Sunday 16 March 2014

Dan Powell talks about writing to music - and his fab collection of short fictions, 'Looking Out Of Broken Windows'

A couple of weeks back, I met Dan Powell when we were both on a panel discussing short stories. I've heard so much about this guy's writing - and I couldn't resist buying his new collection, 'Looking Out Of Broken Windows' - just out from Salt. It really is great - but I won't do a blather here, not yet - because Dan's here himself, talking about something I could never do in a million years - writing to music. Welcome Dan!

Dan here - 

Many writers can’t write to music. Not so surprising. The act of writing requires concentration and music can be a distraction. Jonathon Franzen, unsurprisingly, takes his limiting of distraction seriously and writes using ‘noise-cancelling headphones that pipe "pink noise" – white noise at lower frequency’. You might expect musician and novelist Willy Vlautin would use music in his process, what with him being the frontman and songwriter of The Richmond Fontaine, whose ‘alt-country opera’ The High Country was a narrative and musical highlight of 2011, and the fact that he co-wrote an instrumental soundtrack to his second novel Northline. In fact, listening to music while writing causes Vlautin to daydream. In a recent interview he described once trying to write to a loop of instrumental music: ‘It was probably the most fun I ever had writing, but the poor novel was so damaged and beat up and off kilter that I pulled the plug on it after the first edit.’

For myself, I cannot imagine writing without music. My entire process is influenced and helped along by a various playlists set up on my laptop. The stories in Looking Out of Broken Windows were all written while listening to various instrumental artists and soundtracks. That’s the rule for me. The music mustn’t have words if I am to write to it. Other peoples words get in the way when I am in the act of writing. When writing in public I struggle to block out conversation which is why, if you ever see me writing in The Bookstop Cafe in Lincoln, I’ll have earbuds plugging my ears, pumping ambient and drone into my brain to drown out the chatting of the other customers. No offence intended.

The stories in Looking Out of Broken Windows, for me, were as much influenced by the music I was listening to as I wrote them as they were by the short stories I have read and loved and learnt something from. Anyone reading the acknowledgements of the collection will see that I thank Andy Othling of Lowercase Noises by name. Andy is a very talented guitarist who, in his own words, is ‘interested in playing as slow as possible.’ He is a generous guy, who gives freely of his expertise on his various websites and blogs, helping other musicians with the technical aspects of music production and promotion on the web. He very kindly allowed me to use his music on my book trailers and his particular brand of emotive, ambient guitar instrumentals is perfect for reading and writing to. Without the music of Lowercase Noises, many stories in my collection would not have appeared on the page in quite the same way. Other artists and bands that fill up my specially created AAA Writing Music genre tab in iTunes are, Oathless, Stars of The Lid (great for writing darker stuff to), William Basinski, Olafur Arnalds, Industries of the Blind, Hildur Gudnadottir, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Explosions in the Sky, and the daddy of them all, Brian Eno. They are all worth checking out if, like me, you need something to fill your ears and free your brain as you write.

Putting together the story collection itself was not unlike track listing an album or crafting a mix-tape back in the good old days before mp3s and playlists. I had to think about how each story fitted within the overall feel of the collection and how it influenced its neighbours. What is great about a short story collection is that the reader can dip in an out, picking on the stories whose titles spark an interest or whose first lines grab at the attention most. Kind of like how most of us experience music now, picking and mixing from our libraries and the various online stores or streaming services. To that end, I’ve put together the following Spotify playlist. It features key tracks from albums I listened to while writing the stories that make up Looking Out of Broken Windows. Think of it as an unofficial soundtrack to the collection. If you like what you hear, you might want to grab a copy and check out the stories these tracks helped onto the page. The list is here:

Music also influences my writing in another key way. Many ideas for stories come to me from song lyrics. Not so surprising this as prose writers have been pilfering from poetry for centuries. While I do read poetry and from time to time something leaps out that I have to ‘steal’ (in the T. S. Eliot sense), I listen to way more music as I race about taking my kids to school and getting myself to work. Quite often a lyric will stick in my head and evoke some feeling or idea that niggles at me until I am forced to write it down. Once it gets me that badly, hard enough to go from hearing the word to noting it dow,  chances are it will make it into a story. The latest song to do this to me is New Ceremony by Dry the River. I won't say which lyric it was that hit me as the story is currently on submission and the words ended up forming part of the title but the idea they suggested sat in my notebook for a year or more before I wrote something. Weirdly, though I didn’t listen to the song while I wrote the story and redrafted it, listening to the track now as I write this I'm amazed at how the tone of the track is somehow mirrored in the feel of my story. I find that a lot with the influence of music on my writing process, this stuff goes deep. The influence is not always conscious but it is always there. 

