Wednesday 29 April 2020

The Children of Lir for #IndieApril

Here's the last book in my #IndieApril book tour.

This is my latest release, The Children of Lir, which came out last year.

It's actually one of the oldest stories I wrote. I've always loved the original Irish folktale. I first read it in the Irish Folk and Fairy Tales Omnibus Edition by Michael Scott, which I picked up on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with family as a teenager. That book was a great influence as it showed  how quite straightforward characters in fairytales could be brought to life and made relatable. I spoke a bit about this with The Tangled Forest. On a more basic level, it showed me that you could retell a fairytale. That those stories belong to all of us and are there to be interpreted, reinterpreted and retold through the ages.

I first attempted to write my own version of The Children of Lir as a script, back in the days when I was an avid Celtx community member. The earliest version I've still got dates to around 2007, so a little before I wrote my first novel, Lucid.

After the prologue, the first chapter begins with the first lines of that script:

Some say my father was the god of the sea, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann who walked these green shores before the age of man. Some say he shaped destinies and carried the dead to their final resting place...

I've always felt it's an incredibly cinematic story with sweeping landscape and mythical beings. 

As with novellas, I soon discovered that scripts just aren't something you write unless you've been specifically invited to do so. There's really not a market for something like that on spec. However, I loved the story so much that I thought, If no one will read a script, I'll write a novel.

It is by far the longest I've ever written, resting at 119,000 words and over 450 pages.

Ghostwoods originally took the rights, offering my first ever advance and developing some cover art, but unfortunately they hit problems and had to stop most of their projects for a while. They asked whether I'd like to hold out for better times, but I decided, having spent so many years developing the story, that I wanted to go ahead and produce it myself.

Alongside Rosy Hours, I consider it to be my best work, though the two books are very different. It's one of the few novels I've written that isn't particularly dark, although there are some dark characters in there. It's strongly founded on the original translation, The Fate of the Children of Lir, by Lady Gregory. It was very important to me that the story followed the structure of the original legend as much as possible, but, within that, there was huge scope for creative license.

You already start out with a few glaring gaps, especially the timeframe. The children were supposedly Tuatha Dé Danann, turned to swans for 900 years, and turned back in the early days of Christianity. The problem here is that the Tuatha Dé Danann are thought to have left Ireland by around 1,700-1,477 BC. Even if the children were turned to swans by the very latest estimate, the curse would not have seen them to the age of Saint Patrick and the dawn of Christianity.

So, already we have to take some liberties.

Another liberty I took was with the ending. The tale was recorded by Christian scribes who had a bit of a habit of repurposing old pagan tales and festivals to promote the new faith. In some versions of the story the children are converted or baptised after they turn back. Having followed their story for so many thousands of words, that just didn't sit entirely right with me. So, I gave it a bit of a different ending. One I felt might be more true to the characters. As everyone else has written an ending to suit their tastes, I didn't feel that was much of a liberty.

For me, it's very much a story of two rivers converging: the old gods and the new. To live a lifetime which sees everything you ever knew replaced by something different, and to see how small we are in the vastness of time. It's very interesting subject matter to me, and the same sort of melancholic appeal that vampire stories tend to have. To outlive all those you love yet be unable to die. Does that make immortality a blessing or a curse? None of us particularly want to die, but what price would we pay to live?

There are also a lot of interesting relationships I stumbled across whilst researching. The original script was only about 77 pages, about 14,000 words including scene tags. To fill a novel, I really needed to go a lot deeper into the mythology. The gods of Ireland don't obey timelines. This is common in most ancient mythologies that predate the written word. Characters crop up at strange intervals and constantly change places, so it's hard to keep track of them. However, if 'mac' indicates a son, then Manannán mac Lir, god of the underworld, can reasonably be presumed to be Lir's son alongside his four children turned to swans. This opened up several interesting possibilities that I explored within the story. It became particularly useful during the 300 years they were stuck in the North Sea. The first half of the book was very easy to write, because it was about their life as humans, in a very tribal Iron Age world. The end was fairly easy too, ushering in the Christian era, which is well documented. But that lump of time in the middle was tricky. 'They sat on the ocean for three-hundred years,' just doesn't make for a gripping tale.

