Monday, 29 September 2014

The Shadow of the Wind

I have just this minute finished reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Like The Swan Thieves, it was recommended by my publisher as something I might enjoy based on my forthcoming release in February. 

Hidden in the heart of the old city of Barcelona is the 'cemetery of lost books', a labyrinthine library of obscure and forgotten titles that have long gone out of print. To this library, a man brings his 10-year-old son Daniel one cold morning in 1945. Daniel is allowed to choose one book from the shelves and pulls out The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax.  
But as he grows up, several people seem inordinately interested in his find. Then, one night, as he is wandering the old streets once more, Daniel is approached by a figure who reminds him of a character from The Shadow of the Wind, a character who turns out to be the devil. This man is tracking down every last copy of Carax's work in order to burn them. What begins as a case of literary curiosity turns into a race to find out the truth behind the life and death of Julian Carax and to save those he left behind. A page-turning exploration of obsession in literature and love, and the places that obsession can lead.

It was the last thing I read last night, and the first thing I picked up this morning. Perhaps not since The Lovely Bones have I devoted myself to reading at the expense of pressing things I ought to be doing. I stopped last night only because I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. 

I won't even go into it, it was that good. It is something ingeniously special and masterfully written. Wonderfully original and mesmerisingly complex, full of mystery, poetry and profoundly real characters.  

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Snapshot of Rwanda

A snapshot of the beautiful country I live in. Just re-listed myself on CouchSurfing this week.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Long, Long Ago...

Art by Jen Delyth

The past few months have been chaotic. Relocating back to Rwanda, setting up a company, writing reports and catching up with friends.

Finally I have a couple of weeks to myself and I am settled into a lovely house with a garden, vegetable plot, a nice view and my own, quiet, office. The perfect setting for my mind to return to writing.

I've tentatively started on my next novel, a story of long, long ago. I've written about the 1930s in Australia, the 1850s in Iran, and now I'm tackling the Iron Age in Ireland. Retelling an ancient legend in a modern way. 

It's a story I have always loved, and one which lends itself very well to a new approach, but it is also one that requires a great deal of research. The further back in time you go, the harder that research becomes, especially when exploring the Tuatha Dé Danann, whose stories intertwine but rarely follow a coherent timeline.

The fact that so little is written or know is, on the one hand, quite helpful. It leaves a large amount of space for poetic license and filling in the empty gaps with imaginative subplots. On the other hand, it means that what is written is often quite academic, and the danger of blundering into an impossibility become quite high, as mentioned in my post on Celtic candlelight.

Back when I was researching Angorichina, I really used to enjoy this part of the process: looking at old photo archives, reading medical journals and personal accounts. Rosy Hours, too, was fun to investigate. However, I'm not enjoying it quite so much this time. It's such a distant age that there is very little to look at beyond academic articles, museum artifacts and Time Team documentaries on YouTube. There are no photographs from the time, or personal accounts. The timeline is confusing, the characters ambiguous, and the language and its etymology hard to interpret. The romanticism that makes this an attractive age for a setting seems lost beneath weighty resources.

I will spend a few weeks going through as much as I can. To me, the best fiction isn't real, but it could be real. I like to stay as close to what is known as possible to give the story, and its characters, a world that is plausible; to allow them to live in such a way that seems natural to them. But beyond a certain point, it is the story, rather than history itself, that must take hold. We are, after all, storytellers, not historians. Our skill lies in breathing magic back into dry academia.

I shan't blog the process in the way I did with Rosy Hours, as it's likely to prove fairly similar, but I will post the occasional update and excerpt.

Let us lose ourselves in the Feast of Age and the aos sí.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Banned Book Week

All this week, 21st-27th September, has been Banned Book Week, where the world celebrates all the stuff it's not supposed to even know about.

For those who feel like being rebellious, here's some funky fun to get your nose into:

Also - age rating on books, and why I think that's tosh.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Gaiman on Pratchett

An interesting read, Neil Gaiman talks about his friend Terry Pratchett.

