I’m always pleased when a good writer offers a short story online, and James Bradley, Australian writer and critic, is better than good. On his website he has just posted The Flats, well worth your time to read. And then reread, for it’s the nature of the short story to require several readings. A powerful and elegant piece, marred only slightly by the occasional melodramatic touch (‘And then they see the girl.’) and – perhaps – a gimmicky final line, The Flats will introduce you to a writer you ought to be acquainted with, if you aren’t already – even though he uses my detested c-word (‘conversation’) from time to time in his, ahem, conversations.
I’ve been working on a new short story recently, title still undecided. Titles are a bitch. Either they come to you all at once, sometimes at the outset, or you search for days and days. And days.
Here’s an excerpt:
This would have to be the last time Oliver wore his Lion King costume. Guri was turning nine tomorrow, and at dinner he’d already said, Not that mouldy old thing again. Puberty wasn’t supposed to begin till twelve or thirteen, but Oliver could still remember how embarrassing your parents suddenly became. After the party he’d dryclean the costume and fold it away in Anna’s cedar chest, where he kept her grandmother’s wedding gown, Guri’s baby clothes, the lace-trimmed heirloom pillowcases she’d always launder by hand, and all the costumes she’d sewn for Guri as well, the last one unfinished. Not for her the same costume for Halloween and Fasching, either. Each occasion was special; each day, a work of art. No one else he knew could spend an hour designing breakfast. He held up the papier-mâché headpiece to his face and regarded himself in the mirror: her masks had about as much in common with a ready-made-in-China one as her face, so vivacious and character-driven, with the way it had looked when he’d removed the pillow.
Oliver replaced the mask above Anna’s sewing table and retreated a few steps to check that it hung straight, eased it into place, then bent and blew off the dust which had settled on her sewing machine since morning. Dust, he’d read, was mainly composed of dead skin sloughed from the living; he seemed to do a lot of shedding, just not the right sort. Tomorrow, he promised himself, tomorrow he’d carry the sewing machine out to Mirjam’s car. He could sew on a button, mend a seam by hand, but Anna’s machine was a temperamental dinosaur inherited from her mother, and if Guri ever showed the slightest inclination to take up anything which didn’t involve pixels as a hobby, his aunt would gladly return it. You’ve got to start letting go, she’d told Oliver last week. And the week before. Tomorrow she’d bring Guri a brilliant gift that he, Oliver, would never have thought of, one of Andrei’s luscious chocolate cakes, and enough energy to subdue an entire planet of rampaging rodents. She’d run her dad’s restaurant very capably since his stroke, even adding a second star to its Michelin status, but her turnover in husbands threatened to rival her turnover in employees. Her latest divorce would soon be finalised. She had always been the beautiful sister.
He heard a cry from Guri’s room. It had been several months since the last nightmare, and Oliver had been hoping they were gone for good. He swung round to face the mask. Leave him alone, he muttered. A week after the funeral, he’d buried it under the wedding gown, which had only made things worse; then encased it in bubble wrap, crated it and tried the storage cellar, which made things worse still. He was afraid to burn it. He gave the mask a pleading look, the same sort of look that Anna had found so endearing when they first met, then went to reassure Guri.
What the fabulous Welsh actor Ioan Hefin gets up to when he’s not being pestered to narrate another of my novels:
Ioan is the man with the terrible teeth, which he assures me has nothing to do with the NHS. You can see him near the end of the trailer (at ca. 41 sec.).
The DVD of The Darkest Day will be released next month.
It has always been a privilege to work with Ioan, who is immensely talented and thoroughly professional. His podcasts of Corvus have brought the novel to life in ways I could otherwise never have imagined.
Ioan, thank you.
I feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, but 2012 was a difficult year, with a number of health problems and far too little writing that I didn’t delete the next morning. So it was a lovely surprise to receive the following email from a new reader (posted with permission):
This is the first letter I have ever written to an author despite reading an average of 10 books a week for the last 40 some odd years. I discovered smashwords and some of the other places online last year where we can read new author works for free. I so an equal opportunity devourer of literature and Mortal Ghost qualifies as literature.The characters are well rounded and their development through out your story line draws the reader in until we truly begin to care what happens to them. This is what all such characters should be like. People we can imagine knowing and so we are turning each page to enhance that knowing. Jesse was a heart grabber from the moment we meet him while Sarah sort of sneaks up on you. She was quiet and a counterpoint to the strength of Jesse’s deep well of emotions that he had walled up until he shattered at every turn. You were able to let us gradually begin to see her not as a prop for Jesse but as an important and integral part of the story in her own right. This is often an area that I find even experienced writers can fall down. Their central character is so strong but not as much effort is put into the supporting cast. I am truly glad that you were able to avoid that pitfall.
The plot line itself was complex enough to need every one of those pages. There was a depth in the sub plots is also usually only attributed to “literature”. I remember taking an English class from a woman who was somewhat of a book snob and only those books that had reached the status of classics was considered by her to be “literature”. I always thought somehow she was missing something important. When I took a course in “Children’s Literature” strictly because the title appealed to me, I found out what it was. This professor defined literature as art which contained most of the elements of rounded characters who are capable of learning from their experiences and changing because of it, a well developed plot that doesn’t leave the reader confused and continues to draw the reader in, in which scenery is used to enhance the storyline and evoke feelings and memories in the reader, and last to use time and place effectively.
I would have to say that you didn’t just hit a few of his short list that I noted but all of them. One scene in particular came alive in my imagination. I could literally see a very young ballerina who danced not for fame but for the joy of dance in the middle of a circle of amaranth. I imagined the summer hayfields and how the dust shimmers in the sun during late summer hay season and make even the most mundane seem somehow “more”. This was how I saw Sarah dance. I could list many other instances but then you know what you wrote. At first the time and place ambiguity bugged me just a tad as there where only hints as to where the story took place but after a couple chapters I realiized that the important thing about time and place in this book was that it could have happened anywhere in the world in any time. That ulitmately it was not about two young people and their friends and family in London circa 2000′ish but because the life experiences that were being laid bare here happen around us every day and could have been true anywhen, anywhere.
So after boring you silly with a classroom review of your book, what I really want to say is thank you for sharing this with me. I will enjoy it over and over because for me, reading a book more than once doesn’t matter that I know how it ends. Reading it again means that I will find something new, something that makes me go …”aaah, how did I miss that?” I got a nook for Christmas and haven’t delved into the nook friends thing but this is one that may motivate me to figure it out. I love sharing a really good read and I guess an electronic copy won’t get dogeared and dirty and eventually fall again. I am looking forward to reading the book Corvus that I saw mentioned on your website and anything else you choose to share with us.
Best wishes for a successful career. You have made a great start.
Thank you, B! If nothing else, you’ve given me a wonderful start to 2013.
The trailer is available online.
By unanimous decision, the jury of the Filmbewertungsstelle Wiesbaden (The German Film Council) has presented Merry-Go-Round with its coveted seal of approval, awarding it the rating ‘besonders wertvoll’ (highly recommended).
The German Film Council’s Press Release
Dusty toys, yellowing photos, old clothes and furniture—what better place for children to play and fantasize in than an attic full of odds and ends? At any rate, Lola and her little brother have fun playing hide-and-seek there. Soon, however, a prank between siblings becomes dead serious. The noises and shadows grow ever more mysterious. Director Esther Löwe has succeeded in creating a fairytale short film with a fabulously eerie atmosphere. The children’s game is intense and emotional, the setting provides wonderful opportunities for spine-chilling motifs. Whether a shadow behind a door, an old rocking horse or dolls without eyes which hang on the wall—everything, enhanced by a superb soundtrack, raises pleasurable goosebumps and creates a timeless, surreal film experience. The story itself remains cryptic, which further adds to the allure. A marriage of technical mastery and entertainment in one film.
