Waterstones Scotland Book of the Month

I should have written about this sooner, but the month since we returned from Thailand has been a blur of college, film and writing. In short, I’m honoured beyond measure that The Visitors has been February’s Book of the Month for Waterstones Scotland. It’s been incredible – my excellent friends in Scotland have been sending me pictures of the book for sale in Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and beyond, and some of the window displays have been absolutely breathtaking. I’m a very lucky writer.

window display

The good people at Quercus asked if I could pop up to Scotland to sign some books and do a reading – which fortunately fell over half term. Cue a manic two days on the road with my wife – first dropping off Dora with her grandparents, then staying with my aunt and uncle in Edinburgh, stopping off at Waterstones stores in Edinburgh Princes Street and George Street, then Falkirk, on to Glasgow Argyle Street and Sauchiehall Street, and finishing up at the Braehead shopping centre. It was a real whistle-stop thing, calling in long enough to sign a stack of books, chat to the staff, and push on again.

I’m delighted to report that it seems to have been doing well – aided in no small part, I’m sure, by Leo Nickolls‘ stunning cover. Some stores only had a couple of copies left, and it had made the charts in others. It’s also been cropping up in Blackwells, W.H.Smiths, and Waterstones south of the border.

While we were in Glasgow Sauchiehall Street, I read a few chapters from The Visitors. I’ve read from it before at spoken word nights, but this was the first time I’d done anything like a proper talk on the book. I read three chapters. Having been so immersed in The Hollows, it was even a little strange to be back on Bancree and inside Flora’s head, but I enjoyed it. The reading was followed by some excellent questions from the audience, then catching up with old friends. Within 48 hours, we were back on the road to Cumbria.

I’ve been lucky. I know I’ve been lucky. I’m incredibly grateful to Quercus, and to Sue at Conville & Walsh, and to Waterstones, for showing this much faith in my work. I hope I won’t ever take that for granted, because I want to write until the day I drop. I’m still rising early to chip away at The Hollows. I’m finding that it doesn’t really matter how much I write in these dawn sessions, as blackbirds squabble in the garden and the radiators creak into life; whether I write 100 words or 500 words, it’s much more about keeping in touch the story, tagging in every day. Last year, I had to spend months at a time without writing at all, and I fell away from the manuscript. There were times I returned to it and couldn’t remember a word of what I’d written previously. Even if, or when, I get that busy again, I’m going to try to keep going with these little sessions every day – they mean that when I have a full writing day, I can hit the ground running. I’ve written more good material this February alone than all of last year put together. That gives me courage.

signing

Baby steps

In the end, I decided to start again. I didn’t feel I could salvage enough of The Hollows (take one) to make it worth the while. I was certain I’d be left with a scrappy patchwork of pieces, and that joining the dots between them would give me more trouble than reward – as well as colouring whatever came next with so many prior wrong turns. So I started again.

As I mentioned in my last post, I probably shared too much about The Hollows (take one) last year, and I’m not going to to do that again. I feel like I got ahead of myself, and jinxed it. This post is more of a reflection on how freeing the Kate Mosse incident has been for me. Having decided to bin all 30,000 words of the first draft, I was a little intimidated about starting again. But the huge amount of time I spent with pen and paper in Thailand – dozens of hours – gave me the space I needed to settle myself. Having transcribed thousands of words of notes into Scrivener, I found I had a chapter structure. And having fleshed out each of those chapters, joined a few dots and bridged a few gaps, I realised that, with as much luck as design, the narrative was essentially complete.

I found myself almost arbitrarily drawn to a chapter somewhere in the middle of the story, and tentatively started work. I’ve now had five full writing days on the second draft, as well as five or six mornings before work, and somehow I’ve written 23,000 words. Here’s the thing. I’ve written damn near the same inside two weeks as I managed in all of last year put together, except it’s better. That’s left me feeling slightly staggered. What the hell was I doing last year? Did I really wallow so much in the first draft? For a whole year? What made it so hard? I can’t remember. I suspect, in essence, it’s because I was writing fundamentally the wrong story, and I therefore owe Kate Mosse a debt of thanks.

