There are days, and then there are days, and the last forty-eight hours would count double in both senses. I’m going to tell you a story, it’s what I do after all. It’s an old old story (quarter of a century in this instance, to be precise, but funnily enough the details are all crystal clear despite the fact I can barely remember my own birthday): boy meets girl, boy falls hopelessly for girl (down a flight of stairs, nothing beats a bit of slapstick humour), and girl hasn’t got a clue. Ahh, is that Hollywood I hear knocking at my door? Did I just hit on the formula for the next RomCom runaway success? Hmm, the story of my life. Not sure I want it on the silver screen. Still, the show must go on... Boy was a little younger, a little less worldly-wise. Girl said, ‘Have you heard this? It’s amazing... my favourite song,’ and put Icicle Works’ Love is a Wonderful Colour on the turntable (oh yes, so so long ago, back when men were men and mp3s were vinyl). And then it was Camel’s Stationary Traveller, and the haunting West Berlin (which became one of boy’s anthems for youth). Remiss in his musical education boy rectifies this the minute he gets home so he can pretend to be less uncool the next time they meet, as boys are wont to do. He’s not quite as dumb as a bag of nails. He’s got the beginnings of a personality as well as the beginnings of a crush to squeeze a planet into a nice Marilyn Monroe hourglass. For a little while, a snatch of time in the river of life, it’s bright and brilliant and fun and all consuming, and then it’s gone. That’s another one of life’s lessons boy learned from girl. Everyone leaves you in the end. Of course it is natural, boy and girl are hopelessly young, they drift, boy moves north, to his roots in Northumberland, girl in a wonderful quirk of fate moves south, and the both end up within thirty minutes of where the other had been, their orbits forever out of sync after that... but as Roddy Frame told us back then ‘We Could Send Letters’ and boy and girl did. Boy had never written letters before that didn’t say ‘thank you so much for the Christmas present.’ Now boy found he could write and write and write for pages, putting the pen down and coming back to the paper hours or even days later, because he wanted to share it all with girl. He’d never done that before. His form of expression had been kicking a football. In one of those letters girl mentioned a ‘poet’ whose music she loved, Martin Stephenson, and his band The Daintees. She’d bought a book of his poetry so he had to be good. Now, and here’s an amusing little side bar, girl - woman - today has no recollection of who Martin Stephenson and the Daintees were (or are, because they’ve yet to go the way of all flesh and are happily in better form than ever), but boy cradles those songs, Wholly Humble Heart, Slaughterman, Little Red Bottle, Crocodile Cryer, Running Waters, Nancy, they all mean something to boy because they are a link back to a different time when life was simple and he had yet to make all those hard choices about who he was going to grow up to be. And don’t believe it if you hear boy ever say they weren’t tough. He’s like that, this boy, he breezes through life and makes like everything is bright and shiny and it all just washes off him like the ‘running water coming down off a thundering cloud’. He’s got secrets, one of them is how much he still connects to that part of his life, back to when Aztec Camera, Love and Money and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees were the be all and end all of his insular little world. They were the fanfares of his strut into adulthood, meaning they are a root (yep, like a tree) back to when they were a connection to girl, or that life around the time of girl, to be more precise, and boy’s itunes selection is still filled with those old songs, but like the singers he’s grown with them and followed them down the river to their new stuff, and instead of Aztec Camera it’s Roddy Frame he listens to, instead of Love and Money it’s James Grant, and of course, right now, writing this, boy is back listening to Crocodile Cryer by Martin Stephenson. Sometimes boy thinks living back in this other place isn’t so wise, but other times boy thinks back there where he’s 16 and the world is just waiting for him to do something brilliant is the best place to be. It’s a hard balance. Sure, he’s let people down by then, but he hasn’t walked away from his first degree to spite his father and lay claim to his own life, he hasn’t walked out on the most ‘important job of his life’ to likewise fence it off and say no, this isn’t what boy wants to do, boy wants to tell stories and the rest of reality can go to hell. He’s still 16. He’s got a full head of hair and an infectious energy that just says ‘I could be somebody’. The last two days have been about man visiting with boy, kicking back and saying ‘hey kid, do I disappoint you?’ That’s a really tough question for man to address, and coming face to face with boy, like some arrogant ghost kicking back on his couch, feet up by the fire, that sneer that says ‘you were going to be somebody cool now look at you’ on his lips, is a shock, and it’s weird but it is a good weird and a pleasant shock. Man isn’t such a bad man, he may not be the same ‘somebody’ the boy thought he’d be, but he’s climbed mountains, physical and metaphorical, to become who he is. Okay, back to the story... bad narrative voice... bad. Tell the story... Six months ago I happened across an advert for Martin Stephenson and the Daintees playing at the Borderline on Friday 18th of September, and I just knew I had to go. I couldn’t tell you why. I just had this ‘feeling’ that it was important I go. I’d seen them once, around 1989 I guess, back when I was at University, doing the accounts degree, not the politics one, so before the ‘big break for independence’. I remember it pretty well. The peculiar thing that stood out in my mind was that this guy who wrote these melancholic songs had such an incredible stage presence and the most barmy sense of humour ever. He’s a talker. He talks during the songs. And he’s funny as fuck. I mean he’s cracking jokes with the audience, going on walkabout and leaving the bass player alone on stage riffing for far too long while the rest of the band hide upstairs, he’s playing spot the look-a-like with the crowd (Ted Nugent, Michelle Shocked, Sting, Bono, the stars were really out) but like boy, he’s changed - and for the better. He’s more accomplished, his playing is tighter, his humour is sharper, but why shouldn’t it be? He’s been doing this a long time, he can entertain. So, tickets bought, flights booked, boy wondered, as boys do (even ones who are trying desperately not to make Batman and Robin references), whether girl would be in the audience? After all how many Martin Stephenson fans can there be left in the world, boy thinks. Maybe that’s why he’s meant to go. You can never know how the world works. I don’t believe in fate. I don’t believe in destiny. Then again I don’t believe in chance. I’m an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum and tied off with a nice ribbon of mystery. I don’t have to make sense. But I know this... boy hoped. Man let boy have his moment in the sun. Boy couldn’t have banked on girl’s absolutely dreadful memory and the fact that girl had lost all recollection of Martin and the Dainty Ones... but, wait, you heckle from the back, how do you know this oh great narrator on the screen? I’m telling you this story, so ‘had yer horses’ as my granddad would have said. You have to imagine the broad Geordie accent transforming the word hold. Last month, just before man goes off to LA for a jolly a name pops up in his in box. Man does double-take for comedic effect. It’s like a voice echoing down (or up) all the way from childhood. It’s girl. Considering over the last quarter of a century boy in the process of growing into man had probably tried a dozen times to track down girl just to catch up and say ‘whether you realised it or not, you had a hand in making boy the man he became,’ ‘you were awesome and I was a kid and couldn’t find the words to say you were awesome’ and all of those things boy would have said to girl back then if boy had been able to put one word in front of another and make a sensible sentence. But she had a knack of making it difficult for boy to frame his thoughts so lots of things went unsaid. See even back when boy knew girl was going to be somebody. She had the ‘it factor’. Turns out she’d been living in eleven countries making it pretty darn difficult for boy to find, when he’d been sending out words into the ether. Forget needle in the proverbial haystack, the damned haystack kept moving a few thousand miles at a time... So, when the name popped up man smiled and boy inside thought ‘holy crap! What a coincidence... a woman with the same name as girl!’ Yeah, man is no smarter than boy sometimes. The story rolls on... via a slight detour. Bear with me. On Thursday Man and Woman connected for the first time in twenty five years, getting a glimpse of the finished article they’d each become. It was like finding that gull-winged silver Delorian, firing up the flux capacitor to 1.21 jiggawatts and punching down on the accelerator and ending up in the mid-80s. But it was more than that. Man doesn’t have the words, so it seems man is no better at this than boy was. More people should have one of these time machines, I reckon. It’s really quite incredible to meet up with lost loves and best friends and just the ephemera of life that we’re so quick to jettison. I think ephemera is underrated. I’ve had a really bad habit during my life of compartmentalising it and burning the bridges between stage one and stage two and three and four... There’s no one in man’s life from more than a decade ago. Five years is a decent demarkation line. Three. Clip clip clip, just move away and on. So this link back to then was frightening. Who had boy become? Had he lived up to what girl imagined for him? It’s really quite peculiar just how easy it is to fall back into conversation patterns of back then while leaping through the nineties and naughties looking for amusing anecdotes to try and raise a smile, dodging the difficult conversations and not wanting silence to ever get a toe-hold in. Boy was very glad to get that few hours to see all of the stuff he imagined for girl worn into the creases of her smile and then realise that girl had changed, grown into woman with all of those experiences and heartbreaks, but girl was still in there the minute she laughed. And she was every bit as awesome as boy had thought girl would become. The voice is an interesting thing, man understands, because the face might change, the hair might fall out, (boy’s not girl’s, silly,) the wrinkles might thicken, but the voice remains. The voice is the key that unlocks the door to all of those memories and moments that boy still heard in the songs (see we haven’t abandoned the music yet). Of course, the fact that scatterbrained woman had forgotten the band he’d come all this way to see made man laugh, but then this was all about boy and connecting with this boy’s life. It wasn’t about girl really. Girl was a part of it. A nice memory to take out of the box under the bed marked childhood. But it was all about this boy’s life... it wasn’t the Hollywood RomCom in which man declared undying stalkerish love and woman swooned with a ‘Why Mister Darcy....I never knew you wanted little old me...’ and they all lived happily ever after in a tent with their two daughters living off beans. Man has got a pretty good life right now and the grass isn’t greener. Woman’s life fits her like a glove. They’ve grown into them. Own them. Are defined by them. It was good. Now was the right time, and the grown man who lives his life thinking all of those old friends are out there living brilliantly has some proof at last that his imagination isn’t wrong. At least one of them is doing just that. So man put girl from twenty five years ago back in the box and went to listen to the music of his youth with a smile on his face. Girl hadn’t wasted his hopes. And the next sidetrack: There are defining moments in our lives. Yesterday was one of those for this man. The morning after the day before... was spent walking down Charing Cross Road browsing the old second hand book stores and the modern behemoths of Foyles, Blackwells and Borders, digging around in the stacks looking for buried treasure, breathing in that wonderful musty smell of old words, and out of the blue coming across a copy of Douglas Coupland’s Generation A. Coupland’s a special writer for me. I was reading Generation X for the first time when I emigrated to Sweden. A lot of the ‘me’ decisions were made during the days I immersed myself in it. Finding a sequel I didn’t know was coming was a treat. The internet might have made it wonderful for boy and girl to connect across time and for a few hours pretend to be 15 or 16 or 17, but it has made the High Street a really dull place. I know everything my favourite authors and musicians are up to. I ‘itunes’ (if that can be applied as a verb) my favourite cds weeks before the physical cd could make it to Stockholm and my stereo. So, yes, very peculiar to stumble across Generation A. I then sashayed (yes a boy can sashay, damn it, swagger even, if a boy wants to,) around the corner to a Costa’s and ordered the biggest latte known to man, and sat reading for the next two hours. The best part of the experience, I confess, was the fact that Coupland cracks me up and at least a dozen times in those two hours saw (heard?) me burst out into full-bellied shoulder-shaking laughter. The cute crusty-student girls beside me started smiling and then eventually laughing as well, because I mean, who wouldn’t laugh at the nutter giggling at a book in the middle of London? I’ve since been told that ‘men reading in public is sexy’. This disturbs me on a bazillion levels because surely men reading in public shouldn’t be that rare, should it? After that little indulgence, it was back to the hotel to relax and write some. One of the two got done. Man sat and wrote a nice ‘thank you for the christmas present’ letter to woman, the present being time, and hoped she had a fantastic weekend. Man also apologised for talking way too much and not listening enough. Twenty five years of stuff needed to get said. Then freshen up. When I’m overseas I forget to eat. Or, no, that’s not right, I suffer potential entree envy. It’s an opportunity cost thing. I know if I have X, I won’t be able to have Y, and Z and A and R are really tempting as well, so I wind up having nothing. Yesterday was no exception. Crossed the city to The Borderline, which is this brilliant little subterranean venue like something out of the 20s Prohibition Era transported over continents just for obscure bands to come and do their thing. Ordered my bottle of Dog and leaned against the bar listening to Helen and the Horns kick off the evening’s entertainment. Then before things crowded up I moved across to lean against the sound booth and get myself a good view of the stage. Being all hip and modern I Facebooked a few updates because pics of the Silver arcs came through right then, and I really wanted to share them (it looks purdee). Zipped off a few texts back home. Then Martin Stephenson came on stage cracking jokes about his ‘size 28 trousers from TK Maxx’ and how he couldn’t get into a pair of bloody 38’s now, letting us all into the secret that we’re older than dirt. That was an odd thing about the crowd. Normally concerts these days are these alien landscapes where the entire place has a collective age of about 17. The crowd was filled with Mitchell Brothers look-a-likes. I suspect, like me, most if not all of the crowd had found Martin back when they were at college or uni and the evening was all about connecting with their inner boys and girls. The rest of them were drag alongs. Then the first song strummed off and I was 17 again. That’s the only way to describe it. It was as simple as that. Martin’s guitar was my very own Delorian. In the RomCom girl would have been there, transported back on the same chord, but sometimes real life just isn’t about the perfection of detail it’s about the imagined detail. In boy’s head she was there and dancing with every fibre of her being, full of life and saying again ‘You have to listen to this guy, he’s a poet.’ It was pretty easy to tell who the drag alongs were because they were the who looked like rabbits caught in the headlights when Martin decided to do the last 30 mins of the concert with the house lights up, seeing us in all of our middle aged pimply glory. Beside me this vivacious brilliant bright shiny thirty-something and her drag along were the perfect example. She hit every note and made my concert experience twice what it might have been simply because in her white and black top and librarian glasses she was rocking out and having a blast. I was back at uni... actually I could have been. I realised my clothing taste has pretty much gone full circle and I’m right back wearing jeans, tee shirts and shirts hanging loose and open like I was then. So cute librarian rocked out, dancing with her whole body. That kind of stuff is infectious. I think we were the only two at the back (at the Borderline the back means touching distance of the stage) who knew every word. Much smiling, some laughing and a lot of singing went on and for two hours we were Martin Stephenson mates, bonded by something stronger than life. That’s why I like gigs. Proper gigs in dark dingy halls where the musicians just cut loose and have fun. After two hours he’s apologising they’ve got to finish because there’s a disco starting upstairs but invites us all to hang out with the band, so I took a wander down to the front and had a little chat with a guy who’d been one of my constant companions for quarter of a century. And it was great. I have this inbuilt dread of meeting my heroes because what if they’re not cool? What if they’re arseholes and it changes the way I think of them forever? I was invited onto the tour bus with Mike Peters of the Alarm about 15 years ago and didn’t go because I was terrified he’d be a drunken idiot and I wouldn’t be able to listen to Walk Forever By My Side and We Are the Light and Sixty Guns and and and all of those again without seeing that. Kevin J Anderson called me an idiot a couple of weeks ago when I told the story, so with his chastisement in my ear, I swallowed my fear and decided I had to go and say thank you for quarter of a century of musical accompaniment. In the end I stuck out my hand and thanked Martin for helping boy remember being 17. And he turned around and said something to me that now, older, wiser, and wrestling my own demons, I ‘get’ in ways I could not have at any other time (that’s what it is all about sometimes, about it just not being the right time, but this weekend was the right time). ‘This is what it’s all about, Big Man. Back then it was all music industry and crap, but now it is just about playing music and having a good time. Coming out here and connecting with the people out in the crowd who love this music, and none of the rest of it matters.’ And I get it, I can apply it to my own life and realise that I’ve done a lot of stuff I had to do (in my head at least) to get into the ‘industry’ and only now am I just beginning to do the stuff inside that matters, the stuff that feeds the soul... it’s the reason I struggle when people say ‘what book would you recommend we start with...?’ And here’s a hard admission, but maybe boy would be disappointed because man might be writing books, but those books haven’t all been the books boy would have approved of. Boy was a brilliant dreamer. He wouldn’t think much of telling other people’s stories. But that’s changing, because boy is kicking and punching inside man, and man’s wise enough to listen (in between wincing) because boy’s not had that determination sapped out of him yet and still dreams big. Over the next year some important books (for me, for boy and man) are coming out. There’s Silver, of course, which is the first real novel that’s all me (and the very sexy arcs are in Variance Towers and I am a little bit in love with them, I admit) but there’s The Odalisque and Other Strange Stories which could well be the first thing I’ve done ‘as a whole’ that I am entirely proud of, love stories, peculiar fantasies and little pieces of me laid bare. So, like I said right up there three and a half thousand words ago, there are days and there are days. These two days were important for so many reasons, not just about the boy, as well, other reasons, too. I got the contract for Gold, the follow up to Silver, so I know that will be happening now, set for January 2011 release, which sounds so long away but is just around the corner really, and out of the blue I got an offer to co-write a book with a new friend who worked on one of the most successful tv shows of all time, whose tell all will hit the heights, and I signed contracts on a new series of novellas I’m co-writing with a friend, Aaron Rosenberg, who was born on the same day as me, in New York, about three hours after I came out kicking and screaming in the Princess Mary’s in Jesmond, 4,000 miles away, and a new Monster Town story, the Blues Singer, for Halloween next year, with my mate Brian M. Logan... work work work. This, of course, will worry my friend Barry, because whenever I sign a new deal three celebrities die. So if you are famous... I’m really sorry. Actually I’m a little worried about Leonard Cohen, looking at the news. Right, where were we? Oh yes, girl. You knew her part of the story wasn’t over didn’t you? Back in that other time and other place, she gave boy a keepsake, a sea bean that boy took in to his exams and on planes and places because it was ‘lucky’. Woman had told man about her dream to write kids books, and how she wanted to ask all these questions and had this stuff bursting out inside. In between all the talking and catching up on life they talked about what it took to write. She had a lot of the familiar comments about time and fear and what if it wasn’t meant to be? Man confessed to some hard and possibly wrong decisions he’d believed necessary along the way, but tried to say how the only way it happened was if the words were given a chance to live. Inside they’re not telling anyone any stories. Woman got it. Of course she did. But it was always about more than the words. It was about determination, faith, strength, about not being ordinary. Man tried to find one word to sum it up, to say this is what you have to do.... And he’d had a while to think about it, because she’d warned him she wanted to pick his brains, so he’d found an answer. There was one big thing man had going for him, he’d never forgotten the one thing boy was really good at: dreaming. So man had a little keepsake of his own for woman, mirroring girl’s gift for boy, something to put on her desk when she sits down to write the first words of her book, something she can hold and remember boy with, and something she can draw from like he did the sea bean of all those years ago, a stone with the simplest message: dream. Sometimes boy can be a genius. Man’s not too shabby either. You want to live, you need to dream. You want to live brilliantly, you need to dream brilliantly. You want to reach people, to connect, you need to remember what it is all about: an old old story about a boy and a girl. You know the one, you’ve heard it before. Just don’t make the mistake of forgetting your own boy or girl. Don’t keep them in a box under the bed, let them talk to you, listen to them and remember the things they were filled with and the dreams they had before life came along and knocked the sharp edges off them and offered an alternative called ‘settling’. And then, take it one step further, don’t just dream it... do it. If man can, you can. -Steven Savile
Ever noticed how sometimes your background music sets the entire mood for the day? Bopping my way down the street the voice in my ears was merrily encouraging me to ‘open the window and jump into the blue…’ because things could be marvelous. Couldn’t agree more. The next one up, no more than five minutes down the road said ‘Tell the truth and the whole world understands.’ Lessons to live by I reckon.
The beauty of Steve Chats is that’s basically nothing more than whatever seems to cross my mind at any given time, and if I’ve got the time to tap out a few words about it, then tap away I shall. Let’s just say, cards on the table, I’m starting to think about how I do what I do, as well as why… So, jumping into the blue…
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about time and memories and people and those boxes from childhood that I’ve hidden under the bed. Way back somewhere I explained the boxes under the bed, you see what I really mean is even though there are a lot of people out there like Charles, who I haven’t spoken to in 28 years, he’s still my friend, he just doesn’t know it. I’ve boxed that friendship up and hidden it away under the bed and can bring it out whenever I want to remember playing Football Manager and winning the FA Cup for the first time, or building forts on top of the old air raid shelter or throwing bread buns at some guy’s lillywhite arse as he has sex in the grounds of the mental hospital. All of those memories are just there, waiting to be remembered. I’m lucky, I’ve got great recall. It used to really bug my friend Didge, because he’d study his arse off and I’d be able to remember what the teacher said word for word 5 months before. It really was an unfair advantage back then, but now it’s a gift. It means those boxes under my bed are filled to bursting with stuff.
I also tend to think a lot, by which I mean internalising, taking those memories and turning them over in my head, wondering why they are the ones that remain. Some are great, some are tragic, some visceral, and I always wonder why some people just slip away and no matter how much I might want to zoom back and remember, the entire period of time is gone. I remember more about girl from Saturday’s entry than I do about a woman I lived with. Perhaps it’s the brain’s way of protecting me?
Anyway, Sunday morning, crappy hotel, lace curtains held together by the dirt staining them, I lay in this narrow single bed and had a realisation that was really important to me, and yet it is so flippin’ obvious it should have been slapping me around the head for years. I’m slow like that sometimes.
What was this great moment of enlightenment? Had I solved the age old mystery, the riddle behind life, the universe and everything? Maybe…
Time can’t spool backwards. It can’t take away the look in the eye of the girl who’s your first kiss while you’re cuddled up in a hotel corridor, close and frightened and excited. It can’t change the meaning of the first love letter that landed on your doormat, the necklace that broke 3 years later, or weaken the thrill of the first Valentines card. Stuff can happen in the here and now, that girl could have grown into something ordinary or ornery and just not be someone I could connect with now, but it just can’t diminish the brilliance of the memories and experiences I need to tap into every now and again. Like I said, obvious to you, a revelation to me. The day will always be the day, the night will always be the night and yesterday will always be back there, unchanging, locked in time. That momentary glimpse of reason helped me process a lot of stuff. I joke regularly about my impending midlife crisis (20 days now, if you are counting,) and about how finally life and its events seem to be shaping me into the man I was always meant to be. It’s an interesting process – and a dissociative part of my brain, the bit where Steve the Writer lurks, is watching everything with something akin to voyeuristic glee.
So, anyway, this morning as I was waking up muggy headed and in need of caffeine, a rogue thought slipped in unchallenged and I figured, “hmm log it, and if you get time, use it here.” I’m changing as a person and I’m changing as a writer. I can feel it happening every day. Now, it could simply be that my midlife crisis is approaching full steam ahead (but I think not), but it could be something else as well. It could be that I am finally connecting with my own life and this thing they call talent and my ability to write what is inside me at any given time.
