Thursday, 30 October 2014

You're on your own

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post and at Delightful Book Reviews.

I hate giving tips for writers. I really do. Not because I don’t want to help other people with their writing, but because there really are no rules for writing. But, as a writer, you frequently get asked to compile lists of tips, or even just a top three, and to be honest, I cringe every time I do it.

But here are three (non) tips. I’m not saying there aren’t some things that it might be helpful to think about. It’s just that they are probably different for everyone – one of the key joys about being a writer is that everyone seems to do it slightly differently. Not only that, but becoming a writer is to set out on a life-long journey of learning – anyone who thinks ‘that’s it, I’m a writer now and I know what I’m doing’ is a) probably fooling themselves, and b) probably a very bad writer. It’s much more common to feel out of your depth, unsure of yourself at times (if not all the time), and wonder why you ever started to try to write in the first place.

But this is normal, so there’s my first (non) tip; get used to not knowing what you’re doing. Writing is hard enough without adding to your woes by worrying incessantly about it. And yes, of course you’re going to worry about it; that’s normal. Just don’t worry about worrying about it. That’s not going to help.

Here’s my second (non) tip – be very suspicious of anyone writing lists of tips (including these ‘non’ tips). I teach on creative writing courses from time to time, so you might say, ‘well, what do you tell your students then?’ and what I tell them is that I’m going to mention lots of ideas and concepts and suggestions as to how to write, but that it’s up to each of them to take away the things that mean something to them, that resonate, that might work in their own writing practice. Writing is unusual in that it’s one of the very few jobs in the world that you teach yourself to do.

Even if you do go on a creative writing course, I believe it’s up to you to navigate your way through the ocean of (frequently conflicting) ideas that you will come across. Should you plan your book, or not? Should you know how it ends before you start, or not? Should you write every day, or not? Should you set times to write, or word counts, or leave it all free? All of that is up to you.

What I can say though, is to read as much as you can. If you (seriously) want to be a writer, you probably read a lot anyway. You can add to that reading everything I’m telling you to ignore – all the ‘how tos’ and ‘top tips’ and essays and books and blogs on writing. But remain suspicious. If you think (as I do) that writing a book by writing a part in the middle and then a bit near the start and then the end and then a bit three quarters of the way through sounds like a ridiculously complicated way of making a hard job harder (and you’d be right, of course ;-) ) then don’t do it. Just because your favourite author imports especially sticky post-it notes from Germany (yes, I do know someone who does that) in order to plan their novels, doesn’t mean you have to.

My final (non) tip is this: get used to paradoxes. Writing is full of things that don’t make sense. It is often a question of having to do contradictory things; I believe you need to ignore the question of who you’re writing ‘for’, and yet, at the same time, you cannot help but think about how ‘your reader’ is going to interpret something. You want to be original and new and yet you have to be familiar at the same time. You have to forget that every story has already been told a thousand times, and then show us how you can do something new with that story.

Writing is full of contradictions. It is hard and it is challenging, and yet, when you succeed in achieving a small part of what you set out to achieve, the feeling of contentment is deep and powerful. That’s the drug that keeps us all going, and like anything in life that’s worthwhile, the journey to achieve can be a hard one. But that’s normal, so don’t be afraid.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft

This post first appeared on Reading Away The Days

Very few writers can truly be called unique; American horror stylist H.P. Lovecraft is surely one who can. Lovecraft, never a success in his own lifetime, and barely more than a cult figure since, is nevertheless one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. The same can be said of the writer whose work in turn most influenced Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s work was perhaps a little wider read than Lovecraft’s ever was during their respective lifetimes, but Poe’s nevertheless was derided and belittled while he was still around to hear such things. Only in France, for some reason, was Poe truly celebrated, and outside of that it’s been the sad fate of these men to only achieve their true worth after their deaths.

Lovecraft's grave marker in Providence, Rhode Island. Like many other fans, I left a quarter as a token of respect.

If you don’t know Lovecraft’s work, a few titles will begin to give you the idea: The Shadow out of Time, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, The Dreams in the Witch House. But these are no conventional horror tales; Lovecraft not only created a style all of his own, he also created an entire occult mythology for the world in which some of his tales are set. His pantheon of hideous ancient gods; the Old Ones, Cthulhu being the most notable, are painted as being horrible dark influences on humanity from times before our imagining and places beyond our understanding.

