To The Last Word Blog & News

Brutal Terminations by Cherith Baldry

From Warrior Cats to English Detectives

Cherith Baldry, who as Erin Hunter is one of the authors of the best-selling Warrior Cats novels, has long had a love of the classic English detective story. When I asked her to write a story for the anthology I was editing, Improbable Botany, she penned the delightful Sherlock Holmes homage ‘The Adventure of the Apocalypse Vine; or, Moriarty’s Revenge’. Now Cherith has launched her own series of detective novels featuring amateur sleuth Gawaine St Clair. I’m currently reading the first novel, and it is a very English sort of affair, deliberately evoking the classic detective novels of yesteryear. St Clair comes from aristocratic stock and the story unfolds against the background of a 30 year old murder at a fictional Oxford College. Without spoilers, here is a sample of the deliciously dry wit on offer: After a while he found his way into the college gardens, where he wandered for a while, noting without much interest a fishpond with a statue that attested to the classical broad-mindedness of those who harboured it, a sundial that was half an hour slow, and a piece of modern sculpture which reminded him of a certain well-known brand of mint. — from Brutal Terminations by Cherith Baldry (with many thanks for the free copy!)

Literary Landscapes

Frankenstein – Persuasion – Literary Landscapes Coming In October

Literary Wonderlands proved to be a great success for publishers Modern Books and Black Dog & Leventhal, which means that a follow-up is coming out this autumn. Edited by Professor John Sutherland (Lives of the Novelists), the new book is called Literary Landscapes, and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to it. Consequently I have written the chapters on Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The latter especially was a real privilege; Mary Shelley is buried not four miles from my office, so it’s perhaps inevitable I’ve long been a fan. So much so that in 2011 I organised a screening of the 1931 film Frankenstein, together with Ken Russell’s Gothic (a wild drama about the events in 1816 which led to the writing of the novel), as a special closing night crossover between the Poole Literary Festival and the Purbeck Film Festival. Before the screening I was part of an on-stage discussion about the legacy of Mary Shelley with author Christine Aziz (The Olive Reader) and John Foster, Screenwriter-in-Residence at Bournemouth University. And it all took place on Halloween! Afterwards I went with my wife to St. Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, where Mary Shelley is buried along with the remains of her husband Percy’s heart, to pay our respects. When Shelley Manor in Boscombe was renovated and the old Shelley theatre opened for the first time in nearly a century we were there on the first night for a performance, by candlelight, of the play A Summer Without Sun, again about the events resulting in the writing of Mary’s most famous novel. So yes, a long time fan. And when Sir Christopher Frayling came to St. Peter’s Church this February and gave a most informative lecture about the history of the novel I was there. So it was wonderful in this 200th anniversary year of the novel to be able to pen a chapter about the application of landscape in Frankenstein. Having studied geography at university, I found several of my lifelong interests converging in this project. In the end I’m just thrilled to have written the chapters on the work of the two most important female writers of all time for Literary Landscapes. I just hope I’ve done Mary and Jane justice. Literary Landscapes now has a page on Amazon, and is out on October 16.  Literary Wonderlands is available here. Update: Since writing the post above I have found from the publisher that my chapter on Frankenstein, commissioned for Literary Landscapes, will now appear in the third volume in the series, Literary Journeys.

Just Be Yourself by Ellen M J Deaville Published

Just published is Just Be Yourself, a slim but very useful little volume by Ellen M J Deaville, a book on which I did some developmental editing a year or so ago. The author writes based on her experiences as a careers advisor to thousands of teenagers, and the result is, as Professor David Putwain says, ‘Invaluable reading for anyone who wishes to get the best out of young people.’ Ellen has kindly said of my work for her: ‘Gary’s advice was so valuable in shaping my first book and turning it into a professional piece of work. Full of essential points, Gary’s feedback was thorough and sensitively put – offering suggestions for change but being positive and encouraging.’ You can buy Just Be Yourself through Amazon in print here and for Kindle here.  

Debut Children’s Book Raises Money for Blind and Deaf Charities

I am delighted to say that a debut novel I worked on as an editor last year, Marco and the Pharaoh’s Curse, by Paul Purnell, is out now as an e-book. Very generously, Paul is donating all profits to two charities, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Marco and the Pharaoh’s Curse is a thrilling fantasy adventure for 7-12 year old readers. Available for Amazon Kindle now, a physical edition will follow. Here’s the official blurb:   The Beatrice sank in the Mediterranean Sea two hundred years ago. Lost to the world – until now. Divers are preparing to plunder her ancient treasure, unaware that any interference its the unusual contents will trigger a catastrophic event. The terrifying consequences of the divers succeeding are unimaginable. Twelve-year-old Marco and a mermaid, Lois, are the only ones who can prevent it. Have they overestimated their abilities? They have 48 hours to journey the treacherous underwater route from Malta to Sardinia to fetch help and then return. Time is tight, but that’s the least of their problems…

Three Come Along At Once

This has been a most unusual week, in that three books I worked on as editor have arrived in the space of five days. On Tuesday the physical copies of speculative fiction anthology Improbable Botany were delivered. Beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Burton, the book contains excellent stories by Rachel Armstrong, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, James Kennedy, Ken MacLeod, Simon Morden, Stephen Palmer, Adam Roberts, Tricia Sullivan, Justina Robson and Lisa Tuttle. Then, two days later, Lynne Chitty’s debut novel, Out Of The Mist was delivered, a quiet, thoughtful story of coming to terms with the past and new beginnings. And this morning it was the turn of the autobiographical Find Another Place by Ben Graff. I was thrilled to see the acknowledgement, which reads, in part: ‘My editor Gary Dalkin helped me to better navigate this story than I could have done alone. His care and precision have played a big part in making Find Another Place all it can be. I am grateful for his friendship.’

Find Another Place, by Ben Graff

One of my clients, Ben Graff, has his first book, Find Another Place, coming out on March 28. I worked with Ben helping him find the structure for the book, which as it says on the cover is: An autobiographical meditation on family, focusing on childhood, parenting, the passage of time, loss, love, faith and memory. I encouraged Ben to dig deeper into himself, writing additional chapters and finding the essence of material, a complex tapestry of autobiography and family history. I’m very proud of the resulting volume, and I know Ben is too. Find Another Place (Amazon link) will be published by Troubadour, priced £11.99. Here is the text from the back cover: “Families are their stories,” said my grandfather Martin that late autumn day in 2001, as he placed a clear plastic folder containing his journal into my hands. Part historical meditation on people now gone, part detective story and journey of discovery, the book speaks to how we remember and re-assess what has gone before and how we make sense both of our here and now and the future. My grandfather had always wanted to be a writer and he gave me his journal shortly before his death. After many endings, paper often remains. Letters from my parents written in the 1970s before they were married, together with a handful of poems, extracts from diaries and other materials all form part of this reflection. It is possible to get to know people better, even after they are gone. A family’s interactions with the Isle of Wight, in war and peace, happy times and sad, run through the narrative. As does a relationship with literature, the desire to write and a passion for the game of chess. Anyone who has ever lost a parent; had a child or reflected on the fragility and beauty inherent in everyday life will enjoy this book.  

NaNoWriMo Blues – What Do I Do Next?

If you spent November obsessively engaged with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), you weren’t alone. It’s estimated that worldwide in 2013 around 400,000 people took part in the challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. One of the ideas behind NaNoWriMo is to help writers get into a daily writing habit by simply getting a lot of words down, and to that end the project emphasises quantity – an average of 1667 words a day – over quality. Polishing can come later, and while inevitably many of the thousands of novels written as part of the annual event are, let’s say, not very good, excellent work can result. Novels which began during NaNoWriMo have become bestsellers – titles including Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and Persistence of Memory by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. But note that I wrote, ‘novels which began …’ The finished novels were considerably refined than the first drafts uploaded at the end of various Novembers. If your NanoWriMo novel ultimately proves nothing more than a means of establishing a regular daily writing habit then it will have been an invaluable experience, but if it is to have a chance of commercial publication then November was just the start of a process which will involve additional drafts and editing and proofreading and revision, until the novel is good as it can possibly be. But if you stuck the course, don’t forget to take time to celebrate. Print out that NaMoWriMo certificate and display it with pride. You did it. You hit the word count and ended up with, however messy, the draft of a novel. Or at least something as long as a novel. Which is to say, you wrote a lot of words very quickly, which is both the achievement, and now, perhaps, something of a problem. The problem being that your great mass of words might be twice as good if it were half as long, because so far it’s essentially all been about quantity. And so you could be facing the crash which can follow the high of completing the NaNoWriMo challenge. The question looms – I did it, but is it any good? Or was I just fooling myself, wasting my time? Or if you didn’t take part in NaNoWriMo, perhaps you have a first draft of a novel which you finished recently, or some time back, or even years ago, but then didn’t know what to do with, and so have done nothing, being overwhelmed by what you have created, unsure how to proceed. However you came by your raw manuscript, here I’m going to look at the next steps towards ending up with a polished, finished novel. Some writers will even tell you that what follows is the part they enjoy most. That now free of the initial pressure to get something, anything(!) down on the page, they can cheerfully dive into the process editing and rewriting. One thing you can now do is enjoy the fact that you no longer have to rush. That you can approach things at a more measured pace. And you can set yourself some sort of timetable. You don’t have to do everything, or indeed, anything, now. Enjoy Christmas and the New Year, then come back to things afresh. But that’s crazy, you might be thinking. I’ve written like mad, and now you tell me to do nothing! I might as well not written in such a frenzy all November! Well consider the working methods of one of the most successful popular novelists ever, Stephen King. King is known for writing fast. So fast that he sometimes publishes two or three novels a year, as well as a handful of short stories and smattering of magazine articles, reviews and other pieces. But the fact that King writes quickly does not mean that he produces each book in a hurry. That he just goes from one, finished, to the next. No, what King does, as he explains in his exploration of the novelist’s craft, On Writing, is put each newly finished draft in a draw for months while he works on something else. It might be that only when he has written a complete draft of another book, that he will he return to the earlier manuscript. Then he takes it out of the draw – King always prints out everything as insurance against digital failure, so perhaps you should too – and settles down to read it with the advantage of distance. The time elapsed allows him a degree of detachment, free of the initial buzz of creativity, with which to better assess his work. He can come to his own fictional creations almost as if they had been written by someone else. This distance – and you can see it attested to in the notes King writes in his books, which will often end with the dates the novel was begun and finished, dates which can be as much as four years apart – quite simply allows a writer to see what is wrong with their work, what needs to be improved, and what should be cut. When we have just finished writing we are too close to the work to see it clearly, and will tend to either over-rate or under-rate it. Either conclude that we have written a timeless masterpiece, or something so terrible it should never see the light of day. So allow Christmas to clean your mental pallet, and come back to your work with a manageable timetable for development and a fresh perspective. Now Stephen King doesn’t, so far as we know, participate in NaNoWriMo; though he did once challenge himself to write a novel in six monthly episodes, and the result became one of his best books, The Green Mile. But King does say that his first drafts tend to be over long, filled with material which on reflection simply isn’t needed. This might be anything from dialogue which doesn’t further either character development or story, because the same points are covered elsewhere, or diversions from the main story which lead nowhere important. Whatever the problems might be, King says that on average he finds he can comfortably cut 20% from his first draft without losing anything significant, and end up with a book which is tighter, more focused and gripping. Cuts can range from individual words or lines, to entire scenes, subplots or characters. I’m going to suggest that if a seasoned professional like King, with a career spanning five decades, who knows the art of novel writing inside out, still ends up with first drafts from which he can cut 20% and improve things by doing so, then you can cut at least as much from your novel and make it better in the process. And if you wrote your manuscript for NaNoWriMo then the likelihood is that it is far more overly wordy than a more traditionally created work, and that it would likely benefit from even more extensive pruning. Perhaps as much as 50%. Because when we write quickly we have a tendency to write sloppily, throwing in everything with abandon, because we know we can fix it later. Well later is now (or after Christmas) and we should spend the season of joy and goodwill planning a little homicide. Kill your darlings! (The first draft of this post had a whole paragraph about how this well known saying is generally attributed to the American writer William Faulkner – but I killed it in revision.) In his 1916 book, On The Art of Writing, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’ Quiller-Couch meant cut anything – a line of dialogue, a description, a joke – which no matter how good by itself, detracts from the whole; from the characters, the theme, the development of the story. It is advice which stands a century later. So now you read your manuscript again, as objectively as you can. Don’t be afraid to be impressed by anything which is good. But be ruthlessly critical in seeing what is wrong. Remember, even if you don’t, professional readers, agents and publishers will, and they are far less likely to be kind to you than you are yourself. Be your own worst critic. Don’t leave the job to anyone else. Be prepared to tear your work apart so that you can rebuild it better. You will probably, especially if you have written your draft in a month, be embarrassed by some of the things you have put on paper, and might determine to cut or revise them right away. But hold a little while longer. Word processors allow the line between writing a draft and the process of continual revision to blur into one homogeneous process, so that in the regular course of things you may never produce discreet drafts. And herein is one of the great advantages of the NaNoWriMo process. You end up with a complete draft, and rough as it will inevitably be, what you have created is a valuable thing. Don’t waste it with instant revision. Remember how perhaps you spent months or years working more conventionally on a novel and never reached the end because your word processor was always as happy to go back and polish what you had already written (and rewritten) as it was to press on until the end, which maybe never came, but receded, like the horizon, forever. Well you have your first draft. Read it all the way through, and don’t change a thing. You wrote in haste. Now is the time to change tactics and reflect at leisure. As you read make notes, either in a notebook, or perhaps using the ‘comment’ function in Word. But however you do it, make observations about what you have created. What is good, what you really like, and what doesn’t work, and why. Note what might be kept but will need reworking. And as you read, and as you go about daily life, think about what you’ve written, and get to the heart of the matter. Because before you start pruning you need to know what to cut, and to know what to cut you need to know what the book is really about. What is the core, what is the subtext? Whose story is it? What was all the furious creation really about? Strange as it may seem, it might not even be obvious just what the book is about. Or who. This can be especially true with a novel written quickly, where just to keep the words and plot spinning you might have introduced more characters than are necessary, simply to fill a function in the story. American crime novelist Raymond Chandler said that every time he got stuck he had a man walk through the door with a gun. NaNoWriMo encourages that sort of solution, but it doesn’t always stand in the long run. All that said, let the manuscript sit, then read, take notes, and work out what it’s all really about, which characters are needed, and which minor characters can be combined, or even replaced by someone quickly looking something up on their phone. Which locations, story elements, lines of dialogue or description, are key to the book, and which are packing, first thoughts about which you now have better ideas. What can be combined and condensed and refined to make a better, more refined, coherent work. Where the contradictions are in the story or the behaviour of the characters. These will need to be resolved. And then you can set about a ruthless course of genocide on all those darlings. All those bits which seemed so good at the time, but which now make you go what on earth was I thinking? Save your manuscript under a new file name – adding ‘second draft’ will be fine – then work through it with your notes and your newly found insights and remove everything that doesn’t need to be there. This isn’t, yet, the time for polishing the prose; there is no point in expending time and effort something you may change later. For now go ahead and give yourself permission to get rid of things – if you change your mind you can rescue cut material from the first draft. Which is why you retitled your document before starting anew. A lot of what you cut will probably come in the form of dialogue. Why? Well have you ever listened to the way people talk in real life? Real human beings don’t talk like people in a book. They are not, in the main, as, smart, clever, witty, focused. Literary dialogue generally gives the impression of realism, but actually cuts what is said to the essence. Good dialogue in a novel isn’t littered with all the trivia of everyday conversation, the repetitions, the sentences which simply fade into nothing. The polite niceties which oil the wheels of social intercourse are greatly reduced on the page. Every hello, goodbye and introductory digression about the weather, sport, or Elaine’s new baby are not faithfully transcribed. Yes, all that’s the stuff of life, but it’s not the essence of fiction. And yet, especially if you’ve written a novel in a month to a deadline and word count, that’s exactly the sort of stuff you may well have written by the ream. Now is the time to hunt it out of your manuscript and get rid of it. Along with all the bits and pieces your rereading tells you are no not needed for the long haul. And when you’ve cut all the obvious deadwood, then you are ready for some serious rewriting from start to finish. But that’s another story. * A version of this article first appeared in Writing Magazine, the UK’s best-selling magazine for writers    

