ESCAPE ROOM: MALCOLM DEVLIN

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.

These days, I have a laptop, but I still don’t write in bed. The bedroom is Helen’s writing space, not mine.

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 laptop.

“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 out loud.

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 glasses.

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 someone else.

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 come in.

“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.

what i didn’t know: confessions of a newly published author

I didn’t know anything. That’s the truth right there. All I knew was I was getting a book published, it was ACE and I was happy about it. And that’s all true. It is ace, and I am happy about it. But seriously, friends. My ignorance was VAST. Vast and deep as an ocean. I was innocent, naive, a wide-eyed babe with literally zero idea what the hell was going on. So here’s a partial list of the things I was blithely unaware of. Anything for you.

I didn’t know how much crying would be involved. That’s easily the number one thing I didn’t know about this whole process. If you’re the crying type, and I am, I very much am, then this process involves tears. Tears of joy, pride, and happiness? Sure, whatever. And then there are the other kinds of tears: of vulnerability (so much vulnerability), anxiety, disappointment. And did I mention vulnerability? At one point I seriously considered hooking myself up to a saline drip, just to get through the day.

I didn’t know how REAL imposter syndrome is. See, when I first saw copies of my book I was ecstatic. I was proud of myself, grateful to my publisher and everyone involved, delighted at the prospect of having my book read and reviewed and stocked in shops. I went about humming little ditties, flipping through my book, admiring the gorgeous cover for hours on end. I had NO IDEA my bubble was about to burst, big time. The weekend after review copies were sent out and I realised that people were actually going to be reading my stories, I had a legit full-on panic attack and spent an entire day talking myself down from the ledge of outrageous imposter syndrome. It SUCKED, friends. So bad.

I didn’t know how much it would hurt when people didn’t love my book. Cliché but true. I’ve had a tonne of stories published and reviewed, so I felt reasonably confident I could cope with whatever came my way. I even told people that I wanted readers to engage with my writing in a critical, thoughtful manner. HAHAHA NOPE. So wrong. I quickly discovered that what I really wanted was for people to unconditionally love my stories and herald me as a creative genius the like of which the world has never seen. When instead I heard words like “challenging”, “demanding” and (worst of all) “difficult”, I was CRUSHED. Confidence? What’s that? (And yes, I do realise there are worse insults but THAT’S NOT THE POINT, OKAY?)

I didn’t know how popular I’d become. I love twitter and never felt the need to be other than myself on there. But suddenly, in the space of a fortnight, I gained 150 new followers. It’s great, and they are all so welcome, but whaaaaat? (And is it still okay to swear?) It felt like a huge spotlight was shining in my face and I didn’t quite know how to be anymore. Then there are the requests for interviews, guest posts and so on. People want to ask me questions and hear what I have to say about stuff? GREAT! But also: SO FREAKING WEIRD. See that microscopic dot on the horizon? That’s my comfort zone and I’m travelling away from it at the speed of light.

I didn’t know it would feel like a loss. Like an ending. I’ve wanted to have a book published for so long, for my whole entire life, in fact. So it makes sense that achieving that ambition might leave me feeling a bit… empty. I like to think of it as creating space for something new, and I’ve certainly got lots of new books and stories planned and coming soon, but even so. I didn’t expect there to be grief.

I didn’t know how magnanimous, open-hearted, kind and welcoming other writers would be. Not only writers, but editors, bloggers, reviewers and readers. People have been nothing but helpful and encouraging every step of the way. Everyone from established authors to total strangers have reached out to me in support. I always knew that readers and writers are the best kind of humans, but I didn’t know how much I’d feel the benefit of their awesomeness. Of all the things I didn’t know, this is what I’ll try to hold onto the most. People can be wonderful, when you give them a chance.

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, and what I do know might not be helpful or relevant for anyone but myself. Still, I wanted to share this, from my heart, especially for anyone who has their first book coming out (soon, or one day). I hope you have a wonderful experience. I hope you don’t feel any of the anxiety or vulnerability I did. But if you do, I hope you remember that it passes. It does, it really does pass. Just keep breathing. Focus on the good stuff, the wonderful, uplifting, exciting stuff of BEING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. And stay hydrated.

ESCAPE ROOM: KERRY HADLEY-PRYCE

Look at this: it used to be my dining room, then it became my Dad’s room when he lived with us for a while in 2016-17, then it became my dog, Rufus’, room. Rufus now allows me to work there in return for snacks, unconditional love and frequent walks out. And more snacks.

As rooms go, it’s like a box of memories. It’s in the quietest part of my house and looks out over my (hideously messy) garden. There’s a flat attached to my house that I used to use as my workplace, but I think I prefer this room. It still has pictures of my Dad on the wall, it still has his set of drawers and some of his books, and it still has some of the ornaments he kept to remind him of my mum. It also has three huge bookcases full of some of my books, then there’s my piano, clarinet and my father-in-law’s old harmonica because every now and then I (quite literally) have to burst into tune, because writing is an intense business, I find, and it’s essential to lift yourself out of these other worlds you’re creating, especially if, like mine, they’re a bit…dark. On the subject of music, I’m interested in people who can work with music going on in the background. I can’t. I’ve tried, but it makes me itch, music, sometimes, when I’m working. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been inspired by music, and I think of myself as a musician of sorts, but NOT WHILST I’M WRITING, THANK YOU.

Rufus won’t mind me saying that, though I love him (unconditionally, remember) he sometimes smells a little…doggy… so I’m a sucker for a scented candle, or two, or three, and because he’s a very good listener, he often works (unpaid) as my audience.

