Islands by Peter Conrad

I’m a fairly fast reader. I used to comfortably manage three or four books a week, but then I had a kid, and now I read one or two a month – ten pages here, a chapter there – in the few exhausted minutes before I fall asleep. Before Dora was born, I would have probably devoured Islands by Peter Conrad in a day or so. As it is, it’s taken me the best part of six months to finish. To be fair, that’s been mixed in with a host of other books, including the first vast volumes of China Mieville’s Bas-lag trilogy, which I devoured a hundred pages at a time, regardless of how tired I was.

I needed swathes of swaggering, pageturning steampunk as a counter to Conrad. Here’s the thing: Peter Conrad is clearly a writer of huge ability. His sentences are as perfectly formed and intricate as crystal. He writes with enormous grace and intelligence, drawing on a frankly astonishing range of culture, high and low, to construct his arguments. His book explores islands as psychological landscapes, a topic that fascinates me. It’s a weighty, worthy, fascinating work. But it also had a curious affect on me: Conrad’s writing sent me to sleep.

Now, I don’t mean to say that it’s boring, because it really isn’t. But somehow, Peter Conrad’s writing has a truly soporific affect on me. The flow of words is hypnotic, soothing – a lullaby of thought. I typically found my eyes closing after mere pages, or sometimes only paragraphs. It’s taken me months to finish the book, and towards the end, I realised that enough time had passed for me to forget big chunks of what had gone before.

I’m discussing this mostly because I haven’t experienced it before, and I’m slightly baffled by it as a phenomenon. If a book is boring, I stop reading it. But I was truly intrigued by the ideas Conrad was exploring, and never thought Islands was dull. I wanted to read it faster, but night after night, it sent me to sleep. Eventually, I found myself reading it because I wanted to sleep, rather than reading it despite sleep. I reached for it like a comfort blanket or a Valium. Now that it’s gone, I actually feel a little bereft.

In The Flow at Sprint Mill

A few months ago, I was asked by my friends in the Sprintmilling art collective to run a spoken word evening as part of their exhibition for the excellent C-Art open studio trail. My first instinct was to say no, because I’m so constantly swamped with work that I’m barely writing anything of my own. But on reflection, I decided to go ahead and give it everything I had. I’ve never organised or hosted a spoken word event, and Sprint Mill is a very special place to me. What swung it for me was a request of mill owner Edward Acland, who wondered if the performers might be interested in writing a piece or two inspired by the mill. I was so intrigued by this idea that I decided to take it on. I called the night In The Flow, and set about inviting writers I knew would do it justice.

In the end, we had a stellar line-up, including the slam-winning poetry dynamo that is Joy France; Guardian weekly pick BigCharlie Poet; Poet Laureate of the Tripe Marketing Board, Jonathan Humble; journalist, poet and painter Helen Perkins; poet of internal, external and emotional landscapes, Harriet Fraser; the frighteningly talented young Turk of the macabre, Luke Brown; Edward Acland himself; and me.

All the writers rose to Edward’s challenge, and all attended the mill at various points for inspiration and ideas. The place is soaked in stories. Sprint Mill is a wonder. It is both serene and madcap, combining perfect sense with complete bamboozlement. Over three floors, scores of chests, cabinets and workbenches line the walls, all laden with jars, boxes and objects. It’s no less than a portal into another time. The ceiling is lined with skis and 1950s shop signs. The windows gather dust, discarded toys, wood swarf and cobwebs in rafts. Military buttons sit beside bradawls and buckets of rusty nails. Washing machine parts are pinned in loops to a heavy magnet – an apothecary cabinet groans with esoteric contents, all neatly labelled: barbershop equipment, bird eggs, lightbulbs. The mill is a bipolar rabbithole of wonder and nonsense. Every time I visit, I find myself caught between poles of melancholy and childish joy. It’s a tangible place, and it’s a dream.

I didn’t hear or read any of the writers’ responses to the mill until the night. Somehow, between introducing the acts and reading a piece from The Hollows for the first ever time, I managed to film them at work. Here are the performances in order of appearance. Enjoy…

Edward Acland distills his decades of collecting into The Jars:

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Jonathan Humble reads bombastic ballads of tripe, Daleks, and reckless rhubarb:

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Helen Perkins performs three pieces, finishing with the utterly enthralling Edward’s Gunshop, which is one of the best poems I’ve heard for a long time:

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Luke Brown reads a brilliant (untitled) short story of chaos, catastrophe and common sense. Fans of Roald Dahl and Jeremy Dyson in particular will devour this:

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Harriet Fraser charts the life of a seedling, considers cagmagery and takes us into the nether regions of a sheep:

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BigCharlie Poet delivers mouses, houses, foxes, and his Guardian pick-of-the-week, It’s The Grit That Makes The Pearl:

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Joy France finishes the night with a wonderful sequence of poems touching on memory, loss, joy, patchouli oil and fracking:

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There were more than thirty of us crammed into a smaller section of the mill, ruddy with stovelight and beer. We sat on hand-carved chairs and recovered benches, and dust crawled in columns from the ceiling. We laughed, we talked, we drank and we told each other stories. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but words mean nothing without the folk to hear them.

