The Next Big Thing
I was recently 'tagged' by the great Anne Billson in some sort of ongoing online project (which I don't think I fully understand) called The Next Big Thing: "The scheme is simple. You write a blog post answering the below questions, at the end you then tag another five people who will do the same." Fair enough.
1 - What is the working title of your next book?
Gosh. Ark. Maybe. I don't know. It's not finished yet.
2 - Where did the idea come from for the book?
Last year I was out of work for about three months during which I, amongst other things, wrote a short story called 'School Report'. Prior to that happening my method of writing, if you can call it a method, was to think of an idea, hammer it out, do some cursory editing and then that was that. I wouldn't even do anything with the stories once they were completed – no submissions to magazines, no entries to competitions, no manuscripts to agents, nothing - they simply got written, printed out, and then carefully filed away in a lever-arch file. With this story I did things differently: I had the luxury of being able to think about it for a long time, to work on it for a long time and to spend a long time editing it. When it seemed finished I also decided to try to actually put it to some use. I entered it for the Manchester Fiction Prize (chosen solely due to the judges being writers whose work I like) and although I didn't win exactly – the prize was split between another entrant and myself – the whole experience showed me that the stuff I write, whilst not massively likely to provide me with anything you could realistically call 'a living', might still be of interest to some people. Also, I found I didn't want to leave the terrain of 'School Report' – its style of writing, its creepy dynamics, its grubby setting – these were all new to me, and I found myself thinking up another story, one set in the same place, with some of the same characters, but fuller-bodied, more expansive and with more plot. I love novels, both in reading and writing (I still have a colossal chunk of an unfinished one written and abandoned five years ago which, I like to think, I'll get back to work on some day), but, in all honesty, I love short stories more: for me, they're just what writing is. Despite this, the more I thought about this new idea – the 'book' as I rather grandly began to call it - and as more of it got written, the bigger it got. After I got beyond a certain word-count in my usual pootling-along way it suddenly broke loose: I couldn't stop it.It kept demanding new plot points, each in turn demanding the addition of a character or two who would then insist on having their own parts expanded, thus requiring more plotting, etc. etc... That may sound like a good thing - having such a huge amount of easily forthcoming material - but I'm not so sure. In truth, it's a monster. At present it's a 80,000 words long monster – enough for a short novel – and is still far from finished (there are some sections which are comprised of a blank page save for the words 'ADD RAILWAY STATION SCENE' or 'INSERT WITTY EXCHANGE' written in the centre) and to my mind is still another short story I'm working on, one which, by some getting-out-of-hand freak occurrence, just happens to be as long as one of those proper books you see in the shops.
3 - What genre does your book fall under?
'Folk horror', maybe. I don't know. There's a sort of sub-sub-genre I've made up which I like to think of myself as writing in. I'm not sure what I'd call it, possibly 'weird-ish oblique folksy'. I don't think I could actually sum up what works of fiction which I see as fitting into this genre would contain - which is irritating, I know – but it's something I definitely recognise when I see it. I'm not sure how helpful genres are for writers – they're more of a guide for readers – it's difficult not to find them silly the more you think about them. It reminds me of a friend I had when I was a teenager: he would only listen to music which he considered to be a genre called 'math-grind'. He didn't care whether what he was listening to was any good, he only cared that it was math-grind.
4 - What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
There's two main characters in Ark. Although not all of them are really actors, when writing I occasionally see my protagonist, an anxious and wide-eyed city rube in the wilds of the countryside, as David Byrne, Michael Palin, Jonathan Richman, Morrissey, Peter Davison, and Eddie Bixter (a friend of mine). The bad guy, on the other hand, I found myself half-basing on only one person: George Galloway.
5 - What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Nasty story by unknown writer.
