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how late it was

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

I’ve never grown out of wanting to stay up late. There’s a glamour to the night time, a certain electricity in the air. When I was younger, I liked to stay up all night with my friends. I was always the last to go home or go to sleep. Now, all my friends have grown up, and the last time I stayed up all night I felt horrible the next day, like my body was made of gravel and dirt, and my brain was busy with voices… So I thought I won’t do that again.

I used to like to write at night, because I felt like I had the world to myself. Growing up in a big, loud family, you learn to carve out time, solitude, peace, and then to defend it tooth and nail. I read a lot and was usually able to leave my body and live inside the story. Sometimes I think that I wouldn’t have survived my family at all if it weren’t for books.

Nowadays, night times are not so peaceful. My neighbours disturb me. Living in cities, so close together… I hear them moving around. Their music is intrusive, the boring thump-thump-thump of a bass line.  I want to live somewhere I can hear silence. I want to see stars in the sky at night, and be a little afraid to walk along the path to the water, and stumble, and hear the unearthly cries of the foxes in the woods.

For a long time I’ve been feeling that I want my life to change. But I have not known the shape or way it should change. I don’t want anything, or the things I want are everyday things. To sleep without earplugs. To hear the rain. To spend my time reading and writing. A very simple kind of life. But I’m not a simple kind of person, I’m complicated and full of contradiction. I want courage, is what it is.

 

me and mouse.

Friday, February 14th, 2014

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 succed 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.

 

 

hungry.

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

We’re getting older and we’re starting to feel trapped. We are old women now and we have grey hair and we don’t give a shit about anything. We have been walking in the forest, we have been looking for mushrooms, and slowly the trees have been closing in on us and now we have lost the moon.

It feels like life is very hard now, and getting harder.

We wanted to live as artists but now there is no way. There’s no time for reading and writing, nowhere to stay, no gentle places. The hungry machines come snapping and pull us in by our hair and fingers. We work in tall buildings. We work at contentedness and gratitude, but we are not grateful or content. We are raging, incandescent, furious, terrified that the flickering light will go out before we’ve had our chance to burn.

We are old women and we never married and no one pays our bills. We want to live in the woods, in a small brick cottage. We want to live in a wooden house with chicken legs. We want cats and dogs and secrets. It’s our right, as old unmarried women, to set up house in the deepest part of the forest. It’s our right to be ugly and full of wicked laughter.

But we have been fenced in, we have been surrounded. We are living lives that we never intended.

 

wake up, phil

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

I love the cover art for my story in the current Interzone. Mars, dogs, a secretary, a dream – it’s like the inside of my head fell out and landed on the page. Had some interesting reviews of this – it’s very pleasing when readers understand what you’re trying to do with a story.

 

mountains of the mind

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Here's one that I imagined earlier.

The central premise of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful first book, Mountains of the Mind, is that the mountains we encounter are a strange almalgam of rock, stone, ice and our own imaginations. He suggests that mountains are formed (in some ways) as much by the drift of ideas as by the action of the continents brutally smashing into one another. By way of history he shows how, until the 17th century, Western people experienced mountains as rather ugly, almost a mistake on the part of God. Then Lyell came along and uncovered the deep, deep time of geology, and the mountains became a way to time-travel. And now: majestic, sublime, fearful, they are the places you go when you want to come face to face with your own extinction.

Macfarlane says that the gap between the mountain of one’s imagination, and the real mountain of rock and ice, is often a fatal one.

I think it’s possible to apply this theory to virtually every experience in life. We are always dancing this dance between what is real and what we have constructed in our imaginations. And what is real is also mediated through culture and performance, so as to make us feel that we have closed the gap, that we understand. But nobody understands a mountain. One cannot even see a mountain without the superimposition of one’s memory, ideas, science, visions and dreams layered over it like a transfer.

So it is, I think, with every event of nature, including people. We don’t see each other as we are. We cannot. We cannot see things as they are – there is no such thing-as-it-is. Not for us humans, no. Because we cannot experience anything without first filtering it through our minds, washing it out with soap and water, spinning it into something other. I think that is fundamentally what it is to be human: to impose a narrative upon the world. We turn everything into a story about us.

