Monthly Archives: September 2012

‘Cultivate your inner vulnerability, and read like fiends.’

On the train up to London yesterday I read the first three stories in the new collection by Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn. This is a wonderful book. I was captivated (as almost always happens with writing that turns out to really mean something to me) more or less from the first sentence. It’s not the content necessarily, not at that point, so much as the way a writer has of shaping a sentence, of getting the words to ring cleanly, to fall in exactly their proper order. When I hear it I know.

I took a chance on the book after seeing it reviewed in The Guardian. I can now say I feel immensely grateful to the reviewer (Corinne Jones) for having the grace and good sense to talk about the collection on its own terms and without referring even obliquely to the unusual family background of its author. If I had known in advance that Watkins’s father (who died when she was six – she barely remembers him) was Paul Watkins, a one-time member of the infamous Manson Family, I might have feared (wrongly) that Battleborn was being unduly hyped because of that, and as a result I might never have bought it. As it was, I came to the collection knowing little about it and with few prior expectations – which has to be the best way of reading anything. I read the first story, ‘Ghosts, Cowboys’, with a mounting sense of delight at the way Watkins handles language. By the time I moved towards the final third of the story, in which Watkins gradually reveals the facts about her origins, I was already won over. The experience of ‘discovering’ a writer in this way was so weird, so unexpected, that I even found myself asking: is this real?

In a recent interview for the New York Times, Claire Watkins said she chose ‘Ghosts, Cowboys’ to lead off the collection because she wanted it to function as ‘a legend or key for reading the rest of the book.’

As to the blending of genres, while that’s an apt way to describe it, I never thought of “Ghosts, Cowboys” as anything but a story. It invites the question we ask after reading a lot of stories, even more traditional ones: Did this really happen?

I loved hearing her say that, because it’s precisely the way the story worked for me. There’s also a fascinating bit in the Q&A where she describes how her first stories – a series of playlets about an orphaned child – were recorded on a tape player, rather than written on paper. This threw me back instantly to some of my own first experiments with fiction, also recorded on a tape player (one of those heavy old brown push-button cassette recorders – my brother and I each had one) at exactly the age Claire Vaye Watkins was – about seven – when she recorded hers. Mine were all Doctor Who fanfic, replete with phrases such as ‘we’ve got to get back to the Tardis’ and ‘no, please, anything but that.’ I used to recap the previous cliffhanger by saying (very determinedly) ‘now if you remember rightly’ at the top of each new episode. But like Watkins I was obsessed with improving them, with getting them right. I’m also afraid to say I behaved in a similarly dictatorial manner towards my brother and the two unfortunate friends I dragooned into service for the minor roles (Scott and Robert Norris, I know you’re out there). We were lacking a Doctor Who Sound Effects LP at that point, so we had to improvise with (among other things) an alarm clock, a potato peeler, and (excruciatingly, in the case of the theme tune) our own voices.

Yes, it really happened. But this morning, after reading Claire Watkins’s interview, I feel less alone…

Watkins has said that one of the reasons she wrote ‘Ghosts, Cowboys’ was to ‘get the Manson thing out of the way.’ I see this as a brave decision. Answering the inevitable questions up front in such a way has allowed her not only to deal with those questions on her own terms, but to demonstrate her very special skills as a writer. Reading her, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Annie Proulx’s stories in Close Range (though Watkins says she didn’t read Proulx until relatively recently) and also – though the landscapes they describe are radically different – of David Vann, whose shapeshifting approach to memoir and autobiography is similarly arresting.

Watkins has urged her students (at Bucknell University, Pennsylvania, where she now teaches) to ‘cultivate their inner vulnerability, and read like fiends’ – sound advice for any writer, and words that immediately brought to mind something Keith Ridgway said in this truly excellent interview over at John Self’s Asylum:

I stopped trying to write novels and just wrote, and wrote out of myself, relying on my own experience and perception, and shaping something that I feel is true.

I also found what Ridgway said about his love for and frustration with the crime genre to be absolutely spot on. I finished reading Hawthorn & Child just before our trip to Pendle and I think it’s doubtful that a better book will be published this year. People have talked about this novel’s relationship with the crime genre (troubled) – what’s not been mentioned so much is its relationship to slipstream, which is tight, dynamic and extraordinary. It’s a superb London novel, too, and above all just brilliant writing. I know I’ve said this before, but I honestly, honestly don’t understand how the Booker judges could have overlooked this one.

