Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Reading I Haven't Written About...

Back in January of this year, I blogged about reading and set my self the task of reading and writing about 100 books this year. I've written about 12 books and we're 5 months into the year. Now, I don't claim to be a genius mathematician (seriously, my brain just doesn't do mental arithmetic any more) but I'm pretty sure that I'm running behind schedule here.

Here's the thing; I've read a bunch of books this year that I haven't gotten around to writing about. Maybe I finished reading a book in bed and woke up the next day with too little time to scribble down some thoughts, put it off for a day or two, then forgot to return to it. Maybe I just had something else I wanted to do right after closing a book, put off writing about it for a day or two and forgot about it... you get the picture already, right?

So, I've read more than 12 books this year. Off the top of my head some of the books I've liked or loved enough to remember without a written record are:

Blue is the Night by Eoin McNamee
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
The Hunter by Richard Stark
(I suspect there are a few more books that belong on this list, but they've slipped my mind)

I also reread The Maltese Falcon and a good portion of The Glass Key (both by Hammett) as well as the unfinished first draft of The Thin Man in the Library of America edition of Hammett: Crime Stories and Other Writing. A few short stories here and there (from mammoth collections like Hemingway's First Forty-Nine Stories and the Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, mostly) and the odd chapter from a bunch of books that I wanted to refresh my memory of.

I'd still be running behind schedule, even if I'd written about the listed books, of course, but I'd be comfortable enough knowing that my summer reading boost would have helped a little. I've delivered this year's PhD work to QUB, and following my differentiation at the end of the month, I get a few months to myself (sort of) to read and write before the new academic year starts. This means I'll be free to read whatever I fancy and I'll probably take a break from the academic texts I've been dipping in and out of (I could list those, but I don't think you'd care).

So, do I write about the listed books in retrospect? I'm not sure I want to. I think I'll have lost some of the enthusiasm that sticks with you for a day or two after reading and that'll come through in my short reviews. Plus, I'm clocking up more titles that should go on the list every week or two. But then, these are all books worth talking about. Also, I've a bunch of fiction writing I want to get done (and reading of the work I've written, as the process goes). Or do I just abandon the whole 100 books thing and simply write what I feel like writing about when I feel like it?

You know what? My son wants me to make his some grub right now. I'll think about this later. If I feel like it.

Currently reading The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins and Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith, by the way.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Four Writers - On Writing...

There are three writers who have been very kind to me over the last year. Each of them has helped promote my books and have reviewed a number of my titles. Without them, my profile would have been noticeably lower. I really believe that. They’re also pretty good friends with each other, so I always think of them as a collective; and as friends of mine.

Now, the thing is, due to my lifestyle, I can’t read and review every book that I’d like to. I barely get the time to read the books essential to the PhD I’m currently working on. But I had an urge to show these writers how much I appreciate all they’ve done for me. Best I could come up with was this lousy four-way interview. But here, I think it turned out all right. So, without further ado, here’s what happens when Ryan Bracha, KeithNixon, Mark Wilson and I get together via a long-ass web chat.

GB - Keith: You're an active reviewer on Big Al's Books and Pals and Crime Fiction Lover; what have you learned from the experience?

KN - The two sites have a different focus - Al's is on self and indie published books, whereas typically (but not exclusively) CFL is on larger, more established authors and publishers.

It's hard to find good writers, I mean really good ones, skilled in their craft. There's a huge number of books out there, and more being added every day. Of the self publish stuff I see about 10% are top notch.

The indie published authors have already been in effect filtered and generally they are of a higher quality - they have a contract for a reason.

Having a traditional publisher contract doesn't guarantee the reader is going to pick up any better books, however. I don't suddenly find a huge step up over at CFL, for instance.

Finally, unless you're a major name like Ian Rankin, visibility is key.

KN - So Bracha, name the three best and one worst decision that has meant the most to your success as an author?

RB - Good question that. The best three decisions... Okay, first and foremost has been the decision to do everything myself. I've learned to create cover art, edit, publish and market it to my own standards, so if any part fails it's on me. If it's a success I get to congratulate myself. Plus it means everything I do is cost free, ensuring maximum return on investment, which goes only to me. Or the wife. Which is nice.

