In which our authors talk about the inspiration behind their stories, in an attempt to answer that most notorious of questions, ‘where do you get your ideas?’. Also features behind-the-scenes looks at how our books are put together.
Friday, 28th October 2016. There are 4 Comments.
Our occasional ‘Stories behind Stories‘ series features our writers talking about the inspiration and ideas behind their work. Here, Alex Clark tell us how she came to write ‘Poor Billy’, which is featured in our current anthology Separations.
Ghosts, it seems, are usually attached to places. The haunted house, the haunted graveyard, the haunted wood: as Halloween approaches, you’ll see them adorning everything from boxes of biscuits to babygrows. A thousand horror films have at their centre the Bad Place, where no-one should go but we know they will: the place where the unquiet spirit waits, seeking justice or vengeance.
Give this a moment’s thought, and it’s a bit odd. Why don’t the ghosts go out wandering? Why don’t they go looking for the people who’ve done them wrong? Or try to correct whatever terrible mistake led them to be stuck in the real world? Of course, in some stories and in some other cultures, they do. The ghost in Western culture, though, is usually stuck on its home turf, acting out the same horrors over and over again.
With the dawn of spiritualism, in the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was inevitable that people would start investigating why this might be. Intelligent, rational people set out to investigate hauntings, feats of mediumship and black magic. For a glimpse of the true weirdness of this time I strongly recommend a visit to the Wikipedia page for Harry Price, amateur magician and psychical researcher of the early twentieth century, which features tales of talking mongooses, egg-white ectoplasm and boys transforming into goats.
The idea of seriously investigating these kinds of phenomena seems ludicrous to us now, yet many of the investigators were not fools. They knew that most of the supernatural claims were hoaxes, but they believed that it was possible they might find a tiny core of genuine paranormal activity. This activity could then be investigated, to find the mechanisms by which apparitions might appear to people in the everyday world.
New theories sprung up, theories distinct from previous religious, moral or superstitious understandings of what ‘ghosts’ might be. Victorian psychical researchers William Fletcher Barrett and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, for instance, suggested that strong psychical energy could become imprinted upon materials such as wood or stone, remaining there and disturbing the minds of later visitors. In the mid twentieth century, Welsh philosopher H.H. Price expanded on this and suggested that ghosts might not be unquiet souls, but some kind of memory or recording, held in the matrix of the physical world. His theory of ‘place memory’ suggested that a strand of memory from a person’s mind might attach itself to the physical environment and lodge there, experienced by others as hallucination.
Later, in the 1960s, all these theories were gathered by parapsychologist Thomas Lethbridge to argue for ‘stone tape theory’, the idea that ghostly phenomena are recordings of historical events, stored in the stone and wood that witnessed those events. Ghosts, in this theory, are inanimate shadows, acting out a short loop of the past over and over and over.
Whilst I love the idea of stone tape theory, there are some big problems with it. The first of my objections is: why no happy ghosts? Or ghosts who have strong emotions, but about ridiculous things? If stone tape theory held true, then maternity units the world over would be plagued by endless replays of new-baby bliss, registry offices would be impossible to work in and the M25 would be infested by apparitions with road rage. Furthermore, why are almost all supposed ghosts dead people? Wouldn’t there be lots of recordings of living people?
And this is where Poor Billy started to take shape. Rather than wood or stone, concrete seemed the natural material on which to store a psychical recording. There are very few stone castles and timber-framed houses knocking around nowadays, but an awful lot of concrete tower blocks. Concrete has all of those properties that Billy talks about in the story: it’s great at absorbing sound and heat, so why not memory too? Why not a happy memory? When Maggie’s mum describes the ghost as ‘just a snatch of him,’ this is what I had in mind: a fragment of the past, like a radio station caught and lost again, or a TV channel flicked over.
I’ve written here before about my former career as an archaeologist, and it amuses me to note that many of the early psychical researchers were archaeologists before becoming paranormal investigators. Perhaps there’s something about studying the past, about wanting to know what life was like there, that draws the mind towards ghosts. I know myself that to pull an object out of the ground, to know that the human being who last touched it walked the world of the 1570s, is extraordinary. It is easy to think that the present is the only real time that there has ever been, and that the past looked like a film, or a tapestry, or an illuminated manuscript. It didn’t. The sun shone, the wind blew. 1570 was the only reality, and it was happening just where you’re sitting, reading this. Hundreds of millions of dramas and revelations and deaths have been acted out on every patch of this earth, and all of them are vanished. It seems inconceivable that those emotions left no trace. How appealing it is to imagine that they might have done, and that we might be able to replay those memories and see the past for ourselves.
