Excerpt: A Season of Singing

‘Well,’ the bishop said, sinking into an armchair, ‘how have they been looking after you at St Cuthbert’s?’
The grizzled hair at his temples and his small brown eyes gave him the air of a badger, though the only badgers Mark had ever seen had been dead on the verges of the B485.
‘They’ve been very kind to me.’
‘Too kind, perhaps?’
He shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the overstuffed seat. The last two times he’d spoken, albeit briefly, to the bishop, he’d been in pyjamas. It didn’t help. And the question was dangerous. Agree, hoping to flatter the man’s insight, or disagree and avoid a trap. His thoughts were sluggish, and he couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t always been that way. ‘I needed to start doing things for myself. I hope they don’t feel I’m ungrateful.’
‘I don’t think so.’ The bishop smiled and Mark relaxed, the trap avoided. ‘But people are apt to get their feathers a bit ruffled when their good offices are declined.’
Mark bowed his head. ‘I’ll try and behave with more…grace.’
‘I hope that won’t be necessary.’ He picked up another file. ‘I understand the medical board has passed you as fit to return to ministry?’
Don’t show any uncertainty. ‘They have.’
‘They’ve also made some recommendations.’ There was a pause while the bishop read. He let the paper drop back onto the table at his side with a breath of irritation. ‘I think the medical profession—may the Lord guide them—has little belief in our ability to see what is known colloquially as the bleeding obvious.’
‘Perhaps they just didn’t want there to be any misunderstandings.’
‘Ever the peacemaker, Mark?’ The words were mild, but somehow it didn’t sound like a compliment. ‘Still, there is a benefice just become vacant which should fulfil their recommendations.’ He lavished irony on the final word. ‘It’s rural, two churches, no more than three services a week. I sent someone to have a look at the rectory, as it’s one of the old ones. A couple of minor alterations, and you should be able to manage.’
‘Two churches? I can’t drive.’
‘I’m sure we can find someone on the parish council to help there. You could,’ he added with ponderous humour, ‘get yourself a donkey.’
The interview concluded, Mark hauled himself to his feet, grateful to escape the embrace of a chair that appeared designed to inflict maximum discomfort. He forced a brisk pace while he was still in sight of the bishop; hearing the door close behind him he stopped and leaned against the nearest wall. Somewhere two floors down was the young ordinand assigned to escorting him, as if left to his own devices he’d either fall on his face or throw his walking stick away and make a run for it. In reality he’d probably achieve both simultaneously.
But only another week and he’d leave St Cuthbert’s for ever. He could endure another week. The board had been amused by his eagerness to take up his ministry again. Sometimes he was able to admit to himself that it was closer to desperation.
Ever the peacemaker. Was I? Was that how I was seen? He could remember the past, but much of it was a silent film, emotionless, an unknown actor hijacking his memories.
Wincing, he straightened and made his slow way to the stairs.
Halfway down the second flight the ordinand rushed up and took his arm. Resisting the desire to snap at him, Mark allowed himself to be helped down the last few steps and out to the St Cuthbert’s minibus. The loathing of this innocent vehicle had become automatic; the disabled stickers in its windows, the boxes of latex gloves and tissues always to hand, the lift at the back for wheelchairs, in and out of which he’d been ignominiously carted for months. And always, at the same time, the apologetic internal litany of how this hate didn’t extend to the disabled, that his compassion for them was clear and absolute, that he would be honoured to minister to them.
He settled into his seat, and before he could object, the ordinand reached across and belted him in.
‘There,’ the young man said, smiling benignly. ‘All ready to go?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
Grace, Lord, please give me grace.

