Sunday, 19 November 2017

It's Time to Take AC/DC Seriously (No, seriously...)

Malcolm Young died yesterday, Saturday 18th November 2017, at the age of sixty-four. He’d been suffering from dementia for some years, leading to his departure from AC/DC in 2014. Malcolm was the older, and probably lesser known, of the two Young brothers who founded the band in Sydney, Australia, in 1973. While Angus and his school uniform were the face of AC/DC, Malcolm was the one at the centre of it all, the man who lead from the back. According to Angus, he was also the better guitarist of the two, even though he always played rhythm.

I cried when David Bowie died at the beginning of 2016. The entertainment and arts worlds rightly genuflected at his genius and mourned his passing. I don’t expect Malcolm Young will get anything like that attention. There’ll be no evenings dedicated to AC/DC on BBC4 or SkyArts. A lot of people will shrug at the news and think, yeah, I liked that one that Simon Mayo plays on a Friday, the one with the thunder. Despite their extraordinary success, including recording the second biggest selling album of all time, many will dismiss AC/DC as that band whose songs sounded all the same, who had that funny looking bloke in the shorts, and that other guy in the flat cap. To many who consider themselves cultured in popular music, AC/DC’s catalogue is one extended knob gag and not to be taken seriously. The musical equivalent of a lecherous old uncle who gets pissed at Christmas dinner and tells dirty jokes to the kids.

I’m here to argue otherwise.

I’ve never liked “cool” music; my tastes have always veered to the crusty, dusty, slightly embarrassing end of the market. As a teenager, I liked Queen, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Status Quo, T-Rex, Van Halen, and any number of guitar-driven bands who had long passed their sell-by dates when I started listening to them. Cool has never concerned me in the slightest. In fact, this is the first of the core beliefs that I’m going to share in this essay.

Core Belief #1: If you only like music that’s cool, then you don’t like music.

I was a teenager in the Eighties, and that was a horrible decade for music journalism in the UK. The papers of the time – the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, even Smash Hits – were staffed by holdovers from the punk era, the same smug gits who would go on to be talking heads on those terrible “Top 50 of Whatever Old Shite We Thought of This Week” shows that seemed to be on TV every night in the late Nineties and early Noughties. Born in 1972, I was too young for the punk movement, and I was only vaguely aware of it at the time. I grew up in a small town in Northern Ireland, and punk was very much an urban thing. Whatever it began as, by the late Seventies punk had become a middle class affectation. All the teenagers from my working class estate were into Quo, Iron Maiden, and – yes – AC/DC. I remember the denim jackets and the patches with jagged band logos. Punk was from another place, another time, and, frankly, another social class. It wasn’t ours.

As a result, when I got into music as a teen and started paying attention to the music magazines, I always felt completely out of step with them. In the mid Eighties, they were all about The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Fall, The Wedding Present. Hardly anyone I knew was into those bands – with one or two exceptions – yet they dominated the music press of the time. It wasn’t The Queen is Dead or Psychocandy that was being passed around our school playground, but rather The Number of the Beast or Twelve Gold Bars.

Morrissey famously lamented that the music on the radio “says nothing to me about my life”. Well, The Smiths said nothing to me about mine. In 1986, at the age of fourteen, I was a spotty, awkward boy with not the slightest sense of fashion, who was getting quite good on the guitar, but had no idea how to hold a conversation with anyone but my best mate. I was lonely, isolated, afraid, unsure of who I was and who I wanted to be, and felt like I’d be an outsider for the rest of my days. There were millions like me. And it was Iron Maiden and their kind who said something to us about our lives, because they were the outsiders, the ones who were despised by the cool kids of the music press. I remember Smash Hits reviewing a Smiths album alongside a Maiden album in the same column; of course, Morrissey and Marr’s work was God’s gift, while Maiden’s was no more than the irksome grunting of Neanderthals. No wonder I identified with the latter rather than the former.

Yet despite my full acceptance of the uncool at the time, I didn’t like AC/DC. They seemed a step too far in that direction. I mean, all their songs sounded the same, and they were all about sex and the devil. But one Friday evening on Channel 4, on something called The Chart Show, they played a video for Who Made Who. I bloody loved it. I recorded it on our VHS and watched it over and over, then went to Woolworth’s and bought the single. Who Made Who is a minor entry in the AC/DC canon, but it captures all that’s great in their work: the glorious sound of the band in itself, the pop sensibility of the chorus, Angus’s guitar work, Brian Johnson’s Harold Steptoe-meets-Sid James persona.

I went back to Woolworth’s and bought the album of the same name, and my best mate ripped the piss out of me for it. Although I listened to the album over and over, it was fifteen years before I bought another. I did the most awful and self-defeating thing a music fan can do: I let someone else’s scorn steer me away from what I liked. That was what the UK music press of the Eighties was best at. Which brings me to:

Core Belief #2: Don’t let anyone piss on your chips.

Do you like Morris dancing? Good for you. Do you think Dan Brown is a literary genius? Great. Do you enjoy sitting in your pants in a darkened room listening to Taylor Swift? Nowt wrong with that. Whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon said.

As a society, we spend far too much time judging others for the things they like. The Internet has made a sport of it. For every cultural phenomenon that comes along, there’ll be a swathe of think-pieces from every outlet pointing out why that thing you really like is actually steaming garbage. Or, God help us, how that thing is “problematic”.

And you know what? The people who write that kind of crap are the contemporary equivalent to that kid who pointed at the band logo you’d drawn on your schoolbag and said, “Ha! You like them?! They’re rubbish!” It’s not just the wrongness of this kind of judgement that bothers me, but the sheer mean-spiritedness of it. Anyone who is so spiteful that they need to deride the things that give others pleasure is not someone to be taken seriously. No one is the arbiter of your tastes but you, and anyone who tells you otherwise should be treated with suspicion. And I don’t mean proper informed criticism; I think we all know the difference between a considered review and a hatchet job.

Anyway, back to the point. I remained partial to a bit of AC/DC as the years went by, but I was never a fan. That is until about fifteen years later when, ironically, the same mate who pilloried me for buying Who Made Who mentioned that he’d bought a copy of AC/DC’s Back in Black and thought it was great. Indeed, in his flat on a hungover Sunday morning, while enjoying a fry that his other half had prepared, we listened to the album together. It was the first time I’d heard it all the way through. And sweet Jesus, it was spectacular. I bought it a few days later, immediately followed by Highway to Hell.

Thus, in my early thirties I became an AC/DC fan. At first, it was the trio of Mutt Lange produced albums – Highway to Hell, Back in Black, For Those About to Rock – that I focused on, but as I dug in a little deeper, I began to appreciate the Bon Scott years more. Powerage in particular stands out, and might be their best album. The quality that sets those earlier albums apart can be summed up in one word – honesty – and segues nicely into my third core belief:

Core Belief #3: Good music is honest music.

Three chords and the truth, as the saying goes. That phrase works up to a point, in that Miles Davis used many more than three chords, and his music was never anything less than truthful. But the idea that honesty, authenticity, is a quality to be cherished in music is one that I absolutely believe in. The truth is a slippery thing, though. Led Zeppelin’s toying with Tolkien-esque imagery is as truthful to me as Jarvis Cocker’s musings on the rich-poor dynamic. I suppose it comes down to this question: is the musician’s heart in it? I have no use for cynicism in music. I want an honest expression of who the artist is, nothing more, nothing less.