It was perhaps because of my archaeologist’s training that I was unable to stop myself planting a small artefact in the story, an in-joke of my own. The architecture firm for which Billy works is named Sidgwick Barrett Price, a nod to the people whose ideas birthed stone tape theory. I think they would find it funny. If they don’t, I do hope they won’t come visiting.
— Alex Clark
Jane Alexander won the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition with ‘In Yon Green Hill to Dwell’. In the latest of our ‘Stories behind Stories‘ posts, here she is to tell us how she came to write it…
As so often happens, this story was formed from the coming-together of what I’d thought were two separate ideas.
I’d been trying for some time to write a story that jumped off from the 18th-century Border ballad ‘Tam Lin’. I’d first come across ‘Tam Lin’ as a teenager, when I read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock – a young adult novel that relocates the ballad to a contemporary setting. The women in 18th-century Scots ballads tend not to have a great time of it, often ending up murdered or executed – but ‘Tam Lin’ stands out for its protagonist: a woman who knew what she wanted, and took it. Though it’s named after the young man claimed by the Faerie Queen, the story it tells is that of his sweetheart Janet. It’s Janet who takes control of her destiny; who does as she pleases, goes where her father has forbidden her to go. It’s bold, steadfast Janet who rescues Tam from being sacrificed to the Devil. At the end of the ballad, it seems like happy ever after for Janet and Tam. But the end is also the beginning of the young couple’s life together, and I couldn’t help wondering what happens next. What happens when the adventure is over, and all the responsibilities of motherhood kick in?
I knew I wanted to write about this; but I kept getting stuck, abandoning draft after draft. I didn’t yet know what, exactly, I was writing about.
At around the same time I’d seen a call for submissions of stories inspired by particular songs, and I was trying to write about an old Billie Holiday track, ‘You’ve Changed’. Or rather, the song I wanted to write about was a cover by the Afghan Whigs. It’s a much darker version than Holliday’s. The singer reproaches his sweetheart for changing, growing indifferent to him – you’re bored of me in every way – but his voice gives him away: lazy, unfeeling, revelling in his own indifference; like there’s a chip of ice in his heart. What’s really changed, I think, is the singer’s impossibly romantic perception of his lover as a perfect angel. He’s blaming his partner for his own failings, and for being a flawed, ordinary human.
I listened to the song on repeat; wrote drafts and scrapped them, on repeat.
So what changed? One day, I sat down at my desk and realised that the two stories I was wrestling with might actually be a single story. In ‘Tam Lin’, Tam is literally changed, over and over again, transformed from a snake to a lion to a burning coal. He’s saved by Janet holding him fast: by her faith that he’ll change back to his human self. But fast forward seven years, and I imagined Janet playing that song to herself. You’re not the angel I once knew… Does she feel cheated because Tam is no longer the charismatic poet she fell for? Does she want him to change back into the man she first met? Is that even possible: to recover our younger selves, and the excitement, the thrill, of first falling in love, or in lust? Is it Janet, not Tam, who needs to change – or who already has?
Suddenly, the theme came into focus. And since short stories are always more potent when they’re as distilled, as concentrated as possible, compressing two stories into one made sense.
Pretty soon I knew how the whole thing would unfold, right up to Janet’s confrontation with the Faerie Queen. I knew she’d beg the Faerie Queen to change Tam one last time, change him back into the man who’d captured her heart. At least, I thought I knew. In the end, though, she did something completely different. Somehow, that singer’s chip of ice had ended up in my Janet’s heart.
Read Jane’s story in New Ghost Stories II, out now in paperback and Kindle.
Here’s Matt Plass to tell us about some of the ideas behind his story ‘Next to Godliness’, which appears in our anthology New Ghost Stories II.
To me, the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that they don’t exist.
