Tag Archives: jarry

London Book Fair pt 2

Further work to prepare myself for visiting the London Book Fair.

I have looked through the list of agents who are attending and researched which (a) are open to submissions (b) are interested in science fiction (c) which agents within the company are those who hold that brief (d) what books they like and other interests (e) were they are based. The idea is to have a short list of a dozen or so who seem a good fit – they would potentially like the book and could we work together.

I’m not expecting to get signed up there and then, but want to have a better chance of being looked at if they agree to receive the manuscript. As it inevitably says in most of the rejection letters I have received, whether an agent decides to take on a client is as much about “fit” as the quality of the book. Do they personally like it, does it fit the current marketplace, and are you the sort of person they will be happy to work with.

The marketplace issue is an interesting one. Publishers need to signal to potential readers why they should stump up the cost of buying the book. If they can describe it as “like a, b or c” that make that job easier. Everything from the blurb to the cover to the media releases will then be geared to make it look as much like other books you like as possible. Breaking through a book that doesn’t fit that easily into a category is that much harder.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was a wonderful book but not one that slotted comfortably into an existing genre. The hardback was therefore heavily discounted when it was launched and a lot of effort was put into getting advance plaudits from people who the public recognise and like. Once it had taken off, it opened the door to market other books as being “like The Night Circus”. Almost inevitably there will be a lot of books over the next few years that are pale imitations and dilute the genre. That category of novels will either grow if there are sufficient which are good enough to build a market, or will wither away leaving Morgenstern to stand alone.

A good example is steam punk, which my novel The Revolutionary Tapestry shares elements with. The initial examples by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, K.W.Jeter, and the one off collaboration by Sterling and Gibson “The Difference Engine” used the idea of an alternative Victorian setting in interesting ways. Most of the subsequent works have taken the superficial elements of the setting and lost what the originals were about. That doesn’t mean they are bad books – just ones that are comforting rather than challenging. One of the joys of the Difference Engine is that it makes you look at not only Victorian England but the present day in a new way. I hope The Revolutionary Tapestry does the same, but also incorporates the fun element of Steampunk at its best – Powers The Anubis Gates being the best example of this.

The same goes for alternative history. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle was a brilliant novel which asked important questions about being human in a world under a malign government and the nature of reality.  Just as with Steampunk, other worthwhile novels in the same genre are fun explorations of “what if”. However there are also scores of novels that simply write a straightforward  narrative with some historical research for seasoning.

I have always loved the writing of Alfred Jarry and the many other movements and artists he has inspired. His life is as fantastic as any of his writings and he lived in a period which not only was filled with equally enthralling people, but contains the seeds of our world today in the issues it faced. The scientific advances, the political challenge of anarchism and communism. Imperialism and its effect on the subjugated populations. The enormous gap between rich and poor. Struggles with equality and sexuality and what it means to be a man or a woman. Not to mention the anti-Semitism and general racism. At the same time people were investigating the nature of mind with neuroscience, psychology and altered states of consciousness as well as exploring the works of eastern science and esoteric beliefs.

An alternative history novel where the Paris Commune of 1871 didn’t fall but succeeded and ran France seemed a good way of exploring some of these themes and the idea of the Tapestry – a proto internet based on a combination of radio and punch cards gave me not only a way of looking at information, disinformation and its political effect but also a metaphor for the way the story weaves together different lives and plot strands   as well as themes. I also stole a few techniques from John Dos Passos (without the level of skill or complexity I fear) to paint the society in both width and depth.

Most of all, I wanted it to be fun –  not laugh out loud funny but fast paced, exciting and witty in both the overall story and lots of the details. It is not Jarryesque in its style (I am definitely not worthy) but hopefully it has his sense of invention and playfulness. Some of the jokes also come from weaving some of the ideas in his writing into the plot and scenes.

One of my pre-readers suggested it could easily be taken as an historical novel if you didn’t know enough about the period to see where the timelines diverged and where the real ends and extrapolation begins. However Alastair Brotchie’s marvellous biography of Jarry and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years do such a good job of describing the reality it would be pointless retelling the truth.

