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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

First Five - A Season of Short Plays

The last time I wrote a play for performance was when I was a student at Kingston Poly in London, reading Literature, History, Philosophy, Politics... that sort of thing.  I didn't actually write the entire play, but was part of a group of budding authors who all contributed, under the mentorship of playwright and writer-in-residence, Olwen Wymark.  She listened to our ideas, interpreted them, gave them shape and ultimately did the bulk of the writing.  We ended up with a play called The Encounter, about an Encounter Group meeting which is busted by the police, and I don't remember much more about it than that, except I was somehow conned into performing the role of a detective during its performance.

Last year, however, a few other writers and myself were invited to each write a short, one act play for the Port Fairy Theatre Group.  I hadn't a clue what I'd end up with when I agreed, but certainly didn't think it'd turn out as a comedy, nor that my interpretation of 'short' was a little longer than other people's interpretations.  Be that as it may, Virtual Reality and four other plays are being performed in the Port Fairy Lecture Hall, Sackville Street, on Friday 26th February (7:30 pm), Saturday 27th February (7:30 pm) and Sunday 28th February (2:00 pm).  Tickets available from the Visitor Information Centre or online from Trybooking.com/KGSD.  Further details above.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Once Upon A Land In A Time Far, Far Away




What makes the best first sentence for a novel?

Authors and publishers strive for openings that hook the reader and start reeling them in: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page... all the way through to the last line.  But while there are many ways of casting that first sentence, it isn't unusual for an author to start a story by acknowledging there is no such place as a beginning.

George Eliot does precisely this with the opening motto to Daniel Deronda (1876): 'Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning.'

And Graham Greene has his narrator, Maurice Bendrix, begin The End of the Affair (1951) with the observation: 'A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look forward.' 


Such statements might be seen as leaning towards the Dear Reader equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, but Italo Calvino embraces this element of metafiction with the decisiveness of a sledge hammer in his opening sentence to If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979): 'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.'  Smash!

Alexandre Dumas, père, knew how to string out a sentence, and though it may well have appealed to a nineteenth century reader, at 148 words, the opening to The Black Tulip [La Tulipe Noir] (1850) may feel torturous to modern readers: 'On the 20th August, 1672, the city of the Hague, always so lively, so neat, and so trim that one might believe every day to be Sunday, with its shady park, with its tall trees, spreading over its Gothic houses, with its canals like large mirrors, in which its steeples and its almost Eastern cuppolas are reflected, - the city of the Hague, the capital of the Seven United Provinces, was swelling in all its arteries with a black and red stream of hurried, panting and  restless citizens, who, with their knives in their girdles, muskets on their shoulders, or sticks in their hands, were pushing on to the Buytenhof, a terrible prison, the grated windows of which are still shown, where, on the charge of attempted murder preferred against him by the surgeon Tyckelaer, Cornelius de Witt, the brother of the Grand Pensionary of Holland was confined.'

Charles Dickens was no slack when it came to long sentences either, but at least the opening of A Tale of Two Cities (1859) draws on rhetoric and rhythm as bait for the hook: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.'

Of course, art borrows from art, builds on it, gives the occasional nod to what's come before, and Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956) appears to doff its hat to A Tale of Two Cities with its first paragraph: 'This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying... but nobody thought so.  This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice... but nobody admitted it.  This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks... but nobody loved it.'


The Bible has provided one or two memorable lines across the centuries, but the opening of the Book of John (New Testament) builds on a sentence stem that remains popular to this day: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’  Literature offers many variations of this simple opening (From the very beginning... Ever since the beginning... It began with...), although Hermann Hesse directly references the Bible (and possibly takes a stab at it) in opening Peter Camenzind (1904) with: 'In the beginning was the myth.'

Articles about first lines in novels are not uncommon, although most of these tend to draw their examples from such a limited pool of classics that it’s now possible to recognise where they originate without ever having read the novel in question.  For example, few people would fail to recognise the source of 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife' or 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.'

