Tag Archives: Mari Biella

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Homeland, Part Two

10 Jun

In a previous post, I wrote about the exiled narrator of my novel-in-progress and the ten sounds he misses from his homeland, “the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs…” and so on. My friend and fellow writer, Mari Biella, has very kindly taken the time to share the ten sounds she misses from home. Originally from the UK, Mari lives in Italy. You can find her blog here. Mari is the author of the excellent “Loving Imogen” and “The Quickening” And here are her auditory memories…

Disjointed memories, partial recollections, fragments of stories… when I’m writing I frequently find myself using these things as a starting-point, and then embellishing them until, gradually, they begin to take on shape and substance. Many of those memories, now I come to think about it, are either aural in nature or coupled with sounds, like when you hear a song and are instantly transported back to a particular time or place. For instance, and in no particular chronological order…

One. I once lived in a fleapit in the inner city, in a crumbling old building next to a railway line. The trains rattled past day and night, with surprising punctuality, and the house frequently rattled with them. At first it was annoying. Gradually I got used to it, and over time it became a comforting sound: come what may, the railway timetable remained a constant. On summer nights I used to sit outside in the shoebox-sized garden and watch the lit carriages slip by in the darkness. Who were the people on that train? Where had they been, and where were they going? What were their stories? Did they guess that someone was sitting out there in the shadows watching them?

Two. Trains were just one of the many and varied sounds that accompanied my life in that place. Every quarter of an hour, day and night, a clock in the nearby civic centre chimed. When all was well and life was happy it sounded like the reassuring voice of a friend. On long, restless nights when I couldn’t sleep, however, it seemed to take on a mocking air, contrasting the relentless passage of time with the strange feeling of stasis that accompanies sleeplessness. I sometimes wondered how many other insomniacs were out there listening to it and feeling the same.

Three. It was an eccentric, colourful place, that area, inhabited by a rich blend of people. Waking early in the morning, I frequently heard a woman on the street below calling “Lena! Lena!” Peering out between the curtains, I would see her standing on the pavement, staring up at an upper window of the house next door. Sometimes Lena came to the window and whispered something back; sometimes she didn’t. I’ve always wondered about the purpose of these early morning visits. I’ve also wondered why, since mobile phones were ubiquitous by this time, the visitor in question didn’t just call or message the mysterious Lena.

Four. One of the advantages of the inner city is that everything you reasonably need is close by. I lived within a stone’s throw of a major sporting venue, and on Saturday afternoons when there was a match or game I would frequently lean out of my window and listen to the distant roar of the crowd. It was such a joyous sound, so full of excitement and exuberance, that it made me smile just to hear it.

Five. We were fans of silly accents in my family. We’d frequently put on exaggerated Welsh accents, or – when we contemplated life across the Severn river – lapse into a daft West Country drawl. We tried our hands at most British regional accents, as well as RP. References to romantic love were frequently made in an impassioned French accent. We attempted American, Mexican, German, Russian and Swedish accents, with varying levels of success.

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Six. There have been many times in my life when I haven’t owned a TV. In addition to an endless stream of letters from the TV licensing authority, this entailed relying on the radio for news. I frequently listened to Radio 4, and was enchanted by the Shipping Forecast. The repetition of the sea areas was almost hypnotic, and produced all kinds of images in my mind: fog, fishing vessels, gale force winds, immense waves crashing against rocks. Carol Ann Duffy commemorated the Shipping Forecast in her poem Prayer, and sometimes it really did sound like a strange liturgy.

Seven. I’m an unabashed landlubber, but the sea fascinates me. In Britain, of course, you’re surrounded by the stuff, and – like many British people – I never lived very far away from the coast. I used to go there quite often, sometimes for no other reason than to listen to the wind and the waves. I particularly loved the cry of the seagulls. Sometimes their call seemed to embody the intoxicating freedom of wild, wide open spaces; at other times, it sounded melancholy, almost heartbroken.

