By all means, paint yourself into that corner

‘Don’t paint yourself into a corner’ doesn’t make for great writing advice.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, painting oneself into a corner and then struggling to get out of it is often what keeps the piece from sliding into complacency.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it. It also means that to get out of that corner will require you to execute a seemingly impossible feat of mental dexterity.

And don’t lucky escapes feature in countless of our favourite stories from antiquity to now?

Of course, one never aims to paint oneself into a corner. Corners are not fun places to be, generally. After all, they are a staple of stereotypical classroom punishment for a reason.

If you paint yourself into a corner, it means you’ve taken a decision and committed to it

But the work of writing is fluid and conducive to change. And sometimes, that change is a matter of necessity, not choice. But maybe, that change — maddening and plan-shattering as it may be at the start — could turn out to be the spark that you needed to get your story going in the first place.

It could be that the corner was inevitable. That you thought you were heading out into a green valley of plenty but that in reality, you were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment and bumping your head in the corner of the room made you realise the reality of your predicament and now, how will you solve it?

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece. You can believe that inspiration will see you through, but ultimately all flashes of inspiration are just that: flashes. And you can map out your story based on the most rigorously researched schema this side of Joseph Campbell or Robert McKee, but rely too much on the mold and the creases will begin to show.

Some of the scariest and most satisfying moments in my own writing process for MIBDUL came when I realised I’ve locked down some narrative choices early on that will severely limit me later.

But once the initial panic wore off, possibilities cropped up. And the best thing about these new possibilities — which I won’t reveal for spoilery reasons, obviously — is that they did not crop up out of thin air, as new images and ideas rearing for a stillbirth and countless rehashing before being beaten into story-appropriate shape. They were reactions to already-existing plot points and character arcs, and so they came into a world with a shape and texture ready to receive them.

In the end, neither structure nor inspiration will save your piece

Instead of a domestic corner that you’re ‘painting’ yourself into, perhaps another variant of the metaphor would be more useful.

I prefer to think of it as the corner of a boxing ring. A place to regroup after being beaten down, and from where you can plan a fresh attack based on knowledge you’ve just gleaned about an opponent whose strength you may have underestimated…

Please support MIBDUL on Patreon

February Updates #2 | iBOy, RIMA, You Are What You Buy & the latest in Mibdul (again)

Some updates from my ‘day job’ desk-adventures. Happy to report that February is turning out to be quite the productive and creatively satisfying month. Click here to read the previous update. 

Questioning consumption | You Are What You Buy

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It was interesting to hear what Kristina Borg had to say about her project You Are What You Buy, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to assessing the implications of shopping at the supermarket.

“One of the principal themes of this project is consumption – what and how we consume. This does not solely refer to food consumption; one can also consume movies, literature and more. However, in order to reach and engage with a wider audience I felt it was necessary to work in, with and around a place of consumption that is more universal and common for all. Let’s face it, whether it’s done weekly or monthly, whether we like it or not, the supermarket remains one of the places we visit the most because […] it caters for our concerns about sustenance and comfort.”

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Kristina Borg

“An interdisciplinary approach definitely brings together different perspectives and different experiences and […] it could be a way forward for the local art scene to show and prove its relevance to one’s wellbeing. I think it is useless to complain that the arts and culture are not given their due importance if as artists we are not ready to open up to dialogue, exchange and distance ourselves from the luxury that one might associate with the arts. Talking about experience instead of a product might be what the local art scene needs. 

Click here to read the full interview

Fixing the moment | Mohamed Keita and Mario Badagliacca 

The migrants living at the Belgrade Waterfront are using the beams of abandoned tracks (or tires or rubbish) against the temperatures below zero degrees and to produce hot water. Photo by Mario Badagliacca

The migrants living at the Belgrade Waterfront are using the beams of abandoned tracks (or tires or rubbish) against the temperatures below zero degrees and to produce hot water. Photo by Mario Badagliacca

Ahead of their participation at the RIMA Photography Workshops, I got a chance to delve into the dynamics of migration — particularly the problematic way in which migratory flows are portrayed through mainstream political discourse and the media — with Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca, who tapped into his experience of documenting the realities of migration — most recently in my own native Belgrade — as well as Ivorian photographer Mohamed Keita, who took a self-taught route to photography after traversing Africa to reach Italy.

