books

Fell by Jenn Ashworth – review

Published by Sceptre
I was prompted to read Fell by a book group on Twitter. I will write more about the group, and the theme of New Folk Lit that was its starting point in another post, including contributions from author Jenn, who was kind enough to make herself available for a Twitter Q and A, but first I wanted to write a review of Fell.

Fell is quiet and compelling. Atmospheric. I want to say damp if it weren’t for that having negative or unpleasant connotations. The word is a testament to the real presence of the atmosphere that the book creates. It seeps in and settles on you, with a gentle persistence. The themes are absorbed into your consciousness and around and through each other – predominantly for me, the idea of a kind of shifting hinderance that is halfway between invasion and restraint.

“The illness is itself a creeping illness and its main symptom has been to make Mum’s skin stop working. Everything that belongs inside: blood and sick and wee and number two and spit and some strange green-yellow stuff Mum leaves on the bed and on the back of her nightdress sometimes, is coming out through her skin to the world outside where it should not be.”

Netty and Jack are trapped by Netty’s illness. The house they leave to their daughter Annette is fatally undermined by the roots of the sycamore trees that give the crumbling house its name. The bay, the sands and mudflats seem to open up to wide skies and freedom but they are dangerous with absences; sink holes and drowning spots. After death, Netty and Jack themselves leach through the barrier between life and death and hover, like smoke on a still night, in the heavy air, observing their grown daughter with impotent, anguished love. Their unworldly voice, an amorphous ‘we’ is handled beautifully by the writer, eerie but somehow earthy and believable.

“It’s still strange to see ourselves like this. Unpleasant to have this time returned to us. It’s not what we would have wished for, if anyone had asked. With Annette gone, we’d rather sleep now – go back to the blankness of the no-time before she arrived, when we were aware of nothing.”

Charismatic chancer Tim has a gift that makes him the unwilling bridge between states of being but this is a skill that is uncertain in his hands as though to emphasise that otherness intrudes of its own volition. All the characters are in some way held by something, restrained by forces that intrude to shape and change their lives. This untrustworthiness is reflected in the landscape, a beach that becomes a salt marsh, a river that re-works, as if on a whim, the land.

“It was a hazy day, and all Eve saw was the misty, no-colour sky, the grey shapes of the fells and the dark shadows of the people walking with her reflected in the wet sand. They were barefooted and muddy-legged, all of them, and spread out in an uneven, straggling phalanx so as not to churn up the ground and turn it into quicksand. But it was there – he showed it to them, standing on the wobbling skin of the earth, until the dun-coloured surface began to bend and buckle, so saturated with water it showed signs of cracking wide open, falling into crumbling fissures that would set and ooze without warning.”

Fell describes the way that we are agents in the landscape but we are subject to it. The deft handling makes a case for life lived in layers, layers that might unwittingly invade or restrain each other, or, against the presumed laws of being, over-lap and blend. All of it is done quietly, with perhaps a hint of menace at the ultimate unpredictability of states that we would be foolish to take as absolutes; being, time and place. It is love that remains constant, a kind of care taking, a web that is subtle and agile enough to resists and save. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book.

Paint

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.

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What a thrill it would be to have a body curved and compact as a swallow, a bird black all over, build with the same gigantic majesty as the darkness that holds the stars. To master these migrations and head for the burning heart of a star. Perhaps I would fly a little first.  

Why Unbound? Why crowdfunding?

Observations from people who’ve been there

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.)

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Stevyn Colgan, author of A Murder To Die For

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.

damon

Damon Wakes, author of Ten Little Astronauts

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.

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Helen M Taylor, author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

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.

Ian

Ian Skewis, author of A Murder Of Crows

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.

james

James Ellis, author of The Wrong Story

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.

My book Twice the Speed of Dark will be coming out on Unbound later this year.

Which Way is Up?

 

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I am currently reading the book my husband got me last Valentines day. It is our tradition, to mark the day with a gift to each other of a book. Mine from him was The Rebel by Albert Camus.

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Camus tells us that revolt is inevitable, an inherent part of the human state. And that a second inevitability is that the rebel become in turn the despot. Many examples in history demonstrate the truth of this. Camus refers most often to the French Revolution where perhaps the tendency of rebel to evolve into despot was most vividly, theatrically expressed. I imagine it thus; though the circle, implied in the root of the word revolution may be endless in its durational aspect, actually is an oval, created of two parts, above and below, oppressor and oppressed. It is an oval, like the link in a chain, that flips now and then to give the other side temporary dominion.

In so many political struggles the cry of the collective “Give us power!” is remarkably quickly trumped by the whisper, then the shout “Give me power!” Only a passing knowledge of the human psyche is needed to understand this. The power hungry need a base. They need an engine; the passion and the anger of the oppressed is that engine. Leadership in any field is likely to draw those whose souls are fed by the supplication or the love of others. It is part of our collective flaw.

