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a good dog

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

This is Laika. I’m deep in the middle of a novel about Laika, and this week is the 57th anniversary of her journey into space. So it seems wrong to let this pass without some kind of commemoration.

Laika was chosen for the Sputnik mission because she was a good dog. Of all the stray dogs that were brought in off the streets of Moscow, it was Laika who was the most biddable. She was “sweet and charming,” they said. Trusting. She did what she was told without complaint.

Shortly before the November 3rd rocket launch, one of the scientists took Laika home for a night. She played with his children, slept in their bed. She must have thought she had found a home, that she had been taken into a family. Then they took her away. They put her, terrified, inside a tiny metal box, and launched her into space, where she died from overheating hours into the flight. A more cruel and pointless death is hard to imagine.

Sending a dog into space was Kruschev’s whim. It was a gimmick, not useful science.

The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We didn’t learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog (Oleg Gazenko, 1998).

And all Laika wanted was to be good.

If you really want to have your heart broken by Laika, I can thoroughly recommend Laika, by Nick Abadzis. My novel-in-progress takes a more tangential (not to say abstract) look at Laika’s life and death.

 

 

mythically delirious

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

In the words of Mike Allen, “makes our notoriously offbeat Clockwork Phoenix seem like a product of the straight and narrow.” How can you possibly resist? Now available to buy on Amazon UK. Buy it, write a review, say you love us only.

five

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

At five ayem, all you can hear is the sound of the river rushing below your window, and the gurgle and spit of the coffee machine. You still have the night, and all its velvet mystery. The day hasn’t yet started; you are there to call down the moon and raise up the sun.

Peaceful. Your neighbours are sleeping. Not one door slams, not one voice is raised. You even feel kindly towards them, at this hour. They’re so sweet, when they’re sleeping. They don’t bother you at all.

You’re someone different at five in the morning. Someone meaningful, purposeful. Because only those who suffer from meaning and purpose force themselves to wake at that hour. Nothing is beyond you then. You can do anything at all. What you do, naturally, is write. It should be no easier or harder than at any other hour, but the muse looks kindly on those who come early to work. She likes to see you there every day, washed and dressed and properly humble.

You learn. It’s a glamourous hour.

Lunar Maria

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Not seas, but dark basaltic plains,

No tides but the pulling down of light,

And all misnamed, fanciful poetry

Storying the romance of the night.

Lunar Maria, false seas deceiving men.

Waterless, dry creeks and dusty rilles.

Not, after all, the swells and deeps of women;

Not, in fact, a goddess hidden in the hills.

Send rockets then, and men to mine

The rocks, and organise the sand;

To colonise the goddess moon,

Shove flags into her silver hand.

 

the best bit

Monday, September 29th, 2014

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

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

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

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

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

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

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.

 

best british fantasy 2014

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

Very proud to have a story in this Salt anthology, sharing covers with amazing writers like Nina Allen and Priya Sharma.

and then and then and then

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

When Haruki Murakami sat down to write The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he didn’t have a plan. When Stephen King wrote The Stand, he didn’t have a plan. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how it would end.

And when I sit down to write my book, I don’t know exactly where it’s heading, either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself with these literary greats, not in terms of talent. But it does give me comfort and succour to know that I’m not the only writer who starts simply with an idea, an image, a sentence, and that’s it. To me, writing is partly a process of discovering the story. I cannot – and I have tried – write a story that I have already plotted out in detail. It’s dull, it bores me, it makes every word die on the page.