It’s nearly a year since David asked whether I’d be interested in contributing to the site. Naturally I said yes. How hard can it be? A piece every fortnight and the occasional Wild Card Tuesday? Sure. Dead easy.
Not exactly. It’s been hard work. Much harder than I thought it would be. Boo hoo you, I hear you say. It’s not exactly digging ditches. Well, yes, I know. I mean, I’m a writer, it’s what I do. But sitting down every other week to write something when there wasn’t necessarily anything in my head has been on the one hand a great experience and very helpful for getting me to sit at a desk and write something. Anything. But on the other hand it’s been very scary. Like stepping out on to a tightrope and not knowing if you’re going to make it to the end.
Yes, I could have written anything. I could have let my quality control slip and churn stuff out. Plenty of other people do it (Not on here, though). Well, actually, I couldn’t. No. If it’s got my name attached (or Tania’s) then I couldn’t do that. If someone’s going to read it, then I’d better make it good. That’s been my mantra on every piece of writing I’ve ever done and I’m not going to stop now. No. What actually happened – usually – was that the writing took over. I would start with one thought in my head (or sometimes none) and start writing. And then the process would take over. And I would go with it. Be carried along. Sometimes I didn’t know where it would end up, what I was trying to say. Sometimes I would have to research what I was sayin gto make sure I wasn’t spounting rubbish (every chance), sometimes I just went with it. I would trust what I was doing, trust that the words would come out right, that it would be something worth reading at the end, something interesting. I don’t know if I always did that. I hope I did. I hope people got something from what I wrote.
A director I once worked with when I was still acting always said that theatre should make you laugh, cry and think. Obviously not always in that order but those were the three main ingredients. Put them in, mix them up in the right proportions, you’ll get something halfway decent at the end. That’s been the rule of thumb for me here too. I have no idea whether I succeeded, but I gave it my best shot.
So why am I giving this up? Work. My workload seems to have trebled this year and I just couldn’t keep up. I’m not complaining, mind, I’m very grateful. It’s a privilaged and honoured position to be in. And a rare one for a freelance writer. I’ve got two books coming out this year, the next Tania, The Doll’s House, in September in the UK. Then in November is my sequel to Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black. Then it’s straight on with the next Tania, tentatively entitled The First Day Dead (although that may be subject to change, as these things often are). I’ve also got another project on the go that I can’t talk about yet (Mainly because I doubt too many people will be interested). So with all this going on, something had to give, I’m afraid.
So off I go into the deadline-heavy sunset. There’s a strong tradition on this site with some of the best writers currently being published writing on here. I’ve been in fantastic company here on Murderati. Not just some of my favourite writers, but some of my favourite people in crime fiction. I mean that. I’m very proud and honoured to have been part of the line up.
But . . .
Sometimes endings have to happen. Even if it’s just so that things can start again.
Thanks for putting up with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.
There are parrots in Hermosa Beach and they live in the leaves of the giant palm trees on Pier Avenue. Nothing here is indigenous but the sand and sea. I’ve been here a long time, not as long as some, but longer than others.
I remember when this stretch of street was a street with cars and rugged, sailor bars and angry teenagers smoking dope. I was here for the gentrification, when the street was paved and became a pedestrian-only walkway, when the giant palm trees were brought in and planted by giant cranes, when the high price of rent pushed out the local pubs and the high-end restaurants and nightclubs moved in.
And the Either/Or Bookstore closed down. My favorite bookstore in the city. After 30 years in business. It was where I went after graduating college, to spend the $116 I had in my pocket. I bought as many paperback classics as I could.
And the Bijou theater closed down. With its landmark, art deco architecture. It’s a Chase Bank now.
And L.A. Pasta closed down. That’s where I had my thirtieth birthday party. It’s where I used to write before there were cafes in Hermosa. Before Starbucks and the Coffee Bean. Before Sponda, where Quentin Tarantino used to drink his coffee. Before Sponda closed down.
But the Lighthouse is still here. It’s an old, brick bar, one of the last live-music venues in town. The Lighthouse used to be the jazz venue on the West Coast, back in the day. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker used to play there. All that’s left of the jazz scene are the black-and-white photos on the walls.
I remember when there was a handful of parrots. I don’t know how they got here. Every year there’d be more. And more and more. Little loud dots in the sky. Now we see them hanging upside down from the palms as we sit in our outdoor cafes by the beach.
Hermosa isn’t exactly where I live but it’s been my home for twenty-five years, even when I lived further than I do now. It was my home when I lived here and when I lived in Redondo Beach and when I lived in Northridge and when I lived in Torrance.
There’s a comedy club here, too, by the beach, where Jay Leno does his routine every Sunday night. I’ve never seen him, but I’ve seen other comics there and last weekend one comic talked about how the South Bay was a little “snow globe” of happy perfection.
As I sit here under the winter sun (and yesterday I stood chattering in a thin sweater in the Utah snow) and watch the volleyballers in their bikinis and hear the parrots overhead, and the children skipping by chasing the dogs chasing the pigeons, with the seagulls swooping and the pelicans in formation, I know that he is right, that Hermosa is my snow globe of happy perfection and Hermosa is my home.
It seems that, recently, the internet – or the little corner I inhabit of it – has been full of writers either telling their stories of how they got published, or what happened after they got published or even, in the case of Chuck Wendig asking other writers to contribute their stories of how they got published to act as a corrective against bad advice being given out to aspiring writers about the publishing industry. It’s here. Have a look at it. It’s well worth it.
Matt Haig, the excellent British author, has contributed several excellent pieces on the subject. You can find a couple of them here and here. They’re excellent. Better than anyhting I can say.
So with that in mind, and in response to Chuck’s piece, I decided to write my own. It’s not particularly brilliant or original, but it is, as they say in the best comic books, my origin story.
So here you go. Here it is.
I started writing with the serious intention of being published in 1992. Like most people in South London, I was an actor at the time. I had moved to London after college in the hope of getting acting work. Ironically, the work I got was anywhere but London. But I wanted to write. Probably, in hindsight, more than I wanted to act. And I loved crime fiction. So, with the money I’d made form a couple of commercials, I bought a second hand word processor and sat down to write. It took me three months and I’d written a crime novel. I thought it was brilliant. No one agreed. So I bought the Writers Yearbook and went about tracking down an agent. I started at the ‘A’s and worked my way through, phoning them up, asking if they’d like to see it. Not being pushy or mental about it, just calm and (hopefully) interesting and engaging. Some said yes, some didn’t. The ones who said yes I sent some sample chapters to along with a covering letter. I think it took me nearly as long to write the letter as it had done the book. One agent eventually said yes. I sent her the full book to read and waited to hear back, all excited. She hated it. Said it was one of the worst things she’d ever read in her life. Back to square one. Back to the Writers Yearbook, starting from A.
Another agent wanted to read it. One who had read it before, incidentally. I told her I had completely rewritten it. She read it, liked it and agreed to represent me. Long story short, my first novel, Mary’s Prayer, was published in 1997. Five years, that took. From thinking I had a novel after three months to finally seeing it in a bookshop. During that time it went round every publishing house in London, both big ones and small ones. While it was out I was constantly rewriting and editing. It was my first novel. No matter how brilliant I thought it was I could always make it better. Eventually an editor read it, liked it, but thought it needed work. I asked her what she meant and whether she could show me. She edited a couple of chapters, showing me how she wanted it done. It was the most valuable thing anyone has ever done for me as a writer. I spent six months editing it like she had shown me. I sent it back. I got a two book deal. That was it, my foot was in the door.