Eight. I miss the sound of the rain and wind lashing against the windowpane on stormy nights. I always thought it was very romantic, very Wuthering Heights-esque. Italian weather has a varied repertoire of its own, of course, but it doesn’t seem to extend to that particular combination of wind and rain – “horizontal rain”, as we used to call it.

Nine. I miss the sound of the English language in general; I particularly miss it as spoken by the natives of the city where I lived. “Dark” was pronounced as “dairk”, “park” as “pairk”. “I live in Cardiff” became “I lives in Cardiff”. Expressions of opinion were often prefaced with “not gonna lie to you” (“Not gonna lie to you, but I don’t like coffee that much”) or softened with “not being funny” (“Not being funny, but you’ve put on some timber since I saw you last.”) It was customary, when getting off a bus, to take your leave with a cheery “Thanks, drive!”

Ten. The last, much-missed sound is not peculiar to Britain, still less South Wales. It is, simply, the sound of a city. I live on the edge of the countryside now and, though I like it here, I do sometimes miss the clamour of the urban environment. I began this post by writing about how many of my stories are born of other, incomplete stories. In a city, surrounded by humanity, you are surrounded by many such fragments, and I sometimes feel the lack of them.

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Thanks to Mari for sharing these with me. The first of her auditory memories turns out to be similar to one of my narrator’s.

My bedsitter is right at the top of the building on the third floor, where the rooms are smallest and the rents the lowest.  It’s accessed via a side door, leading to the servant’s staircase…  At night, I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of trains pulling into the central station about a kilometre away from here, their diesels thrumming and brakes screeching.  The din might keep another person awake.  I can’t sleep without it.  I often wonder if one of them might be mine.  And when I’m missing my home country, I burn the pine-scented incense cones to remind me…

There’ll be more from the sound archives of remembrance in a future post… 

Text © PSR and Mari Biella 2017, images © PSR 2017

Short Cuts to a Readership

11 Mar

My friend, Mari Biella always writes interesting posts on her blog. Recently, she drew my attention to a writing site called ‘Cut’. It’s short for ‘Cut a Long Story’ (for me, this name evokes uncomfortable memories of Spandex Ballet…). To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what this site is. It says that it carries out an editorial process determining the suitability of submissions for publication. But I don’t know if they just say that to all the writers. The team there converts the Word document of your concise masterpiece into e-book format, though, you don’t seem to be able to view your work without paying for it! I may be wrong, of course, given the legendary limitations of my technical prowess. The site takes half of the proceeds from anything it publishes (another reason, presumably, why it’s called ‘Cut’). I’ve been looking at several of these sites over the last few months. Which brings us to another problem that Mari recently posted about… The more time a writer spends investigating ways of marketing his or her work on the Internet, the less time he or she can actually devote to writing anything. Perhaps it’s a sinister plot. If I spend enough time ‘developing my online presence’ on Twitter, my intellect will be totally eroded and I won’t be able to bother publishers with my manuscripts as I’ll have become incapable of writing anything more than 140 characters long. I’ll have committed haiku-kiri.

Anyway, if you’re interested, I put my short story, ‘Horror Story’ up on the site for a king’s ransom (99p). You can find it here. As you might expect from my writing, it’s not in fact a horror story at all. It’s a little exercise, written as a pastiche of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Here’s the cover image and underneath a short extract from it.

The Horror Story is set here...

The Horror Story is set here…

And so we set off on our voyage.  Quagdyke is about twelve miles out of town and lies in the middle of a salt marsh.  Kitts had supplied Harkness with some rudimentary directions.  Take the road to Chapel-le-Marsh.  Turn right by the chapel.  Keep the dyke on your left and keep going.  Quagdyke is the last village.

“Don’t tell the old girl where she’s taking us,” he whispered.  “She might not like it.”

