Monday, December 29, 2008

Back from the Blazing Desert

Well, not really. Actually we ended up with a White Christmas.

Here's the view from our hotel of Mount San Jacinto (known locally as "San Jack," though given the Spanish name I suppose they really ought to call it "San Hack"). Of course, since San Jack stretchs up more than 10,800 feet (3,300+ meters for those so inclined), snow atop the mountain is nothing to get excited about. It can be blistering down on the valley floor when when the mountaintop is snowy.

The Southern California mountains are island ecosystems, where the Ice Age vegetation retreated uphill as the climate warmed. You can travel just a few miles (usually rather strenuous miles) and go from cactus and palm trees to towering pines and trout streams. California is truly one of the most dramatic and diverse of the world's landscapes; all of this elevation is less than 100 miles from our house down at sea level. Of course, there's a price to pay: the amazing elevation changes are a result of the fault-fractured geology; the hot mineral springs beneath our hotel are generated from snow melt sinking down through the sands and being cooked in the famous San Andreas fault, which runs from here 500 miles northwest to create the big hole known as the San Francisco Bay. There's some real knock-you-on-your-butt earthquakes in these parts.

I grew up--well, insofar as I did grow up--about forty miles from here, which by California standaards makes this my back yard. My favorite bit of it--especially in my drug-addled teens--was Joshua Tree National Park (which back in those days wasn't a National Park yet; just another part of the Big Empty). Here's a pic of some of the endless acres of rock formations at Joshua Tree. A Salvador Dali landscape; mix in some psychedelics for a little color and you're in Max Ernst country.

If any of this looks familiar from gun battles in cowboy movies, that's because plenty were filmed around here--even though they were usually pretending to be in big flat places like Texas or Kansas. And although you can picture sweaty gunslingers in this scene, in fact it was intolerably cold, and when we drove just a few miles further towards Key's View, the ground was covered with snow:

Somehow Joshua Trees just don't look right in the snow. Maybe a few Christmas ornaments would help?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sam's A to Z

I've been meaning to plug Sam Hayes' great series of posts on writing ever since a post by Neil Ayres pointed me to them some time back. But, then I've also been meaning to lose some weight, pick up all the books piled next to our bed, and mow the side yard, and those haven't happened either.

But sending you off to her posts is something I can do without too much trouble, so here it is at last. Her first in the series is A is for Agent, and an impressive tale of rejection it is, even to hardened, jaded types like myself. She's up to F is for Foreign Rights now. (There's a sidebar on her blog that allows you to click through to any of the posts in the series.)

Sue Grafton*, author of the Kinsey Millhone alphabetic mysteries, once said she wished someone had reminded her that there were twenty-six letters in the alphabet. (Janet Evanovich faces an even more daunting task, as there are an infinite number of integers, and she's only up to Fearless Fourteen. One can only look forward to such titles as Sesquipedalian Sixty-Seven and Excessive Eight Thousand Eight Hundred and Eighty-Eight.) But twenty-six blog posts isn't an insurmountable challenge for a steady blogger like Sam, and I imagine she'll get through it in a year or two.

I'm looking forward to the remaining twenty.

Meanwhile, we're off to Miracle Hot Springs in the nearby desert, where we will be soaking in hot water and staring at the stars until the Xmas madness subsides. Happy Holidays, y'all.

*I enjoy Grafton's novels, but I was disappointed when she didn't title her third book C is for Stupid. How often do you get a chance like that?

She's out around "T" these days, I believe, and there's much speculation on the fast-approaching "X".

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Question I'm Sure We're All Pondering

As the holidays arrive and 2008 draws to a close, I'm sure that most of us, at least in North America and Europe, are all pondering the same eternal question: Which is the dumbest Christmas song?

Now, I'm not asking myself which is the most annoying. That's a matter of taste, and my feelings shift each time we venture out into public places. (At the moment, I'd have to say that I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, with its smarmy faux-naive kid voice and sappy tune is the most annoying...but that's because I was recently exposed to it in a store.) But dumbest seems as is it ought to be quantifiable.

