Monthly Archives: September 2011

Whirlwind

On Friday I went up to London to sign copies of The Silver Wind and collect my author copies. This was my first sight of the book and I’m delighted by the appearance of both hardback and paperback. After I’d done my duty with a chewed Bic biro David Rix and I hopped on the North London Line and shuttled across to Hackney for a celebratory lunch at Cirrik, a friendly and excellent Turkish restaurant just two minutes’ walk from Hackney Central.

I love the North London Line, and this was a perfect North London afternoon. There is something magical and breathless about the city in the embrace of an Indian summer, and yesterday I had the joy of experiencing it again when Chris and I went up to town for the launch of the Solaris anthology House of Fear. We spent the afternoon in Kensington, having lunch near Holland Park and then making our way across to Hillsleigh Road and nearby Peel Street, both once home to the writer Anna Kavan.

It was Chris who first introduced me to AK’s work, and I’m ashamed to say that until I started reading her five years ago I’d never heard of her. Her work is fraught, radical and thrilling, and – as with the stories of Ballard – once I start reading her I find it difficult to tear myself away. Her best-known novel Ice is an acknowledged masterpiece, and its opening sentences send a thrill of anticipation right through me:

I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage.

Apart from being so perfect at a sentence level (terse, tight, bleakly poetic) these lines are the epitome of good storytelling. In less than fifty words, Kavan has created an irresistible mystery, a who, where and what? that is immediately enthralling. With its emphasis on the skewed psychology and sometimes impenetrable motivations of its characters rather than the eponymous world catastrophe that threatens to engulf them, Kavan’s Ice sometimes appears to me as the fourth bastard ‘quadruplet’ in the Ballardian cycle of water, fire and brimstone.

The fractured novels Asylum Piece and Sleep Has His House are sorely neglected, but in the intensity of their struggle to present a portrait of the artist fighting for sanity in a hostile world they must rank alongside Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. A particular favourite of mine though is the novella The Parson, a work found among Kavan’s papers after her death and finally published posthumously in 1995. I love the novella form in any case, and for me The Parson is its perfect exemplar. With its sinister sense of place, its nagging mysteries and pungent unease it’s a work I might kill to have written. Jealousy of this kind can only be healthy though; there’s nothing like reading Kavan for igniting ambition.

Seeing and walking in the places Anna Kavan knew as home – these are moments I won’t forget, that leave me itching to make a start on new writing.

That’s not going to happen this week, though. The House of Fear launch went well and was well attended.  Panellists Christopher Priest, Sarah Pinborough, Paul Meloy and Jon Oliver of Solaris entertained a capacity audience with a lively and interesting discussion of the enduring appeal of the haunted house story, and were afterwards joined by fellow contributors Lisa Tuttle, Rebecca Levine, Christopher Fowler, Jonathan Green, Rob Shearman, Stephen Volk, Garry Kilworth and myself for a mass signing and a general chin-wag in the Phoenix afterwards.

Chris and I are in town again tomorrow for the London launch of The Islanders, and then on Friday we set sail for FantasyCon.

I guess it’s just one of those weeks.

Holland Walk

99 Peel Street, Anna Kavan's last home

Setting sail

The first Dream Archipelago stories I read were the three that were originally published in the 1979 collection An Infinite Summer. It was during the late eighties or early nineties that a close friend recommended I read A Dream of Wessex, and I liked the novel so much that I was keen to track down some more books by the same author. I had never heard of Christopher Priest before, and it was to be another fifteen years before we actually met.

An Infinite Summer was like no other book I had ever read. Unlike most other short story collections I had encountered, the stories seemed to belong together, to feed off each other, to produce a cumulative effect of mystery and enchantment. ‘Whores,’ ‘The Negation’ and ‘The Watched,’ all set in an imaginary maritime state the writer named as the Dream Archipelago, clearly did belong together. Yet the characters and situations in each story were different, the stories were not linked in the conventional sense.

