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.

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.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Emmerdale / Young Adult Crossover

I’ve been heavily implicated in multiple murders, endless affairs, a case of amnesia, a bit of stalking, and a period of drug addiction leading to prostitution. More interestingly, I’ve also been implicated in developing some great characters, exploring the particular texture of their lives, finding humour in the most serious circumstances, and finding nuance in what appear to be black and white situations. Because I wrote soap for over a decade. Emmerdale. I didn’t mean to, I sort of stumbled into it and thought I’d do it for a couple of years. For a while, it felt like I was married to novels and I was having an affair with soap. After a couple of years I was thinking of leaving but soap came up close and whispered in my ear: ‘Stick with me and I’ll buy you a house.’ So I stuck with soap for a long time. And I’m glad I did. And not just because of the house - I enjoyed it.

It sort of prepared me to write for teenagers in The Impossible. The character, texture, nuance and humour mentioned above are all good, they're all things that make for a novel that engages you. But I already knew about them. The thing is, soaps also love cliff-hangers. There’s one at the end of every episode, and on ITV there’s a mini one before the ad break too. Cliff-hangers, suspense, jeopardy, they're all things that make for a novel that grips you. I got very familiar with them, on Emmerdale.
I also learnt something else from writing soap. More on that soon ...

Monday, October 02, 2017

Teenage Nightmares

This blog first appeared on Chelle Toy's excellent Tales of Yesterday ...

Why does a 54 year old man want to write for teenagers? Because his inner teenager is alive and well, slouching on a bean-bag behind a closed door, smelling of stale sweat, in a bad mood about something, with his head in a book. He used to read The Famous Five, then The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings, then he moved on to The Wizard of Earthsea, Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mocking Bird and The Catcher in the Rye. That’s a pretty good reading list and I’d recommend it to anyone. It nourished my imagination, played a big part in turning me into whoever (whatever) I am today, but everything’s changed since then. The range of YA fiction has exploded over the last ten years or so, at roughly the rate of a zombie apocalypse.

One of my children is on her way out of teenager-dom, the other is on his way in, so I’ve read a lot of it in recent years, and I’ve discovered a fantastic new world, one which gives me a thrill of excitement and also a sharp slap of recognition. Somewhere along the way, my inner teenager stirred, lifted his head out of his book, blinked and said ‘Wait, what?’ (Because that’s what teenagers say these days.)

So of course, YA and teen fiction was a pool I wanted to dive into. I wanted to write for my children, I wanted to write for my slouchy, smelly teenage self, and I wanted to explore the preoccupations that have never left me. As an adult I read graphic novels, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer  and Marvel movies, and read novels like Station 11 and The Underground Railroad, both of which play interesting games with reality. All those influences feed into my writing for teenagers.

Since I crawled out of that bean-bag about 35 years ago, I’ve written four novels and a book of connected short stories, all broadly in the genre of literary fiction. That means that I had most of the tools I needed to write YA, because writing for teenagers requires exactly the same attention to character and language as writing for adults, but I also felt liberated, felt able to introduce a fantasy, science-fiction element. Mutations, aliens!

Writing my first teenage novel, The Impossible, was similar to writing a novel for adults, because it was a precarious journey into invented lives, an attempt to find the unique texture of those lives, to summon up something authentic, to imagine an experience that was never actually experienced. But writing The Impossible also surprised me in two ways.

First, I discovered that I like my teenage characters more than most of my adult ones. I like the challenge of trying to find teenage voices without seeming cringey or weird. I like their enthusiasm and their ennui, their humour and their seriousness (often at the same time), that unguarded, jagged quality which makes them vulnerable. The life buzzing and flickering like electricity in their dialogue.

And secondly, I discovered that writing for teenagers feels at least as personal as writing an adult, literary novel. The Impossible is about teenagers coping with change colliding with their lives. To return to that first question - why am I, a 54 year old bloke, writing about that? Because change collided with my life when I was a teenager. First my parents divorcing, and then getting cancer. That’s the sort of change that you have to integrate into your life and find a way to use, because the only alternative is to be crushed by it. That’s what I wanted to explore, extrapolate from and even – kind of – celebrate.

The garish, weird monsters are metaphors. It’s what makes them effective and familiar and also, in a sense, plausible.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Essex Serpent, and others

My favourite books of the year so far. I loved The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers. Amazingly wet, cold, smelly sense of place, knee-deep in the mud of the Calder Valley. Crunchy prose and craggy characters that make Ben feel like a Mytholmroyd Cormac McCarthy. It’s all a bit male. Wouldn’t have minded him rewriting history a bit to slip a strong female character into the mix, but other than that, great stuff.

And then The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Beguiling. Not in a sweet, rom-com sort of way, more in a snake hypnotising you sort of way. You’re drawn in, fascinated by a story where not much actually happens, but the characters are big and the ideas are bigger. You start to feel like you’re living in Perry’s world, and you don’t really want to leave it.

But probably my favourite of the year so far – and I’ve no idea what year this actually came out – is Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin. Also, definitely, the best title I’ve seen this year. What is it about repetition? The Essex Serpent The Essex Serpent wouldn’t have worked. Anyway, two main characters, sort of friends in the past, estranged in the present, separated by race and guilt and a horrible crime that echoes through the decades. All taking place in Mississippi. It’s about five pages too long, but other than that, perfect.