We chugged out of town in the direction that we’d been advised.  Fifteen minutes later we arrived in Chapel-le-Marsh.  The building that gave the village its name had been turned into a garage.  Each former arch of stained glass had become a servicing bay.  The graveyard was now a forecourt with a row of dilapidated cars lined up on it.  ‘Remoulds and Salvage’ read the sign outside it.  We didn’t allow ourselves to be fooled by this piece of subterfuge.  We took the right hand turn, signposted for Quagdyke.  It seemed that Kitts’s directions weren’t so bad after all.  The road was one of those dead straight ones that used to be built across the marshes.  It soon joined up with the dyke.  Harkness was happy.  Forgetting his previous counsel, he began to wonder aloud about his new acquisition.  And sure enough, about four miles short of Quagdyke the old girl proved that she’d been listening after all, and that she’d taken umbrage.  The lights faded on her dashboard, her engine cut out and she glided to a standstill.

“Shit!” remarked Harkness.  “We’ll never make it by eight now.”

“What do you think’s wrong with her?” I asked him.

“How the hell should I know?”

“Well, aren’t you going to look under the bonnet or something?”

“Whatever for?  I don’t know what’s in there, do I?”

I tried a different tack.

“I don’t suppose you’ve got breakdown cover?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you sure you want another one of these?” Stimpson asked.

Harkness didn’t answer.  He appeared to be thinking.  There was something of the England rugby captain about him, in his day job as­ an infantry officer (the blubber aside).

“We’ll just have to continue on foot,” he said at last.  “Shackleton’s pony or whatever.”

“Surely it was a penguin?”

Harkness didn’t dispute it.

All text and images © PSR 2015 

Self-publishing or self-satisfaction?

5 Oct

As I grapple with the idea of self-publishing my fiction due to the apparent impossibility of getting anywhere near a traditional publisher, I’m reminded of the misdeeds perpetrated by some members of the virtual writing community that bring the whole enterprise into disrepute. It’s sufficient to make me hold back for the time being. This post may not make me popular with some of my friends in the virtual world, but some things need saying. Here’s a little advice for the worst offenders.

Reviewing your own books on Goodreads and Amazon – what the feck?, as they say – and then having the temerity to award yourself five stars out of five… it takes some nerve! If you were really serious about the business of writing, you couldn’t possibly be so satisfied with your own work. The ability to be self-critical is an essential skill for the serious writer. Without it, you can’t move your work forward.

And then, it turns out that all of those other readers supplying your five-star ratings are self-published authors themselves. You scratch my back… If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t be dishonest with your potential readers. My traditionally published non-fiction work scores a mere 3.60 on Goodreads, reviewed as it is by people who don’t know me. Clearly, it doesn’t cut the mustard, then, despite the print run selling out at £40 per copy.

Some of these authors are churning out three or four books a year! I suspect that this is made possible by compromising the teensiest bit on quality… And that’s to say nothing of the relentless self-promotion that seems to go with the territory, the endless tweets, Facebook and Goodreads statuses bleating on about this or that five-star review of an author’s work that render social media almost unreadable. A key part of this strategy is to follow thousands of other writers and readers on Twitter so that they follow you back then ‘unfollow’ them, creating the illusion that you have hordes of fans and admirers (to borrow a phrase from the late Vivian Stanshall). And what is it with self-published authors and genre definition? Young adult romantic urban dark fantasy… Really? And why isn’t anyone writing books for grown-ups any more? The commodification and infantilisation of culture go hand in hand, it would seem.

This picture of my garden in spring has nothing whatsoever to do with the post, but it lightens the tone, doesn't it?

This picture of my garden in spring has nothing whatsoever to do with the post, but it lightens the tone, don’t you think?

You are not an ‘indie’ writer. You are self-published. At least let’s be honest about it. Let’s make the term respectable by cutting out all of the above instead of hiding behind euphemisms. Euphemisms are employed to cover up truths. What is there to hide? Independent publishers are small ones not owned by the big multinationals, not individuals who publish their own work.