Any song (and there are quite a few) that requires the chorus to sing "Ding" "Dong" "Ding" "Dong" is a clear contender for dumb. But that's a rather pedestrian form of dumbness. I'm looking for something more preposterous.

Do You Hear What I Hear? is a serious contender. I have problems with this song first because the meter and beats of the chorus:

Do you hear what I hear?
aaaaa(Do you hear what I hear...?)
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy?

fit so perfectly with the annoying late 1800s Polly Wolly Doodle:

Polly Wolly Doodle--
aaaaa(Polly Wolly Doodle...)
Polly Wolly Doodle all the day...

(Try singing it to the melody of Do You Hear What I Hear? Fits like an epidermis.)

This oddity doesn't necessarily make it dumb (though it does make it annoying, as it leaves me humming Polly Wolly Doodle all the day--at least until some other brain-worm forces it from skull). What makes Do You Hear What I Hear? genuinely stupid is the lines:

A Child, a Child, shivers in the cold;
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold.

Uh-huh. Good thinking. Makes sense the same way that if you heard about a baby starving, you'd rush to bring him a skateboard and a philodendron. Silver and gold? Something in the way of a blanket or little footie pajamas or a hot water bottle might be nice. Furs, even, if you need to engage in conspicuous consumption. Ice-cold metal isn't going to do anybody any immediate good. Dumb.

But in my estimation, the dumbest song has to be The Little Drummer Boy. Just think about it for a minute. First of all, we have to accept the idea of some impoverished urchin wandering the streets of Bethlehem beating on a drum. This doesn't sound charming to me; it sounds deranged. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum? No. Drums go BOOM-DA-BOOM-DA WHAM WHAM WHAM! or, in the case of snare drums, RATTATTA-TATTATTA-TAT-TAT-TAT! This kid would have been nabbed long before by the residents and taken out and fed to the wolves. You can't have both Silent Night (which I rather like) and The Little Drummer Boy, not in the same universe.

And then we have an exhausted Joseph and Mary, who've been forced to bed down in a stable because there's no room at the inn (be sure to make reservations over the holidays). Mary, without the benefits of modern medicine or happy pills, has just given birth, a process I am given to understand is a bit trying under the best of circumstances.

Mary and Joseph might make allowances for Three Magi bearing expensive gifts, even if they'd really rather not have visitors. (What happened to all those valuable gifts, by the way? The gospels than mention the Nativity--giving rather conflicting accounts--don't say what happened to the loot. I mean, did it go into his college fund, or what?)

Magi bearing gifts? Fine. But there has never been a mother anywhere who would have tolerated some kid banging a drum near the fragile pink ears of a newborn. I'm aware Mary is supposed to be a Saint and all, but I know Moms. That's just ridiculous. (And so is the idea that the ox and lambs kept time.)

There may be a dumber song, but I'm voting for Little Drummer Boy.

Oh, well. Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Quick, Watson: They're Gone, Baby, Gone

Just a bit ago I jumped over to the PacMacmillan website and burrowed down to the MNW imprint pages to grab a link--to me and my book of course--to post in an e-mail. Imagine my surprise to find I was no longer there. I tried sorting by Author's Name, Title, Pub Date...Nope. No Isaak, no David, no Shock and no Awe. Totally 404. Address not found. Closed, cerrado, sayonara, much aloha.

Now, I was recently in London, and met up with many of the people associated with the MNW imprint. I thought it was fun, even amicable. But who knows? The Brits are a notoriously inscrutable lot (or maybe that's the Japanese? I seem to remember this is true about people on some largish island. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro has permanently confused me. Plus they drink tea in both places.) Perhaps I unknowingly offended someone powerful and vengeful, and have been cast into the outer darkness.

