[PUBLISHING] Rise Above It

Pride may be over officially but it’s not really over until I say it is, and I say it isn’t. Everything is very stressful right now, and no one could blame you from wanting a little escapism, a little queer romance, a little fantasy, a little “not now, not the way things are”. Which is good, because that’s what I’ve got for you today.

Above Decency Cover: a silhouetted spitfire flies through clouds and a searchlight beam. the title is in red script and the name of the author, melissa snowdon, is in white capital letters

When Jack Campbell joins the airforce his only thought is to fly more, do his duty to his country, and escape his own thoughts for a few glorious hours in the air. And then he meets one H Fuller, and discovers that his heart, too, has wings.

Less of a historical romance, more of a romantic history: a fantasy of queer romance during war time, by the author of Tame.

Melissa Snowdon as a writing pseud is a guarantor of a happy ending. Only good times in these books!

Available on Kindle (US | UK and all regional sites) and in paperback (Lulu)

All Roads Lead to Jerusalem [Review]

Sometime in December, I think, I was ploughing through endless video interviews and radio interviews with either Stewart Lee or Alan Moore on their writing process, as I attempted to work out what had happened to mine in the aftermath of a significant failure and an ongoing dissatisfaction with what I was doing artistically. Mentioned in the glut of 2016 interviews (and the relative absence of interviews since) was the then-recent release of Jerusalem, which I’d heard about vaguely at the time but not really been interested in reading at that point, possibly due to either the imminence of top surgery, the recent hell of the Brexit vote, the upcoming hell of the US adopting an actual literal fascist president, or the fact that one of my friends had just committed suicide. 2016 was not a good year.

2020 is not a good year either, but one of the high points has been treating an odyssey through Alan Moore’s 1,000,000-word novel about a half-square mile of Northampton, the structure of the universe, the function of art, how time works, what death actually is, and what he’d be like if he had been born a woman–as a kind of safety rail for the brain which prevents one from toppling into the hell of rolling news and instead beckons adventures in an equally-fraught but more sensical chaos.

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At the end of this book, I feel rather like I’m looking back down over some sort of Midlands Nazca Lines at some literary structures which are difficult to view without a very good memory.

There is the structural element that the entire book does and does not take place in a single day–May 26th, 2006–mostly in a single city (there are some excursions to Lambeth, which I appreciate), mostly in a single area of that single city, and features characters passing through a specific moment in time, rather than time moving over the characters; congruent with Moore’s theories.

It acknowledges the debt to Joyce by, quite literally, plonking his daughter into the narrative and allowing her her own voice, all written in a very Joycean fashion (this slowed me down somewhat: having to physically sound out not-quite-phonetic renderings and mixed-up sentences to get through Lucia’s chapter was gruelling, but subvocalisation encourages not only a working phonological memory, leading to greater comprehension further into the chapter, but also elicits more in-depth appreciation of a text–meaning that this already hallucinogenic-in-content chapter became hallucinogenic-in-detail, too).

There is the echoing of incidents, the way in which interactions between characters have their consequences (or presequences) in much, much later chapters; one builds up a highly-detailed picture of the landscape of the moment through repetition from a hundred angles–which is alluded to if not outright claimed in the after-chapter which contains the entire tale in symbolic miniature… already described but not “shown” elsewhere in the book. In many, many senses, a fractal work.

And then there is the element of “ascension”. Movement through time in one section of the book as experienced during life is replaced by movement through spacetime in another, before returning the reader to apparent mundanity expressed in less conventional prose and more noticeably artistic format (for example, poetry, or unchecked run-on prose, or a script of a play; an inner viewpoint which paints itself exclusively in the language of the hardboiled noir detective),  an obvious mirror to the the “enlightenment/madness-leads-to-art” path.

Narratively, then, this very much rewards a patient reading and a good memory. Which, considering the work is in some aspect about memory–about memorialising a murdered district or, as the gender-swapped, discipline-shifted avatar of Moore himself within the text puts it, preserving it like a ship in a bottle–is an appropriate feature.

It also rewards digestion and, I suspect, discussion.

Features I especially enjoyed of this work are not solely what it is in itself, but the effect that it has had while reading it. Moore’s prose within in is unchecked, luscious, excessive–unrealistic, out-of-control, then blunt and considered. His depiction of characters is both fond and savage, sympathetic and cutting; even the discourses with angels and devils reek of an egalitarian familiarity. There is a fearlessness in the choices he makes.

As I said, I turned to this book when I was disillusioned with my own work, burnt out, tired, and annoyed with the demands that I felt were being made of writers in general. In part I addressed my dissatisfaction by returning to the craft rather than the content of art, trying to reignite a passion that had been drained.

In tandem with that work, I found that having Alan Moore’s book around as a companion proved to be several types of inspiration at once: first, it reminded me what can be done with literature, what Moore himself in one of his radio interviews described as “destroying the novel”. Second, it showed me someone absolutely, incontrovertibly enjoying himself writing exactly what he wanted to write without any thought to anyone else. And thirdly, it showed me someone writing how he wanted to write, too.

