I am so thrilled with the final design for my book cover. Mark at Mecob Design has found a way to represent subtle aspects of the book really beautifully. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Because of my background people have often asked if I wanted to do the cover myself. I knew I never would – it is a particular professional talent that goes way beyond ‘being an artist’. But I feel that Mark has clearly shown great artistry as well. I know for sure I would never have come up with such a complex yet simple and compelling image. I will of course, be flinging it around with abandon – please don’t let me stop you if you feel like doing the same!
On Monday I will be appearing at the Henley Literary Festival at an event on the theme of Local Roots. I grew up in the Chiltern Hills in a village called Stoke Row which is not far from Henley. The landscape is part of Twice the Speed of Dark – not quite (as the cliché goes) a character, but certainly part of the scenery flats.
I am delighted to be included in the festival, a little bit intimidated at the thought of being taken seriously, even if it is mostly because I happen to have been born locally.
Chalk hills don’t have streams. When we visited other rural landscapes, I found the presence of streams and waterways kind of exotic. The Chilterns had wells. The house we lived in when I was born was called the Pump House – a little cottage in woodlands above Watlington. It was built, I believe, above one of the deepest wells in England.
In Stoke Row there is the Maharajah’s Well, a strange and wonderful object. The tale was that someone from a nearby village (Checkendon, as it happens) saved the Maharajah of Benares’ son from drowning and in gratitude, the Maharajah, moved by the pathos of the dirty, waterless villagers, organised and paid for the digging of a well. It was capped off with an Indian architectural housing complete with elephant and dome, and a beautiful little hexagonal cottage for the well keeper. I don’t imagine I was the only Stoke Row-ian who was baffled by the benefit to our village, when the good deed was done by an inhabitant of another village some three miles away. But it could be that, with regards to the address of the story’s hero, I have got it wrong and thus, am the only Stoke-Rowian who is perplexed in this way. (Certainly, there was a widely held belief with regards to the drowning/saving part of the story.)
I think that I am writing about wells as a response to the idea of roots. Both represent ways to reach water. In fact, roots in chalk lands, don’t go deep, they go wide. When there is a storm, beech trees fall, levering up great plates of earth, an underworld sun of clay and soil that has made the best of shallow topsoil above the un-nourishing mass of chalk. Wells, in traversing that same lifeless, permeable mass, go deep.
The Chiltern Hills, my childhood home, are as close to the territory that hold my roots as any where else I have. Being white, middle class, generically southern, with broad British ancestry, tales of heritage and belonging are not my birthright. Being opposed to nationalism and uncomfortable with patriotism, this is easy to accept. But my soul does have roots in that landscape even if generations of family do not.
I love it, not because I belong there, or because it is part of me. But because it is one of the first ways I learned of beauty, and that is, like water, something that makes us too.
My manuscript is due back tomorrow. I am going to be a little late. It is difficult, when time divides into mosaic shards to pull a book into focus. I have decided that I need to re-write a chunk of pages. Not too many. A series of clarifications have jumbled up against one another and now the section seems scrambled rather than clearer.
How I would love to give up the other work that breaks up my time. Develop an expertise in sustained concentration. In New Author Top Trumps, that would be my losing score, every time. But at least, if it were only my own habits that caused the fragmentation, not the need to do a scuffling number of other jobs, I would have greater impetus to marshal my magpie mind. More of the black and white, a bit less of the ‘oooh, shiny!’
The image shows a quote from Twice the Speed of Dark. There is a large part of the book written in the voice of Caitlin, trying to unravel both the confusing darkness of death and the story that lead her there. I loved writing these sections, letting an image, a sense of material, almost a painterly sensibility take over, less closely focused on the plot and psyche of the characters. I have decided that I will make a separate, illustrated book of this section, called Gravity. After the scritchy scratch of untangling words, it feels particularly tempting just now, to drift into the broad strokes of black and light, of shape and texture. Back to the gestural, sweeping easiness of visual art. I wonder if all writers feel these different systems at play, if I just describe the kinship to visual art because it is something I understand.