I decided to get Sherlock-Holmesian. I arranged the books in reverse chronology on the web site and began paging back through them. Everything seemed fine until I reached the place where Len Tyler's first book ought to have been. Herring-Seller's Apprentice? Missing. One step further back and Cover the Mirrors by my evil twin Faye Booth is also AWOL September, October, November. Obviously not someone who has a grudge against me in particular; just someone who hates autumn. Or, more specifically, Autumn 2007, since the 2008 Fall Lineup is still in place.

Mystery solved? So it might seem, but that's merely a Red Apprentice, because also missing from the list was August's Great North Road by Annabel Dore, suggesting that we are dealing with someone who thinks autumn starts in the heat of summer. But it's harder to explain the absence of Brian McGilloway's Borderlands (April), and Matt Curran's The Secret War (January).

Now, what do all of these have in common? They are all published in mass-market paperback (by Pan, except in the case of Annabel, who is with Picador, and Matt, who is with Tor. So perhaps the books are gone because they don't want the hardback competing with the paperback.

Mystery solved? Well, not really. Alis Hawkins' Testament is also coming out in paperback from Pan next month, and the hardback is still listed--but listed as out of stock. Of course, as we've learned, 'out of stock' in this business doesn't necessarily mean there are no books left; it can mean that the stock has fallen beneath some reserve level. And to confuse matters further, Eliza Graham's Playing With the Moon has been in Pan paperback forever, but she's still for sale in hardback.

And, if you look further back into the mists of time, there are now books missing from the MNW list that have not moved into paperback; they're just gone. So I'm not sure there's a pattern.

My conjecture is that when your book truly goes out of stock and they are sure they won't be printing up more, and that they won't be receiving a truckload of returns to restock, you vanish from the imprint's list. You may still be in print at another imprint (type my name into the searchbar and it will send you to the Pan paperback), but you aren't on the MNW list any more. Initially this might be a bit of a shock, until you recall that the list isn't supposed to be a museum, but rather a place to order books, and if you aren't orderable (is that a word?) then you don't belong in the display window.

I'm afraid I can't declare this singular mystery--which was not without certain aspects of interest--solved. The conjecture above is my best guess.

My stint as Holmes hasn't been terribly successful, has it? Next time I'll try John instead of Sherlock.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Book Trailers

I'm not a big fan of video previews of books. Some of the simple, home-grown, made-on-a-shoestring videos are enjoyable and have a certain arty flavor, but most of the professionally rendered book trailers are simply awful, and make me want to steer as far from the book as possible.

There was always one exception in my mind--the book trailer a group of Italian film students did for Neil Gaiman's Coraline. It is slickly done but imaginative and intriguing. Perhaps there are other gorgeous trailers out there; since I don't spend a lot of time looking for them, I may have missed out.

But with the Spanish trailer for Testament that Alis Hawkins just announced, I'll have to amend my former judgement. There are at least two marvelous professional book trailers out there.

Odd that the two I like are rendered in Italian and Spanish, respectively. Is it a Mediterranean medium?

Monday, December 15, 2008

More on why writers are crazy, and why that could be useful

Long ago as time is measured in the blogosphere, Roger Morris posted a note on the topic of Learned Helplessness. You can go check out the Wikipedia entry on the topic, but in essence if you make an animal feel as if they have no control over events--if you remove their sense of personal efficacy--then the animals sink into a state indistinguishable from clinical depression.

Roger's pal Andrew Tallis (another writer, of course), pointed out that this is exactly the state of mind in which writers spend much of their time. The only control we really have is over the words on the page, and the quality of these seldom seems to have much relationship to what happens on the business side of things.

Not surprising, then, that so many writers are manic-depressive, or at the minimum strongly cyclothymic. If it weren't for the manic times, we'd never have the enthusiasm to get anything written.

But bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie has a slightly different take on the topic. Crusie's beliefs are also based on lab research with learned helplessness:

When I read about this study, my first thought was, “Thank God, I'm not a rat.” Then I realized I was.

