Here is the cover for my little book HONEYBONES, coming soon from TTA Press as part of their novella series, which will also see the brilliant Malcolm Devlin‘s ENGINES BENEATH US coming out at the same time. So please buy both books if you can!
Malcolm’s weird brother, the award-winning artist Vince Haig, did the cover illustration. I am so honoured to have had Vince illustrating several of my stories over the years. He somehow managed to tell the whole story in this picture – not an easy feat! It’s a beautiful illustration and I feel very lucky.
HONEYBONES is definitely in the realm of horror. It’s actually one of those twisted fairytales I like to claim I don’t write. It’s Bluebeard, Snow White, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses gone very, very wrong. It also features Dreemy Peeple (indeed this is where the Dreemy Peeps began) and a lot of mirrors and feathers and that sort of thing. A brief descriptive blurb says:
A troubled girl, a haunted book, a house of illusions and enchanted mirrors. Anna Carrow just wants to make things right between her and her mum, to please her stepdad, and keep out of the way of school bullies. But her efforts only seem to lead her further and further from reality, deeper and deeper into paranoia and delusion, until she finds herself tangled inside a twisted fairytale, face to face with the sinister Cully King. Now Anna has to decide which version of reality to believe in. But how can you know who to trust, when your mind is playing tricks on you?
If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, watch this space! HONEYBONES will probably be a bit like that. It’ll be available to buy very soon and I can’t wait to see what people make of it. Thanks to all for your support!
There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.
Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.
Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.
Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.
I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.
A few updates for the start of 2020. I took part in a fantastic podcast experience with Alex Blott of Papertrail podcasts, in which I talk about writing stories, the unusual formation of my story Kuebiko, the editing process, and why you should never take advice. A really enjoyable experience for me – I hope you will like it too, and give Alex some feedback. Listen here.
One of my writing heroes, fountain pen aficionado, and all-round lovely person, Priya Sharma, talked to me about her fantastic debut novel, ORMESHADOW, in the current Black Static magazine, which also contains a review of her book, plus all sorts of other brilliant stuff.
Priya and I, along with fellow Undertow author, Laura Mauro, had a frank and fascinating chat about writing earlier this year and our conversation can be found here. We go into early influences, the role of politics in our writing, and why Women in Horror Month is not every woman’s favourite time of the year.
If you read that discussion, you’ll know my thoughts on Women in Horror – but I’m all in favour of buying more books by women any time of the year, and Undertow has a great, generous offer on their books by women writers right now. Check it out.
A few words about Vicki Jarrett’s excellent novel, ALWAYS NORTH, recently out in paperback from Unsung Stories. I read this novel in a few short hours, and was variously thrilled, terrified, depressed, intrigued and ultimately satisfied. In places it reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s fantastic MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW. Later, it put me in mind of Michael Walter’s debut, THE COMPLEX. There’s a well-earned nod to Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD in there, too. But of course it is always only its own thing, pushing through the frozen seas to the frozen heart (or the plundered brain) within.
Personally I don’t know how many terrifyingly realistic evocations of the eco-apocalypse I can stand. This one was uniquely effective in its use of structure, making me long for the recent past that its characters were seeking, despite its inhospitable terrain. I found Isobel to be an excellent lead, a down to earth woman with a healthy sense of self-preservation and knowledge of her own worth. It was strange that she seemed to be the only woman in the novel – can there be only one real woman at a time? But perhaps it is part of the story, the way men seem to take things over, the way women are relegated to the background. Maybe if it wasn’t such a man’s world, it would feel like we had more of a chance. Either way, I would have wished for more women like Izzy to populate this world. It seemed strangely anachronistic that she was out there alone.
I do love novels that bruise through genre divisions without a backwards look. I love that sense of time collapsing in on itself, of stories that start feeding off one another. At various points I wondered: is it THE THING, is it vampires, is it HIS DARK MATERIALS? There was mystery, urgency, thrill, even moments of comedy, all tightly woven together with precise and flawless prose. While the structure was complex and ambitious, I had total faith in Jarrett’s ability to pull off the enterprise, and (barring a forgivable bit of handwaving towards the end) she absolutely did. This is a novel well worth your time. I hope it continues to garner praise and attention from all quarters. Highly recommended.
