FOCUS ON FICTION: Il Pompinaro’s Apprentice and the Witchcraft of Instant Paint

FOCUS ON FICTION

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A Melissa Snowdon Short Story today!

IL POMPINARO’S APPRENTICE AND THE WITCHCRAFT OF INSTANT PAINT

Il Pompinaro's Apprentice and the Witchcraft of Instant Paint by [Snowdon, Melissa]

Inspired by a contemporary art world scuffle, this erotica/romance short story tells the tale of a Florentine painter and his young apprentice and lover who fall out over a special type of paint…

If you haven’t seen the art world scuffle in question, you’ve missed out on a treat. In brief summary: A very very famous British artist bought the UK rights to using Vantablack, a method of making things as black as humanly possible, and banned anyone else from using it for art. A little-known (at the time) pigment-maker thought this was unfair and childish, and made a pigment of a different hue which was THE MOST HUE OF THIS HUE EVER AND EVERYONE CAN HAVE IT *EXCEPT* THIS ARTIST. Said artist responded with their middle finger covered in the exact product; an extremely silly social media war broke out and everyone got a brief break from the horror of the real world watching two men exchange conceptual fisticuffs over paint.

Why is there a story about this set in Renaissance Florence?

I’m a jerk, basically; also, my art historian friend made me do it.

And I’d just been reading a very fun and good history book which was partially set in Renaissance Florence, and if there is one thing artists of the Italian peninsula in general during that period did a LOT, it was have pointless and incredibly temperamental feuds about almost everything, complete with public hate notices and rumour-spreading and, if even a fraction of the rumours are to be believed, a lot of sodomy.

The name of the titular artist is, of course, a reference to the artist responsible for the cover work, Il Sodoma. A nickname which I am sure is… relatively easy to understand regardless of your grasp of various Italian dialects. As to Il Pompinaro, well… have fun with Google or make a new Italian friend; if you already speak Italian don’t spoil this for everyone else.

I think I’d describe this one as “enjoyable” both to read and to write. There’s a certain kind of joy from writing pastiche in poetry and… I suppose this constitutes satire, in prose. It’s a little like playing or watching a game: every time you successfully hit a beat in the real life inspiration in the fictionalised version, you score a point (or take a shot of booze, given the kind of games I’m used to playing). It’s even more fun when you’re simultaneously trying to match a real-life set of events against a specific imaginary set.

FOCUS ON FICTION: The Circle

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

THE CIRCLE

The year is 1900. An Earl, an engineer, a suburban philosopher, and an enigma meet at University and make a pact to learn the art of conjuring.

But nothing among the friends is quite as it seems, and soon the happy four are plunged into worlds of political activism, crime, despair, sordid trysts, and a Faustian compact which seems set to threaten their very lives, one by one…

This book has the unique distinction of being the only full-length novel I have ever written that was inspired, cultivated, and dedicated to one person in particular. Although other people have encouraged the development of this story and certainly helped to shape it, of all the books I’ve written it’s the one with the clearest single genesis: a typo.

Back in 2007 or 2008 I was in the habit of texting little stories to my friends on my ancient, cheap mobile phone as I tried desperately to alleviate the boredom of a very monotonous and emotionally taxing job. In one of them, for reasons unknown, the precursor to autocorrect took a relatively well-known name and turned it into a bizarre one without me noticing. My friend, on receiving the message, remarked that it sounded like a stage magic act.

Amused, I started to send her snippets of the presumed adventures of the magician and his deeply sarcastic assistant. A little later, I recalled a trailer I’d seen for a film that looked as if it was going to be about one thing, and turned out to be something rather different instead. Annoyed, I set out to write the story I thought I’d been going to get: a Faustian compact with a particular spin on it.

This is also a story about stories. It is a story about lies, deceptions, and illusions, because it is a story about stage magic, and you absolutely cannot talk about conjuring without talking about lying. It’s a criticism of the pre-war conditions of the British Empire; the biggest lie of all, but I wouldn’t call it “worthy”. It’s a love story about people who hate each other, both in the framing and in the narrative itself. It’s a story about toxic masculinity, toxic class issues, and about how, deep down, everyone is kind of a dick; it’s just a question of how much of a dick they are on the surface, too.

