Monthly Archives: May 2012

End-of-the-week thoughts

Weird. I see from these entries that it’s just about six weeks since I began work on what I thought would be the second draft of my novel. It feels much longer ago, probably because the book I’m writing now is completely different.

I did precisely one week’s work on that second draft before I realised that something was wrong. What was wrong was the entire first section of the book. I spent a day or so going ‘oh fuck’ (it was 35,000 words we were talking about, after all) before deciding to junk it.

It seemed the only thing to do. I didn’t think that what I’d written was bad, just that it did not fit. It was swinging the novel into a cul de sac. I still felt happy with the middle sections of the book, but I wanted to rewrite the beginning and I knew that if I did that it would mean rewriting the most of the final section also. In effect I would have lost three months’ work, possibly more.

‘Comfort’ may not be the right word, but what made me certain I was doing the right thing was knowing it was not the first time something like this had happened to me and far from it. I begin with characters and situations, never plots. The only way I can find out what one of my stories is about is by writing it, and sometimes – very nearly always – the story I begin with is not the story I eventually arrive at. A lot of words get discarded. It took me three false starts – about 8,000 unused words – before I got a proper handle on ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’, for instance. For a while it began to feel like one of M. R James’s infamous ‘stories I have tried to write’ and it’s absolutely true to say that it was only my attachment to the protagonist and his situation (oh, and my promise to Jon Oliver and his House of Fear) that kept me going with it.

Similarly with the novel. I had this core section – about 25,000 words – that seemed to me to be the essence of the novel, the book as I’d always imagined it, a narrator with a story to tell. I could not let her down.

I fixed my mind on that character, and started again at Page 1.

Now, six weeks on, I have a whole new Part One, and this week I made a good start on rewriting Part Four. The book’s SFnal quotient is significantly stronger and more defined, something that delights me immeasurably. Those who know me best know that I get terribly nervous and vague when talking about work in progress, but I think it’s OK to say I’m quietly excited.

The thing still doesn’t have a title, but I’m trusting that will reveal itself eventually.

Just finished rereading: M. John Harrison’s (dauntingly magnificent) Light and Nova Swing, in preparation for the third book in this trilogy, the forthcoming Empty Space. Next up: China Mieville’s Railsea.

Lincs & Lancs

We’ve spent most of this past week in Lincolnshire. Now well into his second draft of The Adjacent, Chris suddenly decided he really needed to visit the WW2 bomber bases at Coningsby and Scampton, territory that formed one of the main settings for The Separation and that features strongly again in the new book. And so we set off. I always derive huge benefits and excitement from visiting parts of the country that are new to me, and when the relatively simple act of travelling to somewhere unknown is combined with such weird and arresting experiences as sitting in the pilot’s seat of an old Canberra B6 or standing beneath the windows of the room where Guy Gibson and his squadron received their mission briefing for the Dam Busters raid, then these happenings pass from memorable to significant.

‘Bomber County’ is quietly, unassumingly beautiful, a place for hiding out and holing up. But reminders of what you might even call the bombing industry are everywhere here, and make thoughts of war and anger over it inescapable. Wandering around the vast hangars filled with historic aircraft and crash site excavations trying to get my own take on everything I came back again and again to the thought that once a war has been fought what we are mostly left with is twisted and rusting machinery and the stories, which become legends, of the courage and forbearance of those individuals who fight or suffer war’s oppressions and privations. The rest – the politics and rationale behind every war – is ultimately proved mendacious or misguided.

An intense and intensely valuable couple of days, not least because for a writer it’s impossible not to want to respond on some level. Trips like this yield stories, inspirations that are often different from those that seem more immediately discernable.

The trick is to wait.

Returned to the news that Dietrich Fischer Dieskau has passed away. I can scarcely believe it.

A wonderful book with a very personal take on WW2 is Daniel Swift’s Bomber County, the story of one man’s search for his lost grandfather and the lives and experiences of the Allied airmen as revealed through poetry. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

Fischer Dieskau is probably most famous for his interpretations of Schubert, but his repertoire was vast, his knowledge and understanding of the German Lied completely unique. Fortunately we’ll be able to go on treasuring this and drawing on it through the legacy of his recordings. I’ve been listening to him this morning in a recording of ‘Firnelicht’, a song from a little-known Lieder cycle called Berg und See by Othmar Schoeck. The song is about a Friedrichian ‘Wanderer’ as he thrills to the strange radiance, the particular light of the mountains. Thinking about Fischer Dieskau today, the words of the last verse seem particularly appropriate.

What can I do for my country before I go to rest in my grave? What can I give that will outrun death? A word perhaps, perhaps a song. A still, small Shining.

