ESCAPE ROOM: SOPHIE ESSEX

This is not a writing space

My writing space is a lie. I’ve never written here. I put the desk together myself during late-summer, whilst video calling a friend, in cheap cotton panties and a camisole. Those metal legs are chill year round. I haven’t been gagged with the unicorn duct tape, the truffle-coloured bunny remains nameless, I am forever European. Out of sight is an Ikea bookcase that displays my collection of plastic lo-fi cameras, and five envelopes containing poetry chapbooks. The wall to the left is crumbling from damp. There is a promise somewhere to fix it.

Folk say you ought to write each day but I find I’m too precious with words, I can’t seem to let-go. This is how I write: I’ll discover a word, then I’ll sit on it for a while. Or a title. Currently it’s ‘Terrible Grasshopper’ which I’ve been with since before the new year. I’ll add to it now and then – on scraps of paper, via notes on my phone, I’ll leave a thought with someone. Until.

I like to let music bleed into my work. Bjork, Maximo Park, something poppy and melodic. Though more often than not I prefer being read to. Salvador Dali’s ‘Oui’ is a favourite, or wikipedia articles, Nabokov. I like the process of tuning-out, of taking no notice on a conscious level and letting the subconscious pick up what it wants.

Life is a distraction. Little Cora Vespertine. My anxieties. Love. Fear of never being read, understood, appreciated. I can’t write without a pen; utilised as a false moustache.

The most enjoyable part of writing is not writing, it’s sharing my words and my weirdness with another who doesn’t desire an explanation. I find this is also the least enjoyable part.

I’m proud of everything I write. It often feels like a challenge to get the words out – if you know me you know I don’t talk much, that voicing my thoughts doesn’t come easy – so every finished something is a little ‘yay’. My first proper chapbook ‘Some Pink Star’ was released about a year ago through Eibonvale Press. David Rix did a stunning job, and I am still besotted with it.

Right now I’m working / not-working on a series of insect poems though, of course, they’re not really about insects. I think ‘Ant Eating With Three Fingers’ is my favourite title so far, or perhaps, ‘Honeydew or Number One Sugar Daddy’ which is about aphids and age-gap relationships. I’m excited to see where I take them.

Sophie Essex is a poet, organiser of spoken word events, and a publisher. Her chapbook Some Pink Star is available here. Her small press Salo publishes both prose and poetry.

just monster things

Have been off social media for a week or so and it’s clear to me I made a great decision. I feel very free. I also have a lot of thoughts and ideas about what social media is doing to writing and writers, but I’ll save them for another day.

Just a quick heads up for anyone who enjoys podcasts, ghost stories, or being read to: this fantastic podcast by Tony Walker is one you won’t want to miss. He recently did an episode on Little Heart, from my collection This House of Wounds, and it was such a wonderful experience. Tony’s reading brought so much insight into the story and we had a great discussion afterwards about what it all could mean.

It inspired me to write some story notes about my novella Honeybones, which weirdly enough tie in with a lot of my thoughts about social media. I suppose it’s not that weird, given that Honeybones is a story about mind control and violence and not living in reality but inhabiting a simulated world which is designed to disempower you and alienate you from your material existence… Anyway, it’s interesting to think about, and if anyone wants to have me on their podcast or blog or publication to talk about this stuff, that would be great.

CYMERA 2020 took place online a couple of weeks ago and was a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed all the panels I saw and appreciated how much work went into making them run so smoothly. My own panel was on ‘writing the weird’ with Laura Mauro and Kit Power, and was a really fun and interesting chat. But my highlight of the weekend was Penny Jones, Tracy Fahey and Katie Hale discussing ‘The Female Monster’ – they covered so much in the discussion but it felt like they could have gone on for hours, and I would have been there for it! All the panels from CYMERA are on youtube and worth checking out.

That’s all for now! Hope you are all staying well and safe <3

the real world

mouthpieces

Twitter has gone insane. It is sad to see.