I read a lot of very good books this year, a few of which I reviewed either on my blog or in Black Static or Interzone magazines, including some of the titles mentioned below. I don’t know how much reviewing I’ll be doing in the New Year. I seem to have ground to a halt. I also don’t know how useful these kinds of lists are – I guess it’s just a way of summing up where I’m at with my reading these days.
I observed this year that some of the books I read were unsatisfying to me. They were, in some cases, just too good. They were all surface and slick. They were conventional. They were emotional but only within a certain range. There was something wrong with them. I struggle to say what I mean beyond that. I’m talking about books that are very good, very well crafted, excellent books. But there is a weakness at the heart of them, a lack of doubt, of ugliness, of courage.
Maybe it’s me.
Anyway, many of the books I read, and certainly my books of the year, are not that way at all. Each of them is alive and infected with horrible, gorgeous human stuff.
There were some excellent short story collections this year, of which Tracy Fahey’s NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS impressed me greatly with its storytelling power. Andrew Hook’s THE FOREST OF DEAD CHILDREN disturbed me and filled me with dread and wonder. I also frankly loved Rob Shearman’s chapbook teasers for WE ALL TELL STORIES IN THE DARK, his madly ambitious 101 short stories project. I read those and Leonora Carrington’s COMPLETE STORIES at the same time and the two authors sort of merged in my mind to create one, supremely messed up hilarious nightmare machine.
THE HEAVENS, by Sandra Newman, blew my mind and blasted me out of my complacency about what novels can do and be. It was compelling and bitter and full of complexity and magic.
Talking about what novels can do and be, it would be remiss not to mention DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, Lucy Ellman’s transcendently lucid journey through an ordinary mind. It was boring, very boring in places. But hilarious and brilliant. It will change things, this book. It will change novels, anyway.
Julie Travis’ novelette TOMORROW, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, reminded me somewhat of THE HEAVENS but then it went one better in allowing me to live in its strange and wonderful world. Wonderful and perfect are the words I used to describe this book. It is full of love and humour, awe, strangeness, sorrow… I enjoyed it immensely and only wished I could stay forever.
GAMBLE by Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a novel I’ve talked about a fair bit this year, and for good reason. It is brutal in its precision, a skewer to the psyche, funny and so very, very sinister. Speaking of sinister things, I discovered a new writer, who I think is exceptional, in the form of Rebecca Gransden. I reviewed her novel ANEMOGRAM. on this blog. Her writing is unutterably strange, haunting, violent and funny. I don’t know where she will go with it but what I’ve read so far strikes me as profoundly brave and vulnerable, and I think she will do something great.
Another debut novelist, Michael Walters, impressed me with his book THE COMPLEX, which is far from perfect, and all the better for that. It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since first reading: it has been growing on me/in me/around me. I was also reminded of it when reading Helen Phillips’ THE NEED, also featuring a stag-like being, but in a very different mode. This is a deceptively simple book that does something completely and utterly weird. I loved it.
Two books by Aliya Whiteley, THE LOOSENING SKIN and SKEIN ISLAND, impressed and disturbed me. I loved Deborah Levy’s weird and moving THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING and Anna Stothardt’s gripping and unbelievably good THE MUSEUM OF CATHY. Each of these writers are doing their own, strikingly original things and keep putting out incredible book after incredible book.
But my absolute favourite read this year must be Charles Lambert’s THE CHILDREN’S HOME. This is a book that’s hard to describe, since it resists and transcends and transforms itself as you read it. It is brilliant. When I finished it, I cried. It’s the kind of book you can’t even talk about because it’s too good, you’re too passionately in love with it, too in awe of its brilliance, and you don’t want to break it by understanding it too well. Just read it.
A book I cannot recommend at all is Paul Kingsnorth’s SAVAGE GODS. I can’t, because in fact he wrote it just for me. Or really, he wrote it for himself, and he’s a man, and that matters. But nevertheless, it was also for me, and I found it beautiful and cruel and sorrowful and true, and as someone who is also lost in that same wood, or one adjacent, I am very grateful for his story.
