Friday, March 27, 2015

New York, New York

27th March 2015

I am not a great fan of cities. Three days and I am in sensory overload. Three days and the green zone of my brain starts to dry and shrivel, and I am gasping for something natural, which cities surely are not, this overload of human beings (human beans as Stephen King puts it.) I am more likely to be watching a pidgeon pecking on the sidewalk than ogling the Empire State Building. WB Yeats didn't take the fire in his head out to the concrete jungle but to the hazel wood. It wouldn't have been as lyrical if he had. It wouldn't have done him as much good. Somewhere along the line, I set myself in orbit around the natural world, or maybe I was just born that way. My sixteen year old daughter dreams of big city lights, while I picture swallows swooping over fields of gold. I say, just you wait: The city will in the end erode your best sense.

So, I am in New York City this week, wandering around like a lost soul, trying to navigate my fragile life of trees and bracken through the traffic at Times Square, standing at the edge of the subway station, looking for the mice that in some unbelievable turn of their natural lives scurry around with trains rushing overhead. As long as I am in the city, I feel like one of those mice, rumbled
down to my core, deafened and deadened.

It's no accident that big explosive theatre resides in the city, because big explosive escape is what you need when you come here. I escape the noise of too many people packed into a tight space. too many cars, too many sirens, by going to the theatre. Stories are my business and my distraction, and if you throw in some good music, I forget my discomfort (and the fact that I am hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate) and I am all agog. I have seen Wicked about eight times now, and musical theatre doesn't come any better. Writer Stephen Schwartz is the John Grisham of theatre.  Here music and lyrics perform a magical pas de deux: "There a few at ease with moral ambiguities and so we act as though they don't exist..." So, I take it all back. For those three hours in the theatre my soul claps hands and sings and I am a happy recruit in the tireless march of the city.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Waiting Game

20th March 2015

My aim from the get-go of this blog has been to let readers follow along the path from a writer who had been scribbling away for years, nay decades, and then suddenly was offered a contract with a major publisher. So I have chronicled the stages of editing, the waiting, the cheques in the mail, the waiting, the book launch, the waiting, the tally of comments on Amazon, the dread of negative comments of Goodreads (which they seem to specialise in), and, oh, did I mention the waiting?
As anyone knows who has travelled this road, there is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait.
Most of the space on this blog has not been about events on the publishing path but about what it means to write or create art of any kind. That's because I have been waiting. It's perhaps not by accident that my book Veil Of Time is about time distortion, because that's what happens to you along this road - each step takes so long, you begin to feel as though you're moving in slowmo. (Did I mention the book has now been out for a year now?)
This is not a road for the faint of heart.

I need to get one of these signs for my office. Writers steal away into their little corners and commit harikiri each day onto the page. And then as the blood dries, there is the coming out, there is the networking and the infernal waiting. Right now I am waiting for the word on whether my sequel will pass the publishing tribunal and see the light of day. Right now I am waiting while my agent reads my new novel about the theft of the Lewis Chessmen.

I have been sweating blood these past months bringing this story to life. I finished the last pass over it this morning and sent it off. I collected all my notes into one pile and shoved them into a file. It felt liberating. But now comes the waiting. It might be the best book I have written, but then I always feel that about the last book I have written. It's like the last drink to an alcoholic. What can I say - I am a bloody addict.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Inner Child

13th March 2015

There is no greater well of inspiration for a writer than his or her childhood.  Perhaps because in childhood we haven't had wonder knocked out of us. Perhaps because of the holographic effect of experience in childhood. As adults, we experience and put aside. But what we experience as children gets taken into our being so that it makes up the cells and particles of us.

Remember the long summer evenings of play, the complete absorption of grinding different coloured stones to make powder? The stew you made of mud and sticks, snail shells and mint;  the perfume you made from crushed rose petals and water that turned brown and sour by the next day? Remember there was no time, then, just this eternal now stretching out in all directions? And it smelled of earth; it smelled of summer evenings, pineapple weed and mint.

I remember ....

