"Intelligent, complex and wholly satisfying, Dark Heart is a cut above the average horror novel." - Words With Jam magazine

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Pig Farmer's Burden... Southern Noir?

Shenandoah’s fall issue (Noir) is now live, so if you’d like to take a gander at my short story The Pig Farmer’s Burden, as well as the other great stories, you can.  Also take a look at the editor’s note (Rod Smith), a thoughtful piece about the nature of noir, and its parameters.  When I submitted the story I pegged it more as a Southern Gothic tale, but on reading Rod’s piece I realised I’ve also ticked more than a few “Noir” boxes by pure coincidence. 

I never set out to write a noir piece, nor did I set out to write a Sothern Gothic, I set out to write the story I was compelled to write, a story about two very different men who share a common burden.  If I had set out to write a piece of noir or Southern Gothic fiction, I dare say it would have been filled with clich├ęs common to its respective genres and become a pale imitation of both.  And so from this accidental formula I’ve come up with a hard and fast rule for myself and my future work: 

Write about the characters first, about their lives, and let the genre take care of itself.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Graham Joyce, postscript...

I was extremely saddened to learn of the recent passing of author Graham Joyce.  I didn’t know Graham as such, but I was lucky enough to spend some time with him over a few beers at a convention in Brighton in 2011.  It was getting on for late, and the bar was rammed to the rafters with writers, and no doubt Graham had dozens of friends within spitting distance he would rather have been talking to, but if that was the case, he didn’t show it.   

We chatted for well over an hour (two rounds each if I remember), and in that time Graham could not have been more generous with his insights of publishing and his route into writing and his career thus far.  He pointed out to me every industry professional in the bar I needed to talk to (Just tell them Graham sent you), and every novelist in the room that would do me no harm to read (He’s a very good writer, and him, he’s excellent, you should read him).  All the while we talked I kept thinking: I’m talking to Graham Joyce, and Graham Joyce has just bought me a beer… I’d like to say he wore his success lightly, but honestly, I don’t think he even registered it. 

The following morning I saw Graham again at breakfast, and not wanting to be the clingy newbie I didn’t go out of my way to make I contact, but he spotted me across the dining hall and came over to say hello.  As I was leaving the convention early, I wished him luck for the awards ceremony later that day, as Graham had a novel in the running for an award.  “It’s always nice to win an award,” Graham said, “but I’ve won quite a few of them now – it’d be nice to see one of the younger writers take it.”  

Like I said, a generous man.




Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Thespian: A Ghost Story, But Not As We Know It

Progress on my current novel, The Thespian, reached a bit of a milestone this week, as I passed the 100k word mark. It also brings me very close to finishing the second act.  I’ve chosen to use the classic three act format, both in style and structure, because the theme of the story cried out for it, and for a few other reasons too: 

The Story 

I’ve always had a great love of film, and an endless fascination about actors and their processes.  When I read stories about how an actor prepares for a part – how obsessively they try to inhabit the character… well… I can’t help but love them a little for it, even the self-important and temperamental ones.  To be good at something you need to have passion, and passionate people can sometimes be self-important and temperamental.  Acting is an art form, and the spectrum of seriousness in which it is undertaken is as wide as it is in any other art form.  For me that made enticing subject matter to build my ghost story around. 

The Place 

The King George Playhouse is the derelict theatre and the stage, so to speak, for my ghost story.  It’s inspired by the Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester, and if you search the internet you can find hundreds of beautiful photographs of this amazing Grade 2 listed building.  Derelict buildings have a haunted quality to them anyway, but the Hulme Hippodrome spoke to me as soon as I saw the auditorium.  I just couldn’t see my characters on any other stage.


The Players

My main character is called Owen Youngblood, and as much as I want him to represent the new generation of actor, I want him to have an old-school feel about him – more James Dean than Robert Pattinson, but still in an English sort of way.  As with every character I write though, it’s a learning process, and I discover more about the person as I go, and so when I get to the end of a first draft I say “Oh, that’s who you really are”, and then rewrite through their lens.  I already know that Owen needs dirtying up a little, but that could change by the end of the first draft.  As for my ghost, he is far clearer in my mind. 

Theodore Savage is based in no small way on Laurence Olivier.  I’ve studied old archive footage of Olivier’s interviews, and my apologies go out to any of his friends and family as this is blind observation, but Sir Laurence had the definite air of a man who knew he was better than yow.  He seemed to maintain an open lie of being one with the common man, but at the same time believing he was beheld in awe, and rightly so, in his mind.  Other research into Olivier’s acting career has turned up stories that could support my observation, but whether or not it holds water, it serves Theodore Savage as a characterisation perfectly.  Just look at this picture of Olivier.  This is the smug look I imagine on Savage’s face when I’m writing him:

A Ghost Story, But Not As We Know It 

The other reason I’m using the three acts for style and structure is because I want a classic feel.  The Thespian is a ghost story, for sure, but different.  I want the reader to get comfortable (and uncomfortable) in an easy chair they think they’ve sat in before, so when they finish the story and finally look down, they realise they’ve not been sitting in a chair at all.  Then I want the reader to say, “Wow.”  


Friday, 28 March 2014

SHENANDOAH to publish The Pig Farmer's Burden

I’m absolutely thrilled to share the news that my Southern Gothic short story The Pig Farmer’s Burden is going to be published by none other than Shenandoah Magazine.  For those of you (Brits) who are not familiar with the publication, Shenandoah is the Literary Review published by Washington and Lee University in Virginia.  It was founded in 1950 by a group of faculty members and undergraduates, among them a certain Tom Wolfe, and names National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners among its list of contributors, names such as Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, James Merrill, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and more recently, Joyce Carol Oates, Rita Dove, and Claudia Emerson.

To have my work published in such a prestigious journal along with these titans of the literary world naturally fills me with an immense amount of pride, and as career moments go (if indeed I can call it a career at this early stage), will always remain one of the very brightest highlights.   

The Pig Farmer’s Burden won’t be appearing until October, but if you head over there now you can check out some of the wonderful stories already published in Shenandoah, for free.


Monday, 3 February 2014

Damn, he was good...

It was very sad to hear the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing last night.  From a fan’s perspective (which is the only perspective I have other than being a lifetime member of the same club as he: the Human Race), it’s a gutshot to an industry I love.  As a writer this is hard to admit, but it’s a truer love than I have for books.   

I love literature, but in my pursuit of becoming a better writer I have had to make certain sacrifices to my enjoyment of it.  I’ve had to study style and tone and pace and structure and characterisation and all the stuff that combines to make a great book.  When I read nowadays, it’s rare that I can switch off the analytical side of my brain and just enjoy the story for what it is.  I can see the mechanics – the author’s cogs turning beneath the surface.  The truly great writers can sometimes make me switch this side of my brain off, and in those rare and beautiful moments I am regressed back to when I had no aspirations about writing, and I can just enjoy the story.  But it’s rare.

Films are different for me, and I’ve tried very hard to keep it that way.  I know there are certain directors that I like, but I don’t want to go out of my way to know why I like them.  I don’t want to recognise their styles and habits or know too much about their influences other than what I pick up naturally, just by sitting down and watching the films and letting them seep into me via osmosis.  I don’t want to be conscious of the mechanics.  I just want to escape.

With the actors though, it’s a little of both.  I’m an unabashed movie fan, and I have unabashedly bought into the allure of movie stars my whole life, but I’m not talking about the glitzy stars, I’m talking about the purists, that rarer breed that treats his or her work as an art form.  I like them serious and uncompromising, and above all I like them to be good.  Like literature, ‘good’ is a subjective thing, but you’d have to be in a coma not to see that Hoffman was very, very good.  When you’re watching a Bruce Willis movie, you’re watching Bruce Willis.  When you’re watching Hoffman, you’re watching whoever it is he wants you to see, be it a New York drag queen, an eccentric southern writer, or a sleazy tabloid journalist.  When you’re there and in the moment with him, he’s like one of those great writers who can hide the process, but when the film is over you can look back on what has just passed and say, ‘Damn, he was good...’ 
July 1967 ~ February 2014

Wednesday, 1 January 2014


I’m a slow reader.  On average I read a book a month, which if you are not a math wizard equates to a measly 12 books a year.  I’m 43 years old, and if I give myself an optimistic 40 more years on this earth, I’ll have read another 480 books, approximately.  480 sounds like an okay number.  It’s a lot of books.  A lot of stories.  But look at it from a different perspective. 

Of the 12 books I read a year, only 1 or 2 are great.  3 or 4 perhaps are better than average, and another 3 or 4 perhaps are good solid reads but nothing special.  What’s left is 3 or 4 books that were, to my mind, a waste of 3 or 4 months of my reading calendar.  I’m never getting that time back. 

As a writer I could say that those terrible books were a necessary evil, and that in order to become a better writer I needed to experience the bad along with the good.  In fact, I know this to be true.  I’ve learned without question as much from the bad books as I have from the good ones, maybe more.  The problem now is that I’ve read all the different shades of bad; a quarter of my reading life thus far has been devoted to terrible books.  Back then I wasn’t experienced enough to recognise them as quickly as I do now, and so kept reading to the end.  Now I just ditch them because life’s too short and I can only read so many books, so why waste time on the poorly written ones? 

There’s another reason why I am a slow reader: I read attentively, and read as though I am reading to somebody else – as though I am speaking the story to somebody else.  This means I read at a pace I believe the writer intended his or her text to be read, because the writer was concerned with tone and cadence and atmosphere and all that other writerly stuff, as I am.  I mention this because I know a few booklovers who don’t read this way.  

I have a friend who is a devourer of books.  He can read a book in an evening and often does, but he can do this because he skips the descriptive passages and concentrates on the dialogue.  I’ve told him many times that the writer has spent as much time on the descriptive passages as any other.  The writer has considered every word that goes down on the page because each passage is an interlinking thread in the tapestry of the whole.  A song wouldn’t be as emotionally effective if all the instrumental bridges were taken out, even though you’d still know what the song was about by the end. 

Another friend recently told me she reads two or three books a week and that she can read 100 pages an hour.  I asked if she skimmed the text or speed read, and she said she did both.  Who am I to say if she’s getting the full story reading in this way, but I’m pretty sure she isn’t getting the full experience.  Try speed reading for yourself and see if you don’t slip into monotone.  Is all the info going in?  I’ll be generous and say probably.  Is the tone, cadence, atmosphere, and the musicality of language being allowed to have its desired effect?  I’ll be generous again and say possibly. 

I talked with a different friend about this, and he agreed to a point, because he reads at the same pace as me, but he also didn’t have a problem skipping the slow parts of a story to get to the action. 

Who’s right and who’s wrong here?  I think the answer is nobody’s right or wrong.  We each read for different reasons and seek different things from writers and their stories.  I’d rather quit on a book I thought was poor or wasn’t enjoying rather than skim or skip passages, but I do want to read a greater number of books before I leave this earth, and certainly more than 480 if only a tiny percentage of these will be great.  But I can do no better than 20 pages an hour before the text starts sounding flat and monotone and the full experience is diminished, so what is the answer? 

The answer is finding more time to read, so I’m making that my New Year’s resolution. I'll keep you posted on my progress.

What?  I don’t smoke!

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Southern Comfort...

After a little tweaking I resubmitted my short story The Pig Farmer’s Burden to the Bridport Prize.  It was shortlisted last year and so I’d hoped it might fare better this year, but alas, it was shortlisted again.  I’m still thrilled of course, to have a story recognised in such a prestigious literary prize is more than encouraging, but I think next year I’ll submit something different, and try and find a home for my Pig Farmer elsewhere.  Here’s how it starts: 

The first time I set eyes on Lloyd Toomey was on the far side of my north field.  From a distance he didn’t look much thicker than the fencepost he was stood next to, and as I neared, he didn’t flesh-out none, either.  A dozen or so of the larger sows was gathered at the fence, all pushin and shovin to get their turn at the somethin-or-other Lloyd was dealin from a cloth bag.  The pigs seemed to like whatever it was, but I didn’t.  Not a bit. 

Whatever happens to the story, the experience of writing in this style has been invaluable.  The novel I’m planning to write after my current work in progress (The Thespian) is going to be a Southern Gothic, and although the story will be framed in the present day, the bulk of it will be set in 1920s Deep South.  And in a world in which things are often gene-spliced to compare with other things, I can say that A Wish for Connie Harris will be something like The Road meets Big Fish, without being anything like either.  Make sense?
My agent liked the outline, and The Bridport Prize seemed to like the style, so I’m hoping a publisher is going to like A Wish for Connie Harris when I finally tie it all together.  We shall see…