Excerpt: The First Time They Met

April 17th

Jack wandered through to the crew room. Roger was on the sofa with Selina, poring over the rota, Hots, in an armchair with his feet on the coffee table and a tea towel over his face, appeared to be asleep. Lyssa sat at the table, writing.
‘Anyone else want a coffee?’ he said.
Selina and Roger indicated half-full mugs. Hots didn’t reply, but Lyssa glanced over her shoulder, said, ‘Yes, if you’re making one. Milk, no sugar, thanks.’ She went back to her writing.
It was only instant; Jack had put up with it for a couple of months then, a few days ago, he’d found a plunger in a cupboard. He’d widened his search, thinking that even three-month-old ground coffee would be better than the dusty-tasting sludge that came in one-kilo tins. But he’d come up empty, and that afternoon he’d ordered an espresso machine online, with a couple of kilos of beans.
The tin was empty; he should have had the machine couriered over.
‘I’ve got some more in my locker.’ Lyssa got up from the table. ‘Emergency supply. Put that tin in the recycling bin.’ She hurried out.
As soon as the door had shut behind her, Roger got to his feet.
‘Watch this,’ he said with a sly grin.
He stepped across to the work surface, unplugged the toaster and kettle, and swapped them round. Then, as Lyssa’s footsteps became audible in the corridor again, he trotted back to the armchair, sat down and opened a newspaper, but not far enough that he couldn’t still catch Jack’s eye.
Lyssa walked back in, a bag of coffee in one hand, a pack of biscuits in the other. She put both down on the work surface, reached for the kettle.
‘Oh.’
She stared at the toaster, as if it were some alien being, squatting, ready to leap at her. She started to glance back over her shoulder, and then seemed to change her mind. Robert was grinning widely. Trying to catch Jack’s eye, giving him an odd sense of déjà vu.
It was like school, the way when someone was being humiliated, everyone else looked at each other and shared the joke in silent amusement. He’d done it himself, for a while, until he’d realised that he didn’t really like the people he was exchanging glances with, and even more that he didn’t like what they were doing. He remembered his one-time friend, Rob, wilting under a barrage of abuse, the other boys laughing. At least, they’d laughed until he stepped up, put a hand on Rob’s shoulder, and the two of them walked away together. There’d been a bit of name-calling, but he’d given them the finger, and they’d shut up. Under his hand, Rob had been shaking. That was the first time he’d realised how much that cruelty hurt, how frightened someone could be.
He got up, walked over. ‘Sorry. I spilled something, earlier. I must have put everything back wrong after I wiped up.’
‘N—no, it’s all right.’ She rubbed her palms on her thighs.
He unplugged the heavy steel toaster, picked it up. ‘Here, shove the kettle back. Before I drop this.’ She did so, and he could see her relax. He didn’t bother looking at Roger. ‘Where did you get your coffee?’
The rest of her tension dissolved in a discussion of the relative merits of several coffee suppliers, as she made brimming mugs for them both.
‘I think you know as much about how to pick good coffee as how to pick good wine,’ he said after he’d taken a mouthful.
She flushed a little, unable to meet his eyes. ‘Not really, I just tell them to give me something that tastes like it’s been stirred with a burnt stick, and might possibly dissolve the spoon.’
‘Alternatively, you could probably tell them you’re a doctor, and they’d give you much the same.’ He sat at the table with her. ‘What are you writing?’
‘Nothing,’ she said, at the same time Hots from under the tea towel said loudly, ‘Poetry.’
She twisted round in her chair to glare at the pilot, but as the tea towel remained draped over his face, it didn’t have any effect.
‘She’s a published poet,’ Hots added, ‘didn’t she tell you?’
‘Why would I?’ Lyssa said crossly.
Hots lifted one corner of the tea towel. ‘Over there,’ he nodded at the bookshelves in the far corner of the room. ‘There’s a copy of her book. It’s the third copy—the other two just vanished. Very strange, but I think the thief knows that if this one disappears, we’ll just buy another one.’
Lyssa sighed and picked up her coffee, drank it without looking at any of them.
Jack wandered over to the bookshelf, sorted through the piles of three-year-old celebrity magazines, medical journals, out-of-date textbooks, copies of Dan Brown and Wilbur Smith, and found a small, hardback volume, titled heavy air, and with a picture of the London skyline on its cover.
‘May I borrow it?’ he said.
Lyssa didn’t reply.
Hots said, ‘Of course,’ dropped the corner of the tea towel, and went back to sleep.

Publishing update

So.

The Painting is up on Amazon, Smashwords and Lulu, and is selling at a steady rate. All ebooks so far, no paperbacks, although I think the paperback royalties take longer to appear on the statement.

Stormwatcher 1 is up in both ppb and ebook versions, and Stormwatcher 2 as an ebook (just finishing the adjustments to the proof – more on that later)

Sense and Celebrity is up in ebook and ppb.

I’m back to working on A Season of Singing. I’m on the last few thousand words, wriggle room I leave myself in the final edits as I tend to underwrite and have to go back and do a lot of filling in between events, foreshadowing, making sure motivations are realistic, that kind of thing.

