Monday, December 17, 2012

Casting call

I'm definitely not one of those writers who think much about how their work might unfold on screen - not unless I'm actually writing a screenplay (in which case, it's pretty much all I think about). Novels and movies both tell stories, and both usually contain dialogue, but that's where the overlap starts to run out. It is not the ultimate accolade of a novel that it be adapted for the screen, let alone that it be adapted successfully. For a novelist the undertaking can be fascinating and lucrative, but its success or failure usually has very little to do with the original material - and therefore very little to do with its creator.

Nonetheless, when the My Book, the Movie came calling, I couldn't resist the temptation to play producer for twenty minutes. The popular blog, which has been running for more than five years, asks novelists to 'dreamcast' the leading roles for a fantasy adaptation of their latest book, in this case The Valley of Unknowing.

As most real producers do, I started with the director, fixing on the rather in-demand Alexander Payne, whose recent credits include SidewaysAbout Schmidt and The Descendants. Well, I reckon if you are going to fantasize a perfect world, you might as make it as perfect as possible.

Who is my ideal Bruno Krug? The truth is, I don't have one. The character already exists in my head, and I doubt that any perfect embodiment could ever exist outside it. On the other hand, there are some very talented actors out there whom I'd love to see having a go. Actors, especially great actors, always bring something all their own to a character. It's that sense of an extra dimension that makes the exercise thrilling for the original author, provided he has an open mind.

The whole fantastic exercise is here

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Page 69 Test

I was asked recently to take the increasingly infamous 'Page 69 Test' by Marshal Zeringue, the leading American book blogger. The test is simple: what happens on Page 69 of your latest novel? Is it representative of the rest of the rest of the book? Is there something on that page that would make the reader read on? So I agreed to have a go.
Is there some special significance to page 69s in contemporary literature, you might ask? Probably not, but looking at some previous Page 69s on that Blog, it's hard to avoid the impression that important development are usually in the offing. This is certainly the case in The Valley of Unknowing. In fact, in one sense Marshal has pretty much hit the jackpot.
The full piece can be found here...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Uneasy reading

Last week I was asked by the Writers Read and Campaign for the American Reader blogs to write something about the books I'm reading at the moment. These were Frederick Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune and Neil Hanson's The Unknown Soldier - both extraordinary books, which I'd recommend to almost anyone (although definitely not children!). 

Meanwhile, The Valley of Unknowing has just come out in North America. USA Today listed it as one of their five weekly 'New & Notable' books. Is this my novel's proverbial fifteen minutes of fame? We shall see.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Independents pick 'The Valley'

Every month the American Booksellers' Association (ABA) asks independent booksellers to pick 20 about-to-be-published books for its 'Great Reads' list, covering all genres and types. I learned last week that The Valley of Unknowing has made the list, which goes out to ABA members, together with a brief review, in a few weeks time. It's another welcome vote of confidence in the book from across the pond, and should encourage independent stores to stock it in time for Christmas. I'm told the big chains take note as well.
A positive nod from any quarter is welcome, but verdicts that go straight to the heart of the retail market are perhaps doubly valuable, in that they can improve the physical visibility of a title - although the growing importance of on-line shopping is perhaps eroding that advantage.
In any case the full list is:

A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts, by Sebastian Faulks
The Valley of Unknowing, by Philip Sington
Raised From the Ground: A Novel, by Jose Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa (Trans.)
Life Among Giants: A Novel, by Bill Roorbach 
City of Dark Magic: A Novel, by Magnus Flyte
Hand for a Hand, by T. Frank Muir
The Confidant: A Novel, by Helene Gremillon, Alison Anderson (trans.)
The Black Box, by Michael Connelly
Dear Life: Stories, by Alice Munro
The Valley of the Shadow: A Cornish Mystery, by Carola Dunn
The Boy in the Snow: An Edie Kiglatuk Mystery, by M.J. McGrath
Cold Quiet Country, by Clayton Lindemuth


Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham
Constantine the Emperor, by David Potter

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, by Jacob Tomsky
Memoir of the Sunday Brunch, by Julia Pandl
The Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace, by Molly Caldwell Crosby
Hands-On Healing Remedies: 150 Recipes for Herbal Balms, Salves, Oils, Liniments & Other Topical Therapies, by Stephanie Tourles
Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, by Ken Jennings
Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, by Nancy Marie Brown

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Star treatment?

