Monthly Archives: February 2012

Work in progress

I’ve just found a CD on my shelf that I’d completely forgotten I owned, a marvellous recording of the Schnittke piano quintet and Shostakovich’s String Quartet 15, performed by the Keller Quartet with Alexei Lyubimov on piano for the Schnittke.

It’s an amazing disc – that rapturous ECM sound – but I’m even more pleased about finding it than I might normally be because it ties in so perfectly with something I’m planning to write, something that’s been taking up all my spare thoughts this weekend.

My non-spare thoughts have all been fully occupied with the novel. I’m hoping to finish the first draft of the first section tomorrow, which will have me on about 54,000 words so far. I’m guessing I’m about half way through, perhaps a little more.

The book is so different now from my original conception of it. It’s constantly evolving, which feels very natural for me. I can’t imagine being the sort of writer who plans everything in advance, chapter by chapter.

We saw a remarkable film on Monday, Sean Durkin’s tensely understated Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s been described as a thriller, but for me the very use of that word implies the presence of certain generic tropes (hooks, twists, cliffhangers). MMMM is (mercifully) free of all of these, yet still manages to be one of the most powerfully disturbing films I have seen in some while. I came out of it with my hands bunched into fists and my nerves jumping – a side effect not entirely due to the three insanely strong cups of coffee we’d managed to rack up prior to entering the cinema.

It kills me that masterful pieces like this don’t get more coverage. I’m now looking forward to seeing Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, and Pawel Pawlikowski’s new movie The Woman in the Fifth. I’ve loved Pawlikowski’s films to date. This new one looks great.

Michael Kelly has just posted the cover art for issue 3 of his speculative fiction anthology Shadows and Tall Trees. The rather wonderful cover image is by Eric Lacombe, and the ToC will include my story ‘The Elephant Girl’. I had the idea for this piece a year or so back but it remained just a sketch until fairly recently. I’m very happy to have completed it – I hate those bits that float around on your hard drive demanding attention.

It’s odd, too, because the story’s themes kind of link back to what I was saying at the start here about my lost-and-found CD. Everything seems to be about music at the moment.


Phantom Cities

Reading about William Gibson’s Collected Essays in The Guardian this morning, I was delighted to learn that Gibson was once an obsessive collector of mechanical watches. I learned also that he had written the introduction to a monograph by Canadian photographer Greg Girard entitled Phantom Shanghai, a collection of images documenting the planned destruction of the old city and its replacement with carbuncular structures in concrete and metal.

The images chart a tumbling of empire, and I’m not talking about the last faded remnants of colonialism. The deliberate destruction of the texture, imagic language and layers-deep history and culture of this richly cosmopolitan city is, to paraphrase Gibson, almost more than one can bear to contemplate.  It’s also hard to write about without spilling story ideas. Images of forgotten cities and vanished civilizations are commonplace in fantasy novels, yet our awareness of the way these same stories are being played out in the world we now inhabit and within our lifetime is often dangerously thin. Historical fiction is supposedly today’s most popular literary genre, yet it is those stories that slip past us, hidden on the back pages of a travel supplement or broadcast, in the silent hours, on the World Service, that are most agonizing and resonant because they are ours.

Gibson’s concern with old watches and exploded hotels in the French quarter of Shanghai seems to me profoundly science fictional. Only a writer who understands the past can begin to imagine the future, which (as Gibson said) is really only the present properly observed. Great writers preserve and remember as well as invent.

It seems that fate has been nudging me in the direction of things Chinese this week. As well as Girard’s photographs I also discovered the writing of Ken Liu, in the form of his novella The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary. I loved the form of this piece. I loved the way Liu was able to take past, present and future and bind them together. The background to the piece, which I am ashamed to say I had not been aware of previously, has been haunting me all week. Liu’s story wears its science fictional content lightly and is all the better for that.

Work continues well on the novel. Absolutely the most complex thing I’ve ever tried and it’s good to have to fight for it. If I’m fighting I know I’m working to the best of my ability.

Weird experience of the week? Hearing Ian Mond and Kirstyn McDermott’s spirited discussion of The Silver Wind on their monthly podcast The Writer and the Critic. As I say, a weird experience, but good weird. Thanks, guys.

Best New Horror

Reading becomes more complicated when you’re a writer because you gradually discover that you can no longer ‘just’ read. I don’t mean that the pleasure of reading becomes diluted because it doesn’t – if anything it intensifies, because your focus intensifies. It is simply that whatever you read, you read it with judgement aforethought. All the time you’re asking yourself: how do they do that? Or: do I want to do that? Or: why the fuck don’t they stop doing that?? It becomes increasingly rare to be so immersed in a book that your judgement becomes temporarily suspended and you find yourself reading blind, as it were, filled with the exhilaration that comes with the discovery of something new and great.

It’s all the more thrilling therefore when it does happen, and it has happened for me this past week. I first heard about Livia Llewelyn‘s collection Engines of Desire when I read Lila Garrott’s review of it over at Strange Horizons. I was drawn to the book immediately, and finally got around to ordering it last Sunday. I don’t want to say too much here, because I’m intending to do a full write-up for my next month’s Starburst column and I like to keep my powder dry, but what I will offer is a heartfelt recommendation. This is extraordinary writing, horror fiction that redefines the genre and that I am finding profoundly inspirational. Anyone who can write a post-apocalypse story (‘Horses’) that is not only more uncompromising than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but that comes close to equalling it in power, conviction and originality of voice demands to be read, and I am so very excited to be reading new work of this quality. I see from her blog that Livia Llewellyn is currently working on a novel – I earnestly hope the work is going well and that we can look forward to seeing FrankenNovel soon.

I’ve been working hard on the new book this week, and am feeling quietly excited by its progress. Weird things started happening last Monday, when I realised that the part of the novel I’d been redrafting wasn’t actually the beginning of the book. Since then I’ve started to write what will be the beginning, am now 12,000 words into that section and wondering why (as always) I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing with it up until now. The pieces are beginning to slot into place, that edgy, antsy feeling that keeps me awake at night trying to unpick the recalcitrant knots of one of my own ideas has ebbed away, and I can now begin to concentrate on getting the words down.

And to bring things full circle, I should draw your attention to a superb essay by Matthew Cheney over at Weird Fiction Review. I read this and – as with the Livia Llewellyn – felt immediately and keenly inspired. Can’t wait to read that Barry Lopez story! Thanks to Mike Harrison for highlighting this piece at his blog.

Oooh, Mildred

I started reading the new Stephen King last night. It’s early days – only another 700 pages to go – but right there on page 11 I came upon a paragraph that’s been hogging my attention for most of the day. The narrator Jake Epping is an English teacher. Here at the start of the book we find him marking student compositions:

The spelling in the honors essays was mostly correct, and the diction was clear (although my cautious college-bound don’t-take-a-chancers had an irritating tendency to fall back on the passive voice) but the writing was pallid. Boring. My honors kids were juniors – Mac Steadman, the department head, awarded the seniors to himself – but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ooo, don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred.  In spite of his grammatical lapses and painstaking cursive, Harry Dunning had written like a hero. On one occasion, at least.

Epping then goes on to talk about ‘the difference between offensive and defensive writing,’ and now I find I can’t stop thinking about precisely those categories, about Mildred and the icy patch, about how easy it is to fall into a way of writing that takes no risks. Or that doesn’t take enough risks, anyway. The pressure on writers to ‘succeed’ is so immense now. It’s easy to lose sight of what you were wanting to write about in the first place.

We should be writing like heroes. I think it’s good to keep that in mind.