I switched publishers for my third novel. It did better than the first. I also got to know other crime writers. I got invites to launches and parties. I went and networked. I talked to people in publishing, became friends with some of them. At no time did I present myself as desperate or ambitious. Just as one professional to another. I also went along to support other writers and their work. This is a community. We all have a part to play. We get out of it what we put in.
I moved publishers with my third book, then again for the fourth, for a substantial hike in money this time. I wrote two literary novels that, while being critical successes, weren’t commercial ones. I found myself at a crossroads. Be mainstream, literary and unread or go back to crime. I needed a change. So after ten years I switched agents. It was a wrench but I felt it was the right thing to do. I’m still with the agent I switched to.
I wrote The Mercy Seat, the first of the Joe Donovan novels. It was nominated for a couple of awards. Didn’t win, but it got me attention. I wrote (so far) four in the series but couldn’t stay with that publisher any longer. I’d kept in touch with my old editor from my previous publisher. He’s now deputy publisher at one of the biggest houses. He asked me to write a commercial thriller under a female pseudonym. I asked my wife to help. Tania Carver, the internationally bestselling author, was born. There have been five Tania Carver novels to date, published all over the world. With varying degrees of success, it has to be said. I’m also about to write a novel under my own name again. Hammer Books asked me to write the sequel to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I couldn’t turn that down.
And that’s where I am now.
So, as Jerry Springer used to say, what have we learned here? What lessons can be drawn from my origin story? I don’t know. I wanted to be a published writer. I wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept going. I worked bloody hard to get it right, to improve, to make my work good enough to be published. Bloody hard. I was lucky enough to find two agents who’ve believed in me. I got out and met people. I networked. I wasn’t pushy or desperate because I’m not pushy or desperate. In all my dealings with my agent and publishers I’m thoroughly professional. I listen to what they have to say and generally act on it because they know their job better than I do. I’ve never been precious about my work. I know it can always be improved.
It’s a business, yes. A publisher wants to make money, as does an agent and a writer. I want to make money from it and I’m fortunate enough to be able to do that. I’m not super rich or even plain old rich. But it’s enough to pay the mortgage and to provide for my family so that’s OK. Plus I don’t have to get a regular job. I know it could all change tomorrow. But at the moment it seems to be working.
But the other important thing is – it’s also my life. I love being a writer. My best friends are now other writers and other publishing professionals. It is, as I said earlier, a community. One that I’m proud to be a part of.
I’ve rambled on too long and I don’t know if this’ll help anybody. Or even if anyone will get to the end before expiring. But there you go. It’s how I did it.
Ex-actor and stand up comic Mark Billingham is, quite simply, one of the best crime writers going. Bar none. If you haven’t read the internationally bestselling, multi-award winning Tom Thorne series then it’s high time you did. You’re in for a treat. He’s also (for the sake of full disclosure) one of my best friends. So without further ado, here’s the lad himself . . .
Writing’s a very different kind of life to stand up comedy. Do you miss stand up comedy at all? Or do your performing itches get scratched by doing book events?
I miss the buzz of performing rather more than I miss the company of comedians. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends etc etc, but many of them are deeply twisted, frighteningly needy and horribly competitive. Crime writers are a MUCH nicer bunch, that’s for sure. I certainly don’t miss hanging out in a grotty dressing room in the early hours of the morning or trying to get laughs out of an audience who are tired or drunk or both. You’re right of course, I tend to get my performing jollies at book events. You and I have done enough together, so I know that you’re much the same. It’s important to deliver some kind of performance when you’re reading or even when you’re telling cheap gags prior to reading. I don’t need very much encouragement to start performing…
Absolutely. I feel exactly the same. And I think it makes for some much more interesting events too. Now, you wrote some children’s books a couple of years ago. How difficult was that compared to the crime novels and are you going to try that again?
Well I probably won’t be doing it again. I wrote three YA novels and for those three years I was writing two books a year and I don’t think I can do that again. It was every bit as difficult as writing any other sort of novel (just with less sex and swearing). The processs is exactly the same. The books were as dark as any of my crime novels with body counts that were higher, if anything. In retrospect it was a mistake to write the trilogy of Triskellion novels under a pseudonym (Will Peterson) and they may have sold better if I’d stuck my name on them but I was writing them with somebody else (my old TV partner Peter Cocks) and I’m always suspicious when I see two names on the cover of a book. I’m always asking myself who was doing the writing and who was making the sandwiches. In the case of the Will Peterson novels, I was making the sandwiches. Cheese and Marmite. Lovely.
Cheese and Marmite? Is that just to annoy Stuart MacBride?
Well I’m a big Marmite fan, and knowing how much it upsets Stuart just makes every mouthful even tastier. I mention it every chance I get as revenge for him using me as a character in one of his books and giving that character a Phil Collins ringtone!
Oh, that is cruel. I popped up in one of his as a big-nosed, Geordie, western shirt wearing Elvis impersonator. I may have gotten off lightly.
Now. Thorne. He’s a great character and a great series character. How long do you see him going on for? Are there a finite amount of stories you can tell about him?
Well, thanks for saying that. I see him going on as long as I’m still finding it interesting to write about him. It’s the great worry for those of us that write series, isn’t it? Writing that one book two many. Or MORE than one too many. I’ll certainly be breaking it up with standalones to try and make sure the series stays fresh. One of the things that helps I think is that I genuinely have no plan for Thorne, no dossier about him. The reader knows as much, book on book, as I do. So I’m hoping he can stay unpredictable at the very least. When the day does come to say goodbye, I’m still largely undecided as to Thorne’s fate. Right now it’s a toss up between a grisly death, and a happy retirement in domestic bliss with Phil Hendricks – running a nice antique shop in the Cotswolds.
D’you know, I can totally see that. In fact, I reckon there’s a spin off series in it. It could take over the Lovejoy slot on BBC1 on a Sunday evening. Thorne and Hendricks: Antiques Detectives. Crime and cake. Yeah, it’s probably worth doing just for that.
Let’s write it, Martyn. I’ll make the sandwiches…
You’re on. Now, you always seem perfectly happy to work within the crime genre. Would you consider writing outside of it? If so, what would it be?
I’ve never really considered that, partly because as you say I’m very happy to be writing crime fiction, but also because I genuinely don’t believe I could do anything else. I think as I write more I become less interested in the crash bang wallop of crime fiction and am starting to focus more on what John Harvey calls the ‘looking out of the window’ moments. I think there will be less onstage violence as I go on though I’m sure the books, if anything, will become darker in tone. I’ll always write crime novels, but I certainly don’t want to write the same crime novel again and again. If you had a gun to my head and I HAD to do something outside the genre? Well, you know how much I love comics, Martyn…
Oh, indeed. Despite my best efforts you still remain resolutely uneducated where comics are concerned. So are you telling me that if DC asked you to write Mr Terrific you’d say no? Then we’d have to develop our plans for the Pie Man and Sausage Boy graphic novel series.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’d drop almost anything if we could write Pie Man and Sausage Boy. It’s a dream job.
Music plays an important part in your novels. How important is it in establishing character and atmosphere? And do you wish Tom Thorne still had an interest in dance music?
