masters at work

Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.

In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.

Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.

Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lats the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.

That is why it needs calm.

There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac’s age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French revolution.

One can tell by the taste whether  cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one’s head calmly, without hurry.

And it will do what it is supposed to do.

From Imperium, by Rsyzard Kapuściński.


The Mythic Delirium anthology gets a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and my story gets a mention. Pretty sweet. Go me!

By the way, where’s the apostrophe in Publishers Weekly? They don’t seem to have one. I would put it after the s, personally. Makes sense to me. Or they could add a verb… Publishers Weekly Take a Bath. Publishers Weekly Destroy Incoming Meteors and Save the World.

Well, anyway. They’re publishers. I’m sure they’ve thought about it.

there will be hummus

I might be middle-class now, but I didn’t go to university until I was twenty-four, and up until then I had never eaten an olive. I didn’t even know what hummus was. It was pretty shocking to get to university (actually the former Brighton Poly) and see sports cars in the students’ car park, parked there by witless, entitled, eighteen-year-olds. Their parents were paying their rent, too, whereas I ended up with a full time job on top of a grant and a loan and a massive overdraft that it took me ten years to pay off, just to get by. I thought university was going to be a cross between a tripped-out day at Glastonbury and French cafe society of the 1920s, and that I would therefore fit right in, what with my love of night-long intellectual discussions, my penchant for recreational drugs, and my rapidly worsening mental illness. In fact, those things – along with being fairly old and not knowing what hummus was – pretty much made university life harder than I ever expected it to be.

I didn’t do a creative writing degree. I didn’t even study English. If I had known I was going to be a writer, maybe I would have done, but at that time I believed that I couldn’t be a writer. All writers were middle-class white men who ate olives every day and bathed in hummus. Writers were not people like me – women, women who had grown up eating pot noodles, women who couldn’t speak French. It took me a long time and a big leap in confidence to recognise that those weren’t actual entry requirements (unless you were French, which I wasn’t.)  I could be a writer if I wanted to be. No one was even trying to stop me!

So I did become a writer, and for the past dozen years or so, I have been a writer. But I want to be a better writer, and a more successful writer. And I want writing to be the centre of my life, not just something I do in my spare time. So, in September, I’m going to do an MA in creative writing at Edinburgh Napier University. If you google the course, you’ll see why I want to do it. The focus is on professionalism. There’s no sitting in a circle. It’s all dirty work. And it’s in Edinburgh, which is about as far away from my family as I can get without a passport.

I don’t need a course to learn how to write better. No one does. You learn by reading and writing. But this is an opportunity to make a massive commitment to my writing career, and I’m pretty excited about it. Big change is a big, good thing. Bring it on!

the long haul

I was talking on the phone today with a writer I’ve been mates with for a while. We were talking about how we might find ways to work together in the long-term future.  He mentioned how we were both in it for ‘the long haul’, having first met around ten years ago, when he was starting out as a writer, and I had been going for a few years. (And thought I knew it all. Wry smile.)

It was a reminder of just what it takes to be a writer. It’s a lifetime commitment. When you first start out, you think you’re going to get somewhere quickly. When you sell your first story or make your first film, you think, this is it! I’m on my way! But the reality is that it’s just a first step in your career, and it takes many many such steps to build a viable life around writing.

Often it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. You can’t always maintain the momentum you build up with sales and stories and progress. Sometimes a big project can consume months and years. Sometimes you make a wrong turn, get involved with something that’s not right for you, have to backtrack and start all over again. There are periods of time when nothing seems to move at all, when you feel like you’re back at the beginning again, when you can’t see the progress you’ve made.  It’s possible to lose faith, to lose confidence, to lose support from people around you.

Through all of this, you just keep going. I don’t know why. Maybe, sometimes, you keep going just because you’ve got too much invested in it to stop. Maybe, other times, you feel this is what gives your life meaning. Sometimes there is joy in it. Often, you feel you are doing it in order to process hard lessons in life. When you stop and think about it, you realise that you do it because you have a passion or a compulsion to move people, the same way you were moved by words and books and images. You don’t do it for money, because there isn’t any. You don’t do it for fame. You don’t do it to see your name in print. The external rewards are too fleeting, too arbitrarily given, to be motivating in the long term. You do it because it’s who you are.

No writer worth their salt needs to be told not to give up. But we do need support. We need support from other writers who are also in it for the long haul; to be reminded that it is a long haul; that it is, in fact, a lifetime commitment that probably won’t ever bring massive worldwide success, but will keep giving all the secret, little, brilliant things it gives, for as long as we keep paying our dues.

what I’ve been up to

My ‘to do’ list is getting scarily long. On it are the names of several people to whom I owe a letter or a phone call or a visit, or all three. If you are one of those people, I’m sorry for being so out of touch. I still love you, even if I don’t answer your texts and emails. And please get a twitter account so I can ignore you there as well.

That is the problem with writing – all free time becomes writing time and any non-writing time is usually spent staring into space, thinking about my imaginary friends. So it’s not like I’ve got anything to talk about. My friends tell me about their kids, their social lives, the funny things that have happened to them – but when they ask me what’s new, I haven’t got an answer. Do they want to know about the inner workings of my mind? Do they want to hear about the weeks I’ve spent trawling a completely imaginary world where only bad things happen? I somehow doubt it.

Of course, this all sounds like a very good excuse for being boring. If I weren’t so lazy, I could make things up. “What have you been up to?” My friends would ask. And I would tell them all about the talking animals which meet outside my house most evenings, smoking cigarettes, playing cards, and arguing about the X Factor. (This is the sort of thing I often say to small children, just for the reward of seeing their faces light up with that special “you are a total weirdo” look.)

Must do better. Now back to the scrivenings.



Just realised I hadn’t blogged today! Am fixing that right now. Time has just got away from me – was teaching this morning, then spent three hours planning lessons and another two hours catching up on other paperwork, and now I am hungry and I still have to do at least an hour of proper writing… So, yikes all around then.

What I want to know is, how do you fit writing in with your other work? It seems to me that you can be a full-time writer if your partner supports you, or you have some kind of independent means, or you are writing bestsellers. The rest of us need jobs. So how do you fit writing in? Get up early and do it before work? Stay up late? Sacrifice something else?

I try to write every day, even if I only manage 15 minutes. Some days, even that seems hard to achieve.

How about you?

er… thanks

Actually I’m a bit embarrassed by how kind and congratulatory people have been about the Bridport shortlist thingy. I was rather excited about it, it’s true. But in the cold light of day I see that all I really did was lose a competition and I’m not sure that this deserves as much praise as I’ve got. Although it is nice. Very nice. Thank you, nice people.

It has all made me think a bit, though. I think it was about 8 years ago that I wrote my first short story. By which I mean, a story that I drafted, revised, edited, completed, won a competition with and finally sold. (It was made into a short film – not a very good one.) Eight years is not that long, in writing terms. And a lot of that time I spent not really writing, or even trying to write. So, to put all this in perspective, I’m still just a beginner.

But I’m ready to start getting really serious now. What that means in terms of how I organise and plan my writing life, I’m not quite sure yet. But I’m feeling steely and determined, which will probably help me work it out.