Thursday, May 30, 2013

Jack Vance, 1916-2013

Regular visitors to ::Acquired Taste will know of my devotion to the works of Jack Vance, who died at the weekend aged 96.  His books have inspired and delighted me for over thirty years, and when I was I was lucky enough to meet him when working on the Vance Integral Edition, he disproved the old maxim that you should never meet your heroes.  His down-to-earth geniality showed that you should never mistake the authorial voice for the author himself; Vance's prose was at once meticulous and distant with a diamond cutting-edge.  And while Jack Vance the man had a real sense of fun, his work's humour mines an altogether drier and darker territory.

Jack Vance at the helm of a boat,
one of his favourite pastimes

I first discovered Jack Vance's novels as a teenager, and his books enlivened a generally gloomy adolescence.  Unlike just about any other writer I read at that age, I can read his work with equal pleasure today (more, in some cases, as life experience validates some of his insights). 

He has clearly been huge influence on me (as well as many better writers, G.R.R. Martin to name but one), and if any visitors to this blog haven't yet read any Jack Vance, I'd suggest now is a good time to start. 

It's a cliche, but we shouldn't mourn Jack Vance's death, but instead celebrate the magnificent body of work he produced, and be glad that his stories will still be around to enthral generations to come.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

This year I will be reading mainly...

Past visitors to ::Acquired Taste may remember that a couple of years ago I was working on a story called "Shadow Puppet", the story of a bomber pilot and the war between the imaginary realms of Lauchenland and Beruzil.

For various reasons this aeronautical tale never took off.  Now I'm returning to it in a rather different form.  The bombers are replaced by airships.  Lauchenland and Beruzil make way for the Holy Roman Empire.  And the whole things takes place in a 19th century with some major differences to the one you learned about at school.

"The Last Stagecoach"
by Vadim Voitekhovitch
A wonderful evocation of an airship age that never was

The picture above is one of a series of hugely atmospheric steampunk fancies by Vadim - to see the full range, check out his remarkable gallery here.

Real-world stories--even those set in an alternate past--require real-world research.  So what I have been reading (pretty much non-stop for the past six months)?

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Blog Tour - Today Hosting Aliya Whiteley

The arrival of local writers causes
Attibassi to empty instantly

I've long admired the work of my fellow ex-Macmillan New Writer, Aliya Whiteley (and reviewed her debut Three Things About Me).  Recently Aliya relocated with her family to the south coast, only a few miles from where I live, and from time to time we have a coffee in the relaxed surroundings of Attibassi in Chichester.

In 17th century London writers met in coffee houses for trenchant debate and the odd bout of fisticuffs occasioned by the issues of the day.  Chichester ain't that kind of town, and our conversations, although naturally of an elevated intellectual cast, lack the ink-spotted fervour of Pepys and his contemporaries.  Last week we discussed badgers and Aliya's latest book, a collection of short stories entitled Witchcraft in the Harem published by Dog Horn Publishing.  Our conlcusions on badgers can be summarised by noting that they often urinate in inconvenient locations, but of perhaps more general interest is what Aliya had to say about Witchcraft in the Harem.

These badgers wait until my back is turned
before performing a nuisance

TS: Some writers seem to have a natural gift for the short story (I certainly don't).  What is it about the short form that appeals to you?

AW: I think it’s the circularity of it, and the detail. You make your point, you tie it all back up to the beginning, and you get the hell out of Dodge. You concentrate on one or two key moments, and the sheer complexity of the novel is not an issue.

TS: The major publishing houses are notoriously unwilling to publish collections of short fiction.  Why do you think there is such a small market for what can be one of the most provocative and exciting fictional forms?

AW: I really don’t know. People tell me all the time that they love short stories, and the short form would seem to be a natural companion to the hectic pace of modern life. I wonder if simpler books are selling so well (Twilight and 50 Shades, say) because they can be held in your head so easily. There are fewer characters and only one or two plots that have very straight lines to them – perfect for picking up for ten minutes or so during a lunch break or at the end of the day. I don’t know why short stories didn’t rush in to fill that market. You do have to start over with a new idea every time, I suppose, when you read a short story. You have to concentrate to get the best from it.

TS: Genre labels are more popular with publishers and agents than with writers, who generally don't like being pigeon-holed.  You've written crime, science fiction and more recently have occupied the "feminist literary fantasy" corner.  Do you feel even that label is too reductive?

AW: I just don’t think I’m going to be a feminist literary fantasy writer forever. I like how writing changes and grows as new thoughts occur to me, and new issues excite me. I write wherever that leads and let other people sort out the labels. But for now I’ll be a literary fantasy writer. I’m always a feminist.

TS: The Macmillan New Writers who have been the most commercially successful have tended to be the crime writers.  Were you tempted to stick with crime for longer, or are you happier dwelling among the untrodden ways of small-press experimental fiction?

AW: I found it very difficult to write to order. The order was – another crime novel just like Light Reading, please, and the more I tried the more unhappy I became.  Nobody wanted fantastical elements in those books, and my brain refused to write something more mundane, so in the end I had to (very unwillingly!) admit defeat. But within a week of giving up on it all I sold a fantasy story to Strange Horizons and felt so much better. Hopefully I’ve learned not to chase the money, but to chase the stories instead.

TS: You contribute regularly to the influential Den of Geek blog, where you display an encyclopaedic knowledge of film history.  Do you think your affinity with cinema influences your fiction?

AW: Having made two short films in the past, I can categorically state that they’re very different art forms! I’m not keen on very cinematic writing, where everything is described apart from what’s going on in the characters’ heads. I like mucking about with words too much. And time. And point of view.

This is really one of those things that sounds deep but actually isn’t deep at all, but sometimes I think that cinema tells you what to see, but the written word can tell you what to feel.

Don’t analyse that too hard. It doesn’t really make any sense. But I do love film, and books, equally. Just in different ways.

TS: Of course, we wouldn't stoop to crass product-placement on this blog, but when and where is your launch party for Witchcraft in the Harem, where readers can meet the author and buy the book?

AW:  It’s on Monday May 13th at Victoria Library in London. 6pm to 7.30pm. My publisher informs me there will be wine and crisps, which should help to break the ice. I’m going to read a short story. I haven’t decided which one yet. All suggestions gratefully received. One of my own stories would be preferable, but I’ll do something from Winnie the Pooh if I get enough of the free wine.

TS: And finally, if you were a badger, which inconvenient place would you choose to urinate?

AW: Isn’t badger urine always inconvenient? Wherever you come across it, it’s not going to be welcome when you step in a puddle of it. What about you? What would your badger name be? Mine would be Melvyn Bragg. All badgers look a little like Melvyn Bragg, I’m thinking.

TS: I'd have to go for "Pampers".  There's clearly a huge untapped market for badger nappies, and if I were a badger I'd be out there exploiting it.

If you've stayed with us this far you deserve an
 immaculately presented Attibassi cappuccino

Thanks to Aliya for dropping by at ::Acquired TasteWitchcraft in the Harem is available directly from Dog Horn Publishing or the usual online book retailers.  You can follow her on Twitter @AliyaWhiteley.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

On self-publishing ebooks

Most writers will reach a point in their labours where they find that commercial publishers are not interested in the book which have been years in the making.  In days gone by, that was pretty much that: time to move on, either to another book or perhaps taking up carpet bowls.

More recently, print-on-demand self-publishing became an option for the enthusiast and not just the obsessive.  With no expensive print run, any writer could publish a book at minimal financial risk.  All four of my novels (including The Dog of the North before Macmillan picked it up) followed that path.