Traveling without a map

Into The Woods — my first gallery sale!

I sort of don’t do plot. Form doesn’t follow function, at least not the way I write. And yet plot seems to happen, connections appear, things work out and come to a satisfying conclusion. I don’t know how it happens, and I can’t explain how it works— it just does.

But I am greatly impressed by writers who plan everything meticulously in advance, although I do wonder if the process allows for spontaneity at all. After all, creative usually equals chaotic (or so my partner tells me), and a writer should always be able to take a little detour from the path if the opportunity presents itself. I can’t imagine sticking so rigidly to an itinerary that you ignore an opportunity: it is the journey, not the exact route, that is important (unless you have a flight to catch).

Likewise, I can’t honestly say that anything in the Da Silva Tales was planned at all. It may seem a little bit bizarre to sit down and write a story without knowing the ending, but that’s just the way it works for me.

You might think from this that I live in a state of complete chaos, and it is certainly true that I try to avoid the kind of timetabled routine my mother kept to. It is also true that in my deadline-driven day job I never ever handed in anything late, so something in me is at least a little organised. (And I shelve my books alphabetically by author, too, but that’s because I have so many I need to have some way of finding a book I want!)

I have come to the conclusion that my subconscious is working its butt off to get me where I need to be. At the moment, I am ghost-writing a story for which I was given the best brief possible: a minimal one. Certain elements had to be included, and the word count was to be 25K. As I wrote, all the elements fell into place to make a coherent whole, and now at around 22.5K everything is all set for the big finish.

In other news, I sold a painting yesterday, my first sale from an exhibition as opposed to commissioned work. People eyed me strangely in the car park as I ran round punching the air and going “Woo-hoo!”

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And the gold goes to Team GB… again.

Chico’s first marathon!

I live in west London, and I admit I did not want London to host the Olympics. But I’m a convert. Only the most miserable old curmudgeon could resist the carnival of it all, let alone the fact that Brits are winning medals like it was going out of fashion. This is an unfamiliar sensation to a Brit. Most of us have been resigned to our athletes sucking at pretty much every sport there is at international level, which meant that the last Olympics came as quite a surprise. This time it’s like “You only managed a silver medal?!”

Sport was never really a big part of my life, although I am a great advocate of exercise. At school, I was quite good at chucking things and hitting targets. I enjoyed fencing and rowing, though we only got do do interesting stuff like that in our final year. After leaving school, I played soccer for a while. As this was long before the days when women’s soccer was even recognized as a real sport, it mostly meant traveling to remote fields and floundering around in the mud for an hour and a half. I’m not that much of a masochist, so I gave it up when I went to university, although I kept up the running in a desultory kind of way.

Later I took up going to the gym, back when membership didn’t cost an arm and a leg. And yoga, partly because I could do it at home. I like working with weights, because I can lift a lot, and that’s satisfying. And I like yoga, because I’m naturally bendy. These are things I still do, although I gave up my gym membership a few years ago.

And I run. Ten years ago, I ran the London Marathon for the first time. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was just simply because it was there. Is marathon running fun? No. Is it easy? No. Is it worth it? Of course it bloody well is. Coming over the finishing line after a long period of slogging along and thinking “Why am I doing this?” is a fantastic buzz.  And so I did it two more times. Paula Radcliffe ran on both those occasions… I came in quite a long way behind her. I also got passed by a rhinoceros, an Imperial stormtroooper, and two girls dressed as apples, although I did pass most of them back.

Yeah, I guess that was satisfying. Suck it up, Horny!

Weird Noir; or, The Full Monty

Monty James, aka “Father of the English Ghost Story”

My first novel, The Printer’s Devil, was in the pure English Ghost Story tradition. Even though I am not writing in that style these days, my “apprenticeship” as an author in the tradition of M.R.James, known to his fans as Monty— with a cheery familiarity he would probably hate— still informs my work. Malevolence and terror – check. (Demons ‘R’ Us. And werewolves, zombies, sorcerers, golems, trickster gods, you name it.) Slight haze of distance – check. (The years before the Great War.) Clear-cut detail – check. But the tone of voice has changed, and so has the milieu. The Da Silva Tales have little place for academics (except a certain Montague Pierce… note the name!), being set in their own “surrealistic and macabre, yet amusing and slightly crazy world” (Peter Bell, All Hallows 36), yet they were born in a typically Jamesian piece, as Cats & Architecture was until the Captain barged in and took over my writing life. So the frame story features a writer working in off-season Venice and being led astray in traditional fashion by near-fatal curiosity, when the past intrudes and suddenly here’s Luís da Silva dashing about, fighting demons and kissing dead necromancers.

It’s interesting to look back now (the story was written in 2000 and has been followed by, at the time of writing, 19 more short stories and four-and-a-half novels) and see how the style has evolved. That central section of Cats & Architecture was still at least nodding to its antecedents; later tales, as soon as I had the Captain start narrating them, move to the “salty, choppy diction of the seaman” (Jim Rockhill, All Hallows 32) and are influenced more by Raymond Chandler than M.R. James, to the extent that Rick Kennett coined the description “Weird Noir” (a term I love) for them. The other main difference is in pace, of course. James’s advice, peerless for traditional ghost stories, “Into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage”, has gone right out the window!

And yet, now and then the Jamesian creeps back, as if it’s my default mode. Witness the story María Lisboa: “Kidd’s deft command of ‘Jamesian’ techniques and themes is on display… M.R. James is also evoked in the demonic theme: pursuit by things unpleasant and references to an order based on that ill-omened place, Chorazin, which features in Count Magnus… it is clever the way the ‘Jamesian’ motif is incorporated into the world of da Silva” (Peter Bell, All Hallows 36). The only deliberate thing was the Chorazin reference, and I wasn’t even thinking of Monty’s use of it at the time! But I do borrow Jamesian references as much as any other source: the chest in Arkright’s Tale* is straight out of Count Magnus, and there’s a Casting the Runes moment in Heart of Darkness, to name but a couple.

I approach MRJ’s aesthetics unconsciously, I think: they are ingrained, as they should be in every writer of supernatural fiction. How we choose to use them is up to us. Which, come to think of it, applies to a lot of things, including language: you need to know the rules before you break ’em.

*Arkright’s Tale can be found in Rick Kennett’s and my anthology of “Carnacki” stories, No.472 Cheyne Walk, published by Ash-Tree Press.

A comment about size

My author copies of Demon Weather arrived yesterday. Wow! Ebooks are great because you can reach an unlimited audience, but there’s nothing like actually holding a copy of your book in your hand. To bring me down to earth, like the Roman slave muttering in Caesar’s ear “remember you are only human”, my other half has spent most of today jibber-jabbering about his collection of cigarette cards (he’s still doing it now, as I am trying to type), and his only comment on the actual book was “It’s rather big, isn’t it?”