Jules is doing a wonderful job re-reading it to identify issues (as well as the typos etc I have inevitably still missed so I will do the final revise today, cut it up again into the various different sizes that are needed for different agents, and rehearse an elevator pitch so I can make the best first impression I can.

 

 

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

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.

 

 

In jokes and obscure references

I have to admit I love texts that include in jokes and references to other books and media. That’s why I’m such a fan of Philip Jose Farmer, Kim Newman and Howard Waldrop.
When I wrote The Revolutionary Tapestry I wanted to do some of this myself. Not just because it would be fun to do, and hopefully fun for readers who spotted them, but because it is an alternative world novel. One of the recurring jokes is that incidents in the book inspire later writers – including Jarry himself. A case of art imitating life.
The Jarry references are the key ones – there are scenes that reflect elements of The Supermale, Days and Nights, Le Dragonne and some of his journalism. The other references – more obvious to those who don’t have a good knowledge of Jarry – are around the Fantome character. He is supposed to be the inspiration for Fantomas, the Phantom of the Opera, the title character in the Werewolf of Paris, and the Lone Ranger!  There are also references to Verne’s Robur the Conqueror.

This came as a bit of light relief to the historical research I had to do to get the period right. All bar two of the speaking parts are real people and have largely the same back story as they did in our world. The trick to this was to avoid the “Hello Mr Wilde, have you met your fellow Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw.” school of historical fiction – normally worse in visual media than written. I don’t mind a bit of name dropping if it is done subtly: “Roger saw the man he was after – he was at the far side of the room talking to the Prince of Wales”. Generally,however, if I was going to introduce someone I wanted to have a reason for them being there.

The other challenge I wanted to overcome was the need to drop in background information without a reason for doing so in the plot. It is difficult to totally avoid it, but by including some of it in during reflection by characters on their current situation I hope I avoided the worst of it.

 

H Jones Has Talk Mod – an appreciation of John Thomas Sladek

One of my favourite science fiction writers of all time is John Thomas Sladek.

Sladek, who died in March 2000, first came under the spotlight in the New Wave of British science fiction around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine, although he was born in Iowa and most of his writing was set in the USA, His writing fitted the experimental nature of the New Worlds stable of young – and young at heart. He also shared the sense of humour of many of them – especially his frequent collaborator Thomas Disch.

Where Sladek was unique was his satire and scepticism, and especially his fascination with puzzles and formal games. His experimental fiction often resembled the blend of mathematics and art practised by the OuLiPo group of writers who grew out of the Institute ‘Pataphysique and included Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Harry Mathews. It also echoed Postmodern writers like John Barth. Unlike those writers, the publication of most of his short stories and novels under the science fiction banner meant he had little critical interest from the mainstream and his experimental fiction meant he did not achieve the sales of more more straightforward SF writers.

Like OuLiPo he would set rules in the way he approached many stories – including writing the mystery novels Black Aura and Invisible Green under the rules laid out Rev Ronald Knox for Golden Age detective novels at a time when no-one else in crime writing cared about them. At the same time he subverted Asimov’s rules of robotics in Tic Toc – one of his many novels which used robotics, artificial intelligence and the sciences of Information Theory and Cybernetics developed in the Macy Conferences in the 40s.

Although the structure of his stories and novels were based on formal rules – they were anything but formal in their humour. He was a savage satirist of the worst of human nature and particularly of wilful ignorance, stupidity and hypocrisy. His non fiction book The New Apocrypha ripped apart pseudo science, woolly minded and crank theories and cults with devastating logic and rationalism and most of all with humour. Sladek was always very funny and he used the same scalpel in writing his mock new age books Arachne Rising, The Cosmic Factor and the Judgement of Jupiter – the best joke being that most readers believed they were serious non fiction.