Literary Wonderlands – UK edition photos and raffle prizes

The UK edition of Literary Wonderlands is now out, published by Modern Books. Here you can see the UK edition, the beginning of my chapter about Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, and the US edition playing spot the difference. I also wrote the chapters on I, Robot (Isaac Asimov), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino) and Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson). I will be taking two copies to Sledge Lit 3 at the Quad in Derby on Saturday (25 November), where they will be joining many other fine books as prizes in the raffle.  

Improbable Botany – Jonathan Burton Illustration reveal 1

I’m delighted to share one of Jonathan Burton’s superb illustrations for Improbable Botany. Check out the Kickstarter for this anthology of new stories about fantastical flora by Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Ken MacLeod, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina LA Robson, Tricia Sullivan, and Lisa Tuttle, plus the opportunity to obtain A2 art prints of all six of Jonathan’s illustrations and the cover artwork. This particular illustration is for Lisa Tuttle’s story, ‘Vegetable Love’.  

Improbable Interviews: Tricia Sullivan

I have recently edited a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about fantastical flora. The book, Improbable Botany, features authors who between them have won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association, John W. Campbell Memorial, Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Prometheus Awards, and been nominated for many more. The writers are: Cherith Baldry (co-author of the New York Times best-selling Warrior Cats series), Eric Brown (The Kings of Eternity, the Langham and Dupré crime novels, the most recent of which is Murder Take Three), Ken MacLeod (Intrusion, The Corporation Wars), Simon Morden (the Metrozone series, Down Station / The White City), Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, The Thing Itself), James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish), Stephen Palmer (The Factory Girl Trilogy, Memory Seed, Beautiful Intelligence), Justina Robson (The Quantum Gravity series, Natural History, Switch), Tricia Sullivan (Occupy Me, Dreaming in Smoke, Maul), and Lisa Tuttle (The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, The Mysteries, Windhaven (with George RR Martin)). As part of the project I have interviewed all ten of the contributing authors, not just about Improbable Botany but about their writing in general and much more besides. Below is my interview with Tricia Sullivan, whose latest novel, Occupy Me, is nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her novel Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke Award in 1999. Other works include Maul, Double Vision and lightborn. Improbable Botany is being published by Wayward, a London-based landscape, art and architecture practice, and funded via Kickstarter. The book is illustrated by Jonathan Burton (The Folio Society, Penguin Books, Random House). One of the Kickstarter bonuses is a free e-book which will include all the interviews, though they will also be published individually in various places. The only time they will ever appear all together is in the Kickstarter e-book. The Kickstarter also offers the opportunity to acquire A2-sized art prints of all six of Jonathan Burton’s interior illustrations, as well as his breathtaking cover art. *   Gary Dalkin: Your story for Improbable Botany, ‘Who Lived in a Tree’, offers an unusual perspective on a radically transformed London – it is narrated by a tree. Without giving too much away could you explain something of how the story came together? Tricia Sullivan: I’ve been a tree freak since I was a kid. I just love them, and I spent a lot of childhood time around trees and up in their branches. I considered trees friends, so maybe in some ways the story was a wish fulfillment fantasy. I wrote it in the fall of 2012, and I’d been reading about ideas for the greening of London (plant walls, etc) and also about the ‘internet of plants’ from Stefano Mancuso. I wanted to play with the idea of a symbiosis between humans and plants in which the connective talents of trees could be exploited for mutual benefit, so I took a big stretch with the research and let my imagination go. I think it would be much nicer to inhabit a living London than a stone one. At the same time, I was going through a lot of anxiety about my parents’ ageing. I wrote the first draft while my father was alive and more or less OK, but I was very aware of the increasing frailty of both parents, who lived 3500 miles away and would have nothing to do with the Internet. So it’s a story of the rise of the plants, but also of the decline and death of old creatures and old ways. When I came to revise the draft for submission a few months after my father’s unexpected death, I was struck by how personally prophetic the piece felt. Gary Dalkin: The notion of human-plant symbiosis, and of the ‘internet of plants’ is so intriguing, and such advances are being made bio-engineering, that I wonder if you have any thoughts about why botanical SF remains so comparatively under-explored? It would seem fertile soil for the imaginative writer … Tricia Sullivan: Well, Sheri Tepper did The Family Tree and I think Kameron Hurley has done some SF with plants. And of course, Jeff VanderMeer has done fungi. I’m sure there are others. I suspect the lack is down to commercial viability. A lot of SF nowadays stands on the shoulders of older generations. History provides a cultural shorthand that means  writers don’t have to work too hard conceptually if they don’t want to; they can focus on e.g. their thriller plot, or other aspects of the work that interest them. However, if you break into a whole new region–like plant symbiosis–you’ve got the full weight of socio-scientific speculation to carry all by yourself, in addition to working all the party tricks of commercial writing. Novelists, anyway, have got to have all the storytelling and worldbuilding solid as rock if they want to sell their work, because publishers are extremely risk-averse. So it would be a fantastic challenge to writers to have a go, but not a small one. Gary Dalkin: Any publisher which operated without any consideration of risk would presumably not stay in business long, but to be extremely risk-adverse would seem to be contrary to the very nature of truly imaginative fiction. Have you personally found problems with this conservative (with a small c) tenancy in publishing, and would you say this risk-aversion has been consistent throughout your time as a published novelist, or have things become better or worse? Tricia Sullivan: I’m lucky in that I’ve never had a big problem selling my SF to UK publishers, and I’ve never had a publisher try to tell me what to write in the sense of ‘we want to see space opera’ or something. Every SF book I’ve written, I’ve sold to a major house, no matter how bad the sales figures that came before. The failure of my work to pull in readers is where I suffered for a lot of years, thinking, ‘If only I could write something easier and with broader appeal…’ because I desperately needed the money. But the breadth of appeal of one’s work isn’t something one can control, necessarily. For me that was tough to accept, more so than anything publishers did or didn’t do. The state of the industry is a bewildering topic and publisher risk-aversion is the least of it. I’ve had no choice but to decide to write for love, in the cracks of my life, and forget the money. There is no money, for most of us. Gary Dalkin: Where do you think genre publishing might go now, in a commercial sense, and can traditional publishing survive when readers are rapidly becoming accustomed to 99p, or free, self-published e-books, and even e-books by name authors regularly being sold for next to nothing? Tricia Sullivan: I think anybody who could answer that question would get a pie, and they should certainly tell the rest of us post haste. From the author’s point of view the rise of crowdfunding offers another way to get paid, and many authors are going hybrid (mix of self and trad publishing). Social media opens new avenues. Take Kameron Hurley. She has built by hand the platform she stands on, and that’s above and beyond her skill as a novelist. That’s a lot of work, and not everyone has those extra skills or the sheer determination to keep making noise. I reckon it helps to be extroverted or to be able to fake being extroverted–or, as in Kameron’s case, to be driven by strong emotion. Aliette de Bodard is another luminous newer writer who is beginning to achieve name recognition by sheer hard work: years of writing copious short fiction, blogging, working social media, networking, late nights, no pay, hard hard work–and she, too, is burning with a drive for something larger than herself. Again and again, I’m seeing risk-takey writers bootstrap themselves into their careers. Gary Dalkin: You’ve blogged about being inspired by Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible to let go of your ‘various science fiction induced hang-ups’ about what you ‘could or could not write’. And the result is Occupy Me. There is a sense that real science is outstripping where most SF is prepared to go, and now you are now considering a PhD in physics. If it came to a choice, can you see yourself leaving SF completely behind for a career in physics? And where next for your fiction, given that you wrote ‘Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts’? Tricia Sullivan: I love writing, and when it comes to science fiction I am the real deal. At the same time I’ve already flipped a switch in my head that assumes I’m finished insofar as publishing goes. With that acceptance comes a great sense of freedom. My mojo is high. Full-time study plus part-time work plus family plus writing is my reality. If I do a PhD will it make more demands on my energy than that? Probably it will slow my writing down. I’m fairly difficult to stop. Doing science and/or teaching science means playing a part in human progress, no matter how small or devalued a part (and I have no illusions there). I want use my abilities in service to the world in the years that I have here. I’m writing a super girly SFF mystery right now for Gollancz, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. After that I’ve got a fair chunk of my intergalactic breastfeeding novel on deck. This is the Sea builds on the cosmology I started setting up in Occupy Me and will be therefore completely whacked-out. It’s dirty work but I feel like someone has to push the envelope. I haven’t figured out the mechanics of the science/story interface because I’m dealing with technologies that are really, really different from the ones we have a narrative shorthand for. I try to write from angles that are underexploited, that yield insights you don’t otherwise get. I will go on bewildering people as long as given licence to do so. It’s good for me and them, bit of brisk exercise never killed anyone. * Improbable Botany is a brand-new science fiction anthology about alien plant conquests, fantastical ecosystems, benevolent dictatorships and techno-utopias This is the book plants don’t want you to read… Improbable Botany features newly commissioned short stories by ten multi-award winning science fiction authors: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle.

