Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Not Sinking

When I think about my novels I sometimes imagine them sinking slowly, or not so slowly, into a great dark lake, and disappearing with barely a ripple. It’s a slightly depressing image, but writing can be a slightly depressing occupation. Lately though, I’ve been visiting schools and libraries around the North on a scheme called Read Regional. This scheme has been like a life-ring hurled into the lake or, more dramatically, it’s been air-sea rescue, swooping down in a helicopter and lifting the damp novel dripping out of the water. Basically, it’s exactly what you want to happen to your book.

On my Read Regional journeys I’ve been to Todmorden – down the road, and South Shields - a hundred and thirty miles away. I’ve been up early and home late and I’ve travelled to bits of the North I’ve never visited before. I clicked on one link for a place I was visiting that said The 10 Best Things To Do in X. There were only six things in the list that followed. But I loved going to that place, as I’ve enjoyed all my visits, because it’s so satisfying and interesting to meet the fabulous, dedicated library staff who arrange these events and to discuss reading and writing in general, and my books in particular, with groups all over the North.

I’ve been promoting The Impossible and its sequel, The Impossible: On The Run, novels for maybe 11 to 14 year olds, so I’ve mostly been with Year Sevens, Eights and Nines. I’ve met stimulating, challenging, rewarding groups of young people. It’s a generalisation, but I’ve found that Year Sevens tend to be open and chatty and receptive, Year Eights the same, but slightly less so, Year Nines a bit less forthcoming, a bit suspicious, but still entirely capable of being won round and engaged. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy standing in front of these groups and telling them a bit about myself, talking about how stories work, doing a couple of readings, getting the group involved in some quick and fun writing tasks. 

It’s a good feeling to read a bit of the book, end on a cliff-hanger, and hear a frustrated gasp when I stop, because the audience wants to know what happens next. It’s very satisfying to stand back and listen to the excited chatter when they show each other the bits of writing I’ve asked them to do. It’s lovely to see hands shoot up when I ask if anyone wants to read out what they’ve just written.

I’ve probably most enjoyed the questions and discussions at the end of my talks. How do you give a character flaws but still make them likeable? How do you turn an idea into a story? Where do you start? Questions like these get me thinking about my writing process, get me listening as well as talking. And thrumming away beneath every visit is the desire to encourage reading, to discuss favourite books, favourite characters, favourite reading experiences. 

Read Regional is a New Writing North scheme, so thanks to them, and thanks also to all the librarians and teachers who have made this happen.

Friday, January 04, 2019


I tweeted: ‘Cultural highlights of 2019 so far: Milkman and Into the SpiderverseMilkman is excellent in many and various ways, but Spiderverse has more story. And more Spidermen.’

Glib, clearly. Milkman is the Booker Prize winning novel by Anna Burns, Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is an animated movie about  … well, it gets complicated. But the thing is, Milkman really is excellent, I’m a hundred pages in and loving it, but it also really is deficient in terms of narrative. It’s guilty of that accusation levelled at literary novels in general and Booker contenders in particular – it doesn’t seem to place much value on story. It's Swingtime (see below) all over again.

It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like a philistine, and bringing Spiderman into the discussion probably isn’t helping. The voice of Milkman is energetic, endearing, funny and discursive; it seamlessly conveys character and action, and it dives deep into gender and politics in an apparently effortless way. The novel is a machine for creating empathy – I read it and get a sense of what it was like for a young woman growing up in Belfast in the seventies. The stifling conventions and restrictions of the time are brilliantly illuminated.

And there is a sense of danger lurking. There’s a powerful, threatening guy who won’t go away, and I want to know how that situation will be resolved. But. But so far that sense of danger is just lightly sketched in. A hundred pages, and I’ve admired every one of them, I’ve admired almost every sentence, but when you see dense blocks of type, two pages with a single paragraph break, you feel a sense of bracing yourself as you wade in. I’ve never felt much urge to know what happens next. It’s an easy book to put down.

