Writing beyond the lines: Rebecca Gransden’s anemogram.

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.

big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

i am dreaming

You know it’s time to start writing your book when words bleed through the palms of your hands, in mirror writing, and lightning sparks from your fingertips. It’s one of the more obvious symptoms.

I’ve been dreaming of this book for a very long time. It’s just a book. But like dreams, it makes its own sense and has its own language. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. Writing is such a mystery. But at the heart of the act of writing is a kind of listening.

It’s rhythm, I think, that I’m listening for. It’s what powers the sentences. Rhythm creates emotion – we know this from music. And it’s there in writing, too. It’s in the play of one word against another, in the balance of a sentence, in images juxtaposed, opposed, enmeshed, at war. Rhythm is how a sentence snags us, draws us in. When you open a book and you’re instantly hooked, it’s because you’ve entered a whole world of sound, an emotional universe. A book can do that, through its music, which begins with the rhythm of every note or word or space or stop.

I never listen to music when I write, but try to listen for the book’s own music. It takes some focus, but nothing deliberate. Each word, sentence, image is tried for harmony with the whole piece. The structure itself wants to be like music, building up and leaping forward, looping round and twisting back, reprising its own imagery, chorusing and responding in echoes of itself. It’s not a formula, but a feeling you have when you write, when everything is flowing forward: effortless, you are part of the song.

(It should be clear by now that I know fuck all about music.)

My book is called ‘The Mirror Book.’ It’s actually two books: the book and its reflection or inversion through the mirror. It’s a haunted house story, it’s a hall of mirrors, it’s about a crime, it is full of nonsense. I have no idea if I can even write it, but I have started. There are words. There is a kind of music, faint and far away. I hear it in my dreams.

my top ten books of 2016

Because books didn’t let us down in 2016.  Books didn’t allow Poundshop Cruella to take over the UK. Books didn’t elect Dipshit McHairdo as US president. Books didn’t exacerbate and instrumentalise divisions between people. Books didn’t conspire with evil dictators around the world to usher in a new age of fascism.

Because books are good.

Alice, by Christina Henry

This book gripped me from the very first line, and had me enthralled right to the very last. I love Alice in Wonderland, and over the years have collected many versions and adaptations (some relevant ones here are Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, and The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor). Christina Henry’s version gives us Alice as a victimised, imprisoned, oppressed young woman, who finds within herself the will and strength to fight back against the gruesome misogynist magical regime of the Walrus and the Caterpillar. It is gripping, funny, gruesome, and feminist as fuck. Highly recommended.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Creepy fiction about a bucolic summer in which something very strange happens to the members of a folk band recording their first album at Wylding Hall. The compelling thing about this book is its telling – each of the band members relays what they recall of that strange summer, and in the gaps and overlaps between their stories, we begin to see the shape of something very sinister emerging. By layering their stories one on top of the other, Hand is able to make a whole other story emerge, ghost-like, from the interstices. A brilliant book.

Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie

This is a book which keeps on unfolding and revealing itself long after you’ve read the last lines. Kirsten moves into an apartment at Wakewater House, a former hydropathy sanitorium. Her story intertwines with that of Evelyn, a woman treated at Wakewater House many years before. From there, this gothic ghost story is transformed by Leslie’s sensitive, passionate writing into a frightening and moving explication of the tortures that ‘unnatural’ women were subjected to, and the need to keep this history alive. Leslie is a superb writer of the feminist gothic and Bodies of Water is a very exciting first novel.

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

I had to stop reading this book on the tram because it was making me cry so much that it was actually embarrassing.  Leon is a young boy in foster care, broken up from his younger brother, and very lonely. His foster carer is one of those brilliant ordinary women who understand how to love and who rage against the racism and callousness of the care system. Set in Birmingham around the time of the Handsworth Riots, this is a story about family, love, racism, and power. If you like having your heart broken and put back together again, this is the book for you.

The Lost and Found, Katrina Leno

Full disclosure: Katrina Leno happens to be a good friend of mine. But I am only friends with the best, most accomplished, talented and interesting people, and she is one such. She has a unique voice which is both sensitive and sarcastic, and an imagination which knows no bounds. In her second YA novel, she tells the story of two young people who are brought together in a mysterious way, each on their own journey to solve their own particular problems. Leno’s evocation of falling in love is the most moving and compelling aspect of this book, which will make you laugh and cry. What more do you want?