I have enormous affection for all of the characters in this novel – perhaps moreso than any other I’ve written, because in this I couldn’t come up with any clearcut villains, only different shades and flavours of people just doing their best – or worst – to make themselves happy. I think in that regard it’s the most realistic.

The moral of the story is that not everyone gets what they deserve; but I hope at least that the person who got a whole book written for her isn’t too desperately annoyed that it took me so long to do it.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Hannah Matchmaker’s New Skates

FOCUS ON FICTION

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

Short story today!

Short story: Hannah Matchmaker is struggling to make progress as fast as she’d like at Rollerderby, until she gets her hands on some new skates… A story for fans of Rollerderby who are already pretty au fete with the jargon.(I was trying to give this one away as a free eBook but Kindle were like NOPE MINIMUM $0.99)

HANNAH MATCHMAKER’S NEW SKATES

Short story: Hannah Matchmaker is struggling to make progress as fast as she’d like at Rollerderby, until she gets her hands on some new skates…

A story for fans of Rollerderby who are already pretty au fait with the jargon.

This sweet little fable was intended to be encouraging about learning things the hard way and not taking enticing short-cuts that ultimately don’t improve your skills at all. And it’s about rollerderby, because that’s been adjacent to my life, via friends and partners, for well over a decade now. It’s been tremendous to see derby gain more respect and traction as a legitimate sport and, in the same time period, a lot of other sports previously heavily-associated with male-only participation have become more publicly-acknowledged as women’s sports too, which is also very cool.

There’s not much to be said about the construction of this story: demotivation at skills acquired without struggle is something I have personal experience with, so that was my window into it. It’s hard to value something if you feel you haven’t made an effort with it, and the progress you make can feel fake, and not worth celebrating. The idea of cursed objects that both giveth and taketh away is pretty much as old as culture itself, and has been present in stories along these lines going back as far as they’ve been recorded.

As a result I feel confident in describing this as a classic folk/fairytale, with a sports framing. Hannah Matchmaker goes on a quintessential hero’s journey, she learns an important lesson, and she develops as a person as a result. If you’re looking for a story that has a moral and a female protagonist, this is where you come to, of my work.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Protect Me From What I Want

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A novel today.

PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT

When a 40-year-old cold case opens unexpectedly on a sleepy island, John Hennessey (perpetually-on-the-brink-of-being-fired) finds his past comes back to haunt him, too. This unconventional tale is told in the first person to an unseen reporter, and through the eyes of a not-wholly honest observer.

The problematic book. It’s a problematic length, somewhere between novel and novella. It’s problematic subject matter, which I’ll get onto in a minute. Problematic execution. The protagonist, appropos of nothing, is possibly heterosexual? Possibly bisexual? Hard to say. It doesn’t even have a real genre apart from my standard-issue “man has breakdown without realising that’s what he’s doing” plot.

The book set out to do several things. One: to look at the frustrations of investigation in a cultural setting the detective isn’t a part of. If I’d done more research at the time I’d have learned I was underselling that; Jersey is a lot more insular, self-protecting, and corrupt – in particular the police force, although as I’m discovering in my current research, that seems to be the case with a lot of law enforcement agencies – than I gave it credit for. Two: to convey adequately the sense of interconnection between corrupt bodies/individuals and the sense that the press can absolutely be bought and sold, a theme I’ve expanded on significantly in other books. Three: to deal with the extremely thorny issue of relative levels of capacity and non-capacity for consent, the idea of stages of evil, the idea of deeply unhealthy relationships sometimes being marginally healthier than what either party was escaping from before; a contrast between the absolute blackness of one morality and the dirty grey of another. And four: exorcise some general sense of horror over real-life events.

Given a second run at this book I would have done it very differently, and point three I think I wouldn’t have the stones to approach, at least not in the way that I did it here. My protagonist I am largely happy with, even if John Hennessey is something of an archetype that I return to in various forms. The rest… the rest would be rewritten.

