Let me back in

Right now I’m on a Virgin Atlantic flight to Los Angeles, to attend the E3 convention. I have inevitably ended up directly behind someone who has chosen to tilt his seat back as far as it can go, and slightly further besides. This sort of thing is like the tragedy of the commons – if you want a decent amount of room to read or type, then you have to tilt your own seat back, and then this continues ad infinitum, or at least until the end of the cabin. The solution? Don’t allow seats to tilt back. Or give people more room. Or put all serial seat tilters in their own cabin and charge them more. Actually, I quite like that last suggestion.

Anyway, the one good thing about an 11.5 hour flight is the way it lets me do some serious reading and writing, uninterupted by the siren call of the internet. No doubt this will not be the case next year, but for now it means I can catch up on this weblog.

I have a bunch of things to write about, including the Oxford Literary Festival, a run, the launch of Perplex City and other associated things, but right now I’ll do a nice easy movie review: Ocean’s Twelve.

Ocean’s Eleven is one of those strange hit movies that really shouldn’t have been so good or successful for having the presumption to put a bunch of A-list actors together in an ensemble cast. And yet everything clicked – the dialogue was funny, the pacing was tight and no-one got too much or too little screen time. The only objection I have to the movie (which I make, without fail, upon any mention of it) is when Matt Damon tells Brad Pitt that Julia Roberts is the most beautiful thing he’s seen (or something to that extent). Now, I don’t want to comment on Julia Roberts’ looks but I think it’s a real stretch of believability for Matt Damon to say this. But apart from that, the movie is great.

As for Ocean’s Twelve, I had already formed an opinion of it before I’d watched it. Most reviews I’d read or heard said that the intro was pretty good, and then it got far too silly and self-indulgent. I have to agree – the intro is rather funny but then the plot slides into a confused muddle that undoubtedly resulted from the director trying to top the previous movie. The cameo by Bruce Willis was an unnecessary and distracting diversion, and the less said about the Julia Roberts bit, the better. Still, if you can get it for free, it’s worth watching because there are still a few flashes of inspiration and amusing lines dotted amid the over-produced wasteland.

On to the Oxford Literary Festival. The first talk I went to was a panel discussion featuring Philip Pullman, the woman who wrote Chocolat (Joanne Harris, I think), and a couple of other guys. I’m a great fan of Pullman but I wasn’t sure how he’d hold up in real life – maybe he’s just a good writer? As it happened, he’s also an exceptionally good and well-read speaker, armed with interesting insights and facts. The most interesting thing I took away was his suggestion that a law passed in the late 19th century, requiring railway stations to have newspaper and booksellers, was one of the main causes of episodic fiction (i.e. Sherlock Holmes) to become big. I haven’t been able to find out the name of this law or whether it even exists, so if you can shed any light on it, please let me know.

I didn’t like Joanne Harris at all; she seemed mildly obnoxious, like a schoolteacher who is very sure of her knowledge and feels compelled to explain it to others in a condescending manner. She also didn’t really answer any of the audiences’ questions, and instead twisted them around in such a way to suggest that the person who asked the question was mentally deficient. The other two panel members were waffly academics. What a shame.

The second talk I saw was by David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, one of my favourite recent novels. Now, the Oxford Literary Festival does an interesting thing with its lectures (interesting to me, at least) – it doesn’t let authors lecture on their own. It prefers panels or interviews, where some low-level literary media-type will amiably chat to the author in question and then select questions from the audience.

I found this a little strange at first, but now that I’ve given it some thought, it makes a lot of sense. Just because someone can writer doesn’t mean they can speak well, and normally people speak much better in conversation. Even so, the first few minutes of Mitchell’s talk were pretty irritating since the interviewer was asking absurdly general questions of the ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ variety. Eventually it started flowing better and a few gems came out.

One of the questions David answered was ‘What was the first story you wrote?’ David hummed and hawwed and eventually said that his first story wasn’t actually a story, but a map he drew on a big piece of cartridge paper. He maintained that the act of creating a world was like creating a story and a history, so you have the evil mountains, the black forest, the rivers, the golden plains, the western oceans, all of that. He also said that practically all of the other authors he’d mentioned this to said that they’d drawn maps when young as well. As an amateur mapmaker, I found this all fascinating.

Talk then moved on to Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories I am urged to read with increasingly regularity. I think that the talk got to Borges because David mentioned that Haruki Murakami was one of his strong, if fleeting, influences, and of course that tied in with Borges quite a bit.

One other startling relevation was that David Mitchell has never read Cloud Atlas in its published form. Cloud Atlas is a novel composed of seven short stories that interrupt each other halfway through, progressing forward in time and then progressing back, finishing themselves up. Mitchell, unsurprisingly, wrote all of the stories as complete entities before chopping them in half, and in the final act of editing before emailing it to his editor, he cut and pasted the entire lot into order. I think he has the familiar terror of writers of actually reading the whole thing in order and finding out that it’s all a load of crap (which, naturally, it isn’t, but anyway…)

We then had a very nice treat – Mitchell read out two excerpts from his book-in-progress, Black Swan Green. It was the first time he’d ever read out any of the book so it was a novel experience for him as well, and since the first segment he read out was a sex scene, a very embarrassing experience as well. The way in which he got embarrassed and also occasionally apologised for his bad accents was highly amusing, and every few minutes or so he’d spot a mistake while reading out and then dash back to the table to note it down. At one memorable point he asked the audience which version of a sentence we preferred, and then changed it according to our vote. Now that’s what I call interactive fiction!

After the talk, I got a copy of Cloud Atlas signed and chatted to Mitchell about my interest in maps and about Perplex City. He immediately urged me to read Borges and assured me he’d be on a lookout for the cube. Excellent stuff.

All in all, the literary festival was quite fun and something I’ll probably go to again. The audience was an interesting bunch, mostly middle-aged or older, with a smattering of younger types. I suspect I was in the bottom 5th or 10th percentile of the age range there.

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