ESCAPE ROOM: MALCOLM DEVLIN

Once upon a time, longer ago than I’d care to admit, I attended a writing course at a local college. I was fresh out of university at the time and I was settling in to my first honest-to-god actual job at an online bookshop.

“You’ll never have to buy another book,” I was told during the interview. As you can imagine, I tested this hypothesis thoroughly until the first dot com bubble burst.

 Back then, I lived in a shared house with my own room. I even had my own computer, a big unwieldy thing that wheezed when it accessed the internet. It had a heavy CRT monitor that took twenty minutes to warm up and hummed like a microwave once it had.

The first assignment in the writing class was one of those whimsical ones designed to break the ice and warm people up. We were told to write a poem about an animal we identified with. Then we had to read it to the class.

You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I wrote. What I do remember is that I chose a sloth as the animal, and that the poem included the following couplet:

I would write down what’s in my head,
Were my computer closer to my bed.

These days, I have a laptop, but I still don’t write in bed. The bedroom is Helen’s writing space, not mine.

Being in a relationship with another writer is remarkable and privileged thing. I suspect, during the years we’ve spent together, I’ve learned more about putting pen to paper than any number of college courses could have taught me. Half our conversations seem to be workshopping one thing or another. It goes both ways and it’s weird and lovely and fizzes with a sort of mad, infuriating invention.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and Helen’s just lying there waiting for me to stir.

“Listen,” she says before I can rub the sleep out of my eyes. “How about if–“

And she’s off. An idea has struck her, a broken bit of a dream that woke her up and suddenly that irritating bit of the story she had been working on makes some kind of sense. She’s not after my opinion, exactly, she’s just saying it out loud, cementing it into something real, testing to see if it flies.

Sometimes I wake and she’s already up. Bedside light on, she’s reading a book about brutalist Communist architecture or Siegfried and Roy or paging through an article about a very specific kind of sentient sludge that might prosper on Mars.

Sometimes she’s already on her laptop.

“Hey,” she says, when I wake up. “Are you going to the cafe today?”

I started writing in cafes when I had a day job. Since I was laid off, I’m now freelance, which on good days means I’m absurdly, stressfully busy and on bad days feels like a word invented by people who don’t want to admit they’re unemployed.

Before that, I worked for various small publishing companies, aid organisations and one online bookshop — office jobs, the sort of which I always swore I’d never settle for, invariably located in awkward parts of town.

I realised early on that the only way I would get time to write anything for myself was to actively put aside time to do so. So, I set my alarm forward an hour and stopped off in a cafe on the way to work each morning.

This way, five days a week, I had one hour a day to write. It worked. I got used to getting up early, used to leaving when the morning was still fresh and brisk, used to getting into work a little bit late and a little bit spent.

In the cafes, I set myself rules. Whatever I write is allowed to be rubbish. If I don’t write anything, that’s okay too. On some days, I can rattle through a thousand words; on others, I can only manage twenty. Sometimes I’ll just revise something I’ve written the day before and on many occasions I’ll just stare at a blank page and that’s fine because I know I’ll be back the next day, same time, same place, and maybe I’ll do better then.

I don’t know if it was because I became invested in this routine — because it started working for me — that I now have difficulties writing at home and I envy those who can.

The house has too many other distractions. There are other things I should be doing and the things I absolutely shouldn’t be doing seem too easy to waylay me. Being freelance means that technically I have the time to write from home — it’s where I do all of my design work after all, and given that the price of all those posh Americanos start to stack up, economically it would be a sound idea. But when I try writing in the house, I feel I should be doing my design work instead, something that will help pay the rent.

Interlude: There was a time, a few years ago, when I did try and write from home. I ignored the cafes and got up early to work in the kitchen instead. For a time, I thought it was going to work. It felt like a stubborn attempt to realign the routine that I realised I had locked myself in to, the same way that I had taught myself to get up early in the first place.

A few months before this experiment, Helen had moved into the shared house I was living in. After a while, she would hear me get up in the morning and she would come down to get a coffee. We’d end up chatting instead and I would get no writing done at all.

One morning, she came down and asked me if I wanted to go on a date. She just came out with it as she was topping up her coffee cup.

You’ll probably be quite relieved to hear that I don’t remember everything I said in reply. What I do remember is that it included the following couplet:

kjhafdkj kjalsdk jf;alskjf a
klajsdhfl kajsdh; kjfas!!!!!!!!!!!

Those who know how I usually ration my use of exclamation marks can probably appreciate how that might sound out loud.

