Saturday, 22 April 2017

Manchester Rally for Chechnya

We've just been at the rally in the Gay Village for the Chechnya concentration camps. Jeremy gave an amazing impromptu speech!

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Sequels Within

Last week all my reading was about the wonderful world of tie-ins and side-steps. Both books grew out of a movie and a TV show, but they did so in an unusual way. Neither were novelizations or comic strip adaptations, and neither were simple, ‘original’ continuations of those stories. They were new tales that grew out of the source material… stories nestled within the original story, expanding and accreting new layers of detail and meaning.

I don’t even know what to call them? Interpolated tales? Further stories-within-stories? Arabesques?

I read ‘Doctor Who – Supremacy of the Cybermen’ by George Mann and Cavan Scott – a graphic novel collected up in one handsome, colourful volume by Titan. And I also read ‘Beauty and the Beast – Lost in a Book’ by Jennifer Donnelly. Both books are absolutely set within the canonical continuity of both franchises, but both are about what we might call The Sequels Within. They are stories that happen within a tiny glitch of a moment within the original story – and, rather wittily and paradoxically – the story secreted inside the original is made to seem epic and colossal. It’s like Athena sprouting fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. Or Pandora’s Box opening. It’s the reassuringly infinite nature of story-telling – reminding us that even something as nailed-down as a multi-million pound franchise can have hidden layers.

Jennifer Donnelly’s novel takes place within the fairy tale / the cartoon / the live action movie / the novelisation of such. It hinges upon Belle’s exploring the Beast’s library and finding a certain book, ‘Nevermore’, which has been placed there by Death in order to lure her away from her destiny. A whole sub-plot and secondary fantasy world is beautifully evoked – with duplicitous gentlewomen, clockwork people and talking insects. Belle is drawn into a trap, but she keeps on interacting with the major plot beats of the film she was originally starring in, while being literally dragged into a different book. It’s all written very lusciously and sparklingly. While it’s a pleasure to venture back into the Beast’s castle and spend more time with his familiar staff, there’s a definite thrill to the slightly macabre shadow-story that Donnelly presents.

Doctor Who is always about time travel and other dimensions and so hidden stories and missing tales have always been part of its fabric. Going back to 1973, when Doctor Two gets plucked from 1967 to co-star in a new adventure in the present day, the show has always reveled in mucking about in these side-steps and arabesques. This latest saga from Titan really goes for it on that score – with an anchor narrative continuing the confusing on-screen climax of season nine to do with Gallifrey (Rassillon survives and starts fraternizing with Cybermen) but also drawing in previous Doctors  in a bewildering and generous array of sub-plots.

All of them are grounded and real and ‘happening’ in their own private time streams: and it’s lovely to have a tale of Nine and Jackie Tyler zooming about in an alternate London (another one!) circa 2005, battling Cybermen. Even though, if we stop to think about it, the actual crystallizing of this storyline into ‘fact’ within the fiction would destabilize other parts of the bigger story (playing havoc with various bits of continuity.) However, of course, it’s in the nature of comic strips to be, well… comic strippy. We are allowed to ditch the continuity qualms in favour of the zippy and outrageous fun of it all – Captain Jack and Rose getting converted and explosions going off and everything seeming so desperate. And, elsewhere in the galaxy, the Tenth Doctor finds himself appointed king of the Sontarans, and the Eleventh tangles (that very comic strippy word!) with Cyber-converted Silurians. It’s reckless, breathless and highly-organised fun.