(The words are by Conrad Meyer 1825-98.)

Was kann ich für die Heimat tun,
bevor ich geh im Grabe ruhn?
Was geb ich, das dem Tod entflieht?
Vielleicht ein Wort, vielleicht ein Lied,
ein kleines stilles Leuchten!

More with the worldbuilding – literally

Reading this wonderful article in The Guardian about dollshouses and the people who make them, I was struck most especially by these words spoken by Jose Aleson, a guy from North London who fell into dollshouse-making by accident but now finds himself obsessed by it:

“It’s not to play with,  but you know what, there’s nothing more relaxing than sitting here at night, with the lights off, and all the lights on in the doll’s house, enjoying that moment. I like everything to be in order, and this is a kind of perfection. It’s like you’ve stopped time.”

For me this immediately conjured a scene from a story within a story: the man making the house and imagining it as a living entity within a world he himself has built, the writer writing about the creative dreamer who has built it.

There’s no denying the power that miniature houses exert over the imagination – the same pull that real houses have, I suspect, only distilled, concentrated in line with the reserves of imagination and commitment needed to create them. The finest dollshouses are undoubted works of art, but they are something else also. They are repositories of our dreams and sometimes also our fears.

I’ve loved dollshouse literature ever since I first read Rumer Godden’s 1947 novel The Doll’s House when I was eight or nine. Another favourite is Joyce Carol Oates’s tense and frightening short story ‘The Doll’. There’s something about this – the idea of losing control over a world you yourself have created – that is terribly frightening. But then there’s also that excitement of creation – of capture, of recreation of something lost – that feeds the maker’s obsession and makes him risk everything.

I messed around with these themes a little in my own story ‘Darkroom’, first published in Allen Ashley’s anthology Subtle Edens back in 2008. I remember thinking even then that I’d only brushed the surface of the subject  – there was Mr Ashley’s 6,000-word word limit to consider, after all. But the fascination hasn’t gone away and doesn’t seem likely to.

Something to think about on rainy days, no question. In the meantime I’ll be posting ‘Darkroom’ at the Featured Story page as a kind of placeholder……

Dolls house, 17th Century, German National Museum, Nuremberg

Jack in the Green

The Mayday Bank Holiday in Hastings is Jack in the Green day, a traditional or pagan festival that celebrates the ritual slaying of winter and the welcome release of summer into the world. It was a big thing in Hastings until the late 1880s, when the Victorians started grumbling that a more sedate maypole-type ceremony might be in order. A century later the old-style Jack was revived by the locals, and happily it’s now a big thing once again.

As I learned last winter when I attended my first Hastings annual bonfire parade, these rituals are taken seriously here, there’s a special atmosphere that surrounds them. Ancient rituals and beliefs feel very close to the surface. Everyone clearly has a great deal of fun – on Jack in the Green day literally thousands of bikers traditionally descend upon Hastings, the town swells to twice its normal size and yet the atmosphere remains enthusiastically inclusive, one-hundred percent family friendly – but beneath it all there’s something more than that, something old and ingrained, something whispered, elusive, mysterious. Walking around the Old Town and up through the Croft on Monday afternoon, what I kept thinking was: the thing, that indecipherable something we write about is still alive.

Taut bundles of leaves tied with bunting to the Old Town railings, banners featuring green images of Jack, a girl wearing a black velvet cloak and crowned with a circlet of flowers helping some guy start his motorbike, a biker buying a pint of prawns from one of the fish stalls down on the Stade. An odd, roughly made kind of magic, but magic definitely.

Motorbikes, Hastings sea front, May 2012

Shop window, Rock-a-Nore Road, Hastings May 2012

(And definitely not unconnected) I’ve been making progress with the book. Today I felt truly excited, with that queasy excitement you get when something moves you, when a piece of writing finally feels like it’s going the way you imagined.

I want to write more about this, to share more, but at the moment each time I try I pull up short. I guess everything is going into the actual writing. More on this soon.

In the meantime here’s Naomi Wood instead, talking about the inspirations behind The Godless Boys. I wouldn’t say the book is perfect. I feel it has something of an ad hoc feel to it, mainly because some of the rationale behind the central premise (OMG am I actually talking about worldbuilding here?) feels insufficiently worked out. But what remains with me, what makes this novel special, is its sincerity. There are some beautiful moments in the prose, and a genuinely affecting ending. It is a Good Thing and so is Naomi. Go read her.

It was all right on the night

Last night we attended the presentation of the 26th Arthur C. Clarke Award, which went to Jane Rogers for her novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb.

It was an enjoyable evening indeed. The happy sense of occasion that always accompanies the gathering of the genre clans, coupled with the anticipatory buzz attendant upon the impending resolution of a, shall we say, somewhat vexed question made it special. For me personally, what in my opinion was undeniably the ‘right result’ made it doubly so.