On a day when Theresa May signs and sends the trigger for Article 50 and reflecting on The Rebel, it struck me that part of the reason that rebellion leads so inevitably to tyranny is that in times when life is shaken up, peace becomes more difficult to achieve as people are woken to their dissatisfactions more generally and thus tyranny is grasped for as a solution. It would be absurd to link our leaving of the EU to revolutions of history that have caused mayhem, death and destruction.  But a shimmer is visible. Whilst it is easy to believe the claim of our inherently revolutionary nature, I would add that most humans are reactionary. There are those on top, there are those underneath and there are the majority in between, the long sides of the chain loop, the oval, reacting. Threatened, they too can become active. But being active is not the same as being revolutionary.

I have wondered recently if the border-patrolling nationalism spearheaded by Trump’s narcissistic panderings and May’s opportunistic, hard-Brexit jingoism has come about as a fear reaction to Isis/Daesh. Not because we are able to blame them for it but because fear is the quickest trigger to reactionary action as opposed to revolutionary action. It is easy, even if it is statistically illogical, to feel threatened by a force that specifically desires your harm. Once aggravated, a few decades of grumbling peace becomes more difficult to achieve.

For years, there have been people fed up with the EU. There has been near constant complaint and dissatisfaction from many, including from remainers such as myself who would not have dreamed of voting to leave. Life went on. Not perhaps in tyranny but for many there was a depth of dissatisfaction and a sense of grievance that quietly hummed away. It is hard to imagine, now the shouting headlines of The Daily Mail and the embarrassing jingoistic stunts of The Sun have proclaimed the expanded bounty of freedom that any such quiet rumbling along will be possible in the near future. As well, the masked Anti-Fas will continue to protest, Black Lives will be protested and protected with no decrease in rage, logically, as no decrease in the very real peril is evidenced, no recompense for astounding historic harms is offered. And the long sides of the chain will continue to react, pushing more and more into one or other camp. Oppressor or oppressed. There is no handshake at the end of the game to tell the losing side they should revert to their quiet, possibly grumbling holding role. The victor will, as victors always do, bear down.

So, which way is up?

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Written on bones

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.

Promo Clown is Innocent

promo-clown

The problem with promoting your book

There is a cape of dread that lands on my shoulders whenever I think about the potential necessity of promoting my book. It’s not a very heavy cape. My guess is that it is made of some type of drip-dry, highly flammable fabric, no natural swing or swagger to it. The cut too is poor, and in combination with the nasty material, it sits like a lurid beacon on my shoulders, like a hi-vis uniform for a fast-food shop you wished you didn’t work for, where managers demand you smile with gleeful joy as you dish out company phrases into the bored or sneering faces of customers.

It is this mood of enforced cheerfulness that most fills me with dread when I try to picture what promoting my book might entail. In spite of having just successfully crowd-funded it on Unbound without having resorted to anything like the clowning, servile foolishness that I imagine is going to be my role for the next months and years, I dread having to sell it.

But it must be done. In the end, it must be done for financial reasons. If I want to give up the cleaning jobs that keep me going and write full time, it must be done. As I wrote in Let’s Hear It For The Hardcore I chose that work because it leaves me free to write. That doesn’t mean I want to stick with it. But it is the intrusion of finance that makes promotion so fraught. Selling, promotion, publicity, all these terms are tainted by the ruthless sharp edge of commerce. Perhaps it is the only real trickle-down we are left with from wealth-making financial concerns – making money deliberately is often an ugly and sometimes deceitful business.

This dilemma reaches into the making of work too. When we talk about authenticity, or dumbing down, or, whether, as I discussed in another post, we produce work for ourselves or an audience, we are getting close to this discomforting taint. Why are we doing it at all?

There is a popular notion of the artist, whether writer, painter or dancer, that they are doing something genuine. Something authentic. We have often imbued their output with a kind of mystery, as if we require our artists to be shamans, bringing down or up or out something reachable only by those willing to enter some kind of otherness, a holy trance state. I see an example of this in that way that some artists embrace (in claim at least) an abject life, a life of little comfort, ideally no success, and a wide safety margin between them and the taints of commerce. It is as if they feel they will continue to produce something pure. (This is problematic for me, but the discussion belongs in a different post.)

It is as though there is a scale that at one extreme has the harrowing desiccating logic of greedy capitalism and at the other has the ragged, wise fool. In the middle somewhere is a wide and cheery sea of co-operative crafters liking each other’s work on Instagram. Where to put myself on this line, in my dayglo cape?

I was told by someone with more experience than me to think about who my audience is. My answer was that I hope they are people who will like my writing, people who like thoughtful books. Unravellers. When I write, I don’t write for them. Nor do I write for myself. But I write for a reader. It would be absurd to write a book then tuck it into a folder never to be thought about again. Writing, like all of the arts, is an act of communication. I think my audience might be a person a bit like me. And one thing is sure, if I see a grinning maniac in a dayglo cape trying to trap me with their eyes, I evade at all costs. So then the answer must be that I sell my book as I write it, by laying open what interested me in bothering with it in the first place. It need not be too hysterical. Simply a matter of making it possible for lots of people to take a look while they make their own choice. I won’t even need to ask if they want free chips with that.