My books of the year are alive and infected with horrible, gorgeous human stuff.
There were some excellent short story collections this year, of which Tracy Fahey’s NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS impressed me greatly with its storytelling power. Andrew Hook’s THE FOREST OF DEAD CHILDREN disturbed me and filled me with dread and wonder. I also frankly loved Rob Shearman’s chapbook teasers for WE ALL TELL STORIES IN THE DARK, his madly ambitious 101 short stories project. I read those and Leonora Carrington’s COMPLETE STORIES at the same time and the two authors sort of merged in my mind to create one, supremely messed up hilarious nightmare machine.
THE HEAVENS, by Sandra Newman, blew my mind and blasted me out of my complacency about what novels can do and be. It was compelling and bitter and full of complexity and magic.
Talking about what novels can do and be, it would be remiss not to mention DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, Lucy Ellman’s transcendently lucid journey through an ordinary mind. It was boring, very boring in places. But hilarious and brilliant. It will change things, this book. It will change novels, anyway.
Julie Travis’ novelette TOMORROW, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, reminded me somewhat of THE HEAVENS but then it went one better in allowing me to live in its strange and wonderful world. Wonderful and perfect are the words I used to describe this book. It is full of love and humour, awe, strangeness, sorrow… I enjoyed it immensely and only wished I could stay forever.
GAMBLE by Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a novel I’ve talked about a fair bit this year, and for good reason. It is brutal in its precision, a skewer to the psyche, funny and so very, very sinister. Speaking of sinister things, I discovered a new writer, who I think is exceptional, in the form of Rebecca Gransden. I reviewed her novel ANEMOGRAM. on this blog. Her writing is unutterably strange, haunting, violent and funny. I don’t know where she will go with it but what I’ve read so far strikes me as profoundly brave and vulnerable, and I think she will do something great.
Another debut novelist, Michael Walters, impressed me with his book THE COMPLEX, which is far from perfect, and all the better for that. It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since first reading: it has been growing on me/in me/around me. I was also reminded of it when reading Helen Phillips’ THE NEED, also featuring a stag-like being, but in a very different mode. This is a deceptively simple book that does something completely and utterly weird. I loved it.
Two books by Aliya Whiteley, THE LOOSENING SKIN and SKEIN ISLAND, impressed and disturbed me. I loved Deborah Levy’s weird and moving THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING and Anna Stothardt’s gripping and unbelievably good THE MUSEUM OF CATHY. Each of these writers are doing their own, strikingly original things and keep putting out incredible book after incredible book.
But my absolute favourite read this year must be Charles Lambert’s THE CHILDREN’S HOME. This is a book that’s hard to describe, since it resists and transcends and transforms itself as you read it. It is brilliant. When I finished it, I cried. It’s the kind of book you can’t even talk about because it’s too good, you’re too passionately in love with it, too in awe of its brilliance, and you don’t want to break it by understanding it too well. Just read it.
A book I cannot recommend at all is Paul Kingsnorth’s SAVAGE GODS. I can’t, because in fact he wrote it just for me. Or really, he wrote it for himself, and he’s a man, and that matters. But nevertheless, it was also for me, and I found it beautiful and cruel and sorrowful and true, and as someone who is also lost in that same wood, or one adjacent, I am very grateful for his story.
Another year, another Fantasycon, this time held in a hospital/hotel nestled in a large car park some miles outside the great city of Glasgow. The hospi-tel was large, modern, and mostly quite clean (although at one point Tim Lebbon was surprised to see lipstick on his coffee cup, as he hadn’t been wearing any that morning.) Some residents were alarmed to see notices in their bedrooms warning them about their upcoming surgeries, but I’m relieved to say that most of us survived the weekend without any complications, and with all our organs intact. Well, maybe not our livers. And our hearts were a bit broken. But more of that later.
I arrived around noon on the Friday and immediately spotted Paul Tremblay, one of our illustrious Guests of Honour, at the check-in desk. I honoured him by embracing him enthusiastically while he honoured me by pretending to remember who the hell I was.
After checking in and dropping off my bag, I met Tracy Fahey in the bar and gifted her a lifelike plastic raven, which caused much jealousy among the gothic hordes. We joined Priya Sharma and Mark Greenwood, Penny and Simon Jones, Steve Shaw, Justin Park, Marie O’Regan, Paul Kane, Andy Freudenberg and oh god this is so much harder than Mark West makes it look. We – whoever we were – sat outside on a terrace overlooking a body of water which was in turn overlooked by some large toxic waste silos. In this romantic setting, we discussed Steve Shaw’s ablutions (see Steve’s-Ablutions.com) and worked out the rules of horror cagefight in which we would pit masters of horror Ramsey Campbell and Paul Tremblay against one another in a wrestle to the death.
