Very proud to have a story in this Salt anthology, sharing covers with amazing writers like Nina Allen and Priya Sharma.
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.
The talented, charming, and persistent(!) Priya Sharma has tagged me in a game of blog hop called “Three things I don’t write, and three things I do.” Priya’s stories are regularly published in prestigious markets and are then invariably snapped up and published in the year’s best collections. I’m lucky enough to be sharing a table of contents with her in Salt’s forthcoming Best British Fantasy 2014.
Three things I don’t write about…
I am not remotely interested in good-looking people having romances with each other, even if they are vampires or zombies. Especially if they are vampires or zombies. As a reader, that kind of thing makes me fall asleep, and as a writer, I just haven’t got anything to say on the subject.
High fantasy, and secondary world fantasy in general, is not my thing. I might write alternate histories or futures, portal fantasies or liminal fantasies – but they always have one foot in reality, because I think a writer’s job is to comment on the world – our world. Inventing other worlds as a form of escapism is of no interest to me.
I also hardly ever write about fruit.
Three things I do…
My characters tend to be people, usually women, who have some kind of problem with reality. This theme runs deep through all my work, and it is from this well that all my stories come bubbling up. Reality in my writing is nearly always ‘the real world’ (as opposed to a secondary or fantasy world) and the tension between consensus reality and the character’s reality is where all the interesting ideas come from.
A problem with reality might be triggered when a character experiences a head injury. I’m interested in injuries and illnesses and how they affect our experience of the world. We are our bodies, in very real and important ways. We live in our bodies. So I’m interested in how living in a compromised and hurt and injured body affects our relationship to reality.
Birds, dogs, and other animals are the messengers of the fractured realities experienced by my characters. We have such strange relationships with other creatures. They are the recipients of our great kindness along with our incredible brutality. (They can tell us a lot about what it is to be human.)
Tagging the wonderfully cool and super amazing Katrina Leno. Her YA novel, The Half Life of Molly Pierce is out now. And I really want to know her do’s and don’t's so I can copy her and be as fabulous as she is.
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.
The man who lives in the apartment upstairs has a wooden leg. His dog has a little cart with wheels, strapped onto his body where his hind legs used to be. In the early mornings, the man and the dog chase each other over the hard wooden floors, and fight over a bone.
I’m just speculating.
There’s no such thing as silence. Right now I hear the high chimes of glass being poured into the recycling bin, and the rumble of the council van. The river’s white noise, rain on leaves, and the birds’ whistles. Distant voices, footsteps on the stair. The click and pop of the kettle, cooling.
I read recently a beautiful essay by Kathleen Jamie, about a trip to the Far North. She says that there she came across a silence beyond silence. And within it, her mind was suddenly clamourous with thoughts, a kind of panic, rushing heart. I would like to hear that silence, just once.
The other kinds of silence I know all too well. The silence of things left unsaid, words unwritten, dances stilled, songs stopped in the throat. Those are the silences that hang from my body like a coat, a heavy coat, too heavy to do more than shuffle around in. Those are silences I would like to shrug off me, like letting a coat slip from my shoulders. It would fall to the ground and make a sound like hundreds of pieces of cutlery dropping onto a stone floor. After that, I would speak, and tell you how I really feel.
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.
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.
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.
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.