Crusie points out is that it's not really about control, it's about the perception of control. Simply believing makes a huge difference in outcome, even to rats.

I won't try to summarize Jenny's arguments--you should read her post on how to become Rats With Islands. But I think she's right. Our perceptions, even if delusional, can have a real and measurable effect on outcomes. And, c'mon, this should be easy. We're novelists. Delusional is our middle name.

Back from Nowheresville

We've been away for a while. Where? In Fresno, California.

Fresno is one of those joke towns. It has no obvious redeeming features. It's an overpopulated flat place in the middle of California's San Joaquin Valley. It fancies itself the gateway to the high Sierras, but all that really means is that it is between people and the high Sierras. "In the way" might be a good way to describe Fresno's relationship to the Sierras.

In one of my favorite books, Science Made Stupid (now sadly out of print and hard to find), the author has a diagram of universal distances from the Earth, reaching to the edge of the solar system, on to the nearest star, to the nebula in Orion, on out to the radio galaxies at the edge of the known universe. Beyond that, he has an arrow that reads "Fresno."

We were in Fresno because John, a good friend of ours, is in the hospital there after crashing his plane. He shattered four vertebrae in his back, as well as breaking his legs, ankles, one arm, four ribs, his sternum--well, you get the idea. But he's alive, and all signs suggest he'll have a full, if slow and painful, recovery. There were three other passengers in the plane--his girlfriend Kris, her boy Benntt, and Bennett's dog. Bennett broke his legs but is okay.

Kris and the dog are fine. Here's a picture Kris took of what used to be a plane:

Being supportive types, we went up there and hung around for a few days, harassing John, and suggesting that if he insisted on crashing his plane again that should he do it in a less annoying locale (we're suggesting Catalina for future crashes--it's only 30 miles from here by hydrofoil, and has more well as sand dunes, which are better suited to crashing into.)

As to the accident itself, he was pulling up from an aborted landing after seeing it was too foggy to land. (The Central Valley is famous for impenetrable, low-lying tule fogs.) But the engine suddenly died.

He was flying a Beechcraft Bonanza. Just a few days later, another Beechcraft Bonanza went down in the Central Valley in almost identical circumstances. The NTSB has hauled the wreckage of both planes off to a hangar somewhere to play Compare and Contrast.

John is a careful pilot; if he can go down hard, then it could happen to anybody. So be warned. Flying is dangerous. You could end up in Fresno.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Propositions 97, 98 and 99

I'm in favor of the idea of direct democracy, and the referendum system that has long been in place in the West Coast states is about as direct as you can get: Any bunch of clowns who can gather up enough signatures are able to submit laws directly to the voters.

I admit there's some problems with this process. These laws can be confused, or confusing--sometimes deliberately, but more often because the people who drafted them have IQs that span the range of readings on a rectal thermometer. Outside money can flood into the state, as in the case of recent Proposition 8, where the campaign was mounted as much from Utah as from anywhere within the state boundaries.

The Mormons were the main backers of Prop 8, asserting that marriage has been universally and traditionally recognized as a union between a man and a woman. Now anyone who has studied anthropology knows that contention is a crock of shit. Delve back into history or prehistory and it's clear that the most common form of marriage is between a man and multiple women, and we're not just talking about obscure jungle tribes here: We're talking about the Bible. (The Bible also says that a man is duty-bound to marry his brother's widow, which would make guys a lot more opinionated about their brother's dating choices.)

There's plenty of other arrangements in various cultures, including polygyny and, yes, gay marriages, and even family systems where children are raised by a woman and her brother (which turns out to make a lot of genetic sense if there's any doubt about paternity [and there always is]; a brother shares a lot of genes with his sister's children.) But polygamy is widespread, and an element of the Jewish/Arab cultures that spawned Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. So the Mormons, who were polygamists from the start (until they suddenly found out that God changed his mind), were probably on the right track in terms of universality and tradition. ("Tradition" in the United States means "my personal impression of what was normal in the past based on the television shows we saw in my childhood.")

