Friday, 18 December 2015

New books

I knew it was a while since I had posted; coming back here today I see it's six months. Oops. I have some lame excuses about moving house, settling in to a new country and so on, but who's buying it?

The truth is usually that I didn't have anything to say, and in that case, it's better to keep silent. But I have been writing, and working on various stages of different books, and so here's a quick post of what's happening, and what books I hope will appear in 2016.

Have a very good and peaceful holiday.

Mister Memory
My second novel for the excellent people at Mulholland, Mister Memory is scheduled for July 2016, and is the final realisation of an idea I've tried to work with for a very long time, over a decade in fact. Inspired by the real story of Solomon Shereshevsky, it's the story of a man with a perfect memory. Shereshevsky was a Russian living in the early 20th century, who lived a pretty sad life due to his inability to forget. Mister Memory recounts the tale of Marcel Despréz, working in the clubs of Pigalle, Paris at the end of the 19th. It's a tale of murder and of power, but above all of the fact that in order to function, we have to find the balance between memory and forgetting.

Saint Death
October will (I hope) see the arrival of my next book for Orion. I've just finished the first draft, and am trying not to tinker with it for a while. It's set (literally) on the border of Mexico and the United States. It's about death, love, money, power, guns, gambling and lies. It's about three friends who are part of the kind of community that suffers greatly from the narco wars.

Blood Red, Snow White
If you're reading this in the States, however, it's more likely that the next YA book released will be this true story about an English writer and his small but significant role in the Russian Revolution. You can read more about it here.

Finally, I'm now working on a short book/long essay about one of my favourite subjects, for Little Toller. This is a beautiful series (have a look here) and I'm really happy to be adding to it. It's possible to write about anything, anywhere - but it's fun when what you're writing about is all around you. As I write these words from my new writing room in our new house in the French Alps, with snow lying thickly on the ground, my work as a writer is made that little bit easier.

That's it for 2016, but looking further ahead, 2017 should hopefully see the following books.

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black
After Dark Satanic Mills, my brother and I wanted to work on something else. This book is the result. It takes the Orpheus legend and recasts it during the Christmas of 1944 in London. Harry Black, conscientious objector, artist, is working as a fire warden as the doodlebugs and V2s pound the city towards oblivion. It's part novel, part graphic novel. There is exciting news about the artist for this one, but I'm not allowed to say who that might be, as yet.

Scarlett Hart: The Tentacles of Terror
Another collaboration, this time with my great friend Thomas Taylor. We've both posted bits and pieces about this long-running project for First Second Books, which has been beset by delays. We're both now happy to say it looks like it's back on track and I hope 2017 will see it emerge. Thomas is doing an amazing job with the art, he's a total natural for comics, and I can't wait to see the finished thing.

Friday, 12 June 2015

A short tale of international harmony

Some good people at Lenape High School, New Jersey, USA wrote to me asking if I knew whether Braille copies of She Is Not Invisible were available in America. They've chosen the book to be their One Book/One School title for 2015/2016 and wanted to make it accessible to a couple of blind/visually impaired students. The whole point of One Book/One School is to make a book available for everyone in the community to read, after all.

Sadly it seemed that there isn't a Braille edition in the US, so I thought it was worth asking the RNIB over here in the UK if they could help. They'd produced a Braille edition for publication day of She Is Not Invisible back in 2013, but I thought there might be some obstacles. I wasn't sure if UK Braille and US Braille are the same, for one thing, and for another thing Braille books are VERY expensive to make. That's the main reason why so few Braille books are produced (less than 1% of published titles) and that's a shame because it is terrible that being blind should stop you from having access to as many books as a sighted person. Yes, there are other options, and yes, not every blind person reads Braille, but when I spoke to various people when I was writing She Is Not Invisible I couldn't help but feel that some more money to make more books accessible to blind readers through Braille would be very welcome.

Fortunately for me, and for Lenape High School, the RNIB are just a truly wonderful organisation, and though their school is all the way over the ocean in another country, they made the decision to gift a Braille edition of the book to the school. (It turns out that UK and US Braille are almost identical: I'm told the differences are only when you come to write it, not read it).

The impact of this act of generosity is not just of benefit for the blind students, and to explain why, here's what Jaime Fauver, Media Specialist at Lenape High had to say when she received the book:

"It arrived yesterday and we are so excited about it! I spoke with our special education teachers and they are also excited - not only for students who are blind or near blind and read Braille but also for the other students in the MD classes (multiple disabled).  These students in this class suffer from a range of disabilities and the teachers are going to use this as an opportunity to discuss differences and unique challenges.  When we took the book to the classroom today, all of the students were fascinated and intrigued.  Most of the school materials for our partially/fully blind students are audio; however they know how to read Braille (we just didn't have the resources). The teachers are going to spend the last week of school turning this into a lesson about diversity and acceptance and how interesting and exciting each of the students' unique traits are!"

Diversity and acceptance. What better goals could we aim for?

Finally, the Photography II students at the school made a range of posters to advertise the book around the school, and put together this short video to showcase their work. It's worth looking at: there are some great interpretations in there, and some cover designers in the making, I think.

Finally, I want to say a massive thank you to Cathy Wright, Librarian at New College, Worcester for her ongoing advice when I don't know something about the unsighted world, to Lenape High for doing such good work with the book, and to the RNIB for their wonderful act of kindness.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Ghosts of Heaven numbers

I'm writing this post for those that have read The Ghosts of Heaven and have wondered about the page of numbers at the close of the book. I'm getting emails asking me to explain it, so it seemed a good idea to write this post so that I have somewhere I can direct people to. If you haven't read the book, I wouldn't bother reading on.

This is the page in question:

Most of the people writing to me by email have guessed that it is a code of some sort. To be precise, (and I use all my words very precisely), in cryptographic terms it's not a code, it's a cipher. I have been asked to explain what it means, but I don't want to do that for a number of reasons, the most important of which is, as Stanley Kubrick said, 'You tell people what things mean, they don't mean anything anymore.'

I am interested to find out if anyone can solve it, and how long it takes for that to happen if so, without any help from me. This blog post will be the only thing I have to say on the matter. I am the only person who knows what it means and how to decipher it - not even my editor or closest family know, so the answer will go with me to my grave. If this is irritating, I'm very sorry. One or two people have been rather rude and angry seeming in their emails to me, which I suppose I shouldn't be surprised about. Someone asked me what right I had to put something in a book they couldn't understand. Hmm. There's a worrying thought for you.

Anyway, I will say here what I have said to anyone who has written to me so far.

1 - Yes, it is a cipher.
2 - And yes, it can be deciphered: everything needed to do so is contained in the book.
3 - As I said above, I use my words precisely.

If you don't understand it, or if you can't be bothered to try to work out what it means (and let's be honest, why should you be?) then that's fine. Not everything in life can be, or has to be, understood. Perhaps that's one of the things I was trying to suggest with the book.

To quote the poem by James Sarafian that I used a part of in The Ghosts of Heaven, and which appears in full in Killing the Dead:

"It is enough to know that not to know is enough.
It is enough not to know."

Thursday, 26 February 2015


In the way that often happens, a seemingly chance series of conversations and references suddenly coalesce in your awareness, and something that’s been nagging at you as an indefinite feeling becomes realised in the broad daylight of your consciousness.

Over the past few weeks I have heard several references to the ‘YA genre’. I’ll come back to that nomenclature later. During the same period I have been witnessing a stream of books sent to me to review, or quote for, every single one of which was written in the first person present tense, with a certain breathless intensity of oh-my-weird-little-life.  Usually there’s cancer, death, divorce etc. thrown in to the mix. Let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing in the first person present in itself. Many good books have been written this way. Well, one or two, at least. But it made me wonder why so many books for young adults are being written in this way.

Many things determine the choice of narrative voice in a book; but I believe it’s of utmost important that whatever narrative voice is chosen, it is selected for what it can do for the book; how it will work technically, as well as the emotional impact it provides. Here’s an example of how the first person can go wrong; the most obvious limitation to it is that since you as the writer only have your protagonist’s voice at your disposal you can only convey to your reader things that the protagonist knows. That’s okay if the plot of your book will work fine that way, but problems ensue as a writer requires their reader to know things that the protagonist doesn’t. A very smart writer can find ways of signalling thing to the reader of which the protagonist themselves is unaware. Sadly the writer of the latest of such books sent to me did not seem to have coped with these limitations. The result was a text in which the protagonist was constantly overhearing things through walls, eavesdropping on phone calls, standing in doorways but remaining somehow unseen, and in the very best case of all declared ‘if I was in a bad movie I would jump into the closet now so I could hear their conversation. So, I jump into the closet.’ I’m actually not kidding.

So what? Well, I’m fearing that the world of YA books is eating itself. That its horizons are diminishing, its ambitions declining. Again, for the sake of clarity, I am not saying there are no adventurous new books for teenagers being published. There clearly are and you can of course tell me what you think they are in the comments, if you wish. That’s not my point. My point is that it feels as if the vast majority of new books for young adults fit into one of two broad types; there is a) what we might call The Twilight Games, and there is b) the breathless first person novel, or BFPN as I have started to call it, as described above.

And that’s why I think using the term YA as if it’s a genre is not helping matters. As anyone who’s ever heard me speak will know I am very wary of age ranging. Yes it’s inevitable, but overall I think it does more harm than good. At most, that’s all ‘YA’ should mean – a way of placing books in shops with a ROUGH idea that the titles may be appropriate for teenagers. What YA most definitely should not be is a genre. Genres exist; Fantasy, Sci Fi, Chick Lit, Dystopia etc etc etc. Fine. YA should not be on this list. Genres are by definition limiting.

For me, the hallmarks of the teenage experience are these: experimentation, rebellion, the thirst for originality. These things are what attracted me to write in the way I have been in the first place, and when I began, the term YA wasn’t really in use; they were just books for teenagers. They went in a certain section in the bookshop, and their breadth and variety was wonderful. Here, a book like Cider with Rosie could be shelved alongside Animal Farm alongside The Outsiders alongside The Chocolate War alongside Red Shift.

I fear that we are now at risk of operating in a ‘YA world’, in which we all; writers, teachers and students of creative writing, editors, agents, publishers are self-defining what a YA book is, and it seems that that definition is narrowing. It seems very hard to see beyond the two dominating behemoths I’ve listed above. As the book industry continues to adjust to a not-so-brave new world of online retailing, and so becomes ever tougher, publishers are under enormous pressure, and thus increasingly are tempted to make ever more timid decisions. As some will know, I worked in publishing for 18 years; I have seen such timidity occur, and breed: ‘We can get this book through acquisitions because it’s a bit like such and such’.

Perhaps I’m worrying about nothing. Perhaps all this just goes to show the validity of that old adage ‘80% of anything is rubbish’. And that that was always so. And if that’s so, then so be it. Let’s just try and ensure that the 80% doesn’t creep up to 95%.

It takes a bold publisher, one who believes in what they are doing, someone with the confidence of experience, or indeed of youth, to champion a book that is utterly unlike everything else that’s flooding the market. But it must be done, above all, in thinking about books that younger minds will respond to, it must be done, because the desire for the original is what the experience of being a teenager is all about.

YA is not a genre. Referring to it as such will only diminish us all.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

In Defence of the Young

This post first appeared at Project UKYA.

One quarter of The Ghosts of Heaven takes place in pre-history, and features a young woman on the verge of making the connection between the spoken word and making a mark. When she does, she will effectively have invented writing, one of the cornerstones of human civilisation.

I’ve written before on what I believe must be the oldest story in the world, or one of the oldest, at the very least, and it’s this: our hero goes into the Dark Space, to face the unknown, and returns triumphant, or fails, tragically. This is the story of Theseus in the labyrinth, of Orpheus in the underworld, of Bilbo in Gollum’s cave, and so on and so on. All these stories are, I believe, versions of what must have been told around the fire-pit in the early days of Mankind (which is hard to be exact about). Our primitive ancestors, (and I hate using the word primitive, they must have been pretty sophisticated by the standards of the time), often used caves, for safety and shelter, perhaps for sacred purposes, certainly as places they practiced the earliest forms of art. Caves like Lascaux and Chauvet in France are witness to human practices that are possibly 30,000 years old. Blombos in South Africa shows artistic activity on an organised basis that is possibly 100,000 years old. For whatever reason, we needed to go into those caves. But what might be waiting there? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps a beast of some kind, a lion, bear or wolf? And what tales would have been told of the brave hunter who first ventured into the darkness. We have such a strong, limbic link to darkness, and I think this is why; are inner, collective memories have not forgotten the fear of voyaging into the dark unknown.

Once we had claimed a cave as safe, then we could begin to use it; the art in the caves mentioned above and many others is breathtakingly powerful. I’ve visited a few of these caves over the years, and there is still, tens of thousands of years later, a strong magic about the things depicted on the walls. What’s been revealed relatively recently is that at least some of this art was made by teenagers, and even children. Some of the commentary on this discovery is revealing in itself - it wants to place this Stone Age adolescent art in the same vein as the graffiti of modern times; testosterone-induced markings by young adults to express their clumsy urges. As so often with media representations of the teenager, we are shown the negative and reprehensible. But there’s another way of looking at our image of the teenager.

As recent research has shown, the teenage brain operates differently from that of the child and the adult. Some of the all-too-well rehearsed comments about teenager behaviour; from their sleeping endlessly, to their desire to experiment, take risks and so on, seem to be explained by this new neuroscience. The usual conclusion to this is; well, there, you see – they may be annoying but it’s not their fault they behave so badly, it’s their brain chemistry. But there’s another way to look at this.

Let’s go back to our Stone Age society again (not literally. I like toothpaste and dishwashers). The Stone Age itself is an enormous period of time. Forget the 100,000 years before the present mentioned above; that’s recent history. The Stone Age began, when our earliest ancestors began using stone tools, around two and a half million years ago. This is the time not of our own species homo sapiens, but of other human species from whom we are descended, such as homo habilis. The Stone Age lasts a VERY long time, and there are different names for different parts of it, but by and large things are more or less crawling forward (a bit of antler use here, some flaking of flints there) until we get to around a mere 80,000 years ago. From then until around 30,000 years ago, there is a sudden acceleration in what Anthropologists call “cumulative technological evolution”, resulting in what they like to call “behavioural modernity” which basically means we’re painting pictures, building homes, creating systems of belief and no longer dragging our knuckles in the dirt.

What was the life expectancy in the Stone Age? Contrary to popular belief, while the average life span was perhaps only around 18-20 years, the maximum was much higher, perhaps 60 years old – but nevertheless, this means that a large proportion of the population would have been young.

I think it’s very likely that the teenage brain is the way it is for a very good reason. Evolution doesn’t tend to keep its experiments for the sake of it; natural selection keeps those traits that prove useful to the development of the species, the others tend to die out. So could it be that the teenage brain, with all its experimentation and risk-taking, was just what our species needed to accelerate out of the Middle Stone Age and into the Late, when we began to behave in a much more recognisably modern way? Don’t forget that at this point in evolution, we are living alongside other human species; Neanderthals being the most celebrated. There is evidence that we interbred with the Neanderthal to an extent, but however it happened, homo sapiens out-evolved everyone else, became the dominant species, and the rest as they say, is history.

It’s also now believed that everyone in the world from North and South America, Asia, Australia and Europe is descended from a very small founding group from Africa, of maybe just a few hundred individuals. Times were hard; many populations must have entirely perished, ending that branch of our species for all time. If homo sapiens was to flourish, we needed as many families to survive as possible, and luckily for us, 14 distinct populations survived in Africa, and one made it out of Africa to found the rest of the world. So maybe there’s something good to say about those risk-taking, experimenting teenagers. Maybe they were the ones who invented things, such as the girl in The Ghosts of Heaven who’s on the cusp of inventing writing. Maybe they were the ones responsible for the survival of our charming, respectful, spiritual and caring species, homo sapiens. Whether that’s a good thing or not, is of course, a topic for another day.