Camilla & Castillo | Engaging with Clare Azzopardi

To say that my adoptive home country is going through some turbulent stuff right now would be the understatement of an already-overstated century, but that doesn’t mean that wallowing in the chaotic morass is in any way productive or desirable… addictive as it may be.

Irreconcilable paradoxes and hastily grasped-at truths and half-truths are often the hallmark of great fiction, for the very reason that they tend to bug and scare us most of the time. This is where writers (and artists of every ilk) can actually step in to do some undeniable Good Work that affects Society at Large. By giving these ambiguities a thorough airing, they can allow us to point at our condition and feel truly ‘seen’.

Clare Azzopardi‘s latest novel Castillo is many things, but at its root is a desire to express the ever-relevant – and now, sadly, even topical – helplessness we feel when faced with endemic corruption and apparently sanctified violence. Amanda Barbara seeks out her estranged mother following the death of the father who raised her, only to learn that the matriarch was errant as well as absent: almost off-hand, she confesses to committing two murders a couple of decades ago and feels not a little bit of guilt about her actions.

Castillo by Clare Azzopardi

The real twist in the tale in many ways is the involvement of Cathy ‘K.’ Penza, also recently deceased and by all accounts the ‘cool aunt’ figure for Amanda… not least thanks to her side-career as the celebrated writer behind the ‘Castillo’ crime novels, extracts from which Azzopardi regales us with in interspersed chapters that deftly and joyfully display a masterful grasp of cross-genre pastiche.

It’s not just because of the novels-within-a-novel device – though this may be the most explicit manifestation of this strand of Azzopardi’s many talents – but with Castillo, Clare Azzopardi once again proves herself as one of the most engaging and full-rounded authors in the local sphere.

A novel about gender, motherhood, the reverberating and unresolved echoes of political violence past, Castillo always remains very much a detective novel through and through, albeit one with a ‘twist’, relegating the conventional cloak-and-dagger and noir trappings to the embedded fictional detective, but leaving plenty of work for Amanda to do.

This, to my mind, is the true strength of Azzopardi’s novel: never once does she drop the ball, never once does she forget to do the necessary TLC that ensures this aesthetic cohesion that makes the novel such a solidly held-together experience. The ‘Castillo’ chapters aren’t just a clever garnish, they are firmly rooted to it all. The spectre of violence made manifest. If journalism is the first draft of history, the detective is its first archaeologist, digging up bones marked with streaks of fresh flesh.

Here’s hoping Castillo is translated thick, wide and fast.

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Some shameless self-promotion now, though not unrelated to the author under discussion. Last year, we’ve had the privilege of adapting a short story by Clare Azzopardi into a short film, and we brought in a landmark work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to help along.

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Camilla‘ was co-written by its director Stephanie Sant and myself, produced by Martin Bonnici of Shadeena Entertainment and made possible thanks to the National Book Council (Malta), after it won its Short Film Contest in 2018. The source material is taken from Azzopardi’s award-winning, female-centered anthology Kulhadd Halla Isem Warajh, and in adapting the story I did a bit of archaeology of my own, calling up Laura from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ to serve as an audience stand-in and ultimately, protagonist, in the interest of keeping the enigma at the root of the titular character intact.

Both roles were played with sensitivity, grace and quiet potency by Steffi Thake and Irene Christ, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

‘Camilla’ is now free for all to see on YouTube, and I hope you enjoy it.

Literary Homes Away From Home | TIFA & Malta Book Festival

The life of the freelance writer can be nasty, brutish and long… at least it certainly feels that way as the deadline trenches continue to spew up new nasties and your trusted friends and allies get lost on the way, or are thrown into their own mix of churny nastiness.

All of this is to say that I haven’t quite been able to keep this blog up and updated as often as I’d wished (a perennial excuse/complaint by those of my ilk), which this time was particularly regretful given the awesome stuff that lies ahead.

Namely…

The Toronto International Festival of Authors 

Thanks to the kind collaboration/collusion between Merlin Publishers and the Consulate General of the Republic of Malta, I was able to say “yes” to the kind offer by the organisers behind the Toronto International Festival of Authors, a truly prestigious literary event that this year will feature guests like Angela Davis, John Irving, Adam Foulds, Adam Gopnik, Emma Donoghue and a plethora of intimidating-sounding others for what will be its 40th anniversary edition.

It still feels a little bit unreal to me, and I’m sure it’ll remain so right until we actually land in the beautiful-seeming city after what will be my first trip outside of Europe.

The grounding factor are of course the events I will be participating in, which are the following:

Reading & Conversation: Karen McBride, Teodor Reljić and Drew Hayden Taylor

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Saturday, October 26, 2019 – 4:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

These three authors examine the hidden secrets with which we live, in family life and in our hometowns. Karen McBride presents her first novel, Crow Winter. She is an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation in the territory that is now Quebec. Drew Hayden Taylor presents Chasing Painted Horses. He is a playwright, short story writer, novelist, journalist, activist for Indigenous rights and TV scriptwriter. Teodor Relijić presents Two. He is a writer of fiction, a freelance feature writer, and culture editor and film critic at MaltaToday. The conversation will be moderated by Wendy O’Brien. Hosted by Tunchai Redvers.

