In Memory of Sue the Storyteller

Last week I went to my grandfather’s funeral. It was a sad occasion, but he’d lived a full life and we gave him a good send-off. I can give him no better obituary than this one my brother wrote. This week, I learned of the death of Sue Wilson, a friend from my local writing group, Derby Scribes. She had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went into hospital for surgery, and never came out again. I had known she was severely ill, but her death still came as a massive shock, one I think will take a long time to fully sink in. Yesterday I went for a walk round the park to try and clear my head, saw an old couple walking happily hand-in-hand, and ended up in tears.

I wouldn’t have described Sue as one of my closest friends, but I realise now – too late, of course – what an important place she had in my life. She was one of the most stalwart members of our writing group, always to be relied upon for knowledge, advice, bright ideas, and board games. She helped me immensely with her advice and encouragement, especially when I was writing my first novel. Her stories were always entertaining and her conversation always enlightening (if not always safe for work). More than anyone I’ve ever known, she was a born storyteller. She spent her life steeped in stories, whether novels, short fiction, or role-playing games. She could narrate literally anything in a way that made it sound exciting, and she had a quirky sense of humour that could make anything amusing, but was never at anyone’s expense.  Her invention never flagged, and nor did her enthusiasm – ever generous with her time, she helped all our group come up with ideas and marshal them into coherent narratives.

Needless to say, she will be much missed – not only by her husband John (and I don’t believe in soul mates, but if I did, I’d believe in those two, since I’ve never met a couple who seemed more perfectly suited) and by the rest of her family and friends, but also by all the Scribes, by all her fans on WriteOn, by all those who played the games she wrote and GM’ed, and by all those who did National Novel Writing Month alongside her – not to mention all the people she helped in her day jobs working with vulnerable children. She touched many lives and left all of us better for her influence.

For her funeral, she has asked attendees not to bring flowers, but to do something creative instead, and if that doesn’t sum up her attitude to life, I don’t know what does. Sue – if you’re somehow reading this in the afterlife, thank you. I will never forget your generosity or your boundless joy in story-telling, and I promise I will keep the story going.

Paying the Bills with Dreams

Two weeks ago I told you all about my first world problems. Since then, I’ve baked cakes and roasted pork in my new shiny kitchen. I’ve also been fired from my part-time job at a local cafe – turns out washing the dishes really isn’t my forte. Who would have guessed?

I’m not that cut up about the sudden loss of employment. It gives me more time for my writing, which after all is the whole point of the big choices I’ve made – to devote my life to what’s really important to me. And the latest reminder of mortality is the death of my dear Grandpa, a natural storyteller if there ever was one. I remember the entertaining sermons he gave as a minister in the United Reformed Church, and the tall tales he told us when we were children, most of them featuring crocodiles.

In the middle of musing on these things, I’ve encountered two pieces with different views on Life. One is a webcomic from Zen Pencils which encourages you to pursue what you love and forget about money, because spending your life doing something you don’t enjoy is ‘stupid’. Another is a Salon article which points out that many professional authors are actually supported financially by wealthy parents or – in the case of Ann Bauer, the article’s author – a spouse. Her situation is very similar to mine in some ways, her ability to write full-time enabled by her husband’s well-salaried job. She openly says that the stability she enjoys – both financial and emotional – has meant she can now write the books she was unable to write back when her life was far more precarious.

I have to admit, I identify with her strongly. My life in my twenties was nowhere near as difficult as hers, but I had my struggles, and it took me years to write a similar output to what I now manage in months. Writing books whilst working a full-time demanding job is not easy. But should I have quit earlier, and followed my dream from the start, instead of spending years working at a career I found ultimately unfulfilling? Well, you can’t eat words. Or dreams. They won’t pay your rent or your bills either.

And that is the uncomfortable truth about Follow Your Dream and Do What You Love. It’s an awful lot easier when you’ve got someone else putting food on the table. Oh sure, if what you love happens to lead to a high-paying career, you’ve hit the jackpot. But writing simply isn’t very lucrative for the vast majority of people. And we all need to eat – so most of us end up doing something else as well, whether it’s washing dishes or auditing accounts. I’m incredibly lucky that, like Ann Bauer, I’m sponsored by my husband, and I never take that good fortune for granted.

