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how to make love at the end of the world

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Two Citizens of Nowhere meet in front of a boarded-up shopping centre. He takes her hand and presses it to his heart. She gently touches his face. They share a smile. The giant TV screen floating overhead swoops down and forces them apart. A zoomed-in close-up mouth screams at them, over and over: GRAB HER BY THE PUSSY!

#

He slams his hard-earned money into the gaping slot. Pumps the slick handle urgently, rams the lever stiffly in and out, thrusts his hand into the hole. He holds on to whatever comes, holds it in his fist so no one else can see. Holds it up to his nose and takes a long, deep sniff.

#

Pictures from a magazine drift in on the floodwater. The children try to put the images together, to tell themselves a story. Arms and legs disintegrate in their hands. There is a dark eye in the centre of the page, gazing wetly out.

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She’s dying from the sun, but she wishes she were drowning. She thinks of a time when she became water from her cunt to her tongue: when she was a muscle of water writhing in air. But it was so long ago. Now she’s dry as a book.

#

In the ruins of the city, people fear touches. Their skin is too weak, their bodies too hungry. Kissing quickly turns to feeding. A finger becomes a feast.

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In the North, an old couple throw their books onto the fire. They break up their wooden chairs and burn them. They burn the kitchen table. On the fire goes the sofa cushions, the bookcase, a suitcase full of old exam papers. The flames lick out and bubble the skin of paint on the walls. This will be the last time we’re warm, says one. I burn for you, says the other. They throw their clothes onto the fire.

you’re on a list

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

You’re on a list, mate. You’re definitely on a list. If you’re not on a list already, you’re going to be on a list soon. Shortly after you’ve read this post, they’re going to put you on a list.

Lists are necessary. Getting everyone on the right list is the bureaucratic burden of the regime, it’s the biggest task facing the government, it’s where we’ll put all our money and manpower. Because there have to be lists. If there are no lists, how will we know what’s important?

Really, what could be more orderly, more ordinary, than a list? Alphabetised, numberised, cross-referenced to other lists, computerised and databased and we assure you these lists are very secure, these lists are just for our security. These lists are just so we know which small children do not belong in our schools and which pregnant women should be turned away from our doctors’ surgeries, and which highly-skilled physicians should be dismissed from their posts as soon as possible. You see, the lists are just a practical measure, to make sure we’re all getting exactly what we deserve. To suggest that there is anything more sinister to these lists is pure melodrama.

It just makes sense. If there wasn’t a list, we wouldn’t know where to concentrate our resources, and we’d end up making terrible mistakes. We might break down the wrong doors, steal the wrong children, smother the wrong babies in their cots, rape the wrong girls, torture the wrong parents. And that would never do – we’re civilised people, for god’s sake.

And a list is a flexible thing, you’ll agree. A list can change its nature very easily. The list titled “Foreign Children In Our Schools” can easily be re-saved as “Deportation and Transportation.” It cuts down on admin, you see, if we already have everyone on a list. Then if our policies change, we can simply change the title of the list to reflect our new values. Pretty neat stuff.

I guess the only thing that could throw a spanner in the works is if you refused to have anything to do with the lists. If you refused to name your foreign workers, or to send information about the small children in your school, or about your colleagues, or about your friends. If you sabotaged the lists wherever you could, populated lists with bogus information to waste the authorities’ time and money. If you were irresponsible enough to do that, to lose lists, and lie on lists, and refuse to even make lists in the first place – well that could really fuck things up. That’ll get you on a list, for sure.

Now please read Michael Rosen’s “Lists, lists of foreigners, lists of foreign born people.” 

fcon by the sea: the story of a bookish fool

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Now that fcon is well and truly over, convention dictates that I should write a blog post in which I drop the names of all the groovy people I met in Scarborough and talk about the cool stuff we did together… or at least the cool stuff we did near each other, or the cool stuff they did while I watched from a respectful distance. Anyway, it would be rude not to do a little blog, really, under the circumstances. I’ve been thinking for ages about what to write, and I don’t quite know where to start, or how to end, or what to say in between. I’m overwhelmed at meeting so many friendly, thoughtful, charming, engaging, fascinating, funny, and kind people all at once.  Thank you all. It was a fantastic weekend, so fantastic that I have in fact forgotten most of it already. I’m pretty sure that some of my comings and goings are fully known to no-one but the delightfully snarky concierge at the Royal Hotel Scarborough… I’m joking, of course. Even he doesn’t know everything… the only people who know everything are too dead to talk.

