This is my first post since 1st October 2015; a window of more than three months, and the longest I’ve gone without an update since I started the blog. I signed off because my head was on fire and I needed some space. As a result, I haven’t shared some amazing things that happened to me last year—ten awesome days of rain and shine on the beaches of Coll and Tiree, an appearance at Bloody Scotland crime-writing festival, the US publication of The Visitors, and most especially my first time at Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was reading with the ManBooker shortlisted genius Chigozie Obioma. Maybe he was as nervous as me about the festival, but something just clicked. I don’t know if I’ve ever warmed to someone quite as spontaneously as I did Chigozie. In the middle of our discussion a battered bookmark slipped from the pages of his book. It said, Literature tastes better with beer, and I thought, yeah, this is one of the good guys. (And his novel, The Fishermen, is a wonder.) Edinburgh is a city like no other, and the festival was an extraordinary experience. To cap it all, walking back to the hotel through the summer gloaming, I came up with a new novel idea. That was a good day.
My head was on fire because of The Hollows. I finished the second draft in June and took the print-out on holiday to Coll and Tiree, where I spent my downtime going through it with a red pen. I finished the last pages as the ferry trundled back into Oban, redrafted in a week, and asked some friends to read it. To be completely honest, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’d written the whole thing in about thirty days, edited it in another five, and I thought it was good. I blogged about experiencing something of a slump, but that’s normal for me, and I expected to get out of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get out of it at all. It became worse.
The problem probably goes back to the Kate Mosse incident. I think that skewed my compass more than I realised at the time; in writing the second draft, trying to make some space between me and her, I moved too far into the fantastical, and away from the magic realism I’m pitching at; and my sheer joy of progress in writing the new draft so quickly—the drowning that I long for in my writing—that same joy blinded me to things I should have been more conscious of, things I should have been stronger about. My amazing beta readers enjoyed the book, but a couple of issues cropped up time and time again, and this consensus helped me gain some perspective on the book. Put more bluntly, it became clear that a particular strand of the story wasn’t working as well as it needed to. So go and change that one strand, right?
I sometimes think of writing a book like weaving a tapestry: the multiple threads of the characters, settings, atmospheres, emotions and plot woven against the weft of pace and rhythm, all of them bound together into a single piece. As a metaphor, it works. The problem comes in trying to unravel one or two of the threads: it can’t be done without wrecking the rest. Pull at one, and the whole thing falls apart. When I tried to redraft, I found I couldn’t do it; between the first failed version of the story, and then the flawed second, I was utterly discombobulated. It made me miserable for a very long time. One day, I’d start writing it again, completely from scratch, with the ghosts of my characters screaming outrage over my shoulder—the next day, I’d junk everything I’d done the day before, and go back to my second draft, pussyfooting around with single words and phrases—and the day after, I’d return to the very first version, and work out what I could salvage, looking for something, anything to show me the way.
At this point, I was overthinking it. I was tortured by possibilities, and wound up going backwards. The whole miserable process was compounded by the aching, awful thought of all the time I’d lost—by my reckoning, nearly a quarter of a million words of finished work over two years, and none of it anywhere near an actual book. At times I’ve been utterly inconsolable, and at other times I’ve probably been horrendous to live with. I’m extremely lucky to have in Monica a partner who understands these processes.
At the start of November, half-a-dozen small video jobs dropped into my lap in the space of a fortnight. That meant no writing for the rest of 2015, and I spent the rest of the year working flat-out to finish the films—they are now mostly wrapped, and so my writing days are back. In the end, some enforced time away has been helpful. My feet are back on the ground, and I’m not wallowing anymore. I can’t pretend I have a completely clear vision of the way ahead, but I’ve finally started getting some sense of the way. After days and days of effort and countless hours with my notebook and the myriad manuscripts, I’ve cut 70,000 words from the draft, tweaked those strands I needed to tweak, and I’m now writing into empty white pages for the first time in a year. I no longer know what will happen in some parts of the story, but actually that’s fine—that’s one of the fun parts. As daft as it sounds, I’m going to bed earlier, too, and waking with a little time to write. That helps.