I liked the feeling the stories gave me of recognising something I could not quite name. I read them again and again, hoping each time that I might finally be able to come up with a definitive explanation of what they ‘meant,’ failing to do so (of course) and yet loving them all the more for being so determinedly elusive. A year or so later I came across a battered second hand copy of the Ramsey Campbell-edited anthology New Terrors 2, and here was ‘The Miraculous Cairn’. Next came The Affirmation, and at this point I realised that Christopher Priest was not just an interesting writer but a great one. I will never forget the feeling of excitement and delight that overcame me when I turned from page thirty-nine to page forty and discovered I was in the middle of a new and still more complex Dream Archipelago story. That shock of recognition remains undimmed, and even though I have reread the novel three or four times since the joy and satisfaction I find not just in the rapture of the islands but in the adept, knowing and above all beautiful way The Affirmation has been put together is a guiding constant. What raises Chris’s work unerringly into the realm of true literary excellence is the way it fuses both narrative and formal values into an indivisible whole. In all of Chris’s novels the story is easily accessible, engrossing and enthralling the reader from the first page. By the time you finish the book though you realise that an important part of the story lies in the form it has taken, in the way it has been presented to you; your feelings about the personalities and plights of the characters are very much tangled up in your feelings not only about the story you have just enjoyed but about the more abstract concept of the novel as a literary construct. Readers of a nervous disposition usually equate post-modernism with obscurity, obfuscation and, dare I say it, tedium; the novels of Christopher Priest take post-modernism and make it thrilling. Instead of making the reader feel small, they invite him in and make him complicit. A Priest novel can be read repeatedly with increasing satisfaction and yet there is always that sense of surprise, that this time it might all work out differently.

The Islanders came into existence almost by accident. In 2009, ten years after Simon and Schuster published The Dream Archipelago, Gollancz put out a revised and expanded edition that included two important new stories and brought the ‘mythos’ fully up to date. The Dream Archipelago is vitally important to Chris, both as a playground for story and as a literal embodiment of the creative process, of what it is like, in short, to be a writer. He loves the iconography of the Archipelago – ships, islands, poets, monsters – and finds a recurring intellectual and emotional freedom in its infinite spaces. He was coming to realise that his very fascination with this imagery could in itself be the subject for a story, and around the time the Gollancz edition was published he began compiling a list of all the place names – islands, ports, seas, topographical features – he had previously referred to in the course of his writing about the Dream Archipelago.

There were masses of them. For me, the completed alphabetical list read like a piece of blank verse, with something of the same hypnotic resonance of the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast. Above all it was a list of possibilities. At the time he compiled the list, Chris had just started work on a new novel, The Adjacent, a dark, hard-hitting story of love and war that in many ways would seem to be the natural follow-up to The Separation. But something mysterious and unexpected began to happen. In the spaces of time when he was not actively working on The Adjacent, Chris kept going back to look at his list of islands and it wasn’t long before he started adding to it: not place names this time but details of the language, culture and currency of each island, short passages of landscape description, eventually scraps of story.

The Islanders literally took over. In the end Chris laid The Adjacent aside for later (it is now two-thirds complete) and began to work on his island odyssey in earnest.

Seeing the novel take shape is an experience I would most liken to watching someone working on an exceptionally complex jigsaw puzzle. Those who know Chris’s work will not be surprised to learn that The Islanders was not written in a linear fashion. Odd pieces went in here and there. Bright colours flared up first in one corner, then in another. These individual narrative strands proved so diverting that the appearance of the finished picture – suddenly, and yet with such inexorable logic – acted like a shot of adrenalin.

What is this book about exactly? The cover blurb describes it as ‘a tale of murder,’ which it is, although the murder that takes place does not form the central action of the book and may not even have been a murder at all. You could call The Islanders a detective story, although if it’s a police procedural you’re after, you’re in for the mother of all shocks. Those who have already travelled through the Archipelago will glimpse again characters they encountered in ‘The Miraculous Cairn’, ‘The Negation’ and ‘The Trace of Him’, and yet The Islanders is completely self-sufficient; you don’t need to have read a word of Priest to be able to understand and enjoy this novel.

It’s a novel about the duplicity of time and mind. It’s a love story. It’s a journey to faraway places. Above all though it’s a book about how books are written, a novel about what art means, the living dialogue between writer and reader. And it is beautiful. A lot has been written about Christopher Priest’s writerly sleight of hand, his ability to construct plots with more complications than a top-of-the-range Breitling. The critics get so excited about this that they sometimes forget to mention the luminescence of Priest’s prose, its rapturous melancholy. Priest’s Dream Archipelago stories are elegies for a place that never existed, yet is ever present, like our unuttered wishes, in us all.

