Thailand one

Birds called from the web of girders inside the airport. The taxi ride into the city gave us billboards as long as sports fields, shanty towns on roadsides, golden Buddhas measuring every hundred metres of motorway. Bangkok itself was a sprawling, smoky, humid assault on the senses. Our hotel, crisp and air-conditioned, perched beside a lurid grey canal. The surface rippled constantly with the motions of a million tiny fish, while white and orange carp lazed at the surface, ghosts in the murk. A minute’s walk in either direction led to shanties of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. We wandered the neighbourhood. There was a temple on the other side of the block. There were temples everywhere. A minute away, a shop sold pictures of the king, four or five metres high, in ornate gilt frames. Thais are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, though Dora definitely helped us through the city. Her hair is such an unusual colour that people stopped us in the street to say hello, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka. Mopeds use pavements like roads. Pedestrians take their chances in every crossing. We ate in open kitchens off the street, the smells of onions and ginger and drains all mingling into one rich fug. We met a man selling pad thai from a street cart. It was the best pad thai we’d ever eaten. He was the fourth generation of his family to sell pad thai on the streets of Bangkok, and he’d been doing it for forty years. Beside him, his mother, the third generation, a walnut of a woman, grinned and bowed as we devoured the noodles, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka.

A young man with grey hair followed us from the hotel to the boat pier, stopping when we stopped. When we reached the river, we watched a metre-long monitor lizard slip into the water. We took the express boat from Banglumpo to Ko Wat, crowded in with tourists and Thais. The helmsman and the skipper communicated over the engine roar with a code of shrieking whistles. Egrets bobbed on rafts of vegetation and polystyrene. We spent the day marvelling at the cloisters of golden Buddhas, ate our first ever guava, and made friends with a Cambodian couple who crossed a park to take pictures of Dora. We dropped 108 coins in the 108 bowls that run alongside the reclining Buddha.

We walked back through Banglumpo markets. A man sold insects on skewers from a food cart – locusts, spiders, shiny black scorpions. The sign on his cart said photos cost 10 baht. I bet he makes more from photos than from food. A few stalls down from him, a beggar called out, baht, baht, baht, baht. He had long legs, though very thin, and long arms, but his torso was little bigger than his head. I watched a thickset American study him for minutes, then cross the road to give him several folded notes. The beggar said nothing, zipped the money into a small purse, and rattled his cup again. Baht, baht, baht, baht. The American scowled and walked away. The beggar’s face was at the height of the car exhausts. When they passed, he studied himself in the fleeting, warped reflection. Then he rattled his cup.

We picked up a flyer for a vegetarian cafe called Mango. It was some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten, fierce with ginger and sopped up with crispy dumplings. It was so good I wanted to hug the owner, Doo. He told us about his farm in the mountains, where they grow all their own food – everything they use comes from the farm. Four hip backpackers, wrapped up in finding themselves, complained that there wasn’t enough potato in their curry. Doo apologised, and they didn’t even acknowledge him. When we left, he was off to one side. He was sculpting, with his studio open onto the restaurant. He was making a beautiful goddamn elephant, and it was as perfect as his food.

Entire neighbourhoods built on stilts, thriving in the shadow of the underpass. Herons fishing from the bamboo rafts that trap sewage on the river. Duk-duk drivers hawking on the ground when we turned them down. Monks taking selfies. A tree surgeon, five metres up, without a harness, one foot on a stump and the other on a telegraph cable, leaning up to cut the branch above his head. Skinny cats, their tails lost to traffic. School kids chasing us to say hello to Dora. Families of five on mopeds. The rangy man who followed us, always ten paces behind, stopping when we stopped.

Jet lag kills me. When I first went to Australia, I didn’t sleep at all for two days, then slept almost continually for a week. In Bangkok, I kept waking in the night, and lying awake while cats yowled in alleyways and the roads hummed with mopeds. I thought I had a handle on Charlie Hebdo, until I saw some French language news on the television. They ran through some of the cartoons drawn in response. They showed one of Asterix and Obelix, simply bowing, and I burst into tears.