Later I had lunch with Canadia’s finest publishers, Carolyn and Michael Kelly, and discussed our plans for ritual human sacrifice. Carolyn and I paid a large sum of money for the world’s smallest and crumbliest gluten-free sandwich (which didn’t even have any human sacrifice in it) and were forced to steal Mike’s chips just in case we starved.
Some other people were around and I talked to many of them. They were all lovely, but I didn’t write their names in my notebook so I have no recollection of who they were or what it was I liked about them so very much. The lack of note-taking was partly because Penny Jones caught me writing her name for this report and ran at me yelling “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Apparently there are a number of terrifying stories written about Penny Jones and she naturally assumed I was jumping on the trend. I was not. However, later that evening, Hal Duncan spent a good 45 minutes explaining to me that life is a series of interlinked sitcoms and reader, I was thoroughly convinced. It explains a lot, although I’m not sure anything completely explains Penny Jones.
That evening, Andrew Freudenberg and I came up with a great fiction collaboration in which the story of Big Baby Jesus and his twin brother Satan (played respectively by Giant Haystacks and Kirk Douglas) would be told in a way you have never heard it told before. I took this as a sign that I was way too drunk to go on, and took to my bed. It took me a good long while to take to my bed, as first I had to have lengthy chats with lovely Neil Williamson and lovely others even too lovely to remember. On my final attempt to leave the bar, Muriel Gray grabbed me for a selfie, exclaiming that I was “fantastic” and that I had the “best hair”. This was not only the high point of my entire weekend but also means I can pronounce with some confidence that I have won Hair Club, possibly forever. The gorgeously lovely Chloë Yates made a good bid for it this year, but I’m afraid Muriel Gray’s decision is final.
On Saturday I breakfasted with Alison Littlewood and her partner Fergus, who were infuriatingly perky, having gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Talked filmmaking and screenwriting with Eric Steele, who had early that morning escaped from a Magnus Mills novel. Later I went to Paul Tremblay’s kaffeeklatsch, thinking that Paul was going to buy us all coffee and muffins. Apparently that’s not what happens at a kaffeeklatsch, and Paul does not have his own MuffinMinion, actually. To make up for it, there was some great writerly chat with Kelly White, Thomas Joyce, Lee Harrison, Priya Sharma and some other people who were wonderful and so dazzling that I forgot to write their names in my notebook.
We trooped off to Rob Shearman’s pre-launch launch event, and on the way bumped into the Isle of Bute contingent, the extraordinarily talented and lovely Nina Allan and Anne Charnock. They both threatened to read my book, which was quite horrifying. On to the pre-launch launch, where Rob explained his epic new book and then made us all cry with a wonderful reading from it. The queue to buy the pre-book chapbooks went out the door and we had to be removed to the lobby for Rob to continue signing. “Take my money already!” was the cry of our hearts.
That evening, a few of us threw some shapes on the dancefloor. Gary Couzens and Sue York were alone in the disco until Tracy and I turned up for a dance, later joined by Francesca and Rob of Luna Publishing, Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk, and Phil Sloman of Legs fame. The DJ was deeply obnoxious but the music was fine, and I arrived at my late night ‘stories in the dark’ reading rather more sweaty than usual. Hopefully no one noticed, as it was dark, and they were probably quite scared, as Charlotte Bond, Pete Sutton, Kit Power and I read them some very creepy stories.
On Sunday morning I did a workshop on writing craft which involved ripping up books and drawing on them. There were a great bunch of writers there, including an old classmate, Hugh Reid. I did a quick podcast interview with E.M. Faulds in the sunshine, chatted with the Gingernuts of Horror himself, the lovely Jim McLeod, and then it was time for the Ordeal – I mean, banquet. Well, halfway between an Ordeal and a banquet. The serving staff, in what I can only assume is an ancient Dalmuirean tradition, refused to bring us any drinks until each person at the table had complained to them twice. For a starter I was served “fine dining” consisting of sweet green mousse on a bed of cress, with some melon juice in a shot glass. For mains, tomato puree over half a raw courgette, and two lumps of cauliflower pakora, which the servers assured me would either poison me, or not. By this point, I had lost the will to live anyway, so it didn’t matter.
I lived to make it to the awards ceremony, which Muriel Gray conducted with great warmth and very welcome humour. Vince Haig won Best Artist and Mike made us all cry with his emotional reading of Vince’s acceptance speech. Rob Shearman and Mike Kelly won the award for Best Anthology, which was wonderful, and their speeches made us laugh and cry some more. Priya Sharma’s award for Best Collection had many of us on our feet, and by this point quite a few of us were openly weeping, though it’s possible that some of us were just remembering lunch.