The power of photography is to fix the moment. Psychologically speaking, there’s a difference between perceiving a ‘fixed’ image and a ‘moving’ image (as in a video, for example). The ‘fixed’ image constrains us to reflect on it in a different way. In my case, I want the images to serve as a spur for further questions – to be curious about the stories I’m telling. I don’t want to give answers, but raise more questions. – Mario Badagliacca

Photography by Mohamed Keita

Photography by Mohamed Keita

Click here to read the full interview

Film Review | iBoy — Netflix takes the info wars to the gritty streets

Screams of the city: Tom (Bill Milner) finds himself plugged into London’s mobile network after being attacked by thugs in this formulaic but serviceable offering from Netflix

Screams of the city: Tom (Bill Milner) finds himself plugged into London’s mobile network after being attacked by thugs in this formulaic but serviceable offering from Netflix

I had fun watching the ‘Netflix Original’ iBoy — not a groundbreaking movie by any means, but certainly a fun way to spend an evening in the company of Young Adult urban sci-fi that slots into formula with a satisfying click.

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Love interest: Maisie Williams

“iBoy is yet another example of British cinema being able to strip down genre stories to their essentials and deliver up a product that, while hardly brimming with originality, still manages to create a satisfying piece of escapist entertainment. From Get Carter (1971) down to Kingsman (2014), the Brits sometimes manage to upend their Stateside counterparts by just cutting to the chase of what works without the need to inflate their budgets with unnecessary star power and special effects, while also toning down on any sentimentality and drama at script stage.”

Click here to read the full review

Patreon essay | MIBDUL & ‘that uncomfortable swerve’

MIBDUL & that uncomfortable swerve

Not exactly a ‘day job’ entry — though I wish it were — this month’s Patreon essay for our MIBDUL crowdfunding platform was all about me panicking over not having enough space to write out the story as I was planning it, and needing to make some drastic changes to accommodate this new reality.

“The thing about the detailed outlining of issues – and the rough thumbnailing of the pages in particular – is that, unlike the planning stage [in my journal], I approach them largely by instinct. This is the time when you have to feel your story in your gut, because you need to put yourself in the position of the reader, who will be feeling out the story in direct beats instead of painstakingly – and digressively – planned out notebook excursions. (To say nothing, of course, of the fact that the story needs to look good on the page – that the artwork needs the necessary room to breathe).”

Please consider donating to our Patreon page to access this essay and more

Do it for yourself | T.E. Grau | Interview

Horror writer T.E. Grau is slowly but surely carving a niche for himself as one of the most eclectic and artful practitioners of the genre in the American scene, as is borne out by his critically acclaimed debut collection The Nameless Dark — which we reviewed right here just a couple of days ago. Now the man himself steps into the Soft Disturbances interview lounge to give an expansive, generous and impassioned overview of what inspired him so far, and what we can expect from his upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore… 

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW BOX

T.E. Grau

When did you first realise that you wanted to start writing fiction, and did you act on this impulse immediately?

From as far back as I can remember, I had an interest in writing, and starting in my early teens, I fostered a nebulous, long-range plan for engaging in the serious authorship of fiction at some unspecified date. But instead of hunkering down and just doing that, I spent decades dancing around the edge of the well, writing everything else but fiction, including music journalism, review work, two different humor columns, tech writing, ghost writing, and dozens of intensely mediocre screenplays.

I think what held me back was I thought I needed to write a novel to be an author, and I didn’t have any ideas for a novel that were worth a damn, other than some bullshit pseudo-Hunter Thompson tale about an American drifting to China to document the last vestige of the American Dream on the opposite end of the world. It would have been awful.

At the tail end of 2009, while I was writing one of those intensely mediocre screenplays – which just happened to be for a horror film for which I was brought in to “add in some Lovecraftian elements,” as I had read and greatly enjoyed HPL’s work back in college – my wife Ivy changed the course of my creative life forever. She’d read some of my scripts, and enjoyed some of the exposition (overly long as it was), but also saw that the medium wasn’t a good match on either end.

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

Finally, as I was complaining about yet another round of ridiculous producers’ notes and re-writes on a script that probably wasn’t going to get made anyway, she said, “Why don’t you just stop with this screenwriting and write fiction?” That was it. No one had ever asked me that question before. Not in the 11 years I’d written scripts, nor the decade before while I’d written everything else, futzing around for local arts magazines and live music journals. The simplicity of her question – which hit my ears as a statement – was astounding. That I could just walk away from a medium into which I’d invested over a decade of my creative life but also grown to loathe, and finally pursue something that I’d always dreamed of doing. I “quit” screenwriting that very day, and Hollywood somehow plodded onward without me.

