Monday, 30 November 2015

Guadalajara: Monday

It turns out it takes a long time to get to Guadalajara. Even for those who do know ‘the way to San José ?’. I’m not sure if it is my longest journey but it is definitely Top 3. On the way out, after sitting cosy in Hay Castle with mulled wine, we fight through the rain and dark to the car and Richard drives us to Heathrow for our late Sunday overnight flight. On the way through security my bag is searched as it is always searched at airports. I look really dodgy apparently, or I should stop making quips about drug smuggling on blogs, but otherwise we pass through without hitch, luck out with three seats to the two of us, and, after discovering there’s nothing we can eat on the long plane journey as our special meals (dietary requirement divas that we are) weren’t booked we instead opt to sleep until a view appears. We sleep a lot. 

It’s a 12.5 hour journey to Mexico City. There we stand in queues in the terminus for two hours before boarding to fly the 1.5 hour flight to Guadalajara. Incidentally a large, sweating man in his fifties and crease chinos pushes through the queue citing a flight he must get in half an hour, and we later find him one row ahead of us in the second lot of queuing later. But perhaps he got breakfast or whiskey or something. It was probably a wise move as we find ourself stuck on the plane for a further two hours (fog) before we take off. As the fog clears and we arrive into Guadalajara airport, Mexico appears to be made up of tiny stacks of coloured gift boxes while Californian Christmas music plays on the tannoy. Santa’s gone surfing and the snowmen aren’t that cool anymore. 

Airport exit is surprisingly simple and we take our tired selves to the taxi stand where another queue snakes but is efficiently dealt with. I need more coffee but the sunshine and blue skies have already got me smiling and I question how so many of the other local young women look so polished in their high heels and ripped jeans and sleek hair. My hair, hair that is used to Welsh rain, doesn’t tend to travel to hot places well. I’m clammy and frizzy and overloaded with luggage and I’m hungry too. 

At the hostel being late works to our advantage, our rooms are almost ready to check in to… we sit, type in the wifi password and message loved ones... then shower and change...

I only recently discovered the Poinsettias hail from Mexico. One lives on the roof terrace of the B&B, another lives in my house in Splott.

...and finally head out to explore our square mile of the city. We’re hunting for food and landmarks to navigate by over the week, and cash points, the nearest shop for water, any promising looking places to eat. We’ve landed in Studentville. It is safe and sleepy. Heading out on Monday afternoon there’s a corner bar we mistake for a cafe. Once seated we discover there’s only hamburgers and pitchers of beer and lots of students, the odd lone older man hogging a pitcher to himself with a straw. 

Students can be petulant everywhere, one pouty boy at the bar is raising an eye and a smirk in our pale direction but another girl is friendly… there’s no coffee to be had but we manage water for us both and a tequila for me, it is tequila country, and this is our travel recovery day off…and it is good, smooth, nothing like the throat-stripping crap they serve in UK dives,  and then we head out via the cashpoint and water bottle fill up stop of the 7-ll to the old town. The architecture is a ramshackle mix of elegant monuments and modern blocks and shacks in fruity shades - electric fan shops, lacemakers, haberdasheries, Chinese restaurants, saloon bars, hairdressers, niche markets. A muddle of merchandise and merchants spill out onto the street like the drunk students from that Vancouver Wings bar. The street we weave along is one full of shops selling christmas trees and wool, women crowding at the wool counters of shops, women gathering to knit in chairs in the streets, the original yarn bombers. Men sit in the shade of trees on benches playing draughts with beer bottle tops and kids walk past with ice cream as big as their face, licking the pink syrupy swirls with pinker tongues.

Our timing is bad, the vegetarian restaurant (Ki’tzen) we’ve made a beeline for is closing as we arrive, and the budget  nearby second choice Alta Fibra is hard (for us) to find and not especially appetising but we fill up anyway as a large dinner and drink only costs £2. There’s a lentil burger, some rice, beans, tortillas (all cold) and a sweet yoghurty drink a bit like lassi. We do find the Cathedral first though and sit a little while under a tree to admire the view and the fountains, the first of many fountains we’ll see on our trip, the rest mainly illuminated with green and magenta spotlights by night. 

Worn out horses pulling ornate carts pass tourists around the sights, and then rest at the side of the square. We stick to travelling on feet, get a little lost but find our landmarks and Rebecca’s sense of direction returns and we head back to the hostel aiming to read but defeated by jetlag instead sleep some more.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Hola! Guadalajara Calling

'There's an opportunity to go to Mexico in a week or two. Do you fancy going?' 

I look at Richard, blink twice, and say something eloquent and profound. I say something like '––What––?' 

Outside the Dylan Thomas Centre, a grey Welsh November was getting itself into a bit of an Abertawe flap with the obese circling gulls. Inside the official book launch and signing for Rebecca F. John's debut collection Clown's Shoes has begun to wind down. Richard and I are enjoying a glass of wine with Jeremy Osborne from Sweet Talk productions who had produced Rebecca's stories for both Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4Extra. It is hard to conjure up the heat and colour of Mexico, to comprehend his question. 

Richard explains that two of the authors we work with, Rebecca F. John and John Harrison, have been invited by the British Council and British Council Wales to attend the international book fair FIL Guadalajara in Mexico's second city later that month. The UK are Guest of Honour at this festival  and the British delegation at Guadalajara International Book Fair were to be organised by the British Council and made up of more than 150 writers, academics, artists and representatives of publishing houses.