In the song “God”, John Lennon lets us know that he doesn’t believe in (among other things) magic, I-Ching, tarot, Jesus, Buddha, mantra or Gita. To his list I would add sprites, spirits, faeries, ghouls, phantoms, spectres (at feasts or elsewhere), banshees, devil dogs, the undead, and of course ghosts.
I admit it’s a tragedy, not believing in visitors from beyond the veil. I know I’m missing out. I know my world is smaller than it could be. But that’s how belief works: you either believe in something or you don’t. And without belief, how do you approach the writing of a ghost story in a way that feels legitimate?
The answer, for me at least, is that you don’t.
There are, of course, countless examples of rational, well-adjusted, trustworthy and sober individuals convinced that they’ve encountered a spirit from beyond the grave. In fact, entire modern cultures believe that phantoms are as ‘real’ as the living. (Watch a Chinese martial arts movie—go on, I dare you!—and you’ll find that the human characters regularly bump into ghosts in the street, and converse with them as if such encounters are the most natural thing in the world.) I mustn’t forget, also, that many people—I’ll go out on a limb and suggest most people—believe in what Stephen King describes as ‘burnt toast’: when the bricks of a building retain a lingering memory of past deeds. It’s why you shiver in the murder house before you know it’s the murder house.
Despite all this, as a non-believer, I tend towards the view that a supernatural experience is essentially an aberration of the mind, a hallucination: drug-induced, psychotic, stress-related, or just the product of a virile and frustrated imagination. He imagined it. She saw it in a dream. Perhaps the subconscious likes to play tricks, conjuring our greatest desires or deepest fears as sights, sounds and feelings; our emotions made flesh. So the grieving widow sees the spirit of her lost husband weeding the forgotten rose garden. The man who abandoned his faith hears a scrape of cloven hooves from the attic overhead. The only-child passes two ghostly playmates each morning on the stairs as he hurries down to eat his cereal alone. Whatever the experience, the chances are it comes not from without but from within.
In ‘Next to Godliness’, a couple try to come to terms with the loss of a child. After a series of bizarre events, the mother starts to believe that their dear little girl is still with them in spirit. Look, she says to her husband, things are happening in this house that just cannot be explained. It’s her. It must be her! But what begins as a ghost story, develops into a psychological mystery. Because if it isn’t their daughter making things happen in the house, then who can it be..?
This transition from ‘what external force is making this happen?’ to ‘which one of us is making this happen? is where the business of ghosts becomes fascinating from a storytelling perspective. If a sane and rational person is convinced they’ve encountered a ghost, and you know there to be no such thing, then what you’re left with is a psychological mystery. And for me, a good psycho-mystery trumps the supernatural every time.
All that said, I love a good ghost yarn and I enjoyed the stories in New Ghost Stories II immensely. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to believe that the most fascinating thing about ghosts is that there aren’t any—until the day a ghost chooses to visit with me, and takes time out from its haunting schedule to scare me to my senses.
Meanwhile, for what it’s worth, unlike John Lennon I do believe in Beatles.
P.S. For writers, the British magazine Fortean Times can be a fantastic source of inspiration. It’s crammed with bizarre stories from around the world: UFO sighting, ghostly visitations, paranormal and supernatural activity. Take as a starting point that you are dealing with a psychological mystery, and the story starts to write itself…
Monday, 18th August 2014. There are no comments.
Here’s Mike Scott Thomson on the story behind his story ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw’:
It seems every time I log into Twitter or Facebook, someone has posted another soundbite about what it means to be a writer. You know the sort of thing. They’re usually scrawled in a large calligraphic font, plastered all over a grainy JPEG of a writing desk, computer keyboard, ink quill or, for some not entirely clear reason, a mountain panorama. Many of these I often dismiss as trite, but one which I’ve frequently noticed, and which does stick out in my mind, reads as follows:
“Writers see the mundane in the magical, and the magical in the mundane.”
This one is memorable to me because, like the narrator in my latest Fiction Desk story about a supermarket checkout worker, when I did the same job part-time in my teenage years, all I managed to see was the mundane in the mundane.
My outlook began to change when I started using the cheque-signing pens and misappropriated receipt rolls to jot down my thoughts and observations. Some of these I drew upon, half a lifetime later, into my story. However, listed below are a few extra snippets, precisely how I scribbled them in my spidery handwriting, way back when:
- Why is there never a J-cloth on your till when you need one? Yoghurt, strawberry juice, and olive oil cannot be cleaned up using your sleeve.