I have mild tinnitus, coffee makes my skin go white noise, none of my glasses are just right and words seem very small and tangled. How liberating a fat brush dripping with paint would feel. And yet, I would still chose these days, the writing equivalent of that fat brush. If, that is, I had the time.
Funding my book with Unbound has been a fascinating process. There have been unexpected benefits that go beyond the buzz of having my book published.
Unbound came into being as a response to changes in the publishing industry. Good books were not getting published because their commercial success couldn’t be guaranteed. There has been a steady drift toward projects with TV or celebrity tie-ins, so whilst the business of books in general may have been in unexpectedly great shape, areas such as literary fiction have been struggling. Thus the clever people at Unbound came up with a way of addressing this. As well as a way of securing publication for a wide array of books that might not make it in the more commercial sector, it offers a fantastic connection between writer and audience.
Is it for you? Are you about to launch your own crowdfunded book, with Unbound or any other platform? Here, with a little help from my Unbound friends, are some tips and observations on crowdfunding. (Most of them work for promoting a book too.)
1)THE AUDIENCE IS ELUSIVE. It was very much harder than I had anticipated to reach the people that I didn’t already know.
2) TOUGH – YOU MUST HUNT THEM DOWN. You will need strangers to buy your book so start looking for them early. The audience has no need of your words, there are millions of other words already out there that they could gorge on for all eternity. But they will pledge because you make yourself of interest to them, because you let them know you are there. Initially this will probably be because they love you or care about you. Very few will pledge because they happened to read your synopsis and think you are a genius. But you have to find ways to reach them any way.
3) FINDING YOUR VOICE IS DIFFICULT BUT YOU ONLY HAVE TO DO IT ONCE. I don’t mean your writer’s voice, that bit is dealt with already. I mean your professional author voice. That is, if you want to get your book funded and subsequently aim to give up or cut back on the work you are doing to pay your way whilst you write.
Social media guilt starts to drag around behind you like a damp, mildewed cape hanging limp and heavy from your shoulders. Smart people who are good at selling books tell you to do it, do it hard, do it more. Every day, engage, build connections. It takes up a helluva lot of mindspace to even think of how that might work. But eventually you seem to find a kind of honest approach, one that doesn’t feel like a fake or an uncomfortable hard sell. Then it can be quite fun.
Apart from odd moments when you suspect all your friends hate you and wish your computer would break.
4) IT HELPS ENORMOUSLY that Unbound have selected the manuscript. It shouldn’t matter, the selection does not of course, suddenly make it a better book than if I had self-published, but it gives people confidence in it.
5) MAKE NEW FRIENDS. I have come into a fabulous, not exactly secret, but almost, back-stage community. A number of other Unbound writers get together on a regular basis via the medium of Facebook to share tips, moan, high-five, amuse each other and become friends. I’ve even met some of them and hope to do so again. It is wonderful support. A kind of unofficial, ad-hoc scaffold built from the finest materials. There are many different writers, a magically wide array of books (some of which I have made pledges for myself) all come together into a helpful and supportive community. A great resource. It is sometimes the only place you can go to off-load anxiety or boredom or disappointment with progress. You can’t actually tell a friend who has been generous enough to back your project that you are fed up with how slowly it seems to be moving without it sounding like a barely-disguised wheedle.
It has been so valuable and mood-lifting, informative and smart. It is great to know that when someone feels hollow or disappointed by small rewards gained from huge effort, a group of cheery and funny people who totally get the feeling will gather round (temporarily taking a break from penning the next masterpiece/suspiciously ready to engage in an easy online-distraction) to tell them how well they are doing and that they shouldn’t give up.
