Sunday, 9 February 2014

Blog Tour

Well, thanks Iain! After more than half a century trying, I’ve evidently managed to convince someone that I really am a writer – else why would the excellent Iain Maloney have nominated me for one of the next links in the blog chain?

And – oh look! Before I’ve even started here is a tempting digression lying by the wayside just waiting for me to pick it up! For doesn’t one forge links? And isn’t the ambiguity lurking in that one small word just crying out for someone to exploit the pun?

But, no – I will resist! Puns are all, without exception, snares and delusions. So I shall stick to just one kind of forgery forging.

So – to the questions. Let’s be properly focused and task-oriented about this thing.

What am I working on?

Oh dear. Perhaps I should have stuck to the forging of links. You see, I’m not sure I can truthfully claim to be working at anything just at the moment. Just thinking about working. (Wasn’t it that excellent and neglected Victorian humorist, Jerome K. Jerome, who professed an enormous fondness for work? “It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.) Well, I’m with J K J on that subject: I’m much, much better at thinking about work than actually doing it.

Enough facetiousness – for the moment, anyway. The work that I’m busy thinking about at the moment is book three of a trilogy that I always think of as the Tam books. Tam Goatland (to give him his full name) is, or probably was – his historicity is most uncertain – a boy who dwelt under the shade of an enormous and impassable mountain, minding his father’s goats. And the very impassability of that mountain draws him to it. What lies on the other side? The question all adolescents must ask themselves. So Tam Book One is “The Boy and the Mountain”, started in the late 1970’s, laid aside, and completed in 2013. How’s that for a breathless pace of work.

Having finished Book One (it’s on Kindle now) I set about Book Two, the start of which had been waiting for my further attention for more than 30 years – and finished it while on holiday last year. (Writing on Holiday? Of course! See my answer to the last question on the list!)

And since Tam Book Two (titled “The Boy among the Islands”) doesn’t end, so much as pause for breath, there must be a third book, mustn’t there?

So, if I can be said to be working, that’s what I’m working on – what happens next to Tam Goatland. Lots of ideas, but somehow no single thread that I can quite get hold of and reel in.

Perhaps I’ll have to wait another 30 years? I do hope not!

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

The problem, of course, is that wretched word, “genre”. I mean, I know what it means when applied to SF, or Historical Fiction, or Romance – any of those straitened railway tracks that much commercial fiction seems to need to run on. But most writing simply is not “genre” writing. I note the tendency for the blanket term “literary fiction” to step into the breach here – but I’m not really happy with that, either. It seems to me redolent with the kind of hubris a writer would do well to avoid. After all, would, say Dickens, ever have described his yarns as “literary”? I think not.
Ask me what kind of writing I engage with, and what’s distinctive about it, and I’ll have a crack at an answer.

So. As may already have been inferred, some of what I write is addressed primarily to young readers – adolescents/ young adults. The trilogy is set in a fictional world, set somewhere in the past, and wound around with the cords of an ancient mythology. Within those constraints, it is – I suppose – a kind of adventure fiction. It’s also a proxy for life’s big (awfully big) adventure, aka “growing up”. Whether that makes it different from any other adventure story, I don’t think I’m qualified to say. It’s just an adventure that grew from a single question (What’s on the other side of the Mountain?) and never set out to be other than sui generis.

It is, however, totally different from my other two published novels, “The Edge of Things” and “Slow Furies”, neither of which is in any way an adventure. The first is an exploration of the life of a young man whose life is lived on the margins of a society that has largely rejected him: the second is what happens when a lonely young widow delves a little too deeply into the affairs of her secretive neighbor.

Ah – genre, wasn’t it? That I was supposed to be exploring? Well, if you liked to, you could call the Tam books, “Adventure”, The Edge of Things “A Love Story”, and Slow Furies “A Ghost Story”. But none of those train lines would lead you to the kind of destination you might have expected.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I want to. Is that a sufficient answer? No? Ah well, I thought not.

Well, I cannot remember a time when I did not want to write, and I have a suitcase somewhere stuffed full of typescripts (ah, the dear, dead days of the old Olympia portable, before word processing allowed you to re-write even before you’d finished writing!) that will never see the light of day. At university I thought I was a poet – and then poetry began to seem too easy (so I guess it couldn’t have been very good) and I wondered whether I could actually write a whole novel.

And it turned out, I could!

So where does subject matter come from? Well, the Tam books I guess I owe to my trade as an English teacher, searching for congenial literature for often bored young adolescents. The late 60’s and early 70’s were a golden era for writers of fiction for such an audience, and I guess I just felt I also needed to give it a try. Edward Blishen – long dead and sorely missed – must take some blame too. In the 70’s he was commissioned by Piccolo (Pan books’ juvenile arm) to produce a series of re-writes of adventure classics – the Piccolo Adventure Library. They were none of them to be longer than 20,000 words, and all to be illustrated by the excellent cartoon graphics of Tom Barling. He’d already illustrated a version of King Solomon’s Mines, when Edward decided the text wasn’t as good as the illustrations and (to my astonishment) asked me to have a crack at it. In the end I re-wrote three titles (King Solomon’s Mines, Last of the Mohicans, and A Tale of Two Cities) and in doing so I learned an enormous amount about the art of writing.

The Edge of Things had a different Genesis. As Head of a large Comprehensive, I would often find that seriously troubled youngsters would end up in my study – if for no other reason than that it avoided having to exclude them and allowed other kids to get on with lessons. So was born Eldon, the central figure of the book – and Elly. Neither was based on an actual person, but each was informed by the corrosive troubles that were daily presented to me, and fictionalizing them helped me work with them. I hope.

And Slow Furies? Well, I just fell to wondering what mysterious lives were lived behind the huge and private gates that line the village road where I lived – and then Alice arrived spontaneously in my head and acted like a crystal around which the story grew.

So, no one answer.

How does my writing process work?

Well, several months/years contemplating a story and rolling it around in my head – followed by intense bursts of writing. I write very quickly when I start: it’s starting that’s the problem. Take Tam Book Two (The Boy among the Islands) for example. Started it in the 70’s, couldn’t see where it was going, became a busy professional teacher, father, husband, and forgot about it. Rediscovered it in 2013 and completed it while sitting on an astonishing balcony overlooking a tropical paradise on La Palma, with the whole of the wide Atlantic spreading out to the west. Astonishing sunsets. I think it took some ten evenings of intensive writing.

And that’s always been my pattern. Long periods of indolence creative contemplation followed by short and incandescent bursts of activity.

You see, at heart I am a very lazy person.

So – there you have it. The next name on the Blog tour is Steve Ely. Steve worked with me in Barnsley just before I retired, some 14 years ago, and I’m sure you will agree that he’s a much more serious and impressive contributor than I. His poetry is deeply rooted in the geography and history of his area, and his novel, Ratmen, taught me more than I needed to know about rodent life!

Here is his own introduction to himself:

Steve Ely is a writer from Yorkshire.  His novel, Ratmen, is published by Blackheath Books.  His book of poetry, Oswald's Book of Hours is published by Smokestack Books and was nominated for the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2013.  Smokestack will publish his second book of poetry, Englaland, in 2015.  He's just completed a biographical work about Ted Hughes's neglected South Yorkshire period - Made in Mexborough.'

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