I want to tell you about my friend Terry Pratchett, and it’s not easy. I’m going to tell you something you may not know. Some people have encountered an affable man with a beard and a hat. They believe they have met Sir Terry Pratchett. They have not.

I was lucky enough to see Pratchett talk at Cheltenham in 2012.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


Good morning 23rd September.

I cut into this onion the other day - brought a tear to my eye.


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Crowdfunding Ghostwoods

One of those great novels is mine. Please give this project your blessing. It's a tough industry and their author-friendly ethos is fantastic.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Independent Thoughts

I don't usually haul politics onto this blog, but it's such an historic occasion I feel like saying something. Although, after the abuse hurled at Andy Murray, I'm glad I've waited until after the vote.

Last night I went to bed not knowing whether I would wake to a United Kingdom or an independent Scotland.

It's polarised a nation in a way that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. As every generation, I'm sure, has lived to see something they felt they would never live to see.

Still, it's a significant occasion. According to the headlines it makes Scotland the first country in history to say 'no' to independence.

I went out with some friends last night for banana beer in Kigali, and we raised a toast to 'the former UK.' The levels of division that simply asking the question of independence has incited suggests that there is no such thing as a unified nation in the first place.

In 1995,  Michael Billig coined the phrase 'banal nationalism':

Banal nationalism refers to the everyday representations of the nation which build an imagined sense of national solidarity and belonging amongst humans...

This idea that nations are defined by a shared assumption that we are all of one mind, one history, one future.

Clearly, by the results of the referendum, no nation ever was.

As a writer, I'm extremely philosophical on this point. After all, the beginning of every great story begins: what if....

What if Scotland gained independence? Which currency would they use? Would they re-apply to join the European Union? What would the reaction of the British government be?

It's just in my character to want to ask and explore those questions, rather than re-read a book I've already read. One thing you know about stories is that they never end. One chapter leads to the next, one book to another. A 'yes' vote wouldn't have meant the end of anything, just the beginning of something new. Nations and empires come and go, but people are resilient and resourceful and it would have been extremely interesting to see what happened next.

As it is, I always remember an arrogant minister back when the referendum was fist mooted, who said that Scotland would vote no and that a referendum would put an end to it - independence would not be discussed again for a generation.

Looking at the figures: 45% Yes, 55% No, 84.5% turnout, with one constituency reporting 100% turnout - when the last general election mustered a UK average of 65% - rather suggests it's a hot political topic capable of mobilising the greater majority of a nation.

Nothing is more dangerous - or exciting - than an idea. And an idea is tenacious. I would not be surprised if this were the beginning of the conversation rather than the last word.

Either way, the gloating displayed by politicians and the public over who has won and who has lots, the physical assaults and ugly words hurled, has shown that there is very little united about a misnomered Kingdom.

It was certainly interesting to observe from Africa. As one meme read, of all the countries that have gained independence from the UK throughout history, not one has ever chosen to give it back.

My African friends were surprisingly in the 'no' camp, not seeming to equate the independence of their own countries as being on a par with Scotland's bid for freedom. The UK seems a sacrosanct emblem of power and unity, and, besides, they're all the same nation really, right? If Uganda can remain a nation with 56 tribes, surely the chieftains of the UK can cope with four (five if you count the Manx). Whereas most of the ex-pats I've talked to were in the 'yes' camp for the same reason as me - pure curiosity.

Don't underestimate curiosity. It's the reason so many Brits are living thousands of miles from home in the first place. It's also, I suspect, one reason why the 'yes' vote grew so rapidly. When the idea was fist mentioned everybody laughed. Independence is, after all, something that happens 'over there' in those far off desert places that we once called an empire. It doesn't happen within the empire itself! 

Yet once the thought had sunk in, and the idea grew from an improbability to a possibility, people - including many English like myself - shifted from debating whether it could happen to: 'if it does happen, how could we make it work?' Doodling economic plans on napkins and trade agreements on the back of receipts.

