O Captain! my Captain!

So as I mentioned, I recently watched Star Wars again. (Is there anyone out there whose favorite character isn’t Han Solo?)  It prompted me into starting to write a post about Han and Mal Reynolds being basically the same person: The maverick captain with a rather ramshackle ship who prizes his independence over everything else and gets involved in not-always-legal endeavors, has a fiercely loyal sidekick and turns out to be one of the good guys despite his disillusionment with the world he’s stuck in.

And then it struck me, I really swear it never has before, that Captain da Silva is the same character. Talk about a blinding flash of revelation! Alright, the ship’s in better condition, and the eyepatch is a new feature… but he has the same cynical sense of humor and idiosyncratic notion of honor, won’t let anyone tell him what to do, has a dodgy past and is loyal to his friends (and family).

Well, thank you, George Lucas. Obviously Han struck a chord in me that resonated and went into the mix that created the Captain out of thin air. And I never even acknowledged Lucas as one of my influences. How about that?!

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Silly questions people ask

I think most people’s occupations are hermetic. You don’t quiz them too closely about what they do: the answer might be too abstruse, or have to do with drilling teeth or creating spreadsheets. There’s a mutual taboo— the other person doesn’t really want to tell you, and you probably don’t want to know the answer. The exception to this rule is, apparently, writers. No matter that our concerns can be just as arcane as a particle physicist’s; we appear to be fair game because most people can type a sentence of English onto a screen. So we are fair game… for certain specific questions.

Where do you get your ideas from?
I don’t know what kind of answer is expected to this question. I don’t pop along to the Ideas Store and pick some up. “They just come to me” doesn’t seem to be an acceptable answer, because the questioners always look disappointed when you try to fob them off with that. But trying to explain that they come from the whole of life and experience stored in the mind and sparked by imagination and inspiration and a thousand other things actually starts to sound a bit twee. I’ve found that a much better answer is “I read a lot”, presumably because that’s something quantifiable.

How long did your book take to write?
This is a bafflingly frequent question, to which the honest answer is “A hell of a lot less time than it took to get the damn thing published”. A bean-counter’s query. Is there supposed to be some way to calculate the value of each word in terms of the time it took to write it down? I usually say “I don’t really remember”.

Do you believe in ghosts?
Because I write about them? Oh, please. It’s called fiction for a reason.

What’s your book about?
You’ve got to generalize. While I’d love to talk about my characters and their world and the melting-pot mythology of it all, “It’s a sort of ghost story” usually works.

No-one has ever asked me why I write, but it’s a far more pertinent question than asking why someone became a lawyer or an accountant because the answer is nothing to do with money, and all about necessity.

But the one question you never, but never, want to hear is this:
“I’ve written a novel, would you read it and tell me what you think?”

Make a polite excuse and leave. Leave now. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just get the hell away! Or you’ll live to regret it!

Long live the King

I like Stephen King.

There was a time when it wasn’t cool to admit that, but the guy has always known how to spin a yarn. Admittedly I found the Dark Tower sequence a bit… self-indulgent, especially since after wading through about  a million words it all ended up where it started (hopefully I shouldn’t have needed to tag that “spoiler alert”). He’s not my favorite author, but he is a fine craftsman with a distinctive voice, and I admire his inventiveness and imagination. Most of his books I’ve enjoyed reading once, but not kept… a few, though, are still on my shelf.

These are all of them smaller, less sprawly narratives, focusing on one person: The Dark Half (writer with murderous alter ego); Hearts in Atlantis (yes, I know it has links to the Dark Tower, but it’s the smaller human story which takes up most of the book that I find most compelling); Duma Key (guy loses arm, moves to remote island, starts painting evil pictures); and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
This is a very short novel for King, who rarely does anything in moderation, but it’s one I’ve re-read quite a few times. It’s a little gem, taut and quite lacking in any of the sprawliness of his other work, and nine-year-old Trisha is a feisty and beautifully realized heroine.