Are you perchance referring to the ludicrous mistake I made in the first Thorne novel, Sleepyhead? Of course you are. Back then I thought that I could not possibly give Thorne the same taste in music as I had. So along with the country (Cash, Williams, Nelson etc) I gave him a taste for techno and speed garage – music which I personally cannot abide. I thought it would be interesting. I was wrong. It was just stupid, so I dropped it immediately and in the second book it just mysteriously…disappears. Music is hugely important to me – as I know it is to you – and though I don’t listen to it while I’m actually at my desk, I’m listening to it most other times, so it always finds its way into the books. Country is perfect music for crime fiction, I think. These songs are bleak, black stories but told in an entertaining and melodic fashion. I think the fact that Thorne loves this stuff says a lot about him. He relishes the bigoted reaction it provokes, as do I. I know I’m not alone in this. You remember when you and I were at a Richmond Fontaine gig a few years ago? We looked around and most of the crime writers in London were in that audience!
Oh, I do indeed. That was the night I realized that with this crime writer/music thing, we’d all gone beyond parody. It was a great gig, though. Which leads us on to . . .
Rush of Blood. How did that come about as a standalone?
It was always going to be a standalone. It was a story that had been rattling around in my head for a while and the time felt right to get on with it. It was a really enjoyable break from the series even if it sometimes felt scary to be outside my comfort zone. I’m starting to realize I think that every writer needs to get outside that zone every now and again. There have been previous occasions when a book that began as a standalone ended up with Thorne barging into the story. This time I resisted that temptation, although he does make a cameo appearance right at the end. I did the same thing with the previous standalone (In The Dark) as I think it’s a nice way of giving the fans of the series a hint about what might be coming next. So readers of Rush Of Blood will know what’s happened to Thorne since they last saw him in Good As Dead. He’ll be dealing with the ramifications of that in The Dying Hours which is coming in May.
Speaking of Rush of Blood, did you intentionally name it after a Coldplay song?
You know how much that hurts me, Martyn? That kind of accusation is totally unjustified. It would be like me hinting that you had named a book after a Queen album? There, that gives you an idea of how terrible I feel. Just the association with Coldplay has made me a little bit sick in my mouth. To be serious – for a change – I just thought it was a perfect title and had to mentally distance myself from any unpleasant musical associations. How’s your new book coming by the way? I’m really looking forward to the next Tania Carver novel, “I Want To Break Free”.
Queen? As you well know, that’s fighting talk … I would never name a book after a Queen song. Never. The only book with the same title as a Queen song should be Brighton Rock. Although if you ever do a book about Phil Hendricks going bad you could call it Killer Queen …
You probably have the second best sartorial excellence in the crime fiction world (after me, of course). Where do you get your shirts from?
Well, obviously I get them from the same place you do because on several occasions we have turned up at book events wearing identical shirts. We must be the only writers around who need to text one another prior to an event or a festival appearance; not to discuss running order or format but simply to check what shirts we are wearing. These things are important and I feel confident that at this summer’s festivals there will be some ass-kicking shirts on display.
From both of us, I think you’ll find. Can you remember that radio interview we did together in Leicester? We’d both turned up in plaid western shirts and the DJ announced, ‘Well you can’t see Mark Billingham and Martyn Waites sitting here, but it looks like they’ve just come down off Brokeback Mountain . . .’ Oh how we laughed about that. Eventually.
So what’s next for Mark Billingham and Ton Thorne?
I’ve already mentioned the new Thorne novel which is called The Dying Hours and is out on May 23rd. Thorne is trying to deal with a major change in circumstances as far as the job goes, at the same time as trying to catch a killer who seems able to make people take their own lives. As far as I know there are no connections with Coldplay. I’m very excited about this one coming out and going on the road (in nice shirts) to support it, but I’m already well into the next book, which will also be a Thorne novel. Can’t say too much, other than it’s basically a twisted kind of road trip which Thorne has to take alongside an old adversary. Once again, no Coldplay records were bought or listened to during the making of this novel.
As you might have heard by now, news has been released that I’ve been asked to write the sequel to Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I said yes, of course. I was actually asked before Christmas and was told to tell no one (Unless I was drunk in which case feel free to tell everyone. They didn’t actually say that bit. But I did it anyway.). Still, it’s good to actually be able to tell people about it while I’m sober. And it’s all properly official: The Bookseller picked up on it, as did The Guardian and The Times. I even did an interview about it with Den of Geek. So I guess it must be actually happening now.
When the news was announced last week I was teaching a class at university. When I came home, it seemed like the internet had exploded. Or my little corner of it, anyway. I had messages from all over the world, friends congratulating me, wishing me all the best with it, one even saying he didn’t think he would have the balls to do it himself (more on that later). So, all buoyed up with this excitement, I took a look at the Guardian’s article. Lovely piece, well-written, showed both me and the book in a positive light. Good stuff. I then paged down to the comments. Specifically the first one. That talked of how sequels were always shite.
Thank you very much, I thought, crashing down to Earth. I then read on to see what everyone else had to say. And by and large, they all agreed with the first correspondent. Very heartening. Luckily, I couldn’t see what was written on the Times’ website. That was me told. And it also made me realise what I’d actually taken on.
I’ve never done anything like this before. Never undertaken a project that had so much riding on it. So many people have so many different kinds of expectations for it. Some hated the film version, some loved it. Some preferred that to the book, some the book to the film. All sorts. It’s a proper, head-above-the-parapet public property. And to be honest, if I’d thought about it in those terms I probably wouldn’t have done it. That made me think again of what my friend the writer Neil White said that I mentioned earlier about having the balls to do it. And have I got the balls to do it? Well obviously I must, because I’m doing it. But I didn’t look at it in those terms.
At the end of last year I wrote about my two main cultural things of 2012. One was being introduced to the fantastic music of Y Niwl, the other was the Hammer Films retrospective I attended. That was exactly a year ago to the month and it kicked off with The Woman In Black. Now, a year later, I’m writing the sequel and my name is going to be on the spine of a book alongside the word Hammer (Since it’s being published by Hammer Books). I could take up the space of a three volume Victorian novel and still not tell you just how thrilled I am about that. And that’s why I said yes. It’s not a question of balls, or of wanting to try and better the original or of thinking I could (I couldn’t). I was asked if I wanted to be part of something that’s meant such a lot to me in my life. How could I say no?
I’m a huge fan of not only the original novel but of Hammer’s screen version. I’m also, as is well-documented elsewhere, a huge Hammer geek in general. Hammer’s glorious, gory, Gothic melodramas are hard-wired into my writing DNA. They’re as formative an influence on me as where I grew up and who I grew up with. Saying yes to this job was a no-brainer.
I’m not naïve. I know it could all go wrong. True. It could be, as that poster said, shite. Obviously I hope not. And I’ll try my damnedest to make sure it isn’t. I’ve never let a piece of work be published that I wasn’t totally happy with and I’m certainly not going to start doing that on a project with this kind of profile. I’m going to be under a lot of scrutiny and I’m sure some people won’t like the end result. I’m prepared for that now. But in way that’s OK, because some will. I hope. I’ve never done anything like this before and I want to make it the best it possibly can be.
Anyway, judge for yourselves. It’s out in the UK in November. Needless to say, I hope you enjoy it.
Yes I know you may have seen this post before. That’s because it’s a repeat. The dealine had caught up with me and I havne’t been able to do anything new this week. Apologies, but it’s either this or a blank space. And while I’m sure some of you will prefer that to my ramblings, here’s the repeat.
I was talking to a writer friend recently, a famous, bestselling writer friend, and the question of confidence came up. ‘I love it when a reader tells me how much they’ve enjoyed my book,’ my friend said, ‘because until I hear that I think they’re all rubbish.’
I know I shouldn’t have been surprised at this but I was. It reminded me of another conversation I’d had with a writer friend – again famous and bestselling – who said after handing their new book in, ‘This is the one. This is the one where I’m going to be found out.’ It wasn’t. The book was another bestseller.
