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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The 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.
They keep insisting that it’s a DRAFT schedule and that it’s subject to cataclysmic upheavals at any given moment, but it gave me something of a pleasant rush to discover that a progamme for Worldcon 75 is now out.
The ‘European myths’ one should be fun, while the latter is bound to be informative and somewhat cathartic (at least for me).
My own fractured European identity has provided me with plenty of subconscious fodder for fiction — the most significant of which is still forthcoming, I suspect — while my more direct use of Maltese folktales in Twois actually folded into the story in a way that obscures rather than illuminates the original work… which will be fun to reconsider, and potentially discuss with others.
With regards to ‘Coping Strategies’… I’m actually hoping to learn more from the others present, as I feel that the discussion has been somewhat exhausted in the Maltese sphere. Much like the geographical limits of the island, it tends to run in a churn of “Our audiences are small –> Translation options are limited –> As are international publishing networks –> Repeat.”
Having hovered over my co-panelist’s bios, it seems as though this year’s Worldcon is already living up to its promise to connect participants to a wide, international network of writers. Also, I must admit that sharing desk-space with the great Hal Duncan is something of a fanboy thrill.
Hope to see a lot of you there!
My visit to and participation in Worldcon 75 is supported by Arts Council Malta – Cultural Export Fund
My debut novel, Two, has finally made its way to Amazon (UK).
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…
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.
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.
“I rejoice at accepting [the award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.
“I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.”
“It’s tempting to think that we might do without these kinds of distinctions altogether. Why not just let books be books? The thing is that genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed. As it happens, there is such a system: it was invented by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye, and laid out in his 1957 masterwork, Anatomy of Criticism.”
“Lovecraft’s quality is obscured by his difficulty, and his difficulty is obscured by his popularity. If Lovecraft isn’t seen as a difficult writer, it is because of the pulp idiom in which he worked. [Jonathan] Franzen points to college as the place where people are made to read difficult books, but Lovecraft is an adolescent fascination. Lovecraft demands the careful attention that only a teen boy with little else to do – no high school romances, no sports practice – can muster. Lovecraft’s pulp provenance, and early spike by Edmund Wilson, kept Lovecraft’s work from being taken seriously. Only over the past twenty years, with reprint volumes via Penguin Classics and Library of America, with champions such as Michel Houellebecq and Reza Negarestani has Lovecraft earned a place in what we used to call the canon (while making quotation marks in the air with our fingers, notch).”
These are all problems that have been burning at my brain in some form of another for as long as I can remember (slight exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way). Because I take this very seriously for whatever reason – friends and family who know me intimately can feel free to psychoanalyze away – I’m driven to find an evolutionary root to our need to divide up literature into genres, and then argue about it endlessly.
Cards on the table: if I’m a follower of any critical school on this front at all, I’m a follower of Frye’s. His organic view of genre both suits my needs as a writer and provides me with an inclusive argument about genre that, ostensibly, short-circuits going-nowhere binary arguments on the issue. Also, there’s a pervasive paradox in the way I process this whole thing: I hate the idea of genre as segregation, but I don’t want us to do away with recognizing genres, because there’s an aesthetic pleasure in picking out what belongs to which tradition.
That Edgar Allan Poe influenced Lovecraft who in turn influenced Ridley Scott and Stuart Gordon and Caitlin R. Kiernan and Nick Mamatas and Cradle of Filth and countless others, and that the details stolen from Lovecraft by each of these artists are traceable to Lovecraft but still distinct, and that this intertextual richness evokes a kind of hopeful reminder of the prodigious human imagination, as it stretches across generations.
But on a more universal note, I will suggest that genre stems from a combined need for both INDIVIDUALITY and COMMUNITY. In this pantomime debate between the ‘literary mainstream’ and the ‘genre community’, the literary side is ‘clubby’ in the original sense of the word: the domain of an elite that gatekeeps itself into a privileged minority, with all the attendant ‘real world’ social implications of that.
While the ‘genre’ community, on the other hand, is seen as a regressive ‘cult’ circle that turns its back on the ‘real world’ in favour of a vacuum-sealed aesthetic that often favours the tried and tested over any attempts at current social commentary or formal innovation (perhaps the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is an iconic example).
But this perception – the pantomime is very much a perception – is made doubly complicated by the fact that we’re discussing works of art here. Leaving aside value judgements of the individual works of art in question, the reason why the genre debate will never settle into a peaceful resolution is because we’re asking the works of individuals to answer to the needs of a community, however large and nebulous this community may be.
There will always be mavericks, trailblazers, and ‘exceptions to the rule’. But even declaring that the mavericks are all that you like places you in a double bind: each maverick will have their influences, and in each influence – much like Lovecraft’s fish-god mongrels from Innsmouth – lies a genetic code that can’t be denied, and which ties back to a tradition.
Traditions are what genre is built on, and tradition will be something not even the most opaque of ‘literary’ fiction would be able to deny… strain as it might for originality and freedom from market constraints and critical labels.
We all want to be ourselves, but none of us want to be lonely.
