I’ve Got Heaven At My Door

I’ve now seen Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power‘s astonishing documentary, From The Sea To The Land Beyond, about ten times, including a live screening at Glasgow Film Festival last year. It’s an astonishing work—a feature length film comprising entirely of archive footage and BSP’s score, by turns haunting and playful. The footage was lifted entirely from the BFI archives, and tells nothing less than the social history of Britain through our relationship with the sea. It’s extraordinary: through the flickering windows of hundred-year old reels, the film explores Britain’s food, wars, suffrage, leisure, the rise of the middle class, industrial action, economic boom and bust, immigration, capitalism and more.

Ever since watching From The Sea To The Land Beyond, I’ve wanted to work with some archive footage. I used a little of it in my hay meadows documentary To The End We Will Go, but when I recently happened upon some fascinating public domain material, I decided to cut something entirely from archive. And here, then, is something of a music video; taken from my friend Dan Haywood‘s wonderful album Dapple, I’ve cut together footage of USAAF atomic bomb tests and the seminal agricultural documentary The Plow That Broke The Plains, all soundtracked by Dan’s glorious song I’ve Got Heaven At My Door.

It’s not the most complex thing in the world, but then again, I have very little time right now—I’ll write more about that in my next post—I threw this together over a couple of lunchtimes at college. For now, here’s the video, and I’ll get back to my novel.

The sounds of The Hollows

With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.

When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:

Come On Die Young by Mogwai

Mar of Aran by British Sea Power

Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor

Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston

…and everything by Bat For Lashes.

In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.

On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.

The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:

The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:

From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.

Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.

Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:

After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:

Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.

Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.

Cellar steps

Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.

I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?

I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?

Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.

I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.

Notebook

On the rare occasions I’ve been asked for writing advice, one of the things I always suggest is to carry a notebook and a pen. I’ve lost count of the thoughts, ideas, plots, characters and dialogue I’ve let slip through the gaps in my atrocious memory. It’s heartbreaking. I took to carrying a pocket notebook years ago. Sometimes I fill one in a month, and sometimes in six months, until it disintegrates to dust and fibres and I need to tape the spine. I keep them all on a shelf above my desk. Once, while backpacking in Australia, I spilled a hipflask of Maker’s Mark all over my notebook, and the whiskey erased the ink. I lost my bourbon, and I lost weeks of passing thoughts. As my friend Ali said, it was the very definition of two wrongs not making a right.

Notebooks aren’t just for the utility of capturing ideas. It’s important to remember how to write the hard way. I’m a thug of a typist, but I’m pretty fast, and I spend a huge amount of time glued to my computer, whether that’s writing or editing. My default setting is electric, and when I have an idea, I tend to go to the computer first.

This is all relevant because I’m finally dipping my toes back into The Hollows. I started on Christmas Eve 2013, wrote sporadically through the new year, and hit 25,000 words around June. I haven’t worked on it at all since then, but last week I finally had the space to look at it again. On reading it through, I was a little unhappy with some of my work. Parts of it read well, but simply weren’t right for the story any more. No matter how much I shuffled chapters or copied and pasted paragraphs to try and make it fit, the story wouldn’t gel. Instead, I put on some music and sat back with a fountain pen and an old office diary I nabbed years ago to use as a notebook.

The diary was a red hardback day-to-a-page thing, brand new and unused from 2006, a ribbon bookmark folded flat between the crisp blank pages. It was perfect. I started scribbling down my worries and woes. I made lists of characters I liked and characters I didn’t need. I wrote down what worked, and what never could. I drew lots of dots and stars and arrows connecting things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else. I wrote questions and answers. I wrote until my hand hurt and I had a dent in my forefinger. A few hours later, the mist was beginning to clear, and some new ideas were beginning to show themselves.

That night, I talked it through with Mon. She’s so good at giving me space to shape my ideas. Often the act of explaining a story to Mon explains the story to me, too. Vocalising something gives it clarity. After chatting it through, I spent another hour or two jotting down new ideas, new people, new places to explore.

