A Dark and Bloody Debut: Jack Wolf on The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones

Jack Wolf lives in Bath, where he is currently studying for a PhD. His debut novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, was published in January by Vintage. A dark, beautiful and impeccably-researched take on the 18th century novel, it has been widely praised by reviewers.
The troubled Tristan Hart wants to become an enlightened London doctor but he finds himself drawn into the dark and dangerous world of English folklore and the gruesome legend of Raw Head and Bloody Bones. Tristan becomes convinced that the terrible Raw Head is after him. Is her right, or merely insane? Does Raw Head really exist? And if he does, how can Tristan defeat him?
In this interview with Robin Stevens, Jack talks about the process of writing the novel, his fascination with folklore and the 18th century and what it feels like to become a published author.

Jack Wolf
Jack Wolf

Tell me about what drew you to the 18th century as a setting for the novel.

I’ve always had an interest in the 18th century, and I’ve always read – and not just read but enjoyed reading – 18th century literature. I guess it was just a question of the period appealing to me, and then me having this sort of bloody-minded interest in making my book as historically accurate as was appropriate. That’s quite important, because I wasn’t writing a work of history. There has to be a balancing act in a historical novel between what it actually true and what people expect, and so although Raw Head is not a work of history I felt that I needed to have my facts accurate. I hope they are.

What works did you use to get yourself into the right mindset?

Henry Fielding is a character in the novel, so I used his works quite a lot – partly to get a sense of who he was and partly to get a sense of how to write an 18th century novel in a way that I would actually enjoy. I’ve also read things like Richardson, but although my supervisor at uni is very into Richardson – Clarissa is her favourite text of all time – for me it’s much too much. I wanted my book to have a sense of fun, as well as accuracy.

In terms of its word capitalisations and spelling choices, Raw Head even looks like an 18th century novel. Did it seem organic to write the book in the style it’s presented in?

I went through a two-stage writing process: I wrote it all longhand first, without capitalising, but when it went onto the computer every noun became capitalised. Originally it was very random because that’s how real 18th century writing is – they hadn’t standardised anything. But ultimately I decided that because Raw Head’s narrator Tristan has something that I think is almost like an OCD, he would capitalise every noun rigidly.

The way you compare Enlightenment rationality and superstitious belief in fairies is very interesting. The two belief systems seem much more connected than we might expect today – not at all mutually exclusive!

No, they weren’t mutually exclusive at all. It’s quite extraordinary what comes out about that. I posted on the Raw Head Facebook page about the Mary Toft rabbit hoax.  A surprising number of people fell for it, but to modern sensibilities it is utterly unbelievable. In the 18th century there were massive gaps in science – people really didn’t have the basic grasp of scientific principles that we take for granted, so their whole worldview was much more fluid. The tradition of fairies having existed in England is ancient, all the way back to the dark ages. In Tristan’s case, even though he has scientific aspirations, he struggles not to believe in fairies. I think it was so engrained in English culture that it was difficult to shake.

How did you do your research for the book?

I read a lot of non-fiction, a lot of folk tales and a lot of folk songs. I have a very weak and pathetic background in folk music, and that turned out to be very useful for Raw Head. That was the basis for the novel, and it was only later, when I was working on tidying it up, that I began to research the medical side of things. That took me to some extraordinary places, things I would never have looked at. I read neurological journals aimed at medical students – I tried to understand what they were saying, but some things I still find mind-boggling.

Did you make any unexpected discoveries during the research process? What stood out for you?

The understanding of stroke during that period turned out to be so much more advanced than I had expected. I had to go back and check my research on that, because I found it so incredible – but it appears that that was the case. In the 18th century there really was a sophisticated understanding of stroke causes – and that in itself is interesting, because stroke was an illness that for centuries before had been thought to be caused by the fairies.

rawheadRaw Head reminded me of novels like The Crimson Petal and the White and Pure – like them, it’s very much of the era it’s describing, but you’re also responding to the 18th century novel in a consciously 21st century way. What would you say to that?

That’s right. In a recent review, a reviewer asked “what is the point of an imitation of Tristram Shandy when one might just as well read Tristram Shandy?” First of all, Laurence Sterne wouldn’t have written this novel. He’d have probably read it in the dark, and then not admitted to reading it. That’s the whole point – the 18th century couldn’t have published this, unless it was under the counter. There’s too much in it that would have been seditious, or obscene, and of course the way I write about atheism would have been a complete no-no.

How did your original idea for the book come about, and did it change during the writing period?

I thought, when I started writing Raw Head, that I was going to write a novella! Originally I just had a character called Tristan – although I had a strong sense of him, I didn’t really have a plot. The only bit I had was the love-story between Tristan and Catherine. Then I realised that the character needed a goal in life, and that was when the medical stuff crept in. I wanted Tristan’s goal to be rather overwhelming! Nathanial, too, was there from the beginning. Originally I wanted to use the relationship between him and Tristan to explore the Gothic trope of light and dark, but give it an Emily Brontë twist with the fair character being evil and the darker skinned character being good. As things fell out, though, it all became much more complicated than that.

Raw Head is a very dark and bloody novel – did you ever have your agent or your editor telling you you needed to tone it down or change parts of it?

Well, my agent originally wanted to calm it down, because it had such a frenzied energy. So I wrote a few chapters of it in a calmer vein, and my agent took one look at them and said, “This isn’t working.” Nobody ever complained about the darkness, though. It is a dark book, but I think that darkness works.

What was the writing process like? You have a Creative Writing MA, is that where the novel began?

Well, the first few chapters were written on the course, more or less – though some bits survived and some had to be rewritten. I found the peer review process a hugely supportive experience. I didn’t have a huge amount of confidence in myself at that stage – I knew that I liked writing, but I didn’t know if other people would like it. I also didn’t know if I’d have the energy to sustain a longer piece. After I’d left, a few of us from the course carried on looking at each other’s work – but the last section was written on my own, the classic sitting in a corner thing!

What happened then? Did you start sending it out to people?

No, actually! I’d met my agent when he came to give a talk to my MA course. Then about six weeks after graduating I got an email asking to have a look at my work. I couldn’t believe it – I thought somebody was having me on. I asked around to see if anyone else had had a similar email, and it turned out that they hadn’t. So I went to the meeting, approaching it like a job interview and thinking that I really had to impress, but it turned out to be pretty much the other way around! When we’d met previously he’d expressed interest in the sort of work I was doing, so I figured that if he liked my writing he would be the right person to take my book on – and he did. That saved me the headache of having to hoick it round agents. I was very lucky to find an agent who essentially wanted the book I had written.

How does it feel to be a published author? What’s been the best part of the experience so far?

I don’t think it’s sunk in yet! I had my first real reading at Toppings Bookshop in Bath – the people there were mostly people who I knew, so it was a very friendly start. Holding the book for the first time was quite extraordinary. The thing that you’ve known as words on a screen or a sheaf of papers suddenly appearing as a physical object – it was quite an extraordinary moment.

What advice would you give aspiring writers? Is advice even possible, or is there just a magic ingredient?

I think the magic ingredient is bloody hard work. It doesn’t matter how talented you are – if you don’t put in the work, you won’t write the book. I’ve wanted to be a writer probably all of my life. At times I’ve also wanted to be an actor, a singer and a biologist, but that was always as well as the writing.

So, what are you writing next?

It’s another novel set in the 18th century, but with no connection to Raw Head. I wanted to dump Tristan out of my mind. It’s not a Gothic novel – I’ve been thinking about the Romantic writers of the late 18th century, and I’m playing around with some of the ideas that they used. It has three narrators, and it’s set in 1789 against the background of the French Revolution, which then triggers a slave revolt in Grenada. Its main theme is oppression. One of my characters is a female black slave, who on her return to Grenada becomes involved in the slave revolt. I’ve also got a character who is transgendered, and another who is my slave Cordelia’s owner. Like Tristan, he’s struggling with faith, although not so intensely. I’m not too sure how things are going to pan out yet – although I’ve got more plot than I had with Raw Head, I go with the flow. I’ve got a general outline and that’s it. I think you have to give your characters a certain amount of space. It’s like kids – if you’re too rigid, you’ll lose the spark.

Do you think that you’ll stick to the 18th century in future? What does not interest you, theme-wise?

The present! The past and the future I find hugely interesting. Before Raw Head I wrote another 18th century novel, set in the 1760s. It was absolutely dreadful, but it did teach me how not to write an 18th century novel. Thankfully, that will never see the light of day.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

If everything goes to plan, in 10 years’ time I’ll be writing my third or fourth novel. That’s the plan, anyway. In 10 years’ time I’ll probably be looking back at this and thinking, God, what an idiot. But that’s where I’d like to be – writing and possibly doing some teaching as well.

 

To find out more about the fascinating world of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, visit the book’s Facebook page, curated by Jack himself, or read his series of blogs for the Vintage Books website.
You can see Jack next on the 14th of April at the Cambridge Word Festival 2013, where he will be making up part of the Debut Writers panel alongside Melissa Harrison and Kevin Maher.



Novel: Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

rubbernecker bauer

Anyone who thinks that the crime novel is a boring, repetitive genre would do well to read Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker. Set in the coma ward of a Cardiff hospital, Rubbernecker may be a murder mystery, but it’s not really a whodunit. We are given the how a few chapters into the book, and options for the who are vanishingly small. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of detection, Rubbernecker is more interested in uncovering the reasons why someone might commit murder, and the way an action like murder can spread to affect a surprisingly diverse group of people. Above all, Rubbernecker is a clever, beautifully written and darkly banal study of the owners of two very individual minds: coma patient Sam Galen and autistic student Patrick Fort.

Both Sam and Patrick are trapped by their own misfiring brains. After a horrific (and shockingly well described) car accident in the novel’s first chapter, Sam’s brain allows him to understand but not respond. He’s stuck in the coma ward, where the highlights of his days include being ignored by lazy nurses and being visited by a wife he doesn’t even remember. And then, one night, he looks over at the bed next to him and sees something terrible…

While Sam is acutely aware of what he can’t do, Patrick is very comfortable in his own skin; his trouble is understanding why the rest of the human race doesn’t respond to the world in the same way he does. Patrick is autistic, and although his condition allows him to minutely catalogue the world, he isn’t able to process what those observations mean. Patrick’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was a child, and this experience has left him feeling certain that he has missed a crucial piece of information that everyone else has access to. He is studying anatomy at university as part of his quest to understand the concept of death, but the dissection subject he is given brings him the exact opposite of enlightenment — and worse, Patrick begins to suspect that the man’s official cause of death is just plain wrong.

Sam and Patrick both have suspicions that they’re incapable of sharing information that they are unable to fully understand and communicate to the people around them. Without knowing it, they’re two halves of the same puzzle, and the genius of Bauer’s book is the way she manages to synthesise Sam and Patrick’s stories, teasing out real suspense while she builds up two touching portraits of two men struggling to make sense of their lives.

Patrick, especially, is a completely delightful main character, and Bauer’s presentation of extreme autism feels real. What’s more difficult to believe in, oddly, is the inability of almost every other character to understand how to cope with his behaviour. Even his university professors have apparently not been briefed by the pastoral department on Patrick’s inability to use sarcasm or humour, and months after they first meet him, they are still assuming that he’s being sarky rather than bluntly honest. Of course, the plot turns on Patrick’s fundamental isolation, the fact that no one believes him even when he’s telling the truth. He knows that a murder has taken place, but what he doesn’t know is how to make other people listen to him. It’s difficult not to feel the same frustration as Patrick does — like Sam, and like Patrick himself, the reader is trapped, unable to make the rest of the novel’s characters wake up and really see what’s under their noses. It’s a really clever concept, and in Bauer’s capable hands it works wonderfully.

Rubbernecker has a very unpleasant side to it, but its darkness doesn’t come from exceptional evil. It’s about everyday nastiness — the little cruelties of the nurses on the coma ward, the small ways in which family members misunderstand and disappoint each other, the thousands of tiny opportunities to be kind that we miss every day. At times it’s deeply chilling — a novel that will haunt you with its very possibility, but it is also an engrossing and very readable murder mystery. Crime fiction fans will find Rubbernecker intensely enjoyable, a novel that’s both well-plotted and extremely well-written. Personally, I wish I’d discovered Bauer sooner. I thought this was a great book, and I can’t wait to read all of her other novels.




Biography: Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna

fanny and stella mckennaOscar Wilde’s 1895 obscenity trial has defined the way we think about Victorian attitudes to homosexuality. Revelations about ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ led to public censure and the hounding out of England on a tide of righteous indignation of the men at the centre of the case. But, in fact, Wilde’s trial marked a sea-change in the way Britain reacted to same-sex attraction. Wilde’s conviction itself (for ‘gross indecency’) had only become possible because of an act passed barely ten years before, an act that was, in practice, the strictest anti-homosexuality law the country had ever seen. Although sodomy had been a hanging offence until 1861, the severity of the punishment meant that the police were very reluctant to make arrests, and juries were in turn reluctant to convict. And it turns out that rigidly ‘Victorian’ gender binaries didn’t really develop fully until the end of the century, either. The concept of the ‘homosexual’ was first put forward in sexological texts in the 1880s – before that people didn’t consider themselves as attracted to an entire sex in the way we do today.

Put all of those things together and it’s possible to argue that, against anything most of us would assume today, it might have been easier to be gay in the middle of the nineteenth century than at any time between 1885 and 1967, when homosexuality was finally decriminalised in England and Wales. And few things illustrate this more clearly that the 1870 trial of Fanny and Stella, legally known as Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, for the slightly puzzling and vague crime of ‘conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’.

