INTERVIEW: STEVYN COLGAN – A MURDER TO DIE FOR

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Stevyn Colgan knows stuff about things. He just does. And, as it’s publication day for his new novel, A MURDER TO DIE FOR, published by Unbound Books, I asked him some things about stuff.

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How did you get started?

I wrote my first novel in 1984 on a typewriter I’d bought in 1979 with my very first full-time wage packet. It wasn’t a great novel (I read it through recently,) but it was an achievement, and proved to me that I could write a sustained piece of work. So then I wrote another. And another. And I kept writing. And, around the turn of the Millennium, I realised that I’d written 13 novels (and, thankfully, computers had come along to make it easier.) But I’d never submitted them to publishers because I didn’t think they were good enough. I was still learning the craft as far as I was concerned; the pleasure was in the writing itself, and in telling stories.

Then what?

I didn’t have an agent or any contacts in the business (I was still a cop) so I decided to send a few off as blind submissions and, while there were some encouraging bites, there was nothing concrete. Rejection is always a downer – especially when it’s an obviously standard rejection letter – but I didn’t let it get to me. I got on with life and wrote two more novels. But then, in 2007, a mate said to me, ‘why don’t you try writing non-fiction?’ So, I wrote a book about the interconnectedness of things and suddenly I landed an agent, a fat advance, and a deal with Pan Macmillan. And I piqued the interest of the people behind the TV show QI. And so, for the next six or seven years I went down that route; I wrote a trivia book, and books on problem solving, the future of policing, and the campaign to save Bletchley Park.

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So, you’re Quite Intelligent, then?

Well, I contributed to the QI annuals, wrote for the radio series ‘The Museum of Curiosity,’ and eventually became one of QI’s main script-writers. I started to get a little bit of a name for myself. Then, in 2016, I decided to return to my first love. I submitted a novel to my agent, and he said, ‘But you do non-fiction’. ‘Not exclusively any more,’ I said. ‘I’m a wannabe Renaissance Man.’

‘Well, give it a go,’ he told me. So I did.

It’s been a long journey but I’ve finally got there. Novels have always been where my heart is. In fiction, you can play with language in ways that would be difficult with non-fiction. A brilliant metaphor is a thing of beauty – imagine PG Wodehouse or Douglas Adams without them. As much as I love the challenge and the research and the discipline of non-fiction, I’m so much happier writing stories.

How was the conception of A MURDER TO DIE FOR? Did the idea just come to you, or did it evolve over time?

It began with the urge to write a comedy novel. Britain has a great tradition of comic writing, from Jerome K Jerome, Stephen Potter and the glorious P G Wodehouse to George Macdonald Fraser, Stella Gibbons, David Nobbs, Helen Fielding, Michael Frayn and the late, great Tom Sharpe. That’s to name but a few. But we seem to have dropped the ball somehow. These days it’s hard to find new comic novels that are written for a general readership. It can still be found as a sub-section of other genres; there are still plenty of laughs in women’s fiction, for example, and, thanks to people like Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde and Terry Pratchett, there are chuckles aplenty to be had among the wizards and aliens too. But there’s a dearth of comedy novels out there for a general readership and I wanted to bring some smiles back to the faces of people on the daily commute to work.

What was your main source of inspiration?

Inspiration came from many directions. The first element in the mix was my love of classic crime fiction. I do love a good whodunit, and I’ve read almost everything by the likes of Christie, Marsh, Allingham, Sayers, Conan Doyle et al. I also like TV whodunits … but not cop shows. Like many police officers – or ex-police officers – I find them dull. Everything is overly-dramatic, the procedures are all wrong and I can’t suspend my disbelief if the programme makers try to sell it as ‘real-life’ when I know that it isn’t even close.

But classic murder mystery is a different thing altogether. It doesn’t pretend to be real. It’s delightfully silly and set in a world far-removed from reality; a world of poisons, elaborate alibis and ridiculous mechanisms. And beyond Poirot and Marple, there are shows set in the 20th century that have that same glorious silliness to them as well, such as Murder She Wrote, Columbo, Jonathan Creek, and Midsomer Murders. The latter, with its cop show façade, is deliciously bonkers at times; any script that features someone being staked out on their croquet lawn and then being bludgeoned to death by having their wine collection hurled at them by a replica Roman trebuchet has my vote any day.

Did real life experiences play a part?

Yes. The second element was my own knowledge and experience of being a police officer. I’ve been involved in real homicide investigations and they are a far cry from the world of literary and TV detectives. Real crime is visceral –and real crime investigation isn’t even vaguely glamorous. I thought it would be fun to throw the two cultures at each other. All the best comedy (and drama) comes from conflict.

How did it all come together?