The fact that it was published at all is almost certainly 100% down to that “someone” writing the way he wanted to and what he wanted to being Alan Moore; but writing only with an eye to whether or not someone would be prepared to publish my work has been a choke collar on creativity every time it’s been applied.

Ordinarily I’d say something critical here, but frankly I’m impressed anyone’s managed to typeset this much text, never mind write something with this kind of scope. Yes, there are failings. Yes, there moments of thinness; moments that could be edited. Yes, it repeats itself. Yes, some parts will make people wince. That all seems to be caught up in the point of the work: existence is far more morally, socially, chronologically, and emotionally complex than we will ever give it credit for, and we look for meaning in it to excavate a path through that complexity. Throwing other people’s meanings into the incinerator and destroying their connections is a particularly brutal form of destruction.

It feels self-indulgent because it is self-indulgent, and I feel there should be space for this kind of self-indulgence in the literary world. Morally–and for the sake of variety, and for the sake of justice, and preventing cultural stagnation–I think the kind of self-indulgence and art-for-arts-sake that this represents should be something that is equally available to the writers who don’t have the benefit of being Alan Moore (in particular BAME authors in the UK) and I get the impression from the views expressed both in the text and in the interviews that he feels that too.

I won’t recommend or condemn the book: that would be missing the point.

Milestones: Bin gün türkçe

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1,000 continuous days of Turkish language exercises every morning and can I write a coherent, grammatically correct sentence in this language with confidence? Absolutely not. Can I speak and understand even the simplest of interactions? Hell no. Can I read a baby book in Turkish?  Can I even make sense of Turkish trending tags on Twitter? God no. Hayır.

Can I pick out individual words from the conversations people are having in the supermarket? Yes. Can I identify random ingredients on packaging? Yes. Can I annoy the living shit out of the people I live with by translating one noun or verb into three different languages without explaining why the hell I’m doing it because there isn’t actually a reason? Evet.

As my sanity slowly melts away in the “no theatres, but somehow the pubs are opening” wasteland of bad policy, ongoing pandemic deaths, endless grinding doom of rolling news, militant and unstoppable juggernaut of liberal transphobia, constantly unfolding evidence of the nadir of human decency embodied in police brutality, and the ever-nearing moment when the country I live in becomes a failed state and testing ground for international security companies to pick over like vultures, I can confidently assert one thing: I’ve definitely taught myself to do Duolingo every day regardless of whatever else is happening.

Lockdown Update: Welcome to half-way through the year

Opinion seems divided on whether or not lockdown in the UK is resulting in a surge of creativity, a surge of Netflix bingeing, or absolutely no change whatsoever barring a sudden desire to eat more crisps. Apparently in the eyes of whoever collates this information these things are mutually exclusive, and many very tiresome newspaper columnists of the sort who get paid £800 a column to write nothing edifying or even funny have made pronouncements of the “no one is really baking sourdough bread and learning Duolingo Latin, we’re all binge-watching TV, haha, aren’t I relatable” variety.

I rather think that all that’s happened is that people have reverted to what they find most comforting that’s actively available to to them in this period. For some people that’s binge-watching TV, because that’s what they’re into anyway (Long Suffering Boyfriend has run out of TV and is now marathoning the Aliens movies to supplement his usual diet of games and his recent hobby of doing pushups at 6am; The Resident Australian has acquired a wrist brace and gone back to drawing while watching YouTube videos, and taken up doing pushups at about 12pm). For me, someone who for reasons which I suspect actually constitute a neurological disability, cannot watch TV without being highly stressed and talking constantly, that means I have been churning out fiction as if my life depended on it.

I’ve also taken up doing push-ups in the living room in the time when the others aren’t, but we’re going to look at the writing.

One of the most important changes I’ve made to my writing life this year has been to return to fundamentals of style and technique, which saw me start the year with writing exercises, transition into writing things for my own consumption without a thought of potential audience (this is ongoing, and has seen me write over 50,000 words since I started–all longhand, at a glacial pace), and most recently has resulted in taking inspiration from my more ambitious reading material to return to another lesson from university: look at different ways of telling a story.

Delving back into structure, narrative, literary Dadaism, concepts like the antinovel, experimental fiction and literary rather than genre-specific approaches to writing has been a breath of fresh air for me. The last time a book’s germinus came about from a specific idea about structure was when I tried to envision a book in which the passage of a core plot was relegated to its rightfully unimportant place in the lives of most of the characters that it passed through.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the 11 years or so since finishing Pass the Parcel working on plotting because I was very aware that it’s a weak point. I have spent a lot of time trying to pursue more naturalistic and less forced plot progression because I am aware it’s a weak point. I’ve approached a lack of desire to research and I’ve made myself comfortable with the “why not” approach to casting characters (“does anything about the plot require this character to have the privileges of a white, male, able-bodied cis man for it to be able to function? Then that’s not what that character is”) and I have in the last couple of years done the following:

  1. a full, page-by-page plot breakdown of someone else’s book followed by a page-by-page rebuild of a similar plot with completely different features to it.
  2. gotten to grips with the short story format a little better, rather than just writing vignettes, and taken on “this thing needs to express an idea and imply an entire world”.

