Prologue for Black Flowers
The prologue for Black Flowers is available to read here:
The link to the pdf is under ‘product details’. Since I’m still editing it, I’m honour-bound to point out that some of the language will change in the final version, but it gives you an idea of how the book starts out and about the beginning of one of the plot strands. Hope you enjoy it!
Here’s something random that I thought I’d write a little about. I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but not gone into it any specific depth. I suffer from dysphagia.
Basically, that means I find it very hard to eat food, because I can’t swallow it. The condition manifests itself in different ways for different people, and, for me, it means when I try to swallow stuff it often doesn’t go down. It just ends up sitting at the back of my throat. Now, the thing about half-swallowing something is the thing ends up pretty much beyond reach, at the exact place in your head, in fact, where swallowing is about the only sensible option to do anything about the problem. Except swallowing hasn’t worked, and it continues not to; the muscles simply fail.
Because the mechanism is unconscious (I’m watching Zack learning it now), you don’t really know what to do when it freezes up. Panic often ensues. I’m pretty lucky not to choke more often than I do, which is rarely these days because I’ve got used to the whole thing and have my workarounds. I use water to help. I know my throat muscles inside out. I know the danger areas in my mouth, and I’m scrupulous about the amount of food I take in, and how to control it.
This started about three years back. There was no obvious reason for it. After a couple of incidents, it accelerated - perhaps simply because of how scary it was. Whatever, within the space of a week I couldn’t eat much of anything at all. One month later, I’d lost nearly two stone in weight.
I was, as you’d imagine, enormously unimpressed with the world.
After consulting a doctor, I had various cameras thrust fairly urgently into my head, because dysphagia can be caused by loads of different, underlying conditions, and some of them are very serious. But it turned out I didn’t have any of the obvious, imminently life-threatening ones. The most likely explanation is that it’s psychological, which sounds like it should help, but doesn’t, as it remains very real. In the years since, the condition has waxed and waned. I have periods where it affects me less, but it’s always there to some extent.
It’s a fucking depressing thing because eating is something you take for granted. Not the ‘having food’ part, but eating food you have. Hunger is your stomach hurting - quite painfully, actually - three or four times a day, but you don’t normally think of it as pain because you can deal with it relatively easily, and, for the most part, it’s pleasurable to do. I used to love food. Preparing, cooking and eating it. I used to love that.
But I don’t get any pleasure from it anymore. At its worst, it’s like I have to take a pill three times a day - or actually sixty pills each time, over the space of an hour, nearly choking on each and every one of them. (With normal pills, it’s just one terrible moment). At its worst, food is now just a means to an end, a complicated way to stop my stomach hurting or me fainting. The most delicious tastes in the world are totally wasted on me, now, because every meal is just a challenge: something to get out of the way. At its worst, to put things in perspective, it will take me about two pints of water to help wash down a bowl of soup.
So, in real terms, my life involves a lot of careful planning, and a lot of protein shakes. Going out is tricky. If I’m hungry when I’m out, it’s pretty difficult: I can’t easily just go to McDonalds, for example, and I can’t grab a snack and walk around eating it.
The worst thing is professionally, because cooking for someone or taking them out to eat is - or should be - such a wonderful, celebratory thing: an act of kindness. I did a week’s tour in Germany this year, and every night, after the readings, we went out for dinners where everyone was happy and laughing, while I was concentrating on some tiny bit of food and hoping nobody asked me something while I was eating. Lovely people - how can you explain? Embarrassing silences when someone’s waiting for a reply that takes a minute or more to come - trust me, those silences are embarrassing. People start talking again; the question gets forgotten; you look like a fool. I went to a famous actor’s house, where his wife had cooked us a fantastic meal, and I couldn’t eat it. I signed a film deal in Paris (maybe this cancels the rest off due to karma) and went out with the producer and a well-known director, and totally humiliated myself - and probably them, more to the point - by not being able to eat the very expensive and exquisite food they’d paid for.
Irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but even at conferences, with closer friends, if you choose to eat alone then you look a bit strange. I was okay at Fantasycon this year, and generally at Harrogate too, but less so at CrimeFest in May, where I know some people were surprised when they discovered I’d gone for a meal by myself even though they’d asked me to join them at theirs. Looks insulting. Really wasn’t. Sometimes it’s just easier to do it without company.