It was better once upon a time, back in the day, in the time before the Great Doubling. When I joined twitter ten or so years ago it was nowhere near this angry, culty or scary, although I’m reminded that around this time Jaron Lanier was already trying to warn us about the way it would go. I didn’t feel like a gadget, though. Twitter was a place for chats and light entertainment. I discovered artists. I made friends. But those were the halcyon days. Over the past few years I’ve had more and more bad twitter experiences, have been the prey of manipulative people, have fallen out with people for apparently no reason, been subjected to abuse, and so on. I admit I myself have contributed to twitter’s decline, fallen into some of its traps, got outraged and angry, retweeted some terrible article that turned out to be a hoax, tweeted in all caps and no caps, all the big sins.

But lately, twitter’s decline has felt precipitous. While we were all stuck at home, locked down in various degrees of mentally deranging isolation, twitter took a quantum leap into mind-boggling incoherence and grotesque rage. I expect you noticed, especially when it became so intense and clamorous that it managed to blow the lid off its bubble and landed on the front page of The Sun newspaper, where its puny, slop-brained avatar bragged about slapping a woman hard across the face. Twitter’s hero.

There is something deeply disorienting, brain-mangling even, about how twitter turns established ideas and moral principles absolutely inside out, such that burning books and witches is sport now pursued by so-called writers and liberals. The morally inverted world of twitter is one where violence is routinely tolerated, but critical thinking is not. It creates cognitive dissonance, always telling us two contradictory things and demanding we believe both simultaneously. It gives contradictory instructions which we must follow to the letter. And in turn it surveills us extensively. It tests us constantly for compliance. Every word we say, and every sentence we write, will be scrutinised with an eagle eye for the least generous and most twisted interpretation possible. If you are deemed to have meant something bad (even though you did not say anything bad) you are held to account for that badness. Indeed, if you are deemed to have even read something bad, this alone can be used as proof of your badness, as if to read a text is an unforgiveable collusion with its content. And if, having been accused and convicted in the same swift finger point, you are insufficiently grovelsome, penitent and ashamed in your apologies, the next step is the cancellation, your expulsion from the group. Whatever the real world implications of this (and they can be many and varied) there is also a deeper, existential fear at play. You are to be turned out of your tribe, away from the light and warmth of the metaphorical fire, and this, according to that ancient primal worm at the back of your skull, means death.

So it is that twitter begins to take control of our minds. We are told we must not follow bad people and we must not read things that do not come from approved sources. Not even, for example, an essay by the world’s most famous, successful and beloved children’s writer on a topic of widespread interest. If you cannot resist the temptation to read it, you must be vigilant against its corrosive influence, and warn others that it is a disgusting hateful screed, even if you can’t personally detect any of the hateful parts, because it is well known that the author has pure hate in her heart and is secretly communicating, through ingenious coded phrases, her hidden murderous intent. On the other hand, her hatred is also said to be so blatant that only those afflicted by some character defect, or over-excess of personal privilege, can fail to see it.

This lose/lose situation is practically designed to create anxiety and confusion. And these are, I’d argue, excellent psychological conditions in which to cultivate a society of vulnerable, fearful, self-censoring dopamine-addicts, alienated from themselves, extremely emotionally pliable, and so mentally overtaken by the newly rigid strictures of normal expression that they can no longer hear their own creative voice or the call of their soul.

Mind control, as we know from the study of cults, and from the grassroots movement exposing narcissism and sociopathy, will eventually drive people not only to exterminate their own creative instincts, but to seek constant reassurance and validation that their thinking never deviates from the correct path. On twitter this may take the form of emotional extortion and lists of demands, especially where the person’s sole form of ‘political activism’ is tweeting. These people are also at risk of denouncing their friends, neighbours, coworkers, teachers, and even family members in return for ‘likes’ and also, of course, to distract attention from their own crimes and shortcomings. In other words, pointing and shouting at someone else might simply be the best tactic they’ve got to stay safe — although honestly, this early in the game, it seems a tad over-zealous. As I recently tweeted, a lot of people are screaming “Don’t do it to me! Do it to her!” and we haven’t even got to the bit with the rats yet.