The very first person I bumped into on the Friday was Neil Williamson, who happens to be a person I actually know in real life. Neil sidled up to me at the bar and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. Buying a glass of wine, I said. Neil shook his head. Amateur, he muttered. He whisked me away to James Bennett’s book launch, where he introduced me to several wonderful people, and several wonderful glasses of free wine. Amongst the people Neil introduced me to were Alistair Rennie, who turns out to be my neighbour in Edinburgh, and James Bennett, who turns out to be my neighbour in sick humour, oversharing, and excessive consumption of alcohol. That night, I gatecrashed Neil’s dinner with Ruth Booth, but she turned out to be in great demand and I lost her later when we ventured into the disco. (The less said about the disco, the better.)

I liked everyone so much that I thought I might explode with feelings. I was especially happy to meet Vince Haig, who I’ve loved since he illustrated my story, White Rabbit; and Helen Marshall, who I fangirled over like some sort of lovestruck booknerd. I took to following Vince and Helen around the con, and went to a lot of trouble to arrange things so that I’d “accidentally” turn up wherever they happened to be. Obviously I did my best to appear to be a normal person, but I think they saw through my act. At one point, Helen intimated that she may in fact have to kill me. She said that I carried within me the seeds of my own destruction – which I found quite apposite, as I had just downed several bottles of free red wine.

In my defence, I had only recently discovered that wine is free at fantasycon and simply appears before you whenever you buy a book. Or stand near a book. Or stand near Jess Jordan. It would have been cool to hang out with Jess and her partner, the talented and lovely Ray Cluley, but they kept getting away from me – though we do have plans to cause a scandal next time we’re together. Or is it that I have plans to scandalise them? One or the other. I talked to Tom Johnstone at length about my problems and opinions, which I’m sure he found completely inspirational and not at all like having an annoying drunk/hungover person talking at him non-stop for hours on end. I also spent many hours following Priya Sharma around and bending her ear about various things, which she tolerated because she is so very lovely and award-winning. Priya, Tom, Tracy Fahey, Victoria Leslie, Lynda Rucker, Rob Shearman, Maura McHugh, and my neighbour and co-panelist, Alistair Rennie, all generously tried to help and encourage me before my panel appearance on the Sunday, which I was fully dreading because of my severe lack of brains. They were all far nicer to me than I deserved, and my panel wasn’t a complete disaster. I managed to make a few jokes, and even threw in the words, ‘vagina monsters,’ so I think we can call that a win.

I bumped into Des Lewis on the seafront early Saturday morning, each of us going for a stroll and taking some pictures. At the launch of Almost Insentient, Almost Divine by DP Watt, Des told me that if I didn’t like the book, he would personally refund my money. But it seems unlikely I would give up on such a beauty. Sophie Essex took one look at my copy and the next several times I saw her she was asking me, have you seen DP Watt anywhere? I want to buy his book. Can you remember what he looks like? And I would say, not really. I remember he has dark hair, but that’s all… there’s just a blur where his face should be. I wonder if anyone has seen DP Watt – I mean, really seen him.

There was lots to do at fcon, but the readings were my favourite. Hearing Victoria Leslie read from her extraordinary novel, Bodies of Water, was actually thrilling. She read alongside Alison Littlewood, who gave us the first chapter of her novel, The Hidden People. The two books resonated weirdly together – we all wished for several hours of discussion afterwards. I also enjoyed hearing Priya Sharma read her nasty little fairytale, Egg – everyone was a little freaked out by that one. Tracy Fahey spellbound us with her old, deep story about Wild Goose Lodge. And listening to Helen Marshall not so much read, but propel her story into the world with all the force of her talent – that was cool af.

It was great to spend time with some really full-on, intense, super-clever, hilarious, unconventional, interesting women. I was lucky enough to hang out with Priya Sharma, Victoria Leslie, Laura Mauro, Cate Gardner, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Tracy Fahey, Sophie Essex, Lynda Rucker, Maura McHugh, Alison Littlewood, and Helen Marshall to name but some – each of these women alone is a brilliant talent, but put them together and you have a terrifying powerhouse of writing and artistic genius. Ideas proliferated, friendships and collaborations were initiated, and plans were put into motion. Great things are afoot amongst the women of genre… be afraid.

