Trigger Warning

I’ve written a lot over the years about taboo and censorship. In particular about self-censorship. I have also written a lot, both fact and fiction, about suicide and self-harm in an effort to make my words, even if only for one person, a hand reaching out to hold theirs in the night when they feel utterly alone. I have even written a whole book, (life) razorblades included, that I preface by saying “I celebrate life by writing about death.”

cover

And it’s on this particular subject that, for me, the subject of self-censorship raises its head most frequently. How do you write responsibly about suicide? How do you reach out with utter honesty so as never to patronise or belittle or “explain” another’s pain?

Of course, the first question any writer must ask, very seriously, is why they should write responsibly, and we should be very wary of coming up with any answer other than “that’s my personal choice.” But that is my choice.

I want to be responsible to those whose pain has become intolerable. I want not to belittle it by slapping a warning all over what I write, either literally or through the book’s “message”, saying “don’t do this at home, kids.” I want to avoid the easy way out of writing about something else. And at the same time I want never to glamorise, never to say “hey kids, this is a cool thing to do.”

It’s a very hard line to walk, and my personal feeling is that in the past we have veered too far towards not glamorising, towards qualifying everything with a suitable message.

 

05 - No Exit v2

(leave a comment below or email eightcutsgallery@gmail.com with the subject “No Exit” to get an email the moment No Exit is available)

This is something I really had to grapple with (among many other things!) in my new book, No Exit. The relationship at the heart of it features my protagonist, Alice, and her best friend, Cassie, someone whose creativity and passion bursts from every pore but who is just too fragile for the world.

Now, in writing Cassie, I faced a lot of very uncomfortable issues that could only be dealt with by absolute honesty. First amongst them is the fact that there was a very big danger of making Cassie a stereotype, and a very unwholesome one at that – the “beautiful dead girl” or the “suicidal creative waif.” Tipping into either of these would kill the book dead. I could have avoided that by writing a different Cassie. But, as some will know, Cassie is based on a very dear friend of mine whose story I wanted to tell. That wasn’t an option.

The only option was to write Cassie honestly. And a lot of that meant drawing on conversations we’d had. There’s one line in No Exit that is at the heart of everything, and it’s one that to many of us feels almost impossible to grasp. Before Cassie and Alice become friends, Cassie gives Alice an ultimatum:

“This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”

Of course, because every sentence serves the plot, this is going to be played out later. And it is, in the hardest scene I’ve ever written, when Alice holds Cassie while she dies without trying to intervene despite her whole being wanting to. It’s a dynamic that makes me feel both very uneasy – because it could justify some very damaging behaviour if it’s read in the wrong way – and very comfortable – because it is absolutely honest.

This is all further complicated because Cassie is obsessed with “making death beautiful.” Again, a really dangerous and triggering thing to write. But an essential part of Cassie. And something that feels very normal to a certain kind of outsider. The kind I am writing for.

So what should a writer in my position do? That’s a genuine question. Do I stay silent, leave stories untold? Do I compromise those stories? Which is worse, to write elements out of the story and alienate many of those who feel alone, or to write necessary elements in and risk encouraging, glamorising, triggering? Do I make Cassie and her actions “ugly” because I am so frightened of what happens if I let her beauty be there on the page (someone once told my dear friend she had no right to write her experiences because she was too beautiful – a hideous censorship that has never left me)? Do I layer the text with trigger warnings? I don’t know. I have tried to be 100% honest. But is even that relevant or important?

 

Open Up To Indie Authors

 

It was a great privilege to speak at today’s launch at Kobo’s London Book Fair stall, of Open Up To Indie Authors (download it here), which I co-authored with the wonderful Debbie Young, published by the Alliance of Indie Authors thanks to the tireless efforts of Orna Ross. The book is more than just an essential campaign document and rallying cry. It’s a guide to working with every sector in the global literary sphere, from bloggers through prizes and bookstores to festivals, making the case for the inclusion of indie authors, helping indie authors to understand the industry and helping the industry to see why it needs indie authors.Image

l-r Debbie Young, Jessica Bell, Hugh Howey, Orna Ross, Diego Marano, Me

 

Here’s the text of the speech

Those of you who know me will know that, among other things, I am a fairly outspoken atheist. Nonetheless, by training I am a theologian, and I am going to start with a little sortie into that world.