Ah, I hear the counsel for the defence counter, but most of these misdemeanours occur in traditional publishing too. That charlatanism happens elsewhere constitutes no defence. I’m as critical of traditional publishing as I am of self-publishing. Indie music labels genuinely sought to cut out much of the corporate malpractice in which the big labels indulged. If self-publishers are to have any moral authority, they must do the same.

‘Lies that tell the truth’, someone said of fiction. Or at least, I think they did. And if not, I’m claiming it. Novelists make things up but they do so to tell us truths about what it means to be human. A good writer is honest in his intent. Pretending that your work has been impartially reviewed and evading the fact that you’ve published it yourself is dishonest. It doesn’t bode well for what may lie between the covers (pun intended).

There are honourable exceptions. My friend Mari Biella’s self-published works are genuinely good and she doesn’t endlessly trumpet their existence. J D Hughes’s infrequent self-promotion is witty, at least. The problem is that the claims of self-published works of quality are drowned out by the proclamations of self-aggrandising pulp merchants.

All text and images © PSR 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?

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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

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).
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Here, then, are the answers Mari gave to my questions.
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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.

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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…

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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

Another Year, Some More Resolutions…

7 Jan

I’ve been away from the Internet for the past ten days or so. As is my habit, I’ve been spending time at my rural writing den. I spent more time carrying out repairs on the old place than I did on writing, but the change from townscape to countryside always does me good.

I read quite a lot too. And it was a week over which the ghost of George Orwell loomed large, even though I didn’t actually read anything by the author. After all the hype about John Williams’ fifty-year old novel, Stoner, I found it on my local library shelf. I had to read it within the three-week loan period, though, as it turned out that there was a waiting list of sixty-six readers for it. Grudgingly, I’ll admit it was very well written and rather moving. And though it was set in a Mid-Western university and concerned the life of an unsuccessful assistant professor, there was something about its style and tone that put me constantly in mind of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Having admired the idea of Julian MacLaren-Ross, I finally got around to reading Of Love and Hunger, also surprisingly sitting there in the library. Although I enjoyed it, I had serious reservations about it. The stylised dialogue was rather too much for me – I wonder if it worked even back in the 1940s – and the nihilistic, egocentric protagonist was so unsympathetic that I simply couldn’t care about his broken heart. As D J Taylor pointed out in the introduction to the edition that I read, it owed a lot to Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air, both of which are far superior books. It strikes me as little more than an entertaining footnote to the period. The idea of MacLaren-Ross remains for me, then, more interesting than his work. And lastly, I re-read my writing friend’s recently finished novella and was once again, deeply impressed.

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The revitalised study space at the writing den

I did manage to get some writing done. I have some 72,000 words of my work-in-progress written now, so I suppose that’s very nearly novel length. I’m currently going through a sceptical phase with regard to it. It’s all part of the process for me (see Mari Biella’s recent post on this topic), allowing me to question my work and jettison parts that don’t seem to fit in or function. It’s always possible, of course, that my feelings towards it won’t change and that the entire concept is flawed… That’s the high-wire act that we have to perform as writers. There’s no safety net guaranteeing that several years of endeavour won’t end in spectacular failure.

I was out at the den over New Year, so I made a few resolutions. I like to do this so that I can congratulate myself on my under-achievements at the year’s end. Foremost among these was an ambition to see my work-in-progress finished before the year is out. Time will tell… Anyway, may I take this opportunity to wish a Happy New Year to my little band of readers, hoping that it will be a successful year for you all.

All text and images © PSR, 2014

If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Three

2 Dec

And so we come to the second guest to take up my challenge of saving just eight books from her collection, Mari Biella. Mari is another of those people who seems always to have been writing. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing in one way or another,” she tells me, “and my mother still has a number of embarrassing childhood poems and stories to prove it! However, I began writing seriously and consistently in my early twenties.” So what has she produced in this time? Mostly ‘honourable failures’ she says. “Projects that never really worked out, and were eventually abandoned. However, I’ve written one novel, The Quickening, and am putting the finishing touches to a collection consisting of a novella (see interviewer’s comment below) and three short stories.”