And I’d argue that this, in addition to making the uneasy acquaintance of things like “in-depth planning”, “editing”, and “no seriously, more editing”, has seen a serious improvement in the quality of work. However, by last year it also shoved me into a rut and made me bored.

Laying aside the usual concerns has allowed me to concentrate more fully on returning to things that invigorate my imagination, and almost as a by-product resulted in a lot of other, more normal work being shaken loose!

And it also inspired some art:

Transcription for screenreaders:

From the surface, Earth feels limitless and permanent, which is perhaps why it took so long to accept that it is not immobile at the centre of the universe.
“I’m very excited,” says Frank.
There may be very few places in the average galaxy where atoms have come to contemplate atoms. / But technology will advance very quickly over the next few hundred years.
It took seven years for The culmination of a long-held
view of the cosmos, made of ice.

With the sun’s powerful rats eclipsed
gravity of other celestial bodies
reveals an icy floodplain.

We are hungry for unknown aspects of a solid, flat surface carpeted with / a thin golden line in the dark.

by firing an electron atmosphere was tinged with less–than meets the eye.

kaleidoscopic ball above like beads on a string. / From space, our world appears finite and fragile, a tumbling grain of dust.

We can see the virus here thanks.

Transcription for screenreaders:

FIGHTERS Fairy tales

As a city kid, / based on a century-old idea:

a vast forest, impassable roads seemed to disappear

elk and wolves, / began to shrink.

They were hunters, / drugs that strip / the category of family, / hunt and kill foreign invaders.

That’s a physical representation of / blocks in its way,

and is armed to / be able to target more

“because you need silence.”

Transcription for screenreaders:

drought, and overuse

clusters of abandoned / stranded; the fish / born of drought.

like ice cream in a freezer that has melted / into thin air

warm water encourages growth.

air was lip-chapping dry / across the lake flooded

Water that once spread / nourishing rivers.

shrunk to a sliver / and worsening drought.

Winds that whip across / for the return of their dried-up lake.


On the “more normal writing” front, I’m delighted to also be able to announce that an excerpt from a longer project, When Someone Speaks Your Language, will be included in New Smut Project‘s forthcoming flash-fiction erotica anthology, Erato: Flash Fiction. I’m very excited to see the other work I’ll be appearing alongside–New Smut Project have a great dedication to erotica with character and imagination, and humanity. I’ve had the good fortune to have published with them previously, under the romance/erotica pseudonym Melissa Snowdon, in anthology Between The Shores (still available!), but this is the first time I’ll have published with this excellent imprint under my own name. Hopefully not the last, however, as they’re great people to work with.

Faulty assumptions: Writing edition

Hello, coronaprisoners!

As I continue to plough through a meandering to-do list on lockdown, managing my complete absence of an attention span (the internet? ADHD? too much news? Who can say) by only spending 15 minutes on any given activity bar cooking and day walks and thus making incremental but continual progress on several projects simultaneously, I’ve run up against an interesting recurring problem in my writing projects!

Namely, despite the urging of long-ago mentors and the in fact very accurate truism, “write what you know” (which is often cited without the closing second clause, “and make sure you know plenty”, a piece of very helpful advice given to me by a short story author in my youth who told me to make an ass of myself more often so I’d have things to work with)… I find myself compelled to introduce elements, settings, and norms that I know nothing about from my own life, and indeed have an odd sense of necessity about providing this alienation in the works.

Which would be perfectly normal–what author doesn’t like to challenge themselves? What better way to expand one’s knowledge base than by making it an important part of a story to know, for example, the tensions between two different branches of the English church in the early twentieth century?–were it not for the fact that there’s also this strong sense that people reading should recognise and know that I am doing it, and therefore grasp for once and for all that I am not writing an autobiography.

Almost anyone who writes anything has had to deal with the assumption that there must be some character in the fiction who represents them in a straightforward kind of way; almost anyone who has written anything has had to deal with the assumption that any knowledge they have demonstrated in writing fiction must have been garnered through lived experience, or professional expertise. I have this futile, silly idea that sooner or later it will be possible to convince people that writers do this thing called research.

Research, for those who only ever do it on one specific subject area or never did any in their life, is when you either read a lot of things, watch a lot of things, or interview a lot of people who have first-hand knowledge of a lot of things; sometimes writers do what’s called passive research, which is just absorbing stories and experiences from people around them and drawing on these later to include elements in a project. Sometimes writers do what’s called blind research, which is just reading or watching whatever looks interesting, until the collision of knowledge and concepts creates a new idea that sticks.