On the whole, novelists seem to favour first sentences that establish either a sense of place, situation and character, or that create intrigue through ambiguity.  John Fowles chooses the former in The Magus (1966/1977): 'I was born in 1927, the only child of middle class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.'  As does Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner (2003): 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.'  It can also be seen in Nick Hornby's How to be Good (2001): 'I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don't want to be married to him anymore.'  And in Sarah Waters' Fingersmith (2002): 'My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder.' While in Tirra Lirra by the River (1978), Jessica Anderson establishes the particular, if only to dismiss it: 'I arrive at the house wearing a suit - greyish, it doesn't matter.' 


It would be a surprise if Kurt Vonnegut's  Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) began in any other way than with an ambiguity: 'All this happened, more or less.'  And the first line to The Go-Between (1953) by L.P.Hartley remains a favourite in this category: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'  But perhaps the most effective first lines are those which both establish a sense of place, situation and character at the same time as creating a keen intrigue.

Mark Haddon achieves this in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003), not so much with the opening sentence ('It was 7 minutes after midnight.'), but by choosing to begin the novel with Chapter 2 rather than Chapter 1. 

Ralph Ellison's opening 'I am an invisible man' is powerful, except the impact on the reader is somewhat diminished for this information having already been revealed in the book's title: Invisible Man (1952).

But one of the most effective opening sentences of all time, as far as using a range of strategies to hook the reader, still belongs to Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis [Die Verwandlung] (1915): 'When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.'

While Charles Bukowski creates a memorable first line in Post Office (1971) with 'It began as a mistake', it is the final paragraph of this novel that remains one of my favourites, and although final paragraphs don't generate as much publicity as first lines - after all, the reader has been well and truly reeled in by that point - it seems an appropriate, Happy Ever After place to end this particular piece: 'In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.  Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.  And then I did.' 

Happy reading!

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Big Questions

One of the things I love about literature is its ability to ask the big questions in life.

This from Cyanide & Happiness (explosm.net) has got me in a state of existential angst out of empathy for gingerbread people everywhere.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Bad Sex awards (continued)

And the winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is... well, I'll let you check out the Literary Review's site for yourself.

It would be interesting to know whether this award boosts sales of the nominated books or not. Hmm, I wonder.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Good sex, bad sex

Good sex can be hard to write, or so it seems. It's certainly hard to please the critics, but then everyone probably has a different idea of what a good sex scene looks like, sounds like, reads like, feels like. It's become increasingly difficult to write sex in a novel without being mindful of the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, and to not tremble at the knees slightly... in anticipation of being damned. These aren't quite the literary equivalent of the Darwin Awards, although they might feel that way to some authors. Nonetheless, there's usually a fair bit of purple prose floundering about in the nominated extracts, and they're always good for a read. Enjoy.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Angela Carter - always fireworks

Angela Carter is one of those writers I keep coming back to. I love the rich density of her prose.  The Company of Wolves is one of my all-time favourite short stories.  Her prose is like reading the best poetry.  Not the sort of poetry that seems deliberately inaccessible, as if this somehow proves a poet's worth, but because her sentences - her paragraphs - allow themselves to be peeled back, like a lover's clothes, layer after layer, to reveal the finest, most delicate of truths.

I recently highlighted this final paragraph from her short story A Souvenir of Japan, which appears in the Fireworks anthology:
So we lived under a disorientated moon which was as angry a purple as if the sky had bruised its eye, and, if we made certain genuine intersections, these only took place in darkness.  His contagious conviction that our love was unique and desperate infected me with an anxious sickness; soon we would learn to treat one another with the circumspect tenderness of comrades who are amputees, for we were surrounded by the most moving images of evanescence, fireworks, morning glories, the old, children.  But the most moving of these images were the intangible reflections of ourselves we saw in one another's eyes, reflections of nothing but appearances, in a city dedicated to seeming, and, try as we might to possess the essence of each other's otherness, we would inevitably fail.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

