Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Allan Guthrie's 'Hard Man', and other airport observations

Prominent in all the bookstores in America just now is the new biography of Einstein. It's way up there in the nonfiction bestseller lists at the moment too.

In terms of great figures in science, I really do reckon J. S. Haldane is up there with the Einsteins of this world. He's even got a moustache that in iconic terms rivals Einstein's blaze of white hair. Here in the UK Simon and Schuster is bringing out my Haldane book Suffer and Survive in the same season as they are brining out this Einstein bio. I hope it really connects with the market. But as thoughts gently turn to 'what next' in terms of biography, I do see that picking up on one of those world-famous names like Einstein gives you a headstart in marketing terms.

W. Somerset Maugham advised young writers to make a name for themselves by writing he latest biography of a writer already famous. I guess the trick is that such a thing gets you the connections as interviewees, and has a buzz in literary circles. In a Santa Fe bookstore last week I heard a man ask for the latest biography of Edith Wharton. The attendant led him to Hermione Lee's weighty tome, with the rather negative sales pitch that it would give him enough reading matter for a year or more. The putative customer's enthusiasm waned as he hefted the volume.

With minutes to buy a book for the last part of my journey to London last night, I picked up Allan Guthrie's new novel Hard Man from a table of new books. It's a spunky Edinburgh noir, gruesome in ways but charactered by amiable dumboes for whom viciousness is a side issue, powered by incredible stamina rather than sense. Mix the environs of Ian Rankin, the humour of Raymond Chandler and the Gothic characters of Harry Crews and you have something of the flavour. Pearce, a winning character from Allan's last novel Two-Way Split, has entered some downward spiral. His main triumph in this volume is tipping a cripple from a wheelchair. My money's on his three-legged pooch, a male terrier called Hilda, to be the nugget of any sequel - the creature's set to run and run. We enter the mindset of each of the other character's in the book, but stay somewhat shy of Hilda's perspective. Surely he's being saved up.

Allan's also my fiction agent. Let's hope his getting a pile of his own novel into the Minneapolis airport in advance of its US publication date is a fine prognosis for his selling mine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Greetings from Albuquerque

Here's a quick note from Albuquerque Sunport ... on the way back to London. The home is 'staged' (as they say here) and on the market, the hummingbirds' bottles filled and a bird-sitter booked. A coyote strolled across the last evening to say goodbye.

You want those precious final drafts, corrected proofs etc of my early work? Make haste to Eldorado dump's recycling unit ... they're combined with a two inch pile of publishers' letters from my years in America. A couple of cartons of my books have been shed too. Sometimes travelling light comes easy.

Though up in our home I must say my english life was wiped from my memory. I couldn't remember phone number, address, credit card details, anything. Maybe that's one reason I have to leave, just so I can engage with life again.

More from England anon ... and my regular internet connection.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Ravens and the grove

Here's our 'sacred grove', a natural ring of ponderosa trees on our land here in Santa Fe which has featured in a book or two of mine. Ponderosa need extra elevation to flourish - our home is a touch above Santa Fe at 7800 feet.

I've long had this sense that animals have a sense of time but no chronology. A family dog used to think he had had a walk if you turned around at the end of the road fo something you'd forgotten and came home again. Nine years ago it took us some while to train the local ravens to descend to our raven feeding platform and take scraps of food - either pickings from our own plates, of bought-in frankfurters. They developed a pattern of fly-pasts, swoops, observations from the tips of ponderosas, wary approaches by foot, snatch and grab of the food (some to be flown away to storage places), then often a hopping dance of celebration. More than six years on from the last such feed, a chicken carcase on the table, it took them less than half an hour to resort to the old patterns. They now fly past waiting for their daily hot dog. Six years, a day, it makes no difference.

Time is an odd construct for sure. For years, when I've started with a blank head and blank page to write something, 'time' was the first word I wrote down. James and myself are somewhat like those ravens, seeing good friends after six years and instantly falling into the same deep pattern of friendship and conversation, as though we had met the previous day.

I'm a writer, so clearly a great believer in narrative, and my books tend to have a chronological flow. It's true though that elements that seem historical suddenly pulse through to significance later on, and in memory the distant can become very present. The visit back here has been a process of loving and detaching. We'll leave here next week, and the whole assembly of homes, office, retreat space, acres of woodland, wetland and meadow, all our wildflowers and permaculture dams, will be on the market for the next owners to find their way to the place. It's another game with time, seeing if we can let something go yet still carry it with us.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Writing as physical workout

In the war the men who sat behind desks and worked out the rations, decided they needed more than the soldiers at the front. Deskwork, brains whirring, required more energy than manning frontlines, they persuaded themselves.

