the m john harrison blog

Category: forthcoming work

one or two news items

The new novel is finished subject to tinkering (also to waking up at three in the morning, looking at part of it & thinking: what on earth did you think you were trying to do there?). I can’t say what kind of novel it is because I don’t feel I know yet. Maybe I’ll never know, but I can say that it’s set now, it’s odd, and it’s not a space opera, so that gives you some idea of what it isn’t. After that, things take on, as they should do, a slight, puzzling shimmeriness.

No title as yet. Publication details as and when I have them. And maybe the odd little excerpt to tease & confuse.

I started a version of this novel in 2008, looking to pick up where I had left off in the mid-to-late 90s with Signs of Life and Travel Arrangements. I wanted to take advantage of the things I’d learnt from the short stories I began writing around then. That process was interrupted and modified by Empty Space; then the post-2012 version itself was interrupted by a house move and a heart attack, with an accompanying sense that I’d better get fit, go climbing again and generally take charge of myself from then on if I wanted to keep pushing and not give in and become old; and also by the recognition that this novel didn’t represent a direction I was going to be encouraged to take (& that therefore it was exactly the right thing to do). So I’m glad to have got to this point and be able to move along one way or the other.

In the last five or six years I’ve received such support, from so many new, exciting and unexpected directions, that I’ve had more sense of the fun of being a writer–not to mention the worth of it–than at any time since the early 1970s.

Next year I’ll transfer my attention to the other new novel I’ve been working on the sly: but also enjoy the luxury of finishing two short stories that have been slowly ungluing themselves from the edges of what I laughingly call my “mind”; and two really exciting collaborative projects nothing to do with on-the-page fiction. I also hope to do more readings, because I enjoy that kind of ephemerality of presentation, that way of entertaining people. Readings are a good way of finding out who you are and what you write, and extending that; and they offer audiences a new way in, too. I’ll be back to reviewing in the new year, for the Guardian & the TLS, and I’m hoping to collect a “personal anthology” of favourite short stories for Jonathan Gibbs’s excellent series here.

Sadly, The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen remain out of print. Perhaps something can be done about that in 2019; I intend to be rather more energetic, and rather more vocal about the problem in certain quarters. Whether anything can be done or not, there’ll be a “selected” short stories to include material from The Machine in Shaft Ten onwards, introduced, I hope, by someone young, lively and cleverer than me, and aimed at an audience I didn’t until recently know that I had.

My slogan for 2019 will be: We go through the doors that open.

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across the grain

After that, the great dark charcoal-coppices drew her in: Bosle, Swiney and Leasow; Factory, Workhouse and Suicide. These old woods, draped over the mess the 18th Century made, were warmer than the exposed dip slope; their labyrinthine topography of track and knoll, prolapsed limekiln and pennystone spoil hill, sprawled away silent and dark to the edge of the Gorge, where every winter on the scarp one more beech tree levered itself out of the mud and leant tiredly into the catch of its nearest neighbour. Across the grain, syke to syke, Victoria’s progress–if that’s what it could be called–was by short steep uphill struggle leading inevitably to a kind of exhausted, cautious slither down the other side. Her arms windmilled. She was lost. She did not feel entirely in charge of herself. Eight deer ran past her from nowhere, down a narrow salient between two overgrown rock quarries. All she could do was watch as they flickered away, in and out of the trees, pale in the moonlight, on some business of their own. Enchanted yet anxious, a London woman in a lot of mud, she wandered about all night until the sinister half-light at the hour before dawn brought her to the edge of the woods again; from which she looked out this way and that.

failures of determination

Massive amounts of what happens to you will happen via invisible and/or unparsable causal chains. Much of life, you will never know it happened at all, let alone to you. Much of what happens around you you will never even notice. The search for causality–though causality is everywhere utterly present and dependable–means to welter around looking for explanations you can’t have, using epistemologies and ontologies that are at best provisional. Why waste time, especially in fiction. Let’s have some representation in fiction for everyone who, without knowing it, puzzles through their lives in what used to be called “a dream”. Because that is all of us. Solepsism, narcissism, self-involvement are the wrong words for it. They come loaded with the meaningless judgements of a past that thought parsable causality was not just a thing, but a thing you had a responsibility to consciously engage with; they thus suffer catastrophic failure when required to describe the act of wandering through thick fog in a country you have already failed to recognise as foreign in a condition of mild irritation because you’re thinking about something else.

I spent my birthday in ambush by water

Photo: Cath Phillips

You Should Come With Me Now

a little of what you fancy

A couple of paragraphs from the construction site, just because I like you–

Victoria emailed Short.

“It’s very English Heritage up here. I expect I’ve told you that before.” As soon as you entered the woods, a dozen footpaths, signposted at the will of competing conservation bodies, went off busily in all directions, running precipitately into one another, stumbling over brand new stiles, toppling into an overgrown quarry and out the other side. “They’re offering access. They’re offering so much access you don’t know where to go for the best.”