Protect Me From What I Want, a troublesome, underresearched, not-always-sensitive-enough work, represents the turning point between hoping that a capacity for strong character voice and evocative physical description could carry a book on its own, and the understanding that I needed to get better at plotting, at research, and at making explicit undercurrents in thought that don’t always make it into the text. Its value isn’t primarily as that turning point – I think the book has good qualities as well as bad ones – but if I was recommending it to an audience it would be for an audience of adults ready to look at work without a clear moral message, and with an onpage message which may be jarring, uncomfortable, and morally unacceptable.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Pantsgiving

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

Continuing the Melissa Snowdon theme from yesterday, but this time a short story and a much more recent offering:

PANTSGIVING

Pantsgiving by [Snowdon, Melissa]

David Winthorpe meets Simon Beckett off his flight home with a special gift in mind. Things don’t entirely go to plan, but that’s okay. Short gay erotic fiction from the author of The Breaking of M, and Tame.

As I’m not American, Thanksgiving isn’t a festival I celebrate; as someone with a lot of American friends I’m usually well-aware of when it’s taking place, so I can scrounge some of the offensively large dinners the US immigrants in my city like to cook up. And I love any excuse for a party, or a gift-giving, so I wrote this, for a very dear American, at her behest.

The characters began as nothing very much; they come from nowhere, and they go nowhere from here, but in the course of writing and planning this story, David and Simon have developed a whole life outside these pages, a whole background full of other events and a whole, often precarious, future proceeding on from them. I find it’s often impossible to write anything about a character’s present without finding out things about their past, which inform the choices they’ll make.

The characters began as nothing very much; they come from nowhere, and they go nowhere from here, but in the course of writing and planning this story, David and Simon have developed a whole life outside these pages, a whole background full of other events and a whole, often precarious, future proceeding on from them. I find it’s often impossible to write anything about a character’s present without finding out things about their past, which inform the choices they’ll make.

It’s just two awkward, awkward people in a relationship they probably shouldn’t be in, failing their way through the awkward, awkward situation of seeing each other again after an extended period of absence, right at a point at which they’re still not sure what that means for either of them.

FOCUS ON FICTION: The Curious Case of the Firecrotch

HAPPY MIDSUMMER!

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A novella today, and the first featured story from my romance & erotica alter-ego, Melissa Snowdon.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE FIRECROTCH

Wilberforce Kemp is a private detective. He’s not especially good at it, and he has a drink-chugging demon to keep fed, but he’s a private detective all the same and that means when a beautiful red-head comes into his decaying office and pays him to dig up a missing boyfriend, it’s his job to find the guy… even if he kinda wants the red-head all to himself. In a case that will bring him elbow-to-elbow with all the low-lives he’s been drinking to avoid, Wil Kemp is up to his neck in trouble all over again.

This pastiche of the hard-boiled detective trope brings romance and sarcasm a-plenty.

Sometimes you just have to write trash.

If Saint Grimbald’s Men was self-indulgent, this is a case of mutual self-indulgence run riot. It’s cheesy. It’s convoluted. It’s silly. There are bad jokes. There’s a perma-drunk narrator, a beautiful bitchy boy or several, a sketchy detective plot, and a bathetic ending. In short, all the things that myself and my pseudonymous co-author Dionysia Hill (she picked the name, I’m not responsible) absolutely and unequivocally adore. Although in my case I’d probably like to be able to claim to have more elevated tastes, this is the equivalent of having a good, long, luxurious scratch – a frivolity after a hard day of intellectual exercises and historical research.

It’s also got, as noted in the original promotion, “a higher ratio of sex scenes than I usually include”, although since I branched out into writing (truly) pseudonymous gay porn shorts that’s less true than it was.

I want you all to imagine this as a series of postcards: of a hot and rainy city peppered with interesting tiles and grubby cafes, scooters, criminals, and cats. Of a very beautiful boy and a man who probably would be beautiful if he’d figured out how to shave and stay sober: think Philip Marlowe but cast by a modelling agency. Imagine a series of bad mistakes, confusin phonecalls, and a mystery that wouldn’t even be one if all the characters in the story had a lick of sense. Unfortunately, lifelike to a T, none of them have a braincell to share between them.

I also want you to imagine two authors – one of them a very intelligent woman with multiple academic qualifications and the other one me, who has definitely managed to tie his shoelaces the first time at least twice now – cackling over their respective keyboards and shouting marginal instructions at each other as the novella slowly takes shape.

This is co-writing. It might not be Gaiman and Pratchett; I don’t think Hill and Snowdon are quite in the same wheelhouse. It might not be insightful, or highbrow, or morally uplifting, but it’s definitely a story, and there’s probably a dick in it. Both private and otherwise.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Saint Grimbald’s Men

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A short story today:

ST GRIMBALD’S MEN

A grim tale.

