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Month: April 2012

Lost futures

Churchyard, Lydd, March 2012

Lydd Town station, March 2012

Farm buildings, Lydd, March 2012

Lydd is a small town in Kent, positioned more or less exactly at the centre of the Romney Marshes. There are no major roads that go near it. Its railway station, Lydd Town, was closed to passenger traffic in 1967.

There is an airport at Lydd, named somewhat bizarrely as London Ashford, that operates scheduled weekend flights to Le Touquet. Cottages backing on to the churchyard and in the High Street date from the 15th century. The church tower is one of the tallest in Kent.

It’s a beautiful little town, precisely because it’s miles from anywhere with no through roads. It is a place I loved on sight, a place I instinctively felt was special to me. It came therefore as both a shock and not a shock to learn that I narrowly missed growing up there.

When I described my enthusiasm for Lydd to my mother, soon after my first visit there in 2007, she told me that she and my father very nearly bought a house there, back when we moved south from the Midlands in the early 1970s. ‘We were both very keen to buy it,’ she said. ‘Only in the end we decided it would mean too much driving for your dad because the place was so isolated.’ My father was on the road six days a week then, repping for Bovril and Marlboro and then Domecq Sherry. He would have had to drive the best part of an hour from Lydd, simply to get to where he needed to be to start covering his area. We moved into a house in Ashington, West Sussex, instead.

So Lydd was lost to me, but now feels doubly special. I can never know, but still like to think of what my alternate childhood might have been like: those cottages around the churchyard, those unchanging, narrow lanes, the endless marshes.

It feels right. Perhaps that’s why the place worms its way ever more insistently into my fictions.

The novel has been undergoing a sea change – literally. No doubt I’ll be writing about this in more detail at some point but for now let’s just say I’ve dumped a lot of words and am in the process of writing new ones. Likewise, this feels right, and not unconnected.

Listening to: Schnittke’s piano quintet.

Just about to start reading: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I have his new book of essays to read as well. I loved The Disappointment Artist.

Counting sheep

David Hebblethwaite has been playing a fun game over at Follow the Thread today: pick a favourite book for every letter of the alphabet. Irresistible for list junkies like myself, and his post made me smile especially because I have been using this game (and its many variants) for years as my personal cure for insomnia. I’m not a good sleeper, never have been, but when I find myself lying awake at 3 am, I’ve discovered that challenging myself to name three SF novels – or writers – for every letter of the alphabet can work wonders. I usually make it to around ‘m’ before I lose consciousness. Pieces of classical music for every key signature is another good one.

Anyway, here’s my list of books, A-Z, and employing my own particular rule that no author can be named more than once.  Like David, I’ve named favourites as opposed to definitive favourites (which can change daily), but unlike him I haven’t managed to fill every spot. I have nothing for ‘x’ or ‘z’. If I were doing this in Russian (another variant – guaranteed to send you into a coma after about six letters) I could elect Yuri Olesha’s bizarre and unique novel Zavist’, but that’s ‘e’ for Envy in English and so would be cheating. I’ve cheated a bit in any case: Pavane is my favourite novel by Keith Roberts, but I needed something for ‘k’ and so Kite World usurped it. Similarly my favourite Iris Murdoch is The Sea, The Sea, but I can’t not have a book by Bolano, and so I plumped for A Word Child instead.

It occurs to me that The Sea, The Sea might be one of those books where the ‘the’ is properly part of the title in any case. How these things are fraught with issues. The list goes on….

The Affirmation – Christopher Priest

Bellefleur – Joyce Carol Oates

The Course of the Heart – M. John Harrison

Darkmans – Nicola Barker

Eustace and Hilda – L. P. Hartley

From Blue to Black – Joel Lane

Ghost Story – Peter Straub

Hearts in Atlantis – Stephen King

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – Michael Swanwick

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Kite World – Keith Roberts

Look at the Harlequins – Vladimir Nabokov

Martin Dressler – Stephen Millhauser

The Newton Letter – John Banville

Oracle Night – Paul Auster

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

The Queen’s Gambit – Walter Tevis

Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolano

The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

Up Above the World – Paul Bowles

The Voices of Time – J. G. Ballard

A Word Child – Iris Murdoch

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

 

Thought for the day

Irvine Welsh in today’s Guardian describes his approach to plot as ‘just a big mess':

“I come up with a blurb at the beginning, but the book’ll always be completely different by the time it’s finished. They say: ‘Where’s the book you were going to write?’ And I say, forget about it, it doesn’t exist.”

I am so getting that right now……

Just a few bits and pieces about stories

I found out on Wednesday that ‘The Silver Wind’ came joint first in the Interzone Reader’s Poll for 2011, sharing the top spot with Suzanne Palmer’s very excellent ‘The Ceiling is Sky’. I was astonished, so much so that when I opened the email in question my first thought was that it was a stray one from last year! Anyway, it’s a huge honour, and huge thanks to everyone who voted for the story. I really am still taking this in.

Eastercon saw the launch of Dark Currents, the latest title from NewCon Press, a mixed anthology of SF/F/H which includes my story ‘The Barricade’. There are some excellent things in there – stories by Tricia Sullivan and Lavie Tidhar, for a start – and I am of course extremely happy to be a part of it.

Just as we were leaving for Eastercon, I had an email from Michael Kelly of Undertow Books, bringing me the good news that issue 3 of Shadows and Tall Trees is now shipping – and that is the issue that contains my story ‘The Elephant Girl’.