When one considers that AC/DC were a bunch of toe-rags, scumbags, and chancers, then it’s clear that their music was never anything but honest. Just look at those early photos, all the missing teeth and back street tattoos. These were lads from the rough parts of town who picked up guitars and said what was on their minds. This is important for anyone who doubts AC/DC: they were the real thing. They sang about getting drunk and getting laid because that was what they knew. Consider the early lives of the key members…

Malcolm and Angus Young were two of eight children born to poor parents in Glasgow, Scotland. At that time, the Australian government was offering assisted resettlement to families willing to emigrate, and thus in the early Sixties the Youngs became “Ten Pound Poms” and moved down under. They had a surprise when they got there: rather than a new life of plenty they found themselves encamped with hundreds of other migrants in the Villawood Migrant Hostel outside Sydney, living in shared Nissen huts. It was essentially a prison camp for new arrivals, and the brothers literally had to fight for survival. While still living in the camp, their elder brother George joined a band called The Easybeats who scored some chart hits and gained enough of a foothold in the music industry that he was able to become a record producer. That was about the only lucky break the junior Youngs got.

Meanwhile, another little thug in the making called Ronald “Bon” Scott left Scotland with his parents, bound for Australia. This one was trouble from the start. After a couple of stints in prison, he began playing and roadying for various bands before winding up doing odd jobs for a booking agency that handled an up-and-coming glam-rock combo called AC/DC. When the band’s then-singer, Dave Evans, left over creative differences, Scott was in. They immediately stripped away the glam aspects and focused on what they were good at: no-nonsense blues rock, four-to-the-floor, heads-down boogie.

They were hated from the start. AC/DC were always the poor cousin, the black sheep of the family, the red-headed stepchild. In the era of glam- and prog-rock, they were neither. When the radio was populated by either pretty-boys in glitter or serious musos with Hammond organs, AC/DC were playing the kind of rock’n’roll that no one had cared about since the days of Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry. But they did it so well, and with such conviction, that people began to take notice.

A modicum of success in Australia prompted a move to London to see if they could crack England. By sheer luck, their arrival coincided with the emergence of the punk rock scene. Due to their no-frills aesthetic, AC/DC were begrudgingly – and mistakenly – accepted as a part of that movement. They were always interlopers, never truly belonging. That rather crafty co-opting of another musical scene sustained the band just long enough for them to record Highway to Hell, the album that finally gave them the step up to the big time. While it certainly has more polish, thanks to Mutt Lange’s production, that album still captures the controlled chaos of the band’s sound, the tight-as-a-gnat’s-chuff rhythm section, the joined-at-the-hip guitars, the sneering, leering vocals.

And those lyrics. Let’s talk about those. All crass innuendo, single entendre, boorish misogyny set to music, right? That’s a fair summary of what AC/DC became in their later years, but it’s not what they were in the late Seventies. Yes, Bon Scott’s lyrics always bathed in the gutter, but they were also very clever. He knew where he was from, where he was, who he was. He knew he was street trash who got lucky, and his lyrics reflected that. The smut was there, and he was seldom subtle about it, but the words were shot through with a self-awareness that AC/DC’s songs lacked in his absence. Bon Scott was the kind of anti-hero we love in crime fiction, the man who knows he’s no damn good, but ploughs on regardless. Problem Child (“With a flick of my knife, I could change your life”), Riff Raff (“I never shot nobody, don’t even carry a gun”), Bad Boy Boogie (“They said yes, I said no”) all paint the picture of the life lived wrong. Thing is, the picture was accurate. There was no pretence, it was the God’s honest truth. Likewise, the lewd sexuality. Whole Lotta Rosie might be a crass ode to the pleasures of generous flesh, but it’s also written about lived experience. I’ll take crass truth over politically sensitive platitudes any day. And there were real glints of intelligence in those songs; listen to Powerage in particular, and tracks like What’s Next to the Moon and Down Payment Blues. I’ll put those lyrics up against those of any other rock band.

Alas, when Bon Scott died, so did the smart lyrics. Thus:

Core Belief #4: Success can ruin a band.

ZZ Top spent more than a decade as a good-time boogie band from Texas with a string of radio hits and a dedicated following. Then they released an album called Eliminator, sold millions of records, and wasted another decade trying to replicate it. Likewise Status Quo found chart success with Rockin’ All Over The World and subsequently abandoned their straight-ahead blues rock for pop-inflected twaddle. My favourite band ever, Van Halen, scored a number one single with Jump, and then pissed away their rock credentials with a string of synth-rock AOR efforts. The moral of the story here is that while incredible commercial success seems like a good thing, as often as not, it will kill a band’s creativity as soon as platinum status is reached. Exhibit four: Back in Black.

When Bon Scott died a horribly sordid death, choking on his own vomit while passed out drunk in the back of a car, everyone thought AC/DC were finished. With more haste than some thought tasteful, the band found a new frontman in the affable Brian Johnson, decamped to the Bahamas, and recorded one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Let me be clear: Back in Black is a stellar record. Every song is a knockout, and at least three are among the greatest ever in the genre. Mutt Lange’s production is a wonder; Back in Black is often cited as a touchstone in how to record a band in a room, capturing the energy of the members’ interplay along with a pristine clarity and power. Angus’s guitar work has never been better. It’s a great album by a great band, and although I personally favour Powerage, it’s generally regarded as their best.

But it ruined them.

As often happens, a band finds mainstream success with one album, and they spend the rest of their career trying to fill a second bottle with the same lightning. 1981’s follow up, For Those About to Rock, is a good album. Not on the same level as the previous three, but it’s pretty decent. But it was the last really good album AC/DC made. Part of it was down to Malcolm Young’s hubris: notoriously tight-fisted, he resented giving ten per-cent of the band’s royalties to producer Mutt Lange and took over the studio reins himself, resulting in Flick of the Switch, generally regarded as the band’s worst effort.

They never really recovered, at least in the studio. A series of underwhelming albums followed, all of them wallowing in the worst excesses the band’s critics had been denigrating them for. The lyrics went from the gutter to the sewer, a signature sound turned to formula, and AC/DC finally became a parody of themselves. Alas, it’s not a unique story.

There were, however, some bright spots in these dark years. The aforementioned Who Made Who remains a terrific number, 1988’s Heatseeker is how AC/DC should have spent the Eighties, and 1990’s Thunderstruck is a rock anthem for the ages. But apart from those highlights, AC/DC’s recorded career pretty much ended in 1981. But:

Core Belief #5: Everything Old is New Again

Or, if you wait long enough, everything becomes cool. Somehow, some time in the Nineties, AC/DC became cool. Sort of. While their albums remained in the doldrums, the band graduated from arenas to stadiums. Even though – like many of their contemporaries – AC/DC became their own tribute act, they came to epitomise a certain spirit, a certain era, a kind of spectacle that can only exist in a bowl that holds at least fifty thousand people. And by God, they were good at it. Tens of thousands of people, form toddlers to pensioners, all shouting “Angus!” in unison while a middle-aged man dressed as a schoolboy duck-walks across a stage. At the end of the show, the pomp and excess will breach the limits of credulity. And herein is my final core belief:

Core Belief #6: All great rock music should be ridiculous.

