journal

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.

 

 

fierce attachments

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

buy his paintings

There are some books which I consider to be unequivocally women’s books. Women’s books because they speak of female worlds which are secret and separate from the ‘real’ world, the outer world of action, which is seen to belong to males. These are books which needle out from under the skin the bloodied strings that tie mothers to daughters, where each mother passes to her daughter the exact amount of hate and love that she herself was gifted with. Nothing in these relationships is simple, but there is one story that keeps playing out: how the girl strains to escape the limitations of her society, which the mother has (weakly, stupidly, cravenly – in the daughter’s eyes) capitulated to. And how the mother attempts to hold the girl back, not just out of jealousy, but out of a need to perpetuate the same conditions that have stunted and stifled her own life, a need which she calls ‘protection.’  This is women’s culture, this is how it has been passed down through generations.

These books also have in common an almost supernatural brilliance, an ability to convey feeling and character with deft touches that practically defy analysis. It is done by truth-telling, by honesty without self-justification, without falling back on artificial narrative resolution. Such is the clarity of writing in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that I was convinced I had been given secret family knowledge, that hidden truths had been revealed. Gornick writes of growing up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx during the depression, but everything about that which is alien and other to me is rendered by her prose as familiar and intimate as if I’d lived it myself. I felt that I lived in her story, in her incredible sentences.

Gornick’s relationship with her mother is at the centre of the book and the centre of her life, and there is really nothing she can do about it, try as she might. There is humour in this, and even love, but most of all there is a kind of tragedy. Every woman in the story is affected by it; some are destroyed. Gornick and her mother fight, often. At one point, Gornick yells at her mother, “Don’t I get any credit for spotting a good idea, Ma? That one should try to live one’s life?” And her mother defends herself, says, “What did I have? I had nothing. Nothing.” But that’s not good enough, how can it be? It’s testament to Gornick’s talent and temperament that the reader never loses empathy with any woman: all are living out this culture, this practice that sets one generation against the next. (Our culture where pregnant women are told, “girls steal your beauty,” where thirteen-year-old girls speak ill of each other enough to kill.)

I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I read about her in an essay by a wonderful writer, Rikki Ducornet, whose novel Gazelle is another book I would add to the category tales of women’s culture. I would also include Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Of course these books feature terrible, desperate mothers, but they are still mothers. They are the kind of mothers so many women have had, the kind that hold you down in the name of doing you good. The dominant myth of motherhood is that mothers are shining angels of goodness and of love. And some mothers are surely that good, and some are better. But what about the other mothers? It is brave to speak of them at all.

what we have learned since then

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

In the final pages of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Living with a Wild God‘, she says: “Human solidarity [...] is the only reason for writing for a book.” It’s one of those moments of joyful recognition that Ehrenreich is so generous at providing. You imagine a woman laden down with grenades of wisdom – she just chucks them out whenever she feels like it, not knowing or caring much about the impact, the blown minds she leaves in her wake. And you want to thank her, or punch the air, perhaps, for making the truth simple and believable. Ehrenreich has written this book out of solidarity with her species, and it is a book that fills the reader with gratitude: thank god for you.

Or maybe not god. God, or not god, is not exactly the question. In this reflection on science and religion, the existence of a monotheistic god is never at stake. Ehrenreich’s atheism is something she takes for granted, something handed down to her by generations of blue-collar workers and particularly by her (alcoholic, neglectful) parents, who teach the young Ehrenreich that if something can’t be expressed in words, then it can’t exist at all. Following her father into a scientific education, she attempts to fit the whole universe into this belief. When something strange happens in her seventeenth year, something that doesn’t fit, she represses it, tries to forget it, denies it. She hands over responsibility for the situation to a future version of herself. In the absence of better answers, she ascribes her experience to madness.

Yet the one thing that seems most unlikely in Ehrenreich is madness. Even as an adolescent (“a particularly clinical case”) her journal writing is assured, confident, and full of her irrepressible intelligence. She treats her younger self with great compassion for the most part, only losing patience when the troubled teenage girl shows a lack of ability to think clearly about her experience. Think about it! Make sense of it! She exhorts her former self. But this lack of thinking and questioning is a brief blip in the mind of a woman whose greatest gift to the world is her ability to think it through.

Because Barbara Ehrenreich is one of our greatest thinkers. She’s clear-sighted, rigorous, original, and she never allows herself to get away with an easy answer, or to use language to obfuscate or misdirect the reader. She is scrupulously honest, even when the subject does not yield readily to explanation. Her job is to report what there is to report, to enlarge our knowledge of the world and each other. Her foundation is a brilliant, if formidable, intellect – and if she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, at least she never assumes that you are the fool.

In this book, she thinks clearly, lucidly, and persuasively about the question that’s been bugging her since she was a kid: What the hell’s going on here? What exactly is this world? By the end of the book, she has, in her meticulous, clear-sighted manner, answered that question, or at least got as close to an answer as she can. Along the way, she provides a slyly witty account of her adolescence, which hints at the origins of her later successes and failures. Her account of her relationship with her father is sad and subtle; her tales of being exposed to potential fatalities are wildly entertaining: perhaps some combination of these influences make the adult Ehrenreich simultaneously a superlatively rational thinker and the kind of woman who spends hours alone in a kayak, taunting sharks.

There’s a sense of correspondence, too, between Ehrenreich’s teenage and adult selves. As a teenager, Ehrenreich demands of her future self that she reads her journal with compassion, that she doesn’t forget. She needn’t have worried: Ehrenreich more than does justice to her and to her story. She has written exactly the book that the young Barbara desperately needed to read. And for those of us who also spent our youth in passionate pursuit of the meaning of life, Ehrenreich’s perspective is invaluable. Here is a woman who has lived the life of the mind, who has travelled from solipsism to solidarity, and who sincerely attempts to answer the question posed in her journal by her sixteen-year-old self: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”

You might not find the meaning of life in this book, but you’ll certainly learn something, and that’s a very good place to start.

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.