My theory is that Mormons don't really oppose same-sex marriage. It's just that the law spoiled their own fun, and so now they want to ruin someone else's day. Legislative Schadenfreude.

Note that most of the billowing smoke around this tiny fire is about the word "marriage." California already has a strong domestic partnership law, and no one seems to be attacking domestic partnerships. (At least not these days. But the poor Disney Company--they get assaulted by the left for perpetuating inappropriate stereotypes, and by the religious right for offering same-sex-partner benefits before required by law.)

In any case, I'm here today to clear up both the California referendum mess and the Calfornia same-sex marriage mess. After these three propositions pass, I, like Cincinattus, will retire from Rome to my farm, and engage in politics no more.

Proposition 97. People may not be paid to gather signatures to put propositions on the ballot in California. I'm all in favor of referenda. If the people feel strongly about something, it ought to be brought to the people without the inteference of the politicians. But the people should feel strongly enough about it to gather sufficient signatures through volunteers. As it is, any damn fool thing can--and does--get on the ballot if someone is willing to pay millions of dollars to minimum-wage workers to carry clipboards and stand in front of supermarkets and lie about what the proposition represents. Anything can--and does--get on the ballot in this state if there is enough money behind it. The framers of the state ballot initiative never intended this to become an industry--and it's a dead certainty that they didn't intend for millions of dollars to flow in from businesses or churches in other states to influence California elections.

Proposition 98. While a law may be passed by referendum with a simple majority vote, any amendment to the California State Constitution will require a supermajority. Amending the US Constitution requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate, two-thirds of the House of Representatives, and then the amendment must be ratified by the individual states. But in California an amendment to the State Constitution may be made by a referendum that wins by the barest majority vote. Although Prop 8 proponents keep talking about their "landslide," Prop 8 got only 52% of the votes. You shouldn't be able to amend the Constitution with a tiny margin. Amending the Constitution ought to be a damned serious affair that demands overwhelming support.

Proposition 99. 'Marriage' will no longer have any legal standing whatsoever in the State of California. Marriage is a confounding of religion, tradition, and legal rights into a mishmash that makes no sense and causes endless headaches for the court system. So Prop 99 will make marriage a matter of personal belief and get religion out of the public domain, in alignment with the founding principle of this country's separation of Church and State. If you want someone--anyone--to inherit your money, or make medical decisions when you are incapacitated, then designate them by legal contract. Why should those be the same person in the first place?

Our current discriminatory laws unfairly privilege married heterosexual couples over same-sex couples. But extending the muddle of interlocking laws governing marriage to same-sex couples isn't the only fair solution. Toss it all overboard. If people want to announce publically that they are 'married' and claim that 'marriage' is some sort of sacred state, let them. Some people assert that because they are baptized, or circumcized, or never cut their hair but instead wind it up in a turban, that they are in some special sacred state. Let them believe that if they like, but keep it between themselves and God as they conceive Him or Her or It or Them. The State should get out of the religion business altogether and come up with a rational set of laws.

But, I hear you cry, what about child custody and support, what about spousal health benefits, what about inheritance? Well, child custody and support is already an intractable mess that uses up uncountable hours of court time, the health system is clearly broken and needs fixing anyway, and any large inheritance ends up being contested in any case. Marriage involves people signing a contract affecting all of these without actually examining the terms of the contract. That might work out fine...if people stayed married. Ha. (And conservative Christians get divorced more than anybody in this country.)

There. Three simple propositions. If these pass, not only will it settle the whole 'marriage' controversy once and for all, but we will have hardly any further propositions on our ballots.

I think having vastly fewer propositions in California would benefit not only the long-suffering voters of our state, but also non-Californians across the country and around the globe, who at present have to listen to endless news about California ballot measures.