Pete Townshend’s windmill arm; Peter Gabriel’s flower costume; Freddie Mercury’s leotard. They’re all nonsense. We know it. They know it. Yet we buy into the theatre of it all, willingly, again and again. It’s what rock music does best, and it’s what the misery-guts music journalists seemed to forget: it’s ridiculous and we love it. The very best rock bands are those who fully commit, those who lean into it. There’s a good reason why Kiss still sell out arenas decades after they made an album that mattered to anyone; likewise AC/DC, who became a stadium band long after their studio career was a thing of the past.

Is it nostalgia? I don’t think so. Yes, we’re singing along to songs that were recorded before many in the audience were born, but there’s something far more primal at work. We love the spectacle. At the end of the night, as AC/DC rattle through their last numbers, cannons rise from the huge stage set. Timed to the lyrics, they fire, a twenty-one gun salute for the faithful. It’s a glorious thing to behold as a grownup, a chest-thumping affirmation of one’s self, of sticking with it, of outlasting those awkward years of adolescence and surviving into an adulthood where you’re no longer ashamed of who you are. Where, for perhaps the first time in your life, you and fifty thousand other people are the cool kids.

For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) is the song in question. On one level, it’s a heartfelt thank you to the fans. But it’s also a love-letter to the form itself. There’s something special about a song that glorifies its own genre, and fully embraces its own nonsense. This song, more than any other, exemplifies everything that is wonderful and ridiculous about rock music. It knows exactly how dumb it is, and revels in it. When Brian Johnson summons those cannons in the final verses, it is perhaps the most perfect moment in the history of rock. Listen to it on a stereo with a decent low end, maybe something with a sub-woofer, and relish each blast of the guns. Feel the force of it as the band goes into double time, chasing down that beat to the song’s explosive climax. It is everything that great rock music should be. It’s stupid, it’s clever, it’s preposterous, it’s sublime, it’s daft, it’s vital, it’s completely ridiculous, and it’s absolutely glorious. If this one song doesn’t fill your heart with joy, then you are a cold hollow shell of a human being.

AC/DC were fucking brilliant. Don’t you dare try to deny it.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

America!

You know, I'm very fortunate to have travelled as widely as I have within the US. Ten years ago, I wondered if I would ever get the chance to fulfil this lifelong ambition. Now I've made the trip at least a dozen times, maybe more. Most people from my side of the Atlantic will visit the main US holiday destinations, and little else. But I've seen many other places, a little further off the tourist map, and I've often had friendly guides or travelling companions, which makes a huge difference.

On this trip, it has been confirmed to me how much I love New York. I've lost count of how many times I've visited, but every time I come back, it's like I've never been away. I've seen changes since my first visit in 2007 - Times Square has become pretty unpleasant, for example - but it's still "that Oz to which we all aspire", as Adam Gopnik put it. Even when I'm worn out from travelling, even if I've only got an hour or two to lift my head, New York gets me every time.

I've been to Seattle twice over the last few years, and I absolutely adore that city, not least because of the Pike Brewing Company and their fine selection of beers. And Emerald City Guitars, where they let me play a 1960 LP Junior, and they have a 59 'burst in a display case. And also because it's just a cool place to hang out.

On this trip, I have been most clearly reminded how cool Scottsdale is. I've had one full dawn to dusk day here, and it's been glorious. The Hotel Valley Ho is wonderful, for a start, and they serve the best chicken noodle soup I've ever tasted. And the Old Town is wonderful with all its funky boutiques and eateries and generally laid back vibe. Just a lovely place to spend a day. Oh, and you can take a cab twenty minutes up the road and shoot guns to your heart's content.

Yep, Scottsdale is, I think, one of my top 5 cities in America. I'm sitting on my balcony now, enjoying a mild desert evening and a locally brewed IPA. I miss my wife and children, of course, but I really can't complain too much. I am truly blessed and grateful. I have a life now that I never could have imagined ten years ago, not least in thanks to Jo Atkinson, but also due to Juliet Grames, Paul Oliver, Bronwen Hruska, and many others.

Being a professional writer is awesome.

SN

Monday, 23 June 2014

Writer’s Block: The Mythical Beast that’s Really Real

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for at least year now. So why didn’t I? Was I blocked?

No. I was too busy writing.

But for more than a year before that, I was. It took me a while to acknowledge my affliction, but some time in the second half of 2012 while struggling to fulfil a contract to deliver a novel by the end of that December, I finally admitted there really was no other name for it. Once the label “writer’s block” had been applied, I spent many hours on Google, the procrastinator’s best friend, trying to figure out what was going wrong. At which point I discovered I was a work of fiction, a myth made up by lazy wannabe writers, a romanticised notion of artistic ennui that couldn’t possibly be real. Because, according to many sources, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

So if writer’s block doesn’t exist, then it must follow that the period from early 2012 to spring 2013 didn’t actually happen for me. I didn’t suffer months of anxiety and fear, I didn’t become hellish to live with, I didn’t lie awake at night convinced that I had finally been revealed as the fraud I’d kept hidden since I signed that first publishing contract. None of that was real; it was just a figment of my imagination.

The proof offered by the vast majority of writer’s block deniers is devastating in its simplicity: writer’s block cannot exist because they have never suffered from it. Let’s apply that particular logic to a couple of other life-altering psychological conditions: I’m looking forward to cooking those steaks I bought this morning, so clearly anorexia is a myth; I enjoy walking my dog in the park, so obviously agoraphobia is a load of old nonsense; I’ve never seen the attraction in betting on horse races, so naturally gambling addiction is a completely made-up problem.

Please don’t think I’m equating writer’s block with a potentially fatal condition like anorexia, that’s certainly not my point, but rather I’m trying to illustrate the peculiar blend of arrogance and ignorance that’s exhibited when one argues that because something is true for you, it must also be true for everyone else.

Let’s backtrack a bit…

Between writing my last novel, Ratlines, and the latest, The Final Silence, I went through three huge upheavals in my life. I was about a third of the way into Ratlines when our first child was born. That didn’t prove too disruptive because once the dust settled, I went to work in my local library. I left the house, and my wife and baby, every morning and took my little laptop to the corner desk of the upstairs study room, plugged in some earphones, and started writing. If I’d been working at home, I’d be happy with 1,500 to 2,000 words a day. In the library, the norm was more like 3,000 to 4,000.

Not only did I finish the novel within a matter of weeks, I also revised it several times, and wrote a spec screenplay for the first episode of a TV adaptation of the book. Then I had the enjoyable grind of editing and further rewriting until Ratlines was done and dusted and ready for the printer.

The second major upheaval was moving house. A stressful experience, certainly, but nothing we couldn’t cope with. At the same time, my agent was thrashing out a new two-book deal with my UK publisher. That worked out well, and I had security for my family and me for the next two years, now that mortgage payments on the new house were covered. All I had to do now was start writing another book.

That’s where things began to fall apart.

Around the time we were moving house, I started on the first of the two books I’d been contracted for. Like all projects, it began with that initial hot rush of ideas that we know will carry us through the first few thousand words. When it began to cool, when I had to work a little harder to maintain momentum, I wasn’t overly concerned. I kept my head down, confident I’d pick up the pace soon.

At around the 10,000 word mark I began to realise it wasn’t going to be so easy. The writing became a war of attrition, days spent chipping out word counts that numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Then, at about 13,000 words, I reread what I had from the start. With a cold dread, I realised that the last few thousand words were a directionless mess, pages and pages that moved the story not one inch forward. The literary equivalent of treading water.