And that was more or less that. For once, I didn’t have far to go home but had lovely company on the train back to Edinburgh in the form of Neil Snowden and Tim Major, which was lucky or I might have been very sad to be leaving so many dear friends and delightful people, including all the dear and delightful people who should have been mentioned here but weren’t because I was drinking wine when I was supposed to be paying attention. Those who couldn’t make it this year were sorely missed, not least Mark West, who should have been writing this con report, but instead left it in the hands of an amateur, a fabricator, a teller of tall tales, and a person who forgot to write anything in her notebook after Saturday lunchtime. Until next time, much love to all xxx
This novel starts by dragging us into the bushes, and entangling us in a dense, lush, damp forest of prose that twists and grows into a setting, a character, a child who is inexplicably alone. She is unafraid, but hungry. Desperately vulnerable, but somehow perfectly content. She sleeps in the woods without getting her dress dirty, and when she needs something, she finds a way of taking it. Abandoned, abused, lost… but she defies us with happiness, with taking joy in the natural world. A voice in her ear, perhaps an imaginary friend, perhaps a possessing spirit, drives her onwards with gruesome, shocking, and sad fairytales. She consumes the stories as though they are sustenance.
As the story unfolds, we meet other people, also driven by
sad stories that whisper in their ear. In particular, we meet David, who sets
out to help the girl. Their connection is instantaneous, worrying in a way. But
by this point we understand that this child is more than capable of taking care
of herself. David, maybe not so much. The girl tells David her name is Sarah,
but this is likely a lie.
There is something transgressive and unpleasant in the idea
of an infant who is so self-sufficient, manipulative, poised as a predator.
There is something deeply suspect about the adult males who take her under
their wing. The novel’s brutal climax is a relief in a way, restoring a kind of
natural order and justice, a punishment by proxy of men who hurt little girls.
But nothing about this novel is easy to understand. Even the
title, which Gransden claims to have picked at random, is a word shuttered
inside its own referents. Anemogram: that which is recorded by an anemograph.
Anemograph: a self-recording anemometer. Self-recording, a self recording
itself, itself recorded… it is a fitting title, for we come to see that the
self being recorded in this story is itself recorded by another self, a Tinker
who tells tales and moves the world.
Yet for all this mystery and ambiguity, the novel pushes
forwards with a fierce narrative drive towards its awful, inevitable climax and
its gripping denouement. There is a gradually deepening sense of horror as the
story twists our sympathies and allegiances in unpredictable directions.
Gransden holds out answers, then rips them away, leaving the reader effectively
stranded and vulnerable in a world made alien and weird.
There is a deep concern with the relationship between
human-made and natural environments. The characters move around the edges of
the countryside, where building sites encroach upon the woods, and trees are
staked through with metal. These liminal settings are key to the novel’s
unsettling atmosphere; a Macdonald’s car park or a transport cafe are places steeped
in weirdness, a sense of dislocation. Sarah longs for the woods, to be
engrossed in the wild minutiae of the undergrowth. In some way, it is as if she
has sprung up from these edgelands, a vessel for the battle between humans and
nature. Again, the title may – or may not – provide a clue.
One thing is certain, and that is Rebecca Gransden‘s superlative and thrilling prose. It is mesmerising to read, hypnotic and terrifying. Gransden spins out webs of delicate beauty, then drops in a hungry spider. She is fearless and compelling. anemogram is a uniquely weird novel, which leaves the reader unsettled, excited, and full of questions. Highly recommended.
Happy book birthday to me! This House of Wounds is officially alive as of today. In book world, a book lives before it is officially born, so THOW has been read and reviewed all over the place already, but it’s still exciting to say, it’s here! You can buy it as much as you like now!
This weekend will see Edinburgh’s inaugural CYMERA Festival, which celebrates science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. Absolutely tonnes of exciting authors will be there, taking part in various events – interviews, panels, workshops, quizzes, readings. I’ll be doing a workshop on Sunday morning called “Writing the Body” and the rest of the weekend I’ll be drifting around, so please come and say hello.
On July 13, I’ll be attending Edge Lit in Derby – possibly the UK’s friendliest convention! It’s a wonderful day with loads of interesting stuff to do. There’s going to be a small, very unofficial launch of THOW along with Laura Mauro’s collection, SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP, so look out for that. We will whisper the details in your ear.
Finally, the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted a note in the current Interzone, to the effect that my novella “honeybones” is to be out soon as a TTA Press title. I have a lot to say about this novella; writing it was one of the strangest, most intense experiences of my life. Watch this space for news on that.
