then we set ourselves on fire

I live in a city where it is considered somewhat normal (even, in some quarters, desirable) to write angry confessional poetry and ‘perform’ it to friends and strangers in pubs. The performance usually consists of attempting to impose some kind of rhythm and meaning on a formless string of half-sentences by way of reading them out in a very silly voice. This display will invariably be followed by gusts of applause from the audience, most of whom are waiting their turn to get up and inflict the very same thing on everyone else.

I once took my friend Katrina Leno to witness this phenomenon in action. Half an hour into the open mic poetry night (an evening I now refer to as The Worst Night of My Life), she texted me: I’m losing the will to live. Five minutes later: I’m seriously thinking about setting myself on fire, just to make it stop.

The funny thing is that Katrina herself is a wonderful, powerful poet. She’s also a fantastic writer of YA fiction (and any other fiction she turns her hand to). Her first novel, The Half-Life of Molly Pierce, is coming out in a matter of weeks. Buy it. And/or enter the free giveaway competition for a chance to win a signed hardback copy plus all sorts of goodies. And don’t be surprised if KL becomes bigger than JK. You can say you heard it here first.


me and mouse.

It was a real thrill to hear Armistead Maupin read from his new novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. In fact, it was spellbinding. It was like being in a room with all his characters, all rolled up into this one extremely funny, lovable, compassionate, quick-witted, joyfully acerbic man.

Maupin’s books are a roly-poly mix-up of Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Jackie Collins and a weekend at Burning Man. With their silly, sometimes preposterous, plots (it was funny to hear him talk about the plots he discarded along the way – glitter killer, anyone?) and campy subculture referents, the Tales of the City novels might have been too outrageous to become popular. But the books succeed and endure because they are about people – ordinary, dysfunctional, flawed, funny people – and Maupin makes us care about them.

It was clear to see from the audience reaction just how much Maupin’s stories matter to people, and what a difference he has made in their lives. It’s fantastic to be reminded what it is that writers actually do, and why we cannot survive without them. Writers like Armistead Maupin make the world a better place. Even if all we had to thank him for was the ‘twat cosy’ (which reduced a 300-strong audience to tears of helpless laughter) it would be a brilliant, unforgettable contribution.



well jel

Lots of folks lately writing about professional jealousy. I don’t suffer from it and I’m not just saying that. Jealousy happens when you are not living up to your own expectations and having fun with your own writing. Then you start to look at other people and wonder what they’ve got that you haven’t. If you stay focused on your own writing, you don’t have this problem. Easy as that!

Of course, it’s never really quite as easy as that. Writing is such a complicated and fragile thing. Given the choice, the last thing we would do is commercialise and monetise something so fundamental to our wellbeing. It’s a skewiff, wonky old world, and if you get  wound up from time to time it’s hardly surprising. In fact, it would be bizarre if you didn’t. A lot of writers are a bit bonkers in the noo noo and that’s to be expected.

But. There are things worth getting worked up about, and then there are other things. How well or badly another writer is doing falls firmly into the category of ‘other things’. It’s a waste of time and energy and creativity we could be directing towards our work.

Writers don’t always like one another, for a variety of reasons, but we at least ought to aim for mutual support and appreciation wherever possible. Indulging in jealousy, rivalry, and competition is negative and counter-productive. Far better to make friends with people who may be able to help you out someday, than to be a git to someone who could one day be in a position to crush you underfoot. And there’s simply no point in wasting time fuming about another writer’s success when you could be sitting down and getting on with your own work. Innit.

the next big thing

The fantastically talented Priya Sharma tagged me in this blog-chain, and I now have to subject you to my thoughts about my own brilliance or otherwise in the form of a handy Q & A.

What is the working title of your next book/short story/project?
The Midnight Orchestra.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was reading Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia, and realised that I have had what he would call musical hallucinations since childhood. It inspired me to write a couple of short stories about musicians and people in complicated relationships with music. Then I decided it would be cool to write a novel that was a kind of musical detective story.
What genre does your book fall under?
Musical detective story not working for you?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
One of the characters could be played by Tilda Swinton. I also have roles for three or more handsome moustachioed fellows. Must be able to brood and look troubled.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Yeah… Good question.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I doubt that I’d self-publish. It might be a good way of going about things at some point, but for a beginning writer, it’s hard to build a career without representation and a publishing deal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I ain’t finished it yet. Give me a chance! Jeez, Louise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
No idea. Let me finish writing it, then you can read it and tell me which of your favourite authors I ripped off.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Oliver Sacks.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The first edition will have a secret compartment inside, filled with jam.

