Saturday, November 18, 2017

Jack Reacher

There’s something about a Reacher novel. That guy walking across America, hitching, catching busses, drinking coffee in diners, never washing his clothes, just buying new ones, encountering small towns run by bad men, incompetent cops and over-confident tough guys. He goes into these mean towns and isn’t himself mean. He uses his fists mostly, and elbows, and his simple moral code, but he’ll pick up a gun if he needs it. He’s definitely not Tom Cruise. He’s a young Clint Eastwood, or maybe Robert Mitchum. Who is he these days? I’m not sure Hollywood actually produces men like that any more. Maybe Matthew McConaughey, if he dialled it down quite a lot.

I read somewhere that Lee Child basically starts a story and follows his nose, and sometimes it shows. The books can meander. I read one where there was barely a fight in it and the story wandered around a bit aimlessly till it ended. Not very satisfying. That gruff, matter-of-fact style can suddenly look a bit exposed and ordinary if nothing much is happening. If the momentum of the plot sags, then it can get boring. But mostly they work. Take a clearly defined character, aim him at trouble, see what happens.

Genre is of course fluid, not clearly defined, but with these books you know exactly where you are. No character development, no big themes, nothing interesting going on with the language. Just Jack Reacher, doing his thing.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Drunkenness of Things

Some writers fill the little biographies in their books with unusual jobs. Something involving funerals and embalming for instance, (you’re wacky, unconventional), macho pursuits sometimes, (you’re rugged and, probably, gruff), or horny-handed, man-of-the-people jobs like docker are good for credibility, (you wish you were James Kelman but, unfortunately, you aren’t.) Tom Franklin, a writer I like a lot, is a good example. His biog says he was a clerk in a hospital morgue, he worked in a grit factory - a grit factory! - and he worked in construction. That's three out of three, right there.

I haven’t had any jobs like those. The nearest I’ve come to funerals is filing hospital records, the nearest to a macho pursuit is a paper-round, and the nearest to being a docker is probably also the paper-round. I’ve done lots of workshops, varieties of teaching, some reviewing, and I’ve done jobs with titles that mean very little to people who aren’t involved with them. Researcher for Shape London. Literature Development Worker. Centre Director for The Arvon Foundation. Royal Literature Fund Fellow.

In my second novel, The Alchemist, my winning and hopeful but partly doomed young hero, Billy, writes a story in school at the age of about 8. That’s what I did. I began it in class and continued it at home, and it finished up, I think, 13 pages long. I felt like I’d written The Lord of the Rings. I drew a cover for it too, which was probably no worse than some of the covers my published work has had. (EG the one where a miserable looking bloke glares at potential book-buyers, miserably.) In The Alchemist, Billy goes on to eat some newsprint, in the hope that this will somehow imbue him with a writer’s qualities. This whole area is difficult and subjective, but I think I can safely say that eating newsprint is not how to become a novelist.

Obviously, you have to eat a bit of a novel. Maybe at some time in the past I ate a bit of the Radio Times and a bit of a screenplay too. Probably not. But I like the jobs I’ve done. It reminds me of a line from Snow by Louis MacNeice: ‘The drunkenness of things being various.’ To me, that suggests accidentally stumbling from one thing to the next, always surprised, and usually pleased. And that's fine, because I could cope in a morgue, but I don't think I'd do well in a grit factory.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


The trip to Sweden (see below) arrived out of the blue, but then so do a lot of things these days. I’m writing an essay on forgetting for Radio 3. (I might have used that old post called Going, Going, but I forgot that I’d written it of course.) I’m also pitching to be involved in a new podcast, and I’m trying to make people aware of the new book with readings, interviews, a feature in the local paper, library and school visits, festivals. I’m editing the sequel and writing a new one. Plus working a day a week at York St John and preparing a couple of workshops.

It’s all a bit different from the days of Emmerdale. Things didn’t arrive out of the blue so much in those days. Other projects, projects I’m very proud of like Tender and The Last Word, got fitted in around the edges. There was a big, dominant presence, and not much room for anything else. Remove the whale, and a shoal of fish appears. They’re unpredictable, darting around all over the place, sometimes just a few, sometimes lots of them. They’re unreliable too, because often they don’t show up at all. But when they do, look at their interesting colours, their variety. See how they glitter.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Reservoir Thirteen

