Under review

I was pleased to find in looking at the Amazon page for my short story collection – The Cat Factory and other stories by Tim Newton Anderson – that it had some very positive reviews.

One of them was from a friend – albeit one I have only seen once since leaving university thirty odd years ago – but the other two were from people I don’t know. All of them gave me five stars and very positive reviews.

It is always worrying when you put something out there that it will be received negatively. Performing on stage is not too bad. You may not get the reaction you want but it is over quickly and you move on to the next event. It’s only if you continually get bad responses you start to worry. My former band guitarist always reckoned you get gigs in a set of three threes – one bad, one ok and one good. Sometimes you just aren’t feeling it, sometimes the audience are not in the mood or are more interested in chatting, and sometimes there isn’t enough audience there to create any kind of atmosphere.

With music you can also quickly go back and work out how to improve the next performance. It is harder with a book. Once it is out there it stays out there. Jules is doing an audio recording for me of the collection and in preparing the files for her to scroll through I’ve noticed several typos I missed despite lots and lots of proofreading. Nothing that major but still annoying to me – and more importantly to the reader.

I also keep thinking of ways to tweak the stories to make them better. If I’m totally honest I’m not sure I would award the collection five stars, because I can see ways in which it could be improved. Perhaps the important thing is the reader’s reaction. They only know what they read and whether they enjoy it – not what I was trying to do with the story. cover

Rocket Man

Sometimes ideas come from unexpected places.

I was researching occult artists – specifically Majorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel – or Cameron as she always signed herself. She was a friend of Kenneth Anger, Juliet Greco and follower of Alastair Crowley as well as setting up her own multi racial occult group called “The Children”.

In researching Cameron I came across details of her husband Jack Parsons and was astonished no-one had used him for the basis of a novel (although he features as a character in Anthony Boucher’s Rocket to the Morgue and L Sprague de Camp’s Gun for a Dinosaur). He led a life you couldn’t make up.

Parsons was a largely self taught rocket scientist whose pioneering work with a group of friends and later with Caltech and other organisations in the late 30s and early 40s  helped the US space programme to take off.

He was also an active communist, and a follower of Crowley – he became the leading member of Crowley’s Agape Lodge in the USA and set up a commune with his wife, her sister, and other OTO followers. It was too early for rock and roll, but there was plenty of sex and drugs. He had worked for months on a ritual called Babalon designed to incarnate the Thelemite goddess. When Cameron arrived, he was convinced she was that incarnation, although she did not know about the ritual until years later.

In the meantime one of his lodgers was Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard who swindled Parsons out of his life savings.

Parsons had been eased out of the rocket industry by the security services because of concerns about his behaviour and associations – including supposedly working for the Israeli secret service. He was still working on rocketry, while being employed as an explosives expert by the film industry. On June 17 1952 he was working on some explosives when his laboratory was destroyed in what seemed like an accident. However friends and colleagues suggested it was sabotage or suicide.

An amazing life filled with cameos by many of the important figures of the age including key members of the Beats, science fiction writers, occultists, scientists and more.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Although people will tell you otherwise, the comment that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12 was supposedly said by fan Peter Graham (according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

For me that means 1964/5. At that time I was indeed reading lots of writing from the “official” Golden Age of 1938 to 1946. The time giants like Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke were t the peak of their powers and transforming SF from its twin US heritages of adventure stories and Gernsback’s gadget based tales to something which used science as a way of exploring our place in the universe as human beings. The spaceships, robots and aliens were there but often as a metaphor of the way we deal with society and each other and the characters and their social interaction -as well as the societies and politics they inhabited – were more realistic. The adventure was still there but in plots that had a resonance for wider society.

I was also reading lots of mainstream fiction, and a lot of books aimed at my age like Billy Bunter, Jennings, and Molesworth. In many ways, those tales of jolly japes in the dorms of a minor public school were as alien to my everyday life living on Tyneside as stories of life in the future.