The third element came to me when watching a TV show about fan conventions. I’ve been to a few in my time, including the extraordinary Comicon in San Diego, where the fans dress up in costume – cosplayers – and are almost rabidly passionate about their show/ film/ book/ author of choice. I suddenly thought to myself … what better place for a murder to happen than at a crime fiction convention where everyone is dressed as their favourite detective? So then, when a grisly murder is committed, the police find themselves having to investigate a case where the victim, the witnesses and very possibly the perpetrator are all dressed much the same. And, to add the police officers’ annoyance, they find themselves having to compete with the fans who believe that they too can solve the crime using skills honed by a lifetime of reading crime fiction. It was so much fun to write.

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How did you end up with Unbound?

I’ve now done four books with Unbound. From the start, their business model struck me as brilliant. The publishing industry had, in recent years, become tremendously risk-averse. Maybe it was the decline of bookshops, or the threat of e-books – I don’t know – but it seemed that, all of a sudden, the only books getting commissioned were TV tie-ins or celebrity-related publications. Certainly, the huge advances being paid out to the stars meant that there was no longer any money for the little guys like me. Unbound’s idea was simple: create a new publishing house with all the advantages you’d expect (editing, guidance, design, distribution,) but get prospective readers to choose which books get published, rather than the accountants. They do this by pledging money up front.

Sounds like a great idea!

This wasn’t a new idea; it’s the same subscription model that paid for Dr Johnson’s dictionary and for most of Charles Dickens’ novels. All Unbound did was bring it into the modern age by using the internet. So, you pitch a book and if they like it, they take it on. If they don’t, they ‘wish you luck placing it elsewhere.’

How does it work?

There’s a discussion about the sort of book you –and they– would like to make. It could be an e-book, a paperback, or a hardback. The project is then costed and a total is set that needs to be achieved. You shoot a promo video with them and then launch the book on its own page on the Unbound site. You can set all kinds of pledge levels, from a few quid for the e-book, right up to things like having dinner with the author, or signed and dedicated copies, or tickets to the launch party. You really can be as inventive as you like.

Then, the crowdfunding begins. Once the total is reached, things switch back to traditional publishing. Unlike other platforms like Kickstarter, where you’re pretty much doing everything yourself, at Unbound you’re assigned a structural editor, copy editor, designer, cover artist, proof reader, marketing person … and then the book goes out to all the usual book outlets as a trade edition. However, those people who pledged money get posh special edition copies and they get their name listed in the back of the book to say thanks for believing in it.

Sounds pretty good …

As I said, it’s a great model. And it’s good for writers too:

(a) you have a direct connection, via the Unbound site, with your readers;

(b) the profit-share on all money made after the 100% production total is 50/50 between Unbound and author. So every book you sell, you get 50% as opposed to the 10-12% you’d traditionally get;

(c) you stand a much greater chance of being published. And the finished articles are beautifully produced books. Unbound has been going for just over five years but has already scored a Man Booker Prize longlist nomination, a Book of the Year award, sold the TV and film rights to several novels, and enjoyed a string of Number One best-sellers. It also has its own literary magazine and a podcast called ‘Backlisted’. I’m pretty sure I hitched my cart to the right horse.

How much of yourself did you put into A MURDER TO DIE FOR?

Quite a lot, as it happens. One of the main characters is a retired detective called Frank Shunter, who is coming to grips with leaving the force. I went through a similar thing when I retired after 30 years as a policeman. I live in Buckinghamshire and, for three decades, I got on a train and commuted for an hour into London, did my eight hours (or 12 hours depending on the shift I was working,) had a beer with colleagues after work and then spent an hour commuting home. I saw more of London and my colleagues than I did my family. So when I finally hung up my helmet and boots, I was a bit lost. I realised that I didn’t really know the area I lived in that well and I had no friends locally – all my mates were in London. So I had to readjust to a very different life. Shunter faces the same situation after moving to the country. Plus, he can’t quite switch off the policing instinct. I’m the same. I’m still doing talks and university lectures on criminal psychology and crime prevention even now.

Shunter’s about my age, too –and he sees the world much as I see it – he’s a bit of a dinosaur, but an unfettered optimist too. When you’ve seen the worst that humans can do to each other, you get to realise that 95% of people are pretty good. The world isn’t anywhere near as bad as the tabloids would have us believe.

That’s bloody lovely, that is! Nice and uplifting … Is this book suitable for little old ladies, then? Coz me Ma wants a gander, like.

There is some swearing, but not a great deal. I’m very much of the old school in that respect. I have no problem with any swear word, to be honest, but I believe that they should be used sparingly to preserve their shock value. Think of the use of the F-word in ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian.’ Two instances? Three? But each time – perfect.

Did you have any actors in mind as you were writing your characters?