This, I think is more to the point. I’ve been trading a lot of letters with friends recently, and I’ve gone looking for a lot of old friends like Karen, Elaine, Elliot, and Katie who all put up with me age 11, then there’s Didge who I have to call Sid now, and Tris and Mike who were all there when I was 15 and hopelessly in love with girl, and remember all these other aspects of me I never really knew. Didge sat telling me stories in a restaurant behind Waterloo Station that had tears rolling down my face because the moment he started telling them, the more I remembered them and heard the ring of truth over the years clear as a bell. Boy did I do *stuff* back then. Poor old Mr Coles… What Didge could never work out was how I’d do stuff, and not just get away with it, but be almost praised at times. He used to sit next to me Maths. It was like the blind copying from the dumb. So, one day Mr Coles (whose full name I still don’t know) is on This is Your Life with Eamon Andrews, because he was Oliver Reid’s teacher and it was Ollie’s episode. Of course, there was a picture in the Radio Times so I snuck out of school, bought a copy… and glued it to the blackboard. So Didge decides he’s not going to sit next to me that lesson and abandons me to my fate. Coles comes in, sees the wanton vandalism, looks around the class, sees me on my own, sees my erstwhile partner in crime hiding at the back and says ‘Dijani, who did this?’ knowing Didge would blab, the bastard. So, old man Coles comes up all menacing. This was back in the day when teachers didn’t just hit kids, they dreamed up cruel and unusual ways to do it. He comes and sits next to me at the desk, and everyone is just waiting for him to explode. Instead he leans across and says: “Oliver Reid was an absolute pleasure to teach. In fact, you remind me a lot of him, Savile. You’ve got that same blatant disregard for authority and a sense of humour that helps you get away with it. You’re cocky but people can’t help but like you.’ And that was it, instead of beating me or banishing me to detention for a month, Coles spent the next 80 minutes reminiscing about Oliver Reid and the way the school used to be. It was one of the best 80 minutes of my life because I got to understand the man. And he never mentioned the magazine glued to the board. Hell, he made Didge clean it off afterwards, which just about summed everything up.
I’d forgotten it completely, but he only had to say ‘Oliver Reid’ and it all came crashing back, but thankfully I had a friend to paint in all the details where I was hazy.
It’s been a really wonderful experience this whole process of reconnection. I’ve been learning about me through the eyes of long forgotten friends.
Some of the old gang are going through tough times, some proving to me that in fact they are exceptionally strong people, some just being good people.
I’ve been writing. Not stories, not essays, but proper traditional letters. I’ve been connecting with these old friends in a way I haven’t in my life. And I just took a few hours to look back at a few of these and realised for the first time that I really can write. And it’s not about thrillers or fantasies or sf or any genre, it’s about people, about mining my own thoughts and emotions and being brave enough to lay my soul bare to be judged. You’ll notice Steve Chats is getting a lot more personal than it ever used to be, or than anything I ever put out on the net was, and that’s because I’m changing as a person and a writer, and now I want to connect with the world around me rather than simply look on with a vague feeling of smug superiority.
If I had to pick an inciting moment it would be earlier in the year, when I heard about Vicky’s death, and wrote the essay Catharsis for Storytellers Unplugged. That essay took a lot out of me personally, but so many people (and I mean hundreds) actually wrote to me about their own Vicky’s, or about being someone else’s Vicky, or just about friendship and grief and losing people, that I realised something fundamental that I had never actually believed – I like people. Go figure.
Not a bad midlife crisis, then.
So after a lot of ramble (and I’m not getting paid by the word for once) here it is…
Following on from boy girl, I thought it could be interesting to sit down and actually think logically about relationships in stories, after all, it’d be my contention that the emotional core is by far the most important aspect of a novel, the heart of it, if you will. Of course that’s going to mean different things to different people, but in my head that means it’s all about the Story People – the characters with stories important enough to be told. In the ‘which came first, the characters or the plot’ conundrum, it’s not much of a conundrum in my case. It’s all about the characters. Boy meets girl, remember? I guess I am a romantic old fool at heart.
Now, let’s play ‘let’s pretend’ for a while.
Lets say I’ve decided to write a crime series with a duel male/female lead, like the X Files’ Mulder and Sculley. You want that frission between them. You want him to be every so often hot under the collar, challenged by her intelligence every bit as much as her beauty and just plain attracted to her. She shouldn’t be ‘perfect’ because no one is. I like broken characters in some way. Ones who can grow and heal and develop as the arc of the story progresses. So, female lead… You want her to be worth the chase. Which means she has to be worth the chase to you the writer, but not in this princess in her tower waiting to let down her hair way. So, for that I delve into my own life and mine that box under the bed marked girls I chased for whatever reason, and look at what made me hot under the collar at different times in my life. I want to say it was always something different, to make myself seem deeper, but it wasn’t, ever. It was always the same thing. So with that in mind I know my weakness. It could be, say, that our boy has a weakness for stomach muscles, the kind that could scrub wet laundry off… or it could be something about the eyes. See that’s my Achilles Heal, it’s the challenging fierce intelligence and sometimes the cheekiness or some play around that. I guess it’s body language of a sort, in that your eyes are talking long before your mouth ever is, so, for our boy, let’s give him my fatal flaw. He’s an eye man. Why would I make such a choice? Because I know it. I know what it feels like. I know how it enflames and frightens and how visceral its connections can be. I’m not an ass man, I’m not a boob boy, so giving those characteristics to a lead can be very problematic for me as a writer. So, when I write our boy, I am always going to plumb bits of me, even if it is subconsciously. What does that mean? Our girl needs to be modern, not something stepped out of Jane Austin. So, quite capable of chewing bubble gum, kicking ass and taking names. Feisty. Fiery. Fierce. Hmm, how many more F’s can I come up with?
And you should be able to guess why already… because they’re the things that I respond to, meaning they’re the traits I recognise and admire and can hope to capture.
This kind of thing is relatively easy to do in a visual medium, sly glances, body language, that kind of thing, and a good actor can layer in all of these subtle undertones where the scriptwriter has just left the potential for them in the lines he wants you to read between. You get Stana Katic to play the lead, or Jamie Ray Newman, who both have that certain something in the way they look at their romantically inclined male counterparts… and of course, me, through the screen.
But how about as a novelist? How do you do it then. After all you’ve ‘only’ got the words.
You’re going to need a whole new bag of tricks. You want to engage your readers, you want them to be sympathetic and willing to take the journey rooting for the characters right along with you… so again it’s back into that box… what engaged YOU about those girls. With Flame Jane, who I’ll talk about in a minute in relation to Primeval, it was just how damned difficult she was to ‘get’, if that makes sense? The easy part is falling, the hard part is staying fallen.
I’ve got a line in Silver where Sir Charles, the leader of the Ogmios Team, basically says ‘For christ sake don’t tell Noah, I don’t want him doing anything stupid…’ it’s a hint of unmined potential. I mean, it’s about a girl, and the fact that this misfit psychological screw up of a guy would break the laws of space and time for this girl if it came to it, but he’s never once said a word to her about it, he’s never once looked at her in a way that says ‘I want you in ways that go beyond meat.’ Is it love? Absolutely. Is it carnal? Physical? Reciprocated. Nope. Not for a minute, but that doesn’t remove it as a weakness for Noah, and it’s one that the old man knows all about.
So it’s there, it’s alive inside my creation of Noah. Unrequited love is a strong love. At least for me.
The thought this morning though was, when this is all gestating in my head, how do I actually go about showing it? That’s the old adage isn’t it, show don’t tell. What works? What makes the characters live and breathe? What out-right doesn’t? Is there such a thing as telling too much? Can a show actually be a tell?
Okay, thinking about the last one, in my Primeval novel Shadow of the Jaguar I have a scene were Connor (the kid I could always identify with in the show, in love with Abby, who has no clue, sound familiar?) and Abby, are walking through the city in Peru and Connor’s trying to be cool because he wants her to like him instead of the Action Man Stephen. I’ve done this, more than once, though not in Peru, but the one that sticks in my mind is Flame Red Jane G., a brilliant beautiful redhead I convinced to go out on a series of dates when I was 18, who was older, politically aware, funny and fabulous (she was in my math class at college and basically we were the only two not in our 40s so it was inevitable we’d bond at least in some way) and I was just three levels below her on the evolutionary scale. So, one night we walk through Newcastle and I start to talk. I’m terrified of the silence so I try to fill it. I’ve been studying local history, Richard Grainger, John Dobson and the like, and the collapse of the shipping and coal industries and all this, so suddenly I’m talking about all of it like a bloody tour guide. I’m enthused – which is actually blinding fear and absolutely crippling nerves – and she’s bored but cheerfully playing along.
I remembered this vividly when I sat down to write the Connor-Abby scene.