I don’t know why I was surprised by what they said, really. Because I don’t think it matters what level you’re operating at, sales-wise, as a writer, you’re always prey to the same doubts and fears. Last week was the publication of J K Rowling’s first novel since her Harry Potter series. Some of you may be aware of this, it didn’t happen without notice. I would say its had mixed reviews but I don’t think that’s the right word. Polarised would be a more accurate one. Some people loved it, some hated it. The ones who hated it did so mainly because Rowling had written the novel she wanted to write and not the one they had expected her to. Fair enough. There was a fantastically angry review by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail – which I’m not going to link to as I don’t believe in giving that rag any more publicity – which slated the novel as a socialist tract and left wing propaganda. Considering the Daily Mail is the British newspaper to have supported Hitler and old habits die hard, I would think Rowling would be massively pleased by that. I would be. Some reviews on Amazon complained because characters, just like people in real life, swore.
But other more fair and balanced reviews appeared in other papers. By and large, her book would be judged a success. Despite all the numpties and their negative reviews, others were more positive and sales were, of course, huge. Well done her.
We were talking about Rowling the other night at home. We’ve been doing that quite a lot recently since she now has the same publisher as the Tania books (In fact the release date for Choked was moved so as not to coincide with hers). Linda is firmly of the opinion that she doesn’t know why Rowling has bothered. ‘If I’d been that successful and made that much money,’ she said, ‘why would I want to open myself up to that kind of scrutiny? Why would I put my head above the parapet just to have people take a pot shot at me?’ She’s got a good point. But my response was, ‘What else is she going to do? She’s a writer. Why write and not be published?’ Both valid viewpoints but over the last few days I’ve been thinking more about what Linda said. And this reminded me of the two conversations at the start of this piece.
The three of us were all together recently, talking about the same thing. Confidence in our work. I confessed that I was still waiting for the tap on the shoulder and someone to say, ‘Come on son, you’ve had your fun. But now it’s time to let the real writers in. There’s the door.’ My friends said they felt exactly the same. One of my friends even admitted that they thought they had a double whose place they had taken and who should have been getting all the acclaim. And yet, we still keep doing it.
It’s hard enough to write in the first place. To put your work out there, fearing – and often expecting – the worst, work that you could well have spent at least a year of your life working on, work that’s become precious to you. To let it go and have people hurl whatever they want at it. I’m always amazed when I get a good review. Or rather relieved. I always think about what my friend said earlier: They haven’t found me out yet. Phew. I’ve dodged a bullet this time. But next time . . .
I know, when you examine it, it’s a stupid way to think, behave and conduct a career. But I honestly believe that writers have to do it. You’re driven to write. Compelled to do it. And when you have written you want to be read. You need to be read. Because without a reader a book is just a lump of paper. So you have to do it. And to tell you the truth, if I know any writers who think differently to what I’ve outlined above I doubt I would want to read their books. Feeling that your work is terrible is, I think, a necessary part of the process. It’s what drives you on, keeps you going. Makes you strive to improve, to stretch yourself. To go deeper into that character, further with that situation, make that dialogue better, that description more succinct. You have to. And that’s why I think J K Rowling is no different, despite the slight disparity in earnings with the rest of us. She’s a writer with a writer’s heart and a writer’s drive. And a writer’s willingness to put her work out there and be judged by it when she doesn’t need to. And I love her for that.
So how do we keep the balance? Well, there’s something I always tell creative writing students. It refers to an old interview with Martin Amis when his (some would say last good) novel The Information was about to be published. The book concerns two writers, one who is successful, one who isn’t. The interviewer asked which one he was. ‘Both,’ he said. ‘Usually at the same time.’ When I read that I thought, ‘What a load of pretentious bollocks.’ But the more I thought about that, the more I thought he was right. As a writer when you’re working you have to be both. At the same time. It’s a balancing act, a seesaw, with the brilliantly successful writer at one end and the abject failure at the other. You have to be able to write stuff that you think is absolutely sparkling deathless prose yet at the same time the worst piece of dross ever written and you’ve got to strive to improve on that. It’s an odd way to think but it works. For me, at least. It’s a confidence trick. It keeps me in check while simultaneously making me work harder.
It stops the book I’m currently working on being the one where I’m found out.
Morming all. And happy holidays. Because the deadline is looming and the festive season is upon us, here’s a repeat post from last summer. It might remind you of sunny, warm days as well.
Happy new year!
And so begins one of the busiest weeks of the year. Yes, Harrogate is upon us. And Tania Carver will be there. Or one of us will be – and it’s me. As I’ve said before, Linda doesn’t like getting up on stage and mouthing off, she’s happy to leave that to me. And since I have been the Festival’s Reader in Residence for the last few years it makes sense for me to be the one there.
This year, I’m appearing (as Tania) on a panel on women and violence. It should be fun. And no, before you ask, I won’t be getting dressed up. I’m also doing a couple of events as Martyn too so that balances things out.
But I didn’t want to talk about women and violence. That’s for next weekend. Instead my eye was caught by another panel in the programme, namely ‘A Donkey In The Grand National’. That phrase was used by John Sutherland, who as a former chair of the Man Booker judges was asked what the chances were of a crime novel winning the prize. About the same, he said. Now the whole genre/literary debate has been about played to death. For an excellent piece about it, have a look at what Ray Banks has to say here. (There’s even a comment by me on there). I’m not going to address that directly. What I do want to talk about is something that may seem, at first glance, to be tangential to it but is actually – I think – at the heart of the debate. Class.
Now I know that in the States you have trouble working out the class system we have over here. So let me have a stab at explaining how it works. We have the Royal family, you have the Kennedys. We have the aristocracy, you have the Kardashians. (When I first heard the name I thought they were aliens from Star Trek. Honestly. Having seen them I feel I was absolutely right in that judgement.) We’re supposed to be deferential to our lords and ladies, you’re supposed to take seriously what comes out of Angelina Jolie’s mouth. You see the parallels. You see how both are essentially ludicrous.
I was out with Mark Billingham the other night and we started talking about this. He wondered what the critical response had been to Agatha Christie during the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction. Was she feted as the mistress of the puzzle novel? Sneers at for the same thing? Patronised as a genre writer (before the term had even been fully embraced)? I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find out. But if anyone does, please let me know – seriously, I’d love to know. We do know that her sales were huge, her following enormous with movie adaptations, stage plays (The Mousetrap is still the longest running play in London’s West End) and a level of interest in her personal life that most contemporary authors (JK Rowling excepted) would be hard pushed to match. But how seriously was she taken as a writer? From what I can tell, she was praised for being what she was. A good mechanic, someone who reproduced puzzles in the form of novels. She was no great prose stylist, her characters were stock, her action perfunctory. My theory is she’s remembered because she bridged the gap between childhood and adult reading. Her books, involving murders and puzzles, gave a young reader eager to develop beyond Enid Blyton the veneer of sophistication but they were written in such simplistic a manner as to be linguistically unchallenging. And Christie knew her milieu. The country house, the vicarage. A train travelling in an exotic, far-off country. The characters were all upper middle class (or just upper class), vicars and military officers and Lords and Ladies. Christie knew these people. She was in the same class as them. Interestingly, whenever a member of the lower classes appeared they were always thick coppers that her brilliant detective would show up as idiots or servants. They were also often the murderers and being sent to the gallows at the end of the novel was seen as a just punishment for getting ideas above their station. She was also horribly reactionary. I can’t speak for her contemporaries such as Margery Allingham, Dorothy L Sayers, Josephine Tey and the like because I’ve never read them. Nor have I ever been tempted to read them and maybe that’s my loss. I’ve read Christie and she’s not what I look for in a writer. I strongly suspect they wouldn’t be either. However, Christie and her coven cast a long shadow over British crime fiction. And at its heart, I believe, is class.