At that point I realised the novel I was writing had died. The basic idea behind it was still sound, but my execution of it had failed miserably. After several months of work, I was going to have to discard what little I had to show for it.

It took days to summon the courage to email my agent in New York. I shouldn’t have been scared. His response was understanding and encouraging. I wasn’t the first of his authors this had happened to, and I wouldn’t be the last. Likewise, when I called my editor, he was similarly sympathetic. Take all the time you need, he said. The attitude was the same from all the professionals who help me with my career. Nothing but understanding and good will. Thank God, that never changed over the desperate year that followed. One of the greatest blessings in my life is the small army of people I work with in producing a novel.

No problem, then. I could just jump to the second contracted novel, a more straightforward thriller, and a direct sequel to an earlier book. Easy. Except after a few thousand words I realised I had written this book at least twice before. The same kinds of characters, the same kinds of conflicts, the same kind of plot. It was functional but formulaic, and just not good enough.

So, back to the drawing board, the blank page, and the blinking cursor. Time to explore some of those other ideas that were kicking around inside my skull. Like most writers, ideas are never a problem. Most of us have a surplus. The trick is discerning which of them have the legs to sustain the writing of a novel. Few of them do.

There are some writers to whom constructing a novel is a mechanical process, a matter of applying ideas to formulas, and they are able to produce several novels a year. They tend to be the authors that self-publishing best serves, the quick turn-around, the stack-em-high-sell-em-cheap approach to fiction. I am not one of them.

Months of false starts followed. Ideas explored, exhausted, discarded. Thousands of words written that were ultimately wasted. It seemed the harder I tried to find my way forward, the more obscured the path became. Soon the anxiety began to build, and the urge to write was driven more by fear than any will to create. That anxiety melded with the other concerns faced by most people with young families to support. Where’s the money coming from? How do I pay the bills? If I can’t hand in a decent novel, I won’t get the on-delivery portion of my advance. If I don’t get that, I don’t pay my mortgage. And now there’s another baby on the way - the third upheaval - and a biological deadline to go with contractual one that was looming on the horizon.

I’m not sure where the tipping point was, but sometime in late 2012 I experienced what I can only describe as a complete mental paralysis when it came to writing. Every part of my brain involved in dragging an idea up from my subconscious and onto a keyboard simply shut down. This was not the ‘Where do I go next?’ speed bump with which every writer of fiction is familiar. This was not the normal foot-dragging of procrastination which we all know better than we should. This was not even the common struggle of the immovable plot problem.

This was, I had to finally admit to myself, writer’s block.

Of course, I did the first thing most of us do nowadays when indulging in self-diagnosis: I Googled it. I found countless articles on how to beat writer’s block, tips and tricks to spur the muse, exercises to get the juices flowing. All, without exception, entirely useless. The key issue was that all of them addressed the normal day-today struggles of writing: how to stop procrastinating; how to resolve plot issues; how to push characters into choices that move the story forward. None of the dozens upon dozens of articles I read came anywhere near addressing the problems I was experiencing. Worse, however, was an assertion that came up over and over again:

Writer’s block doesn’t exist.

I read God knows how many articles by smart people, including writers I greatly admire, stating the same thing. And they all arrived at this conclusion using the same logic: I’ve never had writer’s block, so neither have you.

The same flawed arguments came up over and over, and here are just a few:

Writer’s block is just laziness. Well, my experience involved a great deal of hard work. For being blocked, I actually churned out a lot of words. Pity they were completely useless.

Writer’s block is romanticised procrastination. The same image was dredged up over and over: the tortured poet drinking espresso in a coffee shop, bemoaning the lack of inspiration. There was nothing romantic about my experience. In the end, all I had was fear. And I don’t like coffee.

Beating writer’s block is just a matter of sitting down and grinding through it. This is perhaps the worst advice of all. If anything, all the hours, days and weeks I spent trying to work through it only exacerbated the problem. If the cure for writer’s block is just to write, then the cure for depression is to just cheer up, and an eating disorder can be defeated by just scarfing a cheeseburger.

As 2012 became 2013, I saw no breakthrough on the horizon. I was actually having discussions with my pregnant wife about what I could do if I had to give up writing. Things really looked that grim.

In the early part of the year, a relative passed away after a short illness. As happens in these situations, it drew my wider family together, and several of us undertook the task of clearing out her house. She lived alone, and I remember the creeping feeling of intrusion as we went through her things. I wondered how the average person would feel if they knew someone was going through their most personal and intimate possessions, discovering the kinds of secrets we all keep.

Perhaps a month or two later, something remarkable happened: I had an idea. A very, very simple one. A man dies suddenly, leaving his estranged family to clear out his house. And in that house they find a journal hidden in an old desk. A memoir of murder, a catalogue of all the people he killed.

I started writing straight away. As I worked, I felt a constant worry that this idea, like all the others, would wither and die. Every time I found a scene tricky, that worry would grow to a clamour, but still I kept going. After 10,000 words or so I began to think this one was going to stick. I contacted my agent and my editor and described the premise. The both agreed that it worked. Even though our second baby was born and writing time had become a rarer commodity, 10,000 words somehow became 20,000 words, then 30,000 words. The characters took shape and began to steer the story, and they were different than the books I’d written before. They had real lives and loves, families and fears. And there was a striking difference between my previous books: no one had been murdered yet.

Around this time, I listened to an episode of John August and Craig Mazin’s excellent Scriptnotes podcast (I thoroughly recommend it to all writers, whether for page or screen - a transcript of the episode in question is available online). It featured a guest by the name of Dennis Palumbo, a screenwriter and mystery novelist who is also a practicing psychotherapist specialising in working with writers. Mr Palumbo has no doubts about the existence of writer’s block, and a great deal of his work is in tackling it. In the Scriptnotes podcast, he made a point that resonated with me. He said that all writers who come out the other side of a period of being blocked will have made a change in their writing, usually an improvement. He characterised writer’s block as a cathartic shift in the individual’s work.

That statement made me finally understand that my year-long struggle with writer’s block was the working out of a change in my style. Knowing that, I was able to go back to my new book with greater confidence and see it through – thank God – to the end. Now that I understood that I was becoming more interested in character than body count, I was able to work with that rather than against it as I had been doing for the last year or so.

The result of that struggle is The Final Silence. It’s a different novel for me. Don’t worry, it’s still pacey and dark, with a few good twists. But the story is also more rooted in its characters, and the relationships between them, their emotional journeys placed much more to the fore. It was a difficult birth, but I got there in the end.

Right now, I’m writing another book. The story I abandoned back in 2012, in fact. But I know why it wasn’t working then, and I know how to make it work now. I’m a little more than 50,000 words in, and I’ve hit a bit of a wall, a plot point I’m fighting to break through.

But it’s not writer’s block. Not this time.

Friday, 14 February 2014

A Valentine to my Publishers

The interwebs have been busy this last week or two. A great many words have been written, and many graphs generated, about the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. Chuck Wendig's post about the "shit-volcano" brought the issue back onto my radar again, and it seems to have been followed by a lot of back-and-forth between various interested parties. All of which I keep reading purely for the purpose of annoying myself, masochist that I am.