Review: The Mysteries, by Lisa Tuttle

Lisa Tuttle’s story, ‘vegetable Love’ appears in the anthology I have recently edited, Improbable Botany. Here is a review I wrote for Vector of Lisa’s 2005 novel, The Mysteries, reissued last year by Jo Fletcher Books.   A detective novel requires a mystery. The title of Lisa Tuttle’s novel is as up front as can be. However, two things soon become apparent, that in this novel people are themselves ‘mysteries’, and that this is no conventional detective story, in that so far as anyone can tell, no crime has been committed. Ian Kennedy is an American expat in London, barely making a living as a private detective specialising in finding missing people. On the verge of middle age and thinking about a career change, another American, Laura Lensky, asks him to find her daughter, Peri, who disappeared two years ago in Scotland. While Peri has abandoned her old life of her own free will, naturally Laura wants to know that nothing bad has happened to her daughter, that she is alive and well. So too does Peri’s one time fiancé, Hugo, a young filmmaker. Though while his is concerned, his life has moved on; he has a new girlfriend who would not appreciate Peri’s return. Kennedy, meanwhile, is driven to find those who have gone missing because of mysteries in his own past. Mysteries that have taught him how perceptions can be affected by memory, hope and fantasy. For years Kennedy remembered his father stopping the family car in the middle of nowhere, getting out, walking into a field, and then vanishing before his eyes. Later Kennedy realised this did not in fact happen. His father simply went to work one day and didn’t come home, absconding to start a new life. An incomprehensible trauma came to be explained through an inexplicable fantasy. Then later still, Kennedy found that not even the fantasy was his own invention, but something he had read and later forgotten in a book. A supposedly true story which itself turned out to be fabricated. An urban legend. The layers of unreality accumulate. History repeats itself when one day the love of Kennedy’s life, Jenny, simply walks out and disappears. That was ten years before the novel’s present, and with nothing left in America, Kennedy relocated and made a new life in England. The story unfolds through Kennedy’s investigation into what has happened to Peri, a narrative which mixes past and present, paralleled with the gradual revelation of his own mysteries: his youthful discovery of what really happened when his father left, and his later enquiry into Jenny’s disappearance. Set against this is Peri’s story. The tale Laura and Hugh have to tell is one that raises more questions than can comfortably be answered, pointing to a supernatural explanation which Laura refuses to consider. And yet Kennedy is ideally placed to investigate, having been recommended to Laura by the one person who would know that this case would resonate with him because of a further mystery in his past. Once before, Kennedy investigated a missing person, the circumstances of which bore uncanny parallels to Peri’s disappearance, circumstances that would seem impossible to anyone else, and for Kennedy, impossible to ignore. And so Kennedy finds himself in Scotland, confronting a sometimes painful personal history, exploring the edges of a deeper, more universal mythological past, the ancient mysteries, clues to which might be found in various tellings and retellings of Celtic legends. Sometimes people disappear. Between the main chapters Tuttle inserts short accounts of various vanishments, and sometimes of people who came back. Meanwhile Kennedy, Laura and Hugh come closer to finding what has happened to Peri. The novel asks, do they each want to face the truth, and when they do, how will it affect them? What will they do? The Mysteries is a slow burn of a book. It pulls the reader in gradually, skirting the edge of the supernatural, the numinous, and the unknown. When once it gathers pace the final third has a ferocious grip. There are moments of great tension, of a building sense of dread and malevolence, though this is not horror or even dark fantasy. The supernatural here is simply different, ‘other’. There is even a hint of some form of scientific explanation. The otherworldly characters have their own purpose, which only tangentially intersects with the everyday realm of human life. There are no true monsters or villains. The ‘other’ is not some dread Lovecraftian domain, though it can be hazardous, fraught with peril. Rather The Mysteries is a story of choice, about engagement with the world as it is, about love. It contains several love stories, exploring different sorts of love, selfish, sacrificial, romantic, familial, doing so while telling a story which, while not especially complex in terms of detective fiction – there are no great plots, crimes or conspiracies – takes fine advantage of the detective novel format. For what is a detective story if not a metaphor for the quest to understand the nature of the world, for addressing that which we instinctively recognise is out of kilter, seen only through a glass darkly? And if that sounds vague, fear not that it will all end too ambiguously for satisfaction. In this review I have deliberately avoided more than a hint of the central mysteries of the novel. But everything is lovingly resolved in a book that, alongside The Silver Bough, may well be Lisa Tuttle’s finest achievement to date.