Second one, um, I suppose it lays with my decision to never revise my work other than for continuity issues or typos. It gives me a chance to hammer the work out and get promoting it. I reckon I've done well so far, in that the work has been greatly received and performed far higher than I ever hoped. The longer it goes on though, the more the expectation that the bubble's gonna burst with the next book when it turns out to be utter garbage.

The third one is to know when to take advice. I've been known to think I know it all, but with my writing I'm always happy to learn from more experienced hands and apply it to my increasing arsenal of skills and knowledge. It's been a huge case of slowly slowly catchy monkey. I want to make a real success of myself in the literary arena. The worst decision I made was to ignore my wife the first ten times she told me to self publish. I could be a year more experienced if I'd listened to her!

RB - Mr Wilson, your 4 main works of fiction have been 4 vastly different genres, each with various influences. Which one taught you the most about your art and why?

MW - In all honesty I only began to feel like I was becoming a competent writer by my third book, Head Boy. By the end of it I reckoned I was developing enough to start thinking of myself as a writer. Writing from the mindset of a sadistic sociopath brought me right out of my literary shell.

MW - Question for Gerry: For a writer who sets his books in Northern Ireland, you do a good job of focusing on issues that don't directly involve the sectarian aspect of the region. Ever feel like shining a literary light on any experiences you'll have had of this?

GB - Most of my Troubles experiences are now blurry memories. I remember British soldiers who emerged from a graveyard next to our house in Warrenpoint in the eighties at regular intervals. I remember being searched by prison guards at Long Kesh prison when I visited family members at the ripe old age of 6. I remember my mother handing her handbag over to security guards at the front door of Castlecourt Shopping Centre in Belfast and wondering why they were allowed to poke around in there when I wasn't. But there's also a stock-pile of primary and secondary source Troubles stories in my memory banks from lips lubricated by liquor; mostly from a Republican perspective.

It took a long time to get everything almost straight in my immature brain. And I'm one of the lucky ones. I was shielded by a lot of the shite by my father and his decision to raise his family outside of Belfast. I was still aware of the conflict and the roles that people I knew played in it, but those aren't my stories. I think if I wrote about the Troubles (and I probably will) it would be with the intention to explain my own opinions and experiences to my children, who will have as many questions as I had as they grow up. I just don't know when will be the best time to do that. I think I need a little more distance first. Until then, it'll remain peripheral to my work.

GB - Ryan: One of the things we seem to have in common is a pretty eclectic taste in music, at least according to the Facebook updates you've written that have caught my eye. Do you draw on music for inspiration in your writing? And do you listen to music when you write?

RB - Most definitely, is the answer to your first question. Music is one of my truest passions, and yeah I do consider my tastes eclectic. I love that feeling you get when you hear a band or artist for the first time and you just instantly know that you've found something that's gonna be with you forever, and then seeing it performed live is another level altogether.

As far as influences go, yeah, I take a fair bit of influence from artists who stretch themselves, and don't play it safe to compromise what they're trying to say. Scroobius Pip is one such artist. Or Beck, I love how he changes direction with every release. I like instrumental music to write to, because I find myself sidetracked by singing along otherwise! The soundtrack to Amelie, by Yann Tiersenn is a consistent favourite in the headphones when I'm tapping away.

RB - Keef! We're all authors who set our books particularly local to ourselves, as I'm sure most are, what is it about Margate that inspires you to set you work there?

KN - Ok several reasons. One is write about what you know. Margate is on my doorstep. But the biggest factor was the backdrop, ie a once successful town gone to seed, suited the narrative and characters.

KN - Wilson, you've produced work across a wide range of genres - memoir to superhero thriller to crime to dystopian. Are you a restless writer?

