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Friday, 12 January 2018

Remembering Carolyn Cassady

Carolyn in her kitchen, around 2009

I've just put out, as an e-publication, an article I wrote in 2014 for Beat Scene (a magazine published three or four times a year in the UK.)

It's a reflective piece about my ten-year friendship with Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal (Dean Moriarty in On The Road) and former lover of Jack Kerouac.

It reveals how I met her, how we became friends, and delves into the lengthy correspondence we shared during her final years.

There are some surprising insights into her own life, also a few snapshot scene from some of my visits with her in her home.  

It's called simply, Carolyn Cassady and Me, runs to about 10,000 words, and is available for Kindle at 99p (£1.34 in the USA). Try it - amzn.to/2Fzsniv.

 

Sunday, 24 December 2017

First Signs of Spring


Well, here we are in the new solar year. When we were out walking this afternoon we noticed the catkins already displayed on the hazel bushes, and were remarking how Nature is never really dormant, least of all in our mild island climate.

 
Spotted in Yorkshire, 19th December 2017

Having said that, I was stunned to see these snowdrops in bloom last week. We were in Horsforth, outside Leeds, and this was still three days before the solstice. I generally expect to see the first of them around the third week of January, depending on the kind of year it is.

Of course, the best (or worst) of winter is yet to come. For me, ‘best’ would include some decent frosts and two or three feet of snow; and just because we have reached the turn of the year with no more than a dusting of the white stuff, that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. The legendary winter of 1947 (a little while before I was born) didn’t actually get going until the end of January, after which the heavy snows and persistent frosts made everyone’s life in those austere, fuel-deprived times, a misery -  although it was offset by one of the best summers of the century.

Well, I thought my snowdrops might bring a little cheer to anyone who sees them. And if they don’t, let me wish all my readers a very happy Christmas and a prosperous 2018.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Literary Fiction: is it a special case?


I have worked in many places (here in a motel room in Arizona)
‘The image of the impoverished writer scratching out their masterpiece in a freezing garret….’ Now there was an opening line guaranteed to grab my attention. I have been impoverished through most of my writing career. I have lived in an attic, and I have written in some very uncomfortable places – in factory canteens, working men’s cafés, freight train brake-vans, at the wheel of a (stationary) Bedford van parked up by sewage works in rural North Lincolnshire where I used to lay rat-poison, and on one memorable occasion up a tree in the Terrace Gardens, Richmond upon Thames. Many of these locations were cold, some were hot, several smoky, all uncomfortable. I don’t claim to have been carving out too many masterpieces, but I was certainly writing: taking notes, making observations and recording conversations. Gathering material.

 

So this article was clearly going to say something to me. I settled in my chair and read on. This image (of the impoverished writer), I was assured, ‘remains as true today as it was a century ago, according to a report commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE).’ And it went on to state that, because authors are getting less and less of the publishing pie, ACE propose to support more individual authors… and to increase its support for independent literary fiction publishers.

 

Why did I feel, immediately, that I wanted to take issue with this? Why do I still feel prickly? I have given it some thought, and I dare say I will give it more. But, for the moment, here are a few things that occur to me.

 

One, I would like to know how ‘literary fiction’ is defined -  at least by ACE. If they’re going to be throwing money at it, I’d like to get in on the action. Two, why does it deserve greater support than any other form of writing? I would question that, instinctively. Close to thirty years ago I spent a year at the University of New Mexico as part of my bachelor’s degree. I attended graduate level creative writing classes. I assumed then that being a writer, certainly within a higher educational context, meant being a literary writer, churning out high minded, cerebral stuff. I was in for a surprise.

 

When I attended my first workshop I found myself surrounded by writers, aged 18 to 65, whose subject matter ranged from prison memoirs to drug-running thrillers, a domestic saga set in suburban Albuquerque, a bildungsroman which told the story of the author’s running away to join a circus as the snake-woman, an epic and erotic trilogy based around a Hindu temple prostitute in India at the time of Alexander the Great’s incursions and, amongst several others that I barely recall, a fantasy about hot-rodders pursued by witches in the mountains outside Santa Fe. I thought all this rather strange – until it was pointed out to me that I, with my long sentences and introspection, my avoidance of what you might call action, was the odd one out. And, much as people professed to enjoy my elevated diction, they did occasionally ask, ‘Doesn’t your main character ever get laid or get into fights?’ When one of the class told me that his main writing ambition was to make money, to be the next Stephen King, I caused an outbreak of mirth by asking, in all innocence, ‘Who’s he?’

