Gig Review: M John Harrison in Bath

Michael John Harrison had his first novel published in 1971 and has since produced more than twenty novels and short story collections, acquiring numerous awards and notable listings for his work. He is credited with being at the forefront of the New Wave science fiction movement. Although known for his SF and fantasy writing he now eschews labels believing the question of genre to be an irrelevance. He secures a space within which he can do what is necessary to get the point he wishes to make across, liberated to write what he needs to at the time. If not all readers get what he is saying he can accept this.

Prior to receiving his latest collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now (you may read my review of the book here), I had not come across M John Harrison’s writing. Thus I was pleased to discover he was visiting Bath and went along to Waterstones last Thursday to hear him speak. The event proved popular with the many in attendance who appeared familiar with the entirety of his published work.

Mike was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and an obvious fan. Having introduced his guest we were treated to readings of five of the shorter stories from Mike’s latest book. I was pleased that he included two of my personal favourites – Psychoarcheology and Jackdaw Bingo. He commented that many of the stories are linked to travel in some way, and he was therefore amused to be speaking from within the Travel section of the bookshop.

Following these readings there was plenty of time for questions – from Steve and the audience. Just as Mike’s writing cannot always be easily be categorised, so his answers were not necessarily what may have been expected. It was fascinating to hear him talk about the evolution of his attitude to writing and his creative style.

Mike was asked if he enjoyed playing the trickster. He explained that he sees writing and reading as a game, with points scored between writer and reader. He has fun with his writing, making use of tropes, employing parody and satire. In the past his intentions have not always been understood. Although his latest collection is subtitled Stories of Ghosts, the ghosts are such things as political spectres, past mistakes, ideas and situations.

Asked why he released a short story collection Mike explained that this came from writing his blog. There he takes a paragraph and then flips it, changing direction for the fun of it. He likes the results and also that he has produced stories of different lengths which fit well in a collection. As a writer, if there are no changes of direction he would consider himself stalled, even if still writing. He also has a novel in progress – it has fish people in it who may be trying to take over Britain and no one has noticed! Asked how he got involved with Comma Press he told us he had been looking for a small press as they are all the rage. He approached them and they agreed to publish this latest book.

Does Mike like to drop his characters and therefore readers into unfamiliar landscapes? He has always written about where he is at the time. He grew up in a village on the cusp of being absorbed into a suburb – an Edgeland. He enjoys exploring the transitions between landscape – woods, derelict factories, urban nature writing. He prefers to write what he sees without specialist knowledge of, say, nature, getting across to the reader the experience of simply being there.

His book The Centauri Device was mentioned. Originally conceived as an anti-space opera it ended up revitalising the genre and influencing the works of later authors such as Iain M. Banks. It is Mike’s most in print work but he hates it – he was advised not to write it but did anyway. He much prefers Light, an award winning SF novel which references his personal interests – mountaineering and rock music.

Talking of the New Wave he believes this had more influence outside the genre than within. For a time it broke through the limits of SF&F but the wounds healed. He has no desire to try this again. He has gone on to write as he pleases, always he wishes to move forwards, not working on repeat.

Mike believes genre should react to the writer rather than writers trying to fit into an existing space. Results come through the work of individuals who have differing ideas. An audience member asked about the New Weird. Mike agreed that such umbrellas may be necessary for a given moment, as a shelter, but in the end Mike doesn’t wish to be labelled.

Asked if he read Philosophy Mike admitted to doing so when younger. He sees SF as weaponisation of philosophical metaphor, bruising to read. He has been influenced by dozens of movements outside of fantasy. He manipulates ideas, tips them towards reality and then destroys the image created.

There was discussion of how to world build without info dumping, finding a balance so that the reader understands but the story moves forward. Editors often encourage description but Mike prefers to strip back, to follow his instinct. Info dumps are fine if entertaining – as in Pschoarcheology which contains little dialogue.

Asked how much revising of text Mike did he answered that he is constantly throwing away what he has written and goes through many iterations before being satisfied he has expressed himself as he wishes. Asked what books he has read recently he mentioned Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson. He would like to talk to this author about how he revises.