Once 97, 98, and 99 are law, I can stop writing blog posts like these, and you can stop reading them. It's a win-win sort of thing.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"The Septic's Companion" by Chris Rae

Disclaimer: This post will be of interest mainly to English-speaking North Americans.

Septic? Why ‘septic’?

If you had this fine book, you’d be able to look it up and discover that to some in the UK it means ‘American.’ The origin is from rhyming slang, ‘Yank’* = ‘septic tank.’ Which might be taken as somewhat uncomplimentary, but could be worse, and is certainly preferable to being called ‘Residents of the Great Satan,’ (or, what--‘Great Satanians’?)

The author of this slim volume, Chris Rae, writes, “I'm banking on the cosmopolitan modern American not minding being called ‘Septic’. The wife thinks this is mistaken.”

Chris runs a very useful website that used to be called (and now goes by the name Although the dictionary he has compiled is extensive, it makes no claims of completeness: “I’ve tried to restrict myself to words which are known and understood throughout the whole of the UK. When talking about British language idiosyncrasies some people delight in trotting out phrases that no Brit would ever have heard unless they lived in a particular part of Dorset, in a particular street, and were present at a particular incident in the fourteenth century.”

Chris invited those who found the website useful to express their appreciation by using PayPal to buy him a pint, and then posted pictures of himself drinking the pint in question at various locations around the world. (My pint donation was consumed at the Peppermill Casino in Reno, Nevada.) A few of the pints were consumed by his wife, who, incidentally, looks stunning in a toga (see the pic on the page in question).

So, if the whole dictionary is still on line, why should you shell out for the book? Well, aside from the basic good karma, the first 30-odd pages explaining how the UK works range from nicely put (“Gaelic is a soft, cooing, mellifluous language that sounds as if it were invented mainly for soothing animals”) to a bit more acerbic:

The 2001 survey showed that just over 1% of Scots spoke Gaelic. They were all, without exception, irritating bearded people who want to drone on about heritage and force the government to spend millions of pounds making dual-language road signs that nobody ever reads. The census showed they lived with their mothers, and at home they secretly spoke English.

(The author, of course, is a Scot, so he can get away with this. His bionotes indicate he now lives in Seattle; one has to suppose the rest of the US was too sunny for him.)

This is a perfect gift for any North American headed for the UK, and is a hell of a lot more useful than most tourist guides. Where else can you find a wholly candid guide to going our drinking that not only explains the complex rules of pub etiquette, but also describes in detail the technique for carrying four pints of beer simultaneously?

You can buy this fine book from Amazon, or you can buy it directly from the author. It’s cheaper from Amazon, but if you buy it from the author, he offers not only sign it, but to also draw a picture of anything you request on the inside cover (even Goldsboro Books can't match that). Since he confesses his "artistic skills are inferior to those of an inebriated monkey," this is an offer difficult to turn down.

*I’ve had people in England apologize for using the word ‘Yank’ instead of ‘American.’ For the record, I happen to like ‘Yank.’ The term ‘American’ could logically refer to anyone living between Baffin Island and Tierra del Fuego, and it’s nice to have a have a word of one syllable rather than four (or, in the case of ‘effing Americans,’ six).

‘Yank’ has its drawbacks. To most people in the US, “Yankees’ are the inhabitants of the six states of New England, those itty-bitty ones stuffed into the upper right corner of the country. These states account for less than 5 percent of the US population, and less than 2 percent of the land area, so referring to everybody as ‘Yanks’ is a bit like referring to everybody in the UK as ‘Welsh,’ but the only people likely to take offense are Southerners. (Southerners tend to refer to people from any state that opposed slavery in the Civil War as ‘Yankees,’ with said term often preceded by a colorful adjective. People from the South usually aren’t too keen on being called ‘Yanks,’ but it’s nicer than some of the other things they're called, so I think they ought to smile and leave well enough alone.)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Umbrellas and the Balance of the Universe

Okay, here's a great piece of trivia: Which major US city buys the most sunglasses per capita?