The details of Fanny and Stella’s story will completely destroy all your presumptions about Victorian attitudes to sexuality. They and their circle of friends regularly dressed in elaborate drag and went out into the centre of London (they were finally arrested in the Strand Theatre after attending a performance there as women). But it’s clear that they didn’t treat their female personae as part of some separate secret life. At the trial, witnesses testified that they were regulars of the fashionable Burlington Arcade, where they would sometimes appear as heavily made-up men and sometimes as women. One of the most prominent witnesses for Fanny and Stella’s defence was Stella’s mother, who had sewed many of his dresses and appeared to essentially accept his lifestyle choices. And although newspapers and magazines lampooned the ‘funny he-she ladies’, public opinion as a whole was more for Fanny and Stella than against them. Their trial ended in acquittal on all charges of homosexuality and homosexual incitement, and the pair left the court-room to cheering crowds.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that deserves to be more well-known than it is. Neil McKenna’s new book, Fanny and Stella, attempts to do just that, with the best of intentions – but unfortunately only mixed success.

Not that McKenna could be accused of not trying. He’s clearly besotted with the pair, and sees their story as a formative moment in modern LGBT culture.  And yes, it is an important story, both for gay and transgendered people – Stella, especially, seems to have thought about herself (McKenna uses the female pronoun to describe her throughout) as a woman. I agree with McKenna’s suggestion that she would probably identify as transgendered today. But McKenna’s so emotionally bound up with his two subjects, and with what he sees them as representative of, that his account is oddly over-personal, a reimagining rather than an explanation of the events surrounding their arrest and trial.

McKenna’s obviously researched extensively – he has trial reports, letters and medical documents at his fingertips – but he’s frustratingly bad at showing his working. Much of the story is written, in ‘the voice’ of Fanny or Stella (as imagined, of course, by McKenna). This is a conceit that is dangerously difficult to get right, especially in a work of non-fiction, and I don’t think that McKenna is a technically strong enough writer to get away with it. Under his influence, both Fanny and Stella become strangely mimsy Victorian heroines, talking and thinking in trite clichés. True portraits or not, they’re a bit boring, and I found myself not particularly enthused about spending time with them.

My previous knowledge of the subject left me bothered by McKenna’s lack of focus, but I suspect that more general readers may very well get confused by how little background he gives to his story. McKenna has Fanny and Stella literally referring to themselves as women and talking about their affairs in the conventional language of heterosexual courtship and marriage. This sounds completely insane and anachronistic, and will have most people assuming that some very heavy historical wish-fulfilment is going on. In fact, McKenna’s just using the gay slang of the day, but because he doesn’t properly explain this at the beginning his careful observation reads like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. These days, even historical novels are expected to be well-researched and well-explained, and so this omission in a piece of factual writing feels lazy and weird. I see where he’s going – he’s trying to evoke a moment and go beyond the stuffily conventional bounds of traditional history – but I can’t see why he couldn’t have been both emotive and precise.

The best passages of Fanny and Stella come when McKenna does manage to marry his chatty, salacious writing style with historical exposition. Suddenly his story makes sense, and you’re gripped by the astonishing counter-culture that Fanny and Stella were part of. Just a few lines more of explanation would have left Fanny and Stella feeling much more well-rounded without taking anything away from the amazing story it has to tell. Alas, McKenna never quite gets there. This is naughty, fascinating stuff, but it’s neither arrestingly witty nor a great piece of research. Fanny and Stella deserve quite a lot more.




Novel: A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd

a treacherous likeness shepherdIt’s London, 1850, and private detective Charles Maddox has just been given a new case. Sir Percy Shelley and his wife are being harassed by someone threatening to make public certain facts about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s early life. The Shelleys assure Charles that the stakes are high: if these details were made known, the consequences to the great poet’s name and reputation would be extremely damaging.

At least, this is what they tell Charles. But who is this mysterious persecutor? What are the secrets the Shelleys are so desperate to hide? And what does it all have to do with Sir Percy’s frail old mother Mary?

Lynn Shepherd writes historical fiction that is both precise and intensely referential. Her Charles Maddox literary detective novels (this is our intrepid hero’s second outing) are based on well-known literature: the first, Tom-All-Alone’s, was a craftily distorted mirror-image of Dickens’s Bleak House, and A Treacherous Likeness draws on the life and works of the Romantics. And just as in Tom-All-Alone’s, there’s a subversive intelligence at work here. Shepherd isn’t afraid to take received wisdom about the Shelley household and twist into a ferociously dark new form.

Shepherd’s conclusions about the lives of the Shelleys and their oversexed circle of friends are, at times, startling. I admit, I don’t agree with some of them, but I have to grant that she is careful to back up even her wildest claims with source material – source material in which, as she admits in the afterword, the facts are often stranger than anything fiction could invent. Consider the evidence: after being the subject of an extensive Government surveillance operation before he was out of his teens, Shelley ran away to Switzerland with Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin and her half-sister Claire when Mary was only sixteen and Shelley’s first wife Harriet was still alive. Two women – Harriet and another one of Mary’s half-sisters, Fanny Imlay – then proceeded to kill themselves for love of him. And those are just the details that we know.

I’ve found the Shelleys (both Percy and Mary, who began Frankenstein when she was nineteen) fascinating ever since I first read about them, and so I’m touchy about any novel that tries to represent them. But rest assured, this is a presentation of their lives that manages to be both imaginative and rigorously researched. A Treacherous Likeness is a novel that will find favour with even the nerdiest fan of the Romantic poets. We get the greatest hits – William Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Byron, the great ghost story challenge, as well as some less-known side stories, like poor old Harriet and Fanny – and it’s all rolled up into a pacy historical mystery.

A Treacherous Likeness is written in a sarkily omnipotent voice that’s well aware that its characters are in the nineteenth century but its readers are in the twenty first century. The voice Shepherd employs reminds me a bit of the knowing narration of The Crimson Petal and the White, playing intelligently on the differences between the knowledge available to us and them. We’re better informed about the Shelleys’ lives, and about scientific principles and medical diagnoses, than Charles ever will be, and Shepherd makes use of that gap. She also does a nice recreation of the all-seeing omnipotent eye of the Dickensian narrator, zooming in and out of rooms, along streets and across the countryside. Shepherd has a beautifully light narrative touch, and her narrative voice is delightful and reassuring, someone we trust to take us on the journey she’s chosen.

Her protagonist Charles, by contrast, is wonderfully impulsive and thoughtless. He’s a great detective, but he’s often slightly rubbish at noticing what is going on around him at a personal level, and that mix of characteristics makes him a charmingly flawed hero who it’s a pleasure to spend time with.

For once, I’d have to argue that the Maddox mysteries are books where more knowledge of the subject is better. They are so heavily responsive to their base texts that they could really be described as fan fiction. I say this with the highest respect for fan fiction – Shakespeare, Virgil and Jean Rhys all did it, after all, so I have difficulty seeing why some people turn up their noses at it – but if you don’t know about Shelley’s life (or, in the case of Tom-All-Alone’s, if you haven’t already read Bleak House), you’re going to struggle to process what Shepherd is doing.

I think that these books are great. They are absolutely novels for a niche readership, but that’s fine. They never pretend to be anything else. If you are in their target demographic, you are in for a rare treat, and if you aren’t – well, you need to read Bleak House and a Shelley biography as fast as you can, just so you can join in the fun.

A Treacherous Likeness is out now from Corsair Press. Want to know more about Lynn? You can read our recent Q&A with her here.



New Voices: Hanna Jameson on her debut novel Something You Are

(c) Ben Grubb Photography
(c) Ben Grubb Photography

Hanna Jameson’s debut novel Something You Are was published in December 2012, when Jameson was just twenty-two. Currently a student at the University of Sussex, Jameson first came up with the idea for her London Underground series at the age of seventeen. She met her agent after a gig for the band The Darkness, and Something You Are was sold to a new kid on the block of London publishing, Head of Zeus, a month into her first term at university.

Influenced by Tarantino, David Peace, and (most of all) Nick Cave, Jameson’s writing has been described as being like “an angel on speed”. In Something You Are, she’s created a twisted, dark and very sophisticated London underworld that will stay in your head long after you’ve finished reading it.

In the first of Litro‘s series of interviews with newly published authors, Robin Stevens talks to Jameson about her experiences of writing her first novel and its road to publication.


Where did the idea for the novel come from? What part of it came to you first?

The original idea I had when I was seventeen. It was much more idealistic, much more of a straightforward love story — although it was still pretty horrible! Then during the rewrites it got so much darker, and now I wouldn’t describe it as a love story at all. The idea just came from a character who was a contract killer, and then he brought his own story with him.

And Something You Are’s protagonist is this contract killer, Nic. He’s an interesting character, a bit Philip Marlowe in a way. He’s not totally misogynistic but he seems to have moments where he’s uncomfortable with women. What was it like to write in his voice?

Weirdly, it was easier than writing female characters. I’m actually finding it hard to get the voices for the female characters that I’m writing for the second and third novels right — but writing Nic was surprisingly smooth. I don’t know what that says about my own state of mind.

You seem to be able to get into other people’s mindsets well, though! I particularly loved Daisy. She’s a very interesting character. Instead of being one of those throwaway women you often find in gangland crime novels, she’s a very rounded person. I liked her a lot.

Oh, that’s really cool! I loved writing Daisy, she was so much fun but completely accidental. She didn’t play any part until the chapter in which she first appeared, and the twist that came out of that chapter was so entertaining that I decided to bring her back. She’s got such a cool voice that came out of nowhere. I was instantly like, “Oh my god! This character has to come back!”

You’ve said that you’ve got ideas for the next two novels in your series. Are those broad-brush plots or detailed plans?

I’ve got details in the sense that I can kind of see the novels in my head, but I don’t really write outlines down — I’m not very good at doing that planning thing that they always try to teach you to do in school! I find it kind of pointless. So I’ve got outlines — but I don’t like to plan too much. It just hampers the story. You find yourself looking at it far too much, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for interesting, spontaneous things to happen.

Do you enjoy letting your characters surprise you?

I like it when a character unexpectedly gets killed off! You don’t get to do that when you’ve planned every single chapter. Daisy wouldn’t have come out of a detailed plan at all — there wouldn’t have been room for her.

Five years have gone by since you had that first idea. Has this meant that your perspective about the story has changed?

Yes, definitely. I think just from reading more books and watching more films I got ideas for how to make it darker, more twisted. Also, my editor — my English Literature teacher Paul Davies — had a massive influence on it. He made it a lot less flowery, and he told me it was OK to not have so many redeeming features for my characters.

What influences did you have during the writing process? You talk about reading more and seeing more movies — what were those?

Definitely films like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. I think Tarantino had a massive impact, and so did the writer David Peace. Peace completely changed my writing style. He writes in such a short, staccato, poetic way, and reading that made me completely cut my sentence structures down and describe violence in a very different way. In terms of writing now, I’d say that Nick Cave probably has a bigger influence over my writing than anyone else.

Do you read a lot around the crime genre, or read outside the genre and bring influences in?

At one point in my life I read a lot of crime thrillers, but I got bored of them really quickly — which is probably why I ended up writing the book that I did. I just found the crime genre so formulaic. It got to the point where I felt like every book I was reading was the same one, that I wasn’t being shown anything new or original, or given any characters that interested me, so I started reading in different genres. At the moment I’m reading a lot of Neil Gaiman novels.

You talk about Tarantino, who’s often very stylised in his presentation of violence. Do you see yourself as writing reality or fantasy?

I don’t want to be the sort of writer who says she’s written a social commentary, in an overly pompous way, because I haven’t written a social commentary. I’ve just written stuff that I see around me, stuff that I see reflected in the news and so on. So there is an element of truth in it, but ultimately as an author I’m in the entertainment industry. I’m in the business of making things up to entertain people, books that people can escape into. So in that sense I’m writing from the point of view of fantasy — but there are elements of it that are rooted in truth.

The book is set in London. At times your vision of it is very bleak. How do you actually feel about London?

I used to really love it. I used to be really obsessed with it. I went there every single weekend when I was a teenager because that was where the bands were. I still like it when I go there, but I definitely wouldn’t compare it to Brighton — that’s the city where I live, the place I love most. London’s too big and sprawling, and full of places that I don’t like and places that intimidate me.

How much work did your agent and your publishers do on the book? What stage did they see it at first, and how much influence did they have over its direction?

My publisher and my agent didn’t have too much editorial input, actually, because I don’t like too many people to have that kind of influence over my work. I think it’s OK for people to suggest things, but I really only take ideas on board from one or two people — otherwise everyone who reads it starts to have an opinion on it and it gets really diluted and weird. Whereas if you have the sort of editor, like Paul, who thinks along the same lines as you and whose work you really respect, I much prefer him to have that sort of massive sway over the novel. Later on, my agent and my publishers made suggestions, but they didn’t make any big changes to it — which was fortunate!

I’ve read in another interview that you wrote the last two thirds of the novel very fast. What was that like?

Oh god. I think I went just a little bit mental — or even more mental than I usually am when I’m writing! It was because I got signed when I wasn’t actually sending anything out. I stumbled upon my agent by bumping into someone at a party. I’d actually given up on sending the novel out. I was at an aftershow party after a gig for The Darkness, and my boyfriend of the time introduced me to a friend who happened to work at a literary agency, which is now my agency!

So that was when you’d written a third of the novel!

Yeah! I signed three days after that chance meeting, and my agent very politely said to me, “I don’t want to put a deadline on you, but could you get it finished by the time I go to the Frankfurt book fair?” Which left me about two months to get sixty thousand words done. I didn’t sleep in that time. I didn’t have a plan — I just wrote. Thank god in the end it was actually OK.

I started uni after those mental two months had finished, and then about a month into term my agent sent it out to publishers and publishers started taking it up.

Did you get a lot of interest?

It was way more difficult than I thought it was going to be. I don’t have a lot of time for the UK publishing industry at the moment, actually. I was really surprised at how little power editors actually have to take on pieces of work that they feel strongly about, because a manager who’s never read a book in his life can just say “Tesco’s won’t like it!” and stop the whole thing.

They’re basically not putting any money into developing new talent any more. If you’re a debut author you’re very unlikely to get your novel taken up by publishers — which is kind of sad, actually. But Germany has taken my book, and I think the German publishing industry is a lot more healthy than ours. And the German cover’s amazing! It’s funny, the English cover is so understated and unthreatening and the German one has blood all over it.