And, of course, by the ending of it all, the toys are put back into their boxes and the timelines are shoogled back into place quite neatly, due to some apocalyptic and cosmic shenanigans courtesy of the current day Doctor. It’s fitting that all the Gallifrey and Rassillon stuff at the climax feels so much like Bronze Age Marvel Comics – those eternity-shattering adventures in the Forbidden Zone with Galactus and the Silver Surfer. A very Jack Kirby and Stan Lee sort of galaxy. What a great place for Dr Who to be having adventures in. On TV when they conjured cosmic beings we tended to get an old character actor sipping a cocktail at a wickerwork table, and we had to take it on trust that he was the Guardian of Light in Time. In comics we can get the whole cosmic hullaballoo, with spinning vortices and lightning bolts and multi-coloured knobs on. And, of course, it was Marvel Comics and DC comics that taught me, back when I was a kid, that franchises could be rewritten and rebooted in a flash. Remember The Secret Wars, back in the early 80s? When Earth’s Mightiest Heroes were dragged off for just a flicker of an instant in the plodding chonology of Earth? But in their own subjective superhero time they were kidnapped for months – for a whole fabulous mini-series of pulse-pounding new adventures in space…

That’s what the Sequels Within should always feel like. You thought the story was over and you find that – not only does it continue… there are still stories to be unpacked from within the heart of the original. And I love it when the new stories become extravagant and grand, as do both these books I read last week.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Back from my First US Dr Who Con - Regen Who 3

(Photo by Mark Iman Photography)

I’m back home now from a weekend in the US, at the Baltimore-based Dr Who convention, Regen Who. What a delightfully well-organised show it was! I had a fabulous time… beginning with our journey out there, through a myriad of chatty panels and readings and talks… and hilarious conversations in the bar and over dinner and in conference rooms… to the very highpoint of the con for me – which has to be my panel with Katy Manning, in which we talked about Iris Wildthyme and she performed a small, new scene which I had written especially for that day. What a thrill to hear it brought to life on stage beside me, in front of all those lovely fans!

There were many brilliant moments in this Con – orchestrated so well by Oni Hartstein, James Harknell and Craig W. Matthews and their army of helpers – including my chair and the Mistress of Chat, Kara Dennison. I spent much of my time with my mate George Mann, and we had a great many laughs – and some brilliant book-shopping, too – in the gigantic Barnes and Noble on the bay, and in a perfect used-book store we discovered called Book Escape… where Kara and George scored about a dozen 1990s New Adventures novels. (How serendipitous is that..?!)

It was my first US Dr Who Con. I’ve done one or two UK ones in the past, and it’s so nice to be invited and to realise that people really want to hear about the things you’ve done and written. Not just Dr Who, either – people want to know about ‘Baker’s End’ and all the other things I’ve worked on. The big surprise for me of the weekend was just how many people came up and said how much they loved books I wrote almost twenty years ago – ‘The Scarlet Empress’ and ‘The Blue Angel’ – books that were actually pretty difficult to get hold of in America.

The weekend was filled with happy new encounters and reunions and also, meeting with people I already knew very well from social media. Friends like Bret and Syd, who I’ve known for so long via Facebook and a number of collaborative projects – but who I’ve never actually been in the same room as. How magical to sit drinking beer in a bar in Baltimore as if we’ve always been friends. There were also marvelous times and conversations with people I’ve always thought I might enjoy meeting.

Anyway – happy times and places! And some very happy memories. It was the kind of weekend that, though tiring, sends you back to your normal, rather quiet working days in your study, with renewed vigour and glee.

Thanks, all involved. I had a blast!

Monday, 13 March 2017

How are the Writing Resolutions holding up..?

Someone writing a piece for a magazine has asked me about my resolutions for writing for 2017, and whether I'd kept them ... here they are -

Morning pages first every day. Three pages written first thing, about *anything*.

Don’t waste time comparing own career with anyone else's: writing isn't a competitive sport.

Four work sessions every day. On at least two ongoing projects.

TV is kind of rubbish compared with books, so watch less. Read in the evening after dinner.

Journal. Everything goes back to your journals. Look after them. Also, draw - to give you a break from 

And I've stuck to them all so far!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Returning to Charles De Lint's Books

I’ve been a fan of Charles de Lint since the early Nineties and, as I check back through my reading diary, I find I’ve read more of him than I even knew. Did I read these books in the right order? Is there even a right order to be found? Sitting down this week and reading his mammoth collection of interconnected tales, ‘Dreams Underfoot’ I realise that the correct order is elusive… because Charles de Lint doesn’t write books so much as he writes pomegranates.