While reading and researching Lovecraft’s work for the script I’d just been working on, I’d discovered that there was such a thing as “Lovecraftian fiction,” stories written as pastiche, inspired by, and/or set in the universe created by H.P. Lovecraft. I had no idea this was a thing. But poking around a bit more, I found out that there were anthologies looking for short stories of Lovecraftian fiction, and that an editor (and RPG icon) by the name of Kevin Ross was looking for stories for his antho Dead But Dreaming 2, to be published by Miskatonic River Press (Tom Lynch’s outfit).

I think I’m a better writer because my journey to prose took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles

I saw that as my shot to break in. I didn’t need to write a novel to be a prose writer. I could write a short story, and ease my way into the fiction game. Find out if I have a knack for it, and then see what happens. I started writing ‘Transmission’, then started writing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ almost simultaneously. I pitched both to Kevin, and he vibed better with ‘Transmission’, so I finished the story and sent it to him, and he accepted it. My first completed, and purchased, piece of fiction. I held back ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ for five years, and first published it in The Nameless Dark: A Collection, even though it was initially written in early 2010.

VIDA OCTOBER BOOK REVIEW

So, my journey to prose was a long time coming, but I think I’m a better writer because it took so long, during which time I wrote for very few readers in a wide range of styles, and mainly due to the constant rejection one faces as a screenwriter. In film (not television), the writers are on the very bottom rung, and receive no deference and very little respect for their integral contribution to the content-making process.

That was important for me to experience, if only to get over myself and realize my fingers don’t weave gold with every keystroke. Ivy working with me as my editor was the other important factor, allowing me to finally understand that the fine tuning is just as or more important than the initial burst of creativity. That not every sentence (or paragraph or page) is precious and sacred. Defensive writers aren’t great writers. Confident writers kill their babies, because they’ll always make more. She taught me that, and I owe her everything because of it.

Why is horror such an appealing genre for you, both as a reader and writer?

I think you’re either born a person who digs the darkness or you’re not. And I don’t necessarily mean people who play Halloween dress-up every day, favor goth fashion, live as wanna-be vampires, practice Satanism, or something similar.

That’s cool and all, if that floats your boat, but what I’m talking about is someone who has a genuine interest, fondness, and deep affection for things that reflect a melancholy, a gloom, a doom, a general decay and reflection of mortality or pessimism. Things that are just a bit askew from the norm. The incomprehensible or the unexplainable. Liminal places of abandonment and decay. Rain clouds and fog. Desolate fields. Ruined buildings and oddly constructed houses. The vastness of outer space. Magnolias draped in Spanish moss. Mausoleums. Subterranean places. Attics. Abandoned barns and industrial sites. Vast stretches of trees. Cheap carnivals. Ancient caves at the bottom of the sea. The beautifully grotesque and the (Big G) Gothic.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

These are the essential salts, the foundation elements, of horror and fantastical fiction. It either appeals to a person or it doesn’t. You can’t force it, you can’t fake it (although some do try).

And while I’m a generally upbeat and affable person, my mind and curiosity and sense of wonder call out to those things, and when I encounter them, while most would be saddened or creeped-out or uncomfortable, they make me happy and content.

I feel at home. That’s what draws me to horror literature, and to those who can capture this sense of gloomy atmospherics, dread, and impending doom in the stories they write. There’s nothing quite like that. It’s a true power.

There are many definitions of the ‘weird fiction’ genre (which you’re also associated with). What’s yours?

I get uncomfortable with the various labels going around for what I like to call “dark fiction,” as I think people spend too much time trying to create then box-up subgenres of fiction for discussion or marketing purposes, or just for “team-ism,” which is rarely productive or positive. But I do like the term “weird fiction,” as it nods to the late 19th and early 20th century authors, including all of those amazing pulp writers, who added so much to fantastical fiction.

Weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death

Weird fiction to me is work of writing that introduces the unexplained – and usually unexplainable – into our rational world. It can – and often is – laced with the scientific, the religious, the historic, and the cosmic, taking real world facts and beliefs and twisting them just a bit, then setting them back on the shelf to distract our eye, as something just doesn’t seem right about them anymore. It’s peeling back a common facade and finding something unexpected and unknown underneath. It’s the odd, the uncanny. The bizarre.

Also, and this is just a personal opinion, but weird fiction to me is also defined by a literary streak, a core of elegance and elevated prose, which usually brings with it a sense of restraint in terms of blood, gore, or even death. Weird fiction can be quite subtle, but no less impactful in terms of unsettling a reader.

