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.

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.

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.

dark dark dark… we all go into the dark

Well, maybe not all of us, but definitely meeeeeeeeeee! “Her Bones the Trees,” my blood-soaked, bear-infested, twisted Twin Peaks fan fiction is to be reprinted in acclaimed literary horror magazine THE DARK. Looking forward to sharing this story with more readers.

The story was originally published as “Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees,” in The Silent Garden journal of esoteric fabulism – a truly beautiful book chock full of illustrations, essays, reviews and stories from weird fictioneers such as D.P. Watt and Helen Marshall (whose story really ought to win awards galore – check it out).

In other news, edits are done on my forthcoming collection! Michael Kelly is a brilliant, sensitive editor and it’s been a very positive experience. I’ve had to dial back my tendency to get typographically extra, but my House of Leaves homages are set to continue with my current work in progress, which is going to put the punk in punctuation… 🙂

this house of wounds

Delighted to share the news that my debut collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, is being published by the extraordinarily brilliant Undertow Publications, and should be out within the next few months. There are a number of new, previously unpublished stories in there, which I’m super excited about. But the book also collects some of my earliest pieces, such as Crow Voodoo, which was one of the very first stories I ever had professionally published. It’s exciting to look back over my career so far and to see themes and concerns emerge and coalesce. My writing has always been woman-centred, concerned with the physical body and with competing realities. Themes of madness, perception, parallel universes, doubles and others have deepened and enlarged. And lately my stories have become more concerned with issues of representation, especially the visual image. I think my work has become weirder and more complex over the years. I also think I give the reader an increasing amount of space in the story, and an increasing amount of work to do. But as is the ways of these things, the stories don’t belong to me so much anymore – they belong to the readers and I very much look forward to seeing what you make of them.

THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS is one of the titles in Undertow’s impressive 2019 catalogue which also features Laura Mauro’s debut collection, a collection from Michael Kelly, and reprints of wonderful books by Lynda E. Rucker and Joel Lane. As always, Undertow have gone out of their way to make beautiful books you’ll want to keep forever.

I’m hoping to share more news soon regarding my novella, HONEYBONES, and I’ve recently embarked on a new novel which I’m sure will be taking up every spare moment. I promise to try to blog a bit more this year and to keep this space a bit more up to date. In the meantime, you can find me on the twits (@monster_soup) or drop me an email. Happy new year!!

the big-headed people

who are the big-headed people

No one is brilliant the way the author/recorder of these stories, Des Lewis, is brilliant. I thought I’d try to gestalt-real-time-dream-catch-review ‘The Big-Headed People’ but found myself instead foundering, sunk by the weight of these stories, through the floor and into the basement and then somewhere underneath that opened up into great vistas of strange incomprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say these stories are radical. A kind of un-writing that speaks to the unconscious spirit, translating the everyday and quotidian into its sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd, sometimes godly language of feeling and knowing. It’s impossible to do justice to these stories in a brief response. They are small but TARDIS-like in that they are bigger, infinitely bigger, on the inside. Which is funny, considering Des Lewis is the outsider-artist of our times, the one who sees it all.

THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE

“What happened between then and now is told, I’m told, in detail elsewhere, by another source…”

The first story in the collection sent me reeling. I didn’t know you could tell that story. I didn’t know it was possible to completely transform every recognisable element of a story into something else, and present the reader with such a generous trusting invitation to make her own art from it. This story shocked me. At first I thought of Kafka, and Borges, especially his labyrinths. But the closest comparison I could make to an existing work of art is to Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. The labyrinth doesn’t look like a labyrinth, but it is, a maze sunk underground. An understory. The rest of the story is “elsewhere,” generated by an anonymous source, unreliable and distant. We are left with the part of the story that can’t be told.

The mannequins with their leaking, rusty groins put me in mind of my own Dreemy Peeple: inarticulate and broken, they haunt the story, perform operations, move with the sick compulsion of a dream. The derelict tower is a tarot card, signifying breakdown. A level of dysfunction that drives the narrator to find a primal connection to his own birth.