6) LOVE YOUR OLD FRIENDS. Most wonderful of all is how generous friends, colleagues and family are. I have had so much support. Way more than I expected. Which is incredibly lucky, because see 1). People have been amazingly generous. Like other authors, I have found that it has been by far the bulk of my backing. None of them had to pledge, there is no obligation. It is generosity that makes people pledge, a generous desire to help, a generous desire to fund the arts, a generous desire to make something happen. It is humbling and up-lifting. And, unexpectedly, it made this process, though it has sometimes been difficult, scary and definitely hard work, one that is ultimately very rewarding.
Of course I will never know if my book would have eventually been published by a conventional publisher, but probably not. So I am deeply, immensely grateful to Unbound for making it possible. The opportunity to invest in books that may not make a great deal of money is precious for all of us. And in all my dealings the people at Unbound have been unfailingly kind, helpful and engaged.
It feels great that so many people have invested in my book, even the ones who intended to pledge but never got round to it. The openness of the process has made them aware of what I am doing and interested enough to talk to me about it and that is an investment.
Crowdfunding, asking for help or support, finding people to invest in your work is daunting, it can be very hard work. But it is also uplifting and exciting, and possibly the only option if you don’t want to go it alone. I am very happy with the story so far.
How much does a story change when the location is changed? Some books rely entirely on the place in which they are set, such as Room by Emma Donoghue, the fact of the mother and son’s imprisonment being the core of the narrative as well as the inventive drive behind the ideas that thread through that narrative. Others would falter without the location, though the action of the book could just as readily happen elsewhere. Wuthering Heights is an example; the moors are so woven into the love between Cathy and Heathcliff, being almost an extension of their own wild souls, that though we know such destructive, hungry relationships grow in other parts of the world, it is impossible to imagine the transplanted story being told in the same way.
“Heathcliff, make the world stop right here. Make everything stop and stand still and never move again. Make the moors never change and you and I never change.”
Other books use places as a metaphor to highlight a current theme. The heath in King Lear, the jungle that slowly engulfs Tony in A Handful of Dust.
And of course there is both travel writing and historical or biographical writing that cannot be taken out of its homeland, even when the book is fiction such as the wonderful A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James or one of my recent top fivers, The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. In these instances, the places can be both a matter of unavoidable fact and an amplifier of mood and theme.
Plays regularly relocate in time and place, always making a claim that a new light is thrown onto both the original text and the alternate context in which it is played. The same is true of written stories and literary classics, though it is more common for the update to appear as a film and usually it seems that the transformation of interest is the one of time rather than place.
When writing Caitlin’s odyssey through the realms of death, though I hadn’t yet decided the reality of Caitlin, I had confirmed the necessity of her voice and had a clear sense of the setting. Milton’s Paradise Lost had lodged in my imagination as a place of enormous, glittering blackness, the thick dark black of etching ink; waxy, dense, groundless, with enough intent to form a location made of speed and direction. It was this sense of place that was the key. Not heaven or hell, but a vast cosmos driven by unknowable extremes of energy that carve out its changing forms in the blackness.
I pull against the blackness that would once more fling me out past the centurion path of comets, further than the space-bound eyes of man can reach. I don’t want to disappoint but there is nothing to tell. There is more of the same. There is still no place in which I may claim to be. I don’t want to disappoint but I have seen nothing that seems to be a heaven. Only earth with her kind sky and her care-giving cradle of gravity and her beautiful sun. How blessed I am when I find her again. How hard I cling.
The beech woods, a gentler, earth-bound contrast, perform a similar role for Anna; a location for her thoughts. In the same way that the vast unknowable extremes of space worked to undo Caitlin so that she could reclaim herself again, the beech woods are so familiar to Anna that they allow her thoughts to reach beyond the location into imaginary worlds, populated with invented souls. It is through this act of imagination that Anna is able to unbind the grief that has crippled her. The landscape is where she frames her thoughts and also where she is able finally, to confront her memories.
Let the trees sooth out these wrinkles whilst you walk among them. Let them shield and shelter, let them be beautiful enough to sooth. And she walks in the woods, the echoing emptiness of a cold day is comforting. The glimmers of her ghosts still glide between the trunks, they too seem soothed and a part of this landscape.