And here is Dan himself, reading a story for you: 

Dan Powell is a prize winning author whose short fiction has appeared in the pages of Carve, Paraxis, Fleeting and The Best British Short Stories 2012. His debut collection of short fiction, Looking Out Of Broken Windows, was shortlisted for the Scott Prize in 2013 and is published by Salt. He procrastinates at and on Twitter as @danpowfiction.

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of the blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 or Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win.. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Notes on a book. Posthumous Stories by David Rose (Salt)

Posthumous Stories is a rich experience. A visual book certainly - filled with (literal) word-paintings. A book of sounds, music, and not. A book of detail, architectural, painterly, botanical, musical - it’s a treasure box in which strange obsessive narrators look up as you pass from their usually left-brained and controlling occupations, fix you with their disturbing gazes, then look away. 
     I read and re read with a sense of intrusion such as one gets when passing a door left ajar, hearing a snip of talk not intended. Or better - as when you can’t avoid overhearing a conversation held in lowered tones, on a train. Captive, intrigued, removed. A delicious intrusion - sense of glimpsing something special, by accident, wry smile playing. Disturbing, certainly. Deliciously. And surreal, I came across many descriptions of how the body responds to machine - car, van, they merge.
 I made notes on some of the stories as I went - so forgive the lack of carefully crafted review. Sometimes, notes is all that's needed. 

A Nice Bucket - 
Sensuality under the surface - in the music, the hints... in the lyrical voice of the apprentice asphalter, in the son’s descriptions of his late father’s reconstructed studio. a darkness, compelling and dual-natured. Goodbad, like so many scenarios in this book. Orwellesque. Magnetic. The asphalters might be doing any old repairing job - but no. Legitimate work, under supervision (even if the supervision is sporadic), and the job - laying speed humps. Slowing things down. A reminder that the best stories, and these really are some of the best, are only appreciated of you slow down, and let them work on you.
...had me thinking, isn’t this why I (we?) read? To enjoy, yes, but to empathise. Consider. Widen. Goodbad. Vicarious experience. To remind myself that beneath everything, everyone, runs such rivers? Not to forget that. Never to take at face value. Respect the possibilities. We are living in glorious metaphor. Perhaps. 

Private View 
The son of an artist is persuaded to write the commentary to a retrospective on his father’s work. Through memories, and almost despite himself, (this reluctance to engage with memory seems to surface now and again) he is almost compelled to do so, even though it takes him on a journey of deepening alienation.I’m struck by this description: “...sliced by black vertical straight lines, regularly spaced, but in each successive work, becoming closer and closer together. The experts talk of a homage to Mondrian or the creation of abstract perspective. I think they look like bars.”Oh OK  - now I’m getting the cover of Rose’s brilliant novel, Vault, also from Salt, and a novel I loved a while back. 
.. clever, aren't I?

Fracturing, isolation, miscommunication. Here, we are island folk. And some are more island than others. 
the big questions - including what exactly, is art? The issue encapsulated by the botanist narrator musing on having to destroy a fungus,  ‘I had to admit to a sneaking regard for the fungal growth – not only its persistence, but its own strange beauty, the subtlety of its opalescent colours, the intricacy of its structure. Are we right, I wondered, to divide Nature as we do?’

The Fall
oh and jokes... many over my head, I’m sure, which is evident -  but a giggle escaped me,  in a crowded train carriage appropriately enough, when I read this:  
“One of the Servants remarked that he thought Auden’s most inspired creation was the Fat Controller “   also this 
"I even used to call her Donna, because she was always รจ mobile.” 
Behind ‘The Fall’ there are echoes of not only Albert Camus, but also George Orwell at several points - a religious guerrilla group made up of Servants initially using art installations to make their point. Achieving the ‘exosoma’ ... 
but I’m afraid lost patience with The Fall. Form overtook story early on, and lost this reader with it.and is it my imagination, but does the futuristic cult-theme arrive again in Clean, with its Vision and Mission meetings, mention of service, and the Intendant? “freedom of spirit depends on freedom of space, freedom of land –”
Something about isolation.  ‘Above me there’s a mile of blue and beyond that an eternity of black, a furnace of ice.”