This was me and Flame Red Jane circa 1988, the names changed to protect the innocent. But it was us walking. It was me jabbering. I read a comment recently that the book was great apart from the info-dump scene, meaning the nervous nerd-boy out trying impress the hot girl and just talking too much about everything. It made me smile in retrospect (though initially I was staring at the screen going but but but…it’s my life!) because it is my life. Heh, my life is an info-dump. It’s a shocking revelation… In the same situation I’d do the same thing again. So in trying to ‘show’ my own version of nerves I ‘told’ too much? Or is it that people expect Hollywood brevity in scenes, ala 3 page chapter novelists for the short attention span generation? I don’t honestly know, but I am thinking… I know I’d do the scene the same way again if I were tackling it now, two or three years on from when I wrote it because my inspiration would be the same – I’d be dipping back into that childhood box under the bed and coming up with Flame Red Jane.
So do you go for a more introverted approach then? Dip inside the character’s head and simply ‘tell’ some of their discomfort? Do you push for more of that body language and write visually? Have him fiddling with his collar, licking his dry lips? They’re all good signs of nervousness, but those obvious ticks also have the disadvantage of (lick lipping equals furtive) double entendre, and not the fun sort.
Is there a simple check box to tick that says this is humanity? This is how we do it?
Is there a formula that a writer can follow that will help him mine that emotional core and manipulate the reader?
The answer is almost assuredly yes – but if you sit down and actively think ‘I am going to tick these boxes to make the reader love me and engage with my world’ what you’re actually doing is stilling that emotional heart because you’re transforming it into formula. You’re making it predictable. It’s the RomCom where boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, all is good til boy stuffs it up doing something dumb, boy can’t live without girl, something happens, boy runs to the airport/does something amazingly romantic and girl can’t help but love him all over again. Yawn. See that’s never ever happened to me. Normally by the ‘boy does something stupid and stuffs it up’ stage that’s it, the dagger through the heart of it. Sometimes it is girl does something stupid as well. My life’s an equal opportunities clusterfucker at times. Our emotional responses are automatic, like body language cues, we can’t really control them, so when I am trying to do something ‘right’ I’ll go back and look in the box for things that make me think ‘ahhh that’s why I did this…’ I know certain songs evince unwanted memories and take me places I don’t want to go, I know certain songs take me right back to my favourite place. Audible cues are really strong, they’ve got their teeth in memory. But again, it’s a different cue for a different reader, so I can’t sit and think ooh I’ll drop this in to make YOU think/feel/remember, all I can do is make myself think/feel/ remember and trust that the depth of my reaction, and through it, the character’s reaction, will touch you.
And I’d always rather it was that way than me trying to trick you into feeling…
Remember the second of those two songs I mentioned three and a half thousand words ago? “Tell the truth and the whole world understands”.
There isn’t a cheat sheet for a good writer to check off looking for ways to tap that emotional core, not without damaging it. I believe that. I believe that each and every writer should focus completely on writing the books only he or she can create – that means opening their own Pandora’s Boxes of childhood and teenage and that collection of experiences we call life, and interpreting them for us. Transforming them into glorious lies we can lose ourselves in.
In the Catharsis essay I wrote a little about this feeling of guilt I had that my second thought after losing my friend was ‘this is why he goes home’. The writer part of my brain doesn’t ever switch completely off, it exploits my life for the gain of story. I know that and have come to terms with it. A friend wrote to me after that and explained how watching his father die in hospital had given him his most emotional story ever, and sent the story along for me to look at. It was brilliant because of the raw honesty of the piece. You knew the writer was telling you the truth even as he was lying to you. He wasn’t just pulling your strings to get a reaction. That story of Russell’s was an important story for him, but it was also an important story for ME because it helped me realise it wasn’t wrong that I mined my own life. That’s what writers do. We collect experiences, we process emotional highs and lows, and we find ways to interpret them for other people so that they can be transported to (A) the place we want to take them in our stories, and (B), to the places they’ve left behind in their lives.
Welcome to Storytellers Unplugged. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start blogging!
A precursor to the actual essay. This one is personal. It goes against everything I believe in in terms of a writer putting their lives out for public consumption in this new blogosphere of ours. I wrote it, I wrestled with it and thought about leaving it on my hard-drive, because I’ll tell you right now I wrote this for me, not for you. Just as the title says, this entire essay is about catharsis. These are my demons. This is my life. I sent it to a few friends, and love them, they all wanted to edit it because they could see I had put more of myself out there than ever before, and probably ever will again, and they know me… Knowing me, they want to protect me from the regret they think will come from standing naked before you. Part of me held back because not only is this personal, it feels uncomfortable. I mention twice being a ghost in your own childhood, I think that is the most relevant image of the whole piece. And then one basically slapped me and reminded me what my job as a writer is. The real job. It is to put myself out there. It is to stand there naked in the rain with my arms spread wide and say: “Look at me!” And this, well, it is a celebration of sorts, in the same way that a funeral is a celebration life, this is a celebration of the girl from 20 years ago. It is me saying goodbye the only way I know how. And in there, hidden in the words, I believe there is something valuable for writers and people interested in writing to think about. If I didn’t, believe me, this essay would be living inside my head still. So, with that said…
I write because often I can’t express myself in words – that is probably the big contradiction of my life. I have all of this stuff swirling around inside me that won’t come out face to face. I can charm a crowd when I have to. I can spin a story, perform, whatever you want to call it, but close up, one to one, I’m an emotional mute. I don’t share. I am a rock, and the rock feels no pain. And the rock stands alone.
The crime of my life is that I almost never tell the people closest to me what I think or feel. I lock it away inside me until it breaks something – and that something is usually my link to the world around me and to the very people I should be talking to. Over the last few years I’ve actually developed a decent amount of self-insight. I am not the kind of person who cherishes his friends. People come and go, I am the only constant in my life. It’s a terribly selfish attitude, I know that, I honestly, sincerely do. That doesn’t mean I can re-paint these spots into stripes, no matter how much I might want to, so instead the grief, the sadness, the guilt, the remorse, and sometimes even the hope, comes out in my writing instead from my mouth.
I’ve said it often enough in conversation when I’m holding court, but it bears repeating: I don’t write stories, I write little pieces of myself.
What that really means is writing is a form of catharsis for me.
I love it for that, and I hate me for that.
Contradicting myself? Moi?
Yeah, probably. Let me try and explain what I mean, and I’ll take my life this week as the foundation for this essay. I don’t normally put my ‘real life’ out in public, but this is one of those rare exceptions where I just need to talk. I need other people to hear, so then maybe the universe will remember, because as I get older the one certainty I know is that I will forget and that as much as anything breaks my heart.
So that is, in part, what this essay is about, breaking hearts and remembering. It’s about the human me and the writer me, and the parasitical relationship of one to the other. It is not going to be light and breezy reading, I warn you know. But it is going to be painfully, brutally honest.
In the summer of 1985 I met a girl.
Classic starting point for any story, boy meets girl. Her name was Vicky. I loved Vicky body and soul from the first moment the young sixteen year old me set eyes on her. No exaggeration. I saw her, she owned me. It was that absolute. That complete. She had me before hello. We were in the same Business Studies class in Newcastle. A quick potted Steve life, some of that stuff I don’t usually share – I went to an all boys school, didn’t so much as talk to a girl between the age of 11 and 16 who wasn’t the house mistress, one of the cleaners or a teacher, so none of those counted. I wasn’t happy in London. I wasn’t happy at school. So, when I was old enough I turned my back on the ‘posh life’ of London and the opportunities that would have been mine if I had stayed there with my father. Instead I went north, to Newcastle, and lived in the same village my mother had grown up in, where my grandfather still lived, where my little sister Sarah lived, where my aunts, uncles and cousins all still lived. If there was anywhere on this planet I should have felt was home, that little village, Prudhoe, was it.
Instead of the grammar schools and the life of money, I went to the local college. It was a culture shock. It changed my life in so many ways.
On the first day, after registration we had to go and get our library cards and do the tour. I was the proverbial fish out of water. I didn’t know how to mix with other people – well the ones with the ‘different bits’ at least. I remember as clear as if it was yesterday filling out the card and having this girl – older than me by almost two years, I was young going in to college, the curse of being bright. My 16th birthday was actually a month and a half into the first term when everyone else was turning 17 or 18. She was almost 18 – come and sit on the other side of the narrow table facing me. She smiled and started to talk to me. My mouth moved but no words came out. A few sounds eventually made it.