Has King influenced me? I don’t think so. Yes, he does the ensemble piece, as I do with the Da Silva Tales (it came about rather by accident, to be honest)— but he takes, say, six characters and gives them each a book-length story all in one big chunky doorstep. But, if I’m allowed to nit-pick, his characters a mostly drawn from a small spectrum; and I’ve never been drawn to emulate his voice. It is almost too unique, and I mean that as a compliment.

May the Joss be with you!

Just saw the new Avengers movie, or as it’s called in England for the benefit of anyone expecting Emma Peel and John Steed, Avengers Assemble. Yeah! Now that’s what I call a blockbuster. And who did it take to buck the trend of lackluster superhero movies?

Joss Whedon.

We tend to forget that in 1997, when Buffy first aired, it was so chock-full of new stuff. The horror-comedy genre wasn’t really even a genre because horror was something that took itself seriously. Buffy had cool characters, really horrible vampires, and monsters of the week. It had humor, smart writing, and it treated its audience as a bunch of intelligent people who were in on the joke.
Above all, though, it was an ensemble piece. That in itself was nothing new, but as the weeks went by one thing became evident: The characters. They were all well-rounded, with past baggage, going through experiences that stayed with them and became part of a shared history. And we cared about them. That wasn’t something we were accustomed to seeing. But if I had to single out just one thing that Joss always does brilliantly, it’s bringing a gang of diverse people together in a fairly normal milieu that has one abnormal thing about it so that the sum of the parts adds up to something fantastically good. It happened in Buffy, in Angel, in Firefly. And now he’s done it again.

And that is what I took from Joss when creating Captain da Silva’s Scooby Gang. Giving the characters depth and baggage brings them alive. Keeping the tone light makes them more likeable. Insert into various supernatural situations and stir. Then light the blue touch paper and stand back!

May the Duct Tape be with you

So, it was a wet afternoon, and I sat down and watched Star Wars again. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, and for some reason this viewing reminded me very strongly of sitting in a nearly-empty cinema in Liverpool in 1977 and being utterly overwhelmed. Remember, I was a movie buff of the 30s and 40s kind, although I’d seen a large amount of current releases over the previous few years thanks to being a film reviewer for my college newspaper. And I can truly say that I had never seen anything like it.

First, it was a BIG screen— there weren’t many studio-type movie theaters back then. And then this humongous ship filled the screen, and it went on and on and on… The sheer scale of it was something completely new, and it gave me a cinematic rush that I never felt again until The Fellowship of the Ring. Likewise when the Millennium Falcon went hyperspace: Things went fast in that universe. I still want a skimmer like Luke’s. And a lightsaber! And as for the X-Wing squadron targeting the Death Star, well, hearts were in throats and hands were clammy, and everyone cheered when the bad guys went boom.

The characters, too, were all new or give a new twist. Luke may have been a fairly typical example of his kind, but C3PO and R2D2 were something new. Robots were, well, Robby from Forbidden Planet, or clanky boxy things with mechanical voices. These two had character. And so did the aliens… oh, the aliens! So many, so varied, so absolutely unexplained. They were just there, part of the rich background. Alec Guinness, though he was famously disdainful of the role, gave Obi-Wan a distinguished gravitas. Han and Chewie were a fine example of the roguish shady guy who comes out good in the end, but his sidekick was a great big hairy alien with fearsome teeth. Darth Vader, of course, was also an innovation as a bad guy, leaving Peter Cushing to occupy the Evil Commander part. And Leia was quite a feisty heroine in days when such a thing was virtually unknown. She was organizing an entire rebel army, for goodness’ sake! She fired a blaster! She was snarky and sarcastic to her would-be rescuers!

Things that struck me the other afternoon: Darth Vader was far less wheezy than I remembered, but that’s most likely due to hearing several hundred imitations of his voice. How did R2D2 trundle across the desert without getting his wheels clogged with sand? What (other than plot contrivance) made Obi-Wan the only person who could go and disable the tractor beam? And why, oh why did George Lucas think it was a good idea to put in that scene with Jabba the Hutt?