And yes, George Orwell’s 1984 is indeed bandied around twitter like some kind of ancient prophetic scroll we all got handed at the start of this shitty LARP. Thought crime is a real thing now, absolutely meaningless nonsense parades as academic theory, two plus two equals something I don’t even want to say because it might add up to something else tomorrow. News is falsified, history rewritten and lies repeated. And of course, there’s the hate. Twitter is the two-minute hate, scrolling forwards and backwards for all eternity.

But as frighteningly prescient as Orwell undoubtedly was, the writer who most deeply understood and foretold the horror of our present political world must be Philip K Dick. With his uncontrollable dimension hopping, his cosmic yet invasively intimate systems of surveillance, his unending opening of the doors of perception, his embodied madness and waking hallucinations, Philip K Dick somehow seemed to know that one of our biggest and most intractable problems would be with reality itself. He foresaw that meaning would break down, that reality would fragment, and that we would be stranded, alienated from our own inner truths, powerless against the chaotic incoherence of a mind we cannot fathom.

Slowly but surely this artificial mind appears to assimilate all other minds, degrade thought to the texture of a slogan, and turn all voices into its mouthpieces; unconscious mouthpieces to utter and amplify its insanity. Yes, PKD would have recognised twitter for exactly what it is – a monstrous mind-controlling entity that seeks dictatorial power over reality itself.

It’s surely undeniable that we are subjects of a giant, global mind-control experiment. We find it so pathetically hard to give up those teeny tiny hits of dopamine it sometimes provides. But we have no idea what effects it is ultimately having on us as individuals, families, communities and societies – although so far the signs are NOT GOOD. Only one thing is clear: the time to get off the crazy train is now. Free your mind while you still have the chance.

ESCAPE ROOM: ANDREW HOOK

Last time I saw this photo, the Rubiks cube was not solved…

My writing space is an alcove of the dining room using a regular PC, keyboard and screen. It’s not perfect, but when the house is empty or everyone’s asleep it does allow me to create some headspace and it does mean I’m surrounded by books; including the shelves containing everything I’ve been published in (out of shot in the pic). I did have a dedicated office space in the upper part of the house where I wrote for over sixteen years. It was ideal. But when our daughter Cora was born she moved in there so my ‘office’ went downstairs. Seven years later my eldest daughter moved out, Cora moved into her room, and my old office is now my partner’s office. Go figure.

I prefer to write when there’s either no one in the house or everyone is asleep. I’m a bit of a grouch when it comes to being interrupted. If I’m writing short stories then these tend to fall out of me fully formed. I rarely have to edit those other than a few word changes or grammatical edits. I tend to write them in one sitting. Anything longer than four thousand words just depends on the unavailability of everyone else. It can take months to write a novella, snatching a bit of time here and there. So whilst my writing days are few, when I do write it is productive.

Other than listening to music to create a mood (see below), I don’t have any other stimulants. I don’t drink tea or coffee, and very rarely drink alcohol at home. I might just have some ginger beer and some peanuts within reach. Other than that it’s just myself and my imagination.

Because my writing time is rare, anything that can shut out the rest of the world is welcome. Music is perfect for this. I sit down, hit play, and I’m immediately back where I left off in the story. I won’t choose anything too abrasive or lyrically challenging, as this works against the process, but anything subtle can help with ambience. And once I’ve begun writing, the music barely registers, it fades in and out of my consciousness, even when the same song is played over and over (the record for this is “The City Never Sleeps At Night” by Nancy Sinatra which I played seventy times whilst writing a short story called “Blanche” – published in “Something Remains”, Alchemy Press).

Favourites include Bjork, Blonde Redhead, Coeur de Pirate, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (but only the album “Push The Sky Away”), late Echobelly, The Flaming Lips. I know some writers prefer soundtracks and although that’s not my thing, for one nature-themed story recently I did write solely to birdsong. A few years ago James Everington asked me a similar question and a link to his blog (with links to the music) is here.