In fact, she often ended up beside the pool where she had watched Pearl bathe, and stood there wondering how she could make herself go in. She took off her sandals. She took off some of her clothes then, believing she had heard someone call their dog in the next field along, quickly put them back on again. She was puzzled by herself. On the surface, something seemed to splash and turn lazily; below it, the yellow flowers still lay preserved. They maintained their leaves, and a brittle look, and except for their curious habitat they were quite ordinary. On the way back she heard church bells. The day already had a waxy look, as if some very modern coating had been applied to it at half past seven that morning.

At home she sorted her mother’s things: small framed prints slotted as tightly as old vinyl into cardboard boxes, top edges furred with dust; an ashtray with horses on it; seashells in a jar. This to go, that to stay. Nothing she could place securely in her childhood, or in some later house.

Among the prints she discovered a Felix Kelly capriccio, about eighteen inches on a side. It was already framed. Victorian chimneys confronted self-satisfied Jacobean architecture across a placid lake; trees leaned out from wanly-lit surrounding heights. In the background, Wales had somehow been brought too close to Shropshire. She wiped the glass, knocked a nail into new plaster; stood back to look and saw, predictably, her own reflection. “Why does that always happen?” she wrote to Short. And: “I don’t expect you to have time to answer, between the demands of the gig economy and the heady bustle of metropolitan life. Well, here it’s been raining since 1301.”

Storms had in fact swept up from Powys for a week: after each one, rain slopped off the front gutters of the closing shops, while refreshed jackdaws conducted their meetings in the invisible boardroom between the roofs. It was still summer but it didn’t quite feel like it.

“I don’t know what to think about Pearl,” she admitted suddenly, as if Short was in the room and was someone she could talk to.

this book

The only working rule on this book just now is, “Trust yourself.” That’s not entirely true. The other two rules are, “Always flatten it off,” which doesn’t mean it will come out flat, only that it won’t be winning any trophies at the Crufts of the imagination; and, “Don’t say too much.” With regard to the latter, an editor once told me, over lunch in a not very good restaurant (predictably an act of language in itself), “There’s a perfectly good plot behind your novel, it’s just that the author has taken most of it out.” I thought that astonishingly perceptive until I realised that it wasn’t supposed to be a compliment. That was before I moved on to the stage of not putting most of it in.

from the Ionic temple to the Chinese bridge

I’m not here much at the moment because I’m working, but stay around for news, reviews & announcements, one of which might be quite weird, details of gigs, etc. Meanwhile here’s a bit of the new novel–

They missed one another in the car park, and again at both lakes. For half an hour Victoria hiked about in the woodland. Every little hill or valley looked like an idea of itself developed from some barely-disguised digital framework. The paths, soft for the time of year, draped themselves along the contour from the Ionic temple to the Chinese bridge and thence to the Orangery.

There was no sign of Alice in any of these places. Neither was she to be found in the Jack Mytton Gallery, lost in thought among the silver toilet services, woodcuts of rolling winter plough and lively contemporary bronzes of hares with exaggerated ears; and when Victoria did track her down, it was to the centre of the rose garden, where she lounged at the edge of the rectangular pool with her shoes off, her feet wet and her legs stretched out in front of her, gazing with a broad dreamy smile on her face at a wall covered in blush pink centifolias into which some kind of exotic clematis had woven itself. Behind her, a diminishing perspective of standard roses blazed like lamps; while a man in a tweed coat bent down to pat a box hedge as if congratulating it. “This is solid!” he called to someone they couldn’t see. “This’ll have been here a few years!” From two gardens away, one of the Childe peacocks screamed in glee.

Alice shaded her eyes and blnked up at Victoria “It reminds me of being seven,” she said, “when the whole world looked like this.” She sat up and dipped her feet in the water, watched intently the glittering eddies that whirled off across the surface. “Don’t you remember when everything looked like this?”

Victoria shrugged. “People always think that.” She could see her own face in the pool, of course; and beneath that something overgrown.

“Tell me you haven’t been wading about in here,” she said.

There was some suggestion that they should go and eat a pub meal down by the river, but the afternoon had left her tired and a little anxious. So she dropped the waitress off in town and went home, where she had baked beans on toast and wrote an email to Short.

“You never saw so many roses in one place! As for Alice, she has her own aesthetic, Rosie the Riveter meets Jaqueline Kennedy and they talk about everything in the world but men. I quite like that. Of course, she’s a bit of a mystery.” Admitting this to herself made her think for a moment before going on: “My new discovery is, the whole family used to live next door! I haven’t a clue who any of them are, really. But they knew my mum–or so they say. And here I am, alone in a new town. So in those circumstances what is a woman to do?