This is all the planning I do when I’m writing. Rough notes and loose association. It works better with ink than on a screen. It makes the process tangible. I couldn’t do what Ali did with his last novel, and write the whole thing longhand – that wouldn’t work for me – but I’d forgotten how healthy it is to make a mark, to scribe into the fibres of the page. The act of writing with a pen has conjured new ideas, too – things that couldn’t have occurred in pixels.

The hardest part is making the decision. I went back to the manuscript, and cut 11,000 words. It hurt, but it was important. There were good scenes in there – good chapters – but they’d sent me off course, and they had to go. Now they’re gone. My draft is 11,000 words lighter, but I’m more confident in what is left. The shape of the story has changed. The characters are starting to stir, beginning to show themselves.

It’s insane to think I’ve achieved so little since starting it almost a year ago. I feel like I should have a finished draft by now. I know, looking back, that we’ve been extraordinarily busy this year, and that I’ve completed a multitude of other things, but The Hollows is back in my life and shouting louder than ever. I’ve spent some time on the wrong path, but now I think I’ve found my way. A pen, a compass.

The Visitors – a soundtrack

Over time, music becomes integrated entirely with memory. I can’t hear Woodface by Crowded House or Crossroads by Bon Jovi without becoming eight or nine or ten years old, and playing Heroquest with my brother. The songs from those records flood my head with the stink of enamel paint and the sound of rain on windows.

My friend Iain has long believed that just as movies have soundtracks, so novels should have soundtracks. It’s an intriguing idea; for writers like Iain and I, who work best with very particular music playing in the background, the soundscape becomes an integral part of our experience of the book. I wrote The Visitors with the same few artists playing over and over again. That monotony helped me establish and maintain consistency. It helped to balance me in the same emotional place, session after session. The records took me out of myself.

It’s interesting to note that with my new novel, The Hollows, I’ve needed completely different tunes – if I listen to anything from my Visitors ‘soundtrack’, I’m taken back to Bancree. I’m almost sure that will change with time.

I’ve put together a wee soundtrack for The Visitors on Spotify. There’s some Mogwai, Arab Strap, Sparklehorse, James Yorkston, Arcade Fire, British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Meursault and a few others. I’ve jumbled them as seems best, but I guess my aim is to give a sense of the overall soundscape I worked with. It sounds like this:

*

For some reason, the Spotify player here won’t play all the songs in the playlist – if you’d like to see the rest, mosey over here. And if anyone has recommendations based on these songs, please do pop them in the comments. I’m always looking for new music to fit my very selective criteria for working!

Coffin Routes

A couple of months ago, I posted about the Drowned Villages Poetry Competition. There are flooded villages in Cumbria, Gwynned and Lanarkshire; the competition was open to poets within those library regions, working with that theme. The top prize was having your poem soundtracked by Mogwai. I’m very guarded about my poetry, but Mogwai are one of my favourite ever bands and creators of my all-time favourite album, and so I entered the contest.

Rounding up what’s been an astonishing month for me, I’m both delighted and devastated to reveal that I won the regional contest for Cumbria. I’m absolutely elated that the judges enjoyed my work. I’m still brewing, awestruck, on the momentous thought that Liz Lochhead, Ian McMillan and Nicky Wire have read my poem. But I’m also utterly gutted that having come so close, top prize went to the contestant from North Lanarkshire.

I feel bad even writing that. The first place piece, Never Come Home, is a really striking poem, and I’m sincerely happy for winning writer Catherine Baird. I didn’t expect to feature in the competition at all, so taking a place as runner-up is excruciatingly bittersweet. Having Mogwai do something with my work would have been astonishing – I can’t even frame the shape of it in my mind. I can’t articulate the joy I would have felt. Coming so close has turned me upside-down. I’m genuinely thrilled for Catherine Baird, and delighted with my own poem doing so well, but this one hurts. So near, and yet so far.

