Archive | February, 2014

Opening the Jamboree Bag

26 Feb

Those familiar with this blog will know that I’m not terribly keen on self-promotion, but I hope that I shall be forgiven on this occasion. In the summer, I put together a sampler of my writing in a range of forms across the better part of thirty years. For reasons outlined below, I chose to call it Jamboree Bag. The idea was to provide something that publishers or agents could look at – ha ha – and anyone else who might be interested, to demonstrate the range of my writing.

I’ve finally decided to let it loose on an unsuspecting and almost certainly uninterested world. Perhaps it was reading The Salmon of Doubt, a compendium of posthumously published pieces by Douglas Adams (RIP, big man) that prompted me to do so. After all, you’re a long time dead, as they say. It’s available now on Lulu – just follow the link. My facility with e-books is almost nil, so for the moment it’s only available in paperback format. You get 147 pages featuring excerpts from the novels and novellas that I’ve written to date, a couple of short stories, extracts from my two works-in-progress, memoir and journalism, all for an entrance fee of just a fiver. There are 24 pieces in all. It’s illustrated with photos and with the occasional drawing too. To quote my writing friends, “each of these pieces is a clean, tight example of excellent writing” (Lauren Sapala), “every piece was beautifully written, interesting and engaging” (Mari Biella). And they couldn’t possibly be biased, could they?


Anyway, here’s what I have to say about it in the introduction.

A long time ago in England, there existed something called a Jamboree Bag. Cheap to buy, it contained a variety of sweets and toys all wrapped up in a package featuring jokes and puzzles.

I’ve been writing forever. You could probably still buy a Jamboree Bag when I made up my first story. Friends at Sixth Form will remember my first efforts, absurdist plays that never got beyond act one, scene three.  Then there were the lyrics that I wrote for bands in which I played, always the wordiest of songs.  In my late teens, I made my first unsuccessful forays into novel writing, gloomy and self-pitying attempts that invariably faltered after a single chapter. After completing and then discarding three novels in the 1990s, I’d written my obligatory half million words of rubbish.  I was ready to start writing for real. 

I’ve worked as a freelance music journalist and in 2009, Helter Skelter published Music in Dreamland, my biography of the leftfield musician, Bill Nelson.  I’m a writer in mid-career.  It just so happens that my fiction has yet to be published. Over the years, I’ve amassed something of a backlog.  There are my two novellas, The Great English Novel (2002) and Norwegian Rock (2006), my war novel, “Mayflies” (2012) and a clutch of short stories written over the past decade.  At present, I’m working on two further novels. 

All in all, then, it seems like a good time for a retrospective.  And so here’s a jamboree bag, crammed full with writing from across the years in a range of forms – extracts from novels and novellas, short stories, biography, memoir, music journalism, blog posts, song lyrics, even poems…  

All text and images © PSR 2014

Reaching Double Figures…

22 Feb

As regular readers of this blog will know, I spent six years writing a long (150,000 word) and complex war novel. It has yet to be published. I’ve made some attempt (thus far unsuccessfully) to interest publishers and agents. And I’ve equivocated over the self-publishing route. To be perfectly honest, it’s purely the writing that I enjoy. It’s almost – and yet not quite – a matter of indifference to me whether it’s published or not.

That’s not to say, though, that I don’t want my work to be read. And this week, as my tenth reader finished reading the book, its audience reached double figures. That’s not quite as insignificant as it sounds – you might be surprised how few copies some conventionally published books sell. This particular reader admired the book but didn’t enjoy it. Feeling morose when he’d begun it, he found that its theme – the futility of war – depressed him further. It’s not an easy read but I wouldn’t have it any other way. And half of my readers have loved it (see here and here) and that in itself has made it worthwhile writing. Only one so far has thought that I’d have no chance of seeing it published traditionally. For the moment, though, it would seem that she’s right…

Meanwhile, my new novel is edging slowly toward the six-figure mark (I envisage the finished artefact coming in at around 100,000 words). I’ve been out at the writing den over the last few days and have pushed it forward a little further. I’m still unconvinced about it, though. It’s a considerable departure from its predecessor – no bad thing, I think – but it remains to be seen if its experimental structure and unconventional narrative streams can be pulled together or not.


