Why it matters

“The big one, though, is that representation matters: a female Doctor will tell little girls they can play the lead, just as Wonder Woman told them they could be a superhero. There’s a video going round Twitter at the moment of a girl, perhaps nine years old, watching the BBC as the casting is revealed, completely silent until the very end. Only then does she turn to the camera with the biggest grin you’ve ever seen and scream, “The new Doctor’s a girl!” That is why this is a great day, right there.”

(Jonn Elledge, New Statesman.)

Thought for the day

“An intellectual is someone who challenges binary oppositions, bridges cultural gaps, has the cognitive flexibility to connect various disciplines and passionately defends a nuanced way of thinking.

Intellectuals should be bold and loud and yes, offensive. It is high time to stop denigrating the term. At least out of respect for those people who pay a heavy price in other parts of the world just to be a public intellectual.”

(Elif Safak on the Denigration of the Public Intellectual.)

The Rift is open!

My second novel The Rift is published today. Huge thanks to the team at Titan for taking such sensitive care of the manuscript and for bringing the book out into the world – you are wonderful people.

For those in the Glasgow area, I shall be launching The Rift formally at Waterstone’s Argyle Street this Thursday, July 13th at 18:30 pm.  Neil Williamson (The Moon King) has very kindly agreed to act as questionmaster? interrogator? and there will be a chance to ask your own questions afterwards.

For those not lucky enough to live in Scotland, I will also be signing copies in London at Forbidden Planet, Friday July 28th 6 – 7 pm.

Once again, a huge thank you to the many wonderful friends and colleagues who have offered their unstinting encouragement and support as The Rift journeyed towards publication.  No book ever happens in a vacuum, and the discussions, deliberations and free-ranging book-chats that happen along the way are often among the most rewarding parts of the process. Thank you all.

Our Pavilion

Last Friday, we had the excitement and privilege of being able to participate in a ‘hard hat tour’ of Rothesay Pavilion, which is currently undergoing a major programme of redevelopment – read rescue project – prior to its scheduled reopening in July 2019. 

The pavilion was designed in the 1930s by James Andrew Carrick, son of Ayr architect James Carrick, a noted practitioner of Arts and Crafts style. The pavilion opened in 1938, its clean Art Deco lines providing a startling and significant addition to Rothesay’s traditionally Victorian seafront architecture.  Carrick’s design is thought to have been inspired by the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, which opened in 1935 as one of the very first Modernist buildings in Britain. An art exhibition space, cinema and seafront cafe, the magnificently refurbished De La Warr was a venue we visited often and with great pleasure when we lived in Hastings. When we discovered she had a ‘cousin’ in Rothesay we were delighted.

Carrick went on to design two more iconic buildings on Scotland’s west coast: the Cragburn Pavilion in Gourock and the ice rink in Ayr. Sadly both of these are already lost to us, making Rothesay Pavilion three times more precious and worthy of preservation.

Although the exterior of the building looks rather the worse for wear at present, a sizeable amount of important work has already taken place inside – removing hazardous materials, securing the structure – in preparation for the major second phase of building works that are due to begin in the autumn.

The new Rothesay Pavilion will be a vital community space as well as a major arts and music venue, a youth training facility, an important source of inspiration and revenue for the island, a slice of the town’s history reborn. It’s a thrilling project and a thrilling prospect, and huge thanks are due to the Rothesay Pavilion registered charity‘s artistic director and CEO Julia Twomlow and to project manager Peter McDonald for hosting such an instructive and hands-on tour.

You can even see some live footage of our explorations at the Rothesay Pavilion Facebook page!

An intermission

A tourist – almost by definition, a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptible but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure. Perhaps, as a tourist, I even congratulated myself on my taste, my ability to perceive this charm, certainly Christopher would have done so, it was not Monaco, it was not Saint-Tropez, this delightful rural village was something more sophisticated, unexpected.

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

Feeling desperately in need of a different kind of reading experience after a surfeit of Sharke reading, I sneaked a brief but delicious forty-eight hours with Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation. I’ve been meaning to read Kitamura for a while and goodness, what a writer. I found A Separation to be pretty much a perfect novel, if there is such a thing.  By sheer coincidence it also forms a fascinating dialogue with Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground.

Reading some of the reaction to Kitamura’s novel, I was struck by how often the question of inappropriate marketing raised its head. A sizeable constituency of readers seem aggrieved by having bought the book under what they consider to be false pretences: marketing blurbs suggested that A Separation might be described as ‘the literary Gone Girl‘. They were expecting a thriller, in other words – a mysterious disappearance, an investigation, twists, turns and revelations. They didn’t get them, or at least not in the way they had been led to believe.

