journal

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.

 

Three things

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

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.

 

then we set ourselves on fire

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

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.

 

silence: broken

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

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.