I must admit to feeling a little deflated, though not surprised, at the result. I predicted a 'no' vote by a short margin, but I would not have been at all unhappy to wake to a 'yes' vote. Although, at the back of my mind, I can see the silver lining. We English need the Scottish and the Northern Irish and the Welsh to diversify our political pool. Otherwise it's just us, left here alone with our parliament and its cronies. What would we do without the Celts baring their buttocks now and then and burning down the occasional holiday home? They save us from our own sense of self-importance. A sense of self-importance which is likely to prove insufferable in the coming weeks.

And whatever Alex Salmond must be feeling today, I would like to thank him. He posed the question, he offered an alternative to our long accepted reality, and he mobilised a nation into a debate of truly historic consequence. He suggested one heck of a what if?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Lights Out In Wonderland

I mentioned yesterday that I had been reading Babette's Feast by Karen Blixen, and that it felt as though there should be more.

Well, there is a book that took a similar concept - the feast of a lifetime - and ran with it to novel length.

Look at it, my friend: all that has ever been called love of life, is a love of things that won't happen...Our farewell dinner should be as splendid as anything since the fall of Rome. A Feast of Trimalchio. A night of the Satyricon. A limbo that blisters all restraint, a cone of nimbus so high that stars are sucked inside it.

I'm a bit of a fan of DBC (Dirty But Clean) Pierre. He had me at the IKEA scene in Lights Out. There is a level of empathy that, once shared, is never lost.

I particularly liked the following observation:
Life is a strange animal, with none of the boundaries we think are there. Situations can turn at any time. And our hunt for assurance makes us easy to manipulate. Commerce makes its fortune selling empty solutions, making us feel we have to reach and reach for safety. And when we can't reach it, because it's not built to be reached, we reach for a drink or a drug to ease the frustration. Of course things will spiral out of control, in fact they're meant to - look how many industries depend on the spiral. But like any dictatorship, even a psychological one like this, people will in time band together against it. People on needless spirals will gather. Reach out and take control.

At the very back of the book is a little addendum beginning:

We will be destroyed
whether we like it or not.

I say let's like it.

A motto to live by, certainly.

Worth wrapping your eyes around if you're still hungry after the feast.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Babette's Feast

Whilst in Nairobi a few months back, a friend took me through Karen, named after Karen Blixen who wrote Out of Africa. Never having read her work before, I thought I should give myself an education, beginning with her short story Babette's Feast which she wrote under the nom de plume Isak Dinesen.

Babette's Feast is a sublime celebration of eating, drinking and sensual pleasure. In Isak Dinesen's life-affirming short story, two elderly sisters living in a remote, god-fearing Norwegian community take in a mysterious refugee from Paris one night - and are rewarded for their kindness with the most decadent, luxurious feast of a lifetime.

A very interesting read, and a very brief one. I was just getting into it when it ended.

It's the story of two god-fearing women who take in a mysterious French maid. Nicely written, very easy to read, but you can't help thinking it was the introduction to what could have been a fascinating novel. It may well tempt me to start on Out of Africa.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Those Twerps at Twitter

Oh, this is the worst news. 

There is change in the air at Twitter, and it is not going to be good news for author and book promotion. It won’t matter if you are Simon & Schuster or Joe the self-published author, both will stand little chance of being seen when Twitter starts Facebook styled filtering of user’s feeds.

I bloody hate Facebook. Social network it ain't. I run a writing page with over 65,000 likes. Even on a good day, thanks to Facebook's algorithms, we're lucky if 1% of our followers see anything we post. It's a time-stealing, energy-sapping, enthusiasm-draining waste of a day trying to think up memes and text-only posts that might get a further reach without emptying our pockets by paying for a boost.

Total pile of pants. The whole point of Twitter was that it was better than that. More democratic, full of variety, and less greedy. Don't do it Twitter. Though we know, with dollar signs in your eyes, you probably will.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Robber's Daughter

Back in 2011, I went on a writing retreat to eastern Germany. I made a lovely friend there, Lisa, who has since married and had a daughter. When she wrote to tell me, I was delighted to learn that she had named her after one of her favourite literary characters: Ronia the Robber's Daughter.