Most people are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel. Not so many are familiar with the context in which the Gospel’s author places it. Jesus has just delivered his mission statement, for want of a better phrase – “love your neighbour as yourself.” The person he’s speaking to, being simultaneously a handy rhetorical device and someone who’s not going to fall for a politician’s generalities, pulls him up and asks him exactly what he means – “who is my neighbour?” a question Jesus answers, in a manner familiar from all the great orators, with a story, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Image

There is a simple point being made, and it’s one that the author of Luke’s Gospel makes repeatedly, from the Sermon on the Mount to Pentecost, the instant hook of his sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. And the point is this. What matters in deciding “who is my neighbour?” is not the answer. What matters is how we ask the question. And we can ask it in two very different ways. We can ask, as Jesus’ interlocutor does, “Who are the ones I have to love?” Or we can ask, as Jesus reimagines the question, “Whom may I love?” It’s a dichotomy you will find as a pretty much constant feature in human problem solving. On the one hand, we can approach problems by asking, “How do I avoid all the things I need to avoid?” On the other hand, we can approach them by asking, “How do I encounter all the things that are worth encountering?”

You probably start to see where this is going. But let me digress. Self-publishing, like Lionel Shriver’s eponymous Kevin, has become one of those awkward problems in the literary world, one of those things that we need to talk about, that we need to do something about, but we can’t quite figure what. Self-publishers and traditional publishers, and hybrid authors and bricks and mortar stores and journalists and service providers eye each other like a GIF flickering between suspicion and desire.

But the simple truth of it is this. Everyone in the business of books has just one duty. And it’s not to themselves. It’s not to bookstores. It’s not to progress and nor is it to the preservation of the physical book. It’s not to shareholders, and it’s not – though I wish it were – to writers. Every one of us has a duty to readers – to those who read avidly – that they keep coming back for more; to those who might one day read – that the experience brings something wonderful to their lives; to those who have never read before – that they discover worlds they could never have imagined; to those to whom books are the most precious thing in the world – that we never disappoint them; and to those who believe adamantly that books are not and could never be for them – that we provide them with the means to discover they were wrong.

And that brings us back to the question of what to do about self-publishing, and back to the Good Samaritan. Each of us in the business of books can ask the question, it turns out, in two ways. Just like we can ask “who is my neighbour” two ways. We can ask “How do we keep all the bad books out?” Or we can ask “How do we make sure to let all the good books in?” And the simple truth is you can’t do both. You can never do both. But the problem is when you put those questions on most people’s they sound just the same. And those simple syllogisms that won’t sit at ease together are the reason why we can never decide what to do about self-publishing, and why whenever we start to try we sound like we are tearing each other apart.

But the solution is straightforward. Which question serves readers? Now, of course, there’s a different combination of readers and industry cogs for every shade of grey. But if each sector of the industry keeps its eye first, last, and only on its readers and asks the self-publishing question in respect of them, we will very soon get on the right collective footing.

I just want to speak very briefly about the part of the industry that matters to me most, the one that made me first want to get involved in the Open Up to Indies campaign, and the one that makes me more convinced than ever of the need for such a campaign.

The literary media loves to be the second to discover the next new thing. Journalists love the thrill and the kudos of being the one to break the story about something or someone original and exciting. But they are driven by the fear of the finger-pointing of being the one who backed a dud. And so they persist in steering the middle ground, relentlessly ignoring the wild, the brilliant, the flamboyant and the flawed – in other words systematically averting their gaze from what self-publishing does best.

In this world, readers will never be sold a pup. But they will never be exposed to something truly astounding and life-changing either. This is a world that asks the wrong question. This is a world that protects readers from the bad. This is a world that denies reader whole swathes of the outstanding. This is a world that has to change. And that is why Open Up To Indie Authors is essential.

No Exit: Cassie

ga 2(from Veronika von Volkova‘s Grime Angels series, because nothing goes with this book like her photography)

So I’m nearing the completion of No Exit. As could have been predicted, it is resisting all attempts to squeeze it into the thriller genre envelope. At the moment it feels like part Chuck Palahniuk, part Minette Walters, part Anais Nin, part Bolano, and part a whole lot of something so much darker. What I hope I am achieving, though, for all the darkness and character-driven literariness, and the inevitable stylistic quiddity of the thing, is the kind of pace that people who like their reads riveting will want. Anyway, I can’t help myself when it comes to letting snippets of teasers loose on the world. So here is the chapter, narrated by Alice, in which we meet Cassie, whose death is the turning point in Alice’s story. Trigger warnings for self-harm/suicidal thoughts.

I started hanging with Cassie the week my dad walked out and I fell in hate with the world.

We’d been in the same class for four years and never spoken, but that week we sniffed out each other’s pain like junkies cramping for a hit.

It was Saturday afternoon in early summer and I was in the Parks, over the bridge and off the path, two fields to the right where the banks are too overgrown for punters to stop and before the wide green spaces by the rollers where picnickers spread themselves out like strings of peppers in the sun. At the back of the field is a broken tree that provides total privacy whatever you want to do, and what I wanted to do was burn cigarettes into my arms till the cherries reached the bone.