It goes back even further. It’s the Victorian idea that reading books is somehow improving and difficult. If the reader doesn’t come away from experiencing great literature with their life enriched and challenged then they’ve been reading it wrong. Forget entertainment, that was for the lower classes. Education and enrichment was what it was all about, the two are mutually exclusive and if you wanted entertainment too there was something inherently wrong with your intellect. And that prevailing attitude, I believe, still hangs over the literary world today.
I’ve mentioned this before but make no apologies for bringing it up again. I hope I never have to see another article by some broadsheet’s literary editor about how he’s been reading (fill in the name of the latest Scandanavian crime import in translation) and is loving it. It has everything you would want from a novel, the literary editor drivels on – beautiful prose, compelling characters, structure, poetry, strong narrative and above all a sense of social engagement with the contemporary world in which its set. They then always conclude with a variation on the same whinge: Why oh why can’t the crime writers in this country do the same?
And my answer to that is very simple. We do. Or at least a lot of us do, or at least strive to do just that. Because crime fiction – contemporary crime fiction, being written now – is doing just that. That’s what it is. I can come up with numerous examples and I’m sure you can too. In fact I just did but took them all out because this piece would have doubled in length.
I’d always been a fan of crime fiction. I came to it through comics and pulp – as a kid I would devour anything by the holy trinity: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. I’ve still got those comics on my shelf. I’m proud of that. I still read them. I think Kirby’s work for DC in the early Seventies is some of the greatest art of the Twentieth Century and I don’t care who disagrees with that opinion. I love it so much I could write a PhD on it. From comics I went on to pulp fiction. I was a bookish, geekish kid who spent summer holidays sitting reading Doc Savage, the Shadow and my favourite, the Spider. From there I graduated to crime fiction. I read Farewell My Lovely at a very impressionable age and that was it. It was like someone had just flung open the doors and windows. Here was a book that didn’t apologise for anything. It was unashamedly a crime novel yet it was unashamedly literature – both at the same time. How did he do that?
And in the late Eighties/early Nineties I discovered a bunch of writers who would become my literary godfathers and mothers. James Ellroy. James Lee Burke. James Crumley. And the ones who weren’t called James: Andrew Vachss. Sara Paretsky. Walter Mosley. There were, but again we’d be here all night if I listed them. They wrote with a sense of engagement with the world around them that was completely absent in British crime fiction at the time. They were like the literary equivalent of CNN: reportage as literature. Their work was both comment on and product of the societies that shaped and formed them as writers and people. I loved what they were doing. I wanted to take that ethos and make it work in Britain. I did, but I wasn’t alone. A lot of other writers had the same idea at the same time. We all, whether consciously or unconsciously, rejected Christie’s rigid, reactionary, class-based structure and created crime fiction about the country we lived in. You want to now what Britain was like in the Nineties? Read John Harvey’s Resnick series. You want an insight into contemporary British gender politics? Read Val McDermid. And on and on.
So yes. The broadsheet literary editors bemoaning the lack of British crime writing as literature just haven’t been reading it. Britain has crime writers the equal to any in the world. But – and this, I believe, is one of the big things – we’re not in translation. We write in English and therefore there’s no cache when it comes to discussing us at dinner parties. And because most literary editors are of the same class Christie was from, they still think that’s what crime fiction is in this country. We’re not seen as difficult or improving or challenging. In their eyes, we’re providers of entertainment for the lower orders.
Now in an abstract sense, as any serious reader will tell you, the argument is spurious. There are only good books and bad ones. That’s all that counts. Great ones that could be considered genre, awful ones that are seen as literary. And vice versa. And a discerning reader knows that. But for me, personally, I don’t care. I don’t think their argument applies to me. Because I’m the guy that thinks Jack Kirby is as big a genius as Jackson Pollack. I’m proud to write crime fiction. It’s a genre I love and if I want to make any penetrating insights into the human condition I can do so in a crime novel. Just as long as I remember to put a plot in it because someone has paid money to be entertained.
Here’s a last example of what I mean. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Frankie Howerd. He was a British comedian who died in 1992. He had huge mainstream success and was best remembered for his stand up, sit coms and catch phrases. He was, in short, a light entertainment mainstay. Yet he had also performed Shakespeare, won acclaim as a satirist (he followed Lenny Bruce as resident comedian at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in the Sixties), revived Roman comedies and had one critic calling him ‘the most Brechtian actor in Britain’. Not bad for a working class bloke from Eltham, London. Yeah, he had all those penetrating insights about the human condition but he made them while he was making his audience laugh. While he was entertaining them. He was the best at what he did and he did it so well it became something more than that.
I’m writing this on Christmas Day, after reading Stephen’s incredible interview with Sean Black. Nothing quite so bracing today, I’m afraid. More grateful and reflective.
I want to thank all our readers for visiting so faithfully over the preceding year. It’s so easy to fear that one is bellowing into a vacuum. Every day, you spare us that by logging on, and at times chiming in. I can’t tell you how much all of us appreciate it. I hope we continue to see you here in 2013.
On the reflective front: I’ll keep it brief, because I know everyone’s busy.
In trying to think of something that resonated with what it is we’re trying to celebrate this time of year — the wonder of warmth and light at a time of cold and darkness, the comfort of family and friends, the hope of love against the certainty of death, the promise of meaning in the face of an at times far more convincing void — I thought back to an article from earlier this year, upon publication of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?
The article was adapted from an interview Holt conducted for the book with the author John Updike the year before he died. It’s a marvelously positive and loving testament to our humble existence, and I found myself reading it hungrily this morning. I thought you might enjoy reading it as well.
You can find it online here. Or read the text below.
Merry Christmas one and all. And best wishes for a 2013
filled with warmth and light and love and promise.
Jukebox Hero of the Week: I was tempted to share Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, my favorite piece of Christmas music, sung by one of my favorite vocal groups, Chanticleer. But instead, in keeping with the theme of wonder, I’m going to share Martin Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium, a work of modern polyphony that is simply stunningly beautiful, and which I’ve been listening to all morning:
* * * * *
Late winter in Manhattan. Afternoon. A siren in the distance. (There is always a siren in the distance.) The phone rings. It’s John Updike.
I had been expecting the call. Earlier that month, I had sent a letter to Updike describing my interest in the mystery of existence. I had guessed, I said, that he shared this interest, and I wondered whether he would be willing to talk about the matter. I included my phone number in case he did.
A week later, I received a plain postcard with Updike’s return address on the front and a long type-written paragraph crowded onto the back. The occasional typo had been corrected in pen with a proofreader’s “delete” or “transpose” sign. At the bottom, in blue ink, it was signed “J.U.”
“I’d be happy to talk to you about something rather than nothing,” Updike had typed, “with the warning that I have no thoughts.” He then, in a trio of brisk sentences, mentioned the dimensionality of reality, the possibility of positive and negative being, and the anthropic principle—the last of which, he cryptically added, “to some extent works for somethingness.” Then, as a comment on the mysteriousness of it all, came the kicker:
“Beats me, actually; but who doesn’t love the universe?”