Unfamiliar with the story, I promptly ordered a copy. I've only recently had time to read it, and finished it last night.

High on a mountainside, a band of robbers live in a great fortress. 
Ronia, the daughter of the robber chieftain, roams the forest but she must beware the grey dwarfs and wild harpies. When she befriends Birk, the son of her father's greatest enemy, it causes uproar. Ronia and Birk can no longer be friends - unless they do something drastic. Like running away... 
Suddenly they are fending for themselves in the woods, but how will they survive when winter comes? And will Ronia's father ever accept her friendship with Birk, so they can go home?

What a book! I loved it.

It was written by Astrid Lindgren, who also wrote the Pippi Longstocking stories. I remember seeing those on German TV as a child, when visiting family friends, but I had never actually read any of her work.

She reminded me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones in that her characters are anything but conventional, and her chief female protagonist is strong-willed and independent of mind. Not a whiff of the 'little princess' syndrome. 

The descriptions of nature are beautiful, and the folklore is rich. I especially liked the Unearthly Ones who sing people to their deaths. Similar to the Fay Folk of Celtic legend - you get trapped in their world and cannot find your way home.

It's one of those stories for children that deals with some very adult themes. A surprising read, and a beautiful love story. I actually cried at one point! I think it was around:

Truly, there was nothing Ronia wanted to know more. She had wondered a lot why Birk was not worrying at all about winter. 'It is summer now, sister mine,' he would say, as calmly as if winter would never come. 
'We have only this summer, you and I,' said Birk, 'and the way things are with me now, I don't mind very much about living unless you are with me. And when winter comes you won't be with me.'...
Summer would not last for ever; he knew it and Ronia knew it. But now they began to live as if it would, and as far as possible they pushed away all painful thoughts of winter. They wanted to make the most of every hour from dawn to dusk and night-time and draw the sweetness from it. The days could come and go; they were living in a summer enchantment and would not be disturbed. They had just a little time left.

It's one of those books that is not really a children's book or an adult's book, but a book for everyone. I think it probably strikes up wisdom in young people and nostalgia for summers past in older people.

I enjoyed it very much indeed, and I am proud to know that there is a little Ronja in the world, with Lisa as her Lovis. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Teeny Tiny Adventure

13-Year-Old Charlotte Brontë & Her Brother Wrote Teeny Tiny Adventure Books.... 

From a tweet by Bibliophilia.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Book Cavern

Just - wow. 

A man browsing for books in Cincinnati's cavernous old main library. The library was demolished in 1955. 

I'd like to have one of those cliff hammocks and live up there. Tanks to History in Pictures for tweeting. Reminds me a little of Penumbra's bookshop.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Tubahumurize Association

I have a large bed in my spare room here in Kigali. It's a spare room because I can't put anyone in there until I find some bedding large enough. My friend told me about The Tubahumurize Association. It's just up the road from me and provides training for women escaping GBV (Gender Based Violence), teaching them to sew and make beautiful handcrafted products. They also provide counselling for HIV/AIDS and rape victims, plus human rights advocacy. I've just bought two quilts and they fit perfectly. Really unique.

Quilt No.1



Quilt No.2 Front


Musical Interlude: Dr. John The Night Tripper

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Swan Thieves

Last night, on the recommendation of my publisher, I finished reading The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova.

A little like Equal of the Sun, it was a slow burner, but it carried a similar quality. Both are works of impressive literary fiction.

Psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe has a perfectly ordered life - solitary, perhaps, but full of devotion to his profession and the painting hobby he loves. This order is destroyed when renowned painter Robert Oliver attacks a canvas in the National Gallery of Art and becomes his patient.  
Desperate to understand the secret that torments this genius, Marlowe embarks on a journey that leads him into the lives of the women closest to Oliver and a tragedy at the heart of French Impressionism.  
Kostova’s masterful new novel travels from American cities to the coast of Normandy; from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth, from young love to last love. The Swan Thieves is a story of obsession, history’s losses, and the power of art to preserve hope.