Rating: Highly Recommended
Esther Löwe’s stunning talent is amply demonstrated by her short film Merry-Go-Round. The goodnight story at the very beginning possesses poetic qualities which capture the viewer’s attention, creating suspense and conjuring a fairytale atmosphere. As the story unfolds it soon becomes clear that brother and sister, while not Hansel and Gretel, are nevertheless two forsaken children who experience an ambivalent emotional drama in their self-contained world. Visually, the film is exceedingly rich. The props in the attic are partly symbolic or enigmatic, partly eye-catching rarities. The soundscape is very sophisticated. For example, when Lola looks at a stone and findings from the beach, we hear the muted swell of the surf. To communicate, Lola and her brother Taro have a tin-can telephone. Soon a virtuosic, breathtaking chamber play ensues, replete with emotional ups and downs. Esther Löwe’s team demonstrate outstanding artistry, and the children act their roles superbly. During the deliberations, the jury praised the film’s diverse formal qualities and considered the profound semantic questions raised by such a universal tale. The decision of the jury was unanimous: Merry-Go-Round deserves the rating ‘highly recommended’.
And as you can imagine, I’m beaming with maternal pride!
Here it is, another good reason to selfpublish: I can recycle my own words (and ideas) as much as I fancy. In fact, I have even reused an entire sentence from Chapter 47 of Corvus in Chapter 48. Yup, indeed I have. Quite fun it was too: go on, look for it. Play the Google Game if you have the time and inclination.
So readers, please take this as fair warning: my words are mine, and I will damn well repurpose them exactly as I see fit.
Weed or flower? I reckon it depends on your point of view.
The Guardian columnist Damien G. Walter has published a checklist to help writers decide if they’re ready to self-publish. Despite my reluctance to accept any checklist as a guide to something as complex, idiosyncratic, and frustrating as writing, he ends his piece on a note I can embrace:
And if you really can’t wait? If you don’t meet any of this seven criteria but want to leap in to the white waters of indie publishing anyway, just for the hell of it? Well then good luck to you, and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes you.
Enjoyment doesn’t really come into it, at least in my case. I used to garden passionately, even obsessively, trying to banish every damned weed within my borders — not much enjoyment there. I left it to others to take pleasure in the garden; I was too busy with the next task. Now I’ve come to accept — in fact, to believe — that weeds are as essential to my little corner of the universe as highly cultivated stock, as the beautiful roses which required constant vigilance and care. It’s a jungle out there.
The real question a writer should ask is not whether she’s ready. The question is, ready for what: Money? Followers? Prizes? Five-star Amazon ratings? The approval of a critic or two? Readers?
Or perhaps none of those: ready with a perfect piece of fiction? Well, yes, that’s the dream, but the only place you’ll find that is in the one Garden well beyond my reach.
Instead, I choose to be a weed — ignored, sometimes despised, frequently removed, but unwilling to disappear. Hardy.
I wish I were the sort of writer who could draft a blog post without agonising unduly, but I’m not. Still, I don’t want to give up blogging altogether, and this is a useful place to store all those quotes about writing which are worth going back to regularly.
And so, to me that story and all stories are in one sense about the shape of storytelling, rather than about the narrative itself that makes up the content of the story. I would say that I heard the sound of what I was going to write a long time before I knew any of the details of the story. Before I caught on to what it was about, I heard the sound, as if the music had already been written and the shape had already been drawn. And I just made the details that fit in it. That’s why it’s easier for me to write a short story than a novel. Because I can see the shape of them more clearly than I can see the shape of a novel. And so when I write a novel, I have to shape the chapters. They’re not exactly short story shaped chapters, but they’re shaped individually so that when I get enough of them together I can begin to see a pattern of shapes that will shape the novel. This is all very abstract, I understand, but it’s what writers don’t get to talk about.