Whereas Spiderman… it revels in narrative, it takes time to develop character, it’s silly and funny, properly surprising and a little bit moving, and it races along, only stumbling really in the last fifteen minutes when people mostly just hit each other.

It’s a foolish comparison, but these two genuinely are my cultural highlights in the first week of 2019. I’m not saying Milkman would be improved by the addition of Spidermen, I just wish it cared a bit more about story.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Novels I Don't Like

The kind of novel that circles around one character, who’s a bit weird, whose lifestyle is strange. They find it difficult to talk to people, they have odd habits, they’re tortured by something – Some Terrible Thing – in their past. The entire novel is asking: What was that thing?

The character is either lying about it, or not too sure themselves, because trauma, so the book slowly and gradually – very slowly and very gradually - discloses the Truth about that character: the terrible Thing that happened to them, the terrible Thing they did, what their damage is, their secret. The problem with this is that it narrows story and character down to a puzzle, and reading the book starts to feel like nothing more interesting, nothing richer or more surprising, than solving the puzzle. The author, meanwhile, is much too present, getting in the way, looming over the whole enterprise, smugly slipping in one would-be tantalising clue after another, every fifty pages or so. The author is like a weird waiter in a restaurant who brings you your meal one morsel at a time. It gets frustrating. I can usually guess what the secret is, but even if I can’t, I tend to lose interest. If I want a puzzle, I’ll do a jigsaw, or a sudoku.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Star Wars

The only thing I remember from the first trailer was this little robot that looked like a dustbin falling over with a clang. The whole cinema laughed. We thought it was ridiculous. I’ve just seen it again online and there’s a horrible voice-over too.

So I sat down to watch it in 1977, 13 or 14 years old, without high hopes. And then it performed that trick that cinema sometimes does. Star Wars reached out of the screen, wrapped a hand round me, and pulled me into its world. I was immersed, taken through time unaware, with a big, goofy smile on my face. I already liked science fiction – Arthur C Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Philip K Dick – but this was something else. It was science fiction and romance and a Western and cliff-hangers and jokes and pure escapism and shiny chrome and lasers and mammoth spaceships. To a boy sitting in the shabby Lewisham Odeon, in the seventies, the beige decade, it was joy. It was pure magic.

The thrum of fantasy, adventure and possibility was always there after that. The buzz of a light sabre, the breathing of Darth Vader, that sense of the endless well of space existing around us. It has been with me, always.

So I saw Empire with my mate Phil in London one evening a couple of years later. Then a mini marathon of all three films when they premiered ROTJ. Then the prequels, which had their moments, and now we live with constant Star Wars and the magic’s a bit diluted.

But it’s still there. The music puts that goofy smile back on my face. That sense of fantastic stories within reach, of possibility, existing under the skin of ordinary life. Still there.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Halfway Through Swing Time

That’s Swing Time the novel by Zadie Smith, not the film from the 30’s. I’m halfway through and admiring it – the detail and texture, the character work, the sense that these feel like lives that were actually lived - but I’m also getting a little bit bored. Why am I getting bored? It’s partly the style. It’s the kind of style people call austere and lucid, but you might also call plain or ordinary. The main problem though, so far at least, is that Smith forgets, or can’t quite be bothered, to include a decent story. There’s a bit of a hook in the opening pages, the main character’s been disgraced somehow and we’re going to find out how, eventually, but it’s not really enough to keep me engaged and interested. I mean I am interested, sort of, but not very. (I used to review books for the TLS, The Spectator and the radio – you wouldn’t know it from that last sentence.)

It’s all a bit Elena Ferrante of course, but I found My Brilliant Friend a lot more involving. More intimate somehow, perhaps even more felt. The main character in Swing Time drifts along observing things and generally feeling a bit sad. I had a much more vivid sense of struggle and ambition, of joy being grabbed when it’s available, from MBF.

Anyway, only halfway through. I’ll certainly finish it. But I may pause to read a short story or two by Tom Franklin (from the collection Poachers), just for a refreshing shot of narrative punch and stylistic flourish.

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.