6 - Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
God knows. Self-publishing is always a definite DON'T in any 'how to be a writer' type books written before 2010-ish. Now it's a completely viable option – the cool option, even – and I like things about it: the directness, the DIY aspect, the fact you can plausibly release a book without having to have a conversation with a single other human being. That said, and maybe I'm actually being like some loon who's trying to convince you on the merits of Laserdiscs here, but I actually like books, and not just in the don't-they-smell-nice-and-make-my-walls-look-clever sense. When you pick a book off the shelf in your local Waterstones (or Blackwell's, maybe even WHSmith's) part of your brain knows that a great deal of work has been carried out by a great number of people – the writer, of course; those who helped him or her with the book; the agents who peddled it round to the publishers; the publisher themselves who figured out what the book should look like, how they should sell it, who they should send it to for reviews, how big a discount to offer the bookshops to give them an incentive to stock it; the typesetters; the blurb monkeys; the guys whose job it is to shift hundreds of the things around a warehouse; and so on – all these people busying away for something someone simply wrote. I still reckon, with what, as I say, I cheerily accept are my woefully ill-informed and quaintly olde worlde views on an ever-evolving market, that all this legitimises the book in a way with which someone doing it on their own can't really compete. If you have a book published, a real life in-the-shops book, you can say I wrote something and all these people think it's definitely not so completely shit and awful.
7 - How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I haven't. Why must you remind me of how much I still have to do? Oh god. This is how I get my work done: during the daytime I have a dull office job; once I've finished there I traipse along to Starbucks, sit with a big tea and write for a minimum of two hours, ideally three. This way of doing things has its benefits: it's a routine, for one thing. But it's also colossally detrimental to any kind of social life and leaves me with virtually no free time. Two or three hours is not even that much time out of the whole day for getting something the size of a book written, and by the time I head home I'm usually too tired to feel hugely confident with what I've done. So the whole thing has been infuriatingly slow and piecemeal in coming together.
I've recently got to the final section of the book, so I suppose I do have something approaching a final draft – I've got from part A of the story to part Z – and that has taken me about nine months. I say part Z, but it's actually more like part Y, or part Y and a half. I'm not sure what I want to have happen at the very end so I'm saving it for when I come to the redrafting stage. In fact, in the past couple of weeks I've taken a total break from it – I don't look at it, I don't think about it – whilst I work on some other 'proper' short stories so I can come to it fresh in the new year. At my current work rate, the amount of stuff I need to do with Ark is going to take a year at least to get done. Oh god.
8 - What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I could list the books in the 'weird-ish oblique folksy horror' canon but, in my conscious normal-person brain, I can see that they don't really have a huge amount in common with one another: Wise Blood, that's one. American Pastoral is another; Robert Aickman's short stories, Ian McEwan's first four or so books, Ted Hughes's Difficulties of a Bridegroom (a very much an overlooked short story collection, incidentally), and a whole bunch of other apparently unconnected books. I say apparently because they're actually all about people dealing with unknown and unseen forces, many of them even flirting with unfashionably metaphysical themes, but in none of them are there ever any easy final answers; they all tell stories which appear to give the impression of being allegorical, but what they might be allegories for is never made wholly clear.
9 - Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The basic plot of this thing is a man returning to the town where he grew up, only to find the town in complete disrepair, the people growing insular and backwards, relying on faith and superstition to get by (artistically, there's a lot to be said for living in what often seems to be an age of terminal decline and recession). It's all very Wicker Man-y, but then I am a very Wicker Man-y type of guy. A lot of what goes on in Ark came about when I was reading a book about forgotten English customs and traditions. I thought it would be interesting to write something in which the plot of which was hinged around these practices and more interesting still if it was set not in the historical time when people had these superstitions, but in some imagined near-future. I grew up in Lancashire, a place rich with small towns, and wondered what would happen if, with the rest of the country dying on its arse, one of these places became so isolated from any grander social hierarchy and so alienated from any real sense of meaning that it started to drift backwards: who would the stronger personalities in the community be? How would they go about assuming power over the less strong? What would their aims be?
In terms of style, I find I favour what I'd call 'non-internet writing': fiction made up of elegant, well-structured passages which aren't afraid of extended metaphors, lengthy sentences or seemingly unrelated digressions. WG Sebald is good at this sort of thing. In terms of narrative, I try to emulate books like Patrick McGrath's Asylum, Barbara Vine's The Brimstone Wedding, and Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy: books which utilise a first person narrator, ostensibly writing an account of their experiences, but who are unstable and unreliable, invariably in ways which become integral to the story itself.
10 - What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The whole thing is written from the collective viewpoint of a group of schoolchildren: 'we watched him', 'we sat at our desks,' 'we filed out of the door and headed to our separate homes'.