The Migration tells the story of teenage Sophie as she finds herself in the midst of family and global turmoil. Her little sister Kira has been diagnosed with an immune disorder which is mysteriously spreading among children and young people. Her best chance of treatment is in Oxford, England – thousands of miles from their Toronto home. For any teenager, being uprooted and moved across the world would be hard, and Sophie is no exception. She’s dealing with all the usual teenage angst over friendships, relationships, family tensions, and fears for the future. But as the immune disorder spreads, the world’s waters rise, and society begins to break down, she finds herself on a precipice. Solid ground is rapidly crumbling beneath her feet as first her family and then the entire world falls apart.
There are many migrations in this novel. Sophie’s migration from childhood to maturity provides the fierce narrative drive of the story. But there is a corresponding migration from order to chaos as the world rapidly changes. There are echoing migrations in every element of this story: from Canada to England, from health to illness, from ignorance to knowledge, from grief to acceptance, from life to death and from death to something beyond. The novel is masterful in its deep structure, building a sense of utter inevitability and verisimilitude from its underlying complexity. There is nothing implausible in the way Sophie is confronted with the facts of her new life, and no leap of faith is needed to believe in the unfolding of global events. It is all too real. The difficulty is believing that it could happen in any other way, although there are many in denial, such as Sophie’s mother and others who struggle to let go of the idea that everything will be alright, that order will be restored. It won’t be, and it is the children who grasp this first and bravely lead the way into a new kind of living.
There is hope in this book, magic and beauty. Helen Marshall’s prose is transparently clear and precise, effortlessly creating tension, humour, sorrow and fear, and playing each off against the others in a thrilling symphony of emotion and empathy. At the novel’s climax, a crescendo of glittering prose lifts us into a soaring and expansive sky. Marshall is a writer who can break your heart, and mend it again, and leave you dazzled, gazing out at her beautiful, broken universe.
The Migration is a serious, powerful novel, which confidently transcends the many genres that inform it – thriller, horror, science fiction, and fantasy, to name but a few. Helen Marshall has combined the personal and political in a compelling novel that is as thought-provoking as it is thrilling. Memorable and moving, deeply intelligent, and steeped in compassion, The Migration is a remarkable debut by an exceptionally talented author. Highly recommended.
Once upon a time, longer ago than I’d care to admit, I attended a writing course at a local college. I was fresh out of university at the time and I was settling in to my first honest-to-god actual job at an online bookshop.
“You’ll never have to buy another book,” I was told during the interview. As you can imagine, I tested this hypothesis thoroughly until the first dot com bubble burst.
Back then, I lived in a shared house with my
own room. I even had my own computer, a big unwieldy thing that wheezed when it
accessed the internet. It had a heavy CRT monitor that took twenty minutes to
warm up and hummed like a microwave once it had.
The first assignment in the
writing class was one of those whimsical ones designed to break the ice and
warm people up. We were told to write a poem about an animal we identified
with. Then we had to read it to the class.
You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I wrote. What I do remember is that I chose a sloth as the animal, and that the poem included the following couplet:
I would write down what’s in my head, Were my computer closer to my bed.
Being in a relationship with another writer is remarkable and privileged thing. I suspect, during the years we’ve spent together, I’ve learned more about putting pen to paper than any number of college courses could have taught me. Half our conversations seem to be workshopping one thing or another. It goes both ways and it’s weird and lovely and fizzes with a sort of mad, infuriating invention.
Sometimes I wake up in the
morning and Helen’s just lying there waiting for me to stir.
“Listen,” she says before I can
rub the sleep out of my eyes. “How about if–“
And she’s off. An idea has struck
her, a broken bit of a dream that woke her up and suddenly that irritating bit
of the story she had been working on makes some kind of sense. She’s not after
my opinion, exactly, she’s just saying it out loud, cementing it into something
real, testing to see if it flies.
Sometimes I wake and she’s already up. Bedside light on, she’s reading a book about brutalist Communist architecture or Siegfried and Roy or paging through an article about a very specific kind of sentient sludge that might prosper on Mars.
Sometimes she’s already on her
“Hey,” she says, when I wake up.
“Are you going to the cafe today?”
I started writing in cafes when I had a day job. Since I was laid off, I’m now freelance, which on good days means I’m absurdly, stressfully busy and on bad days feels like a word invented by people who don’t want to admit they’re unemployed.
Before that, I worked for various
small publishing companies, aid organisations and one online bookshop — office
jobs, the sort of which I always swore I’d never settle for, invariably located
in awkward parts of town.
I realised early on that the only way I would get time to write anything for myself was to actively put aside time to do so. So, I set my alarm forward an hour and stopped off in a cafe on the way to work each morning.