Ask this question, and people usually suggest Miami, Honolulu, Phoenix...or the really crafty ones try San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The correct answer is gloomy, cloud-covered Seattle. Why? Because Seattlites don't need them for months at a stretch, and so they get buried and can't be found. And since people aren't used to picking up their sunglasses as a matter of habit, during the sunny season they leave them on restaurant tables, on buses, in waiting rooms...or walk out of the house without them for a day sailing and have to buy another pair down at the harbor.

I mention this because I have a similar problem with umbrellas. I'm constantly traveling without them and finding I need them; and once I have one, I'm bound to lose it.

But not this time. For once, I remembered to take an umbrella to London, and I resolved not to lose it. Be mindful, I told myself. Remember to pick up the umbrella. You're sitting down at this table. What are you going to do when you stand up? Look for the umbrella.

And it worked. I passed three full days in London with the umbrella along everywhere, and I arrived back home for once with the umbrella I set out with. (Or should that be 'the umbrella out with which I set'?)

However, I was so conscious of the umbrella the whole time that I left a present I'd bought for Pamela in a coffeeshop, never to be seen again. (The present, I mean. Not Pamela or the coffeeshop.) I could have bought a whole crate of umbrellas for the price.

The lesson, as is so often the case in bad science-fiction movies, is that one should not tinker with the cosmic balance of things. My role in the ecosystem is to provide umbrellas to something which presumably eats them (otherwise we'd all be up to our knees in the umbrellas I've lost). Deprive the Bumbershoot Beast of its natural prey and it will turn to other, more costly items.

From now on, I'm not going to pay any attention to keeping my umbrella, and if I still happen to have one toward the end of a trip I plan to place it on some sort of altar--a park bench would do--and sacrifice it to propitiate the Beast. I run into enough problems on travel already without deliberately courting cosmic retribution.

Monday, December 1, 2008


'England and Ireland are small islands on the farthest western extremity of the world,' said another monk. 'They are so close together that they can scarely be distinguished; birds flying at a great height may land on one rather than the other.'

aaaaa--Patrick O'Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute

So indeed it appears from a distance, in the same way that people from New York often assume that because you live in Los Angeles, you might know their cousin who lives in San Francisco. From California, it's easy to assume everyone in the UK drops through London on at least a weekly basis, and that all MNW writers bump into one another frequently and toddle off together for a pint. Not so; and it's probably easier to get from LA to San Francisco than from, to take a wholly random example, Sheffield to London. So I count myself lucky to have met up with so many Macmillanites on my recent trip.

I arrived at Heathrow quite early Wednesday morning, and passed through immigration and customs in unusually short order, as United informed me on arrival that they had lost my bag. Well, they hadn't exactly lost it; they knew precisely where it was. But where it was wasn't Heathrow. So, not needing to wait for my luggage, I jumped on the tube and rattled off to Russell Square, where my hotel informed me at 9 am that despite a request for early check-in on my reservation, the best they could manage was 1 pm. Could I come back then?

Had I any choice? But one of the finer things about London is there's always something to do; and a poster on a passing bus told me there was a major Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate Britain. Screaming Popes in the midmorning after an overnight flight? That'll keep you awake.

Now, I don't claim to like Bacon; his paintings aren't exactly likeable. His work is fascinating and compelling, but it's far more disturbing than other dark artists such as Bosch or Giger. There's something raw and slightly mad in his brushstrokes (and frottage, and scrapings) which gives the paint on the canvas an internal motion. The motion is most pronounced in his rendering of faces. Have you seen Adrian Lyne's movie Jacob's Ladder? In the darker, most horrific scenes, the denizens of the hospital corridors and subways are shown with flickering, wobbling, distorted heads. I don't think there's any doubt the production designer pulled his inspiration from Bacon.

It was an outstanding (and massive) exhibit, and I'm glad I had the chance to go...but by the last room I confess I felt a bit seasick and was overly aware that my consciousness resided in a shambling pile of meat. A nice start to any trip.