Biggest disappointment: All the people I didn’t get to meet, and not having enough time with those I did meet. I inflicted myself briefly on various excellent people such as James Everington, Phil Sloman, Jim McLeod, Teodor Reljic, Andrew Hook, Simon Bestwick, Emma Cosh, Sarah Watts, and the enigmatic Pam! to name but a very few (and I know I’ve forgotten loads of names along the way, sorry!)  I wanted to kidnap each and every one of them and get them into all sorts of trouble, but there just wasn’t enough time or rope, so, regrettably, I had to let many go free, unencumbered by the memory of my ingratiating smile or the chafing of the handcuffs as I declared us to be “friends forever.”

Best George: this was a tie between me (obvs) and the fabulous Georgina Kamsika. I’ve never met another proper George before! We were very happy to find one another and made immediate plans for world domination.

Best Secret moment: The highlight of the whole weekend was when Victoria Leslie and I stole Sophie Essex away to a quiet place and made her read her astonishing, remarkable poems to us. Other things happened in Secret Poetry Club that I’m not at liberty to divulge, but the genius of Sophie Essex ought not to be hidden from the world.

In conclusion: This was my first fcon and I loved it. The volunteers were friendly and fun and made everything run smoothly. The Royal Hotel was creepy and creaky, they made me gluten-free toast for breakfast, and their concierge was my best friend from the moment we met. Scarborough was gloriously sunny and weird, and running between the hotels with my arms full of books and wine and people was part of the fun. I barely slept but was running fine on alcohol and adrenaline all weekend. Also: books. And, furthermore: more books. I bought and was given several books – reviews and thoughts to come soon. In the meantime, thanks again – you’re all lovely, and charming, and I miss you already.

25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.

Notes:

* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.

** This list – and my reading – could be more racially and geographically diverse. I’m working on it and welcome suggestions!

how to write a novel in no easy steps

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

bookish winter things

Sunday, January 31st, 2016

 

Winter is cold and depressing (my favourite). I continue to fill my empty existence with reading and writing. My field notes from January:

My Black Static story “White Rabbit” has been well received, and even garnered a very nice mention in the Guardian! It’s good to see Black Static getting some recognition in the mainstream press for its support of new and established writers. And it’s good to see genre writing given serious consideration. And my family and friends are most impressed.

Des Lewis wrote a dreamcatching review of “White Rabbit” which I thought a sensitive and telepathic reading of the story. The whole point of writing is to make that connection with other humans, so this pleases me immensely.

Work continues on the novel. The 5.30am starts don’t get any easier. I may be reaching some sort of ending, if the panic attacks and attempts to run away are anything to go by.

On reading: this is a picture of all the books I read in January, arranged left to right in order of how great I think they are. The blue book on the far left is “A Spell to Conjure Violets” by Kate Mascarenhas, and it is really, truly wonderful. A strange, clever, moving story about parallel universes, paths taken and not taken, and how to account for our mistakes. The reader is drawn in through the completely believable characterisation and setting. Mascarenhas prints and binds the books herself, beautifully, and has paperbacks of this for sale now. You can contact her via twitter – she is @flynnker and she’ll be delighted to take your order

black static, white rabbit

Monday, December 14th, 2015

It turns out that I’m not too modest to mention that White Rabbit, my very first story in Black Static, made the cover. And what a cover! The utterly brilliant artwork is by Vince Haig, who has done another superb illustration for the story inside. One of the most wonderful experiences a writer can have is seeing their work sensitively interpreted and extended by an artist. Without a doubt, Vince Haig’s pictures make White Rabbit a better story.

Small presses are a big part of the thriving culture of literary genre writing, and deserve our attention and support. Volume 50 of Black Static is out in early January, and would make an excellent New Year’s/late Christmas present for the fiction aficionado in your life. (Afictionado, surely?!) And if you like this sort of thing, get a subscription. TTA Press depends on subscriptions to be able to survive and pay their writers and artists (very important!), so there’s no better way to show your love.

domestic magic realism – a manifesto

Saturday, November 14th, 2015
jacek yerka

Polish Kitchen, by Jacek Yerka

1. You have to invent your own genre, what happens if you don’t is that they subsume you into theirs.

(By genre, I mean everything.)