Whilst I would find it churlish to blame readers for feeling disappointed – whatever A Separation is, the literary Gone Girl is not it – I always feel a particular admiration for those who, in spite of finding the novel they read to be substantially different from the novel they imagined, were prepared to give that novel its head and wound up liking it anyway.

Even while I would never describe A Separation as a thriller, I did find it thrilling, simply at the level of its prose, its adventurousness in disdaining ordinary adventure, its cutting honesty. It has all the poise and elegance of Rachel Cusk’s Outline combined with – yes – the mystery of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, which makes it the ideal book for me.

Add to that the personal weirdness of it being set in Gerolimenas, a remote fishing village in the Mani I happened to spend time in a couple of years ago while visiting my father, and my satisfaction was complete.

I especially appreciated Kitamura’s enquiry into the nature of the female narrator – what she should do, how she should be. How refreshing and what a relief, to encounter a woman protagonist whose intellect, above all, is allowed centre stage. Though I enjoyed reading Alexandra Schwartz’s review in The New Yorker – it’s a good piece of criticism – I disagree strongly with its conclusions. Kitamura’s narrator may be unnamed but she is certainly not nothing. Like so many male narrators before her, she guards her privacy. If she overturns reader expectations of how a woman should react – how she should think, even – then that is just one more glittering facet of a solid gold book.

Highly recommended.

It’s a long way to Inverary

‘The Sharkes Discuss.’ With Helen Marshall, Inverary Castle, May 27th 2017.

“But the more we talked the more I sensed that DeWitt’s greatest heartbreak had come from the place that had first changed her life: Oxford. After a decade as a student and lecturer with no end to her distinctions and a thesis completed on the concept of propriety in ancient criticism, she had hoped Oxford would give her the sort of freedom that had allowed historians like Ronald Syme to write an epic work like The Roman Revolution. But Oxford had changed: Thatcherization, credentialization, Americanization, i.e., the pursuit of narrow specialties in the name of job-seeking. She realized she wasn’t interested in writing about writers writing about writers writing about Euripides. She wanted to be Euripides.”

This from a fantastic article by Christian Lorentzen in Vulture on the writer Helen DeWitt. The piece resonated on several levels, reminding me simultaneously of myself a quarter-century ago, thinking about Nabokov in the library at Corpus, the passage I quoted in my review of Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality for the shadow Clarke, the often embattled situation of women modernists and post-modernists in general.

Oxford didn’t break my heart – I was too preoccupied with other matters to let it get sufficiently into my head and under my skin. I do remember very clearly though a discussion I had with some American students in the Dome on Little Clarendon Street immediately after a lecture, in which I stated the theories of Bakhtin and Saussure were all very interesting, but they had nothing to do with how a text actually came into being.

“The text is all that matters,” I said, to shocked expressions. That the text is paramount is something I still believe, more or less, although I barely grasped what I was trying to articulate back then, the tensions such a view might excite.

Perhaps that’s one of the qualifications you most need to be a writer: to understand that a particular view might be controversial, but to write it down anyway, or at least try to. The better part of writing is instinct, gut feeling, abiding by the truth of what drew you to setting words on paper in the first place. Intellectual justification and brinkmanship, a more precise academic understanding of your position vis a vis your detractors (I almost wrote ‘distractors’ there, which seems very telling) – these things can come later, if they’re important to you. The text is the thing.

I saw a blog post the other day adjuring writers to ‘write responsibly’. I understand what that person meant and that they meant it well but seriously, writers, don’t. Write responsibly, I mean. That way mediocrity lies.

*

Passing through into the second phase of the shadow Clarke project has been a fascinating, exhilarating and often perplexing experience. The narrowing of our focus – just the six officially shortlisted texts now to discuss between us – has led us into some intense and hugely exciting discussions on criticism in general, its value and aims. No two Sharkes think exactly alike, but our mutual passion for the subject and our general agreement regarding its importance has tended to unite us far more strongly than any individual difference in emphasis has had the potential to divide. For myself, what I am coming away with most of all is an increased awareness of my own approach as but one point on a spectrum and a point that is by no means static at that. As always, the unflagging support and enthusiasm my fellow Sharkes continue to show for this project is a powerful source of inspiration and insight and I cannot even begin to express the gratitude I feel for their marvellous company on this occasionally precarious voyage of discovery.

