Why my last story could be my last … and other stories

So Kirsti Wishart has asked me to participate in this Next Big Thing craze that’s sweeping the writerly blogosphere, where you answer a set of standard questions on your blog. You also invite other writers – none of mine have replied so far, but if they do I’ll point you their way. In the meantime, here goes … you did ask, Kirsti!

1. What’s the title of your latest story?

My last story was called Louis and Valentine, and was written for the Writers’ Bloc Halloween show. It could be, for all I know, the last story I ever write.
2. Where did the idea for the story come from?

I basically stole it. I went along to a meeting of the Edinburgh non-fiction writers’ group, Stranger than Fiction, and critted a chapter of a non-fiction book about RLS. The chapter was about Stevenson’s time in Bournemouth, where he wrote Jekyll and Hyde. Although it was biography, it had ‘factional’ passages – which for me were the best bits by far.

Having read at least one RLS biography in my time, I knew about the Stevensons’ French maid, Valentine Roch, but I’d forgotten that people in Bournemouth thought she was Louis’ mistress – basically because she slept on his bedroom floor on occasion (allegedly for the entirely innocent purpose of making sure he was ok in the night, given his health problems).

The chapter I read had a great scene, where Fanny is conveniently taken out of the picture by going on a shopping trip to London with Louis’ parents – an entirely plausible idea, as the parent were frequent visitors in the Bournemouth days. So I stole the idea of the scene, and then took it in the direction I wanted.

To be fair, I didn’t see the rest of the book, so I’ve no idea if my story is similar to what happened next in that. I also did a bit of research on ergotine, which is the drug Stevenson was on at that time for his lung problems. It has some pleasing effects, apparently. If you want to write a classic duality morality tale.
3. What genre does your story fall under?

Idea theft; RLS fanboy fiction; literary bodysnatching.
4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?

I think Peter Capaldi would make a great Stevenson. All that nervous energy, and that drawl. I don’t know enough young French actresses to know who would play Valentine, but basically I see Valentine as what the French call jolie laide, which literally translated means ‘pretty ugly.’ It really means someone who’s not conventionally attractive but somehow is.

Fanny would be a tougher casting. She was a remarkable piece of work, but I can’t think of an actress that resembles her physically. It would be quite a difficult role to show all her complexities in the brief part I gave her in the story. Somebody like Juliet Stevenson or Anna Chancellor could pull it off.

I’ll just pop off now and wait by the phone, in case their agents are reading this. Kidding.
5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your story?

Sexual tension with the maid + ergotine = iconic horror story.
6. Will your story be self-published or represented by an agency?

Well, there’s the thing – probably neither.

I’ve been thinking about this whole publishing thing a lot recently, and my motivations for writing in the first place (I think it’s all connected to a recent Big Birthday).

So why do I write? I mean, I have a day job that pays the bills: why not come in at night and watch the telly? Why lock myself away in the evenings, get up early at weekends, take days off when my wife’s working and my daughter’s at school, just to write?

And why write stories? Over the last thirty or so years  I’ve had thirty or so stories published in magazines and anthologies. Is that why I do it? Doesn’t look like a great strike rate, although I’ve also written three novels (unpublished), one and a half non-fiction books (published), a couple of dozen articles, and had more recently something like thirty to forty poems in print too. So it’s not like I’ve just been slouching around.

Sum total? The day job pays my bills. I reckon I’ve probably made a couple of hundred from the fiction, a few hundred more than that from the non-fiction. So it’s not for the money.

It’s not for the recognition, needless to say. Crowds of literateurs storm right past me to more famous authors in the supermarket, leaving me pinned to the cold meat counter. Although folk on the Edinburgh spoken word circuit know me, and come and talk to me, which is really nice.

There is the satisfaction of seeing your precious creation in print – particularly if, for example, it’s a really good production like Nova Scotia. But after a while that can fade, and there’s the problem of attic storage for all these magazines.

So why? Why bother? Increasingly over the last couple of years, the answer has been to perform them. That’s a tricky one though. It’s all too easy to write a series of interconnected gags, or churn out yet another literary parody – something I feel I’ve been guilty of recently. That probably explains why I wrote something a bit more ‘serious’ in Louis and Valentine. But it doesn’t really fit a market, and possibly wasn’t even what the Bloc show needed in terms of length and seriousness (short, funny and if possible scary usually is the way to go).

Which is why I titled this ever-extending piece ‘why my last story could be my last.’ It probably won’t: I mean, there’ll always be a show I fancy performing at, and although I really like performing poetry, I do think prose is probably my stronger suit.

But it’s not like I’m bursting with story ideas. I can see the fins of two or three circling, but I’m fending them off for now. None of them will have a natural market, and they’ll probably all be too long to perform. Eventually I might let them in to bite me (see below).
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I wrote Louis and Valentine over the course of a week, in about three sittings, maybe four. It’s quite a short story, and I tend to work in 500 word bursts more or less. First thing in the morning works for me.
8. What other stories would you compare it to within your genre?

No idea. I don’t read enough modern fiction – particularly in the short form – to be able to reference myself. That’s a real failing on my part; but if you don’t find time to do something, it probably means you’re not prioritising it because you’re not motivated enough to do it.

Let me tell you a story about that. A couple of years ago, when I was still thinking about writing a novel, we went on holiday to Spain in April. That’s when we usually go, to get a bit of sun after the long Scottish winter – although we don’t go to the Costas, we travel around after we’ve got the Madrid flight, taking the train mostly.