‘Dreams Underfoot’ consists of stories to do with characters, places and legends of the fictional city of Newford. The characters are musicians, artists, street kids and writers… people find love, only to have their beloved snatched away by ghosts or mermaids or imps: by the eruption of magic into their everyday lives. It’s a place where people talk about ‘consensual reality’ and the idea that things are so only because more than one or two of us agree that they are so. It’s a place where the fae and the fantastical exist alongside the tragic and gritty.

Nowadays we have a catch-all term for the genre – urban fantasy – and there are dozens of series of novels set in contemporary towns and cities, featuring casts of vampires, shape-shifters, werewolves and warlocks. They’re almost commonplace now…! But back when I was first reading Charles de Lint his work stood out as very unusual, and almost unique.

It still stands out because of the quality of his writing, and the fact that his stories aren’t just about cosmic clashes between good and evil… The genre-blending is never clunky. These are proper tales. They are elegant little poems sprouting up in the urban decay. The characters always come first, and we feel like we are visiting the most important moments in their lives. We look forward to them strolling into further stories, cropping up as co-stars or cameos in the background. There’s a sense of the fantasy city as a living fabric – which is much more believable, to me, than the endless parade of obvious sequels that the genre has slipped into.

There are so many wonderful stories here and, having emerged from the tangled forest of the book by the end, it’s hard to pick out particular ones as favourites. Back to my image of the novel as a pomegranate: the individual cells are tight-packed together beneath the rind – each of them bursting with juice and a precious seed. Doesn’t it feel much more like real life, to learn of a cast of characters’ backstories and destinies, all out of order, all at different stages, as you bump into them? I loved Quentin’s time travel tale of his lost love Sam, split over two stories at opposite ends of the book, as well as the story of the illustrator Jilly Coppercorn, one of the stars of the Newford stories, whose tale of survival we only gradually learn as it gets filtrated through the tales of many others. She’s central to the work, though – she’s the one whose faith never wavers in the fantastical beings who share Newford with the more prosaic folk.

I must have mentioned before, the wonderful remainder bookshop I used to visit in Darlington, opposite the indoor marketplace? Where they used to sell imported American paperbacks for 70p each? This was in the late Eighties, early Nineties – fantasy, science-fiction and horror published by Del Rey, Ace and Berkley. Many of those books – with their luridly-painted covers – were quite unlike anything that you’d find in the ordinary shops. It honestly felt like they had dropped through from another dimension. Charles de Lint’s books were among those I was picking up there – alongside Jonathan Carroll’s, Ursula Le Guin’s and various others. They all had stories in the vast annual compendium, ‘The Best Fantasy and Horror’ edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, which I also bought from that same, tiny shop with its single long table of shiny covers and dusty bare floor.

All that fantasy fiction struck very deep chords with me, I realise now – those early forays into what people would now call Urban Fantasy or Paranormal Romance. I’m very glad of them – and I’m delighted to return to Newford, and to Charles De Lint’s world of artistic slackers and dreamers; his Rackham-faced goblins, Pre-Raphaelite hippy girls and taciturn musical men. I’m really glad to find I’ve only read about six of the many, many books he’s published. I’m happy to vanish into the rest.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

'Baker's End' - 'Tatty Bogle' is now for sale!

'Baker's End' - 'Tatty Bogle' is now on sale from ....!

