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This week: Bookswap, Bookseller Crow and Hay Festival

Come and see me rambling on about The Humans at three events this week:

Wednesday - 7.30pm – 9.30pm, Bookswap event, Big Greenbookshop in Wood Green, London with Andrew J. Lambie. Held at the Great Northern Railway Tavern in Hornsey Road and the ticket price includes a buffet, provided by the pub.

Thursday – 7.30pm, Bookseller Crow event, Crystal Palace, London. It’s £3 and includes a free drink – book your ticket here. It’s also the 16th anniversary of Bookseller Crow, so do come along and celebrate. Here’s the very fine window display that was done by local artist David Vallade

And on Saturday I’ll be with the lovely Patrick Ness (again!) at Hay Literary Festival 5.30pm, Starlight Stage. Chaired by Peter Florence.

Hopefully see some of you there!

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Some thoughts on THE HUMANS

My new novel, The Humans, is published this week. I thought I would tell you some things about it:

This is the book I am most proud of.

It was the first idea I ever had, but it took me eight books to get to this point. This story needed confidence because a) the narrator is an alien, and people might dismiss it because of that and b) I knew it would be emotional to write.

It is a book I will never be able to write again.

It contains all that I think about this weird and terrifying and wonderful existence. It is my attempt to show that through all the pain that comes with our existence, we have things that make all the darkness more than worthwhile.

This is my 80,000 word message to my suicidal 24 year old self. It was me, sitting down to write an advert for humanity. To put down, while I am here and alive, just what makes it so special to be here and alive.

I wrote it between January and June last year. On more than three occasions I got so carried away with the story I literally wrote all the way through the night.

It is now out, in actual existence, being read. And I am about 10 times more excited about this than I was 10 years ago with my debut. In fact, I might just faint.

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Ten Writing Rules to Break

I hate rules. This gets me into trouble sometimes. When I was 16 it got me arrested. (I stole a Crunchie bar and some wet-look hair gel from Boots the chemist. Because my plan was to give the Crunchie bar to my best friend Jonathan I thought this made me a kind of latter-day Robin Hood rather than the spotty small-town tosser in a Cure T-shirt I actually was.)

Anyway, I try not to be illegal these days, but I still have a natural aversion to being told what to do. And when you are a writer – a writer who wants to say stuff – there are all sorts of quietly agreed rules floating around.

Here are 10 rules I am starting to ignore:

1. DON’T USE CLICHES. An admirable rule, surely? Well yes, perhaps, but a cliche is sometimes a cliche for good reason. A cliche is often a universal truth. That is why people like it. And people often speak in cliches, so what then? Surely to write honest dialogue you are going to have to use cliches? The aim, I suppose, is to come up with new cliches.

2.DON’T WRITE UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Michael Chabon: ‘All novels are sequels; ignorance is bliss’.

3. LINEAR IS UNCOOL. Maybe in the twentieth century it was saying something when you smashed a narrative into pieces and quoted Godard’s line about how it was good to have a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order. But the thing is, I think there is nothing cooler and more wonderful than a story, and a story that feels like a story. So here’s to beginnings, middles and endings in the right places.

4. IT MUST BE DIFFICULT. No-one admits this rule. Maybe I have imagined it. But I think there is a distrust of books that are easy-to-read. A belief that they should shut people out, because most people don’t know what is good for them. This is snobbery. I ignore this, and try and write with open arms. The aim for me is never to take a short cut.

5. TO BE SERIOUS YOU MUST NOT TELL JOKES. I like jokes. Shakespeare told jokes. Joseph Heller told jokes. I am going to tell jokes. Comedy is just tragedy that hasn’t come to fruition.

6. LITERARY FICTION IS SERIOUS, GENRE FICTION IS NOT. Lock lit fic and genre in the same hotel room with only one bed and keep them there and see what happens. Fun things, normally, though some people don’t like fun things. I do though.

7. ADVERBS ARE EVIL. They can be, but some adverbs sound wonderful. Sporadically. Unquestionably. Woefully. No words should be put in a ghetto. Language is a smorgasbord.

8. WRITERS SHOULDN’T SELF-PROMOTE. I have a novel out this week. It is called THE HUMANS. The Independent says it is ‘outstanding’. The Times says it is ‘funny, gripping and inventive’. You can see other quotes and buy it here. I live to write. It is the only thing I can do. If I was in any other job I would be expected to help sell something, so why not this one, the one that I am best at…? So I am not ashamed of the first half of this paragraph.

9. SENTIMENTALITY IS BAD. Why? Who says? Humans are sentimental. ‘Sentimentality’ as Graham Greene said, ‘is just the name for sentiment we don’t share.’ Why not be rose-tinted from time-to-time, if we are aware of it? I am someone who cried at ET and Casablanca. Sentimental things speak to a deeper part of us than brain-only stuff. Speak to the heart via the head. The things that are sentimental tap into strong emotions, and emotions are what it is all about. Emotions are the last things the androids will be able to replicate.

