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It’s Been a While

I took a year off blogging. This wasn’t like other breaks I’ve taken from it, where I just forget to do it for two months. This was deliberate. I wanted to focus the time I had on working on my novel, and given the way life tends to squeeze writing time, I wanted to make sure I used what I had the best I could.

Given that I haven’t written anything on here for so long it means I have a years worth of reading that I can write about. So I thought I’d do a 2018 retrospective. These are some of the best books I read last year.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

I had been meaning to read this one for a long time. I kept hearing good things about it after it was nominated for the Booker prize. It has a beautifully earthy tone, but that manages to feel elevated and almost mystical in places. A gripping, nuanced story of an outside family. Probably the best book I read last year.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of the things I love most in my reading (and that I am constantly aspiring to in my writing) is a grounded subtlety that is quiet and personal with emotional honesty and confidence in the reader. This book is all of that. In fact, this writer is all of that. I read another of her books, Anything is Possible last year as well, and it was just as good as this one. This is a writer I will read more of.

Becoming Myself by Irvin Yalom

I have read a couple of Irvin Yalom’s psychology books before. They are made up of anecdotes taken from his life as a therapist, which tell these complex little stories of the struggles and triumphs of his clients. This book is a memoir which stood out to me for a chapter in which Yalom meets another writer, Viktor Frankl., a holocaust survivor who wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning. I have had Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom side by side on my bookcase for years, and suddenly they were together on the page. Yalom’s writing is gentle and generous and insightful, and this biography was fascinating. Not sure how good it would be if you have never read any of his others books, so if you’re interested, maybe read Love’s Executioner or Creatures of a Day first.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American, who decides to start a coffee company reintroducing coffee from Yemen to the world. He travels there to collect samples, and ends up stranded in the middle of the middle-east crisis, trying to get home with a suitcase of coffee samples under his arm. I love Dave Eggers, and I loved reading this book.

Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill

I feel like what Ryan O’Neill has done here is invent a new genre. A collection of short stories, masquerading as short biographies that are actually an interwoven, ensemble novel. Each chapter tells the story of a single Australian writer and slowly builds a cast of crack-pot, morally-ambiguous characters who criss-cross in and out of each others stories, building a rich, textured landscape, of a completely made up history of Australian literature.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

This book was a gift. Before I left my last job one of the people I worked with gave me a copy of this, saying she wanted to share a book with me that had meant a lot to her. (I had recommended The End of Vandalism to her a few months before). I haven’t read a book like this one for a long time. I read a lot of Neil Gaiman when I was younger and this reminded of him in places. Elements of speculative fiction are layered over the story of a young boy coping with the terminal illness of his mother. It has that honesty that I love in good fiction, and is raw and unyielding with it. Truly excellent.

So there you are, a handful of great books I read last year. There were others, but scrolling through my goodreads 2018 shelf, these ones stood out a little.

Incidentally, it has now been ten years since I started using goodreads, and shelving every book I read by year. I thought about stopping using it, since there is something round and satisfying about ten years worth of anything. But scrolling through my goodreads shelves is just a really pleasant way of remembering my reading. I have added a link to my goodreads on the contact page. If you use it, feel free to add me as a friend.

Another Post Where I Go On About Tom Drury

After deciding to spend the Christmas period reading The End of Vandalism again I think I can safely say that it is one of my favourite books. It’s hard to tell when you first read something if it’s a favourite or just fresh in your mind, but Tom Drury’s first novel was not only as good as I remember, it was improved by a revisit. The crafted layers of repeated motifs are invisible the first time around, but reveal themselves in unexpected ways when you come back again.

It is amazing to me how little of a novel actually sticks in your mind. I guess it shouldn’t be. 350 pages of prose can cover a lot of ground, and Tom Drury covers more than most with his rotating ensemble cast and countless walk-on bit parts. I thought I remembered it pretty well, but there was plenty that had drifted out of my mind. But the stuff that I did remember, and remember as being some of the most emotionally wrenching stuff I had ever read, was just as powerful the second time around.

Do you have to say spoiler alert for a book that is 22 years old? I’ll say it in case these first two paragraphs have inspired you to go read it. Spoiler alert, guys. Spoilers.

The section of the novel where Louise discovers that her unborn baby has died but has to go through with the birth regardless is written in the most unflinching way. I cried the first time I read it, and a little more the second. Drury’s writing style is so spare and minimal, picking out the details that really speak. The tiny nuances of the way people talk, the power of a handful of words. I mean, look at this bit.

Vandal 1

Or this bit,

Vandal 2

The book is littered with these careful little moments that reveal so much depth. The book feels airy as you are reading, but the weight it carries is astonishing. It feels like what Drury has done is curate a series of moments out of the lives of his characters, finding the poetry that rises up like an emergent property, greater than the sum of its parts, like you would expect a good novel to be. It is so hard to explain why this book is so good, there’s not a great deal of plot to hook a person with, but it’s loaded with character.