Echoes of Camus again in Viyborg - a novel - a dead pan outlining of a lyrically written novel - a wry  take on various scenes.
Mind you, what with these installations in fiction and the pieces desccribed throughout, I think I’d like to see Rose's visual art - if he does. Who knows.

The Fifth Beatle
The fab four becomes five, with the reminiscences of the unplanned extra in the iconic abbey road shot - I loved this one. And I didn’t understand one reviewer’s snip about Rose not writing women well. Yes, he does, just not many. Suspect that's what the reviewer meant, there aren’t many female main characters - and speaking as a writer who vastly prefers writing males than females - what’s wrong with that? 
Clean -
'the cause' raises its head again, Regional Intendant looms, and a ‘devotional’ meeting. 
Quotes: Life’s a bitch, but it’s all to plan.’ 

“... below that, to the silken silt where there are no reflections, to the reality of the fish.” 

I feel I ought to be listening to Mahler while reading this - the trouble is, my ears and eyes don’t multi-task. Bach - need to look up Chaconne. What a wealth of architectural detail here... and what a brilliant house - turning things on their heads - kitchen on the top floor, the south wall blank. 
“Holes for doors and windows are the destruction of form’ - Le Corbusier. I lived for a year within a mile or two of Firminy Vert -the  Le Corbusier development, near St Etienne. 
Moller (Muller) House, Prague

Church, Firminy Vert - by Le Corbusier

In Evening Soft Light
The unexplained shower of stones - the wife, novels, reading one page then becoming tired... rather Alice-in-Wonderlandish. Or Through-the-Looking-Glass-ish. One is right. 

A world where there are season tickets for brothels, meters tick in the bedrooms. A world where you douse your e-reader in appropriate perfume - segue into ‘correlating my relationships with my library by sniffing the books for perfume.’ Control, control. And the ghastly but compelling image of a man working out how many books he might read before he dies - a sort of literary actuarial computation.

Who would have the job of reading aloud the minutes of meetings of those in whatever level? Reading to workers at a factory lunch break seems better, until you see the political agenda behind the choice of books. ‘The evening’s theme is the means and meaning of a transparent society....It involves us all. Open government requires openness of its citizenry. We all know the problems we face. Ignorance, poverty, bad manners.’... and then the lights go out...
Description of a story - from the outside, as it is told/narrated. The opening goes like this:“The story begins with a man – we assume him to be Zimmerman – loading an accordion onto a cart, the cart being attached to a bicycle. He loads it carefully, with elastic straps through the handles and hooked to the cart. We gather later it is the last accordion in the country...”and Zimmerman has one of the most perfect endings of any story, anywhere. (Vast exaggeration, but try it. I’m right, aren’t I?)

Terrific use of humour to relax the reader before the ambush. OK, I’ll enjoy, but am still ready for the ambush. “In home, my wife wear burka. They say to me, you Muslim? I say no, she most ugly woman.” 
“...find book, Kama Sutra. But is all dots. How you say it? Braille. I say in shop, is no good to me, is no pictures.” 
Ambush is good, too. :)

The Castle
The hand-made coffin maker, whose masterpieces are meant to echo the life of the deceased...and be buried before anyone’s had a proper chance to enjoy. 
 (Tis always disconcerting to find my name in a story, especially a Vanessa who plies her trade beneath the motto: ‘In constraint lies freedom...’ Yeah right. Even if this is an Oulipian tale, I have to fight against ‘but I never did that...’ which I guess Janes and Sues don’t get bothered by...) 
Loved this description of Eton, it seems rather appropriate:“...however much they try to shrug it off, self-assurance fits them like their handmade shirts. For all their little acts of bohemian defiance, their hands twitch in readiness for the reins...” 
However - and it’s a big however...I do wish there was no explanation of both this story and The Fall, earlier in the book. As Perec said, "The problem, when you see the constraint, is that you no longer see anything else.” Is it a mistake to actively draw the reader’s attention to the game? It was for this one. I see the contraption, the scaffolding, and it masks too much. 

M John Harrison, writing in The Guardian, found both The Castle and The Fall ‘tiring’.
...making it to the end, only to find that this particular end came along in an earlier story... and feeling a bit miffed.  

