Book Imprints I Love

As I’ve grown up reading books I was always looking for the next great book to read. Some stuff was recommendations from friends, some books from author’s I already liked. But quite a lot attracted my attention because of the publisher.

In the 60s you could generally rely on a Penguin Modern Classic. Boris Vian, Gormenghast, Flann O’Brien, Satre and Camus, Herbert Read’s Green Child, Alfred Kubin, the Beats  – all discoveries because they were in that grey cover with a surrealist, symbolist or futurist cover.

Then in the 70s came Picador which not only had some great reprints but lots of new authors I hadn’t come across. And the new larger format paperback spurred Penguin to start their King Penguin range which was also a good indication of something I would like to read.

At university I suddenly had access to smaller presses and US imports (the only ones I had found before that were in the remaindered book bin in Woolworths). As well as working through Terry Carr’s Ace Science Fiction specials and Lin Carter’s Ballantine Adult Fantasy lists, I found Jonathan Cape and New Directions.

My key go to imprints now are Atlas Press (and not just because I know the publishers) and Dalkey Archive. Amazon has taken a lot of the pain out of finding books – most things are available new, second hand, or via print on demand, and lots of stuff is available as downloads for Kindle or as pdf’s. However, nothing replaces that joy of browsing in a bookshop  and finding a book you didn’t know existed that you think you will love.

Where do you get your ideas from?

The perennial question for writers. There is a post on the Suffolk Writers Forum on Facebook asking how people approach plotting a novel – this is my answer (for the one I’m working on now anyway).

The germ of the idea was in two parts. A conversation in the pub I ran with a customer who asked if I had heard of Alfred Jarry followed by a long conversation about him. I hadn’t expected a customer in a pub in rural Suffolk to have heard of Jarry, but it turned out he had learnt about him from Sir Paul McCartney who he had been working with as a producer on Paul’s Ubu Jubu radio show in America.

We discussed the possibility of doing a film script about Jarry – my vision was something produced by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp (in a hole to be the right height like a reverse Alan Ladd). For various reasons – work, the fact the customer did more thinking than doing, the fact he would have preferred a version of Ubu Roi rather than a biography comparing Jarry’s life and his works in a fantastic melange – I didn’t take it further than a two page proposal. The I saw the first (and I think so far only) Sir Terry Pratchett prize for an alternate world novel advertised and started to think about a novel with Jarry as a lead character. The idea of a world where the Paris Commune didn’t fall but went on to overthrow the nascent Third Republic just seemed an obvious one. It could have a steampunk feel. I’d been doing the research for all of my life, although I hadn’t known it at the time.

I first discovered Jarry as a student. I spent a lot of time in Orbit Books in Manchester talking to Dave Britton. We had similar tastes and had both been inspired by Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, but also by pulp fiction, surrealism, science fiction and fantasy generally. Dave – who was to go on to notoriety as the author of Lord Horror and other titles in his taboo breaking Savoy Books line – was further down the path of seeking out the eclectic and outré than I was and introduced me to authors like Kenneth Patchen (with his wonderful Journal of Albion Moonlight) and Jarry. This spurred me to search Manchester’s bookshops to find some of the authors we discussed. It was a bit like following a breadcrumb trail – the notes in one book would mention other books that shared similarities. There were no Amazon recommendations in the 1970’s, we had to do it the hard way.

I’ve been following the breadcrumb trail since then, with lots of crossovers. As mentioned in an earlier post, the work of Philip Jose Farmer has been one of the key elements as Farmer’s own voracious and varied reading found its way into his own fiction – especially the Wold Newton and Fictional Author work – and led me to a previous generation of authors.

So when I started to write again after we came out of the hotel, this was one of half a dozen ideas for novels I had, and I had a couple of pages to get me going which introduced the other main character – the journalist Philippe – and the terrorist bomb that starts the action. It also introduced the shadowy Fantome who is behind the attack.

I had a general concept of what I wanted – Da Vinci Code meets Moulin Rouge as directed by the Coen Brothers, only exploring the culture and politics of Fin de Siecle Paris as a way of looking at timeless issues which are still relevant today, including the Internet, which I had imagined an earlier version of as one of the drivers of change..