The more I investigated the family bonds, the more pages started to fill. One of my favourite characters is Bé Chuille, Witch of Lámhfada and Manannán sister-in-law, whose name I still can't pronounce. She's since become my favourite character, alongside Joe in Angorichina.  A very complex creature and a bit of a rough diamond - or demon.

I was a bit uncertain how this story would be received, as there have been many retellings of The Children of Lir over the years. However, most of them tend to be short and beautifully illustrated children's books, such as the gorgeous work of Alexandra Soranescu, whereas I really wanted to go for the epic adult retelling. I do feel that's what I've managed to achieve.

It's dedicated to my Irish (naturally) friend Cathryn, her husband Danny and their son Dara. Cathryn and I were VSO together in  Rwanda from 2007-09. We spent a lot of time drinking and talking. I originally wanted to publish this for their wedding, but by the time it finally came out they'd been married a couple of years and had a kid. Like the gods of Ireland, the publishing industry does not run to schedule.

As a slightly sad aside, I had a very good friend called Christiane Desrosiers who died of cancer here in Rwanda in 2015, after just gaining Rwandan nationality. We had also been VSO together. She arrived a year after I did. She was still here when I returned in 2014 and was building an ecolodge in Kibuye, beside Lake Kivu. We shared a love of books, and she was incredibly supportive of my writing. She really believed I should pursue it. Shortly before she died, I visited her in hospital to take her food and books. I also gave her a draft of this one. I know she was reading it, but I have no idea how far through she got before she died, and that stings a little bit. I hope it was a peaceful part, as the story is entirely about time, and death, and loss. I know it's a story that ordinarily she would have loved, but part of me hopes she didn't start it.

When I was editing the final copy, I did some of that on Lake Kivu, just over the water from her lodge. It is an extremely beautiful part of the country, though I don't think there are any swans there.

The cover was designed by Valdas Miskinids, and there was quite a bit of debate about the colour. It was originally in red, then he gave me a couple of other options in green and blue and it was put to a public vote, with green narrowly winning out over blue, though everyone seems to have their favourite.

On release day, my dad bought me some chocolates. Apparently there's a Lir Chocolate Company. They're very yummy.

And, in a strange turn of events, whilst I was writing the book, I visited Cathryn and Danny in London. Walking back to their house from the train station one night, I happened to see this on the wall of a house. Rather fitting.

Sunday 26 April 2020

The Tangled Forest for #IndieApril

The penultimate book on my #IndieApril book tour and probably the shortest.

This one came out in 2018, the same year as Creeper's Cottage. It began life as a one-off novella called Wolfish. It was a very dark retelling of Red Riding Hood. I've always been interested in myths and fairytales. Philip Pullman's introduction to Grimm's Fairytales has it pegged - they're very two-dimensional and often with quite a blatant moral message. But I love this idea that many of the gods from Vodoun to Norse mythology were based on people who probably walked the earth. The way the Kings of Ireland, Africa and many other areas start out as mythical god-like beings and then suddenly step onto the page as recorded individuals with complete histories. More complete the more time passes.

I love the idea of reaching back into those half-known places and pulling a complete, complex being from the mists. Taking flat fairytales and blowing some life into them. What would those stories be like if those were real people with all their thoughts and feelings, all that messy emotion, along for the ride?

I'm also drawn towards Red Riding Hood for the sexual element. There are so many folk angles in there about what she represents: Mother Redcap with her love charms, or the menarche with its first stirrings of sexual possibility, or forbidden lust for that animalistic side of things, the fight between desire and decorum.

Plus, I'm someone who likes the darker side of literature, so the colour red is always a lure. How did that cloak get so awfully red?

That's sort of the question I set out to answer, so you can probably guess where it goes.

So, I wrote it just for fun in between Rosy Hours and Creeper's Cottage. I put it out on submission and got a very polite knockback saying they really liked the writing but couldn't take a novella... and they weren't the only ones. It soon became very apparent that no serious writer in their right mind ever, ever writes a novella.