Art Is Long, Life Is Short

After years of occasional submissions, I’m delighted to report that the outstanding spoken word night Liars’ League London finally accepted one of my short stories. For those that don’t know, Liars’ League has grown into one of the finest story nights in the country (now with branches in Leeds, Leicester, New York and Hong Kong) by using professional actors to read stories. Or, as they rather more succinctly put it:

Writers write. Actors act. Audience listens. Everybody wins.

When I first started writing short stories, what feels like a century ago, I experimented relentlessly with different voices and techniques. Over the years, I’ve moved away from straight-up literary fiction and towards the modern genre fiction that I prefer to read myself. In doing so, my writing has become, to me, more believable; I believe my own stories more than I used to. At the same time, for reasons I’m still brewing on, most of my story narrators have become female. This wasn’t a conscious decision. It happened organically as I drifted happily into low fantasy and magic realism. When I thought of The Visitors, I always knew Flora would be Flora. In my current work-in-progress, I always knew Kerry would be Kerry. I have my next four or five novels blocked out, and they all have female narrators, because they could only have female narrators. That’s just the way it is.

The Liars’ League story is called Art Is Long, Life Is Short. It’s one of my oldest unpublished pieces, and one of my favourites. As one of my older stories, I wrote it with a male voice. I imagined someone like Larry Lamb. A grizzled gentleman of the world – a Cockney – down on his luck and pouncing on a break. A male actor was booked to read the piece, and I was delighted to be a contributor to Liars’ League.

But – with a week or so to go – they contacted me to say that the actor had to cancel. Would I consider an actress instead?

YES. Yes, I’d consider that. On re-reading the story, I was amused to notice that there isn’t a single marker of gender – and the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea. Actress Carrie Cohen shows why Liars’ League were absolutely right. She reads better than I’d thought possible, and I’m really, really pleased. She embodies the character with humour and pathos, and the story works far better with a woman than a man. It’s a thrill beyond measure to see it all brought to life.

There’s something else, too. I loved giving the story away. It’s not mine anymore. It belongs to Carrie, and the audience, and that’s incredibly exciting. Having spent years sitting on a piece that I thought had some merit, it’s wonderful to share it out – to see it adapted, altered and ultimately evolve from my wee idea into something bigger.

So here it is. Please enjoy Art Is Long, Life Is Short, read by the wonderful Carrie Cohen:

The Abbey

I visited the awe-inspiring Furness Abbey last week. It’s one of those places that I find very hard to describe, and although I’m going to try, I don’t feel I’ll come close, so I’ll probably keep this fairly short.

The abbey lies in ruins, but the utter majesty of the place remains. Sandstone soars into the sky in towers, even as the wind and rain carve it back down into organic shapes. It’s humbling beyond measure to walk the grounds, to sit in the buttery, to peer up tiny spiral staircases, to measure spans and arches – to walk the same paths the monks would have walked, centuries ago. A watercourse trickles through the ruins, tight with brick and riddled with tunnels and drains, but also dense with willowherb. It makes the abbey seem both antique and feral. There are plants trickling from upper ledges, and swallows nesting in the cells. There are tunnels and alcoves and windows and doors. What survives of the former halls still feels enclosed. Parts of the abbey are completely removed from the main walkways, and it’s unnerving to stand in silence and stillness and reflect on the hundreds of lives to pass through the same space. It’s crawling with ghosts. They’re in every stone, in every blade of grass. The site is surrounded by trees that hush in the wind, and the place is full of whispers. It embodies that sense of threshold I feel so drawn to. There are blind corners, where the space is shut abruptly out and your skin crawls with presence. Gravity weighs more in the abbey. The stones have grown gaunt on life and death and time.

Time. That’s the abbey means. The whole place aches and creaks with a ferocious sense of time. It’s massive. It echoes, it rebounds from the rock, from the moss. Walking the walls brings our few moments in this world into ferocious, ridiculous focus. It’s magnificent. It’s extraordinary. Go and explore it for yourself.