Yes, but curiously, it was for their voices more than their physical appearance. There are a lot of middle-aged ladies in the book and, in my head, each had a particular voice. One was Margaret Rutherford and another was Hattie Jacques, for example. I’m a big fan of radio dramas and audio books, and that’s probably why. June Whitfield is just perfect in the BBC Miss Marple radio dramas, Bill Nighy is fantastic as Charles Paris, and no one will ever be a better Lord Peter Wimsey than Ian Carmichael. Some of the police officers in the book were based on real people I worked with – or they were an amalgam of all the worst behaviours of several real people – but the voices I imagined for those characters didn’t belong to the cops they were based on. Blount, for example, I imagine sounding rather like Richard E Grant in ‘Withnail and I’ – pompous, angry and endlessly frustrated by circumstances.

Are you a plotter, or a pantser?

Pantser –very much so. I don’t even aim for a specific word count. It finds its own level. Neil Gaiman got it spot on with his Eight Rules for Writers, I reckon. The first three are (1) Write, (2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down, and (3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

The sooner you get on with it, the better –build some momentum. I have friends who have been plotting for years and haven’t yet written a word. That’s not being a writer by my definition. That’s being a researcher. Plotting can be more fun than the physical business of writing so I understand the appeal but, for me anyway, too much plotting is a distraction. I want to get a first draft nailed to the page. Your first draft is like buying a chunk of marble, and subsequent drafts involve chipping away at it like a sculptor to get it into the most pleasing shape.

How many re-drafts does it normally take?

I will quite often do 10, maybe 15 re-writes and re-drafts. Each time I go through the story, the characters become more real and more detailed. Relationships blossom and plots thicken. Obviously there is always some planning involved; I don’t start writing until I have some idea of where I’m going. There has to be a finishing post. But how I get there is the fun part and the journey quite often surprises me. I love that.

Describe your writing environment. PC or laptop? Trousers or pantsless?

I’m lucky that I have my own office. I’m also lucky that my kids have grown up and left home, and that the road I live in is very quiet. It’s ideal for writing – although I keep the blinds shut, as watching squirrels and the many red kites we have in this part of South Buckinghamshire can be very distracting. I’m surrounded by bookcases and books, which feels nice, and I write on a desktop PC with a full-sized keyboard and two screens – it’s great to have that extra screen for research pages, notes etc. I write in Microsoft Word. No bells or whistles, just the words.

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Two screens? Swanky! Do you write to music?

I can’t work in silence, as it makes my brain look for distractions. So I will sometimes have music on – instrumental only, as lyrics are as distracting as squirrels – or ambient noise. Stephen Fry introduced me to coffitivity.com and it’s been a real help. That murmur of barristas and punters in the background takes the edge off the silence but doesn’t distract. Similarly, the Bodleian Library in Oxford has a live web-feed of the sound from the various rooms there. That’s quite nice as background noise.

Do you stick to a schedule?

I write from 9am to 11am and then break for elevenses. Then from 11.30am to 1pm before stopping for lunch. Then I write from 2pm to 4pm when I have tiffin – more tea and maybe a cheeky biscuit – and then I stop at 6pm. It’s important to me to be disciplined and to treat it as a job. If I don’t, it’s just squirrel-watching all day. Of course I wasn’t always this lucky – I had a full-time 40 hours a week job (plus commuting) and a family. But, if writing really is your passion, you find the time. For example, I’ve never played computer games and I don’t do sports; every spare minute I ever had went into writing – which is how I managed to write 15 novels before I became a full-time writer.

So, what next for the writing MACHINE that is Stevyn Colgan?

2018 looks to be quite an exciting year. There will be signings and lit festivals and appearances here and there to promote A MURDER TO DIE FOR. I’m also making inroads to production companies to sell the book as a TV serial. And then, in July, my most recent non-fiction book is getting a makeover and a release in paperback via Penguin Random House. It was called ‘Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road’ but we’re re-badging it to encourage a wider audience. I’m not sure what the new title will be, but it’ll be based around the idea of always being ‘One Step Ahead’. That might even end up being the title. And I’ll also be launching the campaign to crowdfund the sequel to ‘A Murder To Die For’ with Unbound. It’s called ‘The Diabolical Club’ and it picks up two small plot strings left unanswered in ‘Murder,’ and turns into a whole new murder mystery that involves a skeleton buried standing up, a local dogging club, a secret kept since the first World War, and the mystery of Agnes Crabbe’s (my fictional murder-mystery writer) lost manuscript. And, as always, lots and lots of laughs.

Just this morning someone told me that they’d laughed out loud on the Tube while reading ‘A Murder To Die For’. Job done.

Job done, indeed. Thanks, Stevyn! 

