Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Music For Writers #2: Iain Rowan

This week's Music For Writers should be good, because selecting the tunes is Iain Rowan, a man who I already know has fine taste in music. Below he talks about some of his favourite music to write to, and his choices certainly work for him, because his work includes such gems as the brilliant collection of literary horror Ice Age, the also-brilliant crime novel One Of Us, and many other also-also-brilliant things.

Take it away, Iain:

I tend to avoid listening to music with vocals when I’m writing, in case the rhythms and images of the vocals creep in and colour what I’m doing. I also tend to listen to playlists rather than individual artists, so some of these choices have been picked as representative, rather than the one true song, and that makes it harder to tie a piece to a particular story. There’s a fair amount on here which gets played much more when writing than any other time, and a lot of what I listen to most day to day doesn’t feature here at all.

Patashnik - Biosphere
This gets listened to as an album, but this particular track most of all. Also here as a representative of a big electronica playlist called Headspace that my wife put together -  lots of things like this, Four Tet, Boards of Canada, Amon Tobin etc. 

Mariette - Mark Kozelek and Desertshore
An exception to my no vocals thing - and it’s ironic because he has such a distinctive vocal style you’d think it would be the worst thing - is most of Mark Kozelek’s output, because the reflective world-weary tone seems to unlock something in my head. For some reason though, this is very much short story soundtrack, not novel writing.

Avril 14th - Apex Twin
I do remember once putting this on repeat and just writing, writing, writing while it played over and over.  This one I can tie to a particular piece too - this was when I was writing ‘Waiting for Mr Opera’ which is a 45 min radio drama that’s doubtless just about to be rejected from the BBC’s Writers’ Room drama call. And funnily enough - I’m writing this on 14th April…

Ashes In The Snow - Mono
My post-rock playlist gets used a lot when I’m writing: big emotional, atmospheric music but rarely a lyric to be heard. Listening to this a lot while working on novel revisions at the mo.

Blue Ship - Justin Sullivan
Another exception to the no vocals thing - the album this is from gets listened to as an album. It has a really consistent feel to it, all the way through. This is currently soundtracking an effort to turn a short stage play called Reading The Stones into a full length thing.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Music For Writers #1: Andrew Hook

Some writers need silence to work, but I've always written to music. Indeed as far as I can remember I started writing about the same time I started taking a serious interest in music: taping indie tracks from The Evening Session (with Jo Wiley & Steve Lamacq) onto a C90 and listening to them over and over, trying to find artists and styles that I liked.

But enough about me; this is the first in a series of guest-posts from other writers who listen to music when they write. I've asked each to pick a few selections and explain why they like it, but more importantly how it affected their writers, what stories they remember writing to it etc. Brian Eno hasn't got round to recording Music For Writers yet, but there's no need for him to bother now.

First up is Andrew Hook, a fantastic writer (check out his novella The Greens as a taster) who despite me being an utter music snob has managed to pick five tracks I really like.

Take it away, Andrew:

I mostly listen to music when writing shorter works, and as I tend to write short stories in one sitting I find music maintains the headspace conducive to creation. It creates a bubble within which I am contained as a writer, and negates outside distractions. I won’t choose anything too abrasive or lyrically challenging, as this can work against the process, but anything subtle can help with ambience. And once I’ve begun writing, the music barely registers, it fades in and out of my consciousness, even when the same song is played over and over.

Occasionally, the music will bleed into the story. I’m fascinated as to how ideas can shift and shape purely from coincidence. Sometimes lyrics – misquoted or actual – can make their way into the piece, but this usually happens during a brief pause in the writing where the singer suddenly fills the gap. On those occasions, it almost feels like the song was specifically written for me to incorporate that fragment at that exact moment. Of course, this is true with other influences – snow falling, a dog barking – but I find there’s a certain serendipity with music which excites me.