New York, New York - a matter of joining the dots

Today I came across an article I wrote 5 years ago, which I haven't done anything with, so thought I'd post it here.  It was written shortly after visiting New York, using a style I was playing around with at that time.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m no more a couch potato than the next spud person, but there are benefits to staying home and exploring the world through TV, a DVD or a good book.  After all, why travel to Britain when I can watch The Bill or Midsomer Murders?  Why visit Rome when Dan Brown will take me places no tour guide could?  Why fly to America when almost every film and television series brings it to me at the flick of a switch?  Think of all the unpleasant inoculations and visa applications we armchair tourists avoid.
    Recently though, my partner conjured up a few wild horses and dragged me off that couch, across a threshold or two and into the wider world.  To America, in fact – a long overdue visit to catch up with friends in Pennsylvania and to experience a slice of the world as they lived it.  However, I dug my heels down at the prospect of visiting New York.
    Thanks to its status as the prime-time, crime capital of the world, the place was too familiar.  I may not have grown up in New York, but I grew up in its shadow; either plonked in front of Cagney & Lacey or Kojak, or with West Side Story playing on my parents’ radiogram.  Almost every night of the week, I’m led down its long streets and narrow alleys with derivatives of Law & Order.
    As if this isn’t enough, each Spider-Man sequel catapults me back to a web of familiar territory.  I’ve seen the Empire State Building from every viewpoint, including that of an oversized chimp, who refuses to use the elevator to reach the top.  On more dignified occasions, I’ve joined Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember) and Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle) on its Observation Deck, and, courtesy of Andy Warhol, have stared at it for sleepless hours at night (Empire).  Times Square?  I know its hours and moods from Phone Booth, Vanilla Sky and I Am Legend, to name but a few.  The Chrysler Building?  Think Godzilla, Fantastic Four, Armageddon.  I’m no stranger to Grand Central (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, K-Pax, Men in Black) and could even find my way round the public library on Fifth Avenue, thanks particularly to The Day After Tomorrow, where I’ve empathetically spent days burning books to survive.  As for the Statue of Liberty – well, it’s been threatened with every apocalyptic scenario imaginable and succumbed to many.  Hollywood’s directors can’t resist having a shot or two of the torch poking above floodwaters or smashed to the ground, it seems.  The bigger the icon, the more frequent it falls.  Yep, the likes of Independence Day and X-Men have been my Lonely Planet guides for many years.
    If travelling is about seeing new places and trying new flavours, I argued, then why waste time with the Big Apple?  All the same, common sense and those wild horses prevailed.  We were flying into Newark and from JFK, and somewhere either side of exploring Pennsylvania we had a couple of days to spare.  Besides, I was told, it might be a different experience visiting the place off-screen.
    Stepping from Penn Station, the act of hailing a cab to our hotel was second nature.  And the drive brought with it a sense of déjà vu.  How many films had placed me in the back of a yellow cab with a monosyllabic driver?  It was tempting to tap on the plexiglass partition and shout: “Follow that cab.”  But there were a million cabs – as I knew there’d be – and it wasn’t a matter of following anything as nosing slowly forward one moment and accelerating swiftly the next.  Slow-slow-quick-quick-slow.  Manhattan was a tango of taxi cabs, from one block to the next, and a cacophony of horns, but at least I didn’t feel lost: the streets were eerily familiar.  Momentarily gridlocked, I took heart from the bold message carved in stone across the magnificent General Post Office on Eighth Avenue: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”




