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.

dora

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.

In The Empty Places

A very worthy work was published last week, and I wanted to take a moment to shout about it. In The Empty Places is an anthology of art and short stories published by the Bantuan Coffee Foundation, an amazing organisation that provides shelter and education for victims of child prostitution and trafficking in Indonesia. It’s a fantastic cause delivering real, practical solutions on the ground, and I’m honoured that they considered some of my work for the anthology. The editors accepted a short story about the Chinese cocklers that drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2001. I lived in Lancaster at the time, only a few miles away, and I never managed to shake off a sense of uncaring tragedy; relentless winter skies, the media circus, the restaurant owners protesting their innocence.

My piece is in the extraordinary company of writers including Toni Davidson, Rodge Glass, Tendai Huchu, Kirsty Logan, Anneliese Mackintosh, Iain Maloney, Suhayl Saadi and Chiew-Siah Tei. Some of these stories are appearing in translation for the first time. The book also includes artwork by Tomi Muller, Mayra Martins Redin and my wife, Monica Metsers.

In The Empty Places is helping to provide real solutions and real escapes for children who have been forced into prostitution. If you’d like to help too, then follow this link for a copy of the book; there are far worse ways to spend your money this Christmas.

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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.

A tangled ball of things

I’m absolutely delighted to say that The Visitors has taken first place in the Not The Booker prize 2014. Run by The Guardian, the competition is presented as a slightly tongue-in-cheek parallel with the Man Booker Prize. The actual prize, for example, is a mug:

The Guardian cup prize for website.  Photo by Linda Nylind. 18/8/2011.

It’s taken an astoundingly long time to get this far – the first nominations were something like three months ago – and the way it accelerated into the final week was unnerving. The prize is awarded through a combination of public votes and a judging panel. After an agonising week of voting, The Visitors was neck and neck with Tony Black and his novel The Last Tiger (which sounds amazing). With the vote tied, we were awarded a point apiece, which left the three judges to reach a decision during a live video discussion about the shortlist.

I left work early and cycled home to watch the online stream of the discussion. By the time chairman Sam Jordison asked the judges for their final votes, I found myself pacing the room, wanting to know, not wanting to know. The anticipation was driving my heart out through my chest.

This is how it went:

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So there we have it. It’s still sinking in, even four days later. After the decision was announced, Mon came home and took me out for lunch. That was the right thing to do. There’s no way I would have managed any work that afternoon.

It’s a truly humbling thing to happen, and I feel both proud and grateful that my book has had so much support. Please consider this a massive thank you to anyone and everyone who has bought, read, enjoyed, voted or commented on The Visitors. You’re amazing!

Releasing a book into the wild is a terrifying thing to do. I spent so long wrapped up in Bancree by myself that it still feels raw to share the island with other people. Knowing that folk might like my story conjures a huge, tangled ball of things: relief and disbelief, elation, a lurch of adrenaline.

I’m absolutely thrilled, but I’m also looking ahead. I have more books to write. Not The Booker coming to an end coincides with my backlog of film jobs beginning to ease. In a week or so, I think I can get back to writing regularly. It’s been months since I had concerted time to work, and I can barely remember big chunks of The Hollows. My first few sessions will be stripping things away, I’m sure, and clearing the ground to start again. I can’t wait, and I’m glad to be returning on the right side of Not The Booker.

Thank you, people. You are a galaxy of stars.

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The final countdown

So, Not The Booker. The end is in sight, hobbitses. After my review in the Guardian Books Blog, it’s now time for the final vote. I didn’t get the mauling I was expecting, which was a relief, and most of the comments were very positive. There are now only five days of this long, strange, exposing process to go through. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been fantastic to have such a platform, and it’s been curiously cathartic to witness people discussing my wee story and laying it bare. For the most part, everyone has been constructive, and I certainly haven’t been the distressed mess I’d have predicted a year ago. I’m very glad to have made it this far.

Voting closes on Sunday at midnight, so there are only five days left. If you’d like to vote for The Visitors – or for The Last Tiger, First Time Solo, The Goldfinch, Cairo or Smoke Is Rising – then go here, and write the name of your favourite in the comments. You need to include the word ‘vote’ at the top, and you need to write a couple of sentences about your choice. And that’s that. There’s a live video conference between the judges on Monday morning, which I’m really looking forward to, and then the winner is announced. The whole thing has taken months – it’s strange to think of it accelerating to such a sudden finish.

Best of luck to all the other contestants!

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.

Art Is Long, Life Is Short

After years of occasional submissions, I’m delighted to report that the outstanding spoken word night Liars’ League London finally accepted one of my short stories. For those that don’t know, Liars’ League has grown into one of the finest story nights in the country (now with branches in Leeds, Leicester, New York and Hong Kong) by using professional actors to read stories. Or, as they rather more succinctly put it:

Writers write. Actors act. Audience listens. Everybody wins.

When I first started writing short stories, what feels like a century ago, I experimented relentlessly with different voices and techniques. Over the years, I’ve moved away from straight-up literary fiction and towards the modern genre fiction that I prefer to read myself. In doing so, my writing has become, to me, more believable; I believe my own stories more than I used to. At the same time, for reasons I’m still brewing on, most of my story narrators have become female. This wasn’t a conscious decision. It happened organically as I drifted happily into low fantasy and magic realism. When I thought of The Visitors, I always knew Flora would be Flora. In my current work-in-progress, I always knew Kerry would be Kerry. I have my next four or five novels blocked out, and they all have female narrators, because they could only have female narrators. That’s just the way it is.

The Liars’ League story is called Art Is Long, Life Is Short. It’s one of my oldest unpublished pieces, and one of my favourites. As one of my older stories, I wrote it with a male voice. I imagined someone like Larry Lamb. A grizzled gentleman of the world – a Cockney – down on his luck and pouncing on a break. A male actor was booked to read the piece, and I was delighted to be a contributor to Liars’ League.

But – with a week or so to go – they contacted me to say that the actor had to cancel. Would I consider an actress instead?

YES. Yes, I’d consider that. On re-reading the story, I was amused to notice that there isn’t a single marker of gender – and the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Actress Carrie Cohen shows why Liars’ League were absolutely right. She reads better than I’d thought possible, and I’m really, really pleased. She embodies the character with humour and pathos, and the story works far better with a woman than a man. It’s a thrill beyond measure to see it all brought to life.

There’s something else, too. I loved giving the story away. It’s not mine anymore. It belongs to Carrie, and the audience, and that’s incredibly exciting. Having spent years sitting on a piece that I thought had some merit, it’s wonderful to share it out – to see it adapted, altered and ultimately evolve from my wee idea into something bigger.

So here it is. Please enjoy Art Is Long, Life Is Short, read by the wonderful Carrie Cohen:

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:

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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!