the best bit

The absolute best bit about writing is when you get a lovely new copy of a book containing one of your stories. There are other good bits, but this has got to be the best. It never gets boring.

It adds to the brilliance when you are sharing covers with some flipping amazing writers, like Priya Sharma, Nina Allen, and Carole Johnstone, to name but a few.

You can buy this book here or here or in a good bookshop.

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.

starred

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.

teaching vs writing

Teaching and writing go together like cake and icing, like chips and vinegar, like cheese and jam. We writers are drawn to teaching for good reasons: we get to talk about books all day, we get nice long holidays, we get the sort of autonomy and independence we awkward types love. In my workroom there are two writers, me included, amongst the staff. The staff member I replaced is also a writer, who left to pursue her successful work in poetry.

But it’s not easy. Stephen King says teaching “sucks away the creative juices and slows production.” It’s true. Writing novels is slow work, anyway. But when you’re teaching all day, coming home and cranking out a couple of hundred words might take you hours. I sometimes find myself just gazing at the screen as the letters dance around. Sometimes I type with my eyes closed. (Free advice: Anything you write whilst you’re actually asleep is unlikely to be your best work.)

Working full time in any job is demanding, and I don’t think teachers are uniquely hard done by. I’ve worked as a secretary, as a picker in a factory, as a cleaner, a cook, a copywriter, a cold caller. Each of those jobs was hard for different reasons. And I know I’m lucky to have a job which is reasonably well paid and which I enjoy.

But… (you knew it was coming)… but… GOD, is it exhausting, dealing with people all day long. Thinking about what they need from you, what you can do to get through their barriers, what you can do to inspire them, what you can do to help them achieve. Thinking about if you’ve done enough, if you’ve done wrong. Having to summon the patience for dealing with people who, really, really, make you wonder. About their motives, about their personalities. Dealing with the fact that most of the people you work with neither notice nor care about how hard you work or how much of your life you are giving them.

The thing is, when you are a writer, the people that you most want and need to think about are the imaginary people in your head. And those people, your people, get pushed out and squeezed right to the edges as your brain fills up with more and more and more of this everyday crap. You neglect your imaginary people, and you neglect friends and family, too. There’s just not enough time for everyone. You need a bigger brain, to accommodate everything that’s in it.

I’m not going to stop teaching or writing – I can’t afford to give up either. And I don’t know what the solution is, except to just keep trying. Just keep believing that there will come a day when it all falls into place. When all this hard work will pay off.