Thirty writers from across the UK are part of a 150-strong delegation at this year’s Guadalajara International Book Fair (Feria Internacional del libro – FIL) in Mexico. Writers including Irvine Welsh, Jeanette Winterson, Philippa Gregory, Andrew Motion, Val McDermid, Naomi Alderman, Tessa Hadley, Joe Dunthorne and Owen Jones will feature as part of the UK Guest of Honour Literary Programme.

Rebecca going off somewhere else exotic made sense. Her stories were being broadcast on national radio. She was not long back from a whistlestop-trophy-grab in Canada where she scooped the PEN International New Voices Award for her story 'Moon Dog' and shared the stage with Margaret Atwood, and she's more travel booked for 2016. For a self-confessed homebird she was leaving it rather a lot.

John has travelled to this part of the world before. Award-winning travel writer John Harrison's latest book 1519: A Journey to the End of Time follows Hernán Cortés' 1519 route along the Mexican coast and across country to modern Mexico City, home of the Aztecs. He was always going somewhere, it seemed to me, or hoping to at any rate. He was leaving in just over a week's time and Rebecca would follow, with me if I liked, after her reading at Hay Castle as part of the Hay Winter Weekend. 

The delegation has been carefully selected to reflect the strong regional identities that make up the UK and the unique breadth of British literature in the 21st century. It includes established novelists and poets, emerging writers, those that are still experimenting with themes and literary form, writers testing the limits of existing genre definitions and boundaries; and those exploring new media such as digital, spoken word and graphic novels. Six Welsh writers had been added to that list: Joe Dunthorne, Iain Sinclair, Jon Ronson, John Harrison, Owen Martell and Rebecca F. John. 

Eight if you included Mari Griffith, also reading at the festival, and myself. More if you gave Tessa Hadley honorary status for thirty years living here, although she, herself, corrected the chair for calling her Welsh during the short story panel I saw her at in FIL with John Burnside and 'I'm Welsh' wisecracking literary rock star Irvine. I'm getting a bit bored of the differences between the novel and the short story discussion though, so I'll spare you the rest of what was said there.

In Swansea’s Dylan Thomas Centre my head was full of German words and German plans – I'm off to Hamburg for the bulk of the festive season and a whole 25% fluent according to DuoLingo. What little Spanish I'd picked up from films, restaurants and youthful visits to Barcelona and Madrid had faded to blank. I closed my eyes and saw Breaking Bad, faces painted for Day of the Dead, Frida (obviously), then montages of Breaking Bad again wth SFA's song 'Guacamole' as soundtrack. 

Unlike Rebecca, Mexico had always been a place I'd wanted to visit. I have long been interested in Frida Kahlo's life and work, the Aztecs, and lately I have become more and more interested in the Day of the Dead. I've also a soft spot for magical realism, mariachi bands, peasant dresses and shawls, bright paint, chilli, and Tequila. Mexican cuisine is one of my favourite types of food both to eat and cook, and I recall a Christmas where I even cooked it for festive dinner complete with Margaritas of course. I love to travel though, so I generally say yes to things, even if when I get to my destination I wish I'd done more research before snapping to a decision. This time I took the weekend to sleep on it and spend a bit of time typing things into Google and talking to my darling man. And then I said yes, despite of that spider and not because of the drug smuggling possibilities. Once the decision was made I panicked, I planned and I packed! And then I repacked.

With books to sign off for printing and production and a lot of press to complete before I went, research was squeezed in to evenings and weekends as I trawled the internet for a place for us to stay – we settle on a vibrant, friendly place a short walk from the old town and the cathedral and around the corner from Musa (Museo de las Artes). There were lots of forms to fill out and emails to fire off to Mexican publishers to see if anyone was free to meet with me to discuss international rights for our titles and translation rights for theirs at such a late stage. I was met with the sound of silence.

This was my first time attempting to sell publishing and translation rights internationally or visiting an international rights fair where English was not to be the first language. I was not going to be fluent in Spanish in a week and so I practised a few basic phrases and packed a phrase book, along with maps of the main places I needed to go. I gathered some bullet-pointed advice from an excellent rights agent I knew and more from another publisher who'd been thrust into the deep end like this before too. Both said they thought it was unlikely I would make a sale while I was there, that rights is about relationship building and took time. I had to hope for chance meetings with the people I needed to speak to or a good literary scout at a party or networking event and prepare some promo material. I put together AI sheets and samples, packed catalogues and a few books and crossed my fingers for some good luck. And then I went to Wahaca, purely for research purposes, you understand.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Book Review: The Good Son by Paul McVeigh


Susie Wild reviews Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son (Salt Publishing 2015) 
I was born the day the Troubles started.
‘Wasn’t I, Ma? says me.
‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that.
Roll up, Roll up for the Mickey Donnelly show — a vivid, playful, fence-hurdling, page-turning act of cocky bravado and endearing imagination. Mickey is a shining star of a protagonist; charming, erudite, and warmly, infectiously funny. He breathes fresh air into the much raked over subject of Ireland’s Troubles. Still, those that live in Mickey’s square mile in 1980s Ardoyne are often immune to his charms, calling him ‘a gabshite’, ‘wee maggot’, ‘gay’. Scundering him in broad daylight. Scundering him at night.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review: A Gift of Sunlight

Gifts Indeed. I've reviewed Trevor Fishlock's new book A Gift of Sunlight: The fortune and quest of the Davies sisters of Llandinam (Gomer, 2015) for issue 55 of The Welsh Agenda.