The period of science fiction I embraced most completely was the New Wave of the mid to late 60s and early 70s. This was partly because of availability – there were no dedicated bookshops in South Shields – a few shelves upstairs in the T&G Allen store and some carousels in newsagents. I had to get on my bike and cycle to Sunderland or Newcastle to access a wider stock. Other sources were Woolworths – which had a lot of cheap US imports shipped as ballast – and “adult” bookshops which drew their window dressing from the same source. A lot of these volumes were from Ace including the new Ace Science Fiction Specials which opened my eyes to Zelazny, Delany, Le Guin, Lafferty, Ellison and others. You could also get the occasional US science fiction magazine.

UK publishers such as Sphere and Panther had also embraced both the US and UK new waves and Panther’s “Best of New Worlds” series and the Judith Merril “Best SF” series by Mayflower also widened my reading. This was exciting in the same way some of the veterans of the Golden Age and just after like Farmer and Leiber were exciting and the best of that generation had also embraced the new freedoms to write some of their best work. At the same time Lin Carter was resurrecting semi forgotten fantasy writers at Ballantine in an attempt by the publishers to find the next Tolkein and Penguin’s Modern Classics grey spines had allowed me to discover Peake, Vian, the Beats and many more.

When I went to University in Manchester, discussions with people like Savoy founder David Britton at his House on the Borderland and Orbit Books introduced me to even more great writers including Jarry and Lautreamont and I was able to fill gaps in my library with books by authors I loved that never received UK publication. Plus the occasional trip to London to visit Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and Compendium.


Unique Voices

I’ve always loved authors who are unique. Not just in their “voice” or subject matter but in the way they look at the world.

There are lots of authors who have one of these qualities which makes them instantly recognisable. Lovecraft, of course, or Ray Bradbury, can be recognised from the first few lines. Both also have their own distinct view of the world. But they don’t quite make my top five because they are possible to imitate. My top five are so unique that few people would dare to imitate them.

The first in the list is Alfred Jarry. The late 19th century French author and playright had a number of influences and certainly influenced others in turn. He was close to the symbolists and decadents and inspired Dada, surrealism and those associated with the College de ‘Pataphysique but stands apart from all of them in his brilliant eccentric vision. In many ways he could be said to have created a form of literature that has only one proponent – Jarry himself. Most of his work is available in translation if you look for it – much by the wonderful Atlas Press. Most who know Jarry at all do so via Ubu Roi but everything by him is worth reading.

Second in the list (and from now on this is in order of birth rather than favouritism) is David Lindsay. Again, if you have heard of him it will be for one work – A Voyage to Arcturus. This is certainly his best book – his prose is often uneven and the unique vision compromised by attempts to shoehorn in elements of more conventional settings – but all of his work is worth reading -especially Devil’s Tor and Sphinx. If you haven’t read Acturus, see if you can find the Savoy Books hardback which is beautifully produced and includes Colin Wilson’s insightful essay on Lindsay.

Third, born a couple of years after Lindsay, is James Branch Cabell. Again, mainly know for one book – Jurgen – which came to prominence for an obscenity case over some very mild sexual innuendo. Cabell could be accused of writing the same book over and over – he explicitly had a trio of themes which he worked out over the Biography of Manuel series of which Jurgen is a part. Many of the books are fantasies but all are comedies of manners. Like Lindsay and Jarry his those he influenced are nowadays far more famous than Cabell himself.

The fourth author is R.A. Lafferty. Like Cabell, you can instantly recognise a story by Lafferty, and no-one else can write a Lafferty tale, although Michael Bishop and Gene Wolfe have made brave attempts. Often drawing on the odd facts and throwaway theories of Charles Fort Lafferty has an oblique view of the world and its mysteries. His novels are sometimes hard work but the short stories – magnificent. From his first collection -900 Grandmothers – he burst into science fiction with a unique voice. A special mention should be given to editor Terry Carr who helped launch or boost the career of a number of great authors through his two Ace Science Fiction special series and his short story collections. As well as Lafferty, he also supported the final author in our list.

Avram Davidson is as erudite as Jarry or Cabell with the allusive style of Lafferty. Davidson also has Gene Wolfe’s ability to construct a story of details that seem mere embellishment but later prove to be a key element of the plot. Like Wolfe he also uses his encyclopedic knowledge to build worlds that have enormous depth without drowning the reader in exposition. His characters live in their worlds rather than exploring them. His short stories are more accessible than his novels, but the novels are more rewarding – especially the Virgil Magus series. My own favourites are the stories featuring Dr Englebert Esterhazy in his imaginary turn of the century middle European empire and the Jack Limekiller stories set in central America.