Place remains central to the book I am currently writing too. Not because I chose it but because in hindsight and overview, I notice that it is so. In this instance it is the spaces that operate between, the edges of things. The eeriness of incomplete human presence. Though often chosen seemingly at random as one writes, it is curious how often a look back reveals that the place of the writing has offered something that maps the story to its soul, connects the characters to the subtler themes that live in the undercurrents of the words.
I began this week by thinking of the ways that writing my own work leads me back so often to the books I have read and loved over the years. Following this, I selected a few to share on social media. I thought that what they have in common was an exploration of the human condition. That is a phrase, that though it is almost meaningless with careless or sentimental over-use, seems not to have a fresh or as simply understood equivalent that can replace it. So I decided I should at least investigate what I mean when I use it.
There is a sliding scale that takes ordinary human behaviour from the catastrophically bad to the sublimely good. Though each one of us could be considered a connection between them, it is impossible to fully understand the extremes from the position of hovering somewhere up or down the scale that runs seamlessly between.
There is beauty in this stoney land, the arid scree, the spat out insides of the earth frozen in stone, sliding slowly down to the sea, sea that in turn slides all the way to the Sahara. It would not take much of a curve through that sea, an easy tack, to miss Africa and go from dry heat to frozen Antarctic cold. Equator to sun, pole to sun, so small a difference between the two. It is 93 million miles to the sun, this equator to pole difference is a tiny fraction of that great distance, only that of our earth’s radius, a minuscule percentage that marks for most the possible extremes. What other binary flat lines exist on a scale that we cannot really understand; that which we currently experience as ends of a scale in reality denoting only an insignificant, tightly angled section in the middle of the spectrum. Good and evil bounded by our human imagination of heaven and hell. Heavy and light have expressions that expand or crush into oblivion, not knowable with our bodily reckoning. The calibrations made in space dwarf our arm spans and thumbs of measurement. Perhaps it is this intuited, groping recognition of the limited span of our experience that means our stories to explain the inexplicably crazy chance of our being here at all often start with the limitless sky and its perpetrator gods.
Absurdity becomes a logical mode with which to engage with our grotesque human failures and enchanting victories. We are repellant, glorious, frail, beguiling, weak and marvellous. We are often many of these at once. It is absurd to try to decide where on that line we place ourselves, absurd to claim we belong only at the end that expresses victory, absurder still to place ourselves entirely within the realm of failure.
Though it was this uncomfortable, impossible balance that interested me when working as a visual artist, even then, I found the most cogent examination of this confounded, simultaneous glory and failure best expressed or explained through literature. The tragedies of Shakespeare, the theatre of Beckett, the characters of Achilles, Ozymandias, Antigone, all these are the most successful and thus influential, manifestations of expressing what for me is the central problem of being human. How can we have such potential and yet fail so miserably, so many times?
The built environment informed much of my work as an artist. I was interested in the way it holds traces of the human world that built it and the natural world that eventually leads to its decay and desolation. Not nature as it invented itself but none-the-less the natural process of entropy. Buildings hold information as well as having functions. The study of them gave me a strategy for exploring the human occupation of the world, without engaging necessarily in figurative work. It was a way of exploring human strategies, dreams, mistakes, ideals in a general way, without needing to narrow the gaze to any one individual. When it comes to writing, there is a similar usefulness that exists in the presentation of place, the stage on which the drama is set. I have utilised it in the quote above. It acts for me as an Ozymandian reminder that the stage, even in its most temporary manifestations, will last longer than the players. This has a connection to the aspect of the human condition that implies something without end even in its short-lived sparks, its rotation of players and timeless, universally understood stories.
We make a life of bombastic false promise, dirty happy accident, searing achievement and humble faltering progress. Our ingenuity defies gravity and our baseness anchors us. In a small way, my interest in both visual art and writing explores some of the manifestations of this insolvable, permanent imbalance.
