With a first draft of The Hollows finished and sent away, I’ve emerged, blinking, into the light, with pasty skin and mild RSI. I’m still hungry to keep working while I have these little windows, though, so I’ve tweaked and typeset all the stories in Dare, and sent it to the printers; I’ve started thinking about some new flash stories for my guest spot at Verbalise in October; and I’m catching up on some long overdue blog posts, including this one.
When I wrote The Visitors, I had a tight-knit soundtrack to shape my work. This consisted mostly of:
Come On Die Young by Mogwai
Mar of Aran by British Sea Power
Raise Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven by Godspeed You Black Emperor
Just Beyond The River by James Yorkston
…and everything by Bat For Lashes.
In combination, they did what I needed them to do; for me, music for writing needs to hit several things at once. It must be engaging, immersive, transporting; but also neutral enough to let me tune out and play it in the background, and not get too involved. For this reason, I tend to go for records with minimal vocals; or, at least, records (like the James Yorkston and the Bat For Lashes) where the vocal is tonally consistent, drifting, utterly woven into the fabric of the music.
On starting The Hollows, I developed a new soundtrack. Some of the same culprits are there, but with different albums; listening to my Visitors soundtrack takes me back into The Visitors, and I needed to be somewhere very new for The Hollows, which is a more fantastical, more magical place. And I say ‘evolved’ quite deliberately; albums have dropped in and dropped out as the manuscript developed. Ys by Joanna Newsom was a big part of last year’s stumbles, but she gradually shifted down the running order as the story unfolded. Instead, Jonathan Eng’s wonderful soundtrack from the computer game Sailor’s Dream moved in to take her place (thanks in no small part to the wonderful vocals by Stephanie Hladowski). Another video game soundtrack has proven to be extremely good music for writing: Thomas Was Alone is an utterly beautiful game in and of itself, but the score by David Housden stands alone.
The most recent addition is I Want To See Pulaski At Night by violinist Andrew Bird. My friend and colleague Dom introduced me to this record while we were in the depths of a marking slump, and it parachuted into my writing soundtrack next day. Mostly instrumental, Pulaski takes its title from this glorious centrepiece:
The running order is important (to me, anyway – it’s totally cool if you don’t care). Andrew Bird is first on the list, as I Want To See Pulaski At Night is both sleepy and sparky, making for exactly the right way to start the day. Then comes Thomas Was Alone, which takes me somewhere deeper, calmer, more concentrated:
From Thomas Was Alone, British Sea Power take it up a notch with the drive, shift and transporting tumble of their film soundtrack From The Sea To The Land Beyond. Thanks to pal Kirstin Innes, Mon and I were lucky enough to witness them play this live at the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year. Their performance was magisterial. I’ve now seen the film half-a-dozen times, and it’s a masterpiece: a social history of Britain told through our relationship with the sea, drawing together a century of archive footage from the British Film Institute. Watch it. Watch it again. Tell everyone.
Next up is Sailor’s Dream. By this time I’m ready for something less immersive, and the vocal interludes of the days of the week (this makes sense if you’ve played the game) saturate my head with little magics, thresholds, otherworlds.
Next comes Balmorhea. I discovered this post-rock band last year when friend Jon kindly gave me his old iPod, and I became addicted in days to their sweeping arrangements. There’s a timelessness to Balmorhea’s music that I find completely immersive. They sustain this over several records with different measures of minimalism, but it all works for me. After Sailor’s Dream I go into their album Constellations, but from this point they recur every other album, working up to Live At Sint-Elisabethkirk, which is perhaps the best £5 you’ll spend today, because this:
After Constellations, Mogwai strike back with Rock Action, the follow up to Come On Die Young. Here’s why it’s one of my favourites of their many awesome albums:
Then comes phase two of the mighty British Sea Power, with their short and astonishingly sweet soundtrack Happiness, then Balmorhea again, then Rachels and Remember Remember. I seldom make it all the way to the end, though. After Happiness, I tend to start the playlist over. It’s almost nine hours long, which is most of a working day for me.