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Europe On Tour: Reading & Reception

Sunday, October 27, 2019 – 7:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

No passport needed to meet, hear and learn from the European Union’s leaders in contemporary literature at this special event. For the second year running, the Festival is thrilled to present this rare chance to hear acclaimed works recited live in the languages in which they were originally written and in the authors’ own voices.

Spotlighted countries include Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. This event is presented in conjunction with the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Written English translations will be available. Readings will be followed by a licensed reception and the event will be hosted by Laetitia Delemarre.

Featured authors include:

Kai Aareleid (Burning Cities),

Esad Babačić (Every Child is Beautiful When Born),

Helena Janeczek (The Girl with the Leica),

Frido Mann,

Wilfried N’Sondé (Concrete Flowers),

Inês Pedrosa (Still I Miss You),

Rein Raud (The Death of a Perfect Sentence),

Teodor Reljić (Two),

Teresa Solana (The First Prehistoric Serial Killer),

Benedek Totth (Dead Heat),

and Gabriela Ybarra (The Dinner Guest).

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Authors on Tour at Union Station – Day 3

Monday, October 28, 2019 – 12 PM – 2 PM

The Toronto International Festival of Authors has partnered with Toronto’s Union Station once again to bring spirited author readings to Toronto’s busiest commuter interchange.
Hosted by Antanas Sileika, the events will spotlight a select lineup of authors, as well as a “Books On Tour” Library of favourite Festival titles of the past 40 years, which passersby are welcome to take home with them free of charge. Each author will present from their latest book on the topic of “travel” or “journeys” and interact with the audience. The event will take place in the West Wing of Union Station, immediately off the Great Hall at street level.

Next… 

The Malta Book Festival  

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A beloved event that is only growing from strength to strength with each passing year (much like Malta Comic Con, whose second day I’ll be attending pretty much after my Toronto-via-Rome plane back home lands on the Luqa gravel), this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival is especially exciting for me.

Its chosen theme of speculative fiction is obviously close to my heart, and it is for this reason that its organising body, the National Book Council, kindly allowed me to pitch a couple of names into the ring of their then-burgeoning programme.

Happily, this resulted in both Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kali Wallace to be selected for participation in a few events at the festival, both of whom I’ve met and made friends with at Cons in the Scarborough and Helsinki, respectively. They round out a set of international guests which also include Dave Rudden and none other than Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. My contributions to the Malta Book Festival, which runs from November 6-10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, will be the following:

Kali Wallace at the National Book Festival 

I will be interviewing Kali Wallace on November 7th at 18:00 about her already-prolific and eclectic range of novels, which span from horror to sci-fi, YA to middle-grade to adult fiction, and the latest of which has just been optioned for a big-budget film adaptation.

Kali wallace

Official event description:

U.S. author Kali Wallace will be talking to Teodor Reljić about her already prolific output, which includes the Young Adult cult favourites ‘Shallow Graves’, ‘The Memory Trees’ and ‘City of Islands’. Their talk will touch upon the dynamics of genre fiction and publishing, the difference between writing for young adults and adults, the legacy of space-horror thrillers such the ‘Alien’ franchise and their influence on her most recent work and debut novel for adults, ‘Salvation Day’. Because it is only right, a portion of the conversation will also be dedicated to a consideration of both interlocutors’ undeniably adorable fluffy cats.

Official Facebook Event

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Literary Speed Dating

Prior to that, I will also be participating in the inaugural edition of the Literary Speed Dating event, which according to the National Book Council, “will take place at the Authors’ Hub, a space specifically designated for one-to-one meetings during the Malta Book Festival.

“The idea behind this initiative is to get individuals from the public to meet you as an exhibitor/participant/important stakeholder in the book industry at the Malta Book Festival, in a setting which is more private than the usual ‘from behind the counter at the stand in a festival attended by thousands”.

My own slot will be on Wednesday, 6 November from 17:30 to 18:30, right before the Festival’s annual conference, which will this year feature Loranne Vella, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kali Wallace and Dave Rudden in a discussion of the ‘strange new worlds’ propsed by sci-fi and fantasy fiction, as moderated by author and translator Mark Anthony Fenech.

Okay, time to strap in, literally and metaphorically. Hope to meet a bunch of you in the flesh! 

Talking Camilla & Two on Taħt il-Qoxra | Radio Interview (Maltese)

Though the bulk of this weekend was taken up by that annual and very much welcome celebration of rock, punk and metal in my very own adoptive hometown — Rock the South — I also got the chance to make a happy pit stop over at the national broadcasting studio to record an episode of literary radio show Taħt il-Qoxra (‘Under the Cover’), hosted by Rachelle Deguara and broadcast on Sunday on Radju Malta.

It is now online, and you can have a listen by clicking here.

taht il qoxra

Joined by my co-writer on ‘Camilla’, Stephanie Sant (also the short film’s director), we delved into how the short film came to be; from my seizing of that rare and frenzied jolt of inspiration that led me to combine Clare Azzopardi’s subtle-but-cutting short story with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla‘ as I jotted down the treatment; to Stephanie lifting the lid — somewhat — on the historically intricate backstory that served as our ‘true north’ for two key characters.