That Updike loved the universe had long been obvious to me. His novels and stories are suffused with the sheer sweetness of being. We “skate upon an intense radiance we do not see because we see nothing else,” he wrote in a memoir of his youth. “And in fact there is a color, a quiet but tireless goodness that things at rest, like a brick wall or a small stone, seem to affirm.”
In this respect, Updike was the anti-Woody Allen, who once described human existence as “a brutal, meaningless experience” (in an interview he gave to a Catholic priest, curiously enough).
But, in another respect, he was at one with Woody Allen. He shared the same horror of eternal nothingness—and the conviction that sex offered a psychological hedge against it. Indeed, he found that his phobia of nonbeing was inversely proportional to his carnal flourishing—a point he put in succinct mathematical form in his 1969 credo poem, “Midpoint”:
ASS = 1 / ANGST
But it was not only eros that fortified Updike against the terrors of nothingness. He also claimed to draw consolation from religion—specifically, from a leap-of-faith version of Christianity—and the hope it offered of all-encompassing grace and personal salvation. Here his heroes were Pascal and Kierkegaard and, especially, Karl Barth. “Barth’s theology, at one point in my life, seemed alone to be supporting it (my life),” Updike once observed. He professed to share Barth’s belief that God is totaliter aliter—wholly other—and that the divine mysteries could not be approached by rational thought. He was also drawn to Barth’s somewhat mystical equation of nothingness with evil. In an early collection of writings, Picked-up Pieces, Updike darkly dilates on the idea of “Satanic nothingness”—and then, as if in search of metaphysical relief, transitions directly to an essay on golf.
Updike’s obsession with sex and death, with the goodness of being and the evil of nonbeing, is perhaps not unusual in the literary profession. But only with Updike do you find the mystery of existence figuring directly and explicitly in his fiction. His 1986 novel, Roger’s Version, a merry roundelay of theology, science, and sex, culminates in a virtuoso passage that explains, over the course of nearly 10 pages, “how things popped up out of nothing”: a detailed scientific account of the Big Bang. The explanation is delivered in the course of a cocktail party, and no doubt Updike didn’t mean for us to take it too seriously. It is being mouthed, after all, by a character in a novel, and a somewhat ridiculous character to boot. Still, Updike had clearly pondered the mystery of being from the scientific as well as the theological angle. And that was reason enough to seek out his thoughts.
Updike was calling from his longtime home in the town of Ipswich, on the Massachusetts shore an hour north of Boston. In the background I could hear his visiting grandchildren at play. As he spoke, in his characteristically soft and richly modulated voice, I could see him in my mind’s eye: the thick thatch of gray hair, the curved beak of a nose, the mottled, psoriatic complexion, the eyes and mouth forming his habitual expression, that of a man, as Martin Amis once put it, “beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries.”
I began by asking Updike whether the theology of Karl Barth had really sustained him through a difficult time in his life.
“I’ve certainly said that and it did seem to be true,” he said. “I fell upon Barth having exhausted Kierkegaard as a consoler, and having previously resorted to Chesterton. I discovered Barth through a series of addresses and lectures called The Word of God and the Word of Man. He didn’t attempt to play anybody’s game as far as looking at the Gospels as historic documents or anything. He just said, essentially, that this is a faith—take it or leave it. So yes, I did find Barth comforting, and a couple of my early novels—not so early, actually—are sort of Barthian. Rabbit Run certainly presents a Barthian point of view, from the standpoint of a Lutheran minister. And in Roger’s Version, Barthianism is about the only refuge for Roger from all the besieging elements that would deprive one of one’s faith—both science, which Dale tries to use on behalf of the theist point of view, and the watering down of theology with liberal values.”
Was that 10-page scientific account of the origin of the universe from nothingness meant to be convincing?
“Not entirely, and that’s an embarrassment for science. Science aspires, like theology used to, to explain absolutely everything. But how can you cross this enormous gulf between nothing and something? And not just something, a whole universe. So much … I mean the universe is very big. Ugh! I mean, it’s big beyond imagining squared!”
Updike’s voice rose a register in genuine wonderment.
“It’s interesting,” I said, “that some philosophers are so astonished and awed that anything at all should exist—like Wittgenstein, who said in the Tractatus that it’s not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is. And Heidegger, of course, made heavy weather of this too. He claimed that even people who never thought about why there is something rather than nothing were still ‘grazed’ by the question whether they realized it or not—say, in moments of boredom, when they’d just as soon that nothing at all existed, or in states of joy when everything is transfigured and they see the world anew, as if for the first time. Yet I’ve run into philosophers who don’t see anything very astonishing about existence. And in some moods I agree with them. The question Why is there something rather than nothing? sometimes seems vacuous to me. But in other moods it seems very very profound. How does it strike you? Have you ever spent much time brooding over it?”
“Well, to call it ‘brooding’ would be to dignify it,” Updike said. “But I am of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle. It’s the last resort, really, of naturalistic theology. So many other props have been knocked out from under naturalistic theology—the first principle argument that Aristotle set forth, Aquinas’s prime mover … they’re all gone, but the riddle does remain: why is there something instead of nothing?”
I told Updike that I admired the way he had a character in Roger’s Version explain how the universe might have arisen from nothingness via a quantum-mechanical fluctuation. In the decades since he wrote the book, I added, physicists had come up with some very neat scenarios that would allow something to emerge spontaneously out of nothing in accordance with quantum laws. But then, of course, you’re faced with the mystery: Where are these laws written? And what gives them the power to command the void?
“Also, the laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,’ ” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see—that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.”
Updike chuckled softly. His mood appeared to lighten.
“When you think about it,” he continued, “we rationalists—and we’re all, to an extent, rationalist—we accept propositions about the early universe which boggle the mind more than any of the biblical miracles do. Your mind can intuitively grasp the notion of a dead man coming back again to life, as people in deep comas do, and as we do when we wake up every morning out of a sound sleep. But to believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space—into a tiny point—is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.”
Here I was moved to demur. The theories that imply this picture of the early universe—general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and so forth—work beautifully at predicting our present-day observations. Even the theory of cosmic inflation, which admittedly is a bit conjectural, has been confirmed by the shape of the cosmic background radiation, as measured by the Hubble space telescope. If these theories are so good at accounting for the evidence we see at present, why shouldn’t we trust them as we extrapolate backward in time toward the beginning of the universe?
“I’m just saying I can’t trust them,” Updike replied. “My reptile brain won’t let me. It’s impossible to imagine that even the Earth was once compressed to the size of a pea, let alone the whole universe.”
Some things that are impossible to imagine, I pointed out, are quite easy to describe mathematically.
“Still,” Updike said, warming to the argument, “there have been other intricate systems in the history of mankind. The scholastics in the Middle Ages had a lot of intricacy in their intellectual constructions, and even the Ptolemaic epicycles or whatever were … Well, all of this showed a lot of intelligence, and theoretical consistency even, but in the end they collapsed. But, as you say, the evidence piles up. It’s been decades and decades since the standard model of physics was proposed, and it checks out to the twelfth decimal point. But this whole string theory business … There’s never any evidence, just mathematical formulas, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist.”
Even so, I said, they’re doing some beautiful pure mathematics in the process.
“Beautiful in a vacuum!” Updike exclaimed. “What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.”
I asked Updike if his own attitude toward natural theology was as contemptuous as Barth’s was. Some people think there’s a God because they have a religious experience. Some think there’s a God because they believe the priest. But others want evidence, evidence that will appeal to reason. And those are the people that natural theology, by showing how observations of the world around us might support the conclusion that there is a God, has the power to reach. Is Updike really willing to leave those people out in the cold just because he doesn’t like the idea of a God who lets himself be “intellectually trapped”?
