Perennial update

The Breach, or the novel that very nearly did me in, is structurally edited and back for copy edits at Titan. It’ll be out in March 2020, and a cover design will follow soon.

I’m beavering away on the next thing, working title Mothertown. It’s a maddening experience, and I’m enjoying it. That’s masochism for you.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be at Edge-Lit 6 in Derby, where I’m interviewing guest of honour Anne Charnock about her work. I think the world of Anne and I love her stuff, so it’s an honour to have been asked. On top of that, Edge-Lit has a keen focus on genre writing craft, in a single concentrated day of goodness – bag yourself a ticket!

Lastly, and definitely not leastly, our second son was born a couple of weeks ago. We couldn’t be more proud, or more grateful to the midwives and doctors who delivered him while keeping Suze safe. He’s a belter, but the jury’s out on whether he’ll be ginger.

Recent entertainment

Paternity leave gave me a good excuse to finally finish Tim Major’s excellent Snakeskins. It’s set in a stunted, parochial alt-UK in which a group of people called Charmers renew themselves in a process called ‘shedding’, which briefly creates a clone. This marvellous (and bonkers) idea is fully explored and, pleasingly, played straight. It’s been compared to Wyndham, and with good reason: the book has a strange, timeless quality, in part owing to its setting, but also because Tim brings real humanity to characters that in different hands might fall flat in the face of such a strong concept.

Vicki Jarrett’s Always North is published by Unsung Stories this October. I read an advance copy of this one, and I’m so chuffed I did – it’s a wonderful, beautifully written novel you should definitely keep your eyes peeled for. Here’s my take: Told in glowing prose, Always North confronts the oncoming future with power, wit and originality. Come for the intrigue of a mission into the changing Arctic; stay for the ingenious shift to an England shattered by rising water. It will mesmerise you.

I’m also about two-thirds through Widow’s Welcome by D.K. Fields. I’m the first to admit I’m not much of a fantasy reader – but here’s a book that’s doing very interesting things with form and approach, with a properly intriguing crime hook. Stories within stories, political games and deceit, served in a buttery style.

Next up I’ve got Svetlana Alexievich’s Boys in Zinc (aka Zinky Boys), an oral history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and Aliya Whiteley’s The Loosening Skin, which I want to read before the Clarke Award is announced (and Aliya hopefully wins).

(On the Alexievich theme, the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl needs no more praise but deserves it anyway. Properly magnificent stuff.)

‘How’s your book going?’

This usually means, ‘How may copies has the book sold, and are you rich now?’ To which the answer is always, ‘I don’t know yet, and I’ll never be rich writing the weird shit I keep writing.’ But here’s the answer I prefer to give: I’m incredibly grateful for Zero Bomb’s readers and the responses it’s had – including my very first national press review in the Guardian. It was a project that mattered a lot when I was writing it, and the Titan team have done an amazing job getting it out there. Vainly, I’ve collated its reviews on this page.

William Gibson writes of not really knowing what his books are about until people start reading them. By way of categorisation, ‘post-Brexit dystopia’ seems to be the way in for Zero Bomb, and it’s been gratifying to see people engage with some of the stuff that drove it – the ongoing devastation of austerity; the UK’s slide down a dehumanising gig-economy hole; 2016’s toxic EU referendum and its resulting chaos; our rotten and recursive news cycle; the absolute state of the psychopaths who run this country.

Semi-autonomous drone-foxes aside, I still see most of the book’s setting as probable – not least because simple projections will carry you a long way into grim territory. I got into some more of that in two interviews during promo season – you can read them here and here.

A bit of fretting

It should go without saying that I’m privileged to be published, to find readers, to earn a little money from the process. In fact I’m lucky to be able to write fiction at all – spare time being the truest luxury in this world. But I want to be honest about self-promotion. There are certain expectations that go with the book-writing territory (albeit some imagined or exacerbated by anxious thinking), and one of those is that I will push my work and help to justify my editors and publishers’ faith in it. Six years after my first publication, I’m still working out what feels comfortable, as opposed to what feels plain gross or performative. Something about the tension between writing as expression and book as commodity. In the simplest terms, I’m squeamish about finding ways to condense 70,000 words into a snappy, snackable, shareable one-liner, never mind having the balls to ask for someone to part ways with their cash. So while I’m happy and proud to announce my work, to share reviews (cough), and of course to be read, there’s no getting away from the fact the promotional game has been highly/callously optimised, and you have to play along. And it doesn’t always sit right.

This feeling links in to why I’m ever-more skeptical about posting word counts or any kind of writing ‘productivity’ metrics, and why I distrust anything that tries to quantify a form that should resist quantification by default. When, idly vanity-searching one day (cough), you discover a team of researchers is using a system to analyse novels’ ‘emotional story arcs’, based on the words contained in them, you have to wonder. Word counts, data ‘insights’, targets, clickbait, pleading for retweets… besides meeting deadlines and/or your own satisfaction, what does this kind of weird competitive economy do to fiction?

Maybe it’s my day job as a copywriter fuelling this – there’s only so many times you can hear writing called ‘content’ before you want to boil your own head – but creating stuff inside capitalism is a topic I find both compelling and uncomfortable. It’s also one I intend to try and do something with in the next couple of years.

Until next time!

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