The broader the base of these researches the better depth and confidence a writer’s work is likely to have! The key is shallow, often swiftly-acquired knowledge, which is not the same thing as professional expertise: and professional expertise, while extremely useful in an profession, is not always easily communicated well and interestingly to a lay audience. Just ask anyone who has spoken to both a scientist and a science communicator: they’re very, very different things.

Ideally, the average reader would forget the author is there altogether except when it comes to paying for the labour they’ve enjoyed and recommending the work to others! An author whose preferences and opinions are too highly visible in their work is… a performer, rather than a creator.

And on that note: has anyone else made any fundamental discoveries about their own thought processes while they’re on enforced seclusion? 

Language Control

Good day to you, fellow coronaprisoners. I’m here to abuse my captive audience by talking about talking. Having a chat about having a chat. That sort of thing. The question is, is “that sort of thing” my words? And if not, whose words are they?

An element of creative writing timewasting, as I think it’s probably appropriate to refer to the rising debt with the student loans company that i incurred for three years of drinking and the most useless BA ever to have been granted, is the identification of your literary influences, practising on the determination of the literary influences of others. Mine are nakedly evident enough that complete strangers have accurately picked them out of examples of my writing–which either says something very complimentary about the once much-prized chameleonic capacity of a fanfic writer, or something very uncomplimentary about my inability to establish my own voice without relying on the linguistic tropes and tendencies of other, better writers.

It’s that last part that I want to look into now. Not so much in fiction, although it feeds into fiction the same way that every single experience and thought eventually contributes to the works produced by any given individual (and which is also why no two stories are ever going to be identical unless you actually copy out another word-for-word, and that is why yes, you should have a crack at an idea someone else has “already had”, for goodness’ sakes).

What I want navigate is the origins of habits of speech (for example: when I started this sentence, I originally phrased it as “What I want to have a navigate of”–this seems much less formal, but also indicative of a certain mindset, a habitual “nouning of the verb” which was in vogue in some internet social circles about ten years ago), and how to alter them to alter the perceived self.

I am no fan of linguistic determinism — in its logical extreme you have to ask how the hell we ever developed language in the first place — and I stringently dislike one of the more benign neuro-linguistic programming drivel ideas, that of “affirmations”, the concept of brain-washing yourself with concepts conveyed through typically syrupy and irritating language. One function that changing the way one talks has, however, is changing the group affiliations one has or is perceived to have.

At this point most people who have been on the internet for five minutes are familiar with terms like “dogwhistle” (the encoding of seemingly unrelated topics into phrases which will be understood by those from a specific sub-group, “calling up” the rest of a phrase or concept like using a whistle only dogs can hear) or “code switching” (a speaker moving between one dialect or register reserved for one group of people to another dialect or register reserved for another group of people. Typically one group will be more intimate than another or less hostile, for which a less-penetrable dialect/register to outsiders will be used, with the original definition of switching between discrete languages at the far end of the spectrum), and so on. It’s also possible if you’ve been about on the internet much you’ll have observed the linguistic changes occasioned by the gradual switch to global written communication in real-time described in Because Internet.

A visible example of what I am about to get at is a kind of generational strata of written communication online: a joke which has circulated several social media sites by now is the ease with which it’s possible to determine whether a “speaker” comes from the arbitrary generational categories of “boomer”, “gen x”, “millennial”, or “gen z/zoomer” based on how they communicate in informal text. There is certainly a grain of truth in this, but there are several other visible calibrations: social class/cultural considerations, the specific etiquette and norms of specific channels of communication, and the intended audience. The latter, of course, is true of all forms of communication: we don’t speak in the same way to strangers at a party as friends at a gathering, to partners at home, to children, to parents, to colleagues, to bosses, to classmates, to educators, to our medical care-givers. There is a wealth of “instinctive” social linguistic adjustment in each transition, and it usually takes the transplantation to a new culture with new rules or the acute social observation of someone who learns this “manually” to point out that it’s not at all instinctive.

In public spaces where a variety of voices are audible (or visible, online) we signal our affiliations to each other in a variety of ways, and one of those ways is word choices. To use a blunt example, the words “homosexual”, “gay”, and “queer” all carry different information about the speaker. Some of it may be generational, but–for example–a non-binary person may feel a lot less secure in the company of “gay” than “queer”, and most people who fall under the umbrella of LGBTQIA will distance themselves from users of “homosexual” where possible. There’s also the reclamation of terms of abuse given particular contexts: “faggot” in one person’s mouth is an extremely different proposition to another’s.

But this a bulldozer and the calibrations I’m thinking of are less obvious. Think about how language works a moment. How it changes. How neologisms and new coinings get into your vocabulary and become something you either unthinkingly use, begrudgingly accept, or self-consciously reject. Some represent marketing minds turned to politics (“Brexit”, for example), while others act in a more devious manner, introducing and associating ideas which then become normal (“ethnic cleansing” as a euphemistic, less-appalling-somehow version of “genocide” despite the absolute parity in actual behaviour; or the association of human beings with vermin by the use of dehumanising language like “swarm” or “tide” and categorising words of activity careful to avoid words like “people” which later give way to adjectives; “immigrants” then becomes “illegals”, focused not on the action but the assumption of how it was achieved, dragging associations further and further away from the guilt-inspiring “people”).