2. You want them to like you, but you know that your magic is not for them.

3. They inveigle you. They distract you from the scratch at the cellar door, from the sound of wings in the attic, from the unraveling of the bed.

4. They sugar the pill.

5. They offer you a beautiful face. The price is your silence, or else you can pay them with your voice.

6. You only saw because the mirror turned at the slightest of angles. You only know because you are at an angle yourself, you were always that way.

But you were only looking in the mirror to see the cumulative iterations of your gaze, and theirs. It’s not your fault you saw it.

7. They say you saw nothing. They never believe you. They tell you up is down.

8. They infiltrate you endemically, intimately, subtle as your own hand; to escape them you need to invent a new grammar.

(By grammar, I mean a knife.)

9. Home is where the hearts are.

10. One day you notice that your husband has a beard so black it’s blue.

bong! the news

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

 

A brief update on what’s what and what’s not in my world… I finished the first draft of my novel at the end of the summer holidays, which meant I had three whole days of holiday left before starting back at work. I spent those days in a whirl of shock and delight and terror. It was fun. After that, I put the novel in a drawer to cook, and went to work on a couple of short stories. How exciting to write short stories again after being neck-deep in a novel! You can write them in a weekend! It’s like magic.

The first of these stories, The Art Lovers, is a nasty little tale of crime set in Italy, Greece, and London sometime in the 1970s, with our protagonist living on a Euro rail card, a student grant, and an unhealthy delusion about the nature of women. It’s due to appear in Crimewave 13, from TTA press. This is really exciting for me – I don’t often write crime stories, so to have one published in the best genre magazine in the country is an incredible privilege – and stroke of luck.

White Rabbit is the name of the second story, and I’m pretty sure it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s kind of creepy, a little bit sad, and fairly psychedelic. I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland, and this is a fairly twisted way down the rabbit hole. It’s set to appear in Black Static 50. Very excited about this one.

I’m back to editing and redrafting the novel now, which explains why I’m finally getting around to writing a blog post. Because when faced with trying to bring sense to the mess of scenes and chapters and terrible sentences and logical black holes and broken timelines, everything else suddenly seems a lot more fun. Writing my blog, cleaning the flat, disembowelling myself with a teaspoon, whatever. And yet, it has to be done. I don’t know why. It just does.

the star of the hour

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Everyone’s talking about Clarice Lispector. A little synchronicity for me – I picked up The Hour of the Star before the summer, and within weeks, I heard her name spoken everywhere. I’m glad.

I recently attended a book event in Edinburgh. A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway read from their novels – respectively, Paradise and The Trick is to Keep Breathing – which have both been reprinted as Vintage Classics. Two extraordinary books, and two funny, clever writers. The chairperson asked the authors questions about their place in the literary firmament. They laughingly declined to answer. They said that as women, they don’t expect their books to last. When women die, their books die with them.

And yet, here is Clarice Lispector, long dead, and suddenly the talk of the town. Her stories, her passions, her language. (Her heroic cheekbones.)

The Hour of the Star is an odd, short novel, which contains within itself another odd, short novel, and its novelist, who appears to be writing himself into and out of the life of his protagonist, a colourless, stupid girl.  Only the novelist sees in her something very touching, something to love. Perhaps it is something he sees in himself. Nothing much happens. It’s not certain who or what the story is about. But Lispector’s writing is hypnotically strange. It’s weightless, then it sinks you with a moment too heavy to bear. Sometimes you have to stop reading and breathe.

Virginia Woolf once asked, “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” I think one reflection of this question is Clarice Lispector. She is ideological. She is avant garde. Her language is abstract and hums with its own peculiar rhythms. She is, perhaps, a little boring to the modern reader. We don’t want abstract passions and puzzles; we want story. We want the three-act structure and resolutions and we want things to go the way they should. That’s good writing, we say, when it happens.

I don’t know if a woman could write like Lispector now, with such freedom, or if anyone could. I say a woman but maybe I mean anyone. We seem to be so beleaguered at the moment. We seem to be so at odds with the world. We have to be very sure, we have to be rock solid and unshakeable, so we can stand atop our perches and be unmoved by the world’s opinions of us. But how then can a writer  experiment, how can she step out not knowing what’s beneath her? How can she balance with one toe on solid ground while the rest of her stretches out into other worlds, feeling for the force and the upswing, hoping for less gravity? Well, maybe she can, if she is monstrously brave.