I shared too much about the last draft. I’m never confident about my work, but I think I became a little complacent after discussing it in such detail. Having experienced heartbreak once, with the Kate Mosse incident, I simply didn’t believe it could happen again. I think I felt I’d paid my dues with The Hollows—that I was owed a bit of a pass. I was therefore unprepared, and it hurt much, much worse. It has taken months for me to want to write again—rather than feel I have to. And I do want to write, now. The drive is creeping back. I feel far more cautious, and I’m approaching every writing day with care—care for my story, and care for my heart—but I want to be writing, which is the big thing. I’m miserable when I don’t write.
The Hollows has sung to me for three years, and I’m going to get it right. The characters evolve and change, much like the fens they live in, the fens I’m writing about, landscapes in flux, stories in flux. I would say watch this space—but don’t watch too hard. I’ll be a wee while. Third time lucky.
Last night, more or less six months since I started, I gave the first draft of The Hollows to Mon to read, and I sent it to my amazing agent Sue. Mon and I took Dora out to tea, then she started reading. Sixty pages in and she hasn’t ditched it in a flurry of disgust, so there’s hope for me yet.
I thought it would easier to let go of the second book, but I was wrong. I thought I’d feel more confident, more certain. I don’t. If anything, the stakes feel higher. What if I’ve moved backwards? What if no one likes the story, the characters, the writing? I’m happier with this story than anything I’ve done before, but what if I’m wrong? What if I’ve got worse?
I didn’t entirely understand the proverb about not seeing the wood for the trees until I started writing novels. When I’m so immersed in my work, in my worlds, it’s easy to lose perspective on whether it’s actually any good. My own, personal instinct for story is stronger than ever, and getting stronger still; but there’s nothing on Earth to say it’s actually right. There’s no way to triangulate what happens in my heart with the world around me. In that sense, every novel – and I’ve written three of them now – is a first novel, feeling in the dark for cellar steps. Maybe it gets better in time. Maybe it gets easier. But I can’t imagine what that feels like, how that would be. It’s strange to be so terrified of the only thing I want to do. As Mon was reading, I glanced across at her every thirty seconds, every minute: which page is she on? What happens there? Oh lord, is that all right? Does that dialogue work? Do I believe it? Will she believe it?
Dora woke at 4.30am this morning, claiming it was too dark to sleep. I put her back to bed, where she fell asleep in moments, but then I couldn’t because, ahahaha, it was too light. So I’ve been up for hours, listening to songs I love, making a Mogwai mixtape for a friend, catching up on email, gazing out the window and thinking, thinking. There’s no light quite like the glow of dawn. The world is luminous, and then it turns to gold, and it sleeps on into the rising sun. No one knows but foxes, cats and milkmen. I imagined what it must look like on the river Kent between Burneside and Staveley right now, right now, with no one there at all, only the swallows and the martins flitting on the river, vapours coiling on the water, sun sliding sideways through the trees, a hidden valley with half the world in shadow and half the world on fire.
I know what my next four or five novels look like, and I have fourteen flash stories to write. Today, though, I’m taking my daughter swimming. She’ll be Peso the penguin and I’ll be Kwazi the cat, and we’ll look for treasure and help sick sea creatures along the way. Dora loves swimming, but she’s scared of having water on her head – she won’t jump in, and hates being splashed. But today, for the first time, we’re going to see how things go with goggles. Maybe – with some support, some courage, and some curiosity, today will be the day she looks underwater, the day she discovers there are other worlds, other places, other ways to see. Letting go is hard. Feeling for that cellar step is hard. Maybe all of us need to be brave.
I woke early and spent a few minutes listening to the sparrows, then made a cup of tea and settled down to work. With a first draft complete, The Hollows is off to one side, ready for a redraft when it has finished steeping. At something of a loss for what to do, I worked on an older piece, making some overdue tweaks. It was slow, frustrating progress and I was relieved, an hour or so later, when Dora thundered on the ceiling overhead. She clattered down the stairs and burst into the room, as she does every morning, and threw herself at me.
‘Morning sweetheart. It’s good to see you. Did you have any dreams?’
‘Good dreams or bad dreams?’
‘It was a bad dream.’
‘Oh no. What happened?’