 

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The Visitors – a soundtrack

Over time, music becomes integrated entirely with memory. I can’t hear Woodface by Crowded House or Crossroads by Bon Jovi without becoming eight or nine or ten years old, and playing Heroquest with my brother. The songs from those records flood my head with the stink of enamel paint and the sound of rain on windows.

My friend Iain has long believed that just as movies have soundtracks, so novels should have soundtracks. It’s an intriguing idea; for writers like Iain and I, who work best with very particular music playing in the background, the soundscape becomes an integral part of our experience of the book. I wrote The Visitors with the same few artists playing over and over again. That monotony helped me establish and maintain consistency. It helped to balance me in the same emotional place, session after session. The records took me out of myself.

It’s interesting to note that with my new novel, The Hollows, I’ve needed completely different tunes – if I listen to anything from my Visitors ‘soundtrack’, I’m taken back to Bancree. I’m almost sure that will change with time.

I’ve put together a wee soundtrack for The Visitors on Spotify. There’s some Mogwai, Arab Strap, Sparklehorse, James Yorkston, Arcade Fire, British Sea Power, Bat For Lashes, Meursault and a few others. I’ve jumbled them as seems best, but I guess my aim is to give a sense of the overall soundscape I worked with. It sounds like this:

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For some reason, the Spotify player here won’t play all the songs in the playlist – if you’d like to see the rest, mosey over here. And if anyone has recommendations based on these songs, please do pop them in the comments. I’m always looking for new music to fit my very selective criteria for working!

Not The Booker

I’m cautiously delighted to say that The Visitors has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. It’s been a rather bruising process to get this far. The longlist was very long, featuring a hundred novels. Not The Booker is infamously decided by public vote, which leads to all kinds of hijinks from authors, publishers and agents drumming up support. That’s a hundred clusters of psychic tension detonating online simultaneously. No wonder things get heated.

I was in Greece for the first two days of the week-long voting window, by which point there were already clear leaders. With five days to go, I started doing what most of the others had done, and announced my part in the longlist as loud and far as I could. I was fortunate that a lot of people who’d read and liked The Visitors voted for me, and I managed to reach the shortlist. I’m extremely thankful and humbled by the support for my book.

The shortlist holds some intimidating competition – genuine literary titan Donna Tartt, no less, as well as Louis Armand, Mahesh Rao, Tony Black and Iain Maloney. I’m a little concerned that The Visitors seems to be the only work of genre fiction on the list; I’m worried it won’t be deemed worthy enough. And now I’m actually up for review, there’s the prospect of this sort of evisceration at the hands of Sam Jordison, too. Ouch. All in all, I’m expecting dark things from the Guardian readers – which begs the question: why bother entering?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. The first time my agent and I went to meet my editor at Quercus, we discussed the importance of promotion and self-promotion. It’s simply a mandatory part of an author’s life, now – especially a debut author. Publishers are spread thin. They can’t afford to spend time plugging new writers, and that means new writers have to plug themselves.

It’s unfortunate, then, that I’m not great at selling myself or my work. I feel embarrassed at intruding on other people’s time, and I despise arrogance so much in other people that I cringe at anything that could make me seem arrogant. It took months of goading by my wife before I summoned courage to introduce myself to my local library and local Waterstones. On both occasions, I fumbled through a minute of apologies before finding a way to explain who I was, that I had a book out, and that I wanted to say hello. They were perfectly nice, and keen to discuss running some future events, but the process leaves me feeling weird, and even a little cheap.

If I’m ever going to find a way to write full-time – or, being more realistic, to better balance my life and jobs around writing – then this is the sort of thing I need to do. As my Dad says – you’ve created a product, and now you need to sell it.

Books are products, for sure. I think stories are far more than that. Books are the vessels that carry stories, though, so maybe I’m splitting hairs. I know that I want to write stories, but also that I don’t really want to sell my own books, because it makes me feel so uncomfortable; I know that I want as many people as possible to read my work, and that selling my own books, and selling myself, is one of the only ways I can find to keep writing my stories. For most writers, that’s the binary pair of modern publishing.

When I try to reconcile these two distinct strands of my industry, I have to accept that all I want to do – what I wish for every day – is to write full-time and get these stories onto paper, into people’s heads, into people’s hearts. Whether I like it or not, that means playing the game.

I don’t know how it’s going to go, but my money’s on Tartt or Black.

Weird days. Remember Remember have been helping: