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Two Pages (18/10/16)

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There is always a sinking feeling after a book ends, in terms of writing it, where you know that all the experiences, tangential and direct, that informed it will never happen to you again. If they do, it won’t be in the same way. Different, in that you’ve felt them, learned them or been hurt by them. Until She Sings took a lot of work to get it to a point where I had something and it feels like my first book in a way that The Love We Make did not. Nothing Keeps Me Anywhere is more informed by my craft, She’s Here, which I am currently editing is already reflecting my experience in terms of changing some character’s names and expanding on narrative colour.

Feelings, essentially. Tommy’s voice is as distinct as John (NKMA) and certainly different from Caitlin (USS).

Lawful Evil is going well, it’s a more terse, ballistic book and where I’ve expanded on the theme, it carries a sweep that I enjoy. I dive into it and everything, everyone else goes away.

I’ve pitched two book ideas on spec to my agent, both quite different from one another as I’m more conscious of stories and their innate connection and appeal. At the moment, I’m writing for no one other than myself, and my agent. For those of you who do read me, I am eternally grateful and without commenting or liking, I presume that you take an interest in what I have to say or who I am.

Writing saves me every day. People let you down, circumstances change but there is always the page. It’s what drags me out of bed at four in the morning, to get pages and editing done before work. Last weekend, when I nearly died, a small part of me was okay with it because I had sent Until She Sings to the agent and it was out there now, a small piece of me that would last as long as there was anyone willing to read it. It is anaesthesia, narcotic and hallucinogen all at once. When I made it my purpose, which sounds grandiose but it’s honest, I was not sure what that would mean. It means that it becomes something you do when you’re broken as well as when you’re whole. It has allowed me to reinvent and explore myself, to hold up a mirror and not be found entirely wanting by it. It’s great when there’s love flowing through you and the sun is shining but that’s easy. Your purpose proves itself when you can still write and everything is going to shit.

In terms of reading, I finished four books by Joyce Carol Oates, who is wonderful and works with a verve and edge that I wonder at in terms of whether I can replicate it or echo it in my own work. I don’t know what I am good at, these days, it’s taking something across the finish line but she has a plethora of skills and her books are poignant, passionate and the delicacy of them hides some real gut-punch writing.

I also finished Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which was bleakly funny and entirely appropriate to my mood. It takes the tropes of the zombie apocalypse and wields it to informed, satirical observations on the world that was, or in our case is. I finished that book in a day, and started in on Sag Harbour, one of his earlier works, which is a warm, lovely book about adolescence in the 80’s.

So, at the moment, I am productive. I love the process more than the outcome, it is it’s own reward and with how things are for me right now, the process is keeping me going. Thank you for reading.

 

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Two Pages (12/10/16)

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Between scenes in Lawful Evil, I enjoy taking breaths on the page, respites from the tension that I have built and I look to avoid taking away from that entirely. It also allows me to show the changes in the characters as the story has continued. If your characters have not fundamentally changed by the end of whatever you are writing, then you have problems that require fixing before it goes out. In truth, it’s unlikely to go out because any editor or publisher will struggle to see how such a work can find an audience.

They do, though, especially literary fiction. Genre fiction is seen as the dishevelled relative, the kind who shows up at Christmas without a present and eats all the stuffing, but in truth, there’s a robustness, a pragmatism to genre fiction that shows up some of the literary fiction, that is seen as superior. I say that, as someone who enjoys both, and has developed a passion for nuance and ambiguity in the reading that I enjoy.

Genre fiction has it’s flaws too, but to dismay it as merely entertainment in comparison to literature denies it’s power. Entertainment is tough work, I’ve read a lot of literature and a lot of genre fiction, and the genre fiction moves because it has to. Some genre fiction has little more to distinguish it than a strong conceit, or a steroidal macguffin but it can pass a train journey. Literary fiction, can be beautiful but empty and afterwards, you’re left dismayed. It’s also prone to plotholes and characterisation that have led me to want to throw the book across the room. I love ambiguity in endings, but god when it’s done poorly, it’s really irritating. Susan Choi’s My Education was a perfect example of that. It also has a tendency to communicate elitism and disdain without offering a more substantial alternative.