Her face fuzzled as she remembered it.
‘There was a big swamp. And a little girl went into the swamp, and she stole a ribbon.’
I frowned. This reminded me of something. Dora continued:
‘And the little girl was chased in the swamp by a very bad man.’
I realised what she was saying. I knew what she would say next. My skin began to tingle, crawling upwards from my ankles.
‘And the bad man took the ribbon, and he took the little girl as well, and then there was nothing but the swamp.’
My four-year-old daughter had just relayed to me the plot of the first chapter of The Hollows. Which would be fine, except for the fact that no one else knows it but me. I haven’t shared it with anyone. No one has read it, and I’m the only person in the entire world who knows what happens.
I’ve been ransacking my brain to work out what happened. I’ve never told Dora any part of the story, and she can’t read for herself. Mon hasn’t seen it yet, so she couldn’t have told Dora either, and no one else has access to my computer. I have no idea how she knew this part of the plot. There must be a rational explanation, but I can’t work it out.
There’s just no way. There is simply no way it could have happened.
And yet it did.
A woman always, always tripped on the bottom tread of the stairs in her new house, her muscle memory convinced and compelled to make an extra step for a stair that wasn’t there. This happened for years. When the house was renovated, and the floor was lifted, the builders discovered an extra step at the bottom of the flight. People wake from comas speaking Latin, or dream across a continent of their brother drowning at sea, and wake to bad news on the phone.
I don’t believe in ghosts as sentient beings. I don’t believe in the supernatural as an anthropology. But human imagination is an engine of staggering power, and we are utterly corruptible. The weight of human history drops away below our feet, and we walk in the shadows and the hollows of what has gone before. Like crossing a clay field after the rain, it sticks to our feet in clumps.
Holloways are ancient droving roads. The weight of carts and cattle through the roads caused the ground below to erode and sink, even as the verges to the side of the road stayed the same. Protected from the passing herds, trees grew on the verges and knotted overhead, while below, the path continued to erode, ground away by centuries of cattle, and so, over time, the roads became tunnels: hollow ways.
That’s where we are, all of us. The trees have been cut and the verges levelled and all of it coated with tarmac, but we still walk along the holloways. A sideways glimpse is all it takes to see the fleeting, teeming strata of the lives we’ve lived before.
I’m currently wrapping up another film project before I get back to my writing. A couple of months ago, my friend Dom Bush and I were commissioned to make a film called Take Me Back To Manchester, based on the extraordinary true story of a lion tamer called Lorenzo Lawrence, an elephant called Maharajah, a cartoonist called Oliver East and a 200-mile walk across the country.
It was an incredibly tight turnaround – we had less than six weeks from commission to completion, and only three weeks from the shoot to the deadline. Dom shot the film, using drones and steadicam, and I cut it. I used the parallax effect for the first time to bring some of our amazing archive images to life. Technically we co-directed the film, but the story was so rich, the contributors so engaging, and the archive material so fascinating, that it pretty much directed itself.
Take Me Back To Manchester has now been shown at Toronto Comic Art Festival, and a shorter version will be screened on a loop in Manchester Museum.
Roll up, ladies and gentlemen, roll up…
This is my last film project for a while. I’ve really enjoyed working on this piece and To The End We Will Go, but I’m more than ready to get back to the Hollows. I’ve been maintaining my erratic early morning writing sessions, even if that means grabbing five minutes before Dora explodes downstairs demanding her breakfast. Those snatched sentences and stolen paragraphs might only give the book twenty words, fifty words, a hundred words a time, which feels painfully meagre in isolation, but they add up over weeks and months. I’m up to about 66,000 words, for all the difference it makes, and happy with where it’s going. I think again of how little I achieved last year, and feel a grim urge to push on and make up for so much wasted time.
After almost two years of work, I have finished making a film about hay meadows. This has been a huge project for me, both professionally and personally, and it has changed the way I think about the world.