My problem with working in cafes is that I’ve always thought that people who write in cafes are wankers. This is obviously grossly unfair, but it’s a prejudice that, once fostered, needed time and effort to disabuse.

I am now one of those wankers and I’m mostly at peace with it.

I know there are some who will go to the same cafe day in day out, set up their little offices and block an entire table for the mornings with a peculiar sort of pride, but for the longest time, I found the whole thing acutely embarrassing and rather precious. Maybe this is why so many of my stories end up being about the horrors of social awkwardness in public places. They all stem from everyday cafe punters seeing me in the corner, back against the wall so no-one can see I’m trying to write dialogue rather than a business email, crouched and reddening behind my glasses.

I used to have a rule that as soon as the cafe staff knew what I was going to order before I said it out loud; as soon as I became a regular, I had to move to another cafe and never go back there again under any circumstances. In the last town we lived in, I got through eleven cafes that way, so in some ways it’s a good thing we ended up moving or I’d have probably run out.

This complex has mostly passed.

I’ve now resigned myself to returning to the same couple of cafes each morning. I plug in my headphones and put on something wordless and noisy, not to block out the sound of the cafe so much as to augment it. Today, I’m listening to Treetop Drive by Deathprod and Garden of Delete by Oneohtrix Point Never. They’re an unholy racket to a lot of people, I suspect, a weirdly melodic white noise that makes the cafe around me sound as though its glitching.

Even though my time is mostly my own these days, I still find I can only manage an hour or so in the cafe each morning before I feel like I should be somewhere else, doing something else. The pressure to get some work done that will actually pay has a tendency to cloud over everything else and I pack up my things and surrender the table to someone else.

I go for a short walk, try and straighten out whatever it was I was working on, trying to rationalise how and what it was for, and hoping to figure out a hook that will help me get started the following day.

Then, I go home.

On some days, during the holidays or on her writing days, Helen is exactly where she was when I left in the morning. She’s in her office, her computer on her lap, the cup of coffee I brought her that morning now cold on the bedside counter.

She looks up and smiles when I come in.

“Listen,” she says, her eyes bright. “How about if–“

Malcolm Devlin is the author of the critically acclaimed and award nominated short story collection, “You Will Grow Into Them” and many other things. You can track him down here.

ESCAPE ROOM: HELEN MARSHALL

My boyfriend (the brilliant Malcolm Devlin*) describes my writing space as “paradise”—particularly when I kick him out of it in the morning so I can write. Which is to say, I write mostly in bed, mostly in pyjamas, surrounded by piles of book. Despite what he says, I suspect this practice is neither paradise for my book nor good for my soul but it seems to be working at the moment. Because I’ve moved around quite a bit over the last ten years, it’s been ages since I had something like a formal office. I do have one where I work at Anglia Ruskin University, but because I share it with two other colleagues, it’s more of a meeting place than a space for deep concentration. I’ve had to become quite good at adapting myself to wherever I am. I often try out different writing areas to help me break out of various ruts: editing at the kitchen table, rereading and redrafting from my couch, writing by hand in the back garden. But the bed seems to be my preferred place at the moment.

And if you’re feeling sympathetic to poor Malcolm, please note that I gave him the office for his design work. Also, those are his beautiful feet in the picture—his feet, my thumb. (This will be the title of the next short story I write.)

This is where I finished the editing of The Migration, my debut novel which has just launched from Titan in the UK. As my first full-length novel, it was an exercise in stamina that required repeated redrafting. Much of that I did in this bed, between the hours of four and eight in the morning before I went in to the university. I’m proudest of the process of writing The Migration in large part because it challenged me to keep going even when I had completely lost confidence in myself. Sometimes you feel proudest of the stories which come out easily but I find myself wanting to focus on the ones that take real effort.

I don’t have a set routine per se because my schedule changes so much. What I’ve found is that I write best first thing in the morning. So I try to schedule my day—where possible—to give myself a couple of free hours before I check my e-mail or my social media. Whatever I start doing while I’m drinking my coffee is what I’ll end up doing for the first half of the day. If I can make that writing then I’m a happy camper. When I actually sit down to write, I tend to start off by reading something written by someone else for the first twenty minutes, largely to quiet my brain and to begin to get into the rhythm of writing. Poetry works best for this, I find, because it is imagistic and the language is so condensed. Currently I’m reading Simon Perril’s lovely book Archilochus on the Moon which is both on-target enough for my current novel about travel to Mars, yet oblique enough that it doesn’t feel like research. Quite often I read until I find myself wanting to write something new of my own down. Other times, once I feel in the groove then I’ll go back and reread and lightly edit what I wrote in my last session. If I hit a wall, then I either go back to reading or I try to do something physical but not brain-intensive (like cleaning or going for a walk) so I can distract myself while my subconscious turns the problem over in search of a solution.