Here are the five artists always on my writer’s playlist:

I’ve written more stories whilst listening to Bjork than any other artist, usually the albums Vespertine, Vulnicura, and Music From Drawing Restraint 9. I find her music creates a mood perfect for writing, an all-encompassing sound which is more emotion than song, coupled with a literary sensibility which immediately allows me to settle in to writing without distractions. Stories written whilst listening to Bjork include 'Blood For Your Mother' (published in Black Static) and 'The Nomenclature of Fear' (a chapbook from – the unfortunately now defunct – In Short Publishing). When listening to albums on repeat, no individual songs stand out, so as with all these selections I’m going for a random track and in this case it makes sense to start at the beginning: 'Hidden Place'.

Blonde Redhead
This New York trio comprised of Italian and Japanese members first came to my attention through their Misery Is A Butterfly album in 2004. From more raucous beginnings their music has trod an increasingly ethereal path, and I’d recommend the above album plus 23, Penny Sparkle and Barragán as background music. Stories written to their music include 'Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City' soon to appear in the anthology, Night Light (Midnight Street Press), which has a nightmarish, perhaps Lynchian quality, which I feel was assisted by listening to the Barragán album. For this selection, however, I’m going for the lighter song, '23'.

When listening to music I’ve found it important for any lyrics to be pushed into the background, to be almost subliminal when listening, otherwise I am much more likely to concentrate on the music rather than the writing which defeats the purpose. Echobelly have been a favourite for some time, but I couldn’t write listening to their first two albums because their power-pop jaggedness would intrude. Out of their later material, however, Gravity Pulls is a record I return to time and time again. There’s a soothing, tranquil quality which I find particularly effective. Stories written listening to this album include 'Memories Of Olive' published in Ambit magazine earlier their year, and 'The Easy Flirtations'. Both these stories form part of my ‘Hollywood celebrity death’ collection which is currently seeking a publisher. Here’s the title track.

The Flaming Lips
This band – with their psychedelic SF imagery and sometimes sweeping orchestral-like arrangements are perfect for certain types of stories, particularly their albums Embryonic and Oczy Mlody. I find them epic in the best sense of the word, evoking wonderment and positivity even when the subject matter is poignantly morose. I wrote my Bradbury-esque short story, 'The Day My Heart Stood Still' (published in a PostScripts anthology), listening to Embryonic, and a recent, Kafka-esque story, 'My Tormentors', listening to Oczy Mlody. It what whilst writing about a castle in the latter story that I realised through pure coincidence there was a track called 'The Castle' on the album. I love these weird connections which – even if there is no direct influence – tether one work to another. I’m choosing 'Evil' from Embryonic as an introduction.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
I’ve dipped into Nick Cave over the years, but whilst I’ve usually enjoyed what I’ve heard I never wrote to his music until Push The Sky Away. Being an obvious storyteller, I think some of Cave’s work would be very difficult to have as background music, his lyrics dominant and intrusive, sometimes barked rather than sung, but Push The Sky Away hits the right chords for me to write (I should rework that sentence!), and there’s a definite bleed from the music into the fiction, an ambience of intent. Stories written include 'The Call Of The Void' published in Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism, and 'The Ice-Cream Blonde', another of my celebrity death stories which I consider to be one of the best pieces I’ve ever written. This is how the album begins:

I should also mention in passing the following artists I regularly write to: Coeur de Pirate, Anita Lane, Mercury Rev, Radiohead and Portishead.
Finally, whilst I usually listen to an entire album on repeat when writing a short story, sometimes it’s a single song. The record for this is 'The City Never Sleeps At Night' by Nancy Sinatra, which I listened to seventy times whilst writing 'Blanche' (published in the “Something Remains” anthology from Alchemy Press). If I’m allowed an extra track then it’ll appear below:

Course you're allowed an extra, Andrew!

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Five Things #9

You know the score by now.

1. The Significance Of Plot Without Conflict
An introduction to 'plots without conflict', an idea anathema to a thousand by-the-numbers how-to writing guides. The articles explains why conflict =/= plot via the Chinese/Japanese plot structure of kishōtenketsu. It's an idea that resonates with some of my own feelings about short stories with structures based around building towards a revelation.