A Spell to Conjure Violets, Kate Mascarenhas

Kate Mascarenhas is not only a fantastic writer, but a talented artist and a bookbinder. She printed, bound and covered each copy of Violets herself – which has sadly now sold out. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a copy of this book, but if you can, then do! Because it is fantastically weird and beautifully written – a portal fantasy that goes fractal. It’s a novel about abuses of privilege and power, and also about what connects us to one another. A book of wonderful, frightening, enthralling possibilities. I treasure this book, and commend this writer to you with all my heart.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite books since I was a small child – so I’m not sure why it took me until this year to get around to reading Jean Rhys’ incredibly powerful sister-story, Wide Sargasso Sea. It tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and in doing so, it moves Bronte’s gothic sensibilities into new dimensions of power, privilege, abuse, racism, colonialism, and sex. This is a brilliant book in its own right, but to me at least a part of its greatness comes from the conversation with Jane Eyre, who is also oppressed as a female, yet is part of the system that oppresses Bertha and denies her freedom. A very beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking book.

The Bird King, James Knight

Total cheat, as this isn’t actually just a book, but a series of books, poems, and tweets which explore nightmares (both personal and political), other worlds, strange cabaret, the thing behind the mirror, Mr Punch, illustrations of your dreams, and more besides. James Knight is currently writing a novel, which will no doubt be brilliantly surreal, moving, and extraordinary in every way. In the meantime, you can buy one or several of Knight’s books here.

The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang

The Vegetarian grabbed everyone’s attention this year by winning the Booker prize – deservedly so. This short novel is about the madness and oppression of Yeong-hye, a woman who no one notices at all until she stops eating meat and thus begins her struggle to escape the imprisonment of her female body. An utterly brilliant, though bleak, book, which led me to Human Acts, Han Kang’s absolute masterpiece. This is not only the best book I read in 2016, but one of the very best books I have ever read. It is a shocking account of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which hundreds of students were viciously killed and their bodies carelessly thrown onto pyres. Han Kang carefully and lovingly draws out several strands of this story, bringing to life the humanity and need of each of the characters, taking us the reader into the heart of the horror, and then leading us back out to the light. This is a book of magic, with Han Kang working at the height of her powers to put the ghosts of Gwangju to rest. It is more connected and active than any writing I’ve ever come across – I came away with the feeling that the book itself is a form of prayer, a burial rite, and a powerful kind of healing. Han Kang is an extraordinary writer, a genius, an activist, and a luminary.

I read about 100 books this year, and many of them were excellent, but only ten of them can be on the list, because that’s the arbitrary rule I’ve invented to torture myself with. So sorry to those books I loved but didn’t make it. And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.

25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.

Notes:

* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.

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

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.

a good dog

This is Laika. I’m deep in the middle of a novel about Laika, and this week is the 57th anniversary of her journey into space. So it seems wrong to let this pass without some kind of commemoration.

Laika was chosen for the Sputnik mission because she was a good dog. Of all the stray dogs that were brought in off the streets of Moscow, it was Laika who was the most biddable. She was “sweet and charming,” they said. Trusting. She did what she was told without complaint.

Shortly before the November 3rd rocket launch, one of the scientists took Laika home for a night. She played with his children, slept in their bed. She must have thought she had found a home, that she had been taken into a family. Then they took her away. They put her, terrified, inside a tiny metal box, and launched her into space, where she died from overheating hours into the flight. A more cruel and pointless death is hard to imagine.

Sending a dog into space was Kruschev’s whim. It was a gimmick, not useful science.

The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We didn’t learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog (Oleg Gazenko, 1998).

And all Laika wanted was to be good.

If you really want to have your heart broken by Laika, I can thoroughly recommend Laika, by Nick Abadzis. My novel-in-progress takes a more tangential (not to say abstract) look at Laika’s life and death.

 

 

then we set ourselves on fire

I live in a city where it is considered somewhat normal (even, in some quarters, desirable) to write angry confessional poetry and ‘perform’ it to friends and strangers in pubs. The performance usually consists of attempting to impose some kind of rhythm and meaning on a formless string of half-sentences by way of reading them out in a very silly voice. This display will invariably be followed by gusts of applause from the audience, most of whom are waiting their turn to get up and inflict the very same thing on everyone else.

I once took my friend Katrina Leno to witness this phenomenon in action. Half an hour into the open mic poetry night (an evening I now refer to as The Worst Night of My Life), she texted me: I’m losing the will to live. Five minutes later: I’m seriously thinking about setting myself on fire, just to make it stop.

The funny thing is that Katrina herself is a wonderful, powerful poet. She’s also a fantastic writer of YA fiction (and any other fiction she turns her hand to). Her first novel, The Half-Life of Molly Pierce, is coming out in a matter of weeks. Buy it. And/or enter the free giveaway competition for a chance to win a signed hardback copy plus all sorts of goodies. And don’t be surprised if KL becomes bigger than JK. You can say you heard it here first.