One quality that my interviewees have in common when it comes to writing is a generosity of spirit. And so Mari has very kindly read and commented on the manuscripts for my war novel and a novella that I wrote a while back. She has also read the final draft of the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag (as has Lauren Sapala). And I’ve had the privilege to read the novella to which she is currently putting the finishing touches. I found it  a compulsive read. The idea is haunting, the characters memorable and the writing beautiful. Mari has a pleasing formality of style. It’s definitely a work that deserves to reach a wide audience. You can catch a flavour of her writing over at maribiella.wordpress.com.

Her approach to writing is practical and non-doctrinaire. “I like to experiment with different styles, subjects and genres,” she says. “I don’t have one distinct voice, but many voices. I write in the quietest corner of the house, whenever I can get away from the demands made by the day job and the dog.” As for the future, Mari says that she wants to “keep writing, keep trying, and become the best writer I can possibly be.” You can’t argue with that.

Mari says that she was initially influenced by the great Victorian novelists in her late teens and early twenties, reading them obsessively. And now? “The writers who have influenced me most profoundly include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Jean Rhys and Joseph Conrad.” What about her choices, then?

My initial premise, based on a passage from my work-in-progress was this – if you had to leave your home in a hurry and could save only eight of those books, which ones would they be? The exercise leaves Mari unnerved. “It’s a question to make a bibliophile quiver. Just eight? How could I possibly choose just eight, and leave all the others behind?” Ah, but that’s the point! “It’s an interesting hypothetical exercise,” she concedes, “forcing you to select the books that have meant most to you: the books that have influenced you, changed your perspective, inspired and perhaps even dismayed you. The books that crept into your mind, took hold of it, and refused to leave. The kind of books, in short, that might help to sustain you in a period of exile.” And as with Lauren’s choice, there are two books on Mari’s list that would have made it onto mine, had I been in a different mood when I compiled it.

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Mari takes us on a magic carpet ride through her choices

One of the books that I’d instinctively grasp would, I think, be Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. This slender volume is more than a prequel to Jane Eyre: it’s a reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, focusing on the marginal (and marginalised) character of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason. Rhys restores Bertha’s humanity and voice, retelling the story of her catastrophic trajectory from the bright but ill-starred Antoinette Cosway to the deranged Mrs Rochester.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for all its efforts to represent outsiders – orphans, women, the dispossessed – also echoes the voice of the dominant Victorian ethos. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, the moral earnestness and clear Victorian story arc of Brontë’s novel are traded for a shifting version of reality, recounted in lush patois. European narrative and rationalism are replaced by Voodoo. This is more than just a tragic love story: it’s also a meditation on the disastrous possibilities latent in personal relationships, on belonging and alienation, and on Europe’s disastrous relations with its colonies.

Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is another story of ill-fated love. A heady brew of passion, loss, jealousy and Catholicism, it is set against the backdrop of war-torn London, and concerns the adulterous love affair between writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, who is married to a dull but dependable Civil Servant. God has no business being involved in this seething love triangle, but one night – following an air raid, and Sarah’s desperate prayer that Bendrix’s life be spared – He is suddenly, unshakably there. And He won’t shift, with the result that much of the story is acted out in the queasy borderlands between sexual and religious passion. Arguably the novel is less about love than Bendrix’s search for his soul, and his journey from denying God to acknowledging Him, albeit grudgingly: ‘I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.’ And yet it really is about love, too: love in all its splendour and squalor. Love that doesn’t shy away from its flipside, hate.

Love, hate and betrayal also figure prominently in my next choice, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is an antidote to every absurd Bond film ever made. George Smiley, le Carré’s fictional spymaster, doesn’t engage in high-speed powerboat chases or similarly unfeasible stunts; instead, he locks himself away in grimy London hotels and thinks. Far from being a Casanova, he’s a cuckold, and a notorious one at that; everyone seems to know about his wife’s infidelities. Instead of having a Bond girl, he has the sharp, brilliant, pitiful Connie Sachs. His nemesis is not a cackling, deranged Bond villain, but the enigmatic, unknowable Karla. And instead of the simplistic, black-and-white moral universe of Bond, there is a treacherous world of shifting loyalties, shaky principles and moral variables.

