Sunday, April 29, 2007

Santa Fe

I'm off to Santa Fe in the morning, for the month of May ... returning to our home there for the first time in six years. It's like stepping back into your own history.

So I'll be checking in with the ravens, the hummingbirds, the ponderosa grove, the rocky outcrop we call the bear stones, listening out for the coyote howls at night, and meeting up with old friends. I'm sure I'll blog occasionally but won't have the same wifi access ... and it may well suit me just to go quiet for a while, manuscript book in hand, seeing what stirs. So if I seem to go quiet, you know where I am.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tacit Hill

I attended a merry lunch at Essenza in Notting Hill the other day, an early board meeting which played with dreams for the future of Tacit Hill a new publishing house. Visionary books of high quality was the rough sum of it.

Tacit Hill is launching with a new book by the sculptor Emily Young, Time in the Stone. Its front cover no words, simply what seems to be a picture of the sun. This is in fact Emily's 'Solar Disc II' from 2006, a large polished disc made from Chalcedony. The book is highly absorbing, images of Emily's work posed against blackness, with occasional pictures from space to set the work in context. carved and polished from ancient stone, there's no reason why these works should not outlast humanity.

Very much an artwork, the promise of Tacit Hill books to also sing out some new inroads into science shows promise n that the the New Scientist is set to feature the book in a two page spread. The book's introduction by Richard Fortey likely helps that transition.

Emily has a new show opening in the crypt of London's St Pancras Church on May 14th. The last built a true following on word of mouth, 1000 visitors a day showing up at weekends ... for a more tranquil viewing, arrange to visit in the early days.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Haldane Proofs


I've just finished reading through and correcting my J. S. Haldane proofs, Suffer & Survive almost put to bed. I remain highly pleased with the book, in some childlike way of brimming enthusiasm. The part I'm possibly most chuffed with is the Pikes Peak chapter, the tale of the 1911 Oxford-Yale expedition up the Colorado mountain for five weeks of intense altitude work on the summit. This one was clearly of fundamental importance to J. S. Haldane and his colleagues, but was the hardest one to dramatize in that I felt the need to capture his own enthusiasm for the period. Visiting the mountain myself was vital, local newspaper sources valuable in adding necessary detail to go alongside the private letters and official report. The photo here comes from the Wolfson College Archives, a partial scan of the photo that used to hang on Haldane's laboratory wall. Presumably it was taken by the official Pikes Peak railway photographer of the time, J, G. Hiestand.

One interesting factor about the book. It's to be published in August at 14.99 pounds, one pound cheaper than my first novel back in 1992, and even so available for 9.89 on Amazon. Little else can have dropped in price that way over the last 15 years.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lawrence Durrell, Sommiere and the Camargue

Here's a question. Name me an English town in which the residency of a foreign writer is celebrated. Outside of Stratford and its Shakespeare industry, and Haworth and the Brontes, it's hard to think of instances where we even celebrate our own.

Sommiere (pictured) in France, north-east of Montpellier, lets you know at once that Lawrence Durrell spent the long and final portion of his life there. his house stands on the outskirts of town, and a Lawrence Durrell society runs a museum in his name and honour in the centre, to which signs point all tourists. Hooray for the French and their appreciation of writers. It's remarkable how the streets of the smallest town are often named after writers.

Our Sommiere stopover (in honour of Durrell, whose writngs helped forge our own beings as writers) was en route to the Camargue. The prime goal was more birding, the best sighting being the red-footed falcon, the funniest being the crowds of flamingoes, the most elusive the Cettis warblers singing in the reedbeds. the wite ponies and black hulls are emblematic of the area, though as tourism goes it's all somewhat like catching the melting snows on Kilimanjaro. Should the seas rise minimally, this unique habitat will be destroyed. For now it's like finding cowboy country on the Med.

Monday, April 23, 2007

PhD in Creative Writing - the novel-writing aspect

When Glasgow University first raised the spectre of granting PhDs for creative writing in around 1990, the local newspapers published a 'doctorates for the boys' type of interview with the departmental panel, in which the selectors considered just making the award to the writer of their favourite novels. Times have changed ... and I'm sure those original Glaswegians soon came across some committee which fitted academic standards around their aspirations.