As the evening drew to a close Mike mentioned that the Christmas issue of New Scientist will contain a new version of Elf Lands – “a five-volume fantasy trilogy in 1000 words”.

There was then the opportunity to buy books and have them signed, with a long queue forming. The eager fans spoke of their excitement at the chance to meet this author, and he appeared happy to talk as he inscribed their purchases.

   

It was good to see so many younger men making up the audience at a book event. The demographic was notably different to most that I attend. Mike may have been writing for close to fifty years but it was clear from the way he spoke that he is more interested in enjoying what is to come than in what he has already achieved.

   

You Should Come With Me Now is published by Comma Press 

Gig Review: Christopher Fowler in Bath

This year I spent Halloween at Waterstones bookshop in Bath where Christopher Fowler was in conversation with Steve Andrews, a Senior Bookseller at the store and obvious fan of his amiable guest. The event was the final stop on a tour for The Book of Forgotten Authors which I review here. Although I am only familiar with this and a handful of the author’s more recent Bryant and May series of crime novels, Christopher has published over forty books that cross several genres. As well as books, his other works include screenplays, video games, graphic novels, audio and stage plays. He writes a weekly column in The Independent on Sunday where the idea for this most recent publication germinated.

Steve described The Book of Forgotten Authors as a cornucopia of author delights including excellent digressive essays. He read out the names of a number of the authors included, many of which the audience were familiar with. Christopher commented that although their names may still be recalled, few of the readers he has asked could list these authors’ books. I got the impression that he was addressing a well read audience in Bath, perfect for the discussion that ensued.

In whittling down his list of hundreds of forgotten authors to the ninety-nine featured, Christopher was not interested in the obscure but rather recognisable writers whose books have been eclipsed. After mentioning them in his newspaper column, he received letters, often from author’s families. They subsequently corresponded and set up meetings, thereby enabling Christopher to gather the fascinating snippets of data he cites in his book. He made the decision not to include anyone living in case of upset by being listed as forgotten.

Christopher is obviously well connected within the arts. There were references to films he has been involved with and mentions of writers who are acquaintances and personal friends. Most of the discussion though was of his interest in books, how they are valued and how this changes over time.

He talked of pulp fiction from the sixties found in paperback fairs, some of which were written by well known names under pseudonyms, with artwork from highly regarded sources. Having grown up in a house containing few works of literature he spent much of his childhood in a library, frequenting second hand bookshops when he had money to spend. He now takes an interest not just in titles considered collectable but in the treasures that can be found tucked away between their pages – letters, notes and similar ephemera.

Christopher talked of the peaks and troughs in book fashion, how an experimental novel from the sixties is now being sold as a mass market paperback. He applauded the small presses such as Persephone who are republishing works that do not deserve to remain forgotten. He is a fan of ebooks as they enable out of print books to be more widely shared which may help prove there is demand for them in hard copy.

He also mentioned the books that deserve to be forgotten. He believes some authors whose work has remained popular had contemporaries who were even better yet disappeared from retail shelves. As he talked of books I was not familiar with, although Steve and several in the audience were agreeing with his words, I pondered how much book appreciation is a matter of personal taste.

In his Bryant and May books Christopher told us that the weirdest things are often based on fact, toned down because readers would find them too unrealistic. He does not like writing gore, preferring to create unease and trust reader’s imagination – disturbing rather than distressing. His books have been optioned by the BBC although he believes the scripts may not have captured the essential quirkiness of his elderly detectives. He mentioned that he bought back the rights of one book he was unhappy with after publication.

Christopher’s next book, due out in 2018, is based around the theme of a country house murder. The one after that will explore the theme of loneliness. His many fans will be happy that there are plenty more books in the offing. He has also written a fantasy epic but has yet to have it accepted for publication.

Steve had ensured that there was a good stock of a variety of Christopher’s books available to purchase. Those queuing to acquire his signature each presented sizeable piles of his works. It was good to see Christopher taking the time to chat as he signed. All seemed to have enjoyed the event.