I looked at the cigarette I had in one hand and I looked at the lighter I had in the other and at the clean white flesh streaming down like wax from both. I wondered which arm would burn better. Which arm would hurt more. On which arm I could knock the wound more often in the days to come to relive the pain.

I could smell the smoke already, and as I imagined it changing slowly into the scent of burning flesh, I heard a voice above and behind me and realised the smoke wasn’t in my head.

“The left,” said the voice.

I turned. Cassie was laid out on the fallen trunk, draped in black cotton that ran off her thin frame like water so she looked like she was part of the tree, some kind of dryad waking from the wood. She raised a hand to her mouth, turned her head and blew smoke at me through black painted lips.

“Eh?” I said.

“The left forearm,” she said. “If you’re right handed, it’s easier to knock the scab off your left forearm and open the wound just mooching with your hand in your pocket. That’s what you were wondering.”

I started to speak but Cassie just smiled and said, “Welcome to the charnel house.”

I smiled back and lit my cigarette and I didn’t want to burn myself anymore so I took long, deep draws, aiming the smoke back up at her, but it just blew back in my face and we both laughed.

She lit a second cigarette from the embers of the first, pulled on it once, and asked, “What do you find beautiful?”

For a moment I was filled with an overwhelming, physical desire to say, “You” but I bit down, thought, and said, “The absence of small talk.”

She laughed, a nicotine and catarrh kind of laugh. “I love decay,” she said. “It reminds you that everything’s temporary and that’s OK, that death is the most natural thing in the world. What could be more beautiful than having the freedom to stop breathing? Any time you want. No reproach, no wailing, no gnashing, no tearing of clothes. No get your homework in or pay your bills or be nice to the assholes who want you to suck dick or wash tables and bow and say thank you for the privilege. The freedom just to stop. Like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Stop right where you are and not breathe anymore and slowly return to the soil and the air like everything else. Decay tells you death is OK, death is beautiful. And that makes the life you have in the meantime beautiful too.”

“Decay doesn’t pretend,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Cassie. “Decay doesn’t pretend. It just is what it is.” In a single, fluid movement she jumped up off the trunk and sat down beside me, and we sat like that for what seemed like hours. After a while, I could sense her tensing beside me, twitching nervously. Eventually she turned to me and said, “This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”

We sat in silence for several more minutes, the only things alive around us the glow to fade pulse of our cigarette ends.

Cassie rolled up her long black sleeves and laid her arms out in front of me like an offering. Faint white scars carpeted her skin like a bed of pine needles.

I thought they looked beautiful.

“Not those,” she said, holding her wrists closer. Beneath the others, like unnatural creatures hiding in the darkness of the deep, two fainter lines on each wrist. Fainter but wider, longer. I couldn’t take my eyes away.

“I’m OK now,” she said, rolling her sleeves back down and holding my eyes with hers. “But one day I won’t be. And when that day comes, it’s my choice. It’s my choice when and it’s my choice how and that’s non-negotiable. Get that and we’ll be fine. Don’t get it and you can fuck off now.”

“I get it,” I said. And I did. I knew somehow, even then, at the darkest point, I’d never kill myself, but that was me. That was the way I lived, that was my right. And it was hers to go through with it. I would never tell her what to do, and she would never tell me what to do, and that was the basis for the best friendship I ever had. Short. So so short, just like I knew it would be as I sat there watching her smoke with the broadest grin on her face and the sunlight glinting on her hair and every care in the world dripping like the dead ash to the floor. Bit oh how she shone.

How she shone.

The Platinum Raven

Rohan Quine is one of the most brillinat and original writers around. His The Imagination Thief blended written and spoken word and visuals to create one of the most haunting and complex explorations of the dark corners of the soul you will ever read. Never one to do something simple when something more complex can build up teh layers more beautifully, he is back with a collection of 4 seamlessly interwoven novellas. They are available as one paperback, The Platinum Raven and Other Novellas, or as four separate ebooks (clcik the pics for links).

Rohan pback

I will be talking to Rohan about the books in the coming weeks, but for now suffice to say he is the consummate master of sentencecraft. His prose is a warming sea on which to float and luxuriate. But that is only half of teh picture. He has a remarkable insight into the human psyche, and he demonstrates it by lacquering layer on layer of subtle observation and nuance. Allow yourself to slip from the slick surface of the water and you will soon find yourself tangled in a very deep and disturbing world, but the dangers that lurk beneath the surface are so enticing, so intoxicating it is impossible to resist their call.