Why bother with a PhD in creative writing rather than simply buckle down in the old solo way and write another fine novel (for a writing pedigree is expected for PhD candidates)? One dull response is that it gives you the ultimate academic ratification if you want to pursue a career in teaching creative writing.

Another fine reason, which happened to be my own, was that it provided a challenging and responsive audience for a work that had become seminal to me. My novel Ectopia is set sixteen years into a world in which no more females have been born. It is narrated by the gay male twin of the last girl born. Dystopian literature of this type is never going to be the easiest fit for commercial publishers. My embryonic novel was clearly so charged with personal material that I had to write it for an audience rather than for myself, because I had to go beyond myself, I had to separate the book from my own biography. I hadn't the heart to go through the years of writing the book for an industry that was likely to dismiss it. No editor would give me the ongoing editorial support I needed, and it was too much to ask of a friend. I needed readers who would engage with the book, apply the very highest standards to it, drive me forward so the book realized its potential.

I found my own such readers at Lancaster University, in my supervisors Graham Mort and Lee Horsley with an external reader in Sara Maitland. Each submission of the work in progress was accompanied by a commentary by myself, and elicited a commentary in response (conducted in distance learning mode, through email). My work was both appreciated and challenged. Finally, when I was sure it was complete, I was informed that it wasn't. My readers placed fingers on raw areas and rubbed away. Basically, I was not allowed to 'make do'. My readers were highly perceptive and articulate, with the power to have their misgivings taken heed of. I suppose writers do retain the right to say 'Enough! This is my book! I'm not changing it!' and would probably get away with it. As a teacher you're likely to stop if your student gives up. For me, a PhD is truly a commitment on both sides to drive the work into its ultimate form.

Writing within a set of very real demands (academics set literary standards, and are judging a work against all of literature rather than any current mode) is different from writing to meet publishers' expectations. My first novel On Bended Knees received sterling reviews, was shortlisted for the Whitbread prize, and I am fond of it, but in writing it I determined to cut back anything a publisher might think too strange. I had had my work turned down as 'too remarkable'. On Bended Knees was supposed to have been about a boy who became a rabbit and burrowed beneath the Berlin Wall, bringing east and West together. Clearly 'too remarkable'. So rabbits appear, the boy appears, but no transmutation.

For my PhD I took a different vow. Rather than 'remove anything too remarkable,' it was 'impose no self censorship'. I also took account of one negative factor from reviews of my earlier published works. I had deliberately left my books open in some way, leaving readers to resolve the books in their own way, but some reviewers still yearned for authorial resolution so I determined to reach that with Ectopia. These were real challenges. I wasn't just writing a new novel, I was writing a PhD. I needed to raise the bar for myself into producing something exceptional.

It's worked in terms of the novel. Ectopia is now all I hoped it could be. And in commercial terms the novel is as threatening as I expected. It sent my then-fiction-agent for it into sleepless nights, hallucinations, calming himself with a flow of whisky sours ... and is now with an agent with a stronger stomach and genuine excitement for the work.

A thesis accompanied the PhD ... perhaps the toughest part of the whole assignment, and more on that and the viva anon. Even on its own though, a novel written for a PhD can, and should, be an exciting venture breaking new ground.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

You've gotta laf


My first West End show, on a family outing years ago, was 'There's a Girl in my Soup.' Saturday I went to a new outing from another farce of the same era, Marc Camoletti's Boeing Boeing at London's Comedy Theatre. Farce is a wondrous mix of the utterly vacious and some bright shining genius, melodramatic and overplayed yet also played as tightly as can be, the fun of knowing what is coming and the joy of the actual unravelling. The cast was pitch perfect, especially Michelle Gomez making a saurkraut meal out of the German accent of her character, the air stewardess Gretschen. I love the sheer craftsmanship of great farce. Three hours of unalloyed laughter, real characters and even a happy ending, is a tonic.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Close Reading

This is a week of close reading. Yesterday I sent off my final edits for Mentoring and Creative Writing, the book I have written with Sara Maitland which should be released this summer. This morning the postman buzzed, and the proofs of Suffer and Survive, my new J. S. Haldane bio (out August 6th), were laid before me.

I quite enjoy this stage. There's little can be done to the text, only appreciate its typography and stay attentive for the typoes. Instead I read and marvel, my eyes smarting with appreciation for all the book has become. I am very fond of this book, so glad to have come to know J. S. Haldane through it. He is now an established feature on my dinner party wishlist, inviting any figures from the past.