My biggest distraction from writing is the massive, ever-present to-do list in the back of my head. When I wake up my impulse is to sort through the small tasks that I find slightly scary—like e-mailing people—so that I don’t need to think about them anymore. But I’ve found this is a mistake because if I start by doing those tasks, then I seldom come back to writing later in the day. I’ve found the trick is to put my writing first and add anything worrying me to an on-going digital to-do list. That seems to give me permission to forget about it for a bit.

I find music with lyrics of any sort to be a massive distraction. I did write one short story while listening to the same song over and over and over again until the lyrics became so rote they seemed like white noise.

Sometimes writing just flows out of you and it feels effortless. When I’m in the “zone” I feel as if I’m entertaining myself, surprisingly myself, making myself laugh. A lot of writers talk about this feeling and it can be a rush. But there are other aspects of writing I enjoy as well including the careful editing that puts paragraphs in the right order and clarifies sentences. But the greatest part of writing, I’ve found, is the permission it gives me to be myself in the fullest way possible, to value the unique perspective I have on the world. When people tell me I’m a bit weird—which happens all the time—I don’t see it as a problem anymore. The weirdness is me. It’s what I’m here for.

The least enjoyable part of writing is not writing. I get antsy if I don’t manage to write for three days. I get antsy if I try to write and I don’t get anywhere. Mostly I find that the anxieties and experiences of writing that I see in my students are the same anxieties I still have whenever I’m trying to write. They think getting published will solve the problem for them. It doesn’t, not really. The only thing experience really teaches you is that there are good writing days and bad writing days. Bad writing days are part of the process. Don’t beat yourself up when they happen.

I’ve started work on another novel called The Floating City, which is something of a ghost story set on Mars about the processes of colonization and the unforeseen impact we can have on an environment. It’s an attempt at something closer to science fiction than I’ve really done before and so it’s been more research-intensive—or rather, research-intensive in a different way than my previous books. But it’s challenging me to learn new skills and that’s never a bad thing. If you happen to know anything about sentient sludge, please get in touch!

[*Malcolm Devlin is next week’s escapee.]

Helen Marshall is the World Fantasy Award winning author of two short story collections. Her writing has received critical acclaim far and wide, including from author Neil Gaiman. Helen’s excellent debut novel, The Migration, is available now. You can find out more about Helen here.

what i didn’t know: confessions of a newly published author

I didn’t know anything. That’s the truth right there. All I knew was I was getting a book published, it was ACE and I was happy about it. And that’s all true. It is ace, and I am happy about it. But seriously, friends. My ignorance was VAST. Vast and deep as an ocean. I was innocent, naive, a wide-eyed babe with literally zero idea what the hell was going on. So here’s a partial list of the things I was blithely unaware of. Anything for you.

I didn’t know how much crying would be involved. That’s easily the number one thing I didn’t know about this whole process. If you’re the crying type, and I am, I very much am, then this process involves tears. Tears of joy, pride, and happiness? Sure, whatever. And then there are the other kinds of tears: of vulnerability (so much vulnerability), anxiety, disappointment. And did I mention vulnerability? At one point I seriously considered hooking myself up to a saline drip, just to get through the day.

I didn’t know how REAL imposter syndrome is. See, when I first saw copies of my book I was ecstatic. I was proud of myself, grateful to my publisher and everyone involved, delighted at the prospect of having my book read and reviewed and stocked in shops. I went about humming little ditties, flipping through my book, admiring the gorgeous cover for hours on end. I had NO IDEA my bubble was about to burst, big time. The weekend after review copies were sent out and I realised that people were actually going to be reading my stories, I had a legit full-on panic attack and spent an entire day talking myself down from the ledge of outrageous imposter syndrome. It SUCKED, friends. So bad.

I didn’t know how much it would hurt when people didn’t love my book. Cliché but true. I’ve had a tonne of stories published and reviewed, so I felt reasonably confident I could cope with whatever came my way. I even told people that I wanted readers to engage with my writing in a critical, thoughtful manner. HAHAHA NOPE. So wrong. I quickly discovered that what I really wanted was for people to unconditionally love my stories and herald me as a creative genius the like of which the world has never seen. When instead I heard words like “challenging”, “demanding” and (worst of all) “difficult”, I was CRUSHED. Confidence? What’s that? (And yes, I do realise there are worse insults but THAT’S NOT THE POINT, OKAY?)