Would you agree that Clive Barker and Nathan Ballingrud are among the most powerful influences on the stories collected in your debut collection, The Nameless Dark? If so, why?

Clive Barker certainly isn’t an influence, as I had never read any Barker until the stories for The Nameless Dark were either finished and published in other places, or already plotted out. I didn’t read Baker during his heyday in the 80s, as I was still geeking out over high fantasy and sword & sorcery. The closest I came to horror was Conan books.

Nathan’s work isn’t so much an influence either (as, similar to Barker, most of my stories for my collection were already either finished or plotted when I read his work for the first time in North American Lake Monsters), but his writing was and is very important to me in terms of what the genre of dark/horror/weird fiction is capable of in this new century.

No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud

So, in many ways, he’s not an influence so much as an inspiration, as the fearless exploration of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and generally horrible behavior that lies at the heart of many of his stories hit me like discovering a new color. I was floored when I read his collection. Still am. No one writes with more honesty, and can inspire more discomfort, than Nathan Ballingrud. He’s also a genuinely scary writer, meaning he writes things that scare or disturb me. I rarely experience that reaction when reading anyone’s work.

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Barker is great (particularly his shorter work, like ‘In the Hills, the Cities’), and his Hellraiser universe is a horror staple (co-opted by Hollywood), but in many ways, I think Ballingrud is a superior writer to Barker, although I understand it’s difficult to compare based on time periods and conventions of the respective eras.

Long term, and deep down into my marrow, I’m probably more influenced by Hunter S. Thompson, Vonnegut, and Beatnik writers than anyone in horror fiction, although Lovecraft certainly influenced several stories expressly written for Lovecraftian anthologies, some of which ended up in The Nameless Dark.

The figure of Lovecraft looms over many of the stories too. Does the fact that there are plenty of Lovecraftian ‘markets’ open at any given time play a part in that? Or have you always been attracted to the core of Lovecraft’s work?

I covered a bit of this above, as Lovecraftian fiction was my entry into prose writing, and horror writing in particular. Regardless of how I feel about him personally, his work got me into writing fiction, which literally changed my creative life, and I’m grateful that he drew from and coalesced many of his influences (Bierce, Poe, Dunsany, Chambers, etc.) into the multiverse and mythos he created.

Cthulhu in R'lyeh by jeinu

Cthulhu in R’lyeh by jeinu

What originally drew me into his work was his sense of cold cosmicism, and a universe that is far more vast and malevolent and uninterested in our existence than our puny, needy human intellect can comprehend. There is no devil, no angels, no bearded man pulling the strings. There are no strings. Just endless voids, with the occasional Outer God and Great Old One brushing against our reality just long enough to influence primal cultures, establish secretive and murderous cults, and burst minds by their very existence. I loved this. It was very dark and menacing, very secret history and cryptozoological.

Growing up in a staunch, Evangelical Christian home, the stuff I was fed in church always chaffed at the back of my lizard brain. Stumbling across Lovecraft’s outlook on the universe was a revelation, and a breath of fresh, clean, pessimistic air. I was hooked instantly.

My most recent, current, and upcoming work doesn’t and won’t contain nearly the level of Lovecraftian influence, but his work will always feature somewhere in my writing, especially in my Salt Creek stories, a novel for which I’m slowly putting together.

A satirical edge is also present in a number of the stories, mainly focused on certain aspects of American culture that seem to irk you. Were there axes you needed to grind before you set out writing some of these stories? 

Before writing fiction, I wrote comedy for years, in various mediums with varying levels of success. I’ve been doing it much longer than writing dark fiction, so humor or satire is going to naturally bleed into my writing where appropriate (and maybe where it’s not).

I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture

I’ve never thought of my satirical viewpoints as grinding axes, per se, but I do have a lot of frustration, and even some bitterness, about various aspects of American culture, and humanity itself. Hyper-religiosity, racism, misogyny, stinginess, greed, bad parenting, predation, xenophobia, and just general shittiness to others gather at the top of a very long list of grievances against my species.

Okay on second though, I’m grinding several axes. I’d guess dozens of axes are being ground at any one given time, depending on how many stories I’m working on at the same time.

Could you tell us something about your upcoming novella, They Don’t Come Home Anymore? How would you say it builds on your previous work?

I always have a hard time summing up the novella without giving anything away, but here goes a weaksauce attempt: It’s a story about teenage obsession, conformity, parenting, class, and illness providing a backdrop for a somewhat jaundiced, slightly different take on the contemporary vampire tale.

