Hubris

One of the joys of modern life is that someone somewhere has probably started a podcast on your favourite topic.  Literature is no exception, and I’ve found recently than one of my favourites is The Moment, hosted by Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the TV series Billions.

The reason I like it is because it endeavours to get under the skin of the guest and find out how and why they do what they do.  It’s not just committed to writers, there have been actors, even politicians, but I find the author based episodes the most revealing, and the latest, with Don Winslow, author of The Force and The Cartel (one of my books of 2016), to be one of the best so far.

Writers talking about their creative routines are an endless fascination for me, despite everyone doing it differently and there being no magic bullet. Winslow started on yellow manuscript paper with nothing more than a title for his first book, no outline, nothing. Now he writes for ten hours a day starting at 5.30am, which makes me feel positively lazy.  And a phrase he used really hit me between the eyes – write like you’re afraid of getting caught.  Exactly how it is.

What really interested me is when the discussion moved on to hubris.  Because wanting to be a writer is very much a tale of opposites.  You need the ego to say with confidence that your writing is worthy of the readers money, and more importantly, their time.  When you are struggling, as I am now with my latest novel, it’s difficult to approach your work with this confidence, almost arrogance that your work is worth it. Once you have success under your belt, which Winslow does (and well deserved it is too), it is easier to come to the page with less fear, and he talks really well about this.  The danger of course is when this slips into hubris. Hubris is interesting because it doesn’t necessarily stem from high self-esteem, it’s more an inflated sense of self-importance compared to a perhaps more modest reality.  The conflict between these two extreme states is a pitfall many writers experience and is one I can really relate to.

There are tons more titbits to chew over from this episode and all I want to do really is give the podcast my whole-hearted recommendation.  Two writers talking candidly about the craft is a joy to listen to. The back catalogue of episodes has some great archive material too – Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Block are two that stand out in my mind.  It’s a podcast that makes you think, and best of all for any budding writer, helps you realises that a) you aren’t alone and b) the bad times and the rejection letters are something every writer goes through. Which is nice to hear when you really need it.

2016: The Reading Year

When I joined Goodreads earlier on this year, I decided to set myself a reading challenge.   For no reason other than it’s a nice round number I went for 100 books for the year.  And though I didn’t quite get there, I’m still pretty pleased with 94.  I did it more to gain a yardstick for how much I do actually read, but undertaking the challenge did have an effect on my reading habits.  100 books equates to nearly two a week, so unless you’re both voracious and very quick, anything of length is out of the equation.  So I found it a bit limiting, and the reason I probably did fail is because I got caught up in a couple of 700+ page books which slowed me down considerably.

I did enjoy doing it, as it is nice to have something to focus on, it sharpens the mind.  But I don’t think I will be attempting to read as many books in 2017.  I already have a couple of hefty tomes in the queue for January and it will be pleasant to be able to immerse myself in them without worrying about falling behind.

So, of those 94 read, here are my ten favourites of the year, in no particular order:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings.  A bit of a cheat this one as I started it in December 2015, but what a book for my first completed novel of 2016.  A sprawling epic of Jamaican society set against the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   Multiple characters drawn expertly by James, stunning dialogue and patois, and some intense scenes of violence that take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses.  I had the pleasure of reading the entire Border Trilogy this year and for me the opening novel of the three is the best.  McCarthy’s descriptions of landscape in the American West are breathtaking and break your heart at the same time.  The love story at this book’s core is beautifully written and tinged with a sadness that left a lump in my throat.  Take a couple of weeks and read all three, you won’t regret it.

Willy Vlautin – The Free.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about this bloke since I read his first novel The Motel Life many moons ago.  Why? His books talk of the American underclass with a kindness and compassion that is incredibly uplifting.  Which is something we can all use at the best of times.  His band Richmond Fontaine are great, too.

Michel Houllebecq – Submission.  This novel about an Islamic takeover of the French political system is everything you want this type of fiction to be – controversial, amazingly prescient, thought-provoking and angry.  Best of all for me is amongst all this is some of the darkest, funniest prose I’ve read in many a year.  A stunner.