Jessie Lamb – like all the shortlisted titles – has divided opinion. While many readers admired the novel as much as I did, others felt the core premise insufficiently advanced. Some felt that Rogers’s choice of a first person narrator restricted the novel’s ability to tell its own story, while others simply were not convinced by Jessie’s voice. For me, whilst I’m willing to concede that in SFnal terms The Testament of Jessie Lamb did not break much new ground – that the book felt, in fact, a little old fashioned – given the emotional power of this novel, the technical excellence of its execution and most especially when measured against the other shortlistees it was not only a worthy winner, but a winner that sends out all the right signals, both to the world of SF and to the wider literary establishment. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a book I felt a strong enthusiasm for while I was actually reading it and – more importantly – that I love and admire enough to keep in my personal canon, to feel certain of wanting to read it again in the future.  This desire to reread is, for me, the true test of good writing.

For me, it was Rogers’s superb realisation of Jessie’s voice that impressed me most, the sense of passionate despair and helplessness experienced by so many young people at the state of the world they are born into, but that in Jessie’s case is heightened by the extremity and urgency of the situation. Jessie is both overwhelmed and empowered by her need to do something, to differentiate herself from those – and in particular from those adults – who are content to remain as onlookers, as bystanders, and it is in the portrayal of this dichotomy between being overwhelmed and empowered that the novel’s power lies.

I think it’s a beautiful book. Not just an imaginative use of science fictional ideas, but in its expert craftsmanship, its use of language and its creative expression a true work of literature.

It’s great to know that Jessie Lamb will soon be getting the wider distribution and exposure it deserves through a mass-market edition from Canongate. What is even better though is that Jane Rogers has already stated her intention to write more science fiction. When I spoke to her just after the award was announced, my first and eager question was: had the Clarke win inspired her to continue working in the area of speculative fiction? Her reply was an unqualified yes. ‘I see this as a great opportunity,’ she said. ‘I’m thrilled to have won the award and delighted by the reception the novel has been enjoying within the genre. The thing with science fiction is that it enables writers to explore the really big ideas. I’ve always been excited by that, and I want to do more.’

If the Clarke Award has achieved anything this year it is this. SF absolutely needs and absolutely should welcome writers like Jane Rogers. To see her work recognised by an award of this calibre, and to see Jane Rogers recognising the worth and significance of that award for her writing life – that’s what the Clarke should be about. While it is still true and shall remain true that the 2012 Clarke would have been all the more exciting and significant had the winner properly emerged from a shortlist that properly complemented her talent, this was still a great call and I salute the judges for it.

The other significant achievement of this year’s Clarke has of course been the level and quality of debate surrounding it. SF is not only a literature of ideas, it is a literature of personal passions, and to see those passions expressed with such forthrightness and eloquence can only be to the advantage and advancement of the genre. We have all benefited from this year’s Clarke conversation, most of all because it has shown that SF matters, and that it matters as literature. I am already looking forward to Clarke 2013, and if that makes me a greedy person then so be it.

I want to thank those excellent bloggers and critics who over these past few weeks have so generously and articulately offered their thoughts and insights into the shortlist, in particular Dan Hartland, Niall Harrison, Adam Roberts, David Hebblethwaite and the truly heroic Maureen Kincaid Speller – I have so totally loved every moment of their commentaries. Thanks also to Tom Hunter, whose marvellous stewardship of the award is to continue – he’s fantastic.

I’d like to end this post though with a short extract from The Testament of Jessie Lamb, one of my favourite passages from the novel and one, I hope, that highlights its poignancy and beauty. Congratulations to Jane Rogers, winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award 2012.


‘I bet loads of it belonged to dead people,’ said Mary. I thought about the women who’d died from MDS and wondered if their husbands had given away their clothes. Imagine going through your wife’s wardrobe and just putting it all in binliners – the T-shirts, the jeans that you’d seen her wearing every day……. I wondered who had worn my dress, I wondered if she went dancing in it. I had the strangest feeling, almost as if the dress was a body. I’d put the dress on and in doing that I’d put on another body. A light, twirling, dancing body. And after me, someone else could wear the dress. And someone else. And they would all have a sense of that, the light, twirling, dancing body. But of course they would be themselves as well. I was thinking, if that much can be passed on just in a dress, how much of every living person lives on after they die? Feeds into everyone else, in different ways, through what they’ve said and done and made. All these dead clothes could come back to life as soon as we put them on. I thought, death is really no big deal. I could die and I wouldn’t mind at all.

(pp 90-92, The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers, Sandstone Press 2011.)