I really love that sub-genre of British Horror fiction and film known as Folk Horror. There’s something so creepy and yet so ridiculous about hordes of horny-handed peasants in blood-spattered smocks dancing around a maypole waving scythes. There’s something that goes right back into the collective unconscious about it: we all go a bit funny when we see scarecrows and corn dollies and all that spooky kind of stuff.
            It seemed to me that Happenstance is exactly the kind of place where the locals would give full vent to ancient customs and queer practices. They’re deep in the English countryside. They’ve never had BBC 2, let alone cable TV. They obey the old rhythms and laws of the land. And every thirteen years everyone makes a scarecrow of their own and leaves it somewhere it’ll scare the bejabbers out of everyone else. And a giant Tatty Bogle is erected on the village green, and his living Bride is roasted to death inside it, as everyone sings and has a rare old time of it. Oh, and it rains blood for several days running.
            So… that’s the kind of Wickery Man / Bloody Satan Claw premise that I started with. Mr Simon Barnard was keen on having something with scarecrows, so I gave him scarecrows aplenty: even a hideous baby scarecrow thing that still makes me shiver, just thinking about it.
            Rural horror and bloody rain… and talking cabbages. It’s all here. I had this lovely image of Tom talking earnestly to his best friend, a cabbage. It goes back to his suggestion, many years ago when he was Doctor Who (in the real world – not here) that a cabbage would make a good companion for the Doctor. I love the idea of taking that throwaway idea quite literally, and here Eric forms a critical part of this story’s hellbound climax.
            I must point out that this episode is the most extreme instalment of Baker’s End yet. Things really start to get very odd indeed.

            And I must say again – kudos to our brilliant cast and crew for going along with all these shenanigans. What a superbly funny and busy day we had in October recording this one. Singing! Raining blood! Fleeing from Hades! We barely had time to catch our breath. And, in the middle of it all, the formidable and gracious form of Tom Baker. He’s a legend, as we all know – but how hackneyed that phrase is. These days, so many people are called icons. But Tom Baker really is a piece of legend; a fragment of myth; a figure from a folk tale. He’s in his element, here at the heart of these stories, I think. He bellows and coos and declaims his crazy doggerel as the King of Cats and I couldn’t be prouder of the wonderfully mad and funny world we’ve created around him.

Friday, 24 February 2017

A Couple of Events

There are a couple of events I'll be doing in the near future! The first is next week - Friday 3rd March - when I'll be in Lancaster at their wonderful Litfest, appearing with Eddie Robson and talking about writing Doctor Who books and audios. Here's the link..!

At the end of next month I'll be going to my first-ever US Doctor Who convention, and I'll be reading and doing panels and Q&As and appearing alongside all kinds of luminaries. This Con has a lovely set of actors appearing, from old and new Who - but it also has a very generous collection of writers, too, which is unusual, I think, and something I'm very pleased about. 

Katy Manning is at this one - and we're planning a rather special Iris Wildthyme surprise... Which is all I'm saying for now.

Other things to mention...

The ebook for my forthcoming novel 'Fellowship of Ink' is available for pre-order from Amazon - for the tiny price of £1.59...! Link

And here's a soundcloud preview of Baker's End episode three - Tatty Bogle! - which comes out from Bafflegab NEXT WEEK..!

Finally - I got the nicest email from a reader. The kind that reminds you to carry on whatever it is you do... I thought I'd share the last bit, to remind all of us all that it's not always about reaching the most readers - it's about reaching the right ones.

"I know it’s just words but I also know that operating creatively at anything other than blockbuster/bestseller level can sometimes have it’s tough times and not always bring as much back as it feels like you give. With that in mind I just wanted to give you my heartfelt thanks and affirmation that to this one person at least your work has had a huge and meaningful impact - a life has most definitely been made better as a result of your creativity so thank you."

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Battered Old Paperbacks

Battered old paperbacks. My life has always been filled with them. I've certain books that have been with me all my life. One of the joys of getting my study all sorted out is being able to have certain books back out of storage again.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

'Fellowship of Ink' - cover and blurb!

I'm pleased to say that this new novel comes out in April from Snowbooks!  Please spread the word..!