Improbable Interviews: Eric Brown

Eric Brown is one of the UK’s leading science fiction writers. Since making his first sale to Interzone in 1986 he has published more than 50 books. His novel Helix Wars (2012) was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and two of his short stories have been honoured with the British Science Fiction Association Award. Murder By The Book (2013) marked a departure, being the first Langham and Dupre Mystery, a crime novel set in the 1950s. His latest titles are Jani and the Great Pursuit, the second volume of a Steampunk series set at the height of the British Empire, and Murder Take Three, the fourth Langham and Dupre novel. He writes a regular SF review column for The Guardian. Eric Brown has written the story ‘The Ice Garden’ for Improbable Botany, the new anthology I have edited. Here we talk about all manner of things, from fantastical flora in fiction, and why Eric has recently turned to crime.    Gary Dalkin: ‘The Ice Garden’, your story in Improbable Botany, has something of an old fashioned feel to it. Although clearly taking place in a world of mobile phones, it evokes an earlier period in British science fiction. The characters are so polite, formal, gentlemanly. The setting itself is of an earlier time. Is the sense of continuing a tradition something which especially appeals to you? The story has certain elements in common with your novel The Kings of Eternity, which of the novels of yours that I have read, I think is the best. Eric Brown: These days I read a lot of fiction set in thirties, forties, and fifties Britain. I’m attracted to the mores and manners of that period, to the prose-style, and to the fiction. I’m writing a series of crime novels set in the fifties at the moment, and I find that the best way to research the period, even better than reading non-fiction about the fifties, is to immerse myself in the fiction of the time. Perhaps as a consequence of this, my writing, my prose, is beginning to reflect that earlier fiction. (Also, I must admit that I find some modern prose too slick and not to my taste, whether that’s in SF or crime.) And also, I like the strange feeling in some of my SF – principally The Kings of Eternity, which you mentioned, and the Starship novellas, as well as some stories – that is created by the anachronistic juxtaposing of a future setting (more so in Starship) against perceived ‘old-fashioned’ prose-style and values. (Jack Vance did this in so much of his work, a futuristic setting rubbing up against the almost Jacobean, or Restoration, manners and mores of his characters and societies). So perhaps the above is my long-winded way of saying yes, I suppose it is my continuing a tradition. Gary Dalkin: Speaking in terms of traditions, there is one, not extensive, but it exists, of exploring strange botany within speculative fiction. We could go back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and trace a line through John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, right up to the mushroom people of Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch. We might even take in The Little Shop of Horrors on the big screen, and on the small screen, a Doctor Who story like ‘The Seeds of Doom’. Yet overall this remains a relatively small set of stories. Do you see a rich territory ripe for future fictional exploration, particularly give the possibilities opened up by genetic engineering? Are authors missing out by generally not considering the intersection of fiction and flora? Eric Brown: You’re right, it’s a ripe and fecund branch worthy of future exploration, which would bear much fruit and maybe even vast blossoms. Sorry. Earth-bound tales exploring the genetic engineering side of botany would be one avenue to explore – the other, which I’m drawn to, would be xeno-botany set on alien worlds: this would offer real, wide-screen scope for stories. Keith Brooke has done a series of extraterrestrial flora stories, but to the best of my knowledge they’re thin on the ground. (I’ve used exotic, alien flora in various of my own tales, but they’re mainly alien window-dressing, to heighten atmosphere, and don’t really explore the science, or extrapolate from the science, of xeno-biology.) Gary Dalkin: Is this because you generally prefer ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ science fiction? You once said in an interview with Keith Brooke that ‘hard SF leaves me cold because I don’t like reading pages and pages of science or scientific extrapolation at the expense of characters and emotion.’ Is that still the case – certainly your work is frequently powerfully emotional, often evoking what seems to me a very English sense of melancholy. Would that be a fair statement? Eric Brown: Yes, very fair. I think I’d find Hard SF difficult even if it did have excellent characterisation (which some of it does). I’m just not that interested in the ins and outs of technology and science: I don’t read mainstream fiction to be told how a TV works. I’m interested in how people and societies are affected by ideas that stem from technological and scientific innovation, but I find that so often in SF, technological explanation gets in the way of psychology… Also Hard SF dates so quickly, so if it contains no real human beings what we’re left with, years down the line, are Hard SF novels with cardboard characters and outmoded ideas; novels which are nothing more than curiosity pieces – like Asimov’s, for example. I find that the older I get, the more I want to read about human beings and how they interact. I’m glad you think my work powerfully emotional – that’s what I often try to achieve. I much prefer Soft to Hard SF – though my favourite term is Quiet SF. Gary Dalkin: I remember reading your first novel, Meridian Days, shortly after it first came out, and it certainly had a quietly powerful impact. It really struck a chord with me, especially against a lot of rather more gung-ho Hard SF – perhaps because we’re both Yorkshire men of a very similar age. So I think Quiet SF is the prefect description. Anyway, it seemed to immediately fit into a lineage along with the works of say, Michael Coney and Christopher Priest and establish you as a writer to watch. There’s a certain haunted melancholy to your best work. Something of loneliness and isolation, of loss and the irrevocable passage of time, yet combined with a sense of beauty and of wonder. It’s not something I often see in American SF, but it’s there in the closing passages of Shelley’s Frankenstein, in Wells’ beach in the far future in The Time Machine, it’s there in the vast cosmic visions of Stapledon and Clarke. Do you think this sensibility is something particularly British, something you recognise in yourself as a writer and as a person, and if so, where do you think it comes from? Is it some essential part of the British character? Eric Brown: I wonder if it’s an essentially European sensibility? Could it be that as we inhabit an older civilisation, are surrounded by constant reminders of human-made history, this imbues us – perhaps on a subconscious level – with a certain melancholy, a reminder of our insignificance in the grand, cosmic scheme of things? I wonder if the beauty and wonder comes form our having to make the best of the situation… I don’t know. I think I’ll leave that one to the philosophers. It’s odd that you should mention the beach scene in Wells’s The Time-Machine. To me, it’s one of the most affecting images in all SF, and I was knocked out by it when I read the novella when I was sixteen. I still use the iconic image of the swollen sun in my work – it’s always cropping up! As to my own work, I’ve often written about loneliness and isolation – it’s a great theme, a great sympathy-hook, and can be a great driver of narrative (the striving against isolation, the quest for redemption): though perhaps I’m not using it so much these days. Gary Dalkin: Right from Meridian Days your work has shown a fascination with artists and writers. You’ve written about fictional writers in, for example, A Writer’s Life and The Kings of Eternity, as well as in your new Langham and Dupré series of mystery novels, and used real writers such as H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, and Jules Verne as characters in your work. The question is why? Is it something as simple as following the old adage to ‘write about what you know’? Eric Brown: I suppose a part of the attraction is that I know about writers and artists, so therefore I write about them – but I’m fascinated by writers and artists, the process of creation, and how these people relate to the world. I know, or have known, a lot of creative people, and find the creative process and the ‘artistic’ way of looking at the world – or rather at one’s relationship to reality – a perpetual source of interest and of ideas for drama. I think that even when writing about other people, you’re really writing about yourself. And I’m pretty sure that the process of creation, in my case, is not so much about my making sense of the world, representing it in a way that other’s might recognise, as making sense of my inner self and my emotional reaction to the world. I’m a great believer in the power of the subconscious, and I think that my best work (The Kings of Eternity, Kethani, The Serene Invasion, Starship Seasons) was largely dictated to me by what was going on in the sub-strata of my head. I’m constantly amazed that when I sit down for a shift at the PC, two hours later there has emerged on the page things that I never consciously realised I’d be writing about. That’s the old subconscious at work. Gary Dalkin: Which leads me to wonder, considering that your stories are very much proper ‘stories’ in the traditional sense of having a plot and a clear beginning, middle and end, how much of a planner are you in your writing, as opposed to letting your subconscious have free reign and following where it will? I’m particularly curious because your Langham and Dupré novels are mysteries, so do they perhaps require a different approach, one requiring more detailed planning in the construction of intricate plots? And why start writing a crime series now, after 25 years writing science fiction? Is it something you’d long wanted to do? Eric Brown: When I began writing many moons ago, I was a great planner. Everything had to be meticulously worked out in advance. That was because I was uncertain of my ability, and had no, for want of a better word, ‘architectural’ technique. With years and wordage, I’ve developed technique, and my subconscious, informed by my technical know-how, has taken over. Now I have a slight outline in mind when I begin, but I follow my subconscious. The odd thing is that, yes, you’d think that the crime novels would take more plotting, but paradoxically that’s not the case. I have a situation, a murder, perhaps a twist or two, a cast of suspects, and the detective and his accomplice(s). I start with little notion where the story is going, and it writes itself. That said, the crime novels need more rewriting than the SF. I find I need to go back and ‘plant’ things, clues in dialogue, red herrings, verbal misdirections. In a way, writing a crime novel is more like compiling a crossword puzzle. Why did I start writing whodunits after twenty-five years of writing SF? Well, I’ve always loved cosy crime – I was turned on to reading at the age of fifteen by Agatha Christie – and a few years ago I had an idea for a crime novel that had to be set in the fifties (for DNA reasons). I loved writing the book so much, and liked the characters and the era, that I decided to do another. They sold, and I’ve just completed the fifth. They’re a great antidote to writing SF. I’ve written elsewhere about the literary freedom of writing mainstream, as opposed to SF. I can use simile and metaphor, which I can’t in SF, and write eccentric characters, again which I can’t in science fiction. Gary Dalkin: That’s fascinating. Could you go into why you can use simile and metaphor and create eccentric characters in your crime writing, and explain what the barriers are to doing the same in science fiction? Are there any other freedoms the mainstream opens up which are difficult or impossible in SF? Eric Brown: You don’t come across many similes in SF because when a writer likens something to something else, the object he or she likens it to must be familiar to the reader. If that object is familiar, of this world and of this time, then the writer immediately undercuts the sense of futurity he or she is attempting to maintain, and so loses reader credulity. In the crime novels I can write eccentric characters, but they don’t often appear in my SF because again I’d be in danger of undercutting the reader’s sense of futurity. I think this is because eccentric characters are only eccentric in relation to the environment they inhabit, and as science fictional futures might be described as ‘eccentric’ in themselves, it makes the job of writing eccentric characters which are eccentric in relation to their settings very hard. These characters can only be ‘odd’, eccentric, in relation to the setting the reader knows best – the here and now… which again undercuts that sense of futurity. Other freedoms are the obvious things: you don’t need to create a new world (or universe, or future) from scratch: the world you’re writing about is instantly familiar to the reader (even if it is 1955). I can concentrate on character – make character a primary concern – whereas in SF it can be secondary behind setting, or even tertiary behind setting and idea. (There are times when I’ve been writing SF when I find the setting is so vast that it almost dwarfs the characters. I found this in Helix. And what I mean about the setting being ‘so vast’ is that I find myself describing the setting – or even thinking about it – to the detriment of the character building)… Also, in the crime novels, I don’t have to deal with Big Ideas: it’s enough that the ‘idea’, as it were, is the twist, or the murder method, or the denoument. It’s great to write crime novels, but I like to vary them: I alternate between the genres, and this keeps me fresh… I like to think. Gary Dalkin: Yes, eccentric characters in SF to tend to undercut the established reality of any setting a writer has established, so perhaps tend to lend themselves best to satire or comedy – there’s little shortage of eccentricity in, say, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Of course there are plenty of science fiction crime stories, from Asimov’s The Caves of Steel through to a film like Inception. It seems like an interesting but tricky hybrid to pull off. Would you say that, to combine the genres a writer must be even more careful than usual ensure that the reader knows exactly what is and isn’t possible in a given future world? That the crime aspect has to work both within the technological boundaries of the imagined world but also sociologically, that is, with a particular imagined legal system? It wouldn’t be very satisfying if a crime was solved by applying a previously unmentioned piece of technology, or the story hinge upon an hithertofore undisclosed aspect of some future society’s law. Eric Brown: I think you’re right. Whenever you write SF, of whatever sub-genre – SF-crime, space opera, planetary romance, satire, dystopia etc – you must be careful to let the reader know the ground rules. You must play fair with the reader. I’ve written three crime-SF novels, to the best of my knowledge – the Virex trilogy, set in New York in the 2040s, about a pair of private eyes. Thinking back, I recall having to carefully set up the world, and the technology – in this case virtual reality – to make everything work. And you’re right – perhaps an exception to my rule about eccentricity in SF is in comedy, like Hitch-Hiker’s Guide… and Red Dwarf. (I wonder if that’s why I didn’t care for either – especially Red Dwarf: I tried to watch it again and again, but its parochialism, its retro-anachronism, constantly put me off. I just didn’t believe it.) Gary Dalkin: I didn’t believe Red Dwarf either. Perhaps the humour itself springs out of mocking the very world building which is essential to taking the genre seriously. I thought it interesting that the writers seemed to deliberately undermine any sense of story logic, in that each series would very obviously ignore the cliffhanger on which the previous series had ended. It was almost as if they were saying that on no level should anyone take anything about their work remotely seriously. At the opposite extreme, having just mentioned Inception, it brings to mind a criticism that is sometimes levelled both at that film specifically, and at Christopher Nolan’s work in general – that it lacks humour. Or perhaps Nolan realises that laughter can be the enemy of suspension of disbelief. But to move on, you are a very prolific writer. A survey of your website reveals that you’ve published at least 27 novels for adults, 11 for children, 13 novellas, 11 collections of short stories, as well as various  other works, including two volumes as editor. There are other stories you’ve written which have yet to be collected, and presumably other novels which you’ve already written which are due to be published over the next year. Could you say something about your working habits – I think it would be an inspiration for others who are looking to become professional writers – and, given your output, do there ever comes times when the ideas simply don’t come? If so, what do you do to get the words flowing again? Eric Brown: Once I’m working on a project I start and don’t stop until it’s finished. (Twenty years ago I’d write three two-hour shifts a day, finish at nine p.m. and go to the pub, day in, day out, including weekends, until the hundred thousand word first draft was in the bag, which usually took a fortnight or a bit longer. I was single then. After that, I’d leave the book for a month, come back to it and take a couple of months to pull it to pieces and rewrite). These days I do two shifts a day and don’t write at weekends, and I never go to the pub. A book takes a month, and a couple of months to rewrite. I once feared the blank page, or rather the daunting task of filling three hundred of them, but experience – doing it a lot – has got rid of the fear. I no longer really plot a novel, but sit down with a vague outline, a setting, and a cast of characters, and start writing – and the subconscious takes over. I never run out of ideas – the sub-con will produce them, once I’ve started writing – and I don’t believe in writer’s block. Of course there are patches of novel that are sub-standard, first time round, but novels and stories are modular: in the rewrite, I take those flawed bits out and replace them with passages that work. I suppose some writers, and beginning writers, might be tempted to stop when they hit these passages – but don’t give in to the impulse: write through the rubbish, and you’ll come through the other side and start writing stuff that works again. These days, writing isn’t the difficult thing, but getting novels sold for decent money. I wish I could leave that to my subconscious! Gary Dalkin: To get decently paid for writing, that would be like the 90s all over again! Finally, you’ve already mentioned which you consider to be your best novels – The Kings of Eternity, Kethani, The Serene Invasion, Starship Seasons – but you are also a remarkably prolific writer of short stories. For a reader who has just discovered your short fiction through Improbable Botany, which of your eleven collections would you recommend they read first, and if you could pick just two or three stories, which would you say are your very best? Eric Brown: That’s the hardest question you’ve posed so far! I’m afraid I’m going to mention more than just ‘two or three’ stories!… I’ve had to look back at my tales and remind myself of my favourites. As to which collection to try first… I’d like to think they were all very different, and my writing style has certainly changed over the years, since my first in 1990, The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories. I was leafing through Blue Shifting earlier, and found myself reading “Epsilon Dreams”, which I’d forgotten: it was as if I were reading something by another writer. I did enjoy that story: I think it combined a tight plot with decent characterisation. “The Time-Lapsed Man” is a particular favourite of mine, because of the idea – probably one of the few original ideas I’ve ever had! The fix-up novel Salvage contains two tales I’m proud of, “Laying the Ghost”, and “Cold Testing”. Some of my favourite tales are collected in another fix-up novel, Kéthani. I particularly like: “Thursday’s Child” and “Onward Station”. So perhaps the answer would be: start with Kéthani!   * Improbable Botany is a brand-new science fiction anthology about alien plant conquests, fantastical ecosystems, benevolent dictatorships and techno-utopias. This is the book plants don’t want you to read… Improbable Botany features newly commissioned short stories by ten multi-award winning science fiction authors: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle.

Improbable Botany interior art by Jonathan Burton

Yesterday I posted about the launch of the Kickstarter for the new anthology of fantasy and science fiction stories I have edited, Improbable Botany. The book contains stories by writers who between them have won every major award in the fields of science fiction and fantasy: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina LA Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle. The book has cover art and six full colour interior illustrations by the award-winning artist Jonathan Burton. Above is a promo image for the interior art. Find out much more about the book, support the Kickstarter and get an edition with a limited Jonathan Burton art print at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/waywardplants/

Improbable Botany Kickstarter launch

I’ve been looking forward to announcing this for a long time. And now it’s finally here. I’ve edited an anthology of stories about wayward plants. Improbable Botany contains stories by a roster of writers who between them have won every major award in the fields of science fiction and fantasy: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina LA Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle. The book has cover art and six full colour interior illustrations by the very popular Jonathan Burton. There will be an exclusive e-book edition in which I interview all ten authors. The interviews will appear individually elsewhere, but this is the only place they will ever be collected together. Improbable Botany is published by Wayward, a London-based landscape, art and architecture practice – an award-winning collective of designers, artists and urban growers – through Kickstarter. There are various opportunities to buy just the book, or the book and limited edition A2 art prints as well. Find out more here.