 

The hard-sell promo bit:

You can buy Colgers’ A MURDER TO DIE FOR here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Die-Stevyn-Colgan/dp/1783524383

Some more stuff and things about Stevyn Colgan over on Unbound: https://unbound.com/authors/stevyn-colgan

PLEDGE AWAY to his latest bookiewook here: https://unbound.com/books/the-diabolical-club/

 

POETRY REVIEW: You Took the Last Bus Home – by Brian Bilston

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On Brian Bilston and why he rocks and stuff and things.

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I’m not one to compare writers. I hate that. Yuk. Sure, it’s great for marketing, I suppose – if you must market. “Fans of such-and-such will love this novel by so-and-so…” YAWWWN. That sort of crap is lazy and unclever, and has never once given me that I JUST GOTTA HAVE IT vibe.

It’s somewhat pissing on the author’s skills, too: when the blurbage tells me that Writey McScribe is the next Clive Barker, all I hear is “this guy is wholly unoriginal, having re-hashed some dying old trope or other.” Talk about damning by faintstuff.

What I will do, though, is tell you who my own particular boat-floaters are, just so you know where I’m at; this *chick is notoriously hard to impress, particularly when it comes to those who poe. If you’re gonna rhyme your way straight to my heart, buddy, your wordplay is going to have to…

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SPEAK WHAT WE FEEL – REVIEW: KING LEAR – Shakespeare’s Globe, London

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King Lear: Shakespeare’s Globe

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Nancy Meckler’s take on King Lear sure ain’t perfect. Far from it. But it’s certainly inventive, and whilst it’s perhaps over-confident in parts, it offers an innovative (if inconsistent) glance at the ultimate dysfunctional family.

We see the stage, which all the world is. Only here, it’s covered with sheeting, and is to be gradually revealed throughout the performance. Dotted about the blank canvas are a number of pretenders to the throne that is The Globe: painted vagrants having a doss as the real action is happening. Perhaps a nod to current conditions (or, indeed, our shocking attitudes towards them,) I’m not sure this device adds anything positive to the production. Lear is enough of a play on its own without adding extra layers or weaving contemporary subtleties into its fabric.

KING LEAR is getting on a bit, and is contemplating abdication or retirement or foot-putting-up or whatever you wanna…

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SECOND DO NO HARM

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Your stories need you

As is the case every single day that ends in y, you pick up a book. And whether it’s just-pressed fresh, or hills-old and tattered, it looks and smells delicious – each individual page tempting your nose towards a sniffywhiff, and collectively, begging you to fan them towards your face just so you can snort their entire essence right up the ol’ snout in one go. Shaven, pulped wood feels more natural to you than the trees whence it came; books just make you happy, gosh darn it. Good ones – happier still.

Some books are bookier than others, though: they were not all published equal. The one in your hand now, for example, has certain majestic qualities from its smart artwork to a title embossed in tall metallic lettering.  And until you unshelved it, it had just been sitting there lording it over all the other little books, knowing it looked…

View original post 2,384 more words

SPEAK WHAT WE FEEL – REVIEW: KING LEAR – Shakespeare’s Globe, London

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Nancy Meckler’s take on King Lear sure ain’t perfect. Far from it. But it’s certainly inventive, and whilst it’s perhaps over-confident in parts, it offers an innovative (if inconsistent) glance at the ultimate dysfunctional family.

We see the stage, which all the world is. Only here, it’s covered with sheeting, and is to be gradually revealed throughout the performance. Dotted about the blank canvas are a number of pretenders to the throne that is The Globe: painted vagrants having a doss as the real action is happening. Perhaps a nod to current conditions (or, indeed, our shocking attitudes towards them,) I’m not sure this device adds anything positive to the production. Lear is enough of a play on its own without adding extra layers or weaving contemporary subtleties into its fabric.

KING LEAR is getting on a bit, and is contemplating abdication or retirement or foot-putting-up or whatever you wanna call it. He has a massive kingdom, and decides to split it between his kids, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. He’s gonna give the biggest slice of Kingdom Pie to whichever daughter has the arse-kissiest response:

….which of you shall we say doth love us most?

GONERIL comes along and kisses said Kingly butt, proclaiming that she’d rather go blind than live without this breathtakingly graceful and honourable man, beyond all manner of so much. He’s just like, SO AWESOME, goddammit, this king of everything. But, so two-faced is she that she declares her love the bringer of speechlessness, despite using wordy insincerity to get her point across. (Shakey, mate: I see what you did there.)

Her sis, REGAN, is made of the same crappy fabric. She declares her love superior to her sibling’s, and is surely the ONLY one who loves him how he deserves to be loved, what with him basically being God ‘n’ all. Lying cow.

But then there’s my girl CORDELIA, who, despite her initial contemplation that she should keep schtum and just get on with loving him, tells him:

“I love your majesty according to my bond; no more, nor less”.