I came to the conclusion that the Force is still strong. To quote an old joke, it’s like duct tape: it has a dark side and a light side, and it holds the universe together.

Messing about in boats

Seafaring nations have the ocean in common, but not all are as intimate with the seven seas as Portugal and England. (Spain, the third great maritime power which sent its ships out to explore and conquer, has considerably more inland territory, and thus is less informed by the sea.)
It’s not too great a claim, then, to say that I have the sea in my blood, even though my heritage is not entirely English. Though I can’t claim any connection with the notorious Captain Kidd other than the name, my father (English to the core) spent WWII on minesweepers— a hazardous and unpleasant business he rarely spoke of.
I am drawn to the sea, involved with islands, content upon the water— although the biggest craft I’ve ever captained was a sailing dinghy. I would be in heaven on a sailing ship, even though I know that when they ruled the oceans life on board tended to be nasty, brutish and short. On the water, for me, peace is easy to come by. If there’s a boat trip to be had when I’m on vacation, we are first in the queue and I’m first on board.
Not that I’m claiming any of this qualifies me to write about life on board a barque in the early years of the twentieth century, as sail surrenders its mastery of the seas to steam. But I can feel the huge rush and boom of a world made of wind on a ship under full sail, taste the salt spray, and be perfectly content. It’s a most exhilarating thing, even if it is all a product of my imagination.

Nights at the Movies

I spent years as a complete and ultra-nerdy movie buff. In the 70s, in London, where I went to university, you could still catch showings of 30s and 40s Hollywood classics, whether at the National Film Theatre or at various independent (i.e. eccentric) cinemas of varying degrees of seediness. The Electric Cinema in the Portobello Road was a mecca for people like me… it was also a total fleapit, with entire rows of seats that tipped alarmingly if you rested your feet too hard on the row in front, as you had to if you were there the entire night. The Gate, as in Notting Hill Gate, also did all-night programs of classic horror with the added bonus of second-hand wacky baccy. I still remember quite vividly the anticipation of pulling an all-nighter, going into the cinema when you’d normally be going to bed, and the more than slightly spaced-out feeling the following morning when you emerged blinking into the daylight (not always due to the smoke hanging in the air).
I also blagged a press pass from the university newspaper on the pretext of writing movie reviews, so spent many a morning in Soho preview screenings (no, not THAT sort of Soho establishment!) where there was often free food and drink, something no college student would ever turn down.
It probably goes without saying that I was a noir fan; I also loved Universal’s classic horror, the Marx Brothers, musicals, westerns, Warner Bros’ gangster flicks, screwball comedy. Small drama, all of it, not much on the spectacle. But I also got to see films that were banned for many years, like Todd Browning’s Freaks; rarities like Peter Lorre’s only film as director, the bleak and masterful Die Verlorene; a print of Casablanca with bits cut out of the original cinematic release restored. You’ll also notice that all of these were shot in black and white, still the best medium for subtlety of tone and shadows. I had a whole other kind of affection for old color movies, especially the gorgeous early Technicolor of The Adventures of Robin Hood.
At the time I was supposed to be studying law, but I spent more time staring at the silver screen. If I’d been studying movies, I would’ve come away with a first-class degree, but unfortunately they didn’t do film studies back then, so I came out with a less-than stellar one in law. But at least I got to see those movies the way they were meant to be seen, in a smoky old fleapit with no humunguous tubs of popcorn in sight and the sound at a bearable level, among a bunch of people like me.

The cat sat on my blog!