The Platinum Raven

rohan pr

Apricot Eyes

Rohan Apricot

Hallucination in Hong Kong

Rohan Hallucination

Host in the Attic

Rohan Host

All covers designed by the very talented J D Smith.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Alicer-cover

One of the joys of having been around a while and being dafty outspoken about things is that people tweet me and send me things. Yes, I know this is exactly what most people dread, and I know saying I enjoy it opens me up to more of it. And yes, I really really really don’t have time to read everything I’m sent and however guilty I feel about that won’t change the fact that if I’m ever going to write another book I just don’t have time to read everything I’m sent. But I will open it, and have a look. And if it really really grabs me, I’ll want to tell people about it. Owing largely to the peculiarities and nicheness of my taste, the frequency of that grabbing is incredibly low. But when Alice Furse emailed me about her book, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, I was grabbed. First, because she mentioned the Bechdel Test in her pitch. Second, because the way she wrote her email did what so few of even the most experienced writers seem able to do – get their voice across in the shortest of blurbs. Third, because the situation at the heart of the book – the disappointment of being twenty-something and finding that life is full of dead ends when only a few years earlier you were told as a student that the world was your oyster – is one that strikes so many chords with me. And then I opened the book, and the voice took hold of me straightaway. This is a beautifully written exploration of a much underexplored time in life. It is reminiscent on the one hand of the aimless desperation of Murakami’s affectless twenty-something narrators (only this is a protagonist with more backbone), and on the other of the works of the new generation of novelists like Jenni Fagan who combine social commentary and dazzling sentencecraft.

Here’s the very brief Amazon pitch, in itself a mini masterpiece:

“It’s an endless winter in suburbia, and a young graduate who dreams of fading into anonymity moves in with a traffic warden and accepts a mind-numbing job in an office.
Slowly, she starts to believe that the apocalypse is imminent, but unable to find anyone who understands she hatches a plan to save herself – before it’s too late.”

I have to start by asking why you chose to self-publish…

The short answer is, getting Everybody Knows out there and being read is a lot more interesting than endlessly writing to publishing people and crossing my fingers that one of them will take a chance on me.

The longer answer is that I wrote it a few years ago, and right after it was finished I met with a literary agent who sent it out to his contacts. It got reasonably far at a few publishing houses, but they all said the same thing: they liked it, but couldn’t figure out how to market it.

About six months ago it occurred to me what an utter waste this was, and that I’d put so much work into something and no one would ever read it. I also now have three years of PR experience under my belt, so it seemed a good time for giving it a proper crack.

You have a Creative Writing Degree behind you. These have created their fair share of controversy recently. Do you feel that the course helped you to find your own personal voice, or did you feel it smoothing away your uniqueness? Would you recommend it?

I would absolutely recommend it, yeah, and I’m not just saying that because I invested such a huge amount of time and money in my degrees! Doing that gave me space to think about myself as a writer, the nuts and bolts of storytelling, plus a better knowledge of what’s already out there.

I enjoyed a close relationship to my writing teacher at uni, who was the first (actually, the only) person to tell me that I should write a novel, a notion that seemed totally laughable to me at the time. Studying writing gave me permission to give something I’d always loved a proper go.

Perhaps not everyone needs permission – if I had more of an experimental streak perhaps the answer to this question would be very different.

Which leads to the subject of voice – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has a very strong, distinctive voice. How easy was it for you to find that voice? 

I want to say not easy at all because it took me years of writing bullshit to get there, but in a sense that’s a lie because I can’t really write in any other way. As you can probably tell from the novel, I’m not a great fantasist. I like cold hard reality and no frills dialogue.

Recently I’ve become really interested in the concept of ‘a voice’ – maybe because I’m working on a number of short stories and they’re all slightly different. A voice is never something that’s set in stone, is it? My suspicion is that it should always be developing. Perhaps a writer is like Woody Allen’s shark and if it doesn’t keep moving it dies.

When you pitched Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to me, you mentioned the Bechdel Test. With A Year of Reading Women, recent coverage of the Bechdel Test, and greater prominence for the work Vida does, it looks from the outside as though we are finally seeing progress in making women’s voices visible within fiction and the coverage of fiction. How far do you think we’ve come, and how far do you think we have to go?

Great question! The statistics that have inspired the Year of Reading were shocking and despressing – in 2012, 16% of the reviewers at the New York Review of Books were women, and only 22% of the books reviewed written by women. Whichever way you look at it, that suggests we have a long way to go in championing women as legitimate members of the literary world.

Having said that, I’m desperately uncomfortable with the idea women are separate and need special campaigns and awards. I hate the idea that we’re The Other. We’re not. We’re just living lives and writing about them, same as the blokes.