I then did some more background reading and revisited the stuff I had cut and pasted from the internet (bless you Wikkipedia) in that earlier work. I also bought a few books that gave me more of the plot and characters – one which was near contemporary account of Bohemian life in Paris in 1896 which provided several locales I wanted to include, one which gave me the lead female character, and one which gave me a lot of the political background. I’ve found that background reading will spark tangential ideas about plot as well as historical detail. The fact I chose an American with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as the female lead gave me the idea of incorporating a covered wagon chase and western shoot out in the book. Researching French writers of the period included Zola’s description of the Les Halles market as the belly of Paris so I felt that had to be included as well.

So I had my starting point of Jarry, Philippe the journalist (with a lot of autobiographical elements) and Suzanne the American expatriot, plus the Fantome who has to be a shadowy figure with elements of Fantomas and other pulp French fictional characters. The other key characters were real – Police Chief Rigualt and Louise Michel from the Commune, Russian spy Rachkovsky and the anarchists who were active at the time, Peladan and the other occultists from the Magical Wars of a few years before the main action.

The joy of Paris at the time is that all the real characters were linked together – many artists were both anarchists and occultists with Peladan being a sponsor of Symbolist painters and journalist Felix Feneon being a leading light in the anarchist movement but also publisher and publicist of many of the key symbolists. Jarry himself was active in the same circles. This interlinking is perfect to pull apart the interlinking strands of art, politics and the occult with separate but linked groups of conspirators all trying to change the world. Now that was in place it was a case of letting them interact in a set of locations I wanted to explore and a group of set pieces I could locate there.

Half a notebook of scribbles, a couple of hundred pages of background notes and a lot of shuffling of characters and ideas later – plus some character studies written on key characters for my OU creative writing course to help understand their motivations – and I had the skeleton and some key body parts for the novel. My understanding of both character and setting changes and develops as I write and think about how they interact, but the core is reasonably solid. I plot the story arc and the key scenes along the way but the details of the journey evolve as I write. I’m looking forward to going on that journey with my characters.


Research Material paris_commune-popular-illustration

It isn’t just in post modernism that books are made of other books. Even in ancient Greece writers would be influenced by other writers and use their works as a jumping off point for their own writing. So in writing The Revolutionary Tapestry I have been doing a lot of research and general background reading to try and make sure (a) it is accurate and (b) it “feels” right in those parts which are invention rather than historical fact.

Although the novel is an alternate history the bits before the change have to be real history and the parts after the change have to be realistic.

The key books are Alastair Brotchie’s wonderful Alfred Jarry a ‘Pataphysical Life, and the Atlas press editions of Jarry’s oevre and other books of the period with their invaluable notes. On the broader canvas of Fin de Siecle Paris Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was, David Sweetman’s Explosive Acts, Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years and the invaluable Bohemian Paris of Today by William Chambers Morrow were great.

I’ve attached a copy of the key list with links to where you can find them for anyone who is interested. I would also recommend the joy of Google – searching for people, places and events as you come across them in reading will throw up lots of other connections you can cut and paste into word documents – my background notes are nearly as long as the novel will be, although I will use only a small fraction of them. I want to avoid the trap of writing up the research rather than the story.

There are lots of other books that have also contributed in a less direct way – works by other authors of the period including Dr Faustroll’s Equivalent Books, fiction which is set around that period although written later, and fiction that also has Jarry or his contemporaries as characters. In a real way I’ve been preparing for this unconsciously since I first bought Jarry’s Supermale, Ubu plays and The Banquet Years in 1972. And, of course in a work that is Postmodern there are a lot of references that are to books, films and music that are not of the period but reference back, forward and sideways.

Interesting audiences

We’ve had a number of interesting audience members at Jules’ show My Sister Says I’m Special.

Part of what makes Jules great is her ability to get the audience involved and feel as if they are having a show in their living room rather than the more formal environment of a comedy club. Her background as a youth worker also means she has a great grasp of when people have something to disclose – generally when she asks them a question and they look at someone else before answering.

We had a group of students in today who started off hung over and tired after a heavy weekend and ended up disclosing they had been to a gay bar where one had managed to pull an older gay man, one (who was a lesbian) saying she had had sex in the toilets with a transsexual man, and a third admitting he had had a blow job from a man despite being straight.