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Asked about how the indigenous film industry can up both productivity and quality, we jumped on the chance to evangelise the importance of having a solid script, while lamenting the prioritisation of film servicing over production in the local sphere.

All of this is burying the lede somewhat for me though… since the interview had to be done in Maltese given the programme’s format, approach and target audience, I couldn’t exactly wing it. But a spot of rehearsal earlier on seems to have done the trick, and the ensuing interview flowed along quite nicely, I felt.

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Towards the end, I also got a chance to talk a little bit about my debut novel Two — which is about Malta but is in fact written in English — just a few weeks shy of its fifth birthday. I’m glad that people are still keen to hear about its evolution and what it means to me, which is a great deal, even if projects like ‘Camilla’ are shinier and more exciting right about this point in time.

On that note, watch this space for news on future screenings of ‘Camilla’ — more info as soon as we have it, which will hopefully be pretty soon.

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Watch the trailer for ‘Camilla’ here

Find out more about Two here

 

Book Reviews | Ancient Gods, Fallen Angels and Other Dissolute Beings Awaiting the End of the World

I’ve stopped logging my reading into Goodreads, mainly because I felt it was gamifying the experience for me far too much, and this really not the kind of headspace I want to be in when considering what I Wish to Read, what I’m Currently Reading and what I’ve just Finished Reading.

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As with most pseudo-social and insidiously easy-to-use interfaces, the Goodreads model only appears to respect the fluid ebb and flow that characterises the reading experience for most people. But in actual fact, asking us to list and show off our reading is just another way of adding undue pressure and exhibitionism over something that should be experienced in the deep inner recesses of our mind.

So rather than ‘clocking in’ – an even better term than logging in, I think, implying an employee-like schedule/adherence to the gods of social media – I thought I’d chat a little bit about some of the books I’ve recently enjoyed, in a way that’s hopefully more germane to the intuitive and flowing pleasure that reading them implies.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

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Perhaps opting to go for the audio route with this one was the best decision I could possibly make, as Stephen Fry’s self-narrated jaunt across the annals of Greek mythology is delivered in the lilting, bordering-on-placid notes that make him such a becalming yet enriching presence for many.

As regards the content itself, the tales are of course unbeatable in their timelessness, though Fry’s expansive approach is friendly and accessible, even if it risks ending up on the wrong side of avuncluar some of the time.

Much has been made of Mythos being published roughly around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, and the comparison illustrates precisely what I mean: where Gaiman retells key episodes from Nordic myth in lean, seductive cuts of self-contained story, Fry plays the encyclopedic know-it-all card. Not content to simply give us the stories, he will emphasise the linguistic and cultural strands that characterise the gods and personages that populate the myths.

It makes for a far ‘baggier’ affair than what Gaiman has to offer in his shoring up of the deities from up north, but it’s no less entertaining for it, and Fry made for an amiable companion during my self-administered work commute.

A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

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While I did not go for the audiobook route when it came to this hilarious and unputdownable trip across a music genre that defined me as a young man (it was a chance find at a local bookstore — quite rare, given that Malta is rapidly becoming swallowed up by a giant chain on that front), O’Neill’s voice quickly burrowed its way into my brain.

Unapologetically subjective (“Whitesnake can fuck off”) and in no way a conventionally authoritative, sober historical tome, it nonetheless reads like an impassioned and thoroughly lived-in love letter to an expansive, beguiling and often problematic musical genre whose intensity is often impossible to recapture in any other medium.

And that’s just it: a sober analysis would not have passed muster — it would have failed to capture the knotted, abrasive wall of sound that characterises that amorphous term, ‘metal’*. O’Neill is our man for the job. A black magic-practicing stand-up comedian who is also the vocalist and guitarist for the Victorian-themed hardcore punk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing. Can you really think of anyone else able to take up that mantle with the requisite amount of jagged style and grace?

The book made me ‘LOL irl’ in a way that only the likes of Terry Pratchett have done for me in the past, and it was also a contributing factor to me saying ‘fuck yeah!’ when a couple of friends suggested we go see Slayer in Glasgow on a month’s notice. Never underestimate the power of literature to influence impressionable young minds, folks.

Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey

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While Lucifer may feature heavily in all things (or at least, most things) metal, Peter Grey’s careful and thorough exploration of the evolution of the figure we’ve come to know as Lucifer sternly discourages any such shallow appropriation. Published in a gorgeous edition from Scarlet Imprint (which Grey runs with his partner Alkistis Dimech), Lucifer: Princeps is a beguiling and not-easy read, cleaving close to Biblical sources in an attempt to closely trace the most significant instances of the Lucifer figure, in what also serves as a preamble volume for Grey’s upcoming, Lucifer: Praxis.

With scholarly precision and an impatience for romanticised reimaginings of Lucifer and all he stands for, neither is Grey dismissive of the figure he considers to be the repository of Western witchcraft. Instead, as he writes in the introductory chapter (aptly titled ‘A History of Error), “My aim is to be effective in sorcery, rather than be ensorcelled”.