I would always encourage people to pursue their dreams, but I also think we shouldn’t pretend it’s always that easy. Until we arrive in the utopia where we’re all free of the yoke of work and can spend our time on the pursuits that make us happy – which let’s face it doesn’t feel like it’s coming any time soon – someone needs to pay the bills.

First World Problems

It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster week for me. Last weekend I was at the Fantasy Convention, an annual get-together for fantasy and horror writers, editors, and fans, held this year in Scarborough. It was great. Writing is a lonely profession and the chance to go from writing blog posts about Mike Carey to actually meeting him doesn’t come round that often. I met up with old friends and made some new ones. I saw some fascinating panels on topics like magic in fiction and the apocalypse (time until first mention of Donald Trump: less than five minutes). I went to some great sessions with publishers, and I got to meet some of my favourite authors including Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear. I also sat near Zen Cho at the banquet and cheered loudly when her excellent book Sorcerer to the Crown won the Best Newcomer prize at the British Fantasy Awards ceremony. Two other prizes were won at my table and I basked in reflected glory for a brief time. The weather was glorious and Scarborough was beautiful.

Then on Monday I drove back to Derby in the rain, and on Tuesday I was washing dishes in a cafe to try and help make ends meet. Talk about returning to normality with a bump.

On top of this, I’ve had the everyday stresses of our kitchen refit, familiar to anyone who’s ever had work done on the house: the noise and disruption, the schedule over-runs and extra costs, the annoyances when something goes wrong, having to live off microwave ready-meals for weeks on end. By yesterday morning, I was feeling pretty frazzled.

It is, of course, all very First World Problems. We’ll shortly have an awesome new kitchen complete with a Rangemaster cooker and one of those American-style giganto-fridges, so whingeing about how long it’s taken us to get there is – at best – a pointless self-indulgence. Which is partly why I enjoy doing voluntary work – helping out with some decidedly more third-world problems at the refugee centre really puts my own issues in perspective.

And the great thing about being a writer is that any unpleasant experiences can go straight into the story-pot. Which I’ll then stir up and transform into a tasty stew with the help of my new cooker.

The Girl with Some of the Gifts

I’ve just finished reading The Girl with All the Gifts by MR Carey and I can 100% recommend it if chilling-yet-also-strangely-heartwarming post-apocalyptic horror sounds like your bag. It’s an interesting take on the zombocalypse concept, in which the zombifying plague is caused by a fungus instead of the usual virus. The story follows an, um, special little girl called Melanie, her teacher Miss Justineau, a crazy scientist, and a couple of soldiers, all on the run together in a zombie-overrun Britain.

There’s a movie adaptation coming out this week, which has had good reviews, but I’m so disappointed in the casting that I’m planning to avoid it. Why?

In the book, the character Miss Justineau is both brainy and beautiful – Melanie has a massive schoolgirl crush on her, and both the soldiers find her attractive too. She’s brave and resourceful too, but saved from Mary Sue-dom by her occasionally reckless behaviour and blind spot towards Melanie. She’s also a 40+ dark-skinned black woman. Now, awesome-but-fully-rounded female characters are sadly rare in films (and not frequent enough in books either for my liking). Awesome-but-fully-rounded older female characters are even rarer, and as for awesome-but-fully-rounded older black female characters… Name one. Go on. Who isn’t Annalise Keating.

This could have been an amazing part for someone. Maybe Marianne Jean-Baptiste. Or Viola Davis, if you don’t mind an American playing a British role.

girl-with-gifts

But who did they cast as Miss Justineau for the film? Not either of those ladies. Not even Gina Torres or Sophie Okonedo or Zoe Saldana or Naomie Harris. Nope, they cast Gemma Arterton.

Huh? Yeah, that’s right, Gemma Arterton. Who is a) only 30 years old; b) white. The character has been totally white-washed, and de-aged to boot, to fit a Hollywood idea of what a leading lady should look like. Not cool, film-makers, not cool.

But, some people are saying, it’s all right, it’s not whitewashing, they’ve just race-swapped the cast! Melanie, who was white in the book, is now black! And so is one of the soldiers, Pte Gallagher, who was also originally white! So that’s two for the price of one! Why are you complaining? Mike Carey himself has said that he was happy with ‘colour-blind’ casting, so long as the overall diversity of the characters was preserved.