Nothing guarantees the quality of what I’ve written so far, other than I’m feeling curiously relaxed and cautiously happy in what I’m doing, and excited about what comes next. That’s a far better measure than word counts. (Although, if I’m being honest, word counts help – as long as I’m content with the words.) I don’t even yet feel that I’m immersed, that I’m drowning, and that’s what I’m pitching for, that’s what I want. These first sessions are building my sense of the world. It’s knitting together geographically, culturally, socially. It’s growing. It’s almost ready to get lost in.

Thailand two

Bangkok is smoke, Samui is steam. Flying into the airport was like flying into Jurassic Park. Even as we arrived, a cloudburst yammered on the tarmac, and the airport sprouted with gigantic, alien plants I’d never seen before, spines folded back on themselves like Escher prints. Samui has mountains in its interior, all pasted in dense jungle, crisscrossed with broken roads and coconut plantations. The coast is a ring road of shacks, tourist bars and holiday resorts. We stayed on the north-eastern tip of the island in an apartment overlooking the sea. On our first day, we saw Brahminy kites cruising above directly above us, hanging on the breezes, terrifying the coast. Tiny tailor birds perched on palm fronds beside the balcony, and myna birds hung upside-down from the rafters while we drank our beers and watched the sea.

I’m not very good at relaxing. Even the things I do for fun – writing, climbing, drinking with my friend Banks – are bruising, high-impact activities. So it was strange to have so much enforced time away from home, away from work, away from my computer. I even felt a little edgy during the first few days, but soon drifted into a gentle routine of swimming, reading, telling stories, and writing. The writing in particular was vital time for me. I sat with my pen and notebook and spent a few hours every day battering out what The Hollows is about.

Each night, we went to eat in local restaurants or hooked up with with friends. We’d gone to Samui in particular because our pals Helen and Michael were getting married on the beach. We spent a few days either side of the celebration with their excellent Australian mates – really good people. On the way back from their wonderful wedding, we were driven by the craziest taxi driver I’ve ever met. He laughed without pause for the entire twenty minute ride. He had a photo of his son on the dashboard.

‘What’s your boy called?’ I said.

‘His name is Mr. iPhone,’ said the driver, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. ‘England is cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold!’

Ang Thong marine park is an extraordinary place. After a stomach-churning ninety minute boat ride to the first of the two islands we were allowed to visit, we climbed lethally steep stairs to a viewpoint, overlooking a hidden lagoon on one side and the marine park archipelago on the other. With a little help, Dora counted off every one of the hundred and fifty steps, chanting all the way. Having climbed down to the lagoon, we told her about pirates and mermaids and the giant fish that eats little girls who don’t listen to their mummies and daddies about not swimming in the water because that’s what the sign says, poppet.

On the second island we visited, we stood no more than two metres away from wild monkeys. They sat at head height in scrubby trees above the flat white sand, eating figs. They weren’t even slightly interested in us. We watched them for a long time before they disappeared into the jungle. In the trees behind them, set back from the beach, was a shrine. Dolphin skulls, monkey skulls. Shrines everywhere.

The sea had blown up by the time we had to leave. We’d taken seasickness tablets, and Dora promptly passed out on me, but there were people screaming as this horrible damned tub of a boat skidded and crashed and shuddered in the waves. There were three Irish women on the boat – a mother and two daughters, I think – and they started singing in Gaelic, sweet and soft as nursery rhymes. I don’t know if it helped the shrieking Finnish lady, but it helped me. I believed them to be songs of sailors’ wives, praying for the safe return of their men from stormy seas. They might have been pop songs, I guess, but hopefully I’ll never know.

On our third-to-last day, we had the truly bittersweet experience of taking a Samui tour. Every island tour offers elephant and monkey shows. You can’t do it without. So we went, agreeing that we simply weren’t going to take part in the animal shows.

