Coffee, Cake & Crime

I’m delighted to share my interview with crime blog There’s Been A Murder. Read on for some thoughts on The Visitors, writing characters from real life, my next projects and (gulp) my attempt at some writing advice…

The interview is here.

From the dead

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This is amazing: two skeletons have been discovered in Ireland with stones wedged in their mouths. This was supposed to prevent a return from death. In other words, these two were thought to be vampires or revenants. Consider the conviction needed to force a large stone into the mouth of one corpse – and then a second. Imagine the sound of stone on teeth as it was wedged inside. There was no doubt in the minds of whoever buried these bodies that they were coming back.

I wrote a flash story a year or so ago, recalling a lucid dream in which my daughter and I were laid out on slabs with stones in our mouths. I could taste the grain of the stone on my tongue. Reading about these skeletons gave me the shivers. It also, bizarrely, made me hungry for the second series of The Returned…

Full article here, and here’s some Mogwai to keep you sharp. Get your spook on.

Mountains

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I’ve been climbing a mountain of college work, which is why I haven’t blogged for a while. There are a few things to report, though: my first ever panel event, for Waterstones Argyle Street in Glasgow; another open mic for Verbalise in Kendal; and some lovely reviews for The Visitors.

In the weeks beforehand, I made myself quietly terrified of the panel event, though I loved the theme. It was called ‘Islands Are The New Cities’, and brought me together with two other crime writers and a chair to discuss the attraction of islands as story locations. This is something I’ve already explored a little right here, and I was looking forward to discussing it. The terror came from the unknown: I can prepare for a reading, but had no sense of what the panel would involve.

I needn’t have worried. The Argyle Street Waterstones is a glorious bookstore, chair Douglas Skelton was funny and relaxed, and the other writers, Craig Robertson and Alex Gordon, were really engaging and easy to talk to. I was surprised at how far the discussion ranged. From a springboard of introducing our own books, we ending up debating alcohol, Faroese Hell’s Angels, caravan parks, the place of fantasy in crime novels, being a teenager in a small town, our daily working routines, tax deductible research and grandmothers. Douglas kept us on track whenever we wandered too far.

For the record, I think islands are perfect locations. They are miniature worlds, with all their own rules and laws contained within the boundaries of the coast. My friend Ben maintains there are two stories: either ‘boy/girl leaves to seek fortune’, or ‘trouble comes to town’. Islands make that sense of arrival or departure far more tangible, more immediate. The physical space of an island is an entire universe. Anything can happen on an island, and the rest of the world will never know.

There was a great moment before the event kicked off. I’d just met Alex, who is a veteran sports writer turned novelist. Breaking the ice, I pointed out that he, I, Craig and Douglas were all wearing shirts in shades of white or blue. I suggested that we should sit in a row from lightest to darkest, ha ha ha. He fixed me with a piercing eye.

‘What kind of a mind even thinks like that, man?’ he said.

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On to Verbalise. It was packed out for headlining act George Wallace, pictured above. George is an award-winning beat poet on a busman’s holiday from his residency in the Walt Whitman Centre. I was delighted to find my friends Joy France, BigCharlie Poet and Harriet Fraser at the open mic – I don’t see them as often as I’d like, and it was grand to catch up.

Almost until the moment I walked onstage, I was umming and aahing over which story to do. I’d settled on either The Matador, which is an old piece about a Spitfire pilot, or new story Cuts Like A. I’d already decided that if I did the second piece, I was going to read without notes. My dilemma was that the story was brand new – only a few weeks old – and I didn’t feel I’d quite yet come to know it. During the first interval, I raced off to scribble it from memory in my notebook, writing from start to finish without breaks. I hit everything important, as well as adding a few things in, and that gave me confidence to gamble on the new piece rather than the safety of the old.

It went well. I loved performing the story, using my hands and face and eyes to invest in my characters. I’m coming to feel more and more that this is how to read a story live. (David Hartley is right.) Writers read best when they’re committed. Cuts Like A is about a drunken knife thrower, and I enjoyed being able to mime the knives, and mime the rotating disc to which his wife is cuffed – to make those actions part of the story. I simply couldn’t have done that with paper in my hand. It felt even better than the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, and it’s good to think I’m still making some progress on my reading. I’ll never be a professional performance storyteller, but that’s the sort of place I’d like to move towards.