As with the Watkins, it’s a book that grabbed me, heart and mind, from page one.

Pendle etc

Approaching Pendle Hill
From Ilkley Moor

The Parsonage, Haworth

Ribblehead Viaduct

The Devonshire Inn, Skipton

We’ve been spending the past week exploring the Yorkshire/Lancashire borderlands, a part of the country neither of us had previously visited and that we found incredibly inspiring, both in terms of landscape and literary heritage. I’ve loved the work of the Brontes all my life, and in spite of the tourist trappings that are Haworth’s inevitable burden I felt very much moved to find myself inside the parsonage, stepping into the space where Anne and Emily and Charlotte read and wrote and discussed their work. The rooms of the house are surprisingly small. They have presence, or rather there is a presence, still tangible, within them, especially in the dining room, where the sisters read aloud to each other most evenings.

Unlike Haworth, the village of Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes was born, is – aside from the blue plaque beside the front door of No 1 Aspinall Street – completely untouched by tourism. It has grown in size of course, but the village Hughes would have known and remembered is still plainly visible, easily mappable. The warmth of the place (as with so many northern townships), its tie to the land, is palpable. I’ve known for a long time what it looks like – I was fifteen or sixteen when I first saw a photograph of the small terraced house that is Hughes’s birthplace – but still the impact of finally being there, of standing in the street outside, was considerable, a special moment.

Pendle Hill, Ilkley Moor, the journey by rail from Settle to Appleby, the Devonshire Inn at Skipton (where the opening chapters of The Space Machine take place) – these were all special moments. Most of all just the sense of space, both literal and imaginative, of high and narrow roads that might lead anywhere. The Forest of Bowland – an isolate domain of heather moorland and woodland trails – was a revelation.

A way-too-good-to-miss book sale in Skipton (silly prices) meant we returned with considerably more in our luggage than we started out with. I came away with Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud, Nicola Barker’s The Yips, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. I was also able to pick up Philip Almond’s new book about the Pendle witch trials, The Lancashire Witches. So that’s me sorted for the next couple of months. And when Chris has finished with Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton I’ll be reading that, too.

An amazing week.

Now that we’re back, I’ll be giving What Happened to Maree a close going-over – there are some line edits and other bits and pieces I need to attend to. After so many months of working on the book in isolation, having it read by another – Chris is, of course, the one reader I can trust absolutely – has somehow released it. Now, finally, I’m getting a sense of the novel as a whole – what it is, how it reads, what I meant by it – and I’m happy to say I’m feeling very excited.

Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd

The old church, Heptonstall

Singing Ringing Tree, Burnley

Reading and writing

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how the books I admire as a writer are not always the same books I want to read as a reader. The ideal – the point where the truly great books happen – is the nexus where these two vectors coincide.

I’m perplexed by this year’s Man Booker shortlist. Perplexed because although I successfully predicted four out of the six novels in contention (Mantel, Self, Moore, Thayil) the list still feels disappointing to me, insubstantial somehow. This isn’t just because I’m not a big fan of the two other titles on it (although I’m not – the inclusion of the paper-thin Levy is a total mystery to me, and although unfortunately I’ve not read the Eng the extracts I’ve sampled, both online and in bookshops, leave me with the impression that it is prone to purpleness, perhaps a bit saccharine) but because with the way the shortlist lines up it now feels as if there can be only one possible winner. It’s not even that I disapprove of that possible winner – he was my kind-of frontrunner from the start – but where’s the fun of the Booker without genuine debate?