Bangkok is a riot of sight and sound and colour and taste and especially smell. Acrid exhaust fumes, the sharp twist of boiling oil, honey frangipani, frying garlic. The people who watched us, morose, from their open front rooms, then burst into smiles when they saw my daughter. It has been a truly extraordinary experience. I’ve never known anything like it. We wish we were staying longer.

Next stop, Koh Samui.

Resolve (again)

It’s that time again. Last year, I cribbed together some resolutions. Looking back at them now, I’m quite pleased. The Hollows didn’t go according to plan, sure, but I’ve already talked about that, made my peace and moved on. I finished both Marrow and The Year Of the Whale, and I performed at Verbalise, Sprint Mill, Dreamfired, Bad Language and the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. The only thing I didn’t tackle at all was writing and submitting more short stories. There simply wasn’t enough time on top of the chaos of everything else. Indeed, 2014 actually marked the first year since I started that I didn’t write a single short story, but that’s OK. I’ve been kinda busy.

People can be pretty disparaging about resolutions, but I’m coming to quite enjoy the process of making and sharing the things I’d like to do. Writing them out makes them more tangible, and leaving a record of what I’d like to do makes it more achievable. So here are some resolutions for 2015.

Climbing

I kept last year’s resolution, and started climbing again. Not all that often, I suppose, but more often than never. I’d like to do more of the same this year. I’ve started going for a few hours on Monday afternoons, after I’ve finished work, and that’s been a perfect fit with my week. My fingers are slowly beginning to toughen up, week on week, and those little successes feed into each other. I’ll take my climbing shoes to Thailand to do a little bouldering on the beaches, and I hope to get out on some Lakeland rock this summer – the Langdale boulders won’t exactly be quaking with fear, but they give me plenty to aim for.

Writing

Yup. Again. It doesn’t stop, does it? This year, my writing ambitions are twofold. Even then, the first part is for fun: I want to release another flash fiction collection, which will possibly be called Real Life. I’ve been doing a night class in graphic design, and that’s really helped with the various processes involved. Making books is fun, and it’s addictive. A lot of the stories are ready, but my flash fiction took a back seat in the second half of 2014, and I want to tighten up the whole collection. Even then, though, I mostly want to direct my flash fiction for reading aloud, which is where it works the best – there are dates in my diary for 2015, and I’m already looking forward to stomping my way through some stories.

The second thing is bigger. I’d like to finish a first draft of The Hollows. I had the same ambition last year, and it didn’t happen for a bunch of reasons I’ve moaned about already. But this year is different. I’ve cleared most of my film jobs, I’m not going to work on other big writing projects (unless someone pays me a lot of money, which seems unlikely) and that gives me the space to be a bit more structured with my writing time. In the unlikely event that everything goes to plan, then I’ll get a solid two days a week from February to start finding my way again.

The Hollows is proving exactly as tricky to navigate as the swamp I initially wanted to write about. My head is a zoetrope of ideas, all glass pots and ghosts, ashes and blackened timbers, lost keys and tarot. Mon and I are going on honeymoon this year – we’re going to Thailand with Dora – and I’ll be taking my notebook and my fountain pen. Spending some time away from the internet, away from screens, away from everything except the people I love best, will give me space to work it out with pen and paper. At the moment, I’m not even sure if I’m dealing with one book or two. I’m orbiting the right story, peering down between the clouds, catching glimpses of what it’s going to be… but I still don’t know what it is.

I use a lot of metaphors for talking about writing. The weaving of a tapestry, the nurturing of some unknown seed, the orbiting of a strange moon, the navigation of a swamp. It consistently amuses and baffles me how I find it easier to clarify my thoughts on writing using almost anything other than writing itself. The act of making marks, in ink or pixels, is excruciatingly simple. But getting them in the right order? Damn. That bit is hard.

Dora is learning to write. She knows her letters, and she’s trying to form them all the time, trying to construct a sense of meaning. She can write her name, and if I help, she’ll try her hand at anything. The other day, she wanted to write ‘moose’ against her picture of a moose. I spelled it out for her – M – O – O – S – E – but she ran out of room, so went back to the beginning for the last letter, so the final word looked like ’emoos’. I tried to show her the correct way to spell it, but she wasn’t interested.