I didn’t know how popular I’d become. I love twitter and never felt the need to be other than myself on there. But suddenly, in the space of a fortnight, I gained 150 new followers. It’s great, and they are all so welcome, but whaaaaat? (And is it still okay to swear?) It felt like a huge spotlight was shining in my face and I didn’t quite know how to be anymore. Then there are the requests for interviews, guest posts and so on. People want to ask me questions and hear what I have to say about stuff? GREAT! But also: SO FREAKING WEIRD. See that microscopic dot on the horizon? That’s my comfort zone and I’m travelling away from it at the speed of light.

I didn’t know it would feel like a loss. Like an ending. I’ve wanted to have a book published for so long, for my whole entire life, in fact. So it makes sense that achieving that ambition might leave me feeling a bit… empty. I like to think of it as creating space for something new, and I’ve certainly got lots of new books and stories planned and coming soon, but even so. I didn’t expect there to be grief.

I didn’t know how magnanimous, open-hearted, kind and welcoming other writers would be. Not only writers, but editors, bloggers, reviewers and readers. People have been nothing but helpful and encouraging every step of the way. Everyone from established authors to total strangers have reached out to me in support. I always knew that readers and writers are the best kind of humans, but I didn’t know how much I’d feel the benefit of their awesomeness. Of all the things I didn’t know, this is what I’ll try to hold onto the most. People can be wonderful, when you give them a chance.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, and what I do know might not be helpful or relevant for anyone but myself. Still, I wanted to share this, from my heart, especially for anyone who has their first book coming out (soon, or one day). I hope you have a wonderful experience. I hope you don’t feel any of the anxiety or vulnerability I did. But if you do, I hope you remember that it passes. It does, it really does pass. Just keep breathing. Focus on the good stuff, the wonderful, uplifting, exciting stuff of BEING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. And stay hydrated.

ESCAPE ROOM: KERRY HADLEY-PRYCE

Look at this: it used to be my dining room, then it became my Dad’s room when he lived with us for a while in 2016-17, then it became my dog, Rufus’, room. Rufus now allows me to work there in return for snacks, unconditional love and frequent walks out. And more snacks.

As rooms go, it’s like a box of memories. It’s in the quietest part of my house and looks out over my (hideously messy) garden. There’s a flat attached to my house that I used to use as my workplace, but I think I prefer this room. It still has pictures of my Dad on the wall, it still has his set of drawers and some of his books, and it still has some of the ornaments he kept to remind him of my mum. It also has three huge bookcases full of some of my books, then there’s my piano, clarinet and my father-in-law’s old harmonica because every now and then I (quite literally) have to burst into tune, because writing is an intense business, I find, and it’s essential to lift yourself out of these other worlds you’re creating, especially if, like mine, they’re a bit…dark. On the subject of music, I’m interested in people who can work with music going on in the background. I can’t. I’ve tried, but it makes me itch, music, sometimes, when I’m working. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been inspired by music, and I think of myself as a musician of sorts, but NOT WHILST I’M WRITING, THANK YOU.

Rufus won’t mind me saying that, though I love him (unconditionally, remember) he sometimes smells a little…doggy… so I’m a sucker for a scented candle, or two, or three, and because he’s a very good listener, he often works (unpaid) as my audience.

Shall we talk about writing routine? In the past, every day, I have done this: woken up at 5am; written until 7.30am; taken Rufus for a walk; gone for a run; answered emails, dealt with admin, worked on some projects I’m involved with and worked on my PhD; written some more; taken Rufus for another walk: watched Netflix; read; slept. Productive stuff, that. But lately I’ve been doing some lecturing at the University of Wolverhampton, which has included (deep breath) preparing lectures, and (look away now) marking papers. Look closely at the picture there. See my laptop? See all that paper underneath my laptop? Marking. Or rather, not-yet-marked papers. So, I put aside two days of the week for lecturing stuff, I take one day off completely and the rest is the above routine, otherwise, I confess, I get no writing done at all. Walking Rufus is a great way of clearing my head, I’ve found – in fact, I’ve always found walking a great mind-clearer, so, actually, I see that as part of my writing process.

In the past, I’ve been massively distracted by social media. I mean, what is it about Facebook that sucks your life away? I’ve learnt to compartmentalise that, I think, and to use it, for inspiration. I mean, have you read some of the stuff people put on there? Trauma after trauma.

