the m john harrison blog

Tag: writing

When we meet him, Buckmaster has been living in an old barn for a year and some months. He arrived “shoeless, over the moor from the east”. Since then he’s cleaned, repaired, caulked the gaps with anything he could find. He’s made it his own. His intention is “To be open, to be in fear, to be aching with nothingness”. This, he says, is the only life. Nevertheless, he’s not sleeping much. He dreams of a hare with human eyes. Awake, he’s hallucinating. There are patterns on the moor; and when the tourists go home at night, “All the centuries drop away, and I am in the presence of something that does not know time.” Something is coming towards him, he doesn’t know what.

–My review of Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel Beast, in the Guardian.

a word here & there

I wondered what all this was going to mean for the book. I spent yesterday reading back everything including the notes and decided there was no need to worry. Given that it’s about someone so alienated, inturned and obsessed by his own descent that he simply fails to see, let alone understand, the things that are going on around him, I decided I didn’t have to change more than a word here and there. “That was the Brexit summer” will do just as well as “That was the Ukip summer”, if not better.

the sort of book that might appear in a short story in a collection just like this

Ghosts being such rich contributors to the tradition, the very first item on Philip Hensher’s shopping list of best British short stories is “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal” by Daniel Defoe. Defoe’s opening clause, “This thing is so rare in all its circumstances”, which Penguin have printed on the back board of the first volume, might be a statement of intent on behalf of the form itself. The most abject of short stories must make this claim, if no other, somewhere in its content, or structure; many, of course, fail to deliver on it… More

My review of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, in the TLS today.

hi…

…thank you for sending me that thriller you thought I might say something about. Your outsourced editorial department has been very anxious to mend this book, but all they have done is procure a fatal collision between faux-Scandi & creative writing course. It reads like a failed Masterchef skills test. It’s not “stylish”. It’s as awkward & undercooked as all the other eager new commercial fiction. The prose is elephantine. It does not convey the excitement & tension it thinks it is conveying. The structure of the whole is as lumbering & literalistic as the sentences that comprise it. The characters have been made up to fit the plot, then visibly tweaked by someone who isn’t the writer–or indeed a writer–so that they fit a ten-year-old UK industry paradigm of relatability. The characters’ emotions are either leaden or leadenly depicted, it’s hard to tell which. The moral situations into which they have been inserted are dull. Their ideas about the world were interesting–even exciting–when the editor’s generation was young, but now they’re the unchallenged assumptions we all make daily.

signs of relief

The Gollancz reprints of The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen are up at Amazon UK, with a release date of 8th September 2016. Pre-orders are encouraged. No images available. There was some interesting art & design for the covers, which I saw way back at the end of 2014, but I believe that’s been toned down a little now. Even so, they should look quite grown up. If this is good news to you, you can’t be any more relieved than me. Along with Climbers, these books have a central place in my heart–the idea that they’d never be in print again was gnawing at me a bit.

a story of ghosts

The structure of the story, as it is engaged by the reader, should have a similar effect to that of discovering a puzzling selection of items in a container of unlabelled material from someone else’s life. The end of the story, instead of providing closure, tries to recreate the moment in which some fragments of evidence–which might not actually be evidence–flicker together to suggest the possibility of a pattern that might never have been there anyway. Glimpses of emotional meaning that shift with the light, framed by uncertain nostalgias. The sense of briefly understanding or failing to understand emotional states that you might, anyway, have invented. The aim of the writer is not to become an exhibitor of found objects, but instead to not quite succeed in curating that which might or might not have been there in the first place. There is, obviously, a politics to that. & it always produces, by definition, a story of ghosts, if not an actual ghost story.

a glaze composed of human fats

For the first time in my life I have an “office”, so obviously I work on a laptop at one end of the kitchen table, hemmed in by all the bits & pieces–books under review, phone, meds, plates of half-eaten sardine sandwiches & scraps of torn paper on which someone has scratched hastily, “is it a function of genre, or genre-under-PoMo, or genre lensed by massive conscious access to its own legacy product? Or all of that?” It’s fine. C is in London, working for the man. The kitchen is quiet apart from the weird buzzing of the fluorescent fitment & the raw stupid constant barking of next door’s dogs, who are as shut out as ever & still can’t believe it. As soon as I took possession of that “office” up there at the top of the house, I made a rule that I would never keep in it anything useful to my trade, e.g. a filing cabinet, say, or a phone, or books, especially books by me; nor would I have pictures on the wall or keep anything you could associate with writing in the French shabby-chic glass cabinet I bought during some kind of fugue or psychotic break at the Stretton antiques market on a wet summer afternoon in 2013. The real feature of that room is not what does or doesn’t go on in there: it’s the floorboards, which look as if they were hand-trimmed two hundred years ago & never treated & thus have concentrated to themselves a thick patina or glaze composed of human fats & spillages & soot molecules from the real Industrial Revolution, which everyone who lives here knows took place in Broseley, not at the better-known World Heritage Site down the road. They are like iron. I am in love with those floorboards & man enough say it. But look, all those years I graphically described the crimes I would do to get a room of my own, what do they mean now? It’s possible, before your life knits itself back together, to write half a novel in the university offices & shonky rentals in bad circumstances of six different acquaintances in as many months.

don’t ask

A reader will often ask: Mike, what are your greatest influences, in literature, pop music & elsewhere? Who are you a fan of? Readers, though I have lots of favourite authors I am not a fan of anyone. My greatest influence at present is the fiction of descent, ie any story in which it is slowly revealed (but not to the central character) that the central character is dead. I’m also quite interested in Anthony Powell, but mainly for his dry delivery.

alchemical

Blake, Peckham and “the tree of angels”. The sheer willpower needed to envisage something. Even a memory has to be forced back into existence, and for all your effort what do you get? An artefact if you’re lucky, something not quite right in the corner of your eye. The exhausting effort to understand exactly what it is you’re trying to see. The exhausting effort to keep focus. The mad daily struggle against all the side issues that offer themselves. The struggle to keep the symbology intact/exact. I don’t care about anything else in writing now, as long as I get that part right. Everything else can follow along, rag tag and bobtail. Everything else is better that way any way.

argument from experience

Recent turns in my life, not directly related, make this, from 2009, seem worth repeating–

I went to one of the infamous Dylan concerts–Leicester de Montfort Hall, I think–as a raw, betrayed, left wing folkie, ready to heckle as soon as that sell-out reneged on his roots, denied his past & picked up an electric guitar. My girlfriend of the time, too. Two funny, smooth, unmarked, optimistic little faces turned up at the stage ready to defend our values, ready to defend our hero against his own bad decisions. By the end of the accoustic half of the show, I couldn’t bear my own anxiety & had dissociated as a defence.

Then a minute into the first electric song, I was electrified too, & so was she. Everyone around us got up & boo’d; but we got up and cheered & danced & kissed each other’s amazed faces. It was Love Minus Zero No Limit & it went through me like a crack in a mirror, & if I played it now–what? 40-odd years later?–& they have been odd years–I would just cry & cry & cry.

So, actually: fuck “Play some old!” Play some old is just very bad advice, which comes from chipmunks & children already afraid of time. Go on! Go where your work takes you, & don’t be forced into yesterday’s postures–already looking strained & meaningless–by an audience scared to move along with you.

Original post, June 6 2009, here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 582 other followers