in through the out door

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.

ESCAPE ROOM: HELEN MARSHALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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