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.