- Why do customers stand bottles on their ends? Ten bottles falling over at once on a moving conveyer belt sounds like a herd of elephants. And when they fall over, what do the customers do? Stand them back up again!
- Customer at checkout: “Excuse me, are you open?” This question is asked when the cashier is either a) doing sweet nothing in a particularly quiet period, or b) elbow deep in a litter bin, cloth in hand, bucket nearby, lights off, broom between legs.
- Are plastic milk bottles made of some kind of strange, intergalactic plastic substance that actually makes the milk seep through? Why are milk bottles so milky on the outside?
- Sorry, I don’t know what had happened to the Greek cheese with purple grape pips. I can only assume it has been taken off the shelves (wisely, by the sound of it).
Despite being gratified to now notice what must have been my first ever use of the Oxford comma, I can’t in all honesty say that some of my first written attempts at making sense of the world were all that articulate. Yet it was, of sorts, a start. Whilst I also can’t admit this dreary environment and monotonous job became in any way magical, in some small way things did become less mundane.
Several years later, the same supermarket is now opening a “local” branch in my home village. This was a contentious decision, and bitterly contested, centred mainly on the fact that there was no demand, or space, for it. Yet the numerous objections were to no avail. Now they’ve knocked down two old buildings, are constructing their own standardised affair, and will be launching shortly. Already in the high street is an award-winning grocer’s shop: vibrant, unique, and full of local character. I hope, as does the village, that the presence of this new retail giant won’t force it to go out of business. But it has made me wonder what happens to small retailers when, as so often happens, they are driven out. My Fiction Desk story is one such imagining.
Does it, as the intro notes to my story suggest, end with a flash of optimism, or a descent into Orwellian darkness? I can certainly say I had no dystopian imagery when I was writing it. But it’s interesting to note that 1984 is one of my favourite books, and that I would have read it for the first time not long before starting my supermarket job. So, could it have influenced me? I guess in my story, the main character uses, in his own way, a variety of doublethink to adjust to the new reality in which he finds himself. But, is it acceptance? Is it compromise? Those are, I think, questions best answered by the reader.
Personally, the following minutiae particularly intrigues me. Did I really not know until a few moments ago that the chestnut (as per the “spreading chestnut tree” in the closing lines of 1984), is actually a fruit? When I started work on my story, did I ever anticipate examining, more closely than perhaps prudent, the trays of papaya in the local supermarkets? And did I also imagine studying, surreptitiously and with said fruit at the forefront of my mind, the backs of motor vehicles? (This was, I hasten to point out, purely in the name of hypothetical research, and I never actually did what transpired in the story.)
What I do know is that there is no vocation, other than being a writer, which can personally inspire me to look at the world so askew. It’s not quite putting the magical in the mundane… but I surely owe some thanks to those incalculable hours I spent on checkout number eleven, all those years ago.
— Mike Scott Thomson
Read ‘I Say Papaya, You Say Pawpaw’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.
In our latest ‘Stories behind Stories’ post, here’s Alex Clark on her experiences as an industrial archaeologist, and how they inspired her spooky tale ‘The Stamp Works’.
Somewhere in Sheffield, some time around 2005, I walked across the charred floor of the Stamp Works.
It wasn’t called that, of course. I’ll pretend I won’t name it for legal reasons, although actually it’s because I’ve forgotten its name. It was a typical site, a derelict factory complex. I was there with three other archaeologists, sent to record the works before it was demolished.
The room in question was on the first storey. We had come to it on our way through the site which, like most factories of its age, had developed organically until it was a jumbled labyrinth of sheds, offices and workshops. In order to enter the next set of buildings we needed to climb a set of stairs, cross a room, and descend the other side.
The problem was the floor. It was a sagging timber funnel centred on a black hole. Joist stumps stuck out of the edges of the break where the fire had come through. At the weight of a footfall, the whole thing bounced like a boat in choppy water.