I never really thought about how much I write about disability until now. I assumed it was because I’m a doctor, but now I no longer think that’s the reason. I suppose it’s that firstly, I prefer to write about people who are disenfranchised in some way – gay men in Nazi Germany, for instance. In Pride and Precipitation (spoilers!) Stephen Rowan ends up the most seriously injured among a small group of people; not a role he has ever envisaged himself in, nor one he’s particularly well equipped to cope with.

Season of Singing follows a deeply religious man who’s the victim of a vicious, mistakenly homophobic attack, from which it has taken him a year and a half to return to independent living. He believes everything that happens has a purpose, but cannot square this with what he’s experienced.

And lastly, The First Time They Met, the most challenging (for me) book I’ve yet written. One character has a lifelong disability, the other has acquired permanent spinal injuries as a result of his own recklessness. One has had it all, and thrown it away, while the other has struggled to be normal, struggled to achieve and yet is still the outsider in her own life.

I’ve suddenly realised that I would find it hard to write without tackling these kinds of issues. I can’t imagine writing a book where all the characters are healthy, privileged people. I’ve often felt guilty about not including more POC, but maybe that’s just not my bag. And if any group of people needs a fictional voice that speaks of them as being fully human, then we certainly do.

Old Post: Independent bookshops

 I went to an independent bookshop today. I’m not going to name it, though I’d like to. I went in to (briefly) talk to the proprietor about the magazine, and leave some flyers. I also wanted to buy a book. The encounter went something like this:Tielserrath: Hello, I’m looking for a book and I can’t find it on your shelves. I wondered if you had it or could order it. it’s called The Book of Dave.

Proprietor: (blank look) The book of what?

T: The Book of Dave. The latest book by Will Self.

P: I’ve not heard of it.

T: Well…it’s been all over the broadsheets. It’s the current Guardian Book Club Book.

P: Oh…maybe I think I know the one you mean. What was it again?

T: The Book of Dave.

P: (looks on computer) Here it is. I can order it. It will be here tomorrow if I get some more orders today, otherwise it will be here on Saturday.

(pause while address details written down)

T: I also wanted to show you a new magazine that we’re launching and give you some flyers and an invitation to the launch party.

P: (glance at invitation) Oh, that’s a bit far away.

(It’s about 20 miles.)

T: Well, we’d be pleased to see as many independent booksellers as can make it, because we are going to feature an independent bookshop in every magazine. The feature in the first issue is about an independent that’s successful and expanding, and I think that’s fascinating because people are so pessimistic about the future of the independents. Anyway, I’ll leave a letter and some flyers-

P: Oh, there’s no point in leaving flyers. People aren’t interested. They won’t pick them up. I’ll take a poster.

T: We don’t have posters at the moment. We’ll have them once the magazine has been launched.

P: Well, I won’t stock any unless I’ve had a free copy to look through.

T: (wonders if the same applies to the books she stocks. From the look of the shelves, this may be the case.) Well, I’ll pop back after the launch with one, shall I? (Departs with relief. Never has pouring rain been more attractive than staying in a bookshop.)

(NB On a previous recce I had identified this woman as the proprietor.)

I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect the owner of a bookshop to keep up with the new releases from major UK writers. Especially as nowadays newspapers can be accessed for free on the internet. I would have thought that knowing which books were being featured in reviews or book club supplements would be important, as those are books people are likely to come in and ask for. In fact, isn’t doing this an automatic part of the job description if you are selling new books?

And the flyers…I didn’t type out the brief pitch I made for the magazine, but I did make it clear to her that this was a magazine whose main aim was to help independent bookshops sell more books. I thought the point of flyers in this situation was that as customers buy books, the bookseller says, ‘Oh, by the way, there’s a new magazine just out which I think you might like. I’ll give you one of these (tucks flyer into book) so you can read a bit more about it. Let me know if you’d like me to get any of the books they review for you.’ With luck, the bookseller sells a magazine, and as a result of that sells more books, too. Everyone happy. The old win-win situation.

When I entered this shop I was upbeat and enthusiastic. I was met by the attitude of  ‘you’re wasting my time and I’m not interested’. Throughout, I was the sole customer; I was not preventing anyone else from getting attention, and there was no sign that a stocktake or anything else of importance was in progress. I waited at the till for five minutes before anyone even noticed I was there.

