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.

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.

** This list – and my reading – could be more racially and geographically diverse. I’m working on it and welcome suggestions!

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.

 

 

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.

 

the next big thing

The fantastically talented Priya Sharma tagged me in this blog-chain, and I now have to subject you to my thoughts about my own brilliance or otherwise in the form of a handy Q & A.

What is the working title of your next book/short story/project?
The Midnight Orchestra.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was reading Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia, and realised that I have had what he would call musical hallucinations since childhood. It inspired me to write a couple of short stories about musicians and people in complicated relationships with music. Then I decided it would be cool to write a novel that was a kind of musical detective story.
What genre does your book fall under?
Musical detective story not working for you?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
One of the characters could be played by Tilda Swinton. I also have roles for three or more handsome moustachioed fellows. Must be able to brood and look troubled.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Yeah… Good question.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I doubt that I’d self-publish. It might be a good way of going about things at some point, but for a beginning writer, it’s hard to build a career without representation and a publishing deal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I ain’t finished it yet. Give me a chance! Jeez, Louise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
No idea. Let me finish writing it, then you can read it and tell me which of your favourite authors I ripped off.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Oliver Sacks.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The first edition will have a secret compartment inside, filled with jam.
*******

Now for the tagging. I’ve picked on Henry Szabranski and Gio Clairval – two members of my secret BRILLIANT writing group. There were others I wanted to tag but who were already taken. If you’re reading this and wishing I would have tagged you, let me know. I’ll do it! Anything for you!

and how does that make you feel?

Of all the books people have raved to me about recently, the only one I really enjoyed was The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. What a great book that is! I like it a lot. A few years ago I wote a story called ‘Fucking Narnia’ that was pretty much based on the same idea, of adults from this world somehow accessing Narnia, and having to deal with it, as adults. My story really didn’t work (shame, because obviously it had a great title), but The Magicians would have blown it out of the water anyway, because it has such a well-realised setting, with proper characters and insane plotlines, which are nonetheless completely plausible within the logic of the world(s). I think the real genius of it was the way Grossman did the Harry Potter/Narnia mash-up thing. It’s the kind of story that could have been really-diculous, but ends up being just perfect.

(That reminds me of something Michel Gondry said about making art. It was something along the lines of, ‘you know you’ve got a good idea when it feels somewhat ridiculous.’ Furnish me with the actual quote, anyone? He said it in the DVD extras for The Science of Sleep, a film with the most beautiful fluffy animation and lovely multi-lingual appeal.)

Two of the other books that have been the subject of rave reviews lately are 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

1Q84, as I have written about here, I found extremely bland and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was boring, I would say it was flat and completely forgettable. For me, it had none of the impact of Murakami’s earlier work, none of the mysterious other-wordliness (despite being set in an actual Other World), and none of the emotional connection I’d been hoping for.

I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad last night, and was pretty disappointed with that, too. It’s well-written, no doubt about that. It’s very well written, indeed, so you hardly notice it flowing by. But again, it made very little impact on me. I felt that I’d seen it all before. Specifically, it reminded me of A M Homes’ writing, which, to be fair, I’d liked a lot a few years ago, but which now strikes me as a bit too self-consciously ‘literary’.

I mean, what’s wrong with a linear chronology, and one or two characters that you care about? That you feel something for? What is the purpose of writing, if not to connect you to other worlds and other people? For me, if a novel or story doesn’t provide that emotional connection, then I don’t care how clever or well written it is – it has failed in the fundamental task of all literature. One of my favourite writers of all time is Philip K Dick, because all his stories connect you emotionally to the rest of the world – to the universe – to PKD’s own messed-up head, if nothing else. Frightening, disturbing, even funny – but they never leave you feeling flat. Another writer I love is Rikki Ducornet. Her novel Gazelle is one of the most stunning books I have ever read. It made me feel a thousand things, stirred up memories and desires, and connected me to a place inside my own self, where I finally understood something (a particular, personal thing) more deeply than I ever had before.

Of course, this ’emotional connection’ is a subjective experience, and I’m sure I can find hundreds of people who were deeply moved by books that left me feeling nothing. To me, though, it all comes down to the characters. A novel doesn’t have to have a linear plot, but I do think a book has a better chance of connecting with a reader if it has strong characters, precise language, and concerns itself with fundamental conflicts of the human heart. Love, fear, death, betrayal, regret, pain.  Sometimes writers seem to forget this. They get lost in their quest to be brilliant, and end up producing convoluted books that don’t seem anything like storytelling to me.

When I was seventeen, I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles for the first time. I remember I stayed up until three a.m. finishing it, and when it was finished, I cried and held it to my heart. I felt bereft that the story was over. The characters and the conflicts they embodied seemed very real and powerful to me. I wanted to keep reading it forever.

It’s not often that I feel that way about a book these days, but I still long to encounter characters I believe in, who I care about, and who seem real to me. That is more important to me than making some clever statement about the state of politics or post-modern anxieties or the world after 9-11. I want to read books that make me feel something. That’s why, for me, The Magicians is a far better book than 1Q84.

What books have you enjoyed recently? What would you recommend to this jaded reader?

five writers with teeth and claws

A few years ago, I became scared that I was losing my lifelong passion for reading. So many mediocre books! So many bad ones…  I threw ‘Atonement’ across the room in disgust. ‘After Dark’ was a yawn fest. ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ made me sick with disappointment. It was a dark time in my reading life. I felt that I was falling out of love with the world.

But then I came across these incredible writers, who reached out their claws and ripped out my heart. Monsters. I love them.

1. Kelly Link

If you don’t read Kelly Link, you are missing out on something wonderful. She writes the best short stories in the world.  I discovered Kelly Link at a very strange time in my life. I was trying to write a story called ‘Magic for Beginners’ – a terrible story that had nothing going for it except that great title. One afternoon I wandered into Waterstones where there was a display table full of a book called ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link. I felt the swift punch of fate to my solar plexus. Then I opened the book and started reading a story about a witch who gives birth to a house, and my life changed forever. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kelly Link taught me what a story could be – that it could be so much bigger and stranger than I had ever dared.

2. Rikki Ducornet

Before I read ‘The Butcher’s Tales’, I had no idea that anyone wrote the strange, very short, macabre vignettes that I had been trying to write myself for the past few years. Hers are brilliant little slices of flesh, still bloody, on a white plate. I went on to read her novels, of which ‘Netsuke’ and ‘Gazelle’ are particularly wonderful. Her writing is a knife to the heart. She sees everything. Be very afraid.

3. Kaaron Warren

Dark, dark, dark – they all go into the dark. Not quite sure how Kaaron Warren creates such spectacularly creepy stories that are still utterly involving and engaging. Her novels are diverse in subject matter and setting, but all share the disturbing ability to draw you in, and take you to places you never really wanted to go, but can’t bear to walk away from. Her novel ‘Slights’ has one of the most disturbed/disturbing main characters I’ve ever come across, and yet it is one of the most compelling stories I’ve read. I fear Kaaron Warren may have sold her soul to the devil to pay for her incredible storytelling ability.

4. Rachel Pollack

Many writers attempt to create new fairytales and myths. None, in my opinion, are as successful as Rachel Pollack. Her work as a Tarot reader informs her writing in many strange and unexpected ways. ‘The Tarot of Perfection’ is a collection of beautiful short stories that take the reader deep below the surface of things to explore the secret mysteries of the subconscious. Unmissable.

5. Greer Gilman

No one writes like Greer Gilman. No one else dares. ‘Cloud and Ashes’ is an extraordinary, beautiful book that has drawn comparisons with Shakespeare and James Joyce, amongst others. Read it. That is all.