[spoilers in this paragraph] The thing is, I don’t think diversity is just a numbers game. It’s also about the kind of characters you have, their role in the story, and how those things interact with pre-existing ideas and media portrayals. No story exists in a vacuum. Melanie being made black instead of Miss Justineau makes me uncomfortable because Melanie is a zombie (or ‘hungry’ in the book’s nomenclature). Sure, she’s a higher functioning zombie, but she does kick into animalistic flesh-eating mode a few times, usually to protect Miss Justineau. And a monster black girl going feral and ripping people’s throats out to protect her pretty white teacher has some unfortunate implications, which the book’s version doesn’t. Oh, and did I mention Melanie spends a lot of the story tied up and muzzled like an animal? Like it or not, a white woman keeping a black girl on a leash has different – and deeply icky – cultural resonances from a black woman keeping a white girl on a leash. And as for Pte Gallagher – he’s the first of the group to be eaten by zombies, so by making him black all you’ve done is given TV Tropes another example for the ‘Black Dude Dies First’ page. So while ‘colour-blind’ casting might be the ideal, I can’t see it really working here.

[no more spoilers] Now I’m just a sheltered white girl who can bleat about racism online but doesn’t have to live it every day, and whether or not I go to see this film isn’t going to make much difference to their box office numbers. At least I can use the questions it raises to inform my own writing, and try and make sure I’m helping, not hindering. And hope that, if one of my books ever gets adapted for the screen, the casting is more sensitive.

Edit 14th Oct: I have now seen the film version of The Girl with All the Gifts and I actually enjoyed it very much – it’s an excellent zombie thriller/post-apocalyptic drama. The cast all acted very well, and it was good to see a woman kicking ass while wearing baggy clothes. The cultural resonances of the race-bent casting weren’t as bad as I feared, but they were still present, so while I would recommend the film, I still stand by my comments above.

 

Internet Problems

It probably won’t come as a surprise to any of you that I spend an awful lot of time on the Internet. In fact, in many ways I’m never really ‘offline’, with so many apps all set to alert me whenever the slightest thing happens. Life on the Internet isn’t so much awesome, as life without the Internet has become unthinkable. For instance, how did I ever cope before having a smartphone in my pocket which allows me to prove other people wrong on the spot?
But there are downsides too, some problems unique to life online. Here’s brief glossary of some of my favourites:

‘Adgorithmfail’ : when the article you’re looking at contains keywords which trigger ads for related products and services to appear, even though the article is actually talking about how terrible these things are.

‘Cherrypop-oogling’ : when you google something seemingly innocent, and then – usually straight after hitting the ‘images’ tab – abruptly realise that the term also has much less innocent meaning as wildly nsfw posts fill your screen. You can slam your laptop shut, you can even delete your browser history, but you can never unsee what has already been seen. The opposite would be ‘Cherrypie-oogling’: when you google something expecting nsfw stuff, and get innocent stuff instead – although this is clearly hypothetical as I never actively look for nsfw content.

‘Gabiggening’ : when you order something online and then when it turns up it’s waaaay bigger than you expected because either you didn’t read the description properly or hey it’s hard to visualise what a 5-litre container might look like when they don’t put anything in the picture to scale it all right? The opposite is ‘Galittling’ when the item turns out to be much smaller.

‘Meatspace shock’ tfw you have to interact with people irl and suddenly you can’t converse entirely in reaction gifs, l33t, and pictures of Kermit the Frog sipping tea, and are instead forced to fall back on forming words with your mouth like some kind of medieval peasant.

‘Stormbacking’ : when you follow what seems like a legit link – usually buried deep in a comment thread – and end up on Stormfront (’White Pride World Wide’) or something equally unsavoury, and have to hit the back button hard and hope you don’t get followed by racist cookies.

‘Thatxkcdcartooning’ : when you can’t go to bed because SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET.

‘Tubemetic’ The feeling of physical sickness caused by reading the cesspit of hatred, ignorance, and poor spelling that is the comments section on any given YouTube video. The only coping mechanism I’ve found is to regard them as a kind of mass-participation Dadaist artwork meditating on the hopelessness of the human condition.

‘Twemenews’ when you find out about news stories indirectly through seeing the piss-taking tweets and memes, and have to try to reconstruct what’s actually happened.