Distractions: the 9-5 day job, the Sunday job, the freelance proofreading I do most evenings… although the biggest distraction is a seven year old who has taken to staying awake til 10pm. On the other hand, my mini-collection “The Forest of Dead Children”, is inspired by my reaction to that. So, swings and roundabouts.

I can’t write without solitude. Interruptions border on the violent.

The most enjoyable part of writing is actually doing it. For me, writing is so much a part of how I identify that having the space and freedom to get on with it allows me to be myself. I don’t find anything about it that isn’t enjoyable. I know a lot of writers aren’t keen on editing, but I don’t tend to do much of that and don’t find it much of an issue. Being immersed in creativity is a real high.

I think my best writing in this space has been what I’ve come to call my ‘celebrity death’ stories. For those reading this who I haven’t already bored to death with this theme, I’ve written twelve stories based on the lives of Golden Era Hollywood celebrities who died young. I really felt I was channeling something important writing these pieces – and occasionally goosebumped myself in the process. They’re intricate, multi-layered, respectful and affectionate. It’s just a shame that I can’t seem to sell them for toffee.

For the first time in about ten years I’ve lost impetus with short stories. The market seems to have shifted and (from my point of view) it appears genre boundaries have returned to parameters which are more clearly defined and my work doesn’t easily sit within that. Last year I began a novel without any idea where it might go and as it turned out it didn’t go more than 7000 words. So I’m in a rare period where I feel disheartened. As an alternative, I’m trying my hand at non-fiction, working on a book about a film. I can’t say much more than that at the moment, but this will be my work for 2020. Of course, writing non-fiction is a hundred ways different to writing fiction: I can’t write with music, I tend to eat constantly, and I actually have to remember stuff and do research. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m writing fiction again, but I am enjoying it.

Andrew Hook is an unstable entity whose material form suffers from interdimensional glitching. His fictional output in our dimension has been prolific, with over 150 stories published, as well as several collections, novels and novellas. Find out more here or just go straight to EvilCorp and buy his books.

ESCAPE ROOM: MICHAEL WALTERS

‘It’s like being inside an elephant’

We have a spare bedroom that I use as a writing room. It used to be my daughter’s room, but we swapped, so I painted the walls grey with some leftover paint, mainly to hide the disastrous job I did removing her wallpaper, and now it’s a bit like living inside an elephant. The Christmas fairy lights have stayed up. My wife saved the poster from my book launch last August, which is now on the wall. I can’t play the guitar, no more than a few chords anyway, but I like having it next to me. There’s a bookshelf with old notebooks, a printer, all the short story collections I own (they used to live with the novels downstairs, but we ran out of space, so this was my quick, cheap solution), books about writing, and books I’m using for researching current projects.

Not in the picture is a cluster of three frames on the wall — a photo of me with my parents at Grosmont railway station, a self-portrait I made when I was four that my sister found and framed as a birthday present (‘This is me’), and my Creative Writing Masters certificate. It’s a little shrine of sorts.

I write every day in my notebook, often in a coffee shop on the way to work — how I’m feeling, what I dreamt the night before, what’s bothering me, how projects are going, that sort of thing. I’ll usually share something on Twitter too, which I treat as part of my creative writing practice.

There’s no routine for writing fiction. It’s led by the project I’m working on. I’ve just finished a short story, and for that I spent a couple of weeks letting ideas take shape in my head, another couple of weeks writing in short bursts, and a final fortnight editing it to completion. When I am writing drafts, I write whenever I can make a spare hour — before work, lunch hours, or evenings. I find these periods exhilarating at first, but they quickly get very tiring, and I can’t stop until I’m happy with it. Right now, I don’t want to write another word.

I can’t listen to music and write. I need quiet, or the background babble of a coffee shop. Music is too interesting.