Ghostwoods took pity on me and suggested that if I wrote a couple more to go with it, they could perhaps release them as a collection.

So, that's what I did. Two more, that I have to admit I wasn't overly into until I started them, but which quickly grew on me. I went for the story of Snow-White and Rose-Red, which, being honest, didn't come out at all as I planned. It was all going to be told from one sister's perspective and there was going to be a lot of blood-on-snow imagery, which just never materialised. Instead, both sisters got in on the act and it turned into a sort of weird romp through the woods with a bit of dark, cartoonish humour. I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself.

Then I switched back to serious tone for the final telling, Skin, which is based on the French story Donkeyskin (Peau d'Âne). I chose that one because I had a huge book of illustrated fairytales as a kid and one of the most beautifully illustrated was this story, with its dresses sewn of sunlight and stars. Wish I could remember the book, now.

Anyway, I cobbled them together as a collection. Unfortunately, Ghostwoods decided they didn't want them, but that did leave me free to self-publish using the wonderful artwork of Victoria Cooper.

It was just a little side project that got a bit out of hand. 

Saturday 25 April 2020

James Elkington

For all those stuck inside and unable to go walkabout, here's some photography by my friend James Elkington. I think his stuff is absolutely marvelous, and often contains stone circles and ancient landscapes of the British Isles. You can find more and order prints on his website, Facebook or Instagram.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Master of Audible


I wrote a while back about my battle with the Audible App. It had a bug so the Master level got stuck on 'one hour to go' - forever. When I tried the fix Amazon suggested, it wiped about a day and a half off my listening time.

Rather upsetting.

Anyway, I've listened to a few more books since then. When I checked in, Master was back on 'one hour to go,' and looked like it had got stuck again, so I stopped checking. Then, whilst looking at some other stats the other night, I saw that it had finally lit up.

My current listening time is 22 days, 22 hours and 15 minutes, though, as I say, I lost about 36 hours when the app crashed.  

Either way, that's a whole lot of hours and some mighty fine reads. 

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Creeper's Cottage for #IndieApril

Next stop on the Indie April book tour is Creeper's Cottage.

This was written entirely for the fun of it.

Through my publisher, Ghostwoods, I made the acquaintance of the lovely David Southwell, who turned out to be a fan of Rosy Hours. He provided a quote for the back and has been extremely supportive of my writing.

Around the same time, he was working on his project called Hookland. Or The Phoenix Guide to Strange England. I've explained what Hookland is before, but in brief it's a mythical county in England where folklore lives and breathes. Any weird stories, old wives tales or creepy occurrences from across the British Isles have a home there. A fantasy world which all sorts of artists can add to by writing stories, posting photographs and artwork.

I was strongly drawn to this as I'm a huge fan of things like #FolkloreThursday and anything a little Fortean. I'm also a huge fan of MUDs and collaborative worldbuilding. So I leapt at the chance to look over an early edition of the Hookland Guide for Writers, which laid out the geography and key folklore.

It just felt very natural to set a novel there.

Rosy Hours had taken a lot of research. There had been inter-library loans, documentaries, photographic archives... a labour of love. Once it was done, I didn't really feel like diving straight into another book that would require more research. I wanted to write something fun, with all the creative license I wanted.

Hookland was perfect. I grew up in a small village famed for its witchcraft. The guide reminded me of all those moonlit back lanes and empty pubs with the creaking boards above the door. It was any rural English backwater, and at the same time it was not. It was whatever else you wanted to throw in there.

I'm also a huge Peaky Blinders fan, and round about that time I went on a trip to the Black Country Museum with dad and Marilyn. That's where they filmed parts of it. It's one of a handful of 'living museums' across the country. There's another one in Wales. The idea is that listed buildings that are in danger of dereliction can be taken apart brick by brick and rebuilt on museum land, so that future generations can visit them. You can wander through the houses and they bring the past to life with actors and farm animals.

It was whilst at the Black Country Museum that we went inside an old squatter's cottage, where itinerant workers used to live. I just stood there thinking, they transferred the bricks, but what else did they bring with them? All the hopes and fears, memories, tears and laughter those walls must have absorbed over the years. It wasn't just a house they'd brought with them, but all the history that went with it.