This gap between things as they really are and things as we believe them to be may be a dangerous one for mountaineers, but for writers, it is the source of something important. Macfarlane himself has written a book that makes use of this very gap, and he has created something that is not a history, nor a memoir, nor a scientific treatise, nor a fiction, but something in between all those things. Something interstitial. Something numinous, and wise, and transporting.

For speculative writers, this gap between what a thing is believed to be, and its true thing-ness, gives rise to what I would call the Weird. The interstitial, the liminal, the estranging, the unfamiliar, defamiliarising, jarring, disturbing… It’s not fantasy or science fiction – it’s not just ‘another world’. It is this world, at an angle. In one sense, it is absolutely as real as reality. But we agree that reality is not really real, not in the sense of things being as they are, and the Weird comes out of that gap between reality and story about reality, and makes the gap visible.

Philip K Dick once said that his project was to explore the question, ‘What is reality?’ In doing so, he had to go very deep into the gaps between things, so much so that he could even be called a fantasist or a madman. For me, this sums up the Weird. It is not an aesthetic, not a genre, even, but a willingness to dwell, imaginatively, in the uncertain gap between fiction and reality.

california

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

When I think of California, I picture a family sitting around a table in a riotous garden. Big avocados and glasses of cold white wine. I think of a friend, a writer, who lives there now. I think of the sea, and mountains, and the sound of car doors slamming. The sun always shining. And I think about Philip K Dick dropping out of… everything. He started writing professionally in 1952. ‘Professionally’ means he made money at it. He wrote a lot of books. People say Philip K Dick wasn’t much of a writer, that his books were pulpy and his prose flat. They are often right. But I always thought he was amazing. I always thought he was a genius.

When I first started reading PKD, no one really gave a fuck about him. That’s changed a bit these days, perhaps thanks to Bladerunner, and thanks to the growing popularity of science fiction in general. I’m not sure that PKD’s work really counts as sci fi, though. A sub-genre, maybe. I guess it doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. It goes along its own weird trajectory – his visions of the future and life on Mars are uniquely flavoured, and more often than not are centred on lonely outsiders who, try as they might, are utterly at odds with the rest of the world, whatever that world may be.

What I like most about Philip K Dick’s books is the instability of reality. In the worlds he creates, the rug can be ripped from under your feet at any time. Time can flip back, turn inside out. You may not be who you think you are. Drugs are doorways into other dimensions. And when you think you are safe, you are not safe. And everything you think you know is an illusion.

If I had to choose one writer who has influenced my writing more than any other, it would be PKD. His themes and ideas are the ones I keep coming back to, over and over, pulling at the threads.

new treasure

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

When I was a kid, I read three or four books a day. I really loved to read. I read every book in the house. Then I read every book in the school library, and then I read every book in the kids’ section at the public library. I got hold of books that were way too old for me – but they didn’t seem to do me any harm, probably because they went right over my head. I had no idea that Henry Miller was even writing about sex, for instance, and I thought that Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward was quite a good story about a man who wasn’t very well.

I’ve slowed down (and wised up?) a bit since then, but still get through two, three or more books a week. Yet it’s increasingly rate for for me to find myself utterly in love with a book.

Then, last weekend, it happened. I was travelling to Birmingham from Edinburgh, a journey of just over four hours. I had my kindle with me and opened a book I’d found whilst browsing online. Four hours later, I’d barely looked out of the window. I had been transported to another world. Yes! That’s what’s supposed to happen! (But it hardly ever does.)

The next day, coming back, I finished the book with three hours of my journey still to go. And then I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done, in all my years of reading, which was to turn immediately back to the beginning and start again.

The book in question is Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. It put me in mind of Louise Erdrich and John Irving, if those two had collaborated on a novel about an intersex baby in a remote and hostile Labrador town.  There were parts of it that I thought were a bit silly and over-simplistic, but the language completely drew me in, and the amazing setting kept me absolutely fascinated. There’s something about cold, harsh landscapes that make them perfect settings for stories about love and family, ritual and weakness. And there’s something wonderful about being shown a whole new world through the pages of a book.