Long John Silver by Björn Larsson

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A life of itinerant freedom has always held a fascination for me, mainly because it represented a brighter flip-side to the many limitations otherwise imposed on a former ‘third country national’ such as myself. So of course, I will be magnetically drawn towards pirate narratives, and Larsson’s novel, which I found in a gorgeous bookstore in Rome after having Googled it as Black Sails withdrawal kicked in, provided that… and more.

Indeed, this novel may have been published in the early nineties, but its gritty revisionism is closer to the spirit of something like Black Sails — and the plethora of unapologetically violent anti-hero narratives that populate the crates of contemporary ‘prestige TV’ — while also using a seductive first-person narration to draw us into the story of Long John Silver, both before and after the events of Treasure Island.

In fact, the true genius of Larsson’s book is not its apt emulation of old-school adventure literature, and neither is it his evocative and often disturbing ‘maturation’ of the same (the slave ship segments don’t make for an easy read, for one thing, but this only helps Silver rise in our estimation: he is a no-bullshit narrator, at the very least). It is that Larsson’s Silver plays the same trick he played on young Jim Hawkins. He gets you on his side.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

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Ever since his twisty, layered, rich and creepily satisfying fourth novel A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay has been on top of the list of writers to read for horror fans of all stripes, down from little old me and up to the likes of Stephen King himself.

The Cabin at the End of the World strips down his approach from the formally ambitious acrobatics of ‘Ghosts’ and is even more close-hewn and minimal than its immediate predecessor, The Disappearance at Devil’s Creek (which shows up in a sneaky cameo, an Easter Egg for true Tremblay fans).

Telling the increasingly harrowing story of a small family whose vacation at a remote rural cabin is cut short by a group of seemingly ‘well-meaning’ cultists, Tremblay’s latest initially reads like a screenplay, with his present-tense sentences flitting perspective from one character to another while maintaining a fluid third-person narration throughout.

It’s a shrewd formal choice that fits both the apocalyptic ticking clock that characterises the story — a looming axe that’s about to drop  (or is it?) — that generates both basic suspense while providing a rich fount of thematically-relevant ambiguity. But what really impressed me is that in the end, it actually feels less like a film than a harrowing stage play: something Sarah Kane or Philip Ridley could have written.

The limited setting and cast of characters makes it so: there’s something classically Greek about how this all pans out — all in real time, and forcing us to ask hard questions to ourselves, and our culture at large.

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If you enjoyed these mini book reviews, please consider buying my own novel, Two. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Malta that blends realism and fantasy, and it has been described as “dreamy, and poetic and often exquisite“. Find out more about it here.

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*Though I humbly put forward the ‘Thor vs Surtur‘ scene at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), set to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, as a pretty apposite distillation of what metal at its best should be all about.  

[WATCH] Literature in the Diaspora & Interview with Nikola Petković

The National Book Council of Malta has uploaded two events that I was happy to be involved in during the National Book Festival, which this year took place — as ever — at the Mediterranean Conference Centre in Valletta between November 7 and 11.

First, there’s the recording of ‘Literature in the Diaspora’ — a conference on the subject that I chaired and which included an eclectic selection of speakers, among them Lou Drofenik (Malta/Australia), Nikola Petković (Croatia), Vera Duarte (Cape Verde) and Philip Ò Ceallaigh (Ireland). 

It is of course a huge subject to have to tackle, a fact that becomes even more challenging once you consider your time limit and the desire to accommodate the various viewpoints on offer. But the main take-away from it all, I think, is an embrace of the inherent variety that lies in the diaspora, and a need to resist cut-and-dried ideas of what narratives about nationality should be about, and how we should respond to them.

Next, I was happy to get a chance to ‘zoom in’ on one of the speakers at the conference — the Croatian author and academic Nikola Petković, during a chat about his novel ‘How to Tie Your Shoes’ — which was significantly translated into English by the author himself.

The dynamics of self-translation were one of the many subjects we touched upon, in a conversation which I’d like to think ran as wide a thematic gamut as the prickly, bitter and wrenching ‘confessional’ novel itself, which uses a heavily autobiographical story to touch upon the patriarchy, national identity and the fallout of the Yugoslav Wars.

When you’re done with those, do check out the remaining videos from this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, uploaded on the National Book Council’s YouTube channel — an interview with special guest Naomi Klein conducted by my colleague Matthew Vella being among them.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that the highlight of the festival for me, however, was the premiere of Camilla, the short film that I co-wrote with director Stephanie Sant and adapted from the short story of the same name by Clare Azzopardi, with a dash of Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ thrown in to help the shift from page to screen and indulge our vampiric tendencies further.

Brought to sumptuous life by producer Martin Bonnici and his team at Shadeena Entertainment — a process aided in no small part by the National Book Council’s funds — it was a pleasure to finally debut the film to an enthusiastic audience on November 10, and I look forward to the next stages of its distribution. Watch this space.

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A representative sample of the team behind ‘Camilla’ (dir. Stephanie Sant, centre)

 

 

On The Tee-Vee | Two & Some Favourite Books | Wicc imb Wicc

It’s been a bit of a strange month; something I’ll be delving into with cautionary coyness in a subsequent blog post. So much so that I’ve missed out on both writing some proper entries over here, and even simply putting up updates on cool stuff I’ve been involved in and invited to.