MW - Restless is a good way to describe my head, so, yes I suppose. I'm a bit of a slut to my brain's whims. The business side of my brain wants to pick a genre and stick to it. The writer part just wants to go with whatever story is tugging at my literary knickers. I can't sleep until I empty my head so I just crack on. I don't really think about what genre a particular book fits into until I'm about half way through the manuscript, then I start marketing to that genre and the business brain lets out a long fart of released tension.

In all honesty, despite the obvious benefits of sticking with a genre or style of writing, I don't think I'll ever be able to stay faithful to one. I'm quite happy to be a genre-tart.

MW - Bracha: More than once I've seen comments (and made them) noting your very 'Scottish' writing style. Even in your books that lack Scottish characters, a very Celtic humour and tone comes through. Explain yourself.

RB - I dunno mate. Maybe it's the Scots who have a very Bracha humour and tone? Nah, it's just the way I've always written, I think I've told this story before, but when I first started writing Strangers, I would hand out the first few chapters to anybody that would take them, and one fella who read it handed me a novel saying I'd probably enjoy the writing, based on my style, and it took me months to finally read it. It was Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh and it blew me away. Superior to mine without a doubt, but it set me on course for a love affair with Scottish writing that shows no sign of abating, and has no doubt filtered into my own writing. I completely associate with the total disregard for convention, the foul mouthed humour and sometimes inhuman ability to be inventive with the language that the best Scots have. The short answer, though, is I dunno.

RB - Brennan: If you were stuck in the Andes with your characters, which would you eat first? Which would you kill in a fit of fury? And which would you be happy to chill out and shoot the shit with?

GB - Right; eat, kill, shoot the shit... I'll pick WEE ROCKETS as the basis for the answer since (judging by sales and reviews) it's my most popular book. So, I'd probably eat Liam Greene, as he's the meatiest and he deserves it. Feckin' parasite.

I'd probably kill Joe Phillips in a fit of rage, because he's pretty gormless and frustrating. He's not a bad lad, really, but I know how irritable I can get from time to time. Put me on the Andes with no food, you better not break wind.

And for shooting the shit, it has to be Wee Danny Gibson. He's the most likely to have remembered to pack a carry out and he's pretty funny. I should point out, that in my mind, these kids aren't 14 years old anymore. They're almost 20 now. That makes me a little less creepy, right?

GB - Mark... I imagine it took a lot of courage to write Paddy's Daddy. Reading the dedication alone almost broke my heart. How do you feel about your son reading this book in the future? I ask because I'm playing with a similar idea myself and I'm a bit scared of it.

MW - Good question Gerry.

I thought about that a lot in the months after I published the autobiography. Spent a lot of time worrying that my son would be disappointed when he grew up and realised his da' isn't who he thought he was. Two things happened to take that worry away. First I realised that every son gets to a point when they lose their illusions about the hero dad they believe in, and then they grow up and hopefully reconnect in a different way. 

Secondly, I spoke to my wife about it and she pointed out that I was forgetting who the boy is. 

He's only five but is a very self assured, confident, empathetic and funny as fuck wee dude. Seriously, my five year old is the best man I know. My Mrs reminded me of that and asked me what I thought Paddy's reaction would be when he was a grown man and understood the childhood I'd had and the resulting problems that followed.
Simple answer. He'll be well proud of his old man for changing his life for his kids.

Problem solved.

KN - Where the fuck did Fireproof come from? Quite different to your other books - religion, God and the devil none of which figures elsewhere…

GB – I’m actually surprised that this is the first time I’ve been asked that question. The answer’s pretty simple, though. FIREPROOF was published after WEE ROCKETS, but it was actually written before. Back then (about 2006, I think – other books were written and abandoned back in my earlier writing days and I didn’t keep date records), I considered myself a horror writer rather than a crime writer. But then I realised that I was actually better at writing crime. However, Al Guthrie, once my agent and now my publisher via Blasted Heath, thought that FIREPROOF was a decent read when I showed it to him. It needed work, of course, and Al helped me with that. Al’s input and reassurance made me realise that the book was a lot better than I’d originally thought.