Another year, another Fantasycon, this time held in a hospital/hotel nestled in a large car park some miles outside the great city of Glasgow. The hospi-tel was large, modern, and mostly quite clean (although at one point Tim Lebbon was surprised to see lipstick on his coffee cup, as he hadn’t been wearing any that morning.) Some residents were alarmed to see notices in their bedrooms warning them about their upcoming surgeries, but I’m relieved to say that most of us survived the weekend without any complications, and with all our organs intact. Well, maybe not our livers. And our hearts were a bit broken. But more of that later.
I arrived around noon on the Friday and immediately spotted Paul Tremblay, one of our illustrious Guests of Honour, at the check-in desk. I honoured him by embracing him enthusiastically while he honoured me by pretending to remember who the hell I was.
After checking in and dropping off my bag, I met Tracy Fahey in the bar and gifted her a lifelike plastic raven, which caused much jealousy among the gothic hordes. We joined Priya Sharma and Mark Greenwood, Penny and Simon Jones, Steve Shaw, Justin Park, Marie O’Regan, Paul Kane, Andy Freudenberg and oh god this is so much harder than Mark West makes it look. We – whoever we were – sat outside on a terrace overlooking a body of water which was in turn overlooked by some large toxic waste silos. In this romantic setting, we discussed Steve Shaw’s ablutions (see Steve’s-Ablutions.com) and worked out the rules of horror cagefight in which we would pit masters of horror Ramsey Campbell and Paul Tremblay against one another in a wrestle to the death.
Later I had lunch with Canadia’s finest publishers, Carolyn and Michael Kelly, and discussed our plans for ritual human sacrifice. Carolyn and I paid a large sum of money for the world’s smallest and crumbliest gluten-free sandwich (which didn’t even have any human sacrifice in it) and were forced to steal Mike’s chips just in case we starved.
Some other people were around and I talked to many of them. They were all lovely, but I didn’t write their names in my notebook so I have no recollection of who they were or what it was I liked about them so very much. The lack of note-taking was partly because Penny Jones caught me writing her name for this report and ran at me yelling “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Apparently there are a number of terrifying stories written about Penny Jones and she naturally assumed I was jumping on the trend. I was not. However, later that evening, Hal Duncan spent a good 45 minutes explaining to me that life is a series of interlinked sitcoms and reader, I was thoroughly convinced. It explains a lot, although I’m not sure anything completely explains Penny Jones.
That evening, Andrew Freudenberg and I came up with a great fiction collaboration in which the story of Big Baby Jesus and his twin brother Satan (played respectively by Giant Haystacks and Kirk Douglas) would be told in a way you have never heard it told before. I took this as a sign that I was way too drunk to go on, and took to my bed. It took me a good long while to take to my bed, as first I had to have lengthy chats with lovely Neil Williamson and lovely others even too lovely to remember. On my final attempt to leave the bar, Muriel Gray grabbed me for a selfie, exclaiming that I was “fantastic” and that I had the “best hair”. This was not only the high point of my entire weekend but also means I can pronounce with some confidence that I have won Hair Club, possibly forever. The gorgeously lovely Chloë Yates made a good bid for it this year, but I’m afraid Muriel Gray’s decision is final.
On Saturday I breakfasted with Alison Littlewood and her partner Fergus, who were infuriatingly perky, having gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Talked filmmaking and screenwriting with Eric Steele, who had early that morning escaped from a Magnus Mills novel. Later I went to Paul Tremblay’s kaffeeklatsch, thinking that Paul was going to buy us all coffee and muffins. Apparently that’s not what happens at a kaffeeklatsch, and Paul does not have his own MuffinMinion, actually. To make up for it, there was some great writerly chat with Kelly White, Thomas Joyce, Lee Harrison, Priya Sharma and some other people who were wonderful and so dazzling that I forgot to write their names in my notebook.
We trooped off to Rob Shearman’s pre-launch launch event, and on the way bumped into the Isle of Bute contingent, the extraordinarily talented and lovely Nina Allan and Anne Charnock. They both threatened to read my book, which was quite horrifying. On to the pre-launch launch, where Rob explained his epic new book and then made us all cry with a wonderful reading from it. The queue to buy the pre-book chapbooks went out the door and we had to be removed to the lobby for Rob to continue signing. “Take my money already!” was the cry of our hearts.