But Harrison responds to the vast majority  of the pieces here, as I did, with pleasure, recognition, admiration.  “The best of Rose is fragile,” he says. “...retrospective, centred on the characters' recognition that something in life, be it a general condition or an absolutely specific moment, has evaded them.” 
Well, yes. 
 A kaleidoscope. That’s what this book is. And just as with a kaleidoscope, you will meet similar motifs in different stories - music, image, even strange recurring Orwellesque shadowy conductors of life - slightly autistic-seeming, detached, displaced characters, shifting, and tumbling. 
      If there is ever a book you can go back to, reread, assured that you will find something new, or something familiar seen from a new angle you missed last time round - this is it. Who knows. I might even set aside a couple of weekends, go somewhere very quiet, and read the Oulipan bits until they make sense, or I hit the bottle.

Here is a very interesting Q and A with the author, David Rose:  He says at the end that he is no longer writing. If that is so, it's a huge loss to anyone who loves reading. 

His work is great. Posthumous Stories is one of the best reads in a long time - my non-understanding of a few pieces is my issue, not the book's!  Go read it. We could have such an interesting natter...

Poetry, Novel, Retreat at Gladstones,

Catching up, and not sure where to start as so much is going on. Let's start with poetry. 

 First, a rather exciting and not a little frightening invitation to join a wonderful group of poets responding to the Sensing Spaces exhibition at The Royal Academy, then reading our work in situ. The invitation came from Ekphrasis, and the event which took place on 7th March is on the RA website here

Reading in Grafton Architects' installation, RA
Here I am reading in 'my' room, one of the two Grafton Architects' rooms, and the one which inspired me to write a poem called Transfiguration. If I read it once in the event, I read it sixty times, and I probably never ever want to read it out again - but goodness, what a learning curve.  I have had very little experience of reading my poetry at all - once at my launch, once at a little festival in Sussex, once at a charity anthology launch, a couple of times at prize-givings. That is all of five times - and at each of those the audience was fixed. Sitting down. Come to hear the poems. At this event, I had to ambush people, and, as you can see from the photo, they did not always want to be ambushed - but had other things to be getting on with. I now feel I've caught up though, and have the equivalent of at least thirty years' solid poetry-reading experience.
      It caused me to rethink, though - a real reappraisal of what the words are for - my poem was written  in memory of men of the Artists' Rifles, 28th Btn London Regiment, who fell in WW1 - and by the end of the two hours, I was very comfortable walking into a dimly lit space, just telling it to the 'walls' of the installation. They reminded me so much of the memorials to the missing along the Western Front as they must have been before names were carved on the stone. The words of the poem fell down them like the shadows, and that felt absolutely right. If people clapped, as they did now and again, it came as a shock. I aged, I aged...
      Huge thanks to the three Ekphrasis poets, the organisers and designers of the evening: Emer Gillespie, Catherine Smith and Abegail Morley. And thanks to those who read at the same event, but in other rooms mostly - Helen Ivory, Martin Figura, Caroline Davies, Patricia Debney, Maureen Jivani, Tamar Yoseloff, Sasha Dugdale, Edward MacKay ad Robert Peake -  and the work of Ian Duhig was read by actress Gemma Jones.

More poetry, more needing to read -  and the nice news that a poem called Graffiti has been shortlisted in the Sussex Poets Competition. All the shortlisted pieces have been awarded something, no idea what, it'll be lovely whatever.  I'll find out at a ceremony on 27th March, when I have to read again - and this time, I won't care at all.

In late February there was a rather glorious lit fest in Oxted, Surrey.  The programme included a short story panel chaired by Alison MacLeod, and panellists Tom Vowler, Dan Powell and Jane Gardam. I ended up as a panellist as Jane G was unable to come - and we had a terrific evening. I wrote to the orgaisers afterwards, saying that the way they had looked after us all was exemplary - Oxted ought to be the standard by which other lit fests are judged. We were dined, wined, our travel expenses covered, and we were paid!  The following day, Tea with VG - and a lovely event at which I talked and read for a while then enjoyed eating cake while signing books and trying not to get icing on the clean pages...loved every minute. The whole programme is here:

Further back in February - and Gladstones'! I spent a glorious whole ten days at Gladstone's Library, head down, finishing the next draft of the novel, which is now with my agent. Fingers crossed that there are not masses of revisions to do - I feel the need to get on with something else now. Gladstones' was just as wonderful as it was last September.

I'm going back in September to Gladfest, and can't wait - will be running an interesting event too, a discussion/workshop on creating/running a successful writing group.
      Did a post for their blog while I was there - on what it's like to write there when you are not a writer in residence. Follow the links round the website to find out about the wonderful things that this place puts on.

I went to Verdun on a battlefield visit - but I think that deserves its own post in due course.