As well as the pleasure of meeting Christopher I was able to introduce myself to his publicist, Elizabeth Masters. It is always lovely to meet those who kindly send me the books I review.

The Book of Forgotten Authors is published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus, and is available to buy now.

   

Gig Review: Claire Fuller in Bath

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Waterstones in Bath is fast becoming one of my favourite venues for book events. Yesterday they hosted another fascinating evening. Claire Fuller, author of Our Endless Numbered Days and the recently published Swimming Lessons, was expertly interviewed by Jason Hewitt, whose fabulous book Devastation Road I review here. I confess I have not yet read either of Claire’s books. I know her, if that is a term I may use, through her blog, Claire Fuller | Writing and art, particularly enjoying a recent series of interviews she posted featuring people who work within the publishing industry. Having heard her speak I am now also curious about her books.

The event was opened with a brief introduction by Jason followed by a reading by Claire from the opening pages of Swimming Lessons. They went on to discuss Claire’s writing and inspirations.

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Claire had completed the first draft of her second book by the time her first was published. Thus, when it became such a success – amongst other accolades it won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, was nominated for the 2015 Edinburgh First Book Award, was a Richard & Judy Book Club pick for Spring 2016, and a Waterstones Book Club book – she was not writing under the pressure of producing another hit.

Claire tries to write the sort of book she enjoys reading. Although she starts with ideas she does not plan her stories and much of the detail is developed as she goes along. She edits as she writes so a first draft, which takes her about eighteen months, subsequently requires just a few further months of editing before submission.

Swimming Lessons contains letters which the protagonist’s missing wife has left hidden within the covers of his extensive collection of books. The idea for this came from Claire and her husband who, before they lived together, wrote letters to each other in this way. Claire told us that she has yet to find some of these, that between them they own a lot of books. Even the old cynic in me found such an anecdote beautifully romantic.

The locations in Swimming Lessons exist but the village has been renamed due to the dark deeds, sex and infidelities detailed, which actual residents may not appreciate! The National Trust owns one of the properties featured and Claire stayed in it twice to soak up the atmosphere.

Both of Claire’s books are quite dark which she ascribes to her reading as a child. After school she would wait for a lift home in a library where she devoured the likes of Stephen King and other novels perhaps not now considered appropriate for a nine year old. One of the books she loved was Phenomena, about paranormal activity.

Although dark, Claire also considers her books to contain elements of hope. Her characters have depth and lighter moments together even if they are not always likeable. She agreed with Jason that the nastier ones can be a lot of fun to write.

Jason was surprised to learn that Claire writes to music as he requires silence, although he will play music to put him in the mood to write. Claire explained that before she starts she compiles a playlist she feels is appropriate for the ideas she has, and then plays this on a loop until the book is complete. Her family may not always appreciate this. She pondered if there was some CBT involved, that the music comes to signify that it is time to put words on a page. Now a full time writer she considers that progress has been made even if only a few hundred words are written each day.

Both Claire and Jason had their debuts published when they were in their forties and have since become members of The Prime Writers which they describe as a welcome source of advice and support, especially as writing is necessarily a solitary occupation. Claire described herself as an accidental writer, falling into it after deciding to try her hand at a short story. Her debut was her first attempt at writing a novel. She talked of luck as well as ability.

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I could have continued to listen to this fascinating discussion but Jason had promised to allow questions from the audience and there were plenty eager to participate.

Claire was asked if the struggles some of her characters have with motherhood were drawn from experience. She admitted that they were, that she harboured a degree of guilt over her work-life balance and occasional need for her own space. In creating fictional characters extreme versions of reality can be woven into place enabling empathy from readers. Each comes to a book burdened by their own experiences so she also likes to leave a degree of ambiguity, especially in endings.

Claire was asked if she is happy with how she has been pigeon-holed as a writer. This is a known problem, for instance romance writers wanting to create a thriller, a change of direction their publisher may not be happy with. Claire is content for now. She would like to write a ghost story one day but feels this would fit with the dark themes she is known for. She mentioned that she explores other genres in her short stories.