I’m going to tell you know she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was. She was she was she was. Christ you have no idea how much I hate writing those two words.
It wasn’t just the eye of the beholder talking, or looking, should I say. I remember thinking (in registration about an hour earlier) that there was no way she’d want to talk to me. I was wrong. She not only wanted to talk to me, eventually she unlocked me and we had something approaching a conversation. I confessed that I had never been in the same class as a girl, that in fact I thought girls were an alien species and had no idea how intelligent they were, how funny, how charming… and confessed, too, that I couldn’t look into her eyes because my heart started to race and I got light headed. She was sweet. She decided we were going to be friends. I decided I was going to be in love – that was a much easier choice for me.
For two years we really were the best of friends. She was my first everything. My first hope, my first smile from a stranger that stopped me dead in my tracks, my first kiss that made me feel like I was there, like I was being kissed back. She was my first walking hand-in-hand in the rain, soaked to the skin and oblivious. She was my first slow dance. She was the first person I ever put in front of myself, the first one who came first. She was my first best friend and she was my first heartbreak because she had lousy taste in men and I ended up being the guy whose shoulder she cried on, and she had no idea it was breaking my heart every time. I held her. I told her the other guy was an idiot. Believe me, he was. I told her she was too good for them. Believe me, she was. And somewhere in all of that, she realized I was there and best friends became something else.
Of course, college life is a time capsule. It’s removed from reality because it has this utterly finite nature so little else does. Eventually we left. I went to university, and she went to work. During the summer of this monumental transition our friendship changed. I went to live with her for a week while her folks were away and my folks were away. She loaned me her father’s clothes so I didn’t have to go home. And for a while I got to feel like this wonderful life was there for the taking. We danced in candlelight to Elkie Brooks, we talked, we watched Agnes of God, we laughed, went sweaty down to Mrs Miggin’s Coffee Shop and sat there smelling of each other.
She was the first girl to ever cook a romantic meal for me.
And then at the end of the week she broke my heart.
I told her I wanted to be with her, to be together properly, not a stolen week. She told me I was too young, and at work, her new job, she had met the man she was going to marry.
She wanted to take me upstairs and I just wanted to go home.
I stormed out of the house and cried the entire twenty miles on the bus back to home. I think I can count the number of times I have cried in my adult life on one hand. Twice they have been because of Vicky, then and now.
We spoke once more after that, for about nine minutes when we met in the city so I could pay her back twenty seven pounds that I had borrowed, and I was an absolute arse. I mean I was stupidly stubbornly angry. I was still in love and so bitter that I wasn’t enough because I knew, even then, barely 18, that I would have married this girl and given her the best of me and the worst. All of it. It was love and there are no other words for it. It was as strong as anything I’ve ever felt. It was brilliant. Iridescent. Full. And it wasn’t enough. The older me realizes now I could have won her forever had I really tried instead of licking my wounds and acting like an idiot. But she was right, I was young, and my youth is what lost her for me. I was so intent on my own pain that I didn’t even say goodbye. Now, today, in 2009, that hurts. Christ, I can’t begin to tell you how much it does. The twenty-twenty agony of hindsight.
I tried to find her a few times after that, but it wasn’t easy. The first time I tried to swallow my pride and just say sorry, I found out that she had married the guy, just as she had predicted she would, and her ex-boss told me she’d just left to have a baby. He had her address, but thought she was in the process of moving to a bigger place. I tried the number, but as he had thought, they had moved on. I didn’t try much harder than that.
Instead I contented myself that Vicky was out there living brilliantly.
There was nothing more I could have asked for her, as a best friend.
I would think about her from time to time, and every time I did I would try to find her. I’d use the internet, scouring websites like Friends Reunited, then Myspace and Facebook and all the other social networks, hoping to find her. After my divorce in 2002 I tried again, seriously to find her. I don’t know whether I had this dumb idea that I could find my first love and sweep her off her feet, or whether I just wanted to say sorry, and save myself, re-connect, or if I was determined to become a ghost in the country of my childhood. I really don’t know.
I never did find her again.
But just before Christmas I did find her baby sister, Emma. Emma and I had sort of dated for a short while during that college time, when she was too frightened of boys and I was still utterly terrified by girls. Just seeing her name brought so much feeling sweeping up inside me, so I wrote to her. Just a short note saying hi, asking how she was doing, asked her to pass my love on to Louise and Vicky, and basically just playing catch up. The internet is amazing like that. My cunning plan was that she’d pass on Vicky’s email and I’d finally get to say all the things I should have said when I was 18 and we’d laugh about it and share all these great stories of how our lives and worked out – and we’d become friends again.
A friend of mine offered me a quote yesterday, I will share it now by way of explanation: you can never begin to know how someone will imprint themselves on your soul. Vicky imprinted herself on my soul. I didn’t have any idea how much until I got the mail on Thursday.
Emma filled me in: she’s a new mum, having a great time, Louise is a Teaching Assistant, two girls, Vicky’s two kids are smashing, they’ve got a great relationship… and there was a way the letter was structured that long before I read the part about Vicky I knew that she was dead, I just knew it and I knew that it was being held back because Emma didn’t want to say it. I read it a dozen times without it sinking in. She had hanged herself. Somehow this brilliant beautiful funny knowing charming clever girl who had made me a moth to her flame for two and a half glorious years had fallen into such tragic darkness she couldn’t find a way out.
I went through so many responses to this.
The first, the obvious one, was grief. But it was a weird grief because I felt like I had no right to it, if that makes any sense? She had this huge life I had no part of. 18 years before me 18 years after me, basically, but there was that overlap, and that part, those 30 months, that was the girl I grieved for. I cried – actually I didn’t cry until now, but I am writing all of this in tears, so they are finally here. I felt this huge emptiness because I felt I’d let this friend down by being stupidly selfish all those years ago, by not trying harder in 2002 to find a way back into her life to make her laugh and smile at my dazzling stupidity. I can do dazzlingly stupid, it’s my superhero superpower. I felt so staggeringly sorry that the last time we spoke I had been a such a stupid childish brat because I couldn’t cope with my love not being enough for her. And now I suddenly remember the fit of anger when I said I never wanted to see her again. How’s that for cutting yourself open in grief? I made her cry. That was my parting gift to the girl from 20 years ago. I made her cry.
The second response was sadness that this life hadn’t been enough for her. That two kids hadn’t been enough to keep her here. That she’d gone to such a dark place she’d driven her family away and ended up in hospital care for her own safety when no one around her could cope.
And then third this crushing anger that she’d chose a death that meant someone who loved her would have to find her and cut her down.
These were the human responses, the honest emotions.
And this is where the essay stops being a walk down memory lane and a eulogy for a girl I loved, and becomes the lesson of the writer, and hopefully goes a little way to explaining the parasite that has its hooks in my back and feeds off me.
I know myself well enough to know that if I had never set these words down on paper I wouldn’t have cried, and Vicky wouldn’t have got the tears her impact on me and my life deserved. So I am weeping openly and I really and honestly don’t give a damn. I want to cry for her.
But the writer in me never turns off. It’s a voracious bastard who almost immediately said: “This is why he goes home!”
Let me explain a little more…
I’m about done with ‘genre‘ writing. I have no great love for the trappings of science fiction, fantasy, and least of all horror. I want to write about people, about life. For the last three years on and off I have been noodling with an idea I’m calling Kings of Emotion, a story about a 39 year old who emigrated when he was much younger and returns to his home town where he hasn’t been for 20 years. You might suspect it is about me, and maybe it is, but it is not autobiographical. Until this week I didn’t really know what it was all about, not really, not without it being cheap, a cheat, which goes a long way to explaining why I haven’t written anything outside of notes for it.
Now I know.
It’s about the people this guy left behind and about how he becomes that ghost haunting his own childhood I talked about up there at the top. And for all of those three years I haven’t known why my hero would ever go home. Why would anyone go back after 20 years? I’ve been an exile for 13 myself, and save one bout of homesickness I’ve never had the urge to go back. That makes it hard to find a motivation for a character when I can’t find one for myself.