I love Hilary Mantel – I think she’s one of the best writers working in this country at the moment and her novel Beyond Black is for me one of those ‘nexus books’, a novel that spurs me with envy as a writer and that engages me as a reader to the point of being seduced and ensnared from the very first paragraph. I haven’t yet read Bring up the Bodies, but I certainly will do, not just because I love Mantel but because I’ve been fascinated and horrified by the story of Anne Boleyn since I was about eight years old. The opening extract I read in The Guardian, with Thomas Cronwell flying his hawk, is a demonstration of everything high fantasy should aspire to, everything it could do and be if it tried harder and saw itself as literature, as writing, instead of just a churnforth of derivative stories. But in spite of knowing how much I’ll love Bring Up the Bodies, I can’t get excited by the thought of it winning the Booker. Mantel won in 2009 of course, with Wolf Hall. Bodies is a direct sequel to Hall. so as well as being the work of a writer who’s already won this prize, it’s work in the same mould. If BUtB were a completely different type of book from Wolf Hall, I’m sure I’d be cheering it on. As it is, in the context of the Booker, I just feel a bit lacklustre about it.

I’m delighted to see Alison Moore on the shortlist. The Lighthouse is a deftly worked, tightly wound little book of real merit and – again – genuine readability. Moore writes very well indeed, and the thing about her shortlisting that pleases me most is that it will bring her some deserved recognition and (I trust) be of assistance in moving her forward with her career. But The Lighthouse to win? For me, it’s too slight a book for that accolade. It seems to me that we should be demanding Booker winners with a thrust of greatness, a touch of madness, and a win for Moore would be like Anita Brookner’s win in 1984, when Hotel du Lac – how? how? – triumphed over J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

I think what I’m missing is precisely that – that thrust of reckless greatness, that edge of madness. Will Self’s Umbrella – the book I’m tipping as the eventual winner – does seem to have both. From the extracts I’ve read, I sense that Umbrella is a genuine attempt to write a novel that challenges and surprises and rewards attention, a novel that (and here’s the point) has stretched its author to the limits of his ability and then some. It’s an earned book, a book that aspires to say something about literature as well as just telling a story. Is this not what we want from our Booker winners? I know I do. As a writer I admire hugely what Self’s done in Umbrella. But as a reader, the thought of it exhausts me.  All that unrelenting ego, that insistent cleverness, for 400 pages. I just can’t – quite, yet – stomach the thought of it. I can’t help feeling that if I’m going to commit my reading time to a single book for an entire month there are so many other gaps in my reading – Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, American Pastoral, Under the Volcano, Moby-Dick – that are in more urgent need of filling. When I read Adam Roberts’s review of Umbrella last month it made me shout with delight, so perfectly did it encapsulate the issues I have with a book like this. We know what Self’s doing, in other words, but do we care? I care, but not enough to leap upon Umbrella like unearthed treasure. If I can admire the ambition and worth of a book, but not feel desperate to read it, it’s only done half of its job. Which is sad. and this is something I feel bad about, because I want to love it.

Last week I read Nicola Barker’s 2004 novel Clear. Nicola Barker is special to me. She’s my almost exact contemporary, and whenever I think of her or consider her achievement I feel a deep-seated pang of guilt, that I somehow failed to get my shit together as early as she did, that I’ve spent the past decade of my life trying to catch up to where I should have been twenty years ago. Most of all though what I feel is pure admiration, thankfulness that such a writer as Barker exists, not just to inspire me as a writer but to create books that are such a blinding joy to read. I was reading Clear on our way to Brighton last Thursday, and Chris said I was making the whole railway carriage shake with my laughter. It’s true that almost every single page of the novel had its own laugh-out-loud funny moment. but Clear – like everything of Barker’s – isn’t ‘just’ funny. Where else but in Nicola Barker could you read an extended analysis of Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ and be having to stifle the giggles? Where else could London breathe and expand and erupt so magnificently filthily from its author’s devilish imagination without shedding its pristine glory? In Nicola Barker we have a writer who wears her (considerable) learning so lightly, with such impeccable judgement, that you can read any one of her books all the way through and simply enjoy it, revel in the linguistic dexterity and creative invention on every page without once feeling you’re been lectured at or talked down to or insisted upon. And yet Barker has more to say, more talent to demonstrate, than most of the ‘usual suspects’ put together. John Self, in his recent and very excellent review of Barker’s Booker-longlisted novel The Yips, said that ‘the central character is…. the finest character Martin Amis never created.’ Yes. And leading directly on from the same point, I was especially gratified to find John Self stating the following:

As in other Barker novels, The Yips is heavily populated with eccentrics and outsiders, the sort of people who struggle to fit into society – or into most fiction, for that matter. Fortunately, Barker handles them without going anywhere near the dreaded curse of whimsy. She does not look down on or mock her characters, and she takes the reader with her, sometimes literally.