A HALO OF DRIZZLE AROUND AN ORANGE STREET LAMP

“I am depending on hearsay and rumour…”

Alma wants a real experience, something that matters, a “real-time fact of her diminishing life.” But her connection to the world is attenuated, alienated; again, the story has been told elsewhere, by anonymous others. In this case, only understanding one facet of the story, Alma invites sinister shadow-stories into her world. There can be no record, no story, not even the Family Bible can keep Alma tied to this world where “things are all technological and nobody has proper picnics at all.” There is a loss of simplicity, a loss of connection to the past, to family, to memory. The sun is “panicking” and so are we.

THOUGHTS & THEMES

“It was my turn to stand watch at the front room window tonight…”

Two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon in another dimension, take turns to pay attention to the world and meditate on its themes, as a circus rolls into town. Entities and urges are disguised as normal people and everyday things. Behind their masks/clown-faces, an unfathomable intellect. Beyond that, a physical mystery. The two (?) characters are emphatically not “normal human beings” by their own account. And yet there is something familiar and domestic in their attention. Characters in these stories are growing older, monitoring and documenting the world as it changes and morphs into unrecognisable forms. Trying, perhaps, to capture something real or meaningful and keep it alive.

ORIGAMI SHADOWS

“This story knew where he was, all the time… sure in its own heart that reality was its gift to the world, not make-believe…”

This story opens with a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, which reminded me of a jubilee street party, long ago in a different time, where my brothers were dressed up as Bill and Ben, and I adamantly refused to be dressed up as Little Weed, thinking I was being made an insignificant feminine sidekick to the main characters. As well as Bill and Ben, I spotted Alice and Escher in this story, my own ‘White Rabbit’, and that Ian McEwan story about the geometrical shape that disappears people. For all its spreading web of connections to story after story, this is the most blatantly un-written story in the collection. It seems to be admitting to its project of undermining story in order to get at reality… or something deeper. “The origin of the shape was slowly pre-dating the shape itself…”

THE SOFT TREAD

“A black rose.”

The past is mysterious, illusory, a tapestry of lies. A suspicion of noises. The sound of stone revolving over stone, a sound we pretend not to have heard. The soft tread of the story, following us along the hallway. A ghost story that made me feel like the ghost.

This collection of stories is tiny, but it weighs incredibly heavy. We are so lucky to have Des Lewis in these times. His project as a reader and as a writer is dazzling huge but touchingly intimate all at once. A genius, no doubt. But much more than that – his writing is a resource for all of us who think stories matter. READ THIS BOOK.

white rabbit wins british fantasy award

Absolutely delighted to report that my shortstory ‘White Rabbit’ has won the British Fantasy Award 2017 for short fiction. It was published in Black Static #50 and illustrated by the insanely talented Vince Haig (who also took this photo of me roargrowling in victory). Back copies still available! The same issue contains Gary Budden’s excellent (also shortlisted) story, Greenteeth – so well worth picking up.

I’ve never won an award before and I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to go on about it before everyone starts hating me. Or maybe it’s already too late! All I really want to say is thank you, thank you. I’ve been writing all my life, but for a long time I didn’t think people like me could be ‘real’ writers. But I’ve been steadily and seriously working away at this for the past couple of decades. Work and life commitments have meant my progress is slow and halting. I’m well past the age where I might have been a “new talent” and into the age where women tend to get written off as irrelevant. But I have no intention of giving up. Getting this award is hugely encouraging and you can’t stop me now!

In other news, I’m currently working on a novel (or is it a novella) and planning a themed collection of stories. And a new story, ‘The Book of Dreems’ is coming out in the next Black Static, so… subscribe! Oh, and another new story, ‘Little Heart,’ will be in the ‘Imposters’ anthology from Dark Minds Press, coming soon!

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.

there are no clowns

We would like to make it clear that the clown problem has been effectively neutralised. Clowns have been eradicated from our towns, cities, and countryside.

Should you see a clown, please report to the authorities immediately, in order that you can be inoculated against further sightings.

In the event that you repeatedly see clowns that are legally disallowed from your vision, a minor medical procedure shall be undertaken which will effectively resolve the fault.

Law-abiding citizens will not see the clowns.

There are no clowns.