And then on top of all that I had a story acceptance this morning from Black Static. I am especially pleased about this one, because ‘Sunshine’ was one of those very rare stories that was actually fun to write. The story behind the story is also amusing – but more of that nearer the time.

It is deeply gratifying to know that a story is making its way in the world. I always find it difficult to read a piece of mine when it’s first published because I am all too aware that it is less than I intended. I’m also terrified of finding monstrous, glaring errors in the text. Generally I prefer to wait awhile before I look at it, to let the story bed down.

Once a piece is finished I prefer to let it go, because in a way it is no longer my business.

I began work on the second draft of my novel this week. It’s hard to talk about, because the work now is so concentrated, so intense, like swimming a long distance underwater. It’s also the best part of writing anything – I now know what the book should be about, and can concentrate on how it should be.

Something that really gives me pleasure at any time is seeing other writers getting excited about their own stories. I found this post from Livia Llewellyn just now, and it made me so happy, not least because ‘Take Your Daughters to Work’ is a marvellously accomplished and marvellously terrifying piece of writing, the kind of writing that inspires you to find the best you have inside you and drag it out.

This job is never easy but there’s nothing to beat it.

Eastercon 2012

Interacting with people en masse does not not come easily or naturally to me, and so I tend to find events like Eastercon a little overwhelming. It’s always worth that initial anxiety though, as Olympus 2012 proved so wonderfully well.

Perhaps the most special part of Eastercon is being able to put some faces to some names, to meet people I’ve previously known only online. At every con I’ve attended I’ve had the privilege of being able to do just that, to speak personally to some of those writers and critics whose work in the field is so important and brings me so much pleasure and inspiration. My only regret – and this is my perennial complaint about mass gatherings – is not being able to spend as much quality time with those people as I would like. There is so much constantly happening that it is difficult to find the quiet space – physical or mental – that is needed for an unhindered and extended exchange of views, ideas and enthusiasms. Nonetheless, it’s just lovely to be able to say ‘hi’ to people, to leave with that sense of having met, of a marker having been put down for future conversations.

Conversely, there were some friends present at this year’s Eastercon that I’d been looking forward to seeing and catching up with that I never so much as laid eyes on for the entire weekend, others that I glimpsed for a brief moment but who – owing perhaps to the bizarrely Escherian logistics of the Radison Edwardian’s corridor layout – were thereafter lost to me forever. This grieved me greatly – but then these near-misses leave me looking forward with optimism to the next con, when such non-encounters might be made whole.

So many of the panels (I always enjoy panels) highlighted topics that were thought provoking and involving. Inevitably there were clashes, and I was particularly sorry to miss Paul Kincaid’s panel on SF post-9/11 (I hope someone will write that one up) but by way of compensation I was able to enjoy a high spirited and stimulating ‘Not the Clarke Award’, expertly moderated by Graham Sleight and with the audience fully absorbed in the discussion. Niall Harrison’s ‘Fantasy Clarke Award’ was equally excellent and should definitely become a regular feature of the programme. Personally, I was delighted to see Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb triumph in the Clarke debate, and to see Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox make such a great impression over on the Fantasy panel. These were certainly two of my favourite novels from 2011, and it thrills me to see writing of this stripe and standard leading the way in genre discussions.

It probably isn’t fair to single out individuals for particular commendation – Eastercon, after all, is about the whole SF community – but I would like to thank Paul McAuley, Jaine Fenn and Graham Sleight for making my first ever panel appearance such a worthwhile and (almost) non-scary experience, and also to offer a huge personal thank you to Tricia Sullivan for being such an outstanding GoH. Trish is an inspirational person on so many levels and her contributions to panels – articulate, radical, intelligent and always entertaining – were among the best of the weekend. Her GoH interview with Farah Mendleson was satisfying to a degree that one rarely experiences at such events. I regret only that it couldn’t have gone on longer.

Most of all though, thanks to everyone who worked so hard, as always, to make Eastercon happen. We had a wonderful weekend and a truly memorable one. Thank you.

Turing’s plaque

Blue plaque for Alan Turing at Baston Lodge

I’m now into the final 5-10,000 words of the first draft of the novel. I was hoping to finish the draft this week but I don’t think it’s going to happen. This final little chapter is very important, and trying to get it right, even with 95,000 words already written, even in first draft which I know will all be changed anyway, feels like bearing a heavy weight uphill. It’s an exciting challenge though, and I relish those. I know what I have to write, just not – yet, quite – how.

During the afternoon I took a break from the actual writing and went for a stroll in the part of town where the chapter happens. There’s nothing like roaming around the houses for setting loose a storm of ideas, for me anyway, and at the very least I now have a renewed sense of place at the forefront of my imagination. My walk took me past the house where Alan Turing spent his childhood. It’s a sad story – Turing’s father was based in India so Alan was semi-adopted by a friend of his, the retired Colonel Ward – and I can’t help feeling that such a sensitive little boy must have retained some sense of displacement, even though this was the only life he knew. The British establishment’s later treatment of Alan Turing fills me with an anger so raw that the only appropriate way of channelling it would be to filter it through a story, something I would very much like to try and do one day.

In the meantime I have this place, and the honour of sharing space with a unique mind. Baston Lodge, long since converted into flats, sits silently in a quiet corner of an unsung town. The writer Rider Haggard lived just down the road. This lunchtime there was no one about. I stood outside on the pavement, thinking about Turing and about my story and trying to imagine myself backwards into 1913.

Baston Lodge, St Leonards on Sea

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