The next thing was to decide whether or not to release it under a pseudonym, even an obvious one, like how the late, great Iain Banks put an ‘M’ in the middle of his name to denote when he’d switched to science fiction. My middle name happens to begin with an M as well, but I’d have gone with something a tad more original. However, after some thought, it seemed like I’d be making work for myself by trying to handle two writing careers side by side. So I let it come out under my name and waited to see if anybody called me on it. Two years later, and you’re the first to do that…

But yeah, why a supernatural book that’s heavy on religious and social piss-taking? It was just good fun to write, to be honest. I’ll return to that universe some time soon, I hope, because there are readers who prefer it to my other stuff and I think it’d still be fun to just let my imagination and mischief run riot again. But I’ve a bunch of crime stuff lined up first.

RB - (Round-up question)  So the film or TV show of one of your books has been made, and the opening credits are rolling, I don't care who made it or who's in it. What's the song that's playing over those credits? For me, I'm choosing Prodigy, Invaders Must Die for PAUL CARTER IS A DEAD MAN. Might be a bit obvious but it's frantic enough to cover that opening scene.

GB - I'm going with Thin Line by HoneyHoney to open BREAKING POINT.

KN - Flyswatter by The Eels for THE FIX.

MW - I'm having Brasco by Hopeless Heroic for dEaDINBURGH.

And there you have it. Enjoy the interview? Why not check out some of their work, then? They've got Amazon pages and whatnot, like proper pros:

Ryan Bracha Amazon Page

Keith Nixon Amazon Page

Mark Wilson Amazon Page

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Writers in the Photo

Photo by David Torrans

As always, a wonderful night at No Alibis. The #QUBLitFest event was very well attended and everybody seemed to have a great time. Plenty of smiles and good vibes. It was a pleasure to chat with Hélène Gestern, first for the benefit of an engaged audience, and then again over dinner at Molly's Yard after the event. Gestern is as intelligent, thought provoking and entertaining as her novel, The People in the Photo. Can't wait for the next Queen's French Literary Festival.

Many thanks to David Torrans of No Alibis for hosting the event and, as always, for his work in promoting the literary scene in Northern Ireland. And to Claudia, who helpfully pointed out that my own books wouldn't sell if I left them on their kitchen countertop in a cardboard box. Also, thank you to Dominique Jeannerod, Amelie Rougeot, Catriona Seth and all the fine people in the School of Modern Languages at QUB for their parts in organising the event, and to all the cool cats who showed up to make it such a fun night. Hat tips to Michael Nolan, Stephen Sexton, Laura Garland, Allen McKay and Andrew Pepper for adding some familiar faces to the crowd.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern

The People in the Photo is Hélène Gestern's first novel to be published in English. Originally released in France under the title Eux sur la Photo, this is a book that has racked up over 20 literary awards. The English version that I read, published by Gallic Books, sports a quote from La Magazine Littéraire on the front cover; 'A wonderful book about the archaeology of memory'. and that pretty much nails the theme.

In a nutshell, the story starts out with Stéphane Crusten's response to an ad placed by Hélène Hivert who is seeking information about a picture of a woman and two men from a previous generation. It comes to pass that two of the people in the photo are Hélène's mother and Stéphane's father. The twist is that both Hélène and Stéphane's respective parents from the photo are dead, and that Hélène has never met her mother. And so, the mystery plot thickens... The pair continue their correspondence so that the novel becomes an epistolary (it's practically a dialogic or two-way epistolary, except for the introduction of three other POVs towards the end of the book) that builds to an emotional crescendo seamlessly.

This, obviously, is a book that's somewhat outside of the normal scope of this blog, but as a writer, I feel reading outside of your chosen genre can only strengthen your skills. Plus, I'm 'in conversation' with Hélène Gestern tomorrow night (Friday 2nd May at 6.30pm at No Alibis in Belfast), and figured this blog post would make for a nice warm-up.

So, the CSNI verdict? The People in the Photo is an engaging and thought-provoking read that worked incredibly well within the confines of the epistolary form. Gestern puts meat on the bones of the skeletons in her characters’ closets. A masterclass in imagery.

If you want to know more, and you're within travelling distance of Belfast, come to the event! Details can be found here.