This way, five days a week, I had
one hour a day to write. It worked. I got used to getting up early, used to
leaving when the morning was still fresh and brisk, used to getting into work a
little bit late and a little bit spent.
In the cafes, I set myself rules. Whatever I write is allowed to be rubbish. If I don’t write anything, that’s okay too. On some days, I can rattle through a thousand words; on others, I can only manage twenty. Sometimes I’ll just revise something I’ve written the day before and on many occasions I’ll just stare at a blank page and that’s fine because I know I’ll be back the next day, same time, same place, and maybe I’ll do better then.
I don’t know if it was because I
became invested in this routine — because it started working for me — that I
now have difficulties writing at home and I envy those who can.
The house has too many other
distractions. There are other things I should be doing and the things I
absolutely shouldn’t be doing seem too easy to waylay me. Being freelance means
that technically I have the time to write from home — it’s where I do all of
my design work after all, and given that the price of all those posh Americanos
start to stack up, economically it would be a sound idea. But when I try
writing in the house, I feel I should be doing my design work instead,
something that will help pay the rent.
Interlude: There was a time, a few years ago, when I did try and write from home. I ignored the cafes and got up early to work in the kitchen instead. For a time, I thought it was going to work. It felt like a stubborn attempt to realign the routine that I realised I had locked myself in to, the same way that I had taught myself to get up early in the first place.
A few months before this experiment, Helen had moved into the shared house I was living in. After a while, she would hear me get up in the morning and she would come down to get a coffee. We’d end up chatting instead and I would get no writing done at all.
One morning, she came down and
asked me if I wanted to go on a date. She just came out with it as she was
topping up her coffee cup.
You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I said in reply. What I do remember is that it included the following couplet:
kjhafdkj kjalsdk jf;alskjf a klajsdhfl kajsdh; kjfas!!!!!!!!!!!
Those who know how I usually
ration my use of exclamation marks can probably appreciate how that might sound
My problem with working in cafes is
that I’ve always thought that people who write in cafes are wankers. This is
obviously grossly unfair, but it’s a prejudice that, once fostered, needed time
and effort to disabuse.
I am now one of those wankers and
I’m mostly at peace with it.
I know there are some who will go
to the same cafe day in day out, set up their little offices and block an
entire table for the mornings with a peculiar sort of pride, but for the
longest time, I found the whole thing acutely embarrassing and rather precious.
Maybe this is why so many of my stories end up being about the horrors of
social awkwardness in public places. They all stem from everyday cafe punters
seeing me in the corner, back against the wall so no-one can see I’m trying to
write dialogue rather than a business email, crouched and reddening behind my
I used to have a rule that as
soon as the cafe staff knew what I was going to order before I said it out
loud; as soon as I became a regular, I had to move to another cafe and
never go back there again under any circumstances. In the last town we
lived in, I got through eleven cafes that way, so in some ways it’s a good
thing we ended up moving or I’d have probably run out.
This complex has mostly passed.
I’ve now resigned myself to
returning to the same couple of cafes each morning. I plug in my headphones and
put on something wordless and noisy, not to block out the sound of the cafe so
much as to augment it. Today, I’m listening to Treetop Drive by Deathprod and
Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never. They’re an unholy racket to a lot of
people, I suspect, a weirdly melodic white noise that makes the cafe around me
sound as though its glitching.
Even though my time is mostly my
own these days, I still find I can only manage an hour or so in the cafe each
morning before I feel like I should be somewhere else, doing something else.
The pressure to get some work done that will actually pay has a tendency to
cloud over everything else and I pack up my things and surrender the table to
I go for a short walk, try and
straighten out whatever it was I was working on, trying to rationalise how and
what it was for, and hoping to figure out a hook that will help me get started
the following day.
Then, I go home.
On some days, during the holidays
or on her writing days, Helen is exactly where she was when I left in the
morning. She’s in her office, her computer on her lap, the cup of coffee I
brought her that morning now cold on the bedside counter.
She looks up and smiles when I
“Listen,” she says, her eyes bright. “How about if–“
Malcolm Devlin is the author of the critically acclaimed and award nominated short story collection, “You Will Grow Into Them” and many other things. You can track him down here.
My boyfriend (the brilliant Malcolm Devlin*) describes my writing space as “paradise”—particularly when I kick him out of it in the morning so I can write. Which is to say, I write mostly in bed, mostly in pyjamas, surrounded by piles of book. Despite what he says, I suspect this practice is neither paradise for my book nor good for my soul but it seems to be working at the moment. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit over the last ten years, it’s been ages since I had something like a formal office. I do have one where I work at Anglia Ruskin University, but because I share it with two other colleagues, it’s more of a meeting place than a space for deep concentration. I’ve had to become quite good at adapting myself to wherever I am. I often try out different writing areas to help me break out of various ruts: editing at the kitchen table, rereading and redrafting from my couch, writing by hand in the back garden. But the bed seems to be my preferred place at the moment.
