Adventures in Writing and Reading, Part 17
2013. Here’s what happened. I didn’t write the novel I had planned but I got working on a different one, writing a portion each week. Maybe it’s the way to go – (quietly) it seems to be working. I also started sending short work to competitions, and enjoyed some success. I had some stuff published in other places on the internet too. I wrote 45 blog posts, apparently – thanks to all who took the time to read any of those. I was mentioned on twitter by six whole people! I finished the first part of an exciting new project (shhh). Some things seemed to fall into place, other things remained unfathomable. Weirdly, I started to enjoy the process of editing and revising my work.
As ever, I read a lot. Here are notes on some of my favourite books from this year:
GEORGE R R MARTIN: A Song Of Ice And Fire Series (Book One – A Game Of Thrones; Book Two – A Clash Of Kings; Book Three, Part One – A Storm Of Swords: Steel And Snow; Book Three, Part Two – A Storm Of Swords: Blood And Gold… and I’ve recently started, Book Four – A Feast For Crows)
After reading Infinite Jest in 2012, this year’s epic has been the beginning of George R R Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire series, AKA the books that inspired the tv show Game Of Thrones. To be fair, the only thing it has in common with IJ is that it is considerably larger than most of the other books I read. There the comparisons end.
I’m sure there are lots of places you could read about Mr R Martin’s skill in intertwining various histories and philosophies, his ability to keep track of so many disparate storylines, his creation of characters whose morals and motives are rarely black or white, the way he throws in plot twists and surprises that don’t feel forced, and etc etc …
But I want to write about the effect that reading this series has had on my own writing. What Mr R Martin does is so far removed from what I do – in terms of the shape and size of his stories, not to mention popularity – that it would be tempting to assume there’s nothing relevant I could learn from him. But I’ve never been very good at dialogue, and he uses dialogue very well to simultaneously advance the plot and help us discover more about the characters. The fact that so much information is conveyed through dialogue betrays the fact that for all the wars going on across the seven kingdoms, these are books about politics. I’m not very good at action scenes either, so I thought I might learn how to write them, but though there is some action, it’s interesting to see how often – and how skilfully – the author skips these scenes. And I’ve been impressed with the way he chooses which parts of the story to tell – with so many strands to keep track of, there is a definite art to deciding which to return to and which to leave alone for a while so they can fester in the reader”s mind.
Maybe that’s the main thing – reading these books has made me give greater consideration to the reader.
JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS: Quesadillas
Thanks to my subscription to And Other Stories, I have (technically) had my name in seven books published this year (six from them plus another one). The way the subscription works is that they send a copy of each of the books they publish in a year – having read four of the six so far I’ve not been disappointed. Rodrigo de Souza Leao’s All Dogs Are Blue is worth a mention, but my favourite has been Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesadillas.
His first novel, Down The Rabbit Hole, having been the catalyst for me signing up to And Other Stories, I was eagerly anticipating this one. And it didn’t disappoint. Villalobos’ surrealist comedy twists one way then another, skilfully blending references and themes. The titular quesadillas function as a measure of the family’s social standing, the teen narrator’s happiness seemingly dependent on how many of his siblings he can edge out in the battle for food. But this isn’t a novel that stands still for long – just as the reader has the feeling that the narrator has no control over his life, so there seems no easy way to pin down the narrative of this crazy story. The ending is just bizarre, wild, fitting.
(And before I get to the end of this round-up I should also quickly mention Antal Szerb’s Journey By Moonlight, William Hjortsberg’s Jubilee Hitchhiker and Steven Milhauser’s Dangerous Laughter, as well as Doris Lesisng’s The Good Terrorist (powerful, gripping), Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being (Murikamiesque mystery), Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ (searing collection of war stories that are not war stories), Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan (enjoyably mental), Nicolas de Crecy’s The Celestial Bibendum (incredible… and incredibly weird) and China Mieville’s Railsea (a 19th century adventure novel transported to another time and place). The list goes on. I could prattle on all day. Really I could. I’ve reined myself in. Just read any of these books, you won’t be disappointed (unless you don’t like the same kinds of books as me, but even then you might like them for a different reason))
CHRIS WARE: Building Stories
Apart from everything else, this Chris Ware gem / epic is a remarkable feat of publishing – a huge box full of twenty beautifully printed and bound pieces ranging from tiny chapbooks to huge gameboards. But whilst it may seem like quite a sprawling piece of work it manages to retain an intimate feel, building an experience akin to slowly learning about a person’s history as you become friends with them.
Ware’s drawings are very precise and though his pages are full of things to look at, he is not averse to slowing the pace of life down to spend quiet, almost tedious moments with his characters as they go about their everyday lives.
I should try and explain what Building Stories is about, but it’s tricky because a) there is no set order in which to read the pieces that make up Building Stories and, b) there is no overarching plot as such. The main character is an unnamed woman, though parts of the story concern themselves with her neighbours, the apartment block itself and a bee who, at one point, finds himself stuck inside the apartment. What emerges is a poignant piece of work that remains capable of puncturing itself when it gets too heavy. A fantastic piece of both art and literature.
There you are then. Hope that made some sense. Happy 2014! This year I aim to explain myself more clearly.