I’ve stopped giving much credence to birthdays over the past couple of years (I’m writing this on the eve of my 29th). Once the rites of passage in life become murkier – i.e., after you’re done with school and have no set ‘stages’ to go through any more – birthdays start to feel truly arbitrary.
But something strange, and just about wonderful is happening this year: right now I truly feel like there’s some kind of culmination of the recent experiences I’ve been through.
But there’s other factors which have contributed to me feeling an increased sense of peace, and a receding of the persistent self-doubt which comes with – in a big way – from the very same arbitrariness that characterizes most of adult life.
It’s a hard-won sort of peace, though, and one which needs constant vigilance to be maintained.
I suppose the cost of growing up is, ultimately, the realization that bliss can no longer, at any point, come automatically.
Increased self-awareness also means an increased sensitivity to what is authentic about yourself – what you should keep and cultivate, and what you should discard because it’s no longer relevant to you: a dead-end road.
Authenticity was always a bit of a thorny subject for me; one the one hand yes, I work for a newspaper – which, at least ostensibly, trades in remaining authentic – while on the other, my primary obsessions are concerned with both the production and consumption of fiction.
A recent ‘catch up’ marathon for three films I’ve been wanting to watch – the ‘Before‘ films by Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (I know, I know) – put this in focus for me once again.
The trio’s breezy style clearly emerges as a result of consummate, carefully cultivated filmmaking, of course, but the way the films worry at concerns so delicate, intimate and – ultimately – relatable puts a number of cinematic attempts at the same themes to shame.
There is both a sensitivity and a kindness – as well as a dramatic dynamism, taking the shape of the best stage play’s effortless back-and-forth banter – to Linklater which made me think, first and foremost (and for whatever reason): Woody Allen is a fraud.
The comparison came to me just as automatically as that: finishing off either the second or the third ‘Before’ film, Woody Allen’s attempts at extrapolating home truths about sexual politics came to mind, and just didn’t ring true.
Where Linklater zooms in on an unfolding relationship between just two people – a thespian duo he clearly trusts – first by charming us with their idyllic romance but then boldly returning to his subject/s years later to shade that relationship, Allen props up his ping-ponging dialogue in the midst of cardboard cut-outs and facile plot developments.
My own reaction came as something of a surprise, because in recent years I’ve developed an increased fondness for artifice – a resistance to the ‘organic’ creation of art so vaunted by the Romantics, in favour of what we could, I suppose, at a stretch venture to call a more Decadent approach which places increased value on form and ornamentation.
In retrospect though, I think this may have something to do with the fact that over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to write my own fiction, TO MAKE MORE STUFF, and so the – broadly defined – Romantic idea of ‘waiting for inspiration’ or of dedicating your attention solely to the perfect subject that is closest to your heart was not really helpful.
Focusing on just putting the thing together, on the other hand, helped me to move forward, and so the opposing milieu became more attractive.
Now that the novel is done, though, I have to confess that ultimately, its autobiographical elements are what kept me going – or, at least, that engine that whirred in the background, quietly fuelling me ahead as I scrambled to put the whole thing together.
Having a personal stake in something – anything – by its very nature adds urgency to a project, and one of the best things I’ve heard said about Two is that it made some readers – two of them, actually, as far as I know – “give me a hug”, because they recognized the emotional authenticity of the book.
Truth is a slippery thing; I will never understand it, not fully. People are constantly called out on begin ‘phony’ and ‘fake’; even a kind of manufactured authenticity seems to have pervaded our culture (see: Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and countless other celebrities presented as ‘just one of us’).
But I’ll be happy if I hit upon it, however fleetingly, when “it matters”.
The Malta Independent – An interview by Colin Fitz, also delving into my work as a journalist. Some of the quotes come across as a bit pompous, and I’m fairly certain I was more self-deprecating during the conversation itself. But whatever.
If you – my fine, illustrious readers – insist on doing something for my birthday, might I suggest you pick up a copy of Two, either from “any good” brick-and-mortar store if you’re in Malta and Gozo, or through Merlin’s website if you’re seeing this from abroad? Shipping rates have been reduced to normal prices, thankfully, so you can order away without too much of a burden on your pockets. Ta!
It felt significant because my head was in a hectic, accelerated mess that day – peace seemed like a hardly achievable goal and then, I sat down in my favourite nook to read – for just under an hour – and the whirling clutter in my head decided to take a break.
I was glad to come across a particularly memorable passage, too.
“I knew him well enough to know that if you asked him the right way, at the right moment, he would do almost anything; and in the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after me and hopped in the car laughing if I’d asked one last time. But I didn’t. And, in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t – I say that now, though it was something I regretted bitterly for a while. More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street – which was, of course, ‘I love you’.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
It’s still early days, but I’m happy with the local reception of the novel so far. This being Malta it’s inevitable that your first (and possibly last?) readers be your friends and acquaintances, which complicates things somewhat as you’re never sure how honest they’re all being while dishing out praise. But luckily, some have qualified their praise quite convincingly, and I’m glad that others haven’t felt the need to sugar-coat what they didn’t like about it either.
But what makes me especially glad is that the reaction to the things I prioritised the most in the novel – atmosphere, ambiguity – is positive. I would hazard to say that this is the best a writer can ask for.