Now I'm going state a thing that people keep having to state, but really shouldn't: I have no axe to grind with self-publishing. None at all. A lot of people are doing very well in that market, and more power to them. I'm happy for anyone whose talent and hard work is rewarded, through whatever channel. I wish I didn't have to start with this disclaimer, but the debate has gotten so mired in name-calling, so much my-dad-can-beat-up-your-dad nonsense, that it seems every expression of a moderate view has to be prefaced this way in an effort to deflect the anger of those who might take it as a slight.

My position on self-publishing has changed: if you'd asked me about it three or four years ago, I'd have said no way, but now it has proven beyond all doubt to be a viable and lucrative option for many people. I don't think anyone is arguing otherwise now. What I do take issue with is the argument that it's the only viable option.

If you're reading this, then you've probably read all those other posts, and seen the graphs that are currently circulating. There's a lot I could say about the most recent round of hysteria, but to be honest, I really can't be arsed. There are people with agendas, with grudges, with all sorts of negative reasons to write all sorts of negative things. The use of a deliberately pejorative (and inaccurate) term like "legacy publishing"puts up an immediate bias flag. The whole Them & Us mindset that has evolved around the self- vs trad-publishing debate, fuelled by certain key players, is at best unhelpful. I'll leave the invective to them. I want to look at the positive side instead, thus:

I love being traditionally published.

This morning, I was writing the acknowledgement page for my newest book (The Final Silence, out in the UK this summer, thanks for asking) and listing some of the people who've helped me along the way. As I wrote, I realised how privileged I am to work with these people. You know that old expression, it takes a village to raise a child? I find that true for my books. Every stage of the process, apart from the writing itself, is accomplished with the help of a bunch of people. And I really, really like those people.

I know my experience doesn't match everyone else's. It takes a particular blend of ignorance and arrogance to believe that because X, Y and Z are true for you, they must also be true for everyone else. I've heard enough horror stories from other authors about ill-treatment at the hands of agents and publishers to know how lucky I am. But most traditionally-published authors I know have had a positive experience. Sure, we'd all like bigger advances, stronger marketing pushes, and a 50% ebook royalty rate would be lovely, but the impression I get at conference bars is that most - not all, but most - authors don't feel like they've been shit upon from a great height by their publishers. Your experience may vary, but I can only speak from my own.

Before I get on to the lovey-dovey stuff, let's look at the money end of things. I guess you could describe me as approaching the border between midlist and bestseller status. The general trend is upwards, I'm glad to report. I'm not rich, but I'm making a decent living from basically sitting on my arse and making stuff up. Some will argue (well, someone in particular) that I'd be making tons more money by self-publishing. But going by my own calculations, they'd be wrong. Setting aside the fact that selling traditionally is no guarantee of selling through any other channel, I've looked at the numbers many times, and to match (let alone exceed) my current income from trad-pub - including the all-important subsidiary rights - with self-pub, and given the low pricing of that market, I'd have to sell an enormous number of ebooks. A number so big, I'm really not confident I could achieve it. Add to that the anecdotal evidence from writer friends who've unsuccessfully dipped a toe in the self-pub market, and I've reason enough to maintain my current course. But there's more to it than money.

Traditional-publishing, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1) I have a great agent. Nat Sobel was once described to me by an editor as one of the great men of publishing. He's my mentor, a sounding board, often my harshest critic ("fluff and horseshit" is my favourite of his notes), and my first-call editor. He and his wife/partner Judith Weber are great with subsidiary rights - they sold me in Japan before the US, and have gone on to put my books in more countries than I'll ever visit. And they travelled all the way from New York to attend my wedding in Belfast. They are my friends, and I don't know what I'd do without them. It's not about 15% of anything. It's about the support and trust of human beings, about guidance through fields I know nothing about, and knowing they have my back. Oh, and by dint of having Nat for my literary agent, I also get a stellar Hollywood agent as part of the deal. Bottom line: if anyone ever tells you to avoid all literary agents, then they're a fool, and you should ignore them.

2) I have great editors. Geoff Mulligan in the UK, and Juliet Grames in the States. Like my agent, they are also my friends. We've been to each other's homes. They have counselled me when I was unsure how to proceed. They've made me look at my work one more time, just another try, to make it better than I ever hoped it could be. Sure, I could pay a freelance editor a fixed one-off fee to copyedit my stuff, but what I get from my editors is an ongoing relationship, and trust built up over years of working together. And a freelance editor is unlikely to take me to a Korean karaoke joint in the middle of a New York night, or share jokes over a pint (or four) in some backstreet London pub. All that personal stuff? It's worth something. It's worth a hell of a lot.

3) And let's not forget the army of people working on my behalf. On those rare occasions when authors I know talk about shoddy treatment by publicists, editors and marketing departments, I just don't recognise the world they're describing. My time spent visiting the offices of Random House in London, Soho Press in New York, Rivages in Paris, and others, has never been anything but lovely. I think of all those warm, kind people: Bronwen Hruska and Paul Oliver at Soho, and Paul's predecessor Justin Hargett; Fiona Murphy, Bethan Jones, Briony Everroad, Alison Hennessy, Faye Brewster, Vicki Watson, and so many more at Random House/Vintage Books; my French publisher Francois Guerif, who had me to dinner at his home and told me all about his time with Ted Lewis, and my French publicist Hind Boutaljante who's also acted as my guide and interpreter. I could go on and on. The point is: people. Real people, who are decent and passionate and hard-working. They enrich my life as well as advance my career.

4) I get to travel! I always wanted to travel, but somehow never got around to it. Now, in middle age, I get to go all over the place. I've been coast-to-coast in the US, all over France and Germany, stayed in the swankiest of hotels, and once almost wound up in a hostel for criminals out on bail (long story). Best of all, it's mostly been on someone else's dime (i.e. my publishers'). It's not always fun; those 6:00am flights out of Houston TX are a pig, I wouldn't wish US airport security queues on anyone, and it can be difficult to be away from my kids. But I get to see, touch, taste and feel so many things, have so many experiences, that I never dreamed of.

5) And all the nice people! All sorts. The other authors, for one thing. I've made so many friends out there at one conference or another, had so many laughs over so many drinks. Then there are the people I meet from other industries, like journalists, movie and TV pros, fascinating people I'd never have met otherwise. I get to be on TV and radio, I get asked to review books for newspapers, all that ego-stroking stuff. Not to mention meeting and hearing from readers, which is always a joy, even though I'm not always as responsive as I should be. And the thing is, I'm not even that well-known. I'm only moderately successful, and I get to do all the stuff that makes shallow old me feel good about himself in the most superficial ways. And, oh yes, the experts who've helped me with research over the years. Being trad-pubbed opens a lot of doors.

There's so much more I could write about, but I'm guessing this screed hasn't kept too many readers engaged even this far, so I'll wind it up. The point I'm trying to get across is that while self-pub is undoubtedly an excellent way forward for many, many writers, the traditional route is still worth striving for. Yes, the odds are stacked against you. Yes, it can look like a closed shop from the outside (I just read a comment from someone who seriously claimed that all trad-published authors got there by knowing the right people in New York). Yes, the rejection is soul-sapping. But for a lot of people - me included - it's still worth taking the hard road instead of the path of least resistance.