At another session a man told her he had an erection as a five year old and was upset when his father refused to explain what was happening It was his first attempt at heckling and we were not sure he had fully grasped the principle.

Others were less surprising – a deep sea diver who, when teased about whether that meant he went down regularly said he did but his girlfriend didn’t like it, and a man who said his name was Manuel and was a waiter from Barcelona who then was a target for lots of jokes.

And many more I shouldn’t discuss!

Best of all, they all seemed to enjoy it and didn’t regret participating and thanked Jules afterwards for a great show.

As well as being great on the day, it is storing up lots of comedy for future sets.

Edinburgh – week three

Just about to start our third week in Edinburgh of My Sister Says I’m Special. Phil has been replaced by Donna and Chris as roadies and Jules has done some great shows – she is definitely more in the moment when she is on stage and is comfortable enough to really play when she is on stage. We have also managed to see a lot more shows – mostly compilations of comedians (what is the collective noun for comedians? A chortle?). Some of these are great, some not so, but a lot depends on how many are in the audience compared to room size.

I’ve also finished doing the research notes on the novel and should incorporate these into the synopsis next week when it is just Jules and I. I now know a lot about Alfred Jarry and Fin de Siecle Paris.

The best English language biography of Jarry by some way is Alastair Brotchie’s Alfred Jarry a Pataphysical Life which is imaculatey researched and includes lots of material not in other biographies. It is also bias free – Alastair rehearses the speculation about Jarry’s life and works but is careful to identify his own and others’ opinions so the reader can make their own mind up. The Jill Fell book An Imagination in Revolt includes a lot more “creative” biography on Jarry’s art influences – he may have been influenced by various things around at the time but no evidence trail is cited.

The research has deepened my view of many of the subsidiary real characters in the novel but has not made me have to change it radically – just identify ways in which I can give a better picture of who they are in the appropriate parts of the plot. It has also thrown up lots of serendipitous detail I can incorporate to enrich the book and incorporate some in jokes. The danger now is to avoid it being a novel about Jarry rather than one about the two other lead characters so I will have to work on enriching their back stories and emotional depth. There is also the little challenge of making the “villain” a real person when they are off screen for most of the time for the very good reason that they are supposed to be a shadowy figure.

Thankfully I’ve not had to change any of the action, or alter history more than in my original conceit. Some events will change dates slightly or happen in a marginally different way, but not enough to seem like undue artifice.

Onwards and upwards.

Edinburgh -one week in

One week in and we are still enjoying Edinburgh. As well as being co-tech with Phil setting up the show and busking sessions , I have been wandering around town dressed as a Qtapotamus with him and been in the Qtapotamus exercise class with Jules.

I’ve also been keeping all the social media stuff up to date – quite a big job as Phil has now set up Jules website with links to all the material including videos, media pack info, pictures etc, and posting new stuff to facebook, twitter, flikr etc – both Jules pages and my own, and keeping up to date with correspondence on our email accounts about potential drop in slots.

We’ve only managed to see a couple of shows so far – apart from ones Jules has done slots in – the best being John Otway who was wonderful as always despite having to cut short his set and suffer the sound check of the Spanish balladeer who had double booked the venue.

Phil goes back tomorrow and Jules sister Donna and her husband Chris arrive Monday. Week two? Bring it on!IMG_1175 

Edinburgh – the adventure begins


Jules and I are in Edinburgh with our son Phil and Bo the dog. Everyone apart from Bo are here to support Jules’ first one woman show My Sister Says I’m Special.

Yesterday was the first performance of the show and Jules’ first busking slot at the mound. Both went really well and she has had her first positive customer review on twitter As well as being the tech for the show (and coping with a mysterious echo on the PA today which we discovered with 15 minutes to curtain up) Phil has done a great website for Jules at with links to all of the videos pictures etc. I’ve been busy doing the admin – picking up passes etc – and doing the PR – media releases, postering, leafleting, talking to the Festival Press Office and posting lots of stuff on social media. Oh, and appearing in a Qtapotamus suit.

Bo has been relaxing and being quite well behaved for a Border Collie. We are training him up to sit on a blanket while we are busking, or possibly have a collection cup round his neck.