Anything can distract me from writing if I’m not in the intense phase of a writing project. Over the years I’ve beaten myself up so many times for procrastinating, but looking back, a lot of that was trying to write something before I had a good idea. I wasn’t patient. Writing every day, or a certain number of words per day, doesn’t work for me. When I try, I just feel crappy, and what I write seems crappy. I haven’t found that showing up every day and writing creates good ideas.

My ideas come when I’m not writing but doing other things — watching films, having conversations, being with my family, just everyday life. Ideas pop into my head, and they’re usually not very good, but sometimes a couple won’t go away, and I’ll do something with them.

The most enjoyable thing is editing a draft of a scene and seeing something good that I hadn’t intended. A connection appears and the story opens up a bit more. That’s a wonderful feeling. Finishing something that I know is as good as it can be is great too. The relief and letting go. That is a much rarer thing because I haven’t written many stories that get to me to that place.

Writing is least enjoyable when I’m exhausted because I’ve pushed myself too hard. I have a full-time job as a software developer, and a family with two kids, so it’s really important to me that I look after myself and stay healthy. I find it hard to step back when a writing project is in an exciting phase. Self-care is a project that’s always in the background.

Finishing my debut novel, The Complex, made me very proud, and then finding out it had been picked up by Salt changed everything for me. It made me believe in myself and the quality of my work.

My next novel has a title, some locations, and characters. I haven’t written anything yet. It’s still swirling in my mind. I’m not sensing the need to start writing — but I do have some books I want to read related to it. The big projects are still pretty mysterious to me. A short story might take a couple of months, and I fancy writing another one, but The Complex took three years. I don’t know if the next novel I write will go the same way. Christ, I hope not. That one hurt.

In work and school, we focus on collaboration and working in teams, but there is something healthy and magical about working on something alone. Writing is how I explore personal issues creatively. I’ve learned over time that for me it is an essential activity. I’ve had writer’s block for long periods, several years at a time, and it was debilitating. Writer’s block can make you feel like utter shit.

The value of what we write isn’t always obvious. Writing makes no financial sense. I’ve wondered many times if it is the best use of my life. But I can’t argue with how I feel when I don’t have a writing project on the go, even just as an idea that is percolating. Most days, writing is a slow trudge through daily experience.

Slowing down and noticing how I’m feeling underneath the rush of daily life has become necessary if I want to stay healthy. It’s a manic world and there are plenty of ways to avoid your emotions, including reading and writing, if done in a rush. Creative writing isn’t just stories and poems, it can be writing about your day in your notebook, for nobody’s eyes but your own. This is most of my writing. And it’s a whole-body activity. Writing feels better when I exercise, eat lots of vegetables, get enough sleep, and stretch my aching body. I’m not getting any younger.

Michael Walters’ acclaimed debut novel, The Complex, is published by Salt and available now. Find out more here or tweet Michael @michaelwaltersx

ESCAPE ROOM: ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Did someone mention walkies?

I love my writing space! I have a study which I decorated and set up and filled with lovely things, so I feel very lucky. Our house is really old and the study has an ancient fireplace and creaking cupboards and a very wonky floor, so I decorated it in quite a traditional style with soothing greens. The desk though is modern (IKEA – Shhh!) and I put it together myself, which I discovered I really enjoyed doing, though it was tricky finding the precise spot to balance it on that wonky floor and I’m pretty sure it has a bit of a slant.

The green shelving was originally in another room but I pinched and painted it so that I could fill it with pen pots and cards from friends and ceramics and pictures and other nice things to look at when I’m supposed to be working. Oh, and it has a skull-monster in a bobble hat who lives in a vase (but everyone has one of those, right?) Behind me are more shelves with some of my books, my to-be-read pile and some handy reference tomes. There’s also usually a sleeping dog or two in here somewhere.

Fountain pens are never far out of reach. I’ve clearly become slightly obsessive about them, and indeed pen pots (it’s all fellow writer Priya Sharma’s fault), along with my favourite Leuchtturm notebooks. I have quite a stash of those ready to use and I really need to stop buying stationery, but just… not… yet!