It is steeped in artistry, you can smell the oil paint between the pages.

From a technical perspective, I liked the fact the chapters were short, but that Kostova stuck with whichever character still had something to say, resulting in some consecutive chapters by the same character. I suffer a little OCD on that point. When I was writing Angorichina there came a point where I wanted to do a continuation chapter on the same character. It felt too awkward. I had to insert another character for symmetry. With The Swan Thieves, it wasn't just consecutive character sections, but the mixture of mediums employed, including letters from the past interrupting contemporary prose. I wonder whether it counts as impressionist writing?

I have never been an artist, I struggle to draw stick figures, but in her portrait of a tortured painter, Kostova did make me think that perhaps the world of authors and artists isn't so different after all. We're all trying to capture images of the world around us, or the worlds of our imagining. Painters with brushes and canvas, writers with ink and parchment. Or, nowadays, MS Word.

The part that bothered me more was the theme of obsession. The book focuses very much on artists and their obsessions - their muses.

It's a realm that poets are most associated with, but I can attest to the fact that it strikes novelists too. A good novel is usually born of obsession, or at least a strongly persistent idea. I've mentioned before that you have to be fairly obsessed with a theme to write 100,000 words on it.

More than that, though, many writers, just like many artists, tend to have a certain quirk in their sanity that leads them to fixate on things, often feeding off that fixation to create their art. Whether the object of their fixation is aware of it or not. There is an overwhelming amount of research suggesting strong links between creativity and depression, or outright mental illness, and the number of incredible writers who turned to drink, drugs and sex either as part of their personality or through an attempt to escape their personality, is impressive. More often than not it seems the greatest creations are born in the midst of self-destruction.

About four years ago, I did a Robert Oliver. Looked up from what I was doing one day, and couldn't look away. It's a hideous experience at first, because you feel as though all of your words have left you. How can you be a writer and not have the language to describe something like that? A writer who can't write is - nothing? Those who have read Splintered Door might have noticed the acknowledgement. Lost Heart, was an expression of the worst of it.

After that, you sort of enjoy yourself. Providing you embrace your discomfort, you can write more productively than you ever did before. Or, in Oliver's case, paint - the same thing, over and over. Exploring the same object from every angle.

No muse is a reality. Which is why they appear to artists, who refuse to live in reality, as illustrated by their enthusiasm for re-designing it. Just when you think you've unleashed your creativity, you realise it's trapped inside a box. People like us, we're dreamers, drunks, and vagabonds. To want one thing so very much, is to be owned my an impossible idea. A fairytale. Something that cannot be written any other way. 

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” 

― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

I travelled halfway round the world (further than France, Mr. Oliver) to prove to myself that reality is, indeed, distasteful. The writer in me wrote the script but left the idiot in me to recite the lines. Still, the end of one story is always the beginning of another.

Like The Swan Thieves, once the spell is broken and you've had your 'no power over me' moment, you're free to get on with your life. Fresh air replaces the stale sweat of preoccupation. 

I know some people yearn for a muse. I never did, though I can't say I wish I hadn't had one, because if I hadn't gone giddy, I wouldn't have written some of the stuff I'm most extremely pleased with. I also wouldn't have cried in doorways or bored half my friends rigid (seriously - one almost drowned in her soup). 

All the same, Rosy Hours, or the parts that make it good - the poetry in it - would never have happened. That's worth a little humiliation and a few sleepless nights, isn't it?

So, yes. A lengthy ramble. But I did find myself closing The Swan Thieves with no small amount of unease, and rather a lot of heartfelt sympathy for Robert Oliver. Artists (writers included) and our mad captivations.

Is it strange that sometimes, when I'm writing, I visit the book's website just to listen to the music? I find it enchanting, yet, when I leave the page, I can never remember the tune.

Unrequited love is a ridiculous state, and it makes those in it behave ridiculously. ~ Cassandra Clare 
To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves. ~ Federico García Lorca, Blood Wedding