 

Later I took the MA at the U of East Anglia. The big one. To this day people ask me what I learned there, and the truth is I cannot tell them. So when I read, as part of this same article, an assertion by Will Self that creative writing programmes are a force for conformity and lack of experimentation, I paused to reflect. I really don’t think I was taught a damned thing at UEA – although, in fairness to the late Malcolm Bradbury, he did tell me, in an interview I conducted a few years later, that all he wanted to do in setting up the course was to give writers a year in which to be free to write. And that’s what I did, cranking out thousands upon thousands of words every week and balking at the almost insignificant academic component they shoe-horned into the year. God, how I resented that!

 

But we come back to that question, what is it that annoys me about this talk of literary fiction as a special case? I think there are two main things. One is that, over the past 25 years, I have had to earn my living as a writer by taking whatever job pays the bills. Of all my fellow graduates from 1988-89 (there were ten of us) I am, by one measure, the most successful. I have kept afloat almost exclusively by practising my craft. The cost, however, has been that while I have written over two dozen books, many of those have been ghosted for other people and appeared under their names; a handful more have been self-published and mostly sold in the States (I have a small fan-base in Nebraska); and so far I have produced but a single novel – it came out this year. I cannot tell you whether that is literary or not. Probably not, although there are a few long words in it. But my next one -  that may be.

 

My second objection to this placing literary fiction on a plinth and to suggesting that its purveyors are worthy of another slice of ACE largesse is that I strongly support the idea that all artists ought to be thrown out of their workplaces from time to time and made to engage with the wider world. Great art comes from direct experience - you might say elemental experience - and the great failing of many an artist today, I suspect, is that they rarely leave the refined atmosphere of the studio, the workshop, the study. If they make a success early on in their career they are often doomed to repeat ever paler versions of that first novel/movie/song for the rest of their careers. One of the first things I learned during my brief career as a writer for a TV soap was that I should avoid solving our characters’ problems, rather that we should enrich the drama of their lives by lobbing the odd shell in their direction. Artists need the same treatment. As a professional writer, I have often fallen on barren times and had to take part-time work – as a barman, a bookie, a lab assistant in the sugar-beet factory – just to stay afloat. I have had to work for entrepreneurs of every stripe, for at least one ex-criminal, for a bounty hunter and a professional sportsman, and while there have been frustrations attached to those deviant passages they have, by and large, expanded my experience and extended my education as a writer. Despite having sold what were unquestionably literary short stories thirty years ago, I never really discovered that I could write fiction until I was asked (and paid, very well paid) to write a sci-fi novel on behalf of a  multi-millionaire Chinese businessman a few years ago. (Trust me, when you’re out there, and desperate, weird things can happen – and thank goodness they do. How else could I have ended up writing a sitcom with a sky-diving Elvis impersonator?)

 

I’m not sure this is entirely coherent. I was never sure it would be. But the article stirred something up in me. Resentment? Envy? Irritation? I’m not sure. But I feel a bit better now. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Adulterous goings on with the shiny new Virgin

One of the stand-out memories from my latest western trip: the Spanish mission ruins at Abo, Salinas and Gran Quivira

 

Being on the road for a month is all very well. Getting back into some kind of groove thereafter - well, you'd think that after three weeks everything would be running smoothly. Not so.

My big mistake was deciding to change my mobile phone supplier. I've never been a massive fan of Virgin, nor their founder, Richard Branson. I don’t like his chummy style – his insistence on referring to his workforce as ‘the Guys’, and his habit of addressing me with a too-familiar ‘Hi Alan’. I would complain that we’ve never met, but that would be telling a lie, and my grandmother taught me that if I insisted on uttering falsehoods I would be turned away from the Pearly Gates.