2. It's Great, Just Don't Ask Me What It Means
Philosopher Julian Baginni talks on his site about The Birthday Party by Pinter, and how our enjoyment and appreciation for art doesn't need to be hampered by our failing to understand what it 'means'... and that that might not even be a relevant question.

3. The Future Is Happening Right Now
An interview with the brilliant author Jeff VanderMeer in Pacific Standard, in which he talks about his Southern Reach trilogy, and the themes of environmentalism and environmental destruction within that work.

4. 'In The Belly Of The Beast' by Gwendolyn Kiste
Kaleidotrope magazine deliver the goods with this story by Gwendolyn Kiste, a taut and hungry piece of flash-fiction with a nasty bite. Enjoy.

5. We Are All In Omelas by Lynda E. Rucker
And finally, Lynda E. Rucker with a piece that really affected me, and that I've been thinking about on and off since reading it a few months back. Like most, I was horrified and shocked by the Parkland school shooting, but not surprised. What did surprise me was the courage and dignity and eloquence shown by the teenager survivors, even as the worst elements of America's right-wing turned upon them with typical vileness. Here's hoping they manage to affect change to the USA's mind-boggingly harmful gun laws (or lack of). In the meantime, here's Rucker's wonderful, powerful angry piece about their fight, and about the incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin and her story 'The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas'.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

New Story: Once & Ever After

Once & Ever After is a story that's taken a looooooong time to be born. I wrote the introduction way back when I was a student, but for years after never made any further progress with it. I was probably too immature, too unskilled a writer to do so.

Then, maybe about five years ago I finished a version of it I liked. I was still uncertain about it though, both because of its uncommercial length (around 10k) and the fact it was something I felt quite different to my normal work: it's set in the modern day but is based around tropes from old classic fairy tales. It also uses an omniscient narrator for some scenes (including the decades old intro), a far cry from my usual tight third or first person POV.

But, the first beta-reader I sent it to was very enthusiastic about it, not just praising it but wanting to publish it themselves. For various, non-sinister reasons, this fell through, and the story was in limbo for a fear years while I focussed on getting my more horror/weird focussed work submitted. But I'm pleased to say Once & Ever After has now found a home, as part of a new anthology from Black Shuck Books, KnightWatch Gallery. The book comprises of four stories previously published as limited edition chapbooks, from Gary McMahon, Sean T. Page, Jasper Bark and Lily Childs, with mine an additional, unpublished bonus story. Many thanks to Black Shuck head honcho Steve Shaw for his hard work on this book, and allowing Once & Ever After to finally be released into the world...

Blurb & links below:

Once upon a time we lived happily ever after. Or so we are told…

Real life isn’t a fairy tale, not even for Tabatha who lives in a house like a palace, with a father who buys her anything she wants… and certainly not for the
other Tabatha, who lives in a house like a hovel with a father who’s an ogre. Two girls who look almost identical…

Real life isn’t a fairy tale; but sometimes maybe people do get what they deserve, in the end.

You can buy it at the Black Shuck Books site here or Amazon (UK | US)

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

All The Fabulous Beasts: Priya Sharma Interview

I couldn't have been more excited than when I heard Undertow Press were going to be publishing the debut collection from Priya Sharma. The stories I've read of hers over the last few years have always been superb, by turns creepy, beautiful, tender and terrifying. A whole book-load of them? Count me in. Especially one with such stunning cover art and design as this one.

I asked Priya a few questions about All The Fabulous Beasts, particularly focussing on the two stories new to the collection, 'Small Town Stories' and 'A Son Of The Sea' (spoiler: both brilliant).

So, without further ado...

JE: So, to warm us up, how do you think of your stories? Weird fiction, fantasy, horror? I wouldn’t know how to classify them myself (which I absolutely think of as a good thing). Do you find such categories useful as a writer, or limiting?

