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?
There’s a great line from Stephen King — one of many — that says something like,
If you haven’t got the time to read, then you haven’t got the time — or the tools — to write.
For pretty much all of last year, I didn’t read. This was for a combination of reasons. Firstly, I was playing some truly imaginative and transporting video games on my iPad, like Year Walk, Limbo, Botanicula, Thomas Was Alone, The Room 1 & 2 & 3, Around The World In 80 Days. I convinced myself that they were an adequate substitute for books, and they also filled my need to solve puzzles and problems. Besides, I had so little time, and it was easy to get a quick fix of something in a game, where books needed concentration and space. In truth, of course, they were making me lazy. They needed more effort, but less imagination.
Secondly, as I became increasingly bamboozled by my own book, I deliberately and increasingly shunned other books. This time, I told myself that I didn’t need any more ideas floating around my head when I was drowning in too many ideas of my own. I wanted blank space in my brain, not clutter.
Thirdly, I was so damned tired that I was only managing two or three pages a night before my eyes began to drag. A book a month, a book in two months. I was writing faster than I was reading. So what was the point? In short, reading had become a chore, and my pile of books to be read was going up much faster than it was coming down. I was tired and lost and my wits were dull.
Eventually, something changes, because something always must.
Earlier this year, I taught a creative writing night class. There were some cool writers on the course, and we had a lot of fun. Each week I gave homework of short stories or novel extracts — Neil Gaiman, Junot Diaz, Amy Hempel — and we’d begin the following session with close reading, trying to dig a little deeper into how the author made the story sing — and how we could test the same techniques in our own work.
Around the same time, my friend Steve started an online book club between a few old friends. Living in York, Kendal, Oxford, London and Nottingham, we don’t really get to see each other anymore, and he thought it would be a good way to stay in touch. (He was right.)
Between these two happenings, I started reading again, and more importantly, enjoying it. Somehow, I’d forgotten how much I loved to read. Before Dora exploded in our lives, I used to read two or three books a week. And I’m nowhere near that, but in recent months I’ve read The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun, Thief Of Time by Terry Pratchett, Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Slade House and The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, The Book Of Strange New Things and Under The Skin by Michel Faber, The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, After The Quake by Haruki Murakami, Sexing The Cherry by Jeanette Winterson, Stirring The Mud by Barbara Hurd, The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan, 1356 by Bernard Cornwell, The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, an extraordinarily good short story collection by my pal Luke Brown and a bunch of others that I can’t recall. I also reread His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman — nothing makes me feel quite so aware of my own failings as a writer than that extraordinary trilogy of Northern Lights, Subtle Knife and Amber Spyglass.
Now, I know that doesn’t come out at two or three a week, but it’s an awful lot more than none a week. And I’ve come to realise how right Stephen King is. You can’t take a drink without visiting the well. You can’t write stories without reading stories. I’d convinced myself that all those other worlds, other characters, other ideas would jumble and twist with my own, and make things worse — but it hasn’t been like that at all. I’ve come to discover that every time I read a book, it adjusts my compass for what I think writing is supposed to be — and that I can’t write without that compass. I’ve remembered what it is to drown in a story, to be so totally committed to another character that I forget myself, and to come out the other side it, changed.
Listen to the King — reading is the tools for writing. I don’t know how I’d forgotten it, but I’ve remembered now. My compass is beginning to right itself, and the needle ticks, ticks towards the track. The direction is still murky, but it’s surer underfoot, and I’ve Lyra Belacqua ahead of me, tutting.
What have you been reading, people? What have I missed? What are your tools?
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 haven’t really had a chance to share this yet, but I’m thrilled to report that I’ll be at Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, appearing alongside the intimidatingly talented Chigozie Obioma to discuss his debut novel, The Fishermen, and mine, The Visitors. This is really exciting, and very humbling. I’m delighted to be contributing to such an amazing event.
I have also just discovered that all debut novelists are entered into the First Book Award. I’m up against some outstanding competition, so if you’ve read and enjoyed The Visitors, I’d be hugely grateful for your vote: mosey over here for the full longlist.
After mugging my way through a wonderful intimate spoken word night at Sprint Mill last year as part of the C-Art Open Studios, I’m delighted to say that I’ve thrown myself into running a follow-up event.
Solstice Songs will be held on midsummer’s eve in the amazing 18th century Sprint Mill near Burneside in Cumbria. I’ve gathered the estimable talents of some wonderful writers throughout the northwest and Scotland to read at the event, and you – yes, you – should come along and hear them do their thing.
I’m honoured to share the line-up. In alphabetical order, we have:
Edward Acland The owner and curator of Sprint Mill shares his startling, disarming and heartfelt reflections on people and place, distilling a lifetime of collection into magical focus.
BigCharlie Poet As well as hosting and running Lancaster’s Working Title night, BigCharlie Poet is a ferocious slam poet with word-perfect visions of life and love, all skewed nicely through a balance of wit and wonder.
Alan Bissett Fresh from having a street in his native Falkirk named after him, we’re thrilled to be joined by the multi-award-winning playwright, actor, poet, novelist, essayist and consummate performer Alan Bissett. I don’t know what he’s going to read, but whatever it is will be good.
Luke Brown Writing without exaggeration, I consider Luke to be a true heir to Roald Dahl. He is a superb storyteller of the macabre, bringing a host of weird and wonderful alter-egos to life in his darkly humorous tales.
Joy France The inexhaustible slam-winning poetry powerhouse that is Joy France joins us from Wigan with her witty and reflective take on life – life in the world, in the north, in the past, in the present, and in the weirder corners of her own wonderful mind. Here she is performing one of her signature poems, Hey Mrs B:
Harriet Fraser A multi-media poet of landscape, dreamscape, place and unusual word projects of all sorts: this summer she is poet in residence for a hay meadow, and one of Harriet’s most recent canvases was a herd of sheep.
Jonathan Humble Following the launch of his excellent debut collection My Camel’s Name Is Brian, the Tripe Poet Laureate™ brings his brilliant, laugh aloud ballads of tea cosies, leeks and rhubarb.
Kirstin Innes The multi-award-winning journalist, essayist, playwright and novelist brings her astonishing new novel Fishnet to Sprint Mill. Meticulously researched and brilliantly observed, Fishnet ducks sensationalism to explore the sex industry through the prism of a missing person.
Ann Wilson Fresh from the launch of her second collection Straight Bananas, the former South Lakes Poet Laureate and driving force behind spoken word night Verbalise delivers her unique blend of stand-up, song and rhyme.
…and me. Just me. (Sorry.)
All this wondrous wordsmithery comes for FREE, so bring a bottle, bring yourself, and shake your rump. Let’s get pagan.
Solstice Songs | Sunday 21st June | 7pm | Sprint Mill near Burneside, Cumbria
Here’s a nice interview I did with Sue Allan of Cumbria Life last year. It was very weird going out for my first proper photo shoot, standing on the shores of Wet Sleddale, in sight of the farm where Withnail & I was shot, clouds luminous with light, icy winds sweeping across Shap Fell. I even shaved and everything.