Lovecraft created his own corner of New England; Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, the Miskatonic river as the diabolic centre of unnameable terrors and lurking creatures, drawing upon (modern) America’s oldest places as his inspiration for twisted versions of reality. Here, we find decrepit houses touching eaves across foetid alleyways, we find unknown and unknowable things sliming their ways from murky harbours, and time and time again, we find madness. Madness was one of Lovevcraft’s recurring themes. His own father was confined to a mental hospital when Lovecraft was just three years old, possibly suffering with General Paralysis of the Insane (as it was known then) – the tertiary stages of a syphilitic infection. It’s hard not to see this as a direct influence on the writer, a writer whose own life was riddled by ill health and strange behavioural issues.

In coming to write the section of The Ghosts of Heaven known as The Easiest Room in Hell, I decided I wanted to pay homage to a writer whose work I have always enjoyed. This part of the book is set in an insane asylum on Long Island, New York in the 1920s, and features a poet who has gone mad. His name (and Lovecraft fans will know why) is Charles Dexter. Dexter spends his days writing a novel in his head, much to the confusion of his doctors. He strikes up a friendship with a newly arrived Dr James, who hasn’t heard of the poet before. When he learns about his writing, he gets hold of a copy of Dexter’s poetry collection, On Drowning, and reads one of the mad poet’s poems. And here then, was a chance for me to let rip and write some Lovecraftiana of my own; the poem called...


Sea-found, wind-worn and wild; 

the land will lose.

Here are places so old as to defy memory;

The point, the creek, the inlet.

The old tide mills, dilapidated,

were but a blink in the eye of time.

And there are older things here, 

things which the oyster boats dredge from the deep.

There on the headland; 

the asylum, 

and the asylum boneyard,

where the land-borne dead are corrupted,

harmless bodies are sucked of life; 

in the cemetery.

Graves grow from the soil; 

the black fingernails of the monstrosity beneath.

It lies far down, under the ground, under the sea, 

pushing an arm up,

up to the air 

a hand with a thousand fingers; and every fingernail a grave.

Deep in the sea, at the other end of the arm

sits its heart-brain,

this being from beyond the stars, from the beginning of time:

its mashy form quivers inside the shell 

which protects 

and resonates its thought-waves across the world 

in ancient reverberation.

Spiral-set shell mind, 

It blows a soundless horn to us all, a warning:

I am coming.

Monday, 13 October 2014

STANLEY KUBRICK: genius on tour

The sign for the Paris leg of the Kubrick exhibition, at Cinémathèque Française, uncannily brought to mind the famous ‘monolith’, the mystery at the heart of his best known and most revered film; 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intentional, no, but it signalled the right note of portent for this extraordinary show which, to date, British film fanatics have not had the chance to see.

I was fortunate enough to stumble across the show in Paris in 2011, and though reviewers should always be sparing with hyperbole, it was a show remarkable enough to get me on a place to see it again, this summer, in Krakow.

For the Kubrick aficionado, the show is a space in which to dream, but even for those less familiar with his work, it delivers something very special. The show was created by
Deutsches Filmmuseum, but in association with the Kubrick estate, which means that the curators were able to assemble an unrivalled collection; the sheer quantity and variety of exhibits on display combine to offer multiple pathways into Kubrick’s films.

Extras on the set of Spartacus, each with a number so Kubrick could make miniscule adjustments to every one from behind the camera.   

There will be something here to fascinate you; for the technician there’s the installation showing the front projection sequences on 2001were put together, or the specially commissioned Zeiss lens which allowed Kubrick to shoot Barry Lyndon by candlelight. For the screenwriting nerd there are complex diagrams of schedules and shooting scripts annotated in Kubrick’s own hand. 

For the design junky, there are the mannequins from the Korova milkbar (
A Clockwork Orange), or a model of the war room from Dr Strangelove, the work of Ken Adams, the man responsible for the most stylish of early James Bond sets.

Some of the most engaging items are letters; both from Stanley Kubrick to his many collaborators, and those received by him, often from detractors; a Mrs Dobbs from Florida wrote to express ‘protest, utter dismay and complete disgust after viewing the despicable movie made by you and shown at our local theatre last week’ (and that wasn’t even about
A Clockwork Orange as you might expect, but Dr Strangelove).