The first part of the trip was a visit to some extraordinary floating temples. We’d driven past them in tuk-tuks a dozen times without knowing they were even there, these gigantic statues of Buddha. That was special. I have no religious faith, but I respect and enjoy the measured spectacle of religious achievement – of cathedrals, of temples, of such conviction. Wandering amongst the statues in the fire of early morning – the first of the day’s tourists, joined only by the temple dogs – was awe-inspiring in the true sense of the word.

The elephant show was next on the itinerary. We were swept along with the crowd, and ended up watching it. There were two elephants. They were brought from different parts of the compound. As soon as they met, they touched trunks, then their handlers finagled them into jigs, into standing on their hind legs, their fore legs. One kicked footballs. One of them was bleeding from the skull. A string of cheery, gormless volunteers came down from the crowd, and the elephants placed a foot on their backs. One elephant pretended to give a honeymoon massage, rubbing a man’s penis with her trunk. We felt humiliated for her. What was worse was realising that at least the show was something to do. Immediately afterwards, the elephants were chained up again – far apart – and each began a heartbreaking, relentless, moronic swaying. One elephant waved her head for a minute or so, then lifted her trunk, as though she’d heard something – and resumed her swaying. I watched her repeat this for twenty minutes. The other did an imbecile dance, lifting her left foreleg, waggling it in the air, replacing it, lifting it, replacing it, lifting it. It was depressing beyond measure.

We explained to Dora that the elephants were unhappy. She was at first puzzled, then very upset. When we came to the monkey show, the first thing anyone heard was Dora, asking why the sad monkey had a chain around his neck.

‘Jesus Christ,’ said the Australian lady beside us, ‘if a three-year-old can see it, what’s wrong with the rest of them?’

There’s nothing to say to that.

After these miseries, we powered up and down gut-squeezing mountain roads in ferocious 4x4s. A Latvian girl we’d collected from a yoga retreat (‘I no eat, I no eat, I on detox, of course!’) had a shrieking meltdown when we went off-road, and demanded to be let out and abandoned in the middle of the jungle. ‘Faster, faster!’ yelled Dora. The Thai drivers adored her for that.

Orchids overgrowing in the road. Bamboo exploding skywards in thickets too dense for light. Coffee growing wild in the hills. Palm trees fifteen metres high, clustered with coconuts. The mummified monk. He claimed he knew he was about to die, so had the others build a glass case around him, and spent his last months meditating inside. That was forty years ago. The case was only opened to give him sunglasses after his eyes had desiccated. The heat, the haze. I dropped our camera in the river. We swam in a waterfall, against the current, with the setting sun glittering in the top few metres of the water and the rest of it falling into jungle gloom.

The hours before evening, when the heat had gone from the sun, and the wet fragrance of the jungle filled our lungs. Arguing with drivers, taking the tuk-tuk into town, decoding every menu for vegetarian options. The warmth of night envelops and cradles and doesn’t want to let you go.

We found a thousand shells on the beach, all their perfect whorls and spirals broken open by the sea. I found ten metres of rope, as thick as my wrist, and dragged it along the beach in an anaconda trail. I left it in a spiral. The plastic bottles that wash up in the foam, each encrusted with a hundred tiny mussels. I found a shark’s tooth and a sunhat.

Mosquitoes. The microcosm of expats. A wasp, longer than my finger, black as jet, trapped beneath a glass and rattling a fury.

‘Of course, I emigrated when they started letting just anyone into Britain,’ he said without irony. ‘I couldn’t handle it now.’

A butterfly, purple and white, the size of both palms together, shadow shapes on candlelit walls. The beaming Thai waitress, eight months’ pregnant, pointing a lost Westerner towards his friends. He didn’t give her so much as a look in acknowledgment.

‘The slitty-eyed gits,’ said another. ‘They’ve stitched me up again.’