Another treacherous world is evoked in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. On the surface, the novella resembles a classic haunted house tale: there is a lonely mansion, and a secret from the past that refuses to die. What makes The Turn of the Screw different is that the mystery here exists on two distinct levels. There is the question of what is happening in the house, primarily as it relates to the governess-narrator’s two young charges; there is also the no less urgent question of what is happening in the governess’s own mind. Is she a heroine, fighting to protect her pupils from an evil presence? Or is she an unbalanced, troubled woman, projecting her internal psychosexual drama onto the blank screen of her surroundings? Is it the house that is haunted, or her mind, or both?

Riddles also abound in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. A brief summary of the plot (if a plot so dense and multi-layered can be summarised) might provoke some rolling eyes and weary sighs. Ancient conspiracies involving the occult, secret societies, and the ubiquitous Knights Templar? How very Dan Brown! However, in Foucault’s Pendulum, the conspiracy exists as a plot device rather than a serious proposition; in fact, the novel may be viewed as a satire of outlandish conspiracy theories. Every last scintilla of Eco’s considerable erudition is employed here, making for a plot so tangled that Anthony Burgess famously remarked that it needed an index. It’s not for everyone; indeed, I’ve known a few people who’ve thrown it across the room, figuratively speaking (probably).

From the fantastic to the all-too-ordinary … Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is a tale of a suburban marriage, squandered dreams, and disappointment. Frank and April Wheeler, once bright young things, are trapped in a bland, boring existence in a Connecticut suburb. This is especially painful for a couple who want to believe that they are true revolutionaries, forever questioning the assumptions and attitudes of their more conservative neighbours, but who ultimately have to face the possibility that they’re really just like everyone else. Their bid to escape, based on the common (and commonly mistaken) belief that redemption, greatness and happiness are just around the corner, leads to their ultimate, terrible tragedy.

Several shared themes link Revolutionary Road with another candidate for the title of ‘the Great American Novel’, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s tale is another unnerving exploration of the American Dream, as well as a parable about the capitalist dream-nightmare and the excesses of the Jazz Age. In Jay Gatsby’s glittering world, God and Mammon have become inextricably entwined; his romantic and spiritual yearnings are played out on a starkly materialistic level. The dream is unworthy of the dreamer – a common predicament, and one that makes The Great Gatsby, though set in a certain time and milieu, universal in its relevance and power. The novella is also about the contrast between America’s pioneering past and mercenary present, and an ode to its undying optimism.

With my eighth choice, I feel like I’ve come full circle. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is, like Wide Sargasso Sea, a meditation on colonialism. Yet Marlow’s journey into the ‘dark heart’ of Africa is also something far more frightening: an exploration of the dark heart of humanity. Barbarism and civilisation, racism and Imperialism, all come in for scrutiny in the novella’s pages. The mysterious Kurtz, whose ostensible purpose was to bring civilisation to Africans, turns out to be not just a madman, but a cruel one: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ The common notion of the time – of Europeans bringing light into Africa’s dark heart – is turned on its head: the Europeans have brought the darkness (‘The horror! The horror!’) into Africa with them.

So there you have it, another fascinating set of choices and yet more titles to add to those Christmas lists. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mari for taking the time and trouble to participate in my exercise and for submitting herself to my questioning. Happy reading!

Photo © Mari Biella 2013

A Sense of Place

27 Sep

A sense of place – it’s an important thing in life. In a few weeks’ time, I shall be heading for my writing den. The landscape of Brittany, and the specific topography of the tiny hamlet in which I live for two months of the year, have taken on great significance for me. My tiny house with its metre-thick granite walls has been a constant in my life for more than a decade while much else has proved transitory. My heart still races every time that I return to it.

My writer friend, Mari Biella wrote recently about the writing of Carson McCullers and how it brought alive for her the American Deep South. I’ve also been reading some atmospheric books of late. The novels of Roy Jacobsen and Per Peterson are remarkable in their evocation of particular places, at a precise moment in time. And I’ve just finished reading a novel by the Swedish poet, Bodil Malmstem, who also writes beautifully about landscape.

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The enchanting Breton coast

It strikes me that a sense of place is one of the essential elements of a novel, whether a real space or an imagined one. Some writers are much better at suggesting this than others. My writer friend, J Huw Evans and I have concluded that there’s no such things as a perfect novel, a book that gets all of the elements absolutely right. In popular fiction, story and action tend to be everything and many writers eschew description of any kind, dismissing it as ‘purple prose’. While I find that it helps if a story is engaging, when I read I’m looking for elegant prose and imagery, fully-realised characters and the evocation of place. I’d take place over pace, every time.

Many of the writers whom I most admire are adept at this aspect of their craft – Graham Greene, Georges Perec, Tove Jansson, W G Sebald… The imagined cities in Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole and Jan Morris’s Hav are creations of the sort to which I aspire in my own writing. It requires subtlety and skill to envision fully the setting for a novel and to express it such that vivid pictures are generated in the imagination of the reader. I find the work of these authors an inspiration in this regard.

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Landscapes of the imagination

The other day, I was thinking about the various settings that I’ve used in my own books. My first three attempts – all of which I’ve long since written off – were set in fictional English towns and villages. The setting for my novella, The Great English Novel is somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but still recognisably in England. A second novella, Norwegian Rock, is unsurprisingly set in Norway, in an imaginary town and a nearby lighthouse. It was back to the East of England for my war novel, “Mayflies” and its part-written sequel, then off to an imaginary European state for my other work-in-progress (there’ll be extracts from all of these in my forthcoming sampler, Jamboree Bag). I’ve worked hard on the sense of place in these books, striving to catch the essence of a barren fenland backwater, an airbase on a windswept heath or a Hanseatic port on the shores of the Baltic. How far I’ve succeeded is not for me to judge.

The extract that follows is taken from a work that I eventually abandoned.

Little Friesland is bisected by the Great East Road, a seemingly endless stretch of single carriageway, reminiscent of one of those freeways etched into the Arizona desert. The route connects one insignificant provincial centre with another, a frozen river of concrete passing through a procession of squat and squalid settlements: Fockinghall, Stumpney Dyke, Gullsborough, Dudney Wick, Porkington, Dedney End… For all that, it remains the only road of any size linking the region to the outside world. In places this great highway is deserted, at others it becomes congested by a stream of slow moving traffic: trails of caravans – heading westward on vacation, travelling eastbound on return – a vast array of agricultural vehicles, ancient contraptions that appear to have come from collective farms or Flanders trenches, futuristic devices resembling those used for exploration on the surface on other planets, convoys of articulated lorries blowing clouds of black smoke into the air, bringing in manufactures from the continent – Akkerman, Van Daalen, De Kok – and taking out rape-seed and turkeys.  Though passenger ferries may no longer sail out of Great Glumouth, its cargo operations are busier than ever.

For mile upon end it runs parallel to some festering stretch of canal, only for one or the other to diverge suddenly at an unlikely angle. The visitor may find himself disconcerted, driving alongside the steep banks that drop down towards those inky waters. The road holds further dangers, the hidden dips and deceptive bends out of which vehicles unexpectedly materialize, leaving the speeding motorist without refuge as he seeks to pass a crawling convoy of caravans and beet lorries. Elsewhere, the road runs in tandem with Little Friesland’s only remaining railway line, and for a while the juggernaut and freight train might appear to be in direct competition, racing each other across the featureless plains. The combatants seem to be playing out the final frames of a desperate chase sequence, trading blows in some pointless yet lethal game. The wheezing diesel locomotive heads off the rig at a level crossing and brings it screeching to a halt. The truck builds up a head of steam, thunders across a bridge and recaptures the lead once more. The battle ends as abruptly as it began, when one of the belligerents apparently tires of the fight, forking off at ninety degrees before vanishing towards the vast horizon in a storm of dust and soot.