The book I am writing at the moment is about a man in prison. As well as exploring the politics that got him there it also examines his relationship with his own body, a body become turgid and heavy after decades of prison life. As his connection to what exists outside of prison and his own past atrophies, he journeys inward, free to imaginatively roam, exploring his body as though it is a terrain. Here, he is looking at a book, at a diagram of the cross section of skin.
The page in his hand had some text and a diagram, fig 17, Cross-Section of Dermis and Epidermis. Great shafts of hair rose like tree trunks from swampy land. Sweat glands and bulbs of sebaceous oil forced up to the surface. He looked at it, a rippling forrest of dark life. He looked down at the black hairs on his own forearm, a scrambled softness there, furze, gorse, briar maybe. It did not look, he thought, like a forrest. But there is much to see in scrubland. Much furtive creeping, paths tunnelled by rabbits and small boys, litter left by lovers. He traced with a fingertip, slowly walking through that wastland growth. Until breakfast and the pint sized, welcome mug of hot tea in its insulated beaker arrived, he slowly grazed his finger up and down the boggy softness of his once strong arm.
I realised as I was thinking about it that in Twice the Speed of Dark (just this very day gone to the editor, to be published by Unbound in a few months!) there is also use of the body as a terrain, a setting, in this instance, predominantly of grief. The main protagonist experiences her body and her life as being suspended, too damaged to prosper, too repaired to die. She occupies a pallid, managed equilibrium, bound by sadness, wounded by loss. The situation maintains her life just well enough for her to survive as though grief is a parasite and she is the host. She is unable to prosper, to process the loss that infects her until crisis forces a change.
Her arms feel leaden, she is burdened. She drags. She is a ghastly nurse, keeping a poisoned body just alive. A steady diet of callous harm and efficient patching up ensuring that healing or death are both impossible.
In the brilliant Catch 22, though the tone is darkly comedic, there is a character who I think informed this idea, the soldier in white, in a cast so complete that only a feeding pipe at the inside of his elbow and a waste pipe at his groin emerge from the plaster. Yossarian watches in uneasy, horrified fascination as every so often one of the brisk nurses Duckett and Cramer take the full waste bottle from one end of the soldier in white and reattach the rubber hose to the feeding tube entering at the crook of the elbow. The soldier, whoever, whatever he is, is caught in a hideous, perpetual state, a life unrecognisable. The lens we are offered in Catch 22 is bleakly, appalingly funny, but the serious implication is one of careless indifference, endless, trapped futility that mirrors the costly waging of a war that no one seems to fully understand.
It is a while since I have read William Golding’s The Spire, but as I recollect, this is another book wherein the body of the protagonist is a palimpsest, suggesting the body of the Cathedral, as it is built around what he takes to be divine inspiration but the reader can readily interpret as an altogether more earthy energy, suppressed sexual desire forced to express itself in the hubristic building of a great phallic spire.
Another book that comes to mind is Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. The relationship to the body might seem more simplistically straightforward as the central theme is a modern free-verse take on werewolves. But there is also nuance and shading. In an interview Barlow stated that he believed that the reason so many cultures over so many different tracts of time have told werewolf myths is because of the unique aspect of the domestic dog and its descendancy from predatory wild wolves. The dog brought the wolf to the hearth. Barlow explored the werewolf theme in a modern setting because he saw it was a fundamental way that humans have reminded themselves of their wild, uncivilised soul. The transformation occurs as the body is either forced or encouraged to express our distant, beautiful and terrifying wildness. The body is the site of a profound story.
Out of interest, (and perhaps unconsciously because I have just finished reading the beguiling Solar Bones by Mike McCormack) I searched Twice the Speed of Dark for the word bones. It appears often, as you can see in the images included with this post. If any readers would like to share their own thoughts on books that use the human body as part of their story telling, part of the manifestation of the story, I would love to get your comments and recommendations.