“Anyway,” she finished, “In the end I didn’t buy anything. I couldn’t make up my mind.”

Then she pressed Delete and went to sleep.

You can always come with me now, of course; or find me on Twitter, @mjohnharrison.

a little bit of something new

Victoria opened the door to find the waitress’s father standing there. He was four inches shorter than her. He was whistling. His hair curled damply back over the collar of his Castrol jacket. He looked a lot livelier in the sunlight.

“I had a minute,” he said. “So I came.”

Victoria stared at him.

“It’s Chris,” he said. “Chris. Chris from last night.”

“Do you always answer your phone as if you’re someone else?”

“I’ll just step inside,” he said.

They stared at one another. It seemed like an impasse. In the end she let him in;  he held up a plastic sports bag and said, “I’ve got everything I’ll need in here.”

“If I could explain what’s wanted?” Victoria said.

“A cup of tea would be nice since you’re putting the kettle on. Then while you’re making it I’ll have a look round.” He smiled and went off up the stairs as if he owned them, calling back:

“I’ve got everything I need in here. Don’t you worry.”

Victoria boiled the kettle in a rage. She heard him on the first landing and then on the loose floorboards near the bathroom loo. His bag of tools rattled. He hissed and whistled to himself. He was pathetic. He tapped at this and that. A second floor sash ground itself open, then shuddered down again. It all made Victoria feel as if she didn’t belong. “How’s that tea coming on?” he called. When he came down to have it, he sat and ate a biscuit too. He seemed to bring a smell into the kitchen. She couldn’t quite smell it, but she knew it was there.

“I like to sit down to a biscuit,” he said.

She pushed the packet toward him. “Help yourself.”

He smiled to himself, as if he had expected this. “I was born Chris,” he said, “but that lot over at Kinver know me as Ossie.”

He had a jauntiness you couldn’t explain; at the same time he wanted your sympathy. After you had watched him for a minute or two, you saw that he held himself oddly and walked with the suspicion of a limp; he was always wiping his eyes. “Poor health,” he said, with a kind of satisfaction. “A lifetime of it.” He’d had bowel cancer, which they fixed; they thought his cough was asbestosis. In addition his left wrist didn’t articulate, which he’d let himself in for in 1999 when he fell off the town Christmas tree. “I was setting up the lights,” he said. “They didn’t take the decorations down in time that year. We’ve all suffered as a result.” He could just about use a screwdriver. “There’s a lot of perished rubber in those lighting circuits,” he said, after he had eaten half a packet of chocolate digestives “It only needs a touch to flake off.” It would mean a rewire. She had expected as much. “MInd you,” he concluded, “there’s plenty of good new neoprene in there too.”

“You aren’t going to fall off a ladder while you’re here, are you?” Victoria said.

update: you should come with me now

YSCWMN is now in galleys, ready to be pimped up for concourse d’elegance day, which will be sometime at the beginning of October. It’s a strange bit of work, short fiction wrapped in shorter fictions, developing all the usual themes, for instance grimness, grimness and grimness. I wouldn’t call it a collection if I could think of a name for something with dimension-&-a-half between a collection and a novel. I mean: it’s a book. So we have some readings and bookshop events arranged–including a conversation at Housmans in London with Lara Pawson, shortlisted for this year’s Gordon Burn Prize for her extraordinary anti-memoir This Is The Place To Be–who in her other career interviewed weirder & more interesting people than me. Readings will include an evening at Warwick U, an institution which kindly adopted me a year or so ago, with perhaps a visit from a known Tsar of the Weird. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to the cover draft, and cover copy that will feature quotes from real writers Will Eaves, Olivia Laing and Rob Macfarlane, endorsements so persuasive that I would buy the book myself if I didn’t already know what was in it. Updates here, at Comma Press & on Twitter, @mjohnharrison, @commapress.

victoria’s house

“It’s very Brexit up here,” she wrote later to Short. “Eight pubs in a mile and deep surrounding woods. I already think of it as my Broceliande, although the High Street seems to have been deforested as early as 1307.” She was sleeping on the sofa again, she told him. “But now I have candles and everything.” Inside one of the boxes she had found a brand new edition of The Water Babies. She amused herself copying out passages for him. Little Tom was naughty. He ran across the fells, by Hartover and Lewthwaite Crag, to the river; he arrived at the water on his own legs but he was desperate to be a fish. “Forty pages in, he’s already an evolutionary joke, the Victorian fantasia of metamorphosis and transition camouflaged by a morality. You see,” she finished, “you should read my emails. I bet your life’s less exciting than little Tom’s.” She knew she would never press Send: but writing was enough to give the effect of being in a conversation. It calmed her down. “I might be keeping my mother’s furniture,” she admitted. “I sold all mine.” This made her think of the house again and she looked around and shivered with delight.