writing & publishing


On Private Writing

I’ve recently discovered Day One, a journal app for iPhone, iPad and MacBook. And because of Day One, I’ve also rediscovered the joys of private writing.

One of the things that I lost over the years, as a novelist, was the pleasure of unpublished writing. Now, of course, the joys of being published far outweigh that – I’m not even going to pretend otherwise. Having an audience of people who actually want to look at the things you put down on paper, that’s amazing.

But there’s a lot to be said about writing solely for myself.

I downloaded the app as an experiment in nature writing. One of the books I enjoyed so much last year was Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, which was a posthumous collection of observations and reflections ironically not intended for publication. As a result, they were very raw and honest, which came together as an utterly fascinating piece of literature. Inspired by that, I’ve started making my own broad sketches, thoughts of the natural world and so on. Sure, I used to have a writer’s notebook, but these days I ended up just firing emails to myself as reminders of thoughts – hardly ideal. And if I’m honest, even then I was conscious and hopeful that my writing might one day see publication in one form or another, that what I was writing would find an audience. Not so with using the Day One app.

Perhaps I grew out of reflection to some extent – or at least reflecting in quite the same way as I used to. Publishing deadlines probably do that to a writer. But the Day One app seems to fit so nicely into a busy life – I can make notes on the go, sync it in the cloud with my other devices, so I can pick it up and continue that line of thought at home. It inspires inward thought, and I don’t have to arse about with pen and paper while I’m at it.

And the important thing for any of these pieces of writing is that they are not for publication. Unlike a writer’s notebook, I never intend for any of these sketches to be seen by anyone other than me. Unlike a blog or Twitter, they’re not out there in the hope someone stumbles across them. It’s very liberating. It’s something of a relief, in fact, to be writing without the angst or the worry. It even seems a brief countercultural statement in an age where everyone likes to punt out a piece of writing online. Sure, this is all self-indulgent nonsense, but isn’t that what private writing is about?


Lawrence Durrell Centenary

It’s not just Charles Dickens who is having a party this year. So is Lawrence Durrell, author of my favourite series of novels, The Alexandria Quartet, a brilliant, metaphysical classic of the 1950s.

The books follow a group of individuals based in Alexandria, Egypt, up to and including the Second World War. That’s about as general as one can really get, as it covers a huge number of themes – sexual and political tension, a whole wealth of the region’s history, religion and philosophy – and Durrell wraps these in momentous descriptions of characters, place and time.

Each novel in the series undermines the previous one; minor characters suddenly become the focal point, giving the reader a completely different understanding on what went before. Every paragraph is breathtaking.

A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants…

These are the moments which are not calculable, and cannot be assessed in words; they live on in the solution of memory, like wonderful creatures, unique of their own kind, dredged up from the floors of some unexplored ocean…

Brother Ass, the so-called act of living is really an act of the imagination. The world—which we always visualize as ‘the outside’ World—yields only to self-exploration! Faced by this cruel, yet necessary paradox, the poet finds himself growing gills and a tail, the better to swim against the currents of unenlightenment…

The Guardian recently featured a podcast on Durrell, which is well worth your time, and if you’ve not read The Alexandria Quartet, you really should. It is Durrell’s centenary after all.


“Dreams” by Wislawa Szymborska

Despite the geologists’ knowledge and craft,
mocking magnets, graphs, and maps—
in a split second the dream
piles before us mountains as stony
as real life.

And since mountains, then valleys, plains
with perfect infrastructures.
Without engineers, contractors, workers,
bulldozers, diggers, or supplies—
raging highways, instant bridges,
thickly populated pop-up cities.

Without directors, megaphones, and cameramen—
crowds knowing exactly when to frighten us
and when to vanish.

Without architects deft in their craft,
without carpenters, bricklayers, concrete pourers—
on the path a sudden house just like a toy,
and in it vast halls that echo with our steps
and walls constructed out of solid air.

Not just the scale, it’s also the precision—
a specific watch, an entire fly,
on the table a cloth with cross-stitched flowers,
a bitten apple with teeth marks.

And we—unlike circus acrobats,
conjurers, wizards, and hypnotists—
can fly unfledged,
we light dark tunnels with our eyes,
we wax eloquent in unknown tongues,
talking not with just anyone, but with the dead.

And as a bonus, despite our own freedom,
the choices of our heart, our tastes,
we’re swept away
by amorous yearnings for—
and the alarm clock rings.

So what can they tell us, the writers of dream books,
the scholars of oneiric signs and omens,
the doctors with couches for analyses—
if anything fits,
it’s accidental,
and for one reason only,
that in our dreamings,
in their shadowings and gleamings,
in their multiplings, inconceivablings,
in their haphazardings and widescatterings
at times even a clear-cut meaning
may slip through.

Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Snatislaw Baranczak. Wislawa Szymborska died earlier this month, aged 88.


Efforts to avoid Racefail

I’m more conscious than ever about Racefail in new projects. Over the past few years, writers, blogs and forums have done a cracking job in dissecting various types of issues that form part of an ongoing debate. We are, I’m sure, more educated on when novels go wrong.

I think most novelists will agree that part of writing a novel is minimising problems. There will always be flaws in novels. Someone, somewhere, no matter what you write, will always take issue with a writer’s portrayal of race, gender, and so on. All a writer can do is be aware of where they have failed and try to fail better next time. For my previous novels, I had the excuse that race was split along the species line, but for Drakenfeld, everyone is human, so I felt I should confront the issue of race head-on rather than avoid engaging with it at all.

I’m currently writing a black character, but painfully aware she’ll easily be perceived as the ‘sidekick’ to the first person lead, who is not black (he’s not particularly white, either – I’m evoking a classical, Roman-Perisan location, but that’s besides the point). I’m aware, then, of the gaping chasm of racefail that stands before me, like I imagine it can stand before every author.

I’m trying very hard to make sure she exists in her own right, has complexity, doesn’t exist solely to further the plot of the non-black character, that she’s strong without being magical, that her race is addressed in the context of the world, that I’m making sure the reader understands such things without it being a lecture, and without me incorporating guilt of Western privilege (probably unavoidable, if I’m honest). In a secondary world of my own building, I must address such things.I like to think I’m not going to head feet first into the ZOMG turban dudes = bad like some. I’m half-Indian, but I’m not sure that really helps all that much, other than perhaps it reinforces some vague awareness of the inherent problems with addressing issues of race in a novel.

It should be simple, but unfortunately it isn’t. To some extent, I feel a little like Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar in my efforts to engage and over-engage with the situation, but I’ve decided that’s a healthy thing. It’s better to be Mr Palomar than to waltz into a novel blindly and reinforce current cultural prejudices. Not thinking is no excuse.

Anyway, one particularly fantastic short-hand resource, I’ve discovered, is tvtropes.org, which assiduously lists the many pitfalls of film and literature tropes, but has a good deal to say about race, too:

In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life.

A vast and brutal database, it’s actually been very helpful in showing me where I can go right as well as wrong, and I recommend spending a bit of time looking up the tropes if you get a moment. Anyway, as ever, not sure I was going anywhere with this – it ended up being more navel-gazing than I hoped. I just wanted to share a healthy concern.