Genre fiction has a bit of a self-esteem problem, self conscious at times because it may feature orcs, elves, vampires, werehamsters and robots made of cheese. Yet, remember that it is as entirely fictional as middle aged professor facing a midlife crisis and his waning libido. Real life, there is the latter but on the page, all bets are off. If you come to the page, do not do so lightly. The best work I’ve read combines literary and genre elements – Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin combine elements of both, Gun Machine and Normal by Warren Ellis all combine fantastical and political/socio-economic elements into dizzying displays of fury.

You could class Gabriel Garcia Marquez as genre fiction, festooned as it is with beautiful language. There is good and bad, and that depends on your preference and point of view. So long as you are reading, and mindful about it, like what you like.

As Shaky Kane, the cartoonist said, don’t be cool, like everything.

I can read Austen then pick up Stephen King and feel the same rush of pleasure. I can move from King to Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen. I don’t bring my politics to the page, in that I am ruthlessly egalitarian. A good book is a good book and sometimes a bad book can be entertaining in the way a bad movie can be, but the time invested in a bad movie can be collaborative joy whereas we seldom read together, unless it’s to our children. Or a book club but that’s in retrospect.

So, at the moment I have finished My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates which was stunning and biting in it’s pain and satire, a fictionalised account of the JonBenet Ramsay case, which has come to attention after the recent documentary. It combines different textures, ramps the unreliable narrator volume up to full and ends on a note of hopeful redemption that unmanned me a little bit but you read at 0400, you deal with what hits you. I’ve now started Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong, who’s been a genre author that has a snappy, smart style that amuses and entertains me.

In other news, editing on Until She Sings is going well, it’s humbling to see where you were and where you are on the page. Much like going through a photo album and seeing that the light in your eyes hasn’t changed all that much.

Thank you for reading.

 

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Two Pages (04/10/16)

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  • It was a good two pages this morning. I’m always wary of these scenes, they’re important and I try to balance the need for pace and information with the tenets of solid writing. The one applied to this morning was that if you have two characters talking, they should not tell one another things that they both know. Revelations matter in the context of the book, and I have this nagging suspicion that the scene is too early in the book, but it needed to come out and so it did.
  • I chose the quote above, as much because I agree with it’s sentiments and Sarah Waters has become part of my lexicon of ‘go to’ writers, in that I will read anything of their work. I include:
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Stephen King
  • Joe Hill
  • Paul Tremblay
  • Alice Hoffman
  • Warren Ellis
  • Chuck Palahniuk
  • Don Winslow
  • Stephen Hunter
  • George R R Martin
  • Jason Arnopp
  • Justin Cronin
  • Neil Gaiman
  • John Connolly
  •  Benjamin Percy
  •  Gillian Flynn.
  • John Niven
  • John Irving
  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • In terms of writers who’ve no longer offered up work on account of, y’know, death I have started to explore Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen.  There’s so much to learn and I am finding new authors all the time. Yesterday, I found out that I can take up 15 books out at a time from the library and it was such a relief because I could do that twice over and still find things to read.

 

  • Non-fiction, the stuff that informs the books and hopefully shows that I am speaking from a place of relative confidence in the details, that’s more a matter of finding the material that gives me the best information. The quality of the writing matters there, because I don’t enjoy struggling through stilted, if earnest writing to find information. Google is a modern miracle but I retain information from books in a more organic way.

 

  • I am not a pretentious person. I can be quite stoic, I enjoy being a man, which is an odd thing to say these days but I do. I like how my mind works, I enjoy seeing my work progress, even the wrestling with doubt that afflicts me about my talent is still enjoyable because it means that I am progressing, I am fighting myself for an ideal that I may not achieve. There are amazing books on shelves that no one reads, no one can predict what sells and what doesn’t. I’ve said it before, but I make my success about the process for now rather than the outcome.  Making myself write every day is a pleasurable practice, as much meditation as work. It’s like gardening on a sunny day, sometimes all you get is scratched and dirty, but when it’s done and you take a step back, it feels wonderful to have done it.
  • Writing has changed me, and the writing has changed as a result. I used any number of identities when I was avoiding writing, political activist was one of them and when they all hit barriers, I gave up. Writing is, and I remember the comedienne Bethany Black, the thing that I have found that I don’t want to fail at anymore. I write for, and about women because that was what came out on the page and I like to leave a certain amount of the reasoning and process in my subconscious. If I started to truly analyse myself, there are limits that we apply in the journey. What comes up is what gets put out there, and so there are women of all types in my books, and there’s no manifesto to that other than to tell a good story as well as I can. To get good at it without necessarily defining what good is other than the reaction of the reader.