The same is true of language used in its social identification. Closed social codes aren’t always as impenetrable to outsiders as Polari (the partially Roma-derived, partially Cockney-evolved gay slang/cant of the mid-20th century), and in a world long-used to mass communication what began as a mode of communication for one group of people becomes a novelty for another, and then a “cool” way of talking, and then finally the norm. There is a conspicuous pipeline now from African-American women’s conversational habits through to white drag queens to white straight women which is only partially occasioned by the popularity of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, although that has certainly helped.

Every culture and subculture has its shibboleths, and usually when they become widely-used they’re abandoned and replaced, often the source of derision to the same cultural sections which once relied on them: very few self-identified “nerds” still think the ability to quote large chunks of Monty Python sketches verbatim qualifies as a status determinant, for example.

Without digressing too much: memes absolutely constitute semi-verbal fast-evolving shibboleths with the interesting caveat that meme mutation and social media platform jumping have set boundaries (not always adhered to, but visible).

Linguistic group-signalling can be quite subtle, often unconscious. For example, I don’t think the die-hard, Gen X Buffy fans of my acquaintance necessarily know that they’re signalling their age and former affiliations so clearly with sentences that by now naturally mimic the then-novel formations used by Joss Whedon (“get stabby”, “and this sentence? Has a question in the middle that answers itself”), but they are, and it allows them to find each other. It also paints a specific image.

A one-stop shop for often cruel lampooning of social image broadcasting through language can be found among the first genuinely online generation, those who were brought up with internet access as a given, and with the reasonable expectation that they were under observation at all times. It’s produced a generation extremely savvy to and obsessed with image projection and capable of tracking/analysing minutiae of known shibboleths–a useful skill in a world in which dogwhistling of increasingly hostile groups is a possibility.

Fortunately, writing journals and other self-analysis skills inculcated by the useless degree allow for things like this self-definition project: the analysis (probably private) of my own language use, and my ongoing discovery that in my laziness in associating on different brevity-valuing social media platforms and my general and fairly human desire to fit in with the various different and not hugely overlapping social groups I’ve acquired over the course of my life, I’ve acquired a kind of coating of linguistic tropes and tendencies. Which is all well and good, except it feels increasingly as if I am not speaking in my own self, but rather a self wearing a series of ugly and increasingly ill-fitting clothes as a camouflage, in an attempt to avoid being ill-treated or singled out.

And that is a habit formed in times that aren’t relevant any more. As someone with more confidence in the validity of my own thoughts, opinions, and most importantly in the likelihood of my welcome from friends regardless of my personal oddness and any unusual idiolect, I think it might be time that I had a go at a kind of “Konmari” on my vocabulary or verbal habits, asking myself “does this phrase spark joy or does it in fact make me feel as if I am participating in a giant social pantomime, a role play game in which I and everyone around me am locked into a series of pre-defined types and positions from which we are afforded no release?”

Also it’s really limiting my ability to write as well as I want to, to have my neurological pathways purely determined by a limited register of expression honed around the need to streamline myself into particular moulds for the comfort of others, especially when those others are often strangers with a pre-disposition to hostility.

Which is like, totally shitty.

Plague Posting

As the world takes on a somewhat different cast these days I thought I’d give everyone a quick update on my general state of being and a brief assurance that I’m definitely not dead.

Doing

  • Still editing the manuscript known tentatively as “Eggs & Rice”
  • Gently plugging away at a low-effort long-term writing project which may or may not ever bear book-shaped fruit
  • Producing the odd short story and poem for markets that may or may not accept them (titles including “The Black Orchid Chandelier” and “Down Time”), and submitting those.
  • Writing on my pro blog about Art in the Time of Plague
  • Refusing to look at any helpful videos as I attempt to problem-solve my way through to bookbinding via trial and error
  • Learning to climb trees, a respectable and sensible activity for  man approaching 40
  • Working on my long-term comics project with collaborator Emma Weakley (located in Aotearoa New Zealand, also under lockdown).

Recommendations

  • If you’re morbidly capable of taking in contagion & pandemic media right now, I wrote a book four years ago on this exact subject: The Next Big One. It addresses a much less contagious but considerably more deadly (fictional) illness than COVID-19, and looks at the swathe of responses from different media sources and individuals to living through a pandemic. At the time, my primary sources were the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone and the AIDS crisis of my youth; I have to say, living through this now, I may have been a little too optimistic about the overall moral foundations of the country’s press… you can tell that I wrote it before I’d spent much time working in media monitoring!
  • If you’re feeling the absolute opposite and would rather never hear anything about a pandemic again, the opening paragraphs of the above-mentioned blog post on Art in Time of Plague collates arts livestream and virtual gallery tours for those under lockdown, and my personal favourite nonsense TV, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, is on Netflix in its entirety.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the aquarium with the best social media presence, has livestreams of many of its creatures. I’m personally a big fan of the jellyfish.
  • If you don’t have the attention span for crochet or the mathematical skills for knitting, you can always learn how to macrame.