Ouch. Very ouch. I mean – damn if she ain’t sincere, but Kingy, being so far up his own backside ‘n’ all, simply hasn’t got a clue about true love. He gives her a chance (and then another…and another…) to speak again, because she’s his JOY, his blue-eye. But she can’t lie, DAMN her honesty. So, Lear banishes her –very dramatically– from his kingdom, which he then divides between that arse-kissing pair.

Kevin R McNally ain’t half bad. Not half bad at all. Despite certain instances in which he and his character are let down by cheap laughs and even cheaper props, there are moments I swore I was looking at Lear himself; the madness worn on his face like a badge of dishonour. Fragile, commanding, and altogether bonkers, we see McNally delivering a right ol’ smorgasbord of demented torment, tainted only by the aforementioned playing for laughs thing. Yes, we get the irony of certain lines. Yes, the phrasing and timing and delivery is all-important, but for goodness’ sake, let’s not forget that this is a Shakespearean tragedy here. I could’ve done with the whole comedy aspect being taken down a notch or twenty; although it could be said that it was the audience themselves who didn’t understand that dementia and/or mental illness just isn’t funny.

[Consider inserting names of the sister-actors here, but move off the subject ever-so-gracefully because not one of’em floated my proverbial – we don’t wanna go giving scathing reviews, now, do we?]

Lear’s parallel-character, his Tyler Durden, the EARL OF GLOUCESTER, has two kids – Edmund The Bastard (really) who’s a bit of a bastard, really … and Edgar, who is pretty much a stand-up guy. Top bloke. To even up the ILLEGITIMACY 0 LEGITIMACY 1 score, Edmund plots to bump off his legitimately-sheeted brother. Burt Caesar is a strong Gloucester in parts, somewhat amateurish in others, although he was possibly let down by the naffness of metal trolleys and the insufficient eye-gouging that just wasn’t gougey enough. [Dude-Wot-Played Edmund: totally forgettable. Soz.]

Saskia Reeves – what can I say about Saskia Reeves? That woman was on fire. And I mean FI-YUH. The very definition of the term ACTOR, the lass was so skilfully versatile and sob-inducingly restrained, that she controlled her gift, and kept the audience up in the air with it. It would’ve been pretty easy – and obvious – to play Kent-in-a-Dress. But, thankfully, Reeves didn’t go there – instead opting for the refinements only a true artist can display.

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Saskia Reeves as Kent / Photo: Marc Brenner

Joshua James is a stand-out Edgar/Poor Tom, giving his very self to the role whether slathering himself with mud or delivering one of the finest lines ever written, as he summarises everything we’ve just witnessed.

Lear is dead. And we know this, thanks to Edgar:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

In line with this guidance, I feel that this production, whilst a worthy effort offering some powerful performances, was let down by a dash of over-ambitious imagery and a peppering of Trying Too Hard. That said, seeing Lear come to life on ANY stage — particularly this one — is always a plus, particularly when he is realised by and reanimated through such an accomplished and perhaps under-rated performer as Kevin R McNally.

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Kevin R McNally as Lear_credit Marc Brenner_

Kevin R. McNally as Lear / Photo: Marc Brenner

 

 

 

SECOND DO NO HARM

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Your stories need you

As is the case every single day that ends in y, you pick up a book. And whether it’s just-pressed fresh, or hills-old and tattered, it looks and smells delicious – each individual page tempting your nose towards a sniffywhiff, and collectively, begging you to fan them towards your face just so you can snort their entire essence right up the ol’ snout in one go. Shaven, pulped wood feels more natural to you than the trees whence it came; books just make you happy, gosh darn it. Good ones – happier still.

Some books are bookier than others, though: they were not all published equal. The one in your hand now, for example, has certain majestic qualities from its smart artwork to a title embossed in tall metallic lettering.  And until you unshelved it, it had just been sitting there lording it over all the other little books, knowing it looked good with its subtle swank and promises of unputdownability.

But there’s a thing, and the thing is this: this particular volume is written in the dreaded second person, the thing they tell you never to do. The technique they insist you should never, ever, employ. The perspective of, they suggest, sad madmen, hairy-knuckled bookdraggers and those with more than a smattering of ruthless conceit. And because they say those things all the time, on a loop, they must be right, right?

Balls. What utter twaddle. What absolute cobblers, you say. You’ll be the judge of what makes a book a good ‘un; regardless of the author’s choice of perspective, yours is the one that counts.

Just what, then, is it about a book that begs you to devour it? Perhaps it’s something as simple as having been written by your favourite author, or blurbed to Bookdom Come by those whose opinion is Gospel to you. It could be that it’s the right price, in your genre of choice, or it might just have an incredible cover by an even incredibler artist whose creativity acts like a beckoning finger to your salivating, tingling artishness and readerhood. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve read a review that’s made you hop on down to Waterstone’s. Or, y’know – to the nearest laptop, i-thing, or smarter-than-you ‘phone.