Amis can be funny, yes, but he always tends to look down on his characters. More than that, he is snide. Barker is never snide. She writes her people into being with a deep empathy, with fellow feeling. She isn’t poking fun at the world she’s revealing, she’s inhabiting it. She understands the modern world and she understands people at an instinctive and personal level. Amis just… doesn’t. In contrast with many, I enjoyed Nicola Barker’s review of Amis’s latest, Lionel Asbo, because it was a piece of writing as well as a review, and it wasn’t afraid to go against the grain of prevailing opinion. (She likes it.) But oh is Nicola Barker ever the better writer. And I hope that, her admiration for Amis notwithstanding, she secretly knows it.

What all this means, I suppose, is that I’m mourning the absence of Nicola Barker from this year’s Booker shortlist. I’m still devastated that she didn’t win with Darkmans – in my opinion one of the first English masterpieces of the new century – in 2007. I felt certain that this had to be her year, and here she is denied yet again. This pains me. A Barker vs Self Booker – now that would have been something to get excited about.

Another ‘nexus’ book of 2012 for me has been Sam Thompson’s Communion Town. (You’ll find my review at Strange Horizons here.) While I was reading it I was excited and admiring in equal measure and I was always eager to get back to it – another crucial test for a ‘nexus’ book. More than that though and unlike so many the book has grown in my imagination since then. I now feel it’s an even better book than I thought it was in the first place, and feel almost personally aggrieved by the rather middling critical response it has received in the press and online. It has beauty and daring and knowingness and yes, that essential touch of the insane too, and I think it’s a book that will last. I can imagine reading Communion Town ten, twenty years from now and finding new pleasures in it. It should have been on the shortlist, dammit.

Before I forcibly curtail this oddly meandering rant, I do want to mention one book that bloody well should have been on the shortlist, only the judges saw fit to exclude it from the action entirely. That book is Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child. I started reading it on Sunday evening and it is brilliant. If M. John Harrison were to write a crime novel, this would be it. The writing is – exquisite is the wrong word, it’s too muscular for that, too restrained, but still its beauty, its sheer writerly competence, makes me shiver with excitement. And the way the book’s been written – the experiment and lesson in form it provides – is, for any writer worth their salt, just thrilling. Thrilling is what I mean, too, for this is a(n albeit very special and unusual type of) thriller. You can read this book and simply love it, or love it simply, for the story on the page. It’s a gem of a novel, literary riches. Were the Booker judges all in comas? Was it not submitted? What the hell’s going on?

And the absence of Kelman and Warner? Don’t get me started…

Oh well. One thing I learned around the time of the Clarke Award is that this kind of thing always happens. I spent a fair amount of time earlier this year, looking up previous Clarke shortlists and (where available) the lists of submissions, and what I discovered was that there have been notable exclusions in every single year since the award has existed. Even in those years where the shortlist seemed strong, there were always better books that were inexplicably missed off.  And then every now and then you get a total cock up. Bound to happen. So it goes.

None of this is particularly surprising. I find it useful to remember when I’m ranting (or perhaps when I’ve finsihed) that the Booker judges (like the Clarke judges) are just six people, sat in a room. Compromises happen, trade-offs happen, shit goes down. An empirically ‘true’ shortlist cannot exist. Because it cannot exist, there are people who question the value of the Booker, of the Clarke, and of awards generally. I am not one of them. I love awards – not because I aspire to win them or because I set any exceptional value on the work of those who do, but because awards provide an arena for debate. I love to talk about books, I love to get angry about books, and something that gives me especial pleasure is to see other people getting passionate and just a little bit crazy about books also. The Booker provokes impassioned debate – every year it does it, regardless of whether people generally love the shortlist or think it’s a pile of pants.

And that always makes me very happy.

Improving Reality

We spent a magical day in Brighton on Thursday, attending the Improving Reality conference, an event organised by the amazing Honor Harger of Brighton’s digital culture agency Lighthouse, with the purpose of exploring the responses of contemporary artists, thinkers, architects and writers to speculative concepts.