The two senior members of our team, experienced in this kind of situation, weighed it up and decided we’d walk round the edge of the room, sticking to the walls where the joists were most secure. The first time I did this was very, very scary. By the end of a week on site, however, I wouldn’t think twice about nipping back over the same floor to pick up another roll of film. In my story, it’s fear that leads the narrator into a dangerous situation. In real life, it’s familiarity that’s the real hazard.
I worked for five years as an historic buildings archaeologist. Almost all of the buildings I worked on were industrial, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Forget Time Team: what most archaeologists in the country do is work commercially, which means they’re paid by developers to fulfil the legal obligation to record remains before they’re destroyed or altered.
When it comes to buildings, those remains are rarely anything very pretty. They’ve probably not been in use for ten or twenty years, often longer. The pigeons will have moved in. If you’re unlucky the squatters will have found a way in too. Like ghosts, they flit through the buildings, following complex routes (out through a first-floor window, across a lean-to roof, into a yard) which have nothing to do with the shuttered doors.
Once, in the middle of an entire block of abandoned houses in a blighted Lancashire town, I left my rucksack in the next room and returned to find my bank cards stolen. For four streets there was nothing but wasteland, and yet we were not alone. On the same site, I was busy drawing inside a vacant shop when my partner came running in, alarmed. ‘Did you see him?’ she said. I’d seen no-one. Whoever he was, he had walked behind me and out of the back of the building. We didn’t know where he came from. We didn’t know where he went. He was leading a parallel life to ours, seeing a different world, walking invisibly along secret paths. And what is that if not a haunting?
It was as a result of all of this that I conceived the idea of writing a ghost story set in an abandoned factory. As a keen fan of MR James, I loved stories of uncanny places with supernatural guardians. The old works I had seen seemed like the natural modern location for a slightly old-fashioned chilling ghost story: monumental, decaying, full of Gothic horror and adventure. It was a few years before I got round to actually getting it down on paper, but the result was ‘The Stamp Works’.
The description of the works itself came quickly: I’ve been to all of it. Not in the same place, or at the same time, but it’s all real. The stories that the narrator tells, too, are all real. They really did used to hang wallpaper with animal glue, and when the rain gets in, the resultant mushrooms really are a perfect yellow. In fact, the only thing in the Stamp Works that I’ve never encountered is the ghost.
When I came to write it, the story emerged rapidly, almost fully formed. I suspect that it had been sitting in my subconscious, incubating, for a few years. Though I didn’t direct its development – I certainly don’t recall plotting it – I can pinpoint the moment when I first thought of the idea of a ghost in a decaying factory.
The site was an old cutlery works. There were two of us sent to record it. It was a tortuous place, with only one entrance at the very end of a long, meandering series of boarded workshops. The doors were offset, so that within a few rooms of the entrance we totally lost sight of daylight. We picked our way through the dust, debris and bird corpses, lighting our way with a single torch, until my partner stopped abruptly and made an annoyed noise.
‘What’s up?’ I said.
‘I forgot the extension cable,’ he said. ‘If you stay here I’ll head back and get it now.’
He turned and wound his way back across the workshop, the bobbing light of the torch receding until, abruptly, it passed through a doorway and was extinguished.
I stood rooted to the spot, trying to stay calm. It was five minutes to the entrance, so ten at least until he came back. The darkness was complete. To the left of me, I heard a stealthy rustling, just on the edge of audibility.
‘It’s just birds,’ I said to myself, as I strained my eyes for the returning light. ‘Just birds.’
— Alex Clark
Read ‘The Stamp Works’ in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook editions.
Here’s Richard Smyth with some thoughts on writing in the first person. Richard’s new novel, Wild Ink, is out now.
‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.’
– TS Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’
Yeah – who is the third? Who is that, bookending dialogue with he-saids and she-saids, commentating on proceedings with a curiously proper and well-spoken detachment, mind-reading without explanation, casually omniscient, incomprehensibly well-informed, inhumanly objective? Who are these Third People, and what are they doing in our novels?
I do most of my writing in the first person. My first novel, Wild Ink, is narrated by its main protagonist, the horridly decrepit but reliably wry Albert Chaliapin. My stories for The Fiction Desk, ‘Crying Just Like Anybody’ and ‘Chalklands’, adopted first-person perspectives, too. I’d seldom ever really stopped to wonder why – why have I so often preferred to step into my characters’ shoes, instead of maintaining a decent distance, an appropriate remove?