The financial aspect should be good enough reason for me to keep my current course, but when I consider all that other stuff - there's really no question. Every writer is different. Some won't be as lucky as I have been, and others will have even more good fortune. Some will have tremendous success going the self-pub way, others will not. You never know, some day I may find it a more attractive option than it is right now.

The point is, every writer should choose their own path based on their ambitions, their resilience, and their faith in their own talent. So many people are shouting right now, saying their way is the only correct one, that it actually makes me glad the option to self-pub wasn't there when I first started submitting that crappy novel that remains unpublished. Had all this clamour been around then, I probably would have self-published it. It might or might not have sold well, I don't know, or I might even be embarrassed by it (I certainly wouldn't let anyone read it now). What I do know is the experience of keeping on trying, and honing my skills writing yet another novel - all that made me a better writer. And also, I believe, a more successful and ultimately happier writer.

Just do what you want. The rest is noise.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Otto Skorzeny: The Bond Villain That Never Was

Otto Skorzeny, SS Poster Boy
He stood 6’4”, had shoulders like an oak beam, and bore a scar that ran from his left eye to his chin. The British called him the most dangerous man in Europe. He was Hitler’s favourite commando. He rescued Mussolini from his traitorous countrymen before they could hand Il Duce over to the Allies. In a glider. From a mountaintop.

This infamous warrior’s post-war years were no less colourful, with key roles in such Bond-esque gatherings of super-villainy as ODESSA, the Nazi old-boys’ club made famous by Frederick Forsyth, and the Paladin Group, a network of mercenary training schools and armies-for-hire. In Argentina, he saved Eva Perón from assassination, had an affair with her under the president's nose, and left South America with the $800,000,000 fund that Martin Bormann had siphoned from the Reich’s own coffers as it collapsed at the end of the war.

Any brief biography of SS Lieutenant Colonel Otto ‘Scarface’ Skorzeny reads like a character sketch from an Ian Fleming novel. A legend in his own lifetime, his exploits are spoken about in the kind of reverent tones normally reserved for the greatest of combat heroes, not an accused war criminal who escaped custody before he could fully face trial. But if Skorzeny’s resume reads a little too much like a far-fetched adventure story, it might be for good reason. If this real life Bond villain seems like he stepped from the pages of fiction, perhaps it’s because his legend is almost entirely that: fiction.

So much of Skorzeny's life is tangled up in half-truths and fabulous exaggerations it's perhaps inevitable that he has become a darling of not only World War II enthusiasts, but also of conspiracy theorists. The fantastical tales to be found online include that he faked his death in Spain in 1975 and reached the ripe old age of ninety whilst sunning himself in Florida, keeping in touch with everyone from Josef Mengele to Adolf Hitler. And there's the one about the little German boy Skorzeny helped smuggle into America, George Scherff Jr, son of George Scherff Sr, lab assistant to none other than Nikola Tesla, and family friend of both the aforementioned Bormann and Mengele. The conspiracy theorists posit that young Herr Scherff later changed his surname to Bush and became the 41st president of the United States.

Given the stories that surround Skorzeny, it's a wonder he didn't live out his days in a hollowed-out volcano along with Blofeld and Scaramanga. So where is the line between truth and fiction for this "Commando Extraordinary"?

Otto Skorzeny was born to a respectable middle class Viennese family in 1908. He was an unexceptional student, though gifted in languages; he was fluent in French from childhood, and mastered many other tongues throughout his life. While attending university, he earned his Schmiss – a fencing scar – while in a student tournament. There exists a photograph of Skorzeny, lined up in two rows with his fellow combatants, a tankard of beer in hand, his face and hands smeared with his own blood.

When military history buffs discuss Skorzeny so respectfully, they tend to focus on his daring strategies, his bravado, his innovations in commando tactics. They rarely address the most disquieting aspect of this anti-hero: his politics. Otto Skorzeny was not drafted into the German army, he was not destined for the Waffen-SS through an accident of birth. In reality, he was a committed Nazi, joining the Austrian wing of the party in 1931, as well as becoming a Brownshirt. He played a role in the 1938 Anschluss, Austria's fall to Germany, saving President Wilhelm Miklas from execution.

When Europe erupted in war in September 1939, Otto Skorzeny was working as a civil engineer in Vienna. Feeling such a mundane existence was not for him, Skorzeny attempted to enlist in the Luftwaffe as a pilot, but was refused due to his age and bulk. Here is where history and legend part ways.

According to some accounts, including Skorzeny's own memoirs, the Austrian then became part of Hitler's bodyguard regiment. Skorzeny's superiors quickly noted his daring and guile, and so promotion followed promotion, and soon he was at the front line. He embarked on a series of exploits around Europe, including singlehandedly forcing the surrender of more than fifty Yugoslav soldiers and officers. This brief but spectacular period of active combat was brought to a halt by a piece of Soviet shrapnel, though if Skorzeny is to believed, he refused all medical treatment but a bandage and a glass of schnapps before returning to the fray. The injury got the better of him, however, and he was soon evacuated to Berlin. Upon recovery, he was summoned before the Führer and tasked with the mission that would cement his legendary status: the rescue of Benito Mussolini from the Italian forces that had deposed him.

Leading a combined force of SS officers and commandos in Operation Oak, Skorzeny would locate Il Duce and liberate him from his captors. Months of reconnaissance eventually lead Skorzeny to the Campo Imperatore hotel on top of the Gran Sasso mountain. There, he and his men landed ten gliders on the cliff edge and overcame the Carabinieri who acted as guards, all without a single shot being fired. Skorzeny himself found Mussolini in room 201, announcing, "Duce, the Führer has sent me to rescue you!"

Skorzeny became an immediate sensation, poster boy of the SS propaganda machine, darling of the Reich. Even Winston Churchill expressed begrudged admiration for the Austrian's daring. Skorzeny's reputation became such that the mere suggestion of an assassination plot by him was enough to confine General Eisenhower to his quarters for the duration of Christmas 1944.

Skorzeny's fame continued to grow after the war. Having escaped American custody and been de-Nazified by the German government, he was free to carve out his life as an international man of intrigue, spending time in Perón 's Argentina, Franco's Spain, and most surprisingly of all, a decade in the Republic of Ireland, where he became much sought after in Dublin's elite social circles while raising prize-winning sheep. That is where my novel, Ratlines, finds him: up to his neck in conspiracy and murder under the protection of the Irish government.

So that is the legend. This Otto Skorzeny could have held James Bond suspended over a pool full of hungry piranha while holding the world to ransom with stolen atomic bombs. But what is the truth? Almost inevitably, it is less exotic.

According to the research of military historians such as Robert Forczyk, Skorzeny's advancement through the ranks of the Waffen-SS had more to do with handshakes in bierkellers than feats on the battlefield. In reality, Skorzeny spent the first years of the war as a mechanic, maintaining combat vehicles at a safe distance from the action. That Soviet shrapnel that sent him back to Berlin was actually a severe case of stomach colic. It was a loud mouth and a great deal of bluffing, rather than skill as a soldier, that won him a seat on a glider bound for Gran Sasso and Mussolini's prison.