One odd thing about writing books is that you seldom get to read the work in book form. You fondle that finished product, reposition it in bookstores, admire it, read selections aloud to audiences, but never sit down and really enjoy it. The proofs is as close as you get to such unsullied reading. Since this work is filled with stories and knowledge that I never had, I feel quite sweetly disassociated from it ... truth to tell, I'm somewhat revelling in the tale.

(The picture shows J. S. Haldane doing some close reading of his own, on the Acropolis in Athens, 1936)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

My summer of short stories


My summers tend to be themed, often through food ... so a year ago it was melon summer, the year before that samphire summer. This summer is more cultural, the summer of short stories.

The City of Derby Writing Competitions are gathering pace. Jane Draycott is judging the poetry section, while I am judging the short stories. It's quite pleasant to curl up on the sofa and read through a fresh batch. Every one I have read so far has been an honest work with some real merit and occasional sustained excellence. Some are transferred to a pile for a final end of summer read-off, when the final winners will emerge. I'm pleased to see the class of entries the competition is attracting.

Anonymity really is guaranteed. I find I sometimes make guesses at the gender of the writer, but expect I am often wrong. I have set that gender-spotting task to writing classes, and found that when the class reaches a consensus they are actually often wrong.

The competition has a modest 3 pound entry fee (no-one's getting rich out of this) and strikes me as genuinely out to promote literary talent. I'm not on commission, in fact the fewer the entries the easier my job, but since this is my summer of stories after all why not send a good one of your own my way? Who knows, we could be meeting up in Derby on October 17th, the awards day that's part of their Writing Festival. I grew up on the outskirts of Derbyshire, so look forward to returning.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Cory Doctorow's snailmail

In moving about, I set up a mailbox on the Strand. A piece of mail had slipped in from the neighbouring mailbox when we collected a whole bunch today - curiously a piece for Cory Doctorow, the scifi writer and internet buff at 306 as against our 307. A weird piece of virtual happenstance.

So if you're missing your Wired subscription renewal, Cory, don't worry - it's on its way back to you.

A writer at the fair

Starting my own publishing house is an idea that bubbles in the back of my mind. That's largely what takes me to the London Book Fair. I'm just back from its third venue in three years, the much more comfortable Earls Court.

My publishing idea simmers on, takes different forms, but as a writer it's a relief to have a team of publishers do all that work. I met with my Simon and Schuster editor plus the publisher of my last novel, while agents presumably were working on my behalf in the rights centre. All as it should be.

A sustainable publishing debate I attended seemed somewhat stuck on the question of sustainably harvested or recycled paper (happily Simon and Schuster has the paper of my new biography authenticated as sustainable, so I can sleep easy). Google hauled in three publishers to add to the propaganda of their Google booksearch. Springer and Cambridge University Press have shipped tens of thousands of books out to Google, at Google's expense, to be digitized. They see it as an effective marketing tool for their unsupported backlist. It seems clear to me that they'll never bother to digitize their own stock when e-commerce for books takes off (Springer admitted to difficulty in even locating copies of 10,000 of their backlist titles), and Google will be left holding a vast library of digitized material for sale from its own commercial site, handing a portion of the proceeds to publishers till the copyright expires and they have it all for free.

Hey ho. I'm a writer. I guess I can leave them all to it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Prue Leith and me

Prue Leith's Cookery Bible is one of the staples on my bookshelf, for whenever I forget how to best roast a pheasant. The lady has now joined me on a list as well, her new novel coming out from Transita this August (click here for the new catalogue).

Years ago the feminist publishing house Virago had a male author slip onto its list, a middle-aged white English vicar masquerading as a young Indian girl. I remain the only male on Transita's growing list. Happily my entry was all above-board. My agent wanted me to come up with some female nom de plume but that seemed ridiculous. How can you help promote a novel when you are hiding behind a different name, short of full drag and a falsetto? Also I'm proud of my Transita novel Slippery When Wet. Transita's list is targeted at women readers over the age of 45, and I have been delighted at how important Slippery has been to such readers who have been in touch with me. I believe it's a great novel for any readership though - another reason for sticking to my male name.