I only heard about the Bechdel test after I wrote Everybody Knows – basically, a film or book passes if it has one female character, talking to another female character, about a subject that isn’t a man. I was pumped when I realised Everybody Knows passed it totally by accident, and in a sense that seems like better progress.

Perhaps this is something that self-publishing will have a hand in helping: if a publishing house can’t market my book because it isn’t chicklit and I go ahead and do it myself, then all the better.

You are writing about a traditionally underrepresented age group in literature. Why do you think this is, what makes it so interesting to you?

My narrator is 24 and I was 25 when I wrote it. Now that I’m nearly 30 and look back, it’s actually a very awkward age. I hadn’t grown into my own skin at all, though I felt as if I should have. I carried a heavy weight of expectation – mainly my own – of what I should do about marriage, and babies, and career, and what on earth I should do with myself. Didn’t know what I wanted, what I was good at, what my options were.

All this is great material for writing though, so god knows why it’s such an underrepresented age – if I hadn’t been writing about it all I’d have exploded.

You say you want Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to reach out to people like The Bell Jar reached out to you. May I ask about that experience, and how you would love to see it replicated?

I was 14 when I first read The Bell Jar and it will have a place in my heart forever. Of course, I was far too young to have understood the societal pressures she was writing about in terms of marriage and babies and choosing a career path, but I also fell in love for the first time that year and my boyfriend was forever trying to stop me from wearing make up and talking to people and taking drugs, so it was all kicking off really.

Plath’s was a voice I could not only relate to but also admire. It’s very honest, and frankly women aren’t used to having an authentic account of their experiences reflected back at them so it blew me apart. The common idea that it’s only for teenage girls and this is a neat way to dismiss it, but utter bollocks.

As for my book, I wouldn’t dream of it having the effect that The Bell Jar had in any real sense, but if one single person writes to me saying that my book has helped them to feel less alone I’m framing it.

In contemporary literature we need more…

Real women. And books passing the Bechdel test.

In contemporary literature we need fewer…

Stereotypes.

To end where we started, you are just starting out as a writer. Publishing is so up in the air now, how on earth do you go about planning a career, or even knowing where you see yourself in 5 years?

I dislike planning life and always have done. I try to look for opportunities to do things I enjoy rather than think about a career or dreaming of being famous. When I moved to London I was a dealer in a casino just for the hell of it and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I currently work at a sports radio station, which is a good laugh and pays the bills. I’m working on several things for magazines, and have also just started using my PR skills to publicise a new online comedy radio station called Mansize.

The fact is, you never know who you’ll meet tomorrow and where it’ll lead, so you might as well just do the things you find fun.

And keep writing.

My New Book Will Not Be Self-published

My next post will be titled “why I chose a small press” and will answer all the questions you all want answered. For now, I’ll simply make the announcement. My new book, No Exit, will be released this summer by the wonderful people at Pankhearst as part of their Singles Club. If you want to know just why I’m so excited, check out this month’s single – End Credits by Simon Paul Wilson, who was until, well, a couple of days ago, the best unpublished writer on the planet (his manuscript, the Murakami-esque magical realist Yuko Zen is Elsewhere was one of the most talked about and exciting books in the history of Harper Collins’ website Authonomy).

Pankhearst is a two year-old publishing collective containing some of the most exciting writers of fem noir. They specialise in kick ass female protagonists and their mix of noir and literary makes them even more perfect for me, especially for this book, which features many of the characters and settings from my forthcoming full length novel Kill Land.

ga 2

(one of Veronika von Volkova’s Grime Angels – because noting sums up my work like her pictures)

Here’s the blurb:

Petrichor have a simple philosophy, “Make the world a more beautiful place. Starting with where you are right now.” A group of tech-savvy drifters, dropouts, and dreamers who hang out in Oxford’s hidden spaces – narrowboats, building sites, disused library tunnels – they spend their days and nights undertaking an aesthetic form of place-hacking – littering dry, dead buildings with poetry, running and jumping the rooftops and leaving QR codes on walls that link to videos of the beautiful uses they make of them.
But for Alice, the group’s most proficient coder and computer hacker, making the world more beautiful has a flip side. It means cutting out the cultural cancers that leave hurt and ugliness behind them. So she creates Huis Clos, “No Exit”, the place that lives in the darkest, most honest part of everyone’s dreams – a place with no windows, no consequences and, for the person who enters with you, no exit.
Hidden in the depths of the darknet – and even deeper under Oxford, in the miles of archives of  the Bodleian library, Huis Clos is the place where Alice will bring the person who has made your life hell, leave you alone with them, and, once you have left, make the evidence, and every trace of them, simply disappear.
One day, Alice picks up a target, and discovers that the vilest person she has ever been asked to deal with is her own father.

And here is the opening.