Which brings me to what I’m working on just now. I made a vow that I’d write more short stories this year, and have had one published with Fictive Dream, and another due to be published with The Incubator. I’m involved in a couple of academic projects. One is research into smells and memory, the other is my PhD on Psychogeography and Black Country fiction. I’m basically a geeky type I suppose, so these give me massive pleasure. I’m also involved in two other projects, one is a documentary film about the Black Country and the other is awaiting funding for a ‘Psychogeographic Walk & Talk’ down the Birmingham Canal. And I’m working on my third novel, which may or may not be called God’s Country. Possibly not. I haven’t yet decided, but I had to call the file something. It’s a dark one, set on a farm in the Black Country and it’s developing in an interesting way. So, back to it. Actually, I really should be marking those papers…

Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a Black Country legend and the author of two outstandingly excellent novels, The Black Country and Gamble, both available from Salt. She has a weebly website here.

ESCAPE ROOM: JULIE TRAVIS

I moved into my new flat two days ago. My own space, for the first time in my life! (I’m 51). I’m now overlooking a street in the middle of Penzance and already feel settled. My new space is going to be very productive. I need to get a higher desk because I have to stand up to type, but if I’m writing longhand (I always draft longhand) then I can do it anywhere. I still prefer to be at home. I feel centred in Penzance and I badly needed to move back here. Having my own place means I can write at any time, night or day, and won’t be bothering anyone. As you can see, it’s sparse but it’s early days – the vibe’s right now.

Writing has always been quite chaotic, I think. The best way for me to write at home is to leave my notebook out and come and go to it throughout the day. I can’t concentrate for very long at a time. But I often sit in a cafe for an hour or so, writing and drinking coffee. The launderette is also a great place to write. A lot of work gets done in those times. I’ve also written when I’ve been away from home, either alone or with a partner. To me it flavours the writing to be elsewhere, although I wonder if readers notice a difference between sections written in different places?

I usually listen to music when I write; although it slows me down, it’s worth it for the results. Gazelle Twin, Coil, Kate Bush, Throbbing Gristle, Diamanda Galas – all get me into the strange frame of mind I like to write in. Sometimes the right music brings on an altered state – I want my writing to be part of a magickal process; me being changed by what I write and the writing guided by whatever’s been brought on by the music.

Anything can distract me from writing. Tiredness, the internet, the cat who lives in the house opposite staring at me from its window, the urge for coffee and biscuits. Any excuse, eh? All down to the fear of failure, that I won’t be able to come up with anything of any use – but perhaps I need to get in that state to get working.

Everything affects one’s writing, of course, but a couple of massive events in the last few weeks – the ending of a 15 year relationship with someone who I thought was my Life Partner, two house moves and the realisation that I probably have Aspergers – will no doubt have a huge impact on what and how I write. I’m interested to see where it takes me! The Asperger’s thing has actually been liberating – I don’t have to look to be ‘fixed’ anymore from a lifetime of horrible symptoms. I just need to understand my different wiring, and I’m embracing it. Luckily for me, I have a bunch of wonderful friends who also embrace my oddness.

At the moment I’m working on some fiction – A Cure For The Common Cold, which explores my obsession with 1970s weird phenomena and has a very powerful woman at its centre. I’m also working on lots of non-fiction – editing Cunt-Struck, an article about lesbian themes in current cinema releases, and various other bits of writing and art for Dykes Ink, my new ‘zine.

The last year or so has been massive in terms of creativity and I just can’t stop.

Julie Travis is a surrealist & dark fantasy writer and a good witch. She also makes zines and other art. Her latest short fiction collection, We Are All Falling Towards the Centre of the Earth is available now (here’s a fantastic review of it from Des Lewis), and her very interesting blog can be found here.

ESCAPE ROOM: ALIYA WHITELEY

The photo shows the table in the coffee shop where I wrote most of the first drafts of my last four books, give or take. I’ve really enjoyed the juxtaposition between this quiet space and the places I’ve ended up on paper. The new book being published this year – Greensmith – has some really strange adventures in it, and I like the idea that this was the unlikely starting point for all that. Writing is just so weird, isn’t it? The unmatching interior and exterior life.

I don’t have a dedicated writing space, but I like lurking in the coffee shop in my village for first drafts. Sometimes I stay home and get set up at the kitchen table or by the sofa, or out in the garden if the weather’s good. I’m not keen on the idea of needing to be in a certain place to write. At one point I set up a permanent desk next to a bookshelf holding many of my favourite books, thinking it might inspire me, but it made me feel a bit presumptuous, so I gave that up.