That evening, a few of us threw some shapes on the dancefloor. Gary Couzens and Sue York were alone in the disco until Tracy and I turned up for a dance, later joined by Francesca and Rob of Luna Publishing, Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk, and Phil Sloman of Legs fame. The DJ was deeply obnoxious but the music was fine, and I arrived at my late night ‘stories in the dark’ reading rather more sweaty than usual. Hopefully no one noticed, as it was dark, and they were probably quite scared, as Charlotte Bond, Pete Sutton, Kit Power and I read them some very creepy stories.
On Sunday morning I did a workshop on writing craft which involved ripping up books and drawing on them. There were a great bunch of writers there, including an old classmate, Hugh Reid. I did a quick podcast interview with E.M. Faulds in the sunshine, chatted with the Gingernuts of Horror himself, the lovely Jim McLeod, and then it was time for the Ordeal – I mean, banquet. Well, halfway between an Ordeal and a banquet. The serving staff, in what I can only assume is an ancient Dalmuirean tradition, refused to bring us any drinks until each person at the table had complained to them twice. For a starter I was served “fine dining” consisting of sweet green mousse on a bed of cress, with some melon juice in a shot glass. For mains, tomato puree over half a raw courgette, and two lumps of cauliflower pakora, which the servers assured me would either poison me, or not. By this point, I had lost the will to live anyway, so it didn’t matter.
I lived to make it to the awards ceremony, which Muriel Gray conducted with great warmth and very welcome humour. Vince Haig won Best Artist and Mike made us all cry with his emotional reading of Vince’s acceptance speech. Rob Shearman and Mike Kelly won the award for Best Anthology, which was wonderful, and their speeches made us laugh and cry some more. Priya Sharma’s award for Best Collection had many of us on our feet, and by this point quite a few of us were openly weeping, though it’s possible that some of us were just remembering lunch.
And that was more or less that. For once, I didn’t have far to go home but had lovely company on the train back to Edinburgh in the form of Neil Snowden and Tim Major, which was lucky or I might have been very sad to be leaving so many dear friends and delightful people, including all the dear and delightful people who should have been mentioned here but weren’t because I was drinking wine when I was supposed to be paying attention. Those who couldn’t make it this year were sorely missed, not least Mark West, who should have been writing this con report, but instead left it in the hands of an amateur, a fabricator, a teller of tall tales, and a person who forgot to write anything in her notebook after Saturday lunchtime. Until next time, much love to all xxx
This novel starts by dragging us into the bushes, and entangling us in a dense, lush, damp forest of prose that twists and grows into a setting, a character, a child who is inexplicably alone. She is unafraid, but hungry. Desperately vulnerable, but somehow perfectly content. She sleeps in the woods without getting her dress dirty, and when she needs something, she finds a way of taking it. Abandoned, abused, lost… but she defies us with happiness, with taking joy in the natural world. A voice in her ear, perhaps an imaginary friend, perhaps a possessing spirit, drives her onwards with gruesome, shocking, and sad fairytales. She consumes the stories as though they are sustenance.
As the story unfolds, we meet other people, also driven by
sad stories that whisper in their ear. In particular, we meet David, who sets
out to help the girl. Their connection is instantaneous, worrying in a way. But
by this point we understand that this child is more than capable of taking care
of herself. David, maybe not so much. The girl tells David her name is Sarah,
but this is likely a lie.
There is something transgressive and unpleasant in the idea
of an infant who is so self-sufficient, manipulative, poised as a predator.
There is something deeply suspect about the adult males who take her under
their wing. The novel’s brutal climax is a relief in a way, restoring a kind of
natural order and justice, a punishment by proxy of men who hurt little girls.
But nothing about this novel is easy to understand. Even the
title, which Gransden claims to have picked at random, is a word shuttered
inside its own referents. Anemogram: that which is recorded by an anemograph.
Anemograph: a self-recording anemometer. Self-recording, a self recording
itself, itself recorded… it is a fitting title, for we come to see that the
self being recorded in this story is itself recorded by another self, a Tinker
who tells tales and moves the world.
Yet for all this mystery and ambiguity, the novel pushes
forwards with a fierce narrative drive towards its awful, inevitable climax and
its gripping denouement. There is a gradually deepening sense of horror as the
story twists our sympathies and allegiances in unpredictable directions.
Gransden holds out answers, then rips them away, leaving the reader effectively
stranded and vulnerable in a world made alien and weird.