I’m not sure how or if it does build on my previous work, although it is set from the POV of a teenage girl and follows her around in the world. In this way, it reminds me a bit of ‘Tubby’s Big Swim’, as it includes a bit of geographical wandering, which set the plot framework of ‘Tubby’.

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I see it as something I’ve never done before (and probably won’t do again), marking my first and probably last vampire tale. Also, it’s my longest piece to date, which shows some building on my previous work.

And the cover – featuring artwork by Candice Tripp and cover design by Ives Hovanessian – is an absolutely stunner. I count myself incredibly fortunate to feature such a cover as the calling card for the novella. Candice is doing the artwork for my second collection, and we have another project in the works, as well. Crossing my fingers that I’ll be working with her for many years to come.

And finally… what advice would you give to writers keen to break into the weird fiction and/or horror scenes in particular?

First of all, write what you want to write. Truly. Honestly. Dig down deep, cast your gaze out as far as you can, and get it all out. Question everything, follow all leads. Don’t worry about genre or market or anything out of your control. Until you get paid for it as an employee with a parking pass, bathroom key, and benefits, don’t think of yourself as a “commercial writer.” Think of yourself as a writer, period, which means you write for you.

There are very few money-making fiction genres, and weird and horror fiction aren’t it

Make yourself happy and creatively satisfied, because if you’re writing weird fiction for money, a) you’ll fail in reaching your goal, because no one really makes any money, and b) your writing will come off as lackluster and passionless, which will make you even less money and lead to more failure. Don’t do that to yourself.

There are very few money-making fiction genres (and maybe one – romance/erotica, and I suppose whatever “literary fiction” is), and weird and horror fiction aren’t it. So, if you choose to write down here, crouched low in the shadows with the rest of us ghouls, do it for the right reasons. Do it for the love of the shade, the decay, the destitute and the forgotten. Do it to celebrate the beauty of the dark.

Then, get to work, and look for open markets. I’d hazard that with self publishing, online publications, and a recent proliferation of ‘zines and anthologies and fiction journals devoted to weird, horror, and dark fiction, it’s easier to place ones work these days than probably ever before in the history of written language. The markets are there. Write your best stuff and send it out.

And, in the end, if no one will publish you, publish yourself. Get your book on a shelf – YOUR shelf – and on Amazon, in indie bookstores and libraries, and build your legacy, if only for you and your loved ones. Gatekeepers are helpful, but they are not absolute. If you have the talent, the desire, and if you work your ass off, no one can hold you back from becoming a writer of whatever fiction you want to write, written however you want to write it. Very few of us are professionals, but a lot of us are writers. And there’s room for more.

Check out my own review of The Nameless Dark right here, and stay updated with all things Grau by visiting ‘The Cosmicomicon’

Read previous interview: Alistair Rennie

Featured image: ‘Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide’ by Ola Larsson 

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.

There and back again | Trip to Serbia

Just returned to the island home after a long-overdue visit to the original homeland of Serbia, and apart from the dreaded-but-expected plunge back into the heat and a grudging return to the work routine, what sticks in the mind is that heady cocktail of nostalgia and sentimentality that such a trip inspires, and which, I think, even those most impervious to such irrational (but all-too-human) reactions would find difficult to short-circuit.

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Apart from the usual visit to relatives – a nicely balanced town & country trip encompassing both Belgrade and the Vrujci Spa – this time I also joined a group of fellow Maltese on a tour to Kovilj, a village near the city of Novi Sad known for its rich stork population and which boasts a proximity to the Danube.

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

There’s obviously something bracing about visiting your native country after six years, not least because you’re bound to change your perspective substantially since the last time you were there.

One of the reasons for my absence was that I wanted to travel a bit more. Malta -> Serbia was pretty much the extent of my travel experience for the longest time – i.e., until I was granted Maltese (and therefore EU) citizenship a couple of years ago – and having now seen a bit more of the rest of Europe, I could view the home country with a bit of a tilted perspective.

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Belgrade itself certainly reminded me of other places now – Rome, Berlin – and so I could appreciate its beauty better for placing it into some kind of context. Edinburgh was one of my favourite recent travel destinations; Belgrade doesn’t have all that much in common with it save perhaps the comfortably compressed size of its city centre – a coziness I find essential.

Malta is infamous for its lack of greenery, and an aggressively neo-liberal policy of its current government only spells further doom for the island in this regard. So the trip to Banja Vrujci – where my maternal grandparents have been keeping a summer house for 35 years, give or take – was welcome as ever, even if the overcast weather was something of a downer.

