Back to School

Yesterday evening I found myself in an undergraduate literature class for the first time in more than twenty years, giving the lecture on Gemsigns that I mentioned here. The students were smart and engaged, and had insightful things to say and intelligent questions to ask. We had a wide-ranging discussion, which I thoroughly enjoyed; and I was delighted that so many of them spotted the references, literary and otherwise, that are tucked away here and there in the text. Hard work is meant to be its own reward, but there’s nothing like someone else’s appreciation of your efforts to remind you why it is you do what you do.

There was a moment, when they all came in and sat down and took their notebooks and copies of the novel out of their backpacks, that just about floored me. I remember being that student, coming into class and taking out the assigned text, ready for discussion. I never imagined, back then, that one day the book another bunch of bright young people would be tackling would be mine. I’m not even sure, back when I was a student in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at MIT, that any of the texts we studied were by living authors. Certainly none of them were sufficiently earthbound and available to have come in and talked to us. In a rather lovely irony, I find myself exalted by the experience of being an author who is and who did.

So many thanks again to Professor Tony Keen for asking me, and to his class at UND’s London Global Gateway for being such an interested, interesting bunch. I was very, very happy to be back in school.

§

(Further bonus: Tony was able to make the BSFA interview I did last year with Kate Keen available to the students as a resource, and I now have a copy of it: Stephanie Saulter BSFA Interview | 25 June 2014.)

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Post-Calabash post

The Calabash International Literary Festival 2014 has been over for going on four days now, and I am not yet quite recovered. From the welcome dinner for authors and press last Thursday night; to the Friday morning boat trip to Pelican Bar; to the opening of the Festival proper that evening with an emotional reading of Maya Angelou’s seminal Still I Rise; to Saturday’s packed programme that featured Zadie Smith, Colum McCann, Salman Rushdie, Karen Lord, and … umm … me; to Sunday’s mellow musical wind-down, followed by another sumptuous farewell meal – it was, in a word, amazing. Calabash accomplishes something that few other literary festivals or genre conventions achieve, or even attempt: a true meeting of creative minds, a bridging of the gap between ‘mainstream’ and ‘genre’, a celebration of the full breadth and depth of literary ambition and experience.

These were just a few of my personal highlights:

  • The prominence of poetry: Scottish poet Rab Wilson brought the house down before reading a single verse, when he opened his set by coming to the front of the seaside stage with a camera and taking a picture of the audience. ‘This,’ he said, in the broadest of Scottish brogues, ‘is to prove to the folks at home that more than ten people came to a poetry reading.’ He wasn’t wrong. The marquee held, by my estimate, over a thousand seats and was at least as packed for poetry as for prose. Co-founded by a poet and a novelist, Calabash values both forms equally. So does its audience.
  • Meeting Marlon James: Some of you out there already know how much I admire this author. Ann Morgan took up my recommendation of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, as the Jamaican book for her A Year of Reading the World project, and loved it as much as I did. His second, The Book of Night Women, was visceral, searing, and will stay with me forever. But sometimes the people whose work you admire are less than captivating in person; so I’m happy to report that Marlon is every bit as smart, articulate, keenly observant and ruthlessly down to earth as I could have wished.
  • Hanging with Karen Lord: I’d met Karen early in May, for the Women in Science Fiction panel organised by our mutual publisher Jo Fletcher Books. We didn’t manage more than a brief conversation then, followed by another, longer one a week or so later (in the course of recording a podcast on Caribbean science fiction for The Skiffy and Fanty Show) – both of which only made me want to get to know her better. Her award-winning first novel Redemption in Indigo is a genre-bending delight, and The Best of All Possible Worlds one of the more interesting, unusual and thematically ambitious science fiction novels of recent years. She is fiercely intelligent, great fun to be with, and passionate about her work. I’m already looking forward to our next meeting.
  • Hearing Zadie Smith: I don’t know quite what I expected; something a bit cerebral and detached, perhaps? Instead Smith’s reading from The Embassy of Cambodia was surprisingly warm, unexpectedly funny, and quietly tragic.
  • Science fiction by the sea: Chris John Farley read, and then Karen Lord read, and then I read. For almost half an hour each; my longest reading yet, to by far the largest audience I think any of us had ever had. Who were, in a word, wonderful. I somehow managed not to lose my place, glancing up as one does to check that you’ve got their attention, that they’re not trickling out the exits or looking blankly back at you. Instead they were rapt, listening, concentrating – hundreds and hundreds of people, leaving their world behind to travel with you into yours. ‘You can’t have empathy without imagination,’ festival co-founder and impresario Kwame Dawes pointed out when he introduced us, ‘and this is literature of the imagination.’ They got it. You know how rare it is to see imagination working its way through a sea of faces? Rare. Thank you, Calabash, for that very great gift.
  • Listening to Salman Rushdie: Who was warm and witty and wise; who talked about culture and diaspora and conflicting influences; who read a sex scene set, uproariously and appropriately, amid sacks of pepper; who commented on tracks by Elvis Presley and Lou Reed and his own lyrics sung by U2; who described the sea of stories as the Caribbean glinted and shifted behind him; who discussed and dismissed literary pigeonholing; who was, in short, everything you would hope from a literary lion and a speaker of truth.
  • Conversations! With the aforementioned Marlon and Karen; Olivia Cole and Paul Holdengraber; Adam Mansbach and Miasha; Paul Muldoon, Kwame Dawes, Chris John Farley. About concerns both tangible and thematic; personal histories and world affairs; adventures in publishing and the challenges of academia; literary experiments, cultural quirks, conceptual leaps. ‘The conversations,’ festival worker Drew Brennan confided to me, ‘are my favourite part.’ No wonder. Calabash fosters a kind of intellectual yoga: a stretching and strengthening and expansion of the faculties. Utterly brilliant.

Thoughts on Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

For once it’s easy to choose Goodreads 5-star rating for a book, given that the rollover reminds us this means ‘it was amazing’ rather than the 4-star ‘I really liked it.’ Lolita was amazing. I’m not sure I really liked it. I’m very glad I read it. I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350+ pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through – and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement – the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.

Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental to her is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.

It’s easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It’s a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov’s achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much for us later generations of wordsmiths to learn here – and be intimidated by.

I’m going to be published! I’m going to be published!

Well, I’ve given it away with the headline, haven’t I?

The radio silence for the past several weeks has been because I wasn’t yet allowed to talk about the only thing I wanted to talk about: the fact that I’d received an offer from a publisher, not just to publish the novel I’ve already written – which would have been unbelievably amazing in itself – but to publish three books. That’s right, the one I’ve written plus two more I haven’t. Yet. I am now in possession not only of a Book Deal, but of Book Deadlines.

That’s fine. I can do deadlines. I’ve just about managed to come to terms with the fact that my book, my baby … which started several years ago with a fleeting mental image, which generated a concept, which grew into an idea, which then acquired characters and a narrative, but which still got written more-or-less by accident only last year … is going out into the world next spring, there to stand or fall on its own 400+ pages. I’m still a bit gobsmacked by that. I thought I’d get it out of the house eventually, but so soon? It’s a big enough thing to wrap your head around that once you have done, the thought of having to provide it with a sibling a year for the next couple of years is not actually as daunting as it probably should be.

Because, as my prescient (and proficient) agent Ian Drury foresaw during our very first meeting, my little 2011 writing project has become the lead novel of a science fiction trilogy; and as predicted in my Working Title post (written before any of this happened, I swear), the name of the novel as of this writing remains unconfirmed. Its original title, ®Evolution, will become the name for the series. (Although poor Ian has, I think, been calling it the Morningstar trilogy at London Book Fair, given how undecided it all is, and Morningstar being the name of a key character – but it’ll be the ®Evolution trilogy, or saga, or chronicles, or something. I promise.) Book One has for the moment been rechristened Gemsign, and I’ll be posting lots more about it in the months to come.