The way in which language is used on a word-by-word sentence-level basis – style, to use a rather loaded word for it – is very important to me. Writing your stories from inside a character’s head gives you almost unlimited stylistic freedom. Turns of phrase and figures of speech can be used that, coming from the pen of an unidentified third-person narrator, would invite unhelpful questions about who on earth is telling this story, and why they talk the way they do. Complex, original language creates, just by existing, a speaker, a person, a character; do this with a nameless third-person narrator and you will be thought to be playing postmodern games with the reader.
It’s a little unfair, of course. There’s seldom any secret about who is telling the story: their name is right there on the title page. Any quirks of language, flights of invention or unexpected editorialising come, of course, from them.
But modern literature shies away from the self-identifying storyteller. And ‘shy’ is the word: it feels unseemly, importunate, to step into the story one is telling with a bold Dickensian ‘I’; for the modern author, it seems to invite the rebuke ‘Who on earth do you think you are?’ – meant either literally, in the assumption that the author is creating an ‘author’ character, that the narrator is not Richard Smyth but ‘Richard Smyth’, or figuratively and indignantly, to suggest that the author has overstepped the mark. Sure, some writers – Anthony Burgess, James Joyce – get away with it, pushing stylistic limits in third-person narration without ever explaining how or why. But, well, we aren’t all Burgess or Joyce.
Distinctions between first and third persons are not necessarily clear-cut. There are many instances of authors breaking the bonds imposed by third-person conventions by narrating through a secondary character – to each Jay Gatsby his Nick Carraway, to each Ahab his Ishmael. This gives the work an additional layer, another dimension; we are invited to view one character through the filter of another, a double refraction of reality. The catch here is that the narrator – while they may digress, switch between narratives, shift focus from character to character and indulge in other such authorial perks – may not be omniscient.
That may or may not be a problem. Only a true know-all can narrate War And Peace. In other novels, it’s necessary for the narrator to be in the dark (like John Self in Money, for instance).
Personally, I want to be where the fireworks are. I want to know first-hand what Gatsby’s going through. I want to read Ahab’s inner monologue! I want to get as close to the action as I possibly can, which often means taking one’s seat in between the character’s ears – even though what one sees in there might not be particularly pleasant. Good first-person narration brings you face to face with an honest and flawed humanity (if it’s honest, it’s inevitably flawed). For me, that’s really what fiction is for.
— Richard Smyth
In the latest post of our ‘Stories behind Stories’ series, here’s Sarah Evans to tell us about the process of writing ‘Mission to Mars: an A-Z Guide’.
With a long standing interest in physics (I was a theoretical physicist long before I started crafting stories) the idea of space travel has always been fascinating.
Last year, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination prompted the airing of various TV documentaries about the first moon landing and, coincidently, I came across a web article looking at various projects – public and private – to send manned (possibly one-way) missions to Mars. Taken together, my imagination was immediately sparked.
The process of writing never takes a single path. Occasionally I move smoothly from initial idea to a coherent first draft. Other times writing is far more chaotic. A bit like solving a physics or maths problem: sometimes you ‘get it’ straight off; and other times you don’t. This time, I certainly didn’t. I started writing all sorts of scenes. Some on earth, others on Mars. Churning out wordcount was fine – loads to play with. But nothing settled. My document (labelled, unimaginatively, ‘Mars’) reached 9,000 words and counting. But I still didn’t know, not really, who my narrator was, I didn’t have a structure, and though I knew ‘what happened’ I was failing to inject any kind of suspense or surprise. The whole thing felt unremittingly dreary. How could a ‘Mission to Mars’ feel so boring?
Time for a major rethink.
Back in my days as a budding physicist, I couldn’t abide any of what I termed ‘waffle subjects’, by which I meant any school subject where answers to questions contained more words than equations. I loved reading in my spare time, but hated (really hated) writing myself, whether that was creative writing or essays. ‘Sarah doesn’t like long answers,’ my physics teacher once said. And that pretty much summed me up at the time.