He has sometimes been compared to the more well known satirist who came out if the science fiction community – Kurt Vonnegut. But his work could not be more different to the bleakness of Vonnegut’s vision. Sladek has hope and his masterwork Roderick (published in various slices as one or two books) brings out the humanity in his young robot who becomes a real boy and suffers but overcomes the same issues we can all face in childhood. A Candide for the Information Age.

Some of his work was written just for fun – like the affectionate but devastatingly accurate parodies of other science fiction writers or some of the squibs collected in Maps – but he never wrote anything that wasn’t interesting and clever and his best work deserves wider recognition for its innovation, fun and intelligence.

Most of his writing is available as e-books. Read them.

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

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.

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.

Revolutionary Tapestry – the synopsis

I’ve just finished doing the first draft of the synopsis of the novel – The revolutionary tapestry. I’ve also been doing some character studies of the main protagonists as exercises for my Open University course in creative writing so killing two birds with one stone. Now comes the hard slog!

Not that writing the synopsis was that easy. It was a very useful exercise in blocking out the setting, plot, characters and some detail, but there is a challenge in deciding what to put in and what to leave out. As usual Jules was a great first reader as (a) she doesn’t know as much as I do about the setting so is able to say when things are not clear because I haven’t translated what’s in my head to the paper and (b) because she has great emotional intelligence so is able to say if what the characters do doesn’t feel realistic. What is happening inside the characters heads and hearts is one of the things I knew I would have to put in, but I got a bit engrossed in making sure I get down the quite complicated plot structure.

She was also perceptive enough to spot the points at which my energy levels flagged and the writing became more bullet point notes than sentences.

Although having someone read your work is always a bit frightening, the discussion afterwards meant we were able to think about the two sequels as well as the current book – I already had a broad idea for the second one but the third wasn’t even on my horizon until Jules came up with a suggestion that was perfect.

There may well be changes to the plot of the first novel but I think I’ve got the core set out – a hard task as there are several strands happening at once which all need to link together and tie up any loose ends.

Now I need to go back to the research I’ve done and look at where and how facts are woven into the story so I avoid big chunks of exposition, and do more work on all of the characters – not just the main ones – who have more than a walk on part in the book. With more than a dozen books providing core background on setting and characters, and about 50 pages of information gleaned from the internet, this next phase is another big chunk of work. However, when it’s done I will have a solid base to draw on in writing the actual novel.

Building a world that shares a lot with real history, but has some core differences which affect a lot of detail in that world is a challenge. It’s a bit like writing a historical novel, thriller, and science fiction novel all in one. What you invent has to be consistent with aspects of real history as well as internally. Oh what fun!

Starting the Novel

I’ve already written (or at least done the first draft of) one novel. However like all first novels it was autobiographical and probably quite libellous, as well as far too short. That’s in the Scrivener filing cabinet for when I feel is a good time to go back to it.

I’m about to start on novel number two – this time for real.

The title is the Revolutionary Tapestry as it is an alternative world novel where a series of changes mean a proto internet is around based on a combination of radio and punch card style computing which sends text across the globe to be printed as newsheets across the globe.

The technology started in a France where the Communards pressed home their advantage against government forces and got them to surrender, rather than resting on their laurels and partying. France is also exploiting the oil which is just off its coastline rather than further up the North Sea basin.

The third fundamental change is that this is a world where conspiracies work rather than being as ineffectual as they are in our world. That kind of “join the dots” history is great fun but I don’t really buy the idea that some secret cults are running the world, or that the moon landings never happened and the mass membership of the NRA killed Kennedy.

The hero is a journalist working for several of the hundreds of free newspapers circulating the globe with the Revolutionary Tapestry of the title, sparking uprisings and revolts in lots of other countries. His best friend is Alfred Jarry whose Ubu Roi is about to be premiered. After a terrorist bomb explodes his life does to as he is pursued by a set of different conspiracy groups all thinking he has the key to their plots, while he tracks down the mysterious Fantom behind the terrorism.

This gives me a chance to write about the city, period and artists I love without having to stick too closely to historic facts – although I have done a lot of research about the period as the people and architecture would not be too changed – only the politics and the technology.

Watch this space for progress….