This is a long overdue post. Actually, all my posts are overdue these days. Last month I was honoured to take part in Nothing Stays Secret For Long, a one-off event at Manchester’s Chetham’s Library organised by First Draft cabaret nights. Chetham’s is an extraordinary place — the oldest public lending library in the English-speaking world, and a collage of architectures — it’s been a house, a courtroom, a school, a college, and at one point served as home to Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist, scientist, philosopher and spy. We left our coats in the room where he accidentally summoned the devil.
Nothing Stays Secret For Long gathered several poets, writers, singers and performers to respond to a key item in the library’s collection — the diaries of Dora Turnor, an invalid Victorian teenager. She was very poorly but also very rich, and the survival of her diaries offers an astonishing window into her life and times. We were asked to create a ten-minute piece from the transcripts of her journals, some of which can be read online.
Reading someone else’s diaries is an extraordinarily transporting thing. Taking that private experience for your own is a betrayal, a theft and an intimacy, all at once — even 150 years later. I liked Dora. For all of her wealth and occasionally snobbery, there was a humour and a hope that carried her personality across the decades. When she was ill — and she was often ill — her loneliness, frustration and misery boiled on the page. There were also plenty of wry moments that are still written in teenage diaries all over the world — ‘Will I die alone?’ — ‘Does everybody hate me?’
With such rich source material, I was absolutely flooded with fleeting ideas — writing boxes and grumpy golems — but none of them seemed to stick. I wrote a story about a haunting in the waters of a Victorian spa, but it wasn’t working either. With less than a week to go, I started anew, and wrote a story called A Choice & A Choosing — although, in the end, it almost wrote itself, as many of my favourite stories seem to. When in doubt, go weird. I’ll pop it up at some point.
The event was a wonder. I love the sense of community at spoken word nights, and Nothing Stays Secret was packed with it — 80 of us sharing the vaulted ceilings of Chetham’s, swords and lances on the wall. I loved how each of the performers had taken something slightly different from Dora. In combination, the patchwork of our words brought something of her into the room as well (though I imagine she’d have been rolling her eyes at it all). In particular, I want to acknowledge the startling, mesmerising poetry of Nasima Begum and Amina Atiq, the bittersweet cabaret “or whatever this is” of Mitch Robinson, the comedy of Sophie Galpin and the music of Yemi Bolatiwa. It was an absolute honour to share the stage with such talent.
I’ve been needing something like this to remind me who I am. Mon and I are scrabbling for every scrap of time we can find, engrossed in a project that’s taken over much of our lives — I’ll share news of that later — and it’s all too easy, when I’m not writing, to wonder whether I’ll get back to work at all. I’m thankful for nights like this to remind me where I’m going — a map to my compass.
First Draft are doing five more of these events in Manchester and Newcastle, so try to support them if you can. They’re doing good work.
Let’s play out with this woozy delight from audio whizz Rickerly, produced in response to Dora’s diaries. Rickerly is also the magpie maestro who creates the Hillside Curation podcast with genius David Hartley, and you should definitely check that out too.
Help me, internet.
When I was a kid, I remember reading a short story, possibly from a book of short stories, that finished with the Old Man Of The Sea swimming away in a furious huff. He was seething because his plans had been somehow thwarted. I remember the illustration in particular — the old man, long hair swamped by the sea, low down and mean in the waves.
I’m now trying to find this book, but haven’t a clue what it’s called or who wrote it. I’m fairly sure it’s not the Grimms or Andersen, and we’ve also now discounted The Water Babies, Rupert the Bear, Sinbad, and The Old Man Of Lochnagar.
Dora loaned me her good pencils so I could draw an approximation of the old man in his grump. Here he is — any ideas?
Last night, BigCharlie Poet and I headlined Verbalise at the Brewery. We’ve known each other for years, and we’ve been working on these photo challenges for almost as long, so to perform together for the first time was a real buzz. Thanks to all the glories of PowerPoint, we also projected the images onto the screen behind us, and hopefully the audience enjoyed seeing how and why we interpreted each picture.
It was a particularly good open mic, with stand-out performances from Harriet Fraser, John Scott, LD Brown, and three poets I hadn’t seen before — Clare Proctor, Louise Barklam and Roland Crowland (sorry if I’ve spelled your names wrong). I had an excellent time, and sold some more copies of Dare. They’re starting to run out, now, so get amongst it if you want one.
BigCharlie and I have now done the photo challenge for Cathedrals, Graffiti, Libraries, Foxes, Scarecrows, Suitcases, New York, Europe and Keys. These last four were the new pieces, and they seemed to go down okay. My stories were called Drums, Murmurations, The Slips And The Cracks, and The Four Things That Happen After You Die. These were the photos — can you guess which image goes with which title?