The Smudgelings… Professors Reginald Tyler and Henry Cleavis and their various literary friends… little did they know as they gathered on Sunday evenings by the fire to drink sherry and read out chapters from their ongoing fantasy novels that they were wearing thin the fabric of space and time. All around them in the magical, northern university town of Darkholmes there were Holes opening up to other dimensions…

Here we are in the 1930s, in the leafy lanes and lofty towers of an ancient town… where there are witches, demons and gargoyles mixed up with dons and their frustrated wives and handsome boyfriends. And, most mysteriously of all, there is Brenda, the rather strange housemaid to the Tyler household, who is here incognito, for reasons all of her own…

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

I'm the Princess! - Diaries by Alan Bennett and Carrie Fisher

I began 2017 reading Alan Bennett and Carrie Fisher – both books are a blend of memoir and diary extracts. ‘Keeping On Keeping On’ is a seven hundred page not-quite extravaganza, more of a consoling compendium, and that’s what Alan Bennett has become for me. He’s the figure who turns up and tells you that all is – perhaps not quite well - but at least doing as well as might be expected.

The ten years’ worth of diary extracts are the highlight of this volume. I’m less interested in the two plays at the end, which I found quite tricky to read, and the introductions to other plays and books which pad out the second half of the book. I wonder why Faber think his fans are as completist as this? There’s quite a lot of repetition of ideas and underlining of the same themes and, while I hardly ever disagree with what he says, I do find the repetition tiring in the end. In a book of this length and with so little editorial crack-down Alan B comes to seem like the J K Rowling of shuffling about and watching the world go by.

No doubt he would hate to hear this, but he’s best when he’s writing about what happens when he pops into the local shop and some woman bumps into him and says something pithy, well-meaning and odd. Those are his greatest bits. I could do with hearing less about Britten and Larkin and Auden and I could definitely hear less about church furnishings and much more about the woman in the post office, or the one outside the corner shop. I like it best when he’s interested in living people and the random bumping-into that seems to go on around him.

The switch into Carrie Fisher’s also-recently published memoir, ‘The Princess Diaries’ was startling. I was transported back to 1976 and I was amazed to find how young and funny and dweeby the cast of Star Wars all were. How unaware they were of starring in something that would end up attracting so much attention. They were not quite iconic and each having a slightly dull time of it – the highlight being meals in London restaurants and stolen snogs in the back of hired cars. It’s very sweet and banal – this tale of being a pretend-Princess who falls into having weekend sex with a man who can barely talk to her, while during work hours they’re saving the galaxy.

My favourite bit in the whole book comes when the film is released and takes off like a rocket. Carrie and her girlfriends are cruising around LA in a car, staring amazed at the queues going round the block (hence the term ‘blockbuster’ – which I never knew!) When she sees the biggest queue of all, Carrie springs half out of the car’s sun roof and yells at everyone: ‘I’m in that movie! I’m the Princess!’ Then, when people start to cotton on and pay attention, she thinks: ‘Uh-oh!’ She comes to her senses, dives back into the car and yells at her friend: ‘Drive away!’

The actual verbatim diary extracts from 1976 are neither here nor there. Sort of Dorothy Parker - the teenage years. A bit of lovelorn poetry and a lot of longing. But they’re amazing to read because they’re so ordinary, and because she wasn’t having the time of her life at all.

Later chapters describe the fandom and convention circuit – her later career in ‘lapdancing’ as she calls it. There’s some very funny material here, in what is perhaps the definitive account of the vast, commercial sf conventions. The highlight of the whole book for me are the monologues she writes in the voices of fans who have come to see her: extolling her virtues, bubbling and gushing, accidentally insulting her, and giving so much away about their own lives. These are monologues almost as good as Alan Bennett’s own. Her essays are pithy, her memories are entertaining – but it’s her pin-sharp observation of people, and her pitch-perfect ear for everyday speech that shows up as the most brilliant of her talents.