    Although cinema and television images may affect how we perceive the world, they don’t necessarily make it appear smaller or more accessible, but larger and imposingly dysfunctional.  Enough to make us turn the couch into a cocoon at times.  While this may be a consequence of the stories we’re presented with – the extremities of crime, romance, terror and fortune – and their tendency to polarise our view of people and places, it’s also because the camera rarely takes us on complete journeys from A—Z.  The camera pops up in key locations at critical moments, allowing us to glean only a superficial appreciation of what appear to be separate dots in a puzzle or a picture: Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall, Times Square.  We see them as iconic representations of an American city, without understanding where they stand in relation to one another or the lines that join them together, or how they’d be if there was no dramatic crisis.
    Similarly, we rarely learn how ordinary people act when it’s not an act and when there’s no credits trailing a performance, or how it’d be to walk alongside them from one set of traffic lights to the next as they head home after work, or to the cinema, or to see a show on Broadway.  We never learn how it’d be to sit beside them on the subway or in a bus, when, instead of being cast as extras in some grisly drama, they’re smiling or helpful or willing to share a joke.
    If I’d formed the impression that the streets would be a crush, where no one would have time for a smile and a courtesy, and that the subway would be a seedy environment where muggings were commonplace, then I soon discovered how wrong I was.  As for the notion that this most-filmed location in the world was, at core, a vast grid of anonymous, modern, concrete monoliths, stretching from one cinematic horizon to the next – forget it.  Not true.
    As the hub of New York, Manhattan is compact, but has many facets to its character.  It may be renowned for its skyscrapers, but, in this respect alone, is a stunning celebration of classical Beaux-Arts, Art Deco magnificence and breath-taking Modernism.  Whether interested in architecture or not, it’s difficult not to stop at every corner to marvel at the sculptural qualities of buildings and how the features of one are reflected in the glass of another.  It’s difficult not to be impressed by the sheer, ballroom grandeur of Grand Central, or the gleaming dynamism of the Chrysler Building, with its spire of tiered arches reminiscent of radiator grills and its eagle-head gargoyles stretching forward like bonnet badges for sleek and stately automobiles.
    Details such as these – or their absence – refine a visitor’s impressions, but, in Manhattan, it’s possible to discover an abundance of such details quickly and without too many blisters.  In little more than an hour, as we headed to a performance of West Side Story (of course) at Palace Theater, we strolled from the Chrysler Building to Grand Central, to the spectacular Rockefeller Plaza and Radio City, to Broadway and the glitziness of Times Square, with stunning views of the Empire State Building on the way.  We could’ve visited these places on one of many open-top bus tours, but there’s something about treading the pavements and congregating at intersections to wait for the lights to change, being amongst the accents and interactions of people, that makes you part of the human theatre of the everyday rather than remote observers behind a windscreen... or a television screen.  A matter of joining the dots.
    Not only did New York reveal itself as a cultured city, with its fine restaurants, excellent galleries and heritage of architectural design, but the streets felt safe enough to walk several blocks back to our hotel after the show.  There were no drive-by shootings, no robberies-gone-bad spilling from 7-11s, no vigilantes patrolling the streets – just a few homeless individuals sleeping in doorways, minding their own business.  Maybe this is something a few film and TV producers should know.
    While there’s a limit to how much city can be discovered in 48 hours, it’s a fair gauge of how much you’ve enjoyed a place if you leave wishing you’d been dragged there sooner and for longer.  While we found time to explore its subway, streets and avenues, to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park and the Empire State Building up-close, to eat lunch in Central Park and enjoy a slice of the Museum of Modern Art, I left with the sense that there was considerably more I wanted to discover than when I’d arrived, and that I’d like to return before long.  Next time, though, I might exchange those wild horses for reindeer and a Christmas schedule, so I can address a whole swag of festive films (especially my childhood favourite, Miracle on 34th Street) and see snow banked along the sidewalk, hot air venting from the subway through pavement grills, illuminated Christmas trees and open air ice rinks – New York garlanded for the romance of winter.
    Until then, I’ll recall a few words that one of New York’s sons, Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn), offered to travellers of all sorts: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”  They’re words that could be carved in granite across the entrance to a railway station or an airport.  They’re words to appreciate when ensconced on a couch, watching an episode of Law & Order or Spider-Man 4, or while waiting for the reindeer to arrive.



Saturday, April 25, 2015

Legend Press celebrates 10 years - a reflection

Legend Press is 10 years old this week.  And that's no mean feat.  Under the healthiest of circumstances it can be a struggle for independent publishers to survive, let alone start up and maintain consistent growth during these last 10 years in particular, what with the GFC and the advent of digital books - both of which left many publishers wringing their hands and forecasting the end of the world as we knew it.  It's an impressive achievement.

Through the circuitous route of having my first novel taken on by Keirsten Clark at PaperBooks in 2007, which was then absorbed by Tom Chalmers' Legend Press in 2008, I have been with this publishing house for 7 of those years, and have watched it grow into Legend Times.  It seems an appropriate time to do a bit of navel-gazing.

