you’re on a list

You’re on a list, mate. You’re definitely on a list. If you’re not on a list already, you’re going to be on a list soon. Shortly after you’ve read this post, they’re going to put you on a list.

Lists are necessary. Getting everyone on the right list is the bureaucratic burden of the regime, it’s the biggest task facing the government, it’s where we’ll put all our money and manpower. Because there have to be lists. If there are no lists, how will we know what’s important?

Really, what could be more orderly, more ordinary, than a list? Alphabetised, numberised, cross-referenced to other lists, computerised and databased and we assure you these lists are very secure, these lists are just for our security. These lists are just so we know which small children do not belong in our schools and which pregnant women should be turned away from our doctors’ surgeries, and which highly-skilled physicians should be dismissed from their posts as soon as possible. You see, the lists are just a practical measure, to make sure we’re all getting exactly what we deserve. To suggest that there is anything more sinister to these lists is pure melodrama.

It just makes sense. If there wasn’t a list, we wouldn’t know where to concentrate our resources, and we’d end up making terrible mistakes. We might break down the wrong doors, steal the wrong children, smother the wrong babies in their cots, rape the wrong girls, torture the wrong parents. And that would never do – we’re civilised people, for god’s sake.

And a list is a flexible thing, you’ll agree. A list can change its nature very easily. The list titled “Foreign Children In Our Schools” can easily be re-saved as “Deportation and Transportation.” It cuts down on admin, you see, if we already have everyone on a list. Then if our policies change, we can simply change the title of the list to reflect our new values. Pretty neat stuff.

I guess the only thing that could throw a spanner in the works is if you refused to have anything to do with the lists. If you refused to name your foreign workers, or to send information about the small children in your school, or about your colleagues, or about your friends. If you sabotaged the lists wherever you could, populated lists with bogus information to waste the authorities’ time and money. If you were irresponsible enough to do that, to lose lists, and lie on lists, and refuse to even make lists in the first place – well that could really fuck things up. That’ll get you on a list, for sure.

(see also Michael Rosen’s “Lists, lists of foreigners, lists of foreign born people.” )

fcon by the sea: the story of a bookish fool

Now that fcon is well and truly over, convention dictates that I should write a blog post in which I drop the names of all the groovy people I met in Scarborough and talk about the cool stuff we did together… or at least the cool stuff we did near each other, or the cool stuff they did while I watched from a respectful distance. Anyway, it would be rude not to do a little blog, really, under the circumstances. I’ve been thinking for ages about what to write, and I don’t quite know where to start, or how to end, or what to say in between. I’m overwhelmed at meeting so many friendly, thoughtful, charming, engaging, fascinating, funny, and kind people all at once.  Thank you all. It was a fantastic weekend, so fantastic that I have in fact forgotten most of it already. I’m pretty sure that some of my comings and goings are fully known to no-one but the delightfully snarky concierge at the Royal Hotel Scarborough… I’m joking, of course. Even he doesn’t know everything… the only people who know everything are too dead to talk.

The very first person I bumped into on the Friday was Neil Williamson, who happens to be a person I actually know in real life. Neil sidled up to me at the bar and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. Buying a glass of wine, I said. Neil shook his head. Amateur, he muttered. He whisked me away to James Bennett’s book launch, where he introduced me to several wonderful people, and several wonderful glasses of free wine. Amongst the people Neil introduced me to were Alistair Rennie, who turns out to be my neighbour in Edinburgh, and James Bennett, who turns out to be my neighbour in sick humour, oversharing, and excessive consumption of alcohol. That night, I gatecrashed Neil’s dinner with Ruth Booth, but she turned out to be in great demand and I lost her later when we ventured into the disco. (The less said about the disco, the better.)

I liked everyone so much that I thought I might explode with feelings. I was especially happy to meet Vince Haig, who I’ve loved since he illustrated my story, White Rabbit; and Helen Marshall, who I fangirled over like some sort of lovestruck booknerd. I took to following Vince and Helen around the con, and went to a lot of trouble to arrange things so that I’d “accidentally” turn up wherever they happened to be. Obviously I did my best to appear to be a normal person, but I think they saw through my act. At one point, Helen intimated that she may in fact have to kill me. She said that I carried within me the seeds of my own destruction – which I found quite apposite, as I had just downed several bottles of free red wine.

In my defence, I had only recently discovered that wine is free at fantasycon and simply appears before you whenever you buy a book. Or stand near a book. Or stand near Jess Jordan. It would have been cool to hang out with Jess and her partner, the talented and lovely Ray Cluley, but they kept getting away from me – though we do have plans to cause a scandal next time we’re together. Or is it that I have plans to scandalise them? One or the other. I talked to Tom Johnstone at length about my problems and opinions, which I’m sure he found completely inspirational and not at all like having an annoying drunk/hungover person talking at him non-stop for hours on end. I also spent many hours following Priya Sharma around and bending her ear about various things, which she tolerated because she is so very lovely and award-winning. Priya, Tom, Tracy Fahey, Victoria Leslie, Lynda Rucker, Rob Shearman, Maura McHugh, and my neighbour and co-panelist, Alistair Rennie, all generously tried to help and encourage me before my panel appearance on the Sunday, which I was fully dreading because of my severe lack of brains. They were all far nicer to me than I deserved, and my panel wasn’t a complete disaster. I managed to make a few jokes, and even threw in the words, ‘vagina monsters,’ so I think we can call that a win.