It’s a sculptural gift: carving and editing out the verbiage and leaving a perfect monologue. Leaving a perfect column of utterance on the page – that’s the real thing. And that’s the thing that both these wonderful writers – on the surface so very different – have in common.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Uttley, Beachcroft and Mahy

One of my reading finds at the end of 2016 was Alison Uttley’s ‘Christmas Stories’. I thought it was something I’d dip into, but I was pulled into her world. Rural, mystical… and so calm. This Puffin has waited a long time in the Beach House – wrinkled, yellow, damp and flattened out to dry on a summer’s day years ago. Waiting for just the right moment. I thought it might be too twee to hold my attention, but I really loved it. Uttley is one of those people whose writing really takes hold of me.
            Remember that – when you equivocate about carrying on and persevering with somebody’s book. The ones that really grab you always stand out. You’re in no doubt this is what you want to be reading. You’ll listen to them talking about just about anything. You’ll even listen to them repeating themselves, as Uttley does, in these stories drawn from many different books across her career.
I was also reading Nina Beachcroft’s ‘Cold Christmas’ from 1974. I feel as if I read something by her a long time ago, mostly forgot it, and am trying to find it again. This one was new to me, but hit many of the right buttons – the big house, being snowed in, the ramshackle cast of people trapped together, not quite getting on. The kids having their own, quite frightening adventures and the adults not quite understanding. Spooky animals. A near-fatal accident in the snow. Some ghostly time-slippage and a mystery cleared up.
I spent quite a few Christmas afternoons in my study, in the comfy chair with Bernard Socks occasionally dashing in to doze for several hours with me. I was burrowing down into pages. Having the usual Twixtmas thoughts about – oh, couldn’t I just stay here and read for the whole coming year? Wouldn’t that be the best thing? I’d learn so much. I’d go to so many places. I’d get so much done. I’d be going deeper into somewhere magic. Somewhere that needs a lot of attention and energy to keep it going.
Wonderful passage about how a character is changed for the better by a ghostly experience –

“As Josephine broke free and ran away laughing until her stomach ached she had a moment’s memory of her first day here and how she had been cross, acutely shy and all closed up upon herself. Nevermore could she be quite as she was: a spirit from the past had broken the little icy shell of self, the brittle outer covering with which she was encased, to play its own melody upon her, as upon some musical instrument, and she had responded.”

And this seemed to me, as I read it, exactly how the best spooky stories ought to feel – the character is transformed by the experience. They are brought out of themselves, through having connected with something old and complicated – often something moving, uplifting, strange or mythic. And it’s more than that – it’s not just the state of the character at the end of the book, it’s about the adventure of reading itself. The book itself cracks you open as a reader and plays upon your spirit – getting in deep and haunting you. And you let yourself by haunted by it, quite happily.
Books get into you.
            Also, because of the context of this scene – in which Josephine and Simon decide never to meet again (because strange things happen when they are together…) it makes me think all this might be about friendship and love, too. Of the kind that stops you sulking about yourself. That brings you out into company.
            Sometimes it seems to me that reading is great practice for being close to other people. Necessary practice. No one ever really tells you this, but it’s true. It draws you closer and gives you skills and tact for coping with others (and yet – especially when young – we were always told that it made us solitary and bad at mixing. When all the while it was the very opposite.) This is a nice set of epiphanies for the gap between Christmas and New Year. Waking up from ghost stories and seasonal festive dreams – into new days, renewed friendships – and a sense of being open to the world.
That charged, magical feeling was there throughout Margaret Mahy’s stories, too, in ‘The Door in the Air.’ That feeling of being on the edge of realizing something amazing; of being dragged into an astounding epiphany by a story. I love Mahy because she can be winsome and phantasmagorical, but then very down-to-earth and satirical. She is all of these things in quick succession in this book – with the accent always on urging us to go out and have adventures and explore and be brave – and to create and to think of it all as art. To think of what you do as good as – even better than – anything that’s ever been done before. Her stories are all about valorizing and celebrating your own abilities and the things you do with them. She’s brisk, energizing, and so gobsmackingly audacious she makes you want to stretch your imagination as far as it will go. She’s like a wonderful aunty, cheering you on. It’s very generous work.
            These are the women I read over Christmas – carrying their books with me as I cooked and peeled vegetables and turned leftovers into vast puff pastry pies and stood in the kitchen eating pate on toast with Jeremy and drinking wine. I’d vanish in the afternoons with my books (all three, I think, out of print) and I’d marvel at them.