Authors for Grenfell Tower critique auction

As part of the Authors for Grenfell Tower charity initiative I’m offering a critique of a short story or opening chapters of a novel up to 5000 words, raising money for the British Red Cross to go to residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. If you know anyone who might be interested, please pass this on. Bidding closes on 27 June. Here is a bit about this project, from the official Authors for Grenfell Tower website: This online auction is raising money for the British Red Cross London Fire Relief Fund, for residents affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. Around 1:00 a.m. on 14 June 2017, a fire in this residential tower block in west London spread to engulf the entire building. Despite the heroic efforts of the fire service, all 120 flats in the building have been destroyed. The death toll stands at 58 and is expected to rise. Survivors have lost their homes, lost everything, and gone through unimaginable trauma. Winning auction bids will be paid directly to the British Red Cross’s relief fund for Grenfell Tower residents and neighbours: “The charity has been asked by Kensington and Chelsea council to help co-ordinate fundraising in an appeal to support the residents and neighbours of the Grenfell Tower. Money will be given to people affected by the fire, including those who have lost everything, to buy the things they need to give themselves and their families as much normality as they can get at this extraordinarily difficult time.  By donating to the London Fire Relief Fund people will be able to help those who have been injured, bereaved, left destitute or traumatised by this tragedy.” #authorsforgrenfell

Rebecca voted nation’s favourite novel

Interesting to see that today WH Smith has declared Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to be ‘The nation’s favourite book’. In a post here WH Smith announced ‘…back in January, we put it to our followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to nominate their favourite books of the past 225 years to be considered for our shortlist. The recommendations were fantastic, and with the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Orwell and the Bronte sisters making their mark on literature within our 225 year history, we ended up with one heck of a mighty shortlist to choose from. And now that the votes are in, we can finally end months of speculation and announce the book which you voted to win the title of the Nation’s Favourite Book of the Past 225 Years! Read on to find out who won the hearts of the Nation… And the winner is… Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier’ I must admit to be surprised by the result of this latest public vote, given that The Lord of the Rings appeared so firmly established as the UK’s favourite read. Not that I’m grumbling. And to prove it, here’s a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about a visit to Daphne du Maurier country – Rebecca to the Macabre.  

Roger Moore in The Man Who Haunted Himself

RIP Roger Moore

Farewell then to Sir Roger Moore, icon of large and small screens, and by all accounts a very decent man. Noting his passing, here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about my favourite of his films, The Man Who Haunted Himself.

Do It – an interview with RTW cyclist Adrian Besly

In May last year Adrian Besly set out to cycle around the world. It was nine months before he returned to England, his two-wheeled adventures ranging from the comical to the hair-raising. He kept a diary along the way, and when he came back he wrote a book about his epic journey. It was at that point that Adrian contacted me to edit his manuscript. The result is Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh, now available in print through Amazon and as a Kindle ebook. Here I talk to Adrian about his travels, writing and his experience of working with me to transform his manuscript into the finished, published book. Gary Dalkin: The most obvious question that comes to mind is, why? I mean, why cycle around the world? It’s not something most people would think about, or if they did, they wouldn’t seriously set out to do it. So why did you, as the title of your book puts it, Do It? Adrian Besly: Why? I suppose in my character I have noticed I like to push things to the limit. For example I don’t just take up jogging, I enter a marathon. I don’t just take up nursing, but go to work in A&E. I don’t just take up judo for a bit of fitness, but get a black belt. I don’t just cycle around lovely Essex, but around the lovely world. I don’t just scribble a cycle diary but write an international bestseller! I hope! That aside, to be honest, I genuinely think almost anyone could do what I did, which is why I called the book Do it. When you walk down any street in England you can see cars worth £30,000, and I cycled around the world, and had the adventure of a lifetime, for half that amount. Gary Dalkin: The subtitle, Cycling Around The World For A Laugh, suggests something almost impulsive, but presumably once you had decided you were really going to cycle around the world there was a lot of planning involved. You didn’t just hop on your bike one day? Adrian Besly: Yes I have deliberately underplayed the amount of preparation I put into the trip in order not to bore the reader. In reality I prepared for my own death, because I estimated there was about a fifty percent chance of that. Meeting other cyclists along the way, I discovered my ignorance about what great bikes and equipment was available. Despite that I am quite proud of cycling around the world on a bike that anybody could buy at their local shop. Gary Dalkin: That’s inspiring, though I’m not sure almost anyone really could ‘do it’! The journey did push you to the limit, and I’m sure most people would have broken sooner or later. As you say, there was a serious chance of dying. Did you ever consider giving up, and what kept you going when things got really tough? What would you say was the worst moment or part of the journey? Adrian Besly: I never once considered giving up of my own volition, but I was under severe pressure from my family to come home to resolve certain problems. I was getting texts almost daily saying how bad things were and that I was being selfish and irresponsible. It got so bad that in Chile I gave in and went to a travel agent to book a flight home. When I came to pay they could not accept my credit card because it was a weekend. By the following Monday the immediate crisis at home had waned in importance so I carried on. You will have noticed working on the book that I had a few scary moments in most countries, although Palestine was probably the nearest I came to dying. Gary Dalkin: Yes, you certainly got into some dangerous situations. For someone like me, who suffers from mild vertigo, crossing on the outside of a bridge while carrying your bike was pretty terrifying. But what were about some of the highlights? Clearly, overall you had an incredible experience and are obviously thrilled to have done it. Adrian Besly: It is a wonderful thing to arrange to meet the person you love at a distant exotic location. Sharon came to meet me in Gibraltar, and later Sydney. It had the romance and excitement of Celia Johnson meeting Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter. Aside from that there is a lovely pleasure in just cycling along on smooth roads, under blue skies, with a warm sun and not a care in the world. On days like I never wanted it to end. At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, the other consistently funny times were in bars and pubs across the world. I am quite a quiet person normally, but after a few beers I’ll happily get chatting to anyone. Needless to say I managed to find a nearby bar on ninety percent of the evenings! As for the places that I enjoyed most, the list would include Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Uruguay, Chile, Hong Kong and all of Europe. Easter Island was especially memorable and the closest I’ve been to paradise. Gary Dalkin: You kept a diary of your travels. How did you go about doing that? At the time where you writing just for yourself, or did you always plan to write a book about your journey? Adrian Besly: I have an appalling short term memory. So for any funny little incident that happened, I had to scribble it immediately onto a scrap of paper that I kept in my pocket. I greatly admire Bill Bryson’s writing – who doesn’t? – and hoped from the beginning I could write a book as enjoyable and informative as one of his. He has the talent and command of language to extract maximum comedic value from the smallest and most innocuous things, such as just the expression on someone’s face. Cycling around the world I always felt I had a huge head start on Bill Bryson, to compensate for my deficiencies in talent, for two reasons. First the story structure is already written in the sense that cycling around the world has a natural start, middle and end. Secondly Bill Bryson travels around in fairly comfortable and safe conditions. Cycling around the world was very often positively hair-raising, which I knew provided some decent meat to put on the skeleton of my journal. I feel my style of writing improved as I went along and I became better at spotting funny or curious things. I sometimes wish the book could be read from back to front! Gary Dalkin: Well, there’s nothing to stop anyone reading the chapters in reverse order, Memento style! But back to the writing. You didn’t just write everything on scraps of paper. You used internet cafes and other places along the way. But then when you came home what was your process of turning all your notes and fragments into a book? Adrian Besly: The challenge was of course to marshal all the information into something readable. I am not an experienced author so I wrote like I speak. Consequently, as my sister pointed out, I tended to repeatedly use particular words, especially brilliant, great and nice! After that I went right through the text trying to improve it with more descriptive language. This proved to be one of the most enjoyable times of writing the whole book; it gives great satisfaction choosing exactly the right word for the job. Gary Dalkin: When you decided to self-publish the book, what did you do then? Clearly you realised you needed an editor to work on the manuscript with you, but of all the options available why did you chose me, and how did you find the process of working together? Adrian Besly: My sister pointed out your advert in Writing Magazine. What I discovered while working with you was how little I knew about the process of getting a manuscript print-ready. I expected some spelling and grammar corrections, but was delighted that you did fact-checking and steered me around the libel and copyright minefields. I realise I  leaned on you more than most people would regarding my shocking incompetence using computers. I enjoyed the cycling and enjoyed writing about it even more with pen and paper, but I seem to have a mental block and get monumentally frustrated trying to make sense of IT. Gary Dalkin: Is there anything you’d do differently now, either in terms of the journey, or writing the book? And what advise do you have for other first time authors and self-publishers? It’s been quite an adventure. Adrian Besly: I have really enjoyed writing the book and it is hugely satisfying to create a funny or profound sentence or paragraph. Of course  have not always succeeded, but plenty of people told me they have laughed out loud, which is encouraging. From other people who I know who have read it the silence has been deafening, so I presume they did not enjoy it or were offended by my forthright opinions on politics and religion. Initially I acted too hastily and sent off a first draft to 21 literary agents, thinking they would be dazzled by my magnum opus, and of course they weren’t, replying with 21 rejection letters. I would still like a literary agent to promote the book, but feel I have burnt my bridges with the ones I originally approached. I subsequently got your professional input to knock the book into shape and am delighted how it has turned out. Surely it will now be an international bestseller and I’ll be a millionaire by Christmas? But I won’t jack in my job yet, just in case. I learnt to try to be more imaginative and descriptive than I would use in normal everyday speech, which was how the first draft was written. This was the first time I’ve ever used a thesaurus. On the technical aspects of cycling around the world there is loads of advice I could give on bikes, equipment, routes, communication and survival. * Adrian Besly is planning to cycle around the Baltic for a laugh in 2018. Meanwhile you can buy Do It – Cycling Around the World For A Laugh from Amazon.

Dangerous Score – out now in paperback

Last year I worked with author, actor, businessman and guest speaker Michael Bearcroft on a reworked, revised and updated version of his football novel, Dangerous Score. The book is out now in paperback, and here is the official blurb: Football hero Jason Clooney is riding high, until a date with a beautiful woman lands him in trouble with the media and into a battle with the criminal underworld. Now against a backdrop of an uncertain professional future, Jason has to confront disturbing revelations surrounding his new girlfriend’s family. From football action on the pitch to behind the scenes plotting, to battles with a criminal gang and constant media attention, all add to the toughest challenges he has ever faced in life and love, as a player and a man. And a few quotes from early reviews… “As nail biting as a Merseyside derby with just as many twists and turns! One not to miss….” Ian Ayre – Managing Director, Liverpool Football Club. “Dangerous Score is a fantastic, sexy thriller! A great read and I don’t like football!!!” Gina Price – Lead vocalist in Back To Broadway The Show “As a former Professional and Semi Professional player and coach, I enjoyed the story immensely.” Kevin Shoemake – Chief Exec Birmingham FA. Former player with Leyton Orient, Peterborough Utd, Kettering Town and Rushden & Diamonds “The sort of intriguing tale that you’d expect from an ITV Sunday night drama … so your mum might like it too!” 442 Magazine Find out more at Dangerous Score  