The child that gazes at the butterfly is not separate from it. The Babycham plastic mascot was a real Bambi in my hands and glowed beneath the bed as I slept. The first visit to the cinema to see Mary Poppins changed everything. Every new experience was huge and encompassed everything.  But the same went for the painful things of childhood. That little girl in my picture with the squinty school tie, spurned by the mother was taken up in the arms of the father. The cake her mother "forgot" to make on her birthday, was replaced by the fancy gateau the father produced from the bakery. In my writing, there is always a rescuing father figure. (In my fatherless life I'm always on the look-out for one, too.)
Writing is plummeting down to this raw level in which the child still sings. Once in a while we still receive a moment of epiphany that burns down into this level, like the blackbird singing in the dead of night. As adults we're good at shutting it down, sometimes because it seems like the only way to survive.
But your inner child is still within reach. She hasn't gone away. You can see it in her eyes when you look at the picture. Wonder, the Elan Vital of all that makes us human, is still there.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Many Worlds

March 6th 2015

Remember that scene in Pixar's Toy Story, in which Buzz Lightyear and Woody fall into a  Claw Vending Machine? Lightyear asks the green alien soft toys inside who's in charge, and they all in unison point up to "the Claw" their god who chooses who will go and who will stay. This scene haunts me, as well it should, because as the creators intended it begs the question if each one of us in our own way isn't living inside a bubble like this with a random god of our own making.

To those living in Christian cultures, this god is the one between the pages of their bible. But there is the one in the Torah, the one in the Qu'ran, the one in the Vedas, and of course the one of science. The god of science is "absolute fact," and we are all supposed to bow down before it.  Science has its uses, of course, and mainly in the face of other sources claiming "absolute fact." You can measure "actual fact" against "actual fact" and science is the benchmark for that measure. But the world is full of a number of things, and facts are only one of them. The kind of enquiry into truth going on between the pages of sacred texts has nothing to do with "actual fact." The claim that it is, if Karen Armstrong is right in her book on Fundamentalism, is a relatively recent development.
So, what's my point?
I keep coming up against this notion of "fact" in my writing. I put a story in a setting and then feel bound by the actual geology of the place. I keep feeling hemmed in by "actual fact" when as a matter of fact, it plays almost as little role in literature as it does in religion. I have to keep reminding myself that the word fiction derives from the Latin verb fingere, to fashion or form out of clay.

Readers always want to know how much "fact" there is in an author's stories. They approach the question of epilepsy in mine with embarrassment, but they really want to know if I wrote about it because I suffer from it. No, I don't. Just for the record - I shaped it out of clay. And I haven't travelled back in time either. In my third book in the Veil of Time series, the action takes place in a parallel universe, which I have also not visited (though it doesn't sit uneasily with science as it departs these days from its narrative to propose Many Worlds Theory, looking more and more like the religious truth it loves to denigrate!)
We are all telling stories, creating our gods. So when you pick up your guitar, paint brush or pen, leave the facts of the matter behind. For this moment you get to play God. And if you're good at your art, you get to take the rest of us with you.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Veritas Diaboli

27th February 2015

And the Oscar goes's a bit like professional boxing - you want to believe in it, but you just can't. Still, we have always pinned laurels on our "greatest and whitest," it seems to be something in our makeup. And we all watch in rapt fascination the lives of these largely dysfunctional people. It's sort of a sick parade, and yet you can't keep your eyes off the spectacle. But I suppose it means as much as it did in ancient Greece when they planted the wreath on the head of the gladiator. It's just that our gladiators are in Darth Vader costumes. The real person is a sickly worm living inside a helmet. But then our age doesn't really care that much about real people.

It is the era of truthiness, not truth. I won't defend "the truth," because like everyone else, I can't define it. Pontius Pilate turns away from the condemned Christ with the words, "What is truth?" We're still asking. It's something we feel at a gut level, but it's not quantifiable.  On a visceral level you know that people who murder and maim in the name of truth are nowhere close. And neither does it have to do with "facts" necessarily, which is the realm of science, even though "science" has spawned its own priesthood, as have the militant atheists.

It's what art can point to, though never define, and why, I suppose it's a good thing to honour the efforts of the cinematic artists as the world did at the Oscars last Sunday night.
And besides, if I were truthful, I would admit that following the three-hour long production, I was out in the snow with my dogs, trundling along with my hood pulled up against a black moonless sky, deciding on my acceptance speech if I were ever to receive the award for best adapted screenplay. I decided I would quote Yeats, because the poets get closer than most in this quest for the truth. But I won't tell you which lines of Yeats. You'll have to watch the Oscars - just don't hold your breath!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Shucks, folks!