When I come to the end of a project, I usually have a stronger understanding of the subject than when I began. In this case, while my knowledge has increased hugely, I’m left with far more questions than answers. In 2013, I was commissioned by Cumbria Wildlife Trust to make a ‘democratic’ film about meadows, tasked with balancing opposing points of view to create a space for discussion and reflection. Within that brief, I started the project with a sense that hay meadows were something like a set of scales, and if only the interested parties could work together better, then an equilibrium could be achieved between food production on one side, and sustainability on the other. I no longer think that’s possible; and I now think of meadows more like a jigsaw, being made by many people all at once, only everyone has a different picture on the box. Every time you place one piece down, another changes. They are mosaics of demand, shifting with the seasons. All the fundamental issues facing agriculture in Britain can be measured in hay meadows: growth, demand, food, want, waste, profit, biodiversity, sustainability, heritage, science, tradition.
Over the course of the shoot, I talked with school kids, beekeepers, walkers, landowners, farmers, conservationists and a 97-year-old farm labourer who worked in meadows between the World Wars. I left a camera in a barn outside Kirkby Stephen to record a five-month time lapse of a meadow in growth. I learned more about slow motion video, and about macro photography. After ten months of searching, I tracked down an astonishing piece of archive film footage from the 1930s. Halfway through it, there’s a shot of an old tramp simply standing in a lane, staring at the camera. It’s haunted me ever since:
All this was happening in the build-up to the Scottish referendum. Through the process of making this film, the two became inextricably linked around my realisation that if we are to survive – as a species – then it’s by being smaller. We need to reduce. To be less. Less ambitious, less hungry, less wasteful, less oblivious. We will survive in communities and cooperatives, not corporations. This was one of the many reasons I supported a Yes vote in Scotland. For me, the referendum went a long, long way beyond some petty nationalism. It would have swung a sword through the Gordian Knot of a corrupt, venal Britain. I cried my eyes out on the morning it was No. Being small and being nationalistic are not the same thing. We’ll be better as bees in hives, sharing the meadows. (This analogy does not, for me, extend as far as having Queens.)
I found out this morning that To The End We Will Go has been selected for the CMAC Rural Film Festival. This will be my first ever festival screening, and I’m really pleased. It’s quietly astonishing to think about people on the other side of the world watching my wee film and spending a few moments in Cumbria. The last shot is a drift of swifts exploding past my window against a purple dusk. I love the thought that an audience in Minnesota will look out of the same window and see African swifts in a Cumbrian sky.
Busy busy busy busy busy. This is what I am. I’m finalising my long-running hay meadows film for Cumbria Wildlife Trust, and I’ve just started work on another piece, a film I’m co-directing with my friend Dom Bush about an 1870s animal handler who bought an elephant at auction in Edinburgh, then walked it to Manchester; and the fantastic graphic novelist Oliver East who is retreading the same journey to write a new book. Perfectly normal stuff.
I’m still plugging away with my writing in the mornings, though it’s been slightly more erratic since the clocks went forward. I’ve struggled to catch up on that hour, but my body clock is finally starting to fall back into line. I’m making cautiously good progress. I still haven’t reached that tipping point I crave in my writing, but my new draft of The Hollows is up to about 55,000 words, which I reckon is pretty good going for two months of part-time work. I think I’m about halfway there. It’s starting to get exciting.
So all that, plus college, makes for the busy busy busy. Despite it all, we decided to flee for a couple of nights camping in Buttermere this week, and it was a glorious decision. We only went for two nights, but the lakes, the hills, were entirely perfect. Warm sun, tree swings, cold beers, cooking on a campfire. The forests around Loweswater and Buttermere resounded with woodpeckers. Each evening, we watched the farmer drive his eight cows past the campsite, through the car park, and up to the barns for milking.
The happiest part of the trip was seeing Dora playing outdoors. On a forest path or a pebble beach, her relentless curiosity has an infinite playground of climbing, counting, songs and stories. She tells herself stories, makes nests of magic twigs, decides where the treasure is hidden, then goes to find it.
We chatted to the farmer on our last morning as the tops of the mountains turned amber in sunrise. It’s been good to get away for a bit, we said. And Dora’s had a great time, too.
“Aye,” he said. “Well that’s what it’s all about. Trying to enjoy some living.”
On our last afternoon, we scratched letters to the universe on pebbles and skimmed them into Crummock Water. I hope the universe will write back.