Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Convergence Between Poetry and the Fantastic

“I have a myth of writing in the back of my mind. A myth that is a residue of modern concepts of art, of art being the goal for itself, l’art pour l’art, so to speak. And publishing, it makes you deal with issues of the conversation you want to take part in and the identity of the people you are conversing with. The image of your readers. The myth has to do with being young and feeling free and having no expectations from the outside pressing you or influencing you in any way. There are two aspects to the external pressure I feel, pressure that I fear is starting to leak, or slither into my work, a space in which I wish to be completely independent: the first is the reactions of the readers. They enjoy certain parts of your work and other parts they find hard or they’re indifferent to them. The temptation to develop the likable parts of writing and to avoid the others is constantly growing as you publish more and more. It verges sometimes on frustration, because you can get confused as to what you really need to write.”

The above from Shimon Adaf, just a small part of his conversation with Lavie Tidhar on science fiction, the Israeli fantastic, and the practice of writing in this week’s Strange Horizons. This piece is so exciting: forthright, radical, utterly inspirational, and there are dozens of extracts I might just as easily have quoted. To anyone feeling the need of a writerly shot in the arm, a reminder of what writing is for, what writing can do, and why it’s always worth holding out for one’s artistic ideals I recommend it most strongly.

I felt privileged to read it, to be honest.

Shimon’s novel Sunburnt Faces is being launched by PS Publishing at the World Fantasy Convention on Friday, and I’m greatly looking forward to buying a copy. I shall also be picking up Lavie’s new novel The Violent Century.

Brighton looks like it’s going to be fun…

Getting Out of There

If you were bored – and Hampson soon was – you could go up on to West Hill and stare out towards France. One lunchtime he went into the English Channel, a pub about a hundred yards back from the clifftop, and Beatrice was sitting there at the back. He bought a drink and went over. He asked if she minded him joining her, she asked him why she should mind. Unable to disentangle anything from that, he said:

“This is a weird place.”

“It’s a town of the dead,” she said.

“I meant the pub,” Hampson said.

 

This is a short extract from M. John Harrison’s brand new short story, ‘Getting Out of There’, just published as a standalone chapbook by Nightjar Press. It’s a limited edition – just 200 signed and numbered copies – so I’d advise you to get in there quick or they’ll all be gone.

It’s difficult to describe the effect this story had on me. It’s not just that the setting feels familiar – very familiar – it’s the sense that this character, Hampson, could so easily be Mick from Signs of Life, twenty years older and still trying to come to an accomodation with himself.

The story has a happy ending of sorts. All the time I was reading the second half I kept thinking of the ‘remembered Earth’ sections from Tarkovsky’s Solaris.

As a reader and as a writer, this story made me weep. It is immaculate.

‘Getting Out of There’ will keep you going until the – tentatively promised and eagerly awaited – publication of MJH’s next collection.

It will be the best £3.50 you ever spend.

cover photograph by Conrad Williams

Angry on the internet

I don’t often show my anger in public. I prefer the considered, properly argued response. It’s more Machiavellian. You burn less adrenalin that way. More importantly, you give yourself time to work out what you really think. Today though, I am angry. Seriously. And it really didn’t take me long to work out what I thought.

Earlier this afternoon, I came across this extract from a profile in The Times of the novelist (and winner of the Booker Prize) Eleanor Catton, which Rose Tremlett, the press officer at Little, Brown, had posted on Twitter:

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My first reaction was disbelief. I mean, how much more condescending, insulting and sexist could you get? If the piece had been in The Sun or the Daily Mail, I would still have been angry, but as this is precisely the kind of rhetoric we’ve come to expect from such venues, I would ultimately have shrugged my shoulders, muttered w**kers, and moved right along. But this was The Times, formerly a respected broadsheet. Not any more. This article offers proof that it’s now fully Murdochized. Shame on you, Times, shame on you.

I was busy writing a book review, but ended up breaking off from it as I felt there was no way I could let this abomination go. Not wanting to fall into the trap of reacting to something on the internet without fully ascertaining the facts, I popped straight round to our local newsagent and bought a copy of The Times so I could read the full article in situ. Perhaps Twitter had it all wrong, I thought (well, it wouldn’t be the first time). Perhaps the article was actually some lamentably misguided attempt to be ironic, or contentious. In the interests of fair-mindedness, I felt I ought at least to check.

Nope. It’s exactly as written. Worse, it’s written by a woman, Kate Saunders, an experienced journalist and, one would hope, both old enough and young enough to know better. In keeping with my resolution to try never to say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person to the person concerned, I wish I could tell Kate Saunders face to face that this piece is a despicable betrayal of Eleanor Catton, of women in general and women writers in particular. Kate Saunders, you should apologise publicly for your article, and retract it.

I’ve had several (amicable) conversations in the past year with male friends who seem somewhat bemused at the idea that there is ‘still’ an equality problem for women in the UK, with particular reference to the world of books, and the world of SFF. To those who doubt the continuing relevance of such issues, I would tell them to go away and read the above article. If you still think there isn’t a problem, read it again. It’s not just that one person wrote it – it’s that a national newspaper printed it, unironically, and that a large number of that paper’s regular readers will no doubt consume it unironically also.