Like I said in my last post, re-reading is something I want to do more of. Recently I have been reading tons of short stories in the literary journals I am exploring and for years I tried to read as much and as broadly as possible, but going back to something that resonated so much and spending more time with it has been well worth the time, if not just for the pure love of it, but for what it gave me. I can see why some people dedicate their lives to studying a single book or a single writer. When you find something that resonates the depths that it has can seem endless, and the way it seems to change with you can feel pretty surprising. I’m not going to dedicate my life to only reading the works of Tom Drury, there’s too much else out there for me to do that, but I have no doubt I’ll be reading the other two books in the series again soon, and all of them again after that.

The Vague Days of 2017

This is my favourite time of year, the vague days after Christmas where all the urgency has gone out of everything, all the pressures of the festive period are lifted. There’s still chocolates and biscuits and cake, but I don’t want to eat them. Every year, by about the 27th what I really want is abstinence and sleep. And it is hard not to reflect on the year, and look forward to the next, while I look out of the window at the inexplicably snowy landscape, sipping my mint tea.

2016 was the year I gave up self-publishing. 2017 was the year I saw some of my stories in print. 2018 is the year where I keep trying. It’s a pretty simple resolution. Just keep trying.

Normally for my last blog post of the year I look back at what I read and talk about some of my favourites, and scrolling through my goodreads 2017 folder I keep seeing Tom Drury’s name whiz past. After reading his first novel, The End of Vandalism, a while ago I decided to read the other two books in the series, and then his other two novels as well, and then, having enjoyed them all so much, I am reading The End of Vandalism again. His writing is so delicate and carefully assembled; all the humour is sad, all the sadness is funny. It’s hard to really describe what it is about these ambling novels that is so good. But they are perfect.

I also read Ali Smith for the first time this year, reading Autumn and Winter, and now very much looking forward to Spring and Summer, whenever they come out. I think as a writer sometimes it is hard to just read for pleasure, there is always a sense of mining other peoples brilliance for little clues to how it is done, and the way she has written about contemporary political issues in novels that you would struggle to describe as political is brilliant. It is like incidental commentary, rather than overt criticism, and still none of it gets in the way of the smaller, more personal, stories that the novel focuses on.

Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my long-time favourites, had a book of short stories come out, spanning the length of his career. He is one of the most discouragingly brilliant writers I have ever read, but I have thought that about him since I read The Virgin Suicides back in 2000. These short stories have lots of allusions to the novels that would come later, including one with a lot of medical detail on gender conditions that made me nostalgic for Middlesex.

I think my reading resolutions for 2018 are going to feature more re-reading. I don’t re-read very many books at all, and there are a number that I feel like I should. And I plan to spend more time having long browses of bookshops for novels I have never heard of. I used to do that a lot, but not so much recently. I made an enormous effort this year to up my writing and be more productive, and I want to keep that going, but sometimes writing can be like a second job, and as expansive as a second life. It could fill every minute you have if you let it. One of the best things I did this year (with my wife’s help) was structure my writing time. I wrote a blog post about it a while back. An average day doesn’t give you much time, and an average year breezes by in no time at all. For a long time I didn’t re-read because I had a feeling of urgency about reading as much as possible in the little time I have. It’s amazing how little of the average novel you actually remember.

Maybe I’ll make a goodreads shelf for the books I re-read, so that I’ll have a metric to feel good about. 😉

Happy new year.

Morning Rejection

A quirk of living in the UK and submitting short stories to publications in the US is I tend to get rejected first thing in the morning. Often before I have even got up or had a coffee. The time difference means the rejection emails arrive in the middle of the night and are ready and waiting for me. I wake up, pick up my phone to check the time – because who has bedside clocks any more? – and then instinctively open my emails. You’d think that I’d learn and just put my phone down until later, but I never do.

It can be a pretty galling way to start the day, especially if it was a submission I was feeling particularly hopeful about. Thanks to applications like Duotrope and Submittable it is pretty easy to get a sense of when the response to any particular submission is likely to arrive and so I often find it is in the back of my mind, figuring out roughly when to expect a response, and the absurd hope that comes with a rejection not arriving on the expected day. I know the best way to do it is to submit and then forget about it. But does anyone actually know how to do that?

Getting rejected before getting out of bed has its upsides, I suppose. It is almost certainly the worst thing that will happen that day, so it’s good to get it out of the way. You can spend the day on an upward trajectory of recovering optimism while everyone else passes you, going in the other direction.

A while ago, before I placed any writing with anyone, I had pretty much written off the idea of ever having any success. The plan was to keep writing so that I could organise my own thoughts and figure myself out, and collect rejection slips while I did it. But now, because I’ve had a couple published, the rejections sting a little more than they used to. The hope is a little higher now. Sometimes I compare the stories that have been published to the ones that get rejected over and over and try to work out what the difference is between them. I can’t tell. I have no idea.