Anyway, that’s probably my motive in writing this. It’s hard to explain at the time, in the moment - most people haven’t heard of it and wonder what the fuck you’re on about. But if I ever seem like I’m being an arse, food-wise, I’m probably not. Food is just an arse, no matter how nice that food might be, and no matter how nice you are.
Some thoughts on A Serbian Film
A lot of people wouldn’t have heard of this picture if it hadn’t been pulled, eleventh hour, from the FrightFest 2010 programme. The pull came as a result of the BBFC demanding over forty cuts, amounting to over four minutes of running time, pretty much at the last minute. The film-makers decided that would be impossible to achieve in the time given - and also: it would compromise the overall vision of the movie; the whole thing had been shown in full at festivals before; and the audience had full access to the Internet, knew what to expect, and were grown adults capable of making up their own minds.
Anyway, I’ve seen it, and I thought I would give some random, uncoordinated thoughts on the picture as a whole.
The director has made various comments as to the violence being either a commentary on, a metaphor for, influenced by, a result of, or a reflection on the violence in Serbia’s history. It’s always tempting, in the face of such pronouncements, to think “you’re a pretentious twat”. (For example, while viewing a documentary on A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager, an onscreen commentator argued Freddy’s glove was scary because it played on a shared genetic memory of a tiger’s claw reaching into a cave, whereupon my grandmother tutted and said “you pretentious twat”).
However, upon viewing the film, it’s very clear it’s intended to work on this level. It could be far more gory, exploitative and full-on vile if all it wanted was a medal for those things. The film is full of borderline-impenetrable symbolism and imagery, and couldn’t more clearly be trying to mean something. More on which in a minute.
The visceral content aside, it’s wonderfully lit, framed and filmed. I mean, it’s beautifully shot. You could, as the cliche goes, probably take a frame at random and find an effective screenshot. In comparison to absolute trash like the August Underground films, it’s in a whole different cinematic league - undeniably. And the acting, especially from the main character, is very good indeed.
Unfortunately, points 1 and 2 aren’t really enough. Even though the references to the Serbo-Croatian war are there, they appear so deliberately specific that most will be wasted on a woefully under-educated international audience (including myself), so it’s impossible to judge how effective they might be. I could tell the links were there. The problem was that, having no real idea what they meant, I had no choice but to follow the plot literally on its own terms, which, I suspect, is how most people will come to it. (Although, obviously, I hesitate to presume everyone is as ignorant as me).
This is the basic plot [contains spoilers, and triggers, as does the following section].
The first thing to note about the Wiki description is that it’s basically a description of atrocities, and is actually far more salacious in tone than the film itself. Having its cake and eating it, you might say (look at this sick filth!), much as many newspaper reports did around the time of the FrightFest pull.
The second thing to note is that it doesn’t really describe the effect of the film at all, because it renders all the horrors in the same monotone palette. A man being killed by an erect penis thrust into his eye is about as convincing on screen as you’d imagine it would be in real life (ie not at all). Some of the other scenes aren’t as they are described, and the most infamous part - while undeniably horrible as a concept - appears on screen for a second or two, and even then is mostly implied. I can understand the BBFC wanting cuts - and, in my opinion, it would genuinely benefit from a few - but I actually can’t see four minutes being necessary.
That isn’t to say it’s not a horrific film. It most certainly is. But it is to say there’s a fair amount of hype around it. These things are impossible to quantify, but I would watch A Serbian Film again before I sat through Grotesque (banned entirely last year, and a dreadful piece of work) or Irreversible (freely available, and, in its own horrible way, a shattering masterpiece). It’s probably on a par with Martyrs, as these things go.
Actually, Irreversible is a significant comparison here. Both films share similar production values and levels of artistry. Noe’s film, despite being much more distressing to watch than A Serbian Film, is ultimately a much more rewarding experience because of its transcendent ending. A Serbian Film is genuinely nihilistic and pushes you ever further into the filth - witness the description of the last scene on the wiki link - whereas Irreversible does the opposite, if only temporarily: rewinding you to sun-lit happiness from a much darker point you’re going to reach, like it or not.