A short story of most perfidious cruelty and otherworldly horror, set in a monastery.

This is an incredibly self-indulgent story and I am proud of that. I don’t actually write that way very often with original fiction, because I like to include a degree of people-pleasing and I’m a slut for validation, and also a bit embarrassed sometimes about how completely cheesy my narrative Id is capable of being.

That said: this is self-pandering and I love it.

It took a whole bunch of elements I’m enamoured with monasticism, yearning gays having a serious self-examination and a little bit of a self-loathe (look, I spent my adolescence in the 90s and we didn’t really get Joyful Homosexuality until pretty much the end of that decade, at least, not in the media I consumed – and it’s made an impression), and body horror… and just smashed them together with wild abandon.

Alright, there’s a little more to it than that. Technically it’s a metaphor about repression and the way it eats away at you on the inside, but it’s possible the narrative image obscures that.

Interestingly I didn’t actually set out to write it as body horror, that just kind of happened, which is usually how body horror works in anything I write: I think I’m writing one genre and halfway through my hands just get their own ideas and announce, “and now it is time for something really, really GROSS”. The image kind of came along later, although it was captivating when it did.

Fortunately, that blindsiding with grossness also appeals to some readers, and this short story has the distinction of being the only one for which I’ve ever received fanart! From no less of an eminently talented artist than @misterlucian/Lucian Stephenson, so I feel quite privileged.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Pass The Parcel

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A novel – my longest novel – today.

PASS THE PARCEL

Pass The Parcel

The world is populated by everything from humans to Artificial Humans, but speciesism runs rampant. Everything that can go terribly wrong does; and while it always comes back to Brazil, it all seems to be going down in London, which is a seething pot of conflicts and crossed wires, as new lies are told and old ones resurface; as old murders are recalled and new ones committed; as history is rewritten; and as a very ugly but potentially extremely powerful statue is passed from wrong hand to wrong hand.

My first full-length work that I published, my longest work that I’ve ever published, the longest thing that I’ve ever written and in terms of cast size and continuity almost certainly the most complicated.

This took me a long time to actually write out – the genesis was in 2002, when I went to a literary festival at my university while drunk and had a small epiphany regarding how, to most characters, the main through-line of action in a story’s plot is actually a very minor part of their lives, and that we only see a snapshot of their existence around this. I wanted to write more of the flesh around the pit, as it were, and had a few characters beginning to talk who seemed like they could make it happen. I got about 35,000 words in and collapsed on myself because I had NO IDEA WHERE IT WAS GOING.

Fast-forward to 2007: I diagrammed. I drew maps. I wrote about 150k in one month; worked on one chapter for a year; wrote another huge chunk and finished the first draft. Somewhere in this time, a whole other version of what was at the time the near-future – and is now the increasingly distant past – came into shape.

This has been the book which received the most enthusiastic response from readers as it was written, the most intense fannishness, and I can understand in some regards why that is: it’s fleshy, organic, something which lives and breathes as its own world, with mechanisms that function and characters whose lives – as I’d dreamed – didn’t revolve around making them accessories to the plot, but rather continued with their own preoccupations and problems while the plot – the “parcel” – passed between them, in some cases almost unnoticed, in others a little more catastrophically.

I threw ideas into a pot and distilled them into an alterna-London, drawing on personal experience (intimate relationships with certain sections of the unhygienic club scene and the particular joy of living right at the poverty line in a large city) and wild imagination (having a job that pays a rent, robotic lobsters, Android rights, wayfinding technology that actually works), and the logical human responses to living in a world where they’re not the only intelligent species, or even form of sentience. I wanted something big, bright, and dirty – real, down to the tiles on the kitchen floor and the thumping hangovers, but hallucinogenically Other at the same time.

More than anything, Pass the Parcel was about the physical and emotional feeling of being in place; the way that events boil up out of seeming nowhere, but also how the world you live in reacts with your body and mind. I think it remains one of the most solidly-grounded of the books I’ve written.

It is also, in a very real way, about bathos.

FOCUS ON FICTION: Vessel 151-B

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

Today, a short story.