*

The investment of time, not to mention energy both intellectual and emotional that has been necessary to keep the Sharke swimming has meant less time for this blog, for which I apologise, although plenty has been going on behind the scenes. I have recently – just two weeks ago in fact – completed work on what I hope will be the final draft of a new novel, a work I’m very excited about and will post more about here in due course. I also have a brand new novelette just up at Clarkesworld magazine. ‘Neptune’s Trident‘ is the first story I’ve written with a specific connection to the west coast of Argyll and I’m delighted to see it in print. This story began life in the weeks immediately following the US elections, and I think those scars are visible – in fact I think they’re what ‘Neptune’s Trident’ is mostly about.

We are continuing to relish and draw strength from our new surroundings. We love Rothesay, we love our island, we’re happy and proud to make our home and our life in Scotland. The skies are incredible here – like nowhere I’ve been. For most of the past month I’ve had to drop everything I’m doing at the requisite time just to watch the sunset. Eleven-thirty pm and there is still a fugitive, slate-blue light in the sky. I gaze out over the firth and I worry about the upcoming election and I plan my next book, which will be all about here. This is what I’m doing right now.

Free Willy!

Delighted to announce that my weird cosmic London story, Maggots, has been nominated in the novella category of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards. This is hugely exciting for me, firstly because I’m very fond of this story (published as part of the Solaris haunted house anthology Five Stories High) and secondly because, as always, the Shirley Jackson shortlists form a veritable showcase of what is new, interesting and excellent in dark and weird fiction. I am especially pleased to see stories by Irenosen Okojie and Camilla Grudova nominated, and the novel shortlist – including works by Emma Cline, Eleanor Wasserberg and Iain Reid – is particularly strong and imaginative this year. Well done, judges!

You can see the full line-up of nominees here – do yourself a favour and order something from it this weekend.

Dreams Before the Start of Time

In all the political excitement and confusion of the past ten hours, no one should forget that today also sees the publication of Anne Charnock’s beautifully crafted third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time. A sequel-of-sorts to her second, Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, Dreams has us revisit one of the main characters from that novel, and brings us a whole host of new characters to populate, clarify and meditate upon the technological, sociological and environmental changes that have taken place in her world since last we saw her.

Toni was a teenage girl in Sleeping Embers. Now an old lady, her store of memories and knowledge of possibilities beyond the parameters of the existence we know makes her – and the reality she inhabits – both utterly compelling as a character and a notable and important exemplar of everything science fiction can be capable of when it is as good as this.

I greatly admire this book. I love the music it makes when listened to in consort with its equally accomplished predecessor. Most of all, I’m delighted and inspired by Anne Charnock’s writing talent, her contemplative, forensic, insatiably curious approach to speculative fiction. The three novels she has produced to date constitute a significant literary achievement in their own right, as well as being the springboard from which – I feel sure of it – Charnock will leap towards still more confident advances in the novels to come.

What with all the Sharke-ing, I’ve not yet had time to write the review this novel deserves, but in a way that’s a good thing as your reading energies would be far better spent in getting stuck into the book itself. But for any of you who do enjoy a more detailed introduction, look no further than From Couch to Moon, where you’ll see that my fellow Sharke, Megan AM, clearly enjoyed Dreams Before the Start of Time as much as I did.

One for next year’s shortlist, that’s for sure…

 

Well, that was weird…

It is with some pride and considerably greater astonishment that I can now confirm that my story ‘The Art of Space Travel‘ has been nominated for a Hugo. (Nope, still doesn’t sound real.) This is something I never expected to happen for a work of mine in a million years, so seriously, a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who voted for the story, and thereby contributed to giving me one of my most surreal email inbox moments to date.

‘The Art of Space Travel’ was inspired, believe it or not, by one of the Heathrow Eastercons. Over the course of the weekend and walking to and fro between the con hotel and the pub and restaurant in the nearby village of Sipson, it struck me again and again how peculiar it was, this juxtaposition of a centuries-old community with the artificial and constantly fluctuating landscape of the airport, its buildings and the dividing perimeter road. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to write a story set amidst the contradictions and unique challenges of that landscape, and, a year or so later, ‘The Art of Space Travel’ was the result. With the destruction of Sipson to make way for a third airport runway a real possibility, the story feels still more urgent and closer to home.

Emily, Benny and Moolie remain favourite characters of mine, and the knowledge that others have felt touched by them too – enough to nominate their story for a Hugo Award – is the most massive compliment.

Thanks also of course to Ellen Datlow for buying and editing the story, to tor.com for publishing it, and to Linda Yan for her gorgeous cover art.

You can check out the full list of Hugo nominees at tor.com here.