The upstairs study area at the writing den

I’m going to  leave you with a short digressive episode from my war novel to afford you a glimpse of what those ten readers have seen.

R for Robert had somehow made it back from Happy Valley, across the Low Countries and over the North Sea on one engine, having had her fuel tanks punctured by heavy flak above Nölk. The bomber had finally come down in a field outside the village of Newton-next-Holme, some three miles short of the main runway at Norton Heath. In this there was nothing remarkable. Aircraft crashed regularly within a short distance of their home station. The countryside around an airfield would generally be strewn with the wreckage of lost machines. What had been unexpected were the findings of the crash investigation party. They’d found the usual shards of twisted metal, a wing section here, part of the tailplane there, the ruptured fuel tanks that had brought about its demise, broken and burnt-out items of equipment, all scattered across a quarter mile radius. Of the crew, however, there had been no trace. 

In his report, the officer leading the investigation had eventually come down on the side of the autopilot theory. Perhaps fearing the worst for his badly damaged plane, the pilot had issued the order to evacuate. Once the rest of his crew had baled out over the east coast, he had handed over to the autopilot so that he too might effect his escape. There were, though, two gaping holes in the evidence supporting this interpretation of events. Firstly, not only had there been no sign of the crew at the crash site, no bodies or parts thereof had been found further afield either. And secondly, it took no account of certain additional, unexplained items uncovered among the wreckage. In particular, it ignored the discovery of a number of objects resembling mechanical limbs. It had looked like a consignment from a highly advanced manufacturing facility specialising in prosthetics (something for which there would have been a more than healthy demand in the circumstances that prevailed).  One of the investigators had found something that looked like an electronic eye. Strangest of all had been the pilot’s control wheel. It had turned up in a ditch, still gripped by an artificial hand that looked as though it had been made out of pieces from a particularly sophisticated Meccano set. The men involved in the clear-up operation had generated their own theories.  Some were convinced that it was the work of the Pilotless Aircraft Section. Others had looked for extra-terrestrial explanations. “Bull crap,” the officer in charge had commented when they’d confronted him with their suspicions. One of them had looked up the appropriate entry in the station logbook. R for Robert was one of the squadron’s reserve aeroplanes. There was no record of any crew having been assigned that bomber on the date in question. Though they’d known not to press the matter further still they suspected that the officer had authored a whitewash. 

All text and images © PSR 2014

Interviewing Mari

13 Feb
It was recently my pleasure to interview my friend Mari Biella about her latest e-book collection, Loving Imogen. It comprises a novella and three companion pieces. I’ve read it a couple of times now and can testify to the strength of the writing on offer. The title piece is a beautifully told story of damaged love, images from which remain in the mind long after reading it. The other stories are gems too, eerie tales told in shimmering prose. It’s available in all the usual places – Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Apple iStore and Smashwords. She hopes eventually to release it as a paperback. Mari is adept at producing e-books but has yet to contend with paper ones (I, on the other hand, have prepared the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag in paperback format – to be launched upon an unsuspecting and indifferent world in the very near future – but have been unable to date to produce an e-book of acceptable standard).
Here, then, are the answers Mari gave to my questions.
What had you written before this latest collection?

Most of my previous works constitute what I now think of as my apprenticeship. They were deeply flawed, and were by no means suitable for publication. They were, I suppose, failures by any conventional standards, and yet I’m reluctant to call them that because they formed a vital learning experience. It was only when I’d finished my novel The Quickening that I felt I’d written something that was up to publication standard.

Where did the idea for Loving Imogen come from? 

It all began a few years ago, when I was sitting in a departure lounge in an airport and overheard two women chatting about one of their neighbours. It was probably just malicious gossip, but the situation they were discussing appealed to me on an imaginative level. I kept on thinking about it, wondering how the people involved must have felt, and what kind of impact it might have had on their lives. Gradually, a story took shape in my mind – a story that departed from, and yet originated in, that overheard conversation.


Mari Biella

How long did it take you to write?