And one of these actually happened on exactly the day of the premiere of our last burlesque show — the latest thing I spoke about here in some detail before the hiatus. This was an interview for the television programme Wicc Imb Wicc (‘Face to Face’), put together by the National Book Council of Malta, recorded on the very morning of the premiere of Apocalesque. (In fact, beady-eyed viewers might just spot the remnants of hastily-removed cropse-paint eyeliner post-dress rehearsal the night before).

wicc imb wiccThe interview is now up online for all of you to check out, should you be up for hearing an extract from my novel Two — read out by the show’s host, the actress Antonella Axisa — and/or hearing me be interviewed by the same Antonella about some of the key themes and plot dynamics of the book itself. That’s all before my favourite segment of the show kicks in, however: talking about some of my favourite and most energising books.

Among them are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, and Moebius’ hallucinatory classic of a graphic novel, Arzach.

Find out more about Wiċċ imb Wiċċ here, and log on to the National Book Counci’s YouTube channel to watch previous episodes.

 

Two – Now on Amazon

My debut novel, Two, has finally made its way to Amazon (UK).

Two by Teodor Reljic. Cover by Pierre Portelli

Cover by Pierre Portelli

Published in March 2014 by Merlin Publishers, Two was a culmination of a total of three years of work, starting out as flash fiction piece for Schlock Magazine, evolving into a Nanowrimo project before finally being beaten into the shape of a parallel narrative — whose main trigger stemmed from Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, though the content could not be more dissimilar — that is part coming-of-age story, part love letter to Malta’s evocative landscapes (both urban and maritime) and part a vindication of the love of books.

I spoke about a significant three-year anniversary recently, and it seems as though 2014 was a fairly significant year for me. The subsequent years have been rather more experimental — which was a necessary and enriching step — and I hope that a lot of the non-novel projects that I have been working on (comic book, film-related and other media work) will yield some fruit pretty soon.

In the meantime, I surprised myself by starting to work on something else on the sidelines. Something which is not distant from Two in both form and spirit…

Click here to order Two 

Click here to find out more about Two

Here’s one for the misfits | Alistair Rennie | Interview

A new book has arrived on the scene which makes short work of your social and sexual mores — no matter how liberal you believe yourself to be on this front — to say nothing of  the way it dismantles the categories and limits of what genre fiction can and should do. BLEAKWARRIOR by Alistair Rennie is a work of ‘Sword & Debauchery’ that appears to be inspired in equal parts by Conan the Barbarian, Mortal Kombat and the steroid-pumped, airbrushed work of British comic book maestro Simon Bisley, but with a healthy dose of extreme pornography placed side-by-side with postmodern literary theory. In short, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before, and as my review of it confirms it certainly discombobulated my own brain in the most satisfying way imaginable. 

Now, the man himself steps into these unhallowed halls to make some soft — or not so soft — disturbances of his own. Chief of which is the possibility of more BleakWarrior-related craziness in the future…

Alistair Rennie

Alistair Rennie

Alistair… first of all, welcome to the Soft Disturbances interview lounge. Are you sitting comfortably, and if not — why?

Not comfortably at all because you have reputation for asking difficult questions.

Okay, so… BleakWarrior appears to have emerged from a deep simmering well of adolescent rage, bile… but also an overarching enthusiasm for life (and death). It is a violent novel about sex, and a sexy novel about violence, with the permutations of that binary being stretched to the most scintillating spectrum you can imagine (or can’t, really… not until you’ve read it). Beyond the aesthetics at play here — we’ll get to those later if you don’t mind — in terms of the psychological experience of wanting and/or needing to tell this story, was this something you’ve been wanting to get off your chest in a while?

I suppose I’ve always had a rebellious, renegade instinct that’s been with me since the day I was born – not so much as a consequence of adolescence but because of what I am. It’s something that defines me and will remain with me indefinitely – through childhood, adolescence and beyond. There’ll always be an element of rage in anything I write. But it’s mostly a force for good – energy-bringing and inspiring.

BleakWarrior partly comes from this, yes, but it also sprang, quite suddenly, out of an idea I had for writing a graphic novel. But I didn’t know any artists who could draw a full length graphic novel, so I decided to create a graphic novel using words rather than images. Part of the extreme nature of the sex and violence in BleakWarrior is a sort of literal transcription of the kind of visceral imagery you see in graphic novels.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie

And then I also decided to be super ambitious. I looked at my favourite examples of fantasy – Conan the Barbarian, the Elric stories, and I thought, “What can I do to follow up on those examples? How can I push this in a new direction? How can I create a character who takes things in a new direction from Elric, in the same way that Elric took things in a new direction from Conan?” Conan is quite a forlorn, lonely figure in many ways. Elric is utterly tragedian and tortured. So, I thought, “how can I create someone who’s more tragic and forlorn than they are?”

It was quite a pompous approach, but aiming high can be a good way of reaching higher.