On Thursday I gave the final presentation--about three months later than expected--on the unfortunate project that has been eating my life (and stalling my novel) for the better part of this year. I arose the next morning, Friday, feeling as if several tons had been lifted off me. Net result: life was better, but I still felt flattened, like a cartoon character who has been accordioned by a falling safe.

I had a good meeting with Will, of which I'll say more another time, and then went off to meet Alis Hawkins for coffee. We compared notes about the travails of the writing life, and she impressed me no end with the fact she'd just cut more words from her work-in-progress than most people manage to write in a year. She's quite comfortable to be around, but the fact that she can take that many manuscript pages out into the back garden, shoot them, and bury them under the rosebed bespeaks a hidden ruthlessness (at least with her writing). I'm impressed.

Then, of course, off to the wilds of Islington for the MNW gathering Len Tyler had organized. I arrived a quarter-hour late, having misjudged the mileage (kilometerage?), and everyone had already assembled: Will Atkins, Dave Budd, Matt Curran, Frances Garood, Eliza Graham, David Headley,Tim Stretton, Aliya Whiteley, and even Brian McGilloway, who had to cross the wild Irish Sea to attend. And, despite the fact we were on small islands on the farthest western extremity of the world, many of these folks had never met one another.

One of John Updike's poems begins:

Though authors are a dreadful clan
To be avoided if one can...*

*(Full poem available on request. )

and I must say many writers I've met are part of a prickly and maladjusted tribe. But the MNW crew are some of the most easy-going, approachable folks I've ever come across. Since we in some sense already know each other through our books and blogs and e-mail, as Tim Stretton notes, it's much "like resuming a conversation broken off the same day."

Len and Ann really know how to lay on a dinner party, including great food, a never-ending stream of libations in the sequence Our Creator intended (champagne before, choice of wine at dinner, and then port, whiskey or brandy after)...and a dining table that seats twelve. The aplomb with which they managed all this was explained when we discovered they'd been professional overseas diplomats. Since the skills at entertaining around our house run about as far as slicing cheese, unboxing crackers, and, to liven things up, spilling red wine on our guests, I was quite impressed, and I'm grateful to our hosts for a memorable evening.

Tim's post contains a picture of the gang around the table, in sort of a Last-Supper arrangement with Len as You-Know-Who. (The person hiding behind David Headley on the left is Eliza Graham, International Woman of Mystery.)

The camaraderie of the MNW crowd is striking. Faye Booth long ago began referring to us as 'imprintmates,' by analogy with the 'labelmates' of indie music companies like 4AD. I gather that a sense of belonging to an imprint largely vanished in the days of Maxwell Perkins, yet that feeling seems to be thriving amongst this bunch.

The only disappointment of the evening is that it was far, far too short to accomodate all the conversations I'd like to have had (especially with Eliza and Brian, whom for logistical reasons I never really managed to monopolize). But, then, who wants a twelve-hour dinner party?

I walked with Tim, Aliya, Matt, and Dave as far as the Angel tube stop. I gather Aliya thereafter missed a train somewhere. Since I was on foot I didn't miss any trains, but I did confidently round the corner and head south without paying much attention to the fact that I was at a V-junction, and that Rosebery Avenue heads off southwest, but that Goswell Road heads distinctly southeast, and I headed off down Goswell Road with a spring in my eye and a sparkle in my step or some combination thereof until my internal compass made me realize that my present trajectory would eventually, after a bit of a swim, put me in either Calais or Dunkirk rather than Bloomsbury. So I altered course due west, or as due west as you can manage (i.e. not very) in that part of the city, which took me back through some surprisingly lively areas of town. Initially it appeared that many people were electing to dine al fresco despite the plummeting temperature, but I eventually realized these were smokers banished to outdoor tables.

Most impressive, though, was the startling number of young women in very short skirts, apparently unaware that summer had long since fled and that Santa was damn near on his way. A hardy race, the English.