Friday, 25 April 2014

Cover Reveal

I’ve never been involved in a ‘cover reveal’ before. But that’s what the lovely people at AngryRobot are about to do for my next book, the Bullet Catcher’s Daughter. (I feel I need to say ‘lovely’ because if I just said ‘Angry Robot’ it might give an entirely different impression to those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting them.)

My previous covers with other publishers were revealed, of course – in that there must logically have been a moment when they were seen for the first time. But that moment passed un-noticed.

So, when I received an email from AR last week to say they were almost ready to do the cover reveal, my first reaction was to say ‘what’s that?’ My second reaction was to feel a rosy glow of self-satisfied pleasure. They’re doing all this for me? Self-satisfaction is a dangerous feeling for a novelist. It encourages the erroneous belief that we are special in some way and thereby kills the hunger to improve. It is also rather ugly.   

Had I been quicker witted, I would have realised immediately that the cover reveal is not a celebration of the author. It is a hats-off to the artist who designed the thing. In this case that is Will Staehle, a Seattle based designer whose excellent website you can find here.

And... although the cover has not yet been ‘revealed’, I can tell you that Will has done an amazing job for the Bullet Catcher’s Daughter.
More of that later. But for now, I'm just off to rehearse the trumpeters.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Dyslexia Debate

The Dyslexia Debate is a new book by Professor Elliott of Durham University. The mass of publicity surrounding its launch has suggested variously that dyslexia is a 'myth' that it is a construct by middle class parents whose children are not learning fast enough and that giving dyslexics extra help is an injustice to other students.

This has caused distress among a group of people who are already suffering. So I thought I would lay out one of the many reasons that I believe the concept of dyslexia to be useful.

Some process has selected a group of people and given them the label 'dyslexic'. I'm one of them. Whenever I get together with other adults labelled in the same way, we discover many levels of similarity that other people can't even understand.

  "Do you get that thing where...?"
  "You too?" 
  "I thought I was the only one in the world who did that!"

We can all read and write. We are all well practiced at hiding the difference - though it is stressful and we don't always manage it. But when we get together it is as if we have found a family we never knew we had. All those little quirks and stresses that make us feel out of step with the world - in that company they are gone.

I didn't choose the word dyslexia. I didn't choose what family background I came from. But something deep down on the level of cognitive processing is different from the mainstream. It made learning to read and write agonizingly difficult. I did learn, but reading still takes a lot of concentration for me and my spelling is all over the place - even though I am now a novelist.

They can argue about the name. And they can argue about the best method of helping. And they can argue about disability legislation and funding for special needs education. But my experience tells me that there is a real phenomena here and that the process of identification is selecting a group of people with very similar issues.

Perhaps it would be more comfortable for some people to believe that because the problems are invisible from the outside they can be ignored. Just get the kids to read and write and the difference has 'gone away'?

I'm sorry. It is still here after we have learned to pass ourselves off as non-dyslexic. Something about the dyslexia labelling is working. For the time being it is the only thing we have to enable us to find people with the same differences.

Please don't try to destroy the label unless you have something better to replace it with.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013) is a film that divides opinion. When friends heard that I intended to go and see it they, variously, told me that it was: “A breakthrough in cinema” “The most disturbing film ever” “Misogynistic” “Remeniscent of Kubrick” and “Unimaginably boring”. Could all these descriptions be true?

Phoenix Square in Leicester was showing it yesterday, so I went along to find out.

Under the Skin is a film about... Well, here I run into my first problem. Nothing is obvious. Even by the end, I couldn’t tell you definitively what the story is. We watch as Scarlett Johansson, clothed in a stolen identity, drives around Glasgow at night. In turn, she watches the people on the streets around her. Sometimes she stops and talks to one of them. Sometimes she offers a lift. And all the time, we, the audience, are playing detective, trying to find a story behind these apparently random interactions.

Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
Anyone who has seen the trailer will already know that a disturbing fate awaits a man, enticed by her sexuality to enter a surreal black, featureless lair. Then we are back to driving around and watching.

The shots are cut long, giving the film a deliberately slow pace. The camera lingers over everything. And without a clear thread of story to hold onto, the pace feels doubly slow. For many people, it has clearly crossed the fine line that separates ‘enigmatic’ from ‘boring’. And yes, I can see that point of view.

Several things kept me on the enigmatic side of the line. First and foremost was Scarlett Johansson’s presence. Her face is endlessly fascinating in passivity. And her abrupt switches to other modes of expression were disturbing and entirely believable. I hope her performance is not overlooked when the awards season comes around again.

The second reason the film had me hooked were the occasional surreal scenes, which seemed to take place in another reality. They were visually extraordinary. I have not read the book, but it would be very interesting to know what these are the visual representation of in prose. They are certainly a triumph in film making and it is in them that the Kubrick comparison felt most meaningful.

The third reason I stayed with the film was the naturalistic acting style, at least part of which came from hidden camera filming of ordinary people going about their lives. This dissolving of the wall between documentary and fiction did much to heighten the disturbing effect of the film overall. When something bad happens, it feels as if we are watching reality.

I have to address the suggestion of misogyny, which almost put me off going to see the film. I can understand that a story about a woman stalking male victims might be seen as such. But I did not take it that way. For me the character played by Johansson, though presenting female sexuality, was in fact alien from the concept herself. Thus, ironically, her true character seemed androgynous.

However an interaction between a male and a female character at the end of the film – which I can’t describe because it would be a significant spoiler – did leave me very uneasy in this respect. It left issues unresolved – which I think was the intention of the film makers, but which I can imagine it receiving criticism for. It is a fine judgement, but I think that sequence was justified by the story.

Under the Skin is not a film for everyone. Hurrah for that! The astronomical cost of film making naturally pushes producers to try to satisfy the largest possible audience. That isn't a complaint. It is just economic fact. But the net effect of a million economically necessary decisions is to make the film industry institutionally conservative and risk averse.

Here we have a notable exception. Congratulations to all the funders for getting behind it. And to Scarlett Johansson for taking the risk.

Yes, Under the Skin gets a thumbs up from me. But it leaves me with a question - are a strong story thread and this kind of quality mutually exclusive? In other words - good as it was, could this film have been better?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Britons, Saxons, Vikings - who are the English?

“Who are the English?” That good question was put to an audience in Glenfield Library last Saturday by novelist Marianne Whiting. “The Scots seem to have an idea of who they are,” she said. “So do the Welsh. But not the English.”

Novelist - Marianne Whiting
Anglo-Saxons perhaps? Only partly. Drawing on recent genetic research, Marianne told us that in DNA terms, the English population is far more Ancient Britain than Anglo-Saxon.

If this all sounds technical and academic, I am giving the wrong impression. Marianne is an entertaining speaker. Her talk was funny and filled with anecdote as she delved into our mysterious Dark Ages history. Women warriors featured prominently. There were also snake pits and vengeance aplenty. And not to forget the Battle of Brunenburg in 937 AD. Too many people forget it, Marianne said. It was the battle where the idea of Englishness “came of age”.

At the end of a very enjoyable hour, the audience crowded round to buy copies of Marianne’s excellent novel, ‘Shieldmaiden’.

I can thoroughly recommend both the novel and the talk.