There’s probably a metaphor for writing in there, too, but I can’t make that out either.

Resolutions, like word counts and climbing grades, only matter to the person who makes them. And – like word counts, like climbing grades – they only matter if you push yourself within them. That means weaving a tapestry – nursing a seed – orbiting a moon – navigating a swamp – or, sometimes – making a mark that matters to you, even if you get it wrong.

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Happy New Year, folks.

 

2014 and all that

This year has been both breathtakingly excellent and occasionally extraordinarily hard. I’m focusing on the good stuff though, because we’re all spinning through the mind-boggling vastness of space on a giant oxygen machine and really, when you think about it, where’s the sense in dwelling on the rough?

So here we go; in no particular order:

1. The Visitors being published

The culmination of two years’ work and the start of an awful lot more to come; in June, the wonderful folks at Quercus Books were kind enough to publish The Visitors. I wrote about the publication here, and it kept on running. Somehow, people keep enjoying it. I’ve summed up the reviews here, and there are reviews from actual real life readers on Goodreads and You-Know-Where. Writing was hard, editing was very hard, and now it’s out there in the wild – it doesn’t need me any more, if it ever did. I haven’t really come to terms with the book being published, other than it makes me scared, humble and really, really happy. Writing is all I want to do, but sometimes every step feels like the first step.

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2. The Hollows

In the twelve months – to the day, madly – since I started, I’ve probably written about half The Hollows. Unfortunately, for reasons like this and especially this, I’ve had to cut gigantic chunks of it; so much, in fact, that I’ll basically have to start again next year, and crib the pieces I can still use from the manuscript. This would be a very bad thing, were it not for how excited I am about those pieces that are left. It’s been bruising, definitely, but the process is now beginning to tip me in positive directions I probably wouldn’t have gone by myself, and that’s terrific.

3. Flashtag short short story slam

Over the last two years, I’ve been trying to read more of my work aloud; I pushed myself further this year by entering a story slam in Manchester. I memorised my three stories so I could concentrate on performing them, rather than reading them, and I was lucky enough to win. That was great, and I was delighted, but what really blew my mind was the culture of live literature I witnessed in Manchester. It’s raw, it’s funny, it’s friendly, it’s immediate. It’s everything short stories and poetry and flash fiction should be about, and it completely affirmed the value of storytelling as an act of community. Stories are a thousand things, and one of those things is churches.

4. Clowning

Way back in February, I attended a clowning workshop run by Belgian storytelling maestro Fred Versonnen. This is the best £25 I’ve ever spent, and it’s true to say that my life hasn’t been quite the same ever since. I see things differently now – I write differently now.

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5. The Year Of The Whale

I started this novella more than five years ago. Getting it finished was a thrill – I surged through the final chapters, and I’m pleased with it. It still needs redrafting, but I’m not quite ready to get back into it. It’s waited five years – it can wait a little longer.

6. Marrow/Cerys Matthews reading Circle Stone

Finishing Marrow was another big deal in my writing year. I haven’t written as much flash fiction this year, because I’ve been mentally wasted from work, and that kinda gets in the way, but I did, finally, finish and self-publish a flash fiction collection called Marrow. Of the hundred I printed, I have about twenty copies left, and people seem to like it, which is a source of constant wonder. I wrote about my decision to self publish here. I sent a copy to the excellent Cerys Matthews, and because she’s absolutely awesome, she read out one of the stories on her BBC6 Music show. This is, and will always be, the coolest thing that ever happened to me.

7. Gruff Rhys at Kendal Library

Gig of the year, hands-down. I wrote about it here, but in summary, Gruff was majestic, wise and funny.

8. Greece

One of my favourite ever holidays. A week of sunshine, warm evenings, seashores, swimming and the boundless comedy available on tap from my daughter Dora. We had a fantastic time: ruins, eagles, Mythos and pizza. I love holidays because I’m with my favourite people, I get to read a lot, and I get to think a lot. It went like this.