For now, many many thanks to Ian and to my (brand new!) publisher Jo Fletcher Books for their enthusiasm for the figments of my imagination, and their faith in my ability to keep on making stuff up. I’m in good hands; JFB is the science fiction/fantasy/horror imprint of Quercus, 2011’s Publisher of the Year. (No, I don’t know what you have to do to be Publisher of the Year. I’m assuming it includes Selling Lots of Books and Being Nice to Authors.)

Oh, that reminds me. I’m an author now. Officially.

Charlie Hill’s Literary Fiction Manifesto

I’m Pressing This amusing, perceptive and heartfelt post on the state of and prospects for literary fiction; it deserves a discussion I think. I’ve already added my own comment.

writers’ hub – Literary Fiction Manifesto – Charlie Hill.

Working title

A few fellow travellers in the online community have asked the title of my recently-completed novel – so that they can spot it when it arrives in their local bookshop. Charmed though I am by the sweet confidence of this request (of course it’ll get published, of course it’ll end up in a Waterstones or Borders somewhere near you … do you know what the odds are, people?!), I remain unsure of whether or how to respond. That’s because while I know what I call it, it’s not at all certain that a publisher will want to stick with my moniker. I sympathise. At this point I’m not even sure I want to stick with it, for reasons that will become clear. But I do need to respond, maybe spread the dilemma around a bit. Here goes.

To tell this story properly I should start at the beginning, with a quote from the 1967 preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings by the incomparable Jorge Luis Borges:

“We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination …”

That struck me when I first read it several years ago as a wonderfully elegant metaphor for what it is we do when we read and when we write – we take something completely invented, and from it try to extrapolate a recognisable truth. When I started writing my novel almost a year ago I knew I didn’t know what to call it yet, so I filed those earliest drafts as The Meaning of Dragons. I suspect I will use this again and again, as an obtuse but portentous working title, until I know what it is I’m really writing about.

As happened with the current novel. Ten thousand words or so in I had the principle characters, events and narrative arc, and had set the various parallel plotlines off and running. I knew what it was, and I had a new working title that actually captures what the story is about: ®Evolution. Yep, you got it. The book is about a revolution in terms of an upheaval; and revolutions in terms of repeating cycles of events; and the artificially engineered evolution of the human species by massively powerful corporations for equally massive financial gain. The circle around the ‘R’ to create the commercial registration mark both tells you there’s a mercantile imperative at work, and subtly hints at an orbit, the sense of something revolving. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the chapters rolled past and the story took on the weight and heft of truth, it felt right. I was writing about the ®Evolution.

The problem, of course, is that it’s a visual quip. The triple entendre only works when it’s read, not spoken. Say it out loud and you lose two-thirds of the meaning. Plus, verbalised it’s no longer unique. As my agent put it, there’s a lot of revolutions out there.

Had I thought of any alternative titles? Just, you know, in case.

So, I’ve been trying to. It’s been tough. I’m committed to the ®Evolution. But having had to think about a potential two more books to follow the first has helped, because now I can envisage them as a sequence of stories which together would chronicle the ®Evolution. I could make it the omnibus title instead of the name of one particular novel.

On the off chance that that’s how it pans out, the title of my first book might end up being Gemsign, which also encapsulates many of the key elements of the story. And before you ask, I’m not going to even begin to explain the significance of that word to you – not yet, anyway. Feels like tempting fate. When I know it’s really on the way to a bookshop near you, I’ll tell you what it means.

By which time, it might be called something else.

Good Omens

The good times continue to roll. My last post chronicled my delight at being on the receiving end of literary luck; now I get to be a giver. A book giver, to be precise, on April 23, in celebration of World Book Night. I applied months ago, along with many tens of thousands of passionate readers in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. Emails were sent to the successful applicants last night. And I do feel truly privileged to have been selected. For a reader, writer and lover of story, this is my kind of community work.