Perfect premise for a ghost story. 

The inspiration for Creeper's Cottage at the
Black Country Museum

So, the story is about a lord living in Hookland who is trying to start his very own living museum, only things start to get a little creepy. It's a ghost story.

The whole thing was so much fun to right. I didn't really set off with much more of an idea of the plot beyond the living museum, so the characters surprised me as they turned up. You don't need to know a single thing about Hookland to enjoy it, but, as with Rosy Hours, if you do know the background there's a few Easter eggs in there.

I took the liberty of transposing one place I know from my home county to Hookland. The Marchers's wooden house is a real place. And yes, in summer, musicians sometimes turn up and jam, and we go swimming. I call it 'my local pool.' And it is an old brick-maker's reservoir, so it's safe to swim because there are no pipes below. Places are powerful, and I wanted to preserve this one.

Picture courtesy of Sean Boustred

To say there was no research involved is a fib. I contacted living museums to learn about the process of moving houses, to try to make it authentic. Looked up a lot of building practices and even how to put in a root barricade, which weirdly served me well the other day as my landlord had to put one in my garden to protect the wall from the roots of a palm tree. I stood there, hands on hips, and in my most knowledgeable voice suggested how far the barricade should be from the tree - because I'd read all about it for no other reason than to make half a paragraph seem like I knew what I was talking about.

Writers are all professional diletantes. We learn so much stuff we'll never need again, but every now and then, a situation presents itself where you look like the smartest kid in school. So long as no one asks a follow-up question, you're sorted.

And, although the Hookland Writers Bible was fictional, it took almost as much research as writing about an actual historical place, because I had to make sure that what I wrote didn't directly contravene anything David wrote - it's his world, after all. The book needed to compliment what he had created rather than compromise it.

This was also the first book I ever decided to self-publish. I didn't think it was likely to find a publisher given the niche market and fan base, so I finally got to grips with typesetting. It was tough going, but I'm glad I did it. It's given me a greater respect for publishers, but also more freedom as an author that I don't have to bind myself to what I think a publisher might take. I can write what I like and still have a decent POD product at the end.

So far, I've had a small amount of really lovely feedback from citizens of Hookland, though not many reviews. I'm happy though. It was fun to write and design. And a big 'thank you' to José Bethencourt Suárez for the cover, which rocks.  


Sunday 19 April 2020

Ghostwoods: Open Call for Short Stories

Having just waxed lyrical about Ghostwoods Books yesterday, they have an open call for submission at the moment. Information here. Stories between 5-8,000 words. Deadline 7th June 2020.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Rosy Hours for #IndieApril

Next up on my #IndieApril book tour is the big one, Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran.

I call it 'the big one' because it was by far the best publisher I've ever had and the widest-reviewed book to date. Therefore it's going to be a bit of a long post.

I recently reviewed Les Miserable by Victor Hugo, and mentioned that I've always enjoyed musicals. I grew up listening to Phantom of the Opera on my mum's old vinyl player. So, I suppose you could say I've always been a phan, as fans of Phantom are known. I was also a drama schooler, where musicals were unavoidable. We had an entire musical theatre department whose students would occasionally appear out of nowhere and burst into flash dance, legwarmers and all.

I'm not sure when I first became aware that there was another story within Phantom - the untold story. Perhaps it was an older version I saw on telly. I remember always being fascinated by how Erik became so disfigured, and I'm sure there was one version that tried to explain it as his mother having drank poison in a failed abortion bid or something. I can't entirely remember. But anything Phantom, I was a little bit hooked.

Naturally, I eventually went to the source, the original novel written by Gaston Leroux. Like Dumas's Musketeers, it began life as a serialisation in a newspaper. That was a big thing back then. But it was really within the pages of that novel that it struck me how much was never fully explained, and how tantalising that story could be. I'd always wondered why a Persian was hanging around Paris with Erik, and  why he got turned into a musical box so no one actually had to go into that question.