9. Friends

It’s been another good year for my friends. Iain Maloney published First Time Solo, his excellent debut novel, with Freight Books; also with Freight, Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel/story collection/autobiography Any Other Mouth was released to stupendous acclaim, going on to win the Green Carnation Prize; Salt published one of my books of the year, The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan; Kirstin Innes landed an agent and then a publishing deal for her debut novel Fishnet; and I was lucky enough to read a draft of Ali Shaw’s new novel, The Trees, which is simply scintillating. I’m delighted that Bloomsbury are going to publish it, because Ali is a wonderful human being, an outstanding writer and a great friend.

10. Getting married

Just amazing. We did damn near all of it ourselves, and when I say ‘us’, I mean that I did 10% after I’d finished work, and my tireless, hilarious, wonderful, perfect new wife Mon did the rest. It was a lot of work to pull it all together, but we basically hosted a mini-festival in a back garden with a marquee, a stage, a band, a PA, scores of hay bales, lighting and decoration. We then partied till the following morning with our wonderful friends. My brother gave what was widely considered to be the best best man’s speech anyone had heard, and local legends Seven Seals played their very finest. It was phenomenal. What a day – a thousand thanks to everyone who brought it all together.

Mon is my everything, and I’m beyond proud to call her my wife.

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So there we go. It’s been a good one, despite the harder stuff. Some of the things that have knocked me hard – like the Hollows, like the Scottish independence referendum – will come around again, and next time we will get them right. And other things – like working too hard – will change, because they have to.

Dora’s gone to bed. This is the first year she’s been old enough to really understand what’s going on. We helped her write a letter to Santa, which she signed herself, then made sure to leave a whiskey for Santa. (Jura, in case you’re asking. Santa’s quite particular about that.) I read her Where The Wild Things Are, and we roared our terrible roars, and gnashed our terrible teeth, and she asked me what the words mean: “…and …it …was …still …hot.”

These are the moments we’re working for.

Happy Christmas, folks.

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Mirror mirror

Earlier today, my heart broke. I’ve been working on my second novel, The Hollows, for almost exactly a year – I started it on Christmas Eve 2013, though I couldn’t write for half the year. I’m now 30,000 words into my first draft. It’s excruciatingly hard to write this, but I’m about to change it all. The reason is the best-selling author Kate Mosse, who appears to have written my book already. I haven’t read it, but her latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, explores the same themes of memory – suppressed, regressed and rediscovered – as The Hollows. Her novel revolves around a father-daughter dynamic, like The Hollows. Her novel is set in a huge marsh, like The Hollows. I could handle all of that. I’d guess that was true of lots of novels. But today, I also discovered that the lead character of The Taxidermist’s Daughter has no early memories after a traumatic childhood experience; that a modern crime begins to unlock those hidden memories; and that the unlocking of those memories reopens the wounds of an old injustice. That was basically the plot of The Hollows. I’m heartbroken, because I was finally beginning to gain some traction. It was finally starting to move, but I can’t stomach those similarities. It’s too close. It’s no good.

I’m not going to start again, because I’ve written some good stuff. But I am going to change it radically. That means significant cuts – again – and it means the whole enterprise will take longer than I’d hoped, and that’s devastating. I was almost halfway through, and now I’m back to the beginning. I can’t just get hold of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, read it, and rewrite around it; no story is built from omission, and the thought of it makes me sick. But it does mean revisiting the crossroads I discussed last week, and taking another path. It hurts, and I’ll set out with heavy heart, but I know, with every fibre of my being, that I’m nourishing the kernel of a good story, and I’m not going to let it go.

Whales, mandolins and singing bottles… and once again, I find myself staggered at how my stories hurt me.

Crossroads

I haven’t blogged for ages – sorry. The reasons are almost too mundane to mention, but the short version is that my workspace has been out of action for two months. This has cut my video editing and writing time down considerably, and in what time I’ve had, the video jobs have to take priority. I wrapped up my second promo for Born Survivor, and I’m a whisker away from finishing my long-running hay meadows project. I’ll write some more about that when it’s finally complete; unlike any other job I’ve taken on, the meadows film has changed the way I think about the world. This is tied up in Scottish independence, vegetarianism/veganism, and plastic. To be discussed.

