Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Literary Life

'Ah, so you're blogging again,' said my husband Christopher, peering over my shoulder at the computer screen. 'What are you blogging about?'

'My writing,' I replied.

'Ah,' he said in mock disappointment, 'I thought you were going to talk about something interesting.'

And therein lies the rub. Writing is an intensely interesting activity for the person who does it, who hopes, in turn, that readers will be interested in the end result. Talking or writing about writing, however, can be slightly less enthralling for those on the receiving end than watching grass grow. In Edward Gorey's The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, the eponymous hero muses, at one point, on 'the unspeakable horrors of the literary life', a line which almost certainly resonates with anyone who has ever stared at a typewriter and a blank sheet of paper, or a cursor flicking relentlessly on an otherwise white screen, but probably leaves others muttering 'What horrors? Try having to work for a living.'

Writing is largely cerebral, and a fairly lonely activity, which is one of the reasons, I think, that movies about writers or writing often have trouble making the activity cinematic, that is to say exciting for the viewer. There are, after all, only so many times that one can show the frustrated writer ripping a sheet of paper out of a typewriter, crumpling it into a ball, and throwing it into a (usually full to overflowing) wastepaper basket, and of course no way of showing the equivalent where computers are concerned (although the sight of a keyboard, yanked out of a processor and launched across the room, would certainly make for a vivid shot). Someone sitting at a keyboard, alternately staring into space, typing furiously, deleting just as furiously, typing some more, then wandering into the kitchen to see if, by chance, there's one more cup of coffee left in the pot is not the stuff of which gripping cinema is made. The recent film Atonement managed it quite well, I think, by conveying a sense that young Briony, who grows up to become a writer, writes not because she wants to but because she has to: it's a compulsion, in the face of which she is helpless, and her set face and rigid stance indicate that she derives as much pain as pleasure from the process, but cannot stop herself.

Don't worry, this blog is not going to turn into one long post about the literary life (horrific or otherwise); but the truth is that a few people have been kind enough to express interest in my writing, and when I look back over the last ten months I find myself mildly surprised to realise that I have been, by my lights, fairly prolific. In 2007 I had three stories accepted and published, starting with 'The Palace' in At Ease With the Dead (Ash-Tree Press), which was set in the troubled Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and dealt with one man's attempt to make reparation for a terrible wrong done in the past. That was followed by 'The Wide Wide Sea' in Exotic Gothic (Ash-Tree Press), a story set in the Canadian prairie at the turn of the last century, and based on something I read some time ago in Maclean's magazine about pioneer women who literally ran mad with terror at the vastness of the brave new world in which they found themselves. The third of my 2007 stories was 'The Hiding Place' in Strange Tales II (Tartarus Press), the idea for which came out of absolutely nowhere and took me rather by surprise, although I was pleased with the end result.

Three more of my stories have been accepted for publication, and will be out within the next twelve months or so. 'Association Copy' will be in Bound for Evil: Curious Tales of Books Gone Bad (Dead Letter Press, March 2008), a mammoth volume containing sixty-four stories about—well, the subtitle really says it all. My own contribution features an R. L. Stine-like author of horror stories for young adults, who sends one of his books to a former classmate, with not entirely happy results. In the fall of 2008 comes 'The Things That Shall Come Upon Them' in Gaslit Grimoire from Edge Science Fiction, being published to tie in with the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary. The theme of this year's convention is 'Mystery in Fantasy and Horror', and to that end Gaslit Grimoire features new adventures of Sherlock Holmes with a supernatural component to them. On the basis that two detectives are better than one, I took the opportunity to pair Holmes the rationalist with a contemporary detective who was, shall we say, slightly more open-minded when it came to the supernatural: Flaxman Low, the first psychic detective, and the brainchild of Hesketh Prichard, friend of Conan Doyle's. Aficionados of the work of M. R. James will also, I hope, enjoy the references in the story to one of James's most famous tales.

Finally, while in New York last week I had the welcome news that my story 'The Brink of Eternity' has been accepted for Poe (note to JZ: no exclamation point), an anthology of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe being edited by Ellen Datlow for Solaris, to be published in early 2009 to mark Poe's bicentennial. I'll post further details about this book as they become available.

What's in the future? I'm working on four stories for various publications, and hope to add to that total before the year is out; I also plan to post more regularly to this blog, on the basis that any kind of writing is good practice. To that end, time to end this post and get back to staring at a flashing cursor; although first I think I'll just wander into the kitchen to see if there's any more coffee in the pot. Ah, the literary life. . . .


nomis said...

I'd like to see more posts of this type, Barbara. The process of other writers continues to fascinate me.

Not that I don't enjoy the other entries in your blog, of course.

Barbara Roden said...

Thanks, Simon. I want to try to write a bit more about my own writing, and the blog seems as good a place as any to do it.

By the way, I enjoy your own blog; one of my inspirations to keep blogging myself!

Anonymous said...

Will you be posting about your editing work, as well? I'm curious to know the goings-on behind the scenes at Ash-Tree and All Hallows.

Barbara Roden said...

I'd be happy to talk about editing: what specifically do you want to hear about? How an anthology gets put together? How stories get selected for ALL HALLOWS? The nuts and bolts of editing, including editing one's own work? Or a combination of some/all of the above?

Anonymous said...

Anything you're willing to share, but yes, the selection process would definitely be something I'm interested in hearing about -- partly because I have a couple of stories accepted for future editions of AH. :)

I thought I'd ask because Ellen Datlow recently got herself a LiveJournal, and she sometimes posts about stories she's accepted for various anthologies she's editing, as well as The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.

Since I'm a big fan of the Ash-Tree anthologies, I thought it would be interesting to see how your process works, as well.