 

the sea in birmingham

Monday, October 14th, 2013

I travelled down to Birmingham this weekend to attend the launch of The Sea in Birmingham, an anthology of short stories set in and around the city.  My story is set around some of the city’s hundreds of miles of canals – we have more canals than Venice! That’s a true fact.

I had thought I wouldn’t be able to go to the launch, due to a lack of funds.  But a kind friend (who prefers to remain anonymous) decided to be a Good Fairy and sent me some cash!  In their words, ‘one of the few perks of being a writer is getting to go to your own book launch.’  I was utterly blown away by this person’s generousity, and hope I repaid it in some measure by going along and having a really fantastic time.

It was wonderful to meet some of the other contributors, including those I’ve chatted with online or admired from afar but never met in person.  The event was in Birmingham’s swanky new library, which is a fine and glamourous place, although I’m pretty sure I did manage to lower the tone at least a little.  There wasn’t much chance to explore, but at one point a few of us broke away from the crowd on the way to the studio theatre and got excitingly lost in the guts of the building.  A kindly lady guided us away from the kitchens and other steamy workings, and back to where we were supposed to be.

We sold a lot of books.  I signed my name on a few of them, and learned that I have absolutely no idea what messages to write.  Even now I am cringing as I recall writing ‘Hope you don’t find any dead bodies in the canal’ on a mate’s copy.  This is clearly an Area for Improvement.

After the launch and a few complimentary glasses of wine, I popped in to another launch – this one for Pigeonwings, a self-published collaborative novel by some members of Birmingham Writers’ Group.  They didn’t have free wine, but they did have free salami and haloes.  A few of us sat at the back of the pub and played a giggly game of consequences.  It was rather like old times.

The Tindal Street antho is on sale through Amazon, and you can buy it here.  I’m only sorry I can’t provide the full Officer-and-a-Gentlewoman experience to everyone who buys a copy.  If you can make it up to Edinburgh, I could probably do you a fireman’s lift.

mythic delirium

Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Mythic Delirium is such a fab name for a literary journal. It’s also a really good name for a medical condition – but probably not a great one for chucking a sickie. “I can’t come in today, I have a bad case of Mythic Delirium. A snake-woman brought me an apple and now I’m on a perilous quest. Probably be okay by Monday.” I mean, try it. It wouldn’t be the most outrageous sickie that anyone’s ever pulled. (One time, a friend of mine couldn’t go to work because she’d painted herself head to toe with orange emulsion some hours previously – there was some pretty far fetched sickie-throwing going on that morning.)

Anyway, I do have a mild case of mythic delirium, as my  story ‘The Art of Flying’ is published in said journal, alongside work by such luminaries as Jennifer Crow and Patty Templeton. It’s another project from the talented Mike Allen, who is also responsible for the brilliant Clockwork Phoenix anthologies.

You can subscribe, or buy a copy for your e-reader, or read some of the stories for free.  Lois Tilton reviewed the issue and described my story as ‘moving but depressing’ – you can judge for yourself, as it is free to read here. And when you’ve finished, you can enjoy yet another example of how not to write an author bio. I do so hate writing those things.

 

responsibility

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

A classroom is not a place to replicate ‘real life’. A classroom is a place where you model equality and justice.

Teaching is not about having specialist knowledge to impart. Teaching is not about imparting knowledge. Teaching is about creating a safe space where people are treated with respect.

Feeling safe and respected is fundamentally necessary if a student is to take risks. An environment that favours competition, sarcasm, mockery, negativity and the replication of social injustices such as sexism, ageism and racism is not an environment in which people will feel able to take risks.

Taking risks (and failing) is the way that we learn.

Teaching is about taking responsibility for creating a space where people can learn.

Teaching is inherently subversive. Not because you are eccentric, or mean, or pushy, or cool, or a genius who loves avant garde ideas and art. But because the act of creating a place of equality and freedom is revolutionary.

This is true of every discipline and subject.  But in the arts, in any subject where students are expected to reveal their own selves and do the incredibly vulnerable thing of letting others see and judge their writing or drawing, then it is true a hundred fold.

The world would be a better place if there were better teachers in it.