I’m writing this post as something of a confession. After months away, the last fortnight has actually given me three solid days to write. In that time I’ve added 11,000 words, and surged from despondency to exhilaration. I’ve now levelled out somewhere in between. (I’m a lot more neurotic than I probably appear.) This is a confession because, in these last few days in particular, my imagination and awareness have been completely invested in The Hollows. I haven’t had much space for anything else. I’ve been ratty and irritable – not because I’m actually feeling ratty, but because this story is a sore tooth – constantly nagging, constantly distracting, always there – and I’m struggling to live in two realities at once. I’ve now written about 26,000 words, which I estimate is about a third of the finished manuscript, and I find myself in the extraordinary position of not knowing where to go from here.

That sounds bad, but it isn’t. I very much believe in giving stories space to breathe, in letting them evolve, and this one has evolved radically around the busiest year of my entire life. I’m positive about all of the routes I could take, though each of them entails some changes. I’m now brewing on which way to go. Bluntly speaking, my choices could be defined by genre, but it’s not that simple. It’s about my sense of self-worth, and the value I take from the act of writing. This story feels entirely right to me, but I don’t know what it is. It’s like reading a map in another alphabet: the world is removed from me yet fleetingly familiar, and I haven’t yet worked out where I am. At a crossroads, perhaps. Each route has pitfalls and detours and summits to climb. (My friend James Hannah says to turn left. If it all goes wrong, I’m blaming him.)

I’m spending hours at a time with my notebook. I’m listening to Rachel’s and Balmorhea. I’m floating in a sea of puzzle pieces. If I can pin down one or two, I’ll build the rest from there, but they are quick as fish.

Writing is easy, and writing is hard.

In The Flow at Sprint Mill

A few months ago, I was asked by my friends in the Sprintmilling art collective to run a spoken word evening as part of their exhibition for the excellent C-Art open studio trail. My first instinct was to say no, because I’m so constantly swamped with work that I’m barely writing anything of my own. But on reflection, I decided to go ahead and give it everything I had. I’ve never organised or hosted a spoken word event, and Sprint Mill is a very special place to me. What swung it for me was a request of mill owner Edward Acland, who wondered if the performers might be interested in writing a piece or two inspired by the mill. I was so intrigued by this idea that I decided to take it on. I called the night In The Flow, and set about inviting writers I knew would do it justice.

In the end, we had a stellar line-up, including the slam-winning poetry dynamo that is Joy France; Guardian weekly pick BigCharlie Poet; Poet Laureate of the Tripe Marketing Board, Jonathan Humble; journalist, poet and painter Helen Perkins; poet of internal, external and emotional landscapes, Harriet Fraser; the frighteningly talented young Turk of the macabre, Luke Brown; Edward Acland himself; and me.

All the writers rose to Edward’s challenge, and all attended the mill at various points for inspiration and ideas. The place is soaked in stories. Sprint Mill is a wonder. It is both serene and madcap, combining perfect sense with complete bamboozlement. Over three floors, scores of chests, cabinets and workbenches line the walls, all laden with jars, boxes and objects. It’s no less than a portal into another time. The ceiling is lined with skis and 1950s shop signs. The windows gather dust, discarded toys, wood swarf and cobwebs in rafts. Military buttons sit beside bradawls and buckets of rusty nails. Washing machine parts are pinned in loops to a heavy magnet – an apothecary cabinet groans with esoteric contents, all neatly labelled: barbershop equipment, bird eggs, lightbulbs. The mill is a bipolar rabbithole of wonder and nonsense. Every time I visit, I find myself caught between poles of melancholy and childish joy. It’s a tangible place, and it’s a dream.

I didn’t hear or read any of the writers’ responses to the mill until the night. Somehow, between introducing the acts and reading a piece from The Hollows for the first ever time, I managed to film them at work. Here are the performances in order of appearance. Enjoy…

Edward Acland distills his decades of collecting into The Jars:

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Jonathan Humble reads bombastic ballads of tripe, Daleks, and reckless rhubarb:

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Helen Perkins performs three pieces, finishing with the utterly enthralling Edward’s Gunshop, which is one of the best poems I’ve heard for a long time:

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Luke Brown reads a brilliant (untitled) short story of chaos, catastrophe and common sense. Fans of Roald Dahl and Jeremy Dyson in particular will devour this:

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Harriet Fraser charts the life of a seedling, considers cagmagery and takes us into the nether regions of a sheep:

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BigCharlie Poet delivers mouses, houses, foxes, and his Guardian pick-of-the-week, It’s The Grit That Makes The Pearl:

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Joy France finishes the night with a wonderful sequence of poems touching on memory, loss, joy, patchouli oil and fracking:

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There were more than thirty of us crammed into a smaller section of the mill, ruddy with stovelight and beer. We sat on hand-carved chairs and recovered benches, and dust crawled in columns from the ceiling. We laughed, we talked, we drank and we told each other stories. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but words mean nothing without the folk to hear them.

The Abbey

I visited the awe-inspiring Furness Abbey last week. It’s one of those places that I find very hard to describe, and although I’m going to try, I don’t feel I’ll come close, so I’ll probably keep this fairly short.

The abbey lies in ruins, but the utter majesty of the place remains. Sandstone soars into the sky in towers, even as the wind and rain carve it back down into organic shapes. It’s humbling beyond measure to walk the grounds, to sit in the buttery, to peer up tiny spiral staircases, to measure spans and arches – to walk the same paths the monks would have walked, centuries ago. A watercourse trickles through the ruins, tight with brick and riddled with tunnels and drains, but also dense with willowherb. It makes the abbey seem both antique and feral. There are plants trickling from upper ledges, and swallows nesting in the cells. There are tunnels and alcoves and windows and doors. What survives of the former halls still feels enclosed. Parts of the abbey are completely removed from the main walkways, and it’s unnerving to stand in silence and stillness and reflect on the hundreds of lives to pass through the same space. It’s crawling with ghosts. They’re in every stone, in every blade of grass. The site is surrounded by trees that hush in the wind, and the place is full of whispers. It embodies that sense of threshold I feel so drawn to. There are blind corners, where the space is shut abruptly out and your skin crawls with presence. Gravity weighs more in the abbey. The stones have grown gaunt on life and death and time.

Time. That’s the abbey means. The whole place aches and creaks with a ferocious sense of time. It’s massive. It echoes, it rebounds from the rock, from the moss. Walking the walls brings our few moments in this world into ferocious, ridiculous focus. It’s magnificent. It’s extraordinary. Go and explore it for yourself.

 

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From the dead

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This is amazing: two skeletons have been discovered in Ireland with stones wedged in their mouths. This was supposed to prevent a return from death. In other words, these two were thought to be vampires or revenants. Consider the conviction needed to force a large stone into the mouth of one corpse – and then a second. Imagine the sound of stone on teeth as it was wedged inside. There was no doubt in the minds of whoever buried these bodies that they were coming back.

I wrote a flash story a year or so ago, recalling a lucid dream in which my daughter and I were laid out on slabs with stones in our mouths. I could taste the grain of the stone on my tongue. Reading about these skeletons gave me the shivers. It also, bizarrely, made me hungry for the second series of The Returned…

Full article here, and here’s some Mogwai to keep you sharp. Get your spook on.

This one book – Henry Sugar

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Carpenter came up with the idea to blog about a book that changed everything he knew about reading and writing, then pass the baton onto others. He wrote, brilliantly, about The Wasp Factory, then nominated David Hartley and myself to continue the chain. David wrote, promptly and also brilliantly, about Frankenstein, then picked Benjamin Judge and Nija Dalal to follow. Benjamin Judge (seriously: who is Benjamin Judge? I’ve read in Manchester three times, and never met him. He’s either a front, Lawnmower Man, or a ghost) then wrote with intimidating speed and grace about Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, which means I’m late and under pressure.

The brief is to write about a book that changed the way I understood literature – that made me realise “what writing could do”. That’s a tough call. My first instinct was also for The Wasp Factory, which had a massive impact on me. But I think, on reflection, that others that hit me deeper, if not harder, and I can’t come close to Dan’s thoughts on what remains an astonishing book. I’ve spent a lot of time weighing up what to write about instead. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is my biggest recent influence, but that was more like rebalancing my compass. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines shook me to my core, and Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld series changed the way I thought about stories. Before that, the Harry Potter books got me reading again after a long period of not reading at all.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote 500 words about The Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson. The first scintillating volume of his letters was the inspiration that started me blogging while I was backpacking in Australia; that blog taught me to write (albeit like him), which led to a job in magazine journalism, which led to me writing fiction in my words of my own…

I love Hunter S. Thompson. He remains an inspiration for his sheer, indomitable rage against the greed, corruption, insanity and monstrous terror of corporate government. His prose is flawless, and The Proud Highway was the book that definitively led me to becoming a writer.