After a terrible accident Calvin Owusu-Baah wakes to a silent ship and a strange, nagging sense that something is not right. As he begins to investigate he finds that things are far, far worse than he could have imagined, and that his efforts to improve the situation are only going to make things wrong.(short story)Available for Amazon Kindle (UK | US), and most other eReaders (here).

VESSEL 151-B

After a terrible accident Calvin Owusu-Baah wakes to a silent ship and a strange, nagging sense that something is not right. As he begins to investigate he finds that things are far, far worse than he could have imagined, and that his efforts to improve the situation are only going to make things wrong.

In 2003 a man I used to know commissioned me to write a piece for a short fiction anthology his small press was preparing; the anthology (and associated fee) never saw the light of day, and the story got lost somewhere in the many computer deaths every writer’s life consists of (in between the “where the hell is that notebook” scuffling which dogs the more analogue among us), but the core of the story remained in my head.

Since then my tastes in science fiction have evolved, and my understanding of what is frequently left out of popular sci-fi developed. Whole continents have been ignored in the future of humanity in too much of classic sci-fi literature. I made myself a small rule: if it’s in space, if it’s The Future, the Future is Africa.

Since making that rule I’ve found anthologies, short films, and the occasional novel to add to my own supposed future when I finally have time to read the African sci-fi I want so badly to see; but this little re-working of a a re-working is my beginning.

Some very clear images remained of that first story: the lone traveller, isolated in a vast space civilisation which had unexpectedly expired, leaving them in the worst psychological state a human can be in – cast away without hope of ever making contact again. Another was the image of a man labouring away trying to create something beautiful with a technology he doesn’t really understand, which is definitely not a metaphor for trying to get the hang of Photoshop but might as well be. The third image was the idea of a failed Pygmalion, perhaps somewhere in the region of God confronted with the wickedness of the world prior to the Flood, but without the same moral trappings; a Frankenstein story driven by loneliness, instead of arrogance.

Other images came later, from the practicalities involved the running of the ship, and the destruction of the population; but the real genesis of the story – the germ – was one lonely person using a wire-frame model to create a friend, and accidentally bringing to life a monster wracked with suffering.

Focus On Fiction: The Other Daughter

FOCUS ON FICTION:
I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available. If anyone’s read any of them and wants to add their impressions or things they think...

I’m going to be doing one of these a day (hopefully) to give people a bit more background & insight about the stories I’ve got out/available, to help anyone make a decision about what they want to read next, or just to give background if you’re already familiar with the story.

A novel today:

THE OTHER DAUGHTER

Polly Mazlowczy has returned from a fictitious conflict in North Korea a changed woman. Just how changed, her strange and insular family and the people of an isolated Midwestern town are about to discover. The Other Daughter is a revenge tragedy of the old school given a modern twist.

With this book I’ve definitely been a victim of my inability to stick to one genre; it is technically a revenge fantasy, yes – based on a play which certainly falls into that category – but it’s also a fantasy novel, and a family saga.

I began with the house. Polly, the protagonist, came into shape in relationship to that stifling, oppressive, semi-haunted building and its horrible secrets. Her supernatural entourage (and her brilliant, rude, amoral girlfriend) came soon after. As the first of my published works to actually see completion – although it wasn’t the first published – I think The Other Daughter represents an interesting snapshot of an earlier stage in the development of my personal style and approach to writing.

It’s dense, and visceral, thick with minute descriptions which I think add to the oppressive atmosphere the whole narrative carries with it, and the sense of an impending storm. I think, too, a lot of my literary influences are closer to the surface than they are in other work, meaning it’s an interesting read in terms of analysis as well as enjoyment – and surprisingly also probably some of the freshest, most interesting characterisation I’ve done. I could stand to revisit this for my own development!

The Other Daughter, a story about secrets, lies, and coming back to the place that made you in order to see that process through no matter the cost, carried with it some very clear mental images, and a while back I commissioned B. L. Becotte to draw one of them:

image

Originally I described this as:

“It features ass-kicking lesbians, creepy ghost monsters, horrific mutilation, and a plot stolen from inspired by Shakespeare. Clearly the stuff of powerful cinematic legend or, more accurately, just me having a good time with writing something rather than making an enormous fuss about the moral and social implications of the text.”

While that’s true to a degree, there’s definitely some examination of the monstrous feminine and the damage women can do to each other in here that I just took for granted when I was writing it.