And then there it was.
Vicky had given me the answer.
That is what the writer in me meant when it said: “This is why he goes home!” He was going home to say goodbye to the girl from 20 years ago. To leave flowers on her grave. To cry in front of her one last time. To talk to her even though she couldn’t hear him. To say the sorry he had never managed while she was alive – it is all for him, not for her of course. That sorry was always for him because the girl he loved stopped growing age 19 and was living brilliantly in his imagination (and of course in real life she would have forgotten that stupid argument a few weeks later. It wouldn’t have haunted her the way it has suddenly returned to haunt me). That’s where Kings of Emotion will begin. I know that know. I know that was always how it had to be. And I know that it is going to be Vicky’s book. And I know that I am going to cry again, and again probably a dozen times before I am done with saying goodbye to this girl I haven’t spoken to in two decades.
But I will, they only way I know how. In words.
And how did the human react to the writer?
Honestly? The first raft of emotion was abject disgust that I could take this huge grief, this tragedy of a childhood sweetheart and turn it into a story.
But that’s what the writer in me is, it’s a parasite that cannibalizes grief and sadness and happiness and all those other moments of my life and turns them in words, and those words are little pieces of me. That’s why I don’t write stories.
I can’t live my life here and now, I live it in retrospect.
It’s how I express myself, it is how I say the things I could never say face to face.
While we’re confessing, I never cried when my grandmother died. I never cried when my marriage collapsed and I filed for divorce. There are so many things in my life that didn’t touch me enough to make me cry. People have drifted in and out of my life that I couldn’t care less about. It’s not about being tough. I don’t think I am. I think I am an emotional wreck. Sitting here now, writing this, I am crying and I am in public, and it is the second time I have cried for Vicky. I am in a cafe with eleven other people. One guy is reading a magazine with glossy pictures, two girls are sipping over-sized teas, one woman is sending a text on her phone, a young couple are playing with their baby, lifting him up in the air and twisting the seats they are sitting in, and another couple are just getting together, you can tell. They are coy, reaching across the table to touch hands but not quite making it all the way before they pull back sheepishly. The girls are working behind the counter preparing food. And then there is me, red-streaked cheeks, mourning a girl I haven’t spoken to since 1988, but who, if you asked me a week ago to write a list of the five people who were my great loves, who made me who I am, would have made it right up near the top.
She was always was my first everything – and today she is my first great loss.
The title of this essay is a clue – I needed to write about Vicky because it is what I do. I needed to put these words out there because if other people know, if they can understand, then maybe the universe will remember her with me because I cannot bear the idea of her not being out there somewhere living brilliantly.
And maybe someone out there has their own Vicky, or there’s a Vicky reading this and they need to know that somewhere they’ve imprinted themselves on a soul, because they have. I know they have.
I don’t know if Emma will read this, or Louise, and it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t for them. It’s for me, these are the words I never needed to say because the girl from 20 years ago knew, she could see it in my eyes and in my smile and feel it in my hand as we walked down the street in Hexham, she could taste it in my kiss. I am talking to myself, writing the words down, because that is how I process my life. It is how this physician heals himself.
And when I die, if there is a heaven up there, she’ll be the first person I go looking for, and I will find a way to SAY all of the things I needed to say then and still need to say without hiding behind paper and ink.
Until then, I am a writer, I write therefore I am.
Back in 2003 I sat in a room in L.A. with 12 other award-winning writers listening to Tim Powers talk about the craft. I honestly think I learned more about the business of being a writer in those 7 days than I had in probably a decade of trying to sell my soul for 3c a word.
We were the nineteenth class of Writers of the Future contest, and everyone in that room was more talented than me, that was my immediate thought listening to them. In terms of talent, a very quick breakdown would tell you Jay Lake went on to win the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and landed a very nice deal with Tor that saw Mainspring, Escapement (and soon enough we’ll see Green) released; Geoffrey Girard published a series of short story collections with Mid Atlantic Press that have pretty much outsold any small press publication I have heard of, ever; Luc Reid published Talk the Talk through Writers Digest, a great guide to the language of various sub cultures; Ken Liu made it into the Years Best SF edited by David Hartwell; Carl Fredrick has become a staple of the Analog stable with at least dozen stories there. Others didn’t make it, or rather haven’t yet, it’s a slow game this.
There was, however, this one guy sat in the front row. He talked such a good fight you’d expect to see him on the NYT charts by now. Of course, for him it hasn’t quite worked out that way . . .
I spent most of the week in shock, suffering from what we call The Imposter’s Syndrome (One of my old Storyteller’s blogs pretty much focussed on this, if you want to delve through the archives… it’s from about 3 years ago). Long story very short, I didn’t think I belonged with these talented buggers. All of these other guys were just so damned brilliant and creative and clever. They were used to crit groups and dissecting the root of a story, pulling apart the words to find the mechanism, and as Luc’s book title suggests, talking the talk.
Day three, one of the guys turned around to me and said: “Steve, you really need to get an ego.” I thought it was the strangest statement I had ever heard. I mean, I have got a perfectly formed ego, thank you kindly. Just ask anyone who knows me… heck some would even suggest it was more than healthy, ahem, but next to these guys I think I was this blank slate of humility. I don’t know if it was a case of everything being bigger in America or what, but I began to think maybe they were right.
The thing is, hindsight being the wonderful thing it is, confidence in the work is vital, but ego informs arrogance, and arrogance is just an ugly human trait. I’ve thought about this a lot.
With a first time writer it can be forgiven as part of the learning curve, you know, another of the mistakes we make in the heady rush of excitement the comes with holding our first book in our hands… but what is it when we see the same behaviour surface in the five time novelist? The ten? It sure isn’t cute. Who wants to work with someone who thinks they’re that fucking special? It’s funny, my editor’s assistant over at Variance (hi Stan) mailed me about an hour ago and thanked me for being a regular guy and not all stuck up and demanding, and for not having the airs of a bloke who had had the kind of success I have had. I laughed at that. Now, in part, writing for properties like Warhammer and Stargate take care of that because more often than not people are buying the line, not the author, so that helps keep you in your place. I know it was the success of the show that made the Primeval book the hit it was, not my brilliance. If you ask me, it’s good for the soul. Keeps you honest.
I’ve sat on panels at conventions and watched writers build their book forts to hide behind as though they validate their presence up there. I’ve sat in bars with people who were acquaintances (if not friends) and listened to them play their one-upmanship games of career and sales because it’s human nature to want people to at least think you’re doing well – as well as them, if not better. Pretty much daily I watch people commit career suicide (or at least fan suicide with me being the fan) because they can’t resist some stupid internet flame war, because they think that what they have to say is worth bludgeoning someone over the head with until they get it. Is it that ego thing again? Maybe.
I’ve listened to pod casts and interviews where again that need to say “yes, listen to me, I am important damn it!” overrides common sense and the first thirty seconds to a minute are wasted in a list of accomplishments that wade into every small press sale and good review from gran on Amazon – which again is pretty much only important to you. So think, when Johnny Podcast says “hey can we interview you about your first book?” what am I selling here? The answer is, of course, your brand, yourself. Not the one book. You are selling the future, all those unwritten books. People like humour and grace and humility because these are likeable qualities.
I used to talk about ‘being on’ which basically is the public performance face – the guy who goes to the conventions and puts on the show for others… the thing is, you keep doing that, you wind up believing the hype you’re giving yourself, and that, my fellow storytellers, is the way to madness – and a great way to lose the real friends who ground us and keep us real. What we do is a gift. There’s no divine dictate that says our book is going to be a success or that people have to like it or love us. If I get some drawings of a dinosaur from a young girl in Devon, that goes down as a day I did my job right. If I get a bad review from Frankie’s Ezine, or PW or Booklist or Kirkus, then that goes down as a day I need to buy myself chocolate to feel better – but really it is just like all the other days, one where I need to put my arse in the chair and write.
