Just a quick note to say that I’ve added an events page to the top of the blog. Hoping to keep this ticking over – I’ve really enjoyed spending so much time this year with Flashtag, Bad Language, Verbalise, Dreamfired and book groups. Good peoples, one and all.
On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.
I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small – and all the mice running away.
He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)
After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.
Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.
Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.
The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.
Joy France read at the open mic before my Verbalise guest spot, and she was amazing. I saw Ros Ballinger read some blinding poems at Lancaster Spotlight last year, and she was also very good. I know Mark Mace Smith and Trisha Starbrook by reputation – Trisha won last year’s slam, having never read in public before, and Mark is a noted slammer and favourite of my friend Ann The Poet. Some online stalking reveals the others to be an intimidatingly talented bunch of comedians, poets, theatre performers and practiced improvisers. Oof. We’ll be paired at random in the first round, reading a 150-word story head to head. The audience votes for their favourite to proceed into the second round. Round two cuts six readers with 200-word stories down to three, and the final trio read a 250-word story for top spot.
In the last week, I’ve written five or six new flash pieces, though none of them are quite right for the slam; they’ve either been too short or too long. I’m struggling especially with the first story and that 150 limit; I have a multitude of pieces of that length, but most are either abstract or downers, and I want something both bawdier and more focused for the slam. While I’m really happy with the story I’d read if I made it to the final three, getting through rounds one and two is becoming a real worry; it’s pretty much all I’m thinking about. I’m sure the right ideas will come, but I wish they would hurry up.
If you want to see me drop like a domino – and who wouldn’t? – the slam costs a measly £1 and should be a blast, so no excuses. Here’s the skinny:
I’m a bit behind on my blogging, so here’s a quick round-up while I have the time to do some rounding.
I’ve barely written a word for two months. A combination of college, gardening and film jobs has demanded every scrap of time, and my writing has taken a unfortunate but unavoidable back seat. That makes me ache. I’m not right when I’m not writing. I’ve only recently become aware of how writing relaxes me; and that not writing is one of the things that stresses me out. I’ve also noticed that ideas are more of a struggle when I’m not writing with any regularity. When I’m working often, I’m flooded with plots and characters and lines of dialogue. Not having that internal chatter makes me anxious, and I haven’t been feeling quite myself; this has been exacerbated by pushing myself to come up with new work for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, which is only a fortnight away. I think I have the three pieces now, but they’ve been hard work, and I’m not yet convinced they are the right stories.
I travelled to London last week to meet my agent Sue, editor Jane and publicist Margot. The amazing Quercus building feels like something from a James Bond film; everything is glass and aluminium, with automated barriers and security cards. It’s a far cry from my little house, where starlings and sparrows have started nesting in the slate walls. We popped down from the Quercus office to a quiet bar called Hardy’s, and we drank wine and talked about publicity for The Visitors. There’s an idea to offer short stories or flashes as bonus material with the book – and I might make a couple of short films about how it came to life, too. We also talked about some of my future ideas, including current work-in-progress The Hollows. It was a great meeting, and I left it feeling really enthused. With all the chaos of my day jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the novel. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for five years, and it’s actually happening. Sometimes I forget.
What else? I’ve written a post for Thievery, Kirsty Logan’s fascinating series of story inspirations. I decided to confess about a novel I started in 2009, but abandoned at 50,000 words (though I recovered the central strand for my novella Year Of The Whale – I really, really need to finish that). My Thievery post will be up in May – I’ll post links when it’s live.
Although I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, I have been thinking a lot. The Hollows is never far from me, and though I haven’t even opened the document for three weeks, in my head, I’m streamlining it all the time. I’ve learned so much from writing and especially redrafting The Visitors, and I’m determined to make The Hollows a better first draft. In the background to my day jobs, characters have been changing everything from hair colour to their reasons to be alive. The plot is essentially unchanged, but how the characters arrive there is evolving all the time. I found this with The Visitors, too; even as I developed the threads of the manuscript, I returned constantly to the early chapters, forming and reforming them. This is like the twist of a rope; the threads need to be right at the start, or the rope tangles and disintegrates. I’m filming throughout this coming weekend, but next week I should be able to sit down and start making the changes.