There is a deep concern with the relationship between
human-made and natural environments. The characters move around the edges of
the countryside, where building sites encroach upon the woods, and trees are
staked through with metal. These liminal settings are key to the novel’s
unsettling atmosphere; a Macdonald’s car park or a transport cafe are places steeped
in weirdness, a sense of dislocation. Sarah longs for the woods, to be
engrossed in the wild minutiae of the undergrowth. In some way, it is as if she
has sprung up from these edgelands, a vessel for the battle between humans and
nature. Again, the title may – or may not – provide a clue.
One thing is certain, and that is Rebecca Gransden‘s superlative and thrilling prose. It is mesmerising to read, hypnotic and terrifying. Gransden spins out webs of delicate beauty, then drops in a hungry spider. She is fearless and compelling. anemogram is a uniquely weird novel, which leaves the reader unsettled, excited, and full of questions. Highly recommended.
Happy book birthday to me! This House of Wounds is officially alive as of today. In book world, a book lives before it is officially born, so THOW has been read and reviewed all over the place already, but it’s still exciting to say, it’s here! You can buy it as much as you like now!
This weekend will see Edinburgh’s inaugural CYMERA Festival, which celebrates science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. Absolutely tonnes of exciting authors will be there, taking part in various events – interviews, panels, workshops, quizzes, readings. I’ll be doing a workshop on Sunday morning called “Writing the Body” and the rest of the weekend I’ll be drifting around, so please come and say hello.
On July 13, I’ll be attending Edge Lit in Derby – possibly the UK’s friendliest convention! It’s a wonderful day with loads of interesting stuff to do. There’s going to be a small, very unofficial launch of THOW along with Laura Mauro’s collection, SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP, so look out for that. We will whisper the details in your ear.
Finally, the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted a note in the current Interzone, to the effect that my novella “honeybones” is to be out soon as a TTA Press title. I have a lot to say about this novella; writing it was one of the strangest, most intense experiences of my life. Watch this space for news on that.
The Migration tells the story of teenage Sophie as she finds herself in the midst of family and global turmoil. Her little sister Kira has been diagnosed with an immune disorder which is mysteriously spreading among children and young people. Her best chance of treatment is in Oxford, England – thousands of miles from their Toronto home. For any teenager, being uprooted and moved across the world would be hard, and Sophie is no exception. She’s dealing with all the usual teenage angst over friendships, relationships, family tensions, and fears for the future. But as the immune disorder spreads, the world’s waters rise, and society begins to break down, she finds herself on a precipice. Solid ground is rapidly crumbling beneath her feet as first her family and then the entire world falls apart.
There are many migrations in this novel. Sophie’s migration from childhood to maturity provides the fierce narrative drive of the story. But there is a corresponding migration from order to chaos as the world rapidly changes. There are echoing migrations in every element of this story: from Canada to England, from health to illness, from ignorance to knowledge, from grief to acceptance, from life to death and from death to something beyond. The novel is masterful in its deep structure, building a sense of utter inevitability and verisimilitude from its underlying complexity. There is nothing implausible in the way Sophie is confronted with the facts of her new life, and no leap of faith is needed to believe in the unfolding of global events. It is all too real. The difficulty is believing that it could happen in any other way, although there are many in denial, such as Sophie’s mother and others who struggle to let go of the idea that everything will be alright, that order will be restored. It won’t be, and it is the children who grasp this first and bravely lead the way into a new kind of living.
There is hope in this book, magic and beauty. Helen Marshall’s prose is transparently clear and precise, effortlessly creating tension, humour, sorrow and fear, and playing each off against the others in a thrilling symphony of emotion and empathy. At the novel’s climax, a crescendo of glittering prose lifts us into a soaring and expansive sky. Marshall is a writer who can break your heart, and mend it again, and leave you dazzled, gazing out at her beautiful, broken universe.
The Migration is a serious, powerful novel, which confidently transcends the many genres that inform it – thriller, horror, science fiction, and fantasy, to name but a few. Helen Marshall has combined the personal and political in a compelling novel that is as thought-provoking as it is thrilling. Memorable and moving, deeply intelligent, and steeped in compassion, The Migration is a remarkable debut by an exceptionally talented author. Highly recommended.
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.