20th February 2015

Just for this week, I'm going to suspend my Woody Allen line that awards are meaningless (Adolph Hitler - Best Nazi!), because I actually just got one! They sent it to me on Valentines Day and it's for best 2014 Time Travel novel. I have never heard of the book site that gave it to me (CataNetwork), but then I have never heard of most book sites. I don't care if its three women (my guess, is it's  women, because women are the book readers of our age - and what does that  tell us?) sitting around a table in Hoboken (I don't know where that is either.) I am going to take the Sally Field approach and overflow with gratitude because now I know they love me! They had all the time travel books out there to choose from and they chose mine!

I am particularly appreciative of the timing of this award because my agent is currently in negotiations with my editor for the second book in my time travel series, Druid Hill. Now it's a slam dunk - hey, I got this award from Hoboken, how can you say No?

At some point, someone signed me up for LinkedIn, so I am listed on that site, but I don't use it. Still, they send me e-mails all the time prodding me to provide a proper profile. They ask me where do you work, and I say under the stairs, because that's where I wrote a few of my novels. In a cupboard under the stairs, to be precise. I don't even do Twitter anymore much. I am a publicist's nightmare, because all I do is this flaming blog, which I might add seems to have some appeal in the world arena. Currently, my biggest audience is in Germany. (Vielen Dank, Deutsche Leute - wissen Sie, ich arbeitete neun monatelang als Au Pair Maedchen in Deustchland. Ich habe Sehnsucht nach gutes Brot, Bretzeln und Leberspaetzle!) My fellow Brits check in once in a while, but aren't regular readers. Hey, thanks for nothing - don't you know I have an award?! I can just imagine my Scottish acquaintances say,  "Right, that's it! I always knew she was full of herself."

I jest. My fellow compatriots are good Calvinists (or in Scotland, Knoxians.) Whenever you get an award, there's the Christians ready to tell you not to let it go to your head. (A Dubliner once told me that if they see Bono on the street, they don't make a fuss in case it goes to his head!)  But I've been in the closet (under the stairs) for too long. I shall crow!! Even if pride does come before a fall, you know Proverbs 16:18. Yada, yada, yada. I'm back to Woody Allen. So, the award might not mean much, but it makes me proud. And for today I'll claim that pride. Thank you Hoboken - I appreciate it!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Honest to God!

13th February 2015

Friday, 13th! Get out your ghost and ghoulie costumes! The veil is drawn thin once again. Hold up your crucifixes - the pagan runs rampant for another of those Halloween days!
A week or so ago, I wrote my blog in response to the Charlie Hebdo incident, trying to make the case for satire in any age and culture. So I am more than dismayed to see Jon Stewart announce this week his retirement from the The Daily Show. He is one of the few effective jesters we have in this country, and as I was trying to point out, every king needs his fool to keep fresh air moving about his head.
When I first came to this country, I had never encountered anything like "The National Enquirer," and I still don't get it. I don't get Fox News either. I don't understand how a substantial portion of the nation can bury their heads in the sand and not care that they are only hearing what they want to hear.   Bill Moyers, another "whistle-blower" has written screeds on lying in America and how it goes unchecked, much like the inbred lying that goes on in alcoholic families to keep the truth from the door.
So, the jesters are crucial in this country more than in most others in the "free" world, and this is why I hope the Daily Show carries on in some fashion. If it doesn't we are all in danger of asphyxiation.

How does all this relate to literature? What is the truth of stories? It's hard to define, but something that you recognise in your gut when you see it. Jane Austen painted a pretty picture of early nineteenth century English society, but it wasn't really the truth, was it? Oscar Wilde got closer by mocking the whole upper crust pantomime. Not long after Austen, Emily Bronte was painting dark moors and subterranean landscapes of the heart which her prim critics described as "demonic." JK Rowling writes tomes about the suppressed pagan and magical in our history, and the folks down south burn her books. 

But one thing worse than burning books, is not writing them in the first place. We need stories to breathe by. We need the jesters and we need the bards, to save us from ourselves. We need the druids, too, but I don't know in this day and age what they would look like. I'm not sure we would recognise religious truth-sayers anymore if we fell over them.