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

But the Kovilj tour took us to other green places too – some of them housing beautiful monasteries – and it was a reminder of how Serbia, for all its problems, retains a proud farming tradition in certain areas.

One thing I didn’t do much of in Serbia is write. Between the fact that we were moving around so much and simply being on ‘holiday mode’, I can’t really say I took full advantage of a change of setting and pace to give a fresh spin to the projects I’m currently working on.

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

But the summer – and its attendant torpor – should be winding down soon enough. And Malta is inspiring too, in its own way. Obstinate yellow streets and buildings, flashes of beauty both random and stuffily curated, contradictions that can’t be explained and so make for great fodder. We’ll start at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, then take it from there…

And amusingly enough, our Kovilj tour made it to the local online news portals… 

We Need to Talk About Genre | Individuality vs Community

Argument: We divide fiction up in genres because of our chronic fear of loneliness.

I’m invested in this question, which is evidenced by my foolhardy effort to write a parallel-narrative novella incorporating both the fairy tale idiom and the very ‘real’ world, as well as my attempt at getting at what that multi-faceted mongrel genre ‘the New Weird’ is all about for a Master’s dissertation.

But first, some (recent) observations on the matter from more articulate and well-versed people than myself.

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  1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at this year’s National Book Awards

“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.”

 

  1.  ‘A Better Way to Think About Genre’ by Joshua Rothman (New Yorker)
Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

“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.”

  1.  The Real Mr. Difficult, or Why Cthulhu Threatens to Destroy the Canon, Self-Interested Literary Essayists, and the Universe Itself. Finally. by Nick Mamatas (Los Angeles Review of Books)
A young HP Lovecraft

A young HP Lovecraft

“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).”

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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.

READ RELATED: Getting it Ass-Backwards: The Genre Binary at LonCon

‘Writing is too much fun’ | Jim Crace

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

My interview with novelist Jim Crace was picked up by the Man Booker Prize’s website this week. The acclaimed British author is currently holding court at the University of Malta – my alma mater – where he will be stationed as Writer in Residence and erstwhile mentor to local authors until December 19.

I’m very excited to form part of the intimate gathering of Malta-based writers who’ll be receiving advice and encouragement from Crace in the coming weeks. Initial meetings have certainly been morale-boosters. For a decorated novelist with a long and illustrious career behind him, Crace is as unassuming as they come, and it’s also refreshing to see him express a genuine interest in Malta, contrary to the tokenistic praise – delivered in press-friendly soundbites – by other celebrity visitors.

Here is what the Man Booker people had to say about all this:

Jim Crace, twice a Man Booker shortlistee, has been talking in Malta, where he is currently writer in residence at the university of Malta, about why he reversed his decision not to write another novel, and he credits, in part, the Man Booker itself. ‘I honestly wasn’t expecting to get shortlisted for the Man Booker again,’ he said about his 2013 shortlisting for Harvest. ‘Really, I thought that I was coming to the tail end of my career and just writing books for myself, essentially … but then along comes Harvest … and my career just bounced back again. Suddenly, what was gradually quieting down was even noisier than it ever was.’ This is good news for his legion of admirers. It is good to know that the prize can, while it can’t cure flu or the ageing process, nevertheless can have such a curative effect. Crace admitted another motivation too: ‘Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it.’

Click here to read the full piece

Click here to read my interview with Jim Crace

Authenticity: Richard Linklater, Woody Allen, Romanticism, Decadence

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.

Part of all this is, of course, down to finally finishing and publishing the book, and I’m wary of how this feeling of relief mixed with euphoric uplift can be temporary and elusive.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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Some more coverage for Two:

The Times of Malta – A measured, well-written review I’m quite happy about.

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!

Post-book launch post | Managing clutter

Marsamxett reading spot

I’ve blogged about this spot before, and not too many posts ago. But a lot has happened since my last post (at least it feels as though it has) and I’ve found myself gravitating towards the place again.

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.

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“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

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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.

I’m also glad that the review which came out in last Sunday’s edition of The Times of Malta was solid and balanced – neither a hatchet job nor an unmitigated torrent of praise that nobody would be convinced by.

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…

Debut novel jitters: ‘Two’ pre-launch fun

Two book launch invite

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.

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.

To this end, we’re inviting everyone to anonymously submit their own secrets online, so that we may use them to ‘decorate’ the launch party’s venue. We’ve already amassed 60 secrets at the time of writing, and you’re still in time to submit your own by clicking here.

(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.

Confirm your attendance to the launch on Facebook.