Raymond Carver – Elephant and other stories.  He’s not the best short story writer there’s ever been for a laugh, you know.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Devil All The Time.  Discovering a new writer when they are as good as this is always a joy.  This dark, ultra-violent slice of American Gothic hit me like a sledgehammer when I read it, such is it’s visceral force.  Pollock worked in a paper mill for over 30 years before being published which gives me hope, too!

James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss.  Resdiscovering Crumley has been a highlight of the year. I read some of his books years ago and filled in a couple of gaps in 2016.  This, the first of the C.W Sughrue novels, is a bona-fide classic which contains possibly the finest opening paragraph in crime fiction history.  Read it with alcohol.

Ross Macdonald – The Galton Case.  I thought long and hard before including this but it deserves a spot.  Macdonald’s books are briliantly plotted and run so perfectly you can’t see the joins.  Couple this with stark, lovely description and brilliant dialogue and you have some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

Ryan Gattis – All Involved.  The Los Angeles riots of 1992 provide the backdrop for this multi-dimensional novel.  The narrative voice is exceptional, and the sixteen characters never become repetitive or blur into each other.  A great, great book.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart.  The novel as journal can provide an intimacy that can hook the reader immediately.  This does that and more, and the life of Logan Mountstuart draws you in and chops away at your heart bit by bit.  I think about this book a lot –  a really tremendous read which I would recommend to anybody.

It was also good to tick off a couple of classics in Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers, and I also delved into Lawrence Block’s back catalogue and had an enjoyable few weeks with his unique style of noir.  Hhhh by Laurent Binet was a highlight that just missed out, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was also close.  All in all reading has been the same comfort this year as it always has, and I continue to be very grateful for the unadulterated joy it gives me.

 

 