Updike paused for a moment or two, then said, “I was once asked to be on a radio program called This I Believe. As a fiction writer, I really don’t like to formulate what I believe because, like a quantum phenomenon, it varies from day to day, and anyway there’s a sort of bad luck attached to expressing yourself too clearly. On this radio program I conceded that ruling out natural theology does leave too much of humanity and human experience behind. I suppose even a hardened Barthian might cling to at least one piece of natural theology, Christ’s saying, ‘By their fruits shall ye know them’—that so much of what we construe as virtue and heroism seems to come from faith. But to make faith into an abstract scientific proposition is to please no one, least of all the believers. There’s no intellectual exertion in accepting it. Faith is like being in love. As Barth put it, God is reached by the shortest ladder, not by the longest ladder. Barth’s constant point was that it is God’s movement that bridges the distance, not human effort.”
And why should God make that movement? Why should he have created a universe at all? I remembered Updike saying somewhere that God may have brought the world into being out of spiritual fatigue—that reality was a product of “divine acedia.” What, I asked him, could this possibly mean?
“Did I say that? God created the world out of boredom? Well, Aquinas said that God made the world ‘in play.’ In play. In a playful spirit he made the world. That, to me, seems closer to the truth.”
He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”
What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.
I told Updike how much I had enjoyed the chat. He said he had been almost out of breath at the beginning because he had just come in from playing kickball with his grandchildren. “I find when I play kickball, which I did with ease most of my life, that at seventy-five it’s a definite strain,” he said, laughing. “You listen to your heart beating and hear your own rasping lungs. It’s a good way to keep in touch with what stage of life you’re at.”
A few months later, Updike was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a year he was dead.
Well, it’s that time of year again. I don’t mean Christmas or the holidays or whatever you call it. I mean the time of year when people bombard you with lists. Best book, best movie, most profound cup of coffee, whatever. Newspapers love lists. They’re great space fillers, no brainers. They remind their readers what happened during the year and they’re cheap to produce. Even better if an editor can solicit someone else’s opinions. They can do the heavy lifting for them. You’re an author, what were your three favourite books? You’re a war photographer, what were your three favourite conflicts? You’re a porn star, what were your three favourite positions? Legal ones, please, if you don’t mind, it’s a family paper. You know the kind of thing.
So why should we be any different here?
My first thought was, obviously, books. But I honestly don’t know if anyone cares enough for that. I’ve read some great books and some not so great ones. The great ones have made me want to give up, the not so great ones have made me feel like that in different ways. I haven’t chosen a best novel of the year or even a top five. I figure everyone else will be doing that. And as a writer I feel I can sometimes become a bit monocultural: only talking about books, only reading books, only writing books. So I decided to cast the remit wider than that. But I did want to do some kind of list thing. It’s traditional.
So I’ve decided on best cultural event of the year. Obviously this is a personal thing and I wouldn’t expect everyone (or anyone) else to agree with me. So what kind of cultural event do I mean? Well, something that moved me in some way, that changed the way I felt about things. Something that spoke to me individually and directly.
The Flicker Club organise special screenings of classic movies. But more than that, they also pay homage to the literature that spawned them. In the past they have given us such events Night Of The Hunter with Mark Rylance channelling Robert Mitchum in a reading from Davis Grubb’s original novel, two screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life, with Bill Nighy reading Philip Van Doren Stern’s original short story and John Simm the next time and Scrooge with Tom Hollander reading Dickens’ original. You get the idea. They take classic movies and turn them into an event, a celebration.
That’s how it was with Hammer. The Vault is an incredible venue to start with. Behind Waterloo Station in London are a vast amount of railway arches, all cold brick walls and vaulted ceilings. And here’s the thing: the one they staged the Hammer retrospective in used to be the mausoleum for the necropolis railway. Heard of it? It was opened in 1854 as a response to severe overcrowding in London’s cemeteries. It was supposed to take coffins down the line to Brookwood cemetery in Surrey. The Necropolis. It’s no longer in use but the tunnels are still there.
The Vault was decked out in plush red velvet cinema seats with a small stage in front of the screen. The events were given full introductions and the guest reader brought on. And there were some great guests. Liz White, the titular character, read from The Woman In White before the film, the gorgeous Madeleine Smith did a couple of stints, reading from Le Fanu’s Camilla before the screening of The Vampire Lovers and from Frankenstein before Frankenstein And The Monster from Hell, both of which she starred in. Mark Gatiss read from the Conan Doyle original before The Hound Of The Baskervilles. You get the idea.
And I loved it. Couldn’t get enough.
I’ve been a Hammer fan since my earlier teens, if not earlier. Hammer films were staying up late to be scared, the thrill of the illicit. They were suave vampires and body-reviving counts, buckets of blood and of course cleavage-heavy nubile young women. What teenage boy wouldn’t want that? I’ve collected magazines devoted to the films, books, comics, posters, t-shirts, even mugs. Yes, I’m a bit of a fanboy.
So I went along. I should explain that I’ve got most of these films on some format or other at home. VHS or DVD or Bluray. So why did I go to the trouble and expense of seeing them on the big screen? The answer’s in the last phrase. The big screen. I’d only ever seen the films on TV. The chance to sit there, in plush, blood red velvet seats, in a Victorian mausoleum with stars from the original films in attendance was too good to miss. So I didn’t. And it was brilliant.
But not just in a nostalgic way, although obviously that played a big part. The films themselves, for the most part, really held up well. They come from an age of film-making we just haven’t got in this country (or any, sadly) any more. They weren’t made to be great pieces of art to stand the test of time. Their purpose was to scare, to entertain. Then to disappear and be replaced by the next double bill. They were put together by jobbing craftspeople who knew exactly what they were doing. There was no pretension about them at the time.
But . . .
They’ve survived. Not only that, their critical reputation has grown over the decades. And when you watch them again, on the big screen like they were intended to be seen, you can see why. They still have something, a fascination, a spell to weave over an audience. Yes, they might be a bit clunky and laughable in places now. But they were never less than the best that their makers could do. There was some damned good work in them by actors, writers, designers and directors who spent the majority of their careers being underappreciated. Some of the directors’ families came to the screenings. It was very moving to see their reactions, the pride they had in the work.
I came away with a renewed sense of what cinema – and art – can achieve with the most miniscule of budgets and the hugest amount of belief.
So that’s my list. It’s a short one. The only thing that came close was a gig I attended in April. I was booked to do an event alongside Mark Billingham and Val McDermid at the Laugharne Festival in Wales. Linda and I went for the weekend and had a wonderful time.
Laugharne is, of course, famous as the birthplace of Dylan Thomas. Some of the events take place in what used to be his boathouse and his writing hut has been preserved exactly as it was. The festival takes place every spring and it isn’t confined to one venue – it takes over the whole village. And it’s not just about one thing: there’s literature, music, theatre, comedy, art, everything. We saw John Cooper Clark do what I thought was the best show of his career (or certainly the best gig I’ve seen him do – and I’ve seen him lots of times), My old mate Lydia Lunch did an event with Viv Albertine, late of The Slits, comedian Graeme Garden was there, as were plenty of others. But the highlight of the festival was Y Niwl.