It's certainly been a steep learning curve for me as an author, pushing out two novels and being involved in an anthology of short stories, with a few accompanying ups and downs, and I can only imagine what a crazy mountain it must have been to actually build a business from scratch - or from an internet café, as Tom Chalmers notes.  On the whole, though, I feel fortunate to have been involved and it's an experience I'd jump at to repeat if I was to have my time over again, à la Groundhog Day.

One of the most challenging parts of the process for me was when, shortly before The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore was due to be published, I heard that the future of PaperBooks was in doubt and my novel was put on hold.  For a while it felt as if I'd got within spitting distance of a long-sought after goal (not that I tend to spit as a rule) only to have to start from scratch again - too much like losing at Snakes & Ladders.  However, it was then that Legend Press, who were marginally bigger and better resourced than PaperBooks at the time, took over, and although the initial publication date was pushed back a year it was finally launched with all the fanfare I could have wished for.

There's been other hiccoughs and challenges along the way, of course, most of which are amusing with hindsight and which add value to the experience as a whole.  For instance, finding myself about to launch The Grease Monkey's Tale in Port Fairy, with over a hundred invitations issued but, thanks to delays with the postal service and customs, and despite a flurry of emails between Legend Press in London and myself, having not a single book to sell.  I was beginning to panic and make alternative plans for what would be an extended reading to a handful of people, with an excess of wine and finger food on hand, while Tom kept assuring me the books would arrive... which they did, with an hour or two to spare!

One of the most valuable aspects of the relationship I've had with PaperBooks/Legend Press involves the editing process.  While many authors seem to dislike or distrust the notion of an editor 'tinkering' with their book, it is part of the writing process I enjoy the most, and yet, having worked with three editors, the approach has been different each time.  Keirsten at PaperBooks was primarily interested in the play of the ideas, rather than the words, and it was she who suggested I consider foreshadowing the end more obviously at the beginning, as well as emphasising some of the darker elements.  Tom and Lauren (with Grease Monkey and At the Rawlings' Place respectively) both focused, albeit from different angles, on ways to improve the value of a word, the logic of a paragraph - that wonderful stripping of redundant words and phrases which helps to reveal or reinforce far more than what is being said.  All three editors helped me look at my writing from a new perspective and helped me shape a stronger story.  They each provided insights I have been able to pick up and carry forward.

And on that note, I'll say, well done and congratulations, Legend Press.  May you continue to grow and publish for another ten years.  Happy birthday!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reading: Robert Aickman - Dark Entries

What I'm reading very often shapes how I'm writing, and what I'm writing very often shapes what I choose to read.

In recent months, I've been reading Susan Hill's ghost stories (thanks to a recommendation from author Dmetri Kakmi) as well as treating myself to the occasional Raymond Chandler.  Reading Chandler's prose is like wallowing in warm water; so delicious and comfortable I'd happily drift along with it until I was no good for anything else.  However, my interest in Susan Hill's writing is a little less self-indulgent, reflecting as it does my current immersion with the ghosty-ghouly genre. OOooooh!

Her style of writing in these short novels is pleasantly (and deliberately, I imagine) reminiscent of Victorian ghost stories, although they're often set in an indistinct and less-easily identifiable period of time that might fall anywhere from the 1920s onwards.  In reading her, I'm reminded of some old favourites: W.W.Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw, Charles Dickens' The Signal-Man and an anthology of ghost stories I read as a teenager.  But, in turn, reading her has led me to the work of  Robert Aickman, whose name I wasn't previously familiar with.




Aickman's 'strange stories', as he preferred to call them, are masterful in creating unease and warping the reader's sense of normality.  Each story in his first collection 'Dark Entries' generates the feeling that not everything is what it seems to be and that innocence can transform into menace all too easily.  There's a surreal quality about these stories too, and by the time I'd finished reading them I found myself thinking about another old favourite - Angela Carter (particularly Fireworks, Heroes & Villains, The Bloody Chamber) - but also looking for new directions: M.R.James, H.P.Lovecraft, Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake perhaps.