The Master of Splatterpunk

Over the last few months, in between reading for my book club, I’ve been having great pangs of nostalgia for the books that first set my literary wheels spinning when I was a teenager. I’ve written a little on this blog before about my formative years of reading, which were a great source of pleasure. As always in life, time moves on and a novelist or genre that was once captivating moves into the background to be replaced by newer tastes. Those early likes retain a special place in the heart of the reader but generally are not revisited too much, perhaps for the fear of ruining an early memory or discovering that perhaps the writer wasn’t as good as originally thought.
It’s for this reason that I rarely go back to those writers. Some, Stephen King being the most obvious example, are writers I’ve picked up in my teens and carried them with me ever since. With King it’s due to his sheer variety and amazing ability to write disturbing, compelling fiction that always contains an ‘everyman’ quality. His originality always kept me coming back too, the man has an incredible imagination and is never constricted to the horror genre as some of his critics might suggest. Basically, you never know what you are going to get.
Others though I grew out of pretty quickly. I was a voracious reader of Dean Koontz back in the day, and devoured his early mysteries and suspense thrillers. He wrote about serial killers and some pretty disturbing characters with a cool, calculating eye which I found fascinating. A lot of his early work had a sort of ‘Area 51’ flavour, where a group of characters stumbled across some secret that had the chance to change the world, and not necessarily for the better. He wrote a few like this but Strangers is the one that I remember most vividly. I loved how Koontz built up the suspense until the big reveal where the secret was unveiled, and his characters, though plentiful, were always drawn with emotion and background.
But I just stopped reading his books after a while. I can still remember when it happened – I forget the name of the novel but it contained the sentence ‘Fric in a fracas.’ Just one sentence, which jarred with me that none of his writing had before. My reading experience had widened substantially by then and I just thought, ‘this is poor prose,’ and put the book down. Maybe you don’t notice these things as a teenager, or you don’t care. You just get swept up in the story. But once I had gained more knowledge of the craft of writing and read more widely little bits of prose started to wind me up when I read them. ‘Fric in a fracas’ is by no means the worst of it, but I hated the unnecessary cleverness of it and still do. Sadly, I haven’t returned to Koontz since.
But the one writer who I have gone back to is the US horror and splatterpunk writer of the 80s and 90s Richard Laymon. This guy was barely known in his home country but had a small cult following in the UK, which is where I first picked him up in the mid 90s. I know why I enjoyed his books back then, for they are extraordinarily graphic in every sense of the word. Firstly, the books are drenched in gore. Laymon had a no-holds-barred attitude to scenes of violence. Characters are decapitated in any number of ways by a range of mostly insane serial killer types. The villains were sadistic and more often than not no explanation was given for their insanity. I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first got into Laymon. There are arguments all the time about violence in video games and films and their effect on impressionable youths, but very little is ever said about books. I was astonished that he could get away with it, and as a 15 year old, thrilled that he was. It felt like my little secret when I read Laymon, the fact that my Dad didn’t have any idea what I was reading gave an extra layer of excitement to proceedings.
And boy oh boy, the sex scenes. There are some extremely graphic passages in Laymon’s work, too many to mention. Group sex, masturbation, lesbian scenes, extensive descriptions of foreplay, you name it. His novel Body Rides is the most explicit book I have ever read. Again, for a hormonal teenager this was an intoxicating thrill, and again, I was staggered that this sort of writing was free and available. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no advocate of censorship, but to discover this sort of stuff was out there waiting to be read was an amazing discovery at the time and a little bit scary, too.
The morality of the villains towards women in Laymon’s work is pretty disgusting, too. His novel Resurrection Dreams was basically about a teenage boy trying to resurrect the corpse of a dead female classmate who he was in love with, so he could have sex with her. To put it bluntly. In much of his other work women are subjected to horrendous torture, rape and violence that is described in frank detail that is not for the faint-hearted. Re-reading him now I am still struck by the horrific nature of these scenes.
I appreciate I have now created a picture of Laymon’s work that will be outrageous and off-putting for most, and you may be thinking that I am some sort of degenerate being. So, why did I go back? And why do his books still effect me so much? The main reason, and one that came through loud and clear second time around, is the emotional core of the books. The villains are disgusting for sure, but for every villain there has to be a hero. Laymon wrote some horrible stuff but he always countered it with heroes who you knew would win through in the end. He wrote brilliantly about adolescence and the first stirrings of love and made his female characters strong, independent women who still had an air of vulnerability and a desire to be loved. I remember I developed a huge crush on the lead female character in Come Out Tonight and for a few months after was almost in love with her myself. Such was the emotional punch. A lot of the male leads were teenagers who you always knew would have a chance with the beautiful heroine and for a shy bloke who had trouble even talking to girls at that age this was my opportunity to be that guy, at least for the book’s duration.
Obviously those days are long gone now, but I still have a respect for Laymon’s writing style too. His books proceed at a frantic pace, with very little exposition. Characters are thrown in at the deep end from Page 1 and left to get on with it. Keeping an even pace throughout is a difficult accomplishment and Laymon does it with aplomb, building the suspense perfectly before the final climactic scenes. The dialogue is great too, dark in places but very funny at times. He was clearly a talented bloke.
Sadly Laymon died in 2001 and his posthumous releases tainted his work for me, with all of the violence of his previous work but none of the heart. Still, his novels were very important to me as a young man and re-reading some now only reinforces that view. If you have the stomach for it, check him out.

Hello, My Lovely

Unusually, I didn’t receive any books for Christmas just gone. It’s a welcome fallback present for anyone stuck for a gift for me, as I’ll pretty much read anything. Obviously I hadn’t been a good boy in 2014 and Santa left me empty of reading material. Having had a few days off work I was desperate for something to pass the hours, so I was forced to dig into my collection and dust off some old tomes.
Which, as often happens, led me to Raymond Chandler.
I’ve written a bit about the great man already on this blog, as he is a massive influence on me as both writer and man. This holiday was the first in ages that I have gone back and read any of his books straight through (this time it was Farewell My Lovely and my favourite, The Long Goodbye) and the pleasure I get from it is as strong as ever. I read his books with a smile on my face and every time I finish the desire to write is overwhelming.
I think the reason for this is that Chandler’s writing style seems so easy, so effortless. He was a master of writing dialogue and had a way with similes that will never be surpassed, in my opinion. Here’s a couple of my favourites, just for the hell of it:

‘He had a heart as big as one of Mae West’s hips’
‘He looked at me like a horse looking over a fence’
‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.’

(That last one not strictly speaking a simile but I can’t help but add it – one of my favourite pieces of writing anywhere, ever). What I love about all of these is not just their originality but how fun they are. I read work like this and it seems so easy to emulate, sending me rushing for the computer to try. Of course genius like this is impossible to replicate, which is probably why the vast hordes of pulp fiction that have sprung up since Chandler began in the 1930s has paled in comparison.
What’s most incredible to me is that Chandler began writing pulp almost to order. He only decided to get into writing fiction after losing his job with an oil company during the Great Depression (unfortunately his love of booze was also a contributory factor). He wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner:

I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane…I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good.