All text and images © PSR 2013

A Reading Diary

20 Sep

An ex of mine was a librarian (ex-libris, then?) and an avid reader. She consumed books so prodigiously that she had to keep a reading diary just to remind herself which books she’d read and which she hadn’t. It was from her that I got the idea of keeping a reading diary of my own. I began it for the same reasons and so that I’d be able to look back at a map of my reading journey across the years. Some pages are filled with joyous reading discoveries. Others find me resorting to the tried and tested.

The diary goes all the way back to 1996, charting seventeen years of my reading life. I’ve kept it faithfully, a page or two per year, ever since. Among the novels read for reasons of pure indulgence we find stories read aloud to my children, books read for research purposes and works by my writing friends (the last entry is for the manuscript of an excellent novella by Mari Biella).

I wish that I’d begun a diary long before, but there it is.

Postcards from destinations unknown. Who can say where our reading journeys may lead us?

The entries reflect the turbulent times through which I’ve lived, a decade and a half shifting between periods of torpor and turmoil. Births and deaths, moving between nine jobs and four different counties, people drifting in and out of my life like wraiths… man, it’s been anything but uneventful. Life might be hard at times, but at least when my time’s up, I’ll know that it’s been lived. When work or relationships or other matters have proved challenging, my reading diary shows it. I’ve noted here before that I tend to read between fifteen and twenty books a year. So when a page has just a handful of entries on it, you can tell that the dark days were in the ascendancy. In two consecutive entries, the page entries total seven and ten. In another there are just four. And one year has a single entry… The total was fourteen last year but this year I’ve already read eighteen. It may yet prove to be a good year, reading-wise, at least.

I also wish that I could get into the habit of writing a little about the books that I’ve read. I did write down my impressions in the first reading group that I joined. Here’s an excerpt from what I had to say about Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann:

The Writing: Having read sf/fantasy in my youth, I have problems with the tone

Original? I was reminded of all kinds of things here – Tolkien, Pratchett, Burgess, Barberella… Perhaps an original piece of bricolage? I’m convinced she must have read Warner (The Aerodrome) & Desani

How good is it? To me, not as good as The Magic Toyshop which formed a more coherent whole. Pretentious, pseudo-philosophising – like, A.E.Van Vogt!

I made some great friends – my son’s godfathers among them – but I can never remain in such groups. I simply can’t allow twelve of the books that I read in a year to be determined for me by others. My time for reading is too short. In any case, I’m not much of a joiner-in. That must be the reason why I’m the sole member of the literary movement, the Woof Polite.

Citizens of the Woof Polite, you have everything to gain by your chains…

2010 was a strange year for me and I made a terrible mistake career-wise. But it was interesting from a reading point of view. Below are my entries for that year. There are a couple of re-reads and the manuscript of a friend’s novel, random finds and recommendations, books that I hadn’t read by favourite authors and a clutch of titles by the matchless Georges Perec.

  1. The Hot Dragon by J Huw Evans
  2. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson
  3. The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills
  4. My Golden Trades by Ivan Klíma
  5. Lancaster Down! by Stephen Darlow
  6. Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec
  7. W, or the Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec
  8. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  9. Travelling Light by Tove Jansson
  10. The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
  11. The Emigrants by W G Sebald
  12. Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
  13. Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans by Luis Fernando Verissimo
  14. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  15. My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey
  16. Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes
  17. All the Names by José Pessoa
  18. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
  19. Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
  20. Things: A Story of the Sixties by Georges Perec

Warning: exercise extreme caution when trying out these titles at home – your sanity may be at risk.

All text and images © PSR 2013