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

Glitter


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.