It IS odd how physically demanding writing can be. After my recent lengthy bout of it I was coming round to thinking the symptoms were fatal. Exhaustion just seeps into the bones, weight drains away, energy gets sucked up. As I recover, I remember that it is just part of the writer’s condition. Years ago, when I was younger and spryer, I remember finishing a novel and the next day both legs gave way. Why the legs and not the hands I don’t know. I couldn’t walk, just had to lie still for two days till those legs started to function again.

Yet not writing is also baleful. Up here (I say up, because we’re at 7800 feet) on the land in Santa Fe I’m finding the middle road, writing for just one or two hours a day, happy with 600 words or so each time. So long as the story keeps moving forward, I stay inhabiting it. This is a book about a figure who communes with nature, so this is a grand place to be (the coyote pictured here just one of our recent visitors). It’s set in central Turkey, Athens, and Virginia. I’ve delayed starting because I felt I needed to revisit those places – then it occurred to me that imagination layered on top of previous experience does the job well enough. Part of the fun of writing now is that it is fiction, a wild yet interior journey. I grow to suspect that my global adventuring belongs to an earlier period of my life, perhaps a necessary part of accruing experience, banking it to draw on for later writing exploits.

And outside of those hours of writing and dreaming the story into being, I’m out working the land. Trimming branches from trees and using them to form dams for erosion control, that kind of thing. It’s teaching my body that it’s alive, tuning it back in to the world, limbering up.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Santa Fe Home

Here's a view of home here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. About twelve miles south of the Plaza, it's toward the end of the Old Santa Fe Trail.

The place had a pioneer flavour when we moved in ten years ago. More families have followed since, so the sounds of birds and coyotes is now joined by dogs and roosters, but 11.5 acres is still enough to hide away in.

I grow grumpy when I have to hit town, and satisfied when I get to stay on the land where writing tends to flow. Well flow is perhaps a bit strong, but it's beyond a trickle, about 600 words a day of this new novel. Research reading sees me dipping back into books of native American lore, for that old wisdom of living with the land.

Today's wonder was simply sitting in the ponderosa grove and looking up at the clouds. When I first arrived in North America (that time it was Canada) I was immediately struck by the cloudscapes, vast and so high, magnificent bulk evidence that a whole continental landmass is stretched below. From home looking south you can notice the curvature of the Earth, and watch rainstorms walk about the land. It frees the imagination of this particular English writer.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The staring-from-the-window side of writing

Somerset Maugham had a fine view from his upstairs writing room in his home in the south of France. Sooner than stare into it, however, his desk faced the inner wall. The view, for him, was a distraction.

I’m the opposite of that. Staring through the window is a vital part of my writing practice. The window has to have an open aspect, with a view into the natural world. That view then enters me somehow, it’s nurturing, and the next passage of my writing is inscribed against the backdrop of the landscape first of all, before I ever get to write it down.

I love the aspect from these Santa Fe windows. The climate is bizarre just now, with sun hot enough to bathe in one moment and a squall of snow the next. The option the weather has taken up right at this moment is the hail one, white pellets bouncing across red earth.

The birdfeeders are active. The grey juniper titmouse is my current delight, with its crested head and its eagerness. Old favourites return as well, like the evening grosbeak, the jays, the scarlet house finches, the chickadees. Animals have walked across my view as well these last couple of days, the ground squirrels, the jackrabbits, and a pair of coyotes. I almost stepped on a rabbit yesterday. It merely moved forward a few feet and kept on munching blades of grass, not bothered by my presence.

It struck me the extent that rabbits have disappeared from our lives. Nobody used to live without the accompaniment of rabbits. I’ve come to see how much I need them in my writing view. They’re like a barometer of the natural world. Without so much as a rabbit, you ain’t go it.

(The picture is the northerly one from our Santa Fe home, from the library window)

Friday, May 04, 2007

A brief note from Santa Fe

As expected, this temporary move back to Santa Fe has shifted me out of the internet age. Our home has a wondrous 180 degree panorama south across New Mexico. At night you can watch the planets track an arc from left to right. I go to bed at dark and wake just before dawn. A new novel has kicked in, as though woken by the land here. Writing surprisingly neatly, it’s filling up the pages of my manuscript book. 600 words a day seems just about fine for now. Outside of that I’m back out on the land, exploring, trimming the trees, building fresh dams across the land to stop the runoff from the rains sweeping the topsoil away. Life has a natural rhythm again.

So please excuse me for not writing much for the blog just now, just this sort of staying in touch. Take it as an opportunity to peruse the multitude of pages on my website. Or better still, take a break and shut down your computer for a while. That whole world of electronic information is marvellous and beguiling, but it’s a real treat to be freed from its clutches for a while.