Buses and trains are good for getting ideas down. I’ve written in lots of places and people are usually very good at letting me get on with it. Quite a few people have their own routines which involve my local café, and we tend to nod to each other and then settle down to work. I did have a running good-natured feud over a particular table a few years ago – in a different coffee shop – with a man who was writing his dissertation and had taken a shine to the table I also preferred at the time. Then I moved away. He might still be there, victorious, wondering if he drove me away. Or maybe not. I hope he got his dissertation done.

At home, if there’s housework or whatever to be done, then I can find it difficult to settle down and write, which I suppose is why I tend to go out. The internet really doesn’t help in some ways, but if I’m in a distractible mood then it doesn’t matter if my phone is within reach or not; I can end up ripping napkins into shapes or doodling for hours. Practically every page of every notebook contains doodles. It’s fine. I tend to think of it as part of the process. I like the very productive days but I try not to obsess over finding them.

I start with a longhand first draft, usually written in the mornings. Then I type up in the afternoons – not the thing I’ve written that morning, but something else. If I’m writing a novel then I’ll start typing up the first bits once I’m about 10,000 words in, for instance, to always keep a bit of distance. Or I’ll always have a short story idea on the go. I might go back to writing in longhand in the evening if I’m really grabbed by something, but I prefer to read later on in the day.

A bit of background noise helps (thank you, other patrons of aforementioned coffee shop). If I’m at home then I usually listen to jazz or classical music, or soundtracks. Music without words. So far this year I’ve been listening to Oscar Peterson and Monteverdi and the soundtrack to Phantom Thread (by Jonny Greenwood) a lot.

When it’s going well I love writing a first draft in which I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. There’s a time when I get past the distractions and there’s a background hum in the coffee shop, or some good music playing quietly at home, and an hour or two pass so quickly. Those experiences don’t always lead to the best prose, to be honest, and quite often they need a fair bit of editing to get them right, but I think they often retain a raw excitement for me. Maybe it doesn’t come across to the reader, but I can still feel it when I read them back.

The worst bit is the waiting. Any time when I get to write or edit, I’m pretty happy because I’m back into control of the prose. But waiting for edits or feedback to come from other people, wondering if they’ll spot some fatal flaw that makes the whole thing fall flat, leaves me a wreck. As soon as I get the feedback I feel better, even if there are significant problems. Then I can crack on with attempting to do something about it.

I’ve started work on a new thing which I think might become a novel and it’s got a hint of Daphne Du Maurier to it in my mind, which is why I’m listening to the Phantom Thread soundtrack a lot. Am I the only one who thinks that film has got a strong Du Maurier influence to it? I loved it. I’m hoping I manage to do this idea justice, but only time and lots of cups of coffee will tell.

Aliya Whiteley is the author of acclaimed and award-winning novels and short stories. Her latest novel, The Loosening Skin, is available now from all the best book suppliers and her blog is here.

ESCAPE ROOM: NEIL WILLIAMSON

My writing space is not here. In fact it’s anywhere but here. I don’t find it easy to settle down to writing at home, so I tend to be one of those cafe writers. You know the ones with their laptops and their carefully-paced consumption of one-drink-per-hour, hogging the table by the power point closest to the window for the decent light but furthest from the door to be out of the draught. The ones whose orders the barristas know by heart. I’m one of them.

Since I’ve been writing in cafes for a while now, most of what I’ve published over the last ten years or so has been at least partly written in one or other of the cafes I use. I’m proud of everything I’ve written, most recently my novel, Queen of Clouds, which is currently on submission.

Over the years I’ve built my writing into my working week as well as my weekends. I write in a cafe for up to an hour before going in to work every morning, and then have another stint at lunchtime. At weekends I’ll spend somewhere between two and four hours in the cafe across the road from our flat.

I listen to music all the time when I’m writing. I’ve got a playlist of writing music on Spotify that contains a collection of instrumental music such as movie soundtracks and abstract compositions. The big thing for me is that it acts as a barrier to the outside – in effect, becoming the walls of my writing space – without itself being distracting. So: no words, no hugely distinctive melodies. Currently my list contains work by Max Richter, Johann Johannsson, Dario Marianelli, Olafur Arnalds, Poppy Ackroyd and Mogwai.