Now for the tagging. I’ve picked on Henry Szabranski and Gio Clairval – two members of my secret BRILLIANT writing group. There were others I wanted to tag but who were already taken. If you’re reading this and wishing I would have tagged you, let me know. I’ll do it! Anything for you!

disturbed by her song

I am currently reading ‘Disturbed by Her Song’ by Tanith Lee ‘writing as and with Esther and Judas Garbah’. Beautiful, beautiful, as is so much of Lee’s writing. Why this woman doesn’t have a deal with a major publishing house is a total mystery. Thank goodness for small presses such as Lethe Press, who are publishing some of Lee’s considerable back catalogue.

This is the first work of Lee’s I’ve read where she claims to be channelling the stories of two other writers, who in fact are creations of her own imagination. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I’m wondering if I could steal it for my own writing.

What interests me is whether I could imagine or create a writer who is better than me. A writer who is more disciplined, more rigorous, more poetic, more talented than I am. A writer who never gets blocked would be good; someone who thinks nothing of churning out a thousand brilliant words every day. If I could create such a writer in my own imagination, could I then become that writer whenever I needed to? And if I could do that, would I be that writer all the time? Would I ever want to be the writer I am now?

Essentially, I’m wondering if I can create a brilliant writer to murder me and take my place.

Maybe I’m just having a weird day. You should go and buy all Tanith Lee’s books now.

damn the dark, damn the light

Writers love to talk about writing. More than that, they love to talk about writing with other writers. Most of all, they love to give other writers advice about writing. I have some opinions about that.

First, writers who take other writers seriously are fools. All writers are full of shit, especially when it comes to writing.

Secondly, writers who give advice are usually only doing so as a way to avoid the problem of not taking their own advice.

I don’t give advice about writing, mainly because I think it’s pointless. The only knowledge worth having is that which you’ve gained through your own effort and through the long slow process of writing practice. Nothing else will make a difference to you, no matter how wise or insightful it may be. Therefore, in my opinion, seeking and giving advice is a waste of time.

So my advice is to ignore advice and just do whatever suits you, whatever fits in with your routine, whatever works for you personally. As long as you are developing your writing gift, in whatever way you can, then you’re doing all right.

And… that’s all.

five writers with teeth and claws

A few years ago, I became scared that I was losing my lifelong passion for reading. So many mediocre books! So many bad ones…  I threw ‘Atonement’ across the room in disgust. ‘After Dark’ was a yawn fest. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ made me sick with disappointment. It was a dark time in my reading life. I felt that I was falling out of love with the world.

But then I came across these incredible writers, who reached out their claws and ripped out my heart. Monsters. I love them.

1. Kelly Link

If you don’t read Kelly Link, you are missing out on something wonderful. She writes the best short stories in the world.  I discovered Kelly Link at a very strange time in my life. I was trying to write a story called ‘Magic for Beginners’ – a terrible story that had nothing going for it except that great title. One afternoon I wandered into Waterstones where there was a display table full of a book called ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link. I felt the swift punch of fate to my solar plexus. Then I opened the book and started reading a story about a witch who gives birth to a house, and my life changed forever. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kelly Link taught me what a story could be – that it could be so much bigger and stranger than I had ever dared.

2. Rikki Ducornet

Before I read ‘The Butcher’s Tales’, I had no idea that anyone wrote the strange, very short, macabre vignettes that I had been trying to write myself for the past few years. Hers are brilliant little slices of flesh, still bloody, on a white plate. I went on to read her novels, of which ‘Netsuke’ and ‘Gazelle’ are particularly wonderful. Her writing is a knife to the heart. She sees everything. Be very afraid.

3. Kaaron Warren

Dark, dark, dark – they all go into the dark. Not quite sure how Kaaron Warren creates such spectacularly creepy stories that are still utterly involving and engaging. Her novels are diverse in subject matter and setting, but all share the disturbing ability to draw you in, and take you to places you never really wanted to go, but can’t bear to walk away from. Her novel ‘Slights’ has one of the most disturbed/disturbing main characters I’ve ever come across, and yet it is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read. I fear Kaaron Warren may have sold her soul to the devil to pay for her incredible storytelling ability.

4. Rachel Pollack

Many writers attempt to create new fairytales and myths. None, in my opinion, are as successful as Rachel Pollack. Her work as a Tarot reader informs her writing in many strange and unexpected ways. ‘The Tarot of Perfection’ is a collection of beautiful short stories that take the reader deep below the surface of things to explore the secret mysteries of the subconscious. Unmissable.

5. Greer Gilman

No one writes like Greer Gilman. No one else dares. ‘Cloud and Ashes’ is an extraordinary, beautiful book that has drawn comparisons with Shakespeare and James Joyce, amongst others. Read it. That is all.