Another question was asked about how happy Claire is with the advice given by her agent. Absolutely was the answer given, she trusts her completely. Claire’s debut went to auction but she was not simply required to accept the highest bid. It was recognised that the relationship she would develop with her publisher mattered too.

The evening was wrapped up with a reminder that Claire will return to Bath on 28th May when she will appear at the festival with Kate Hamer and Michael Hughes. I left her chatting to the queue of attendees eager to acquire her signature on their copy of her book.

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You may keep up with Claire by following her on Twitter: Claire Fuller (@ClaireFuller2)

Jason may also be found here: Jason Hewitt (@JasonHewitt123)

For news and events at the bookshop: Waterstones Bath (@waterstonesbath)

Claire is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin. Jason is published by Simon & Schuster UK.

 

Gig review: An Evening with Mick Herron

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On Wednesday evening of this week I returned to Waterstones Bookshop in Bath to listen to Mick Herron discussing his books and writing habits with Sarah Hilary. In preparation for the event I had read the first of Mick’s Slough House series of spy novels, Slow Horses (you may read my review here). Having enjoyed this first foray into his work I now wish to read everything he has written – oh for more time.

The event host was Waterstones’ Senior Bookseller, Steve Andrews, who impressed me by recognising and welcoming me when I arrived. He provided a glass of Prosecco and I took my seat.

Steve opened the discussion by introducing Mick as the finest espionage writer of our time, and pulling from his bag a recently acquired early proof of Mick’s next release, Spook Street. I made sure to approach Yassine, publicity manager at John Murray, to beg a copy for myself afterwards. I do hope he remembers to pop one in the post.

Steve invited Mick to give a reading. Chosen was a short section from Real Tigers, his latest book available for all to buy.

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Sarah then took the helm. She is obviously a fan of Mick’s work. She commented that his character Jackson Lamb, the head of the band of misfits and mavericks banished to Slough House, is one of the greatest grotesques in fiction. Mick explained that what drives Jackson is his view that the Joes – spooks working in the field – must be protected at all costs. Mick doesn’t plot his novels; his characters dictate the action. Although he knows how each story will start he allows his characters room to breath and follows wherever subsequent ideas lead.

Sarah regards Mick’s characters as a team, a type of oddball family. The way their observations and interactions slot together are a joy to read. She asked if they whispered in Mick’s ear.

Mick informed us that Jackson shouts! There is so much more to him than his sometimes monstrous behaviour. Mick hopes that the reader will love each character even if rationally perhaps they shouldn’t.

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One of the more amenable characters is Catherine Standish, a disgraced PA to a late senior spook. Sarah regards her as one of the best female characters in spy fiction. She asked Mick about any difficulties he faced writing a women.

Mick sees Catherine as the moral centre of the team. She is a recovering alcoholic, vulnerable but with a deep inner strength. He mentioned that in Real Tigers she is kidnapped and left with a bottle of wine. He was riffing with Hitchcock and the suspense of a ‘ticking bomb’ in a closed room. This allowed him to get inside Catherine’s mind, something that isn’t always possible in a thriller requiring tension and a fast pace.

Sarah mentioned that Jackson sometimes taunts Catherine but that his apparently crude actions end up displaying compassion. Things are rarely black and white and Mick is a master at showing the grey.

There was discussion of the humour in the novels, the cinematic openings and the crossovers of characters between each of Mick’s published works. Sarah commented that these characters are such a gift, the reader can’t help but want to get to know them better. Mick mentioned that contracts for television or film rights are for individual characters and these crossovers can be problematic when not all his books are to be included in the deal.

Here it was clarified that Mick has published two series – Oxford, and Slough House – as well as two standalone novels. Some of the crossover of characters occurred when it was unclear if a former publisher wished to put out the next Slough House book. Although screenplays have been written for a four part television series it is still unclear when this might be made.

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Mick talked of how he names his characters, and how their personality and actions can slide into place once they have acquired the right moniker. I was highly amused by his take on the name River, his choice for a younger character which he struggled to find for some time. He does not regard River as a real name but rather as something invented by hippies or celebrities. I made sure to pass on through Sarah afterwards that this is the name I chose for my now eighteen year old son.