George Orwell asks a similar question, which you will already know if you have ingested The Decline of The English Murder and Other Essays[1] (if you haven’t, you really need to get on that). In the essay-wot-bears-the-same-title-as-that-of-the-collection (this description being deliberately cack-handed because of your utter detestation of the uber-wanky term titular), he takes you straight into a warm, cosy setting; you snuggle up, and settle down:

“It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood … In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?”

You can see how, straight away, he’s made you at home, having even given you a choice of fodder – what a considerate host he is! Of course, the next choices on offer are of the infinitely more sinister variety; after answering his own question and telling you what you want to read about, which is,

“Naturally … a murder. But what kind of murder?”

You know these are going to be relatively nice murders, though. The good old-fashioned sort. Accordingly, you don’t fret too much at this stage – ol’ Orwell’s got your back. (At this juncture, your brain takes a little deviation as you wait for some smart arse to chime in on the comments section with George’s real name as if it’s the Ark of the Covenant, because there’s always that one guy)…

aaaand you’re back. Back to the beginning. Just read that first line again – go on.

“… preferably before the war.”

Damn.

Considering this essay was first published in 1946, our George speaks of a war through which you know he’s lived. Of course, you know that anyway, because you aren’t too bad at the ol’ history – and even if you are, you could do the maths and work it out. (You also know that maths has an s on the end, because you’re British, what.) And, bless his stiff-upperness, Orwell wants you all cosy and comfy, not smack bang in the middle of an air raid.

You realise soon enough that he doesn’t stay in Second Person, of course; you adore George for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that he knows how to mix it up. As he jumps around from second person to first, swapping tenses and playing wordball (whatever that is) with the reader, so you notice that he gets away with it – because he can. And so, using Orwell as your example, you feel empowered to do away with all the rules yourself, as long as you’re familiar with ‘em first. You might even say yes-yes to the big no-no of opening a sentence with And so.

***

It’s not just reserved for non-fiction, either, this stuff. Some of your favourite –and more contemporary — authors have been known to employ a crafty little Second Hand technique or two. Remember the first time you sat down with a brew and a copy of Ramsey Campbell’s Heading Home[2]? Remember when you noticed the horror, and how menacing it was? Remember how ghastly? How immediate:

“You know he’s a butcher, because once he helped one of the servants carry the meat from the village. In any case, you could have told his profession from what he has done to you.”

(You can work out how wholly unthreatening and rather dull the events would’ve been, had they been told in a first person alternative, “I know he is a butcher … in any case, I could have told his profession from what he has done to me.” It’s just not a mustard-cutter, is it?)

Campbell continues to direct the movie that’s playing in your mind now, with a reminder that this IS YOU, so you’d better be paying attention, now:

“You hear your wife’s terrified voice, entreating him to return to her. There’s a long pondering silence. Then he hurries back upstairs.”

You’re still not sure if it works? How about third, then? “He hears his wife’s terrified voice, entreating him to return to her…” Nah. Too far removed from the horrific happenings for your liking, isn’t it? Come on, admit it. You WANT to be in on it. You want to put yourself smack bang in the middle of the protAgony – and you have to admit, second person is the smartest – and nastiest – way to do it. You know this. You know this because Campbell knows this. And as soon as you reach the end, like all good stories would have you do, you go straight back to the beginning. Yep – that which you know now has been pretty much spelled out to you from the start in a way you didn’t know you knew, y’know?

Or something like that. 

***

Here’s another thought: remember when you discovered Ray Bradbury’s The First Night of Lent, and noticed that he does the swapping-of-perspectives thing very well?

“So you want to know all the whys and wherefores of the Irish? What shapes them to their Dooms and runs them on their way? you ask. Well, listen, then.”

This isn’t so much a case of breaking the fourth wall, but starting with its bricks in a pile on the floor and assembling them into a partition with the mortar of the second paragraph. You then quickly find that Bradbury has flicked over to first person. And now that he’s fluck, he can tell you about Nick, the “most careful driver in all God’s world, including any sane, small, quiet, butter-and-milk producing country you name.” Did he just slip back into second again there? Why, yes. Yes he did.

Nick is sweet, and calm, and Bradbury wants you to understand that. After giving you some more of his first-person thoughts, he once again provides you with a bunch of instructions – pay attention, now:

“Listen to his mist-breathing voice as he charms the road, his foot a tenderly benevolent pat on the whispering accelerator… Look, compare. And bind such a man to you with summer grasses, gift him with silver, shake his hand warmly at each journey’s end.”

There’s a reason for this, of course. You’ll find out when you get to the next bit. Then get thee hence to the end of the story and you’ll see the beautiful, inharmonious harmony; the point of it all, where twains shall meet, and where somehow, your idea of a decent story has been toyed with, juggled, put through a blender … and been reassembled into perfection, just like Bradbury’s wall.