In future days, when I haven’t wasted all of my time exploring disused railway lines instead of actually putting any work into the aforementioned projects, using the excuse “I need to get exercise and the gym is closed”, I hope to have a post ready. Suggestions welcome!

Publishing: Time For More Sad Poetry

Book cover for Interrupted Verse, featuring a desert landscape and water-filled cauldera as viewed from above, drawn in pencil and coloured digitally

It’s here. Some of it is queer. A lot of it is, given the nature of the years 2016-2019 for both me and the artist who created the cover, about grief.

Interrupted Verse: Collected Poetry 2016-2019

There are also poems about yearning, about joy, about freedom, and about transition. There are poems which both are and are not about politics. There are poems which adhere to a strike rhyme scheme, and some which sneak assonance and consonance past you almost subconsciously. In reading them over for inclusion in this book, I have found rhythms I didn’t realise I was putting into my work, and recurring images which I very much did.

There are poems to commemorate both the dead of my acquaintance, and that of my friends, and those of the world in general, almost all of whom, barring my grandparents (to whom there are memorials), left far earlier than needed. But there are also poems to commemorate the joyful moments in the lives of the people I love, including, I suppose, me. I hope they can also be turned to the need for comfort, catharsis, challenge, and cheering up that you might have. Feel free to make yourself at home with them.


If, however, you are not interested in poetry at this point in your life, may I point your attention to the recently-released Architects of the Flesh, a novel which covers many of the same themes. 

Inspiration Station: Books That Stick

A key part of my BA Creative Writing was wider reading. We were give course excerpt readers for class discussion and usually quite exhaustive lists of suggested texts for reading around the subject, which I was apparently the only person to actually bother to read. These were usually intended to highlight things: how episodic fiction works, the difference between the episodic and the transformative, the nature of modernist vs postmodernist writing, different approaches to poetry, and so on. The following books were largely not on the reading list, but are just books which–for reasons other than the narrative they contained–have stuck with me and influenced me in some way.

Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker. I have reread these books many times and I still can’t quite put my finger on why they work so well for me when the rest of Barker’s novels, including ones in similar settings with similar themes, don’t. But initially I think I was taken by her use of language–specifically the incredible balance she strikes between clean, clear description that never goes overboard, poetic turns of phrase at moments of intense emotion, and not allowing the action to ever take place in what’s usually called a “white room”, even when she devotes only a sentence to scene-setting.

As Meat Loves Salt, Maria McCann. I have a great and powerful weakness for strong character voice, particularly first-person narrators, and particularly unreliable ones. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who plans to read it (and I definitely urge people to read it, with the caveat that it is frequently brutal and the narrator’s voice is a lot to handle), but the timing of exposure of information, the distortion produced by the emotions of the narrator, and his acute unreliability are all things I aspire to in terms of literary courage. I think I came closest to achieving that in Heavy, but no writer is ever satisfied fully with their past work.

The Debt To Pleasure, John Lanchester. This was recommended to me (by A.K. Larkwood, author of The Unspoken Name, in fact) on the basis of my voluble and impassioned reviews of As Meat Loves Salt. She (rightly) grasped that I liked narrators who were “unreliable, full of their own bullshit, and absolute dicks”, and pointed me at this debut novella by a culinary writer. It treads the line between literary murder mystery and cookbook memoirs, and I have never read anything else like it. In terms of showing me how to use narrator preoccupations to absolutely manipulate the audience and frame the story in a manner that I’d never have considered doing myself, it was an eye-opener. In a very odd way, a little like Matt Fraction’s celebrated dog’s-eye view issue of Hawkeye, or even that one Agatha Christie novel whose title I shan’t mention lest I spoil the plot. Linguistically this is also wonderful–writing a pretentious, self-involved asshole as a protagonist/narrator frees the author to go absolutely mad with language and really unleash the purple prose and pompous opinions. Again, something I am working up to finding the courage for myself.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov. Like the Regeneration books this is one I have returned to repeatedly and like them it is one that I consider a touchstone of literary aspiration. Every man and his dog has written about Nabokov’s borderline self-indulgent description, his anatomisation of a specific time and place in history, his eloquence. What fascinated me on first reading, and which now just impresses me with the skill with which it is done, is again the use of the perspective of a reprehensible person to tell you one thing, but to show you something else. Following the emotional narrative of Humbert Humbert, he “falls in love” with a very young girl and obsessively “courts” her and she “breaks his heart”. Following the physical narrative of the behaviour he himself observes, Dolores Haze is abducted and abused by the man who emotionally tormented her mother, until she escapes. A genuinely inspiring demonstration of how to use the narrator to conduct the same grooming behaviour on the reader as he does on the characters, and one which unsettles a lot of readers to the point of anger when they realise they’re complicit somehow.