A long-established aspect of the American publishing scene is the so-called ‘pre-pub’ review. These are not reviews written, as you might think, before the first double scotch of the day (many, I wouldn’t wonder, are written after it...); they are reviews published in the months running up to publication. Their target audience is not the general reading public, but retailers, who order books in advance, libraries and book reviewers in the wider media. Some pre-pubs, especially those that offer a neat summary of a book’s plot, are read by film scouts on the look-out for attractive adaptation opportunities, although this is less significant than it was twenty years ago, when novels were optioned for screen development more frequently than they are today. Nonetheless, strongly positive pre-pubs can help a book get noticed in what remains a very crowded marketplace, even if, by themselves, they’re no guarantee.

Among the four pre-pub reviewing journals - Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist- it is Kirkus that authors and publishers most fear. Its slogan is ‘Life’s too short to read bad books’, which pretty much tells you all you need to know. Three years ago Kirkus briefly closed before re-opening under new ownership, its apparent demise reportedly toasted by a number of literary agents in New York.

Kirkus, like the other journals, awards a star to the books it most likes. Although it has been generally pretty positive about my previous outings in the US, it has hitherto only awarded a star once, to Omega, way back in 1997. Omega was the second Patrick Lynch novel to be published stateside, and went on to be a bestseller there. The second star turned up earlier this week, for The Valley of Unknowing. ‘Holy catfish!’ my American publisher declared. And he should know.
"A compelling story of jealousy and betrayal behind the Iron Curtain. Personal and political limitations shape this subtle novel... which balances serious and menacing questions of moral compromise with ironic comments on Actually Existing Socialism... Atmospheric, poignant, witty, but mournful too, Sington's novel cleverly considers what might have been the back story to real life tragedies.”

Monday, September 17, 2012

Life imitates Watteau?

In Kensington Palace Gardens last Sunday... Pictures by Claudi and/or Heiko.

Leo is background middle and Katja on the right. (The beagle was a gatecrasher....)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Swindler's List

'Are you saying I have worms?'
Since this month began I’ve received a telephone call pretty much every day at about 6pm. It is always from India, and the caller either works for Microsoft (to be exact, the Windows Operating System Support  Team),  or is concerned with a compensation claim I’m apparently making without knowing it. Either way, his aim is to scam me, of course. The first type of caller claims to have identified a worm on my computer which will need to be removed with his help. The second type – well his effort at deception is so hopeless I’ve never stayed on the line long enough to find out what he claims. I assume he wants my bank details so he can send me money or something.

On one level these calls are very annoying. How did these con men get my number? (Well, maybe by looking in the phone book…). And just how gullible do they think I am? But on another, less edifying level, I’m almost starting to enjoy them . There is something weirdly empowering about not being taken in by a swindler. One is completely at liberty to string them along, hurl abuse at them or twist them in knots. I read of one person who handled the Microsoft scammers by claiming that he was working for Microsoft himself.  “Son, have you opened your heart to Jeezus?”  -  that might be another good repost.  Probably the wise thing to do is put the phone down at once, but the temptation to indulge in a little catharsis is not always easy to pass up.

This afternoon I intend to pick up the receiver claiming to be a market research organisation. “Answer a few simple lifestyle questions and you could win a cruise!” I shall say. Then we’ll see who hangs up on whom.

'No, I am not the bill payer.'

Friday, June 8, 2012

Courting the grey vote

This month everyone has been celebrating the Diamond Jubilee, including my son Leo who marked the occasion by making a Union Jack at his day nursery. When I asked him what the Jubilee was about he said: "It's for the Queen, because she's been sitting on a chair for a hundred years." Later he asked me if the Queen was allowed to get off the chair when she needed the loo. I replied that nobody knew, and that such secrets were all part of the aura of mystery surrounding the monarchy.

In the midst of all this media focus on our older folk and their contribution, I receive my first ever review in The Oldie, Richard Ingrams's august organ. Whether this is a comment on my own advancing years, or that of the narrator in The Valley of Unknowing, I cannot say, but I'll be very happy if my book gets the grey vote. After all, I'm going a little grey myself...
"Philip Sington has managed something quite remarkable... a flawless, gripping and penetrating depiction of life in the former East Germany, wrapped up as a literary thriller in every sense of that expression... His feeling for not just time and place, but atmosphere and way of life is perfect in a way no other Western writer, not even John le Carré, has achieved."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Krushchev's footwear

Uta aged 8 (third row, right) in the uniform of the Thälmann Pioneers. (Click to enlarge)