Was this the first book you’d ever written? Was writing something you always wanted to do?

Oh, yeah, definitely. From thirteen or fourteen, becoming an author was always the plan. I’ve got loads and loads of stuff knocking around, novels I started writing when I was fourteen, fifteen. A lot of them I think I could go back and work on, make more mature, rework as screenplays maybe.

Are they crime as well?

Yeah, they’re still crime-based. Crime gives a lot of scope to explore darker stuff, which I like — although I’d quite like to write a really dark and twisted romantic comedy some day!

What have you most enjoyed about becoming a published author, and has anything surprised you by not being as great as you thought it would be?

The best part is not having to get up in the mornings. Definitely! I had to get up for an interview on BBC Radio Sussex this morning so I got up at 8. It sounds disgraceful but that’s the earliest I’ve got up for about six months. I had to have an hour’s nap later because I literally can’t cope with getting up before half-nine any more. Being able to pick your own schedule is amazing. You’ve got the freedom just to go write in a café, and that’s awesome.

What was quite surprising is that before I was signed, and I was writing for myself, I thought that once I was given a contract, and I was writing for a monetary incentive, words would just flow out and I’d find it really easy. But actually it makes writing a lot harder. Suddenly you feel like you’re in competition with someone other than yourself, you’re writing for this big faceless phantom audience that’s looking over your shoulder all the time. You find yourself thinking, “What would they like?” when actually you should be thinking, “What do I like?” That’s been really hard to get past. I’m still struggling with it in the second book, actually — trying not to second-guess myself is difficult.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us what the second book will be about?

It follows on in a lot of ways from Something You Are, but its protagonist is a different person, a half-Japanese half-English girl who works at the Underground Club. All of the books in this series are going to have different voices and a different main character — the third novel is from the point of view of Daisy. They all have their personal stories, but there is a big main story that carries through.

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time? Does your success so far now make you feel content, or more hungry to keep going?

How old will I be in ten years? Thirty-two. OK. In ten years’ time I’d quite like to have my books adapted into films, and I’d like Nick Cave to write the soundtracks. That’s pretty much it! Actually, sometimes I think I’ve just become a novelist as an excuse to one day work with Nick Cave.

And the success — I think the more the book does well, the more I panic, and the more pressure I feel to get things done. I see it as quite a motivating thing. I’m just driven by panic, denial and anxiety!




Reading the Classics on a Kindle

(c) thekellyscope
(c) thekellyscope

My favourite present this Christmas was a Kindle.

No, really. I’ve come a long way since the moment I announced, a year ago, that while some people might find a use for an e-reader, I could never be persuaded to make the move away from real books.

You know when you remember a past statement and just wish you could put it back into your mouth and swallow it for ever? Yes. That turns out to have been one of those.

I’m a serious reader. My addiction is incurable. The walls of my flat are lined with books, so many of them that they have overflowed their shelves and now stand in towering installations around the living room. It’s a weird week when I don’t read at least one book, maybe two, probably three. So I should be championing the importance of the printed word and denouncing those dangerous e-book pretenders, right? Well, that’s what I used to think.

But then, sometime during 2012, my opinion changed. Maybe it was the fact that so many of the other people speaking out in favour of print books were doing it in a way that I can only describe as embarrassing, grading to insane. First there was the (serendipitously titled) Slate article, ‘Out of Touch’, which argued that

If books are essentially vertebral, contributing to our sense of human uniqueness that depends upon bodily uprightness, digital texts are more like invertebrates, subject to the laws of horizontal gene transfer and nonlocal regeneration. Like jellyfish or hydra polyps, they always elude our grasp in some fundamental sense.

This pretentious piece overlooks a pretty obvious fact that I couldn’t help but notice – that e-readers are actually physical objects. When you read with one, you may not be holding a sheaf of paper, but you’re still holding an item with words on it and taking those words into your brain. The same words, incidentally, as you would take in with a paper book.

Not that fanatical e-book detractors will admit that. They behave as though the act of passing precious words through an electronic device somehow makes them less valuable. Last month I went to an event at which several of the UK’s most prominent critics talked about e-books and e-readers as though a Kindle had personally come into their houses and killed their families. “They’re terrible!” cried one. “They’re ruining the country’s reading culture!” complained another. A woman in the audience nodded in agreement. She, she told the room, feared for the children who were unlucky enough to grow up using these dreadful devices. “But how many of you have one?” asked the first critic suspiciously. There was a pause, and then three quarters of the room put up their hands. After that, the discussion became much more subdued.

If even these snobs were hiding secret e-reading habits, the format must, I thought to myself, have something to it. After all, what could really be so bad about the act of e-reading? The words are the same, and it’s the words that really matter. Paper is lovely to touch, covers are beautiful to look at and there’s a special acquisitive joy about owning a physical object that any bookworm will recognise immediately, but a book is made up of words, and that’s what an e-reader offers: the chance to get to grips with those words, just in a different medium.

And what e-books lack in packaging they more than make up in additional features. Instead of just reading you can also listen to audio, watch a video or look at photographs to enhance your experience of the text. Random House’s recent A Clockwork Orange app includes interviews with critics and a scan of the original manuscript. Looking at it from this point of view, the idea of owning an e-reader suddenly seemed extremely attractive to me.

So now I’ve got one. What’s my verdict?

You may be surprised to hear it, but the words still look like words. They still go together to make stories, and those stories are just as good, or as bad, as they would have been if I’d been touching pages instead of my rather fancy leather Kindle cover. Even the technical issues I was worried about turn out not to matter: I’m surprised by how similar flicking from screen to screen feels to the physical turning the page motion I’m used to, and I realise that what I found less immersive about reading on a computer was its ability to switch between multiple procrastination methods rather than anything about the scrolling text. Reading a book on my Kindle still feels like I’m, well, reading a book. The medium alone can’t make a reading experience invalid. I haven’t ‘read’ Trilby, I’ve read it, and there’s nothing any nay-sayer can do that’ll convince me otherwise.

Has my Kindle put me off physical books? Since I went out last week and bought seven newly-released paperbacks, I don’t think so. On the contrary, it’s given me access to an additional treasure trove of out-of-copyright, and therefore free, classics. As a fan of eighteenth century and Victorian literature, this is a huge attraction: my e-reader has given me the ability to get my hands on books that (aside from fortuitous discoveries in second-hand bookshops) simply don’t exist for me to buy in physical format.

Then there’s the weight issue: I can read Little Dorritt on the train without putting out my shoulder trying to haul a physical copy of it around in my bag. And if I find a title that I fall in love with and know that I want to read again and again in future – well, I’ll buy a beautiful physical copy to keep on my shelf. Conversely, I no longer have to worry about wearing out my favourite copy of an old and much-loved novel. Instead, I’ll just buy the e-version so I can read it on holiday while it’s still sitting safely on its shelf – the literary equivalent of having my cake and eating it too.

Of course, I need to point out that the e-book is not a trouble-free product. There are e-book detractors – and these are the ones that I do listen to – who point out their concerns about low pricing models. They also (with good reason) remind digital fanatics that the current e-book licensing method means that readers do not own the e-books that they buy. They are merely renting them from the distributor, a rental that can be brought to an end at the distributor’s discretion.

But are those things enough to damn e-books and e-readers? Of course not. And are people who predict the paper book’s demise correct? I don’t think so either. E-books are not paper book replacements, nor are they really being marketed as such. They should be seen as a handy alternative, a useful add-on that’s more likely to improve and expand reading culture rather than kill it off. E-books can do things that print books can’t, and vice versa – but what stays the same, no matter the medium, are the words themselves. And aren’t those words what we’re all here for?




2012 Books of the Year

(c) Nina Matthews Photography
(c) Nina Matthews Photography

At a King’s Place Words on Monday event at the beginning of this month, several of the UK’s most prestigious book reviewers came together to share their books of the year.

Their choices were eclectic, from The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcey, a non-fiction exploration of the colonial practice of sending young ladies out to India to find suitable husbands, to Edna O’Brien’s autobiography Country Girl, described by one speaker as ‘the memoir as work of art’. Each of the speakers had their own ideas about 2012’s outstanding books, but they all agreed on one thing – well-written reviews, and recommendations from trusted sources, still matter.

With that in mind, here are some more of their recommendations, as well as picks from the team at Litro, to give you a few last ideas for your 2012 to-read pile.

Nicholas Lezard, book reviewer for The Guardian

The Last of the Voystyachs by Diego Marani

Lezard’s Guardian rave review of Marani’s last translated work, New Finnish Grammar, caused an unprecedented rush on indie bookshops: for weeks afterwards, the book was sold out everywhere you went. Even more unusually, New Finnish Grammar was more than worthy of the hype, and so the fact that publishers Daedalus have now released a second Marani translation, The Last of the Voystyachs, should be cause for celebration. Lezard describes this novel as being a compelling – if unlikely – mix of murder mystery and linguistic thriller. Like New Finnish Grammar, it shouldn’t work and yet it does, and once again Lezard’s enthusiasm for the book is infectious. You can read his full written review of The Last of the Voystyachs here, on the Guardian website.

Harriett Gilbert, presenter of A Good Read and The Strand programmes on the BBC

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Parenthood, and what a blindly loving parent will excuse from their misbehaving child, is an immensely topical subject, and it’s one that Herman Koch tackles in his novel The Dinner. Taking place over the course of a single evening and following a dinner between two sets of parents, the proceedings seem banal at first, but they are slowly revealed to be merely the cover for a discussion of shocking past events. The Dinner is a horrifying, troubling yet immensely funny satire on parenthood and the façade of the happy family. Listen to Gilbert’s Strand interview with Koch here.

Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor of The Independent

Spitalfields Life by ‘The Gentle Author’

The Spitalfields Life blog has been interviewing residents of the borough since 2009, and this is the print version of the internet sensation. Blog-to-books are a common phenomenon, although they often don’t work in their new format. According to Tonkin, though, this is not only a successful re-issue of the website’s material, but ‘the most illuminating book on London published this year’. Its delightfully deadpan tone and the distinctive personality of its anonymous narrator has Tonkin comparing it to W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz – a big claim, but one that he stands behind. Read Tonkin’s review of Spitalfields Life on The Independent website here.

Katy Darby, novelist and Litro’s Story Sunday editor

The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal

It’s too dangerous for me to even think of picking a novel or short story collection for my book of 2012, so I’ve plumped for The Story of English in 100 Words. I saw Professor Crystal give a talk about language at the Sevenoaks Literary Celebration earlier this year, and his excerpts from this fascinating little book sold me on it completely. Crystal selects and explains 100 English words which are extraordinary or important in some way, from ‘Roe’ (a deer) – the first written word in English, carved in runes on an ankle-bone – to ‘Twittersphere’, via ‘cunt’, ‘yogurt’, ‘gotcha’ and ‘doable’ (who knew the last one was coined in the 15th century?). This is both an enjoyable book to dip into and one you can read straight through, following the evolution of our language as you go. It also manages to walk the fine line between academic rigour and accessibility: no-one can say that world-renowned linguistic expert Crystal doesn’t know his stuff, yet his style is very straightforward, readable and engaging, appealing to the armchair etymologist in all of us. Well worth buying if only to discover what ‘weasel words’ and ‘nonce-words’ are – and to impress your family over the turkey with the correct definition of ‘fopdoodle’.

Robin Stevens, Assistant Literary Editor of Litro Online

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child is the book I read this year that I most wish I had written. From its first page, a gorgeous, gripping description of a midnight walk to a frozen river that’s supposed to be the character’s last, it’s an extraordinary read. The tale of Jack and Mabel, an aging couple in the Alaskan wilderness who are desperate for a child, The Snow Child is a magical tale that has a solid grounding of pragmatism. Beautiful without being over-sentimental, filled with a childlike sense of wonder that’s coupled with a mature understanding of the world, The Snow Child is a multi-layered retelling of the ‘Snow Maiden’ group of fairy tales that will keep you questioning what’s real and what’s imagination – and if imagination can ever be its own form of reality. As I said in my review of it earlier in the year, The Snow Child is really all about how exceptional everyday life can be. With the Alaskan landscape as a fantastic, fierce backdrop to the action, and charming, true-to-life central characters playing out Ivey’s weird plot, The Snow Child more than deserves the awards it’s won this year.

Sophie Lewis, Contributing Editor of Litro and Editor at Large, And Other Stories

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods made my year. Hopeless vacuum-cleaner salesman Joe’s self-reassuring platitudes and obsessive, even meticulous, sexual escapism make an unlikely recipe for business idea of the century when, for once, Joe decides to act on his own ideas. DeWitt’s ear for business-world talk, particularly for the murky area where it shades into new-agey self-help, is flawless, and Joe’s idea is dazzlingly naughty. No one else writes like this. And I’m heartened to know that this is only one shoot to have reached publication out of a rhizomatous tangle on which I believe DeWitt is working – so there should be more like this to come. I cannot apologise for being Lightning Rods’ publisher, but I should say that New Directions, in the US, found her first.

Emma Osment, Litro blogger

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

My taste in literature has veered towards the nonfiction this year. Born to Run tells the story of endurance runner McDougall’s quest into the Mexican mountains to find out more about the mysterious Tarahumara, or ‘running people’. People have attempted to ‘civilise’ them by bringing them into well-known ultramarathons as expert runners. But are these just PR stunts, and can they ever succeed? I love this book for so many reasons. There are the vividly drawn characters and stunningly depicted scenery, especially during McDougall’s initial quest for the mysterious ‘Caballo Blanco’, a man friendly with the Tarahumara who runs freely around the wilderness. Then there’s McDougall’s reasons for his quest – that no matter how much hi-tech running gear he throws at himself, he is still crippled with injuries. There’s currently a keen debate among runners about whether expensive supportive running shoes help or hinder in protecting against injuries, so I was fascinated to read about McDougall’s response to that particular dilemma. The book climaxes when the Tarahumara collide with the world of professional long-distance running as they  run in an ultramarathon organised by Caballo Blanco, a panoramic ride through stunning scenery that shows true human grit and determination. Reading about people who can run upwards of fifty miles in a single day makes you want to go out and put one foot in front of the other yourself.