PS: Hello James! I find that a hard question, even now. I hope that All the Fabulous Beasts is all of the above. When Mike Kelly of Undertow put this collection together he was very careful about what he felt should go in (thankfully) as I've also dabbled in fairy tales, mythology and alterative history. If they'd been included, certain stories might have jarred with others.

The story that I'm writing dictates the form and flavours. I've had lots of rejections along the lines of "I like this but it's not horror". I certainly don't find strict definitions of genre helpful, but I think definitions are getting broader and more blurred.

My favourite books don't adhere to strict definitions and I think I've drawn on them. Things that are between the lines or bend genre are more interesting, such as novels like Beloved by Toni Morrison, Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut, and in the work of David Mitchell, Calvino, Helen Oyeyemi, to name a few.

JE: Regardless of how you think of them, your stories nearly all feature a supernatural element. What is it about the supernatural or surreal that appeals to you as a writer? What does it allow you to do that ‘straight’ realism couldn’t?

PS: I remember listening to Thana Niveau on a panel about horror and she said that she was drawn to it because it was hardwired in there somewhere, which I thought was very thoughtful, rather than it just being about exploring our personal fears. I feel like that about most speculative fiction.

The supernatural allows for a whole new level of allegory. Also, when it's done well it does double duty as there are thrills to be had.

I wish I could write straight fiction, and probably read more straight fiction than genre fiction. When I try and write 'literary' fiction it seems very flat on the page. I feel confined. I think I write speculative fiction because I am, in truth, an escapist. It's the perfect type of fiction for exploring big ideas, feelings, and for extrapolating, but also for having fun and pushing the limits. Human beings are all about the impossible (even at risk to ourselves and the planet).

JE: In both of the new stories in your collection, there’s a very strong sense of place — from the more exotic locations of 'A Son Of The Sea' to the very English, parochial English setting you use in 'Small Town Stories'. So I wondered how important you think a evocation of specific place is, to you as a writer?

It's a crucial part of worldbuildng for me, as important as character. We're all affected by our environments. You can character build in how a person interacts with that world. I always do more research for stories than I need and have to be selective about what I use. It's the same with the world that I'm writing about. There's more happening off page that never makes the cut. Sometimes it's as much as what I imagine for the characters themselves.

I love stories with a strong setting, that's crucial to the story. It's what I enjoyed most about The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, for example. The Titus novels by Mervyn Peake blew my mind.

JE: I was especially taken with the titular setting of 'Small Town Stories' — a lot of British horror fiction seems to be either city based urban horror or rural folk horror, but these kind of backwater small towns seem very British and very scary to me. Was it a conscious decision, to write about the kind of place normally ignored?

PS: No, in that it wasn't a conscious decision - I just wanted to explore feelings I had about the town I grew up in- a smallish Cheshire market town, and when I think about that era it brings back the child in me, for reasons good and bad. That place still has a lot of power over me. When I go back I realise that I'm a stranger there.

The thing is, I don't recognise the place that I knew, not really. New build homes are where the industries that employed most of the town once stood. Supermarkets have replaced the veg shop and the butchers. There are more coffee shops and hairdressers, but nowhere to buy books or music. There used to be a thriving market each week but now it's just a carpark. And I'm not sure who shrunk the schools I went to.

Every small town has its urban legends and outsiders, and I wanted to explore that concept as well. Births, deaths, affairs. Nothing was secret for very long.

I wanted to write my own love story to it all.

JE: As well as a strong sense of place, both of these new tales seem to be about the past being something we can’t escape from, or even move on from - was this a conscious theme?

PS: Sometimes it is, sometimes it just seeps in there. It's a form of haunting, isn't it? The past is important to most people I know, whether they're trying to recreate/relive it or escape from it. I read a lot of Fay Weldon in my teens (thanks to The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil) and one of my favourite lines by her is "Wherever we go, we take ourselves with us". We can't escape our pasts. We can only learn to live with the horrors and joys of it.