The biggest distractions for me while writing are people talking and the internet. I use music to cut myself off from my environment and I use a phone app to make myself focus for 25 minutes in every half hour which seems to work pretty well. The only thing I can’t write without is tea. Which tends, I think, to make me look like a bit of a cheapskate when there’s so much fancy coffee on offer in the places I choose to work in, although the reality is that I’m simply not a huge fan of coffee while tea runs hot and steaming in my veins

The two most enjoyable things about writing for me are 1/ creating things that have never existed and 2/ making the words on the page sound good. As a reader myself invention and craft are what I value above all else in a book and nothing beats the feeling of reading something back that I’ve written and being surprised, even delighted, by the art I’ve made. Knowing that readers are going to have that same experience. The least enjoyable thing about writing is making the little bits of logic all fit together. The longer the story is the worse that is, and you find yourself constantly stopping to check whether what you were just about to write clashes with something already in the story, or might clash with something in the future. That’s such a frustrating experience.

I’ve not long started a new novel (currently) called The Poisoner’s Road. It’s more of a traditional style fantasy than I’ve done before and features a wandering poisoner master, a runaway warrior and a holy transcriber joining forces to save a sculpted forest city under seige by an army of napalm-filled paper golems. Among other things. It’s keeping me busy anyway.

Neil Williamson is a writer of short stories and novels. His most recent novel THE MOON KING is available from all reputable vendors (and some disreputable ones too) and his website can be found here.

ESCAPE ROOM: TRACY FAHEY

I write in various places: coffee-shops, my living room, my back garden, but most commonly in my study. It’s a south-facing room that overlooks the hills, with a comfy green leather chair and ottoman, lots of horror books, an old writing desk my father found for me in an antiques shop, a collection of pens and quills, various skull prints on the walls and esoteric objects on the shelves including a phrenology head, a skeleton candle-holder, a Gubu doll, a Tibetan demon mask, jade figurines and a typewriter with a skeletal hand attached. Did I mention I like skeletons? Good. I was afraid I might forget to say that.

When I’m writing, I like best to listen to music with lyrics I don’t understand, so words don’t distract me. Sigur Ros are my ultimate writing soundtrack. But I’m also fond of atmospheric music. I listened a lot to Villagers’ ‘Becoming A Jackal’ when I was writing New Music For Old Rituals because it’s Irish, creepy and contemporary – the mood I was aiming for.

I couldn’t claim to have anything like a routine. But I try to get up early and write for an hour or so before work claims my soul. It gives me a sense of self before the ‘real’ day begins, and it’s my most productive time. I find I write most coherently either early in the morning or late at night. I wish I had the discipline to have a writing method, but it mostly consists of scribbling, pacing, typing, making cups of tea and looking vacantly around. I write scraps and ephemera when inspired, and when I’m feeling workmanlike I’ll start shoehorning them into an actual form. I find it useful to break up writing if I’m uninspired – I’ll take my dog for a walk, or draw, or take photographs of ruins or make prints. Sometimes moving about and thinking in non-verbal ways will suddenly present me with a new way in to what I’ve been worrying at.

Silence outside and warmth inside are essential for writing. I need my series of ink-stained kimonos a.k.a. writing clothes. I also need a notebook and my special pens which are hybrids; Uniball eye micro pens with a Staedler stick cap to make them feel longer in my hand. It’s a thing. If I were being truthful, at one point I would have said I needed anxiety to write; I write a lot about fear, and anxiety informs that. But that’s not healthy, so I try not to write from that place, but from a place of wanting to tell a story.

I’m working – very slowly – on a collection titled I Spit Myself Out. The title is a quote from Julia Kristeva’s The Powers of Horror which deals with (among other subjects) the idea of the body and the abject – that which the body casts off. In this collection I’m interested in interrogating terrors that arise from simply being ourselves; exploring the divisions between what-is-us and what-is-not-us, and what happens when these boundaries are perforated and transgressed. So it’s dealing with illness, dysfunction, skin, blood, contagion – writing the body.

When I’m in the wrong mood EVERYTHING distracts me from writing. Social media is bad – leaving Facebook was a good step, although I have yet to block my ears to the siren song of Twitter. Noise is the worst distraction, and I’m eternally grateful that my room faces the back of the house and not the front where my little neighbours play. They’re sweet kids, but nothing fans my rage when I’m trying to concentrate like the dulcet tones of happy children at play. Yes, I use headphones or ear-plugs, but I prefer not to have to. If I hit The Flow, everything disappears; tea cools, time is forgotten, words suddenly fit and sequence and dance. Magic stuff.