I bumped into Des Lewis on the seafront early Saturday morning, each of us going for a stroll and taking some pictures. At the launch of Almost Insentient, Almost Divine by DP Watt, Des told me that if I didn’t like the book, he would personally refund my money. But it seems unlikely I would give up on such a beauty. Sophie Essex took one look at my copy and the next several times I saw her she was asking me, have you seen DP Watt anywhere? I want to buy his book. Can you remember what he looks like? And I would say, not really. I remember he has dark hair, but that’s all… there’s just a blur where his face should be. I wonder if anyone has seen DP Watt – I mean, really seen him.

There was lots to do at fcon, but the readings were my favourite. Hearing Victoria Leslie read from her extraordinary novel, Bodies of Water, was actually thrilling. She read alongside Alison Littlewood, who gave us the first chapter of her novel, The Hidden People. The two books resonated weirdly together – we all wished for several hours of discussion afterwards. I also enjoyed hearing Priya Sharma read her nasty little fairytale, Egg – everyone was a little freaked out by that one. Tracy Fahey spellbound us with her old, deep story about Wild Goose Lodge. And listening to Helen Marshall not so much read, but propel her story into the world with all the force of her talent – that was cool af.

It was great to spend time with some really full-on, intense, super-clever, hilarious, unconventional, interesting women. I was lucky enough to hang out with Priya Sharma, Victoria Leslie, Laura Mauro, Cate Gardner, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Tracy Fahey, Sophie Essex, Lynda Rucker, Maura McHugh, Alison Littlewood, and Helen Marshall to name but some – each of these women alone is a brilliant talent, but put them together and you have a terrifying powerhouse of writing and artistic genius. Ideas proliferated, friendships and collaborations were initiated, and plans were put into motion. Great things are afoot amongst the women of genre… be afraid.

Biggest disappointment: All the people I didn’t get to meet, and not having enough time with those I did meet. I inflicted myself briefly on various excellent people such as James Everington, Phil Sloman, Jim McLeod, Teodor Reljic, Andrew Hook, Simon Bestwick, Emma Cosh, Sarah Watts, and the enigmatic Pam! to name but a very few (and I know I’ve forgotten loads of names along the way, sorry!)  I wanted to kidnap each and every one of them and get them into all sorts of trouble, but there just wasn’t enough time or rope, so, regrettably, I had to let many go free, unencumbered by the memory of my ingratiating smile or the chafing of the handcuffs as I declared us to be “friends forever.”

Best George: this was a tie between me (obvs) and the fabulous Georgina Kamsika. I’ve never met another proper George before! We were very happy to find one another and made immediate plans for world domination.

Best Secret moment: The highlight of the whole weekend was when Victoria Leslie and I stole Sophie Essex away to a quiet place and made her read her astonishing, remarkable poems to us. Other things happened in Secret Poetry Club that I’m not at liberty to divulge, but the genius of Sophie Essex ought not to be hidden from the world.

In conclusion: This was my first fcon and I loved it. The volunteers were friendly and fun and made everything run smoothly. The Royal Hotel was creepy and creaky, they made me gluten-free toast for breakfast, and their concierge was my best friend from the moment we met. Scarborough was gloriously sunny and weird, and running between the hotels with my arms full of books and wine and people was part of the fun. I barely slept but was running fine on alcohol and adrenaline all weekend. Also: books. And, furthermore: more books. I bought and was given several books – reviews and thoughts to come soon. In the meantime, thanks again – you’re all lovely, and charming, and I miss you already.

how to write a novel in no easy steps

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

bookish winter things

 

Winter is cold and depressing (my favourite). I continue to fill my empty existence with reading and writing. My field notes from January:

My Black Static story “White Rabbit” has been well received, and even garnered a very nice mention in the Guardian! It’s good to see Black Static getting some recognition in the mainstream press for its support of new and established writers. And it’s good to see genre writing given serious consideration. And my family and friends are most impressed.

Des Lewis wrote a dreamcatching review of “White Rabbit” which I thought a sensitive and telepathic reading of the story. The whole point of writing is to make that connection with other humans, so this pleases me immensely.

Work continues on the novel. The 5.30am starts don’t get any easier. I may be reaching some sort of ending, if the panic attacks and attempts to run away are anything to go by.

On reading: this is a picture of all the books I read in January, arranged left to right in order of how great I think they are. The blue book on the far left is “A Spell to Conjure Violets” by Kate Mascarenhas, and it is really, truly wonderful. A strange, clever, moving story about parallel universes, paths taken and not taken, and how to account for our mistakes. The reader is drawn in through the completely believable characterisation and setting. Mascarenhas prints and binds the books herself, beautifully, and has paperbacks of this for sale now. You can contact her via twitter – she is @flynnker and she’ll be delighted to take your order

black static, white rabbit

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.