I would urge anyone who takes The Times to boycott that newspaper forthwith, until the editorial staff issue an unreserved apology to Eleanor Catton.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that Kate Saunders appears to be of the opinion that Eleanor Catton has to actually believe in astrology in order to use its intricate structures in her novel. Saunders also has this to say on the subject of SFF:

What next? Catton, with an admirable calm that might distress her publishers, says she’s not writing at the moment. Yet she is, of course, working. “I’m looking at two areas,” she says. “Systemised magic and time travel.” This is intriguing. These are not serious subjects outside fiction for children.

Expletive deleted.

I shall be writing about The Luminaries as soon as I can, as part of my crime blog. I’m currently just over half way through it, but other reading commitments have set me back a bit. But in the meantime, congratulations to Eleanor Catton, one of the most gifted young writers currently working, on her wonderful Booker win, and congratulations to the jury under Robert Macfarlane on making such a brave choice. Too bad for dear old Robert McCrum that they did after all ‘inflict this monster on the reading public.’ (What an arse.) Re-sult.

A tail for the time being…

A road in SE4, October 2013

I heard Zadie Smith on Desert Island Discs the other weekend. I was particularly interested in what she said about her writing process, the way she invariably begins a novel by composing an opening scene and then going over and over that scene, deepening it, rewriting it, altering it, until finally the rest of the novel begins to fill itself in behind it.

I always find it reassuring to hear from writers who tend towards the method-in-the-madness approach to their work, rather than the rigorous plotting, can’t-begin-until-you-know-exactly-what’s-happening-in-every-chapter approach employed by others, if only because I myself remain an unreformed adherent of the write-it-and-see philosophy. I remember when I first began writing seriously, feeling daunted and inadequate in the face of all those instruction manuals that stressed the importance of detailed chapter breakdowns and character outlines. I could see the logic, but something about it didn’t seem right to me, or better, feel right for me. The epiphany came when I read Stephen King’s inimitable work manual, or toolbox, as he likes to call it, On Writing – if you’re only ever going to read one how-to book in your life, please make it this one. King writes about how he doesn’t so much plot a book as discover it – he likens the process to the work of an archaeologist excavating a fossil – that he doesn’t so much think about chapter progression as begin writing about his characters and seeing what happens to them. Reading this, I felt like jumping in the air and making a whooping noise. If King says this is an OK way to do it, then it must be, I thought. It was like being released from a cage.

Those who know me best will confirm that I’m almost pathologically routine-led when it comes to the outline mechanics of being a writer. I have to be writing, and if I don’t get that time at my desk I soon start to feel anxious, but when it comes to the work I actually do at my desk, I must sometimes appear to be the opposite of organized. As a writer, I am an inveterate discarder – I have several 30,000-word-plus sections of stymied novels on my hard drive, together with dozens of rag-ends and offcuts of stories I’ve begun to write and then found myself – for whatever reason – too dissatisfied with to feel they’re worth fighting for. At least for now.

As it turns out, these past few months have been all about discarding stuff. I’ve written a lot of words, but it’s often felt like writing in circles. You know that feeling of turning a roll of Sellotape round and round between your hands, trying to find the tag end so you can actually tear off some damn’ tape? Like that. I’ve got a whole file of notes and false starts on a book I now know won’t be this book, it’ll be the next book, which is good, I suppose, and exciting in its way (I love that book already and it doesn’t exist yet!) but still frustrating when it’s this book you’re trying to get a start on.

Well, earlier this week I finally did a King and just launched into it. I set aside all the outlines and bits-of-draft – so seductive when they include passages you feel wedded to, they can end up acting as millstones about the neck, dragging you down – and began again, right at the beginning, with a character I knew was central but had put off writing about because it ‘wasn’t time yet.’

Well actually it is time. Actually, it’s her book. So let’s stop fannying about and get on with it.

Thanks again, Steve.

Stardust Special

Just a quick note to let you know that PS Publishing are celebrating Mario Guslandi’s generous review of my most recent collection, Stardust with a great special offer: for this weekend only you can grab a copy of Stardust for the bargain price of £9.99 +p&p.

“I cannot recommend this book enough: this is great fiction at its best by an extremely talented author who, I suspect, is going to get even better in the future.” (Mario Guslandi for SFRevu)

Drop by the PS site and order your copy here.

Spin to Spain

I’m delighted to announce that my novella Spin, published earlier this year by TTA Press, will be appearing in a Spanish edition, translation by Silvia Schettin.

The novella was recently acquired by Susana Arroyo, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at CelsiusCon in Aviles, for the Madrid-based speculative fiction digital imprint Fata Libelli, a publisher dedicated to bringing the best in new SF/F/H to the Spanish market.

I’m over the moon about this. We received such a warm welcome in Spain, and the excitement around speculative fiction there is palpable. The question people kept asking me was: how long did I think it would be before any of my work became available in Spanish?

Now, thanks to Susana and Silvia at Fata Libelli, I can answer: not long! The Spanish edition of Spin will be published in 2014. For further details, watch this space.