the m john harrison blog

Category: new fiction

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 kind of 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.

october

Always a disjointed time of year. Sometimes charming, sometimes ugly. Two and a half chapters remaining of the new novel to write–should be finished around Christmas. All downhill but still no title, although I expect to find one at the last minute. That will be an adventure. Also, “What kind of book is this going to be?” you ask. Reader, I have no idea, nor want one. Maybe it’s a romance. Maybe it’s Weird. Maybe it’s set now. It’s certainly got some peculiar stuff in it. The one rule–written in “spidery” handwriting in red Muji 0.5mm and placed on the desk next to my inspirational Jenny Holtzer postcard, WORDS TEND TO BE INADEQUATE–was “flatten it off”. It’s odd, sad, oppressive, disturbing. It’s strange, but not in Aickman’s sense; maybe a touch eerie, but not necessarily in Mark Fisher’s sense. It’s sly. If you’ve spent time here you’ll know what to expect.

Speaking of which I’m off to Sheffield tomorrow to read some of the previously unperformed blog pieces you chose for my part in Tim Etchells’ Strong Language project, alongside Vlatka Horvat and Courttia Newland. So thanks everyone who put forward their choices for that.

After that, on Wednesday 24th October, I have another gig in Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival, this time with the revered Iain Sinclair. We’ll be introduced by my friend & climbing partner, physicist Richard Jones.

If you’re new here, why not skim the bio or dip in at random; or if you feel like something longer & more involving, well, obviously, 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.

voodoo larry’s lead sled

Ben Myers’ grainy, uncompromising, wildly exciting The Gallows Pole, from tiny Northern publisher BlueMoose, wins the Walter Scott Award, 2018. A fortnight or so later, Crudo, Olivia Laing’s “experimental novel about Kathy Acker” becomes a bestseller a week after publication. These are only the most snapshot examples, the most visible evidence. Things are broadening out. A little catch-up is going to have to be played. No one’s claiming the 1980s are finally on their way out; but we have as much right to dream about that as we do about reaching the semifinals of Global Sportsball. So, for all you aspirational writers out there: a big round of the chorus from Eddy & the Hot Rods’ greatest hit again, I think. And, kids, always remember: you are not writing a book. You are in the basement with Tom. You are building your version of Voodoo Larry’s Lead Sled. You need to be able to explain without embarrassment, “I Frenched the headlights.” Understand Voodoo Larry Grobe, you understand The Work, this is a metaphor ok it is what we do.

Incidentally, apropos of nothing, here’s that history of recent changes in the bread market again.

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.

start point

When I was an obsessive climber, Shropshire was just a corridor you went down to get to Wales. You turned right or left at Birmingham, depending whether you’d come north or south. The effect of blinkering yourself in that way is that you accidentally save up unexplored territories. By 2005, whole areas of the country were overwhelming me with the sudden, pure clarity you feel in childhood and adolescence–nostalgia for landscapes you’ve yet to investigate, places you’ve yet to know. Shropshire, the South Downs, the Rhinogs: the world seemed new again, but now it was set up perfectly for an old head. I was certain I could make something out of this feeling, but publishing–which would rather you didn’t find things new again, for fear you might wander off on the wrong track–got in the way and since then writing has been a process of struggling back to a lost start point, through a substance a bit like glue.

catch up

A few things to look & listen out for:

Twenty Questions author questionnaire up at the TLS today (usual glib & shallow responses on my part). & a nice review from Guy Salvidge here.

On the 24th November, Friday, also at the TLS, a reprint of the short story “The Crisis”, so if you’d like a taster before you buy YOU SHOULD COME WITH ME NOW, and you’d like to support stubbornly high quality literary journalism in a turbulent era, buy a copy. “The Crisis” is a story so full of rage that reading it to an audience in 2015 gave me a small heart attack. You can find a celebration of the consequences of this event in the collection, under the title “Yummie”. What more can you ask of an author in the line of duty?

Also out now, the Guardian Books Podcast, on which you can catch me talking to Richard Lea, who deftly structured his questions round some flash fiction readings.

Speaking of readings, if you aren’t able to attend an event (or if you’re afraid to in case I have another heart attack), you can get some idea of how they go, here, under the auspices of the Northern Fiction Alliance.

A couple of additional gigs are being organised, one in Liverpool, no details yet; and one in Sheffield in January, see here, which will be a conversation with Richard Jones covering everything from physics in Light to bite-size character-building adventures on rainy gritstone. The Sheffield extravaganza is at DINA, a venue which used to be known as The Stardust Bar: this is so Empty Space that I expect to find a deserted corniche, a string of disused beachfront operations, a wooden door banging in the wind, and three old men in white flat caps playing dice for what you & I might call the fate of the universe–

Meanwhile, Irene the mona stared out the portholes and marvelled at all the wonders of space, and you could hear her say:

“Don’t you know, Fat Antoyne, that three old men in white caps throw dice for the fate of the universe ?”

No, Fat Antoyne said, he had never heard that.

“Their names are Kokey Food, Mr Freedom and The Saint. Another thing: these three play not just for the universe’s fate, but the individual fates of every person in it.” They threw the dice, of which, she said, there were a different number according to the day they played on, and at every throw they would say something in a ritual way, such as “Heads over ends!” or “Trent douce” or “Down your side, baby!”, sometimes speaking singly and sometimes all together. One or all of them would clap their hands sarcastically, or blow on their fingers to indicate scorching. Or two of them would smirk at the third and say, “You fucked now, sonny,” which at least could be understood by a normal person.

“So you’ve seen these dice guys ?” Antoyne enquired.

“In dreams I have, Fat Antoyne, yes. And when I say that, you need to stop looking at me, in your precise way you’re about to laugh at me. Because a dream is a kind of truth too.” Antoyne laughed at that, and she pushed him off the bed. “They pay and they play, Fat Antoyne. And if they ever stop ? Why, their faces slacken and crumple. And those old men weep.”

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.

some news

My new collection will be published later this year by Comma Press. It’s taken a while to get this sorted, and I want to thank everyone involved–also apologise to everyone else for the wait. Details as they arrive, here and from the Comma team. The book features eighteen short stories–five of which are original, unpublished & unavailable anywhere else and a further half dozen that will be new to most readers–and some flash fiction, much of which will be recognisable to habitues of the Ambiente Hotel. Contents include: a distributed sword & sorcery trilogy; two or three full-size sci-fi novels, one of which is two sentences and forty eight words long (fifty if you count the title); several visits to Autotelia, some that identify as such and some that don’t; and two final dispatches from Viriconium, neither of which would get house-room in an anthology of epic fantasy.

More details here.

buy

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