And if you’re feeling sympathetic to poor Malcolm, please note that I gave him the office for his design work. Also, those are his beautiful feet in the picture—his feet, my thumb. (This will be the title of the next short story I write.)
This is where I finished the editing of The Migration, my debut novel which has just launched from Titan in the UK. As my first full-length novel, it was an exercise in stamina that required repeated redrafting. Much of that I did in this bed, between the hours of four and eight in the morning before I went in to the university. I’m proudest of the process of writing The Migration in large part because it challenged me to keep going even when I had completely lost confidence in myself. Sometimes you feel proudest of the stories which come out easily but I find myself wanting to focus on the ones that take real effort.
I don’t have a set routine per se
because my schedule changes so much. What I’ve found is that I write best first
thing in the morning. So I try to schedule my day—where possible—to give myself
a couple of free hours before I check my e-mail or my social media. Whatever I
start doing while I’m drinking my coffee is what I’ll end up doing for the
first half of the day. If I can make that writing then I’m a happy camper. When
I actually sit down to write, I tend to start off by reading something written
by someone else for the first twenty minutes, largely to quiet my brain and to
begin to get into the rhythm of writing. Poetry works best for this, I find,
because it is imagistic and the language is so condensed. Currently I’m reading
Simon Perril’s lovely book Archilochus on
the Moon which is both on-target enough for my current novel about travel
to Mars, yet oblique enough that it doesn’t feel like research. Quite often I
read until I find myself wanting to write something new of my own down. Other
times, once I feel in the groove then I’ll go back and reread and lightly edit
what I wrote in my last session. If I hit a wall, then I either go back to reading
or I try to do something physical but not brain-intensive (like cleaning or
going for a walk) so I can distract myself while my subconscious turns the
problem over in search of a solution.
My biggest distraction from writing is
the massive, ever-present to-do list in the back of my head. When I wake up my
impulse is to sort through the small tasks that I find slightly scary—like
e-mailing people—so that I don’t need to think about them anymore. But I’ve
found this is a mistake because if I start by doing those tasks, then I seldom
come back to writing later in the day. I’ve found the trick is to put my
writing first and add anything worrying me to an on-going digital to-do list.
That seems to give me permission to forget about it for a bit.
I find music with lyrics of any sort to be a massive distraction. I did write one short story while listening to the same song over and over and over again until the lyrics became so rote they seemed like white noise.
Sometimes writing just flows out of you
and it feels effortless. When I’m in the “zone” I feel as if I’m entertaining
myself, surprisingly myself, making myself laugh. A lot of writers talk about
this feeling and it can be a rush. But there are other aspects of writing I
enjoy as well including the careful editing that puts paragraphs in the right
order and clarifies sentences. But the greatest part of writing, I’ve found, is
the permission it gives me to be myself in the fullest way possible, to value
the unique perspective I have on the world. When people tell me I’m a bit
weird—which happens all the time—I
don’t see it as a problem anymore. The weirdness is me. It’s what I’m here for.
The least enjoyable part of writing is
not writing. I get antsy if I don’t manage to write for three days. I get antsy
if I try to write and I don’t get
anywhere. Mostly I find that the anxieties and experiences of writing that I
see in my students are the same anxieties I still have whenever I’m trying to
write. They think getting published will solve the problem for them. It doesn’t,
not really. The only thing experience really teaches you is that there are good
writing days and bad writing days. Bad writing days are part of the process.
Don’t beat yourself up when they happen.
I’ve started work on another novel called The Floating City, which is something of a ghost story set on Mars about the processes of colonization and the unforeseen impact we can have on an environment. It’s an attempt at something closer to science fiction than I’ve really done before and so it’s been more research-intensive—or rather, research-intensive in a different way than my previous books. But it’s challenging me to learn new skills and that’s never a bad thing. If you happen to know anything about sentient sludge, please get in touch!
[*Malcolm Devlin is next week’s escapee.]
Helen Marshall is the World Fantasy Award winning author of two short story collections. Her writing has received critical acclaim far and wide, including from author Neil Gaiman. Helen’s excellent debut novel, The Migration, is available now. You can find out more about Helen here.
this: it used to be my dining room, then it became my Dad’s room when he lived
with us for a while in 2016-17, then it became my dog, Rufus’, room. Rufus now
allows me to work there in return for snacks, unconditional love and frequent
walks out. And more snacks.