Emily Cleaver, Litro Lab Podcast Producer

Boneland by Alan Garner

Boneland was my book of the year before I’d even read it. There are some books we love as kids that become as vivid to us as actual memories. Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, breathless mixes of adventure, folklore and fantasy, were those books for me. We long for the chance to get back to those imagined landscapes, but re-reading the book as an adult won’t do it – the baggage we take with us makes the trip very different. So it was hugely exciting to hear that Alan Garner was finally completing the trilogy after half a century. And better, Boneland isn’t a children’s sequel. Garner is going back older and wiser, revisiting his lost places, baggage and all. Boneland is a strange and beautiful book. Its language is intense, dense, like incantation in places. It’s often confusing, mysterious, but it shouts to be read. The plot follows Colin, now an adult deeply scarred by a repressed childhood trauma, as he journeys to understand his own story. Then there’s the Watcher, who paints pictures on rock and dances to keep the stars moving. Returns to the past are perhaps necessarily mournful. In the end, there is no way back. Everything is changed – more meaningful, more hidden. What is lost can never really be found, but this search takes us somewhere new.




Philip Pullman on His New Retelling of Grimm Fairytales

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman is a writer of international renown. Named by the Times as one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945“, he is the author of numerous bestselling and award-winning books, most notably the His Dark Materials (Northern Lights) trilogy, which has won not only the Carnegie medal but the “Carnegie of Carnegies“—a 2007 poll in which book lovers choose their favourite winner from the Carnegie’s 70-year history.

His latest book is Grimm Tales for Young and Old, a beautiful retelling of fifty, personally handpicked fairytales. Shocking, hilarious and haunting by turns, it brings Pullman’s wit and wisdom to the weird and wonderful tales first collected by the Grimm brothers.

Hardcover (Sep 2012, Penguin.)

For Londoners who would like to catch Philip Pullman in person: he will be discussing the book with writer and literary journalist Lucasta Miller at the Southbank Centre on Thursday, 6 December as part of the Economist‘s Books of the Year festival. Book your tickets here.

Ahead of the event, I spoke to the author, who is based in Oxford, over the phone about riffing on the Grimms’ classic collection, the essential difference between novel characters and fairytale heroes, the importance of horror to storytelling, and where he’s going to venture next in his work.


I was at the launch of The Good Man Jesus a few years ago, and I remember you talking then about your interest in paring down the story and simplifying your language. Reading your introduction to your new book, it sounds like you have a similar project going on here.

Yes. In both the Jesus book and this one I was relying on reshaping stories that had originally been oral tales. The Grimms had oral sources—they were relying on people who told them stories which had been handed down for years, in most cases without a literary background at all. The same thing’s true about the Gospels. We think of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as texts, but they’re really reports of things their authors had heard about, many years afterward the events themselves. The way in which the Jesus stories were passed on was of course the oral way, and so in both cases I was doing things with oral origins.

It struck me that in a way, you approached The Good Man Jesus as almost a Christian fairytale. In a recent discussion of your book at the Cambridge Theatre [which Philip Pullman missed because he was ill], Neil Gaiman said that he thinks fairytales came from myths, that stories started large and got watered down into fairytales. What do you think about that, and are myths and fairytales closer than a lot of people think?

Interesting point, but I think they are slightly different things. Myths have an explanatory purpose. They explain why the rainbow is there, for example, or why we have the seasons, or why we die—big questions. Fairytales are not like that. They’re about matters of great human importance, like marriage or birth or death, but they don’t have the same sort of big purpose as myths. It’s very hard to say, of course, why people started telling a story about a woman who was very badly mistreated by her mother and stepsisters, who then grew up to marry a prince and so lived happily ever after. Why would you tell a story like that, except that it’s fun to imagine? It’s an interesting thing to think about, and so it’s a good story.

We often hear it said that there are only seven stories in the world, and it’s certainly true that the same human situations come up time and time again. One of the reasons fairytales, and the Grimms’ tales in particular, have been so popular is that they do deal with fundamental human situations. What do you do if you’re starving and you can’t feed your children? You send them into the forest and hope somebody else will look after them. Fairytales are popular because they talk about basic human situations, ways in which human beings can relate to one another. We can be a parent to a child, a child to a parent, or we can be a spouse or a partner—that’s about it!

As a child I read your very big His Dark Materials series first, and then I went back to some of your earlier stories. They seemed a lot more deliberately simple—like fairytales, in fact! Is there something about the form that particularly interests you?

There’s a big difference between novels and fairytales. His Dark Materials were novels, but as well as the Grimm Tales I’ve written four other books that I call fairytales, although they’re much longer than the stories in Grimm: The Firework Maker’s Daughter, The Scarecrow and His Servant, Clockwork, and I Was a Rat. The difference is in the characters. In a novel, the character has to be as rich, as 3-D as you can make them, with a psychology, with a personality, with experience—all the things that we understand as making up consciousness. But the characters in a fairytale aren’t like that, they’re flat somehow. We aren’t interested in the psychology of Cinderella; it doesn’t matter very much to us what Little Red Riding Hood thinks or feels. It matters what she does. I found that to be true when I was doing these Grimm tales, and I find that difference fascinating. Flat characters are very delightful to be with.

But they’re still very driven characters, they have desires, something they really want, and they push for it.

Yes, they’re much simpler even than the characters in Dickens, who are often accused of being very flat indeed. They want things, but they’re very simple about it. The boy who wants to learn what fear is—that’s the only thing he wants. And Gambling Hans, the only thing he cares about is gambling. He’s obsessed by it.

As you say, the tales all have a “swiftness” to them, a wonderful lack of logical progression. For example, in “The Three Golden Hairs”, the character suddenly arrives in Hell with no explanation. Did you enjoy working with that kind of energy?

It was very fun to do. Some of the stories were more difficult than others, but they all had that sheer, deft, very swift nature which was great fun to work with. It was also fun to work on something that was already there, rather than having to make it up. Because the story was there already, what I had to do was—and I make this comparison often—more like playing jazz than playing classical music.

The full title of your book is Grimm Tales for Young and Old, and in the introduction you say “the ideal fairytale is too easy for children and too difficult for adults”. Do you have a fairytale that you understood as a child—that you just got—and then you grew up and found yourself having to struggle with it more?

Well, “The Juniper Tree” is a bit like that. But so is “Little Red Riding Hood”. So are a lot of them, actually. When you’re young and you meet Little Red Riding Hood for the first time, you just want to know what happens next. You’re thrilled by the horror of being eaten by a wolf, and you squeal with excitement when the huntsman comes along and sets her free. Then when you meet Little Red Riding Hood again as an adult you start to think, what is her mother doing sending her into the woods? She knows there are wolves, why is she exposing her to so much danger? So you do see them in different ways.

Talking about that excitement and fear, what do you think is the role of fear and horror in fairytales, and is it important?

They wouldn’t work without it! In the simplest sense of all, a story begins with something going wrong. If everything went well, if everybody was happy and nothing went wrong, there wouldn’t be a story. Stories happen when somebody dies and there’s a consequence, or when someone gets lost, and so on. There’s got to be this element of apprehension, of worry for the main character. In fairytales, of course, this is taken to an extreme degree: we have mutilations and beheadings and deaths and all sorts of things. It’s a world of extreme violence, but because the characters aren’t real, because they’re just puppets, so to speak, we don’t worry too much. We know that they’re just going to come back to life in the end.

You write about your interest in telling the stories. What was the process of writing them like? Did you feel as though you were actually telling them out loud?

I did treat the stories very much as spoken things. I had to hear my voice telling them as I wrote them down, and I wanted to make them work orally, so that they could be read aloud with great ease—that was a very important thing for me.

The translation necessary between oral and written stories is very interesting. You explain in your introduction to the book that some of the Grimms’ sources were oral and some were manuscript—how did that affect your own retellings?

That was interesting to find out. I wanted to give my reader a little more information than usual about where the stories came from before the Grimms got them, so I found out who the tellers were or alternatively what the literary source was. “The Juniper Tree” is an interesting one because it came to the Grimms as a fully written manuscript. There are many different forms of the basic Juniper Tree story but I feel that this one is a particularly perfect retelling. In fact, it was one of the very few stories I found that couldn’t be improved. I couldn’t do anything to it to make it better; if I tried to do it another way, the story would resist me. To meet this kind of resistance from a story was very interesting. And in the end the story was right—it is un-improvable.

You mentioned giving readers additional information about the stories. The notes you give are quite scholarly and it is obvious that, as well as telling really great stories, you’re also writing this for people who want to study the stories. 

I hope the stories are not just for academics. I thought they would be of interest to people who are interested in stories per se, not just for academic reasons. I wrote in the notes the sort of things I would be interested in reading myself—principally, what makes it a good story, why does it work, what is there in the story that doesn’t quite work and what has been done to it to make it read more fluently.

This is obviously a retelling of one specific group of stories, whereas a lot of writers working with fairytales at the moment are using more diverse influences. What do you think of the different ways of responding to fairytales?

Fairytales are almost indestructible, and the stories will accept many different kinds of retelling. At one extreme you’ve got people like Angela Carter whose variations are very poetical reimaginings of the stories. They are very much her own voice and often told in the first person, and that’s fine. The stories can take it, there’s no harm in that. In Grimm Tales I tried for a very straight version that is, as I say in the introduction, “as clear as water”. That was just the way I chose to do it. But the stories can take any sort of retelling. They can even be told as novels, although that takes more doing.

I hadn’t realised this before, but a lot of the Grimm stories are very Christian in their tone—”The Girl with No Hands”, for example. As an atheist, how did it feel to respond to that?

The Grimms were men of their time, very pious, and as the nineteenth century wore on and their book went through several editions the stories became more and more pious and more and more overtly Christian. Some of them started in almost a pagan way and became more Christian as they went along. There were other stories I left out that were more pious and, for that reason, less interesting to me. But essentially, if it was a good story, I told it. If it wasn’t such a good story, I left it out.

Reading them, I could recognise that they were the Grimms’ stories I knew. But in the word choice and the little details they were also your own. What is the place of personal imagination within the formulaic storytelling tradition?

Everybody who tells a story has a duty to make it their own. There is no settled text for a fairytale. What the Grimms did was write down one version from one occasion on which they heard it, and often they altered it later. Because of this the modern teller of a fairytale has every right—and, in fact, every duty—to make it their own.

I recently went to a talk about crime fiction, and one of the writers said that it was the boundaries around the genre that gave her freedom to invent. Is that how you feel?

Well, that’s true. It’s not quite the same thing, because crime fiction is a genre, and I’m not quite sure fairytales are a genre. They’re something a bit different. But certainly working within the confines of a genre you can be very inventive. It’s part of the fun for fans of genre fiction—which I am, I like thrillers—seeing how the writer has played with the concept, inverted it and subverted it.

It’s that jazz again! Neil Gaiman has also said in talking about your book that in fairytales there’s nothing special about the hero, that they sort of stumble into their role. But aren’t there certain qualities, like kindness and politeness and cleverness, that every fairytale hero has to have?

Fairytale heroes are the everyman or everywoman. Their goodness is part of the basic morality of the tales, which is a very simple morality, based on justice. If you’re good you will be rewarded and if you are bad you will be punished. But the good characters are the everyman characters. They are kind and forbearing—and most importantly, they are brave. You have to be brave!

And finally, where will you go from here?

Well, I’m actually writing another book in the His Dark Materials series, set in Lyra’s world. The Book of Dust, it’s called.

I was going to ask whether Lyra was still in your head, but obviously she still is! We had a reader question about whether when you hear the word “dust”, it still means “Dust” in your special sense, and I suppose it still does!

Yes, it does! The Book of Dust is set in Lyra’s world and it’s about Dust—by which I mean human consciousness—about what it does and what it is. I’ve been announcing this for about ten years, but I’ve finally got going with it.


Philip Pullman will be discussing his latest book, Grimm Tales for Young and Old (Penguin Classics), at the Southbank Centre on Thursday, 6 December as part of the Economist Books of the Year series. He will be in conversation with writer and literary journalist Lucasta Miller. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
If you’re a fan of fairytales, click here for your fairytale fix: in books, films, TV series, exhibitions, and on the stage.



The Voices In Your Head: The Authorial Impulse Writ Large

Russell Tovey as Conway Conway Conway.
Photo (c) London Storytelling Festival.

Darkness, and a lit screen.

Hello, it reads. You must be the audience.

Somehow, that sounds like an order.

Soon, it goes on to tell us, you will hear the Voice. When the performers appear on the stage, they must listen to the Voice. They must obey the Voice. The Voice is God.

The primary performers—Thom Tuck, Russell ToveyHumphrey Ker—are the test subjects in this literary experiment. They’re shoved onto the stage, dressed by an usher in a random assortment of slightly humiliating props, and assigned a first name by the Voice. Then the questioning begins:

How old are you? Where are you from? What’s in the bag?

Was that the real reason she left you?

What did Sister Judas do to you in that classroom?

She hit me! says Tovey, ad libbing frantically as Conway Conway Conway (named for, er, my father, my uncle and my gran), a thirteen-year-old Irish lad from Bottle, Cork.

The Voice does not like that answer, and expresses her disapproval with a sharp bell-ringing noise.

She farted on me! Ring.

She bit my arm? Ring.

She licked my arm. Ring.

She KISSED ME RIGHT ON THE LIPS.

I’ll accept that, says the Voice, and the story carries on.