World Book Night prints special editions of 25 great books which volunteers then give away, preferably to non- or light readers. The objective is not only to pass the adventure and excitement of reading on to people who currently don’t spend much time with books; but to do so in a way that makes them ambassadors in turn, passing their WBN books on to others and to others and to others. There’s even an online registration portal that can track the journey that each of the gifted volumes takes.

I get to give away 24 copies of my first choice, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is a fantastically funny, witty, wicked take on the age-old (and frequently rather tired) tale of ponderous powers locked in a battle of good vs. evil. But there’s nothing turgid or trite about this version. In this one the angels and demons, formally avatars of opposition, turn out to have far more in common with each other than with their ineffable and absent bosses. The deep and imponderable mechanisms of apocalypse are about as reliable as a cheap watch. And humanity, supposedly no more than pawns in their grand game, manages to give a pretty good account of itself.

Good Omens is a bravura collaboration by two great writers at the height of their powers. Gaiman’s feel for character, and his gift for not just retelling but subverting mythology to suit his own satirical ends, mashes up wonderfully with Pratchett’s mastery of the comic fantasy form. The plot spins at a dizzying pace through a series of mounting crises, charting the course from mistake through disaster to catastrophe, leaving you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about what might be about to happen – even as you laugh out loud. It is that rarest of things, a comic horror novel.

And I get to share it! I get to go up to perfect strangers on the street, or in the pub, or waiting for a bus and say, Excuse me. I’ve got a great book here, and I’d like to give it to you. No thanks, you’ve had a rough day? Believe me, it’ll cheer you up no end. D’you believe in God? The Devil? Either way, you’re going to have fun with this. You think books are boring? Really? Let me read you the first page.

I’m looking forward to it with an almost evangelical intensity. Is being able to give a great book to new readers a good omen for a new writer? Better believe it.

Poetic distraction

I don’t write poetry. Not really. Not seriously. And on the very odd occasion when I very occasionally do, I am invariably in a mood which can only be described as weird.

It’s a conflicted condition: at once focused and distracted, overflowing with language yet linguistically constrained, dreamy and jittery. It puzzles me. And, I suppose, the writing of a poem is a way of trying to impose some kind of structure and sense on an insensible state. Like being caught in a riptide, the only way out is to swim with it for a while, appearing to give in until you can sneak out, at the gentlest of angles, before the current catches on. To scratch the itch that will placate, but never exorcise, this particular imp.

I drifted into this once-in-a-blue-moon mood last week, around the same time I was setting up this blog, working on a structural revision of the final chapter of my novel, and writing copy for a business website. Now multitasking is something I’m good at, but this was a bit much. My brain didn’t exactly seize up, but my subconscious serenely reprioritised. Laptop abandoned, I found myself in the window seat, notebook on knee, pencil in hand and bleak winter landscape arrayed before me. I could have been a Bronte heroine.

The funny thing, though, about surrendering to that sweet melancholy, is how the words just come. And how, even though no one but you may ever quite grasp the sense or the structure you see in it, you know when the words are perfect, or when they’re close but not quite right, or when they are as awkward and wrong as a mistranslated verse. You feel the rhythm of it. You move to the beat.

I wrote the damn poem. I’m not displeased with it. Getting it down felt like waking up.

You can read it here.

Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton

I know, I know. Another post that’s actually not mine. I’ve been busy, honest. And it’s Neil Gaiman, and it is, as always, brilliant. I don’t know Chesterton as well as I should, but he speaks for me on Lewis and Tolkien.

Goodreads | Neil Gaiman’s Blog – A speech I once gave: On Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton – January 25, 2012 23:23.

An MIT Physicist Makes God the Main Character of His Novel

Ok, reposting an article about someone else’s writing instead of finishing the piece I started earlier about my own is probably a bit of a cheat. But MIT is my alma mater, and a novel about physics, faith and music sounds right up my street. I can’t wait to read it.

An MIT Physicist Makes God the Main Character of His Novel – Heather Horn – Entertainment – The Atlantic.

 

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

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