Who? What? Y Niwl. It’s Welsh for ‘the fog’. They’re a surf guitar band from North Wales. Intrigued? Listen to them here:
It was a proper dad rock night out. We’d all had dinner at the hotel and knew that Y Niwl were playing at midnight. Did we all feel like going back out? Well . . . maybe. Maybe not. Oh go on, let’s. So we did. There were five of us. We got to the venue, upstairs in the rugby club. And waited. And waited. Midnight came and went. No sign of them. We would just have one more drink then head back. One o’clock was almost upon us when the doors opened and in they came. Hurrying to set up instruments on the tiny stage, soundchecking as they went. They had finished a gig in Wolverhampton earlier that night and driven straight down. They got set up in record time, the doors opened, the audience came in and off they went.
And it was, no exaggeration, one of the best gigs I have ever seen. They blew us away. Short, sharp melodic, instrumental surf rock. None of the songs have names, just numbers. In Welsh. Brilliant. We were all on such a high after that. Fantastic.
I’d go as far to say as they’re probably the best live band currently operating in Britain. They deserve to be seen by as many people as possible. Buy their records. Go to their gigs. Tell them Martyn sent you. You won’t be disappointed.
So there you have it. Two events. One looking backwards, one looking forwards. Just the thing for the end of the year.
I’ve just finished reading SCALPED. Now I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about and have probably been reading it too. But since I do have a rather solipsistic tendency to assume that if I’m aware of something then everybody else is, I’d better provide a little back story.
SCALPED was a comic series, published by DCs Vertigo imprint – their line that deals in supposedly more grown up subject matter. It started in 2007 and after sixty issues (which translates into ten trade paperback collections) has just wrapped. If I tell you the premise – and what the pitch possibly may have been – it sounds like any old generic crime drama. An undercover agent goes back to the place of his birth to bring down the gangster who he believes has destroyed his hometown and avenge the murder of his mother. Simple. Don’t know about you, but at the very least I’d have been only polite about that.
What Jason Aaron the writer of SCALPED did was, from the off, brilliantly subverted not only the set up but the expectations involved in it. The main thing is the setting. The Prairie Rose Native American Reservation in South Dakota is the backdrop. Dashiell Bad Horse, the undercover FBI agent, is the daughter of political Native American Rights activist Gina Bad Horse and a troubled young man trying to find peace within himself and struggling with his own identity. The head of the Tribal Council, Chief Red Crow, is Gina’s one time partner, now turned casino owner and head gangster. Agent Nitz, Dash’s FBI handler, is actually worse than the people he’s supposed to be taking down. It’s starting to sound a little more interesting now, isn’t it?
And that’s only scratching the surface. The scope of the series quickly broadened out from that initial premise as other characters were introduced, other situations developed and the Prairie Rose Reservation went from being the backdrop to the main character in the series. The characters also behaved like real people; no good guys or bad guys, just shifting, varying shades of grey so that by the end the reader’s sympathies and allegiances had become as fluid and nuanced as the storytelling.
It’s proper, grown up storytelling in a sequential art format. R M Guera’s art is stunning, the perfect match for Aaron’s words.
I’ve been with it from the start and I was sad to see it end but glad it got the ending it deserved. But when I put it down I started to think about it. And I’m still thinking about it. I know I can re-read it at any time, either immersively or just dipping in and out. Because it’s a comic. But it also got me thinking about whether there’s been some kind of cultural sea change in the way we enjoy stories, particularly (since this is Murderati after all) crime ones.
A few years ago we seemed to have more cultural absolutes. If you wanted something with strong characterisation, good stories, atmosphere, dialogue, subtext – all of the things I, and probably everyone else, look for in narrative art – you knew, by and large, where to go. Novels and films. And as far as novels went it was mainstream literary work that would supply that. Genre was for those who’d never grown up. Who still needed the comfort of silly trappings and conventions to enjoy things. Who didn’t want to confront and understand the world we lived in but ignore it, escape from it. Genre, in its most popular forms, was science fiction, horror, romance, crime. Real novels confronted real people in real situations with real emotions. Readers could empathise with them. They didn’t need murders or spaceships or zombies or romantic doctors to enjoy books. Just good writing.
Film was the same. Yes there were the Hollywood blockbusters, but not too many of them. And those that were around were treated as embarrassments, for the most parts. They make money, sure, and provide work for cast and crew, but really, we’d rather be doing good stuff. Certainly the actors. They would rather be doing Shakespeare at Stratford instead of talking in stupid voices wielding lightsabres.
And comics? Nowhere. Full of simplistic stories of men in tights and women in far less quipping away as they fought monosyllabic bad guys. Only read by children and the kind of adults who lived in their mother’s spare room.
But that was then.
This is now: The multiplexes are choked with Hollywood summer blockbusters, all year round. Big, gaudy spectacles, centring around the kind of characters who were once only enjoyed by children and the kind of adults who lived in their mother’s spare rooms. And they’re played by actors who have done Shakespeare at Stratford and find that this pays way better.
The kind of filmmakers who used to make complex, intelligent movies have mostly decamped to TV, particularly cable in the States, once the province of the kind of hacks churned out mindless drivel like FANTASY ISLAND and THE LOVE BOAT. This new breed, people like David Simon, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan in the States and Steven Moffatt and Russell T Davies here in the UK, have taken popular – not to say populist – tropes and hoary old genre conventions and turned them into truly extraordinary drama. Because they’ve been showrunners and because their shows have been allowed by their networks to blossom and develop over several seasons, something new has emerged. TV series that engages and entertains on a single viewing, but that also rewards repeated and regular viewing. Episodes become like chapters in a novel. And you’d no more think of skipping a chapter than skipping an episode.
Mainstream literary fiction is still there but, ironically, it’s become just another genre. And, certainly in the UK, it seems, as a genre, to regard plot or storytelling as something wholly beneath itself. It’s also, and again I’m generalising as a genre, been reluctant to engage with the society we live in. That job has been left to crime fiction.
It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, where if you wanted to write a state of the nation novel you wrote a mainstream literary one. Now, you write a crime one. It seems to be the only form of narrative fiction (and again I’m generalising, please feel free to disagree) that actively engages with our society. Or that can. And that will also subvert the conventions of a genre ending; the villain may not be punished, the good guy may not win. Unthinkable a few years ago.
Which brings us to comics. And back to SCALPED. I think we’re seeing a new culture emerge. I know it’s generally regarded that comics came of age in the mid-eighties with Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. This was then confirmed when Art Speigelman won a Pulitzer for Maus, his (not so) funny animal history of the Holocaust with mice as Jews and cats as Nazis. Then . . . well, for the most part, the promise wasn’t fulfilled and comics as an industry seemed to retrench with stories once again being dominated by men in tights and women in substantially less. And a whole nation of men living in their mother’s spare rooms silently rejoiced.
But that’s not the whole story. Because I think we’ve seen something new emerging. The absolutes of the past are no longer there. Take Robert Kirkman’s comic series THE WALKING DEAD. A story of survivors following a zombie apocalypse, it’s got more in common with Cormac MacCarthy’s THE ROAD than anything schlocky or genre-based that’s come before it. It’s also a TV series now, produced initially by an Academy Award winning director. Boundaries are changing. A comic series like SCALPED or THE WALKING DEAD has more in common with a TV series like DEADWOOD or THE SOPRANOS or, best of all, THE WIRE in its richness and complexity. And those series have, in their scope, breadth and ambition, more in common with Nineteenth century Russian novels or the work of Dickens than the TV of a decade or two ago.
Our mediums are blurring. Our absolutes are disappearing. New creators are coming through from unexpected places telling surprising new stories, making us look not only at the world around us in different ways and through different eyes but in formats we may have previously dismissed as not worth bothering with. It’s new. It’s our culture renewing itself.