I’ll be keeping busy with collaborative projects in the meantime – the inherent loneliness of writing a novel doesn’t inspire me to dive into the process again so readily – but there is something about the process of long-haul writing that I do miss, at least at this relieved-that-it’s-over distance.
It becomes an organising principle; something to either dread or look forward to each passing day, week, month: regardless of whether you’re in a good place with it or not, it’s there, waiting. At its best, it keeps the relentless clutter at bay – it’s the space in your head that’s yours, and nobody else’s, and there is something thrilling about bringing a chunk of that shapeless aether out into the world.
So perhaps, despite my initial protestations, a second novel may be in the offing. Even if I write them in ten-year lapses like the aforequoted Donna Tartt…
My debut novel, Two, will be out from Merlin Publishers in just over a week’s time. The promo-machine for the book, such as it is, has been continuing apace, and it’s been great fun so far.
My good friend – the actor, theatre director and stand-up comedian – Philip Leone-Ganado wrote up a great interview on The Sunday Circle, which he also edits (yes, a Renaissance Man if there was one).
Photo by Jacob Sammut for The Sunday Circle.
Bolstered by great photos by Jacob Sammut (who seems intent on becoming my unofficial portraitist these days), it delves into the book’s themes, textures and origins, with a coda about the philosophy and day-to-day operations of Schlock. Click here to check it out.
Following the release of the interview, the guys behind Merlin Publishers and myself activated one of our first ideas for Two’s actual book launch, taking place at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, with the aid of Nicole Cuschieri from Creative Island. Seeing as the narrative of Two hinges on a big secret, we’ve decided to make secrets the focal point of the launch.
(Usage note: if you’re a first-time user of the simplyconfess.com site, you might need to click on the link and ‘enter’ the site — confirming you’re over 18 — then leave the site and re-enter via the same link.)
Finally – for now, anyway, because there’s still a couple of things I’ll be attacking you with in the coming week or so – we’ve also set up a Spotify playlist themed around the novel. I’d like to think that selection accurately reflects the mood of the book, at least to some degree. Click here to listen to it.
After the first couple of drafts of the book were finished, what I found most rewarding was doing my best to ensure that the texture and feel of it was flowing and consistent – a particular challenge in this case, given that the novel is structured on a parallel narrative.
Putting together a playlist that capitalises on that just feels like a (dare I say it?) well-deserved cherry on the cake.
Hope to see you on March 28. Overseas readers: we’ll keep you posted on ebook options for Two as soon as we have them.
I’ve just finished a draft of a short story which deals, obliquely, with my perception of the spaces I’ve lived and brought up in. Spaces I’ve inhabited – sometimes more vividly in memory than in reality.
Having been born in Serbia but raised in Malta – taking long summer trips to my native country while I was a kid – I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with the very idea of place, and how you’re supposed to, or not supposed to, belong to the places you’ve been put into.
This intimate (let’s call it ‘subconscious’) tension was further compounded by real-world concerns (read: I only acquired Maltese citizenship early last year, by which time I had been living in Malta for a healthy 19 years), which allowed plenty of time for subtle neuroses on the matter to germinate at the back of my head.
Not subtle: shells for sale
In what turned out to be quite an idyllic Sunday, I paid a visit to both the Birgu flea market and the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni. The day was a happy one for some obvious reasons. My haul from Birgu was substantial and special while also being cheap – ‘General Correspondence’ book dated 1922-1925 for the same price (€1) as Savage Sword of Conan #40? Yes please – and the journey to the ancient underground burial site was by turns calming and inspiring.
It’s one thing to encounter a taken-for-granted idea in the ether, but it’s quite another to see it alive in the real world. The Birgu market, an eviscerated sprawl of unwanted collectibles for the most part, is rich in telltale signs of Malta’s former British conquest.
One of my proudest purchases from there is a wonderfully un-PC book called Around the Empire: a guidebook on the parts of the world which then fell under British rule, “so that our schoolboys will know that they don’t form part of a country, but an empire.”
Look, it’s Casual Orientalism everybody!
This time I snagged an edition ‘The Wide World’ (dated December 1945), which is packed with charmingly illustrated exploits of British soldiers enduring hardship and adventure in ‘exotic’ places like India and South America. And neither is it a coincidence, I think, that histories of Windsor Castle (and some of its most notable occupants over the centuries) were very thick on the (Birgu football) ground.
Going to the Hypogeum right after the flea market was slightly surreal, because unless you count farming settlers from what would eventually become Sicily and surrounding parts of Italy, this was a glimpse of Malta long before any real colonisation took place.
These smoothly-hewn caverns cancel out all thought of propaganda and nationalistic paraphernalia – British or otherwise – and they invite a mystery that can be filled with whatever you wish.
This was partly my goal when I was writing ‘Two’ – to connect with something that feels intrinsically Maltese without infecting it with any received notions and romantic jingo. But there’s only so much drama you can wrench out of yellow rock, no matter how ancient. At some point, you have to bring yourself into the picture. And that’s when the real journey can begin.