For a relatively short work, it actually took quite a long time to write. At first, I spent a while just turning the idea over in my mind, letting it gestate. The actual business of writing it down and polishing it took the better part of two years. While I was writing the early drafts I was very aware that there were some structural flaws in it, and certain things that I felt rather unhappy with, and it took a long time to smooth them out. The fact that it’s quite a short work made it no less important in my mind. I wanted to make sure that I got it just right, or at least as right as I could.

Without giving too much away, the novella concerns itself with some highly controversial relationships. What led you to explore this territory? How comfortable do you feel with it?

This is something that worried me quite a bit at the outset. I didn’t particularly want to offend anyone, and I certainly didn’t want the whole thing to be an exercise in titillation. Ultimately, though, people just do get involved in relationships that are unconventional or unwise, and I think that is as valid a theme as any. I wanted to explore what might lie behind such a relationship, and how it feels for the people who are involved in it. Gradually, as I wrote, I began to feel more comfortable with the subject matter; I think I’ve dealt with it pretty sensitively, and it’s certainly not explicit or obscene.

There are some vividly drawn characters in the book, Daniel, Imogen and my favourite, Alwyn Nevett. Are they in any way based upon people whom you’ve known? If not, where do your characters come from?

I often use real people as physical prototypes for my characters, as I find that this provides me with a useful starting-point. Daniel, for example, owes his physical appearance to a rather well-known British television actor. I also make use of the mannerisms and speech patterns that I observe in the people around me. There, though, the resemblance to real people ends. My characters evolve slowly in my mind. They start off as quick character sketches: Daniel, for example, was shy and kind, Imogen was reckless and impulsive, and Nevett was tortured and irresponsible. Gradually, they grew and became more like real, rounded people, with all the subtleties and contradictions that that entails. For me, this slow process of getting to know a character is essential. It allows me to understand them in a way that I couldn’t if I just based them on real people.

The protagonist, Daniel works in a school. How much did you draw upon your own experience when writing about this?

Daniel actually went through several different jobs in the early drafts, and it took a while for me to settle upon the idea of him being a teacher. It made sense to me, as teaching is something I have some experience of, and I think I can represent it quite realistically. It’s a career that seems to fit his personality quite well: he’s intelligent but lacking in ambition, kindly, and a little unsure of himself. At the same time, his job is, for him, an unfortunate necessity – he’d really rather be a writer or a university lecturer, for example – and I’ve met quite a few teachers who are like that. I tried to convey the reality of teaching as it sometimes is, especially for those who have no particular vocation – the boredom, the sense of dissatisfaction, of a life being measured out in lessons and terms. It’s an unromantic job, and for Daniel that lack of romance, that haunting sense of squandered dreams and disappointment, is quite far-reaching, and perhaps explains some of his behaviour in the novella.

I’ve remarked before that I admire your cool, formal writing style. What would you say have been the main influences on your style?

I think that perhaps my earliest influences have been the most fundamental. When I was a teenager, I loved the great Victorian novelists – Dickens, the Brontës, Trollope, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy – and I think that their formality and clarity of style has certainly had an influence upon me.

Twenty years on from the setting of the book, Daniel was sad and alone. By that time, do you imagine someone else loving Imogen?

Imogen is, whatever her faults, quite a lovable person, so I do imagine her being loved by someone. Essentially, though, she is rather lonely. She’s capable of forming very deep attachments to other people, but there is a sad, damaged core to her personality that nobody else can really share or understand. The same could be said of Daniel, but he is even more alone. He’s a gentle and rather loving person, but he becomes embittered. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a person’s one true love, but there are certainly relationships that are so intense and significant that they mark one’s life and personality, and for Daniel this was his love for Imogen.

How did you decide which other stories to put with the novella? 

There is no obvious link between the different stories, but when I put them all together they seemed to have a pleasing rhythm and a kind of underlying harmony. Loving Imogen is set in more-or-less contemporary Britain, and is fairly realistic in tone and content. The Song of the Sea represents a change of pace. It is, I suppose, a horror story, but ultimately it has a quiet and rather melancholy tone, and it shares the theme of being drawn to something that is dangerous. Summer is, on the surface, a ghost story, but it’s really about a passive-aggressive personality. With the final story, Fragile Things, I feel like the collection comes full circle; it has a contemporary British setting, and is also about a relationship that goes awry.