As rooms go, it’s like a box of memories. It’s in the quietest part of my house and looks out over my (hideously messy) garden. There’s a flat attached to my house that I used to use as my workplace, but I think I prefer this room. It still has pictures of my Dad on the wall, it still has his set of drawers and some of his books, and it still has some of the ornaments he kept to remind him of my mum. It also has three huge bookcases full of some of my books, then there’s my piano, clarinet and my father-in-law’s old harmonica because every now and then I (quite literally) have to burst into tune, because writing is an intense business, I find, and it’s essential to lift yourself out of these other worlds you’re creating, especially if, like mine, they’re a bit…dark. On the subject of music, I’m interested in people who can work with music going on in the background. I can’t. I’ve tried, but it makes me itch, music, sometimes, when I’m working. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been inspired by music, and I think of myself as a musician of sorts, but NOT WHILST I’M WRITING, THANK YOU.
Rufus won’t mind me saying that, though I love him (unconditionally, remember) he sometimes smells a little…doggy… so I’m a sucker for a scented candle, or two, or three, and because he’s a very good listener, he often works (unpaid) as my audience.
Shall we talk about writing routine? In the past, every day, I have done this: woken up at 5am; written until 7.30am; taken Rufus for a walk; gone for a run; answered emails, dealt with admin, worked on some projects I’m involved with and worked on my PhD; written some more; taken Rufus for another walk: watched Netflix; read; slept. Productive stuff, that. But lately I’ve been doing some lecturing at the University of Wolverhampton, which has included (deep breath) preparing lectures, and (look away now) marking papers. Look closely at the picture there. See my laptop? See all that paper underneath my laptop? Marking. Or rather, not-yet-marked papers. So, I put aside two days of the week for lecturing stuff, I take one day off completely and the rest is the above routine, otherwise, I confess, I get no writing done at all. Walking Rufus is a great way of clearing my head, I’ve found – in fact, I’ve always found walking a great mind-clearer, so, actually, I see that as part of my writing process.
In the past, I’ve been massively distracted by social media. I mean, what is it about Facebook that sucks your life away? I’ve learnt to compartmentalise that, I think, and to use it, for inspiration. I mean, have you read some of the stuff people put on there? Trauma after trauma.
Which brings me to what I’m working on just now. I made a vow that I’d write more short stories this year, and have had one published with Fictive Dream, and another due to be published with The Incubator. I’m involved in a couple of academic projects. One is research into smells and memory, the other is my PhD on Psychogeography and Black Country fiction. I’m basically a geeky type I suppose, so these give me massive pleasure. I’m also involved in two other projects, one is a documentary film about the Black Country and the other is awaiting funding for a ‘Psychogeographic Walk & Talk’ down the Birmingham Canal. And I’m working on my third novel, which may or may not be called God’s Country. Possibly not. I haven’t yet decided, but I had to call the file something. It’s a dark one, set on a farm in the Black Country and it’s developing in an interesting way. So, back to it. Actually, I really should be marking those papers…
Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a Black Country legend and the author of two outstandingly excellent novels, The Black Country and Gamble, both available from Salt. She has a weebly website here.
I moved into my new flat two days ago. My own space, for the first time in my life! (I’m 51). I’m now overlooking a street in the middle of Penzance and already feel settled. My new space is going to be very productive. I need to get a higher desk because I have to stand up to type, but if I’m writing longhand (I always draft longhand) then I can do it anywhere. I still prefer to be at home. I feel centred in Penzance and I badly needed to move back here. Having my own place means I can write at any time, night or day, and won’t be bothering anyone. As you can see, it’s sparse but it’s early days – the vibe’s right now.
Writing has always been quite chaotic, I think. The best way for me to write at home is to leave my notebook out and come and go to it throughout the day. I can’t concentrate for very long at a time. But I often sit in a cafe for an hour or so, writing and drinking coffee. The launderette is also a great place to write. A lot of work gets done in those times. I’ve also written when I’ve been away from home, either alone or with a partner. To me it flavours the writing to be elsewhere, although I wonder if readers notice a difference between sections written in different places?
I usually listen to music when I write; although it slows me down, it’s worth it for the results. Gazelle Twin, Coil, Kate Bush, Throbbing Gristle, Diamanda Galas – all get me into the strange frame of mind I like to write in. Sometimes the right music brings on an altered state – I want my writing to be part of a magickal process; me being changed by what I write and the writing guided by whatever’s been brought on by the music.
Anything can distract me from writing. Tiredness, the internet, the cat who lives in the house opposite staring at me from its window, the urge for coffee and biscuits. Any excuse, eh? All down to the fear of failure, that I won’t be able to come up with anything of any use – but perhaps I need to get in that state to get working.