My mornings are mainly about feeding and walking my two Dalmatian dogs, then once I’ve woken my head up with some fresh air, I can get stuck into work. I usually start off with any adminny stuff before I get my head engaged properly (or maybe that’s just called ‘procrastination’). Sometimes I’ll be drafting a novel, or I might be researching and jotting down ideas or working through piles and piles of editing. Some days I just sit there in a kind of catatonic state staring at the screen hoping that words will magically appear. Those are not good days.

I can’t listen to music while I write. I know some writers have playlists to go with whichever book they’re working on, and that’s all very cool and I love the idea, but somehow can’t do it in practice. I have images of myself happily typing away only to find I’ve typed out the lyrics of whatever I’m listening to, over and over…

There isn’t much I can’t write without, though my chair is one of those easily overlooked things that’s actually pretty important to me. It’s super-ergonomic and rescued me from some nasty neck/upper limb problems a few years back. It’s snazzily attired in a snood a friend gave me because it matches the dogs.

Speaking of which, my main distractions come in canine form. They’re really good at snoozing the afternoons away while I work, but that hour before lunchtime is another matter. Vesper can be especially insistent that it must be time to eat – she’ll paw at my desk and rattle my chair or nudge my arm or jump onto my lap or disappear under my desk and scratch at the footrest or whatever her latest ploy is. I should probably threaten to make her into a snood.

The most enjoyable part of writing is the writing and the least enjoyable part of writing is the not writing, if that makes any sense! What I mean is, there are days when my head’s down and I’m in the zone and don’t notice time flowing past. Those days are golden. Then there are days when it’s treacly and one word won’t seem to follow the next and ugh ugh ugh. That happens sometimes mid-book, because I’m not a very thorough plotter and I’ll sometimes write past the point where I know what happens next. I do like to allow for some flexibility in the middle of a novel, but it can also be frustrating.

Of the books I’ve written in this room, I’m probably proudest of my first historical novel, The Hidden People. It’s based around some of the dark fairy folklore I love – I’ve always found the idea of changelings delightfully creepy, whereby people are stolen away by the fairies and doppelgangers left in their place. It’s also the first book I wrote where I got halfway through and realised there was far more going on than I’d planned, and that the plot was going to get more complex than anticipated. I love it when a project takes on its own impetus and starts to surprise me.

At the moment I’m working on a mixture of things. I’m editing a novel based around the Cottingley fairies and indeed fairy lore, tinkering with a Victorian piece about – well, doppelgangers, but not changelings this time, and I’m starting to piece together a whole new idea which I’m excited about but it’s just too early to give any details. It feels like that would be putting an industrial fan in front of a little cloud of dust that’s just beginning to coalesce in the air. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive.

Right, it’s time to stop pretending I’m all healthy with that big glass of water on my desk and make a proper strong cuppatea…

Alison Littlewood is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Hidden People, The Crow Garden, and her latest, Mistletoe. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson award for short fiction, and her first novel, The Cold Season, was picked for the Richard and Judy Bookclub. You can find out more about her work here.

there is other magic

Thinking about this new book, HONEYBONES. It’s a book that has driven me in strange ways. By which I mean, it’s a book that has insisted on itself. No compromises.

The story had been haunting me for a long time, a decade or more. I’d attempted it a few times, but it never seemed to work out. For quite a while I called it ‘The House of Mirrors’. It was about something – fairytales, crows, a house – but I couldn’t really make sense of it. I spent a lot of time dreaming about the book. I wrote in mirror-writing, inside out.

I can’t remember now quite how I came up with the idea of ‘dreeming’ and Dreemy Peeple. I know it started with the dolls, the creepy dolls Anna finds in the bedrooms of her stepdad’s house. It was the brand name, stamped into their plastic casing. Then, somehow, the dreem took on a life of its own. I worked it out in various short stories that ended up in my collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS. (There’s an oblique reference to THOW in HONEYBONES – a million dinosaurs to anyone who spots it!) And finally, it started to bring forth this story.