Every time I think I won’t find any more music that’s right for me, something always comes along. Dom introduced me to Andrew Bird, and Jon to Balmorhea. I do wonder, looking ahead to next novels, how the soundtrack will change.
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:
Natalie Bowers, editor of the excellent picture/fiction mash up site 1000 Words, has written a wonderful review of Marrow. It’s always fantastic to have a reader completely get my stories, so I’m really pleased to share her thoughts on the collection.
After reading the book, Natalie asked me to write a little about why I decided to self-publish Marrow. If you’re interested in traditional vs. self-publishing, then lay on, Macduffs, and discover why I chose to take that path.
This is a picture of my daughter and I arguing on a path.
On Saturday, I had the guest headline spot at Verbalise at the Brewery. It was an amazing night, for all the squirming terror I went through in the days before the show. It’s strange to get so nervous before a reading. As a teacher, I address large groups all the time, but everything changes when it’s my writing under the microscope. Usually, it goes like this: in the hours before a reading, I feel a pain low in my stomach, and then my throat grows tighter as those hours dissolve into minutes. When I walk onstage and begin to read, my heart pounds in my larynx. At last, around halfway through the reading, or halfway through my second piece – whichever comes first – something changes. In a matter of heartbeats, the nerves are gone, I calm down and enjoy the stories, enjoy the sound of my own words. My grail is to achieve that sense of enjoyment at the start of the reading, rather than the mid-point, and Verbalise was a big step in the right direction.
Before I talk about my reading, I want to sing the praises of the open mic. It was an absolute cracker, kicked off by flash fiction guru Brindley Hallam Dennis. I’m a huge fan of Brindley’s stories, and it was a thrill to see him performing again. He started with another of Kowalski’s Assertions, then read a gem of flash fiction called The Right Words, which looks like this:
After Brindley, I was doubly delighted that my photo challenge sparring partner BigCharlie Poet came north for his first Verbalise open mic. He read two of the poems from our challenge series – Cathedrals and Graffiti – which were even better in person than on the page. He was so good that compere Ann asked him back to headline later in the year. Another future headliner was at the open mic, too, in the glorious form of Joy France, and it was a wonder to witness her at work – she performed a wicked little flash piece and this scintillating poem:
The open mic also featured ace local poet, journalist and painter Helen Perkins, who read her poem for the Drowned Villages competition. South Lakes poet laureate Kate Davies performed a sinister piece about a caul-shrouded something that nipped at children and crunched their bones, and Luke Brown read a twisted tale of flooding and infanticide. Friend Harriet Fraser read three poems, including the exceptional ‘Michael’ from her project Landkeepers. This brooding piece sees the departure of an experienced farmhand from a remote Cumbrian valley, much to the regret of the farmer who worked with him – set against the Sisyphean job of plugging holes in drystone walls. It’s a beautifully bittersweet metaphor.
Finally and brilliantly, one of my best and oldest friends, Steven Malcolm, had come up for the weekend as well. Steve is a wonderful writer, but had never performed his work before. Verbalise marked his first ever open mic. He read two short stories – the first about a bystander struggling to process the accident they’d witnessed, and the second about a man who married a Volvo. They were dreamy, dark and very good.
After the interval – oh, lawks – it was my turn. I gabbled my way through a hapless introduction, and then I started reading stories from Marrow. For all the fear I’d endured throughout the day, I found my groove fairly quickly. I started with The Black And The White Of It, then read Hutch, then new piece The Jubilee Best Cake Competition. I’d originally planned on performing this last piece with an accent, in the style of a well-to-do Yorkshire dear (more like Alan Bennett, probably) but I bottled it at the last moment. I’ll try and summon courage at my next open mic. Maybe. After those three stories, I made a rare switch to poetry. I read Was I Scottish, which is about the dissonance I feel at being Scottish/English/British/whitever, and then my own entry for the Drowned Villages competition, which is called Coffin Routes. Both seemed to go over quite well. (Curiously, I found the poems much easier to perform than the stories. I’m still not sure why, given how fundamentally unsure I feel about my poetry. I’ll brew on this a wee while longer.)