Mythological landscapes – an interview with Alex CF

Alex CF is a noted fantasy artist. He has recently written his first novel, Seek The Throat From Which We Sing, a dark fantasy epic in a very British tradition which includes such animal fantasies as Richard Adams’ Watership Down and the deep-time pastoral fantasy of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. Over the last year I worked with Alex as his editor through the process of refining the novel into its published version. The book was issued in 2016 as a signed, illustrated, hardback, and is now available in paperback. Here I talk to Alex about the novel, its background, and a little about how we worked together.   Gary Dalkin: Seek The Throat From Which We Sing is a very ambitious and complex work for a first novel. When I read it I was particularly impressed by both the complexity of the world-building and the intricacy with which the story is told in the very detailed fictional world which has sprung from your imagination. Could you talk a little about how you came to develop the world and story, and how one influenced the other? How long did it take you to write the book? It was clear to me from the outset that a huge amount of work had gone into it. Alex CF: About nine years ago I was living in Brighton, and would sit on the beach and watch the flock of starlings fly over the pier. I started to imagine their culture, what might their belief systems be. I wrote a few pages and forgot about it for many years. I was always fond of animal mythology and a great deal of my illustration is based around this concept of imbuing animals with their own earthen ideologies, armours and wars, feuds and struggles. Many years later, after a conversation with a dear friend one afternoon, I decided to attempt to tie all of these loose threads together into one. It took me four years to finish the book, but the first two were very slow. I had to find a quiet space to write, and was fortunate to find just that. It even had a contingent of birds and animals that would visit the window where I worked, and I could watch the crows and magpies interact with one another. It wasn’t just about telling a story about animals, it was honouring that which we often overlook, that animals live their own lives and indeed have their own cultural practices. it was a case of exaggerating that or playing with our misinterpretations of that behaviour. I lived close to Highgate Wood in north London and would go for long walks, thinking through story arcs and characters and writing down little epiphanies so I wouldn’t forget. It had a point, about the roots of belief, about how these cultures share forgotten connections, my own feelings on family and also just this really strong desire to create a tangible mythology, something visceral and vivid. GD: How would you describe the story, at least enough that someone might begin to form an idea as to if this is a book for them? ACF: The story is based around a tale of dark animal mythology and fantasy. In a dilapidated seaside theme park, a flock of starlings known as the Startle have lived under the rule of the despotic gull king Esperer. Like all of his kin, Rune, an orphan, longs for a time when his people will reclaim sovereignty. In desperation he commits an act of violence that leads to banishment and he is cast into an unknown world, confronted by all the strange and cruel things that were once mere stories. In his desire to find a sense of home again, Rune meets others who also seek something; Aggi the Collector, a magpie outcast who desires to know her purpose, and Onnar of the Drove, a stern yet compassionate hare who has always put others first. Together they travel through a land wrought with dangers, and encounter many of the species that have eked an existence under the uncaring feet of humanity, and who now vie for control in the wake of a disease which is consuming mankind. In the steadily emptying city, the Vulpus, urban foxes – and the Morwih, determined domesticated cats, will wage war. Yet their squabble is but one of many… written into the lore and laws of all creatures, there is another world of magic and prophecy that Rune and his companions will unwittingly discover. GD: One thing which does impress me is that although the book is the first volume of a series the story works perfectly as a self-contained stand-alone novel. I didn’t even know it was the introduction to a series until you mentioned a sequel. And frankly, at this stage, I haven’t a clue where you are going to be taking things next, as it all seems quite complete. Now you are self-publishing Seek The Throat… in a beautiful, illustrated limited edition hard cover. Was this always your intention? What steps did you take towards publication? And at what stage did you decide you needed to being an editor into the process? ACF: I think I found myself considering a sequel when I realised what the story was really about, and how I deliberately tried to stay away from the hero’s journey – in many ways the book presents itself as such but with the benefit of telling the story from multiple characters, I hope that it becomes very much a story of many heroes. Towards the end of writing, certain story arcs became more beloved to me, especially that of the Vulpus and their supernatural elements – there was a whole story within this that gradually encompassed the original mythology in the first book and expanded upon it. The working title for the second book is Wretched Is The Husk, and is a much darker tale, but it also gives more weight to the original story and expands upon the value of the characters and the greater world within the book. I guess my intention was to be able to hold the book, the validation was important to me – that the task was finally complete! I had hoped that I could find a publisher, and I am not ruling that out, but I’m not holding my breath. The self-publishing route is something I have gone along multiple times when I was a comic artist, and so it’s not that alien to me. It allows for freedom of expression and to be more in touch with those who buy a copy of the book. Taking on an editor was very important to me. I wanted it to be grammatically correct of course, but also there is something very important about exposing the book to another mind – someone with knowledge to course correct any plot issues, or to make suggestions that will improve the book. Above all it is about getting the best out of an idea, and the validation of holding a physical book was secondary to the validation of someone with a position of authority to say ‘yes I thinks its complete’. This was very valuable to me. * pre-order Seek The Throat From Which We Sing * enquire about my editorial services for authors  

Literary Wonderlands published today

Just a quick note to mention that Literary Wonderlands is published today in the US. Click here for a preview including the Introduction and contents pages which show a complete list of the books and fictional worlds covered.

Literary Wonderlands cover

I am thrilled that I have received a high quality image for the cover of Literary Wonderlands.  I have written four chapters for the book, my chapters being on I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Here is the official blurb: Literary Wonderlands A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created by Laura Miller, General Editor. Contributions by Lev Grossman, John Sutherland, and Tom Shippey A glorious collection that delves deep into the inception, influences, and literary and historical underpinnings of nearly 100 of our most beloved fictional realms. Please note: The ebook edition is text-only, illustrations are not included. Literary Wonderlands is a thoroughly researched, wonderfully written, and beautifully produced book that spans two thousand years of creative endeavor. From Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to Wells’s The Time Machine to Murakami’s 1Q84 it explores the timeless and captivating features of fiction’s imagined worlds including the relevance of the writer’s own life to the creation of the story, influential contemporary events and philosophies, and the meaning that can be extracted from the details of the work. Each piece includes a detailed overview of the plot and a “Dramatis Personae.” Literary Wonderlands is a fascinating read for lovers of literature, fantasy, and science fiction. Laura Miller is the book’s general editor. Co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked as an editor and writer for 20 years, she is currently a books and culture columnist at Slate. A journalist and a critic, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column for two years. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia and editor of the Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors. Literary Wonderlands is published in the US on 1 November, and in the UK on 25 November.

Shoreline of Infinity interview with Simon Morden

I’m very pleased to announce that the new issue of Shoreline of Infinity (No.5 / Autumn 2016) is now out and features my extensive interview with the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author, Simon Morden. We talk about in-depth about his latest series of novels, which began earlier this year with Down Station and continues with The White City. The packed 132 page issue also features stories by Iain Maloney, Jack Schouten, Adam Connors, Nat Newman, Daniel Rosen, Thomas Clark, Rob Butler and Craig Thomson. SF Caledonia, the series on classic Scottish science fiction, continues with Monica Burns on George MacDonald’s Phantastes. There is a new comic from Stuart Beel, a freshly minted column by Ruth EJ Booth, and poetry from Andrew Blair and Ruth Aylett. Shoreline of Infinity is available both digitally and as a gorgeous physical magazine printed on real paper.  

Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh

In May last year Adrian Besly set out to cycle around the world. He kept a diary along the way, and when he came back he wrote a book about his amazing adventures. And then I edited it, and I’m delighted to say that Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh is published this week. A print edition will follow soon. Adrian really has a way with words, and the subtitle is entirely appropriate. Throwaway lines like ‘I have a photo in my wallet of my kids where my money used to be’ regularly made me laugh, and if you find that amusing then this book is for you. It’s not all fun though. Adrian came close to death on several occasions on some of the world’s most dangerous  roads and his journey ranges from the surreal to the frankly hair-raising. The Kindle version is available from 1 September in the UK (Do It) in the US (Do It), and at other Amazon sites around the world. Here is the official blurb from Amazon: ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ they sang in The Rocky Horror Show. So Adrian Besly quit his job, bought some cycling gear from Tesco, Aldi and his local bike shop and kept pedalling west until he came home from the east nearly a year later. During this epic journey he got drunk with Aussie cowboys, ate dog and cat in Vietnam, met ‘The Only Gay in the Village’ in Andorra, did a bungee jump in New Zealand, nearly ran over a dildo in Argentina, danced with a pirate in Gibraltar, ended up on stage with drag queens in Sydney and stayed in a Brazilian brothel. Not that it was all plain sailing. He was attacked by a hornet while having a pee in Spain, outwitted muggers in Indonesia, was attacked by Hitchcock-inspired birds in Australia, and chased by dogs in nearly every country he visited. He coped with dangerous drivers, ‘Bali Belly’ and people throwing bottles at him. Worse, he had four crashes, and was admitted to hospital in Malaysia with exhaustion. These subjects don’t lend themselves to dainty language, and Adrian describes events colourfully. Against all odds he cycled over 14,000 miles, and developed possibly the world’s sorest backside. Do It – Cycling Around The World For A Laugh may be the type of travel diary that Michael Palin wants to write, but the BBC won’t publish. About the author Adrian Besly left home at 16 and has done dozens of jobs. He has worked on farms, in factories, been a driver, kitchen porter, circus worker, film extra, drug tester, printer, pest controller, door-to-door salesman, courier and most recently, a staff nurse at Southend Hospital Accident & Emergency Department. He has had two booklets published; Bash The Fash about fighting against the BNP and NF, and The Couriers Are Revolting about organising a trade union for motorcycle despatch riders. Despite being a hard worker he has the unusual distinction of having been on strike in four different industries. Apart from following QPR, his sporting passion is judo. He is a 3rd Dan black belt and still trains, coaches and competes. He has represented Great Britain. Adrian performs Britain’s most talented harmonica/comedy routine, although Simon Cowell does not agree. He has two wonderful children, Kevin and Laura, and is married to the gorgeous Sharon.

The Conscript

I’m very excited to announce that one of my recent projects as an editor, The Conscript, the first volume of the adventures of Azi Garza, is out as an ebook over the next few days through Amazon (Kindle), iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Google Play and Kobo. The print first edition will follow soon. The Conscript is the debut novel by American writer Nate Kirtis, and is the first of a Young Adult science fiction quartet. I thoroughly enjoyed working on The Conscript, and am intrigued to see what adventures await our hero over the rest of the series. The Kindle version is available right now, in the UK (The Conscript) and US (The Conscript). You can check Nate Kirtis out at his website, though first feast your eyes on the very striking cover.

August 2016 Writing Magazine, Kei Miller

Writing Magazine article – What’s It All About?

The new, August issue of Writing Magazine, features my article on getting to the essence of your novel – ‘What’s It All About?’ The star interview is with award-winning poet and novelist Kei Miller, and there are features on Peter Breakspear and Jemma Wayne, while Sophie Beal explores the relationship between realism and fiction – ‘True Lies’.

Literary Wonderlands US hardcover

Literary Wonderlands again

Literary Wonderlands now has a release date on both sides of the Atlantic. It will be out in the US on 1 November, and on 25 November in the UK. Here is the blurb from Amazon: A glorious collection that delves deep into the inception, influences, and literary and historical underpinnings of nearly 100 of our most beloved fictional realms. Please note: The ebook edition is text-only, illustrations are not included. Literary Wonderlands is a thoroughly researched, wonderfully written, and beautifully produced book that spans two thousand years of creative endeavor. From Spenser’s The Fairie Queene to Wells’s The Time Machine to Murakami’s 1Q84 it explores the timeless and captivating features of fiction’s imagined worlds including the relevance of the writer’s own life to the creation of the story, influential contemporary events and philosophies, and the meaning that can be extracted from the details of the work. Each piece includes a detailed overview of the plot and a “Dramatis Personae.” Literary Wonderlands is a fascinating read for lovers of literature, fantasy, and science fiction. Laura Miller is the book’s general editor. Co-founder of Salon.com, where she worked as an editor and writer for 20 years, she is currently a books and culture columnist at Slate. A journalist and a critic, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column for two years. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia and editor of the Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors.