This took some getting in to. An omniscient narrator several steps back from the action, withholding judgement or emotional involvement, coolly observing a large cast of characters navigating their often mundane, sometimes funny and occasionally tragic lives. The book builds a portrait of a community in fragments, frustratingly slowly at first but gathering power until it becomes a hypnotic accretion of detail. Nice to find a novel that doesn’t make it easy for you, doesn’t seem needy, doesn’t seem to care whether you like it or not. It just gets on with its work, like the weather.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gothenburg Pt 2

On Day 1 I meet the other writers on the project. Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir, Icelandic author and folklorist, Marjun Kjelnaes, novelist, poet and playwright from the tiny Faroe Islands, and Stefan Larsson, who’s local and is a writer of children’s books  and a screenwriter. The two administrators, Hedvig and Kristin, who are also writers, are also there, and we later meet Johanna Pyykko, the filmmaker. That’s seven of us. Guess who’s the only one who can only speak one language? Luckily they’re all lovely and don’t seem to hold it against me.

 Bryndis tells us that construction in Iceland is overseen by an ‘elf-seer’ who will advise whether the elves approve of the building work in question.
 We start our work tomorrow. Elves permitting.
Day 2 there’s discussion over coffee – everything in Sweden is over coffee – of the project. No decisions are reached and to be honest it’s hard to see how this is going to come together coherently. 
Day 3. Herring for breakfast. More talk, more looking at what we’re individually writing, finding correspondences, overlaps, contrasts. Something might be starting to emerge. 
Then more writing, exploring, diving deep, seeing what I can find. Turns out Bryndis is a free diver. She can hold her breath for three minutes. Three minutes! At least she says she can. I think I want proof.
Day 4. A long day writing and recording as the piece comes together. Decisions made over shape, languages, cuts and tweaks. There are four writers here with distinct voices, but those voices are interweaving, approaching from different perspectives and arriving somewhere similar. It’s fun, fascinating and productive.
I’m feeling tired, but lucky to be here. And the day began with pancakes and homemade jam which, as everyone knows, is the perfect way to start any day.
Day 5. Morning off. A wander round Gothenburg, down to the harbour, to the market, which is a bit like Todmorden market only run by Harrod’s Food Hall. Then, in the afternoon, final tweaking on the film, introducing spoken chapter titles, shortening here, adding a line there. And then a farewell dinner.
All this plus readings, workshops, meetings, boat trips and memories that will last. It was a fantastic experience.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017


On my way to Gothenburg to take part in a project on water and harbours. I’m through Duty Free and smelling faintly of an Armani tester. Something medicinal. Sleepwalking a bit because I didn’t sleep well. May end up accidentally in Norway. Or Narnia. And trying – sleepily - to think about water and harbours. I’ve spent half my life in London, half in Hebden Bridge. Inland. Far from the sea. But when I was a kid we went to Dymchurch in Kent, and we went to Cornwall. I remember the excitement of the first glimpse of the sea. And the unique, nostril-tingling smell of it. (Not at all medicinal.) And we went on package holidays to Ibiza and Sicily. And now I’m an adult I go with my family to the North Norfolk coast and Scarborough and Whitby, and Weston-super-Mare, where my wife comes from, and Minorca and Greece. And I like walking over the fragile wooden slats of a long, spindly pier with my back to the land and my face turned to nothing but water. And a river and a canal run through Hebden, and the whole town was underwater on boxing Day 2015, after being devastated by floods.

So I’m on my way to Gothenburg, to take part in a project on water and harbours. Curious. Intrigued. Sleepy.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Emmerdale / Young Adult, continued

You turn on your favourite soap, and you’re in that village or street or square that you know so well. You settle in to spend time with a group of characters that you’ve got to know almost as well as family. As a viewer you want that reassuring, warm sense of familiarity, but you want more than that – you want to be surprised. So the writer’s job on a soap is to find the surprise in the context of the familiar. Hence the murders, affairs, amnesia, stalking, drug addiction and cliff-hangers mentioned in the previous post.

It’s a lesson I’ve learnt from writing soap and brought to writing for teenagers – everything should be familiar, everything should be normal, until suddenly it isn’t. In The Impossible, my YA novel, I’ve created a fictional small town called Gilpin based on Hebden Bridge, (by which I mean it basically is Hebden Bridge.) It’s the kind of town where you meet people you know as you wander down the street, where you chat to the local butcher, you hang out in a favourite cafe, and as kids you all went to the same primary school. It's an ordinary world, until the extraordinary creeps in, spreads, infects the whole town. Something weird is going on  - it’s a bit John Wyndham, it’s a bit Stranger Things, only even stranger - and the whole town’s quarantined. Surprise, within the context of the familiar. Along with character, texture, nuance, humour. And cliff-hangers.