Other things which didn’t seem quite to fit anywhere at first, like an exercise in ventriloquism from the cully king (himself a character from a much earlier story, CROW VOODOO), and then all these songs and bits of plays and other books – they all swirled about this girl, this house, this dreem. I cut 20,000 words. I cut another 20,000. When I had something that looked passingly like a story, I called it done. And – a stroke of luck – Andy Cox at TTA Press snapped it up.

That was lucky for lots of reasons. One big reason was that Andy, used to working with temperamental artists [insert eyeroll emoji here] wasn’t terribly bothered when I took the story back a few times and made some reasonably significant changes. He didn’t even mind too much (or at least he didn’t let it show) when I took it back again and re-wrote it SUBSTANTIALLY. Like changing the whole thing from third to first person, re-writing major plot points, taking out a couple of characters and, oh yes, completely changing the ending.

I couldn’t help it; I was seized by an instinct about how the book should be and I couldn’t sleep until I executed it. That last re-write took me a few days of writing, practically non-stop, sitting at my kitchen table drinking a whole lot of black coffee and not thinking, not thinking at all. When I was done, I knew I was finished for real this time and – for all its faults – HONEYBONES was as close to the story as I was going to get.

Another thing I have to be grateful to Andy for. The manuscript I sent him was a mess of different fonts, colours, amateur attempts at typographical effects. The cully king has to speak with this voice, you see; and the writing needs to fade away here; and this part should look like an old book; and and and. It was a lot. So many editors would have just said no to it all. Who do you think you are, House of Leaves? But Andy got it. He understood that it mattered for the book to look a certain way, feel a certain way, use text to tell the story. So he found a way to make it work.

I am as proud of this book as of anything I’ve written, possibly prouder, even though I maybe have no right to be. It wasn’t easy to write, except for when it was. But it pushed me. It made me experiment – sometimes from inspiration, sometimes from desperation. At other times as a ‘fuck you’ to the people and things that held me back. So forgive me if I bang on about it and spam you with links for where you can buy it (here! Buy it here!) And please don’t hesitate to ask if you need a review copy or an interview or anything else.

honeybones pre-orders

HONEYBONES is currently at press and now available to order here. If you want to buy Malcolm Devlin’s ENGINES BENEATH US at the same time (and you absolutely should!) then it’s an even better deal.

If you’re a book person looking to review HONEYBONES or interview me about it, please get in touch. I’m ready to talk!

honeybones

Here is the cover for my little book HONEYBONES, coming soon from TTA Press as part of their novella series, which will also see the brilliant Malcolm Devlin‘s ENGINES BENEATH US coming out at the same time. So please buy both books if you can!

Malcolm’s weird brother, the award-winning artist Vince Haig, did the cover illustration. I am so honoured to have had Vince illustrating several of my stories over the years. He somehow managed to tell the whole story in this picture – not an easy feat! It’s a beautiful illustration and I feel very lucky.

HONEYBONES is definitely in the realm of horror. It’s actually one of those twisted fairytales I like to claim I don’t write. It’s Bluebeard, Snow White, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses gone very, very wrong. It also features Dreemy Peeple (indeed this is where the Dreemy Peeps began) and a lot of mirrors and feathers and that sort of thing. A brief descriptive blurb says:

A troubled girl, a haunted book, a house of illusions and enchanted mirrors. Anna Carrow just wants to make things right between her and her mum, to please her stepdad, and keep out of the way of school bullies. But her efforts only seem to lead her further and further from reality, deeper and deeper into paranoia and delusion, until she finds herself tangled inside a twisted fairytale, face to face with the sinister Cully King. Now Anna has to decide which version of reality to believe in. But how can you know who to trust, when your mind is playing tricks on you?

If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, watch this space! HONEYBONES will probably be a bit like that. It’ll be available to buy very soon and I can’t wait to see what people make of it. Thanks to all for your support!

our side of the road

There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.

Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.

Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.

Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.

I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.