But – having written 500 words about Thompson and his letters – I stopped short. A book I hadn’t thought about for years swum into my head, and I knew it mattered more. It’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More) by Roald Dahl. I don’t know when I first read Henry Sugar, but I think it was during the single year I spent in an Edinburgh boarding school while my parents lived in Germany.

I remember almost nothing before the age of 10 or 11, and my time at the boarding school sneaks up on me like spidersilk – fleeting, single strands, flickering with light, then gone. And although I don’t remember exactly, I know that I spent a lot of time in the school library. I know I read King Solomon’s Mines, and all The Hardy Boys books, and a bunch of Stephen Kings. I would have read Dahl’s children’s fiction when I was younger, but I’m pretty sure that was when I stumbled upon his more adult stories.

I rediscovered Dahl when I was in my early twenties. I found all his works in a charity shop in London, and bought the lot. I gorged on them. His stories are consistently excellent, but Henry Sugar is the strongest of many extraordinary collections. The tale of the boy and the turtle, or the mysterious hitchhiker, or the greedy landowner and the treasure hoard, or the title story, all explore the no-man’s-land, the thin threshold between the real and the impossible. They are all perfect stories, delivering just desserts to protagonists and antagonists alike. Another of the pieces, The Swan, haunts me still; Dahl’s tale of bullies brutalising a class loner is gut-wrenching, brilliant, beautiful, devastatingly sad and entirely magical.

Henry Sugar is ferocious. But how does it redefine my idea of what books can do? It didn’t have that impact on me as a child, certainly, because I had no concept of books doing anything other than taking me away – I simply read and read. But in my twenties, on rereading Henry Sugar, the ghost of it flooded back – the sad magic of The Swan sluiced through me, and it was utterly transporting. Where Sarah Waters holds back from explicit fantasy, and Neil Gaiman commits to it completely, The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar perfectly inhabits that edgeland between reality and fantasy. This is important because I see, now, how I’m drawn to that same space in my own work. I don’t want to write like Roald Dahl – I couldn’t – but I’m trying to walk that same tightrope between two places. And in that sense, no other book has so changed the way I think about books – about writing – about reading – about living.

So that’s me. I’m going to nominate Iain Maloney and Ali Shaw to continue the series, though I haven’t asked them yet.

The Year of the Whale

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Last night, with slightly more than an hour to go before the deadline of the MMU Novella Competition, I finally finished my novella The Year of the Whale. The image above is a randomised cloud of the most common words in the manuscript, which is a really satisfying way to look back on what I’ve made.

I started writing it in 2009, and it has spent entire years untouched, waiting for attention in the dusty recesses of my hard drive. It’s written in first person with a very particular voice, and it’s been strange to return to it so sporadically over the years, and take up the mantle of that voice again. I’ve wanted to finish it for a long time – it was one of my New Year’s resolutions, no less – and I’m thankful to the competition for giving me the spark to get it done. I don’t expect anything to come of it – that way madness lies – but I’m thrilled to have wrapped it up last.

The Year of the Whale is the story of a man called Henry Cowx. He is a fisherman and walking guide in Morecambe Bay, riddled with arthritis and wracked with guilt. His story explores that guilt, and gives some quiet thought to what it means to remember. It’s about walking and place and ghosts and folk tales, and our connections with the land. It’s at the heart of my obsession with threshold spaces. It’s a meditative, elegiac story, and a long way from where I’d like to develop my work – but Henry has never been far from my mind, and I’m glad to give him closure at last.

I discussed some of the genesis of the story in my Thievery post for Kirsty Logan.

I’m working my way through some film jobs at the moment, but it’s almost time to get back into The Hollows.