Everywhere we went, the Thais continued to be the friendliest, most welcoming people we’d ever met. In one local restaurant, where they spoke no English and we communicated in gestures and smiles, they took Dora off to play. In another, they brought her nine peeled tangerines. She ate them in a state of grateful awe, watching the ceiling fan spin beneath the palm frond ceiling. Pat and Enjoy, the girls who ran the cafe where we ate our breakfast, took endless pictures of her running around the garden, leaping between stepping stones, a bundle of sweat and freckles. One morning, she spontaneously told us her first ever story.

We couldn’t escape the end. It gathered into the last days, mountains on a long-distance drive. Normally I sleep like a bag of bricks, but for some weird reason, on our last night on Samui, and then again at our stopover in Bangkok, I managed only two hours a night; and none at all on the 14-hour flight home. I was in something of a delirium by the time we actually made it back. In Heathrow, a drunk man had been stopped at Arrivals, and was howling at a security guard.

‘I’m a citizen of the UK! This never happened before we let people like you come in here!’

Welcome home. I can’t even use the word Great anymore. It was great meeting my dad in Manchester airport, though, and catching up with our families over the next days; then floating back to ground, restocking the fridge, washing our clothes, putting the suitcases away, putting the books back on the shelf.

I usually read relentlessly on holiday, but this time was different. The only book I really enjoyed was the incomparable Wolf Hall. I spent far more time with pen and paper, working on The Hollows. I’m not going to talk much about it, this time. I feel very much like I overextended myself in discussing the book prior to the Kate Mosse incident, and I’m not going to do that again, other than to say that I talked it through at great length with Mon, who is the most amazing reader I could ever ask for. I’m excited by what I have planned, and I’ve written the first 12,000 words in three days. In this respect, jet lag has been a friend to me; I’ve been waking at 5.30 in the morning, ready for my day, and writing before I go to work. I’ve always been envious of writers who wake early to write – it’s never worked for me before – but it’s working this time. I’m not going to set an alarm for it, but if my body keeps waking, I’ll keep writing. No matter how rough my day at college, there’s a little kernel in my heart that knows I’ve written something, anything – a hundred words, five hundred words. That burns inside me even if I’m too wasted to write at night.

So that was Thailand. Every travel, every trip, is an inherent contradiction, both coming and going. The xenophobic ex-pats were outnumbered a thousand times over by the honest, open smiles of friends and strangers; for every caged bird and poor demented elephant, there were Brahminy kites, indigo butterflies and geckos inside paper lanterns.

When I first left Britain, I was wired with stress, working too much, making myself ill. Thailand gave me the space to recover, to triangulate the things I want to do, and to spend time with the people who matter most to me. That’s what this life is about, if it’s about anything at all. Ultimately, I don’t feel like I’ve travelled very far, because distance is measured from home, and I took mine with me.

The Visitors reviewed in Tor.com

I’m absolutely thrilled to share this review of The Visitors by the good people at Tor.com. It’s really weird, sometimes, when real life gets in the way, to remember that I wrote a book, that I’m writing another. Things like this are screams in my head of what I want to do. Reeling and delighted.

Dora’s first story

My daughter is three. This is her first story:

Once we went to steal the treasure from some pirates but they heard we were coming so did they did a big roar and scared us into a barrel. Then they went to our tree house and stole EVERYTHING. And we were stuck in the barrel which had lots of beasties in it. But then the beasties got out and the pirates were scared of the beasties, and they ran away. Then we took back all of our treasure, and all the pirate’s treasure, and we took it back to our tree house and made it tidy, the end.