 

5 Reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies

At the writing club I run in Derby, we attempt to have discussions about literature. Sadly, these often slide – via such exchanges as ‘Who’s read The Hunger Games?’ ‘Well I’ve seen the movie’ – into discussions about movies.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love movies. I watch them quite often. They only take about two hours to get through and they do have that social/communal experience thing going for them which books nearly always lack. But I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter, and so I now humbly present to you 5 reasons Why Books Are Better Than Movies:

1) Unlimited budget. Books never have shots of run-down parts of Vancouver pretending to be more exciting locations. They never have cheesy CGI or obvious stock-footage inserts or men running round in unconvincing gorilla suits. In a book you can have whatever you want: magic floating cities, flocks of dragons, impossible geometries. In the land of literature, the accountants hold no sway.

2) Actors never ruin books. Ever watched a film and been less-than-impressed by one or more of the performances? Or found a transition between two actors playing the same character at different ages jarring? Or enjoyed the film but for the fact it’s got your least-favourite actor in it *cough* fat-face DiCaprio *cough*. It never happens in books, my friend. When you read a book, all the characters’ performances are always perfect.

3) Vagueness. Huh? Why is vagueness good? Well, because while films have to shove everything up on screen in a boringly literal way, books can leave things to your imagination, for horrifying and/or comedic effect. The monster can be so unspeakably terrifying any attempt to describe it leaves people gibberingly insane. The main character’s outfit can be so outrageous that it makes people faint with shock to even hear it described. Plus there are all the joys of the unreliable narrator.

4) Books go anywhere. Admittedly, the advance of technology is making this one less and less of a clear advantage, but still, you can read a book just about anywhere: in the bath (that one’s my personal favourite), up a mountain, in the park, on a crowded subway train. Thanks to audio books, you can even read them while doing yoga or household tasks. Or whatever you fancy. Ever tried watching a film while doing yoga? I don’t recommend it.

5) Books can get you right inside a character’s head. They can show you someone’s thoughts and feelings, their hopes and fears, all in intimate detail. The only way a film can get inside someone’s head is with clumsy devices like the voiceover. Or, depending on the type of film, a buzzsaw.

Apocalypse Please

I’ve just finished reading The Silence by Tim Lebbon, a book I thoroughly recommend if you’re a horror fan. It’s set in a near-future (very near future – November 2016) Britain, which has been invaded by hordes of voracious flesh-eating bats. The title comes from the fact that the bats evolved in an isolated cave system to be pale and eyeless (having played far too much Pokémon Go over the last couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but visualise them as albino Zubats) and find food by sound. The only way to escape them is to be silent.

As the book progresses, the bats spread across the country, eating people as they go, and civilisation progressively crumbles. In some ways this is a familiar tale, not that dissimilar in structure to the many zombie apocalypse narratives out there, but Lebbon manages to find a fresh and disturbing take on it. His protagonist is a deaf girl whose ability to communicate silently with her family through sign language is at first an advantage – and then becomes dangerous when other survivors discover her and want to use her skills.

I found the book a gripping read. But, although I’m quite a fan of apocalyptic fiction, I find that recent events have made it seem less escapist than it once did. Perhaps, as real life becomes progressively more like a cross between Dr Strangelove and The Hunger Games, it will fall out of fashion.

Some people may wonder what the appeal of the apocalypse is anyway. If you’re going to read fantasy, wouldn’t you rather have something more pleasant? Well, here’s the thing. Modern life is very complex and can sometimes confusing, and most of us work in jobs where there’s little obvious impact to what we do. In the world of The Silence, however, life is simple, and the impact of your decisions is clear. If you make the wrong decision, you and your family get devoured by evil bats. If you make the right decision, you don’t. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of clarity in your everyday life?

Conspiracy thrillers – and their real-life-to-a-certain-value-of-real counterpart, conspiracy theories – have a different, but broadly related appeal. While on the surface the idea that the world is being controlled from behind the scenes by a sinister cabal of lizard people might sound terrifying, it’s actually kind of comforting to imagine that somebody, somewhere, knows what they’re doing. That there actually is somebody in charge after all, guiding the horrifying, chaotic mess we call reality to their own ends, whatever those ends may be.

The purpose of fiction is, if nothing else, to help us escape from reality for a while. And I seem to have come to the conclusion that being eaten by Pokémon-gone-wrong or controlled by lizard people sounds more appealing than real life right now.

Have a great weekend everyone.