I’m not going to include the stories here, because they’re bound for another flash collection, probably late next year — that will be called Soup Stone. More on this another time. I might submit them for publication, too, when I work out who’s printing flash fiction these days. That scene changes so fast, and when I’ve been away from it, I struggle to catch up. Suggestions very welcome. (Please…)
The photo challenge always freshens me up as a writer. It breaks me out of whatever ruts I’ve worked myself into, and helps me to look at something new, to consider a story with fresh eyes. As ever, I’ve enjoyed working on these pieces, but I’m also glad they’re done. My head has been stuck in the novel for months, and dislodging myself for this has been a great wee holiday — now I’m ready to get back and get it finished. As if on cue, I woke early this morning, after a fortnight of sleeping in.
I’ve now written over 100,000 words on the book, which is psychologically well past that tipping point where the inevitability of finishing outweighs any possibility of abandoning it. This is the third (and bloody final) time I’ve tried to tell this story, and writing it has become like working with blueprints on top of blueprints on top of blueprints — the ghosts of the last drafts keep drifting through, whimpering for love. That said, with only another 20,000 or 30,000 words to go, the chance of the story evolving reduces with every new word I write, and there comes a point when it’s simply — done.
But I’m not there yet. I have some big scenes still to write, and it’ll need a lot of streamlining when I’m done. I’m trying to keep my head, but in the time I’ve been working on this novel, I’ve seen friends and peers publish one, two, three books, and it’s hard not to get disheartened sometimes about how S L O W my progress has been. But that’s also when I need to remember that I’m writing the story for the story — for myself — and that thinking of anything else will drive me demented.
So Verbalise with BigCharlie will be my last gig for a while. I’m treating it as a watershed between then and next. I’m so desperate to focus on the novel and get it finished that I’ve been turning events down, lately — and while I’m reluctant to step away from the readings and the communities that I love, I absolutely need to have nothing else to do. No deadlines, no events, no short story submissions — nothing but novel until it’s done. My blogging has been sparse this year, and will probably become even sparser, but I’m so close to finishing, and finishing it properly — and then I’ll return to the world, and wonder at whatever comes next.
And while I’m breaking radio silence, I might as well say that after selling out Marrow earlier this year, I’ve decided to self-publish another flash collection. I don’t know when I’ll be releasing it, though, so don’t get any funny ideas. It’s called Dare, it will contain two poems and twenty-four very short stories, and the cover looks like this:
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:
A couple of months ago, I posted about the Drowned Villages Poetry Competition. There are flooded villages in Cumbria, Gwynned and Lanarkshire; the competition was open to poets within those library regions, working with that theme. The top prize was having your poem soundtracked by Mogwai. I’m very guarded about my poetry, but Mogwai are one of my favourite ever bands and creators of my all-time favourite album, and so I entered the contest.
Rounding up what’s been an astonishing month for me, I’m both delighted and devastated to reveal that I won the regional contest for Cumbria. I’m absolutely elated that the judges enjoyed my work. I’m still brewing, awestruck, on the momentous thought that Liz Lochhead, Ian McMillan and Nicky Wire have read my poem. But I’m also utterly gutted that having come so close, top prize went to the contestant from North Lanarkshire.
I feel bad even writing that. The first place piece, Never Come Home, is a really striking poem, and I’m sincerely happy for winning writer Catherine Baird. I didn’t expect to feature in the competition at all, so taking a place as runner-up is excruciatingly bittersweet. Having Mogwai do something with my work would have been astonishing – I can’t even frame the shape of it in my mind. I can’t articulate the joy I would have felt. Coming so close has turned me upside-down. I’m genuinely thrilled for Catherine Baird, and delighted with my own poem doing so well, but this one hurts. So near, and yet so far.
I know this sounds churlish. I don’t mean it to. But I discovered Come On Die Young in 1999, and Mogwai have soundtracked the last fifteen years of my life. Without exaggeration, Mogwai’s music has accompanied at least half of my entire writing output. I feel ecstatic to have come so close, and I feel heartbroken to have come so close.
For Facebook users, here’s the winning poem by Catherine Baird. My heartfelt congratulations to Catherine, and I can’t wait to hear the finished song. Like all of Mogwai’s work, it will be extraordinary.
When I was writing the poem, I played Hungry Face from Les Revenants on repeat in the background, hour after hour. I’m listening to Come On Die Young as I write this blog post. May Nothing But Happiness Come Through Your Door is playing. It’s the pivotal point in the album. Next comes the calm before the storm of Oh! How The Dogs Stack Up, and then the astonishing, burning, towering trio of Ex-Cowboy, Chocky and Christmas Steps. I will never stop listening to this album – or the others – the otherworldly Rock Action, the ferocious Happy Songs For Happy People, the dreamworld EP+6, the snarling Young Team, the smouldering Les Revenants, the muscular Hardcore Will Never Die, the reflective Hawk Is Howling, the utter majesty of Government Commissions, the blistering uppercut of Rave Tapes.
I will never stop listening to Mogwai, and I will never, ever stop wondering what if…
Here’s my poem.