normal.

St. Helena: Pirates lurk on either side of the island.  Land on a blue dot with a black circle around it, and you’re stuck until you roll a 1 or 2.

Sahara: Land on a blue dot with a black circle around it, and you’ve been attacked by Bedouins.  You’re stuck until you roll a 1 or 2.

Other rules:

Two or more players may stand on the same dot or square.  If you land on a spot with a marker and onother player is already there, you may flip it over according to the rules above.  Only the one who flips it over does what it says.

Who wins?

Whoever finds the Star of Africa and returns it to Cairo or Tangiers wins –– unless somebody else finds a visum after you’ve found the star, and gets to Cairo or Tangiers first.

I år gick jag för första gången på en förlagsmiddag på Bokmässan. Förut har jag alltid hoppat över. Jag kan vara lite blyg, jag är dessutom ingen vidare på att dricka vin och samtidigt prata svenska – särskilt när det är folk jag knappt känner.

Men nu i torsdags gick jag på Natur och Kulturs middag på Park i Göteborg. Och äntligen förstod jag vitsen med att äta middag med folk jag knappt kände. Jag lärde alltså känna dem.

Fast kvällen började dåligt. Jag hade glömt anmäla att jag är vegetarian… men det gjorde inget, det fixade sig. Personalen på Park var supertrevliga och omhandertagande.

Vad pratade vi om? Det visade sig att folk i bokbranschen har en hel del gemensamt att prata om. Och det visade sig att jag faktiskt befinner mig, åtminstone delvis, i branschen.

Sen tog jag nattbussen hem, jag skulle undervisa morgonen därpå. Bussresan låter jag bli att beskriva. Vem vet, jag kanske skriver en novell om den, i stället.

For anyone interested in the courses Creative Writing and Narrative Theory or the Novel Workshop, I’ll be holding a free introductory evening this Wednesday from 6:00 to 6:45 p.m., at Folkuniversitetet, Kungstensgatan 45, Stockholm (Rådmansgatan/Odenplan).

The past few semesters the courses have been full or almost full.  Attendance tends to be very strong, and participants develop their writing aided by the dynamics of the group.  Curious about how we work?  Hope to see you there.

The other day I unexpectedly received a padded envelope from my publisher.  I could feel there was a book in it, but I didn’t know which one, or why.  Last spring when an author named Lena Andersson won the Swedish August prize, I received a copy of her book in the mail, compliments of our publisher.  Was this book one of those?  Or something my publisher wanted me to read?  That has happened.

I didn’t think it could be any of the books I’d written – or helped written – because the latest ones were still in production.  Besides, when my books are published, I generally get a package slip and have to go pick up a box of them at the grocery store, specifically from the gambling kiosk near the entrance which these days doubles as a post office.

But this book turned out to be something different: the second printing of my first textbook Echo 5 Main Issues – for which I wrote fiction, non-fiction, creative non-fiction, and an extended poem for.  When I signed on to write the book, my editor mentioned the possibility of it being reprinted.  But already, after only just over a year?  Apparently yes.

At the moment I’m working on three other projects with the same publisher, (as well as another project for myself) and there are always moments in the middle of every manuscript when it seems like it will never be publishable.  This was a pleasant surprise, a reassurance that I’ve been through this before, and that hard work does pay off.

I vintras blev jag kontaktad av Haninge Kommun som undrade om jag skulle vara intresserad av att skriva en text till kommunens katalog över offentliga konstverk. De lät spännande. Mitt under en snöstorm åkte jag in till kommunens kulturhus och pratade med ett par av kommunens kulturfolk. De bjöd på te och vi pratade om projektet, om konsten i kommunen, om vilkören för konstnärer i kommunen m.m. 

Sen åkte jag till Jordbor (där delar av min roman Numera Negerkung utspelar sig) och kollade på konstverket som texten skulle utgå ifrån. Det heter ”Juvelerna i Jordbro” och har formen av ett metallträd med symbolisk pyntning. Jag fick även en bunt kopior på handskrivna berättelser från Jordbrobarnen som hjälpt skapa idéerna bakom trädet.

Snön fortsatte att falla medan jag beundrade verket. Jag tog fram skrivblocket och skissade på idéer – fraser, rytmer, upprepningar, narrativa fragment. Sen åkte jag till biblioteket och skrev utkast på två olika kortnoveller, eller konstnoveller, där jag vävde in citat från barnens berättelser om hur de kommit till Sverige från andra länder – eller andra delar av Sverige. (När det gäller beställningsverk har jag för vana, ända sen jag som tonåring frilansade som krönikör åt The Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio, USA, att låta beställaren välja från ett par olika alternativ. Jag vet inte om andra jobbar så.). Under veckan skrev jag om dem flera gånger och skickade sen iväg texterna.

Kommunen valde den andra novellen, den som började som överblivna smulor, den som jag kämpade mest med. Kanske just därför.

Den kommer ut under hösten i katalogen Konst i Haninge.