Whatever the director’s intentions, it works far better for ne as a horror film about the porn industry than it does about Serbia’s past. As (horrific) commentary on the processes, impacts and escalations of pornography, the film is actually very effective indeed, give or take. The central message of human beings as meat, following instincts, authority and instruction, in ever-intensifying scenarios, fits that narrative better than it does one around a specific war, or a country recovering from that war.
(It doesn’t quite work, of course, because retro-fitting a narrative onto a film this precise is always going to end up a little malformed. For example, the main character is too much of a misogynist from the start. The sexual violence isn’t handled carefully enough to justify that point. And so on).
Why are you watching this?
Well, first of all, let me say my favourite film in the world ever is The Princess Bride. That’s an absolute. Possibly followed by About A Boy. (No, really). Or else Stand By Me. Last night alone, I had a conversation on twitter about how wonderful Labyrinth is. And it is. I would watch all of those again a hundred times before watching A Serbian Film again once.
That said, there’s a place for horror. Today, the Guardian published its top 25 horror films (here), and, while there’s nothing wrong with that list, it’s ultimately very safe. If anything, it sort of begs the question of what horror is for. I like a lot of the films on that list, but I’d happily watch all of them again, and might even put them on for fun. Should horror be fun? Sometimes, maybe. But in a world where commercial horror films contain mindless atrocities to be cheered along at (I’m looking at you, Saw franchise) or where top ten lists favour films you can stroke a beard to, there’s something to be said for a film you never, ever, ever want to watch again - but are still, weirdly, glad you did. Because it managed to be challenging, discomforting, confrontational and genuinely disturbing. A serious film - or, indeed, a book - that you want to throw against a wall - and would do, except you know that won’t make it go away.
A Serbian Film doesn’t manage to be that worthwhile, but it’s not half as terrible as you might have been led to believe. And unlike the vile-as-fuck The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, it’s not available in Asda with Danny Dyer’s face on the DVD cover. That said, it is - obviously - very much not for everyone.
Black Flowers gets a cover
And it looks like this:
Huge apologies to anyone hoping to see me tomorrow night at the Mord am Hellweg event with Helen Fitzgerald. At the last minute, I’ve had to cancel. I’m really sorry not to make it, as it was an honour to be asked to participate, it would have been a pleasure to participate, and, most importantly of all, I know it fucks the organisers and the people who bought tickets around something rotten. As far as I know, the organisers are searching for a replacement, but Helen is great, her books are great, and she’s well worth going along for in herself.
Damn it. Sorry again.
Ebooks: I have an idea…
In my first book, The Third Person, I have a character who teaches creative writing to students. He’s a best-selling author, and the advice he gives is: once your book is published, take the advance - and a loan if necessary - and buy every copy you can find. That way your sales look great to the publisher, and the investment is paid back in your next advance. And then repeat the process. He says that’s what everyone does. Nobody even needs to read the book.
Satire on a basic level, I admit, but the idea still kind of tickles me.
The thing is, I wonder if, with ebooks, it isn’t actually feasible. Stick your ebook on Amazon at $2.99. You’ll need multiple email accounts, and multiple Amazon accounts, but that’s about a minute to set up each new one. Invest in a Kindle, which I believe can be deregistered from one account and attached to another, over and over (or else recruit friends, slightly decreasing profit margins), and then get buying. Buying 1000 books, say, would cost you $2,990. As the author, you get 70% back anyway, so that’s not as expensive as it looks; and, while it’s time-consuming, you have to ask how much you care about your book. You can even contribute some five-star reviews along the way. That’s not a bad thing to do, because if it results in more sales then it must be okay.
Obviously, you don’t get your financial investment back in the form of the next advance (unless a major publisher notices your sales; see later), but you march up the bestseller list, attracting attention from impulse buyers - $2.99 is a snap - along the way, like a snowball gathering … snow. Yeah, that’ll probably do. Anyway, to maximise your success, try to hook from the beginning so any casual samplers are more likely to be turned into buyers. But don’t worry about the rest of the book if you don’t want to. It could just read ‘blah blah blah’. I mean, you can just change your name for the next book anyway (a major publisher may not notice you in this instance; see above). But to be honest, coherent works of fiction from beginning to end are simply outdated, pretentious nods at ‘artistry’. The value of the book is its overall profit, and if you can produce more of these blah-blah books in less time (you can) then you make more money, and so there’s no possible down-side for anyone.