Muriel Spark's Robinson was the most recent novel I've read, all the plot twists obvious from a third of the way through but the sparkle of the writing sustaining the pleasure (Muriel Spark, that combo of tweeness and edge, makes her one of the most appropriately named writers I know). My weekend book is my first Rachel Cusk, her new novel Arlington Park, with some delightfully wrought sentences. As I turn to reading bright women novelists, I suspect another novel is stirring to be released from my feminine side.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Claire Tomalin's Desk

Claire Tomalin's desk was featured in today's Guardian review. It was gloriously messy and so a great relief to see. My own desk has been nigh on invisible through these past months, as I worked on my biography of J. S. Haldane. As just about the best biographer going, it's good to have Tomalin's example fresh before me. Her desk even lacked what I most yearned for, that small square of clear surface on which one could place a notebook and take some notes by hand. Other people's lives are overwhelming in all the documentation they bring to light as you conjure them into your biography. I never actually got round to counting, but the range of sources I consulted each day went from something like fifty to the hundreds.

In interviewing Jim Salter the other day, the writer Will Fiennes tried to lure him into admitting to a shared feeling that the original writing is agony, and the joy of writing lies in the redrafting. Salter agreed, maybe just to be kind. I don't get it myself - it seems somewhat like suggesting that Michelangelo had to pass his own gallstone before getting to carve it. Writing is a joy. That's what I hope to get back to for a while. I came back from a walk to Hampstead today with two fresh manuscript books under my arm. Two novels are bubbling away inside of me, both of them fun, relying much more on imagination than research. This may be the novelist in me having fun with fantasies, but I look forward to getting back to the old days when I wrote novels out by fountain pen then typed them up on a typewriter. That typewriter stage I can let go of, but I like the notion of sitting down each day and storytelling for a few hours of a morning till a new novel has accumulated.

As my partner, who is addicted to tidiness as some God-given restraint to my own free-for-all way of living, notes, it will make my clearing up at the end of the day much simpler. All I'll have to do is close up my manuscript book and slot it on a shelf. All those biography notes won't need to be shuffled into some utterly false semblance of order for me to disassemble into my known piles the next day. The chaos can simply shift around unseen inside my head, waiting to dribble out sentence by sentence till we have a flow going.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Leucate of oysters, dwarf flowers and cuckoos

Staring out of the window and taking walks is such a part of the writing life that we’re taking day trips out to so as to surprise ourselves into vacation mode. Time in nature, fine food and wine, all can nudge writing plans out of my head for a time.

Yesterday we headed for a favourite place, the area around the lighthouse above the French Mediterranean town of Leucate. The plain looks like a Neolithic settlement, though in fact the low crumbling walls are apparently remnants of some ancient agriculture. Miniature flowers stem from the sand, tiny sea narcissi and dwarf yellow iris. The bird of the previous visit was the Thekla lark. This time we found the great spotted cuckoo. It only just reaches into this part of France from further south, and these birds were scoping out the territory after arriving. They favour magpies as surrogate parents for their eggs, kakking away their un-cuckoo-like cries as they establish their territory.

Culinary treat of the week were the Leucate oysters, fresh from the fishmongers in town. Elegant, juicy, highly biteable, they filled us with the taste of sea and set the whole head and body tingling with health.

Tomorrow we head away for a few days … a fine dine-and-stay option at a wondrously good manor farm near Montpellier, Blancardy, then on for some birding in the Camargue.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday, Pezilla de Conflent


Spring comes to our village, Pezilla de Conflent. The churchyard gets tidied up of its old crucifixes, clearing the way for more deaths and burials. Meanwhile I do my own best to shuck off the old and prepare for the new.

The spirit of deadlines is what I am set on being rid of, the way that each creative act can also become an onerous task, must get this one finished and out there and on with the next. It’s been a necessary part of the freelance life, but I can let go of it now.

The old cherry tree that was hacked down to its stumps has sprouted new branches and blossomed. Poppies have found themselves a fresh patch of field to colonize. Insects are pulled in to the fresh showing of flowers in the strip of garden by the front of the house, and lizards gather on the house’s old stone to spring them a welcome. All is coming right with the world.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Teaching Creative Writing . . . and Plymouth

“Can you teach creative writing?”

It’s one of those lame questions, as though writers just close off their conscious minds and let some disembodied genius flow through. It ignores all those elements of craft most writers learn through slog, though trial-and-error, through entering a writer’s work and seeing how it was wrought from the inside. It ignores the skill involved in registering some emotion as it is stirred in what you are reading, and troubling to work your way back to learn how it was achieved. It never even considers all the stuff that writers have to unlearn, all the habits and ways of thinking and manners of perception that need to be shaken down.