Everything affects one’s writing, of course, but a couple of massive events in the last few weeks – the ending of a 15 year relationship with someone who I thought was my Life Partner, two house moves and the realisation that I probably have Aspergers – will no doubt have a huge impact on what and how I write. I’m interested to see where it takes me! The Asperger’s thing has actually been liberating – I don’t have to look to be ‘fixed’ anymore from a lifetime of horrible symptoms. I just need to understand my different wiring, and I’m embracing it. Luckily for me, I have a bunch of wonderful friends who also embrace my oddness.
At the moment I’m working on some fiction – A Cure For The Common Cold, which explores my obsession with 1970s weird phenomena and has a very powerful woman at its centre. I’m also working on lots of non-fiction – editing Cunt-Struck, an article about lesbian themes in current cinema releases, and various other bits of writing and art for Dykes Ink, my new ‘zine.
The last year or so has been massive in terms of creativity and I just can’t stop.
The photo shows the table in the coffee shop
where I wrote most of the first drafts of my last four books, give or take. I’ve
really enjoyed the juxtaposition between this quiet space and the places I’ve
ended up on paper. The new book being published this year – Greensmith – has some really strange
adventures in it, and I like the idea that this was the unlikely starting point
for all that. Writing is just so weird, isn’t it? The unmatching interior and
I don’t have a dedicated writing space, but I like lurking in the coffee shop in my village for first drafts. Sometimes I stay home and get set up at the kitchen table or by the sofa, or out in the garden if the weather’s good. I’m not keen on the idea of needing to be in a certain place to write. At one point I set up a permanent desk next to a bookshelf holding many of my favourite books, thinking it might inspire me, but it made me feel a bit presumptuous, so I gave that up.
Buses and trains are good for getting ideas down. I’ve written in lots of places and people are usually very good at letting me get on with it. Quite a few people have their own routines which involve my local café, and we tend to nod to each other and then settle down to work. I did have a running good-natured feud over a particular table a few years ago – in a different coffee shop – with a man who was writing his dissertation and had taken a shine to the table I also preferred at the time. Then I moved away. He might still be there, victorious, wondering if he drove me away. Or maybe not. I hope he got his dissertation done.
At home, if there’s housework or whatever to be done, then I can find it difficult to settle down and write, which I suppose is why I tend to go out. The internet really doesn’t help in some ways, but if I’m in a distractible mood then it doesn’t matter if my phone is within reach or not; I can end up ripping napkins into shapes or doodling for hours. Practically every page of every notebook contains doodles. It’s fine. I tend to think of it as part of the process. I like the very productive days but I try not to obsess over finding them.
I start with a longhand first draft, usually written in the
mornings. Then I type up in the afternoons – not the thing I’ve written that
morning, but something else. If I’m writing a novel then I’ll start typing up
the first bits once I’m about 10,000 words in, for instance, to always keep a
bit of distance. Or I’ll always have a short story idea on the go. I might go
back to writing in longhand in the evening if I’m really grabbed by something,
but I prefer to read later on in the day.
A bit of background noise helps (thank you, other patrons of aforementioned coffee shop). If I’m at home then I usually listen to jazz or classical music, or soundtracks. Music without words. So far this year I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson and Monteverdi and the soundtrack to Phantom Thread (by Jonny Greenwood) a lot.
When it’s going well I love writing a first draft in which I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. There’s a time when I get past the distractions and there’s a background hum in the coffee shop, or some good music playing quietly at home, and an hour or two pass so quickly. Those experiences don’t always lead to the best prose, to be honest, and quite often they need a fair bit of editing to get them right, but I think they often retain a raw excitement for me. Maybe it doesn’t come across to the reader, but I can still feel it when I read them back.
The worst bit is the waiting. Any time when I get to write or
edit, I’m pretty happy because I’m back into control of the prose. But waiting
for edits or feedback to come from other people, wondering if they’ll spot some
fatal flaw that makes the whole thing fall flat, leaves me a wreck. As soon as
I get the feedback I feel better, even if there are significant problems. Then
I can crack on with attempting to do something about it.
I’ve started work on a new thing which I think might become a novel and it’s got a hint of Daphne Du Maurier to it in my mind, which is why I’m listening to the Phantom Thread soundtrack a lot. Am I the only one who thinks that film has got a strong Du Maurier influence to it? I loved it. I’m hoping I manage to do this idea justice, but only time and lots of cups of coffee will tell.
Aliya Whiteley is the author of acclaimed and award-winning novels and short stories. Her latest novel, The Loosening Skin, is available now from all the best book suppliers and her blog is here.