the m john harrison blog

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ch ch ch changes

I’ve changed agents.

I’d like to thank Mic Cheetham for a fantastic twenty or so years as my representative. Without her enthusiasm, toughness of character and 100% backing, not to say her eye for a concept & her unfailing sense of humour, I wouldn’t have written Light, Nova Swing & Empty Space; without those books I wouldn’t have broadened my idea of what was possible. Thanks, Mic. I owe you.

I’ll now be represented by Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit. All professional enquiries to Will.

unwritten beginning

As a teen I spent a lot of time in the public library, especially after I started truanting. But I never felt I belonged there, any more than I belonged anywhere else. The library’s offer lay not in its sense of community but in its sense of being unoccupied. It was empty a lot of the time, especially during the day. No one bothered you. You were left alone to follow the shelves like disused railway lines. Leading towards what? Something to read, anyway. You heard very little. No one came near you much. It seemed like the calmest, least anxiety-ridden place to truant to. For an hour or so it could be your space. Of course, the books themselves became spaces. I think that was an error, to regard a book as having an interior, as being a world rather than a written thing. Somewhat later, around the age of thirty, by which time I had already written books of my own, I had to take time to extract myself from what had become an unexamined assumption.

Previous post: I forgot to add that a new short story, “English Heritage”, will be published soon as one of Nick Royle’s beautifully produced Nightjar Press editions. It’s 4,000 words and very much in the tradition of the modernist ghost story, having the vibe of the second & third volumes of Cynthia Asquith’s Ghost Book, some of my favourite reading when I was twelve. Usual rules will apply: limited edition, signed & numbered, and when it’s gone, it’s gone: so get in early if you want one. I’ll give plenty of warning here & on Twitter.

the sunken land continues to rise

TSL is already my most successful novel. Nothing prepared me for the Goldsmiths prize; or for Russell T Davies’s recent fantastic & heartwarming review over on Instagram. It’s out in paperback in the UK now, & also available for preorder in the US and Canada.

In other news, the next book, tentatively entitled Fall Lines, or perhaps Fault Lines, or perhaps something else altogether, is finished and taking its first charming baby steps into what it sees as a shiny new world of possibility. It’s a compiled anti-memoir; a heavily fragmented nonfiction doped with fictional elements; a kind of How-to-Write; and a meditation on the impossibility of a coherent self (let alone the self’s looking back). An early responder called it “a book that invents a form and teaches you how to read it as you go along”. We shall have to hope that’s a good practical assessment.

It has an accompanying secret project, very exciting, more of which when everything’s sorted out.

Meanwhile, a new novel potters along, trying to understand the difference between disaster as its own retrospective & disaster as a series of moments in what used to be called “current affairs”. Clearly, one of the things both the classic 1950s disaster novel and the contemporary disaster novel got wrong was to regard the catastrophe as a complete object–an historical event with identifiable timelines and identifiable causalities, explorable as if by hindsight–rather than the patchy, emergent & incoherently combinative process it appears to be to its subjects as it unscrolls.

The big question today is: in a slow disaster like ours, when do you give up and admit that something has gone wrong? How does the prevailing culture persuade the frogs to stay in the pot? That is, to what extent will people learn to take it all for granted? And how grotesque might that look, late-ish on in the process? (Actually, it isn’t about any of that.)

glue

“How it is” explanations. “What can’t be done” explanations. “Sorry, it’s never done that way” explanations. “If you have this thing you can’t have that other thing” (& the closely-related “If you’re this thing you can’t be that thing”) explanations. “Why you shouldn’t want what you want given the present state of play” explanations. All patiently-reasoned & reasonable explanations.