It’s also true that a lot of the rage in BleakWarrior actually comes from what was happening at the time I started writing it – the second invasion of Iraq, the most pointless stupid war you could possibly imagine in the modern day and age. The way our governments ignored our protests, our sorrow, our pleading with them, our more vigorous demands – it was infuriating, excruciating, too much to bear.

BleakWarrior is a very misanthropic novel. This is one of the main reasons why.

And underlying all of this is something perhaps more in line with stretching back to adolescence and beyond – my abiding fascination with extremes, taking things to their furthest limits. This is more of a Romantic notion that has always appealed to me – since I was a child, I think.

‘Overindulgence’ and ‘pretentiousness’ are two of the bluntest and most commonly distributed weapons for the populace to lob at authors, and artists of every variety. BleakWarrior appears to be poised as the perfect nightmare scenario for those who would lob said weapons: being a ‘clever’ piece of genre pastiche written in a style that only an alien entity with a skewed sense of proportion would call ‘minimalist’. Did this cultural tendency ever creep up on you as you were writing, and how did you react to its gaze? And generally speaking, what do you think about the tendency to extol the minimalist and outwardly modest as more ‘worthy’?

I think I was always aware of the risk that you take when you overstep the boundaries of measured writing, subtle writing, curated writing that exercises restraint and fine-tuning.

But it was the only way to do it because the stylistic excesses are part of the whole dynamic of taking things to an extreme – where the language itself becomes a physical embodiment of the thematic content of the novel.

The style has to reflect the subject matter in order to create a uniform effectiveness, I believe, which is to ensure that the work reaches its maximum potential, as well as to underline those thematic intentions. I opted for excess, for overindulgence, in the same way that we opt for overindulgence during festive occasions. Drunken revels, fireworks, crazy dancing, festival rites, cosplay – there’s a time and place for all of them – and the principle is as true in fiction as it is in real life.

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

Conan the Destroyer by Frank Frazetta

Is it pretentious? Well, all fiction is pretentious in the sense that it pretends to be true. But I think if you remain true to an idea, to the vision of what you’re trying to create, then you’re doing it all with an honesty and sincerity that is the very opposite of pretentious. So I think, if you stick to the truth of the idea, then you’re likely to steer clear of accusations of pretentious overindulgence, because most readers will sense that sincerity, even if they don’t necessarily like what it’s offering them.

I also think that the idea that stylistic flamboyance, hyperbole, exaggeration are somehow equal to pretentiousness is a misunderstanding of their effectiveness as modes of expression in fiction. They are highly suitable, if not necessary, for certain types of storytelling. Fantasy and horror often benefit enormously from such a lack of restraint.

And, as for the question of applying greater value to a particular kind of writing, this is tremendously wrong-headed and can only serve to nullify the variety of writing that makes it both interesting and wonderful. To apply such values can only serve to impede any efforts towards originality that in writing – or any creative process for that matter – are necessary in order for it to thrive.

In a strange way, there’s a certain opacity to the novel too… the characters are alien (and alienating) figures with no real names, and plenty of emphasis is laid on the philosophical underpinnings of the characters and their world, with physical description being intense when it does appear, but it scarcely does. Were you ever worried that the novel won’t be ‘immersive’ enough for the reader?

There are one or two people I very much esteem who told me (in critiques of the first chapter) that they found it hard to relate to the story because the main characters weren’t human. I can understand where they’re coming from, because a part of our reading experience often depends on forming bonds with characters – or some of them – and from getting a sense of identification with them.

In this case, though, the criticism (which is entirely valid) doesn’t bother me, even while I take it on board as something to bear in mind for future work.

Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould

Elric of Melnibone by Robert Gould

The reason is this: BleakWarrior is a book about outcasts, weirdos, misfits, creatures of the underworld, of the peripheries, which is also written *for* outcasts and weirdos, for people who don’t fit in, who’ve never felt comfortable with the social and political systems they’re forced to belong to as a matter of course – not through choice, but through the inevitable prevalence of the mainstream, its abysmal soap operas, its dire commercial music scenes, its hideous game shows, sterility of purpose and political idiocies, its obsession with drabness, the self-righteousness of its mediocre tastes, and the incessant glorification of its ludicrously unimaginative worldview.

BleakWarrior is a misanthropic indulgence which scorns humans for their useless inability to make life interesting.

Another question in relation to you vs the reader binary… The novel’s uniqueness makes it almost impossible to describe without lapsing into deadening cliches of the “It’s like XYZ on acid” variety. But there’s such a performative (bardic?) thrill to some of the most extreme set-pieces that it’s almost impossible not to imagine you thrilling to an audience reaction to them. So my question is, despite the novel’s extreme nature, did you in fact write it with the prospective readers in mind?

I’m always going to be a coming from a position of subversive intent, so I’m always writing for people from a cross-section of the real or imagined tribes I belong or aspire to – the Goths and punks and metalheads, the renegades, upstarts, malcontents, the nature freaks and eco warriors, the children of the underground, the activists, non-conformists and subcultural minorities of all shades.

I have to ask: where do we go from here? Is a BleakWarrior franchise in the offing? (My gods… it would be like the Bizarro World equivalent of Game of Thrones, wouldn’t it?) Or do you want to shift gears to something to completely different?