We generally stick to the smaller cities – Salamanca, Valladolid, Cordoba – but this time we pushed the boat out and went to an even smaller place called Almagro, which is in La Mancha. Cervantes country: flat plains stretching north to Madrid, and south towards the borders of Andalucia.

There was one train off the main line into Almagro per day, and one train out. It was baking hot the afternoon we arrived, but after that the rains descended. We stayed in this charming hostal , which was run by an equally charming young woman who spoke no English. The place was falling to bits, which gave me all sorts of useful vocabulary to explain how the door knob had fallen off and we couldn’t get into our room, or there was rain coming in through the ceiling and leaking on us as we slept.

Anyway.  I usually take a couple of books to read with me, and this time I took Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, and Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. I felt I should read both of them (note: when I say modern fiction, I tend to stretch it to ‘stuff written since I was a lad.’)

I got half way through Brick Lane before deciding I couldn’t take any more. I just didn’t care what happened next. Probably to say more would mark me out as an utter philistine.

Buddha of Suburbia, on the other hand, had that key element I needed: humour. It was a coming of age story, and interesting in its detail of a different culture in the same way Brick Lane was. But it was also funny! I cared what happened to the son, and the father!

Lying in one of those half-awake, half-asleep states you get sometimes when you’re in a strange bed, in this little village hostal, waiting for the rains to break through the ceiling again, I half-dreamt the story I wanted to write. The title of the novel became Buddha Belly, partly in acknowledgement of a debt I owed to Kureishi for teaching me something about the type of novel I wanted to write.

My novel, by the way, has nothing to do with a young Asian boy growing up in London with a father who becomes an unlikely guru. Just in case you thought I do that all the time. It’s a comic thriller about an utterly disreputable lawyer who calls his penis ‘the python,’ and wakes up to find a client naked and dead in his bath with his toe stuck up the tap.

Buddha Belly is currently going on blind dates with agents.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this story?

Back to Louis and Valentine. Apart from the writer whose story idea I stole (I’m ashamed to say I can’t even remember her name) that merry band of rapscallions, Writers’ Bloc. If I do keep writing stories for performance, it’ll be because Bloc is still getting shows off the ground. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, either, because Bloc is stuffed with talent right now.

Apart from old stagers like me, there’s new talent like Bram Gieben, Mark Harding, Stuart Wallace and Halstead BernardHannu Rajaniemi is looking to have a bit more time right now to chip in. Add into the mix the returning Stefan Pearson and you’ve really got a lot of creative horsepower at your disposal. Which takes the pressure off me to turn something in every time.

The trick will be getting original enough concepts to take things to the next level. Like adding music, for example.
10. What else about your story might pique a reader’s interest?

Louis and Valentine might never see the light of day again, so I’m not going to drone on about that. Instead, I’m going to tell you about what’s going to happen in 2013.

Next year, it’ll be 5 years since I first dusted down my guitar and began collaborating with Kelly Brooks on what became known as the Venus Project, documenting and performing the songs of the long lost Arbroath/L.A. singer-songwriter, Venus Carmichael. That’s been a whole lot of fun, and there’s a whole lot more of that to come I hope. And for Venus fans, there will soon be news of a new CD which we’re in the process of recording.

I now have enough poetry for a collection, and my friend and fellow Bloc-er, the wonderful poet Jane McKie, has given me a lot of advice and guidance on putting one together. I might get that published by someone else, or I might just self-publish.

On that whole self-publishing thing.  I’m beginning to break down the mental barriers I’ve always had about it – it’s a form of vanity; it’s only for folk who can’t really write; etc. etc.

Dude, the world has changed! The print publishing industry’s on its knees, begging for the next celebrity misery memoir. Can I compete with Katie Price? Not on any level. As for whether I can write or not, several dozen editors can’t have got it that wrong, can they? I mean, I didn’t have to sleep with all of them!

So. A poetry collection. And/or, possibly, a collection of my poetry and prose performance pieces, provisionally titled Duality Tango. I also plan to self-publish The Edinburgh Icarus, which I co-wrote with a good friend (now sadly deceased) some years ago and never got published. It deals with the Burke and Hare/Doctor Knox story in an original way, and I think it deserves to see the light of day. So I’m going to throw some energy at that.

I will continue to send my novel, Buddha Belly, on blind dates with agents until it reaches the stage it’s just too tragic to have it propping up a bar somewhere, showing a bit of leg to anyone that cares to pass. And at that point, I’ll publish a Kindle edition and be damned.

So far as those circling story ideas are concerned, I have a deal of material in my head about Daphne Du Maurier, her grandfather George (who wrote Trilby) JM Barrie, and ‘dreaming true.’ I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I also have a great story set in 50s Buenos Aires with an ex-Nazi spy as the hero. I might write them, I might not.

Other than that, my Next Big Thing is: music and spoken word. In combination. I’ll probably post some more about this, so I’ll keep it brief for now, but I feel increasingly that, when it comes to telling stories, adding the emotional punch of music can make all the difference. And it doesn’t have to be a song to tell it right.

A rough idea of where I’m going (and I stress rough) is the track I put up on Soundcloud,  Special. I plan to use more specially composed music than that in general, and mix it in performance with live instruments. At the moment, the how  is holding me back a bit, but it won’t for long.

Well done for reading this far down, by the way. This has been an extended bit of navel gazing, so thanks for listening.

As we like to say in Scotland, you’ll be hearing from me…


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