I know this sounds churlish. I don’t mean it to. But I discovered Come On Die Young in 1999, and Mogwai have soundtracked the last fifteen years of my life. Without exaggeration, Mogwai’s music has accompanied at least half of my entire writing output. I feel ecstatic to have come so close, and I feel heartbroken to have come so close.

For Facebook users, here’s the winning poem by Catherine Baird. My heartfelt congratulations to Catherine, and I can’t wait to hear the finished song. Like all of Mogwai’s work, it will be extraordinary.

When I was writing the poem, I played Hungry Face from Les Revenants on repeat in the background, hour after hour. I’m listening to Come On Die Young as I write this blog post. May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door is playing. It’s the pivotal point in the album. Next comes the calm before the storm of Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up, and then the astonishing, burning, towering trio of Ex-Cowboy, Chocky and Christmas Steps. I will never stop listening to this album – or the others – the otherworldly Rock Action, the ferocious Happy Songs For Happy People, the dreamworld EP+6, the snarling Young Team, the smouldering Les Revenants, the muscular Hardcore Will Never Die, the reflective Hawk Is Howling, the utter majesty of Government Commissions, the blistering uppercut of Rave Tapes.

I will never stop listening to Mogwai, and I will never, ever stop wondering what if…

What if.

Here’s my poem.

Drowned Village screenshot

 

Les Revenants

returned1_A2

I’ve finally caught up with The Returned, which has not just maintained the quality of the first episode, but consistently improved across the series, growing in confidence, becoming ever stranger, madder, sadder. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve watched on television for a very long time: it’s Lynch without the hysteria; it’s Lost without the sensationalist cliffhangers. When a show is this good, eight episodes is not enough, and I’m glad there’s a second series on the way.

That said…

There’s a habit in these long-running ensemble shows – and increasingly in big-budget films, too – of ‘concluding’ with threads left untied – or introducing tantalising new story strands. Sequels and follow-ups have therefore become implicit. The gradual switch from ‘series’ to ‘season’ is an ingenious use of weasel words; season implies annual regularity, and makes the show a fixture, part of an ongoing narrative, integrated into the cycle of the year. New instalments are seen as part of a continuum; rather than stand-alone, self-contained sequences. This has clear drawbacks: I loved Lost, but the final conclusion to the show was incredibly weak. It felt increasingly apparent, as the show expanded, that they had started without knowing how it would end, and that each successive series was created to generate the next, rather than conclude the previous. With such a weight of expectation piled onto the final episodes, it was always going to fall short. The conclusion of Lost was less than the sum of its many, flawed, dazzling parts.

With a little courage, I think The Returned could probably have finished at the end of the first series, even with so many questions still unanswered. It would have been bold, but the last sight of the flooded town would have made the metaphor of the draining dam all the more apparent… but we have expectations of closed narratives, and there’s too much still unsaid. And when it is so incredibly well-made, a second series will be very welcome. Now it’s just a matter of waiting until November next year – and what’s 18 months for the best thing on television?

In the meantime, I’ll console myself with the breathtaking Mogwai soundtrack. I reckon it’s their best work since Come On Die Young. You can listen to some of the songs here, but you’d better get the real thing, just to be on the safe side.

The Returned

Caught up with the first episode of The Returned (Les Revanants) last night – and loved it. In exploring the impact of the dead returning to a small Alpine town, it oozes the same surreal menace as Twin Peaks or Lost – but already feels more cohesive than those stunning, albeit deeply flawed, masterpieces. The story was thrilling and compelling without being sensationalist, the human reactions were as convincing as The Killing, and the cinematography, direction and editing combined into a breathtaking aesthetic. I’m really excited about the next few episodes.

Even better, the show is gloriously soundtracked by one of my favourite bands, Mogwai. (This trailer actually features the Raveonettes, who are also great, but they’re no Mogwai.) Follow this link for an E.P. of the soundtrack; I’ll definitely be tracking down the full album for writing music.