After the poems, I went back to Marrow. I performed the title story, which I’m pleased to say elicited palpable disgust in the audience, followed it with Circle Stone, then finished with the elegiac After The Rain. I garbled something about my book and my blog, and then I fled the stage. I sat in my chair and stared at the floor for many minutes. I struggled to swallow.
Here’s the thing. I think it was a good set. But I have no idea of the passage of time for the duration of the performance. I have no idea if I was up there for three minutes or thirty. Quite sincerely, I cannot comprehend how much time went by. My brain eliminated the tick of the clock, sacrificed to a balance of performance, finding the microphone, reading the book, reading the audience, judging myself, monitoring my breath and not falling over. I needed to recover.
Afterwards, still calming down, I nattered with friends old and new. I discovered that the event had sold out, which is most excellent – the Warehouse was over capacity even before a few more folk snuck in to stand. I also sold eight more books. A quarter of my hundred copies have gone in the first week. (If you’d like one, wander this way.) Even better, compere Ann The Poet has asked me back to headline again in 2015.
Despite the terrors of anticipation, I had a good time. The expansive open mic and the positive response to my own work left me feeling great about stories and writing. I still wish there were more events and open mics in South Lakes – I look to the scenes in Glasgow and Manchester with envious eyes – but what we have in Dreamfired and Verbalise is pretty special.
Here’s a picture of me juggling a pint, a poem and my copy of Marrow.
Here it is, folks. After all those late nights of InDesign tutorials, Photoshop forums, calculations, colour swatches, dimensions, budgets, cursing, blurry vision, uploads, downloads and even a little bit of writing, Marrow has arrived. I’m delighted with the print quality – thanks to Inky Little Fingers for a really good little book. Recycled paper, yo.
Marrow is a collection of 28 flash stories ranging from 13 to 1,000 words. Around half have been appeared elsewhere – in Gutter, Fractured West, Valve, Flashtag, Paragraph Planet, Causeway, Smoke, Dark Mountain and others. The stories feature fighter pilots and guinea pigs, wishing trees and wet weekends, untuned pianos, tattoos, voodoo, daydreams, ink and avocados. There are private eyes and talking poppets – lions and lemons – selkies and tsunamis.
I’ve done this so I have something to share at readings – something to hold in the hand. It feels slightly surreal, but good. If you’d like a copy, get in touch. It costs £5, plus another £1 for UK posting. If you’d like to buy one, mosey over here.
Thanks to everyone who helped me out with advice, proofing and redrafting. Couldn’t have done without you.
Okay. Steady breathing. I’ve finally sent Marrow off to the printers. It’s a nerve-wracking process, especially for a first time. I’ve gone with Inky Little Fingers on the recommendation of Flashtagger Fat Roland. If it goes wrong, I’m blaming him.
Early in the process, Inky Little Fingers estimate the thickness of the spine from the number of pages involved. That measurement (in this case, 5.6mm) needs to be factored into the dimensions of the custom document created for the cover. Then, when you upload the cover art and contents, they generate an online proof for a final check. I was extremely relieved to see that my measurements were right, as I was certain I’d get everything horribly wrong and have to start again. Then I paid for 100 copies (which didn’t hurt too much, because I’ve been saving for this for a year) and submitted the final order. So there it is. Out of my hands, and into the production queue. The next step is a box of books turning up in a week or so, just in time for my spoken word support slot at February’s Dreamfired. I’m looking forward to reading from the book, rather than from the tatty shreds of paper I keep in my back pockets, all crisscrossed with notes and late amendments. I’m also terrified that I’ve missed something really obvious and the cover will be printed upside-down. Something abominable is bound to happen.
A couple of people have asked if I’m going to have a launch for Marrow, but I don’t think so. It was never supposed to be a big deal – just something to sell at readings, and something to teach me new skills. I’ve learned big chunks of Photoshop and InDesign over the last few weeks. And it’s been fun to oversee the entire process, too. I’m already drafting the next collection, which I think I’m going to call Real Life, after a story about checkers.
Here’s the final version of the Marrow artwork, with front and back covers.
Here’s another draft of the cover with massive changes to background, font, spacing, colour and contrast. I’ve decided that all this design stuff is HARD.