That’s the genius of The Voices in Your Head, a show I went to watch last Sunday evening at the Leicester Square Theatre as part of this year’s London Storytelling Festival. Consciously bizarre and often sailing very close to the wind, it tells stories that are being made up as you watch—the result of a collaboration between actor and creator that often seems more like a conflict. In their quest to make up a character, and from that character create an interesting story, the Voice and the performers constantly try to trick each other, outface each other, and back each other into a narrative corner.

The final sketch about GI Earl and the female paramedic with a wooden leg that he secretly loves. Photo (c) London Storytelling Festival.

Since Tuck and Ker are stand-up comedians (both members of the historical sketch comedy troupe, the Penny Dreadfuls) and Tovey has a comic background, what come out of their mouths tend to be both lightning-quick and off-the-wall ridiculous. As the audience watches and laughs uproariously, they create characters: like Lily the dangerously unlucky New Orleans bride-to-be; Max, the rich and lonely owner of a Christmas ornament factory and vast amounts of gin; and Deirdre, the cadaver-robbing undertaker who owns a haunted skirt.

These characters and the stories that they have to tell are being built right in front of you, and watching this happen reaffirmed for me the weird power that narrative has on the human mind. The actors make backstory up on the fly in response to a battery of leading questions, and although we all know that what is coming out of their mouths is the thinnest, most random breed of nonsense, each detail, once spoken and approved by the Voice, takes on a funny kind of reality. However unlikely it might technically be (Deirdre’s skirt is haunted because she once shot a member of Pan’s People for it), these words temporarily become the truth. And what occurred to me, as I watched the madness unfold, is that this is quite a good metaphor for the creative process itself.

After all, how do authors make up their characters? They start with a blank space, they add in a stick figure, they give that figure a name and attributes, and then they begin to flesh out that person’s life until they’re fully realised enough to be put into a setting and started off on a particular trajectory. That’s what I do, at least, and that’s also a pretty perfect description of the idea behind this experiment in storytelling.

Just like the stories in The Voices in Your Head, when a character’s backstory does fall into place the details begin to appear not just right, but true. It seems like there’s no other way it can go; that’s just what’s happened to the character—even though you’ve just made up all those details in your head five minutes ago, before which they had had no reality at all. It’s a wonderfully exciting feeling, and it’s one of my favourite things about writing. Writers may seem self-effacing, but inside we’re all raging Frankensteins, messing about in our mental laboratories to come up with brand new human beings.

Many authors are often very anxious to reassure people that, although they spend their lives making up long and involved stories about completely non-existent people, they do not for a minute think that their characters are real. This is a lie to make writers sound less like the raving lunatics they are. The truth is that the process of creating and fleshing out characters often feels unnervingly like the struggle between the Voice and her actors. You are certain that a particular character should have one leg, two sisters and a goat. The character, however, keeps insisting on being a tiger-hunting pro skier. You create a tragic backstory about a child orphaned at a young age by a shock outbreak of diphtheria, but then the character’s father returns from his round-the-world tour with an escape artiste named Trisha. Does this make writers seem insane? Of course they are insane. They make up universes for a living.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed The Voices in Your Head so much. There’s more than a whiff of insanity to the proceedings, but it’s the kind of insanity that’s so enjoyable to watch that it makes you want to be part of it. For me, that’s the lure of writing. It’s a crazy process and it looks like a crazy process, but at the same time it’s fascinating. Whether or not they intended it (and I suspect they did), The Voices in Your Head is the authorial impulse writ large. You begin with a name, you flesh out a character, and then you launch them into their environment, drop in other characters to interact with them, and before you know it, you’ve made a coherent story out of nothing. The results are unpredictable, but that’s the joy of creation. The joy of The Voice in Your Head was being allowed to watch that creation take place.




Original Sins: Crime Fiction with “Literary” Stripes?

Robin Stevens, who finished a dissertation on crime fiction recently, went to a debate at Kings Place on Monday to listen to John Banville, Sophie Hannah, Peter James and Lee Child discuss whether crime fiction is the new “literary” fiction. She came away with the conclusion that yes, it can be, but that perhaps it shouldn’t have been a question in the first place.

Robert The‘s book gun

I wrote my MA dissertation on crime fiction.

“Really?” asked my course mates when I told them, a wistful expression on their faces. “That sounds so fun.”

Really,” said most of my other friends and relations suspiciously. “That sounds so… fun.”

Hear the difference? The second is riddled with hidden meaning. What, no French-sounding critics? No complex texts in translation about the inevitability of loss and the beauty of pain? No Great Big Novels by Serious Victorian Men? I was wasting my academic potential on books that were not even proper literature.

Crime novels, after all, are written for people whose other principal source of reading material is the Daily Mail. Anyone else who has the misfortune to like those naughty, bloody, fun stories must do so in the privacy of their own home, and make sure they feel guilty about it afterwards. Even some of the actual critics I referenced in my dissertation felt this way. They analysed Agatha Christie as though they were holding her books up at arm’s length and squirting them with Cillit Bang to wash all of that dirty murder away and reveal the nice clean literature that they suspected might be lurking underneath.

The first book to have knocked the Fifty Shades trilogy off the top of the UK paperback bestseller list

Obviously, I think this viewpoint is ragingly stupid, and so I was delighted to hear a panel of Real Crime Novelists™ agree with me. At an event at King’s Place, London, earlier this week, John Banville, Sophie Hannah, Peter James and Lee Child came together to discuss the place of crime fiction in Britain today, and to answer the question of whether crime fiction can ever be “literary”.

What these authors have to say should carry some weight. They’re among the greats of current British crime, and coincidentally, three of them are now on the shortlist for the 2012 National Book Awards Crime & Thriller of the Year. And they’re all vocal about the value of crime writing.

Lee Child kicked off the discussion by stating—refreshingly—that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a large readership. Mass market appeal is the stick most commonly used to beat crime fiction with but, as Child says, it’s actually fairly difficult to write a story that will interest twenty-year-olds and eighty-year-olds, truck drivers and barristers. That crime fiction can do this is a testament not only to its power as a genre but to the craft of individual writers. After all, what is crime fiction? Just fiction that has a crime in it. There’s nothing in that basic description to intrinsically suggest that all works of crime fiction are going to be trash, and as such crime writers should stop apologising for their good writing and their genre’s success.

It’s clear that these four writers are both thoughtful and positive about their genre and their readership. To Banville, we live in an instant rather than a dumbed-down age. Readers are just as intelligent as they ever were—and, as James perceptively pointed out, past generations don’t deserve a lot of the “literary” credit they’re given. Dickens and Shakespeare, after all, were the populists of their day, writing to a huge audience. By implication, today’s Dickens analogues are not the Martin Amises and Salman Rushdies of the literary world, but the crime writers. It’s a viewpoint that I both like and fully get behind.

All four authors agreed, though, that they’d encountered crime fiction snobbery both from other writers and from their own readers. Hannah told a story about being approached by a woman at a signing who told her that she was such a good writer that she ought to try her hand at a “proper” book. Ouch. But, she added wryly, all those backhanded compliments have left her convinced that the anti-crime snobs are just people who are insecure about their own intelligence. The really clever people just calmly get on with writing and reading whatever they please, without worrying what their choices say about them.

That may be a carefully rehearsed line, but to me it rings true. After all, Dorothy Sayers translated Dante; Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist; Anne Holt had a brief spell as the Norwegian Justice Minister; and Banville himself, when he’s not writing crime fiction under his Benjamin Black pseudonym, is a prizewinning author of “literary” fiction. Quite obviously, none of these people are stupid. Listening to the panellists speak, too, confirmed something for me that I’ve believed for a long time. All those tropes that crime fiction is pilloried for—the unchangeable nature of its often stock characters, its repetitive plot lines—are not random insertions. On the contrary, they are carefully considered and carefully employed by their authors for maximum effect.

Child was particularly clear about this. To make a series popular, he told the audience, you need to actively avoid any kind of meaningful character arc for your hero. Child goes out of his way to ensure that his protagonist Jack Reacher never experiences an emotional journey. He wants his readers to be able to pick up any Reacher novel and immediately feel comforted, secure in the solidity of their hero’s moral compass. Hannah added that these “one-dimensional” and “static” crime novel characters might actually be a fairly truthful depiction of many human beings. After all, she pointed out, in real life people don’t learn things. And even those neat solutions that must come at the end of every crime novel aren’t as divorced from reality as they might seem. After all, doesn’t the seemingly unlikely or impossible often happen six times before breakfast?

As a fan of—and, after my crime-fiction dissertation, an expert on—the novels of Christie, Sayers and their contemporaries, this brought up an interesting point for me: present-to-past crime writer snobbery. Warmth, continuity and stasis? Sounds like a classic crime novel. But Banville and James, at least, were adamant that Christie lacks an essential something that they have tried to put into their own fictions. To Banville, she misses a “sense of lived life”, and James agrees that she is hopelessly formulaic. If that’s the case, though, what about all those people still reading Christie’s books so many years after they were first published? Are they lacking in discernment? And if they’re not, isn’t this really the same kind of snobbery Banville and James denounce when it’s directed at them? There’s a double standard here, and it’s one I’ve noticed before.

Today’s crime fiction authors often seem a bit nervous about connecting themselves to the past of their genre. Many novelists spend a lot of time insisting that they are doing something entirely new, and I find this puzzling. Yes, you can always put new twists on your material, and I believe that Banville, Hannah, James and Child all do just that, but the material itself is some of the oldest around. Someone murders someone else and a third person solves it? I’ve heard that one before.

It seems to me that this essential unchangeability is the real key to the popularity and relevance of crime fiction. Readers are absolutely on board with the basics of what they know they’re going to get, and because of that a crime writer has more leeway to do their own thing, show their creativity and cultivate a unique voice. Like a lot of supposedly constraining things, crime fiction is an incredibly liberating genre, and those people who have the wit and talent to make something surprising out of the oldest of materials tend to be very good writers.

Crime fiction doesn’t and shouldn’t mean more or less than any fiction which centres around a crime. What was brought home to me on Monday night was how disparate the four writers I listened to were. Each has their own style of writing and their own often widely varying intentions. But they are all connected by the basic conventions of genre in which they write, and that genre, by its very nature, will always essentially be about comfort and continuity in the face of horror. I came away from the panel feeling that crime writing in Britian is in rude health, in the hands of a talented group of individuals who use the genre to write clever, thought-provoking and often great novels—and there’s nothing new about that. Hannah, Banville, James and Child are all writing very different variations on a theme, a theme that hasn’t changed since long before Christie wrote her novels.




The Kids Are All Write

A big part of learning how to write fiction is learning how to read, and a big part of learning how to read is to realise that stories aren’t static. As a writer, it’s your job to mess with the plot of your story, to test out what does and doesn’t work. Writing is—or at least, it is for me—like endlessly playing the best ever Choose Your Own Adventure game. The story you’re writing is yours, and so you have the power to send your characters diving headfirst into radioactive lava, clap them in irons, or reveal that their father is King of the Universe. You can generally tell which writers have really immersed themselves in the world of their creation, because theirs are the books that grab the reader by the throat and suck them in.

I couldn’t be the writer I am today if I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of books from a very young age. I think I started being read to from day one, but the first time I can actually remember being fascinated by a story is when I was introduced, aged two, to a “touch-and-feel” board book called Pat the Bunny. It’s a children’s book so classic that although it was first published in 1940, it’s still in print today. There isn’t much of a plot to it, apart from various orders to prod various objects, but what captured me at first sight was the fact that the book was asking me to help it tell itself. Without someone there to pat the bunny, the text doesn’t work, which introduced me to the idea that you could play with stories, get inside a world and actually influence, not just follow, the course of a plot. That made me realise that I might be interested in making up some stories of my own.

If you listen to the current hype, this kind of active physical readership is under threat today. We now live in a world where children first encounter and start using electronic devices pretty much from when they’re born, and babies try to scroll through the pages of a magazine like it’s an iPad. A lot of adults, including many writers, have been vocally concerned that this kind of exposure will stunt the creative growth of a new generation of writers.

I believed this, in an unexamined way, until I spent a week at a children’s publisher recently working on their upcoming picture book app. I got up close and personal with digital books, and what I realised was that those sneaky, suspicious slices of new media don’t threaten kids’ creativity at all. On the contrary, they have the potential to be more immersive and interactive than any print book could possibly be. If you’ve ever read to a kid, you’ll know that they’ve got an unending desire to delve deeper into a story. Cinderella was mistreated by her stepmother. Why? She had to sleep on the kitchen floor. Did it hurt? Actually, she couldn’t even sleep sometimes. She had to stay up until three in the morning cleaning the silver. But when did she have her dinner?

A physical picture book, no matter how wonderful it is, is confined to the linear words on each page. A picture book app, on the other hand, isn’t constrained in the same way. Kids can go off on tangents, explore every aspect of a situation and even influence its details. To my mind, this kickstarts and fosters the kind of excitement about stories that will make a kid want more and more, until they wake up one day and they’re fifty and, who knows, perhaps they’ve won the Booker.

There’s a real cult of the printed word in our society at the moment, and that’s fine. Words are wonderful. But we need to remember that it’s the story that matters, not the packaging the story comes in. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is often held up as a book about the importance of books, but when you read it you realise that that’s not exactly the message it’s trying to get across. As its hero, Guy Montag discovers that although books themselves have been destroyed, the stories they contained are still preserved in the minds of a group of outcasts. As their ringleader explains, “Nothing is ever lost… We are all pieces of history and literature.” They have become the stories they tell, and even though the exact words they may use to retell it will change, the essential fascination and beauty those words impart will stay mostly the same. By implication, the dictators who have tried to ban the dissemination of dangerous knowledge by burning books can never win, simply because they fail to understand that words have life beyond the page.

Books are precious, and Ray Bradbury understood that as well as anyone. But he also understood that it’s not their shape or physicality that makes them so important. It’s their contents, and how these contents spark off the mind of each individual reader. My early experiences with the physical form of children’s books were formative, but I’ve learnt that a book app—and by extension, an ebook—can be just as wonderful and thought-provoking as its printed counterpart. We should be excited by the new opportunities they offer readers, and instead of fearing for children’s literacy, we should look forward to reading—in whatever format—the stories written by a forthcoming generation of writers who will have been the first to be exposed to truly interactive and immersive storytelling.