I know personally they day that I sit in my study and think “man, I’ll be really pissed off if this book doesn’t hit the Bestseller’s Lists” is the day I am going to quit writing because it will have stopped being about the writing and have become about the ego. The ‘on’ persona will have triumphed over the real me. Personally, I am really hoping that day never comes.
See, I’m actually a naturally shy person, which again people wouldn’t believe if they saw me at a convention I actually wanted to be at (I have to admit I can’t stand conventions in general and would much rather go for a vacation somewhere warm than blow a thousand bucks on hotel, travel and membership fees, hence it has been two years since I forced myself to do it, and I am sure it’ll be three or four more before I put myself though it again). I have to force myself to be social. I sat at the bar the entire time during one World Horror, no panels, no schmoozing, no chasing book deals. Hell, I managed to read most of a novel while I was there. I had a fun time just watching. Then again I don’t like going in to bookstores and introducing myself to the staff as the guy who wrote the Primeval novel, or the guy who just did Doctor Who. I get kind of embarrassed by it, like it is wrong to show off… which is ironic when I remember what Powers said back then about why we write: to show off. I always joke it’s to get the girl, but of course that’s just another form of showing off…
So of course it is natural we’re going to develop this ego around ourselves. Some would argue you need it to handle the rejection, but I reckon that’s bull, too. See, what I think you need there is determination, will, drive, not ego, because ego will get wounded when you get the pink slip of death from whatever mag you sent your baby off to. Quiet determination will have you dust off the words, look for ways to be better, and send it out again. Ego will have you thinking the editor’s an idiot. They might be, there are plenty of idiots out there, after all, but it isn’t exactly a healthy outlook, is it?
And here’s the thing as far as I am concerned, without exception, it has been the hard working quiet guy who has impressed me. The writer who actually puts his arse in the chair and writes, doing his job with the minimum of fuss and bother, not talking the talk, standing there declaring he is going to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by Robert Silverberg (you had to be there, trust me).
That is the guy we should all aspire to be.
I’ve had a while to think about this essay, and of all the possible things I might want to write – here’s the thing, I don’t blog, I don’t write out the minutia of my life like I expect someone random Joe (okay not YOU Joe, another one) out there to care. I find the notion rather disturbing to be honest, and like some misbegotten disciple of Ned Ludd find myself shying away from all things blogorific… heck I have even started writing my stories out long hand and trying to decipher my dreadful handwriting! And yet here I am, after a two year hiatus from Storytellers Unplugged, back. And I’m still not about to write out the shopping list of my every day, but in those couple of years working day in day out I’ve collected a few useful experiences that might just be worth reading if you’re an aspiring writer or a relatively new pro. Maybe. The thing is, it’s different for everyone. I mean, getting an agent that first time I broke every rule there is, including having an 8,000 word query letter… ahem.
A quick confession before we begin: I’m what some people less than affectionately might call a hack. Indeed, recently Kevin J. Anderson introduced me to a bunch of writers as Hack Jnr. I took huge pride in that, I have to admit. So, I am a hack. By that I mean like the hackney carriage that drives you from one end of London to the other, I do it for the money. It’s my job. It’s the only job I have had since I walked out of the school where I was slowing killing myself teaching 5th Grade pretty dreadfully. I have bills to pay, just like everyone else. I have a mortgage, electricity, water, cable tv, internet, telephone, and erm that pesky one that comes in every day, food… and my only means of paying these bills? Words. Hence the hack comment. I’m a poster boy for the ‘will write for food’ cardboard sign club.
This means day in day out the words have got to flow. I did a mental tally the other day, and I average about 650,000 words a year sold. That’s basically 1,800 words every day including Christmas, birthdays, bouts of flu, migraine, laundry day, allergies, asthma, exercise, chores, you know the rituals of every day life. I write at about 500 words an hour when things are going well, so again, that means setting aside at least 4 hours of every single day, without fail. Of course what that translates to is a couple of bad days and I am up writing at 4am and sleeping until the post man rudely wakes because he insists on ringing twice, the swine. This is a glimpse at my every day, and a fair indicator of why I don’t blog. Entry one, got up, had breakfast, wrote. Entry two, slept in because I wrote late, got up, came up with a cool idea, wrote some more. Didn’t like what I wrote yesterday. Rewrote it. It’d get pretty damn repetitive pretty damn sharpish.
On some projects I am lucky, I get 90 days, on others, as few as 45. That’s for a novel, and has been known to include editing time and the complete approval process for the Intellectual Property Holders as well. This means I need confidence in the words as they go down, I need to plan and think and decide exactly what I want to do. Exactly. Not an approximation.
So… then I read those dreaded words… “this is a missed opportunity…” and I wonder, for whom?
See, this strikes me as interesting. . . . now here be spoilers, but only generic ones, to serve the point.
With my final book for Games Workshop I wrote the story I essentially wanted to write, exactly as I wanted to write it. My hero is a sixty year old warrior on his last legs, heart failing, going out on a mad crusade his body will never let him finish. His companion is a younger man who idolises him and is utterly devoted to him. Their relationship is complicated and at least 50% of the response I’ve had to it has been wondering whether Kasper, the companion, is gay, or whether I see him as gay. The answer of course is screamingly obvious if you read the book, but it is done in a way to allow you to decide for yourself. Now the entire thing is about these two people and about the spirit of an old man who refuses to die. It’s my tribute to David Gemmell who got me into fantasy with his novel Legend, and pretty much changed my life.
Now with that in mind, I consciously sat down to create a world view where for once in Warhammer the monsters didn’t matter. It wasn’t about Mamut of the Nine Souls, a hideous flesh and metal sorcerous golem. It wasn’t about the dracolich, nor even the vampires, mad Radu and his cohorts.
It was about the people and the truth that a man might give his all to save his people while all the great evil plans of the villains can simply and tragically fail to come to fruition… so the dracolich crashes and burns simply because it’s bones have been pickled to preserve them before the magic can bind them – it’s a stupid mistake, but not all evil is genius, and even evil genius can overlook the obvious in the pursuit of the cunning plan. The Nine Souls is crushed underground by collapse as the dracolich rises. See, the henchman building his beautiful monster has no idea that the bone dragon the master is putting together is going to erupt through the earth from beneath the cemetery where their workshop lies, nor what the effects might be… because he’s working in secret and none of them trust each other… all of this allows us to focus on what REALLY matters – the story people. It’s all about the story people, folks. That’s the big secret.
Now, the professional reviews all unanimously say it’s a great book, which is nice, and some have even held it up and said, ‘hey, you worry about quality of tie-in fiction, read this, it’ll blow those worries away,’ which is again nice. But what of the fans who love the monsters? It’s that 50-50 thing, and time and again I’ve read the dreaded line – a missed opportunity…
But what does the fan mean?
He wanted to see the cool monsters?
Surely it’s more than that?
So then perhaps it is the fact that monsters are meant to be uber tough and mankind is the victim here and should be quashed?
Or maybe it’s just plain and simply not the story he wanted to read.
Now, does Charles Stross hear his latest is a missed opportunity? Does Stephen Donaldson read about the Third Chronicles of Thomas Covenant being a missed opportunity?
Can it even BE a missed opportunity if the author has successfully (in their own opinion at least) conveyed exactly what they wanted to convey, including layered meaning?
My feeling on both of these has to be no. But why then does the fan of a media show or game consider something even executed precisely as the writer and publisher want a missed opportunity? Here, I think, we hit the crux of the matter… it’s one of ownership. More than with any normal book this fan feels an ownership with the world, the show, the whole kit and kaboodle… and when it doesn’t play as he wants it then it was a missed opportunity for them to give him exactly what he wants.
That’s my take on it.
And boy do I hate the phrase missed opportunity.
So, while the world may sneer, guys like me face this second layer of criticism where for someone somewhere everything we do is going to be a missed opportunity.
How do I cope with it? The flippant answer would be to get rolling drunk. The smart answer would be to not read the reviews. The honest answer would be, even after all this time, badly. I’ll sit for a day raging about the house ranting ‘why can’t they see what it’s really about?’ And then I wonder if it’s my fault and I should have given them the monster hack as the farewell…
And then I think ‘No, that more than anything else, would have been a missed opportunity…’