So many fascinating loose ends, like how he got the name Erik, which was apparently 'an accident' and not his given name. Where he'd been before Paris, how he'd survived. And the more I read, the more fascinated I became with the Little Sultana, who was the daughter of the Shah of Iran and a playfellow in Erik's bloodiest games.

The other thing that struck me is that Erik is a stone-cold killer. Webber's musical gives him a redeemable edge, but really, he's cruel.

Which got me thinking, what kind of a girl would be a match for him. Who could he possibly respect enough to consider, if not an equal, than at least equally dark, and what might have made her that way?

And that's where the research began.

During the blog tour we did for the book launch, I wrote quite a few articles about that research. Went into detail about the food, music and costumes. You can also see more on the Rosy Hours at Mazandaran Facebook page.

We know that Erik was involved in building the Paris Opera House because he put in is trapdoors and secret corridors. From that, I could place a rough age on him meeting Christine and work backwards to figure out when he would have been in Iran - around the mid-1800s. That gave me a historical starting point.

The Little Sultana would have been a shazadi, and likely the daughter of Nasser al-Din Shah. Looking him up, I found an entry for Princess Afsar od-Dowleh, who has nothing really written about her, including her date of birth or death. So, I took that name and began the novel: Though my name has since been removed from the annals of history, it was Afsar. You remember that, and tell any who deign to ask. For I was she, and no other. That name belongs to me.

So, this is the shazadi's story, told from her perspective. You don't need to know anything about Phantom of the Opera to enjoy it, but those who do will get an extra kick out of it.

One of the toughest things for me was working out what pre-revolutionary Iran looked like. I had two images in my head. That of the modern media where women were cloaked in yashmaks and forbidden to interact with men, and that of the stories of Aladin I knew from my childhood, where women wore practically nothing.

It was a really fascinating exploration to learn that the truth was somewhere in between. There's a lot of fascinating photos on the Facebook page, but this one certainly inspired Afsar. A thoroughly independent lady, unveiled and reading a book. But, also trapped within the confines of a harem. Which adds a certain level of frustration for ambitious women.

I feel this is the best novel I have written to date, and might be the best I ever write.

I was just in this incredible creative zone at the time. I'd always had this story so strongly in my mind, but didn't start writing until I got a definitive knock-back from someone I really liked. I'm very rarely lost for words, but around them I couldn't find any. Just a brilliant human being - bright, sparky, funny. Anyway. I felt rotten at the time and this was my way out of that. One word after the other, it just fell onto the page. It's by far the most complicated novel I've ever written, but also the easiest. It felt effortless.

I knew it was good but I didn't know what to do with it, so I tentatively tried a couple of small press. I got an almost instant response from Ghostwoods. Their editor had pretty much read it in one sitting.

I have to admit, given my previous experiences of publishing, I wasn't really expecting much. For me, it was enough the book was written. I didn't really mind what happened next. I was proud of it.

Ghostwoods exceeded all expectations. A fair trade publisher who offered me 50% of all profit (the best I'd done before was about 12%), who absolutely smashed the cover (here's how they made it), and then, to top it all off, got the Nebula award-winning Emma Newman to do an audiobook. So many amazing things happened with Ghostwoods, but I think one of the most touching included the Iranian lullaby.

So, authors often nick foreign words they like the idea of but don't always know how to pronounce. I can assure you, this is a fucking nightmare when it comes to giving book readings. One of the things I included, was an Iranian lullaby that goes like this: la la la la, gole poneh, bekhab bach’che, delam khune, apparently meaning something to the effect of, Sleep my child, my heart is broken. Obviously, not knowing Farsi, I had no idea how this was actually supposed to sound. For the audiobook, Ghostwoods rustled up a Farsi consultant, Nadia Tariqi, to make sure Emma was pronouncing the words correctly - and then Emma sang it.

The first time I ever heard those words out loud was when I listened to the audio proofs for the book - and I cried. It was like a theatre production, where the sum of everyone's efforts turn out to be something greater than the original idea. And that people had cared enough about the story to achieve that level of authenticity was just truly incredible. I could not have achieved that by myself.