Mick told us that he does almost no research. His knowledge of the secret service has been gleaned from other spy novels or entirely made up. However, the building known in the books as Slough House actually exists. He passed around photographs as proof.

Mick is often asked if he has any personal experience of espionage, which he denies. The question amuses him as it was not something he was ever asked when writing about a personal investigator.

This led to a discussion about genre and where spy novels fit in. Mick sees crime as asking ‘what happens?’ whereas thrillers ask ‘what happens next?’

An audience member asked Mick how he had switched from character driven novels to action driven. He replied that he had removed his use of the semi colon. This cut out much of the imagery and increased the pace.

He was also asked where his characters came from. He claimed they were aspects of himself. He prefers to deal with issues and creates characters who will deal with these in different ways.

With no further questions the evening concluded with the signing of books and Mick was quickly surrounded. It is clear that, in Bath at least, he has a solid fan base. Given the quality of his writing this is only likely to spread.

Looking forward to #BookshopDay

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Saturday 8th October is 2016’s Bookshop Day in the British Isles. I plan on visiting my local Waterstones and hope to pick up the specially designed Books Are My Bag Winnie-the-Pooh tote, and to fill it with some new books of course.

In previous years I have travelled to Bath, the closest city to where I live. I wrote this piece for the blog on their official online tourist information site, Visit Bath back in 2015.

Bath is for Bibliophiles!

Book lovers love Bath, and with good reason. Want to buy books? Find them in the impressive range of bookshops. Want to meet the authors? Order a ticket for one of the many events which happen throughout the year.

The Bath Literature Festival runs for ten days in early spring and offers audiences a chance to listen to and interact with many of the big names in books, as well as lesser known and local talent.

The Bath Kids Literature Festival, also a ten day event, runs in early autumn and offers a wide and eclectic range of lively book themed events to keep all ages entertained.

These annual extravaganzas generate a buzz which is fun to be a part of, but literary events are happening in Bath all year round. Thanks to the efforts of two of the city’s fabulous independent bookshops there are a variety of both small gatherings and larger fixtures to appeal to all interests.

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Topping and Company Booksellers (pictured above) offer the quintessential bookshop experience, with shelves and tables overflowing with tempting choices, and friendly, knowledgeable staff always available to help guide customers to their next great read.

Regular events offer access to a range of authors, with the cost of tickets refundable against the cost of the book being discussed. Some of these are intimate affairs are held within the shop, while others are staged in larger venues nearby.

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Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights (pictured below) offers not just a range of carefully chosen books in their three floored warren of a shop, but also the option to buy someone you love the gift of a Reading Spa or a Year of Books. These include a consultation with a bibliotherapist to ensure that each recommendation will delight the recipient.

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Where better to find a bath full of books than in a Bath bookshop? Meander through their various rooms and look out for the quirky displays: a customer toilet that has been decorated by the Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell; a stairway papered with Tintin comics; a ceiling decorated with book themed tote bags. The shop is a relaxing haven for booklovers. Take a comfy chair by the fire, pour yourself a complimentary cup of coffee, and check out that book you know you want to buy.

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Mr B’s events are often intimate gatherings, enabling the audience to enter into discussions and interact with the author; some of them are even free to attend. They are held in various locations, including the shop’s own bibliotherapy room, with larger gatherings scheduled at alternative venues.

All of these events may be booked online. If you are planning a trip to the city then check out what is going on while you are here. You may just be tempted to make this the primary reason for your visit.

Jackie Law is a wife, mother, hen keeper and writer who lives in a small village east of Bath. She is an avid reader and publishes book reviews and other related posts on her blog. She is easily distracted, especially by Twitter, where you can follow her: @followthehens.    

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When I wrote this piece I had yet to discover the delights of Waterstones which I now know is another beautifully laid out bookshop that hosts excellent author events. It has friendly, welcoming staff and a coffee shop with free wifi.

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The central shopping area in Bath is compact for a city, giving visitors the chance to easily explore all three of these booklover’s oases.

Which bookshops will you be visiting this weekend?