Poetry Rock

I’ve never really been able to do poetry, although I’m quite good at writing song lyrics. I have no idea why I just don’t get how to write a poem.

It may be in part because I don’t understand what differentiates poetry from lyrical prose or plain lyrics. Songs I understand – there is a form to follow. You need to follow rhyme and scansion – even if you can cheat a bit and use half rhymes or assonance, and you can mess about a bit with the length of lines by stretching or compressing words or lengthening bars. I can sort of do lyrical prose as well by working with the rhythms of a sentence and the imagery. But when does that stop and poetry start – especially with free verse.

I am always in awe when I see performance poets in particular – my friend Olly Watson is brilliant at it. I can recognise that when he tells a story it is a poem – even when he uses a structure that on paper would be more like prose. I just can’t do it myself.

Perhaps it is an OuLiPo thing that allows me to write lyrics and not poetry – the constraints of the form are actually freeing rather than restricting – or perhaps it is just that my brain is hardwired for patterns. The structure is less obvious when I write prose, but it is always there. I always have an overarching plot, story arcs for the characters, threaded metaphors and allusions, and a number of set pieces I want to place in the correct pattern. A lot of the stories also place within a meta pattern as a close up on a single part of a larger body of work – a bit like those photo puzzles where you have to identify an item from a small element.

The songs are part of that too – I mention in the novel I’m revising at the moment that the lead character is writing a musical based on the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the Comedia Del Arte canon but set against the backdrop of municipal corruption on Tyneside in the 70s. The novel itself is set against the same background and one of the songs I would use if I ever get round to writing said musical is featured. Others pop up in other stories – never miss a chance to reuse something you’ve done in another context. In the same way stuff I’ve done for writing exercises has made its way into larger works, and I’ve often used bits of the same  research to inform stories with radically different settings, genres and feel.

But poetry…I wish I could do what James Branch Cabell did and hide whole poems inside his novels by punctuating them as prose. One to think about.

Publish – and prepare to be damned


My first short story collection – The Cat factory and other stories is now available to buy from Amazon as an e-book. You can buy it for the very reasonable price of £2.08 (you have to set a price in dollars and this was as near as I could get to £1.99 with the current exchange rate) by visiting either Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com at searching for The Cat Factory and other stories. Or, you could always borrow it for free if you are a Kindle Unlimited customer (and then buy it).

This is a bit scary – I’ve shared stories with friends but now the great reading public across the world will be able to read and judge for themselves. As soon as you press the publish button, no matter how well you think you have done, the doubts start in your head. Did I sort out all the grammar and spelling properly? Are the cover and illustrations good enough? Most of all, are the stories actually any good? They are the best I can make them without descending into the madness of revision after trivial revision, but how many people will agree?

If you do read it and enjoy it I would appreciate reviews. If you read it and don’t like it, keep your opinions to yourself! (That was a joke – honest feedback is always welcomed).



Business in the internet age


I’ve been doing some work helping my sister in law set up her online presence for her business Asmarabella Art .  The first job was to brainstorm what she felt her art was.  After an hour with a flip chart what we came up with was:

Asmarabella Art– art from the heart
Asmarabella Art creates beautiful art that inspires creativity and mirrors inner beauty.
Delicate and stunning exquisitely crafted and decorated pieces are designed to touch the heart and open your mind to the miraculous universe around and within us. These jewelled intricate works will give a wow factor when displayed in your home, but can also be the focus of contemplation as part of a spiral of self discovery and spiritual journey.
Many are created by upcycling household objects and making the mundane into beautiful unique creations.
I’m quite proud of being able to encapsulate what the art was about in a way she recognised and liked without being that artistic myself.
Since then I’ve been using my research skills and the joy of following breadcrumbs on the internet to pull up information to populate her business plan. It reminded me that, like the truth, the information is out there as long as you know where to look and what you want.
Having done a pretty thorough job on her business plan, I’ve been inspired to revisit my own and make sure when I launch the short story collection I have a complete plan in place to maximise the sales opportunities. Whether or not people like the stories is not within my control, but giving people who will every opportunity to find them is.