10. HAPPY ENDINGS ARE FAKE. Yes, we all die, and yes, life is messy, but who says art can’t be different? Not Aristotle. Not Shakespeare. A book can have a neat ending where everything is tied up. It can even end in a way that allows us to be happy and hopeful. Why not? It is a book. And the very power of a book, the reason we escape into them, is that they aren’t weighed down by the same rules that weigh down reality. Books don’t suit fences.

Goodbye.

(Shoplifting is still bad though.)

 

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A Mission Statement

I think it is unfair that only companies and corporate entities get to have a mission statement. I think writers and artists and other creatives should have them too. I think it is good to have a mission. Jesus had a mission. James Bond has had tons. Missions are good.

Here is my mission:

- I want to write books that cannot be put in a box and easily classified. I want to write books that place as much value on feeling as thought. I want to prove intelligence does not need to be compromised in order to entertain. I want to be a storyteller – one who believes in beginnings, middles and endings. I want to provoke physical responses – laughter, tears, heart palpitations. I want to take people to another world in order for them to see the one they live in with new eyes. I want my books to come up with new truths so obvious they sound like cliches. I want to fill my books with love and hope and possibility. I want to ignore the rules that say you can’t have happy endings or cliches or adverbs or jokes (if it is good enough for life it is good enough for a book). I want to be a tour guide of the imagination.

 

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The Myth of the Author

Every book perpetuates a myth on its cover.

The myth I am talking about is the myth of the author. The myth of that name under or above the title, staring out at you in bold letters, like Stonehenge in a font, saying ‘I am an island of talent, and everything inside this book is down to me.’

I have a book coming out at the start of May. If you want to pre-order your copy you can do so here. It is called The Humans and, for the very first time in my publishing career, I am still proud of it. Normally what happens with my books is that I write the thing, love the hell out of it for a week, and then, by the time they come out I just want to hide under a rock and cringe.

But not with this one. Here I am, with actual printed hardback copies in existence (though not in shops until May) and I am not cringing about anything in that book. I am not even scared of the reviews. I’m not saying it’ll get good reviews. I’m just saying that for once reviews won’t alter my neurochemical balance or cause too much serotonin depletion.

I believe in this book. I believe it is the best thing I have written and that, if I were to die today, it is the one I’d want to be remembered for.

But this book is not just mine. No book is just anyone’s especially these days. If there were any truth about it, a book jacket would be like a film poster. The author might be the star or the director but there would be lots of other names too. There would, in this case, at least be the name of my editor, Francis Bickmore, who quoted Emily Dickinson at me and said ‘dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind…’

There are many, many other people who helped me make The Humans. My US editor, Millicent Bennet, my Canadian editor Kate Cassaday, the person producing the film – Tanya Seghatchian, my agent Caradoc King and his associate Louise Lamont, my editor/proof-reader/critic/spouse Andrea Semple. All of those names should be on the cover too. Along with many other people who work at the relevant publishing companies and agencies.

But it doesn’t stop there.

No. A writer these days is not a solo player (if we ever were). A writer does not create a novel out of a vacuum. But out of interaction – with editors, friends, family and other readers.

Now, in the age of Twitter and Facebook, the writer/reader relationship is closer than ever. I get my readers’ advice on everything. Which title they prefer, how I should say something in another language, help with historical and geographical and professional details etc. etc. etc.

A reader’s involvement in a book no longer starts and ends with them buying it and reading it. They can help make that book better, and help champion it far and wide when it comes out. I am lucky in this respect. I have some pretty amazing readers. They are willing to video themselves on trampolines and with their horses and on holiday in Thailand reading lines for a book trailer. I have evidence. Look:

 

 

I think, gradually, the author’s mystique will fade thanks to the internet. I think my mystique faded the moment I drunk-tweeted something about liking Taylor Swift last September. And many writers moan about this. They want to be invisible. They don’t want to be sitting in their glass boxes.

But for me, I think it is positive. I like involving my readers. I know writers aren’t islands, but part of wider continents – influenced by other writers and friends and editors and readers. I think it’s nice. Especially as writers tend to be the kinds of people who used to be picked last for sports teams at school. Now we get to create our own teams.

Teams built around books.

And I, for one, don’t care if the myth of the isolated genius author disappears for ever, because I believe the internet is taking stories back to where they first started. Back to humans, telling tales to each other, and getting each other involved as we sit around the fire, or in our caves, tapping into the most universal experience we have – imagination.

So, I hope you enjoy The Humans. If you do, or even if you don’t, you’re welcome in the team.