You’ve chosen to self-publish. Do you see self-publishing as the future of fiction? Did the fact that you’d written a novella influence your decision? 

That I’d written a novella certainly had a bearing on my decision in this instance, because British publishers do seem to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to novellas. I’m not convinced that I’d have stood a chance of getting it published through the traditional route. In general, things are changing so much and so fast that I’m reluctant to try to make any particular forecasts. I suspect, though, that the more extravagant predictions that are sometimes made are wildly inaccurate; my best guess is that self-publishing and traditional publishing will just continue to coexist. There are more and more “hybrid” authors, for example, who publish some works through publishers and self-publish others. Trade publishers are always going to do certain things better, and for many authors they remain the best choice. However, other authors are attracted by the freedom and self-determination offered by self-publishing. There are flaws and strengths in both systems, and my advice to any writers who were undecided would be to get as much information as they could, decide what they wanted and what they could realistically achieve, and make a choice based upon that.

I’d like to thank Mari for taking the time to answer my questions. I hope that this interview will have tempted some of my readers to buy a copy of Loving Imogen. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All text © PSR and MB 2014/Image © MB 2014

Revenge in Literature and Life

9 Feb

Revenge is a dish best served cold. Or so the old Italian proverb has it. If John Webster is to be believed, it’s a subject about which the Italians know a thing or two (‘John Webster was one of the best there was/He was the author of two major tragedies’ – answers on a virtual postcard if you recognise the quotation). In his beautiful and brutal revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, Webster explored the outer reaches of the phenomenon.

I was thinking about revenge as a result of a recent encounter. Looking through the entertainment listings, I saw that the music critic from the local paper in the town in which I grew up was playing with his band in a pub in the town where I live now. I recalled that he had a blues-style band back then and given his unusual surname, I was pretty sure it would be him. This critic was never particularly complimentary about my band’s recordings or performances (probably with reason, I can see now). So I couldn’t resist dropping by to take a look. I found the band members sitting on a couch before the performance. I asked them where the singer was. They told me that he was ill and that they’d be performing without him. We got talking. I mentioned that he used to be the music critic on the local paper. ‘Ah,’ one of them asked, ‘have you come to have words with him about a bad review?’ I replied that I had and to tell him that I’d be catching up with him. I was joking, of course, but there’s definitely a short story to be written in there…


Revenge serves no purpose

The passage of time actually reveals the pointlessness of revenge. It’s very closely allied to hatred. I’ve tasted that dish occasionally in my life. It’s acrid. Its effects slowly poison the system. Ismail Kadare wrote powerfully about the corrosive effects of revenge in Broken April, his tale of blood feuds in Albania. Kadare’s masterpiece investigates its self-perpetuating nature where it occurs among families. And as we’ve seen between ethnic groups in Rwanda and Bosnia, hatred and revenge need no one to serve them up. They feed upon themselves. Not for nothing was Salvador Dali’s greatest painting of the 1930s – an allegorical representation of the Spanish Civil War – given the title Autumnal Cannibalism, itself a play on the term ‘autocannibalism’.

Revenge has a strong attraction for the writer, generally between the pages rather than beyond them. My friend, Mari Biella has just published her excellent story collection, Loving Imogen and I don’t think it’s any kind of plot spoiler to mention that revenge plays its part in the main story. Mari will be appearing soon on this blog to discuss her collection. It’ll be interesting to hear her take on the issue. In The Book that Jack Wrote by another writer friend, J Huw Evans, a particularly grisly revenge plays its part in the novel’s denouement.  And I explored its role in the carpet bombing of the German cities in my yet to be published war novel – there’s even a chapter called Revenge Against Fatherland.

Revenge is, it seems to me, a dish best prepared in imagination but never actually cooked up or served. In fiction, it provides a great plot driver and sets up narrative tension. In the real world, no good ever comes of it. I’ve contemplated it from time to time. It’s tied up with regret, the desire to change the past. Backward-looking and self-defeating, it’s the most negative of motivations. We inhabit the present and that’s the only place where change can be effective.

All text and images © PSR 2014