But it was the ephemera from
2001 that stopped me in my tracks. We’re given the chance to get up close and personal with an ape suit from the Dawn of Man sequences. Completely terrifying: the aggression modelled into the ape’s face brings back memories of that ‘primogenital’ murder, as one of our distant ancestors discovers the first tool, and that tool is a weapon. Next to the ape, the helmet of Dave Bowman’s space suit. It takes an effort of will to look at this icon and remember that it is not real, and that it never went into space. Kubrick employed two ex-NASA scientists on the movie in order to get this, and countless other aspects of space travel, accurate. Such was Kubrick’s drive for perfection.

That perfectionism is legendary; stories about the dictatorial auteur abound. There is a similarity to Hitchcock in this regard; Hitchcock was the British director who went to work in America, Kubrick was the American who came to work in the UK, both shared an absolute belief in control and detail. Hitchcock, for example, claimed never to need to look at a script once shooting had started, he knew it by heart by the time that first day of principal shooting came by. What that allowed him to do was focus on how he was going to get the best from his actors, from his cameraman; he already knew what shots he was going to ask for.

Like all legends there is an element of truth to it, and an element of fiction. What’s clear from the items on display is that Kubrick possessed an intense desire to get it right; to get what he wanted on film. Making films is a complex business, in order to get exactly what he wanted he sometimes went to extreme lengths. He once said that the reason that so many bad films were made in Hollywood was not that people wanted to make bad films, that there were many well-intentioned people trying to make good films. The reason they make bad ones is that the problem, as he put it, ‘lies in their heads, not in their hearts’. By which he meant that it’s the entire structure of Hollywood that mitigate against good film-making. To break through this takes an enormous feat of will.

But what’s also clear from the show is Kubrick’s gentler, human side; for example in utterly polite, considered responses to the Mrs Dobbs of the world. Here is a man, after all, who during the production of
2001 was so concerned that IBM might be offended by what he was doing that he wrote to reassure them of his good intentions.

Like Hitchcock, Kubrick was also intensely aware of the fact that form can create content. The restrictions of a structure, the limitations of budget, far from limiting the artist can paradoxically sometimes lead to greater creativity. To take just one example; the original intention for the sequences at the end of 2001 were for us to actually ‘meet’ the alien presences behind the monolith. As shooting wore on, and overran, there simply became a pressing financial need to finish the movie. Arthur C Clarke, who co-wrote the screenplay, and Kubrick put their heads together, and instead of actually seeing these aliens, we are left with the mysterious ‘Star Child’ sequence, which I can’t help feeling is an utterly more successful end that the original might have been (if you felt the anti-climax when little grey men wander out of the awe-inspiring ship in Close Encounters and you might agree).

Kubrick, to the New York Times in 1968 on
2001: A Space Odyssey;

“Essentially the film is mythological statement. Its meaning has to be found on a sort of visceral, psychological level, rather than in a specific literal interpretation.”

I said above that reviewers should avoid unnecessary hyperbole, and yet I still have to say that this is not only the best exhibition about film that I have seen; it’s probably the finest exhibition of any kind I’ve had the chance to experience.

If you’re interested in seeing the show, well, sadly for those on British shores it now moves further away; to Toronto, but even that might be worth the trip. After that, you’ll have to go to Seoul. At some point, surely, it
must come to Kubrick’s adoptive home; so write to your MP, Christiane Kubrick, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever it takes to get this most absorbing of shows to come to town, and sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

'Where' I write...

This post first appeared in The Guardian

As a writer, there’s a process that somewhere occurs in your head; a collision between the fantasy space of your imagination and the outside world, in the form of the things that have directly or indirectly inspired your book.

Marcus Sedgwick, author in his shed (but is he?)

Much of the time, this collision occurs while I’m actually in my writing shed, putting words on virtual paper. The space in my shed I see as an exterior manifestation of my imagination – at any given time the walls are heavy with clippings, doodles, photos and words all connected to whatever book I’m working on. And yet, I’m aware that while writing, I might be physically in my shed, but some part of my mind is travelling again, to those places that inspired the story.

A room of one’s own
The Ghosts of Heaven is a book of four quarters, each set in a different time, and a different place, and with a different mood. What connects them is the image of the spiral. This is a book that has taken me a long time to write; what follows are some photographs of the places that gave birth to various elements in the book.

A cave on a hillside. 

This hillside cave happens to be in Snowdonia, but it doesn’t really matter – I liked the primal feel of the place. I took this photo with a long exposure, which accounts for the streaks, which I like; it gives it a sense of the mysterious. Whispers in the Dark is the section of the book set in the prehistory, and features a girl on the cusp of making the connection between a mark on a cave wall and the spoken word; when she does, she will effectively have invented writing.

(Modern) spiral rock carvings, near Lausanne, Switzerland.

The spiral is one of the six groups of forms known to archaeolgists as entoptic shapes, perhaps derived from natural illusory shapes ‘seen’ by the eye in the absence of light. They can be found in the artistic creations of our most distant ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago.

‘Fairy tree’, Lumb Bank, Heptonstall. 

The section of the book called The Witch in the Water takes place in a Yorkshire dale in the early 18th century. The witch-hunts were more or less over by this time but this story focuses about a very late episode in that dark history. A couple of years ago I was teaching a creative writing course at the wonderful Arvon Foundation, and feeling like a fraud because my own writing wasn’t going well at the time. On a walk in the valley one afternoon I came across this tree. I don’t know if it’s really called a fairy tree, but it ought to be. Folklore is full of the concept of things passing through gateways and boundaries, and if the local people didn’t see this tree with its ‘hole’ as a magical entity, I would be very surprised.

The valley at Lumb Bank, home to one of the Arvon Foundation’s beautiful centres. 

The part of the book called The Easiest Room in Hell is set on Long Island in the 1920s. This part of the book evolved from an interest I’d developed in the derelict insane asylums (as they used to be called) of North America.

This is one of those that have been saved, or part of it anyway. What was once the Danvers State Hospital (Massachusetts, US) is now a swanky apartment block. One wonders about the dreams to be had in such a place.
With a nice touch of serendipity, I discovered that many of these old hospitals had spiral staircases in them, central to the theme of the book. Here’s one of them; the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, New York, which contains a beautiful staircase. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but there are some amazing ones on the net, both as the building is now, and in its derelict state before renovation.

Here’s one of these old hospitals; the Octagon on Roosevelt Island, New York, which contains a beautiful staircase. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside but there are some amazing ones on the net, both as the building is now, and in its derelict state before renovation. 

This part of the book is also heavily influenced by that most maligned of American writers; the creator of dark fictions and occult beings, H.P. Lovecraft. I made a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to see both his family home, and his grave marker; which bears the kind of inscription we can but aspire to.

H P Lovecraft’s childhood home, Providence, Rhode Island, US.
Lovecraft’s grave marker reads simply with his name, dates and the legend “I AM PROVIDENCE”. Like many other fans, I left a quarter behind as a token. 
The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed in this asylum in Salem, OR.
The hospital at Danvers, like this one above in Salem, Oregon, on the other side of the States, are two examples of Kirkbride hospitals. The brainchild of Dr Thomas Kirkbride, he envisaged a whole new approach to the care of the mentally ill, a key part of which was the architecture of the hospitals themselves; light, airy and with room to remain human.

The hospital in Salem, famous as both the setting and later filming location of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is another hospital that has been saved – it’s now a social heritage museum.

Inside a derelict psychiatric hospital, Long Island, New York. 
I decided to make up a Kirkbride of my own, setting one out on the distant shores of Long Island – part of Kirkbride’s plan was to move away from dark and grim places in the city to sites in the countryside where the open air and healthy aspect would have a beneficial effect on the patients.

The shores of Long Island. 

I can’t show you pictures of the inspiration for the remaining quarter of the book, called The Song of Destiny, since it takes place aboard a ship venturing into deep space. The ship is the first voyage travelling to colonise a new planet.

Instead, to finish here’s a spiral staircase, this one from the Pantheon in Paris. Spiral staircases are some of the most beautiful architectural creations, be they simple, or ornate, and for me, they are the ultimate metaphor.

All photographs: © Marcus Sedgwick

My new book The Ghosts of Heaven is available at the Guardian bookshop