the m john harrison blog

Tag: writing

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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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.

imaginary review (14)

This novel’s central character exists only to witness something he doesn’t understand. The reader doesn’t understand it either; not because it can’t be understood, or because there is nothing to be understood, but because understanding comes at the price of reassembling the components of the book from a position that is only hinted-at. One way or another, everything’s a clue to a point of view. But, much as a gene’s most important function may be to switch on a cascade of other genes, that in itself may be a clue only to another clue.

death of a witness

Olivia Laing on John Berger:

Capitalism, he wrote in Ways of Seeing, “survives by forcing the majority to define their own interests as narrowly as possible”. It was narrowness he set himself against, the toxic impulse to wall in or wall off. Be kin to the strange, be open to difference, cross-pollinate freely. He put his faith in the people, the whole host of us.

The book of his I pick up more & more often as I get older is his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. I have a beaten-up old paperback–from the early 70s, I think–which doesn’t get any easier to read without it falling to bits; but it’s now available from Canongate with an introduction by Gavin Francis, who describes it in his first sentence as “a masterpiece of witness”. That was what Berger felt like back then, and what he made me want to become: a witness.

some falls

Summer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title… Read on

My review of James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy, up at the Guardian today.

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.