Two nights ago, after a long and stressful day at work, I turned out the lights and tried to sleep. From nowhere, my head was thronged with ideas. I had to get up and write them down; first of all, three flash fiction ideas at once, about taxidermy, trains and cheating, and then, a few minutes later, the setting, start and main character of another novel – which looks like being number five in my current queue of books to write, after The Hollows, We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven, Vanishings and Black Horse. I’m already really excited about it. Which is just as well, really; if I wasn’t excited about the story, I couldn’t expect anyone else to be. You need to be excited about a story to spend so long with it – both the hundreds of hours staring at a computer screen, writing and writing and thinking that I should get up and make a tea, just another minute, one more minute until I make a cup of tea, as soon as I finish the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter – and the time in the world of the book, observing and conversing with the characters, exploring the map of their world, listening to the crunch of dry grass beneath their feet – and back to the computer to sculpt it all together, working until you realise it’s cold and you forgot to find that other jumper two hours ago, and is there any wine left?
The other piece of big news is that in May, Iain Maloney and I will be co-headliners for legendary Manchester spoken word night Bad Language. I’ve known Iain since 1998. We’ve been bouncing work off each other for the last five or six years, and his excellent debut novel First Time Solo is out through Freight at the same time as The Visitors. Iain lives in Japan, but he’s in the UK for a whistle-stop book tour. I’m delighted to be sharing a stage with him for the first time.
Finally, another writer friend, the outrageously imaginative Ali Shaw, has sent me a draft of his next novel. I devoured the first chapter. It’s going to be really, really, really good. I’m currently taking a sabbatical from A Song Of Ice And Fire, and almost at the end of Third Reich by Roberto Bolano (which is also extremely good), and I can’t wait to read the rest of Ali’s book.
Here’s a picture of a scarecrow stick man:
I’ve just realised that my blog is one year old. I had no idea when I wrote my first post, about Quitting Writing, that I’d be blogging so often. It’s become the space in which I organise my thoughts, and rationalise this topsy-turvy journey to publication. A year ago, I had an agent and the first draft of a manuscript called Riptide Heart. A year later, the novel is called The Visitors. I’ve completed multiple marathon redrafts, worked myself into exhaustion on insane strings of 11pm finishes, and spent hundreds of hours thinking about the book. Looking back, finishing the first draft feels like one of the smallest steps on a road that doesn’t truly finish – once the book is out there, it will continue the journey without me.
The proof copies should be going out any day, which is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Because my day job remains so frantic, my experience of publishing tends to occur to milestones. I’ve been incredibly lucky, but I sometimes wish I had more space to enjoy it. It feels like I lurch from one deadline to the next, and seldom savour the completion of a job. The blog has therefore become essential to me personally: in sharing and formalising the milestones, I’ve created my own map of the voyage. Thanks to everyone who’s visited.
I’ve really enjoyed sharing some of the sights along the way. Of all the things I’ve posted to the blog, I think this is the one that’s stuck with me the most. Enjoy:
Like some crazy storytelling masochist, I’ve signed myself up for the Flashtag short short story slam. This is another level in terms of live performance – take a look at the highlights reel from last year to see a far more explosive, intimate and vociferous gig that I’m used to:
I think I’m going to write some new stories for this – I have something involving a hat in mind for the third round, if I’m lucky enough to make it that far, but I’m not really happy with any of my other shorter pieces. I have work that is elegiac or lyrical, but none of them feel quite right for the slam. That gives me five weeks to write two new pieces with teeth. When I get knocked out, I want to go down swinging.
I’m delighted to share the news that Brindley Hallam Dennis has decided to organise a festival of writing in locations throughout Carlisle this September. Rather than traditional book festivals, which sustain the celebrity of authorship, Borderlines will celebrate writing itself, using workshops, readings and guerrilla flash fiction to connect reading and writing.
Given the location, this is especially exciting for Cumbrian, Scottish, Northumberland and Lancashire writers. I’d love to take part – I like the idea of celebrating writing for writing’s sake.