Shall we talk about writing routine? In the past, every day, I have done this: woken up at 5am; written until 7.30am; taken Rufus for a walk; gone for a run; answered emails, dealt with admin, worked on some projects I’m involved with and worked on my PhD; written some more; taken Rufus for another walk: watched Netflix; read; slept. Productive stuff, that. But lately I’ve been doing some lecturing at the University of Wolverhampton, which has included (deep breath) preparing lectures, and (look away now) marking papers. Look closely at the picture there. See my laptop? See all that paper underneath my laptop? Marking. Or rather, not-yet-marked papers. So, I put aside two days of the week for lecturing stuff, I take one day off completely and the rest is the above routine, otherwise, I confess, I get no writing done at all. Walking Rufus is a great way of clearing my head, I’ve found – in fact, I’ve always found walking a great mind-clearer, so, actually, I see that as part of my writing process.

In the past, I’ve been massively distracted by social media. I mean, what is it about Facebook that sucks your life away? I’ve learnt to compartmentalise that, I think, and to use it, for inspiration. I mean, have you read some of the stuff people put on there? Trauma after trauma.

Which brings me to what I’m working on just now. I made a vow that I’d write more short stories this year, and have had one published with Fictive Dream, and another due to be published with The Incubator. I’m involved in a couple of academic projects. One is research into smells and memory, the other is my PhD on Psychogeography and Black Country fiction. I’m basically a geeky type I suppose, so these give me massive pleasure. I’m also involved in two other projects, one is a documentary film about the Black Country and the other is awaiting funding for a ‘Psychogeographic Walk & Talk’ down the Birmingham Canal. And I’m working on my third novel, which may or may not be called God’s Country. Possibly not. I haven’t yet decided, but I had to call the file something. It’s a dark one, set on a farm in the Black Country and it’s developing in an interesting way. So, back to it. Actually, I really should be marking those papers…

Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a Black Country legend and the author of two outstandingly excellent novels, The Black Country and Gamble, both available from Salt. She has a weebly website here.

ESCAPE ROOM: JULIE TRAVIS

I moved into my new flat two days ago. My own space, for the first time in my life! (I’m 51). I’m now overlooking a street in the middle of Penzance and already feel settled. My new space is going to be very productive. I need to get a higher desk because I have to stand up to type, but if I’m writing longhand (I always draft longhand) then I can do it anywhere. I still prefer to be at home. I feel centred in Penzance and I badly needed to move back here. Having my own place means I can write at any time, night or day, and won’t be bothering anyone. As you can see, it’s sparse but it’s early days – the vibe’s right now.

Writing has always been quite chaotic, I think. The best way for me to write at home is to leave my notebook out and come and go to it throughout the day. I can’t concentrate for very long at a time. But I often sit in a cafe for an hour or so, writing and drinking coffee. The launderette is also a great place to write. A lot of work gets done in those times. I’ve also written when I’ve been away from home, either alone or with a partner. To me it flavours the writing to be elsewhere, although I wonder if readers notice a difference between sections written in different places?

I usually listen to music when I write; although it slows me down, it’s worth it for the results. Gazelle Twin, Coil, Kate Bush, Throbbing Gristle, Diamanda Galas – all get me into the strange frame of mind I like to write in. Sometimes the right music brings on an altered state – I want my writing to be part of a magickal process; me being changed by what I write and the writing guided by whatever’s been brought on by the music.

Anything can distract me from writing. Tiredness, the internet, the cat who lives in the house opposite staring at me from its window, the urge for coffee and biscuits. Any excuse, eh? All down to the fear of failure, that I won’t be able to come up with anything of any use – but perhaps I need to get in that state to get working.

Everything affects one’s writing, of course, but a couple of massive events in the last few weeks – the ending of a 15 year relationship with someone who I thought was my Life Partner, two house moves and the realisation that I probably have Aspergers – will no doubt have a huge impact on what and how I write. I’m interested to see where it takes me! The Asperger’s thing has actually been liberating – I don’t have to look to be ‘fixed’ anymore from a lifetime of horrible symptoms. I just need to understand my different wiring, and I’m embracing it. Luckily for me, I have a bunch of wonderful friends who also embrace my oddness.

At the moment I’m working on some fiction – A Cure For The Common Cold, which explores my obsession with 1970s weird phenomena and has a very powerful woman at its centre. I’m also working on lots of non-fiction – editing Cunt-Struck, an article about lesbian themes in current cinema releases, and various other bits of writing and art for Dykes Ink, my new ‘zine.

The last year or so has been massive in terms of creativity and I just can’t stop.

Julie Travis is a surrealist & dark fantasy writer and a good witch. She also makes zines and other art. Her latest short fiction collection, We Are All Falling Towards the Centre of the Earth is available now (here’s a fantastic review of it from Des Lewis), and her very interesting blog can be found here.

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!

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

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.

 

 

masters at work

Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.

In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom of the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.

Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.

Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lats the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.

That is why it needs calm.

There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac’s age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French revolution.

One can tell by the taste whether  cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one’s head calmly, without hurry.

And it will do what it is supposed to do.

From Imperium, by Rsyzard Kapuściński.

and then and then and then

When Haruki Murakami sat down to write The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he didn’t have a plan. When Stephen King wrote The Stand, he didn’t have a plan. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how it would end.

And when I sit down to write my book, I don’t know exactly where it’s heading, either.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself with these literary greats, not in terms of talent. But it does give me comfort and succour to know that I’m not the only writer who starts simply with an idea, an image, a sentence, and that’s it. To me, writing is partly a process of discovering the story. I cannot – and I have tried – write a story that I have already plotted out in detail. It’s dull, it bores me, it makes every word die on the page.