I’ll certainly be writing more BleakWarrior and have already got a substantial amount written for what I’m very imaginatively calling BleakWarrior 2. And I’ll keep trying to put it out there.

I’ve been very fortunate, I think, because I hit upon an idea that has a lot of potential for going in all sorts of directions, and one that fills me with enthusiasm. It can be very difficult to conceive of ideas that encourage you to keep going with them, without hitting a blank wall or losing heart. So, in this case, there’s always something to add, always possibilities for expansion, always openings for new paths to take. You can imagine that having a simple rule of taking things to extremes and imposing very little restraints on anything gives you a lot of scope for having fun.

But a franchise?! The seas would have to run dry before that happened. I do have a dream that someday someone will make an animated film or series out of BleakWarrior. In fact, it would be true to say that this idea has always offered a blueprint for me to follow when writing the story. It’s part of this idea of creating a graphic novel (or anime, in this case) that is created in words rather than images. It’s an abiding principle that’s been there from the start.

On a final note, and to channel an influence very close to the essence of BleakWarrior… Alistair, what is best in life?

Red squirrels. And osprey chicks are very cuddly and vitally important for our aquatic ecosystems. But I also like being with friends; mountains, sea and sky; fleeting encounters with the Sublime; wine, *insert gender of your choice* and song; and the character of Ravenswood from Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s not what you were expecting, was it?

*

Do check in at BleakWarrior’s official website, which also features a free accompanying soundtrack to the book. Alistair Rennie’s freshly launched blog Dreadful Nights deserves a generous chunk of your time too, packed as it is with great cultural and political insights, along with a short, sharp essay on the Sword & Sorcery genres that is already appearing in various foreign-language publications. And in case you’re not already convinced that this inspired shot of crazy should make its way into your home library, do give my own review a whirl.

The Stars Are In The Gutter | Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie | Book Review

First, some music

It’s a wonderful bonus that Alistair Rennie‘s debut novel BleakWarrior has its own soundtrack, composed by the author himself, which you should definitely check out and listen to while you leaf through his gloriously crafted sledgehammer of a book. But for the purposes of this review, I propose the following piece of music to set the tone. I trust it will soon become clear why this selection was made.

New Weird or weird-weird?

There is an argument to be made for Alistair Rennie’s work slotting in rather neatly into the improvised sub-genre labelled ‘The New Weird’. After all his short story, ‘The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines’ was the only original entry in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The New Weird (2008), where it was presented as a sort of laboratory experiment of what’s to come — if anything is to come at all — for the genre under discussion, celebration and dissection.

Well, reams could perhaps be written about the ins-and-outs of the New Weird itself (for my part, I wrote something of a middling MA dissertation on the subject) but thankfully, Rennie went ahead and developed the germ of what lay in the original short story into a head-bangingly bizarre novel, BleakWarrior, released earlier this year from Blood Bound Books.

Weaving in yet another short story pertaining to the same (secondary) world, which was also published under Ann Vandermeer’s watch during her all-too-brief and unceremoniously interrupted spearheading of Weird Tales, Rennie’s novel does boast a general thrust towards weirdness — but whether said weirdness can be pinned to the aesthetics of any particular genre is another thing entirely.

Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie

BleakWarrior by Alistair Rennie (Blood Bound Books, 2016). Cover illustration by Maxwell John Hudetz

BleakWarrior may resemble a superhero name — and he may have the abilities that vaguely match some superheroes — but the protagonist who wields it in Rennie’s novel has no alter ego. Neither do his erstwhile colleagues who populate the rather high-strung planet Rennie has concocted. In fact they boast names like Automanic, Gutter and The Light That Never Shines.

And their main mission in life is to obliterate each other with no rhyme or reason. Who needs alter egos, who needs a private life and relaxation time when endowed with such a single-minded mission? (That’s for the ‘Linear’ beings, not the ‘Meta-Warriors’ we’re concerned with right here.)

I’ll get to the main plot motor in a moment, but I’d like to dwell on this for second, because it’s important. 

What Rennie captures so well is the hedonistic and atavistic thrill of having just such a brutal sense of purpose in life. The knife’s edge walk between creation and destruction — more to the point, between sex and violence — is what Rennie appears to be insatiably obsessed with. The inexorable churn of brutality that these characters engage in feels both inevitable and — operating within the hellish logic that Rennie sets up — strangely beautiful.

In lesser hands this would have felt like an adolescent indulgence: an exercise in attention-grabbing antics to an audience of lobotomised gore-hounds and their scandalised elders.

But then, the kicker.

You see, BleakWarrior suddenly grows tired of killing people without knowing the reason why. So begins his quest; which will of course be punctuated by blood and thunder — and blood and guts — while also being placed in direct parallel to that of The Sisters of No Mercy (their name a hint at yet another aesthetic fetish that Rennie very much gives vent to in the novel’s make-up): two expert warriors slashing and fucking their way through an organ-retrieving mission in the hopes of revitalising their dearly-departed ‘Middle Sister’.