It’s not solely unreliable first-person narrators, but I admit I am going to return to that theme.

The Charioteer, Mary Renault. Another regular reread, and one that I treat like getting a particularly nice cake. I have the greatest respect for many of her works, but I think this one is probably the best. The characters are the most fully fleshed-out, the locational descriptions the most immersive and recognisible–although I can see that’s also because they’re more familiar, both due to personal experience and to ritual rereading.

One of the hallmarks of Renault’s work is implication: as a queer writer, she has the very particular talent of leaving things unsaid, but carefully hinted at. Not writing things, but writing around them, so that they appear inevitably in the white space in the centre–a bit like drawing only the shadows cast by physical objects, rather than the objects themselves. Some of this is delicacy–she got away with writing a gay romance in the 1950s by creating gaps for the sex and kissing that could be filled by the mind but were not even alluded to in ways people without the “code” would notice. Some of it is layers. Many of her sentences, dialogue in particular, are laden with multiple strata of meaning. Which ought to be a given, but is rarely the case. And because everything happens through the eyes of the point-of-view protagonist, in initial read-throughs the image of other characters is distorted. Is so-and-so really a horrible person or does the protagonist not like them because he considers them competition? Is so-and-so really a selfless paragon or is he just in love? And so on.

Another hallmark is rhythm. It’s hard to pinpoint and harder still to replicate (as a recent attempt at practicing iambic prose revealed, writing with an ear to spoken rhythm is not something I find easy at all), but there are passages of description in The Charioteer which read like poetry not only in their pastoral or romantic content but in their very stresses and alliterations and that is the lodestar by which I would very much like to steer the unforgivably ugly pedalo of my own prose.

Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, is another instance of “in it for the language”, in this case solely for the language. The social commentary bores me and the plot is tissue-thin: the real fascination comes from discovering how quickly Burgess can teach the reader to read an entirely new slang, purely through immersion and context. And, of course, it has a reprehensible, self-involved narrator with a strong voice, and we know by now that I like those.

The next three books all feature what I’d call location horror, or bad houses if you want to be really technical about it.

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski. I don’t really know where to start with this. Narratively it deals with the uncanny, and with emotional landscapes reflected as physical landscapes, and about distortions of reality; it runs three levels of narrative simultaneously, really milking the “found manuscript” trope of late 19th/early 20th century SciFi with breathtaking chutzpah. I don’t think I quite had the spleen to pull off my attempts with that in The Circle. Danielewski’s eye-catching USP is of playing with what can be achieved with the form, something that I think as novellists we probably do the least of all the narrative media, and it’s a shame–because what he does with it absolutely works. Again, the borderline abuse of the reader in terms of using every method possible to unsettle, distract, and disorientate, from switching “level” of narrative to uncanny content to the degeneration in narration by the two narrators and their ultimate subject, is like an ad infinitum demonstration of those particular skills, and ones which I would like to cultivate. I am not sure, however, that I have the patience for the typesetting complexities of House of Leaves!

The House, Bentley Little. Another bad house book, this generally standard horror novel was my introduction to multiple ideas: unsexy sex, threatening sexuality, and the use of sexual threat/menace to confer discomfort and unease onto entirely nonsexual subjects.

Drawing Blood, Poppy Z Brite. A better example of bad house and sexual horror, the prose in this book sat at the hinterland between “atrociously purple” and “appropriately mauve”; it somehow fitted the settings, and the revoltingly lush descriptions worked well with the sense of rot both internal and external, as well as containing quite a poetic and evocative description of an orgasm.

The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall. Recommended to me on the basis of the noisy appreciation of House of Leaves, this does indeed have characteristics in common: a disoriented and, as we learn, grief-stricken protagonist; a permeable kind of reality; inventive typography which creates a sense of threat to the reader by rubbing thin the membrane between fiction and reality (perhaps an attempt at the equivalent of an actor in a Brechtian production making aggressive eye contact and saying, This may be a play, but if I hit you, it will hurt); and an underlying unfurling mystery. It’s a lot more palatable to consume and has a definite narrative somewhere in there, however. I’ll leave a link to the Wikipedia summary, which I’m not sure fully does it justice, but which uses all the correct terms. 

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, G W Dahlquist. A compelling read with, as I’ll explain, an odd structural/pacing similarity to Annihilation, below. What I wanted to take from this, apart from the character-driven narration in multiple-PoV fiction, and the elaborate world-building (which was sketched out from three different perspectives to provide a fuller picture than one one allow for), was the sensation of constant movement. Glass Books is a long book that it is easy to race through because there is never any let-up in the action. Dahlquist appears to have taken the Chandler have a man enter with a gun edict very seriously, and claimed himself that his method was to “write characters into a hole, and force them to squirm out of it”; for someone who has a problem with extremely passive protagonists (which I only really think I began to break around Architects of the Flesh), this is a real goal. 