Thank you for reading. Please leave comments and questions below. You won’t because no one reads this but I do it regardless. We all need to create and sit in what Hakim Bey called ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’, liminal spaces where we can think, speak and play without fear of judgement or scorn. This is mine. Tell me yours.

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Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates

 

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I knew as much as most people did about Marilyn Monroe. Singing happy birthday to the president, marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, a lonely and abrupt death, the shot of her stood over the grate, the eyes and the hair and lips.

What Blonde does, is show you her soul and her mind. It showed me that she was a passionate, frangible talent who never truly had that recognized. That her image was exploited, as much by herself as by others and that it denied her the integrity that she deserved. That there is sometimes a trade between beauty and substance that undermines both. Joyce Carol Oates weaves in fact with fiction, she found the anguish within Norma Jeane Baker and made it real. She has a frankness of insight that is oftentimes painful to read through, but it’s the good kind, where you are made to feel something of substance and are educated in an unsentimental compassion.

Norma Jeane was brought alive to me, if this is a myth, then it is a good myth that allows Oates to talk about the expectations that women experience on all levels, let alone those of Hollywood actresses. If you were about to audition for a reality television show, and you read this beforehand, then you would not go in. I did not wonder what was real and what was not because it all held a delicious, poignancy that made me keep reading and engaged at every turn.

There are points in the book that were punches to the gut in terms of how they delivered savage insights and I felt the loss of her, even though she was, before an image, an icon much copied and quoted, but seldom understood. She would have been ninety this year had she lived, and I wonder if in some parallel universe, she’s surrounded by children and grandchildren, a grand lady of theatre and film and laughing to herself at what have been.

There is beauty in damage, a dangerous kind and this book talks about it with a refreshing candour that keeps you engaged with it at every turn. I came away, feeling that I was given an insight into another human being and that she was just as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.

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High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates

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Synopsis:

A collection of darkly compelling tales from the unique imagination of Joyce Carol Oates.

A young professor is convinced she’s being followed, but when she confronts her shadow all is not as it seems…

A promising student attempts to save her brother from his descent into madness, but finds there may be more to his world than hers…

An elderly nun is found dead in her care home, but was it old age or dark secrets that killed her…

These biting and beautiful stories force us to confront, one by one, the demons within.

There are eight stories in total, each one is a different flavour of nightmare. Oates has a discipline of craft that allows her to go deep into the themes of each story, finding the mewling and wide eyed humanity in the most disparate of places. It is couched in evocative, beautiful writing that has moments of malign poetry littered throughout.

She disturbs, challenges, provokes and all of it never feels gratuitous or pretentious. Each story does something to you, and the different characters and settings create a hypnagogic effect which leaves you reeling. She channels female anxiety and emotion to intense effect, and she writes men with an unnerving accuracy, and sometimes even sympathy for them.

One story that made me deeply uncomfortable was The Rescuer, awash with a fever dream logic that dives into a vein of urban fear and ugliness that becomes an inexorable loop of failure and anguish. She adapts her authorial voice to the needs of the story, never retreating behind affectation or pretension. She does the work needed and the result is a collection of stories that claw at your insides long after you’ve finished reading them.

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Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates

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Synopsis:

Meet Quentin P. He is a problem for his professor father and his loving mother, though of course they do not believe the charge of sexual molestation of a minor that got him in that bit of trouble.

He is a challenge for his court-appointed psychiatrist, who nonetheless is encouraged by the increasingly affirmative quality of his dreams and his openness in discussing them.

He is a thoroughly sweet young man for his wealthy grandmother, who gives him more and more, and can deny him less and less.

Joyce Carol Oates takes us deep into the mind of a sexual psychopath. His diary is self-serving, playing to Oates’ strengths as a complete mastery of the unreliable narrator, finding the humanity and an empathy for someone who goes on to cause terrible suffering to people, and by proxy, a deep unease in the reader.