Thailand one

Birds called from the web of girders inside the airport. The taxi ride into the city gave us billboards as long as sports fields, shanty towns on roadsides, golden Buddhas measuring every hundred metres of motorway. Bangkok itself was a sprawling, smoky, humid assault on the senses. Our hotel, crisp and air-conditioned, perched beside a lurid grey canal. The surface rippled constantly with the motions of a million tiny fish, while white and orange carp lazed at the surface, ghosts in the murk. A minute’s walk in either direction led to shanties of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. We wandered the neighbourhood. There was a temple on the other side of the block. There were temples everywhere. A minute away, a shop sold pictures of the king, four or five metres high, in ornate gilt frames. Thais are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, though Dora definitely helped us through the city. Her hair is such an unusual colour that people stopped us in the street to say hello, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka. Mopeds use pavements like roads. Pedestrians take their chances in every crossing. We ate in open kitchens off the street, the smells of onions and ginger and drains all mingling into one rich fug. We met a man selling pad thai from a street cart. It was the best pad thai we’d ever eaten. He was the fourth generation of his family to sell pad thai on the streets of Bangkok, and he’d been doing it for forty years. Beside him, his mother, the third generation, a walnut of a woman, grinned and bowed as we devoured the noodles, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka.

A young man with grey hair followed us from the hotel to the boat pier, stopping when we stopped. When we reached the river, we watched a metre-long monitor lizard slip into the water. We took the express boat from Banglumpo to Ko Wat, crowded in with tourists and Thais. The helmsman and the skipper communicated over the engine roar with a code of shrieking whistles. Egrets bobbed on rafts of vegetation and polystyrene. We spent the day marvelling at the cloisters of golden Buddhas, ate our first ever guava, and made friends with a Cambodian couple who crossed a park to take pictures of Dora. We dropped 108 coins in the 108 bowls that run alongside the reclining Buddha.

We walked back through Banglumpo markets. A man sold insects on skewers from a food cart – locusts, spiders, shiny black scorpions. The sign on his cart said photos cost 10 baht. I bet he makes more from photos than from food. A few stalls down from him, a beggar called out, baht, baht, baht, baht. He had long legs, though very thin, and long arms, but his torso was little bigger than his head. I watched a thickset American study him for minutes, then cross the road to give him several folded notes. The beggar said nothing, zipped the money into a small purse, and rattled his cup again. Baht, baht, baht, baht. The American scowled and walked away. The beggar’s face was at the height of the car exhausts. When they passed, he studied himself in the fleeting, warped reflection. Then he rattled his cup.

We picked up a flyer for a vegetarian cafe called Mango. It was some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten, fierce with ginger and sopped up with crispy dumplings. It was so good I wanted to hug the owner, Doo. He told us about his farm in the mountains, where they grow all their own food – everything they use comes from the farm. Four hip backpackers, wrapped up in finding themselves, complained that there wasn’t enough potato in their curry. Doo apologised, and they didn’t even acknowledge him. When we left, he was off to one side. He was sculpting, with his studio open onto the restaurant. He was making a beautiful goddamn elephant, and it was as perfect as his food.

Entire neighbourhoods built on stilts, thriving in the shadow of the underpass. Herons fishing from the bamboo rafts that trap sewage on the river. Duk-duk drivers hawking on the ground when we turned them down. Monks taking selfies. A tree surgeon, five metres up, without a harness, one foot on a stump and the other on a telegraph cable, leaning up to cut the branch above his head. Skinny cats, their tails lost to traffic. School kids chasing us to say hello to Dora. Families of five on mopeds. The rangy man who followed us, always ten paces behind, stopping when we stopped.

Jet lag kills me. When I first went to Australia, I didn’t sleep at all for two days, then slept almost continually for a week. In Bangkok, I kept waking in the night, and lying awake while cats yowled in alleyways and the roads hummed with mopeds. I thought I had a handle on Charlie Hebdo, until I saw some French language news on the television. They ran through some of the cartoons drawn in response. They showed one of Asterix and Obelix, simply bowing, and I burst into tears.

Bangkok is a riot of sight and sound and colour and taste and especially smell. Acrid exhaust fumes, the sharp twist of boiling oil, honey frangipani, frying garlic. The people who watched us, morose, from their open front rooms, then burst into smiles when they saw my daughter. It has been a truly extraordinary experience. I’ve never known anything like it. We wish we were staying longer.

Next stop, Koh Samui.