I find it extraordinary that a man so talented who has become an all-time literary great started essentially plagiarising someone else’s work. But his writing method, particularly in the early years, was not one of free-flowing imagination. A number of his novels were almost completely rewritten and the first of them, The Big Sleep was an amalgamation of earlier, published short stories.
His expert use of dialogue can be found also in his screenplays, most notably in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I remember a friend of my father’s recommending the film to me as a teenager and I sat through it, spellbound. The way Chandler ramps up the tension scene by scene is thrilling, and the chemistry between the two leads is mostly underpinned by the superb dialogue that Chandler wrote.
The one that really hit me hard though was The Long Goodbye. I think the opening few pages where we first meet Terry Lennox and his showpiece wife are among the finest every written. Full of humour, pitch-perfect dialogue, expertly drawn characters and suspense. The plot is incredibly complex from then on but Chandler never loses grip on it, even though the novel runs to nearly 250,000 words. His portrayal of the alcoholic Roger Wade is utterly convincing (based in part on Chandler himself) and flavoured with a hint of sadness that sends chills through me on every reading. In his later years Chandler was an unhappy guy, crippled by alcoholism and the failing health and subsequent death of his wife and this sense of sorrow really comes through in the novel. I really believe it’s a masterpiece and that Phillip Marlowe remains the quintessential private eye and spawn of a whole new genre.

Elmore Leonard Rules

Considering I’m one of his biggest fans and believe he was one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years, I can’t specifically remember when I first picked up an Elmore Leonard novel. I can’t even remember which one it was. It could have been Freaky Deaky – which I vaguely recall reading on a camping trip to Cornwall in my late teens. (In my opinion, the opening sequence of that novel is one of the finest pieces of writing of modern times. It’s that good). Or possibly The Big Bounce, one of his earliest crime novels. Anyway, whenever it was, it had a profound effect on me as a man, and as a writer.

Why? Well mostly because of how alive his books made me feel. It’s a tiresome cliche to say that characters ‘leap off the page’ but in this case it’s true. Most of the reason for that is the dialogue. If you want to learn how best to write the way people talk, look no further than Leonard. And if you can’t take my word for it, Martin Amis agrees, saying Leonard’s prose ‘makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.’ (That link is a terrific interview by the way – tons of fascinating titbits on the art of writing). His dialogue brings so much depth and humour to the prose, and is far more to-the-point than vast swathes of characterisation. Dialogue should tell the story and the characters’ ambitions and Leonard is a master at it.

Somewhere along the way he also noted the ’10 Rules of Good Writing’. I have the feeling that some of this was tongue-in-cheek but I genuinely find these 10 rules more helpful than anything else I’ve read on the craft.
Of particular use are numbers 3 and 4. I do try when writing to use ‘said’ as much as possible and I never use an adverb to modify the word. Reams and reams of fiction do it and I’ve never understood why. If you are writing good dialogue you should know how a character has spoken the words without having to quantify it with an adverb. Sadly this dislike of adverbs turned me off Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. A wonderful story but I just couldn’t deal with the adverbs. Of course in this matter I’m just an ordinary sinner like everyone else (I’ve used a fair few in this post), but I never use them in dialogue anymore (he said hopefully).

Rules 8 and 9 go against most of what you hear in writing classes and the like. Character description and setting description are the nuts and bolts of any novel really. But I know what Leonard means – the dialogue and actions of the characters should tell you what they are like without the need for tons of description. Similarly with descriptions of place, a flavour is all you probably want. Anything else gets in the way of the story.

Even in these 10 short rules you can see Leonard’s way with words. Rule 10: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ sums it all up. And his final rule, ‘ If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ is just genius and goes to the heart of what writing is all about. So easy to say, so hard to do.

Leonard died last year aged 89. He was still writing books well into his 80s, and still running rings around writers more than half his age. His books brought me immense pleasure and on his death the knowledge that there would be no more from this great man was a source of real sorrow. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I urge you to do so. There is a vast back catalogue out there and it will change your life, I’m sure of it. RIP Dutch.