This allows Rennie to have the cake and eat it too — an often-frustrated adolescent indulgence now given full vent. By placing a philosophical conundrum at the very centre of this monstrous clusterfuck, Rennie asks you to pay attention, all the while bending your mind with the very nature of this juxtaposition. Rennie has written eloquently on what makes the Sword & Sorcery genre so special, and  BleakWarrior’s amoral world of violent supermen and women out for nothing but more violence certainly evokes that genre to some degree.

But the kicker kicks it all into crazy town. Since this is a book better experienced than explained, here’s a few extracts to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Whorefrost’s cock is long and thin with a remarkably bulbous head that makes it look like a bauble on the end of a stick. His testicles are disproportionately large and, like the rest of his body, hairless. More to the point, his egg-sac is teeming with semen that has an unusual potency: it is deadly cold and, to this extent, biologically devastating.

Humidity hung to the Fetid Mountains like a lubricant. The slopes were thick with an organic welter of sprawling variations of fecundity and decay. There was an aura of prototypical distinction between emergent species that took the principle of diversification to extremes that hardly seemed worth the bother.

…But what was most alluring in the appeal of the girl whose name they didn’t know was the potency of her vaginal juices that spilled over the lips of The Sisters of No Mercy with a sublime and syrupy thickness that seemed to fill their brains with infusions of erotic wonder. The taste had a weighty tang that produced an effect of mild invigoration mixed with a prolonged sense of internal melting, like being absorbed by the outer shades of a celestial aurora.

Notice how the perfectly sculpted — and it must be said, somewhat arch and archaic — prose serves as a jolting cymbal crash when combined with the XXX-rated stuff under consideration? Of course, it’s also funny, which feature Rennie exploits to full effect.

Yeah. This shit will fuck you up.

Hail, Dionysus

BleakWarrior is literature to the Nth degree. It’s a work by someone who is hopelessly infatuated with the ‘lower’ genres but whose love and enthusiasm for them is filtered through a mature intelligence and a respect for and knowledge of the art of fiction. The obvious clue of the ‘Meta’-Warriors gives that detached postmodern element to all the craziness.

In fact, this is a novel that gets its animating friction from the simple fact that it’s at constant war with itself. It’s a novel chock-a-block with one sensationalist set piece after another — a Jacobean display of torture porn Grand Guignol that will serve as a benchmark for prose brutality for years to come — but that’s delivered through a strong narratorial voice with no interest in simply remaining in the gutter (with the Gutter). Instead Rennie wrings the experience for all that it’s worth, making sure to play with ideas as well as bodies.

But gods damn it, what will remain etched in your brain is the images. The voice will only help you take them seriously as part of an interesting new project in genre writing. One that will hopefully spawn a plethora of imitators — to say nothing of more, more, more from Rennie himself, hopefully — which will grow over the literary terrain like rancid but glorious fungus.

For BleakWarrior is a a child of Dionysus filtered through the voice of Apollo… until you realise that it’s not Apollo at all, but a trickster god the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

In short…

This shit will fuck you up.

Loneliness relief: collaboration & writing

Having slogged three years to write a debut novel – that’s really a novella – I’m finding myself more and more drawn to collaboration as a default mode of planning for and engaging in future projects.

It’s partly to do with wanting a fresh start – Two was revelatory and educational to write, but also a fearful trudge with no apparent end in sight (personal matters which coloured the narrative itself, and others that didn’t, further cast a shadow on the experience).

But it’s also simply down to that alchemy of opportunity and the desire to experiment with different forms. As is the same with most of my generational colleagues – I suppose – experiencing fiction was always a multi-media experience for me: what with cartoons, comics, video games, cinema and literature usually existing side-by-side, and even more so now that ‘media convergence’ is such a blatant aspect of everyday life that even the term itself sounds redundant.

TWO_TeodorReljic

A comic book project of mine is currently on the rocks, but some TV/film based stuff might just take off. Either way, the process of creation for each of these things was markedly different to what I experienced with the novel.

Brewing largely in my head throughout its three-year conception period, Two was as obstinate and unwieldy a draft of novel that you can imagine – perhaps more true than ever in this case, with a parallel narrative structure defining its contours.

The new projects, on the other hand, are being put together in an atmosphere of constant dialogue – quite literally,  plot points and character beats are drafted in conversation (with a whiteboard and marker never too far behind).

I’m finding it to be a great way of busting out of the warrens of endless possibility on the one hand, crippling self-doubt on the other, which tend to characterise the pitfalls of writing prose fiction from scratch. Collaboration both gets you out of your own head to enjoy some fresh air, and forces you to ‘make your case’ to another person at every turn.

Discovering the joys of structure mechanisms for storytelling is also something of a revolution for me. Again, like most people I know – or know of – I was initially sceptical of applying any form of overt structure to any piece of fiction I write a priori. For the usual reasons, of course: takes the fun out of it, ruins spontaneity, etc. Breaking out of that prejudice and exploring these options is proving to be far more liberating that I’d previously thought. But that’s something I’d like to talk about further in a future blog.

Here’s hoping that you’ll also hear more about the aforementioned projects here soon. Meanwhile, click here for all you need to know about Two, including where to order it from.