It was indeed true that Skorzeny had been tasked with reconnaissance for the mission, but he carried out the task poorly, resulting in more than one false start, and several injured Kameraden due to badly mapped terrain on which the gliders landed. By blind luck, Skorzeny, who was supposed to be along purely as an observer, was in the glider that crash landed by the hotel first. Eye witnesses describe Skorzeny's circuit of the building, dodging guard dogs while he tried to find a way in, as bordering on comical. When met with a wall of around six feet in height, Skorzeny was unable to scale it, and had to climb on the back of a subordinate to reach the other side. He defied orders by running into the hotel and claiming Mussolini for himself, then insisted he travel to the Wolf's Lair to present the Italian to Hitler in person.

Desperate for some morale-boosting propaganda, Heinrich Himmler seized on Skorzeny's version of events, going so far as to stage a filmed re-enactment of the raid. Emboldened by the success of Operation Oak, Skorzeny accepted further daring missions, most of them resulting in abject failure as his true limitations became clear. Regardless, over the years and decades that followed, Skorzeny wove a shroud of mystery and danger around himself, eagerly lapped up by journalists, historians and politicians, garnering wealth and glamour along the way. It is possible the Austrian came to believe his own lies, seeing himself truly as the great warrior he claimed to be.

It is almost as disappointing to find our super-villains aren't quite so super as it is when our super-heroes let us down. In the end, Otto Skorzeny has proven to be no more real than Auric Goldfinger or Dr Julius No. But even if the legend is built on sand, the man Skorzeny pretended to be remains one of the great villains of the twentieth century.

Otto Skorzeny appears in my novel Ratlines, priced for a limited time at $1.99 for Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007WL0JWE

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Green Lady: A Story for Hallowe'en

To mark the 31st of October, I'd like to share a short story I wrote almost six years ago, before my first book was published, before I had an agent, even. I never quite finished it at the time, but last night I decided to dig it out and polish it off.

The story is inspired by a river and surrounding woods close by where I grew up in Armagh, Northern Ireland, a stretch of land called Dobbin's Folly, known locally as just The Folly. There was a legend when I was a kid about the Green Lady who lived in the ruins of the Old Mill, who would snatch children away if they played alone by the river. Let me introduce her to you...

THE GREEN LADY

by Stuart Neville

Billy dipped his bucket in the water as the bright dart of a stickleback flashed against silt and pebbles. Too quick, it zipped past, lost amid the blinding patterns on the stream’s surface. The sun warmed Billy’s shoulders through his Starsky & Hutch T-shirt.

‘You near had him, then.’

Billy fell back at the sound of the voice. The bucket slipped from his fingers and the stream’s plucky current snatched it away.

The old lady resting on the opposite bank clucked. ‘Ah, now you’ve lost your bucket too.’

The orange plastic vanished around a bend in the stream. He’d only got it a couple of weeks ago when he went on a Sunday School trip to Portrush.

‘That’s a pity,’ the old lady said, drawing her green shawl around her shoulders.

Billy wondered how she didn’t melt. The telly said it would be the hottest day of the summer, and here she sat with a shawl and big layered skirts. Her shoes looked funny too; more like the kind of boots the soldiers wore when they patrolled the streets.

The old lady smiled. ‘Have you no one to play with today?’

Billy shielded his eyes from the sun and shook his head.

‘Speak up, wee man. Don’t be shy.’

Swiping dust from his jeans, Billy got to his feet. ‘I called for my friend, but he wasn’t in. His Daddy took him to Belfast.’

‘Have you no other friends?’ She tilted her head as she studied him, her grey-green eyes picking over every bit of him.

Billy sucked on his lower lip and looked at the baked earth beneath his feet. His Mum had taken him out of the Drelincourt School where all the other kids on the estate went and made him go to the big school in town. Because he was smarter than the others, she said. Now he had no one on the estate left to play with.

The old lady clucked and smiled, showing her stained teeth. Midges swarmed around her head, mingling with the loose silver strands of her hair to make a shifting halo in the sunlight. Somewhere in the trees a bird called. Billy looked around him. Down here at the water’s edge he couldn’t see the playground up above, or the houses beyond.

‘I remember when this was a real river,’ the old lady said. ‘It stretched from yon houses up there, all the way back to the houses on the other side. It cut this big bowl through the earth. But there were no houses then. Except mine.’

Billy looked downstream, wondering if the bucket might have snagged on some rocks. He should go after it.

‘I'm going to get—’

‘It’s gone, wee darling. Sure, it’ll be halfway to the sea by now.’

Billy knew that was nonsense. He wasn’t sure how far away the sea was from the Folly River, but he remembered it took the bus ages and ages to get to the seaside. His Mum had always told him to be polite to old people, so he didn’t want to argue. Instead he chewed on his lip and picked dirt from under his fingernails.

‘Where’s your house?’ he asked.

‘Oh, just down the river a wee bit,’ she said. ‘The Old Mill.’

Billy stopped picking at his fingernails. ‘No one lives there. It's got no roof or doors or anything.’

‘Is that right?’ She laughed and slapped her thigh, the sound muted by the layers of skirt. ‘And how do you know that?’

Billy went back to picking at his nails.

‘Have you been there?’ she asked.

He scuffed at the light brown earth with his worn plimsolls.

‘Does your Mummy let you play there?’

Billy raised his eyes to meet hers and shook his head.

‘I bet she doesn’t.’ Her smile dripped away. ‘Did you go on a dare?’

‘Yeah,’ Billy said.

‘And did you get scared?’

Billy shrugged.

Her smile returned. ‘Did you cry?’

Billy's cheeks grew hot. Sweat licked at his forehead and made the thin cotton of his T-shirt stick to his back. He sniffed and wiped his nose on his forearm.

‘No need to be ashamed, love. Sure, everyone gets scared.’ She pointed over Billy’s shoulder. ‘Even Michael there, and he’s a big boy.’

Billy spun on his heels to see a boy, about twelve, sitting cross-legged in the dirt. ‘Hello,’ Michael said.

He wore strange clothes, like the olden days photos Billy’s Grandad kept in a big book. A plain jacket and short trousers, with a collarless shirt. ‘What are you staring at?’ he asked.

‘Be civil, Michael,’ the old lady called from across the stream. ‘This wee man needs someone to play with.’

‘He’s too young to play with me,’ Michael said, scowling.

‘Michael’s a bold boy,’ the old lady said. Billy turned back to her, and his tummy fluttered up to his throat. Another boy sat next to her, and a girl just behind, peeking over her shoulder. ‘Never did learn his manners,’ she said. ‘Not like wee Kevin here.’

Kevin looked about Billy’s age, but his clothes were different. Not like Michael’s, but still strange. Still somehow … wrong. Billy couldn’t think why.

‘Hello,’ Kevin said. He lifted his small hand and waved.

Billy waved back.

‘You can play with me,’ Kevin said. He smiled.

Billy smiled back.

The little girl peered over the old lady’s shoulder, her blonde hair catching the sunlight. ‘What games do you know?’ she asked.

Billy hesitated for a moment before counting on his fingers. ‘Ring-a-Ring-a-Rosies, Hide and Seek, Tig—’

‘I like Tig.’ She stepped out from behind the old lady. Her clothes looked normal, not olden days clothes, and Billy knew her face.

He thought hard about it for a few seconds before he remembered where from. The image formed in his mind. Mum at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, crying. Was it last summer or the one before? Billy had climbed up into her lap and looked at the newspaper while Mum wrapped her arms around him. Her cheek was warm and damp against his neck. She smelled of apples.

There was a picture of a little girl in the newspaper. Billy traced the headline with his finger, saying the words out loud. He didn’t get very far before he had to ask his Mum what some of them said.