Branson and I did meet, once, when he interviewed me for a job. It was in 1969, and he was recruiting students to flog his magazine on the streets of London. You would get rained on, frozen, shouted at – but you would pocket a portion of the receipts. I thought he was a wide-boy, a chancer, a conman heading nowhere fast. I declined.

Anyway, I swore I would ditch Virgin some months ago, after a long phone call during which they agreed to upgrade my phone and re-draft my contract. It ended when they said they would ‘just check my creditworthiness’ and reported back that my grandmother was right, all those years ago: I truly was not worthy. (It seems that to get a decent rating you need to have taken out lots of loans at exorbitant interest rates.)

We got over that eventually, and I consented, warily, to go through the process once more. It didn’t
take them long to annoy me all over again (it ain’t hard, trust me) and I decided to seek the favours of another supplier who was making seductive noises.

Like most people who dabble in infidelities, I very soon found myself in deep water. By Tuesday
morning I was juggling three separate phones – the used Virgin, the ‘shiny new’ Virgin upgrade, and the inevitable cuckoo in the nest: an offering from EE. Worse – and every adulterer’s worst nightmare - none of them functioned. It took me two full days to unravel it, and am mightily relieved to have done so, even if I do feel about fourteen years older (not what you want to feel at my age, I can assure you).

So, back at the desk, reflecting on my tour, and looking ahead. I have manuscripts to read, final edits to make to the biography of Eric Knight – on which I will write at some length as publication date approaches – and plans to draw up for a new piece of biographical work which may soon be coming my way. That would be the life story of a Welsh Member of Parliament (retired). I’m not sure how gripping his political career will seem, but I am intrigued by the fact that he was born in the Depression, the youngest of an enormous family of miners. I look forward to travelling west to see him in a few weeks’ time and get an outline picture of what must have been an extraordinary progress.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Winding up my tour at the Nebraska Writers Guild Fall Conference

A view outside The Leadership Center in Aurora, NE; it seemed especially appropriate to my last-but-one destination on a four-week tour.

 
I am back home. Arrived yesterday lunchtime, slept almost 13 hours last night, and feel 'as right as ninepence'. (Even most Brits are unfamiliar with that simile, so my American friends don't need to feel inadequate. It appears to have its roots in the mid-17th century, when there was a nine-penny coin in circulation, and the original phrase was 'nice as ninepence'.)

Anyway... back to the tour, before it all blurs in the memory. I thought the Nebraska Writers Guild Fall Conference was a thrilling event. About eighty attendees, plus several members of the public. Number one, I was staggered by the level of experience, talent, ambition and accomplishment amongst those present - and consequently nervous about addressing them on 'my remarkable career'. The more people I met, the less remarkable I felt. Number two, I was overwhelmed by the generous and welcoming mood. I was received so warmly.

When I took the podium at 0845h on Saturday morning, I spoke about the two strands which have woven together to make me the writer I am: firstly, the experiences I gathered as a young man, working some 40-50 jobs while figuring out how to be a writer, and then the many ways in which I have earned a crust as a professional since the early 1990s. I raised a few laughs. Even got away with a risqué story from my days in a steam laundry when, as a fresh-faced 14-year-old, I heard two 50-something women discussing contraception.

I sold quite a few books too - albeit at discounted prices. There was no way I was going to be able to fit any leftovers in my suitcase, which was already perilously close to being over-weight when I flew in.

And then came one of those 'from the sublime to the ridiculous' moments. My final gig was to be a reading from 'Cody, The Medicine Man and Me' in downtown Lincoln. I was ready, I had a dozen copies of the novel with me, and a favourite pen in my top pocket. Only one problem: nobody showed up. I'd heard of such stories over the years, and always wondered how bad it might feel. The answer is, not quite as bad as I feared. In fact, as we got to the appointed hour I found myself hoping nobody would show. Or rather, please not just a single person. How would I handle that? I suppose I could point to the fact that Garth Brooks the country singer was in town, giving eight shows over the weekend... but that would be pretty lame.

Another mood-reflecting shot, downtown Lincoln, Saturday evening

Over the next few days I shall have to evaluate the whole enterprise. And I am sure I will decide it was well worth it. I remind myself that even failures are stories. More so disasters.