Saturday 26 July 2014

How Very Curious...

Our home for the weekend
I spent last weekend under canvas (particularly excellent canvas, as it happens, as the picture on the left plainly demonstrates), at the Curious Arts Festival. This is a new event from, I think, the same organisers of the Voewood Festival, which I went to a couple of years ago. Set in the beautiful grounds of Pylewell Park near Lymington in Hampshire (not far from where I grew up), the festival featured a diverse line-up of authors, musicians, and other performers across the two-and-a-bit days from Friday afternoon to Sunday night.

My other half and I made it our mission to to see as many author talks as we could. And there were some fantastic writers there - from Costa Book of the Year winner Nathan Filer to the Man Booker-shortlisted Deborah Levy, from all-round comedy superstar Rebecca Front to BBC National Short Story Prize shortlist regular MJ Hyland. All of them had a lot of interesting stuff to say about the process of writing, that odd compulsion some of us have to take what we see going on around us and try to make sense of it by noting it down. I could listen to writers talk about writing all day, so it was a pleasure to be able to do just that for a couple of days.

The house at Pylewell Park
I don't intend to make this post a review of the festival (suffice to say I really enjoyed it, despite a few very minor teething troubles. The festival will, I hope, return next year, bigger and even better). And I could waffle on for hours about the various authors and the different things they said about how they do what they do. But I think the most important thing I learnt from the weekend wasn't any of the things that the authors did differently. It was the one thing they all did the same: they finished what they started, whatever it took. It sounds simple, but there's an awful lot more to it than just starting typing at Point A and not stopping until they reached Point B.

Several of the authors talked about how they'd worked on their books (particularly their début novels) for five or six years. Lottie Moggach (author of acclaimed thriller Kiss Me First) said her novel had started off as a science fiction book before she found a way of rooting it in the present day. The change in setting opened up the story to her and took it from being an idea she was playing around with to a novel she could actually finish. Nathan Filer's Shock of the Fall grew from a couple of sentences that popped into his head after work one day; although they didn't actually make it into the novel, those few words told him everything he needed to know about his protagonist. It took numerous drafts to fit the tone of the book to those few words, but he kept tweaking it until he'd found the perfect voice for his narrator. MJ Hyland jettisoned 33,000 words of her work-in-progress when she realised she was writing about her main character as a grown man, when in fact the real story was about him as a child. The list goes on.

These revelations were depressing and inspiring in equal measure. Depressing because I've been treating the completion of the first big redraft of my novel as pretty much the final stage. Yet that - when it comes - will only be the next step in the journey. There'll be a lot more work to do afterwards and none of it will be easy. Inspiring because not so long ago all these writers whose books I see on the shelves of my local Waterstones were in the same position as me, chipping away at a novel with no real idea of whether anybody else would ever want to read it and only a sliver of self-belief to convince them it was all worthwhile. They stuck at it, carrying on where most people throw in the towel, turning a blind eye to the distracting sparkliness of Other Ideas, and then sending it out to agents and publishers even though they could only ever hope to be one among thousands all vying for the same few slots on a publisher's list. That's the main thing I took from the weekend: it's not easy, but it's possible, and the only thing that's guaranteed to stop me is giving up.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Review: "Burnt Island" by Alice Thompson

A struggling author accepts an invitation to stay on a mysterious island in the middle of nowhere while he tries to write a horror bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
Image from Salt Publishing's website
I feel I should use a hushed tone to begin this review, because what I'm about to say may result in people with pitchforks and flaming torches chasing me down the street. Here goes, then. Despite the seemingly universal acclaim with which the Man Booker-shortlisted The Lighthouse by Alison Moore was received, when I read it I found myself somewhat bemused by the tsunami of adulation that had washed over Twitter and swept the novel up the charts and onto a lot of Book of the Year lists. Although I enjoyed the writing (and am keen to read Moore's collection of shorts, The Pre-War House and Other Stories), the story itself and the central characters didn't really press the right buttons for me.

So my heart sank a little when I picked up another novel from Salt Publishing, Alice Thompson's Burnt Island, and discovered that it too opens with a hapless, awkward chap undertaking a journey by ferry. Max Long, Thompson's protagonist, is perhaps marginally more successful in life than Moore's disaster-prone Futh, but as the ferry rolls on the rough sea and casts Max's luggage into the waves you know that he's not somebody upon whom good fortune has any particular interest in shining, either. But I was pleased to find that that's where the similarities ended, and Burnt Island turned out to be very much my kind of book.

Max is an author with a back catalogue of unsuccessful literary novels. Having been awarded a writing fellowship on Burnt Island, he steps off the boat with little more than the clothes he's wearing and a vague plan of penning a schlocky horror story - a novel written with a cynical eye on the bestseller charts. He's selling out; is he, perhaps, selling his soul? After being attacked by a gull and spending a disturbed night in what he first believes is a tiny stone cottage but turns out to be a pebble-dashed caravan that rocks in the wind (the first of many things on the island that are not what they seem), Max is invited to stay with James Fairfax. In some ways, Fairfax is the struggling writer's nemesis, an author whose debut novel achieved both huge critical acclaim and stellar sales - sufficient to keep him living in luxury for years. The world eagerly awaits Fairfax's next masterpiece, and Max is jealous of the other man's success almost to the point of hatred, yet convinced that staying with him will somehow be the key to breaking through his writer's block and hitting the big time.

Once he takes up residence in Fairfax's house, things really get strange for Max. He develops an obsessive interest in the beautiful Rose, who he first assumes to be a maid, although it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between her and Fairfax is far more complicated than that. Shadowy figures seem to be watching and following him wherever he goes. He encounters huge stones that appear to move by themselves, runs into numerous doppelgangers, and experiences deeply unsettling visions. Is any of it actually happening, or is the horror novel he's trying to write affecting his mind? As Max's grip on reality starts to falter, he discovers a sinister secret about the book that made Fairfax's fortune, and begins to uncover the mystery of what happened to his predecessor, the last author to accept the Burnt Island writing fellowship... and who was never seen again.

There are many nods to established horror tropes in the book, and it all gets a bit meta in places, particularly when Max finds a disturbing passage from a manuscript Rose is working on, featuring a protagonist called - as you might expect - Max. All this trickery is done extremely well, though, with the horror movie cliches adding to the story and the island's mystery rather than undermining it. Thompson's writing is direct and unfussy without being too sparse or detached, and she keeps up the pace throughout. I loved how there are numerous interpretations you could apply to the novel; it's a story that stuck in my head for a long time after reading it and I'd recommend it to anybody looking for something a little less straightforward than your typical thriller, particularly if you're also a fan of the low-key horror of The Wicker Man and the isolation and creeping insanity of The Shining.

Salt Publishing will be reissuing a couple of Thompson's previous books soon, including The Existential Detective. On the strength of Burnt Island, I'll definitely check them out.