It's funny that you've brought that up. I don't think I've ever started a story at the beginning of a character's journey. I'd actually find that too difficult to chart, in some ways. I like flawed people, in the thick of their struggles. What does that say about me?

JE: And finally, can you tell me a secret - name an author who’s an influence on your work that no reviewer or commenter has ever picked up on...

PS: Jim Crace. I think he's woefully neglected in the UK. His novels vary widely in subject matter but there's something about his prose that is poetic. It has a rhythm that I find addictive, almost iambic pentameter, which some people will mock. Reading his work, I get the feeling that every single word is considered and deliberate. I think his style is unique, and can only hope that one day, if I work hard enough, I might develop a unique style too.

My favourite works of his are Arcadia, The Pesthouse, Being Dead and The Devil's Larder.

You can buy All The Fabulous Beasts from the Undertow Press site, in both paperback or hardback editions.

Friday, 16 March 2018

In Praise Of Non-Themed Anthologies

In relation to a few things seen on social media recently, I just wanted to say: non-themed anthologies of original fiction are brilliant, aren't they? Especially, I feel, for weird, supernatural & horror fiction. Why? Well:

1. They can give you a real sense of where the genre is right now, its trends & obsessions
2. Paradoxically, they also provide a purview of the breadth & depth of the genre, irrespective of current trends
3. So they provide homes to stories you sense wouldn't quite 'fit' anywhere else, especially for newer writers
4. They're the best place to find new writers to love in the future, writing from the gut & heart, alongside ones you already know can deliver the goods
5. And you can get a real sense of an editor's personal taste too, their own take on this genre of ours
6. In the best ones, you never know what the next story will bring

But... I confess I find them really hard to review on this blog. There's no theme, so you can't mention that: any connections you see between the stories are likely all in your own mind or too general & obvious to be worth mentioning. And writing about each individual story can feel too repetitive, too much of a time-drain. Especially as there seems to be a tendency for these anthologies to push 20 stories or more.

So I've been remiss on that score, but to repeat, I do love a good non-themed anthology of original horror or supernatural fiction. So here's a link to a few of my favourites of recent years:

Shadows & Tall Trees #6 (ed. Michael Kelly, Undertow)
Shadows & Tall Trees #7 (ed. Michael Kelly, Undertow)
Looming Low #1 (ed. Justin Steele & Sam Cowan, Dim Shores)
New Fears #1 (ed. Mark Morris, Titan)
Nightscript #1 (ed. C.M. Muller, Chthonic Matter)
Nightscript #2 (ed. C.M. Muller, Cthhonic Matter)
A Book Of Horrors (ed. Stephen Jones, Jo Fletcher Books)
Darkest Minds (ed. Ross Warren & Anthony Watson, Dark Minds Press)
For The Night Is Dark (ed. Ross Warren, Crystal Lake)
Strange Tales V (ed. Rosalie Parker, Tartarus Press)
Hauntings (ed. Ian Whates, NewCon Press)
The Shadow Booth #1 (ed. Dan Coxon)
ETA: The Black Room Manuscripts #3 (ed. J.R. Park & Daniel Marc Chant, Sinister Horror Company - suggested by Penny Jones)

Any further suggestions welcome in the comments!

Monday, 26 February 2018

Couple of Cool Things

A brief post on a couple of cool things recently:

A Sony C60 - brings back
so many memories.
Mark West has put together another one of his fabled 'mixtapes' - over on his site a number of us horror types have written about our favourite Stephen King short story. There's selections from Priya Sharma, Maura McHugh, Kit Power, Paula Limbaugh, Willie Meikle, and many many others.

My own piece is on King's story 'The Man In The Black Suit', although I spend almost as much time talking about a Bob Dylan song. (I often talk more about Bob Dylan than I should, especially after a beer or two.) You'll have to check out the Mixtape to find out which one.

On an unrelated note, the anthology Another Dimension (which features my story 'Red Route') has won an award! The Sterling Award, to be specific, which celebrates all things to do with the creator of The Twilight Zone. So that's rather nice.

Another Dimension (UK | US)