She uses repetition to great effect.  There’s an insane, desperate poetry to the book and an appalling frankness, especially during the sections where he undergoes the cycle of tension and release as he explains his process, to create an utterly passive slave using the surgical techniques of lobotomy. It is not an easy read, but one that stays with you long after the final page.

It is short, too, which is something of a relief. Oates does not dwell too long in Quentin’s head, knowing when to leave us with the horrifying void that he will continue until he is caught. The justifications that he has, the way that he finds ways around the prohibitions that he sets himself are all entirely human and yet the degradation is inexorable and gradual. He knows love, but is entirely lost from the start, slipping further away and taking us part of the way.

Oates is a recent discovery for me but she’s become a fast favourite, and she’s got a massive amount of work to discover. She captures the humanity of someone that we often keep at a distance, frightened of what it says about us if we find any common ground with them. It is loosely based on Jeffrey Dahmer but resists straight up biography in favour of something more disturbing and intimate.

You’ll be ‘bleeding from blue guts’ by the time you finish Zombie.

 

 

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Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates

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Synopsis:

Andrew J. Rush has achieved the kind of critical and commercial success most authors only dream about: He has a top agent and publisher in New York, and his twenty-eight mystery novels have sold millions of copies. Only Stephen King, one of the few mystery writers whose fame exceeds his own, is capable of inspiring a twinge of envy in Rush. But Rush is hiding a dark secret. Under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades,” he pens another string of novels—noir thrillers that are violent, lurid, masochistic. These are novels that the upstanding Rush wouldn’t be caught reading, let alone writing. When his daughter comes across a Jack of Spades novel he has carelessly left out, she picks it up and begins to ask questions. Meanwhile, Rush receives a court summons in the mail explaining that a local woman has accused him of plagiarizing her own self-published fiction. Before long, Rush’s reputation, career, and family life all come under threat—and in his mind he begins to hear the taunting voice of the Jack of Spades.

Joyce Carol Oates takes the notion of the unreliable narrator, the hidden wound and grafts it onto a discourse about writing, unconscious plagiarism, the fickle nature of literary fame and the allure of the alter ego. She adds to that a descent into madness, gaps in perception and the coruscating nature of madness. With all of that, she still grafts it onto a taut, implacable plot that seethes with narrative drive. She asks the question of whether the narrator is losing their mind early on but she witholds answering it until it’s too late. You’re a passenger in the front seat and the road ahead is horrific and uncertain.

The narration posits Rushford as a man who is at great pains to present himself as gentle and humble despite his success, happy with his lot in life who is hiding a secret when a legal summons begins to unravel his psyche. Oates maintains a nervous, pounding energy alive with devious justifications, over compensations and eventually confessions. It is not an orgy of violence, Oates understands that the horror comes from paying attention to the crime of impulse, the gentle man turned savage and the justifications afterwards. She writes carefully and deliberately, maintaining a pace that had me reading from when I picked it up until I was turning the last page with feverish focus.

Joyce Carol Oates is brilliant. Her work is red in tooth and claw, she tells compelling stories that pull the rug out from under your feet and as you catch your breath, she keeps telling the story that even pain cannot keep you from listening to.

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Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates

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I have not been disturbed so thoroughly as by this book. A little girl thrown to the mud and left to die by a disturbed mother and an insecure, passionate university president facing a professional crisis on a university campus.  The two events are connected and it is as they converge that we descend into a shifting, remorseless world as uncertain and treacherous as the mud that the girl is pulled from, mute and scalped, called there by an illiterate trapper.

The book holds two narratives in parallel, managing to bring in the viciousness of campus politics, the impact of the invasion of Iraq, the increasing polarity of the social justice movements on both the left and right, the insecurities of relationships and the way that childhood creates the adult in both positive and negative ways, and how love can allow us to overcome the worst possible beginnings. Oates writes in a feverish, capable prose exploring the surface details before diving deep into the personal mythology and psychology of a woman who has spent so long building an identity that when she finds it challenged, that she begins to descend into a personal hell where her past returns to confront her at the worst possible time.

It’s a book that seethes like a bolus of snakes, written beautifully and constructed in a way that takes you with the narrator into her reality and her attempts to hold onto her self with a care and attention that disturbs and challenges but keeps you reading and involved with the personal mythology that is established and returned to, throughout the book.

A brilliant and disturbing book that left me unnerved and inspired in equal measure.