Other things that were really amazing to me include Stephanie Piro, who is a cartoonist. She was inspired by the book and did a couple of sketches, sending me the originals. That just blew me away. I don't think there's any higher praise, or anything more validating, than your art going on to inspire other artists. Seeing spin-offs, fan art, extensions of your work in whatever form is just phenomenal.

She also created a Phantom-themed bracelet with a miniature scroll inside that contains a passage from the book.

The other one that really touched me was a book review site called Kahakai Kitchen, who created a dish specifically for Rosy Hours. The reason this was such a big deal to me is because I love Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's book Sister of My Heart and someone turned that into a dish. I thought that was the coolest homage to a book ever, so having it done for mine meant a lot.

So, there were a lot of really lovely experiences with Ghostwoods and they absolutely did the book justice. It's extremely sad to me that they had to cut back on publishing new titles due to personal circumstances and the constant financial struggle that small press face. I hope things pick up again in the future because any author would be lucky to be published by them.

For my part, I look back on this as the book that really convinced me I could write. The three before that were me testing my wings, and there was a fourth bottom-drawer novel between Georg[i]e and this that will never see the light of day. That's why it took until 2015 for Rosy Hours to hit the shelves. I was spending time learning the craft. I wish every book I wrote could be this caliber, but I'm lucky to have written one. One novel I am completely and utterly satisfied with. I think that's rare for authors. There's usually a lot of things we feel we didn't get quite right. 

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Splintered Door for #IndieApril

Just before I dive into another novel on my Indie April tour, I thought I'd mention this. It's a collection of short stories and not published by anybody, but I put them online free a while back.

They were written somewhere around 2012. I was going through quite a stint of block and finding it really hard to get inspired. Although grateful to the publishers who took on my work back then, I think I was just feeling a bit deflated. I wasn't sure whether my writing would improve or whether I should just give up on it. 

One day, I stumbled across the Random Title Generator. I'm not sure if the original is still up. It's just this website where you hit a button and it throws out some title suggestions.

I decided to stop taking myself so seriously and just hit the button. The program would throw up five title suggestions. I made myself pick one - no cheating by pressing it again - and then I had to write a story on that theme.

So, that's how Splintered Door came into being. Quite literally, not just the stories but the title of the book itself. There's seven stories, each quite different from each other, some very poetic, other's not so. A couple have a recurrent theme just for kicks, so I suppose if you read them in order it might be more interesting, but not compulsory. 

The first one was particularly interesting for me. I was going through a bit of a DBC Pierre fascination. What I was drawn to was that he's an Australian guy writing all American. I know he grew up in Mexico and lived in America later, but still, we're used to seeing British and Australian actors playing Americans in movies, but not so used to seeing them writing in an accent. I wanted to know if I could do it, so I had a go. I asked an American friend to check it over after, to see whether I'd got the lingo right.

The collection was just a bit of fun for me, but it was also liberating as it allowed me to play. I could try out styles and stories without really caring whether they were much good. 

Surprisingly, I'm still pretty happy with them. They came out better than I expected.

My lovely friend Jessica Clark provided the cover. I mentioned her in my TEDx talk. She runs Raven Feather Photography and used to do some really kooky stuff. I really liked the image so asked if I could use it. There are several of her pictures I would love to put on book covers - just need to write the stories.

Really Kooky Stuff
Raven Feather Photography

There isn't masses to say about this book, although people keep asking me if it's available in paperback because they also love the cover. I haven't done that and probably won't. It was just a bit of escapism.

I don't think you can ever underestimate how important it is for artists to play. Just mess about with whatever form of art you enjoy without expecting it to become anything. Just for the pleasure of it. I think writers, in particular, do this less and less as the years go by, simply because writing a book takes so long and often you don't know whether it'll be any good until the end. So, we constantly feel like there isn't enough time and that in itself is self-defeating, because it saps creativity. We start to feel like everything we write needs to be serious - needs to be something important. Our books are rarely that good, so if we haven't enjoyed the process either, that's a double downer. 

Still, as much as I enjoy them, I don't write short stories very often anymore. 

Mind you, I don't write novels very often either.