Not as good as “The dog ate my homework”, I know, but it was funny the way she leapt up and sat on my notes the very minute I woke the computer up.
Okay. Influences. We all have ’em: all writers are scavengers. What we call creativity is the spark that sets them alike. Mine, now, come from all over the place: some deliberately (Chandler), some peripherally (Pterry, Joss, Rider Haggard). some once much used (M.R. James) and all sorts of random things, from myth, legend, and tradition, to film, tv and history. I’ve used the Antikythera mechanism and the fabled treasures of Prester John, the Phaistos disc and Frankenstein’s artificial man (not a monster), the history of Lisbon and the Feng-huang… to name just a few.
When I was nine or ten I was nuts for Narnia, and wrote stories about it. That was before I understood the Christian subtext, at which point I lost my enthusiasm. I read The Hobbit not long after, followed by LotR, which influenced me for years. (My high school English teacher had studied under Tolkien at Oxford.) In fact I was even writing Tolkien-influenced French essays for A-level studies!
But alongside that, and wishing I could write the funny like P.G. Wodehouse, two more important influences came into my literary life. I first discovered M.R. James at age 13, and had some fine nightmares as a consequence— but it was thanks to him that my writing career began. I continued under his thrall for about another 20 years, culminating in the publication of Printer’s Devil and my subsequent writer’s block. During that period I occasionally wrote non-Jamesian ghost stories, including resurrecting William Hope Hodgson’s “Carnacki the Ghost-finder” with the collaboration of Rick Kennett in Australia.
In the meantime my dad had introduced me to Raymond Chandler. If my default genre setting is the English Ghost Story tradition, my default narrative setting is Chandler. Long before settling into “Weird Noir” I wrote a thriller, believe it or not, narrated by a very Marlowe-esque feisty reporter called Gail. (It’s actually called Film Noir, and one day I’ll publish it as an ebook.)

Mary Russell and other matters

When I published the first collection of Da Silva Tales, Second Sight, I mentioned in the introduction the “benevolent schizophrenia” of having a character barge in and take you over.

“Now I’m not the only writer to have experienced this. This is the poet Fernando Pessoa:
“I began to write… and I wrote thirtyodd poems straight off, in a kind of ecstasy whose nature I cannot define. It was the triumphal day of my life, and I shall never be able to have another like it. I started with a title… And what followed was the apparition of somebody in me, to whom I at once gave the name Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me the absurdity of the phrase: my master had appeared in me. This was the immediate sensation I had.”
Pessoa’s “apparition” went further than mine, this being one of the other personalities which he called heteronyms as whom he wrote poetry. But I recognized the sensation at once the instant I read that description.”

Pessoa appears in Laurie King’s latest Mary Russell novel, Pirate King. Now I am a big fan of these books, though Holmes purists may hate them with a passion. (I like the Washington Post review quoted on the cover: “The great marvel of King’s series is that she’s managed to preserve the integrity of Holmes’s character and yet somehow conjure up a woman astute, edgy, and compelling enough to be the partner of his mind as well as his heart.”) My favorite remains The Game, however, as I found Pirate King a little disappointing.

While it’s grand to meet Pessoa, I am sorry that King has painted my Lisbon as a cold, rainy and unwelcoming place. I can only conclude that Mary Russell was unlucky with the weather, because although it can be chilly when it rains the average November temperature is a far-from-Arctic 59°. And its plot is as preposterous as the topsy-turvy Gilbertian shenanigans it subverts, although King provides a disarmingly neat disclaimer in the Foreword.

My main reason, however, for not liking it as much as the rest of the series is— Not enough Holmes! As in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he delegates the larger part of the investigation to his partner; but since Russell is Holmes’s equal in intelligence and insight, we don’t even get the rather pleasing sensation we do with Watson, that the narrator might be missing something important.

Incidentally, Rick Kennett and I perpetrated a Holmes story, The Grantchester Grimoire, in the anthology Gaslight Grimoires, published by Edge (www.edgewebsite.com), in which he meets up with none other than Thomas Carnacki. And in our collection of Carnacki stories  No 472 Cheyne Walk (Ash-Tree Press), Captain da Silva makes a guest appearance in the story Arkright’s Tale.

“I took to him at once: he was an interesting fellow. What you might call an old sea-dog, a man in his forties with an eyepatch that gave him a very piratical look. He spoke perfect English, luckily — even to the extent of making a joke about my name being a good one for someone involved with ships. It turned out that he was also the owner of the vessel, which he had apparently picked up for a song in Venice when the previous owner disappeared leaving a mass of debts. But there was, as I was to discover, more to Captain da Silva than met the eye.”