A few months ago I was in New Zealand, visiting the potteries (among other things). At one shop, showcasing the work of several local artists, I identified myself as a part-time potter. I was immediately dragged around to the back room, plied with tea and cake, and given a tour of the premises. We talked about many aspects of pottery for around two hours; I spent quite a bit of money in the shop, and I felt I had met people who would be successful in their work, and give pleasure to their customers. They were open and enthusiastic.

It feels awful to come away from a business thinking that it doesn’t deserve to survive. But there are a few independents in other market towns near me – it’s a little further to travel, but I’ll go a bit further to meet people who actually care about what they do. Or I’ll buy the books in Foyles when I’m next in London.

So. I’ll see what happens when I go to pick up The Book of Dave. Strangely, I’m not hopeful.

Old Post: Why it pays to get all the information

I’m closing an old blog and moving a few posts of note across to here. Original publication date 2007.

I came across a book recently that I wanted to review for the mag. It was published by…let’s call them Star Press. they had a nice website, with an email contact page. Now, I do as much as I can by email, but I do like to have a postal address. But Star Press didn’t have one. What it did have was a small link to another company – let’s call them Genre Umbrella Publishing (GUP).

Fair enough; after all, several small presses have imprints – Arcadia is a good example.

So what was GUP’s postal address?

There, in very small print on the contact page: Simon and Schuster House. Nowhere else was it mentioned that these were imprints of a major publisher.

So does it matter? Well, it does to me, because I’d look pretty stupid when someone wrote to me saying I’d been conned into printing a review of a Simon and Schuster book in a magazine dedicated to independent presses. It also makes me wonder why they didn’t advertise it as ‘an imprint of S&S’ – after all, since when were major companies coy about advertising themselves? What are they afraid of?

And am I being unnecessarily cynical?

…I’m still not sure.

Old Post: Book readings

I’ve attended quite a few readings in the last three weeks. I’m not going to name specific events, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Set a timetable, let your audience know what it is, and keep to it. An audience gets unsettled if it doesn’t know when the readings are going to start, or how long the break will be.

2. For the majority of readers, ten minutes is enough. Unless they have a story that needs to be told in full, and can tell it well, and you have comfortable seating for all your listeners, don’t go beyond ten minutes. Keeping people standing still and silent for twenty minutes is likely to lead to someone fainting at the back of the room.

3. Keep the number of characters in a piece to the absolute minimum Rewrite the piece if necessary. Make sure it’s clear which are the main characters, and try to remind the listeners of their identity at least once. Do not give characters more than one name; in a book readers can flip back and reidentify them, but during a reading they can’t.

4. Try to keep to a single plotline; don’t have too many changes of scene; think carefully about paragraphs of description – are you painting a picture or boring your audience to sleep?

5. Don’t mix poetry and prose unless you really know what you’re doing. Poetry, strangely, can suck the power from a piece of prose.

6. The reader must be above the eye level of the audience, even if only by a few inches. They have come to see someone read; otherwise they would have stayed at home and listened to the radio or a podcast.

7 Prepare your introductions, learn them and speak directly to the audience. DON’T read from a piece of paper. ‘Tune’ the introductions to your audience. And try and balance them if you have several readers. Listing twelve publications, an award and a degree for one person, and then introducing the next by saying ‘she lives in Hounslow and likes cats and this is her first short story’ is not fair. If you have to, put this information in the flyers that you hand out at the event, and then keep the introductions brief for everyone. NB – Do not give out a flyer of mini-biographies and then read from it as the introduction. What is the point of telling the audience what they’ve just read?

7a Tell them how many readers there are going to be, so they can plan a getaway.

8. Make sure your readers have their papers in the right order. Losing your place while reading because you haven’t clearly numbered the pages is an insult to your audience. Haphazard scattiness in this situation is not endearing, only irritating.

9. Funny is good. Plot-driven is good. Ask yourself – what do I want my audience to remember of this story by tomorrow morning?

For more about book readings, see Kay’s blog: choosing-material-for-reading-its-not-rocket-science

However, despite all this book readings are fun. If nothing else, you can convince yourself you have some association with the literati, and sometimes seeing famous writers in the flesh is fascinating – not so much for the way they read, but for their behaviour before and after. And you never know…you too may end up on a sofa getting pissed with John Banville.