Seriously, do you want to be a writer or not? Etc. And so on and so forth. Bleurgh.
Joe’s ebook sales
Some random thoughts about Joe Konrath selling 100k ebooks.
Good for him, obviously. I’m not a huge fan of his writing, but lots of people who I’m not a big fan of are successful, and this isn’t a zero-sum game. So a brief – and genuine – round of applause is warranted, and duly given. May he and his continue to do well. May we all.
In itself, it means nothing. Joe is a pioneer (more brief, genuine applause) but beyond that, I remain unconvinced on the subject – much as, if James Patterson advised traditional publishing as a route to success, I would also take that with a pinch of salt. We should always be wary of drawing universal conclusions from extreme samples of one.
Joe is a fine salesman and always has been. Without commenting on his unrealistic, highly individual and now generally discarded advice on promotion in the past, I see his entire website – and all its advice, past and current – as a piece of self-promotion. Taken as a whole, it’s effectively a ‘how to sell books’ book, written purely to sell his books, like all ‘how to sell books’ books ultimately are. It’s meta-advertising. And that’s fine.
As you’d expect, it’s staunchly defended in its comments threads, largely because Joe is telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they need to, and people really, really like that. The fact is that some good writers do get missed by the industry, and – particularly in this flux phase – maybe those people would benefit from self-publishing straight to ebook. There are always exceptions. As a random observation, the exceptions are more likely to comment than their opposite number. Even the few people who comment ‘I’m not selling much’ are filled with hope: '… but, following your example, I believe I will!'
But most unpublished books are shit. (I know mine are). They’re rejected and unpublished for very good reasons. The filters the industry has developed can sometimes seem a little haphazard and reactive, but many of them have evolved over time into something approaching efficiency. I submitted eight novels before being published – and you know what? I’m so fucking thankful that I never had the chance to e-publish them directly. I would have done. Honestly, I was cocky as shit. But with a bit of space, I see how bad they were; you don’t see that when you write them, or else you’d have written them differently at the time. Without rejection, I’d never have learned a thing; without rejection, I’d guess, few people do. Rejection - and accepting rejection - is so valuable. 800,000 words down the pan for me, and every one of them was worth it.
‘The market will self-regulate’. But it won’t. When the entire slush-pile is on sale, how will that happen? Yes, we can download samples, but that’s not remotely the same experience as browsing in a shop (a joy, never a chore), and what samples do we download anyway? The reality is that filters will always need to be in place – filters that put certain titles front and centre – and I can’t think of a single one that that will be more effective than what we have now. The idea that ‘readers will trawl and find the goods’ is only appealing to writers who’ve not been caught in the existing nets. It’s not in readers’ interests to have access to everyone’s unwanted masterpieces. There are already far too many books to read. After the imagined death of ‘the big six’, we’re talking about there being another five thousand sitting either side of every existing title, every year, with no immediate way for anyone to differentiate between them. Someone’s going to need to sieve fifty metres of shite to find a nanometre of diamond. What’s going to do that better than the existing system of agents and editors? Kindle forums? Word of mouth? Really? Don’t be so daft. Whatever evolves will resemble what we have now, because what we have now works.
Random and subjective. I’ve had kindle apps on various devices for about six months now, and in that time I’ve downloaded 15 ebooks. That’s a 1500% increase in ebooks purchased in my household so far from the year before (1 on Sony). A few were re-purchases; some were fresh books I wanted; others were just … random. And I’ve finished reading 3 of them. When people buy a new content-device, there’s obviously a boom for content, but I’m halfway to hating my kindle. It’s an almost infintely huge TBR pile. The easier it is to buy a new title that catches my interest, the more I resent the ones in the way.
Just a quick question. If you want to make money – I mean, if that’s your primary motivation – then have you genuinely considered, for your sake and for everyone else’s, doing something else?
Interview with Paul D. Brazill
Interview with me by the wonderful Paul D Brazill:
Go see. His whole site is brilliant.