Oh, and my old favourite, Pat the Bunny, is now available as an app by Random House. I can’t think of anything more fitting.




All’s Well that Ends Well?

Disney’s Cinderella

Endings are powerful things. A book can be head-spinningly wonderful for 449 pages, but those 449 pages stand or fall by what happens on page 450. The ending is what you take away from the book, your last sight of the characters you’ve followed for so long, and a bad one can make an otherwise great book seem, in retrospect, like a waste of a perfectly good week of your life.

Years of exposure to Disney films and fairy tales have taught us that a good ending is a nice one, with all characters tidily married or buried accordingly. While there’s a lot to be said for that kind of pleasant wish fulfilment, however, reality doesn’t work like that. For one thing, it has a frustrating habit of refusing to end. Just as you think you’ve cleared one problem up, ten more appear to take its place.

Likewise, despite the best efforts of the happy-ever-after brigade, even the most neatly packed ending can have another side to it. As a child, I never had much time for Cinderella until I came across the Grimm brothers’ version, in which the two Ugly Sisters are so desperate to squeeze their feet into that glass shoe that they cut off their toes and heels to manage it. Of course, the deception is noticed, and they end up not only with maimed feet but are struck blind for the crime of daring to impersonate a smaller-footed woman. To me, that boringly happy ending had suddenly become a lot more interesting. Never mind the wedding, what happened to the Sisters? How did they cope, with no feet and no eyes? And was Cinderella sorry about the whole thing?

Even the simplest ending has a loose end in it somewhere, and it’s no coincidence that the best modern retellings of fairy tales—Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber, for example—allow doubt to creep back in where it belongs. In her stories, you’re left wondering: will the characters be happy? Does it all work out? And most importantly, what happens next?

Really good endings—as opposed to simply nice ones—should live with you. They should bother you, confuse you, even upset you. There are certain endings which, when I first read them, made me violently confused, but that’s the beauty of a really clever ending. Some of the best ones take time to really sink in, and it’s only two, five, or ten years later, after you’ve lived a bit more, that they finally make sense.

If you don’t think about a book’s ending afterwards, the writer has gone wrong somewhere. I’ve spent more hours wondering what happens after the end of I Capture the Castle than I have thinking about the lives of certain friends, and it’s a mark of how well Dodie Smith has written the character of Cassandra that I’m neverendingly curious about what happens to her beyond the limits of the text.

That very human impulse of curiosity is a big part of what makes the cleverest twist endings work so well. The Turn of the Screw, for example, is specifically set up to blow the reader’s mind. Henry James wants you to spend the rest of your life trying to decide which of the characters you believe—and what that says about you. I used to think that the ghosts did it; now I tend to blame insanity, and I’ll probably come to six more conclusions before I reach 40. It still drives me mad that I’ll never know for certain what happened, which is precisely what James was trying to achieve.

Of course, not all endings upset the reader in a good way. I still remember the moment I realised that a book could have a bad ending. I was 13, and I was reading a Dorothy Sayers mystery. For some reason I had decided that this was the book that would prove my ability as an armchair detective. I went over each page twice and made painstaking notes. At last, I arrived at the denouement. I knew who had done it. I had motive, means and opportunity. My science was sound. My case was secure. I was ready to be right.

And then the murderer turned out to be someone completely different.

I was absolutely furious. I felt tricked, and I realised (with a horrible sense of shock) that writers do not, in fact, have a direct channel to my thoughts. They could, as far as I was concerned, mess things up.

The internet has since taught me that no matter how hard an author tries, and how much they personally believe in the ending they’ve written, they are always going to leave some readers dissatisfied. Everyone thinks they know best, everyone has a set idea in their head as to where the story should be going, and nobody likes to be proved wrong.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. George Bernard Shaw had to repeatedly fight the original producers of Pygmalion (better known as the play that spawned My Fair Lady) to stop them turning it into a happy-ever-after romance. Shaw wanted Eliza to dump Higgins, run away and become her own woman. Audiences, unfortunately, were mostly of the opinion that a nice marriage was more important than the fact that Higgins was an awful human being.

Not, as I’ve said before, that there’s anything wrong with craving a nice wedding. There are few more satisfying phrases in English literature than, “Reader, I married him.” But as in so many cases of getting what we wish for, happily ever after is never quite enough. We always want to know what happens next—do they have babies? If so, how many, and are they boys or girls, and do they grow up well, and then, what happens to them? And so on, forever.

The problem with books is that they have to end somewhere. Even million-word epics like The Forsyte Saga can’t keep rumbling on indefinitely. There has to be a conclusion. But given that, a book that allows us to wonder, that leaves room for doubts and speculation, feels much more fulfilling than the stock three weddings and a baptism. The best ending, after all, is the one that you make up.




Drugs Don’t Work for Your Writing

Drugs are in the news again. If the new Guardian/Mixmag survey of 15,500 people is to be believed, despite the government’s best efforts, many of us are still spending our leisure hours pouring strange white powders into all our available orifices. This confirms something I’ve thought for a long time: it’s extraordinarily difficult to stop drugs seeming awesome, and literature doesn’t help. After all, for every maidenly teacher telling you that Drugs Are Bad, you’ve got twenty songs, poems and novels promising looking-glass porters, tangerine trees and marshmallow skies.

In writing, drug-taking is almost as glamorised as sex—and look how well abstinence-only education generally works out. Art—or at least, a certain kind of art—tells us that drugs unlock the mind, unleash the imagination and lead to prose both groovy and deathless. Whether it’s French bohemians sipping absinthe to get themselves into the Toulouse Lautrec showgirl-painting spirit, Romantics taking opium and striding about on moors to experience Nature, or the Beat poets going on road trips laced up to the gills on horse tranquillisers, the artist and the mind-altering substance go together like gin and tonic, cheese and chocolate, or Holmes and Watson.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge for the first time at A-level and, thoroughly clean-living seventeen year old that I was, came to the conclusion that the lack of opium-taking must be a large part of why most twentieth-century poetry is so dull compared to Coleridge’s time. After all, think of the enormous cultural benefits drugs have given us! From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Magic Roundabout, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, our gains have been immense.

In recent years, though, I’ve come to be less convinced by my own argument. Yes, drug taking can lead to terribly romantic visions (with or without the capital R), but from the prosaic anecdotal evidence I’ve heard, drugs are far more likely to bring on confusion, partial blindness and the unnerving sensation that the sky is caving in on you. For every majestic image of a jaguar in the sky there are twenty stories distinctly less full of artistic possibility. Acquaintances have fallen passionately in love with socks, been convinced that the duvet was trying to eat them and spent two hours stroking their arm because it suddenly felt like butter. I once went to a party at which a friend, in the grip of a (tenuously legal) mind-altering substance, spent the entire evening rhythmically stroking the side of my face and remarking on the complexities of my ear lobe. It makes a great story in retrospect, but artistic exploration was clearly the last thing on her mind at the time. If I’d given her a pen and asked her to note down her thoughts and feelings I doubt I’d have dragged three coherent words out of her, never mind a poem.

Kublai Khan

All of this makes me extremely suspicious when I hear it claimed that a Great Work was the result of an artificially altered state. The most famous of these stories, of course, is about Coleridge, a notorious addict and pretty much the poster child for the bad trip: he’d take opium and have terrifying visions of being prodded by weirdly shaped demons. Apparently, the idea for his poem Kubla Khan (1816) came to him in a (pipe) dream after reading a work describing Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China Kublai Khan, whereupon he leapt up, pulled out his pen and began frantically scribbling it down. He was really getting into his stride, and had just reached the part about flashing eyes and floating hair when he was interrupted by someone whom he refers to as the “Person from Porlock” (Porlock, for where he lived). What the Person wanted is not clear, but the point is that Coleridge was snapped out of his trance, and as a result, the thread of Kubla Khan was lost, never to be found again.

I find all of this extremely difficult to buy. I’m willing to bet that opium did have a lot to do with Kubla Khan’s subject material, since it displays the kind of leap-of-logic thinking that suggests its creator was too busy having thoughts to remember that he needed to write them all down; however, I doubt that opium was its most potent source. If it had been, the Person from Porlock would have opened Coleridge’s cottage door to discover him sitting in a chair, painstakingly drawing the same letter over and over again onto the wood of his desk.

In fact, despite the popular belief that trips are conducive to brilliant artistic creation, there’s a definite disconnect between the best works about drugs and drug-taking itself. Jack Kerouac, for example, may have spent seven years souped up to the eyeballs on alarmingly inventive substances, but when he actually sat down to write On The Road he wasn’t under the influence of anything stronger than coffee. And lest you try to argue that the baseline experience is still necessary for a true understanding of the business of getting high, let me point you in the direction of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. The book’s set piece—and one of my all-time favourite literary moments—involves the protagonist Lucy Snowe being given drugs, tripping out and going to an all-night carnival. According to her friend and biographer Elizabeth Gaskell, Bronte researched the episode by staying up all one night and thinking very hard about what it would be like to be on drugs. The result is far more impressive than most comparable scenes by self-avowed connoisseurs.

Like sex, drug-taking is a lot funnier and more disturbing than literature generally gives it credit. Unlike sex though, I’d say that when it comes to writing about altered states, experience is not entirely necessary. Despite what many artists may claim, the only thing actually required is a vivid imagination, and I’m fairly sure that’s something most writers already possess.

So, kids, don’t do drugs! Just sit really still and imagine doing drugs, and then write a bestselling book about it. As a message this needs some work, but I think there’s some truth to it.




Feature Film: The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps

While many horror writers imagine ghosts along distinctly sympathetic Freudian lines—there’s something in their past that’s making them behave in such wicked ways, and if they can just work through their issues with the help of a willing human being everything will be all right again—Susan Hill isn’t having any of it.

There’s something refreshingly awful about Susan Hill’s ghosts. She brings random nastiness back to the ghost story; the haunting is just bad luck in a chaotic universe, something like cancer or a lightning strike. If it hits you, your luck’s run out, and no amount of begging or bribery is going to make it any better. Hill’s ghosts are masterpieces of blind hatred. They’re angry, they want revenge and if they happen to notice you, poor innocent mortal, you can try to run and you can try to hide but it doesn’t matter, because they’re coming to get you.

For me, that’s the secret to the continuing power The Woman in Black has as a story. It horrifies people. First published in 1983, it now appears on school curriculums, has been adapted for the stage (extremely successfully—the West End production is enjoying its thirteenth year), and has now been made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe.

The Woman in Black tells the tragic story of lawyer Arthur Kipps, widower and sole provider for an adorable four year old son. Kipps is sent into the country to put Eel Marsh House, the estate of a recently dead client, in order. But when he arrives at the village of Crithin Gifford, he begins to notice strange goings-on. The village’s children keep dying under mysterious circumstances; the villagers themselves seem strangely unhappy with the idea of Arthur visiting Eel Marsh House; and Arthur sees a veiled woman in a black dress, watching him…

Like most ghost stories, when you see it on screen its premise begins to seem slightly awkward. You’re left with logical questions, such as why anyone who believes, as the villagers do, that a malign presence is after their children wouldn’t just take the kids and run. Or why Kipps remains so obtuse for so long—a woman clad in black screaming into my face as I look out the window? Must be a trick of the mind! It’s important to remember, though, that people in horror films have an additional instinct-response to frightening situations: fight, flight, and wander around in vague circles while the doom closes in. I’ll admit that, quibbles aside (and largely due to the excellence of its source material), The Woman in Black creates a much neater supernatural universe than most of its competition. Of course, as a Hammer Horror film, it has a noble pedigree; the studio’s been in the business long enough to know exactly when to subtly fray your nerves, when to ramp up the tension, and when to give you a face-full of nastiness.

The film’s best feature is its visuals. There are some absolutely brilliant horror moments: a child’s little boot crunches down onto a doll’s head, and there’s a reflection in the mirror that only the audience can see. Hill’s also excellent at creating atmosphere—the lurking dread in each fog bank and deserted roadway—and that’s something this film has managed to capture very well. Eel Marsh House is surrounded by a beautifully bare landscape, and the house itself is satisfyingly weed-tangled and twisty. Everything, in short, looks right.

Content-wise though, the film is slightly more problematic. Once Kipps arrives at Eel Marsh House for his night of terror, I sometimes began to feel as if I were watching someone play a solve-the-puzzle computer game. You hear a noise. Go to the noise. You find CLOCKWORK ANIMAL! Pick up the animal. You find HIDDEN LETTERS! You read LETTERS. You hear a noise. Go to the noise. You find ROCKING CHAIR! Touch ROCKING CHAIR. WOMAN IN BLACK jumps out at you! Game over.

Kipps himself also causes some issues. I do slightly question the casting of Daniel Radcliffe. Yes, there’s the looming spectre of Harry Potter (“He should just say Expecto Patronum!” said my boyfriend, as the Woman closed in), but what was far more distracting to me was his age. Radcliffe does actually do a fairly good job as Kipps, but he’s so distractingly young that his acting abilities almost don’t matter. He’s closer in age and appearance to the film’s doomed children than he is to the rest of its its large, middle-aged grown-ups, and the question of how he could respectably manage to have a part in the creation of a four-year-old child distracted me for quite some time.

That said, Hammer are playing this one old-fashioned, trying to give everything the feel of a classic bone-chiller, and the result is a fairly respectable adaptation of Hill’s book for the big screen. With one major exception.

If you have read the book, you know what happens anyway, and if you haven’t I can’t spoil it for you if I just say: they changed the ending. Unfortunately, that one change manages to negate the entire tone and concept of the preceding film. It’s as nonsensical as changing an Agatha Christie plot, like taking a table and sawing off one of its legs off to make it more streamlined. Sure, the result is lighter, but it’s also no longer any use as a table. I understand why they did it, but it infuriates me, and it leaves the film much weaker than it would otherwise be.