When I first met Chris in 2004 he was in a process of recovery. The Separation had been his most ambitious book to date, and his experience with his then-editor at Simon and Schuster had proved damaging and deeply demoralising. One of the first conversations we had was about that, about the scars that can form when a writer has been creatively injured.

Chris is now writing better than ever and The Islanders is the first fruit of that. Seeing an artist of gift and talent properly immersed and absorbed in that task he was born to do is both a privilege and a deep joy.

 

The Islanders is published tomorrow, 22nd September 2011. Chris will be talking about the novel and signing copies at Foyles on Thursday September 29th, and again at FantasyCon on Saturday October 1st. Tickets for the Foyles event are free, but they are going fast, so best get in there quick if you’d like one!

Chris Priest, Brunswick Square August 2011

Steaming

In his pitch perfect account of the writing life On Writing, Stephen King tells us that ‘people love to read about work.’ I for one agree with him, and it’s precisely this kind of detail in King’s stories – pages and pages on what it’s like to be a lawyer, a truck driver, a hotel manager, whatever – that makes them so alive, so present. One of my favourite King tales is the novella ‘Dolan’s Cadillac’, the lead story in the collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes and a wonderful variant on Poe’s perennial theme of premature burial. I have it on audiobook – I love to listen to King while I’m cooking – and must have heard it twenty times. I know whole sections by heart but I’m still not bored with it.

It’s perfectly plotted and as a ‘revenger’s comedy’ there’s not a word out of place. But what keeps me coming back is the stuff about the Nevada Highway Department and RPAV and how to hot-wire a front end loader. The minutiae and office politics of someone else’s trade. Writing like this reminds us not just that everyone has a story to tell, but that anything can be a story if we can only tell it well enough.

I’ve spent the past couple of days stripping the walls of a large quantity of woodchip wallpaper. Performing an arduous physical task for eight hours straight leaves you with aching shoulders and blistered hands and a lot of time to think about whether there might not be a story in it. If I was a proper horror writer I’d have no trouble coming up with a plot involving a steam-powered wallpaper stripper. (Dangerous things, those steam hoses.) As it is – and as in King – it’s the process that fascinates me. the ingenuity of the human mind to invent such a thing, the small miracles of everyday physics. There is a story in it, certainly, and I intend to start writing it as soon as I’ve finished the damned woodchip stripping.

Looking out of the window while I waited for the umpteenth tank of water to start boiling it occurred to me that I was actually living on the set of one of my own stories anyway….

Innocent?

I finished the Arkham story this evening – six hours of work today, intense but intensely rewarding. And this one actually comes close to fitting the brief.

Rereading some of early Ian McEwan.  The story ‘In Between the Sheets’ from the book of the same title is harsh and haunting and in The Innocent I was struck by a description early on of two men pitching ball, a strange, almost numinous moment:

After fifteen minutes one of them looked at his watch. They strolled back to the side door, unlocked it and stepped inside. For a minute or so after they had gone their absence dominated the strip of last year’s weeds between the fence and the low building. Then that faded.

It’s upsetting to read this, precisely because it is so good. Everything McEwan has written from Atonement onwards is lacking in anything save the sense of its own importance.

When a writer loses his courage it’s a cause for sorrow, especially when the quality of his work at the sentence level remains as strong as ever.

More about all this when I am less tired.

Listening to Patricia Barber’s sublime Mythologies, and hoping her next album will contain some more of this very fine lyric writing.

Departure Bay

A warm afternoon after rain. Working on my story for An Arkham Garland, of which more later. September gardens, the chalk-whitened, fresco colours of famished roses and Michaelmas daisies.

Listening obsessively to Diana Krall’s ‘Departure Bay’, the song she wrote with Elvis Costello about her home town of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and the first Christmas without her mother. This is the penultimate track on Krall’s album The Girl in the Other Room, which I often listen to on my headphones as I am returning to Hastings from London. Departure Bay comes on in deep darkness, just before the train reaches Robertsbridge.

I never tire of these lyrics, the sense of place, the feeling of renewal after great personal sadness. It’s a midwinter song, but the approach of Michaelmas is enough to start me thinking about it.

My Arkham Garland story is called ‘Sunshine,’ and it takes place during those last, Naples-yellow weeks of summer. I think it will surprise people. I hope they will like it anyway.