Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm sitting in the new office of ClientEarth, looking out across the expanse of London Fields with its ancient plane trees. This is me, polishing off emails. Tomorrow I head for the hills (well, Pezilla de Conflent, a village in the French Pyrenees) which I start yearning for this time of year.
An internet signal is in fact beamed around the village from the church's clock tower, though France Telecom denies the fact when I try to sign up. So I will be offline for a couple of weeks ... which begins to seem a blessing. The web's a wonder as a research tool, but I do look forward to staring into nature rather than at a screen. Years ago already, when teaching a highschool kid one winter morning, I pointed him to the window and a spectacular streak of sunrise. 'Wow,' he said. 'It's just like a screensaver.'
I thought I had finished my new novel the day before term started. In fact I had outlined its skeleton, in a rush for completion before the university gobbled me whole again. Now it's spit me out for a couple of weeks, the Easter break, so I'll be writing again.
I finished my last novel in the village, while looking out of the window. As I set down my pen, a heron (my bird of good omen) came and flew a tight loop around the bend of the river in front of me, the bird at my eye level, dancing a celebration.
So I'm going quiet a while ... may the freshness of Spring ghost your footsteps.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Crime Writing

Last night saw the Crime and the City event at the Philip Larkin Centre here in Hull. It was cheery to see a sell-out crowd as these writers' events catch on. The series dances across the genres, but thiere's a real crime writing buzz in the region with a number of writers working in the field.
I was glad to welcome Robert Edric back into the fold. Hull's done well by its world famous poets, but in Edric we have a world class novelist who's been working steadily out of the limelight. Born in Sheffield (so Yorkshire to the core) he studied at the university for seven years, and now lives and writes on the coast nearby at Hornsea. An ebullient character (his opening remarks were sexual confessions) he was presenting his Hull based Song trilogy, featuring the private detective Leo Rivers.
A question from the audience spun tales of the names given to characters. Rivers comes from the confluence of the Rivers Hull and Humber in the region, Leo for the expected lionlike mightiness of the character. A Chinese woman in Edric's Siren Song he named Laura Li, as in Lorelei - which no reader has yet twigged.
Allan Guthrie, it turns out, also plays games with names. A man who was frames, for example, is named Frame. The prison warder at the heart of his latest novel, Slammer, is called Nick Glass. Nick after prison, and Glass after his propensity to being shattered. Again, readers don't seem to have twigged.
Guthrie writes crime rather than detective fiction - nobody's particularly out to bring justice into his novels' black tide of woebegone miscreants who try, and generally fail, to stamp themselves onto Edinburgh's meanstreets.
The evening brought Nick Quantrill to the stage for the launch of his own Hull Private Detective in Broken Dreams. The secret behind the detective's name, Joe Geraghty? Research in a phone directory for a name that appealed.


Friday, March 12, 2010

The Berdache and gay fiction

Byron found a moment of creative epiphany, walking the famous battlefield and promptly beginning his poem 'Waterloo', reckoned by Edna O'Brien to be his greatest poem. She wrote in her Byron in Love (see below) of how writers find themselves in a situation that opens the sluicegates of creativity. In our evening together, she spoke movingly of how this had happened for her, making her bleak yet terrific novel In the Forest inevitable.
My current novel is one of those 'sluicegate' ones, spinning out of a single instance in the Teton Mountains. A more gentle moment keeps spinning out a sequence of stories. Some years ago, around Easter, I walked up into the hills around our village in France (up in the Eastern Pyrenees). I was letting myself be fallow rather than urging myself to write, and stood beneath a chestnut tree. Sunlight brushed the young chestnuts, starkly beautiful as one of my favourite greens. I cupped one in my hand. The spikes were almost soft. It was an exquisite moment of burgeoning.
(Until writing this now, I had never seen the link between this moment in nature and what sprang from it. I'm growing lyrical, but of course these were nuts and I was cupping them in my hand. It takes no psychoanalytical genius to come up with a sexual analogy.)
I walked down the mountain path as a story sequence emerged in my head. It linked in to the berdache tradition of Native American tribes. The berdache, essentially a gay male, held a position of honour, free to pass between the worlds of men and women, known for their caring nature, expecially nurturing of children and the frail. A test (I expect this is a simplified version, but I like the story) was to put a baby down in between a doll and a bow and arrow. If the male baby chose the doll, then his berdache qualities were noted. Native American parents would be delighted to have a berdache child.
A berdache appears in Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and the scifi novel Riverrun by S.P.Somtow, both of them glorious works. In my own sequence I've transferred this tradition to the west. The parents in my tales discovered early on that their baby boy was gay, and immediately realized that their family was perfect and complete. Part of their mission was making sure that he understood the beauty of his sexuality, and all the wonders that might flow from it.
The story is told in seven year leaps. Episodes were triggered by chance observations. For instance, crackling through on the BBC World Service one night as I lay in bed, I heard a few words of a young English male and knew at once he was gay. The subject matter wasn't a queer one, but all was revealed in his careful diction, his phraseology, the fine placement of words and sentiments. It was interesting to see how a person's voice reveals so much. The notion was transferred to my young Arnold, aged fourteen, standing up in class to get his schoolmates to sign up for the Gay Society. None can actually take in what he is saying for the beauty of his delivery, but all are prompted to join.
It's ridiculous of course, homophobia remains rampant, but the great potential of writing is to invest alternative threads of story with real power. I call the sequence 'The Lovely Life of Arnold'. It's a fable, in that it's fabulous.
These stories are a joie d'esprit for me. Curiously they are all finding their way into print. (Here's aged 21.) I've written Arnold's adventures up to the age of 35. The early part of 28 was published in The Edinburgh Review, but at 28 Arnold still had some way to run. For all his parental training, Arnold has a few faults. One of these is jealousy. This is spurred when he watches his lover compete in the testosterone world of the Olympics.
This tale, 'My Tri-athlete',  has just been published in The International Literary Quarterly. Now in its tenth issue, edited by Peter Robertson with my pal Jill Dawson now on board as deputy editor, the journal does wonders at discovering truly international dimensions.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Edna O'Brien in Hull

Magic was spun at the Philip Larkin Centre last week. Edna O'Brien, with that utter valiance of the true greats, made her first visit to Hull to spin her tales of Byron. The visit came in the wake of a hip replacement, but blow that, Edna had already had a trial run by following the new production of her play Haunted around Ireland and England.
Her new book Byron in Love is fresh out in paperback. For me this was a unique occasion, in which a foremost writer of one age reflects on a foremost writer of another. Both Byron and O'Brien were forced into exile and have led lives of some fire as well as blazing creativity. Edna's first novel Country Girls was burned in Irish churchyards, and it started a whole catalogue of her titles that would be banned in Ireland. Even this new Byron biography has caused contention - an American publisher pulling the plug and villificaion streaming in from Byron scholars who felt their territory was being invaded.
Fie on them, and hooray for books stirring trouble. My own books have got me into many a scrape so I'm sympathetic.
I come to these events thoroughly scripted. As Edna's lyrical response to my first question rhapsodized on a theme, I knew my prepared questions were already shredded. A full audience was brought in to the passion of the creative life, Edna's and Byron's both.
I'm reasonably undemonstrative by nature. When I opened Edna O'Brien's letter announcing she would make this her one performance of the year, I let out a whoop of delight and ran down the corridor with the news. We were graced by her presence.

(The photo of the afterdinner event at the Portland Hotel, who sponsor our writers' series, is by Sarah Walton. In time, a recording of the event will go online.)