secrets of the gardens

This garden is paved and narrow but crowded with shrubs, mainly box, yew and privet, many of which have been carefully sculpted into cones, spheres, cylinders. None of them are much taller than a person. Distributed among them are some benches; a replica Edwardian streetlight; two small circular netted ponds with raised stone sides, containing fish; and an accurately coloured plastic rendering of a heron. The topiary forms are not Platonic, or even properly geometrical. They have a raggedness of outline. Their shapes are not quite right. The cylinders are tubby and their walls inconsistently vertical. A cone resembles an upended turnip. To the eye it will always have an organic nature but not its own nature. It will always be a reference to, a picture of, some other form. Yet sometimes, on a dull day, when a shaft of light strikes between the still shapes and picks out the plastic heron, the bird can seem almost real; observed like this, from the window of a neighbouring second-floor window, the whole becomes less like an illustration in an early 1950s children’s fantasy than something presiding and real.

ghosts

They always look the same, tired round the eyes, too old for their age, strange haircuts. They’re dressed in clothes that would have carried information forty years ago but don’t say anything now. They look like the victims of some political process to which, if you aren’t careful, you’ll be introduced whether you like it or not. When ghosts slip away from the crowd at the base of the statue, they first make a little eye-contact. They slip away visibly. They want you to know that they know that you spotted them. Before they go they want you to know that we’re all in this together.

Notebooking for Climbers in a moorland car park, July 1983: “…another man, bare-chested and raw-shouldered from the sun, was trying to fill a plastic container from the little dried-up stream, while his wife knelt on the gravel looking in through the driver’s door of their hand-painted maroon and yellow car. Meanwhile in the field above I could see a farmer going round with a spade, banging the grass at carefully chosen places none of which looked different from any other. Some pages from a sex magazine blew about in the sun. I got out my pink blanket and my volume of John Middleton Murry’s letters, took off my t shirt, and joined them.”

The refusal to site fiction within the epistemological and ontological biases of Hollywood-derived narratology & MBA structural definitions–

Avoid formalist demonstrations of non-formalist propositions.

Obstruct Pavlovian reading: if you give one reward for Pavlovian reading, deny the others. Reject editorially driven overcueing/explication: however it looks at the outset, to enter the story should require a one-shot paradigm or episteme to be constructed by the reader.

What you see is what you get: what the character does is the character of the character, character is not a blueprint out of which the characters’ acts inevitably arise. The story is nothing more than what happens in front of the reader: the story is not a blueprint of motives & causalities out of which its events arise with a satisfying inevitability.

Never use the word “trope”, even pejoratively. In anti-formalist fiction there is no such thing as a trope & everything happens as if it has never happened before.

Favour: one-sided analogies, incomplete & false correlatives, oblique & false or undecodable epihanies. Symbols should represent emotional states only partially disclosed. Favour intense “worldbuilding” in incomplete, mismatched or out-of-focus contexts. Incomplete or broken structures & forms offer the story as a failed or abandoned archeological excavation of itself. Apply tonal variation at will; shift between registers at will. Irony saturated to the degree that it becomes difficult to tell if irony is present. Miss all beats.

No “subversion”, only vandalism.

the heritage

Kitchenly Mill is the idyllic East Sussex retreat of Marko Morrell, guitar god with 70s rock band Fear Taker. It is a seriously moated Jacobethan mansion, with Arts and Crafts restorations and contemporary architectural additions – “air bridges” that connect the main house to its outliers. It’s a work of love, and clearly an object of love for Morrell’s pre-fame sidekick, Crofton Clark, who narrates. Alan Warner’s ninth novel, like his earlier work in Morvern Callar or The Sopranos, layers together music, culture and individual psychology so they seem to become a single, composite material; and it does so under a biblical epigraph – Luke 16.2: “Give an account of thy stewardship.” If Clark loves Kitchenly, he worships Morrell, whose Fender makes the “mighty noise of consequence and of economic empowerment”. He’s been around Fear Taker in one capacity or another since the beginning, latterly deriving his entire identity from the association. The changing world at Kitchenly, and Crofton’s place in it, is the central concern of a novel that begins in the English uncanny valley, moves through an unforgiving comedy of errors, and culminates in fierce acts of realism. My review of Kitchenly 434 in the paper Guardian today, or here.