Can you help writers step back enough from their work so they can view it objectively? Can you train them to appreciate, challenge and support each other? Can you give them the confidence to dare and shock themselves? Can you lead them into seeing how rhythm works in their writing, how to write to achieve silence, how less can mean more, how just switching tense can give a piece a tremendous boost? Of course you can, and so much more besides.


Some worry that teaching creative writing stultifies your own creativity. Maybe it can. Everything can become a rut. But the teaching itself can be creative, and as you help other writers become more attentive to the minutiae and sweep of their own work, your own focus is improved. You learn too from drawing lessons out of passages from the great writers. And stay alive through entering the process as other writers, often much younger than you, discover their own unique voices. It’s hard for your own work to stay stuck when everyone around you is moving.

So I’m looking forward to my new role come July . . . teaching English and Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth, on the south west coast of England. There are ten in the department at the moment, so I’ll make number eleven, based in one of the villas you see in the bottom picture. Top picture is the new 36 million pound Levinsky Building that is opening in the Autumn – striking in itself, but still more striking is that a university is prepared to invest so much in the Arts. The university is a large one for the UK, housed in a compact city-centre campus, the English department recently moving into it from its previous country retreat. Creative Writing is active at the undergraduate level, with a thriving MA and a fledgling PhD programme. My new appointment is fresh investment in this strand of the department, and it’s encouraging to see how everybody is behind it. I’m excited at the prospect.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A shamanic novel - 'Far Inland' by Peter Urpeth

Most shamans I've met distrust other shamans. The onetime notion of shamans as nature's bankers, interceding between their population and the natural world so as to know which plants were right for consuming, which animals populations healthy enough to hunt sustainably, has worn threadbare. Their customers seek concoctions to give them victories in love and business, and shamans imbibe the likes of dattura to journey off on life-or-death missions beyond conscious realms in efforts to inflict defeat on rival shamans. My own shamanic book, I Was Carlos Castaneda, saw me enmeshed in the middle of one such shamanic battle. Shamanism has some romantic allure, but enmeshes participants in such a powerful field of illusions spiked with revelation that they easily become enraptured.

A new Scottish shamanic novel was nestling on a shelf at Foyles bookstore on London's Southbank. The opening page read well, so it travelled home with me. I had always felt shamanism should be as lively a thread in Scotland as it was in Siberia. The village priest in the highland village of Glencoe where I lived for some years felt himself to be surrounded by paganism, but when I was looking for appreciation of the sacredness of mountains, for recognition of mountains as independent beings, I found no active practice of such reverence in the culture.

For his novel Far Inland Peter Urpeth mined Inuit and Gaelic tales. We meet several generations of shamans, ending in present-day Sorley who has left his island home in the Outer Hebrides to run an antiquarian bookstore in the City. A very Scottish tilt sees his shamanic journeys triggered by the intake of massive doses of whisky. In Peru the trigger was ayahuasca. I suppose you take whatever you can get. The novel is grand at evoking the landscapes and the journeys in crisp and unfussy flights of detail, and has passages of language to delight in. Oddly after reading it I could remember the names of every character in the book, apart from the protagonist. Names are useful in interaction with other people, but Sorley’s progress through the book is away from all such human engagement. Just as he fled his island family, he ultimately flees his wife in the city to live alone on his island. Shamans cannot survive without understanding is his message, and cannot be understood in the city. He has moved far enough by the close of the book to realize that his newfound vocation as shaman does not need to be dramatic, it can simply mea[Photo]n entering into the elemental nature of life in solo retreat in his island home. I suspect such revelation is akin to those dewy-eyed moments of lucidity and wonder an alcoholic can encounter between bottles. Can shamanism be transplanted to the city? Perhaps, but I do think it is vital to maintain some connection with the natural world. I find great comfort in writing this piece from back among the rain- and wind and sun-swept Pyrenean hills in which much of I was Carlos Castaneda is set. I also think part of the shamanic journey is learning to live in full accord with other humans. That’s also part of the journey of a novel. Far Inland rounds off well enough, but is not as near completion as it believes. I had an engrossing time in the writer’s world, so will buy into the sequel if the journey is ever continued.