Rejection is just a part of this whole process, and it might be the most valuable part. The thing that keeps us humble and doesn’t let us rise too far above ourselves. A steady stream of emails telling you not good enough, not good enough, might be hard to take but it might be building us up in a different way. Like how character is built out of all the hardest things that happen to you. Nothing comes easy and no one owes me anything.

One of the things I tend to do after a rejection is count how many open submissions I still have, like I might have lost that game, but there’s another dozen still in play. I try not to let the rejections get me down, and I have tried for a long time not to write a blog post about it, because I think this is a subject that has been done to death and going on about it doesn’t really do anything especially valuable. It doesn’t help with anything. But it’s part of the writer lifestyle and getting my rejections before I have got out of bed is a pretty stark way to begin a day. A few weeks ago I got one of those first-thing-in-the-morning rejections and it really bummed me out. It ruined my day. I had only made the submission two days previously and I wasn’t expecting a response anywhere near that fast so I didn’t even get to sit with the hope for very long.

So this was how I started my day today, with a rejection from a publication that I was really hopeful about. It didn’t ruin my day quite as badly as it did the last time, but it still stung. Rejections always do. But here is the most consoling thing I ever heard about being rejected. Rejections save you. They save you from showing the world the stories that weren’t good enough, and even if the story was good enough it saves you from putting it somewhere it doesn’t belong, and where people will resent reading it. Every rejection is like a little blessing. Now I just need to find a way to remember that when I’m reading the email.

A Selfish Writer

This week I finished a draft of a short story that I intended to submit to The Nottingham Review for their Happiness themed issue. I spent some time thinking about what happiness was, what it means to me, where it comes from, where it goes, how you make it, how you lose it, and slowly those thoughts started to coalesce into a story. I wanted to write about the existential idea that the default setting of life is suffering, and how you have to work to make it better than that. I wanted to write about the little bubbles of happiness that emerge from the suffering, and how important it is to be aware enough to notice them while they are there. And I thought I had just the story to express the idea. It was a very personal story, based on some things that really happened to me and my wife.

I told her what I was planning to do and that she should read it before anyone and that if she wasn’t comfortable then I wouldn’t submit it. I wouldn’t show it to anyone. So I started to write it, this autofiction realist short story, and it went pretty well. The first half of the story turned out well. I don’t want to say it’s the best thing I have ever written, I don’t like that kind of hyperbole, but I think I wrote something that articulated what I was trying to say in an elegant but understated way. One line, the coup-de-gras of the scene, took a lot of work to get right. I wrote the same line over and over again in my notebook trying to get it just right, and finally finding the words. I was very happy with the first half of this short story. The second half needed a lot of work, but the first six hundred or so words were as close to what I wanted them to be as you could hope a first draft to manage. It laid itself bare, and that laying-bare of things is important to what I am trying to do with my writing.

I read it to my wife and she wasn’t okay with it. Too personal, too revealing, too close to the truth, too close to what really happened. She took the veto I had offered her and used it. I had half expected this, but I was extremely disappointed. I was so pleased with what I had written (the first half anyway) that I didn’t want to throw it away. I didn’t want those nicely sculpted six hundred words to go to waste. I wanted to use them. I wanted that little lump of my own personal truth to be out in the world.

I had tried to disguise the story a little, depersonalise it and muddle the details, but that doesn’t really work all that well. People who know the writer will often see either them or themselves in the writing, whether that was the intention or not. It would be hard to disentangle the fiction from the reality. It wouldn’t be hidden in plain sight. It would just be in plain sight.

I’m not proud to admit that I resisted the idea of not using this piece of writing. It felt important to me, to lay this thing out for the world to see, but I couldn’t get away from the guilt and the shame of what my need to use this piece of writing had done to my wife. It took me a day to get over it, apoligise and put that short story away for good. It shouldn’t have taken a day. It shouldn’t have taken any time at all.

I am selfish about writing because it is so important to me. I will close the door on everything to make sure I get the time I need. The cat gets about twenty minutes of sitting between me and the keyboard when I get home from work before she gets put out. You need to be selfish because otherwise it won’t ever get done. There will always be something important to do, someone will always be able to find a way to fill your time for you. But it doesn’t have to be neglectful. It doesn’t have to be monstrous. There is a balance to be had between what you need for yourself, and the other responsibilities you have to meet. Ultimately, I think I would rather be a good person than a good writer. I would rather be a successful husband than a successful writer. Maybe that’s a disadvantage, but it feels important to me. I don’t always get it right, of course. Sometimes it takes me a day to realise how much pain my artistic selfishness is causing. And all of this from a short story themed around happiness.