Literary Wonderlands pormo draught cover

Literary Wonderlands

I’m thrilled to announce that I am contributing four chapters to the book Literary Wonderlands. The book is being edited by Laura Miller (co-founder of Salon.com), and contributors include Adam Roberts, Julia Eccleshare, Lev Grossman and Lisa Tuttle. The book is to be published by Elwin Street Productions this autumn. Literary Wonderlands will ‘trace the power of the written word to transport us from ordinary time and space to previously unimaginable new worlds, exploring the most fantastical, mysterious and awe-inspiring lands ever created in literary fiction.’ My chapters are on Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (JM Barrie), I, Robot (Isaac Asimov), Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino) and Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson). Here is a very rough promotional version of some possible cover artwork.

Dead Leaves – award nominated

I’m delighted to see that Dead Leaves, the new book by Andrew David Barker, for which I provided a developmental edit, has been declared runner up in the This Is Horror 2015 Awards for Best Novella. The book has received great reviews from The Eloquent Page, Mark West and James Everington. Andrew was kind enough to say ‘Gary Dalkin’s work on my second book, Dead Leaves, was invaluable. He was precise, succinct, with a fine attention to detail. Dalkin guided my story to publication with fair and balanced criticisms and queries, and picked up on things I probably wouldn’t have ever noticed. In short, his sharp critical eye improved my words and my book. An excellent editor.’ Above is a photo of Boo Books beautiful limited edition, designed like a 1980s VHS tape. And here is an interview I did with Andrew last year.

Boo Books limited edition of Dead Leaves, beautifully presented as a 1980s VHS tape

Interview: Dead Leaves & The Electric author, Andrew David Barker

Andrew David Barker was born in Derby, England, in 1975. I first heard about his novella, Dead Leaves, when He asked me to provide some developmental editorial input on a draft of the manuscript, which he did as a result of this interview, originally conducted with him for Amazing Stories. The interview coincided with the paperback publication of The Electric, Barker’s first novel, a ghost story steeped in a love of movies, especially genre flicks from the old Universal classics to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws. The Electric is also a nostalgic, bittersweet coming of age story, a resonant, evocative, deeply moving tale with shades of vintage Bradbury and King. It is quite an achievement. Dead Leaves is equally nostalgic, though a much gritter story about a group of teenage friends in Barker’s hometown of Darby in the early 1980s coming to terms with young adulthood while trying to find a copy of the horror film The Evil Dead at the height of Britain’s moral panic over ‘video nasties’. Dead Leaves it is not a horror story, but is an autumnal tale suited to October country, informed by a love of horror movies and the power that film can have to inspire a youthful imagination. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that Andrew David Barker is also a filmmaker …

Book Review: Echoes From The Macabre: Selected Stories, Daphne du Maurier

As a follow up to my posts about Daphne du Maurier’s fiction and her adopted county of Cornwall, here is a review of her 1976 collection Echoes From The Macabre: Selected Stories (Gollancz), a reprint collection focusing on some of the author’s more horrific tales. The stories date from the period 1952-71. They are: ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘The Birds’, ‘The Apple Tree’, ‘The Old Man’, ‘The Pool’, ‘The Blue Lenses’, ‘The Chamois’, ‘Not After Midnight’, and ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’. …

The New Media Writing Prize

Recently I was a guest at the 5th New Media Writing Prize awards ceremony at Bournemouth University. The Prize was originally established in conjunction with the Poole Literary Festival, and as part of the Festival I was involved in promoting the Prize in its first year. This year was the first time since then that I have been able to return, and it was gratifying to see how, under the enthusiastic direction of Dr James Pope, BA English Framework Leader at BU and competition director …

Daphne du Maurier Country – Rebecca to the Macabre

If Dorset’s most celebrated writer is Thomas Hardy then Cornwall’s is surely Daphne du Maurier. So never having read it before, I decided to prepare for our holiday by reading her most famous novel, Rebecca. I was familiar with the Hitchcock film, and with the 1997 TV mini-series, but the only du Maurier I had previously read was the novella ‘Don’t Look Now’ and the short story, ‘The Birds’. The former, of course, provided the basis for the great Nic Roeg film …

Film Review: Mr. Nobody

Mr. Nobody is the best film I’ve ever seen that hardly anyone has ever heard about. If you are interested in great cinema, or simply in imaginative storytelling and story construction then you owe it to yourself to see this unknown masterpiece. Mr. Nobody is a 2009 Belgian, German, French, Canadian co-production, set in England and Canada and filmed in English. It was made on a budget of around $47 million, but looks like it cost at least three times that. …

Cloud Atlas, Skyfall and the McDonald’s-isation of Storytelling

This post is a follow-up to Cloud Atlas Shrugged – or let the Skyfall. The first post was written in February 2013, this one that December. Both were originally published on Amazing Stories. The subject of both posts is the death of originality and creative storytelling in Hollywood cinema, but it applies equally to the drive to publish books as franchises rather than self-contained, individual novels. Back in February, I wrote about the difference in the …

Cloud Atlas Shrugged – or let the Skyfall

Here is something I wrote a while ago, back in February 2013, and which was originally published on Amazing Stories. It still seems relevant, and with David Mitchell’s latest book, The Bone Clocks, now out, in case you missed it before, here it again. Cloud Atlas paperback coverOn Monday the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, was released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK. Tomorrow Cloud Atlas will open in UK cinemas. Two films, poles apart. Skyfall, the 23th entry …

Exploring Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall

In June we went to Cornwall, to Daphne du Maurier country, so here are some photos relating to all things du Maurier from our short holiday. One day in 1936 the young Daphne du Maurier was out riding on Bodmin Moor with her friend Foy Quiller-Couch. They became lost, but eventually found their way to the Jamaica Inn. While recovering from their ordeal Daphne and Foy heard tales of long ago smuggling adventures and du Maurier was inspired to write her fourth novel. …

Interview: Jonathan Oliver, editor-in-chief, Solaris Books

Jonathan Oliver is one of the UK’s top genre editors. He is also a novelist, short story author and creator of shared-worlds. Recently I interviewed him by email. – Gary Dalkin: “You are editor-in-chief of three imprints – Solaris, Ravenstone and Abaddon Books – all published by Rebellion Publishing Ltd. What is your background and how did you end up in your current position? Perhaps for readers who are not familiar with Rebellion you could outline the idea behind each of …

Book Review: The Kings of Eternity, Eric Brown

The Kings of Eternity is a novel with one foot happily in the mainstream and one in genre. As such it is a book which may baffle those who don’t ‘get it’; a novel written unapologetically for those of us who have grown-up with genre fiction but who also read and appreciate writing sometimes classified as ‘literary fiction’. Not that such a distinction holds much water, is rather a false dichotomy; genre being delineated by content, ‘literary fiction’ being assumed by some as involving …

Book Review: The Fictional Man, Al Ewing

Niles Golan is an ex-pat Brit in Hollywood. Never grown-up, he narrates his life with an internal monologue transforming his everyday inadequacies into triumphs. Niles is his own fictional creation: to himself, a genius novelist akin to the young Thomas Pynchon; to everyone else, the hack who writes the popular Kurt Power adventures novels. His ambition is to launch a movie franchise, but to get the chance he has to pitch a remake of his teenage-self’s favourite film. …

They Do Things Differently There

The original version of the article was written for Amazing Stories and published as ‘Doctor Who and the Strange Victorians’. The starting point was the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special, ‘The Snowmen’, in which a young woman, the Doctor’s new companion, falls down a metaphorical rabbit hole in Victorian London. As Doctor Who approached its 50th birthday (celebrated in 2013) executive producer and writer Steven Moffat appeared to be transforming the programme into …

Book Review: Falling Over, James Everington

Falling Over was the first book I read by James Everington, and this is a revised version of a review I wrote for Amazing Stories last year. Since then I have interviewed the author and reviewed his first two self-published books, The Shelter (a novella) and The Other Room (a story collection), again for Amazing Stories. On his website James Everington says that his main influences are writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Shirley Jackson and Robert Aickman, and that he enjoys …

Blu-ray Review: The Man Who Haunted Himself

The Man Who Haunted Himself is, as the title suggests both a ghost and a doppelgänger story, and as such is a rather unique tale of the uncanny, unfolding perhaps much as one might imagine a feature-length, British Twilight Zone. The film starts with business man Harold Pelham (Roger Moore) leaving his London office and driving west out of the city, but then…something happens to him. He starts to speed, driving ever more recklessly. There are shots of another …

Book Review: The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Prisoner of Heaven is, according to the forward, ‘part of a cycle of novels set in the universe of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, of which The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game are the first two installments. Although each work within the cycle presents an independent, self-contained tale, they are all connected through characters and storylines, creating thematic and narrative links. Each individual installment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series …

Film & CD Review: Wakolda (The German Doctor)

Wakolda (retitled The German Doctor in the US) is the latest film from Argentine writer-director Lucía Puenzo. Little known in the English speaking world, Lucía Penzo is the daughter of Luis Puenzo, celebrated for La historia oficial, which in 1986 won the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign (Language) Film, as well as sweeping nine of the Argentinian Film Critics Association Awards, including Best Film. Lucía co-wrote her father’s best work, La Puta y La Bellena, which …

Book Review: Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Night Film is the second novel by Marisha Pessl, the follow-up to her 2006 award-winning bestseller, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It recounts the quest of disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath to uncover the truth about reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova. Some years previously Scott was manipulated into making a serious allegation against the director on the TV news programme Nightline, an unsubstantiated claim which seriously damaged …

Book Review: Stardust, Nina Allan

Stardust is one of three books by Nina Allan published so far this year. First was the story collection Microcosmos. Next came the novella, Spin. Now we have Stardust, published as a very striking hardback by PS Publishing as PS Showcase #11. Stardust is subtitled The Ruby Castle Stories, but who (or what) is Ruby Castle? Actually Ruby Castle is a person, rather than a place. But these six stories and a poem tell us very little about her. She only appears in one story, and then …

Book Review: Spin, Nina Allan

Nina Allan’s Spin is the second in a series of novellas published by the Third Alternative Press, home of leading UK genre magazines Interzone and Black Static. I should mention that the book was sent to me by the author because she liked my Amazing Stories review of her collection, Microcosmos. She also sent me a copy of her other new book, Stardust, which I review here. So I am predisposed to like Spin. Set in an alternate Greece, Spin is a reworking of the myth of Arachne. Layla is a weaver, a …

Book Review: The Peacock Cloak, Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett has been publishing short stories since 1990. His debut novel was The Holy Machine, followed by Marcher, and last year, Dark Eden,which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for the Best SF novel published in the UK in 2012. His first collection of short fiction, The Turing Test (2008), won the Edge Hill Prize. The Peacock Cloak is his second collection, bringing together a dozen stories first published between 2008-12. Most of these stories originally appeared in Asimov’s or …

Book Review: Growing Pains, Ian Whates

Growing Pains is a new collection from the highly talented British author and editor Ian Whates. Whates is the author of the Noise series of space operas and the urban fantasy trilogy City of 100 Rows. He edits the on-going Solaris Rising anthologies and various entries in the Mammoth Book of series, including the Alternate Histories and SF Wars volumes. Whates also manages his own NewCon Press. You can read my review of the recent NewCon Press edition of …

Book Review: Intrusion, Ken MacLeod

Some decades from now, Hope Morrison is a young woman living in London with her husband, Hugh, and four year old son, Nick. Health & Safety laws have driven most women from the workplace, so Hope works from home answering enquiries, translated into English, for a Chinese website. Solar panel farms in Africa have ended Hugh’s first career as a wind power engineer – his father Nigel still works on the family home island of Lewis, now dismantling the giant …

The Mirror of Our Dreams

There is a curious phenomenon not exclusive to science fiction fandom, it is prevalent in pop music worship and other places, by which those afflicted feel a need to establish rivalries. The Star Wars fan who vociferously attacks all things Star Trek. And vice versa. The Star Trek fan determined to argue against every facet of Babylon 5. Those who can not enjoy both The X Files and Fringe. New Who vs Old Who. It goes on. These rivalries exist almost exclusively in the minds of fans. It is …