Tracy Fahey is an Irish writer of Gothic fiction. Her latest collection, NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS, is published by Black Shuck books. You can find her website here. .

dinosaurs and distress-biscuits

My author copies of This House of Wounds arrived this week, and they look amazing! I didn’t expect that getting copies of my book would be so emotional, but there is something very moving about holding your own book in your own hands. It’s not just the gorgeousness of the cover and design, or the fact that having a book like this has been my ambition ALL MY LIFE (and I am very old). It’s also the kindness and generosity shown by so many friends, acquaintances, and actual, literal strangers that has been so moving and wonderful to experience.

I’m so ridiculously grateful to everyone who has pre-ordered This House of Wounds from Amazon, bought it from Undertow, downloaded the e-book, requested an ARC, or marked it as ‘to read’ on Goodreads. I’m super grateful to everyone who has posted, tweeted, shared, liked, or commented about the book on social media. I’ve always known writers to be a kind and generous bunch, but the support I’ve received has been unreal. You are all so nice. Have ten million dinosaurs 🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕

It’s early days yet for reviews, but words like “intense,” “haunting,” and “disturbing” are flying around. One reader claims that it gave her nightmares, for which I am very sorry (and also a little proud). My suggestion to alleviate reader distress by taping complimentary biscuits to every copy sold is apparently “a bit impractical” but I still think it’s a good idea. If they are dinosaur-shaped distress-biscuits, so much the better!

ESCAPE ROOM: LAURA MAURO

For the last five years my ‘writing space’ has been a laptop placed anywhere with enough room. I spent a long time living in a room at my in-laws so space was a luxury. When I finally moved into my own place we talked about converting the small bedroom into an office space so I could finally have a place of my own in which to write. That finally happened late last year. So, in my writing space, there is a desk, which is usually quite messy and covered in weird trinkets, half-read books, unfinished sewing projects and sketchbooks. There are bookshelves behind me, but apparently not enough of them, or perhaps I just need to KonMari my book collection. There is a cushion for my cats to sit and judge me, and a notice board which I fill with postcards from friends and small pieces of art I’ve picked up here and there. There is a window in front of me to gaze out of, especially when it’s raining. And there is a cardboard cut out of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, just because.

I aspire to being the kind of writer who has a routine, but I’m largely quite chaotic when it comes to writing. I’m so busy a lot of the time that routine basically means carving out chunks of time between work/commuting/freelancing/uni/life admin which isn’t always easy. So it’s all very ad-hoc, which isn’t ideal, but I’ve never been very good at setting and sticking to routines – though I would like to be! Maybe I need a life coach. I do try to make sure I have a cup of tea, though.

Music can help or hinder my writing. It very much depends. Sometimes I end up responding so strongly to the music that it’s almost impossible to focus on the writing. One thing I do always have on is a background noise generator. I use mynoise.net which has a range of sounds from rain, waves and forest sounds to tonal drones such as chanting, white noise, or even randomly generated piano sounds. It’s also super good for anxiety. Unsurprisingly, my favourite setting is Japanese Garden. If I do listen to music, I try to pick soundtracks or orchestral stuff which I won’t be tempted to sing along to.

Chatter and conversation, if they’re close by, distract me from writing. But also total silence can be distracting because my brain fills the void and that’s never advisable. Some kind of unintrusive sound is necessary, even if that’s background chatter in the office at lunchtime, or in a coffee shop. Otherwise, I’m pretty adaptable. I wonder if that will change as I get used to working at a desk?

I am slowly getting over my weird OCD superstition which tells me that if I talk about a work in progress my brain will shut down and I will be completely unable to ever finish it. (I still can’t give my stories titles until they’re finished, though, due to the same irrational fear!) So, the quick answer to what I’m working on is: TOO MANY THINGS. The longer answer is: finishing a short story which riffs off Alice in Wonderland, set in an abandoned Japanese Inari shrine populated by yokai (folkloric monsters and demons). Then I need to start work on another short story, which has something to do with number stations (look them up, it’s a weird and fascinating rabbithole to fall down.) And finally, I’ve got the beginnings of what might be a novel or novella to go back to, which seems to be heading down a distinctly SF route…

One more thing. Please could someone come round and teach me how to create and stick to a routine. I will pay you in hot beverages and possibly money if I can find any. I have so much stuff to do. You are my only hope.

Laura Mauro’s short story LOOKING FOR LAIKA won the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction in 2018. Her debut collection, SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP, is forthcoming from Undertow Books. Her blog can be found here.