Head out of the Sheldonian and under the gnarled stone reproduction of the Bridge of Sighs, past a turn so tiny you’d never know it was there if you didn’t smell the speciality cider wafting at you and hunt to find the source, further on, cornering twice as tarmac turns to cobbles turn to tarmac, and you arrive at the back entrance of New College, Oxford, and on a clear winter night you can just about hear the sound of choirboys practising far away in the chapel and if you remember that 10 metres below your feet is the plague pit where centuries earlier they flung the city’s unwanted dead, and if it’s dark enough to disorient you, and if you listen for long enough as trebles strain at the top notes, you will be sure you can hear  a thousand last confessions sweating into the sky too late for absolution.

Wait a little longer still, and your mind might carry you deeper. Another 10 metres. And another, to a place where far more recent secrets are stored. All across Oxford the earth beneath your feet is criss-crossed by miles of tunnels that, until even they started to creak under the weight, housed the collections of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and largest in England. Many of the books were moved a year or so ago to new, tanked out and humidity controlled homes by the canal in Osney Mead, and further afield in Swindon, leaving acres of empty caves slowly going fetid now the switch has been turned off for good.

But some of them are not so empty. Soundproofed and secure, you will never hear the screams, no matter how long you stand and listen for them. You will hear only the choirboys, calling out for mercy to a God who gluts himself on their supplications and belches out only silence in return. But they are there. The screams. Bouncing off foam clad walls in a hell of their own making. In a room with no windows. A room that welcomes people two at a time. For one of them there are no consequences. For the other, no exit.

I close my eyes so that the fog is present only as a thin film pressing my skin, and I am sure I can hear them. The footsteps, tentative at first, then confident, then pumped full of adrenalin and the lightness of release. And the screams. The unheard screams decaying on the broken-foamed walls. And I allow myself the satisfaction of knowing that whatever else life brings, I have done something good.

Sexing Up the Spires

book 2 cover(download book 1, Dreaming Spires, here for 77p from UK Amazon and $0.99 from US Amazon  – also available from all other regions

download book 2, An Oxford Christmas, here for 77p from UK Amazon and $0.99 from US Amazon – also available from all other regions)

 

It always intrigues me how many of my fellow authors also write erotica, albeit usually under a pen name. It seems to be the literary equivalent of playing the piano – that thing at which some become virtuosic but which pretty much everyone in the field has mastered to some degree or other and in which they continue actively to dabble.

Now, with news that Anne Rice is to go back to writing erotica under her pseudonym A N Rocquelaure, it seems more and more of them are opening up about it. And this is where I do likewise, having just published “An Oxford Christmas”, book two in my Dreaming Spires series of character driven and socially conscious (I can’t quite help myself and just abandon myself to unadulterated smut) series that follows the life of Kayla Dyson from 18 year old interviewee for admission to Christ Church, Oxford’s most famously privileged college, to wildly successful social entrepreneur and role model to millions.

book 1 coverOxford is, of course, no stranger to passion (see under Brideshead and Morse’s sex obsession). A lot of this is, no doubt, the result of the concentration of evocative architecture (again see Brideshead, under “achingly erotic mid distance shots of Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons”). Indeed, when I casually asked twitter a week or so ago for suggestions for future settings for sexy set pieces I was amazed by the volume and diversity of the answers that flooded in.

I will confess to playing up to some of the tourism porn (literally!) – book one is set in Christ Church, though not always the parts of the college you might imagine. But I also want to look at the Oxford that doesn’t always make it into the guidebooks, and in book two there is much more of that. It’s that part of Oxford, the vibrant, year-long fascinating streets and hidden nooks and crannies filled with possibility that have always fascinated me, and feature in much of my writing.

This is not just a book about a hidden Oxford, interspersed with naughty bits, an erotic streetmap as it were (though it most certainly could be used as such – provided people bear in mind public decency and privacy laws if they are thinking about going down the recreating route!). I am always drawn to stories with elements of social awareness, and I wanted to create, in my heroine Kayla, the antithesis of the kind of privilege typified by the likes of Ana Steele. Kayla grew up on a North London estate, her mother sacrificing the very little she had to ensure Kayla could go where she wanted in life. Kayla grew up, as a result, with an iron sense of purpose, but also with a very ambivalent relationship to her roots – as the thing that make her what she is, a part of her for which she is very grateful, but which she wants to transcend, whilst never turning her back on the people and the place. That, and the cross section of privileges that make up the university, makes for a fascinating social melting pot that I want fully to deconstruct and get to the heart of as the series progresses.