Book Review: Bellefleur, Joyce Carol Oates

As I mentioned in my post Stephen King – A Beginner’s Guide I became interested in the work of Joyce Carol Oates because of her association with King. As early as Danse Macabre (1981) King was writing admiringly about Oates’ work. The compliment was returned when Oates introduced King’s speaking engagement at Princeton in 1997. Bellefleur is the first book I have read by Joyce Carol Oates. She has written a vast number of titles, rivalling King in her output. So many …

Book Review: Joyland, Stephen King

In Stephen King’s best novel in years, 11.22.63 (2011), the veteran author revisited the period of his youth, the 1950s and ‘60s. A character from the present, our present, went back to 1958, encountered love, tried to stop a killer. In King’s Joyland it is a decade after the fall of America’s Camelot. In the summer of 1973 Devin Jones, a young man working his way through college (University of New Hampshire) takes a dogsbody job (pun very much intended) at an old style amusement park. On the …

Book Review: Microcosmos, Nina Allan

In the forward to Microcosmos Nina Allan explains that, having forgotten the finer details of the requirements for the collection, with her stories tending to ‘run away with themselves’ and being rather long for short stories, she had amassed considerably more material than the book would be able to contain. She had intended a survey of her work from the publication of her first book, A Thread of Truth (2007) up to The Silver Wind (2011). However, with a target length of 60,000 …

Stephen King – A Beginner’s Guide

For a long time I paid no attention to the writing of Joyce Carol Oates. But I kept seeing her mentioned in the context of modern American Gothic, being recommended by writers whose work I loved, particularly Stephen King. The admiration was mutual. In 1997 Oates introduced King when he gave his first reading at Princeton University. That day she described him as a great writer of Gothic horror. At different points in their careers King and Oates even had the same editor …

The Invention of Iain M. Banks

This piece was originally posted on 18 April, 2012. I’m reposting it now in memory of Iain Banks, who died on Sunday 9 June, 2013. I have recently reread Iain M. Banks 1988 novel The Player of Games. I did so because I have been selected as a World Book Night book giver, and of the 25 available titles the one I chose to give away was the Banks. I had a hard time picking, and I want to explain why I selected this particular book. But first, if you don’t know about World Book Night take a look …

Book Review: Objects in Dreams, Lisa Tuttle

Lisa Tuttle has long been one of the masters of the deeply unsettling tale. Last year her short story Objects in Dreams may be Closer than they Appear opened Jonathan Oliver’s excellent anthology, House of Fear, a collection of haunted and otherwise strange homes. That was one of my favourite books of the year, and that Tuttle’s tale was chosen to open a volume containing new work by such writers as Chaz Brenchley, Eric Brown, Christopher Fowler, Garry Kilworth, Joe R. Lansdale, Tim Lebbon and …

Book Reviews: This Shared Dream & In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times, originally published in 2007, won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel and the ALA’s Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. A complex exploration of the political implications of alternative history, In War Times begins in 1941, with Sam Dance being given documents that lead to the opening of a parallel world in which Dance’s brother, Keenan, survived the attack on Pearl Harbor to work for a better future — as does Sam in “our” …

Things Fall Apart

Yesterday I read three articles worth considering for anyone serious about writing fiction. The first was The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies by Paul Kincaid, written for the LA Review of Books. This piece looked at Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction : Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, Richard Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy : 2012 Edition and the Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. Kincaid begins his lengthy and extremely well-argued article thus: ‘The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion. In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.’ Kincaid considers the crisis of identity and confidence within SF, a genre now so uncertain of itself that it willingly expands to encompass without seeming contradiction the now much more commercially popular Fantasy genre. He compares a 40 year old story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree, Jr. – included in the Nebula anthology as a tribute to the late author – and finds it to have a ‘life and vitality way beyond anything else in these three anthologies.’ Kincaid concludes that there is now a ‘sense that the future is something to be approached wearily because we have already imagined it and rubbed away anything that was bright and new.’ Has science fiction become old, introspective and complacent? And if so, what can we do about it? And does Kincaid’s argument extend to other genres, to mainstream literary fiction? I would suggest that it does. That much fiction has become a tired, ironic game, devoid of conviction. Immediately after the Kincaid I read an article on Twitch Film by Jim Tudor called After The Boys of Summer Have Gone: A Look Back at the Summer Movie Season and found essentially the same view as Kincaid’s being expressed, this time regarding the year’s big summer movies. Tudor employs an inspired device of heading sections of his article with lyrics from the 1984 Don Henley hit ‘The Boys of Summer’. This evokes a nostalgic sense of better days now irrevocably lost, while simultaneously pointing back to an era when genre films – Blade Runner, The Thing, Videodrome, The Fly, The Terminator – were more frequently crafted with the idea that what was on screen meant something beyond box office dollars. The current bland, forgettable, hollow remake of Total Recall, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, stands for the whole malaise.   Tudor concludes, ‘Indeed, the summer movie season has come to represent something … A certain something, a flair, that’s time may’ve passed. Or at least we like to think it’s passed. Innocence … Wonder … Unapologetic fun … These are things that Hollywood seems to have all but forgotten, and we may not even realize that we need.’ Finally, written in response to Kincaid’s piece, and relevant to Tudor’s, is a superb blog entry by UK critic Jonathan McCalmont on his Ruthless Culture site titled Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future. McCalmont goes deeper, citing the domination of neo-liberal capitalism and post-modern modes of thought as explanations for SF losing its direction, purpose and engagement with what may actually be our future in favour of retreats into sanitised fantasies devoid of moral or political relevance to the real world. It is the longest and best of the three articles and is an important piece for anyone who is serious about their writing, regardless of genre. In the end, if you don’t believe in anything, how can you write a story or novel that means something?

Book Review: Adrift on the Sea of Rains, Ian Sales

Adrift on the Sea of Rains is the first volume in Ian Sales Apollo Quartet. Available as a limited edition hardback (75 signed copies), paperback and ebook, this science fiction adventure falls between alternative history and parallel world story. It is the late 1980’s, the Cold War has gone nuclear and all that’s left of the human race is the crew of the US moon base Falcon. Colonel Peterson is looking for a way home before the food runs out. Hopes lie in a partially understood piece …

A Game of Pride and Prejudice

An interesting piece by Amanda Craig has appeared on the Telegraph website. The article, centered around the HBO television series of George R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones novels, joins the vast pile of opinion pieces addressing the debate ‘can fantasy fiction ever be any good’. Which is to say, should authors use their imagination or confine themselves to looking out the window and typing? These opinion pieces begin by stating the default premise, that fantasy …

We Need To Talk About Lionel (Shriver)

When it comes to literature men in the UK, US and Germany are reportedly in a tiny minority, reading just 20% of all fiction. Or so, writing in the Guardian, says Lionel Shriver. I don’t know if this is true. I know lots of men who read lots of fiction. Perhaps they are not representative. But then I assumed Lionel Shriver was a man. It’s an easy mistake to make. Shriver, a woman who changed her name from Margaret Ann, and won the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction for We Need to Talk About Kevin, offers what starts out as an excellent article about sexism in book marketing and cover design. She argues that despite the content of her novels having appeal to both sexes her publishers insist on trying to market her books to an entirely female audience using covers more appropriate to chick lit. Shriver describes one proposed cover, which she managed to veto, thus: ‘A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels’. Lionel adds, ‘…publishers presume that women only buy a book that looks soft and that appears to be all about women, even if it isn’t. Yet women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes.’ So having castigated her publishers for one sexist presumption, Lionel immediately spoils it with another, insulting and alienating half her potential readership. The very half of readers Shriver complains her publishers ignore in their marketing of her books. I’m a man. I have bought and read lots of books by women. Some of them are about women. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is the most gripping biography / autobiography I have ever read. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein is the best book about politics and economics I have encountered in years. One of the finest novels it has been my pleasure to enjoy recently was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Admittedly I’ve not read any books by Lionel Shriver, and the thing is, now I don’t feel inclined to. As Lionel says, men don’t buy books by and about women. The message for writers – don’t insult your potential readers if you want to sell books.

A day with Jane Goodall

We spent Saturday with Dr Jane Goodall. Afterwards Jane asked me to write an account of the day. So here it is. Jane Goodall is excited. “Have you heard?” she says, as we eat lunch in the restaurant at Compton Acres in Poole. “We’ve been shortlisted for an Oscar!” She is referring to the film about her life, Jane’s Journey, which had its first UK showing at Bournemouth University. The scientist, conservationist and UN International Messenger of Peace, Dr Jane Goodall, DBE, spends …

Some notes on Christopher Priest’s The Islanders

Yesterday morning I received a signed copy of Christopher Priest’s latest book, The Islanders, direct from the author. This is Priest’s first book length fiction since the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning The Separation, and since the release of the film The Prestige, based on the author’s James Tait Black Memorial Prize winning novel of the same name. What follows is not a review but some spoiler-free notes. In the first 22 pages of The Islanders Christopher Priest uses the word ‘adjacent’ three times. By some counts The Islanders is Christopher Priest’s **? book, if one includes works of non-fiction, chapbooks and works written under a pseudonym. Do we count  chapbooks, small publications such as The Song of the Book? Does The Book on The Edge of Forever count? – an account of the non-publication of another book (Last Dangerous Visions) by another author which if it did exist would be an anthology of stories many other writers. But even if we consider only Priest’s fiction it is still difficult to reach an agreed number. What of the two slightly different versions of the story collection Real Time World? Do we count one, or both? Or the different revised texts of the novel The Glamour – for which Priest also wrote another version as a BBC Radio play? Itself which exists in two versions, one running approximately 100 minutes, the other, containing exactly the same material but time compressed to fill a 90 minute broadcast slot. The Islanders is Priest’s **? novel, if we count works written under a pseudonym. But which pseudonyms? It’s well known that Priest wrote the ‘book of the film’ of eXistenZ as John Luther Novak, but what about certain other books which have long been rumoured to have been the author’s work, but which Priest has always denied? As Chaster Kammeston writes in his introduction to The Islanders, ‘I did not write this book, although there have already been rumours that I did.’ Just as no one can be sure exactly how many islands there are in the world  – ‘There are no maps or charts of the Dream Archipelago. At least there are no reliable ones, or comprehensive ones, or even whole ones.’ – no one can be sure how many books Christopher Priest has written. All we can affirm is that The Islanders is one of them. The Islanders documents certain aspects of The Dream Archipelago, the central setting for Priest’s story collection The Dream Archipelago. The Dream Archipelago was of course location for half of what is perhaps Priest’s greatest novel, The Affirmation. The Islanders is not a sequel, it is perhaps not a novel in the conventional sense, but a geographical, historical, biographical gazetteer of a place which seemed an ‘alien’ world in The Affirmation, half of which was located in a world parallel with our own (in that it contained a country called England with a capital city called London), while the other half introduced us to a country called Faiandland with a capital city called Jethra and a previously unknown chain of islands spanning the entire girth of the planet. In The Islanders Priest writes about the world which is home to The Dream Archipelago as if it were exactly as real as the world in which we live, of which so far he has made no mention. In a year or two, if shelved in order of publication The Islanders will separate Priest’s previous novel, The Separation, from his next, to which it will be adjacent. That novel already has a title. It is called The Adjacent. * You can read my interview with Christopher Priest here.

Gary Dalkin, editor and writer

Welcome

Just a test and welcome message. My old site, garydalkin.com, was hacked, and rather than struggle with the horrors of 1&1 hosting any longer it seemed a good impetus to move completely over to WordPress. So here I am with my content ported over, slightly revised and prettified with more pictures. It was a steep learning curve, but if you don’t count the design of WordPress and the template I’m using, then it was all my own work, and all the more satisfying for it. I’m certainly glad I kept complete backups of my content. You never know when they will be needed. So if you haven’t already done it, backup your online content now. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.