This technique can –if executed correctly– get you into someone’s head far quicker than any of the other perspectives. Just think about the humdrum things that happen in your everyday life, when you find yourself asking Second Person things of a friend. You know the sort of thing: “Ever get an itchy arse in public, and you just HAVE to scratch it?” or even asking yourself, “isn’t it annoying as fuck when you can’t get the last bits of blood off yer hands?”

What? You are a horror fan, aren’t you?

***

Speaking of the real life things, let’s not forget the hypnotherapy lark – for those of you who go in for that. How does the therapist talk to you? Well, the answer’s right there in the question: they talk to you. They don’t say “I’m walking into my house, try and imagine it with me,” do they? They don’t tell you about a man who is “walking through his front door, and sees a wall, painted in white…”. No – because how on earth would you be able to engage with that?

Proof of the second pudding is in the eating: this is how you can talk to your readers, too. So, after a long hard day at work, you come home and open the front door. Walking through the hallway, you put down your bags, hang up your coat, and enter the living room. There, you take a seat on the sofa, and pick up your notebook. You’re feeling verrrrry sleepy…

WAKE UP, WILL YOU? You’re supposed to be WRITING.

For “YOU”, the you that the second person often suggests, read “ME.” Me, Myself and I. An author’s choice to use pronouns beginning with Y, is not, as some may suggest, a jarring degree of separation, but quite the opposite. It’s a way – if done correctly – to pull the reader over the ropes and become the fighter in the boxing ring of the story … and you might just be kept up in the air with left hooks until you’re given permission to land.

A crackin’ example of this comes from John Skipp, in Empathy, a good ol’ rompy mindfuck of a headmessin’ story. The Skippmeister does a good ol’ bit of bouncin’ around between first and second person, one of your favourite things they-tell-you-not-to-do. You don’t know why he does it – at first. But as he draws you in with a dash of persuasion, a peppering of suggestiveness and a threatening air of filth and intrigue, so you realise you must stick around. And you know you’re bad, for he tells you so. You’ve:

“…done a horrible thing. And you’ll do it again. I know.”

As you continue, Skipp helps you to lull yourself into a sleepfully waking state, feeling, as an engaged (yet slightly inebriated) reader, the “ripple as the veil of sleep parts.” It’s Empathy 101, this, whether you like it or not. This way, when it’s necessary for the first person to take over, your mindframe is in the appropriate state to receive any perspective on offer.

“I don’t even want to think about you. No offense – you know I love you to death – but you’re a total fucking loser, and you’re making me sick.”

You almost feel guilty for making your partner despise you so. What have you done to them? You MONSTER! So, you read on, to find out what the frig kinda things you’ve been up to … and to unravel all the what-the-fucknesses. And as in Campbell’s story, once you figure out the hitherto unfigureoutable, you realise the answer’s been laid out for you all along. Quite literally, in this case.

Even though you’ve put the story down, now, it hasn’t done the same to you. It still has you in its grasp. As you read it for the second time in five minutes, you find yourself,

“Laying there like a lump. Scintillating as mud, and sexy as a tumor.”

Ouch, man. Ouch. Must lay off the carbs. Must … step … away … from that cake.

Speaking of cake, to make the batter, you must first combine the butter and sugar…and to make a story work in an alternative perspective, first you must …

… see all of the above.

Like a recipe written in second (which all good recipes should be, giving to-the-letter, direct-to-the-person instructions), a story in that same perspective will ask –nay, demand –something of the reader. That extra little requirement – the suspension of disbelief a little bit further than they are normally willing to suspend it.

The pre-requisite of a decent attention span comes with a teasing carrot of danglement that offers the reader the choice to step right inside the head of the protagonist for a wee while. As the reader, it’s for your own good in any case – do you want to lose yourself in the story or not?

So you do. You suspend that disbelief, and relish having proved the know-alls to be know-nowts. You allow yourself to become the YOU of the story, and you enjoy a fresh, empathic experience from which there is no escape. And then, you go and write the hell out of your own imagination.

Don’t you?

…………………………………………………….

LINDA ANGEL

[1] Reprinted:

— ‘Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays’. — 1950.

— ‘The Orwell Reader, Fiction, Essays, and Reportage’ — 1956.

— ‘Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays’. — 1965.

— ‘The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell’. — 1968.

[2] First Published:

— ‘Whispers’ – Volume 3, Numbers 3-4, whole number 11-12 (edited by Stuart David Schiff; Chapel Hill, October 1978)

[3] First Published:

—Playboy, March 1956

[4] First Published:

—’Conscience’ – 2004 (now available through Crossroads Press)

    Reprinted:

—’Demons – Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessed’ – Black Dog and Leventhal – 2011.