The Woman In Black film is definitely not bad, grading to good at times. But all the same, if you want real horror, there’s just no substitute for the original. If you want to experience Kipps’s story the way it should be told, go and read the book. Be careful, though. Once you finish it you may not sleep for a week.




Catherine Dickens: the Abandoned Wife

Catherine Dickens

As you may have heard, 2012 is the Year of Dickens. Two hundred years ago, Charles Dickens was born, and went on to write some of the best-known novels of all time. One of his favourite topics was the Family, and so it’s not surprising to hear that he had a very large one himself. It might surprise you though, to hear that this supposed family man abandoned his wife after more than twenty years of marriage in order to carry on a relationship with a 19-year-old actress.

So, what kind of person was Dickens’ wife Catherine? The sad answer is that nobody really knows much about her. This was partly because Dickens was such a great presence—he was a born impresario who inhabited all the available space in a room and swept everyone else into the corners; but there’s also the problem of data—while Dickens was an incredibly prolific writer of letters, notes, and articles as well as novels, Catherine wasn’t much of a writer, and a lot of what she did write has been lost. She kept her emotions to herself, or at least, out of print. What remains for us to get to know her are only some dull bits of day-to-day correspondence (which Dickens has scribbled all over), some official documents, and a slightly muddly Mrs Beeton-style cookbook that sold poorly and seems to have been mainly a vanity project. Catherine Dickens, for all intents and purposes, is gone, painted right out of the picture.

That’s not to say that nobody’s been looking for her. There’s been a move, in recent years, to reclaim the lives of the wives of Great Men, and often, as in Franny Moyle’s fun biography of Constance Wilde, the results are wonderful. The efforts I’ve seen to reclaim Mrs Dickens, however, have been less successful. Sue Perkins’s biopic last December, Mrs Dickens’ Family Christmas, and Lilian Nayder’s biography. The Other Dickens, both want to find in Catherine someone to admire, or at least, pity—a kindred spirit who suffered horribly and can be sympathised with; what they find is, err… a blank. Perkins lies on a bed and stares at the ceiling, trying to understand what Catherine’s ten prolonged confinements would have been like, but she gives up after only five minutes, which is telling. Then she goes and cooks a meal from Catherine’s cookbook, which turns out to be tasty but not particularly inventive. Nayder, meanwhile, has so few of Catherine’s own words to go on that she has to turn to what everyone around her was writing about Catherine, much of which boil down to postscripts like “…and Catherine continues well too”, or even to generic explanations about women’s roles during that period.

To even begin to understand Catherine Dickens, her biographers have been forced to turn to Dickens himself, which is somewhat unfortunate under the circumstances. Nayder’s biography paints an extremely unflattering portrait of Dickens as a husband. He controlled every aspect of Catherine’s life (sometimes quite literally; one of his favourite pastimes in the early years of their marriage was putting her in mesmeric trances), belittled her self and her achievements, and possibly even blamed her for both her miscarriages and for her continuing fertility.

And poor Catherine was fertile. She went through a back-breaking twelve pregnancies in fifteen years, from which she emerged with ten children. True, Nayder may be exaggerating the case against Dickens, but from reading his novels I suspect there’s more than a grain of truth to her accusations. In a Dickens novel, the good women are virgins and the best women are both virgins and dead. Presented with a wife who was very obviously neither of those things, Dickens appears to have had difficulty coping.

When Catherine’s (virginal) younger sister Mary died in 1837, for example, Dickens turned her into an emblem of what Catherine could never be. Mary became his idea of the perfect woman, and he told Catherine so repeatedly, without sparing much of a thought for the emotions Catherine herself might have on the matter. This is where we get to the principle problem with Catherine Dickens: we’ve got no way of knowing what her thoughts actually were. Although we may imagine that she must have been angry and hurt, we can’t be sure, because she never wrote any of her feelings down.

I think I’m interested in her because she isn’t interesting, or at least, what’s left of her isn’t. The problem with Catherine, both for Dickens and for the people going in search of her today, was that she was normal. She, like most people on this planet, lived the sort of life that biographers and readers don’t get excited about. If we’re ever going to be able to work her out, we have to turn to fiction.

The best portrait of Catherine I’ve ever come across isn’t Catherine at all; it’s the character of Ellen Ash in A. S. Byatt’s Possession. As the wife of Victorian poet Randolph Ash, Ellen’s life is spectacularly underwhelming on paper. Her biographer, Beatrice, has spent most of her life reading through Ellen’s recipes and calling cards in the hopes of finding some hidden feminist sentiment, but she ends up admitting, extremely shamefaced, that Ellen Ash might have just been boring. Yet, when we read the sections of the novel about Ellen’s life, we realise that Ellen wasn’t boring at all. She was an extremely complex and secretive woman who knew about her husband’s affair and yet kept her silence, who was thoughtful and interesting but never wanted to write her thoughts down for other people to find out. I imagine that her experience wasn’t miles away from Catherine Dickens’. Of course, I’ll never know; I’m just making all this up. But this is why, I think, that fiction is so important. If Catherine’s story is ever going to be told properly, it can’t be just based on the facts. We have to use our imaginations. Dickens, after all, used his books to tell the world about the experiences of the London poor; we should be able to extend the same courtesy to his wife.




Elizabeth Benett & Mr. Darcy: True Love?

Was Elizabeth Bennet a gold digger?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Pride and Prejudice is a very romantic book. When Jane Austen created Elizabeth Bennett, who is spirited and has nice eyes, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who is brooding and has an irresistible fondness for water features (or perhaps that was only the BBC adaptation), she probably had no idea that she was setting in motion two hundred years of obsession with the kind of True Love that overcomes All Obstacles and silences All Unpleasant Family Members.

Very few pieces of writing have entered our cultural consciousness like Pride and Prejudice, and deservedly. For who can forget that heartwarming scene where Elizabeth rides over the crest of the hill in Derbyshire, gazes upon the majestic masonry and rolling fields of Pemberley and falls head over heels in love with Mr Darcy’s enormous estate?

But wait! That’s not right, is it? It’s Mr Darcy Elizabeth loves so much, not his lawn ornaments and attractive mahogany furniture. At least, that’s what everyone says. But the more I actually read the text the less I’m convinced. Certainly, Elizabeth wouldn’t have married Darcy if he had looked and behaved like Mr Collins, but I’m not so sure, if Darcy had been the owner of Hunsford Parsonage, whether Elizabeth would still have been quite so interested in him. In the final third of the book, you can practically hear the cogs turning in Elizabeth’s head:

I could be mistress of Pemberley. (You know, his nose isn’t so bad.) I could be mistress of PEMBERLEY. (He’s actually got quite nice hair.) I could be MISTRESS OF PEMBERLEY. (I’m sure he’s not really so unpleasant.) I COULD BE MISTRESS! OF! PEMBERLEY!

And so, readers, she married him.

This is going to upset a lot of Jane Austen fans, but as far as I’m concerned Pride and Prejudice is just as much about the triumph of hard-headed cash-hungry business sense as it is about finding your One True Love.

It’s not just Pride and Prejudice, either. Many of the books that our culture holds up as romantic ideals actually contain a lot of behaviour that’s, well, not particularly nice. Mr Rochester keeps a spare wife hidden in his attic like a naughty pet, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin and then can’t even be bothered to keep his appointments properly, and Heathcliff kills puppies, digs up a grave and self-harms against a tree.

These sterling examples of the ideal man have filtered down into our modern-day novels, giving us such beautiful examples of humanity: Birdsong’s Stephen Wraysford, who sleeps with a married woman after about two weeks and ten words of conversation, and Twilight’s Edward Cullen, who likes to creep into his crush’s bedroom at night to watch her sleep. If my boyfriend did any of these things, I’m not convinced I’d want to keep him around for long. But this is fiction, and in fiction stalker behaviour is almost always treated as an adorable expression of deep and abiding love.

Actually, if you’re looking for examples of a stable, non-insane long-term relationship in books, it’s better to stay away from romance plots altogether. While fiction’s great lovers run around dramatically on landscapes, screaming and crying and getting lost and so on, characters who are designated as friends have a much nicer and more peaceful time of it. I don’t think it’s exaggerating too much to claim that one of the best literary examples of a marriage is Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The fact that they don’t sleep together is really immaterial. They live together, they work together and engage in the kind of hugely loving argument that only two people who are thoroughly under each other’s skin can manage.

This is partly because, until very recently, men and women had extremely little in common. The gap in education between sexes, especially in the upper classes (who were generally the people who wrote books), meant that there usually could be very little going on apart from physical attraction. Men knew The Iliad in the original Greek and Hobbes’s Leviathan and women knew… well, hats. That doesn’t leave much to chat about.

Yes, Elizabeth tries to talk to Darcy about books in a ballroom, and yes, many naturally clever women did make efforts to educate themselves, but even the best DIY programme of study wasn’t going to match up to Oxbridge, and so the meeting-of-minds model of relationship, the idea that you should be best friends with your partner, just wasn’t available to most heterosexual couples until about fifty years ago. So, I suppose, at the time there was nothing you could do to express your affections apart from bang your head against trees.

This isn’t an excuse for all the bad and crazy conduct that goes on under the label of literary romance, but it is a suggestion that it might be time to lay some of our illusions about romance aside. After all, instead of worrying about the lack of grand passion in our lives we should be feeling extremely lucky. We, almost uniquely in history, can have a partner of the opposite sex who’s as interested in the French Revolution or geriatric medicine as we are. And if that sounds a bit dull to you, you ought to ask yourself if you really want a mentally unstable obsessive abuser chasing after you. If Mr Rochester came into your room right now, would it actually be a good idea to leave with him? If you’re entirely honest with yourself, the answer is: probably not.

Maybe the problem is with the word “romance” itself. Stop calling what goes on in Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice the same thing as what happens when you buy someone flowers, and we might not get so confused. After all, they don’t have many similarities. Romance, ultimately, is all very well in books, but in my opinion that’s where it belongs. After all, I’m sure Jane Austen’s heroines would have exchanged everything they ended up with for a man who’s got more going for him than his enormous house.




Play: Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer

Katherine Kelly and Steve Pemberton

There’s an important fact that you don’t really get told in English lessons: plays aren’t actually meant to be read. Go to school or university and you could come away imagining that plays are strangely bare, odd-shaped novels, with no description; and scene changes instead of chapter titles. The truth is, of course, that plays (being plays) are meant to be acted, and reading them only lets you understand half of what’s really going on. It’s like trying to watch a film from the next room while you’re busy with something else.

Plays, after all, are about communication, and communication is made up of a lot more than just speech. It’s about the nuances you put into words, the movements you make, the tone of your voice. You can say the words “He’s very handsome,” and show by the way you say them that you really do think so, or that you think that he thinks so, or that you secretly think he’s a hideous toad in a suit.

This is something that living in London has really brought home to me. I keep going to see plays that I think I know well, and every time I come away astonished at how much better they are in action than I ever imagined they could be when I was reading them. She Stoops to Conquer is a case in point. Written in the eighteenth century by Oliver Goldsmith, it’s the story of upper-class twit Marlowe, a man who’s spent all his life being educated and has consequently never learnt how to deal with women of his own class. A saucy rake around bar maids and the like, he becomes a dribbling idiot when put near any girl who’s fully dressed and able to write her own name. Eventually, his father loses patience with him and sends him off to be married to upper-class lady (and extremely clever girl) Kate Hardcastle. Of course, Marlowe can’t even look at her, but Kate likes the look of him so much that she decides to seduce him by dressing up as a maid. Events, of course, proceed amusingly from there, and end up with lots of marriages and general revelry.

Even on the page, She Stoops to Conquer is completely delightful. It’s difficult not to be won over by a heroine who exclaims, when told of a prospective lover’s good looks and fortune, “He’s mine! I’ll have him!” Gleefully anti-authoritarian and with a deliciously hard-headed attitude towards romance—when another character exclaims, “Perish the baubles! Your person is all I desire!” he’s told off by his fiancée for being too impractical—She Stoops to Conquer champions desire founded on what’s in someone’s head as much as what’s in their heart. Love, here, is about compatibility, mental as well as physical: an attitude that chimes so well with what we believe today that I’m forced to conclude that either people in the eighteenth century were much more advanced than we give them credit for or that we’ve hardly moved on at all.

But that’s just the text. The play is what you do with that text, and the ever-brilliant National Theatre has used Goldsmith’s words to create a new production that’s charmingly naughty, visually spectacular and so uproariously jolly that I left the theatre in a haze of goodwill towards mankind.

As I’ve said, I studied the play at university, and so I thought I understood the irony of lines like Marlowe’s “As for Miss Hardcastle, she’s too grave and sentimental for me.” But when I finally saw him saying it, blissfully ignorant, while the Miss Hardcastle in question came sidling up behind him lifting up her skirt and aiming her cleavage at his head, I realised that I’d been missing how incredibly, dirtily funny the situation really is. This production definitely makes the most of the play’s physical humour. Marlowe, when he finally notices Kate in her peasant dress, leaps up and neighs like a horse; characters slap and pinch each other and drag each other in and out of rooms; and Kate’s country-bumpkin mother has an awe-inspiring accent that travels up and down the register from Glasgow to Torquay.

Sophie Thompson (who plays Mrs Hardcastle) really does have a show-stealing turn. From her curtseys (which always end up as undignified crouches) to her hairpiece (which is constantly falling out) she’s outrageously pitch-perfect. Not that the cast she overshadows aren’t excellent as well. Kate (Katherine Kelly) is beautifully pert, Marlowe and his friend Hastings (Harry Haddon-Paton and John Hefferman respectively) are magnificently foolish, and Mr Hardcastle (Steve Pemberton) just has a great time shouting at everybody.

It’s all backed up by gorgeous costumes and a stunning set (the Olivier Theatre’s rotating stage is put to good use, and we even get tree trunks lowered down onto the stage in the garden scene), and an incredibly enthusiastic ensemble who gallop around banging on pots and pans and singing.

