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.