Cuts Like A is here, if you’d like to read it.

The other open mic acts were very good. I’ve always found Verbalise to be consistently strong. Harriet, Joy and BigCharlie were brilliant as ever, and I enjoyed the work of those writers I haven’t yet met. After the second interval, George Wallace took the stage by storm. The next half hour was like being inside a Tom Waits album. I especially loved his first poem, I Want To Go Where The Garbage Men Go, a beat epic about pre-dawn New York. You can (and should) read it here.

Finally, the reviews are still coming in for The Visitors. Everyone so far has been really kind. It’s humbling to think that people are enjoying the book. I’m keeping a round-up of press articles on The Visitors page, and there are more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

If you’ve read the book, please do leave a review. After spending so long inside my own head while writing the novel, it’s simultaneously petrifying, compelling and rewarding to discover what people think of Flora, Ailsa, Izzy and the island of Bancree.

I’m going to sign off with Joy France and her mesmerising poem Home Truths. This is important:

 

Tipping

I had two brilliant days on The Hollows last week, and it’s entirely thanks to my friend Ali. I’d just finished reading a draft of his new novel – which is absolutely scintillating and is going to be massive – and called to talk to him about it. We spoke for a long time about lots of things, and he ended up clearing my head of cobwebs I didn’t know I was carrying.

This is how it is: I’ve been enjoying my first forays The Hollows, but it’s been tough going in places, because I’ve been trying to build the story chronologically, making each current chapter as clean and tight as possible before developing the next. It was only through talking to Ali that I remembered that I don’t write like that. I’d forgotten that I’m writing for me. Or, as Ali put it: “Writing’s a big fuck you to the world.”

This is an abstract thing to explain to myself. It’s not like I was writing someone else’s story, or writing with someone else in mind. But I think I’d spent so long redrafting The Visitors that I’d forgotten that it was rough, too, at the beginning; and, in starting to write The Hollows, I essentially picked up the same point of bug-eyed perfectionism that I left The Visitors. I was working back-to-front. I’d forgotten that some of whatever strength I might have as a writer comes from rewriting – from redrafting and reworking. I’d forgotten the unfolding joy of a first draft – of cutting loose, of jumping feet-first into all that glorious blank white empty space. Talking to Ali reminded me that this is my story, and I need to tell it my way.

When I had my next writing day, I sat down, disabled the internet, and raced through 3,500 words. The next day, I wrote the same again, as well as tearing apart swathes of what I’d already written, rebuilding the plot of the first third. It was exhilarating. I ignored the chronology and jumped ahead to work on scenes and chapters I’ve been dreaming of for months. In writing them, brand new scenes unfolded as though they’d been there all along. I worked late, and it hurt to blink by the end of day two, but I’d turned 18,000 words of clunky plot into 25,000 of viable draft. There’s a forever still to go, but the story is starting to move.

It’s funny how time and memory contrive to fool us. The Visitors didn’t write itself until I was well over halfway through. The first 50,000 words were hard, and the second didn’t need me there at all. That’s the bit I remember. Since then, I’ve been so immersed in my redrafts that I’d forgotten it took six months of slog to hit that tipping point.

First drafts are where the fun is. I’m going to dive in and get messy, and rejoice, and despair, and laugh, and burn myself out, and despair some more, because that’s how I live, and that’s how I write. It’ll take months from now, or years, but I finally feel like I’m getting The Hollows on course for where I want to go.

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Author interview at Scottish Book Trust

The good folks at Scottish Book Trust have interviewed me for their regular series of author confessions. They gave me interesting questions, and I enjoyed working on the answers. I talked about word counts, dream jobs, my favourite bookshop and Where The Wild Things Are. The full interview is here. I also confessed that I’m the spitting image of godlike genius Ben Folds. Here’s the proof:

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Ben Folds

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Simon Sylvester

Man, I love Ben Folds. Listening to Rockin’ The Suburbs as I write. What a glorious album.

Here’s something more recent:

Detonation

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These are extraordinary – German photographer Martin Klimas drops these statuettes, and rigs his camera to trigger at the sound of their impact. In doing so, he creates a threshold: giving these porcelain figurines an explosive moment of life at the exact point of their death. His website has more of these amazing images, as well as other high-speed photographs. Mesmerising work.

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