Purchase Links:

Orwell: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Decline-English-Murder-Penguin-Great/dp/0141191260/ref=la_B000AQ0KKY_1_29?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493591959&sr=1-29

Campbell: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alone-Horrors-Fiction-Campbell-1961-1991/dp/0765307677/ref=sr_1_cc_2?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1493590944&sr=1-2-catcorr&keywords=alone+with+the+horror+campbell

Bradbury: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bradbury-Stories-Most-Celebrated-Tales/dp/0060544880/ref=sr_1_10?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493591120&sr=1-10&keywords=ray+bradbury

Skipp: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Demons-Encounters-Minions-Fallen-Possessed/dp/1579128793/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493591832&sr=1-1&keywords=john+skipp+demons

POETRY REVIEW: You Took the Last Bus Home – by Brian Bilston

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I’m not one to compare writers. I hate that. Yuk. Sure, it’s great for marketing, I suppose – if you must market. “Fans of such-and-such will love this novel by so-and-so…” YAWWWN. That sort of crap is lazy and unclever, and has never once given me that I JUST GOTTA HAVE IT vibe.

It’s somewhat pissing on the author’s skills, too: when the blurbage tells me that Writey McScribe is the next Clive Barker, all I hear is “this guy is wholly unoriginal, having re-hashed some dying old trope or other.” Talk about damning by faintstuff.

What I will do, though, is tell you who my own particular boat-floaters are, just so you know where I’m at; this *chick is notoriously hard to impress, particularly when it comes to those who poe. If you’re gonna rhyme your way straight to my heart, buddy, your wordplay is going to have to contend with the likes of Thackray and Lehrer, and you need to be eatin’ Shakespeare and Gilbert for breakfast – and you have to be able to think all four of ‘em under the table.

*Old bird.

Disclaimer: If you believe that poetry is simply defined as ANY OL’ PROSE WITH ARBITRARY LINE BREAKS arbitrarily shoved in ARBITRARY PLACES, then:

I

will

not

be

read

ing

your

stuff.

If you don’t put your very self into your art, please refrain from bothering my eyeballs. I ain’t interested in reading writing; I want – NEED – to read WRITERS.

So, what DOES make a poet? Or, rather, what makes my kinda poet?

It’s simple. It’s not about what the words mean to the reader – but what they mean to the person doing the poeing. Can they twist and bend words like Twisty McBenderson at his finest? Do they leave you salivating, dangling that end rhyme in the air, postponing it until you can cope no more, before landing it safely on the runway? A true (to himself and the reader) poet relishes how words feel, smell, and sound, how they taste in your mouth as you speak ‘em, and he knows exactly how to make ‘em DANCE.

I can count on one finger those I hold sacred amongst my contemporaries. Ladies and gents (and every gender in between), I give you Brian Bilston. This dude knows how to word.

THE LAST BUS HOME is Bilston’s debut … oh, bollocks to all that. I’m not going to tell you the stuff you can read anywhere else. That’s just padding. If you want to know when and where it was published, and by whom, then check the BUY IT NOW OR FOREVER HOLD THY WORDS link here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Brian-Bilston/e/B01I8GPLFG/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_book_1

This is the sort of book you should forget to feed your cat for. This is the sort of book for which you should drop everything, RIGHT NOW, and just reaaaaad. (Speaking of dropping, do not even THINK of taking said volume into the bath with you. I speak from soggy experience. Actually, strike that. DO bathe with it, because then you shall have to take purchase of a second copy.)

Unputdownable is a term that should be reserved wholly and exclusively for the work of BB; his very mind is on them thar poetic pages, I tellzya. From simple silliness to moments of sheer genius, there’s something for everyone. And if you have a brain of the more literary persuasion, then this stuff is nothing short of grey-matter-fodder.

To say there is wordplay in store for you is the underest statement since Tiny Isaac, my local skint midget, said he was coming up short. Who else would do poetry by mathlight to make words be all Fibonacci sequency? Who else could offer lip-reading lightbulb moments of broken hearts and fixed words? Who _ls_ would omit a l_tt_r from an _ntire po_m to mak_ a point?

I have many favourites. But Read My Lips is the one – THE ONE – that seeps right into the very core of me (I won’t spoil the ending for you):

“To be clear, I’m not talking

Fifty Shades of Grey here,

but someone who knows their way around

the complete works of Shakespeare.

 

“I would rip out my heart

and write her name upon it

if she might recite to me

his eighteenth sonnet.”

THIS – right here – is how he rips my wordy l’il heart out. I was using that, damn you, Bilston.

So yes – buy this book. NOW. Eat this poetry. Salivate, devour, and relish it, and savour every last drop of Brianness as you decide whether to envy or idolise the man. Me?  I’ll be right here, waiting for the next bus.

Linda Angel