‘Community,’ she said.

‘Shocked,’ she said.

‘Disappearance,’ she said.

The girl walked to the water’s edge and put her hands on her hips. ‘Who’ll be It?’

Michael sprung to his feet. ‘Me!’

The old lady laughed. ‘So, you’re not too big to play after all?’

Michael grinned.

Billy’s heart drummed in his chest. He looked back up the bank to where the trees heaved and whispered. The houses of Ballinahone stood just beyond them, and Orangefield, where he lived, just beyond that. Mum would have lunch ready soon. Jam sandwiches. Playschool would be on TV, and cartoons a bit later. Scooby-Doo. He never missed Scooby-Doo.

But he could play Tig for a little while. Mum might be cross if he was late for lunch, but he’d say sorry, and she’d give him his jam sandwiches anyway.

Michael crouched, his hands forming claws, bearing his teeth. ‘Ready or not,’ he said.

A dizzy giggle escaped from Billy’s stomach. ‘Wait,’ he said, and hopped across the river, using the stepping stones. When he got to the other side, another boy and girl were waiting. They looked like brother and sister, and wore clothes like Michael’s. But Billy had stopped caring about clothes, and tingled with the excitement of the coming chase.

The old lady hunkered down so Billy could see the red lines around her green irises, criss-crossed and snaking through the yellow. She brought her hand to his cheek and her skin felt like paper.

‘Better run,’ she said.

An animal howl came from the other side of the stream, and the children squealed as Michael took it in one leap. They scattered into the trees and Billy bolted after them. He heard Michael’s ragged laughter behind him and churned his arms and legs, ignoring the whipping of branches.

‘I’m going to get you!’

Billy chanced one look over his shoulder and saw Michael’s teeth bared, his tongue lolling. Spit slopped from the corners of his mouth. Billy laughed and ducked to the left between two trees whose branches intertwined to form a low tunnel. He had to keep his head down, his knees bent, to fight his way through. Branches crunched behind him and Billy heard Michael swear as he got tangled up in leaves and twigs.

Billy burst out onto an open path, one he didn’t recognise, and broke into a sprint through the clear air. Laughter bubbling in his chest, the breeze on his cheeks.

He didn’t know how far he’d run before he had to stop. His chest heaved, making him bend over, his hands on his knees, breathing deep until the dizziness passed. His thighs quivered with spent energy, his nerves jangling in the same way they did when he went on the Cyclone ride at Barry’s amusements in Portrush.

Billy listened.

Quiet all around, not even the chirp of a bird. He turned in a circle. There, off in the distance, he could see the rooftops of Ballinahone and Orangefield. Miles away, it seemed. How could it be so far? The Folly wasn’t that big.

‘You’re a fast runner for such a wee boy.’

Billy gasped and spun around.

The old lady stood there, a few feet along the path, her shawl still wrapped around her.

‘How fast can you run?’ she asked.

‘Dunno,’ Billy said.

‘Bet you can run faster, anyway.’

The voices of the other children rang through the trees, echoing along the path. The old lady’s eyes sparkled.

First Kevin, then the girl erupted from the dense growth on either side. They charged past the old lady, looking back over their shoulders at Billy, smiling, laughing. Then the other children, all shouting, telling him to come on, come on, run, run, run!

From behind, Michael’s hand slammed into Billy’s shoulder, almost knocking him off his feet.

Michael shouted, ‘You’re it!’ as he tore past.

His laughter receded along the path.

The old lady reached out her hand to Billy.

‘You heard him,’ she said. ‘You’re it. Come on. You can catch them. A fast runner like you. Run as fast as you can.’

Billy stood quite still, watching her.

‘Come on,’ she said, rippling her outstretched fingers.

Billy looked back towards the distant rooftops, barely visible above the trees. So far away.

‘You’ve no one to play with back there,’ the old lady said. ‘Come on with us. You’ll have so much fun.’

Billy took small steps closer to her. He let her take his fingers in hers.

‘Come on,’ she said again. ‘Let’s catch them. Let’s run.’

She took off, dragging Billy after her. So quick, her strange olden days boots barely touching the ground. Billy ran too, faster, until he kept pace with her, them faster, pulling her along behind him.

Up ahead, the other children, laughing and laughing.

And more, dozens now, all calling his name, all shouting can't catch me, can't catch me.

Deeper into the trees until he didn’t know where he was, until it he could no longer see the sky above, until he couldn’t have found the path home if he looked for a hundred years, or a thousand years, or a million years. Still he giggled, the old lady’s hand in his.

So far away now, so far he would never hear his Mum's voice, no matter how loud and how long she called. Even if she searched all day and all night, she would never find him, not out here, not so deep and lost among the trees.

Billy felt like he could run for ever and ever and ever.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

My Poor Neglected Blog...

This poor blog. This dusty little cranny of the interwebs. It crosses my mind every now and then, and I think about how I should post something now and again. I haven't written anything here since March, which is a bloody disgrace. Really, I should start posting, or just get rid of the damn thing.

So here's what I'm thinking...


I should expand the scope of this blog beyond it's primary purpose - posting about my books and the writing life - and look at the things that excite me in the rest of my dull little universe. Of course, among those would be my family. Having a wife, two very young children, and a rather boisterous dog, I have plenty to talk about. But I think that's more what Facebook is for.

The things I find interesting, and might want to talk about, include (but are not limited to):

Beer


I really, really like beer. If I wasn't already spoken for, I would marry beer. It would be a beautiful wedding. My interest has expanded beyond casual weekend supping over the last four or five years, largely inspired by my travels in the USA, tasting the variety and scope of local brews in every city and state. It's been a struggle to find interesting beers back home, but I've discovered a few decent outlets, as well as some terrific local brewers. My wife now has to endure me blathering on about bitterness, hops, mouth feel and such. Now you get to endure the same. If I revive this blog, expect beer reviews, rants against rubbish pubs, and maybe the odd tangental restaurant review. Oh, and I'm considering getting into home brewing, so that should provide plenty to complain about.

Steak


I have been journeying through a decade-long quest for the perfect steak. I mean, a completely obsessive search for the right piece of meat, the right method, the right seasoning, the right temperature, and on and on. I have three examples in my mind of truly great steaks that I've eaten in restaurants, and all my home efforts are measured against them. And I'm getting close. This is helped by the recent discovery that I live twenty minutes away from a source of some of the best aged beef in the world. Expect talk of sea salt flakes, flame grills, and Maillard reactions. Oh, and if I married beer, I'd have steak as my mistress.

Guitars


Guitars are my first love. If I married beer, and had steak as a mistress, the guitar is that school romance that haunts my middle-aged dreams. I have many guitars, most of them cheap pieces and junkers that I've fixed up and customised. There's an ever-present space in my collection for something different. Right now, I'm hankering after a good versatile acoustic, one of the new EVH striped electrics, a PRS Custom 22 or 24, and if enough of you buy my books and a movie deal ever pays off, a Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul reissue. Expect discussions of guitars I'm in the process of mangling, the virtues of various alnico magnets, string gauges and many other things to make you yawn.

Miscellany


And there might be the odd mention of some dodgy old classic rock, or movies I like, and now and then, something about being a writer.

But no promises. This blog post could still be sitting here come Christmas, its promises unfulfilled.