She Stoops to Conquer is a wonderful text that’s had wonderful things done to it, and the result is a play that’s genuinely funny and warm-hearted. And most importantly, it’s a pleasure to watch.




Good Bad Books: Cut the Snobbery

Last week, I wrote about Culture, something that has an almost unique ability to make most of the population very nervous, as though it were a test they were bound to fail. It’s an understandable position but a very unfortunate one; people should be able to read, or look at, whatever they want, regardless of who they are. And if there’s a mistaken belief that there are certain kinds of art that can only really belong to people who speak like the Queen and have souls shaped like David Cameron, there’s an equally silly and almost as prevalent idea that there are certain sorts of book that are not for “real” readers.

This, as a position, drives me completely crazy. It’s also something that I come up against repeatedly on my university literature course. Although academia is beginning to wake up to the fact that books are still being written today, and that some of them are even quite good, there’s still an enormous amount of infuriating snobbery about genre fiction.

Genre fiction, of course, literally means books about romance, crime, horror, science fiction and fantasy. If I was feeling prickly—as I do when I’m repeatedly told that many of the books I enjoy are somehow invalid as fiction—I’d define it as any book in which the characters do more interesting things than just stand in a room and cry.

The key word here is interesting. I’ve noticed that often, when a book is accused of being “genre”, what its accuser really means (but doesn’t want to come out and say) is that it seems suspiciously like it might be fun to read. Many critics and academics suspect fun. There’s an invisible rule in their heads that all good books have to be difficult, and so all books that don’t tie your brain in knots of uncomprehending agony must therefore be bad.

‘Snuff’, the latest novel by Terry Pratchett

In one of my seminars last week, another student brought up Terry Pratchett. It was a valid reference and a relevant comment, and he could have left it at that, but the moment the words were out of his mouth he got a look on his face as though he’d just come to his senses to find himself desecrating his mother’s grave. He backtracked frantically—he’d read one book! Once! When he was a child! It meant nothing! It was just one time!—and then he started talking about Derrida, to prove that he was a serious academic who knew large texts and had important, grown-up, un-fun thoughts about them.

Personally, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why can’t you bring up Terry Pratchett in an academic setting? He’s a writer, isn’t he? He puts down words on a page in exactly the same way as Alan Hollinghurst or A. S. Byatt, and those words get published and read just the same as theirs do. After all, there isn’t an approved list of topics about which you can intelligently write. A passage about an elf, or a pair of shoes, or a bloodstained corpse, has just as much chance of being good as does a passage about sex, or loss, or the unbearable trauma of being. It all depends on the person who’s written it.

In fact, if we take Terry Pratchett as an example, a lot of what he’s doing when he writes about trolls and swords and magic carpets is using them to make extremely subtle and embarrassingly spot-on comments about the society we live in, which also happens to be exactly what Jonathan Swift, who now appears on almost every English literature course anywhere, was doing three hundred years ago. But of course he’s not genre, because he’s from history, and therefore all the funny parts of his books are probably just mistakes.

Actually, as soon as you do look at older texts, the genre-as-worth argument begins to totally break down. Many books that we now think of as classics would probably, if they had been published today, have been shoved on the Genre Shelves of Shame, where only nerds and children can get at them. Dickens and Hardy, for example, wrote specifically for the mass-market and most of their novels were first published in instalments, in popular magazines. Their analogues in terms of sales today would probably be writers like Stephen King or Alexander McCall Smith. Frankenstein? Well, that’s a science fiction horror novel. Dracula? The same. The Odyssey? Fantasy. The Three Musketeers? Historical fantasy. The more you think about it like that, the less literary snobbery makes any sense at all.

As you might be able to tell by now, I think the boxing-in concept of genre is incredibly stupid. It prevents a lot of people from feeling able to try authors they’d probably love, and it prevents a lot of really great authors from getting the recognition they deserve. China Mieville is one of the most creative and intelligent writers working today, but he would probably have to crawl on his knees to the country he’s named after to stand any chance of getting mainstream prizes for his work. It’s a sad state of affairs, because what should matter is the quality of someone’s writing, not what that writing is about. Against all those idiotic people who think that fun is a dirty word, I defend my right to read Zola and Diana Wynne Jones, Nabokov and Meg Cabot, and enjoy them all in very different, but equally valid, ways. And so should you.




Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar

A scene from The Pitman Painters at the Theatre Royal

In the first scene of The Pitmen Painters, set in the coal-mining town of Ashington in the 1930s, a group of miners have organised an after-work art appreciation class. The professor arrives and begins to give a slightly snooty lecture about Renaissance technique, but he’s quickly stopped by the leader of the group. They don’t want to hear about how painting is done, he explains. They just want to be able to look at a picture on a wall and know whether or not it’s any good.

I went to see The Pitmen Painters last week, and so this nervous attitude to culture was already in my head when my housemate the actuary turned to me a few nights ago and announced that he wanted to get into poetry, but he was afraid he wouldn’t understand what it was all about. At school, he explained, they were always talking about what poetry meant. What did he need to know, he asked, to be able to understand it?

My housemate may be part of the very suit-wearing, sushi-eating bourgeoisie that the Pitmen spend a lot of time railing against, but their worries about culture aren’t actually worlds apart. There is an assumption, encouraged by the way the arts are taught in schools, that works of art have to mean a particular thing that certain people (defined as those who have the correct, sanctioned bits of difficult-to-understand information in their heads) get and all the rest don’t.

As an English MA student, I’m one of the ones who should be in the know, but even I remember spending what felt like unbroken centuries of torment sitting in an English lesson waiting for someone to tell the teacher what the bird in Tennyson’s The Eagle represented. It occurred to me then, and it still does now, that no matter what ideas Tennyson may have had in his own head about the significance of eagles in general or that eagle in particular, there was no real reason why I or anyone else couldn’t just read the poem as being about an eagle.

There’s a great bit in The Pitmen Painters, after the men have moved on from appreciating art to trying to make some themselves, when they all gather round to critique each other’s work. One of them has done a very nice painting of a Bedlington Terrier standing in a garden. The size of it in relation to the scenery around shows the importance of dogs to the working men of Ashington, says someone. The painting is trying to convey something about the simple beauty in everyday life, says someone else. No, says the man who made it. I just wanted to paint a Bedlington Terrier. And I ran out of space on the board to do the surroundings properly.

This perfectly sums up two (slightly contrasting) things I believe about the arts – first, that there’s no reason why something shouldn’t be both simple and interesting, and second, that there’s not really a meaning at all.

You can look at Millais’s Ophelia, for example, and perfectly validly see a scene from Shakespeare, or the model who nearly froze to death posing for it in a bathtub in the middle of winter, or just a girl inexplicably drowning in very shallow water while surrounded by extremely ornate foliage. Similarly, if you know about Leda and Zeus you’ll be able to literally understand the story Yeats is telling in Leda and the Swan. Even if you don’t, the poem works just as well as a description of what it’s like to be assaulted by an enormous and angry bird. I completely admit that I have no real idea what is going on in Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time, but that does not stop me finding it both amazingly colourful and completely hilarious (Google it and you won’t be disappointed).

In fact, the more confusing something is, the more you are free to decide what you think it’s about. The Wasteland by T. S. Eliot keeps coming up on the courses I take, and the more I read it, and read what’s written about it, the more I realise that no one in the entire world has any real understanding of what the hell it actually means. Therefore, I have decided that it’s perfectly fine to like it just because it sounds great.

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair 

Spread out in fiery points 

Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

Who is this woman? What is her significance? What does she represent in the poem? Who cares! Her hair is on fire. What I’m trying to say is that culture, like tax, doesn’t have to be taxing. At the end of the day, what it all means doesn’t matter. Although teachers and professors may try to convince you otherwise, no one really knows, anyway. The message of The Pitmen Painters, at least in my mind, is that even though not everyone is capable of being an artist, everyone is capable of being interested in art. Formal knowledge is just an added bonus, something that gives you another way to see a poem or a play or a painting. You don’t need to be daunted by it – one of the most important things about art is whether or not you like it. In fact, it’s still perfectly possible to dislike something even if you know it’s technically good. Ulysses is a masterpiece, and when I read it I hated it so much I wanted to take a flamethrower to its front cover. You should feel free to read and look at what you want to and conclude from that whatever you like. After all, it’s really all up to you.




Adapt to Survive

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson

There are several different ways of making an adaptation. You could go down the 1980s Brideshead Revisited route, which is to take the entire text of the book, get Jeremy Irons to recite it and then overlay a really involved soundtrack, so it becomes essentially a radio play with costumes. Or you could take the basic concept of a novel (such as: Man solves crimes. Man talks to animals. Man falls hopelessly in love with woman) and make something that is essentially invented by you but still happens to share a title with the original work. This is the explanation for Eddie Murphy’s Doctor Doolittle film (which we do not talk about) and also the Guy Richie Sherlock Holmes films, the plots of which I suspect were the product of people shouting random words, like ‘GYPSIES! SHOOTING! WEAPONS! DISGUISE! HUMOUR! NUDITY! DOG!’ and then turning them into scenes.

But as well as these, there’s the rare adaptation that considers the essential concept behind a book, takes that and puts a twist on it, so that what comes out is interesting and new but still recognisably from the same source. (This is, incidentally, very similar to what happens in good fanfiction). This is extremely difficult to do well, and it’s a rare project that manages it – and among that elite group is the BBC’s Sherlock.

While Guy Richie’s films seek to answer the question “What would happen if Sherlock Holmes was a person who punched people in the face a lot?” The BBC wonders, far more intelligently, how the Holmes Arthur Conan Doyle actually made up would react to being alive in the twenty-first century. The answer, of course, is that he would be a technical wizard, solving crimes with iPhone and Google and publishing his monographs on his website, while Watson blogged about it.

Sherlock is a brilliant translation, not just between book and screen but between 1892 and 2012, and one of its best features is that it manages to use the technology that we see around us every day in an incredibly clever and beautifully organic way. Instead of pretending, as many shows do, that the internet doesn’t exist, leading to embarrassing scenes where characters stand there clutching their smartphones and screaming “OH GOD! THE WORLD IS DOOMED BECAUSE WE CAN’T REMEMBER THAT VITAL PIECE OF INFORMATION AND WE HAVE NO WAY OF FINDING IT OUT!”, if Sherlock doesn’t know something he checks it out (bringing the words up on our screens, too, in a fantastic use of visual space).

Part of the message of the Holmes stories is that it’s not just the information that’s important, but the deductions that you make from it – Watson always has exactly the same view of the case but because he lacks Sherlock’s superior brain activity, he can’t understand what he’s really seeing. It’s an added bonus, by the way, that the Watson of Sherlock is not the brain-dead blithering idiot of many adaptations, but something much closer to the sensible, upstanding and fundamentally good ex-soldier of the stories.

Creators Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss have shown that they can both respect their source material and have a lot of fun updating it. Sherlock is filled with delightfully smart and tongue-in-cheek references to its source material. In the season two opener, Watson writes up ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Blonde’, there are thumbs in the fridge (presumably belonging to engineers) and a hilarious reinvention of the origins of the Sherlock-in-a-deerstalker image.

The stories in question, A Scandal in Bohemia and The Hound of the Baskervilles, have been adapted  in ways that simply make sense. Putting all extremely knotty accusations of potential anti-Irene Adler sexism aside, an ‘adventuress’ in 1892 probably would be equivalent to a dominatrix in 2012 (fascinating, sexually suggestive, slightly outside the audience’s comfort zone). Conan Doyle’s pan-European intrigue would, of course, become international terrorism, just as the idea of a giant dog these days inevitably brings with it the suggestion of genetic engineering. It seems very likely to me that Conan Doyle, if he was alive today, would have written extensively about mutant glowing mice and jellyfish with orangutan arms. Genetic engineering has the same basic mixture of outlandish horror and creepy possibility that you find in a lot of Conan Doyle’s real stories – The Adventure of the Creeping Man, for example, or The Sussex Vampire. There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into why the Holmes stories work the way they do, and that care shows through in every episode of Sherlock.

For me, the difference between the two current versions of the Baker Street detective– and the difference between a perfectly adequate adaptation and a really stellar one – can be summed up in equivalent scenes that take place in the first Guy Richie film and Sherlock season one. Both come from the episode in one of the Conan Doyle stories where Holmes makes a deduction about a client’s entire life and character just from a look at his watch. The Richie film does a fairly good recreation of the moment, although it substitutes Watson for the hapless client, but the BBC version updates it into something far more clever. Watches these days just don’t matter to us in the same way – the equivalent, in terms of price and social value, would be an iPhone – so it’s Watson’s iPhone that Sherlock reads, deducing that the person plugging it in to charge scratched its surface with the shaky hands of an alcoholic. There’s a name engraved on the back, ‘Harry’, who Sherlock decides must be Watson’s estranged alcoholic brother. He’s right, except that the ‘Harry’ in question isn’t Watson’s brother but his (lesbian) sister. It’s a lovely bit of shorthand for the both the differences and the essential similarities between 1892 and 2012, and that mirror-image-with-a-twist runs all the way through Sherlock. “I thought you weren’t my housekeeper,” Sherlock says to Mrs Hudson in The Hounds of Baskerville. “I’m not,” she replies frostily, which is technically true – in 2012, she’s his landlady – but the joke-within-a-joke is that we know both that in the original she was his housekeeper, and that really, she still is.

I’m usually a cynic where remakes and adaptations are concerned. It’s so rare to find one that even comes close to being as good as the original – and if it is, it tends to mean that the source material is not up to much. That’s why, to me, Sherlock comes as such a delight. Of course, I’m not saying it’s better than the Conan Doyle stories it comes from. In many ways, it’s very different, which is a lot of what charms me about it. It’s just the right balance of new and old, innovation and thoughtful reference, and it’s made something that’s familiar but very unique.

Robin Stevens