 

 

 

Being a Man Writing About Women’s Books

Diane Shipley asked us last week whether we would consider spending a year reading only books by women. The Year of Reading Women project has become a huge talking point, yet the Vida statistics show that in the accustomed snafu little progress has been made in balancing the media’s gendered coverage of the literary world.

lf3-print-trees(the book I’m currently getting excited about – Roz Morris’ literary dystopia, lifeform three)

For me, it is this that represents the real challenge – the representation of books by women in places like this rather than the actual reading of them. Putting the focus onto reading seems like a rather handy arrogation of responsibility on the media’s part.

I very much believe that where we find discursive barriers we should make ourselves into bulldozers. I have always tried, as a literary organiser and promoter, to create shows and programmes that go beyond the gender-imbalanced norms. On the other hand, the Vida statistics show not only the lack of representation of women’s books, but the lack of women in the media doing the writing about those books.

So, as a male commentator, I feel a natural conflict. Is it my place to write about books by women? Or is it my place to insist I am removed from public spaces and my place taken by a female commentator? I am very aware of the difficult position of “ally” in modern intersectional thought on diversity in all areas (and I’m extremely grateful to the author Christina Springer for sharing this great article. My own experience of being “on the receiving end” of allies comes in the sphere of mental health where I frequently come across organisations box-ticking their engagement duties by enlisting spokespeople to explain things on behalf of those of us who have mental health disabilities. I feel the bristle as they open their mouths and utter something that bears no relation at all to my experience yet leaves everyone seemingly contented that I have been duly “represented” with the result that I’m silenced twice over – by my “ally” and by the fact that their intervention means the space for further discourse is now closed. So I know that whenever I open my keyboard to tap out words on the matter of women in literature I am, at least in some part, not ameliorating but becoming part of the problem.

DesecrationSmall3D(the last book I read that I loved, Desecration by Joanna Penn)

So do I stay silent, or do I speak, or do I just shimmy round the subject and stick to the safer ground of writing about the things I’m expected to write about? The last of these is a non-starter. Experience tells me it’s a simple matter of taste that I prefer books written by women. It would be strange to write about books and omit so many those I love best in the spheres I write about most – the poetry of Vanessa Kisuule, Claire Trevien and Adelle Stripe, the literary fiction of Banana Yoshimoto and Elfriede Jelinek, the self-published surrealities of Lucy Furlong, Penny Goring, and Anna Fennel Hughes, the inspirational blogs and books of Viv Tuffnell, everything to do with the wonderful website For Books’ Sake.

(the brilliant poet, Claire Trevien, with whom I’ll be performing at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival)

What I have done hitherto has been simply to reflect my tastes in my commentaries. I have promoted works I truly believe in by writers I love. I have talked about those works that provide taking off points for the themes and questions that matter to me. I have put on shows featuring performers whose words and style I love.

But Diane’s post has foregrounded a feeling that was always there, an inkling nudging me annoyingly in the shoulder going “oi, oi” and shrugging an “oh you know” every time I dare to shout “What?!” The feeling that I’m doing something political, and that it doesn’t always leave my mouth tasting of honey.

I have always known that what I speak about is political. It’s a choice. A choice made in a highly charged context of cultural discourse. It couldn’t not be political. And yet I have always sided myself loudly and overtly with those marginalised by mental health issues and let that whisper me sweet reassurances that I was doing it OK because mental health disability is an outsiderdom I’m firmly inside.

It’s comforting to construct these narratives for ourselves. If we close our eyes and listen to them (a telling metaphor in all its resonances) we can almost pretend intersectionality doesn’t exist. And yet it does. I am spoken for by those who silence my disability, and yet when I do speak I do so as a white male. When I write about women’s writing, I speak for them as those I resent speak for me. I can no longer pretend to myself that I’m just doing “good politics” and neatly avoiding “bad politics.”

So what’s the answer? I’m sure many readers will be wondering “what, you mean there’s a question?” Questions of intersectionality and allyship usually raise those responses. And they make the first part of my answer simple – if, next time an article like this appears, more people are at least aware that there’s a problem when men write well-meaningly about women and fewer people shrug “what problem?” then I’ll have done something right.

img_0246(Anna Percy, the brilliant poet who co-runs with Rebecca Audra Smith and Sara Ellis Stirred Poetry, Manchester’s fabulous night of pro-women inclusive spoken word)

The real answer, I think, is that just as it is impossible to speak unpolitically so it is impossible to speak from a position that is beyond reproach. We all speak from a privileged position of some kind. Our words will always exert power over someone, muffle the voice of someone. So the answer is not silence, or we would all be silenced. And the answer is not good intentions. Good intentions neither affect power networks nor the impact of our words. As much of an answer as I can give is to be as aware as possible of where we stand in these incalculably complex networks, to make way wherever possible for those voices our own voice silences, to acknowledge those voices that have shaped our own, and to create channels where we can for those voices to speak and be heard. Most of all I think the answer is for us not to believe we have the answer but to listen and learn to have the many possible answers spoken by those in a position to give.