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Moore & Gibbons’ restriction in format and parallel narratives, with one illuminating the other are what I want to take from this, primarily. The response to restrictions is often considerable creativity (Lee Barnett’s Fast Fiction Challenge is one example, the fannish “drabble” format and the even more restrictive fifty-word micro-saga preceding the microfiction of Twitter accounts like T R Darling‘s falling into the same kind of restrictive category to intensifying degrees), or at the very least a way to break out of a rut.

The Filth, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine. I could just have easily said The Invisibles, but The Filth demonstrates the same factor that I’m interested in without requiring an enormous and almost equally confusing companion book to make sense of it all (yes, I have read them both. No, I can’t say with any certainty that I have unpacked every aspect of the work, and no, I don’t think I even meant to).

When I talked further up this post about Danielewski being one of the few authors I’d encountered who really played with the specifics of the form, I was thinking back on comics like The Filth, like Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man, which use fourth-wall breaking as a technique–one which is especially effective in the comics medium. Other tricks from these books have been used elsewhere, in particular playing with the convention that in comics, space is time, and therefore it is possible for characters to step out of their constraints and affect their own actions and experiences by reaching into the past or future (an idea which in novels is exemplified by The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger). In common with other visual narrative media such as film, animation, and television, comics can also use visual narratives in parallel with verbal ones, something which Michael Moorcock, in conversation with Alan Moore (and referenced here) claimed influenced his own attempts to ensure multiple narratives were taking place within each sentence.

Discovering and working with the specific capacities of novels and short stories (and not episodic fiction unfortunately, despite the popularity of that form across multiple media including Twitter) is something I would also like to get back to, rather than fixating so much on plot-driven stories and standard narrative formats.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer. I read this because I saw the film and was highly intrigued by it. The book and the film are at best second cousins. Elements of the novella which I found especially compelling/attractive: intense sense of place, a similar compelling pace and unfurling mystery to Glass Books, married with the rising emotional intensity and uncanny nature of House of Leaves, with a highly detached and even nameless narrator; and, in terms of thematic content itself, I was pleased by how little interest the book had in explaining or taming the phenomena it describes. Although it provides humanising insight into the protagonist which breaks up and also heightens the weirdness of the current events, the events themselves are doggedly, confrontationally alien, something which I absolutely yearn for on the rare occasions I read science fiction.

Most of the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett. When I was reviewing Jojo Rabbit for a friend, I said that I didn’t think that it was so much a comedy as a story which used comedic tropes and colours to force the viewer not to  disengage and to lull them into a sense of tonal security so that they would be unable to defend their psyche against the actual message of the film. This is something I think that I first saw in the Discworld novels, as they began to go along: I always found them incredible funny as a teenager, but often that humour was a wedge to having a pertinent moral message firmly inserted. 

Diseasemaker’s Croup, Neil Gaiman. A short fiction piece which featured in Fragile Things, which experiments with the expectations of informative writing in a similar manner to House of Leaves’ annotations, or found manuscript format fiction in general (Documents in the Case, by Dorothy L Sayers, is a grand example of the epistolic approach to that form–wrapped of course in a murder mystery, my favourite kind of plot). In this instance, it takes the form of a recursive idea: it is a disease suffered by those who write about fictional diseases, written by someone with the fictional disease on which they are writing, and whose degeneration in the text mirrors the description as it is being written. This, I think, is one of the strengths of novels and short stories which is harder to replicate in other media.

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in four parts, Douglas Adams (and, to an extent, the Dirk Gently books). From Douglas Adams, I learnt that you can break just about every conceivable “rule” of fiction if you do it hard enough and well enough. I learnt about zeugma, I learnt to love the present-but-detached narrator who also features in my childhood favourites, the Narnian Chronicles; and I learnt an enormous amount about comedic timing, litotes, comedic understatement and overstatement, contrasts–the real Anglo-Saxon and Greek nuts and bolts of writing. In future, I would like to bring back that playfulness, that metacommentary, and that committed, well-practiced but seemingly casual disregard and even contempt for “the rules” of writing.

Where from here?

To summarise: what I want to get back to. Unreliable narrators, always. Conflicting descriptions, always. Non-linear narrative is something I have played with very little outside of fanfic and would like to really indulge in. Meta-textuality, linguistic/rhetorical mirroring, and osmotic language teaching are things I would like to find ways of working into stories.

I am reminded by this list that Pass the Parcel, the longest and also first fully complete novel I wrote as an adult (I wrote two as a teenager and they were, as you might expect, not good), was something that I initially began as a way of working through a question I had about the way novels were structured. I didn’t answer it in that book, but what I did do was enjoy and explore creating a work of fiction without the preconceptions that had shackled me before and made it so hard to complete longer works.

There are a lot of questions to be raised about how stories work, how to tell them, and how I want to tell them.