I've just written a piece for the Vintage Books blog on how I came to write The Valley of Unknowing, and why. Needless to say, if I hadn't met and married a former resident (see above), it never would have happened. The piece begins:
I was a child of the Cold War. To be more precise, I was a child of a nasty cold snap during the Cold War. I was born the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when exploding cigars were a serious hazard, and when feisty Russian leaders waved their shoes at the UN General Assembly to demonstrate the superiority of Soviet cobbling. 
Now read on...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Financial Times reviews 'The Valley of Unknowing'

This Saturday's Financial Times contains a very nice review of The Valley of Unknowing by David Evans. I'm pretty sure the FT has never reviewed a book of mine before, but it's certainly been worth the wait. It concludes:
"The Valley of Unknowing is simply superb: affecting but never melodramatic, literary but never less than thrilling. Though Krug is self-pitying, he wins our sympathy at the tragic denouement, when we learn how he has also suffered under communism. His story, like the manuscript he grudgingly admires, is “truthfully, tenderly drawn”."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mariella and the Stasi

In between yet another plumbing crisis, a mercy dash to St George’s hospital, and the sudden closure of our one-year-old’s day nursery, I managed to slip away to Broadcasting House to record an interview with Mariella Frostrup, the host of Open Book on Radio 4. Also taking part in a discussion about The Valley of Unknowing and the literary impact of the Stasi files, was Anna Funder, author of the prize-winning non-fiction bestseller Stasiland – although hers was a disembodied voice emanating from a studio in New York. Spookily enough, Australian Anna’s most recent book, a novel, is set in Berlin in 1932, just like The Einstein Girl, and is based on the life of an actually existing woman. It came as something of a relief to discover that the woman in question - and indeed the rest of her story - had nothing to do with the great physicist.
As expected, I thought of many brilliant and memorable things to say in response to the Mariella’s questions - but only after the whole thing was over and I was tramping back down a rainy Regent Street towards the Tube station. Oh well...
The interview, suitably edited, will be broadcast on Radio 4 this Sunday 22nd April at 4pm; and again the following Thursday 26th at 3.30pm. Details of the whole edition can be found here:

A Podcast of the programme will be available for download soon after the first broadcast, here:

Late that evening, after further urgent plumbing consultations and an untimely instance of projectile vomiting from our youngest, I closed a deal for the North American rights to The Valley of Unknowing. The venerable firm of W.W. Norton will publish the book in November, which is quite soon in the normal run of these things. Norton is reputedly a classy operation, and the editor is something of a New York legend. I would have celebrated on the spot, but it was almost midnight by this time, and I was in danger of collapsing at my desk. I finally collapsed on the floor beside my son's bed ten minutes later.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Times reviews 'The Valley of Unknowing'

The official press date for The Valley of Unknowing isn't until the 19th April; so I was quite surprised to find a review in last Saturday's edition of The Times. The reviewer is the distinguished journalist Peter Millar, who, as well as being a successful novelist and historian, reported from all over Eastern Europe for Reuters and for a range of British broadsheets throughout the 1980s. (In East Germany he earned the distinction of being arrested by the secret police and deported). Had I known in advance that such an authority was to pronounce on The Valley, I might not have slept too well. Fortunately, I didn't.

In any case, the review is a generous one by any standards, calling the book 'remarkable', and praising its authenticity (for which my wife Uta, her family and friends can take much of the credit). It concludes like this:
"Having lived in East Germany, I am astonished by Sington's pitch perfect recreation of that society, from the daily shortages to the veil of suspicion that shrouded all dealings with anyone other than close friends, and the hypocrisy of the fraudulent socio-political game almost everyone was forced to play... Build[ing] towards a relentless climax, this is a brilliant, evocative and accurate novel which turns a love story and a chronicle of human weakness and self-deception into a gripping, hard-nosed authentic thriller."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Einstein Girl moves screenward