We weren’t entirely sure what to expect, which was great, actually, because it meant we went in there with our minds completely open to anything we might see or hear. What we were given, over the course of the conference’s two two-hour sessions, was a serving of contemporary and futuristic culture so enthusiastically radical, so naturally explorative and unaffectedly boundary-breaking, that we were talking about it for hours afterwards. The characteristic that seemed to unite those on stage was exactly that quality of uncompromising zeal you’d hope to find in any artist wholeheartedly consumed by the passion for making new work of any kind.

When people who don’t think they like SF start talking about why they think they don’t like SF, you find that what they’re often put off by is an idea of futurism as a kind of ‘woo’ domain of super-science and dehumanizing technology, surrounded by a sea of jargon and computer code – stuff they either can’t understand easily or don’t relate to, in other words. But what struck me most about the artists of Improving Reality was their generosity of spirit, their inclusiveness, the way they were actively reaching out to lay people and inviting them to contribute – to projects, to thought processes, to discussion. The totally wonderful Leila Johnston (contributor to Wired, managing editor of The Literary Platform), when asked about the essence of the speculative, answered unhesitatingly. ‘It’s the human story.’ she said. ‘The trouble with SF is that people think it’s all tech-y, that it’s all about computers taking over. To be relevant to people, the future has to encompass the personal.’

This idea was also a strong theme in Warren Ellis’s ‘seance for the future‘, in which he encouraged individuals to get excited about the future by properly embracing the present. ‘If the future is dead,’ he said, ‘then today we must summon it and learn how to see it properly.’ Other highlights were Joanne McNeil’s story about what happened when she went in search of the Sanzhi ‘UFO houses’ in Taipei (a personal odyssey far too involving and peculiar to be summed up with the words ‘they’d been demolished’) and Luke Jerram’s slideshow of his Glass Microbiology project, in which he commissioned contemporary glassmakers to reproduce the molecular structure of viruses using blown glass. I was particularly affected by Regine Debatty‘s presentation of Milica Tomic’s ‘Container’ project, which centred around the artist’s response to a little known atrocity of the Afghan war.

Rounding off the conference we had Rebekka Kill, with her musical presentation Facebook is like Disco, Twitter is like Punk, a delightfully new way not just of talking about social media, of analysing what it does, but of explaining it to those who feel threatened by it. I loved every moment.

An important thing to note: five of Improving Reality’s eight keynote speakers were women. This wasn’t a deliberate parity policy on behalf of the organisers – these were simply the speakers they wanted to invite, who they felt best expressed the mindset of the event as a whole. Organisers of future SF conventions, take note – the women you’re looking for are out there, ready to speak. All you need to do is ask. There are no excuses.

And while we’re on the subject of awesome women, the Brighton SF panel that followed the conference gave everyone in attendance the opportunity to get a sneak peek inside Lauren Beukes’s upcoming novel The Shining Girls. from whose pages Lauren was generous enough to give us two readings.

If SF has shown us one thing over the years, it’s how difficult it is to predict the future, but in the case of The Shining Girls I’m going to stick my neck out: it’s going to be good.

London rocks

Truly delighted to learn that London will be hosting the Worldcon in 2014. Is it stupidly early to be looking forward to this? We’ll be registering our membership shortly.

The novel has been consuming all of my energy this week. I’ve been writing 4,000 words each day on average as I work my way towards completion of the second draft. Second draft writes much quicker than first draft, that goes without saying, but even so it’s been a bit crazy. I’m almost there now. Hoping Chris will have something to read within the next week or so.

God, it’s a strange book. The feeling of it coming together at last is quite unsettling. I am knackered.

Have been reading Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. A dark, intense novel and I like it a lot. Above all it is beautifully made. There are odd little echoes of Suskind’s masterpiece Das Parfum, reminding me I really should read that again. A favourite of mine.

It’s great to read good work. I hope The Lighthouse makes the Booker shortlist – it deserves to.

For properly coherent and awake criticism of the full Booker longlist do please visit Adam Roberts. His wonderful posts have been keeping me entertained all week.