Since (inexplicably) finding the urge to write fiction about eight years ago, I’ve learned the pleasures of churning out words and – as I would have termed it – waffle. But succinctness and precision play a big role in writing too. It’s hardly unusual for me to reduce initial wordcount by twenty, thirty, fifty percent. It’s less usual to reduce something ninefold.
But that’s what happened here.
The idea of a contrived structure – following the alphabet – isn’t entirely new and neither is it something that would generally appeal to me. I can’t really identify what it was that triggered the idea. Perhaps it had something to do with spotting our copy of Primo Levi’s ‘Periodic table’ on our shelves, or maybe the sight of my friend Rob Pateman’s book, ‘The second life of Amy Archer’, which has an A to Z section too. In any case, solutions to problems – be they mathematical or literary – are sometimes like that: the way in comes to you a bit out of the blue. Somehow the (highly unoriginal) phrase ‘A is for apple’ came to mind, alongside the idea that eating fresh produce was something astronauts might miss.
And so it started.
Initially, I had no idea if I’d be able to get through the entire alphabet or not, though amidst those 9,000 words most letters got a look in from time to time. I still worried about how on earth (or Mars) I’d handle those awkward letters at the end.
But once I got off the ground, the whole thing become fun and ideas began to flow. Writing certainly wasn’t linear; I moved freely back and forth through the alphabet, it was still too long, but at last I had something I could play with and refine.
Once it was more or less there, I then had to ask myself, but is it any good? Usually I have some sort of an idea whether I’m pleased with something or not, and whether something is worth sending out on submission. This time was much harder to judge.
Bravado won out.
And I’m very glad it did. I’m delighted for my Mission to Mars to be launched by The Fiction Desk.
Read Mission to Mars: an A-Z Guide in our anthology There Was Once a Place, out now in paperback and ebook.
I wanted to write a ghost story about failure. Not high stakes failure, but a long defeat. Boxers carry failure so openly, when a boxer loses it’s written through cuts, gashes and broken bones. To lose a fight is to be taken apart, on a well-lit stage with a crowd baying for your blood. So many boxers in this country (the so called ‘Journeymen’ of the title) go in to lose, and this story started with my fascination with that long, conscious failure.
I have boxed competitively for a few years now. It isn’t my natural world but it has been startling. A quick introduction to the level of violence inside yourself.
The story itself, the initial moment with the bath, came from a boxer I used to train with. He was the king of journeymen, almost every week he went into the ring and lost. He is probably also one of the best boxers I’ve ever worked with (and I have worked with boxers without a defeat on their records and with nice shiny belts on their walls).
He was generous enough to let me use that image and I made a different person around that idea of going in and getting beaten up for a living. And the more profound and relatable failure was a man unable to connect to his sons, losing them and himself with fear closing in. But, that whole time, trying really hard. I’m more scared of that than any dead thing.
For this story, all that work boxing for all these years was great research. A little transformation, taking ‘being hit’ into ‘being creative’. Before you go in to box you wrap your hands. You take a few metres of soft, slightly stretchy cloth and encase your knuckles before you even get to putting on gloves. You do this because, physiologically, hands are meant not for hitting, but to hold.
I can’t imagine this will be the last story about boxing I write. It’s a process that takes me to what scares me, in and outside myself.
The cover for New Ghost Stories, our sixth anthology, is pretty straightforward, but also a little bit revolutionary — at least by our standards. The covers for the first five volumes were simple photographs, with very little processing. They followed fixed rules: everything had to be in front of the camera, and only paper and the written — or printed — word could be featured in the photograph. New Ghost Stories was originally intended to follow those rules, but ended up breaking them in a last-minute rush to get the files to the printers.
The original plan was to repeat the cover design from our first anthology, Various Authors, but with gravestones in place of the figures from the original cover.
Where the text on the cover of Various Authors is a rambling mission statement for the series, the text on New Ghost Stories is an equally rambling, stream-of-consciousness ghost story, made up on the spur of the moment to fill the page. (Don’t worry: the cover is the only place in a Fiction Desk anthology where you’re likely to find much in the way of stream-of-consicousness prose.)
However, when the gravestones were cut out, they didn’t really work as well as the original figures had: there’s something, well, lifeless about gravestones, even with the addition of the bird from Richard Smyth’s story (er, top left).