Today I went up to Holland Park to meet Emily Hickman of The Agency, who has been ably representing me on various screen-related matters over the past year. In her newly refurbished office I signed an option agreement on the screen rights to The Einstein Girl (aka Das Einstein-Mädchen), the counterparty being the German actor Sebastian Koch, who is in the process of setting up a new film production company in Berlin
Right now Sebastian is probably Germany’s most bankable star, and certainly one of its most highly regarded. Until recently he was best known outside his native country for his role as the playwright Georg Dreyman in The Lives of Others (see above), which won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2006. He has since added leads in many English language productions, most recently Unknown (2011) opposite Liam Neeson and Albatross (2011) opposite Jessica Brown Findlay. Over the past few months, as well as popping over to Greece to star in God Loves Caviar with Catherine Deneuve and John Cleese, he has been shooting the lead role in Suspension of Disbelief (see below),a new thriller being directed by the Oscar-winning director Mike Figgis, of Leaving Las Vegas fame. As soon as that's done, he'll be playing the villain opposite Bruce Willis in the latest installment of the Die Hard franchise.
During the course of last year I had the pleasure of meeting with Sebastian twice in Berlin (once at the famous Einstein café in Charlottenburg, which is well worth a visit). They were very enjoyable meetings, and the possibility exists that we will collaborate on the script development for The Einstein Girl. Sebastian is a bit of an Anglophile, and a great lover of Shakespeare, lending his weight to several Shakespearian ventures in Germany. Whether The Einstein Girl ends up heading in an English or German language direction, though, has not yet been determined. I guess, in the end, like so many things, that’s a decision that will be determined by finance.
In any case, I’m really delighted that The Einstein Girl’s filmic destiny has ended up in such talented and charismatic hands, and I’m unusually confident that something special will eventually emerge.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Author in a tight spot

Writers have been known to adopt desperate measures to get a little peace and quiet. But though my house has never been more full of people – small children with snot and temperatures, an au pair, a recuperating parent with a bewildering pharmaceutical regime, and an endless parade of tradesmen – that’s not what I’m up to in these photographs. Things aren’t that bad, not quite.
I’m actually in the process of fitting insulation beneath a section of roof, rendered highly inaccessible by a recently added stud wall within. Why my Albanian builders (and their British overseers) didn’t do this for me, before the stud wall was built, is for them to explain. But, fed up with corner-cutting and delay, I decided to let my friend Heiko, who knows an immense amount about this sort of thing, take on the job instead. The only problem was that Heiko – who was stuck underground for hours during the 7/7 terror attacks, in a packed rush-hour train – suffers from bouts of claustrophobia. So I decided to help. It turned out to be hot, dirty, suffocating work, but strangely satisfying once completed – not that I’m planning a second foray any time soon.
Actually I’ve always liked the idea of writers having a manual trade, or at least being good with their hands. The notion of the novelist as a pure intellectual, spinning tales in the splendid isolation of a rural retreat, is unattractive to me. I like my artists to get their hands dirty, and to interact with the physical world as directly as possible. That’s probably why Bruno Krug, the central character in The Valley of Unknowing – it would be inaccurate to call him a hero – is a man who writes for a living and plumbs on the side (though it was once the other way around).

Actually, I could do with Bruno’s plumbing skills right now, because the Balkan bloke who came to fit up the new bathroom was something of a let-down. I suppose if he wrote good poetry or something, that would make up for his professional deficiencies. But it would have to be very, very good.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Monkey see, monkey do

It's good to see Leo teaching his baby sister something really useful...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Do you need More Space?

Since I started casually Tweeting on the progress of my very far from extraordinary loft conversion, I've been surprised at the volume of inquiries and interest from loft-focused strangers. This is not a property blog. It's supposed to be about books and writing: but the mention of having builders in the house seems to tap into a vein of angst that runs deep through the (mostly London) population. Perhaps the costs involved in moving house are now so high that almost everyone who owns one is wondering how to make the best of their property footprint, rather than forking over loads of money in stamp duty and assorted fees.
Anyway, what people seem to want to know is this: which outfit have I used for my conversion, and are they any good? Do they deliver what they promise? Have I felt myself to be in good hands? Or has the whole process been bewildering, stressful and disappointing? There is certainly a legion of eager providers/contractors, armed with glossy brochures; the difficulty is knowing which ones to trust.
I've pretty much dodged these polite inquiries so far, on the grounds that my job is not finished (actually it's quite long way from being finished, although the work on site has pretty much dwindled to one bloke and a box of nails); but I promise I will report soon.The company I've used advertises a lot in the London area. If you live in SW anything, you've probably seen their goldfish-sporting Fiats darting from job to job. They're called MoreSpace (or occasionally I Need More Space; or, confusingly, Loft Rooms). I've kept a detailed record of the whole encounter, which I can say right now, on working day 47 of the build, has been an education.
None of this is quite the stuff of novels. But that's not to say there haven't been moments of drama. Whether that drama is closest to comedy, tragedy or the courtroom variety will soon be made plain.