I welcome any suggestions as to further answers to the issues raised. I also welcome any women writers whose works would interest readers of this blog to talk about them here.

Self-publish With Integrity

spi cover draft 10(available for Kindle in the UK for £1.88 and in the US for $2.99 as well as in all other Amazon territories)

So it’s here! After more than four years in the making, this is my contribution to the how-to-self-publish canon, filling a gap where a book is both needed and allows me to bring together the various pieces of my own particualr take on this fabulous, mad, messy new world we find ourselves in the midst of.

This is a book about how to find out what really matters to you in your writing, and then to achieve it, steering the treacherous path of helpful advice, books, blogs, and setbacks that are as able to send you steaming in the opposite direction as speeding to your goal. I’ve drawn on my years of experience and the many mistakes I’ve made, allowing myself to get carried away and as a result carried wildly off course, only to wonder why I seem to be “succeeding” but feel, deep down, anything but a success.

What I want most from this book is for it to give you the confidence to be who you are. Each writer is unique, and their writing means something different to each of them, so any rigid “do this, do that” guide has to be taken with bioblical portions of salt, which is why this is not a book that seeks to tell you what to do, but rather a book that helpd you to listen to the most important voice of all: your own, and to use that voice, so often drowned out on the journey, as the steady compass by which to steer you course through a long, rewarding life of writing that is a success in the only terms that matter: yours.

This list of chapter titles will give you a flavour of the book.

1. The Pressure to “Succeed”

2. Why Do You Write?

3. Is Self-publishing Right for You?

4. Never be afraid to be you

5. Dealing With Self-Doubt

6. Dealing With Self-Belief

7. Handling Praise

8. Producing Your Book: Picking the Right Partners

9. Building a community

10. The Whites of Their Eyes: Giving Great Readings

11. The Long Haul

Moving on: The Company of Fellows is back

avatarReading Festival in 2009 provied one of the most amazing nights of my creative life. Radiohead were headlining after a long absence from the stage. The late summer sun set on an empty stage and as darkness took hold, a white light started to flash slowly, and the park erupted as the band burst into Creep, the song that made them, the song they had once foresworn, and the song no one was expecting them to play.

OK, that’s a rather grandiose metaphor, but I understand why they grew to hate Creep, why they went so far as to write a song (My Iron Lung) about how it was choking the life out of them. I went through a similar phase with my thriller, The Company of Fellows. It’s a book that gave me many if not most of the breaks I’ve had in my writing life. It is the reason why the lovely people at Blackwell’s in Oxford, one of the world’s most famous bookstores, welcomed me with open arms. It is the reason I started to get so many invitations to speak about self-publishing. And it drove me utterly nuts – or, rather, it completely overwhelmed me. I found myself being branded a thriller writer and found it impossible to talk about anything but thrillers. It was like being invited to the best restaurant in the world and told you could only have the bread.

I was desperate to talk about my other work, my literary novels, my budding poetry career, but I was unable to do so. I was only able to talk about The Comapny of Fellows. That annoyed me for several reasons. First, that kind of pigeonholing is why I self-publish. I’m not a thriller writer or a poet, I’m a writer. Second, and the one that made me squirm a bit – it wasn’t my best book, and I resented being judged on work that wasn’t my best (I have since re-written and re-edited and am happy to say I am now very pleased with the book) – there’s a lesson there. Third, I was at that part of my career where I was still brash and insecure – I wanted to be taken seriously. I wasn’t yet ready to say “yeah, I write experimental novels but I also write thrillers – so what?” I got so frustrated I took the book off the shelves. In other words, I flounced. I said “look at me, I’m above *that* kind of writing, I’m an artiste.”

Now, I hope, I am ready. It’s been a long journey. I shouldn’t, in retrospect, have put The Company of Fellows out there when I did. I should have waited till I was less insecure, happier in the kind of writer I am (an eclectic one) and happier with the book (actually, reading through it now, I’m not only rather taken with it, I’m happy that it’s as good as my literary books – just different).

Next time, I’ll write a post that’s about the book itself (though do feel free to buy it now, or reload the edited version if you have a copy – just click the pic) but this post is a mixture of things. It is an apology – to Blackwell’s for being so precious about things when they have been so generous; to writers for being such a flouncer and rather disrespectful to my fellow thriller writers; to readers for deciding to take the ball away so they couldn’t play. I fully expect some tickling of ribs for the volte-face. But I’m really pleased to be in a place where I can say I’m proud of this book. Next time, a little more about it, but meanwhile, please go and take a look :)