With a couple of hours to go before the files were due at the printers, there wasn’t time to start a new design from scratch. I ended up flattening the gravestones back down into the paper, and taking various shots of the text. I layered these on the computer with varying levels of opacity, altering the colours and inverting the top layer. There was a brief flirtation with the use of a ribbon to hold the title — see the photo at the top of this post — and the cover went off to the printers with minutes to spare.
It could have wound up as a complete dog’s breakfast, but actually I’m rather pleased with the cover of New Ghost Stories. And breaking the rules once has set a precedent for the future. Anything could happen… now, where’s my scalpel?
Julia Patt’s story ‘At Glenn Dale’ opens our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories. Here, she talks about legend tripping and the real hospital that inspired the story.
Abandoned buildings have a kind of gravity.
I don’t mean seriousness—I mean a gravitational pull, not unlike that of a planet. A drawing in. Not everyone notices, but it’s there, something beckoning, saying: ‘Just one look… don’t you want to see?’
The really powerful places are the ones with a lot of history, maybe even a whole mythology around them, some of it true, most of it not. And those sites attract legend trippers: teenagers and young adults daring each other to take one step further inside, just a little closer to the shadows. Those are the places where kids go to prove themselves.
Like Glenn Dale.
Yes, it’s a real place, it really did serve as a TB hospital during the twentieth century, and it has stood empty for over thirty years. For a while, it seemed like the state was going to knock it down, but so far it has lingered, slowly collapsing of its own accord. I grew up about ten minutes from the hospital grounds, just outside of Washington, DC. As a teenager, I probably frequented Glenn Dale half a dozen times—a total dilettante by my protagonist Danny Fitzer’s standards. But even if you only venture there once, the hospital sticks in your imagination. Not only for what it is now and was then, but for the stories people tell about it, especially the ones that aren’t, strictly speaking, historically accurate. (I’m personally fond of the mental institution yarns.)
Starting this story—eight years ago now—I knew I wanted to write about Glenn Dale, but I never wanted to write about my own experiences with it. Nor did I really want to recount its history; that kind of nonfiction never seems to do the hospital justice. So I went for fiction.
Unsurprisingly, my first attempt fell far short. I’d tried to wedge a story into the setting. By the end of it, Glenn Dale took over the whole affair and completely overshadowed my characters and their concerns. I tossed the draft and wrote other stories for a while.
Then, during a visit home, I returned to the hospital, wandered around the buildings, and narrowly avoided getting scolded by the policeman who patrols the grounds on a daily basis (sorry, sixteen-year-old self). It occurred to me in the middle of walking the corridors and reading the various graffiti that I needed a protagonist who loved Glenn Dale. Who would go back to the hospital again and again, searching out its mysteries. Who did want to see, who would linger in the dark longer than everyone else.
In other words, I needed Danny Fitzer, who is not one particular boy from high school, but several, many of them legend trippers, all of them wanting to be the bravest and the coolest, which Glenn Dale gave them, in its way. But of course, I thought, that requires danger, real danger.
The earliest version of ‘At Glenn Dale’ began to evolve after that. There was still the matter of my pseudo-antagonist, Mark Dooley, and the hospital itself, which became like a third character in the story, and I spent much of my writing time trying to get the details of the place just right. This became another source of difficulty, as a mentor of mine pointed out: ‘You know, X would be a much stronger detail if it were really Y.’
‘But that’s not how it is,’ I would stubbornly insist.
Which is the trouble for all writers when we set out to depict real places, real people, and real events. There is the tension between telling it like it is and telling a good story. Real places are often inconvenient and annoyingly inflexible when it comes to layout and history. And although I had notes and pictures, even my memories and impressions of the hospital were inaccurate. I emailed and called a few of my friends to ask if they remembered such and such room or hallway or building.
They gave me different, sometimes contradictory answers. And the more we talked, the more I understood that my Glenn Dale was not everyone’s Glenn Dale. That all of us remembered the hospital a little differently, remembered even our shared stories differently. And the real often blurred with the legend, what we had heard blending with what we knew.
I stopped fussing over minutiae after that and made changes where it seemed beneficial. Consequently, the Glenn Dale in ‘At Glenn Dale’ belongs not to me or my friends or the historical record, but to Danny Fitzer and the story’s narrators.
And, of course, the ghosts.